Heroic figures traditionally appear in many forms, ranging from the sub- to superhuman. Their abiding trait, common to protagonists in Western cultures is that of a creature aura’ed by the uncanny or a personage haloed by the sublime: they are paragons of strength or beauty, innocence or experience, cunning or wisdom — the hero is a sufferer and a doer. When it was realized a century ago that the old heroic type was an endangered species, perhaps even already extinct, Nietzsche desperately imagined him as one who goes down and under, in order to go up and over: ascending, that is, from the abyss, and surmounting its farther edge to impel himself forward into the unknown horizon of a post-Christian future.
Although Nietzsche’s paradigm is modeled on his notion of Evolution, which landed the philosopher in all that nonsense of the “over-man” (with its unfortunate corollary of the “under-man,” and worse yet, his ancillary, the “under-woman”), he calls his own, true, hero Zarathustra, after the ancient philosopher-sage, to emphasize his essentially humane qualities, as opposed to the supernatural attributes our too excitable human imagination usually adds to its heroes.
Our imagination has always projected itself into the forms offered by religious ritual behavior, which exalts its object in order to make it worthy of awe and adoration. Adoration unfortunately entails submission to the supernal and/or the divine, something that Nietzsche himself, unlike the later Heidegger, skeptically and then stoically resisted. It seems we must, we will! have heroes and heroines both in literature and in life. If nowadays we lack heroes and heroines, we must ask, May their substitution by other sorts of figures, chiefly unheroic, [and in the 20th Century the anti-heroic] suffice? We might also ask, What kind of literature has been produced in that case, and what does it reveal about ourselves?
In the folklore of the United States, sub-human and animal heroes were usually amoral tricksters; they were both cunning and wicked, innocent or evil as the case may be; many of their characteristics are traceable to Native American, African, or the Old World types that have come down to us in legends and fairytales. Humor is their main characteristic. Some of our heroes were giants, even taller than their own tall-tales; they tended towards comic exaggeration of common traits, and were capable of incredible feats of strength. Most of its humor comes from the deracination and marginalization, as some might put it today, of people who were confronted with the many unknowns of survival in a raw, turbulent, new, and inexperienced society. And its charming quality, which still crops up in the writing of Southerners, marked the stories of the dialect writers of the old Southwest, into Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, and later, the Far West and its Frontier, who exploited the wild eccentricities of individuals who had escaped the traditional values and cultural constraints of settled European society. Boastful, boisterous. and self-delighting, it was largely high-spirited and good-natured, satiric stuff.
Humor is folk and tribal. Comedy, however, is not something associated with the barbaric and heroic, which is usually rather serious. Hercules does not laugh. By the time of the Civil War and its aftermath, the closing of the Frontier, the genial possibilities of the innocent and crude folk heroic had been exhausted; in the Twentieth Century, its vestigial features dropped away, and important American writers were turning towards the realistic and naturalistic, aiming at social criticism.
Concomitantly the heroic was tainted (let us say corrupted) by the Romantic-nostalgic, distorted by the Decadent perverse-melodramatic, and also weakened (let us say, poisoned) by the bad faith of the Sentimental — modes of expression that seem to have grown ever more powerful with the growth of mass-markets in publishing and the entertainment media after 1900. Perhaps the concept of the heroic really belongs to the still untamed, masculine ideals of the barbaric and its warrior culture. One cannot help feeling, though, that the original idea of the hero as a figure embodying transhuman capabilities remains the real (if unconscious) standard against which we measure all our recent models. The degradation of the heroic and aristocratic ideal carried the archetype from the noble to the gallant, and from the merely gallant to its current stereotyped caricature: a dummy dressed in the uniform of the armed mass. How easy it was for the anti-hero of the mid-century to jeer at, to mock, and then, daring to approach its inert form, to beat that effigy.
What struck one looking back during the last years of the last decade of the Twentieth Century is the singular metamorphosis of the struggling protagonist we remember from, say, Herman Melville’s novels, MOBY DICK and PIERRE, into quite a different sort of person. When one thinks about stories such as his “Bartleby the Scrivener” or “Benito Sereno,” and BILLY BUDD, or about his last, “unfinished” novel, THE CONFIDENCE MAN, one realizes that those works predicted the vanishing heroic. By the time we come to T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway in the 1920’s, we find a hero characteristic of the period of entre les deux guerres: he is either passive and/or maimed in his masculinity; that is, fatally in his (phallic) heroism. Their heroes are drunk and impotent, or impotent and drunk, and their heroism consists in suffering and enduring. They cannot act because their “Eros” is either blighted psychologically as in Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” or blasted physically as in Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS and THE SUN ALSO RISES. Most of the protagonists in Faulkner’s novels from beginning to end share the same aspects of the ruined heroic: unmanned in mind or body, sometimes in both. In Fitzgerald’s novels the same feature of passivity is obvious. After the First World War, in short, the heroic was realized, not under the club of Hercules, bur rather under the wound of Philoctetes.
In fact, it would seem that the main challenge to men writing in the United States has been to seek the possibility of the heroic, whether it is located in the awareness of a narrator or revealed in their protagonist’s fate. At the heart of most of our fiction, there is the agony of the struggle merely to imagine the heroic, let alone to achieve some simulacrum of it. That agony may be explained when one realizes that it is but a short step in much of Hemingway and Fitzgerald from the wounded, unmanned hero to the protagonist who has not been able to grow up, who has remained an adolescent, or, as in Faulkner, to an adolescent who refuses to grow up, sometimes even committing suicide to avoid that terrible, perhaps impossible task.
But, if what was the heroic can no longer be imagined under the circumstances of our culture, then the Tragic also disappears, a fact recognized since Goethe. Perhaps that is one reason why it has been said that America has not yet known, may never come to know, a sense of the tragic, or that America went from adolescence to senility, bypassing maturity. Yet it was from the failure or fated doom of adulthood’s passionate aspiration, and the triumph of maturity, that the Tragic flowered. Without that there can be no sense of the heroic either. America however seems to have passed up that struggle, and with it its opportunity for heroes and heroines. What is the cause — rather what might be the causes of our failure — for not only did we not seek the heroic in the mid-Twentieth Century, but actually avoided it? Although we do have more than enough of swagger and camp in the universe of rock theatrics. Are we poor in writers, or only poverty-stricken in imagination?
I think the root causes are likely to be several. Some circumstantial; some psychological; some historic. Tragedy, however, is scarcely involved with them, although the tragic figure was heretofore the chief model for heroism. To use the Aristotelian categories of pity and terror, in many Twentieth Century American works there is much to pity; but seldom is there terror. Although Americans are notorious for their sensitivity and conscience, their generosity to the victims of catastrophe everywhere in the world, we seem to lack a sense of terror. Why? Let me offer propose simple explanations.
In the first place, from its beginnings America never accepted the universal lot of mankind. America was dedicated by its Founders to the pursuit of happiness. America believed that happiness could and should be pursued, and that a proper regulation of its political and social affairs would lead us to that end: especially since the idea of original, natural evil was not quite believed after the power of the Puritan theodicy waned. Hawthorne in the early Nineteenth Century dealt with that issue. At the same time, Emerson and Thoreau certainly exemplified our optimistic natural theology (they called it philosophy), one which looked ahead and outward, or within and backward. In other words, it would be hard to call such representative, and major, writers Christian. America was for them, America remains for us, a great hope; no matter what we may pretend by way of despair, we still secretly believe America is humanity’s last, great chance. Even those writers and rebels who have most attacked and refuted America since Bierce and Mencken, say, have done so as critics and reformers, not as irredeemable skeptics and pessimists. Perhaps it may be safe to suggest that even though we are retreating to ideas of salvation based upon hoped-for technological fixes, Americans have not yet abandoned all hope for our political process, even if our consensus is that it has become just a means of mass-manipulation, especially at this juncture, when we run the immense risk of a complacency inspired by the utter collapse, political, economic, and moral of the century-old, socialist-totalitarian adventure. Another’s catastrophic error should not delude one into presuming that one is right; indeed, a tragic sense would certainly work to prevent such illusions in us — if we had such a sense at all.
In other words, optimism, and its obverse, cynicism, have ever been the prevailing moods, so to speak, of the American psyche. We have but the vaguest notion of what evil is, or what evil was for Plato, say, or even for Christ. We seem to think that we are either good or — not evil, but rather only goodness corrupted. Such an outlook takes us to an ethos of the Sentimental, not the Tragic. It leads from pathos to bathos. It makes us think of evil as something accidental, like today’s notion of evil as sickness, something caused merely by eating foods grown with pesticides, or lack of exercise, or a failure to recognize reincarnation. It leads us to the consumerist ethos of plastic surgery and prosthesis. Our technological power that gives individuals undreamt-of ordinary powers to travel, to hear, and to see, to maintain and often to cure ourselves, thus prolonging life’s pleasures, tends to obscure to us the tragic sense of failure, and the ultimate failure that is death. There is no prosthesis for death. Even the exploration of virtual reality, which is scarcely yet a reality, cannot avoid the void of death; it will provide only a theme park for cyberpunks, one that will glow in the dark — until the plug’s pulled.
Our powers therefore don’t necessarily suggest a way to lead us towards solace in the moral realism of the Heroic and Tragic. Saul Bellow, for one, has studied this strange conception of ours and its absurd consequences in his novels since THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH in 1952. Bellow has always tasked himself to render American characters and the result has been humanly complex, satirical comedy.
In the second place, American writers after World War II did not display the numbed shock, the symbolic castration of the will, as it were, which seems so evident to us when we glance back at the 1920’s. Instead, they found, as did others elsewhere, the anti-heroic. Instead of the wounded Philoctetes, they found the Void. In that void their anti-heroes proposed a passive kind of action that is the very opposite of what a European like Sartre taught: action as self-definition; it was a passivity that only acted, when it did act, in a spasm of self-assertion that could find meaning only in action itself, action lacking any larger, metaphysical sanction. Pynchon called it “Yo Yo-ing” in his first novel, V. The anti-heroic, alienated American hero became by the 1960’s something thought of as exemplifying the Absurd, the neo-Surreal, and Black Comedy, so-called. It was a desperately stoic mood, in short, that came to rule, and still does, under the sign of the Grotesque, which is a sub-category of the Comic. Kosinki’s BEING THERE, and Gaddis’ CARPENTER’S GOTHIC are prime instances of this realm of our Being.
The Comic, however is not the opposite of the Tragic. Socrates thought the Comic a mixed mode, one that somehow involves aspects of both Comedy and Tragedy, yet is neither. To explore this here is impossible. Not for lack of space, but, in fact, because I suspect we are unable to grasp it at all in our era. Why? Because we seem to have lost our bearings regarding what those things once were; worse, those things may be altogether lost to us. Yet, if they are lost, it could be interesting to ask why that should be so. One main reason may be that we are being transformed by society and by our post-industrial, hyper-rationalized, technological culture into a type whose development is arrested, a type that cannot rise to the level of insight tragedy requires, not to speak of the tragic-comic mode that is Comedy.
We cannot rise to that level because we do not mature. My argument is, therefore, a psychological one. Our failure is failure to mature into persons. A reasonable example of this problem is the perennial popularity of a novel like CATCHER IN THE RYE, which seems to characterize the adolescent youth of the past 50 and more years. Whereas for Shakespeare “ripeness is all,” in our day even maturation is. alas, a consummation for which we may devoutly wish, but cannot hope to read as the conclusion of a novel. Again, various explanations may be adduced. I think they are to be sought in the conditions of our culture since World War II, in a society that has constrained the individual towards infantilism. It is an infantilism that is today, in the United States, at least, illustrated by an adolescence prolonged well into middle-age, only to be released by a sudden, often shocked, awakening into an old age powerless to act on behalf of others or its own self. It may be one consequence of massification, which has long been discussed by social psychologists. It is this infantilism that is especially evident in males in the United States, and it is the secret story of the literature produced by major writers since 1960. What underlies it is perhaps the problem of bondage and its manifestation, servitude.
For example, it might be said the dog, which Homo sapiens domesticated a half-million years ago, remains a childish, adolescent version of his canine cousins in the wild. Similarly, it has been remarked that the principal technique of mastership (apart from its reliance on sheer power to subject) involves the reduction of the enslaved to the status of the dependent child. That is the key to understanding race and class oppression. Again, the case of the feminist in the complex world(s) of American society also reveals women’s rebellion against a condition in which it was finally understood that the female has usually been trained to be a child as well as a sexual object, in order to retain her as chattel. The condition of childishness is intrinsic to bondage. Children, however, are naturally and logically nothing but children. The person reduced to the level of childhood is neither a logical nor a natural being. In other words, infantilization with its features of perpetual adolescence is propagated in a culture — whether deliberately or unconsciously, or as an ineluctable consequence of the social and economic structure — as a means to domination of the person. Under our conditions it may be that both men and women suffer a similar stunting and stultification, because the massification of a consumerist/technological society renders the experience of work as well as private life into something homogeneous, and not gender-specific.
