A matter of taste, again…

February 7, 2011

Victory Arch - Iran/Iraq War .

Disgusting, vulgar, obscenely kitsch – some of the comments that are heard about Saddam Hussein’s Victor Arch, which is now being restored in Baghdad.  One scholar wrote an entire book on the subject of Saddam’s artistic output. [Edward Said felt that the author, Kanan Makiya, an erstwhile booster of the GWB invasion, had tainted motives for his critical tirade.]

One man’s kitsch is another man’s living room. Tolstoy had the same opinion of Napoleon as we have of Saddam, but Boney is a “great man,” and his monuments are gawked at with admiration and reverence by millions of civilized westerners

Napoleon celebrates Austerlitz

The Red Badge of Courage

February 27, 2010

Stephen Crane had never seen a battle when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage: only read of them, and conversed with his civil war veteran brother about Chancelorville.  Nevertheless, his depiction of the atmosphere of battle convinced many that he had seen it first hand, and it won high praise from veterans.  He is writer of marvelous descriptions, and uses poetic metaphor with a wonderful economy.  This gives his epic of the Civil War an overarching sense of irony, deflating the romantic pretensions of lawful battlefield slaughter; pretensions which yet lived on, kept alive by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt in America, and countless others in Europe.  WWI pretty much finished off that point of view.

The story proceeds on two levels: a realistic tale of a few days in the life of a civil war soldier, filled with telling minor details and marked by a singular absence of glory; and the inner tale of the psychological evolution of Henry Fleming, usually noted simply as “the youth.”  He grapples with the central question that faces him, and all soldiers, and all who contemplate their work:  How the hell do they do it?

A friend told me once that he learned that the most difficult thing to train new soldiers to do is to run the right way.  To run towards danger.  The Red Badge does not deal with the training that Henry got, perfunctory, no doubt, but in a modern army, there is tremendous effort placed on molding the soldiers into a group so that they do not think of their paltry survival as separate from the the unit.  War is not a place for individualistic heroism these days.  That went out with the hoplite revolution of ancient Greece…

After Henry flees the front lines, he engages in a long series of inner divigations to prove to himself that he acted sensibly, if not heroically, and he manages to screw his courage up to rejoin the unit, rather than to desert.  He thinks

…furthermore, how could they kill him who was the chosen of the gods and doomed to greatness?

The pagan theme is sounded frequently, an ironic note of comparison with the myths, legends, and literature of classical antiquity.  When Henry rejoins the battle and falls into a manic frenzy of shooting, continuing alone, long after all others have ceased, unaware that the skirmish is over, Crane says, “He had fought like a pagan defending his religion.” And note the further irony in the quotation above…doomed to greatness! He echoes the common sentiments of new recruits, recounted in a passage I recall from a WWII memoir that went something like this:

At first, everyone believes he is too smart, too good looking, too strong, or too loved by his mother to bit hit.  Then, after a while, that illusion goes, and he realizes he could in fact be killed or wounded.  Finally, everyone realizes that it’s only a matter of time before they leave action, dead or badly hit.

A writer on the Holocaust remarked once that there were no survivors in the death camps, only those who happened to be alive when the war ended.  For the infantry in total war, it is the same.  The casualty rates in WWII were mind boggling for our troops, hastily trained, hastily equipped, not always well led, and facing a hardened fighting machine on the defensive in the Pacific and Europe.  Those who went first, died pretty much.  Some of them had a copy of Crane’s book, no doubt.

Crane did not finish with Henry Fleming in this novel.  A short story, The Veteran, revisits him, now as The Old Man, recounting his experiences to avid listeners.  He does not hide the fact that at first, he ran.  His grandson is very perturbed.  In the climax of the story, the youth is tested yet again, or tests himself.


October 26, 2009

Napoleon III - Emperor of the French

File this under incompetent leaders of great states, right next to George W. Bush: 

The Paris of today that everyone dreams about was given to us in the 1860s and 70s by this man, Napoleon III, and his civil servant, Baron Haussmann.  His reign began in liberal democratic enthusiasm, progressed to despotism by way of coup d’état, and ended in dismal, utter, spectacular, and mind bogglingly stupid failure. 

