Blogs > Cliopatria > Deferred Enlightenment

Feb 16, 2005 11:17 am

Deferred Enlightenment

In the movie The Longest Day, there is a brief scene in which the commander of French forces addresses the men on a warship. I can’t give you the exact quote, but he says something like this: “Today, we must fire on our homeland. Such is the price of freedom.”

When I first saw this movie, it was roughly the 20th anniversary of D-Day. I was in 6th grade and full of Churchillian (Winston) heroism, and these words seemed only logical. Quite honestly, I did not understand at all the sacrifice the commander spoke of.

Fast forward to 1994, and those many testimonials about the D-Day landings 50 years earlier. One soldier recalled moving inland and finding a young woman ripped in half by a shell.

When I heard his statement, I remembered the line in that movie. Only in that moment did I understand it, and I was stunned.

That revelation came to me again when I caught part of The Longest Day on cable the other day. It set me to wondering about many things. I found myself thinking about how I, about all of us I suspect, learn. It’s not simply an accumulation of data occasionally sifted and resifted; though I’m sure things learned in the intervening years played some role in that moment in 1994. Instead leaning includes moments far removed from each other in time and space that come together in a gestalt, a true epiphany, and the world around us changes.

Sometime it can be humorous. That moment when we realize what a parent said in 1967 was the Truth when we face our own children.

Sometimes painful, too. Time heals, we hear people say. Later, when we mourn, we come to realize that mourning never ends. Then later, much later sometimes, the mourning is balanced and transformed with joy and softened by a touch of forgetfulness. But we don’t become aware of it until there is some moment, perhaps an unexpected glance at an old picture, and in an eyeblink we know that we have changed. Time healed, though it could not restore.

Sometimes such moments are an intellectual joy. Not too long ago I returned to a poem that I had not read in twenty, maybe thirty years. How different it was! How transparent when it once seemed mysterious and opaque!

Accumulated knowledge, yes. But it takes random moments like these to spark that hoard of knowledge. To make it fire and light.

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Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

"How many Americans know that for some Western European countries, such as the tiny Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, World War II really did not end until forcible Soviet occupation ended in 1991 and they regained their sovereignty?"

I'm assuming you mean Eastern European countries!

Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

I stand corrected. I know full well that the tiny country had a unique history, but not that the State Department acknowledged it. How about we settle on Baltic?

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/21/2005

Precisely. We learn in so many ways. I think that is one reason that using the analogy of the computer to understand the mind is failing. That's just not the way we work.

Richard Henry Morgan - 2/20/2005

Around 1960 or 1961, I had the occasion to be in Amiens, and beheld the cathedral there, surrounded by sandbags. I wondered why, for a moment, it was indeed sandbagged, but then it struck me. Of course, I had heard of the War -- it had been in all the papers, I understand -- but when you trip to something that at first is a puzzle, the proposition reasoned to often takes on the significance one would attach to knowledge by direct acquaintance, rather than knowledge by proposition -- though clearly it ain't the former.

Sharon Howard - 2/17/2005

I'm really sad that you don't feel able to have a blog. I think you would be a great blogger. (I'd love to read your critiques of WWII movies, for a start... and to learn more about Estonia.) Have you considered doing it pseudonymously?

Maarja Krusten - 2/17/2005

Sounds good to me, LOL. Yeah, it is hard to categorize. Baltic sounds fine!! And thanks for taking the time to read my posting!!!

Maarja Krusten - 2/17/2005

Here's a good website from the U.S. State Department with a quick overview of Estonia. See

Estonia is located in Northern Europe and its language is closely related to Finnish (Finno-Ugric). I don't usually hear people refer to it as being in Eastern Europe. Located geographically close to Finland, it most accurately is described as being in Northern Europe, although the State Department's website does point to Western Europe. Before it was overrun by the Soviets, during the 1930s it had substantial commercial and cultural ties with Britain and other Western European countries, as well as with Russia.

