Battling with Technology: The Mystery of “The Human Slaughter-House”




WHEN AN ENGLISH-LANGUAGE TRANSLATION of Wilhelm Lamszus’s short novel The Human Slaughter-House hit shelves in the United States in 1913, newspapers and magazines offered up a kind of unadulterated praise rarely seen in critics’ columns. The Washington Post declared it “the most dreadful picture of the horrors of modern warfare ever penned,” while The Independent’s managing editor, Hamilton Holt, saw no need for the “modern war” qualifier, calling it “one of the most remarkable and powerful indictments of war ever written.” Holt ended his glowing review with an apology for his own shortcomings: “It cannot be adequately reviewed,” he wrote. “It must be read.” Other editors must have felt the same, because the book was made to speak for itself in generous excerpts in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlanta Constitution, and The Baltimore Sun, which excerpted it twice just, two weeks apart. (The second excerpt appeared as a letter to the Sun’s editor from a reader who’d been so moved by the book that he copied out a favorite chapter by hand and mailed it in.) Among the major American papers, only The Boston Daily Globe decided not to excerpt; instead, it serialized the entire book in two Sunday issues.

Subtitled Scenes from the War that is Sure to Come, the book prophesied the Great War a year before it was declared. The story begins with the nameless hero’s enlistment and ends with his losing his mind and shooting himself in the head: “I pull the trigger and fall over backward.” It’s not a well-written book, but its pages impressed readers with unprecedented destruction by new methods — machine guns, poison gases, and bombs dropped from the bellies of airplanes — that often drove mad those unlucky enough to survive.

My 1913 edition — a beautiful red hardcover as thin as a deck of cards, with a gold skull embossed below the gold-lettered title — contains among its introductory materials a commendation from the International Peace Congress in Geneva, praising the author for “having furnished the cause of peace with a weapon of considerable importance, and for having more especially made a very valuable gift to the cause of every pacifist.” Tributes like this abounded. It’s a wonder the world fell so deeply in love with a book it had misconstrued so fantastically.

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Wilhelm Lamszus was no pacifist. Before The Human Slaughter-House, he wrote an account of the Dutch Revolt of 1566, brimming with the pomp and circumstance of traditional warfare, with “halberds flashing in sunlight” and so forth. The scenes of the Dutch driving back the Spanish are fondly compared to the victories of Aryans over the Tartars and Huns, and of the British over Napoleon at Waterloo. The author’s only beef with war in 1913 was modernization. If Lamszus denigrates war, it is only to honor its older traditions, its epaulets and swords.

American reviewers wouldn’t have had to strain to dig up this work either, since it was reprinted in the prefatory materials of the English edition they had at hand. The Human Slaughter-House appeared in the run-up to a war Americans were loath to enter — and which they didn’t enter until it was nearly over. Reviewers saw the book they wanted to see.

The novel’s protagonist isn’t developed enough to be called a character, but functions well enough as a narrator, a pair of eyes through which to see the horrors of modern warfare. His thoughts dwell on the machine gun, a novelty as untested on the battlefield as the young troops who were tasked with firing it. The machine gun enabled a single soldier with limited training to murder in five minutes as many soldiers as died on both sides of the Battle of Fredericksburg, which lasted five days. “It is not a pleasant book,” wrote The New York Times, “but it does not exaggerate.”

Though the machine gun had been invented half a century earlier, no European army had taken it seriously. Such machines were thought to be dishonorable, robbing men of the opportunity for individual valor. But Lamszus rightly predicted it would star in the war to come. “Once it was a knightly death,” muses the protagonist, “now it is death by machinery.” If The Human Slaughter-House can be regarded as a pacifist work, it’s only on a technicality: in the machine age, the opposition to mechanized war is, de facto, opposition to war. Lamszus’s brand of pacifism, if we can call it that, sees the war to come as only the latest consequence of a century and a half of mechanization and dehumanization:

It is as though Death had scrapped his scythe for old iron; as if nowadays he had graduated as expert mechanic. They have ceased to mow corn by hand nowadays. By this time of day even the sheaves are gathered up by machinery. And so they will have to shovel our millions of bodies underground with burying machines.

Curse I cannot get rid of this hideous thought. It is always cropping up again. We have passed on from retail to wholesale methods of business.

The problem with the battlefield was the problem with the supermarket. Critics either missed or ignored the distinction between pacifism and technophobia, though the clues were there.

To be fair, Americans of the time were just acquiring a new, more skeptical posture toward technological progress, one we take for granted in the internet age. It took still another World War for the myth of progress to be debunked once and for all. In the years preceding the Great War, Americans had been generally optimistic about technology. The machinery of their time seemed, for the most part, to solve problems: electric light, the telegraph, air conditioning. But like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and other muckraking pieces on the excesses of industry, The Human Slaughter-House articulated a more complex relationship with technology, which both surprised and resonated with many readers in the first decade of the 20th century. As war loomed in Europe, the United States began to reckon with the implication of technologies that were changing their lives at breakneck speed — the automobile, the telephone, the radio, human flight. Lamszus’s slender book caught a wave of technophobia washing over the new century. Americans found themselves in a world of their own making, which had turned on its makers.

In The Human Slaughter-House, the battle with technology becomes literal. The first combat scene describes the narrator’s company “charging machines […] [a]nd the machines triumph deep into our very flesh. And the machine is draining the life-blood from our veins, and lapping it up in bucketfuls.” Lamszus’s soldiers understood that technology itself was their enemy, not those who wielded it: “We are no longer making war against men, but against picric acid and electric wires.” Throughout the book, human enemies remain unseen and largely unmentioned. In an early passage, soldiers are directed to take aim at the darkness of a forest out of which bursts the fire of machine guns. Elsewhere, warplanes glide invisibly overhead, and a frightened general orders his men to open fire upon the night sky. In the war to come, soldiers would battle forces as invisible and ubiquitous as progress itself.

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On the authority of its check-out slip, the copy I pulled from the Columbia University Library (their only exemplar) has been checked out precisely five times, and not at all since 1935. I waited three days for it to be retrieved from an off-site storage facility in New Jersey, where unpopular titles collect dust. It was in very fragile condition when it came to me, then suffered a broken spine from my constant references, and finally its cover came loose. It’s more likely to be discarded than repaired. The New York Public Library has a copy, also kept off-site. This book against modernization has become a casualty of modernization, available free on Amazon in editions comically riddled with errors, having been copied out by robot eyes.

There’s a moment in the story that confuses and excites me. Wondering at the efficiency of the guns that mow down his friends, the narrator makes the strangest of comparisons. In this moment of horror and bloodshed, the automatic guns become the automatic looms that swept over Europe exactly one century earlier. It’s a funny connection to make on a battlefield. Then again, it’s not.

When the mechanical loom was invented, the weavers who had been put out of work banded together, branding themselves “Luddites,” for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. These militias took up arms — axes, guns, makeshift cannons — and, under cover of night, destroyed looms faster than they could be produced. It wasn’t just their wages they fought for, but their children’s futures, since the knowledge of their craft was the only inheritance they could pass along. I wonder if Lamszus feared that soldiering would succumb to a similar fate, handed over to unskilled replacements without special pedigree or bravery.

The comparison of soldiers with weavers is a remarkably prescient anachronism. Although “Luddite” has now come to refer to anyone who opposes technological progress, it didn’t have this meaning when Lamszus wrote the book. It wasn’t until the ’60s, when computers overtook Manhattan’s office buildings and displaced countless white-collar workers, that “Luddite” took on its more expansive meaning. But here’s the connection, being made half a century earlier, in a novel embraced by a nation that soon forgot it.

The book was so quickly forgotten for the same reason that it gained such immediate fame. Books that rest on opposition to specific technologies have short shelf lives, growing obsolescent with the technologies they oppose. They age poorly almost by definition. We now live in a golden age of technophobic literature, most of it bound to be terribly embarrassing in 20 years time, or even sooner than that.

The problem with The Human Slaughter-House, then, is one of genre. Its central argument now seems quaint. If it had been the pacifist book it was believed to be, it may have enjoyed a place next to Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Émile Zola’s The Downfall, books it had once been compared to favorably. Though Luddism is as evergreen a theme as pacifism, it lacks continuity from generation to generation. The irony of Luddism — and the secret of its longevity — is that its ideal moment may be any time and always, but its manifestations expire as its particular targets obsolesce. We agree on nothing, really, when we agree with James Thurber that “progress is alright, only it went on too long.”

Perhaps this is why technophobia has proved so ineffective as a movement — even less effective than pacifism. Luddism is a religion in which paradise exists not far in the future but in the present, which immediately slips away. In fact, it is striking that Lamszus’s soldier identified with the Luddites who came before him, when the usual Ludditic impulse is to distinguish our technophobic impulses from those of our forebears.

The story of the world’s brief love affair with The Human Slaughter-House is the story of technophobic literature in general. If the book is still relevant, and I think it is, it’s as the biggest, earliest success of the modern Luddite genre, even if it wasn’t recognized as such in its time. One hundred years after The Human Slaughter-House, our shelves creak beneath breathless technophobic titles like Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology; Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other; The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains; and You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. In this context, it’s worth revisiting The Human Slaughter-House, perhaps the genre’s first real success, in order to restore a sense of continuity to the battle against progress, which is as old as progress itself.

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Alexander Landfair is an editor at Guernica and lecturer in writing studies at New York University. His work appears in Guernica, Narrative Magazine, The Missouri Review, and The Spoon River Poetry Review.


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