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.

liebling

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.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1838–1843)

“Why, to tell you the truth, my good Mr. Wigglesworth, to be quite sincere with you, I care little or nothing about a stone for my own grave, and am somewhat inclined to skepticism as to the propriety of erecting monuments at all, over the dust that once was human. The weight of these heavy marbles, though unfelt by the dead corpse or the enfranchised soul, presses drearily upon the spirit of the survivor, and causes him to connect the idea of death with the dungeon-like imprisonment of the tomb, instead of with the freedom of the skies. Every gravestone that you ever made is the visible symbol of a mistaken system. Our thoughts should sour upward with the butterfly—not linger with the exuviae that confined him.” (“Chippings with a Chisel,” 624–625)

The pace of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings seems to have slowed down in the years 1839 to 1843, at least for the short stories which formed the core of his career up to this point. Four important things happen during these years, which will shape his future. First, he took a job as weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House. That just meant he took weight and inspected cargo as it came in. Those who have read A Scarlett Letter (not me yet, but I cannot help but peak), know he talks about the Salem port in some detail there. Like Melville, Hawthorne had to take a day job. He worked there for a couple years, but would go back into the business with a political appointment in the Salem Custom House in 1846. A second life-changing event was his engagement and later marriage (in 1842) to Sophia Peabody. Third, as if to prepare for his future children or simply as part of a mid-life crisis, he began to write children’s books, three of which are published in 1840 and 1841. The Library of America did not collect these, but the volume I am currently working on does have some of his tales for children, which were published late in his life. Finally, Hawthorne spent eight months at Brook Farm, a utopian socialist community, but leaves disillusioned by it. He will write a book on his experiences. In 1842 and 1843, he make a transition to his “Old Manse” period, centered on his years in Concord, connected to the transcendentalists. That is for the next post. For now, we find Hawthorne more busy with life than with writing.

Boston Custom House, Hawthorne's day job

Boston Custom House, Hawthorne’s day job

Sophia Peabody

Sophia Peabody

 

He did produce the following ten stories, excepting his children’s books: “Chippings with a Chisel,” “Legends of the Province House” (a four part narrative of a home’s deep connection to historical events), “The Sister Years,” “The Lily’s Quest,” “John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving,” “A Virtuoso’s Collection,” “The Old Apple-Dealer,” “The Antique Ring,” “The Hall of Fantasy,” and “The New Adam and Eve.” The major theme in these stories is again the tension between the old and the young, and Hawhtorne’s anxiety over giving the past too much power over our lives.

As for the major theme of “Chippings with a Chisel,” a magnificent work in my point of view, it is made clear for you in the quote opening this post, which was spoken by a man in dialogue with a tomb builder. At the very least the story forces us to think about the way our attitudes toward death and the memorializing of the dead shapes how we see life. I reckon we should take the same attitude with ruined relationships, failed ambitions, and discarded dreams. If we memorialize and dwell on them, we will tend to associate those beautiful things (mad passions, grand plans, and bold risk taking) with ultimate failure.

“The Lily’s Quest” gets at this tension by juxtaposing “two young lovers” (Adam and Lily) who want to build a summer-house “in the form of an antique Temple.” When they find the ideal spot, they are stopped by old Walter Gascoigne, who warns them that everyone who tried to build there has met with failure and disasters, adding, “Poor child, in one shape or another, every mortal has dreamed your dream.” (687) The lesson he gives is clear and could be applied to anything. The fact that most romances end in heartbreak and most dreams are dashed is, for many, reason enough not to risk those things. After building the Temple of Happiness at another site, Lily dies, leading the young man to transform the Temple of Happiness into a tomb. In doing so, Adam redefines the foundation of happiness as the grave. But unlike the traditional grave, which buries memories of happiness under a symbol of death, Adam builds instead the temple of his and Lily’s dream. This seems to defeat the pessimism of old Walter Gascoigne, who “stalked drearily away, because his gloom, symbolic of all earthly sorrow, might no longer abide there now that the darkest riddle of humanity was read.” (691)

“The Virtuoso’s Collection” is a delightful story about a American who enters a museum, “A Virtuoso’s Collection,” which contains am unbelievable list of relics from mythology and history. It seems there is almost nothing that this collectors has not obtained. The Big Bad Wolf (stuffed, of course), the shell that fell on Aeschylus’ head killing him, Excalibur, and much more. Much of the joy comes from seeing these items listed, but we are taken aback by the American observer, who although impressed, is nevertheless quickly bored by these things. Is this part of the American spirit of Hawthorne’s democratic age? A disgust with the old and fetishization of the new and original? If so, I will tend to be sympathetic to this fetish. It turns out that the collector is the Wandering Jew, but that in itself is less interesting than the continual indifference the American shows to the collection. At one point he stakes out his opposition to “earthly immortality” more directly. “Were man to live longer on the earth, the spiritual would die out of him. The spark of ethereal fire would be choked by the material, the sensual. There is a celestial something within us that requires, after a certain time, the atmosphere of Heaven to preserve it from decay and ruin. I will have none of this liquid. You do well to keep it in a sepulchral urn; for it would produce death, while bestowing the shadow of life.” (708) So, again, we have an image of death and sterility presented in the preservation of the old.

Well, there are other stories that cover some of the similar ground (“The Antique Ring” for one), but I will save it. I will start the next post with the masterful “The Birth-mark,” which due to my fondness for science fiction anthologies was the first Hawthorne story I ever read.

Concord's Old Manse

Concord’s Old Manse