Old Heroes: The Heroism of “Mere Survival”

The Heroism of Mere Survival: Old Heroes
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay, (Housman)

First Fish
In my geology class at the university of Colorado back in 1972, I learned about the Crossopterygii, a prehistoric lobe-finned, lung fish; its descendants are all of us, but its most direct and (conservative or cowardly) descendants are dubiously hailed as “living fossils.”

As my professor lectured I imagined a fish determined to escape the slowly drying swamps. He was scared, tentative, and lonely. On his way out, he turned back to his wife, pleading with her to join him. “Honey! Come on. It will be ok.”

She answered (in my story), “You’re crazy! We’ll die! We’re fish!” (Here I will point out that every animal was fish, fish food or both.)

“Look around you! We’re going to die down there. Look at all those corpses!” Fish bodies bobbed atop the slime.

“Don’t go! Who will help me bring up the caviar?”

“Bring them along. If it works, we’ll turn amphibious. I can kind of walk on these things.”

“WALK? AmphiWHAT? You’ve lost your mind.”

He stuck his “nose” (huh?) out of the water and took a deep breath. It worked!“Come on!” he said, “The air is fine!”

Silence.
Tears in his eyes, which he could actually FEEL with his head is out of the water, he kept on, doing this new “walk” thing with his frontal appendages. It’s his nature to embrace the paradox of risking his life for the chance to survive.

The crossopterygii showed me about the heroism of survival. I was moved by his courage. No, no, no, now, do NOT accuse me here of anthropomorphism. It’s ichthyomorphism, and I am the product of that very thing.

I was unconsciously “fishing” around for heroes who could inform my life. I was twenty-one and I was lost.

“Hope I Die Before I Get Old”

As a Baby Boomer, I reached adulthood in an “anti-oldness” culture that cried out (literally!), “Youth is truth,” “Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse,” “Never trust anyone over thirty,” “Hope I die before I get old.” I remember writing in my mandatory high school English journal, “I want MORE than MERELY to survive. I want to LIVE.” What did I know? I was eighteen… At eighteen, I believed that persistence was failure.

Neuroscience has shown that the flaming recklessness of youth is a biological trait. Until people reach a certain age, around twenty-three, their frontal lobes are not developed enough to look ahead and imagine the array of possible (negative) consequences to their actions. They see themselves as “the Highlander.” Youthful heroism partly results from the biological inability to envision the possibility of failure or death, beautifully demonstrated and expressed by Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins’ character in Bull Durham) “Fear and ignorance.” It is also beauty, physical power, potential, sexual potency and drive, intelligence, a sense of wonder, stories without endings —

The youth, as glad as in his infancy,
The spring-time treads, as though the spring were he. (“To Werther”)

Loss
Anyone following the crossopterygian route of “mere” survival learns that death might be worse for those who mourn than for those who die. Survival means the loss of friends, family, dreams, physical abilities. As Goethe pointed out to his own creation, Werther, in a poem that Goethe published at seventy-five:

Fate bade thee go,—to linger here was mine,—
Going the first, the smaller loss was thine. (“To Werther”)

Some of my friends did die in their twenties and early thirties, of “glamorous” addictions to cocaine, heroin or a prosaic addiction booze; some died of HIV. There were even a few juvenile artistic suicides. The corpses they left behind were not all that good-looking but they were recognizable. It didn’t take many dead friends (and the loss of my father when he was 45 and I 20) for me to understand that death is no quest. However, suicide and addiction (flames in which young heroes burn) are ways to control the future.

After First Fish I embraced “mere survival.” From then on, Old Heroes (though none as old as First Fish!) appeared as I needed them, Zorba, Santiago, Ulysses and Goethe. For all heroes — even First Fish — life probably begins as a journey of “fear and ignorance,” but the old hero lives long enough to be humbled (though not defeated) by fate. He manages to learn a little something. The old hero retains the curiosity we associate with childhood. Old heroes accept that the future unfolds according to its own laws. He recognizes that the vast unknown is life. He is resilient and brave, and often ends up lighting the way for those who come after.

Undo Your Pants

“No, you’re not free…you’re on a long piece of string…you come and go, and think you’re free, but you never cut the string in two…You need a touch of folly to do that…You have to risk everything!” (Kazantzakis 300)

It was the movie before the book. One bedroom apartment. Boulder, Colorado, by the hospital. I was 21, married six months, bored with marriage and afraid of the husband, a kid like me but a brute. School was hard. Everything seemed distorted and alien. The husband (also a student) was at work; night shift at the Cyclotron. I turned on the tube. Nothing better to do. Suddenly, Zorba was talking to me, though it seemed he thought he was speaking to Basil, or The Boss, played by Alan Bates.

Zorba asks the Boss why he doesn’t visit the beautiful widow. The Boss says, “I don’t want any trouble.”

Zorba, horrified, grabs The Boss and says, “Not want trouble? What do you want then! Life is trouble! Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and LOOK for trouble.”

The end of the film shows a sad Alan Bates asking Zorba to teach him to dance. Zorba (because he’s an Old Hero) knows there’s no better response to a cataclysm than to roast the goat, drink the raki and dance.

“Hey Boss, did you ever see a more splendiferous crash?”

I got the book and read it from cover-to-cover in one day. The film is faithful, but incomplete. There was much more to the story.

Zorba knew something Old Heroes know, but did the Boss learn it, ever? The last communication between the Boss and Zorba told me that The Boss never “cut the string,” never achieved “folly.” The story is set in serious times, the years between the wars, and the Boss is wrapped up in concern for the world he lived in. It couldn’t have been easy to let go

One day in Berlin came a telegram: FOUND A WONDERFUL GREEN STONE. COME IMMEDIATELY. ZORBA.

…It was in the midst of bitter days…that I received Zorba’s telegram. At first I was angry. Millions of men…hadn’t even a crust of bread…and here came a telegram asking me to set out and travel thousands of miles to see a beautiful green stone! To hell with beauty! She had no heart and does not care for human suffering!

But soon…my anger evaporated and I began to realize my heart was responding to this inhuman appeal of Zorba’s. Some wild bird in me was beating its wings and asking to go.

Yet I did not go…I did not obey the divine and savage clamor within me; I did no insensate, noble act. I listened to the moderating, cold, human voice of logic. I took my pen and wrote to Zorba to explain. And he answered:

You are a pen-pusher, boss, if you’ll allow me to say so. You could have seen a beautiful green stone at least once in your life, you pour soul, and you didn’t see it. My God, sometimes when I had no work, I asked myself the question: Is there or isn’t there any hell? But yesterday, when your letter came, I said: There surely must be a hell for a few pen-pushers like the boss! (Kazantzakis 305-306)

I was shaken. I was a pen pusher, too. OK, but I didn’t want to be a bloodless, cowardly non-dancing pen-pusher, afraid of everything. I wanted to BE a Zorbaesque pen-pusher and build impossible machinery that would crash and fall and crumble, scaring monks off the mountain. I could see that was the key to life; “Risk everything!” Still, it took a while. Failure is bewildering to someone barely twenty-two.

Living for the Fish

By twenty-seven, I was divorced with an advanced degree in a virtually unemployable discipline and a job that carried me with great frugality from one end of the month to the other.

I lived in a Denver apartment (that I loved) and had NO furniture other than a futon bed and a dining room table (no chairs). I had a tiny black and white TV forced upon me by my mom who thought I needed to “keep up with goings on in the world” even though I agreed with Thoreau; if you’ve read one newspaper you’ve read them all FOREVER. I had a giant philodendron my aunt Martha gave me as a housewarming present and that I decorated for Christmas. The philodendron was followed later by the donation of a red wing-back chair and a big chrome pole lamp. Until then, in the evening, after a long day at Gorsuch, Kirgis, Campbell, Walker and Grover, if I wanted to read (no light in the bedroom), I filled the tub with water and sat in a hot bath. I read The Old Man and the Sea in one sitting — or soaking. I cried at the end. It was desperately comprehensible, beautiful and inspiring to me.

I’d had to read it for school in ninth grade, and I found it stupid AND boring. How could such a short book be so tedious? Now I believe that NO ninth grader should like that book. Kids need to believe that they will get the fish, everyone on the shore will cheer, take photos and share in the feast. I won’t say ninth graders NEVER relate to Santiago, but my heart goes out to any who do.

At twenty-seven, I saw that it took real-life loss to make that book meaningful. “Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he [Santiago] had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf on the corner under his clean shirt.” (Hemingway 16) I felt that. I had no photos of my dad.

For those who may not know the story, Santiago is an old fisherman who goes out, after more than 80 days of failure, to catch what he prays will be the big fish of his LIFE. The young fishermen laugh at him, but he goes out anyway. Fate (a-HA) does not let Santiago catch the fish, fight the fish, return with the fish and prove to everyone that he’s still a great fisherman. Fate has other plans and the fish has a will of its own.

After days of struggle, Santiago wins the fish, but he’s so far from shore and the sea so flat and the wind so dead that he’s stuck and sharks eat the fish. After many grueling days at sea, Santiago returns. No miracle. His experience, patience, faith and skill bring him back, but with only bones and bleeding hands to prove his hard-fought victory.

His young friend takes him home and cares for him. Santiago gratefully finds his bed and sleep after asking for the papers for the days that he was gone so he can read the baseball scores.

And what of the fish? He’s been tossed onto the garbage heap to be commented upon by passing tourists:

“What’s that?” she asked a waiter and pointed to the long backbone of the great fish that was now just garbage waiting to go out with the tide.

“Tiburon,” the waiter said. “Eshark.” He was meaning to explain what happened.

“I didn’t know sharks had such handsome, beautifully formed tails.”

“I didn’t either,” her male companion said. (Hemingway 127)

I wanted to kill those tourists or at least set them straight about Santiago’s fish. Then I realized that even for Santiago (my hero!) it was never THAT fish. It’s FISHING. Twenty-seven year old me saw Santiago’s fish as the great dream with power to carry the fisherman where no fisherman had gone before (couldn’t help that) if the fisherman were brave and curious enough to abandon his will to the fish (as Santiago does). The sea is life; the fish is the reason.

Just then, the fish jumped making a great bursting of the ocean and then a heavy fall. Then he jumped again and again and the boat was going fast…line was still racing out and the old man was raising the strain to breaking point…again and again. He had been pulled down tight onto the bow and his face was in the cut slice of dolphin and he could not move. That is what he waited for, he thought, so let us take it. (Hemingway 81)

Santiago appears to risk everything, but (I believe) in his mind, he risks nothing. He’s already survived loss and failure and he knows the unremarkable inevitability of death. That potential (potent is the key part here) that we associate with youth remains very alive in the Old Hero but it is not the result of a partially developed frontal lobe; it is who he is. There’s no difference between the fisherman and the fish. As Santiago says, “Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.” (Hemingway) Then I saw how the string might connect us to freedom, our souls, our selves.

The Wine-dark Sea

In my thirties I found myself stuck again. Some students told me to see Dead Poets Society. Well, yeah. I AM an English teacher, and in the words of Tennyson’s wandering hero, “Ulysses,” I heard echoes of First Fish, Zorba, Santiago! I knew how it was to have finally made it home after years of adventure, danger, and yearning and then discover only ennui and redundancy where I’d imagined security and peace.

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: (Tennyson 26)

Ulysses must gather his crew and persuade them to set-sail with him though the only adventure remaining may be death. For Ulysses it is better to die in pursuit of knowledge — abstract and unattainable though it is — than to sit around the house while Penelope weaves and Telemachus adjudicates. Like First Fish, Ulysses cannot breathe.

As a young man Ulysses set out to avenge Menelaus’ humiliation and to save Greece. As an old man, he realizes that everyone’s humiliated sooner or later and saving one thing means losing something else. The glory is travel, life itself, adventure, the marvelous but accidental by-product of adventure, legs and lungs, the leaping Marlin, the beautiful green stone — knowledge:

Little remains, but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,…
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought. (Tennyson 28)

In “Ulysses” I saw how the old hero remaining himself in spite of diminished physical abilities and the slams of fate. “Ulysses” echoed Santiago, struggling to save some of The Fish from the rapacious sharks, wishing he had a big club or a stone to sharpen his knife, said to himself, to the fish,“…Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” The Old Hero can take a clear-eyed look at the reality of himself and continue on.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. (Tennyson 28)

For First Fish, Zorba, Santiago and Ulysses, life is the prize. Anything more depends on luck, but there is no luck for a dead hero or one who does not venture out.

