Sunday, April 15, 2007

Robin Wagner-Pacifici's "The Art of Surrender"

Robin E. Wagner-Pacifici is Gil and Frank Mustin Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her most recent book, The Art of Surrender: Decomposing Sovereignty at Conflict's End, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Art of Surrender comes right at the beginning of Chapter 4, "Sovereignty and Its Afterlife." The book is basically about the ceremonies, rituals, exchanges, and recognitions of military surrenders. It takes a close look at the materials that famous surrenders have left in their wakes, including history paintings of these scenes.

I begin Chapter 4 with an analysis of a 17th century painting by Charles Le Brun, "The Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander." In this painting, the family of the defeated and murdered Darius submit themselves before the victorious Alexander the Great, or at least they think they do. In the painting, two regal men stand before the surrendering family of Darius - only one of them is the real Alexander, the other is his general Hephaestion. Darius's family has made the awful error, compounding their own prostrate position, of surrendering to the wrong man. But Alexander forgives them for not having recognized him, and he spares their lives. The page quotes Louis XIV's official art "describer" Andre Felibien on this painting's ultimate meaning: "The painter could not have exposed to the eyes of the greatest king in the world [Louis XIV] an action more celebrated or [significant]. Because history records [this action] as one of the most glorious that Alexander had ever undertaken, owing to the clemency and moderation that the prince extended in this encounter. In overcoming himself, he overcame not the savage peoples, but the vanquisher of all nations."

For me, this painting and its royal interpretation (one ancient monarch instructing a 17th century monarch through the ministrations of a court official) raised important issues about how sovereigns should be recognized and for what. In this scene of ultimate surrender, the lesson seems to be that the greatest action a sovereign can take is to withhold action, to demonstrate clemency and moderation. Of course, this clemency comes after success in the deployment of violence in military battles. So it is very paradoxical. Felibien is trying to both compliment and instruct his own sovereign, Louis XIV, by claiming that Alexander's act of overcoming himself, is actually one of his most glorious.

Of course, sovereigns must be secure in their own legitimacy and authority in order to refrain from violent action, especially when they are not adequately recognized. So with all of the historical specificity and cross-referencing on page 99, looking back on it now I read it as fundamentally about how powerful and difficult it is for sovereigns to withhold violence.
Visit the publisher's website for more information on The Art of Surrender.

--Marshal Zeringue