BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
HEROES: From Alexander the Great to Mae West, by Paul Johnson
, May 30, 2009
In defence of heroismHEROES:
From Alexander the Great to Mae West
by Paul Johnson
(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Hardcover: 297 pages
Rec. price: AUD$59.95That's right, Mae West - any subjective selection of this nature is inevitably going to be eclectic and idiosyncratic. This becomes obvious when we try to list our own heroes.
When I was young, Stamina produced school-wear, and each boy's suit that it sold came with a wallet of cards displaying Men of Stamina.
These included characters such as sailors Drake and Nelson, and explorers Livingstone and Scott, proving Paul Johnson's point that "a hero does not stand still in popular estimation".
Heroes' reputations can disappear over time, or even, these days, as in the case of imperialists such as Cortez and Pizarro, fall victim to political correctness.
The very concept of heroism has no doubt been long drowned in bottomless, stodgy sloughs of literary theory and critical jargon debunking its alleged mendacious, meretricious and manipulative valorisation of violence and self-sacrifice.
Right now, if I had to rattle off a list of heroes from the top of my head, it would look something like this: George Orwell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Robert Conquest and Ayan Hirsi Ali.
These are all 20th and 21st century names, and ranging more broadly across history, I would probably want to include, inter alia, Athanasius (contra mundum
!), Thomas Cranmer and Samuel Johnson.
If I were looking closer to home, I would opt for a young woman we know with cerebral palsy and a debilitating digestive disorder, who lives her circumscribed existence with enormous humour and courage.
Courage - the sine qua non
of heroism? Certainly Paul Johnson thinks so. He calls it "the noblest and best of all qualities, and the one indispensable element in heroism in all its different manifestations".
This raises the problem of those who have acted with extraordinary courage in questionable or downright evil causes. Examples from World War II include the soldiers of the Japanese imperial army and the Waffen SS, the latter under the supreme command of a dictator who had won the rare Iron Cross First Class in World War I.
More recently, the late Susan Sontag was showered with opprobrium when she acknowledged the undoubted but disturbing bravery of the 9/11 plane hijackers.
Johnson has attempted to avoid adulating famous characters, such as Napoleon, whose courage was employed merely to achieve self-glorification at the cost of massive suffering. He has not succeeded entirely, as his inclusion of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar demonstrates.Dubious inclusion
The Confederacy's General Robert E. Lee is another dubious inclusion. He might have believed he was fighting for Virginia, but objectively, as the Marxists used to say, he was fighting for slavery.
Of course, these days any use of the word hero is treated with extreme suspicion, apart from its application to comic-strip characters, sports stars and sick children.
This is a result of middle-brow, wannabe intellectual, social commentators, for whom the concept of hero is inextricably and sinisterly entangled with Nietzschean and Wagnerian übermenschen
and their perceived adumbrations of Nazism.
Johnson claims, perhaps a trifle disingenuously, "I am trying to approach the subject of heroism not so much by definition and analysis as by example."
The closest he comes to a definition is: "anyone is a hero who has been widely, persistently over long periods, and enthusiastically regarded as heroic by a reasonable person, or even an unreasonable one."
This gives him the scope to cast his conceptual net far beyond the traditional catchment of soldiers, explorers and martyrs.
Some of his subjects - David, Boudica, Henry V, Joan of Arc, Raleigh, Washington, Nelson, Wellington, Lincoln, Churchill - are unexceptionable, and would probably appear on most compilers' long lists.
His 20th-century trilogy of Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II would also appear eminently appropriate to many of his readers.
Others, such as Emily Dickinson, Mae West and Marilyn Monroe, could come across as quirky, to say the least.
The chapter on Wittgenstein might or might not confirm Tennyson's comment (apropos of Garibaldi) on "the divine stupidity of a hero".
His most questionable, not to say self-indulgent, suggestion is that of "The Heroism of the Hostess", the title of a chapter written in commemoration of one of Johnson's old friends, Lady Pamela Berry, who used to throw parties.
Johnson cannot be accused of gender bias, as 13 of the 30 names in the table of contents are those of women. He is possibly a little biased in other respects, however.
After the first chapter, on characters in the Bible, all his heroes are European, the overwhelming majority from the Anglosphere. Mr Stamina would be pleased.
Paul Johnson is incapable of writing a boring book, and this one, despite or because of its many controversial features, is eminently readable and stimulating.