The Liberation of the Language of Literature
The Marginalization of the Language of Media
by Inaas Mughis
Reality has become something of a myth today. It is, in fact, not real much of the time. How would one define reality when it is continually distorted in the media today? What becomes of it when this distorted reality becomes reality in the minds of the people who have these distorted ideologies ingrained in them? Literature, in spite of – or rather, because of – the carefully constructed language it uses, attempts to disenchant this distortion of reality and present it for what it is. While the language of the media is also very carefully constructed, it is done so with the intentions of clouding the mindsets and world views of individuals with the dominant ideologies of politicians and enveloping these individuals in a false consciousness. The language of literature, on the other hand, is painstakingly constructed with the intention of liberating and freeing the minds of these individuals from this false consciousness and bringing about a collective consciousness instead. While there are numerous issues in the world that the media euphemizes and distorts the reality of and that literature discusses in great depth, detail and honesty, war is one of the most infectious diseases of the world that the media has misrepresented and that literary geniuses have tried to present for what it really is – brutal tragedy. This paper explores how the media enchanted and warped World Wars I and II to better suit the needs of politicians and propagandists through newspapers, broadcasts, and propaganda posters. The paper also discusses how literature disenchants war and liberates individuals, as seen particularly in “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen (2012), one of the most renowned war poets and poems of the twentieth century.
The major difference, of course, and the one all other differences are centered around is the extremely euphemized nature of war represented in the media, and the dysphemism and more realistic representation of war in literature. Sara Cole (2009) distinguishes between two very significant terms in close relation to euphemism and dysphemism, that is, enchantment and disenchantment. According to Cole,
[…] what disenchantment means...is not a passive recognition of spiritual flatness but the active stripping away of idealizing principles, an insistence that the violated body is not a magic site for the production of culture. Enchantment refers to the tendency to see in violence some kind of transformative power. On the one hand, there is a strong impulse in literary accounts of violence to insist on resonant, elemental, often painful bodily experience: disenchantment. On the other hand, when the desire for spiritual plenitude meets the facts of historical violence, there is an equal and opposite tendency to see violence as the germinating core of rich, symbolic structures (Cole, 2009, p. 1633).
Thus, it can be concluded that media represents enchantment, while literature embodies disenchantment.
The true horrors of war – the Great War and WWII in particular – were something never explicitly discussed or shown in the media, be it on propaganda posters, news broadcasts on the radio or television, newspapers, or any other print forms of media. Pan (2013) literally defines euphemism as a term “derived from a Greek word which means ‘to speak favorably’” (p. 2107), while in more connotative terms euphemism is a linguistic technique used to hide, distort, beautify, and make something more appealing. Xiaonan & Dong (2010) identify the two main social functions of political euphemism, the “disguising or cheating function and the persuasive function” (p. 118), that is; “1. as political leaders’ tool, political euphemism plays the role of hiding the truth and legalizing wrong behaviors; 2. it influences people’s sense of right and wrong as well as their understanding of the objective world, hence succeeding in persuading them” (ibid. p. 118). Pan (2013) also elaborates on the function of euphemism as a disguise for reality,
By using euphemism, ambiguity can be produced and truth can be hidden. As a consequence…politicians are likely to use euphemism to make it a language of deceit…always make full use of this feature to mask the reality, exonerate their guilt…thus making euphemisms have the disguise function. The primary feature of euphemism here is to numb the public without telling a downright lie yet to get an almost equally desirable response (p. 2110).
The media makes abundant use of this euphemism, especially political euphemism, which “is different from those commonly used euphemistic forms in order to avoid death and other physical phenomena in that it deviates greatly from the meaning expressed by its former signifier, or even a complete distortion” (Xiaonan & Dong, 2010, p. 119). So while euphemism may sometimes be also used as a literary technique in literary works too, it differs from the political euphemism used in the media in the sense that it does not distort or take away from the essence of the matter as political euphemism does, rather it lays more emphasis on liberation from the matter. Xiaonan and Dong thus state that political euphemism that is especially used in the media is “a tool for political participants to hide scandals, disguise the truth, guide public thoughts when discussing social issues or events” (2010, p. 118).
