(Excerpt from The Age of Defeat by Colin Wilson)


“I glory in the name of earwig.”
Gumbril in Aldous Huxley’s Antic

“With people who know how to revenge themselves, and to stand up for themselves in general—how is it done? Why, when they are possessed, … by a feeling of revenge, then for the time being, there is nothing but that feeling left in their whole being. Such a gentleman simply dashes straight for his object, like an infuriated bull, with its horns down, and nothing but a wail will stop him….Well, such a direct person I regard as the real, normal man. . . . I envy such a man till I am green in the face. He is stupid. I am not disputing that, but perhaps the normal man should be stupid. And I am more persuaded of that suspicion by the fact that, if you take the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of acute consciousness, he genuinely thinks of himself as a mouse, not as a man.”
Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground.


WHEN DOSTOEVSKY WROTE the passage quoted above, he put his finger on the centre of the problem that obstructs the twentieth-century writer from creating a great heroic figure. Heroism is not mere physical courage and conviction. If a man sailed a rubber dinghy up the Congo, and then dived in among the crocodiles, armed with nothing but a toasting fork, we would not call him a hero; we should more likely call him a fool. If a man went over the Niagara Falls in a barrel, we might admire his rash courage, but we would think of him as a gambler rather than as a hero. Heroism is not merely courage; it is directed courage; and what it is directed towards is all-important.

Probably many of Al Capone’s gangsters possessed qualities that would have made them excellent warriors under Attila the Hun; but in twentieth-century Chicago, they were dangerous and undesirable. The qualities that make the hero depend upon the time he lives in.

This suggests a generalisation about the hero: he is the man who, in some way, ‘embodies’ the qualities most needed by his age. The religious passion and the ruthlessness of King David would have been out of place in Ancient Greece; the cunning of Ulysses was an undesirable virtue in the age of Malory’s King Arthur, the blind reliance on fate of Sinbad the Sailor would not have ensured his survival in the Israel of 1000 B.C. These men have one thing in common: they are ‘favourites of the gods’ (or of God). But as heroes, they are tied to a particular period in history.
What are the qualities required by the hero in the twentieth century? To answer this question would be a major step towards answering the problems posed by Riesman and Whyte. It is obvious, without further investigation, that our age is a great deal more complex than any previous period in history; a ‘hero’ who possesses simple courage, or faith without intelligence, would be a failure. The ‘hero’ of the twentieth century would need to be something of a metaphysician.
An important preliminary step would be to understand the cultural developments that have made the ‘old hero’ inadequate. They can be traced in the literature of the past three centuries. The figure of the hero in literature reflects the ‘needs of the age’, and the degree to which men of each age have overcome their problems. What Eliot called ‘a sense of one’s own age’ is also a sense of the problems of one’s age; certain artists may achieve an embodiment of these problems in their work. Hamlet, Faust, Ahab, Zarathustra, the Underground Man, reach this symbolic stature; our own century can offer no comparable symbols. The reason for this failure can be better understood through an analysis of these symbolic figures of the past. It will be seen that the reasons for the disappearance of the hero figure go deeper than a shift from ‘an age of production to an age of consumption’; they are bound up with the inner-dynamics of the hero. The present section is mainly concerned with a definition of these internal problems.

What is a Hero?

First, it would be valuable to have a provisional definition of the word ‘hero’. This is not as difficult as may at first appear. All that is necessary is to get a clear mental picture of the man who is not heroic. I am not thinking of the coward, but of the man who is completely contented with his way of life—or if not contented, at least too lazy and half-alive to do anything about it. The idea of a hero is of a man who needs to expand, who needs wider fields for his activities. He is the man who cannot ‘accept’ the status He is the man for whom the idea of freedom is a contradiction of his present way of life. The anti-hero is the man who accepts, who ‘fits in’.
It will remain true, of course, that the hero’s capacity for heroism will depend on how concrete are his ideas of ‘freedom’. If his country is under enemy rule, and his idea of freedom means political freedom, then his heroism will have free play until his country is once again self-governed. On the other hand, one could imagine a bank clerk who possesses the latent military genius of a Napoleon, but who has never become aware of it. Unless a war happens to place him in a position of military command, he will probably remain a dissatisfied bank clerk. He may, it is true, have his imagination stirred by a war film or a book about the army, and decide to change his career. But even so, it will depend largely upon chance as to whether he ever becomes a ‘hero’.
Heroism, in its purest definition, is an appetite for freedom, a desire to live more intensely. But its realisation depends upon the liveliness of the potential hero’s imagination, upon how far he can understand his own latent needs, and devise an outlet for them. It might very well have been different in more primitive societies, where any man of spirit became a soldier, and had his opportunities presented to him in the course of his normal routine. He would not need imagination. But in a more complex and peaceful society, a man who feels the craving for expansion, for freedom, needs to possess intelligence and some degree of self-knowledge. And somehow, the words ‘intelligence’, ‘self-knowledge’, ‘imagination’, are in opposition to the idea of simple heroism.
It is true that there is a strong modern tendency to admire physical courage, and that various types of simple heroism are now pouring money into the pockets of the men who write books about it. The war heroes have been revived; we read about men who crossed the Pacific on a raft, or crossed the Atlantic in a dinghy, or climbed Everest or Nanga Parbat. The tough private detective is in great demand. So is the great surgeon, with his white uniform and scalpel. But somehow, these men seem out of date in the age of the Organisation and mass production, as irrelevant as those brown daguerreotypes of the early motorcars. The pleasure they give is the pleasure of turning away from the present and imagining an age when they were relevant.

