Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow – (1969) 1977 (Roy Ellsworth)

And since he had lasted –
survived –
with a sick headache –
he would not quibble over words –
was there an assignment implicit? 
Was he meant to do something?

______________________________

Through Fifteenth Street ran a warm spring current.
Lilacs and sewage.
There were as yet no lilacs,
but an element of the savage gas was velvety and sweet,
reminiscent of blooming lilac.
All about was a softness of perhaps dissolved soot,
or of air passed through many human breasts,
or metabolized in multitudinous brains,
or released from as many intestines, and it got to one – oh, deeply, too!   
Now and then there came an appreciative or fanciful pleasure,
apparently inconsequent,
suggested by the ruddy dun of sandstone, by cool corners of the warmth.
Bliss from his surroundings!
For a certain period Mr. Sammler had resisted such physical impressions –
being wooed almost comically by momentary and fortuitous sweetness.
For quite a long time he had felt that he was not necessarily human.
Had no great use, during that time, for most creatures.
Very little interest in himself.
Cold even to the thought of recovery.
What was there to recover?  Little regard for earlier forms of himself.
Disaffected.
His judgment almost blank.
But then, ten or twelve years after the war, he became aware that this too was changing.
In the human setting, along with everyone else,
among particulars of ordinary life he was human –
and, in short, creatureliness crept in again.
Its low tricks, its doggish hind-sniffing charm.
So that now, really, Sammler didn’t know how to take himself.
He wanted, with God, to be free from the bondage of the ordinary and the finite.
A soul released from Nature, from impressions, and from everyday life.
For this to happen God Himself must be waiting, surely.
And a man who has been killed and buried should have no other interest.
He should be perfectly disinterested.
Eckhardt said in so many words that God loved disinterested purity and unity.
God Himself was drawn toward the disinterested soul.
What besides the spirit should a man care for who has come back from the grave?
However, and mysteriously enough, it happened,
as Sammler observed, that one was always, and so powerfully, so persuasively,
drawn back to human conditions.
So that these flecks within one’s substance
would always stipple with their reflections all that a man turns toward, all that flows about him.
The shadow of his nerves would always cast stripes,
like trees on grass, like water over sand, the light-made network.
It was a second encounter of the disinterested spirit with fated biological necessities,
a return match with the persistent creature.
(116-119)

Perhaps it was the madness of things that affected Sammler most deeply.
The persistence, the maniacal push of certain ideas,
themselves originally stupid, stupid ideas that had lasted for centuries,
this is what drew the most curious reactions from him.
The stupid sultanism of a Louis Quatorze reproduced in General de Gaulle –
Neo-Charlemagne, someone said.
Or the imperial ambition of the Czars in the Mediterranean.
They wanted to be the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean,
a stupid craving of two centuries, and this,
under the “revolutionary” auspices of the Kremlin, was still worked at,
in the same way – worked at!
Did it make no difference that soon floating dominion by armed ships would be as obsolete as Ashurbanipal,
as queer as the dog-headed gods of Egypt?
Why, no, it made no difference.
No more than the disappearance of Jews from Poland made a difference to the anti-Semitism of the Poles.
This was the meaning of historical stupidity.
And the Russians also, with their national tenacity.
Give them a system, let them grasp some idea,
and they would plunge to the depths with it,
they would apply it to the end, pave the whole universe with hard idiot material.

Sammler, from keeping his own counsel for so long,
from seven decades of internal consultation, had his own views on most matters.
And even the greatest independence was insufficient, still not enough.
And there were mental dry courses in his head, of no interest to anyone else,
perhaps – wadis, he believed such things were called,
small ravines made by the steady erosion of preoccupations.
The taking of life was one of these.
Just that.
His life had nearly been taken.
He had seen life taken.
He had taken it himself.
He knew it was one of the luxuries.
No wonder princes had so long reserved the right to murder with impunity.
At the very bottom of society there was also a kind of impunity,
because no one cared what happened.
Under that dark brutal mass blood crimes were often disregarded.
And at the very top, the ancient immunities of kings and nobles.
Sammler thought that this was what revolutions were really about.
In a revolution you took away the privileges of an aristocracy and redistributed them.
What did equality mean?
Did it mean all men were friends and brothers?
No, it meant that all belonged to the elite.
(142-145)

