Cultural heroes come and go but the qualities they stand for often remain the same. Just as ancient societies purged themselves of contamination by discharging it upon the body of a scapegoat driven from the community (an act itself the genesis for a cultural hero, Jesus) our heroes often stand for qualities we admire but find hard to achieve in our own lives. By discharging these ideals on cultural heroes and driving them to our imaginative realm we give them some kind of ability to endure.
Think of a cultural hero. Too late, I’ve thought of one first: Sherlock Holmes. The value we celebrate here is reasoning power. We, like all humans, respect the ability to reason, yet we know our ability to do so is impaired by strong, primitive emotions that interfere with the reasoning process. So we like Sherlock. He’s single, which we should be in order to think clearly, but can’t manage to be. He doesn’t do much except play the violin and take cocaine, and occasionally fire pistol shots at the living room wall (he never misses either). And collect information. All those newspapers and the clippings from them! How he would have loved the internet! Sherlock was always very clear about how he worked. He observed. He both looked and saw. And then he deduced from his observations. Nothing hard about that, surely. But as Dr. Watson makes obvious, we can’t do it. Not a chance. Mood swings, pressure of work, interruptions, kids, too much to drink, indigestion, that new thriller we just have to finish, our spouse feels neglected, the resentment we feel at unfair comments from friends, family or colleagues… on it goes. So we like Sherlock. He shows us that deducive reasoning is possible, and we need to know that (even research scientists who of course are too busy competing with one another to exercise the skill). At least we’re not such duffers as Dr. Watson, so there is hope.
Cultural heroes also tell us something about our times. Take Tarzan. Pretty clearly he represents the ability to stay in tune with one’s environment. A basic survival skill. This is even clearer if we look at Tarzan’s source, Mowgli. For thousands of years humans have been spectacularly successful at adapting to their environment, staying alive as the Bee Gees would say (even though these insist in singing against a strong breeze and risk catching a cold). Then yesterday we invented the Industrial Revolution and lost the plot. For a while the First World made itself feel better by lecturing the Third World about the dangers of deforestation and industrial pollution (the First World are experts on both these problems, having invented them). But the bigger our cities, the more artificial our food, the less we came in touch with natural phenomenon like sunrise and sunset, the more we needed a hero who could do it for us. Mowgli wasn’t quite right; he was a character in a children’s book invented by a writer we dismissed as an offensive imperialist (and poor Rudyard’s the greatest short story writer who’s ever lived!). When Tarzan came along he really took off. A kind of all purpose natural man, a Superman without the threat of kryptonite. But Tarzan’s retired now, gone back to find the last remaining bit of jungle and commiserate with the last few gorillas. No Jane to rescue, just tractors and logging saws which drown out his warcry. Have we given up on rejoining our environment or is it that Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t swing from a vine?
Another cultural hero who has had his time and wandered off is Charlie Chaplin. During the Great Depression he represented resilience. He took the blows we all suffered in life, but no matter how hard they were, eventually he would shrug his shoulders, twirl his cane and clump off with his outsize boots, and every now and then give a jump for joy at how good life was despite it all. We needed to know that. We always will of course, and there’s many a figure to take his place, but none so universally accepted. Perhaps this is because the problems we face are so radically different from society to society now that no one figure can seem relevant to all. Or maybe it’s just that there has never been so universal a medium as silent film.
Some cultural heroes are one trick ponies. Gilgamesh was a demi god who went looking for the plant of immortality. He speaks for every person who’s ever lived (and died). Bilbo Baggins takes a stand against injustice threatening his world, just as his predecessor St George took on the Dragon. He speaks for everyone who regrets the passing of the good values in our society. Marilyn Monroe stands for the hope that sexual allure can co-exist with innocence, something we’ve never been very sure about because we feel so damn guilty about sex.
And there are what you might call negative cultural heroes. To enter into the spirit of this investigation you have to stop your identification with the hero for a moment. It would be great to be a Dirty Harry for a while, and take out all those idiots who insist on cutting lanes without an indicator flash. “Go on”, you say as you pull level, “make my day”. But aside from this vicarious satisfaction, it looks like Dirty Harry helps us deal with the sheer frustration of living in a high speed, ugly and extremely selfish urban environment. I guess things are even more desperate for you if you’re a standin for Charles Bronson or Bruce Willis.
This is a great argument to use if you get criticised for watching too many action movies. When the girls get home after watching Thelma and Louise they can be very assertive. “It’s cool” you explain, “watching guys with seven foot pistols blow holes in each other helps keep me sane”.
This brings up the interesting question of female heroes. Not heroines, they’re for men. They exist, but don’t serve a purpose for most women because they’ve been created by men. What woman needs another sexy blonde goddess with large breasts to live up to? One could almost imagine that women don’t need heroes, until you read the novels of Jane Austen and realise that the psychoplay occurs on a more modest, feminine dimension. Jane’s heroines don’t need a sword, they can kill with a word. I’m a man, and so too modest to speak about a woman’s fantasy life, except to deplore mere copies of what men come up with, like Xena.
I’m talking, if you hadn’t realised it, about mythology, and also about religion, of which myth is a part. The indications are that myth (and religion) are therapeutic and necessary for the normal functioning of the mind (like dreams). That is why everyone is religious, even atheists. But people think they know too much about religion. They confuse knowledge and faith. Somehow conveying the joy of your faith turns into a heated and sometimes violent argument as to whether there are seven million or eight million angels able to stand on the end of a needle. Looking at our heroes is a lot simpler than that.
So already we have discovered there are heroes who stand for qualities we admire but don’t exercise enough (Casanova, anyone?); heroes who help us cope with life outside the Garden of Eden in all its frustration. And there are heroes who exorcise qualities we have but wish we didn’t (how about Adolf Hitler – no, let’s not go there).
This calls for a list. Heroes, and what they really do for us.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.