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Eternal Flame
Published on Friday, September 15, 2000 in JINN Magazine
Eternal Flame
As the Summer Olympics opens in Sydney, writer Richard Rodriguez reflects on a certain ambivalence he feels about this "most pagan of celebrations."
by Richard Rodriguez
Every four years, in summer, the runner enters the stadium carrying the eternal flame, and with his torch he ignites the pagan dream of immortality. The crowd cheers.

Am I alone in feeling ambivalent toward the spectacle we call the Olympics? On the one hand, as much as any one, I am thrilled by the athletes, their bodies so poised and their prowess. On the other hand, I withhold myself from this--the most popular pagan celebration in the world.

Hitler, most notoriously in our times, understood the advertisement of a parade of perfectly formed athletes. Simone Weil, the French Jewish philosopher, admitted that the pageantry of Hitler youth was wonderful to her--their banners and their music. She had to remind herself that the parade meant to trample her.

Here they come now, from every nation, Olympic runners and wrestlers and jumpers. They parade smiling and waving at us. How should we not cheer?

We cheer lustily as he flies through the air; cheer to see her run against time. The Hellenic ideal made flesh. The Hellenistic idea was the perfectability of flesh.

In Europe and America--those countries we call "the West"--two competing influences have always been at play. Civic virtue tends toward Hellenism--the cult of the individual to become and to say and to be....A contrary religious influence, call it Hebraic--characteristic of Jew and Christian and Muslim--describes life bounded by obedience; alone I can do nothing.

The 19th century philosopher and poet Mathew Arnold in "Culture and Anarchy" distinguishes Hellenism--as spontaneity of consciousness--from Hebraism, a strictness of conscience. These two influences intersect in America.

In the Hellenistic ideal the forum, the gymnasium and the university are in harmony. In America, there is disharmony. The architecture of our intellectual life is Greek or Greco-Roman.

Fraternity row has long chosen to call itself Greek, harkening to Athens. The architecture of official Washington is Greek because the documents of our country are shaped by Hellenism.

But in America the common religious piety is tribal. Which is why there is a constant hunger in America for public prayer--at the football game, at the high school graduation. And why the Supreme Court justices in their Greek temple keep telling us that such prayer is impossible in America--the Constitution protects the individual from the tyranny of the tribe.

Hard to imagine the freedom of worship in America for Buddhist and Scientologist and Sufi, were it not for our Hellenistic adherence to the individual.

But it is impossible to imagine in ancient Greece an event like "the Special Olympics"--cripples and the disabled running enabled. The danger of Hellenism is that it leads to a cult of the hero, who vanquishes all lesser beings.

Recently, the Olympic altar has begun to crack. Gold medals have had to be taken away from athletes who could not pass drug tests. Then Tanya Harding's ex-husband and a band of goons assaulted a competing athlete. Then, several members of the International Olympic Committee resigned after revelations of five-star extortion of host cities.

Historians tell us that the ancient Greeks attached no glory to losing. So, also, today: Only gold will get you onto the box of Wheaties. Only gold, not silver, not bronze, not a "good try," will get you immortality--only gold is immortal.

As someone who feels his soul more Hebraic than Hellenic, I keep thinking that what is eternal about the "eternal flame" is the wish for immortality. The Olympics is a celebration of youth, of ripeness, of summer. It is the most sublime of human romances--and this is its liturgy.

It is appropriate to the neo-paganism of today's America, where one senses everywhere the obsolesence of a word like "soul." The body is all, health is all, and death is the defeat of all. The games begin.

Rodriguez, an author and essayist, is a regular contributor to PBS' The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

Copyright 1900 Pacific News Service


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