Wednesday, December 06, 2023

'The Age of Terror'

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):


“No thunder across the steppes, no hoard of Huns--

The rat-tat-tat of automatic guns

Rattles our quiet. On a downtown street

Of any capital where four roads meet

A statesman lies sprawled out on the cross roads--

Or turns a key: his limousine explodes,

And footfalls echo down the corridor

Of history, where no ambassador

Or minicam can follow.

        Blow your horn,

Roland or Gabriel, there’s none to warn

Who hasn’t seen already on t. v.

Some minister of ideology

Proclaim that as the sun sinks in the West

No Joshua can stall, no word arrest

The earth’s sure revolutions at a command.

Instead, a darkness creeps across the land;

And since it’s easier to turn toward night,

To bomb a powerplant, than to shed light,

The sun fails in the West. A new Dark Age

Is ushered in as nations hemorrhage

At every severed artery where bands

Of rag-tag soldiers issue their demands

At gunpoint. See, a new imperium

Broadcast by headline and by letter bomb

Replaces our old government of men . . .

Until, by fiat, light’s declared again

At midnight, and an iron rule replaces

The old chaos with universal stasis.

O brave new world! more catholic than Rome-

The sky spreads like a cupola or dome

Over the earth -- wide, wider -- till the last

Protestant voice is silenced in the vast

Inhuman northern cold, across whose snows

The far-flung stars are archipelagoes.”


Lake rightly 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.]

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

"Night Call" is the one that got to me too - that and "The Hitchhiker." But the worst one of all was the one with the doppelganger in the bus station, because it featured the most nightmare-inducing figure in history: Martin Milner.