Ruminations on Armistice Day
November 12, 2008
I’ve read a good deal of Vonnegut in my time, but the one passage that seems most stuck in my mind comes from the end of the Preface to Breakfast of Champions:
“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, and when Dwayne Hoover 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 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.”
Perhaps it comes from my being a student primarily of literature, but that moment still seems to me to be the one that ended a four-year abyss that separated “then” from “now.” There are, of course, other demarcations in history, but that “silence [that] is the voice of God” (was Emmylou Harris thinking of this minute, too?) was viewed by many of the great minds of the twentieth century as the signal of the sudden conclusion of the explosion which opened the modern era: Woolf’s London had no innocence; all that Eliot saw remaining were “fragments” and “ruins” of the lives and civilization that once were; Pound—well, the man began to lose his mind (but not his genius) shortly thereafter; Joyce forces a premonition of its destruction upon Bloom; even in Faulkner’s Jefferson it is a temporal division between “before” and “after.”
Guy Davenport seemed to have credited the explosion at Hiroshima with the weight I’m pressing onto the First World War: to him, it signaled man’s assumption of the power to annihilate itself. Plato may have been right and God, not man, may be the measure of all things, but in that moment we seemed to have measured ourselves gods.
But when one looks at it, there does not seem to be that sense of lost innocence in the aftermath of the Second World War—at least not in the way of the post WWI experience. And this, I think, stems from the fact that the Great War, not Hiroshima, was the moment man assumed that ability for total annihilation. Hiroshima and death camps were merely the refinements.
I woke up this morning to the first day that truly felt like Autumn here: low forties, leaves fallen, air crisp. By the early afternoon, it had changed to the abysmal grey skies and frozen rain of winter; the whole campus will likely be sick within a week. But it seems appropriate for Armistice Day, because today is both Armistice and Veterans’ Day. The veterans, in a sense, are the ones who protected us from constant confrontation with the truths revealed in that silence which was supposedly so aweful and awful.
I’m going to risk destroying whatever credibility this evening walk has left by pulling back the Emmylou Harris lyrics (I have a crush on her voice; deal with it). In the borderline apocalyptic imagery of that song, life is sorrowful but scattered with brief joys and beauties—and it is immensely difficult to contemplate honestly. But the only proper response is to, “cry Hallelujah,” to me, immediately calling to mind the b’rachah Leonard Cohen ascribed to it:
“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
And that word, it seems to me, is the best we have with which to respond to Armistice Day, if I haven’t yet crossed over into presumption.
For bearing with me, Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah” a few months ago: