Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Image and other Stories” (1985): Part One

I am continuing my slow slog through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected short stories. In order to read through them as leisurely as they seem to demand and prevent it from slowing down my blog too much, I am going to start reading the slave narrative collection. To be blunt, I will be mixing in works that are easier to interpret and quicker to process rather than slow this entire blog down yet again with Singer’s stories. I cannot fully explain why this seems to always happen. I actually enjoy these stories. Perhaps it is their richness that causes my difficulties. They are certainly not straight forward and not conducive to my reckless (let my typos and numerous interpretative errors be forever forgiven) and accelerated approach.

The Image and Other Stories collects twenty-two stories. In a shift from his previous two collections, the stories are less personal. He seems to have exhausted his autobiographical insights. The aging Yiddish scholar, teacher, and writer living out his days in post-Holocaust New York fades to the background. Instead, he returns to the site of his earliest stories: pre-war Poland. It is from this setting that he is able to explore fate and free will. Even stories that are technically set in the post-war world are much more tied to that past. Is this a thematic shift for Singer? His earliest writings was interested in Poland as a means to preserve some folklore and tradition among a Diaspora community. His middle work moved to the personal and results in a series of works of profound alienation, loneliness, failure, and loss. Now I only half way through The Image, but it seems that alienation is gone as we once again find characters deeply tied to communities, traditions, and cultures. The question of fate v. free will is necessarily rooted in this social milieu.  Although I am often hostile to traditions, I find that communities can often be the foundation from which individualism emerges. In this I found some common ground with the conservative Singer. But for now I will focus on fate.

cover

In his brief introduction to these stories Singer wrote: “Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand. Literature is the story of love and fate, a description of the made hurricane of human passions and the struggle with them.” (291) We can read fate religiously or mystically but this is not necessary. We are fated in the sense that the vast majority of the things that affect us on a daily basis are outside of our control. The arena were free will exists is incredibly small, but not insignificant. This situation has been worsened in late capitalism with its atomizing institutions, oppressive workplace cultures, and macroeconomic trends that limit our capacity for free choice. Singer seems to agree with this in broad terms. When people do express their individual freedom, the results are often catastrophic. But if fate is a common theme in Singer’s later stories, so is resistance to fate. Fate is often connected to “the Angel of Death” in these stories.

This dilemma is explored in the opening story “Advice” about a cuckold husband who falls deeper in love with his wife after she abandons him only to accept her and her new lover under his roof. He becomes a believer that he is fated saying: “When a man stands before the gallows with a noose around his neck and they bring him the good tidings that the execution has been postponed, he does not ask any questions.” (295) The narrator later meets the man and finds that his wife died, her love left for the Soviet Union and he “became king.” While all of this may have also been prescripted, especially his rival’s doom in the Soviet Union, the man starts to take the view that he is wrestling with “the Angel of Death,” not its passive victim.

“One Day of Happiness” is a devastating story about a ugly young woman – Penna Fela – who writes a love letter to a celebrity (a general) that she loved. The general invites her for a tryst, taking her virginity and pushing her out of the door as soon as he was done, citing his need to meet a superior officer. Despite bleeding profusely (almost unnaturally) she makes it home. She slits her wrists. While her parents are trying to stop the bleeding the general’s aide comes with flowers. At the end she welcomes death having had her one day of happiness. Now while her doom seems inevitable, she was an active architect. She wrote the letter, sent it, prepared herself carefully for the tryst, and willingly went to bed with him. She is more in control than we perhaps want to admit at the first reading, where we want to condemn the general, obviously taking advantage of the women’s silly infatuation. Penna Fela is in rebellion against her family and its expectations and in many ways the active role in the story. I actually imagine the general as more bound, probably unable to refuse a meeting with any woman who writes him love letters.

“The Interview” is philosophically profound and explores the aftermath of the First World War in Poland. The narrator is a young journalist who meets a conservative writer for an interview but ends up meeting a woman who was visiting the writer at the same time. She is the minor poet Machla Krumbein. Her poems offend the older writer because they are aggressively sexual and libertine. “I had never before read such obscenities. I didn’t know what was stronger in me, my passion or my nausea.” (332) We learn that her perspective emerged during the Austrian occupation of the war, where she was traumatized by rape and violence. The narrator reports some of this to his girlfriend who is horrified and kicks him out. Years later, after the war, he discovers one copy of Machla Krumbein’s poetry that survived and sees her as a more malevolent figure, understanding her less as a fascinating libertine and more like a woman who “wanted all males for herself and no one else.” (328)

“Why Heisherik was Born” is about a delusion writer who suffers greatly first in the Polish-Bolshevik war and then in travels through the Holy Land. He is poor and barely holding his family together. But he spends much of his time writing, most of it barely literate. He leaves his family to go to the Holy Land and returns with more writings. He asks the narrator to edit his work, which focuses on how he struggled to maintain Jewish rituals despite his situation. We learn later that he died in the Second World War performing an important job as an illegal underground courier. The narrator realizes that he was being prepared for this task by his earlier adventures, giving new meaning to the neglected manuscript.

He could never have become a holy messenger without having going through all the ordeals he had described in his pathetic book and had recited to me at such length. I believe that there must be, somewhere in the universe, an archive in which all human sufferings and acts of self-sacrifice are stored. There could be no divine justice if Heinsherik’s story did not grace God’s infinite library for time eternal. (365)

Perhaps his life was simply preparation for his minor role in the war. If so, he was fated to suffer through life. That may be easier to get our head around than one’s freedom to suffer.

In these four stories we have people who have chosen to destroy relationships, accept humiliation, or willingly suffered greatly for strange reasons, youthful infatuation, religious devotion, an idea implanted in their mind by a strange vengeful woman. By looking at these figures as wrestling with fate rather than being passive servants, even the fatalist can find room for free will even if it is only in resistance to predestination.

Advertisements

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.

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)

pow

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.

cover

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.

cover2

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)

William Tecumseh Sherman, “Memoirs”, The Atlanta Campaign “War is Cruelty”

Continuing with my reading of William T. Sherman’s Memoirs, today I will focus on Sherman’s application of total war.  I have come to realize that we can understand the U.S. government’s mad pursuit of terrorism with relentless drone strikes or the aggressive effort to bring Edward Snowden to hell for exposing the crimes of the Obama administration by revisiting William T. Sherman.  In many ways, the Atlanta campaign, the forced removal of the citizens of Atlanta after its fall, and his subsequent “march to the sea” defines Sherman’s career.  He is both respected and hated for these acts.  Unfortunately, much of the hatred for Sherman seems to come from Southern apologists.  I want to suggest that we can look at Sherman not so much as a tyrant or lunatic but instead as someone who fully accepted the logic of the state and violence.  He epitomized Weber’s suggestion that the state is simply that which monopolizes violence and power.  Unable to accept alternatives to itself, it had to come down brutally on competitors.

shermanThe key dialog in this section of Sherman’s Memoirs are between Sherman, the Confederate General J. B. Hood commanding the remaining Confederate armies in the Atlanta area, and mayor of Atlanta James M. Calhoun.  As in other sections of his book, Sherman simply recreated the original documents, with very little commentary.  Sherman was unwilling to celebrate for too long his victory at Atlanta.  He immediately set his sights on how to exploit the victory to destroy the South’s ability to resist.  In a letter to Grant, he wrote “We ought to ask our country for the largest possible armies that can be raised, as so important a thing as the self-existence of a great nation should not be left to the fickle chances of war.” (587)  Later in the same paragraph when he insists that the ruthless plundering of the countryside of Georgia will ensure that his “army will not starve” he suggests the next step in the war should be the “utter destruction of Wilmington.” (588)  I am not sure the classic reading that Sherman was plunged into a sort of heart of darkness through his experiences in the war.  He was not saying much that was not the logical extension of ideas he already expressed in the early years of the war.

He first informed his superiors of his plans to vacate Atlanta and destroy much of its infrastructure (particularly government buildings) on September 20, 1864 when he reported on talks he had with General Hood.  He reports that “it is sufficient for my Government to know that the removal of the inhabitants has been made with liberality and fairness.”  But he also states the “real reasons” for the exodus.  These are (1) use of houses for military storage, (2) limit the need for a garrison, (3) “we have a right to it,” (4) to avoid feeding the poor, (5) pro-Confederate residents will cause trouble.  His target was clearly the white population.  (In a letter to Hood, he stated that slaves could stay or go their own way.)

