The humanity in a Joad and a Vega

Well, it’s time again for our (The Economist‘s) annual Christmas issue — a double issue (meaning that it is on news kiosks for two weeks instead of the usual one).

My piece in this one is called Migrant farm workers: Fields of Tears.

(The title of this post explains itself if you read the article.)

They even used one of the pictures I took with my dirty, sweaty, unsteady hand while picking grapes in August (I posted about it at the time). So, even though we don’t get bylines at The Economist, I did get a tiny picture credit in the bottom right! 🙂

The back story

In late October, I posted a cryptic and coy entry here, in which I talked about an exchange with one of my editors, after she told me that

The subject-matter is so emotionally strong that it will work better if the tone is flatter.

This was, in fact, the piece we were talking about and editing at the time. So now you can read it and judge for yourself if flattening the tone was the right decision.

Another point worth mentioning is that my first draft was, well, bad. The reason was one that you may find sympatico (during my research, we had a baby, so I had other things on my mind and took a shortcut, writing before I was ready). But a good editor owes it to the writer not to let those half-hearted pieces slip through.

So my editor called me on it. She has a beautifully frank manner, which sugarcoats nothing (and thus makes her praise, whenever it comes, uniquely credible).

Back I went, after my paternity leave, to finish the research (which was harder than it is for most of my pieces). And then I wrote what turned out to be the real piece.

During the frantic copy-editing in the final hours before the pages were printed, I thanked my editor for her intervention:

… you did me the honor of being frank, thus saving me from a bad piece and forcing me to turn it into a decent one. You’re the best editor I’ve ever had. It’s all about trust: the editor has to trust the potential of the writer (and demand that it be reached); and the writer has to trust the judgment and intention of the editor.

She replied with some touching personal comments, and then this summation, which tells you more about The Economist than you would ever understand simply by reading our magazine:

… I also think the genuinely nice atmosphere at the econ–in contrast to many other papers–is important here. People generally believe they’re working together, not against each other.

The smiley face in the margin

To my delight, after another long radio silence since Riverhead officially accepted my manuscript as finished, I just heard from my copy editor. I don’t yet know who that is, although I intend to find out.

I now have a fancy new Word file that contains the entire manuscript, with all the proper formatting. Our only remaining job now is to tidy up typos and such. We’re approaching the very end, in other words.

So it is wonderful, thrilling, relieving to find that this copy editor, whoever he or she is, is a language lover as I am.

Have a look at the little screen shot above.

Did you catch it?

Three friends (Paul Cezanne, Emile Zola and Baptistin Baille) were reading poetry and the classics

to each other.

Well, no, they couldn’t have been doing that. Since there were three of them, they were reading poetry and the classics

to one another.

That’s what I want in a copy editor. Whoever you are, you get that smiley face from me (“Author”) in the margin above. And once I find you, I’ll say Thank You properly.

If it’s emotional, flatten the tone

Here is a tip for writers. It is something I knew (“show, don’t tell”) and tried to observe in writing the piece I have just finished. But not enough, apparently.

My editor, one of the best there is in journalism, emailed me this:

I think the emotional pitch of the vocabulary needs to be turned down a little. The subject-matter is so emotionally strong that it will work better if the tone is flatter. It needs fewer words like “pain” and “vulnerable”. I feel the pain and sense the vulnerability more acutely if I’m allowed to discover them by myself.

I did as she said. The piece is much more powerful as a result. Lesson: let the details provide the color, and never interrupt the story they tell.

Searching for heroines (II): Psyche


In the previous post, I gave you one model of how heroines might be similar to, but also different from, heroes. Here is another model for the archetypes of femininity and heroism. It is the story of Psyche.

Right away, the heroine’s very name might get our attention. Psyche is of course what we call mind or (as in the Greek meaning) soul. Clearly, the story of Psyche promises to be about more than intrigue, sex, love, fear and overcoming (although it certainly has all those in plenty). There is something universal and large hiding in the story. Your task is to find it.

Before I tell the story in brief and analyze it, here is the context for newcomers to this blog: This post is part of a series exploring heroes and heroism. The premise is the monomyth theory, according to which all of humanity shares certain archetypes of storytelling that appear again and again in every culture and age. After I featured several male heroes, the question arose: What is female heroism?

This post, like the previous one, is based on a lecture course by Grant Voth, who in turn borrows from research by Meredith Powers and others.

To make the heroic pattern more explicit, I’ll break the story into “chapters” with “titles” taken from some of the archetypes as Joseph Campbell described them. (Here is the list.)

The call to adventure

Psyche is the youngest of three daughters of a king, and the most beautiful woman of her time, so beautiful that she rivals even the goddess Aphrodite.

