Content advisory 18+ When I think about the two great wars of the 20th century, my memory is of course fed by all the ghastly footage that is on hand to help us relive the horrors. As most of this documentary stuff is cast in film noir style black and white, the effect is even more sinister than it would be otherwise. Soldiers frozen in paralytic agony as bullets rip through them. Grainy night images of storm troopers kicking in the doors of shops and private dwellings. (I can only imagine what the Jewish families inside must have been thinking) .
But in a way, the black and white offers (at least to me) a crazy kind of comfort: to wit, it all seems to have happened such a long time ago. It almost appears to have nothing to do with us. Just as unsettling, I find, are the color films of Hitler and his entourage relaxing way up on the mountain top. Amid the faces of Hitler himself, the lean and starched viciousness implicit in that of Goebbels, and the oddly Frankensteinian handsomeness of Rudolph Hess, we see women, children, and dogs. Caught in such a light, the Nazi ‘gentlemen’ and their consorts and families do not appear frightening in the least. We could just as well meet them in a green meadow, at a bar under a circus tent, or in church. The color makes them instantly contemporary.
But it’s the black and white films that really bring back the past. Sometimes, with nothing better to do, I sit at my computer and watch old documentaries of American baseball around the turn of the 20th century, or about New York City (East Manhattan) after the arrival of all those immigrants 100 years ago. In some of them, due to the flawed technology of the old film equipment, the people seem to be moving at breakneck speed, and I love watching the horses and buggies galloping and flying by and the men pushing carts wildly through the crowded streets. Typically, I try to spy on who the pretty young New York women of the last century might have been and try not to imagine in what kind of nursing homes they died in 60 years later.
In so doing, I can, in a sense, “relive” what I never in fact lived. So one day, while fooling around and listening to some ‘Golden Oldies”, I found a longstanding favorite song of mine. For those of you who know something of my generation, a great singer back in the 70’s and 80’s was a young Canadian named Neil Young. His most famous album was called “After the Gold Rush”, and, in my opinion, it is one of the best of all time. There is a track on it entitled “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, and on YouTube there is a version with a great video depicting (on black and white film) some old wedding day of long ago. I include it here.
It could be as far back as before the First World War, though maybe it is more recent — but still of a past age, capturing a time and place in a dissolved world where things were done differently.
I am much moved by this video, as it evokes the joy and levity, not to mention the underlying hopes and dreams, of people who lived and died long ago. Whether their dreams were fulfilled I do not know, and I am not interested in finding out. What impresses is the sheer innocence, a kind of blind faith in things to come. We see this as the couple dance at the end amid the other guests. It is THEIR DAY, long dead, but recorded for me to watch from my vantage point so far, far away from their shining moment.
It was like that before each of the two great wars in the 20th century, especially before World War I. Nobody had any idea of what was about to happen, not even as the bold young Frenchmen and Englishmen, etc., cheerfully put on their warpaint and went striding off to put the ‘Bosch’ in their place back in 1914 — that which became known as “The War to End All Wars”. Haha. And so, this morning in the wake of the U.S. bombing of Syrian chemical plants, and further amid the seeming escalation of tension throughout the world, I found myself wondering — there in the forest with my dogs where I do my best thinking early in the day — if we ourselves, as a world, are standing at the very edge of such a precipice, just as those unwitting people did before WWI and perhaps to some extent (Remember Neville Chamberlain’s policy of “Appeasement” toward Hitler — he must have still been hoping for a happy ending) as allied Europe did before WWII.
What I am trying to say has nothing to do with pushing any panic buttons or jumping to conclusions. Maybe I am just an Old Fool, but I confess that I do not know why anybody is fucking around in Syria in the first place, and, frankly, a part of me just doesn’t care. I have lived my almost of what I imagine to be my allotment of 70+ years, and my position is that, if the Powers That Be want to blow up the world, let them do it. And let’s hope that the process of evolution gets it right the next time and ends up with some life form better than human beings to run the show. So I COULD just be an ass and shrug and say, “I Got Mine, Buddy” and “I’m All Right Jack”. But in reality, I feel afraid and sorry for the babies that have been born to the world during even the short time it is taking me to write this blog. Trust me, they will face cataclysm in a way that we probably won’t. It’s no laughing matter.
There will be a World War III. It’s just a matter of time.
I was thinking this morning of the British poet Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXlV (1914), which describes a typical English summer day shortly before the outbreak of war. In the last stanza, Larkin wrote:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
I am much moved by the lines having to do with “the thousands of marriages/lasting a little while longer..” — only “a little while” because, of course, the men will soon go off and die in the war. That precisely what a lot of them did, only they didn’t know it at the time.
That’s the pathos of it, you see. A sweet, innocent summer’s day — probably many such weddings and mellow, callow afternoons (such as in the Neil Young song) just at the brink of calamity and hideous destruction. That is what touches my heart, despite the general anger that I feel towards the human condition and all its self-imposed misery.
Another famous poet, W.H. Auden, wrote the following lines in his famous poem “September 1, 1939”, which was composed the same day that the Germans invaded Poland, thus starting World War II:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
So when Auden wrote his lines, he knew that the war had started, but even he had no idea how awful it would be. As Auden himself said, many years later “Nothing I ever wrote or said prevented one Jew from being gassed.” But all that was to come later.
If you have ever seen a tremendous film called “Cabaret” (with Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli), you will get a probably quite accurate picture of the mood in Germany before the war. We see the relentless growth of Nazi power rising implacably on the periphery, but in the meantime, the main characters in the film just go on living their decadent lives. The same can be said for another great film “The Remains of the Day,” in which Anthony Hopkins plays the role of an immaculate but emotionally puerile butler working in a ‘great’ house whose owner is a Nazi sympathizer.
Everyone is busy all the time. Busy not knowing what is truly to come.
To my mind, we are rapidly approaching — if we are not already there — a point in history where the days of innocence (can such a word be used to describe life in 2018? ) are numbered. One day, life as we have known it will simply explode in our faces. And think of it this way too: has there EVER been a weapon which humans invented that they did not ultimately use? Maybe future technology will somehow supplant the need for nuclear weapons, in effect making them obsolete before being actually called into force. Maybe the next monumental man-made catastrophe will come from chemical warfare or the introduction of some killer virus. But come it will.
In just two months the World Cup will begin and I hope with all my might that hostilities throughout the world will be somehow put on hold. I hope there will be no terrorist attacks. I hope the Dictator in North Korea does not blow a fuse, and I hope that the Americans and Russians will likewise come to their senses.
I just hope also for some good football matches. And, if it is not too much to ask, a summer of light and love. Indeed, it may be that future historians, when they sit down to write about World War III, those who survive having seen the world put back together after first watching it be obliterated, or those even later who look back through the binoculars of time, will shake their heads sadly and say: “Look at them. Playing football without a care in the world. Loving and coupling and marrying and turning to the future with such unknowing smiles and naive assurance…just look at them…no idea at all of the coming horror. Such a pity.”
The summer of 1914. The summer of 1939. The summer of 2018?
===Eric Richard Leroy===