blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Excerpts from an Online Interview with Hecht

Philip Hoy (Interviewer)

"The contemplation of horror is not edifying":
Hecht describes his experiences as a soldier in WWII"

[Hoy] You've described your three years as an undergraduate at Bard as 'unquestionably the happiest ... of [your] life up to that time.' How did it feel when, three years into your studies, aged 20, you were drafted into the army, and sent off to fight in the war? Was it something you'd been dreading?

[Hecht] I admit with shame that I felt neither brave nor patriotic. I was profoundly scared. I had, as you say, just encountered something like happiness for the first time in my life, and I was now required to give it up, and perhaps my life as well. My reading had become so important to me that when I finally went off to the army reception centre I brought with me a paperback collection of some Shakespeare plays, an anthology of poetry, some Joyce, and a volume of Spinoza.

It wasn't until about two weeks into basic training that I was allowed enough leisure to ferret out one of those books, expecting to slip easily into the receptive appreciation I enjoyed at college. But the words lay blank and flat on the page. It was like reading a telephone directory. The combination of fatigue and the numbing effect of close-order drill, along with other dehumanizing methods of military training, had all but lobotomized me. I feared I would never be able to read anything with pleasure again, should I even survive. It was a terrifying kind of pre-death.

In the end, all those faculties returned about six or eight months after I got out. You saw action in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia, and witnessed the deaths of a great many of your comrades. How did you cope with this? There is much about this I have never spoken about, and never will. My father made a foolish and pitiful attempt to get me discharged while I was in training in Missouri with the 97th Infantry Division, the outfit with which I went overseas. He somehow managed to inform officers of the division of his own mental breakdowns, and to imply that I was subject to the same frailties. I was called away from a bivouac to be interviewed by a military shrink.

When I figured out what was going on, I realized I had only to put on an act in order to get discharged on what the army called a Section Eight, or 'mental' grounds. I really felt that my life that morning was in my own hands. At the same time, I felt unwilling to fake, and ashamed of what my father had done. I confined myself to acknowledging that I hated the army - like Catch 22, this was regarded as a sign of mental soundness - and refusing to address the interrogating officer as 'Sir,' an act of mild but, to me, meaningful insubordination.

[Hoy] Did you make a good soldier?

[Hecht] Not by any real standards. I was honourably discharged at the end of things, and I did not disobey any orders, though once I was genuinely tempted to. My company had been pinned down by very heavy enemy fire in Germany. Our company commander was a fool, wholly incapable of any initiative, who slavishly obeyed commands, however uninformed or ill-considered, from battalion or regimental HQ, and without regard to the safety or capacity of his own troops. (He was later awarded a Silver Star for action that took place on a day when he was behind the lines being treated for dysentery.)

Anyway, on this day when we were hopelessly kept flat on the ground by superior fire-power, some idiot at an upper echelon, far behind the lines and blissfully unaware of our situation regarding the enemy (though probably eager to keep all forward movements abreast of one another to protect all flanks) ordered my company to move forward, and the captain ordered us to ready ourselves, though there would have been nothing but total annihilation in prospect. At the last second, higher command called for artillery, which turned the trick. And as we slowly rose from prone positions, I confessed to my platoon commander, a second lieutenant just about my age, that if the order to advance had not been countermanded I was very unsure whether I would have obeyed. 'Of course you would have,' he replied, but with a look that meant a great deal. He fully understood how foolish such a command would have been at the time, but as an officer, whose duty was to set an example, he knew that he would have had to obey.

[Hoy] You served with the Infantry Division which discovered Flossenburg, a concentration camp in the Bavarian forest, close to the Czech border. It's not as notorious as its neighbour, Buchenwald - it rates a mention in several of the history books just because it was there that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered, a week before the liberation - but it was a major camp, and one wouldn't have to read a book like Robert Abzug's Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps to understand how devastating an experience it must have been for young G.I.s like you, though you must already have witnessed some pretty awful things. Can you say anything about this event, and its effect on you?

[Hecht] Flossenburg was an annex of Buchenwald. It was both an extermination camp and a slave-labour camp, where prisoners were made to manufacture Messerschmitts at a factory right within the perimeter of the camp. When we arrived, the SS personnel had, of course, fled. Prisoners were dying at the rate of 500 a day from typhus. Since I had the rudiments of French and German, I was appointed to interview such French prisoners as were well enough to speak, in the hope of securing evidence against those who ran the camp.

Later, when some of these were captured, I presented them with the charges levelled against them, translating their denials or defences back into French for the sake of their accusers, in an attempt to get to the bottom of what was done and who was responsible. The place, the suffering, the prisoners' accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking. I must add an important point: after the war I read widely in Holocaust literature, and I can no longer separate my anger and revulsion at what I really saw from what I later came to learn. 

[Hoy] Were there any aspects of life in the army that you valued?

