By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 14, 2010
This is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Iconization as an issue in real life–and as a form of Resistance. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
First, what is an icon? The dictionary says it’s “an object of worship.” An icon originally was an actual physical artifact—a splinter of the original Cross, say, or an article of apparel once worn by a martyr or a saint. Worship could be directed at this object, as a stand-in or intermediary for some higher embodiment of the divine.
(Some would call this idolatry, but let’s leave that alone for the moment.)
People can be icons
Human beings can be icons too. We make them into icons by worshipping them. Movie stars are icons. (Interestingly, character actors or minor stars are not.) What makes stars into icons is some vivid power or gift that they seem to possess. Angelina Jolie’s ass-kicking sexiness. Jennifer Aniston’s girl-next-door vulnerability. Bette Davis’ eyes.
When we make a human being into an icon, we endow them in our imagination with a power or gift that we in fact possess ourselves, but are either afraid, or not yet ready to, embrace.
Clint Eastwood is an icon. His movie image, in films like Dirty Harry or Unforgiven and on to Gran Torino, is of a man of suppressed and explosive rage. We, watching him onscreen, endow his character with the power of violent, even fatal payback. We iconize him.
Einstein is an icon. So are Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Gandhi. Today, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are becoming icons.
Real people can be icons too
When we fall in love, we can iconize our beloved. We imagine that they possess powers that we don’t. We love them, at least in part, for those powers. If only we had them! By being with our beloved, maybe some of those powers will rub off on us. But just being with them is often enough.
Iconization and Resistance
Making others into icons is a form of Resistance.
We endow others with powers because we’re afraid to claim those powers for ourselves.
Iconization cuts both ways
When someone falls in love with us, we can get iconized. Since the publication of The War of Art, readers have from time to time tried to iconize me. I’ll get long, soul-baring e-mails, invoking me as if I were Yoda or Obi wan Kenobi, seeking advice and counsel. It’s unnerving.
When you get a note like that, it’s impossible not to see the psychological mechanism behind it—and to be alarmed by it. Clearly the writer is giving away his power. Clearly fear is the motivation. It’s an insult, actually, to be iconized. Because the person doing the iconization is dehumanizing you. But the biggest danger is the harm you can do to the vulnerable individual who has (unconsciously) fallen prey to this very human tendency, which none of us, if we’re honest, can claim to be immune to.
Good mentors and bad mentors
Every good mentor I’ve ever had has deflected my attempts at iconizing them. They refuse to bite. Instead they turn my solicitations back onto me, which is where they belong. You, they remind me, have the power to make that decision, to see through that illusion, to take that action that you are so afraid of. Don’t give me that power, the honorable teacher/shrink/mentor says. It’s yours. Embrace it.
When the iconized person exploits the power that the iconizer has given him, that’s called abuse. Depending on how much he or she exploits it, it can become a crime.
But let’s get back to the bright side.
Catching ourselves in the act
When we catch ourselves iconizing somebody—in real life or in the sphere of celebrity—the smart move is to stop and take a seriously deep breath. What power or gift are we endowing this icon with? Do we ourselves possess that power or gift? What is keeping us from embracing it as our own?
When we take that power or gift for ourselves, we break the spell of the icon. We emancipate ourselves from self-imposed slavery. But this isn’t easy. For some reason, we are terrified of embracing that power or gift that is our birthright as our own.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten on this subject. I’ll be very interested to read the Comments this week. Please, friends, don’t be shy about offering insights. This is important—and interesting–stuff!