"This is how
one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned to the past.
Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single
catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage at his feet. The angel
would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been
smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught
in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close
them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which
his back is turned, while the pile of debris grows skyward. This
storm is what we call progress." -- Walter Benjamin, 1940
Hi all. Once there was a war, between North
and South, and the war was lost, and the war was won, as is usually the
case. Yet the outcome is still contested, in a thousand small ways. The
rebel anthem plays on car-horns and doorbells, the defeated banner still
flies over conquered capitols, its scholars write slanted histories for
the victors. Lost orders, lost causes, lost opportunities - the details
of defeat still nag the minds of millions. "If only," they
say, "if it weren't for this."
So. Let us take the enthusiasts at their
word, and allow them their one minor change, their one flap of a
butterfly's wings. We pull the angel of history aside as the newly
altered events pile up like boxcars at a train wreck. Acts of bravery,
compassion, madness, despair lay twisted at his feet as the cannons
continue to fire, but soon the outcome is clear. The Union lies asunder,
and the Confederacy emerges victorious.
Lincoln dies weeping in 1870.
And the Confederacy carries on. A successful
war against Spain, a failed intervention in Mexico; fires, floods,
yellow fever, cholera, the boll weevil; the innumerable revolts as field
hands are sold to more efficient 'labor agencies'; throughout all this
the South not only manages to survive, but to prevail - in the markets
for Texan oil and beef, Birmingham specialty steels, Carolina tobacco,
Florida oranges, Cuban sugar and rum.
And by the end of the century even the common
white man of the South has made his voice heard, which seems to be the
enthusiasts' point. Thus Thomas Watson, Georgian farmer and self-made
lawyer, becomes the first Populist candidate elected to the Confederate
presidency, on its easy money, anti-foreigner platform. Yet the office
brings him no joy. Watson becomes embittered with party politics, and
returns to act as shill for Atlanta's growing business interests.
The poet Jose Marti, returning hopefully to
Havana from his self-imposed exile in New York, is shot in 1898 during
that island's short-lived insurrection against Confederate rule. The
intense summer fighting lasts for days; he will be buried in a mass
grave in a hastily consecrated lot.
In 1916, T. N. Spencer, a North Carolinian
veterinarian, recognizes that blacktongue in dogs is the same disease as
pellagra in humans. Two years later, researchers at Duke Methodist
University discover that nicotinic acid is effective as an anti-pellagra
factor, using experimental subjects recruited from slave clinics, who
are paid ten cents a day. In the North, this substance is called niacin.
Henry Ford emigrates to the Confederacy in
1922, an event which causes a minor recession in the Union. At Richmond
and various state capitols, he brokers his plan to develop the Tennessee
River Valley into a series of semi-rural industrial towns powered by
healthful hydroelectricity, where white workers can live in a country
environment. Confederate legislators agree - and the Tennessee Valley
becomes a Ford industrial satrap.
William Faulkner leaves Oxford, Mississippi to
test his mettle in Paris. Three decades later, he returns with a group
of young French film-makers - although it's six hours long,
"Sanctuary" is regarded as one of the greatest films of all
In 1930, John Crowe Ransom publishes Spirit
and Image, which becomes the defining text for generations of Southern
Christian intellectuals. In radio broadcasts during the Blitz, C.S.
Lewis will call it 'one of the wisest books that I have read.'
Fulgencio Batista is hanged in 1931 for
involvement in the Sergeant's Plot, to throw off the Confederate yoke of
'statehood'. This marks the end of separate mulatto rights in Cuba, as
the state is put under military administration by its governor.
In the depths of the Depression, Tennessean
Cordell Hull is not his party's first choice for the Confederate
presidency - too intellectual, too international, too stubborn for the
New Democrats - but his nomination breaks the deadlock at Atlanta. Even
with his opposition party advantage Hull only manages a narrow victory.
Yet during his constitutionally limited six
years in office Hull will negotiate agreements with the US and Canada
that help revive the continent's blasted economy, restore Cuba to civil
elected (white) government, convince the states to combine their
resources for the relief of Dust Bowl migrants, and accept boatload
after boatload of European refugees into the Confederacy under his Fig
Tree Declaration, who are at first housed in off-season Florida resort
But Cordell Hull's proudest achievement will
be his passage of the Uniform Code, over the objections of those he will
privately call 'pissants and scoundrels', formally abolishing slavery in
the Confederate States of America, in 1937.
