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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

“Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen”, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

496 pages, Viking Press, ISBN-13: 978-0670063642

What is it about heroes, anyway? We love them, at least for a while; then we discover they have feet of clay, and we'd just as soon they relocate or die. In Lucy Hughes-Hallett's book, she explores the universal human desire for heroes, both "to acknowledge its urgency, and to warn against it." From her perspective, heroes are problematic: not merely are they those who rise to deal with difficult or impossible situations, but also those who inspire terrorists and smooth the way for dictators and tyrants. In Heroes, Hughes-Hallett takes a closer look at eight men (the Magnificent Eight, as it were) from distant antiquity (if not fiction) up until the recent past. She examines the exploits of names which still resonate with many people: the legendary figure Achilles; Roman senator Cato the Younger; the Athenian general (and betrayer) Alcibades; the crusading Spanish warlord El Cid; the pirate Francis Drake; war plunderer Albrecht von Wallenstein; the mythical Odysseus; and revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. Plumbing the depths of historical record, she recounts with gusto (and considerable wit) each man's triumphs and failings.

She identifies in all of these examples both the powerful attraction of heroes and the dangerous undercurrents which travel with their oversized personal presence. One must remember, as Hughes-Hallett does, that there was a reason Jason and the Argonauts left Hercules behind: "so that the Argos would not have on board one so vastly bigger than the rest of the crew." As Bertolt Brecht wrote, it is an unhappy land that looks for heroes, and the idea that "cometh the hour, cometh the man" can sometimes mean that the man that cometh brings a fair amount of baggage with him. For Hughes-Hallett, heroism becomes less a subjective mediation on heroes as the proverbial "good role model" and more an identification of the traits that cause certain people to challenge the notion that all men are created equal. Here, a hero need not be virtuous or even valiant by modern standards; instead, they need only "inspire confidence and appear, not good necessarily, but great."

Perhaps principal among the heroic traits she identifies as common is an ability to inspire others to move beyond themselves, as well as an unwillingness to compromise - indeed, many heroic figures exhibit "a disdain for the cramping compromises by means of which the unheroic majority manage their lives." In this regard we see both Achilles and Cato the Younger as examples: each held true to his own course and steadfastly refused to live his life by any other standard than his own. For Cato, that meant doing everything within his power to forestall the slid of the Roman Republic into an Empire, and rejecting any form of compromise which might have avoided a bloody civil war which led, inexorably, to his own suicide (and his subsequent elevation as an enduring example of Stoic resistance to the cloying entanglements and emotional confusion that affects lesser men.

Hughes-Hallett notes that heroes are frequently unable to exist within the confines of mundane life; they often only flourish in the midst of specific difficult circumstances. Intriguingly, she notes that much as there are two Homeric epics, there are two models of Heroism - Achilles, with whom she opens the book, and Odysseus, to whom she gives the last word. There are fundamental differences between them: "Achilles values prizes only for the honor they represent, but Odysseus wants to get rich: he is a looter and pillager like the Cid, an unprovoked raider of peaceful settlements like Drake." More, Achilles tells the truth regardless of the circumstance (much like Cato the Younger), while Odysseus is far more willing to bend the truth to serve the needs of the moment. Regardless, they are both outsized personalities capable of great feats. But there is in Odysseus something which seems more "human" than in Achilles' adherence to his code; and for some reason, it is Odysseus who is also more than a hero: he is a husband, father, and landowner. As Hughes-Hallett puts it, "Homer's Odysseus comes home at last, to lie with Penelope in a great bed made from a living tree." He is a person heroic enough not simply to die, but to live as well.

All in all, I thought Heroes is an engaging, thought-provoking exploration of what defines a "hero" in the broad sense, as well as outlining both the attraction and the dangerous undercurrents associated with such "larger-than-life" figures. Hughes-Hallett presents her characters and her arguments in a refreshingly clear and coherent manner.

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