gin marshmallows and mayonnaise candies—pynchon’s paen to english christmas treats

"There is no graceful way out of this now": Pynchon’s take on holiday snacking in WW II London:

"…the grainy shadows, the grease-hazy jars of herbs, candies, spices, all the Compton Mackenzie novels on the shelf, glassy ambrotypes of her late husband Austin night-dusted inside gilded frames up on the mantel…"

The reclusive author and his famously bad teeth:


     
   Thomas Pynchon, from Glen Cove High School Yearbook


Mrs. Quoad’s is up three dark flights, with the dome of faraway St. Paul‘s out its kitchen window visible in the smoke of certain after
noons, and the lady herself tiny in a rose plush chair in the sitting-room by the wireless, listening to Primo Scala’s Accordion Band. She looks healthy enough. On the table, though, is her crumpled chiffon handkerchief: feathered blots of blood in and out the convolutions like a floral pattern.

"You were here when I had that horrid quotidian ague," she recalls Slothrop, "the day we brewed the wormwood tea," sure enough, the very taste now, rising through his shoe-soles, taking him along. They’re reassembling it must be outside his memory . . . cool clean interior, girl and woman, independent of his shorthand of stars so many fading-faced girls, windy canalsides, bed-sitters, bus-stop good-bys, how can he be expected to remember? but this room has gone on clarifying: part of whoever he was inside it has kindly remained, stored quiescent these months outside of his head, distributed through the grainy shadows, the grease-hazy jars of herbs, candies, spices, all the Compton Mackenzie novels on the shelf, glassy ambrotypes of her late husband Austin night-dusted inside gilded frames up on the mantel where last time Michaelmas daisies greeted and razzled from a little Sevres vase she and Austin found together one Saturday long ago in a Wardour Street
shop.

"He was my good health," she often says. "Since he passed away I’ve had to become all but an outright witch, in pure self-defense." From the kitchen comes the smell of limes freshly cut and squeezed. Darlene’s in and out of the room, looking for different botanicals, asking where the cheesecloth’s got to, "Tyrone help me just reach down that—no next to it, the tall jar, thank you love"—back into the kitchen in a creak of starch, a flash of pink. "I’m the only one with a memory around here," Mrs. Quoad sighs. "We help each other, you see." She brings out from behind its cretonne camouflage a great bowl of candies. "Now, " beaming at Slothrop. "Here: wine jellies. They’re prewar."

"Now I remember you—the one with the graft at the Ministry of Supply!" but he knows, from last time, that no gallantry can help him now. After that visit he wrote home to Nalline: "The English are kind of weird when it comes to the way things taste, Mom. They aren’t like us. It might be the climate. They go for things we would never dream of. Sometimes it is enough to turn your stomach, boy. The other day I had had one of these things they call ‘wine jellies.’ That’s their idea of candy, Mom! Figure out a way to feed some to that Hitler ‘n’ I betcha the war’d be over tomorrow!" Now once again he finds himself checking out these ruddy gelatin objects, nodding, he hopes amiably, at Mrs. Quoad. They have the names of different wines written on them in bas-relief.

"Just a touch of menthol too," Mrs. Quoad popping one into her mouth. "Delicious."

Slothrop finally chooses one that says Lafitte Rothschild and stuffs it on into his kisser. "Oh yeah. Yeah. Mmm. It’s great."

"If you really want something peculiar try the Bernkastler Doktor. Oh! Aren’t you the one who brought me those lovely American slimy elm things, maple-tasting with a touch of sassafras—"

"Slippery elm. Jeepers I’m sorry, I ran out yesterday."

Darlene comes in with a steaming pot and three cups on a tray. "What’s that?" Slothrop a little quickly, here.

"You don’t really want to know, Tyrone."

"Quite right," after the first sip, wishing she’d used more lime juice or something to kill the basic taste, which is ghastly-bitter. These people are really insane. No sugar, natch. He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed licorice drop. It looks safe. But just as he’s biting in, Darlene gives him, and it, a peculiar look, great timing this girl, sez, "Oh, I thought we got rid of all those—" a blithe, Gilbert & Sullivan ingenue’s thewse"years ago," at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.

"You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!" cries Mrs. Quoad, having now with conjuror’s speed produced an egg-shaped confection of pastel green, studded all over with lavender nonpareils. "Just for that I shan’t let you have any of these marvelous rhubarb creams." Into her mouth it goes, the whole thing.

"Serves me right," Slothrop, wondering just what he means by this, sipping herb tea to remove the taste of the mayonnaise candy—oops but that’s a mistake, right, here’s his mouth filling once again with horrible alkaloid desolation, all the way back to the soft palate where it digs in. Darlene, pure Nightingale compassion, is handing him a hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry . . . mm, which oddly enough even tastes like a raspberry, though it can’t begin to take away that bitterness.

Impatiently, he bites into it, and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he’s been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it must be pure nitric acid, "Oh mercy that’s really sour," hardly able to get the words out he’s so puckered up, exactly the sort of thing Hop Harrigan used to pull to get Tank Tinker to quit playing his ocarina, a shabby trick then and twice as reprehensible coming from an old lady who’s supposed to be one of our Allies, shit he can’t even see it’s up his nose and whatever it is won’t dissolve, just goes on torturing his shriveling tongue and crunches like ground glass among his molars. Mrs. Quoad is meantime busy savoring, bite by dainty bite, a cherry-quinine petit four. She beams at the young people across the candy bowl. Slothrop, forgetting, reaches again for his tea. There is no graceful way out of this now. Darlene has brought a couple—three more candy jars down off of the shelf, and now he goes plunging, like a journey to the center of some small, hostile planet, into an enormous bonbon chomp through the mantle of chocolate to a strongly eucalyptus-flavored fondant, finally into a core of some very tough grape gum arabic. He fingernails a piece of this out from between his teeth and stares at it for a while. It is purple in color.

"Now you’re getting the idea!" Mrs. Quoad waving at him a marbled conglomerate of ginger root, butterscotch, and aniseed, "you see, you also have to enjoy the way it looks. Why are Americans so impulsive?"

"Well," mumbling, "usually we don’t get any more complicated than Hershey bars, see. …"

"Oh, try this," hollers Darlene, clutching her throat and swaying against him.

"Gosh, it must really be something," doubtfully taking this nasty-looking brownish novelty, an exact quarter-scale replica of a Mills-type hand grenade, lever, pin and everything, one of a series of patriotic candies put out before sugar was quite so scarce, also including, he no-dees, peering into the jar, a .455 Webley cartridge of green and pink striped taffy, a six-ton earthquake bomb of some silver-flecked blue gelatin, and a licorice bazooka.

"Go on then," Darlene actually taking his hand with the candy in it and trying to shove it into his mouth.

"Was just, you know, looking at it, the way Mrs. Quoad suggested."

"And no fair squeezing it, Tyrone."

Under its tamarind glaze, the Mills bomb turns out to be luscious pepsin-flavored nougat, chock-full of tangy candied cubeb berries, and a chewy camphor-gum center. It is unspeakably awful. Slothrop’s head begins to reel with camphor fumes, his eyes are running, his tongue’s a hopeless holocaust. Cubeb? He used to smoke that stuff. "Poisoned …" he is able to croak.

"Show a little backbone," advises Mrs. Quoad.

"Yes," Darlene through tongue-softened sheets of caramel, "don’t you know there’s a war on? Here now love, open your mouth."

Through the tears he can’t see it too well, but he can hear Mrs. Quoad across the table going "Yum, yum, yum," and Darlene giggling. It is enormous and soft, like a marshmallow, but somehow—unless something is now going seriously wrong with his brain—it tastes like gin. "Wha’s ‘is," he inquires thickly.

"A gin marshmallow," sez Mrs. Quoad.

"Awww
…"

"Oh that’s nothing, have one of these—" his teeth, in some perverse reflex, crunching now through a hard sour gooseberry shell into a wet spurting unpleasantness of, he hopes it’s tapioca, little glutinous chunks of something all saturated with powdered cloves.

"More tea?" Darlene suggests. Slothrop is coughing violently, having inhaled some of that clove filling.

"Nasty cough," Mrs. Quoad offering a tin of that least believable of English coughdrops, the Meggezone.

"Darlene, the tea is lovely, I can feel my scurvy going away, really I can.

—from Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

 

“the vegetable serenity of junk settled in his tissues”—on the 1st day of x-mas my true love is H…

William S. Burroughs, "The Junky’s Christmas"

 

IT was Christmas Day and Danny the Car Wiper hit the street junksick and broke after seventy-two hours in the precinct jail. It was a clear bright day, but there was warmth in the sun. Danny shivered with an inner cold. He turned up the collar of his worn, greasy black overcoat.


This beat benny wouldn’t pawn for a deuce, he thought. He was in the West Nineties. A long block of brownstone rooming houses. Here and there a holy wreath in a clean black window. Danny’s senses registered everything sharp and clear, with the painful intensity of junk sickness. The light hurt his dilated eyes.


