......• THE CONTEMPORARY FIGURE OF THE SOLDIER IN POLITICS AND POETRY •
In any period of time, in any sequence of history, we have to maintain a relationship with what exceeds our possibilities; with what, as an idea, exists beyond the natural needs of the human animal. In crucial experiences, such as love, artistic creation, scientific discoveries, political struggle, we must exceed the limits of our vital and social determinations. We must encounter, within our own humanity, the obscure, violent, at the same time luminous and peaceful, element of inhumanity within the human element itself. That is why my friend Jean-Franois Lyotard wrote that the famous "human rights" are in fact "the rights of the infinite". For humanity is not reducible to animality, to the extent that the inhuman is a creative part of humanity. It is in the element of inhumanity that human creation shows that part of human nature which does not exist but must become; Humanity is never completely realized, is never something natural. Humanity is an infinite victory over its immanent element of inhumanity
To accept, to support, this experience of the inhuman element of ourselves, we must, all of us, human animals, use some imaginary means. We must create a symbolic representation of this humanity which exists beyond itself, in the fearsome and fertile element of the inhuman. I call that sort of representation an heroic figure. "Figure", because the action of a figure is a symbolic one. "Heroic", because heroism is properly the act of the infinite in human actions. "Heroism" is the clear appearance, in a concrete situation, of something which assumes its humanity beyond the natural limits of the human animal.
I firmly believe that our historical moment is disoriented. What does this mean? The previous century was defined by a terrible experience of the inhuman. The idea was to create at any cost a new world and a new man. The heroic figures, sometimes as frightening black figures, were elsewhere.
The word "revolution" was the synthesis of a destructive experiment. Communist revolution, the artistic destruction of all arts, the scientific and technological revolution, the sexual revolution...
The figure of the end of the old traditions was the heroism of destruction and the creation ex nihilo of a new real. Humanity itself was the new God. Today, all of this is in a state of total crisis. One of the symptoms of the crisis is the return of the old traditions and the appearance of the resurrection of old dead Gods. All the heroic figures are old ones, too, such as, for example religious sacrifice and bloody fanaticism. In the guise of these figures, nothing new can occur. They are aligned with a disjunction between the human and the inhuman, and not of an integration of the inhuman in a new sequence of the historical existence of humanity. But the absence of any sort of heroic figure is by no means any better than the old sacrifice.
We have got the strict inhumanity of technological murder and bureaucratic supervision of all aspects of life instead. We have got bloody wars, without any form of conviction or faith. In fact, without an active figure with an element of symbolic creative value, we have got a dark war between the old religious sacrifice and the blind will of capitalistic control.
That is why we need to think about the fate of heroic figures. Our problem can be formalized in new terms. In disoriented times, we cannot accept the return of the old, deadly figure of religious sacrifice; but neither can we accept the complete lack of any figure, and the complete disappearance of any idea of heroism.
In both cases, the consequences will be the end of any dialectical relationship between humanity and its element of inhumanity, in a creative mode. So the result will be the sad success of what Nietzsche named; "the last man." "The last man" is the exhausted figure of a man devoid of any figure. It is the nihilistic image of the fixed nature of the human animal, devoid of all creative possibility.
Our task is: How can we find a new heroic figure, which is neither the return of the old figure of religious or national sacrifice, nor the nihilistic figure of the last man? Is there a place, in a disoriented world, for a new style of heroism?
But we have to begin from the beginning: the analysis of the most important features of the figures during the last historical sequence.
1. The paradigm of the site of heroism has been war.
2. The paradigm of all heroic figures during the revolutionary sequence was the Soldier.
3. This figure of the Soldier was a creation of the past two centuries. Because precisely, the heroic figure "war" was not the Soldier, but the Warrior.
4. The creative value of the figure of the Soldier is illustrated by poetry.
5. In contemporary images (movies, television and so on), we notice a nostalgia for the Warrior, which is a sign of individual nihilism.
6. The great problem is to create a paradigm of heroism beyond war, but not by a return to the Christian pacifism.
The old figure of heroism, before the great French Revolution was the figure of the individual warrior. It was the central figure in all the great epic poems of all countries. It is not a figure of collective discipline relationship to an Idea. It is a figure of affirmation of the self, promotion of a visible superiority. It is not a figure of creative freedom. Rather, the classical hero, in the form of the warrior, assumes his destiny. The figure of the warrior is a combination of victory and destiny, of superiority and obedience. The warrior is strong, but he has no real choice concerning the use of his strength. And often his death is atrocious and without any clear meaning. The figure of the warrior is beyond humanity, because it is between the human animal and the Gods. It is not really a creation, but rather a sort of place, resulting from a whim of the Gods. It is an aristocratic figure.
The French Revolution replaced the individual and aristocratic figure of the warrior with the democratic and collective figure of the soldier. This was a new imaginary of the relationship between the human and the inhuman. The great notion was the "leve en masse", the turning out of all the revolutionary people against the enemies. The collective dimension of this figure is essential. The soldier has no proper name. It is a conscient part of a great discipline, under the power of the Idea. Finally, he is anonymous. You know that in Paris, under the Arc de Triomphe, there is a perpetual flame, which celebrates the Unknown Soldier. It is the very essence of the symbolic figure of the soldier to be unknown. The fundamental dimension of the figure of the soldier is precisely the dialectical unity between courageous death and immortality, without reference either to a personal soul or to a God. It is democratic glory, which creates something immortal with collective and anonymous courage. We can speak here of an immanent immortality.
Naturally, this is a poetic idea. From romantic poetry we are familiar with the idea of something eternal within the poetical experiment of our world, and not in an other sacred world. So we have a lot of poets, from Victor Hugo to Wallace Stevens, by way of Hopkins and Charles Pguy, who sang the soldier as a glorious and anonymous figure.
This artistic transformation of the figure of the soldier is important, because in fact it is also a political gesture. Certainly the figure of the soldier has been paradigmatic during all the revolutionary sequence of politics. To be "the soldier of the revolution" was a common conviction. So here, poetry, as often, clarifies the political subjectivity.
I have chosen for you just two poems. First an English one, written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1888; and then an American one, written by Wallace Stevens in 1944. What these two poems have in common is the idea of a sort of reciprocity between the heroism of the soldier and an anonymous non-religious victory over death.
Why do we all, seeing of a soldier, bless him? bless
Our redcoats, our tars? Both these being, the greater part,
But frail clay, nay but foul clay. Here it is: the heart,
Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess
That, hopes that, makesbelieve, the men must be no less;
It fancies, feigns, deems, dears the artist after his art;
And fain will find as sterling all as all is smart,
And scarlet wear the spirit of war there express.
Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;
He of all can handle a rope best. There he bides in bliss
Now, and seeing somewhere some man do all that man can do,
For love he leans forth, needs his neck must fall on, kiss,
And cry 'O Christ-done deed! So God-made-flesh does too:
Were I come o'er again' cries Christ 'it should be this'.
The Death of a Soldier
Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.
He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.
Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,
When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.
Just three comments:
1) As far as Hopkins is concerned, the question is clearly the question of a figure, of a paradigm. Everybody blesses the soldier, everybody blesses the pure appearance of the soldier: uniform, redcoats, scarlet... It is because this appearance is "the spirit of war".
2) Why is the "spirit of war" so important? It is because it is the expression of human capacities, beyond risk, beyond death. It is a situation in which the human being is as complete and victorious as God himself was under the name of "Christ". In the anonymous soldier, we can see "some man do all that man can do". The very essence of humankind is achieved in the guise of the soldier.
3. But this essence of humankind is beyond simple achieving. It is something like a transformation. In the act of the soldier, we have something eternal; exactly as in the death of Christ, we have the Resurrection, the new life. It is the cry of God himself seeing the soldier: "O Christ - done deed!"
Finally we can say that the soldier is a metaphor, which contains three fundamental features of the human being when he or her is seized by Truth. First, it is an example for everybody, it is a universal address; second, it is an example of what can be done by somebody, when it is thought that nothing is possible; it is the creation of a new possibility; third, it is an example of what is immortal, or eternal, in an action which is devoted to a true Idea. It is the creation of an immanent immortality.
