War is Good for Me

An application of the teachings of heraclitus

The Centennial Celebration of the commencement of WWI has brought out more than the usual decrying of the Great War and all its benefits, merely because a handful of people died in an untimely manner, the culture of Europe was mildly affected, and the seeds were sown for another cleansing in the near future. Here at Chez Duke, on the other hand, we exult in the little snot who pulled off the assassination of whatshisname, not because we have an affinity with turn-of-the-century anarchism, nor because we have a bœuf bourguignon with the Kaiser’s domestic policies, sacre bleu! No, we are popping the corks of many champagne bottles because the scouring of Europe sucked my grandfather from his idyllic childhood into a world of pain.

wwi

He was married, so that means he was born somewhere in the early 1890s, and off he went, to participate in the chain of familial military service unbroken since the beginning of time, even resuming in the War Against That Protestant Usurper, a.k.a. the American Revolutionary War, under the flag of the French King (Jacobin, Jacobite, Jacobik: tomato, tomahto; let’s hear it for Bonapartite hegemony!), where he was shot in the back by the Bosch in a terribly unfair ambush and left for dead beneath a pile of corpses. After some time (a day? two days?) he was found, alive, indeed, but gravely wounded in his man parts. He would live, but he would never, but never, beget a child, so the doctors told him. His wife heard of it and took the liberty of remarrying.

He sat down to a delicious homecoming meal with his wife, who received him with joy and thanksgiving, preparing a menu complete from soup to nuts. She developed a neat culinary shortcut, making the soup to be also the nuts, including in it a healthy dose of arsenic, which he somehow detected before he ingested a lethal dose, and he began to yell. The yelling attracted the more recent husband, who appeared in the dining room in a rather animated state, and, weakened by a morphine addiction, my grandfather departed hastily.

My great-grandmother, against her husband’s wishes, counseled her son to pursue a career as a Methodist Preacher, bundling him off to Southern Methodist University, where he found atheism, which caused him to be bundled back east, but only so far as Memphis, where he became a trolley-car driver. By some cruel twist of fate, he accidentally ran over a negro child’s head, killing him instantly before my grandfather’s eyes. He again found himself departing with haste, disappearing from the knowledge of all who knew him and loved him. Was he dead?

No, he was married. In Tupelo, Mississippi, near the birthplace of Elvis Presley (my grandmother says she knew him when he was a wee lad), Uncle Joe, as my grandfather’s moniker came to be, found an Indian woman–Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, or Creek; we don’t know–to be his wife. We do know that the Great Depression forced him out of hiding in Mississippi back to the bustling little railroad town of Cullman, Alabama, back home to his mama, hauling himself upon the veranda with his dark-skinned wife and his five children. “You have more black brothers and sisters than you do white,” he’d say when his mixed-race white children would utter unspeakable racist epithets under his shanty roof (“The Old Homeplace,” they called it. Thankfully, it burned to the ground during the night a few days after he died. My grandmother was outside with the twelfth child in her arms before the alarm was raised).

It is said that when his mother, who carried all the names of all the women in her family stretching back to the Mayflower, saw her beloved Messiah-son with that Indian woman and those half-breed children, all thirteen names screamed at once. She fainted. Son-no-longer-Messiah was dismissed, sent away to fend for himself. He did so, fathering seven more legitimate children by the railroad tracks, the ninth of whom was my father, born in 1941, when my grandfather was fifty years old.

In those intervening years, Uncle Joe had thought it wise to begin treating the morphine addiction he had acquired in France in the Army hospital. Self-medication was all he could afford in those heady days of Depression, so he developed an appreciation for something called Wildcat Whiskey. I don’t know if that was a brand-name moonshine or just a northern Alabama variety of distilled corn mash, but it burned hot, chasing away every Baptist preacher who came to condemn him for his wicked ways. The Lutheran preacher, on the other hand, found that Wildcat Whiskey reminded him of the wild winters of his childhood in Wisconsin, so he had the currency to talk Uncle Joe into allowing him to proselytize the Indian woman and the younger five children of the brood. Indeed, Dad was baptized a Lutheran–a Lutheran!–in Alabama, 1946. Are you doing the math? Lutherans and Catholics were on the same low rung in that heavily stratified society, but still one rung up above the Jews, who were just one rung off the ground, and above–you know. Ugh. A half-breed Lutheran in north central Alabama.

Wildcat Whiskey, such as it is, burns in all directions, and Uncle Joe meted out all his wrath on everyone around him, beginning with his family. To escape this horrible, sick, existence, my dad (may he rest in peace) married a pretty little German girl who was visiting her Aunt who had married a G.I. from Cullman, Alabama during the second, and lesser, world war. He rode her wings out of that life, eventually begetting me in 1973. My mother’s story is far more complex and layered than my dad’s (hint: her parents were true Aryans, even after the very end); I don’t understand it nearly as well yet.

In the meantime, I raise another glass of champagne to you, you millions who perished in the trenches, to the institutions which were utterly shattered, to World War One, without which I would not exist, and that is unthinkable.

 

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Heraclitus Fears Not The Reaper

To get to Heraclitus’ hovel, drive east, way east, and onto some back roads, back to about 500 B.C.E., hang a right toward the Mediterranean, which belongs to Persia at the moment, and look for the sun-blessed property with the open-aired architecture gilded with flames overlooking the sea, and you’re there. When I went to visit, the only radio station I could coax into my ox-cart was some hippie-rock music, blaring Edwin Starr’s version of “War.” What is it good for? (Primal and thrusting grunt), absolutely nothin’; say it again! That was provocative enough, I think, to fetch the old man, and he came storming down the stairs from his deck-patio, bounding over his novelty river to walk at too brisk a pace for my comfort straight at me, shouting to be heard over the radio:

War is for the common good, and strife is the right order of things. In fact, all things come to pass according to strife and are actually made useful.

“All things?” I asked. At that very moment (let the reader understand that I swear by all that is holy and good: what I’m about to tell you really happened), “War” came to an end, yielding to John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” Before I could manage to switch off the radio, the old man spoke:

If I didn’t already know that justice comes from injustice, I would drown myself in my own river for despair.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We all really hate that song.”

“All of you?” he asked.

“Well, only the dead like it.”

ancient-greek-warfare-3

“Indeed,” he said, perking up.

The immortal are mortals, the mortal immortals, by actually living the death of those and by actually dying the life of the others.

I stared at him, and the blankness of my mind became apparent on my face. He showed mercy to me, saying, “Wanna come in?”

We climbed atop his hovel which staved off the sea and invited in the air, sat down together around a fire pit, and he handed me a skin of wine. “You know,” he said. “You can never drink the same wine twice.” He chuckled at his own joke while I took a drink, staring at him while he stared at the sea. “Bowdlerizing my hard work,” he mumbled. “There’s lots more wine where that came from.”

“It’s good,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Life is good, if you’re willing to die like that grape. Taste how good it is! You are that grape.” He leaned over to me, whispering, “Be the grape.” I began to suspect he had had a skin or two already. “That wine,” he continued, “will dry out your soul; then you’ll be ready to live the death of those who are mortal.”

“That shouldn’t be too difficult, with a headache like that.”

“No more difficult than standing in front of an advancing army.”

“So we’re back to that again,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, waving his hand toward the sea. “Everybody gets so upset about war, the cruelty of it all, the pain, the destruction. Generally speaking, however, you’re on one side of the advancing army or the other. You can’t have a life without strife. Now, most of us enjoy a life in behalf of someone who died. Hopefully our army was able to make more live per death than their army, but cruelty, pain, destruction–the injustice of war–burns away infestations of injustice so that justice is born anew.”

“So we should wish for war?”

He sighed, “It’s a metaphor, dummy. Warfare and strife is a part of every day life. ‘Real’ warfare is a pedagogue, a headmaster of pain and inevitability, to teach us what it is we are experiencing from the moment our dreams cease until they commence again. And then we lie down to sleep forevermore, joining the chorus of the waters.”

“War is just a metaphor?”

“Just?” he repeated. “Aren’t you listening? The little indignities of this daily life gather themselves up until they are an army marching from town to town, turning over every stone, smashing down every door, and burning every stump and every field of stubble. Thus it must be; if it is not so, the little indignities persevere, as blight perseveres in the soil over the coldest and cruelest winter. Only all-consuming fire restores the garden. This town, in fact, is built upon heaps of rubble and ash, great kings whose names are forgotten causing men to throw down every stone and every skull because of some forgotten injustice. How much more beautiful are the sunsets from these heights, thanks to the cruelty of war, like the time I accidentally smashed a potted plant at the marketplace!”

“Potted plant?”

“You’re the one who thinks that war is just a metaphor,” he said. “In my own mind I was entirely justified to knock down the potted plant. She had it placed in too precarious a spot, and I refused to replace the pot–neither the plant, be it damned to everlasting perdition–nor did I apologize to that gap-toothed, gray-bearded old lady, wretched beast. She had the nerve to drag me before the magistrate, whereupon I argued my case that I ought to have been able to have had the freedom to move my elbow to acquire the necessary silver from my coin purse in exchange for some delicious dates–and I used every other kind of wince-inducing syntax to make the case that I was too dignified to be brought so low by such a waste of vapors, this market-making she-monster. The magistrate looks at her, looks at me, and says, ‘I find in favor of the plaintiff; moreover, your recalcitrance earns you the opportunity to pay her court fee as well as yours.’ Oh, the indignity!”

“What did you do?”

“I paid the fine,” he said, “and the court fees. What else was I gonna do?” He looked over at me. I was looking at him, waiting for him to impart some profundity. “Drink your wine,” he said. I lifted the skin to my mouth and swallowed. He turned his chair toward me, saying, “Do you get it?”

Continue reading “Heraclitus Fears Not The Reaper”

Heraclitus, My Old Friend

When I first shook hands with Heraclitus, I was bewildered at his ability to ponder and to obscure. I was a wee lad of nineteen tender years, indeed, twenty-two years ago, delighting in my first summer away from home on a small college campus in Chicago, taking an introductory course in the Classical Era, when my doddering old professor introduced me to Heraclitus, a towering figure who winked his eye at you, inviting you into the sweet talk of impermanence from beneath affected furrowed brow. I didn’t get it.

One matriculates to small colleges, I suppose, to reinforce hardcore fundamentalistic objectivism. I just wanted the truth, not the journey. Why should I go to all that trouble when someone can just serve the truth to me in one of those expensive textbooks? Yes, yes, we get it, “One can never step into the same river twice.” Now can we get away from this aging hippie and on to the real philosophers?

Indeed, he is no aging hippie nor is he a philosopher. He belongs to that class of ancient professional thinker known as the Wise Man. Fragment I from his work On Nature indicates as much, saying, “It is wise for those who hear, not me, but the Logos, to confess all things are one.” I think he fits right in here at Sweet Talk, and–who knows?–if he hadn’t tried to treat his dropsy with a liniment of cow manure and baking himself in the sun, he might have been able to join our crew this day.

Pronounced "HeraCLETUS."
Pronounced “HeraCLETUS.”

After twenty-two years I was embarrassed that I hadn’t stopped in to say hello to the old codger, and when I did, I learned that I had learned a few things, and that his invitation into the sweet talk of impermanence is actually something I get, after a few years of my trying to step into that ever-moving river. Well, I may not understand it all as well as he does, but I get it. Take a second look at Fragment I.

Continue reading “Heraclitus, My Old Friend”