He walked past a car, darting his pale blue eyes sideways in quick appraisal. There was a package on the seat and one of the ventilator windows was unlocked. Danny walked on ten feet. No one in sight. He snapped his fingers and went through a pantomime of remembering something, and wheeled around. No one.


A bad setup, he decided. The street being empty like this, I stand out conspicuous. Gotta make it fast.

He reached for the ventilator window. A door opened behind him. Danny whipped out a rag and began polishing the car windows. He could feel the man standing behind him.


"What’re yuh doin’?"


Danny turned as if surprised. "Just thought your car windows needed polishing, mister."


The man had a frog face and a Deep South accent. He was wearing a camel’s-hair overcoat.


"My caah don’t need polishin’ or nothing stole out of it neither."


Danny slid sideways as the man grabbed for him. "I wasn’t lookin’ to steal nothing, mister. I’m from the South too. Florida—"


"God dammed sneakin’ thief!"


Danny walked away fast and turned a corner. Better get out of the neighborhood. That hick is likely to call the law.


He walked fifteen blocks. Sweat ran down his body. There was an ache in his lungs. His lips drew back off his yellow teeth in a snarl of desperation. I gotta score somehow. If I had some decent clothes…


Danny saw a suitcase standing in a doorway. Good leather. He stopped and pretended to look for a cigarette. Funny, he thought. No one around. Inside maybe, phoning for a cab.


The corner was only a few houses. Danny took a deep breath and picked up the suitcase. Hemade the corner. Another block, another corner. The case was heavy.


I got a score here all night, he thought. Maybe enough for a sixteenth and a room. Danny shivered and twitched, feeling a warm room and heroin emptying into his vein. Let’s have a quick look.


He opened the suitcase. Two long packages in brown wrapping paper. He took one out. It felt like meat. He tore the package open at one end, revealing a woman’s naked foot. The toenails were painted with purple-red polish. He dropped the leg with a sneer of disgust.


"Holy Jesus!" he exclaimed. "The routines people put down these days. Legs! Well I got a case anyway." He dumped the other leg out. No bloodstains. He snapped the case shut and walked away. "Legs!" he muttered.

 


HE FOUND the Buyer sitting at a table in Jarrow’s Cafeteria.


"Thought you might be taking the day off." Danny said, putting the case down.


The Buyer shook his head sadly. "I got nobody. So what’s Christmas to me?" His eyes traveled over the case, poking, testing, and looking for flaws. "What was in it?"


"Nothing."


"What’s the matter? I don’t pay enough?"


"I tell you there wasn’t nothing in it."


"Okay. So somebody travels with an empty suitcase. Okay." He held up three fingers.


"For Christ’s sake, Gimpy, give me a nickel."


"You got somebody else. Why don’t he give you a nickel?"


"It’s like I say, the case was empty."


Gimpy kicked at the case despairingly. "It’s all nicked up and kinda dirty-looking. " He sniffed suspiciously. "How come it stink like that? Mexican leather?"


"So am I in the leather business?"


Gimpy shrugged— "Could be." He pulled out a roll of bills and peeled off three ones, dropping them on the table behind the napkin dispenser. "You want?"


"Okay." Danny picked up the money. "You see George the Greek?" he asked.


"Where you been? He got busted two days ago."


"Oh …That’s bad."


Danny walked out. Now where can I score? he thought. George the Greek had lasted so long, Danny thought of him as permanent. It was good H too, and no short counts.


Danny went up to 103rd and Broadway. Nobody in Jarrow’s. Nobody in the Automat.


"Yeah," he snarled. "All the pushers off on the nod someplace. What they care about anybody else? So long as they get in the vein. What they care about a sick junky?"


He wiped his nose with one finger, looking around furtively.


No use hitting those jigs in Harlem. Like as not get beat for my money or they slip me rat poison. Might find Pantapon Rose at Eighth and 23rd.


There was no one he knew in the 23rd Street Thompson’s. Jesus, he thought. Where is everybody?


He clutched his coat collar together with one hand, looking up and down the street. There’s Joey from Brooklyn. I’d know that hat anywhere.


Joey was walking away, with his back to Danny. He turned around. His face was sunken, skull-like. The gray eyes glittered under a greasy felt hat. Joey was sniffing at regular intervals and his eyes were watering.


No use asking him, Danny thought. They looked at each other with the hatred of disappointment.


"Guess you heard about George the Greek," Danny said.


"Yeah. I heard. You been up to 103rd?"


"Yeah. Just came from there. Nobody around."


"Nobody around anyplace," Joey said. "I can’t even score for goofballs."


"Well, Merry Christmas, Joey. See you."


"Yeah. See you."

 


DANNY WAS walking fast. He had remembered a croaker on 18th Street. Of course the croaker had told him not to come back. Still, it was worth trying.


A brownstone house with a card in the window: P. H. Zunniga, M.D. Danny rang the bell. He heard slow steps. The door opened, and the doctor looked at Danny with bloodshot brown eyes. He was weaving slightly and supported his plumb body against the doorjamb. His face was smooth, Latin, the little red mouth slack. He said nothing. He just leaned there, looking at Danny.


God dammed alcoholic, Danny thought. He smiled.


"Merry Christmas, Doctor."


The doctor did not reply.


"You remember me, Doctor." Danny tried to edge past the doctor, into the house. "I’m sorry to trouble you on Christmas Day, but I’ve suffered another attack."


"Attack?"


"Yes. Facial neuralgia." Danny twisted one side of his face into a horrible grimace. The doctor recoiled slightly, and Danny pushed into the dark hallway.


"Better shut the door or you’ll be catching cold," he said jovially, shoving the door shut.

The doctor looked at him, his eyes focusing visibly. "I can’t give you a prescription," he said.


"But Doctor, this is a legitimate condition. An emergency, you understand."


"No prescription. Impossible. It’s against the law."


"You took an oath, Doctor. I’m in agony." Danny’s voice shot up to a hysterical grating whine.


The doctor winced and passed a hand over his forehead.


"Let me think. I can give you one quarter-grain tablet. That’s all I have in the house."


"But, Doctor—a quarter G …."


The doctor stopped him. "If your conditionis legitimate, you will not need more. If it isn’t, I don’t want anything to do with you. Wait right here."


The doctor weaved down the hall, leaving a wake of alcoholic breath. He came back and dropped a tablet into Danny’s hand. Danny wrapped the tablet in a piece of paper and tucked it away.


"There is no charge." The doctor put his hand on the doorknob. "And now, my dear…"


"But, Doctor—can’t you object the medication?"


"No. You will obtain longer relief in using orally. Please not to return." The doctor opened the door.


Well, this will take the edge off, and I still have money to put down on a room, Danny thought.


He knew a drugstore that sold needles without question. He bought a 26-gauge insulin needle and eyedropper, which he selected carefully, rejecting models with a curved dropper or a thick end. Finally he bought a baby pacifier, to use instead of the bulb. He stopped in the Automat and stole a teaspoon.


Danny put down two dollars on a six-dollar-a-week room in the West Forties, where he knew the landlord. He bolted the door and put his spoon, needle and dropper on a table by the bed. He dropped the tablet in the spoon and covered it with a dropper of water. He held a match under the spoon until the tablet dissolved. He tore a strip of paper, wet it and wrapped it around the end of the dropper, fitting the needle over the wet paper to make an airtight connection. He dropped a piece of lint from his pocket into the spoon and sucked the liquid into the dropper through the needle, holding the needle in the lint to take up the last drop.


Danny’s hands trembled with excitement and his breath was quick. With a shot in front of him, his defenses gave way, and junk sickness flooded his body. His legs began to twitch and ache. A cramp stirred in his stomach. Tears ran down his face from his smarting, burning eyes. He wrapped a handkerchief around his right arm, holding the end in his teeth. He tucked the handkerchief in, and began rubbing his arm to bring out a vein.


Guess I can hit that one, he thought, running one finger along a vein. He picked up the dropper in his left hand.


Danny heard a groan from the next room. He frowned with annoyance. Another groan. He could not help listening. He walked across the room, the dropper in his hand, and inclined his ear to the wall. The groans were coming at regular intervals, a horrible inhuman sound pushed out from the stomach.

Danny listened for a full minute. He returned to the bed and sat down. "Why don’t someone call a doctor?" he thought indignantly. "It’s a bring down." He straightened his arm and poised the needle. He tilted his head, listening again.


Oh, for Christ’s sake! He tore off the handkerchief and placed the dropper in a water glass, which he hid behind the wastebasket. He stepped into the hall and knocked on the door of the next room. There was no answer. The groans continued. Danny tried the door. It was open. The shade was up and the room was full of light. He had expected an old person somehow, but the man on the bed was very young, eighteen or twenty, fully clothed and doubled up, with his hands clasped across his stomach.


"What’s wrong, kid?" Danny asked.


