Heroes

25 11 2011

Cultural figures regarded as heroes often follow a similar path to other, mythical heroic figures.  From Superman to Hercules to Jackson Pollock to Kurt Cobain, there are components that we tend to latch onto in order to label the person as “great.”  Aside from a skill in a particular field, are that the hero must be, in some way, separate from society.  In mythology, the hero must make a trip to the underworld.  “Real world” heroes, it seems to follow, must also take a trip to the underworld, but they don’t end up returning.  “Real world” cultural heroes must be dead.

Even Superman made a trip to the afterlife.

In the classic Western, the man without a name shows up in a seemingly sleepy town that is overrun by a criminal cattle-rustling gang (Tombstone), or a corrupt mayor (Unforgiven), two families vying for its control (A Fistful of Dollars).  The hero is a symbol of something from outside of society, as represented in the town.  Superman is outside of the society of Earth, as Superman is from Krypton.  Spiderman is a little bit of a trick to fit into this mold—Spiderman is a teenage boy, not necessarily something outside of the society of New York.  However, Stan Lee purposely created Spiderman (and many of his heroes) to be a teenager—teenagers, almost without fail, feel alienated from the society of which they are a part.  Since they feel themselves to be outside of society, they see society as an outsider—even if they really aren’t.

With real-world cultural heroes, it is a similar stretch to see how a given person may exist outside of society.  However, it is often what is glamorized about the person.  Take Vincent Van Gogh for example.  If a person on the street knows nothing else about Van Gogh, they will know that he was in some way crazy and they will certainly know the story about his cutting off of his own ear—which is a crazy thing to do.  A person afflicted with mental illness is outside of the normal boundaries of societal expectations.  This also shows up in the chemical dependency of many cultural heroes.  Earnest Hemingway was an alcoholic.  So was Jackson Pollock.  Sigmund Freud was hooked on cocaine.  For Elvis Presley it was pills, for Kurt Cobain it was heroin, for Hunter S. Thompson it was every drug under the sun.

Proof of the cultural influence of the counter-cultural.

For each of these, and for many more, we see the figure as being outside of the normal confines of expected social behavior.  They are, in some way, “other” than us.  Hunter S. Thompson might be close to the perfect example because, not only did he exist outside of society, he did it in a purposeful manner.  He plunged headfirst into Gonzo journalism and brought the rest of us along for the ride—to see the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas not as a participant, but as a mentally altered, “objective” observer.  His writing is from the point of view of alienation, and through that, we can put ourselves in the position of the hero, if only for a short while.

The real world cultural heroes I have listed here have something in common other than substance abuse.  They are all dead.  Classical Greek heroes make a trip to the underworld.  So did the Roman copy of the Greek hero, Aeneas.  So did the American version of Hercules:  Superman.  So did the basis for the Christian faith:  Jesus.

Non-mythical and non-religious figures have a difficult time returning from the dead, but figures who leave some sort of artifacts have a way to continue “existing” after they have died, even if they are not technically alive.  Van Gogh’s paintings draw crowds and high prices well into the 21st Century. The songs of Presley and Cobain continue to get airplay or to be downloaded onto ipods, even the work of Sigmund Freud, largely abandoned in professional psychology, finds its way into literary, artistic, and academic production.

The longevity of the work of these individuals is the indication of their heroic impact. However, the impact of the works themselves is largely dependent on the fact that they are dead.  Once an artist is no longer capable of creating new work, their oeuvre is complete.  They won’t be around to create new work—so the supply is fixed (hence, with increased demand, prices can go up—see sales figures for Van Gogh’s sunflowers or Warhol’s collection of kitsch cookie jars).  Also, the work is static—unchanging. We can think of Jackson Pollock’s work as the drip action-paintings of the 1950s and not have to worry that he may have been influenced by Minimalism or Pop or some postmodern abhorrence later on in life.  He wasn’t around to be affected by those.  His work can remain pure in his death.

In poets, artists, and musicians especially, (and certainly other professions who heroize historical figures) the pattern of substance abuse and death influences the behavioral patterns of students and young professionals in the field.  In ways, it seems that art students want to find some sort of chemical dependence in order to be like the artists they are taught to revere.  On the flip side of that, one might argue that the “creative mind” is already inclined toward such behavior, since to be truly creative requires an ability to think outside of the accepted confines of societal thought—to exist outside of society.

Personally, I am wary of any broad generalizations made about “creative minds,” as if they are sentenced to be artists and addicts and have no way to behave as, say, an engineer or someone with a “scientific mind.”  While some truly creative people are truly troubled mentally or chemically, many, many more are wannabe hipsters who think that if they drink enough or take enough drugs they’ll be able to be like their heroes—addicted, then dead.

To that end, I am reminded of Sid Vicious.  Sid was no great bass player and really didn’t have an ounce of musical or poetic talent in him.  He was recruited to be in the Sex Pistols because he had the punk look—he seemed to embody the attitude of a group desperately rebelling against society. Maybe that’s all that punk truly was (or is)—an all-encompassing, willful effort to exist outside of society, not necessarily to change it in any way or to contribute some “great” work of art to make general progress.  If that was the goal, Sid Vicious can certainly be seen as punk’s patron saint.

Sid Vicious: A whole lot of style, very little substance

This attitude of nihilism, however, doesn’t line up with the notion of the heroic cultural figure.  Heroes, in existing outside of society, in some way progress or protect society as a whole.  The good guy in the Western chases the corrupt officials out and the city can be civilized again.  Superman fights for “Truth, Justice, and The American Way.”  Jackson Pollock influences the direction of abstraction in art, and the reaction against abstraction, to this very day.

Kurt Cobain existed at the intersection of the outsider and the cultural paragon.  He wanted so much to be outside of the popular culture he was so much an influence on that, in the end, it killed him.  Rather, he killed himself.  True cultural heroes, whether they want it or not, are as much a part of the greater culture as anything they project themselves to be apart from.  Perhaps it is that paradox that drives them further away.  Perhaps it is the paradox itself we end up elevating as heroic.

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