Sunday, June 7, 2009

Is History Guts and Glory?

I admire Bernard Cornwell's sheer industry as well as his apparent determination to cover many of the important 'watershed' periods in the history of the English-speaking world, but now that I have read quite a few of his novels, it is clear to me that his focus always is battle and killing. His research of the various killing methods is impeccable and his grasp of battles and the conflicts that led to them is sound but it is killing and more killing that definitely is at the heart of every book I have read.

Does he glorify the hero in his persona as a 'killing machine'? Oh, most definitely. Although he includes graphic descriptions of the less romantic aspects of battle from excrement to spilled brains and entrails, he does 'sing' of the glory of killing, the sweet ecstacy of rising beyond humanity to become nothing more than an instrument of death. In doing so, he is continuing an ancient tradition that can be found in Western classical literature from Homer to Beowulf and many other Northern epic poems. Heroes in the history of our Western culture are killing machines for the most part. The introduction of Christianity 2000 years ago did not change that. In fact, Christianity was altered to promote killing programmes such as the 'Crusades' and the 'Inquisition' although the message of the Christ most definitely was in complete opposition to any of that.

Christianity itself is based on ancient mystery religions of death and rebirth. Without death, there can be no rebirth, but the art of killing is not embraced at all in the Christian philosophy. Judaic history and religion, on the other hand, embraces slaughter and advocates the obliteration of any obstacles that might block the path of the 'Chosen' and Christians who wished to promote political agendas looked to the 'Old Testament' for religious justification. The actual message of Christ at the heart of Christianity was based instead on the concept of life through death, making a sham of any worldly conflicts and political ambitions.

That aside, the history of Western civilisation, like most civilisations, is a long litany of conflict and killing and Bernard Cornwell is adept at describing pivotal periods in the timeline of his and our own ancestors.

As I read the account of the battle of Agincourt this morning, however, I had a small epiphany about his work. Bernard Cornwell's prose in terms of battle and killing embodies a very ancient religious mystery probably known best in contemporary culture as the Goddess Kali.

Hindu deities take many different forms, with diverse names and legends. They have many manifestations and attibutes, some of which may appear initially to be in fundamntal opposition to one another.

The primary tale of Kali herself has very diverse forms but the one that has the most parallels in other mythologies and religious systems is that of the Goddess summoned to the battlefield who wins the battle against evil and yet, drunken with bloodlust and battle-frenzy continues to destroy until the very world was poised on the edge of utter annihilation. In totality with the very spirit of death and destruction, she finally unwittingly danced upon the body of her own lover and consort, the lord Shiva. It was only when he forced her back to ordinary consciousness and made her recognise him that she was able to cut short her all-consuming path of total obliteration. In another version of the tale, Shiva appeared on the battlefield in the form of an infant, exciting Kali's maternal instincts and thus ending her path of total destruction of the world.

The powers of creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin and both can be equally dangerous to the welfare of others. The various diseases known collectively as 'Cancer' could be perceived as an overabundance of creation where cells proliferate wildly, destroying the balance of the organism in which they are housed. Too much creation can choke an environment, whether it is a large city or a great forest. Nature, in both her generative and destructive aspects is terrifying and her power must be respected and recognised.

Bernard Cornwell, in describing the slaughter of the battlefield, is describing the dance of destruction, the human component of the ecstacy of Kali. It is only when the warrior surrenders completely to the lust of battle that he is able to do his job properly and indeed survive the encounter. Human beings are born with kill-lust and it is a gift of instinct to aid self-preservation. Undifferentiated killing is not to be tolerated, but society always has directed the killing instinct into political avenues, sending human beings into battles throughout the globe in order to advance economic or social agendas that are promoted as somehow being more noble or justifiable than the actions of a serial killer or gangster. Legalised killing is a fundamental part of civilisation in almost every culture.

The political and social philosophy of legal homicide basically is as follows: If we are born to kill as well as to create, let some one harness that drive to cleanse the earth of undesirable elements. Bernard Cornwell's books actually clearly denote the fallacious underpinnings of every war in which his heroes fight, and he therefore could not be considered primarily as a propagandist for any specific cause, although he writes usually from the vantage point of a soldier fighting for the British Empire or its predecessor in the form of the Kingdom of England. He does revel in the kill-lust of the battlefield, however, in those moments when the hero transcends his own identity and throws off the constraints of civilisation to become a superior killing machine, acting solely upon his martial training and instinct.

Is this troubling in moral terms? On reflection, I came to the conclusion that it actually is no more than an honest appraisal of our history as human beings. Surrender to kill-lust is the fuel of any 'hero' of any battle or war. It is an integral part of our nature as human beings as well. Few would argue against the basic premise that it is right and proper to defend our own lives and the lives of our loved ones. Nor would I. What I decry is the propaganda of governments to create an illusory threat to our own lives and the lives of our loved ones in order to propel an invasion such as the invasion of Iraq. Wars fought in the name of 'democracy' are fueled by as much economic greed, deceit and selfish interest on the part of the governments that instigate them as any other wars.

Killing, however, IS a fact of life and human nature. Bernard Cornwell writes about the past and he follows an ancient tradition of poets and novelists in describing heroes and their actions. For the most part, he does not attempt to argue in favour of one war against another or one side in any conflict against another. Ordinarily, he simply follows the career of one killing machine as that finely-trained tool of destruction moves from battle to battle, reverting to his own personality, thoughts and desires when he is at rest. Every story he tells is a tale of conflict that focuses primarily on the story of one warrior. The fact that his most lyrical descriptions inevitably involve transcendantal bloodlust, killing fields and slaughter simply demonstrates a devotion (unwitting or not) to the mysteries of the force of Death and Destruction whether given the name of Kali, Odhinn or unnamed.

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