Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Heroes, Metanarratives, and the Paradox of Masculinity in Contemporary Western Culture

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Heroes, Metanarratives, and the Paradox of Masculinity in Contemporary Western Culture

Article excerpt

The hero figure spans western literature, from Gilgamesh to Tyler Durden (central character in Chuck Palahniuk's [1996] Fight Club). It is the oldest and most prevalent of all character types, dating from antiquity and remaining to this day the dominant figure in contemporary American narrative. Aristotle in Politiques, or Discourses of Gouernment differentiates heroes from ordinary men, noting that "we suppose the Gods and Heroes to excel men" (Aristotle, trans. 1598, p. 148). The "like equality" he argues should be accorded "men of like condition" (p. 148) does not apply to heroes, for they, like Gods, are above the terrene enterprises of common men. It is not adequate to define the hero figure as "one who prizes honour and glory above life itself and dies on the battlefield in the prime of life" (Finkelberg, 1995, p. 1) or to claim the hero figure excels in martial skills: physical strength, courage, and an innate ability to confront dangerous situations without flinching. The term, which originates from the Greek heros, or demi-god, refers to one who is part God, part man, one who transcends the mortal and the mundane. As Klapp (1954) notes,

   Because the hero exceeds in a striking way the standards required
   of ordinary group members, as has been said, he is a supernormal
   deviant, his courage, self-abnegation, devotion, and prowess,
   being regarded as amazing and "beyond the call of duty." Because
   of the requirement of transcending the mediocre, he must prove
   himself by exceptional acts, and the most perfect examples of
   heroes are to be found in legendary or mythical personages who
   represent in a superhumanly exaggerated way the things the group
   admires most. Because of their superior qualities, heroes dominate
   the scene of human action, symbolizing success, perfection and
   conquest of evil, providing a model for identification by the
   group--one might say its better self. (p. 57)

The mythic hero links the world of ordinary men and the realm of the gods, serving in its earliest form as a protector and defender of ordinary lives. The purposes of a hero are twofold: (1) to bring the protective power of the gods to Earth where they serve a practical function for people, and (2) to posit the possibility of human transcendence. The first provides a heightened sense of security by implying that supernatural forces interact in mundane affairs to protect mortals from unjust ends. The second promises immortality; if man can rise to the realm of gods, then death is avoidable; Calypso's offer to Odysseus that he "should not die/nor grow old, ever, in all the days to come" (Homer, pp. 142-143) renders hope for all mortal men.

Postmodern movements, which posit the erosion of cultural metanarratives, mark the latter part of the 20th century as a period of reduced influence from metanarrative doctrines. Lyotard (1979) claims of the postmodern experience, as Schwartz (1998) notes, that "narrative function ... 'is losing its functors, its great heroes, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal'" (p. 64), that faith in metanarratives is in decline. But this "incredulity toward metanarratives" (Lyotard, 1979, p. xxiv), as Lyotard calls it, is more localized in select regions, such as the United States, rather than globally evident. In many Middle Eastern countries, the influence of metanarratives increased during the second half of the 20th century. Davidson (1986) points out that "many world leaders see terrorism as monolithic ... [and] trace all important terrorist actions--either directly or indirectly--to the same source" (p. 109). Organizations such as Hamas, al Qaeda, and Islamic Jihad, engender loyalty through the effectiveness of metanarratives. Their followers claim many great heroes, great dangers, great voyages, and great goals.

In America, the decline in the effectiveness of metanarratives in the second half of the 20th century can be attributed to a number of factors, including unfavorable public opinion about the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal; an increased awareness of racial, political, economic, and gender diversity; a lingering post-nuclear distrust of science and militaristic machinery in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and distrust bred by cold war paranoia. …

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