LAUGHTER OUT OF DEAD BELLIES

Even before America had entered World War One, death had become a romantic subject for the new generation of American writers. The notion spread that it was the inevitable fate of men in the trenches, and writers then in college learned to regard it as a sort of final examination for which one should prepare by living intensely in the little time that remained.

These fought, in any case,
some believing, pro domo, in any case.
Some quick to arm, some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter in imagination,
learning later . . .
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some “pro patria, non dulce non et decor”
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.
Daring as never before,
wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
Fair cheeks, and fine bodies;
fortitude as never before frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies. ( Ezra Pound )

Recruiting poster, World War I. Fanged gorilla in a Prussian spiked helmet carrying off a woman. The club is labeled "Kultur" (Culture), and the gorilla is invading America.

They went off to the War to End Wars as they would go to court a mistress. And they were butchered like cattle. And for what? “For an old bitch gone in the teeth/ for a botched civilization”? Out of their disenchantment a generation of young American writers created a new literary style.

Almost ninety years ago it seemed to Americans of many opinions, pacifistic or patriotic , that the war in Europe was becoming an enormous carnival of death. Nothing else in the history of the continent, not even the Black Plague , had produced such an extravagance of corpses. It was death on the production line; human cannon fodder with the output of corpses planned in advance for each operation, but almost always exceeding the plan.

"During the First World War most countries publicized stories of enemy soldiers committing atrocities. It was believed that it would help persuade young men to join the armed forces. As one British general pointed out after the war: "to make armies go on killing one another it is necessary to invent lies about the enemy". These atrocity stories were then fed to newspapers who were quite willing to publish them. British newspapers accused German soldiers of a series of crimes including: gouging out the eyes of civilians, cutting off the hands of teenage boys, raping and sexually mutilating women, giving children hand grenades to play with, bayoneting babies and the crucifixion of captured soldiers." Norman Lindsay illustration

And it was not death for outcasts; on the contrary, it was death for young men socially and physically attested as the flower of the nation. Called up by age groups, they were stripped naked and examined like livestock ; if they passed the tests they were given identity disks like cattle being government stamped as fit for slaughter. The tallest and most robust would be among the first to fall, since they made better qualities, but moral qualities could also be fatal, as, for example,enterprise, bravery, leadership, idealism and self-sacrifice. It was the extinction of the fittest- and for what discernible purpose? Through 1917, the battles in which they died month after month, never ended in a decisive victory or defeat; they simply subsided in mutual exhaustion.

Franz Kafka. " In the Penal Colony (1919; Eng. trans., 1961) is a parable of a torture machine and its operators and victims--equally applicable to a person's inner sense of law, guilt, and retribution and to the age of World War I."

Verdun and the Somme showed monumental losses and ended with both sides almost exactly where they began. Those enormous butcheries of 1916 produced a change in the moral atmosphere of the war. From that time it was death more than victory that obsessed the minds of soldiers on both sides. Some proclaimed an eagerness, a desire to be killed as the logical conclusion of a romantic adventure. Said Rupert Brooke in a letter to his friend John Drinkwater, “Come and die. It’ll be great fun.” One of his sonnets about death, “The Soldier,” was the most popular English poem of the war.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of f

ds; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven. ( Rupert Brooke )

The most popular American poem was “I have a Rendezvous with Death,” in which the poet looks forward to being killed as if he were planning an assignation with a strange new mistress. The poet was Alan Seeger, a young man who had been at Harvard. Since he looked rather frail in his college years and since he had an older brother who was more athletic, his classmates called him “Seegerette.” After graduation he went to Greenwich Village, like many other apprentice writers, and then moved on to the Latin Quarter of Paris.

He enlisted in the Foreign Legion early in the war, choosing what was then the most dangerous branch of the French army, and the spindly aesthete became a robust and courageous soldier. The poem casts light on one of the reasons why so many young men consented to be sacrificed, even volunteering for service under foreign flags, like Seeger. Of course there were other reasons; but in those years death itself exerted a curious magnetism on young men. The possibility, almost the certainty, of being killed lent meaning and glamour to what might have been banal, boring lives inhabited by aimless individuals. Death, in Seeger’s poem is contrasted, but at the same time compared with the silken beds

…It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Although he survived the massacres of the spring, Seeger kept his rendezvous on July 4, 1916, in an attack by the Foreign Legion during the Battle of the Somme. ¬†Others, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, believed that he was marked for death as soon as he put on an infantry officers uniform . Years later he explained why he spent his army weekends slaving away at the novel: ” I was certain that all the young people were going to be killed in the war,” he said, ” and I wanted to put on paper a record of the strange life they had lived in their time.”

Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim in Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front. 1930.

ADDENDUM:
Franz Kafka’s The Penal Colony: The context of the story is colonialism – French in this instance. The officers and commandants of the colony are French while the lowly soldiers, dockers, and victims awaiting execution are the people “indigenous” to the country who “do not understand a word of French.” A native soldier is sentenced to death by officers for whom juridical doctrine can be summed up in a few words which are the quintessence of the arbitrary: Guilt should never be questioned! The soldier’s execution must be carried out by a torture device which slowly carves the words: “Honor thy superiors” into his flesh with needles.

Michael Lowy:Without casting any doubt on this homage to the prescience of the Prague writer, it should nevertheless be kept in mind that Kafka is not describing "exceptional" states in this work. One of the most important ideas suggested by his work, bearing an obvious relationship to anarchism, is the alienated and oppressive nature of the "normal" legal and constitutional state. It is clearly stated in the early pages of The Trial: K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force; who, then, dared seize him in his own dwelling?

The central character of the novel is not the traveler who watches the events unfold with mute hostility. Neither is it the prisoner who scarcely shows any reaction, the officer who presides over the execution, nor the commandant of the colony. The main character is the machine itself.

The entire story is centered on this sinister apparatus which, more and more in the course of a very detailed explanation given by the officer to the traveler, comes to appear an end-in-itself. The apparatus does not exist to execute the man but rather the victim exists for the sake of the apparatus. The native soldier provides a body upon which the machine can write its aesthetic masterpiece, its bloody inscription illustrated with many “flourishes and embellishments.” The officer is only a servant of the machine and is finally sacrificed himself to this insatiable Moloch.

What concrete “power machine” and “apparatus of Authority” sacrificing human lives did Kafka have in mind? The Penal Colony was written in October 1914, three months after the outbreak of the Great War.

In The Trial and The Castle, one finds authority to be a hierarchical, abstract, and impersonal “apparatus.” Despite their brutal, petty, and sordid characters, the bureaucrats are only cogs in this machine. As Walter Benjamin acutely observed, Kafka writes from the perspective of a “modern citizen who realizes that his fate is being determined by an impenetrable bureaucratic apparatus whose operation is controlled by procedures which remain shadowy even to those carrying out its orders and a fortiori to those being manipulated by it.”

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