“I’m a fake hero…the joke the gods played on me.” -Jim Morrison
When Jesus was on the cross he asked God to forgive his persecutors because they didn’t really know what they were doing. Crucial for the following discussion is the fact that these persecutors likely weren’t aware even of their ignorance. The thesis of this essay is that a fateful time has arrived; Judgement Day is upon us. In my view this marks the epoch in human history when science has amassed so much information about the human animal–and this information disseminated so thoroughly throughout every level of culture–that it will become impossible to ignore Solon’s admonishment to “know thyself.” One will not be able to convincingly claim ignorance or eschew responsibility for himself, delude himself that we live in the best of possible worlds, or rest contented with a naive trust in any particular human authority figure or their preferred mythology. Today we either know precisely what we are doing or we are at least aware of our ignorance, but in either case, Jesus’ plea has been rendered far less compelling while our guilt is compounded.
Schopenhauer reminds us that “every work of fiction is a peep-show in which we observe the spasms and convulsions of the agonized human heart.” I once found comfort in the fact that people generally do not read books of any worth, as this might protect them from a truth that they might scarcely be able to handle. However, the advent of television and YouTube has removed the barriers of literacy, inconvenience, patience, and to a certain extent that of intelligence. We have all heard much commotion surrounding porn and violent video games, but the current generation approaching adolescence also has an unprecedented access to religious dogmas, cultural practices, suffering and tragedy, social mores, life stages, psychological types and pathologies, but most importantly, access to that great void of consensus surrounding any issue of importance; all this neatly displayed in various fictional characters or YouTube philosophers. The central worry that prompted this post was that children will lose their innocence too quickly; that they will grow up too fast without ever having enjoyed an unperturbed period of faith in the adult world. H.G. Baynes writes: “a truth that is germane to the problem of individuation may lead to disaster if shouted through loudspeakers to the multitude.” While many will see this as a great opportunity for the presentation of role models and hero figures, I hasten to ask, “like whom exactly?” My incredulity here is the result of watching The Doors, Reality Bites, and Charlie Bartlett in rapid succession; each containing an anti-hero protagonist who longs for rock-star fame, encourages experimentation with drugs, but who ultimately performs the heroic deed of admitting his vanity, ignorance, and duplicity. They are “heroes” like Socrates in that they know that they don’t know, but sadly their attempted demolition job on society and tradition comes after two millenia of similar, if not more successful, demolition jobs. We hardly need another dose of cynicism.
The curious fact is that our enormous wealth of knowledge has served mostly to undermine our certainty in common sense, human intuition, traditions and mythologies, most conventional forms of heroism, as well as certainty in the literal truth of each current scientific theory (be warned, the pessimistic meta-induction is nigh!). Any number of films now contain enough of a spiritual revelation to render self-deception nearly impossible and exposure to these revelations will come earlier, and earlier, as children gain access to media explaining the basic human predicament, inundating them with a singularity of information that will essentially make each person their own judge by necessity instead of by dint of prolonged parental admonishment. This revelation, however, is a Socratic one, leaving the enlightened with only one certain truth: that he doesn’t know and likely nobody else does either. This would be a profoundly unsettling realization for an adult, let alone a 12-year-old.
All religions are concerned with managing thought and with judgement. The Christians advise us to take the job of being our own “Big Brother.” The Buddhists recommend declining employment. The Christian attitude will win. Despite Christopher Hitchens’ impassioned rebuke of the “big brother in the sky” who can convict you of “thought-crime,” the simple fact is that any human being with a shred of conscious awareness has a conscience and simply cannot help but be his own “big brother.” You can run from everyone but yourself, though Hitchens’ solution of a tall glass of scotch does go rather far in temporarily obliterating the dilemma. Though I admire Hitchens’ apparent bravery in his publicly championing unpopular views, his whole cock-sure display ultimately wreaks of pompous self-aggrandizement that is far from convincing. Here he rails against a psychological reality as if religion had imposed it on us, instead of realizing that religion is a commentary on these realities. Another such reality is our need for heroism.
Children have been growing up too fast for a while, but there is something different about our time. Already at 12 any young scholar has to be his own coach, marketing team, star, and salesman just to get into college, all-the-while carving out an identity whose nobility is fast becoming impossible. He is being asked to sell the adult world on his strengths before he has had a chance to really test them himself, while being rewarded for embellishment and essentially taught to accept the institutionalized duplicity of the adult world, with its unofficial slogan of “fake it until you make it.” Any wonder why he feels like a fraud? Being a teenager was already hard and confusing enough when one had time to cultivate an identity before having to prematurely judge and package it. Now a kid will think he knows his character and his fate so early that the crushing problems of adulthood–problems that countless generations have scarcely made any progress solving–will weigh on him before he even reaches adolescence! The “quarter-life crisis” was a shocking reality to many of my generation, but how will we handle a similar identity-crisis epidemic among those a decade younger still? Children will go through all of this without a really compelling hero or model for transcending this godawful mess of a culture that we have created. They have no means of representing their apartness from Nature and will likely affect an artless return to it that will border on sadism in its profanation of the world as these scared children flee from death, determinism, and their own responsibility, while finding no refuge in sight and no leader to guide them. Worse still, they have ample access to plenty of characters who have gone down that road before them, robbing them of that last refuge from guilt and death: turning vulgarity into a fetish. Jim Morrison’s charisma fostered a certain faith in his shamanic vision, but this was exposed as empty when he despairingly concludes that “I’m gonna get my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames.” We all could have adopted that philosophy without psychodelics or any grand, mystical vision from “the other side.”
Humanity is a species defined by punctured innocence, by growing up too fast, by seeing too deeply too soon, and we are now approaching the apogee of this trajectory. We now live in an age where any 12-year-old can be let in on the identity game, the self-esteem game, and the myth of adulthood by turning on Charlie Bartlett! This knowledge used to be quarantined in very difficult literature. By the 50’s one could read something like Catcher in the Rye and in the 70’s one could drop acid or read The Denial Of Death to become familiar with the basic existential dilemma or see through humanity’s various forms of heroism. But now this knowledge has filtered down even to feel-good-coming-of-age-comedies featuring 14-year-old-wannabe-child-psychiatrists! Morrison shocked the world, but now a 14-year-old Morrison, far from shocking, looks like the formula for a cheery blockbuster. Today, the truth is upon us, not least of all in our art (or what today passes for it). However, we have seemingly forgotten Nietzsche’s assertion that we create art so that we do not die of the truth, as our “art” today chooses instead to simply wallow in it, forgetting that we have some part in creating our own truth; forgetting that we are an incomplete animal whose “true” description must absolutely include what he truly could be in completion. Oscar Wilde reminds us that “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Cynical as Wilde seems, he still attempted to lift our gaze back towards the heavens. He is no cynic when he says that “Only the shallow know themselves,” but we have forgotten how deep the human soul can be if properly cultivated, as it is far easier to seek refuge among the shallow masses and cop to vanity and emptiness while claiming to be living an examined life of heroic irony, self-effacement, and righteous tolerance of the human-all-too-human.
