Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
Speaking of heroes, on rare occasions I've met an exceptional person. These meetings transmitted something extraordinary, call it an energetic pattern, and not by hearsay or an inspiring story but in direct experience.
I am not knocking mythology. In fact, I love well-constructed stories conveying the experience of heroic beings though an integral narrative. An example is the stories of the 18th-century founder of the Chassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Name). These stories convey a heroism that, for me, cuts to the quick.
Here's one short example:
The voices of opponents were raised against the Baal Shem's teaching, for many rabbis could not understand his ways. Some said of him that he dishonored the Sabbath with singing and freedom, some said that his ways and the ways of those who followed him and called themselves Chassidim were truly the ways of madmen.
One of the scholars asked of the Baal Shem, "What of the learned rabbis who call this teaching false?"
The Baal Shem Tov replied, "Once, in a house, there was a wedding festival. The musicians sat in a corner and played upon their instruments, the guests danced to the music, and were merry, and the house was filled with joy. But a deaf man passed outside the house; he looked in through the window and saw the people whirling about the room, leaping, and throwing about their arms. 'See how they fling themselves about!' he cried, 'it is a house filled with madmen!' For he could not hear the music to which they danced."
Herein is the image of one who is free from the constraints of convention. Relieved of the constraints of doing the "right thing" and considerations of one's appearance, only a joyous and praising recognition of an abiding abundance remains.
What makes this story remarkable and raises Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov to the status of hero, for me, is my encounters with Chassidim in his lineage. Many generations later, some of the people practicing in the tradition he began still possess the palpable quality of joyous warmth and insight grounded in essential discipline ascribed to him. In other words, the force of his life created a pattern and channel with the resilience to transmit a quality of joyful freedom into the future, from generation to generation (L'dor va'dor).
When an inception has sufficient power, the myth of the hero is itself a vessel for the force of the life of its subject. This is why, I think, there is such a fascination with stories of heroes, not the least of which are in religious traditions, in which believers studiously absorb the stories of prophets and saints. The stories themselves are vessels for something material—the force and pattern of the life of the subject.
Back to heroes one knows personally. This is a really special thing, for when the results of selfless heroism touch a person's being, a cycle is complete in the transmission. The numbers of heroic beings I have encountered I can count on one or two hands.
One such hero is the person of John Anthony West, who died at his home in Saugerties in February. He was 85.
John was an individual in the truest sense. A writer and lecturer by profession, an honorary doctor of Egyptology, he used his gift of wit and tenacious interest in facts to illuminate the dogmatic ignorance of academic orthodoxy.
John with his colleague, Boston University professor Robert Schoch, proved that the enclosure and body of the Great Sphinx on the Giza Plateau had been eroded by water. As there has been virtually no water in Egypt since the end of the last ice age, his work showed that the Sphinx is at least 6,000 years older than conventional archeologists believe.
In a lecture to a conference of geologists, John mocked the archeological orthodoxy and their unwillingness to reevaluate dogma when presented with new evidence saying, "This concerns weathering patterns on rock, and when it comes to this, an Egyptologist's opinion is no better than a proctologist's."
When an academic Egyptologist took offense, John didn't miss a beat. "You gotta understand," he said, "the proctologists didn't like my comment either. They say that their job is to cure sick assholes; they don't like being compared to them."
Perhaps in spite of his biting wit, John had a powerful presence of being, which I experienced most directly walking together in a state of hushed awe through the unfathomable temples and monuments of ancient Egypt.
There is much more I can and will say about a recently living hero, the remarkable John Anthony West. For now, I send good wishes his spirit and gratitude for his life and work.