Monday, June 15, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
HEROES ARE THE EXCEPTION
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog Steven Loveridge’s admirable Calls to Arms. You may recall that the book is a methodical analysis and consideration of New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the First World War when that war was still in progress. As Loveridge documents, New Zealanders were overwhelmingly supportive of the war effort, by and large had no difficulty in identifying with the British cause, tended to despise those men who were unwilling to enlist, approved of harsh actions taken against conscientious objectors and saw the enemy in uniformly negative terms.
One hundred years later we may deplore these attitudes. We may legitimately judge the First World War to have been pointless and a massive waste of human life. But, in the face of the well-documented historical record, we cannot pretend that our attitudes were the common and accepted attitudes one hundred years ago.
Which at once raises a number of major problems.
Most of us are used to seeing the First World War (and most other major historical events) through the media of debunking memoirs, imaginative fiction, feature films and sometimes poetry. We read Wilfred Owen or Apollinaire, we watch All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory or King and Country, we read Goodbye to All That or Death of a Hero and we imagine that these are not only authentic experience but that they are typical of opinions at the time the great historical event was taking place. Soldiers, we conclude, really hated the war, despised their idiotic commanders and felt nothing but sympathy for their enemies. Like Paul Baumer in the foxhole weeping over the French soldier he has just bayoneted. Or maybe like the caricatures on Oh! What a Lovely War! and Blackadder.
We forget that nearly all the dramatisations, films and memoirs we have seen or read were produced after the event, and do not represent a general attitude when the war was being fought. (Yes – Owen, Sassoon et al wrote when the war was in progress, but their work reached at most a tiny audience at that time, and they did not become canonical until much later.)
This may seem both an obvious and a carping thing to say, but it has a great effect on our perception of the past. If we believe that the mass of people in the past really thought just as we do (in this instance, that the war was for no purpose), then we are setting ourselves up for the sort of conspiracy theory which imagines that populations can only have been coerced, propagandised or forced into doing the sort of things that we now deplore. We are depriving them of agency and refusing to accept that values and common attitudes are not the same from age to age. In short, we are lacking in real historical imagination.
In the clumsier and more inept “historical” novels (on the New Zealand scene, Witi Ihimaera’s are among the worst), the judgments and later textbook comments of historians are forced into historical characters’ mouths as if they were common currency in the time the novel is set. The impression this always creates is that “good” people in the past thought just as we do, and were all waiting for somebody like us to give them a lead.
Of course there is a much bigger issue here. Historical fiction thrives by concentrating on exceptional individuals – heroes, shall we say – and not on the ordinary run of people. There have been exceptional people in the past, who pioneered attitudes that we now either applaud or take for granted. To stick with the First World War example, there were indeed in historical fact conscientious objectors, anti-wars protesters and prescient people who said the war would lead nowhere. But they were only a tiny fraction of the population, when compared with those who either welcomed the war or accepted its prosecution as a duty. In short, they were not “typical”. By their very nature, heroes are the exception, but historical fiction – whence many people imagine they are learning history – coaxes people into imagining that they were the norm, and distorts or impedes any real understanding of the past.