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Some Unheroic Thoughts about Heroes

George Blecher


Unglücklich das Land, das Helden nötig hat. (“Unhappy the Land that needs heroes.”)

--Galileo in Brecht’s Leben des Galilei

Dislike of the Subject

As poet Marianne Moore once said about Poetry, “I too dislike it.” Apparently Brecht disliked it as well.  I can’t say that I’m crazy about it either.

In these post-9/11 days, the word “hero” has been bandied about so recklessly that it’s lost all its juice, and has come to mean virtually anyone in a combat situation. But not very long ago, it had a more grandiose ring. In fact, to anyone who clings to the belief in the fragile, imperfect core idea of democracy—that a group of one’s “peers” can be more or less trusted to make decisions that will further the interests of society as a whole—the notion of heroes is guaranteed to make one squirm. It smacks of older, more hierarchical social systems; it’s redolent with blood and gore instead of peaceful compromise;  it undercuts the democratic citizen’s sense of his own worth in favor of a vague, generic being who by definition is superior to him. I don’t like heroes, mutters the democratic citizen under his breath.  I’ll be my own hero.

And yet, like it or not, pre-  and post 9/11, we live with heroes from the day we’re born: our shadowy parents,  a benevolent teacher, a character in a nursery rhyme or children’s book, a sports star—all fairly remote figures who give way to the taller, more socially gifted, prettier, more competent of our schoolmates. (And this doesn’t even include the inflated superheroes of cartoons and TV that dull the genuine pain of admiration and propel us into a world of solipsistic fantasy.) Though sometimes the envy engendered by childhood hero-worship is almost too much to bear, if one doesn’t end up paralyzed one learns from childhood heroes, one tries on their skins to see what parts fit, what parts don’t.

Hopefully, there’s a qualitative difference between the heroes of childhood and adulthood that lends a little credence to the cliché that age brings wisdom. As we get older, we don’t simply admire power, wealth, beauty, strength. If we’ve achieved a level of self-love by, say, the age of 25, the nature of our heroes changes. Just as we’ve discovered that life will involve a struggle to get what we want, and that a great part of the struggle will be in finding the balance between doing what we feel like and what we have to do in order to survive, our heroes take on a more nuanced, perhaps humbler shape. We begin to admire qualities like fortitude, rectitude, idealism, and especially persistence, the ability to persevere against difficult odds. Our heroes more closely resemble ourselves.

All of this, however, is about personal heroes; it doesn’t speak to Brecht’s note of caution. We all recognize the despotic types that Brecht was thinking of when he put those words into his protagonist’s mouth, and, like him, we know that we should approach the question of national heroes very, very carefully. Yet when we look around at the present political scene, the view is pretty different from Brecht’s. Instead of having powerful, savage leaders like the ones that he worried about, we’re for the most part led by figures who are more or less adept at managing government or playing politics or rabble-rousing, but who lack what used to be called vision. Our technical ability to transfer someone’s face onto millions of tee-shirts hasn’t produced any new public heroes: neither George W. Bush nor Osama bin Laden has achieved the status of a Che.

Actually, the question of national heroes may be very different from the one Brecht’s Galilei implicitly posed. Given the Byzantine complexity of present-day democratic institutions, is it possible—forget desirable-- to have leaders who are more than slightly drunken captains of runaway ocean liners? Can there be national heroes in a time when the ships of state, or more accurately the juggernaut of international capitalism, is out of anyone’s control?


The Hero As Myth and Bad Dancer

A stab at a distinction between heroes and leaders might be useful at this point. (A distinction especially called for in German, given the loaded connotations of the word “Führer.”)

When we try to describe a pattern of heroic behavior, we generally come up with a picture of heroes as solitary fellows who face a series of “tests,” both simple and complex. In the course of going through these tests they realize that they have a particular gift or message to pass on, and they spend most of the rest of their lives struggling to convince others of the rightness of their cause. In  general, heroes are more comfortable in the world of myth than of “reality.” When they overstep their limits and become, for instance, statesmen like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, they may encounter problems that they hadn’t bargained for. Though occasionally a leader— Lincoln is probably the best example—finds himself being put through a series of tests that make him an unwilling hero, taking him from a relatively safe life into a world of great loneliness and power, the hero/leader is very rare. Most heroes don’t make very good leaders—at least not in the long term-- and most leaders don’t come close to being heroes. In a sense, it’s easier to talk about heroes than leaders, because heroes tend to be interchangeable, while whether or not someone makes a good leader depends on whom he has to lead, and when.

