Participation in Heroes

Komitas Vartabed

Recently I saw an episode of the defunct tv show Monk, in which the titular character, a prissy, literalist near-savant, is discussing with his friend, a regular-guy police captain, the practice of tailgate parties. They are surrounded by sports enthusiasts pumping themselves up for the big game.

Monk doesn’t get it. “But they’re not in the game,” he says.

“Well, it doesn’t make sense if you think about it,” the Captain replies. “The trick is not to think about it.”

Monk’s thought is pretty similar to the way I thought about it when I was younger. I worked hard to constrain myself to “verifiable” beliefs, possibly to add a glamour of credence to my one completely unverifiable position – my religious one. These days, I’m more relaxed about verification, and I’ve also learned that there’s a certain deposit of good sense in the practices of regular guys.

Why do regular guys find it possible to get excited about sports games in which they are not playing? Why do they take ownership of wins and losses? Why is this practice so ingrained that the whole professional sports system is based on it, with teams “representing” cities and states?

This way of seeing and acting does not actually fall outside the realm of logic. The realm it falls outside of is a realm of assumption – the assumption that things and people are always discrete and do not participate in one another’s beings.

At some levels, that assumption is helpful. Mainly at the level of chemical analysis. At another level – a level which human beings instinctively believe themselves to inhabit in their minds and energies – there is shared being. There is participation.

The whole Christian model of theology is based on participation. (I’m borrowing the term from Owen Barfield.) In the land of Christian thought, things can be both distinct and unified. One and several. Communicant and personal. At the level of the divine nature, this seeming contradiction is understood to be absolute. At the level of human beings, it is understood to be partial and conditional, where we share a common life and nature with one another as passed down through the event of conception, but are also unique personal creations of God.

Because this is how human beings naturally relate to one another, society is possible. Marriage – the ultimate enactment of participation – builds society, in many ways.

I recently observed two ducks fishing in a quiet rural pond. One duck dove down and picked up a fish which turned out to be a little too large to swallow immediately. The first duck’s companion immediately began chasing the first duck, trying to take the fish away from him. The first duck swam in a furious little circle, trying very hard to swallow the fish before the other could reach it, while the companion paddled around in a wider circle, snapping at the fish’s tail and forcing the first one to keep turning in the water. Finally, the companion succeeded in making the first duck drop the fish, but it fell into the water and swam away. The second duck and the first duck both dove for it again, but they were unsuccessful, and both ducks went hungry.

Good day for a fish.

Human society is a mass of complexities designed to balance the individual interests and the common interests of human persons in communion. If the ducks had been human, the second would have known that it is better for one to have a fish than for none to have a fish, and that just because the first had a fish the second lacked, was no reason why the second couldn’t go and get his own fish. Then, too, as far as I can tell, ducks are completely incapable of sharing, even when there are not enough fish to go around. They live in companionship with one another, but competition is their only method of sorting out who gets what. In the human world, competition plays a role, but organizations built around the idea of sharing and/or cooperation spring up everywhere. This is not just cleverness. People who are merely clever act like ducks. This is participation – the feeling that one’s fellow is, somehow, more than beside one.

This is everyday participation. But what I am talking about in the main body of this post is a special kind of participation we reserve for our saints, gods, artists, and heroes. For the extraordinary among us.

I believe it is normal human behavior to do something which moderns call “identifying with” one’s heroes. This is, of course, an impoverished expression because it implies that the whole operation is limited to the way a person describes himself in his own mind. If that’s all it is, then it’s an amusing, temporary, and mostly harmless self-delusion. The kind of mis-described ancientness a Nietzsche would use to “prove” that everything is enameled shit.

To use more realistic terminology, I’m saying that when we celebrate our participation in one another’s beings, the triumphs of one become, in a selfless psychological embrace, the glory of the whole human family. Or some tribe of it. This is normal, and it is needful.