And all this will continue.
It will simply continue.
Another six billion years before the sun explodes.
Six billion years of human life!
It lames the heart to contemplate such a figure.
Six billion years!
What will become of us?
Of the other species, yes, and of us?
How will we ever make it?
And when we have to abandon the earth, and leave this solar system for another,
what a moving-day that will be.
But by then humankind will have become very different.
Evolution continues.
Olaf Stapledon reckoned that each individual in future ages would be living thousands of years.
The future person, a colossal figure, a beautiful green color,
with a hand that had evolved into a kit of extraordinary instruments, tools strong and subtle,
thumb and forefinger capable of exerting thousands of pounds of pressure.
Each mind belonging to a marvelous analytical collective, thinking out its mathematics,
its physics as part of a sublime whole.
A race of semi-immortal giants, our green descendants, dear kin and brethren,
inevitably containing still some of our bitter peculiarities as well as powers of spirit.
The scientific revolution was only three hundred years old.
Give it a million, give it a billion more.
And God?  Still hidden, even from this powerful mental brotherhood, still out of reach? 
(190-191)

“During the war I had no belief, and I had always disliked the ways of the Orthodox.
I saw that God was not impressed by death.
Hell was his indifference.
But inability to explain is no ground for disbelief.
Not as long as the sense of God persists.
I could wish that it did not persist.
The contradictions are so painful.
No concern for justice?
Nothing of pity?
Is God only the gossip of the living?
Then we watch these living speed like birds over the surface of a water,
and one will dive or plunge but not come up again and never be seen any more.
And in our turn we will never be seen again,
once gone through that surface.
But then we have no proof that there is no depth under the surface.
We cannot even say that our knowledge of death is shallow.
There is no knowledge.
There is longing, suffering, mourning.
These come from need, affection, and love –
the needs of the living creature, because it is a living creature.
There is also strangeness, implicit.
There is also adumbration.
Other states are sensed.
All is not flatly knowable.
There would never have been any inquiry without this adumbration,
there would never have been any knowledge without it.
But I am not life’s examiner, or a connoisseur, and I have nothing to argue.
Surely a man would console, if he could.
But that is not an aim of mine.
Consolers cannot always be truthful.
But very often, and almost daily, I have strong impressions of eternity.
This may be due to my strange experiences, or to old age.
I will say that to me this does not feel elderly.
Nor would I mind if there were nothing after death.
If it is only to be as it was before birth, why should one care?
There one would receive no further information.
One’s ape restiveness would stop.
I think I would miss mainly my God adumbrations in the many daily forms.
Yes, that is what I should miss.
So then, Dr. Lai, if the moon were advantageous for us metaphysically, I would be completely for it.
As an engineering project, colonizing outer space,
except for the curiosity, the ingenuity of the thing,
is of little real interest to me.
Of course the drive, the will to organize this scientific expedition must be one of those irrational necessities that make up life –
this life we think we can understand.
So I suppose we must jump off, because it is our human fate to do so.
If it were a rational matter, then it would be rational to have justice on this planet first.
Then, when we had an earth of saints, and our hearts were set upon the moon,
we could get in our machines and rise up …”
(236-237)

Margotte had much to say.
She did not notice his silence.