One of those scoundrels, Huey Long, will be
his successor in office.
And what of the North? Only slightly humbled
by the storm of progress, it still brawls and bustles, expanding
overseas just because it can, buying Santo Domingo and Alaska,
protecting Hawaii and the Philippines, keeping a watchful sad eye on
That same sad eye looks South on occasion, as
the whip and the brand give way to the cattle prod, the pass book, and
the electric fence.
But relations stay correct, and even
occasionally cordial, as during the great Centennial celebration. And
the eye turns away.
Yet the Union, in its long industrial boom,
is starving for immigrant labor, from anywhere it can get. "Give me
your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free..."
Shut off from the yearning population southward, by 1928, when the
golden door slams shut, the Union is accepting additional thousands of
Greeks, Armenians, Lebanese, Spaniards, Portuguese, Japanese, Filipinos,
and even, in a humanitarian gesture, Chinese brides and orphans.
Meanwhile, private groups like the Quakers
and the Salvation Army maintain their long watch at the Customs ports
and stations along the border. Horror stories abound about pregnant
housemaids found suffocated in packing crates - some are true. The usual
case, though, is a young man or couple, sweating in a stinking boxcar,
sometimes with manumission papers clutched tightly in hand, sometimes
not - in any case only a few thousand a year.
Booker T. Washington's teenage post bellum
memories of the forced march North - at the end of whips - into
pestilential 'freedman's camps' on the shores of the Potomac will cause
him to realize that no accommodation with white supremacy can ever be
possible. Later, with his friend W.E.B. Du Bois, he will urge blacks to
'prove the lie', and becomes one of William Randolph Hearst's most
popular, Reb-baiting, columnists.
Andrew Carnegie, being the world's richest
leftist, endows a foundation to "buy" members of separated black
families in the Confederacy, as well as promising youths, and bring them
to the Union, causing Mark Twain to write a short story about the
experiences of a Carnegie factor in "The Man Who Corrupted
Satansburg". Of the thousands of 'Carnegie Negroes' that make it to
the Union, the most prominent will be Mary McLeod Banks, later Secretary
of Education in the Roosevelt cabinet. As a group, though, they all tend
to do well, such as the North Carolinian field hand who will retire as a
Captain of Police in the District of Columbia, the father of A. C.
George Washington Carver ends up at the
University of Wisconsin's College of Agriculture, where he promotes
whey-based soft drinks and yogurt with considerable success. His
research into the rapeseed plant's possibilities are instrumental for
the carvola oil boom of the 20s; his patents leave him a wealthy man,
possibly the Union's first black millionaire. However, he is best known
in Wisconsin for concocting his magisterial peanut butter ice cream,
still made and sold on campus to his original recipe, you betcha.
Paul Robeson graduates from Rutgers in 1919,
from Columbia Law School in 1923. Is appointed Assistant Attorney
General of New York by Governor Al Smith in 1925, Deputy Attorney
General in 1928. Robeson proves to be extraordinarily able, though with
a taste for theatrics; in fact he has put himself through law school
working on the stage. In 1937, as part of Roosevelt's controversial
court-packing plan, Robeson is appointed to the United States Supreme
-- Walter Benjamin, 1940.
"A chronicler who
recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones
acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever
happened should be regarded as lost for history."
August 1940. After Bordeaux and two weeks of
sea sickness, the Confederate motor vessel Mississippi Queen arrives
at Miami, and tempest-tossed Walter Benjamin with it.
Exhausted, he is directed from the docks to a
bright blue vehicle labeled - in English - the Sunshine Bus, where a
colored porter smelling of burnt rope gently takes his bags out of his
hands and stows them efficiently in a compartment. "Don't you worry
over no TIP; Mr. Huey be payin' for this." He recognizes some
of his fellow passengers from the liner - the Hamburg broker, the
Lyonnais cantor and his family, the phalanx of Polish officers' wives
sitting disdainfully apart - as the bus motors along the palm-lined
streets to its destination.
Benjamin half-expects a delousing station,
and certainly not this... this palacious pink hotel, with its swordfish
and steaks and carafes of orange juice for dinner, its spa-like baths,
its enormous beds. The dreamlike morning meeting with the minor
officials - "Hey, Verne, we got us a Mr. Benjamin!" - a
feeling of utter dread passes up his spine, abates when all the clerks
gather round to shake his hand, mysteriously enough. "Got-damn glad
we got you out of there, suh."