In his classic 1953 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the mythologist Joseph Campbell breaks down the heroic journey even further:

Initially unwilling to heed his peculiar “call,” the hero is coaxed along, according to Campbell, by various gatekeeper figures until he enters a world of darkness and danger. He grapples with malevolent male and female gods until he absorbs their power and sees their more benevolent sides. By facing danger squarely, the psyche of the hero frees itself of childhood fears and dependencies, and he emerges as an adult with a sense of mission. But his ordeal isn’t over. Equipped with new-found self-confidence, he’s required to return to a world that is either indifferent or hostile, or he finds that the bliss of his enlightenment may have made the “real” world distasteful.  If he gets over this depression and sense of rejection,  he has the potential to pass on his message to a society that can use it to restore a sense of newness and purpose.

Even if overly schematic, this paradigm helps us see the connections between the classic heroes—the Christs, Moseses, Buddhas, Odysseuses. Campbell and his Jungian colleagues make a convincing case, it seems to me, that the pattern is archetypal, and that if not everyone lives a life in which he feels that he has a higher destiny, all of us feel it sometimes, and strive, however unconsciously, to get in touch with the parameters of that destiny.

For all his enthusiasm with mythology, Campbell is pretty discouraged about its relevance to contemporary life:

Today all of these mysteries have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche. The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology, and is now accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course. The descent of the Occidental sciences from the heavens to the earth (from seventeenth century astrology to nineteenth century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in twentieth century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed.

If one considers slightly more recent literary incarnations of the hero or anti-hero—I’m thinking of Don Quixote and Thus Spake Zarathustra—Campbell’s quiet pessimism rings true. Next to the fleshy myths of earlier heroes, these anemic figures show us the hoops that an author has to jump through to find a way to refresh the concept of the hero. Don Quixote and Zarathustra might look so unheroic to Homer or the writers of the Gospels that they couldn’t be blamed for missing the similarities between their iconic figures and these weird modern spin-offs.

Cervantes himself has been chastised by literary critics for being too hard on his “hero.” In a 1998 essay in The New York Review of Books, the Belgian writer Simon Leys described Cervantes’s attempt to write a best seller by debunking the literature of Chivalry popular in his time,  and how critics from Montherlant to Unamuno to Nabokov criticized him for dwelling on Quixote’s absurdity at the expense of his humanity. If not for Quixote’s lovability, how does one account for the staying power of the book, which is really just an endless series of variations on the theme of Quixote’s foolishness?

I think that part of Don Quixote’s continued appeal lies in the added value of “sincerity” as a heroic virtue in modern times. However “deluded” Quixote is—and one can make a good case that Cervantes actually proves what he sets out to disprove, namely, that Chivalry exists—Don Quixote not only believes in the principles that he sets forth but acts on them. It isn’t by success that we judge the Good Don but by the sincerity of his efforts; and it may even be the futility of his actions (think of Beckett’s line: “I don’t care about success. I only care about failure.”) that makes us love and identify with him.

This suggests another aspect to the hero that’s become more obvious in modern times as our attitude toward strength and power has shifted, and many of us consider these qualities evil by definition. Leys identifies Quixote as a “loser,” saying that  “the successful man adapts to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to him. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”  If we think of Christ on the Cross, the loneliness of the Buddha, or the many times that Odysseus escapes certain death only by the whim of a bored god or goddess, it’s true that the  the “loser” aspect of the hero accounts for a great part of his attractiveness, and that in our success-driven atmosphere originality and clear-sightedness may be even more unpopular than they were in Plato’s cave.

But what are we to make of the blustering windbag of a puppet with the odd name of Zarathustra, whose creator-puppeteer, plagued by physical ailments and horrible shyness, is hardly anyone’s model of a hero-maker?

