A Treatise on Storytelling, III: Tearing Down the Anti-Hero

“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane, quite insane, with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have left at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.” So speaks Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Doing what’s right is not a matter of waiting until the moral question is severe. Morality comes from resolving beforehand to do what is right. Without discipline, right action is not forthcoming. Doing what’s right takes practice.

IronMan_Still_H5_LTony Stark seems to live in defiance of this reality. Marvel’s armored hero is licentious, a drunkard, disrespectful to all around him, and seems only to be outraged when people tell him to temper his tongue. Despite his complete lack of moral practice, he still manages to sacrifice himself time after time for the world. It seems that for Tony Stark, when it comes to small problems in life, morality can be disregarded, but when large problems (like alien invasion) present themselves he will be able to pick up his morality where he left it, saving the world with selfless honor. The same goes for Peter Quill of Guardians of the Galaxy. Undisciplined, unprincipled, and promiscuous, he runs around the galaxy committing small crimes until a real threat surfaces. When Ronan the Accuser rears his wicked head, Quill suddenly doffs his morally dubious coat and acts with enormous courage and self-discipline. This act continues until he selflessly sacrifices himself for the lives of others. After this he reassumes his criminal self and flies around the galaxy having learned something about friendship but little else. While both of their actions end up commendable, I cannot help but scratch my head at how they got there. After displaying a rampant lack of discipline in life I would expect and restar-lord-actor-chris-pratt-settles-super-bowl-bet_fsf5.1920ality would demand that Stark or Quill would be nowhere near capable of the discipline required to put their own necks on the chopping block. Stalwart and righteous people have faced great difficulty conquering themselves enough to make the sacrifice that these protagonists somehow stumble into. Stark and Quill’s sacrifices are the most unbelievable parts of the Marvel universe, a universe sporting a talking raccoon.

The anti-hero has been a part of literature for a long time. Characters displaying characteristics not heroic or admirable can create good stories, but these stories will fail to portray truth if vices do not act as vices. In what seems to be an attempt to make characters seem more “real,” writers have created strange combinations of cowardice and heroism, lust and honor, discipline and addiction. They have created righteous heroes without the moral strength of a righteous hero. Marvel doesn’t have a monopoly on these inconsistent anti-heroes. Films, particularly ones sporting strong male leads, tell the stories of protagonists living lives of immorality and vice in all matters except for matters of great sacrifice.

Bond_-_Sean_Connery_-_ProfileThe unrepentant anti-hero is often billed as “real”; a hero with vices and virtues like a normal human. But when these vices in no way affect the character, (Peter Quill’s womanizing is shockingly irrelevant to the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy) they become an embarrassing example of wish fulfillment played out in a massively budgeted way. James Bond is cynical, disrespectful, has all of the sex he desires, and butchers the people he comes in contact with all while being heroic, brave, and disciplined. He isn’t a character; he is the daydream of an adolescent boy longing for sex, power, and heroism while maintaining his reputation. We need to ask more of our characters. Wicked actions have wicked results. While crude quips and anti-social behavior can be pleasurable momentarily, they will have consequences on how you act and are treated. Righteousness takes work. Characters who instantly become righteous after a life of iniquity are portraying a faulty understanding of morality.

The unrepentant anti-hero has clear exceptions in film. One contemporary example is Interstellar’s Cooper. This character demonstrates a consistent and hard-won care for humanity, particularly his daughter. His care is a firm theme in the film and figures significantly in the development and exposition of Cooper’s character. His righteousness is upheld as hard-won and proven. It is this very love that ends up saving humanity. I do not want to see virtue that comes from the general innate goodness of undisciplined humanity. Show me virtue weathered from experience, rising out of countless trials and hardships.

LawrenceHeroes like Cooper do not sport the flaws of the anti-hero, but there are well developed and created heroes who exhibit deep flaws. What separates these characters from the unrepentant anti-hero is that the flaws act as flaws. They either deeply harm and torture the hero or give the hero an internal villain. Overcoming flaws requires the flaws to be recognized as vices. In perhaps one of the greatest films ever made, Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence relentlessly battles his sadism, a difficult prospect when in the middle of a warzone. His internal struggle creates conflict that is impactful and meaningful. His sadism is by no means brushed aside or regarded simply as a part of his character, but is a demon he must fight. Dorian Gray’s carnal lusts lead him to horrid ends in The Picture of Dorian Gray, presenting a real and raw picture of the danger of uncontrolled vice. Han Solo must learn to overcome his desire for money and freedom in order to properly protect and support his friends. There are many heroes who overcome or are overcome by vices in good literature, but in these examples vices are realistically portrayed as inhibiting, tempting, and painful.

People overcome by their carnal lusts, the fleshly Quills, Bonds, and Starks of the world, do not rise up and sacrifice themselves for humanity. Untested morality, corroded by vice and lack of discipline, creates not a stalwart hero but a flaky wretch. The true anti-hero is vividly seen in Tuco (or, “the Ugly”) from The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Tuco holds the same licentious, drunkardly, cowardly traits that plague our contemporary macho-men, but these vices manifest themselves more realistically. When the time comes to act honorably, the unweathered morality of Tuco gives way to his looming desire to satisfy his own appetites. Tuco is a mess. Tuco is what every unrepentant anti-hero is.Tuco

But why do we suffer this kind of character? Where does our unrepentant anti-hero spring from? Perhaps we create this hero because we have recognized our own vice and lack of discipline, and want to reassure ourselves that when push comes to shove, we will be good. Maybe we have looked down into our soul and been terrified by the prospect that the coward we see peering back at us will assume control when great things are on the line. Perhaps we do not make these characters because we find them attractive, but because we are afraid. But these characters will not change the reality that vice begets vice. Our addictions and lack of discipline will torment and tear at our moral fabric. Art is formative, and art that caters to moral cowardice allows us to rationalize our flaws as we sink away from the righteous and into the animal. When the hour of decision comes and we are faced with a great sacrifice, will we be able to look at our art and see moral strength or weakness? Will our heroes stand with us in moral discipline and courage? Or will they run away, dragging us after the carnal?

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A Treatise on Storytelling, II: Cowardly Stories

“You’ve got to go into the scrap heap” Theodor Kittelsen 1880

By the end of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, the titular character is a pitiful figure. Whenever he is given the chance to be someone, whether good or evil, he runs away, leaving sorrowful lovers, unruled kingdoms, and abandoned fortunes behind him. While Peer lives a wild life following every desire that comes to his mind, his life is worthless. As an old man, he is finally faced with the messenger of death who has come to take his soul. Peer is horrified to find that rather than a messenger of God to take him to heaven or the devil to take him to hell, he is met with a simple looking man who refers to himself as the “button moulder.” He informs Peer that Peer will be melted back down into a pool of souls, and reused as someone who will hopefully amount to something on the second time around. “You were meant to be a gleaming button on the world’s waistcoat, but your loop was missing; so you’ve got to go into the scrap-heap, to be merged into the mass”¹ For the rest of the play Peer relentlessly tries to prove that he is good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell. He will do anything to escape the oblivion that he would meet in the casting ladle of the button moulder. Peer’s cowardice in life caused his life to mean nothing at death. Like Peer, the stories that we tell often run from hefty moral decisions and end up without definition, fit only to be melted down and reused.

Every story is a matter of right and wrong. It is impossible to create conflict without establishing a way things ought to be. When the evil king locks up the plucky hero’s family because he wants to secure his throne, the story is telling us that there is something wrong with desiring to hold on to power at all costs, and that locking up an innocent family is problematic. When the chaos of a rioting crowd is portrayed as terrifying and wild, the story is telling the audience that this kind of passion is dangerous. Because we are dealing with reality, there is no way to tell a successful story and avoid telling something about right and wrong.

Speaking about right and wrong is dangerous. Making bold moral statements alienates and frightens audiences. But stories are the moral heart of a society. The stories we tell and the heroes we love shape and change us dramatically. There is no getting around the fact that the art we consume changes us in ways that are fundamental. If storytellers avoid tackling important issues, not only will their conflicts be sapped of life, boring and inconsequential, but the stories will be unable to sufficiently shape the audience in positive ways, creating a cowardly audience that flees from moral decisions. There are many examples of cowardly storytellers that pervade our culture’s stories, resulting in several symptoms of cowardly storytellers. Here are a few that have been bothering me.

I don't know Marvel, is he evil enough?
I don’t know Marvel, is he evil enough?

