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Apr 28, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath

Source: Tom Cono
The Grapes of Wrath divided opinion when it was first published. Some declared it a masterpiece, others dismissed it as crude propoganda. Charles Angoff, in his contemporaneous review, noted:
There should be rejoicing in that part of Hell where the souls of great American imaginative writers while away their time, for at long last a worthy successor to them has appeared in their former terrestrial abode. With his latest novel Mr. Steinbeck at once joins the company of Hawthorne, Melville, Crane, and Norris, and easily leaps to the forefront of all his contemporaries. [The Grapes of Wrath] has all the earmarks of something momentous, monumental, and memorable: universal compassion, a sensuousness so honestly and recklessly tender that even the Fathers of the Church would probably have called it spiritual; and a moral anger against the entire scheme of things that only the highest art possesses.
High praise indeed, it wasn’t all uncritical acclaim: the novel was banned in Kansas and in Kern County, California (location of the Weedpatch camp in which the Joads stayed in the novel). In St Louis not only was it banned but the librarian was ordered to burn copies that had already been purchased. H. Kelly Crockett, a student in Oklahoma at the time of the novel’s publication, recalled in an article twenty years later that a common criticism of the novel at the time was that it was propogandist and, once the situation that had called into being the events it portrayed had been overcome, it would be read merely as a historical curiosity. Crockett’s conclusion, after twenty years, was that this had proved not to be the case and the novel retained its literary power. Seventy-plus years on, is that still the case? The fortunes of any novel wax and wane, and such is the case for The Grapes of Wrath. A largely positive review by Edward Galligan of the 1989 fiftieth anniversary reprint still balked at “purple prose, melodramatic plotting, and sentimental thinking,”, and enough “hamminess” to make us “gag at the prospect of rereading it.” Today, then, while Steinbeck is still read, it is mostly Of Mice and Men, while The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps out of favour. I would suggest that, for all the novel’s faults, this is a pity.
Frank Eugene Cruz suggests that most criticism of the novel categorises it in one of four ways – as a story of migration, a recasting of Christian themes and motifs, a work of social protest or a powerful, sentimental epic. And the latter three representations are, in part, responsible for some of the ambivalence with which we tend to confront the book today. The Christian moralising and socialist rhetoric which some discern in it are too didactic: and it is true that, at times, Steinbeck batters us with his message where some subtlety would have been more effective. The unfairness, for example, of the way the farm owners used the surplus of men to drive down pay does not become any more unfair because we read of it three or four or five or six times: it was unfair the first time and the reader could have been trusted to intuit that. And the sentimentality that gives rise to Edward Galligan’s gagging at the prospect of re-reading it is certainly an issue. But, nonetheless, I would argue that The Grapes of Wrath is a great novel.
What makes it so, for me, is the interconnectedness of those different categories that people ascribe to it. It is all of the things that people have described it as, but it is all of them in combination. If it can be read as a Christian narrative, then it is a highly political Christian narrative, as Stephen Bullivant demonstrates when he points to the novel’s connection of being a “red” with Jesus Christ, in the form of Jim Casy. Similarly, Stephen Railton suggests that Steinbeck’s use of Christianity, in the form of Casy, is a way of insinuating a revolutionary vision of militant socialism. Railton appears to posit this as a criticism, but for me the way the novel gives religious ideas political resonances is one of its great strengths. In any case, politics and religion are backdrops in the novel – essential, unavoidable, but backdrops nonetheless – and the central message is neither purely political nor religious, but rather about the nature of humanity and the need for community. And that transcends everything.
While there is a strongly religious element to The Grapes of Wrath, it is not straightforward. Stephen Bullivant notes a letter from Steinbeck to his editor in which he states that he wants “all all all” the verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to be printed at the start of the novel. The repeated alls demonstrate that he is adamant on the point and Bullivant therefore makes a study of the complete song in order to understand why. He notes particularly the final verse:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,    
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:

As he died to make men holy, let us die to make me free,
While God is marching on.

