Sunday, March 26, 2006

Guy Fawkes, Reconsidered

V for Vendetta, what appears to be a paltry attempt at social commentary with a backdrop of gigantic explosions, has exposed an old, old, fault line in the Anglophone world over the place of Guy Fawkes in history.

Auberon Waugh, son of the often cretinous Evelyn Waugh, recalled how his family would flippantly celebrate November 5, Guy Fawkes' Day:

"Fireworks night, so we join the citizens in their fawning celebration of a brave and good man's death. In our family we always let off our fireworks in celebration of the attempt to blow up Parliament, rather than its failure, and we have never had an accident. If ever the Vatican requires evidence of divine intervention before raising Guy Fawkes, Soldier and Martyr, to the celestial company of canonised saints, it has only to look to the hundreds of men, women and children blinded and disfigured every year in their attempts to mock him.

"If only the Jesuits realised how the aims of St. Guy Fawkes coincided with those of nearly everybody alive today, they might drop their pathetic, cringing attempts to deny that he every existed and actively promote the cause."
-Diaries, Nov. 5 1974

Various movie reviewers have scolded the juvenile Wachowski brothers for glamorizing Fawkes:

It may be relevant to point out, for instance, that Guy Fawkes, who is at the emotional center of the movie as well as of the graphic novel, was no liberator but a Catholic dissident who, in 1605, wanted to destroy the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the House of Lords and killing King James I. Captured beneath Parliament with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, Fawkes was tortured and hanged, and, ever since, on November 5th (the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot), he has been burned in effigy all over England in celebrations both merry and ironic. If Guy Fawkes has become a sympathetic figure, it’s his failure—his incompetence as a mass murderer—that has made him so.
-David Denby, The New Yorker

And Daniel Larison essays a limited defense of Fawkes against a Washington Post reviewer's comparison of the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11:

Fawkes targeted the heart of the government he was out to topple, and he sought to do it without threatening the lives of civilians. He did not seek to blow up a train, a hotel, a marketplace, a stock exchange, a bustling port, a school or a place of worship, or any other place that would involve the deliberate targeting of civilians. He targeted the seat of a government he believed (and not entirely unreasonably) to be illegitimate. Given the same chance under similar circumstances, I doubt that most of the heroes of Whig history would not have done just as Fawkes and his crew tried, and failed, to do.

Mr. Larison sees the continued villification of Fawkes as another facet in the so-called culture wars, one side of which depicts militant Christianity always as the oppressor and never as the oppressed. Comparing, say, the bombing of the Serbian people on Orthodox Easter to the pussy-footing reverence for Ramadan truces, one can't help but wonder if the former deed resulted from the abecedarian "Anything But Christianity" education found in most Western universities.

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