The correspondence between the Confederate leaders and Sherman on this issue are wonderful for its brutal honesty.  The brutality of the removal, he reminded Hood, is nothing more than the necessary consequence of the war, which was pushed on the U.S. by the rebels.  For every wrong committed by Sherman, he could point out many other examples committed by both sides.  Indeed, he believed there was nothing unique about his policy toward the citizens of Atlanta.  Hood remains horrified, in part because he seems to truly see Sherman as an agent of a conquering government.  “You came into our country with your army, avowedly for the purpose of subjugating free white men, women, and children, and not only intend to rule over them, but to make negroes your allies, and desire to place over us an inferior race.” (598)  In contrast to these vile words, Sherman was cold and logically (and seemingly largely indifferent to the role of race and slavery as a cause of the war).

The logic of war (brutality) and the logic of the state were connected in Sherman’s mind.  In response to the arguments about the legitimacy of successive, Sherman posited that the state is eternal and had an inescapable need to assert itself.  “You cannot qualify terms in harsher terms than I will.  War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. . . The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling. . . . Once admit the Union, once more acknowledge the authority of the national Government, and, instead of devoting your houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war.” (601)

The March to the Sea is simply an extension of Sherman’s logic.  In his orders to his troops, he stated that the purpose was “to strike a blow at our enemy that will have a material effect in producing what we all so much desire, his complete overthrow.” (651)  During the execution of the March to the Sea, Sherman was proud of how disciplined (how state-like, if you will) the destruction was.  The pillaging, foraging, burning, and destruction was all completed with the maintenance of military order.  From time to time, soldiers had to be innovative in their approaches and while “irregular” they were never performed without discipline.  This is one of the frightful elements of total war.

marchSherman is completely correct, in the same way that Mao was, that political power is an extension of the ability to maximize military power and supplant all other competing centers of power.  Sherman does not waste time justifying his actions with a “cause.”  The war he helped win did lead to a second American Revolution, the rewriting of the Constitution, and the end of the most vile institution in American history.  Sherman speaks little on this, outside of generally calling the United States a “great” country.  Patriotism and a national story is for the people on the bottom.  For those who wield power, the weapon is its own justification.  Had Sherman learned this while a farmer or worker, he may have become an anarchist.  But he was a soldier.

 

Ambrose Bierce, “Bits of Autobiography” and “Selected Stories”: Tocqueville in the Year 4930

Rounding out the Library of America volume collecting the majors works of Ambrose Bierce is his Bits of Autobiography and eight additional stories not published in Can Such Things Be? or In the Midst of LifeBits of Autobiography was not a focused effort by Bierce to tell his life story.  Instead, it is a collection of fragments written between 1881 and 1906.  The eight additional stories were published over the same period of time.  The most significant of these short stories is Ashes of the Beacon,” which is essnetially a political tract summarizing Bierce’s position on democracy, revolution, anarchism, and class conflict, although it is framed in the structure of a historical monograph from the distant future.  (In this way, it is not unlike Jack London’s The Iron Hell, published at a simliar time, emerging from a simliar context, although with a very differnet interpretation.)

bierce

When I was reading Bits of Autobiography last night, I was thinking of my younthful fascination with military history.  I had a small library, now mostly all liquidated, on the American Civil War and the Second World War.  Thinking back, I was reading some quite scholarly works at the time, but the vast majority of what I read came from my local cow country library and local bookstores, neither of which maintained a large selection of academic history.  What I was interested in were the battles and the generals and the brilliant tactics and massive blunders.  In short, I was training to become an armchair general.  This interest quickly died out when I attended local cow country community college.  I suppose I simply found more things of interest in my classes.  Maybe this is something many young males go through.  Bits of Autobiography like In the Midst of Life proves how utterly vapid this type of historical writing is.  What Bierce teaches us is that the violence on the battlefield is not controlled by a god on the battlefield.  Generals did not command troops movements like on a board game.  Perhaps it is the tendency to assume hierarchical structures that give the privledged perspective to the generals in so much popular military history.

