Homer And Helprin

Thanks are due to Mark Kleiman, who asked ‘are there any works of art that are pro-war?’ Mark asked this question, and then answered in the negative, which is largely, but not completely true. He says:

The celebration of battle feats is, it seems to me, the “pro-war” feature that’s present in the Iliad and absent in, say, War and Peace. Tolstoy certainly glorifies Kutuzov and intends the reader to be pleased by Napoleon’s defeat. But Tolstoy doesn’t put you in the shoes of a Russian artilleryman and ask you to admire his coolness under fire or his brilliant improvisation after his horse gets shot.

So I think my reader’s point stands: the Homeric attitude toward warfare is impossible for the modern novelist to reproduce.

To counter, I’ll offer this from Mark Helprin’s Memoir from Antproof Case:

By the time I reached altitude, I could hardly see the Messeschmitts. They were nothing more than specks that appeared and disappeared. Had they gone back to their field, I would have missed them, but they continued their patrol, turning west. That would give me a broadside, out of the sun.

I took it. I hit one so hard he broke up in the air, and the other simply fled. At this point I was very low on fuel and ammunition and I back-rolled for home hoping that the remining Schmitt would not come back. He didn’t.

Just enough fuel was left to skim the beach before landing. We were not supposed to do that, but it was often too enticing not to. It was like shouting out that you were still alive, and your voice was not your voice but the voice of your swift and powerful plane, with an engine that shook the ground, with six cannons, and light wings that rocketed through the clouds. The planes returned as if from nowhere, propellers churning in golden light, avenging angels descending from unimaginable wars in the ether. After my first kill I understood that we were singing a terribly sad song. But I’m not ashamed of having sung that song, for, no matter what you may suspect, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.

His book Refiner’s Fire has similar, as I recall, but I don’t have it handy.

Thanks to Mark, I pulled it off the shelf and read it yesterday…what a great book. And no, I don’t drink coffee.

23 thoughts on “Homer And Helprin”

  1. Interesting question re movies – I can think of a couple excellent ones (and own a few). But I think Kleinman is sifting more for ‘high art,’ and here all the films tend to be more King of Hearts than Big Red One.

    And I’m smacking myself for not thinking of Red Badge…


  2. Good freaking night guys! How about the bard of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling?


    Try: Screw Guns, Snarleyow, Tommy , The ‘eathen or Fuzzie Wuzzies.

    The last stanza of Screw Guns reads as follows:

    Smokin’ my pipe on the mountings, sniffin’ the mornin’ cool, I climbs in my old brown gaiters along o’ my old brown mule. The monkey can say what our road was — the wild-goat ‘e knows where we passed. Stand easy, you long-eared old darlin’s! Out drag-ropes! With shrapnel! Hold fast — ‘Tss! ‘Tss!
    For you all love the screw-guns — the screw-guns they all love you!
    So when we take tea with a few guns, o’ course you will know what to do — hoo! hoo!
    Jest send in your Chief an’ surrender — it’s worse if you fights or you runs:
    You may hide in the caves, they’ll be only your graves, but you can’t get away from the guns!
    Screw Guns were IIRC a kind of light cannon.

    Make no mistake, Mr. Kipling was no fool. Read the “Widow at Windsor” to see just how he thought about Queen Victoria…

    Come to think of it, Kipling was active about the same time as “Zulu” wasn’t he?

  3. Killing Frenchmen by the boatload is apparently an exception to the general anti-war bias, so you have those great British heroes of popular fiction: Horatio Hornblower, Richard Bolitho, and Jack Aubrey.

    Then there are essentially pro-war books that have been sanitized by tacking on some unconvincing anti-war morals here and there – my take on Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Compare the Gary Cooper film version, which does away with the unconvincing parts.)

    There is some German literature from World War II that is generally considered anti-war: Lothar Buchheim’s Das Boot and Willi Heinrich’s Cross of Iron. I’m not so sure about either of them – I wouldn’t call them pro-war, but they’re more about cruel fate in general than the evils of war. Likewise Vasily Grossman’s great book about WWII, Life and Fate.

    Note that “anti-war” is easy to write; “pro-war” is tough. With anti-war you get lots of easy tragedy, conflicted characters, and opportunities for pitting the individual against the Big Bad World. Better yet, a couple of romantically entwined individuals vs. the Big Bad World (which gives you great anti-war novels like Vonnegut’s Mother Night). Instant literature.

  4. Wow! Do you guys consider representational art — painting and the plastic arts, including architecture — to be true art? If you do….how in the world could this question come up in the first place??

  5. I suppose the whole market/genre of “Military SF” — as published by Baen and others, is “Low” art? Elizabeth Moon and David Weber and Eric Flint …

    For that matter, the book and movie of _Lord of the Rings_ must, also, be “low” art?

  6. Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” celebrates the bravery of the Light Brigade and its members’ willingness to do their duty in spite of the fact that they knew the higher ups giving them orders were incompetent and foolish. I think that’s a classic combination of pro- and anti-war elements.

  7. Let’s not forget a host of Japanese films and novels. Also the apparently anti-war Russian flick “Privet Vkhodaschemu” can be seen as pro-war in some ways, along with “Chapaev” and a host of other films, which were not just hack pro-Stalinst propaganda. There is a large segment of novels as well, but they have generally not been translated.