Bullivant is drawn to the third line, noting that, in religious terms, the concept of dying “to make men free” is novel. Martyrdom, in the Gospels, is a transcendent event rewarded by personal salvation; “making men free” suggests more of an immanent event. Such notions, of course, would have appalled social conservatives such as Eric Voegelin or Leo Strauss, suggesting, for them, the hubris of mankind, but there is nothing hubristic about The Grapes of Wrath. Far from it, there is a deep note of pessimism sounding throughout it. It may be replete with Christ figures – Casy, Tom, even Rose of Sharon – but the freedom granted by Jesus’s death is still, in Steinbeck’s vision, a highly qualified one.
Tamara Rombold gives a persuasive account of inversions of the Bible story throughout The Grapes of Wrath, from the superb depiction of drought in the first chapter (an inversion, she argues, of the Creation story) to Exodus (unlike the Israelites who were spared the plagues, the Oklahoma drought blights everyone), to Moses in the bullrushes (Rose of Sharon’s baby cast dead into the water) to the final scene, after the apocalypse of the flood, with Rose of Sharon in the barn with the starving man, reminiscent of Isiaiah, and the New Heavens and the New Earth.
Rombold then draws on Jim Casy’s soujourn in the wilderness “like Jesus”, in which he realises the call of a new spirit, which he calls love. She makes persuasive allusions to Casy’s Christ-like behaviour in his arrest and death scenes. Curiously, though, she makes no mention of probably Casy’s most important speech, just prior to his death. In this, Casy himself makes an inversion of Jesus’s walk into the wilderness. The truth isn’t in the wilderness, says Casy, it is here, in the community, among the people. This is where he finds his soul. An this resonates clearly with Tom, of course, because it forms the basis of much of his later conversation with Ma Joad (and this exchange is related by Rombold), in which he reveals his intention to leave and follow Casy’s example, leading the community against the travails forced on them by the system. Thus, we have in Casy and Tom, two representation of Jesus. Casy, the pure-of-heart lover of humanity, a man who dies for his beliefs, is an earthly Jesus figure, preaching virtue and honesty and decency. Tom is at once his disciple and a symbol of the risen Christ, the one who is “with you always, even unto the end of the world” as it is written in Matthew. Or, as Tom says to Ma:
"Then it don't matter. Then I'll be aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where- wherever you look. Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. If Casey knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build - why I'll be there."
Casy, then, can be seen as Jesus, while Tom is Christ. And the gospel they preach is a radical one. As Casy says to Tom:
"There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things people do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say . . . What is this thing called sperit? ... It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust sometimes - an' I want to make them happy - maybe it's all men an' all women we love; Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of."
For all that, though, I don’t believe The Grapes of Wrath should be read as a Christian novel. It is, if anything, a humanist novel. There are clear Christian resonances, and central characters may be comparable with Christ-figures, but that is because the fundamental tenets of Christian religion such as fairness, sense of community and so on, borrowed as they are from pre-Christian Platonic thought, are equally relevant to modern humanist belief. And so you might consider the novel christian, in the sense of evoking an ideal of human decency, but not Christian, as in following the doctrinal beliefs of any Church of Christ. As Casy says, “Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus?” Thus, the titular grapes of wrath are not those of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but the spirit inside man which will rise against oppression and exploitation. Casy is no longer a Preacher of God but remains, throughout, a preacher of men for men.
Similarly, despite its sometimes overwhelming didacticism, in the end The Grapes of Wrath is not a political novel either. Politics is simply a by-product of Steinbeck’s true interest, which is human nature and human beings, the human community. In the 1930s, the prevailing difficulties which beset humanity were political, and that is therefore what he wrote about. It is Ma Joad who makes one of the novel’s most telling points: “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody.” And earlier, she says: "I'm learnin' one thing good. Learnin' it all a time, ever' day. If you're in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help – the only ones."
Warren Motley, writing in 1982, complains that much of the novel’s critisism until then had focused on Casy and Tom as the core of the film and that the central role of Ma Joad in explaining the family’s gradual realisation of the need for community and cooperation is underplayed. I would agree, and I suggest that Ma Joad is one of the great characters of American fiction. She develops throughout the novel and her gradual assumption of both actual and moral control over her family is beautifully drawn. She is superb. Motley draws on the writing of Robert Briffault to explain the sense of matriarchy as exemplified by Ma Joad’s growing sense of authority over her clan as defining a relationship of cooperation, as opposed to the typical patriarchal relationships based on power. And it is through this that one can sense a note of optimism in a largely pessimistic book. "Why, Tom,” she says, “us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people - we go on."
And what a wonderful rallying cry that is.

