Monday, May 28, 2012

Modern Memory

Looking south towards the World Trade Center from Chelsea Piers at 20th Street. The IAC Building is in the foreground. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, May 28, 2012. Memorial Day. A very warm weekend in New York. Sunny; humid; but not too. Rain threatening on Sunday night.

Quiet. This first weekend of the Summer season. The kick-off. A lot of people leave town. The Hamptons crew; go went gone. I won’t deny that if  I had a house out there or up in Connecticut (especially), I’d be gone too. But I don’t and house-guesting doesn’t appeal, having been peopled out by the time Friday comes along. Thus, I’ve got used to, and even look forward to the city on these summer's a'comin' (and late Spring) days.

The restaurants are busy but there’s room for everybody. The sidewalks, busy too, but ... room. We slow down. We look. People go off to the theatre to the museums, have a cuppa somewhere al fresco. New York is theatre on days like these. You sit and watch and take it all in.

In Memoriam. Growing up in America in the 1940s and 50s, Memorial Day, also known then as Decoration Day, was an important day in all Americans’ lives. For a kid it was late Spring, almost summer, almost school's out, and go-barefoot time. Hot dogs, picnics, ice cream and soda. Sounds ordinary now but the aforementioned were all “treats” in those ancient days. Heavenly.

Then there was the parade up Court Street with everyone on their lawns and their neighbors’ lawns watching the procession that moved up to Pine Hill Cemetery where the wreaths were placed at monuments and gravesites.

Public school education in those palmy, post World War II days, inculcated us with the gravity and importance of this day and the other national holidays. It wasn’t about chauvinism but more about what John F. Kennedy mentioned in his inaugural speech in January 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” 

Reminding of the best of each of us. Every American of school age and on knew exactly what he meant. We were the country, the country was all of us.

I have no specific recollection of the Second World War except the clear memory of watching my eldest sister pack a cardboard box with chocolate bars and candy that she’d collected (during the rationing) to send to her boyfriend who was in Germany at the time of the Surrender of Germany in 1945 (May 7, 1945). As a toddler, I understood only one thing – the moment: I couldn’t have even one.

The man who received them and no doubt shared them with his Army buddies later became my brother-in-law (for life). I never knew how he felt about the War. He never talked about it, or even referred to it in my presence. I knew that it had had its “effect” because of his temperament which in his younger days after the War, could be intense. I learned, probably from my mother, that he never spoke of the War because it was too terrible to even recall. She did not say that he was “haunted” by the experience, but that was the impression the kid came away with. Whatever it was for him, he was far from alone in his feelings about it.
However, it was about “serving his country” and therefore duty-bound, honor-bound. This was understood by all, even schoolchildren. We were the country. So when the “holiday” occurred back in those days, it was a serious matter, out of respect for what people endured and survived, if they were lucky. The fact that the holiday was held on a late Spring day promising Summer, was, this kid thought, planned as a “solace,” a relief from the suffering it marked.

That was then. Memorial Day is still recalled with some reverence and respect by many. Yet more of us know little if anything about what it represents. How that happened, I don’t know; a kind of intellectual attrition of historical reality? Now, as with many American holidays, it is a long weekend, a moment of rest for the weary (as well as the over-anxious). I personally like long holiday weekends because of the latter.

I don’t know what children are taught today about their country’s history. I have a feeling that it’s not enough to ignite the curiosity to learn more about it. We live in a society now where history is simply The Past and of little use to the fast and furious life here on Planet Earth. Such is life (history has shown), and so are the errors repeated.

On Memorial Day, for me, it serves to re-assure that we are all mortal and all humble, and that life, or Mother Nature, goes on, despite ourselves.

The Telegraph of London ran an obituary on Sunday of a writer/social commentator, Paul Fussell, an American who wrote about Wars and Military Service and Death. Mr. Fussell came from personal experience, and expressed it strongly and decisively. Today seems like a perfect day to regard Paul Fussell and to share his words and thoughts ...

Paul Fussell, who has died aged 88, was an American war veteran and academic who drew on his own experiences of conflict to write biting analyses of how war, of its nature, destroys that which it tries or claims to protect.

Fussell was best known for his magisterial The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), in which he explored how the British experience of the 1914-18 conflict had penetrated into the culture that came after it, from literature, art and the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, to the tics of everyday conversation and attitudes to authority.

Fussell described the pre-1914 era as an age when "one read Hardy and Kipling and Conrad, and frequented worlds of traditional moral action delineated in traditional moral language". The Great War had changed all that, destroying all faith in progress.

He drew attention in particular to the deep fissure between the romanticised, officially-promoted view of warfare as a stage for gallantry and heroism, and the disillusionment and devastating facetiousness bred by the dirty, bloody reality.

One of the images representative of this gulf was the statue of the Madonna that stood atop the newly completed basilica in the town of Albert, immediately behind the British trenches of the Somme. Early in the war, Fussell recorded, shelling tipped the statue to the horizontal, so that it looked as if Mary were about to throw away the infant Jesus cradled in her arms. The satirical import of this was not lost on British troops, who henceforth referred to the statue as "the Lady of the Limp".

Fussell also noted the "ridiculous proximity" of British soldiers to their families back in England. People at home could hear the guns in France; a letter or newspaper from London took only a day or two to reach the front. The soldiers were aware of the incongruity of being at once so close to home, and yet in many ways on another planet.

