An Essay for Larisa

I think I could have postponed writing this essay forever. Of all the things I want to write about in this section, this is the most important, and the hardest to do. I am reminded of just how hard this is every time I get talked into teaching a section of English 102, that staple of core curriculum requirements, Introduction to Literature. If you want to make yourself feel really, really bad for four solid months, stand in front of a classroom full of students majoring in things like Mathematics and Business Administration and try to get them to understand that the way they've gone about thinking all of their lives, not only about literature but about everything, including politics and money and their relationships with their girlfriends, is utterly, entirely, and dangerously wrong. Then whip out a copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets or James Joyce's Dubliners and assign them something to read for Monday.

I used to think my problems with English 102 had to do with the fact that the students I teach are rarely English majors, or Humanities majors of any kind. Most of them don't even like to read, and wouldn't pick up a book, ever, if they weren't forced to in their classes. Then there is the problem of the core curriculum itself, which is rarely articulated in a way to make eighteen-year-olds understand why they should have to "take" subjects they're "not interested in." I've gotten to the point where, on the rare occasions I do agree to teach 102, my opening class lecture always contains a two-minute rant on just how uninterested I am in the fact that John Donne doesn't interest them. Then I tell them in no uncertain terms that there isn't a person in North America who gives a damn if they "like" A Doll's House.

The problem is, I know a lot of people who do like to read, and who read "for pleasure" nonstop, who have nearly identical attitudes towards literature. What is literature? one of these people asked on RAM. Then she answered her own question: stories. Literature is stories. It's a writer putting characters and events together in order to hold the reader's interest. That's what it is, and since she isn't a literary professional, she isn't interested in knowing any more about it. This isn't a community college student getting an Associate's degree in recreational management. This is a woman with a bachelor's degree from Minnesota and a master's degree from Stanford.

The truth is, though, that her attitude isn't unusual. It is one of the great failures of American education--or maybe of everybody's education, I don't know--that most people come out of even "good" schools with no idea whatsoever what literature is about or what anybody would study it for. Literature is about "stories." They read "for pleasure" and don't want to "analyze" it. The only difference between a "good" book and a "bad" one is how the reader feels about them. It's all a matter of opinion, and it doesn't really matter much anyway.

I can hear about twenty seven million of you jumping up and down right this minute, demanding loudly that literature is about stories, isn't it? What else is Hamlet but a story? What else is Ulysses but a really bad story that takes too long to read and should have been edited to about half its present length? Even a lot of poetry is stories, and the stuff that isn't tends to be heavily depressing and so self-consciously full of symbolism it makes you want to die. If literature isn't about stories, what is it about?

Maybe the best way to start would be to say that it isn't so much that literature isn't about stories, as that everything else is. With the exception of a few, very narrowly defined fields of endeavor--all of them in mathematics and the hard sciences--human beings think in stories. Or to be more accurate, human beings think in narrative arcs. Think of a narrative arc as a skeleton, the story underneath the story, the abstract bones you hang the concrete particulars on. There are dozens of narrative arcs in the world, and most human beings are literally incapable of accepting anything as true if they cannot fit it into one or the other of them. In fact, if we know something to be undeniably true--if it's an event in our own lives, for instance, or something we witnessed in person--we will construct a narrative arc around it rather than report it plain. A minor traffic accident becomes a cautionary tale that's really about how intensely concerned we are with the behavior of our children or the menacing idiosyncracies of our boss--so concerned, that we were mentally transported out of the car and not able to see the intersection until it was too late. A relative who has a heart attack and survives becomes the basis for a story about God and angels and the people who have gone before us, who manage to communicate both their existence and their ability to see the future when we most need the reassurance that only Providence can provide.

It gets worse. There's a reason eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. Part of it is that we don't pay attention as closely as we should. More of it is our tendency to make the facts "fit" the story we have running in our heads by which we explain the facts to ourselves. Most of us are incapable of seeing Person A attack Person B at high noon on the town green and just leaving it at that. Instead, the event becomes a story about "them," those people out there, the ones who are plotting to harm us and who have to be guarded against at every turn. The assailant becomes black instead of white or young and black-leather-jacketed instead of middle aged and in a dark windbreaker. Or the event becomes another episode in the ongoing saga between David and Goliath. The assailant grows to twice his actual size and the older woman who is his victim becomes a frail little grandmother with osteoporosis. Experiments in witness reliability consistently produce abysmal results. Witnesses routinely misremember the sex, age, and race of assailants and victims, think guns were involved where none were present, recostume the principals in everything from Goth gear to nuns' habits, and completely screw up such simple elements as time of day or the color of the flashing light at an intersection.

The real kicker, though, comes in the fact that we often refuse to believe that something is true if it violates the structure of a narrative arc. That's why patients dying of cancer run across so many people who are convinced they must have "done something" to get the disease. There is no room for chance and circumstance in narrative arcs. Narrative arcs are how we make sure that life "means" something, and we'd rather have a wrong meaning than no meaning at all. Get a rare form of cancer for which there are no known risk factors and your friends and relatives will ask what they think are the sensible questions: was it smoking? birth control pills? hormone replacement therapy? overeating? the chemicals in the sugar substitute you used in your coffee? If answers like these don't work, they'll go farther, blaming it not on your own behavior but on the menace of the world around you. Maybe it was the toxic waste dump two towns away, or electromagnetic fields from those wires on the poles running across the street from your house, or digital impulses from your cell phone. What they will not do--what most of them cannot do--is accept the fact that it wasn't anything at all, just random bad luck. There is no real luck in the narrative universe. What looks like luck is always the secret workings of a hidden design.

The very worst thing we do by thinking in stories--by being held captive to narrative arcs--is to put ourselves and the people we love in constant, unnecessary danger. A child is five hundred times more likely to die in a residential swimming pool than by being kidnapped by a stranger, but the same people who go to the trouble and expense to have their children's fingerprints and DNA on file with the local police happily put pools in their back yards without worrying about it for a second. Adolescents are more likely to die in automobile accidents than because of drugs, but we subject them to a dozen hours of drug education for every one we require before we give them the keys to a car. The chances that you will ever be the victim of a violent crime are at their lowest point since 1973, but Americans are buying guns "for self defense" in record numbers and the number of states allowing the concealed carry of firearms in public places is actually growing. What's more, if you try to insist on the facts in any of the matters above, people will dismiss your information and insist that they are relying on "common sense."

Literature does deliberately what we do unthinkingly every day of our lives. Great literature does it comprehensively and in detail, providing the kind of Grand Unified Field Theory of Everything that physicists can only dream about. The point of studying literature is not in the details, although they can be a lot of fun--Mr. Gradgrind and his mania for "facts"--but in seeing past the details to the narrative arc underneath. If we can do that to Dickens, we can learn to do the same to the narrative arcs we allow to govern our own lives. We can even learn to understand that a Grand Unified Field Theory of Everything is always, at heart, a lie.

Right now, I want you to consider the connections between a set of things. The first is Homer's Iliad, possibly the greatest story ever told of men at war. The second is the ongoing American-led war in Iraq in the year 2004. The last is a famous poem by Wilfred Owen called "Dulce et Decorum Est." As narrative arcs go, this is about as venerable as it gets. It's also about as dangerous as it gets, which is more to the point.

Up until the last eighty years or so, Homer's Iliad was probably the second most influential work of literature on the planet, coming after only the Christian Bible in the reach of its ideas and the consequences of those ideas in world history. It's off our radar because those intervening eighty years have seen a revolution in the education of children that de-emphasized classics in favor of contemporary literature. Of course, the contemporary literature those children read--out of school if not in it--and the movies they see and the video games they play owe a lot to the Iliad, but since they haven't read the original they don't know that, and usually neither do we. It's only necessary to understand that the ideas the Iliad presents are still very much with us, except that we tend to call them "just life," or "common sense."

The first thing the Iliad does is to present an idea of what it means to be human in general and a man in particular, to locate the meaning of human life in that moment when the human being confronts and conquers death. It's important to remember what Homer thought of as "conquering" death--facing death as inevitable and dying well and bravely was "conquering" death. You didn't need to survive, or cure cancer, or discover an immortality potion. You didn't need to save the world from nuclear destruction or the rampages of Godzilla. You needed only to rush out to meet death, fight bravely, and expire without fear or regret.

Of course, this idea was not new to Homer. It has probably been around since human beings first developed language, an inevitable result of the fact that all adult human beings know that they must someday die. Nor was Homer the first to put the dividing line between childhood and adulthood--between the boy and the man--in that moment when we first understand that we are mortal. Sigmund Freud thought the story of the Garden of Eden was inspired by our memories of life before we knew sex. I think it was inspired by our memories of life before we knew death.

Homer took this fundamental narrative arc--man goes out to confront death, man conquers fear and faces death, man becomes fully human by dying bravely--and dressed it up in military uniforms. Wars, after all, are the ultimate expression of this particular narrative arc. There aren't many other occasions on which human beings are called to go out to confront death. In fact, sensible human beings tend to avoid it. Wars, however, are the exception, especially if the war in question is meant to protect our nation or our people from predators, or to expand our influence through conquest.

Homer presents war, though, as glorious and good in itself, and dying well for one's country as noble and exalted even when one's country is thoroughly in the wrong. There are no villains in the Iliad. There are heroes among both the Greeks and the Trojans. It doesn't matter what the war was about, if it was a good idea or a bad one, if it was necessary or completely gratuitous, if the soldiers who died in it gave their lives in a truly important battle or in a confused mess of incoherent silliness. War for Homer in the Iliad is what war was for Pericles in the most famous Funeral Oration of all time: dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.

Yeah, I know. That's Latin, not Greek. We're going to get to Wilfred Owens' poem a little later, and like him I'm taking the formulation from Horace's Odes.

It was a common sentiment in the classical world. It's a common sentiment now.

It means: it is sweet and proper to die for one's country.

The second thing the Iliad does is to locate the meaning of the war in the individual stories of the soldiers who fought it. It has to do this, because if it didn't, it would be impossible to believe the plot. Forget Men Behaving Badly. The is People Behaving Stupidly Beyond Belief.

In fact, if we think about this story--the details, now, not the narrative arc--with clear heads, it seems astonishing that anybody ever took it seriously. This is the short version: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite are all competing for a golden apple that is to be awarded to the most beautiful goddess on Olympus. Zeus summons a mortal young man named Paris and makes him the judge of a beauty contest to determine which one it should be.

Now, Paris is the most beautiful young man alive, and he has a passion for the most beautiful young woman alive and wants to marry her. The most beautiful young woman alive is Helen, who is already married to King Menelaus of Sparta. Menelaus knows that everyone wants Helen, so he has entered into a pact with a lot of other kings in the surrounding city states, to the effect that if Helen is ever kidnapped, all the kings will ally themselves with Menelaus to do whatever it takes to get her back.

Note: Paris knows that if he takes Helen, all the kings of the other Greek city states will form an alliance and lay waste to his own country, and he just doesn't care. Aphrodite promises that if he gives her the apple, she will give him Helen. Paris gives her the apple. Aphrodite helps him kidnap Helen while he's a guest at Menelaus's table. The entire known world then descends into war and devastation over the asininity of a woman who thinks with her mirror and a man who thinks with his dick.

I am, of course, exaggerating a little for effect here, but not as much as you might think, and not as much as I'd be justified in doing. The fact is that the reasons for the Trojan war, as presented in the Iliad, are completely and utterly silly. There is nothing noble, or ennobling, about causing the deaths of thousands of people and the evisceration of an entire civilization over an incident that would ordinarily have been resolved by a payment in cash. The story works because it redirects your attention away from the why and at the who. If any of these characters ever asked for a reason why they should risk their lives in this war, the whole thing would fall apart. None of them asks for a reason. Instead, war becomes an end in itself, courage becomes an end in itself, death becomes an end in itself. Man goes out to confront death. Man conquers fear and faces death. Man becomes fully human by dying bravely. That's the arc. That's all that matters. And because these actions of these characters fit that arc, we never even notice that the particulars of this story mean that these deaths are a stupidity and a waste.

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.

By now, a subset of you are expecting me to compare the Iliad to the Bush administration's prosecution of the war in Iraq, but I'm not going to, at least not directly. No modern government could enter a war on the kind of assumptions that were standard in Greece in the classical period, or even in France in the Napoleonic period. The advent of universal free education, coupled with democratic governance, means that governments must now give their citizens reasons to go to war. Reason is the enemy of narrative arc. The Bush administration had plenty of reasons to take the United States into a war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein had connections to al-Qaeda. Saddam Hussein was a bad man. Whether or not you think that any of these reasons was sufficient cause for the invasion, or even objectively true, the fact is that they were reasons, and it was on the basis of reasons--not of narrative arc--that the United States Congress was asked to authorize the war.

Where the narrative arc comes in is in what happened after the invasion, and it usually goes by the name of "supporting our troops." Once the troops are in the field, a poster to RAM once said, it's neither moral nor proper to criticize the war. Once we've committed our forces, the only patriotic option is to be in favor of the conflict, and anything else is a betrayal of our soldiers and in irretrievably bad taste. This kind of thinking wasn't restricted to posters on Usenet. It was the background music for the Republican Party's entire discourse on the war--and, since both the Presidency and Congress are in Republican hands, for the United States government's discourse on the war as well.

Anti-war protestors at the University of Massachusetts were met with opposition protestors carrying signs not supporting the war, but "supporting the troops." A group called United We Stand at Brandeis University announced "an alternative to college anti-war protesting": support our troops. When the College Republicans at St. Cloud St. University in Minnesota staged a rally in favor of the Iraqi war, it was billed as a rally to "support our troops." The Orange County Young Republicans held a rally to "support our troops." Dianne Thompson, the president of the National Federation of Republican Women, had her picture taken with the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to kick off NFRW's campaign to get all its members to "support our troops." You could even get a t-shirt that said "support our troops."

When the pro-war forces weren't singing the song of "support our troops," they were turning public attention away from the war as an issue and towards the persons of individual soldiers in the field. Pennsylvania state senator Jane Clare Orie sponsored a web site called "Reach out and Touch a Hero" that included the names of dozens of men and women fighting in Iraq and links to sites where you could "support" them by sending care packages and postcards. An organization called Adopt A Platoon filled its web page with the names, pictures, and stories of "our deployed sons and daughters." A web site called Iraq/Afghanistan War Heroes listed the names of dozens of men and women who had died in the two conflicts, each linked to a page giving their particulars (age, rank, service, cause of death) and sometimes a story or picture about their real lives at home. The mythologizing of local heroes worked even more efficiently than the call to "support our troops" to shut down rational discussion of the war. You don't look into the eyes of a woman who's lost her son in battle and suggest that instead of dying in a noble cause, he might have been sent to fight in a cynical effort to expand our strategic oil reserves.

Every once in a while, reality intruded. When it did, it provided an excellent illustration of the difficulty the real world has in winning out against a narrative arc. Jessica Lynch wasn't a fallen hero, but a rescued one, but from the beginning her story seemed to fit seamlessly into Homer's favorite paradigm. "Saving Private Lynch," the headlines blared, connecting Jessica's story to the Steven Spielberg movie about a platoon that risks everything to rescue a single one of its members. Jessica courageously shot every bullet in her gun before being captured by Iraqis, shot and stabbed, and then gang raped. Jessica was being held prisoner and guarded round the clock. Jessica was injured and forced to survive in horrendous conditions by her inhuman and unfeeling captors. Jessica was snatched from the jaws of death by brave American soldiers willing to risk their lives in order to preserve hers. Hell, the Pentagon did more than just imply a match between Spielberg's movie and Jessica's story. It made a five-minute movie of its own to hand out to news media outlets worldwide.

Unfortunately, reality was a bit more prosaic, and it took very little time for that to come out. Yes, it was true, Jessica Lynch had been captured by the Iraqis and held as a prisoner of war. The conditions under which she'd been held, however, were something less than horrendous--she was in a hospital, under a doctor's care; she remembered no rape; the medical staff were actually pretty nice to her, not brutal--and by the time her rescuers arrived she wasn't even being guarded. Both the British and the Iraqis were more than a little annoyed at a story that was not only not true, but made them look bad--the Iraqis as savages, the British as buffoons--and they didn't feel like sitting around and letting the Pentagon spin fairy tales for the American public. The Iraqi doctor who cared for Jessica had to be given asylum in the United States in case his good Samaritan efforts didn't sit well with the Iraqi insurgents. The rescue of Jessica Lynch was certainly a great good thing, but it wasn't the stuff that war legends are made of.

It didn't matter. Given a choice between a legend and a fact, the public will take the legend every time. Dozens of fan sites sprouted on the Net, offering photographs, news, and commentary on Jessica and her story. People magazine did a cover story. NBC did a made-for-TV movie. Jessica kept trying to set the record straight, but nobody was listening. Eventually she said she might have amnesia, because she couldn't remember the gang rape everybody--except the doctors who treated her--said must have happened.