[Hecht] Not at the time, certainly. I found that all the officers I encountered from the rank of captain on up were contemptible and often ignorant, swaggering in the full vigour of their incapacity, and this was true up to as high a level as division commander, which I had the opportunity of observing. While I came to this conclusion independently and on the basis of personal experience, I find that I'm not the only one to have held such views. Allow me, if you will, a small literary flourish. In Joseph Andrews Fielding writes about Nature, personified as a goddess of great powers, who equips creatures with a cranial cavity for the brains and their rational government of ordinary men, 'whereas,' Fielding goes on to remark, 'those ingredients being entirely useless to persons of the heroic calling, she hath an opportunity of thickening the bone so as to make it less subject to any impression, or liable to be cracked or broken; and indeed, in some who are predestined to command armies and empires, she is supposed sometimes to make that part perfectly solid.'

It would have been a convenient balance and fitting irony to say that, by contrast, the ordinary draftees with no military ambitions or careers, were often good and generous people, and this is what I believed at first. But a few days of heavy front-line combat changed my attitude in a terrible way. We had already suffered some severe casualties from enemy mortars and land mines. These first casualties and deaths came to us as a rude shock; our friends and comrades, with whom we had trained, undergone real privations and endured grave dangers were now legless, armless, or dead. So the mood of the company was shaken when, one morning, we found ourselves hugging the ground at the crest of a hill, in the shadow of trees, looking out across a green field that dipped shallowly in the middle before rising to a small height not far away, and behind which German troops were lobbing mortar shells at us.

We fired back, and the exchange went on for a while, until at last the enemy simply stopped firing. This could, of course, have been preliminary to something else, a trick, anything. We remained exactly where we were. And then, to my astonishment, a small group of German women, perhaps five or six, leading small children by the hand, and with white flags of surrender fixed to staves and broom-handles, came up over the far crest and started walking slowly toward us, waving their white flags back and forth. They came slowly, the children retarding their advance. They had to descend the small incline that lay between their height and ours. When they were about half way, and about to climb the slope leading to our position, two of our machine guns opened up and slaughtered the whole group.

Not long after we were able to take the enemy position, from which all their troops had withdrawn. For the rest of the day there was much loud and insistent talk about that morning's slaughter, all intended as justification. 'They might have had bombs on them.' 'They might have had some radio devices to direct German artillery toward us.' Things like that. This was all due to the plain panic of soldiers newly exposed to combat, due also to guilt, to frustrated fury at the casualties we had suffered. In any case, what I saw that morning was, except for Flossenburg, the greatest trauma of the war - and, believe me, I saw a lot of terrible things. But that morning left me without the least vestige of patriotism or national pride.

And when I hear empty talk about that war having been a 'good war', as contrasted with, say, Vietnam, I maintain a fixed silence. The men in my company, under ordinary circumstances, were not vicious or criminal, but I no longer felt close to any of them. Battle, which is supposed to bring fellow soldiers together, failed to do that. As for whether there were any aspects of army life that I valued, I'd have to maintain my equivocal posture. The army put me in what may be the best physical shape I would ever enjoy, and as though to annul this benefit, it taught me to smoke. And I went on smoking, addictively, for thirty-five years.

"If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst":
Hecht discusses his poetry's concern with cruelty and suffering

[Hoy] The Hard Hours opens with 'The Hill', a monologue, whose speaker tells of an experience he'd had while walking through the Piazza Farnese in Rome. One minute it had been sunny and warm, crowded and noisy, the next:

                        … the noises suddenly stopped,
And it got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved
And even the great Farnese Palace itself
Was gone, for all its marble; in its place
Was a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,
But no other sign of life. And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone. But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth
And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.

The speaker claims not have been bothered by this incident in the ten years since it occurred. What moves him to talk about it now is the sudden remembrance of where he'd first encountered that hill:

                            ... it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.

So, perhaps, one part of the mystery is removed. What had overtaken him in the Piazza wasn't something requiring supernatural explanation, but something permitting explanation in terms of accepted psychological categories - memories, hallucinations, and the like. But if one part of the mystery is removed, another, more serious, remains. Why would a boy stand for hours in front of a scene whose plain bitterness was to leave an adult scared for days?

I wonder if I can ask where that image of the hill comes from? It clearly has some special significance for you, since it, or things very like it, appear in a number of your poems - 'Christmas is Coming', 'The Short End', 'Auspices', 'The Venetian Vespers', 'See Naples and Die', 'Death the Whore' ...

[Hecht] My therapist had a lot of theories about that poem. Anyway, when you ask, 'why would a boy stand for hours in front of a scene of great bitterness?' the answer is, of course, that he does not do so willingly; he is compelled to. And he is compelled to because no one comes to take him away from all this barrenness. You are perfectly right to see arid and defeated landscapes cropping up in a good number of my poems, as is the case with certain winter scenes of Breughel. They were for me a means to express a desolation of the soul. There are such scenes in Hardy, as well as in a fine young poet, not yet well known, named Timothy Murphy. May I quote a short poem of his?

Twice Cursed
Bristling with fallen trees
and choked with broken ice
the river threatens the house.
I'll wind up planting rice
if the spring rains don't cease.
What ancestral curse
prompts me to farm and worse,
convert my woes to verse?

