When we think of heroes, we usually think of valor in combat, courage in the face of enemy fire on the battlefield, like that demonstrated by Henry V’s “band of brothers” in Agincourt on Saint Crispin’s Day.
I have enormous respect for that kind of hero, who lays his life on the line, whether in the armed forces or in a dangerous profession (police officer, firefighter, and so on). But when I think of a hero—my hero—I envision a very different kind of man. I think of my best friend Marcel.
My friend Marcel would never consider himself a hero. But he is my hero, because he wages a daily war against foes no less daunting than those faced by the heroes mentioned above: ignorance, apathy, intellectual and cultural atrophy, and an increasingly dimmed recollection of the wisdom of a bygone age.
Marcel belongs to that unfortunately dying breed, the Renaissance man. He is the only person in my circle of acquaintances with whom I can have a conversation of substance, covering a broad range of topics. Art, history, literature, politics, philosophy—Marcel can hold forth intelligently and entertainingly on all of these fields. For that reason, I admire him and honor him as my hero for his intellectual accomplishments.
Marcel is, for example, among the “happy few” who have achieved the heroic feat of reading, in its entirety, Marcel Proust’s seven-volume literary work, Remembrance of Things Past (2,400 pages in my edition). Moreover, he has deepened his knowledge and appreciation of Proust’s roman fleuve through reading, study, and reflection. He is always willing, and indeed eager, to share with me the benefits of what he has learned.
Marcel also radiates a contagious enthusiasm for the works of Marguerite Yourcenar (a French author who lived and wrote in New England), such as L’Oeuvre au Noir [The Abyss] and above all The Memoirs of Hadrian. By his example, Marcel has encouraged me to renew my familiarity with these great classics of French literature. While fluent in the language myself, I had tended to shy from delving into them in the past.
Like Proust, his immortal namesake, Marcel has built his own “cathedral”, his own lofty philosophical edifice. I had the honor and privilege of translating his work into English, and seeing at first hand the results of his labors. In this era of the sound bite, video clip, and tweet, those willing to take time and effort to develop their thoughts into a philosophy, as Marcel has done, deserve to counted among my personal heroes.
Marcel’s blog entry on Culture as a Threat to Art is a sober reflection on the parlous state of modern art and culture. Marcel essentially argues that market forces militate against the expression of genius. They favor mass-produced, saleable “product”, as opposed to one-of-a-kind works of art that capture the unique spirit of their creators. Marcel buttresses his theory with an examination of the relationship between artists and their patrons throughout history.
I do not necessarily agree with all of Marcel’s conclusions. However, I share his concern about the woeful state of modern culture. I admire his effort to marshal and consolidate his thoughts. And he is truly my hero for expressing heterodox and heretical views that fly in the face of the artistic and cultural establishment.
In so doing, he is no less brave and courageous, in his way, than great men of history before him. His is the heroism of a Galileo, muttering Eppur si muove (“But it does move”) when forced to recant his heliocentric view of the universe. His is the heroism of a Luther, nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. His is the heroism of a Hugh Latimer, playing the man and lighting a candle never to be snuffed out.
In keeping with the classic definition of a hero, in literature at least, Marcel does have a tragic flaw. He is plagued by self-doubt about his talents and abilities. The product of two languages and cultures, he questions his ability to express himself correctly in either English or French. Having observed him at close range, I ardently believe that this flaw is not irremediable and can be counterbalanced by attentiveness and careful self-revision.
Regardless of how well he masters the details of grammar and punctuation, there is no denying the cogency of Marcel’s arguments and the breadth of his vision. To his magnum opus, and his other writings over the years, he brings a unique blend of abstract thought and personal intimacy.
I have often felt we complement each other in this regard. When Marcel goes off tilting at windmills like Don Quixote de la Mancha, I apply the test of realism like Sancho Panza, bringing Marcel down to earth from way up among the clouds. I hope I will continue to play Sancho to his Don Quixote for many, many years to come.
I am convinced that Marcel would have made an excellent university professor, lecturing and publishing in the august halls of academe. I am sure students would have benefited immensely from his encyclopedic knowledge, and even more greatly from his intense passion and dedication to learning and culture.
We usually honor our heroes by awarding them a medal, or show our recognition in other ways. A penny-pinching, bean-counting bureaucracy has failed to honor my hero’s contribution to society.
For Marcel, there have been no scholarships, fellowships, or professorships—only hardships. He lives on a fixed, limited income as he enters his senior years. He has not been rewarded but rather penalized for being thrifty, not spendthrift, for living within his means, not beyond them.
A saint has been defined as one recognized for heroic virtue. Marcel is no saint by any means. But I think the case can be made that he is truly and genuinely a martyr and, in any event, a hero.
When Marcel someday “faces death with eyes wide open”, like Yourcenar’s Emperor Hadrian, I certainly—and society, too, I think—will be immeasurably diminished. There will be one less hero—my hero—in a world that desperately needs them.
Check out the rest of our “Men and Heroism” section.
The “Men and Heroism” section was run and edited by Dave Kaiser.