As the death toll mounted and the caskets began to come back in job lots, it became more and more difficult to reason about the causes and the advisability of the war unencumbered by the emotional gut punch of the stories. If you tried, you were told that these young men and women had Died For Their Country. If you tried to say that the truth of that depended on whether or not the war was truly justified, you were accused of despising our soldiers and hating America. Even the most fevered anti-war protestors were careful to distinguish their lack of support for the war from lack of support for the soldiers. Peace rallies whose major theme was that the Bush administration had gone to war in Iraq for no other reason than to get hold of Iraq's oil contained long paeans to the bravery and heroism of our soldiers in the field. Saying that the war is wrong is not the same thing as saying that their deaths are meaningless, anti-war activists said, because they died in sincere service to a great ideal.

Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen knew a lot about what it means to die for your country. Many of his good friends did it, and then he did it himself, at the Battle of Sambre Canal, in November of 1918. In the two years between the time he joined the army and the battle in which he died, he got hit in the head with reality, and managed to step outside the arc. Not everybody did. Next to World War I, the propaganda machine around the Bush administration's Iraqi adventure is strictly amateur hour. This was an England where every schoolboy had been brought up on Homer and the Iliad and all the classical literature in the same vein, where the absolute worth of a glorious death in battle was unquestioned.

Owen started questioning it practically the first time he saw the fighting, but his most famous expression of what was wrong with the arc came in a group of poems published only months before his death. It wasn't the only anti-war poem of the period. The First World War threw up an entire generation of born-again soldier-pacifists, including Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Max Plowman. Nor were these other men squeamish about depicting the ugly horror of a war in progress. Sassoon's poems, especially, are almost pornographic in their use of gruesome detail. What Owen did that his fellow poets did not do--what makes this poem survive out of all the ones that Owen wrote himself or that were written by his friends and fellow officers--is the aim it takes against the arc itself, its furious complaint against the power of story.

You can find the entire text a hundred places on the Web, but this is how it ends:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est,
Pro patria mori.

The old Lie--three little words, and the whole point. War is hell, General Sherman said, and we all nod sagely as if that went without saying, but we all buy into the story. Owen wanted to pull us back and make us look at the story, at the arc, at the way it structures what we think and what we see and what we say and in so doing makes our world something different than it needs to be.

The point is not that all war is bad. I doubt if Owen would have disputed the necessity of World War II after he had seen Bergen-Belsen. My point isn't that the Iraqi war is bad. It might be, but the only way to find out is to reason it through and not get lost in the story. Owen was right. It is an old Lie. It is neither sweet nor proper to die for one's country. Dying in battle is an ugly, horrific thing, and that is true even when it is both necessary and inevitable. People who understand that don't send their sons or their neighbors' sons out to be slaughtered without being absolutely damned sure that there is no other way to resolve the issue at hand.

This is what the study of literature does, if it works: it puts us in control not only of this narrative arc, but of all of them. It makes us aware of the arcs behind not only the fiction we read and the movies we see, but the stories our politicians spin about the policies they want to implement and the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives.

The stories themselves are wonderful. They exercise our imaginations, enrich our understanding, and expand our worlds--but none of that matters a damn if we're still in thrall to the arc, if the arc is controlling us instead of us controlling it. Step outside the pages of Tolstoy or Thomas Mann and into the pages of the local newspaper and the stories almost never enrich anything or anybody. We cower behind locked doors in neighborhoods we don't know are safe because Live At Five reports written as wolf-in-sheep's-clothing cautionary tales have convinced us that our fellow citizens are more likely to harm us than help us. We spend $200 a week on the lottery because Cinderella taught us that we are much more likely to better ourselves in this world through the gifts of a fairy godmother than the drudgery of savings accounts and going without. We wait patiently for our Ugly Duckling plainness to be transformed into the glory of a swan, and we're still waiting as our lives draw to a close and we've done nothing with them.

Stories are never just stories. For better or worse--for both, probably--man is a narrative animal. In a world where the story has become the incessant accompaniment to everything we do, the study of literature has become more relevant and more necessary to our day to day lives than it ever was in the days before alchemy became chemistry. Some of us surely must know mathematics and science, but most of us don't need much of either. All of us, even mathematicians and scientists, need what literature taught well has to give: control of the story, a clear-eyed understanding of what's going on in narrative arc.

Without that, we're all both suckers and suicides--and life really is meaningless.

Copyright © 2004 Jane Haddam. All rights reserved.

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