Someone I know in another venue posted in disgust about how he can no longer call Terry Gilliam a personal hero, because of the contortions Gilliam put himself through in defense of Harvey Weinstein. (It's something along the lines of how artists always have to be envelope-pushers; it's every bit as dumb as it sounds.) Who to call a hero in this embattled age?
I'm going to make a radical suggestion, one that I don't expect anyone to follow, but here goes: don't have "heroes".
By this I do not mean that you should not admire the work specific people have done, or that you should not look for role models in some arena of life, or that — most crucially — you should not hold people to a higher standard. (They need it; we need it.)
What I mean is, everything in its place. If you admire a director because he made a good movie, admire the movie and learn what you can from it. If you find the director in question is also a despicable human being, then acknowledge that too. By all means, do not feel obliged to support them financially or personally. I'll shed no tears if I spent the rest of my life never seeing anything by Polanski or Allen; there's too much else out there that is far more interesting than they are, anyway.
But by degrees we need to work towards a worldview that allows us to see people, especially people who do work we want to learn from, emulate, or admire, as people and not as incarnate pass/fail tests for ideals. Again, this isn't so that we can selectively determine what behaviors of theirs to excuse. It's so that we don't wind up putting ourselves in the position of eventually having to excuse their behavior in the first place, because we never built up that manner of personal investment in them anyway. It's about us, not them.
I've come to the conclusion that celebrities simply don't make good role models anyway. They make for easy defaults as role models, because they're well-known — easy to discover, easy to educate others about. But it's too easy for them to lie about themselves and to be lied about, too easy for their achievements to be blown out of proportion.
My own role models are not universal ones. They are people from my own life, each of whom exhibited a specific behavior I wanted to emulate. Some had a measure of fame, some didn't even have an obituary in a local paper. Some were people I didn't like in many respects, but I found had one or two attributes that were worthy of embodying. I don't think I would have wanted to be roommates with any of my literary heroes; that's not why I paid attention to them. It was okay to be disappointed by them.
Something that comes to mind is how having a big-name personal hero is something of a signaling device. If I say that I think, say, Guillermo del Toro is a personal hero, that lets other people know in a jiff what your own goals and tastes and inclinations are. That isn't a bad thing, just a fragile one. If Mr. del Toro turns out to have been someone not worthy of emulation (god, I hope not), then we have to scrap that and find someone else. It makes nuance hard.
Another random example. I consider David Lynch to be a brilliant filmmaker and that rare quantity, someone who successfully popularized a difficult approach to art for a mainstream audience. But how he is as a person is something I'm leaving open for myself, because I know if I don't I'm just setting myself up for disappointment I don't really benefit from. What would be the point of building him up into this god figure, anyway? What good would it serve except to stoke my own ego: look how wise I am, to admire someone this great in all respects!
Maybe that's what's at the bottom of all this: that investing ourselves in someone else's success and achievements is mainly about our own ego, and about how little attention we really do pay to the way we construct and maintain our self-images.
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