Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How to Avoid a Duel

Jamison Kantor

From Hamlet to Sanjuro, duels, we believe, are climactic events in narratives; they are the vivid realization of an inevitable conflict between the participants’ opposing notions of honor or duty. But if you’re watching Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1943 masterpiece The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and expect its pivotal duel to include artful fight choreography and vivid technicolor blood, you’re in for something different. As the irascible Englishman Clive Candy faces off in the center of a gymnasium against the stolid German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff—the opponent who will soon become his lifelong friend—Powell and Pressburger cut back and forth between each combatant. One stretches. The other weighs a sabre on his finger blithely. They square up, a symmetrical shot of the two sword points facing each other follows, and they begin. But the camera doesn’t linger on the action. Powell and Pressburger switch to an above dolly shot that slowly brings the camera higher into the roof of the gymnasium and then, remarkably, out of doors, into the snowy exterior skyline. We never see the duel or hear about its true outcome. Who really vanquished whom in this contest? This is unresolved.

There are a couple of ways to read this scene and the astonishing decision of its directors to omit the duel. The first way is to place it in a long literary history of dueling in Britain, specifically the humanist prohibition on the violent ritual that emerges around the Early Modern period. Because it turned justice into an arbitrary contest of wills, dueling was said to be an affront to civil society and humankind more generally, as well as an outgrowth of that most thin and archaic of virtues, honor. (To paraphrase Falstaff at the Battle of Shrewsbury, honor is nothing but air.) Dollying away from the duel could place Colonel Blimp within this tradition. The directors—whose veneration of art in The Red Shoes (1948) and more-than-subtle critique of organized religion in Black Narcissus (1947) imply a sort of cinematic humanism—allow Candy to keep his modern gentlemanliness intact by, paradoxically, not showing the contest.

However, alternatively, we could see the circumvention of the duel and pan to the skyline as Powell and Pressburger’s formal realization of the omnipresence of honor in modern life, its pervasive, almost atmospheric, quality. Not just at the core of Candy’s identity, honor is so overarching that it hovers above urbane institutions and endures across the multiple generations shown by the film. As Powell and Pressburger move from sabre points to the delicate falling snow, honor even becomes part of the natural world. Here, rather than being a load of hot air, as Falstaff had it, honor is in the air.

In my book, Honor, Romanticism, and the Hidden Value of Modernity, I reach back about 150 years before Colonel Blimp,to the British Romantic period, an era that featured a rise in the number of duels, but also a wholescale revaluation of the idea of honor. Because of the charged political atmosphere of the time—which spanned the French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, and a domestic counterrevolution against progressive agitation—I was expecting to see a lot of literary attention paid to the honor codes that legitimated political violence and reactionary nationalism. For instance, the philosopher William Godwin’s gothic novel Caleb Williams (1794) demonstrates how easy it is for savvy citizens to be captured by the fantasy of chivalric honor, and to revel in their obedience to hierarchy. In fact, during the threat of French invasion even John Keats (Keats!) wrote an encomium to honor, a poem that gestured to Edmund Burke’s rhetoric about national dignity.

But what surprised me was how often Romantic texts—sometimes the same texts that decried conservative, chauvinistic ideas about honor—would maintain the value as relevant, or even necessary, to advancing contemporary social life. If honor was in the air, then it was also built into the emerging institutions of modernity, the credit system, commercial book trade, abolitionist media circles and, hence, the poetry, novels, and art that reflected and influenced them.

In other words, honor and dignity become more diffuse, not just reserved for patricians, whose social esteem was said to, in an unfortunately familiar phrase, “trickle down” to the underclass. This growing egalitarianism of honor—the “native and naked dignity” that Wordsworth attributes to all people—redounds in the very structure of Romantic literature. Non-climactic and entwined among narrative threads, the “off screen” duel between Colonel Brandon and the rakish Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility (1811) is easy to overlook but is critical to the latent gothicism in that novel. The History of Mary Prince (1831), a brutal slave narrative that may have influenced the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, spreads its rhetoric of dignity and respect across a polyphony of first-person accounts, legal reports, and epistolary denunciations of specific colonials whose names have been removed. This anonymizing strategy allows Prince and her editor to depersonalize shame, the opposite of honor, and apply it to the entire national character.

For me, Mary Prince and other writers in the Black Atlantic tradition revealed one more astonishing thing about modern honor: it oftentimes worked in counterpoint to liberty, not in conjunction with it.[1] Where liberty stood for commercial expansionism and the right of non-restraint, it was unavailable to the marginalized and could authorize a society of possessive individualists or, even worse, settler colonials. For Black writers of the period, evocations of honor and dignity are oftentimes calls for more reciprocal, materially-grounded social values. Against liberty, honor accounts for the mutual recognition that we owe to one another.

At the end of his Interesting Narrative (1789), the abolitionist and formerly enslaved person Olaudah Equiano appeals to the British Parliament, saying that he “hopes to have the satisfaction of seeing the renovation of liberty and justice resting on the British government, to vindicate the honour of our common nature.” The republican language of “liberty and justice” appear here. But those ideas can only be worthwhile if they serve the “honour of our common nature.” Rather than clashing sabres, Equiano closes his narrative with the equally dramatic—and, to this day, aspirational—claim of honor for all.

Honor, Romanticism, and the Hidden Value of Modernity by Jamison Kantor
Honor, Romanticism, and the Hidden Value of Modernity by Jamison Kantor

[1] This is one of the areas where I differ from Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose The Honor Code (2010) is a remarkable look at the moral philosophy of honor. At one point, Appiah cites abolitionists such as Granville Sharp, who argued that the dishonorable practice of slavery sullied British liberty. But for some Black Anglophone writers of the time, a toxic ideology of liberty was precisely the problem. Honor was the rejoinder.  


About The Author

Jamison Kantor

Jamison Kantor is an assistant professor at The Ohio State University whose essays have appeared in journals such as PMLA, Nineteenth-Century Literature, The Eighteenth Century: Th...

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