The boy looked at him, his eyes blank with pain. Finally he got one word: "Kidneys."


"Kidney stones?" Danny smiled. "I don’t mean it’s funny, kid. It’s just … I’ve faked it so many times. Never saw the real thing before. I’ll call an ambulance."


The boy bit his lip. "Won’t come. Doctor’s won’t come." The boy hid his face in the pillow.


Danny nodded. "They figure it’s just another junky throwing a wingding for a shot. But your case is legit. Maybe if I went to the hospital and explained things… No, I guess that wouldn’t be so good."


"Don’t live here," the boy said, his voice muffled. "They say I’m not entitled."


"Yeah, I know how they are, the bureaucrat bastards. I had a friend once, died of snakebite right in the waiting room. They wouldn’t even listen when he tried to explain a snake bit him. He never had enough moxie. That was fifteen years ago, down in Jacksonville…"


Danny trailed off. Suddenly he put out his thin, dirty hand and touched the boy’s shoulder.


"I—I’m sorry, kid. You wait. I’ll fix you up."


He went back to his room and got the dropper, and returned to the boy’s room.


"Roll up your sleeve, kid." The boy fumbled his coat sleeve with a weak hand.


"That’s okay. I’ll get it." Danny undid the shirt button at the wrist and pushed the shirt and coat up, baring a thin brown forearm. Danny hesitated, looking at the dropper. Sweat ran down his nose. The boy was looking up at him. Danny shoved the needle in the boy’s forearm and watched the liquid drain into the flesh. He straightened up.

The boy lay down, stretching. "I feel real sleepy. Didn’t sleep all last night." His eyes were closing.

Danny walked across the room and pulled the shade down. He went back to his room and closed the door without locking it. He sat on the bed, looking at the empty dropper. It was getting dark outside. Danny’s body ached for junk, but it was a dull ache now, dull and hopeless. Numbly, he took the needle of the dropper and wrapped it in a piece of paper. Then he wrapped the needle and dropper together. He sat there with the package in his hand. Gotta stash this someplace, he thought.


Suddenly a warm flood pulsed through his veins and broke in his head like a thousand golden speedballs.


For Christ’s sake, Danny thought. I must have scored for the immaculate fix!

The vegetable serenity of junk settled in his tissues. His face went slack and peaceful, and his head fell forward.

 

Danny the Car Wiper was on the nod.

here in the electric dusk your naked lover tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her…

The terminal flopped out
around us like a dirty hankie,
surrounded by the future population
of death row in their disguises–high
school truant, bewildered Korean refugee–

 

Denis Johnson’s poetry outstrips the efforts of all other contemporary American poets to capture in verse the failure of the American dream—indeed, far more than the work of the much more popular and less sophisticated Charles Bukowski. Johnson is the chief verse and prose imaginer of the broken lives and seedy environs of marginalized Americans. At times surreal, often lyrical and occasionally rooted in a discernible narrative, Johnson’s poems—with their death-dealing imagery and arresting metaphors—at times very nearly convince us that we’re witnessing the hidden world of bounced rent cheques and cheap liquor, dead-end jobs and petty crimes… a world shot through with an overwhelming sense of failure and a terrible loneliness that can nothing can assuage…

 

Happy New Year!

THE INCOGNITO LOUNGE

 

The manager lady of this

apartment dwelling has a face

like a baseball with glasses and pathetically

repeats herself. The man next door

has a dog with a face that talks

of stupidity to the night, the swimming pool

has an empty, empty face.

My neighbor has his underwear on

tonight, standing among the parking spaces

advising his friend never to show

his face around here again.

I go everywhere with my eyes closed and two

eyeballs painted on my face. There is a woman

across the court with no face at all.

 

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

They’re perfectly visible this evening,

about as unobtrusive as a storm of meteors,

these questions of happiness

plaguing the world.

My neighbor has sent his child to Utah

to be raised by the relatives of friends.

He’s out on the generous lawn

again, looking like he’s made

out of phosphorus.

 

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

The manager lady has just returned

from the nearby graveyard, the last

ceremony for a crushed paramedic.

All day, news helicopters cruised aloft,

going whatwhatwhatwhatwhat.

She pours me some boiled

coffee that tastes like noise,

warning me, once and for all,

to pack up my troubles in an old kit bag

and weep until the stones float away.

How will I ever be able to turn

from the window and feel love for her?—

to see her and stop seeing

this neighborhood, the towns of earth,

these tables at which the saints

sit down to the meal of temptations?

 

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

 

And so on—nap, soup, window,

say a few words into the telephone,

smaller and smaller words.

Some TV or maybe, I don’t know, a brisk

rubber with cards nobody knows

how many there are of.

Couple of miserable gerbils

in a tiny white cage, hysterical

friends rodomontading about goals

as if having them liquefied death.

Maybe invite the lady with no face

over here to explain all these elections:

life. Liberty. Pursuit.

 

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

Maybe invite the lady with no face

over here to read my palm,

sit out on the porch here in Arizona

while she touches me.

Last night, some kind

of alarm went off up the street

that nobody responded to.

Small darling, it rang for you.

Everything suffers invisibly,

nothing is possible, in your face.

 

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

The center of the world is closed.

The Beehive, the 8-Ball, the Yo-Yo,

the Granite and the Lightning and the Melody.

Only the Incognito Lounge is open.

My neighbor arrives.

They have the television on.

 

It’s a show about

my neighbor in a loneliness, a light,

walking the hour when every bed is a mouth.

Alleys of dark trash, exhaustion

shaped into residences—and what are the dogs

so sure of that they shout like citizens

driven from their minds in a stadium?

In his fist he holds a note

in his own handwriting,

the same message everyone carries

from place to place in the secret night,

the one that nobody asks you for

when you finally arrive, and the faces

turn to you playing the national anthem

and go blank, that’s

what the show is about, that message.

 

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

I was raised up from tiny

childhood in those purple hills,

right slam on the brink of language,

and I claim it’s just as if

you can’t do anything to this moment,
that’s how inextinguishable
it all is. Sunset,
Arizona, everybody waiting
to get arrested, all very
much an honor, I assure you.
Maybe invite the lady with no face
to plead my cause, to get
me off the hook or name
me one good reason.
The air is full of megawatts

 

and the megawatts are full of silence.

She reaches to the radio like St. Theresa.

 

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

Here at the center of the world

each wonderful store cherishes

in its mind undeflowerable

mannequins in a pale, electric light.

The parking lot is full,

everyone having the same dream

of shopping and shopping

through an afternoon

that changes like a face.

 

But these shoppers of America—

carrying their hearts toward the bluffs

of the counters like thoughtless purchases,

walking home under the sea,

standing in a dark house at midnight

before the open refrigerator, completely

transformed in the light…

 

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

Every bus ride is like this one,

in the back the same two uniformed boy scouts

de-pantsing a little girl, up front

the woman whose mission is to tell the driver

over and over to shut up.

Maybe you permit yourself to find

it beautiful on this bus as it wafts

like a dirigible toward suburbia

over a continent of saloons,

over the robot desert that now turns

purple and comes slowly through the dust.

 

This is the moment you’ll seek

the words for over the imitation

and actual wood of successive

tabletops indefatigably,

when you watched a baby child

catch a bee against the tinted glass

and were married to a deep

comprehension and terror.

 

 

WHITE, WHITE COLLARS

 

We work in this building and we are hideous

in the fluorescent light, you know our clothes

woke up this morning and swallowed us like jewels

and ride up and down the elevators, filled with us,

turning and returning like the spray of light that goes

around dance-halls among the dancing fools.

My office smells like a theory, but here one weeps

to see the goodness of the world laid bare

and rising with the government on its lips,

the alphabet congealing in the air

around our heads. But in my belly’s flames

someone is dancing, calling me by many names

that are secret and filled with light and rise

and break, and I see my previous lives.

 

 

ENOUGH

The terminal flopped out

around us like a dirty hankie,
surrounded by the future population
of death row in their disguises–high
school truant, bewildered Korean refugee–
we complained that bus 18 will never arrive,
when it arrives complain what an injury
is this bus again today, venerable
and destined to stall. When it stalls

at 16th and McDowell most of us get out
to eat ourselves alive in a 24-hour diner
that promises not to carry us beyond
this angry dream of grease and the cries
of spoons, that swears our homes
are invisible and we never lived in them,
that a bus hasn’t passed here in years.
Sometime the closest I get to loving

the others is hating all of us
for drinking coffee in this stationary sadness
where nobody’s dull venereal joking breaks
into words that say it for the last time,
as if we held in the heavens of our arms
not cherishable things, but only the strength
it takes to leave home and then go back again.

