23 December 2015

Die Fotografien: Omitting the Face of Total War to Ignite Pacifism

In her testament to positive peace, pragmatic empathy, and practical distributions of power, Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf captures the essence of the Spanish Civil War and positive, all-inclusive pacifism, all while failing to publish in her text any photograph remotely depicting the violence. In great irony, Woolf fails to include a single photograph of the contemporaneous Spanish terror. Instead, leveraging the inherent power of visuality within her text, she injects, in the midst of her words, five photographs of British men prominent in the international spheres of military and academia, which ultimately serve to expose and highlight amid her argument for peace the traumatic gender-based hierarchy rampaging throughout Great Britain. Thus, in maintaining her firm credence that articulating atrocity through words, rather than strictly visual media, intellectually, instead of animalistically, Woolf charges the world to fight war with peace, injustice with thoughtful care, by scribing her letters with a charred pen, allowing her words to be her only weapons against tyranny, in Western Europe and beyond.

Prior to comprehending Woolf’s motivations, however, in saving her readers from the agony of the photographs from the Spanish Civil War, one must acquaint oneself with the photographs themselves. Her only acknowledgements of them lie in discrete mentions of the “crudely coloured photograph[s]” (Woolf 22) “… of dead bodies and ruined houses that the Spanish Government sends [her] almost weekly” (83). These photographs, at which Woolf glances while penning her letters, “are not arguments addressed to reason… [They are] simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye,” failing to provide any intellectual utility in her elaborate plea for positive peace, which Woolf attempts to make transcend above the trauma of any one occurrence of violence (14). And yet, they address poignant moments of Spain’s imploding society, they manifest “dead bodies and ruined houses,” symbols of a people in need, a call to action to the people of the world who may be so privileged as to act upon their desires (102). Although Woolf intentionally excludes these photographs from her publication, modern readers may look to the cover page of the Friends Service Council’s pamphlet, “Give for Spain” for an image reminiscent of the least violent of the images Woolf may have ogled, a still of an elderly woman holding a poorly nourished baby, alongside a disconsolate young boy, followed by the only potential caption for such a brutally honest yet propagandic work, “Can you help?” (Friends Service Council). More like the photographs with which she inundated herself each morning would be the images of one “morning’s collection,” composed “... of what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig” (Woolf 14). Each still handcuffs her, forcing her to grapple with both the seemingly absent morality of those who have premeditated such destruction and the humanity lost of those people who presently resemble a dirty, soulless farm animal. Her only certainty lies in the tested mortality of “those… dead children,” merely forming a foreground for the bombed house behind them (14). In a later pamphlet circulated by the Friends’ Service in Spain, “Winter is Coming!,” lies an equally propagandic yet inherently gentle appeal, “We have been spared the horrors of war; let us be doubly generous to those who have not escaped,” demonstrating the aggressive, asymmetric bent of pacifist propaganda during this time period, asking for money and begging for peace (Friends’ Service in Spain). Despite their utility in her fiery, furious air, Woolf precludes these propagandic stills, pacifist and violent alike, exclusively allowing readers to consider violence abstractly, under the veil of intended intellectuality. Mediating the shouting match between these images and her readers, Woolf forces all mediums into a strict accordance of written word, in which facts are stated as such, and inspiration must transcend its lingual boundaries to formulate a cartography of a universal social structure that exists outside the confines of war.

