Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Old Love” (1979)

As in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s other short story collections, Old Love is thematically diverse but largely confined to the experiences of the Jewish Disapora, being set either in pre-war Poland or in the United States. The most common character is someone like Singer, an aging scholar or writer who emigrated to the United States and enjoys rising fame. Singer himself was never a radical, although many of his themes touch on the struggle for locating human freedom within familial, institutional and cultural confines. In the introduction to Old Love he writes on what he sees as the major theme uniting this collection of stories.

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The love of the old and middle-aged is a theme that is recurring more and more in my work of fiction. Literature has neglected the old and their emotions. The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience. Furthermore, while many of the young believe that the world can be made better by sudden changes in social order and by bloody and exhausting revolutions, most older people have learned that hatred and cruelty never produce anything by their own kind. The only hope of mankind is love in its various forms and manifestations.

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Now, while I certainly agree with the first point and would submit that much suffering would be removed from the world if marriages entered into by people in their 20s expired after five years. The centrality of young people to romantic comedies is ridiculous beyond measure to anyone who actually gone through a dozen relations in as many years (especially the happily ever after parts). I do not think the logical conclusion of this is to reject youthful revolt, and his claim that revolt against the social order is always bloody and exhausting. I think Singer’s own evidence reveals a great number of older people in revolt against the central institution of their lives: family and marriage. Despite wanting to approach the theme of love among older people, we find it quite elusive and frustrated.

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Take for instance the first story in the collection, “One Night in Brazil.” The narrator visits an intellectual friend and finds his friend married an old acquaintance from Warsaw. She claims she has been possessed by a dybbuk. The husband goes off with a girlfriend. Lena, the woman, attempts to seduce the narrator but they are consumed by mosquitoes, return home full of bugs and blood. They wash it off in a grotesque scene just as the husband returns. We see in this story the themes of serial monogamy, the resultant alienation in marriage (seemingly made worse by the third or fourth attempt) and a strange pining for lost love. If this is an attempt at love among the old, the next story “Yochna and Schmelke” is about young people. Yochna is raised pious and arranged to marry Scmelk through her father. The story discusses the early feelings of Yochna during the marriage, especially the wedding night and its rituals. Contrary to tradition Scmelke left on the holy days with his father in law. The later returns, with the other assumed lost. She is abandoned and pregnant, because she cannot remarry if they do not find a body. Of course, this is not unlike marriages once they pass the honeymoon which quickly become corpses.

“The Psychic Journey” explores the banality of marriage, the attraction to novelty and the desire for companionship in late capitalist marriages that often keep couples separated. A psychic connection provides some hope for a more meaningful relationship. The narrator meets a woman interested in the occult while feeding birds. They begin a friendship based on mutual interests. It turns out she has been watching him and following his work and interests.  They take a trip together to Israel at the time the 1976 war breaks out. She abandons him. After the trip, he stops seeing Margaret and reunites with wife, Dora. He tells her he went to California, never mentioning the trip to Israel although Dora was in Tel Aviv at the time of their illicit trip. He later learns that Margaret has started psychic business in New York leading him to confess his trip with the strange woman.

Readers can easily come away from this collection with a feeling that married couples are required to scheme to keep sane, crafting elaborate images of each other or themselves just to keep the facade of the institution together. In “The Bus,” Singer uses the device of changing seats on a tour bus in Spain to allow the narrator to see two sides of each couple. Here is how one married couple talks about each other:

One good trait she did have—she could attact a man. Sexually, she was amazingly strong. I don’t believe myself that I am speaking of these things—in my circles, talk of sex is taboo. But why? Man thinks of it from cradle to grave. She has a powerful imagination, a perverse fantasy. I’ve had experiences with women and I know. She has said things to me that drove me to frenzy. She has more stories in her than Scheherazade. Our days were cursed, but the nights were wild. . .

Nothing is left me except my imagination. He drained my blood like a vampire. He isn’t sexually normal. He is a latent homosexual—not so latent—although when I tell him this he denies it vehemently. He only wants to be with men, and when we still shared a bedroom he spent whole nights questioning me about my relationships with other men. I had to invent affairs to satisfy him. Late, he threw these imaginary sins up to me and called me filthy names. (214–216)

Well, if Singer is after a description of love among middle-aged people, he may have succeeded in convincing me that as we get older our relationships get only more sociopathic and absurd. Maybe there is some wisdom in this. There are limits to how much any one of us can overturn our cultural and social baggage. This must explain the remarriage rates. Rationally, a marriage as a youthful mistake makes since, but remarriage must be insanity (more than once Since shows affairs to have the same banalities of regular relationships). But if for whatever reason staying is impossible and one finds themselves back into relationships, perhaps a bit of playful fatalism is the best we can hope for. But always beware that the strange sleeping next to you may burn your life’s work, decide to put a knife in your chest, or become possessed by the spirits of the dead. This is all to be expected.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Passions” (1975)

I have gone out of the habit of writing. One day a Hitler comes and burns books. The next day it’s a Stalin who demands that all poets exalt his murders. New tyrants will emerge and they will destroy the literature of the world. Since sex is only for two—and sometimes even for one—why must poetry be for many? I am my own bard. Sometimes when I used to lie with Getzele in bed, we held a poetic duet. Well, but two can also be too many. L’chayim. (737)

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I am taking another stab at Isaac Bashevis Singer. I do not quite know why he has provided such difficulty for me, more than any other author in the Library of America series. It is not because of the themes, which actually are much in line with this blog. Singer’s characters are often on the move, challenging or controlled by their tradition and institutions in their life. As in his other story collections, Passions, published in 1975, is set either in pre-World War II Poland or in the United States (mostly New York City) in the middle of the century. These twenty stories reflect the experiences of the Jewish Diaspora in the twentieth century, often resulting in extremely lonely, isolated, alienated characters carrying heavy burdens of history (sometimes personal sometimes of the Holocaust). Many of these characters are college professors, writers, or teachers at some level of conflict with the Jewish tradition. Transgression, as a means of escaping these burdens is often an option, but Singer’s characters rarely pursue this path without hesitation or tragic consequences. Nevertheless, Singer is never willing to reject entirely the transgressive option. We can also assume that these writings are heavily autobiographical, either deriving from Singer’s childhood and youth in Poland or his professional success in New York.

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Many of his characters exist in a sort of spiritual or social death, often despite success. A general state of paralysis and indifference exists over the lives of several characters people. In “Old Love,” Harry Bendiner lives a lonely life between Miami and New York. He even confesses, when looking at the development in Miami that: “once you pass eighty, you’re as good as a corpse.” (584) He meets a widowed woman who shuffles through life in much the same way. She speaks of her daughter and this almost inspires Harry to seek her out in British Columbia, but the story ends with the same oppressive burden of paralysis that it began with.

Throughout Passions and Other Stories mobility does little to prevent this feeling. People can move around all they want (or sometimes as a result of outside pressure) but they either return home, fall back into new banal patterns, or simply find themselves more isolated and alone than they felt back in their home towns.  Clearly family is one of the burdens that traps people into a place, but it is often no more powerful that ideology. Modernism is a common issue in Singer’s stories, creating young modern Jews who seek out a modern world in the city, often finding only loneliness and isolation.

The story “Errors” points out how oppressive the traditional family can be, showing that there is not a clear preference in his writings for tradition or for modernity. Both can be ultimately alienating. In this story, the patriarchal Zablocki stands out as a symbol for traditional filial oppression, violently abusing both the farm hands and his wife, who he “tormented to death.” (599) Zablocki was finding his domain slowly evaporated by modernity, symbolized in his tendency to lose lawsuits. “The New Year Party” gives a brief glimpse into how migration forced shifting family relations, often disempowering patriarchs. Although a positive development, Singer wants to point out how distributing and alienating the change could be. In that story, Pearl’s father lost his moral authority over his family in part due to being forced to work on the Sabbath and seeing his daughter become attracted to leftism and atheism. The man she eventually married kept patriarchal privilege (suggested through his domination of the family and his serial adultery), while being nominally politically progressive.

The signs of modernity are everywhere, besieging the traditional moral communities that Singer grew up in. The following passage is from “A Tutor in the Village.”

The peasants were becoming enlightened. The young generation wanted leather boots, not makeshift shoes of rags and bark. They wanted shingled roofs, not thatch. They girls wanted to dress in the city style. Witos, the leader of the peasant party in the Sejm, sent speakers to Kocica, who lectured to the peasants on their needs. The Communists, too, had their agitators. (693)

This is repeatedly the cause of the dislocation and alienation that the characters often feel. This is not something we should necessarily worry too much about. For many of the men, what is being lost are patriarchal privileges rooted in the family and in tradition. Others did not have much of this power to begin with, but they were losing their voice. Many of the characters are writers and thinkers and speakers working in esoteric traditions that simply lose much of their power when facing the modern world. An idiosyncratic theologian may still have a place in a village, but in New York City or Israel or Miami he is forced into conformity or risk total alienation. “Modern civilization wipes out all individuality.” (750)

My three favorite stories in this collection are “The Witch,” “The Admirer,” and “The Fatalist.” “The Witch” is about a widower and math teacher who becomes strangely infatuated with an ugly, stupid former student of his. He begins a relationship with her, a relationship that he is ashamed to confess publically, but only after learning that she may be a witch and cursed his wife to die of cancer. This can be read literarily, that he was bewitched. But a more promising reading is that the man was declaring his independence from social expectations. The young woman’s ugliness is an objective, not a subjective fact. She is ugly and stupid in her eyes based on social expectation. The death of his wife helped liberate him from these expectations. “The Admirer” is an odd tale about a writer who gets a visit from a fan, who is exposed through a series of phone calls from her estranged husband and her mother to be crazy. It is another case where a lonely intellectual is prevented from possible companionship through external expectations about what is normal and proper (enforced in this case through telephone calls). “The Fatalist” is just a fun story about a believer in fate who wins a girl by taking his belief in fate to its logical conclusions.

A. J. Liebling, “Normandy Revisited” (1958): War and Nostalgia

The film The Best Years of Our Lives famously explored the trauma of returning from war to a working class community that no longer understood you. The war gave a sense of meaning, a community, and a purpose that could not be recreated in one’s banal hometown. Marriages broke up and veterans took to drink. Others came back less than whole and found additional challenges. If A. J. Liebling’s Normandy Revisited is a guide, this was in some ways the experience of war correspondences. Perhaps this is why so many journalists move from war to war and never settle for working for a local newspaper, reporting on the fair.

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Normandy Revisited has more in common with Liebling’s book on food Between Meals than some of the other war writings I have been looking at. He often looks back with nostalgia at the war and his exciting experiences covering the war (with a knowledge that such events will never come again), but much of this nostalgic musing is done at French cafes in Normandy. It is hard not to wonder whether this book was an excuse for Liebling to enjoy consumption and conversation in his second home of France. It is a work of leisurely tourism and thus cannot be fully separated from the privilege someone like Liebling enjoyed at the birth of American hegemony. While I do not find much useful in nostalgia (I prefer a Prometheanism) and when that nostalgia is for a war that one did not need to fight except in print it should trouble us, there is perhaps something to the human preference for action to banality. I suspect many leftists look at revolution (or the high point of the I.W.W. or a particularly inspirations strike) with a similar nostalgia.

What I find sad in the juxtaposition of his war memories with his experiences touring Normandy a decade after D-Day is the apparent loss of the leftist potentialities that formed a crucial part of the anti-fascist struggle. (See my earlier posts on Liebling for more on these.) Instead we are given Liebling’s participation in a culture of affluence. The following comes after a two page description of a meal.

This has developed from a merely culinary into a geographical digression, but I can never approach the memory of that meal without wanting to go into it. It has the same attraction for me as Costello’s saloon. I seldom encounter a pheasant nearly so good nowadays, and when I do, an hour d’oeuvre and possible a tripe is all I can manage at one meal besides the bird. (I am writing this on a lunch exclusively of turtle soup, as I am trying to take off weight.) (913)

Perhaps a more useful reading of Normandy Revisited is to set it next to Between Meals and take another look at the Dionysian pursuit of pleasure. In my post on Between Meals, I argued for a more sympathetic view of Liebling’s quest for pleasure as a reaction against a capitalist culture of scarcity and restraint. The reason more of us cannot consume epically is due to the even more grotesque consumption and accumulation by the ruling class. We should not confuse Liebling’s obesity and fondness for food with the obesity of the millionaires and billionaires. Perhaps my brief moral outrage has to do with his enjoyment of these pleasures on a graveyard of soldiers and radical dreams. I had forgotten that in the context of the Nazi occupation of France, merely keeping a harvest or enjoying a surplus was not allowed.

 

From the perspective of human freedom, perhaps it is also good that the wounds of war were so easily healed. Signs of war, of course, could not so easily forgotten. Some buildings were left in partial repair. Widows had to come to terms with dead husbands. Liebling’s report from the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc shows little evidence of the previous conflict, except the proprietor’s dead husband and the fact that the hotel had to be rebuilt. Instead of trauma we get:

When I came downstairs to await the Le Cornecs in the cafe that evening, the chromium-florescent bait had brought in two couples who sat up at the bar. The women’s tight, round little bottoms perched up on the bar stools like the tops of swizzle sticks. The V-backs of their motoring dresses started just above the caudal cleft, their hair was rose platinum, and their voices suggested they wore microphones in their garter belts. They and the men, who looked like comperes in a marseilais road show, were drinking Scotch, as everybody does in France now who does not wish to be taken for a tourist. (917)

One quickly notices in this book (if not in his earlier projects) that Liebling always saved one eye for the ladies and his books would have been much shorter had an editor removed these descriptions. I wonder how many of these women he discusses knows they have been so immortalized for sitting at a barstool, riding a bicycle or showing off their “French frame” (no time to look up page number for that reference but it is there).

Where does this obligation to feel nostalgia, grief, and trauma for a war come from? I am pondering a fictional visit to Normandy made by the titular character in Saving Private Ryan. For that character the war was a life of guilt and torment. The film-maker, and I suspect the nation as a whole, demands this emotion from its people. Considerable energy is spent in memorials, films, holidays, parades, and speeches. Lincoln passed over the suffering and sacrifice of soldiers in one line to get to the real significance of Gettysburg, the war as social revolution. In contrast, the cult of war memorials wants a nation who thinks opposition to the state is somehow opposition to the war dead. This is a profoundly reactionary sentiment and had no place in a projectural life and a politics of the future. We should let the dead be dead.

Tyranny of historical memory

Tyranny of historical memory

Liebling’s reports form his trip show that the Parisians did not remember the war with guilt. Perhaps it is an American obsession. Liebling does describe a charity event for veterans, but it was apparently not drown in tears, bad patriot music, and political leaders calling on our divine duty to the war dead.

As Liebling suggested in The Road Back to Paris, he could not really cover the war from cafes, but we should be fortunate that is may turn out to be a very good place to cover the aftermath of the war. So let me suggest: Down with nostalgia and guilt when it comes to the great wars of the past and our own lives. It has no place in the world we want to build.

A. J. Liebling, “Uncollected War Journalism” (1939-1963): Infrapolitics and Resistance

Haven’t they any cooperatives? It is to the interest of the dairies to be clean. Then they would get a premium for the milk. It is just like the ships. If you have a good ship, with the proper number of watertight compartments and all new safety things, then you pay such a low insurance rate, you know. And if you treat the crew right, it is a good crew, and then you don’t have to pay so many men. In Denmark it has all worked out beautifully. In a cooperative one bad one hurts all the others. (596)

Is it not amazing that we find in a small report by an overweight American journalist about the fate of the Danish navy during World War II, such a concise argument for anarchist principles of organization? I argued in my last posts on A. J. Liebling’s World War II writings that we see in the fighting of the war plenty of unrealized potentialities. Here, perhaps, is another one. In any case, readers of the New Yorker cannot say they were not by none other than a Danish sailor.

Liebling’s reports from the Second World War are insightful on many levels. They speak of the experience of common soldiers, the character of commanders, and the perceptions of war from the home front. Of most long-term significant is what his stories reveal about the winning of the war and the power of vernacular forms of protest. As important as the military was to the victory, the painting Liebling presents of occupied Europe is one a Gulliver being tied down by thousands of little strings. Liebling had a fascination and love for France, which comes through in his writings. He even wrote an entire book on the French resistance, The Republic of Silence (of which two selections are included in this collection). Their contribution was not simply armed resistance, but a great diversity of infrapolitics (a term coined by James Scott for unseen and underground political action).

