Armistice Day, once a widely celebrated holiday commemorating the close of World War I, has decidedly fallen out of fashion (well, except in France and Belgium). The name itself was jettisoned following World War II in favor of Veterans Day, in order to better celebrate veterans of all wars. That change was borne out of an admirably egalitarian sentiment. But no longer do we celebrate peace — the end to war, and even the notion of an end to all war — on the same day that we recognize vets.
But just as one might curse Columbus on his day for his wholesale dismemberment of those whom he figured just had to be West Indians, it stands to reason that Armistice Day can be reclaimed for our own ends. Thus, we have what bodes to be one of Spirit & Place’s most outstanding events — Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day: Healing through the Humanities, an afternoon’s worth of talks, activities and conversation devoted to better understanding the relationship between creativity and the soldier, with a little extra attention to one veteran and native son, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Vonnegut, whose birthday just happens to be Nov. 11, returned again and again to the battlefield in his work. His Slaughterhouse-Five might be said to mimic in its structure the experience of a veteran suffering from PTSD. It roams from past to present, with seemingly little cause and effect. One moment, a middle-aged, befuddled Billy Pilgrim is sitting in his basement, his feet turning blue from the cold; the next he’s trudging through the cold, a chaplain’s assistant captured by the Germans.
It’s not hard to find other examples in Vonnegut’s work: His Bluebeard ends as its narrator shows off a mural that reproduces a single, obsessively-recalled scene from World War II, a memory from his days spent with other freed prisoners of war abandoned to their devices in the German countryside. Each detail is meticulously rendered, every facial expression, maybe every blade of grass, in immersive, larger-than-life form.
Those writings, according to Kurt’s son Mark Vonnegut, who will take part in Sunday’s event, are a record of his father’s attempt to process his memories. “When I look at my father, he was really a privileged, smart aleck kid before he went through what he went through,” Vonnegut, a pediatrician, said from his Massachusetts office. “In coming to terms with what he went through as a prisoner of war and everything else, he grew up in a hurry, and he really made a lot of it, and I think that’s a good model of 'don’t let it get you down.’"
While Vonnegut is concerned that a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder might be used to invalidate veterans by labeling them as something less than sane, he emphasized that his father “overcame what would have been called PTSD by being involved in the arts, and I think that works for other people, as well.”
And it’s those other people who are paramount for Vonnegut, who noted that Sunday’s event ought not to be merely about his Dad, but “should be controlled and determined by the vets.” That’s part and parcel of Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Executive Director Julia Whitehead’s vision for the library as an organization that not only advocates for Vonnegut’s legacy, but also for those causes to which Vonnegut gave full-throated support via his work.
It’s safe to call this one of the library’s biggest programs yet, though Whitehead would likely hasten to add that the library isn’t the only presenting organization (several veterans groups are on that list, as well as Indiana Humanities, the Indiana National Guard and WFYI). Participants include Dr. Jonathan Shay, who has devoted much of working life to studying PTSD and help-ing vets to heal wounds, both internal and external; Steve Inskeep, the NPR host, who will interview Shay; and Ehren Tool, an Iraq war soldier turned ceramicist who has given away over 14,000 cups that bear some manner of war-related imagery. The day begins with keynote speech by Shay, before breaking into workshops and closing with a panel discussion and performance.
While “healing” is a key part of the event’s title, it’s interesting to note that the Berkeley, Calif.-based Tool, who plans to create hundreds of cups while visiting Indianapolis, wasn’t initially compelled by the notion that art, in and of itself, can have a cathartic effect. “But I had this show in Los Angeles, and I made 1200 cups, and I laid them all out to make sure I made the right kind of shelves and things,” he said in a phone interview. “Looking at 1200 cups I thought, 'Oh, shit,’ I might have crossed that line between productive and obsessive.”
Tool freely gives his cups away to people from all walks of life, notably fellow vets and family members of vets. “Yeah, I’m not a religious person but as for vocation, what God calls you to do — for me, it’s making these fucking cups!” he said. “If I was a doctor, I’d volunteer for Doctors Without Borders. But cups is what I make, and the message in the cups is what I believe in. It seems a very small and very impotent thing to do, but it’s what I believe in.”
Compared rather unfairly to Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Full Metal Jacket in one profile, Tool nonetheless looks more like the stereotype of a craftsman and artisan than a rarefied fine artist. He calls himself an “object maker,” notes that he’s a “mediocre potter” who’s happy to shirk the responsibility of having to defend his work in the “true art world,” and is aware of the double-edged nature of fame: He abandoned a project that saw him writing letters and sending cups to those somehow connected to the the U.S. military because he found that some correspondents looked him up on Google before replying.
