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?