Saturday, 26 January 2013

a stretch of the Rocky Mountains

Literary history can give us a bit of a Tralfamadorian view of significant events.

While I was at university I attended a class taught by China Mieville, the sci-fi author, on ‘Weird Fiction’ – the kind-of-movement, kind-of-genre in the early part of the twentieth century associated with HP Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, etc. China described the First World War as a ‘shotgun blast’ in this context: emanating outward in its influence in both directions in time, a peppering of shot around a central explosion.

Literary history is good for this. It shows, paradoxically, the influence of future events on the sociological moment; it also doesn’t quite allow the event to have changed everything that happened after it, peppering its influence outward in bursts and blasts, sometimes hidden, sometimes direct and explicit recreations of that past moment.

China Mieville was talking about the First World War; I wish to talk about the Second, and about other things as well. But while we’re thinking about the First: Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, famously thought of the First World War as a watershed for European culture, a blast that even changed the meanings of words - forcing innuendos upon innocent language, a kind of original sin for culture to bear from then on. He quoted that brilliant Larkin poem, MCMXIV, the one which describes the crowd of young men signing up as volunteer soldiers for the Great War; its final line, ‘never such innocence again’, summed up the influence of that war for Fussell. Here is the last stanza of that poem:
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.
Fussell’s book is very good. It was in the papers again recently, because he died of old age last May. So it goes.

But these poet eyes of Larkin’s are kind-of-significant in terms of how time kind-of-folds-over-itself. The innocence, actually, hadn’t existed before that moment of the photograph either – yet it has a kind of infinite quality in it, encased as it is within the stillness of the image – it seems to stretch out repetitively, like holding a mirror to a mirror – in it we see the ‘little while longer’ of the thousands of marriages in time, the tidied gardens in space. The moment of departure from one world into the next reverberates in all directions. The watershed is not part of a linear progression, it is a shattering of time, the violent dispersal of a shotgun blast.

Two very famous accounts of the Second World War, and the American experience of it, take place in shattered time. There is Heller’s Catch-22, about American bomber crews; where things seem whimsical at first, a kind of anarchic humour, but there is an underlying order gradually being revealed to the chaos, revealed through a totally non-linear approach to time. There is Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, about the bombing of Dresden as seen by American POWs; here, the central character ‘has come unstuck in time’, living the moments of his life in a random order. He also encounters aliens, the Tralfamadorians, who see every moment at once,
All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamodians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
Let’s say each of these books has pure trauma at its heart, encapsulated in a single moment (though one which sums up a series of moments, perhaps all moments, leading outward in both directions in time) - like the photo that Larkin is looking at. The traumatic event is so vast, in its own magnitude as in its significance upon other events, that it cannot really be approached unless it is approached by all angles, surrounded on all its chronological flanks.

I wanted to read and write about the Second World War because tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day and I believe in memorial days.

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