Thursday, September 1, 2011

Glory Is Out of Date

It seems the ancient Greeks never tired of hearing about the Trojan War. From Homer's ninth-century epics to the great Athenian tragedies of the fifth, the Greek poets examined the war from every angle. The most amazing thing to me about this fascination, though, is that the Greeks' favorite tale doesn't make the Greeks look good. For one thing, the Greeks lose the war. And they seem to lose partly because of stark differences in character: the Greek hero, Achilles, spends most of the Iliad pouting over a slave girl he doesn't get to keep, while the Trojan hero, Hector, beautifully says farewell to his wife and child before going out to sacrifice everything for his country. As Chesterton points out somewhere (The Everlasting Man?) the Iliad's generous sympathy for its author's (or authors') enemy is reflected in the popularity the name Hector enjoys over the next three millennia as opposed to the relative obscurity of the name Achilles. How many people have you known or heard of named after Hector? How many named after Achilles? Clearly the Greeks admired the victors who humiliated them. I suppose they felt the need for the sobering effect each new hearing of their national tragedy brought them.

In a similar way, I never tire of reading about the American Civil War. War brings out the best and the worst in humans, or at least the very good and the very bad. Stories from the Civil War alternate fairly regularly between demonstrations of courage and displays of stupidity. And like a Greek reading about the Trojan War, my knowledge of the Civil War doesn't make my country look morally superior to me, doesn't feed any tendency toward jingoism or triumphalism. When I read Bruce Catton or Shelby Foote or James MacPherson, I feel them dousing me with a bracing shower of cold truth.

For ages, people have pondered the question, Why do we enjoy tragedy? Why do we seek out an experience that makes us feel bad? One of the good answers, I think, is this desire for the truth. In The Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo two pills: a blue one that will let him live happily in a delusion and a red one that will show him all the painful truth. I suppose there are two kinds of people: blue-pill people and red-pill people. I try to be a red-pill guy. Aristotle famously answered the question differently, with the idea of catharsis: experiencing the pain of tragedy in the controlled environment of a theater provides a safe release. A variation of this theory I've seen in some eighteenth-century writers is the notion that tragic stories provide a training ground for learning how to react appropriately when real tragedy comes.

A fourth answer aestheticians propose for the question responds to the needling fact that tragedy doesn't give us only negative emotions. We wouldn't seek it out if it didn't satisfy some desire for pleasure. Perhaps we read or watch well-written tragedy because we admire the talent of the author who pulls off the difficult job so well. The poetry of Bruce Catton's prose certainly lends credence to this theory. About a Union plan in 1864 to send a cavalry raid behind Confederate lines to distribute leaflets with an offer of amnesty to citizens who wanted to rejoin the U.S., Catton writes:
This venture was a departure from reality, of a piece with the officers' dances at which men and women quoted Byron to themselves and borrowed, for their own beset lives, the tag ends of implausible poetry describing a bloodless bookish war. It was born of a romantic dream and it was aimed at glory, and glory was out of date, a gauzy wisp of rose-colored filament trailing from a lost world.
The alliterative parade of frustrated b's and p's conveys the message no less than the image of the gauzy wisp. And why is the filament rose colored? Because these dreamers saw the world through glasses of that tint, or because the flapping trail of a dream reflected the beams of a setting sun? The passage preaches realism and yet hooks the idealist with its very acknowledgement of glory, departed though it may be. It suggests to the believer a reenactment of the Fall and the loss of Eden. Purporting to describe one moment in American history, the lines pack in a dense picture of the whole condition of the race that Pascal called "fallen princes."

This quotation comes from the first section of the first chapter of A Stillness at Appomattox, the third of a trilogy of books about the northern Army of the Potomac. The title of the chapter, "Glory Is Out of Date," indicates to the reader of the whole set that an abrupt change has taken place in early 1864: the middle book of the three is called Glory Road. And Catton shows that some Americans caught on to this change more quickly than others. Although the quotation compares the confused cavalry raid with a dance held on the campground of the Army of the Potomac in honor of officers' wives, this first chapter shows contrasts between the two events as well, contrasts based on how well the people involved assimilated the grim new face of the war. Where the failed cavalry raid ends with the ignominious death of its leader and leaves Virginians scratching their heads at a force that both burns bridges and distributes tracts offering forgiveness, the ball ends with a compromise, a strategy for survival, a coupling of the romantic and the pragmatic that keeps them dancing as gracefully as any of the human participants. I don't know if the people attending that ball actually quoted Byron or if his mention is simply the case of one melancholy poet invoking the name of another for effect. But the dancers Catton describes clearly know that they're using a terpsichorean tonic to dull the pain of the new age. After one general listens to a woman tell of the death of her only son in some meaningless skirmish, he responds, "Yes, madame, very sad! Very sad! Do you waltz?"

These people stare down both of life's masks -- the comic and the tragic -- and accept them both as necessities. I've heard that food cravings represent the body's knowledge of its need for some indispensible element of a balanced diet. The officer and the grieving mother know they need a helping of gay music to balance out the dirge. Maybe -- in addition to all the other reasons for reading about this tragedy -- maybe I crave reading about the Civil War for a similar reason. I've lived a comparatively very easy life: I haven't had to deal with slavery, cavalry raids, trench warfare, mangled limbs, or dysentery. I've never had to drink coffee made out of peanuts and ground watermelon seeds. I never even had to register for the draft. So maybe something inside me knows I lack part of a balanced diet.

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