By Nathan M. Greenfield
None of the 10,000 motorcyclists who converged on Sturgis, South Dakota, a few weeks ago whom I saw interviewed used the word “authenticity” to explain their ostentatious refusal to wear masks or follow social distancing protocols. Nor would most have been familiar with how philosophers use the term to denote an “ethic of autonomy” — the judging of which social restraints are valid for oneself without regard to an outside authority.
But this is what lies behind the placard that read “Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis” and motorcycle enthusiast Stephen Sample’s words: “I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to be cooped up all my life either.” The same is true of what Pastor John McCarthy told the congregants who filled the pews beyond the pandemic limits in his suburban Los Angeles Grace Community Church: “We open our doors because that’s what we are. We’re a church, and we’re going to trust those people to make adult decisions about the reality of their … spiritual health.” Ditto for President Trump’s statement that “I just don’t want to wear one [a mask] myself.”
Whether they realize it or not, these so-called culture warriors’ quest for authenticity is rooted in two (almost) diametrically different historical streams: the constitution of nobility and the Romantic movement. Nor are they likely aware that their attitudes towards the nation’s mounting death toll bear no relation to how each ethos gives meaning to death.
We can set aside the noblesse oblige associated with the Knights of the Round Table, known to most today from Disney or Monty Python and not medieval works like, Le Morte d’Arthur. Many knights had more brigand about them then Lancelot. English, French, German, indeed Roman and Greek nobility partook of what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche viewed themselves and only themselves as “the truthful.” Each saw himself as a verb, an “is.” Nietzsche laments that their independent “will to power” has been replaced by the “lying common man.” Each noble saw trust and openness only in himself. He, and it was always hes, could do no other than fulfill their true nature, living by a code rooted only in their authentic selves.
Across Europe, both law and custom afforded knights extraordinary rights. In some places and at different times, through the notorious droit de seigneur, “right of the Lord,” nobles arrogated to themselves the first married night of female serfs: that is, they raped them with legal impunity. The three knights who cornered Archbishop Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 believed their blood lines gave them a license to be judge, jury and executioners. They do not, as we do, see themselves as murderers in the cathedral.
John Hawkwood, the most famous and successful knight of the mid-1300s, sold his services to the highest bidder and made war across the Italian peninsula. The Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth, is only one example of a nobleman who sought to remake the world in his own image. The Despenser family, whose descendants include princes William and Harry via their mother, Diana Spenser, produced a number of knights who were not exactly known for their politesse.
At the same time, the men and women who converged on Sturgis partake of a decayed version of Romanticism. Born of a rebellion against both Neoclassicist poetry and its celebration of social order and restraint and the Enlightenment’s demystification of the world (via the scientific method), beginning in the late 1700s, Romantics like the poet William Wordsworth privileged the individual’s subjective experience. It’s not going too far, for example, to say that every love song, including “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to “It’s My Party,” was foreshadowed by Robbie Burns’ 1794 poem that begins, “O my Luve is like a red, red rose.”
Today, poets Percy Shelley and William Blake, he of the lament of the “dark Satanic mills,” would be considered woke. Their political leanings are clear from focus on ordinary people and their speech. Each individual’s inner light mattered more to Wordsworth in England and Goethe in Germany than did inherited status, as can be seen also in Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein. Despite his nobel lineage, Lord Byron, emphasized the individual’s and his desires.
“So far, so good,” Mr. Sample and his friends might say, as they wondered what their eighth-grade English teachers would make of their being compared to knights. The motorcyclists would have fairly beamed had their teachers explained to them that the libertine Byron’s moniker was “Mad, bad and [for women] dangerous to know.”
Yet, Sample and his friends’ laissez-faire attitude toward the nation’s mounting death toll is an index of their distance from what both the nobility and writers in the Romantic period considered of prime importance: eschatology, that is, the meaning assigned to death.
The day I started thinking about this essay, Trump gave a scarcely 90-second statement about Hermann Cain’s death from COVID-19 without even alluding to the fact that it was likely contracted a few weeks earlier at the President’s Tulsa rally at which, following the president’s lead, Cain did not wear a mask. Trump delivered no words of solace to Cain’s family: a performance that would have shocked the nobility and the Romantics.
True the nobility and knights didn’t take much account of their villeins’ (serfs tied to the land) deaths. However, As Homer showed in the Iliad, noble deaths, especially those resulting from valorous actions in battle, are suffused with meaning. Painted at the end of the period where knights commanded the field of battle, Pierre Uccello’s painting Battle of San Romano (c. 1445) depicts the struggle between knights during which one will die a full and good (if painful) death, the transcendent meaning of which was made clear by the Christian symbols Uccello painted.
