With the recent Penn State media circus, there’s one thing I’ve seen repeatedly put forth by sports writers and columnist that I’m not quite grasping. It’s this: that we should never view anyone, especially celebrities of any sort, as anything more than human.
While I agree with that wholeheartedly and have reached the same conclusion here every now and then, it strikes me as curious because these people are employed to do just the opposite of that – make someone, especially a celebrity, appear larger than life and infallible. It’s called instant mythology, and it’s been a bedrock of our pop culture since at least the 1940s, and in existence for all of mankind’s history.
Sports writers do this constantly. As does anyone writing about musicians, actors, authors, politicians, athletes and any other number of high-visibility people in our society. Legendary college football coaches, sure, them, too. No one would care about sports without mythology tied into their histories. The sports writers will claim now, in their chaste phase of seeing reality clearly thanks to Paterno and Penn State, that they don’t see the world this way and have never engaged in this sort of false-god worship.
Which is utter bullshit. This is their stock in trade, and they’d be lost without it. They’d have no job. Instant mythologies are not built by grand proclamations and writers raving uncontrollably about someone we must now worship. It’s much more subtle than that. It often takes years. In the case of actors and musicians, not so long, as one key performance, or song, or album, can catapult the performer to that exalted level. And the artists will often respond by maintaining a high level of excellence that cements the legend … which can then be used for decades afterwards, despite declining interest or quality.
But the real myth making happens on a small, daily basis. Every sports writer now tearing down Paterno, I can assure you, has more than a few positive pieces on him in his canon. If he’s done this for any length of time, possibly dozens of pieces. And if you were to read the pieces now, you’d see there was no conscious myth-making going on. They were simply writing about how special Paterno was, with his emphasis on learning, nearly unheard of in Division I-A football programs. Or his cantankerous character. His record of winning. His longevity. His storied past, tough Italian street kid from Brooklyn taught by Jesuits, played football at an Ivy League school, came to Penn State with a few dollars in his pocket and a room to sleep in at night while he learned to coach under his mentor, Rip Engle.
Taken in and of themselves, the pieces will be complimentary, expressing a mild, tasteful sort of admiration. Joe’s taken his shots over the years, without a doubt, but a vast majority of the press that’s been written about him before this incident was overwhelmingly positive. Again, quietly positive.
What happens is that this acceptable, obviously positive feeling towards him becomes his image, slowly over the course of decades. It’s not who he is. It’s who we want him to be, this ideal, and the writers want us to see the same things they do, too. And so we do. Before you know it, the myth is created. And fed. And fueled over the course of years. Are we inhumane to do this? Probably not. We want examples of human beings “rising above” in some inspirational sense, and it’s pretty easy to point at people living lives like this and imagining that they must possess some higher level of understanding of the world that makes them this way.
But the truth is they don’t: we give it to them. And what we give them isn’t real. It’s mythology. It’s what we want to believe. It’s ideals we create out of hand-picked qualities of people’s realities, that we then write or talk about. And not just one person. Dozens or hundreds will then pick up the torch and write similarly positive takes. Their consensus feeds the myth. To the extent, as we’ve seen, that it becomes nearly impossible to imagine the person we’re mythologizing being anything but this shining avatar of the best human beings can be.
If it makes you feel any better, it’s much worse with musicians. Most of whom wouldn’t cross the proverbial empty street to piss on you if you were on fire. Most people I’ve come across in the arts are profoundly self-absorbed and keenly aware of their image. You better believe they nurture it. As with sports, you have plenty of willing accomplices in the press to build the myth. Since so much of music is tied in with youth, even better. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is the base of more mythology than our youths, than the past. Where we like to believe we were better people, in a better time, in a better place. But when we sit down to really remember, to recall what our lives were like, the truth often is it was no better or worse than our lives are now. Just different. Obviously more simple in ways we probably miss, but there are often good things about our lives now, as we age, that we could have no way of seeing or acknowledging at earlier points in our lives.
Our culture would feel empty without these myths. For the most parts, we love these myths, provided they don’t backfire on us, in which case all hell breaks loose, and we must go to great lengths to destroy the myth, not just to punish the person for letting us down, but to show everyone else that we’ve distanced ourselves from the myth, and are good, real, little people, just like you, who never fall for shit like this, no, not us. We’re better than that myth we created.
I just read a long piece in The New Yorker on Bruce Springsteen … and this is a shining example of myth making, as is nearly everything written about him. (If you think it isn’t, that we’re finally getting insight to the “real Bruce,” ask yourself why touchy subjects like this and this aren’t discussed.) While I love Bruce’s music, have for decades, and suspect I’d like him just fine if we met, I can’t stand articles like this. Because it’s clear to me that Springsteen believes wholeheartedly in the myth of himself, the one created by fans and critics over the years, and when he speaks in these stories, he always speaks in this character, even if he’s being honest. He’s like an actor who played a role that was so striking and impressive, so representative of the best he had to offer, that he never learned how to break character, or wanted to, and decided to be that character for the rest of his life.
This guy really does think he’s some berserk hybrid of Superman and John Steinbeck. He’s a millionaire many times over. He has what looks like a pretty good life for himself: multiple homes in exclusive areas, a wife who understands him based on who he was before all this happened, kids who appear pretty well adjusted, a job he loves, that has granted his family generations of wealth and fortune, endearing him to millions of fans over the course of decades, creative outlets that suit his every need, the unbelievable proposition that what he set out to do as a pimple-faced kid, this thing he loved more than life itself, rock and roll, has granted him everything he ever wanted, and then some.
And he suffers from depression! Why is that. Could be because he’s so obsessed with this asinine, overly serious image of being everything to everyone, that it now feels like a prison, that it’s not really him, and he suspects if he was really himself, wrote about the confusion he feels over being a working-class kid set adrift in a world of wealth and affluence he couldn’t have possibly imagined when living in a surfboard factory in Asbury Park, that no one would care. That people want the myth he’s created far more than they want him.
Or maybe he’s just genuinely depressed, chemically imbalanced, genetically acquired from his troubled father, and this could have happened whether he was this successful or not. Who knows. I’d say who cares, but obviously, a lot of people care. Most mythologies aren’t as carefully crafted and nurtured as Springsteen’s is; they just happen. And when they happen, it only makes sense for the person being mythologized to ride the wave. Why not? It beats obscurity or treading water. Ride the wave, until it stops. And we’re finding it never stops anymore, unless, as we’ve seen with Paterno, a situation presents itself that drops the person back down to earth and reminds us that he’s only human, prone to error, and possibly prone to doing whatever it takes to keep the myth alive.
I’m all for bringing it back down to you and your own life. Don’t mythologize anyone. Forget about rock stars or football coaches. I mean even within your life. Don’t mythologize your parents, or kids who died when you were young, or old girlfriends, or yourself, for that matter. Accept people for who they are. Accept yourself. Understand that you’re going to fuck up, terribly some times, and provide for it, make sure the act of fucking up isn’t some cataclysmic event that drops you in your tracks and renders you incapable of moving forward. You’re going to do plenty of things wrong and right in your life. Everyone you know will do the same. Keep as many people as you can in your life, but don’t hesitate to lose people who only drag you down or mean you harm. Be reasonably honest with yourself and everyone you know.
But this is all bullshit! Not in and of itself … those are some pretty good ideas. But I’m not kidding myself: life is easier with myths. Be they personal or cultural. They guide us at times, like guardian angels we want to exist. My life is filled with mythical rock stars, movie stars and writers, too. The occasional athlete. Various other people who do something extraordinary in their lives, that even if it was the only good thing they’ve ever done, that thing strikes us all to the core of our humanity and makes us want to be better in some sense. That’s what myths are for, the good they serve. The trick is to instinctively grasp there’s a difference between the myths we’re presented with, and the real people behind the myths. Sounds easy? To judge from what I’ve read about Paterno over the past few weeks, it isn’t.