I'm not a farmer, and thus not subject to their special dangers, but for me a bleak and forlorn landscape can assemble and convey a deep sense of despair.

[Hoy] 'The Hill' serves as a kind of warning to readers of The Hard Hours, because, as they read their way through the book, they are going to be confronted with visions of plain bitterness, visions of suffering, madness, and death whose power to scare is not in the least mysterious. In one poem we are given vivid descriptions of the daily flogging, and eventual flaying, of the Roman emperor Valerian; in another, a promise is made to the ghost of a child lost to its parents as a result of miscarriage; in a third, the burning at the stake of one Christian by others is juxtaposed with an atrocity committed in the vicinity of Buchenwald ...

But there are mysteries associated with these poems, and I can get at the most perplexing of them by quoting Flaubert, who wrote to Amélie Bousquet as follows: 'Human life is a sad show, undoubtedly: ugly, heavy and complex. Art has no other end, for people of feeling, than to conjure away the burden and the bitterness.' Is this too narrow a conception of art? Or is there a sense in which your poems can be said to conjure away the burden and bitterness, even as they force us to confront them? I'm the more intrigued by your answer because of what you say in 'Rites and Ceremonies': 'The contemplation of horror is not edifying, / Neither does it strengthen the soul.'

[Hecht] A difficult question to which there is no easy answer. One mistaken way of construing the Flaubert assertion would be to say that he is recommending escape literature and fairy tales that end with the protagonists living happily ever after. But 'conjuring the burden and bitterness away' demands serious necromancy. I would summon to my aid Hardy's apology from 'In Tenebris': 'If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.' In his poem called 'No Possum, No Sop, No Taters', Wallace Stevens writes, 'It is here, in this bad, that we reach / The last purity of the knowledge of good.'

And I would enlist the further support of Keats in the letter to his brothers in which he says that 'the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth - Examine King Lear & you will find this examplified [sic] throughout' (21-27 December 1817). The fact is that Lear was for many years my favourite among the tragedies, and has never lost its appeal for me. And it has its full component of bleak landscapes. I taught it for years before I found out that there are two proper versions and that I would have to choose between them. I had so grown used and devoted to the conflated text that I found myself unwilling to relinquish some of the lines I prized.

Anyway, I've always been on guard, as a reader first of all, against what has been called 'Land-of-heart's-desire' poetry, which tends to be vapid and sentimental. On the other hand, I would still continue to affirm what I wrote about the contemplation of horror not being edifying. I have always found that the stories and paintings of Christian martyrdom are very strange because they can be understood in two different and opposing ways. The orthodox way is to say that they inspire admiration for fixity of faith in the face of the most horrible and obstinate persecution. At the same time, of course, they are often remarkable for their morbidity, and, alas, a part of their meaning seems to concern the ineradicable savagery of the human race; and not just of pagans and infidels but people of all kinds, as the many religious wars among Christians - the Thirty Years' War, the so-called Wars of Religion in Spain, France and the Netherlands being merely examples - have abundantly demonstrated.

There's a Byzantine mosaic icon in Washington of 'The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste' - they were 'stripped naked, herded onto a frozen pond, and kept there; to help break down their resistance a fire was kindled and warm baths prepared where they could see them. By the next day most of them were dead; those who were not were killed,' says a little handbook of hagiography. But this is no more than a puny prologue to the Holocaust. It is the Vatican's dubious position that German anti-Semitism as it was exhibited under the Nazis 'had its roots outside Christianity,' and that the people who ran the camps were essentially pagan.

This, however, fails to agree with the Nazis' own view of the matter. In Peter Matheson's documentary account, The Third Reich and the Christian Churches, he writes of a report by one Hanns Kerrl on the membership and finances of the Churches, dated 3, July, 1944 (not long, that is, before the war ended) - a report sent to Goebbels 'on the request of the Ministry for popular Enlightenment and Propaganda,' containing statistics 'with the rather anxious request that caution be used in their exploitation for propaganda purposes. It is worth noting how little success the National Socialists had in winning people away from their adherence to Christian beliefs. Only 3.5% acknowledged themselves as "Gottgläubige",' a word that Cassell's German dictionary defines as 'followers of the modern German cult of non-Christian theism,' and which Matheson calls simply 'neo-pagans.'

[Hoy] In Philip Larkin's 'Ambulances', passers-by, looking on as people in extremity are fetched off to hospital, are said to 'sense the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do, / and for a second get it whole, / So permanent and blank and true.' Larkin was clearly no stranger to the experience he describes here, but my guess is that you are. It's hell you worry about, not the void …

[Hecht] I agree. Larkin did not have to serve in the war and he was not a Jew, and he counted himself lucky on both scores. It may be that one of the appeals of his poetry for many readers lies in his contemplation of 'the solving emptiness,' which is obscurely comforting. Not paradise, to be sure, but a kind of beneficent anaesthesia.

from Between the Lines: Interviews with Poets. For additional extracts from the Hecht interview, click here.

Return to Anthony Hecht