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Response to Review of Liberal Epic: The Victorian Practice of History from Gibbon to Churchill

Most of all I would like to express my appreciation for this serious, well-informed, and generous review in a major venue for historical studies of what is essentially a literary-critical study of an important post-Miltonic tradition of epic poetry and history. It was always my hope that historians would pay attention to Liberal Epic, but it remains a literary study, one largely focused on the internal logic of a much neglected genre and, indeed, on the intricate permutations of the notoriously artificial style known as poetic diction. Its speculative conclusion (there are other, more solid ones, such as its detailed refutation of John Keegan’s influential theory of the battlepiece, but the review understandably lingered over the most provocative one) arises from its extensive taxonomy of various epic narratives that together demonstrate the failure of the liberal imagination to shake off a deep fascination with heroic warfare and violence long after it had earnestly set itself the specific goal of evolving beyond such primitive pleasures. On the basis of this undeniable phenomenon – and detailed analyses of its various generic manifestations – Liberal Epic asserts that the progressive liberal ideal of self-determination seems to require the regressive heroic scene of violent domination in order to believe in itself, in its founding myth of autonomous agency: ironically, only in determining others does the liberal self seem convinced that it can determine itself. Perhaps the reality of history tells a different story about liberal modernity and heroic agents, but mine is a study of literature and it sees this seemingly paradoxical bond growing stronger, not weaker.     

Given this ironic reversal or complex double-bind at the core of my thesis and my genre, my main reply to Theodore Koditschek’s frustration with the movement and shape of my argument is that, although I take pride in having given a much stronger narrative thrust to my book than is typical of literary criticism, much of my task nonetheless required the frequent looking forward, backward, and turning inward necessary to exhibit and anatomize this liberal epic genre as a total system, a logical structure standing somewhat apart from history, in short a poetical Aristotelian phenomenon with its own internal rules – and not simply a matter of the external historical development Koditschek focuses upon and so skillfully reprises in his careful review. I will limit my further comments to two related points – one a simple correction and the other a broad response.

First, the correction: Koditschek’s long list of the major and minor figures treated in my study, while it documents and praises my erudition and wide reading, also is meant to expose what he sees as the excessive, self-undermining ambitions of my book. There are good reasons for such ambition – indeed the ambition is the necessary condition for this epic study to exist at all – but Koditschek’s critique is misleading. For he implies that all of the figures listed are regarded as practitioners of the neglected genre I have dubbed liberal epic, but indeed many are there precisely because they did not write liberal epics. They function as boundary markers or antithetical examples that help me better to define and characterize the smaller, core collection of texts that I do genuinely regard and treat as liberal epics. Thus, for example, he specifically faults me for extending the term to J. M. Keynes and William Morris’s News from Nowhere. The latter, however, appears in my study because in it, I argue, Morris’s earlier practice of liberal epic dramatically evolved beyond that genre’s limits into something new and different, as his utopian romance deconstructs the earlier ideal of Morris himself as an agential poet-hero, and as its account of the revolution that brought about this utopia rejects one of the key conventions of liberal epic, namely, its focus upon a progressive war hero. Morris’s text ceases to be a liberal epic in part because it turns that essential generic convention into the counter-revolutionary clever young general, that is, into a middle-class leader who fails to stem the workers’ uprising. His individual brilliance succumbs to the triumphant logic of the anonymous masses.

Similarly, Keynes, as indeed all the economists discussed in my book, appears as a prime example of the prominent tradition of liberal political-economic treatises that stand in intellectual opposition to liberal epic and its heroic ideal. To be sure, I am repeatedly at pains to detect evidence of a lingering fascination with the importance of war and individual agency in these political economists, but their main function in my study is to serve as an antithesis. They advance the notion that history is ruled by the invisible hand, impersonal agency, or market forces in opposition to the bloody hand of the epic, even the liberal epic, hero. To repeat, the list of figures I treat is indeed a long one, but Koditschek’s implication that I turn them all into examples of liberal epic poets and historians is simply mistaken – and thus his larger criticism based upon that complaint is nullified.

Second, the broader response: there is no denying that I allowed myself an expansive, speculative, even polemical conclusion and can hardly complain if Koditschek (or any reader) concludes by resisting my claim about the liberal imagination’s persistent fascination with violent agency – and does so by sensibly turning to a very different, much happier tradition of economic and/or scientific narratives that foreground a more peaceful hero or, better yet, forego the hero altogether. Nonetheless, though that counter-tradition certainly exists, I do think Koditschek too easily dismisses the implications of the abundant evidence my study unearths. More to the point, he too readily characterizes his tradition as the ‘organic’ and ‘authentic’ liberalism, when the deeper point of my argument holds that, in the end, it is a mistake to find anything inorganic or inauthentic in liberalism’s abiding attachment to the violent heroic agent. The liberal epic genre that I theorize and present is, despite its paradoxes, as authentically liberal as any, indeed perhaps more authentic insofar as it is the most wedded to the essential ideal of individual self-determination, so wedded to it that it cannot let go of the heroic scenes of violence that most convincingly dramatize it in action. This genre consists of a powerful series of best-selling, culturally acclaimed texts that cohere as a self-conscious tradition, one woefully neglected by the too-firmly-established literary historical orthodoxy that major military epic subsided into cultural obscurity after Milton. By showing in detail how a 17th- and 18th-century poetic tradition of translating and humanizing Homeric and Vergilian epic became the model for a series of major historians from Hume and Gibbon through Macaulay, Trevelyan, Wedgwood, and Churchill, I am able to present a single great block of evidence – not a scattered collection of exceptions – that points very disconcertingly to how the liberal imagination, however sincere in its sympathetic humanity, proved unable to let go of heroic violence as its most compelling evidence for its core ideal of individual and national agency. I do not claim that the evidence meticulously presented by my study overwhelms or cancels out the evidence in which he finds such solace, but, in turn, I do not think his cancels out or overwhelms mine.

And there are dangers lurking even where Koditschek finds comfort – above all in his own exhibit A against me, namely, his concluding Churchill quotation. To be sure, in it Churchill vigorously expresses humane and liberal revulsion over the horrors of modern warfare. At the same time, this very same passage, upon closer examination, fully embodies my thesis: Churchill clearly longs for the kind of individualized, heroic warfare banished from our overly scientific world. What’s more such nostalgia was hardly barren: it underwrote Churchill’s own herculean (and successful) efforts (culminating in his Marlborough of 1938) to compose great historical narratives along just those lines – and this literary task went hand-in-hand with his effort to fashion his own political career as an agential, world-historical, war hero, which climaxed in 1939–40. Churchill’s achievement re-energized liberal epic, even as literary historians were yet again blithely claiming that the First World War had made grand heroic depictions of warfare impossible. (Here Koditschek repeats this old and unquestioned thesis, but is again simply mistaken in suggesting that Liberal Epic also follows it. I do not argue that the infamous trenches of the First World War killed off my ‘fledging genre.’ My point is precisely the opposite: 1914–18, like many a cultural watershed before it from 1688 to 1815 to 1851, proved a false or failed endpoint to liberalism’s romance with violent heroism; and the Second World War only reinforced such liberal epic thinking, as the influential writings of Churchill, Berlin, and Trevor-Roper, among others, make clear.) Churchill’s successes, for better or for worse, have been passed on to legions of popular military historians and generations of self-styled political liberators.

Most of all, as my study demonstrates, that curious word ‘scientific’ applies not just to the removal of the heroic individual from the battlefield, but to the excision of the hero from the practice of history. Far from announcing the reality of this humane but unheroic scenario, Churchill’s statement dramatizes a proud resistance to it by liberal theorists, historians, and statesmen – a resistance that has resulted in precisely the great and productive tradition of liberal epic that Koditschek seems to think will just go away if he looks to the likes of Samuel Smiles – or Goethe and Wagner. For, I agree, their magnificent epic visions are emphatically not instances of what I am calling liberal epic. Indeed they celebrate a fundamentally illiberal Germanic cultural paradigm, one centered on a totalizing ideal of scientifico-philosophical knowledge, an increasingly ominous goal that culminated in the work of Heidegger and Hitler, and one that my book considered, in its prologue, as the ultimate antithesis of Western European liberalism – not, as Koditschek would have it, its happier alternative.

