Satire of Warfare
We all know that there is nothing funny about war and that death brings nothing but sorrow, especially when it comes to young men who are struggling to make the world a better place. On the other hand, even though we know this so well, there is no denying that the world has a rich tradition of war comedies. Robert Graves' autobiography, Good-Bye to All That, falls into this comedy tradition, although contemporary readers never seem to get the joke. Strong but clumsy as a boy, Graves learned to box during his school years. When World War I broke out, this skill helped him to overcome the bad impression made on his commanding officer by his heavy and untidy appearance.
Comedy works best when it has some serious-minded opposition trying to suppress it. Background circumstances dictate how much an act can make people chuckle: the coarsest group of oil-riggers would turn away embarrassed when one of their group tries making a vulgar sound for a laugh, but the same sound in the hushed sanctity of a cathedral can make a bishop burst out in a chuckle.
A satire, if it is going to work at all, has to look reasonably like the thing that it is satirizing in order to draw attention to the flaws of the original. Silliness itself is not satire; a satiric work needs to surround itself with a context that is to be its victim.
The strongest aspect of Good-Bye to All That is its ability to satirize the situations that Graves found himself in during the early parts of his life, before he could arrange his life as he wanted it. Unfortunately, that element is the last one that contemporary students grasp. Because they are seldom very aware of what was going on in Graves' time, readers are faced with understanding his world through the events depicted in the book. Many readers take the book as a history lesson about World War I, reading it for information rather than style. The problem with this is that satirists feel no responsibility for telling the truth, or even for adhering strictly to any standard of honesty, just as long as they can draw attention to the dishonesty of others. Graves' book is useful as a history lesson only to the extent that a comedy skit from television can tell us something about how people of its time felt about a subject, but it is unreliable about what they actually did.
For today's student, there is little way of discerning the satiric element of the work just from looking at the text. The somber elements of a serious war story are all there, from sudden bloody deaths to slow and pointless losses, from sadness to madness, all seeming to be ennobled by the author's urge to write poetry, which itself is, today, taken to mark one a serious thinker. The separate elements each sound serious enough, as does Graves' elevated, Edwardian-era diction. The book has all of the elements that readers are used to seeing from important, weighty writers, and that apparent severity is what makes it able to make fun of other war stories.
The book does have its farcical element, which is an aspect that few readers fail to notice. There is no shortage of self-important officials where wise father figures should be, or of bullies in place of comrades, or dumb educators, sneaky bureaucrats, cruel lovers, and even inarticulate poets. The least one can say is that it is a war story spiced with the satirical parts running through it. It is only when one buckles down to the task of appreciating the book's tone in every little place—a task that most students never get around to, as most of them are kept busy simply trying to figure out what is going on—that it becomes clear just how little this book is serious about anything. Graves delivers all of the details with a monotonous deadpan, as if all were equally important, from the snipers to schoolboys' uniforms. Without variance of tone to guide them, it is difficult for readers to know which is more important—the fact that trout come out of an underground stream near a German castle ‘‘quite white...
(The entire section is 9,010 words.)