Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Birth (and Death) of a Legend

Charlemagne or Christ?
Shortly after his death, a conscious program of myth-creation began.  The ideals he died for represented something noble but something lost -- an archetype for a Golden Age. 

But it was not a simple climb to Olympian glory; voices, some from those who knew him personally, knew him best, spoke out against the mythologizing.  "He was simply a man," they said, "even with his faults.  He was no god."  But that story didn't take.  That narrative, if you will, didn't fit the narrative.  It didn't tell the people the story they wanted to tell about themselves and so those nay-sayers were drowned out.  He was successfully canonized, becoming a new hero, a new saint, a new martyr. 

But the voices didn't stop.  The voices were persistent and cracks in the narrative began to appear.  Old doubts were raised and new ones arose.  The mythology began to give way to the truth -- that he was, indeed not a god, but just a man.  A man good enough to be remembered on his own terms, without the mythologizing.  And so, perhaps, the next stage began.

You might think, given my interests, I'm talking here about Charlemagne.  I'm not (and I am).  I'm talking about Pat Tillman.  The way we create heroes, the way we mythologize (and why we mythologize), echoes forward: medieval to modern.  And this example, albeit crudely drawn, perhaps reminds us why we need truth-tellers.  From a review of the new documentary:
At the public memorial service held for Pat Tillman in early May 2004, a couple weeks after his death in Afghanistan, [g]overnment efforts to turn Tillman into a patriotic superhero were at full tilt, and nothing was yet known to counter the official story that Tillman had been cut down in a terrorist ambush even as he saved the lives of his comrades. But... at a memorial attended by pious dignitaries from across the country, all doing their part to assist in the rampant mythologizing of Tillman,... Tillman's youngest brother, Richard, skipped the steps and climbed up on the dais, dressed not for a funeral but in T-shirt and jeans, holding a pint of Guinness. He thanked everybody for coming and then, raising the glass, said, "Pat isn't with God. He's fucking dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's fucking dead."
Behind the stories we tell about them and the reasons we create those stories in the first place, Pat Tillman, like Charlemagne, like just about anyone else, was simply a man.  We who study the past should always aim to tell that simple, unerring, and unimpeachable truth.  

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