Friday, January 13, 2017

Thomas Wolfe's Message to Trump's America: You Can't Go Home Again

by Nomad

Thomas WolfeAmerican author Thomas Wolfe's travels through 1936 Nazi Germany comprised part of his posthumous novel. Excerpts from the book reveal the ways a society can adapt to the unstoppable approach of a brutal regime.

The Shortcomings of "Genius"

Last Saturday night I saw a film called "Genius." It was, to put it as nicely as possible, not as good a film as it should have been.
The germ of the idea was worthy enough, to be sure. The point of the film, I suppose, was that often genius relies on hard and cold self-evaluation. Oftentimes, the artist is the last person capable of this type of hard-nosed discipline.

The other side of genius is knowing what to leave out, what to excise in order to enhance the focus and strength.
Fair enough, but in an age where the only rule of communication is trying to keep it down to 144 characters, it seems to be a bit of lesson too well learned.

To be honest, until I watched the movie, I really hadn't known much about the life of the writer Thomas Wolfe. He never made it on my reading list but I gather that in style he was a forerunner to the later Beat Generation's Kerouac.

Actually, I kept getting him confused with other similar names. Thomas Mann and the author and journalist, Tom Wolfe, a Republican dainty who wears a white tie, white homburg hat, and two-tone shoes.

So here's the man I am talking about.
North Carolina-born Thomas Clayton Wolfe was a bestselling author in the 1930s. In 1929, he wrote his most popular work, Look Homeward, Angel and, before his death in 1938, published more four novels.

To my surprise, I found one of his books in its complete form online. Published posthumously in 1940, You Can't Go Home Again, is largely autobiographical and deals with the effects of fame on Wolfe's life. 
Parts of the book deal with the repercussions of writing about the incidents and characters of the small town he grew up in. (The residents were understandably not thrilled about having their dirty laundry become the butt of the jokes of the New York literary world.)

In another section of the book, the main character, George Webber travels to Europe, observes (with wide and sharp eyes) and busily scribbles them down.
In Paris, Webber/ Wolfe briefly enjoys the social bedlam of an uninhibited group of expatriates, a fading echo of the 1920s. The days of Fitzgerald and Hemingway were gone forever. He had arrived too late.

However, it is the next part of that book which aroused my interest. In that case, his timing was perfect.

"I Have A Thing to Tell You"

The fifth part of this book is entitled. “I Have a Thing to Tell You”
and it contrasts neatly to the frivolity of Paris. On the same continent, Wolfe's alter-ego and hero of the novel finds a very different situation.

Chapter 38 ("The Dark Messiah,") describes the peculiar atmosphere of Germany in the mid-1930s. Wolfe noted the not-too-subtle adaptions Germans willfully made to accommodate the Nazi rule.
In a literary way, it is a snapshot of a society on the brink of disaster. And his observations (and fears) come from an author whose foreshortened life did not permit the luxury of second-guessing or hindsight. (Wolfe died a year before the European catastrophe commenced.)  

Nazi Germany 1936On the surface, the light emanating from Germany could hardly have been more dazzling.

In 1936, when Wolfe journeyed there, Germany was hosting the Olympics.
The regime used the occasion to let the world know that the new age of fascism was a force to be reckoned with.
The daily spectacle was breath-taking in its beauty and magnificence... the massed splendor of the banners made the gaudy decorations of America’s great parades, presidential inaugurations, and World’s Fairs seem like shoddy carnivals in comparison.
Yet, so much of this pageantry was based on militarism, a celebration of dehumanized order,
"with great displays of marching men, sometimes gunned but rhythmic as regiments of brown shirts went swinging through the streets."
While in Germany, Webber found time to renew his relationship with a local named Else, who had become in every respect, the Aryan ideal. ("a perfect type of the Norse Valkyrie.")
One of the unspoken ground rules for this relationship was that there was to be no discussion between Webber and Else about anything even remotely connected with the Nazi regime.
The first weeks passed, and George began to hear some ugly things. From time to time, at parties, dinners, and the like, when George would speak of his enthusiasm for Germany and the German people, various friends that he had made would, if they had had enough to drink, take him aside afterwards and, after looking round cautiously, lean towards him with an air of great secrecy and whisper:
“But have you heard. .? And have you heard. .?”
He did not see any of the ugly things they whispered about. He did not see anyone beaten. He did not see anyone imprisoned, or put to death. He did not see any men in concentration camps. He did not see openly anywhere the physical manifestations of a brutal and compulsive force.

