Thursday, 9 April 2015

Robert Wohl - The Generation of 1914 - 1979

“Let us imagine a rising generation with this fearless gaze, with this heroic attraction to what is monstrous, let us imagine the bold stride of these dragon-slayers, the proud recklessness with which they turn their backs on all the enfeebled doctrines of scientific optimism so that they may 'live resolutely', wholly and fully;” 
Friedrich Nietzsche, “An attempt at self-criticism” in The Birth of Tragedy, ed. R. Geuss & R. Speirs, Cambridge, 2007, 50

Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914, Harvard University Press, 1979, 307

The book opens with a warning: “Historical generations are not born; they are made” (Wohl, 5) and this conception, quite different from the essentially essentialist one of the men he sets out to study, will inform much of Wohl's analysis. Beyond the personal but widespread experience of the strife between “Fathers and Sons” there is indeed no ground to delimitate a generation from another, as births like ages constitute an uninterrupted continuum. This was not, however, the opinion of a significant number of intellectuals born between the second half of the XIXth century and the first quarter of the XXth, which Wohl sets out to enumerate and study with varying degrees of attention, organizing them in five countries (France, Germany, England, Spain and Italy) all of which will be examined in sufficient depth thanks to the author’s command of both their respective languages and of the relevant literature and cultural history.
Although the concept of generation existed in various forms from the dawn of times (from the goliarderies at the dawn of the XIIth century to the association of youth and revolution going back at least to the 1789, with Joseph Bara and Joseph Viala for example) Wohl largely skips such a historical overview to address directly its modernist –and political– appropriation: its forefathers would be Maurice Barres and Miguel de Unamuno, heralding from the 1880s the coming of the generations to know themselves. 

Antanas Sutkus - Blind Pioneer - 1962

Wohl begins with France and more specifically with Agathon’s 1912 survey of French students, biased as is well known
1, but also highly symptomatic of French nationalism at the time: following a dubious methodology, the authors painted the picture of a youth (18 to 25) embracing wholeheartedly a voluntarist and irrational nationalism, longing desperately for the soon to come baptism of fire. Generational politics was to be largely dominated (as Wohl shows throughout this volume) by conceptions either emphasizing the role of the intellectual (Gramsci) or straightforwardly elitist (Papini, Ortega), and the analytical use of the notion of “generation” was rooted, since the XIXth century, in literary history and criticism2. Thus it comes as little surprise to find the concept was mobilized by a largely literary contingent of intellectuals to claim their right to re-shape society. 

But not all generational theories were literary, impressionistic or openly biased: many of the more fleshed out theories which Wohl examines arose from the sociological quarter, as eager for autonomous periodization as artists were to slice up the Zeitgeist. Indeed already one half of Agathon was a sociologist, and after following the trajectory of the generational idea through many important writers (Montherlant, Barbusse, etc. some of whom will find the war an endearing experience, but all of whom will be disappointed with its inability to bring about radical change), the author turns to the sociologist Mentré.
First conceived as coherent and united organism by the early generationalists, proponents of a kind of naturalized party politics, the generation turned out to be rather fissiparous: In France as elsewhere, already at the end of the war it appeared clearly to many of them that the experience of the trenches was not that of one generation, but of two. In fact as time passes, the latest generation seem always to subdivide, as the continuously adjourned revolution had to be blamed onto the scapegoat of the past: this elean turtle was not to be overtaken, and this discovery (as in Massis’ meeting with Montherlant) could prove painful, leading some of those who found their youth suddenly questioned to find that new generations, already, pointed towards nihilism (a place-holder, if there ever was one). Marinetti wrote “When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts—we want it to happen!”. In fact, as he and his age-group felt pushed out of the historical limelight, there was no shortage of bitterness.

Colonialism could seem like the designated pressure valve for the vitalist and imperialist impulses that constitute the subtext of much generationalism – however unlike in France (as with Psichari) or Italy (Papini), the reader is surprised when moving on to Germany to discover a very different picture, tinted, maybe, by a more romantic idealism and a centripetal Volkish tradition: the Jugendbewegung (Wandervogel and related) constitute a very early form of generationalism, and one directed more to teenagers than to the young adults courted by Agathon. Their secessionist utopianism was basked in that most peculiar mixture of Dionysian idealism and straight-laced biocentrism known as Lebensphilosophie, exemplified by Robert Musil under the traits of Meingast3. The resulting picture is of a somewhat less politicized movement, whether that should be read as epicurean and naturist, or as “third-positionist”, as when expressionist Pfemfert demanded “Be neither ‘radical’ in the sense of day-to-day politics nor ‘nationalist.’ Be young!” (45);

Alexander Rodchenko - Fizkul'turniks on parade in Red Square - 1937

It is also in Germany however that Wohl finds one of his major case-studies: unlike the French Mentré, Mannheim was versed in Marxian thought and recognized that the generational flow was no long quiet river, but accelerated at the time of cultural or political upheavals. This was no doubt a first step towards understanding the construction of generations, but Mannheim stayed away from further questioning, leaving to classes their determination by material realities, and claiming, nebulously, for generations to have “values generated by the capacity of the human mind for new departures.”

England, often a late-comer to the field of cultural strife, might appear less puzzling than Germany and its Lebensphilosophie, but to a large extent we might ascribe this to the carefully preserved autonomy of its high culture where the generational debate was largely to take place: in other words, the undertones of social conflict were often muted by the limits imposed by literature –and poetry in particular– which favoured lyrical and introspective content to aesthetic-political theorizing.
And yet, it is there that arose the myth of the “lost generation,” to an extent synonymous with the titular “generation of 1914” in Anglophone scholarship. As somewhat of an apparté and using for once demographic data, Wohl takes the time to dispel this construction of a “generational tragedy” which seem to have largely been subsumed into the national “cult of the dead”.

Wohl’s account of Spain is centred on the figure of Ortega y Gasset, who showed more consistency in his dedication to the generational concept than he did to his progressive politics: we might regret that his thought take such a large proportion of the chapter, leaving little room for other exciting figures like Miguel de Unamuno, and none at all for South American nations which could have tied in with the French and Italian colonial experience, and probably constituted an important input for Iberic modernism (Vincente Huidobro for example) ; Ortega is nonetheless an interesting character, a moderate somewhat in the line of Prezzolini, and his vision of generation stand out as both highly articulated and “internal”, claiming none of that scientific neutrality common to Massis and Mannheim. His analysis outlines a particular use of the concept, where generationalism is used to retain the glitz of radicalism while in fact preaching parliamentary liberalism.

Konstantin Vasiliev - Parade - 1941

Last comes Italy, which Wohl surprisingly decides to open with the Papini of Un Uomo Finito: although the text does indulge in some powerful generational rhetoric, Papini seems to me too much of an individualist to constitute a convincing example: he was long dismissive of futurist modernolatry, and when he did reject the past he was careful not to pull any punches when it came to his contemporaries. His solipsistic “negation of the negation” left little room for his peers, and when he made some (as in his nationalistic writing) there certainly was no rejection of the past.
Similarly La Voce was careful not to run itself into a dead end, and its appeals for national renewal generally avoided the issue of generational conflict. Futurism certainly was listening more closely to its sirens, although with a pragmatism that its long life will make clear, and that is where the trace of Mussolini’s “cult of youth”
4 might be followed. Whol did not have at his disposal when writing the rich culturalist historiography now available, thus we would be hard-pressed to blame him for overlooking many of its manifestations, although we might sometimes regret he is not more careful to dissociate “pure” generationalism from its mere influence on voluntarism, anti-academicism or vitalism. He offers us instead an examination of a very peculiar character, Omodeo, and a more predictable analysis of Gramsci’s generational thought. Both emphasize that, despite the relative discretion of pre-war generationalism, Italians across the political spectrum (liberals, Marxists, fascists…) identified together as a group, maybe more conceived of as “modernists” than as an age-group, and regrouped around common cultural icons like La Voce

As Wohl note in his conclusion (Wohl, 230) and develop throughout the text, generationalism is not politically exclusive: he finds among its exponents communists (Gramsci), socialists (Brooke), liberals (Ortega), conservatives (Massis), extreme nationalists (Junger) and fascists (Drieu) as well as a host of others like Montherlant or TS Lawrence, who seem apolitical, but whom one could find to gravitate around individualist-anarchism. He goes on to point out that, nonetheless, there is a widespread sense among those theorists of living in an interregnum (an epicentre of that “time out of joint” haunting the modernist consciousness) leading often to demands for radical change and discontinuity: illiberalism and revolutionary politics.
Furthermore we could add that as an “imaginary community”, the generation, much like the nation in its contemporary constructions, is conceived of as a new and unifying ideal, allowing for departure from the perceived democratic stalemate opposing right and left: in other words, the generational idea is a vector of syncretic politics “beyond left and right”. But whereas the nation largely emphasized historical continuity, the generational struggle, with its naturalization of the conflict between the past and the present/future, adds a revolutionary element, which in my opinion shed important light to the sometimes puzzling forms taken by nationalist ideologies between the wars.
Both nation and generation, despite those differences, were far from mutually exclusive. The very fact that the focus of attention was often the “generation of 1914” shows that the formation of the generation was hardly conceived as concurrent with that of the nation: although some lingering elements of internationalism can be spotted here and there (Wohl points out that the trench experience was often conceived as transcending national boundaries, and that some communists used generation to differentiate themselves from the socialist parties) the two communities live largely in symbiosis.

