Richard Aldington: How can we atone for the lost millions and millions of years of life, how atone for those lakes and seas of blood?
From Death of a Hero (1929)
The casualty lists went on appearing for a long time after the Armistice – last spasms of Europe’s severed arteries. Of course, nobody much bothered to read the lists. Why should they? The living must protect themselves from the dead, especially the intrusive dead.But the twentieth century had lost its Spring with a vengeance. So a good deal of forgetting had to be done.
The death of a hero! What mockery, what bloody cant! What sickening, putrid cant! George’s death is a symbol to me of the whole sickening bloody waste of it, the damnable stupid waste and torture of it…The Army did its bit, but how could the Army individually mourn a million “heroes”?
Somehow or other we have to make these dead acceptable, we have to atone for them, we have to appease them. How, I don’t quite know. I know there’s a Two Minutes’ Silence. But after all, a Two Minutes’ Silence once a year isn’t doing much – in fact, it’s doing nothing. Atonement – how can we atone? How can we atone for the lost millions and millions of years of life, how atone for those lakes and seas of blood? Something is unfulfilled, and that is poisoning us…What can we do? Headstones and wreaths and memorials and speeches and the Cenotaph – no, no; it has got to be something in us. Somehow we must atone to the dead – the dead, murdered, violently-dead soldiers. The reproach is not from them, but in ourselves. Most of us don’t know it, but it is there, and poisons us. It is the poison that makes us heartless and hopeless and lifeless – us, the war generation, and the new generation too. The whole world is blood-guilty, cursed like Orestes, and mad, and destroying itself, as if pursued by an infinite legion of Eumenides. Somehow we must atone, somehow we must free ourselves from the curse – the blood-guiltiness. We must find – where? how? – the greater Pallas who will absolve us on some Acropolis of Justice. But meanwhile the dead poison us and those who come after us.