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)

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Philip K. Dick, “The Simulacra” 1964: Celebratocracy

If I were to teach a course on the novels of Philip K. Dick, I would be very tempted to put The Simulacra at the center of the syllabus.  Only its confusing and fragmented plot would lead me to hesitate.  The Simulacra provides a very well developed and convincing model of power and politics within the broader meta-universe of PKD’s writings.  At the same time, PKD pulls on other threads such as time travel, marriage, mental illness, and androids.  These disparate themes that plague his work and can frustrate readers, are, as I suggested in my comments on We Can Build You, integral to the late capitalist mind: confused, disjointed, attention-deficient, and impatient with totality.

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The Simulacra seems to exist in a parallel version of the world of We Can Build You (or maybe it is set a half century later).  In WCBY, Maury Rock and his daughter Pris Frauenzimmer develop the technology to create simulacra.  In The Simulacra, one of the leading manufacturers of of androids, prepared to gain a major government contract, is owned by Maury Frauenzimmer.  The direct parallels end there, but we are likely in a similar world, but with the logical conclusions of the world of WCBY extended forward.

I am not going to bother with the plot, because the main power of The Simulacra is in the construction of this very convincing world.

In the first chapter we learn that the West is under some form of authoritarianism.  The Earth is still divided between the Communist East and the West, but neither can be seen as democratic.  The government in the United States of Europe and America (which is run out of Germany and is heavily influenced by the German language and worldview) is banning all psychiatry due to is lack of scientific precision.  The last psychiatrist, Dr. Egon Superb, is continuing his practice in spite of the law.  As we quickly learn, he is allowed to keep his job in order to not cure a patient (famous psychic pianist Richard Kongrosian).  With psychiatry debunked, and all treatment approached through chemicals, the only reason to keep one around is to ensure that someone remains crazy.

The next chapter takes us to the Abraham Lincoln apartment building.  This provides us more evidence that we are not in a totally free society.  People’s primary work and living identity are in communal apartment buildings.  These people pray together, work together, and are even required to pass examinations to remain a member of good standing.  People’s only major investment is their home in one of these communal apartment building.  People’s major interaction with the government is through talent shows put on by these communal buildings.  The changes are so low, it is more like a lottery than a true talent contest.  Everyone’s great dream is to be chosen to perform for Nicole Thibideaux, the first lady of the USEA.  People voted, but their true love was for Nicole.  “Now there was just the one party, which had ruled a stable and peaceful society, and everyone, by law, belonged to it.  Everyone paid dues and attending meetings, and voted, each four years, for a new der Alte–for the man they thought Nicole would like best.”  Nicole remarried every four years to a new der Alte.  Thus, we have matriarchy rooted in the love of a celebrity.  Perhaps Dick was reflecting on the rise of female stars in film and opera and popular music.  Perhaps he noticed the greater love Americans had for first ladies (Jackie Kennedy) than for presidents.  In any case, it is not that women have true political power.  Nicole is loved by all men.  Men dream of her.  Imagine being with her.  Marriages in the communal homes are functional.  Everyone’s true love is for Nicole.

France got there first.  Meet Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

France got there first. Meet Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Do we really care about the losers at the two ends?

Do we really care about the losers at the two ends?

 

The real power is in the class of Ges (Geheimnisträger), who know the truth.  Nicole is merely an actress who took over for the real Nicole as she aged.  The der Alte, despite elections is an android propped by up the Ges to provide the facade of democracy.  One of the characters speak of a matriarchy.  On the surface it seems to be a celebratocracy.  In reality, the USEA is a technocracy, like so many of Dick’s imagined political systems.  This seems to me not entirely unlikely.  The infrastructure for a faux participatory democracy is there, as reflected in the proliferation of reality TV, where we elect our singer or even participate in choosing mates for eligible and wealthy bachelors.  The Obama campaign famously used small donations delivered via the Internet to make people feel like they were part of a movement, even if the real contributors to the campaign were the corporate elite.  I cannot prove, but I suspect there are celebrities who are more well-known the most political figures.  Millions take the love life, illnesses, and reproductive lives of these people seriously.  I guess that a celebratocracy is more likely than a full dictatorship seen in 1984.  Voting is even a part of the television.  “Savagely, he went to the TV set and pressed the s knob; if enough citizens pushed it, the old man would stop entirely–the stop knob meant total cessation of the mumbling speech.  Vince waited, but the speech went on.”

The Simulacra, like most of these 1960s novels of PKD, show his intense anxiety over married life and monogamy.  It is hard to not see Dick as always willing to assume the worst in the character of women.  Here, Vince Strikerock of the Abraham Lincoln complex, discovers that his wife has shacked up with Chic  Strikerock, his brother.  Vince loves Julie but realizes that this is abnormal.  For most, marriage if functional.  Voting rights for women are a product of their ability to bear children.  He asks: “What was marriage, anyhow?  An arrangemetn of sharing things, such as right now being able to discuss the meaning of der Alte giving an eight A.M. speech and getting someone else — his wife — to fix breakfast while he prepared to go to his job at Karp u.”

