What is English honour I wonder?

Is there such a thing as English honour? I mean really, what is this thing bandied about in every film and novel about the English ruling classes? I only bring it up after watching the latter half of a 1960s TV adaptation of Kidnapped, the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. The word honor was uttered with such metronomic frequency that of course MMK having nothing better to do sat down for what turned out to be thorough entertainment. It seems that while the English cluck their tongues at today’s martyrdom-seeking types, they have had their very own home grown ones. But they have been of a middle class variety of honor and heroism that was on display in this film with all its obsessions with inheritance, social position and love/hate feelings for aristocratic authority. It was actually very funny if you will allow me to start laughing before I get to the punchline.

OK, to the film. Young and earnest David Balfour is kidnapped, sold into slavery and cheated out of his inheritance by a scheming uncle in eighteenth century Scotland. While on the run in the Scottish Highlands, he falls in with a Jacobite rebel, Alan Breck – who murders a local chieftain supporter of the occupant of the English throne – and Aileen, the daughter of the man wrongly accused of the murder. David bravely returns to Edinburgh where he faces down the Lord Advocate – the representative of the king and the highest authority in the land. He testifies that the accused is innocent, to which the Lord Advocate – who intends that the man should hang to avoid sectarian violence – admonishes him to not pursue this course. ‘Thousands will die for this one man, and Scotland will be destroyed’ he pleads (I paraphrase). Even David’s companions try to dissuade him arguing that he will only destroy his own life for a doomed cause. They eventually give up before his principled stand with one of them saying, ‘go and do your duty; and be hanged, if you must. Like a gentleman.’

Young David is all for the scaffold provided he tells the truth even if the innocent accused is guaranteed death and his country – ruled by the English – torn asunder. ‘Then let it fall, let the whole rotten Scotland fall so that an innocent man may go free,’ he tells the Lord Advocate. Very heroic and blood stirring stuff I was thinking as I watched. But then our David goes on to give his reason for standing by the truth. Not his growing love for Aileen or her father, the accused. No, his stand is based on a conversation he had as a boy with his father who told him ‘that the law is higher than any man, it bends to no one and truth is its keeper.’ It is at this moment that he also reveals that he would like to attend law school should he survive this test.

Our hero is willing to die for the law. To be more exact, he is willing to be tried by the same law that he knows will kill him. His great aspiration is to be joined with the institutions that the preceding 90 minutes of the film have spent showing us being applied dishonestly and violently in his country. David’s aspiration might be to become Lord Advocate. This is the peculiar nature of his honor which requires that he give death a wide embrace recognizing that what is killing him is what he loves. This honor which I think is English in its nature, and allows him to face a sad fate unflinchingly is an abstraction. It ignores villainies perpetrated on others in its name. It came to me that the English claim to the mantle of an honorable people is based not on their refusal to cheat or murder but because they have been willing to die for the conceit that their kind do not cheat or murder. Thus the heroes’ squares built for the redcoats who faced the Zulu Impis at Islandwana and shook hands before turning to face the final thrust of the assegai. Nothing needs be said of the murdering and raping that brought them to that impasse. What matters is that they died looking heavenward to a vanity that allowed them to pursue without brakes any brutal conduct against the Zulu. From the Somme to the Battle of Britain and the many other battlefields that are splattered with English blood, evil is washed clean by this sacrifice of the young. This is why the English hero can be a cad until the very last moment when he pulls off a spectacular save in the honor department. It is only in battle that the English are at their best when offered the opportunity to look away from the hells they have created toward an earthly heaven only reachable by dying.

Or could it be that the nature of all liberal heroism is to love the very alter that you are dying on as opposed to more religious varieties that urge matrydom for the sake of heaven? Perhaps this is why Kenyan politics nowadays give birth to few heroic actions into death: we do not believe in the alter (the state) that might demand our blood and have found ways into heaven that do not demand we destroy earthly institutions. But this is only to speculate and a bit wildly too.

Happy New Year!

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About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

8 Responses to What is English honour I wonder?

  1. ozymandiaz says:

    Is the Kenyan alter of politics any less worthy than that of the English, especialy during said time period? I had alsways understood the English peity as a sense of birthright. There is nothing else of great worthiness concerning their imperialistic class driven system that I can discern. It was really just a brazen sense of superiority not matched until the Nazis (not saying they were quite as bad as all that, perhaps the Romans were a better analogy). But as you said at the begining of your post, it is ruling class honor.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The English do not hold an exclusive patent “Piety as a birthright”; I believe all cultural and political groups of people hold it in one form or another. It is almost a fundamental psychological construct that human brings need for their survival. I am deeply fascinated by cultural and political piety and how in most cases the representation is so far removed from what actually happens. I find it amusing that in many cases the representation even when judged by the standards it espouses it fails miserably.

  3. Keguro says:

    I have been immersed in Gothic fiction, so have tried not to respond from dank castles and dire monasteries and the wild passions in men’s bossoms. But isn’t the gothic at least one ideological critique of honor?

    Honor, like cheap lipstick or gold-plated iron. Those famous neck chains sold at Nairobi fairs that fade within a few days. But,of course, I’m being unfair.

    On reading your entry-the day it was written-I’m a tardy respondent not reader-I immediately thought about Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy. On the “desirability” of honor, what the psychoanalysts might call the desire to respond in kind, the violent unleashing of violence in response to violence, when the reality principle, in other words, breaks, and we indulge in the pleasure of violence.

    Does honor then, I wonder, serve not simply as a justifying narrative, a romantic recreation of violence and pseudo-adultery (medieval romance being all about single knights and married women), but also as a form of what Freud would term screen memory? Or fantasy-as-memory? Especially English honor, tied to “pure” women,” marauding savages, jingoistic nationalism, and the hidden rage of disenfranchisement (younger sons in the military; tell me they weren’t pissed off).

    I go off-track. I bring up Nandy because you mention Kenyan politics. The distinctions made, in the colonial period, among the Kamba, Maasai, Swahili, and Gikuyu, as distinctions of “honor.” It plays a very interesting role in early anthropology (compare Francis Hall, Richard Meinertzhagen, and Scoresby Routledge’s accounts, oh, heck, throw in Elspeth Huxley and let’s have a ball!). I am slightly obsessed. It’s true.

    And then to think about guerrila warfare or the prominence of the trickster figure in African nationalist and pseudo-nationalist narratives (Bonnie Lubega’s The Outcast, Kenyatta’s man killing wild beasts in hut, various appropriations of brer rabbit in the West or cunning squirrels). But now, I meander, which I should restrict to my own blog.

    Strange how you inspire thought. For which I’m grateful. When you get tired of all that high-falutin’ political stuff you do, come on over to English, more modest, but we’ll welcome you. We fetishize thinkers.

  4. MMK says:

    Keguro – where are they teaching you these things? What gothic literature are you reading? I must tell you that I was so traumatised by my english lit classes in the sixth form that I entirely avoided all literary studies classes throughout college and beyond.

    I take it that you are a fellow who promotes peace by your use of phrases like ‘justifying’ when it comes to violence. And that you have deconstructed honour into a kind of illusion at best or a disguise for malign designs at worst. I agree with you on the whole but do you think there has ever been such a lived concept? Can people be honourable and on what moral or ideological foundation would such a sentiment lie?

  5. MMK says:

    Ozy, anon and Keguro – sometimes I feel as if words have lost their meanings, as if I am swimming in an ocean of them that pretend to mean one thing when they are the opposite. This is my reaction when I hear the words like honour, compassion and humanity here in London. I know that they must mean approximately what I think they do, but then I wonder whether I can agree with the people uttering them.

  6. Keguro says:

    Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis. Why? Because I’m tired of reading diss-related stuff and I wanted a break. I tend to turn to earlier periods, mostly Dickens and Austen, when I need a break from the 20th century.

    I love the Gothic! How can you not? It’s all binary structures, misrecognition, the deconstruction of Europe by Europe. Not to mention sex, death, bones, and devils. And I get to sound smart when I say I read it. Because *everything* written before 1850 is a “classic.”

    I study literature. Thought you knew.

    I think “honor,” my americanism displaying, translates in different ways. I mentioned Nandy as one example, though he excoriates it. Anthropologists who work on Kenya and Tanzania have studied “heshima” as a type of honor, and in a national geographic interview, Binyavanga talks about obligation among the Somali.

    I guess I take an expansive view that includes concepts such as obligation and duty and loyalty, many of which emerge from and sustain material practices and, indeed, community structures.

    (I know I mentioned Derek Peterson’s work before, but I really must again. His idea of Gikuyu community as being rooted in mutually binding obligation, reaffirmed through gift-giving and material exchange, has been crucial to my thinking.)

  7. WM says:

    You know, I would leave a witty and elegant comment if only I wasn’t laughing so hard. Sorry, can I be witty and elegant later?
    Hee hee! Loving it!

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