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 –

Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara – 1934, 1945

appointment-in-samara-john-ohara-1945_edited-4

When Caroline Walker fell in love with Julian English she was a little tired of him. 
That was in the summer of 1926,
one of the most unimportant years in the history of the united States,
and the year in which Caroline Walker was sure
her life had reached a pinnacle of uselessness.

 

She was four years out of college then,
and she was twenty-seven years old,
which is as old as anyone ever gets,
or at least she thought so at the time.

 

She found herself thinking more and more and less and less of men. 
That is the way she put it, and she knew it to be sure and right,
but she did not bother to expand the -ism.

 

“I think of them oftener, and I think of them less often.”
She had attained varying degrees of love, requited and unrequited –
but seldom the latter.

The Thin Red Line, by James R. Jones – 1962, 1964 (Unknown artist)

the-thin-red-line-james-jones-1962-1964Welsh had never been in combat.
But he had lived for a long time with a lot of men who had.
And he had pretty well lost his belief in,
as well as his awe of,
the mystique of human combat.
Old vets from the First World War,
younger men who had been with the Fifteenth Infantry in China,
for years he had sat around getting drunk with them
and listening to their drunken stories of melancholy bravery.
He had watched the stories grow with the years and the drinking sprees,
and he had been able to form only one conclusion
and that was that every old vet was a hero.
How so many heroes survived and so many non-heroes got knocked off,
Welsh could not answer.
But every old vet was a hero.
If you did not believe it, you had only to ask them,
or better yet, get them drunk and not ask them.
There just wasn’t any other kind.
One of the hazards of professional soldiering was that every twenty years,
regular as clockwork,
that portion of the human race to which you belonged,
whatever its politics or ideals about humanity,
was going to get involved in a war,
and you might have to fight in it.
About the only way out of this mathematical hazard
was to enlist immediately after one war
and hope you would be too old for the next; you might just make it.
But to accomplish that you had to be of a certain age at just exactly the right time,
and that was rare.
But it was either that, or enlist in the Quartermaster Corps or some such branch.
Welsh had already understood all this when he enlisted in 1930
exactly between wars at the age of twenty,
but he had gone ahead and enlisted anyway.
He had gone ahead and enlisted,
and he had enlisted in the Infantry.
Not in the Quartermaster Corps.
And he had stayed in Infantry.
And this amused Welsh too.

 

jones-1110_edited-2Doll had learned something during the past six months of his life.
Chiefly what he had learned was that everybody lived by a selected fiction.
Nobody was really what he pretended to be.
It was as if everybody made up a fiction story about himself,
and then he just pretended to everybody that that was what he was.
And everybody believed him, or at least accepted his fiction story.
Doll did not know if everybody learned this about life
when they reached a certain age,
but he suspected that they did.
They just didn’t tell it to anybody.
And rightly so.
Obviously, if they told anybody,
then their own fiction story about themselves wouldn’t be true either.
So everybody had to learned it for himself.
And then, of course, pretend he hadn’t learned it.
Doll’s own first experience of this phenomenon had come from,
or at least begun with,
a fight he had had six months ago with one of the biggest,
toughest men in C-for-Charlie,
Corporal Jenks.
They had fought each other to a standstill,
because neither would give up,
until finally it was called a sort of draw-by-exhaustion.
But it wasn’t this so much as it was the sudden realization
that Corporal Jenks was just as nervous about having the fight as he was,
and did not really want to fight any more than he did,
which had suddenly opened Doll’s eyes.
Once he’d seen it here, in Jenks, he began to see it everywhere,
in everybody.

jones-2111_edited-2Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep

Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;

An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit

Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”

But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll –

The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,

O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

(Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, definitive edition, (1891), 1940)

Flight to Arras, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry – 1942 (Lewis Galantiere)

flight-to-arras-antoine-de-saint-exupery-lewis-galantiere-1942-19__-paul-bacon_edited-1Pure logic is the ruin of the spirit.

* * * * * * * * * *

I don’t think highly of physical courage.
Life has taught me that there is only one true kind of courage:
resisting the condemnation of a mode of thought.
I know that it took me much more courage
not to budge from the line of conduct my
conscience dictated to me,
despite two years of slander and insults,
than to photograph Mainz or Essen…

The Years of War, by Vasiliy S. Grossman – 1946 (Unknown artist)

the-years-of-war-vassili-grossman-1946-1 the-years-of-war-vassili-grossman-1946-2_edited-1 grossman-vasily-ds-600 The attached document – Vasiliy Grossman’s Commendation for The Order of the Red Star (Ordenu Krasnaya Zvezda – Ордену Красная Звезда) , dated 9 December 1942, was obtained from the Podvig Naroda (Подвиг Народа – Feats of the People) website.  This document specifically mentions Grossman’s works “The People are Immortal,” “The Battle of Stalingrad”, “Stalingrad Crossing”, and “Stalingrad Story”.  The English translation of the award citation can be found here.

Grossman’s experiences, recollections, and reporting during the Battle of Stalingrad formed a central basis for the setting and characters in his postwar novel, Life and Fate.

For a deeper understanding of the life and works of Vasiliy Grossman, I strongly recommend The Bones of Berdichev – The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman, by John Garrard and Carol Garrard (The Free Press, 1996), and A Writer At War – Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, by Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova (Pantheon Books, 2005).    

grossman-vasiliy-s-1a grossman-vasiliy-s-1b

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman -1980, 1987 (Christopher Zacharow)

life-and-fate-vasily-grossman-1985-1987-christopher-zacharow-newThe fate of many of them seemed so poignantly sad
that to speak of them in even the most tender, quiet, kind words
would have been like touching a heart torn open
with a rough and insensitive hand. 

It was really quite impossible to speak of them at all..

grossman109_edited-2But an invisible force was crushing him.
He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power;
it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated.
This force was inside him;
it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating;
it came between him and his family;
it insinuated itself into his past, into his childhood memories.
He began to feel that he really was untalented and boring,
someone who wore out the people around him with dull chatter.
Even his work seemed to have grown dull,
to be covered with a layer of dust;
the thought of it no longer filled him with light and joy.
Only people who have never felt such a force themselves
can be surprised that others submit to it.
Those who have felt it, on the other hand,
feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment
– with one sudden word of anger,
one timid gesture of protest.

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

the-moviegoer-walker-percy-1980-1982-gifThat is the way I got to know Mr. Kinsella:
engaging him in conversation about the theater business.
I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to,
no one, that is, who really wants to listen.
When it does at last dawn on a man
that you really want to hear about his business,
the look that comes over his face is something to see.

the-moviegoer-walker-percy-1980-1982-2-cover-art-editNo, I do it for my own selfish reasons.
If I did not talk to the theater owner or the ticket seller,
I should be lost, cut loose, metaphysically speaking.
I should be seeing one copy of a film
which might be shown anywhere at any time.
There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time.
It is possible to become a ghost
and not know whether one is in
downtown Loews in Denver or surburban Bijou in Jacksonville.