Through his mouthpiece, Zarathustra, here’s Nietzsche’s summation on the noble’s view of death: “Death should not so much be something that happens to us beyond our control as a matter of chance or surprise, but something we choose freely and deliberately, a choice that becomes a defining act of our lives.”
As did Shakespeare, who in Richard II has the king’s dying uncle, John of Gaunt, speak as if he was “a prophet new inspired” and tell his nephew that he is unfit to rule, writers in the Romantic period used dying and the dead to speak a morally infused language. As did Oscar Wilde, we may find Little Nell’s death in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop overwrought, yet most of Dickens’ readers soaked up the sentimentality and took it as redeeming.
The etiology of tuberculosis, which claims Little Eva’s death in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (published 1852) is familiar to us today: it is spread by inhaling droplets containing the Mycobacterium bacterium released into the air by coughing and sneezing. Then called “consumption,” because it was seen as consuming individuals from the inside, the Romantics gave it a metaphorical meaning. The inner fire was like a furnace burning off the dross, leaving only a truth telling soul; in Little Eva’s case, it was her love for the slave Uncle Tom, a trope that Harriet Beecher Stowe used to undercut slavery. Fittingly, consumption took Keats’ life.
A few months ago, as the death toll mounted toward 100,000, President Trump said without any evidence that his administration had “prevented millions of deaths.” Despite the fact that most of them loudly proclaim their religiosity, the governors of Georgia, Texas, Florida or other red states eschew speaking of the dead or the meaning of the COVID scourge, and focus instead on the need to open stores, bars and schools.
We can judge how completely the COVID deaths have been scrubbed of meaning by the fact that the governors and mayors in New York, California, New Jersey and other blue states are no more able to find meaning in the deaths or even to speak of them in human terms. All of North America’s political leaders have accepted the quip, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic,” attributed to, among others, Joseph Stalin.
It wasn’t always like this. Though I have no truck with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, there was one moment when he spoke meaningfully for the nation. With millions reeling from having watched the space shuttle Challenger explode and, by extension, witnessing the deaths of the seven astronauts, the president administered balm in the form of words from “High Flight,” written by John Gillespie, a Spitfire pilot who died at the age of 19 while flying for the Royal Canadian Air Force: “I’ve trod/The high untrespassed sanctity of space,/Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
At the funeral of Rev. Clement Pinkney, one of the nine killed in a white supremacist attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, President Barak Obama ended his eulogy with words are central to the mourning traditions of both African Americans and Evangelicals. The words belonged to the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” written almost a century and a half earlier.
The day I started writing this essay, a CBS poll underscored how far the anti-maskers are from either the noble or Romantic views of death. Fifty-three percent of Republicans find the figure of 176,000 dead Americans from COVID to be “acceptable” (while only 10 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of Independents did). These deaths, the equivalent, counting from early March, of 14 Boeing 747 crashes per week — two per day — have even less status than does collateral damage in, say, Afghanistan. It, at least, usually elicits a payment from the United States to the families of those killed in an errant drone strike.
Were Homer to see the absence of public obsequies in America (and, indeed, in Europe and Canada) today, they would not have to think long for a cautionary tale. Achilles may have slacked his thirst for revenge against Hector for his killing of Achilles’ friend Patroclus by dragging the Trojan’s body through the dust around the tower walls of Ilium. But by denying Hector’s body due reverence, that is, by stripping his death of meaning, Achilles angered the Olympian Gods, especially Apollo. At the first opportunity, Apollo guided an arrow into the one part of Achilles body that was not invulnerable.
Achilles’ comrades-in-arms, took the lesson. For, to honor him, we learn in the Odyssey, he was mourned for “seventeen days and nights.” His burnt bones were “carefully collected” and that his “name will never die.” Something similar happens at the end of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The victorious Octavius orders that the dead lovers be buried together. The play ends with the words, “No grave on earth shall clip [hold] in it/A pair so famous” and that “Our army shall/In solemn show attend to his funeral/. . ./this great solemnity.”
The day I finished this essay, the fourth day of the Republican convention in which all the presidents’ men and the president himself congratulated him on his exemplary leadership during the coronavirus crisis, the United States recorded its 185,000th death. Between the day I started and finished the essay, the nation suffered the equivalent of another twenty fully loaded 747s crashing.
Despite the self-proclaimed religiosity of the nation’s leaders and Evangelicals with major television followings, the national reaction to these tragedies is akin to that for road kill.
Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.