Aphrodite naturally becomes jealous and wants to punish Psyche. So she tells her son, Eros (known to the Romans as either Cupid, desire, or Amor, love), to shoot one of his little arrows into Psyche so that she might, perversely, fall in love with the nastiest and ugliest creature alive.

When Psyche’s father, the king, asks the Oracle of Apollo about Psyche’s future, he receives a dreadful reply (which I took from here):

On some high crag, O king, set forth the maid,

In all the pomp of funeral robes arrayed.

Hope for no bridegroom born of mortal seed,

But fierce and wild and of the dragon breed.

He swoops all-conquering, born on airy wing,

With fire and sword he makes his harvesting;

Trembles before him Jove, whom the gods do dread,

And quakes the darksome river of the dead.

Psyche’s marriage, in other words, is to be a funeral; love is to be death; and the groom makes even hell tremble!

The threshold

Psyche and her parents submit to the oracle’s command in sorrow, and Psyche is brought in a funeral procession to the mountain top. But instead of plunging to her death, she is wafted by gentle winds to a valley where she falls asleep.

When she wakes up, she finds herself in a beautiful palace, where voices invite her to dine and bathe. This looks more like paradise than hell.

At night, in total darkness, her groom comes to Psyche’s bed to consummate the marriage. Psyche cannot see him and he leaves before dawn.

This happens night after night. Psyche quite enjoys the love-making, but she has no idea with whom she is making love.

After a while, her two sisters come looking for her. Psyche’s husband, whoever he is, does not want Psyche to see them. When he finally relents, he makes Psyche promise never to let her sisters talk her into trying to find out who he is.

The sisters (also archetypes: picture the step sisters in Cindarella, for instance) arrive and are impressed by the splendor of Psyche’s palace. They themselves are in bad marriages with husbands who are much older and no fun. They envy Psyche.

Psyche makes up a story that her husband is away all day hunting.

The sisters leave. The next time they visit — Psyche is pregnant by now — they try harder to find out who Psyche’s husband might be. Psyche, who has forgotten her previous story, tells them that he is a rich merchant, away on business.

The sisters realize that Psyche is lying. Still envious, they want to spoil her fun. They remind her of the oracle and tell of alleged rumors that her husband is really a terrible serpent who will eat both Psyche and whatever child creature she will bear.

They persuade Psyche, who is suddenly full of doubt and fear, to bring a knife to bed for self-protection and also an oil lamp so that, when her husband falls asleep after love-making, she might shine a light on him and see who he is.

Entering the “belly of the whale” (ie, the danger zone)

The next night, after Psyche and her husband make love and he falls asleep, Psyche lights the oil lamp. This is the first heroic moment: It is an act of choosing knowledge and self-awareness, a daring shedding of light into the dark places of the unconscious, whether the heroine is ready or not.

To Psyche’s great surprise, she beholds not a monster but the most handsome man she can imagine, the god Eros. She immediately falls in love. Wanting to make her love eternal, she deliberately pricks herself on one of his arrows.

But as she does so, a drop of oil falls from her lamp and wakes Eros. Eros must now tell his story.

He tells Psyche how his mother, Aphrodite, issued her cruel order, how he came to execute the command, and how he, upon seeing her, fell in love with Psyche, deciding to take her as his own wife.

But he thereby subverted his mother’s wishes, which is very, very dangerous. And now the truth is known. Devastated, Eros abandons Psyche.

Eros returns to his mother and confesses all to her. (Archetypes are a Jungian thing, but the Freudians among you might have fun analyzing the relationship between Eros and Aphrodite.)

Aphrodite is livid. She wants revenge. She wants to punish “that whore”, Psyche.

Initiation and trials

Psyche at first tries to kill herself, then decides, like the hero(ine) she is now becoming, to rise to the challenge and seek out her enemy, Aphrodite, in order either to placate her or to die in the attempt.

What Psyche wants, of course, is her husband. (As the soul forever wants to be reunited with love?) Psyche is thus on a love quest.

Aphrodite, however, wants to humiliate Psyche, to make her fail by giving her seemingly impossible tasks. (These seem to be very close analogs to the labors of Hercules, so if there ever was any doubt, we are definitely in a hero story.)

Psyche must, for instance:

  • sort a pile of mixed seeds (= the Augean stables? Certainly reminds me of Cindarella again!), which she does with the help of ants;
  • fetch wool from a lethal sheep (Hercules’ Nemean lion?), which she does with the help of a reed growing by the river;
  • fill a vial of water from a spring that is guarded by dragons and runs into Styx (Hercules’ Hydra?), which she does with the help of Zeus’ eagle; and
  • go to the underworld, Hades, to bring back in a box a bit of Persephone’s immortal beauty, which she does with the help of a tower that tells her how to get to Hades and back.

She is now in exalted company indeed. Hercules, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Orpheus — only the greatest heroes get to go to Hades and back, to die and be reborn in a more aware state, to cross the ultimate boundary in both directions.

She’s been warned not to open Persephone’s box. But (compare Orpheus) curiosity overcomes her, and she does open it. She falls into a deep coma and seems dead (≈Sleeping Beauty?).

Her lover and husband, Eros, finds her and pricks her with an arrow. This wakes Psyche. Eros now pleads with Zeus to let them be reunited.

Zeus sympathizes. He gives Psyche ambrosia, thus making her immortal (as he also made Hercules immortal).

The return and the boon

Psyche has now become one of the family, as it were. She has been accepted. Aphrodite, too, must embrace her as part of the family. And thus, there is finally the proper wedding and a feast.

Psyche soon gives birth. The baby is Voluptas, either joy or pleasure.

The harmony of the new, or newly reunited, family and the gift of joy and pleasure is Psyche’s boon, her gift to mankind. She has thus completed her heroic quest, quite as a male hero might have done.

The feminine twist

But we might observe two subtle differences between Psyche’s apotheosis and those of the male heroes we have been comparing her to:

1) Psyche has not killed anybody! It was not expected of her, not a prerequisite of her heroism.

The only two people in the story who die are her sisters (and they kill themselves, after coming to the mountain top again, greedy to revisit their sister’s palace, then plunging down, only to discover that this time no gentle wind wants to catch them).

2) The goal of Psyche’s quest was not individual triumph but family reunion and group harmony.


A Freudian might see this entire tale as a “family romance”, as the story of a young woman coming of age and overcoming her repression about sex and intimacy until her mate is no longer bestial and loathsome but lovable and desirable.

But the monomyth theory, which dates back to Jung and regards archetypes as “collective dreams”, sees in Psyche’s story universals:

  • the human journey toward self-awareness,
  • our yearning to unify sex and love, body and soul, individual and family,
  • our striving for harmony.

Viewed this way, Psyche plays the same heroic role that Arjuna plays in the Bhagavad Gita (recall that Arjuna really stands for the noble part of our own soul, in battle with our sordid instincts).

Finally, Psyche is clearly a very powerful archetype. Variants of her seem to appear in countless stories through the ages. I leave you with the familiar image of just one: Beauty and the Beast.

Searching for heroines (I): Hester Prynne

What exactly is a female hero — ie, a heroine? In this post and the next, I’ll put forward two possible models.

Today: The model of Hester Prynne (above, with her baby Pearl) and Demeter (below).

Even though one is a character in 19th-century American fiction and the other a Greek goddess, you may, by the end of this post, agree that they tap into the same archetype of female heroism.


So far in this series exploring heroism, we breezed through all sorts of mythical and timeless heroes, both Western (Greek) and Eastern (Indian). The presumption has been that they are all different and yet all the same, because they tap into archetypes of human storytelling (this is called the Monomyth theory).

But along the way we repeatedly slammed into the “problem” of women. Is there a female version of heroism?

(We’re not, by the way, just talking about an individual being brave, or admirable, or good. You can be all of those things and yet not be a hero.)

I engaged the topic with an opening salvo on Joan of Arc, but the prodigious debate that ensued in the comments taught me, and I think all of us, that we were in an intellectual cul-de-sac. We need an entirely different way of approaching the topic of feminine heroism. We cannot just graft male archetypes onto female protagonists to declare them heroines.

Female as opposed to male heroism

Implicitly, the monomyth relies on male archetypes of heroism:

  1. A young man proves himself to be unusual in some way, usually by passing a test by, or for, or against, his father. (For example, Theseus moves the boulder to find the sword left there by his father, King Aegeus.)
  2. The lad then receives a call to adventure, and follows it.
  3. He leaves society in an act of autonomy and individualism, crossing thresholds (for Theseus, the dangers along the road to Athens) to emphasize this separation.
  4. He meets women along the way, but they are probably temptresses, femme fatales or helpmates (Ariadne, for Theseus).
  5. He finally succeeds in his quest (in Theseus’ case, killing the Minotaur, liberating Athens), and
  6. returns to society, bringing it a boon (Athenian democracy).

(Now you might be able to see why I looked into the story of Joan of Arc, even though she was a historical rather than mythical character: her journey hewed closely to these male archetypes.)

A female version would look quite different. Meredith Powers apparently explored this in her book, The Heroine in Western Literature. I haven’t read it, but I listened to some lectures on mythology by Grant Voth, which he bases on Powers’ book.

