Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War

Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War

By Ana Carden-Coyne

Oxford University Press 360pp £60 ISBN 978 0199546466

The bodies of classical Greece and Rome haunted the battlefields of 1914-1918. Their spectre was clearly visible in the hospitals, public squares and parks and gymnasia of Britain, America and Australia in the 1920s and 1930s. Ana Carden-Coyne’s new book brings these ghostly bodies to life. Reconstructing the Body is a brilliant revisionist account of the ways in which British, American and Australian men and women sought to rebuild their lives as well as their entire society after the war. In the words of the classicist and political activist Gilbert Murray, Greek civilisation was a ‘shining light’ against ‘the surrounding barbarism’. The war-wrecked body could be more than merely salvaged: it could be remade into something glorious, even beautiful.

Carden-Coyne insists that classicism and its tropes were at the heart of attempts to overcome the physical trauma and psychological suffering caused by the war. The classical ideal seemed to suggest an alternative to the technological brutality of war. It offered beauty and repose. Peace. Entire communities, as well as individuals, could be healed. This is an ambitious book but Carden- Coyne is as confident exploring the technology of artificial limbs as she is in unpicking the meaning behind modern dance movements. Her history elegantly weaves together the histories of reconstructive surgery, bodily rehabilitation, physical culture, war memorials, health initiatives and art. In Carden-Coyne’s words: ‘Despite all the pain and suffering of the war, human beings demonstrated a remarkable capacity to forgive themselves for the carnage, to reconstruct their bodies, and to reshape their memories of violence through modern visions of the classical imaginary.’

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