days, you're not safe anywhere.
This one happens to be a cold and foggy
San Francisco Saturday. It's morning, and I'm alone. For a session in
the reading chair, circumstances are ideal.
First, The Chronicle: towers, open
Next, a few pages of The Autumn of the
Middle Ages, a new translation of Johan Huizinga's classic study,
previously incarnated as The Waning of the Middle Ages. I'm 286
pages into it, and it's a stunning, terrific book, whose vector I plan
to extend via D.B. Wyndham Lewis' exuberant ethnography of 15th-century
Paris and poetry, François Villon, thence to Jakob Burckhardt's
The Civilization of The Renaissance in Italy; interloped withal
by many a Chronicle, to be sure.
But just this week from Amazon arrived a
new, paper edition of George Steiner's first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.
This, too, is a classic, though perhaps not as continuously in print as
the Huizinga, and my curiosity, tweaked since UPS left the package on
the bench outside the cabinet shop, remains unslaked. So, before Huizinga,
a little five-century detour.
Steiner's is a formidable intelligence,
it is true. As it happens I've recently reread Dostoevsky's Notes from
Underground, as well as Demons, and have been eying the mysteriously
feminine pink and gray jacket of The Brothers Karamazov. These
novels -- except for another recent surprise, the equally useful if dauntingly
fat two volumes collecting Dostoevsky's contributions to his own magazine,
A Writer's Diary -- are newly translated, each with its judicious
selection of notes, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, to great
mutual benefit of the author and his readers.
Thirty years ago, more or less, early one
Saturday morning, I carried The Idiot to my army draft physical.
I read a great deal of Dostoevsky in 1969, the works cited above, a translation
of Demons entitled The Possessed, and The Gambler,
too, all translated, I believe, by Constance Garnett. Crime and Punishment
had come much earlier, of course. With apologies to Franz Kafka, a nod
to Mark Twain, and a besame moribundo to J.D. Salinger, Dostoyevsky
remains your basic dynamite alienated-kid author. With The Idiot
he played upon hormonal paranoia like Captain Nemo voix-célesting
his pipe organ at the bottom of the ink-dark sea, only louder, and in
retrospect it's hard to say whether this studious if untutored preparation
better encinctured me to read a poem to my astonished draft board, or,
in pointed apposition to my first really big poetic shortfall, to stand
still for the resulting physical and mental tests prefatory to the inevitable
I was raised some ten miles away from the
county seat, a small town, and I had some kind of personal acquaintance
with three of the four sitting members of its draft board. After my declamation
one of these, who attended my mother's church, broke the astonished silence.
"We're sure that poem is, ahem, very nice, son. But we're sure, too, that,
ahem, if you don't do your duty by your country, your daddy will never
be able to, ahem, hold his head up in this town again." (Oh, that my daddy
might have heard this. Many years later I asked him whether he'd been
worried about his sons getting drafted. "Naw," he said. "I knew you'd
get out of it somehow.") The other three board members nodded their agreement
and the pronouncement was made: 1-A; fit for service.
Thirty days later, Bantam Idiot in
hand, I rode a school bus the thirty miles up to Charlotte with twenty
other candidates. We were dropped in the empty parking lot of a local
high school whose custody and ours, along with a dozen other busloads
of draft bait from as many surrounding counties, were given over for the
day to a bunch of uniformed men who manipulated the outer world by yelling
at it. The much-recounted physical examination was, indeed, a long line
of naked boys with a couple of doctors salted here and there, who asked
very personal questions concerning diseases few of us had ever heard of,
embedded in whose interrogatory were but two imperatives, "Cough," as
one of them held your nuts, and "Next," as you passed on. Pity the clapped-out
sawbones: latex gloves were an artifact of the future.
For the "written" examination, the twenty
Union County candidates, less two or three physically disqualified, reassembled
in a classroom, there to make for a nice Poisson distribution, as we settled
like so many falling leaves among a rectangular matrix of fliptop chair-desks.
It wasn't the first time I'd fitted myself into one of those scarred desks,
of varnished birch with a metal hull the color of bad meat, but it may
have been the last. A much-institutionalized friend once described how
the engulfing claustrophobia generated by the sound of thirty-five pairs
of lid hinges on such chair-desks, creaking open en masse, drove
him to punch the glass out of an unyielding casement window for a breath
of fresh air.
An officer sat lackadaisically in front
of the blackboard at the head of the classroom, half on and half off the
wooden teacher's desk, and watched as we took our seats. He might well
have been thinking that if ever were required a genetic sampling of cannon
fodder, that room's quota surely would have sufficed. I bore the single
college education in the crop, which put me at four years or roughly 20%
older than my comrades, each of whom had been eighteen for mere weeks.
None of them was going to college, two-thirds were black, all were country
boys who had managed to navigate their way among some 200 Carolina moons
to this military archipelago without legally fathering a child -- and
despite such proximity to parturition being a deft deflection of the selective
service. These were boys who cared only to get back to the farm. For we
were in September, the time for picking cotton and peanuts, not multiple-choice
answers. Indeed, far from test-taking, most if not all of these reluctant
aspirants had dropped out of school as soon as they legally could -- at
sixteen in the mostly unreconstructed South, in the latter half of a decade
in which the years since the Civil Rights Act were still numerable on
the fingers of one hand. Furthermore, if the black community thought of
Vietnam as a louche fandango Mr. Charlie had gotten himself into,
the white cognate thought of it as some kind of a Yankee problem. In either
case the Vietnam War was not properly their concern -- if, in either case,
they thought of it at all. In those days a reference to war sent any southerner
all the way back -- past Vietnam and Korea, past World Wars Two and One,
past the Spanish American sortie and the Troubles and the Franco-Prussian
conflict and Crimea -- but short of the Revolution. Not ninety years after
the Surrender, in a South where one knew people whose grandfathers were
born into slavery, at least one of whom had defiantly named his first-born
son Sherman -- Mr. Sherman, to me -- war meant the War Between the States,
and none other.
Aside from being aware that the constitution
of North Vietnam shared its Preamble with that of the United States, I,
among other milestones, had already seen my first veteran, returned from
that far place. His name was, and perhaps still is, Ronnie Hargate. A
carefree boy with a flare for building racecar engines, Ronnie had volunteered
for the Marines the moment he got out of high school, in something like
1963. Soon enough, in the classic mode of the imaginationless cowboy,
so often to be encountered in the beginning pages of Vietnam memoirs such
as Chickenhawk and A Rumour of War, Ronnie found himself
on the ground in Vietnam, armed to the teeth and itching for combat with
an enemy he rarely saw until the latter had long since dialed him in.
When Ronnie said he was armed to the teeth he wasn't kidding. Among the
forward ground troops, as any vet will tell you, and particularly among
the Marines, there was considerable traffic in "unauthorized" -- i.e.
non-Government Issue -- weapons. The venerable Russian Kalashnikov, for
example, was much-favored over the notoriously unreliable early examples
of the Colt Arms M-16. Not so incidentally the latter fires a .223
round, while the former throws a .44. In the hell-on-rabbits tradition
of Audie Murphy, Ronnie, a long-time squirrel and dove hunter, had soon
tricked himself out. Aside from his automatic rifle, various grenades
and knives and plenty of ammo, every day Ronnie strapped on a pair of
hip-holstered pearl-handled Colt .45 automatic pistols, each on its own
cartridge belt. Thus girded he stalked the humus, ready for anything.
Ready for anything, that is, except for
what happened. On patrol one muggy morning, the trail collapsed out from
under Ronnie, and he crashed through the roof of a tunnel. The plummet
stripped him of his rifle, and he found himself sprawled face down and
spitting dirt in a dark underground chamber, surrounded by flickering
gaslit shadows and a lot of yelling in Vietnamese. Ronnie drew both .45s
as he rolled over, found his feet, and blazed away until both clips were
empty -- some eighteen rounds expended. When the smoke cleared and light
was brought to bear it turned out he'd blundered through the ceiling of
a Vietcong field hospital, where he'd killed two doctors, four patients,
two nurses, and a guard -- nine people, altogether. The patients had been
unarmed soldiers, already badly wounded. The nurses were female. The only
armed enemy in the place, the guard, had been a fourteen-year-old boy.
