Chesterton Society Address

Here is an excerpt from my address to the Chesterton Society:

An English friend delivered a backhand slam some time ago when she said with a snooty smile, ‘The Americans are so quaint! They still think it is possible to be heroes.’ I felt chastened, but I had to admit it: some of us (and not just the Americans) retain the romantic hero as our role model. We cheerfully concede that there is something absurd about the romantic. He is not a practical sort of soul. We know that had Romeo been a utilitarian he would have chosen sensible friends, gone to a good school, married the Montague next door and inherited the family business. The mouse Reepicheep would have stayed home to consolidate his collection of fine cheeses and Don Quixote would have cashed in his savings, and entered a rest home to watch daytime TV.

But then, the romantic hero has always been a figure of fun. He is blamed not only for being romantic, but for being bombastic. ‘You are a pretentious fool!’ his sensible critics cry. ‘You are an absurd poseur, an amateur and a fake’ they accuse. ‘You deal in generalities, broadsides and caricatures.’ Of course, the critics are right. The romantic hero strides through life like an heir apparent, with an apparent air of superiority, but that is not because he thinks himself entitled and better than everyone else, but simply because he is looking in a different direction. His nose is in the air not because he looks down on others, but because he is looking up. He marches to a different drumbeat; not because he wants everyone else to march with him, but because he wants them to hear that a different drumbeat and a different way of marching exists.

I confess to my English lady friend that I am unashamed to believe that both romanticism and heroism are still possible. I brandish this belief like a white plume– which brings me to my favorite amongst all the romantic heroes of the world. He is the fictional Frenchman Cyrano de Bergerac. Is there anyone in the history of the world more romantic and absurd? A tragic character with a rubber nose–more a clown than a Hamlet–takes the stage in big boots and a broad brimmed hat to swagger over his inferiors and swoon over his lady.

With supreme confidence Cyrano ridicules his enemies with riddles, pokes them with a poem, and skewers them with a song. He is the quintessential romantic hero as he mocks the hypocrite, denounces the dilettante and punctures pomposity. Cyrano is brave, noble and true both in victory and defeat. In fact, it is in his defeat that his nobility is tested and proved, for it is when the brave are crushed by the ruthless and the loyal are laughed at by traitors that the romantic soul’s nobility is confirmed.
Cyrano accepts rejection as the price of honesty, and failure as the price of nobility. He dies after being ambushed by an enemy. A cowardly blockhead drops a block on Cyrano’s noble head, and in a magnificent final scene the hero draws his sword for the last time and duels with the shadowy figures of cowardice and corruption, duplicity and death.

In a final flamboyant gesture Cyrano holds aloft the white plume from his broad brimmed hat. He might just as well have pointed his magnificent nose into the air as a defiant symbol of his romantic and indomitable character. Cyrano’s nose is his red badge of courage and the symbol of his nobility, but it is also the red nose of the clown and the sign of his absurdity. This is why Cyrano is the quintessential romantic hero: not only because he is intelligent, courteous, courageous and true, but because he is absurd. He is a swashbuckling simpleton, a hilarious hero; a wise fool, a child, a dotard, a cross between D’Artagnan and Jimmy Durante. His nobility, like his nose, is both admirable and laughable.

  • Marcus Aurelius

    You seem to be hooked on Quixotic heroes, or the notion that trying to be a hero inherently makes one quixotic. I rather think that Tim Russert sorts of heroes end up as such just by being ordinary dads, workers, and faithful sons of the church. Granted not all of us are on network TV every Sunday, but striving to be an ordinary hero is where it’s at.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    indeed, and one of my books is called ‘How to be an Ordinary Hero’ and I started a personal growth program with the same name.However, the ordinary hero can only learn what a hero is by those heroes who are extraordinary.

  • Jeffrey Smith

    Good one.

  • Marcus Aurelius

    Ah, I should not be lecturing you on ordinary heroes then! You literally ‘wrote the book’ on them.

  • Ana Braga-Henebry

    Aahh… reliving the great conference. Thanks for publishing this excerpt here, Fr. I don’t like the picture–I don’t think it does G.K. justice, judging from the photographs. My own Husband happens to be the same size as Chesterton… I know.