As long as he was alive, Mohamed Bouazizi was as powerless as anyone could be in Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's Tunisia. Yet, when he set himself on fire on Dec. 17, he ignited a movement so powerful that, within weeks, it put an abrupt end to Mr. Ben Ali's regime itself. One burning body could do in just a few days what ordinary politics could not do over decades.
As irony would have it, the 26-year-old Mr. Bouazizi was no revolutionary. All he wanted was to be a street vendor (apparently, he didn't finish high school) and, above all, he wanted to be left alone. When a female municipal inspector reportedly humiliated him in public, slapping and spitting at him, it was more than he could bear. That's how he came to perform his first and only political gesture: self-immolation. And even that was only involuntarily political; it must have been meant primarily as a way of saving his deadly injured male pride.
When the time is ripe, a burning body (and a young one at that) is exactly what it takes for a grand narrative to take shape. From this moment on, it doesn't even matter who Mohamed Bouazizi was, what he wanted or why exactly he set himself ablaze. A force far greater than himself has thrown him into a story completely different from what his actual biography may have been; it's a narrative in which he's now playing a very different character, one that may have little (if anything) to do with his actual person. In other words, Mr. Bouazizi has been reinvented as an archetypal hero of sorts.
In an age when religion enters politics usually in the shape of fundamentalism, the story of Mr. Bouazizi illustrates something particularly rare: the unfolding of a secular myth. In the past month or so, we have simply witnessed political mythology in the making. Projected into myth, almost all of the actual circumstances of the event have been transfigured.
Mr. Bouazizi's misfortune has now become the odyssey of a college graduate who, without a steady job but with an intense desire to right the wrongs of this world, begins a quest for freedom, equality and justice for all. Since he's facing a formidable adversary, he has to resort to extreme measures. Indeed, his deed is something out-of-the-ordinary course of things, terrifying, in fact, but no less effective: Just like some ancient hero, he turns his body into a living torch and, in so doing, shows others the path toward their own liberation.
The oppressed follow him, and the sheer magnitude of this movement is enough to shatter the societal fabric not only in Tunisia but throughout the Arab world. Mr. Bouazizi's sacrifice thus becomes the very foundation onto which a new, better world is to be built.
These are the outlines of the secular myth, whose working we've been witnessing. I hasten to add, however: This doesn't mean we're not dealing with genuine things. On the contrary, nothing is more genuine than the terrible death that Mr. Bouazizi suffered. The oppression, corruption and injustice that suffocated him while he was alive are also genuine, and so is the Tunisians' (and others') desire to take Mr. Bouazizi's act as an inspiration and, more important, to ensure he didn't die in vain.
It only means that such things as mythical imagination, myths and myth-making, archetypes and heroes, narrative and storytelling, still play a role in shaping our lives far greater than we may be ready to admit.
Costica Bradatan, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University, is writing a book on philosophical martyrdom.