Everyone has his heroes. Of course, the definition of “hero” changes through time and according to who is making the list. In Classical literature, the hero was the one who could translate the will of the gods into history. For some nowadays, we call heroes those who save little children from burning buildings. For others, they call schoolteachers “hero,” or their fathers, or someone else they admire. We have fallen a great way since Achilles became the man who bought us ice cream when we were toddlers.
But really, it has gotten even worse. I remember when the question turned bureaucratic and we began substituting the phrase “role model” for hero. The language is the poorer for it. So is the culture.
But perhaps something less ambitious is appropriate these days, since it is not as if we can believe in the epic hero, the Siegfried or the Aeneas. The 20th century destroyed any illusion we might have had about nobility, and the democratizing replacement has proved sadly short on transcendence.
And in the 20th century, those who aspired to translate the will of the gods brought disaster and destruction to the planet. One thinks of the mythic aura that the propaganda machine set as a halo around Adolf Hitler and the Übermensch, and the idea of heroism now has a stink about it that is hard to shake off. We cannot take seriously the idea of the single human who transcends human limits and converses with the gods. Clay feet for everyone. The cult of personality has left us with Kim Jong Un. However dangerous he may be, he still looks like a parody. So does Mr. Trump, with his dangling neckties and slouch walk, orange skin and ferret-fleece head. Sad.
No, we cannot take any of these pint-size heroes seriously.
Not that there isn’t still a hunger for such. How else can you explain the tsunami of superhero movies, with their rippling chests and spandex tights? Or, for that matter, the rise of so many authoritarian and would-be authoritarian regimes around the globe?
In the ancient myths, heroes were defined by a single act, often resulting in their deaths, making for few retired heroes. But it isn’t the paroxysm of the heroic act that we seek anymore, or can accept — after all, you can’t make a sequel if your hero has been killed and translated into a constellation in the night sky.
And neither can we believe anymore in the “will of the gods.” Whatever gods may have survived Nietzsche have retired to their corners to let the last remaining deity any culture fervently believes in fight it out with himself as Sunni and Shia.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have personal heroes, those we feel embody the values and achievements we care most about. For some, those heroes play sports or lead insurgencies, or make millions of dollars in real estate. They aren’t exactly “role models,” because we don’t truly aspire to put in the hard work required to meet these goals. But we like to imagine that, given the right circumstances — mostly in our daydreams — we might be like them.
Certainly there are a few heroic people who the large proportion of the world’s populace can admire. At least those who feel the warm pumping of humanity beating in their veins.
It’s hard not to think that, despite the recalcitrant and reactionary stubbornness of the Vatican, that Pope Francis is trying his damnedest to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Not in all particulars, of course, but he has clearly made clear he is less judgmental and more inclusive than anyone at the head of the church, perhaps since its founder. He has sent out olive branches to Muslims, to atheists, to homosexuals, even to the Orthodox Church. Now, if he could just do the same thing for women.
And there is an overpowering force of acceptance and forgiveness in the Dalai Lama. Yes, perhaps he giggles just a wee bit too much, and there are the political ramifications of Tibetan separatism, but the Dalai Lama seems to be able to function as a spiritual leader to everyone from Buddhists to atheists — and even to fundamentalist Christians, who recognize in him, if not the spirit of “true religion,” at least that he means well.
And I have to admit that these two men are heroes to me, too. Perhaps one sees their limitations, but then, Siegfried and Aeneas had notable shortcomings as well. (Siegfried was none to bright; he didn’t know the meaning of the word “fear.” Someone should have bought him a dictionary. And Aeneas, well, as far as heroes go, he was sliced from a large sheet of cardboard.)
Who would I put in my personal hagiography? It changes from time to time, as new heroes emerge and former ones snap off their clay feet at the ankles. But for the purpose of writing this short entry, I want to nominate five names. These, then, are my personal heroes, more than bureaucratic, and perhaps a tad less than monumental.
David Attenborough — Pretty much anyone who has seen the 91-year-old BBC TV presenter recognizes immediately the genuineness of his enthusiasm and his complete lack of vanity, with his white hair blowing around his head as he climbs trees in the rainforest or rides under the waves in a submersible. Attenborough, unlike most presenters, not only writes his own material — which is delightfully free from the usual nature-film cliches — but is his own producer. In fact, he was the head of BBC programming for years. He is not just a talking head, he is our surrogate for discovery. Everything he presents, he seems to be finding out for the first time and wants us to share it with him.
