What is best in life?
To crush your deadlines. See them driven before you. And to hear the lamentations of the haters.
I've a new essay in the latest edition of Island magazine (#154), on Conan the Barbarian. I explore the history and meaning of this savage modern hero, and speculate on why I'm so into him.
I'm especially chuffed by this feature, as I commissioned Hobart artist Tania Walker to illustrate it for me. By Crom, her artwork slays.
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Want to read the beginning of the essay? Sure, here you go.
In my first few weeks in Hobart, I took up swordfighting. Circumstances were not ideal. My hand was bandaged, after I cut my pinky with a pocket knife opening cardboard boxes. I ached from sleeping on a sofa mattress. And I had nowhere to store my equipment, keeping my leather gloves and plastic armour in yet another cardboard box. Still, it was an adventure. My introduction to the city coincided with my introduction to Elizabethan cuts, dodges and parries.
This archaic play was chiefly out of curiosity. As the editor of Philosophy and the Martial Arts, I was keen to try new violence. It also compensated for my hermetic bent, getting me out of the house in a new city. But there was one last lure, which had my hand in the sword’s basket-hilt: Conan the barbarian.
In the past year, I have read more pages of Conan that I have of Plato, Kant and Heidegger put together. This is partly because the Conan mythos includes many authors, writing over eight decades in short stories, novels and comics. It is an enormous legacy. Robert E. Howard’s archaic pulp is also a supersized snack that offers little bone or fibre to chew on—it is pure flavour, which I swallow with ease.
Still, Conan is obviously answering to some needs in me. No one shelves thirteen thick volumes of Savage Sword of Conan without some itch being scratched. Why the barbarian?
“Reading for pleasure” is a less helpful explanation than it seems. In this, pleasure is merely not utility. The university textbook, the company memorandum, the slush pile manuscript—we turn these pages because we have to. They can offer joys, but they need not. They are the means to some end, whereas the end of reading for pleasure is in the reading itself. Fair enough.
But enjoyment is as plural as taste. Witness: I have read Kant for pleasure, for the joy of exercising my intellect. In fact, this is David Hume’s very definition of love of learning: flexing mental muscles, enjoyably. My shelves are full of such varied gratifications. James Boswell’s deluded candour, Maggie Nelson’s strained silences, Melissa Harrison’s eye for the domestic wild, Ken Liu’s cuts in humanity’s edges—I get my kicks miscellaneously. Put simply, pleasure is complex, and the phrase “reading for pleasure” is falsely simple. To better understand my cleaving to Conan, I first must introduce his specific character and world.
Conan is a barbarian, a word the Greeks used for foreigners—barbaros was a gobbledegook noise. It was originally used with goodwill, but eventually grew to become a slur—perhaps after the Persian War. By the time it appeared in English during the sixteenth-century, it kept its dual Hellenic meanings: alien others, and sometimes lesser ones.
Importantly, the barbarian is not a ‘savage’; not one of the African or North American tribes seen by Howard as more beasts than human beings. He is no cannibal. But he is nonetheless outside civil life: primal, animalistic, brutal. Hardened by want, while city folk are softened by luxury, he is exactly what we are not. In “Beyond the Black River”, Howard writes that ‘barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural.’ In other words, this outsider is the original human being, with all this suggests. The real, the genuine, the most perfect. Yet almost every one of Howard’s fictional comrades, villains, and lovers is civilised—as are we readers. So the barbarian is the exotic, exciting exception and the authentic.
Conan himself is an exemplary barbarian: crude in his tastes, wild in his temper, predatory in his instincts. In his eyes are ‘pristine images and half-embodied memories, shadows from Life’s dawn’. He fumes and lusts as his mood takes him, and is known for his brooding stare and loud laughter. His credo is well put in “The Queen of the Black Coast”: ‘I live, I burn with life, I slay, and am content.’
As English Literature scholar Christopher Dowd points out in New Hibernia Review, Conan is something of an Irish stereotype—only the caricature is laudatory not derogatory. He is a liquored-up pants man, who swings between sullen silence and rage. This was part of Howard’s invented identity as an Irishman, despite the Texan having almost nothing to do with the home country or diasporas. Howard saw himself as the heir of a long, noble tradition of Irish pluck and ire, and he shaped his hero with this mould. In this, Conan is named for an ancient Old World king, but he is a New World fiction: of primitive Hibernian potency, appetite, volatility, and shrewdness.