Saturday, April 21, 2018

Heroes, Superheroes, and Saviors

What do we see in the hero myth? With apologies to Joseph Campbell.

I was watching the TV version of Dune, which, while much better than the movie, hardly matches the book. Seeing it again made it painfully clear how this story, so gripping to my younger self, is a formulaic hero tale, just as Harry Potter would be for the next generation, Frodo Baggins was for the one before, and Arthur, Beowulf, Jesus, Buddha, Rama, and Odysseus have been since antiquity. What do we see in them, and why are they so riveting?

Obviously, these tales speak to the meaning of life, in a direct and comprehensive way. Though mostly for males- Heroes and their students are, as a rule, male. They go on adventures, lead others, resolve mysteries, and ultimately solve communal problems. What they achieve is status, renown, and perhaps the hand of the princess, who is the typical hero of the female archetypal tale (though see also Dorothy, Alice, Mulan, et al.).

These qualities have relatively little to do with one's purely individual path through life, judged by, say, happiness, or one's success in earning a living, attending to the humdrum affairs of personal life, comfort, and family. Rather, it is a wider social role and service that is the point, and fame is the coin of this realm. The hero slays monsters that have terrified the people and despoiled their crops. Or he retrieves the chalice that gives everlasting life and salvation. Or he uses a mysterious force to lead a rebel alliance against the totalitarian galactic empire.

Horses? This quest needs no horses!

Hero tales are formative for those in formation- the maturing child, who instinctively yearns to accomplish something significant, which is the path to status in the collective, and thus to relative power and reproductive success. But what defines success and significance? It is necessarily the collective that must define what is important, via its bards who recite its problems both perennial and topical, provide the grist of heroic adventure and conflict, and award fame for their successful conclusion. Whether it is raging beasts in the countryside, Orwellian tyranny, taunting goddesses, or a world-wide conspiracy of death-eaters, the threat is not individual, but collective, and thus the hero serves the collective, something "greater than himself", as many people express their seeking behavior. Success of any kind is attractive, but to be truly compelling, success needs to resolve big problems and be valued by others. (Though in fairness, the hero may toil in obscurity and only be recognized in retrospect, perhaps long after his death, to have solved the momentous problem. Such a tale may have additional romance, and happen in reality all too often, but is not typically what a reader wishes to emulate for her or his own life path.)

One characteristic element of the standard hero tale is the reckoning with the father. Luke Skywalker finally meets his maker in a climactic scene. Jesus naturally has mixed emotions about his father, whoever that might be, who has left him up on the cross. The father represents the existing system, which has formed the hero, but which also perpetuates all the problems that he exists to solve. The father must be transcended for the tale to conclude successfully. Paul Atreides has spiritual and temporal powers far beyond his father's, and succeeds where the father had failed. More interestingly, Jesus, while always respectful of the father and putatively acting in his service, ends up totally upending the father's theology and bringing a new dispensation, whether that was "in reality" his intention or not.

Sometimes the goal of a quest is so abstract and theologically attenuated as to be absurd. Maybe the quest was the important thing after all.

More complicated is the role of the special gift. Harry Potter has the mark of the lightning flash, and special powers of leadership and magic. All the Marvel heros have some special power. Heroes are typically born of noble houses, though they may be unrecognized or abused for some of the story. What is the function of all this apparatus? Isn't the point of the hero tale to inspire normal boys to seek glory for themselves from/for their collective? Why start with abnormal heroes? The quest needs to be done in a noble way, morally upright. But that hardly requires a particular form of birth.

I think much of this has to do with the inner quest, which is another aspect of the hero tale. In order to seek outer glory, the hero needs first an inner quest, to find the confidence, knowledge, and personal resources to do extraordinary things. Jesus grappled with satan in the desert, while Paul Atreides grapples with sandworms in the desert (always an epic setting; Lawrence of Arabia grappled there with a recalcitrant, but noble, Arab culture). Each person has some special gifts and skills, and an important aspect of life, particularly adolescence, is to find what those might be. The ability to be clairvoyant, or to accumulate The Force are symbolic of momentous discoveries about the self which happen during growth to adulthood. While few of us will find nirvanna, or that we are the son of god, nevertheless whatever we do find will be the key to our ability to differentiate ourselves from the crowd, while earning its respect. Each person follows this archetypal path, and it is typically a difficult and uncertain one, thus the universal interest it evokes.

