Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Spirit of the Age

In the afternoons he read about revolution. He had the time then; his work was in the morning. Already, before the summer sun rose in those early hours he was in the warehouse stacking, swearing, covered in sweat. It was hard work, interesting only to a very pragmatic mind. Pragmatic minds surrounded him, and they intimidated him with the ease in which they solved the puzzles presented by the boxes every day, and at the same time he felt himself above them, absolutely superior. This made him feel arrogant as well as intimidated, and the combination made him feel wholly worthless. He was as he knew himself to be; a child of privilege, a bourgeois in the company of men and women who had worked for everything.

If he was lucky, work ended between two and four in the afternoon, and this left him four to six sunlit hours of tired freedom before his rest period and the stacking began again. He began with the Spanish Civil War. It was an unorthodox beginning, but it held the revolutionary character. Here was a struggle: men and women drawn from across Europe and the world to defend that fledgling and idealist Republic against rising fascism. It sent a shock through his blood like a shot of whiskey. It filled those afternoons with the romance of struggle in the early 20th century-- in Spain, no less!

To be an American volunteer, a socialist, a worker, sitting in a trench west of Barcelona drinking wine from a skin and listening to impassioned arguments over the rights of man assailing him in Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, Polish, German, Czech, Hungarian and English....

Cold, too. Hunger. And the rats and the fleas and sickness and mud. But why did misery--the sort of misery he had never known and was smart enough to hope never to know-- why did this add to the romance of it all? Why should suffering call to anyone lucky enough to avoid it?

There was suffering enough in the warehouse, although it was a sterile kind of suffering, all boredom and slow toil. There was a hopelessness that crept in through the quiet hours of the day. The work was detailed enough that it required his full attention and yet not interesting enough to hold it. The hours bore down and his mind handled the hours in that funny way it handles the passing of time, so that each individual stunde seemed an endless crossing of an unchanging sea, but the days dripped between his fingers. He could not hold a single day in his hand.

On the front again with El Campesito, that little genius of a general, and they hid in the forest from the fascist junkers that screamed above them and won engagements that could never be won except through the right amount of planning and ferocity and stupid bravery all executed just right. In those cold woods they received news of the anarchists and socialists breaking ranks and Madrid still under siege and the streets of Barcelona a gridlock of machine-gun nests and snipers. It was all coming apart around them; the best lacked all conviction and the worst were filled with passionate intensity. Franco's Spaniards, Moroccans and Italians marched lock-step under the red and gold flag and the workers of the world shot each other in the streets over politics.

They were marching back then, through the mud of the foothills. Where were the sentries who should have noted their advance; rang headquarters for instructions; eyed the international brigadiers with those distrustful, proud, Catalonian stares? Everything in the streets was chaos. They were ordered to shoot the traitors boarded up in the telephone exchange-- those careerists and Stalinists who had hijacked the war for their own ends. The internationales who had believed it was all possible; in history's eyes they were like children.

He finished the civil war one afternoon and it seemed anti-climactic. No intervention by the Allies, that Anglo-Saxon old boys club, and the grey-shirts (although in Spain they were more colorful) goose-stepped through Madrid as they did through the capitols of Germany and Italy so that by 1939 the continent could be painted in shades of red and grey. The liberals fled or were hunted down, and the new dictator lived-- and ruled-- with impunity until his death in 1972 of natural causes. Well done, even by the standards of Latin dictators.

So, he went back further, to an earlier revolution. Those summer days were miserable in the warehouse, not because conditions were bad or comfort was even very much lacking, but because the days were beautiful, spectacular as they were no other time of the year. The warehouse was grey and brown; the department store it fed was an antiseptic, hospital white unimaginable and unimagined in nature. When he did have to step outside-- to fetch another pallet jack or to take a break before the driver came with the next load-- he was wholly surprised by the beauty, disarmed by it.

He wanted to flee the warehouse and all places like it. It was not an excitement of the blood, hormones suddenly awake and compelling as almost no other force can in a healthy young man, no. He felt the need to escape on an intellectual level. If he had been raised in a different sort of household he would have said he felt it on a 'spiritual level.' He hated the warehouse, but it was more complicated than you might expect.

He did not hate industry. He was not stupid or very much a fool; he had learned-- and, more importantly he believed, that the warehouse was just a single cell in the body that brought him his food, medicine, security, entertainment, knowledge and wealth. He hated the warehouse for reasons that he considered irrational and even irresponsible-- but this did not alter his feelings one iota.

Because of the warehouse, he knew, the intellectuals were fed and protected, made wealthy and allowed to devote their energies and time to the pursuits they excelled at. The same could be said for the most successful of the artists, scientists, professionals and athletes. This was specialization of labor; it made the system efficient and this made individuals rich. It was the best that could be done in a world of scarce resources, and without the system-- the warehouse-- it could only be worse.

Still, irresponsibly, he hated it. He hated the terrible music that floated from the department store into the warehouse. It was the lowest-common-denominator, chosen for its inability to offend, inspire or do much besides provide a blanket to cover the silence which had, at some point before he was born, become so threatening to so many. He hated the advertisements that punctuated the music every five to ten minutes. In a day he could recite them all under his breath and he promised himself he would never again buy Florida orange juice or Halls cough drops.

So, in the afternoons, he retreated to October 1917, to a time when it really seemed that the world might be changed, revolution rising up from a screaming body of slaves. Land, peace, bread-- an end to exploitation outright! Imagine, he thought, a man who could really believe that. It made his heart ache... but out of pity or jealousy he wasn't sure.

Now he spent his afternoons in the streets of Petrograd, an American correspondent for the wireless service. The streets of that northern city were covered in snow and it made not a jot of difference to the natives-- Bolsheviki and Mensheviki running through the throngs in those wild days, shouting slogans and posting propaganda on any wall where their words would stick.

You still saw them then; those men, the architects of revolution, who would in atheist decades come to replace God. "Слава Ленину!" They took to the streets to rally you. The outcome of it all was still unknown, and a bad outcome meant death for them. They still needed you. In those few proletarian days the Russian people might have gone so many ways. Utopia, nowhere, seemed on the verge of being realized. Failing that, a Republic, like the one yet to be born and torn to pieces in Spain, was completely possible. For a time, still, the moderates held. And though the changes would still have been drastic, they might have come without the terrors, the purges, the secret police... he shook his head.

All just speculation. And in any case it would have only led where it has led anyway. The warehouse; the music, offensive only to a thinking man; those repeated entreaties to consume. Hegel was right about zeitgeist and Macbeth never stood a chance. He turned off the light and lay in the dark. Revolution was something to fill the afternoons, but he needed sleep. It would be a long day at the warehouse tomorrow.

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