The poem is called 'Brahma' and ends:
|The strong gods pine for my abode,|
|And pine in vain the sacred Seven;|
|But thou, meek lover of the good!|
|Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.|
'Brahma' is a complex poem which draws on Emerson's religious faith and knowledge of Eastern philosophy. Emerson claimed that those baffled by the poem might be aided if they replaced the Brahma of the title (Brahman is the Hindu god of creation) with Jehova, indicating a belief that Eastern and Western religions could in large part be reconciled. The poem has been described as one that explores the 'continuity of life and the unity of the universe', the 'I' in the poem being God who is in all things, thus explaining why all seeming contradictions are as one. The Hindu belief in reincarnation, which sees death merely as a form of rebirth, can also be reconciled with the scientific dictum that energy can neither be destroyed nor created, merely transferred. No surprise, then, that 'Brahma' is a favourite of Hester Van Zandt, who is simultaneously scientist, eco-warrior, hippie and arts lover.
The Golden Gate Bridge spans the Golden Gate, the name given to the Pacific bound estuary of San Francisco Bay. Built in 1937 it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, but has since been outdone by eight other bridges. It carries six lanes and is 2,737 metres long.
Actually the assault on this date was on Pilckem Ridge, still part of the Battle of Passchendaele, which involved a series of offensives designed to capture the strategically placed village of this name. In total 140,000 soldiers were killed over the six month battle , an average of 1 soldier dying per 2 inches of land gained. The enemy recaptured this land just five months later. Robert's brother would have been one of the 32,000 casualties sustained in the Pilckem Ridge assault.
Mitchell may have in mind the poetry of Wilfred Owen, especially his heavily aural poem 'Exposure', which uses onomatopoeia and silence to powerful effect.
Dhondt becomes a voice piece for Nietzsche whose ideas are expressed, if in somewhat more rarefied terms, in The Will to Power. Nietzsche pronounces that 'Not necessity, not desire - no, the love of power is the demon of men'. If the will to power dwells within every man, its exertion at a state level becomes so much more ruthless, since the mechanics of state are impersonal and therefore unfettered by sentimentality. In this sense Nietzsche believed that the action of a society as a whole, with all its savage ambition and brutality, is a far truer indication of the nature of mankind than that demonstrated by the individual.
The League of Nations was established after the Treaty of Versailles and had its largest membership of 58 countries in the mid 1930s. It aimed to prevent war or indeed other forms of international conflict by acting as an arbiter. In rare cases it would enforce its resolutions by exercising military power or else imposing economic sanctions. It sought also to promote global health and human rights, improve working conditions as well as bring about multilateral disarmament. Dictators Mussolini and Hitler refused to bow to the League of Nations' call for universal equality, claiming that some minority groups were subhuman and therefore ineligible for protection under human rights laws. Though it was successful in some respects, it was of course unable to defuse the time bomb that was Nazi Germany. Today many successful global organizations as well as the United Nations find their root in the League of Nations.
This structure is exactly that of the book itself, and Mitchell seems to be putting the subsequent question directly to the reader: 'Revolutionary or gimmicky?' In interview Mitchell explains that 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (sic) by Italo Calvino - an experimental novel in which a sequence of narratives is interrupted but never picked up again - made a big impression on me when I was an undergraduate. I wondered what a novel might look like if a mirror were placed at the end of a book like Calvino's so that the stories would be resolved in reverse.'
There is something comic about Robert's insouciance in the face of the Belfry's thrusting majesty. Originally built in 1240, its current form is what has survived, or been rebuilt, after three fires. It stands at 83 metres and to reach the top Robert must climb 366 steps.