NIGHT

I am looking out over
the bay at sundown and getting

lushed with a fifty-nine-
year-old heavily rouged cocktail
lounge singer; this total stranger.
We watch the pitiful little
ferry boats that ply between this world
and that other one touched
to flame by the sunset,
talking with unmanageable
excitement about the weather.
The sky and huge waters turn
vermilion as the cheap-drink hour ends.
We part with a grief as cutting
as that line between water and air.
I go downstairs and I go
outside. It is like stepping into the wake
of a tactless remark, the city’s stupid
chatter hurrying to cover
the shocked lull. The moon’s
mouth is moving, and I am just
leaning forward to listen
for the eventual terrible
silence when he begins,
in the tones of a saddened
delinquent son returned
unrecognizable, naming
those things it now seems
I might have done
to have prevented his miserable
life. I am desolate.
What is happening to me.

 

 

HEAT

Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
It’s beautiful Susan, her hair sticky with gin,
Our Lady of Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover,
streaming with hatred in the heat
as the record falls and the snake-band chords begin
to break like terrible news from the Rolling Stones,
and such a last light—full of spheres and zones.
August,
         you’re just an erotic hallucination,
just so much feverishly produced kazoo music,
are you serious?—this large oven impersonating night,
this exhaustion mutilated to resemble passion,
the bogus moon of tenderness and magic
you hold out to each prisoner like a cup of light?

 

 

THE BOARDING

 

One of these days under the white

clouds onto the white

lines of the goddamn PED

X-ING I shall be flattened,

and I shall spill my bag of discount

medicines upon the avenue,

and an abruptly materializing bouquet

of bums, retirees, and Mexican

street-gangers will see all what

kinds of diseases are enjoying me

and what kind of underwear and my little

old lady’s legs spidery with veins.

So Mr. Young and Lovely Negro Bus

Driver I care exactly this: zero,

that you see these things

now as I fling my shopping

up by your seat, putting

this left-hand foot way up

on the step so this dress rides up,

grabbing this metal pole like

a beam of silver falling down

from Heaven to my aid, thank-you,

hollering, “Watch det my medicine

one second for me will you dolling,

I’m four feet and det’s a tall bus

you got and it’s hot and I got

every disease they are making

these days, my God, Jesus Christ,

I’m telling you out of my soul.”

 

 

THE SONG

The small, high wailing
that envelops us here,
distant, indistinct,

yet, too, immediate,
we take to be only
the utterances of loose fan

belts in the refrigerating
system, or the shocked hum
that issues from the darkness

of telephone receivers;
but it speaks to us
so deeply we think it

may well be the beseeching
of the stars, the shameless
weeping of coyotes

out on the Mohave
Please.
Please, stop listening

to this sound, which
is actually the terrible
keening of the ones

whose hearts have been broken
by lives spent in search
of its source,

by our lives of failure,
spent looking everywhere
for someone to say these words.

 

 

THE WHITE FIRES OF VENUS

 

We mourn this senseless planet of regret,

droughts, rust, rain, cadavers

that can’t tell us, but I promise

you one day the white fires

of Venus shall rage: the dead,

feeling that power, shall be lifted, and each

of us will have his resurrected one to tell him,

"Greetings. You will recover

or die. The simple cure

for everything is to destroy

all the stethoscopes that will transmit

silence occasionally. The remedy for loneliness

is in learning to admit

solitude as one admits

the bayonet: gracefully,

now that already

it pierces the heart.

Living one: you move among many

dancers and don’t know which

you are the shadow of;

you want to kiss your own face in the mirror

but do not approach,

knowing you must not touch one

like that. Living

one, while Venus flares

O set the cereal afire,

O the refrigerator harboring things

that live on into death unchanged."

 

They know all about us on Andromeda,

they peek at us, they see us

in this world illumined and pasteled

phonily like a bus station,

they are with us when the streets fall down fraught

with laundromats and each of us

closes himself in his small

San Francisco without recourse.

They see you with your face of fingerprints

carrying your instructions in gloved hands

trying to touch things, and know you

for one despairing, trying to touch the curtains,

trying to get your reflection mired in alarm tape

past the window of this then that dark

closed business establishment.

The Andromedans hear your voice like distant amusement park music

converged on by ambulance sirens

and they understand everything.

They’re on your side. They forgive you.

 

I want to turn for a moment to those my heart loves,

who are as diamonds to the Andromedans,

who shimmer for them, lovely and useless, like diamonds:

namely, those who take their meals at soda fountains,

their expressions lodged among the drugs

and sunglasses, each gazing down too long

into the coffee as though from a ruined balcony.

O Andromedansthey don’t know what to do

with themselves and so they sit there

until they go home where they lie down

until they get up, and you beyond the light years know

that if sleeping is dying, then waking

is birth, and a life

is many lives. I love them because they know how

to manipulate change

in the pockets musically, these whose faces the seasons

never give a kiss, these

who are always courteous to the faces

of presumptions, the presuming streets,

the hotels, the presumption of rain in the streets.

I’m telling you it’s cold inside the body that is not the body,

lonesome behind the face

that is certainly not the face

of the person one meant to become.

 

chandler’s law—the world is a jungle; it is cynically given a veneer of order by the corrupt police

Anthony Burgess sums up Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye: “If this is not literature, what is?”

The Long Goodbye
Raymond Chandler (1953)


        
Cover of the first English editon

Chandler was once considered an admirable writer of low-class fiction, the story of crime and detection (despite the example of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone) being regarded as ineligible for inclusion in the ranks of the serious novel. But Chandler is a serious writer, an original stylist, creator of a character, Philip Marlowe, as immortal as Sherlock Holmes, and of an ambience—Southern California—which colours one’s attitude to the real location. This is perhaps the best of the Philip Marlowe series. Here Marlowe, the stoical and rather quixotic private eye, attempts to lose his old detachment from people and make friends with Terry Lennox, a weak but amiable man who is married to the daughter of a multimillionaire. The marriage is unsatisfactory; Lennox calls his wife, Sylvia, a tramp. The story becomes complicated when Sylvia is found bloodily murdered. Bribed heavily by his father-in-law, Lennox agrees to take the blame for the murder: he disappears into Mexico and is later reported dead. The case is officially closed and the great family name of Potter (that of the tycoon) cleared.

Marlowe now meets a popular novelist, Roger Wade, sick of his meretricious craft, a drunkard and former friend of Sylvia. Marlowe considers the possibility that Wade may have killed Sylvia when drunk and then blacked out the incident. Then Wade is found dead. Marlowe learns that his wife, Eileen, was once married to Lennox. She killed Sylvia out of jealousy and then killed Wade because of his unreliability: "He talked too much." At the end of the book Lennox reappears. Marlowe is disillusioned with him: his weakness of character has produced an unnecessary murder. Marlowe is hurt, but he soon reverts to his old cynicism. He needed friendship, but he is not going to get it. The world is a jungle; it is cynically given a veneer of order by the corrupt police. You can say goodbye to everybody, but never to them.

Romantic, tending towards a sentimentality it never quite reaches, The Long Goodbye is beautifully composed, with a taut economical style exactly suited to the narrator Marlowe. If this is not literature, what is?

from Anthony Burgess, 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. Allison & Busby, 1984.

 

 

“no finer death in all the world…”—the opening of ernst jünger’s storm of steel

Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel chronicles his experiences on the Western Front in the First World War. It is widely considered one of the finest portrayals of mechanized warfare in all of literature. Its textual history reveals the intense feelings regarding his service in World War I that Jünger carried with him all his life: first published privately in 1920 as excerpts from Jünger’s diary, the text was revised eight times; the last iteration was the 1961 version for Jünger’s Collected Works. Jünger perversely stated in the preface to the 1929 English edition that "Time only strengthens my conviction that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart." Such observations earned him the reputation of a writer who glorified war, even the mindless, mechanized mass slaughter of trench warfare in W.W. I. Yet Jünger’s mimetic gifts persuade us that he saw not just the glory but also the cruelty and stupidity of the war, and catalogued with total precision the impressions the war left on his heart and psyche.  Often dismissed as a conservative reactionary or an unrepentant militarist, Jünger’s portrayal of the absurd and senseless aspects of the daily life of a soldier in the Great War earns Storm of Steel a place next to Louis Ferdinand-Céline’s brilliant Journey to the End of the Night.  

 

Storm of Steel

 

 

 

Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel

For the fallen

 

In the Chalk Trenches of Champagne

 

The train stopped at Bazancourt, a small town in Champagne, and we got out. Full of awe and incredulity, we listened to the slow grinding pulse of the front, a rhythm we were to become mightily familiar with over the years. The white ball of a shrapnel shell melted far off, suffusing the grey December sky. The breath of battle blew across to us, and we shuddered. Did we sense that almost all of us — some sooner, some later — were to be consumed by it, on days when the dark grumbling yonder would crash over our heads like an incessant thunder?

 

We had come from lecture halls, school desks and factory workbenches, and over the brief weeks of training, we had bonded together into one large and enthusiastic group. Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war. We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience. We thought of it as manly, as action, a merry duelling party on flowered, blood-bedewed meadows. ‘No finer death in all the world than …’ Anything to participate, not to have to stay at home!

