The Half-cracked Hero

General Charles Gordon
General Charles Gordon; drawing by David Levine

Carl Sagan, in his latest book,* has been writing mordantly about “the paradoxers,” those who make fortunes out of pseudo-science to service the occult explosion of our times. It is commonplace to see in that “explosion” a defensive movement, an obdurate and childish flight from the authority of knowledge into Indian territory, into an empty place where a counterauthority can be set up and function on a barbarous parody of scientific law. But it is more than that. Hogwash gives energy. People become restless for change, impatient to rebel, but find that all the ideological weapons they might use have been locked up. And out of the junk and scrap of the past, they will manufacture their own.

The nineteenth century swarmed with paradoxers; for every Darwin, there were crowds of people like Mary Baker Eddy and Joseph Smith, and respectable scientists who privately believed in fairies. Willful irrationalism, the synthesizing of new belief systems, was in no way confined to Europe and North America. The impact of imperialism on Africa and Asia released monstrous energies even before the colonial partitions were accomplished, as ancient societies faced rebellions which were modernizing and irrationalist at once.

This is the irony of Charley Gordon. In 1885, when he was slain by the troops of the religious leader called the Mahdi at the storm of Khartoum, Gordon became a Victorian saint. His bravery and spunk seemed to rebuke the effete British politicians who had left him besieged in Khartoum and had done so little to relieve him. His voluntary poverty and love for his Bible atoned for the pomp and materialism of Empire. This cult of Gordon the Redeemer nauseated Lytton Strachey, who awarded him a superb chapter in Eminent Victorians, but Strachey was not unkind to the man inside the myth. He saw the joke—that Charley Gordon was every bit as crazy as the hordes who hacked him down.

His glory rests on two campaigns: his quelling of the Taiping Rebellion in China, and his disastrous conflict with the Mahdists in the Sudan. Both movements were vast surges of social energy, the one seeking to overthrow the Manchu dynasty and renew China as the Europeans moved in, the other a messianic movement determined to sweep out the foreign invader, to bring in the age of Islamic purity and fulfillment, and to rescue society from the chaos which had followed disruption of the slave trade.

Both groups—the Taiping rebels especially—relied for ideology on a counter-authority. In 1850, the Cantonese peasant Hung-sen Tsuen proclaimed himself the Heavenly King, the third member of the Trinity to God the Father and Jesus Christ. His followers wore “tawdry, harlequin garb” and grew their hair long and shaggy. Their program was to expel the Manchus and abolish sin, but also to introduce the Dynasty of Perpetual Peace by bringing to China railways, steamships, hospitals, and agrarian…

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