Speaker Bureau’s Richard Farr on Heroes, History and Public Perception

The author of Emperors of the Ice shares the story of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and explains how historic legacies evolve over time.

The greatest stories in human history often share a common thread: the ability to transcend time and place to tell a tale of courage in the worst of circumstances. In Emperors of the Ice, author Richard Farr presents the tale of Robert Falcon Scott, a courageous but imperfect Antarctic adventurer who has been both revered and reviled as his legacy continues to evolve.

“It’s been a hundred years since Scott’s ‘Winter Journey’ team returned to base after their multiple brushes with death,” recounts Farr. “A century is a very long time – it’s hard to get an imaginative grip on how different their world was from ours – and yet their story is thrilling because their values and attitudes speak so freshly and directly to us.”

Richard Farr

Richard Farr

A professor with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cornell University, Farr has long been interested in heroes and what makes them stand the test of time; he conducts lectures on the topic around the state as a member of Humanities Washington’s 2010-2012 Speakers Bureau.

Humanities Washington talked to Farr via e-mail to discuss the impact of Robert Falcon Scott, as well as why the legacy of heroes can shift over time.

Humanities Washington: In today’s media-saturated culture, we learn more about our “heroes” than ever before. Has this made us more willing to accept flaws in character and judgment?

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Richard Farr: As soon as we hear of someone who might count as “heroic,” we are tempted to simplify: ignore evidence of flaws, ignore mistakes, ignore unsavory aspects of their character, turn them into some shining paragon that gives us a warm feeling without having much to do with the reality. You see that in movies, and other media, too, but I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon. In Brecht’s play Galileo, the rather romantic Andrea says, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes,” and the more cynical Galileo replies, “Unhappy the land in need of them.” I think the truth lies somewhere in between: heroes are just a kind of role model, and role models are good. Unfortunately many of the role models we give ourselves are pretty unrealistic! One reason for looking closely at someone like Scott is to see that the man is so much more complicated – and interesting – than the myths.

HW: How else have our perceptions about heroic figures changed in modern times?

Farr: The ancient heroes of Greece had super powers, but they were also complex, conflicted individuals. Even in peacetime, nobody would have mistaken Achilles for a calm, balanced, pleasant guy! I worry sometimes that we have a terrible taste for simplicity, and want our real-life or fictional heroes to be examples of perfect good in the face of perfect evil. (It’s surely one chief cause of boring movies.) But I think we still share something of the Greek sense that “hero” means not just “better” but “other.” Even James Bond and the Incredible Hulk are grappling with inner inadequacies or demons. We’re fascinated by them because they are both better and worse than us.

HW: Why do you think historians working with the same body of evidence can reach radically different conclusions?

Farr: Good historians reach beyond their own prejudices; ideally, they want to share with us a comprehension of the past as it was for the people who lived it. (In the preface to my book I quote E.P. Thompson’s famous phrase about trying “to rescue the past from the enormous condescension of posterity.”) But most of us are bad historians: We rewrite the past to suit the prejudices we already have. That’s why you sometimes learn more about a historian’s era reading a book on a highly controversial figure like Scott than you do about the time in which the historical figure actually lived.

HW: Does the story of Robert Falcon Scott exemplify how public perceptions about a heroic figure change over time?

Farr: Scott is just a very acute case of a common phenomenon: one generation needed him to be a sort of perfect Sir Galahad figure, so they made him into that; another generation needed him to be a pompous, amateurish British Empire fool, so they made him into that. Neither view is all that plausible. But very complex individuals like Scott are easy targets, because their lives are so inherently rich and contradictory – you can pick your evidence. The same sort of thing has happened to the reputation of Churchill recently, and even some great intellectual figures, like Freud.

HW: What is it about a hero’s death that elevates otherwise forgettable historical figures to hero status?

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Richard Farr shares a sample [483 KB PDF] from Emperors of the Ice.

Farr: Heroes have to be brave, and bravery in the face of death is perhaps the ultimate badge of courage. But don’t think it’s just lack of fear – or mastery of fear – that impresses us. Paradoxically, there’s something very life-affirming and universally admired in the attitude that your own life and death are no big deal relative to some larger goal or ideal. As I have said, I was drawn to these men partly because of the charm that lies in their absolute unwillingness to take themselves too seriously. And Scott’s death was of course special for several reasons: not only was it brave, but he chronicled it himself, in extraordinarily powerful language, and did so in a way that ignored his own suffering. Who else, dying of hunger and cold, could find the energy and presence of mind to write a letter to the wife of a dying companion – a letter that’s all about her loss and suffering – and end with the words, “My whole heart goes out to you in pity”? If you’re capable of being cynical about that level of selflessness, there’s no hope for you!

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