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Excerpts From An Online Interview With Hecht

Essay, Research Paper Philip Hoy (Interviewer) "The contemplation of horror is not edifying": Hecht describes his experiences as a soldier in WWII"

Essay, Research Paper

Philip Hoy (Interviewer)

"The contemplation of horror is not edifying":

Hecht describes his experiences as a soldier in WWII"

[Hoy] You’ve described your three years as an undergraduate at Bard as

‘unquestionably the happiest … of [your] life up to that time.’ How did it feel when,

three years into your studies, aged 20, you were drafted into the army, and sent off to

fight in the war? Was it something you’d been dreading?

[Hecht] I admit with shame that I felt neither brave nor patriotic. I was

profoundly scared. I had, as you say, just encountered something like happiness for the

first time in my life, and I was now required to give it up, and perhaps my life as well.

My reading had become so important to me that when I finally went off to the army

reception centre I brought with me a paperback collection of some Shakespeare plays, an

anthology of poetry, some Joyce, and a volume of Spinoza.

It wasn’t until about two weeks into basic training that I was allowed

enough leisure to ferret out one of those books, expecting to slip easily into the

receptive appreciation I enjoyed at college. But the words lay blank and flat on the page.

It was like reading a telephone directory. The combination of fatigue and the numbing

effect of close-order drill, along with other dehumanizing methods of military training,

had all but lobotomized me. I feared I would never be able to read anything with pleasure

again, should I even survive. It was a terrifying kind of pre-death.

In the end, all those faculties returned about six or eight months after I

got out. You saw action in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia, and witnessed the deaths of

a great many of your comrades. How did you cope with this? There is much about this I have

never spoken about, and never will. My father made a foolish and pitiful attempt to get me

discharged while I was in training in Missouri with the 97th Infantry Division, the outfit

with which I went overseas. He somehow managed to inform officers of the division of his

own mental breakdowns, and to imply that I was subject to the same frailties. I was called

away from a bivouac to be interviewed by a military shrink.

When I figured out what was going on, I realized I had only to put on an

act in order to get discharged on what the army called a Section Eight, or ‘mental’

grounds. I really felt that my life that morning was in my own hands. At the same time, I

felt unwilling to fake, and ashamed of what my father had done. I confined myself to

acknowledging that I hated the army – like Catch 22, this was regarded as a sign of mental

soundness – and refusing to address the interrogating officer as ‘Sir,’ an act of mild

but, to me, meaningful insubordination.

[Hoy] Did you make a good soldier?

[Hecht] Not by any real standards. I was honourably discharged at the end

of things, and I did not disobey any orders, though once I was genuinely tempted to. My

company had been pinned down by very heavy enemy fire in Germany. Our company commander

was a fool, wholly incapable of any initiative, who slavishly obeyed commands, however

uninformed or ill-considered, from battalion or regimental HQ, and without regard to the

safety or capacity of his own troops. (He was later awarded a Silver Star for action that

took place on a day when he was behind the lines being treated for dysentery.)

Anyway, on this day when we were hopelessly kept flat on the ground by

superior fire-power, some idiot at an upper echelon, far behind the lines and blissfully

unaware of our situation regarding the enemy (though probably eager to keep all forward

movements abreast of one another to protect all flanks) ordered my company to move

forward, and the captain ordered us to ready ourselves, though there would have been

nothing but total annihilation in prospect. At the last second, higher command called for

artillery, which turned the trick. And as we slowly rose from prone positions, I confessed

to my platoon commander, a second lieutenant just about my age, that if the order to

advance had not been countermanded I was very unsure whether I would have obeyed. ‘Of

course you would have,’ he replied, but with a look that meant a great deal. He fully

understood how foolish such a command would have been at the time, but as an officer,

whose duty was to set an example, he knew that he would have had to obey.

[Hoy] You served with the Infantry Division which discovered Flossenburg,

a concentration camp in the Bavarian forest, close to the Czech border. It’s not as

notorious as its neighbour, Buchenwald – it rates a mention in several of the history

books just because it was there that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered, a week before the

liberation – but it was a major camp, and one wouldn’t have to read a book like Robert

Abzug’s Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration

Camps to understand how devastating an experience it must have been for young G.I.s

like you, though you must already have witnessed some pretty awful things. Can you say

anything about this event, and its effect on you?