But he remains worried. His cables to Max
Horkheimer at New York University go unanswered; and after two weeks
even the Polish officers' wives have departed - for Pulaski, Tennessee,
a city not in evidence on his American map. He often sits at table in
the hotel bar, adjusting his manuscript, feeling uncomfortably parasitic
- if need be, he will teach the waiters French pronunciation to pay off
his bill. But the manager demurs; just you recommend us when you get
yourself settled in, sir; this one is on Huey.
Finally, a cable comes in, but from an
unexpected source: Oxford, Mississippi, the university there. A position
- European languages and literature - length of stay 'at your
discretion', a residence, a (munificent) salary. A prepaid railroad trip
to tour the campus.
Yours most sincerely.
Watching the moon rise over the Atlantic
through the hotel's bay windows, a medieval Latin tag passes through his
mind - Fortune rota volvitur; the Wheel of Fortune turns. Yes, of
Professor Benjamin, expert on Baudelaire (the
French translator of Poe), guest lecturer at the University of
Mississippi (Oxford campus), sighed and stepped out into the heat once
It was not the mere Mediterranean heat of
Naples or Marseilles, but an inhuman African heat like that described by
such men as Frobenius or Gide. Very quickly he has learned to associate
the gentle chugging of an air conditioner with physical comfort, and
wonders yet again on the impulse that had caused this land to be settled
at all. Simple greed? Or a deeper testing of the flesh?
The classroom at Vardaman Hall was
well-filled. Once he had joked - in a bit of self-deprecatory vanity -
that he could be put on display in America as "The Last
European", and finance his way by selling tickets...
There they were, his audience: gentle giant
footballers; wiry country
lads on scholarship; anxious young
officers-in-training, always in uniform, polite, expectant; and the many
female students, called 'co-eds', as studious as the men (or even more
so), thinking nothing about wearing the aptly named 'shorts'.
"The lecture today, class, is on Kafka's
story 'The Metamorphosis'. I trust you all have read it?"
Laughter over his raised eyebrows, a good start. "Then I shall
Later. The dinners at the Faculty Club,
Benjamin has found, were uniformly excellent, a far cry from their
British model. The prodigious drinking, on the other hand, reminded
Benjamin - not unfavorably - of Moscow, though he himself tended to soda
water and a passable Missouri red, a recent discovery.
"Bilbo! Our esteemed Senator Bilbo is
fond of pointing out that his name signifies a style of double-edged
sword. But I ask you, what does he propose to cut with it?" Andrew
Lytle was in his cups again, by all appearances.
"Our budget again, I expect. What ho,
Walter?" The surgeon Percy was drinking soda water like himself.
"Our throats, in the fullness of time.
You've seen the latest outrage, Volter?" The Jackson Times changed
"I find nothing in it that shocks
me," after a perusal. ("Chopin," murmurs Percy,
surprising Benjamin.) "Presumably the senator is unaware that he
seeks an alliance with an ally of the Soviet Union?"
Lytle cackled. "I feel certain that the
Atlanta Constitution will soon remedy his ignorance," said Percy.
"Remedy him like a dose of jalap, I'll
say they will." Lytle drank, continued in a more mild tone. "I
must say, I am surprised by Senator Baruch's forbearance in a matter
of honor. Why, Pitchfork Ben would have shot him down like a mad dog
over what he said."
Softly, "Does your people credit."
Percy looked embarrassed.
"But uncharacteristic of the South
Carolinian temperament. Which is to say, violent, fractiferous, and
miserly - none of which apply to Senator Baruch. All of which apply to
South Carolina's bastard offspring, the Confederacy." A mischievous
gleam lit his eye.
Percy recognized it, and smiled.
"Another of your heresies, Andrew?"
"Am I a heretic for saying the
Confederacy was founded to protect our pecuniary institutions? Very
well then; I am a heretic. I say, our Southern ways would have been
better served if every Negro had been freed, and given the forty acres
and a mule once promised them in the heat of battle; it would have saved
us from our jets and our demagogues-the-commodification-of our
society," a nod towards Benjamin. "I look forward to young
Foote's elaboration on these ideas."
