I Am Curious (Yellow)

They die a thousand times, and heroes only once -- but nobody analyzes them. Scott McLemee consults the first history of cowardice

October 8, 2014

In recent years we’ve had quite a few books on the negative emotionsdisgust, malice, humiliation, shame – from scholars in the humanities. In addition, Oxford University Press published its series of little books on the Seven Deadly Sins. Apparently envy is the most interesting vice, to judge by the sales ranks on Amazon, followed by anger -- with lust straggling in third place. (A poor showing, given its considerable claims on human attention.)

The audience for monographs putting unpleasant or painful feelings into cultural and historical context probably doesn’t overlap very much with the far larger pop-psychology readership. But their interests do converge on at least one point. Negative affects do have some benefits, but most of us try to avoid them, or minimize them, both in ourselves and others, and to disguise them when necessary; or, failing that, to do damage control. And because the urge to limit them is so strong, so is the need to comprehend where the feelings come from and how they operate.

Arguably the poets, historians, and philosophers have produced richer understandings of negative emotions, in all their messiness. As for what the likes of Dr. Phil bring to the table, I have no opinion – though obviously they’re the ones leaving it with the biggest bags of money.

But the avoidance / interest dynamic really goes AWOL with the topic Chris Walsh explores in Cowardice: A Brief History (Princeton University Press). The Library of Congress catalog has a subject heading called “Cowardice — history,” with Walsh’s book being the sole entry. That’s a clerical error: Marquette University Press published Lesley J. Gordon’s “I Never Was a Coward”: Questions of Bravery in a Civil War Regiment in 2005. It is 43 pages long, making Walsh the preeminent scholar in the field by a sizable margin. (He is also associate director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.)

“[P]ondering cowardice,” he writes “illuminates (from underneath, as it were) our moral world. What we think about cowardice reveals a great deal about our conceptions of human nature and responsibility, about what we think an individual person can and should have to endure, and how much one owes to others, to community and cause.”

But apart from a typically thought-provoking paper by William Ian Miller a few years ago, cowardice has gone largely unpondered. Plato brought it up while on route to discussing courage. Aristotle stressed the symmetry between cowardice (too much fear, too little confidence) and rashness (too much confidence, too little fear) and went on to observe that rash men tended to be cowards hiding behind bluster.

That insight has survived the test of time, though it’s one of the few analyses of cowardice that Walsh can draw on. But in the historical and literary record it is always much more concrete. (In that regard it’s worth noting that the LOC catalog lists 44 novels about cowardice, as against just two nonfiction works.)

Until sometime in the 19th century, cowardice seems to have been equated simply and directly with fear. It was the immoral and unmanly lack of yearning for the chance at slaughter and glory. The author refers to the American Civil War as a possible turning point, or at least the beginning of a change, in the United States. By the Second World War, the U.S. Army gave new soldiers a pamphlet stating, up front, YOU’LL BE SCARED and even acknowledging their anxiety that they might prove cowards once in battle.

Courage was not an absence of fear but the ability to act in spite of it. This represented a significant change in attitude, and it had the advantage of being sane. But it did not get around a fundamental issue that Walsh shows coming up repeatedly, and one well-depicted in James Jones’s novel The Thin Red Line:

“[S]omewhere in the back of each soldier’s mind, like a fingernail picking uncontrollably at a scabby sore, was the small voice saying: but is it worth it? Is it really worth it to die, to be dead, just to prove to everybody you’re not a coward?”

The answer that the narrator of Louis-Fernand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night about the First World War (“I wasn’t very bright myself, but at least I had sense enough to opt for cowardice once and for all”) sounds a lot like Mark Twain’s considered opinion in the matter: “The human race is a race of cowards, and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner.”

Both were satirists, but there may be more to the convergence of sentiment than that. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, war became mechanized and total, with poison gas and machine guns (just a taste of improvements to come) and whole populations mobilized by propaganda and thrown onto the battlefield. The moral defect of the coward was sometimes less than obvious, especially with some hindsight.

In Twain’s case, the remark about fundamental human cowardice wasn’t an excuse for his own military record, which was not glorious. (He numbered himself among the thousands who "entered the war, got just a taste of it, and then stepped out again permanently.") Walsh provides a crucial bit of context by quoting Twain’s comment that “man’s commonest weakness, his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned” is better understood as moral cowardice, “the supreme make-up of 9,999 men in the 10,000.”

I’ve indicated a few of Walsh’s themes here, and neglected a few. (The yellow cover, for example, being a reminder of his pages on the link between cowardice and that color.) Someone might well write an essay about how overwhelmingly androcentric the discussion tends to be, except insofar as a male labeled as a coward is called womanly. This is strange. When the time comes for battle, a man can try to flee, but I’ve never heard of anyone escaping childbirth that way. And the relationship between moral cowardice (or courage) and the military sort seems complex enough for another book.


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