Friday, June 12, 2009

The Problem of the ‘Designated’ Hero Archetype...

First off, I want to apologize for the delays in writing anything here at the Lexicon Blog, I’ve been overwhelmed with 'behind the scenes' projects with the proper Lexicon site, as well as some personal, and creative projects.

Last February, Past Lexicon contributor Chris Knowles was interviewed by Aeolus Kephas of the site, Stormy Weather, for a fascinating discussion, that can be archived here in two parts.

Stormy Weather pt. 1 interview

Stormy Weather pt. 2 interview

Aspects of this interview touched on some issues that I have been pondering and have been preoccupied with for years, the skeptical deconstruction of the Hero Archetype. Chris’s own site, The Secret Sun, is preoccupied with finding connections between contemporary symbolism and ancient symbolism. My personal preoccupations have always been how the hero archetype has evolved from classic Greek mythologies, as well as the mythologies around the world, into the kind of serialized notion of the hero.

Of course, all of the following points have been discussed without end, by others who are far more altruistic and intelligent than myself, but these are my gut observations about these issues.

The Hero archetype has been examined at length through the work and writings of Joseph Campbell. The classic hero archetype, the journey of the hero to find his place in the world, is ancient, potent, I believe is deep seeded in our consciousness, or to reference Jung, our collective unconsciousness. The development of what I coin, the "Designated" hero has evolved with the trend of the superhero over the last hundred years. Elements of the Superhero have always existed, but have become more narrowly defined within pop culture

Here’s my dilemma, once you think about, and analyze the role of "Designated" Hero, you forced to the see the flaw in the very notion, of the very nature is of this type of specific character archetype. That there is a diminishing return to the role of an individual saving others, or a city, or community, or the world on a regular basis, and this is what made the movie version of The Watchmen so fascinating. There has been accusations by some comic book fans that author Alan Moore hates Heroes. It is my observation that some of these accusations are similar to the types of accusations leveled at filmmaker Stanley Kubrick over his entire body of work. Both men have been dismissed for their cynicism; I would argue that Moore and Kubrick were less 'cynics' than realists about human nature.

It's one of the reasons why I found Christopher Nolan's Batman films to be so interesting, exactly for their insight into human nature. I have observed, from his past observations, that Secret Sun webmaster, Chris Knowles has been disillusioned about Nolan’s interpretation of the Batman character, and that we share a different reaction to these films. I have always felt that Chris Nolan is building up a point by point argument and illustrating that Batman's brand of vigilantism would never work in the real world, it is a flawed ideal to begin with, and only could lead to diminishing returns, in spite of good intentions. This is why I predict the final film of Nolan's trilogy will be the bleakest, and why it will lead to the self destruction of Bruce Wayne, it's already set in the cards.

One of the interesting things about the character "Dr. Manhattan" from The Watchmen was in fact that he was omnipotent, wise, and detached from other humans. It is hard to not see that Superman displays the same traits; the fundamental difference that prevents Superman from holding that same kind of detachment for humanity is the fact that he was raised on a farm by a mortal couple, the Kents. Thus, he has retained a connection. It’s one of the things I found interesting about the hero deconstructionist approach of Superman Returns, I predict Superman must die so that the son, a kind of alien / human hybrid, can lead his fellow mortals through example, though his son's own connection to humanity, and that his son’s diminished abilities will bring about a greater connection and sense of responsibility.

For myself, I find it much more interesting to find out what happens to Harry Potter after his daring feats of heroism, what price must be paid, what toll it will take on Harry to have the expectation of his friends that he can find a solution to every crisis, and what will happen when an older Harry can't find a solution to every crisis. A lot of my unpublished writing has been concerned with the very price to be paid for such heroes, when the nature of being a hero no longer works, I have found this an ongoing preoccupation as well as puzzle. When does the good example set by heroes become a self destructive obsession?

Billie Joe Armstrong, and the rock band Green Day, has focused on the issue of patriotic jingoism, as well as American mythic ideology, on their last two albums. The lyrics to the song "See The Light", from 21st Century Breakdown raises a very valid idea. And I’d argue, in their own way, Green Day is questioning the American hero archetype.

"I just want to see the Light, I don’t want to lose my sight, I need to know what’s worth the fight."

What happens when a hero is no longer clear about what he is fighting for?

Songwriter, Stephen Sondheim, brilliantly examined how fables, and by extension, certain archetypes, are interpreted and understood in the song, "Children Will Listen" from the musical Into The Woods.

"Careful the wish you make, Wishes are children, Careful the path they take, Wishes come true, not free. Careful the spell you cast, not just on children, Sometimes the spell may last, past what you can see, and turn against you, Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell, Children will Listen."

The tales we tell can have a potent impact on how we view the world and yet isn’t this the essence of why stories are told? Should the teller of such tales operate with greater care? If we cling too tightly to the conventions of our hero archetypes, don’t we risk having it working against us in real life?

