Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the tale of Australian prisoners of war building the Burma railway under such brutal conditions in WWII. At one point in the story, one of the most resilient and charismatic prisoners suffers a horrendous beating from the Japanese guards, and his fellow prisoners are forced to stand at attention and witness it the relentless cruelty. That night, the badly injured Darky Gardiner slips into the primitive camp latrine and drowns. After the war, some of his comrades are out for a night of drinking in Hobart, Tasmania, and they come upon Nikitaris’ fish shop. They remember how Darky used to carry on about how much he loved to take his girlfriend to Nikitaris’ for a night out, and how someday he wished to return and free the fish from the tank in the window. Remembering their friend, they break the window, scoop out the fish into slop buckets, and free them in the harbor. The next evening, remorseful for the damages they caused, they visit the fish shop to pay for the repairs, and then something unexpected happens. When they go to explain their actions to Mr. Nikitaris, the old man senses something and brings them up short.
“He was your cobber?”
Not only does Mr. Nikitaris refuse their money, but he feeds them and gives them wine, and soon enough, they realize that the old man lost a son in the war in New Guinea in 1943. And then they are a just a group of men sharing their losses without speaking directly about them, sharing their company long into the night.
“It was hard to explain how good that fried fish and chips and cheap red wine felt inside them. It tasted right. The old Greek made his own coffee for them—little cups, thick, black, and sweet—and he gave them walnut pastries his daughter had made. Everything was strange and welcoming at the same time. The simple chairs felt easy, and the place, too, felt right, and the people felt good, and, for as long as that night lasted, thought Jimmy Bigelow, there was nowhere else in the world he wished to be.”
The scene is an exquisite example of a profound sense of honor—brothers-in-arms honoring the memory of a fallen comrade, an old man honoring their loss, a group of wounded men honoring his loss in kind, and all of them finding some solace together in the deep meaning of what they have suffered and lost.
dan demetriou said:
Tony, you posted this while I was traveling, and I haven’t had a chance to reply. It really got me thinking about poignancy and honor. It seems like honor does well with poignancy (as does care ethics). For example, contrast honor with consequentialism. Consequentialism of course predicts loss (as when we push the fat man onto the tracks in a trolley case), but, as Bernard Williams argued, it doesn’t seem to account for the “moral remainder” of loss—in that case, the fat man’s death, or his “sacrifice.” Even other non-consequentialist views, such as contractarianism, seem to recognize loss without really transforming it into something poignant. Honor (and, I think, care ethics) does do this—the meaningfulness of loss isn’t merely compatible with those views, it’s intrinsic to them. Thoughts? Thanks for posting.
I think you’re right, Dan. Suppose that someone thinks that everything that matters can be reduced to the same “stuff.” In this case, I might find myself in unfortunate situations where I can’t have it all or where I have to choose the lesser of two evils, but I can always have the consolation of knowing that “it could have been worse” or that “at least I was able to salvage this good thing.” But in a world with all sorts of things that matter, where the things that matter defy precise measurement and comparison, some losses are bound to feel more poignant and less amenable to any easy consolation in this sense. Indeed, some losses are incalculable, not because we lack the device to measure them, but just by nature of the loss and us. In this story, these men have survived the brutal experience of building the Burma railway. So yes, they survived, and Darky Gardiner didn’t, and one might say, “That’s that,” but if these men didn’t feel the losses acutely–not just that Darky died, but how he died, and what a magnificent fellow he was to die this kind of death–they wouldn’t be the men they are. I’d say that a capacity to feel such acute and poignant loss is a part of their sense of honor as a way of seeing and valuing the world.
dan demetriou said:
That’s interesting—that pluralism about the good has the advantage over non-pluralistic theories of accounting for the phenomenology of loss. But there’s this additional fact, I think, of honor psychology such that one is supposed to honor to those who recently suffered loss.
For instance, suppose Jill’s kid commits suicide. How should the utilitarian or contractarian respond to Jill? No answer, really, is predicted by those views. Honor and care ethics are much stronger here in that one has a sense of what one should do when one puts those hats on. Care says to comfort them, and honor says to protect them from trivial concerns and give them space. (This is pretty gendered, too, I’m feeling.)
Anyway, this gets amplified a ton when the sacrifice was for a noble purpose, such as if Jill lost a son in a just war. Honor is at its best and most natural especially when it comes to dealing with people who suffered for the group’s survival or success. Really interesting angle I never thought about, transmuting loss into poignancy…
One of the things that got me thinking about honor years ago was how so much of mainstream “moral philosophy” in the Western intellectual tradition tends to focus on detached rules and principles as if they have some life of their own, completely independent from people and just waiting about for their appropriate fidelity and adoration. When I think of the deepest and most meaningful experiences in my life, they aren’t cases where some rule or principle is the real thing, so to speak. They are often cases where something constitutes someone, instances where people are genuinely at stake in some deep sense. A sense of honor feels like this to me, and given this element of the constitution of a self, it’s no wonder to me that a proper sense of loss should be so deeply connected to a sense of honor. In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Dorrigo Evans is the protagonist. He’s a flawed hero, a surgeon who doesn’t care for virtue and goodness as it is usually embodied. But he finds himself the leader of a group of prisoners on the Burma Railway, and he rises to the occasion, becoming a mythical figure as the Big Fella. He has no interest in abstractions. The men need him, and he simply cannot let them down, even if he isn’t really and truly the larger-than-life man they need him to be. At one point, an assistant brings him a pilfered steak as a gesture of thanks from the men, and though he wants to eat it more than he wants anything in the world, he offers it up to others who need it more. There is nothing sanctimonious about the gesture. He doesn’t wallow in his own image of goodness, and neither does he bow down before some high-minded principle. The men need him to be the Big Fella, plain and simple, and he can be nothing but that man. A sense of honor is that kind of thing.