The Buck Stops Here

On January 8, 1815, Andrew Jackson defended New Orleans from British attack in the last battle of the War of 1812, a battle which took place 15 days after the peace treaty of Ghent had been signed. It took more than that time for news of the treaty to cross the ocean and travel south by stagecoach to New Orleans. Today, we know something almost as soon as it happens. Who can forget the images the day of September 11 transmitted cross country on computers? Or to see what Katrina did to New Orleans as soon as, if not before, the government?

Those, who, like Eliot Weinberger, live a mile north of the World Trade Center saw a world whose images cameras may have seen but did not see. Weinberger's record of that day is, as he describes it, "some notes from a temporal and emotional limbo....There are no cars, no mail, no newspapers." We cannot know the maelstrom except from inside it, and those of us outside it, no matter how much we may be moved by what we have seen, are left with today's images to remember followed tomorrow by others, perhaps elsewhere in the world. If living is a leaving of traces, as Walter Benjamin argues, we do not find them in the images the media supplies. Only the first-hand account from the eye of the storm can take us there, and once there, we understand it is not what we see from the outside. The diary, letter and scrawled note carry an authority the journal and novel lack. Call these fugitive writings messages in bottles sent from terra incognita.

In the weeks before the fall of Berlin in WWII, a German journalist begins a diary on April 20, 1945, Hitler's birthday, and four days after the opening bombardment for the Soviet attack on the city. There were no newspapers, radio was dead, clocks and calendars no longer made any sense. She was cut off from any news, and soon had no sense of time. "We no longer know a thing," she writes. Published anonymously as A Woman in Berlin in 1954 in an English translation, the diary is an inventory, a work of memory, a counterarchive, an act of resistance against defeat written in the most difficult circumstances, often by candlelight with nothing but a pencil stub. "My fingers are shaking as I write this," she notes. "We took a direct hit." It continues through street fighting, the rape of German women by Soviet troops, Hitler's suicide on April 30, the German surrender of Berlin on May 2, until June 22, when she stops, after government, no matter how provisional or weak, returns to the city. "I haven't been writing," she notes. "And I won't be either - that time is over."

Germans were not ready to read her account when it was published in German for the first time in 1959 and the book was met with hostility and silence. At one point, she notes, "It can't be me this is happening to," which is what most Germans wanted to believe, no matter the evidence. Of one rape, she scribbles in the margins of her diary - to be used by novelists - "the unfamiliar body on top of her. Her nails dug into the stranger's hair, she heard the cries coming from her own throat and the stranger's voice whispering words she couldn't understand....She howled into the pillow and wanted to die." She gives Gerd, her boyfriend who has returned from the Russian front, her diaries, but he can't find his way through them and once he reads about the times she was raped he finds a reason to leave.

"These are strange times," she concludes. "History experienced first hand, the stuff of tales yet untold and songs unsung. But seen up close, history is much more troublesome - nothing but burdens and fears." Too troublesome for the historian who waits to hear the songs of the times or for those who prefer to hear the tales the tribe of the press tells of the Crescent City. Out there is a woman in a New Orleans, a man in the delta, a child whose childhood is gone. Out there, burdens and fears. Out there, a leaving of traces.
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Volume 1, Issue 9, Posted 03.37 AM / 20th October 2005.