A side preoccupation, brilliantly illustrated in Chris Carter’s Fox series Millennium, has been the danger of prophecy, which I have also become increasingly skeptical toward. The problem of Prophecies is not in their existence, Prophecies on their own are harmless, but the danger lies in their interpretation, and the willingness of men to take action and make them happen. Thus, the very fabric of the notion of 'Fate', does fate exist, or do we create out own fate? This is why I always identified in one of the key sentiments and phrases of Terminator 2: Judgment Day – "No fate but what we make."

In other words, will we take the final chapter of the Christian Scriptures to heart? Is the Book of Revelations a kind of wish fulfillment? Will we interpret those signs correctly? Or,... for example, the multitude of other religions that believe in Armageddon and reinforce the idea of a global fate in their own contructs? If prophecy is the construct of mortal men to begin with, then don’t we have the choice to reject those constructs?

I realize the following prior point is very loaded indeed, and touches on a very Nietzscheian notion. Should we spit in the eye of such beliefs, such constructs as fate and destiny? What if all of the scriptures of the world’s religions, which were interpreted by mortal men, no less, what if those interpretations strayed from the real intention of a higher power? Historically, there is ample evidence to the negative outcome of religions to cling to rigid dogmas. To tie this together with the issue of mythic archetypes, what does it mean if the accepted archetype of the hero itself has been misinterpreted?

Which brings me now to Mulder and Scully, (did you not think I’d bring this up?), relates to this question. Mulder falls into the same example of the "Designated" hero, and we have witnessed the same diminishing returns as well as the cost illustrated throughout his history and his actions. While Mulder’s instincts have nearly always been correct, and his obsessions might have brought about great good, it came at a terrible cost for himself, Scully, his parents, and associates. Was Mulder's decade long efforts worth the final outcome? I guess it would depend on understanding what was at stake, of knowing what was worth the fight, and what wasn’t. With a destination that hasn't been reached in the X-Files mythos.

This isn't to say the message and the meaning of the hero is inherently wrong. During this period of our history, we do need heroic examples. The central point has always been the same and will always remain true, that everyone is capable of being heroic, and it doesn’t have to result in grand sweeping gestures, or the ultimate in self sacrifice. Heroism can be found in daily little gestures, as well as the bravery of holding true to ones convictions. If we have the choice to reject the constructs that drive the belief in destiny, then the "Designated" hero can simply choose to walk away, and let others set the example.

This isn't a bad thing. To hold into this skepticism of the traditional role of the hero archetype, it is indeed healthy, and it might be needed as we move into the 21st Century.

Ultimately, perhaps the role of the hero is no longer needed if we can learn to stop being passive in our interactions with the world around us, or dependent on others to guide our lives. If we can keep things in perspective, with a clear and objective view about how to live our lives, and use as an example the best qualities of what makes someone heroic, as a template for how to deal with real world challenges, then we can move into something that I see as hopeful.

There is a lot of wisdom in the concluding point: You can't save others, until you can save yourself.

4 comments:

catvincent said...

Found you via Chris Knowles' blog.
Excellent piece. As someone who's deeply interested in use of hero-figures in spiritual/magical praxis, I found it a fascinating & refreshing perspective.

A question, if I may... how do you feel about the attitude to the hero concept in The Incredibles, especially the line about "if everyone's a hero, then nobody is"?

Ed said...

I remember reading in Neil Gaiman's Sandman; "He who seeks vengeance should dig two graves." I agree with this statement and I find your assesment of the new Batman films to be dead on. Bruce Wayne is doomed unless his mission of vengeance becomes a mission of justice.

I wouldn't put anything past them, but I don't see Superman dying in the next film because I don't think Warner Brothers would allow it. I'm not sure but I don't think the last film was well recieved. If there is a new Superman film, it should go in a new direction.

The X-Files Lexicon Blog said...

Hi Catvincent, Thank you for the comments, Flattered, Chris Knowles is a good guy. I'm a big fan of Brad Bird's "The Incredibles", as well as most everything from the Pixar camp. I agree with the sentiment, I mean, there's an argument that if people were more proactive in solving the world's problems, or their personal problems, they're wouldn't be a need to depend on heroes. If it wasn't clear, I do feel there are common man heroes around us all of the time, but we tend to not dwell on what might be happening in our own backyards, as far as heroic deeds by common folks.

I'm flattered by the comments, but like Chris, I'm more interested in questions than offering up answers, I don't have "The big secret answer" to anything.

The X-Files Lexicon Blog said...

Hi Ed, Thank you for your comments. Good observations.

I don't know if I completely agree with your take on the future of the next Superman film. If Bryan Singer is allowed, like Nolan, to continue, my hunch is, if I were the writer, there should be two more films, the third dealing with Doomsday / Superman's death. There's some hard to ignore religious analogies in SR:

Superman = Jesus Christ

If you think about the important subtext of "The DiVinci Code", that Christ was married and had produced a mortal child, that is a more significant theological idea than the immaculate conception, the mortal joining of the flesh with the divine spirit through marriage. This is why the subplot in SR about him having a son feels important to me. The world would no longer need an outsider like Superman to solve it's own problems. Doesn't Jor El say, "the people of Earth could be a great people if shown the way", pretty religious subtext for a film in 1978.