English department hosts war literature lecture

A professor of english at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Michael Zeitlin came to TU last week to deliver his lecture: “Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan: Narrative Perspectives on the Wounded and the Dead.”

As the night went on, the sky darkened until black, and rain started pelting the windows, leaving the modest audience grateful to be inside, despite the shocking content Dr. Zeitlin was delivering.

Dr. Bob Jackson, an english professor at TU, introduced Zeitlin as an old friend. They’d met through a mutual scholarly group regarding William Faulkner, and Zeitlin is in fact finishing a novel on Faulkner’s early years as an aviator in the Air Force. Dr. Jackson also stressed the copious amounts of war literature that Zeitlin studies.

Zeitlin is interested in providing a new narrative perspective on war’s wounded and dead. He read from such classics as “A Farewell to Arms” and “Catch-22,” but he spent the latter half of his lecture reading from novels published by combat medics and surgeons.

The passages from the fiction he read was wordy and grotesque. Both novels are famous testaments of war literature, and Zeitlin seemed to handpick the goriest parts to read.

He didn’t use a microphone — making him not inaudible but just distant enough to struggle in getting the attendees’ attention — and he had a presentation set up with the quotes he read.
Each slide was pure black with white letters, and the letters were often arranged in a block of unruly text almost more grotesque than the violence it described.

He moved on to nonfiction accounts of war. Specifically, he focused on what he called medical literature, giving special attention to “365 Days,” by Ronald J. Glasser. From these books he read passages depicting similar gore to the fiction pieces he’d read, but the difference he pointed out belonged to the reader. He posited a certain difficulty in glossing over something when it’s real. People can read about gore in “Catch-22,” but they’re not reading about actual injuries that really occurred.

Zeitlin says we should read medical literature “if we’re really serious in engaging with what war’s all about.”

His nonfiction sources dealt with many themes, such as PTSD in combat medics, the death and mutilation of children and innocent bystanders and friendly fire. Towards the end of the night, he read from Aristotle’s “Poetics,” giving us the philosopher’s definition of tragedy and applying it to all he’d read.

A short Q&A session at the end of his lecture revealed some more motives behind Zeitlin’s obscture lecture topic.

He recounted his experience as a child during the Vietnam War, observing all his older siblings and colleagues coming to terms with the draft and with participating in the war.

It got him to thinking about his own place in war, and if he could wield a gun against another man. He never had to make that choice, as the war ended before he was of drafting age.

“It’s depressing,” he said, when prompted about his own mental toll given his immense study on the topic. He didn’t make claims of psychological damage, but his studies have affected the ways in which he can enjoy war media.

Zeitlin believes everything can be read, and that everything is literature. Sure, every high school kid reads “All Quiet on the Western Front” or “The Things They Carried,” which are important reads in their own rights, but Zeitlin wants to drive the point further home; he thinks we should all be reading medical literature, and reading about these things we’re actually afflicting onto other humans. It’s important to know what you’re supporting.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker