Thursday, August 24, 2006

Trying to define heroism

Part of the problem with writing heroic fiction is that heroism has been deeply discounted in recent decades, mostly by sloppy newspaper writers and PR shills. Everybody is a hero, at least according to their autobiography, and so you get things like sports heroes, victim heroes, and the bane of fiction, action heroes.

Sorry, no; the guy who hits the ball into the upper deck and wins the World Series may be a great athlete, and he may even be an icon to his fans, but he's no hero. Likewise the woman who was told she would never walk again, who then rose from her hospital bed and won the Marathon; an amazing testimony to the strength of the human spirit, yes, but not a hero. The pretty young girl who contracted some loathsome disease and died slowly and painfully, but kept smiling to the end? A brave and tragic figure, no doubt, and perhaps an admirable example of courage and stoic grace, but not a hero.

Clara Maass, on the other hand; an Army nurse stationed in Cuba, where yellow fever was claiming hundreds of lives, who volunteered to be exposed to suspected yellow fever mosquitoes so that doctors could study the course of the disease and possibly find a cure: yes, definitely hero material. The fact that she died as a result makes her a tragic hero, but suffering and death, the stock in trade of those who would heroes of all victims, is not required.

Action heroes are probably the most misnamed of all. Heroes are not fearless. Being fearless is usually the result of being either ignorant or arrogant. It's no accident that the great fatal flaw of so many classical tragic heroes is hubris. Any "action hero" character ever played by Stallone or Schwarzenegger misses the boat. Heroes do not live to crush their enemies, see them driven before them, and hear the lamentations of their women. Any group of thugs can do that. Nazis and Klansmen do that.

The Coast Guard swimmer who jumps out of a helicopter into a raging sea to rescue someone who's boat has sunk in a storm? Hero. The cops and firefighters who went up the stairwells in the World Trade Center? Heroes.

The essential quality of heroism, I think, is that of being worried, concerned, even brown-shorts scared, but still being willing to put your life on the line and do something that desperately needs to be done, because if you don't do it right now, other people are going to suffer and die.

And that, I think, is why fiction writers find it so much easier to create cocky and quip-spouting action heroes rather than real heroes. Because, frankly, most of us have at least somewhat larger-than-average egos, such that we're willing to make our families suffer in order to satisfy our creative urges. We're not used to sacrificing our own desires for the good of others.

'scuse me. I gotta go spend some time with my kid.