Text Box: FMA1202F – Heroism and Society
Seminar 1: The Hero – Who is He (or She, or It)?
 
Module Housekeeping
Welcome to the module – to begin with, I want to provide some information and establish some principles which will hopefully enhance your intellectual participation in this module.
1.   As a Freshman Seminar, in-class participation is hugely important.  Unlike many other modules, you will not have a final exam to worry about – but that also means that one cannot idle through the semester and make up for it with a brilliant final exam.  I would thus urge you to come (reasonably) punctually for all seminars (unless you have a valid excuse of course), to participate regularly and actively in class discussions, and to put the appropriate effort into all assignments.
2.   I have structured the CA to make sure that you have a variety of different tasks, to ensure a reasonable workload (remember there’s no final exam to prepare for!), and also different opportunities for students to do well. 
a.   20% of your grade will come from regular class participation – I will divide you into groups for structured group discussions, to ensure that everyone does some work and puts in some participation, so that I can give even the quieter students a grade for this.  But this portion of the grade will also depend on individual (unstructured, informal) participation throughout the semester: I encourage all students to ask, clarify, contribute observations and examples, even challenge or disagree (with reasons and evidence of course) with the point that I or other raise during class.  A small-group seminar must be an interactive teaching environment, and I really hope to see a vital, dialogical interactive environment in this class.
b.   Another 20% will come from an individual presentation on a topic to be determined in consultation with me.  The presentation will be on an aspect of heroism that you might be interested in pursuing for a final project.  You will present on that aspect for 10 minutes, and field questions from the class (and me) for another 5-10 minutes.  Presentations will take place in seminars 8, 9 and 10.
c.   Yet another 20% of your grade will come from a research journal/proposal.  From about week 3 (or earlier, if you like) of the module you will start keeping a journal which records ideas that you might be interested in pursuing for your final project.  The journal will be assessed not on polished and developed ideas, but on evidence of your own personalised engagement and intellectual ownership of the material and ideas on this module, and on the signs of development of your ideas over the weeks.  The journal will help you develop a proposal for your final project.  The proposal will be 2-3 pages in length, consisting of a title, a 2-3 paragraph description of your claim or thesis, and a breakdown of your main ideas, key texts and how you will go about arguing your thesis.  Journals and proposals are due October 7 (seminar 8, at the start of the seminar).
d.   Finally, 40% of your grade will come from your final project.  It is permitted (and expected) that your presentation and journal/proposal will all feed into your final project, although of course the project is likely to be an expansion and refinement of the earlier ideas.  And of course you may well choose to change your project entirely, if feedback and thinking on your earlier ideas prompt this.  Projects are researched papers, between 2500 and 3000 words in length.  They are due 28 October, 12.00 noon.
3.   Attendance at seminars is compulsory, unless you have an MC (or some other valid reason acceptable to me).  Promptness is essential in order to maximise the time we have – I will take attendance at 15 minutes after start of class, and if you come after that you will be deemed to be late.  You are allowed to be tardy for one seminar without excuse, but subsequent tardiness (without acceptable excuse) will be marked as absence.  Excessive absence will result in deduction of marks from your CA grade.  I take your educational experience very seriously, and all these measures are just to ensure that you take it seriously too – it will not be applied unreasonably or harshly.
4.   I’ve posted extensive seminar notes on the course webpage (accessible through IVLE) – these are not intended to be the definitive ideas on this course.  There are no definitive or final answers on a course like this.  I certainly will not favour essays or students who quote the ideas in my notes or my publications.  The emphasis, in this course, is on interactive participation and the development of your own ideas.  The extensive seminar notes are simply there as an available resource, as a starting point should you feel in need of one.  
The Hero: Origins and Definitions?
The Hero is an old idea, whose origins are at least as old as the classical age.  “Hero” derives from the Greek “heros” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary), which means “protector” or “preserver” – originally referring to the demi-gods of Greek mythology (Hercules, Perseus etc) who championed the cause of mankind.  This notion of the martial champion, preserver or defender has corollaries in other/later cultures: Chinese martial arts champions in the warring states era etc (Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms); heroic judges of the Jewish nation in the post-conquest, pre-kingdom era (Samson, Gideon); Arjuna in the Mahabarata; Hang Tuah from the Malacca Sultunate era; and of course many other more recent versions (from Conan the Barbarian to Rambo to Terminator 2).
              The characteristics of the martial-classical hero are fairly straightforward: superior (or superlative) strength and martial skills.  Sometimes this is combined with something called “manifest destiny” (a revealed and overpowering sense of the hero’s origins and high purpose or calling or end – the demi-god origins of the hero and his calling to battle and defeat opponents or accomplish tasks that no ordinary mortal can do.
              The superior stature of the classical hero is registered by Aristotle’s idea (in the Poetics) that epic (his example was Homer) is defined by its being concerned with a protagonist who is “better than they [men] are,” “better than in real life.”  Likewise Tragedy deals with a central character who is “above the common level.”   (Epic and Tragedy used similar characters, sometimes Aristotle uses the word “hero”; they differ in their plots and structures).  Aristotle was talking about moral goodness, but the Greek word usually translated as virtue was “arête,” which had a strong connotation of fulfilling one’s function with courage and honour – in other words, it had a strongly martial connotation.  This is hardly surprising when we remember the context of classical Greece in which Aristotle was writing – a context of frequent warfare between city-states and against foreign invaders, and in which one’s character was best seen in a martial setting.  The physical and martial superiority of the hero was emphasised in other cultures and narratives arising out of martial and unsettled societies: the Jewish champions in a post-conquest context of warring with the Philistines and Canaanites, gunfighters in pre-federal America, chivalric knights in Europe’s dark ages and the era of warring principalities, etc.
              To sum up: the origin of the hero lies in martial (pre-civilized) societies, where the emphasis is on the hero’s strength and martial skill; other central attributes are closely related to this, e.g. manifest destiny (a high calling or purpose), the “virtue” (arête) of honour and courage, the defense or preservation of mankind or a human community (part of arête and destiny, because no-one else can do it).
 
Hero, Destiny, Deity
The semi-divine, protective or salvific nature of the hero points to something we should note throughout: that the nature of the hero has a certain association with the supernatural, the more-than-man.  That is to say, if heroes originated in man’s desire to imagine a special protector, this idea also had many elements of the deity in it.  There also seems to have been a highly ritualized, even sacralised or supernatural role for the hero in pre-modern society: Prometheus or Icarus representing human knowledge/science/endeavour, but with the awareness that punishment and danger are inherent in all that, because of some kind of transgression or contravention of nature or gods (i.e. the myths of Prometheus and Icarus are a kind of catharsis or symbolic evocation and release of the fears of knowledge).  Or the Gawain and Green Knight cycle as a seasonal/harvest ritual (the necessity and importance of dying in order for new life to sprout, and man’s smallness in this scheme of things); or the Grail and Noah’s Ark stories as stories of ecological disaster, man’s culpable role in this, and the hero’s role in atonement for this).
              The hero could be (quasi)divine because of origin (demi-god, specially chosen or anointed by gods); or nature (related to origin, resulting in exceptional abilities), or function (singled out to do what no mortal can do – an act of unique leadership or protection or victory).  Here is where the nature of the hero comes closest to religion, and religion’s role in society.  If religion, as Georges Bataille observes in Theory of Religion, is about man making meaning of existence through acts concerned with fundamental human events like sacrifice and death, then the hero (especially in the classical era) is central to this role.  The hero can make meaning out of man’s relationship to the gods by his semi-divine origins (not just Greek heroes: think of the Monkey God, or Marvel Comics’ Thor) – i.e. a mediator between god and man.  i.e. the hero shows that the gods care in some measure for us.  The hero can play an important role in the ritual of sacrifice – the mystery of one individual giving up his life for others, an act which addresses man’s profound fear of death and what lies beyond the grave.  Similarly, the hero in underworld or resurrection myths (eg Orpheus) offers a kind of answer to that mystery.
              But if this is true, what happens to the hero in modern times, with the rise of science?  It is important to note that if science offers a powerful alternative discourse and value-system to many of the old mythic interpretations of nature, science does not kill off the supernatural altogether (as witness the flourishing of the Gothic during the industrial 19th C, and the popularity of horror novels and movies today).  Science merely becomes an alternative (almost a parallel) discourse to explain the hero’s importance to man.  (e.g. Superman, who has played out the main hero scenarios of quasi-divine origins, sacrifice, even return from “death” – does it really matter that Superman’s origins are scientific, i.e. another planet, different sun, rather than divine?  What’s the difference, in this context, between a far-off planet inaccessible to man, and heaven or Asgard?).  Or Spiderman: doesn’t the bite of a radioactive spider, which cannot possibly be replicated by anyone else, resemble destiny or divine fiat, which is then played out in terms of a salvific role, sacrifice etc? 
              I don’t mean to suggest that modern-day and science-explained heroes are exactly like classical demi-god heroes – obviously there are differences – but only that some of the roles and functions are common ones, driven by unchanging human imperatives.
 
Historical Evolution
History and social context play important roles in the nature and function of the hero.  There are continuities over time, and also historical salvaging, which ensures that older forms do not entirely disappear (think of contemporary re-creations of classical mythology, like the Marvel Comics and film versions of Thor; or the Robert E. Howard character Conan and film versions of the same) – the superior martial figure does not entirely die out.  But even here there are differences: in the recent Thor film, the Norse god aspect becomes transformed to an alien race; and Schwarzenegger’s Conan is somewhat less of a warrior with superhuman strength and ability, rather more of a leader of a team, with certain campy/comic elements.
              The fact is that the construction of a hero is heavily dependent on the society’s particular needs and contours, although there are certain fundamental (deep) heroic elements which are more universal.  Thus (for example) superior strength and size have little place in a society where automatic firearms have been invented, and in a society where “mental” powers are king (brains, inventiveness, telepathy, magic), size and strength would no longer be the main attributes of the hero.  But there would still probably be some salvific, visionary/leadership, even sacrificial role.
 
Some major stages in the evolution of the hero (applicable mainly to Western history and
world-view):
a.   Classical demi-god – divine origins, manifest destiny, supernatural strength/skill
b.   Medieval/Renaissance romance (Arthurian legends, poetry of Tasso and Spenser etc): divine origins and size/strength recede (to a certain extent manifest destiny too), but martial skills remain; a Christianized moral quality is introduced; and of course the courtly love aspect (evident even now, e.g. the Twilight saga?)
c.   18th C hero: rise of liberal individualism, self-reliance, rationality and rationalism.  Heroes are now not super-human, but superly-human (i.e. all the characteristics of common man, but foregrounded and highlighted).  Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Gulliver, continuing into 19th C realist characters like those in Balzac’s novels, Dorothea Brook in Middlemarch, the speaker in Tennyson’s “In Memorium.” Heroes of reason, of struggling against the human condition, representing everyman’s struggle.
d.   Romantic hero: overlaps (historically and culturally/thematically) with 18th C rational hero, but with romanticism’s emphasis on a natural spiritualism.  A kind of reactionary (anti-industrial, anti-urban, anti-materialistic – even anti-“social” in some sense) form of liberal individualism.  The “positive” examples are Wordsworth’s natural man, sensitive to a nature which the world can no longer see (also Matthew Arnold’s Scholar-Gypsy, Carlyle’s historical heroes).  But there are also darker examples in gothic literature: Byronic hero, the opium-fuelled imaginations of Coleridge and De Quincey, shading into the end-19th C/early 20th C anti-hero (Dracula; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Dorian Gray).  The hero of “excess,” who dares to defy social conventions, “leading” humanity into a daring alternative vision and mode of existence.
e.   The modern (realistic, reality) hero – the professional, the passionate aspirant, living in a real world, but able to affect people and “change the world”: Gandhi, Einstein, Mother Theresa, Zidane, Tiger Woods, and this in turn affects fiction: the father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the characters in Mystery Men with their meagre powers, the title character in the movie Rudy, all “realistic” heroes who struggle to cope, but nevertheless inspire us.
f.   But this paradoxically also spawns fantastical heroes: magicians, aliens, superheroes, animals (Flipper, Lassie), vampires, werewolves, mutants, independent/moral robots (I Robot), insects (A Bug’s Life), dinosaurs (Ice Age) – literally endless possibilities.
 
Another way to try to historicise the evolution of the hero is to ask questions about specific types of heroes:
i.   When did the policeman/detective become a hero?  Why (i.e. what happened in society to make this happen, which wasn’t there before that time)?
ii.  When did the fireman become a hero?  Why?
iii. When did the vampire become a hero (this is trickier – it’s not Bram Stoker’s Dracula)?  Why?
iv.  When did the soldier become a hero?  The artist/musician/creative person?  The computer geek?
v.  When did the child become a hero?  The first female hero?  The first animal?
 
Function of the Hero: What Changes/Evolves, and What Doesn’t?
What happens to the role of the hero, as the nature of the hero evolves (broadly speaking, from martial to romance to liberal individual to romantic to modern)?  Obviously some things change: the emphasis shifts from the physical to something “inside,” intangible, non-physical – but if the characteristics of the hero and his quest change, there are aspects of the fundamental role of the hero – in a sense, the essence of hero-ness – that doesn’t change all that much over time.
 
The Hero’s Career: The hero can be understood not just in terms of his characteristics and features, but also in terms of his career – the pattern of his struggle, the “plot” of his action, the nature of his enemies and challenges, etc.  (We can analyse these in terms of Aristotelian “plot,” or the kinds of structuralist analysis performed by people like David Lodge – to be discussed in seminars 2 and 3 – for now we’ll keep to the basics).
 
