Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Premature Anti-Fascist

I love Bernard Knox. And the best part is, he's not dead yet. I thought he was. This would be a reasonable expectation of anyone born in 1914, but apparently, I was wrong. Most recently, he has written the introductions to the Robert Fagles translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and now The Aeneid as well. He is, for me, everything anyone could want in an engaged intellectual.

Tonight I stumbled across this gem, entitled Premature Anti-Fascist, on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. This is a remarkable speech delivered by Knox at New York University in 1998. The term "premature anti-fascist" was code in the US military during the 40s for "communist." US soldiers in WW II who had previous experience fighting fascism were considered politically unreliable and withheld from the front lines. Somehow Knox got through. They probably figured that as a Brit, this sort of lapse was more to be expected. Besides, he was fluent in French, and they needed that.

The essay discusses the state of the world in the 30s and 40s, and reminds us that the western powers were perfectly ready to make their peace with fascism and only recognized this threat to civilization for what it was when it was nearly too late. As he says, it was already too late for many, the Jews and the Poles in particular.

Knox was wounded in Spain fighting with the POUM in 1936, emigrated from England to the US, and joined the OSS, where he was trained and sent to parachute, "in uniform, behind the Allied lines in Brittany to arm and organize French Resistance forces and hold them ready for action at the moment most useful for the Allied advance." After the war, he attended graduate school at Yale, where he would become a Professor of Classics, specializing in Virgil, Thucydides, and the Greek playwrights.

In the introduction to Essays Ancient & Modern, which covers much of the same biographical ground as his 1998 speech, he writes about finding a copy of Virgil in a ruined house in Italy. The war had yet to end and his unit was engaging the Germans in sporadic combat. He remembers the idea of the Virgilian lottery, in which one would open Virgil anywhere, and where one's finger landed was thought to be predictive. His lands on this passage from the First Georgic:
"Here right and wrong are reversed, so many wars in the world, so many faces of evil. The plow is despised and rejected; the farmers march off, the fields untended. The curving sickles are beaten straight to make swords. On one side, the East moves to war; on the other, Germany. Neighboring cities tear up their treaties and take to arms. The vicious war god rages the world over."


Bruce said...

I had always thought that "Premature Anti-Fascist" would be a great name for an activist-youth group.

Maybe a zine or website by young activists? But who wants to be called "pre-mature?" Still, be funny.

John said...

gotta love me some Georgics blogging dude!

reading the classics and history tends toward making me pessimistic; as in, by thinking that America could be an enlightened empire, I am falling into the fallacy of American exceptionalism; whereas, really, empires have always been brutal; societies have always been cruel; people have always been nuts.

But, I always think -- it'll be different for us!

But I know that such pessimism is weak. It is our obligation to do what we can to make America into a post-cruel society. Not to do so would be turn away from our own humanity.

John said...

"Premature Anti-Fascist" is a catchy, strange, resonant phrase.

Maybe we should write song for our kids to sing.

Anonymous said...

Another Bernard Knox fan! There is no one quite like him. My favorite moment in "Essays Ancient and Modern" is his description of being the OSS liaison to a group of rather suspicious Communist partisans in Northern Italy. He is trying to make himself understood, but Spanish words are creeping in to take the place of similar Italian words -- "fuego" instead of "fuoco," for example. Suddenly it dawns on the leader of the Italians where Knox would havelearned his Spanish, and he comes over and slaps him on the shoulder enthusiastically, saying "Espagna!"
And let's not forget Patrick Leigh-Fermor, who at 18, in the early 1930's, set out to walk (literally walk, which meant accepting no rides) across Europe to Constantinople. He had a volume of Horace in his backpack, and a lot of classical and English poetry memorized, so that he kept himself amused by reciting as he walked. When the war came, the British collected a bunch of former boarding school students who knew ancient Greek, figuring that for work in Greece, it was easier to train these people in modern Greek than start from scratch with people who knew no Greek at all. After the Germans occupied Crete, Leigh-Fermor stayed behind, working with Cretan guerrillas, and, with another officer, like him dressed in German uniform, kidnapped the German general in command of the island. They spent three weeks on the run with him, up and down the crags of Crete, before being able to meet a boat that would take their prisoner to North Africa. On one occasion, the general was looking out at the view from some mountainside and spoke a couple of lines from the start of a poem of Horace's. Leigh-Fermor then recited the rest of the poem, while the general looked at him with new eyes.
-- Peter in Ballard