“But that would be the easy part!”
We were on holidays in California, and Ivan’s friend was talking about the different paths he might take to arrive as An Author, having written A Book.
“I could drop everything, drink up all my money, and live like a tramp for a year – but that would still be the easy part.”
For the sake of his health I hope he doesn’t pick that path – but that’s not the point. The point was, and is, that suffering might be hard, but writing about suffering afterwards?
This morning I read a long article by Josephine Rowe, “How Hard Do You Have to Crash Before You Talk About War?” She writes:
For the past year I’ve been trying to write about war, specifically about the war after the war; a fictional work informed by my own experience of growing up in a household all but demolished by PTSD.
Several years ago, I bought Rowe’s collection of short-short stories, and I remember the way I read them, one by one by one, wanting all the while to rush on and swallow up the next story, and the next, and the next, but being prevented by the lump in my throat.
Reading about suffering is also… well, as you’d hope, and expect.
Writing about suffering is not the only way to write about war. Historian Ian Morris suggests that the gazillion books that have been written about war fall into four types: there’s the personal account (that’s where you get the suffering, meaning, heroism), there’s the historical account (that’s where you get statistics, interviews, and broader context), there’s the tactical and strategic account (that’s where you get an attempt at finding patterns and learning lessons), and there’s the biological or evolutionary account (that’s where you get an attempt at deep explanation, and an exploration of human nature – which I guess brings us a full circle).
I haven’t suffered. I don’t say that in a self-flagellating way (that would be a bit ironic, wouldn’t it), more by way of gratitude, wistfulness, and sadness for those who have. My connections to war are few, and mostly a few generations removed: my grandparents experienced WWII in Australia and Norway.
So if I’m going to write about war, how do I do it?
Then the discussion dies away and the next time war is mentioned, it is the closing down of regional Veteran’s Affairs offices across the country.
Social and political psychology seem to straddle the second and the fourth of Morris’ accounts (and clinical psychology fits well with the first, if you want to look for more parallels): in these fields, researchers explore the thoughts and feelings – whether biologically or culturally shaped, or both – that lead people, groups, and countries to support, oppose, or join wars. There’s a “historical” aspect to this, in that the wars under investigation form part of our history; so do historical reactions to them; current reactions to current wars will also one day (soon) form part of and create our past; and so it goes. (Social psychology as history, history as social psychology.)
You’d think that as a social psychologist, this should be my approach as well: I should investigate and write about the thoughts and feelings that lead people to support, oppose, or join wars.
In my academic writing, yes, sure.
But here – well, part of me wants to write instead from the perspective of those people. The investigated, not the investigator. To write simply as one of the lucky many who are sometimes called on to express thoughts and feelings about war, but who haven’t suffered, aren’t currently suffering, in any war of their own. Whose discussion dies away until the closing of Veteran’s Affairs offices.
Who nonetheless, as citizens of nations like the U.S. and Australia, are at war, in some sense, once their democratic countries determine it to be so. Which means, I think, that communicating something about the not suffering becomes important too.
So stay tuned, as I continue to not-suffer, and continue to not write about it…?! This post at least probably, partially, contradicts the stated aim of my previous posts, so I’m not quite sure what will happen next week!