‘Men whose minds the dead have ravished’

A new public sculpture was unveiled in Seaham, Co. Durham on 29th May.  Entitled 1101, the piece, by the sculptor Ray Lonsdale, shows a 9.5 foot soldier in First World War uniform sitting at rest and is intended to reflect a moment of contemplation in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.  It is also, apparently, supposed to represent ‘what is now known as Post Traumatic Street Syndrome [sic] (PTSD) which many faced as they returned from the battlefields.’ [1]  Even ignoring the typos, this interpretation worries me for two reasons.

The first has to do with the fact that I don’t think we should retrospectively diagnose soldiers of the First World War with a psychiatric condition which was not fully defined until 1980 and which remains contentious today.  This is not to say that First World War servicemen didn’t suffer from psychological wounds; many most certainly did.  But, as I have explained in more detail here, shell shock (and or indeed hysteria, neurasthenia, disordered action of the heart or any of the other names given to psychological disability during and after the war) is not same thing as PTSD.

Setting the question of labeling aside, however, I still have serious reservations about this work of art as a representation of psychological war disability, whatever name we give it.  It shows the soldier as calm, contemplative, tired perhaps, maybe even sad, but seemingly in control of body and mind. There can be few adjectives further from the experiences of shell-shocked servicemen, as depicted in the literature and art of the time, than ‘calm’, ‘contemplative’ or ‘controlled’.  These were men whose bodies jerked and twitched, who woke screaming from nightmares, who leaped violently at sudden noises, who stuttered, struggled physically to overcome hysterical mutism or groped blindly through hysterical blindness. They had lost control of both mind and body, a condition that was fearful both to experience and behold. These men were not calm or contemplative about their condition.

The pain of psychological wounding comes across viscerally in some of the great literature and art of the period.  Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ is powerfully physical in its description and the disgust and pity it evokes.  The art of Otto Dix is agonizing to look at.

Dix Shell Shock 127-otto-dix-verwundeter-map-der-krieg-jpgThe viewer recoils from the pain and violence of the images.  This is how psychological disability was experienced by many First World War servicemen and those who lived with them – as pain, fear, disgust and violence. To represent the condition through a generic image of a soldier, as something calm and totalizing, runs the risk of whitewashing from history the individual subjective pain suffered by many that made their condition as disabling as any physical wound or amputation.  Too many shell-shocked ex-servicemen suffered stigma and poor treatment throughout their lives.  I would hate to see the very real pain they suffered written out of history because it is too painful for us to contemplate today.

[1] ‘New World War One statue for Seaham seafront’, Sunderland Echo, 22nd May, 2014, http://www.sunderlandecho.com/what-s-on/new-world-war-one-statue-for-seaham-seafront-1-6630051, last accessed 25th June, 2014.

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8 thoughts on “‘Men whose minds the dead have ravished’

  1. The face on that statue doesn’t communicate psychological trauma. Mind-numbing fatigue, yes. But the kind of mental harm that combatants can suffer is in no way mind-numbing. As Smith and Pear (1917) said, ‘his reason and his senses are usually not lost but functioning with painful efficiency.’ The Dix drawings, on the other hand, depict variations of the ‘thousand-yard stare’ that some sufferers show when they try to split off from a mind that is teeming with overwhelming trauma. The reason why the sculpture doesn’t do that, is probably due to the effect that even the catatonic stare would have had when viewed in three dimensions: it would have been too life-like to display in public, much as it was too hard for other persons to handle looking at a living, suffering soldier.

    • Thanks, Christine. Excellent point about the ‘thousand yard stare’. I think you are right that it would be almost impossible to view in static 3D.

  2. Post-Traumatic Street Syndrome is presumably something that Ken Barlow fans have been suffering for the past year or so.

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