Mon 2022-May-30

Memorial Day 2022

Tagged: Beauty / NotableAndQuotable / Politics / Religion / TheDivineMadness

So, here in the US it’s Memorial Day. Again.

Time to have a think about war and violence in the US

Long past time, actually.

But honestly… I just can’t.

We’re working through the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of that there’s crazy monkeypox cropping up, war has broken out in Europe with attendant war crimes unrepentantly committed, and now mass gun violence here in the US. Again. Gun violence of both the racist variety and the just-plain-old-murdering-children variety.

And our institutions quiver helplessly, paralyzed by right-wing disinformation about the pandemic and right-wing gun-hugging that literally requires periodic human sacrifice, even of the lives of children.

It’s too much for me to face at once.

A momentary refuge in fantasy

PBS: 'Lost Horizon', 1937, directed by Frank Capra James Hilton: 'Lost Horizon', 1933 So I took refuge in comforting fantasy this week: first re-watching the 1937 Frank Capra film Lost Horizon [1], and then re-reading the 1933 James Hilton novel of the same title, upon which the film was based. [2] The last time I’d seen the movie was in the early 1990s, and the last time I’d read the novel was in the early 1980s. So it was almost like a new encounter, memory being what it is.

PBS has put the Capra film on the web: click through the image to watch! (There are other versions as well; the film was ruthlesslly and regrettably butchered into shorter versions at the behest of studio executives. One version was even edited to appease the madness of American conservatives of the day, who felt it was “communist” in parts.)

This version is mostly restored: the sound track is complete, with only a few still pictures used for missing scenes. Though, famously, Capra burned the first 2 reels and released the film starting with the 3rd reel after disappointing reactions from test screenings! The content of those first 2 reels is forever lost. Capra even claimed once to Dick Cavett that he “didn’t remember” what was on them! Apparently it was nitrate film, too, because Capra said they “kind of exploded” when he threw them in the incinerator. Today the Library of Congress and the National Film registry have been restoring and preserving it, because it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Somewhat inexplicably, at the end the PBS video above says “Copyright © 2020 Northwest Indiana Public Broadcasting, Inc.” – I have literally no idea what they mean by attempting to copyright a 1937 film that way?!

The plot is interesting, both as an allegory and as a directly & literally applicable warning to the present day. In the 1930s, a British diplomat in western India (modern Pakistan) helps some people escape a local revolution. However, their mysterious pilot secretly kidnaps them, flying to a remote mountain lamasery and valley in Tibet. There they discover they have been recruited to join a small society collecting the world’s art, music, literature, and scientific knowledge to withstand “the coming storm” – the fear of World War II that was already in the air in 1933.

The book is a good, representative specimen of the utopian novel, a genre of which I was quite fond in my late teens (slightly to the chagrin of a literature teacher who wanted me to read Orwell’s 1984 instead – which is about like supplanting a field of wildflowers with an abbatoir).

The film is a fine example of the warm, rich emotional comfort food for which Capra is justly famous as a director. (Or infamous for sentimentality, if that’s the way you run.) It has its limits, of course:

  • A little more of the casual racism of the 1930s survives than I can easily ignore, especially the use of White actors to play Asian characters.
  • There’s a love story injected by force for the usual Hollywood reasons; it is clearly a foreign object that doesn’t belong in the story.
  • It’s more than a bit over-acted, but then again that was more or less the style of the period.

However, it goaded me to return to Hilton’s book, which is still as richly satisfying as I remember from my first encounter with it 40 years ago.

  • Yes, there’s also a bit of the casual racism of the 1930s; but then again it’s chiefly present to show how much the hero is against racism and respects Indians, Chinese, and Tibetans.
  • Yes, there’s a bit of the “White savior” complex; but then again it’s also about the White outsiders figuring out how to fit themselves into this Tibetan valley in a harmonious way and how they can adopt the local culture themselves.

That led me to wonder: how can we perform whatever small actions as are within our capabilities to build such an ideal society, our own bits of tikkun olam? Kindness to those around us, acquiring the knowledge of civilization and our place in history to share with others, and cultivating an attitude of being peace-makers seem to be important starting points.

Those are, at any rate, important elements of religious practice for me.

Back to reality: Sometimes the truth bears repeating

So, given that my feelings on the subject of violence have not changed, let’s review the post from last year upon the anniversary of the 9/11 attack. John Gorka’s musical setting of the Stafford and Dean poems is as masterful in performance as it is an accurate summary of my feelings.

My favorite meditation on war memorials is William E Stafford’s poem, “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border” [3]:

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed – or were killed – on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

I also cannot recommend highly enough the version John Gorka set to music [4] (and, for that matter, the rest of John Gorka’s pandemic mini-concerts on YouTube, which have been fabulous). He really captures the longing for safe spaces, peaceful places not disfigured by war. (Might have to go a long way, to some rather remote place to achieve that. I hear Lake Vostok is lovely this time of year… but that’s a different fantasy.)

Cut from similar cloth also is this Gorka song, “Let them in”. [5]

It’s based on a WWII-era sonnet by Elma Dean called “A Letter to St. Peter”. [6] She implores St. Peter, traditionally the guardian of the gates of Heaven, to admit the arriving souls of newly dead soldiers, with specific commentary as to how to heal and comfort them. It’s viscerally difficult for me to read without tears, having seen my country spend literally a generation at war, mostly pointlessly:

“Letter to St. Peter”, by Elma G Dean

Let them in, Peter, they are very tired;
Give them the couches where the angels sleep.
Let them wake whole again to new dawns fired
With sun not war. And may their peace be deep.
Remember where the broken bodies lie …
And give them things they like. Let them make noise.
God knows how young they were to have to die!

Give swing bands, not gold harps, to these our boys.
Let them love, Peter, – they have had no time –
Girls sweet as meadow wind, with flowering hair…
They should have trees and bird song, hills to climb –
The taste of summer in a ripened pear.
Tell them how they are missed. Say not to fear;
It’s going to be all right with us down here.

Gorka’s setting – with slightly revised lyrics – combines grief and regret for all the pain and death and loss, while desperately imploring divine kindness. The best summary I found of it was: “If Memorial Day needed a song, then this should be it.” Yeah, maybe Veteran’s Day, too.

Both of these anti-war songs are a bit of the divine madness to which I wish we would all aspire.

A good book, a good movie, and some good songs… for bad times.


Notes & References

1: F Capra (director), R Riskin (screenwriter), et al., Lost Horizon, Columbia Pictures, 1937.

NB: There is a very regrettable 1973 remake (as a musical?!). It is about as deplorable as you may imagine. Film critics Dreyfuss & the Medveds put this musical abomination on their list of the 50 worst films of all time.

Don’t waste a couple hours of your life watching it like I did; watch the original instead. Then read the book!

2: J Hilton, Lost Horizon, MacMillan, 1933.

Amusingly, this was the first in the series of “pocket books” (what we call paperbacks today) put out by MacMillan in the US. So it’s the first American paperback, ever.

Also amusingly, I first read it in an old World War II “military edition” intended for soldiers on leave. Putting one of the more famously and powerfully pacifist novels about escaping to a utopian paradise to avoid war? Somebody thought it was a good idea to put that in the hands of soldiers on break from fighting! It’s either shockingly clueless or breathtakingly subversive. Hard to disapprove, either way.

3: WE Stafford, “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border”, The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems, 1998. Retrieved 2022-May-30 from the Poetry Foundation.

4: J Gorka, “Where no monument stands”, YouTube, home video made 2020-Sep-27, retrieved 2022-May-30. Gorka wrote the song in the 1980s.

5: J Gorka, “Let them in”, YouTube, home video made 2020-Jun-28, retrieved 2022-May-30.

6: EG Dean, “Letter to St. Peter”, The American Mercury 55:227 (1942-Nov), p. 592. Retrieved 2022-May-30.

Published Mon 2022-May-30

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