[Hecht] Flossenburg was an annex of Buchenwald. It was both an

extermination camp and a slave-labour camp, where prisoners were made to manufacture

Messerschmitts at a factory right within the perimeter of the camp. When we arrived, the

SS personnel had, of course, fled. Prisoners were dying at the rate of 500 a day from

typhus. Since I had the rudiments of French and German, I was appointed to interview such

French prisoners as were well enough to speak, in the hope of securing evidence against

those who ran the camp.

Later, when some of these were captured, I presented them with the charges

levelled against them, translating their denials or defences back into French for the sake

of their accusers, in an attempt to get to the bottom of what was done and who was

responsible. The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension.

For years after I would wake shrieking. I must add an important point: after the war I

read widely in Holocaust literature, and I can no longer separate my anger and revulsion

at what I really saw from what I later came to learn.

[Hoy] Were there any aspects of life in the army that you valued?

[Hecht] Not at the time, certainly. I found that all the officers I

encountered from the rank of captain on up were contemptible and often ignorant,

swaggering in the full vigour of their incapacity, and this was true up to as high a level

as division commander, which I had the opportunity of observing. While I came to this

conclusion independently and on the basis of personal experience, I find that I’m not the

only one to have held such views. Allow me, if you will, a small literary flourish. In

Joseph Andrews Fielding writes about Nature, personified as a goddess of great powers, who

equips creatures with a cranial cavity for the brains and their rational government of

ordinary men, ‘whereas,’ Fielding goes on to remark, ‘those ingredients being entirely

useless to persons of the heroic calling, she hath an opportunity of thickening the bone

so as to make it less subject to any impression, or liable to be cracked or broken; and

indeed, in some who are predestined to command armies and empires, she is supposed

sometimes to make that part perfectly solid.’

It would have been a convenient balance and fitting irony to say that, by

contrast, the ordinary draftees with no military ambitions or careers, were often good and

generous people, and this is what I believed at first. But a few days of heavy front-line

combat changed my attitude in a terrible way. We had already suffered some severe

casualties from enemy mortars and land mines. These first casualties and deaths came to us

as a rude shock; our friends and comrades, with whom we had trained, undergone real

privations and endured grave dangers were now legless, armless, or dead. So the mood of

the company was shaken when, one morning, we found ourselves hugging the ground at the

crest of a hill, in the shadow of trees, looking out across a green field that dipped

shallowly in the middle before rising to a small height not far away, and behind which

German troops were lobbing mortar shells at us.

We fired back, and the exchange went on for a while, until at last the

enemy simply stopped firing. This could, of course, have been preliminary to something

else, a trick, anything. We remained exactly where we were. And then, to my astonishment,

a small group of German women, perhaps five or six, leading small children by the hand,

and with white flags of surrender fixed to staves and broom-handles, came up over the far

crest and started walking slowly toward us, waving their white flags back and forth. They

came slowly, the children retarding their advance. They had to descend the small incline

that lay between their height and ours. When they were about half way, and about to climb

the slope leading to our position, two of our machine guns opened up and slaughtered the

whole group.

Not long after we were able to take the enemy position, from which all

their troops had withdrawn. For the rest of the day there was much loud and insistent talk

about that morning’s slaughter, all intended as justification. ‘They might have had bombs

on them.’ ‘They might have had some radio devices to direct German artillery toward us.’

Things like that. This was all due to the plain panic of soldiers newly exposed to combat,

due also to guilt, to frustrated fury at the casualties we had suffered. In any case, what

I saw that morning was, except for Flossenburg, the greatest trauma of the war – and,

believe me, I saw a lot of terrible things. But that morning left me without the least

vestige of patriotism or national pride.

And when I hear empty talk about that war having been a ‘good war’, as

contrasted with, say, Vietnam, I maintain a fixed silence. The men in my company, under

ordinary circumstances, were not vicious or criminal, but I no longer felt close to any of

them. Battle, which is supposed to bring fellow soldiers together, failed to do that. As

for whether there were any aspects of army life that I valued, I’d have to maintain my

equivocal posture. The army put me in what may be the best physical shape I would ever

enjoy, and as though to annul this benefit, it taught me to smoke. And I went on smoking,

addictively, for thirty-five years.

"If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the

worst":

Hecht discusses his poetry’s concern with cruelty and suffering

[Hoy] The Hard Hours opens with ‘The Hill’, a monologue, whose

speaker tells of an experience he’d had while walking through the Piazza Farnese in Rome.

One minute it had been sunny and warm, crowded and noisy, the next:

the noises suddenly stopped,

And it got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved

And even the great Farnese Palace itself

Was gone, for all its marble; in its place

Was a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold,

Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.

The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap

Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,

And the only sound for a while was the little click

Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.

I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,

But no other sign of life. And then I heard

What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;

At least I was not alone. But just after that

Came the soft and papery crash

Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth

And that was all, except for the cold and silence

That promised to last forever, like the hill.

The speaker claims not have been bothered by this incident in the ten

years since it occurred. What moves him to talk about it now is the sudden remembrance of

where he’d first encountered that hill:

it lies just to the left

Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy

I stood before it for hours in wintertime.

So, perhaps, one part of the mystery is removed. What had overtaken him in

the Piazza wasn’t something requiring supernatural explanation, but something permitting

explanation in terms of accepted psychological categories – memories, hallucinations, and

the like. But if one part of the mystery is removed, another, more serious, remains. Why

would a boy stand for hours in front of a scene whose plain bitterness was to leave an

adult scared for days?

I wonder if I can ask where that image of the hill comes from? It clearly

has some special significance for you, since it, or things very like it, appear in a

number of your poems – ‘Christmas is Coming’, ‘The Short End’, ‘Auspices’, ‘The Venetian

Vespers’, ‘See Naples and Die’, ‘Death the Whore’ …

[Hecht] My therapist had a lot of theories about that poem. Anyway, when

you ask, ‘why would a boy stand for hours in front of a scene of great bitterness?’ the

answer is, of course, that he does not do so willingly; he is compelled to. And he is

compelled to because no one comes to take him away from all this barrenness. You are

perfectly right to see arid and defeated landscapes cropping up in a good number of my

poems, as is the case with certain winter scenes of Breughel. They were for me a means to

express a desolation of the soul. There are such scenes in Hardy, as well as in a fine

young poet, not yet well known, named Timothy Murphy. May I quote a short poem of his?

Twice Cursed

Bristling with fallen trees

and choked with broken ice

the river threatens the house.

I’ll wind up planting rice

if the spring rains don’t cease.

What ancestral curse

prompts me to farm and worse,

convert my woes to verse?

I’m not a farmer, and thus not subject to their special dangers, but for

me a bleak and forlorn landscape can assemble and convey a deep sense of despair.

[Hoy] ‘The Hill’ serves as a kind of warning to readers of The Hard

Hours, because, as they read their way through the book, they are going to be

confronted with visions of plain bitterness, visions of suffering, madness, and death

whose power to scare is not in the least mysterious. In one poem we are given vivid

descriptions of the daily flogging, and eventual flaying, of the Roman emperor Valerian;

in another, a promise is made to the ghost of a child lost to its parents as a result of

miscarriage; in a third, the burning at the stake of one Christian by others is juxtaposed

with an atrocity committed in the vicinity of Buchenwald …

But there are mysteries associated with these poems, and I can get at the

most perplexing of them by quoting Flaubert, who wrote to Am?lie Bousquet as follows:

‘Human life is a sad show, undoubtedly: ugly, heavy and complex. Art has no other end, for

people of feeling, than to conjure away the burden and the bitterness.’ Is this too narrow

a conception of art? Or is there a sense in which your poems can be said to conjure away

the burden and bitterness, even as they force us to confront them? I’m the more intrigued

by your answer because of what you say in ‘Rites and Ceremonies’: ‘The contemplation of

horror is not edifying, / Neither does it strengthen the soul.’

[Hecht] A difficult question to which there is no easy answer. One

mistaken way of construing the Flaubert assertion would be to say that he is recommending

escape literature and fairy tales that end with the protagonists living happily ever

after. But ‘conjuring the burden and bitterness away’ demands serious necromancy. I would

summon to my aid Hardy’s apology from ‘In Tenebris’: ‘If a way to the Better there be, it

exacts a full look at the Worst.’ In his poem called ‘No Possum, No Sop, No Taters’,

Wallace Stevens writes, ‘It is here, in this bad, that we reach / The last purity of the

knowledge of good.’

And I would enlist the further support of Keats in the letter to his

brothers in which he says that ‘the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of

making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty

& Truth – Examine King Lear & you will find this examplified [sic] throughout’

(21-27 December 1817). The fact is that Lear was for many years my favourite among the

tragedies, and has never lost its appeal for me. And it has its full component of bleak

landscapes. I taught it for years before I found out that there are two proper versions

and that I would have to choose between them. I had so grown used and devoted to the

conflated text that I found myself unwilling to relinquish some of the lines I prized.

Anyway, I’ve always been on guard, as a reader first of all, against what

has been called ‘Land-of-heart’s-desire’ poetry, which tends to be vapid and sentimental.

On the other hand, I would still continue to affirm what I wrote about the contemplation

of horror not being edifying. I have always found that the stories and paintings of

Christian martyrdom are very strange because they can be understood in two different and

opposing ways. The orthodox way is to say that they inspire admiration for fixity of faith

in the face of the most horrible and obstinate persecution. At the same time, of course,

they are often remarkable for their morbidity, and, alas, a part of their meaning seems to

concern the ineradicable savagery of the human race; and not just of pagans and infidels

but people of all kinds, as the many religious wars among Christians – the Thirty Years’

War, the so-called Wars of Religion in Spain, France and the Netherlands being merely

examples – have abundantly demonstrated.

There’s a Byzantine mosaic icon in Washington of ‘The Forty Martyrs of

Sebaste’ – they were ’stripped naked, herded onto a frozen pond, and kept there; to help

break down their resistance a fire was kindled and warm baths prepared where they could

see them. By the next day most of them were dead; those who were not were killed,’ says a

little handbook of hagiography. But this is no more than a puny prologue to the Holocaust.

It is the Vatican’s dubious position that German anti-Semitism as it was exhibited under

the Nazis ‘had its roots outside Christianity,’ and that the people who ran the camps were

essentially pagan.

This, however, fails to agree with the Nazis’ own view of the matter. In

Peter Matheson’s documentary account, The Third Reich and the Christian Churches,

he writes of a report by one Hanns Kerrl on the membership and finances of the Churches,

dated 3, July, 1944 (not long, that is, before the war ended) – a report sent to Goebbels

‘on the request of the Ministry for popular Enlightenment and Propaganda,’ containing

statistics ‘with the rather anxious request that caution be used in their exploitation for

propaganda purposes. It is worth noting how little success the National Socialists had in

winning people away from their adherence to Christian beliefs. Only 3.5% acknowledged

themselves as "Gottgl?ubige",’ a word that Cassell’s German dictionary defines

as ‘followers of the modern German cult of non-Christian theism,’ and which Matheson calls

simply ‘neo-pagans.’

[Hoy] In Philip Larkin’s ‘Ambulances’, passers-by, looking on as people in

extremity are fetched off to hospital, are said to ’sense the solving emptiness / That

lies just under all we do, / and for a second get it whole, / So permanent and blank and

true.’ Larkin was clearly no stranger to the experience he describes here, but my guess is

that you are. It’s hell you worry about, not the void …

[Hecht] I agree. Larkin did not have to serve in the war and he was not a

Jew, and he counted himself lucky on both scores. It may be that one of the appeals of his

poetry for many readers lies in his contemplation of ‘the solving emptiness,’ which is

obscurely comforting. Not paradise, to be sure, but a kind of beneficent anaesthesia.

from Between

the Lines: Interviews with Poets. For additional extracts from the Hecht

interview, click here.

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