There will be no candlelit vigils outside theatres. No tribute performances in memory. No posthumous award with a standing ovation at a gala event—that would be too ironic for both of them.
Perhaps instead we could consider a single image—a mockingbird, lying dead on the doorstop of a local bookstore. It died of a broken heart in a world no longer moved by the symbolic gestures of strength and virtue.
This would be the best way to remember Umberto Eco and Harper Lee; two very different writers who influenced the Evil Genius Mum I am today.
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.
– Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Umberto Eco. Harper Lee.
Two amazing writers from two completely different genres. Eco was a prolific writer: novels, essays, children’s books, comics. Lee wrote two books; albeit her first was famous and brilliant and inspiring.
The only thing you could say they had in common would be their deaths: They both died recently, on February 19, 2016. Damn.
But this assumption isn’t completely true. In fact, these two writers both had a HUGE impact on my life and why I am Evil Genius Mum. They both cemented my belief-system in Heroes. Where Harper Lee showed me what a hero is, Umberto Eco helped me understand why.
When most people think of Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, they think of Scout as the main character and her father, Atticus Finch, as the hero. Not for me. Scout is the hero of that book. Absolutely.
Think of it this way: Atticus is like Professor X, mentoring his children in a world of symbolic gestures and social inequities. Scout would be Rogue—heart of gold, but damned if she’s going to just sit back and take all this mumbo-jumbo. She questions everything. She fights anyone. She does her own thing. All under the watchful eye of her father and his quiet guidance.
I loved that kid.
Scout is the embodiment of everything I wish to achieve as Evil Genius Mum—in a way, that could make Atticus my “hero” but really it is Scout who has the courage to put her beliefs into practice, even questioning her father at times. She has the added obligation of containing all this power while learning to handle herself in a ladylike way. Pfft.
The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else. …if anything, others that exploit him, making him a myth, while he, the man worthy of esteem, was only a poor creature who reacted with dignity and courage in an event bigger than he was.
– Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality: Essays (1986)
Perhaps Eco held a certain appreciation for Lee and her novel. As an academic, he loved literature, semiotics (symbolism, meanings, literary likeness), and even pop-culture. He was fascinated with the belief society invests in the archetypal hero. Oh yes, he was even a lover of comics—try reading his essay “The Myth of Superman” sometime. Really adds a whole new analysis to storytelling in the age of comics. However, the EG in me doesn’t want to warn you: Reading this essay will totally ruin how you watch ANY superhero TV show from now on.
I was introduced to Eco not long after reading To Kill A Mockingbird, with the characters still fresh in my mind. It was Eco who introduced me to the contrast between Mythical Hero and Contemporary Hero.
Mythical Heroes, in all their symbolic glory, are based in a different time with different rules and expectations placed upon them. Their actions do not fit with “last Tuesday” nor could they take place “down the street”. They are heroes that are created like gods to inspire us, though we can never be them. They are immortal as they are outside of time itself.
Contemporary Heroes are far more attainable. They move with the times; their actions are far more grounded in modern issues. However, while they are easier to associate with, their contemporary nature gives them mortality. As Eco pointed out with The Myth of Superman, every gesture made by Superman “weighs on his future.” They are steps towards his death; without mortality the reader cannot identify with him.
Knowing this about your heroes is empowering. It’s like identifying a weakness; their “kryptonite” if you like. And when you find that weakness, you start seeing the symbolism in everything else around you. This was Eco’s love. A topic he returns to over and over again.
Social behaviors that once disheartened you can now be explained as social change waiting to happen. Political behavior starts to show a pattern; education systems no longer seem so misguided. And parenting—well, you finally understand the role model you can be for the kids. Sure, it’s not always they one they want but it’s definitely the one they deserve.
Ms. Lee, you brought a character into my life that gave me the courage to make my own path. To question the road signs everyone else was putting in front of me. I looked for mentors like Atticus Finch, for they would encourage me to question myself as strongly as I question others.
Mr. Eco, you guided me to question why we have heroes. You showed me the lies we tell ourselves in society, the symbols and meanings used to question our own ability to be a hero. Through your work, I was confident I would never be misguided in my “hero-worshipping,” for I understood what I was looking for was still available in my own “village.”
Neither of you will have windswept memorials or flowing tributes read with sobbing gasps at some public event. Instead, you will be remembered with quiet respect and admiration by the millions of readers you inspired to read, think, and write their own heroic tales.