Firstly, it is ultimately clear that Virginia Woolf refrains from bombarding her readers with images of the Spanish Civil War, stills such as those illustrated above and those frequented in both propaganda for peace and messages for military support, in order to quell their innate reactions of violence and use their activist luminosity to fuel the intellectuality of discussing the Spanish Civil War, and constructive pacifism, altogether. In her introduction to Three Guineas, in fact, Jane Marcus confirms Woolf’s goal of maintaining that her letters formulate a conversation of peace, rather than a categorical battle cry to defeat war by enlisting more violence: “She notes disapprovingly that the Madrid bombing photographs incite one to anger. She will not print them, lest they incite more volunteers to go off to war” (Marcus x). Indeed, by excluding such agonous photographs, Woolf holds, in her writing, the powerful potential to elevate her argument beyond the common propaganda of her time: Rather than pushing onto the eyes of her audience a selection of images that all key into the same nearly unending widespread pain of a culture forced into hospice, the same one message—“Help!”—Woolf lists her many opinions, each refuting the next, all forming a discussion in which the reader will have to fully engage him or herself before arising with a greater conception of truth, and of how to proceed in preventing war. Furthermore, Woolf’s writings provide powerful evidence for the case that only the arguments intellectualized through text and supplemented with logic and reason remain timeless; while anti-war posters and pamphlets, consisting of a haunting slogan or question juxtaposed with a photograph of suffering women and children, have ultimately faded away in the scope of history, remembered only for their past—supposed—effectiveness in their single, undeveloped and unifaceted opinions, her long-winded series of arguments and attempts to attain the greater truth of positive peace has endured well beyond the ephemerality of the Spanish Civil War, gaining entrance into the ideological canon of peace studies. Three Guineas, regardless of effectiveness, will know an infinitely longer lifespan than “Que fais-tu pour empĂȘcher cela?,” and discussion will forever prevail over assertion in the depths of time.

In fostering an argument for peace, however, it is, perhaps, more important that Woolf refrains from adding to her letters a series of photographs from the Spanish Civil War, because she can conserve her audience’s fighting will and direct it solely towards striving for a practical positive peace. In the words of Jane Marcus, “it is the absence of such photographs in the text that makes Three Guineas a work of art… Atrocity photographs would incite us to fight[,] and she refuses to show them” (Marcus lxiii). Instead, through forcing upon the brutality of war a greater sense of intellectuality, her goals of peacemaking become evermore powerful (Marcus lxv). Thus, Woolf recognizes, above all of the contemporaneously circulating pro-peace propaganda, that “[w]hen we look at those photographs… our sensations are the same[,] and they are violent,” and the only way to quell that innately violent urge is to train it and will it to a maturity in activism that relies upon more than merely conflict management to sustain an internationally permeating sense of peace, justice, and human rights (Woolf 14). Indeed, the existence of violent photographs as a tool to advocate for global peace thereby necessitates a ready history drenched with violent atrocities—a history that inherently disables positive peace, as people who have lived that history will have thus ritualized their behavior in a warring community, forever doomed to live under the agonous threat of violence, in what Lewis Mumford calls “Collective Psychosis”—whereas leveraging comprehensive and intelligent logical arguments for peace, as Woolf exemplifies, is a tool capable of existing within both epochs of war and peace, making the strategy timeless within any social structure and, ultimately, most effective in fostering a sustainable peace (qtd. in Saint-Amour 6).

While it remains unclear what urged Woolf to develop her own pacifist stance, be it the overbearing “photographs of more dead bodies, of more ruined houses,” with which the Spanish Ministry of Propaganda inundated her while she scribed her many letters that compose Three Guineas, or merely the utter wrongness of all war, in reality and abstraction alike, Woolf makes obvious that she needs not rely upon the unfolding history of perpetual violence and wrongdoing to forge her pacifist stance (Woolf 50). Instead, she transcends her peers’ propagandic pacifist work by forming a timeless defense against what could be the greatest blunder in all of the development of humanity: war. She witnesses a human body so abused from violence that it resembles more closely “the body of a pig,” and she transforms that destruction into her beautifully imperfect Three Guineas (14).

Works Cited

Friends Service Council. Give for Spain. London: Friends House, 1937. Print.

Friends' Service in Spain. Winter Is Coming! London: Friends Service Council, 1938. Print.

Saint-Amour, Paul K. Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. Ed. Jane Marcus and Mark Hussey. New York and Orlando: Harcourt, 2006. Print.

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