 

‘Form up by platoon!’ Our heated fantasies cooled down on the march through the claggy soil of Champagne. Knapsacks, munition belts and rifles hung round our necks like lead weights. ‘Ease up! Keep up at the back!’

 

Finally we reached Orainville, one of the typical hamlets of the region, and the designated base for the 73rd Rifles, a group of fifty brick and limestone houses, grouped round a chateau in parkland.

 

Used as we were to the order of cities, the higgledy-piggledy life on the village streets struck us as exotic. We saw only a few, ragged, shy civilians; everywhere else soldiers in worn and tattered tunics, with faces weather-beaten and often with a heavy growth of beard, strolling along at a slow pace, or standing in little clusters in doorways, watching our arrival with ribald remarks. In a gateway there was a glowing field kitchen, smelling of pea soup, surrounded by men jingling their mess-tins as they waited to eat. It seemed that, if anything, life was a little slower and duller here, an impression strengthened by the evidence of dilapidation in the village.

 

We spent our first night in a vast barn, and in the morning were paraded before the regimental adjutant, First Lieutenant von Brixen, in the courtyard of the chateau. I was assigned to the 9th Company.

 

Our first day of war was not to pass without making a decisive impression upon us. We were sitting over breakfast in the school where we were quartered. Suddenly there was a series of dull concussions, and all the soldiers rushed out of the houses towards the entrance of the village. We followed suit, not really knowing why. Again, there was a curious fluttering and whooshing sound over our heads, followed by a sudden, violent explosion. I was amazed at the way the men around me seemed to cower while running at full pelt, as though under some frightful threat. The whole thing struck me as faintly ridiculous, in the way of seeing people doing things one doesn’t properly understand.

 

Immediately afterwards, groups of dark figures emerged on to the empty village street, carrying black bundles on canvas stretchers or fireman’s lifts of their folded hands. I stared, with a queasy feeling of unreality, at a blood-spattered form with a strangely contorted leg hanging loosely down, wailing ‘Help! Help!’ as if sudden death still had him by the throat. He was carried into a building with a Red Cross flag draped over the doorway.

 

What was that about? War had shown its claws, and stripped off its mask of cosiness. It was all so strange, so impersonal. We had barely begun to think about the enemy, that mysterious, treacherous being somewhere. This event, so far beyond anything we had experienced, made such a powerful impression on us that it was difficult to understand what had happened. It was like a ghostly manifestation in broad daylight.

 

A shell had burst high up over the chateau entrance, and had hurled a cloud of stone and debris into the gateway, just as the occupants, alerted by the first shots, were rushing out. There were thirteen fatalities, including Gebhard the music master, whom I remembered well from the promenade concerts in Hanover. A tethered horse had had a keener sense of the approaching danger than the men, and had broken free a few seconds before, and galloped into the courtyard, where it remained unhurt.

 

Even though the shelling could recommence at any moment, I felt irresistibly drawn to the site of the calamity. Next to the spot where the shell had hit dangled a little sign where some wag had written ‘Ordnance this way’. The castle was clearly felt to be a dangerous place. The road was reddened with pools of gore; riddled helmets and sword belts lay around. The heavy iron chateau gate was shredded and pierced by the impact of the explosive; the kerbstone was spattered with blood. My eyes were drawn to the place as if by a magnet; and a profound change went through me.

 

Talking to my comrades, I saw that the incident had rather blunted their enthusiasm for war. That it had also had an effect on me was instanced by numerous auditory hallucinations, so that I would mistake the trundling of a passing cart, say, for the ominous whirring of the deadly shell.

 

This was something that was to accompany us all through the war, that habit of jumping at any sudden and unexpected noise. Whether it was a train clattering past, a book falling to the floor, or a shout in the night — on each occasion, the heart would stop with a sense of mortal dread. It bore out the fact that for four years we lived in the shadow of death. The experience hit so hard in that dark country beyond consciousness, that every time there was a break with the usual, the porter Death would leap to the gates with hand upraised, like the figure above the dial on certain clock towers, who appears at the striking of the hour, with scythe and hourglass.

 

The evening of that same day brought the long-awaited moment of our moving, with full pack, up to battle stations. The road took us through the ruins of the village of Betricourt, looming spectrally out of the half-dark, to the so-called ‘Pheasantry’, an isolated forester’s house, buried in some pine woods, where the regimental reserve was housed, of which, to this point, the 9th Company had formed a part. Their commander was Lieutenant Brahms.

 

We were welcomed, divided up into platoons, and before long found ourselves in the society of bearded, mud-daubed fellows, who greeted us with a kind of ironic benevolence. They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not be over soon. Then the conversation turned, with us all listening avidly, to short statements about earthworks, field kitchens, stretches of trench, shell bombardment, and other aspects of stationary warfare.

 

After a little while, a shout rang out in front of our cottage-like billet to ‘Turn out!’ We formed up into our platoons, and on the order ‘Load and safety!’ we felt a little twinge of arousal as we rammed clips of live ammunition into our magazines.

 

Then silent progress, in Indian file, through the landscape dobbed with dark patches of forest to the front. Isolated shots rang out from time to time, or a rocket flared up with a hiss to leave us in deeper darkness following its short spectral flash. Monotonous clink of rifles and field shovels, punctuated by the warning cry: ‘Watch it, barbed wire!’

 

Then a sudden jingling crash and a man swearing: ‘Dammit, why couldn’t you tell me there’s a crater!’ A corporal shuts him up: ‘Pipe down, for Christ’s sake, do you think the French are wearing earplugs?’ More rapid progress. The uncertain night, the flickering of flares and the slow crackling of rifle fire produce a kind of subdued excitement that keeps us strangely on our toes. From time to time, a stray bullet whines past chilly into the distance. How often since that first time I’ve gone up the line through dead scenery in that strange mood of melancholy exaltation!

 

At last we dropped into one of the communication trenches that wound their way through the night like white snakes to the front. There I found myself standing between a couple of traverses, lonely and shivering, staring hard into a line of pines in front of the trench, where my imagination conjured up all sorts of shadowy figures, while the occasional stray bullet slapped into the boughs and somersaulted down with a whistle. The only diversion in this seemingly endless time was being collected by an older comrade, and trotting off together down a long, narrow passage to an advance sentry post, where, once again, it was our job to gaze out into the terrain in front. I was given a couple of hours to try to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout. When the sky lightened, I was pale and clay-daubed, and so was everyone else; I felt I had lived this sort of mole’s life for many months already.

 

The regiment had taken up a position winding through the chalky Champagne soil, facing the village of Le Godat. On the right, it abutted a tattered area of woodland, the so-called ‘Shell Wood’, and from there it zigzagged across vast sugar-beet fields, where we could see the luminous red trousers of dead French attackers dotted about, to the course of a stream, across which communications with the 74th Regiment were kept open by patrols at night. The stream poured over the weir of a destroyed mill ringed by brooding trees. For months, its water had been laving the black parchment faces of the dead of a French colonial regiment. An eerie place, especially at night, when the moon cast moving shadows through breaks in the clouds, and the sounds of the rushes and the murmuring water were joined by others less easily accounted for.

 

The regimen was taxing, beginning at dusk, for which the entire complement was made to stand to in the trench. Between ten at night and six in the morning, only two men out of each platoon were allowed to sleep at a time, which meant that we got two hours a night each, though they were eaten into by being woken early, having to fetch straw, and other occupations, so that there were only a few minutes left as a rule.

 

Guard duty was either in the trench or else in one of the numerous forward posts that were connected to the line by long, buried saps; a type of insurance that was later given up, because of their exposed position.

 

The endless, exhausting spells of sentry duty were bearable so long as the weather happened to be fine, or even frosty; but it became torture once the rain set in in January. Once the wet had saturated the canvas sheeting overhead, and your coat and uniform, and trickled down your body for hours on end, you got into a mood that nothing could lighten, not even the sound of the splashing feet of the man coming towards you to relieve you. Dawn lit exhausted, clay-smeared figures who, pale and teeth chattering, flung themselves down on the mouldy straw of their dripping dugouts.

 

Those dugouts! They were holes hacked into the chalk, facing the trench, roofed over with boards and a few shovelfuls of earth. If it had been raining, they would drip for days afterwards; a desperate waggishness kitted them out with names like ‘Stalactite Cavern’, ‘Men’s Public Baths’, and other such. If several men wanted to rest at the same time, they had no option but to stick their legs out into the trench, where anyone passing was bound to trip over them. In the circumstances, there was not much chance of sleep in the daytime either. Besides, we had two hours of sentry duty in the day too, as well as having to make running repairs to the trench, go for food, coffee, water, and whatever else.

