Saturday, March 24, 2007

Journey's End

It seems to be grandparents week here, as yesterday was my monthly dinner and a show date with my grandmother (different grandmother than I saw earlier in the week). We ate at a rather expensive Indian restaurant we've been to before. The service is better than the places on 6th street and the food is served on nicer dishes, but frankly it's not worth paying 4 times more. Particularly when my grandmother insists on getting appetizers and desert and whatnot.

Journey's End has gotten great reviews but apparently those haven't translated into great ticket sales because the theater was far from full. That was good for us though because it meant our seats got upgraded quite a bit. We always go for the cheap seats--although granted it's all relative on Broadway--so it's a nice surprise to be moved up to the somewhat less cheap seats. Between that and the fact that it was a very good play, it was obviously an evening meant to go our way. My grandmother got to make her, "Bush should be forced to watch this again and again until he learns something," comments and I think that only added to her day. It seems to make her happy any time she can insult the louse. At the same time though, I always have to suppress a laugh at the idea she seems to have that reading something or seeing a play could possibly change him. Thinking about it more closely though, I think it's a sad thing if such works can't change people.

I was particularly interested in seeing this one because I have a bit of a thing for World War I. I don't mean that I know a lot about the history or anything. But I love poetry and novels about the war. I wouldn't say that I'm an outright pacifist, but quite close, and it's partially because of reading this stuff. I remember reading All Quiet on the Western Front when I was quite young and certainly that played a role, but mostly I think it was the War Poets first: writers like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg. (Their poetry is available here.) Sassoon's "A Soldier's Declaration" was also an influence because it forced me to look at what I'd always thought of as--and been told was--a "good war" in another light.

I think it was Pat Barker's Regeneration that did me in, though. This scene in particular, although it may not seem significant out of context. I don't know. Rivers is a doctor treating shell-shocked soldiers in a military hospital, and David Burns is a former patient whom he goes to visit. He finds Burns to remain quite unwell. While he's visiting, there's a storm.
The more Rivers thought about Burns sitting alone in the kitchen, the more he thought he ought to get up. The sounds of the storm had now been joined by running footsteps. He wouldn't find it easy to sleep again anyway.
.......The kitchen was empty and didn't seem to have been disturbed since last night. He told himself that he'd been mistaken and Burns was still in bed. By now rather anxious, perhaps unreasonably so, he went upstairs and peered into Burns's room. The bedclothes had been pushed back and the bed was empty.
.......He had no idea what he should do. For all he knew midnight walks--or rather three am walks--were a habit of Burns's when the nights were particularly bad. Surely he wouldn't go out in this. Rivers heard shouts, followed by more running footsteps. Obviously other people were out in it.

Rivers goes out into the storm to look for Burns, and is unable to find him in the town. Directed by a woman also out in the rain, he walks along the edge of a tidal river, surrounded by marshy land, toward a tower he'd been to earlier in his visit.
Looking at the tower, Rivers thought again how squat and unimpressive it was, and yet how menacing. A resemblance that had merely nagged him before returned to his mind with greater force. This waste of mud, these sump holes reflecting a dim light at the sky, even that tower. It was like France. Like the battlefields. A resemblance greater by night than by day, perhaps, because here, by day, you could see things grow, and there nothing grew.
.......He groped his way into the moat, steadying himself against the wall. It was so wet, so cold, so evil-smelling, that he thought perhaps the tide had already reached it's height and was now falling. At first he could see nothing, but then the moon came out from behind a bank of cloud, and he saw Burns huddled against the moat wall. Rivers called 'David' and realized he was shouting when there was no need. Even the howl of the storm sounded subdued in the shelter of the moat. He touched Burns's arm. He neither moved nor blinked. He was staring up at the tower, which gleamed white, like the bones of a skull.
.......'Come on, David.'
.......His body felt like a stone. Rivers got hold of him and held him, coaxing, rocking. He looked up at the tower that loomed squat and menacing above them and thought, Nothing justifies this. Nothing nothing nothing. Burns's body remained rigid in his arms. Rivers was aware that if it came to a fight he might not win. Burns was terribly emaciated, but he was also thirty years younger. His surrender, when it came, was almost shocking. Suddenly his body had the rag-doll floppiness of the newborn. He collapsed against Rivers and started to shake, and from there it was possible to half lead, half push him out of the moat and up on to the relative safety of the path.

Now, I wasn't so naive that I didn't know about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or that war had mental and emotional consequences for the soldier. But it's one thing to hear about it or read about it, and another entirely for a piece of writing to allow you to truly form a picture of such a thing in your mind. And it was from reading things like this that I came to feel that war was beyond the realm of what should be acceptable in our lives.

So I suppose that literature had the effect on me that my grandmother wishes it could have on someone like Bush. The power of fiction, whether Regeneration or Journey's End is that it allows us to expand the boundaries of our understanding--to a certain extent--past that which we actually know. And while I've always rolled my eyes and thought it fairly ridiculous when someone says a song or a book, "changed [their] life," I do think such things can have a cumulative effect on a person's outlook, if they're willing to let it happen.

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