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Friday, 15 October 2010



File:John Martin 002.jpg

Fallen Angels in Hell
: John Martin, c. 1841 (Tate Britain)

Curzio Malaparte's disturbing depiction, in The Skin, of the firebombed city of Hamburg, is, like all his semi-fictional wartime writings, a fantasia upon history. It draws for rhetorical and metaphorical effect upon the description of Hell in the Inferno of Dante, bringing to mind especially the perpetually flaming city of Dis, the City of the Dead, in the Fifth Circle. In Dante the burning city of Dis
(La città infuocata di Dite) is the most torrid of infernal regions.

But if Malaparte's horrifying narrative is not purely factual, it is also far from purely literary. It represents the descent of the overwhelmed historical imagination into another, perhaps truer dimension. It constitutes an expansion of the examination of irrational events into historical poetry, not a poetic misrepresentation of history.

(Rational reconstruction of irrational events is in any case always doomed to failure, alas.)


"Sir, if a butcher tells you his heart bleeds for his country," Samuel Johnson once remarked, "you may be sure he feels no uneasy sensation."

"For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind," declared the architect of the destruction of Hamburg, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Baronet, on his setting fire to German cities, and their inhabitants, with incendiary explosives.

Harris had raised the concept of an eye for an eye to a new level of refinement. It was his stated view that the entire population of the cities of Germany was not worth the bones of a single British Grenadier.

The calculus of retributive equivalences of course always remains to be determined by the victors in any conflict.

It was Harris who devised and "sold" to Churchill the "area bombing" strategy -- a strategy of War as Total Terror.

History informs that as more specifically directed targeting was made possible by the development of Pathfinder and H2S guidance systems, Harris continued, despite the reservations of Churchill, to motivate successfully for the broad targeting of civilian population areas.

Harris was nicknamed "Bomber," for the thing he loved to do best. To RAF crews, however, he was known as "Butcher," for his apparent disregard of mortality rates among those tasked with delivering death and destruction to Germany.

His chef d'oeuvre was Hamburg, where his Operation Gomorrah, in the last week of July, 1943, created a firestorm that killed some 55,000 civilians. The nights were hot, the bombing unusually concentrated, the explosives incendiary; the results of the carpet-bombing attacks exceeded even Harris's expectations: a vortex and swirling updraft of intensely heated air, forging a cyclone of fire that spiraled a third of a mile into the night sky over the city and port. For every unfortunate living creature beneath, there was nothing left to breathe but carbon monoxide and fire.

The firebombing of Hamburg, July 1943

Harris remained unapologetic in the aftermath, openly maintaining that restricting the attacks to military targets had never been his intention:

"...the aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive...should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany.... It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories."
Harris's strategy did not win the war, but it did prove that you can convert a lot of what you hate most into toast, in a relatively short time, if you put your mind to it.

In a 1997 series of lectures published in English in 2003 as On the Natural History of Destruction, the late German writer W.G. Sebald wrote of the willful attempt to "forget," or erase, what had happened at Hamburg.

Sebald's clinical history of the firestorm corroborates with fact much of Malaparte's poetic projection. He reproduces autopsy records that offer grotesque images of disembodied heads, reminiscent of the hallucinatory images of Malaparte: "Heads and extremities could frequently be broken off without difficulty..."

From Sebald we gather a vivid, and hideous, picture of the decisive raid, launched in the early morning hours of 27 July 1943. Among lingering and haunting images he captures is that of a half-demented mother, in shock, treading through the ruins, clutching her mummified child.

"But nowhere in Sebald's reflections," Robert Leventhal has commented in reviewing The Natural History of Destruction, "do we find references to human intentionality or forethought, planning or the desire to inflict horrible suffering on a population. The title itself implies and proposes a different way of considering such acts, and the facts regarding such decisions are of course well known. A natural history of destruction implies an inevitable process, a violent mechanism devoid of any volition or conscious program. But can we altogether abrogate intention and function, politics and ideology, the role of the human desire for retribution and the specific aggression inscribed within the destructive forces unleashed upon Germany? "

L.-F. Céline, who wandered as in a dream through the destroyed cities of northern Germany in flight in 1945, was reminded in Hamburg of Pompeii. Céline's delirious account can be found in his final novel, Rigodon: incendiary fires from the latest raids continue to burn; the tar of the pavement still boils, searing shoe leather; like phantasms out of the ruins rise enormous bell-like domes, created by chemical reactions of liquid sulfur; inside these great tar bubbles, preserved in clay, appear storehouses of goods, and mummified grocers frozen in time like still-life studies, and apothecaries who have been turned into figures in a lifelike diorama, hunched over their measuring flasks on their way to Eternity.

Céline, accused at one point or another of every human vice save optimism, obliquely summed up his understanding of the reasons for this redundant bombing, conducted long after the war had been lost by Germany, when speaking of the desire for revenge as the deepest -- and blindest -- of human motives:

"Aim low, aim true."

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Baronet, who continued drawing fresh breath to the ripe old age of 91, never ceased to insist that his strategy had been "humane".

One recalls, out of the blue, the recollection of President Harry S. Truman that, after giving the order for the dropping of the atomic bomb upon Hiroshima, he had enjoyed a night of sound and untroubled sleep.

It would be good but probably not realistic to think that when he got over to that other shore and discharged his lamentable cargo of wailing heads, Charon the Boatman of the Underworld at least paused for a moment of quiet thought, before turning back to gather up his next load.




Pandaemonium indeed, followed by Charon, pausing "for a moment of quiet thought, before turning back to gather up his next load" . . . .


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, golden-crowned sparrow’s oh dear
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

subject that passes, as made
is now in front of me

with which one’s hand, which
one would have, makes

silver of low sun reflected in channel,
white clouds in pale blue sky above it

Elmo St. Rose said...

practical morality vs aesthetics.

yes, I too am impressed by
Malaparte...I just ordered Kaput

it is important to remember since
only the few now study history that
60 to 100 million people died in
World War Two/quite a few of them
horribly, perhaps many uncounted in
Asia and Russia. And the Germans
and Japanese were certainly the
predominant players.

Even Thomas Mann,saddened by the
destruction of Germany believed it
was better than the alternative.

The dropping of the atomic bomb
by Truman was not a flippant decision...In the end it saved
millions of lives...mostly in Japan
and China...

What Pandemonium/Malaparte/Celine
show to the reader is that War is
Hell. Since WWII there have been
wars and rumors of wars,the Bible
not withstanding. Rwanda/Bosnia/

Personally I prefer my uncle's
description of war: uncle was a
doctor with the first marine division on Guadalcanal and several
Solomon island battles and a witness to the visciousness of
combat with loss of friends,etc.
When I asked him to consider a memoir of it....he looked off in
the distance...tears welled up in
his eyes...and then his wife said
"don't ask." After the war uncle
did medical research at Harvard and
then became dean of a medical school in New York City for about
25 years...teaching. Uncle was friends in Boston after the war
with John Ciardi, a decorated B-29
gunner,who flew in missions over
Japan.Ciardi didn't say much about
the war either in his poems. And
Creeley who volunteered for the
American Field Service and went
to India/Burma didn't say much about war either except to explore
the alternative.

Anonymous said...

if even charon stops to think about this...

Anonymous said...

Everything written here by everyone means a lot to me. Ahead of a day of assuredly trivial pandemonium, I know it will stay with me for a long time. Reading "Bomber" Harris's words is chilling, obviously. It's amazing how focused and lucid crazy people, some military people, and especially crazy military people (including the fictional General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove) can be when they're on their game. "It constitutes an expansion of the examination of irrational events into historical poetry, not a poetic misrepresentation of history": that's beautifully said.

Anonymous said...

By the way (and off-topic), I was just informed that it is National Feral Cat Day (and the 10th anniversary of the celebration). My ferals Eddie, Felix, Honey, Bunny, Eddie, Jr., Tige, Princess Daisy and KingKing send you all greetings.



Just reading in yesterday's Times about US stepping up the bombing in Afghanistan, with claims of few civilian casualties (history repeats itself, Charon going back to get his next load) ---


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, shadowed black pattern of leaves
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

what is essential, what does
not only come to that

one of the things picture is,
thinking, of what one

grey-white fog against invisible ridge,
shadowed green pine on tip of sandspit

Marylinn Kelly said...

"...rational reconstruction of irrational events..." In how many ways can we apply that description today? My 30-year-old son has used the word "savages" more in the past 5 - 7 years than I think I have in my whole life, for our savagery to one another has not diminished. Realizing it is, and has been, here whether I accept it or not, I have a difficult time with the concept of collateral damage. I do not know war from a warrior's point of view yet see only terrible waste and needless havoc in the way we conduct our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I readily admit to being naive.

TC said...


I don't think that's being naive, I think it's being sensible. Damage is damage. "Collateral" is just advertising talk.

TC said...


Sorry to be lost in the switches of late... too much hammering for too long (think: aerial bombardment)... still our furs salute your furs, across the Great Divide. Every day is Feral cat day around here, chaos notwithstanding, and every night Feral cat night. Some things never change, until they do.

Stephen, mpcrisci2,

I don't think stopping to think is part of Charon's job description, but then the unemployed are probably not qualified to comment on other people's jobs...

TC said...


For several decades after my Reserve Officer Training Corps experience I had a recurrent nightmare about not having my rifle cleaned and brass and buttons polished for inspection.

The "real" officers (regular army) pretty much all came from your neck of the woods. It was their duty to get us ready to fight for freedom.

(I guess that was what I foolishly thought I was doing, though perhaps not in the way that was meant.)

TC said...

(Oh, and by the way... "Pandaemonium" refers to the end of the first book of Paradise Lost... as I am sure everyone will have noticed.)

Elmo St. Rose said...

Dear Robinson Jeffers,

you heard Hitler's voice
on the radio and knew
it was not ordinary, that
it carried it's force to
a tower in Carmel from
which more sea and mountains
could be seen than in
eternity, and more sound
inexorably by crash of waves
on a rugged coast than
by his engines
your love by your side
made you wise during
his pandemonium

the cries of his enslaved
you did not hear
they were not
on the radio
they too are inexorably
in eternity
and made others wise
in other ways