Saturday, July 26, 2008
Whenever the term “hero” comes to mind, anybody will likely rave about an extraordinary person’s qualities. Essentially, this is what a hero is about: something beyond the ordinary. Average persons may be good, smart, concerned for people close to them; heroes, meanwhile, are steps ahead of the average in that they are virtuous, brilliant, ready to render self-sacrifice for others: family, the entire nation, even future generations. These positive aspects of heroes somewhat cause their own ruin because whether they intended it or not, these qualities are so magnified that they eventually obscure the human angles of a hero. It should be remembered that originally, heroes were hybrid beings who were more human-like than godly. That should figure in heroic portrayals so that heroes will not become so purged of their humanity as to turn them into gods. In other words, the likes of Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal should be depicted in history and related articles as some real persons who happened to possess qualities that elevate them from the common man. If, for example, Bonifacio gets mentioned as a highly literate man without giving so much as a passing note on his impoverished beginnings, it may be lost on the countless Filipino generations that his very poverty motivated him to go self-sufficient, making him devour books to teach himself. That, then, should inspire people from the lower class to struggle to learn because poverty did not hinder someone of their own in becoming a revered hero. If, for another example, Rizal is discovered to have nurtured a superiority complex despite the given fact that he was a proven genius, will that automatically affect the ideal way Filipinos look up to Rizal as national hero? At first, it is possible that Filipinos may get disenchanted that the national hero is in no way perfect, but on deeper realization, it is but human to become imperfect. That, then, should inspire Filipinos to try still to emulate Rizal in the best manner they can, because the national hero is just like the rest of us and we can be geniuses and pacifists and altruistic despite our imperfect selves.
It is in this light that one of the characters in O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf” should be seen: a hero short of perfection. This hero, Old Behrman, is not the stereotypical hero I know to be a master of most things, if not everything. In fact, the story reveals that he “was a failure in art,” always attempting to make brush strokes of his masterpiece but never really getting down to start anything. This attitude of his is understandable, given that any artist would project that what s/he has in mind is a glowing obra maestra, but so long as s/he does not start the thing, it remains the most perfect piece to ever come out of the humankind’s genius. If this piece gets started, it will prove to be flawed and it is just probably an act of putting closure that anything gets actually done. Leonardo da Vinci may have his Mona Lisa, Shakespeare his dramas, Brocka his films, but doesn’t it occur to us that the artists themselves may have not considered their works luminous at all? Hence Old Behrman’s manifestations of frustrations: he “drank gin to excess” and “had painted nothing now and then a daub in the line of commerce or advertising.” His personal demons attack him to prevent him from starting his masterpiece, whatever it is that he carries in mind. The fact that he battles it out against an internal conflict is a reminder that an artist of whatever caliber is still a human, after all. He is not a god who can churn out his flawless personal interpretations of truth and beauty. He is more like a hero who attempts to recreate truth and beauty in ways ordinary people would have not imagined, whether these truths and beauties are in the forms of art or of justice and liberation. Had Old Behrman not died of pneumonia, he would have been overwhelmed to realize the great extent to which his little artwork of an ivy leaf elevated itself to the level of a masterpiece. He would have been so proud of himself for creating a big impact in somebody’s fragile life in the form of a tiny, tenacious leaf painted onto the window of someone whose death depended on the last falling ivy leaf. However, he died in the process of performing his last attempt at art, another positive aspect of Old Behrman’s heroism for its inherent ideal of self-sacrifice. Then again, it should not be lost on the readers that this same hero is that “fierce little old man, who scoffed terribly at softness in anyone, and who regarded himself as especial mastiff-in-waiting,” someone just too human to ground him for people’s practical emulation. It is therefore very possible that despite ourselves, we can be our own heroes.
Of late, movies like Kung Fu Panda and Hancock showed unorthodox heroes with their glaring flaws. These heroes are very much in the vein of Old Behrman: they are not too perfect for people to abandon altogether the idea of imitating them. They are imperfect yet their imperfection did not stop them from rising toward extraordinariness. It only shows that we can also go beyond our flaws in order to transform into the best that we can be. Our scars, literal or figurative, will give us the character of our own unique heroism.