The greatest twentieth-century work of art is not a poem or a painting but the steel helmet: so said some Nazi curator. And indeed the German helmet from World War II that I own does satisfy our obsession with elegant design. Its lines and volumes, simple yet intricate, and the way light passes over it as if it were a planet while the skull-hole is filled with darkness: these fulfil design’s one great promise or perception, that a thought, even a life, can express itself with beautiful inexplicitness, and there truly is paradise: the heaven of dynamic patterns and self-cancelled phrases where all are equal. Here is the example, unique for each who confronts it, of a mass- produced, ineffable and unsayable impression. Democracy, art for all. Who has not seen these helmets? Millions owned them. Tens of thousands took them from the dead. This one, for instance, I have from a relative, who received it from a friend, a Berber, one of the Free French, assigned with the Americans, who taught him the tools and techniques of modern war. But this man also loved traditional means. At night he used to take a serrated bayonet and pass through the lines. In the darkness nothing could be seen, so he felt for helmets: rough ones meant the American army, and he went farther. Smooth ones: he was among Germans and started cutting throats. This additional work he did for the pleasure of danger and skill, hatred of the enemy, and love of his foreign friends. A stoical man, with outbursts of frantic exalted delight, he went home after the war to a strict life in the desert south of Marrakesh. Now I’ve turned his helmet over on its back like a small-boy- tortured turtle, and I use it to plant flowers in: those shade-lovers I always call "patience" when I know impatiens is their name.
Copyright © 2004 Albert F. Moritz. Reprinted with permission of House of Anansi Press, Toronto.