April 8, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Ars et Arma: Art in the Occident, Part V
WHAT IS the will to victory? In a warrior or in an artist, what is this will?
We may safely begin with what it is not. It is not will to destruction, will to cruelty. Though atimes it may include such, it need not, simple proof of which is in the fact that both the mightiest warriors and the best artists take none but great and exemplary enemies, rather than selecting the weak and the vulnerable as their foes. No warrior of quality goes about, wantonly smashing and slaying. Indeed, anyone who did such would certainly be regarded with a suspicious eye, and it is likely he would fail to attain that historical regard which is among the high rewards for his striving.
And yet, the artist does destroy, the warrior does slay—destroys past models and images, slays those who threaten what is his, his goods, his kingdom, his family, his people, his preeminence. In both cases, the aim is not abasement, but glorification; not bringing down the other, but exalting the self. This is why such men seek out not any enemy, but the enemy, the highest enemy they may, in firm belief that it is more glorious to fall before dragons than to rise before swine, and that there is a kind of victory, if imperfect, in perishing at worthy hands.
The will to victory is not avarice—the lust for treasures, for gold. The warrior ethos is a generous ethos, which historically has given more than ever it has taken, and knows how to perfect itself through munificence and the lost art of gift-giving. The artist as well: his soul is full and overfull; he bestows as he plies his art. There has even been an historical tendency toward poverty on the part of warriors and artists alike, which belies all greedy seeking of pilf and plunder. Even when such men desire riches, it is common that they seek only those treasures which are well-merited and rare.
In the same way, the will to victory is not a longing after mere honors and the recognition of potentates. Honors can be bestowed on dishonorable men as soon as honorable ones. The dishonorable man takes honors as a sign of honor; he is content with appearance and public perception. The warrior and the artist do not rest content with so little, but want, not the sign of honor, but the content of it, even if this should bring with it public shame and the scorn of the powerful.
The will to victory is neither the will to defeat one’s opponent at any cost and by any means, even if this include treachery and sneakery. Beowulf determined to defeat Grendel without the use even of arms; Sophocles’ Ajax was suspicious of Odysseus’ wile, judging it unbefitting to the warrior; Odysseus himself, in full expression of his native complexity, denounced liars in the Odyssey. Hemingway scorned Faulkner’s prose as employing “tricks”—charge which Faulkner, of course, would have considered an unjust misinterpretation of his style. One’s natural power, one’s naked ability, one’s sincerity—these are the things that really count.
It is worth noting that even the great weapons of the ancient warrior tradition support, rather than complicate, this fundamental point: these were days long before the perverse modern obsession with technology as an equalizing force. It is a relatively modern phenomenon that, for example, an army of excellent warriors might be overtaken by an army of fewer and lesser enemies endowed with merely technological superiority, and this might be regarded as a true victory. Though certainly such things happened in the warrior tradition, as well, it was not thought to be anything to be vaunted. Rather, the classic conception of force and weaponry is embodied in the old tradition of chivalry. Common conceit in the old tales has it that a battle between two armies is effectively settled in the meeting of two great men amidst the fray—or, even more clearly, is determined even before the joining of arms, in a single duel between two preeminent warriors. The same kind of spirit regulated the very idea of weaponry. Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother with a sword only a great man might wield. The bow of Odysseus, greatest arm of its kind, cannot even be strung by the best of the suitors. Excaliber cannot be drawn from its stony scabbard save by the true king. To the warrior tradition, all the best arms were such: they were wrought for the use of a great man, they were an extension and a sign of his greatness.
And might it be objected that these are but tales, but inventions of the poets—then so much the better for our point! For truly, the line between the historic warrior tradition and the artistic tradition do overlap most playfully, so much so that it is difficult if not impossible to disentangle them. There, in that zone wherein they cross and weave, where the warrior cannot exist without the poet, nor the poet without the warrior, there stands what we call the heroic tradition; it is the truest zenith of them both, and marks an intimacy between them which is much to our substance.
What do we perceive in this unification of these two traditions, which do not, at first glance, appear to have anything in common? We perceive nothing but that which governs these traditions, that common motive which guides them both. Even where the warrior shuns the poet, as being a womanish and unwarlike sort; even where the poet shuns the warrior and seeks his hero in a less likely and certainly less martial figure—even here, we perceive both these traditions best in light of the other. The will to victory, be it in the warrior or in the artist, above all is a will to glory.
Glory is a deeply misunderstood concept in our very unchivalric day; it is obscured by the root concepts which guide our view of human societies. We consistently conflate glory with fame, ignoble confusion which reveals the true limitations of our worldview and the contours of its truncated body.
Now, fame is what is sought today by artists, and more often yet its diminutive child, notoriety: for notoriety is even easier to get than fame, and so is a nice goal for a day which tacitly believes every human being to be an artist. It is certainly not the high and sunripened fruit for which our dwarfish artists exert themselves—foremost evidence of which laziness is the modern tendency almost even to conflate innovation in art with “shock value.” Scandal is the cheapest and vulgarest byproduct of true art; only in a day so degenerate as our own could it begin to appear as the principle quality thereof.
Fame, in any epoch you please, is a “democratic” principle; the degree of one’s fame or notoriety is in direct proportion as the number of individuals who know of one’s deeds, and its prime material result is the affluence that dog-like follows it. Its payment is thus in vanity and in wealth; the two principle driving factors of the larger part of democratic life.
Glory is not founded on these precepts; it transcends them, and not only them. Suppose, as test of this, that for a certain great deed, a particular human being became known to all the members of his society, save the basest and most criminal. If knowledge of his deed were extended also to that segment of society, his fame would increase without doubt—but would his glory? It would not; his glory could not be affected by the acquaintance of individuals who are unprepared to differentiate between the low and the high. Fame is the mere knowledge of an event or a human being in as great a number of minds as possible, the quality of these minds be it what it will; but glory, for its implications of virtue and excellence, is but the memory in virtuous minds. Fame is a state of mere celebrity; glory is worthy celebrity.
The most striking and simultaneously the most important difference between fame and glory is in their relation to death. No human being is willing to die to secure fame; this would be as objectively absurd as dying to secure wealth. It may be that some psychologically unbalanced sort every so often breaks this rule—but we are entitled in such a case to speak of mental illness, and a curious inability to judge of cause and effect. Yet the act of glory in its archetypal form is the act of dying gloriously. This again can be seen in the entire warrior tradition up to the present day; even today, the one context in which one is still entitled to speak of glory, apart from certain religious formulae, is in warfare. This is fitting, but it is also an artificial limitation on the notion of glory. Nonetheless its analysis can aid us in the better comprehension of a very unmodern concept.
What has a man got who dies for fame? Nothing, if not less than he had before. Then what has a man got who dies for glory? In the first place, some approximate immortality. He has secured his memory in the minds of worthy men, a memory which outlasts not only the event of his death, but in principle might outlast even the death of any and all particular human beings, for so long as there be society. If his glory is great enough, he has secured a life which is at least as long as that of his tribe, his people, his civilization, and quite possibly longer yet.
One of the fundamental objections to this—one of the objections a man of fame would make—is that there is no worth in this life in memoriam. For if one can no longer sense, feel, perceive, choose, will, decide—is one then any longer really alive?
The answer to be made on behalf of the notion of glory is complicated and delightfully ambiguous. In the first place, glory is like a flame which eats away at all that is infirm, rotten, and ephemeral in this life and in this soul, transmuting all flesh and leaving only the imperishable core. What remains after the fire of glory has passed is therefore worth infinitely more than that which is sacrificed to attain it. Nietzsche in Section 2 of his Uses and Abuses of History for Life employs the same language to describe the great man:
Often they descended to their grave with an ironic smile—for what was there left of them to bury! Only the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down and that was now consigned to oblivion after having for long been the object of their contempt. But one thing will live, the monogram of their most essential being, a work, an act, a piece of rare enlightenment, a creation: it will live because posterity cannot do without it.
What remains is the immortal; what is lost, that part unworthy of a high-minded and high-hearted concern.
“Yes—but it is also all that is involved in life, all that is living and vital; the very vital will is lost, life itself is lost—everything is lost…”
Is that truly so? Let us see. Did Achilleus cease to act in this world, though the arrow split his heel to his demising? Is it not rather the case that he has had greater effect in this world since his death than before it, by virtue of all who have imitated him, all who have been persuaded by his words, all who have, in analyzing his life, come to novel realizations, novel desires, novel determinations? Is he not more effective, even in our own day, than the great majority of human beings who nominally have their “lives” here and now? You say he is dead—but I say he is this very moment alive amongst us…
But more. For we must remember (though these are but the tales of Odysseus, and perhaps do not reflect any reality at all) we must remember that Achilleus in the land of the dead spoke tacitly against his own glorious demise, saying that he would rather be a worker in the land of the living, than a king in the land of the dead. This seems the highest refutation of the glorious death, from the mouth of its very model and exemplar. But we remind ourselves that the Achilleus who lives in poetry, is not Achilleus merely, but rather is Homer. The Achilleus who has survived his demise speaks with Homer’s voice, he acts with Homer’s deeds, he makes his impact in you and in me via Homer’s craft. The glory of Achilleus as Achilleus is imperfect, because his will must be translated, his entire being must be refracted in the medium of poetry, which is alien to him, because it is not the medium of warfare simple; thus the real and historical Achilleus in attaining glory attains but an imperfect and reflected glory, in essential need of supplement. The poet is this supplement.
The same is put into poetry by Shakespeare in his Hamlet. Hamlet upon his death laments that he shall lose his hearing and his voice: he cannot hear news from abroad nor tell of what has been wrought at home. He bids Horatio report to Fortinbras of these tidings: “He has my dying voice;/ So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,/ Which have solicited. The rest is silence.” Beyond the deed, beyond what he has accomplished, Hamlet is nothing, and he, the fallen soldier, requires the telling of his story if it is to live on. The play thus ends where it begins—with the telling of the tale. But we are made aware of the difference between Horatio’s presumptive Hamlet, and the Hamlet that we have seen and known: Horatio cannot speak of all that Hamlet felt in his heart, nor all that he struggled with in his mind, nor can he relay all Hamlet’s lonely soliloquies. Hamlet seems to laments this fact: “Had I but time–as this fell sergeant, death,/ Is strict in his arrest–O, I could tell you—” And later: “O good Horatio, what a wounded name,/ Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!” He must rely on others to tell his story, and it is sure they cannot tell it to the pith. The warrior’s glory is attained most classically by his death in a worthy struggle, but that very death renders him deaf and mute, and unable to attain the best part of glory, which is right remembrance.
Hamlet did not conceive this knot, still less did he untangle it. Nor even Horatio, who could not tell this tale as we have heard it. That was the work, not of the hero, of the “soldier,” nor even of his witness—but of Shakespeare. The warrior, the man of action, becomes greater than himself in memory—in the poetry of the poet. The glory of the warrior is realized by the poet—and the poet strives ever to perfect that glory as much as is possible.
Therefore the artist alone of all the beings of the world is capable of attaining glory, for he alone crystallizes his peculiar vital will, and what is best in that vital will, in a dynamic and potentially eternal form: he alone lives, in all that is best in himself, beyond the grave, and continues to exert his very life force and his will on generations to follow. That is the nearest thing to immortality that may be attained by a human being, save as he is willing, like the philosopher, to die to himself. This immortality is, moreover, compounding; it lives and feeds upon itself. Just as the hero, after enough time and enough transmutation through the poetic medium, may sometimes really become a god to collective memory, exerting his being in a divine and higher form, so the remembrance which attaches itself to poetry and to the poet makes these works more heavenly and holy with the passage of time.
This leads to the highest ambiguity preserved in the idea of glory, which is simultaneously a great mystery in art itself. Let us suppose that a man of true excellence is faced with a truly glorious death, which, it is absolutely certain, will not be remembered. Let us suppose him the leader of the final remnant of a vanishing people, surrounded in a last outpost and fortress by enemies who do not only hate but also despise him, and wish to smother out all memory of his name. Suppose he and his people have been confronted with the choice of surrendering as slaves or being extirpated radically from life, so that not even the recollection of their deeds shall survive them, but they be sponged off the ledgers altogether. Supposing this leader with high heart opts for a hero’s death, and is duly crushed by his enemies, his body burned, his people slaughtered, his name extinguished. No one recalls what he has done, nor even the place where he has fallen; it is as if he has never existed. I ask: has he attained glory?
But the answer to this question depends on the status of nothing less than the gods themselves. For if gods there be who give heed to the ways of men, then perchance this deed will not go unperceived by them, nor unremembered, nor uncelebrate. Perchance the glory he attains will be even the greater for its desperate conditions, and he become a sort of semi-divine being in the land of the dead. Perchance the fields of Elysium exist in truth, where men precisely of such high stature are sent, past the shadows of the afterlife, to come before the throne and judgement of Rhadamanthus, Aeacus, and Minos. It cannot be said to a surety, nor so much as rightly hypothesized, lacking all knowledge of the gods: but perchance glory is the very portal to divinity.
