Saturday, March 30, 2013

Hold Your Horses

When I wrote "How My Dad Won the War" last month, which was a rebuttal to Oliver Stone's asinine contention that the Russians won World War Two, I may have inadvertently given ammunition to one of the hoariest claims of Conservative American politics - that America not only made the difference in the war against Hitler (which is true), but that America was - as in 1918 - the savior of the free world.

I was made aware of this when Richard Feldman, President of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, Inc., made just such a claim on Piers Morgan Tonight last week. After Morgan criticized the NRA's zealous defense of the Second Amendment, his guest reminded him, in ridiculously condescending terms, that Americans saved Britain from certain conquest by their timely intervention in World War Two, and that Morgan should simply say, "thank you" and stop criticizing them.

The entry of the United States into the European war was so timely, in fact, that we almost missed it. Most Americans don't seem to recall, or would rather forget, that World War Two raged for twenty-seven months before the United States finally made up its mind to participate. For most of that time, public opinion was divided over whose side America should take in the war. Much was being made of George Washington's warning against "foreign interventions".

After provocative moves by Hitler that could have started the war, like the re-occupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss of Austria, and the annexation and occupation of the Czech Sudetenland, which only resulted in the most shameful appeasement of Hitler by Britain and France, it took an invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 to finally compel the Allies to declare war on Germany. Not a signatory of any European treaty, the United States stood by and watched the progress of the war, while FDR clandestinely supplied armaments to Britain. Powerful political movements in America argued against intervention in another European war. Isolationism was seriously debated, while Hitler's armies conquered Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and then France. Rather than launch an amphibious invasion, the Battle of Britain was fought in the air. With France neutralized, the British Royal Navy and Air Force stood alone against Hitler for a year and a half.

In his novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagined an America in which the isolationist movement won. In the novel, Charles Lindbergh, who was actually a proto-Nazi and friendly with Adolf Hitler (see photo), runs for president in 1940 on the Republican ticket - and defeats FDR. Once in office, Lindbergh pulls American naval forces out of Asia, eliminating what the Japanese perceived to be a threatening presence, and averting their decision on December 7, 1941 to attack Pearl Harbor. All munitions shipments to Britain are halted. Anti-Semitic groups become more assertive and American Jews are interned in camps. With only the British and Russians to oppose him, Hitler is poised to solidify his conquest of Europe.

As far-fetched as Roth's plot may sound today, his novel is a powerful cautionary tale against the belief that America is the sole arbiter of justice in the world. There was very real opposition to American intervention in Europe. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and FDR declared a state of war against the Empire of Japan, Germany didn't wait for Roosevelt, and declared war on America first. More than three years later, on May 8, 1945 (VE Day), America was the recognized leader of the free world - if only because every other European country was in ruins and bankrupt. Contrary to Conservative efforts to keep the United States out of the war for twenty-seven months, America brought the war to a successful conclusion. It might have done so a whole lot sooner, with a great deal less destruction, if it hadn't waited so long to act.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


One morning in the late 1960s, my mother was sitting on the steps of a courthouse in Columbia, South Carolina. She was looking in the direction of the state capitol building, at the dome that rises above the pine trees, and noticed three flags flying on the pole. On top was the Stars and Stripes, then came the South Carolina state flag, all indigo except for a white palmetto tree and a crescent moon, and a flag she'd never seen before at the bottom. She asked a policeman standing nearby her what the flag was and what it stood for.

"That's the Stars and Bars, ma'am," the policeman told her. When he noticed that this wasn't enough of an explanation for my mother, he added: "It's the Confederate flag - the flag of the South from the War Between the States."

"You mean, the Civil War?" my mother asked. The policeman smiled and asked her if she was from the South.

"Oh, no," she assured him. "I'm from Ohio." She waited a moment and then, still puzzled by the presence of the flag atop the State House, said to the policeman, "But that was a hundred years ago. The South lost - the war's over."

The policeman shook his head and insisted, "No ma'am. It ain't!"

In his essay in The New Republic, “The Lost Cause and the Won Cause: Abraham Lincoln in politics and the movies.”(1) Sean Wilentz writes of how the American Civil War has been sentimentalized or downright distorted in American films by people who have tried to portray the conflict as a "war between the states," over nothing more than states' rights, and not a fight over the abolition of slavery, one of the original sins of the United States. For Wilentz, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is a great film that is a direct rebuke to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, made nearly a century before it, and which introduced to the motion picture medium the calculatedly (and grotesquely) false picture of a Civil War between either morally equal parties or one industrially superior side over another whose failure was simply to have been economically disadvantaged (all that unskilled labor, you see).

I attacked The Birth of a Nation more than three years ago for its stubborn refusal to go away. The case for the movie as a motion picture landmark is secure, but its content is compromised by its distortions of both history and morality in the portrayal of a "heroic" antebellum South filled with cheerful slaves and save owners cavorting in a bucolic paradise, destroyed by the greed and envy of Yankees. The heroes of Griffith's movie are the Ku Klux Klan, riding to the rescue in the film's last reel. Like Leni Riefenstahl's hymn to Nazism, Triumph of the Will, no one would think of screening The Birth of a Nation without grave disclaimers.

The Greeks were the first to extend nobility to their enemies, not just in their poetry and drama, but in their histories. In The Iliad, Homer presents the Trojans as so noble in in their destruction that the Romans made one of them, Aeneas, their national founder. (Not to be outdone, Geoffrey of Monmouth named a descendant of Aeneas, Brutus, as the founder of Britain.) But the Trojan War wasn't fought over one side's right to buy and sell slaves.

In 2003, and otherwise misguided and mediocre movie, Gods and Generals, was released to almost universal disfavor. 219 minutes long in its theatrical release (a director's cut runs to 280), its attempts to tell the story of the Civil War largely from the perspective of two generals - Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, played by Stephen Lang, and Joshua Thomas Chamberlain, played by Jeff Daniels. In its attempt to represent the war in a "balanced" manner, it inadvertently reminded me of the German film Stalingrad, which concentrated on the Wehrmacht's decidedly unheroic fate in the battle. While it was somewhat interesting to see the battle from the German perspective, I was a little puzzled by the motives behind its making. Of course, those motives would've been far more questionable had the film been about a decisive German victory. But what it unintentionally accomplished was to romanticize the "lost cause" of Stalingrad.

If the cause for which any soldier gives up his life is wrong, as wrong as the South's insistence on preserving and expanding slavery, then is his sacrifice futile? I think we can accept the honor of an ordinary soldier dying in combat, even when the strategic goals of his commanders are dishonorable. But how much distance is there between a Wehrmacht soldier fighting in Stalingrad and an SS guard at Auschwitz?

Another problem with trying to represent a war as a conflict among equals, as Gods and Generals does so pointedly (even the colors of the uniforms - which one would expect to be blue - Union - or grey - Confederate - are mixed up) is that it wants us to accept the notion that it doesn't really matter who wins. This is actually the view of pacifists, that war itself is evil but that fighting requires taking sides when, in war, neither side is in sole possession of good or evil.

The purpose, I gather, behind Gods and Generals, was to portray the American Civil War as a bloody conflict among neighbors or even brothers - states, whole communities committing themselves to one another's destruction. What the approach tries to obscure is the reason for the war, and, crucially, the right side and the wrong side. (2)

This is not only historically muddled, since the winning or losing of a battle has immediate and far reaching consequences. It is morally muddled as well. Sure, history is written by the winners, but there is also something we must cling to called objective truth, which neither absolute victory or defeat in war can obliterate. It is despite - not because of - the North's victory over the South that makes it shockingly clear that the South was fighting for, not a "lost" cause, but an immoral cause. I think it's fairly safe to believe that the world is a better place because Nazi Germany and the Confederacy lost.

