Section: Life and Letters
Those new institutions of popular and mobile learning, bumper stickers, at least a number of them that show up in my neighborhood, ask me to Visualize World Peace. I try, but I do not find this easy to do. Some advice, I suppose, is more easily taken than other advice. The bitter bumper stickers, unlike the more utopian ones, seem more readily to gain my assent: "Eat well, stay fit, and die anyway," read one such sticker on a car I recently rode behind. It announced this sad truism next to a decal denoting a Teamster's local. A friend reports a car passing him in Colorado whose sticker read not, as many do, "If you love Jesus, honk," but instead, "If you are Jesus, honk"--certainly a more interesting proposition. "Have you hugged your kid today?" was one of the first of the popular bumper stickers, one no doubt meant to give all parents a bit of a bad conscience. If I were in the bumper-sticker business, I wouldn't mind running off a few thousand stickers that read, "Have you kicked your role model today?" Now here is a question that gives one something to think about on longish drives. It also gives fine vent to my antagonism to the notion of a role model.
Difficult though world peace may be for me to visualize--if I strain, I think I can see it, though I am saddened to report that it appears duller even than paradise--I can visualize it more easily than a world without such words as role model. Such spongy words that don't seem to absorb much truth figure to be around forever. My specific grudge against the term role model is, as the best grudges often are, a bit complicated and a touch personal. The term itself comes of bad origins; if it were a race horse, the tout sheet on it would read: Role Model, by Sociology out of Modern Education. But my chief problem with it isn't its origin so much as it is the people off whose lips it comes so happily tripping. When they say "role model" they seem to feel that they have said something not merely felicitous and penetrating but quite magical. What this boy (student, school, ethnic group, country--fill in the subject for yourself) needs is better role models, they smugly say. Sure he does, I generally say to myself, like my cat needs hubcaps.
My first encounter with the term was an indirect and mildly depressing one. It occurred in the late 1960s, when it came to my attention that one of my stepsons, who was bright, good-natured, and with nothing of the rebel or the recalcitrant about him, was not doing very well in high school. I met with his guidance counselor, an obviously well-meaning woman who, I sensed as we began to talk, was herself perhaps in need of a bit of guidance--as was everyone in those days who had to help run a high school of middle- and upper-middle-class kids that was filled with drugs, racial bad feeling, and lots of hopeless educational theory. "Maybe the boy's problem," the guidance counselor suggested, "is that he is role instead of goal oriented." Role instead of goal, thought I, rolling the phrase around on my tongue; clearly, I was in a place where they let the rhyme fit the crime. If this were true, I asked, in what role does this put me, who is chiefly responsible for his education? No answer. Having thought about this further on my own, in the end I decided to stay on the boy's case, ready to accept the role of villain, nag, and less than fully understanding parent. It was no easy thing, but it seems finally to have worked out all right.
I do not have a very exact sense of when role model came into vogue, but my guess is that it slipped in the back door just as the word hero was escorted out the front. The feeling against heroes had been building for some time. One of the chief tasks of the modern biographer, beginning with Lytton Strachey, seems to be, on the way to revealing its subject's dirty little secrets, to show that putatively great men and women are, even as you and I, puny and fallible and, when the biographer's truth is told, really much worse than that. In contemporary fiction, the antihero--from Joseph Heller's Lieutenant Yossa rian to Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy--was the dominant character type through much of the 1960s and showed up in novels more frequently than losers at singles dances. All those institutions that used to provide heroic figures--the military, the clergy, politics at the higher levels--no longer did so. Au bloomin' contraire, they seemed the most mocked, the most scorned and spat upon of all. Heroic action, heroic lives, did not seem a real possibility. As Thomas Carlyle wrote of the eighteenth century, "the very possibility of Heroism had been, as it were, formally abnegated in the minds of all." Or, as they put it in the pages of Women's Wear Daily, heroism was out.
As someone who was a young boy during World War II--I was eight years old at its end in 1945--I grew up with heroism forming a good part of my daily psychic diet. The majority of the movies I saw were war movies, and hence movies about heroes, and the rest seemed to be about priests, who were themselves pretty damned--not quite the right word, I realize--heroic, too. The Bible stories that most excited my imagination were those that told of heroic behavior: David taking on and knocking off Goliath, Joseph making his way among the Egyptians, Moses leading that trek of all treks across the desert. Then there were all those fairy tales, with handsome and supremely good princes showing up just when the going got tough, which, as is well known, is precisely when the tough get going. Robin Hood, whose adventures were read to me when I was quite young, also much impressed me. He was a terrific athlete, took from the rich and gave to the poor, had a swell looking girlfriend, and threw lavish outdoor parties. "Hey," as they say nowadays, "he was my kinda guy."
So hyped on heroes was I that I can recall feeling a slight disappointment that my father, who was too old to be drafted, was not a soldier during the war. It took a bit away from his heroic status in my eyes. World War II seemed a war without ambiguities--certainly a seven-year-old could find none--and to be able to wear a uniform was automatically to be a figure deserving of respect, not only in my view but in nearly everyone's. When we traveled on vacation during the war, we always picked up servicemen, and so did a great many other people. One of my first heroes in the flesh was Ozzie Bryer, son of Rose and Frank Bryer, who lived upstairs and who was in the Navy. When he was discharged, he gave me one of his white gob's hats, which I wore with pride and pleasure. Men who had survived heavy fighting in World War II seemed to me immensely impressive. They still do.
War heroes were soon replaced in my small pantheon by athletic heroes. I grew up in neighborhoods where, if one wasn't a good athlete, one had better be witty or extremely wily or fleet of foot. "Very problematic," I can hear a certain kind of feminist muttering as she reads this, but it never seemed at all problematic to me, who was a respectable if never a first-class athlete and a kid who had a hardy appetite for games. A block behind the apartment building in which we lived, down along Lake Michigan, the football team of Sullivan High School practiced. Sullivan's was not a winning team. Its coach was a barrel-chested, short-legged man named Abe Margolis, who used to swear at his players with Yiddish expletives. The word shtunk-- denoting an ungrateful fool, an unpleasant schlemiel--was easily his favorite. The only players the coach never called shtunk, at least while I was watching, were two brothers named Gordy and Ronnie Green.
The Green brothers were so heavily muscled that it seemed to me that they must have lifted weights with their faces, for their cheeks, their foreheads, even their hair seemed powerful. Gordy Green was a fullback, his younger and somewhat smaller brother Ronnie a halfback. They were Jewish tough guys of the kind that appear in Isaac Babel's Benya Krik stories: true brutes, or so it seemed to a small boy of eight or nine standing on the sidelines watching them crash into the line, tossing up clouds of dust, trotting back into the huddle unharmed from crushing collision after crushing collision. I admired them without qualification.
What made a young boy admire two such older boys--boys who then seemed to him men--when he had been told time and again, and in fact quite believed, that it wasn't muscle but brains that counted in life? The first qualification for a hero, in the eyes of a small boy--and not, I suspect, in those of a small boy alone--is the ability to fend off fear. The Green brothers, Gordy and Ronnie, seemed beautifully equipped for this, or so it seemed to me. Far from seeming in any way fearful, they, it occurred to me then, were themselves worth fearing. At that time, without the least hesitation, I should have traded whatever chance I might have had for a good mind for one of their powerful bodies.
It was not long after my admiration for the Green boys had set in that my interest in athletes went national. This came about through my reading a monthly magazine called Sport, which I began to do with great intensity around the age of eleven or twelve. The magazine was devoted to the subject of its title, but even more, in those days, to uncomplicated hero worship. Sport had nothing to do with criticizing athletes; its editors and writers were as far as possible from being, as a long and justly defunct statesman once put it, "nattering nabobs of negativism." If you were written about in Sport, you were, ipso facto, written about as a hero. Nor, best as I can remember, did the magazine go in much for personalities, and certainly never for the dissection of them. A characteristic line, from a piece on the Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, that has rattled around in my head all these years had it that "Yogi likes plenty of pizza in the off-season, when he can generally be found hanging around his friend Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto's bowling alley." The same article, written today, might inform us that its subject, with the aid of kin-network therapy, had survived his second divorce in fairly good shape, though he greatly regrets an unfortunate deal on a condominium complex in Acapulco, a leveraged buy-out, in which he had invested heavily.
To Sport, too, I owe my first interest in history, for the magazine ran a series of articles under the rubric "The Sport Classic" about great athletic heroes of the past. I recall being much moved by articles on such figures as Jim Thorpe, Bill Tilden, Lou Gehrig, and Red Grange. The theme of these articles was that the great athletes were great-hearted; even famous horses--Man o' War, Whirlaway, Sea Biscuit--were great-hearted. How one acquired a great heart on one's own was a bit less than clear. Sometimes it seemed one was born with it. But more often you worked hard, faced adversity straight on, didn't let life in its harsher aspects defeat you, and if you came through often enough under pressure-laden circumstances, lo!, you made it--you were a hero. This still seems to me not so dumb.
A boy's hero worship almost invariably latches onto heroes whose accomplishments are essentially physical, warriors and athletes chief among them. Not only do these men--they have, historically, overwhelmingly been men--choose to disregard pain but many of them risk premature destruction, which, as Maupassant says in his story "The Horla," is "the source of all human dread." The most rudimentary form heroism takes is that of defying death; and for this reason we honor as heroes those men and women who have knowingly risked--and frequently lost--their lives for a cause they deemed larger than their own lives. One of the reasons that one tends to admire heroes is that they have qualities that one does not have, or at least that one is uncertain about having. Here is yet another distinction between heroes and role models. The former are worth admiring because they are (almost certainly) better than you; the latter aren't truly that much better--that is, apparently, the utility of them--so that it should be no great trick to emulate them.
"I understand the large hearts of heroes," said the garrulous Walt Whitman, "the courage of present times and all times." If so, then you're a better man than I, Gunga Whitman. As a worshiper of heroes, I feel less certain of understanding them. Perhaps this is in good part owing to the fact that I have so seldom in my life been called upon to act heroically. Luck of the draw, I have danced merrily betwixt and between wars, too young for World War II and Korea, too old for Vietnam and those wars that followed it. I have never been called upon to save anyone from drowning--a good thing, too, for I am a poor swimmer--or to pull anyone from a fire, or to fight off an attacker. What the sports announcers call "crunch times," those moments in the game when the pressure is at its greatest, are times that thus far in the game of life I have never known.
Whenever I have been cited for courage, it has been only for expressing forthright opinions on mildly controversial intellectual matters. The first thing to be said about this is that these matters never seemed all that controversial to me--they seemed, in fact, rather commonsensical--or I should not have been able to be so jollily forthright about them. The second thing to be said is that expressing any opinion in our country doesn't really require anything like courage; in the Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany, in China, saying what one thinks has been to court death. The only penalty one pays here is to be excluded from certain parties, which, to someone who prefers to stay home anyhow, is no penalty whatsoever. Speaking your mind in America is not my idea of courage and nowhere near my idea of heroism.
High school provided lean pickings for hero worship, though a wealth of unimpressive role models were available. One older boy in our school came near to holding hero status in my mind. His name was Roger Berlin. I remember him as being very handsome, though very little interested in girls; not so much a great or graceful as a fearless athlete; and very kind. I don't recall his ever using profanity, which the rest of us boys then used in place of punctuation. There were mildly mythic stories about him: one was that he played tackle football on concrete; another was that, after a high school basketball game, he burst into the visiting team's locker room and took on all ten or twelve visiting players and had eventually to be dragged out, still swinging. The book on Roger was that he was a very nice guy whom you didn't want to get angry; and in my high school, one could not have a better book. What happened to Roger Berlin is, in my mind, a bit vague, a bit misty, as all heroes' post-heroic periods ought perhaps to be. He must at some point have become interested in school, for the word was that, after some rocky years, he shored up as a psychiatrist somewhere in Kansas.
At college I turned in heroes of physical courage for heroes of culture. Although I was much impressed by many of my teachers at the University of Chicago, none came anywhere near qualifying as heroic. Oddly, though it never occurred to me to think myself potentially a poet, poets around this time became heroic figures to me. In On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, which I read for the first time only the other day, Thomas Carlyle remarks on the naturalness of the poet as a hero. His claim is that the poet has much in common with the prophet in "that they have penetrated both of them into the sacred mystery of the Universe; what Goethe calls `the open secret.' " I was nowhere near intelligent enough to formulate my hero worship of poets thus, but I did instinctively, and inchoately, worship them. This took the form of my becoming something of a mild great-poets groupie. When a famous poet came to campus, I went to his or her reading, much as other people go to church: with genuine reverence in my heart. I heard and saw in this way E. E. Cummings, Mari anne Moore, and Carl Sandburg. I wish now that I had heard and seen Robert Frost and especially T. S. Eliot, who had become rather a widespread hero of culture around this time, or Wallace Stevens, who gave very few readings.
