Saturday, October 30, 2010

Umnak Island, 23 September 1944

My queer cucumber…  

[...the first two pages are quotes from Good Night, Sweet Prince, a biography of John Barrymore…]

Another item from the Times is about a psychological disease called “chronophobia,” fear of time (small T), which causes mental disintegration among prisoners and “may possibly appear in the Army and Navy, in concentration camps and among shipwrecked sailors.”

Salvatore Russo, the psychologist who has been studying the problem, says that prisoners fear time because it is the symbol of their confinement, that time, to a prisoner, “is life itself.” Punishment is meted out in terms of time. Prisoners always ask one another “How much time to you have in?” they are always “doing time,” and they always know how many days much still be served before release comes. According to Russo the realization of the true duration of a sentence does not come at once. First there is hope, uncertainly a studied indifference, a carefree attitude. Perhaps an appeal may succeed, perhaps friends and relatives can intercede with the politically powerful. False hopes are thus aroused. Something happens after a few months, sometimes only after a few years. There comes the realization that a long stretch much be served. Friends do not write or call as often as they once did. Suspicion is aroused that a wife or sweetheart is no longer faithful.  These gloomy thoughts are followed by anxiety, restlessness, dissatisfaction. The prisoner complains of sleeplessness and of other ills—stomach trouble, pains in the chest, back or head, a fast heart, dizziness, palpitation. If the prison physician tells him that his ills are imaginary, fear is heightened—the fear of dying of neglect. In the end the prison psychiatrist takes him in and classifies him as a neurotic…These crises often pass. But when they do pass it is the clock and calendar that rule life. Russo says that the men are reduced to the status of mere automata. It is nature’s way of helping them. Time then passes more smoothly. Life is lived one day at a time.

Up here we are being presented with a fine psychological study of a character in disintegration. Our Tim is such a blend of alcohol and paranoia that it is a pity he can’t be subjected to clinical analysis. He is the only drinking man I have ever known who cannot drink, the two latest gags about his infinitesimal alcoholic capacity are: “He should be served beer in jiggers” and “He could get high on a good rub down.”

It isn’t funny, of course. The dissolution of an intelligent mind, the collapse of a well-knit character, cannot really be funny. Somewhere along the line Tim has crossed the line between drinking as a stimulant and drinking as a perversion. To quit now will take more character than he has left, I am afraid. 

In Fairbanks, after his Aleutian year, he was drunk all the time and said it was because he had not had his furlough. When I arrested him that day in Seattle he said he was drunk because he could not bear to think of coming back. When he got to Alaska he drank his way out of Anchorage on the excuse that he didn’t want to stay there anyway. In Fairbanks he drank himself into a stupor and explained he was longing for a little town. He was sent back out here and on every drunk has paranoically prated about persecution.

But his latest binge came on the day after he was told that everything was set for him to clear out of here. He and Thornton and Jack will all go on the same plane, as soon as transportation can be arranged. So Tim with his usual unerring instinct locates alcohol and besots himself. From noon on today Jack and Greenleaf were trying to get him up to get packed so that, if transportation were suddenly available, he should be ready to take off. But not our Timothy. “Ahhhhh hell wi’ it. Don wanna go till my laundry back.” They finally hauled him out of bed and steered him off to work, mumbling, “Fine buncha friends, fine buncha friends, won’ even hold down a circuit for a fella when he’s sick.” Later he asked Greenleaf to pack for him and Thornton told him to go to hell. Said Tim, “I always knew you were a sonofabitch.” 

There was to this latest fling one fitting touch. We have broken Tim of the habit of urinating off the front porch of our hut but he, and a few other of the fellows, persist in letting fly within a foot or two of the rec hall. Drainage is poor there, and the problem complicated by the fact that the rec hall is the beer hall. Last night when one Good Samaritan located Tim in the rec hall, conscious but beyond the realm of self-propulsion, he started to take our Irishman home. After getting him outside he let go of Tim for a moment and turned to shut the hut door. When he turned around, no Tim. He played the flashlight about the walk. There was our little man, face down in a pool of urine. Later Time duplicated his feat of going out to relieve himself, unbuttoning his pants, taking out his scrotum and urinating down his pants and into his shoe, then going back to bed, clothed and shod.

We will welcome the plane that takes him away as a refugee welcomes the Gripsholm.

The weather up here reminds me of the Hoquiam high school bear that Elmer the Yogi played with. It keeps getting rougher and rougher. In the early days of my stay on the island, even the grey days were soft, and the warm ones were playful and prankish. But through August there was a rising strength to the weather, the wind developed power. And now, although the wildest weather is still months away, the wind has an almost terrifying strength. It pounds against the flat drumends of the hut in staccato bursts. It curls under loose fittings and screams and whines of things to come. It snarls down the tin stovepipe and rattles the sides of the iron oilburner. Because the direction of the wind changes each moment (standing on the bank I can watch it race over the bending grasses of the meadow, shifty as a Husky halfback of the thirties) it makes a whole symphony of sound, booming hissing, thrumming, humming, crashing, sassing, screeching, howling, wailing, fading away like a beaten banshee, screaming back like an angry puma.

Lying in bed today, nursing my cold, I watched everyone as he passed Time’s bunk after the “Don’t Wanta Go Till the Laundry’s Home proclamation. Each man, thinking of how he would like to be getting out of here, looked at the Irishman as a money-minused clerk would look at a fellow worker who lit a cigarette with a ten dollar bill, puzzled, unbelieving, disgusted....Sometime during the afternoon, after listening to another pair of warriors discussing their plans for soon-to-be-realized furloughs, I jotted down this notion on the back of a book, “Men of meager imagination and harlot hopes.”

Somehow the last phrase sums up my attitude toward my fellow man, these days. But, as I keep arguing with Jack, no matter how much you dislike most individuals, there should be no arguing that each does not have equal right to opportunity, education, protection, security. It seems to be that the true test of reaction is whether it denies these rights, the test of liberalism is whether it, by deed, upholds the rights of all. The “by deed” is the important thing. There is extremely little liberalism in of an active sort in the world today. Too much of it is in the form of proclamations and charters, too little in action against the forms and characters who restrict the possibility of human growth.

John-boy in a recent review of “Germany: A Short History” says “They do not rest the case there (on the fact that Ludendorff changed the first world war from a war of limited objectives into a total war of societies when he let Lenin back into Russia in order to help collapse the czarist regime). The Germany of the Weimar Republic might have been won for peace in spite of Ludendorff and Hitler if a worldwide ethical collapse hadn’t followed hard upon the blasting of the more utopian hopes of the peacemakers. In 1919 we expected the millennium; in 1938 we didn’t believe in morals, ethics, honesty or charity. The moral of the Shuster Berstraesser book would seem to be this: if you don’t expect too much of peace, you may work harder to preserve it.”

This sort of reverse-English assurance which the authors present seems to me based on the miscalculation that everyone expected the millennium last time. The last peace was sabotaged by those who did not think it could be accomplished, by the willful minority in the Senate, by the men and women who were afraid it would cost us something to help someone else. And there are probably more such doubters now than before. To believe that a preponderance of such sentiment will help the peace seems a little naïve. 

And this is all for this one, little lover. Do write as often as you can.  …
M

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