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One of the most memorable in this collection of war reports to the New Yorkers (pp. 573–815 in World War II Writings) is about the “V” campaign. The campaign used radio to encouraged people in occupied territories to write the letter “V” on public buildings with chalk. The letter was given different meaning depending on the local language. When transformed into morse code, it became the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In effect, this turned a piece of German music into an international symbol of resistance (to the great annoyance of the Germans). Liebling estimates that this cheaply run campaign kept two German divisions from the front in attempt to suppress graffiti, but the use of a musical phrase for resistance was impossible to repress.

The radio broadcasts encouraged other forms of day to day resistance to the occupation, which may have had a cumulative effect that shaped the war’s outome. The colonel in charge of the program said in one broadcast:

This week I’m asking you to buy anything and everything and leave nothing for the Germans. Buy before your money becomes worthless. . . . Farmers, soon you’ll be getting your harvests in. The Germans want to get their hands on your crops, but there are ways to hide them. You will neede to keep your families from starving during the winter, and if you can save a little more than you need for yourself, it will be worth its weight in gold. . . . A lot of you city people have insurance policies. Nearly all the insurance companies have been bought up by the Germans, so every time you burn a hole in your carpet or break some china, don’t forget to claim; bury the Germans in paperwork. And if you can’t do any of these things, mark up the V where they’ll see it. Beat out the V rhythm. (608–609)

Of course, the effectiveness of this sort of thing could not be determined by the bureaucratic institutions that ran the war, but they likely helped cultivate an anti-fascist ethos in these countries and may have helped prevent its reemergence.

“The Lancaster Way” shows how small industries in small towns in England became critical production centers in for the war effort, while also sustaining a strong working class culture and spirit of autonomy. The vernacular ingenuity of these smaller urban spaces was, according to Liebling, nothing short of stunning.

Another set of articles I would like to highlight are those dealing with the French press under Nazi occupation. Liebling was interested in how the press in a city could keep its independence while also suffering from increasing corporate centralization. His 1964 book The Press is about the threat to democracy by centralized media ownership. While we might think that the press was completely restricted under the Nazis, we find the opposite was the case. “The only great nation with a completely free press today is France. All valid French newspapers are illegal.” (653) The press, in open rebellion of this censorship flourished. I suppose by the same logic, the most repressed spouse is the most likely to seek out affairs. Liebling describes the various major underground newspapers, their varied perspectives, and how they got into print. Repression created a solidarity of varied perspectives, which ultimately proved a boon to the left. “The Gestapo called them all Communists. This is an example of Nazi and collaborationist propaganda that had boomeranged. . . . the words ‘Communist’ and ‘patriot’ in the French popular mind. . . became synonyms, which gives an increased impetus to the Leftward tendency caused by the treason committed by the great industrialists.” (655) Had the Germans allowed some press freedom, what may have emerged was a waffling “neutral” newspaper that was politically anodyne and a complicit supporter of the occupation. Through censorship, the Germans created a radical French media culture. Later, Liebling suggest this contributed to the post-war alliance between the French working class and the intellectuals.

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Liebling’s Second World War writings teaches us that the people can trap the state in its own rhetoric, immobilize it through non-participation, and silence it. The tools and strategies used by the European resistance are still available to us even if they will look different in application. The power of infrapolitics has never really declined.

A. J. Liebling: “Mollie and Other War Pieces” (1964)

Besides the Jews, the Corps [Franc] had hundreds of political prisoners from labor camps in southern Algeria—Spanish Republicans who had fled to Africa in 1939, anti-Nazi Germans who had come even before that, and French “Communists and de Gaullists,” to employ the usual Vichy designation for dissidents. . . In the Corps Franc, they were at liberty to march and fight until they dropped. They were also a fair number of Mohammedans, good soldiers, who had joined to earn the princely wage of twenty-three francs a day. . . I remember a former carabinero who had fought in the Spanish Loyalist Army, and a baked of Italian parentage from Bone, in Algeria, who said, “I am a Communist. Rich people are poison to me.” 320–321

Corps Franc

Corps Franc

This passage from A. J. Liebling’s Mollie and Other War Pieces reminds us of how broad the anti-fascist alliance was in the 1930s and 1940s. Leibling focused a great deal on the French resistance and the French home front in his World War II writings. France was his second home after New York City and he seemed to never tire of going there. The fall of France and the return to Paris (The Road Back to Paris) defined the major arc of the conflict. A group like the Corps Franc was made up of thousands of the defeated and colonized, but participated in this anti-fascist struggle. Although Liebling does not quite get to this point, I do think there were the seeds planted for some alternative post-war worlds. One thing that is clear in this reading is that it was by no means the will of many of the participants on the allied side that capitalism would emerge from the war triumphant. It was not the values of empire and capital that won the war (although sometimes their mechanized logic did seem to shape the conduct of the war).

