Blogs > Cliopatria > Let Me Sum Up

Oct 11, 2004 3:03 pm

Let Me Sum Up

There’s a complicated, multi-blog discussion of heroism, culture and interpretation that has unfolded in the past week. It started with Paul Berman saying that “The Motorcycle Diaries” is a lousy movie because it views the youthful Che Guevara as heroic, which spurred Matthew Yglesias to cry foul, which then led Chris Bertram to do Yglesias one better, which then led Brad de Long to argue that it is impossible to view Lenin or Guevara or Achilles as heroic, which then led Henry Farrell to reply and de Long to reply to the reply.

As Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “Let me explain…no, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

1. As Farrell noted, in literary or even historical terms, “hero” can simply mean protagonist, or it can mean “admirable figure”. These are distinct uses of the word. A protagonist is a person whose choices drive the drama of a story. A protagonist does not have to be admirable, though if they’re one-dimensionally villainous (or one-dimensionally goody-goody) they often are pretty boring as protagonists.

2. When you’re reading an old text, literary or otherwise, it’s important to respect what it meant to the people who wrote it and to the people who have read it when it was written and over the years since. Achilles was both the hero and the protagonist of the oral epic which Homer eventually collected into a text. Modern readers don’t tend to view Achilles as an admirable figure any longer, as de Long notes. But I’m not sure that contemporary readers could view anyone in The Iliad as a hero in that sense, even Hektor. In the second half of the twentieth century, classicists emerged from the fugue state of trying to make the Greco-Roman condition the foundation of all that was good and right about “Western civilization” into a much richer appreciation of how strange the classical world is to modernity, particularly the Greeks. There are still “universal” or “timeless” readings to be mined out of The Iliad, but read with sensitivity, it’s largely a journey into an alien culture and mentalite. In the highly constrained sense that de Long or Berman use heroism, we cannot find anything heroic in it, even Hektor.

3. I’m with Yglesias and Bertram that there is something unbelievably reductionist about insisting that all the things we might say about individuals whom we recognize as having done great harm or having made very bad decisions have to come down to reiterating the badness of what they did. Historians face this problem all the time, and I’ve come to find it very irritating to have to stick a disclaimer up in the classroom or in my writing every time I want to discuss the choices or actions of any individual that I recognize as having been a willing participant in a morally dubious institution. Do I have to wave a big flag if I’m talking about a bureaucrat in the British Empire in the 1920s? No? Why not, given all of the repugnant activities the Empire was centrally involved in, from routine racial discrimination to massacring peaceful demonstrators? So does a film about the young Che Guevara have to constantly remind us of the moral failure of the slightly older Che Guevara, have to rigorously reject any favorable portrayal of Guevara? No. Though it might be more interesting still if such a film were to ask how it is that idealism transforms into oppression, hardly a unique alchemy in modern history, the film is not required to ask such a question.

On the other hand, Yglesias and Bertram need to be clear what they’re implying. Bertram has a hard time clearing himself of the charge of special-case pleading on behalf of revolutionaries, because this is not the first time he’s carried a kind of heavily-qualified torch for Lenin. Indeed, much of the underlying context of this whole discussion is the continuing rear-guard struggle of Marxists and ex-Marxists to preserve the morally positive idea of revolutionary action even if conceding the morally dismal record of actually-existing revolutionary circumstances. That's what Berman was complaining about and the bait that Bertram was rising to. Yglesias was widening the conversation somewhat by bringing in the larger"philistianism" that I agree does seem to be at large these days, where all texts seem reduced to nothing more than a hatch mark in a balance sheet of good and evil.

The implication of a firmly anti-reductionist interest in past (and fictional) individuals as protagonists and possible heroes means that we ought to apply such an interest evenly. It means, as Inga Clendennin has suggested, we need to be just as interested in the ordinary humanity of Heinrich Himmler as we might be of Che Guevara, that a more even-handed perspective on heroism is also, of necessity, a more even-handed perspective on villainy. There’s almost no one in history who has viewed themselves as a monster: everyone is the hero of their own story.

I’m fine with this more open-ended curiosity. I also think de Long ought to take the lyrics of the song from Mad Max 3 more seriously. Heroes in the sense of people who we regard as so unusually admirable that they are a model for us to imitate or follow, are pacifiers we should leave in our collective cribs. Heroes in the sense of historical protagonists whose actions and ideas, small or large, have helped to produce a better future, are found in the most surprising places and moments—and it is hard to think of such a hero whom we could not damn simply by choosing the darker sides of their time on Earth to emphasize. I’m interested simply in talking about what it is that people do in the world, and about a full appreciation of all the consequences of their actions, all of them. In the space of that interest, there’s room for Mohandas Gandhi the racial chauvinist of South Africa, a young and idealist Che Guevara on a motorcycle, Hitler in a trench in World War I, a “native commissioner” taking an earnest interest in his African subjects, a liberty-loving American revolutionary who owns slaves, and maybe even for the awful attractiveness of a long-ago mythical figure in an epic poem who petulantly slaughters other men for the sake of his own egotism.

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Julie A Hofmann - 10/12/2004

I'd certainly agree with that, Timothy. Perhaps there's confusion with what is often interchangeably (and incorrectly, I think, but you'd have to ask a real classicist) called the tragic hero or protagonist -- you know, the one with the hubris? Of course the same classics professor also told us to ditch that "overweening pride" thing and try to understand hubris as an assumption that "it can't happen to me."

Timothy James Burke - 10/11/2004

Right: but remember, to the classical Greeks, Achilles' anger is not really something he has a choice about, as a modern protagonist would--it simply is and will be. The concept of hero that at least some of the people in that conversation are referencing is a hero as a person who makes right choices, or at least struggles to avoid wrong ones--in its historical context, no Greek text has a hero who is that kind of individual making those kind of choices.

Michael Meo - 10/11/2004

I could be wrong as well, Julie, but as I understand it, the hero in the Homeric epic is 1) better than ordinary mortals at making war, or 2) related to a god.

Using that criteria, I'm afraid Paris the weenie is no hero.

Speaking personally, I view Achilles as not only a hero but a tragic hero as well: one who was enormously gifted, and who chose to live a short and glorious life in combat. His arrogance caused him to lose his best friend, and he demeaned himself by mutilating the corpse of his most heroic foe. The Anger of Achilles is in the first line of the poem; that's what Homer will tell us about; how it cost Achilles too much, his anger.

Julie A Hofmann - 10/11/2004

are both heroes. SO are Patroklos, Agamemnon, Paris the weenie, Priam, Odysseus ... at least they are according to my old classics professor. They are heroes because of when they lived and because they were all war leaders, not because they were particularly likeable or brave or whatever. At least, that's how he explained it in the two epics classes I took with him. I suppose he could have been wrong ...

Jonathan Dresner - 10/11/2004

In my class on Qing China, we were recently talking about the Yongzheng Emperor (early 18c). A fierce partisan of Manchu ethnicity, and a vicious man when his own power was threatened, he nonetheless issued numerous edicts eliminating, as much as possible, various outcaste and underclass status markers, liberating thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Chinese who had suffered generations of marginal social and economic existence.

Was that heroic? From our standpoint, it certainly falls into the category of social justice which we valorize. Did he have other motives for doing so? Not apparently. Did that make him a good person, or even a good emperor? Well, it's part of his record, and it was a project to which he devoted considerable attention.

Remind me again. Why are we keeping score, when we ought to be asking 'why'?