Of course, one of the major ways through which media made use of political euphemisms was propaganda. This included war propaganda posters designed specifically to lure men into joining the war, to present war as something desirable, euphemized to the extent that it distorted the reality of war. This could be found in commercials advertising and promoting propaganda, news broadcasts, newspapers and magazines, all providing very broad, general, and vague headlines of the actual events of the war – “Euphemism, characterized by replacing direct expressions with implicative, obscure and vague ones” (Xiaonan & Dong, 2010, p. 119). Several examples of political euphemism used in the media include friendly fire used to refer to when a soldier accidentally takes the life of one of his men, collateral damage referring to any unnecessary extra loss of human lives. Cole (2009) elaborates on this avoidance of direct discussion of death with euphemisms replacing it instead through the enchantment lens; “Enchantment, as we shall see, relies primarily on metaphors of growth and germination; it steers as clear from the violated body as it can” (p. 1634). The name given to World War I – the “Great War” – on its own is highly euphemized, especially considering it was one of the most brutal and bloody wars in history. More specifically, some political euphemisms used in war events were phrases such as “a rescue mission” being implemented instead of the word “invasion” by former U.S. President Reagan on the topic of America’s invasion into Grenada, and atomic bombs being very vaguely and mysteriously called “the gadget” or “the device” used in the Hiroshima bombings. According to Xiaonan and Dong, this sort of political euphemism
[…] plays a quite essential role in demystifying the connotation of political discourse when serving political purposes. Some commonly employed demystifying methods in political euphemism include replacing specific meanings with general ones, replacing hyponyms with superordinates and replacing derogatory meanings with neutral or even commendatory ones. (2010, p. 119)
This use of euphemism can be seen in this particular war propaganda poster from WWI:
It uses stanch patriotism in an attempt to euphemize the image of England at war by making England’s flag the focus of the poster, and by referring to it as the “dear old flag”, depicting it as something more near and precious to the hearts of Britishers than it probably was. In another poster, the word “die” or the reference to death is replaced simply by “fall”, also exuding a rather manipulative suggestion by implicitly making the downfall of England in war a personal tragedy for its citizens:
This social, emotional and psychological manipulation is exemplified in another propaganda poster, where a father sitting with his two children is shown, the son playing with miniature soldier figurines and his young daughter asking him what he has done in the Great War, depicting that the best way a parent can make their children look up to and proud of them is by contributing to the Great War:
As mentioned earlier, media tends to skip over the details of war, only focusing on the outcomes and achievements of events. In relation to reality – the reality of war in particular – being presented as a myth, Collins (2012) observes:
How could warring nations deal with such shocking statistics, such frightening destruction that turned battlefields into hideous moonscapes of broken trees and body parts? […] they did it by denying the reality of battle and creating a myth. ‘The First World War was to give the Myth of the War Experience its fullest expression and appeal in its attempt to direct human memory from the horrors to the meaningfulness and glory of war (Collin, 2012, p. 15).
In addition to this, some of the newsreels produced during WWII, one of which was found on YouTube, American media only referred to their men in the war through phrases such as “YANKS FIGHTING AROUND GLOBE!”, a highly energetic, positive and euphemistic way of saying that the men are at war. These images and clips were accompanied by cheerful, patriotic and lively music usually produced with trumpets and drums – two instruments that provide the most melody and rhythm – in the background and the images and short clips illustrated soldiers marching in unity, smiling, laughing, socializing, and in very heroic, poised and deliberate, almost animated action on the battlefields. (The Best Film Archives, July 8, 2015) As seen in the posters above, the war propaganda posters and newsreels also tended to use the passive voice while referring to or addressing people and this is because using the passive voice unconsciously persuades people more than an active voice does. Collins (2012) discusses this specifically in relation to the magazines published as part of the propaganda, “Such publications…could be expected during the world war to have self-consciously fashioned a world view designed to persuade young readers […] War themes dominated from 1917 until the end of the war, and editors had no doubt that they were prime movers in molding the opinion of their readers” (Collins, 2012, p. 13). The propaganda was designed in a way to not make individuals feel directly targeted, therefore further inviting them to join the war through this passive voice. All of these elements put together served as war propaganda in the media at its best, evoking false feelings of patriotism, thus making war and their probable death seem desirable and a moral duty.
