A Man and His Hero

In the March issue of The Atlantic, Michael Ignatieff, philosopher, author and erstwhile candidate for the Canadian Prime Ministership, writes about heroes in a way that requires rebuttal. “The Hero Europe Needed” is a deeply gendered article and in his failure to recognize that, Ignatieff presents social constructs as essential truths and fails to find his way to a much more interesting and necessary story.

Ignatieff has failed to define his terms. He uses the term “heroic” synonymously with “courageous”. They are not synonyms, since “heroic” requires a societally-located approval that courage doesn’t. Courage is a quality that all human beings can aspire to, one we can attempt to cultivate in themselves. We can use the adjectival form to describe ourselves and others, as in “she is courageous”, or I wish I were courageous enough to …”. A man or woman who aspires to courage is a person we can perhaps trust. But a man who aspires to heroism – a man willing to suffer and perhaps die for a societally-approved cause — is someone we should immediately contain and put away, perhaps in manacles.

Heroism is a label looking for a referent, not a human quality that we ought to attempt to cultivate in ourselves. To be a hero is to be a savior, it is to be one who does what others lack the courage to do and thus to be unique and to be required by the weak. Heroism requires weakness in others. While anybody can become courageous, heroism can only be a label we pin on someone other than ourselves. To call someone a hero is to idealize that person.

When Ignatieff says “Heroism is essential to politics” he is saying something other than what he intends, which is simply that courage is essential to politics. But his words say that politics require there be someone we can label as heroic, someone who functions as a savior of the weak, someone we can see as mysteriously “other”. When Ignatieff says “we are short of heroes everywhere these days”, he actually means we are short of people who use their courage to further certain societal aims. Such a person can be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and the medal “hero” pinned to his chest. We can push such a man to the head of the line and the rest of us can cease trying to be courageous.

This leads me to the second term that Ignatieff has failed to define. The word “we” as he uses it seems to refer to all of us, all humanity. But the word ”hero” is a strongly patriarchal term, one that powerful men encourage young men to pursue. It’s a masculine ideal that enables powerful men to persuade young men to die for them. Men are taught to be heroes, saviours of women and children and other helpless beings, superior to other men — and to seek heroes.

When he says “seeing a hero in disarray delivers a jolt” what he is really saying is that reality jolts idealism. “We’d much prefer to remember the triumphant images” is tantamount to saying we prefer the image to the reality. I wouldn’t; I would like to be excluded from Ignatieff’s “We”, and in fact I am because it is primarily a construction of masculinity to look for a man worthy of being labelled a hero.

As a woman invisible, and even negated, within Ignatieff’s masculine “we”, I am particularly irked by his statement that “we tend to think of heroism as mysteriously individual . . . but it is in fact a social virtue”. The truth is that men tend to look for and even create men who are uniquely different from other men, singular men who can be idealized and looked up to as representatives of what it can truly be to be a man. Men almost never make a hero of a woman; women even more rarely make heroes of their own gender. The desire to hero-worship is primarily masculine. It starts young, when boys are encouraged to regard sports stars as heroes. It seems men are conditioned to behave as sheep around a shepherd. Is this a “social virtue”?

If anything heroism, if one holds it up as a personal ideal, is a vice, rather than a virtue. It requires a vast sea of weak “others” who need rescuing by the singular, superior man. I don’t think of heroism at all most of the time, and when I do I see the desire to be a hero as the masculine pathological equivalent of women’s tendency to caretake and enable. Both men and women want to be saviours, women of men, and men of the weak.

In failing to define his terms, in failing to recognize that his perspective is part of the construct of masculinity, Ignatieff ignores the more interesting question of why men want to see men such as Havel as a hero and why they are so disappointed when they turn out to be merely human. Havel himself seems to have been aware of the dichotomy between real and ideal image, and to have seen the dangers of conflating the courageous and the heroic: “He realized that for all his determination to resist evil, he was no superhero, but only a frail human being .”

We cannot be seduced by our own courage, but we can be seduced by the label “hero” if it is applied to us or if we are so blind as to think we can apply it to ourselves. Ignatieff brings this up when he says Havel was seduced by “global celebrity” and by the need to feel “indispensable” and to have “confirmation that he still mattered.” The masculine need to hero worship is destructive. It often destroys the men it labels heroes – just look at the sports fields and stadiums for the corpses of “heroes” left behind by the frail and too often tawdry men forced to occupy those bodies until they were finally unveiled as the flawed men they actually were.

This article would be far more interesting if it focused on the ways in which one courageous man was seduced by the masculine desire to be seen as a hero, abetted by the masculine desire to shoehorn someone into that role. Then Ignatieff would be using his intelligence to deconstruct masculinity, and that’s something the world needs far more than it needs a hero.

It seems more than coincidental that at the same time this article appeared in The Atlantic, a short story on the subject of heroism appeared in Harper’s Magazine (March 2015). In “No Slant to the Sun”, T.C. Boyle tells the story of a recently retired man, Sten, who thinks of himself not as retired but as “ pre-dead,”and whose masculinity is in question now that he is merely one of thousands of interchangeable old people who tramp around the third world in tourist expeditions, thirsting for life as they approach inevitable death. When he returns to his tour group after taking a leak in the bush, he witnesses the group being robbed at gunpoint by three local young thugs, who appear not to be scared by what they’re doing. “Why would they be,” he asks, “This was easy pickings, old people, seniors so frightened and hopeless they could barely twist the watches off their wrists, let alone defend themselves”.

When one of the thugs turns his back on Sten, he is furious at being taken for “nothing, less than nothing, just old and weak and useless.” In this fury, he attacks the thug, crushing his larynx and killing him. One of the women in the group thanks him, telling him “You’re a hero, a real hero”, but no one would look at him: “He wasn’t one of them, not anymore – he was something else now.”

Tellingly, Sten tells us he was only doing what he had been taught to do as a young man in the army, and “does anybody ever forget that?” he asks. Indeed, the various conditioning that goes into the construction of “masculinity” can never be forgotten, although it can be overcome by those men who find a reason to deconstruct what society has made of them.

Sten, whose name makes an obvious reference to his character, shows contempt for people who don’t know how to hold a gun. The robber thug holds his weapon like “A shoe. A book. A used CD he’d found in a bin at the record shop. He didn’t respect it. He didn’t know it.” Later, when he has “immobilized” the thug and one of the other tourists picks up the dropped gun, he held it like “an umbrella, a checkbook, a pair of glasses.” Real men know how to handle a gun.

Mr. Ignatieff was a liberal when he allowed himself to be pushed to the front of the line as a leadership candidate for the Canadian government. He was defeated by the conservative Stephen Harper, who I’m pretty sure knows how to hold a gun.


Moth Smoke Obscures

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, which I found in the bookshelf at the Hotel Orchidea in Florence, made a big splash when it came out in 2000, garnering praise and awards then and again when it was reissued in paperback in 2007. It’s a beautifully written novel, and people who love sentences will love this book. But it’s a seriously flawed novel. The central character, Daru, is  an unlikeable whiner with no redeeming qualities (that I can find). This is not necessarily a problem, but as the central protagonist, he must be a primary tool through which the author’s message is elucidated. In that he fails, and that is a problem.

As a poor child who associated with rich kids because of financial help from a friend of his dead father, Daru is motivated by resentment and arrogance when his education is finished and he has to live within his own means, which are significantly less than that of his wealthy jet-setting ex-schoolmates. His arrogant response to a client of his bank who treats him like a servant results in the loss of his job and his life spirals down in a drive to self-destruction. When he adds heroin to to near constant consumption of hash, we know he’s approaching the end. By the final chapter, he’s on trial for a death he did not cause, a child killed by his erstwhile friend Aurangzeb, trained to be a shark in New York, and bringing those skills back to Pakistan to hide and launder his corrupt father’s wealth. Innocent of this crime,  Daru had shot at a child during an attempted robbery, so  he is not exactly innocent. The novel begins with a parallel case from history, about which the narrator says “none present were innocent, save perhaps the judge. And perhaps not even he.” It’s possible the origins of the novel lie in Hamid’s desire to explore this subject. However, he has wandered too far off-track for readers to see this as a novel about lack of innocence.   Daru is a  wanna be wealthy elite who can’t accept the relative status and money of his own life in the face of his friend’s limitless wealth and power. It’s a depressing novel about someone who feels like a victim and consequently acts like one, participating in his own destruction.

The biggest question is whether this is a political novel, or a psychological one. I think it’s meant to be political, exploring different responses to a blatantly corrupt government by wealth and influence. Aurangzeb’s wife, Mumtaz, unhappy in her marriage and the useless bacchanalia of life as an insider, turns her journalism talents, nurtured in New York, to writing about the corruption all around her. She illustrates that one can choose an active, participatory role as exposer of corruption and advocate for the oppressed.

Daru’s drug-dealer, a man who also owns a small rickshaw company, offers another response to such political corruption. When taxi-drivers move in and take away rickshaw business, he takes to robbing them. While preparing Daru to assist him in a new endeavour, robbing boutiques, he lays out his philosophy: “This is how I see things. People are fed up with subsisting on the droppings of the rich. The time is right for a revolution. The rich use Kalashnikovs to persuade tenant farmers and factory laborers and the rest of us to stay in line . . . but we, too, can be persuasive.” When Daru asks him why boutiques, he replies “symbolism: they represent the soft underbelly of the upper crust, the ultimate hypocrisy in a country with flour shortages.”

Daru seems stumped by the fact that the traditional opposition,  communism, is a spent force and the “trending” opposition is religious fundamentalism. Yet Mumtaz and Murad show there are other ways to respond to the despotism of wealth. Daru chooses self-destruction.  Unfortunately his response is too loaded with psychological weight to be seen as a response to corruption. He is more disabled by his envy of the rich than by the fact of the rich. There is a distinctly British feel to this novel, with its orphan raised above his class through a wealthy benefactor and then dropped back into it when the funding ends.

The rickshaw driver is more sympathetic, as he’s a man who takes action without rage or the impulse to violence. Though he provides the guns, he plans robberies that won’t require any actual shooting.  Daru wallows in his boredom and emptiness, but it is within us all to take action, as we see through both Mumtaz, underground journalist, and Murad, rickshaw driver and leveller of rich and poor.

The title refers to the ancient eastern symbol of the moth, so enchanted with the beloved flame that it’s willing to be burned to ash in consummation, to lose its identity in union. In this novel Daru slashes away at the moths with a tennis racket, preventing them from immolating themselves. There is an absence of “moth smoke” here, and the corpses littering the floor point to an absence of meaning. This seems to parallel Daru, in love with nothing (despite his brief affair with Mumtaz), absent of passion, slowly killing himself. But shouldn’t the title be “No Moth Smoke”?
I have to wonder what western readers saw in the novel. I can’t help but think it’s a colonial response – the affluent west’s enchantment with the exotic “other”.  Hamid has laid open his Pakistan culture — with its corruption, its huge wealth disparity, its hedonism — for westerners to feast on, while congratulating themselves for their own superior culture. We shouldn’t do that; we should see it as a mirror of our rapidly disintegrating democracies, and perhaps if Murad were the central character we might take more notice of what could threaten us.

Random Readings pt 5

Surprisingly, Rome is not as hung with penises as Florence. Maybe that’s because  so much of the statuary predates the Renaissance, when men and women were presented and their images preserved in marble robes, or charmingly plump fig leaves. Where the Medici crest, a shield with red balls or coins, hangs ubiquitously in Florence, Mary hangs in Rome. On countless street corners her image has been painted or frescoed or sculpted in many guises — virgin wife, young child, mother. She is the ideal – overflowing with compassion and pure of heart.

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The city’s churches all seem to bear her name. That’s an exaggeration; there are churches with other names, but my guidebook lists 24 variations of St. Mary in the list of Rome’s churches and cathedrals. She is and has been venerated for all the qualities that men attribute to womanhood, except sexuality. Rome reveals the male longing for forgiveness from the eternal mother goddess.

And what do men want forgiveness for? For being without all the qualities that men attribute to womanhood. Somewhere in the histories of civilizations, men decided to categorize about half the qualities that humans are capable of cultivating as “feminine” – these are qualities like compassion, kindness, grace, beauty, tenderness, gentleness – and having categorized them as feminine, to evaluate them as “less than”, and to assign them to female human beings. It is the job of woman the compassionate to forgive men for their lack of compassion, and of woman the gentle to forgive men for their lack of gentleness. When men idealize a woman, they are idealizing qualities they have no intention of cultivating in themselves.

And the qualities of strength, courage, self-reliance, etc. that they assign themselves are considered superior and not to be sullied by women attempting to claim them.For women to cultivate these qualities in themselves would lessen the value of these qualities. And then what would men do? Who would they be?

While in Rome I read two books that dealt with the idealization of women. I know, the synchronicity is hard to believe.
Promises Lost by Audrey Howard, the only English language book in the studio apartment I rented just behind the Vatican, doesn’t deserve any critical commentary, as it doesn’t aspire to be anything other than what it is, cheap historical romance. There’s an ideal young woman, Sara Hamilton, who gives her heart to her young man at 15 and doesn’t reclaim it over the five following years when they are separated, or even when eventually she doesn’t know his whereabouts or whether he is still alive. There’s an ideal young man, Jack Andrews, who stays pure in his love and longing for Sara over the same five year period. Nonetheless, as a man, he has “needs” and he gets them met with various women over the years. Sara, meanwhile, develops a beautiful friendship with a man who makes her laugh and helps her have some joy in a life bereft of Jack. In time, this friendship develops a loving sexuality. Gender roles are intact: the man has sex without love, the woman adds sex to affection.

What interests me is that a contemporary woman writer should create a perfect, ideal young woman molded in the historical construction of the “angel in the house”, a two or three hundred-year-old trope that was dishonest from its very beginning. Surely she knows no such things exists? In this case her man is similarly robed in goodness and in the end we can imagine them living happily for 40 or 50 years with nary a quarrel, except perhaps, over what might be the most ethical or compassionate thing to do in some circumstance or other.

Thankfully there are used book stalls in Rome, lined up next to the Tiber River. One of the stalls specializes in English language books. I found Accused by Mark Gimenez there one drizzly Sunday. This turned out to be a detective novel that pretends to be in support of women, but is breathtakingly insulting. Scott Fenney is a lawyer called to defend his ex-wife, accused of murdering the man she left him for two years earlier. At one point she tells him “All women live in a man’s world, so all women lie. They have to. At least all women who depend on a man for their survival”. The real reason women read romance novels, she adds, is that the women in them are financially independent: “Not being financially dependent on a man, that’s a woman’s true romantic fantasy.” These are the comments of a university-educated white woman in America, a woman who could support herself if anyone could. Yet Fenney doesn’t call her on it; rather he accepts this as a new truth that he needs to take account of. At the end, we discover that, although Fenney did get her off, she did murder her wealthy lover and she feels no guilt about it all “because a woman’s life is not lived in a man’s world of truth or lie, right or wrong, black or white; a woman’s life is lived in shades of gray. Rebecca Fenney had simply done what she had to do to survive in a man’s world, what any woman would have done.” Uh huh. Any woman might murder the man she lives with when he threatens to leave her for another woman, taking all his money with him. Are we supposed to believe this? Is this a man’s conception of what ‘woman-power’ is?

It’s clear she hired her ex-husband because she knew that he was still in love with her and blind to her faults. This novel illustrates what a woman is really like when you can get over your idealization of her — a callous, murderous, manipulative danger to men.
The rest of the novel is peopled with a selection of sexually predatory women, particularly a television news anchor covering the case and the judge trying the case. Both had had sex with the victim, both attempted to keep it hidden because of conflict of interest, and both propositioned Fenney before the trial started.  It appears that even women who are not financially dependent on men are manipulative and deceitful. Arrayed against these evil bitches are Fenney and his three male side-kicks who all worship him for one reason or another. And his job, aside from representing his ex-wife at her trial, is to raise two daughters in such a way that they won’t feel they have to lie to men all the time. Clearly raising honest women is a man’s job.
This was a Sunday Times bestseller and a quote from The Times names the author as “the next Grisham”. Yikes, if this is the quality of book reviews then we’re really in trouble.