He'd single-handedly killed more VC than
everybody in his unit to date combined, but Ronnie was nearly unhinged
by what he had done. The hearty congratulations of his comrades made no
sense to him. When his CO told him he'd put him up for a commendation,
Ronnie thought the world had gone mad. When he protested that all he'd
done was kill at least eight defenseless if not entirely innocent people,
he was told that he was the crazy one.
If Ronnie was never "himself" again, he
didn't have much time to adjust. On patrol only two weeks later, the soldier
in front of him tripped a wire and was blown up. Ronnie survived, but
both his legs had to be amputated at the hip.
He spent almost two years recovering from
his wounds, undergoing multiple operations and rehabilitation, learning
to live in a wheelchair, to walk with two each of crutches and prostheses,
to deal with his and other people's reactions to his condition. He spent
almost all of that time on one ward or another of the 249th Army thousand-bed
Vietnam General Evacuation facility in Asaka, Japan. He was barely twenty-one
by the time he got home, only to discover that his wife had run away with
his best friend. Each of them had known the others all their lives, and
what began as consolation had turned into an affair, two divorces, and
another marriage. Ronnie considered it as best for all concerned.
When I pulled into his yard, a few miles
outside of Monroe, I could see Ronnie and just a hoodless 1950 flathead
Ford parked under a shade tree, from which a chain hoist dangled. He looked
fine. He waved a wrench. But as I walked up to say hello it was revealed
that Ronnie wasn't standing or even sitting beyond the Ford, where his
wheelchair tilted in the dust beside the front bumper. Abandoned in its
canvas seat lay a couple of mushroom-colored rubber tibia shod in oddly
formal wingtip shoes. Ronnie had pulled himself over the fender and into
the engine compartment, there to park his hips on the fender well, right
beside the starter solenoid.
"Buddy-roe," he explained, "without them
old legs I get right close on my work."
We agreed that there was an advantage to
this, especially concerning the entire contemporary run of Chevy V8s,
whose distributors, located in the center of the back of the engine block,
are difficult to access when you have legs.
Thirty-five years later, I wonder about
Ronnie Hargate. I haven't seen him since that Saturday. He's pushing 60,
if he's still around. And if strutting the jungle like another Son of
the Morning Star came up as less than heroic, not to mention gunning down
nine people in a hospital ward; if having everything stripped from him
-- his wife and legs, his guns and the reasons for carrying them, his
childhood ideal of war, his patriotism, his sense of play as he shot the
small mammals of his youth; if he went away a cocksure boy and came back
a crippled man, but with the guts to pull himself over a fender with a
wrench between his teeth, not to mention the nerve to question a war his
duty commanded him not to understand, while he labored over a hotrod he
would never drive, alone under a hundred-year-old walnut tree in the dusty
yard in front of his empty house, I think he must have been a hero after
But in 1969, I had reservations about following
in his, shall I say, footsteps?
The man in the uniform handed a stack of
four-page illustrated test forms to each boy in the first row, with orders
to pass them back. He did the same with several nosegays of three-inch
pencil stubs. Based on fifteen or more correctly checked boxes, out of
twenty-five marked with the sort of pencil the rest of the world tabulated
golf scores with -- in response to such questions as, Which of the four
objects pictured, (a) a carburetor (b) a tire (c) a steering wheel (d)
a mongoose, is unrelated to the other three? -- eighteen young men were
going to get shot at in Vietnam, or not.
Materiel distributed, the man in
uniform casually strolled to the door of the classroom to have a look
up and down the hallway, much as any teacher might, as if to check for
late arrivals. As if satisfied there were none, he closed the door and
crossed to the opposite side of the room where, through a wall of ground-floor
windows, he had a look at the sidewalk outside. Apparently there were
no tardy candidates out there, either. The officer turned to us and said,
"All right, listen up. Since you made it this far, you've been declared
physically and psychologically fit for military service. If you pass this
written test it means you're smart enough, too, and that's it: you're
drafted. Your induction notice will arrive thirty days from Monday, along
with orders detailing where and when to report. Including basic training,
you will serve for two years. Failure to report is considered desertion
and treated as such. If you fail this written test, however, you will
be excused from military service. But don't try to fool the test by acting
dumb, it's designed to catch you in that. In any case," he added, without
a change of inflection, "if there is any way by which you can avoid serving
in the present overseas conflict, try your best to pursue it." He looked
at his watch. "You have twenty minutes."
Everybody around me set to work, but I sat
thunderstruck, thinking, That's treason, right here in Charlotte, North
Carolina, and so, I'm not alone! That officer up there doesn't believe
in this war either, and, moreover, he's doing something about it! He's
fighting the system from within, and he's taking a terrible risk! Couldn't
he be shot for what he's counseling?
I never saw him again, either. Thirty years
later, more or less, I marvel over that young officer, that hero, as I
perceived him then, as I perceive him now, and hope that he didn't get
caught, that he somehow survived those terrible years in the United States.
I wonder whether he's dead, or well-hidden, or living abroad; because,
just as sure as aliens beamed down to earth the trigonometry necessary
to build the pyramids, some zealous protolith is going to forward this
essay to Senator Jesse Helms and demand retribution. If it's an election
year, Jesse might well decide to look into it.
Don't worry about informing Prince Myshkin,
though. Myshkin was on the spot.
Meanwhile, I effortlessly passed the test.
I was in the army.
The decision I'd put off for so long was
I did not believe in America's Vietnam War.
The question was how to deal with it. Should I have joined any number
of like-minded compatriots in their flight to Canada, to avoid military
service? Or, like a handful of recalcitrant others, should I go to jail
in protest? Or, like the test administrator, should I allow myself to
be taken up by the United States Army and resist the war from within the
system? Much to the dismay of my friends, I inclined toward the latter.
I resented the idea of sacrificing my citizenship or my freedom to a government
with which I stood at odds. For four years, while I attended college,
the decision had been pending. Now, the time was at hand. There were principles
involved, not to mention my skin. What to do?
Twenty days later, ten days before the induction
notice was certain to hit my mailbox, Richard Nixon froze the draft in
Richard Nixon, of all people.
some reason our talk touched upon the Petrashevsky circle and the death
penalty. Dostoevsky was carried away by his memories.
"I remember standing on Semyonov Square
among my condemned comrades," he told me. "As I watched the preparations
taking place, I knew that I had no more than five minutes left to live.
But those minutes seemed years -- decades -- so much time, it seemed,
still lay ahead of me!
"They had already dressed us in our death
robes and divided us into groups of three. I was number eight in the third
row. The first three had been tied to the execution posts. In two or three
minutes both rows would be shot, and then it would be our turn.
"My God, my God, how I wanted to live! How
precious my life seemed to me, how much that was fine and good I might
have accomplished! My whole past life came back to me then, and the way
I had sometimes misused it; and I so longed to experience it all over
again and live for a long, long time....
"Suddenly I heard the drums sounding retreat,
and I took heart. My comrades were untied and brought back from the execution
posts. A new sentence was read. I was condemned to four years at hard
labor. That was the happiest day of my life. I walked back and forth in
my cell in Alexeyevsky Ravelin and kept singing, singing out loud -- so
glad I was for the gift of life."
Thus, Anna Dostoevsky's version of her husband's near-death exuberance.
In a footnote to this passage, however, her translator appends:
is questionable whether this statement conveys Dostoevsky's real feelings.
In The Idiot he gives the following speech to the hero, Prince
execute a man for murder is a punishment incomparably greater than the
crime itself. To be executed is incomparably more terrible than to be
murdered by a highwayman....There is a death sentence, and the whole horrible
torture resides in the fact that there is no escape....Who can tell whether
human nature is able to endure this without going mad? Why this hideous,
unnecessary, useless humiliation? Perhaps there is some man who has been
sentenced to death, been exposed to this torture and has then been told,
"You can go, you are reprieved. Perhaps such a man could tell us."
