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The Lost Generation Revisited

ISSUE:  Summer 1981
The Generation of 1914, By Robert Wohl. Harvard. $17. 50.

This is a rich and provocative book. It is also an extremely ambitious one. It partakes of literature and politics, of comparative history and collective biography. But what makes it most ambitious is not the range of countries or authors studied but the way its central topic, the generation of 1914, is treated.

Robert Wohl could have contented himself with gathering together a representative group of writers and thinkers who were born within a limited range of dates, and constructing an intellectual history along the well-worn model of literary generations. Instead, he has sought to explore the lives of the men of the “generation of 1914” (the quotation marks are his own) along with what can be called the generational idea, or generationalism. But even this idea, as the reader swiftly becomes aware, can be further divided into the belief in the importance of generations, the consciousness of belonging to a generation (generational consciousness), the attempt to construct a scientifically or philosophically valid model for the sociological or historical role of generations (generational theory) and finally the attempt to use both the generational idea and the generational reality as a means for political action (generational politics). Though these notions are distinct and need not always appear together, they quite obviously frequently do: generational theorists may also be generational politicians, just as the distinguishing feature of a generation may be generational consciousness. The author has thrust his study into the heart of the dialectic between social reality and consciousness. But, both the generational idea and the “generation of 1914” bring with them other ideas and realities not neglected by the author. These include the idea of youth as a special stage of life and source of values, on the one hand, and the images of the Great War held and created by those who fought in it, along with the “front” mystique, on the other.

The result of this breadth is a comparative history with an extra dimension. The reader is led to compare not only different national experiences but also different aspects of the generational phenomenon. For example, the discussions of a generational experience lead us to ponder the concept of generation; and discussions of generational theorists cast light not only on the concept of a generation but also often on the experiences of the “generation of 1914,” on themselves as members of a generation, and on other generational theorists as well. All this gives The Generation of 1914 the intricacy of an Oriental carpet, and its fascination.

Nevertheless, despite the complexity of the issues raised, and the breadth of topics broached, Wohl’s book is written in a lively style and eschews jargon. It is also of modest length, 237 pages (294 with notes). Thus it is not surprising that the reader often wishes that arguments had been more fully developed, generalizations more fully supported, examples more systematically chosen. There are several reasons for this, and they relate both to the style and organization of the book.

Much illustrative material has been relegated to the frequently long notes (the suggestion of an editor wary of a long manuscript?). But the notes themselves are sometimes unsatisfying. For example, in the long paragraph spanning pages 203 and 204, the author presents many arguments: first, that the generational idea was gaining currency around 1900, and that, “one can trace its progress in dictionaries.” Wohl then cites Littre’s definition, argues for a shift in usage during the second half of the 19th century (without examples), and finally notes that Massis was using a 20th-century definition. The lone note at the end of the paragraph only gives the reference to Littre. Wohl is, in fact, correct about the evolution in usage, as can be seen from later dictionaries, but a fuller discussion would have been welcome.

By the same token, it is easy to think of material omitted by the author. In his treatment of the front experience, Wohl discusses reactions to the reality of combat. He avoids any mention, however, of what could be called the warrior ideal, the sense by many front-line fighters that they had become part of a special caste, like the knights and barons of the Middle Ages, whose role was the defense of the civilian population, and who deserved to be honored and supported for that reason. Not only was this concept propagated and politically manipulated by Georges Valois and Jacques Arthuys in their attempt to bring Fascism to France, but it was also attributed to the lycée professor Jean Jerphanion, by Jules Remains in his widely read Les hommes de bonne volonté.

In fact, the treatment of the war experience in France and its literary expression is relatively brief, briefer than that of Germany or England; and this is related to the organization of the chapters themselves. The bulk of the book consists of five chapters, each of approximately 40 pages, devoted to France, Germany, England, Spain and Italy. The more aspects of the topic treated in any one chapter, the less space each aspect receives. The chapter on France, for example, includes two generational theorists, Mentré and Agathon (itself a pseudonym for two men), as well as conscious generational movements, both before and after the First World War. But not all chapters contain this variety of discussion. The one on England, for example, does not discuss prewar developments, but it does present a detailed literary, political, and biographical treatment of the war poets, Brooke, Sassoon and Owen, followed by an evaluation of the myth of the “lost generation.” The fourth chapter, on Spain, is devoted almost completely to an extended essay on the generational theorist and would-be generational politician, Ortega y Gasset. Wohl, thus, has the leisure of treating purely biographical questions like the precise evolution of Ortega’s ideas. Despite the author’s concluding remark that when Ortega returned to his homeland in 1945, “the Spanish “generation of 1914” had lost their chance to regenerate their country” (p. 159), the chapter is not about a generation but about a generationalist.

