Saturday, November 23, 2013


“During the endless hours flat on your back, you try to distract yourself to pass the time; once, I reckoned up my wounds.  Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand grenade splinters and two bullet splinters which, with entry and exit wounds , left me an even twenty scars.  In the course of  this war, where so much of the firing was done blindly into empty space, I still managed to get myself targeted no fewer than eleven times. I felt every justification therefore, in donning the gold wound stripes, which arrived for me one day.” 
                                                STORM OF STEEL by Ernst Jünger

            With next year’s anniversary of the start of World War One publishers and the other media has begun their campaigns to make it as boring as they made World War Two.
            World War Two became at least in New York City only the Holocaust.  In the rest of the country it became the story of the “greatest generation” probably the dumbest phrase ever concocted by the mangers of our memory. 
            World War Two was usually the Battle of Britain, D-Day and then the defeat of Germany.  There was something about Pearl Harbor, about Iwo Jima (thanks to Clint Eastwood) and then dropping the Atom Bomb.
            I suspect World War One will become:
===How wonderful was the summer of 1914.
===An archduke gets killed in some God forsaken Balkan city… and people will be off to the races talking about the more recent war in Serbia and Bosnia (Saint Susan Sontag will appear for the thoughtful New Yorkers)
===O, yeah there will be trenches and dead English poets and maybe even we’ll have Hemingway in Italy… but he’s not much in favor with the academics
===Lawrence of Arabia will appear and Peter O’Toole will again ride his camel…
===The Americans will get themselves involved into the war thanks to Woodrow Wilson, the 1917 pre-incarnation of Barack Obama… good intentions run amok
===Gary Cooper will do Sergeant Alvin York.
===Eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month or something like that in 1918
===Lenin and Hitler as aftermath.       
            Not for a moment am I exaggerating or being cynical but such is how we are being shaped. 
            Before the mental sculpting begins I suggest reading WOUNDED A New History of the Western Front in World War I by Emily Mayhew. (Oxford University Press) The book tries to tell the reader what happens after:
The Flanders casualty was almost torn apart.  Gone were the neat round holes by rounded ammunition that flew slowly in the hot dry African sun, (The Boar War) could be easily located and extracted and didn’t leave much damage behind. Instead, the cylindroconical bullet fired by the new powerful weaponry hit fast and hard, went deep and took bits of dirty uniform and airborne soil particles with it.  Inside the human body it ricocheted off bones and ploughed through soft tissue until its energy was spent.  Shrapnel fragments were just as bad.  They created jagged wounds, huge blooms of trauma that didn’t stop bleeding and, if the casualty could survive long enough, provided the perfect environment for infection and sepsis.  And there were so many of them.  At base hospitals soldier after soldier arrived with the most dreadful injuries: deep ragged wounds to their heads, faces, limbs and abdomens.

            There are stories of the stretcher bearers, the medics, the doctors, the nurses, the reconstructive surgeons and the chaplains…  the prose is dutiful and the stories all a bit too upbeat but then they are usually the memories of those who survived.  But it is very good to have such a book in these months before “the celebrations” begin as it reminds us that the central act of war is killing and failing that, wounding… everything else is something like packaging. 
            I think I would like to have just read the actual memoirs, letters, reports than the reconstructions and scene settings but as the following shows the WOUNDED IS memorable in a way not soon to be forgotten:
            One of the duties of the nurses was to write to the surviving relatives.  Here is a letter from Elizabeth Boon to the family of a Private Simpson:
Dear Mrs. Simpson
You will have heard the sad news that your son Pte Joseph Simpson passed away on Tuesday November 12th.  The funeral is taking place today at Terlincthun Cemetery. The No. of his grave is 4E Plat 10. We would like to have you with him but when he saw he was so acutely ill there was no time to get you here before he died.  He passed away peacefully at 5:52 on Tuesday 12th November.
 He talked of going to Blighty to see you and then before he died he thought he was with you all and put out his hands to first one and the other with such a glad smile, he called you by name and then ‘Ada’ but we could not catch what else he said. He was a very good patient and we did all we could for him and he had everything that was possible. 
With sincere sympathy
E. Boon
(for Matron)

            “Boon worked on the moribund wards at CCS, Moribund wards--- the last stop at the CCS for those soldiers beyond help--- had been given their own RAMC regulations, and it was  according to regulation that special care was taken to safeguard the belongs of the dying and that the patients final messages and wishes should be carefully recorded in a notebook designated for that purpose…. Two years on and Boon had written so many sympathy letters that she had lost count.  All she knew was that she had to make sure she didn’t get behind with them.  A colleague tried to write at least a dozen letters a night but during the battle at Aras he had got behind and had to write almost sixty letters in one night to catch up.  Another nurse wrote almost 400 letters during Passchendaele… Battles and deaths in winter were the worst, when the freezing wind blew through their tents and gutted their candles.  They had to warm the bottle of frozen ink in their hands or beg a pan of hot water from the kitchen before they could begin the work of writing.
            I copy those lines again: Battles and deaths in winter were the worst, when the freezing wind blew through their tents and gutted their candles.  They had to warm the bottle of frozen ink in their hands or beg a pan of hot water from the kitchen before they could begin the work of writing.

And one other detail for it is in details such a book as WOUNDED is to be valued for : 

 Once a boy had cried out and she thought she must have missed his morphine dose, but when she got to his bed he gasped that his lavender bag had fallen to the floor and he could suddenly smell his own decay.  She picked up the bag and pinned it on the pillow next to his face.  The boy immediately turned his head towards it and began to inhale the clean scent.  He died a short while afterwards.

        There are only two essential books about World War One: Ernst Jünger’s STORM OF STEEL. I think it the single best book ever written about the experience of actual front line combat.  Jünger lived to be 103 and is the only Twentieth Century German language writer who can be compared to Goethe, without apology. 
            The second book is IN PARENTHESIS by DAVID JONES, a perfectly written visionary book (Introduced by T. S. Eliot) based on the actual experience of one individual soldier
 but through the language is able without pretense to represent  the experience inside a world which would not be foreign to a soldier in the Iliad who had also passed through the Welsh epics and Arthurian romances:  never has the modern reality been more neatly summoned up: 
49 Wyatt, 01549 Wyatt.
Coming sergeant.
Pick ‘em up, pick ‘em up---I’ll stalk within yer chamber.
Private Leg … sick
Private Ball … absent
’01 Ball, ‘O1 Ball. Ball of No. 1.
Where’s Ball, 25201 Ball--- you corporal,
Ball of your section
Movement round and about the Commanding Officer.
Bugler, will you sound 'Orderly Sergeants'.

            And I would allow Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front though it is finally too sentimental and ironic but if read in conjunction with the two novels that Remarque as a sort of sequels THE Road Back and THREE COMRADES. 

And there you have it.
            But…  but…  I know no books either fiction or nonfiction that describe the great other First World War along the Eastern Front, in the Balkans, in Africa, in the Far East.  There is The White War by Mark Thompson which does justice to the Alpine war between Austria and Italy…  Solzhenitsyn tries in The Great Wheel,  August 1914 to describe the great battled at Tannenberg   and there is Viktor Shklovsky’s  A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY  which is an attempt to describe the war that was endured in the far east of Turkey where was the war was joined by the Russians…         

               For the Civil  War In the United Stares we are fortunate to have Shelby Foote's great narrative of the War Between the States from a sort of Southern point of view and we have Bruce Catton’s more popular version from the Union side… but at least we have these grand narratives  there is none for World War One.

Monday, November 4, 2013

BENN and LEOPARDI: how not to despair to death

 five                             IMPROMPTUS Selected Poems and Some Prose by Gottfried Benn translated by Michael Hofman and ZIBALDONE by Giacomo Leopardi, both published by Farrar Straus and Giroux are the two best books published this year 2013  in the United Stated.  Both books are sadly quite expensive though the Leopardi is now down to $47 at Amazon and the kindle version is 36.  The Benn is at $25. 
            I usually do not mention this fact but the reality of money is ever present.  Neither book will be exhausted after one or a hundred readings.  If you bought the new Pynchon novel most likely you did not finish reading it and are not now likely to and if by chance you did you will never re-read it… same goes for every single book on the best seller lists, again this year.
            The Zibaldone is  the inexhaustible notebook of the greatest Italian poet after Dante.  I have already written about them but what is finally heartening about them is that they are devoid of any cheering reflections or news: they truly reflect the accident of a person’s birth and the sure death to follow within X of years.  And with more than 2500 pages…
eight                          Gottfried Benn was a German poet.  His years: 1886-1956.  He was a medical doctor.  He did not leave Germany during 1933-45.  Any other details are trivial and a distraction away from the words he put on the page.  I read him as an equal with T.S. Eliot and Paul Valery and David Jones and Ronald Johnson. 
            Of course I know it is not a horse race but it is good to lay down the calling cards.
            Like most literate people born in the 20th Century into an English speaking country I discovered Benn through the New Directions anthology PRIMAL VISION and read a few additional pieces in the Benn volume in The German Library published by Continuum.  Michael Hofman’s volume compliments these books and adds some new selections and his own versions of some of the best known Benn poems.
            I wish I could afford to give this book to every friend and acquaintance.
            Many readers will remember that T.S. Eliot quoted in The Three Voices of Poetry  from a Benn’s lecture Probleme der Lyrik.  Strangely, all three anthologies do not include a translation of this lecture and you would have to travel, according to Google, to a small college in Texas to read a translation and commentary on it.  However, Eliot’s description and commentary is exemplary: 
What asks Herr Benn in his lecture, does the writer of such a poem, “addressed to no one,“ start with?  There is first, he says, an inert embryo or “creative germ’  [ein dumpfer schopferischer Keim] and, on the other hand, the Language, the resources of words at the poet’s command. He has something germinating in him for which he must find words; but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order.  When you have the words for it the “thing” for which the words had to be found has disappeared,  replaced by a poem.  What you start from is nothing so definite as an emotion, in any ordinary sense; of it is still more certainly not an idea; it is--- to adapt two lines of Beddoes to a different meaning---a
                         bodiless childful of life, in the gloom
                Crying with frog voice, “what shall I be?”
  I agree with Gottfried Benn…

+++the proof is always in th actual poems++++
Ten                              And we have the most memorable of the Benn poems  the one that stays always fresh as  it were.
              Beautiful youth
The mouth of the girl who had lain in the rushes
Looked so nibbled
When they opened her chest, her esophagus was so holey
Finally in a bower under the diaphragm
They found a nest of young rats.
One little thing lay dead.
The others were living off kidneys and liver
Drinking the cold blood and had
Had themselves a beautiful youth.
And just as beautiful was their death, and quick:
The lot of them were thrown into the water.
Ah, will you hearken at the little muzzles’ oinks!

This poem is from early in his writing life.  And from later in the life:
                        Fragments  1955
30x endured agonies at the dentist’s
100x treated myself to expensive imported roses
4x shed tears beside open graves
Left 25 women
2x had a pocket full of money and 98x not,
At the end of the day you take out an insurance policy
At 12.50 per month
To be certain of being buried.
What are you? A symptom,
An ape, a gnome---

            OR from the so-called middle of the life as if anyone can define that for himself, a something that arrives only after.
A shadow on the wall
boughs stirred by the noonday wind
that’s enough earth
and for the eye
enough celestial participation.

How much further do you want to go?  Refuse
the bossy insistence
of new impressions---

Lie there still,
behold your own fields,
your estate,
dwelling especially
on the poppies
because they transported the summer---

Where did it go?

Seventeen           And then there is the prose of Benn.  None of the three books of Benn’s writings including this wonderful current anthology, make room for the longer prose works in their entirety.  Instead of the German on the facing pages I wish that Hofmann had given those pages over to a complete versions of the NOVEL OF THE PENOTYPE, THE PTOLEMEAN and DOUBLE LIFE… But do not allow this quibble to standing in your way to acquiring this book.
            We always need books from writers like the Benn in “Aging as a Problem for Artists remind us:
With your back to the wall, in the wretchedness of fatigue, in the grey of emptiness, you will read your Job and your Jeremiah, and you will stick it out.  Draft your prepositions as harshly as you can, because when the epoch draws to a close and kills your song you will be measured by your sentences.  What you don’t write will not exist.  You will make enemies, be alone, a nutshell on the sea, a walnut shell emitting  odd clanking noises, rattling with cold, trembling with your own revulsion at yourself, but don’t send out an SOS--- in the first place, no one will hear you, and in the second, your ending will be peaceful after so much travail.

            If Hofman who translated Ernst Junger’s STORM OF STEEL has the courage to translate the great prose books of Benn then it might be possible to reorder the history of the recent century when it comes to the German language:  Gottfried Benn, Ernst Junger, Arno Schmidt and Uwe Johnson in Germany with Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann and Robert Musil in Austria with Robert Walser over there in Switzerland