Heroines and heroes are only human

A hero can do no wrong, and this idea is difficult to refute, especially if you are talking to a youngster who has placed an individual in that pantheon. I was just such a young fellow. But with greater knowledge, more probing, and increased awareness, unfortunately it so happens that veils of illusion are lifted from images of people whom we worship as idols.

I will share some examples of heroes and their images from my personal experience.

If there is one hero in the modern world I have placed above anyone else, it is the American astronomer Carl Sagan.

I discovered him as I began to mature, only in my late teens, but his impact and influence have been so strong that it will remain potent for a lifetime. From the mesmerizing photographs aired on COSMOS, to his lyrical and beautiful writing in the book of the same name, from his involvement in the anti-nuclear testing campaigns to his willingness to consider human rights for Great Apes at a time when the concept of animal rights was an inchoate one– Carl Edward Sagan has been the greatest hero of mine. A life-size portrait of him still hangs on my bedroom wall and hardly a day passes when I am not reminded of his extraordinary speech entitled “Reflections On A Mote of Dust,” a commentary on the state of affairs on Planet Earth from a vantage point in space on Voyager I when it photographed our home in the cosmic ocean.

Having discovered Carl Sagan as a popular science writer, I devoured as much of his work as I could, his books, articles, speeches, videos, photographs and debates. He became, literally, a God to me, and there was almost nothing in what he had done that I could disagree with. Then I read various biographies on him and came across some criticisms of his work and they appeared valid.

Sagan, a superb science communicator, was wrong on the nuclear winter envisaged in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. His work consisted of a lot of self-publicity and he was a pop scientist and not a real one– these were some of the allegations leveled against his work. If one is a genuine believer, then of course, none of the above would stand scrutiny. We should always remember Sibelius’ remark: “Never pay any attention to what critics say. Remember, a statue has never been set up in honor of a critic!” (Not quite true. Commentators at Felsenmusick point out that the Canadian artist Joe Fafard made a statue of Clement Greenberg, and that there is a statue to the literary critic Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.)

But closer examination of Sagan’s works does reveal some weaknesses, although nothing very major. In certain sections of the COSMOS series, the camera focuses on Sagan’s face that appears to be exulting as the cosmic story moves from one stage to the next. Many critics have said this camera trick was a deliberate attempt at self-publicity and that it was inappropriate for Sagan to indulge in it, especially given his insistence that Planet Earth and human beings do not have a special place in the universe. When I first saw COSMOS this did come as a bit of an anomaly in an otherwise outstanding visual experience.  The criticism that he was a pop scientist and not a real one does not hold water because he had a huge number of scientific papers published in respectable journals and this was pointed out by his widow Ann Druyan after he died. Edward Teller, widely known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, tried to dismiss Carl Sagan as a “mere nobody” when Teller was approached by a journalist. But one of Sagan’s biographies reveal a very interesting incident. Both Sagan and Teller were traveling together on one occasion and were seated close to each other at an airport and whilst Sagan was approached by many for his autograph, no one came to Teller. Even the great scientist Teller had to admit, “He won.” These are just some nuggets to illustrate that any celebrity, any hero will have detractors. And Sagan eloquently speaks about heroes in his  “Reflections On A Mote of Dust” and about how he will/would have detractors. There will inevitably be some amount of criticism, justified criticism maybe, but that too illustrates the human qualities of the person under review.

For me, it has been only enlightening to learn about criticisms of Sagan’s work, and his weaknesses make him more appealing. If a person has no flaws, that person seems unreal. Sagan had his flaws but so do all of us.

An interesting hero in my eyes, is the Hollywood actor, Charlton Heston. I have forgotten the number of times I have seen Ben Hur and every time I see the film, it appeals to me like a new film. All the more remarkable because I am skeptical of formal religion and miracles, but the principal themes of friendship, jealousy and rivalry appeal to me tremendously, to the extent that I can narrate sections of Ben Hur by heart. Now Charlton Heston was a representative of the American right, at least in his later years, and was the head of the National Rifle Association and made some racist comments. Again, these drawbacks and negative attributes do not diminish my appreciation for him as an actor or my fascination for Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments. Charlton Heston will always remain a grand hero in my eyes as an actor of the highest quality, despite his political beliefs.

Among heroines, naturalists Joy Adamson and Dian Fossey exhibited traits of racism but their work with lions and gorillas remains pioneering all the same. Born Free, both as a book and a film, remains a perennial favourite. The film convinced me that freedom is not an alien concept among animals and led  me to question the concept of conventional zoos. Dian Fossey’s opposition to keeping Gorillas in zoos is something I understand.

There are other individuals, too, with their warts and foibles who have achieved heroic status in public.

However, these particular people who have helped me shape my thinking, especially Sagan, are only examples of heroes, and they show that heroes and heroines are human.

Shubhobroto Ghosh works in an international NGO in New Delhi. He is a supporter of the Great Ape Project, that promotes giving human rights to Great Apes, an idea supported by Carl Sagan, who remains his greatest hero.