November darkness, light

November 14, 1997

The New York Times said in an editorial Tuesday:

THE LAST of the World War I veterans are almost impossibly old by now, as old as the century. They flicker past in footage from that war shown repeatedly on late-night television, young men burdened by the weight of arms, with everything that implies. Now nearly all those men are dead, and the few still living seem to symbolize the enormous changes that have swept across the world in the years since the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.

In the presence of men and women of advanced age, it is always tempting to behave like the host of the postmodern world, welcoming them to life as we know it, inviting them to marvel at the place we have all wound up, bristling as it does with the latest technology.

The roles should be reversed. The old ones should be the hosts, inviting us to contemplate with them the intractable knowledge that comes from places like the battlefields of World War I, where every faith -- and especially the faith in moral and technical advancement -- seemed to totter.

The 11th hour

The Armistice was signed in November, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. On its own, November can be bleak enough. The leaves are going now, and the trees seem frayed. A ridge line of blackened, upthrust boughs seems to mirror the rain. The clouds have the texture of steel wool. Winter could come the next minute or the next month.

But what November has ever been like November in the embattled salients of the Great War, where the earth itself was dismembered and interred, its flesh confused with the flesh of soldiers, horses and mules? Even at peace, nature seems disordered, almost skeletal in November. The consolation lies in the wood smoke spiraling out of chimneys, the light in windows as the day goes down. It lies in the unbroken rhythm of living at peace, where the hour of armistice -- that painful caesura -- is almost forgotten.

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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