Tag Archives: WWII

“The Edifice of Peace”

The wife and kids and I spent last week at a cabin near Mendocino on the northern California coast, just down the road from what must be the world’s most scenically situated cemetery. If I could pick any place at all for my “long retirement,” the cemetery at Little River would be it. I’d order a custom-built casket with a window and periscope attached; in my earthy drawer beneath the pines I would decompose in perfect contentment with a view of the Pacific bluffs.

Mendocino was settled in the 1850s by New England logging families, Chinese laborers, and fishermen from the Azores. The Yankees left their mark in the town’s carpenter gothic architecture and converted water towers. The Chinese (whose numbers in the mid-1800s were greater than the total current population) built a Joss House, a Taoist temple, that still functions today. The Portuguese planted the otherworldly echium pininana that sprout twelve-foot-tall pink and purple floral towers, each of which could support whole colonies of bees and hummingbirds.

By the early years of World War II, when Japanese subs prowled off the coast, Mendocino was in decline. Later, James Dean’s East of Eden was filmed here, and several episodes of Murder She Wrote. Mendocino is sustained today by tourists motoring up Highway 1, by weekenders from the San Francisco Bay Area, and by the regular patronage of gray-market marijuana farmers who filter down from the woods when they need things like toilet paper or milk or a sit-down-and-talk at the local bar.

In the checkout line of the small grocery store in downtown Mendocino you can buy the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, but no celebrity gossip rags. You can buy superior tonic water for your evening cocktails and several types of gluten-free baked goods. Mendocino is that kind of place. Every restaurant down Lansing and Ukiah Streets serves local, organic foods. The coffee shop stocks organic almond milk for the dairy-intolerant. The toy store highlights products not made in China.

From the top of nearby Van Damme State Park we hiked through a “pygmy forest” where the acidic soil, without benefit of drainage from higher ridges, has stunted a dense growth of Mendocino Cypress, Pacific Rhododendron and Bishop’s Pine. Down a steep decline we came into the redwoods. Here wild clovers grow as big as a man’s hand. Butterflies, flapping drunkenly from pool to pool of light, tempt you off the path like fairies.

At the beach below the town bluffs we unexpectedly ran into some acquaintances. While we talked, the kids made friends with a local boy named “Monday” who liked to bury insects in the sand and watch them crawl out again. Next day, en route to the botanical gardens at Fort Bragg (where we would spot an osprey), we saw the beginning of a grass fire at the edge of the same beach. We pulled up to a hardware store and told them to call for help. When we drove by again several hours later the firefighters were still smothering the last patches of heat.

Back at the cabin, furnished in a 1940s theme, we cooked beans and rice and listened to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman records on vinyl, then watched (of all things) Back to the Future. It was, in every way, an escape from the present. There was no cell reception and I’d left my work computer at home. We drank in generous measures of quiet. The kids wanted to stay and breathe the salt air indefinitely, to give more time to the woods and beach, to dedicate themselves to chess and cards and drawing pictures. In full relaxation mode, my wife drank tea and read Stendhal while I drank tea and read Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and passages from Walden.

Framed on the walls of the cabin’s one bedroom were old photographs of the proprietor’s parents, a then-young Navy officer and his high school sweetheart. There were framed love letters they had written each other during the last months of WWII, as well as birth and baptismal certificates, a marriage license, and paper menus from hotels and restaurants where they had dined, back in the days when fifteen cents would buy you a slice of pie, and five cents a cup of coffee.

On the nightstand I found a short essay written in 1945 by the proprietor’s mother, in a pleasant cursive script without erasures. She had titled it “The Edifice of Peace” but the c in “peace” I at first mistook for an s. Intentional? I wondered if it were perhaps a playful rather than a serious exercise, but not at all. Drafted by a nineteen-year-old girl on the threshold of marriage and the armistice, it was written in an inspired spirit of charming, heroic naiveté.

“You and you and you,” it begins, “are the builders of tomorrow’s world. Out of the chaos and destruction of the war each one of you has a stone to build into the structure of peace. What sort of a structure are you going to build? Not the same as the last one, which has crumbled away so completely before the whip of Mars.”

“This time,” she resolved, “we shall not build our foundations on paper treaties.” I nod my agreement. The foundations of even a moment’s peace, it seems to me, can only be built on more substantial things – things like exhaustion, necessity, and desire. Sometimes we’re lucky with the materials at hand.

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Books and Bombs

Yesterday I finished the third movement of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  The trilogy of novels contained in this penultimate volume deals with the war years.  Nick Jenkins’ war, however, is not a clash of armies in the field but a war of familial dislocations, obscure provincial postings, and byzantine military bureaucracies.  It reminds me, in that respect, of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy.  It’s interesting that so much of the best writing about the war was done by this in-between generation, by persons like Waugh and Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge (in his Chronicles of Wasted Time) who were too young for the trenches in ‘14 but too old for most of the real fighting in WWII.

My own favorite passages from the third movement include the chapter in which Jenkins and Colonel Finn take their liaison charges on a tour of liberated Normandy and Belgium, and the long scene near the end of The Military Philosophers when Jenkins attends the victory service at St Paul’s.  Jules Renard once observed that it is when facing the prospect of death that men become most bookish.  This is perhaps borne out in the case of Jenkins who, faced with the mortal toll and the awful knowledge of what was only scarcely avoided by the survivors, can think of nothing but poetry, bits of Elizabethan Biblical phraseology, and snatches of rhyme from half-forgotten children’s books.

