The Death of General Wolfe: A Social Commentary on Art and Identity
Here’s a lesson in understanding people, one learned from Foreign Service days of long ago: more important than who people are is who they think they are.
Years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, in old Czechoslovakia I knew an aloof East Bloc diplomat, a potential source of insight. After a year of my failing to cultivate him, we stumbled into a discussion on Balkan history. Suddenly he came alive and eagerly told me who he really felt himself to be. Seems he felt less his country’s representative than, of all things, a descendent of goat herders–racially pure members of the noble Latin race whose profession (i.e. goat herding) had kept them safely secluded in Romania’s hills and mountains.
By contrast, cattlemen and farmers were necessarily confined to the lowlands and, as a consequence, took fully the impregnating impact of the Mongolian invasions of the 13th century. That was why, he explained, his eyes were “western,” while those of many of his colleagues had an Asiatic configuration, if ever so slight. It seemed important to him that I should know who he thought himself to be–a descendent of the ancient Romans! A little Cold War ice had been broken, he opened up and our relationship warmed.
So, sitting here at the June Chantilly gun show, I’m watching humanity pass before my tables. As always, I wonder how we can know–not who these people are–but who they think they are. Revelations seem to have advanced over the past fifty years with the rise of ethnic cultures and politics, and with the massive rebellion against orthodoxies and conventions; what were once regarded as abnormalities to be shunned, are now worn on the sleeve–whether bizarre t-shirt messages, black clothing, odd hair styles, or permanent corporal decoration. I mean, suppose our Communist diplomat had been no diplomat, were a lot younger, had been visiting Virginia and had just walked into the show. His t-shirt might well be emblazoned “Veni, vedi, vici” or perhaps, “I am the proud and pure descendant of Roman Emperors!” Such crying out is surely key to innermost identity!
Of course, some t-shirt messages confound. One fellow at the show wore (as best as my memory can cough it up): “If I cry out, support me//If I charge, follow me//If I am killed, mourn me.” He looked like Messiah Junior to me, but short of engaging him in frank conversation, who could really know?
Not that I was ever free of such fantastical flaunting of whom I thought myself to be; on winter coats worn in teenage years, I had sewn two parallel rows of brass buttons in the style of Civil War generals! As it happened, no one ever asked me about them, not once.
And the fellows walking by with ponytails, Chinese pigtails, dreadlocks, locks falling down their backs and, most lately, the epidemic of shaven heads! And the dew rags, diamond ear studs, nose rings, East African grommet ear plugs, not to mention the tatts. Who do they imagine themselves to be? What cry-outs from the depths does such scruffage convey–seventeenth century pirating, good old boy Duck Dynesty-ing, Bruce Jenner-like transitioning, Brazilian football hero fixation-ing, yearnings to “epater le bourgeois” by turning one’s back on religion, country, employment, family, soap and water?
Not long after retirement, just when I thought I had these questions all sorted out, and with dark conclusions drawn, my judgment was shaken. I ran into a ponytailed fellow at a show. As tactfully as possible, I indicated that I would give a lot to know who he thought he was. He responded that he was a French and Indian War reenactor, a devotee of British General James Wolfe, slain at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. In fact, he said had just participated in a living tableau of Benjamin West’s iconic painting of Wolfe’s death. He had played the ‘Noble Savage,’ the quintessential symbol of the Enlightenment–a tattooed, ear-and-nose-pierced Indian with hair pulled into a top-knot of beads, feathers and porcupine quills, who sat at Wolfe’s feet looking straight into the general’s dying eyes