No man is a hero to his valet.

—Oxford English Dictionary, “hero, n.,” phrase 3, proverb.

I saw he was of the material from which nature hews her heroes—Christian and Pagan—her lawgivers, her statesmen, her conquerors: a steadfast bulwark for great interests to rest upon; but, at the fireside, too often a cold, cumbrous column, gloomy and out of place.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre: vol. III, ch. VIII.

***

Heroes disappoint.

The father, math genius, doesn’t solve the seventh-grade word problem correctly; your graded worksheet bears an assertive X over the obscure, decimal answer. The charismatic professor doesn’t return emails or phone calls or hold regular office hours, even when major deadlines are approaching and your research is spinning out of control. The student-body leader, who makes everyone he talks to feel special, flits from non-relationship to non-relationship, leaving a trail of bruised hearts alongside his grand ideas for saving the world. The sister, who has always been there for you, is too busy to sense that you’re near a breakdown and need someone to come, help you pack, and take you out for a sweet, five-flower tea.

My father. My professor. My friend. Me.

The people whom we admire immensely, whom we rely on earnestly, turn out to be merely people. They don’t know everything; they can’t do everything; they aren’t perfectly good, steadfast, or understanding. They let us down. And we do the same to those who look up to us.

***

I hurry from the Parisian metro. My head is spinning from the GRE subject test I just failed, and my stomach is fluttering with anticipation. I’m late. The seminar is already half over, yet if I can catch even the last twenty minutes—

The conference room is silent enough that I do not dare take a seat up front. But I can still see Hélène Cixous[1], the French-Algerian intellectual whose theories on writing and gender captivated me—set my heart and mind on fire—for the better part of my college years. She is as poised as I had imagined, elegant as only the French seem capable.

Initially, I had worried that seeing Cixous would be disappointing. I had conjured her up so many times, drawing from photographs and video clips, and I thought that surely my imagination had stacked my hopes against me, that the flesh-and-blood Cixous would fall short of my mental image. Pas du tout. Instead, she eclipses my vision. She talks about cats and Baudelaire and translates a poem from English into French. Her English accent is British, her French clear and precise.

All too soon, her talk is over. She promises to continue the discussion of cats next time. I wait in my seat as she packs her things, and when she leaves with her escort of friends and academics I follow, too shy to approach, too awed to leave.

Her shoes squeak.

Each step jars with the bright, polished room and the elevated discourse that I can no longer quite catch, transforming a distant idol into a vividly human woman.

Somehow, her embodiment perfects her.

[1] If you have a few minutes, this video clip gives you a taste of what Cixous is like.

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