The Endurance of Bergsonism and the Missteps of Deleuzian Buggery

Expanding on a Twitter thread from the other day, I wanted make a few further notes on my current readings around Henri Bergson and his philosophy.

I’m currently hard at work on an essay about temporal (or rather durational) ethics in 20th century philosophy and its unacknowledged relevance to (and perhaps indirect influence on) accelerationism, so often said to be devoid of any ethics whatsoever.

I’ve been primarily looking at Blanchot for this — of course; I can’t leave him alone at the minute — because I’ve kept finding references to “duration” as a somewhat underdefined philosophical concept in his body of work, likewise containing shades of Levinas’ concept of “infinity”.

In trying to better account for what he might mean by this term, the obvious place to turn has been to Bergson who was so undoubtedly popular at the time through which Blanchot was writing.

Emily Herring has written a really fun essay on this recently for Aeon, all about Bergson’s pretty incredible popularity in early 20th century France, and how his popularity amongst women in particular probably fuelled the subsequent backlash against him in later decades — undoubtedly giving birth to the contemporary “theorybro”. She writes:

Why, when Bergson was popular, was he so popular, and especially with women? A combination of factors, including the public nature of his lectures and the clarity of his lecturing style no doubt contributed to his fame. Women in particular would have benefitted from the fact that Bergson’s lectures, which were held outside the stuffy confines of the exclusive Sorbonne, presented complex and subtle ideas in a way that was digestible to those who had perhaps not benefitted from a formal philosophical education. More importantly, Bergson’s philosophy was a philosophy of change, creativity and freedom that many, in the years leading up to the First World War, used as a way of channelling their own political hopes.

Herring goes on to argue that “the women of the late Belle Époque were so drawn to Bergson because his philosophy was then a rallying point for those who believed radical change was possible — much as their descendants would be drawn to the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the late 1940s.” Sartre and de Beauvoir are not the only ones, of course — Blanchot and Levinas have emerged as two philosophers who have piqued my own interest recently who seem quite obviously influenced by Bergson, even just by osmosis, and whose radicality would increase as a result of that same interwar feeling and its later squandering in the post-war era — but Herring makes a good point with de Beauvoir, in particular. She writes:

Little more than a decade later, the young de Beauvoir, who would herself become one of the 20th-century’s most famous and influential thinkers, became an avid reader of Bergson. While she disavowed Bergson in her memoirs, her diaries tell another story. Born in 1908, de Beauvoir was still a young child when Bergson was at the height of his fame. At the age of 18, in 1926, she wrote of a ‘great intellectual intoxication’ after reading his works. [Her] reading of Bergson did not hinge upon essentialist notions of femininity (that would have been incompatible with her existentialism). Instead, she appears to have been inspired in her views on fiction by Bergson’s methodical use of metaphors, and she was moved by Bergson’s idea that true freedom was to be found within the immediate data of lived experience.

She ends on the point that “the important role played by women in the history of philosophy no longer needs to be demonstrated, but philosophy books, articles and curricula remain chronically dominated by (mostly European) men.” And yet, the strange entanglement that seems to conjoin Bergson to the women he supposedly inspired is that both have been (or once were) ejected from the philosophical canon. Such was Deleuze’s interest in Bergson (and Hume, Nietzsche, Spinoza, et al.)

Yes, Deleuze could have written a book about a woman to actually help this argument… But what I’m trying to say is that he was at least interested in those philosophers whose work contained a certain something that could not be assimilated into the canon that, in some circles, he himself now represents, and this is something which persists in the work of many philosophers from maligned demographics but is nonetheless the first thing to be removed when those thinkers end up being brought into the academy. (And this is even a centrally important aspect of some explicitly feminist philosophies — I’m thinking of Helene Cixous.) [1]

This is how the translator’s introduction to the English edition of Deleuze’s 1966 book Bergsonism sets the scene, as a seminal entry in his books on others which, together, form a philosophical “counter history” of philosophers “who seemed to be part of the history of philosophy, but who escaped from it in one respect or another.” Furthermore, the translator’s invoke that most famous of quotations wherein Deleuze describes his approach to the history of philosophy as

a kind of buggery, or, what comes to the same thing, immaculate conception. I imagined myself getting onto the back of an author, and giving him a child, which would be his and which would at the same time be a monster. It is very important that it should be his child, because the author actually had to say everything that I made him say. But it also had to be a monster because it was necessary to go through all kinds of decenterings, slips, break ins, secret emissions, which I really enjoyed.

