SILENCE FILLED WITH VIVID NOISELESS BOYS

After graduation and on the eve of his embarkation for France as a “gentleman volunteer” ambulance driver,John  Dos Passos’s letters almost exploded with rebellion.

“I have been spending my time of late going to pacifist meetings and being dispersed by the police. I am getting quite experienced in the cossack tactics of the New York police force. I’ve been in a mysterious police raid, too; nearly piled into a black maria — Every day I become more red — My one ambition is to be able to sing the international — …. “I think we are all of us a pretty milky lot, — don’t you? with our tea table convictions and our radicalism that keeps so consistently within the bounds of decorum — Damn it, why couldn’t one of us have refused to register and gone to jail and made a general ass of himself? I should have had more hope for Harvard.

Egon Schiele, Heinrich Wagner. Hemingway:It was not always hot weather for the dead, much of the time it was the rain that washed them clean when they lay in it and made the earth soft when they were buried in it and sometimes then kept on until the earth was mud and washed them out and you had to bury them again. Or in the winter in the mountains you had to put them in the snow and when the snow melted in the spring some one else had to bury them.

Once in Europe, Dos Passos, a myopic volunteer ambulance driver, tells of watching from a village schoolmaster’s parlor while Frenchmen by truckloads went jolting past on their way to death in still another useless and futile attack. “Faces merged into a blur,” he writes,”All we could see in the dim light was the desperation in their eyes.” His tone is more compassionate than Hemingway’s, but still is that of a foreign observer. E.E. Cummings, in a few of his early poems, writes about the war in a fashion that would have seemed unthinkable to infantry officers, describing it not as a shared experience but as something “I have seen,” a spectacle of death with aesthetic properties. Thus he says in “La Guerre III”:

the bigness of cannon
is skilful,

but i have seen
death’s clever enormous voice
which hides in a fragility
of poppies …

i say that sometimes
on these long talkative animals
are laid fists of huger silence.

I have seen all the silence
filled with vivid noiseless boys

at Roupy
i have seen
between barrages,

the night utter ripe unspeaking girls.

John Nash. Over The Top. Hemingway:They had beautiful burying grounds in the mountains, war in the mountains is the most beautiful of all war, and in one of them, at a place called Pocol, they buried a general who was shot through the head by a sniper. This is where those writers are mistaken who write books called Generals Die in Bed, because this general died in a trench dug in snow, high in the mountains, wearing an Alpine hat with an eagle feather in it and a hole in front you couldn't put your little finger in and a hole in back you could put your

in, if it were a small fist and you wanted to put it there, and much blood in the snow.

Ambulance drivers like Hemingway, Dos Passos, Robert Service and Charles Nordhoff were also learning other lessons of war. Although their pay was that of a French private – five cents a day plus a quart of sour wine- they had the priviledge denied to American soldiers in the ranks of spending their leaves in Paris. Most of them fell in love with the city, and many were fascinated by its little ladies, of whom Cummings was to write:

little ladies
than dead exactly dance
in my head,precisely
dance where danced la guerre.

Mimi à
la voix fragile
qui chatouille Des
Italiens

the putain with the ivory throat
Marie Louise Lallemand
n’est-ce pas que je suis belle
chéri? les anglais m’aiment
tous,les américains
aussi….”bon dos, bon cul de Paris”(Marie
Vierge
Priez
Pour
Nous)

Eric Kennington. Gassed and Wounded. Hemingway:The surprising thing, next to their progressive corpulence, is the amount of paper that is scattered about the dead. Their ultimate position, before there is any question of burial, depends on the location of the pockets in the uniform. In the Austrian army these pockets were in the back of the breeches and the dead, after a short time, all consequently lay on their faces, the two hip pockets pulled out and, scattered around them in the grass, all those papers their pockets had contained. The heat, the flies, the indicative positions of the bodies in the grass, and the amount of paper scattered are the impressions one retains. The smell of a battlefield in hot weather one cannot recall. You can remember that there was such a smell, but nothing ever happens to you to bring it back.

Like many others, Cummings determined  to live in what he called “superb and subtle ” Paris after the war was over-”apres la guerre finie”. Still, perhaps the most important lesson learned was an understanding of the almost magnetic attraction that death seemed to exert on individuals. Dos Passos, though a convinced pacifist, wrote that “the winey thought of death stings in the spring blood.” Later, he was to write, looking back at those days, that the immediate presence of death “sharpened the senses. The sweetness of white roses, the shape and striping of a snail shell, the taste of an omelet, the most casual sight or sound appeared desperately intense against the background of the great massacres.”

Since there was not a sufficient likelihood of death in the ambulance corps, its members took unnecessary risks- as Hemingway, for example who insisted on crawling out to a listening post beyond the Italian lines, where he was blown up by a bomb from an Austrian trench mortar. Several of the “frightfully decent” fellows in Dos Passos’s ambulance section, had themselves transferred into other services, usually French or American aviation, that offered them a better chance of being killed.

Otto Dix. War Cripples 1920. Daniel Aaron on John Dos Passos:During the summer and fall of 1917, he caught the full blast of the war, later recorded ingloriously in his Three Soldiers: the mutilated bodies, the horses choking to death in poison gas, the drunken troops. He found it hideous and absurd. Wasn't it time, he asked, to stop crying over the dead or over a probably mythical liberty? "Like the Jews at their wailing place, the Liberals cover their heads with their robes of integrity and wail, wail, wail -- God, I'm tired of wailing. I want to assassinate." Only one thought consoled him. At least the poison gas of trench warfare was better than the miasma of lies that enshrouded the world, and if the war could not be stopped, one might still "heave 'arf a brick into the Temple of Moloch if nothing else" and "disturb with laughter the religious halo of the holocaust." He still saw the ridiculousness of Richard Norton, surrounded by fat officers, addressing the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Unit: "and as gentlemen volunteers you enlisted in this service, as gentlemen volunteers I bid you farewell."

