Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Role of Horror and Dread in Creating Heroes

If I did not warn it already, I apologise, but to my faithful reader[s] (ok so I'm being slightly optimistic there) this post regards some of my theoretical work that I have done over the last year or so. Not that it won't be interesting...I promise! I should also point out that a paper on this very idea was written in conjunction with my colleague and friend Theresa (from James Cook University) and we are still awaiting to see if it is published this year sometime.

It seems good timing then with the passing of another Anzac day to consider the role of horror and dread which is embedded in our hero worship in the west. In particular with reference to those who paid the 'ultimate' sacrifice for this country (or Empire in the case of WW1), the manner in which culture sacralises them is fascinating, but should not be approached with a cynical eye, thus deterring from its high value. While the hero (or in this case the Anzac) is narrated by themes of patriotism, nationalism, pride, mateship, courage, remembrance, pride and all those emotions that effectively bring tears in some cases to people's eyes when the 'last post' is played or the 'Ode' is recited, there is a darker side to this which is worth considering.

 Robert Hertz - Author 

In order to foreground this, we need to remember that sacrality at times has a dual dimension or pole. This early modernist writer Robert Hertz pictured above (part of Emile Durkheim's academy who sadly was killed himself on the 13th of April, 1915 in combat duty at Woevre with a pile of unfinished theoretical and anthropological contributions left unfinished - and a wife left behind most importantly) managed to expose quite well by examining anthropological texts from Indonesia - mainly. In his most impressing piece, The Pre-Eminence of the Right Hand, he contends that sacredness is bound by both reverance, awe, inspiration but also horror and dread. To comprehend this, consider the sacred nature of deity, especially in ancient Israel. On one hand, the Israelites were in awe and inspired by their God, but at the same time, they were in constant fear of his power and the ability he had to 'destroy' them for disobedience. Thus, keeping commandments followed after this dual  nature. I should point out now that this idea is not what I contend is exemplified in Anzac Day. But, the pilgrimage to Gallipoli and other places of 'secular' sacrality and more importantly the experience that is felt there, cannot be simply related as an awe inspired moment.

Gravesite in the Somme.

Rather, there is a certain element of dread and horror which can be viewed as complimentary to the entire Anzac experience. In particular, as books from Scates (2006) and others show, many report as they walk battlefields (or mass memorials - such as Australia's War Memorial) that they are exposed to emotions of horror when they are confronted aesthetically and imagine the conditions and the terrible plight of the soldiers involved in the war itself. There are even minor reports of feeling as if the 'ghosts' of the dead still rest uneasily in these areas. One painting that perhaps portrays this 'haunting' image is that of Will Longstaff's Menin Gate at Midnight, a personal favourite of mine (pictured below). Furthermore, the horrifying images and tales from soldiers and official photographers on the frontline further conjure images that deeply impact upon anyone's consciousness when they are viewed. However, the most common report of the terrifying realities of war comes when people visit war cemeteries such as that in found dotted across Gallipoli itself, or those dotted across the Somme or Passchendaele. It is here that the modern day pilgrim confronts the harsh reality of death, and the tragedy of those who had their lives cut short.

Menin Gate at Midnight - Will Longstaff: Note the eerie and ghostly view of the soldiers walking the fields.

Leaving the story here perhaps only tells half the story though. It was Theresa and I's belief that understanding the terrible circumstances more explicitly that befell these men and women, assists in the further heroicisation of them. For when we appreciate horrors more, we consider their courage more deeply. Thus we place their sacrifice, their lives and their mythical value in a place much higher than ordinary heroes. Similar appreciations I feel can be found in contemporary sites such as the Flight 93 crash site, or the World Trade Centre Memorial. In each of these areas, there are heroes who are afforded a high cultural status when one confronts the images and thoughts of the terrifying deaths or moments they endured.

The Flight 93 Memorials - Bottom is the 'memorial fence' which periodically as shown is the site of 'ritual' gift giving in a symbolic token of appreciation of the sacrifice of those who are narrated as dying for their country.
From this perspective, we can appreciate deeply that sacred places such as Gallipoli serve to remind us of two facts. One, that those who fell and those who lived on (including mothers and fathers, wives and siblings) paid a significant sacrifice (even if we consider WW1 to not be about Australia at all but about the British Empire) and subsequently deserve awe and respect and even honour. Second and perhaps overlooked at times, we are reminded of the horrific sphere of war, its terrible consequences and the need we have to establish social, political and cultural taboos to avoid it at all costs.


  1. Hi! I like this post, especially as I am in it :) Did you see the Q&A this week, on the Anzac Day holiday? It was all about the Anzac legend, and Henry Reynolds was on there making some good points. He's edited a book that we should consider including in revisions if we ever get feedback on the article. His argument with Anzac is that it is seen as the sacred event which founded the nation of Australia and makes people forget everything that came before... I'd like to read some of his stuff, because he wasn't able to get into it much on the show.

  2. Hey Tez,

    Yeah I thought I should give ya a mention! I didn't see it unfortunately but I've heard similar arguments from Les Carlyon who is a historian on Gallipoli and the 'Anzac' myth in general.

    I disagree slightly with what he states though as we still seem to remember some of the founding moments prior to Anzac day such as our celebration of Australia day, though this is slowly disintegrating into nothing at all. It is true though to a certain extent that Australia was born on the shores of Gallipoli.

    Perhaps this is why we forget some of our nasty colonial past?



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