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Mollie and Other War Pieces came out in 1964 and, along with The Press, was one of the works left incomplete at his death. Mollie and Other War Pieces is mostly collection of his war correspondence, picking up where The Road Back to Paris left off, starting in the North Africa campaign, continuing to D-Day and the defeat of Germany in France, and ending with a lengthy description of a war crime in rural France that seems small when compared to the scale of the war, but summarizes Liebling’s view about the moral necessity of fighting fascism. The story on the soldier Mollie open the book. “Mollie” was a Russian-American soldiers who was killed in action in North Africa. He was a memorable soldier, given the handle Molotov by his comrades. He was a good solider, a bit extravagant in his living, but also politically radical and often in trouble (one report has him court-martialed a couple dozen times but always getting off). Liebling goes back to New York and digs up the personal history of Mollie and finds that he was a union man (but negligent about his dues) and sustained a rather infamous life. I think this piece is important to read for its insight into the diverse points of view that made up the US Army during the war and the radical politics of so many soldiers coming out of the Great Depression.

It cheers me to think there may be more like him all around me—a notion I would have dismissed as sheer romanticism before World War II. Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience. He has become a posthumous pal, thought I never knew him when he was alive. He was full of curiosity—he would have made a great explorer—and fond of high living, which is the only legitimate incentive for liking money. He had faith in the reason of his fellow-man, as when he sensed that the Italians at Sened were no more eager to fight than he was. The action that earned him his Silver Star cost no lives. It saved them. (342)

Several soldiers pass through Liebling’s narrative of the war which values perhaps similar to those of Mollie. Liebling spends a great deal of time looking at the French home front where we similarly find a great diversity of political perspectives, but a strong tendency toward the left among the anti-fascist forces. He discusses collaborators as well, but his focus is on the resistance. His section on the free French press during the occupation is wonderfully fascinating if only for the evidence that it was largely a movement of the left. These resistance movements against the Germans fed into traditional French revolutionary politics.

In another village, also in Brittany, an officious gendarme tried to make the farm wives stop baking, because the farmers are suppose to deliver all their flour to the government. Enraged women dumped him into a horse trough. In the Yonnee departments, farmers hide requisitioned horses and cows; in Loir-et-Cher, the farmers deliver no eggs, insisting that the hens stopped laying in 1940. In Seine-et-Oise, the peasants have formed committees to demand high grain prices. Everwhere the peasants unite to hunt informers, just as farmers in Iowa, not long ago, used to chase process serves. La Terre holds up the example of the scorched earth set by the Russian peasants. (452–453)

Liebling builds up these stories about the French resistance to the fight to liberate Paris on the eve of the American arrival to the city. This did not prevent appreciation for the Americans who helped make the liberation possible but did allow the Parisians to “feel they earned it [liberation].” (524)

Libération, 23 août 1944

The book also contains Liebling’s description of D-Day, which he observed from a boat in the English channel. While of interest to those who want to see another perspective on that big battle, I am more interested in seeing the war from the margins, fought not by generals and states but by the motley crew of anti-fascists. This side of the war—the one that did not just fight for the idea of liberty but tried to live in their actions during the war—needs to be told more often.

A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part Two, The Values that Won the War

If one American division could beat one German division, I thought then, a hundred American divisions could beat a hundred German divisions. Only the time was already past when Germany had a hundred divisions to spare from the Russian front, plus God knows how many more to fight the British, plus garrison troops for all the occupied countries. I knew deep down inside me after that that the road back to Paris was clear. (308)

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In The Road Back to Paris, A.J. Liebling is interested in the values that won the Second World War (or in 1944 made victory inevitable). His approach to the war was patriotic but not irrationally so. If he could not resist pro-American statements that come off as rather shallow, such as his claim that American soldiers would do well in the war because of how competitive Americans were on the basketball court, he was in the main an internationalist and much of his war journalism is trying to get at the underlying solidarity of working people that won the war. Nowhere is this made clear more than in the central events of the book, Liebling’s trek back to the United States on a Norwegian cargo freighter in the winter of 1941. It is placed centrally in the book. It is also a central in the sense that when he set out America was not in the war, but when he returned to New York it was. Finally, it is thematically central. Through the sailors on the freighter we learn about the values of the working people who won the war.

