University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History > ‘We were film-minded’: Media-ting the London Blitz in the fiction of William Sansom, Henry Green and Patrick Hamilton

‘We were film-minded’: Media-ting the London Blitz in the fiction of William Sansom, Henry Green and Patrick Hamilton

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‘War supplies the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology,’ Walter Benjamin writes. My paper will examine the matrix of inter-animating forces between art, technology, and war though the use of cinematic perception in the fiction of three civilian writers who lived in London during the Blitz.

Opening with an introduction to the socio-historical context of film in the 1930s and 1940s, I will look at the increasing popularity of the filmic medium and the rise of the documentary form. I will then consider the ways in which it affected the literature of the day, creating what recent scholarship has called a style of ‘cinematic writing.’ Finally, I will trace the turns that film-conscious writing took in the wartime fiction of William Sansom, Henry Green and Patrick Hamilton. All three writers depict self-consciously media-ted subjects who see the London Blitz through the metaphor of a camera eye—the ‘cinema of the mind,’ to quote from one of Sansom’s short stories.

What does it mean to experience and witness wartime through the lens of a camera? What is achieved by comparing the seeing subject to a mechanical apparatus? What does it mean to be literally ‘film-minded’? Analyzing the writers’ divergent use of the film metaphor, I consider how seeing like a camera is, by turns, an objectifying defense mechanism, a mode of experience grounded in propagandistic clichés, and a commentary on the use and abuse of film for political violence. Ultimately, I address the larger question of how literature might represent authentic experience in an age where the category of experience itself was under question, both by the leveling pressures of war, and by the turbulent progress of media and technologies of perception.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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