Thursday, August 14, 2014

Chapter 13 - A Veteran Of The Great War: Part 3 - Painful Legacy

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

The war’s legacy included an exhausted and wary state of the world. The leaders of England, France, Italy, and the United States were now working things out in France at a peace conference—with representatives of what was left of the disempowered Central Powers awaiting results. President Wilson had with hope declared “The Great War” (as it had come to be called) as the “war to end all wars”. Would wars end? Alfred didn’t feel so sure. He wondered what it would take to actually make world peace an actuality.

More specifically, Alfred's thoughts turned to the pain of Poland, the battleground of the Eastern Front, where millions of soldiers and civilians had died or been injured and where many had been rendered homeless. The economic infrastructure had been wrecked. True, there was now an independent state, a Second Polish Republic—Alfred’s lifelong dream. But uncertain borders, and problematic relations with neighboring national groups and with its own ethnic minorities, made the new state’s peaceful existence tenuous.

With this general situation at the start of 1919, the war’s personal legacy for Alfred included his own portion of ongoing insecurity, loss, and pain. Korzybski had not been able to establish contact with his mother and friends at home, but he was still trying to reach them by means of people he knew who were traveling to Poland. Had they survived and were they reasonably alright? They were. He would get a letter from his mother later in the year and continued a regular correspondence with her throughout her life. But he had reasonable assurance that the family properties had been ruined in the war. A lot of work would be needed to repair the damages and restore the farm’s productivity.

The war had not only damaged his property. It had left its traces on Alfred himself in the form of scars clearly—and not-so-clearly—visible. Ever since his hip injury and the terrible pain he had felt afterwards, he had observed in his gait a certain more-or-less unconscious carefulness. He knew he never wanted to experience such pain again. Beyond that, he had to contend with a definite stiffness in his left leg, now shorter than the right; he needed to wear a specially-made shoe extension and lift which in turn caused other problems, a sore and callused foot. For the rest of his life, he used a cane and walking was never normal.

'Lieutenant' Alfred Korzybski - 1918

His hearing too had suffered. The incessant din of artillery both at the front and at the Petawawa testing range had caused damage and sensory loss. Within the next few years, he would notice difficulty with telephone conversations, which he learned to avoid. Later as he aged, he had difficulty hearing even in personal conversations unless the room was quiet and the other person enunciated loudly and clearly enough. This led to Alfred appearing at times like a “one way conversationalist”.(8)

Other war-related health problems which he considered nuisances persisted. Every so often, some extra exertion and the resulting heart palpitations or shortness of breath would remind him of the strain he had sustained from lifting that artillery piece singlehandedly during the retreat of the Russian Army from Lodz. The resulting hernia also required a truss later on. Poor hygiene and irregular diet during the war also left him with dental problems he would have to deal with later, eventually requiring dentures.

The nervous tics he had first noticed when he arrived in North America had long since vanished. Yet a residue of anxiety remained from his war experiences. For example, he would find himself looking upwards at times and realize he was unconsciously reacting to a plane flying overhead as if expecting a bomb attack. And he had vivid memories of the Eastern Front still charged with painful feelings. (The unpleasantness of these memories would diminish but never entirely vanish.) Alfred’s later interest in helping those with shell shock, or battle fatigue as it was called during World War II (now termed “post-traumatic stress disorder”), was stimulated by his own experiences with the phenomenon.

In spite of these negatives, Alfred could see things after the war as not entirely dark. For one thing, at least for the next few months, he had some money to live on. He had not spent much of his stipend from the Tsarist government or his wartime salaries. Altogether he may have had about $5000 in savings. And the exigencies of his wartime service had led to another benefit—he had been forced to learn and become fluent in English. A new world of literature, scientific and otherwise, had become available to him. And now he would have some time to read. Since the start of the war he had been too busy to be able to follow much of what had been happening in the scientific world. In 1915, for example,  Einstein had proposed a general theory of relativity which was turning the world of physics topsy-turvy. Alfred’s work as a speaker for the French-Polish Army and the U.S. Fuel Administration also opened up another new world for him. He realized that he could move an audience with his words and that, furthermore, having an audience helped him to develop his ideas. A career as a writer and speaker now seemed like a definite possibility. And in his brief time in North America (he had arrived only a little over three years before) he had managed to develop a network of contacts throughout Canada and the United States. His file of correspondence with friends and acquaintances was growing.

The war also left him with a definite preference in clothing which he felt most grateful for: khaki. "Since the first day of war, I got khaki and never got out of it." Although he occasionally would wear a jacket and tie or even more formal evening clothes when required, these seemed to him like so-much uncomfortable “armor”. He considered anything as formal as a suit and tie, a “monkey suit”.(9) In his khakis he had room to move and felt comfortable. A clean and pressed khaki ‘uniform’ had all the decorum he felt he needed.

In regard to his personal grooming, he seems to have started shaving his head long before the war, as he began losing his hair: “I decided to abandon what was abandoning me.”(10) Undoubtedly conditions during the war (with lice and other vermin) confirmed for him the wisdom of that decision. He continued to shave his head for the rest of his life.

Alfred’s many close calls with death during the war left him with what to some people at first might not seem like a benefit—a significant sense of his own mortality. For Korzybski this appears to have served as a gift. He may not have dwelled on it but I believe a consciousness of his own mortality—and therefore of the preciousness of every life-moment—remained in the daily background of his awareness, more or less as a constant, for the rest of his life. On the back flyleaf of his copy of Barrack-Room Ballads, he had written a line from another Kipling poem, Arithmetic on the Frontier, that had obviously struck him:

The flying bullet down the pass
that whistles clear
“all flesh is grass.” (11)
 On the Eastern Front, Alfred had actually heard the flying bullet (and artillery shell) and seen the results for those to whom the bullet had not whistled clear. If 'all flesh was grass'—he was no exception. He was lucky to be alive. Already naturally inclined to involve himself fully in whatever he was doing, from this time on he seemed to make a concerted effort to live ‘balls out’ with the greatest intensity. Later, he would tell his students—with passion—to do what he worked to do in his own life—“Be conscious!”(12)

Such was the mixed legacy of the Great War for Korzybski. Though not especially happy with the state of the post-war world, he didn’t seem so constituted as to become consumed with bitterness. In the way he would put it, he didn’t have a ‘bad liver’, so for him the world didn’t seem bad through and through—only ‘hopeless’. Some ways forward for the world and for himself might exist—some unknown possibilities for hope. Before the war, he had attempted to write and to burst through some of the blockages he had perceived in the sciences, politics, etc. He had not succeeded. His experiences during the war had filled him with a new sense of urgency—an urgency that now seemed as if it was going to burst through him.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
8. Ralph C. Hamilton, Interview. 

9. Korzybski 1947, p. 499. 

10. I ‘know’ Korzybski said this about his baldness but can't find the reference now. I guess that every biography has at least one of these. Here's one of mine.

11. Kipling, p. 77. In the line" all flesh is grass", Kipling was quoting the Hebrew Bible— Isaiah 40:6—the metaphor going back to the Book of Psalms (see Psalm 90 for example). 

12. “Be conscious!” Korzybski wanted students to stop dragging themselves through life, inattentively, passively, unconsciously. In one lecture he gave at the 1948-49 Holiday Intensive Seminar, he drilled the point home:
...Do you know that with us humans, we have such a thing as consciousness—do you know that—do you understand the word ‘conscious’? Are you fully conscious that you are conscious? No. Great many of you are just a flop—not conscious of anything [he purposely mumbled this to simulate the attitude of 'half-assed' awareness he was criticizing]. Well it isn't on the human level. Be conscious! If you want to relax, relax consciously. Otherwise [in other words]—it means be conscious of your possibilities as well as your shortcomings, as well as taking care of the environment; because we are a product not only out of our organismal possibilities but we are also connected with the environment. There is no way out—no way out; therefore let's not look for utopias. The secret of your own adjustment lies in you, nobody else. Not a doctor or me.  
[Alfred Korzybski: 1948-1949 Seminar, (mp3-20b, 8:07 ); p. 220 (in the written transcription)]

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