A Literary Moment: Heroic Potential

In a recent discussion, I said to Mike:
My point was more that there's a danger that Americans -- who increasingly live sedentary and TV-bound lives -- are losing an understanding of how virtue is linked to the potential to be heroic.
On reflection, I can think of few examples of writers who do this very well. I wonder if there's a moment in human history associated with the insight. It would be the moment at which the work is no longer ordinary enough to be assumed, but familiar enough to be described and understood.

By far the best writer of adventure stories that explain how the hero develops into someone worthy of being a hero is Louis L'amour. There's a Medieval predecessor tradition that includes Malory, who inherited a tradition that didn't dwell on it much as both the troubadours and their audience was part of a knightly class that knew very well what kind of work went on in the background of developing a knight of prowess. It is generally mentioned in passing, and mostly for the edification of young listeners who might need to undergo that work themselves yet. Malory and a few others in the Grail tradition tried to lay out what spiritual work would be necessary to develop the spiritual virtues to go with the physical ones. They were striving for perfection, which is impossible to reach, and it is clear that they understood just how much work moral perfection would entail. Yet they were already talking about heroes, men like Sir Lancelot, whose education in physical prowess was highly advanced long before they turned to spiritual things. That education gets little description because it was so well known to the audience.

L'amour was very interested in the question. Over and over in hundreds of books and stories -- of which I have read very many, as they were always readily available from dusty trade-your-books shelves in Iraq -- he describes the upbringing and character of his heroes. His heroes differ greatly in occupation and heritage, and in accidents of speech or clothing. Some are miners, some are gamblers, some are cattlemen, a certain number are lawmen -- though surprisingly few, given that his plots turn on defending the weak and defeating the wicked. He clearly is thinking of that as primarily the business of a good man, a good friend, a good brother or cousin, a good citizen.

Whatever accidental differences there are in his heroes, they have an essential core.

1) They work hard and in a self-directed fashion. Whatever they do, they do a lot of it. They are conscientious about their responsibility to be actively engaged in making the world better through some form of productive labor -- even the gamblers work to be good at gambling, and to impart their skills to morally worthy young men. His book The Comstock Lode is a positive ode to hard-rock mining, which the hero does on his own account, with no boss and no schedule, working hard whenever he isn't trying to solve the mystery.

2) They have a love of learning, and self-educate passionately. If there is a mentor figure, he imparts this lesson (perhaps with a favorite book, generally a classic of Western civilization such as Plutarch). Many books mention that the hero, a hard man of his hands, has a private library that he has cultivated whenever the chance has arisen.

3) They take care of their bodies. I don't think I can recall reading any other author who made a point of the fact that his characters did a certain number of push-ups and squats every day. They approach fitness in an engaged way, as an art: if they fist-fight, they probably studied boxing in a careful and serious way.

4) They are moderate in their pleasures. If they drink, it is described as 'Not a drinker: perhaps a drink or two, now and then.' They do not allow themselves to be ruled by their animal nature.

5) Sexually, they are universally moral in character. They never take advantage of a woman. To do so would be to be marked as a villain in L'amour's world. They treat women with respect, and if they love them, they love them seriously. Many marry at the close of the adventure; others never marry the woman they love, but love her faithfully from a life that would not be fit for her.

Many of these stories start with the hero as a boy; others describe his upbringing in flashbacks, or in description. Always, though, we come away with the understanding that he is the hero because he has earned the right to be. It should be easy to see that a hero could dispense with any one of these qualities, but that any such loss would weaken the man. He would not be as fit to be the hero if he fell from any of these standards. Virtue and the potential to be heroic are very tightly linked: as tightly, indeed, as cause and effect.

That's what I think we may be in danger of losing. Heroism is just an accident, now, or perhaps an unearned gift. It's a kind of unfairness, then: everyone should get to be a hero. Everyone should be treated equally, after all, so that a gift given to one should be given to all. An accident of fate should be rectified. It's fine for different heroes to have different super-powers, but no one should be better than anyone else.


raven said...

Grim, you might enjoy "Musashi", by Eiji Yoshikawa, English translation by Charles Terry.

The setting, in turbulent 1600's Japan ,just prior to the Tokugawa Shogunate, has many of the same themes you describe in L'Amour's books. It traces Musashi's growth from a headstrong youth regaining consciousness among the dead on the plain at Sekigahara, through his wandering and perfecting his warrior skills, to his eventual life as an artist.

Tom said...

I'll second that, if you haven't already read it.

Grim said...

I haven't read it. Japan has a parallel set of problems in the late 19th and 20th centuries, though: a desire to preserve the old virtues, but an increasingly distant lifestyle from that which produced those virtues.

raven said...

The rapidity with which Japan went from a feudal aristocracy to a world industrial power is astonishing-
Virtually no change under the Tokugawa reign from the mid 1600's to the mid 1800's, then an incredible burst of pollination from the west- it went both ways, too- the art really reflects it. 50 years later in 1905 they beat one of the west's leading powers in naval warfare.
Unfortunately, the desire among some to preserve the old virtues ended up in another militaristic police state in the thirties.

"Japan at War" by Cook, shows the descent into fascism , one of the very few books in English to relate the WW2 from the Japanese point of view- in some cases, it was extremely difficult to get the interviews, but they range from poignant to horrific, sometimes both.