Friday, January 3, 2014

Adam Gopnik's Sense of Honor

It feels like one numerological leap too many. Some incautious souls have been suggesting that 2014 might become this century’s 1914. Then again, Adam Gopnik correctly states, it might not.

Gopnik saw 1913 as a year of great artistic achievement. To the dismay of many this artistic flowering was followed, in 1914, by the onset of World War I. George Kennan accurately called The Great War the defining catastrophe of the twentieth century.

In Gopnik’s words:

The year 1913 had been full of rumbling energy and matchless artistic accomplishment—Proust kicking off, the Cubists kicking back, Stravinsky kicking out—and then, within a few months, the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo and the troop trains were running and, pretty soon, the whole positive and optimistic and progressive culture was on its way to committing suicide. The Great War left more than ten million Europeans dead and a civilization in ruins (and presaged a still worse war to come).

The passage offers some very good writing— and Gopnik is an excellent writer— as long as you ignore the content.

One must recall that when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris in 1913, it provoked boos, hisses and eventually a full-fledged riot.

It’s nice to see artistic performance as a beacon in the darkness, but, truth be told, Stavinsky’s Rite of Spring did not necessarily signal a bright new dawn.

Before opining about these matters Gopnik should have spent some time with Modris Eksteins’ great book, Rite of Spring. There he would have learned that the modernist aesthetic contributed mightily to the horrors that were soon to be visited on Europe. It’s nice enough to say that life should imitate art, but, as is well known, Herr Hitler was a failed painter who tried to make the world his modernist canvas.

Gopnik is on more solid ground when he evokes the defining event of 1912, the sinking of the Titanic. The event captured the public imagination—in many ways, it still does— far more than did the success of its sister ship, the Olympic. The latter vessel did its job without running afoul of any icebergs. thus, it has been forgotten.

Of course, the Titanic was seen by many as the apotheosis of the Industrial Revolution. When it failed to make its way through the North Atlantic many people believed that Nature was taking her revenge against a presumptuous and arrogant human species.

Comparing the two ships, Gopnik writes:

The story of the two ships is one to keep in mind as we peer ahead into the new year. It reminds us that our imagination of disaster is dangerously more fertile than our imagination of the ordinary. You have certainly heard of the Titanic; you have probably never heard of the Olympic. We have a fatal attraction to fatality. 

Let’s ignore the phrase, “fatal attraction to fatality.” It leaves much to be desired. Yet, a massive trauma, one that costs many lives and impacts many more produces more drama and thus is better suited to become art than is a successful voyage. Having had our lives disrupted we use art to form a bridge back to normality.

We cannot be quite sure what Gopnik is trying to get at here, but as we read on we discover that he has a larger point to make, but not one that has anything to do with Stravinsky or the Titanic.

Gopnik is going to argue that the calamity of World War I was caused by the fact that people showed too much concern for honor and for face.

Is he penning a paean for dishonor, disgrace and disrepute? Would he prefer demoralization, depression and servitude? Or is he saying that nothing is really worth fighting for… except perhaps art?

This is all becoming somewhat muddled.

Anyway, it’s a rank distortion, bordering on the absurd. Aside from that, it is worth quoting in full:

Leafing through recent books on the last encounter with ’14, you find one thing that does seem to have the chill of ice about it. Even open societies, sailing, so to speak, on the open seas of history, are not immune to the appeal to honor and the fear of humiliation. The relentless emphasis on shame and face, on position and credibility, on the dread of being perceived as weak sounds an icy note through the rhetoric of 1914—from the moment Franz Ferdinand is shot to the moment the troops are sent to the Western Front. The prospect of being discredited, “reduced to a second-rate power,” was what drove the war forward. The German Kaiser kept saying that he would never again allow himself to be embarrassed by the British. Lloyd George, in London, felt that Britain had to go to war or it would never be “taken seriously” in the councils of Europe. Needless wars are rushed along, it seems, by an overcharge of the language of honor and credibility, when the language of common sense and compromise would be a lot more helpful. 

If you are going to make a grand historical analysis you should do more than leaf through a few recent books.

One likes the mellifluous phrasing about “open societies, sailing… on the open seas of history” and we are happy to note that it is referring us back to stories about the Titanic and the Olympic.

And yet, the lame concept of the open society had not been invented when World War I broke out. True enough, Great Britain had a liberal democracy, but it valued discretion and propriety over promiscuous openness.

As for the rest of Europe, Germany was ruled by a Kaiser and Russia was ruled by a czar. Call them open if you like, but the description has nothing to do with reality. Besides, the Great War was incited by the murder of an archduke.

The British had invented the Industrial Revolution but they had also produced liberal democracy, free enterprise and free international trade. And, of course, they were also practicing colonialism and imperialism.  

Much of the impetus for World War I involved commerce and colonies and economic prosperity. Beyond that was a rearguard effort by monarchies to maintain themselves in the face of encroaching liberal values.

Obviously, choosing honor often comes with a very high price. In 1914, for example, Belgium chose honor over surrender. The Prime Minister at the time, M. de Broqueville, said this:

We have no other choice. Our submission would serve no end; if Germany is victorious, Belgium, whatever her attitude, will be annexed to the Reich. If die we must, better death with honour.

Either way, Belgium was going to lose. Do you want to go down fighting or would you prefer to capitulate, thus undermining national pride, national confidence and national morale.

It’s nice to promote the value of compromise, but when the German army has invaded your country, compromise really meant surrender. The French chose to save their architecture when they were attacked at the onset of World War II. How did that work out for them? For how many years after the war were they depressed and demoralized by their actions? What does Gopnik think the film classic, The Chagrin and the Pity is all about?

In attacking honor Gopnik is following in the footsteps of none other than Sir John Falstaff of Shakespearean fame.

Prince Hal’s sometime mentor, a man who was tossed aside when Hal became Henry V, Falstaff had mastered the arts of debauchery and decadence. Dare we add, that he was also a coward.

In Falstaff’s words:

 Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off, when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no: Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is that word honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. Is it insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon; and so ends my catechism.

It is true; honor makes no sense in the Boar's Head Tavern where Falstaff ruled.

Defending your honor means defending your mental health. If you defend yourself and your family you will presumably have sufficiently high self-respect and confidence that you will not need to medicate yourself with mead, grog, sack and ale. The alternative to a loss of honor is depression.

People compete for honor; they compete for status on the status hierarchy. Only fools sacrifice their honor without a fight.

Honor makes you a trustworthy companion, a reliable partner, an honest professional and a loyal citizen. It is the basis for good relations with other people.

Thomas Gordon defined the term in 1721, in Cato’s Letter, No. 57:

True honour is an attachment to honest and beneficent principles, and a good reputation; and prompts a man to do good to others, and indeed to all men, at his own cost, pains, or peril. False honour is a pretence to this character, but does things that destroy it: And the abuse of honour is called honour, by those who from that good word borrow credit to act basely, rashly, or foolishly.


David Foster said...

There's a book called For Honour Alone, about the stand made in 1940 by the cadets of the French Cavalry School at Saumur...on June 18, after it was already clear that the war was lost. I wrote about it here:

Anonymous said...

"It’s nice enough to say that life should imitate art, but, as is well known, Herr Hitler was a failed painter who tried to make the world his modernist canvas."

Interesting. That seems to suggest there's some sort of affinity between Nazism and modernist art.

A few simple historical facts, available to anyone, refute that, however.

1. AS IS WELL KNOWN, Hitler the failed painter did not paint in a "modernist" style. In fact, he is known for his very maudlin, sentimental "realist" genre style straight out of the early 19th century.
2. In fact, Hitler detested modern art and was famous for calling it "degenerate" art. He Persecuted artists, closed galleries, generated anti-"modernist" propaganda, etc.

If you want to make some sort of argument that "modernist" art "contributed to" the atrocities of the 20th century, you're going to have a hard time making that link with Hitler.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous seems a bit too binary in his/her thinking.

Modernist art is,IMO, evidence of a dimished humanity, even a diminished humanism.

That Hitler painted badly in a particular style
does not make that style irrelevant, nor does
Hitler's attack on modern art automatically
make modern art the pinnacle of human artistic achievement.

Mistaking politics and/or amateur psychology
for artistic insight? Sure. Why not?

Critcal thinking skills?
Not so much.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Obviously, the argument is much more complicated than I could portray in a blog post. That's why I cited Modris Eksteins' Rite of Spring. Read it first and then tell us what you think.

Anonymous said...

You should take responsibility for your own words. I'm not interested in what you meant to say or what you should have said or what someone else said, but in what you DID say: that Hitler "made the world his modernist canvas." You said it, you should take responsibility for it.

I'm not even getting into the politics of such a statement. I'm more interested in the ignorance of historical fact behind it.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Of course, you misquoted me.... I stand by what I said and pointed out that the Eksteins book presents a well-documented argument for the point.

Anonymous said...
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