Sophie’s Choice – a whammy of a book and a knockout for the conscience of the soul. Not only does it explore the deep, darker recesses of the heart that are often filled with regret and self-loathing, but it examines humanity, humanity in all its raw coarseness and foulness, its inelegance and also its frailties, its shortcomings, and tragedies. I knew little about this fabulous book when starting it other than in the early ’80s it had been recreated into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline (in his first big screen acting appearance) and that my mother had mentioned it from time to time and had spoken of the film with a surreal, glassy eyed mixture of sorrow and awe.
I hadn’t, and still haven’t, seen it and as I gazed at the front cover of the book, my fingers preparing to flip open to the first page, my eyes readying to embark upon its journey, my memory was only able to recall that the film had been lauded with a few awards and had made quite a splash way back in the day when it first graced the silver screen. And as I turned it over and glanced at the back cover, skimming the brief synopsis, a paragraph which began benignly enough but rapidly descended, as if in a vortex, toward a final sentence in which its depressing note of the decent into evil left an alarming, haunting sensation, a queasy prickle of trepidation that crawled along the back of my skull, my childhood memories became more clear and I came to realize that I had scarcely paid attention to the film, was forced to admit I had never known it was based off a book, and had dismissed the film throughout my life as not worth seeing and a story I was disinterested in. I realized, and had to confess to myself, that I had chalked it up to some bland, mundane romance with some blonde actress I had never really paid attention to, probably making some dumb, run of the mill choice between lovers. So, when I mentioned to my mother, casually at the beginning of this month, this month of November in 2016, me being now at the age of 44, a far cry from the birdbrained teenager of my youth, and possessing (at least I hope) a more rich and in-depth life of experience and wisdom and severe understanding of human tragedies, that I was to be reading it I wasn’t at all surprised at the audible gasp that escaped from her choked throat as her hand flew to her chest. Nor was I surprised at the look of wariness, of caution and guardedness, of the same glassy gaze that flooded through her eyes as they had done in the past, a gaze of immediate sorrow and anguish and heartbreak.
“Oh,” she breathed. “Well, if that story doesn’t break your heart, then you must be made of something harder than stone.”
I chuckled and told her it should be a great read.
And as I settled into the alcove of my couch, glasses perched upon my nose (another sign my youth has been installed to memory only), and turned to the first page, this middle-aged man who has now traveled half way around the world, danced intimately with warfare, and is shouldering a heavier, deeper, midlife backpack began to discern that my heart had done a sudden flip flop and that I was intensely interested in what lay within those black and white pages. As it turns out, there was nothing black and white about them at all.
The story is, at its core of course, a tragic tale of a woman who was forced to make the most excrutiating decision of her life upon arriving at the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Poland, Auschwitz. That’s the core, yes, perhaps the very center of the disastrous web of terrible and unfortunate events and where everything else branches out in sorrowful, lugubrious disarray, but it is much more than that. Interlaced within are reflections and pensive musings upon the reality of the human condition, the regrets we carry, of warfare and cruelty, of motivations and how all of us, as people, have conditioned ourselves (or not, I should add) to live with the consequences of our actions, all faithfully narrated by Stingo, a young lad who before meeting Sophie, had little comprehension of such matters, a youth who faintly echoed myself as I got to know him better.
Before I begin the more serious aspects of which I would like to briefly talk about, I feel it is worth mentioning that not every portion of the book was heavily bound within tragedy and sadness. There were some amusing parts, parts that made me chuckle, an outburst of laughter here and there that was perhaps derived from a certain feeling of satire, the kind of salty chuckle that reminds oneself of his own life, exploits of folly while mired in immaturity and inexperience. The parts (what I would call diversions from the main narrative, a tributary to the overall story line) I speak of are the continuing, ill fated exploits of Stingo and his aching, overlooked, and undervalued loins. Let’s face it. Let’s be honest and forthright with all the underpinnings of sympathy we can muster, the poor guy just had absolutely no luck in his quest to devirginize (if that’s not a word, I’m making it one) himself once and for all. His hapless and exceedingly frustrating, ableit hilarious at times, exploits and fantasies of what he deems is the perfect ass or the perfect night drenched in libidinous delirium are in a way, quite charming and endearing. I was compelled to wander through my own memories of lust and the drool, that I would often have to be quite conscious of quelling, as I myself in those glorious times of my youth gazed with wonder and longing at the kittenish wagging of a girl passing me on the street. And I have to admit, for the record, that I too have been stymied in my efforts more than once as my hand strayed into the recesses of pinched, but sweaty and intensely erotic, thighs, that soft skin, milky, yet hard in its resolute abstinenance and refusal. And oh my, may the Lord have mercy upon me and gift me the prize, how I hungered for those bundled up breasts, tucked neatly, yet alluringly squeezed out from within, in round delicious half globes that screamed to be suckled in wonder until they ached with sweet satisfaction, those creamy globes hidden within the confines of the stiff fabric with its wire gate surrounding the impenetrable interior of that detestable word, the barrier of dreams, the brassiere. I understood his pain. And I must say that I was quite relieved in the end when he was awarded the grand prize, the blue ribbon of his dreams, a night with Sophie. He earned it.
