|Hemmingway and crew, Spain, 1920s, public domain/fair use, Wikipedia|
It's been a few weeks since I last posted. I have wanted to write about the wildflowers I have planted, about the joyful passing of spring into summer, about all good, wonderful, safe and fun things.
Then Pulse happened.
I woke up several Sunday mornings ago to learn that the worst mass shooting in our time...and our history took place at a club in Orlando. A coward, whose name I SHALL NOT mention, engaged in both an act of terrorism and murder. Forty-nine souls (his doesn't get counted in this company) are now on the other side due to his hand.
I have some links below as I was going to expand on this subject. I am not because: 1. My blog posts are long enough as is; 2. I want to talk about "Papa H and crew (see opening photo); and 3. Sadly, pulse is two major terrorist attacks removed from what's been going on in the world, all in one week.
First, the airport at Istanbul was attacked. Then, a horrific act of cowardly terror perpetrated by by IS in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I just got done reading about the particularly savage way the IS cowards massacred helpless hostages who had no way to fight back before the siege was broken. I can feel my level of "moral rage" rising inside of me the more I think of these matters. Enough on this, I think I've made my point.
Let's rewind about a century, actually a century to be precise. It was July, 1916 and a certain young British Second Lieutenant found himself as close to Hell as one could on Earth, The Somme. This was perhaps the greatest folly of modern war from a battle/campaign perspective. Over a million and a half men (and almost certainly women and children) died in that summer and fall with no military value gained whatsoever.
|Rebecca Bird's artistic work published in The New York Times, July 1, 2016, fair use claimed, no commercial intent intended in this blog post, full citation below to the story accompanying this art.|
That young officer was J.R.R. Tolkien, who would go on to write The Lord of the Rings trilogy. To this day, books I revisit several times a year. The above artwork of Rebecca Bird shows how Tolkien was able to recall images seared into his memory of the horrors of war to help create the evil of Mordor.
World War I is clearly in the historical background compared to World War II. I believe that is in large part to both the scale and horror of the later. Also, unlike the former, World War II threatened America directly. Plus, those of us over say 30 have likely met someone who was involved in that conflict. Add to the conversation the massive amounts of media surrounding World War II and it makes sense that this would be the conflict closest to our conscious. The "War To End All Wars," has been pushed far back in our collective memory, like a expired can of tomato paste behind the Kraft Mac n' Cheese boxes in the pantry.
For some however, like Tolkien, that was far from the case. World War I was never far away. The death and carnage, the disease and despair, and always, the mud. World War I was so catastrophic in scale due to both the massive numbers of troops involved and the advancements in the machinery of war. Between the machine gun and the mustard gas, man had developed many new ways to kill each other.
Although World War I was primarily a European fight, America did enter the war in the 4th quarter, 1917. First U.S. Army, led by General John Pershing, helped turn the tide that led to Germany's defeat a year later. There were approximately 4.7 million Americans in uniform during WWI and 116,516 perished in that war. (Source: Paul Waldman, The American Prospect, citation below in the sources.)
So it should not come as a huge surprise that such a genius that was Gertrude Stein would have commented on those who lived thru that terrible time as, "You're all a lost generation."
Rumor has it she said this at the famed "Harry's Bar" in Paris during the 1920s. Her comments were directed in general to those of that time and in particular to Ernest Miller Hemmingway, or "Papa H" as I refer to him. This is completely understandable. One had to go back half a century since America had experienced such carnage. Hemingway had his own scars. As an ambulance driver in Italy, he had been seriously wounded. I suspect he was not the only ex-pat in Paris trying to drown the memories of that ugly war one drink/bottle at a time.
Which leads me back to the opening photo of this blog. This photo shows Papa H and his crew in Spain. This was the backdrop for Hemingway's break-out novel, The Sun Also Rises. I read this book (or at least bits and chunks of it) when I was younger. I recently got turned onto it again with the audio book I am listening to, Everyone Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume. Mr. Blume's book chronicles Hemingway's torturous path to fame via a novel and how in the process he threw his friends under the bus to get there. I am about halfway thru it and am enjoying it. I am also VERY glad that I was not part of the crew that rowed with Papa H in Spain/Paris for I surely would have been part of the "collateral damage" inflected by Hemingway.
When I finish the book, I endeavor to write another blog post about it. For now, I'll simply say this: I see parallels between the times of the 1920s and today. There is much to be uncertain about. There is much to be concerned, (strike that, nervous) about. It is easy to feel lost.
Any yet I would suggest that with all the chaos and fear surrounding us, we can reject the label, "lost generation," or "lost whatever." We can find ourselves. We can find a way thru this tangled brush of fear and anger and outrage. We can find a way to renounce the senseless violence and reaffirm the basic dignity of our fellow human beings. That may require the use of force to quell the forces of evil. After all, the shepherd's staff is there not to strike the lamb but the wolf. However, justice can easily become unchecked vengeance when not tempered with restraint. Easily said than done, I am sure.
I wonder if when Hemingway was writing his novel he was trying (without effect) to exercise the demons of his war? I wonder if we as a free, secular society who celebrates many religions in our private lives, will come to grips with the evil about us? I wonder if we, collectively, can ever find ourselves and in doing so achieve a world where we all can live in peace, free from war, free from strive. Maybe not.
The cynics will be the first to scream, "TOLD YOU!'" Then again, I would retort with a line from Tolkien's first book, "All who wonder are not lost."
I don't think we're so far off the path we cannot find ourselves. The question is-do we have the courage to follow the path?
I'll vote the answer is yes, and here's why. We're Americans. We are good, very good, at getting ourselves into jams. We're also pretty proficient in getting ourselves out of them. So I suppose my point is this: If the world is lost, in need of "finding itself," then who better than Americans to lead the way?
I can think of no one better.
One of Hemingway's early supporters was Sherwood Anderson. History has largely forgotten him. I had never heard of him until I listened to Blume's book. In the early 1920s, Anderson had made it, so much that the Literary Avaunt Guard Queen herself, Gertrude Stein, was one of his inner circle.
He wrote to her about his decision to walk away from Paris in the 20s and all of "that" to return to America In defending his decision, he simply said: “You see dear friend, I believe in this damn mixed up country of ours….In an odd way, I’m in love with it.”
I'd argue that love is the best compass to find our way forward, to help us find ourselves.
Be well my friends,
The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien.