Taking into account Oppen’s experience of World War II and his connection to Heidegger, a strong case can be made for thinking of him as an existentialist rather than as an Objectivist--or else we must open our definition of Objectivism to include much more than the pallid epithet "second-generation imagism.") One index of the difference it makes when we think of Oppen this way concerns his commitment to "the real" or "the actual." Is it enough to assume that these terms return to the imagist hygiene prescribing the accurate visual representation of things or that they draw upon the impressionist equation of visual data with emotional states? During an interview with the Oppens in which Kevin Power engages them in a discussion of Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger (Power 196-97), he asks George to "talk about 'actualness' and how that enters the poem." George replies, "Well there's that prose section of Pierre Adam in 'Route' when he tells me about his experience. I was conscious, when I wrote that, that any of the Existentialists could have written it. I wrote it, nevertheless, because it was actually what he said to me. Existential in the sense that you do what you do and that is the answer... Simply that you are yourself" (197). The story Oppen alludes to was told to him in Alsace, where he was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Many Alsatian men, upon learning they had been drafted into the German army, dug themselves holes in the ground, in which they hid for as long as two or three years. When the Germans learned that men were in hiding, they made reprisals, killing family members and sending wives to the army brothels in Germany. Pierre fed and assisted the men in the holes. "Men would come to Pierre and they would say: I am thinking of making a hole. Pierre would say: yes. They would say then: but if I do they will kill my parents; or: they will take my wife and my children. Then Pierre would say, he told me: if you dig a hole, I will help you" (Oppen, Collected Poems 187-88).
For Oppen, this kind of terrifying existential choice defines the realm of "the actual" Such was the actuality French resistance fighters like Sartre and Camus faced, and it remained the (often unstated) background for their existential philosophies. In his essay "The Resistance," Charles Olson provides something like a gloss on Pierre Adam's story, asserting that the horrors of World War II have rendered the body as the only meaningful instrument of resistance: "When man is reduced to so much fat for soap, superphosphate for soil, fillings and shoes for sale, he has, to begin again, one answer. . . . It is his body that is his answer" (Human Universe 47). By bodily acts of resistance, such as those practiced by the Alsatians against the Nazis, Olson claims that human beings can learn to think concretely through the body rather than through the dangerous abstractions such as nation, race, and class. In "Causal Mythology" Olson avers, "I don't believe in cultures myself. I think that's a lot of hung up stuff like organized anything. I believe there is simply ourselves, and where we are has a particularity which we'd better use because that's about all we've got. . . . Put an end to nation, put an end to culture, put an end to divisions of all sorts" (Muthologos 94). This notion that large abstractions are dangerous and that what we think and do must be grounded instead in who we actually are jibes perfectly with Oppen's statement that his recounting of Pierre Adam's story was "Existential in the sense that you do what you do and that is the answer.... Simply that you are yourself."