 

Clearly, this unaccustomed type of existence hit us hard, especially since most of us had had only a nodding acquaintance with real work. Furthermore, we were not received out here with open arms, as we’d expected. The old-stagers took every opportunity to pull our legs, and every tedious or unexpected assignment was put the way of us ‘war-wantons’. That instinct, which had survived the switch from barracks yard to war, and which did nothing to improve our mood, ceased after the first battle we fought in side by side, after which we saw ourselves as ‘old-stagers’.

 

The period in which the company lay in reserve was not much cosier. We dwelt in fir-branch camouflaged earth huts round the ‘Pheasantry’ or in the Hiller Copse, whose dungy floors at least gave off a pleasant, fermenting warmth. Sometimes, though, you would wake up lying in several inches of water. Although ‘roomy-dizzy’ was just a name to me, after only a few nights of this involuntary immersion I felt pain in every one of my joints. I dreamed of iron balls trundling up and down my limbs. Nights here were not for sleeping either, but were used to deepen the many communication trenches. In total darkness, if the French flares happened not to be lighting us up, we had to stick to the heels of the man in front with somnambulistic confidence if we weren’t to lose ourselves altogether, and spent hours traipsing around the labyrinthine network of trenches. At least the digging was easy; only a thin layer of clay or loam covered the mighty thicknesses of chalk, which was easily cut by the pickaxe. Sometimes green sparks would fly up if the steel had encountered one of the fist-sized iron pyrite crystals that were sprinkled throughout the soft stone. These consisted of many little cubes clustered together, and, cut open, had a streakily goldy gleam.

 

A little ray of sunshine in all this monotony was the nightly arrival of the field kitchen in the corner of the Hiller Copse. When the cauldron was opened, it would release a delicious aroma of peas with ham, or some other wonder. Even here, though, there was a dark side: the dried vegetables, dubbed ‘wire entanglements’ or ‘damaged crops’ by disappointed gourmets.

 

In my diary entry for 6 January, I even find the irate note: ‘In the evening, the field kitchen comes teetering up, with some god-awful pigswill, probably frozen beets boiled up.’ On the 14th, by contrast: ‘Delicious pea soup, four heavenly portions, till we groaned with satisfaction. We staged eating contests, and argued about the most favourable position. I contended that it was standing up.’

 

There were liberal helpings of a pale-red brandy, which had a strong taste of methylated spirits, but wasn’t to be sneezed at in the cold wet weather. We drank it out of our mess-tin lids. The tobacco was similarly strong, and also plentiful. The image of the soldier that remains with me from those days is that of the sentry with his spiked, grey helmet, fists buried in the pockets of his greatcoat, standing behind the shooting-slit, blowing pipe smoke over his rifle butt.

 

Most pleasant were days off in Orainville, which were spent catching up on sleep, cleaning our clothes and gear, and drilling. The company was put in a vast barn that had only a couple of hen-roost ladders to facilitate entrances and exits. Although it was still full of straw, there were braziers lit in it. One night I rolled up against one, and was woken only by the efforts of several comrades pouring water over me. I was horrified to see that the back of my uniform was badly charred, and for some time to come I had to go around in what bore a passing resemblance to a pair of tails.

 

After only a short time with the regiment, we had become thoroughly disillusioned. Instead of the danger we’d hoped for, we had been given dirt, work and sleepless nights, getting through which required heroism of a sort, but hardly what we had in mind. Worse still was the boredom, which is still more enervating for the soldier than the proximity of death.

 

We pinned our hopes on an attack; but we had picked a most unfavourable moment to join the front, because all movement had stopped. Even small-scale tactical initiatives were laid to rest as the trenches became more elaborate and the defensive fire more destructive. Only a few weeks before our arrival, a single company had risked one of these localized attacks over a few hundred yards, following a perfunctory artillery barrage. The French had simply picked them off, as on a shooting-range, and only a handful hadgot as far as the enemy wire; the few survivors spent the rest of the day lying low, till darkness fell and they were able to crawl back to their starting-point.

 

A contributory factor in the chronic overtiring of the troops was the way that trench warfare, which demanded a different way of keeping one’s strength up, was still a novel and unexpected phenomenon as far as the officer corps was concerned. The great number of sentries and the incessant trench-digging were largely unnecessary, and even deleterious. It’s not a question of the scale of the earthworks, but of the courage and condition of the men behind them. The ever-deeper trenches might protect against the odd head wound, but it also made for a defensive and security-conscious type of thinking, which we were loath to abandon later. Moreover, the demands made by the maintenance of the trenches were becoming ever-more exorbitant. The most disagreeable contingency was the onset of thaw, which caused the frost-cracked chalk facings of the trenches to disintegrate into a sludgy mess.

 

Of course we heard bullets whistling past our trench, and sometimes we got a few shells from the forts at Rheims, but these little trifling reminders of war came a long way below our expectations. Even so, we were occasionally reminded of the deadly earnest that lurked behind this seemingly aimless business. On 8 July, for instance, a shell struck the ‘Pheasantry’, and killed our battalion adjutant, Lieutenant Schmidt. The officer in command of the French artillery was, apparently, also the owner of that hunting lodge.

 

The artillery was still in an advanced position, just behind the front; there was even a field gun incorporated in the front line, rather inadequately concealed under tarpaulins. During a conversation I was having with the ‘powderheads’, I was surprised to notice that the whistling of rifle bullets bothered them much more than the crumps. That’s just the way it is; the hazards of one’s own line of service always seem more rational and less terrifying.

 

On the stroke of midnight, on 27 January [The birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941).],we gave the Kaiser three cheers, and all along the front sang ‘Heil dir im Siegerkranz’ [‘Hail thee mid the conquerors’ round’]. The French responded with rifle fire.

 

Some time round about then, I had a disagreeable experience which might have brought my military career to a premature and somewhat inglorious end. The company was on the left of the line, and towards dawn, following a night on duty, a comrade and I were detailed to go on double sentry duty by the stream bed. On account of the cold, I had, in breach of regulations, wrapped a blanket round my head, and was leaning against a tree, having set my rifle down in a bush next to me. On hearing a sudden noise behind me, I reached for my weapon — only to find it had disappeared! The duty officer had snuck up on me and taken it without my noticing. By way of punishment, he sent me, armed only with a pickaxe, towards the French posts about a hundred yards away — a cowboys-and-Indians notion that almost did for me. For, during my bizarre punishment watch, a troop of three volunteers ventured forward through the wide reed bed, creating so much rustling that they were spotted right away by the French, and came under fire. One of them, a man called Lang, was hit and never seen again. Since I was standing hard by, I got my share of the then-fashionable platoon salvoes, so that the twigs of the willow tree I was standing next to were whipping round my ears. I gritted my teeth and, out of sheer cussedness, remained standing. As dusk fell, I was brought back to my unit. We were all mightily pleased when we learned that we would finally leave this position, and we celebrated our departure from Orainville with a beery evening in the big barn. On 4 February, we marched back to Bazancourt, and a regiment of Saxons took our place.

 

jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—part I

 

Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?

A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century

 

I. The Long Rhythms of the Century

 

The threshold of the twenty-first century exerts such a strong

grip on our imagination because it also leads us into a new

millennium. This calendrical turning point is itself the product

of a construction of religious history, whose starting point, the

birth of Christ, marked what we recognize in hindsight as a

break in world history. At the end of the second millennium,

the timetables of international airlines, global stock market

transactions, international scientific conventions, even rendezvous

in space are all scheduled according to the Christian

calendar. But the round numbers that punctuate this calendar

don’t match up with the plots of historical events themselves.

Years like 1900 or 2000 are meaningless in comparison to dates

such as 1914, 1945, or 1989. What’s more, these calendrical

blocs can often have the effect of concealing the very continuity

of far-reaching social trends, many of which have origins well

before the beginning of the twentieth century and will continue

well into the new millennium. Before beginning this examination

of the physiognomy of the twentieth century, then, I will

recall some of these longer rhythms that pass through the

century. Here I will mention (a) demographic changes, (b)

structural changes in the nature of employment, and (c) the

course of development of science and technology.

 

(a) Europe’s dramatic increase in population had its beginnings

in the early nineteenth century. Largely a result of medical

progress, this demographic change has in the meantime

largely come to a standstill in affluent societies; in the Third

World population growth has exploded since the middle of the

twentieth century. Expert opinions do not expect a stabilization

of world population — at a level of roughly 10 billion people

— before 2030. That would be a fivefold increase in global

population since 1950. Of course, a highly complicated phenomenology

hides behind this statistical trend.

 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population

explosion was described by contemporaries in terms of the

social form of “the masses.” Even then, the phenomenon was

not an entirely new one. Well before Le Bon became interested

in the “psychology of the mass,” nineteenth-century novelists

were already well acquainted with mass concentrations of

people in cities, housing blocks, factory buildings, offices, and

barracks, as well as with the mass mobilization of workers and

immigrants, demonstrators, strikers, and revolutionaries. But it

was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that massive

flows of people, mass organizations, and mass actions began

to appear intrusive enough to give rise to the vision of the

“revolt of the masses” (Ortega y Gasset). The mass mobilizations

of the Second World War, the mass misery of the concentration

camps, mass treks of refugees, and the mass chaos of

displaced persons after 1945 all exhibit a kind of collectivism

first anticipated in the illustrated title page of Hobbes’

Leviathan: countless individuals anonymously fused into the

overpowering figure of a macro-subject of collective action.

