Rocket-flame is sacred, like a flower placed in the hands of a wounded German soldier. Rockets are sacred because their mission is to approach the ideal. And with each new generation, right up to the V-weapons and beyond, they become more themselves. Their slimness grows more elegant, their tapering payloads more aerodynamic. But now that the war's over and they're perfect, nobody cares. Isn't that sad? That's one reason why I prefer to dwell on maiden voyages. Our rockets were mere prototypes then; our test pilots took risks; nobody knew what might happen. When I go back in time to 1936, before the sleepwalker called Göring on the black telephone, I see squatter, cruder rockets traversing our German skies. That was when we reoccupied the Rhineland. In 1935 the rockets were even wider, almost rectangular. They burned alchohol mixed with liquid oxygen. In 1934, when we purged Röhm and those scum, our flying machines were essentially square in cross-section, and their double wings resembled metalized pages of sheet music. In 1933, when the sleepwalker took power, I happened to be a philosophy student in Freiburg. It was night. We stood outside the library waiting. The command came. I was ready; I did my part. Liftoff! And so it rose and flew, gloriously propelled by human force; with indescribable joy I watched it spinning sharp-cornered like some strange new propeller device designed to cut the wires of enemy barrage balloons. I estimated its mass and velocity; I predicted its trajectory; I foresaw the duration of the flight down to the last second; I already knew the combustion temperatures involved. Just before it reached maximum altitude, it vanished for the merest eyeblink in the smoke that rose up all around us; next it entered the zone of pitiless flight, first as a silhouette, then, once its descent had begun, it opened, revolving around its spinal axis with the print on its pages stark enough for me to read it, had I wanted to, all the way across the pyre--it was some Jew book, something about pacifism, I believe--and Professor Heidegger, now unanimously elected Rector since his Anglo-Bolshevik predecessor had resigned, was speaking to us, or shouting, I should say, his voice deep, exultant, and more certain than it had ever sounded in any lecture I'd ever heard; he was telling us that this marked a new night for German culture; that the old must burn for the sake of the new. Beside me stood my classmate Edelgard, who would later be killed with both her children in a British bombing raid; and I got excited by the firelit rapture on her face; she was hurling books by the handful, and her hair was more beautiful than fire; so I grabbed the collected works of the Jew Freud and threw them right up into the sky; they reached their appogee just as the first book I'd launched swirled finally down to commit itself to the flames of German summer.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
I've been reading William Vollmann's Europe Central (2005), a huge and complex novel about Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. The narative perspective shifts back and forth between a top Soviet state security police officer and a mid-level Nazi bureaucrat. This excerpt (page 79-80) is in the later voice, and it is one of finest--and most disturbing--paragraphs I've ever read: