“The Ritual of Military Memory” by Paul Fussell

In Paul Fussell’s essay “The Ritual of Military Memory” first discusses the way war is remembered by soldiers.  He says that in moments of crisis, when soldiers recognizes that every moment they are experiencing could be their last, they “assign major portent to normally trivial things”; such as 3 drops of dew on a leaf of grass or the way a road turns (21).  They remember these highly specific and seemingly insignificant moments forever, for the entirety of their lives.  Fussell accounts for this phenomena with several explanations.  Firstly, the intense fear that is felt during moments of life and death has the power to “soften the tablets of memory, so that the impressions which they bring are clearly and deeply cut, and when time cools them off the impressions are fixed … and remain with you as long as your faculties” (22).  However, Fussell does not only believe that these memories stay with individuals for life because they were carved in during moments of intense fear.  They also have the ability to affect a soldier endlessly because they have a duty to.  “Revisiting moments made vivid for these various reasons becomes a moral obligation” (22).  Fussell says that the responsibility soldiers feel towards revisiting these memories is the same responsibility civilians would feel to revisit the grave of someone they lost at a cemetery.  Visiting a cemetery does not bring back life or do anything for the person who passed, but the living continue to visit graves out of respect and obligation for the deceased.  

Fussell believes that Pynchon is able to capture the way soldiers are haunted by their memories of war in Gravity’s Rainbow.  The best example of this torment is the scene between Pudding and the Mistress of the Night.  When Pudding was a general in World War 1, the greatest battle that he was a part of was when “he conquered a bight of no man’s land some 40 yards at its deepest” and “70% of his unit” was killed in the battle (23).  The land that Pudding conquered was pointless, it had no value, and it was no man’s land and a mere 40 yards.  70% of the men in his unit died to gain the useless ground.

Pudding first saw the Mistress of the Night in battle.  To Pudding, the Mistress is battle, is the war.  By having sex with her, he is reliving the memories he has from the war.  When she dominates him during the sexual act and causes him pain, “his need for pain is gratified” (27).  The same applies to a veteran reliving the vivid scenes remembered from a battle.  The memories are painful and disgusting to them, just as Pudding’s sex with the Mistress, but they have to relive them.  They feel not only an obligation to, but also a need. This is the third explanation of Fussell for why the memories are relived- soldiers have a need to relive them.  The events that the soldiers experience in war are so horrific that they change them entirely, forever.  So much so, that when they return home, to their once familiar lives, they are no longer familiar.  The only thing that is now familiar to them is what they experienced in the war, even though it was horrific and disgusting.  Thus, the only time they can feel at home is within these tormented memories, because that is all that is familiar to the new being.  Reliving these memories, the only thing that is familiar, becomes a plagued ritual that the soldiers are haunted by.  When Pudding returns home after being with the Mistress he realizes this, that “his real home is with the Mistress of the Night” (27).  His real home is with the Mistress, with the pain and disgust, because he has experienced so much and seen so much in the battlefield. His real home is not his home.  When he eats shit, he is eating the memories, because his vivid memories of the war are of “its filth and terrible smell” (24).  Pudding dies of an E. coli infection, implying that he dies from the shit he ate, dies from the memories, dies from what he lived in the war.  When he was eating shit, “what he was “tasting” and “devouring” the whole time was his memories of the Great War” (27).  The memories, the shit, poisoned him until he eventually dies of the E. coli infection. 

It is widely known that veterans come home from war changed forever from their experiences.  Many of us have heard stories of Post Traumatic Stress and the effect it can have on people. Even though Pudding survived the war, the impact it had on him tortured him for years, and eventually killed him.  Last year, NBC aired a shocking study that 22 American veterans commit suicide each day.  Furthermore, it is estimated that this number is higher in actuality, because Texas and California, the most populated states, were not accounted for.  These facts seem to further the point that Pynchon and Fussell are making on the intensity of the memories and the intensity of the horror.  The aftermath of being a part of a war is literally deadly, on a daily basis.  This echoes the reoccurring theme of Pynchon, that the preterit, Pudding in this scenario, his fucked by the Elite, especially during war.  He survives the war and yet it still kills him, the ritual that he must continue to exercise kills him.  

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2 Responses to “The Ritual of Military Memory” by Paul Fussell

  1. srk552014 says:

    This is certainly an interesting post. I think the assessment of sex with the Mistress being his way of reliving the war is quite intriguing, especially because of all the talk of the war being peoples mother, and the way Pynchon uses sex in other scenes in the novel. Definitely a thought provoking post.

  2. cjc127 says:

    Your analysis of pudding and his obligation and need to relive his memories of war made me think of freedom. I understand this was not the main purpose of your response or the critical essay yet it brought me to think of Slothrop’s desire for freedom. Your post seems to indicate there is no freedom and no escape for the world of war because of the memories. In your example, Pudding’s memories live on through his sexual interactions. It would be interesting to think about other instances throughout the novel where memories are dealt with in different ways outside of just thoughts. Your post begins to answer our in class question from Tuesday, what is up with all of the sex? I think during our discussion I was pretty narrow-minded because I was focusing on Slothrop, yet there are so many other complex sexual relationships that can be looked at differently. Great post!

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