AN ATTAINABLE GRAIL
There are five individuals I can’t get out of my mind. This country always brags so much about its history, and then almost deliberately ignores half of those “hero” types who helped create and preserve it – because they were women. Perhaps it’s also because they weren’t native-born. Perhaps also because it was “so long ago.” No excuse. Alas, they’re up against the male ego which is still uneasy about women in warfare.
“In warfare” only in part. Most men still struggle with “a saraband of imagery – a vast round ovum engulfs and castrates the agile spermatozoon, the monstrous and swollen termite queen rules over the enslaved males” (Simone de Beauvoir from The Second Sex).
That said, and not to digress, if it weren’t for these five souls many covert campaigns during the most pivotal time in human history simply wouldn’t have happened. The most significant influences in history seem lost in time, ignored or denied, while always returning in the end to make an indelible mark on the truth. Here are five brief bios:
Nancy Wake – called the “White Mouse” by the Germans, New Zealand born but living in Marseilles when the battle for France began, an intelligence officer for the Resistance when captured but then escaped to Britain, joined the Special Operations Executive, parachuted back to France where she was tasked with sabotaging Nazi operations, on one occasion killed a guard with her bare hands, awarded the George Medal, Medaille de la Resistance, and three Croix de Guerre medals.
Violetta Szabo – code name “Louise.” British-born SOE Agent, directed sabotage, espionage, and reconnaissance, captured two days after D-Day by the SS, interrogated an tortured, deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she was executed, posthumous recipient of the George Cross.
Virginia Hall – code name “Diane.” American spy with the SOE and OSS, the Germans called her “Artemis,” the Gestapo considered her the “most dangerous” of Allied spies,” with forged ID papers contacted the Resistance and mapped out supply drop zones, provided refuge for commandos, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and an honorary MBE.
Odette Hollowes – code name “Lise.” Allied Intelligence Officer, captured and interrogated fourteen times by the Gestapo, her back was scorched with a red-hot poker and all of her toenails were pulled out, condemned to death on two counts in June, 1943, to which she responded, “Then you will have to make up your mind on what count I am to be executed, because I can only die once.” Infuriated, the Gestapo sent her to Ravensbruck where she died. Awarded the George Cross and the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur.
Lise De Baissac – code name “Odile.” Member of the SOE, among the first female SOE agents to parachute into France in September 1942, courier and liaison for a network set up to secure routes where agents could work, organized weapons-drops from the UK for the Resistance, awarded the Legion d’honneur, and Croiz de Guerre with palm and MBE. 1
There’s something exceptionally phenomenal about these women and others like them who remain collectively unacknowledged. It reaches more into the depths of the male psyche than their own which might explain the problems of control and assigned roles. Beauvoir again: “No man would consent to be a woman, but every man wants women to exist.”
That it has to do with birthing, psychic balances, the primal breast, and the need for estrogen to reign in uncontrolled testosterone is the old story – true, but old. There’s something else. There’s something these women answered to which even they were not consciously aware – or maybe they were. Maybe it is “the same old” story but needs re-telling from a different parallax. The old one is too facile, too pedestrian, too specious, too bourgeois, too easy. There’s a “grail” component to this.
It has to do with understanding, as in “standing under” the alarums of war and peace, the sturm und drang of human behavior. It has to do with the outward appearances of self-contradiction (killing) and the instinct to recrudesce something from the most primal depths at the same time.
In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children the main narrator says, “To understand me you have to swallow a world.” What happens in a book becomes the book. This approximates their mission which was more “covert” than the covertures initially planned. It was as if being outside looking in at themselves.
They intuited something deeper from the point of view of the earth-as-living organism: “Hatred” is the antibody of oppression, but also a symptom of oppression. The symptom fuels the antibody which ends up killing itself. There is no immunity from oneself. To presume so is to fall into hyperbole, artifice, and deception. In other words, refusing to see war as suicidal madness is like calling something counterfeit as different from an “authentic copy.” – Meanwhile, we die defending shadows and ghosts.
We are trapped inside “the tragic ambiguity of [our] condition,” to quote Beauvoir. We try masking it, but to no avail. We may harness the atomic bomb and pretend to master nature, “and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s…. [A]t every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men” (from The Ethics of Ambiguity).
These women crossed the English Channel to redeploy a fundamentally natural kind of ambiguity. They reached across to reunite human DNA. “You can only kill me once,” and then you have to re-member and re-collect yourself to yourself. It was all about ending a war of tyranny but also to rekindle a kind of intelligence that embraces (and forgives) our human irrationality. We are not a divinely chosen culture guided by some bright northern star destined for a Promised Land. We are a mess of conflicting, repressed, misguided and hyper-extended impulses, needs, ambitions, and fears, some based on reality, some not. We are the neurologically frail in constant need of coddling and understanding (and the womb).
Question: Do you ever get the feeling that whatever you do, whatever you attempt to say, you’re speaking to an unintended audience? To people you don’t know, don’t necessarily even want to know? And before you know it, you have a reputation, perhaps even a stigma and stereotype, affixed to your good name. We are eternally in the “co-presence of strangers,” said Ahmad Sadri. What this means is that we’re all members of a global arena, a collective dialogue, which is not always nice to us individually. This arena is frequently balkanized, an archipelago of mutually hostile islands. Some appear real, others mere shadows and mirages, the products of hybridity and pastiche. The world is messy. There is only ambiguity. There are no clear grands recits (stories, rhetoric, narratives) which reduce all this to a convincing religious mythology.
The young adolescent kills the parent for personal liberation and power. The mother allows it because she understands. The father does not. The “hormone of aggression” sees itself in the other and fights to survive. Men “court” danger, disaster, and self-preservation (amour) as if it were a woman; they speak of it almost fondly, nostalgically, remembering it as acts of physical-sexual prowess (eros). The mother archetype “parents” it through the lens of agape – unconditional (Christly) love. At the end of the day she “wipes their noses,” cleans up the mess, and breast feeds those who drew lines in the sand(box). It’s an arm’s extension of a feminine planet attempting to save her offspring – her rib, as it were.
As a footnote: Mother Earth, by the way, is just fine. She’s not going anywhere and will always be here, despite what goes on in “sandboxes.” She’s not going away. We are the ones going away. It matters not that it may take 80 million years to clean up our nuclear waste and Styrofoam. She has nothing but time and will simply start all over again.
That said, there’s a deeply subversive component to all this. It breaks the rules and protocols of war and peace. It appeals to everyone equally – to see ourselves within the other and to re-member. It conflates all the divisions of rank, status, and official justifications to divide et impera. In one sense it takes us backwards in time, to ancient Athens. Social responsibility was not just the burden of a few but everyone – democratically – including the skyward archetypes (gods and goddesses). There was equal participation in everything, including government and warfare. Social, artistic, and political projects were debated, voted, financed, and supervised together. Ever since then we’ve been trying to get back to this, to a demos (commons, community), kratia (strength) . But we remain reluctant citizens (fem. citeseine – world inhabitants). We await some kind of approval from somewhere. Seventy-five years ago they were fighting/waiting for something abstract and seemingly inaccessible. They were waiting for themselves.
One of the criteria for defining intelligence is the ability to adapt to abstract situations. Abstract concepts have always been the precinct of, and preoccupation of, the male psyche. One might say that the war was “hard” and “concrete” reality at its most lurid. But war is also a convergence of so many abstract forces and influences that it spins the head. The “abstract” male goes about setting things “straight” again (but Euclidean straight). The female sets out to heal them according to the stresses felt by people, children reaching for the womb. To the feminine it isn’t straight or curved, it has nothing to do with either. In war we are all children.
Another definition of intelligence is the ability to make successful responses to difficult situations. The first indictment to this definition should be what it means by “successful.” The second should be what it means by “difficult.” Though it’s obvious that war is extremely difficult for everyone, there are different approaches on how one deals with desperate situations. Some need to take control, separate, and alienate. Others keep specific units together. One exacerbates an already horrible situation (village-to-village). The other seeks to minimize difficulty and pain. One thinks of systems and protocols. The other thinks of people.
An example much closer to home (involving animals): The rancher causes only more anxiety for himself when he separates a cow from its calf or a mare from its foal. Both are stressed and fail to cooperate. When united together a workable detente is formed. This epiphany is finally being realized by ranchers today. They are also learning that working with predator species for the sake of strong ecosystems works to their advantage. Everyone wins.
