Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Blur of Travel

I believe that it was the Prussian military theoretician Clausewitz who introduced the idea of “the fog of war,” a really fine phrase that denotes the uncertainties, confusions, and marked limitations of vision that characterize most soldiers’ experience of war, especially on the battlefield itself.  When we speak of a person’s “viewpoint” or “point of view” we are acknowledging that the reliability of what one sees depends in large measure on the physical location from which one sees it.  Paintings of the great battles of the Napoleonic era generally show the general officers viewing the action from some fairly distant elevation.  I think the only time anybody uses the old word fray is in saying that somebody is above it.

            I count myself very fortunate indeed that I have never had to experience warfare.  Hence my conception of war’s fog comes mostly from books or imagination, and to some degree from drawing analogies from participation in crowded events at athletic venues or political marches.   In such circumstances one may be theoretically aware of some larger context to be taken on faith, since what one is actually experiencing, sometimes a little scarily, is lots of people bumping into each other and asking each other what is going on—as though it were rational to assume that somebody knew. 

            For many years I was the Chief Marshal of Princeton University.  Each year at Commencement I led a procession of upwards of two thousand people—graduates, faculty, administrators, trustees, and so forth—around and into an open-air arena crammed with some thousands more of spectators.  The composition of the line of march was really quite complicated, and the timing, while not quite split-second, was a serious consideration.  Most academic ceremonies are borderline Monty Python burlesque to begin with, and the potential for serious disaster was always with me.  It was sort of like directing a production of Aida with a blindfold on.  You hoped that the heavy clumping you heard was the elephants, but you couldn’t be sure.  Or, shifting operas, I was like Orpheus marching out of hell.  I couldn’t look back.  My recurrent nightmare was that one sunny morning I would pompously march through the arena—just me, Mr. Elgar, and a few thousand bemused onlookers—without realizing that nobody was following me.

            As close as I have come to the fog of war is the blur of travel.  That is close enough.  On Monday morning I was washing down a delicious, marmeladed croissant with café au lait in our apartment in Paris.  I would be lying if I said I was totally carefree, as I always experience some slight travel jitters, even without the uncertainty of a threatened strike of the air traffic controllers at Charles de Gaulle Airport.  But still, I was living the life.  Twelve hours later we were eating again, this time south Indian take-out with Luke, Melanie, John Henry, and Hazel in their house in Montreal.  Hazel didn’t quite finish her utthappam, but then she’s only six weeks old.

            I used to think that exhaustion could be measured according to an objective constant, but it turns out that the older you get the more exhausting exhaustion is.  Nonetheless by three-thirty in the Canadian morning my now Parisian biological clock had me wide-eyed (though still exhausted, of course) and fumbling in the darkness over my computer, trying to work on an article due at the end of the week.  Twelve hours after that my little Air Canada flight was touching down at Newark where, the pilot announced with an unseemly cheeriness, “the temperature is thirty-five degrees Celsius”.  He was, of course, lying through his teeth.  It was ninety-five degrees Farenheit.

            I already knew that my ordeal was by no means over.  The “Air Train” connection at Newark Airport is temporarily shut down for major maintenance.  The drill was to schlep a very heavy bag to a bus stop curbside, there to find a shuttle to take me to Newark train station, there to schlep the said heavy bag up to the platforms, then to hoist it up into a train…I had steeled myself, but God interceded in the form of Mr. Aziz.  It was Mr. Aziz who pointed out to me the workings of the divine hand in this affair.  Mr. Aziz is a large, bald, muscular private taxi entrepreneur who lives in Jackson, New Jersey, well to my south.  Certain semi-surreptitious gestures of his led me to wonder whether his activities were all duly certified by the dull certifiers.  Who knows?  He had been casting his metaphorical net around the baggage claim area for hours but without success, all the while incurring a thirty-three dollar parking bill.  It is Ramadan.  He was hungry.  He was tired.  He wanted to get to Jackson and his family for his evening breakfast.  He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

            I still woke up at three-thirty, but this time to air-conditioned comfort.  The darkness outside sparkled with a thousand fireflies.  It’s sexual, you know.  “Baby, won’t you light my fire?”  That’s what they are saying in lantern semaphore.    I felt a little less blurry.  I thought I could even manage to put up a blog post so long as it didn’t have to have a point.

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