The myth of “adulthood” has been exploded along with the stable heroisms that have comforted man for millennia. Adults have been all too quick to shrug off anti-heroes like Holden Caulfield or movements like Existentialism and so forth as essentially addressing the problems of angry teenagers, but they are now becoming painfully aware that humanity itself has failed to progress past a cultural adolescence! Though the two World Wars severely shook many of the conventional views of heroism, it was Freud who seriously shook our smug conviction that we know ourselves. By the 60’s and 70’s the youth were more than vaguely aware that their parents didn’t know what the hell they were doing. By now, I doubt whether children even go through a parent-worshiping phase where “my dad could kick your dads ass!” No, today, we are all too aware of the fallibility of every adult from the president, to the top CEO’s, to celebrities, and further down to every last parent posing as a responsible and mature adult. Furthermore, our modern myths, far from rescuing man from this situation and presenting a compelling ideal to emulate, serve at best to glorify those “heroes” who are honest enough to shed that moniker and let humanity in on the little self-esteem game they are playing. The only compelling and courageous heroes we have managed to produce are anti-heroes. (except John Stewart)
I saw Reality Bites when I was about 14 and essentially knew what the next decade of my life would look like. I can remember thinking that the answering machine message the character Troy leaves at the end of the movie was the coolest fucking thing I had ever heard. Blah, blah, leave a message, “and briefly describe the ontological necessity of modern man’s existential dilemma.” Bam. What power and verve. It must have dawned on me what incredible power that insight into the truth could bestow, as a weapon, offensive, defensive, pre-emptive and magical; the awesome power of words that either sting the comprehending or humiliate the ignorant, but likely dumbfound both. Surely, the cynical smart-ass is a stable heroism? He sees the truth and can puncture anybody’s little self-esteem bubble; he can annihilate anyone’s sense of specialness or self-importance; he can demolish any pretense to maturity or sanity. It was clear to me then, as it was to my entire generation, I’m sure, that we were being led by the blind; that we are all crazy; that we are all living in a fucked up, broken-down, yet irreversibly evolved, self-made ecosystem that fails to cater to the basic existential needs of the now highly symbolic, meta-cognitively addicted man-child. But there is no vision of the “true” adult in this postmodern picture, unless you are satisfied with accepting the power of love and admitting your own ignorance and helplessness as the defining features of a mature and sane adult.
Troy is the prototypical poet-philosopher who has accepted obscurity and poverty over the meaningless self-esteem game of climbing the corporate ladder, but he ultimately shows us his weakness and vulnerability; shows us the emptiness and vanity of even his own choice of heroism. He admits that he is clueless, alone and afraid. He panics. He admits to having given up on any real form of heroism or secure truth, which were rendered dubious when his dad tried to pedantically explain that all the worlds wisdom was contained in a seashell. In the place of answers to life’s big questions, Troy, like Socrates, gives us only a reminder that nobody really knows. To a certain extent this is cathartic, like the Shaman or male initiator taking off the terrifying and demonic mask to show the initiate that he has only himself and his own demons and projections to fear instead of any real god or devil. However, do we not need a hero who has graduated from the school of Socratic ignorance? Do we not need a hero who discovers what to fight and die for? Reality Bites seems to give the same answer as the flower children: love. However, man needs more than love; man needs something deadly serious to do or he risks an annihilating boredom that edges him nearer the abyss of nihilism. Take Jim Morrison, for instance: a courageous man who could see no transcendence possible but through his own destruction. If we can take Oliver Stone’s version of Morrison for granted, then he is a man who sacrifices himself, his health and sanity, in order to cleanse the whole tribe with his shamanic vision, as he plays the fool, the martyr, the messiah, and the scapegoat. In Stone’s version, Morrison admits that “I am a fake hero…the joke the gods played on me;” he admits that “courage wants to laugh…in an essentially stupid situation.” What a telling revelation of mans obsolescence; not even his heroism, courage, and thumos (spirit) can find an adequate path on which to discharge its strength in this disenchanted world where humanity has lost face. Heroism is a wasted passion today, where bravery can only take the form of an embarrassed and tactless revelation like “father…I want to kill you. Mother, I want to FUCK you”. It takes courage to vent the ignoble and own up to what you are, but this hardly provides a vision of what you could be, of what vision might dawn after this twilight of the gods. It takes courage to play Russian roulette with ones sanity, get arrested, and completely self-destruct, but it hardly takes imagination, wisdom, or genius!
Watch a movie like Reality Bites and identify with a character like Troy too early and risk being disillusioned of the only cool ideal that was possible to emulate in the culture of that decade, as the point of that movie was ultimately to expose everyone, including Troy! Truly, god is dead, and it is we who have killed him. Or, perhaps the Individual is dead, and it is we who have killed him. What heroism is safe anymore? What identity game is immune from puncture and grants something akin to the love of god: the immutable assurance of deserving happiness? Oscar Wilde tells us that “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” But what mask is left in the “ancient gallery” that has not been appropriated, smashed or exposed already? Nobody today can pretend to pull a Morrison, as Jim already played that niche out, while having the advantage of a legitimate “machine” to rage against. The progeny of the “flower children” are stuck knowing that they will go through a rebellion in adolescence, but have no real way of outdoing their parents. The only rebellion possible would oddly be a return to various traditions, but then the “flower children” got there first as well with perennial philosophies and New Age chimeras. Free love isn’t a viable rebellion anymore and that good old fashioned love, in addition to being “square,” would seem like a treacherous institution to place your faith in given today’s divorce rates and the undignified picture of human “pair-bonding” that science has painted to explain these divorce rates. Besides, “love is the only answer” doesn’t strike me as romantic so much as it strikes me as desperate and exasperated. Doesn’t anyone want to deserve love anymore; to earn it; to sacrifice for it? Are we really so shallow and undiscerning as to conclude that everyone is equal and deserves love simply on account of drawing breath?
How beautifully Reality Bites follows the Eros and Psyche myth in the sense that Troy is evasively intelligent, coyly articulate, and dissimulates with the guile of Alcibiades the entire time, yet is known by his love all the same, culminating in one brief exposure of the soul; one moment of weak and exhausted revelation. If women were really honest they would admit that they prefer this game of dissimulation with the vague hope of rescuing this evasive hero from himself. “Deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance,” Wilde glibly surmises. But is deception still possible in the modern world? Who knows how the story of Reality Bites plays out; we all assume Troy returns to his cool ways ever after, with smug dismissals and mocking answering-machine messages for all. I’m being cynical here, but only to stop from being morbid. The two lovers now have each other, but have solved none of the other problems in their life, least of all the query that is raised at the very beginning: “what do we do now? How do we repair all the damage we inherited?” The easy game to play is to profess a burning altruism and go help people in the third world, but this hardly repairs one’s damaged homeland and is only admirable in comparison to ones alternatives or what one had to give up. Honestly, I think that every generation that saw that work of art, whether they really knew it or not, discovered the suffering of the world, discovered the naked fraud that we all are, and perhaps discovered what Pascal meant when he said that “men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would simply amount to another form of madness.” Man could deal with the fact that reality bites if the threat came from a tiger or invading army, but what if it comes in the form of a soul-effacing job interview adjudicated by your intellectual inferior for a position whose existence you resent, but which you begrudgingly pursue out of an embarrassed acknowledgment of lowly material necessity?
Yet, Reality Bites was so beautiful and true. The characters did have beautiful ideals, beautiful minds, and symbolic lives that were intense and rich; they were full of personality, individuality, charisma and spirit. Yet, courage was out of place and served only to mock the would-be-hero; the intensity of their awareness served only to heighten their suffering. Their honesty laid bare ever more pain and ambiguity for us to be acuity conscious of. We are living in a post-Becker world where we have realized the futility of our own immortality-projects, but have nothing else to motivate us as human nature persists in exacting its due; demanding from us what our current environment makes tragically comical. Is it any wonder why our culture celebrates a sort of anti-intellectualism? Intelligence, courage, idealism, these all seem to be liabilities now. No, its safer to denigrate mankind and define him by the universally ignoble parts of his nature rather than risk being disillusioned of some pretense to a higher nobility. If man expects nothing of himself he will never be disappointed. But then, if he never foolishly plays the hero, how will he ever be pleasantly surprised enough to truly love himself, instead of simply tolerating or accepting himself? To make matters more desperate, just when heroics and identity are most under threat, one now has to worry about his digital ghost, adding new force to Wilde’s warning that “Biography lends to death a new terror.”
Additional Note (Sunday Sept 23nd): Morris Berman, in “Coming To Our Senses,” sketches an intriguing solution to this crisis of heroism, a solution I could summarize for you, but this might rob you of the invaluable gift of reading this entire book yourselves!