Gods and Generals might have been more favorably received, I think, if it hadn't tried to tell the whole story along parallel lines. Clint Eastwood actually accomplished what Gods and Generals intended to do: presenting a war (or, in this case, a significant battle) from the unbiased perspective of both sides. Eastwood's success was due to his surprising decision - for a director in his mid-70s - to tell both sides of the story separately, in two quite different films instead of using the tired technique, à la Tora! Tora! Tora!, of intercutting scenes of Americans and Japanese characters on either side of the battle. As Stanley Kauffmann observed, "To my knowledge no previous set of pictures [Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima] showed both sides of a conflict: war as the collision of two humanized groups, each group trained to kill the other group."(3)

A day may come, a few centuries hence, when the American Civil War can be looked at dispassionately, like Hastings or Agincourt. It is partly because, 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years since the Civil Rights movement, we can still see the effects of the war's outcome all around us. Perhaps when we can finally agree about the real purpose of the war (once and for all, it was Lincoln's refusal to permit the expansion of slavery to new territories that provoked Southern secession), and get over its outcome (which was a "more perfect union"), these old wounds can finally begin to heal.

Postcript: In one scene from Gods and Monsters the action of a brilliant American short film called A Time Out of War (1954), directed by Denis Sanders, is "borrowed". To my knowledge, the borrowing went uncredited.

(1) The New Republic, December 31, 2012.
(2) If only Gods and Generals were a halfway decent movie, its questionable political agenda might've been more compelling, if not convincing.
(3) The New Republic, January 29, 2007.

Monday, March 18, 2013

That Oceanic Feeling

"I remember once, coming back from Italy, half an hour after Gibraltar, and just as we were passing the coast of Spain, with a vista magnificent and ever changing, how most of the passenger list had hastened below decks to see Jackie Coogan. There is no proverb about the ears and eyes of people being the ears and eyes of God." (Stark Young, "Greta Garbo", 1932)

Since the surprise announcement last month of Pope Benedict's abdication and the Vatican's bustle to elect Pope Francis, I have been once more amazed by the attention it has received from the international press. Watching St. Peter's Square fill up with people is commonplace. It's a popular tourist destination for anyone in Rome. But watching how much live coverage of it could be found on all the major TV news channels was surprising.

However "historic" the abdication of Benedict was, it isn't quite the same as a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event that some people choose to observe or to sleep through. As a lapsed Catholic (since 1978), I am much less interested in the arcane goings-on in the Vatican than the average person. If the joy expressed by the multitudes in St. Peter's Square last week seemed a little more spontaneous this time than it did in 2005, or even those strange back-to-back Papal elections in 1976, it may have more to do with the anxiety that the Vatican's recent history has induced in the faithful.

I felt impelled, as perhaps I always do by such spectacles, to recall the words of Sigmund Freud in the first chapter of his magnificent book, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Freud addressed the comments made to him by one of his correspondents, the French dramatist Romain Rolland, about one of the most important qualities of religious experience, namely the "oceanic" feeling that it brought about in its practitioners (Rolland was also a follower of Hindu mysticism.)

"I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded - as it were, 'oceanic'. This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion."

Freud then goes on to state that:

"The views expressed by the friend whom I so much honor, and who himself once praised the magic of illusion in a poem, caused me no small difficulty. I cannot discover this 'oceanic' feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings. One can attempt to describe their physiological signs. Where this is possible - and I am afraid that the oceanic feeling too will defy this kind of characterization - nothing remains but to fall back on the ideational content which is most readily associated with the feeling. If I have understood my friend rightly, he means the same thing by it as the consolation offered by an original and somewhat eccentric dramatist to his hero who is facing a self-inflicted death. 'We cannot fall out of this world.' That is to say, it is a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole."

