March 16, 2010

The Hero and the Villain

Who knows any more what is a hero? So-called heroes today are glibly labelled, devoid of heroic qualities, and utterly democratic. If ever democracy should be opposed to anything, it should be the hero. In his preëminence, his strength, his courage, his valour and his deeds a hero commands. A hero does not ‘do what anyone would have done’. A ‘have-a-go hero’, as the Press likes to style him, is generally summed up by the adjective, not by the noun. A real hero does, or he dies. There is no volition, no mind over matter; only pure drive, pure spirit: the complete identification of coming hour with coming man. Nor does a real hero depend on being appointed, or worse, being voted in. These things may happen to a hero, for sure, but a true hero does not depend on them. A hero’s vision, and his modus operandi, will be striking for its lack of conformity, its resistance to accessibility. And for all these things, democracy – that is, we – should hate heroes. And that is why we invent sham heroes and flaky heroes, to reassure ourselves that the hero, whom we intuit to be inherently good, cannot be so fundamentally opposed to the values we hold dear.

Leon Benouville, The Wrath of Achilles, 1847

Let us reconsider. Who is the archetype of a hero? Not Hector, but Achilles. Our tender and sensitive hearts go out to Hector when he turns and runs at the crucial moment, the breaker of horses turned unbroken mustang. But this is ignominy, and in the context of god-like heroes, his death is just. Achilles, for all his anger, for all his tortured railing at an authority to which he does not defer, and for all his violence, is the hero. He ensures victory. He does that for which he was fitted, if not fated. He does it without flinching. He does it all with honour, in the context of the war he wages, intact. Modern readers do not ‘like’ him. They do not ‘identify’ with him. Hollywood has to rewrite Homer and employ Brad Pitt in order to make him ‘appealing’. But why should we like him? Should men who wage war be likeable? Ought professional killers to have qualities, in the midst of battle, with which we readily identify? Would you prefer it if your country’s army was made up of men thought generally to be ‘appealing’, softly spoken, deferent ‘have-a-go’ types? A hero is necessary. That does not mean you’d have him round for tea.

Of course, not all heroes are warriors, but they share the mentality. There is scope for political heroes, sporting heroes, scientific heroes, exploring heroes and even artistic heroes. They do that for which some will thereafter be grateful or inspired. Around a hero myths of greatness will arise that will bathe in reflected glory those who claim kinship, by nation or by ancestry. But heroes necessarily divide as they conquer, and garner hatred as they sow love. The competing narratives of gall will follow. We have countless examples of our historical need for heroes, and we seem to show no signs of ceasing to need them. Yet so long as we insist on the possibility of them being everyman, and so long as we insist on liking them, we shall probably not see their like.

6 comments:

  1. If only the Spider-Man writers read your blog.

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  2. I will give them a call. Thanks for the idea.

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  3. You raise a very good point - not just about heroes but about war in general. I hold Winston Churchill to be a personal hero. He could write, play polo, ride, paint - and just happened to also be able to fight very well, escape from prison camps and motivate nations. He is, to me, the epitome of heroic.

    I am aware, however, that the things I value in Churchill the modern electorate would not value. He would fight dirty, he would do whatever it took because he knew that temporarily compromising our 'spirit of fair play' was better than losing our freedom and being yoked by Hitler. I think that was required, if we're honest the allies won World War Two because we were willing to annihilate our enemy. (And, in the case of Mers-el-Kebir, our friends if they endangered our victory.)

    Now things are very different. Our army is condemned by the newspapers because training is hard and unpleasent. They're sent to war knowing that how they fight will be hampered by how the press will report it to the electorate. War is a terrible, grotesque thing, but it has been historically neccesary. Now our armies are hampered by what society deems is good and right, and society forgets that as we have learned in the past sometimes the important thing is not a sense of fair-play, it's winning the war.

    I'm sorry that I seem to be rambling. It's just your entry reminded me of the thought process I was having on this topic. Our society seems to me a paradox in that the only way to keep our values and system of governance safe is to, on occasion, do what goes against our natural desires for peace. I think when it comes down to it my belief in heroes is probably greater than my belief in democracy which is, as my own hero once said; "The worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

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  4. Not a ramble in the least. You have captured the problem precisely. Churchill was also in my mind when I was writing the post. Also Lloyd George (who was thoroughly unlikeable so far as I can tell).

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  5. I like your topic-heroes are not always likable-how interesting. Not what the modern media would lead us to believe. Heroes are not always politically correct.

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  6. Doctor, let me point out the circumstances of the glory of Achilles. In the first lines, he is about to kill the established king and only a goddess can keep him back. That slaughter would have been dishonorable and destroyed the expedition at that. Near the last lines, he is trying with might and main to defile a corpse - and again, only a god's intervention lies between what rage will have accomplished and the dictates of honor which tie heroes to men. One wonders whether godless heroes are even possible - if they believe in nothing above themselves, what differentiates them from the worst the world has to offer? For if they themselves are the highest things, whatever they will must be - they cannot be stopped, nor ought they, in the order of things. And Achilles is best defined by wrath - that cannot be the highest good in man - and he cannot the best man if we want our freedom.

    What hero saves freedom? Few have ever fought for freedom with greatness and success. The first Brutus succeeded, the second Brutus failed. Was not Caesar the most splendid man of his age - or Alexander of his? And yet they made slaves of citizens. This cannot be allowed, not even to heroes.

    As for us, Churchill is the only man whose virtues made him an example to all and whose actions made him the savior of his nation's freedom. Or who loves Wellington more than Napoleon?

    Abraham Lincoln, when he still impressed men above all other politicians, was that. He wrote when he was young that a republic must be wary of the man of towering genius - for no honor that can be bestowed will satisfy him: and so he will save the nation if he can, but destroy it if he must. Heroism must be political heroism if it be heroism at all. And the virtues of peace and those of war must meet in him in happy circumstances who would show mankind greatness.

    Democracy is not immune to heroes - Pericles was a hero and Alcibiades could have been a hero. But our version of democracy: make a science of everything and heroism will thus have been rendered obsolete and impossible. Perhaps progress and the doctrine of progress stand in the way of heroes more than anything else.

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