The hero theme refuses to bow out of my mental space. At this point in Dylan’s Chronicles, the author has let it be known that his near-deification by multiple American publics was the last thing he’d desired, and that he had never asked to be the voice of any generation. When people start assuming– and/or letting– you speak for a generalized movement or historical current, things like unexpected visitors showing up on your lawn, trying to get into your house, protesting in front of your building, not letting you have a meal without calling others’ attention to it, start occurring.
I was discussing with a friend yesterday the figure of the role model, a title not always asked for by those who get slapped with the label, and whether it’s appropriate or fair to force anyone who hasn’t requested to receive such a designation to act in accordance with it. The office is different from that of the celebrity pure and simple; if you aim for cinematic or pop-star fame, at least in the U.S., it’s also understood at some level that you’re asking to be hounded by paparazzi and have your image dissected on a daily basis. The most anyone will demand of you, though, is what brand of shoes you’re wearing, who your new man is, and what your diet secrets are– hardly a chance of TMZ begging you to lead a revolution, and getting offended when you decline the offer.
To many, Bob Dylan was– and is, probably– a hero, and I believe him when he says that wasn’t something he sought out. I’m guessing his attitude is at least similar to others who’ve been selected to take on our collective problems for us, and our guilt and thought from us,* right up to the hippie Son of Man in Jesus Christ Superstar. (The scene with the vampiric needy emerging from the rocks was one of the better aspects of that earnest bit of cinema.) You get the feeling that anyone being forced into the role of people’s savior would want to stand up and scream at that crowd of adorers to get off their asses and do something themselves, at least take up their share of the burden, help out instead of piling all their hopes and aspirations and responsibilities onto a figure turned inhuman by outsized expectations.
That thought in turn leads me to wonder where my man Nietzsche would have come down on heroes as we know them today, whether the brawny tights-wearers of comic lore or the lionized leaders of real struggles. My guess is, he’d respect at least the non-fiction activists for their fight and determination– but wouldn’t be down at all with the worship of them that entails turning over our hopes, energies, courage, thought, and duty into their hands. Young Friedrich could sound harsh, it’s true– but his own hopes for getting humanity to live into its full dignity entailed friends and enemies showing respect by challenging each other to surpass one another, to encourage each other to better things and higher selves. Just acting as a slavish disciple– or even encouraging or allowing such static devotion– was a sign for him of frailty. We’ve only really done our jobs, and done them well, when we see our students and admirers surpassing us and taking joy in the fact that we’ve helped them get where they are, and where they’re going.
In an atmosphere of apathy– and I’ll go ahead and allege that large swathes of the U.S. are drifting along in just that, supplied with all the techie gewgaws to help keep them zoned out and in their place– maybe the best we can hope for is an old-school caped crusader who can knock out structural inequalities and prejudices in one fell swoop. It seems many of Dylan’s admirers were just as swayed in the ’60s by fictional expectations and possibilities as we, even in our disenchanted era, are today. Whether the continuity (in some sense) of collective thought is a relief or not, I can’t even begin to say.
* Note, I’m talking about what the role meant before it took on its more recent meanings of, basically, 1) anyone who happens to be standing around and gets killed thanks to some asshole’s act of violence, and 2) anyone in the military, period.