First of all, Nietzsche’s master work shows us how impoverished our ability to think up heroic myths has become. Though Nietzsche attempts to invest his “story” with some of the trappings of myth (the old man who initiates Zarathustra into the Mysteries, the animals that surround and support him, his period of isolation and wish to rejoin the world, his sense of a “higher destiny”), the book as fiction rattles like an old suit of armor, and some of its pithier statements read today like, God help us, the worst of pop psychology. Who can avoid in the following paragraph picturing a bunch of privileged Americans of the 1960’s cavorting around an Esalen campfire?

Zarathustra the dancer, Zarathustra the light, waves with his wings, ready for flight, waving at all birds, ready and heady, happily lightheaded; Zarathustra the soothsayer, Zarathustra the sooth-laugher, not impatient, not unconditional, one who loves leaps and side-leaps: I myself have put on this crown! (Part IV, Chapter 13, section 18)

And yet one is moved by Zarathustra just as much as by Quixote, I think because the author’s yearning behind his character is so palpable. If Don Quixote reeks of sincerity while his creator reeks of irony, something of the opposite is true in Zarathustra. While Zarathustra often speaks in what must be considered at least a quasi-ironic mode—“’Man must become better and more evil’—this I teach... It may have been good for that preacher of the little people that he suffered and tried to bear man’s sin. But I rejoice over great sin as my great consolation” (IV, 13, 5)—there’s nothing ironic about the sensibility behind Zarathustra’s voice. Nietzsche rages against organized religion, rationality, all that he considers standing in the way of a freer, more impulsive existence—for, if not everyone, then at least for Nietzsche himself and a few select friends. We feel his rage, and we feel his sincerity: both are so intense that they become inspiring. This man with all his physical and psychosomatic ills, his long periods of isolation, his struggles with female figures that Campbell might call “Temptresses,” and most of all the boldness of his conviction, actually has the earmarks of the classic hero. Yet it’s doubtful that Nietzsche would have wanted to be seen as a hero; more likely, he’d have regarded idolizing himself as worshiping yet another false God, and kicked his statue over.

It appears that in modern or post-modern times if people can no longer invent heroic myths, some of us can still live heroic lives.


Looking for a Good Leader: A Glance at Plutarch’s Lives

Whatever else he may be, the hero seems to be He Who Thinks for Himself. This paradigm probably emerged around the time when society consisted of more than one person, and it has persisted as an ideal right up to the most hackneyed of contemporary American advertising slogans about “thinking outside the box,” “marching to the beat of a different drummer,” etc. etc. ad nauseam. It’s remarkable how each era finds a way to express a yearning for heroism, and that it remains as rare as ever.

In part this is because of the suffering that accompanies the heroic quest. Most of us sense this early, whether it’s in the tedium of practicing violin or the fear of going against our parents’ wishes to take over the family business and become an actor or hip-hop singer instead. It’s understandable that we prefer to please and be comfortable rather than to suffer for our ideals, and so for many of us, having a “calling”—the heroic urge to do something with passion—is fought down until it atrophies and dies. Others substitute conventional ideas of ambition and success for the pain of heroic loneliness, and tend to regard those few among us who resemble heroes with suspicion and disdain. It’s not easy being a hero: as much as we may idealize them in stories, we’re not very comfortable with them as our next-door neighbors.

However, we’re still stuck with the more immediate question of good and bad leaders, and what if anything they have to do with heroes. I thought that it would be instructive to take a look at the work of one of history’s great students of leaders, Plutarch, especially his Lives of the Greeks. (Though he matched Greek biographies with Roman ones, Plutarch’s heart, it seems to me, was with his own countrymen—apparently his Latin was far from fluent—and he’s much more relaxed and perceptive about the hedonistic, mercurial Greeks than the clay-footed Romans.)

After having been away from Plutarch’s Lives for years, one forgets how much of it is about power, blood, fighting, war. (Of course, as we’ve seen,  a hero fights too, but his struggles are more idiosyncratic, and may be just as distinguished in losing as in winning.) But to be a good leader in Plutarch’s or anyone else’s estimation, one must win, and so the greater part of Plutarch’s Lives  is taken up with military tactics, intrigue, preparation for battle, finding the right balance between inspiring loyalty in one’s troops and placating the polis, and personal bravery.

But if one reads the Lives with a little care, one finds that the figures whom Plutarch admires most—people like Lycurgus, Solon, Cimon, Pericles—are not only victorious generals but are all characterized by self-control, restraint-- the cardinal virtue of Greek philosophy. Solon earns Plutarch’s praise when, as the first great leader of Athens, he resists becoming a despot, supposedly saying to his friends “that while tyranny may be a delightful spot, there is no way back from it” (Solon, 14).Cimon is praised for his “calmness,” and the general atmosphere of civilized politeness between him and Pericles “just goes to show how in those days quarrels were conducted with civility, feelings were moderate, and people had no difficulty restraining them if the public good was at stake; even ambition, which is the most powerful and dominant human emotion, used to be subordinate to human emergencies” (Cimon, 17). Even Pericles’s appearance reflects perfect composure:

... the tranquility of his features that never broke into laughter, his self-possessed gait, the way his clothing was arranged in such a way that it was never distorted by any emotion while he was speaking, and his calm tone of voice, all of which made a remarkable impression on everyone. (Pericles, 5)

It’s clear that Plutarch’s main reason for admiring restraint is that he and his countrymen worried a good deal about their leaders becoming too powerful; they knew how easily democracy could shade into despotism. One of the most striking details of Greek political life that emerges in reading the Lives is how many times a leader might actually be sent into exile for becoming too popular, only to be called back in a time of crisis.

But however much Plutarch admired restraint, he, like Cervantes or any other good writer, sometimes conveys the opposite of what he intended. As admirable as conscientiousness and forbearance may be in theory, Plutarch never succeeds in making them more than mildly interesting. The two leaders who stand out among his biographies are the controversial Alcibiades and Alexander—Alcibiades, you may remember, being the handsome young trouble-maker whom Socrates flirts with in The Symposium, who defaced the herms in the Athenian agora, encouraged the disastrous Sicilian campaign and changed loyalties between Athens and Sparta as often as a tennis player changes tee-shirts;  and Alexander the young conqueror who died at 32, bringing glory but also despotism and chaos to the Macedonians.

That these figures are more attractive than the others brings us to a problem that we know from our personal lives but don’t often apply to democracy: namely, that what we need and what we want may be two different things. Who would disagree that virtues like generosity (megalophrosynē), kindness (philanthropia), ambition (philotimia), brilliance (lamprotēs), and self-possession (praotēs)—qualities that as Philip Stadter points out in the Oxford edition of Plutarch—are found on inscriptions in hundreds of public sites in ancient Greece and Romeare exactly what any society would value in its leaders? Given the bureaucratic nature of  government, we may need these modest, attainable virtues much more than heroic ones, and our best leaders, at least in peaceful times, may simply be people who understand the bureaucratic machinery and administer it with compassion and intelligence.

But what we want—and at certain crisis times may in fact need—can run more along the lines of an Alexander or Alcibiades than a Solon or Pericles. Charismatic types bordering on despots. Napoleon. Bolivar. Roosevelt. Castro. Men filled with a gigantic sense of self-importance, even megalomania, but also boundless energy. Men (and in the future women) who create grand systems that only function well under their leadership and then collapse after they’re gone, but who move history a few steps “forward." In short,  people with heroic vision— but who also threaten the checks and balances of democracy. Which brings us right back around to Campbell, at least to that aspect of the hero who knows something that no one else knows, and insists on selling it to the rest of the world.

The problem is that there’s a fine line between heroes and demagogues, and this is what gets us into trouble. Do we really want demagogues as leaders? Unfortunately, like it or not, that seems to be where we’re heading in the present phase of history. Le Pen, Haider, Bin Laden, the forces behind George Bush—all suggest a lessening of democratic participation and a wish on the part of large segments of the population for despots.

No doubt this has to do with a pervasive sense of instability, precariousness, in the world. Both our economic and political systems seem frayed at the edges, maybe even riddled by organic flaws. We also feel threatened by a somewhat vague but palpable Enemy— people to the East who’ve been neglected by us and abused by their own leaders—gathered outside our gates. No one knows exactly who should lead us against this Enemy, and how much of the Enemy’s menace is of our own making. Won’t someone please tell us what to do?

It may be that in the short term, the best that we can hope for in a leader is a compromise figure, someone in between the corporate manager and the despot—the tyrant with compassion, the visionary who’s also a nice guy. Again, Lincoln comes to mind: apparently a sweet, entertaining man with a tragic private life, in wartime he discovered inner resources of forcefulness and an ability to plot military strategy far better than that of his indecisive generals.

In more recent times, one might look for partial inspiration, partial hope, to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Though more heroes than leaders, they come close to combining the suffering and vision of the Campbellian hero with the restraint and self-awareness of Plutarch’s leaders. Their stories are already a combination of fact and legend: their long periods in jail, their ability to extend  their personal visions into universal ones, their remarkable blend of compromise and unwillingness to compromise—a place, you might say, where Machiavelli meets Achilles: these qualities among many others make them divine accidents, products of  rare moments when a just cause finds its champion. Not exactly heroes, not exactly saints, as leaders ( in Mandela’s case anyway) only adequate, on second thought maybe they aren’t to be admired or emulated as much as to be put on postage stamps—examples of the ability of human beings to occasionally get something right.


The Everyday Hero: A Personal Reminiscence

If heroes as Campbell describes them are almost extinct, and modern societies can’t figure out who they want to lead them, whom can we admire beyond CEO’s and basketball players with obscene salaries, or movie stars with less than 1% body fat?

I suspect that at some point it comes down to everyday heroes—people whom we as individuals both want and need to admire.

Several years ago,  during a particularly self-pitying psychoanalytic hour,  my therapist asked me whom I admired most.

He gave me a moment and then said, “I’ll bet that this person wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. I’ll bet that he had to struggle through some rough times before he became the person you admire.”

It was Seymour Krim! I’d had no idea that he was the person I admired most. I knew his bad sides—his sharp tongue, his wide streak of misogyny—so could it be true that he was my hero? But my Unconscious had spoken, and I had to listen.

You may never have heard of the New York writer Seymour Krim. Fifteen years after his death he’s virtually forgotten, and even during his lifetime his work was overshadowed by more famous contemporaries like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. Yet there’s a case to be made that Krim was the father of the American New Journalism (what these days college English departments call “creative nonfiction”), and that his view of mid-century New York City was authentic and enduring.

I met him—no, I knew him before I met him, I knew him even before I read him. I knew him the minute I saw the cover of his 1961 book, Views of a Near-sighted Cannoneer—the oddest title coupled with an equally odd picture of a youngish, curly-haired man with thick glasses crouching behind an old cannon, and running along the edge of the cover a list of the sexiest topics of the time: Sex, Suicide, Homosexuality, Sportswriting, Jazz, Jews, Negroes, Genius, Insanity, New York: the Literary Lower Depths. Who could resist the hip, confessional tone of the very first page:

Let me say straight out that my point of view has developed since these [essays] were first written, that I could not write them the same way today, that I think their stabs of truth are at times slanted in subtle or obvious part by personal frustration, exaggeration, defensiveness—by the fanatical ego-hunger of the man I then was. I can’t undo these mistakes. I am proud that I was able to do what I could. But I have faith that this is only the beginning of a stand.

What  followed was a mixture of clear observation and energetic prose by a man who wanted to an author and a ladies’ man—but who had to struggle through shyness, depression, a stretch of time in a mental hospital after a suicide attempt, to become a little of what he wanted to be. Some of the autobiographical essays were written in a semi-Beat jargon (Krim edited the first anthology of Beat writing)  that was destined to become dated, but underneath the over-wrought prose was a sincerity as raw as anything I’d ever encountered. Reading a few paragraphs of Krim seemed to make it possible for me to be a writer, too.

