Eric (Russell) Bentley

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Leonard Bacon

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A young man has arrived. The reviewer shamelessly admits that he has been astonished, excited, charmed, and occasionally puzzled by this brilliant book [A Century of Hero-Worship]. He further confesses that the rather lacklustre title had led him to expect the sifted tailings of some academic mine. Certainly he was not prepared for thought like electricity in motion and wholly different from the static glow of St. Elmo's fire. Nor did he anticipate analysis and interpretation at once intelligently impartial and generously sympathetic.

Mr. Bentley has investigated with extreme thoroughness (his lightly worn learning is part of his book's genuine charm) the dangerous aspects of what looks like a safe idea…. The variations on the theme are numerous and the orchestrations which are incredibly diverse are studied (with remarkable penetration) in the careers of Carlyle, Nietzsche, Wagner, Shaw, Spengler, Stefan George, and D. H. Lawrence, each of them in his way dyed in the wool, or at least tinctured, with what Mr. Bentley calls Heroic Vitalism—that is, the affirmation of life and the heroic cult. The upshot of the investigation is that Heroic Vitalism is no place for a liberal, because it leads automatically to vapid estheticism or to fascism pure and simple.

Naturally, thinking as he does, Mr. Bentley is at pains to disclaim any intention of manufacturing a program in which his victims might concur, but he demonstrates brilliantly that every man Jack of them is wholly or in part an heroic vitalist and that the wages of the heresy are failure. The essays on Carlyle and Nietzsche are the nub of the book. And never were the agonies in which men's minds involve them treated more competently, or it may be added with a greater quantum of that sympathy which is owed to honest men with whom we do not agree. Before you get through you almost understand Carlyle's attempt at the deification of Frederick the Great, the hardest brute to deify on record. And the remarkable exposition of the dual nature of Nietzsche's piercing but mutually exclusive intuitions will give you something to think of even in wartime winter evenings. Heroic vitalists normally have a pretty bad time of it even in their "sunny" moments.

The worst thing that the reviewer can think up to say about an entertaining and powerful book is that occasionally a passage reminds one of a doctorate thesis, which in point of fact the book originally was. Here and there, but only rarely, there is a lapse into the wooden mannerism of dissertations prepared in partial fulfillment of the requirements of some faculty somewhere. But if all academic papers showed such "bright gleams of parts" no one would throw rocks at graduate schools.

Leonard Bacon, "Heroes and the Heroic Cult," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1944, copyright renewed © 1971, by Saturday Review Magazine Co.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 40, September 30, 1944, p. 14.

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