Here, according to Powers and Voth, are the differences:

  1. Instead of some tense situation between father and son which marks the son as hero, it is now the deep connection between mother and child, and probably mother and daughter, which marks the mother, not the daughter, as the heroine.
  2. The ‘call to adventure‘ takes a totally different form than for men. It is probably some oppressive inflexibility in patriarchal society that threatens the mother/daughter dyad.
  3. In answering the call, the heroine does not leave society in an act of (male) individualism, but stays within it. As Powers puts it: “alone, apart, she accepts herself as a living critic” of her society.
  4. The heroine then form new bonds of solidarity with other women and
  5. also gives a boon to society in the process, a civilizing gift of a communitarian nature that is good for the group.

Example 1: Demeter and Persephone

Demeter was not, of course, a heroine but a goddess, but for Powers she establishes the archetype. Demeter (the Romans called her Ceres, whence our word cereal), was the goddess of grain and agriculture. She was the sister of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, and the mother of Persephone.


The love between mother and daughter is our archetypal starting point. So what is the call to adventure?

It comes in the form of a deal between her brothers, Hades and Zeus, whereby Hades is allowed to abduct Persephone and take her as his wife in the underworld. This is classic patriarchy: Zeus is the mightiest of the gods as well as Persephone’s father; Hades is Persephone’s uncle.

Demeter is beside herself with maternal grief and for one year becomes barren — meaning that the crops fail. Her brother Zeus realizes that he has destabilized Olympian society and tries to placate her.

But Demeter does not accept the abduction. Nor, however, does she confront or attack Zeus or Hades in a test of power. Nor does she exile herself from the Olympian family. She stays within it.

As she does so, she wins the solidarity of other women, including her (and Zeus’ and Hades’) grandmother, Gaia, and mother, Rhea. Together they sway the men to soften their stance.

Finally, they reach a compromise. Persephone is to spend half of each year with her mother and half with her husband. The first half becomes spring and summer, the second becomes autumn and winter.

Thus Demeter gives her boon to the world: It is called agriculture, and introduces the rhythms of fertility, where every death (Persephone’s departure) leads to a rebirth. Everybody is better off.

Example 2: Hester Prynne

Those of you who are American and have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, probably already see how its heroine (for that is what she is!), Hester Prynne, is really a Puritan Demeter.

Hester bears a child, named Pearl, out of wedlock in 17th-century Boston. This makes her an adulteress, so she must wear a prominent and scarlet letter A to bear the public shame.

Here, too, the archetypal love between mother and daughter is our starting point. And again, the call to adventure arrives from an inflexibility of patriarchal society: the community demands to know who Pearl’s father is. Hester goes to prison, then stands for hours on a scaffold in Boston. But she accepts the call to adventure: she does not divulge the father.

Again, Hester is, in Powers’s phrase, “alone, apart, a living critic of society.” She embroiders the Scarlet A as though to emphasize it. She does not leave Bostonian society (although she will later go to Europe before coming back). Nor does she attack it.

Instead, she reaffirms the act that created her daughter and the relationships around it.

And she changes society in the process. Years later, she returns to Boston with her boon. She does charitable work. Society now respects and admires her. Everybody is better off.

Steinbeck, grapes, wrath, success, writing

I) Grapes

Here I was the other day in California’s San Joaquin Valley, with a crop buddy, after a day of picking grapes. It was 105 Fahrenheit (40 Celsius). I was drenched in toxic pesticides, which I was unable to avoid while picking.

What on earth was I doing there?

Well, it’s part of a little literary project, something longer-term. Can’t say much more yet.

We happened to be standing a few hundred yards away from the location of a Depression-era government camp for migrant farm workers which became the basis of John Steinbeck’s fictional Weedpatch Camp in his unforgettable novel The Grapes of Wrath. This was the camp that took in the Joad family and gave them brief respite from their harsh existence.

Was my location a coincidence? Not entirely. Nor was it entirely planned. (Sometimes, “accidents” help in the creative process.)

In any event, I took the occasion to re-read The Grapes of Wrath and also to read a bit about Steinbeck’s writing of it.

II) Writing

In 1963 Steinbeck said:

I wrote The Grapes of Wrath in one hundred days, but many years of preparation preceded it. I take a hell of a long time to get started. The actual writing is the last process.

This fits my own experience: The actual writing (sadly) is almost an afterthought, the easiest and most pleasant and shortest part of conception.

(But Steinbeck wrote longhand, of course. His 200,000-word manuscript took up 165 handwritten pages of a lined ledger book.)

Steinbeck apparently wrote fast, paying little or no attention to spelling, punctuation, or paragraphing. All that was cleaned up later. That, too, fits my experience.

III) Anger

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck also said something else:

When I wrote The Grapes of Wrath, I was filled . . . with certain angers . . . at people who were doing injustices to other people.