Freud spends the next several paragraphs examining what the term 'oceanic' could possibly mean to an individual who experiences it, from whence the feeling may derive in psychological terms, and its possible value. He concludes, in what I think is one of the most revelatory paragraphs ever written about the importance of scientific exploration of the inner and outer universes (italics mine):

"I can imagine that the oceanic feeling became connected with religion later on. The 'oneness with the universe' which constitutes its ideational content sounds like a first attempt at a religious consolation, as though it were another way of disclaiming the danger which the ego recognizes as threatening it from the external world. Let me admit once more that it is very difficult for me to work with these almost intangible quantities. Another friend of mine, whose insatiable craving for knowledge has led him to make the most unusual experiments and has ended by giving him encyclopedic knowledge, has assured me that through the practice of Yoga, by withdrawing from the world, by fixing the attention on bodily functions and by peculiar methods of breathing, one can in fact evoke new sensations and coenaesthesias in oneself, which he regards as regressions to primordial states of mind which have long ago been overlaid. He sees in them a physiological basis, as it were, of much of the wisdom of mysticism. It would not be hard to find connections here with a number of obscure modifications of mental life, such as trances and ecstasies. But I am moved to exclaim in the words of Schiller's diver: -

' . . . Es freue sich,
Wer da atmet im rosigten Licht.'

('Let him rejoice who breathes up here in the roseate light!')

Friday, March 8, 2013

Centenary of a Poem, a Time, and a Love

If anyone wants to know how fallible the Nobel Prize for Literature can be, he need go no further than Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who was eligible for consideration for the prize for twenty seven years, but was never awarded one. No other 20th century poet inspired so many other great poets as Hardy did. His influence can be traced, directly or indirectly, through many of the so-called Georgians, like Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as the generation of poets after them, like Auden and Philip Larkin. He was always best known as a novelist, but he always wrote poetry. His first collection, Wessex Poems, published in 1898, contains poems written as far back as 1865.

He wrote much more poetry after he abandoned novel writing after the reception of Jude the Obscure. When his wife Emma died in 1912, after 38 years of marriage, he wrote a series of poems about her and about how they met. Most of these were published in his collection Satires of Circumstance. But a few others were saved for publication in his massive collections, Moments of Vision (1919) and Late Lyrics (1922).

Two of the poems written in 1913 seem like sisters, "A Night in November" and "Something Tapped". They capture an especially Gothic mood - apt for such an expert as Hardy in Gothic architecture:

A Night in November

I marked when the weather changed,
And the panes began to quake,
And the winds rose up and ranged,
That night, lying half-awake.

Dead leaves blew into my room,
And alighted upon my bed,
And a tree declared to the gloom
Its sorrow that they were shed.

One leaf of them touched my hand,
And I thought that it was you
There stood as you used to stand,
And saying at last you knew!

(?) 1913

"Something Tapped"

Something tapped on the pane of my room
When there was never a trace
Of wind or rain, and I saw in the gloom
My weary Belovèd's face.

"O I am tired of waiting," she said,
"Night, morn, noon, afternoon;
So cold it is in my lonely bed,
And I thought you would join me soon!"

I rose and neared the window-glass,
But vanished thence had she:
Only a pallid moth, alas,
Tapped at the pane for me.

August 1913

The placement of that "alas" in the third stanza captures the depth of Hardy's regret. It's the same feeling evoked by an 18th-century haiku by Boson:

The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife's comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel . . .

Hardy wrote one of the poems in this same vein a hundred years ago today:

"It Never Looks Like Summer"

"It never looks like summer here
On Beeny by the sea."
But though she saw its look as drear,
Summer it seemed to me.

It never looks like summer now
Whatever weather's there;
But ah, it cannot anyhow,
On Beeny or elsewhere.

March 8, 1913

The following year saw the beginning of the First World War, which merely confirmed Hardy's fatalistic mood. The best young poets who went to war, Graves, Sassoon, Blunden, Owen, who saw the disaster first hand, proudly acknowledged the influence of Hardy.