“I just wish the world was twice as big and half of it was still unexplored.”
If nothing else, his longevity onscreen is unmatched. His first nature film was made in 1954, which for those of you who are math-challenged, was 63 years ago. I am a geezer, but I was in first grade when he made Zoo Story for the BBC. Although he has slowed down, he still provided the voice over for a sequel to The Blue Planet.
I wish I had his enthusiasm and his energy.
Werner Herzog — If Attenborough is the avuncular voice of nature films, Herzog is the voice of nature biting back. His Bavarian-accented English is hypnotic — you cannot turn away. But it is the voice of doom. Make that in capital letters. But there is a kind of smile behind the terror. For Herzog, life is nasty, brutish and short, but it seems to amuse him. If it isn’t bears out to eat you, it is albino crocodiles, or Viet Cong shooting at you in the jungle.
“I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.”
If that isn’t enough, then take this one: “I am fascinated by the idea that our civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.”
How is it, then, that his films are so life-affirming and joyous? It must be because he throws himself into the Maelstrøm with abandon. One sees him like Slim Pickens as Maj. Kong in Dr. Strangelove, riding the nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco.
It is the documentary films primarily that I am talking about. He also makes some of the most daring feature films — how can you top Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, or Fitzcarraldo? — but it is the many, many documentaries that Herzog shows his peculiar Weltanschauung. Again, like Attenborough, there is never an ounce or a gram of cliche. Every utterance is original, but more to the point, true — at least as Herzog understands it.
As the late Roger Ebert had it, Herzog “has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.”
Brian Lamb — If Werner is a wolf, then Brian is a lamb. In the current political climate, where everyone yells at the top of their lungs, spewing venom and spit, Lamb is the quiet center of a vortex. Lamb invented C-Span, made it happen, and managed it from 1975 until he retired in 2012. He still shows up on the TV network, asking simple, direct questions of those in the news, without rancor, and seemingly without any agenda other than getting at the facts. I have never heard him raise his voice; I have never heard him express a political opinion. To this day, I cannot tell whether he is liberal or conservative, so close to the vest does he play it.
On the other hand, one believes he leans to the liberal side, if for no other reason than his happy toleration of diverse points of view. Diversity tends to be a liberal virtue. Nevertheless, I cannot tell for sure.
Lamb manages to make C-Span more than just a static camera in the Senate or on the House floor. On weekends, there is Book TV, and then, there is History TV on C-Span 3. You hear engaging lectures and panel discussions from every spot on the political spectrum — again, all played straight, no comment, no angle. Wow. For my money, Lamb is a secular saint.
John Lewis — You see his face behind the podium and you hear his deep, sorrowful voice and you know this is the pure expression of humanity, straight, no chaser. There is a moral power to his utterance. One imagines him reading a shopping list and making you feel like a better person for it.
Now 77 and a Congressman from Georgia’s Fifth District, Lewis is the soul of dignity. He has been through great suffering, was beaten and jailed, watched his mentor murdered in Memphis, fought for Civil Rights and now, as one of the few remaining voices of the Struggle, speaks not for African Americans, not for Americans, but for human beings. If we were any of us a hundredth as noble as he is, we should be proud. If we were to be visited by some alien civilization, I would want Lewis to speak for humanity as we were introduced.
John Waters — We make no bones about it, John Waters is an indifferent filmmaker. Many of his films are notable, but more for their outrageousness than for their cinematic virtues. Not that saying such would much bother him; he seems to know just where he fits into film history.
But it is Waters the man that I wholly admire. He can be funny — he usually is — he is often ironic, although he says he eschews irony, he knows the borders of good taste and makes sure he stays on the far side of the line, but there is an essential and unquenchable goodness about his vision.
I first noticed this in one of his lesser films, Pecker, about a young man devoid of irony who makes a splash in the New York art scene. Waters could easily have lampooned the nabobs of that scene as shallow and exclusionary — and he does have some fun at their expense — but in the end, he finds room for them in his universe, too.
It is admirable that he can be sharp but accepting also. There is a loving gentleness behind the kitsch and Waters never, ever looks down on his creations. He recognizes the silliness of human behavior, but counts himself among the silly. I would trust my life to Waters.
So, these are my saints, at least for the moment. There are more of them, but this gives you a range of them. There are women, too; I hope to write about some of them in the future. And even some political figures, although I might be hard pressed to name any of them currently living.
Do I live up to their example. Hardly. But in my mind, I try my best, which is all any of them can, or have asked.