We all have our problems. A man I know is in love with a lovely girl –truly lovely– who is constantly sleeping with other men.
“I must wait,” he said, “until it is taken out of her.”
The rest of us have the war.
Since the war began, I have slept, in seven days, in four different places. If, by always moving, the purpose is to cheat death, or to diminish the chances of death, it is not only undignified but also probably ineffectual.
Somerset Maugham has a story about death.
“There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw that it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”
“The merchant,” goes on Death, who tells the story, “lemt him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
I have talked with many and noted down the various defenses, material and psychological, they put up against death and the thought of death. Death like the poor we have always with us. War merely tears away the gauze which children, doctors and the speed limit cast in peacetime over its dark but not always unattractive face. Somewhere, sometime, we all yield to its importunities. War merely turns the seduction into rape.
Some find cold comfort in statistics:
“More people are killed a year in automobile accidents in the United States than were killed in London under bombardment for a similar period of time.”
Create security out of the void of speculation:
“Consider how careful the enemy has been not to hit the city. Their cities are vulnerable like ours, their houses better material for fires. Their superiority in anti-aircraft is neutralized by our flying fortresses. They are as interested in having their cities spared as we are in having ours. To bomb Manila is to invite reprisal, which they cannot afford. No, they will not bomb Manila.”
Reassurance in trenches, sandbags, the number of floors overhead, the construction of shelters under the house or in the yard.
Others leave the city, in the direction, it may prove, of some Samarra.
Most remain. They adjust themselves to the new condition as others in the past did. In the Middle Ages, men left the countryside to dwell in cities that were merely fortified places. Living within the walls –we have Intramuros still– they gave up the freedom of the fields for security from robbers, marauding bands and invading armies. Within the walls they were “safe”. They could work and save. There was order and routine. They established a currency, traded and cultivated the arts. Under the shadow of the walls they created a civilization that lasted for hundreds of years.
Today we have merely extended the walls. We have ringed our cities with anti-aircraft guns and roofed them with fighter planes. Within the shell life goes on in a new dimension. When the strangeness wears off, we may yet wonder how people were able to live any other way. The excitement will die down and the bombing become normal. Part of the scheme of things. Routine. The established way of living.
Already science promises us cities safer and more comfortable underground. There is no reason to doubt the possibility of such cities or of life in them. Men have for thousands of years found life possible within the confines of a ship, to step out of which means watery death. In these cities of the future we can create a civilization, too, a mode of living, a technique of existence. Inside one would be perfectly comfortable.
It is no less possible than life in a city subject to air raid.
Air-raid alarm this morning as usual. I was in a street car on my way to the office when the siren sounded. Everybody got down and took shelter in the houses along the street. They have yet to bomb the city and every time they come, you wonder: is this it?
Reached the office at 10:30. Under the present dispensation it may take a man two hours o get to the next block. A new rhythm.
“Where are the politicians?”
“Do not concern yourself over the politicians, my friend. As sure as there are Japanese planes over us and we may at any moment die, the sons of bitches are safe. That is the character, the essence, the very definition of a politician. One who is, whatever happens to the rest, always safe.”
“Yes, that is correct. That is the truth. That is the politician. The safe ones, as you say. The safe beasts.”
“They are the price we pay for democracy.”
“They are the price we need not pay.”
During the alarm, you remind yourself of the various precautions you have failed to take. You must get a gas-mask. You must dig a trench in the yard and get some sandbags for the trench. You must buy food and keep a stock in the house –the other night you had to borrow a can of sardines from the people upstairs. You must pack your more valuable books and keep them in some secure place. It seems hardly worth the trouble.