'Library After Air Raid'

On the Survival of Culture Amid the Barbarity of War

by Rodger Jacobs

26 January 2012

Burt Lancaster as Maj. Abraham Falconer in Castle Keep (1969) 

A Castle that Stands

Castle Keep is set in December of 1944 in the closing days of the Second World War in the European theater. A ragtag group of reluctant American combatants, led by the one-eyed, taciturn Major Abraham Falconer (a stellar performance by Burt Lancaster in Pollack’s movie) have been assigned “the unique privilege of occupying a monumental tribute to man’s concept of beauty”, the 10th century Maldorais castle in the Ardennes Forest, inhabited by an eccentric Count, his beautiful young wife (who is also his cousin), and countless priceless artifacts and works of art.

Eastlake writes that Maldorais is “a castle that stands for, that symbolizes, all that’s being destroyed, that can never be replaced.” The Count and Captain Lionel Beckman, an art historian before the war and author of Early Twelfth-Century Ivory Miniatures, hope that Falconer’s command objective is to defend the castle and its invaluable treasures against the advancing German army, but when a counteroffensive puts Falconer’s soldiers directly in the gun sights of the enemy, art and artifacts mean nothing to the one-eyed warrior. (Falconer is also the only character in the tale conforming to the stereotypical traits of a war hero: No retreat, no surrender, fight to the last man standing.)

Writing for the Turner Classic Movies website, film critic Rob Nixon astutely concludes of Pollack’s adaptation of Castle Keep: “What emerges most strongly from the film now is the culture clash between Old World and New. The sense of American practical can-doism for the present and the future versus European decadence and attachment to the past is best summed up in an exchange between two of the soldiers. ‘Europe is dying,’ says the captain played by Patrick O’Neal.  ‘No, Beckman, she’s dead,” replies Lancaster’s Major Falconer. ‘That’s why we’re here.’” (“Castle Keep” on Turner Classic Movies.com.)

Once Upon a Time

The isolated, lost-in-time Maldorais castle is a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and also evokes the Renaissance and Baroque, complete with a moat, battlement towers, gargoyles, and stained glass windows (“with angels soaring … cherubs singing mightily”).

It is, simply, something out of a fairy tale, underscored by the narrator’s opening line in the film: “Once upon a time”, abbreviated from the following passage from the novel: “Doesn’t it [occupying the castle] give everything another dimension? Doesn’t everything seem to be once-upon-a-time? Can’t you see it as once upon a time the American Army captured a castle and therein hangs the tale?”

This would seem at first blush to contradict Beckman’s later refutation of the narrative as “a Gothic tale” (because there is an undeniable Gothic halo around most fairy tales) but it is actually an emphatic underscoring of the contradictions and absurdities of war and there’s plenty of it on display in the film and book. “The war being played out in this novel is from the other side of the looking-glass,” the Kenyon Review observed. “It is a real war and a fairy-tale war all at the same time – ludicrous and bloody, irrevocable and absurd.” Not unlike the chilling, incompatible images in the Library After Air Raid replication.

“War,” a character remarks in Eastlake’s narrative, “is a Cinderella story where each man turns into a soldier.”

I cannot adequately articulate why the Library After Air Raid postcard and Castle Keep resonated with me so profoundly in 2011; that they are the subject of my first longform literary essay in almost a year certainly speaks of something. Perhaps the answer exists in a revelation I stumbled upon while perusing messages from friends and colleagues on social media websites on New Year’s Eve: to a man (and a woman) everyone was ecstatic to see the calendar year 2011 die on the vine. It was 12 ragged, unwelcome months of conflict, political and moral divisiveness, and war, literally in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the turbulent upheavals in the Middle East, and a war on the working class globally as cash-strapped nations attempted to balance their budgets on the backs of the common man while seeking precious few sacrifices from the privileged class.

Moreover, 2011 was a year of vast stupidity with much of the populace hypnotized by the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while US politicians suggested drug screenings for welfare recipients, repeating the conservative mantra that the one in two Americans who live at or below the poverty line achieved their ignominious status through a lack of drive, ambition, and an unwillingness to work for a living.

White Dog

War and stupidity are kindred spirits, as Castle Keep shows clearly and deliberately; only one entranced by the political rhetoric of war would allow libraries and priceless works of art to be destroyed in the name of brinksmanship.

Recently I enjoyed Romain Gary’s hard-to-find 1970 autobiographical novel White Dog, a soul-searching exploration of the explosive confrontations that fueled the civil rights movement in America, a work that the San Francisco Examiner aptly dubbed “a seething, scathing analysis of both black and white racism and what it is doing to America”. (And what it is still doing to America, for much of the book’s themes remain modernly relevant.)

The core of all human predicaments, Gary meditates in White Dog, has its roots “deep down within something to recognize as the greatest spiritual force of all time: Stupidity. One of the most baffling paradoxes of history is that all our intelligence and even our genius have never succeeded in solving a problem when pitched against Stupidity, where the very nature of the problem is, precisely, what intelligence should find particularly easy to handle.”

Stupidity, Gary further extrapolates, “has a tremendous advantage over genius and intellect: it is above logic, above argument, it has no need for evidence, facts, reasoning, it is unshakable, beyond doubt, supremely self-confident, it always knows all the answers, it looks at the world with a knowing smile, it has a fantastic capacity for survival, it is the greatest force known to man. Whenever intelligence manages to prevail, when victory seems already secured, immortal Stupidity suddenly rears its ugly mug and takes over.”

The greatest cudgel against Stupidity, which, one might argue, reigns supreme in our modern times, is knowledge and education, though Captain Beckman’s vast acquaintance with the art and artifacts of Maldorais castle – Ming Dynasty vases, paintings by Botticelli and Delacroix, legions of objects d’art—is not enough to prevent the museum pieces from becoming “beleaguered, besieged” collateral damage in the madness of war.

“The castle could be saved,” Beckman muses. “In all the murder and destruction something of beauty could remain. How could the war have any meaning if it wasn’t meant to preserve?” Beckman also believes that “war is a science and that science is an art and that art is everything.”

Culture – books, art, film, music—provide us with “privileged glimpses into the human heart” (to take F. Scott Fitzgerald out of context) and arm us against Stupidity even if, in the end, as Romain Gary dismally asserts, Stupidity will always be the victor. But we can all be served by Beckman’s vow in Castle Keep: “I can enter into a communion with life in all this death, a communion with art and everything that is vital and creative, living and alive … The function of art is to disturb and to awake. It’s something that takes you apart and puts you back together again, a new person.”

In 2012 I have vowed to never shun the composition of and appreciation for the written word as I did in 2011, to never again allow my personal troubles and the troubles of the world, those borne of politics and religious faith, intolerance, hate, and warmongering and all the other madness in the air like toxic emissions from an ever-churning smokestack, no matter how insurmountable they may seem at the time, to defeat my appreciation of and aptitude for the power of words; without the solace, insight, and wisdom of man’s vast knowledge, our trials and tribulations, personally and globally, become slippery, moss-strewn rocks in the river of life.

There’s always time to pick up a book amidst the rubble and debris and appreciate the beauty that lay between its covers.

Library After Air Raid (London 1940) Photographer unidentified. Archive of the Royal Commission on the Historical Documents of London

Library After Air Raid (London 1940) Photographer unidentified. Archive of the Royal Commission on the Historical Documents of London

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