“A lot of the work I make now is for specific people: Fathers or sons or whoever,” he said, noting that he doesn’t stamp any sort of military insignias on his cups unless supplied by a vet’s family. “I don’t show that to anybody; I don’t even photograph a lot of work that I make for people like that. It’s the best work I’ve made! But it’s not mine, almost. As an object maker, making something for somebody that really appreciates it is the goal. I made some cups for this woman in Los Angeles, and I thought she was gonna drop them; she started crying right away, and it looked like she got weak in the knees. It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of that person’s life.”
“It’s cool to see those cups as part of an exhibition, on the wall, that sort of shit, but it’s so much cooler for me to think about them traveling through time and space, from hand to hand,” he continued. “You get a cup, and because somebody loves you, you pass that to them, and they hold on to that cup because it was special to you. That’s magic to me, to think that I put it in your hand, and you put it in someone else’s, and then, 500,000 to a million years later if somebody’s around, they pick it up and have the same experience. It takes some of the pressure off me too because I have 500,000 to 1 million years to find an audience for my work, right?”
Soldiers as artists
Of course, not all art about war — not even all art about war made by soldiers — need have cathartic ends. Renee Klish, retired art curator for the U.S. Army, will talk Sunday about Army-commissioned artwork created since World War I, when a group of soldier-artists were first sent to the field with the mission, according to Klish, to “paint what you see, in whatever style and whatever medium, as long as it’s recognizable.”
They were charged to create art as reportage, with the Army also keeping an eye toward its propaganda value. Klish distinguishes this body of work, created by artists employed by all branches of the armed forces up to present, from that created by soldiers years after their war experiences. Not that the artists didn’t create work with significant emotional impact, including graphic pieces that show the Army in less than the greatest light.
On the whole the collection is valuable, according to Klish, because it shows “the everyday life of the soldier. You don’t have just war scenes. You also have scenes in camp, of soldiers interacting with civilians. You have every aspect, from the mundane to the battle.” Some great talents were engaged by the Army, which still maintains a permanent post of soldier-artist, over the years.
“I love the collection, which is kind of ironic because I’m pretty much a pacifist,” Klish said. “You really have the creme de la creme of mid-century artists, a lot of people who came from the WPA program. I had curators come from other museums and their jaws dropped. That’s why I called the collection the greatest collection that nobody had ever heard of.”
So It Goes
The library’s new literary journal, So It Goes, the first issue of which should appear Nov. 11 (assuming Hurricane Sandy’s interruptions haven’t interrupted the supply chain), may likewise offer possible discoveries or re-discoveries for the reader looking to better understand war and the soldier’s life.
J.T. Whitehead, the journal’s editor and husband to Julia Whitehead, the library’s executive director, saw So It Goes through an incredibly short gestation period. The journal’s team had about two months to put the journal together after a grant was received in mid-July. One month was spent collecting material, the other in dealing with proofing, editing, layout and all other concerns.
“The first-ever reader of So It Goes told us that we should never (have to) explain to anyone that we did this thing in one month, that it stands on its own, that it needs no excuses,” Whitehead said. “And I like to think that’s true, but the chaos that accompanied the shrunken time-line is one of the things that makes the story behind the magazine interesting, I think.”
The journal draws from four groups of contributors. First there were the “dead people,” some of whose works were drawn from Whitehead’s personal anthology, a collection Whitehead has compiled over the past two decades, typing up quotes or poems that catch his fancy.
“Second, I went for new work from living poets, and for that I used my own personal anthology again, but I also looked through all of the contributors copies that magazines send you when they publish your poetry,” Whitehead said. He found work by Donald W. Baker, Robert Bly, Hayden Carruth, James Norcliffe, David Pointer using his anthology; and Marge Piercy, Robert West, Gerald Locklin, Julie Kane, A.D. Winans, Elana Bell rose to the top by looking through those free journals. Some of the living poets contributed new work; Whitehead says there are about 40 new works and 25 previously published work included in the first issues.
Then Whitehead drew from friends of Vonnegut and friends of the library, soliciting work from Dan Wakefield, James Alexander Thom, Morley Safer, and Sidney Offit. And finally he pulled from unsolicited manuscripts sent to the library, some of which turned out to be excellent.
