Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of Warby Susan Griffin
Written by one of America's most innovative and articulate feminists, this book illustrates how childhood experience, gender and sexuality, private aspirations, and public personae all assume undeniable roles in the causes and effects of war. See more details below
Written by one of America's most innovative and articulate feminists, this book illustrates how childhood experience, gender and sexuality, private aspirations, and public personae all assume undeniable roles in the causes and effects of war.
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A Chorus of Stones
The Private Life of War
By Susan Griffin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Susan Griffin
All rights reserved.
The cells of our bodies and the bodies of all mammals first appeared on this earth billions of years ago as plankton. Now, we can only speculate at the cause of this birth. Something changed at its core. Elements which had before been divided came together for the first time. A new thought perhaps took form. And the progeny of these plankton still float in the sea, not too close to the surface, nor too far from the light.
I am not free of the condition I describe here. I cannot be certain how far back in human history the habit of denial can be traced. But it is at least as old as I am. In our common history, I have found it in the legends surrounding the battle of Troy, and in my own family I have traced it three generations back, to that recent time past when there had been no world wars and my grandparents were young. All that I was taught at home or in school was colored by denial, and thus it became so familiar to me that I did not see it. Only now have I begun to recognize that there were many closely guarded family secrets that I kept, and many that were kept from me.
When my father was still a small boy, his mother did something unforgivable. It was a source of shame as many secrets are, and hence kept hidden from my father and, eventually, from me. My great-aunt would have told me this secret before she died, but by that time she could not remember it. I have always sensed that my grandmother's transgression was sexual. Whatever she did was taken as cause by my grandfather and his mother to abandon her. They left her in Canada and moved to California, taking her two sons, my father and his brother, with them.
My father was not allowed to cry over his lost mother. Nor to speak her name. He could not give in to his grief but instead was taught to practice the military virtue of forbearance and to set an example in his manhood for his younger brother, Roland. In this way I suppose my grandfather hoped to erase the memory of my grandmother from all of our minds. But her loss has haunted us.
How old is the habit of denial? We keep secrets from ourselves that all along we know. The public was told that old Dresden was bombed to destroy strategic railway lines. There were no railway lines in that part of the city. But it would be years before that story came to the surface.
I do not see my life as separate from history. In my mind my family secrets mingle with the secrets of statesmen and bombers. Nor is my life divided from the lives of others. I, who am a woman, have my father's face. And he, I suspect, had his mother's face.
There is a characteristic way my father's eyelids fold, and you can see this in my face and in a photograph I have of him as a little boy. In the same photograph there is a silent sorrow mapped on his face, and this sorrow is mine too.
I place this photograph next to two others which are on my desk. Tracing the genesis of the bombing of civilians, I have come across a photograph of Dresden taken in 1945. A few dark figures hunch over a sea of corpses. There are ruined buildings in the background and smoke from a fire. The other photograph was sent to me by my cousin, after I asked her if she knew the name of my paternal grandmother, or if she might have a picture of her.
The photograph my cousin did send me has a haunted quality, though it was taken in Canada before the erasure of my grandmother. It is not a picture of my grandmother. It is a picture of my grandfather with my father. It was taken a few years before masses of soldiers died on the battlefields of World War I, and over three decades before the bombing of Dresden, the concentration camps, Hiroshima. And yet, my grandfather's face bears an expression of grief just as if he were looking over a scene of senseless destruction, a field of bodies. What was his sorrow?
Whatever it is, I recognize it. There are times when I have said the words I want to die to sound an alarm through my own tissues. And yet, just as readily, I have avoided knowing this pain.
If I tell here all the secrets that I know, public and private, perhaps I will begin to see the way the old sometimes see, Monet, recording light and spirit in his paintings, or the way those see who have been trapped by circumstances — a death, a loss, a cataclysm of history — grasping the essential.
I was surprised to feel a kinship with my grandfather. I had never liked him. By the time I was born, he was a different man than the one whom this photograph captured. He rarely spoke. His face showed no emotion at all. He sat for long hours staring at, apparently, nothing. I remember thinking about him as if he were inanimate substance. Some feeling which surrounded him made my natural curiosity about people and things recede in his presence.
It was just this year, at the age of forty, that I learned for the first time my grandfather was an alcoholic. When my mother called to ask me what I was writing about, I described the photograph of Grandpa Hal I had received. Then she told me a story I had never heard.
Grandpa Hal was a quiet drinker. He was one of those men who could be past feeling, past knowing, wrapped in a blurred, numbed cloud, and yet walk and talk as if he were sober. Once, when my mother and father had quarreled, my mother tried to speak to him about her feelings. She went to the edge of the garden where he worked. But he would not respond. I might describe him as being like stone except that stones record history. The hard surface of the stone is impervious to nothing in the end. The heat of the sun leaves evidence of daylight. Each drop of rain changes the form; even the wind and the air itself, invisible to our eyes, etches its presence.
On my desk close to the photograph of my grandfather and father is a round triangle of black granite polished to a shine. At its center is the impression of a centipede, long segmented creature which left this ancient self-portrait, image of an ancestor from millions of years into our past. All history is taken in by stones. And perhaps it is this knowledge which made them weep when Orpheus sang. But what my grandfather suffered and witnessed was never to be told. His very manner discouraged questions.
He did have a life, one which the adult women of his household knew about, but what he did when he was away from the house existed in the category of scandal and thus, like my grandmother, was never mentioned. He had lovers. Women unworthy of being brought home, because they were considered whores. (And what he did with them was called whoring.) He spent time with these lovers in bars. My mother's father had had the same double life, and he never breathed a word of it to me but, like all scandals, it was whispered.
Grandpa Hal's mother was a very strong-willed woman whose disapproval hardly needed to be spoken. So different was she from her son that for her even silence itself was a kind of speech. One said about her, She has eyes in the back of her head. I could have sequestered myself carefully in the garden, safe from all scrutiny, when suddenly her voice would penetrate the tall grass and bend around the trunk of a lemon tree to warn me to be careful of the kitten I had captured since it had a habit of scratching. There was such a divide between my grandfather and my great-grandmother, in my mind, that I seldom thought of them as mother and son.
In the same way, until I looked upon that photograph, I did not claim this man as my grandfather. In my mind, I had only one grandfather, whose name was Ernest, and he was my mother's father. In a strange unspoken manner, this made my father seem orphaned to me, as if his parentage were remote and shadowy, and he had been handed on, a foundling, to my very definite, palpable great-grandmother. That he had a brother was even harder for me to comprehend. Roland had died before I was born. Thus I had no physical evidence, except for one old photograph, that he had ever lived. And my father seldom spoke of him.
My father, who was named Walden, did not get along with his brother. Walden was the good, well-behaved son. But his younger brother Roland was wild. I never knew that he too was alcoholic until that recent conversation with my mother. Roland took after his father. He would go out on the town; he would whore; the family would be called late at night from some police station, to come and retrieve him after he had been arrested for brawling or causing a disturbance.
But one day my uncle's life changed. It was as if by a miracle. He fell in love, deeply so, with a woman who loved him deeply. And, as in numinous fables of transformation, this love redeemed him. He stopped drinking. He stopped all his misbehavior. He married, got a steady job as a lumberjack, and settled with his young wife in the redwood forests of Oregon. They had a child, my cousin David. And then, just as suddenly, and by an accident of his trade, before he had reached the age of thirty he died.
I learned about this death as a child. But a recent story my mother told me places my grandfather in a different dimension. For Roland's death had a historical shadow. My grandfather had apparently hidden the serious extent of his dependency on alcohol from the family, until the day when, pruning the apple tree in the garden, he fell and broke his ankle. It was not the fall itself that alerted the family. They learned of this dependency only when, after a few hours in the hospital, deprived of alcohol, Hal began to have tremors and then he went into delirium. Finally the truth was laid bare. But soon after he returned home, this truth, like the cast on his ankle, was forgotten in the way that people forget what they do not want to know, and things went on the way they were before.
My uncle Roland had died when he fell from a tree.
Did anyone else think of this coincidence, I wonder? A bond between father and son, trailing back in time to a bitterness unknown to the son, unexpressed by the father. The fall of one, the fall of the other. Or did all thought of it too exist like a back alley — unrecognized, consigned to each heart as if it were a solitary secret? Somehow, I have always known this story, its essence, without ever having been told. For, on hearing it, I felt like the penitent must have felt after rendering a confession. Suddenly the light itself by which I see was purified. A nameless grief now named hence lifted.
I am beginning to believe that we know everything, that all history, including the history of each family, is part of us, such that, when we hear any secret revealed, a secret about a grandfather, or an uncle, or a secret about the battle of Dresden in 1945, our lives are made suddenly clearer to us, as the unnatural heaviness of unspoken truth is dispersed. For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.
Long before the firebombing of Dresden, the German government knew about the terrible effect of firestorms. Late on the night of July 27, 1943, and in the early morning hours of July 28, the first firestorm was created. It was a new phenomenon, even to its makers, who dropped 7,931 tons of bombs, almost half of these incendiary, over the city of Hamburg. Several conditions conspired to cause it: a heat wave, the concentration of high buildings, so many fires started simultaneously, a fire feeding itself, transforming space into a chamber of combustion. The whole of the city became so hot that even the atmosphere above was heated and began thus to draw the flames out explosively. The air literally roared as it rushed upward, like a tornado, tearing trees, people, animals alike into the flames with its force. Walls of flame raced across the city at thirty, forty, one hundred miles an hour.
It is said that the close study of stone will reveal traces from fires suffered thousands of years ago. These would have been natural conflagrations, waves of flame burning through forests. This fire was not anomalous but part of the cycle of life. In Inverness, a peninsula which juts out into the Pacific Ocean, not far from where I live, a kind of tree grows, the bishop pine, which requires fire for regeneration. Only the intense heat of flames will open the seed pods. So much a part of the evolution of the planet, fire has come to symbolize the force of life itself. And in our shared imagination fire also stands for the power of the human mind to create. The glowing motion of flame seems to flow from hard substance by a miracle of transubstantiation which makes evident the heart of existence. Yet, by another turn, there is no death that is as devastating as a death by fire. And this twinned identity, as giver and taker of life, lends this element the air of divinity in action, a force that purges gross reality of its impurities and transforms mortals into gods. No wonder that the Third Reich chose the swastika, a symbol for fire, to emblazon its flags.
The phenomenon of the firestorm should have changed the entire civil defense procedure for incendiary bombs. Under the most usual conditions for air raids during World War II, it was wise to stay hidden underground, in shelters, for at least forty minutes, after all planes, or sounds of planes, had passed, in the case that a second attack was planned. But during a firestorm a shelter becomes an oven, an inferno with temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. And thus, when such an effect is likely to be created, it is best to escape the shelter and run through the fires in an attempt to reach an area that is not being bombed.
But Goebbels decided to keep the truth about firestorms secret. Were it possible, he said, he would have silenced any news of attacks by air on German cities. Not a word, he declared. Because of his policy, in Dresden citizens stayed in their shelters after the first bombing, believing that they were safe underground.
I spoke with a woman in London who had been in one of those shelters when the firestorms began. Gurda was a refugee from Lithuania. By the winter of 1945 she had already traveled with her family all over Europe, alternately hiding or running for several years. She was alert by now for even the subtlest of signs which might point her toward survival. As they settled in the shelter she noticed two men in trench coats near the door. These men barred the exit, not allowing anyone to leave. Then, after the first round of attacks, she saw them run out through the same doors they had guarded.
Feeling these men must know something she did not, she convinced her husband and her mother-in-law that they should take the children and run out of the shelter. They ran through walls of flame and powerful winds which carried flying timbers as big as trees. But, miraculously, they all lived. The only one who died was her father-in-law, who refused to leave the shelter.
Many soldiers from other armies, who were being held prisoner, were commandeered to clear away the bodies and help with the procedure of identifying the many who died in that city. There were 135,000 who perished and thus the task was enormous, and horrifying.
One group of Romanian prisoners refused to enter a certain cellar, and the director of these operations had to be called. Now, writing this, I feel like one of those prisoners, or like the director who finally went into the cellar himself, alone, to set an example. I do not want to tell you what he found there, or, in setting down the words, to make it a part of my own consciousness.
And yet, does not my own private sorrow contain and mirror, no matter how subtle, small traces of this horror, this violent death? In some way I knew of the effects of this bombing, and of the terrors of the concentration camps and Hiroshima, before I read about them in history books. Am I trying to write off the sufferings of my own mind and of my family as historical phenomena? Yes and no. We forget that we are history. We have kept the left hand from knowing the right. I was born and brought up in a nation that participated in the bombing of Dresden, and in the civilization that planned the extermination of a whole people. We are not used to associating our private lives with public events. Yet the histories of families cannot be separated from the histories of nations. To divide them is part of our denial.
What did he find in the cellar? A lake of flesh and blood and bone, twelve feet high.
Excerpted from A Chorus of Stones by Susan Griffin. Copyright © 1995 Susan Griffin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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