Spectres of Time: Seeing Ghosts in Will Bird’s Memoirs and Abel Gance’s J’accuse


Harold Innis blamed radio for upsetting the spatial bias of a civilization founded on the book, much as printing had upset the temporal bias of medieval manuscript culture. It was silent cinema, however, that introduced a new past-progressive-present tense in the grammar of existence, leading to lasting disturbances in modern culture. Two classic Great War films, Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919) and Geoffrey Malins’ The Battle of the Somme (1916) reveal the range of tensions. Fulfilling the promise of his medium in “The Return of the Dead” sequence where a host of soldiers returns to life on screen, Gance made time a visible dimension of film. While British audiences responded to Malins’ film in analogous fashion, soldiers recognized in this “industrial process film” (Michael Hammond) their true place in a closed line of production. The ensuing postwar battle between closed and “infinite” temporalities would lead to the canonization of anti-war novels such as those of Remarque and Harrison, while memoirs such as those of the Nova Scotian Will Bird, which resembled Gance’s film in its view of “ghostly” time, fell out of sight until 1968, when Bird revised his memoir in an implicit defense of print values.

This article “Spectres of Time: Seeing Ghosts in Will Bird’s Memoirs and Abel Gance’s J’accuse” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 113-30.

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