What Is a National Consciousness?

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Henry James in his critical study of Hawthorne in 1879 (my textual break) on the “American mind” before and after the Civil War.

When this event occurred, he was therefore proportionately horrified and depressed by it; it cut from beneath his feet the familiar ground which had long felt so firm, substituting a heaving and quaking medium in which his spirit found no rest. Such was the bewildered sensation of that earlier and simpler generation of which I have spoken; their illusions were rudely dispelled, and they saw the best of all possible republics given over to fratricidal carnage. This affair had no place in their scheme, and nothing was left for them but to hang their heads and close their eyes. The subsidence of that great convulsion has left a different tone from the tone it found, and one may say that the Civil War marks an era in the history of the American mind.

It introduced into the national consciousness a certain sense of proportion and relation, of the world being a more complicated place than it had hitherto seemed, the future more treacherous, success more difficult. At the rate at which things are going, it is obvious that good Americana will be more numerous than ever; but the good American, in days to come, will be a more critical person than his complacent and confident grandfather. He has eaten of the tree of knowledge. He will not, I think, be a sceptic, and still less, of course, a cynic; but he will be, without discredit to his well-known capacity for action, an observer. He will remember that the ways of the Lord are inscrutable, and that this is a world in which everything happens; and eventualities, as the late Emperor of the French used to say, will not find him intellectually unprepared. The good American of which Hawthorne was so admirable a specimen was not critical, and it was perhaps for this reason that Franklin Pierce seemed to him a very proper President.

We were supposed to become critical of our institutions and government after the horror that was the Civil War.

Perhaps we are critical, just not “intellectually” prepared to know why and the ways we might conceive of the world differently.

Here’s Paul Fussell (h/t Arthur Silber) commenting on a war memoir by Eugene B. Sledge (With the Old Breed) in his book Wartime:

But for Sledge the worst of all was a week-long stay in rain-soaked foxholes on a muddy ridge facing the Japanese, a site strewn with decomposing corpses turning various colors, nauseating with the stench of death, “an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.” Because there were no latrines and because there was no moving in daylight, the men relieved themselves in their holes and flung the excrement out into the already foul mud. It was a latter-day Verdun, the Marine occupation of that ridge, where the artillery shellings uncovered scores of half-buried Marine and Japanese bodies, making the position “a stinking compost pile”:

If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like. . .

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We didn’t talk about such things. They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans. . . . It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane. . . . To me the war was insanity.And from the other side of the world the young British officer Neil McCallum issues a similar implicit warning against the self-delusive attempt to confer high moral meaning on these grievous struggles for survival. Far from rationalizing their actions as elements of a crusade, McCallum and his men, he says, “have ceased largely to think or believe at all”:

Annihilation of the spirit. The game does not appear to be worth the candle. What is seen through the explosions is that this, no less than any other war, is not a moral war. Greek against Greek, against Persian, Roman against the world, cowboys against Indians, Catholics against Protestants, black men against white — this is merely the current phase of an historical story. It is war, and to believe it is anything but a lot of people killing each other is to pretend it is something else, and to misread man’s instinct to commit murder.

So, it seems the only shift in the American Mind might be to insist that war should not occur “at home” but “over there, over there, we will rot in ditches and latrines, over there, over there.”  Oh, and that machines remove the mind’s hiccup that we call the moral condemnation of indiscriminate murder.

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  1. meech May 31, 2012 at 7:39 am

    National unconsciousness?

    1. Douglas Storm May 31, 2012 at 8:01 am

      That is likely the truest sense of “nationalism” in the West. We often read/hear of centuries-old feuds from other tribes, peoples, countries. The US had family feuds–with a parent and then a “sibling.” We really don’t even remember those in any significant way. Well, maybe the South remembers as it seems to have come out of a tradition of memory…maybe its destruction created a need for memory? The North forgets (Winning is remembering the fact of winning but not the suffering) because money IS forgetting (or replacement). I don’t know, I’m babbling.


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