On the subject of mortal reprieve, in literature there is likely no more
informed nor articulate expert than Fyodor Dostoevsky. On our own reprieves,
each of us gets to be his own expert, of course. There is little doubt
in my mind, based on our conversation over the fender of that '50 Ford,
in the grime atop which I could see the trace of his passage, that Ronnie
Hargate thought his grievous war wounds, as well as his reprieve from
near-certain death, were a just retribution for his trespass against his
fellow men, and were designed by God or Fate or somebody to exact by the
price of his suffering the purchase of his reflection, and, perhaps, the
epiphany of his understanding.
On the subject of my own reprieve, however,
I may say this. Within two months of it I was living in a pickup truck
backed up to a beach on the west coast of Mexico. Within six months of
it I was among the 400,000 protesters loud in front of the White House,
the Saturday morning after the shootings at Kent State, which in turn
had occurred just a few days after, and because of, Richard Nixon's bombing
How's that for gratitude, Dick? Let me be
the first to suggest that it's not historically consistent; to his dying
day, Dostoevsky venerated the Czar who freed him.
As to Tolstoy. I've always resented, among
other things, those who try to sell Tolstoy's first-person, close-focus
descriptions of battle as setting a new standard for the literature of
war. It is perhaps a small peeve, not even Leo's fault particularly, but
what about Stendhal? Well, it turns out that many Tolstoyans simply never
have bothered with Stendhal, and so are not familiar with Fabrizio del
Dongo's experiences at Waterloo. It's true that the disconcerting psychological
and moral prevarications to be found within any 500 pages of Stendhal
are inadequate to the sweeping generalizations of a comparable dose of
Tolstoy. Okay, but where was Tolstoy while we were enduring the Nixon
Administration's version of patriotism? I can tell you that for my part
I hope he was in flaming sempiternity, tit for tat, in sympathetic Wagnerian
harmony with any reader set laboring through the interminable last hundred
pages of War and Peace. It's one of the most boring didacticisms
in all of literature, in which the author strives to bludgeon his reader
into admitting that an individual is helpless in the face of historical
momentum. "The recognition of man's free will as a force capable of influencing
historical events, that is, not subject to laws, is the same for history
as the recognition of a free force moving heavenly bodies would be for
astronomy." Leo might be forgiven for never having heard of the gravity
slingshot. But this pontification comes from a man who had just scrivened
one-and-a-half thousand pages on account of Napoleon. As goes the posterior
elixir, as Darrell Gray called history, Céline made Leo's case
better -- although, to be sure, Hitler was on the set at the time -- not
only by stealing but by belaboring the technique pioneered by Stendhal.
Insofar as, while lacking a particle-wave theory suitably applicable to
history, as intuition -- or is it hope? -- and nothing else suspects must
exist, in endorsing one state or the other, they were both wrong. On the
other hand, if history is (note the indefinite article) a nightmare from
which we struggle to awake, surely there's nothing to explain it except
as some combustion of mathematical and associative logics, catalyzed by
fear and the marvelous within some galactic alembic?
George Steiner's discussion of the dichotomy
between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky enticed from the footstool. The retrospective
"Preface to The Second Edition" at least deserved consideration,
before I returned to the fifteenth century or the phone call, whichever
From these discomforts, from the observation
that the New Criticism could deal only glancingly with such dominant genres
as drama and the novel (for instance, Burke on Coriolanus or Blackmur
on Thomas Mann's Faustus), came the idea of trying to define and
exemplify an Old Criticism. By this I meant an interpretive-critical approach
to literature which would take into account the New Critical stress on
formal detail, on ambiguity, on the self-construction of literary modes,
but which would restore to full authority ideological-historical context,
the actual economic-social components of literary production, the existential
identity of the author, and, above all, those metaphysical-theological
dimensions which have given to our literatures the notion of the canonic.
The presumption was that even among the summits of prose fiction, the
novels of Tolstoy and of Dostoevsky, War and Peace, Anna Karenina,
The Possessed, or The Brothers Karamazov, tower in ways
both obvious and to be constantly explored. The case was made the more
arresting by the facts of rivalry and radical difference. Tolstoy is "epic"
in deliberate ways that relate him to Homer. After Shakespeare, it may
be that Dostoevsky is the greatest, the most polyphonic of dramatists.
