Last night I heard Jay Winter speak on shell shock at the British Academy. it’s rare luxury to go to a lecture now – to know that for the next hour two all that’s going to be happening is writing and listening, and that someone clever is going to tell you something interesting that may not have occurred to you before. It’s a time for latitude, and thinking about your subject in a new way. Not to mention forcing you to think about it…
Professor Winter’s main argument was that the numbers of people – not just men – suffering from shell shock during and after WWI has been underestimated by, roughly, a factor of 10. Given the lack of consensus on what shell shock was at the time, and a mix of altruistic and cynical reasons for not diagnosing psychological trauma, this tentative figure is impossible to prove. But, says Winter, statistics from other conflicts suggest that a very conservative estimate for incidences of shell shock would be something like 25% of all Great War casualties.
If Winter is right, and he has good reason to think so, then shell shock should no longer be considered as an exceptional response to World War 1. Instead, psychological breakdown – among soldiers their families, and the male and female medical workers who served on the front – must be seen as a perfectly normal reaction to this profoundly abnormal of situations. A commonplace disaster, if you will.
It’s always been clear to me, and to Kettle’s Yard’s Andrew Nairne too, that Jim Ede was psychologically damaged by his wartime experiences. Not in an especially grand way, just in a quiet narrative of: returning, injured, early on in the war; being forced years later to confront wartime terrors through a second disaster; suffering a nervous breakdown; and carrying emotional scars for the rest of his long life.
In Jim’s case, I believe this scarring can be seen in two things: his pursuit of beauty through order and his difficulty with food. Jim always said that his problems with eating were due to internal damage from mustard gas, which may very well have been true. But his daughter Elisabeth also hints that they were exacerbated by stress. Following the Tate flood of 1928, Elisabeth says, Jim ‘developed terrible indigestion at night’. Clutching at straws? Maybe. But Jim’s troubles with eating are something that bind him tightly to Lawrence, whose own eating habits were idiosyncratic to say the least. This needs looking into more.