The hero facing the world
“Far from any kind of obsolescence of heroes, I think we are actually witnessing a kind of diffraction that makes it difficult to identify our current heroic models. What are, for our time, the canonical forms of heroism?”
What is the difference between the character and the hero? Are all characters potential heroes?
The term “hero” means two things. In the generic sense, it is the main character in a story. He is not necessarily “heroic” in the second sense of the word: a character whose temperament, behavior and even extraordinary life(s) are admired. The unfortunate Emma Bovary suffers a narrow life. Badly married to a mediocre man, she tries to escape in her reading, her fantasies and her extra-marital adventures, before committing suicide with arsenic because of debts. Is she a heroine in the same way as Joan of Arc or Medea? Not every character is a hero in the sense of “heroic figure”. In Dostoyevsky’s The Double, the narrator keeps calling his character “our hero”, which, in French, presents a real irony because this protagonist is anything but heroic. In perpetual contradiction, cowardly and conceited, shabby and paranoid, he makes outrageous decisions only to collapse instantly, driven by a suicidal masochism exacerbated to madness.
In my opinion, a hero is characterized by several dimensions. First of all its heroic quality, whether it is an attribute, a power, a skill, or even a nature. In the mythological world, especially Greek-Roman, the hero is of semi-divine origin. This quality of hero can also have an origin: everyone keeps reminding Neoptolemos that he is the son of Achilles. But this first dimension is not enough to make the character a hero in the active sense of the term. Once this quality has been established, the question arises as to how to go about it. For what makes a hero is not so much his potential as his action when confronted with a particular event, a drama, a crisis, a catastrophe. Heroism consists of a form of overcoming through confrontation with danger, when one takes the risk of exposing, sacrificing one’s life for a value considered essential: individual survival, the freedom of a people, the salvation of the city, the fate of the world, the love of a woman. This heroic act allows the hero to actualize himself through an extraordinary gesture that provokes admiration. The nature and recurrence of this action gives rise to a whole constellation of heroes: occasional heroes or heroes by choice, one-off heroes or professional heroes, etc. The hero’s role is to bring the world to life through an extraordinary gesture that provokes admiration. This feat gives the hero duration: beyond death, he remains alive in the memories. By deploying his legend, he becomes a character in our great collective imagination, capable of spanning the centuries.
Do you think there is a conscious relationship of the hero to his place in the collective memory? At the moment he acts, is he already in the memory we will have of him?
There are very different cases. As Lorenzaccio expresses it, some heroes are also driven by pride. “I must be a Brutus,” he repeats. He expresses here, alongside his idealistic aspiration to liberate humanity, his desire to enter the pantheon of great men. He is also moved by a desire for recognition, collective gratitude and notoriety. The desire to be a hero can arise from a conscious, possibly inaugural choice, as in the case of Achilles who, from birth, chose a heroic, short and tragic life, as opposed to a long, dull and quiet life. In other cases, the hero reveals himself in a situation. He doesn’t even have time to think about the aura that his action might have – better still, he sometimes finds himself the first to be surprised. Thus de Sully, brought to the screen by Clint Eastwood: while he managed the feat of landing his burning plane in New York City on the Hudson River and saving all his passengers, this airline pilot thinks he has only done his duty. He is surprised by the positive notoriety and the controversies which result from it. Symmetrically, the desire to become a hero sometimes leads, in a seemingly paradoxical way, to anti-heroic behavior, when the thirst for glory prevails over surpassing oneself in the name of a value.
We find this pride in The Soldier’s Tale, with this character who gives the impression of playing roulette with the devil to try his luck always a little further.
Is the soldier in Ramuz and Stravinsky a hero? It is very important to note that their character is a soldier on leave. So the world of war, the one in which they live, suffer and write in 1918, is never directly shown. This soldier is not placed in the pseudo-heroic context of the First World War, where, as a rogue, “heroism” consisted of being shot at like rabbits and living in trenches like rats. With its mass massacres, this industrial war marked a brutal break in the conception of warrior heroism. In L’Histoire du Soldat , it is about a soldier who returns home, and who, during this “parenthesis” out of the war (“fifteen days off”), finds himself tempted and seduced by the Devil. What is truly heroic in his behavior? I think rather that he finds himself drawn down the slope of radicalized desire by capitalism: appetite for power, thirst for riches, intoxication with domination. This is what the market of dupe that the Devil offers him and that he accepts: his violin (the song of his soul) against the account book (infinite speculation and accumulation). It is a Faust from the First World War and the Second Industrial Revolution, in the capitalist era and at the dawn of the age of extremes.
You say of the hero that he has the ability to change fate into will. Is this capacity intrinsic to him?
Some tragic heroes transform fate into destiny by assuming it, such as Oedipus who, after gouging out his eyes at the end of Oedipus-King, becomes a penitent hermit in Oedipus at Colonus. As Pasolini shows, beyond space and time, Oedipus goes to the end of his destiny, intertwining fatality and the will to assume a nature he did not choose. But this way of taking charge of oneself, of claiming oneself even in the curse suffered, does not characterize all heroes. Some forge a destiny for themselves out of nothing. Others suffer a destiny that they transcend. Finally, others are crushed by their destiny. The notion of hero strikes as much by its consistency as by its plasticity. It includes hard cores, lines of force, but also contradictions, paradoxes. It expresses the range of human values in all their complexity. The hero embodies humanity taken to extremes.
You explain that Richard III possesses this ability to think of himself as God – both to imagine the world and to stage it. Does this capacity of the hero to be above Man make him end up taking himself, like Icarus, for a divine figure?
Here you touch on an essential aspect: the question of the hero’s transcendence. What is the nature of this transcendence? Originally, in the Greek world, the hero is therefore a demigod, a cross between a human being and a deity. Far from wanting to remake the world in his image, Ulysses simply wants to go home. He goes through trials and places that are as many different life possibilities, which he tackles – in all respects. On the other hand, other heroes, especially those of diabolical descent such as Richard III, want to remake the world in their own image and/or destroy it to the (de)measure of their nothingness. This demiurgic or nihilistic will, in which the ubris expresses itself, also takes the form of a challenge to God. Thus of Don Juan de Molière: his extreme freedom, his infinite desire, his systemic sacrilege consisting in marrying all possible women (and a fortiori impossible, forbidden women) constitute a challenge to transcendence, to the law, to authority, against all forms of fathers, all of whom are as many avatars of God the Father.
If the hero sometimes opposes God or the gods, in the Greek world this ubris is punished in a radical way. In the modern world, believing oneself to be God because of a power and wanting to remake the world in his image often leads to catastrophes and unbearable utopias. Heroism and transcendence form a complex dialectic.
Does the hero exist by himself or necessarily through the eyes of others? If so, can there be a hero of chaos or a nihilist?
Heroism crystallizes a system of values. If a hero has a driving power, it is because he embodies something at a given moment. Mandela embodied the end of apartheid in South Africa. Gandhi embodied the decolonization of India. Emblematic resistants to oppressive regimes, they became symbols of liberation par excellence. These value systems are of course correlated to a certain worldview. A national hero for many French people, Napoleon is considered by the Spanish as a massacre of their people – cf. Goya’s paintings. Hitler was considered the absolute savior by a huge part of the Germans, a vast majority of Austrians and many Europeans, while his New Europe project contained the seeds of its radical destruction, from the extermination of the “inferior races” to the self-destruction of his own people. Significantly, he had built models of Berlin in ruins, projecting himself into the devastated world to which Nazism, the cult of murder and the religion of death, ultimately tended.
Certain negative figures, nihilistic and chaotic, possess an undeniable driving power. Proof of this is Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. The Joker, whose latest eponymous film explores the origins of the Joker. An absolute victim vainly seeking help to the point of arousing empathy, he ends up becoming the agent of radical chaos and the paradoxical leader of an army of nihilistic clowns. With the ultimate reversal: “I thought my life was a tragedy. Now I realize it’s a comedy. “Tragedy and comedy, this drama has an audience and a ripple effect commensurate with its media coverage, since the Joker’s first public act is to kill a TV host live. Whatever his path and vocation, the hero exists in the eyes of others, whether they see him as a model or a monster.
If the hero thinks he is inscribed in History by actions that he assumes to be superior and timeless, he remains in a hollow inscribed in a temporality that is that of his time and the values that he represents.
