March 2009 Archives

Europe Central

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William Vollman's Europe Central was, for me, a very slow burn. I spent the first two hundred pages of this sprawling, kaleidescopic epic on the emotional sidelines, wryly observant, interested but not overly engaged. Vollman's characters, I thought, were intriguing, but also annoying. His prose was full of vivid detail, but a bit overblown. It was the kind of thing, I found myself thinking, that I would have enjoyed better in high school, when drama needed to be proclaimed from on high with cannon fire in order to get my attention. Do we really need, I wondered, another novel about World War II?

And then I realized that I had begun thinking almost constantly about the moral dilemmas presented in the novel. Vollman has devoted years to thinking about the "moral calculus" utilized by human beings in situations of extremity, about the ways in which people make decisions in crisis, and how that plays out in a larger pattern of violence and history. All that thinking really pays off as he draws his fictionalized portraits of historical figures from mid-century Russia and Germany; these are people placed in crucial but impossible situations, people to whom dilemmas are posed with no answer remotely "right," and Vollman traces their moral and emotional arcs with great care. I think Europe Central would make a perfect fiction companion to Rising Up and Rising Down, the same author's nonfiction examination of violence and its ramifications. Here, even more than in the factual case studies of Rising Up, the reader observes at close hand - from inside the subject's head, in fact - the protracted struggle to balance necessity and morality, to make sense of the insane circumstances in which he finds himself, to create and apply some version of a moral code. Since the novel spans decades - late 1930's to mid-1970's - the reader has time, too, to witness the effects of the passage of time, the slow (or, sometimes, lightning-quick) revisions that the characters must make to their moral codes under the weight of events, emotions, or simply old age.

Europe Central features a wide swath of characters, from artists and poets (most prominently the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich) to generals and spies. Although I'm generally not a fan of military fiction, this book surprised me: for my money, the most compelling episodes were two long pieces devoted to generals (the Russian Vlasov and the German Paulus) who each defected to the opposite side. Vollman's portrait of two giant powers, both irrationally fixed on the idea of Total War - no retreat under any circumstances - communicates the claustrophobic plight of military professionals trained to practice battle-craft as a strategic art. The chain of command dictates that both Vlasov and Paulus must follow orders, and their leaders' commitment to Total War means that the orders will never permit retreat, even for strategic purposes. Even when their respective armies are starved, surrounded, frozen and out of fuel and ammunition, they are ordered to succeed, and punished for disobeying orders. What's more, the cult of personality surrounding Hitler means that Vollman's Paulus must never doubt the ultimate wisdom of his Führer's orders, or his entire moral universe will crumble. It's fascinating to watch this tension between Paulus's false faith and his professional's knowledge of the battlefield play out in test after test. Will he defy orders when he knows the battle is unwinnable? When he realizes that successful escape is impossible? When he understands that all his men will likely die pointless deaths? In each of these scenarios Paulus remains ferociously loyal; it is only when he witnesses the casualness with which Hitler expects him to take his own life that his internal walls begin to crumble. His ultimate decision, to allow himself to be taken alive by the Soviets, is one that would never occur to me as a betrayal, especially after the grueling fighting he led. But by his own moral lights, he has betrayed his Führer and his former self, and must conceptualize himself anew as a Russian collaborator. All of his assumptions are suddenly up for reconsideration. His bitterness at being treated so unreasonably combines with his more objective misgivings - and, of course, the pressure of the Soviet propaganda machine - and he becomes a vocal critic of the government he'd almost died to defend.

All of the characters in Europe Central are deeply flawed, if not downright unlikeable. After all, many of them are working to strengthen two of the most oppressive nation-states in living memory: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Russia. Many of the episodes are narrated by semi-faceless mid-level functionaries in the Nazi or Communist parties, men who have been completely indoctrinated in the nonsensical bigotry of the party line. Even those characters who don't support their country's favored brand of totalitarian oppression are endowed by Vollman with irritating mannerisms and/or infuriating qualities; there are no kind, easy, socially enlightened resistance-fighter heroes for whom the reader can cheer. Yet, with a few exceptions, even the most unlikeable people in the book evoke, at times, a spark of sympathy in the reader. And although eight hundred pages of unlikeable people is an understandably hard sell, I honestly believe the characters' deep complexity is what makes the novel so compelling.