By coming back, by preoccupation with the subject,
the dying, the mystery of dying, the state of death.
Also, by having been inside death.
By having been given the shovel and told to dig.
By digging beside his digging wife.
When she faltered he tried to help her.
By this digging, not speaking, he tried to convey something to her and fortify her.
But as it had turned out, he had prepared her for death without sharing it.
She was killed, not he.
She had passed the course, and he had not.
The hole deepened, the sand clay and stones of Poland, their birthplace, opened up.
He had just been blinded, he had a stunned face,
and he was unaware that blood was coming from him
till they stripped and he saw it on his clothes.
When they were as naked as children from the womb,
and the hole was supposedly deep enough, the guns began to blast,
and then came a different sound of soil.
The thick fall of soil.
A ton, two tons, thrown in.
A sound of shovel-metal, gritting.
Strangely exceptional, Mr. Sammler had come through the top of this.
It seldom occurred to him to consider it an achievement.
Where was the achievement?  He had clawed his way out.
If he had been at the bottom, he would have suffocated.
If there had been another foot of dirt.
Perhaps others had been buried alive in that ditch.
There was no special merit, there was no wizardry.
There was only suffocation escaped.
And had the war lasted a few months more, he would have died like the rest.
Not a Jew would have avoided death.
As it was, he still had his consciousness, earthliness, human actuality –
got up, breathed his earth gases in and out, drank his coffee,
consumed his share of goods, ate his roll from Zabar’s, put on certain airs –
all human beings put on certain airs – took the bus to Forty-second Street
as if he had an occupation, ran into a black pickpocket.
In short, a living man.
Or one who had been sent back again to the end of the line.
Waiting for something.
Assigned to figure out certain things, to condense, in short views,
some essence of experience, and because of this having a certain wizardry ascribed to him.
There was, in fact, unfinished business.
But how did business finish?
We entered in the middle of the thing and somehow became convinced that we must conclude it.
How? 

And since he had lasted –
survived –
with a sick headache –
he would not quibble over words –
was there an assignment implicit? 
Was he meant to do something?
(272-274)

– Saul Bellow –

Give Us This Day, by Sidney Stewart – 1958 (Harry Scharre?)

Manila:
December 1941

IN THE LAND where dead dreams go lies the city of Manila,
as it was before the war.
Manila, where the white man didn’t work in the afternoon because it was too hot.
Manila, with its beauty and its poverty and its orchids at five cents apiece.

What could a soldier do with a handful of orchids
if he had no one to give them to?
I used to buy those orchids.
I’d pay my nickel for them and stand there awkwardly holding them in my hand.
I would run my finger over the satin petals and then,
embarrassed,
I would give them to the first little girl I met,
because there was something very lonely about buying orchids
when you had no one to give them to.

____________________

I began to plan the things I wanted to do when I went home.
The promises I had made to the boys about seeing their parents.
I thought of the things that home meant to me.
The things that freedom, and being home, would mean.
I thought of seeing women again, white women,
and being again where people laughed,
where laughter was good and life was good.

I wondered if ever again things would worry me. 
I thought what I would do with my life. 
I had never asked to live, but God had spared me. 
Now I knew there was an obligation within me to justify my life. 
I must do something.

My mind wandered back to the times
when Rass and John and Weldon and Hughes
sat together around the fire in the evenings. 
We talked about the things we wanted to do
when we were free and we were home again. 
Rass had wanted to go into the diplomatic service. 
John had wanted to be a professor again.

“I’m going to be a writer,” I said. 
“I’m going to write novels.”

We used to laugh about it. 
They were interested in the things I wanted to write about. 
Once, when we were very hungry, John had turned to me.

“Some day, Sid, I wish you’d put me in one of your books.”

“Yes, Stew,” Rass said. 
“I wish you’d write a book about this, about all of us. 
Will you?  
Could you do that for us one day?  
Write a book about all of us. 
Something that we could keep.”

I remembered what I had promised them.
I would write a book about them some day.
But I felt cold inside and I thought, “No, they’ll never read that book now,
 that book I’m going to write about them.
About their faith and hopes, their goodness and their beliefs.”

Those Who Fall, by John G. Muirhead – 1986 (Cover by Eric Joyner, Interior Illustrations by Susan Coons)

I suppose I am like most men who soldiered for a time.
I think that something unusual happened to me;
some particular meaning was revealed to me so I should set it down.
Men have been boring their wives,
their children,
and other men with these kind of stories from Marathon through Chickamauga,
and I’m no different from the lot.
Having survived it all, I can’t leave well enough alone,
but must ponder on it and remember and talk at least about one part of it that was, I think,
a kind of glory.

