Modern fiction is, by authority, a literature of anti-heroic impulse, anti-heroes, and the failure of mankind. Most primarily the dramatic action of the modern novel is dependent on a Freudian fallacy which pretends that human behavior is guided by sexuality, and as a subset, by greed as a form of sexual domination. After the misguided suppression of sexual matters in the Victorian age, this sort of ad hominem theorizing once appeared liberating to an intellectual elite already estranged from the daily toil of the larger community. Don’t we all have these sexual feelings? Are we all not guilty of the original sin? The ‘hero’ does not save the damsel in distress for reasons of good will and humanity, but to rape her.
We have several generations of this sort of tripe polluting the academic mind at this point. I am 62. I was first introduced to a supposed sexual subtext of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ when I was 16–in a high school class no less. The joke is that such pseudo-intellectual claptrap is still being foisted on new generations of sixteen year olds as if it is recent revelation. The Victorians are still being challenged as if they are ‘the Man,’ in the same way as Nazi’s are still the villains in so many movies after sixty years of Pol Pots and Stalins, Idi Amins and Che Guevaras, Mao Zedongs and a dozen other mass murderers more relevant to the current world scene.
And Holden Caulfield is still rebelling against the hypocrisy of his parent’s generation, appealing to every petty impulse of the average teenager instead of to the best that is clearly in him and them. Meanwhile, the social contract which makes it possible for us to diddle with such foolish self-indulgence is being vandalized, graffitied, and sacrificed on political alters of phony fear and trumped-up emergencies.
Whooh! Take a breath.
That said, there are a great many wrongs in ‘modern’ literature and far too few rights: style superseding substance, shock replacing awe, politics trumping philosophy, and characters who seem unaware of consequences, just for starters.
Any study of epidemiology will tell you that the suffering and death of millions, year upon year, was common until the Twentieth Century. The way humankind compensated was constant procreation. Culture was based on the making of babies and the training of children to assume the tasks necessary to provide for the welfare of the next generation of babies. As Mr. Hobbes famously observed, life was indeed nasty, brutish and short. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, after almost six thousand years of poorly recorded human history, and despite the Renaissance, The Reformation, the Golden Age of Islam, the Roman Empire, the Glory of Greece and four thousand years of Egyptian and Chinese dynasties, there was one lone democracy on the face of the earth and fifteen percent of its population were slaves and half of its citizens were unqualified to fully own property much less vote. The 99 percent of the rest of the earth’s humanity lived in poverty and squalor punctuated by war. Chattel slavery was such a common condition it was unremarkable except in a few European countries and in the newly minted United States.
Along comes the Nineteenth Century, the prosperity of the industrial age, and the blossoming of democracy. Oh, those terrible Victorians. So repressed. So hypocritical! Kings were deposed. Slavery abolished or relegated to the darkest outposts. A middle class comprising more than half of the population assumed power over this country and a few others where the arts flourished in an open market beyond the thumb of patronage. Life spans doubled. Disease became a matter of infrequent epidemic instead of annual attrition. The sciences established a foundation for the proof and furthering of knowledge. Women gained legal standing. And in the midst of this, the first utopians imagined a lost Eden when men freely frolicked with the beasts and cries of woe were heard for the ‘better times’ when the water was sweet.
It can be argued that the anti-hero was first born in the Victorian Age. Our markers for the centuries are not calibrated exactly to human progress. For that matter it could be argued that Tom Jones or Hamlet were proto-anti-heroes. But the anti-hero does not become a literary ‘type’ until the Twentieth Century. And what is he rebelling against? What is his bête noire? Why…hypocrisy! After six thousand years of throat-slitting and abject misery, our anti-hero is offended by hypocrisy! Oh. Woe. And what is the bane of his unhappy existence? Sexual codes of conduct. And note–please note–that he is a ‘he,’ not a ‘she.’ His much sought and exercised pleasure is in the free sowing of his seed like any good barbarian, without care of consequence–let the wench take care of the bastard.
The phallacy of modern literature is just that–the replacement of the sword with the male member. Good and evil? Bah humbug. Evil is relative, but my sword–oh my.
This is no feminist ranting. I have as little interest in the prejudices and bigotry of feminism as I do for most politics and religion. My first impulse is to look at the purpose of such things. My interest is in literature. People who exercise their lungs with slogans have little time to read. My worry is that the hero–that singular literary creation of pre-historic mankind, who led us through myth and saga from the cowering in caves to the footprint on the moon has been killed, not by an arrow in the heel, but by ignorance and willful neglect. My own fear is that the hero, that imperfect glory, has been made petty by the comic book. My observation is that the ambiguous and the enigmatic have become the drugs of choice to a culture which has no clear idea of the risks we face.
Achilles was not a heel. He was imperfect, but he faced his enemies without fear and met his duty. Tragedy was the result of flaw, and the lesson to us all about hubris and fallibility. This is now to be scoffed at. The hero is a joke. Human weakness can no longer be the cause of tragedy, because our flaws are all that is important in an age of anxiety and self-approval. We all know we are weak. Narcissism is rampant. Duty is relative–is there time for a latte? Sex is what runs the city, not genius. Comedy is the natural province of mankind.
A man saves the lives of a plane-load of people, drawing upon the learned skill and determination of a life-time of dedication to being as good as he can be–and the reporter says “well, he was just trying to save himself,” and another wonders if he is a good husband–intimating that, because he is a pilot, and all pilots are jockeys, that he might have something going with one of the flight attendants.
Freud is the god of our times. His misanthropic, misbegotten mistakes have become the assumed wisdom of a sniggering class of pseudo-intellectuals. Word-choice and onomatopoeia aside, we are dealing with life and death here. Our Literature is an expression of the soul of our age. Are you pleased to have nuclear and biological weapons in the hands of leaders who trade in ambiguous ideas and enigmatic gesture?
Another way to view this: is it more important to you that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, or that he authored the Declaration of Independence? You may answer the former if you like, but you would be wrong. Another slave owner in an age of slavery is no matter to you now. But the fact that you can worry over the question today is a result of Mr. Jefferson’s better nature.
Who our heroes are is important. Understanding heroes and that they may have weaknesses, and that they are human beings different from ourselves only by their own sense of purpose, is a key element in the chemistry of culture. Do you want a Thomas Jefferson to consider the consequences of war, or a George Bush? This is not political but practical. I am sure you can be a Republican and still understand the mediocrity of George Bush. Just as I think you might be a Democrat and question the experience and wisdom of a community organizer from the wards of Chicago. But we have chosen these men as our leaders in times of worry. We will pay the consequences.
After all, I am asking if our literature has contributed to this state of affairs. Can we afford the rule of the anti-hero?