Supposing this hypothesis a moment, though it be an audacious and surely an untimely one, another hypothesis, more audacious yet, arises before our eyes. For if glory means movement toward divinity, then the artist becomes nothing more and nothing less than the mouthpiece of the gods in man. The artist himself thus lives in riddled community with the deities; the artist is enigmatic son of the heavens. And here, the full sense and meaning of the idea of the Muse returns to us—that link and ligature between man and god, which transmits from the high and ethereal and essentially ambiguous realm of the deities, to the low and concrete and essentially manifest realm of the human, via the figure of the poet, the artist, that enigmatic middle man, that neither here nor there—
And I say, it is a strange and recalcitrant thing, that no poet ever founded a faith.
This leads us to what is certainly the most timely aspect of the will to victory. The artist, as a being that exists somewhere betwixt god and beast, is constrained by other forces and governed by other laws than those that generally hold sway over human beings. The will to victory is as much over the self as over the other. The artist seeks to conquer also himself, his own work, in what he accomplishes; he cannot rest content with what he has already done, but must ever better it, must ever claim the most sublime of all victories, the victory over the self and what is unworthy in the self. It is as Nietzsche said: the dross, the refuse, the vanity, the animality—all of this must be burned. And not just in the grave, after the demise of the body and the corruptible parts of the soul—but also constantly in this very life, time and time again in the course of the artist’s days. The artist transmutes that in himself which is of base metal, making it nobler and more divine. And surest sign differentiating the artist from non-artist, is this: that the artist never rests in his efforts to overcome himself, save as he ceases to be an artist.
Then the artist differs from both the warrior and the philosopher in this key respect. If the philosopher must die to himself, the warrior must embody himself; he is, and his deeds flow and follow from this being. The artist can neither die to himself, nor rest content with himself; the artist is an artist precisely in becoming, which he can betray neither for the being of the warrior, which is a small and perishable being, nor for that of the philosopher, which is transcendent and eternal and therefore is the enemy of life. To the artist most perfectly belongs that saying of Delphi, become what you are; his entire life and existence is implicated in this task.
With this we come full circle, and return to those observations with which we began. To recapitulate: the Western artistic tradition, alone of all the artistic traditions of the world, is characterized by an element of striving, of self-overcoming, of exceeding and when necessary utterly remaking the past. But this leads to the consequence that, sooner or later, this tradition must close. It is easy to believe that we in our day have arrived at that end point, and our arrival there depends decisively on whether or not our physiological makeup will any longer permit us to exceed what has come before us and the deeds that have already been done. It would appear, then, that test must be made—must be made precisely of this physiology, this physical being and underbeing: we must make test of the limits of our health and decadence.
For the very reasons we have just touched on, this test can be made only and finally in the heart of the artist, who is the fruit of his time. It is, finally, the test of whether or not our time may remake itself from within itself. The artist must choose with boldness to abandon the tepid dogmas of our day, as “equality and freedom,” as “democracy,” as “human rights,” to see what deeper roots might remain to us, and what through them might then be accomplished; he alone might put this question to trial, namely: how much are we moderns at the thrall of ill suppositions, and how much instead are we the slaves of a rigid and unshakeable destiny? For, stripped of the philosophical chains that bind him, all remains are the boundaries of his own nature.
Modern art, we have seen, is obsessed with freedom; modern art is “critical art.” Modern art will therefore come to its end, it will end itself, in a definitive and glorious self-critique. To bring this end, the artist must learn this from the philosopher: the art of deliberately dying to his day—but he, as opposed to the philosopher, must learn this lesson in order to gain a higher life in himself, and for his day. Western art, which contains in itself as a basic presupposition the concept and essence of overcoming, must now make genuine experiment, to discover if it may overcome even itself.
That is high and audacious work, and it requires the reinstatement of a prior ideal, the rediscovery of old virtues—and more yet, the invention of a new ideal, of new virtues. This epoch, for its hostility to art, is as a crucible to art: art within it must risk the fires. Though it be brought thereby them to its cinders, yet that may be, by the mythical bird which is the symbol of art and the familiar of the artist, but the cradle of a new beginning. An artist facing such challenges needs courage above all; he must take heart though he strive in utmost solitude, and he must learn to persist though he dwell, not in the contempt and the loathing of his peers and his time, but in that which is for him a hundred times worse and more difficult for him: their indifference.
Return to Ars et Arma, Part IV