Except for certain heroes who immediately project their action beyond the present, inscribing it for posterity, I think that heroes are above all in the moment, because the catastrophe is in the moment. When Joan of Arc, obeying celestial voices, takes the head of the army to “drive the English out of France,” she does not see herself in a timeless way, as a figure who will pass through time. But in six centuries, through thousands of stories – chronicles, legends, historical works, songs, poems, novels, plays, films, etc. – she has been able to discover the history of the English people and their history. But in six centuries, through thousands of stories – chronicles, legends, historical works, songs, poems, novels, plays, films, etc. – she has been consecrated as a heroic, complex and composite figure: heroine of the revolutionary republican left and heroine of the nationalist extreme right; popular heroine burned by corrupt clerics and holy martyr of the Catholic Church. Anyone can picture the Joan of Arc they want. Therein lies all the power of such a heroic myth. I doubt, therefore, that many true heroes are primarily concerned with their legend when it comes to action. Beyond his actual role, the hero takes on its full significance through its symbolic role, through the meaning and power that it will take as a symbol through time. As Churchill used to say, when it came to settling a debate: “History will judge” – before adding, as a historian he was: “But don’t forget that I will be one of those who will write it”. Every hero is a story. It remains to be seen who will write the legend – black or gray, brown or gold.
Do you think that this figure of the hero can still exist today, that new heroes can appear?
In times of crisis and disorientation, certain forms of heroes proliferate, especially in fiction. Under the combined effect of great mutations, upheavals and revolutions, there is a growing need for strong, often populist figures, such as Putin, who presents himself bare-chested fighting in the snow with bears, or Trump, who claims to defend the establishment while, as a billionaire, he personifies it, promotes it and exploits it. An individual subject struggling against a system that crushes him, revolting the humiliated against the arrogant elite, denouncing a general plot and revealing hitherto hidden alienating truths, threatening the end of the world, salvation by the providential man: these are all motifs that, although already present until now, are proliferating even more, inducing a procession of films and series populated by heroes and superheroes to match our anxieties. From then on, the whole issue is to know which values are at the root of our lives today, and which types of heroes they call up.
We are thus witnessing a competition between forms of heroism and their legacies. For example, one of the archetypal forms of heroism, ancient and medieval, is that of the saint: the one who sacrifices himself for others, in the name of a divine principle and for love of humanity. In the 21st century, the firefighters of September 11, 2001 attempting to evacuate the Twin Towers in New York, and in early 2020 hospital staff fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, at the risk of their lives, are renewing the forms of this heroism of sacrifice at the heart of the catastrophe. Far from any obsolescence of heroes, I think that we are in fact witnessing a kind of diffraction that makes it difficult to identify our current heroic models. What are the canonical forms of heroism for our time? This is one of the investigations I am currently conducting.
Is there a shift from the hero to the model? The hero embodied an untouchable ideal (no one can be Achilles), but is this still the case today?
You are right to say that no one can be Achilles. Those who try, like Ajax, suffer cruel disappointments and end up committing suicide, since such a nature cannot be copied. However, certain forms of heroism do stand out as models. Thus, in V for Vendetta, the hero declares that beneath his mask there is no face, nothing, except an idea – in this case that of liberation through revolution. The proliferation of his mask, which a whole people in revolt ends up wearing in the streets, means that the idea has gained ground. But, as V asserts by passing the torch shortly before dying, you cannot kill an idea.
In my opinion, one of the great contemporary illusions is to believe that everything is worthwhile. This illusion of flattening words, points of view and values calls into question the very notion of the hero: why, then, would he be more legitimate than anyone else? In the name of what? This question is even broader: as a figure of achievement, the hero has long crystallized aristocratic values. In a fanatically individualistic and egalitarian age, the question of surpassing oneself both attracts and irritates. Quite often, the hero exceeds – literally and in every sense. Hence the effects of brutal turnarounds. What stands out, what surpasses, is carried to the skies before going down in flames, with a speed linked to the labile and instantaneous nature of the media, the Internet, social networks. The stars are not heroes, but phenomena of notoriety. And notoriety should not be confused with heroism.