Whitehead said the idea had been out there to create literary magazine from the library’s founding — and maybe even before that, given that he and his wife, who met as English students in college, had always dreamed of founding some kind of little magazine. Julia Whitehead said she was concerned about how it would look for her husband to be the editor, but that he was simply the best person for the job. J.T. Whitehead notes that, given that he has 120 poems in print, was a Pushcart nominee and knows the territory, he was uniquely poised to jump into the scene and connect with fellow writers and editors.
But Whitehead (J.T. this time, though Julia would spread this love) is quick to give credit to his collaborators, including production designer Shannon Bahler and designer Sara Lunsford. Copies will be available for $12, more than likely by Nov. 10, when the library will host an book launch for the new Dan Wakefield-edited collection of Vonnegut’s letters. Veterans will get a free copy on at the Nov. 11 event, as will all contributors.
Back to Kurt
And as we see Vonnegut’s letters published and become witness to the kind of post-humous studies that look at the man behind the work, we might come to admire even more the fortitude that it took him to do what he did. As Mark Vonnegut put it, “I always thought that there were two separate things running through my family: one was art, and the other was mental challenges. And I’ve really come to see that the arts really do help transform your past and help you grow from it, and that’s something I realized relatively recently.”
Mark Vonnegut’s two memoirs bear witness to that theory: Both deal frankly and lucidly with his bouts with severe mental illness, which, he notes, very nearly knocked him out of running to become a contributing member of society. He can identify with those vets who feel themselves laden down by, rather than helped by, a PTSD diagnosis.
“I’ve heard from a fair number of vets who are wary about PTSD and who think the diagnosis will be used to invalidate them and their experiences, and I share that concern,” he said. “If somebody is trying to use a diagnosis to try to invali- date somebody, which wouldn’t be the first time the medical profession did that, let’s be aware of that.”
What would the medical establishment think, after all, of someone like Billy Pilgrim, Slaughterhouse-Five’s protagonist, whose profound insights are, in part, garnered from lessons taught him by extraterrestrials who sucked them into their spaceship one night?
Or even a guy like Kurt Vonnegut himself, who Mark describes as a distant father, quick to detach, pathologically afraid of being embarrassed, and with whom he came close to having an irrevocable falling out: “While he was alive I realized that this could end badly, because things were hairy from time to time. But when all was said and done, I think myself and my sisters have come around. You can’t be afraid of him anymore, so you might as well just appreciate him.”
Boiled down to their diagnoses, neither Vonnegut — either the manic-depressive son or the shell-shocked father — might have been thought of as trustworthy or worth hearing out. But here’s the thing,
for all those who might find themselves marginalized: It’s the nature of art that one can’t just brush it aside because its creator seems, you know, a bit touched.
“You can’t just sort of invalidate art,” Vonnegut said. “You can say Van Gogh had mental illness, but they’re astonishingly good however he came to make them.”
From War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra
By John Sherman
Excerpted from So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library
I am carrying a dead baby. I have never done this before. Last night, the woman stayed in this house with her baby on an I-V. Brace insisted on sleeping downstairs near them so he could be awakened if anything was wrong. Olive wanted to take his place, but he said no. The baby lived through the night, but this morning while we were getting dressed, it died. The mother cried out when Brace confirmed what she feared. The other three arranged to go to our clinic today in the one Land Rover and I am assigned the task of taking her and the baby near her village.
Brace is very specific. I am not to take her all the way home. She lives about four miles off the main road and he is afraid there might be Biafrans, or even deserting Nigerians, who will take the vehicle and who might bump me off in the process. I don’t think that is likely since it is stark white with large red crosses on all four sides and even on the roof. But when I mention that, it doesn’t faze him. He mentions land mines on the dirt road as another possibility, and that convinces me, finally, that I must not drive the extra few miles.
I take the baby from the cot. It reminds me of picking up a piece of Styrofoam for the first time. Your arms go up sharply when they are confronted with a lot less weight than they were expecting. The mother gathers her few belongings while I hold the baby and follow her outside. I am glad to be able to hand it over to her when she is quietly sitting on the front seat. A cruel irony is here: the baby’s surprisingly light weight comes to me in comparative images: baked egg whites. Meringue. Food. Nothing but food.
We ride in silence. I had never noticed before that the keys banged so hard against the steering column. I hear everything. The shifting of gears. The wooden boxes in the back of the van sliding into one another. I imagine
I hear the child breathing ...
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