Over the course of my doctoral program, I became a biographer, specifically an education biographer by writing about the life and career of Lou LaBrant.
As part of my journey, I dove into reading biographies—many about women and also about writers—and studying feminist theories of biography along with the relatively new field of educational biography.
Reading literary biographies about Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath had a profound impact on me as a teacher, writer, and would-be biographer. Especially enriched was my teaching because I was able to move beyond the narrow idealizing that is common when we love or fall in love with an artist’s work, a poet’s words that are a part of the creator but certainly not the whole story.
I also delved into reading multiple biographies of the same person—such as Dickinson and Plath—but the most disturbing experiences with reading multiple biographies included Thomas Jefferson and e.e. cummings.
And here is the short version of that: especially, people larger than life are incredibly disappointing when they are detailed for you in full.
So I come back again and again to cummings, whose work was seminal for me as a poet and writer and whose work I love to this day.
For all his poetic brilliance and perceptive sensitivity about the human condition, cummings was at times, if not often, a lazy thinker and a really calloused person.
Like Kurt Vonnegut as well, cummings seemed incapable of honoring the fidelity of other people’s hearts in direct contradiction to his writing. But who among us have avoided this failure?
That, I must confess, is the irony of this reading biography—coming up against the bared and stark truth about each human, no matter how badly we yearn for gods and heroes.
Since each of us lives with our True Selves, knows every single thought, and despite how hard we try otherwise, must confront all our bitter failures and weaknesses, humans are prone to manufacturing gods and heroes.
Another terribly flawed seminal person of my life is George Carlin, whose routines on why he didn’t believe in god are some of his most insightful and enduring unmaskings.
To paraphrase, Carlin would walk through how the Christian God is sold as this all-powerful, perfect, and loving deity—and yet, the narratives of God reveal a truly petty being not unlike the very worst of humans.
This too is how we manufacture heroes, superheroes.
Superman, it seems, was just too perfect so the need for Kryptonite and the most powerful flaw of all in humanity—romantic love.
Simultaneously, then, humans are both repulsed by the flaws of being fully human—the impulse to create gods—and unable to rise above our own attraction for our flawed but idealized selves—the impulse to create heroes.
“anyone lived in a pretty how town,” cummings opines, detailing with both a child-like rhythm and a stark journalistic eye the fate that awaits us all:
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
Closer the grave that unites us all than to the birth that we also share, I marvel at my granddaughter now bursting with language and imagination—and worry about cummings’s lines: “children guessed(but only a few/and down they forgot as up they grew.”
Out of narcissism and self-loathing we manufacture gods and heroes, but in that haste, we forget to kiss a face despite our eternal longing for our faces to be kissed.
What good these gods and heroes if we cannot see the very real people right there in front of us, more precious than anything we can imagine?
4 thoughts on “Gods and Heroes: A Musing”
A very moving post, and your best, especially for this time of year.
I see your point, but I have a different perspective. Heroes are real — and you don’t need to be flawless, or shoot lasers from your eyes, to be one of them. Make life better for someone, and you’re a hero. Dedicate your life to that, and you’re a superhero.
I wrestled with a tendency to deify my role models early on and developed this cognitive strategy (which has served me well in life): I think of the artist as a parent to the art. Various pieces of art have been friends, lovers, enemies, and mentors in my life, but I don’t have to hold them accountable for the sins of their parents — and should I be lucky enough to meet the parents, I don’t have to disclose all the intimate details of my relationships with their children, which are really none of their business.