Sunday, 6 July 2008

Human Smoke:
The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilisation

This year has already seen a number of remarkable studies on 20th and 21st century wars appear on the book market that are being added to library shelves in Sydney. There’s the The War Complex: World War II in Our Time by Marianna Torgovnick which has been published in paperback by University of Chicago. There’s also Nick Turse’s The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives which this site has already spotlighted. There’s also Laila Al-Arian and Chris Hedges’ Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians and Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes’ The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict as well as Darfur: A New History of a Long War, the revised, second edition release of Julie Flint & Alex de Waal’s 2005 Darfur: A Short History of a Long War.

Committed to charting and exposing the catastrophic engulfment of European, African and Arabic societies in world wars, these titles are books I passionately want added to library shelves. So in a way it’s fitting that the one war book published this year that deserves a place in library collections is Nicholson Baker’s astonishing Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilisation. The newspaper sources that it draws on were part of 20 tonnes of newsprint, including a complete run of the New York Times, that Baker rescued from being destroyed by libraries. Baker has documented the destruction by libraries of decades-old paper-based material in his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.

Reading Baker’s book, even dipping into randomly selected “postings” like the one I reproduced in my posting on Ewald Banse, I found it hard not to be challenged by this selective opening up of public records – it grates against the layers of schooling and existing history collections in most public libraries that have been sustaining how generations understand the public responses to World War II in British and U.S societies (“Churchill appears as more of a warmonger [in Human Smoke] than he is usually portrayed, and there is far more than in most textbooks about pacifist opposition to the war in the United States and Britain and to Britain’s pre-Blitz bombing campaign of German cities”). There are challenging truths aimed at dislodging the institutionalisation of World War II as a just war – from the revisioning of Winston Churchill(“Churchill, in this astute, comprehensive but energetically selective reading, comes across almost exclusively as bloodthirsty and anti-Semitic, goading Hitler into expanding the conflict by indiscriminate bombing of the Ruhr, intent on promoting 'shock and awe' by inflicting maximum damage on German civilian populations”) to the role of the British blockade in forcing the Nazi evolvement of the extermination of Europe’s Jewish peoples (“[t]he Third Reich, meanwhile, from scrupulous contemporary reports, is seen to dwell on a preferred Final Solution that would have seen the transport of European Jews to Madagascar, a possibility prevented by the British blockade of ports. Baker does not shirk from Nazi horror stories, but he includes, too, the Gestapo commanders who sought to bring bread to the starving Warsaw Ghetto, and by default begins to suggest that Hitler was 'forced' into genocide by the brutal Allied conduct of the war”).

In fact, in so far as Baker’s chronological “pointalism” or presentation of fragments of public record invokes Walter Benjamin’s nostrum that “history breaks down into images, not into stories” Human Smoke’s paper-based challenge to Anglophonic archival presentation and elision of World War II also represents a welcomed critical alternative to the audio-visual narratives offered by the History Channel.

There’s an excellent interview with Baker conducted by Chris Lydon on Radio Open Source, and I’ve transcribed the opening conversation below. But the interview deserves to be heard in full as Lydon allows Baker to fully expand on the ethical and historiographical commitments shaping his crafting of the book.

Final words from Sam Anderson’s online review of Human Smoke in the New York Magazine:

“To dismiss Baker’s project as a failed work based on the traditional criteria of history writing, however, is to misunderstand its actual purpose and power—and also to underestimate the good sense of the average reader. No one is likely to mistake Human Smoke for a comprehensive scholarly history of the war. It’s an auto-didact’s record of his own obsessive, subjective research. It devotes generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history (secretaries, pacifist students, journalists), excavates great lost quotes ('What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none'), and powerfully questions canonical events based on carefully identified sources. As in all of Baker’s work, the strength of Human Smoke comes from the defamiliarizing charge it brings to a familiar subject. Its unorthodox form allows it to capture, with brutal efficiency, the daily texture of the war—the suffering, the confusion on the ground, the strike among Viennese mail carriers from the stress of delivering too many death letters. Baker doesn’t hide his omissions or his anecdotes’ lack of context—in fact, each vignette is surrounded by generous white space, so the lacunae are a constant visible presence in the book. It’s the kind of project that encourages, rather than closes off, further reading. Its texture is deeply convincing, and a much stronger message of peace than mere argument could ever muster.”

CHRISTOPHER LYDON: Nicholson Baker, everything about this book Human Smoke is interesting and some of it is controversial, but there are two main things I would love to engage you on. One is the method. This book many ways it’s a hyper-text on war from…obscure to famous, to interesting, to autobiographical, to all manner of things. And some people have criticised you for it: “This is not the way to write history.” Could we begin with that? Why this form of a reflection on World War II, on bombing, on violence, on war in general?

NICHOLSON BAKER: Well, I chose this form partly because it turned out that way, but also I think as I worked with the material I realized that there was a kind of large, loose story about the war, one story and there were good guys and bad guys, and it made sense. It’s the story I carried around with me, and we all do. But I wanted to replace that one story with many, many, little stories, moments of decision, points at which somebody could do something heroic or could fail to do something heroic. A point where somebody decides to give a speech, decides to sign a petition. I wanted to create the sense in the reader that war is a short word for innumerable, daily moments. I wanted to kind of explode the whole thing into this constellation of fragments.

NICHOLSON BAKER: One of the exciting things about working on a book like this is to read some source, the heroic diaries say of Victor Klemperer, the horrifying diaries of Goebbels, what was on the front page of the newspaper, and read it and think, what is the one moment in this thing that is unforgettable, what describes what happens, gives us a sense of what was really going on, but also does a few things obliquely, gives us a taste of the emotional context. I wanted to have the rough outlines of the war – this isn’t a comprehensive history, but it’s talking about what actually happened, and there are these big moments. But I wanted the big moments to be arrived at obliquely sometimes, because we were all, a lot of us in the United States, we were bystanders at this point. This book stops in 1941. So until the very end, we were looking on, and we were trying to piece together this huge catastrophe at a distance.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON: The method itself is so different from what we are used to. I’m thinking of Ken Burn’s on The War, Tom Brokaw on The Greatest Generation, heroic biographies like Doris Kearns Goodwin on Churchill and Roosevelt. What were you saying indirectly about that way of getting our history?

NICHOLSON BAKER: Well, I wouldn’t want to diminish the incredible amount of work that goes into writing a traditional biography, say of a great man like Churchill. I guess I wanted it to be a little messier and to have contradictory moments where you read something and you get half the story, and then you have to go onto something else. Because when you follow a war, there are all these pieces, and they’re conflicting, and so you make up a little theory on the fly and say wait, it must be that this was caused because this happened, that the Germans are thinking this, and we’re gonna do that and then you have to revise that based on some other little piece of information. That’s truer to the experience of being within a war then the kind of steady thread in which characters are consistent and decisions are always taken after sober consideration and things happen sort of predictably sort of one moment after the next. It isn’t actually that way.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON: I came to think that there’s a falsehood almost, a falsity about the other treatments of history that you could put to music. You know how it’s going to come out. You know who’s who. This book is so full of surprise witnesses that turn out to have real perspective on what’s going on. I’m not sure how else we have found them.

NICHOLSON BAKER: Well, I’m glad you took it that way. There’s some reactions to the book in which the notion that it’s confusing and that it has uncomfortable truths sort of interlarded with familiar truths upsets people. And I think that’s gonna be a natural result of this. But it’s not as if this book is built on things that are secret. I mean I wanted this book to be the kind of book that anybody who had the ability to drive to a university library and look things up could write. I wanted every source to be published. I wanted it to be built on a way of understanding the war that could be retrievable by anyone. But I did want to listen to some voices that people don’t normally listen to. For instance, the Quaker pacifists, and the Fellowship of Reconcillation, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. These were minority voices…

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