Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Long March by William Styron

The Long March is a short novella – only 88 pages – which nonetheless packs a great deal of philosophical discourse into its brief narrative. It tells the story of a group of men in their thirties, men who saw duty in the Second World War and remained enlisted as reserves, little expecting to be called up again. They are, of course, because of the Korean War, and find themselves rudely withdrawn from the life of the American Dream to which they have become accustomed, back into the mindless rigour of military discipline in a Marine training camp in the Carolinas. This military insistence on conformity to the point of lunacy is symbolised by an overnight, thirty-six mile route march the troops are forced to undergo: it is a pointless exercise for which most of the men, reservists out of physical condition and no longer with a military mindset, are wholly unprepared to undertake. The march is, it seems, the folly of the arrogant Colonel Templeton who, some of his troops believe, is forcing them into it in an act of self-aggrandisement. That the march to nowhere occurs against the backdrop of an accidental explosion which has killed eight of the troops merely adds to the sense of absurdity.

The main protagonists are Culver and Mannix, mature men who can no longer reconcile themselves to the de-humanisation of military ways. Mannix is a close cousin of Cass Kinsolving in Styron’s earlier novel, Set this House On Fire, a man for whom outrage at society burns uncontrollably, while Culver plays the role of Peter Leverett, the outsider who is not, quite, a rebel. And so, in The Long March, we have Mannix, raging against the lunacy of the enforced march, allowing his emotions to become heightened to irrational levels, whereby he refuses to stop marching even when a nail in his boot causes serious injury to his foot, while Culver, whose voice is the one the story is told through, offers nothing more than blank, incomprehending opposition. Thus, we approach from different perspectives this question of the power of the military to impose blanket, meaningless discipline.

As Welles T. Brandriff notes, by the end of the novella Culver’s illusions have been shattered and what ideals he still had have been eroded. He has become a disillusioned man. Mannix, meanwhile, in his irrational ‘one-sided antagonism’ towards Templeton, is left broken, his actions culminating in, as Melvin J. Friedman describes it ‘probable tetanus, insubordination, and a very certain court martial.’ Brandriff extrapolates from this that the most significant theme of the novel is the ‘thin, fabricated veneer called civilization, and one man's growing awareness of the essential disorder which lies just beneath the surface of this veneer. It also concerns the state of psychological disorder into which Culver slides, as he gradually becomes aware of the presence of this disorder.’

There is some merit to this argument, but Brandriff, a First Lieutenant in the US Air Force, is using it to downplay the attack on the military ‘system’ which is clearly a part of Styron’s intent. Yes indeed, the novel focuses on civilisation, but it also focuses more intently on the role of the individual in that civilisation and, in particular, the uncomfortable life of the non-conformist in an ultra-conformist setting. Marc L. Ratner hints at this when he suggests: ‘Styron, like Camus, is absorbed with the psychological condition of the rebel. For rebellion even in its failure is preferable to Faulkner’s or Hemingway’s stoic “endurance.”’ Peter Hays and August Nigro go even further when they suggest, invoking T.S. Eliot’s ‘mythical method’, that there are analogies with Prometheus and Christ. Nigro goes on to explain that there are three related stories within the novella. The first two can be summarised as the corruption of life caused by military organisation and the suppression of the American Dream but, in the context of Mannix’s character, the third is the most interesting:

the story of the degeneration of the hero in western civilization, from a figure who personifies the aspirations of the common man and the values of society to a grotesque anti-hero who makes a futile but necessary, attempt to assert his personal freedom and identity in the face of a society which is consistently demanding that he sacrifice both.

Eugene McNamara agrees that such individual protest is doomed, and that conformity will dominate. Given the ending of the novel, with Culver defeated and Mannix unnecessarily self-martyred, it is hard to argue against him. Styron is clearly arguing, whatever Brandriff might say, against the corruption of military – and, by extension, conformist, government-controlled – life. He presents in Culver and Mannix two everymen who, in different ways, try to accommodate something that is innately unable to accommodate them. The system cannot allow for individuals or brook dissent; it can only progress through edict and, once that edict has been made, however pointless, it cannot be withdrawn. It is alienating and brutalising. It cannot be attacked on its own terms and it cannot, as the disparate experiences of Culver and Mannix show, be broken by dissent. The message we are left with is a bleak one.

Joan Mellen remains unconvinced, citing what she calls Styron’s ‘consistent failure to make credible the moral psychology of his characters by allowing them to remain in touch with the historical exigencies of their own experience.’ This is unfair. She reaches this contention because, despite having ‘endured and lasted’ his ordeal, Mannix’s only reward is a court martial and further tours of duty in Korea. But such an outcome, I would suggest, proves the complete opposite of Mellen’s conclusion: however bleak it may be, the fate of Mannix is, as he knew it would be, to be beaten by the system. To follow the Christ analogy of Hays or Nigro, the result, for Jesus Christ, of his preaching was his death on Calvary Cross, as he knew all along it must be. The ‘moral psychology’ for either Christ or Mannix, and the self-evident implications of that moral psychology, are clear and profound. It is the existentialist dilemma writ large: life is absurd, and yet there is no alternative but to pursue it.

The Long March
, then, is a powerful work. Nonetheless, there is a curious passivity about much of Styron’s writing, the language at times appearing at odds with the strength of belief the author appears to feel. There is a distancing, almost as though, despite the profundity of his feelings, the author is still projecting them through some form of intellectual or aesthetic filter. This is a weakness Thomas Mann was accused of, and it may be pertinent to Styron, too. Joan Mellon picks up on this point in her self-styled polemic against the author, when she suggests:

[The Long March’s] heroes, Mannix and Culver, are also portrayed as passive victims of an overwhelming and destructive social order. They have "slept a cataleptic sleep" which has lasted from the end of World War II until the Korean War. They have made no effort to understand or to change their society, yet they are angry at the incursion upon their freedom when called upon once again to submit to military discipline. Mannix and Culver have no convictions, however, to pit against the closed if insane logic of the Marine Corps. Although "at heart" they are passionately against it, they passively agree to the necessity of a long march which has no purpose other than to condition the men. They are mesmerized by the bullying confidence of Colonel Templeton for whom the act of submission is both sufficient and necessary cause for the ordeal. The sole reasoning offered is that "if they meet an aggressor enemy next week they might have to march a long, long way."

Again, I think Mellon seriously overstates her case. To call Mannix passive, for example, is clearly ridiculous, and she presents a fatally slanted interpretation of the protagonists. To me, what passivity there is in the novella resides not in the characters but in the writing, in the detachedness which typifies Styron’s style. This distancing is unfortunate, because when he does let himself go, Styron is able to mix it with the best of the southern grotesquers, such as in the opening of the novella, when he evokes the viscera and detritus of the accident:

One noon, in the blaze of a cloudless Carolina summer, what was left of eight dead boys lay strewn about the landscape, among the posion ivy and the pine needles and loblolly saplings. It was not so much as if they had departed this life but as if, sprayed from a hose, they were only shreds of bone, gut, and dangling tissue to which it would have been impossible ever to impute the quality of life, far less the capacity to relinquish it.

More of that and the reader would be storming the ramparts to come to the aid of Mannix and Culver in their futile reaction against reaction. Instead, we shake our heads in resignation. And that is why, ultimately, Mannix is no Christ, no leader of men. Until one turns up, we are all of us consigned to the long march.


Anonymous said...

Culver, unlike Mannix, is analytical. He is constantly trying to refine his understanding of Templeton, and he is always trying to be fair to the colonel, questioning his own prior judgments. I believe that Culver represents the artist, trying to get to the essence of the situation without trying to influence it. Toward the end, Culver does intervene, when he urges Mannix to stop persecuting his own men, but this is long past the point when he could have, or perhaps should have, intervened.

Culver also tries to understand Mannix, and gets farther than he does with Templeton. For one thing, Mannix confides to Culver, something that Templeton never does. For another, Mannix wears his heart on his sleeve, rather than create an elaborate performance (compared early in the novella to Bernhardt).

Mannix, it is clear, is on a collision course. This is anticipated with his refusal to make a wild guess during a training session. Mannix's rebellion does nobody any good and his defiance leads him to abuse his own men by forbidding them to crap out.

It's clear that Templeton is full of macho bullshit. As Mannix mentions, the reservists should be conditioned wtth a series of shorter marches before tackling a 36-mile ordeal. But isn't Mannix engaging in the same macho bullshit, not only by marching with a nail in his boot, but his whole "I'll show him!" attitude toward Templeton.

It's not clear to me whether Styron is attacking military discipline per se. This discipline is extremely distasteful to civilians and profoundly anti-democratic, but appears to be necessary if a fighting force is to be effective. The warriors are being trained to for reflexive obedience and to be more afraid of the consequences of disobedience than they are of the enemy. They are also bonding with their peers, if only in opposition to their leaders, which itself is often said to be the most important motivator during battle.

Culver and Mannix are adults, and are not as easy to push around as 18-year-olds. They have conflicting loyalties, to their families and their careers. You can't just shave off their hair, force them out of their civilian clothes, separate them from their friends and expect to re-mold their personalities into fighting machines. They are willing and able to analyze and judge their superior officers, not just grumble about them.

But both Culver and Mannix are powerless. Neither has an effective way to change anything for the better. Would Templeton have modified his plans if Culver and Mannix had presented their concerns in non-confrontational ways?

There was a "meat wagon" to pick up exhausted soldiers. It wasn't a death march. The only serious damage we saw was to Mannix himself and to one of Mannix's men who had a serious blister and whom Mannix himself pushed on. So isn't Mannix more the martinet than Templeton himself?

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks very much for this. Excellent stuff.

Culver as artist: yes I can see that. He is rational to the point of passive at times.

Yes, Mannix's rebellion does nobody any good. But I think it was inevitable that he would have to make it. And yes, I think he probably is guilty of the same machismo as Templeton. Isn't it true in life that those you most dislike often have characteristics uncomfortably close to your own?

It's not clear to me whether Styron is attacking military discipline per se.
I think he is criticising a certain type of military discipline, perhaps. Templeton is such a crazy guy it's impossible not to feel that some criticism is implied. I think it's the sort of mindless discipline he is commenting on, the rigid conformity even when common sense tells you that a particular plan of action isn't going to work.

And I also think the casual way that military officials react to the initial accident is telling. This, it feels to me, is a direct criciticism of military ways.

Thanks again. A really useful debate.