Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Concrete and abstract


If I heard that once from my dad, by the time I was ten years old, I must have heard it a million times. Only this morning do I learn the source: Jack Pearl, a radio comic "Best known for playing Baron Munchhausen on radio in the 1930s and popularized the expression "Vas you dere, Sharlie?" to the the point where it became a household phrase."

I'm reading Geert Mak's In Europe, a splendid account of a year's journey (1999) across Europe, geographically, from Spain to Stalingrad, and across the twentieth century, chronologically, from the cousins who ruled the continent (Edward, Wilhelm, Alexander and so on) to... well, I'm not sure; I've only read to the center so far; to the adoption of the Euro, I think.

One of the things that makes me so enthusiastic about this book is Mak's inclusion of many first-person accounts. A journalist as well as a historian, Mak goes out of his way to talk to strangers. He looks up a few logical interview subjects too, of course; one of the most poignant to me so far is a grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm, who recalls the old man as a friendly old grandfather in his Dutch garden long after his dreams crashed at Versailles.

But Mak also talks to beggars and butchers, children and churchmen, to find out how things look to them; look to them in the moment, in 1999; and looked to them in the pivotal times of that amazingly pivotal century: World War I, Versailles, the roaring '20s (a phrase too American for Mak to have used), the Great Depression and the buildup to World War II, that war itself in its surprising evolution -- the more surprising to an American reader (and recent viewer of Ken Burns's documentary) for its European viewpoint.

Just now I've been reading about the Holocaust. It was no simple matter. For one thing, mass exterminations were not exclusively Nazi in origin: we know of course about Stalinist examples (though they haven't figured much so far in Mak's book), but who knew about the Lithuanian Nationalists' mass executions of 3800 Jews in 1941? (Look here.)

All this is the more fascinating for my having recently read Farewell to Marienburg, a first-person memoir by Claus Neumann, who was born in East Prussia (now Poland) in 1929 and came to adulthood in Nazi Germany. Claus lives near me; we met a few weeks ago at a local author's panel; I like him very much and admire his book -- like my own recent books, I suppose, it is an amateur's book in the best sense, a book written out of reflection and an urge to understand, not out of mastered knowledge and the urge to instruct others.

Claus maintains that he had no idea of the Holocaust until the end of the war, when liberating troops revealed the camps to their neighbors. This, even though he was perforce a member of the Hitler Youth. I believe him, partly through the persuasiveness of his writing, partly because even a slight acquaintance reveals an utterly guileless and sympathetic man. Yet Mak is equally persuasive in his account of the thousands of Germans -- and citizens in such German-occupied countries as France, the Low Countries, Norway and Denmark, and the countries within the Eastern Front -- who had to have been complicit in one way or another.

Part of the resolution of this conflicting evidence lies of course in Neumann's youth at the time. He was protected by his parents from knowing too much; certainly from understanding more than was avoidable from the fragmentary evidence that may have been whispered.

More, though, is resolved by considering the nature of ignorance, by the protective ability of the human mind to set evidence aside, to refrain from knowing or understanding, particularly if one is preoccupied by daily problems of one's own survival. This consideration is a special quality of Geert Mak's book: perhaps a scholarly journalist is the best possible writer to speculate on the subjects of awareness, observation, understanding, expression as they interrrelate in the accidents of daily life.

* * *

Six friends are just returned from a trip to Turkey (four in one group, a couple in another); and this morning Giovanna mentions she's been thinking about an intriguing aspect of Turkish grammar: there are two past tenses, one for things and events one's seen for oneself, the other for things and events one knows about only at second hand.

(I wonder if this shows up in other languages; and if perhaps it's related to the French system of past tenses, one of which is purely literary as I understand it, not used in everyday speech.)

This throws into a different perspective the current flap in Turkey over Congress's resolution condemning the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey early in the last century -- at a time, in fact, when such killings were apparently in vogue worldwide: if Congress is to resolve against all such historical pogroms it won't get much more done before Christmas.

We tend to condemn in the abstract things we don't care to deal with -- or, let's be generous, can't readily deal with -- in the concrete. Darfur rages; Congress frets about the 1920s. Oddly, we can and do suppress the evidence of our own eyes, but are persuaded by the theories evolved by strangers.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Terroir and culture

letter to Whiting

"CULTURE," OF COURSE, is etymologically as well as (or indeed therefore) intimately related to terroir. "Culture" has as its root the Latin colere, to till. (I bet the older root, excuse the pun, has to do with lifting-together, which is what tilling describes.)

There's no doubt Culture is grown out of the soil, and that therefore Cultures are first and foremost site-specific. "One of my proudest self-descriptive sentences is: I am committed to two notions often thought to be mutually exclusive: regionalism and modernism." [Painters, Peasants, and Postmodernism: a reading of Wallace Stevens, the opening section of my Even Recent Cultural History: Place Art and Poetry in Ordinary Life, five lectures from the '80s. Available here.]

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area -- or, rather, looking back on it -- and then practicing journalistic criticism there, in the 1970s and '80s -- it was striking to contemplate the local culture: UC Berkeley and KPFA, San Francisco's museums, orchestra, and opera; the theaters which re-emerged in that period (Actors Workshop, ACT, Berkeley Rep and others) after the long quiescence of the Eisenhower-television darkness; the vital dance scene; the development of rock music; the flourishing of the Oakland Symphony during the Gerhard Samuel years; the painting scene so vitally centered on the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of Arts and Crafts and the university campuses at Berkeley and Davis...