On the twenty-third of June, 1944,
I ended my time as a bomber pilot flying out of Italy with the 301st Bomb Group,
and became a prisoner of war in Bulgaria.
My last mission was to Ploesti.
Although that name had its own dreadful sound,
the other places and other names all took their toll
whether you feared them or not.
It mattered very little when you finally bought it.
The odds were, one always knew, that something was going to happen.
It was not felt in any desperate way,
but rather it came as a difference in consciousness
without one’s being aware of the change.
In the squadron we learned to live as perhaps once we were long ago,
as simple as animals without hope for ourselves or pity for one another.
Completing fifty missions was too implausible to even consider.
An alternative, in whatever form it might come, was the only chance.
Death was the most severe alternative.
It was as near as the next mission,
although we would not yield to the thought of it.
We would get through somehow: maybe a good wound,
or a bail-out over Yugoslavia or northern Italy; the second front might open up,
and the Germans might shift all their fighters to the French coast.
We might even make it through fifty missions – a few did.
But such fantasies didn’t really persuade us,
not with our sure knowledge that we were caught in a bad twist of time
with little chance we would go beyond it.
Our lives were defined by a line from the present
to a violent moment that must come for each of us.
The missions we flew were the years we measured to that end,
passing by no different from any man’s except we became old and died soon.

I don’t know whether any of this is true or not.
Everything happened that I have said happened,
but it’s memory now, the shadow of things.
The truth lives in its own time, recall is not the reality of the past.
When friends depart, one remembers them but they are changed;
we hold only the fragment of them that touched us and our idea of them,
which is now a part of us.
Their reality is gone, intact but irretrievable,
in another place through which we passed and can never enter again.
I cannot go back nor can I bring them to me;
so I must pursue the shadows to some middle ground,
for I am strangely bound to all that happened then.
We broke hard bread together and I can’t forget:
Breslau, Steyr, Regensburg, Ploesti, Vienna, Munich, Graz,
and all the others; not cities,
but battlegrounds five miles above them where we made our brotherhood.
It’s gone and long ago; swept clean by the wind, only some stayed.
Part of me lives there still, tracing a course through all the names.
I don’t know why.
What is it that memory wants that it goes through it all again? 
Was there something I should have recognized? 
Some terrible wisdom? 
The kind of awful knowledge that stares out of the eyes of a dying man? 
I was at the edge then and almost grasped the meaning,
but I lived and failed the final lesson and came safe home.
I linger now, looking back for them, the best ones who stayed and learned it all.
“It was as if in greeting that three of the tiny creatures came out from the boards around the stove and scurried toward me.  I was sitting on Mac’s bunk.  He used to feed them crumbs every time he came in the tent.  A fourth mouse joined his friends and, while they nibbled happily, I began the sad chore of going through Mac’s belongings.”  (pp. 66-67)

“I don’t have any damn matches.”

“I handed him mine.  He took them without a word; he struck five of them before he got the pipe going.  He had forgotten his cigarette, which was still smoldering on the bomb cart where he had placed it.”  (p. 114)

“The ground was rushing up at me!  I was moving toward a high ridge!  I swept over it, and then I plunged through the upper branches of a giant pine; mu chute caught and was held fast while my inertia drove me over a deep, rocky gorge.  My forward motion was violently snubbed, and I was sent rushing back toward a massive trunk.  I missed it by three feet, but continued to swing wildly beside it.  After a time, the motion ceased.  I hung there over the steep incline of the gorge.  The base of the tree reached deep into the slope; it was much too far to drop.”  (p. 194)

__________

In this strange life, we lived in the narrow dimension of the present.
We didn’t seek the future, for it was not there;
and if we could not move into it or beyond it,
we could not return to our past.
We were dull and listless,
but we did not have the true languor of young men
whose dreams were of worlds ahead of them,
and who saw the present only as prelude to it.