The Simulacra also considered the normalization of mental illness.  The fact that is can all be treated with chemicals instead of intensive psychological investigation suggests the necessity of mass-produced solutions to mental illness.  The key, integral nut in this novel is the pianist Richard Kongrosian, who believed he is becoming non-corporal and is being replaced with a rancid stench.  He also has other psychic powers and is able to use them at an integral moment in the plot to avoid a coup against Nicole.  But it is when other characters express their potential mental illness, we realize that Richard is not abnormal.  Everyone can now choose their mental illness as if they are shopping.  Now you can choose your mental illness to fit your personality type. Anti-social? We have Aspbergers or if you are really hard-core the rare Schizoid. Religion? Paranoia may be best for you. Nothing watches over you quite like God..and the government. A diligent hardworker down on your luck? Well, the disorganized schizophrenia might be right for you. Do you like to shop? For you we have a new and improve obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now never fell guilty about buying that dress in every color. A go-getting? Take a case of biploar. The depressive state will give you a much needed break.

A theme I teased out when looking at The World Jones Made is Dick’s use of the solar system as a frontier, much like the American frontier.  We see that again here.  The moon and Mars and other orbs in the system have indigenous populations, are seen as a place for rootless people to get a new start, and seem to provide a potential salvation from the political rigidity of Earth.  Dick is, I argue, a follower of the idea of Frederick Jackson Turner.  The fact that Dick’s extraterrestrial locales are so shitty leads us away from this interpretation, but when we look at the motives for emigration among characters we see a space for hope.  The question we need to ask is, why does the frontier always turn out so shitty?

The final chapters deal with the rise of a Civil War between the secret police and the military as well as the potential devastation of humanity.  As in all nuclear wars, the victor does not matter as much as the forces that can take advantage, in this case Neanderthals (we are never not reminded we are in a PKD novel).  The novel is entirely pessimistic in everything from predicting the manipulation of time travel by the state to the rise of neofascist forces in the USEA.  Any hope is hidden away in the horrific potentialities of division between the military and civilian powers.  In a sense, the technocracy cannot hold the facade together forever.  There is some hope in that.

Lynd Ward, “Prelude to a Million Years” and “Song without Words”

The second Lynd Ward volume from the Library of America contains two short works and his masterpiece Vertigo.  For this post, I will look at the two short works Prelude to a Million Years and Song without WordsThese two works, combined contain around 50 wood cut plates.  These two works have a common theme: what is the purpose of creativity in a world gone to shit?

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Prelude to a Million Years  (1933) was, according to Ward, a sequel to Gods’ Man in that it considered the fate of the artist in a fallen world.  He also acknowledged that he was a product of his times, a participant in the New Deal culture of artist as voice of the people.  The same spirit that gave us “This Land is Your Land” gave us Lynd Ward’s later works.  (To be pedantic, Prelude to a Million Years) was put together two years before the WPA, but I see a similar energy and question at work.)  “There were still some artists living in ivory towers, still totally immersed in the never-solved problems of an essentially private aesthetic, and still able to ignore the tremors that were moving in sucessive shock waves across the country and shaking the foundations of philosophic systems as well as of corporate structures.” (642)

The story begins with the artist within his “private aesthetic.”  His inspiration for a new sculpture emerged from his mind, as if from a flower.  He begins work on his masterpiece but like the Buddha is confronted with several scenes from life.  The first is a chest of his mementos.  Next he sees his neighbor beating his wife while she is completing her domestic drudgery.  Next he is mugged, then he comes across a strike action, which descended into violence.  Next, he comes across a patriotic march, praising the military and the violence of the state.  Finally, he goes to the house of an old girlfriend and sees her naked and drunk.  Dejected, the artist returns home.  The abused neighbor woman is on the ground and the iron she was working with started a fire.  The artist embraces his half-completed statue and apparently dies as the house burns down.

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There are two ways to read this little tale.  In one, we can imagine Ward saying that the artist’s failing was his inability to speak to the horrors of the world around him through art.  Another reading is that it is futile to even try.  The artistic aesthetic cannot speak in the brutal language of the real world.  I prefer the first reading, because Ward himself seems to prove the second interpretation false.

The creation of Prelude to a Million Years also suggests that Ward believed that artists could be involved in positive change in the world.  Prelude was published by Equinox, which was a small, artist-owned and ran, cooperative.  It published a couple dozen works in the 1930s, including a biography of John Reed (which Ward illustrated).  Every book they produced was hand-made.  We have seen other examples of these anarchist publishers, who embraced democratic decision-making and cooperative systems of work.  Equinox provided a model that others would follow.  More than democratcy and collective ownership, Equinox emphasized the craft of book making.  According to Ward: “What this meant was a return to the basics.  What that meant was a reaffirmation of handiwork, a somewhat mystical belief that to touch directly the materials and processes of the making of a book would result in a better book.” (646)

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Song without Words is the shortest of his novels, at only 21 plates.  The story, such as it is (Ward called it “prose”), involved a couple preparing to give birth to a child.  The mother looks around the world and sees the rise of fascism, hunger, greed, violence, and death and must decide whether it is a good idea to create new life.  In the end, the mother decides to create new life as an act of resistance against these dark forces.  Unlike the artist in Prelude, this mother chooses creation as a weapon against evil.

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We live in a world no less uncertain.  The upcoming environmental catastrophe is as dangerous to the world as fascism was.  Many of us ask the same question.  Should we create new life?  Governments have actively dis-invested in creativity for years, preferring the training of a new class of technocrats that can at worst be the next generation of bosses and at best mitigate the ecological crisis through a new technocracy.  For millions, labor is less about creativity and more about sustaining gigantic institutions.  Neo-Malthusians preach the need for low fertility rates as the only path to post-scarcity.  Ward is not of our time, but he asserts that hope expresses itself only in the courage to create in a world where we are uncertain of the future.