Cracks in the pedestal

On keeping our heroes human

Hero worship is a problematic phrase for me. I am unsettled by even its ingredient words. I do not dispute that heroism exists – the firefighter who re-enters the crumbling building; the soldier who leaps on the live grenade to spare his mates; any who perform brave and selfless acts for the sake of others. I have no issue with such as these being called heroic, even if the word is too often wardrobed with jingoism and political opportunity.

As for worship, it is one of humankind’s less noble (and most obsolete) urges, in all its forms. There are connotations of servitude, malleability and too-willing unworthiness that arrive with it.

I am not here to address those pathetic victims of charisma, the devotees of the cult of celebrity. (Cult of Celebrity: a parasocial, parasitic and altogether unhealthy fascination with the minutiae, looks and foibles of those with the most recognizable faces or other more relevant anatomical part.) No, by ‘hero worship’ I mean the starry-eyed role-modeling of those with whom we most identify, or aspire to being, or consider most wise and accomplished. Those who bolster our preconceptions even while bringing our inadequacies into relief. About our fleshly, ambulatory idols. Our modern day version – less supernatural but more infectious – of what the Greeks called apotheosis. Raising an individual to the stature of a god. After all, our gods do not choose us; we choose them.

Ok, sure, that’s exaggeration. Excepting the more sincere cults of personality in this wry little world of ours, we no longer literally deify our heroes. However, we do grant them status and stature above our pedestrian norm. We count as more valid their thoughts and words. We crave meetings and conversation with them. We grant them privileges unavailable to most of us, and gloss over their faults, and mistake the human for the work, the person for the ideas, the character for the creations.

“Our heroes do things we recognize, with regret, and sometimes secret shame, that we cannot… If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes.” – Mark Twain

The idea that fame or wealth are heroic, or even that those who reinforce our preconceptions are worthy of admiration, is facile and destructive. This sort of hero worship leads to cults, obsessive fan clubs, and the pernicious and insipid getting installed atop the land’s highest posts. Fame is the second worst reason to admire another human. The worst is beauty. Both are nearly impossible to emulate, if you are not born into them, and your mind and/or dignity will wither in the process of trying.

Certainly, there are people I admire. Men and women who have offered insights and/or pleasures, whether via their words, images, actions, or combination of. Most often, I admire the work. The deeds. The ideas. I strive to emulate the result or, better, the method, rather than the person. Looking about me, I see increasingly less value placed on the accomplishments (and on innovative, provocative ideas in general), and more starstruck, naive embracing of the fallible mortal responsible. Not to mention that our standards of ‘accomplishment’ have dropped lower than an octogenarian’s bra.

“We are all ordinary. We are all boring. We are all spectacular. We are all shy. We are all bold. We are all heroes. We are all helpless. It just depends on the day.” – Brad Meltzer

This piece was in part inspired by the passing – now approaching a year ago – of a model curmudgeon, skeptic and rabble-rouser. A man who ingested literature and culture like a cerebral sump pump (as well as tobacco and alcohol at same or greater levels) and spat out the mix in succinct and often witheringly incisive parcels. Christopher Hitchens was a fighter for intellectual, moral, and personal freedom. A hater of wanton ignorance and self-induced delusion, he did extensive damage to intrusive dogma. He tried to free people from both the intellectually stunted prison of unquestioning belief, and slavering servility to power figures for perceived self-benefit. I try to avoid having ‘heroes’, but Hitchens came as close for me as any in many years.

(Sidenote: that Christopher Hitchens is dead, while Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps – vocal versions of an infected anal fissure who both put the ‘mental’ in ‘fundamentalist’ – still live, is by itself proof that there either is no god, or that one does exist but hates us.)

However, in reading (and reading about) Hitchens, I became all too aware of how very deeply flawed the man was. Hardly surprising, perhaps, being very deeply human. His support of the Iraq war was the most prominent blemish. I could never quite reconcile the educated and astute man who wrote so well about so much with his perplexing stance on that ill-considered invasion. He discusses and attempts to justify it in columns and in his memoir. I never bought it. It felt as though there was some underlying psychological need to see that regime fall, at any cost. I got his sympathies for the Kurds, and acknowledged that he spent time in Iraq witnessing the afterglow of Saddam Hussein’s buggery of its people. But the costs were so high, the politics so tangled and meretricious, that I could only attribute his cheerleading to some bizarre and incident-specific cognitive dissonance. I am not a Hitchens apologist. By all accounts (some his own) he could be quite the cad. It is to be expected that our heroes have flaws. Often, it seems, the more they have to their credit, the more prominent the warts. Yet, despite knowing this, I no less found myself disappointed. It then occurred to me that this indicated some foolhardiness on my part. It was a needed reminder.

“Here lies a toppled god, his fall was not a small one. We did but build his pedestal, a narrow and a tall one.” – H.G. Wells

A similar sharpening of focus occurred when Ray Bradbury died. When people ask me about my writerly influences – a question I feel ought be answered only while sporting a beret and/or pipe – I reflexively toss out three names: Carroll, Kafka and Bradbury. At various stages of my adolescent…we’ll call it ‘life’, since ‘tribulation’ sounds too dramatic…each of those men instilled and fueled not only a love of language, story, and the craft of each, but the desire to do the same. Not merely to write, but to write well, and with a unique voice. You, the reader, may judge how severely they ought be held to account for that.

After Bradbury’s demise, the panegyrics and praise rolled in, and I paid my little tribute, as well. Despite that I felt he had lost his chops in his later years, that his more recent work was a shadow of the writing that inspired me, there was no denying his influence, nor the work that infused what was mostly a pulp genre with poetry and insight. So, in a fit of nostalgia, I not only reread much of that work, but sought out recent interviews with the man himself, something I had managed to avoid up to then.

Hindsight. What an arse-backwards way to learn anything.

“Heroes. Idols. They’re never who you think they are. Shorter. Nastier. Smellier. And when you finally meet them, there’s something that makes you want to choke the shit out of them.” – Paul Beatty

At what point of his life Ray became a kvetchy, right-wing crank, I could not say. Perhaps it is age that does it. Gods know, I am accused of being a curmudgeon (using the polite term) often enough. However, the Ray Bradbury I heard in this interview came across as a mildly paranoid Luddite by way of finger-wagging uncle. It just seemed unworthy of the man who wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes and There Will Come Soft Rains.

Now, this single interview in no way convinced me that Bradbury was a rotten human being. If anything, I simply felt him to be a bit of a schmuck. The same way I feel about Harlan Ellison – who taught me as much about how to write a short story as anyone – when he crosses over from ballsy harbinger of unpleasant truths into the God of Boorish Wrath and gets a little too impressed with himself. Or Richard Dawkins when he slips from the edge of articulate defender of reason and science and falls into the bottomless Strident Abyss. Schmucks. Or better: human.

Dostoevsky wrote novels better than 99% of all who put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard, but he was also a gambling addict who left his family consistently in the lurch to feed same addiction. Hitchens ran off and married the mistress while his first wife was pregnant. ‘Cad’ rather understates it. Stephen Hawking, who has inspired me to overcome obstacles and fueled my sense of wonder, has pulled some pretty caddish shit, too. I recall he dumped his first wife, who’d stuck with him through the onset of his illness, to snag his nurse. The logistics of which, all respect to the withered genius, I care not to imagine.

Yet all these have done work and/or performed deeds that fed, and feeds, a constantly hungry part of me. Call it intellect, spirit, whichever. They have taught me how to think better, reason better, argue better, write better. About human nature, and how to better grow (or prune) my own. I’m not near any of their levels, not yet, likely not ever, but I owe them that.

I also owe them this: the respect of acknowledging their flaws and recognizing their very banal humanity. I owe myself the same. For I never again want to mistake the work for the person.

“Every hero becomes a bore at last.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The impulse to elevate often gets sated cheaply. Too many seem to crave something much more … the word that feels right is ‘intimate’. Like being in love, a state also given to obscuring rather than accepting flaws. Worship of any sort ought be avoided. Aspire, be inspired, note a bar set high by another which you can strive to reach, even grasp. Adopt their methodology, or attitude, rather than their specific conclusions and views. We need to arrive at those ourselves.

Arrian, in his Life Of Alexander the Great, wrote, “We ought not make a man look bigger than he is by paying him excessive and extravagant honour.” Athletes, actors, artists, authors, hell, the entire ‘A’ team, ought be afforded the rewards due their work, the respect due their accomplishments, but beware becoming a mere receptacle. Becoming undiscerning. Becoming an acolyte. Even to those who resonate with us intellectually; perhaps those most of all.

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