Emmanuel Evzerikhin - Memories of a Peaceful Time - Stalingrad - 1943

Wohl’s book is not only unique in his tackling eloquently a phenomenon that is central to much of XXth century history and has rarely been studied on its own or in such depth. It is also, on a more general level, a startling portrait of an epoch: I only wish he had explored a little more the relationship of Europe and Asia or Africa, while others will regret it does not seize upon the opportunity to contrast its cultural history with actual statistical and demographic analysis to which the subject might have lent itself well – however, the very constructionist framework announced by the author would have likely reduced any such insights to his own subjectivity. The book already bridges the divide between the “spontaneous sociology” of the artists and that of the actual professional sociologists, so it would no doubt have been perilous to add one more layer to the edifice.
In fact, if anything, Wohl’s book suffer from the symptoms of many of the books exploring radical ideologies of the interwar period (and many of the Belle Époque too) beyond the verified scope of institutional fascism: the very proliferation of small groups and ideologies, which have a lot in common but nonetheless turned out to oppose each others. Although fascism recycled, among other things, elements of generational politics, most of their proponents and theorists remained long aloof from the parties. Wohl does not provide us with a convincing delineation of “extreme nationalism” (Junger’s) from “fascism” (Drieu) which somewhat frustrates or blurs the otherwise great clarity of the book.
He seems aware of this issue, pointing out, first, that “the strange mixture of idealism and biological determinism on which the generational interpretation was based obscures our understanding of the major movements of the period” (Wohl, 237) and that his idea of a “neoconservative revolution” (Wohl, 232) is a contradiction in terms to be blamed not on him but on those writers of the “generation of 1914”. This is unsatisfactory inasmuch as the very same blame could easily be levelled against the fascists, and to this day the relationship between the “non-conformist right” nebula (Jungkonservativen, planism, etc., in which fascisms in their movement phases I find to belong) remain problematic. Some historians, Wohl among them, attempted to define those non-conformists as “fascism minus populism”, and those sympathetic to those movements have often added “and minus racism”, but even a cursory examination of those groups shows a reality much more complex. The continuity and overlaps between ideologies belonging to conflicting movements (say the Nazis and the Stahlhelm for example) is still perplexing historians, leading Roger Griffin to call upon analogies of “cultic milieu” and “rhizomatic” or “groupuscular right”
6; To my knowledge however, those insights in the group dynamics of those movements are yet to be fleshed out.

Wohl concludes that the general sense of frustration emerging from retrospective examinations of the XXth century by members of his “generation of 1914” is born not from their failure to live up to this renovative task handed out by History (as Ortega would have it) but from the concrete impossibility for them to realize the ideals they had largely inherited: the very XIXth century materialist ideal they had planned to replace emerged victorious after the American intervention in WW2, and, we might add, all the more so since the Perestroika.
The post-war “cult of youth” (Beat, X, Y, etc.) described by John Davis
7 as instrumental to the rise of consumer-capitalism is likely to be in part an American appropriation of the generational idea. How much, however, does our own ongoing crisis of representative politics owes to the inter-war crisis of democracy, and how much does our own “post-political” condition stems from their spreading of syncretic and generational ideologies, remains to be seen. 

1 - Philippe Bénéton, "La génération de 1912-1914 : image, mythe et réalité ?", Revue française de science politique, vol. 21, num. 5, 1971, 981-1009
2 - Marius Hentea, "The Problem of Literary Generations: Origins and Limitations", Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 50, num. 4, 2013, p. 567-588
3 - Robert Musil, L'homme sans qualité, tome premier, Points, 2011, 864.
4 - George Mosse, The Fascist Revolution: toward a general theory of fascism, Fertig, 1999, 230.
5 - Walter Adamson, Avant-Garde Florence: From Modernism to Facism, Harvard University Press, 1993, 352. 
6 - Roger Griffin, "From slime mould to rhizome: an introduction to the groupuscular right", Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 37, num. 1, 27-50.
7 - See John Davis, Youth and the condition of Britain: images of adolescent conflict, Althone Press, 1990, 259.


  1. Paul Carus [1852-1919] described the nature of the soul and immortality and life after death: “The most important service of memory is the part it plays in building up the soul. Memory creates the conditions which begets the soul and then continues to foster its growth by adding and superadding new mental riches to its capacity. Every sensation leaves a trace of its own, and a new sense-impression of the same kind travels on the same path as its forerunner and revives its memory, which results in a feeling of sameness. Here we have the principle from which we derive the explanation of the soul, for the soul consists of feelings which have become representative of things, conditions, experiences, etc. The soul is a system of sentient symbols. Thus the soul is like a mirror which reflects the universe, and the worth of a soul consists in not only the exactness and faithfulness of this picture but also in the more or less true and proper way of responding in actions.”

    R. Aunger expanded the concept MEME (Dawkins); like Carus, he proposes that MEMES are the building blocks of ideas, the most basic unit of understanding and perception, and often survive after death in the brains of future generations. Carus: “Here we have that which comprehends, that which chooses and determines, that which guides and gives direction. It is what we call spirit, and this very nothing has built up the history of the world and guides the evolution of mankind. Thus it is that a mere nothing, or rather that which appears as a mere nothing in comparison to concrete material objectivity, ultimately constitutes the main factor in human life. Our individual existence ends in death but what we have done in life will live in its effects. Our thoughts, deeds and aspirations are not lost when we die. They continue to live according to the way in which we have impressed them on others. They become building stones in the temple of humanity.”

    And to summarize his ideas about the soul, ethics, and life after death,

    “Whosoever you may be, my dear reader, do not be oblivious of the fact that your soul consists of the "quintessence" of many other souls who continue to live in you although their lives may have reached that consummation which we call death. What you call yourself is the temporarily individualized presence of innumerable noble yearnings and immortal aspirations. Give up the conceit of a separate selfhood which flatters your vanity and sets you in a false position. Learn to comprehend the duties, which the recognition of the nature of your being in its relation to your ancestors and to posterity imposes upon you. This wider conception of self is not only truer, it is also nobler, more aspiring, comforting. It liberates the individual from the narrowness of selfhood. You are the product of the past and you owe all you are to the past – nay, you are the past itself as it is changed into the present. And the future will be your work; you are responsible for it; more than that; you will reap what you sow, for as you now are the past in its present incarnation, so you will also be the future that, according to your deeds, grow from the present. We build up our own souls and have to create our own immortality.”

    Carus is not only referring to geniuses like Mozart, Shakespeare, Einstein, but also the millions of unrecognized heroes whose works will live on into the indefinite future. They are the ones who have given their lives to provide us with an inspiring cultural heritage.

    “Thus death is not a curse, nor is it an annihilation, but merely a going to rest. It is the consummation of life’s labor, but not an end of its usefulness and its significance. The dead are blessed, for ‘they rest from their labors,’ but their works do not cease; they continue to be a living influence in the world."

    1. Hello Bruce, how are you doing?
      Although I am always very happy to hear from a fellow papinist, I must confess I find it sometimes a bit difficult to understand where you are going in your posts: I suspect the heat might have slowed down my cerebral activity, so maybe you could be more explicit?
      Anyway – I imagine you are already aware of this, but just in case: Papini wrote an article for Carus’ The Monist. Not all that interesting tbh, but one of the few published in the English language. I think that fact shows the ambivalence of Papini’s position as to monism in its various guises: although he was adamant to reject monism in favour of the vague but very novel “pluralism” announced by James, his thought (like that of James to an extent) remained dependant on monism as its conspicuous “other”.
      I reckon Carus’ reduction of “the soul” to content rather than substance is meant to echo Mach, Fechner and Nietzsche’s critique of subjectivity, which basically reduces the “self” and interiority to an extension of external events. This negation of the self-as-agency was so radical that it must most likely have appealed to Papini, however his individualist politics (“heroism”, hostility to mass movements, rejection of institutions, etc.) and his solipsisms demanded he retain the “religion of the self”. That might be one of the reasons for his fierce hostility to this “positivistic” Nietzsche (along, of course, with his rejection of religion). I think it is in Papini’s short stories that we find the proof that he never ceased to wonder about the existence and nature of individuality/agency/soul.
      It is interesting to see the reversal that Carus makes on this standpoint, where the “impersonality” of determinations is no longer the proof of the soul’s lack of substance, but the very locus of the kingdom come, now understood as history and collectivity: life after death, for him, seem basically to be culture.