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Lytton Strachey picked his moment to make sport of Thomas Arnold and other Victorians. (Tate Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY)

Historical Laughter

Those who don't have power tend to make fun of those who do. But what happens when the power shifts?

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Lytton Strachey made up the business about Thomas Arnold having short legs. Arnold—headmaster of Rugby, father of Matthew Arnold, paragon of manly 19th-century Christian rectitude and one of the subjects of Strachey's Eminent Victorians—had perfectly normal legs.

But Strachey, for his own sly purposes, invented the indelible detail: "[Arnold's] outward appearance was the index of his inward character: everything about him denoted energy, earnestness and the best intentions. His legs, perhaps, were shorter than they should have been." (The Strachey touch is to be admired in the pseudo-diffident "perhaps" and "should." It added something to the joke that Strachey was a tall, dramatically ungainly man, built along the lines of a daddy longlegs.)

Other writers—Dickens, Wilde, Shaw, for example—assaulted the Victorian edifice without inflicting much permanent damage. But Strachey was an exquisitely destructive cartoonist, and his timing was as nice as his instinct for detail. Eminent Victorians appeared in the spring of 1918. After four years of the Great War and the slaughter of much of a generation of Europe's young men, hitherto imposing figures of the preceding age (Strachey's other subjects were Florence Nightingale, Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon and Cardinal Manning) seemed threadbare, exhausted. So, indeed, did the British Empire. Strachey's book became one of the 20th century's classic pieces of literary demolition, deft and deliciously unfair, an enactment of the late columnist Murray Kempton's crack about those who come down out of the hills after the battle is over to shoot the wounded.

The transition from one age to another brings a change in the lenses through which people view the history that is just past and their own place in the history that is now unfolding. The universe of those in power is mocked by those who are not in power—at least not yet—as, say, the television satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert mocked the administration of George W. Bush.

But the power changes hands. What then? What lens does the mind use in the new dispensation?

I think of such questions as the 21st century tries to sort itself out—economically, politically, environmentally—and to organize its perspectives as it hastens into a new age. We need to have a context to imagine ourselves. What is our narrative line?

Ecclesiastes says there is "a time to break down and a time to build up": the oldest dynamic. King Lear, the "old majesty," goes mad and expires. Goneril and Regan are consumed. Somewhere beyond the curtain of the fifth act lies a world more stable and sane, less petty and less murderous and less ignoble.

A pedestrian subtheme is always at work at the same time. As Emerson said, "Every hero becomes a bore at last."

Napoleon acted out this bathos. On St. Helena, his young aide-de-camp, Gen. Gaspard Gourgaud, kept a journal:

October 21 [1815]: I walk with the Emperor in the garden, and we discuss women. He maintains that a young man should not run after them....

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