For a person with an impressive ability to observe, there were particular things that stood out- ominous signs that could not be ignored.
There were men in brown uniforms everywhere, and men in black uniforms, and men in uniforms of olive green, and everywhere in the streets there was the solid smack of booted feet, the blare of brass, the tootling of fifes, and the poignant sight of young faces shaded under iron helmets, with folded arms and ramrod backs, precisely seated in great army lorries.
In due course, all of the uniforms begat uniformity and with it, a prohibition of dissent or even individuality. Yet, it was still possible- even as late as 1936, for a self-absorbed foreigner to ignore the full implications. 

"Would You Mind...?" 

"Even if it did not now seem good," as Wolfe writes, "it did not seem sinister or bad." Finally, inevitably, the moment of clarity arrives. The following passage describes how barbarism comes to a civilized society.
A man George had met was planning to give a party for him and asked him it he wanted to ask any of his friends. George mentioned one. His host was silent for a moment; he looked embarrassed; then he said that the person George had named had formerly been the editorial head of a publication that had been suppressed and that one of the people who had been instrumental in its suppression had been invited to the party, so would George mind —?

George named another, an old friend named Franz Heilig whom he had first met in Munich years before, and who now lived in Berlin, and of whom he was very fond. Again the anxious pause, the embarrassment, the halting objections. This person was — was well, George’s host said he knew about this person and knew he did not go to parties — he would not come if he were invited — so would George mind ——?

George next spoke the name of Else von Kohler, and the response to this suggestion was of the same kind. How long had he known this woman? Where, and under what circumstances, had he met her? George tried to reassure his host on all these scores. He told the man he need have no fear of any sort about Else. His host was instant, swift, in his apologies: oh, by no means — he was sure the lady was eminently all right — only, nowadays — with a mixed gathering — he had tried to pick a group of people whom George had met and who all knew one another — he had thought it would be much more pleasant that way — strangers at a party were often shy, constrained, and formal — Frau von Kohler would not know anybody there — so would George mind ——?
In some mysterious fashion, high society was making the necessary arrangements to accommodate the whims of the regime. There were dangers in associating with the wrong people.  

Postponed Meeting with The Prince of Darkness

As the cliche goes, the veil was being lifted from George's eyes.
Not long after this baffling experience a friend came to see him. “In a few days,” his friend said, “you will receive a phone call from a certain person. He will try to meet you, to talk to you. Have nothing to do with this man.”
George laughed. His friend was a sober-minded German, rather on the dull and heavy side, and his face was so absurdly serious as he spoke that George thought he was trying to play some lumbering joke upon him. He wanted to know who this mysterious personage might be who was so anxious to make his acquaintance.

To George’s amazement and incredulity, his friend named a high official in the government.
But why, George asked, should this man want to meet him? And why, if he did, should he be afraid of him?
At first, his friend would not answer. Finally, he muttered circumspectly:

“Listen to me. Stay away from this man. I tell you for your own good.” He paused, not knowing how to say it; then: “You have heard of Captain Roehm? You know about him? You know what happened to him?” George nodded. “Well,” his friend went on in a troubled voice, “there were others who were not shot in the purge. This man I speak of is one of the bad ones. We have a name for him — it is ‘The Prince of Darkness’.”"
One of the "bad ones" isn't very specific and such a designation depends largely on one's point of view. Which side was bad depended on who was giving the warning.
George did not know what to make of all this. He tried to puzzle it out but could not, so, at last, he dismissed it from his mind. But within a few days, the official whom his friend had named did telephone and did ask to meet him. George offered some excuse and avoided seeing the man, but the episode was most peculiar and unsettling.
Forced to make sense of these strange intrigues, George began to realize now the tragedy that lay behind such things.
There was nothing political in any of it. The roots of it were much more sinister and deep and evil than politics or even racial prejudice could ever be. For the first time in his life he had come upon something full of horror that he had never known before — something that made all the swift violence and passion of America, the gangster compacts, the sudden killings, the harshness and corruption that infested portions of American business and public life, seem innocent beside it.

