Roger Sale is an independent critic because he looks for himself. He uses his eyes (and they are not glazed), and what he is looking for is himself: discovering his sense of being a certain person, with established but (if need be) changeable allegiances, convictions, impulses, and experiences. He has energy of judgment, he is modestly intrepid, and he can write with a proper polemical urgency. Yet Modern Heroism isn’t altogether a good book; though the subject would seem to be made for him, there is too persistent a sense that Sale is making for it. “Not so much an idea as a sort of magnetic field,” he says at once. But if there is one thing that so combative a critic can’t risk being, it is disarming.
The argument is that, in this century, heroism as it has been known in the Western world is dead and the modern writer is haunted by the “Myth of Lost Unity,” which “invites nostalgia and despair and the sense that large and heroic actions are possible now only as the schemes of fools and lunatics.”
If the despair is created by the sense that History has overwhelmed the world, then the heroism will be created in defiance of that same History. This means the modern heroes must be themselves historians…. To know what the creators of the Myth know, to feel that history may indeed have led us to a dead end, to be tempted to weep and despair, but then to defy, to weave active and new human possibilities out of all the unraveled threads of the cloth that was once whole, to insist that the human spirit need not be overcome despite all that is eager to annihilate it—that, it seems to me, is heroic activity for a modern man.
But the trio who are to embody all this are extravagantly beyond the pull of any single magnetic field: D.H. Lawrence, William Empson, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
I honor Sale for honoring Empson (as much as I deplore his honoring Tolkien), but the particular niche hewn for Empson has a belated and improvised look. Mr. Sale says some telling things about Empson’s greatness, but they are said in the teeth of the hero-mongering. Mr. Sale can’t get over the fact that when he published an earlier version of this Empson essay, half a dozen years ago, he felt himself under no serious obligation at all to have much recourse to Empson as hero—the word “hero” blessed Empson lightly in passing. Moreover, Mr. Sale now does nothing—though he says much—to persuade me that Empson belongs with the tragic deplores of the modern world, those who despair of politics.
Empson’s central convictions are many and various, but strong among them is an old-fashioned liberalism which asserts its vivid loyalty to utilitarianism, progress, and politics. Mr. Sale is enabled to write excellently about Some Versions of Pastoral because there Empson is writing explicitly about heroes; but to dunk all of Empson…
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