Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Alas, Old Murfin Verse Still Timely—Nits Make Lice

In 2012 a photo of children killed in an Israeli air raid in Gaza provoked a strong reaction.
These days if you post a photo of a war atrocity, say dead babies, Facebook will cover it with a gray veil and a trigger warning that the photo contains disturbing content before you can open and view it.  Or, alternatively, you can be placed in Facebook jail for some days if anyone complains.  The anyone is usually somebody who wants to cover up a war crime by “their guys.”  It seems like no one wants to see the grizzly reality of war and lots of people want to keep you from seeing it so that you will not be stirred to do something about it.
Back in 2012, I posted a stomach wrenching picture of four dead children killed in an Israeli air strike against Palestinians in Gaza.  The next day I found that the image was  deleted from my page.  Perhaps someone was offended.  Above is a different picture of the same dead children.  Don’t avert your eyes.

The reaction was predictable.  Most folks were horrified and rushed passed it for another comforting round of cute kitten posts or pithy, snarky memes.  You know the kind.  Those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause seized on it to denounce Israel for war crimes and genocide.  The four dead babies just the latest got ya in an endless round of glorified martyrdom.

My Israeli and pro-Israeli friends were outraged.  You don’t understand, they practically screamed through the screen at me.  At best I was a dupe, at worst an anti-Semite.  The ever useful tape of a British officer testifying at the United Nations that in an earlier attack on Gaza the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) acted to limit civilian casualties in a way “unprecedented in the history of warfare” was trotted out as if, true or not, it made those children any less dead.  And then, of course, some one posted a picture of Israeli children injured by a Palestinian rocket.  Sort of “my kids trump your kids, so there!”
It all seemed so familiar.
These days almost no one except the Israeli government will make the case that they act with restraint in the on-going pounding of Gaza, the world’s largest open concentration camp and free fire zone.  Pictures of dead children there can be found every week without much searching.  But so can photos from Yemen where the Saudis pound civilians with high tech American arms with impunity and lately shots of Kurdish victims of the Turkish invasion of Syria.  Not long before that American drones were doing the dirty work where supposed terrorists were active with no regard or remorse for civilian collateral damage.”
And you don’t have to limit your search to the always volatile Middle East to find examples.  There are half a dozen or more other regional conflicts, many of the flying below our radar, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that can produce their own images.

I have never been able to find the news photo a Rwanda atrocity that inspired my poem Nits Make Lice but this will give you and idea of what happened.
Back in the 1990’s I was struck by a news photo from Rwanda.  It showed a field of Hutus hacked to death by a mob of Tutsis who were avenging an earlier massacre of the Tutsis by their Hutu neighbors in a real attempt at genocide.

The poem Nits Make Lice came to me from that image.  I read it one Sunday in a peace service at what was then still known as the Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock.  Most folks zone out when someone starts to spout poetry, particularly long poetry.  Bur enough folks were listening that there was an audible gasp when I got to a certain passage.  I was pulled aside later by the Worship Committee Chairperson and scolded.  The poem was entirely unsuitable for a Sunday morning.

After 9/11 and during the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan,  Nits Make Lice was one of several poems that I read at Poets Against the War programs, at demonstrations and rallies, and in speaking engagements at the local community college.

My editor at Skinner House Books refused to include it in my 2004 Meditation Manual, We Build Temples in the Heart.  It seems that being shown the naked brutality of war and the wild animus that justifies any horror was not suitable for an audience expecting uplifting, inspirational verse.

It is time again to resurrect what I think may be the most important poem I have ever written.

Please don’t avert your eyes.

A portion of a Cheyenne winter count hide painting depicted the mutilation of women by soldiers of the Colorado 3rd Colorado Cavalry in their attack on a peaceful village during the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. Four years later in 1868 George Armstrong Custer led elements of the 7th Cavalry in an attack on Black Kettle's Southern Cheyenne camp where similar atrocities were reported.  Colonel John M. Chivington who commanded at Sand Creek was credited with saying "Nits make lice" as part of his orders for no quarter during the raid.  The "old general" who responded to newspaper criticism of Custer's attack was formal Civil War Cavalry commander General Phil Sheridan then in charge of western operations against the plains tribes who quoted the line.

Nits Make Lice

Somewhere in Africa a small boy lies,
his mother's reedy arm stretches over him, a perfect picture of sweet repose
until a closer look reveals his spilling brains
and his mother's head, half severed,
stares backward at her crumpled feet.
            Pull back and see a hundred dusty lumps like them.

The horror of that dead child shakes us, 
taps wellsprings of pity
and of blank incomprehension
at an alien ferocity.

Yet.. .

