Friday, December 19, 2014

`No, Sir, I Wish Him to Drive On'

“Human endeavor clumsily betrays / Humanity.” 

Samuel Johnson? A respectable guess but not correct. The author is Anthony Hecht in an early poem, “Japan,” collected in A Summoning of Stones (1954). That Hecht saw combat as an infantryman in Europe, a member of the 97th division that helped liberate the death camp at Flossenbürg, is well documented. That he spent more time in occupied Japan – five months as opposed to less than four months in Europe – is less well known. He arrived in Japan in late August 1945, several weeks after the surrender, and left in late January 1946. After thirty-three months in the Army, he was discharged with the rank of private first-class on March 12. He often wrote poems devoted to the war in Europe and the Holocaust but seldom alluded to Japan. In another early poem, La Condition Botanique, he refers to a Kilroy figure painted on “The iron rump of Buddha, whose hallowed, hollowed core / Admitted tourists once but all the same / Housed a machine gun, and let fall / A killing fire from its eyes / During the war.” In a letter to his parents written on V-J Day – Aug. 14, 1945 – from Fort Bragg, Hecht says: 

“As soon as I heard the shouting, there was no need to ask what was going on. We’d been waiting for this for too long. The Atomic bomb, Russia’s entry, the Jap proposal, our counter-proposal, the false report of acceptance, the great delay of communication, made the final announcement seem very anti-climactic.” 

“Japan” is a young man’s poem (Hecht was born in 1923), elegant and impressive but callow when judged against his later work. He begins with a naïve young American’s impressions of Japan: “It was a miniature country once / To my imagination; Home of the Short,” a land of acrobats and ingenious toys. As a member of an army of occupation, and a consumer of military propaganda, his impression changes: “Now when we reached them it was with a sense / Sharpened for treachery compounding in their brains / Like mating weasels.” As the speaker comes to know Japanese civilians, his impression changes yet again to one of compassion: “They were very poor.” The passage quoted at the start of this post is followed by a description of disease spread by a blood fluke, Schistosoma japonicum: “This fruit of their nightsoil / Thrives in the skull, where it is called insane.” In the closing stanza, the speaker reevaluates his “quaint early image of Japan,” and concludes it was “a bright design upon a fan,” a kitschy image on a tourist’s souvenir. Boswell reports Johnson saying on July 20, 1762: 

“Pity is not natural to man. Children are always cruel. Savages are always cruel. Pity is acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason. We may have uneasy sensations for seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them. When I am on my way to dine with a friend, and finding it late, have bid the coachman make haste, if I happen to attend when he whips his horses, I may feel unpleasantly that the animals are put to pain, but I do not wish him to desist. No, Sir, I wish him to drive on.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Many thanks Mr Kurp for the introduction to Hecht. I thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful rhymes and the exoticism of 'Japan'. I think I also learned a new usage - the online definition-giver told me excelsior, in N America, means wood-shavings used for packaging.

Sometimes the encounter with an unfamiliar poet needs an introduction by an intermediary to give orientation to the pleasures that they offer. Alone one might have faltered or given up. Most grateful. I will read more.