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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

Victorian Heroics - plus a bit of maundering about records
tree_face
steepholm
In this BBC report a man called Nick Hancock anticipates the difficulties of spending 60 days on Rockall - to which the obvious answer would seem to be: well, don't do it.

I've never been able to sympathize much with the urge to put oneself (and one's eventual rescuers) in danger just for the sake of it, though clearly it excites admiration in many. However, I was prompted by something the reporter said on this clip to wonder about the cultural history of this kind of exploit: "In Victorian times, just visiting Rockall was said to be the epitome of heroism." That sounded a false note to me - but should it have? I can imagine a Victorian calling a visit to Rockall brave, but "heroic"? The Victorian version of that word has an overtone of nobility and service to others, to my mind, distinct from because-it's-there adventuring.

I'm far from certain about this, though. I try out a few test cases in my mind, running them through my patented "Victorian Mindset Filter":

Grace Darling and her father. They are uncontroversially heroic, showing extreme bravery and saving lives in the process. If they had merely been trying to break the night-time rowing endurance record? Not so much.

Sir John Franklin. Doomed, of course - but still fairly heroic because doomed in an attempt to find the Northwest Passage - a solid geopolitical objective that would have benefited his country had he succeeded.

The Light Brigade. Not only doomed, but doomed in a futile action; but heroic nonetheless because they acted from devotion to duty rather than reckless bravado.


Refining this a bit: Victorian heroism should not be entirely selfish; but while altruism is no doubt the ideal it is acceptable to be motivated in part by a desire for fame and glory. Indeed, desire for fame is a legitimate incentive within the classical, Germanic and Celtic heroic traditions alike. It goes clean against the Sermon on the Mount, which is no doubt why Milton calls it "the last infirmity of noble mind" - but he is praising with faint damns, there. Still, fame mustn't be the only incentive for an act otherwise pointless or contemptible. Herostratus is not admired, and no more are famous-for-being-famous celebrities (a solidly mid-Victorian word, in that sense - not a twentieth-century one as one might imagine).

It's when we get to the twentieth century though that the concept of heroism gloops out into an untrammeled glory fest - a race to get to the ends of the earth or the top of Everest for no other reason than to say that you did it first, or quickest, or with the least equipment. Are such people more likely to be called heroic now than of yore? Such feats may wear the dress of patriotism, scientific research or charity fundraising, but to what degree are these the real motivations, and what effect do they have on our conception of them as heroic or otherwise? Scott, for example, was certainly seen in his own time as a hero, and still is by many. In what exactly did the estimate of heroism consist, either now or then?

It's in the twentieth century, as far as I can see, that people become obsessed with superlatives for their own sake: the fastest, longest, highest, first, and so on. The Guinness Book of Records is published first in 1951: how did previous generations get by without it? Perhaps they didn't find that sort of thing as fascinating, or perhaps they did but wrote about them piecemeal in publications such as almanacs? Here's where I hit the buffers of ignorance - but I'd be interested to know at what point Wisden, for example (first pub. 1864) started noting records in the Guinness sense rather than merely keeping records of individual matches; or when people started thinking of the World Record for running a certain distance rather than who won a particular race. That seems to me an interesting epistemic shift. It was facilitated no doubt by technology (accurate chronometers) and organization (the creation of events such as the Olympics with the authority to declare results and have them universally accepted), but were people just waiting for that kind of opportunity, or did its arrival signal the creation of a whole new way of thinking about achievement, in absolute rather than relative terms?