Pausanias writes that during the Battle of Marathon a man with a country look about him and country equipment joined the fray, killed a number of barbarians with a plowshare, and vanished when the fighting was over. When the Athenians asked the gods about him they learned only that his name was Ekherlaos. They set up a trophy of white marble to him (long since vanished) on the battle plain.
And sitting out in the sun reading that, I recognized someone from another book: John Burns, dragging his old War of 1812 rifle up to the line of blue-clad boys in the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, parked in the morning shade of the McPherson barn on that hot July day when two nations hung in the balance, and asking, "Can I fight with your regiment?" The John Brown of legend is more than half padding, and I suspect Ekherlaos was, too. What matters, what delights me, is that both men were needed to complete the great scenes. Over a gulf of more than 2,400 years, the human race remains the same, down to the quirks of need and imagination in the stories we love to tell.
It's part of being a "liberal," in the old, good sense of that word -- the only sense of it I can still claim -- to believe in the consistency of the human experience.
The 18th-century poet Thomas Gray in his "Elegy" imagined the obscure lives hidden under the mossy stones of the village churchyard. He writes of:
Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
And he sees their abilities and their vices alike as proscribed, limited by the smallness of their lot in life -- forbidden to "wade through slaughter to a throne," because they lived (in a line Hardy borrowed for a book title), "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife."
The little tyrant of his fields withstood
But I do not think that village plowboy in a fight for dignity in the fields felt one whit the less of anxiety, pride, reckless courage, or holy mission than did Cromwell's cousin John Hampden, when he opposed Charles I in Parliament and then on the battlefield. The love of a Napoleon for a Josephine consumes them as surely as the love of Jack and Diane down at the Tastee-Freez. There's a well of passion in every man or woman, and when he or she reaches the moment of life's fullness, all of it flows. This is true whether he faces an emperor or a barnyard bully. The fullness of what's inside (as Gray agrees elsewhere in his poem) is not proscribed by smallness of circumstances, either of time or place. Flowers in the desert waste bloom as sweetly as those in the royal garden.
In my pampered, suburbanite life, I've only had a handful of experiences that tested me. Once I was riding down Vine Street with my then-girlfriend Lis, and we saw a horrible, car-flipping-through-the-air wreck half a block ahead. She pulled over to the curb and I jumped out and ran to the crash. I helped one guy crawl out of his wrecked Trooper, with the wheels still spinning, got him to the sidewalk, and then held up onrushing traffic till the cops got there. And it didn't occur to me until later to consider my vulnerability amid the fire and shattered glass and cars coming up unexpectedly on it all.
Miraculously, no one was killed, and I admit it felt pretty good to have been tested and not to have failed. No danger of hubris, though. As Hemingway understood, bravery is in large part simply "ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination." That was certainly my case.
But I thought of that day a couple of years later, after the Sept. 11 heroism stories started to flow. I don't pretend I had any sort of comparable experience on Vine Street that day. But when I thought about the hundreds of firefighters who ran to those terrible towers that were raining down molten metal and flaming people like tears, and who went into them -- went up into them -- and died there, I felt the flicker of connection. Like most other people who heard the stories, probably, I wondered if I would have been so brave, if I was made from the same stuff as those young men, and I had that one memory to say, "I think so."
The liberal spirit also peers inside the wicked or the perverse and tries to re-connect them, too, to the broad human experience. "Homo sum; nihil humani a me alienum puto," Terence wrote. "I am a man, and therefore nothing human is alien to me."
The modern political liberal at this point goes off and attempts to embrace the fundamentalist terrorist. He expands his sympathetic circle of humanity toward that hijacker pilot with the bloody boxcutter, but he usually ends up in a red-faced rage, ranting about Israeli bullying of Palestinians or Bush's refusal to accept the Kyoto protocols. I confess I find that repulsive, not because those terrorists are monstrous but rather because they're petty, ignorant, arrogant, and selfishly infantile. It's not that they're inhuman: they're all too human in the least worthy ways. And to be glamored out of your sense of right and wrong by vindictive voices from oppressed places seems to me not a high humanism, but rather a low point and a form of self-loathing.
Yet I'm fascinated by the modern experience of Germany: a nation that was supremely cultured and then went completely off its head; a people who knew and loved their order and structure, then saw it all blown to hell. Modern Germany cities are built on mounds of rubble, and within them lie the shards of old Germany. I see the old Germany in postcards and meet it in books. Its spirit breathes in the sentences of the German philologists I use for research and in the instructions for the "Anker-stone" building blocks I bought once for Luke: Solid and playful, orderly but passionate. It's a culture as recent as my parents' lives, yet as dead as Troy.
First the Nazis came and perverted everything -- military honor, universities that were wellsprings of wisdom for centuries, churches, literature, art. Then "Bomber" Harris lit the whole thing up in flames that left 600,000 civilians dead. As late as 1979, the last time I was in Berlin, major edifices -- cathedrals and government buildings -- still sat charred and pocked where they had died, like eyeless corpses.
The German writer W.G. Sebald's little book, "The Natural History of Destruction" grew from a lecture he gave in Zurich in 1997. He's a sublime writer who knows that dryness in prose can reverberate its horror: in matter-of-fact fashion he resurrects a forgotten anecdote of a young woman who gets off one of the packed refugee trains from Hamburg or another of the fallen cities, and wanders bewildered on the platform until her cheap cardboard suitcase breaks open and the charred corpse of an infant rolls out. He wonders how such horrific images "have never crossed the threshold of the national consciousness." He examines a handful of attempts to decipher them into literature, mostly written immediately after the war and finds them woefully inadequate, deservedly forgotten. He quotes Alfred Döblin, returning to Germany after the war, amazed as people walked "down the street and past the dreadful ruins as if nothing had happened, and ... the town had always looked like that."
That is how Germany lived with its past when I was there. And this goes deeper than the uncomfortable ethics involved in applying the word "victim" to any aspect of Germany in World War II. It is a psychological process. Sebald writes:
"The death by fire within a few hours of an entire city, with all its buildings and its trees, its inhabitants, its domestic pets, its fixtures and fittings of every kind, must inevitably have led to overload, to paralysis of the capacity to think and feel in those who succeed in escaping."
Sebald died two years ago. But his little book has opened up the whole issue of German suffering, to go alongside German guilt, as the defining aspect of that people's experience in World War II. German cities weren't bombed to rubble because of the Holocaust. Books and articles on the topic have begun to flow in Germany. Something like balance has returned in the German memory, and authors have re-claimed their central role in the national culture, picking up the theme and at last giving it worthy treatment, as Gunter Grass did, with characteristic wryness, in his latest novel, "Crabwalk."
One of the many aspects of the old Germany that is missing in the modern one is, of course, the small but vibrant Jewish communities in cities such as Berlin. While Sebald was writing his book, a Jewish former U.S. Army corporal who had fought in North Africa in World War II was about to score the biggest Broadway hit in years. Mel Brooks' "The Producers" was considered "too Jewish" when it came out as a film in 1968. But Brooks' timing was perfect: just far enough removed from the horrors to let out a belly-laugh at them. America in 1968 was a place where many of Europe's victims had fled to start life over. Like the Czech Jewish couple my parents befriended in Las Vegas -- childless because of what had been done to her in the camps -- many of them had neat numbers tattooed in blue-green on their forearms. It seems to me the climax of Brooks' production-within-a-production is in the looks on the faces of the people in the theater audience when they realize they're watching a musical comedy about Hitler.
Mel Brooks, the lowbrow Catskill vaudevillian, coming from the side of history where people have numbers tattooed on their arms, never met Sebald, the university professor, the serious author, coming from the side where cities burned so fiercely people sank into bubbling pools of molten asphalt. Between them, without thinking of one another, they slowly re-sew the most broken-off bits of the 20th century human experience back into the body of all of us. Their stories are told, as they were and will be, in Gettysburg and Marathon, and in Lower Manhattan and in my little town.