He was manipulated into provoking a war with Prussia, convinced he would win in a walkover.  Bismarck, Prussia’s leader, couldn’t have asked for a more pliable victim.  The military catastrophe is chronicled in the first part of Zola’s book, The Debacle.  thousands of desparately hungry, exhausted soldiers marching to and fro over the French landscape, despondent and demoralized as they realize that they are being led by a gang of complete idiots. 

Think of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 without the wild hilarity, and you’ll have a notion of what I’m reading now.  In the film, The Life of Émile Zola, there is a scene early on in which the general staff is incensed at Zola about this book – they are out to get him. 

After the disaster came the Paris Commune, with its murder, insurrection, and brutal suppression.  Then, as time heals all wounds, socialist, communist, and liberal came together across their political differences to slake their thirst for revenge (la revanche!)  against Germany.  Much to the consternation of some leftists, dreaming of international solidarity, the worker’s parties supported France’s lunge into WWI – the time to regain lost territory had come at last.  More lambs to the slaughter.

Army of Shadows

August 23, 2009

shadows1 shadows2 shadows3

Jean-Pierre Melville’s portrait of a small group of French Resistance fighters left me shaken.  The film has very little violence in it, but it produces a non-stop feeling of acute tension.  In his “minimalist” directorial style, Melville’s characters rarely discuss their feelings or motivations.  They rarely discuss anything.  The Germans are methodical, brutal, and occasionally openly sadistic.  The fighters move around in the death-maze created by the Nazi occupation, carrying out their missions and trying not to get caught…yet.

They sense that they will all be caught, eventually.  Life and death frequently hinge on split-second decisions, or just plain chance.  In an early sequence, the main character finds himself on a bench in Gestapo headquarters sitting next to another man waiting for questioning.  The only outcome of interrogation is death.  With a few words at an opportune moment, a plan is formed.  The hero escapes, and the other?  Did he escape the machine gun fire we hear?  We, and the hero, never know.

The army is one  of shadows, in the shadows, but also of shadow-people.  To preserve security, no one knows much of the history of anyone else.  An important figure in the organization is a family relation to another, lesser figure.  Neither knows of the other’s work. The less known, the less said during the inevitable torture.  That’s if you don’t get the chance to swallow your cyanide first.

Sounds like a thriller?  It’s not like any other.  The people are ordinary, made extraordinary by their ordeal.  No heroic missions – it’s not even clear how much they accomplish – so much of the action centers on their responses to the arrests of their associates.  During one halcyon segment, a local noble provides his estate for use as a nocturnal airstrip for British planes, and all goes remarkably well for a while.  The man was a reactionary before the war, but he came around.  We are told matter-of-factly that the Germans rounded him up with his private militia of local farmers and shot them all without trial.  Back to the alleyways…

I read that some left-wing critics in 1969 (the year of its release – it was not successful and was hardly seen until its recent restoration) called the film “Gaulist propaganda.”  De Gaulle was considered by many, at that time, to be a reactionary obstacle to progress in France, his glory days as the leader of the Free French were far behind. 

There is a scene in the film in which de Gaulle is featured briefly, pinning a medal on a Resistance leader who is clearly moved to be in his presence.  But as for la politique quotidienne – everyday politics, that is – I think the film is way beyond that.  In an early scene, when the main character is in a prison camp, he addresses a young fellow inmate, an inexperienced, self-identified communist, as “comrade.”  The young man, surprised, asks, “Are you a communist too?”  “No,” he replies. “But I have comrades.”  They make an escape plan.

The sequence of images below is from the climactic scene at the end.  Mathilde (Simone Signoret) the mastermind of so many operations is compromised by the Nazis.  She must be eliminated.  She accepts her fate.  It is the only way.

mathilde_1 mathilde_2

mathilde_2a mathilde_3

mathilde_4 mathilde_5

mathilde_6 mathilde_7

[I don’t want to give too much away, but on at least one occasion, Melville’s style was so minimalist, I was confused about a fact that provides a powerful emotional statement.  The scene takes place in the dead of night, but because, in film, there must be some light, I was left somewhat in the dark!]