Nits make lice” the old hero said
when some irksome scribe inquired about 
the latest massacre on the plains-­ 
about the private parts of mere squaws
cut out and stretched over troopers pommels, 
about limp and tattered ragbag babes
tossed from saber tip to saber tip 
in a macabre game of polo.

Nits make lice.

And in the relentless logic of war,
it is utter and irrefutable truth
that today’s laughing toddler may, 
in fifteen years or so, 
draw a bead upon your own beloved child .

Nits make lice.

Better, after all, much better
to kill him now to save lives later,
to cast off foolish sentiment,
that useless relic of Victorian ladies
swooning with the vapors 
over the innocence of youth.

Nits make lice.

And so our resolve firms
and our methods, 
honed by enlightened science far out-strip 
the stumbling, drunken troopers wild careen 
against a sleeping village
until whole cities of breeding,
 pestilential vermin
may efficiently be incinerated .

Nits make lice.

Yet.. .

Something in us stirs still at that
dead Tutsi child, yearning to save his life,
or failing that, to end the carnage,
before the play of others is macheteed away.

Nits make lice.

Impossible, impossible to save that child alone-­
the mother, too, and aunts and grandmas, brothers, cousins, fathers--
even the wild-eyed ones who first
wet their knives on Hutu babes
and opened Pandoras Box of sweet revenge—
all, all must be valued as the boy,
to save one, all must be saved.

Nits make lice.

To save the nit,
we must even love the louse.

 --Patrick Murfin

Monday, November 18, 2019

Maybe, Maybe Not—Swiss Hero William Tell

This illustration gives William Tell the full 19th Century Romantic treatment.
On November 18, 1307 Wilhelm Tell, who may or may not have existed, allegedly shot an apple off of the head off his trembling son with his trusty crossbow on the orders of a tyrannical local Austrian official or Bailiff who may, or may not, have existed.  Subsequently Tell may, or may not, have assassinated the villain and led a rebellion that led to the creation of the Old Swiss Confederacy.  Or so the story goes.
Known to the English speaking world as William Tell and to Napoleonic Era European romantics as Guillaume Tell, he became a heroic symbol of Swiss independence, revolutionary resistance to oppression and tyranny, and a blank page various political ideologies claimed for their own.  Americans know him mostly as a motif in countless comedy sketches going back to vaudeville and animated cartoons, built around gags of the boy and the apple stripped of any context.  They also may remember the Overture of an opera by Gioachino Rossini became the theme song for another mythical hero—The Lone Ranger.

In the early 1950's Errol Flynn bankrupted himself trying to revive his sagging career by producing an William Tell film which was aborted and never released.
Most modern scholars believe Tell is a mythical figure, analogous to the English Robin Hood.  They can find no evidence that or his son ever existed or that Albrecht (sometimes Herman) Gessler ever oppressed the people of Altdorf in the Canton of Uri.  The Swiss tend not to take kindly to these scholars and have been known to burn them in effigy in the streets.  Some Swiss scholars still make a living producing tomes that make historical claims for the truth of at least a nugget of the folk tale.  And like Englishmen love and believe in a rebellious Saxon noble, the Swiss, no matter which of four languages they speak, swear by the reality of William Tell.
Here is the story in its most familiar form.  
Gessler arrived in Altdorf to assume his duties as Landvogt, a local tax collector/enforcer for an Austrian feudal prince—very analogous to the authority of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood tales—already drunk with his new power.  He erected a pole in the market place and demanded that the locals bow down to his hat which he perched on it.  He stationed troops to enforce the order and often sat watching the locals grovel in fear.  Enter Tell and his ten year old son Walter.  Tell was by all accounts a large and powerful man—a hunter, mountain climber, and boatman in early accounts was a local gentleman of wide repute and respect and in later accounts a rustic peasant leader.  He happened to be carrying his crossbow.

One of the earliest graphic depictions--a woodcut illustration from Ein Schönes Spiel…von Wilhelm Tell.
Tell haughtily refused to bow down to a hat and was seized by Gessler’s troops.  The cruel tyrant had already filled the jails and local dungeons and had recently blinded an elderly man for some trivial or imagined offence.  Gessler, aware of Tell’s reputation with his weapon, offered his prisoner a choiceimmediate death or a reprieve if he can shoot an apple off of the head of his son’s head at several paces with a single shot.
Tell comforted his son and then with unerring calm splits the apple with a bolt from his crossbow.  Gessler noticed that Tell had a second bolt.  He demanded to know what he intended to do with it.  Tell demurred until he was assured that no matter his answer his pardon would be honored.  Then he told Gessler that the second bolt was meant to kill him should the first have gone astray and wounded the boy.  Infuriated Gessler had Tell and his son seized.
The Tells were put on a boat to transport them across Lake Lucerne to Küssnacht to a dungeon in Gessler’s new castle.  But a terrible storm erupted and the boat was nearly lost.  The oarsmen, in fear for their lives, unbound the powerful Tell who took the rudder and brought the boat to shore—where he leapt to safety on a rocky point now known as Tellsplatte.  He also somehow still had his famous crossbow and that second bolt.
An American take on the embellished legend--William Tell Escapes the Tyrant by Nathaniel Currier.
He ran cross country to Küssnacht where he laid in wait at a narrow point in the route he knew Gessler must take from Altdorf.  There from hiding he ambushed the official, assassinating Gessler with a single shot.
Escaping into the mountains Tell joined existing bands of rebels and/or raises a guerilla army to rise up against the Austrians.  The successful revolt that followed united most of the Swiss Cantons into the Old Confederacy and thus began the history of the Swiss as a nation.  
Tell was said to have died heroically 40 years later as an old man when he tried to rescue a child from a raging river.
None of this is corroborated in contemporary annals.
The first mention of Tell in relationship to the rebellion seems to be in the White Book of Sarnen by a country scribe named Hans Schreiber in 1475.  Shortly thereafter a song called the Tellenlied first appearance in a manuscript was in 1501 although it was clearly already widely sung.  In neither of these accounts was Gessler named or is there mention of his assassination.  The Tellenlied called Tell the “First Confederate.”
The first printed version of the story appeared in 1507 in Chronicle of the Swiss Confederation by Petermann Etterlin, a soldier/scholar who wrote in German but supported the French factions ruling Lucerne.  Around 1570 Aegidius Tschudi from Glarus compiled his monumental Chronicon Helveticum which in turn was the main source for Johannes von Müller’s History of the Swiss Confederation in 1780—written under the ideological influence of rising French radicalism—and for Friedrich Schiller’s play William Tell in1804.
In each of these versions the story of Tell became more elaborate with details filled in, names and dates supplied and a mantel of historical verisimilitude draped around it.  The story also adapted to more modern political developments—there really was a Gessler family, for instance, that administered a fiefdom of a Hapsburg prince around Zurich in the late 14th Century.  He became a stand-in for imperial Austrian designs on Switzerland three hundred years later.
Tell inspired The Three Tells—heroes of the 1653 Swiss Peasants’ War who dressed as Tell attempted to assassinate Ulrich Dullike, Schultheiss (Mayor) of Lucerne for the Hapsburgs in 1653.  In the writings of early 19th Century Romantics they became similar to certain Nordic myths and King Arthur in English folklore, sleeping under the mountains and waiting to be resurrected and come to the salvation of the nation in a time of peril

Napoleon's puppet Helvetic Republic sought legitimacy by draping itself in the mantle of William Tell as an anti-Austrian patriot.  The  short lived Republic incorporated Tell into its official seal. 
During the French Revolution Tell was adopted as a model for rebellion against authority.  He was re-cast as a peasant leader and his role as a revolutionary elevated over earlier versions which emphasized his individual defiance.  In the Napoleonic Era Gessler became a tool of an unseen—and not even historically accurate—Austrian Emperor.  In the post-Napoleonic era Tell became the symbol to resistance against all oppression—including that inflicted in the false hope that Bonaparte would be a liberating force in Europe.  
When Napoleon invaded western Switzerland and imposed the Helvetic Republic in 1798, the new central government sought legitimacy by making Tell and his son the central device in their official seal.  When the Republic was overthrown in 1803 and the Confederacy of Cantons restored in the period known in Swiss history as the Restoration, Tell became a symbol for resistance to all foreign meddling in Swiss affairs.  This is the Tell of Schiller’s play and Rossini’s opera.

Mattua Battistini as the Swiss hero in an early 20th Century production of Rossini's opera Guillaume  Tell.
Since then he has been schizophrenic—simultaneously hailed as a hero of left populism and of right-wing Swiss nationalism.  He has been cited as the inspiration for Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters in England in 1604, along with Brutus by John Wilkes Booth for his assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and by late 19th Century anarchist assassins and attempted assassins of European rulers.
Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf praised Tell as the prototype of a Germanic hero and man of action.  He sang a different song after young Swiss Francophone patriot Maurice Bavauddubbed the “New William Tell” by his admirers—attempted to assassinate him in 1938.  He subsequently banned all performances of both Schiller’s play and the Rossini opera.  At a banquet in 1942 he complained, “Why did Schiller have to immortalize that Swiss sniper!”