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Essay: The Naming of Parts

Roger Rosenblatt reflects on the clash of war and beauty.

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    By now one ought to be used to the collision of basic human impulses. Familiar business, especially today, when summer is in full swing all over, and people are going to war all over, all over.

    Summer explodes, a bus explodes; grill the supper, grill the suspect. In the middle of the season of hang gliding, helicopters patrol; and again we take in the harsh attachment of destruction and celebration– the usual, old hat. We've been through it lots before.

    There's even a famous poem about this collision of impulses, called "Naming of Parts" by Henry Reed, written during the Second World War. A clever trick of a poem, it's about a soldier in basic training learning the parts of a rifle, the naming of which mimics the flowering of spring:

    Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning, We shall have what to do after firing. But today, Today we have naming of parts. Japonica Glistens like coral in all of the neighborhood gardens, And today we have naming of parts.

    So we tacitly name the parts these days. First comes spring in the trees, spring into action, spring to your feet in a terrorist alert. Then summertime, and the living gets dangerous. India and Pakistan stand ready to blow each other into bits. Terrorists in Israel are blowing that country to bits every day. Iraq seems always to be cruising for a war — not to mention ourselves, engaged in a war of nerves with attacks that come out of the blue.

    The blue is particularly sharp these days — the blue of the sea, the blue of the sky. Here comes the old irony of the pathetic fallacy: Nature does not care if we suffer in wars. The idea was stated plainly in Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" when the soldier looks up and sees the uncaring sun and sky — and later in the greatest war novel ever written, "All Quiet on the Western Front," same old collisions. The narrator says; "I hold my rifle to see that it is in trim. The barrel is wet. I take it in my hands and rub off the moisture with my fingers. Between the meadows beyond our town, there stand a line of old poplars by a stream." The point made is the same, the same inexplicable beauty mixed with horror, and our helplessness when they arrive at the same time and place.

    Or, to put it as it is put in "Naming of Parts":

    And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this Is to open the breech as you see. We can slide it Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers: They call it the easing of spring.

    Americans generally have a healthy attitude toward war, if there is such a thing. We don't like it, and at the same time, we're very good at it. That combination is our saving grace. At the outset of World War II, we ranked 27th in world armaments. (Explosion) When the war ended, we were number one. But the main reason we got in the war was to get out– to crush a dangerous enemy, and get out.

    It would be nice if our current war were that defined. But they seem to take all shapes, wars, and they tend to be cyclical, like the seasons. Now we experience wintry impulses in a time of bees and flowers. Makes it difficult, as usual, to determine what sort of animals we are– people, that is. We can't see the whole picture. We name the parts — prisoners of the parts.

    They call it the easing of Spring: it is perfectly easy If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt, And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance, Which in our case we have not got; And the almond-blossom Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards, For today we have naming of parts.

    I'm Roger Rosenblatt.