Monday, September 26, 2016

Musings on War

I've encountered several articles on Auden thus far in going through old copies of the NYROB.  Most reviewers are critical of Auden for "fleeing" to America in 1939.  In a review of a book on Christopher Isherwood, who "fled" with Auden, the reviewer, Christopher Hitchens, writes, "Their departure for America was widely construed as an act of desertion if not of cowardice.  In his Munich-era novelette Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh lampooned the pair as 'Parsnip and Pimpernel.'  He went slightly further than the insinuation of funk: 'What I don't see is how these two can claim to be contemporary if they run away from the biggest event in contemporary history.'"

For James Joyce the "Great War" was "the biggest event in contemporary history" and yet he wasn't interested in it.  He had better things to do; which puzzles his reviewers, but they don't criticize Joyce in the way they do Auden and Isherwood.  Joyce was all over the place, flitting here and there -- just one great Freudian study.  His disinterest in the Great War is but one puzzle among many.

After Vietnam turned "fleeing war" into a positive thing to do, I'm surprised that reviewers don't let up on Auden.  One reviewer I read recently apologized for Auden's behavior by saying Auden wasn't fleeing, he had fallen in love with an American and was scurrying off to be with him.

This review is after all about Isherwood, mostly (Christopher Isherwood: Diaries, Volume One: 1939-1960), and Hitchens quotes, "One morning on deck, it seems to me, I turned to Auden and said: 'You know, I just don't believe in any of it any more -- the united front, the party line, the antifascist struggle.  I suppose they're okay, but something's wrong with me.  I simply can't swallow another mouthful.'  And Auden answered: 'No, neither can I.'  . . . In a few sentences, with exquisite relief, we confessed our mutual disgust at the parts we had been playing and resolved to abandon them, then and there.  We had forgotten our real vocation.  We would be artists again, with our own values, our own integrity, and not amateur socialist agitators, parlor reds.'"

But Isherwood's sense of guilt over abandoning England in its war against Germany wouldn't leave him.  Hitchens tells us that the first third of his diary is "preoccupied almost exclusively with the working out of these themes."  Believing as I do that we have been "influenced" by our 200,000-year-old-Specie existence and that for most of this time, and even before in the specie we evolved from, young men rushed to defend the tribe in time of need.  Maybe Joyce, so occupied with his art, didn't feel (or was able to ignore) this need, but Isherwood obviously felt it.  Philosophy and politics aren't necessary.  The bugle (or some equivalent) blows and you grab your spear, rush from your tent and confront the foe with the rest of your tribe.  I'm convinced that most people feel this need, or at least concern, and if they choose not to answer it then there will be (as Freud would say) a payment that the superego will exact.

Maybe I'm more interested in this subject because of what I did.  At age 17  I rushed into the Marine Corps to fight a war before I knew anything; which is just the sort of lads military forces look for.  Knowing something about philosophy or politics isn't a requirement.  What if I had managed get to the front and had an arm or leg lopped off, would I still feel the way I do now?  I wonder.  On the other hand, by rushing into the Marine Corps I have avoided the Isherwood angst.  No soul-searching for me.  I grabbed my spear, rushed from my tent and stood ready to defend my tribe.  The other members of my tribe could have looked and they would have seen me there.  Thus I avoided receiving the sort of criticism that Waugh directed toward Isherwood and Auden.  And I avoided the time it would take to fill one third of Isherwood's 1,048 volume "Diaries" justifying myself.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pede, 1934-1979



    Someone might call and ask
    What Pede did in years
    Past, or he might timidly
    Not.  I could write in
    Readiness with whatever I
    Remember happening
    But it will be faint,

    A dim recollection
    Without time or reference:
    We often walked
    Miles or rode the bus
    To Long Beach and
    The Pike.  No one ever
    Bothered us having nothing

    Anyone wanted and being
    Of no interest which was
    An excellent cover for our
    Slips and slides, hiding out of
    The way.  I’ll describe the musty
    Rumblings and of heat induced
    Mirages almost finding us out.


    The shimmering other end of the grinder
    Was the goal, the lesson our DI
    Taught and the two sent there to
    Find the swatted fly became
    Indistinguishable from all the other
    Waves of heat hovering in the
    Transparent river.  We with our

    Blinking watering eyes could but
    Watch.  They would find a proper fly
    And bring it back in its black box for
    The proper Marine Corps burial, killed as
    The DI said in performance of its
    Duty as we were expected to
    In the same way if a day

    Like this one when heat
    Erupted in gunfire or bomb
    Blasts, and we who have
    Lasted think back at the
    Times we might have stumbled
    And not even seen the
    Black box that carried us.


    He sat atop the popcorn
    Machine to watch the fight,
    Complaining later of the melee.
    It was toppled, the machine with him
    On board.  Moderately bruised
    And bloody I later listened as
    I Always did to his view

    Of what occurred: Walter
    Knocking aside the stick that
    Hit him, my laughing, the
    Challenge and all that happened
    Out behind the cafeteria.  He
    Though was of milder stuff;
    Yet all my talk of the Marines

    Got him thinking he needed
    To prove himself to himself.
    Life atop a popcorn machine
    While his best friend outnumbered
    Ten to one was beaten
    Chafed until he sought the
    Recruiter with trembling steps.


    A fair-skinned Dane on a Californian
    Sea, on a boat he built and sailed
    Not far from shore, heeling
    Over, catching the sun and sea
    On his fair forehead, setting store
    On what was made with his two hands,
    He held the tiller and main-sail sheet

    Tight in the slight chop
    And fifteen knots of wind,
    But if one watches the sun
    Another hour, there
    Will be a freshening, a
    Singing in the shrouds
    And trembling in the stays.

    He used no anchor,
    Sailing with great care up
    To the dock, sometimes losing
    His temper when the timing
    Was off, the sea out of key,
    The grating scrape of the bow
    On barnacles black as the deep sea.


    He wouldn’t make less of life
    In the face of death, rising
    As he did sun-burned and ruddy
    From a porch to look out
    At the gentle sloshing of waves
    Upon the sand.  He’d go
    Out each day to swim.

    Free-diving as I began anew,
    Well settled and with the time,
    I sought him out but he declined.
    The photo he sent me in Korea,
    Kneeling before speared-fish
    Had passed.  He smiled,
    Lifted his glass as he recalled.

    How could the look of death
    Make any less of that?
    Kierkegaard for anxiety and
    Dickinson in a nut shell.  Hell
    Held no terror.  His attention
    Drifted back to his curtain now
    Fluttering in a freshening breeze.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Walter Benjamin, military duty, and suicide

From the Adam Kirsch review of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life:

By 1914 Benjamin "was a university student, embarking on what would prove to be several of the most important relationships of his life.  This included his romance with Dora Pollak, whom he married in 1917, and his intellectually crucial friendship with Gersom . . . Scholem, whom he first met at a pacifist lecture in 1915.  During this time Benjamin avoided the draft through a series of ruses -- pretending to have palsy, drinking black coffee all night to induce tremors -- and in 1917 he was able to move to Switzerland.  Clearly he was an outright opponent of the war, and never seemed to feel a duty to enlist, as most young men of his generation did. . . ."

"Once he abandoned the activism of his student days, Benjamin seems to have immediately adopted the attitude that would define the rest of his life -- a kind of passive resistance to public life.  Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life makes clear how intimately Benjamin's biography was shaped by the history of Europe during his lifetime.  Yet he seems to have passed through these events -- the Bolshevik Revolution, the Weimar Republic, inflation, the rise of fascism, and the promise of communism -- as a guarded, detached observer, in keeping with a personality that preferred interpretation to action.

"His very bearing, Scholem recalled, seemed like a plea for anonymity: Benjamin 'dressed with studied unobtrusiveness, and was usually bent slightly forward.  I don't think I ever saw him walk erect with his head held high.'"

Comment:  I have a sort of Darwinian Freudian prejudice in regard to military service.  Young men for the 200,000 years or so that our specie has existed, and even before that, have had a duty to help defend the tribe.  If through teaching or genetic predisposition that duty still exists in most (some?) of us, and we refuse to fulfill that duty, Freud would say that we will be punished.  Our superego will see to that.  In previous discussions I mentioned encountering men who were quick to explain why they couldn't serve in the military during a war.  They believed in that duty and the fact that they hadn't fought required an explanation.  They at least believed that if one could serve, one ought to.  In Benjamin's case he was apparently influenced by pacifist arguments, but could they truly justify his refusing to serve?  The biographers Eiland and Jennings don't generalize about the effects of refusing military service, but they do suggest that it had an effect on Benjamin: "bent slightly forward" and never seen to "walk erect with his head held high." 

"Eiland and Jennings make a convincing case that Benjamin's suicide in the fall of 1940 was not, as Arendt suggested, yet another of his blunders, but the natural outcome of a long struggle.  Benjamin's depression had led him to seriously consider suicide as early as 1932 . . .  When war was declared in September 1939, the ailing Benjamin was interned by the French government, . . By the time he tried to cross the Spanish border, the forty-eight-year-old Benjamin could barely manage the journey without suffering a heart attack.  The news that the border was closed, it seems clear, was only the last straw, breaking his will to carry on with an increasingly difficult struggle. . . ."

Comment:  Hannah Arendt was only 34 when she crossed the border Benjamin failed to cross.  Perhaps the older Benjamin, unhealthy, with (as seems to be suggested) a bad heart, and with (as is also suggested) clinical depression was so fearful of what he thought his certain fate that he couldn't face it.  There is a hint, at least in the Adam Kirsch review, that had Benjamin served in the Army in World War One, he would have had the "force" to have survived the threat that most others who crossed that border survived.  Was it possible to go away for a few days and then try to cross the border again?  Arendt, Eiland and Jennings hint at something like that -- that Benjamin made a mistake and committed suicide when he could have made it across the border with a little more effort.

Another factor in Benjamin's survival difficulties was that he had not been raised to fend for himself.  It was assumed that he would get his PhD and teach in a University, but anti-Semitic policies kept him from that; then when his father lost his money in the crash of 29  his never having had to "work" made it difficult for him to find a job.  One can become depressed just reading about Benjamin.   I tried to put myself in Benjamin's position but failed.  My own background was very different.  I got a paper route when I was 12 and in the intervening years before I entered the Marine Corps, I worked summers for a company that delivered watermelons to stores.  At other times I stoked boilers for a Dry Kiln company and then my last job was working on the docks salvaging parts of clocks after a warehouse fire.  I was "stacker" (the most prestigious watermelon job), and "foreman" during the salvaging operation; so I didn't lack confidence.  My "jobs" were not forced upon me by my parents, but they didn't have much money; so if I wanted some I had to earn it.  I was expected however to "contribute" to the family coffers when I was working.  In retrospect that pre-USMC work made me more adept and confident in the Marine Corps.  I usually think my Marine Corps experience made me confident in college and subsequently in Engineering, but the earlier jobs probably helped as well.   I noticed another contrast from the article.  I apparently continued to walk like a Marine when I worked at Douglas Aircraft and one person sarcastically referred to me as the "commandant." 


Monday, September 5, 2016

Curtain Call

    In the last moment as the curtain
    Fell, he ran up out of the audience
    Shouting obscenely.  Ushers rushed
    down, grabbed and escort him
    Outside.  We in the cast were
    Shaken.  The fury unlike
    Anything in the play.

    This surprising violence was
    Like someone rushing out from
    A dark alley when we expected
    Only an unhurried walk to our cars
    And slow rides home.  Light
    Flashes, images explode one
    After the other, Gavrilo Princip

    Rushing out to the Archduke’s
    Car; John Wilkes Booth
    Slipping into Lincoln’s box.
    “Sic semper tyrannis.”  But
    We were mere actors sticking
    To the script.  He was taken
    And we were bewildered.

    The lights finally dimmed.
    We strained minds wondering 
    Why us, what had we done?
    Why me or any I knew?  All
    The same, acting too much
    To offend, and yet he fumed
    With fists raised.  He knew

    Something shouting, we knew
    Nothing.  Why did he hate us?
    What had any of us done?  We
    Were small when we stepped
    Out from behind the lights.  Our
    Gaits unsteady as the real world
    Rushed toward us far too fast.