Today, however, I would leave my couch to hear Carl Sandburg only if he read the exact date of my own death and gave an account of my funeral, so little does his mind and talent interest me. My point, though, is not to put down Carl Sandburg, but to show how, with age, one's heroes change. With the passing of years, I have had to smash twenty or thirty busts in my personal pantheon, for the reason that many of the heroes I once much esteemed now seem unworthy of it. As a literary boy and young man, for example, I was a perfect patsy for the writer who was also a man of action. I was never so foolish as to think Ernest Hemingway a hero; I knew that if one was a hero one didn't go around claiming one was a hero, as Hemingway, relentlessly, boringly, did. But I did admire Leon Trotsky, even though I knew enough to abhor communism, and what I admired him for was his ability both to lead the Red Army and to write the History of the Russian Revolution.
Along with Trotsky, two other men whom I admired, because they seemed to make moot the question of whether the pen was mightier than the sword by possessing both, were Andre Malraux and T. E. Lawrence. But they, too, have shrunk a good bit over the years in my eyes. Malraux, I now see, was intellectually rather muddled and a subtle yet altogether too sedulous self-promoter. Lawrence, though his military achievement remains impressive, is perhaps too meshuga to stand in as a genuine hero. Besides, I tend to think there is a good deal to Max Beerbohm's remark that he would rather not have led the Arab Revolt than have written Lawrence's apparently wretched translation of the Iliad.
The older one gets, the fewer the busts left in one's pantheon. And many of those that are left seem to acquire sadly disfiguring chips. T. S. Eliot has come very close to being a culture hero of mine. I don't think there is much question but that his poetry retains much of its power and is among the deepest and most memorable written in English in the twentieth century. His criticism retains a dignified authority that no other critic in our time has been able to equal; it is interesting and usefully provocative even when wrong. The sad events of Eliot's life--chiefly, those surrounding his first marriage--do not, to my mind, detract from his stature; suffering traversed and understood only makes one more sympathetic and dignified.
No, the real chip in Eliot's bust is his anti-Semitism, which is made all the more dreary by the fact, revealed in the first volume of his letters, that he was capable of the kind of very careful careerism that he would have condemned had it appeared in anyone Jewish. When Eliot, at the age of thirty-two, writes to his mother, "Having got this off, we spent the weekend at Eastbourne, visiting some friends called Schiff--very nice Jews," my heart sinks at the sad thought that a man able to rise above his time in so many ways was not able to do so in this way, too. But it is too late: "very nice Jews," as opposed to all those other Jews, has been written and is out in the world. I still think Eliot a great figure in the history of culture, as impressive as any other cultural figure in this century. Yet although I know he had a kindly side to him, I wish he had allowed for my feelings and stowed the anti-Semitism.
The fact is, I prefer my heroes unflawed. This is tough on them, I realize, but it isn't so easy on me, either. To show you the lengths to which I am prepared to go in making demands of my heroes, I prefer my heroes and heroines to be nice people, people I shouldn't mind taking to a concert or a ball game, having over for Thanksgiving dinner, or playing a little gin rummy with. In literature this leaves out Baudelaire, I realize, also Thoreau and Dos toyevsky. But I can, given these criteria, still nicely accommodate Sydney Smith, Turgenev, Chekhov, Willa Cather, Max Beerbohm, and a few others.
To ask that one's hero be, along with heroic, a nice person may seem an unreasonable demand, and probably is. No one ever asked that Alexander the Great also be a great guy. It is far from clear that Pericles was a nice fellow, and Catherine the Great was in no quarter known as Catherine the Pussy Cat. Schopenhauer, another guy no one ever called nice, said that geniuses, which many world-historical heroes turn out to be, aren't very comfortable in the world. "This," writes Schopenhauer, "explains the animation, amounting to disquietude, in men of genius, since the present can seldom satisfy them, because it does not fill their consciousness. This gives them that restless zealous nature, that constant search for new objects worthy of contemplation, and also that longing, hardly ever satisfied, for men of like nature and stature to whom they may open their hearts." In talking about genius, Schopenhauer is in good part here describing himself. It was Nietzsche, for whom Schopenhauer was a personal hero, who said that every idea has its autobiography. It is I who now say that playing a little gin with Schopenhauer or Nietzsche isn't easily imagined, though I suppose I would do better at gin than at argument with either of them.
The gin rummy test, the demand that a hero be rather a decent and companionable person, almost straightaway eliminates most politicians from the sphere of heroism. The only politician in this century whom I think I should have cared to spend much time with, and whom I also consider heroic, is Winston Churchill. (At the moment, President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia seems another possible hero/gin partner, but then he hasn't yet had sufficient time to prove himself unworthy of my admiration.) In The Hero in History, Sidney Hook remarks that "particularly in politics, a medium in which virtues and vices, reason and stupidity, have an entirely different specific gravity than in the clear waters of personal relations and scientific activity, is it difficult to evaluate genius." Hook adds, interestingly, that democratic societies tend not to offer too many political heroes, and that it is part of their own specific genius that they don't. In fact, the only unarguable hero in American political life has been Abraham Lincoln, and I suppose that there are still Southerners who would wish to argue against his status as a hero.
Abraham Lincoln was no hero in his own lifetime, which corroborates Sidney Hook's point that democratic societies "usually refuse to glorify their leaders until they are dead." William Hazlitt, complementing Hook, wrote that "mankind are so ready to bestow their admiration on the dead because the latter do not hear it, or because it gives no pleasure to the objects of it. Even fame is the offspring of envy." In recent years in the United States we have had two men put up for heroism immediately after their death, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and because of modern methods of research--also known as prying--neither has fared at all well. John F. Kennedy should never have been considered a hero to begin with, and it is only owing to his early death and even more to his Harvard panegyrists, Schlesinger, Galbraith, & Co., that it was possible to stake out a claim for his heroism in the first place; in the second place, with sex scandals and other revelations, he looks smaller and smaller all the time. A charming man, he would have made a fine partner at gin rummy, but as a hero he simply doesn't cut it. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose posthumous reputation has also been besmirched--by sex scandal and by reports of plagiarism--nonetheless in my mind retains heroic status for having conquered fear under seriously fearful conditions. German police dogs, Southern sheriffs, low-grade but truly vicious bullies, none either daunted King or otherwise deterred him from his profoundly moral mission. Yet why do I think he would be a lousy gin rummy player?
Staking out a claim to be a hero in public life has grown more and more difficult. Consider General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, leader of the successful Desert Storm operation in the Middle East. A solid character, General Schwarzkopf, a man who knows his business, suffers fools not at all, dignified and serious, the best type of the modern military man. Have we a hero here, the real article, I wondered, as I saw him easily conquer those most pestiferous of menaces, the modern journalists? Yet one night I learned that he, General Schwarzkopf, was to be interviewed by Barbara Walters. My dubiety was piqued. Why subject oneself to the depthless inanity of the mawkish Wawa-ian grilling? Barbara--I feel certain she wouldn't want me to call her by anything but her first name--Barbara didn't ask the General what sort of tree he thinks he most closely resembles, or how he wished to be remembered (perhaps, after Desert Storm, as a palm tree). But at one point the television camera played over General Schwarzkopf's modest personal quarters: his bed, his footlocker, his few uniforms, and then the camera came to rest on a Bible and a copy of--oh dear, I wish I had never see it--The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. What is a man like the General, an earnest, highly intelligent, non-quiche-eating warrior, doing reading such a sententious, sentimental, stuffed-animal sort of book as The Prophet. Shuffle the cards, General, while I reconsider your case. The larger point here is that no one in contemporary life can remain a hero under the ghastly light of modern publicity. One of the chief reasons many of us had so high a regard for the past generation of movie stars--Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Edward G. Robinson; Susan Hayward, Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell--was that they came upon and managed to depart the scene before the advent of the television talk show. Owing to this lucky piece of timing, we were permitted to imagine them as reasonably intelligent human beings. Once we have seen an actor on a talk show or two, the game of considering him as in some even rough sense admirable is up. Even so elegant a woman as Katharine Hepburn, after a talkshow shot or two, cannot sustain her magic. "Give her," a small voice whispers, "a velvet, gentle, but nevertheless firm hook."
Perhaps it would be easier to forget the whole thing and drop the notion of heroes and the activity of hero worship altogether. Yet too much, I fear, would be lost in doing so. When heroes go out, quacks tend to come in. Heroes also happen to represent the culture at its highest reaches. "Only he who has given his heart to some great man," Nietzsche says, "receives the first consecration of culture." An age of skepticism is hardest on heroes. Everyone recalls the famous remark of Mme Cornuel that no man is a hero to his valet. Yet a country without heroes may well turn out to be, spiritually, a country of valets. It was Carlyle who neatly countered Mme Cornuel's remark by saying, "The Valet does not know a Hero when he sees him! Alas, no: it requires a kind of Hero to do that.
William James, who along with his brother Henry happens to be a hero of mine, in his essay "The Importance of Individuals" recounted an unlearned carpenter saying in his hearing, "There is very little difference between one man and another; but what little there is, is very important." I happen to agree. I also agree with James when he remarks that for "a community to get vibrating through and through with intensely active life, many geniuses coming together and in rapid succession are required." As examples James cited the "sudden bloom of a Greece, an early Rome, a Renaissance." Did he know that, in late Victorian England, of which in a sense he was a part, history had offered another such time. Or is it the case that one's own time always feels as if it is not only bereft of heroes but populated almost exclusively by pygmies?
In our own day, there seem to me no true heroes of culture, Balanchine being the last such figure. I think Mother Teresa heroic, at least from what I have read about her; and I think Alexander Solzhenitsyn a great literary-political hero: he took on the Soviet Union and emerged victorious. Mikhail Gorbachev keeps crossing back and forth across the line of heroism, at too fast a pace to determine if he is or isn't himself a hero in history. One of the ways he could prove he is such a hero is to dethrone Lenin by making it plain that he was no hero but one of the most villainous characters in modern history, a man who, as an old joke had it, was the terribly exorbitant interest on Karl Marx's Kapital. Naturally, I view all these people from a distance; more precisely, with the exception of Solzhenitsyn, whose books I read, all I know about them is what I read or see on television, which is probably not enough. It may well be required that, for someone to retain heroic status, we not know too much about him. Writing to his sister-in-law about meeting Professor and Mrs. Josiah Royce in France, Henry James noted: "I shall never, in future, embrace any man's philosophy till I have seen him--and above all till I have seen his wife."
Tell me whom you admire and I shall tell you who you are. Schopenhauer, for example, until well past fifty, kept a gilt statue of Buddha on his desk next to a bust of Immanuel Kant, while over his couch hung portraits of Goethe, Shakespeare, Descartes, Claudius, and (again) Kant. Montaigne doesn't use the word hero, but in a brief essay titled "Of the most outstanding men," drawing on all of history up to his time, he finds three men "outstanding above all the rest": Homer, Alexander the Great, and Epaminondas, the fourth-century b.c. Theban general and leader known for his good character. And he cannot help mentioning Alcibiades: "For a man who was not a saint, but what they call a man of the world, of civil and common ways, of moderate eminence, [he lived] the richest life that I know to have been lived among the living, the one composed of the most rich and desirable qualities." Henry James's heroes included Balzac and Napoleon, whom Hegel once referred to as "that world-soul."
Napoleon is one of those figures whom one can admire without particularly liking. Sig mund Freud is another. Like Napoleon, he has, or at any rate his ideas have, become tyrannical. Goethe was easily the greatest man of letters in all of modern history, yet I wished he hadn't let Eckermann fawn and hang around quite so long, thus giving the lie to Hazlitt's notion that "no really great man ever thought himself so." Some heroes seem to me beyond such--or even any--criticism. Beethoven blew his nose in his hand, treated his nephew wretchedly, was clearly more than a little nuts, and yet remains Beethoven, which is more than sufficient. But then Beethoven was both a genius and a hero, and his heroism consists of his getting the most out of his genius under greatly arduous conditions.
