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.

No comments: