Sunday, December 5, 2010

Accidental Heroes


"Hero: 2. A man distinguished by extraordinary valour and martial achievements; one who does brave or noble deeds; an illustrious warrior. 3. A man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action, or in connexion with any pursuit, work, or enterprise; a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities. 4. The man who forms the subject of an epic; the chief male personage in a poem, play, or story; he in whom the interest of the story or plot is centred." -Oxford English Dictionary

The history of mining is a history of disasters. Our haste to extract precious minerals from ever increasing depths underground has cost inestimable numbers of lives over the millennia. Ancient civilizations, including classical Greece, employed slaves to dig their mines, simply because it was not considered to be suitable labor for a free man.

I was reminded of the famous lines from Brecht's Life of Galileo last month when the 33 men trapped for 69 days in a mine in Chile were finally brought to the surface. When Andrea remarks to him, "Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero," Galileo replies, "No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero."(1)

I watched some - not all - of the incessant coverage of the miners' ordeal. I knew that they must have been terrified during those first days when they were presumed to be dead or dying beyond reach, while the world barely noticed. It was only when they were discovered to be alive and their rescue possible that the media (and the Chilean president) decided to pay attention. All the miners had to do at that point was wait.

I fail to see how they became heroes. Being a hero involves the element of choice. In perilous, challenging situations some people choose to be heroes, just as others choose to be cowards. Surviving a disaster that should have killed them is in no way heroic. What were the 29 miners who died recently in New Zealand? Bums? The OED definition above allows for heroes who do "brave or noble deeds," but what bravery or nobility was there in this event?

All those Chileans did was survive, thanks to factors utterly beyond their control. The only choice involved was going down the mine, which most people nowadays regard as foolhardy, given the risks. What compelled them to choose such a profession is what everyone should be talking about, including Sebastián Piñera, who so shamelessly superimposed his stupid face on international television screens during the rescue.

Throughout the television coverage of the rescue operation, I was reminded of D.H. Lawrence's short story, "The Odour of Chrysanthemums," in which a young woman learns that her husband has been killed in a mine accident. Despite their unhappy marriage, the woman only notices the beauty of the man she barely knew as she is washing and dressing his corpse to ready him for burial.

"She was almost ashamed to handle him; what right had she or anyone to lay hands on him; but her touch was humble on his body. It was hard work to clothe him. He was so heavy and inert. A terrible dread gripped her all the while: that he could be so heavy and utterly inert, unresponsive, apart. The horror of the distance between them was almost too much for her—it was so infinite a gap she must look across.

At last it was finished. They covered him with a sheet and left him lying, with his face bound. And she fastened the door of the little parlour, lest the children should see what was lying there. Then, with peace sunk heavy on her heart, she went about making tidy the kitchen. She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame."
(2)


As miners, the 33 Chileans must know that the only thing they did that was exceptional was survive when they should not have. I'm pleased for them that there is a movie about the event already in the works, and many of them are signing book deals and contracts to appear the reality television shows. Their real happy ending is that they will never again have to go underground - until they are lowered into their graves.


(1) Scene 12. Howard Brenton translation.
(2) Lawrence's story can be found here.

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