Since mid-century, however, the physiognomy of persons in

great numbers has itself undergone a change. The presence of

bodies — collected, herded together, set in motion — has given

way to the symbolic inclusion of the consciousness of the many

into ever wider networks of communication: the concentrated

masses have been transformed into a broadly dispersed public

of the mass media. Physical commercial flows, and commercial

jams, keep rising; people massing in the streets and squares

become anachronistic as individual connections are integrated

into electronic networks. Of course, this change in social perception

does not touch on the basic continuity of population growth.

 

(b) Similarly, structural changes in the labor system ignore

the thresholds of centuries or millennia. The introduction of

labor-saving production methods, and the subsequent increase

in productivity, is the driving force behind these structural

changes. Since the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century

England, economic modernization has followed the same

sequence in all countries. First, the mass of the laboring population

is shifted into the secondary sectors of manufacturing

industries from the primary agricultural work that had occupied

them for millennia. Next they shift to the tertiary sectors

of commerce, transportation, and services. Postindustrial

societies are now characterized by a quarternary sector of

knowledge-based economic activities such as high-tech industries

or the health-care sector, banking or public administration,

all of which depend on the influx of new information and,

ultimately, on research and innovation. And research and innovation,

in turn, are supported by an “educational revolution”

(Talcott Parsons) which not only eliminated illiteracy but triggered

a drastic expansion of systems of secondary and higher

education. As higher education lost its elite status, the universities

frequently became crucibles of political unrest.

 

Over the course of the twentieth century the pattern of these

structural changes remained invariant, while its pace accelerated.

Under a developmental dictatorship, a country like South

Korea has, since 1960, succeeded in making the jump from a

preindustrial to a postindustrial society within the space of a

single generation. This acceleration explains the new quality

that a well-established process of migration from countryside

to urban areas assumed in the second half of the twentieth

century: leaving aside sub-Saharan Africa and China, the soaring

productivity caused by mechanized agriculture has all but

depopulated the agrarian sector. In the OECD* countries, the

proportion of labor engaged in heavily subsidized agriculture

has fallen below 10 percent of the laboring population.

Counted in the phenomenological currency of lifeworld experiences,

this signifies a truly radical break with the past. The

mode of village life, which had been formative for all cultures

from the neolithic period until well into the nineteenth century,

survives only in imitation form in developed countries.

The decline of the peasantry has also revolutionized the traditional

relationship between the urban and the rural. Today,

more than 40 percent of the world’s population live in cities.

The urbanization process, as it destroys the older forms of

urban life that had arisen in premodern Europe, also destroys

the city itself. If New York, even its metropolitan center in

Manhattan, is itself already no more than vaguely reminiscent

of the great cities of the nineteenth century such as London or

Paris, then the sprawling urban areas of Mexico City, Tokyo,

Calcutta, Sao Paulo, Seoul, or Shanghai have finally exploded

the familiar dimensions of “the city.” The hazy profiles of these

megalopolises, where explosive growth is only two or three

decades old, face us with a mode of experience that we are at

a loss to comprehend.

 

(c) Finally, the series of social consequences of scientific and

technological progress constitutes a third continuity extending

through the twentieth century. New synthetic materials and

energy sources, new industrial, military, and medical technologies,

new means of transportation and communication have all

revolutionized modes of human interaction and forms of life,

but are all based on scientific knowledge and technical developments

from the past. Technological triumphs such as the

mastery of atomic energy and manned space travel, or innovations

like the deciphering of the genetic code and the introduction

of genetic technology into agriculture and medicine, surely

change our awareness of risks; they even touch upon our ethical

self-understanding. But in a certain sense, even these spectacular

achievements have run along familiar lines. Since the seventeenth

century, the instrumental attitude toward a scientifically

objectified nature has not changed; nor has the manner in which

we control natural processes, even if our interventions into

matter are deeper, and our ventures into space are further,

than ever before.

 

Technologically permeated structures of the lifeworld still

require from us laypersons the banal, routinized mode of handling

and operating machines and devices that we don’t understand;

a habitualized trust in the functioning of ongoing

technologies and processes. In complex societies, every expert

is a layperson in relation to other experts. Max Weber had

already described the “second naïveté” that emerges as we

busy ourselves with our radios and cell phones, our calculators,

video gear, or laptops — with the operation of familiar electronic

equipment whose manufacture requires the accumulated

knowledge of generations of scientists. Despite all the panicky

reactions to warnings, prognostications, and mishaps, the lifeworld’s

capacity to assimilate the strange and uncomprehended

into the familiar can only be temporarily undermined by media-

sponsored doubts about the reliability of expert knowledge and

high technology. A growing awareness of risks does not disrupt

the daily routine.

 

The acceleration effects of improved transport and communication

technologies have an entirely different relevance

for the long-term transformation of everyday experience. As

early as 1830, travelers on the earliest railways described a new

mode of perception of space and time. In the twentieth century,

motor traffic and civil aviation accelerated the transport of

persons and goods still further, shrinking the subjective sense of

distance even more. Space and time consciousness were also

affected by new technologies of information processing, storage,

and retrieval. Late eighteenth-century Europe already saw

the new print media of books and newspapers contribute to the

emergence of a global, future-oriented historical consciousness;

at the end of the nineteenth century Nietzsche complained of

the historicism of an educated elite that brought everything

past into the present. Since then, the thoroughgoing decoupling

of the present from the objectified pasts of museums has

reached the masses of educational tourists. The mass print

media is a child of the twentieth century too; but the time machine

effect of the print media was intensified over the

course of the century through photography, film, radio, and

television. Spatial and temporal distances are not “conquered”

any more. They vanish without trace into the ubiquitous present

of virtual realities. Digital communication finally surpasses

all other media in scope and capacity. More people have

quicker access to greater volumes of information, and are able

to process it and instantly exchange it over any distance. The

mental consequences of the Internet – which is proving much

more resistant to incorporation into the routines of the lifeworld

than a new electronic gadget — are still very hard to assess.

  

* Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

 

jürgen habermas explains the twentieth century—part II

 

 

(continued)

 

Jürgen Habermas

Learning from Catastrophe?

A Look Back at the Short Twentieth Century

 

II. Two Physiognomies of the Century

 

The continuities of social modernization extending through the

century can only inadequately teach us what is characteristic of

the twentieth century as such. Thus historians tend to punctuate

the historical flow of their narratives with events, rather

than trends and structural transformations. And indeed the

physiognomy of a century is molded by the caesurae of great

events. Among those historians who are still willing to think in

terms of large historical units, a consensushas emerged that the

“long” nineteenth century (1789-1914) is followed by a

“short” twentieth century (1914-89). The outbreak of the

First World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union thus

frame an antagonism that stretches through both world wars

and the Cold War. Of course, this punctuation permits three

very different interpretations, depending on where one locates

this antagonism — on the economic level of social systems, on

the political level of superpowers, or on the cultural level of

ideologies. Which hermeneutical viewpoint is chosen is, naturally

enough, itself determined by a conflict of ideas that has

dominated the century.

 

The Cold War is carried on today by historiographic means,

whether the terms of the conflict are described as the Soviet

Union’s challenge to the capitalist West (Eric Hobsbawm), or

the struggle of the liberal West against totalitarian regimes

(François Furet). Both interpretations explain in one way or

another the fact that only the United States emerged from the

world wars in a politically, economically, and culturally

strengthened position, and from the Cold War as the world’s

only superpower, an outcome that has labeled the twentieth

century “the American century.” The third reading of the Cold

War is more ambiguous. As long as “ideology” is employed in a

neutral sense, the title The Age of Ideologies (Hildebrand)

expresses nothing more than a variant of a theory of totalitarianism,

according to which the struggle of regimes reflects a

struggle of contending ideologies. But in another sense, the

same title signals the claim (developed by Carl Schmitt) that

since 1917 the mutually opposed utopian projects of world

democracy and world revolution, with Wilson and Lenin as

their exponents, have engaged one another in a global civil

war (Ernst Nolte). According to this ideology critique from

the Right, 1917 marks the point where history became infected

with the bacillus of the philosophy of history, and was so badly

derailed that it was not until 1989 that it was able to jump back

onto the normal tracks of pristine national histories.

 

Each of these three perspectives endows the short twentieth

century with a distinctive physiognomy. According to the first

reading, the century is driven by the challenge presented to the

capitalist world system by the single largest experiment ever

conducted on human beings: carried out with extreme brutality

and at the cost of enormous sacrifice, the forced industrialization

of the Soviet Union certainly set the course for its rise to

the status of a superpower, but it also left the Soviet Union

without a sound economic and social-political basis on which to

construct a superior, or even a viable, alternative to the Western

model. The second reading sees the century under the shadow

of a totalitarianism that broke entirely with the civilizing forces

ushered in by the Enlightenment, destroying the hopes for a

domestication of state power and a humanization of social

relations. The boundless violence of regimes engaging in total

war shatters the barriers of international law just as ruthlessly as

the terrorist violence of single-party dictatorships neutralizes

constitutional protections internally. These first two readings

divide up light and shadow between the forces of totalitarianism

and their liberal enemies clearly enough; for the

third, post-fascist reading, the century stands overshadowed

by an ideological crusade of parties whose mentalities are essentially

similar, even if they are not of the same rank. Both sides

appear to fight out the global contradictions between programs

justified by differing philosophies of history; programs that owe

their power to kindle fanaticism to essentially religious energies

perverted to serve secular ends.

 

Notwithstanding all their differences, these three interpretations

have one thing in common: they all oblige us to look at the

gruesome features of a century that “invented” the gas chambers,

total war, state-sponsored genocide and extermination

camps, brainwashing, state security apparatuses, and the

panoptic surveillance of entire populations. The twentieth

century “generated” more victims, more dead soldiers, more

murdered civilians, more displaced minorities, more torture,

more dead from cold, from hunger, from maltreatment, more

political prisoners and refugees, than could ever have been

imagined. The phenomena of violence and barbarism mark

the distinctive signature of the age. From Horkheimer and

Adorno to Baudrillard, from Heidegger to Foucault and Derrida,

the totalitarian features of the age have also embedded

themselves into the very structure of its critical diagnoses. And

this raises the question of whether these negativistic interpretations,

by remaining transfixed by the gruesomeness of

the century, might be missing the reverse side of all these

catastrophes.

 

Of course, it took decades for those who were directly

involved and affected to come to a conscious assessment of

the dimensions of the horror that finally culminated in the

Holocaust, in the methodical annihilation of the Jews of Europe.

But even if it was suppressed at first, this shock eventually

set loose energies, even opened new insights, that brought

about a reversal in the perception of this horror during the

second half of the century. For the nations that dragged the

planet into a technologically unlimited war in 1914, and for

the people who were forced to confront the mass crimes of an

ideologically unlimited war of extermination after 1939, the

year 1945 also marks a turning point — a turn toward something

better, toward the mastering of the forceof barbarism that had

broken through the very foundations of civilization in Germany.

Should we not have learned something from the catastrophes

of the first half of the twentieth century?

 

My doubts regarding all three of these readings can be

expressed in this way: the demarcation of a short twentieth

century forces periods of global war and the Cold War period

together into a single unit, suggesting the appearance of a

homogenous, uninterrupted, 75-year war of systems, regimes,

and ideologies. But this has the effect of occluding the very

event that not only divides this century chronologically, but

also constitutes an economic, political, and above all a normative

watershed: the defeat of fascism. In the context of the Cold

War, the ideological significance of the wartime alliance

between the Western powers and the Soviet Union against

the German Reich was dismissed as “unnatural” and promptly

forgotten. But the Allied victory and the German defeat of

1945 permanently discredited an array of myths which, ever

since the end of the nineteenth century, had been mobilized

against the heritage of 1789. Allied victory not only sparked the

democratic developments in the Federal Republic of Germany,

Japan, and Italy, and eventually Portugal and Spain. It undermined

the foundations of all forms of political legitimation that

did not — at least verbally, at least in words — subscribe to the

universalist spirit of political enlightenment. This is of course

little consolation for victims of ongoing violations of human

rights.

 

The year 1945 saw a change in the cultural and intellectual

climate that formed a necessary condition for all three of the

uncontested cultural innovations of this century. The revolutionary

changes in the fine arts, architecture, and music that had

begun in the decades before, during, and after the First World

War, and which drew from the experience of war itself,

attained worldwide recognition only after 1945, in the past

tense, as it were, of “classical modernism.” Until the early

1930s, avante-garde art produced a repertoire of entirely new

aesthetic forms and techniques, opening a horizon of possibilities

that was exploited but never transcended by the experiments

of international art during the second half of the century.

Only two philosophers, Heidegger and Wittgenstein — both

opposed to the spirit of modernism, to be sure — possessed a

comparable originality and exerted a comparable historical

influence.

 

This changed cultural climate after 1945 also formed the

background for the political developments which, according

to Eric Hobsbawm,1 changed the face of the postwar period

until the 1980s: the Cold War (a), decolonialization (b), and

the construction of the social welfare state (c).

 

(a) The continuing spiral of an arrogant, exhausting arms

race certainly succeeded in keeping directly threatened nations

in a state of continual fear. Nevertheless the mad calculations of

a balance of terror — MAD was the self-ironic abbreviation for

mutually assured destruction — did prevent the outbreak of a

hot war. The unexpected, mutual concession of two superpowers

gone wild — the eminently reasonable agreement that

Reagan and Gorbachev reached in Reykjavik that introduced

the end of the arms race — makes the Cold War appear in

hindsight as a high-risk process of the self-domestication of

nuclear alliances. This is also an apt description for the peaceful

implosion of a global empire, whose leadership recognized the

inefficiency of a supposedly superior mode of production, and

admitted defeat in the economic race rather than following the

time-honored pattern of deflecting internal conflicts with military

adventures abroad.

 

(b) The process of decolonialization did not follow a straight

path either. In hindsight, however, the colonial powers only

fought rearguard actions. The French fought in vain against

national liberation movements in Indochina; in 1956 Britain

and France saw their military adventure in Suez end in failure.

In 1975 the United States was forced to end its intervention in

Vietnam after ten costly years of war. The year 1945 marked

the end of Japan’s colonial empire and the independence of

Syria and Libya. Britain withdrew from India in 1947; Burma,

Sri Lanka, Israel, and Indonesia were all founded in the following

year. The western regions of the Islamic world from Iran to

Morocco next gained independence, followed gradually by the

states of Central Africa and finally the last remaining colonies in

Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. The end of the apartheid

regime in South Africa, and the return of Hong Kong and

Macao to China, conclude a process that has at least formally

ended the dependencies of colonial peoples and established new

states (all too often torn by civil war, cultural conflicts, and

ethnic strife) as equal members in the UN General Assembly.

 

(c) The third development is an unambiguous change for the

better. In the affluent and peaceful Western European democracies,

and to a lesser degree in the United States, Japan, and

some other countries, mixed economies made possible the

establishment and effective realization of basic social rights.

Of course, the explosive growth of the global economy, the

quadrupling of industrial production, and an exponential

increase in world trade between the early 1950s and the early

1970s also generated disparities between the rich and the poor

regions of the world. But the governments of the OECD

nations, who were responsible for three-quarters of global production

and four-fifths of global trade in industrial goods during

these two decades, had learned enough from the catastrophic

experiences of the period between the two world wars to

pursue intelligent domestic economic policies, focussing on

stability with a relatively high rate of economic growth, and

on the construction and enhancement of comprehensive social

security systems. In welfare-state mass democracies, highly

productive capitalist economies were socially domesticated for

the first time, and were thus brought more or less in line with

the normative self-understanding of democratic constitutional

states.

 

These three developments lead a Marxist historian such as

Eric Hobsbawm to celebrate the postwar era as a “golden age.”

But since 1989 at the latest, there has been a growing public

realization that this era is reaching its end. In countries where

the social welfare state is still acknowledged as a positive

achievement even in hindsight, there is a growing mood of

resignation. The end of the twentieth century was marked by

a structural threat to the welfarist domestication of capitalism,

and by the revival of a socially reckless form of neoliberalism.

Commenting on the current mood — somewhat depressed,

somewhat clueless, the whole thing washed over by the throb

of techno-pop — Hobsbawm could almost be taken for an

author from late Roman antiquity: “The Short Twentieth

Century ended in problems, for which nobody had, oreven

claimed to have, solutions. As the citizens of the fin-de-siècle

tapped their way through the global fog that surrounded them,

into the third millenium, all they knew for certain was that an

era of history had ended. They knew very little else.”2

 

Even the old problems — peacekeeping and international

security, economic disparities between North and South, the

risks of ecological catastrophe — were already global ones. But

today these problems have all been sharpened by a newly

emerging problem that supersedes the old challenges. Capitalism’s

new, apparently irrevocable globalizing dynamic drastically

reduces the G7 states’ freedom of action, which had

enabled them, unlike the economically dependent states of

the Third World, to hang on to a relative degree of independence.

Economic globalization forms the central challenge for

the political and social orders that grew out of postwar Europe

(III). One way to meet this challenge would consist in strengthening

the regulatory power of politics, to allow politics to catch

up with global markets that are beyond the reach of nation-states

(IV). Or does the lack of any clear orientation for ways of

meeting this challenge indicate not that we can learn from

catastrophes, but indeed that we only learn from catastrophes?