I’m a teacher and one thing I’ve notice that is marked in the ‘millennial generation’ is a revulsion to heroes, or a certain inability admire great people. If you ask a group of students who their hero might be, many will not have an answer or the answer will be in the negative: they do not admire anybody—in fact, they consider it a problem to place anybody in a higher or greater position than themselves.
Of course, they might appreciate celebrities, idealized version of themselves. Certainly, they prefer similitude to difference: copies of their own young and beautiful selves, which is understandable to a certain extent. But what is lacking is a certain passion and going out on a limb. Today’s Facebook crowd will ‘likes’ or ‘heart’ things, but they are less likely to worship or even admire.
Is there something wrong with the fact that somebody may be smarter, more admirable and more talented than you are? There will always be people above and below you, greater and lesser souls. What’s the problem? It may be that people equate political egalitarianism with the belief that everybody is actually the same, but this is self-evidently absurd—it’s a just wrong. People are unequal in the extreme, and so what?
If we don’t look up to people, our learning will be limited to rote, or to just absorbing information and skills order to succeed in some kind of career or whatever. We cannot get to a sublime stratum of learning until we can fall in love with our subject, or person, or future possibility—we cannot go too far by being merely rational or dispassionate. The thing is: it’s impossible to be passionate about anything unless we are willing to give it a higher value. If ‘looking up’ is taboo, vertical depth is erased and the landscape becomes horizontal, conformist, flat. ‘Imagine there is no heaven above and no hell below’, John Lennon sang. Maybe we are seeming the dark side of that dream.
In my twenties, Bob Dylan was a hero, I loved him to the point of possession. Today I can play most of his songs pretty easily and I have more less absorbed his technique and some of his spirit, as so many have. In those days, I thought of Bob so much I used to actually dream Bob was talking to me; I was a spiritual stalker, you could say. But I’m not ashamed of that. All artist knows that there is value in imitation and communion and even envy, that most taboo of emotions.
These days I don’t listen to Bob Dylan much, perhaps because he is a good hero for people in their twenties. In my thirties I moved on to Leonard Cohen, who I just can’t get past. God, I love Leonard Cohen! I just adore him. Far more than Dylan these days. Why? I think it’s because I don’t understand him at all, how he creates such perfect melodies, how he marries depth and religion with humour, apocalyptic lyrics with playful and sexually provocative ones; how he combines profound poetry with pop music, how her marries the high and the low, in other words. I feel that he is miles above me as an artist. I cannot capture or measure what he does.
I actually crossed paths with Leonard Cohen once, by seridipidy. I blame the fates, but then again it is obsession and not reason that brought me to Cohen. This kind of obsession is saluatry, it takes you much further than mere interest. When Cohen died I listen to his music and wrote about him continuously for 100 days — the contents of a book which may never be published. I did it from an unreasonable admiration, which is not the same as syncopatic idol worship. I wasn’t that interested in the man particularly, and even less his personal life, but what he revealed.
I can think of about a hundred or so heroes I have, and about 20 or so who I have absorbed to the point of possession. This I believe is perfectly natural. Cultural appropriation should be a positive term, it is actually how we learn, by excessive admiration, by absorbing the greatness the of the other — even if we become foolish parrots and imitators for a time. But today, because people have become so rational, so managerial, so programmed, they don’t get lost in passionate adoration easily. There is something pseudo-cool this generation’s style of being, but at the same time blasé. We ‘like’ too many things, and adore too little. But one should really be possessed by an object of love — be it a teacher, an artist, a mentor of any kind. Of course, a true teachers greatest desire is that the student individuates — or goes beyond them. The student should be on his knees before greatness, but also secretly dream of doing the impossible: surpassing that greatness. We are all secretly dying to be heroes (even ‘just for one day’ as the Bowie song goes) and are therefore doomed to a certain state envy. But this is actually positive if it is seen as an aspirational state.
When I saw Leonard Cohen perform in Paris for the last time, I noticed he spent a great deal of the show on his knees as if in prayer — a position modern people consider somehow an abasement or a humiliation. Why would a man, at the summit of his fame and at the end of his life, be on his knees? Well, gratitude for one. Perhaps he was asking to be lifted up to an even higher place. That sounds too religious to the secular mind — because people just believe in facts and objects and opinions, certainly not in an ascension of the spirit though art and worship.
When we survey the modern landscape it’s easy to see many gaps in human beings, and a certain inability to really admire or love the higher dimensions. We are creatures who walk around with gaping holes. These holes are missing elements of our own development. We do not know who to or how to worship, in other words. To ask some greater spirit to fill those holes.
Since the fall of traditional religion, or what Nietzsche called the ‘Death of God’, we can now see new, pseudo religions popping up everywhere — to fill the gap left from traditional ideas of magic/ritual/initiation etc. Does this mean that magic/ritual/initiation had disappeared? Obviously, not. Perhaps Star Wars or Richard Dawkins are just as much religious artefacts as anything else. Sci-Fy fanatics or atheist are known to gather in stadiums and engage in rituals of adoration. These are ancient facets of communal worship and can’t be so easily severed; in fact, they are what we are made of.
Whatever we believe in, we still need to be lifted up by others, we still need to admire and worship: it is good to be fanatically devoted to something — the right thing of course. Devotion is so much superior to merely ‘liking’ things — though it might be a little dangerous. But a little danger is another thing that human beings need. No hero ever existed without worshiping a higher principal, without standing on the shoulders of another hero to get a higher view. No hero ever existed without admiring someone larger and greater than themselves. We need to remember this. Or live as phantoms of who we are or could be.