Wednesday, April 22, 2015

On heroism

The following text was written by a Greek comrade, Stergios, as a comment to one of my posts back in 2010. The title here is mine, as is the translation to English.

My sensitivity to your text derives from your words: "when I was young, I thought revolutionaries were special people". I don't remember where and how I published what I am drawing on in my response. It is an extract from a larger, unpublished text I wrote on the basis of a conversation I had with my son (I showed him your post and he smiled, pleased) years ago. That conversation had to do exactly with what your post discusses, the idealist and the dialectic conception of heroism. My son underestimated the struggles of his own generation (on the basis of their results) and thought that "he has done nothing", while for my generation, of the 1960s and 70s, he thought everything was marvelous... "but, you were heroes", he told me!!!

My reaction to this was an immediate dialectical analysis of heroism in its fully human dimension, in contradistinction with the idealist conception of heroism, which regards heroism as something superhuman. The point of my whole argument was that heroism is a possibility in us as we are. 

As a consequence of this I published another text, entitled "The executions that did not take place", which had exactly this goal: to demythologize the idealist character of superhuman heroism by referring to tragical personal experiences that were later considered heroic but that when they occurred, the terror one felt with what one was capable of was greater than the terror with its consequences.

When I was very young I too thought heroes were superhuman creatures and I also underestimated everything I did, just like my son would later do.

It took years to move from the childish, mythico-idealist to the dialectical conception of heroism. To do that, I was aided by dramatic events in my life, but also by meeting hundreds of militants, about whose exploits I had read, and had considered them superhuman. They were simple, everyday people, who shared their cell, their food, their wing in exile, who played with me and argued with me. That's what I gradually discovered the heroes of whom I had read really were! I don't have the space to tell it all, unfortunately.

Afterward, many of my own actions were called "heoric", but because I knew their human dimension, I could not accept their idealist deification, because that is extremely dangerous for younger generations, who would give up on "impossible" things and would become fatalistic. What I did was the opposite. I demythologized every heroism as something that you don't see as heroic when you actually do it, so that you don't know if what you do every day, surpassing your strength, will tomorrow be called heroism. And I really believe this. To tell you the truth, I hate the ex post facto philosophy of heroism. It is a lie. I've lived through the fear involved in heroism! I was human, not some kind of marble man. I had no theory of heroism at those times. I only had the dim light of a conscience in pitch-black darkness. I can peddle any theory you want after that!

For the youth that expects heroes, I hear you, I understand what you say: "you are the heroes you are waiting for!" I like to add that no one is born a hero, no one pursues "heroism", no one knows a heroic act as such when they commit it, no one plans it in advance. Otherwise, they would be liars, not heroes.

And there is no time that is "no time for heroes" as those who wish to undermine any militant spirit and praxis say.

Today, like at every time, history is being written on a daily basis. We cannot know the real value of our actions until later. Today, we only feel the duty of conscience, of our theory, of necessity, of self-preservation, of social life...What we do, we do under conditions, on the shadow of facts. We do it as a natural action. Everything else follows.

There are no saviors -- heroes who will come and relieve us of the "heroism" necessity imposes on us. There's only us and our struggle. This "us" is not a closed club of enlightened ones who has the copyright to producing heroes; it includes all those who fight for a better society. Those who believe in this must fight for it; that's the only passport to our redemption.

And since I started this conversation on how human heroism actually is, here is an extract from "The executions that did not take place":
Should I live or should I die?

A few days after our arrival at Jura [island of exile and imprisonment for communists used during Stergios's youth by the military junta of 1967], I was called in through the megaphones, which, however bizarrely, were playing Joan Baez when not making announcements, to present myself to the "Security Department" of the internment camp. They called others as well. A few security officers who seemed tense and wound up were waiting for me in an office. They told me, without much ado, that they wanted to save me from communism. They shook me, threatened me, dragged me on the floor and told me that my life was over as a "commie." They put a pistol to my temple and an officer shouted: "Now, everything ends with a 'no' or a 'yes' [i.e "no, I don't denounce communism", or "yes, I do"] . If you say 'yes', you 'll be a good boy and get out of here alive, you' ll go home, to girls and parties, and everything will be dandy! If you say 'no', you' ll get out of here a corpse with a bullet. So, yes or no? Speak!  
I grew pale. I couldn't speak. I thought these were the last moments of my life. I said to myself "it's all over for me now"! As the blood was drained in my head, my whole life, which had not yet reached 18 years, passed in front of my eyes like lightning. 
In me, a battle instantly raged. My body said live, under any circumstances. My spirit said, what's the worth of such a life? It was self-division in its purest form. A harsh battle that was decided in fractions of a I decide whether to live or to die. If I bow down, I live ... but if I bow down I cannot live. Everything was compressed in a state of terror. I was desperate, seconds passed, the security officers were screaming. I could hear only the voice inside. In the end, I said to myself: better dead... 
I was sweating with cold sweat all over. My clothes were wet. I thought I was already dying...  
Suddenly, I blurted out, half inaudibly, a terrible, lifeless, colorless and desperate "no". I was expecting to conceive the fractions of time from the "bang!" of the pistol to total nothingness as an explosive symphony of death. I heard nothing. I felt like those seconds lasted a hundred years. I felt the blood rush away from my body, gone. Pale like death, I heard the voice again: "What a jerk, eh? He'd rather die!"   
He moved away, kicked a chair, then kicked me. Then he relaxed. He started screaming: "You are getting away for now, I don't want to kill you here, but I am court marshalling you, and if you don't recant there you' ll be sentenced to death!" I got away, and life came back. I could hear, I could see!
This word, "recant", I had heard from stories told by older leftists and from the books on Jura and Makronissos that I had read in the Lambrakis Youth circles. It meant you could get blinded with torture but that once you had recanted and bowed down to them you could "proudly" state: "I see the light now"! 
They kicked me out of the office and I stumbled, ready to collapse. I could barely hold on and I got to the tent weeping. I was inconsolable for hours. I thought I was dead and had come back to life. The older comrades circled around me, for what nowdays they call psychological support. "What's wrong with Stirgioudi, why is he crying?" Papathanasis asked jestingly, with his peculiar Nigrita accent. In a different mode, Babis Sarandidis laughed out loud and bellowed "Now you are real lad!" [pallikari] Old man Latinopoulos moved his hand quietly, as if saying "calm down, it's nothing." They were masters of psychology. They started to ridicule it, so I could belittle it. They said, big deal, it' ll happen again, don't pay any mind. They prepared me for the worst, pretending it was nothing. They knew they were lying, but as a young boy I needed the lie, it was balm.

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