Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Yearning of History for Prophets, Heroes

I find myself both deeply moved and deeply troubled by this brief prose piece from Christopher Howell's book, Memory and Heaven (1996). I have trouble saying why, but here it is:

The News

Before Confucius said "No" it was Chinese custom to immolate living dog, servants, concubines and wife along with the wide-eyed and carefully painted corpse of the nobleman. The Other World was thought to be far away and glittering with necessities only a peasant or an eunuch or a woman would go forth to all alone, like a fish battling great rivers on the way to death.

It was widely reported that sacrificed women wept exclusively for the dearly dead, never for that savagery death had ignited all around them. Even the dogs and horses, it was said, mooned only for the master sent alarmingly off ahead of them, and so, with the wisdom of good beasts, were anxious for the flames to scorch apart the veil dividing flesh from light and let them down, free, on the eternal paths of servitude and love.

As fire crept up the racks of [wood], chewing faster and faster like a famished menace, some claimed figures in the blaze kowtowed, smiling bodhisatvah-like into their last earthly moments or clapping with expectation. Actually, Confucius tells us, they screamed, like nothing else but creatures burning in the ruins of their lives, so that no amount of mourning brought relief to those who heard them, everyone shuddering for terrible death, desperately, as today we shudder at the small starving faces brought to us in the evening as we eat. And those watchers long ago, before Confucius, said finally there is nothing we can do until a wise man comes to tell us, "This is unseemly. This is mad."

Christopher Howell, Memory and Heaven

Aside from the piece's subtler-than-most orientalism, I am disturbed (though greatly compelled by) its message: that we wait more often than not passively for the arrival of our next prophet, our next folk hero who will stand in for us on the stage of the world and right the wrongs that we recognize. That we at heart tend to be passive rather than active readers of our world.

When does our celebration of folk heroes and of historic figures whom we have translated into folk heroes galvanize us to action and inspire us to imitation...and when does the telling allow us an outlet, a way to pass the buck, to say "It's ok, there are prophets out there who make the world better. There are people fighting so that things won't get too bad. There are saints to feed the hungry. There are superheroes to stop wars. I needn't do anything. They have it covered." How do our evolving folk legends reinforce or break apart our conviction that "there is nothing we can do"?

I have added a thread on our message board for discussion of this question. If you have a thought, a remark, a question, or a similar passage to share, come add your comment: we'll get a fierce and invigorating conversation going, with any luck. Casey Jones and Paul Bunyan and Davy Crockett are as past to us as Confucius. Who ARE our contemporary folk heroes? Who do we look up to when we think of people of quasi-mythical status who have that unique ability - whether through strength, trickery, or sheer charisma - to save us from ourselves?

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