Shell Shock, Celluloid and World War One: The discomforts of being a spectator

This post was contributed by Rebecca Royle, who is starting Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing in September. 

Spectators for Shell Shock“What deep wounds ever closed without a scar? The hearts bleed longest, and but heal to wear that which disfigures it.” – Byron

Last night at Birkbeck Arts Week 2014, Theatre expert and cultural critic Tiffany Watt-Smith, like a poultice drew out a longing within me that only human moments like war can.

WAR Neuroses (1917) a Pathos ‘motion picture’ on celluloid created by Major Arthur Hurst at Netley Hospital was already projected on the wall behind me as I awkwardly hurried into the Keynes Library with a million operational travel frustrations zipping around my hot head. The inward body language and afflicted eyes of the audience as I approached to
find a seat immediately sobered me. I sat. I watched. I winced. The figures on the screen jerked and ticked. The celluloid flickered. Internal references of Charlie Chaplin collided with a loin clothed Private contorted with paralysis as he contracted and spasmed on the floor of a skeletally furnished room. A frivolity, a mimicry, a vaudevillian performance as men were assumingly instructed to line up and exert themselves in the matter of walking or running seemingly on a street corner for some amusement of the unseen camera man.

What is it about deformity, disease and mental health that repulses and fascinates us so much? These defects exposed to our crimeless eyes, thrust shame upon us as they repel the guided and expected behaviours our society dictates. And do these feelings of shame and negative evaluation change across time?

Shell shock blog


Aristotle asserted that being female represents the ‘first step’ along the road towards deformity. Gender interestingly did become a subject of debate during the Q&A as we discussed Charcot and his photographic studies of hysteria in women.




Da Vinci Vitruvian Man

It made me think about Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and his proportions of perfection, the ideal body. Are we programmed to feel more shame for a man than a woman? Is a deformed man more shameful than a pitiful woman? And is it only perspective that separates our reaction as an audience today from the suspicious, unsparing damnation of its day?

I think here it’s worth thinking about the great rhetoric of Lord Kitchener and his propaganda campaign, the fact that Germany was starving both soldier and countryman and the heavy daily governance of the people. For example, before the WWI garden allotments were reserved for the eccentric, by its end there were 1.5m across the country. There was a ‘Win The War’ cookbook, beer was watered down and drinking discouraged, the Women’s Patrol founded as part of The Police Force were now unbelievably guarding the sex lives of soldiers on leave. The status quo had changed so why shouldn’t hungry, frightened, dissatisfied people be disgusted by the weak deserters who presented such a
ghoulish spectacle? For me I think this context of punishment, shunning and ostracism makes WAR Neuroses and Shell Shock that much heavier to bear. That shame that lies within our DNA reminds us there are still lessons to learn for the future. WWI and the destruction it hurled at the world has then at the very least served us in reforming how we view mental illness.

As we followed the narrative of Watt-Smith’s paper, we were accompanied by a screen saver slide show with close-up photography from the natural world. Perhaps it was triggered by talk of fractal perfection from the stunning lecture Clouds: Objects, Metaphor,
Phenomena from the previous night, but contrary to its incongruence, it served to me as a stark contrast to the examination of such a spectacle of pain and disfigurement.

A truly enriching evening, thank you.


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