History as the Imagists’ Dream (or Cuisine of Spam)

Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, reduces the experience of the war largely to petty slights and vendettas played out among individual men, as well as the goals and fears they cling to, sometimes irrationally, often for the sake of keeping some organizing force in their lives. The main drama of the second half underscores this experience of the personally minute amid the massively incomprehensible: a patrol undertakes a mission to prove the cleverness of a general, which also gives a sergeant a chance to prove his tenacity. The patrol needlessly loses several of its members as it scouts a way to surprise the enemy while the main Japanese line simply collapses from starvation.

In Sebald’s Austerlitz, a hideous library is built in Paris atop what was once the depot for goods expropriated from the city’s Jewish population in World War II. The library is ugly, but worse, it impedes people’s access to the books, as well as to the knowledge of what lay in them or below. The eponymous Austerlitz has to fight continually against losing his memory and identity.

I doubt, however, either of these visions of the war will persist, or if they do, they will need to be recuperated by a later era. After all, World War II has become the Last Good War, when Good and Evil were clearly demarcated, when Victory was obvious and American. We consume what reinforces that image more than what challenges it—these days, for most Americans that probably means The Diary of Anne Frank, Band of Brothers, and Saving Private Ryan. Catch-22 and a Randall Jarrell poem may make the list to add another dimension: bombing missions were harrowing (though not much is heard from those on the other end of the bombs.) World War I, meanwhile, has basically settled into a few Wilfred Owens poems in most anthologies and maybe mention of Im Westen Nichts Neues and rarely, and usually in disdainful contrast, In Stahlgewittern. Why these? Because we “all know” World War I was brutal, terrifying, and senseless, a case of alliances and hubris gone awry. History persists most often as metaphor, not fact, or in what Nietzsche called its monumental form.

Meanwhile, the decision to intervene or not in Syria invokes one of two precedents: the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the 1999 bombings of the disintegrated Yugoslavia. Both incidents lose all complexity to become metaphorical shorthand: either a bad intelligence failure/boldfaced lie that should restrain us now or a successful humanitarian intervention that should have happened in 1938 already and should encourage us now.

Yes, history supposedly proceeds from tragedy to farce, but as often, it proceeds from reality to pre-packaged analogy, a sort of intellectual Spam, ready to crack open when needed, the contents already known and not particularly complex, except, perhaps, in the effort to manufacture them.

Is there simply too much to know, so we have to draw a lesson and compress reality, or can we proceed another way?

1991…on repeat?

While browsing the Charlottesville public library’s basement book sale, I came across a history of the first Gulf War. Bush was president; Cheney, Powell, and Wolfowitz had leading roles; US troops were in Iraq; Iran sought to defend or extend its influence; etc. I had also recently finished a seminar in post-WWII German drama with Dr. Renate Voris at UVA and kept thinking about her discussion of Benjamin’s angel of history, in which she urged us to consider that when authors turned to historical material, they were often prompted by something in their own present.

1991: Bush was president; Cheney, Powell, and Wolfowitz had leading roles; US troops were in Iraq amid rebellions mainly in the south and north of the country; tensions were high with Iran; the US was concerned with foreign terrorism and foreign wars and would soon be blindsided by domestic bombings; the economy was wobbling.

Enter 2007 and hit repeat.

Was anything different about 1991? Yes.

Spring 1991: Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind were on the way, though Michael Jackson still held great sway. Young adults hesitated to work for large corporations; anyone interested in saving and expressing his soul pursued non-profit employment at worst. American Psycho was about to rattle many nerves. Gays and lesbians could be fired from national intelligence employment for their sexual orientation, as they were deemed more susceptible to blackmail and other security risks. The salary at grade 7, step 6 for federal employment was about $24,000. Georgia (SSR) voted to secede from the USSR, and Germany was riven East and West but on the brink of reunification with Gorbachev’s approval. The Stasi had crumbled. Detlev Rohwedder would be assassinated by the Red Army Faction for supposedly betraying the people in his attempts to help privatize the East Germany economy. Bin Laden wasn’t yet exiled from Saudi Arabia. The president Bush was father, not son. Timothy McVeigh hadn’t yet returned home, and David Koresh was largely unknown, unlike Easy E (Eric Wright) of NWA, who had just joined the Republican Senatorial Inner Circle after donating $12,500 to the party. The Lubavitcher sect in Brooklyn expected the Messiah to arrive by September 9. Kitty Kelley released her unflattering biography of Nancy Reagan. The greenhouse effect was understood in its basic elements, though the ozone hole seemed the more imminent danger. The Tea Party was a historical event in Boston. The US population of 249 million was 7.9% foreign born, higher than it had been in many decades, and the American militia movement was on the rise.

In two weeks, “The Waste Land” as revision/repetition, but before then 1) how do you remember or imagine the 1990s; and 2) how did 2007 compare to 1991?