Apr 21, 2013

Jane Eyre: Bronte

Jane Eyre is a famous and influential novel by English writer Charlotte Bronte. It was published in London, England in 1847 with the title Jane Eyre, an Autobiography under the pen name "Currer Bell". One of the secrets to the success of Jane Eyre, and the source of its strength in spite of numerous flaws, lies in the way that it touches on a number of important themes while telling a compelling story. Indeed, so lively and dramatic is the story that the reader might not be fully conscious of all the thematic strands that weave through this work.

Jane Eyre is a young orphan being raised by Mrs. Reed, her cruel, wealthy aunt. A servant named Bessie provides Jane with some of the few kindnesses she receives, telling her stories and singing songs to her. One day, as punishment for fighting with her bullying cousin John Reed, Jane’s aunt imprisons Jane in the red-room, the room in which Jane’s Uncle Reed died. While locked in, Jane, believing that she sees her uncle’s ghost, screams and faints. She wakes to find herself in the care of Bessie and the kindly apothecary Mr. Lloyd, who suggests to Mrs. Reed that Jane be sent away to Lowood School.

Once at the Lowood School, Jane finds that her life is far from idyllic. The school’s headmaster is Mr. Brocklehurst, a cruel, hypocritical, and abusive man. At Lowood, Jane befriends a young girl named Helen Burns, whose strong, martyrlike attitude toward the school’s miseries is both helpful and displeasing to Jane. Helen dies of consumption. After a group of more sympathetic gentlemen takes Brocklehurst’s place, Jane’s life improves dramatically. She spends eight more years at Lowood, six as a student and two as a teacher.

After teaching for two years, Jane yearns for new experiences. She accepts a governess position at a manor called Thornfield, where she teaches a lively French girl named Adèle. Jane’s employer at Thornfield is a dark, impassioned man named Rochester, with whom Jane finds herself falling secretly in love. Rochester instead proposes to Jane, who accepts almost disbelievingly. The wedding day arrives, and as Jane and Mr. Rochester prepare to exchange their vows, the voice of Mr. Mason cries out that Rochester already has a wife. Mason introduces himself as the brother of that wife—a woman named Bertha.

On its most simple and obvious level, Jane Eyre is a love story. The love between the orphaned and initially impoverished Jane and the wealthy but tormented Rochester is at its heart. The obstacles to the fulfillment of this love provide the main dramatic conflict in the work. Throughout the work, Brontë suggests that a life that is not lived passionately is not lived fully. Jane undoubtedly is the central passionate character; her nature is shot through with passion. Early on, she refuses to live by Mrs. Reed's rules, which would restrict all passion. She leaves Rochester because her moral reason tells her that it would be wrong to live with him as his mistress:
"Laws and principles are not for the time when there is no temptation,"      
            she tells Rochester; "they are for such moments as this, when body and      
            soul rise against their rigor."

Blanche Ingram feels no passion for Rochester; she is only attracted to the landowner because of his wealth and social position. St. John Rivers is a more intelligent character than Blanche, but like her he also lacks the necessary passion that would allow him to live fully. His marriage proposal to Jane has no passion behind it; rather, he regards marriage as a business arrangement, with Jane as his potential junior partner in his missionary work. His lack of passion contrasts sharply with Rochester, who positively seethes with passion. His injury in the fire at Thornfield may be seen as a chastisement for his past passionate indiscretions and as a symbolic taming of his passionate excesses.

