The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Flash Harry and the Horrors of heroism

Today I stumbled on an interesting lit-crit blog by David G. Myers, in which I read his take on one of my old favorites, George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels. From Myers's perceptive analysis, in which he rejects the notion of Flashman as debunking Victorian concepts of heroism:
While Flashman himself may seem to derive a certain pleasure from debunking finer reputations, Fraser is playing an altogether different game. He hopes to rebuild those reputations.

In the Flashman Papers, Fraser seeks to rehabilitate the heroic mode in English fiction, but he knows that he cannot do so unironically, because moderns prefer debunking heroes to building them up. His ingenious strategy is to reestablish it by inversion and misdirection, proving some men and women to be the opposite of an “antihero,” contrasting their heroism to the scoundrel, liar, cheat, thief, and coward who thinks only of tearing them down. By puncturing their smug self-righteousness and their pretense to impossibly high standards, Flashman shows them as genuinely great men and women, not the panegyrical statuary of Victorian literature—and he shows them as such by describing their response to him.
Well, yes and no. I mean, I agree with this analysis insofar as it goes, but it shears off some of the levels of complexity that Flashy gained over the four decades (1969-2008) Fraser penned his adventures. So in the sixth volume, Flashman's Lady, we see the arch-cad and coward genuinely torn between his love for his wife and his funk that both options--risking death to try to rescue her and losing her--seem equally bad to him. He has an affection for certain heroes, even those who cause him trouble (Abraham Lincoln, for one). And he spoils his grandchildren rotten, while being intensely protective of them. (He even steals out, in advanced age, to kill a very dangerous, much younger man to protect his favorite.) So Flashy becomes more human from book-to-book; his truly unforgivable acts occur with long stretches between them--two if the first volume, and then one in volume 7, as I recall. Interestingly, he pays rather heavily for two of the three.

It's true that the Flashman novels often implicitly endorse heroism, while Flashy himself critiques heroism directly; but in certain passages, Flashy's critique is at least tacitly adopted by Fraser in the storytelling. So, for example, when an elderly Flashman at his club allows himself to be drawn into a debate with an academic about the America West, where he had some choice experiences, Flashy erupts, most unusually for him:
"As to Custer, he's receipted and filed for the idiot he was, and for Chivington, he was a murderous maniac, and what's worse, an amateur. But if you think they were a whit more guilty than your darling redskins, than you're an even bigger fool than you look. What bleating breast-beaters like you ca't comprehend," I went on at the top of my voice, while the toadies pawed at me and yapped for the porters, "is that when selfish, frightened men--in other words, any men, red or white, civilized or savage--come face to face in the middle of a wilderness that both of 'em want, the Lord alone knows why, then war breaks out, and the weaker goes under. Policies don't matter a spent piss--it's the men in fear and rage and uncertainty watching the woods and skyline, d'you see, you purblind bookworm, you!"
(Flashman and the Redskins (1982) at 19, emphasis in original)

Fraser casually uses the Victorian racist and imperialist terms and framing, but generally subverts them by having Flashman view both Englishman and the "Other" with an equally jaundiced eye, or even having the Other prove morally superior, if only to Flashy. But if you can get past that, there's a serious critique of both the sentimentalization of imperialism and of its victims in favor of an effort at objectivity, a looking at war as something which the uninitiated can't fully understand, but which is often done in a worthless cause.

The Flashman critique/defense of heroism thing is more complex and more explicit in Fraser's non-series novel Mr. America, in which the hero, "reformed badman" Mark J. Franklin, comes from the Wild West to Edwardian England, has several appearances from the old veteran himself. Flashy's appearances in Mr. American are brief but important to the plot, and he and Franklin strike up a rapport. In the book's coda, as World War I is about to break out, Franklin, unclear whether he should stay in his adoptive country or go back to the States--which, the novel has made fear, holds nothing but memories for him--and accepts Flashman's invitation to dinner. Franklin asks about the war situation
"Contemptible--but of course it always is. We should stay out, and to hell with Belgium. After all, it's stretching things to say we're committed to 'em, and we'd be doing 'em a favor--and the Frogs, too."

"By not protecting them, you mean? I don't quite see that."

"You wouldn't--because like most idiots you think of war as being between states--colored blobs on the map. You think if we can keep Belgium green, or whatever color it is, instead of Prussian blue, than hurrah for everyone. But war ain't between colored blobs, it's between people. You know what people are, I suppose?"


"By that reckoning," said Mr. Franklin, nobody would stand up to a brute or a bully."

"'Course they would--when it was worthwhile. ...we should simply tell the Kaiser that if his fleet puts its nose out of the Baltic, we'll send it to the bottom--that satisfies the Frogs, up to a point, since it guarantees their northern coast, it satisfies teh Kaiser, who'll swallow his pride for the sake of keeping is out of the war, and it saves his pretty little ships as well. And five years from now, Liege will be doing rather well--whether it's got a German provost marshal still or not. And that won't matter a damn, to people whose main business is eating, drinking, fornicating, making money and seeing their children grow up safe and sound."

[After dinner, they go to watch the crowd cheering in front of the palace]

A sudden, odd thought struck Mr. Franklin, and it seemed doubly odd that it had only just occurred to him.

"D'you think England will win the war?"

"Ask them," said the General, jerking his thumb at window, grinning. Then he considered, the eyes narrowing in the flushed, ancient face. "Probably--yes, on balance, we ought to win. Germany can lick Russia, but not England and France together. But they'll take a lot of beating , if it's a fight to the finish. Yes, I'd say we were odds on to win--not that it matters all that much."

Mr. Franklin stared at him in astonishment. "You can't mean that--it doesn't make sense."

Sir Harry turned to look at him, and then glanced out of the window again.

"It isn't important whether you win or lose," he said, "so long as you survive. So long as your people survive. And that's the only good reason for fighting than anyone ever invented. The survival of your people and race and kind. That's the only victory that matters."
(Mr. American at 505, 510-511)

Flashman goes unanswered. In fact, he is driven in a carriage into the Palace grounds in a parodic replay of his triumphant entrance with the Duke of Wellington in 1842, to receive the first of his many medals, in Flashman. (Now, "sporting his tin" he bluffs his way in to use the facilities, cheered by the crowd, and with Franklin, "a little touched" at the sight.)

So while I agree with Myers that the Flashman series celebrates heroes and heroism, it does so discretely--it celebrates heroes with judgment, who know when to fight, and when not to. Flashman's views of his superiors and colleagues ranges the gamut. Lord Cardigan's courage in the Charge at the Light Brigade is mocked as stupidity, with no authorial defense from the narrative (he's a butt in all of his appearances in the series after Flashman); Lincoln is unambiguously embraced by Flashman, as is Lord Elgin; others, like James Brooke are not celebrated, but admired with some mystification concerning their idealism.

In this one way, Flashman reminds me a bit of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.--the judge, not his father, the poet--who valued the "jobbists"--the professionals dedicated to their craft, and prized applied competence over passion and fervor. Holmes, of course, like Faser, was a soldier in a brutal, yet so-called "good war," the Civil War for Holmes, World War II for Fraser. No simplistic view on war or heroism fit their experiences.

No comments: