Letter from Wartime

September 24, 2020 | 2 books mentioned 12 min read

“Questo è il fiore del partigiano,/o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao,/questo è il fiore del partigiano/morto per la libertà.”
                                         —Italian Partisan Song, “Bella Ciao”

“Heard about Houston? Hear about Detroit?/Heard about Pittsburgh, PA?/You oughta know not to stand by the window/Somebody see you up there.”
                                         —Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime”

In the hours before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the northeastern United States, my apartment in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), which was 100 miles and a few hours from the Atlantic, was permeated by the unmistakable smell of the shore. Stolid son of the Alleghenies that I am, I’d never experienced the full onslaught of a hurricane before. This almost miasmic odor I associated with vacation—a fragrance inextricably connected to the Jersey boardwalk and Massachusetts beaches, of salt-water taffy and lobster rolls—suddenly permeating my living room, whose window looked out on a hulking, rusting former steel mill, felt borderline apocalyptic. As is the nature in things apocalyptic, it’s the incongruity that is alarming. As it was for some frightened 17th-century peasant reading a pamphlet foretelling doom because of the appearance of a mysterious comet in the heavens or the birth of a two-headed calf. The unexpected, the unusual, the unforeseen act as harbinger.

A landlocked home smelling like the beach is perhaps not as dramatic as those former examples, of course, and yet as with a sun-shower or the appearance of frost in May, there is a certain surrealism in things being turned upside down. That disruption in the nature of things makes it feel like worse disorder is coming. As it did, certainly, those hours before climate-change-conjured Sandy knocked out transponders, their explosions lighting up the horizon an oozing green all through the night, the winds howling past my building on its hill overlooking the river, where ultimately the power was out for more than a week, and roads made unpassable by the felled centuries-old oaks and maples which dotted the Lehigh Valley. It’s the eerie stillness in the air before the storm came that impressed itself upon me (so much so that this isn’t the first time I’ve written about it), those last few moments of normalcy before the world ended, but when you could tell it was coming, and there was nothing to do but charge your phone and reinforce your windows to withstand the impact from all of the debris soon to be buffeted about. Can you smell the roiling, stormy, boiling sea in the air right now?

“If destruction be our lot,” state representative Abraham Lincoln told a crowd gathered at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., in the winter of 1838, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Historical parallels outlive their critical utility; some of us have made a cottage industry out of comparing whatever in our newsfeeds to the Peasants’ Rebellion or the English civil wars. In the realm of emotion however, in psychological reality, is the autumn of 2020 what it felt like to learn that Polish defenses had been overrun by the Nazi blitzkrieg? To apprehend the dull shake of those guns of August a generation before? To read news that Ft. Sumter had fallen? As Franco’s war in Spain was to the world war, as Bleeding Kansas was to the civil, are we merely in the antechamber to a room that contains far worse horrors? Ultimately no year is but like itself, so that we’re already cursed enough to live during these months of pandemic and militia, of incipient authoritarianism contrasted with the uncertain hope for renewal. On the ground it can’t help but feel like one of those earlier moments, so that we’re forced to fiddle about with the inexact tool of historical comparison, of metaphor and analogy. Something of what Lincoln said, more than something, seems applicable now. “Suicide” might not be the right word though, unless we think of the national body politic as a single organism in and of itself. Certainly there are connotations of self-betrayal, but it’s more accurate to see this season of national immolation as what it is—a third of the country targeting another third while the remaining third remains non-committal on what stand they’ll take when everything starts to finally fall apart.

We shouldn’t misread Lincoln’s choice of word as indicating an equivalence of sides; in this split in the national psyche there is the malignant and the non-malignant, and it’s a moral cowardice to conflate those two. On one side we have a groundswell movement on behalf of civil and human rights, a progressive populism that compels the nation to stand up for its always unrealized and endlessly deferred ideals; on the other we have the specter of authoritarianism, of totalitarianism, of fascism. This is not an issue of suicide, it’s one of an ongoing attempted homicide, and if you’re to ever not shrink away from mirrors for the rest of your life—even if the bad guys should win (as they might)—then choose your side accordingly. And figure out that you don’t even have to like your allies, much less love them, to know that they’re better than the worst people in the room. If you bemoan “cancel culture” and “social justice warriors” but not extrajudicial kidnapping of activists by paramilitaries, then you are at best a hypocrite and a fool, and at worst a bad-faith actor justifying the worst of the U.S. government. If your concern is with the rhetorical excesses of a few college kids on Twitter, but you’re silent about the growing fascist cult currently in control of the federal executive, the federal judiciary, half of the federal legislature, and a majority of state governments (not to speak of the awesome power of the military), then you’ve already voted with your words. If you’re disturbed by property destruction, but not the vigilante murder of protestors, then you’ve since made your decision. We all have to imagine that speaking out might still mean something; we have to pretend like voting might make a difference; we all have to live with ourselves as citizens and humans beings. What I’m writing about is something different, however. What I’m writing about is what it feels like to be living through the blood-red dusk of a nation.

When the Romans left Britain, it was so sudden and surprising that we still have record of the shock amongst the locals over the retraction of the empire from their frosted shores. The Medieval English monk Gildas the Wise, as well as his student the Venerable Bede, record that in the immediate years following this abandonment, an appeal was sent to the capital for assistance. “The barbarians drive us to the sea,” wrote the Britons’ leaders, “the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.” Under the protection of the imperial hegemon, the British Celts built an advanced civilization. Aqueducts brought water into the towns and cities, concrete roads lined paths through the countryside. One imagines that the mail arrived on time. In a shockingly brief period, however, and all that was abandoned; the empire having retracted back into itself and left those for whom it was responsible at the mercy of those who wished to pick apart its bones. Three centuries later, and the inhabitants of England no longer even remembered Rome; an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet writes of a ruined settlement, that “This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it/courtyard pavements were smashed… Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,/the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,/chipped roofs are torn, fallen,/undermined by old age.” Have you seen American infrastructure lately? By the eighth century and that silent scop singling his song of misinterpreted past glories can’t even imagine by what technology a city like Londinium was made possible. He writes that “the work of giants is decaying,” because surely men couldn’t have moved stones that large into place.

Because historical parallel is such a fickle science, an individual of very different political inclinations than myself might be apt to misunderstand my purposes. They may see some sort of nativist warning in my allegory about Picts and Scots pushing beyond Hadrian’s great, big beautiful wall. Such a reading is woefully incorrect, for the barbarians that I identify are not some mythic subaltern beyond the frontier, but rather the conspiratorial minded fanatics now amassing at the polls, the decadent parsers of tweets who believe in satanic cabals, and the personality cultists who’ve all but abandoned a belief in democracy. As the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy wrote, “Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?/Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?/Because the barbarians are coming today.” We’re beyond the point of disagreeing without being disagreeable, the era of going high when they go low is as chimerical as it ever was.  There is something different in the United States today, and I know that you feel it; something noxious, toxic, sick, diseased, and most of all decadent. The wealthiest nation on Earth with such iniquity, where pandemic burnt—still burns—through the population while the gameshow host emperor froths his supporters into bouts of political necromancy. There is no legislation today because it increasingly feels like this is not a nation of laws, but something lower and uglier.

When I say that there is a decadence, I mean it in the fullest sense of that word. Not in the way that some reactionaries mean, always with their bad faith interpretations; nor exactly in the manner that my fellow leftists often mean, enraptured as they are to that ghost called “materialism.” Rather I mean a fallenness of spirit, a casual cruelty that if I were a praying man I’d identify as being almost devilish. Perhaps there are satanic cabals after all, just not where the letter-people think (I suspect the call is actually coming from within the White House). Since the republic was founded, we’ve fancied ourselves Rome, always fearing the Caesar who never seems to finally cross the Potomac. That’s the thing with self-fulfilling prophecies. Now the denizens of the fading order of Pax Americana seem every bit as incredulous at collapse as those poor Britons a millennium-and-a-half ago. Writing in The Irish Times, the great critic Fintan O’Toole notes that “Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U.S. until now: pity.” I can genuinely say that I appreciate his sentiment.

When I lived in Europe, I couldn’t help but feel that there was ironically something younger about my friends—I imagine it would seem compounded today. The irony comes from the traditional stereotype of “The American,” this rustic well-meaning hayseed, this big, bountiful, beautiful soul traipsing on his errand into the wilderness. If America was a land without history, then the Old World was supposedly death haunted, all those Roman ruins testament to the brutality that marked that continent, not least of all in the last century. Such was the public relations that marked this hemisphere from its supposed discovery onward—but how easily we forget the blood that purchased this place, a land which was never virginal, but that was raped from the beginning. I envy Europeans. I envy their social democracy and their welfare states, their economic safety nets and their sense of communal goodwill (no matter how frayed or occasionally hypocritical). Every European I met, the English and Scots, the French and Italians, seemed more carefree, seemed more youthful. They seemed to have the optimism that Americans are rumored to have but of which there is no remaining evidence of as the third decade of this millennium begins. During the early days of the pestilence the Italians were locked inside all of those beautiful old stone buildings of theirs. Now they’re sitting outside in cafes and trattorias, going to movies and concerts. We’re of course doing those things too, but the difference is that we have more than 200,000 dead and counting, and from the top on down it seems like few care. A French friend of mine once asked how Americans are able to go to the grocery store, the theater, the public park, without fear of getting shot? In the end, America will get you, whether by bullet or microbe. As a nation of freemen, we’re a traumatized people…


One of the few outsiders to really get our number was D.H. Lawrence, who in his Studies in Classic American Literature noted that “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” How could it be otherwise, in a nation built on stolen land by stolen people? America’s story is a gothic tale, a house built on a Native American burial ground. The legacies of bloodshed, of assault, of exploitation, of oppression that mark this forge of modernity ensure that it’s hard to be otherwise, even if we’re not allowed to ever admit such unpatriotic things. In that sense I don’t wonder if it wasn’t inevitable that we’d eventually be led—against the wishes of the majority—by this fool who promises to steal an election while accusing his adversary of the same, who will no doubt refuse to concede even when it becomes clear that he’s lost. We’re continually told by nice, liberal, and morally correct commentators that this is not who we are, but the American president is a philandering, sociopathic carnival barker who sells bullshit to people who can’t be so brain dead as to not know that it’s bullshit, all because they hate people who look different from them more than they love their own children. He’s Elmer Gantry, Harold Hill, “Buzz” Windrip.  He’s the unholy union of P.T. Barnum and Andrew Jackson. What could be more American?

Of course our saving grace has always been that we’re a covenantal nation, defined by supposed adherence to an abstract set of universal values. No land for anything as mundane as blood and soil (even though those ghouls at Charlottesville spread their terror for exactly that reason). There was something scriptural in the idealism that John Winthrop maintained in 1630, whereby national sustenance was in “our community as members of the same body,” or Lincoln in 1864 providing encomium for “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and Barack Obama in 2004 declaring the American mantra to be one of “Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope.” That old saw about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No nation since that of the ancient Hebrews was so fully founded upon an idea—this idea that is by definition so utopian and so completely unattainable that to be a satisfied American is to make your peace with heartbreak, or else to see yourself become either delusional or cold and cruel.

covercovercoverThere is an idea of America and the reality of the United States, and all of our greatest literature, rhetoric, and philosophy lives in that infinite gap between, our letters always being an appraisal of the extent of our disappointment. “The promises made in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” writes critic Greil Marcus in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, “were so great that their betrayal was part of the promise.” Thus the greatest of American political modes from the Puritans to Obama would be the jeremiad. Thus our most native of literature, be it Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, chart the exigencies of a dream deferred. All of American literature is a tragedy. What we’re living through now isn’t a tragedy, however—it’s a horror novel. Only the most naïve of fools wouldn’t be aware that that strain of malignancy runs through our country’s narrative—all of the hypocrisies, half-truths, and horrors—that define us from the moment when the word “America” was first printed on Martin Waldseemüller and Mathias Ringmann’s map of the world in 1507. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s classic short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” Old Scratch himself says that “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo. I stood on her deck…I am merely an honest American like yourself—and of the best descent.” What would Eden be, after all, without the serpent? A thing with devils is that they imply there must be angels; if you can find proof of hell, that indicates that there might be a heaven, somewhere. That’s the corollary to the failed covenant, that even with all of the hypocrisy, half-truth, and horror, there is that creed—unfulfilled, but still stated. Freedom of expression. Equal opportunity. The commonwealth of all people. Do I write jeremiads myself? Very well then.

I only do so to remind us that the confidence man huckster (who as I write this is only a few miles down Pennsylvania Avenue undoubtedly conspiring on what nightmares he’ll unleash upon his fellow citizens when he doesn’t get his way) is an American, if a cankered one. Take solace, though, because America isn’t just Stephen Miller, but Harriet Tubman and John Brown also; it’s not only Steve Bannon, but Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; more than Donald Trump, it’s also Eugene Debs and Dorothy Day, James Baldwin, and Emma Goldman, Harvey Milk and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Such a litany of secular saints is of course inconsistent, contradictory, and I’ll unabashedly confess a bit maudlin. But that’s okay—we need not all agree, we need not all be saints, to still be on the side of those beings in any such Manichean struggle. More than just angels can fight demons; the only thing required is the ability to properly name the latter. Because if American history is anything, if the American idea is anything, it’s a contradictory story, that dialectical struggle that goes back through the mystic chains of memory, a phrase which I once read somewhere. The contradictions of American culture once again threaten to split the whole thing apart. Make your plans accordingly, because the battle always continues.

For such is the great moral struggle of this century. It is against neofascism and its handmaiden of a cultish twisted civil religion. It requires the breaking of this fractured American fever dream, where a vaccine is far from assured. Right now it seems like our choices are authoritarianism or apocalypse, though perhaps there are always reasons to hope for more. What’s coming, I can’t be sure of, but that lyric of the great prophet Leonard Cohen “I’ve seen the future, brother/It is murder” echoes in my numbed brain. Whether or not we can stand athwart history and yell “Stop!” or not, whether or not there is the possibility to affect genuine change, whether or not it’s we can still salvage a country of decency, justice, and freedom—I’m unsure. What I do know is that whether or not any of those things can happen, we must live our political lives with a categorical imperative that acts as if they can. Least of all so that we’re able to live with ourselves alone in the rooms of our minds. Live with at least some convictions, live spiritually like the men remembered in poet Genevieve Taggard’s lyric in honor of those veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Americans (mostly socialists, communists, and anarchists) who went to Spain to fight the fascists in the years before the Second World War. “They were human. Say it all; it is true. Now say/When the eminent, the great, the easy, the old,/And the men on the make/Were busy bickering and selling,/Betraying, conniving, transacting, splitting hairs,/Writing bad articles, signing bad papers,/Passing bad bill,/Bribing, blackmailing,/Whimpering, meaching, garroting, – they/Knew and acted.”

Bonus Links:
Letter from the Other Shore
Letter from the Pestilence
Steal This Meme: Beyond Truth and Lies
On Pandemic and Literature

Image Credit: SnappyGoat.

is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, his website, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.