The Old Hero and the New

But when did the ‘physical hero’ start to become outdated? It was a great deal further back than the twentieth century. Even in the days of fervent British imperialism, no one regarded the works of Kipling, Conan Doyle, John Buchan, A. E. W. Mason, as ‘great literature’. In fact, if one turns as far back as Shakespeare, one sees that while his Henry the Fifth was a patriotic backward-look, his greatest characters are the self-divided men, Hamlet and Lear, or the solitary, Prospero. Hamlet is an amazing anticipation of the self-divided man of the nineteenth century, the forerunner of Goethe’s Faust, Dostoevsky’s underground man, and the later heroes of Musil and Sartre. (Whether Shakespeare intended him as such is another matter.)
While Shakespeare was anticipating a new type of hero, his contemporary Cervantes was ringing the death-knell of the old type. Don Quixote is the “normal man” whom Dostoevsky’s underground man spoke of, who “lowers his head and charges like a bull”; he is not merely the stupid hero, he is downright insane. But Cervantes was not concerned with the new hero who would replace the Galahads and Amadis de Gauls. If the question troubled him at all, he probably thought of Sancho Panza as the new hero—the hard-headed realist who knows better than to go out looking for dragons and giants. Cervantes might claim to have invented the ‘cult of the ordinary chap’; he is the first of a distinguished line of literary men who would have no truck with heroes: Quevedo, Lesage, Fielding, Defoe, Smollett . . . In the Sancho Panzas and Tom Joneses, there is no craving for freedom; all they want is a wife, a home, and a bottle of wine. But when the ‘heroic’ was revived, nearly two centuries later, the hero brought back with him all the problems that are still latent in the work of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Schiller’s Karl Moor in The Robbers is a typical example. He broods: “Law has never produced a man of true grandeur. It is freedom that hatches the colossal and the extreme.” But Karl’s idea of organising his friends into a robber-band and taking to the woods like Robin Hood is a typical romantic miscalculation; he soon learns that practical anarchy is boring and sordid, and that freedom needs to be closely combined with discipline if it is not to degenerate into drifting. Schiller is obliged to solve the problem by killing him off.

