FMA1202 Seminar 12

Failed Heroes: Cynicism and Crisis


Our discussion of alternative heroes and other variants leads us to the question: can there be “failed heroes”?  Not just non-heroes (ordinary citizens with no claim whatsoever – not in terms of greatness, or media attention/construction, or timeliness, or sacrifice) – there are obviously lots of those; but individuals we would identify as having heroic qualities, but who fail (to save, to live up to their greatness).  Or those whom society constructs as heroes, and yet are marked by failure to live up to their destiny and defeat evil/villainy.  These would be in some ways differentiated from anti-heroes, who are heroes who also have some aspects of the villain, who undergo some kind of moral struggle or have dubious moral origins/backgrounds but who in the end are quite clearly heroic in their actions and accomplishments.  The failed hero, in contrast, can be either clearly heroic or anti-heroic, but the point is that there is a marked fall or failure, when we compare their heroic status and promise/destiny, with their actual ending/result.  Such plots/constructions (of failed heroes) almost seem to be a celebration (or at least publicising) of failure, of the impossibility or extreme difficulty of heroism – whereas anti-heroes do not suggest the failure of heroism, only the moral problematic involved in many instances of heroism.


Failed Heroes: Characteristics and Examples

           The most common instance/genre of the failed hero would probably be in real-life exposés of former/would-be heroes who fail/fall.  Thus, for example, the historical example of General Benedict Arnold, the American revolutionary war hero and soldier who defected to the British and became a by-word for treachery and betrayal – and yet there are monuments to Arnold, not just in England but also in America.  Arnold has often been invoked in later cultural texts as the embodiment of treachery.  Then there are the great leaders who fall: including religious leaders like Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard who at one point were revered by millions of followers, and then exposed as hypocrites and fallen men (for various things like hidden homosexuality, adultery and consorting with prostitutes).  Or political leaders, like American presidents who are caught in scandals, impeachments, lies or just failure to live up to their initial promise or hype: Richard Nixon might be the most obvious example, but maybe also Barack Obama, who during his campaign and just after his election was seen as a hero, especially for black voters, but whose approval ratings are by many accounts falling very rapidly.  A similar example is Black Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, also hailed as a hero by the Black American community, but dragged into a protracted and humiliating sexual harassment scandal.  Then there is Martha Stewart, the icon of gracious living/decor/cooking who went to jail for insider trading (although she subsequently clawed back a new career); or Teh Cheang Wan, former minister who was guilty of corruption and committed suicide before he could be removed and tried; or Devan Nair, union hero and champion of the common man who became President, but who was subsequently forced to resign because of an alcohol problem.  In sports there is Tiger Woods, again hailed as a hero for racial and generational/image reasons, but whose personal life, morality and even game performance came crashing down.  Even the great Michael Jordan, long held up not just as a great basketball player but also one of the few “nice guys” and good role models in sports, finally owned up to having cheated on his wife.

           In fiction, there is a long tradition of the tragic hero (Oedipus, Lear, Hamlet, Willy Loman) who is something of a failed figure – but only partially so (either because like Loman, he wasn’t much of a hero to begin with, or the tragic flaw comes later in life when we no longer see them as heroic; or because even in their fall, there is something powerfully affirming about their moral courage).  Gothic literature gives us a few candidates for failed heroes: Dracula, the heir to a heroic warrior legacy but who we see in dastardly deeds like corrupting Victorian women and drinking their blood.  Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray are also privileged individuals who should be the pillars of their society but instead abandon their potential and sink into outright debauchery.  But the real failed hero may once again (like the many alternative heroes) be a very recent development, and seen in figures like dynamic (if not outrightly heroic) cops like Vic Mackey in The Shield and Alonzo Harris in Training Day, who refuse to live up to any heroic potential and instead are blatantly corrupt and treacherous.  (In Training Day there is arguably an alternative hero, Harris’ young partner Hoyt who finally defeats him, although arguably Hoyt is more of a catalyst/nemesis than hero; in The Shield there is no alternative hero to Mackey).  David Ayer, who wrote the script for Training Day, also wrote and directed Harsh Times, another bleak film where the would-be hero Jim Davis, and ex-Army Ranger who wants to be a cop, instead spirals into fights, crime and eventually a meaningless death.  Then there is the eponymous character in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, who starts out as a hero cop and gradually declines into drug addiction, pimping, deceit and murder.  In all these examples we are forced to see the protagonist as a failed hero of sorts, because there are no other possible candidates even for alternative heroism, and in fact there are other characters/agencies who represent even more threatening or evil forces.

In contemporary literature, too, there are many bleak novels about would-be heroes who end up losing their way and living pointless lives and often also dying pointless deaths, without even a moral victory or some redeeming feature in their deaths: comic evocations of mock-heroes like Sampath in Kiran Desai’s Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard or Haroon in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, who both set themselves up as spiritual gurus, but whose pseudo-spirituality is really a cloak for their self-gratification and lack of direction.  (Contrast this to the pseudo-guru in Narayan’s The Guide, who actually moves heroically from sham self-preservation to a rather selfless and arguably heroic act).  Another example of comic failed hero is the would-be great novelist Richard Tull (who, like all aspiring great artists, bears contrastive comparison to Wordsworth’s artist-as-hero) in Martin Amis’ The Information whose literary and personal achievements go rapidly downhill from the start of the novel.  Also comic (or rather heavily ironic), but with more serious/historical implications, is George MacDonald Fraser’s literary character Flashman, feted as a Victorian hero and appearing in all the major military/imperial episodes of the Victorian era, who always emerges in heroic light through accident and chance, but who secretly is a self-preserving coward.  More serious versions might include Coetzee’s various failed authority-figures like the Professor in Disgrace; or the aristocrat-politician in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day who goes from mover and shaker to discredited Nazi sympathiser; or Tan Hwee Hwee’s Oxford-educated protagonist Deng – the shining hope of her working-class family – who willingly embraces the corruption and promise of “Mammon Inc” in the novel of that name; the protagonists of many novels by Murakami (with would-be detective or hero protagonists who discover nothing significant and save nobody – e.g. in Dance Dance Dance or A Wild Sheep Chase) and by J. G. Ballard (who likewise start out as detectives/avengers and end up being implicated and involved in the corruption that they uncover – e.g. in Crash, Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes), and many others.

What would be the point in constructing such failed heroes?  Unlike the archetypal hero-narrative, there is nothing reassuring, hopeful or positive about failed heroes.  Is there something in us that almost enjoys (in a perverse and painful way) to see heroes fail?  Could it be an innate/primal thing (which is partially satisfied in the fall of the tragic hero – but only partially, since the tragic hero’s fall still leaves us with some kind of affirmation of the human spirit, of the hero’s courage and honesty in facing his situation and dealing with his fall, etc – e.g. Oedipus). 

The German term “schadenfreude” – joy at bad things (happening to others) may help us understand the prevalence of failed heroes, especially in contemporary culture.  We may always have had a tendency to laugh at the fall of others (hence the silly but enduring banana-peel gag); Freud (in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious) explains that this is because of a sudden release of psychic energy, a kind of compression and release of unconscious impulses (such as anxiety, fear of injury, envy) when we see a sudden slip or fall (that does not end up in death or crippling injury).  In addition to this possible timeless tendency to laugh at others, modern (capitalist) society seems to have inculcated in us an additional and even more intense desire to see the downfall of others, by heightening the individualistic/atomistic impulse in human society, while also enhancing the superficially competitive value-system that makes us judge others by their surface lives/successes/wealth.  Thus signs of external success fill us with envy because we know that this is what capitalist society values (more than any inner/wholistic success), and thus also when successful people fall there is a greater sense of self-vindication in us.

Beyond schadenfreude or envy, there also seems to be an archetypal/primal element in us that looks for failed heroes.  It would seem that tragedy may hint at our deeper and darker desire to see heroes fall, to confirm their failure (and, by proxy, ours as well).  Then there is Freud’s theorising about the “thannatos” or death instinct, which is a kind of unconscious desire to give up, and in the extreme case to symbolically or actually commit suicide.  Frye would see these failed hero plots as “Autumn” or “Winter” narratives, focussing on betrayal, disillusionment, weakness and collapse, and corresponding to our deep sense of a human “autumn/winter” in our old age, in the decline of our physical and mental powers, in our increasing disillusionment at the problems of society/human nature that can’t seem to be fixed.  In other words, if the hero is an archetype of our hopes (and the fears that fuel those hopes), the failed hero is a kind of archetype of our realistic/cynical acceptance of enduring weaknesses in us, and in our society.


Postmodernism and Cynicism: Scholars of postmodern society (i.e. what happens to a lot of Western culture, including film, art, literature, design, architecture etc, after the angst of modernism – roughly from the latter part of the 20th C onwards) such as Linda Hutcheon, Fredric Jameson and others point to postmodernism’s celebration of indeterminacy and playfulness, a kind of perpetual experimentation with art forms, narratives, conventions etc, constantly thwarting older ideas of art, and celebrating experimentation and playfulness for its own sake, rather than to create traditional narratives and meaning.  Thus, for example, things like the dismantling of any sense of “high” or “serious” art, instead merging it with popular art (e.g. Warhol); experimental narrative forms like backwards narratives (Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, the Nolan brothers’ Memento); narratives which constantly reflect on their artificiality rather than reinforcing the illusion of reality, e.g. the self-reflexive novels of Umberto Eco and Alain Robbe-Grillet, or the book-within-book novels of Jasper Fforde and plays of Tom Stoppard), stories which do not have expected/traditional endings, etc.  For Marxist critics like Jameson, and for anti-postmodern scholars like Zygmunt Bauman (unlike more positive scholars of postmodernism like Hutcheon, or Robert Scholes), postmodernism should not be seen as an engaging and creative experimentation with artistic form, but rather as a kind of exhausted and disengaged art-form which reflects the moral crisis and spiritual emptiness of contemporary society (an emptiness which a Marxist critic like Jameson would of course attribute directly to capitalism, and which even non-Marxist critics of postmodernism would say has something to do with our late version of capitalism).

           Whatever our attitudes to postmodern playfulness, and how much we attribute this to capitalism, we have to acknowledge that postmodern artistic influences are everywhere (in a sense, all of digital media is postmodern-like, because it is highly interactive and dependent on the individual user, so in a sense the old authorial control is really gone).  Also, we have to see that this kind of breakdown of older narrative conventions also tends to undermine older/archetypal notions of heroism.  It is hard to have a traditional hero-as-preserver or protector when the narrative constantly tells us not to take it (and its characters, including the hero) seriously.  It is hard for viewers to get emotionally and psychologically invested in a narrative and its catharsis of our own fears and anxieties, when the narrative is subversive, playful and deliberately fragmented.

           Thus, alongside the construction of failed heroes in many contemporary narratives, we would also have to consider the phenomenon of postmodern-like narratives which deconstruct or dismantle the idea of the hero (at least in its archetypal form) entirely.  If it is harder and harder for us to believe in true heroes anymore today (because of the way our society is), then this is reinforced by narratives which do not seem to take heroism (or any deep/abiding values, for that matter) seriously anymore.  Conversely and at the same time, it may be because we constantly see narratives that are playful and irreverent, that we also nurture a reading experience that doesn’t take anything too seriously, including “real life” and “real heroes” (if we even know what they are, anymore).


Some concluding thoughts:

Obviously there is a tendency towards cynicism and agnosticism in contemporary culture.  Obviously, too, our construction of heroes has tended towards more and more variety, alternative forms, “boutique”/niche instances.  I do not want to dismiss these tendencies, which tell us a lot about our contemporary society, and how we process and make meaning in contemporary-style narratives and media.  It could well be that these processes are very much constitutive of our present minds, which are so used to digital media and contemporary assumptions about art and society that it becomes hard for us to think and read/view in “older” and more traditional ways.

           But I do want us to consider whether heroes in the archetypal sense ever completely fade away, or whether our need for heroes goes away entirely, even in a cynical and variant-filled era.  We can still find many instances of heroes and hero-construction today – and the wonder is really that we can still desire heroes, despite the deep cynicism and fragmentation of our society.

           What is it about human nature that can be both cynical/playful, and yet maintain a belief in something which runs counter to that cynicism and playfulness?  How will we be able to find and construct heroes in a globalised, pluralistic, variant-filled and cynical/virtual society like ours?

           There are no easy answers – but I think the abiding nature of the hero, especially given our present conditions, just points to the depth and the power of the yearning that we all have, to be nurtured and protected by someone or something greater than man (who nevertheless affirms our humanity), who is prepared to make a huge sacrifice for us, and indeed whose entire being/destiny/origin is to be our protector.  Much as we hate to admit it, we seem to be hard-wired to need a real hero.