The Fish that Gets Away

The effect of Goethe’s work on the future in which he would not live is beyond measuring. Emerson learned German for the purpose of reading Goethe in German. Turner based his use of colors on what he learned from Goethe’s Theory of Colors. Darwin and Darwin’s father were inspired by Goethe’s observations of plants. I, personally, am grateful every day for having accidentally encountered Goethe on a Zürich street.

I was in my forties. The circumstances surrounding my being in Zürich were strange, scary and personal. I was far, far out in Santiago’s sea with no idea where I was in time or place; no context, interest or experience. Then I saw Goethe’s profile painted on front of a house (now restaurant) with the words “Goethe stayed in this house with the Duke of Weimar and Johann Kaspar Lavater, 1779.” Because of that painting, I first felt time and humanity in a European city. Goethe opened that world to me, not that I really knew who he was.

A few years later, about to travel on my own to Italy, I went to my college library to get a tourist book. I found Goethe’s Italian Journey. Within two pages I knew I had found one of the greatest friends of my life. I am grateful that Goethe lived a long, varied life and wrote copiously about it.

Werther
You smile, my friend, eyes welling. Still the same!
Yours, what a ghastly avenue to fame.
We dressed in mourning when your luck ran out,
And you deserted, leaving ours in doubt.
For us, the road resuming God knows where, (“To Werther”)

I’ve read that the first of the “modern” young heroes (“Hope I die before I get old”) is Goethe’s Werther. Disappointed in love, Werther blows his brains out. This is pretty cliche now, but in the eighteenth century it was electrifying. Based loosely on Goethe’s own romantic disappointment mingled with the horrific tragedy of a friend,  Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, who killed himself over an unhappy love affair, The Sorrows of Young Werther was a brilliant, though cataclysmic, success. It was certainly unlike any novel published before it. It even changed mens’ fashion, as young men all over Europe dressed in the “yellow pants” and “blue coat” Werther “wore” in the novel.

Andy Warhol, two hundred years later, recognized in Goethe a “super-star” and silk-screened Goethe’s image as it had been painted by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein when Goethe was in Italy in his late-thirties. Warhol’s image is rather ironic (as well as iconic) because, on that journey, Goethe traveled incognito so he would not be mobbed by Werther fans. Sadly, Werther did not only provoke a fashion revolution. Suicide became a “fad” for young men who were unlucky in love. Goethe’s shock over the effect of his novel was (naturally) mixed with a sense of responsibility.

Escaping Werther was more than escaping his “fans.” A more mature Goethe was chained to his meteoric, youthful success as a writer. His public cried out for another Werther, but Goethe wanted to write something else. He also feared that his future work would not match that early success. He had been only twenty-four when The Sorrows of Young Werther blazed across the literary sky. Was Werther a fluke? Was the oft-cried potential of his youth a delusion?

Most of all, Goethe was not Werther. He lived to love again and again, one hopeless love after another. In his mid thirties, a courtier to the Duke of Weimar, heart-sore from a decade of unrequited love with Frau von Stein (an older married woman), unable to finish any writing projects other than poems and many love letters (in which he begged Frau von Stein to allow him to use the familiar “you” rather than the formal one), confused about who he was and what he wanted to do, Goethe ran away to Italy. At an earlier crossroads of his life, on the threshold of a trip to Italy (which his father passionately advocated) Goethe had turned around (almost literally) to take a position at the court of the young Duke of Weimar. More than a decade later, fearing his youthful choices had been wrong, Goethe wondered if his Italian dream could yet be realized. More than a place on the map of Europe, Italy was a place in Goethe’s imagination. By fleeing Weimar, Goethe hoped to escape the twin hamster wheels of unrequited love and life at the court of Weimar.

