Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Image and Other Stories”, Part Two; Stories from “Gifts”

Creativity is for me a very encompassing idea. I would say that everything which gives a man pleasure is creative and what causes him pain is an inhibition in his creative desire. Like Spinoza, I am a hedonist. Like the Cabalists, I believe that the principle of male and female exists not only in the lower world but also in the higher ones. The universal novel of creation, like the novel of an earthly writer, is finally a love story. (562)

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In his introduction to the short story collection Gifts, Isaac Bashevis Singer discussed writing. Readers of his stories would not be surprised by any of the autobiographical bits he gives, but it does provide a useful summary to what he was trying to achieve in his life’s work. Two important points that emerge is that he felt—with good reasons—that he was in a world becoming more insane. The craziness that his characters faced was minor compared to the craziness in the world that created the world wars, Stalinism, and Hitler. “No. The world that was revealed to me was not rational. One could as easily question the validity of reason as the existence of God. In my own spirit, there was chaos.” (554) In the face of this, Singer chose to embrace writing as a creative act. He discusses at considerable length how he saw God as a writer and writers extending the creative work of God (complete with errors and destructive tendencies).  Of course you would need to be a theist to accept the second part of this argument which explains away Biblical nonsense with the trial and error of composition, the idea of witches and dybbuks existing is more rational than fascism and the gulag is worth considering.

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The second half of The Image and Other Stories carried on many of the same themes from the first half, including fate and show Singer’s revived interest in various aspects of life in pre-war Poland. But for today, I would like to take inspiration from Singer’s introduction to Gifts (also published in 1985) and consider briefly the question of liquidity. In hindsight, this is probably something I should have been saying more about because it so effectively summarizes Singer’s often complicated themes. One of their central struggles is holding onto family, community, tradition, and value in a rapidly changing world. Throughout his stories then we find characters who try desperately to cling to tradition and those who throw up their hands and openly reject those traditions, joining radical groups and embracing the philosophies of the Jewish Enlightenment. Zionists are a bit in the middle. Some seem to truly see Israel as a solution to the problem of liquidity but in a few examples, these characters are just as destructive to family life.

Let me give just a few examples:

“The Conference” puts us right into the heart of the radical community with a 1936 conference of Jewish radicals, communists, feminists, and Zionists. Of course, none of these people are able to get along and they constantly disagree and spend inordinate time revising proposals and minutes until some basic agreement could be made. Very little is accomplished. This is ominous since we know that the right is moving more much active at that time across the border in Germany. Of more interest to the delegates than creating a radical alternative to creeping fascism was a beautiful woman who attended the conference, one of only three women there. Competition for this one woman paralleled the increasingly vitriolic debates at the conference. Singer is clearly pointing out the inefficacy of the pre-war radicals in Poland.

“Strangers” is about an aging Zionist who divorces his wife of fifty years, taking what little property he needed to resettle in Palestine. Right away we notice that his effort to life out a traditional life required him to reject his family and his community. “I want to spend my last years with the Torah and prayer. If I move to the Land of Israel now, my bones won’t have to travel underground to get there when the Messiah comes. I want to breath holy air.” (497–498) After the divorce he moves to Palestine and soon marries a young woman citing the need for a son. Much like the leftists at the conference, this aging Jew turns his personal motivation into what appears to an outsider to be rather lurid. The narrator, observing this as an outsider, finds his own escape to a world going insane saying, “I would run away from home and become a cabalist and a recluse.” (503) Whether it is Israel or mysticism it seems there is a strong element of escapism either as a solution to liquidity or  way to flee from it.

“Miracles” is a fascinating story of how one man experienced a dramatically changing world as a series of miracles. His escape from Poland, his arrival in France, his survival of the Holocaust are all unlikely. He encounters someone who survived a concentration camp who rejected the role of miracles in life. The solution that is offered up over their conversation is that they are fated. “There are powers up above which play with us. Lately it occurred to me that this earth is ruled by a divine prodigy who toys with little soldiers and dolls. When he ties of them, he rips off their heads.” (480) Of course, an acceptance of fate is yet another response to liquidity and as the story shows it may not mean passivity or clinging to tradition.

However, I do not find a satisfying response to liquidity and the upsetting instability and insanity of the world in Singer’s fiction. Actually, it is quite rare to find a satisfying answer to this question and this is something that radicals should always keep on their mind or we will always be fighting the battles of the past.

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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: “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)