Thursday, September 3, 2015

Schlacht - Das Maß

During one of our many wars post Vietnam, my first wife Lynn Murdock said that when she was young, she thought that people were really beginning to understand that war was actually a bad thing, but she had come to realize since that, no, the antiwar movement of the 60s was just a fad, like hairdos and hemlines. She was prescient, and now that simple and obvious sentiment - that war is brutality beyond imagination, that it destroys lives and culture, that it does not solve problems but only creates new ones, that it is avoidable and should therefore be avoided - seems naïve and sentimental. After the clamor for war begins, it simply becomes louder and louder, and those who speak against it are silenced, even when those wars are pointless, and when the objections raised are proven true. Bertrand Russell was famously imprisoned for saying that Germans were members of mankind, a humanization which could not be tolerated at the time.

We are now in the middle of the 100th anniversary of one of the most pointless of the modern wars - the First World War, the Great War - whose social and political seeds grew into the Second, which begat the Cold War and its proxies, and on and on. Although these wars have each in their turn taken the scientific mechanization of slaughter to new levels, the Great War seems the bleakest, a line of trenches drawn through the bucolic northern European countryside as a machine through which many millions of young men were made into meat, a process taking on average six weeks from the time they arrived. Let us stop and imagine the horror experienced by a schoolboy of 14 or 15, encouraged by his family and his teachers and betters to take up the call, to leave his home and enter a Hell of death, corpses packed into lintels and thresholds, screaming death brought by machine gun fire across a lifeless desert of mud, constant shelling, no sleep, and terrifying slaughter blowing in on the wind, melting your lungs, blistering your face, blinding your eyes. 

We are faced with a simple and clear and banal truth. War is hell, we've heard it before. And, as is it so obvious, we are forced to wonder - why does it happen? Why does it appeal so? Why do the soldiers, for the rest of their lives, speak of those horrors as the greatest moments of their lives? And why do we hold ideals of honor and duty to country and service? Is it merely a scam by war profiteers and those who seek power and riches and care little for the deaths of others? Yes. But maybe it's also because we love it so very much, we cannot wait to mix it up, to witness the slaughter, to fight and die and kill and maim. Truffaut is often credited with saying there's no such thing as an anti-war film, meaning that war movies raise our pulse, entertain us with pyrotechnic explosions and the splatter of blood and brains, ply us with the excitement and the camaraderie of war and, as such, serve as recruitment vehicles for the armed forces, no matter what horrors they include.† This is something we must understand. 

Next month, Heidi Moss is singing the song I wrote for her, a setting of Rudolf Binding's Schlacht - das Maß.  The poem was written in 1918, the same year post-WWI when Eugene V. Debs was arrested for claiming that peace was good, and the aforementioned Russell was serving the prison sentence for his crime. After our recent first rehearsal, in which I realized that she is singing it beautifully - to be expected as she has a drippingly beautiful voice - she wrote a blog entry about the song and about the way the poem explicates the savagery and also the appeal of war.  It is a strange work, and the first time I read it I thought oh it's just another of the endless stream of war poems, maybe a little more purple than most, I mean, the burning crucified corpses drifting to heaven and all, but then I saw it was much stranger, a glorification of masochism so much more than anything presented by the tour guide at Kink.com, even when she locked you in that little cage in the floor said you are a fucking little bitch right there in front of everyone.

Binding studied law and medicine, but in his forties, after the outbreak of the Great War, became a cavalry commander fighting on the Western Front, and his experiences there found expression in much of his later writings. However, like so many artists of his time, his legacy was tainted by his association with the exceeding horrors of the Nazis. As one of the 88 signers of the Gelöbnis treuester Gefolgschaft - the "vow of the faithful followers," published on the 26th of October 1933, he sinned a sin that brooks no absolution. Dates are important in assigning blame, and yes, even though 1933 was early, and the war and Kristallnacht and much worse were in the future, the thuggery had begun, the Reichstag fire had been set, the legislature dissolved, non-Aryan removed from positions of power, and, anyway, Hitler had made his plans clear enough in Mein Kampf in the 20s. We can understand Binding, of course, and I am quick to say I too am a scared little boy. If The President or one of his three-letter agencies said sign this thing or we'll shoot you dead I'd say yessiree here we go and I'd maybe even whisper something about whether my friends and lovers who didn't sign were, well, a little bit suspicious. Richard Strauss, who we think of as one who worked to protect his Jewish family members and in his own small way pursue peace, and who is also represented in this concert, himself signed the Aufruf der Kulturschaffenden - the "call to the culture-workers" - expressing his loyalty to Hitler just a few months after Binding's vow.

The way things turned out, Binding's poem's idea that war, however awful, is the measure of a man was used as a recruiting tool for the Nazis, and Binding's ambiguous feelings towards the Nazis - he was engaged to marry a Jewish woman - was not enough to save him from the guilt of that association. But the poem must be read and remembered as part of this important work we must do in our understanding war and the love we have for it.

Battle - our measure

The trembling earth presses close up against us.
The field rises like men from camp.
Crops of soldiers sprout
from invisible seeds
in the trenches.                                
Green-black cauldrons bloom
smoke and poison gases
up into the air everywhere.
Angrily startled
fountains spring from the scorched earth.
Burning and crucified,
bodies go to heaven, 
their faces frozen in a grimace,
a black charred star:
dust and bones.

Waves of smoke roll over us.
A storm of iron rains down.
Lightning slithers towards us.
Thunder strangles us.
A howling abyss rears up
everywhere, and the sun draws
dark manes of our exhaled breath. 

Heaven holds us inescapably
spellbound under its gaze:
Like the evil eye of the basilisk
turning small animals into stone.

We lay desolate in the hell of battle; 
we knew that everyone was utterly alone.
But we also knew this:
Once you stand before the remorseless enemy,
where prayers go unanswered, where pleading to God 
is ridiculous,
where no mother watches over us,
no woman crosses our path, 
where everything is without love,
where only reality rules,
with cruelty and grandeur,
such an experience makes us hardened and proud.
Unforgettable,
it touches the hearts of men
more deeply than all the love in the world.

And we felt: this was our measure.


† One possible exception: the amazing Come and See.  

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