Fussell argued that after the carnage, irony came to be the dominant form of modern sensibility and understanding, shaped by the muttering, cynical language of the men in the trenches when faced with their governments' fatuous appeals to patriotism. "Every war is ironic, because every war is worse than expected,'' he wrote. "Every war constitutes an irony of situation, because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends. Eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot.''

The book, which won several awards, sparked a wave of interest in the cultural impact of war. The military historian John Keegan described its effect as "revolutionary", in that it showed how literature could be a vehicle for expressing the experience of large groups: "How many good books are there about the First World War at the individual level? What Paul did was go to the literary treatments of the war by 20 or 30 participants and turn them into an encapsulation of a collective European experience."

The son of a successful corporate lawyer, Paul Fussell was born in Pasadena, California, on March 22 1924 and educated at Pomona College, from where he was drafted by the US Army in 1943.
Paul Fussell in Paris, France, May 1945. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army.
For four months he served as a second lieutenant with the 103rd Infantry Division in France. Leading his rifle platoon in an attack on an Alsace town in March 1945, he was on the roof of a bunker when it was hit by a shell. With pieces of metal in his back and leg, he was patched up and sent to hospital. Earlier that day he had been rebuked for hesitating, and he reflected later that he would have taken cover had he not been trying to prove his bravery. As it was, while he lay wounded, men under his command were caught in an artillery barrage. "Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier's torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine gun holding us up; he was struck in the heart and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of blood, tissue and powdered cloth,'' he recalled. "Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves."

Fussell felt that he was in some way to blame: The Great War was dedicated "To the memory of Technical Sergeant Edward Keith Hudson".

Fussell was awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, but was left with an undying horror of the gap between the myth and the reality of war. It was a theme he would return to again and again, in books such as Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989); a memoir, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (1996); and The Boys' Crusade: American GIs in Europe — Chaos and Fear in World War Two (2004).
Paul Fussell. Photo: Courtney Winston.
Moved by a hatred of the romanticisation of war which he detected in post-war American culture, he took it upon himself to tell his readers "what a trench smelt like and what dead GIs smelt like" and about the cruelty of front line troops. In Doing Battle he described how his own platoon murdered weeping, surrendering German soldiers, and elsewhere he reflected on the fashion among American troops in the Pacific for collecting Japanese skulls and sending them to their sweethearts at home, to be used as ashtrays.

Meanwhile, in a telling passage in Wartime he picked out the pivotal moment when the American authorities realised what they were dealing with: the day they issued an edict that servicemen should no longer be issued with white underpants.

"At first it was rather fun," he recalled in an interview in 1997. "It was fast, and amusing, and so forth, and then all of a sudden one realised what the infantry was for. It was for killing the maximum number of young men like you."

AP Photo - Paul Fussel in 2008. Photo courtesy of Cole Behringer.
When Michael Walzer, author of Arguing About War (2004), took issue with an essay by Fussell entitled Thank God for the Atom Bomb, a defence of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fussell replied by pointing out that in 1945 Walzer was only 10. In his essay Fussell observed that the most important issue for the Americans in 1945 was the estimate of one million US casualties if Japan had to be invaded. After seeing action in Europe, Fussell had been transferred to the Far East to take part in the invasion. As he noted, those who thought the use of the bomb was morally wrong did not generally come from those parts of society that supplied the soldiers who would have taken part in the invasion.

After the war Fussell went on to Harvard, where he took a Master's degree and a doctorate in English, then pursued an academic career at Connecticut College for Women, at Rutgers University and finally at the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a professor. His first book, Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England, based on his PhD thesis, was published in 1954. Other academic works include The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism: Ethics and Imagery from Swift to Burke (1965); Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (1965); and Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing (1971).

The success of The Great War established Fussell as a cultural commentator, and over the next two decades, as well as continuing to write about war, he sounded off, with dyspeptic hauteur, about all the "Have a nice day" aspects of modern life of which he disapproved. He took great delight, he once wrote, in responding to such chirpy dictums by saying: "Thanks, but I've got other plans."

In Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars (1980) Fussell examined the compulsion of British writers after the Great War to roam the world, in order to escape from the claustrophobia they felt at home, but declared that genuine travel, as epitomised by the British literati of the 1920s and 1930s, had been destroyed by mass tourism.

Click to order The Great War.
His dislike of "proletarian" culture also surfaced in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (1983), in which he argued that America's supposedly classless society is in fact a rigid hierarchy consisting of nine orders, fenced off from each other by cultural barriers, ranging from the super-rich "top out-of-sight'' to the institutionalised and imprisoned "bottom out-of-sight'' by way of category "X" — a self-selecting aristocracy of the talented and clever.

Among other things, he coined the term "proletarian drift" to describe the vulgarisation of once luxurious products and services as they trickle their way down to the lower orders, and made wicked fun of the "prole gap" between the coat collar and the shirt collar that is the giveaway sign of cheap off-the-peg clothing.

A review of the book in the Washington Post described Fussell as a "world-class curmudgeon", but he remained unabashed. In BAD: Or, the Dumbing of America (1991) he launched a sustained attack on everything "phoney, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant or boring'' in American culture.

Fussell was vigorously opposed to the invasion of Iraq and regarded the torture of Iraqi prisoners as "absolutely predictable — it's usually practised by soldiers upon each other".

Fussell's first marriage, to Betty Harper, ended in divorce; and in a memoir, My Kitchen Wars (1999), she wrote a bitter account of their marriage, portraying her ex-husband as a selfish cad.

He is survived by his second wife, Harriette Behringer, by two children of his first marriage and by four stepchildren.

Paul Fussell, born March 22 1924, died May 23 2012