“. . . A type of that twin entity which springs From matter and light . . .”

Hungary or Ukraine

Hungary or Ukraine

My students are writing this semester on my favorite class topic, “Writing about the grotesque.” Flannery O’Connor’s essay on the subject, her story “Parker’s Back,” the Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Body Snatcher,” the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the work of the French performance artist ORLAN.

It occurred to me the other day when I heard a news story from Odessa (not Texas) that I might have used Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which I studied years ago in a graduate seminar on the language of film instead of Invasion. Could we have discussed the “grotesque” in a film based on an historic event? We might have discussed the grotesquery of propaganda. Or of the slaughter of innocents. Or of Tsarist totalitarianism. Any of those things. The over-acting of silent films?

That occurred to me for the same reason I’ve listened several times recently to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 –the “Little Russian.” A colleague at Bunker Hill Community College told me (20 years ago!) the “Little Russia” the title refers to is the Ukraine. The Symphony makes elaborate use of Ukrainian folk tunes. My colleague had relatives living in Kiev. How I’ve remembered this bit of musical trivia all these years I don’t know.

For a couple of months I’ve been trying to explain (to myself) my aversion to hearing about the events in the Ukraine. I cannot hear the news from Kiev or Crimea without cringing.

That radio piece about Odessa began with the Potemkin Stairs.

Potemkin stairs

Potemkin stairs

My thinking is circuitous at best. From classes today back to a graduate seminar in the language of film and Battleship Potemkin, forward to my teaching at BHCC, to the present and my desire to hear no more news from the Ukraine.

The “situation” in the Ukraine has taken on a significance for me far beyond what is warranted. I grew up in the ‘50s when Russia (the Soviet Union) was the arch-enemy. The Soviets sent tanks into Hungary in 1956 to quell an uprising. The Hungarians were willing to remain part of the Soviet “empire.” They simply wanted autonomy.

Right or wrong, that’s the way I remember it. My parents were particularly interested because many of the radio news reports we heard from Budapest were by a reporter with whom, I think, my dad had attended high school. Why I remember that (whether or not it is fact) after all these years is even more mysterious than my remembering Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russia.” However, some memories that seem far-fetched are, I think, too strange to be imagined.

Not long ago I rediscovered and wrote about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “The Soul’s Expression.” The poem ends with an image I can’t get out of my mind: If I were to manage to express myself in words, just as thunder tears apart the cloud from which it comes, so my words would tear apart my body.

But if I did it,—as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,
Before that dread apocalypse of soul
.

A student asked me the other day if, when I spoke in class—as part of my introduction to Invasion of the Body Snatchers—I spoke with some resentment about the ‘50s. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer that question. It was my childhood. I was in sixth grade when Russia put down the uprising in Hungary. At almost the same time Britain and France were involved (with American support) in the “Suez crisis.”

It seemed to me our country should have helped the Hungarians who wanted freedom (a vague concept to me, but one that I had learned in school and at home was the basis of our society). I could not see what the Suez Canal had to do with that. I remember standing in our kitchen with my dad while he explained both crises to me. I don’t remember anything he said except that there was a possibility that the US would go to war in the Suez, but not in Hungary.

(Another inexplicable memory: In the background of this conversation Vic Damone was singing “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Neurologists who study the workings of memory might find this fascinating. The radio most likely was not on during that conversation, but “The Street Where you Live,” Hungary, and the Suez Canal are run together in my mind inextricably.)

I don’t want to hear the news about the Ukraine because my feelings about that situation mirror so closely the feelings I had about the danger of the loss of freedom in Hungary—the bedrock of everything we believed about the political world—and the inability of our country to protect the Hungarians while supporting Britain and France in a war to keep the flow of oil uninterrupted through the Suez Canal.

How much of that I put together in 1956 I don’t know. I put some of it together now. The reason to be concerned about Ukraine is the flow of natural gas through the country to Europe. The 1956 tension with the Russians is resurrected—and in some bizarre way for the same reasons.

Now the longest stretch in my thinking. In his poem “Sonnet—Silence” Edgar Allan Poe juxtaposes two qualities of humankind, the “double life.” First is the physical, that in death

. . . dwells in lonely places,
Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”

By this quality no “power hath he of evil in himself.”

