Years ago, a boyfriend told me about a discussion he was having with his son, a student, who was taking a course in ancient mythology. He’d been given an essay assignment to describe heroes.
His father, who had taught comparative lit, asked him, “What is the essential characteristic of a hero?” Son thought about it for a while.
“Stupidity,” he finally said. “Right,” his father said.
Smart kid. Anyone who’s read classical mythology knows heroes jump into danger without thinking, risking their own lives — unless they’re immortal, in which case they get to be stupider than mortal heroes. And more vicious.
Mythology, developed by mortal storytellers in an effort to suggest order and purpose to a world packed with mysteries beyond their powers of explanation, created gods and goddesses whose foibles were egregiously human foibles. Every despicable quality in humans was projected without mitigation into the immortals to whom humans had to pray. Or else.
And then they carved statues of this scurrilous bunch, statues to which humans could pray. What a mess.
About statues. Once upon a time, I held in my hands the original Oscar, awarded in 1927 to the silent movie, Wings.
It had been a Paramount film and one of its producers was Paramount founder Adolph Zukor, whose Oscar it was. Mr. Zukor, a tiny elegant man of sumptuous courtliness, maintained an office in the Gulf + Western Building at the time I was working there — the late ’60s and early ’70s. His Oscar sat on his desk where, most mornings every week, he would arrive to read the daily gross sheets.
He made his daily visits to Paramount throughout his late 90’s. I was formally introduced to him by his longtime secretary Rose Weinstein when Mr. Zukor was 98. (A plot was afoot to hold a 99th birthday party for Mr. Zukor, about which Frank Yablans, then Paramount President, remarked to Chairman Charlie Bluhdorn, “Charlie, I think time is of the essence.” He was wrong; Mr. Zukor lived until 103.)
Mr. Zukor’s Oscar. I had been given a not-entirely kosher commission to use the Oscar as a model for replicas, and was given permission to borrow it for a short time. That’s why I held it in my hands.
It was an unusual Oscar. It was not gold but bronze. I was told that this first Oscar had been caressed so much, the 24-carat gold coat had been rubbed off. At the time I’d accepted this explanation; it now seems to be a mythological invention to explain another mystery.
However it had happened, the deep bronze Oscar was, to me, far more striking than if he’d been dressed in gold. The face was androgynous, like an ancient Grecian statue. He was naked, his musculature male, and he held a long sword over his genitals.
He was lovely to hold and regard. Shapely, deco and very dense. So dense, one couldn’t imagine any human characteristic within it. Oscar was, therefore, the perfect hero: worshiped as a god of one specific and exclusive religion, but never to be vitiated by sudden media exposures of unacceptable ideologies or abusive behavior.
I’m not disparaging Academy Awards. Several old friends of mine were given Oscars for making great films — about human imperfections and rotting ideologies. My friends had their own imperfections so my admiration for their genius and my affection for them never could expand into hero worship.
Heroes are perfect godlets when they act courageously, but are grievous disappointments when their flaws are exposed — which, in our media-infused society, nearly always happens. Our belief in god(liness) seems to last only as long as the godliness does.
Gods get toppled off their pedestals.
So, rather than suffering the degree of pain and irritation I get when a hero has his dense perfection perforated by reality, I don’t have heroes anymore. Instead of making statues of them, I hug people like Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, both of whom could have, should have stayed out of Russia. But didn’t.
I don’t worship them as heroes. I worry about them. Like me, they’re human — except monumentally more courageous. They defy the laws of self-created gods who treat human rights and the inherent human drive to learn as the enemy.
That makes these guys heretics. And I love heretics.