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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Where are we going?

If indeed the United States is headed for a course correction, the news does not yet show it. Last fall's election certainly seemed to show that the country had turned against the Bush Administration and most of its works, but the Republicans have bizarrely managed to remain on the offensive and the Democrats seem to cower more every week. The Mukasey confirmation hearings present the latest and perhaps most dramatic challenge to the Democracy (as it used to be called): the Senate is now called upon to confirm a new Attorney General who claims absolute executive power in time of war, and if they do so--as it seems they surely will--it will amount to an admission that Presidents may in fact establish a modified dictatorship if it suits them. The drumbeat for war against Iran continues, and the President's CHIP veto has been sustained. Even more alarming, however, is the tenor of the debates among the two sets of Presidential candidates.

How so? Well, our Constitution has in effect been suspended, we may face an impending economic catastrophe, and we have destroyed the postwar world order that our parents spent half a century building up, all under President Bush. Yet the Republican candidates are projecting more self-confidence and self-assuredness than the Democrats! One hears no more talk of them distancing themselves from the President--they are falling all over each other (and this includes Rudy Giuliani) promising that they will out-Bush Bush. They are ready to attack Iran and foresake the UN, to make Bush's tax cuts permanent, appoint yet more extreme right wing judges and make all the Bush tax cuts permanent. So vehement are they that I will be genuinely surprised if the eventual nominee makes a real move towards the center in the general election. Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, the Democrats are once again failing to articulate any broadly different foreign policy (even though Obama has made a few tentative steps in that direction), and the front runner, Senator Clinton, seems eager to pursue the confrontation with Iran, if her vote on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is any indication. Perhaps the electorate still wants the most muscular foreign policy possible and an abridgment of civil liberties to fight terror because it sense how detested we have become around the world--a sad commentary, if true, on the Republican capacity for turning policy failure into political success.

Meanwhile, my thoughts have turned elsewhere because of the death of Deborah Kerr, especially because of the role that the obits have given the most attention--that of Karen Holmes, the lonely, depressed young officer's wife in From Here to Eternity. Reading that extraordinary book at the age of fifteen was one of the formative experiences of my life, and the book and the film have remained a major source of interest ever since.

I doubt many of my readers have ever read From Here to Eternity, even though it was perhaps the greatest best seller of the early 1950s. James Jones, its author, never had a comparable success, and the book was too long, perhaps, to become a staple of college reading lists. Set in Hawaii in 1941, it is probably the best portrait of Army life any American has ever written, but it was more than that. It is really a portrait of the greatest generation, both male and female, as they struggle to emerge from the Depression and make something of their lives. The female characters, the frank use of language (Jones was the first author freely to use the word "fuck," and few, if any, have used it more poetically than he), and the book's sex scenes--really bed scenes--were ahead of their time, and they remain some of the more remarkable achievements in those areas. Over the years I have pressed many friends and lovers to read it, but I think that only one has ever done so, and I have never found a way to assign it in a class.

The book's real power, for me, comes from another over-arching theme: a man's relationship to an institution. The first protagonist, Prewitt, knows no other life than the Army, with which, as several other characters realize, he was hopelessly in love. (I was shocked when something similar happened to me during my brief military service, but when I returned to From Here to Eternity I understood.) Prewitt loves the camaraderie, the ritual, and the equality that the army offers, although he can't stand the petty politics that have consistently worked against him. Like me, he started out at the top. A bugler, he served at Fort Meyer and played a Taps on Memorial Day at Arlington in his first enlistment--just as I spent the first four years of my career teaching at Harvard. Neither one of us ever achieved anything quite like that again. Prewitt is "the best fuckin' soldier in the company," as his first sergeant puts it, and that is far from an advantage. But he also has scruples. He has quit boxing, at which he also excelled, because he accidentally blinded a man in the ring, and the institution will not forgive him. Institutions have never been more powerful in in the United States than they were from the 1930s through the early 1960s, and it is fitting that his rebellion eventually crushes him.

Warden, the First Sergeant--whom Burt Lancaster made the most memorable part of the movie--doesn't share Prewitt's idealism and has reached the top, at least within the enlisted ranks. (As those who have served in the military know, becoming a First Sergeant is probably statistically as hard as becoming a general, and it requires a very impressive person to make it.) He resents the incompetence of his superiors even more than Prewitt, but he is too smart to say so in public. He has a code of his own, but he plays the angles. On the other hand, he is enough of a rebel to break one of the strongest taboos, and to seduce his commanding officer's wife.

That seduction, in his Captain's bungalow on a rainy Honolulu afternoon, is the most extraordinary scene in the movie of From Here to Eternity, in my opinion, and probably the most dramatic scene that Kerr ever played--far more so than the one on the beach. (There's a memorable reference to that scene in the movie Hud.) Some of the more exciting dialogue from the book had to be cut in 1953, but Lancaster and Kerr more than made up for that by conveying so much with their expressions. "Why, if it isn't Sergeant Warden," she says. "My husband isn't here, if you're looking for him." "And if I'm not looking for him?" Lancaster asks, with the perfect hint of a grin. "Then he's still not here," she replies, suddenly measuring him---and on it goes from there. When I first saw the film in the late 1960s after reading the book I was disappointed because so much dialogue and so many plot lines had to be cut, but later viewings changed my mind. The audiences of the 1950s knew how to fill in many of the blanks, and the adaptation captured the essence of the story very well. Donna Reed was also outstanding (and won an Oscar) as Lorene, the hooker with whom Prewitt falls in love. She was a "dance-hall girl" in the film, but she still explained her career choice--she was accumulating enough money to establish herself as a middle-class woman back in her home town and secure a good husband--something her beauty alone had not been enough to do. Prew eventually asks her to marry him, but she refuses. "She has to marry a man who has so much position and respectability," her roommate (also a hooker) explains, "that his wife couldn't possibly ever have been a whore." A soldier, obviously--even an officer--is out of the question.

Love, in From Here to Eternity, is doomed, just as it was in Casablanca, another classic also set in late 1941. That only makes it more intense and more powerful, in both cases.
The characters are as tossed about by events as those of Dr. Zhivago, A Tale of Two Cities, or The First Circle. It was the real gift of our parents to have lived through that period for us, so that love, music and film could become the great themes of our own youth. Now, it seems, our children will have to put their noses to the grindstone to get society and government back on their feet. I still hope they will not suffer on the same scale of their grandparents, but it seems things may get a lot worse before they get better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A beautiful and poetic ode to a great book (and film). Well done!