Jane Eyre is not only a love story; it is also a plea for the recognition of the individual's worth. Throughout the book, Jane demands to be treated as an independent human being, a person with her own needs and talents. Early on, she is unjustly punished, precisely for being herself — first by Mrs. Reed and John Reed, and subsequently by Mr. Brocklehurst. Rochester confesses that his ideal woman is intellectual, faithful, and loving — qualities that Jane embodies. Rochester's acceptance of Jane as an independent person is contrasted by Blanche and Lady Ingram's attitude toward her: they see her merely as a servant. Lady Ingram speaks disparagingly of Jane in front of her face as though Jane isn't there.

To her, Jane is an inferior barely worthy of notice, and certainly not worthy of respect. And even though she is his cousin, St. John Rivers does not regard Jane as a full, independent person. Rather, he sees her as an instrument, an accessory that would help him to further his own plans. Jane acknowledges that his cause (missionary work) may be worthy, but she knows that to marry simply for the sake of expedience would be a fatal mistake. Her marriage to Mr. Rochester, by contrast, is the marriage of two independent beings. It is because of their independence, Brontë suggests, that they acknowledge their dependence on each other and are able to live happily ever after.

Apr 16, 2013

John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand

Source: The Guardian

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will /On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill" we are told by Monty Python, but this irreverence is not modern. The writer of On Logic and On Liberty was ever a figure of fun. Carlyle beat time with the cutlery at dinner to the chant, "Mill with mud may else bespatter / All your schools of silly fools / Stuart Mill exerts his skill / To make an end of Mind and Matter." After Mill wrote The Subjection of Women he was usually depicted in a dress by cartoonists. 

Moving to the present, it is a testament to the low esteem in which intellectuals are held in Britain that the most influential political writer in English in the 19th century should have so few biographies. Moreover, all three full biographies, in the 30 years since Josephine Kamm's John Stuart Mill in Love, were written by Americans. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but he was our prophet of liberty, after all.

Richard Reeves therefore has something close to a virgin field. This is also, it appears, his first book (his other published work is journalism), so it is intriguing to know if his scholarship matches his pluck. On the whole it does. He is interested in scotching the myth of Mill as dry-as-dust, humourless, logic-chopping machine, and keen to show him a flesh and blood man, passionate about his principles to the point of recklessness (and about his wife to the point of derangement).

Under the domination of his father, Mill was perhaps the most hothoused child who has ever lived: at six he had written a history of Rome; at seven he was reading Plato in Greek; he used to be up at five to help his father with his massive history of India. A female acquaintance described him as "that overstrained infant".

Mill does not even mention his mother in his published Autobiography, but Reeves has found that in earlier drafts he lamented the lack of "that rarity in England, a really warm-hearted mother". It is no wonder that when he fell for a woman, it was without restraint.

The beautiful Harriet Taylor was more than eager to unite herself with a man of intellect, but unfortunately she was already married. It required a deal of philosophical inventiveness to render this situation benign. Working it out, Mill and Harriet felt they could behave as they wished because the institution of marriage was so philosophically unacceptable. Matrimony was simply "a lottery and whoever is in a state of mind to calculate the chances calmly and value them correctly, is not at all likely to purchase a ticket", Mill said. The chances of finding happiness in one's first choice of partner were remote; it was therefore ethically acceptable for Mill and Harriet to go off to Paris together. Harriet's decent husband, John Taylor, was not up to such elevated thinking, so he just paid for his wife to run a separate household. Harriet declared that by not living with her husband, but not living with her lover either, "I make no one unhappy and am happy tho' not happiest myself". This gave the greatest happiness to the greatest number: quite easily done.

Thus high-minded Victorianism met the common demands of human relationships. As Carlyle (no stranger to marital problems himself) wrote, the homes of these utilitarians, devoted to philosophical self-improvement, "are little Hells of improvidence, discord, unreason". Eventually the couple married, after Harriet's husband conveniently died in 1849.

Immediately after Mill's own death his relationship with Harriet was being described in print as "the great blot on his career". This was a moral but also a philosophical condemnation: it was largely through Harriet's influence that Mill moved toward socialism in the second half of his life, becoming the first well-known thinker to take the theory seriously. He was not contemplating state-run economies but counterposing a socially based political philosophy to his already well developed notions of individualism.

Another influence on Mill, much admired by him but not mentioned here, was the economist William Thompson, with whom Mill debated at the Co-operation Society in the 1820s; he created the theoretical underpinning of the co-operative movement, and co-wrote the feminist manifesto An Appeal of One Half of the Human Race which predated Mill's Subjection of Women by more than 40 years.

This biography gives us a JS Mill for our times: feminist and anti-racist, radical without being leftwing. It is good on the poets of the first half of the 19th century, particularly Coleridge, to whose work Mill turned as an antidote to his father's dry studies. Reeves examines and judges Mill as an interesting specimen, which is fine as far as it goes, but he never develops the biographer's ability to stand at the shoulder of the subject and see the world as if through his eyes.

Mill's judgments could be badly skewed; he profoundly misjudged Robert Peel as "perhaps the least gifted man that has ever headed a powerful party"; he opposed the secret ballot, in the belief that political principles should be declared publicly. In general, however, his ideas stand the test of time to such an extent that they are now everyone's intellectual currency - but our notions of gender equality and personal freedom first had to be stated by a person of courage and conviction, speaking against the prevailing orthodoxy.

Reeves quotes with approval John Morley's remark that Mill was "a man of extreme sensibility and vital heat in things worth waxing hot about". It is an obituary remark to be coveted. · Jad Adams's biography of Kipling is published by Haus

Apr 10, 2013

Eliot and His God

Source: Tom Cono
The Waste Land (1922) may be a landmark modernist text but Eliot came later in life to, if not recant, then certainly to recast the views he expressed in it. Without religion, he warned, society would be condemned to ‘centuries of barbarism.’ And in Choruses from ‘The Rock’ (1934), he amplifies this notion:
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, 
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death, 
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD. 
Where is the Life we have lost in living? 
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? 
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? 
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries 
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.
In Four Quartets (1944) he gives a wry nod to the solemnity of his early modernist vision. The river, which in The Waste Land is described variously as the ‘waters of Leman’ – suggesting, from Psalm 137, the spiritual wasteland that subsisted after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon – and as a Stygian water-course flowing throught the Unreal City, becomes symbolic in The Dry Salvages of a ‘strong brown god’ who becomes ‘almost forgotten/ By the dwellers in cities’, a god whose
...rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.
Thus, for Eliot, God, an increasingly ill-acknowledged presence in modern life, nonetheless remains at its core, and the ageing Eliot is therefore forced to reinterpret the values by which one upholds society:
It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence – 
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The difficulty I have with much of this secularisation debate is that it rests on the assumption that everything must be debated from a theological perspective. The secular world is at fault because it has replaced spirituality with "superficial notions of evolution" behind which it hides from the progress of history. But if rational debate is conducted without the strictures of faith, why should it then be critised from the perspective of faith? Evolution isn't a matter of faith, it's a matter of science.

Apr 2, 2013

The March: EL Doctorow

Source: Tom Cono
The march in question in EL Doctorow’s fascinating novel is that taken by 60,000 men of the Union Army led by General William Tecumseh Sherman in November and December 1864, on which he laid waste parts of Georgia, destroying Atlanta, then turned seaward, leaving behind a trail of devastation as he marched through South Carolina and into North Carolina, ending with the capture of Savannah on December 21st. 

The novel is strong on character, driven as it is by a series of interlinked narratives featuring a wide range of individuals. Will and Arly, condemned men given an unexpected pardon, appear initially to be there to provide some comedic interludes but their stories become gradually dark, ultimately poignant. Southern gentility is represented by contrasting women, the grieving, Alzheimer-suffering Mattie Jameson and Emily Thompson, a prim but vibrant young woman who is a much better human being than she seems to realise. General Sherman himself is a major character, a man of irascible nature and restless movement but, increasingly, someone beset by guilt and the nature of goodness and the need for small acts of humanity amid the great act of war. 

The two most important characters, for contrasting reasons, are the army surgeon, Colonel Wrede Sartorius, and the miscegenate daughter of Mattie Jameson’s landowning husband, the slave girl Pearl. Pearl, as her name suggests, is almost white and, indeed, passes as such through most of the narrative, although to do so affords her considerable angst: can she really be free, she argues to herself, when she is living such a lie. Nonetheless, Pearl is the moral compass of the novel. 

Accordingly, it is only really Pearl and her husband-to-be, Stephen Walsh, a somewhat naive but likeable Irish-American, who really seem to have any future at the novel’s end. They are seen moving towards Washington, to a new life. The remaining characters, in contrast, are either dead or (in the case of Emily Thompson, who departs the narrative half-way through and doesn’t return) unresolved, or, like General Sherman, have reached the zenith of their existence and are condemned only to live out their final years in a nothingness of regret. 

If a negative is to be directed at this novel, it would be that, perhaps, Pearl is just too good. There is about her characterisation the whiff of white liberal guilt. It isn’t exactly patronising, as it can be in some of the more insufferable works of leftist revisionism, but nonetheless it feels over-compensatory. No-one is as perfect as Pearl. 

Certainly not perfect is Dr Wrede Sartorius, a fascinating, complex, troublesome character. He seems to be much misread by many critics of this novel, such as Stephen Amidon, who believes Sartorius is close to representing its authorial voice. Absolutely not. Or John Wray in the Washington Post, who suggests Sartorius is “almost incidental”, or Walter Kirn, who dismisses him with the single adjective “stoic”. On the contrary, Sartorius is central to the narrative, and he is a dazzling creation, neither good nor bad, but demonstrating strong characteristics of each pole. Not for nothing does prim Emily Thompson fall for him (and endure perhaps the most peculiar loss of virginity in all literature). Not for nothing does, first General Sherman, and then Abraham Lincoln himself, see in Sartorius something great. For he is great, a truly great surgeon, a man who has turned the butcher’s craft of limb amputation into a fine art. But once he has finished his work he turns, the patient is forgotten, coldness subsumes the moment. In his quest for knowledge, Sartorius becomes something other, some cold simulacrum of a man. He is a man of science, a rationalist. Notably, he is European, one of the old civilisation, a product of the Age of Reason. He finds the barbarity of war is compensated by an enriched opportunity to practice: “Apparently he was alone in considering this American Civil a practicum.” Most significantly, he takes a patient, Albion Simms, on the march although he knows it is not ethical to do so and will certainly result in his death, because he wants the opportunity of learning something about the brain. Perhaps the most telling summation of his character comes through the thoughts of the infatuated Emily: “Wrede Sartorius, the man to whom she had given herself, was not a doctor. He was a magus bent on tampering with the created universe.” 

In this, there are powerful resonances with judge Holden in Blood Meridian. Sartorius is no monster, let us be clear, but he is from the same stock as the monstrous judge. Just as the judge seeks to improve his esoteric knowledge, reading “news of the earth’s origins” in ore samples or carefully drawing a Spanish suit of armour and then destroying the original so that no-one else may see it, so Sartorius seems bent on knowledge for the sake of knowledge. He is frustrated that his improvements and suggestions are ignored by the army, but still he seeks to further advance his rationalist gnosis. In so doing, without even realising it, he becomes increasingly distanced from those he is working to protect. Thus, disconnection, the removal of society from society, becomes a major motif in the novel.

This motif is most powerfully portrayed, however, by Sherman’s march itself. A massive, vital, awful thing, it is conjured in visceral detail. It is a “floating world” that consumes as it advances, leaving behind detritus and despair. It becomes a unique entity, a lifeforce in itself, the conjunction of war and society, man and death. “War is God,” said judge Holden, but in The March, war is all – life, death, love, community. War is history, the future, the present: and it is especially that, especially the everlasting present. And it is this which gives remarkable depth to the novel. 

But if the march portrays the implacable universality of war’s horror, it is the fate of Albion Simms which illuminates its personal tragedy. Albion Simms is the patient whom Dr Sartorius will not leave behind because he wishes to study him. Simms is a Union soldier with a spike through his brain but apparently unaffected by it in any way other than having no absolutely no residual memory. By the time he finishes a sentence he has forgotten how it began. Take this excruciating passage: 
What did you call me? 
Albion. That is your name. 
That is my name? 
What is my name? 
Albion Simms. Have you forgotten? 
Yes. I have forgotten. What have I forgotten? 
You knew your name yesterday. 
Is this yesterday? 
I have forgotten yesterday. My head hurts. What is this that hurts?
Simms becomes agitated. “Are you crying?” Sartorius asks. “Yes,” he replies. “Because it’s always now. What did I just say?” Sartortius ponders this and muses to himself, “it’s always now for all of us... But for you, a bit more so.” And this takes us to the crux of the piece: this eternal now, this hellish moment from which there is no escape. And, crucially, it is the man of science, of the enlightenment, the man who tends his patients with extreme care and skill, yet shows no emotion towards them, who elucidates this monstrous point. 

Simms’ is a truly desperate situation, a living hell of the immediate present. And this is mirrored, in fact, throughout the novel, in which, unusually for a historical novel, there is sparse context: the causes of the war and the implications of slavery are loosely touched upon, but it is the catastrophe of the moment which is all-important in The March

And this gives the chilling metaphysical drive of the novel: people, in this instance the soldiers of both armies, plus the civilians caught up in their assault and the slaves freed into a void of uncertainty, are forced to live in a perpetual moment. There is no possibility of reflection, no option to the future, no comfort of the past; only a relentless, uncaring, unwielding march of the present into the present from the present. Aboriginal Australians talk of an everywhen, a concept alien to the western, chronologically-tuned consciousness. In it, each and every moment exists concurrently. In their mythology, it is a wonderful thing, a connection through time and space between ancients and the living, something to be cherished and nourished. In The March it is Hell. 

It is the same hell as that endured by the Joads and the Wilsons in The Grapes of Wrath, by Suttree in the depths of his Knoxville despair, by Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, or Dr Thomas More in Walker Percy’sLove Among The Ruins. And if that suggests a strangely ecumenical hell, so be it. Haze and More were driven by their respective authors’ strong Catholicism, while Buddy Suttree is an existential man in crisis in a world where religion exists but God does not; and the Joads and Wilsons, for all their desire for Casy’s preaching, ultimately stand aside from Christian dogma. It is hard, perhaps, to see more different characters than these. Nonetheless, they are, indeed, all bound for the same hell, to that place in human existence where the strict metre of time triumphs over the human spirit and where circumstance prevails over hope to such an extent that it might have been better never to have hoped at all.

This is the trouble with eschatology: it either ends in something or it ends in nothing, and neither option seems especially desirable. In order to understand religion you have to be able to pull out from the personal into the perspective of the eternal; but to understand humanity you have to telescope straight back in, observe close up those inevitable moments that shape us, that form our own, personal eschatologies; but be able to observe, too, the memories of the past and the hopes of the future that make us what we are. This is when everywhen can become a beauteous thing. Common eschatology, meanwhile, offers nothing but a linear progression from genesis to eschaton, whatever that may be. 

It is the monster of Haze Motes’s madness, the Joads’ poverty, Suttree’s isolation, General Sherman’s brutal March, progressing through moments of the present, on and on, onwards, onwards, infesting the whole of the psyche until nothing exists but that brute truth, leaving no culture, no love, no memory, no hope. It is human beings losing touch with their humanity. Albion Simms, with his doleful fate, is an astonishing literary creation, and a portent of what might befall us if, in a drive for perfection, either human or divine, we lose touch with our essential humanity. 

War is hell, war is god, war is all, war is what? General Sherman, at battle’s end, as he pitches his tent in the woods one last time before the journey to Washington for the victory parade, realises that their civil war, “devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war.” 

Moments then: moments proceeding, never ceasing, driving us to the end. 
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