If “terror” meant anything to me as a kid it was probably an episode of The Twilight Zone. Some were ridiculous, others remain watchable after more than sixty years. At least one, “Night Call,” left me so frightened I didn’t want to return to my darkened bedroom.
I grew up safe and fairly secure. “Terror,” like death, was an abstraction, a mild emotional state occasionally prompted by a horror movie. In my suburban, middle-class experience, it wasn’t yet a tactic, a recognized political act. That changed when, at a certain age – twelve? thirteen? – I started paying attention to the twentieth century. I noticed recently while checking something on Wikipedia that under the “Events” listing, the number of terrorist attacks swelled as we moved through the last century and entered the twenty-first. Some decades looked like an endless unfolding of terror.
In 1985 the Rand
Corp. documented 481 incidents of terror in the world, including the hijacking
of the Achille Lauro and subsequent
murder of Leon Klinghoffer in his wheelchair. Paul Lake (1951-2022) published
“The Age of Terror” in Partisan Review
the following year and included it in his first collection, Another Kind of Travel (University of
Chicago Press, 1988):
across the steppes, no hoard of Huns--
rat-tat-tat of automatic guns
quiet. On a downtown street
capital where four roads meet
lies sprawled out on the cross roads--
Or turns a
key: his limousine explodes,
footfalls echo down the corridor
where no ambassador
Or minicam can follow.
Blow your horn,
Gabriel, there’s none to warn
seen already on t. v.
minister of ideology
that as the sun sinks in the West
can stall, no word arrest
sure revolutions at a command.
darkness creeps across the land;
And since it’s
easier to turn toward night,
To bomb a
powerplant, than to shed light,
fails in the West. A new Dark Age
in as nations hemorrhage
severed artery where bands
soldiers issue their demands
See, a new imperium
headline and by letter bomb
old government of men . . .
fiat, light’s declared again
and an iron rule replaces
chaos with universal stasis.
O brave new world! more catholic than Rome-
spreads like a cupola or dome
earth -- wide, wider -- till the last
voice is silenced in the vast
northern cold, across whose snows
far-flung stars are archipelagoes.”
domesticates terror, brings it home, makes it seem normal, not heroic or aestheticized
as in a thriller. In a letter to William F. Buckley dated Oct. 8, 1956 (Odyssey of a Friend: Whittaker Chambers’
Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr. 1954-1961, 1969), Chambers writes:
“The age is impaled on its most maiming experience, namely, that a man can be simply or savagely—above all, pointlessly—wiped out, regardless of what he is, means, hopes, dreams or might become. This reality cuts across our minds like a wound whose edges crave to heal, but cannot. Thus, one of the great sins, perhaps the great sin, is to say: It will heal; it has healed; there is no wound. There is nothing more important than this wound.”
[In the same issue of Partisan Review as Lake's poem is an excerpt from Robert Chandler's translation of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, and a review of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah by Morris Dickstein.]