    These works do not look back more than 10 years, and so pass Kleiman’s test which disallows sci-fi or historical fiction because of the distancing the latter involve. (Note that he DOES mention Red Badge, Lord of the Rings and Starship Troopers, as well as the Napoleanic War genre.)

    There were certainly some post WW2 US novels which were pro-war, although usually other themes predominated. James Jones comes to mind, but I haven’t read him in years. Most of those works, in contrast to Japanese and Russian works seem more about courage in difficult circumstances, rather that the glory of the struggle.

  8. Pouncer –

    No way is Tolkien “low”. But Tolkien is not about heroic fantasy either. Tolkien’s themes are tragic – The forces of Good battle Evil time and time again, but fail even when they think they’ve won. Heroism and power are ultimately futile. That’s why Frodo has to bear the ring, not Boromir. And he doesn’t get to live happily ever after.

    Science fiction deals with imaginary futures, so it doesn’t have to play by the rules of our moral universe. Nobody has to worry whether Dune is pro- or anti- anything. (Nobody should have to worry about that in conventional literature, either – good literature is about imagination, not politically correct choir recitals. Writers don’t have to advocate what they imagine.)

    All the same, politics has to stick its nose into everything – so you have science fiction allegories about the real world, with anti-war (Harry Harrison) and pro-war (Jerry Pournelle) factions. The most famous “pro-war” book would be Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. On the other side would be Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

  9. Glen, You’re absolutely right about Tolkien. I would add that there’s an implicit Christian theme as well. Heroism and power fail because human heroism and power are inherently weak and corruptable (original sin). Middle Earth is saved by the humble (like Christ) hobbits and even then there must be providential interference (Gollum’s attempt to grab back the ring and his “accidental” fall into Mount Doom) when even the goodness of the hobbit proves unequal to the task of destroying the ring (original sin again). I think the Christian theme mitigates the tragic theme, but in either case, it’s hard to read LOTR as entirely, if at all, pro-war.

  10. On war and peace and the Lord of the Rings:

    bq. _’We will have peace’ said Theoden at last thickly and with an effort. Several of the Riders cried out gladly. Theoden held up his hand. ‘Yes, we will have peace’, he said, now in a clear voice, ‘we will have peace, when you and all your works have perished- and the works of your dark master to which you would deliver us. You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts. You hold out your hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor. Cruel and cold! Even if your war on me was just- as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired– even so, what will you say of your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there? And they hewed Hama’s body before the gates of the Hornburg, after he was dead. When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc._

    Clearly, pro-war. We are never given a reason to doubt the justness or the necessity of the war, even though it holds tragic consequences for many of its participants.

  11. It would appear I stand corrected on LOTR, at least the pro-war part. Still, is it really pro-war or a simply a recognition of the necessity of fighting evil in the world? Being for war and recognizing its occasional necessity aren’t necessarily the same thing.

  12. Glen W –
    “The most famous “pro-war” book would be Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. On the other side would be Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.”

    Funny, I nver thought of Forever War as either pro or anti war, but rather about the problems of people who travel at near light speed and have to deal with societies that are changing faster than they are. The latter is certainly a much older theme than TFW in science fiction, but that is where I placed it. Guess I need to revisit it sometime to see if I agree on the anti-war stance.

  13. Oscar –

    Starship Troopers outraged a lot of a people. But then, so did Stranger in a Strange Land and Fear No Evil, for entirely different reasons. Brian Aldiss wrote a history of science fiction (The Trillion Year Spree) and his remarks about Heinlein and Starship Troopers are pure spite.

    So when Haldeman wrote Forever War, a lot of people took it as a “rebuttal” of Heinlein. Haldeman himself said that he never intended it that way.

    But then, boring literary politics aside, they’re both great books, so who cares?

  14. Here is a Brian Aldiss article on Starship Troopers.

    … is Starship Troopers pro-war? Purely as a guess, I’d say Heinlein wrote this in disgusted reaction against the soft aimlessness that threatens democratic countries as severely as Communism. He knocks over a pair of straw dummies, the old platitudes that ‘violence never settles anything’ and that ‘the best things in life are free,’ but what’s controversial in that?

    This is a little more detailed and less catty than what Aldiss wrote in The Trillion Year Spree, but IMO it’s just as far off the mark. I don’t know if Aldiss hated Heinlein or hates the military, or both, but he obviously doesn’t have much critical distance.
    The Freudian swipes at Heinlein are pretty funny – more of that in TYS, where he accuses Heinlein of having “an infantile obsession with breasts”. I don’t think Aldiss likes Americans, either.

  15. Isn’t the Illiad an “epic fantasy”? Shouldn’t it be disqualified by Kleimann as well? I sense a double standard.

    Does the Satanic Verses contain a literary discussion of religion or is the reader distanced by the author’s use of fantastical elements. Can anybody get me a ruling?

  16. Well, PD Shaw, that depends. If Achilles (for example) lived, it might be history. If he didn’t, it’s fiction. And if neither Achilles nor Zeus and Athena existed, it’s fantasy.

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