By Warwick Cairns
Are you a virtuous person?
Or are you, secretly or otherwise, of the Devil’s party?
When you hear people talking, approvingly, of things you’re meant to approve of these days – equality, say, or modernity, or human rights or diversity – do you nod approvingly, or does something inside you bristle at the people doing the talking?
To put it another way: are you, broadly speaking, an enthusiastic supporter of the worthy causes de nos jours, or are you childishly resentful, on some level, of the motives and personalities of those involved?
By the way, I’m sorry about this question-asking thing, but I’ve just been reading a book called The Interrogative Mood. It is, in essence, an entire, novel-length book, but composed entirely of seemingly-random questions. It’s turned my head. But I’ll get better in a while.
But while I’m still in a question-asking state of mind, I have another for you, by way of example: if you are of an age to remember Band Aid, do you mostly remember seeing the images of those poor, starving children, and thinking ‘Oh my! How dreadful – we really ought to put our arms around the world this Christmas time and do something about that.’? Or do you mostly remember seeing the images of Bob Geldof, and the one with the funny sideburns that everyone forgets about, and Bono, and thinking, ‘You smug, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou bastards. Is it not enough for you that you’re richer than the rest of us, and more successful? Do you now have to set yourselves up as our moral superiors too?’
In Bernard Cornwell’s book Rebel, set in the American Civil War, the hero, a young man by the name of Nathan Starbuck, is an earnest Yale theology student who is raised in the ways of righteousness by his father. His father is an abolitionist preacher who delivers two-hour sermons on the evils of slavery, and who makes it his business to ensure that young Starbuck doesn’t drink, doesn’t swear, and that he holds all of the correct views on just about everything.
And what does young Starbuck do to show his gratitude? He runs off to join a travelling show, where he steals money, absconds with a loose woman who then abandons him, and ends up in Virginia, where – get this – he joins a bunch of illiterate, snaggle-toothed farmboys and hillbillies in signing up for a Confederate landowner’s private militia. Which then goes on to play a key role in defeating a much larger Federal army at the Battle of Manassas.
At which, also, the Rebel soldiers first came up with their answer to the earnest, pamphleteering moral rectitude of the North: an unearthly, high-pitched wailing howl, which became known, in time, as the Rebel Yell.
Here is a contemporary account of it: “Then arose that do-or-die expression, that maniacal maelstrom of sound; that penetrating, rasping, shrieking, blood-curdling noise that could be heard for miles and whose volume reached the heavens–such an expression as never yet came from the throats of sane men, but from men whom the seething blast of an imaginary hell would not check while the sound lasted.”
There are any number of theories about where it came from, this yell: from the calls of hunting-dogs, from forest noises, from the war-cries of the Comanche or else of the Scottish clans that so many of the Southern army were descended from. But whatever the origin, and whatever the meaning, there was, and is, a powerful emotional resonance in the South’s inarticulate expression of pure animal fury.
You would need to be a cold fish indeed, or an unusually worthy one, not to feel it.
Sometimes unrelieved goodness can get rather cloying. Sometimes you need the destructive power of negative energy, just to shake things up and just to restore balance in the world.
We’ve known this for a very long time, though we often forget it or wish it weren’t so.
In the Bible, in Ecclesiastes 3, King Solomon says:
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up…”
Which is to say, it’s not all eternal worthiness and harp-playing in the Kingdom of God. And though there is, and should be, ‘a time to love’, there is equally, ‘a time to hate’.
In Hindu theology the four-armed Goddess Kali, mistress of time and change, is often shown red-eyed and fang-toothed, wearing a skirt of severed arms and a garland of human heads, accompanied by serpants and a jackal and standing on the body of the god Shiva. In stories she appears on the battlefield, drinking the blood of her enemies, and beyond the margins of ‘polite’ society. And yet she is revered also as a force of great energy, benevolence and creativity.
It’s the whole yin and yang thing, to jump another couple of thousand miles further east: yin and yang is what it is.
Or maybe not. It could be just self-justification for having mental Tourette’s and thinking such unprintable, unsayable things about the moral certainties of our age and the people involved in propagating them.
Maybe other people aren’t like that: maybe other people really are virtuous through and through.
I don’t know: you tell me.
More about Warwick Cairns can be found here
Warwick Cairns latest book is, In Praise of Savagery: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale. And the story of Warwick’s journey, fifty years later, to a mud hut in Africa to visit him at the end of his life.
and the official, Friday Project page, on Harper Collins site is here.