 If we were without dreams, without a past or a future,
and were caught in the stillness of the present,
our vision then became wise.
There was peace in the absence of clamor;
there was serenity in the days without battles.
If this tattered place where we lived
were to be the full measure of our lives,
we would find some sweetness in it.
A small mouse nibbling a piece of biscuit in my tent
was as wondrous as a unicorn.
The soiled streets of Foggia were full of light,
and one time when I was walking there,
I heard the pure voice of a woman singing.
I learned each day of the goodness of life.
I cherished what was given to me,
holding it just for the moment it was given,
for I knew it was fragile and could not be held for long.

__________

The Muirhead crew prior to departure for Italy.  Author John Muirhead is in front row, far left, holding headphones. Notice that the aircraft in the background is a B-24 Liberator, which the author initially flew before assignment to the 301st Bomb Group.  (USAAF photo, from dust jacket of Those Who Fall.)

The Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) – #16203 – covering the author’s final mission:  Target Ploesti, Roumania – Date June 23, 1944.  John Muirhead, as pilot, is listed first in the crew roster. 

The second page of the MACR, listing the crew’s enlisted personnel (flight engineer, radio operator, and aerial gunners). 

Eyewitnesses to the loss of Muirhead’s B-17, S/Sgt. William E. Caldwell and S/Sgt. Anthony J. Petrowski. 

John Muirhead, mid-1980s.

Arrival and Departure, by Arthur Koestler – 1943 (Wood)

What, after all, was courage?
A matter of glands, nerves; patterns of reaction conditioned by
heredity and early experiences. 
A drop of iodine less in the thyroid,
a sadistic governess or over-affectionate aunt,
a slight variation in the electrical resistance
of the medullary ganglions,
and the hero became a coward;
a patriot a traitor.
Touched with the magic rod of cause and effect,
the reactions of men were emptied of their so-called moral contents
as a Leyden jar is discharged by the touch of a conductor.

arrival-and-departure-arthur-koestler-1943-woods-4_edited-7‘Why do they look at me that way?’

‘They don’t look.  It’s only your imagination.’
‘They ask themselves:  What is he doing here?
Why does he not go where he belongs?’
‘But you belong nowhere, you fool.’

‘How can one live, belonging nowhere?’

‘You belong to yourself.  That is the gift I made you.’

‘I don’t want it.  Your gift is out of season.’

‘Then what do you want?’

‘Not to be ashamed of myself.’

‘What are you ashamed of?’

‘Of walking through the parks while others
get drowned or burned alive;
of belonging to myself while everybody belongs to something else.’

‘Do you still believe in their big words and little flags?’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘Are you not glad that I opened your eyes?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘What were your beliefs?’

‘Illusions.’

‘Your search of fraternity?’

‘A wild goose chase.’

‘Your courage?’

‘Vanity.’

‘Your loyalty?’

‘Atonment.’

‘Why then do you want to start again?’

‘Why, indeed?  That should be your job to explain.’

But that precisely was the point which Sonia could not explain,
for apparently it was placed on a plane beyond her reasoning,
and perhaps beyond reason altogether.

arrival-and-departure-arthur-koestler-1943-woods-3_edited-4Don’t be a fool, said Sonia’s voice.

This is the ark and behind you is the flood.

That land is doomed and it will rain on it

forty nights and forty days.

Who has ever heard of an inmate of the ark

jumping overboard to walk back into the rising flood?

But why not, Sonia?  There is something missing in that story.

There should have been at least one

who ran back into the rain,

to perish with those who had no planks under their feet…

Go on, said Sonia’s voice.

Go on, what happened to that fool after he went back?

The Lord who saw into that man’s heart became ashamed of himself;

and he reached out with his hand to keep that man dry in the rain…

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“Do you mean,” Peter stuttered,
“that you have done what you did – just as a sport?”

The other shrugged. 
His attention was focused on the task of drinking from the glass
without spilling any of its contents.
“Don’t you think,” he said at last,
“that it is rather a boring game,
trying to find out one’s reasons for doing something?”