Achilles, Armstrong and Oprah
Taking a page from Oprah's hit-the-beach-spitting-machine-gun-style-questions interview strategy manual, the thoughtful Tom Walters starts a new blog by asking:
Are we looking looking for heroes in the wrong places?
To which, mimicking the style of fallen hero Lance Armstrong, we can reply, yes or no:
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
It can't be a revelation that since about the time of Achilles we just don't get right the gift of our public admiration. The question isn't do we look for heroes in the wrong places. The question, simply, is why?
And it's not an easy question. Part of the answer has to do with the feeling that we don't really, with passion, go looking for heroes, at all. Rather, their images, like predators, come looking for us. And they find us as we see them on billboards, in commercials, on television.
If you have read or seen Shakespeare's The Tempest (and following an old professor here) you know that part of what it is about is the difficulty of making the wise person or the good person visually interesting. It has always been easier to capture the colourful outside of things than the profound inside.
Our technology has simply magnified this. Lance Armstrong's Tour de France images are glorious. Even now. The yellow leader's jersey. The flute of champagne. The man alone on the podium peak. The craggy, determined face. The hand over heart. In HD. In slow motion. From above. With music. Reflected in the faces of admirers. Beamed around the world. Presented by news and sports anchors. Reproduced in magazines. Replayed on talk shows.
This isn't to say that the media industry is to blame; it's just to point out that the media is us. And we find it easier to judge by the flashy outsides. And that what we get better and better at is capturing and sharing the flashy outsides. It is harder to find and make compelling the other kind of stories. Walters knows this. He actually does the best job finding some of them.
We can't be surprised that hero cyclist Lance Armstrong, when finally examined by the camera's unblinking reason, turns out to be, on the inside, a crafty white collar criminal with the imagination of a cover-up bureaucrat.
It can't be shocking the same anger that transforms heroes actually deforms them. Here is a quote from Armstrong's interview with Oprah that hasn't gotten enough attention. Armstrong said his fight with cancer in the mid-90s turned him into a "fighter."
"Before my diagnosis I was a competitor but not a fierce competitor," he said. "I took that ruthless win-at-all-costs attitude into cycling, which was bad."
And now we are openly back on ancient ground. (One of my favourite aspects of the story of Lance Armstrong is his very name, itself an epithet. So Greek. The mighty Ajax. The resourceful Odysseus. The swift-footed Achilles. The strong-armed Lance. Greece and Texas.)
Achilles was so consumed by anger (long story involving theft of woman) with a powerful king called Agamemnon that he refused to fight for his own people, the Greeks. Later, he was so consumed by anger over the death of a friend that he convinced himself the rules didn't apply to him. To avenge that friend's death, he committed sacrilege by dragging through the dirt, in public, for three days, the body of a son of a king called Hector.
Lance Armstrong is an old story. And worth remembering whenever we equate outer bodily beauty, the stuff of clay, with the inner beauty, the stuff of sculptures.
But, I suppose, there is one modern twist to all of it. Instead of demonstrating his rage by dragging around the bodies of enemies for three days, Armstrong allowed his body to be dragged around publicly by question-asking Oprah for two.
(Note: Thanks Tom and thanks to the patient son Alex for refreshing my memory of Greek myth.)