This is how I must have really thought battles were fought.  The arrows are so precise and clean.

This is how I must have really thought battles were fought. The arrows are so precise and clean.

On one event in the savage mess that was the battle of Chikamauga: “A good deal of nonsense used to be talked about hte herorism of General Garfield, who, caught in the rout of hte right, nevertheless went back and joined the undefeated left under General Thomas.  There was no great heroism in it; that is what every man should have done, including the commander of the army.  We could hear Thomas’ guns going–those of us who had ears for them–and all that was needful was to make a sufficiently wide detour and then move toward the sound.”  (681)

Maybe the alternative is to horrible to face.  Armies are institutions, contructed by men of course, designed to take away ones autonomy.  Much of Bits of Autobiogaphy considers the dreadful marching, the long miserable days at camp, and the blistered feet.  But as well as people are trained for war, the line between bravery and cowardice is a thin one.  On the defeated men after the first day of the battle of Shiloh: “These men were defeated, beaten, cowed.  They were deaf to duty and dead to shame.  A more demented crew never drifted to th rear of broken battalions.  They would have stood in their tracks and been shot down to a man by the proveost-marshall’s guard, but they could not have been urged up that bank.  An army’s bravest men are its cowards.  The death which they would not meet at hte hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.” (665)

So we replace this reality with valor, great heroes, and a belief that brilliance, effort, courage, the right cause, or “strategy” will win the battle for us.  Unfortunantly, when you combine the complexity of human psychology and the known and unknown unknowns battle, like life, is just a game of chance.  Better to believe in the brilliant god on the battlefield than to believe in fate.

There are a few chapters on Bierce’s post-war occupations and his enterance into the field of journalism as well.

Of the final eight stories, I will only introduce one “Ashes of the Beacon.”  This is actually worth reading as a political essay as it makes a rather good case for the ultimate failure of republicanism.  Two thousand years after the fall of the “Conneted States of America” a historian from a time when government is much more honest about its role (“To us of to-day it is clear that the word “self-government” involves a contradiction, for government means control by something other than the thing to be controlled.”) documents the causes of the decline of that republican civilization, much like how contemporary historinas might look back to the fall of the Roman Republic.  Mostly, however, I was reminded of Tocqueville’s warning that democracy will tend to lead to the promotion of self-interest.  This next bit is from Bierce, not Tocqueville: “When men or nations devote all the powers of their minds and bodies to the heaping up of wealth, wealth is heaped up.  But what avails it? . . . The result might easily have been forrseen and doubtless was predicted by patriots whose admonitations have not come down to us.  Denied protection of the law, neither property nor life was safe.  Greed filled his coffers from teh meafer hoarsds of Thift, private vengeance took the place of legal redress, mad multitudes rioted and slew ith virtual immunity form punishment or blame, and the land was red with crime.” (811, 814)

Bierce wrote this account during one of several visible peaks in the perpetual conflict between American labor and capital.  In the early 20th century, massive strikes challenged the power of capital and new labor organiations such as the Industrial Workers of the World.  As I have been arguing in this blog, there is a basic anarchism in the American political and literarcy traditions and it is not the difficult to see. That said, Bierce is correct that much of the most visible anarchist agitation of the turn of the last century was centered in immigrant communities and rooted in traditions of European anarchism, even as the U.S. was forming its own indigenous overtly anarchist tradition with the writings of Volatirine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman.  Bierce looked at events like the assassination of President McKinley as evidence that anarchism was the direct result of the self-interest and disrespect for heritage that is characteristic of democracies.  “The field of the anrchist’s greatest activity was always a republic, not only to emphasize his impartial hatred of al government, but beacuse of the inherent feebleness of that form of government, its inability to protect itself against any kind of aggression by any considerable number of its people having a common malevolent purpose.  In a republic the crust that confined hte fires of violence and desition was thinnest.” (808)

I am not going to blame Bierce for failing to see anarchism as a solution to the problems of a democratic republic, because he poses the question in the correct terms.  Self-government does seem to be a contradiction in a republic (actually in all state structures).