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Flashman and The Tragic Sensibility

Andrew Klavan

"I never did learn to speak Apache properly. Mind you, it ain't easy, mainly because the red brutes seldom stand still long enough -- and if you've any sense, you don't either, or you're liable to find yourself studying their system of vowel pronunciation... while hanging head-down over a slow fire or riding for dear life across the Jornada del Muerto with them howling at your heels and trying to stick lances in your liver."

We are not in Kevin Costner country. We are not among American educators reciting the sins of our founding fathers. We are not, thank heavens, watching Pocahantas, with its brainless fable of greed-mad Englishmen battering those perfectly charming Native A's.

Rather, for a refreshing change, we are with Harry Flashman in George MacDonald Fraser's novel Flashman and the Redskins, the 1982 addition to the long-running Flashman series. The setting is the Traveller's Club in London's posh Pall Mall. The time is the late Victorian era. Flash has just overheard "some distinguished anthropologist" holding forth on "the Yankees' barbarous treatment of the Plains tribes after the Uprising, and their iniquitous Indian policy in general, the abominations of the reservation system, and the cruelties practised in the name of civilisation on helpless nomads who desired only to be left alone to pursue their traditional way of life as peaceful herdsmen, fostering their simple culture, honouring their ancient gods..."

Well, that sort of palaver is just bound to get Flashy's goat.

"Now, see here you mealy little pimp!" he replies. "I've had just about a bellyful of your pious hypocritical maundering... If you think [the whites] were a whit more guilty than your darling redskins, you're an even bigger bloody fool than you look. What bleating breast-beaters like you can't comprehend... is that when selfish, frightened men -- in other words, any men, red or white, civilised or savage -- come face to face in the middle of a wilderness that both of 'em want... then war breaks out, and the weaker goes under. Policies don't matter a spent piss -- it's the men in fear and rage and uncertainty watching the woods and skyline, d'you see, you purblind bookworm, you!"

"Slung out" of the Traveller's for drunkenness and rudeness, Flashman goes weaving drunkenly down the fashionable avenue, muttering to himself: "Humanity is beastly and stupid, aye, and helpless, and there's an end to it. And that's as true for Crazy Horse as it was for Custer..."Whence -- you are no doubt asking yourself -- such uncommon wisdom and panache? And what wonderful manner of man -- you want to know -- is this?

He is Harry Paget Flashman, Brigadier-General, VC, KCB, KCIE, Chevalier, Legion d'Honneur; US Medal of Honor; San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th Class -- and perhaps the most outrageous poltroon, liar, bully, blackguard, womanizer, and cad of his or any other age. Originally, Flashman was the creation of Thomas Hughes and featured in Tom Brown's School Days, Hughes' 1857 classic celebrating the virility-building virtues of an English public school education. Flashman, naturally, was the villain of the piece, the bullying "brute" Flash Harry who, pipes poor Tom, "never speaks to one without a kick or an oath." He was, Hughes tells us, "a formidable enemy for small boys. [He] left no slander unspoken, and no deed undone, which could in any way hurt his victims." Flashman's reign of terror peaks when he nearly kills the young hero by roasting him over a fire. But his sadistic cruelty toward the school's little chaps is matched only by his sniveling fear of any bigger lads bold enough to confront him. He is finally beaten in a fight with Tom and another boy and receives his just desserts when he gets "beastly drunk" on gin and beer and is expelled.

With this, Flashman disappears from Hughes' novel. His career, however, was far from over. The rest of his story had to wait to be told by Fraser, who "discovered" the remarkable Flashman Papers in a Leiscestershire saleroom in 1966. Acting as "editor," Fraser published the first packet of these papers under the title Flashman. A novel really, of course, this opening sally nearly died of rejection before Herbert Jenkins, P.G. Wodehouse's publishers, picked it up in 1969. But the series has continued with increasing popularity ever since. Nine more Flashman adventures have appeared over the last twenty-five years, the latest being Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, out from Knopf in the US earlier this year.

These "Flashman Papers" detail and explain a remarkable paradox: the fact that Flashman, perhaps the most completely cowardly and amoral man who ever lived, nonetheless managed to be on hand for every major British and American military engagement between the disaster at the Khyber Pass in 1842 and the heroic defense of Rorke's Drift in 1879 (a story yet to see print). He rode, farting with terror, in the charge of the Light Brigade, was the only white man to survive Custer's Last Stand, wriggled somehow out of the sieges at both Cawnpore and Lucknow, served on a slave-trader and was himself a slave, and fought on both sides of the American Civil War. Along the way, he also managed, through lies, luck, betrayal, and a deceptively manly aspect, not only to cover himself in glory, but also to roger every half-willing piece of tail he met, whether monarch or bint, with the (possible) exception of good queen Vic herself.

The man is my hero.

What's more, Flashman is the hero of the novels in which he appears and that, I believe, makes the series unique. While others -- Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books, Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter books -- feature villains as their continuing characters, only Fraser, in my experience, offers us so great a rogue as the valid voice of his narrative. Flashman's version of his biography is the version, the one we are meant to believe. He is writing at the end of his life, coming clean, and for all his mastery of Janus-faced deceit, he is now too old, rich, successful and just plain impertinent to hide the facts of the matter anymore.

Those of us who are good, kind, brave, steadfast and true may well wonder why Fraser -- a courageous World War II veteran who seems to have dedicated every book in the series to his wife -- would choose a coward and adulterer as a spokesman. I, on the other hand, think the reason is obvious. Flashman's adventures, by virtue of an endless and hilarious collection of mischances, include nearly every major military engagement between the British empire and its subjects, and between the American settlers and the natives they displaced and enslaved. He lives, in other words, at the heart of western imperialism at its height. And because he is amoral, because he seeks out neither justification nor blame, he is able to view the events of that enterprise without guilt or sanctimony, without sentimentality, patriotism, idealism, self-love, or shame. He witnesses both conquest and atrocity with neither pride nor remorse. For victor, for vanquished and for the dead he bears nothing but a sort of sneering dispassion. He is, I mean to say, the perfect historian. Indeed, he is the voice of history itself.

That voice, it seems to me, is in danger of extinction in an overpoliticized and undereducated age. Leaders and pundits, engaged in legitimate debate over the future, seek the bogus justification of history for their plans, and hard-sell their various visions of yesteryear to a public who can barely remember whether it was Madonna or Michael Jackson who killed Nicole Simpson. It's not enough for Newt, and other lizards, to seek to cut taxes and government interference, they must also peddle us a legend of the fall, of expulsion from a white-skinned Eden where men were men and God was feared and America was number one -- woo-woo. It is not enough for some minorities and feminist theorists to seek a fair deal in a changing world, they must build themselves hallucinations of ancient glories that simply never were and condemn the civilization that has nurtured even their complaints as a centuries-long conspiracy against their poor victimized hides. The past has become a thing to be won, or divvied among them. The study of history has become a competition for adherents and air-time and power. Truth and the ideal of objectivity are held either to be non-existent or a trap, a sucker's game. What is truth, after all, and who can be objective? Pontius Pilate has become the posthumous procurator of our cultural debate.But ah -- saints be praised -- it's Flashman to the rescue. Because he has no politics but the politics of self-preservation, he was no particular axe to grind. Because he has no morality, no respect for his fellow man, he is able to perform what you might call a heart bypass on our point of view. The Victorian Age ala Flashy is thus a much-deserved slap in the kisser to both the patriotic white-wash of the jingoist and the ethnocentric lie of evil imperialists tromping lovable natives under heel. There are no "noble savages" in Flashman's survey of the last century, no idealized ancient cultures mercilessly overrun by the cynical warlords of the west; there are also no Christian soldiers marching onward, no G.A. Henty public school heroes using luck and pluck to lift the inferior races toward godly civilization. As Fraser writes them, the colored subjects of the burgeoning Victorian empire, the African slaves, and the natives crushed beneath America's westward expansion, are mostly petty tyrants and sadistic primitives who too well comprehend the terms under which they are being conquered and deposed. The white invaders, meanwhile, are largely pompous buffoons, self-serving careerists and starry-eyed madmen no better in fact, for all their self-righteousness, than Flashman himself. And as for the ladies, Black or White, native queens and concubines, British drawing room princesses and country maids (and Flashy, God love him, has pronged them all) there's not a whimpering victim of the big, bad patriarchy among them. Nearly every Flashman novel finds our hero at the mercy of some dainty darling who stands ready, willing, and able to crush him to cinders to achieve her political or financial goals.

"Humanity is beastly and stupid, aye, and helpless, and there's an end to it." This is Flashman's Dictum, his guide to understanding where the west has come from and where it's all too surely headed. Cynical it may seem, yet it is all but unarguable given the facts. For my money too, there are more grounds for honest compassion in Flash Harry's words than in all the blood-soaked meliorist clap-trap that has plagued political life at least since the French Revolution.

Looking through Flashman's eyes, with malice toward all and charity toward none, we begin to see the past as it was actually lived.

"You talk of your reforms, and the benefits of British law... -- and never think that what seems ideal to you may not suit others; that we have our own customs, which you think strange and foolish, and perhaps they are -- but they are ours -- our own! You come, in your strength, and your certainty, with your cold eyes and pale faces... and you will have everything in order, tramping in step like your soldiers, whether those you conquer and civilize -- as you call it -- whether they will or no. Do you not see that it is better to leave people be -- to let them alone?"

Thus speaks Lakshimibai, the Rani of Jhansi, in Flashman and the Great Game. A seductive, majestic but possibly treacherous figure and one of the leaders of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, she has been called India's Joan of Arc. The mutiny of her people stunned the British -- they had believed the native soldiers at least as loyal as their own -- and the rebels' atrocities, including the vicious slaughter of 200 British women and children at Cawnpore, forever soured the mother country's attitude toward the people of her largest colony.

In this scene, Flashman has stirred her anger by suggesting that India could use a system of relief for its multitudinous poor. He is too cowardly -- and too full of lust -- to offend her by pointing out that the price of her slippers would be enough to fund relief for a hundred local families -- that her spirited defense of Indian independence is motored by the desire to preserve her own privilege. He does, however, respond on behalf of Britain: "We can't help it, maharaj.... We have to do the best we can... as we see it. And it ain't just telegraphs and trains -- though you'll find those useful enough, in time -- why I'm told there are to be universities, and hospitals -"

"To teach philosophies that we do not want, and sciences that we do not need. And a law that is foreign to us, which our people cannot understand," snaps the Rani.

"Well," answers Flash, "that doesn't leave 'em far behind the average Englishman."

The Rani won her argument over time. Imperialism -- like slavery -- has not just fallen out of fashion in the west, it has become -- like slavery -- an historical cosh with which the bitter, envious, and guilt-ridden can bludgeon entire centuries of western culture. Even Walt Disney -- who once regaled us with What Makes The Red Man Red? in Peter Pan -- has taken up the cudgel in this summer of Pocahantas. And yet the film's syrupy depiction of the continent's aborigines is still not enough -- cannot possibly be enough -- of an attack on America's European settlers to satisfy some. Over the course of this summer, I have read maybe half a dozen major newspaper and magazine articles attacking the movie's cartoon Indians as inaccurate, sexist and racist. Journalists must write such stories in their sleep by now. But amazingly, I haven't noticed a single piece pointing out the film's most undiluted, most consistent bigotry: its mindlessly cruel and stupid portrait of the British. Except for John Smith -- with his suspiciously Americanized accent -- the Pocahantas Brits are a lot of rapine-sodden dunderheads, ignorant at best, vicious at worst. They're only the latest in a seemingly endless line of Brit villains in Hollywood films but personally, after seeing Disney use the Union Jack as a lowering symbol of evil, I must say, if I were John Major, I'd declare war on Anaheim (I retract that: the magic kingdom is now so much larger than the United Kingdom, it would be unwise).

In fact, though, in Britain, the chattering classes seem to feel much the same way about their country's recent past. The history of that empire which brought education, subjugation, the ideal of democracy and the hell of modern warfare to a goodly swatch of the planet is gradually being excluded from the schools of its erstwhile center. British artistic and journalistic depictions of the empire are almost universally mocking and accusatory. One recent BBC documentary portrayed the rape and murder of an Indian girl by British soldiers as standard practice while dismissing the soul-stumping atrocities of Cawnpore with a single sentence that suggested they might have been exaggerated. Gone, it seems, is the fine balance of Guns of Batasi -- a wonderful film -- in which Richard Attenborough's British NCO proclaims of the natives under his dominion: "Our good is as good as their good, and their bad is as bad as our bad."

Still, in America, where measured attempts at reform so often give way to googly-eyed moral hysteria, the discussion is predictably more fraught. Efforts to revise school curricula to include the historic participation of native and non-European peoples have quickly came under siege by "ethnocentrists" who wish to depict all western thought and action as a sweeping, criminal epic of oppression: that "intellectual and educational oppression that has characterized the culture and institutions of the United States and the European American world for centuries," as a New York state education commissioner's task force report put it. In a Soviet-style revision of the past, Afrocentrists even accuse western empires of stealing most of their scientific, artistic and philosophical advances from Africans via ancient Egypt -- an ironic scenario which seems to suggest that Blacks, in order to hold their historical heads high, must lay claim to a blood-soaked empire of their own.

But the "taint" of imperialism has been extended over much of western culture by more respected thinkers like Edward Said. Said, it should be noted, justifiably complains that his subtle and complex work, which includes the epoch-making Orientalism and Culture And Imperialism, has been misappropriated by fundamentalist and ethnocentric groups and used to castigate the western literature he clearly loves. And yet, I would say that a shallow strain of ivory tower ontology in his writing -- plus perhaps a touch of intellectual dishonesty -- makes it prime fodder for such abuse.

At the heart of Said's argument lies the notion that "The construction of identity -- for identity, whether of Orient or Occident, France or Britain, while obviously a repository of distinct collective experiences, is finally a construction -- involves establishing opposites and "others" whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from 'us.'" By such constructs, he says, the west has alienated and marginalized other peoples and civilizations and so allowed itself to usurp and colonize them without conscience. Said sees culture as a means of spreading and propagating cultural identity and finds evidence of empire-justifying concepts in works as seemingly innocent as Mansfield Park and Great Expectations.

My disagreements with Said are fundamental and extensive. I'm not convinced that cultural identity is a construct; I'm not convinced that identifying something as a construct renders it non-essential; and I'm morally certain that no system of thought or action can long survive without an outlet for its hostility against an "other." But what the hell -- leave all that be. Suffice it to say, with apologies to Pericles, that cultural identity may be wrong to acquire but it's awfully dangerous to let it go. The identity of a culture, like the identity of an individual, may be flexible and ever-developing but by definition it can't be entirely open-ended without ceasing to exist. And, down here on the ground where there's all sorts of fellows like terrorists and dictators, Vandals and Visigoths, one wonders just who is supposed to do the ceasing first. (This is where the dishonesty comes in. Said is a proponent of Palestinian statehood, and it's easy to guess whom he'd like to see first in line for identity dissolution.)

In any case, it's hard to imagine the 139 defenders of Rorke's Drift, watching 3,000 Zulus charge down on their mealy-bag defenses, receiving word from London that their cultural identity has been called off and it's okay to throw down their arms. "Policies don't matter a spent piss -- it's the men in fear and rage and uncertainty watching the woods and skyline."

"What beats me is the way people take it to heart," says our boy somewhat later in The Great Game. He is referring to the slaughter at Cawnpore now, and wondering why the British are taking it so very badly. "What do they expect in war? It ain't conducted by missionaries, or chaps in Liberal clubs, snug and secure. But what amuses me most is the way fashionable views change -- why, for years after Cawnpore, any vengeance wreaked on an Indian... was regarded as just vengeance. Now it's t'other way round, with eminent writers crying... we were far guiltier than the niggers had been. Why? Because we were Christians, and supposed to know better? ...Why our sins are always so much blacker, I can't fathom."

Ever the coward, Flashman avoids the battle for the moral high ground in the ever-shifting debate on imperialism. He has a delightful way of deflating the sanctimonious outrage of both sides with a single stroke. When dragooned aboard a slave ship in Flash For Freedom! he makes the now-familiar observation that Blacks are as involved in the slave trade as Whites: "It's always amused me to listen to the psalm-smiting hypocrisy of nigger-lovers at home and in the States who talk about white savages raping the Coast and carrying poor black innocents into bondage -- why, without the help of the blacks themselves we'd not have been able to lift a single slave out of Africa."

But a moment later he switchbacks the implications: "Why my pious acquaintances won't believe this, I can't fathom. They enslaved their own kind, in mills and factories and mines, and made 'em live in kennels that an Alabama planter wouldn't have dreamed of putting a black into."

The problem with assigning group blame or seeking group self-esteem from history is that the longer one thinks about it and the more one learns, the harder it is to find a group undeserving of blame or particularly worthy of esteem. What makes this frustrating, of course, is the smugness or guilt of those with power and privilege and the bitterness or rage of those without. Understandable emotions -- but as history, they just won't wash.

Flashman -- unlike Edward Said -- holds the true antidote to bloated cultural identity: he despises everybody just the same.

"Man lives consciously for himself, but unconsciously he serves as an instrument for the accomplishment of historical and social ends," said Tolstoy -- who was, of course, no Flashman, but still had a point or two to make. "A deed done is irrevocable, and that action of his coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historical significance. The higher a man stands in the social scale, the more connexions he has with others and the more power he has over them, the more conspicuous is the predestination and inevitability of every act he commits... A king is the slave of history."

It is fair to say at this hour that we live in a post-imperial age -- though one may be forgiven for suspecting that we live in a pre-imperial age as well. In any case, it is an equally fair corollary of this statement that we used to live in an imperial age. No corner of the globe was untouched by the White tribes' struggle for dominion, which was merely a large-scale version of the struggles of other tribes going on at the same time. We are all of us, to some extent, what empire made us. The teacher or historian who approaches this aspect of our past puffed with sanctimony or withered with guilt, strident with pride or creaking with colonial cringe can only represent the effects without beginning to understand them. And if understanding does not exactly set us free, it is at least the beginning of tragic acceptance and compassion for one another as the knaves and clowns we all of us are.

One need not live as Flashman to comprehend as Flashman, to see what Flashman sees: we are a hypocritical and blood-stained bunch, the lot of us, and even the light we're struggling toward may be the fire of perdition. George MacDonald Fraser has chosen to speak history in the voice of a blackguard because he knows how much of what we like best in ourselves has to be set aside before we can face the past dead on. It is, at least, a counterweight to sentimentality, which is the bane of populism, and to philosophical self-righteousness, which is as pernicious a form of other-bashing as any of them. Beneath Flashman's cynicism, lies Fraser's tragic sensibility: "Humanity is beastly and stupid, aye, and helpless, and there's an end to it." And through that sensibility, we can shut down our own pompous ravings long enough to hear the voice of history, which cries, as Henri Barbusse did from the empire graveyards that were the trenches of World War I:

"The future, the future! The work of the future will be to wipe out the present, to wipe it out more than we can imagine, to wipe it out like something abominable and shameful. And yet -- this present -- it had to be, it had to be!"

Originally published in the October/November 1995 issue of Boston Review

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