They notes that Deleuze’s book on Bergson is “a classic case of this”, but the issue seems to be for many, especially in the English-speaking world, that Deleuze’s bastardised books become the foundation on which these under-appreciated philosophies are discussed.

Interestingly, Deleuze does address this in the afterword written specifically for the English edition which begins, surprisingly, with a very explicit doubling-down on Bergson’s own project, somewhat in contrast to his own monstrous version of it.

Whereas Deleuze begins, originally, in 1966, by hammering out the distinct stages of Bergson’s philosophy, in this afterword he writes that “a ‘return to Bergson’ does not only mean a renewed admiration for a great philosopher but a renewal or an extension of his project today, in relation to the transformation of life and society, in parallel with the transformations of science.”

To my mind, this reads like a kind of softening of his initial style — perhaps to be expected: this afterword was written 20+ years later, for a new edition of a book that is still a relatively early entry in Deleuze’s oeuvre — but it also speaks to the other book on Bergson which I’ve been reading these past few weeks: Vladimir Jankélévitch’s Henri Bergson.

I’m still getting to grips with this book and its particularly challenging to a lot of the English-speaking literature on him which is still so heavily influenced by Deleuze.

I shared sections from this on Twitter already but I want to reiterate them here because I think this somewhat un-Deleuzified approach to Bergson is in fact very insightful for how the English-speaking world might better approach Deleuze himself.

The translator’s introduction to Jankélévitch’s book spends a considerable amount of time on this issue and necessarily so. They write that it is “not at all controversial to claim that Deleuze effectively revived interest in Bergson for English speakers.” They likewise go on to note a number of well-known texts from the English-language secondary literature that “are guided by Deleuze’s interpretation”.

However, the translators are quite pointed in their evaluation of Deleuze’s book. They write that for “all its strengths … balance is not one of them.” They continue:

Deleuze interprets Bergson’s philosophy in terms of a progression, wherein the insights of his early writings are fully realized only in his later work. And it’s not as if Deleuze is coy about this feature of his interpretation. To the contrary, he couldn’t be more up front about it! Just look at the famous first lines of Bergsonism: “Duration, Memory, Élan Vital mark the major stages of Bergson’s philosophy. This book sets out to determine, first, the relationship between these three notions and, second, the progress they involve.” With his talk of stages and progress, this is a bold opening move. Indeed, it is a highly — an incredibly! — anti-Bergsonian gambit. No doubt, it buys Deleuze a sharp and systematic presentation; but it comes at the price of faithfulness to precisely what Jankélévitch labored hard to capture: the real duration and lived development of Bergson’s philosophy. Or, to put the point in more technical terms, at the outset of his interpretation of Bergson, Deleuze avowedly (I am tempted to say, brazenly) occupies the very standpoint that Bergson had spent a lifetime problematizing: a retrospective vision that sees movement only in terms of the destination it reaches.

This Bergsonian perspective that problematises “a retrospective vision that sees movement only in terms of the destination it reaches” is interesting in that it is the sort of position that, even if Deleuze does not problematise it himself in this instance, seems to be central to his later thought and, indeed, whenever Blanchot appears in Deleuze’s work, it seems to be this point that he is emphasising.

This is precisely what Blanchot means when he speaks of duration and, as I’ve spoken about very recently in my essay on friendship, this is the basis of a mid-20th century durational ethics for a whole host of writers which becomes quite explicitly associated with communism, perhaps in being thought as a temporality and subjectivity that is beyond the capitalist capture of time and labour power.

This is not to suggest that this is wholly absent from Deleuze’s thought at this point, however. As Jankélévitch’s translators write: “At every point in his interpretation Deleuze is keen to push past Bergson’s analysis of subjective experience toward an ontological — or, as he puts it, an “inhuman” or “superhuman” — register of duration.” The writer’s critique is that this selective reading, whilst perhaps more relevant to us today, is unfaithful to Bergson’s own persistently vitalist humanism.

