In Brecht’s “Galileo” we read, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes . . . No. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” An amusing paradox, but coming from Brecht, a coward and opportunist, not surprising. Brecht’s personal meanness can be matched only by that of another theatrical genius, Richard Wagner, a fellow German. Isn’t it wonderful that two of the greatest wizards of the musical theater should both have been nasty Germans?
But it is perfectly understandable why Brecht considered heroes de trop. He would have preferred a country of mediocrities from which he could stand out with all his imperfections to one that had heroes to eclipse him. Look at what even one hero or heroine could do for a country—the way Joan of Arc still provides a kind of lodestar to Frenchmen (and women), fifty million of whom cannot be wrong.
Poor burned Joan—could it mean that to be a hero (or heroine) you had to die, preferably in a grandiose way, on the battlefield or at the stake? Is Lord Byron, who came to the aid of the embattled Greeks, but had to die far from the fighting, ill and in bed less heroic? And is there not something louche about Lord Nelson’s last words, “Kiss me, Hardy,” which might seem more appropriate to Stan Laurel? Ah, those British grandees, all with their homoerotic Achilles heels. Le vice anglais, as the French, homies of Verlaine and Rimbaud, would sneeringly call it.
Apropos the French, their greatest hero, greater even than Marshal Foch, was Pierre du Terrail, seigneur de Bayard. His bravura, the Larousse dictionary tells us, earned him the title Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche , knight above fear and blame. Yet that was in the early sixteenth century, when knighthood was in flower, and the prevailing type of combat lent itself to heroism. Even so, Bayard was outstanding, and could only be killed from afar by a dastardly shot of harquebus. Heroism, to some extent, thrives on distance in the past and on epics such as the Iliad, which of course is fiction.
What, however, of those heroes of modern battle, Americans who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor? Surely their survival doesn’t diminish their acts of heroism. Somehow, though, medieval armor is more heroic than contemporary armament. The past, a.k.a. history, burnishes the achievement. The Roman heroes of Virgil’s day would have had scant use for Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” in which the pragmatic Swiss antihero has it all over the heroics of the swaggering Bulgarian officer, however dashing.
Without being Shavian, we tend to be suspicious of heroism. Already in 1340 the Oxford English Dictionary locates the first use of the word foolhardiness, for which Greek or Latin, I dare say, has no equivalent. “Hero worship,” too, is a modern, belittling concept, dating from the ascendancy of latterday skepticism, which views much, but not all, heroism with suspicion.
It may be that the name of Nathan Hale and his famous alleged dying words are even now drilled into our elite schoolchildren, but who, young or old, can cite the parting words of a twentieth- or twenty-first-century patriot? Or have modern heroes become tongue-tied?
Execution, to be sure, elicits heroism and heroic last utterances, but we no longer execute heroes, or, if we do, are careful not to record their final words. A Raleigh or Essex no longer ends with his head on the block, or if he does in some third-world country, no one hears, let alone records, his farewell. The gas chambers, at any rate, are not supplied with sound equipment, and death rows seem not to harbor verbal artists.
Still, best is the military death. Even if by friendly fire, as in the case of Stonewall Jackson. And we may celebrate it even if it is that of a heroic enemy, as in World War Two Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, a great German general, who, earning Hitler’s undeserved disapproval, chose to commit suicide. And perhaps the best exemplar of surviving heroism and postwar triumph is General and subsequent President Charles de Gaulle, while there are many such a questionable examples as that of William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill.
Meanwhile every country seems to have its favorite hero: Andreas Hofer for Austria, Miklos Toldi for Hungary, Emperor Dusan for Serbia, Admiral Nelson for England, William Wallace (a.k.a. Braveheart, as in his movie by Mel Gibson) for Scotland Skanderbeg fo0r Albania, and so on. Persia’s heroes, as far as I know, were its rulers (Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes), even if they were the oppressors of conquered nations. Thus it was King Leonidas of Sparta who, in 480 B.C., with a mere 300 Spartans (his allies having deserted) opposed the huge Persian army at Thermopylae for a couple of days, afterwards slaughtered along with his soldiers. He, too, has had his cinematic tribute.
Modern Persia, i.e., Iran has also occasioned heroes, mostly filmmakers who have made movies that condemned them to exile, which, to be sure is rather better than execution, only I don’t recall their names. As for pre-Revolutionary Russia, Emperor Vladimir, who defeated the Teuton knights (memorialized by Prokofiev) was its supreme hero, until the Revolution spawned several others too numerous to mention. The same must be true of various countries of the Near and Far East, as well as Africa, about which I know little or nothing.
Fame, in any case, is whimsical enough. Take the antithetical destinies of two British nurses. In World War One, the Germans executed Nurse Edith Cavell as an English spy; surviving was Nurse Florence Nightingale, heroine of the Crimean War, and the mother of modern nursing. Why does nobody remember Cavell, but most people know who was Nightingale. Could it be merely her avian moniker?
There have been countless heroes in the various arts who resisted and overcame intense adversity. Take the great painter Vincent van Gogh, who never sold a single painting during his lifetime, save one that his brother bought for a pittance, yet Vincent persisted until his ultimate suicide. Here I must mention Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the fearless novelist steadily persecuted, and the poet Anna Akhmatova (whose ex-husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was indeed executed), whose own poetry did not seem quite so threatening to Stalin, and who in 1960 published the ironically titled volume “Poem Without a Hero.” Her brave life was heroic enough.
In Hungary, I note the poet Miklos Radnoti, whose collection, “Keep Marching, You Who are Condemned to Death,” speaks loud through its mere title, and the somewhat less engaged but valiantly struggling poet Janos Pilinszky. There are several Czech, Slovak and Polish writers who defied their governments, but about whose identities I leave the word to Philip Roth. I would also argue for the heroism of some sports figures, notably Arthur Ashe, and a good many others, about whom I am insufficiently knowledgeable. But I do know about writers who assumed the burden of being ahead of their time, such as Franz Kafka (although he wanted his executor, Max Brod, to destroy his manuscripts, which Brod smartly didn’t) and James Joyce (although he had the insolence of claiming it should take the reader of “Finegans Wake” as long as it took him to write it).
And now, though I clearly realize that my two tiny acts of courage do not qualify as heroism, but upon which I look back with a modicum of pride. First, as a small boy in Abbazia, an Italian resort on the Mediterranean, where my family would vacation each Easter. A little girl who had a butterfly net tried to fish with it, only to have the Adriatic wrest it from her hand. She was desolate, and I, who was smitten with her but not yet knowing how to swim, lept into the water fully dressed to retrieve it. I did not take note of how deep the sea was there, and it did indeed reach my chin, but the girl got her net back. My parents were absent, but a friendly lady, terrified, carried me off to her hotel room for a good dressing down, both literal and figurative. I can’t remember what dry things she wrapped me in.
More recently, in middle age, my then girlfriend and I were attending one afternoon a movie near Times Square. It was called “Theatre of Blood,” and concerned an actor avenging his adverse reviews on a series of critics by murdering them. As if that were not enough, there were in that otherwise empty theater, at the other end of our long row, a black pimp with his white hooker. They were, loudly talking, having a late lunch, noisily unpacking and variously rattling their victuals. Which even at some distance was disturbing.
So I made my way halfway through the row, called to the noisemakers to desist, and returned to my seat. Next thing I knew, there was this huge, threatening black man, towering over me, and accusing me of interfering with the lunch of two hungry people. I, though shaken, kept my cool, and responded that they could eat all they want so long as it wasn’t noisy. With a final furious remark (I forget exactly what) the man went back to whence he came. To make matters worse, as we were leaving, my friend whose nickname for me was Raccoon, audibly congratulated me with “Brave coon!” I did not stop to verify any possible reaction from the pimp.
I still feel that Brecht was wrong. I still believe that acts of courage, especially those of major heroism of whatever kind, have a beneficial effect on a society, if not an entire country, this even if recognition was considerably delayed, as Shaw’s “Saint Joan” powerfully reminds us. When the heroine, now sainted, posthumously exclaims, “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints [and, I would add, acknowledge Thy heroes]? How long, O Lord, how long?”