Just as Peer flees definition, seeking after adventure as opposed to making a stand for anything, so do many stories flee from taking a stance on any moral issue, choosing the most broad and general categories for evil and good as they can. In the recent Marvel superhero film “Thor: The Dark World,” the central threat of the story is that the villain, sporting the uncompromisingly evil name of Malekith, wants to stop the universe from existing. There is almost no cause less controversial than the cause of “let’s stop the universe from not existing.” While there could perhaps be compelling arguments for ending the universe, our menacing dark elf villain never explains his rationale. Because I trust in the cowardice of filmmakers, I knew that by the end of this movie there would still be a universe. People would band together to save the day, and all other days. By making the plot’s risk all encompassing, the writers of this film completely remove any exploration of the film’s ideas. Remarkably, the writers have made the possible end of the universe boring and trite. While the complex and heartful interaction between Thor and his brother Loki redeem this film in part, the central plot demonstrates cowardice. This theme is not unique to our hammer wielding hero. Themes of  “death is bad” and “life is good” often encompass most of the moral heart of our films. While these are true statements, they are hopelessly boring without further discussion. Ultimately they are not just boring, but a demonstration of the reluctance of the filmmaker to tread on any unstable or risky ground..

Cowardly refusal to discuss matters of importance seeps its way into a great many films. How many movies have you seen where the heroes must fight hard to keep the current system existing. Generally a wicked villain will rise up, threaten the peace, and the heroes will save the day, bringing us right back to where we started. Our films have become a vigorous defense of the status quo. Often I find myself wondering why the status quo is so worth saving. It often seems that the only people who really want to change the world are the villains. While Ultron may want to cleanse the world of evil by wiping out mankind, at least he does not take the Avenger’s approach of just letting evil happen. We need films that are brave enough to try and create something, as opposed to just stopping misguided reformers. If anything, this reckless defense of the way things are gives us a fear of the firebrand. If we continue to fight for the system, when will we ever join the moral revolutionary? The poet’s pen should fearlessly strike the paper, causing deep gashes that form something beautiful. The artist should be a revolter, burning down the established concepts in the mind of the audience and building up stronger cities.

There actually was a big red genocide button
There actually was a big red genocide button

At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Whovians (a formidable crowd indeed) I would argue that one of the clearest examples of storytelling cowardice comes in the Doctor Who season 7 finale. One of the only interesting plot points of the show up to this point was that the protagonist, the earth saving, long lived, enigmatic “Doctor” is haunted by a genocide he once committed on his own people to save the universe. Lingering in the back of the show’s mind is the question of whether or not, if given the chance, he would do this act again. The Doctor is faced with this choice in this finale as he, through a convenient and technobabbled time coincidence, is again faced with the same decision. He can choose to save the universe or choose to not commit a genocide of his own people. At this point I got excited. The show makers were finally going to answer their question: is it justified to commit a horribly immoral act in order to save the universe? I would have been happy either way. Had he pushed the big red genocide button, the show would be making a big statement on morality and pragmatic decision making. Had he decided to not push the button, the show would be making an even more exciting statement: the universe and everything in it is not worth a single immoral act of this magnitude. I desperately wanted him to stay away and the show to end on this powerful note. But instead the show’s music kicked in and the writers figured out a way, using an impossibly large amount of time travel, to run away like Peer. They ran away from making a decision. We are left with the idea that when difficult choices have to be made in life, you will always be able to run away.

We need to ask more of our stories. They should not parrot simplistic ideas of morality that make us comfortable. Let the bard’s prophesies and screams make us profoundly, healthily uncomfortable, lest we settle for weak willed art, devoid of any meat. Our stories will form us. Is it too much to ask that they form us powerfully? When a storyteller sits down to write they should write with courage, creating stories that either deserve heaven or hell; stories that create devils or angels. The most insidious kind of evil is the kind that seeps in gradually, eroding at our moral strength. It is this erosion that weak willed stories create. By telling stories like cowards we are molding cowards. Our stories become buttons without loops, fit only to be remolded into the casting ladle. Stories should inspire the hearer to sing like an angel or curse like a devil, not passively nod in agreement as he slips into oblivion

¹ Ibsen, Henrik. “Peer Gynt.” Eleven Plays of Henrik Ibsen, ed. Bennet A. Cerf, Donald S. Klopfer. New York: The Modern Library. 466. Print

A Treatise On Storytelling, I: All Art Is Formative

“The Boyhood of Raleigh,” by John Everett Millais

An oft-ignored fact, brushed over in the seductively insidious claim that film, television, video games, books and the like are “simply entertainment,” is that all art (and thus storytelling) is formative to one degree or another. Art cannot exist within a vacuum, detached from one’s life experience, and it will always form the viewer or hearer to some degree. This is an inescapable truth that must be grasped before any proper evaluation of good or bad storytelling can begin.