Goethe soon ran into the same problem in his own creative experiments, and ended by creating the greatest self-divided hero of all. His career had begun with the creation of Goetz von Berlichingen, a backward look into the heroic past, the freedom-seeker whose ideal of freedom is political. But as soon as he tried to write a contemporary story, the hero became the morbidly oversensitive Young Werther, who ends by committing suicide. It is true that Werther is not a typical hero in that he fails to ‘get the girl’; but Goethe himself had no illusions about successful love; he had a habit of withdrawing from his own love affairs before he reached the point of ‘living happily ever after’. Werther’s tragedy is not sexual frustration; it is the fact that the world and he are at loggerheads; he suspects that his craving for freedom is incapable of being satisfied in the world.
After Werther, Goethe went on to analyse the peculiar psychological complexities of the ‘new hero’ in Faust. At the beginning of the poem Faust is a well-known scholar, universally respected, regarded with veneration by the local peasantry for his medical skill, still young,[1] personally attractive. It is evident that, at some earlier time, he has been consumed by idealism, the feeling that knowledge could turn man into a god. The result is, now, not merely disillusionment, but a nihilism that involves the whole universe: a feeling that, if a man could shed all his illusions for a moment, he would not want to live. As far as living is concerned, he feels he has reached a dead-end. But as he is about to drink poison, he hears the Easter bells, and experiences a rush of ‘temps perdu’, of memories of his childhood, and an absurd, paradoxical feeling of immortality.
The lesson here would seem to be that his net was not fine enough. He had made a bid to become a god-man by trapping ultimate truth. Truth dissolved, and left him feeling like an insect. But just as he has decided that his desire for immortality was illusion, the Easter bells bring back the living essence of his past, and stimulate a consuming desire to live more. Faust realises, in a flash of intuition, that truth is subjectivity; that it is no use looking for it in the outside world; that it is contained within himself, in his memories, in the subconscious power-house he carries inside him.
But in the next scene Faust has already forgotten this. When Mephistopheles appears, and offers to give him “more ecstasy in an hour than he normally feels in a year”, it seems a fair offer. He knows that the pursuit of knowledge can never intensify his desire to live, and hopes to exchange it for “the world of direct experience”. From this point onwards, it becomes obvious that he has made a mistake. What is more, it seems likely that Faust’s mistake is Goethe’s too. The devil’s attempt to show him a gay time bores him. The love affair with Gretchen provides some satisfaction, but it is apparent that this also begins to bore him, for by the time that Gretchen knows she is pregnant Faust has allowed Mephistopheles to drag him off to a witch’s frolic. In the second part of the poem he has a love affair with Helen of Troy, and tries to save himself from a sense of uselessness by becoming a public benefactor and draining a swamp.

After the opening scene of Part One, the rest is anti-climax. By this, I do not mean that it is artistically an anti-climax. But for the reader who has grasped the issues that were stated in the opening scene, the remainder of the poem is evasion. Faust is an artistic success and a philosophical failure.

Faust’s failure is for reasons that would not have worried Homer or Sir Thomas Malory for a moment. He feels “immortal longings” in him, the need to be of more-than-human stature. When the ‘old hero’ had such feelings, he simply went off in search of adventure; or, if his urges were more subtle, in quest of the Holy Grail. But Goethe possessed an acuter sense of reality than Homer or Malory, as well as a more ‘modern’ insight into self-division. He could not propel Faust into action, for no action could resolve his inner-tensions. How is he to become a hero? What could he do, given even the fullest opportunities?
In point of fact, Proust penetrated to the heart of the matter more unerringly than Goethe, for he seized all the implications of that inner-revelation that Faust experiences on hearing the Easter bells. He describes the sensation with great exactitude:
“An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses . . . All at once, the vicissitudes of life became indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory. . . I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.” (Swann’s Way, Overture.)

But Proust’s Marcel then begins a careful discipline to recover his past. Faust only abandons himself to Mephistopheles, whom he knows to be stupider than himself. At least, Proust knew there was only one way to turn—inwards. Faust keeps his face determinedly outwards, and only involves himself more deeply in his original error, the failure to realise that “truth is subjectivity”.
Spengler referred to the culture of the West as a ‘Faustian culture’, and stated that Faust was the typical hero of the modern world. Faust is the man who is torn between two visions: an internal world where a new sensitivity and knowledge give strange glimpses of immortality, and an external world where he is increasingly a misfit. One day he feels himself to be a god; the next, an insect. The poles draw wider apart, and the tension between them becomes greater. Man’s dual nature, his ‘greatness and misery’ (to borrow Pascal’s phrase), obstruct every attempt to arrive at some clear, simple assessment of man’s place in the universe. And in the confusion, Faust continues to seek for the answers outside himself, to grope from one solution to another, from magic to love affairs and altruism, never at any stage arriving at peace with himself.
I have suggested that the answer Faust missed lay in subjectivity, in turning inwards. But it must be immediately admitted that this is only half a solution. It is rather as if Whyte had ended The by advising all employees of big combines to throw up their jobs and retire to cork-lined rooms, to spend the rest of their days writing immense autobiographical novels. The problem of the hero goes deeper than this. It is not simply a question of turning inwards, but of coming to terms with the interior problems and then turning outwards again. The ‘old hero’ was the man who “lowered his head” and charged like a bull. The ‘new hero’ is too self-divided for this; he has to learn to heal his self-division. The final hero will be the man who has healed the self-division, and is again prepared to fling himself back into the social struggle.

[1] This is of particular interest Faust is traditionally represented as an old (or elderly) man. Marlowe’s Faustus asks for the return of his youth as the first gift of Mephistopheles. Goethe obviously had no wish to load the dice against his hero: all Faust’s despair can then be concentrated on his self-division, his sense of internal defeat.