by Christopher Horner
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. —The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir. John Ford)
No man is a hero to his valet. —proverb
The highest act of reason…is an aesthetic act. —Holderlin (attrib)
Sometimes it seems that growing up and learning things is one long process of disillusionment. Dis-illusion: we shed illusion, fantasy and myth, and so we disenchant the world. Somehow this is both a good and a bad thing. Good, because we cannot, must not, live on lies; bad because we cannot live on facts alone.
There are plenty of people ready to feed us lies, and plenty who want to believe them: about American Exceptionalism, about race, about the economy – about how global warming is nothing to worry about, when in fact it threatens our very lives. We really do need to find out what is happening and and how it came to be. In the UK, for instance, there seems to be the widespread vague sense that the empire was a sort of outdoor relief programme, all about building railways and schools for the lucky natives, and not at all about exploitation and oppression. So who are all these brown skinned people and what have they to do with us? In the USA we have seen the effects of nurturing lies about race and nation, lies that go all the way back to the the founding: the denial of a history of slavery, genocide and subjugation. And our heroes have feet of clay: Gandhi, Wollstonecraft, Lincoln, Churchill, Jefferson, all were flawed. Indeed, the last three in that list can be indicted of racism. And because of their actions, people died.
And yet there is more to be said about myth, legend and facts. Sometimes the facts can lead us towards error, and the myth can convey something true, as when an event or person inspires us to reach for something higher and better. Moreover, the desire to debunk and find the dirty laundry can generate its own smell: it can be motivated less by a desire to get at the truth than what Nietzsche called ressentiment: half suppressed feelings of hatred and envy that find a brief satisfaction in bringing down anything noble or good. Sometimes, too, something of the truth is to be grasped in the very illusion it engenders – as Hegel says, appearances both conceal and reveal the essential thing. Let me try to explain with some examples.
I was brought up on the story of Britain’s lone stand against the Nazis in 1940: the legend of The Few, Churchill’s defiant speeches, the Blitz Spirit. All that. And my parents had direct experience of it: the dogfights overhead, the bombing, the fear. Many of their friends had similar experiences, or at least had similar stories, no doubt edited a bit as time went on – I heard them reminisce, I watched the TV documentaries. But look closer and the story begins to fray a bit around the edges, and threatens to unravel: Britain had an Empire and was hardly alone in 1940; the Blitz caused many cases of mass panic (no stiff upper lip, then); the Spitfires and Hurricanes, manned by pilots from around the world, fought mainly to stave off defeat, rather than win outright; the War Cabinet was wondering about ways of making peace with Hitler well into 1940. And so on.
Another Example: The American Revolution (or ‘American War of Independence’ as we call it in Britain). The myth is of the ‘shot that was heard around the world’, brave patriots, a stirring commitment to freedom (‘We hold these truths..’ Etc) and so on. But that is all Front of House. Backstage we find that a large motive for the Revolution was the seizure of Native peoples’ land (forbidden by the Crown); we discover slave holding among not just a few southerners but in the leading figures, none of whom were keen on extending democracy to the entire population; that the war was in many ways a civil war, with ‘patriots’ and ‘loyalists’ slitting each others’ throats; then there are the massacres and ethnic cleansing of native peoples even as the Revolutionary War was fought, with much more to come when it ended. ‘Why do we hear the loudest yelps for freedom from the drivers of slaves?’ Dr Johnson asked rhetorically. What a sad and horrible place is reality.
Or is it? Sometimes the myths that sustain us can somehow be truer than the dirty facts. And sometimes the true and the false can be woven together in ways that make them seem, at times, interchangeable. Sometimes the truth can be more complex than the facts would lead us to believe. Lies can reveal truth; the truth can be a lie. There’s a passage in GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday in which a character explains that he tried to conceal the fact that he was a violent anarchist by adopting various ‘plausible’ disguises as a law abiding citizen. None of them convinced people. In the end he realised that the best way to conceal who he was was to tell people he was an anarchist. That was the best cover of all: no one believed it. Just as the truth can do the work of a lie, so an illusion can be more true than the truth of the facts.
Look again at the myths by which we understand ourselves and where we came from: surely Britain’s stand was heroic, not despite, but because of all those complicating facts; and the same goes for 1775, which really was a great step towards freedom for the human race. And yes, Churchill, Jefferson and even Lincoln had a dark side, sometimes very dark. But the darker side isn’t the whole truth and may not always be the important thing. The myths of 1940 and 1775 are in part the dreams of our better selves, of what we want to be, and of what we sometimes almost attain. The dream of the good and the great can stand as a kind of demand on us, which is surely why (the flawed) Martin Luther King Jnr. cited the words of the Declaration of Independence in his famous civil rights speech of 1963.
The urge to dig for the truth can be heroic and necessary, but not always. The close up will show you dirt, but close ups can often be out of focus. Nietzsche pointed out in his Use and Abuse of History for Life that history always must involve selection and omission if we are to put it to any good use in the present. Furthermore, he argues that we need to be able to forget some things. What we see is not only determined by what is there, but also by what kind of person we are, and what we are looking for. As Hegel says:
No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet – is a valet, whose dealings are with the man, not as hero, but as one who eats, drinks, and wears clothes, in general, with his individual wants and fancies. Thus, for the judging consciousness, there is no action in which it could not oppose to the universal aspect of the action, the personal aspect of the individuality, and play the part of the moral valet towards the agent. (Phenomenology of Spirit, S.665, trans AV Miller.)
Does this mean that we should prefer illusions to reality? Certainly not. All the examples I have given can be read in two directions, as it were: towards the facts or towards the myth. A myth is a truth in aesthetic form. In that form it can appear as beautiful and inspiring, like art. But like a work of art, it needs our careful attention: is this gleaming thing a bright shining lie, or something precious? Often, it can be a bit of both. So there is no substitute for critical engagement with our traditions, and with what they seem to say about us. Stories and images are powerful: they can mobilise our emotions like little else, but their power comes from the way they simplify and condense. Hence the understandable fastidiousness of the left when it comes to such things. We want truth, not lies. We need to be alert to the way the powerful want us to believe their justifying stories, which demand critical examination, and contestation. Yet analysis is grey, while myth glitters. The record shows that it is the right, not the left, that understands this. So the right comes to the fight armed with a bright sword, the left with a calculator. The question is: can the left use myth and symbolism without abandoning truth? I think it can. There are plenty of examples in history, and in the present, of utterly heroic and inspiring deeds and people: think of the Paris Commune, of Sylvia Pankhurst, of Fred Hampton, of Nelson Mandela. Ideas matter, but so do emotions.
Injustice should be confronted, not evaded: history is full of crime. But it is great mistake to to think that crime is all history has to show us, for then we abandon the hope that is the spur to making a better world. We must value truth, but we must not mistake the pursuit of it with petty moralism or ressentiment. Some truths are uncomfortable, and we have to acknowledge that, and act on that knowledge. But there were also good and noble things in our past that can illuminate our present and point the way to a better future. We need to see the difference, which can be hard to do. There can be no rule or prescription here: difficult as it can be, we are going to have to apply the faculty of judgment. For growing up and learning things is a tough business, and so is thinking.