So when my reviewer concludes by blandly forgiving me for failing to provide a basis to answer questions about ‘frontiers yet unknown,’ I must plead guilty – but only to that charge in its most general terms. For I do confidently predict, on the basis of my knowledge of hundreds of years of magnificent liberal epic war narratives, that one certain, clear, and liberal answer to Koditschek’s modest request – an answer now prominently on display in Star Wars, Halo I and II and III, and Star Trek in its many manifestations (and isn’t it curious how Star Trek’s premise of scientific space exploration, Koditschek’s ideal, morphed so completely into content emphasizing heroic wars against illiberal tyrannies from the barbaric Klingons to the posthuman Borg?) – is that the final frontier promises …war! – with all of its bloody pleasures. There bold men have gone before and there they will assuredly go again, not because history says it must be so, but because literary history and the relentless logic of this great and growing genre show that, despite our best intentions, we repeatedly end up imagining it that way.

But enough of sci-fi epics and imaginary futures, plausible or implausible, scientific or capitalist or military – I would like to conclude my response on a stronger note by suggesting that I paid a price for indulging in such speculation, because there is another, much more secure thesis advanced by Liberal Epic – one of real and practical significance for writers and readers of history (there are others of purely literary interest that I will not bother you with in this venue) – that Koditschek, in his distraction, passes over in silence. Indeed our bone of contention is merely the shadowy Viconian farside of a brighter argument central to my book. I refer to its systematic dismantling of John Keegan’s central thesis in The Face of Battle (1977), a major work of historiographical scholarship that has shaped much of the practice of military history for over 30 years now and has penetrated deep into popular culture in films such as Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Black Hawk Down (2001). Keegan neatly explains the sanitized presentation of combat killing in the conventional battlepiece of traditional military history in terms of the personal ignorance, on the part of most historians, of battlefield reality along with a humane squeamishness that unconsciously encourages them to soften or avoid even those graphic details still available through research. 

While this scenario might be true of some military history, it is wrong with respect to the great tradition presented and analyzed in my book. In the case of all these liberal epics, the sanitization or softening of the graphic violence of combat killing was a deliberate literary and philosophical project. Voltaire, Hume, and Gibbon onward through Napier, Creasy, Macaulay, Trevelyan, and Churchill (though matters take on a slightly new form in this readier admirer of heroic combat) intentionally suppressed the details of battlefield death, not because of their unconscious squeamish humanity before gory ugliness, but because they consciously feared that this sublime material would appeal to and cultivate the sadistic love of domination in their readers. To be sure, I also argue that these texts cannot ever quite let go of that pleasure, that they retain a need for the scene of domination they simultaneously sanitize and critique, but that is the dark side of my more optimistic main thesis. There I demonstrate that the principal and overt effort of my liberal epics was to narrate heroic warfare, but to do so in a manner that would short circuit any reader’s pleasurable identification with the heroic killer, which was seen as the essence of the Homeric sublime by philosophers such as Locke and Vico, poets like Dryden, Pope, and Byron, and historians from Gibbon to Macaulay. Instead they sought to narrate combat in such a way as to push the reader to sympathize more with the victims of war, thus making him or her a better liberal subject, one now viscerally aware of the ideal of individual autonomy. That conclusion clearly follows from my analyses of this tradition of epic histories and how their presentation of heroic violence was rooted in a sophisticated 17th- and 18th-century effort to translate and humanize Homer and Vergil, one which I also show had close intellectual ties to the contemporaneous development of the law of war or ius in bello by Grotius and Pufendorf. This claim is much less speculative; it is not an extrapolation from my texts, but a clearly articulated and carefully executed project standing at their very heart; and it does not ask us to wonder vainly about the future. Rather it exposes Keegan’s plausible thesis as deeply misguided with regard to the greatest epic histories of the past three centuries – and raises dire questions about the sadistic reality of all the military histories written under his spell in the here and now.

Although the rhetorical justification of these much more graphic contemporary histories takes pride in how they are finally and honestly showing readers the horrific reality of combat, what it fails to consider – and what my texts and my tradition understood (and feared) – is that intimate depictions of combat killing might not shock and dismay readers so much as entertain them with, and cultivate their taste, for the sublime pleasure of watching a more supremely skillful hero or army or nation dismember and destroy its lesser, and therefore deserving, foe. Here in the ultimate drama of human competition, there is not so much a killer, as a winner; not a victim, but a loser. That is a pleasure liberal epics struggle not to supply, but which post-Keegan military histories do provide – and in abundance.