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An Earlier Battle in Newer Trenches

Before John Dos Passos delivered Three Soldiers, discussed in the previous posting, he honed his collage technique with
One Man’s Initiation, 1917.
In this brief novel, we follow Martin Howe from a troop transport to the heat of battle. Although the author does indulge in some rather lengthy discussions that allow him to inject his political beliefs into the story, this work seems considerably less forced than the longer one. During one of these conversations, a character presents a view of the war that seems fairly reasonable coming from any thoughtful participant in the carnage:

This war that has smashed our little European world in which order was so painfully taking the place of chaos, seems to me merely a gigantic battle fought over the plunder of the wolrd by the pirates who have grown fat to the point of madness on the work of their own people, on the work of the millions in Africa, in India, in America, who have come directly or indirectly under the yoke of the insane greed of the white races. Well, our edifice is ruined.

Yes, such a speech is preachy, but it seems believable from a soldier within earshot of the guns and after a few glasses of wine. In the end, Merrier, the speaker of the words above, is reported dead. All of Martin’s high-minded compatriots are dead. In the last couple of pages, the opinions and attitudes give way to Martin’s dealings with a former cobbler who makes shoe lacesĀ  from old boots in a bunker. The source of those old boots is, typically, from the dead. In the end, the best that Martin can hope to gain is something as simple as a lace.

While Dos Passos war story is not particularly original or distinguished, either in this incarnation or in Three Soldiers, his formal contribution in developing his collage technique, which he brought to its zenith in USA, provides a more enduring value. Rather than developing a seamless narrative arc that either discusses every moment between the story’s earliest events and its conclusion or explains away their absence, the collage writer presents a series of images, sketches, and moments. In one moment, Martin is seeking shelter during a bombardment and in the next paragraph he is on leave. Just as the human eye will assemble incomplete information to approximate a total image, the reader of Dos Passos’ fiction is expected to assemble the parts to understand the whole. He works in a large number of sentence fragments, which are typically evocative and effective, and inexplicably shifts from past to present tense at various points, which is less effective.

Is it too much a stretch to suggest that the Biblical text works in a similar manner. Even something as superficially traditional as Luke’s gospel seems to employ some aspects of the collage technique. Vast portions of Jesus’ life are omitted from Luke. In various places transitions are wholly lacking or as minimal as a single word: “Then.” The four evangelists present different collages, while the set of four, taken as a whole, is a sort of collage of collages. Again, this may be a reach, but it bears consideration.

Posted in American Literature, Modernism.

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