The Bombardier

This novel grew out of an invitation that Bill received in 1968 to spend at term at the University of California, Berkeley, as a Visiting Professor in Modern Literature. He carefully prepared and wrote out lectures on the works of Joseph Conrad, Henry James, James Joyce, Albert Camus, William Gaddis, and Normal Mailer. Copies of many of these are available in the Corrington archives kept in the McGill Library of Centenary College, Shreveport, LA. Bill’s lectures were well received by his students, and he told me that he was rewarded with three standing ovations; and that Dr. James Hart, the Chairman of the Berkeley English Department, told him the previous record had been two standing ovations in a term.

But while Bill was educating the Berkeley students, they were also educating him. Recall that 1968 was a year in which anti-Vietnam War protests were at a high level, and Berkeley was one of the most turbulent sites of protests. Bill, with typical Southern macho, felt that if we were in the war, we should be in to win. He went to Berkeley with something of a chip on his shoulder, ready to defend his opinion. He was surprised at how well he was received by the students. Instead of being hostile, they seemed delighted that someone of his professional level would spend hours in his office debating with them. Bill told me his Berkeley students were the best he ever taught, but they had no sense of history and no sense of humor.

Bill was assigned a grader, graduate student Barbara Steinberg. She was actively engaged in student protests and other liberal political activities. She and Bill became such close friends, that he invited her to join his faculty at Loyola University, and she subsequently did so. It is to Barbara and his Berkeley students that Bill dedicated The Bombardier.

Bill was still in California when Robert Kennedy, having just won the California primary for the Democratic nominee for President on a platform opposing the Vietnam War, was assassinated. He then returned home, only to watch with horror the television coverage of the “police riot” at the Chicago Democratic Convention, when the police and national guardsmen beat and arrested young protesters who were or might well have been Bill’s Berkeley students. It was in an effort to understand and explain the roots of what happened in the turbulent streets and parks of Chicago that Bill wrote The Bombardier.

Dr. Thomas Preston, a friend of Bill’s from Rice University days, who also joined him on the Loyola University faculty for a while, devoted a portion of an article he wrote to The Bombardier. Since Thomas’ article explicates The Bombardier much better than I can, an excerpt from it follows. The page numbers that follow quotations cite the first publication of The Bombardier (New York, Lancer Book, Inc., 1970).

Excerpt from “Achorites in Sodom: John William Corrington’s Secular Urbanism and the Transcendent in These Latter and Perilous Days” (published in John William Corrington, Southern Man of Letters, William Mills, ed., UCA Press, Conway, AR, 1994)

An important corollary to the recovery of transcendence is the restoring of an inner wholeness for which we have no proper modern term—a kind of contemporary version of the medieval concept of contemptus mundi, an interior contempt for or detachment from the pursuit of the secular as a goal or end in itself— however the secular takes form—wealth, power, material possessions, honor, prestige, and, most perversely, efforts to actualize the transcendent itself. This detachment acknowledges the pleasure of the secular and the worth of striving for ideals; it also accepts that neither will morally or spiritually satisfy and that pursuit of either as a final goal inevitably uncovers the stench of the maggot. However abused by Christians in the past, the concept derives from the Biblical injunction to be in but not of the world and expresses, I think, the psychological and spiritual state Corrington advocates in his fiction. In essence it is that of an urban hermit or, to use the more proper medieval designation, an anchorite, a term Corrington introduces in his most shattering novel of secular urbanism The Bombardier.

Michaelis, an Air Force colonel who volunteers to train bombardiers during World War II, believes he can produce expert killers by isolating the men from society and converting them into a community which believe they are “gods, magicians”(139). Throughout the novel Corrington uses the image of magic to indicate the superstition secular urbanism invokes to fill the void left by the loss of the transcendent. He sets up his training school in the barren desert outside Pilsbury, Texas where in the equally barren barracks, Michaelis thinks, “The bombardier in training would be alone.” He plans for almost total isolation.