Now for the more serious parts. There are a few areas in which I would like to touch on and given that I feel I must express a certain feeling of regret. The book Styron wrote virtually demands greater attention but time, space, and length are limited and I am forced to ask for forgiveness in merely writing about a few aspects of this tremendous story. Please accept my paltry apologies. In any event, the areas I would like to focus on were snippets I felt personally touched by, parts which I personally felt affected due to my own experience in life, all of which stem from my tenure with the war in Iraq. I certainly would never claim to fully identify with such a story. That would be arrogance, indeed profound ridiculous ignorance, if I was to claim my own story of life could ever have been so tragic and heart rending as Sophie’s. That I could even begin to claim the merest shred of understanding at what she had to face would be a slap in the face to her honor as someone who has been forced to participate in the vilest of human behavior. It’s quite humbling.
With that being said, I’d like to begin on page 97, with the quote, “The privilege of choice gave her a feeling achingly sensual.” Styron talks about a feeling of rebirth within Sophie, that she was feeling her way through a new world and that is exactly what I felt coming home from the war. I too felt clumsy, out of touch with the simplest of things. I experienced that exact same excitability and awareness when I was released from the bondage of Camp Anaconda. It was amazing, astounding, fresh and alive, yet so horrible, heavy with shock and unfamiliarity after so long a time of being deprived of simple pleasures and luxuries. I speak briefly of it in Lines in the Sand, but I can still, to this day, recall how marvelous it was to drink a vanilla milkshake for the first time since my sojourn in Iraq had gratefully been terminated. The sheer delight of it felt as if I was walking on clouds, wrapped in a nebula of bliss, and even though my brain recalled the taste of ice cream, it also couldn’t understand what it was. It was literally as if I was tasting it for the first time, yet I had knowledge that I had done so before. But knowledge was all it was. There was no emotion, no history tied to it. And it was an odd mixture of exaltation and fear that churned within me as I greedily slurped it down. I was thrilled at how fresh it felt and how superb it tasted but my mind was frozen with alarm, chilled with the realization that I had no recollection of ever having ice cream before… even though I knew I had. There is no way to adequately describe how frightening that is. It felt as if the experience of ice cream was the ultimate mind fuck, the highest summit of pleasure and the deepest pit of despair.
On page 118 – 120, it might be worthwhile to note his dissertation on writers and how they operate within the confines of their skulls, how they are inevitably opportunists, exploiting the tragedies of others. How Stingo whispered phrases as he wrote, and relished in the heavenly feeling of combining words, sentences, as he says, a verse-monger. It reminded me of how we (you and I) gush over our writing, of how we gush over the melodies of others, their grace on the page come true and inundating our souls with their visions, images, and emotions. I couldn’t help but smile in fond remembrance of our talks on the phone, those cascades of love and admiration we have not only for the author but for the written word itself. It courses in our blood, does it not?
His writing on page 154 was very poignant for me indeed, something I had conjured up shortly after coming home from the war, when I was sleeping in the garage of my friend, when the past year was finally, with its awful weight, beginning to thoroughly crash down upon me with its supreme cruelty. When Styron wrote, “Even though that was the strange thing: people here in America, still did not seem to know what had happened, except in the most empty, superficial way,” his words swept me up in what I can only describe as a traumatic recurring flashback. He talks of people’s inability to comprehend the brutality, the tragedy, the violence of a regime half a world away. It’s a concept I realized when I was mired in war and once again, I wrote about it in Lines in the Sand, a December entry when I was imagining the Christmas shoppers marching to the beat to carols. But more importantly, an awareness that sticks with me to this day, is that even while I am writing this, in the relative comfort of my home, with my cat, Walter, peacefully sleeping a two cushions away, there are people suffering and dying. And I never want to lose that awareness. I never want to lose the empathy and sorrow I feel for that. For if I do, I feel I will be losing something precious, that I would be slipping into the complacency and apathy of life, that I would be taking for granted the gift of life that has been bestowed upon me by surviving the war, that I would be callous and objectifying the suffering of others in some way, and ultimately become lackadaisical in my writing, writing of which I hope people will gain a better, perhaps more profound and compassionate way of viewing the world.
