Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Hero

Eugene O’Neill is one of American’s greatest playwrights. Although a professed enemy of all organized religion, his plays are permeated by Christianity. His characters are, like O’Neill himself, Christ-haunted and looking for redemption. Three of his later plays, “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” “Hughie,” and “A Touch of the Poet,” are especially well-written plays with great spiritual depths.

It is the play, “A Touch of the Poet” that I would like to use to begin a discussion of the hero. In the play there is one central character (Cornelius Melody) and two major supporting characters (Nora Melody, his wife, and Sara Melody, his daughter). Cornelius Melody had been a military hero in the old country. He now, at age forty-five, runs a tavern in Boston. The year is 1820. Talk of Andrew Jackson and the ‘common man’ is always in the air. Melody, however, will have none of that. He drinks alone and rides alone on a special charger. When he rises in the morning and feels depressed after a night of heavy drinking, he puts on his old military uniform and recites from Lord Byron in front of the mirror:

I have not loved the World, nor the World me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bowed
To its idolatries a patient knee,
Nor coined my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such – I stood
Among them, but not of them.
Cornelius Melody needs a vision of himself as a hero. No matter how low he sinks he can always face the world as long as he believes he is still the hero that he was at the battle of Talavera.

Through a long series of events, Con Melody ceases to see himself in a heroic light and is shattered by the experience. His daughter, who had always sneered at her father’s attempt to maintain his heroic image, is surprised to find that her view of existence is altered for the worse when her father ceases to believe in his own heroic image. And of course this was because she had always, despite her outward contempt, believed, in the deepest regions of her soul, that her father was a hero.

It is easy to deprecate Con Melody’s rather pathetic attempts at maintaining a heroic self-image. And O’Neill certainly doesn’t try to give us a happy ending to the play by showing us Con Melody making a successful ‘comeback’ attempt. But what O’Neill does is to lay bare an essential truth of existence: our religious vision, our raison d’etre so to speak, is tied up to our belief in, and our vision of, the Hero. If we lose that vision and belief, we have lost our faith.

I’ve commented on the demise of the Christian hero before, but I’m returning to the subject again because I believe it is of paramount importance. Our belief in heroes is linked to our belief in Christ himself. And I would submit to you that we do not believe in Christian heroes anymore. We have the straight liberal type like Gandhi (so admired by the late John Paul II) and the liberal-pagan type like Eastwood and Stallone, who use their male chromosomes in defense of liberal causes. But the Christian hero? He no longer walks down the ‘mean streets,’ which is why the back alley-type of mean streets have become the main streets, traveled by pagan punks, liberal leeches, and capitalistic carnivores.

The Christian hero springs from a culture that is either essentially Christian or from a culture that at least still has a positive image of a Christian society that used to exist. The Zorro figure in Johnston McCulley’s The Mark of Zorro (1919) springs from an imagination that remembers what a Christian hero should be. Only Walt Disney Studios (the real Disney) managed to recreate Zorro with his Christianity intact. What distinguishes the Christian hero from the modern, liberal and pagan heroes? Well, let’s look at McCulley’s Zorro.

First, Christianity is in his blood. Zorro doesn’t have to consult a moral theology book before he acts, because according to the code of chivalry or (to use the exact term which McCulley uses) the code of the cavalier, right and wrong are self-evident. Years of adhering to a tradition that is bred in the bone and in the blood have made an honorable man’s course of action clear.

For instance, when Captain Ramon insults Zorro’s swordsmanship, he is content, in contrast to the pagan hero who would kill for such an insult, to merely wound Ramon as punishment. But when Ramon dares to press his attentions on a Spanish lady, Zorro kills the disreputable captain, in contrast to the modern liberal Christian who knows nothing of chivalry and who thinks Christianity and pacifism are synonymous.

Zorro spares Ramon when only a personal insult is involved, and he kills him when the code of the cavalier has been breached. And he does all this without consulting an expert in moral theology or biblical exegesis. Wise blood is always superior to the syllogism. It is also more practical because when you carry your faith in your blood, your hands, unencumbered by heavy tomes of philosophy and theology, are free to carry a sword and dagger.

The second element of a Christian hero like Zorro that is not present in the modern liberal hero is a deep respect for the special mission of women. They are the life-bearers and the nurturers, as well as the inspiration for the hero. The female counterpart to the hero inspires by her fidelity to virtues of the hearth. The hero is the good woman’s support and comfort because he defends her rights as wife and mother. But he is seen as the hated oppressor by evil women because he denies them access to the world outside the hearth.

Try to find an image of the hero in any realm of the church or in the world today that excludes the female from the male realm; because not excluding her hurts the female as well as the male. “What about the priesthood?” you say. “Is the female not excluded from that role?” Yes, she is. But only for legal reasons. Christ was a male, so the church authorities have reluctantly kept the priesthood a male domain. But they have given away all the rest of the Pauline teaching. They have supported the role of women in secular society and in the church. They have not defended the women of the hearth nor have they attacked the dragon ladies who have abandoned the hearth.

And we also must distinguish between the Christian and Gnostic view of women. The Gnostic sects, such as the Society of St. Pius X, are spiritually akin to the Muslims, who hate femininity itself. Both deny the spiritual nature of women. They believe women must be kept out of the male sphere of action, not because they have an exalted calling in another sphere, but because their femininity is evil in itself. In their eyes, there is no legitimate Eros, there is only the evil, fleshly act. The act must be tolerated because male warriors and male priests are needed, but the sex that is most intimately connected to the fruits of intercourse must be denied their spiritual role as nurturers and fair ladies who inspire heroic deeds. There is an excess of sex in the Gnostic sects but there is no Eros, and the soul that goes to Gnostic heaven is a masculine one, but one devoid of true masculinity because it is without chivalry.

The third trait of the hero is that he has the ability to properly direct his efforts. He does not worship action in and of itself. His actions must support the reign of charity or else he will not act. The capitalist thinks the Christian hero is lazy because he will not compete in the free market arena. And the pagan considers him cowardly for refusing to enter the lists in order to prove his manhood. Like Don Diego Vega, the Christian hero fights only when issues that directly affect the reign of charity are involved. And then, Zorro rides.

It is important to note that the Christian man of action is not necessarily a military man. In times when the state is Christian, the hero fights for king and country, but when the state is at war with Christ, the Christian hero is an outlaw, such as Zorro, Rob Roy, and William Tell. No matter how bravely a man fights, he is not a hero if he places his sword at the service of an unholy cause.

And finally, whether the hero is Zorro, Shane, Forrest, or von Stauffenberg, he turns our face towards Him. By self-sacrifice, by putting the spiritual above the temporal, the hero, at the last trump, in the twinkling of the eye, when all hope seems gone, rescues us from a purely material vision of life which is death to the soul. The plight of Señorita Lolita Pulido illustrates this point. But to appreciate her dilemma we must try to imagine what it is like to be a Spanish maiden who actually believes death is preferable to the forced attentions of a man without honor, a man who is not a cavalier.

The señorita must be forgiven for lacking the modern enlightened notion that sex is mere friction and of little consequence one way or the other. She finds herself trapped and alone with the evil Captain Ramon.

She fought him, striking and scratching at his breast, for she could not reach his face. But he only laughed at her, and held her tighter until she was almost spent and breathless, and finally he threw back her head and looked down into her eyes.

“A kiss in payment, señorita!” he said. “It will be a pleasure to tame such a wild one.”

She tried to fight again, but could not. She called upon the saints to aid her. And Captain Ramon laughed more, and bent his head, and his lips came close to hers.

But he never claimed the kiss. She started to wrench away from him again, and he was forced to strengthen his arm and pull her forward. And from a corner of the room there came a voice that was at once deep and stern.

“One moment, Señor!” it said.

Captain Ramon released the girl and whirled on one heel. He blinked his eyes to pierce the gloom of the corner; he heard Señorita Lolita give a glad cry.

Then Captain Ramon, disregarding the presence of the lady, cursed, once and loudly, for Señor Zorro stood before
When we get our last fatal illness we will all hope for a cure, a last minute reprieve from the clutches of death. But in our last illness, the reprieve will not come. Señor Zorro will not be there. Or will he? An embrace is not a kiss. When Señor Death tries to claim his kiss, will we hear the greatest cavalier of all say, “One moment, señor!”?

Without the hero, we would be forever doomed, like Sisyphus, to push the materialist rock up the very material hill. The hero enables us to see beyond the rock and beyond the hill, to a glass mountain of fair ladies and grand endeavors, presided over by the Hero.

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