Werther is the story of a tragic implosion resulting from life lived only in the internal world. It was not Goethe’s nature to live in such a place. He was ready to challenge the boundaries of his internal world and its finite vision. He knew his salvation would come from looking at things AS THEY ARE. He disciplined himself to look outside himself, to look at plants, to look at people and social customs, to evaluate historical buildings, to follow all the fainter stars of his passion — the architecture of Palladio, the paintings of Rafael. Both his actual diary of this journey and the more complete and formal Italian Journey show this. Nearly forty years later, he said to his secretary, Johann Peter Eckermann, “Every healthy effort…is directed from the inward to the outward world…” (Conversations 126)

Goethe stayed in Italy as long as he could, fearing he might lose himself again in Weimar. He did return on condition he could have fewer official duties. He married an “ordinary” girl. His marriage to Christiana was enduring.

Goethe did what he called his “renunciation” and, honestly, I am not sure I understand WHAT he renounced. I believe that he saw the moment of his life and knew he had to choose a path (or several, given his multiple talents). Though his life was still very eventful, Goethe focused on his writing and found the great friendship of his life with Friedrich Schiller, who died at forty-five. Goethe said to Eckermann of his interest in natural science, “[without it] I should never have learned to know mankind as it is…so closely observe the errors of the senses, the weak and strong points of character.”

Goethe’s investigation and questioning in the REAL world during his trip to Italy led to his theory of the “morphology” of plants, one inspiration behind the questioning that led to Darwin’s theory of evolution,“First Fish.”

“The Unending Business”

“Already…have I felt the agony which now makes me altogether wretched: to see the long-wished-for happiness at length reach me; hand-in-hand and arm-in-arm unite with me; and at the same moment announce its eternal departure! I was sitting by her, I was walking by her; her fluttering garment touched me, and I have lost her! Reckon it not over, torture not thy heart with it; be silent, and determine.” (Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre 319)

I imagine Goethe thought of himself as a lover. The pursuit of love, and possibly the fact that he often pursued equivocal or hopeless love, took him “Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” He could have said, with Santiago, “Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.” While Young Werther’s suffering from hopeless love culminates in his death, Goethe’s suffering seems to have fulfilled itself in enterprise, in conjecture and in art.

By the time Goethe got around to actually writing the second part of Faust (which he had been thinking about and maybe writing in a dilatory fashion for decades) he was seventy-five years old. Goethe was Santiago and Ulysses; most of all, he was Zorba.

When we meet Faust in Part One, he is a disillusioned old scholar, wishing for youth and love, which he feels he has missed in his pursuit of arcana and academia. He is ready to sell his soul for these things. Mephistopheles appears with an offer, and Faust accepts it. He lives through an incredible series of adventures, some insanely funny and some all-too-humanly sad. He falls in love with Gretchen a sweet, beautiful and innocent girl of a lower class, seduces her and abandons her. She dies and Faust is thrust into guilt and despair.

Faust Part Two presents a different journey, one that Tennyson’s Ulysses would have understood. In the same manner as Santiago loaded up his small skiff to venture out on the 85th day, Goethe’s Faust, awakens on a grassy hillside and resolves to, “…strive for the highest life with all my powers.” Nature’s friendly sprites have told him,

“What occurred is dead and ended,
Pain and joy have passed away;
You are healed–oh, apprehend it,
Trust the newborn light of day!” (Faust II 429)

The “love interest” in Faust, Part II is not a real girl, but an ideal that Faust has always sought, personified in the vanishing image of Helen of Troy,

That comely form enchanting once my mind,
That mirrored magic joy of womankind,
Was but a pale foam-phantom of such beauty. (Faust II)

In spite of his deal with Mephistopheles, when Faust dies, he is saved from eternal damnation by God’s grace (and respect!). In Heaven, Faust is young again. Gretchen, the girl he seduced and abandoned in Part I, welcomes him, praying she will be able to guide and to teach him. Goethe’s Heaven is a place where (sings the Mystic Chorus):

All things corruptible
Are but a parable…
Here the ineffable
Wins life through love;
Womanhood eternally
Attracts us. (Faust II 288)

***
Goethe was in his seventies when he set sail the last time in pursuit of “…that unending business, women…” (Kazantzakis 305) and fell in love with seventeen year old Ulrike von Levetzow.

…when dead to love, and hardly caring…
She came. And my old verve in dreaming, daring
Resolving, up and doing — this she gave…
If ever love restored a sunken self and made it whole. (“Marienbad Elegy”)


When Ulrike was eighteen, he proposed marriage. She refused him. This final broken heart inspired “Marienbad Elegy” which Goethe considered his best poem. It would never have been written had Goethe not loved this one last time.

It’s difficult to know for sure, but easy to guess, why Goethe was rejected. Arriving on the “shore” after the failed fishing trip, Goethe/Santiago must have faced a crowd of people saying things like:

“What was he thinking? Yes, he’s a great man and all that, but really!”

“She’s barely eighteen and look at him!”

“There’s no fool like an old fool.”

Probably aware of this, Goethe wrote a self-mocking, humorous and ironic look at himself and his final (given his age) unrequited love:

When I was a youthful wight,
So full of enjoyment and merry,
The painters used to assert, in spite,
That my features were small — yes, very
Yet then full many a beauteous child,
With true affection upon me smiled.

Now as a graybeard I sit here in state,
By street and by lane held in awe, sirs;
And may be seen, like old Frederick the Great,
On pipe-bowls, on cups, and on saucers.
Yet the beauteous maidens, they keep afar;
Oh, vision of youth! Oh, golden star! (“When I Was”)

Yet Goethe persisted (his word “endured”) through his broken heart, willfully turning his attention to the “outer world,” awakened and healed through the cathartic power of art; this time:

…music to the fore like angel’s wings
Fly a million tones entwined…
And so the heart is lightened, learns to see
Still lives and beats and ought to beat
It gives itself with joy and willingly
In grateful thanks and payment for the gift…
The double bliss of music and of love. (“Reconciliation”)

Though never free of this penchant for love, idealized, fantasized, impossible, or unreturned, Goethe consistently chose survival as an artist/scientist. He learned to look at himself objectively and developed the power to exert his will and self knowledge in support of his own life.

The essence of the “old hero” is the risk-everything persistence of the First Fish. It’s Zorba’s beautiful green stone. It’s Santiago rising early to go out to sea on the 85th day. It’s Ulysses setting sail to “follow knowledge like a sinking star.” It’s eighty year old Goethe writing,

And as of old, in silence         
The philosophers, the poets           
Created works of love, each to his will,    
The beautiful favor you’ll achieve:       
For noble souls feel out the way…        
             (“Testament”)                   

Und wie von alters her, im stillen,
Ein Liebewerk nach eignen Willen
Der Philosph, der Dichter schuf,
So wirst du schönste Gunst erzielen
Denn edlen Seelen vorzufühlen…
(“Vermächtnis)

Bibliography (In case anyone wants to read more!)
Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age, Vol. 1 The Poetry of Desire. Oxford: Oxford Univ., 1992. Print.
—-  Goethe: The Poet and the Age. Vol. 2, Revolution and Renunciation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
“Brain Changes Significantly after Age 18, Says Dartmouth Research.” Dartmouth College. 06 Feb. 2006. Web. 10 Sept. 2011. <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~news/releases/ 2006/02/06.html>.
Bull Durham. Dir. Ron Shelton. Perf. Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins. Orion Pictures, 1988. DVD.
Daltry, Roger, John Entwhistle, Keith Moon, and Pete Townshend, “My Generation.” Rec. Spring 1970. Live at Leeds. The Who. Polydor, 1970. Vinyl recording.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Trans. John Oxenford. Ed. J. K. Moorhead. Conversations of Goethe with Johann Peter Eckermann. New York: Da Capo Press. Print.
—  Faust, Part Two.  Trans. Philip Wayne. London: Penguin Books. 1959. Print
— Trans. T. J. Reed. The Flight to Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print
— “Reconciliation” The Works of J. W. von Goethe/Vol. 9./Trilogy of Passion. Wikisource. 8 April 2013
__ “To Werther.”
— “Testament.” Goethe, the Selected Works, Vol. 1, Selected Poems. Ed. Christopher Middleton. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1983. 268-269 Print
— “To Werther.” 244-245. Print
— “When I was still a youthful wight.” The Works of J. W. Von Goethe, Volume 9. Wikisource, the Free Online Library. N.p., 08 Apr. 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. 253
—- Wilhelm Meister’s Travels. Trans. Thomas Carlyle. Studies in German Lingusitics, Literature and Culture. Columbia: Camden House. 1991
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner, Published by Simon and Schuster, 1995. Print.
Housman, A. E. “32. To an Athlete Dying Young.” Bartleby.com Great Books Online, Jan. 1999. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.
Kazantzakis, Nikos. Zorba the Greek. Trans. Carl Wildman. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996. Print.
Tennyson, Alfred. “Ulysses.” ed. E. K. Brown and J.O Bailey. Victorian Poetry, ed. 2. New York:The Ronald Press, 1962. 27-28. Print.
Zorba the Greek. Dir. Michael Cacoyannis. Perf. Alan Bates, Anthony Quinn, Irene Papas. Twentieth Century Fox, 1964. DVD.

25 thoughts on “Old Heroes: The Heroism of “Mere Survival”

  1. Impressive not to mention insightful. I enjoyed that way you were able to chart your growth and understanding in life through the different ideas and pieces of information or literature that came your way at certain times. There have been book whose stories gave me pause and sent me delving into the author as it touched on something inside of me. You managed a very clever and interesting paper that was informative and referenced without falling into the dryness of academia. So many use references to make their argument for them rather than using them to illustrate a point reached from their own perspective. It subtle but the difference is notable to the reader. I found it fascinating the changing perspective on age and life itself and I can clearly see how each of the works you mention gave you an insight or clarity in different points in time. Thank you for sharing – it was a pleasure. Jennifer

    • Wow. I truly appreciate your comments. Everything you’ve said here was exactly what I was hoping to achieve. Thank you!

      • I always like the use of literature to parallel growth whether it be personal or national. My mini thesis for my masters was using the changing face of Australian Literature to chart our growth as a nation and the cultural and social mores that developed along the way. I had a blast with the research and the writing wasn’t too bad either. I may or may not go on to the Phd – it’s been a few years and I still haven’t decided if I want to dedicate that kind of time and effort at this point in my life. Not to mention my writing style has developed a much more relaxed tone that I am not sure I would want to surrender to the rigour of an assessment panel. So it was fun to read such a thoughtful piece as yours.

    • I do think these kids lack context and don’t miss it and that leads to a lot of poor thinking. I don’t know about Australia, but the US has been so busy de-marginalizing minorities that really awful writing is taught because it was written by someone from Guam. There is no sense here any more that there are any standards because standards are elitist (well, yeah, by definition they would be right?) and racist (that begs the question — if minorities have had less access to education then they will not reach high standards and therefore will be “marginalized” — the solution has always seemed to me that the solution is to lift the few and enrich their abilities rather label standards as elitist and racist, however, that’s not the way it goes). Why?

      • It is getting like that in the Public system I was lucky to have a Private Education that dealt with critical thinking and teaching the mechanics of writing as well as expression. I think it is all about ‘an even playing field’ so they try for a common denominator and almost seem to punish those who want to push the boundaries of it.

        It’s short term thinking – you can still be exposed to a variety of literature from different cultures but also recognise how that culture or poverty or whatever has impacted on what and how things are written.

        In my first year of uni in the Humanities there was a subject the was mandatory in first semester. Humanities tradition – a brief overview of history starting from the ancient world and then moving through all the ism’s. It was necessary as they found that so many students came to them with little or no knowledge of the history of the humanities. School is so determined to be PC that they barely teach the basics anymore.

      • I agree — and it makes it too easy for someone to “push the boundaries.” It doesn’t take anything special. Students here are passed for nothing and get A+ grades. I don’t get it. In my classes they often get their first “average” grade and they are mad as hops.

      • Good – may actually teach them that scholarship takes effort and application as does most things of worth in life. Handing out easy marks like some sort of academic Easter Bunny actually harms the students in my opinion as they have no clue of what is really expected of them in life and in the field.

      • Yes — they’ve started doing that here but it’s kind of half-assed. For a while the idea was that students should not have “cultural literacy” because it was focused on the “dominant culture.” Well that’s MOST people and the few people must live together, compete with and communicate with everybody else. Everyone is shortchanged in this philosophy, I think.

      • Teaching as if the world we live in does not exist is pointless – teach ideals yes but how do you gauge information if you cannot relate it to what you see around you. How do you explain our history if you rewrite it to meet the standards of todays perceptions of appropriate learning? You can’t of course but it hasn’t stopped them from trying and ruining the critical thought processes of a generation while they’re at it.

      • Yep. My students – to whom I must teach critical thinking — find the whole thing terrifying at first and then an incredible relief. They have a context for themselves and a strategy for approaching others and for evaluating ideas. But, I’m about done with “fighting the good fight” — this one, anyway! 🙂

  2. I couldn’t stomach the thought of going on to a PhD. I thought it would ruin me as a writer and possibly sterilize me as a person. I had a great thesis adviser for my MA, though. He quit teaching some 30 years back and has written good books on Emerson, Thoreau and Wm James. 🙂

    • I think that I will probably not pursue it for much of the same reasons you have stated plus the fact that I have moved on in life and the things that bring out the kind of passion required for a Phd are now quite different.

      • I just had little respect for the majority of the professors in my department. I also didn’t feel I fit in. I have an “intellect” but am not quite an intellectual. 🙂

      • That’s funny. I got accused of being “snarky” in a syllabus I wrote this semester because I wrote, “If you are using your phone or texting in class or surfing the net or on Facebook you are absent.” I haven’t figured out what’s “snarky” about that. I couldn’t do it now at all. I listened to some papers at the conference and one sincere and smart undergraduate was showing images of Alexander the great and one was a mosaic (colored) and the rest were statues. She remarked that the mosaic showed him with dark hair, dark eyes and a large nose while the marble statues didn’t and that was proof that Alexander’s heroic image changed through time. I thought to myself that rendering an accurate facial imagine in mosaic is impossible. Marble statues from which the paint has faded or washed away are altered through time. I had to hold back from saying, “Sweetie, you’ve based your whole argument on ignorance.” I would have said it kindly like, “The Greeks painted their statues. Maybe those statues were the same colors as that mosaic.” I just bit my tongue.

      • I mean I’m 62 and I’ve been more places and asked more questions and read more books than that little girl could possibly have (yet). I really felt saying anything would be “snarky” since she had the guts to get up and give a paper at a conference.

      • Still … courage doesn’t outweigh poor reasoning now does it. The thing I’ve noticed when marking papers is there is a distinct lack of ability to link a piece of information and apply it in a practical sense to what you read and see. After all the ancients were still people after all and human reaction and motivation has changed little at the very heart of it over time. The go out of their way to link esoteric pieces of ancient writing but mention the Hunger Games and compare it to the Roman Arena and you get these blank looks. It is then followed by stares of pity as if to say ‘the world is a different place now the Romans were just about being barbaric’. Really want to point out that yes they were but so are we but the point is they did it to distract the populace and control the provinces. Oh well I just don’t understand reading and not seeing it in the world around you, your life and the progression of social development but apparently my view is a little old fashioned.

      • I almost went off on that when another undergraduate was speaking. He made the old, “Our lives are so much more complex than the lives of people in the past.” I don’t think your view is old-fashioned; I think it’s just mature. I remember being pretty similar to these kids when I was a kid myself. We think we invented everything in our lives, that it came with us. Like the line in my paper from Goethe “…as if the spring were he.” If there’s any comparison between the Hunger Games (which I haven’t read) and the Roman Arena it would seem to me to be that human nature is beastly. 🙂

      • It’s quite good actually and how they missed the reference is beyond me as they call the capitol where they held the ‘games’ Panem after the Panem et Circenses latin saying about give the bread and the arena (circus) and you own the will of the mob. Silly young things – that’s what you get for not knowing your Latin roots. What’s that saying hire the young while they know everything. lol 😀

      • I especially appreciate your discussion of Goethe. I once did a paper on the evolution of the Faust mythos and I rather enjoyed his take on it.

      • I love Goethe. He’s one of my best friends. And his idea of what God would actually do with a man like Faust is, I think, right on. The story fascinated Goethe all his life.

  3. Reblogged this on This is my place. and commented:
    Sometimes there is heroism in just staying alive. Reblogged from Martha Ann Kennedy’s blog, “I’m a Writer, Yes, I Am!” You really should look at all her other stuff. It is great!

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