11 November 2018

Through the silence of the guns

Soldiers receiving news of the Armistice, 11 November 1918
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one and another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ day is not. So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things. What else is sacred? Oh,
Romeo and Juliet, for instance. And all music is.

    - Kurt Vonnegut
Given that the end of the Great War happened one hundred years ago today, this seems as good a time as any to reflect on the reasons that Armistice Day was originally inaugurated. As the amnesiac great-grandson of a working-class Jewish immigrant soldier whose lungs were destroyed in this war, I am finding that this Armistice Day has for me a peculiar importance. It is not a celebration of war. It is not a celebration of those who wage war. It is a celebration of the end of a war – one that destroyed twenty million lives, including the Armenian, Arabic and Greek victims of the first modern genocides. It is worth considering why Vonnegut (himself a veteran of the Second World War who lived through the bombing of Dresden) thought of the ending of this war as something sacred, as a moment when God spoke through the silence of the guns.

After all, Vonnegut was not the straightforward pacifist he is popularly imagined to be. Even when Vonnegut wrote Breakfast of Champions, he was nowhere even close to the naïve certitude of the pacifists of his childhood, that this war could end all wars. In the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five (one of my favourite books, not coincidentally) he recounts a conversation he had with Harrison Starr to the effect that ‘there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers’. Vonnegut (and Starr) seem to have been proven right time and again, not just about the First World War. We can only truly end war when we can end the perversions of the human heart; and the fact that the human heart is universally perverse is every bit as evident as the fact that water will freeze below zero. But Vonnegut celebrated Armistice Day regardless, just as he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five regardless. There’s something cussedly admirable about a guy who understands that war is inevitable, and who will still throw his shoulders in trying to stop glaciers.

Even ‘inevitable’ wars have a certain terrible logic. When one studies the history of the Balkans, and clears away the miasma of clichés about the Balkans being a ‘powder-keg’, the Great War takes on a far different shape. The Balkans may have been a keg, but Europe’s great powers brought all the powder – the stoking of nationalist rivalries; the advent of factory and rail; the deprivation of the peasant under various forms of predatory lending, whether by village loan-sharks or by London and Frankfurt. Seen thus, the war becomes a kind of apocalypse, a tearing-away of the veil over the ‘civilised’ Victorian and Edwardian niceties of European politics – dominated as they were by high finance, industrial capitalism and nationalism, and a burgeoning machine-rationalism that was capable of completely subsuming the person. One of the great problems that Berdyaev, Solovyov, St Maria (Skobtsova) all had with the pacifism that dominated in their day, was precisely that it propped up an illusion of peace. A pacifism that seeks to ignore or explain away or whitewash these very real injustices and sicknesses of the human soul that underpin a presumably-stable liberal world order, is ultimately self-defeating – and in Solovyov’s view even a precursor of Antichrist.

But such a pacifism is very far from the only kind of witness for peace that there is. Those witnesses for peace that centre on the person in her depth, do (ironically) have a tendency to look more radical in a political sense, than those which seek for peace within a rationalistic exterior legal framework. But theologically speaking, any witness for peace that points back to the depths of the person, and of the human heart, has to be marked by an inner striving and an interior life marked by a search for the truth of Christ in quietude (not to be confused with quietism). Lest one think I am being a Byzantine chauvinist here, let me hasten to observe that one sees this kind of hesychasm not only in the tradition of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, but also in the West: Julian of Norwich, Lancelot Andrewes, Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is what Vonnegut points to in his brusque, laconic way. There’s a hidden genius in the original ceremonial of Armistice Day, which Vonnegut (along with the modern peace movement) asks us specifically to observe. It asks us to keep silence, in the remembrance of the guns that fell silence, and of the moment in which God spoke through the stillness. The quietude that came over the soldiers when the apocalyptic, relentless industrial machinery of death – the guns, the gas and the bombs – all fell silent: that is what Vonnegut asks us to remember. That moment of silence on Armistice Day therefore represents a kind of civic hesychasm, a quietude that cuts through all the false pieties and all the forms of idolatrous sentimentality whether nationalist or internationalist – and goes straight to the heart, to the inner man. And that is what renders it sacred.

No comments:

Post a Comment