World War II is often viewed, especially by Americans, as "the good war," a clear-cut battle of the Light of freedom and tolerance (in which we see ourselves) battling the Dark of oppression and bigotry (Hitler's Germany). Vollman strips away this simplistic vision by the simple act of looking at the war's eastern front: between two oppressive, power-mad totalitarian regimes, between two all-seeing surveillance and propaganda machines, between two starved wastelands across which humans are transported to secret locations and subjected to atrocities, the choice is much less clear. Caught between two such choices, it takes remarkable strength of vision to imagine, let alone fight for, a third option, even when that third option is a dire necessity. As he paints these characters' struggles of loyalty - between Hitler and Stalin, between the collective and the self, between the party line and their own integrity - Vollman blurs all lines that separate one side from the other. A spy who uses his racial privilege to join the SS and expose their crimes, yet who fails to obtain international cooperation - are his hands clean? A composer living under seige, whose children are starving, and who wants to believe that music can actually help turn the tide of the war, writes a program symphony that tows the party line - to what extent has he compromised his integrity? A Soviet general, soured on Stalin's machinations, who allows himself to be convinced that collaboration with Germany will enable him to fight for the liberation of Russia, and who tells himself that rumors of concentration camps are another example of Soviet slander - where does he fall on the moral spectrum? And how can my own sympathy as a reader be more with a German general than a conflicted Soviet artist? In observing the progress of each of these characters through their personal decision-making processes, and the vast moral gray areas involved, one begins to question one's own black-and-white view of the Second World War. Indeed, Vollman ends the book with a meditation on black, white, and shades of gray.

I've noticed that many people recommend this novel for World War II history aficionados, but I think that's slightly beside the point. Vollman is writing fiction; he creates full emotional lives and narrative voices for his characters such that the final products could only be suggested by, not true to, the historical record. History buffs who cringe at factual liberties and poetic license would be well-advised to stay away. No, as I see it, the people who ought to read this novel are those intrigued by the human psyche in times of great crisis, or fascinated by the cycle of violence on a grand historic scale as well as a personal, internal one. The truly thoughtful reader will also learn from observing the shifting sands of her own sympathies as she reads.

Gleanings from Old Shaker Journals

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On David and my annual trips to his family's property in rural New Hampshire, we drive by a road sign directing tourists to an old Shaker village. Long abandoned, it's apparently been preserved as a museum, and although we have never stopped to see it, my brain has tended to pause a moment upon seeing the sign to pass over my paltry knowledge of the Shaker movement. The sum total of this knowledge consisted of: "Aren't they sort of like Quakers, except they didn't have any sex? And didn't they also make furniture?" I imagined a peaceful yet dour people, whose worship, like the one Quaker meeting I have attended, would probably take place in stillness and near-silence. But I knew none of this for sure. So when I came across Clara Endicott Sears's aptly-named 1916 volume Gleanings from Old Shaker Journals, I decided to find out more about the Shakers from their own pens.

As it happens, almost all my assumptions about them were wildly wrong. Far from sitting still and maintaining near-silence in meetings, for example, Shaker worship revolved around loud singing and shouting, and wild, erratic dancing (including the "shaking" that earned them their common name) punctuated by bouts of speaking in tongues. Meeting sessions in the early years often lasted until the early hours of the morning, and sometimes the entire night. Not unexpectedly, this method of worship earned the Society of Believers (as they called themselves) the distrust and animosity, first of the authorities in England, and then of the townspeople in the New England villages where they settled. They were persecuted by the police in England and by mobs in Massachusetts, for everything from witchcraft to political subversion.

This animosity was so strong, in fact, that the English authorities arrested Ann Lee, soon to become the leader of the Believers, and essentially left her to die in solitary isolation. Kept alive covertly by her adopted son, Lee had a vision of angelic beauty, which could only be attained on earth if she and her followers renounced sex and all earthly things. Upon her release from prison, Lee was hailed by the other Believers as the second coming of Christ, which they had already been expecting in female form in the near future. (Their rationale: since the Holy Spirit is all-gendered, and has already appeared on Earth once as a man, it stands to reason that its second appearance would take a female form.)

From a modern perspective, it's almost impossible not to read Ann Lee's life in psychoanalytic, pathologizing terms. The illiterate daughter of an authoritarian father and a zealously religious mother, the young Ann as Sears describes her was "a strange child, subject to extraordinary spiritual experiences - visions and prophetic dreams were her constant companions, and her mind dwelt continuously on the wickedness of human nature...She would frequently cry herself to sleep, or lie awake shivering with the fear of God's wrath." After her mother's early death, Ann was married off by her father, strongly against her will, and had several still-born children. "Sometimes," records a follower of an older Ann, she "would be taken under great sufferings, so that it would seem as though her life must go from her. --at other times she was filled with unspeakable joy and triumph, and would say, 'I feel as terrible as an army with banners'." These dramatic vacillations between jubilation and despair continued throughout Lee's life, as did her visions, and although I dislike the tendency to reduce historical figures to a bundle of symptoms and a diagnosis, it's difficult to avoid thinking of disorders like schizophrenia and manic depression when I read her story. And how psychologically understandable, given her history of being essentially sold into marriage, raped, and made to suffer the grief of stillborn babies, that she should perceive a life without sex to be a blessing! Likewise, given her factory background, it's not hard to understand her teaching that "good spirits will not live where there is dirt. There is no dirt in heaven."

In any case, the followers of Ann Lee (now called Mother Ann) soon emigrated to the American colonies, arriving on the eve of the Revolutionary War and immediately aroused suspicion for their refusal to fight (they were, like the Quakers, opposed to violence). Interestingly, though, and in a connection I was in no way expecting, what they founded at Harvard Village, Niskayuna and elsewhere were the first communistic societies in the United States, and ones which, unlikely as it seems, prefigured in several ways the counterculture movements of the 1960's.

True, the sexual attitudes of the two movements were almost diametrically opposed. Whereas the social philosophers of the 1960's opined that lifting sexual repression was the key to human progress, the Shakers saw the total renunciation of sex as the key to spiritual enlightenment. However, in other particulars the two movements bear an eerie resemblance to one another. The Shakers lived communally, with all property held in common. All residents were fed and cared for during the duration of their time with the Shakers, through their old age. Until they were too old or sick, all residents also worked to support the community at large, and their list of occupations stops just short of hammock-making in its resemblance to a hippie commune: they gathered herbs and roots for medicinal purposes, dyed cloth from plants gathered in the nearby wilderness, tended and sold fruit trees, grew vegetable gardens to feed themselves and sell at market, ran livestock, hand-crafted wooden items (broom-handles, spools, knives, furniture, wooden boxes) for sale in the greater community, caned chairs, carved gravestones, and had an entire facility devoted to binding books. Not only that, but their relationship with the natural world at times seems strangely modern. Each community of Shakers, called a "Family," had a holy hill near their residences, where they would go to worship on special occasions. The dancing and singing would be freer and more exuberant in direct contact with the natural world. In 1848 they began the custom

to sow the seeds of Love, Hope, Charity, and all the virtues, in the fields before the planting began. Groups of the brethren could be seen sowing imaginary handfuls of seed the length and breadth of one field, while an equal number of sisters would be doing likewise in another. In this manner every field belonging to the Shakers was sown with the spiritual seed of all the cardinal virtues before any material seed was planted, in order that a special blessing should rest upon the growing crops.

At several points in the journals, different Believers told anecdotes involving Native American reactions to Mother Ann, which also brought to mind the modern white counter-cultural romancing of Native people. In one incident, for example, a Believer writes that "a number of Indian natives were at the ferry, and on discovering Mother they cried out 'The Good Woman is come! The Good Woman is come!' and manifested great joy and satisfaction on seeing her and the Elders." The Natives in this vignette are used as a kind of barometer of legitimacy for Mother Ann: they operate as a repository of mystical-instinctual wisdom, so their recognition affirms her status as a spiritual leader. As clichéd as this Noble Savage trope has become, it was fairly unusual for white folks in the New England of the 1780's. The general populace were more likely to view Native Americans as lazy, sub-human inconveniences who should be wiped from the land as quickly and completely as possible, so it's interesting that the Shakers took such a different view. Even their defense of the wild singing and dancing of their worship has a 1960's ring to it; one believer wrote "Why should the tongue, which is the most unruly member of the body, be the only chosen instrument of worship? God has also created the hands and feet, and enabled them to perform their functions in the service of the body."