Characteristic careers of Homeric heroes (Hector and Achilles in Iliad; Odysseus in Odyssey):
i.   Little concern with growth (what the German critics called “Bildung,” as in “Bildungsroman” – literally “building,” i.e. development, growth, from child to maturity.  Homer’s heroes are seen in the thick of (Aristotelian) action – conquering Troy, fighting his way back to Ithaca.  Any aspects of their past are narrated “along the way,” rehearsed as mythic common knowledge.
ii.  Exceptional, superior beings (the original sense of Gk “heros”) – no-one is like Achilles, not even amongst the other Greek warriors.  This is often attributed to their demi-god status, to magical properties.
iii.  Battles inferior beings, or near-equals – the main interest is not in whether Achilles will win, but how impressive is the win, and how it shows off his heroic quality.
iv.  (Following from i. and ii) Little interest in “character” or “psychology” – the Greek “arête,” sometimes translated as “virtue,” is not really character in a modern sense (tension, uncertainty, decision-making, deep psychological motivation) – it is very action-oriented, and has to do with one’s duty or calling, and how it is carried out.  (Is there something almost Asian, Confucian, about this?  Think of those warriors in wu xia novels, Jet Li in Hero?)
v. Often tragic fates (which is what you’d expect from a martial age, and an epic poem) – both Achilles and Hector die, their deaths almost mandated (certainly predictable) by virtue of their calling (arête), their positions (as near-invulnerable superwarrior with an “Achilles’ heel, and as champion of a doomed and morally-suspect city) – there is almost something ritualistically sacrificial about heroes like Hector and Achilles.  (Note that not all classical/Homeric heroes are tragic – Odysseus makes it home, kills the suitors – making that poem more of a romance than a martial epic?)
vi.   Little or no sense of a wider society or common humanity?  Classical heroes serve specific communities (Trojans, Greeks, Spartans – not surprising, since this was an age of warring city-states with very distinct characteristics).  No abstract moral “good,” no larger “human race,” no big goals of “save the world.”  Very concrete, almost narrow and practical goals – the only abstractions are very concrete and individual ones – individual heroism, valour, victory.
vii.  Therefore (following from v and vi) little sense of an “ever after,” the “afterlife” or “legacy” of the hero – i.e. the legacy or historical impact of the hero’s actions.  (Obviously there is memory, i.e. the Bardic memory which recites these heroic actions – but there is little sense of a changed and bettered world because of these heroes).
 
In contrast, someone like Holmes (a sort of mid-way figure in the evolution of the hero):
i.   Also not much concern with Bildung or past
ii.  Again, an exceptional being, except now of the intellect (although Holmes’s physical strength and stamina are often emphasised)
iii.  Battles inferior beings, except for occasional challenges in particularly ruthless and intelligent criminals (especially Moriarty)
iv. More of an interest in the psychology of Holmes: his restlessness, his “dark” depressive tendency, the predilection for addictive substances like tobacco, opium, cocaine
v.  Definitely not a tragic career – rather coldly inhuman, certainly, but not the characteristically tragic paradigm of being fated to die in the course of fulfilling one’s duty and career.  In fact, there is a kind of mechanical unstoppability about Holmes, hence his “resurrection” from the Reichenbach Falls (in The Return of Sherlock Holmes).
vi.   A very well-developed sense of “society” for whom Holmes is fighting: England (against foreign invaders); the middle-class respectable family (against criminals, villains); maybe even a sense of “justice” in the abstract (although Holmes is as much a definer of justice as its defender, e.g. when he lets certain “innocent” perpetrators go, in “Abbey Grange” or “Blue Carbuncle”)
vii.  Distinctly a sense of an afterlife of the hero: Holmes’ legacy is civil order, the triumph of “right” (or at least, the hope that “right” can be defined and sought for).
 
One more comparison: Ripley in the Alien franchise:
i.   Still not much concern with Bildung?
ii.  No longer an exceptional being (not until Alien IV, when she is resurrected with some alien DNA) – just an ordinary citizen
iii.  Now battles much superior enemies – not just the super-Alien (and, in III and IV, many of them), but also the corporation and its agents
iv. Some development of psychology: we see her fears, her mistrust of people around her (the corporation, androids), her sacrifices are hard-won choices, not arête
v.  Probably not a tragic career – like Holmes, there is a sense of her mechanical reproducibility, the importance of her going on and on – if Holmes is the inhuman mechanical hero, she is the post-human one (sponsored by technologies of cloning, cryostasis etc?)