"Your ideas, you mean." Lytle
smiled serenely. "What say you, good Walter?"
"Very interesting." Recognizing
distraction, the two duelists leave
Benjamin to his own, private, thoughts.
Of the people Walter Benjamin never expected
to see in Mississippi, Karl August Wittfogel was surely near the top of
the list; but there the Communist theoretician stood, chatting at a
garden party with a faculty wife, a plate of beef brisket in one hand
and a glass in the other. Quickly Benjamin asks his host for an
"Good heavens, Walter, is that
you?" They shake hands; Benjamin, moved by obscure emotion, clasps
them together. Strangely, the crowd of the party starts clapping. Their
host leads them inside to an alcove where a colored woman serves them
Wittfogel was enervated, ebullient; the
effect was of a Lutheran parson turned cocainist. Benjamin could see the
shape of his skull under the lines of his drawn face as he talked.
Mutual friends, acquaintances, escapes; China and his endless, near
deadly delay in leaving that war-torn country. The quotidian facts of
exile - a good tailor, the Missouri Catawba Benjamin has grown fond of,
local affairs. Finally their host interrupts them; gentlemen, it _is_
"So it's decided, then? We shall see
this controversial new film together, and continue our conversation
"The American Frau im Mond, is it? I
confess I have been meaning to see a film for some time, but..."
"Hate to see 'em alone, do you? I know
how you feel."
"It's said to be a 'must-see'
production." Benjamin relishes the neologism. "Must I see? I
must see!" Wittfogel snorts. "Forgive me; it's late."
They take leave of their patient host, decide on a time, part under the
The cinema is set on a side street off the
courthouse square, some distance from the campus; Benjamin takes the
streetcar, receiving puzzled looks. It must be the cut of my suit, he
thinks as he sits reading the newspaper. More Bilbo. He sighs. If
fascism attempts to aesthetize politics, then of course a specious
connoisseurship follows, a cult of phony distinctions. Benjamin rises at
his stop, folding the newspaper under his arm.
Wittfogel is already waiting for him under
the marquee, wearing a Panama hat. "I have taken the liberty of
buying the tickets; there is to be no second feature tonight." They
sit a comfortable distance from the screen in the cool theatre; Benjamin
switches his glasses, waits as the seats fill up.
"Do you have your teeth? Here, try
this." Wittfogel hands him an open box of colorful design.
A dubious look at the gnarled brown pellet,
almost Turkish in its sweetness, but pleasantly gristly in the
chewing... "Is this the chewing gum that I have seen so much
of?" "No, no - puffed corn, coated with hard caramel. It is
permissible," Wittfogel added, "to swallow it. Ah, I see
you've found the toy!"
First the newsreel footage, its patter too
fast and stylized to follow. But the images tell their own story -
London under aerial attack; the Leader ranting before a crowd;
incomprehensible sports, which draw the unmistakable cry of "Nigger
lovers!" from one young man, who is promptly hushed by his
neighbors. Bathing beauties.
Then a short serial, the lowest sort of
costume melodrama - "Confederate content," Wittfogel explains
sotto voce, "required by law." An improbably named heroine in
improbable Second Empire attire - or was that truly the fashion here
once? - and her too-dashing suitors. But real tears were dabbed away by
the women in the audience.
And at last the feature.
The Sudetenlandisch name listed in the
credits as director gives Benjamin a shock; he had forgotten that the
Union's population was in origin as diverse as that of Paris or
Marseilles, or even more so. More unfamiliar, more unhomely names, and
then, "Based on Fritz Lang's 'The Woman in the Moon'".
Benjamin has few memories of Lang's earlier
film: splendidly realized effects, a true technical tour-de-force, but
And at first this film seems cast from the
same mold - Benjamin recalls the engine of Lang's plot as involving gold
on the Moon, not diamonds, but the dreary financial machinations in both
are similar. He rummages in the box and finds a candied peanut.
And then the audience is bathed in reflected
light, as the screen shifts to the gleaming California desert. Somehow,
through what device of camera work Benjamin does not know, the illusion
of great speed is produced - along the ground, through the air, diving
like a hawk, somersaulting in a wholly vertiginous procedure - and
somehow, Benjamin is able to link personalities, and even emotions, to
the different styles of flight. Yes, this is what Lang might have
intended to do, but failed to realize.
The identity of the pilots is revealed - a
coy political message? yes, he judges - the lead actor, of course, but
also a forward Union starlet with newly cropped hair, and a handsome
colored man. He turns to gauge the audience's reaction, finds himself
looking into the eyes of a similar-minded person, blushes.
An overtly didactic act follows, with a
figure obviously meant to be Einstein explaining the basics of rocket
flight. It strikes Benjamin suddenly that Einstein might very well be
here, in the Confederacy, perhaps even in Oxford. For some reason he
finds this disquieting.
Then a scene more purely borrowed from Lang,
the launch sequence, keeping even the reversed clock and its hourglass
drama of the seconds. Yet even here is Lang's technique advanced upon,
using the sounds of the machinery to balance the necessarily static
And then the rocket ignites, and the theater
is filled with its roar as it slowly ascends...
The brutal noise of its engines abruptly
ends, leaving an unearthly silence. Seconds pass. "Jehosaphat!"
an audience member swears. Finally the tinny, modulated, voice of the
lead actor, reporting altitude - cheers! In this film the silences are
stronger than speech, Benjamin realizes.
The next act is less artistically realized -
a 'walk' in open space, which Benjamin quickly perceives owes much more
to Esther Williams than to Fritz Lang. Would protective suits really be
so closely fitting?
The landing. For reasons Benjamin does not
fully understand, the woman pilot must stay revolving around the Moon -
die Frau im Mond, indeed! - which leaves the two men to explore it.
Suddenly the question of precedence enters Benjamin's mind, as indeed it
must in other members of the audience, judging by the mutters. He
realizes now the reason for the odd looks his fellow passengers gave him
on the streetcar; but most of his mind wonders how the director will
resolve this crux.
Of course. The men must wear their protective
suits. And as long as they are silent, they cannot be identified. On the
screen, one man helps the other down a thoroughly prosaic ladder to the
powdery soil of the Moon. In the black sky behind them, clouds swirl on
the shining globe of the Earth.
The rest of the film glides together in
Benjamin's consciousness. The sharp cuts between the lunar scenes of elegiac
serenity, and the sub lunar celebration. The moon-hopping
sequences, the explorers bounding in their suits like armored knights on
their chargers. Their discovery - a quick glimpse of a skeleton of no
earthly form. Only at this point do audience members leave, as if this
reminder of death has pushed their sensibilities too far. Et in Arcadia
ego. The return, and the bland, mellifluous lead actor's concluding
monologue, during which Benjamin remembers his half-empty box of sweets.
Did the time really pass so quickly?
After the curtain falls, Wittfogel and
Benjamin walk in companionable silence. "I know of a place that has
the most remarkable pastry, not far from here. Shall we?"
At the diner, Benjamin orders chess pie and
coffee from a henna-haired waitress, who puts a dollop of whipped cream
from a pressurized canister on each slice.
"Ah, this is good. What a classically imperialist film."
"Truly, I did not expect Bert Brecht
from Hollywood." Chuckles. "But what, in your estimation, made
it classic in that sense?"
"The passage, the exchange between the
impresario and the banker, naturally. 'What are our chances of getting
our money back? -- About one in fifty. -- And what is your excuse for
asking me to place money at such a risk? -- This enterprise will be one
of the greatest undertaken in the world!'" Wittfogel mimicked the
dialogue with the bitter mastery of an unfulfilled playwright.
"Glory and a rate of return. How did the British imperialist put
it? Ah, yes: 'Philanthropy is all very well and good, but philanthropy
and five percent is better.' All the rest of it, elaboration on that
"And the discovery at the end?"
"Cheap mysticism, pandering to the
crowd. Something Werfel would have come up with."
Before he can reply, a shadow crosses the
table. Benjamin looks up to see the hennaed waitress standing with an
alarmed expression on her face. "Are y'all spies?"
Wittfogel speaks first. "Of course not,
madame. We are professors." Not totally reassured by this, she
returns to talking with her teamster paramour, who glances at them and
taps his head. Wittfogel smiles. "Some things never change, eh,
Soon Benjamin is outlining his response to
the film: his insight into the director's use of silence, of flight; the
progressive attitude towards technology, expressing human goals instead
of shaping them; the entire aesthetic program of shaping a wholly
synthetic experience, and the probability that similar attempts will
devolve into cliché and jingoism.
Finally, an opportune moment. "Tell me,
Karl - are you still with the Party?"
Wittfogel's face hardens. "No. After
that pact Molotov made with that imbecile of a wine salesman..."
"I am not critical. But it seemed to me
unusual that someone under Party discipline would choose, would come
here, as you did."
Wittfogel looks uncomfortable. "Possibly
I could have made it to the Union. But coming here was a sure thing...
and I must confess, I was curious. Do you remember the Louis-Schmeling
fight?" Benjamin nods at the change of subject. "Louis was a
fugitive, a Runaway," Wittfogel uses the English word, "from
this place. They would not have been kind to him on recapture. Yet when
Louis knocked out Schmeling, these people scorned Schmeling and praised
Louis; for them, even a colored Knabe is better than a dictator's pet.
It is this antimony, this two-mindedness here that intrigues me - by the
dialectic it should have been resolved long ago." He pauses.
"It is not Mahoganny. Not even Parchman Farm is Mahoganny. Ah, I
believe the matron is ready to close; we should settle up."
Benjamin picks up his pen and continues
writing. "Just yesterday I learned that the Natchez described in
Chateaubriand's novellas were in fact a local tribe. No one here is
quite sure of their fate. This to me seems characteristic of the rawness
of this place - entire towns here can fade and die, and ransackers
auction the contents of empty houses."
"You ask me if I've been infected by the
'American bacillus'. I do feel energized by the continuing novelty of my
stay, but not necessarily more optimistic. The same sense of
exhilaration and fear I see here must have existed in Russia after the
reforms of Alexander the Second. It's impossible to predict what's going
to become of all of this."
"As soon as it becomes feasible, I
intend to visit you in Jerusalem. There we will discuss our researches
over mint tea, and we shall take siestas in the dry Jerusalem
afternoons, like two camels. There is an unbelievable amount of
condensation on my windowpanes here, and I worry what the humidity will
do to my manuscr--" A knock at the door.
"Yes, good evening?" At first
Benjamin cannot quite focus on his caller's face. The man steps further
into the light, and Benjamin realizes it is the janitor who sometimes
sits in the hallways outside the base of the lecture pits.
"Yes, how can I help you?"
"They say," the janitor coughs,
"they say you are a critic."
There is an uncomfortably long pause.
"That is correct."
"I have written something, that I would
like for you to critique." The janitor unwraps an oilskin and
removes a stack of paper, carefully tied with string.
Benjamin gingerly takes it; even in the dim
light he can see that the stack is made of several different kinds of
paper - typing paper, the backs of flyers, notebook sheets. The
handwriting is clear and round, like a child's, but perfectly legible.
He replies quickly. "Yes, this looks very interesting. Of course I
will read it."
Obviously disbelieving him, the janitor turns
and walks away. Benjamin feels his chest tighten, feels faint.
"Wait! What is your name?"
The janitor stops down the steps, and turns his head.
Benjamin meets his withering eye. "Mr.
Richard? I give you my word." The two men stand perfectly still.
Finally Richard nods, and continues down the
steps. Benjamin stands on the verandah and watches him walk into the
Still light-headed, he returns inside the
guest house. All thoughts of his letter forgotten, Benjamin sits down
and reads the story of Bigger Thomas.
Another Monday lecture. Benjamin has learned
to read the mood of his classes, the signs of discreet hangovers,
whispers, the rustle of notes passed. Today it is unusually quiet.
This morning's headlines have made pleasant
breakfast reading for Benjamin, from the sedately accurate "Bilbo
Implicated in Nazi Bribery Scandal" of the Atlanta Constitution, to
the "Bilbo Denies Government Charges" of the suddenly demure
Jackson Times, to the 36-point payback "FILTHY LUCRE!" of the
Oxford Gazeteer. Benjamin had not thought most of his students
politically engaged enough to have an opinion, is glad to have been
In a curious coincidence his lecture today is
on Zola. He is halfway through the expected giggles as he describes the
plot of Nana when he is interrupted by a commotion at the top of the
lecture hall. A group of young men is standing at the windows, talking
and gesturing outside.
American informality is all well and good,
but this is utterly disrespectful, he thinks, as he walks up the steps
of the lecture pit. "What is going on here?" he asks, as he
hears the noise of engines coming from the tall open windows,
accompanied by... drumbeats? Someone shouts, "Get down!" right
before the windows shatter in bursts of machine gun fire, covering the
back rows in shards of glass. "Oh my God, I'm blind," one
student says incredulously.
An explosion rocks the room, knocks the
remaining glass from the panes.
In the chaos of the following minutes one
young lieutenant has already taken charge, directing nursing students to
the wounded, calming the frightened, rallying his comrades around him.
In the heat of the moment Benjamin has forgotten the young officer's
name, only that he has written a brilliant essay on Flaubert.
Another explosion. "That's dynamite. God
damn it to hell, they must be trying for the Armory."
Benjamin interrupts the soldiers' discussion.
"I must go back to my home. My book..."
"Professor, the safest place for you is
going to be right here."
And if they come for me? "My book, it is
all that I have left."
The lieutenant sees his intransigence,
considers for a moment. "You live past Barnard House, away from the
Armory. Lessen they're stupid... you'll want this." He withdraws a
gun from a previously unsuspected shoulder holster. It is an enormous
revolver, of a type Benjamin has seen only in films.
"No, I could not possibly -"
"I would not know what to do -"
"Sir, it's my daddy's gun. Take
it." Benjamin takes the revolver from the young man's grasp - it is
strangely warm and heavy in his hand - and arranges it carefully in his
coat pocket. The lieutenant sighs. "Lott, take him out through the
nigger entrance. Make sure he's all clear."
The quad is empty and silent, and patches of
morning fog still obscure the middle distance. The trucks have left
tracks of torn earth on the immaculate lawns, Benjamin notices as he
chuffs past. In the distance behind him he hears the sharp bark of
pistols, and runs faster. A slight rain begins to fall.
Out of breath, Benjamin enters the guest
house, where his manuscript is exactly as he left it. He sighs with
relief, and puts it into his new leather valise, a gift from Doctor
Percy. On impulse he includes the other papers on his desk, the letters
from Gerhard, the janitor's draft, and hurries back out to the street.
A blast deafens his ears, then another.
Benjamin turns around in shock.
"Well, looky here. Mr. Benjamin, I
presume. You done surprised me." A man walks down the verandah
steps. Despite the ringing in his ears, Benjamin can hear the mist
sizzle on the barrels of the smoking shotgun that he holds. Droplets of
water fall from the roof off the brim of the gunman's gray felt hat.
"Y'all think you're better than us. You
Jews." The gunman advances on him, and as he walks backwards
Benjamin remembers too late the picket fence behind him. The gunman
Benjamin now sees that the man is very young,
and very drunk. "No. No, we don't." He feels curiously calm.
This was the fate he expected in the internment camp, in France.
The gunman doesn't hear, or pretends not to.
"Gonna make you beg like a nigger. Gonna make you beg like a nigger
bitch." He snickers, fumbles with the shells, swears.
"No. I will not beg." Benjamin
lowers the valise he has been unconsciously holding in front of his
chest, tucks it to one side.
A crack. Benjamin briefly wonders if it is
the sound of his death. He opens his eyes.
The shotgun falls, fires when it hits the
ground, splintering the white-washed fence. The gunman too falls,
holding his knee, his eyes staring, his mouth open. "Ah, Jesus,
Jesus, it hurts, it hurts!" he screams. Benjamin sees bright red
blood seep through the man's scarred knuckles, his lower leg jutting out
at an improbable angle.
"Morning, Volter." Andrew Lytle
lopes into view, hunting rifle in hand.
Benjamin is speechless.
"Thought we might be having a little
trouble today. Bilbo has what our psychologists call a Samson complex -
if'n he can't get his own way, why, he'll pull the temple down around
him." He stands over the wounded gunman, tsks. "Too many
goddam trees on the street, can't hardly get a clear shot." Lytle
kicks the shotgun away from the whimpering man, brusquely reaches into
his raincoat. "Don't you even think about puking on me, boy.
Ah." He pulls out a silver flask from an inner pocket, swigs,
spits. "Methyl. Well, no goddam wonder." Lytle pockets the
flask, removes another from his own coat. "Here, drink."
Benjamin drinks the white liquor, his thirst
for the alcohol surprising himself. "Thank you." He drinks
again. "And now what?"
"Now we wait. Inside, I think." And
soon, the sound of sirens.