The political "transcendentalism," the utopian pieties of Tolstoy are
While I was pretty sure it falls somewhere
between the carburetor and the mongoose, I had to look up meliorist.
meliorism ... n. [L. melior, better; + -ism],
1. the belief that the world naturally tends to get better and, especially,
that it can be made better by human effort. 2. the betterment of society
by improving people's health, living conditions, etc.
As in, amelioration? Indeed...
...n. ...betterment, improvement...
Man is to be seen [via Tolstoy]
in motion towards the kingdom of justice and of love on earth. The begetter
of The Idiot and of the Grand Inquisitor remains among the
most somber of our tragic metaphysicians. The God of Tolstoy is wonderfully
at odds with the God of Dostoevsky.
I couldn't agree more -- but not without
positing the obvious objection, that both Gods are presumably the same
God, if we're in the Biblical ballpark at all, with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky
but two of His many fabulists.
Only, I felt, an Old Criticism could hermeneutically
relate this difference to that in executive forms.
And to think that Steiner's first language
was not English. But who was it who wrote of an old friend, diagnosed
with cancer, who took some solace from the (Pascalian) certainty that,
by dying, he would never again have to look up the word hermeneutics?
...the science of interpretation;
especially, the branch of theology dealing with the principles of exegesis.
And, while we are about i:
executive... 1. of, capable of, or fit for, carrying out duties,
functions, etc.: as, executive ability. 2. ...administrative:
distinguished from legislative, judicial.
...Only its ideas of totality, inherited
from Hegel, might be able to show in substantive and formal detail how
"the technique of a novel always refers us back to the metaphysic of the
novelist" (Sartre). In turn, this component of "reception" having been
ignored by the New Critics, a reader's response, his preference between
a Tolstoy and a Dostoevsky (a Corneille and a Racine, a Broch and a Musil)
will point to, will enlist his own philosophy of life or lack thereof.
Famously, Rilke's archaic torso of Apollo bids us "change our lives".
So do Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but in ways often antithetical. How is this
summons generated by their fictions? What is entailed by the greater trust
we invest in the one rather than the other, neutrality being, I believe,
factitious if not impossible. It is a cliché that in the history
of Western feeling, men and women have been either Platonists or Aristotelians.
In literature, a comparable ontological and psychological dissociation
is obtained, as between "Tolstoyians" and "Dostoevskians." This was already
manifest to their enthralled and exasperated contemporaries.
The list of paired authors was interesting. Corneille and Racine... okay.
But Broch and Musil? The Man Without Qualities I'd not read. I
haven't read much of Racine or Corneille either, for that matter. But
Broch? Broch rang a bell but I couldn't place it. This gave me an excuse
to pull down Martin Seymour-Smith's Who's Who in Twentieth Century
Literature, a wonderfully opinionated, not to say uninformed (far
from it) reference work, whose technique seems to be to annoy in order
to instruct. Another interesting thing about him is that, not unlike Steiner's,
Seymour-Smith's literary criticism finds a firm base in his thorough knowledge
of philosophy. Win, lose, or draw, to look up an author via Seymour-Smith
is almost always worth the trouble.
Broch, Herman (1886-1951) Austrian novelist. He began as a business
man; then gave this up to study science and philosophy. He was one of
the most reluctant writers of the century but was finally forced to express
himself imaginatively -- though he questioned the value of fiction. His
outlook was that we live in an age of 'no longer, not yet'.... He could
not believe in the Catholicism which tempted him, but felt mankind to
be doomed without religion. His masterpiece is Der Tod des Vergil
(1945; tr. The Death of Virgil, 1946), a novel which is both important
and yet -- undoubtedly -- very difficult to read. It reflects his concern
with the value of art, the necessity of employing phenomenological technique
(at the end he describes the transition of Virgil from life into death)
and tormented social conscience. He also wrote Die Sclafwandler
(1931-32; tr. The Sleepwalkers, 1932) and other fiction, drama
and poetry. He was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1938, but was able to emigrate
to America. He died in poverty in a cold-water flat.
Amelioration -- motherfucking indeed!