One hundred years ago. I wonder how the prospect from Beeny Cliff looks today?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Revolution Impersonated

Why does almost every revolution need a figurehead, a leader, a dictator? I suppose that it is a very human phenomenon, but it is a mistake. Since the English Civil War, which became associated with Oliver Cromwell, people have handed power over to individuals, who usually end up abusing it. In the 20th century, it became quite boringly predictable that every revolution should result in a dictatorship of some kind. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Allende, and now Chavez, have become so closely associated in their followers' minds with the revolutions they took part in that the fate of the revolutions themselves became wrapped up with their individual fates. Communists believe, naively, that the Bolzhevik Revolution in Russia turned sour when Lenin died (Trotsky claimed that Stalin had poisoned him). For several years, people have been waiting for Fidel Castro to die, and tyranny in Cuba with him. I'm afraid that his friend in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, may precede Castro.

This is what was once called the Cult of Personality. But why is it that so many revolutions, intended to bring an end to tyranny, nearly always devolve into power struggles between individuals who want nothing but to become tyrants themselves? It is a contradiction of both democracy and of socialism, in which "the people" are supposed to rule.  Are people merely too stupefied from oppression to know the difference? Are they so unused to self-rule that they're incapable of running their own lives? Look at what is happening in Russian today. And think of what may happen soon in China.

But what will become of Chavez's revolution in Venezuela? The people - businessmen and landowners - whom he removed from power are probably awaiting a return to the saddle. But the majority of ordinary Venezuelans who have benefited the most from Chavez's reforms may not see it that way. Who will they find to replace their beloved leader? And will his replacement honor his memory and the revolution he led?

The Philippines recently (February 25) celebrated the anniversary of the 1986 "People Power" revolt that toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos's regime and inaugurated a new era of democratic rule. Unfortunately, that bloodless coup swept another oligarchal family (the Aquino-Cojuancos) into power. The son of Cory Aquino, current President Benigno Aquino III, was on hand on the anniversary to reiterate the aims - if not the consequences - of People Power. His presence as Philippine head of state does not speak well for democracy.

The imminent demise of Hugo Chavez - "fighting for his life" as I write these words - put me in mind of a 1996 movie called Carla's Song. Starring Robert Carlyle as George, a bus driver in Glasgow, he meets and falls in love with a Nicaraguan woman, Carla, who is lovely and full of life. But George senses that she is troubled by something in her past. When he agrees to accompany her to her homeland, he discovers the true depths of her troubles.

In March 2000, I wrote about the movie in my journal:

Having sat through Ken Loach's film, Carla's Song, which is - roughly - about a young Scotsman's unfortunate affair with a Nicaraguan woman he meets in his native Glasgow, I'm faced with the same question poor George (the Scotsman, played by Robert Carlyle) must have asked himself at the end of his adventure with Carla: was this trip necessary?

If there is anyone left in the Western world [with me now ensconced in the Eastern one] who needs his eyes opened about the embroilment of the CIA in various revolutions and - more to the point - counter-revolutionary movements in Latin America, then I suppose Carla's Song will come as something of a shock. For the rest of us, such revelations are by now boringly routine. Just a rattling off of atrocities committed with CIA collusion, if not participation, wouldn't raise an eyebrow these days.

And Loach lays it on a bit thick, with the warm, feeling farmers and their faceless and brutal oppressors emerging out of the darkness to blow up their schools and hospitals. And the character played by Scott Glenn is as bogus as they come - a turncoat American field agent who once trained the Contras and is now helping the Sandinistas. Not that such things are impossible - it's simply that Glenn's presence in the movie is a trifle convenient for Loach's design.

And I guess no one can blame Carla for staying in her homeland with her cripple, disfigured campanero, singing his strident ballads as he strums his guitar (he must have had a lot of practice). But, I suppose, the only solace for George is seeing for himself what Carla and her country have gone through. Loach's sympathies are easy enough to locate (he's a Socialist). The poor bastard (George, I mean) should've spared himself the disappointment and stayed in rainy old Glasgow. And Ken Loach should've heeded - imagining he's even heard of - the words of a fellow Englishman, Vernon Young:

"Regarding the political issue: There may be times in history when every member of a regime you despise is a pig by any human definition; there is never a time when the opposition is totally composed of genially subversive heroes." (The movie he was writing about was, incidentally, Costa-Gavras's Z.)