• U.S.

Heroes And Icons

3 minute read
Howard Chua-Eoan

The full moon, brilliant on a cloudless night, can humble even the most heroic of monuments. By Manhattan’s Central Park, the seven American soldiers seem frozen in World War I. The men in the middle of the squad have bayonets ready for battle. One is injured but willing; another, caught in the arms of a comrade, is in the swoon of death. PRO PATRIA ET GLORIA–“For country and glory”–their motto reads in granite, barely legible. The infantrymen rise 15 ft. above the ground, an altitude that is microcosmic from the distance of the Sea of Tranquility. SIC TRANSIT GLORIA? As much can be said of the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in London, her Edwardian gown antique against the constantly renewed moon, which has waned and waxed over her and other great men and women. It has lasted; they have gone the way of all flesh. Emmeline who?

Yet the moon is mute. And the magnificent swirl of the cosmos simply marks time: it cannot tell us of history, cannot instruct us on what to remember, what to proscribe, what to avoid. Memory is born of biological time, and it is borne on blood and bone and phlegm. Can the stars shudder at sacrifice? Only humankind can grasp the need for heroism amid the persistence of warfare simply by noticing that virtually across the street from the bronze soldiers, who fought a war spawned in the Balkans, is Yugoslavia’s mission to the U.N. And only we can repent of forgetting that Pankhurst and her matronly, overlaced suffragists risked death for the right of women to vote. It is a blood debt.

We need our heroes to give meaning to time. Human existence, in the words of T.S. Eliot, is made up of “undisciplined squads of emotion,” and to articulate our “general mess of imprecision of feeling” we turn to heroes and icons–the nearly sacred modules of humanity with which we parse and model our lives. As the fifth installment in our selection of the 100 most important people of the century, TIME has chosen a score who articulate the longings of the time they lived in. There are the extraordinary tales: of Charles Lindbergh’s courage, Mother Teresa’s selflessness, Marilyn Monroe’s exuberance, Pele’s superhuman skills, Anne Frank’s immortality. And the parables: the Kennedy melodrama, the latter-day silence of Muhammad Ali, the brutal grace of Bruce Lee’s art, the all-too-human Diana, Lindbergh’s dalliance with Hitler. Iconoclasm is inherent in every icon, and heroes can wear different faces in the afterlives granted them by history and remembrance.

Legend has it that the 8th century Chinese poet Li Po, drunk with wine, tried to embrace the moon reflected in a lake. He drowned in the clutch. He should have continued to embrace tales of flesh and blood instead of the surreal. For it is heroes–through their triumphs and follies–who teach us how to live.

For more about the TIME 100, visit time.com/time100 on the Web

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