This week, I’ve found myself thinking about heroism. What makes a hero, anyway? Who should we choose for our heroes?
When I was around fourteen, I developed a hero crush on W. C. Fields, of all people! I was delighted when I read about the time he and John Barrymore gave a ride to a hitchhiker on a country road, and then threw the poor man out of the moving car when he began preaching at them for being drunk. I still find the anecdote amusing, but I no longer feel hero worship for a guy who throws someone out of a moving car, even a preacher with an attitude.
Later, in my late teens and early twenties, I fell under the sway of Aleister Crowley, the self-styled Great Beast 666. He was a more likely candidate for hero-worship then good old Whitey Fields. He wrote some lovely poetry (really, he did!), as well as one startlingly good novel, lots of fine essays on mysticism, and founded a religion that was equally insipid and inspired. A man of some literary perspicacity, he was one of James Joyce’s early admirers. But he also was an infamous sponge, and occasional con artist, on one occasion actually marketing his own sperm in capsules as “rejuvenation pills.” That’s a pretty strong “ick” factor for a hero, wouldn’t you agree?
Heroes are dangerous: Think Adolf Hitler or Jim Jones, Phyllis Schlafly or Carrie Nation, Ezra Pound or Charles Bukowski. The wrong heroes and leaders can lead us to perdition; the right ones can save a nation or individual lives. Who can argue with the heroism of Abraham Lincoln, Bill Wilson, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, or Angela Davis?
With an anti-hero leading America, I feel a great longing for heroism, and, as a result, I am spotting signs everywhere.
Most surprisingly this past week was the unexpected stand taken by Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, who went so far as to risk her job speaking for the rights of trans teenagers. Then she backed down. Hero or coward? Or both? This hero business is not as easy as it looks, being one or finding one.
Yesterday, I noted that it was the Memorial Day of Saint Polycarp in the calendar of the Catholic Church. The story goes that when he was burned at the stake, his flesh did not burn like meat but gave an odor like freshly baked bread. Is that what I’m supposed to look for in a hero? A pleasing smell?
Last week I mentioned “Bunny Boy,” a superhero creation of Argyle C. Klopnik who may never see the light of day (Bunny Boy, I mean, not ACK!, who tries to live under a rock). I asked his creator what made “Bunny Boy” heroic, but it seems that his entire superhero accomplishment consists of wearing a costume with bunny ears and a large B.
Hmm… Can such things make a hero? Well, yes they can. One of my heroes of old was the great gay activist Morris Kight. When infamously notorious homophobe and Los Angeles police chief Ed Davis ordered his minions to entrap and arrest gay men making merry in the rural glades of Griffith Park, Morris organized the Tutu Brigade to warn the innocents of the danger. The Brigade consisted of middle-aged gay men in tutus, finding marauding butch police officers on parade and surrounding them while blowing warning whistles. The cops were terrified of the tutus and justice prevailed. Heroism? You bet your pixie dust!
As I turn on my computer each morning in these less than halcyon days of the SCROTUS (So Called Ruler of the United States), I find myself longing greatly for a hero. Someone to carry the banner of revolt, rally the opposition, and grind the grizzly creatures that call themselves a cabinet back into the swamp from which they have arisen.
But who? I’m asking in all seriousness.
Perhaps, my friends, the good contemplative monks of New Camaldoli. They founded their monastic retreat fifty-nine years ago in the wilds of Big Sur, two miles up a winding road from the windy Pacific. This season has been a tough one, with all the rainstorms. The road up their mountain from the sea has been somewhat shattered, and it is difficult to bring in supplies. Also, they depend for their income on their ministry of hospitality, receiving donations from visitors to their guest house and hermitages. Presently, no one can get there and hence, no dollars are coming to their coffers. You know, one could have worse heroes than men who devote their lives to contemplation, and keep alive a timeless vision of life, a steady connection to spirit and land, through all the vicissitudes of politics and weather, holding a space for all who wish to reconnect with themselves. If this sounds heroic to you, perhaps you’ll consider sending them a little somethin’.
Times are hard. Let us love one another. Look around you: there are heroes and heroines who need your support. They are organizing and demonstrating, they are writing and chanting, they are making music and poetry, baking bread, contemplating nature, keeping hope alive. Be a hero. Love a hero.
Stay the course.
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.