“One third of all criminals are nothing but failed adventurers.”
“The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself … these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have,” Joss Whedon told graduating seniors in his fantastic 2013 Wesleyan commencement address. “This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. … If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace.”
In Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure (public library) — a 1929 collection of short and exquisitely written biographical essays on the lives of such famed adventurers as Alexander the Great, Casanova, Christopher Columbus, Napoleon, and Isadora Duncan — William Bolitho celebrates the contradictions and bipolar tensions that live inside and often drive even history’s most celebrated heroes:
In the titanic works and events of our day there is the same hostile co-operation of runaway and stay-at-home, the same cult-struggle with the same enigmatic goddess, who asks all and gives all. History has always treasured a catalogue of adventurers — she has not changed her ways, though she may not, for business reasons, be allowed to publish it.
These inner conflicts, he argues in a passage Anaïs Nin noted in the fifth volume of her diaries, are the core of the Adventurer’s spirit, and what sets the hero apart from the villain is the ability to channel this bipolar energy into a generative force rather than a destructive or self-destructive one:
The Adventurer is within us, and he contests for our favor with the social man we are obliged to be. These two sorts of life are incompatible; one we hanker for, the other we are obliged to. There is no other conflict so bitter as this, whatever the pious say, for it derives from the very constitution of human life which so painfully separates us from all other human beings. We, like the eagle, were born to be free. Yet we are obliged, in order to live at all, to make a cage of laws for ourselves and to stand on the perch. We are born as wasteful and unremorseful as tigers; we are obliged to be thrifty, or starve, or freeze. We are born to wander, and cursed to stay and dig. We are born adventurers. It is this double-mindedness of humanity that prevents a clear social excommunication of the adventurers. If he fails he is a mere criminal. One third of all criminals are nothing but failed adventurers. Society’s benefactors as well as pests. These are men betrayed by contradictions inside themselves, a social man at war with a free man.
Perhaps most poignant of all are Bolitho’s closing words, which, in addition to echoing Virginia Woolf’s meditation on imitation and the arts, remind us that as much as we may fall for reductionism, human character is irreducible and full of flux, a fluid self that warrants defending:
Life, that winged swift thing, has to be shot down and reposed by art, like a stuffed bird, before we can use it as a model. There is, therefore, in religion and ethics always art; personality has to be simplified, wired; both its incidents and its results theorized and coordinated before it can awake that only instinct working to our own advantage with which we are endowed: imitation.
Twelve Against the Gods, if you can find a surviving copy, is well worth a read, not only for the enlightening histories but also for Bolitho’s timeless observations on the most enduring and universal aspects of human nature. Complement it, if you haven’t already, with Whedon’s spectacular speech.
Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons