Friday, January 2, 2009

Valkyrie and Rogue Male

Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise vehicle about an attempted assassination of Hitler, is drawing comparisons with the 1939 novel Rogue Male by critics and commentators apparently out to prove their literary bona fides. Unfortunately, the only thing being proven is that the critics haven't actually read the classic Geoffrey Household book. But the comparison is worthwhile, if only for the opportunity to restate old lessons about the evils of all systems that despise individual liberty.

Unlike the movies made from the book (and the lesser sequel, Rogue Justice), Rogue Male is careful to avoid being specific about the dictator the protagonist sets out to stalk and assassinate of his own accord. The country ruled by the dictator is powerful and adjacent to Poland, so it's clearly either Hitler or Stalin that Household has in mind, but he doesn't say which. Just as important, it's clear that Household doesn't think it matters whether it's the Nazi thug or the Communist thug, because the two regimes are essentially indistinguishable.

That's a consistent theme throughout Rogue Male. That totalitarians of any sort, who glorify the collective over the individual, are the problem. The specifics of the ideology are irrelevant. At one point, Household's unnamed protagonist comments:
It was, in a sense, not unlike being stuck in the club with some bore whose opinions are very left or very right. You can't do anything but listen to the man. You know he is wrong, but since you argue from the standpoint of individuals and he argues about a mythical mass, there is no common ground.
During a diatribe by Quive-Smith, a servant of the dictator, the protagonist thinks:
In fact, it was a speech that would have gone equally well in the mouth of his boss's opposite number on the other side of Poland.
But what does Household himself advocate -- at least in the form of his character? There are hints throughout the novel, but a fairly clear statement comes during another exchange between Quive-Smith and the protagonist.
"My dear fellow," he protested. "There's all the difference in the world! It's the mass that we are out to discipline and educate. If an individual interferes. certainly, we crush him; but for the sake of the mass -- of the State, shall I say? You, you don't give a damn for the State. You obey your own taste and your own laws."

"That's true enough," I admitted. "But I have respect for the rights of other individuals."

"Of course. But none at all for the nation. Admit it now, my dear fellow, you could get along perfectly well without any State!"

"Yes, damn you!" I answered angrily -- I hated his pseudo-Socratic cross-examination. "Without the shameless politicians who run this country or the incompetent idiots who would like to, or your blasted spotlight Caesars."
Household's anonymous hero was an increasingly rare specimen in the 1930s: a genuine liberal of the old sort. That is, he believed in individual liberty and was distrustful of politicians and government power. We forget today what a remarkable position that was for 1939, but that was an era when liberal democracy was widely seen as a doomed model and democratic governments -- including the Roosevelt administration in the U.S. -- openly included partisans of Stalin and Mussolini.

In fact, it's a remarkable position today, although we're careful to bury our worship of unlimited state power in easy words about democracy and responsible liberty. It's all for the masses, of course. Ooops! I mean, for the good of the people. (Must be careful about those words).

I look forward to seeing Valkyrie -- it's a fictional representation of an important historical event that has people justifiably playing "what if?"

But the story of Rogue Male -- the real story -- has a larger message about the value of the individual and the dangers of government power with implications for generations to come.



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