In other words, subjugation is also the consequence of our inability or our failure to realize ourselves. People may be unable to realize themselves perhaps because the species is in itself a deficient animal, and its strength so small as to be nearly nothing in the face of the universe, and certainly utterly without remedy in the face of death. So religion and philosophy have taught. Yet, because we live so long, obliged to work our way through several stages of psychological growth, the heroic archetype may have something to do with the ideal of mastery, domination being the sign of control not just over ourselves but others as well. Mastering ourselves usually results in the reduction of others to our abject dependents, though it need not. Psychologically, with a sort of perverse logic, people may seek to reassure themselves that they do in fact rule themselves by subjecting others. That is of course a delusion, as is realized on those rare occasions when the slave rebels (or the elephant crushes its keeper). Again, a good many of Faulkner’s major novels are built on the not-so-disguised theme of the eventual revolt of the enslaved.
So far as the causes of our American infantilism are concerned, however, the domination that either causes and/or enforces it may stem from the disintegration of traditional values in contemporary society. Or perhaps it arises from the special American political foundation itself, displeasing as such a proposition might seem. 0ur failure to struggle for control and vision, the achievement of which is symbolized by the heroic agon, seems to derive from the way we live today — in a commodified society, one in which there is nothing that is not for sale. Our workaday activities, and the public and private entertainments intended to further our pursuit of happiness, of mind and matter, of art and science — all are transmogrified into products meant to be sold — and their consumption offers all the comforts that ease the anguish caused by our failure to find an authentic happiness — in short, everything in our lives conduces to our arrested development. As T.S. Eliot puts it, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.”
The sources of domination, in short, may lie deeper than race, deeper than gender and sexual preferences and practices, deeper even than economic structure, each of which American utopists have always attempted to alter, so as to find, or regain, what they too-easily imagine as Paradise. Nowadays the frustration met with in that unending project of reform is displayed in the extreme irritability of political activists and artists, and a turn towards puritanical forms of righteousness. It may be the case, however, that domination is the principal biological mode of the individual’s self-realization, within the family and community, as well as that of our species’ ingrained characteristic from its first appearance. Hawthorne’s little parable, “The Birthmark,” seems a fine illustration of the paradox here. Obviously, the dissolution in advanced societies of most of the social and psychological constraints that subjected people in the past by reducing them to less than autonomous adults has not liberated all that many individuals. All too few, in fact. Buddhism dealt with that issue from its very beginnings.
Perhaps the heroic was something that was idealized in the struggle towards adulthood. Certainly it is the loss of that ideal, it seems to me, which has prolonged the childish and the infantile in us. Our media arts seem altogether dedicated to the infantilization of their subjects and audiences. And worse, the values one associates with the perspectives of the adolescent person also seem to form a pattern that underlies various recent trends in fictional technique, whether they are so-called neo-Realist, Minimalist or whatever. The best of our American writers seem to rage in bafflement against this vast silent, cultural drift. Worst of all, because academic literary critics are involved with esoteric theories, and historians seem only concerned to describe society in order to influence social action according to this or that presently-fashionable theory, we are at a loss to find any clear understanding and discussion about ourselves. The art of criticism is scarcely practiced publicly today; all we have are a few syndicated book reviewers who mostly write junior high school level book reports by way of servicing publishers.
Thus, the loss of the heroic ideal, and the effects of that loss as illustrated by much of American literature in the Twentieth Century, suggest that we are without a clue as to who we are or what we are becoming. If the art of literature ever held a mirror up to society, that mirror has been deformed. We should know what the consequences are of such a looking glass for the human heart, since they were clearly pointed at a century ago by a writer (for children!) like Hans Christian Anderson, who, in his profound fable, “The Snow Queen,” said it all-too-clearly. Anderson’s hero, Little Hans, froze into a block of thinking ice, as it were, doomed never to grow up because into his eye and heart had flown two slivers of glass from an evil mirror that reflected everything as its own opposite: Love as Hate, Beauty as Ugliness — and vice versa!
In his fairy tale, Anderson redeemed Hans. In our real world, though, we may never be able to find redemption from this our condition, in which we are frozen into an adult childhood, the mirror of art that showed us ourselves having been warped. In its place we gaze as if entranced into the many-faceted mirror of the ubiquitous media, where we see ourselves reflected in puerile, vacuous political action, and where we sit absorbed by the perpetual circus of the sports of mass society, where our emotions are engaged by mechanical dramas portraying the inane, false, clichéd behavior of vapid Sentimentality, the mechanical, sensational and violent fantasies of Melodrama. Infantilized adults, we are content to be nourished on the synthetic pablum concocted by other fantasists at work in the media factories, people who cannot distinguish between our waking hours and life on the screen, whose schizerino and absurd cartoons are enacted by flesh-and-blood dummies. Perhaps the one characteristic hero who has appeared in our American Twentieth Century is, it seems, Superman. And he came, borne on the ocean of space-time, like an infant Moses, from a doomed planet all too aptly named Krypton.