In the years just after the end of WW II all this began to ferment quite headily in an atmosphere quite specifically local, for while there was plenty of international awareness (returning veterans, visiting artists, refugee immigrants, the World's Fair of 1939-1940) travel itself was neither fast nor easy; the jet engine hadn't yet entered passenger service). Northern California was its own country in many ways. Even Modernism, accelerated though its tempo necessarily is (see Matt K. Matsuda: The Memory of the Modern), had a homegrown flavor that linked it organically to a California past. (That past is discussed persuasively, as it applies to poetics, in William Everson: Archetype West: the Pacific Coast as a Literary Region [1976: Oyez Books].)

In the late 1960s, recalling activist memories from the Great Depression (see the General Strike of 1934), this Bay Area culture finally blended with youth activism, early stimulated by protest against Chinese activity in Tibet and the congressional Un-American Activities Committee, then more widely by sympathy with voter registration drives in the American southeast, finally by freedom-of-speech issues on campus, generated a truly powerful though never really co-ordinated (much less coherently conceived and stated) local mentality or sensibility whose ultimate contribution to a wider American character is of course yet to be seen.

(It is, however, incipient on the national body politic. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and California's two senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are all from the Bay Area. They are frequently divided on national and international questions but in that division reflect divisions in their own constituencies while remaining firmly on the left.)

I don't think "terroir" can yet be fully English: it's not quite fully immigrated. This may be my own bias: I simply want to deny to English any possibility of terroir having been adopted. There's much work to be done before it has become completely accepted. But I like it that it is so much in use, and that it carries with it subliminal resonances of terror. There is something profoundly disturbing about ploughing; turning the soil is hardly "cultivated," in one of the senses that word has unfortunately developed (dismissively discriminating; snooty).

The most vital forms of expression, and the most visceral forms of understanding from which such expression emerges and toward which it contributes, are chthonic (see Camille Paglia: Sexual Personae: Art & Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, chapter 1). Culture is terroir; "global culture" can only be a catchphrase.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

War and continuity

WENT TO A TALK last night in town. Christopher O'Sullivan, a historian, spoke easily and interestingly about the presidential candidacies as they seem to be developing, along the way referring to yesterday's "debate" in whicn all but one of the Republican candidates agreed that President Bush is able to go to war in Iran without Congressional consent.

It's striking but understandable, I think, that most of the "front-running" Democratic candidates agree that there will be an American "presence" in Iraq for a number of years. For one thing, they have to present themselves as realists, not ideologues; and no one has come up with a credible methodology for a quick American disengagement.

Last night's talk was a meeting of local Democrats and sympathizers (like me) who are generally interested in what can actually be done, on a grassroots level, to affect the current political situation. My own tendency is to believe that the situation is so complex, fluid, and unstable that such strategic thinking, however attractive, is ultimately unreliable.

I think there are historical moments when social processes have accelerated beyond comprehension, when political, economic, and cultural dynamics develop life and energy and inevitability of their own, so to speak, and spin into events whose nature can only be examined (and perhaps ultimately "understood") after the fact.

Several recent observations come to mind:
  • A few minutes of the Vincente Fox-Larry King interview, seen between innings the other night: Asked about Mexican participation in Iraq, Fox pointed out that the Mexican army is constitutionally prevented from engaging in foreign war, from wars of agression. Imagine that!

  • The Ken Burns documentary The War, which we watched from beginning to end, and which succeeded, I think, in presenting that experience as it confronted those who fought it, disengaged from global politics, faced only with its alternations of random technological impersonality and immediate human cruelty.

  • Geert Mak's book In Europe, just out in English, with its fascinating portraits of the insane illusions of the "leaders" who precipitated World War I, Versailles, the Bolshevik revolution, the mass exterminations of the 1930s and '40s, and I suppose beyond: I've only got through the first three sections of the book so far, and will no doubt return to commenting on it here in the days to come.

  • Always, at the back of my mind when thinking about these things, Paul Fussell's book The Great War and Modern Memory; and William Everding's The First Moderns, and Matt Matsuda's The Memory of the Modern.
  • O'Sullivan pointed out, in an aside, that history never repeats itself, but that's true I think only in details. It's true only in the sense that every day is a new day.

    In the meantime the sun comes up every morning just as it did the morning before. Yesterday we had rain, the first real rain of the season, over an inch of it; then the night was clear and beautiful, the stars brilliant just as they were to the Greek shepherds three thousand years ago
    Look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold;
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings ...
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
    and this morning there were heavy mists as the damp earth returned the excess moisture to the skies.

    History does not repeat itself, since it is after all imperfect, a human creation. But our earth and everything in it wallows along in self-correcting cycles of varying lengths and paces, and a question formed in my mind last night, and I asked it this morning of Dr. O'Sullivan:
    Many issues barely emerged in the discussion: the precipitous decline of the dollar, which amounts to huge inflation in the American economy; the issues of immigration and racial oppression; the disaffection of youth and the feeling of powerlessness of the older generations; the belligerence of the industrial sector (increasingly invested in war materiel); the general assumption of national superiority (this was touched on at the end, thanks very much); the feeble press; the increasing mindlessness of the popular culture; the glorification of violence and violent athleticism; the increasing disapproval of the rest of the world...

    The question is: how could the intelligent and good-thinking citizen have influenced a better national political outcome in the Weimar Republic?