And six years later, he told a British interviewer:

Anger is a symbol of thought and evaluation and reaction: without it what have we got? . . . I think anger is the healthiest thing in the world.

I had to think about that for a minute. But then this also fit my experience as a writer. Anger is a great motivational spur. It focuses the mind and leads to energetic storytelling. And isn’t writing a wonderful channel for anger to be released? Way better than any alternative, methinks.

IV) Success

Also of obvious interest to me (given that I’m writing a book about success and failure being impostors) was what the mind-boggling success of The Grapes of Wrath did to Steinbeck.

Critics, agents, publishers — the whole world naturally wanted him, as one said,

to write The Grapes of Wrath over and over again.

(That reactive and retroactive instinct in publishing also strikes me as familiar.)

But Steinbeck refused, saying that

The process of writing a book is the process of outgrowing it… Disciplinary criticism comes too late. You aren’t going to write that one again anyway. When you start another—the horizons have receded and you are just as cold and frightened as you were with the first one.

In another interview, he said that

I have always wondered why no author has survived a best-seller. Now I know. The publicity and fan-fare are just as bad as they would be for a boxer. One gets self-conscious and that’s the end of one’s writing.

Here, of course, I have nothing to add (not having scored a best-selling success yet). But it does rhyme beautifully with what Amy Tan said on the same subject.

Below, by the way, you see my perspective as I was picking grapes: I was crouching below the vines, because the best bunches grow in the middle and underneath. (“Low-hanging” fruit are not necessarily “easily picked’ fruit, I discovered.) And that tractor constantly moves alongside you. Several times I almost had my feet run over, and it banged into my shins so often that I could barely walk at night.

Perhaps not one for The Economist


The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a fascinating and provocative outfit and has so much to say — albeit in an oblique way — about America, as I said in the previous post.

Who else would study, with the same quasi-scientific rigor and implicit irony, the following?

  • Yucca Mountain (above), America’s preferred dumping ground for nuclear waste,
  • Cathedral Canyon (below), a random crack in the desert turned into religious shrine,
  • Emergency training centers such as Del Valle, California (all the way at the bottom), and
  • the thousands and thousands of other non-obvious but telling places in America

And yet, we decided not to run a piece on it in The Economist. At least for the time being.



I decided to let you peak into the process because I think it might give you a useful glimpse into

  1. writing, and
  2. The Economist

Specifically, the issue involved all of the writerly themes that you guys and I have been writing about:

Here is what happened

After my visit to the CLUI, I did indeed write a draft, at about 700 words, for our US Section. And I sent it off.

I had an unsure feeling. I felt that I had not done justice to the CLUI or the places I had chosen as examples.

1) Length

Our pieces in The Economist are short, and they are best when they compress complexity into a dense and yet simple and forceful narrative. The CLUI, however, seemed to need the opposite: not to be compressed but to be expanded and developed. It seemed to need length.

2) Momentum

Worse, I had not spotted an underlying narrative in the CLUI (or the Museum of Jurassic Technology, for that matter) at all. This, in fact, is my criticism of the CLUI: They are so meticulous about their neutrality that they forget to do storytelling.

In fact, the Center’s name is a misnomer. It is not the Center for Land Use Interpretation but the Center for Land Use Observation. The interpretation is what is missing.

3) Voice

So I felt that to do this justice, I would have had to make it a humorous-but-profound story about a search for something elusive.

When you’re searching in vain, the story is about doubt, uncertainty, futility. Not things that The Economist is naturally good at, even though I excel at them personally. 😉

4) The First  Person

To be really fun, moreover, a search narrative would have to be about me, the searcher. Me looking for answers and getting confused. Me on a CLUI bus in the desert with other searchers…

The First Person: Definitely not something that The Economist is naturally good at. 😉 😉

(Since we have no bylines, we also have no First Person. It is banned. The most you might see is “As your correspondent took his seat…”. Yuck.)

Conclusion: This really wanted to be a New Yorker piece.

A few weeks later, I got an email from my editor. He essentially said the same thing:

The problem with the piece as it stands is that it poses a lot of questions, but does not answer them. I appreciate that that is part of the philosophy the point of the CLUI, but it doesn’t really satisfy as a US section article. It reads too much to me like a long list of interesting and not-so-interesting places…

What is it, in fact, that we learn about American culture from the landscape, other than its uses are many and various? That America (like every other country) cherishes, abuses and neglects its physical space? …

I think this piece could benefit from being longer… Such a longer and more narrative piece would not, I think, work in the US section.

In a way, this was reassuring: My editor and I had come to exactly the same conclusion independently.

There was another upshot: Another editor had read it and expressed interest in a longer and more narrative version for our Christmas Issue, the one occasion every year when we really let our writerly hair down.

Did I want to expand the piece for the Christmas issue?

Opting for easy

This is when experience kicked in (13 years at The Economist now).

My experience told me that it was time to move on.

I did a risk-benefit analysis. I could sink a lot more time and effort into this story in the hope that a forceful narrative might emerge out of it. Or I could write the many easy and obvious stories that were offering themselves to me like streetwalkers.

In case you’re wondering, there is pressure on us to perform. We’re supposed to write something in every issue, on average. In fact, the last sentence in that same email from my editor was:

PS: that said, I am therefore in the market for a piece from you next week! Can you call me on the mob once you’re up and about?

And so I moved back into streetwalker alley, where it has been easy pickings and obvious stories since.

How judge ye?


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There are no heroes

Elie Wiesel (courtesy David Shankbone)

Heroism. What a simple and innocent concept.

My idea — how simple and innocent of me — was to explore the concept of heroism by re-telling the great and timeless stories of heroes from the past. (So it was really just an excuse to do some good storytelling.)

Well, it turns out that nothing about the idea is simple or innocent.

With a self-deprecating smirk, I therefore postulate the Kluth Uncertainty Principle from the well-known realm of Quantum Intellectualism. The law says this:

The more thoroughly you examine an idea — any idea — the more quickly it seems to disappear, leaving behind only a vague sense that you are crazy.

This, moreover, we call learning.

I) The problem of context

In this thread, the idea of heroism probably started fading — ie, we started learning — when Chris intervened in our fantastic debate about Joan of Arc.

Before we knew it, we were re-examining our notions about gender (or should that be sex?), then our notions about heroism, and then our notions about Jungian archetypes.

Chris has now (heroically?) taken up the thread on his own blog, and this promises to get interesting.

As Socrates might do, Chris begins by … complicating matters. He

  • questions whether we can known anything at all about stories from the past,
  • reminds us that all stories (and heroes) were born in a specific context, and
  • suggests that we cannot willy-nilly import stories into our own context without damaging them.

I can’t wait to see where this goes. That said …


… this does remind me of my college days, when everybody was suddenly studying Foucault one year — or was it Derrida?

A few beers into our keg parties, we usually agreed that words (“signifiers”) really only had meaning (“signifieds”) within a context, and out of context we could not know what those meanings were. The underlying logic never sounded quite as good the next morning.


Most of us, over the years, grew out of all that (Foucault, Derrida, keg parties…). But it was a good time.

So let us proceed, but with caution.

II) Elie Wiesel

Which brings us to Elie Wiesel, a hero of sorts just for surviving the Holocaust with dignity (rather like Viktor Frankl).

Jim M., in that same great debate about Joan of Arc, pointed us to a site that takes a very different approach toward heroism. Here, heroes are to be understood simply as role models.

As in: Do something admirable → Become a hero

And on this site, we find an essay by Elie Wiesel in which he dismantles the very concept of heroism:

I am deeply skeptical about the very concept of the hero for many reasons and I am uncomfortable with what happens in societies where heroes are worshipped. As Goethe said, “blessed is the nation that doesn’t need them.” To call someone a hero is to give them tremendous power. Certainly that power may be used for good, but it may also be used to destroy individuals. Which societies have proven to be the most fertile fields for the creation of heroes, and have devised the most compelling reasons for hero worship? Dictatorships.

This is a fascinating point of view. It would never have occurred to the ancient Greeks, for example.

The Greeks did not live in dictatorships and yet viewed their heroes as ideals toward which to aspire. But to Wiesel, heroes do not inspire but rather intimidate us ordinary people.

Then there is the devastating problem that heroes are often unheroic. What do we do about that? As Wiesel asks,

Is a hero a hero twenty-four hours a day, no matter what? Is he a hero when he orders his breakfast from a waiter? Is he a hero when he eats it? What about a person who is not a hero, but who has a heroic moment?

Between the lines, you can probably read Wiesel demanding what Chris is demanding: context.

III) More definitions

Wiesel then attempts various definitions of heroism, as we have been doing in this thread.


Here is his first:

In my tradition, a hero is someone who understands his or her own condition and limitations and, despite them, says, “I am not alone in the world. There is somebody else out there, and I want that person to benefit from my sacrifice and self-control.” This is why one of the most heroic things you can do is to surmount anger, and why my definition of heroism is certainly not the Greek one, which has more to do with excelling in battle and besting one’s enemies.

Aha! Now Wiesel is sounding a lot like the yogi who met Alexander the Great: Heroism as self-control, as inner peace, as conquest over anger and fear.

The Indians, however, went one step further than Wiesel and used the “Greek” battle image of heroism as a metaphor for the internal heroism Wiesel describes, and that gave us the hero Arjuna.


Clearly unsatisfied, he tries again:

If I had to offer a personal definition of the word, it would be someone who dares to speak the truth to power. I think of the solitary man in Tiananmen Square, who stood in front of a column of tanks as they rolled in to quash a peaceful protest, and stopped them with his bare hands. …

Speak truth to power: Isn’t that what Theseus did (the Minotaur representing power) or even Jeanne d’Arc (the English)?

Wiesel seems to be backtracking from his opening thesis, that he is “sceptical about the very concept of the hero.” It appears that he cannot help himself — ie, that the hero is, after all, … an archetype;)


Wiesel tries a third definition. This time he “gets modern” on us, which is to say he brings it home, makes it small, makes it un-Greek:

Maybe heroes can simply be those people who inspire us to become better than we are. In that case, I find my heroes among my friends, family, and teachers. …

Sure. We’re all heroes. Sort of.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Wiesel follows the same exact arc of reasoning that we have been following in our debate here. And he always ends up, as we do, in the same cul-de-sac. He opens his essay by saying he does not believe in the concept of the hero, but then cannot let it go. If it’s not there, what’s not to let go? Something is there, and he’s not satisified until he finds it.


So Wiesel tries a fourth definition (by my count):

When I was a child, my heroes were always anonymous wanderers. They experienced the wonder of the wider world and brought it to me in my small village. These men were masters. A master must give himself over to total anonymity, dependent on the goodness of strangers, never sleeping or eating in the same place twice. Someone who wanders this way is a citizen of the world. The universe is his neighborhood. It is a concept that resonates with me to this day.

Did you spot it? It’s the yogi again. Or perhaps the Zen master, or Lao Tzu. Wiesel, in other words, is trying another variant of the Arjuna definition.


My biggest suprise was to learn from Wiesel that Hebrew does not have a word for hero.

But there is a concept that Wiesel thinks comes close, so this may be his fifth and final definition. This is the Hebrew tzaddik:

A tzaddik is a “righteous man,” someone who overcomes his instincts. In the ancient texts, this would mean sexual instinct, the life force, but of course it can be extended to all the emotions connected to that force: jealousy, envy, ambition, the desire to hurt someone else–anything, essentially, that you want to do very much. There is a story about a tzaddik that says a great deal to me about the character of the true hero. This man came to Sodom to preach against lies, thievery, violence, and indifference. No one listened, but he would not stop preaching. Finally someone asked him, “Why do you continue when you see that it is of no use?” He said, “I must keep speaking out. In the beginning, I thought I had to shout to change them. Now I know I must shout so that they cannot change me.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but for a man who is “sceptical about the very notion of the hero,” for a man who insists on seeing the hero in his proper context, Wiesel, in his meandering musings, has traced a remarkably similar path to ours in this thread.

Sounds like an archetype to me.

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My 12-minute “book teaser”

If you’re taking a 12-minute cappuccino break, watch me give this “teaser” about my book at our (The Economist‘s) recent innovation conference in Berkeley.

(You’ll also find most of the other sessions on video now, including those with Arianna Huffington, Jared Diamond, Matt Mullenweg, et cetera.)

I’m not good at “teasers” or “elevator pitches”, especially since I tried to tell a story in my book that would keep you reading for 100,000 words. But I’m constantly being told that I now have to practice condensing that story into two seconds for some occasions (cocktail parties, elevators), two minutes for other occasions, 10 minutes for yet others, and so on.

So, er, I’m practicing. (Even while determined not to give too much away yet.)

Your feedback would be welcome. Do I snare your interest or do you say ‘so what’? Are there howling non sequiturs, or does it make sense? And so forth.

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Arjuna, our inner hero

Here I am playing with Arjuna, the greatest hero of the East, in the form of a wayang puppet I bought in Solo, Java.

Wayang is an ancient Indonesian theater tradition in which the shadows of puppets are cast onto a screen. Solo is its historical center, so a few years ago I went there to watch. Here is what a play looks like from the audience side:

And what story do the Javanese, nominally Muslim today, most like to perform?

The story of Arjuna and his brothers, the five Pandavas, pictured above. It doesn’t matter that this epic, the Mahabharata, is what we would consider a “Hindu” story. It is for Asia what the Iliad and Odyssey and other Greek myths are for us in the West.

This makes Arjuna the Achilles, the Hercules, the Odysseus, the Theseus, the Jason and the Aeneas of the East.

And what does that say about the East’s view of heroism, which I have been exploring in this thread?

1) Arjuna as warrior

At first blush (and deceptively, as you will see), Arjuna’s heroism looks familiar to us in the West.

He was a great fighter, an ambidextrous and precise archer, indeed an Indian Apollo with arrows. He practiced in the dark, the better to hit his victims during the day time. He won the hand of his wife, Draupadi, in an archery contest remarkably similar to the one Odysseus won against the suitors at Ithaca to regain his wife Penelope.

Arjuna was also the biggest hero in the biggest war of mythological India. What Achilles was to the Greeks at Troy, Arjuna was to the Pandavas at Kurukshetra (Kuru’s Field) in northern India.

The Pandavas were leading a huge army in a righteous cause against their own cousins, the Kauravas, also with a huge army. The Kauravas had stolen a kingdom from the Pandavas in a rigged game of dice, humiliating Draupadi in the process. The Pandavas went into exile, but then came back, seeing their duty as fighting to reclaim their kingdom and honor.

For eighteen days, battle raged. Millions died and fewer than a dozen men survived. Blood turned the field of Kuru into red mud. Arjuna and his brothers shot so many arrows into one of their enemies that the man fell from his chariot and landed not on the ground but on the arrows sticking out from his body like the quills on a porcupine.

But Arjuna also lost his own loved ones. His sons and nephews died in the battle, just as the Greek and Trojan heroes lost their friends and family.

2) Arjuna’s fear and duty

But the part of the story that is most famous — rather as the brief episode of Achilles’ wrath in Homer’s Iliad is the best known part of the story of the Trojan War — is a poem embedded into the Mahabharata just before the fighting began. And that is the Bhagavad Gita, or song of God. (Try one of these translations.)

On the eve of the battle, with the two armies already lined up against each other, Arjuna and his charioteer steered their war chariot into the space between the two armies to contemplate what was about to happen. The charioteer was Arjuna’s friend and adviser, Krishna.

As Arjuna gazed from his chariot at the two armies, he suddenly lost his will to fight. He was afraid. Afraid not only of losing his own life, but also for the lives of his “fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, fathers-in-law, and friends.” Because this was a war within a family. He had loved ones in both armies.

Compare Arjuna’s fear to Aeneas’ despair in Virgil’s Aeneid:

As I see my own kinsmen, gathered here, eager to fight, my legs weaken, my mouth dries, my body trembles, my hair stands on end, my skin burns.

Arjuna dropped his bow and arrows and collapsed on the floor of his chariot, sobbing.


And now Krishna began to talk to Arjuna. Gently but firmly, he reminded Arjuna of his duty. The Sanskrit term here is dharma, and it seems (in this context) pretty close to Aeneas’ Roman virtue of pietas (“piety” derives from it but has come to mean something different).

3) Arjuna’s mind

What follows in the Gita is history’s most fascinating dialogue about how to yoke (as in yoga) the human mind into harmony with its situation.

Arjuna tells Krishna (as we all might say every day about our own minds) that his mind is

restless, unsteady, turbulent, wild, stubborn; truly, it seems to me as hard to master as the wind.

Krishna in turn teaches Arjuna how to make his mind calm, as a coach might try to get an athlete into “the zone”. (As it happens, Krishna’s advice is the same as Patanjali’s, which is why those two texts together are considered the foundation of Yoga.)

What, in a nutshell, does Krishna tell Arjuna?

To “let go”. To let go his fears of what might happen the next day, to let go the worries, the anxiety, and also the hopes and anger, and all the rest of it. In fact, Krishna wants Arjuna to

let go of all results, whether good or bad, and [to be] focused on the action alone… [to] act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.

4) Arjuna in your mind, my mind

And this is the essence of Arjuna’s heroism: He shows us, with the help of his divine “inner voice” of Krishna, how to make our minds calm so that we can go on with life whenever it seems to overwhelm us.

Arjuna’s heroism is, like Aeneas’ but more so, an inner victory.

In fact, this applies at an even higher level. Here is how Mohandas Gandhi explained why he, a proponent of non-violence, saw truth in this story of war:

Under the guise of physical warfare it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.

Arjuna, it turns out, is meant to be a part of my mind and your mind and everybody’s mind. It is the clearest and best state of mind, called buddhi (as in: Buddha).

His brothers correspond to other positive states of mind (the ancient Indians were very precise on the subject), And all five were married to Draupadi, whom yogis understand to be Kundalini, the coiled feminine energy at the base of the spine. Freud called it libido, the Greeks called it Eros.

The Kauravas, the evil cousins, are the negative states of mind — anger, hatred, greed, vanity, envy, arrogance, fear and so forth.

So there it is:

  • Kurukshetra is the battlefield of our own minds, every day.
  • Arjuna’s struggle is our daily struggle to let the noble in us prevail over the base, the serene over the angry, the courageous over the fearful.
  • Arjuna is the hero in us.
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