Page 160, I found to be most interesting. Styron talks of evil and its nature. “For within these confessions it will be discovered that we really have no acquaintance with true evil; the evil portrayed in most novels and plays and movies is mediocre if not spurious, a shoddy concoction generally made up of violence, fantasy, neurotic terror and melodrama. This ‘imaginary evil’ – again to quote Simone Weil – ‘is romantic and varied, while real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.’” Reading this I was once again compelled to ponder on how we depict violence in our culture. I think that’s exactly what I’ve always tried to convey when I’ve spoken of how Hollywood never portrays Iraq for what it is. Glamorized war films can never, really, truly portray things, only provide a sterile, idealized, even propagandized version, the propaganda disguised within the drama, designed to make our hearts wrench, to touch us with that animating hand of something worth fighting for. And aren’t those people just the most heroic you’ve ever come across? To be sure and I want to be clear, there are heroes but, the point I’m trying to make is that war is just plain ugly and no one wants to be there. Far too many stories attempt to captivate us with their nostalgic meaning that the war was worth fighting and everyone is a hero for participating. We cling to these notions and I don’t blame anyone for that. If it was taken away, the soldier who has lost a limb, or the wife who has lost a husband, or the brother who has lost a sister, would be forced into a position of realizing that in reality, the violence, the sheer evil of war is all for nothing and that is the most unworthwhile endeavor ever undertaken by man.
Finally, and perhaps the most important meditation I would like to make is that, given what people have had to endure under the tyranny of the Nazis and what we know of them, it is not at all surprising to me that people are in fear of what Donald J. Trump has repeatedly proposed during his campaign speeches, of which I have desire to repeat here. For those who have had to live it or for those who have had their families, parents, grandparents, cousins (it doesn’t matter) live it remember, and I am sure that they see in their minds the ominous signs that were apparent only to the most scrupulous observers, the ones who were really paying attention or not blinded by selfish interests. Those are the few who are wise enough to learn from history and the others who were wise enough to see into the future during the beginning of the Nazi reign of power. They’re seeing the same signs and signals, the same tide beginning to creep onto the shores of their backyards again.
Perhaps it is the fact that we simply don’t know what he is capable of that instills old and new fears. Perhaps this fear is even derived from his blind ignorance to not only their suffering, but to history itself, the bald savagery of what the Nazis inflicted. Most in Europe didn’t appreciate the barbarity of the Nazis until it was too late and perhaps it is this notion, this very real sense of not knowing what lies ahead, in our not too distant future, that has so many on edge. Trump’s rhetoric, of which I firmly believe he is blissfully naive of, is akin to playing with matches, and those matches may very well unleash a firestorm that has always been smoldering under the thin veneer of our society and culture, the firestorm of racism and fascism and hatred toward diversity. I often think that what Donald Trump has done, either knowingly or out of simple ignorance, is to spill the coffee mug of hatred and racial superiority in this country. But it is important to realize that once the coffee is spilled, it is next to impossible to put the coffee back in.
For that matter, on page 206, there are echoes of our current political situation in the United States which I believe warrants a view. Indeed, perhaps those echoes resound farther back in time, perhaps they have always been there, but I quote: “… I demonstrated how democratic idealism and honest concern for the common man were virtues which linked all these men together, at least in their early careers, along with a concomitant and highly vocal opposition to monopoly capitalism, industrial and business fat cats and ‘big money.’ I then extrapolated from this proposition an argument to show how these men, basically decent and even visionary to being with, were brought down by their own fatal weakness in face of the Southern racial tragedy; for each of them in the end, to one degree or another, was forced to play upon and exploit the poor-white rednecks’ ancient fear and hatred of the Negro in order to aggrandize what had degenerated into shabby ambition and lust for power.” It takes no great effort for me to substitute the word Negro with Muslim in order to make my point about our current situation and why Donald Trump sprinted across the finish line of our election so easily and forcefully.
To the degree with which Sophie’s story and the history of the Nazi regime is wrapped up in a gigantic bundle of tragedy and sorrow, we, as people (most say civilized) should never forget them and keep them alive in our hearts as a reminder of how we should create this world we all have to share. For myself, when I think of Sophie, I am forced to conclude, much to my own limited and meager imagination and chagrin that I can only offer a pathetic, wimpy sympathy, a limp wet noodle of understanding, paltry in expression of connection and cheaply removed from a situation I could never understand: Can you imagine having to make that choice?
I can only end with the following quote from William Styron, an author and a man whose vision sees beyond the superficial to the greatest degree:
“The query: ‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’
And the answer: ‘Where was man?’”
And if things take a terrible wrong turn in our own country, if we stray from our cherished fundamental values and principles, someday in the immediate or distant future (it doesn’t matter when), if the decisions we make take us down a darker path, and after this election which so many have feared and have severe hesitation about, I will be answering the same.