The persistence of the hero

We often look for media that is grounded and “relatable”, glossing over the millennia of personal drama present in our founding stories, and the way our existence prepares us to believe, relate to, and enjoy them.

Hercules might’ve been strong, but that didn’t stop the gods from ruining his day.

It’s easy to dismiss the fantastic. Especially in the era of information, poor-quality media surrounds and drowns us. The rise of fan fiction, the heaps of second-rate fantasy authors flooding the market, and the omnipresence of the Marvel blockbuster seems like it should be a great source of fatigue. Why, then, do we continue to eat this shit up? The answer is twofold. Firstly, the myths that modern pulp derives from are far more “relatable” than anyone wants to give them credit for, and secondly, modern popular and genre entertainment, from sci-fi to fantasy to comic books (and their movies), is simply the latest iteration of the same few stories being adapted and rehashed, ad nauseam.

Think for a moment about Hercules. Sure, he’s the son of Zeus, god of thunder. Your dad isn’t. But he probably thinks he is, and has acted like the dickhead Zeus we know from the myths at one point or another. Hercules is in your spot. His dad is an ass. Sure, he’s super strong. Insanely strong. He held the sky up for a spell. But Herc lives in a world of gods. The tasks he undertakes can’t be solved by strength alone. He has to use his wits. In that way, he’s the classic underdog, the shrimpy kid on the playground who has to pit the bullies against each other and hope he doesn’t get caught in the crossfire.

You know when life deals you a shit hand? Well Herc was playing at a table with a deck of twos and threes. Zeus’s wife, Hera, tried to kill him repeatedly from the moment he was born, and when he beat the odds and grew up, got married, and had kids, she couldn’t stand it, so she drove him mad and had him kill his family. Now stricken with grief, the gods sentence him to the famous Twelve Labors to atone for Hera’s crime. So Hercules, the underdog, still gets crushed underfoot, even though technically, he’s the best of us. Doesn’t that make you feel a little bit better about where you’re at knowing a demi-god had to basically earn a Medal of Honor, then win every major sports championship, and earn a Nobel Prize in every category just to break even? We aren’t just bugs getting smashed by metaphysical toddlers on a playground, we’re a bunches of Herc‘s.

Now tell me that Hercules isn’t still around. He was actually in a pretty recent movie. He went by Steve Rodgers in it, but I’m pretty sure that was our boy Herc. Think about it. Steve is the underdog. He’s the literal shrimpy kid on the playground. So he’s strong for a slightly different reason. Oh well. He does the hero thing, and fights for his country in World War II, eventually making the ultimate sacrifice. Well guess what? That’s not enough, because just like in Ancient Greece, life likes to throw curveballs at the undeserving.

Steve wakes up in a modern world he doesn’t recognize or particularly like. Everyone needs something from him, and he isn’t really allowed to say no. He must fight the good fight, often for people he doesn’t particularly agree with, like Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier, or Tony Stark in any film, because those people, the powers that be, won’t let him rest until there are no more bad guys, according to their definitions. And all he wants is to rest.

There’s a recipe to all this, you see. The strong man can’t get by on just his strengths. This is a tale that’s been rehashed more times than can be counted, and every new iteration adds another version to the canon that we are all raised to know. Steve Rodgers didn’t come straight out of Hercules, and Hercules wasn’t even the first. Before him, there was Gilgamesh, who had to learn to be a wise king and not just a mighty warrior. Steve Rodgers isn’t even the first American version of the tale. Remember all of the weird feats attributed to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln? What about John Henry, the strongest, fastest steel-driver ever to work for the railroad? He had to work faster than the damn steel-driving machine just so the company would leave him alone and allow him to collect his paycheck. We’ve been through this cul-de-sac many times, and we will return to it many more.

Big Time in the Jungle – Kurtz and Tyler Durden as masculine misfits

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness isn’t just a critique of imperialism – it’s a commentary on masculinity and its place in society.

With the exception of Hamlet, I have read Heart of Darkness more than any other book. I like to think I know it fairly well. Unlike Hamlet, which peaked in my affections around the second or third read and now, at 6 careful read-throughs, is an object of great loathing, Heart of Darkness always seems to have something more for the reader. The first time I read Heart of Darkness was in high school, and i hated it. The weird narrative structure, the incessant philosophical tangents, Kurtz existing in general – it wasn’t for me. But by the second read, I had come around to understanding why it is great, and on the third read, it became my favorite book, only unseated last year by The Master and Margarita. I thought I would write my first blog post about something I love to make things easier.

“In the world I see you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center ” – Tyler Durden

Some important context: This was my first time reading HoD since reading Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, something that brought Conrad’s book into a totally new critical light for me. Palahniuk’s sexy, quotable Mr. Hyde is Tyler Durden, the narrator’s evil split personality and sometime alter ego, who wages a war against the materialism of 1990’s America by inducting other disenfranchised men into an underground fight club that becomes increasingly cult-like as it fights back against the world telling its members that they are the sum of their possessions.

Tyler Durden dreams of a world where the alpha male is not the most educated, or the richest, or a fortunate son, but the mightiest hunter, the classical conqueror, the silverback. He is unsuccessful in the modern world and so desires a return to form – to an era where seizing power is not only accepted and viable, but respected. He wishes to fight for his supremacy, as he is sure can beat the shit out of those Wall Street boys with their silky shirts and boat shoes and steal the supermodels from their sides. Tyler believes himself to be the prime example of manhood as defined by the world he lives in, and is incensed that the “real man” is not what makes for a successful person in today’s society. In short, he’s tired of playing someone else’s game.

“All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” – Marlow

Fight Club does not allow Tyler to successfully create a splinter society, so we never see the classical conqueror in action. Kurtz, however, inhabits a microcosm where his brutality is a boon. Working as an agent in Africa collecting ivory for import to Europe, Kurtz is unlike others in his field. He is highly praised and extremely successful, obtaining more ivory for his company than any other agent. However, he is secretive, always in the field and seldom returning from “the heart of darkness” to reap the fruits of his labor. As the narrator, Marlow, learns more in his quest to locate Kurtz and bring him home, he comes to understand that the other Europeans in Africa hold Kurtz at arm’s length, and that something is not right about the man. They are happy to leave him to his own devices as long as the ivory keeps flowing in, but it has stopped, and they want him brought in.

When Marlow discovers Kurtz in a remote African village far down the river, it is Tyler Durden’s fantasy played out, to the horror of the narrator’s Victorian sensibilities: Kurtz has conquered and subjugated the entire village, who worship him as a god. He has the heads of disobedient natives mounted on sharpened sticks around his dwelling, and they bring him tithes of ivory to remain in his good graces. Kurtz views his conquest and his ivory as the rewards of his own blood and sweat, staunchly refusing to return to “civilization” with Marlow. He refuses to continue to be a cog in another man’s machine, only receiving a small portion of the profits from his labor. Kurtz’s rejection of the company that gives him cause to stay out in the “heart of darkness” is the last in a long list of rejections of the trappings of civilized life, and he dies refusing to return.

Heart of Darkness provides the perfect setting for Tyler Durden’s fantasy to play out through the lens of a “civilized” individual because of the enormous developmental gap of the Victorian era; Marlow, experiencing Africa for the first time, with its vast swaths of untouched land, regards it as a primitive, savage place, the titular “heart of darkness”, where the light of civilization has yet to touch. His Eurocentric, ultimately racist conclusions about the place provide the perfect dichotomy with which to explore the role of classical masculinity. Kurtz is afforded considerable social capital because of his effectiveness in the capitalist machine, the very machine that Tyler Durden rejects. The Victorian era was one of the first where capitalism afforded real social mobility, and it became both a trend and a concern, with novels like Great Expectations dealing with the varying reactions to individuals of “new money”, and English aristocracy sheepishly marrying their daughters to wealthy American industrialists of low birth. Though more concerned than any previous era with the accumulation of wealth, Victorian Europe was still obsessed with its own notion of civilization: the term “gentleman” could now apply to a commoner, and social norms dictated that both men and women strive to be exemplars of civility. Classic masculinity gave way to values such as piety, education, and discretion. Kurtz only succeeds by acting as a classical conqueror because his behavior is deemed profitable by his company. Seeing himself as subordinate to no man, Kurtz embraces Durden’s philosophy by shaking off the chains of his employer to enjoy the full product of his labor (his ivory hoard) because he is seduced by the primal intoxication that his newfound position as the alpha male provides, a position that Tyler only partially carves out for himself as the leader of the Fight Club.