I met him a few years later, spent evenings in his tiny East 10th Street studio apartment (once he proudly pointed out a piece of worn carpet on which the young Elizabeth Taylor had sat), and much later watched him bear up without self-pity under the onset of congestive heart disease that at the end made it impossible for him to write.  Though he published relatively little during his lifetime, he lived to write—he had a string of girlfriends, no wife, had no contact with his daughter, was the world’s worst dresser: in short,  the perfect picture of the Bohemian—so when his ability to write was taken away, he told a few close friends of his plan, took sleeping pills and left us. There must have been 300 people at his memorial service. Everyone who spoke said the same thing: when they were with him, they felt that he was speaking directly, intimately, just to them. He had the same gift in life that he had in writing—to make one feel that he was speaking from his heart.

I want to tell a story about Krim and me that is really a story about stories, the only way that we can know our heroes.

At some point in the early 80’s, Krim told me that he was having trouble deciding which prescription of glasses to wear. He recognized that it was the outward sign of some deeper malaise that he couldn’t get in touch with. Since I’d once made a cocky remark about being in psychoanalysis so long that I’d make a good analyst, he stared at me with a steady, slightly mischievous look, his lips puckering into a nervous smile, and asked me if I’d be his analyst. Twenty years my senior, he was really inviting me to be the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

When I told my shrink about it, he lost it completely. “What, are you crazy!?”

But sometimes you have to do crazy things if you want to be a hero.

Krim and I met once a week. I was just sane enough to make a deal with him which stipulated that if after six weeks either of us wanted to stop, we could, no questions asked. Instead of paying me, he put aside an amount of money each week for an indigent writer-friend. We met in his apartment or mine, and we followed all the rules of therapy—that is, as well as I knew them. He revealed no great secrets, that much I can say. By any standards he was in a hell of a lot better shape than I was, which didn’t mean that I couldn’t help him. And he felt from the beginning that I was helping him, and was sweetly pleased and grateful. But I was terrified. I didn’t want the responsibility of this man putting his life in my hands. I sensed enough about the concept of “transference” to see that I had to encourage him to get angry at me, and I didn’t want to do it: I wanted my mentor back, I still wanted to be his student. When the six weeks were over, I called it quits. For a while he was angry and hurt, and wouldn’t talk to me. But as the years went by he and I found a new relationship, one more equal than the previous one.

Today it’s easy for me to see why Krim was my hero. In many ways, he fit the heroic mold: the isolation, the suffering, the conviction that hearing his personal voice and using it honestly was what his life was about. But my role in the story is less clear. Why did I do such a silly thing?

It occurs to me that I might have been doing what Campbell describes as “atonement with the Father.” At the darkest stage of the hero’s life, according to Campbell,  he confronts all the maleness of the Oedipal father. In mythology it can take the form of monsters, dragons, anything that the hero is doubtful that he can cope with. But rather than brute force, what is required of the hero is “an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself, and that is what is difficult. One must have a faith that the father is merciful, and then a reliance on that mercy.” Strangely enough, I think that was what I was doing: grappling with, and submitting to, the scary father.

For I remember sitting listening to Krim, both scared and thrilled, as if I were looking  danger squarely in the eye. With each session I grew a little more secure, until by the end I was relaxed enough to see that he, like all of us, was just a vulnerable person doing the best he could. This didn’t make me respect him less, on the contrary--but it did make him more accessible and perhaps less formidable. Maybe at the end I could afford to be merciful too, when I admitted that I wasn’t the right person to help him—not because I was incompetent, but because I was playing with fire.

It’s possible that I have it all wrong, and that I was behaving like a naughty boy. But I ended up feeling that because of those six “sessions,” I’d taken a little of Krim inside me. In the long run, heroes may just be figures in our lives or imaginations who make it possible for us to come a little closer to being heroes.


George Blecher is formerly a professor at Lehman College, CUNY, and writes essays and articles for many European newspapers and journals. He is also a translator from Scandinavian languages (Swedish Folktales and Legends, U. of Minnesota Press, 2004), and has just finished a collection of short stories, Other People Exist.


Logos 4.2 - spring 2005
© Logosonline 2005