What our heroes aim for
The internet attributes it to Confucius, but I can’t find verify that. Anyway, the sentence is “When a wise man points at the moon, the imbecile examines the finger.” Interpretations vary, but for me this evokes what it’s like to study the mannerisms of a hero such that we are distracted from their guiding principles and purposes.
I’ve been rereading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, watching the BBC miniseries, and watching the Smiley’s People BBC miniseries. I notice the impulse to imitate the movements and mannerisms of people that I admire, my attention on those movements and mannerisms, distracted from my aims.
Of course we mirror the mannerisms of people that we respect when we are with them. This is observed. But I’m talking about modeling our behavior after characters. Not even real people. Children do this, and adults aren’t supposed to. What is it that causes adults to continue with it?
The purpose of flaws
Critics seem to love talking about how wonderful are the flaws of a protagonist. The last thing one wants is for their hero to be insufficiently flawed. George Smiley is a modern demigod notable for his flaws. And they aren’t popular flaws for characters to have. He doesn’t drink excessively or cheat on his wife or go into rages. He isn’t a vagabond waiting for a cause. His flaws go the other way. They are timidity, patriotism, and something of an inferiority complex. He berates himself for his weaknesses early in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, listing weakness itself as the worst of them. He has just endured the company of a prying idiot, and he reflects that it wasn’t politeness that motivated him, but weakness.
This is the kind of confession that we can only make to ourselves, because friends generously deny it. No, they will say, it was kindness.
Smiley isn’t a demigod like Hercules. His strengths don’t pertain to his body, but to his habits. He is more like Odysseus, but less dynamic. He is studious, observant, reflective, and strategic. He has an excellent memory, which could be seen as a characteristic of his body, but there’s a wrinkle: it is implied at least that his memory is a result of his habits. When he listens, he closes his eyes, as if in a trance. He asks questions to understand. He spends much of his time reading and rereading sentences, taking notes, studying them, reading more. The main action scenes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy have George holed up in Hotel Islay, an “elderly mansion”, seated at a rickety Georgian desk, poring over secret documents.
At my own meager desk, drawing the squares of a process map, he comes to mind, and I feel an affectation creep in. I get over it, of course. I recall what is sustainable.
What is sustainable is looking up and seeing an unattainable point, and striving towards it. Always being below that line, so I always have something to do.
George is compared from the beginning to Bill Roach, an overweight child of divorced parents, attending the prep school Thursgood’s, where Jim Prideaux, who teaches there, befriends him. Jim Prideaux is the opposite of George Smiley in that he is physical and adventurous and only adopted intellectual discipline out of necessity, to trim his apparent weakness and improve his role in his partnership with the more analytical Bill Haydon, whom Jim admired.
Better flaws to have
So we like our demigods to have flaws. We like them to want too much. Gilgamesh, Sisyphus, Icarus.
Since we get to choose them, what flaws should the modern hero have?
Clearly humans find personification a useful mental tool. I’ve heard many programmers call the object on the screen that they were discussing “guy”. “This guy grays out until you select a radio button.”
It’s easier to ask, What is George Smiley like? than to ask What is the virtue of dogged investigation? Note that this is precisely what Socrates did not do. He analyzed the virtues themselves. He exposed our illusion of explanatory depth applied to ethics. Maybe characters are more entertaining.
But the problem for me has always been, unconsciously, I have been looking for a hero to admire, as a person. And when I find one, I adopt parts of their personality that are not essential to what makes them good. Wouldn’t it be easier if we had heroes we could imitate outright?
Anyone who has read a book about how to write knows that you need to understand the motivation of a character to make them interesting. But doesn’t this formulation get things backwards? It assumes that the role of the writer is to make interesting characters. Why shouldn’t it be to write interestingly about characters struggling to achieve ideals?
And isn’t assuming too much to say that characters need flaws? They need to be relatable, and flaws are a convenient way to achieve that. But it seems more important that they make mistakes and learn from them.
When Alexandra says to George, “Mother Felicity says that in every ordinary person, there is a part that is God”, he replies, after “uncharacteristic hesitation,” “I have heard it said too.”
We like to attribute personhood to the objects of our admiration. The law with corporations, doters with their cats. To be a person is to be important. The least important of us is called an unperson. George Smiley threatens Counselor Grigoriev and his family with this status in Smiley’s People. They will become unpersons, he warns.
In Blade Runner 2049, this tendency is highlighted in societal attitudes towards replicants. As the protagonist, KD6-3.7, takes the corridor of LAPD headquarters to receive his baseline, an officer accosts him, hissing “Fuck off, skin-job,” and as he enters his apartment at the end of the day, we see that a neighbor has written “FUCK OFF SKINNER” in bold on his door.
So while I was staring at Socrates, I wondered about his hero. He talked about Zeus and other gods. He said that piety was his aim. That’s why he criticized, questioned, and didn’t lie.
But Socrates’s ideal wasn’t personified, was it? If it was, he couldn’t make out the face of it. That’s why the inquiry.
Aren’t we supposed to worship the god of our hero?
Focusing on the real obstacles
I have a Tiny Habit of facing a bust of Socrates after I set down my back pack after work. I reflect on what he was trying to achieve, and I feel gratitude for his effort and the effort of those who have continued with his aim by publishing Plato’s writings.
I ask myself what I have done to achieve those same ends. I recall moments in the day where I was not resourceful. I replay those instances differently, with that inadequate behavior replaced with an improved version
If I recall an instance in which I felt embarrassed but was not obviously deviating from my aim, then I accept it as a sacrifice. In other words, if I feel that my behavior wasn’t well received but I was mindfully making decisions, I will think twice about revising the memory. I’ll search the day for more obvious sins(1) and address those instead. If everything is important, nothing is.
One reason that I like Smiley is that he is an anxious person, but, being an agent of espionage, his fears are warranted, and he is always developing countermeasures against their being realized. This is the characteristic of his I admire most.
It is popular to preach against this practice today. We are told to live in the moment and not prepare for what horrors might come. Mindfulness writers say this. It’s strange. If devising strategies to mitigate undesirable outcomes were bad, then why write an article advocating for or against a given behavior? They should just sit and breathe.
I sometimes wonder if some folks who write about mindfulness are subconsciously aiming to neutralize their audience. Isn’t that always an end of religion, anyway?
Prometheus, known for embodying scientific advancement and its dangers, also embodies forethought.
Of course, we need to choose what we plan for. Compulsive reacting won’t help. But in the fields we are knowledgeable in, we should be able to predict and prepare.
So, even though we know we shouldn’t imitate the weaknesses of our heroes, we might do it, anyway. We should try to notice when we do it and correct ourselves. O → O → D→ A.
(1) The second sentence of the wikipedia article on sin reads
“Sin can also be viewed as any thought or action that endangers the ideal relationship between an individual and God; or as any diversion from the perceived ideal order for human living.”
While this claim lacks a citation, I think it is very accurate and is how I’m using the term. Of course, the Hebrew term hatta’h also applies. The linked article, the author observes that, while the etymology is to miss the mark, as in archery, its actual use in the Torah is “to commit an offense against someone with whom one stands in an institutionalized community relationship.” This definition makes sense, especially if you consider how much of the Hebrew Bible is procedural instruction on how to deal with personal disputes with a fellow Jew.