Reflections: Heroes Walking the Razor’s Edge

I got to thinking about heroes.

Recently I viewed the 1946 film version of The Razor’s Edge (the book was published in 1944).  I did so because it was conveniently airing on my local PBS station.  But convenience is not enough.  The second reason I watched the film was because the book had been highly influential to me in my developing youth, giving me broad ideas of how one might live an alternative lifestyle.  I read The Razor’s Edge as a junior in college.  The book suggested, through the protagonist, that there was advantage to rejecting traditional notions of a professional career in favor of a lifestyle that was economically basic – choosing employment that left time and energy for pursuing wisdom and spiritual experience. In this view, satisfying lifestyle is more important than external status or cultural demands.  But a warning is given that comes straight from the title: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”  But the book is skillful enough to make the goal seem, not merely attainable, but downright sensible.  

Somerset Maugham begins his book by stating that it’s not really a novel, but is a thinly veiled biography of an actual person – the protagonist in his novel: Larry Darrell.  I believed that to be true. The idea that this book had been based on an actual person was motivating to me at the time. Someone else had lived life on their own terms, so perhaps I could as well.

After viewing the film, I wanted to know if Somerset Maugham’s Larry Darrell was an actual character, because I was curious to know more about him.  I figured that with a book as popular as The Razor’s Edge, if he were a real person, there would be a trail.  Scholars today agree that the protagonist Larry Darrell is a composite, not based on a single person, but based on a number of persons.  In other words: a fictional hero.  While Larry Darrell was not an actual person, Maugham must have at least read about persons who undertook the spiritual journey into Hinduism and lived in an ashram.  And Maugham did interview a Swami at an Indian ashram in 1938.

My research into the origins of the book exposed yet another hero of my youth as a fiction.  I’m not disappointed; the book was labeled as fiction from the start.  It is easier to mold a proper hero in the medium of fiction.  In the non-fiction of real life, heroes succeed and heroes fail – and not necessarily in a literary arc that lures book publishers and uplifts the average reader.

There was a time in my life when I was disappointed when one of my “real life” heroes turned out to be less that I had imagined them to be.  The disappointment stemmed from my having mythologized them.  They became static and idealized.

It’s easy to mythologize heroes; they provide us with inspiration. But when a hero is mythologized we tend to elevate them – separated from the rest of humanity and the human condition.

Rest assured, true heroes have both special attributes and human frailty.  And it’s easy to overstate their accomplishments. In his autobiography, the ancestor of modern Japanese karate, Gichin Funakoshi, states that masters of karate were often viewed as superhuman.  Funakoshi states that extraordinary skills usually grew from natural ability.  For example, Master Itosu could crush a thick bamboo stem with his bare hand.  Funakoshi states his belief that Master Itosu had a remarkably strong natural grip that was enhanced by his karate practice.

(As a side note, I sometimes wonder if some of the early Zen patriarchs were able to achieve non-attachment and single-minded clarity more readily, because some of them had Asperger’s syndrome.  Even if true, that would not detract from the importance of Zen generally or the contribution of Zen patriarchs individually.)

A mythologized hero provides a model for us on our own quest.  At some point, it becomes our job to render our heroes into human beings. For me, the accomplishments of actual human beings become even more heroic given their personal struggles, weaknesses, and flaws.

When we become mindful of the hero as human being, we are more likely to integrate aspects we admire, rather than to project wish-fulfillment. When we are mindful of the flaws in our heroes, we are more likely to be mindful of our own shortcomings.  When we are more mindful of our own shortcomings, we are more likely to develop empathy and genuine compassion for others.

By the way, no one can walk a razor’s edge.  It’s like the Zen koan: proceed to the top of the highest pole.  Did you get to the top?  Now go even higher.  The koan is a way of challenging the stuck mind and encouraging  that we make effort.

Now I suppose there’s only one question left to ask at this point: How would a Jedi Knight have written this post?

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3 Responses to Reflections: Heroes Walking the Razor’s Edge

  1. Frank DeMarco says:

    I haven’t read The Razor’s Edge, but I thought I heard somewhere that the hero was a thinly veiled version of writer Lawrence Durrell. An author I knew for a while told me that he thought a natural trilogy would be James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, and my novel Messenger, on the idea that once you sense that there are long vistas of time available, and once you find out how not to waste your life, there is still the question of what you would do. A flattering idea, I thought. It put me in fast company, anyway.
    As to heroes. Surely the qualities we most admire are those seeking expression within ourselves? Nobody makes heroes out of people they detest. You say, “At some point, it becomes our job to render our heroes into human beings,” but I’d far rather we work on turning ourselves into heroes. Compassion, yes. For ourselves. For others. But compassion mingled with expectation, of ourselves, of others. We really are divine, we really are immortal, we really do connect across time and space — why settle for a definition of ourselves that regards us as less?

  2. Jim says:

    I think it is natural for us to have heroes, especially at the start (thus– the hero archetype), and we are likely to do so unconsciously if not consciously. Sometimes the qualities that people admire are not completely admirable, such as strength and domination. It may be that we are seeking to develop the strength within ourselves, and use the hero as model. At some point, we need to see all the qualities of that hero — in this case domination. Or, we may be hard on ourselves for not living up to the standard of a hero, when the hero themselves did not live the mythologized ideal scripted for them. De-mythologizing heroes can free one to go beyond their hero and onto their own hero’s quest, while at the same time maintaining respect for those qualities in the hero that remain worthy of our respect. I originally had a few lines toward the end about being our own heroes, but didn’t like the way it scanned, and edited it out. Sometimes simple is best. We do need to become our own heroes, just as we need to have compassion for ourselves. We really are divine, and we really are human.

  3. Joe says:

    As Jung said, wherever there is great light, there is also great shadow. This is the moral problem of the hero.

    Many who wish to bask in the light would prefer to ignore the darker side. Then the hero becomes, not a full-blooded myth, but rather a silly cartoon: an exaggerated, one-dimensional caricature, rather than a complex individual character. As Nietzsche well understood (“Be careful when you cast out your devils, lest you cast out the best thing in you” he warned), this complexity entails an intimate connection between vice and virtue. There is always a fine line between the two. The same quality of self-absorption that, say, makes an artist into a genius, may also turn him or her into a selfish child, or what the late John Gardner dubbed “a monster of self-regard.”

    The danger is that we cannot accept this complexity, become disillusioned (perhaps even nihilistic), and turn on our heroes, instead of allowing them to inspire us, not merely despite, but because of, their essential kinship with us.

    As I see it, the greatest danger, however, is when we cannot accept this complexity, and, at the same time, turn our hero into our guru. I would define a “guru” as anyone to whom we give over our own proper authority (intellectual, moral, or emotional–an unquestioning obedience, or “absolute submission,” as Joseph Campbell dubs it.

    In so doing, we stunt our own inner growth, even as we cultivate habits of playing false and developing elaborate stratagems of self-deception. Here I am thinking not only of the sacrificial victims of nefarious cult figures like Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Herf Applewhite, but also those apologists who excuse or remain willfully blind to the sexual, financial, and other improprieties of many popular religious and “spiritual” figures (all of whom will remain nameless, so as not to offend any adherents or sympathizers). These cases are also well known, but one will still come across those who refuse or are unable to acknowledge the facts.

    Of course, working oneself out of such submissive discipleship may, of course, provide an opportunity for (very painful) growth—I have seen these types as well.

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