Category: Robert Graves

Living Without Heroes

“I think continually of those who were truly great–
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.”

-Stephen Spender

I don’t have heroes any more. Not really. When I was growing up there were certain sports stars I revered and as a six year old I looked on in wonder as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gamboled about on the pitted, ancient surface of the moon.

Now I’m a man in my mid-forties and my views on the subject of heroes have been jaundiced by decades of lies and evasions from leaders of all political persuasions. Athletes these days are remote, rich and juiced on any performance enhancing drug they can get their hands on. And it turns out that Neil Armstrong is a rather cold, undemonstrative man and Buzz Aldrin spent the entire Apollo mission sulking because he wasn’t going to be the first one out the hatch once they set down in the Sea of Tranquility.

Heroes nowadays are at a disadvantage—Caesar and Alexander and Boadicea never had to put up with celebrity biographers (just malicious gossip), the Andrew Mortons and Kitty Kelleys of the world peeping in keyholes and tracking down anyone with a bit of tittle to tattle. It’s hard to rally the citizenry and inspire high minded ideals while trying to cover up or defend some transgression or moral lapse. The optics are really awful.

When I’m looking for a bit of inspiration, a true tale to remind me of the strength and resilience of the human spirit, I look to the past, often the very distant past. Seeking those individuals who seized control of their own fates, who were determined, regardless of the cost “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson). These men and women didn’t employ spin doctors or commission polls before determining policies and tactics.

We don’t find leaders of the quality of Leonidas, Xenophon or Marcus Aurelius in the halls of power these days. No figures of unimpeachable authority and strength to admire and emulate.

Take a look at the head of state of your country. Would you follow that person to the ends of the earth, serve them without question, suffer extreme deprivation, enter the very depths of Hell itself at their behest?

I rest my case.

Do the soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq feel heroic, like latter-day versions of Achilles and Agamemnon, laying siege to the fortresses of terrorism? Or are they just guys and gals who have a job to do, a family to support, hoping and praying each and every night before they bed down that they’ll survive their tours of duty?

We’ve become a smaller people, soft and pliant; hedonistic narcissists, indifferent to the world around us. We don’t dare dream and rarely does our gaze stray to the horizon line (for the most part we keep our heads down and try not to meet anyone’s eyes).

Historical narratives presented by the likes of Stephen Pressfield, Conn Iggulden, Robert Graves and Michael Curtis Ford evoke past ages with thrilling vigor and elan. These authors devote incredible time and energy researching the great and near great, presenting us with gorgeous, vibrant, utterly convincing portrayals that are documentary-like in their realism, provoking a constant sense of you are there. In the process, we are reminded of what frail and timid things we are in comparison, how addicted to creature comforts, how far removed from suffering and strife. We were a much sturdier, hardier breed in days of yore.

In America, it was the pioneers who came closest to the kind of heroic courage that is the making of myths and legends. Unfortunately, they soon gave way to the lawyers and bankers, mercantilism replacing true grit. From Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, Lewis & Clark and Davey Crockett to being a “nation of shopkeepers”.

I grieve for what has been lost—the price of “progress”, which seems to instill a desire for stability, comfort…and mediocrity. I crave heroes, the visions and dreams they inspire. We’re poorer as a species without such men and women. They show us what might be possible if we exert ourselves for a higher purpose and deny or withhold from us the bright attractions of commonplace things.

Under a Spell

apejpeg.jpgTwo weeks into intensive revisions on my novella and every distraction, everything that pulls me away from the fictional world I am in the process of creating, is infuriating. The mundanities of life require attention—paying the bills, attending parent-teacher meetings—but I am resentful of such “trivialities”. When I’m focused on a project, my solipsism becomes downright scary. I forget to eat, wear the same clothes, grow a beard, drift through the house like a blind cat (present, but unseeing). Hour after hour up in my office, leaving only to use the washroom or grab something (anything!) to eat. I suffer withdrawal symptoms when away from my imaginary creations for even short periods of time. I pine for my characters. I miss their voices. Often find it difficult to follow dinner table conversations, occasionally forced to feign an interest in what my wife and sons are saying. A hard admission to make.

I am utterly immersed in this novella. For eight to ten hours a day I walk around in it and breathe the same air as its inhabitants. When I’m not working, I get the feeling that my characters remain in limbo, awaiting my return. There are divided loyalties, a sense of being stuck between two realities, the disorientation that results from that, confusion, my office door opening to a hallway I don’t recognize at first…

apollojpeg.jpgDuring these times, I have no interest in interacting with the outside world. I care little for consensual reality, ordinary rules and conventions; sometimes I go days without leaving the house. That is my entire universe and, believe me, it’s a whole lot bigger than it looks from the outside. My office is maybe 10 X 12 but its physical specifications are irrelevant. It is a cramped space capsule and time machine all rolled into one.

Viewed dispassionately, I lead a pretty dull and ritualized existence. I do nothing outside of reading and writing and hanging out with my family. I have no social life and a limited circle of friends and acquaintances, most of whom I’ve known for a long time. I challenge any future biographer to scrape up enough worthwhile material to fill a short article, let alone a fucking book. Good luck concocting something of interest with daybook entries like this:

Slept poorly (siege dreams again)

Into office immediately–Coffee

Work

Break for lunch

No decent mail

Good progress today

Boys home/ Sher home

Supper (shepherd’s pie)

Few more edits

Crash with book/ in bed 11:00 p.m.

And that goes on for pages and pages and pages

That’s my life. And that’s why I need that ability to project myself into the worlds I fashion one word at a time. Because my daily routine is so unbelievably fucking tedious and boring, it would kill a sane man. Retreating into fantasy is coping behavior, plain and simple. If I didn’t have this crazy, vivid imagination of mine I would’ve gone off my nut ages ago. I’d have never made it out of childhood.

flaubertjpeg.jpgBe regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” (Gustave Flaubert)

Thanks, G.F., and I appreciate that, but I also recall writers like Lawrence (T.E. and D.H.) and Isherwood and Graves and Grahame Greene and Anthony Burgess, world travelers and brilliant diarists, leading fascinating lives and growing vast reputations. Their long shadows still touch us today.

Is this it for me? Sitting in this room day after day, composing sentences, stringing them into stories or novels, producing vast reams of paperwork to little actual effect? A recent journal entry touches a sore point, my terror of being a man of no consequence. Making no mark, leaving nothing noteworthy or commendable behind me. As faceless and anonymous as a body tangled in a mass grave.

There’s a sense now that I’ve got to break out of this rut, seek new experiences, engage with the big, wide world and see what that inspires. Inevitably this brings up thoughts of travel. Are my fictional settings becoming too constricted and too familiar? Would some exotic backdrops lend a little something extra to my tales? Is this cloistered, claustrophobic existence I’m leading stunting my growth as an author and artist?

mertonjpeg.jpgThe clouds change. The seasons pass over our woods and fields in their slow and regular procession, and time is gone before you are aware of it. In one sense, we are always traveling and traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense, we have already arrived.” (Thomas Merton)

I need change. I crave it. A door opening. Opportunity knocking. A thrown bone. A crumb of praise. Signs of hope. A phone call out of the blue. Something completely unexpected and scary and exciting. To make my heart race. To break this terrible thrall