Flip-flopping

Emily Wilson

  • Hesitant Heroes: Private Inhibitions, Cultural Crisis by Theodore Ziolkowski
    Cornell, 163 pp, £17.50, March 2004, ISBN 0 8014 4203 6

Most of us, it seems, tend to think of the ‘hero’ as someone who never hesitates. As soon as he has made up his mind, he acts. But in Hesitant Heroes Theodore Ziolkowski identifies texts central to the Western canon – the Oresteia, the Aeneid, Parzival, Hamlet, Wallenstein – which show heroes who hesitate at the moment of decision. He argues that each of these works uses the personal hesitation of a single character to represent a broad cultural crisis, a shift in values from one ethical or social norm to another. The theme of hesitation in literature isn’t new – the ‘Hamlet problem’ was a popular topic in 19th-century Romanticism – but the originality of Ziolkowski’s book lies in his tracing Hamlet’s problem back before Hamlet. His selection of texts shows that hesitation is not a peculiar feature of modern or early modern literature: classical Greek and Roman heroes hesitate no less than modern ones.

His earliest example is Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, the second play in the Oresteia. Orestes returns home to take revenge on those who killed his father: his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Orestes kills Aegisthus without scruple, but as he lifts his sword to kill his mother, she exposes her breast. Ziolkowski gets quite carried away at the thought of Clytemnestra’s naked chest, assuring us (without textual evidence) that she is ‘a woman whom we must imagine, like Dido, as radiant at the peak of womanly beauty and power’, who impresses her son by ‘her courage, her willpower, her intelligence – her beauty!’ I would say that Orestes is moved less by incestuous lust than by Clytemnestra’s having reminded him that she is his mother. The breast is a symbol not of sex, but of maternal nurture. (The scene recalls the moment in the Iliad when Hecuba tries to persuade her son Hector not to return to the battle by showing him her naked breast.) It is at this display of maternity that Orestes hesitates: ‘What shall I do?’ he asks his friend Pylades, ‘I’m ashamed to kill my own mother.’ It’s only when Pylades reminds him of Apollo’s oracle that Orestes rejects his mother’s pleas, denounces her killing of his father, and kills her in turn. Ziolkowski finds in this scene a ‘seismic shift’ from ‘old values’ to ‘a new morality’: the Oresteia reflects a move away from ‘pure blood vengeance’ to democracy, politics and law.

Ziolkowski’s grand comparative idea involves lots of details with which readers may disagree, and many questions remain unanswered. One central issue that deserves more discussion is whether the title is an oxymoron. Can heroes hesitate and still be heroic? Is there any justification for thinking of heroism and hesitation as incompatible? The initial premise of the book is that most heroes do not hesitate, at least not ‘in the thick of action’, and that hesitation is a mark of exceptional crisis. Ziolkowski insists that there are certain ‘archaic’ epic and biblical heroes whose heroism is constituted precisely by their lack of hesitation or doubt. His examples include Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf, Hildebrand, Samson and David. A hero of this type ‘so perfectly embodies the values of his culture that he experiences no doubts’: Achilles, for instance, is said to be motivated entirely by ‘archaic blood vengeance’.

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