The problem raised by this last citation is, however, a far more complex one, deriving from Wohl’s conception of generation and its relation to the ideas of generational consciousness, generationalism, etc. The author raises the problem squarely in his introduction. He declares that, “after all, the generation of 1914 was an idea,” but then proposes to examine generational ideas against “the example of the generation of 1914.” (p. 2) The project of the book is to use the example of the “generation of 1914” to explore the concept of a historical generation. But can one examine a complex phenomenon like a generation without previously defining it as an object under study, without having an operating conception or model of what constitutes a generation? A methodological introduction dealing with this problem would have been extremely helpful. It is true, of course, that historians, unlike social scientists, rarely begin their works with methodological introductions or use heuristic models. But how many historians attempt to define, in the course of their study, the class of phenomena of which they are studying an example? The result of this approach is to entrap even the author’s most perceptive arguments in a circularity from which they never quite escape.

In his own defense, Wohl argued “that no available model of generation was flexible enough to encompass the baffling variety of ways in which the term “generation of 1914” and its synonyms had been used in the discourse of early 20th-century Europe.” (p. 2) This confuses, however, a generation as a historical concept designed to reflect a social reality with all the ways a phrase may be used in a given period. A model of generations, like those of Mannheim, Mentré and Ortega discussed in the book, would be designed to explain the reality of generations. To comprehend all the usages of a phrase like “generation of 1914,” one would need a model of the evolution of ideas and of the polysemy of words and phrases.

This is not to say that the author does not have an operating definition of generation. He does, and it is almost a reification. In The Generation of 1914, a generation is, in practice, that group of people who actively think of themselves as belonging to a generation, that is, who possess a generational consciousness. Thus, for example, the chapter on France begins not with an analysis of a generation but with that of two generationalists and their generational ideas. Similarly, Wohl can say that “the Italian generation of 1914 was born on the rainy autumn day in Florence,” when Prezzolini met Papini (p. 160).

Wohl is, of course, aware of more positivist definitions of generation, but he dislikes them for two basic reasons. First, they tend to be too mechanical, arguing in the case of Mentré and Ortega for fixed spans of years which conform to the biology of human life, while Wohl’s “generations” often fall closer together (as in France, where he sees three generations in 30 years). Second, the author’s generations, which, as we saw above, are defined through consciousness, are limited to literary elites, not to the biological generation as a whole.

It is possible, however, to overcome these contradictions. Generations are social and historical realities before they are anything else. In Mannheim’s terms, they are a social location. Not only do people born at the same time live through a given period of history, and thus in specific historical conditions, but changes in these conditions (historical events) take place during a particular phase of their lives. Generations are, thus, social realities whether or not their members are conscious of them or wish to emphasize them. A comparison with the categories of class or nation (to name two) helps to illustrate this. A worker or a peasant remains such (if he fits certain objective criteria) even if he prefers to see himself as a bourgeois or a farmer. He may possess what the Marxists call a “false consciousness” or he may define himself by another category, like nation instead of class. Like a nation or a class, a generation is a reality with which individuals can identify themselves (i.e., construct a generational consciousness) and which they may then use precisely to compete with other points of identification. It also goes without saying that specific historical circumstances may make one of these frameworks for identification more crucial than the others. Hence, a generation can have common ideals without being aware of this (such awareness would be a generational consciousness), just as it could have a generational awareness without adopting a generational ideology.

Wohl has focused on another important problem, that of continuity and distinction. If the sequence of births is continuous from year to year, why should a certain span of years enclose a generation and not another slightly different group of dates? Historical events probably do most to explain why generational consciousness will form more important breaks at one point or another. But demography must also be considered since the pattern of births is not always uniform (or may not be uniform within a given social class), as members of the baby-boom generation know well.

Wohl, however, instead of separating generation from consciousness, has thrown them together, obliging many figures to do double duty, to be both exemplars and explainers. This is intellectually exciting but problematic. When Wohl discusses his key generational theorists, he wants to do more than present their ideas as data in intellectual history; he also wants to explore the accuracy and usefulness of these ideas as historical and sociological theories. But there is no independent discussion of theory. Instead, Wohl uses Mannheim to comment on Mentré, Ortega to complete Mannheim, and Gramsci to criticize Ortega. This is more satisfying organizationally than intellectually. Mannheim is treated exclusively as a theorist, but Ortega is both theorist and exemplar. Gramsci’s case is even more complicated. Wohl is obliged to explain that Gramsci never read Ortega but that if he had he would probably have argued such and such. Gramsci is not, however, a generational theorist. Though he discusses generations, he treats them as historical realities of only limited general importance. His critique of generationalism is that of a Marxist, albeit one “contaminated” with elitism and voluntarism. Once again, Wohl closes his chapter with an attempt to place his figure when he states that materialism like Gramsci’s was “rare among the generation of 1914” (p. 202). It is rare because Marxists do not fall into Wohl’s definition, being neither generational theorists nor particularly given to generational memoirs. Gramsci is really present because he was a perceptive observer of his times and a brilliant theorist of the role of intellectuals in society. Wohl uses Gramscian concepts, for example, when he correctly calls the generational idea a project for hegemony. And this also seems to be the basis for his claim that the generationalist elites effectively spoke for members of other social groups.

Yet the major problem with Wohl’s concept of generation is not that it leans on consciousness, but that it is not always maintained. In his final chapter, the author explains that a historical generation is not “an army of contempories making its way across a territory of time. It is more like a magnetic field at the center of which lies an experience or a series of experiences,” and “is relatively independent of age” (p. 210). With the French, Wohl relates all three generations to the War; the first saw it coming, the second grew up to fight in it, and the third came to maturity as it ended. The War, however, he noted, did not make the generation of 1914; its consciousness had been formed before the European cataclysm and its “vital horizon” was created by events from 1900 to 1914. But this group then had its generational consciousness further inflamed by the war experience itself. To see a group reacting first to some and then to other events, however, is to think in terms of “an army of contemporaries making its way across . . . time,” and this is also what Wohl meant when he noted that “the chronological center of the experiential field . . . may shift with time (p. 210).”

For Wohl the War had another important effect on the generation of 1914. It “shifted the chronological center of the young generation away from men born in the 1880’s . . .to those born in the 1890’s” who had different values (p. 222). What actually happened, of course, was that one generational group, which had a different experience of the War, followed another. What held them together was that they were both imbued with generationalism. The generational idea did not follow a generation but was dominant during a historical period. Wohl’s own data indicate that this period extended from about 1890 to 1940 (from Barres to Brasillach). This helps to show another aspect of the generational idea, its political orientation. Generationalists were either men of the right or “above politics” (which also meant to be on the right). If we remember that generation as a focus for identification competes with class and nation, then this political role becomes clearer. Unlike nation, generation permits the user to see himself in opposition to the established order while sidestepping the socialist critique of classes like his own. Like Marxism, it offers a promise of renewal and a historical role. And generation allies itself with the concept of youth or adolescence which, as Daniel Guérin noted, is a bourgeois notion, formed by legions of lycée and university students who are reaching physical maturity while adult responsibilities still elude them. The period of generationalism in European history coincides with the period of intellectual prominence of the ideological mix which surrounded and engendered Fascism, whether this mix is called the Revolutionary Right (Sternhell) or Radical Conservatism (Nolte) or simply the Right (Weber and Rogger). Wohl calls Facism the temptation of the generation of 1914 but notes that few generationalists would have, or did, approve of Fascism as it was practiced in Germany and Italy. This is not because there was no filiation, but because the Fascist calls to youth and heroism were caricatures of what so many of the generationalists had sought. They were the politique of the generationalists’ mystique. Indeed, it is in the generation of ideas of this sort that Wohl’s book is at its best.


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