Wednesday, November 11, 2015

MMI


In one of the most memorable poems from his collection The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin wrote about August 1914, when the Great War began:


MCMXIV

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

17 May 1960


From the perspective of 1960, Larkin knew that an enormous, impassable gulf separates us from the world before the Great War. He looks at a photograph of men lined up to enlist in the Army, who know nothing of the hell into which they are about to be plunged. Siegfried Sassoon, in his poem "Prelude: The Troops," made it clear:

They march from safety, and the bird-sung joy
Of grass-green thickets, to the land where all
Is ruin . . .

But they look like they're embarking on a "bank holiday lark." The very everyday quality of the scene - of a world that "changed itself to past" with unprecedented speed, as if it couldn't wait another moment to throw itself away - is haunting. Everyone (except the very few who already knew the truth) expected it all to be over by Christmas. By the time it was finally over, on this day in 1918, the world that existed before the war had not just vanished without a trace, it was regarded with some distaste. How could they have been so willing, so eager to throw their generations of men away? No one seemed to recall their own innocence.

As James Wood pointed out, this poem is "an acute examination of nostalgia, a poem which sees that our loss of innocence is that we can no longer see their loss of innocence without nostalgia. When the poem tries to see that lost Edwardian world, it deliberately distances and pictorialises its blurry subjects:

The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark . . .

The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens . . ."(1)


I can only wonder what Larkin, who died in 1985, would have made of September 11, and how carelessly Americans kissed the past - that turned to past so suddenly - goodbye. By now, a mere fourteen years later, America on September 10 seems like a long-gone, faraway country. 

Another terror attack, the blowing up of a Russian commercial jet in flight, and all the old boogey men have once again emerged from our closets. The term "boogey man" derived from "bogey-man," which itself originated in "boney-man," who was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Parents in early 19th century Britain would frighten their children with warnings that, if they didn't behave, the "boney-man" would get them. Today, we're being frightened again with a shadowy threat that is as remote and as insubstantial as Napoleon was to British children.

On the twentieth anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR, I wrote on this blog about why I believed it was the most important historical event (so far) of my lifetime. One of the effects of the end of the Cold War was that the one great superpower left in the world - the U.S.A. - was left without a suitable enemy, an opposing power that represented its opposite in every way. Since then, what Dwight Eisenhower called the "military industrial complex" has been busy trying to locate another reason for being. One was found, apparently, on 9/11. We are once again engaged in a war of indeterminate length, except that instead of a Cold War, it's now a Hide 'n' Seek War.

The Great War changed the world irrevocably and left its terrible mark on the 20th century. November 11 is memorialized by the wearing of the "remembrance poppy" in the UK. In the U.S., the end of the war is commemorated as Veterans Day.

The extent to which September 11 changed the world and marked the 21st century will only be known when the century nears its end. Based on how it has changed America in just fourteen years makes me wonder how much worse things will get in what's left of my lifetime. I remember the freedoms we enjoyed before 9/11, living in an open society. I miss them. Of course, that very openness made us vulnerable. But that is the price to be paid - that we seemed willing to pay - for living in such a society. What is more surprising is how willingly people are surrendering their freedoms, one after another, out of fear.

Men and women whose job it is to predict the actions of terrorists, based on the information gathered from a multitude of sources, managed to conclude a short time prior to 9/11 that Al Qaeda was planning to hijack planes and crash them. They also managed to present their conclusions to the President Bush. But the president disregarded the warning. Unlike the rest of us, he can't have been surprised when their forecasts came true. Bush's efforts to keep us safe, that have resulted in nothing but further loss for everyone, were a little late. Oops. Caught napping, he made sure he'd never be caught napping again - while telling the rest of us that, under the rest of his "watch," we could sleep soundly.

Who wants to sleep any more? Never such innocence again.


(1) James Wood, "The Slightest Sardine," London Review of Books, Volume 26 No. 10, May 20, 2004.

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