The State Department's overview of Estonia's history notes that "One of the more notable cultural acts of the independence period, unique in western Europe at the time of its passage in 1925, was a guarantee of cultural autonomy to minority groups comprising at least 3,000 persons, and to Jews." Note the use of the term western Europe.

I did my Master's Thesis on the cultural life is Estonia during the period of the Republic (1918-1940).

Maarja Krusten - 2/16/2005

Interesting post! I, too, saw _The Longest Day_ when I was about 11 or 12. I'm sure I did not grasp all the implications, although, by that age, I already was reading about World War II and watching _Combat_ on TV.

Your post started me thinking (always dangerous):

(1) Even now, I wonder what the average American knows about World War II. For many, visiting the very moving Holocaust Museum in Washington or seeing Saving Private Ryan is about the extent of it, I would guess. But the war brought excruciating pain to many people, in ways many Americans never consider. As someone with an Estonian-American background, I read with interest Richard Holbroke's op ed in today's Washington Post. ( He described how

"Valdas Adamkus has a problem. The 79-year-old president of Lithuania has been invited -- personally, persistently, even threateningly -- by Russian President Vladimir Putin to an event that he really, really doesn't think he should attend: the May 9 celebrations in Moscow marking the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Adolf Hitler. It's a real A-list affair: President Bush, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, Silvio Berlusconi, the presidents of other former Soviet republics, and a cast of thousands.

But Adamkus does not view May 9, 1945, as a day of liberation for his tiny country and its Baltic neighbors. "On that day we traded Hitler for Stalin, and we should not celebrate it," he tells visitors. Most Lithuanians, proud of their central role in breaking up the Soviet Union in 1991, agree. But Putin seems almost desperate to have all the former Soviet republics honor Russia on May 9; he has even used his most potent threat, hinting that if Adamkus does not go, it could affect Russia's shipments of oil and gas."

How many Americans know that for some Western European countries, such as the tiny Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, World War II really did not end until forcible Soviet occupation ended in 1991 and they regained their sovereignty? The impact on some families was devastating. (I was born in the U.S. I never got to meet my own maternal grandparents, who died in Estonia, behind the Iron Curtain, in 1962 and 1978.) Not many, I imagine. I doubt even college courses get into such issues in much depth.

Of course, I talk to my friends about the complexities of World War II, and have ever since I was a kid, sharing some of the harrowing stories of my parents' escape from Estonia in the advance of a second Soviet occupation. Some of my adult friends describe Estonia's situation neatly -- "just a speed bump on the map of Europe." (That always gets a laugh out of me, although the situation isn't funny, in truth.)

(2) You're right that learning is much more than an accumulation of data. I suppose that is one reason why I wonder about surveys showing an the decreasing interest in reading by Americans. Reading, whether fiction and non-fiction, has broadened my horizons and taught me to look at things differently all my life (to use the old cliche). If fewer and fewer people now read, how can they break throught their insularity, especially if they turn primarily to "echo chamber" news sources?

The Washington Post also referred in an article yesterday to the increasing "historical illiteracy" of Americans. I'll have to search the HNN blogs some day to see what you educators have said about the decrease in reading and the lessening interest in history. Is it as much of a problem as the newspapers lead us to believe? For those of you who have been teaching a long time, are you noticing any differences in your students, then and now, or are the changes exaggerated?

Finally, to end on a funny note - as a female, even at the age of 11, I always critiqued World War II movies on their accuracy, not just in what I knew about military uniforms, fighters, bombers, and stuff, but also the women's makeupb and hair styles. Most '60s movies got them awfully wrong. Think Sophia Loren in _Operation Crossbow_. Gorgeous, but nothing in her makeup or hair style like any of the photos I've seen of women during the 1940s. LOL.

This has gone on long enough, I better cut it off before someone admonishes me to get my own blog, LOL. (Sorry, as a current Federal employee, I REEEEEEAAAALLLY do not want to do that!)