"We would do well to call them catalysts rather than leaders": Rebecca Solnit on how we need to move beyond the singular hero
Powerful essay from Rebecca Solnit on how the concept of the “hero” affects our politics as well as our literary fictions. And how Greta Thunberg redefines the whole idea. An extract:
The idea that our fate is handed down to us from above is built into so many stories. Even Supreme Court rulings around marriage equality or abortion often reflect shifts in values in the broader society as well as the elections that determine who sits on the court.
Those broad shifts are made by the many in acts that often go unrecognized. Even if you only cherish personal life, you have to recognize the public struggles that impact who gets to get married, who gets a living wage and healthcare and education and housing and clean drinking water. Also if you’re one of the 82 people who burned to death in the Paradise fire last year, the consequences of public policy were very personal.
This idea that our fate is handed down to us from above is built into so many stories.
We like heroes and stars and their opposites, though I’m not sure who I mean by we, except maybe the people in charge of too many of our stories, who are themselves often elites who believe devoutly in elites, which is what heroes and stars are often presumed to be. There’s a scorching song by Liz Phair I think about whenever I think about heroes. She sang:
He’s just a hero in a long line of heroes
Looking for something attractive to save
They say he rode in on the back of a pick-up
And he won’t leave town till you remember his name
It’s a caustic revision of the hero - this time as an attention-getter, a party-crasher, a fame-seeker, and at least implicitly a troublemaker in the guise of a problem-solver. And maybe we as a society are getting tired of heroes, and a lot of us are certainly getting tired of overconfident white men.
Even the idea that the solution will be singular and dramatic and in the hands of one person erases that the solutions to problems are often complex and many faceted and arrived at via negotiations.
The solution to climate change is planting trees but also transitioning (rapidly) away from fossil fuels but also energy efficiency and significant design changes but also a dozen more things about soil and agriculture and transportation and how systems work.
There is no “solution”, but there are are many pieces that add up to a solution, or rather to a modulation of the problem of climate change.
Phair is not the first woman to be caustic about heroes. Ursula K. Le Guin writes,
When she was planning the book that ended up as Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf wrote a heading in her notebook, “Glossary”; she had thought of reinventing English according to a new plan, in order to tell a different story. One of the entries in this glossary is heroism, defined as “botulism.” And hero, in Woolf’s dictionary, is “bottle.” The hero as bottle, a stringent reevaluation. I now propose the bottle as hero.
That’s from Le Guin’s famous 1986 essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which notes that though most of early human food was gathered, and gathering was often women’s work, it’s hunting that made for dramatic stories.
And she argues that though the earliest tools have often been thought to be weapons in all their sharp-and-pointy deadliness, containers—thus her bottle joke—were maybe earlier and as or more important, gender/genital implications intended.
Hunting is full of singular drama—with my spear I slayed this bear. A group of women gathering grain, on the other hand, doesn’t have a singular gesture or target or much drama.
“I said it was hard to make a gripping tale of how we wrested the wild oats from their husks, I didn’t say it was impossible,” says Le Guin toward the end of her essay. Among the Iban people of Borneo, I read recently, the men gained status by headhunting, the women by weaving. Headhunting is more dramatic, but weaving is itself a model for storytelling’s integration of parts and materials into a new whole.