Saturday, 13 May 2017

Old Dreams and Mad Futures

Ostranenie. Definitions are for dictionaries. To understand this term properly we must experience it for ourselves, read it in novels. Here, Ostranenie is both fact and symbol.

The coffin factory proved to be an area cleared of undergrowth, though shadowed by great trees; it was bounded on one side by a stream, a small river almost, some fifteen feet wide, running fast with troubled, muddy, yellowish water. Felled trunks were stacked here and there, and at the water’s edge was a row of vast cumbrous Chinese coffins in various stages of completion. A few sepoys squatted on the ground, most of them asleep. There was a pile of ammunition boxes, and in one of the coffins lay Sam Holl, with his unwound turban draped across him to protect his face from mosquitoes. In the coffin he looked very dead, except for the khaki cloth over his mouth which rose and fell evenly with his breathing. Alan looked down on him, numbed by a sudden quietness. Holl lay awkwardly with both hands resting on his left hip as if on a sword hilt, his crossed legs covered by folds of his turban cloth. He looked like a thirteenth-century crusader, militant, potent still in the sleep of death. But not dead; and in Alan’s body there surged a sober but fierce acknowledgment. He stood looking for a little while, almost feeding on Holl’s presence; then he sat quietly down at the foot of the coffin to wait; almost at once he was himself asleep.

War makes heroes. Some men have a talent for it, though this talent is hard to define; heroism has an evanescent quality, like a painting without a clear subject, we think of characters lost within an Impressionist countryside, the more closely we look the deeper they sink into the dappled light. Holl is not highly skilled - it is Alan who shoots the Japanese sniper who threatens their camp. He is not a great commander: when leading an attack he loses half the brigade, either missing, panicked or killed. His strategic thinking is sound but hardly brilliant; there is none of the eccentric genius of a T.E. Lawrence, an Orde Wingate. Holl has no especial expertise. If we look for mystic insight we will not find it. So why does a sober somebody like Alan Mart sacrifice his life for this man? Surely he didn't take up a job at HQ teaching spies because of Holl’s scorn?

There is nothing special about Holl. In peacetime he'd be just another bloke popular in both office and pub. To look for extraordinary qualities here is to look in the wrong place. Holl is too ordinary to be a hero of the Byronic type (his appearance in the coffin relies upon Alan’s imagination to turn it into medieval fantasy). 

Ordinary? Absolutely! It is the banality of Holl that attracts a following. The lads believe in him because he is exactly like themselves; and in liking him, they trust him, and stay with him as a friend. This is not all, of course. His charisma is above the average; it has enough power to command respect and, far more importantly, loyalty; we think of the child-catcher hiding his cage inside a prettily painted wagon… Once a friendly bond is formed it is difficult to break; Alan becoming a servant to this man, whom he so clearly adores. The relationship is echoed in Alan’s relations with his orderly, Sundar Singh; another man who serves his officer with a passionate devotion that borders on worship; such faith enhancing his dignity - Sundar is very conscious of his own status, preferring to sleep on the floor outside his master’s room than in a barracks with the other Indian servants. Service can elevate as well as demean; a truism often ignored in our equalitarian times, which in mistaking a specious individuality for independence misses entirely our need for honour and self-transcendence.

Holl has charm. Holl believes in the army; although his personality is too large to be completely contained within its narrow bureaucratic bounds. Within (very) narrow limits he remains his own man. It is enough for his men. Freedom, we should never forget, is relative. Given an order he doesn't like his reaction is to get drunk; Holl able to rely on the tolerance of his superiors, who recognise his commitment to the army and the cause. Holl is a big man, and in every way - I must tell you he is very tall. Such a large character overflows its own person to gush and trickle into the nerves, the consciousness of others, who experience Holl as a force binding them to himself, to each other, to the brigade. We have discovered a secret. Holl has the power to transform a bunch of individuals into a collective body feeling and thinking as one; we think of adolescent boys in a gang. An entity exists - the brigade - that is greater than its individuated parts, and which is held together by Holl’s passionate enthusiasm and the bonds of friendly feeling; although we must add an extra ingredient to this magic glue: Holl believes in the army as an idea, and through the force of his charisma he can make other men believe in it too. The army turned into a religion, the brigade is its sect and church.  

Having navigated the psychological labyrinth, we come to a door. It is closed. We try the handle… It moves. The owner, it appears, never thought we would get this far. Confidently we… The door sticks. The hinges are rusted, the debris of decades lies across the dusty flagstones. We kick away the rubbish, throw away the wood and shuffle the rubble into a corner. It takes a long time. But we do not stop; for we must, we have to… Exhausted, we return to the door. And then we smile. And let out an echoing laugh. Bending down we write in the dust: Open sesame! You will allow us our childish delight? We try again. We pull hard on the handle, which comes away, the door falling to the floor; stepping over it we step inside…

Few coffins contain living men. Not all religions are the same. We pull out a lighter, and using its weak flame peer into the dark.

In India and Ceylon Alan Mart suffers from the usual boredom and inconsequentiality we associate with the soldiering life - waiting for action is like working in a factory with nothing to make. Much of his time he spends thinking about his lover, Lettice, and their reunion when the war ends. Used to exercising his mind Alan finds the dullness of the empty routines especially enervating. Alan Mart is not a natural soldier. According to a friend he’s an obvious backroom boy. And sure enough he is offered the chance of mildly interesting work, which will keep him both safe and reasonably happy. This is no Crusader. Soldiering merely a tiresome job he wishes to give up.

Holl changes all that. He makes Alan believe that it is more important to be a soldier than a technician; that it is better to die for a cause than to live safely in an uninspiring post. How does he do this? By generating strong feelings inside Alan; these feelings touched with a quiet sexuality - there are hints that Holl may be homosexual; his feeling for the men greater than simple friendship - that gives the bond a magnetic charge. It’s not that Holl wants to shag his own sex: the wonderful scene when Alan and himself visit a tiny Chinese brothel easily dispels such ideas. No. He seduces them. It is love they feel, not sexual desire; thus Alan's reaction to the body of his sleeping hero, whom he turns into a romantic myth.

With love comes loyalty. We are deep inside the dark room now. We can hardly see; the flame is not enough, it is burning our fingers… We smash out the boards across a window, letting in the early afternoon sun. The men believe in Holl because instinctively they know he will stand by every one of them. They feel he will sacrifice himself for their lives and their welfare. Love creates relationships, from out of which powerful, compulsive ideas emerge - the brigade, the army, the just cause - super-strong adhesives that bind each to each and each to all. The group and the idea merge to form an ideal, which in generating its own faith makes every man in this group a hero. And then there is Holl. Being at the centre of this ideal - its main force and core fetish - he is the high priest on top of an Aztec temple. To let him down is terrible. 

Holl blinked.  Then he looked away from Alan and, rocked a little, his arms clutching his sides. ‘Christ!’ he said. ‘You left ‘em. You did. He rocked in silence. Then he said in a low voice: ‘you ran. You ran like you ran yesterday morning. You…’ a cold flat volley of filth poured from his mouth as his head turned slowly back towards Alan. His head was thrust forward, his eyes glaring, his lips curling with a muscular voluptuousness as he spoke. His language burst almost palpable on Alan’s face, so that Alan had to gasp for breath, shaking, and then snarling like a dog under a whip. He cried aloud that Holl was mad, and then was silent, for Holl’s hand held him by the shoulder, holding him up almost off the ground as if on an iron hook; his fingers seemed to pierce through Alan’s flesh and meet in the middle.

‘You left ‘em to be bayoneted in cold blood,’ he said. ‘Well, understand one thing. I’m not leaving this lot, I’m not even leaving you. I’ve got seventy wounded men over there with one medical orderly; they’re dying at about six an hour. I’m not leaving them. I’m taking ‘em out with me. Got that? I’ve got about three hundred and forty men, my jawans, my lovelies, and signallers, Brigade trash, Bombay sweepers, the lot. And they’re all going out of here fighting.’

The words of a fanatic. The pragmatism of Alan, who by saving twelve men enables them to return to camp and fight again, is disgusting to such a character. For Holl every man is sacred. Each man embodies the idea of the just cause, the whole group contained in a single member, so that when one man is killed the spirit of the brigade dies with him.1 It makes no difference if all or only some die. But to make a conscious decision to sacrifice a few men to save others…this is a heresy, revealing that Alan hasn’t given himself up to the idea, his mind still separated from the collective body of the group. Holl makes no distinction between the whole and its individual members. This elevates each man, who in feeling himself the brigade feels both the honour and the power of belonging to a corporate entity; they experience the joy of transcending their own personhood. This power, together with the purpose and meaning that it creates, produces heroic characters; modern men turned into the knights and crusaders of old. The ancient spirit is resurrected from its tomb. It gives birth to a living, vital identity, whose inspiration, paradoxically, is death. Alan’s pragmatism, by separating the individual from the group, the body from the idea, kills this spirit; for to run away, leaving the wounded behind, is to return these soldiers to a loose collection of individuals whose primary concern is themselves. Alan is murdering the brigade. He is killing the British army.

These men are on a religious crusade. Holl a priest with a shield and sword. In this moment of crisis Alan is exposed to the irrational faith that underlies such attitudes, and he has a revelation.

‘…it’s madness. It’s suicide… It’s murder! You’ll kill the whole lot…

So right! A good soldier, with a happy-go-lucky attitude, has become a maniac. Though Holl hasn’t changed. No, not at all. The situation has brought out the feelings and ideas that lay only half-realised under the surface of this man’s ebullient personality; action sharpening and refining Holl’s character to reveal its true nature. Of course it’s mad. Of course it’s suicide. Of course he’ll kill the whole lot of them. Isn’t he killing Alan Mart? But this started way back, in the camp, when he persuaded Alan to give up his safe office job. Yes, there it is. Holl has been killing Alan for months. Nothing has changed except that with the Japanese defeating the British army these men are forced to make choices that are exceptionally stark; Alan confronting the consequences of his original decision to come out here. Back in Ceylon, although he knew the importance of his choice, the risk of death was so remote as not to be felt, Alan therefore unaware of the insanity of his decision. Then, it was essentially an intellectual exercise. Not so now. Now he knows the madness of choosing war over peace, a cause over security. It seemed so very different in Ceylon. From far away death looks heroic; his future having all the romance of a young knight lying on a tomb in an old church in an English village.

Holl is not insane. He is a religious believer who values the idea above the fact of his own physical existence. The cause is greater than himself. He really is a hero. Alan Mart, in contrast, is a disciple who lacks the true gift of faith; his accidental death a sad comment on his spiritual ineptitude. George Baynes was right. Alan is a not a soldier. He is merely a backroom boy.

(Review: Trial by Battle)


1.  For a brilliant working out of these ideas - but for aboriginal tribes, where it probably doesn't apply - see Émile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

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