Challenging the Militarism of the Western Heroic Ideal: An Agenda for the Humanities
Prof. Deborah Anne Dooley.
At the end of his essay on "Sumerian History, Culture and Literature" in "Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer" (Harper and Row, 1983) Samuel Kramer writes these chilling words: "In the course of the centuries, Sumer becomes a ‘sick society’ with deplorable failings and distressing shortcomings; it yearned for peace and was constantly at war; it professed such ideals as justice, equity, and compassion, but abounded in injustice, inequality and oppression; materialistic and shortsighted, it unbalanced the ecology essential to its economy; it was afflicted by a generation gap between parents and children, and between teachers and students. And so Sumer came to a cruel, tragic end . . . " (126)
Through literature, students learn values; their judgments and their politics are inevitably shaped by what they read. As the United States defines itself post 9/11 as at "war" on terrorism, and has adopted a ‘first strike’ policy of attack now visited upon Iraq, this literature’s apparent patriotic/patriarchal definition of heroic action and of the hero as warrior is, I believe, a matter of paramount concern to humans and to the humanities: it can help us to ask crucial questions about the possibilities and constraints of human survival on such a militarized planet, and it can suggest alternatives to the models through which our values have been articulated and reinforced.
For over twenty years, as I have taught British Literature surveys, I have struggled with some of the implicit and explicit messages canonical works suggest to students just beginning the study of English Literature. One focus for me in this paper is "Beowulf," now wonderfully translated by Seamus Heaney. As epic, the militarism of its journey metaphors and of its underlying values is strong, yet through critical reading in a cross-cultural context, students can be helped to see the tension between the vocations of king and warrior that the deep structure of the poem ultimately dramatizes.
The paper addresses questions of how we can use early British literature to problematize rather than to affirm the militarism of heroic values by placing it in dialogue with texts that offer alternative views of what heroic behavior is about. Consequently, a second focus of the paper is the Sumerian epic, "The Descent of Inanna," a text I in fact do use in dialogue with "Beowulf" in my classroom. Through this dialogue, I ask students to think with me about an alternative definition of the heroic ideal, and I try to raise gendered questions of how cultures define heroism in light of the kinds of heroes and heroic behavior they sanction.
Prof. Deborah Anne Dooley (United States)
Professor of English
Department of English
Nazareth College of Rochester
Deborah Dooley has been a Professor in English and Women's Studies at Nazareth College of Rochester for twenty-three years where she is has the Rosemary White Chair in English. She holds a Ph.D from the University of Rochester in English Language and Literature with an emphasis in 19th century British literature. Her book, Plain and Ordinary Things: Reading Women in the Writing Classroom was published by SUNY Albany Press in 1995. Her current research is in the area of women and gardens with a particular focus on the post-colonial writer Jamaica Kincaid.
(30 min. Conference Paper, English)