Academic journal article Helios

The Imitation of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan

Academic journal article Helios

The Imitation of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan

Article excerpt

  No one was like him. Terrible were his crimes--but if you wish to
  blackguard the Great King, think how mean, obscure and dull you are,
  your labors lowly and your merits less ...
  --Robert Lowell, quoted in Paul Cartledge, Alexander the Great: The
  Hunt for a New Past

As Harold Bloom (2004, 87) has remarked about Don Quixote, the novel is capable of sustaining almost any interpretation a critic might choose to impress upon it. The same might be said about Alexander the Great. His character opens itself up to a wide variety of possible interpretations, Alexander being regarded at one end of the spectrum of possibilities as a lawless despot and at the other end as a high-minded philosopher proclaiming the doctrine of the unity of humankind. (1) My concern here, however, lies not with how scholars have understood Alexander but rather with how Alexander has influenced others, in this case three nineteenth-century adventurers who, in imitation of the Macedonian conqueror, tried and ultimately failed to build kingdoms for themselves in remote regions of Afghanistan at the time largely unknown to the people of the west. (2)

Despite a certain common set of experiences, the three adventurers discussed here differ in the various ways they imitated Alexander. The first figure to be considered is Daniel or Danny Dravot, hero or, it might better be said, antihero of Rudyard Kipling's short story "The Man Who Would Be King," which Kipling composed in 1888 while employed as a journalist in British-controlled India. In Kipling's story, Dravot is a trickster and confidence man; he imitates Alexander in the sense of imitation (mimesis) defined and discussed by Plato in book 3 of the Republic. For Plato imitation is impersonation, and Dravot impersonates the son of the Macedonian conqueror. The second figure of interest is close kin to the first: he is the Danny Dravot who serves as the protagonist of John Huston's 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King (screenplay by John Huston and Gladys Hill). Despite the judgment of some critics that he remains for the most part faithful to Kipling, Huston portrays Dravot in ways different from Kipling, these differences involving the manner in which Alexander is imitated. Huston's Dravot, while he begins the film as an impostor or conman in the Kipling mode, gradually identifies himself so closely with Alexander that he comes to believe himself to be Alexander's true son. His judgment is warped and his sense of reality compromised because he falls victim to the deleterious effects of mimesis in the sense of imitation that Rene Girard in an important study of the novel and in other works has characterized as "mimetic desire" (Girard 1966, 1977, 1987, 2001). The third figure is Josiah Harlan, the first American in Afghanistan. Harlan's adventures there in the first half of the nineteenth century preceded the composition of Kipling's story and may even have inspired its writing. Perhaps because he was an historical figure with a complex of motives and desires rendered still more opaque by a slim historical record and the passage of almost two centuries, Harlan's mode of imitating Alexander is more difficult to comprehend with the clarity that attends the case of his two fictional counterparts. Nonetheless, I will argue that Harlan may also be said to be a victim of mimetic desire, though in a second, weaker, and more universal sense of the concept that Girard worked out when he turned his attention away from the pathological manifestations of mimetic desire specific to the novel and developed a theory of such desire that also covers its manifestations in the day-to-day lives of ordinary flesh-and-blood human beings. I will, in conclusion, suggest that this weaker sense of mimetic desire may also have played a part in the psychological makeup determining the actions of Alexander himself, who imitated and sought to surpass the deeds of several ancestral and mythical models. (3) Let us begin with a consideration of Rudyard Kipling's story "The Man Who Would Be King. …

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