They do go on to note, however, that these perspectives — Jankélévitch’s and Deleuze’s — whilst being “divergent”, are not “incompatible” with one another. I’ll have to finish digesting the rest of the actual book before I can comment on that…

What I find most interesting about this critical reevaluation of Deleuze’s impact on Anglo-Bergsonism, though, is that it seems to frame Bergsonism the book as something of a joke on Deleuze’s part, if only one that backfired when the work was translated into English. This seems to be so apparent that he has to return to his own book in 1988 and write an afterword reemphasising the true Bergsonism at the heart of his new Bergsonism — to emphasise its multiplicity and its “pathology of duration”; the splits that nevertheless entangled the two — the discrete and the continuous, connecting it somewhat to his thought-to-come, his difference and repetition. But, notably, Deleuze does not reevaluate his own book by making reference to his own later destinations.

He resituates Bergson’s work — and, by association, his own — as an attempt at a living project, and it is here that the importance of a true Bergsonism to schizoanalysis can be seen, so often trodden on by the same sort of theorybro-dom that makes Deleuze such an insufferable figure to talk about in many a context today.

Whilst a younger Deleuze may have approached Bergson “brazenly”, speaking to the violence of his previous “buggery” with its rape-like connotations, it seems that, later, he attempts to fix this, reestablishing himself not as a theoretical Frankenstein, producing monsters, but rather as a friend.



[1] Sidenote: This was a conversation had in the pub the other day, actually. I was chatting to some MA students who’d just had a symposium to present their dissertation ideas and someone was talking about a psychoanalyst and philosopher who had paved the way for a lot of later feminist work. I wasn’t sure who they were talking about and asked, out of curiosity. It was Lacan. I was quite surprised by this but took their word for it. I’m not so well versed in Lacanian theory at all but I offered the suggestion that, if you’re going to give that trophy to any French dude, I’d imagine Deleuze (and probably Guattari even more so?) had a better claim to that title — especially considering they were talking about Lacan as a direct influence on Irigaray. But anyway, that’s not my area of expertise.

AGI: Artificial Governing Intelligence

Aaron Bastani’s long-awaited and oft-parodied Fully Automated Luxury Communism manifesto is finally out and, to celebrate the occasion, Novara Media has done its own long-form interview with their own founder to go over the book’s general insights and implications.

It’s an interesting chat that covers most of the current leftist hot topics but one question towards the end was pretty surprising to me in that it reminded me of Landian accelerationism…

Throughout the conversation, Bastani and James talk about markets on multiple occasions — how you can abolish capitalism without abolishing martkets; market socialism; and a few seemingly adjacent topics like how Universal Basic Services could be an alternative to (and prerequisite of) Universal Basic Income — and this all seems to come to a head at around 1:14:50 with a chat bar question: “Will artificial intelligence replace government?”

Bastani responds:

Paul Mason puts it really well in his present book, right? We’ve deferred for 35 years to this thing called “The Market”.

“Can we do this thing?” No, the Market says we can’t. “Why?” Well, the Market says we can’t.

How is that any different to a machine?

You’re saying, this protocol, this set of rules, which is solidified in this institution says no. That’s no different, fundamentally, to machine control because it’s taking agency away from human beings; it’s depoliticising the political.

So, in a sense, that’s already here — certainly in the cutting-edge of the neoliberal countries.

It’s a very familiar insight, albeit one we’re more used to hearing expressed from certain quarters with palpable glee…

What Bastani is describing is the cybernegativity of market circuitries, contrary to Land’s open embrace of the cyberpositive. What Bastani speaks to is perhaps closer to the porcine circuits of the market democracies described by Gilles Chatalet — and we might note that cybernegativity seems to be an enemy common to all three.

Bastani is against machine control in this context, presumably so long as it is grounded on this current deference to neoliberal market economies and, most importantly, their inequalities. Automation, then, must be retooled as a socialist form of machine control wherein it is we who control the machines rather than the machines that control us. It is this that then leads to a supposedly communist automation.