The noble house and lineage aspect seems more atavistic. One of the hero's special gifts / typical traits (which is key to the story's cultural and pedagogical significance) is to be naturally noble in deportment, morals, and martial prowess. Given our instinctive racism and appreciation for inheritance of traits, it is then natural to make this occur by having the hero some secret child of the king, or an acknowledged child who breaks out of the mold and takes a different path (Buddha). Or who comes both from a noble family and from the planet Krypton. Surely we could come up with a more modern way to handle this! Even the Black Panther is of noble birth. Tolkein gets points on this score for his low-class heroes in the Lord of the Rings.

But there is also a superstitious element. Luck is one thing the hero needs to have on his side, and this has traditionally been bound up with cosmic forces and mysteries, instinctively (and animistically) personified. Special forms of communication with these forces, or at least encouraging signs from them, would by this primitive instinct, be essential to success. One can take this in more rational way, however, to indicate a certain humility and appreciation before the complex and often inscrutable real forces that form our basis of operations, including the social forces that may not be ready for the hero's revolutionary work and need to be brought along by way of their primitive beliefs, whatever their nature and value.

Maybe a little self-flagellation would help?

It is particularly pathetic when a hero is so venerated and his boons are so attractive that his devotees make a fetish or even religion of him, employing a priesthood to retail third-hand boons of a studiously invisible nature. Generally, the emulation of nobility, and inner quests modeled on that of the hero, are not a bad thing. But the whole point of the tale was to find and develop one's own self and one's own resources- one's unique gifts and path in life- rather than to adopt another's wholesale, or worse yet, to fantasize about fictional powers and benefits that can be cadged via supplication and abasement. That would be to fundamentally misunderstand the point of the hero archetype, going so far as to reverse it as an engine for the most unheroic behavior. Thankfully, such overblown renditions have been relatively rare over the recent centuries (though Scientology, and before that, Mormonism, stand as significant and unfortunate counter-examples). Yet overall, absurd hero-religions, mostly stemming from more distant epochs, remain all too common.

The quality of the hero story plays an important role in its society, of which it is a gauge and exemplar. Just think of the pervasive influence of Homer's epics, or of Christianity. It defines not only the archetypal problems to be faced, but the standard of morality / nobility the aspiring hero must have to engage in its quest / solution. Star Wars cast the enemy as a Stalinist totalitarianism, while Buddhism cast the enemy as Maya and attachment to outer and fleeting things. While moral good and bad are perennial problems of the human condition, other aspects can change. The balance between inner and outer quests is a key indicator of a tale's maturity and spiritual content. Our current tales seem to center on the Marvel universe, of which I know very little. But it seems generally dedicated to extravagant violence and justice, with a somewhat infantile/regressive tone, overall. There is limited inner focus. They seem on the level of the Bond franchise, but without the understatement or style. It was extremely disturbing when, after 9/11, there was a rash of corner-cutting hero tales that supported the use of torture.

John Cleese strikes a heroic pose.

At this time when the actual culture is run by those fitting an antihero archetype, (technically, the heel), and the planet truly in peril, it is even more imperative that the stories that form our hero mythology and guide our questing youth be well-constructed, compelling, positive, and timely in their selection and portrayal of problems. Vietnam was a watershed in this regard, sending us from the morally simple comforts of the old Westerns and Hollywood classics, into self-lacerating work like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, and most recently, Game of Thrones. This depressing trajectory reflects changes in American culture, which has become more complicated and self-doubting, (perhaps mature), even mean. Realistic? That is hardly the point of the hero tale, frankly. Many recent film-makers have tried their hand at the saving-the-planet story, surely the one we need most of all, (from Avatar to Independence Day), but none seem to have become canonical. Someone needs to do a better job painting the deep challenges of the day for tomorrow's heroes.


  • Unfit to serve on a sewer board. But then, who helped elect him?
  • In praise of curated data. Sort of the opposite of Twitter, Facebook, and the other new news, but not cheap to do.
  • New tech, same as the old tech.
  • Liberals sometimes can't help drinking the right-wing economic koolaid.

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