Three Thousand Years of Unmediated Heroes, from Moses to Sandy Koufax
When I was just a gaglad growing up in the mean and mythic streets of Calabasas -- the Last of the Old West -- in suburban Los Angeles, one of my heroes was Sandy Koufax. Even today he retains a sort of rarified, mythological stature in my imagination, much more so than any contemporary athlete ever could. Why is that?
Probably because when I was a kid, only nine Dodger games were televised all year, the nine road games played up in Candlestick Park against the loathsome Berkeley-Castro Street Giants. If I was lucky, I saw Koufax pitch a couple of times a year. This was in 1966, mind you, not 1926, but I still had to rely on the “words eye view” provided by radio broadcasts in order to conceive my image of his truly super-human exploits. And then he unexpectedly retired when I was only ten years old, keeping him frozen in that mythological state forever more. There would be no new images to superimpose on the hypnogogic visions I cOOnjured as a child while laying in bed and falling asleep with the radio under my pillow.
In his book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, author Thomas de Zengotita argues that we no longer have heroes because of the way mass media has affected our consciousness. That is, in order to be a real hero, you must essentially be unreal. For if you think about various heroes of old, it’s because we know so little about them (or have so few images) that their deeds may be imagined and therefore mythologized. As de Zengotita puts it, “real heroes of the past were represented with a frugality that is almost impossible to credit today.” But that doesn't result in knowing less about them -- or about reality -- but knowing more, in the vertical sense.
By the way, while there is the sort of unreflective moonbattery in the book that one expects to see among the over-educated, it's not the flagrant kind, so I was somewhat surprised to discover that de Zengotita is a doctrinaire moonbat who contributes regularly to Huffingtonpost. The uncensored thoughts he displays there are so trite, shallow, and adolescent, and the writing so plain bad, that it makes me wonder how heavy a hand his editor had in writing the book. In any event, it is ironic that he is a victim of the sort of clichéd mass-media liberal groupthink that he analyzes in the book. It's almost as if he's brain-damaged, or channeling Garrison Keillor or Maureen Dowd.
A recent example of his thinking, what one call (-m), or an inverted version of the proper role of the mythic imagination:
"As an old-fashioned leftie I should be skeptical of a mere symbol, shouldn't I? Well, it depends. Obama is a very special symbol. He transcends the culture wars and identity politics simply in virtue of who he is.
[Andrew] Sullivan... emphasizes the impact of an Obama presidency on a world that now fears and despises us. Just the fact of it. Just the face. Just the name. At a stroke, America secures a new beginning -- in its own eyes as well. Nothing else could do it so decisively. So what if he's inexperienced? He's smart. He's a quick study. He'll listen to Dick Holbrooke and Joe Biden and he'll make those sensible, centrist decisions. He's no radical, he's shown that, Lord knows -- he'll be as deliberate and pragmatic in office as he's been in the campaign.
"It's not the policy, stupid, it's the symbolism. Obama actually embodies what he represents. That means he doesn't just represent change. He is change" [emphases mine].
With professors like this, is it any wonder that college students graduate with less wisdom than they had when they entered college?
A heroic myth, like a dream or fairy tale, is particularly “unsaturated,” leaving considerable space for imaginative engagement with its narrative elements. If Koufax were playing today, the reality of his myth would be effaced by saturated media coverage of his every move, including those extra tight close-ups that intrusively force you to see every follicle in the player's nose, every vein in his eyeballs. de Zengotita cites the example of the New York fire fighters who attained heroic status through our imagining their very real selfless deeds, which, for the most part, no one actually saw. However this bubble burst for de Zengotita when he saw the official NYFD “Calendar of Heroes,” featuring photos of the firefighters stripped to the waist, seductively posing and “vogueing” for the camera. The mythic imagination was foreclosed and replaced by the mediated image. (I guess he hasn't seen the picture of a shirtless Obama frolicking on the beach.)
The central irony, according to de Zengotita, is that “we don’t have heroes because they are too real, representations of them are too rich and detailed. There is no space for our imaginations to occupy, no room for us to supply them with mythic life.” The mass media give us only a flattened realism devoid of reverence, depth, or dignity. Instead of heroes we have stars or celebrities, generally disreputable people such as Britney Spears, Madonna, or Paris Hilton, whose exploits we look at in the same way the ancient Greeks might have thought about their gods, who were actually not at all godlike. Rather, they were just like humans only worse -- more jealous, more envious, more lustful, more vengeful.
Likewise, in our day there has been a collapse of the vertical plane, so that the “higher” has been replaced by the lower writ large. In an age that absolutizes the relative and exalts the lower as "authenticity," it is much more difficult to have real heroes, for a real hero, whatever else he is, is never a relativist. Like George Bush, or Ronald Reagan, or Winston Churchill, they are in the service of an unwavering ideal. But today, unwavering commitment to a higher ideal is not called heroism but fanaticism or fascism, as in the case of President Bush. This inversion of principial truth is demanded by the logic of postmodern cynicism.
Speaking of which, yesterday Dr. Sanity posted an excerpt of a recent interview with Henry Kissinger:
SPIEGEL: Isn’t German and European opposition to a greater military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq also a result of deep distrust of American power?
Kissinger: By this time next year, we will see the beginning of a new administration. We will then discover to what extent the Bush administration was the cause or the alibi for European-American disagreements. Right now, many Europeans hide behind the unpopularity of President Bush. And this administration made several mistakes in the beginning.
Kissinger: … But I do believe that George W. Bush has correctly understood the global challenge we are facing, the threat of radical Islam, and that he has fought that battle with great fortitude. He will be appreciated for that later.
SPIEGEL: In 50 years, historians will treat his legacy more kindly?
Kissinger: That will happen much earlier.
So you see, once the hyper-saturated media images of Bush's presidency are out of the way, we will be able to "see" his legacy much more clearly. At the moment, there is too much information that obscures our knowledge, too much knowledge that forecloses wisdom, and too many pictures that disable the imagination.
In fact, most people can't even recognize a hero unless they somehow become a star -- think of Jessica Lynch -- but as soon as that happens, “they cannot compete with the real stars -- who are performers.” So President Bush can’t compete with Martin Sheen, any more than our troops in Iraq can compete with Hollywood images of warfare. It remains to be seen if McCain -- a hero in real life -- will be able to compete with wholly imagined (in the lower sense) heroism of Obama, who, for the willfully hypnotized and seduced, "doesn't just represent change. He is change."
This brings up a crucial point about the role of imagination in understanding reality. In a recent discussion of the “intelligent design” debate with an atheistic reader, he essentially dismissed any non-empirical reality as being analogous to belief in "pink fairies" (which hardly comes as a surprise, as this is precisely what atheists are condemned to believe as a result of their transcendental infirmity, or pneumapathology). Richard Weaver, in his classic Ideas Have Consequences, argued that it is a characteristic of the barbarian, in all times and places, to believe that it is possible to grasp reality -- the "raw stuff of life" -- “barehanded,” without any mediation by the higher imagination. This not only leads to an absence of understanding, but to the destruction of man as such. As a result, we are left with the “ravages of immediacy,” for without imagination, reality is simply a brute fact with nothing to spiritualize it. The world shrinks down to our simplest way -- animal way, really -- of knowing it, and with it, our souls constrict correspondingly.
In this regard, postmodern cynicism is provincialism of the worst sort, as it imagines that it is getting closer to the reality of things, when it is actually getting more and more distant -- like pulverizing a work of art into smaller and smaller parts to try to get at its meaning.
So the question is, what is more “real,” those beautiful heroic images I internalized of Abraham Lincoln when I was in grade school, or postmodern biographies that argue that he was a closet homosexual that didn’t care a fig about black people? The American founders as secular prophets leading the new children of Israel out of a decrepit Europe, or a bunch of selfish elitists (not to mention slaveholders!) looking after their own economic interests? The luminous Jesus presented in the gospels, so full of empty spaces to fill with the divine imagination, or the work of the Jesus seminarians who argue that he was a radical leftist fighting for social justice for the poor, just like Che Guevara? Sandy Koufax heroically refusing to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur, or the eccentric, media-shy recluse?
People generally don't realize that it is possible to substitute facts for truth, to replace the higher reality perceived by the intellect and imagination with the lower reality perceived by the senses. When that happens, we literally become “disoriented,” away from the center and toward the periphery of existence. Today we live in an age in which we are being invaded by vertical barbarians who would ruthlessly strip aside the veils of the imagination to try to get at what’s real, only to find that there is nothing there. Certainly nothing worth living or fighting for. No wonder they're so suspicious and even contemptuous of those who fight, since they know, deep down, that they are far superior to the deluded warriors who risk their lives to enrich Halliburton.