Friday, April 30, 2010

Bloody Wipers

This article was also published in Vol 5 Issue 10 of the St. Austin Review

Recently I was talking to my wonderful wife about the West at the turn of the century...not this century, the other one, the old one, the twentieth. I'd been listening/watching a couple of Debussy favorites on YouTube: Afternoon of a Faun, and Sacred & Profane Dances. When I listen to these, and other pieces from that era, I hear (this will sound corny) the promise of the West to itself on the cusp of a wonderful new century. I hear 1912 Europe: aeroplanes, automobiles, cruise liners, all growing faster, larger, more powerful, more glamorous. New art, new music, the cinema, new ways to hear and see. Elegant Beaux-Arts architecture. Handsome and beautiful royal families intermarried from England to Russia, their Crown Princes turned out as little sailors. Vast empires. World-class capital cities (I always think of fin de siècle Paris as the last Capital of the World).  Prosperity and progress extending into a bright future. And every bit of it affirming every other bit. It must have been so exquisite, so...everything.

Why, just look at this picture of the 20th century:

Even writing this now, it feels dislocating to accept that this is what the 20th century looked like, what it was, for many years. I think of it as the first, the original 20th century.

So when I listen to Debussy, I hear the promise of the First Twentieth Century. But I also hear her untimely death, which came not after 100 years, the natural lifespan of a century, but when she was still a girl of 14. I say she, because the First 20th Century was as feminine as the Second was masculine.

The Great War of course, is what killed the First 20th. And as gruesome and awful as it was objectively, it's worse when one realizes the self-image of the West was ground up along with the Poilus and Landsers (the French & German soldiers). That sense of beauty, brightness, peace, optimism, confidence, and hope would never be recovered, not even until today.

It's probably impossible for us Americans to understand the horror that gripped Europe during the War. Without recounting all the stuff anyone can find on Wiki about 1914-1918, here are 3 battlefields from those four years of industrialized killing:

Ypres in Belgium, gave its name to four battles (1914, -15, -17, -18). Known to the British as "Bloody Wipers", total casualties (both sides) were about 1.1 million.

On the Somme River in late 1916, the British notoriously suffered about 60,000 casualties on the first day of an offensive that ran for 5 months. Total casualties for both sides: about 1.1 million

In early 1916 the Germans launched a 10-month attack on the French forts around Verdun. Total casualties: 900,000, including 300,000 dead. No wonder both sides' soldiers called it the 'bonemill' and the 'mincing machine.' Many of the dead were so churned-up in the moonscape-like battlefield that there was no way to identify them. Today you can visit the Ossuary at Verdun, which is full of their random, nameless bones.

The Ossuary is divided by region into rooms of bones, heaps of them behind glass:

The Ossuary contains the remains of an estimated 130,000 soldiers.

Along with these uncounted young men, the civilized sensibilities of the First 20th Century died as well. And we, having lived in it, know what a mixed bag the Second one was. But when someone dies young, they're still remembered for who they might've been.

Imagine after the war the spiritual exhaustion of those left alive, aptly described as the Lost Generation, or le Génération au Feu, (the Generation of Fire), and their elders; how they would have tried to make sense of a 4-year catastrophe that killed, if not everyone, then everything. Maybe it exceeded men's faculties to make sense out of it, and it was better to leave it to God. Or nobody, if you didn't believe in God anymore. Sit with Hemingway at a cafe and wonder why you are still alive when so many others are dead.

Between winning and losing, more is learned from losing, even though it's not as pleasant. I say that as an American, and a Southerner. 35 years ago I watched Bill Buckley interview Malcolm Muggeridge, who at some point said, "you know, every important thing I've learned, I learned by suffering." He was right, unfortunately.

So what did the losers learn? Put it this way: once the war was over (or at least Phase 1 was over; the Second Thirty Years' War ran from 1914 to 1945), how did the West memorialize a four-year reality that was worse than any nightmare? I write as one who is generations removed, but I've only read, seen, or heard one work that best remembers it to me. I wish it were music; that would bookend well with Debussy, but it's a sculpture.

My name in the blogworld is kkollwitz, a tribute to Käthe Kollwitz; here's a bit on her from Wiki:

Käthe Schmidt Kollwitz was a German painter, printmaker, and sculptor whose work offered an eloquent and often searing account of the human condition in the first half of the 20th century. Her empathy for the less fortunate embraced the victims of poverty, hunger, and war.  

Käthe lost her son Peter during Phase 1, in 1914. She also lost grandson Peter during Phase 2 in 1942, although she hadn't yet suffered that blow in the 1920s when she produced Die trauernden Eltern / The Grieving Parents:

  I like Kollwitz' work; she's influenced me more than any other artist. And while this expresses her own ineffable sorrow, and in a universal sense that of all such parents, it doesn't point me toward the spiritual devastation, loss, and mystery of sadness that affected, and affects, a Continent, a Civilization, the West.

Let's try another artist, Ernst Barlach, who fought in the war himself. Here is his Magdeburg Memorial:

The client paid for something heroic; he didn't get it. Not unlike Kollwitz the grieving mother, Barlach the soldier eschews politics to express the shared loss of his French, Russian, and German brothers-in-arms. But what about the larger tragedy that's bigger than the war? By showing specific ideas, Kollwitz and Barlach preclude showing something bigger and less defined. And neither of these pieces offers any hope; they simply commiserate with the viewer.

Maybe the way to say everything is to say nothing, as I believe Barlach does with Der Schwebende Engel/ The Hovering Angel:

It doesn't impress right away. The Angel hangs above a stone on the floor that simply says

I like the little penetential bare feet in the back:

Here are the Angel's face and gently crossed arms:

A close-up of the face:

  Barlach, who experienced the enormity of the war and its consequences, instead of expressing this or that aspect of the whole, elects to say nothing about the war, because nothing adequate can be said.  The angel floats in serene grief, in a posture of quiet acceptance.  The sadness won't recede, won't heal, there's nothing for it but to endure. But the angel doesn't just hover in sorrow; he prays, and not without hope.  He is sad, but doesn't despair. Barlach's angel, created to memorialize 1914-1918, goes beyond the war to remember the loss of everything the West might have been in the First 20th Century; beyond that even, to remember more dreadful events yet to come in the Second 20th. Furthermore, by being so unspecific, the angel accepts the universal sadness of the human condition, but offers hope in return. Through its physical disengagement with the Earth, the angel points away from human perspective and toward God. Are children of the last century sometimes simply existentially sad about everything?  So is the angel, who hints that in such cases, the best thing is not to try to figure it out, but to shut up, pray, and not despair.

Only a loser could have created this.

So when I listen to Debussy, and think of beginnings, I remember Barlach's Angel, who marks an end.

Finally, the angel calls himself to my mind when I see this photo, taken at Verdun, the Bonemill, in 1984:

Two children of the Second 20th, who like the angel, shut up and pray.
Hope does spring eternal.