Human beings are endowed with the ability to reflect. This ability is what sets us apart from all other forms of life. Of course, certain animals are, to limited degrees, able to emerge from the naturalistic cycle, but human beings are able to transcend the fight for survival to a level impossible for any other creature. This is the significance of leisure in the human life: the ability to cease the thoughtless, purely instinctual aspects of our existence and reflect. (For a detailed exploration of this idea, see Leisure, the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper) This reflection enables us to, in a way, transcend the constraints of time, to recall memories, to allow ourselves to be formed by our past experiences in a manner far greater than the mere associative memories of animals.

We must also recognize that human beings cannot choose to not be reflective. Put another way, barring some physical injury or mental illness, a human being cannot choose not to remember or think on what they have experienced. Human beings reflect on the whole of their experiences, and these experiences shape their future thoughts, decision-making, and actions. In this way, no part of a person’s existence can be divorced from any other part of it. The human soul is a vast, interconnected web of relationships of both innate characteristics and exterior influences. It is not the comparatively scattered and incoherent experience of, say, a squirrel governed primarily by the laws of survival. By the very fact that a human being can transcend the Darwinian laws and choose to participate in a hunger strike for a moral cause, we can also derive that no aspect of human existence exists in a vacuum.

If no aspect of human existence exists in a vacuum, every experience being internalized, reflected upon, and responded to, we must conclude that any experience of art is formative. And this returns us to storytelling, one of the most prominent art forms, and also a refutation of the lie that any form of entertainment can be mere escapism and should not be judged based on reflective and moral criteria. This excuse is often used to swipe the carpet right out from under legitimate criticisms of popular books, films, and video games, arguing that the simple knowledge that such a narrative is fiction can negate any negative influence. This easy and reassuring response, however, neglects the inherently formative nature of the experience. This is not to say that the purpose of art is formative, for then art would exist merely as didactic instruction. Art, rather, is an overflowing expression of genuine human experience. Even the most fantastic of stories, as it was conceived of by a human mind, must be anchored in some sort of authentic human experience.

The very act of submitting to a storyteller’s narrative means seeing a world through the lens of an Other, temporarily interpreting events through the perspective of the narrator. It is the exploring of experiences and perspectives not our own. This is a good thing that ought to be prized, for it often challenges our presuppositions and broadens our narrow visions of reality. However, while for the storyteller the artistic expression may in fact be just an expression, for the hearer, the reader, the viewer, the act of listening, reading, or viewing is formative. As we have seen before, every part of a human’s experience, however infinitesimal, shapes that person’s reflections in some way. Because of this, adopting a storyteller’s lens for viewing is unavoidable practice for making sense of our own personal narratives. How we perceive our own personal narratives is shaped by how we practice viewing the narratives of others. All art is formative. This is why we must think about and consider deeply the narratives which we regularly consume. This is why we must consider what types of people these narratives shape us to be. This is why we must refute the lie that entertainment merely entertains and is therefore free from moral and critical judgment.

These considerations are vital, for narrative media is present to a degree that is probably unprecedented in the entirety of human history. Luke and I have, in recent months, noted alarming trends in the most popular and beloved of stories, and in this piece we hope to have laid a foundation for fruitful and thoughtful consideration of these stories. In the coming weeks we shall critique examples of storytelling that we see as problematic, as well as explore commendable stories which form us not only to be better readers and viewers, but better people. Considering the prevalence of film and television in modern society, much of our analysis will center around these contemporary forms. We hope that you will join us in thinking on the narratives we consume on a regular basis, and contribute your voice to these necessary discussions. To paraphrase Wordsworth, I hope that we will all bring with us a heart that watches and receives.