The shelling to stop the heart to go on beating and

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the shelling to stop, the heart to go on beating — and then they feel something in their soul surrender, and they give in to everything they’ve been most afraid of. It’s like a glimpse of eternity. Whether the battle is lost or won, it will never end; it has wholly taken over the soul. Sometimes men say afterward that the most terrifying moment of any battle is seeing a fey look on the faces of the soldiers standing next to them. But the fey becomes accessible to civilians in a war too — if the war goes on long enough and its psychic effects become sufficiently pervasive. World War II went on so long that both soldiers and civilians began to think of feyness as a universal condition. They surrendered to that eternity of dread: the inevitable, shattering resumption of an artillery barrage; the implacable cruelty of an occupying army; the panic, never to be overcome despite a thousand false alarms, at an unexpected knock on the door, or a telegram, or the sight out the front window of an unfamiliar car pulling to a halt. They got so used to the war they reached a state of acquiescence, certain they wouldn’t stop being scared until they were dead.
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It was in a fey mood that, in the depths of the German invasion, Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin took the only copy of his life’s work, a study of Goethe, and ripped it up, page by page and day by day, for that unobtainable commodity, cigarette paper. It was because feyness poisons ordinary life that British writer Walter de la Mare could in 1943 begin a poem about the English countryside with the line “No, they are only birds” and not bother to say what he’d first thought they were. Everyone knew; they had learned the reflex of sudden terror, followed by infinite relief, triggered by the sight of small black forms moving quickly against a bright sky. And it was out of a fey despair that French composer Olivier Messiaen, while in a POW camp, wrote a work that may best define the war’s particular horror. He scored it for the only instruments available — two violins, a clarinet, and a battered upright piano — and it received its world premiere before an audience of prisoners (the most attentive and respectful audience Messiaen said he’d ever had). It isn’t a composition filled with nostalgia for what the war had destroyed or hope for what might survive; it gravely moves from bizarre turbulence to an agonized stillness, a prayer for relief from life and the cruelty of hope. Quatour pour la fin du temps, he called it, “Quartet for the End of Time.” Feyness might also explain the deepest mystery of the war: why the surrender everybody expected never came. The Germans and Japanese refused to surrender even though they knew the war was lost.
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