Literature, conversely, as opposed to the media, does not bind an individual into ideologies, but frees them from these ideologies. McGrath (2007), in a discussion about Thomas De Quincey, claims that “literature ‘communicates power’…literature fulfills two functions, the transmission of knowledge, and the transmission of power. Every literary text is thus an economy of knowledge and power” (McGrath, 2007, p. 847). The various definitions and function of literature provided by scholars and literary persons, all suggest the same – that literature is power, it gives freedom to individuals, liberates minds, provides the most insightful, accurate, realistic, and profound perspectives and presentations of information. McClay (2010) proves the functions of literature to be along the same lines;
[literature] rightly pursued and rightly ordered, can do things, and teach things, and preserve things, and illuminate things, which can be accomplished in no other way. It…instruct[s] us in the range and depth of human possibility, including our immense capacity for both goodness and depravity. It…nourish[es] and sustain[s] our shared memories, and connect[s] us with our civilization’s past and with those who have come before us. It…teach[es] us how to ask what the good life is for us humans, and guide[s] us in the search or civic ideals and institutions that will make the good life possible…an accurate reflection of the subject [it] treat[s], the most accurate possible (McClay, 2010, p. 33).
This section of the paper focuses on the language of literature and the effect it has on issues such as war. Being one of the most well-known war poems of the First World War, Wilfred Owen’s (2012) “Dulce Et Decorum Est” seemed to be the perfect literary text to study in order to present the language of literature in relation to war, especially since Owen served in the Great War himself, thus providing a first-hand account of the true face of war. Owen entirely rejects euphemisms in his poem, making a point to portray the brutality of war for what it is, since “It utterly violates the spirit of literature, and robs it of its value, to reduce it to something else” (McClay, 2008, p. 38) as the media does, and Saunders (2008) strengthens this argument further – “Like much First World War writing, the poem [Dulce Et Decorum Est] is not only about the horror of war; the need to represent that horror with unflinching realism, so that what Owen called ‘the pity of war’ can be weighed, and rendered without euphemism or sentimentality” (Saunders, 2008, p. 62).
The close analysis of the poem highlights the stark contrast between the language of literature and the language of the media, and the reality of war presented in literature and that in media. Throughout the poem, Owen describes each event, each memory, each feeling, each tragedy and horror, and each moment in precise detail, creating extremely vivid imagery which induces true emotion in the readers. McGrath (2007) gives literature this quality, too, “Literature, on the other hand, provokes the recall of vivid emotion” (p. 855). Abbott (2010), on the topic of death in war and “Dulce Et Decorum Est” in particular, touches upon the euphemism used in the media and how Wilfred Owen fights this through his literature:
Wars being particularly messy ways of going to one’s death, it is not surprising that this patriotic sort of respectful euphemism is regularly used as the equivalent of a screen in a hospital ward, to hide the blood and pain and body parts from us; but Wilfred Owen had of course already warned us about ‘The old lie: Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori’ (Abbott, 2010, p. 51).
The title of the poem itself can be taken apart, translating into “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country”, which depicts an extremely sarcastic tone, very sardonically and deliberately reflecting on the nature of the language of propaganda in the media. Owen even explicitly calls it “The old Lie” in the poem, intentionally capitalizing the L of Lie, thus planting emphasis on the word, suggesting everything that is told to individuals about war is just a dishonest rouse to pull men into the war.
Owen begins the poem by describing the brutal fatigue and downtrodden physical actions and state of the soldiers, “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags… (l. 1-2) and continues on with “Men marched asleep…/…limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;/Drunk with fatigue…” (l. 5-7). This can be strongly juxtaposed with the poised, military postures and movements of the soldiers shown in war newsreels in the media. Literature takes the time to individualize human beings and to present them as just that – humans. McClay (2008) argues to uphold this distinctive characteristic of literature:
[The task of literature] is to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them to something else: not to physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, and so on. [It] attempt[s] to understand the human condition from the inside, as it
were, treating the human person as subject as well as object, agent as well as acted-upon (McClay, 2008, p. 37).
Owen exemplifies this in “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by dedicating three out of four stanzas of this short poem to just a single fellow soldier, presenting him only and only as an individual who lost his life, focusing in excruciating detail on the latter. He does so by describing each stage of his horrific death, as well as the after-effects of it which haunt him even in his sleep – “In all my dreams before my helpless sight,/He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” (l. 15-16). He then centers the poem on this one soldier and his injuries from the gas attack leading to his death, giving him individuality and liberation from the mechanized atrocities of war, something that Cole (2009) claims disenchantment often does – “To oppose the mystification and mythologization of violence, texts with such a sensibility often home in on a moment of bodily injury, stressing the force of that irruptive violation and intimating ghastly con sequences for the future” (p. 1636). Owen makes use of visual, auditory and gustatory imagery in the last stanza, thus allowing the reader to vividly feel everything that the dying soldier goes through: “…watch the white eyes writhing in his face,/His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;/…hear…the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues” (l. 19-24). With each sense so explicitly, intensely and luridly described, it becomes almost impossible for the reader to not vividly imagine and share the horrors of the narrator and his fellow soldier, which is exactly the intention of most literary texts – to feel and experience something for what is truly is; “These images do not represent a direct or simple transcription of a body in agony; they require real imaginative reach” (Cole, 2009, p. 1639). This disenchanted style that Cole refers to is exactly one that Wilfred Owen embodies in his poem. Cole (2009) also believes that there is
[...] also a persistent idea, a cultural crux, around the attempt to strip away from the violated body all forms of symbolic valorization...The general principle is this: that violence – especially the rampaging violence of war – demands a style or technology of representation that pinpoints its experience and consequences without justifying or celebrating it. Disenchantment sets itself up as an ethical alternative, rejecting the ideals of purifying or cathartic violence (p. 1636).
The narrator of the poem toward the end then explicitly addresses someone as “My friend”, the term being used just as sarcastically as the title of the poem has been used. He refers to Jessie Pope, a civilian propagandist who would write to lure men into sacrificing themselves for the war through the propaganda she designed. It is here that the title is expressed to be “The old Lie”, that it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country, the lie that Jessie Pope used to further the agenda of war propaganda.
As Collins (2012) so aptly puts it:
The actual experience of a World War I battlefield, most veterans agreed, was indescribable and could not be grasped by civilians who had not been there. It had nothing to do with fine uniforms and heroic charges; instead, it was a chaotic storm of mass death rained on hundreds of thousands mired along muddy, bloody scars of the world (p. 15).
Language in the media fed off of this, molding and presenting war as they wished it to be – desirable, honorable, just, and glorious – while language in literature fought this, bringing back the shape of the war into what it truly was – brutal, tragic, dehumanizing, and evil. Time and time again this contrast has been seen through the language of the media and the language of literature, with the former mystifying, euphemizing and enchanting reality, and the latter demystifying, dysphemizing, and disenchanting the distorted reality.
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Inaas Mughis is an English Literature major at the American University of Sharjah, currently in her senior year. She has been writing short stories and poems before she even reached double digits. She also believes someone should have overlooked her written pieces every now and then at that age since she has had an extremely embarrassing poem about a cell phone (entitled – wait for it – “Cell Phone”) published in a national newspaper that she mindlessly wrote at the age of 9. Inaas has, however, taken the mishaps of her younger days in stride and produced countless poems and prose pieces over the years, including a novel and a book of poetry. She is working toward becoming a published author of these and of many other novels and poems in the near future. If she is not writing or reading, she can be found either painting or binge-watching TV shows while drinking tea and snacking on Flaming Hot Cheetos.