This makes sense for the means of production but, since communism is fundamentally anti-statist, requiring a different sort of political organisation altogether, the question of whether or not government is something even capable of being automated does pose an interesting problem — as is the suggestion that it already is automated. Still the question of how we shift our relationship to each other as well as our labour power lingers and, to me, it seems like a pretty big hole.

Does this mean we need to unautomate governance and unautomate communication alongside this more general push towards automated labour and intelligence?

It’s maybe best to end on this, from Bastani’s own New York Times article, further promoting the book with a Paul Masonic “radical optimism”:

So we have to go beyond capitalism. Many will find this suggestion unwholesome. To them, the claim that capitalism will or should end is like saying a triangle doesn’t have three sides or that the law of gravity no longer applies while an apple falls from a tree. But for a better world, where everyone has the means to a good life on a habitable planet, it is an imperative.

We can see the contours of something new, a society as distinct from our own as that of the 20th century from feudalism, or urban civilization from the life of the hunter-gatherer. It builds on technologies whose development has been accelerating for decades and that only now are set to undermine the key features of what we had previously taken for granted as the natural order of things.

To grasp it, however, will require a new politics. One where technological change serves people, not profit. Where the pursuit of tangible policies — rapid decarbonization, full automation and socialized care — are preferred to present fantasies. This politics, which is utopian in horizon and everyday in application, has a name: Fully Automated Luxury Communism.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

I guess!

But so far the platitudes don’t seem to be doing much for how people connect. And that’s not Bastani’s fault. Overcoming the cybernegative automation already present within our lives takes something else…

It makes me wonder how much Bastani’s “luxury” is compatible with a Nietzchean “decadence”… But that’s a post for another time…

Trouble

I’ve been coming to this pub for about three years now to write all my shit. Whenever I need to concentrate and maybe loosen up my fingers with a couple of pints (and a pack of cigarettes), it’s the best place for me to get work done. (They’ve got plug sockets in the beer garden, you see.)

This is Trouble. He’s always around to stick his head in my bag to see if I’ve got any food and lounge around in the sun. He was good company yesterday.

I finally broke through a blog blockage that has been building up on my desktop since at least December of last year. Expect new essays elsewhere over the coming months and also a new series that is already complete but which I’m gonna break up, posting one part a week until it’s done. First part is coming on Monday.

Watch this space.

Northern Devolution

It’s been well over a year since this blog first considered the north of England’s post-Brexit fragmentation in “The Gothic Secession of Patchwork Yorkshire” and “Lovers’ Flight” but things have been pretty quiet since then.

This is no doubt because Brexit as a whole has taken up so much of the national conscience/consciousness around issues of sovereignty and identity, but I was interested to hear of a new campaign launched today across 33 newspapers and websites based in the North that are calling for further devolution in Northern communities, with Manchester Evening News seemingly taking the lead with this cover story. It seems like it might be time to jump back into patchwork posting:

Today, the Manchester Evening News joins forces with rival publishers across the north to call for Britain’s main political parties to commit to a revolution in the way government treats our communities.

Our Power Up The North collaboration between 33 newspapers and websites comes exactly a year after the launch of the One North campaign in the wake of unprecedented chaos on the region’s railways.

The collective voice of the north’s titles compelled the government to take immediate action on behalf of the millions of passengers who suffered travel misery.

Now, at a time of unparalleled political uncertainty, we are calling on the main parties — and those who aspire to lead them — to spell out what they intend to do, and how they will work with others, to narrow the north-south divide.

With nominations closing in the Tory party contest to succeed Theresa May — and with the prospect of a general election in the near future — every day of dither and delay risks leaving the north at an even greater disadvantage.

The case for fundamental change is now unanswerable and our political leaders must commit to real change.

This frustration over outdated, underfunded and inadequate transport infrastructure has been an interestingly central issue that lurks in the background of various Northern devolution / independence movements. This isn’t a concern to be sniffed at. In fact, as we’ve seen before on the blog, it is the way in for even those who work in government to see the positive reasoning behind local government fragmentation.

It’s interesting how this has happened. The government’s first response to Northern stagnation was to try and fix transport infrastructure between north and south, so that it’s easier for everyone to get to London on high-speed rail. But this project has staggered and stalled at every turn, and that’s even before we consider how the national problem of over-priced travel will no doubt mean that HS2 — as the project is called — will only help those who don’t need helping.

What’s interesting about the HS2 drama is that it has also served to highlight the stagnation of local infrastructure, exacerbating rather than placating the fissures between internally disjointed identities. This fissure now seems to be so stark that, the other week, the MEN published the findings of a report carried out by former head of the civil service Lord Bob Kerslake:

His most striking conclusion draws parallels with German reunification in the 1990s, when leaders there faced a huge uphill battle to heal the economic chasm between West Germany and the former Soviet East.  

He points to the vast waves of investment poured into the Eastern half of the country over the years that followed, thanks to a national consensus in Germany that the gap had to be closed.

This is a fascinating comparison, not least because the MEN is now calling for its inverse application. This is not a call for investment towards reunification but investment towards disintegration.

This logic is at the heart of this is slippery and someone recently asked about this in my Twitter DMs, asking:

…how do you identify that things are becoming more fragmentary, (or that they need to in order to break the impasse of capital) and encourage that, whilst not being a spoilsport — anti-collective, anti-community.

I definitely get what you mean about fragmentation being underwritten by unruliness — I’ve been thinking alot recently about brexit as an outcropping of a tradition of british (maybe english) unruliness — an inherent mistrust of authority (or maybe more specifically towards the middle bourgeois — deference to royalty and aristocracy persists!) that even if it manifests commonly in ways that are quite xenophobic have a basic drive that is about strengthening your community — I don’t know, its how to figure that without it lapsing into a closed borders mentality.

My response to this was to note that “exit” talk is promiscuous. It’s one of our central problems today, I think, and an issue that is at the heart of a lot of the left’s problems. We see it with “accelerationism”, we see it with ecopolitics, we see it everywhere and patchwork is, in some respects, a political philosophy that tries to handle this unruliness openly and honestly. Because, yes, a community that “defines itself by what it escapes” can just as easily be a white ethnostate that defines itself by its escape from multiculturalism as it can be a communist collective which defines itself by its exit from capitalistic modes of relation.

The issue that I have at present is that the left’s utter hostility towards even the suggestion of complicity in other forms of governance and politics means they routinely box themselves into stasis. No change is better than the wrong change but I don’t think it is difficult to show how that logic is nothing but repressive and grounded on paranoia more than any actual analysis of political trends and intentions.

Nick Land’s inner-outer political orientations are key here and this is an issue this blog has repeatedly taken with Brexit which is, in Land’s own terms, an exit that “models itself on a protected state, in which belonging is sacred, and boundaries are rigorously policed”. In contrast to this, the UK’s other burgeoning independence movements — in Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire and Cornwall, for instance — are “defined primarily by Exit”, by what they escape. They’re not about a retreat in order to consolidate an identity but rather an exit in order to open themselves up beyond the boundaries placed on them by an historical oppressor. (It’s here that the dismissal of an ethics of exit alongside an ethnonationalism becomes a woefully false consciousness.)

This is a logic which Brexiteers try to embody but fail to at every turn, incapable of separating their WTO ambitions from a consolidated nationhood. It reminds me of Ed’s excellent post “Demons and Disjunction“, which speaks to England’s internal doubling so well:

In the destruction of the primitive double, the wild chains of proliferating difference are cut off; one no longer enters into transit and trade with figures on the outside, but turns inwards to operate under the sway of predetermined sets of options that are each flush with a particular unifying logic. The double begins in multiplicity and ends unified and coded.

The wholesale exit strategy of Brexit is only exacerbating the economic inequalities that exist across this country, and as our London parliament proves itself unwilling or incapable of addressing this issue a minoritarian unruliness is becoming more and more vocal about its demands for a sustainable future.

We’ll see what more becomes of this in future but it feels, once again, like our national and intranational politics must contend with the broader possibilities of these political ideas sooner rather than later — for all our sakes.

