Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Thoughts on Art and Literature with Merrill's Marauders

From The Marauders by Charlton Ogburn, Jr., a memoir of his time with Merrill's Marauders in Burma during the Second World War:

Ahead of us loomed the Naura Hkyat, the 6,100-foot pass over the backbone of the Kumon. It looked insurmountable and very nearly was so. It strengthened our feeling that we had become detached from the rational world, like the Russian regiment that was forgotten about after the Czar sent it marching off in a direction that happened to be that of Siberia. All the way up we had to spend as much time resting and giving our hearts and lungs a chance to catch up as we did climbing. One thing that helped keep you going was the thought that this was the worst there could be. It was so bad it was preposterous. At times it was possible to drop to your hands almost without bending over, and we did so, scrambling up on all fours. We were unable to reach the top the same day we began the ascent and had to camp halfway up.

That night was one of those rare times when we were able to pick up a program of good music from a U.S. Army station in Australia. It included Marian Anderson singing "My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice," the spiritual "Heaven," and the Largo from Xerxes. On an earlier occasion, on the way to Walawbum, we had heard portions of Aida.

Among the things we learned about ourselves in Burma was that, even in times of hunger for food, a hunger for music and books persisted. Winnie Steinfield had brought along a paperback collection of five of Shakespeare's plays and had split it up into its constituent parts which, after binding them with adhesive tape from a K-ration carton, he circulated among a few friends. They were considered priceless. I had had the foresight to bring a copy of Hamlet of my own, one about three inches high, and I read it all through the campaign, dipping into it during halts on the march. However pressing the reality, it never seemed more real than Shakespeare and never dimmed his force and appeal or, for that matter, Kipling's or Conrad's--those two especially weathered the ordeal of that period--though in their case I had only my recollections to go on.

Art, you might think, would do little for a faint heart. It holds out no promise of a happy resolution in this world or a next, it has nothing to say about any higher purpose that life is serving--life being to art an end in itself. Yet when you read the poetry of Hamlet or hear the music of Handel's Largo or Verdi's "Su del Nilo" amid the wild, dark hills, you find that it transcends hunger and sickness and fear. If art cannot fulfill our yearnings and aspirations, it can voice them with an eloquence that ennobles our cause. A great expression of literature, painting or music is like the sun when it breaks through the clouds to transfigure a wearisome landscape in a golden light. Bringing a heightened awareness of the realm of experience, it brings also a sense of triumph of the human spirit, and perhaps because of the harmony of its own vision seems to testify, like the cosmology of science, to the underlying oneness of all things, in which is our immortality.

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