What George began to see was a picture of a great people who had been psychically wounded and were now desperately ill with some dread malady of the soul. Here was an entire nation, he now realized, that was infested with the contagion of an ever-present fear. It was a kind of creeping paralysis which twisted and blighted all human relations.
Fascism and all that went with it had created a kind of poison that had not only paralyzed a whole people but had rendered it silent in a "sweltering and malignant secrecy."
It had produced in the German people a spiritual deadness for which now "there was no medicine or release."

Tragic Death of a Spirit

This realization was a moment of awakening for Webber. He had not so long ago had such respect for the German people, their culture, and its history. The German spirit- like the American spirit- had once revitalized the world. Like the American spirit, it had once promised so much progress and had offered it to the world.

When he had first visited Germany, in 1925, the evidence of that spirit was manifest everywhere "in the most simple and unmistakable ways." The freedom of thought had once been exhibited in every bookshop in Germany.

By 1936, writes Wolfe, under the oppression of Hitler regime, publishing of good books was more carefully controlled.  
Good books were still published if their substance did not, either openly or by implication, criticize the Hitler regime or controvert its dogmas. And it would simply be stupid to assert that any book must criticize Hitler and controvert his doctrines in order to be good.
The multi-lingual Germans, he found, were seeking out the unvarnished truth about what was going on in the world by seeking out sources from outside Germany.
Under these conditions, the last remnants of the German spirit managed to survive only as drowning men survive — by clutching desperately at any spar that floated free from the wreckage of their ship.
As the summer months passed, George tabulated the evidence of "this dissolution" with was "tainting, sickening, and blighting the lives of everyone he met."
It was a plague of the spirit — invisible, but as unmistakable as death. Little by little it sank in on him through all the golden singing of that summer, until at last he felt it, breathed it, lived it, and knew it for the thing it was.

Journey Down a One-Way Street

As a result of his travels, Webber comes to the conclusion that would become the title of the book.  
"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory."
That idea was picked up again by a contemporary of Wolfe, John Steinbeck, who, in his 1962 book "Travels with Charley" wrote:
"You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."
Experience is a one-way street upon  from which the person who begins on the journey is not the same person who arrives. It is just as true for an individual as it is for a nation.

Germany, as Wolfe described in his book, had embarked on such a journey and it would never be the same as it had been before regime took over.

Today, Germany is now a nation that will never allow itself to held hostage to a madman with ambitious dreams. It will never again become enslaved to an ideology of hate. It is natural for all wise Germans to look at the present goings-on in the US with a great deal of concern.

In the most brutal way possible, a nation has been forced, by the consequences of its own mistakes, to take every election with extreme seriousness. To err on the side of caution and to be prudent in the face of grandiose promises and far-fetched proposals.

Blessed America, however, has had no such dark history. Any example that comes to mind, like Nixon or George W, Bush seems to pale in comparison to the what we are witnessing taking shape in our time. When it comes to dictatorship and repression, we, as a people, have no such frame of reference as many other countries do. Our Constitutions, our courts and the belief in our own ideals have protected us thus far.
But it has also given us a false sense of security. We tell ourselves- like the German people once did- that it cannot happen here.

The nation has come to its precipice. apparently preparing itself to plunge headlong into a disaster, a disaster that might have been avoided had sensible people prevailed, had not certain people been so determined the very system that made them wealthy and comfortable.
If that tragedy happens, America will never be able to go home again.
Home will have ceased to exist.