Not all heroes are geniuses nor geniuses heroes. All things being equal--perhaps the emptiest phrase in the language, since they never are--I prefer my heroes not to be geniuses. To be a genius is to have too great a head start in life. I much prefer heroes whose accomplishments amount to genius. I admire, for example, those writers who persevere and finish a great thick work of literature: Gibbon, Proust, Joyce, and, though less in this line, Macaulay, whose natural garrulity would have made anything other than a thick work quite impossible. I find heroic, too, those who have endured through long stages of unjust neglect and kept working with a strong sense of their worth. Schopenhauer qualifies in this regard; he put a masterpiece into the world in his early thirties and had to wait until his late fifties for it to be recognized as such. So, too, does Barbara Pym, whose novels were suddenly found insufficiently sexy, noisy, blaguey, you name it, during a violent period in Anglo-American culture, but who stayed the course, eventually finding acceptance and her true readership.
Endurance is a form of heroism open to those of us who neither have genius nor live obviously dramatic lives. Samuel Johnson, who may have been a genius, is another hero of endurance, playing through poverty, poor health, and feckless patrons and winning in the end by dint of hard work and powerful intelligence. Henry James seems to me heroic for continuing to write in the only way he knew how--with the throttle of complexity all the way out--in the face of his need to make a living and the flagging interest of his contemporary readers and editors, and hewing always to "the jolly great truth that it is art alone that triumphs over fate," which in his case it most happily did. Both Samuel Johnson and Henry James were also heroes of integrity, another mode of heroism open to those of us without genius.
On the face of it, one cannot hope to know about all the unknown heroes, those persons who do their job and know whereof they speak. I thought of this category of hero when I read a one-line obituary about one Leonard Greenburg, professor of preventive medicine at Yeshiva University, who died at ninety-eight. Now ninety-eight is the age at which every professor of preventive medicine ought to peg out. How much more impressive Dr. Greenburg than the woman who heads my own university's health center and who recently had to retire, giving as her reason bad health. I am also partial to those who, despite natural disadvantages, hang in there. In Ronald Hayman's biography of Marcel Proust I read that when Proust completed his military training he was graded sixty-third out of a class of sixty-four. I think that the fellow who finished sixty-fourth, who was a worse soldier even than Marcel Proust, has to be granted heroic status of some sort. As the beer commercial has it, "Buy that man a Miller."
My own heroes are figures who love life without being taken in by it: David Hume instead of Rousseau, Montaigne instead of Voltaire, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., instead of Emerson, Degas instead of van Gogh, Brahms instead of Wagner. Some among them are skeptical--"as we said of the Valet," writes Carlyle, "so of the Sceptic: He does not know a hero when he sees him!"--theirs is never a skepticism that sours them on the world. They have an air of reality about them. They are undazzled by the world while remaining charmed by it. They are able to keep the seemingly contradictory notions in their heads that life is both a game and a deadly serious business, a play full of laughter and heartbreak.
As I grow older, I find that I am simultaneously less trustful of heroes and increasingly in need of them. To worship false heroes is quite as foolish as worshiping false gods, and in hero worship as in other activities there is no fool like a less-than-young fool. I take some small satisfaction that such hero worshiping as I have gone in for has never entailed subscribing to a hero's doctrine as part of the deal. One carries enough luggage through life without having to lug around another person's ideas. On the other hand, true heroes remind me of life's possibilities--of how difficulties can be overcome, of how often perseverance pays off, of how without integrity self-disgust becomes one's regular companion, of how lovely life can be when fear is conquered, of how gallantry is the highest form of elegance.
Had I at any time in my life been a true hero--had I won the big game, or survived the jungles of Vietnam, or gone into the burning building to save the infant--I wonder if I might regard myself differently than I do now. At a minimum, I would have had the self-assurance of knowing that, under pressure, I had come through. As things are now, I only hope that, should the occasion for heroism arise, I might come through. A vast difference between the two--knowing and hoping. Contemplating heroic lives, lives distinguished by physical or psychological courage, and sometimes both, helps to fortify one's own soul and inspire one to be a little better than, deep down, one worries one is. One of the many fine things about having been a hero, I should think, is that one doesn't have to think about heroism. Never having been called upon to prove one's mettle gives one a lot to think about late at night, and particularly between gin rummy games, spades double, twenty-five points a box, Hollywood-Oklahoma.
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Source: American Scholar, Summer91, Vol. 60 Issue 3, p327, 8p.
Item Number: 9107290165