How readily you can relate to Jenkins’ instinctual retreat into words must say something about the sort of reader – and the sort of person – you are.  What exactly it says, I don’t know.  But I have myself felt the painful need, in horrible  moments, for a few favorite books.  When worldly circumstances threaten universal barbarism, words have a power to remind us that there is still some consolation in being human, that civilization and culture can still be personal possessions even when collectively renounced.  The sense of the term has shifted a little over the years, but I can’t help think that Dr Johnson’s definition of ‘Humanist’ holds up nicely: ‘A philologer; a grammarian.’

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Introducing Children to the Holocaust

I once met a woman whose job it had been to remove gold fillings from the mouths of the dead.  She was a small person with short dark hair and an accent, a younger friend of my grandmother, and it was by that gruesome occupation that she had survived the concentration camps.  I couldn’t shake the awful image of it.  I was eleven or twelve at the time; she must have been a girl about my own age then, turning over corpses with a pair of pliers in her hand.

My son worships Charlie Chaplin.  But he wasn’t sure, at seven years old, that The Great Dictator was a film he could appreciate.  I had explained to him that it satirized Adolf Hitler, a very bad man, and Nazi Germany at the beginning of the Second World War, which (I reminded him) two of his great-grandfathers had fought in.  “Maybe I should be a little older before I see it,” he said.  But we started the movie and by the time we reached Adenoid Hynkel’s macaronic speech under the banner of the “double cross” any hesitation had been conquered by hilarity.

He was baffled and disturbed, however, by the scenes in the ghetto when storm troopers marched through the streets painting ‘JEW’ on the windows.  They bullied shopkeepers and women and pushed and threatened Chaplin himself, in his role as the unnamed Jewish barber.  Why are they all being so terrible? he wanted to know.

I gave what could only feel like a weak explanation.  How, I wondered, does one go about introducing the idea of the Holocaust to a seven year old?  He knows something about the history of slavery in the United States, about President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation and the American Civil War.  But these things must seem far away compared to the horrible conflict that touched, one way or another, the lives of his parents’ own grandfathers.

We want to protect our children from damaging knowledge.  We also want them to understand the kind of world they live in.  The danger of the first is that we leave them defenseless in their innocence.  The danger of the second is that their souls are poisoned and they surrender later in life to that despairing notion Moses Herzog rails against in Bellow’s novel, that “the truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion.”

My grandmother’s friend never talked to children about the war, but she silently showed me the fading blue numbers the Nazi jailers had tattooed on her arm.  It’s less and less likely my children will ever meet survivors of the death camps.  But if there is a way of introducing the Holocaust to a child without at the same time depriving him of natural hope, perhaps Chaplin’s movie is it.  George Santayana wrote that “between the laughing and the weeping philosopher there is no opposition.”  Chaplin, I think, is proof of that.

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The Librarian of Auschwitz

To read Aeschylus or Shakespeare…as if the authority of the texts in our own lives were immune from recent history is subtle but corrosive illiteracy.  …We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.  To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant.  In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferrable to those of conduct?

~ George Steiner, Language and Silence

It may be impolite to say so, but it seems to me that intellectuals of the war generation frequently suffer from a too acute sense of historical exceptionalism.  Perhaps we find an example here.  Of course, in the mid-1960s -when Steiner wrote the above- the Second World War was a fresher scar than it is today, so some indulgences are granted.  But the idea seems to be that the events of the war, and the barbarity and suffering they entailed, were somehow qualitatively other (rather than quantitatively greater) than the human race had seen before.  According to this line of thought, the war brought to light facts of human depravity and moral fracture no prior generation had ever been forced to grapple with – such that all the past was forfeit and the religious, philosophical, and cultural wisdom of millennia was rendered irrelevant.

Should it be so surprising that a person can recite Goethe by heart or play a Bach prelude with a measure of skill and still be a monster?  It betrays an almost Victorian naiveté to think so.  A generation or two before Steiner, Paul Valery and Thomas Mann thought the First World War had stanched all such idealism – but the myth of the morally ennobling powers of western culture died a slow and sputtering death.  In fact, you can still hear it gurgling today, both among those on the right who continue to bluff faith in its innate superiority and those on the left who make it the West’s only evangelical task to lift the swarming masses of the third world up from poverty and ignorance into the liberating glory of consumerist post-modernity.

In J.G. Farrell’s Booker Prize winning The Siege of Krishnapur, the character of Mr Hopkins is disappointed by the failure of western culture to ennoble, as he saw it, the lives and minds of colonial India’s subject population.  “Culture is a sham” he finally concludes. “It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness.”  We needn’t be so completely embittered as that.  But it’s certainly true that the noblest achievements of art and culture do not in themselves confer nobility on their appreciators or chart a progress up from barbarism to any summits of moral refinement.  Something more is required.  The products of a culture are not that culture itself, after all, but they are just that: its products.  They reflect the biases and obsessions and conflicting impulses of a particular people at a particular time, laboring under influences that are often obscure, as well as the constant, unfudge-able human nature that is the same everywhere and at all times.  They are not entirely without the ability to influence, but that ability is gravely limited even within the culture from which they are born, and they work no alchemy on the hard core of the heart.

Lest we fool ourselves, it’s precisely the fact that the same person can recite poetry in the evening and wake in the morning to return to work at Auschwitz that is at once our utter condemnation and our glory.  To hold these two possibilities in tension, albeit unconsciously, is to be human.  The truest and greatest products of art and culture, like the most profound insights of religion and philosophy, reflect that paradox.  This same vexed and violent, despairing wretch, Man, is also Shakespeare’s quintessence of dust godlike in apprehension, infinite in faculties and noble in reason – the most maddeningly contradictory of creatures.

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