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War and the Sensory World

Nita Kumar

By Santanu Das
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 269, Rs. 595.00


Technology has taken over both the methods of warfare and its representations, and the human body, the victim of war’s cruelty, has been effaced from our perceptions of armed combats in recent times. Santanu Das’s Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature takes us to the war that was the first to use technology on a large scale, and the book firmly re-situates the soldier’s body at the centre of the zone of conflict. Trapped in muddy, dark trenches and in hospitals with their bodies ravaged by the flying ammunition, the soldiers experienced both pain and human contact with each other on their skin. Das’s book powerfully recovers this sensory world, examining the profound effect of touch ‘on the subjectivities of soldiers and nurses’ and its impact on the artistic form in war writings.   Working with the dual aim of being both ‘recuperative and literary’, Das pulls in an impressive range of archival and literary material for a very scholarly analysis that yet remains keenly receptive to the nuances of meaning in the text, much of which was produced under circumstances of great stress: trench diaries, journals, and letters of the soldiers; newspaper accounts; literary writing of the First World War . . . writers including Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen; and memoirs of women nurses such as Mary Boden, Vera Brittain and Enid Bagnold (p. 6). ‘The present work’, Das says, ‘brings together men and women, combatants and nurses . . . private, officer, stretcher-bearer, ambulance driver’—in effect all those whose subjectivities were defined by the ‘haptic’ (a term central to Das’s discussion) experience of war. The tactile paradigm is extended into the authorial project as Das handles personal archival material of the war such as certificates, badges, letters, and diaries out of which dried flowers fall out. The ‘process’, he says, ‘is intimate and unsettling’ (p. 15). Describing the movement of the blinded soldiers being led by an orderly in John Singer Sargent’s painting Gassed that very poignantly sits on the cover of Touch and Intimacy, Das says: ‘The sense of touch defines space and guides the rhythm of their movement, as if new eyes have opened at the tip of their fingers’ (p. 1). Das’s prose often tingles with a sense of heightened perception, producing very graphic effects especially when he focuses on intimate situations and details.   ‘Trenches’, the first section, examines the muddy underground ...

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