All of this was fascinating to me, and I enjoyed reading the spare, eighteenth-century cadences of the journal fragments. Sears's book as a whole feels somewhere between a primary and secondary source. The author/editor does connect the dots for the reader, filling in the Shakers' back-story and placing the journal fragments in context, but her writing itself is very much of her time, or an even earlier one: flowery, novelistic, and drenched in Romanticism. Although she herself is not a Shaker, she seems to feel near-reverence for both their initial incarnation and the fading remnants of their community still available to her in 1916. On the other hand, her embarrassment and even slight contempt for their spiritualistic incarnation of the 1840's makes itself equally plain. Her commitment to communicating the Shakers' story in their own words as much as possible, while admirable, is also sometimes frustrating. The primary concerns of the diarists are not necessarily mine, as in this journal fragment from the late 1700's about the Elder Father James, written by Sister Jemima Blanchard:

The last time but one that Father James was here I lived at Jeremiah Willard's; I was (with others) under trials at that time, in consequence of some singular gifts, but we had kept it to ourselves, remembering the advice of our blessed Mother, to wait with patience for a suitable time to make known our trials...Father stepped into the kitchen and spoke to me of the labor I had in cooking for so many, and said God would reward me...When I found that he was gone I burst into a flood of tears; and having retired to a bedroom I threw myself flat on the floor, thinking I would certainly cry myself to death. I had been in this position but a short time, when I was raised by Father James. he said to me: 'I saw you before me as I was riding away--just as you are now.'

Sister Jemima's priority in telling this story is the miraculous vision of Father James, which caused him to return to comfort her. My priority, on the other hand, that of a nosy reader: what were these "singular gifts" that caused Jemima to labor under trials? Who were the "others" involved? Why did Father James's departure cause Jemima such agony? None of that is recorded, and the book is rife with other such tantalizing accounts. Nevertheless, the fragments paint a vivid picture of the atmosphere in the village, and the reader can imagine herself into the long-ago lives of these strange and remarkable people.

Death Comes for the Archbishop


In James Wilson's prologue to his excellent history of Native America, The Earth Shall Weep, he discusses the idea of the "Vanishing American," still disturbingly prevalent in white American culture. This myth consists of

the central belief that 'the Indian' belongs essentially to the past rather than to the present. He (or she) is an exotic relic of some earlier age that we have already passed through: either - depending on your point of view - a kind of primitive anarchy that we have overcome (in nature, in ourselves) or an innocent Golden Age that we have forfeited through greed and destructiveness.

...Its key argument is that, because native and non-native inhabit essentially different realities, they cannot be expected to co-exist: by definition, yesterday must always give way to tomorrow....While they testify to our [white folks'] ability to develop and progress, Native American societies are incapable of change themselves...they cannot adapt when confronted by a more advanced and virile civilization, but are doomed to melt away...If they fail to vanish, if they change and adapt instead, then, by definition, they are not really Native Americans.

I thought about this idea frequently while perusing Willa Cather's 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. For most of the book, I considered it an excellent example of Wilson's point. Here Cather presents us with a white French bishop, sent as a missionary to the newly-Americanized Santa Fé diocese, who, when confronted with the Native mesa-dwelling Ácoma people, perceives them as some kind of petrified relic of the past:

Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like the sky at daybreak, this people had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out or reach, like the crustaceans in their armour.

For Father Latour, the Ácoma seem so "antediluvian" and unchanging that he finds it difficult even to see them as human. He interprets their lack of receptivity to his mass as evidence of their own sequestration and prehistoric level of development, rather than as a result of his own decision to insert himself uninvited into their lives:

He felt as if he were celebrating Mass at the bottom of the sea, for antediluvian creatures; for types of life so old, so hardened, so shut within their shells, that the sacrifice on Calvary could hardly reach back so far. Those shell-like backs behind him might be saved by baptism and divine grace, as undeveloped infants are, but hardly through any experience of their own, he thought. When he blessed them and sent them away, it was with a sense of inadequacy and spiritual defeat.

Of course, the perceptions of a character shouldn't be confused with those of his author, but Cather seems, in this scene, to be in sympathy with Latour. Certainly, all her stories and descriptions of the Ácoma way of life imply an ancient, unchanging aspect similar to the priest's assessment (if slightly less dehumanizing). Not only that, but other Native settlements are also described as declining; the Bishop's Indian guide Jacinto lives in a house

at one end of the living pueblo; behind it were long rock ridges of dead pueblo,--empty houses ruined by weather and now scarcely more than piles of earth and stone. The population of the living streets was less than one hundred adults. This was all that was left of the rich and populous Cicuyè of Coronado's expedition.

To a certain extent, this is simply accurate reporting on the devastation brought to Native communities by European diseases. But it's more than that: the melancholy mood, combined with Jacinto's refusal to let Father Latour assist his ailing infant, paint the same picture of the unchanging, unchangeable Indian, destined to melt away under the onslaught of White Progress. Jacinto is portrayed as in touch with "ancient" powers invisible to Latour (or at least, Latour imagines him to be), but he is also a member of an America in the midst of an inevitable vanishing.

This echoed, for me, the portion of Cather's earlier novel The Professor's House set in the southwest, in which two white men come across the ruins of an ancient Native cliff-dwelling civilization, now extinct for many years. The discovery is a revelation to the fledgling archaeology students, and one in particular, Tom, forges a deep spiritual connection with the place. Tom makes the long journey to Washington, attempting to interest the Smithsonian in the site's artifacts, while in the meantime his friend betrays him by selling everything to a souvenir-hawker. The reader is sympathetic with Tom's desire to preserve the marvel he has found, but at the same time the actual Native presence in the place - the significance the site held to its original inhabitants and makers - is eclipsed by a set of meanings created by the white discoverers. Even the most positive possible outcome - that the site would be purchased and curated by an institution like the Smithsonian - is constructed entirely from white value systems and white institutions. The Native voice has long been silenced, a relic of ancient history. And although the Indians of Death Comes for the Archbishop are technically still alive, much in their portrayals implies that they are rapidly heading the same way.

And then, with only a few pages remaning, Cather surprised me. Latour, now lying on his death-bed, recalls his friend Eusabio, a Navajo leader who had asked him, many years before, to intercede with the United States government during the events later known as the Long Walk of the 1860's, when the Navajo were being forcibly relocated away from their sacred lands. Although he refuses the request (he doesn't believe his intercession would hold any weight with the Protestant legislators), he is sympathetic to the Navajo battle, and rejoices when the government reverses its decision and allows the people to return to their ancestral home. The Navajo, in this part of the book, are portrayed as much more active makers of their own destinies than either the Ácoma or the Cicuyè; forced into hiding in the canyons and crevices of their native lands, the few remaining freedom fighters must drastically alter their mode of life in order to elude the US troops. Not only that, but they are making their decisions in full possession of the facts, and of their faculties; the resistance leader Manuelito tells the Bishop:

"You are the friend of Christóbal, who hunts my people and drives them over the mountains to the Bosque Redondo. Tell your friend that he can come and kill me when he mother and my gods are in the West, and I will never cross the Rio Grande."

This kind of free decision-making and articulate defiance, while still tinged with the notion of the Noble Savage holding out hopelessly against Progress, is leagues away from Cather's depictions of the doomed Ácoma or the extinct cliffside civilization in The Professor's House. Manuelito and Eusabio are admirable humans who make their own decisions, and are capable of change. Significantly, Manuelito's story ends, not with his death at the hands of the US cavalry, but with the return of his people to the land he has defended. And, equally significantly, the very last words out of the dying Latour's mouth are these: "I do not believe, as I once did, that the Indian will perish. I believe that God will preserve him."

Death Comes for the Archbishop definitely reflects the casual racism of its time; I haven't even touched on the depictions of Mexicans in the novel. But I also think it reflects an interesting moment in American history, when white culture was beginning, perhaps, to fumble towards a recognition of the shared complexity and humanity of Native Americans - toward an acknowledgment that these are living, dynamic people, not merely signposts on the road to the past.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography