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Do We Need Heroes

September 29, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“I think many of the stories that we tell ourselves as a society - the stories that encode our hopes, aspirations, and fears - preserve the traces of classical culture and myth and are part of our classical legacy.” - Professor Elizabeth Vandiver

Our modern day understanding of the term hero is mostly positive. We think of heroes as protectors and helpers with outstanding qualities that make them better than the average human. However, ancient Greeks thought of heroes as mostly larger than life figures with extraordinary powers. Though they relied upon their heroes to be great, they did not necessarily imbue them with morals in the same way that we would today. Having said that, in today's blog, I want to look at some questions surrounding Oedipus and then move forward a few thousand years to better understand why Dave Chappelle names Bill Cosby as one of his childhood heroes. I realize the gigantic leap that I am taking, but I wonder if the questions asked by Sophocles are similar to questions that we may ask about modern-day “heroes”.

Oedipus was born to Jocasta and Laius of Thebes. Unfortunately, before his birth, Tiresias prophesied that Oedipus would kill his father. Eventually, Jocasta and Laius decide to leave the infant out in the elements. He is, of course, miraculously rescued and raised in Corinth. His adoptive parents for some reason never tell him that he is adopted, however. So, when Oedipus receives the oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother, he chooses to leave Corinth. (This point often perplexes me. I want to know why, first of all, his adoptive parents haven't fessed up about the adoption part, and, second, why doesn't he simply choose not to kill or not to marry. I think that is my modern sensibilities providing options which may have been absurd to an ancient society.) Either way, Oedipus travels to Thebes and has the luck of being the only one able to answer the Sphinx's riddle. This, in turn, removes the Sphinx who has been tormenting the city and they all rejoice. Unfortunately, Oedipus unwittingly fulfills his prophecy and upon realization of the oracle's truth, he blinds himself. In other words, Sophocles proposes that Oedipus was irreversibly fated or destined to this path, regardless of his prior heroics and reason.

Sophocles wrote this play around 430 BC and yet we still discuss it today. Freud perhaps boosted its fame when he named the Oedipus Complex: a psychoanalytic theory which posits sexual tensions between parent and child, thus creating a sense of rivalry in the parent of the same sex. Many other theorists and literary scholars have discussed Sophocles's play and named a variety of reasons for its longstanding interest. I wonder, however, if it has something to do with the fact that humans are complex. There is no single answer and any answer is met with a number of inconsistencies. But this, to me, seems very human. The author's creation of a hero is always artificial. No single being can live up to the idea of perfection, or be everything to everyone. I often see this with contemporary celebrities or sports stars. We put them on a pedestal which is completely artificial.

Therefore, I am curious about the construction of hero in a modern-day context. Dave Chappelle recently mentioned that Bill Cosby was one of his childhood heroes in his recent stand-up The Age of Spin. Chappelle says, “Let's not forget, I've never met Bill Cosby, so I'm not defending him. But let's just remember that he has a valuable legacy that I can't just throw away. I remember that he's the first black man to win an Emmy in television. I also remember that he's the first guy to make a black cartoon with black characters where their lips and noses were drawn proportionally. I remember that he had a television show that got numbers equivalent to the Super Bowl every Thursday night. And I remember that he partnered up with a clinical psychologist to make sure that there was not one negative image of African Americans on his show. I'm telling you that's no small thing. I've had a television show...I wouldn't have done that shit. He gave tens of millions of dollars to African American institutions of higher learning and is directly responsible for thousands of black kids going to college...not just the ones he raped. Here comes the kicker, you ready? Here's the fact that I heard but haven't confirmed. I heard that when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a PA system that Bill Cosby paid for. Do you understand what I'm saying?” Chappelle's point is important because while Cosby was a prominent (and mostly positive) voice for African American people and civil rights, he was also allegedly committing heinous acts. It is impossible to square the two Cosby personalities, rapist with African American rights leader. My point is that people are complicated. I do not understand why we continue to think that someone who is really good at something must be really good at everything – morals included. There isn't any sense to be made from it, there isn't any rational approach. It is simply complicated. I also think that public pressure changes a being. Is there a sense that greatness changes into entitlement? If someone has been dubbed a hero because of one success, does that change their internal landscape? Have we, the public, unwittingly nurtured the development?

I know that my oversimplified views have no sound basis in psychology or analysis. But it seems that humans repeatedly desire the artificial and happy ending. I am wondering if this is something that we are hard-wired for, or if it is something that literature tells us is possible? I wonder if we can edit the ending, or end the story wherever we want to? For example, can we stop reading after Oedipus kills the Sphinx? Think of the happy and newly freed citizens of Thebes who invite a triumphant and glowing Oedipus into town. And yet, this too is unsatisfactory in that it cheats the true story. Sophocles knew this, and so he began the play after Oedipus and Jocasta are already married. There is already an element of fate, of tragedy. Should we, then, consider every hero as if (s)he were on the precipice of a fall? If we continue in our current understanding of hero, which Merriam-Webster lists as “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities”, then our expectations will never be met. It is as if we set ourselves up for failure, not just our heroes. As far as I know, there is not a single, defined and agreed upon list of noble qualities, though there are certainly reprehensible ones.

To put it plainly, I wonder if our definition and/or treatment of heroes needs to be redefined.

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