Then suddenly the war ended, and most of them were still alive. The war ended too soon for many Americans- not for those who had fought at Bellau Wood or in the Argonne, but for others who had only marched and countermarched behind the lines. Now they would never know whether or not they were brave men. Some were a little ashamed of being unmedaled and unwounded. Others, especially the airmen, had lived more intensely that they would ever live again and felt in a vague fashion that something in them had died on the eleventh of November , 1918.

Otto Dix. The Match Seller. 1920. Don Murray:Optimism was replaced by irony, the bitter irony of soldiers who fought and knew that their fighting was futile. That irony was fed into the books written by men like Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Erich Maria Remarque. It became the template of war writing to this day. Even the way we look at the world around us changed. Sunrise had been celebrated by poets for generations as a time of joy, innocence and new beginnings. But dawn in the Great War was when men went over the top, when battles began, when so many died. "Dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it," Fussell wrote. "The new, modern associations of dawn became cold, the death of multitudes, insensate marching in files, battles, and corpses too shallowly interred." Just four years after that war's end, T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land: 'Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.' Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/

All the young men had been exposed to a variety of strong emotions. Their individualities had been affirmed, even in the anonymous disguise of a uniform, and they had dreamed of peacetime careers in which they would play the part of heroes. Now the war had ended without giving them a chance, as Fitzgerald said, to expend all that accumulated nervous energy. Many of them-with Ernest Hemingway as the most conspicuous example among the writers- would spend the next ten years looking for another stage on which they could re-enact the dangers and recapture the winey taste of war.

…The young men that Gertrude Stein called the “Lost Generation” were those stranded between two wars. She saw in them no moral guidance,and  no respect for women. They had missed the civilizing influences that young men usually have between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. They trusted neither their country nor themselves.

Otto Dix. Metropolis. Daniel Aaron on John Dos Passos:From August 1917 until the summer of 1918, when he was sent back to the States because of his antimilitary views, he lived the life of a vagabond ambulance driver, first in France, then in Italy, finding the agony and the misery of Europe preferable to the American "orgy of patriotic bunk." With Robert Hillyer, he repaired broken engines, scavenged for wine and omelets, and collaborated on a novel. At this time, too, he saw a good deal of another "gentleman volunteer," a "certain Jack Lawson, a dramatist smoking a pipe of unexampled stench," busily engaged in writing "a future Broadway success." Back in the States in the fall of 1918, he waited to find out whether he would be discharged on account of his bad eyes or assigned to another ambulance unit. The organization of army life appalled him. "Organization," he declared, "is death." And yet he did not want to be anywhere else. "I'm glad I'm here," he wrote to McComb, "even if I seem to grumble. I've always wanted to divest myself of class and the monied background -- the army seemed the best way -- From the bottom -- thought I, one can see clear -- So, though I might have escaped behind my sacred eyes, I walked with the other cattle into the branding pen.

Books like The Great Gatsby and Death in the Afternoon confirm it. Filled with profligate lifestyle choices: extravagant parties, the pleasures of bullfighting, drinking to excess – they prove Stein’s point about the Lost Generation. She would never admit to actually coining the term, although Hemingway felt strongly that she had and used it as his epigraph for The Sun Also Rises. She claimed it had come originally from a man at the garage where she was having work done on her car. The garage man said that this generation did not know how do do anything useful, like repairing automobiles. Everything they knew had been lost in the war. When she told Hemingway the story, he immediately seized on the phrase, “You are all a lost generation.”

George Grosz. Hannah Sullivan on T.S. Eliot:pointed out that the words “serious” and “seriously” are constantly repeated. “We must learn to take poetry seriously,” Eliot wrote, and “all this war enthusiasm” doesn’t even take the war seriously. He certainly didn’t feel that most war poetry took the war seriously. At a time when patriotic effusions were just about everywhere, he pointedly remarked that “Antwerp” by Ford Madox Hueffer was “the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war”. “Antwerp” is a poem about the paradox of courage and endurance emerging among men who appear banal. It does not evade “the sordid and disagreeable” and shows how the business “must be put through”.

Other writers who have been cast as in that category are Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, and Thomas Wolf. All of them shared a certain sense of despair, even while the Jazz Age was distracting them from the knowledge that war would come again. …

ADDENDUM

“…studies by Sandra Gilbert  and others over the past decade have shown how wartime imagery is embedded in The Waste Land – the corpse that won’t stay buried, Lil’s demobbed husband, Rats’ alley, and the death by drowning that is reminiscent of the death of Jean Verdenal at Gallipoli. It is notable, however, that for the first seventy-odd years of the poem’s existence, the war subtext was not identified by critics as significant. Eliot has subsumed the war experience into a deeper sense of life’s horror, of which the war is one symptom.

It is tempting to relate the “ Wounded men laughing in agony on the barbed wire” of the officer’s letter to the horrific laughter of the Sweeney poems, and the returning dead of “On Leave” to the dead crossing London Bridge in The Waste Land, but this kind of searching for direct relevance would not, I think, be productive. On the other hand, we can perhaps see Eliot’s poetry as an answer to the implied challenge in the officer’s despair at communicating horrors – “They shudder and it is forgotten.” When we read “Sweeney Erect”, we shudder and it is not forgotten.

This letter shows that the War mattered greatly to Eliot, but the impact of the war on Eliot’s great poetry, is more than can be suggested by just looking for war references in the poems. I would like to finish, though , by speculating that on at least one occasion Eliot did write a poem that was very directly about the Great War.”

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