Mid-Series Response: Dr Hannah Holtschneider

Do we need heroes?

When I was a graduate student, one of my professors asked me whether I had any academic heroes. This question really threw me. I had no idea how to answer and took – in his perception at least – an inordinately long time to think about it. Eventually, I came out with a pretty firm ‘no’. The professor didn’t like this answer and talked to me at length about the concept of academic patronage that centred around the teacher-hero which was, in his opinion, central to scholarly and intellectual growth. You may have guessed that this exchange took place in German. As the years between my graduate self and today lengthen, I keep coming back to this exchange, and still, I don’t think I can name a scholar who I would elevate to the position of hero. I have a series of ‘aha’ moments that I can tie back to particular intellectual encounters and books, and there are scholars who I admire while also disagreeing with them (which would have disqualified them as heroes in my interlocutor’s definition). And so I was – and remain – intrigued by Professor Neiman’s Gifford Lectures about heroes.

‘Do we need heroes?’ is one question that connects the lectures, and the lecture series theme answers in the affirmative, inspiring us to consider heroes in favour of the perceived current focus of public culture on victims. The noble and just cause of placing victims at the centre to draw attention to unjust suffering and seeking to alleviate it and call for justice, argues Professor Neiman, needs to be joined by reflection on what people have done in the world, so that that which people have suffered does not eclipse consideration of agency and values that change the world in positive ways. Heroes may court controversy, or their values and actions can be perceived in contradictory ways, and we may learn as much from their flaws as we may gain from contemplating what we admire about them. The series of five portraits – Odysseus, John Brown, George Eliot, Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson – accomplishes complex biographies that contextualise these individuals in their historical context and in contemporary debates, with the purpose of asking throughout what we can learn about the qualities of a hero in changing times. The deliberate eclecticism that picked out these five invites the listener to think of alternative choices, and perhaps each attendee has their own list of five heroes in a deck of cards that they keep adding to or are taking away from as the lectures unfold.

The question that I keep coming back to is this: are heroes really absent from our public culture in the Western, Anglophone world? That is has the turn to history’s victims displaced our fascination with heroes? A quick glance at my daughters’ bookshelves seems to suggest the opposite, as does the world of tween media. From television series to the universe of Disney, Marvel and co., narratives that centre on the heroic and that communicate a set of straightforward values and morals dominate. What my twelve-year-old chooses to read focuses heavily on heroes and their qualities. Particularly popular in her peer group are Rick Riordan’s retellings of Greek myths where a bunch of teenagers encounter the gods and ancient heroes in modern times.[1] Avid reader that she is, she also devoured Stephen Fry’s tomes on Mythos and Heroes, books that draw attention to the moral universe of the mythical world and place action above contemplation and through it’s fast – and bloody – pace get the reader to ask about values, morality and principles guiding action.[2] And the fantasy worlds my children enjoy are built around the figure of the hero. In short, there appears to be a surplus of heroes to think about. Now, I am not suggesting that these popular imaginaries reach the depths of close engagement with the lives of the five characters central to this Gifford Series. The aim of tween fiction on screen and in print is both more blunt and more subtle in the way that values are broadcast and where good always wins out over bad; it operates with static categories without a lot of complexity or ambiguity. What these imaginaries suggest, however, is that the hero has never left the public cultural stage even as social discourse in some respects mobilised a strong focus on victims to initiate action towards historical justice.

Nor, it seems to me, does the focus on victims work without a focus on the heroic. Too ingrained are the narrative arcs of the Greek drama to our cultural imagination to be easily displaced by a focus on what people suffer and what is done to them without also offering a heroic counterpoint that spurs to action and has agency. In short, it is difficult to find victim-centred discourse that valorises victimhood as such and without recourse to qualities we may identify as heroic. To be sure, not all heroes inspire emulation – we talked about the Scholl siblings and their protests that changed nothing and their deaths that appeared to confirm the futility of seeking to protest the Nazi regime.[3] The post-war time, however, saw the quest for justice for victims accompanied by a discourse on the heroic. In the Nuremberg Trials, and the trials of perpetrators that followed, those who had been powerful and powerfully marketed as heroes were exposed as murderers and their moral universe thoroughly deconstructed. All of this, with the help of victims who demonstrated their agency, values and moral compass in the courtroom as witnesses and also as initiators of justice. Public culture has a hard time valorising victimhood as such. It seems to me that what is valorised more often is the agency of those who seek justice or to prevent suffering, who espouse values and morality that counteract both the injustice suffered and the valorisation of victimhood. Take, for example, Philippe Sands’ East West Street where he parallels the history of his family’s persecution and murder with the history of the search for a viable international justice system to prosecute those responsible.[4] This parallel narrative centres on lawyers Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht who, like Sands’ family, originated in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Whether genocide or crimes against humanity, legal discourse is mobilised to embody values, to test moral obligations, and the lives of these two men are complex, flawed, driven. In short, Sands’ exploration of their lives give rise to considerations of the heroic while the focus is on gaining justice for victims.

Similarly, Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces remains a convincing blueprint for many Hollywood dramas, central to religious and national narratives, children’s stories and so on.[5] We may debate changes in the face of the heroes, that is perceptions of what makes a hero change over time, but I would challenge the assumption that discourse on heroes has ever been eclipsed in Western public culture. Even Holocaust movies cannot solely focus on victims and their suffering. Victims become compelling to the viewer when they exhibit heroic qualities – think of Sophie’s Choice and the destruction of the moral universe.[6] Sophie is compelling not because we pity her, but because her story forces us to interrogate our values, their destruction and our place in the world. Other Hollywood epics place a classic conversion narrative at the centre: Schindler’s List does not focus on victims but on their morally ambiguous saviour developed in contrast to the completely corrupt Amon Goeth to make Schindler’s heroic qualities by the end of the movie eclipse his flaws.[7] When movies focus on victimhood without exploring a purpose beyond suffering or any glimpse of the heroic, they win some acclaim as innovative and challenging Holocaust cinematography, such as Son of Saul, but they remain the exception.[8]

All this is to say that centring inquiry on heroes and the heroic is a helpful endeavour not because it seeks to correct a focus on victims, but because it makes our reflection on heroes and heroism more complex. What Professor Neiman’s lectures show is the value of appreciating and interrogating the lives of public figures – and perhaps also those of private individuals – in depth and in detail to help us think more clearly about our own values, morality, social and political commitments while identifying our flaws and evading the comfort of easy answers.

Dr Holtschneider is Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Director of Research in the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. She is the author of ‘The Holocaust and Representations of Jews: History and Identity in the Museum’ (Routledge 2011), ‘German Protestants Remember the Holocaust: Theology and the Construction of Collective Memory’ (Lit. Verlag 2001), and ‘Jewish Orthodoxy in Scotland: Rabbi Dr Salis Daiches and Religious Leadership’ (EUP 2019), as well as numerous articles . Recently, she was PI of a major AHRC-funded project on Jewish migration to Scotland (2015-2018).

[1] https://rickriordan.com/

[2] Fry, Stephen 2017, Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, Penguin; Fry Stephen 2018, Heroes: The Myths of the Ancient Greek Heroes Retold, Penguin.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_and_Sophie_Scholl

[4] Sands, Philippe 2016, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

[5] Campbell, Joseph 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Pantheon Books.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie%27s_Choice_(film)

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schindler%27s_List

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Son_of_Saul

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