Farewell to Arms

October 18, 2008

Many years ago, late at night, I caught the last few minutes of Farewell to Arms.  I didn’t know what story it was, but I guessed.  What knocked me out was the unabashed romantic passion, the intense emotionalism, and the deep vulnerability of Gary Cooper, whom I had thought of as a old-style tough guy.  It would be easy to think looking at these images and reading this that it might be pure corn, but it is anything but!

Henry dreams of being an architect (like another Cooper role that Ayn Rand fans love) but for now he’s an ambulance driver in the Italian army of WWI.  He’s no gung ho trooper, preferring drink and ladies, but he meets the love of his life in Catherine, a nurse, played by Helen Hayes.  They are separated by circumstances, she is pregnant, he deserts – “I’m sick of the war.  I must find her.” – and finally, bedraggled and exhausted, he finds her in hospital in Switzerland.  She is dying, having miscarried their baby.

In their last moments together, Henry is devastated.  This is Gary Cooper, towering icon of masculinity, breaking down into helpless trembling at the prospect of Catherine’s death.  “Don’t die, you can’t die.  You’re too brave to die!”  (Like so many in the war who died, regardless of how brave.)  All the while, the passionate sounds of the Wagner Liebstodt from Tristan und Isolde, the “Love-Death.

She dies, he lifts her off the bed to the sound of Wagner and the tolling of bells all over Europe announcing the end of the WWI and the carnage.  “Peace, peace!” he shouts.



A blast from the past

August 17, 2008

In utrumque paratus…That little bit of Latin means “prepared for either…”  In this case, the either refers to peaceful defense or war.  War, as in World War III, that is.  Nuclear annihilation by intercontinental ballistic missiles, aka ICBM.

We were vacationing up north in the Lake Champlain area of Vermont, riding our bikes through pleasant rural vistas, when we stopped at a visitors’ information site in Alburgh, a very small town.  There was a solid historical marker set on a post that identified the area as the site of the first US ICBM missile silo – set way up north near the border with Canada to minimize the flying time to the USSR.  I left without remembering to take a picture of the marker, but obviously others have had similar thoughts (see here).  I didn’t know there was so much touristical interest in Cold War armageddon.  Just seeing that marker was chilling to me.

Holy War

February 17, 2008


Venice, the greatest city in the world, as far as I am concerned. A city grown on trade, ready armies and ready cash, always on the qui vivre for a good opportunity. When the army of the Fourth Crusade found itself through inept planning camped on the Adriatic with no means to transport itself across the water to the Holy Land, the Venetians were ready. As Gibbon recounts with his usual dryness,

“The maritime states of Italy were alone possessed of the means of transporting the holy warriors with their arms and horses; and the six deputies proceeded to Venice, to solicit, on motives of piety or interest, the aid of that powerful republic.”

There was, still, the problem of payment for these services, and the armies were short of money. Gibbon continues,

“The obstacle was removed by the policy and patriotism of the doge, who proposed to the barons that, if they would join their arms in reducing some revolted cities of Dalmatia, he would expose his person in the holy war, and obtain from the republic a long indulgence, till some wealthy conquest should afford the means of satisfying the debt. After much scruple and hesitation [the cities were Christian, not infidel], they chose rather to accept the offer than to relinquish the enterprise.So great an affront to Christian principles could not go unpunished: The pope excommunicated the assembled host.

That is, the Venetians said, “Let’s make a deal.” They got the holy rollers to subdue some rebellious (Christian) possessions of their empire, and they helped move the Crusade along. They did get a bit sidetracked – there was more loot to be had in Constantinople than Jerusalem, nevermind that it was a Christian empire all its own. It wasn’t Catholic!

You can read the whole sordid story in the Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade by Villehardouin. It seems to me to be somehow emblematic of certain recurring themes in human history: greed, cynicism, the perversion of high ideals and the tragedies that brings, and of course, as the great Flaubert would say, stupidity.


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