Someday I suppose a war will be lost on the Astroturves of Houston or the playing fields of Unicorn U.
The idealism and chivalry that are nurtured by manly sports and right thinking have much to answer for, when the bill of human grief is totted up. Nothing is more dangerous, or more likely to result in wide-screen horrorcolor, than the notion that one is disciplined and fit, that one is noble, that one is a faithful servant manfully to fight under God's or St. George's or the proletariat's or the ayatollah's banner unto death.
"Is there a sense of chivalry in the United States?" demanded Mark Girouard, who has written a marvelous book called "The Return to Camelot," which deals with the revival of chivalric notions in the 19th century.
"You got me," I said honestly. "I don't think so. I don't know. It depends. But I don't think chivalry, in the sense of vigils and damsels and despising money and all that."
But then I am the last guy to ask. There are days I think I must be French, I am so realistic and plain and devoted to simple drudgery. Even as a child, I assumed the large ostrich-plume fan in the portrait of Aunt Marie was a feather duster for reaching the ceiling.
But this is one of the supreme questions of human life, as I see it--not the nature of Aunt Marie's fan, of course, but the role of idealism versus bald reality--and it is more important than most that one wrestles with. And has no answer.
Like many of us, no doubt, I am not chivalrous but then I am not anti-chivalry. I grew up with the stories of King Arthur and once I went to Grenoble especially to see the tomb of the Chevalier Bayard, and I never could help noticing in the big funny novel, "Don Quixote," that it was as beautiful as it was hilarious. The knight of that story, you recall, had his poor brains addled by reading romances of knights, and he set out to be one, and did endless mischief because, as his sensible niece once observed, he always wanted better bread than is made with wheat. And the great novelist who tells his story shows how much misery he won, thereby, for himself and for others.
All the same, when that crazy knight dies, you are grateful he once lived; and even Cervantes, the author, who points out all his follies, is half in love with him and probably is standing yet at the vigil of his bier.
But when this great revival of chivalry took place, especially during the 1800s in England, the code took hold. Never mind that kids slaved in factories and beat old horses drawing carts, chivalry was nevertheless in the air.
Walter Scott wrote about knights. A whole batch of painters took to painting knights. Queen Victoria had a memorial to her dear Albert carved with his effigy in full armor like a medieval knight, in flawless marble, with his favorite hound, Eos, at his feet, also in marble, of course. And the duke of Clarence, the one who was not quite as bright as he might have been and whose sexual appetites were as you might say especially gifted and who died at the age of 28--never mind, there he is, too, carved gloriously in the manner of a knight with a kneeling lady angel holding a crown of glory over his head.
And at schools then, boys learned to take cold showers and to be pure. And to reverence women and to bow when they crossed before an altar and to take what came: never to push themselves, never to be devious and underhanded, never to fake friendship or approval when they didn't feel it; always to be ready to fight a slur against their honor, and never to complain or make a lot of excuses when the world went against them.
This was all in the air. Men often failed to live up to the standards they set for themselves, but they believed in the standards.
Once there was a great tournament held at Eglinton, a country house, in which modern knights showed up in medieval armor to joust and tilt before the Queen of Beauty. (It poured rain and ruined the tournament and everybody sloshed around in mud thigh deep.) And Queen Victoria attended her own great fancy dress ball as Philippa, wife of Edward III (it was this queen who introduced rosemary into England, you recall); and there was a terrific renewal of interest in coats of arms and old castles, and on and on.
One result was that when World War I approached, virtually all England responded with a head full of cavalry charges and visions of knights defending their lady's honor and all the rest.
The Great War of 1914 to 1918 put an end to that nonsense. For four years men lived like rats in trenches, advancing a mile this month, losing and retreating a mile next month, and nothing to show for it except the slaughter of millions.
It was a jolt. It turned out there were not going to be any cavalry charges on spring days with the temperature at 65 degrees and the meadows in bloom and the trumpets inspiring and an archbishop blessing the horses and a regal voice declaiming the great lines of King Henry before the fight of Agincourt. On the contrary, the war was a matter of mud and excrement and prolonged screams and barbed wire and, worse than any of that, the inescapable revelation that nothing whatever was being accomplished. And nobody, least of all the general staff and the government and the church, had the least idea how to stop it, once it was started.
For a long time, every response to senseless death and suffering was an appeal to the gorgeous imagery of St. Michael the archangel, and to Galahad and Lancelot and Perceval and the great knights of our literature.
But despite the heroic efforts of poets and hack journalists to interpret the disaster in terms of fair knights laying down their lives for the sacred brotherhood, it became impossible to sustain any such lie, and at the last all England knew (and the Germans and French and Austrians and Americans knew) that the truth was that nobody knew what the hell he was doing or why. And it was not in any way like a brave cavalry charge on a sunny day with the trumpets blaring and the archangels hovering.
It was ordure and worse, and once this dawned on the great chivalric empires, the world has not been the same since.
If men and women had not come to 1914 with their heads full of fantasies, if they had not miscast themselves as knightly heroes, if they had learned a less exalted and more humble and more truthful vision of themselves, then they might not have rushed with such a head of emotional steam into a world disaster.
No later wars were terrible in the way the Great War was. No later wars were fought by nations infused from border to border with visions of the Grail.
Girouard and I laughed and talked through an afternoon, about the chivalric revival, admiring the occasional beautiful pictures in his lavishly illustrated book, and not quite wanting to laugh at the hilarious ones that were meant to be serious.
So notions of chivalry can be very funny, very dangerous. As, God knows, Cervantes pointed out centuries before the silly airs of would-be knights in the period before World War I.
But you can't help asking if things would have been better then if instead of a dream of chivalry they had had the dream we have: that nothing is worth much, except in terms of what gets a man or a nation "ahead."
It would have been as bad, probably, and there wouldn't even have been the illusion (however brief) that one was a warrior for God.
Like most moderns, I yield to no man in my admiration for Cervantes and his funny parody of the glories of knighthood.
But the other extreme, the notion that we are merely what our drudgery reveals us to be, and that we are nothing but creatures collecting laundry, remembering to fill up the gas tank, and devising ways to stay even with or ahead of inflation--that is no guarantee of peace or honor, either.
A balance must be struck. And no man born of woman is ever sure where the true and right balance lies. How far do we beautify life before the images become an obscene lie. On the other hand, how far do we accept "reality" before we die inside as men, and become some stupid cog in some stupid computer system.
I know as well as we all do that something went wrong in the Great War. I also know it was not entirely dumb to kneel after a long dusty ride on the smelly bus on the clean cold stone of Grenoble. So where does that leave us?
Where men have always been. Ignorant, uncertain, beastly, vicious, noble, filthy and little short of angels. We're supposed to be grateful, I gather, that we even see the tangles and know how tangled they truly are. Nobody but a supersaint or a superimbecile expects, anymore, to ravel the tangles out.
We are no closer than the first cave men at living life on the level we suspect human life might be lived. We may be able to boast--big deal--we fool ourselves deliberately a little less than our fathers did.