The other quality, the “shadow. . . haunteth the lone regions where hath trod No foot of man.” Whatever is going on in Ukraine, whatever our response to it, we are perilously close to the lone region where has “trod no foot of man.” We are looking squarely at death.

“Sonnet—Silence” —by Edgar Allan Poe            
There are some qualities—some incorporate things,
   That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
   From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.
There is a two-fold Silence—sea and shore—
   Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,
   Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”
He is the corporate Silence: dread him not!
   No power hath he of evil in himself;
But should some urgent fate (untimely lot!)
   Bring thee to meet his shadow (nameless elf,
That haunteth the lone regions where hath trod
No foot of man,) commend thyself to God!

The stairs in fiction

The stairs in fiction

 

“Splintered, diffuse, and eruptive. . . ”

“They’re taking us over, cell by cell!”

“They’re taking us over, cell by cell!”

This morning’s little task (quoting, I fear, rather than writing) is to be sure I’m ready to begin my classes’ discussion of the 1956 version of the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

What does this old black-and-white film have to do with anything? And why use it as one of the literary works to study in classes in which the students are “Writing About the Grotesque?”

You might find the answer in the horror story below.

Note: I’ve changed “1950s” to “2000s” and “Communist” to “Islamist.” As you read, think about the laws passed or proposed to prevent “Sharia” from taking over our legal system. And think about the almost universal terror of “terrorism” in this country. I’ve also changed “Soviet Union” to “AL-Qaeda.”

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, Leader of the Evil Empire

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, Leader of the Evil Empire

THE HORROR STORY, from:  MacDougall, Robert. “Red, Brown And Yellow Perils: Images Of The American Enemy In The 1940S And 1950S.” Journal of Popular Culture 32.4 (1999): 59-75.

Another genre that tied American fears of [Islamism] into a broader web of postwar anxieties was science fiction. Films like . . . .  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) expressed fears of ideological infection and [Islamist] takeover in none-too-subtle allegories. For audiences in the [2000s], the most frightening aspects of these films may not have been the rubber-suited Martians who poured out of the skies like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, but the insidious and nearly invisible ways in which the alien enemy might contaminate their all-American targets. . . .

Historian Geoffrey Smith** identifies a quasi-medical metaphor used in [2000s] America to describe the “contagion” of [Islamist] subversion. “Foreign ideology would endanger the integrity of the ‘Free World,’” Smith writes, “in ways more sinister than armies or advanced weaponry.” Rarely is this metaphor more obvious than in the monstrous invasion films of the 1950s. “It’s a malignant disease spreading through the whole country!” cries a character in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “They’re taking us over, cell by cell!”

What did domestic matters like disease and sexuality have to do with [Islamism]? For some Americans, the connections seemed very real. Beneath the nation’s apparent anti-[Islamist] consensus existed two fundamentally different strains of anti-[Islamism]. The first sought to defend the United States against a clearly defined international enemy: [AL-Qaeda], its satellite countries, and its spies. The second strain was a more populist, domestic-oriented anti-[Islamism] concerned less with national defense than with the perceived decay of American moral standards and institutions. “Splintered, diffuse, and eruptive,” historian Robert Dalleck***  writes, “this was the truly popular anti-[Islamism].”

**Smith, Geoffrey S. “National Security and Personal Isolation: Sex, Gender and Disease in Cold War America.” International  History Review (May 1992): 307-37.
***Dalleck, Robert. “Modernizing the Republic: 1920 to the Present.” The Great Republic: A History of the American People. Ed. Bernard Bailyn. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992. 327-655.

God save us!

God save us!

The more things change, the more they stay the same. We were certainly right—weren’t we?—in our terror of the Soviet Union and Godless Communism. That turned out to be a colossal (almost totally self-destructing) waste of time, energy, money, and sanity, didn’t it?

Yes, the terrorists have snatched our bodies. They have taken us over (or are in the process of doing so) in order to implant evil and anti-American values in our poor, defenseless minds. Christianity will fall before Godless AL-Qaeda just as America fell before the Soviet Union. Where is Joseph McCarthy when we need him?