There would be no radios, no newspapers, no communication with outside. There would be no outside. And as the accustomed was lly evaded, it would be replaced with mystery, with something in which out of their loneliness, the emptiness of all they had known before, they would come to believe. They would be a new kind of anchorites.

Michaelis later expands the ancient religious imagery to include the image of monasticism.

For the next few months these spiritual basket cases would be anchorites, monks chanting mathematical formulas, studying aerial photos as if they were an illuminated Book of Hours. They would bathe in the chill dawn, eat sparsely, genuflect within themselves when they passed the Black Door. And when I was done, they would go overseas. To fly over Germany. To be ordained. (59)

Monastic communities, of course, are groups of monks who live in the world but whose enclosure from the world points to a desire for detachment from the secular. Strictly speaking, medieval anchorites did not live in a community but in a cell and usually in a city, often with the cell attached to a church, a situation even more strikingly exemplary of living in but not of the world.

The novel is designed to restore the ancient values of the anchorite, not as something sought for its own sake, but as a response to encountering the transcendence in the midst. The bombing of Dresden serves as the epiphany for Michaelis, Jacobs, and especially Boileau, who confront their own participation in that notorious World War II event. Dresden was not a military target, but rather, as the various bombardiers ironically point out, the place where “they make the little porcelain figures” (88), the most famous being, perhaps, a pastoral couple, “that laughing piper and the little shepherdess”(88). Corrington describes the fiery hell that constituted the historical bombing of Dresden but turns it also into the moral hell of the major characters, who, through their experiences, perceive Dresden as a new turning point in secular urbanism. Dresden foreshadows the uncovering of urban violence, the stench to gag a maggot, that will plague the post-World War II era and that in the United States is presented as culminating in the Chicago riots of the 1968 Democratic convention. Recalling the Dresden bombing, Michaelis thinks:

I watched Dresden melt and flare and fall into ashes, and I could not stop my mind from announcing like a railroad stationmaster: New York. Philadelphia. Miami. Atlanta. New Orleans. Chicago. Dallas, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles. . . . And behind each name, I saw another shadow image of what I was watching as if second sight were showing me the 1960’s or 1970’s. (99)

The novel envisions the bombing of Dresden as the symbolic incident that “laid the eggs of destruction”(139) that hatched on the streets of contemporary cities, turning them into the place “where the permanent war went on”(136), streets which the ex-bombardier Krepinski, a Chicago policemen in 1968, gleefully claims “belong to us”(207).

All of the ex-bombardiers converge on Chicago for one reason or another, and Corrington vividly details the street war between the police and the young people. Boileau’s short tableau may serve as a summary of his devastating scenes.

That night I left Chicago. You could still smell the acrid stench of tear gas in the air. There were still police and national guardsmen in the streets, and litter, trash, rubble in Grant Park and along the sidewalks. It is said that the morning after the Decembrist uprising in St. Petersburg in 1825, there was not a sign to reveal to the Russian people that dozens had died in Senate Square the night before. In their name. The Romanovs at Chicago had not done so well. (253)

The point of Corrington’s detailed recounting of the 1968 Chicago riots and of the bombing of Dresden is to foreground the valid anchorite life found by ex-bombardiers like Jacobs, Michaelis, and Boileau. The initial “bombardier” anchorites thought that by bombing Dresden they were instruments of God, as Jacobs mused during the event, “God save us just this once more. This is your work, isn’t it? Aren’t we up here doing your work?”( 96). Later, during the Chicago riots, he dreams he is flying again and hears in his earphones Boileau’s voice saying, “This is the last city in the world, and when it is gone, so will be the evil that cities spawned. It will be a world of farms” (165).

The three of them have learned, however, that it will not be the last city, whether Dresden or Chicago, and neither will a world of farms surface. Boileau has finally concluded that “We swim in this river called existence, bumping into one another, dreaming of far countries and fairy cities emerald and cool and filled with singing and the odor of justice. We flounder for a while, somewhere between green Eden and the New Jerusalem, dreaming, dreaming, then we go down”(190). The killing and destruction and butchering are, ironically, often performed for ideals, for absolutes that are really transcendent values but which secular urbanism dreams are pragmatic possibilities. Michaelis later realizes that “idealism is the root of all evil, against nature, the beginning of disorder and the evoker of spirits and powers neither steady sense nor new force . . . can cope with adequately”( 215). Using the image of flying in a bomber, Boileau envisions all of us, entrapped in secular urbanism, dreaming of perfection, “believing that our act will alter the flow of things”( 191). The flow of things is not affected. “We are deceived,” Boileau continues, “and the target is forever our own home, our own people, and we will one day have to land, to walk in the deserts we have made, amongst the ashes of Carthage and Hiroshima, of Dresden and Mine Run”(191). Yet in killing their own home while acting out their destructive fantasies, their ideals, humans unintentionally establish the need for the transcendent: only God can provide meaning to the evil emanating, however irrationally, from human destructiveness.

Michaelis illustrates the pattern. Losing faith in the Democratic candidate he has been supporting, caught up momentarily in the magic, the superstition of politics, he tells his campaign friend, “It’s no good. I’m just not a politician. I’m going to look for a preacher. I want to find God” (163). In an almost shocking image, Michaelis observes that, like greed, “God runs like a spoiled gene through generations”(163), and Michaelis expects to see him soon, wherever the next major act of human de¬structiveness occurs.

I flew back to Chicago. There was a lot to consider. His last manifestation had been at Hiroshima. Before that, Dresden. Before that, the Nuremberg rallies. Before that? Why at the Finland Station, of course. In 1917. Where next? I thought perhaps in Chicago. In 1968. And I would be there. . . . There were a lot of years left. (163)

A lot of years and a lot of Dresdens and Chicagos are possible, for as another ex-bombardier, Poole, discerns, we are all bombardiers: “Been out of work for a long time, ’cause while I was a nigger, I thought only the Army could hire a bombardier. But now I knew a man could go into business for himself. Man can go back to bombing on his own”(236). More than bombardiers we are all, as the ex-bombardier Boyd discovers, accomplices in others’ evil. The youth at Chicago, “unkempt . . . some . . . dirty, their hair long and snagged”(183), he claims, “had no interest in what we called morals, in the clean order of their parents’ lives”(183). Hidden beneath this clean order, symbolized in “sprays and douches and underarm pads”(183), lay the “gangrenous suppurating memories and present knowledge” that many empty seats remained at the Nuremberg trials “that might have been filled with—us, the complicitors, who had followed orders, done what was called our duty, purposely ignoring the question of how one distinguished between gassing Jewish children and bombing German children” (183). Boyd has peered into the depth of the human “solidarity in sin.” As Bishop Jenkins writes, “It is absolutely essential to retain the conviction and awareness that acts which are dehumanizing, inhuman and less than fully human, remain precisely that even when they are politically essential or inevitable or, at least, held to be so.” Even the “attitude of the oppressed,” Jenkins further explains, “in hating his oppressor and the act of the oppressed in imprisoning, terrorizing or killing his oppressor do not become human and humanizing because they are part of a his¬torical process of liberation.”

Our hatred for Nazism, intense and perduring, makes the image of complicity extremely shocking, and the novel is designed through this shock strategy to make us recoil in despair (as do Camus and Sartre) or move through despair to what Jenkins calls the “hopefulness of solidarity in sin.” Jacobs credits Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore for leading him finally to this state. “That book,” he claims, “had sent me down roads within myself I had not wished to travel, had shown me whatever hope a man dares to possess must be founded once and for all on a pure and unalterable hopelessness, a wisdom composed of the certainty that every wisdom is ashes, every truth a sword that waits for us to fall upon it.”. This hope founded on hopelessness, a species of secular detachment, allows Jacobs finally to accept his wife’s Zionist desire to move to Israel, not because he expects Israel to be morally or spiritually better than the United States. Rather he now sees it simply as his “home,” where, going to “his own people” and “making up for wasting twenty years,” he will “be all right,” “die forgiven” for the earlier bombing of another home—Dresden—realizing that it “doesn’t matter how you live if you find your way at the end”(203).

Finding one’s way, the hopefulness of solidarity in sin, is not an easy matter, for it requires an internal refusal to play the world’s success game. Boileau, for example, returned from the war to spend three years wrestling with the problem of self-identity and integrity. He had considered the priesthood, even the Trappists, but felt he was beyond even that most reclusive religious order. Abandoning also law practice with his father, he chose, instead—to fish (125-26). This three year retreat, he claims, taught him “nothing useful in the world”(126). Rather he learned resignation, coming to see that “dropping that last load of bombs over Dresden,” any more than “not dropping it,” would have had “no meaning”(126). Boileau arrives at the position that our cherished belief that we are independent and that our actions belong to us are illusions. “We belong to movements and to tides and histories,” he reasons: “We can change nothing, and only modesty becomes us”(126). “That is what I learned,” he informs us, along with “not to be hungry, not to resent the way things are. Not to cry or to laugh, not to fall prey to the Faust in oneself—much less in others”(126). This detachment from the secular is indeed not very useful if we are out to play by the world’s rules—either idealistically to change the world, however evil we think it, or selfishly to promote our own secular success. Secular detachment, reached from recognition of transcendence, leads instead to a different game. “And when I felt that I could care or not care precisely as I chose, struggle or give way as I wished,” Boileau declares, “I let my mind come to life again to discover how I should pass the time from now until that God I had learned to love and fear again called me to judgment”(126).

To pass the time Boileau abandons the law to become an historian, an excellent choice of profession, according to his father, because “there was no money in my work. It had no commercial value of any kind” (126). Boileau chooses the history of rebellion as his special field, and although he is neither ideologically in favor of or opposed to it, his clear, accurate, and detached writing makes him “well known in certain quarters”(129) where his objectivity is construed as compassion, and he appears to many as “a champion of revolution”(129). In fact, to the embarrassment of his senior professor, Boileau considers revolution merely another “way of passing time, of occupying oneself—or oneselves—until history came to a close” (127). The senior professor fails to understand how Boileau can be so “detached”(127) about the atrocities of war and rebellion, especially those committed by the Germans in World War II. “You know what . . . they did. Dachau. Ravensbruck . . .”(128), he stutters, and Boileau promptly replies, “Yes. And I know what we did.” Quoting a poem, he continues, “Those to whom evil is done/Will do evil in return”(128). “The Jews, the Slavs . . .”(128), the senior professor falters, his sentence finished instead by Boileau’s calm, “Will have their day and do no differently”( 128).

Speaking from the detachment of a human solidarity in sin, which Boileau’s senior professor obviously prefers to deny or at least to ignore, Boileau is stating the obvious. “A historical situation,” writes Bishop Jenkins, “which requires or enables the oppressed to fight the oppressor and the poor to overcome the rich does not thereby produce a temporary race of privileged humans whose acts of violence, hate and power become human and humanizing because they are fighting for the underprivileged against privileged exploiters”(69). Boileau’s detachment reveals what his senior professor’s sentimental wishful thinking obscures. “Unless sinfulness is recognized as something shared in by all human beings,” writes Jenkins, “then there is no escape from the dehumanizing limitations of false and premature absolutes proclaimed by limited and partial agents of a partially understood historical process”(69).

The Bombardier contains a pervasive wit and humor, much of it black, but its tough anti-sentimentalism may readily discourage some readers. I have dwelled on it, however, because its rich texture of scene, language, and character sets out the implications of detachment from secular urbanism in such detail.

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