June 14, 2011

The Humanist In The Foxhole

PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR, who died last week at age 96 at his home in England, was one of the great minor men of the 20th century. A hero for helping undermine the German occupation of Crete during World War II, he went on to become one of the greatest travel writers of his era.

At first glance, Fermor seems a throwback to the age of derring-do imperialists like T. E. Lawrence. But he did not simply glorify king and country; rather, he combined the traits of a soldier, linguist and humanist, and he appreciated history and culture for their own sake even as he used that wisdom to defend civilization. In today’s world of overly specialized foreign-policy knowledge, in which military men, politicians and academics inhabit disconnected intellectual universes, we need more generalists like Fermor.

Trained in the classics before being expelled from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Fermor was the last member of an English-language literary Byzantium, which included Robert Byron, Freya Stark and Lawrence Durrell. Travel writers all, these children of empire had as their lair the Eastern Mediterranean and the greater Middle East.

The absence of electronic distractions gave these writers time to read and hone their intellects, allowing them to describe cultures and landscapes in exquisite but not needlessly florid language. Here is Fermor in his 1966 travel book, “Roumeli,” describing the sounds of the various regions of Greece: “Arcadia is the double flute, Arachova the jingle of hammers on the strings of a dulcimer, Roumeli a klephtic song heckled by dogs and shrill whistles, Epirus the trample of elephants, the Pyrrhic stamp, the heel slapped in the Tsamiko dance, the sigh of Dodonian holm-oaks and Acroceraunian thunder and rain.”

Unlike the young Winston Churchill in Sudan or the Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke journeying through the Ottoman Empire, Fermor and his friends refused to reduce the world to questions of strategy and national interest: they were more taken by culture and landscape, which in fact made them more valuable than most intelligence agents.

Following the Nazi occupation of Crete, Fermor, fluent in both classical and modern Greek, infiltrated the island to help organize the resistance. He and a small band of British agents spent years in the mountains disguised as Cretan shepherds, complete with black turbans and sashes and armed with silver-and-ivory daggers. Fermor organized and carried out the daring 1944 kidnapping of Gen. Werner Kreipe, the German commander in Crete, whom Fermor’s group marched to a boat that spirited them to Egypt.

Fermor could have settled comfortably into the War Office, or gone on to an illustrious diplomatic career. But his interests lay elsewhere: he traveled in the Caribbean, lived with French monks and wrote about it all.

He returned to Greece in the 1950s, where he produced his greatest works, “Mani,” about southern Greece, and “Roumeli,” about the north. Here we see his knowledge on full display: in “Roumeli” we are treated to disquisitions on Eastern monasticism, the dying dialect of the Sarakatsan tribe and the secret language of the Kravara, a region north of the Gulf of Corinth.

These are great works of travel, but they are also the gold standard of area expertise. Such expertise can only be built on devotion to subject, with no ulterior motive.

Because America’s own security will rest in a world where tribes matter as much as Twitter, Fermor is an icon of the kind of soldier, diplomat or intelligence expert we will need: someone who can seamlessly move from any one of these jobs to another, who is equally at home reading a terrain map as he is reciting the poetry of the people with whom he is dealing. The more depth and rarity of knowledge we can implant in our officials, the less likely they are to serve up the wrong options in a crisis.

But as Fermor shows, knowledge can’t be selectively learned for utilitarian ends. He was driven by the kind of appreciation of beauty with which life itself is sanctified.

I once visited his house in the Southern Peloponnese, where I fell into his library, pungent from the wood burning in the fireplace. Battered old bindings lay in recessed shelves piled to the ceiling.

At one point I mentioned the Neoplatonist philosopher Georgios Gemistos Plethon. I was suddenly regaled with a disquisition, between sips of retsina, of how Plethon’s remains were exhumed in 1465 by Sigismondo Malatesta, the mercenary commander of a Venetian expeditionary force that held the lower town of Mistra in the Peloponnese. Malatesta, Fermor recalled, refused to withdraw ahead of a Turkish army without first claiming the body of his favorite philosopher. Here was the erudition that flavors every page of Fermor’s books.

The British Empire lasted as long as it did partly because it produced soldier-aesthetes like Fermor, who could talk about medieval Greece as easily as he could the Italian Renaissance, for comparison is necessary for all serious scholarship. America needs men and women like Fermor if it is to maintain its current position in the world.