“Measurement” itself is a problem. John Gibson remarked: “Trying to evaluate the over-all intelligence of the sexes … is a little like trying to measure a ball of mercury with a yardstick.” An old Victorian saying is that the last thing man would “civilize” would be women. – Good thing that it failed, because, in the words of Ashley Montagu, “women, by being prevented from ‘yielding’ to man’s interest in things … have had to pay so much more attention to people, and therefore … are better equipped to solve the problems of mankind than most men. – Civilization is the art of being kind.”
This is a lesson unfortunately lost to many women today who “lose” themselves in the male environment – the professional (Athena) woman who excels in the corporate world, who learns to put money and power above people, family, and earth. It may sound terribly chauvinistic and sexist, but it makes an important point. There’s nothing wrong with high salary careers. The point is the forgetting- sacrificing of one’s instinctive (maternal) connection to the planet. The same point applies to women in the military.
Call it a Samson Complex I have (or a male stereotype), but when I see a woman without hair (cropped, shortened), in three-piece uniforms designed to mimic a man’s suit (in the boardroom or military), I see a woman who’s personal power has been sacrificed. It is still defined by men – by money, status, and Freudian “compensations” for the inadequacies of manhood (guns). Athena was the virgin goddess who excelled wearing the armor of war. The cropped hair, suit, and briefcase is the modern armor of corporate warfare. Montagu again: “Women no more serve the cause of humanity by aping men than Blacks do by aping Whites.”
As a final note to the “Samson” observation, personally speaking and in general, women who wear their hair long simply carry themselves differently. From a “body language” standpoint it simply appears that they’re in touch with something intrinsic and are happier with their lives, with themselves, overall. Those with short hair “look” competitive, hardened, alienated from things they wish they still knew, and, despite being “successful,” are generally unhappy. A never-ending question which will always haunt me is why the hair comes off after a certain age. It’s as if bowing to an old rule which says, “once you get old you’re supposed to look old – so act your age!” And so they do. I’ll never understand it. – Whatever happened to the color purple and going barefoot?
To this I would just add another comment by Beauvoir: “The fact is that the traditional woman is a bamboozled conscious being and a practitioner of bamboozlement; she attempts to disguise her dependence from herself, which is a way of consenting to it.”
Alfred North Whitehead said long ago that education was a guidance towards understanding the “art of life.” This is terribly vague, but it begins to make sense when made specific to embodying the “adventure of existence,” where its guidance is making men and women, not the maker of things, but the maker of “human beings” (hu – god, man – “measure of”).
These five women either knowingly or unknowingly responded to the “adventure of existence” and to a maternalism gravely needed at the eleventh hour. And as all things remain in flux and cyclical, they probably would have never anticipated that the epicenter of progressive change today (in Europe) is Germany itself. The social movements most lasting are those which are the most anti-systemic. They start small, keep their autonomy and became entities with a distinctive intelligence. They understand the dynamics of power and popular struggles. Post-war Germany has consistently been the most prolific in staging mass protests against the institutions of “corporatism” (Mussolini’s word for fascism). In Berlin alone private homes have become meeting centers, the “eyes and ears” against too much centralism in government. A vigil is kept, a kind of democratic self-discipline, on avoiding the colossal mistakes of the past.
And so, as always, a tribute should be given to such people. Tributes are there, like antibodies to oppression, to stave off historical amnesia. It should be no surprise that those most fitting should come from others who lived during their time (Whitehead, Beauvoir, Montagu). And as it happens, Montagu addressed the “maternal,” the primal breast, very eloquently. His words could almost fit in engraved marble over the memories of Wake, Szabo, Hall, Hollowes, and Baissac:
Maternal love is the purest and at the same time the most efficient form of love because it is the most compassionate, because it is the most sympathetic, because it is the most understanding and the least censorious. Maternal love does not dispense justice; it neither condemns nor condones; it gives support while endeavoring to understand, and it never forsakes those who are dependent upon it. Maternal love is much more than just, for it functions as if it were aware that justice without love is not enough. Justice is love digested through rational calculation; love… is justice adapted to the needs of the organism, and the maintenance of the organism then and thereafter in the warm ambience of its support. This, surely, is the kind of love we would wish to see prevail between human beings, rather than the kind of love that limits itself to the narrowest orbit …. ” (from On Being Human – italics mine).
© 2018 Richard Hiatt
1Information taken from thevintagenews.com.