The Men Behind Us Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-11-17 15:00:00 No comments

George Orwell: Arthur Koestler

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[Koestler's The Gladiators] is about Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator who raised a slaves’ rebellion in Italy round about 65 B.C., and any book on such a subject is handicapped by challenging comparison with [Flaubert's] Salammbô. In our own age it would not be possible to write a book like Salammbô, even if one had the talent. The great thing about Salammbô, even more important than its physical detail, is this utter mercilessness. Flaubert could think himself into the stony cruelty of antiquity, because in the mid-nineteenth century one still had peace of mind. One had time to travel in the past. Nowadays the present [1944] and the future are too terrifying to be escaped from, and if one bothers with history it is in order to find modern meanings there. Koestler makes Spartacus into an allegorical figure, a primitive version of the proletarian dictator. Whereas Flaubert has been able, by a prolonged effort of the imagination, to make his mercenaries truly pre-Christian, Spartacus is a modern man dressed up.

Emphasis mine. Such thoughts weigh heavily on me when I look at the notes I've collected for a future book, one which involves a man (and a society) that are many lifetimes removed from our own.

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The man of the past no longer exists, not even as memory, which is why it is so difficult to say anything coherent about him. Each time we look back, we do so through the lens of our moment in time. Hence the need to make Errol Flynn's Robin Hood a dispense of social justice a la a modern "freedom fighter" (or even a Capra-esque hero). A more historically honest Robin Hood story would probably play more like Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaasa story about justice at any cost written in a time when such a notion could still have a romantic veneer about it.

My problem's compounded all the more by the story being about someone who embodies at least one modern principle -- that of freedom of both thought and spirit, and the need to make a society that respects that. But he can't be a saint, and he can't be a messiah, either -- he has to be someone who is very much a product of his time and place, and as such subject to all of the limits (and temptations) of that milieu.

In some ways this is the obverse of the problem I faced with Flight of the Vajra, where I was peering ahead, not back. The further ahead I peered, the greater the odds of seeing people with whom we would have no emotional connection at all -- and thus, be the kind of people I wouldn't be able to tell what I felt would be a compelling story about. Maybe someday I'll take a crack at talking about a truly alien variety of man, and I suspect when I do that it'll be when I peer back and not forward.

(That story, by the way, isn't Welcome to the Fold; it's most likely the book I'll be working on after that. Details may continue to dribble out for said story as well, in parallel. I have to say, I love dropping hints this far in advance.)

Tags: Arthur Koestler George Orwell history writing