Deborah Gyapong: J. Mark Bertrand on tanks and Casanova

J. Mark Bertrand on tanks and Casanova

My bedtime reading for the past week has alternated between Patrick Wright's social history of the tank -- titled, appropriately enough, Tank -- and a slender volume by Casanova called The Duel, an account of a fight the famous libertine had over a ballerina in Warsaw. It should be clear from this combination that I'm reading without a plan. Oddly enough, the material has started to merge in my head, perhaps because I'm reminded once again how very different people in the past really were. What are we to make of a world in which a man answers the charge of cowardice by offering to let the accuser murder him? What are we to make of people who send wave after wave of young men pointlessly "over the top," then wake up the next day and do it all over again? Both of these choices are inconceivable today, and it's hard to regret their passing.

According to Wright, when tanks first rolled onto the battlefield, a curious melding of art and life took place. "It quickly became conventional," he writes, "to describe the tank in terms borrowed from the European avant-garde." The tank was dubbed by one author a "gigantic cubist steel slug." Indeed, the whole war came to be seen through a Cubist lens:

"Gertrude Stein remembered standing with Picasso on the Boulevard Raspail in Paris during the early days of the war; a camouflaged truck went by and Picasso immediately hailed it as an outcome of Cubism. In fact, she claimed in the nineteen-thirties, the entire ‘composition’ of the Great War had been Cubist . . . ” (p. 55)

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