I opened this post with the final passage in the book, which rightfully reduced war to a number games. Earlier in the text, while following the Americans in North Africa, Liebling pointed out that Washington wanted a 100% mechanized war. The result of a bureaucratic conflict, run by technocrats applying cost-benefit models. Of course, this is part of the ideology that won the war, a rather inhuman technocratic logic. But I do not think that was all that was at work nor would it have been enough. More impressive is the massive international democratic solidarity, rather striking in a world that was becoming progressively less free during the first half of the century. The first half of the book spent time describing the rising tide of fascism in France and such sentiments were even positioned in in the army (and we know similar movements were power in the United States during the Great Depression).

The Chapter “Westbound Tanker” is a window into this solidarity and a discussion on bravery during a war run by actuaries. While the 1%–2% loss rate on trans-Atlantic freighter voyages was something Liebling himself could brush off, only making one voyage. For the sailors who were committed to the service in the merchant marine during the war, this was an oppressive fact of life, without dramatically affecting their performance. A similar experience was shared by bomber crews that strangely listened to melancholy music before missions. In addition to the risk, they faced rapid changes in destination and a general uncertainty about the future. The war was out of their hands; the same was true for the soldiers.

When you are in a convoy it is sometimes impossible to remember whether a thing happened yesterday or the day before yesterday or the day before that. You watch the other ships and you read whatever there is to read and you play jokes on the ship’s cat. (195)

If  Liebling’s reportage is to be believed, the time was also spent getting to know each other. Liebling reveals the histories and stories of many of these common, unheroic (in the classical sense) sailors. Christmas dinner became a time for sharing experiences, stories, songs, and drink. Mostly Norwegian (the ship was ordered to Allied ports when the Germans invaded Norway) but had crew members from other allied nations. Ideologically they were diverse as well, with some communists on board, but these were not barriers to the crews solidarity, which was quite strong and reinforced as often as possible with drink and merriment and trying to catch a glimpse of “bathing girls” while cruising past Miami Beach. What is coming through to me, more than anything else, is just how much the war was fought by a motley crew.

Liebling’s arrival in North Africa (with gout as a symbol of his relative privilege) leads to some interesting observations. One is that a fascist apologist ruling clique in North African towns (Oran in Algeria is highlighted) being put into a revolutionary situation by the mere presence of this motley crew. Before 1939, this town was a center of radical leftist politics and the fall of France made it possible for the bosses to solidify their rule. In a model copies again and again, capital found undemocratic systems—especially fascism—quite useful in entrenching their power. A result of their triumph, Allied sympathies were high in the town among these suppressed leftists. Of course this situation seemed to exist across North Africa and led to the creation of the seemingly impressive “Corps France d’Afrique.” “Jews, Moslems, foreigners held in concentration camps, former soldiers of the Foreign Legion, and anybody not formally enrolled with a regular class of the Army Reserve could volunteer in a new catch-all organization . . . which was promised immediate service in the front lines.” (231) I wonder if this was modelled off the International Brigades in Spain. The fact that we may have here a model for a broad anti-fascist movement involving such a diverse group in the Muslim world makes it worthy of future study.

French troops in Oran

French troops in Oran

There is no reason to think that the grassroots organization, solidarity, and resistance that struck Leibling as so power worked to be an effective counter to the growing bureaucratic nature of the war. The fact that actuarial tables at insurance companies had to be reformulated when the war broke out should be morally troubling, but it is likely just a sign of the times. Insurance companies knew how likely it was a sailor would due on a voyage, just as commanders new how likely it was soldiers would return from a particular mission. War had become a number games. (As Ambrose Bierce taught readers decades earlier war become a numbers game in the nineteenth century.) These are competing sides of the allied war efforts and even if the number games won the war, it is the diversity and solidarity that allowed many on the Allied side to begin to imagine a very different world.

A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part One, Ideologies and People at War

The circumstances of a man’s capture are more significant than this tone of voice in replying to the interrogating officers. It is to a prisoner’s interest to be cocky, after capture, for he is under the surveillance of his fellows and the governance of superiors whose Naziness is likely to be in proportion to their rank. The Geneva Convention was never drawn up to cover an ideological war; there is no inducement for the German prisoner who is democratic or just anti-war to let anyone know what is on his mind. Vanity also counts in the prisoner’s attitude. He likes to think of himself as a Teutonic heor even when he knows he has quit cold. (71)

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A historical analysis of the failures of political anarchism in the twentieth century needs to come to terms with the central events of that century: the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the Second World War. The horrors of ideologies at war, backed by triumphant and largely unquestioned state power is troubling to ponder. One thing that is clear from my reading of A. J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris, a collection of Liebling’s war correspondence published while the war was incomplete, if not undecided, is that the ideological nature of the war was comparatively weak among the largely working class soldiers. As the prisoner of war camps in France show, it is actually quite difficult to get people to kill and die for the state. Even prisoners required constant surveillance by superiors in order to enforce their commitment to the Nazi cause.

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The Road Back to Paris is divided into three parts (“The World Knocked Down,” “The World on One Knee,” and “The World Gets Up”). From these titles, the general narrative of the world parallels a general interpretation of the war as a catastrophe followed by a difficult and hard-won victory. What Liebling does not give us is a general military history of the conflict. His columns followed his life as a war correspondent, first in France and then after the fall of Paris in Britain and North Africa. He did cover D-Day and returned to Paris, but is documented in another collection of his war writings. As we recall from his other journalism, Liebling was very interested in how things worked at the vernacular level. His examinations of aspects of New York City are really at the gutter level and his findings about how cities actually work are striking. It is the same with his reading of the war, which he often covered from brothels, cafes, and prisoner of war camps.

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In the first part of the book, Liebling encounters numerous people who were not very interested in fighting. German leadership aside, it did not seem that there was anyone who was particularly interested in another war. Liebling reported that the English seemed to have found a “new form of patriotism” based on the principle of fighting a war without war. Of course, that was from the rather subdued period between the conquest of Poland and the conquest of France. Now I do not find his to be a compelling case for pacifism, nor am I very interested in debating the moral necessity (or not) of the Allied war effort, merely to point out that it took a violent autocracy to convince its people to fight and even then it was not an easy sale as the prisoner of war camps suggested.

We can also see from Liebling’s account that if the Second World War was a war of ideologies, no one seemed very sure of the ideology on their side.

Remoteness from the war affected everybody, but there were at least two groups in our country that tried consciously to minimize our danger. They were precisely these that had worked to the same end in France—a strong faction of men of wealth and the Community party. The money people wanted to prove fascism more efficient than democracy, the Communists that democracy offered no protection against fascism. A military victory for the democracies would shatter the pretensions of both. (120)

True enough, but in Liebling’s mind, democracy was a hard sale during those dark years of 1940 and 1941. Something Liebling did not take up (at least as far as I have read) is how much the values of democracy and equality would be both pushed to the limit and betrayed over the course of the war. As far as he got in this direction was his desire for an early start to American involvement because of the needs of governmental “war powers.”

After the fall of France, Liebling returned to the United States for a while where he signed up for the draft (he was still in his thirties although over weight). After this he returned to war correspondence for the New Yorker by sailing to England on a rather perilous trek amid German submarine warfare. In London, Liebling reported on how the impact of the war on people’s lives. One striking passage is about a young woman who had to get herself drunk everytime German bombers hit the city, leading to a perpetual cycle of hangover and drunken binges.

While Liebling did not have many encounters with soldiers, he did start the book with some anecdotes about American soldiers in North Africa. These soldiers were incredibly creative. One invented a new way of making coffee he was sure could have made him rich. They created their own cultural life and did what they could to make their relatively small world (for wars are fought by people largely ignorant of the battlefield) livable. The common soldier is not so unlike any of us, being pulled by forces rather outside of our control (capital, urban planning, institutional imperatives). What is not on their mind was the slugfest of ideologies that supposedly drove the war.

If these ideologies are often missing from the perspectives and experiences of the soldiers and citizens fighting the war, they still had an impact, as a conversation with a  Polish member of the government in exile who saw anything less than the dismemberment and total destruction of Germany as treason. Liebling’s friend responded to this understandable—if destructive and irrational—hatred with: “It was so disgusting, so human, so deplorable.” (155)