In Flanders Fields

I had a dig right back to the first start of my archive following yesterday’s post on the nation’s D-Day celebrations.

When I was 14 I went on a school trip to Flanders to walk around the battlefields and trenches of the First World War. We heard the Last Post performed at the Menin Gate, walked around Tyne Cot Cemetery and the Thiepval Memorial in the rain, and learned about the horrors of trench warfare whilst squelching through mud at the Sanctuary Wood Museum.

It was one of the most influential experiences of my entire childhood and I still have all the photos I took. Showing them to my art teacher when I got back to school is what kicked off my interest in photography that would rule my life for the next ten or so years.

I vividly remember the huge gulf between the fun we had and the melancholy of walking around cemeteries and battlefields day after day. I will never forget how sharp the silences were on that trip. Hearing the Last Post, in particular, was incredibly moving.

The Menin Gate, whilst a transitory space by default, to be passed through from one open end to the other, was nonetheless still cavernous, sonically capturing the sound of the bugels that echoed and bounced of the named walls. There was something about that atmosphere of transitory capture that has stayed with me. I’ve never experienced that anywhere else.

At that time, we were mostly kids getting up to mischief. I remember awkward flirting in hotel rooms and play fights and misbehaving, all except when we were in a place of remembrance. I will never forget the how quickly those spaces were able to shut up this big group of boisterous Year 8 history students. It aged us, not least seeing the ages of those who died, so many just a few years older than we were then.

Yesterday I wrote:

The very experience of disarticulation is central to my interest in art and philosophy — not only in terms of the never-ending process of thinking and inventing new language, alongside reading the thought of others to acquire new concepts, but also those very real moments (limit-experiences) where language so frequently dissolves itself.

And I think I can safely say that somewhat gothic but nonetheless immanent fascination, whether in photography or philosophy, can be traced right back to that week in Belgium. That’s my Year Zero.

D-Day

A very early and somewhat diaristic post on this blog was a story about experiences of “poppy fascism” on Remembrance Sunday. It wasn’t that great a post but it was nonetheless an honest attempt to articulate a discomfort that I have long found difficult to put into words.

The very experience of disarticulation is central to my interest in art and philosophy — not only in terms of the never-ending process of thinking and inventing new language, alongside reading the thought of others to acquire new concepts, but also those very real moments (limit-experiences) where language so frequently dissolves itself. (A process closer, I think, to poetry than the word salad so often deployed by today’s insecure artists and academics.)

It’s no coincidence that so much of the philosophy that best deals with these questions comes from that time just before, during and after the Second World War. I find 1930s French philosophy, in particular, to be one of the most fascinating philosophical eras for this very reason. The closer thought gets to the event-horizon of that war and its atrocities, the more openly philosophers contend with the insufficiency of their own thought and the words that give form to it.

We don’t really think like that anymore — or rather, we think we don’t need to. Atrocities are all too visible and there are many ways in which we can now talk about that which seems to be at the limit of our understanding — be that scientifically or ideologically. It feels like language is no longer effaced by violence in the way that it once was. In some circumstances, this resilience is useful; in others, it feels like something has been lost.


When the annual memorial services for the First and Second World Wars roll around again in this country, this is what I always end up thinking about. Every year, no matter the occasion, there is a tension around our ability to remember that which is innately difficult to express. Battlefields, genocides… How best to remember that which is so close to the unthinkable?

The only way to do this is surely to hold this question open.

England’s remembrance events consistently fail at all their attempts to do this — if they make any attempt at all. They say that history is written by the winners and, for us in this country — not just on this issue but across the board — that’s a real problem, not least because the history we write for ourselves is so reductive and confused (perhaps inevitably so).

If we look elsewhere, at those countries that have lost or otherwise suffered unfathomable losses, remembrance takes on a different tone and character. The unanswerable questions that surround trauma are carried forwards in ways that the arrogance of the winners so often loses in its generalised patriotic narratives. Even if that victory came at great cost, even if that victory was hard won and was its own kind of trauma, the roll such a victory plays in the strengthening of ideology reduces its impact. The victory itself becomes a superficial bandaid over the meaningless void of the horrors of war.