We can find all this in Stevens too, but in a more melancholic fashion. Wallace Stevens is, in my opinion, your greatest poet. He was born in 1879. So he was a young man during the First World War. And he died in 1955, so he also knew the horrible massacres of the Second World War. He is a contemporary of the culmination, but also of the end of the universality of the figure of the soldier. We can see that in Stevens's titles during this period. In 1943 Stevens publishes a collection under the title Part of a World. As you see, we have the idea of the end of the world as a clear totality. In the collection, we find the question of the hero. A great poem examines the hero in wartime. And the conclusion is uncertain. Today's poem is from his next published collection, Transport to summer. "Summer" in Stevens is always the name of affirmation, exactly as the sun is the name of this point where Being and Appearing are practically the same.
The war is the end of the evidence of the sun, and of the purely affirmative summer. The question is: how, after all that, can a transport to summer exist? Can we hope, once more, after the death of the paradigmatic soldier, for something like the true appearance of Being and affirmative thinking? The title of the poem we are reading today is a French title, "Esthétique du Mal". It is a quotation from Baudelaire. We see that the poem is between Beauty (esthétique) an Evil (Mal). The figure of the soldier is found in the Seventh Stanza of Esthétique du Mal.
Let us read this Stanza.
How red the rose that is the soldier's wound
The wounds of many soldiers, the wounds of all
The soldiers that have fallen, red in blood,
The soldier of time grown deathless in great size.
A mountain in which no ease is ever found,
Unless indifference to deeper death
Is ease, stands in the dark, a shadows' hill
And there the soldier of time has deathless rest.
Concentric circles of shadows, motionless,
Of their own part, yet moving on the wind,
Form mystical convolutions in the sleep
Of time's red soldier desyhless on his bed.
The shadows of his fellow ring him round
In the high night, the summer breathes for them
Its fragance, a heavy somnolence, and for him,
For the soldier of time, it breathes a summer sleep,
In which his wound is good because life was.
No part of him was ever part of death.
A woman smoothes her forehead with her hand
And the soldier of time lies calm beneath that stroke.
Once again, three comments:
1. The soldier is not represented here as in Hopkins, by his appearance or by his act. He is represented by wounds and death. The colour is the colour of blood. Yet, we have a positive transformation. The wound is formalized by the rose ("How red the rose that is the soldier's wound"). And the wound itself, like the rose, is a symbol of the grace of life: "the wound is good because life was". So the soldier is an affirmative mediation between death and life.
2. The soldier is composed of time. Every soldier is a "soldier of time". It is because war, modern war, does not comprise brilliant battles with great warriors, but a long period of suffering for millions of anonymous soldiers. Yet, this time creates something beyond time; this death creates something beyond death. The whole poem establishes a relationship between time an immortality.
"The soldier of time grown deathless in great size." We have here the ultimate force of the figure. There is in the soldier something great, because it creates a link between time and deathlessness.
3. And finally, we can say that the soldier is a new form of the evidence of the sun, of the creative power of summer. The summer is present in the night of death: "In the high night, the summer breathes for them / Its fragrance, a heavy somnolence, and for him, / For the soldier of time, it breathes a summer sleep." The dying soldier remains untouched by death: "no part of him was ever part of death." That is why the soldier is not at all in the form of religious sacrifice. He is life itself, the rose, the summer in the night.
What can we conclude from all this? The soldier has been the modern symbol of two very important features of the capacity of human beings to create something beyond their own limits. First, this creation can be immanent, and not dependent on religious faith. Second, this creation is eternal in time itself, and not after time.
But the limit of the figure is clear in the two poems. With Hopkins, we have a Christian paradigm. The soldier repeats the act of death and resurrection. Man can be a God, says Hopkins. But what, if God is dead, as Nietzsche teaches all of us? With Stevens, we have a melancholic survival of summer and sun, expressed by a poetic transfiguration of wounds and death. But what, if war, in our days, has became an obscure slaughter?
The poetic transfiguration of the soldier is also the beautiful beginning of the end of this figure. Our task is a very precise one. We are after the period of the aristocratic warrior, and after the period of the democratic soldier, but we are not in a peaceful end of History. On the contrary, we live in confusion, violence and injustice. We must create new symbolic forms for our collective actions. Probably not in the context of global negation and final war, but in the context of local affirmation and endless conflicts. We must find a new sun, in other words, a new mental country. As Stevens says; "The sun is the country wherever he is."
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