Most people are completely ordinary, standard-issue folks, and that is how it must be, as far as I can tell. But hidden within each one is the secret jewel – the irreducible, irreplaceable self whose beauty is its own justification for being. Heroes are people who manage to externalize that beauty in some way. They display something extraordinary and they remind all of us of our own secret extraordinariness. Their more-fully developed extraordinariness flows into us and wakes up our own inner secret and for a moment we are all gods looking one another in the face. This is not just a delusion. It is a way of expanding our own beings, both personally and in communion.

Not everyone will have sports heroes. Some people need to witness an aesthetic extraordinariness. Some people need to see holiness and some, courage.

What they do not need is protection from the realization that others are better than themselves. Only the human being who does not know he is a person in communion – who thinks he is merely an individual in community – is fragile enough to be threatened by the gifts of another.

(Perhaps the whole point is to leave people without anything that might hint at their being anything more.)


Much of what I’ve been trying to say about poetry and literature has been an attempt to re-open the door to extraordinary speech. It seems plain to me that for a long time now, poets have been artifying ordinary speech rather than uttering extraordinary aesthetic speech. The justification is that this will appeal to ordinary people, and I think a lot of poets actually believe that. In every disguised misanthropy, the project is well-supported by mid-level practitioners and advocates who simply accept the official rationale without examining the actual results. This is the only way that socialism, for instance, continues to experience waves of popularity every time a new generation graduates from college, despite its utter failure to produce bearable lives for any country in which it holds sway.

So somewhere, there must be a lot of really cynical, machiavellian people who are invested somehow in the actual rather than the ostensible result of modern poesy: the exclusion of ordinary people from the enjoyment of poems.

(What could anyone possibly gain from this, you ask? We must never forget that both the fascists and the socialists have declared the necessity of a vast sea-change in human loyalties. The Crown is broken. The Church is gasping. History is revised and discarded. Communities are fractured. Marriage lies bleeding; family is being defined out of existence. So how can art – the last hint people might have that they were made for something more than the political ideologies of looters, escape?)

It’s not conspiracy; it’s just collusion.

Ordinary people used to read poetry, when it was extraordinary speech, and now they don’t anymore. This is why I believe that modern poetry trends are misanthropic and elitist. They don’t respect the seemingly paradoxical demand of the regular guy for an irregular hero. They make the impossible ability to enjoy the unremarkable a sort of cultural shibboleth, a measure of one’s sophistication and knowingness.

When a painter paints something inaccessible, we do not automatically know he has done so. We understand merely that if we pretend to appreciate it, we will be thought cultured, and if not, we will be thought buffoons. We assume that the smart people understand it, and if we nod and smile we will be thought smart as well.

But when a poet writes something inaccessible, it’s obvious he has played a trick. Words, unlike dabs of paint, are inherently rational and meaningful. If you arrange them in a crazy way, it’s obvious to everyone you’ve done so on purpose. The game, so to speak, is up.

How, then, can a poet become inaccessible without seeming to have tried to be inaccessible? (For although the purpose of the whole artistic game is to be inaccessible to all but a rarefied few, the facade of having done so accidentally, out of spontaneous, inspired, irresistible genius, is how the game is played.)

Well, either one can be so verbally intelligent that one writes things no one can understand except the equally intelligent. Or one can make the poem completely pedestrian – but drain it utterly of aesthetic content so that although everyone can understand it, no one can enjoy it.

The first option is discouraged. When being of the precious nation depends on any kind of intelligence, accidental revelations that one is not, after all, qualified are too easy to make.

Thus we descend inevitably to the second. Ordinary speech is strung together in a bewildering little imitation of verse, and people stand around smugly pretending to admire it, sharing secret handshakes and wiggling eyebrows of “aren’t we just too.”

Meanwhile the ordinary reader, whose honest mouth refuses to shape the shibboleth, is given nothing in which to participate except a dull little reflection of his outer shell – the way the great and privileged see him, shoved back in his face. No wonder he shrugs and walks away.

The only way to bring art back to the people, and the people back to art, is by the roundabout road. Send the looters and the moneychangers packing. Then bring back the heroes – the gifted – and the people will come running.

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