That’s been very clear today, watching the news coverage for the 75th anniversary of D-Day — the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. There’s all this pomp; all this celebration. It was a victory, after all. You’ve got Trump and Theresa May reading out first-hand experiences and war poetry in monotonous school-play tones. You’ve got news readers talking in one breath about how unimaginable the experience must have been but, rather than holding onto that, falling back on historical technicalities and interviewing modern army big wigs about the biggest operation of its kind in history; a huge military success.

What really stuck in my head in orbit of all this was the modern-day soldiers celebrating in Portsmouth with the veterans by holding what weirdly looks like an arms fair. (I tweeted about this earlier.)

These old boys are evidently having a lot of fun, and their visibly giddy with excitement getting to play with all these big 21st century toys — and who am I to say they can’t enjoy themselves — but, with all of the above in mind, it’s nonetheless a haunting image to me to broadcast on the television.

It’s ten years this year since Harry Patch, the “Last Tommy”, passed away at the age of 111. His voice was always the most sobering around moments of First World War remembrance — an ardent pacifist who seemed to hate war all the more for having fought in one, using his fame as one of the world’s oldest men ever only to denounce the celebration of war, repeatedly expressing his terror at what wars would undoubtedly become, infamously declaring: “The next world war will be chemical — I don’t want to see it.”

I had his words echoing around my head watching these World War II veterans gleefully handle the “tools of modern warfare.”

These men can do what they like but the spectacle of it, dominating the day’s rolling news footage, exacerbating the difference between how we consider the First and Second World Wars in our national news coverage, is striking to me now.

Just as Patch was the last surviving Flanders soldier to have fought in that war, the BBC news reader was keen to harp on about the mortality of these men. “These first-hand experiences won’t be around for much longer and we mustn’t forget them,” he declared at one point, but evidently those experiences are not the focus here. The focus is instead on the sheer scale of this military operation, providing the modern-day army with a PR opportunity and an fodder for inspiring troops in future conflicts.

We won the Second World War, you see, and defeated the greatest evil in modern European history, and that’s a story today’s troops must internalise. The patriotism and nationalism of that moment must be carried forwards — but not a patriotism belonging to the boys on the frontline; the patriotism of the donkeys leading the lions. Lest we forget that Churchill was more afraid of the Third Reich overtaking the British Empire as a global power than of defending anyone’s individual freedoms. Many British Conservatives admired Hitler until he threatened their own geopolitical egos. Churchill’s, then, was a victory for empire.

Whereas the First World War was more of a moot victory, defined by catastrophic losses and unfinished business — leading to a technical peace if not any lasting political calm for the countries affected by the conflict, failing to close the rupture — the Second World War is made to feel like a great bookend in the British national consciousness. Whilst other nations continued to struggle psychologically for years with the aftermath of that war, Britain forgets itself, in the south at least. The scars persisted elsewhere with there still being bomb sites you can visit in cities in the north of England, but these have become just another symbol of homegrown class struggle and neglect — a very different sort of life during wartime.

And so, the Second World War has been allowed to become a Hollywood war. The Normandy beaches are as much a Saving Private Ryan location tour as they are a place of pilgrimage and remembrance — and we’re all the lesser for it. It becomes a topic, a moment, an era that is easy to use, and we still see that today with our politicians using the language of frontline bravery, positioning themselves as freedom fighters, still in the name of an ever-dwindling Churchillian imperial ego.

It feels like whatever hubris the First World War gave us is lost to a story we might prefer to tell ourselves.

The closure of the wounds of World War Two in the British imagination, in favour of a nationalistic ideal, feels, to me, something like the closure of the American frontier, with the defeated continental man becoming alien to an English hubris. It renders the Normandy beaches as a literal line in the sand across which the nation’s unconscious has never since crossed, but that’s not to say such a crossing is impossible. It is a line in the sand in every sense — symbolically absolute, materially formless — and all days like today reveal is how successfully this vague line has nonetheless continued to flow across generations, effacing the stark message of the Last Tommy’s who would surely be repulsed if they were handed the tools of modern warfare, having hoped and prayed that there was some truth to “the war to end all wars”.