The lives of great men | Aleks Farrugia

The problem that ‘great’ men pose to the historian is that greatness begets mythology or, to be more exact, ‘mythistory’

Former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff with his wife Moyra
Former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff with his wife Moyra

That a historian is concerned with the life of a ‘great’ man is no historical innovation. If anything, modern historians have shifted their gaze towards the ‘lesser’ men and women, people who for a long time were neglected and considered ‘insignificant’ to the bigger scheme of History (with emphasis on the big H).

Take an example from our own history: we still speak of Gorg Borg Olivier “getting us independence” and of Mintoff as “the father of the nation” with little study, if any, of the people who actually supported them and made their achievements possible – say, the 51,000 Labour ‘suldati tal-azzar’ (‘soldiers of steel’) which, had it not been for their support and activism, Mintoff would have been as much a lonely voice in the desert as Manwel Dimech was at the turn of the 20th century.

The first problem that ‘great’ men pose to the historian is that greatness begets mythology or, to be more exact, ‘mythistory’ – that insidious blurring between fact and fiction, where it becomes very difficult to sift from supposed facts, the granules of fiction that have become accepted as facts even by certain authoritative sources.

This has led to the most cynic of philosophers of history to resign themselves to the impossibility of establishing pure fact devoid of any fictional elements, and consequently the impossibility of truth which is not concurrently partially a lie.

The second problem with ‘great’ men, intrinsically tied to the first, is that the mythology of greatness creates monuments from men. The human aspect, with its flaws and contradictions, becomes automatically subjected to that to which greatness is attributed. Human life, with all its randomness and complexities, becomes a systematic life project, as if from birth the ‘great’ man was destined towards ‘greatness’ and whatever passed during his life was part of the bigger design towards achieving such greatness. Sex and the intimate – to take an example – have a function to this narrative only in so far as they serve the purpose of the myth-making process. Take the salacious details about the rocky relationship between Napoleon and Josephine; such details fill many pages in any Napoleon biography, but what is the intent behind them if not to sustain the romantic narrative of masculinity of which Napoleon has often been raised to be the epitome?

Not the same can be said of great – let alone the lesser – women.

Often conforming to that Christian view that women are either virgins or prostitutes, historians have been less shy to pry into the intimacies of women. And they have not been kind either; especially to those who did not conform to that impossible model of being a virgin mother. Not even the likes of St Catherine of Siena (who is said to have made up her mind about her chastity at the tender age of six!) have been spared.

Historians, even the most modern ones, did not hesitate to brand her as ‘somewhat ugly’ and her mystic visions, with their erotic undertones, have been subjected to all sorts of associations and speculations. Perhaps throughout history, many a historian felt that masculinity would be better served by seeing behind the few ‘great’ women of history a closeted harlot awaiting to be unleashed if only the occasion were to present itself.

After so much myth-making, that a Mintoff biography that tries to discover the man behind the myth is bound to be controversial, is frankly no surprise. What is surprising is that what has raised most controversy has been what, in my opinion, has been Mark Montebello’s least successful attempt at de-mythologising Mintoff: his sex life.

To my knowledge, there is little research – if any, that compares Mintoff’s persona with that of Benito Mussolini (the towering ‘great’ man of Mintoff’s youth, fawned upon not least by the British themselves). Like Mussolini, Mintoff remains to this day a very dividing figure between those who hail him as the ‘saviour’ of his country, the ‘architect’ of the nation; and those who loathe him, hold him to be a ‘bully’ and a ‘dictator’. Such epithets were attributed to both men. Both Mintoff and Mussolini before him were very aware of their public persona and actively engaged in its construction: the image of the strong man but also a man of the people, a man of action but also a great orator, the man with an overarching vision but also a multi-tasking practical man who could engineer solutions even to the minutest of mundane issues (including the choice of trees to be planted on the waysides!).

Above all, though, intrinsically wrought with their public persona, both Mussolini and Mintoff projected a narrative of masculinity that had to be necessarily virile and earthy – a narrative of masculinity rooted in the southern European popular imagination of what a man should look like and behave if he is to be a ‘true’ man.

The conquest of women, their subjugation, if necessary even their humiliation and the use of brute force: all this was part of a widespread narrative of masculinity and part of the plight of women in many households. The man has to be the conquering man, the alpha-male, the lion that sits licking its paws whilst the pack of lionesses serve him and grant him sex in order to get his protection. At least that was the outer image that had to be projected – to other men to get their respect, and to other women to attract them to the pack – but essentially it was a man’s business in a man’s world, establishing oneself as the undisputed leader, the one at the top of the food chain.

How much of this self-constructed narrative was fact and how much of it was fictional is the historian’s job to try and uncover.

Sometimes it is the case that the persona takes over one’s reality and becomes one’s life, other times it might not necessarily be so. To my liking Mark Montebello does not challenge enough this process of mythmaking of which Mintoff himself was part-engineer. Men brag about the size of their penises and about their conquests, yet the measure of whether such claims are true or not cannot lie on the recollections of people (mostly men, anyway) who were at the receiving end of those claims.

An autobiography in itself has no particular claim to truth, especially if behind it is the rationale that it is a testament for posterity.

It could actually be another mythmaking exercise, of which our literature is not devoid (Guido de Marco’s autobiography could have been easily titled ‘Me, Myself and I’). For all we know, Mintoff could have been a sex-beast in bed as much as a mediocre sod, who bragged more than he actually got. It’s a question that unless hard evidence is provided for will remain unanswered and its sole value – from a historian’s viewpoint – is whether Mintoff had effectively engineered his narrative of masculinity or not.

Apparently he did, and that many people were ready to disclose what they ‘knew’ of it is testimony enough of its success.

Times change and with them the narratives we tell ourselves. Today we’d rather extol the virtues of politicians who wear their (often fake) humility on their sleeves alongside their plastic-smile happy families. With these changes in narrative we also change the myths of ‘great’ men and so we trim, expunge, censor, deconstruct and reconstruct accordingly, for the myth to conform to our taste.

That does not make them less myths than they always were.

So nowadays we do not speak of Nerik Mizzi as a lazy lawyer with pro-fascist sympathies, but rather of a man who liked to gather around him willing listeners and instil in them nationalistic fervour.

Borg Olivier was not a womanizer alcoholic but rather an aristocratic liberal.

And Dom Mintoff was born a saviour and his whole life was one long trajectory towards Freedom Day in 1979.

It is not an easy task for the historian to confront these myths and seek to discover the men (and women) behind them, to bare the contradictions, incongruities, warts and all and bring the myth down to explore the actual men they were, their times, their environment, their cultures.

It is what Mark Montebello tried to do. He put time, effort and scholarly virtue into such a daunting task.

No work of history writing is ever definitive and Mark’s is no exception, but it is a useful, studied provocation, an invitation to other historians to take the subject – hopefully from other angles, different perspectives – and engage with Mintoff and his times.

Aleks Farrugia is the author of Għall-Glorja tal-Patrija!: Kapriċċi Patrijottiċi (SKS) and is a University of Malta lecturer