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“The Hero of Yesterday Becomes the Tyrant of Tomorrow”

Photo by Javier García on Unsplash.

In 2022, the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast Series will take an in-depth, year-long look at the Hero. However, this exploration of heroism will be more than a simple reification of the themes Professor Campbell outlined in his influential and perennially popular 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. A book which, by the way, appears at number twenty-eight on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 all-time best nonfiction books. For the month of January, we’ve decided to explore the subject of the child and its relationship to Heroism. The Child Hero is certainly an archetype familiar to Jungians, but beyond that, most of us can see how childhood itself often requires acts of courage that are, from the child’s perspective, heroic: wobbling, wallowing, and veering up the sidewalk on your bike for the first time is, for a child, a heroic act. In order to reveal a contemporary picture of heroism, MythBlast writers will work to decenter the hero and some of its traditional assumptions in order to reveal how the archetype may be expressing itself in contemporary life.

Childhood is a time of uncomplicated heroes. When I recall my early childhood, I remember enthusiastically awaiting the next grainy, black and white rerun of Superman or the Lone Ranger TV series, which I watched with a bath towel tied around my neck as a cape, or a dime-store mask secured by a rubber band to my face, plastic six-gun by my side. My childhood heroes held no ambiguity, no nuance, and certainly no trace of corruption or impropriety. Villains were always apprehended by the hero without deadly force or personal animus. The mid-twentieth century hero unambiguously personified “the best” of humanity, and such a hero is, to disillusioned modern eyes, a farcical, one-dimensional anachronism.

Heroism as a concept evolves as societies and cultures evolve. For example, in the first decade of the 21st century one begins to see the ascent of the anti-hero reflected in television shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. Finding ourselves rooting for these deeply flawed, often ignoble and selfish, even psychopathic characters may give one pause, compelling a closer look at one’s own shadowy inner world replete with its sordid desires and unscrupulous strivings for power. This is the shadow of the hero archetype and cannot be removed or separated from the archetype. The shadow of heroism is essential, it completes the hero archetype; it’s the shadow cast by the sun, the far side of the moon, the unknown, the illusory, and a powerful, chthonic psychic presence. Jung noted that the shadow is irrational, instinctual, and prone to projections and delusions, exactly like the anti-heroes possessed by it. 

The shadow of heroism is emerging more and more in contemporary life and the archetype is acquiring a darker, psychologically defensive quality, becoming an essentially unexamined caricature—perhaps even a banality—used to avoid examining complex contemporary cultural phenomena–particularly warfare and other forms of violence. With the ascendency of shadow heroism, having the unmitigated bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or being ground up in the gears of the machinery of living while simply going about one’s daily routine is enough to qualify as heroism. 

Another prevalent quality of the anti-hero may be found in the tendency of onlookers to misidentify outrageous, reckless, greedy, self-interested behavior as heroic. Indeed, if there is anything like courage to be found in such behaviors, it is simply the sheer audacity to nullify social contracts and conventions while callously dismissing any concern for the well-being of society. But it isn’t hard to understand why such behavior seductively appeals to those who feel they have been cheated by life or prevented from finding success due to the interventions of conspiratorial, hegemonic forces. These characteristics of shadow heroism possess a viral character and root themselves in contemporary life to such a degree that le beau idéal of heroism—selflessness, humility, courage, and principled ethical conduct—are recherché, and have little left in common with contemporary ideas of heroism. 

The childhood fascination with heroes is undoubtedly rooted in a child’s experience of sweeping powerlessness and vexing dependence, experiences that generally evoke one of two fantasies: that of being rescued and saved, or, conversely, to become so skillful, smart, and physically unmatched that one dominates every eventuality, creating safety and protection while simultaneously freeing one to live an unfettered life. But what happens if, for some reason, we are unable to free ourselves from the conditions of powerlessness and dependence? All that’s left to us is the improbable hope that a hero will appear to save us. Eventually resignation turns to bitterness and those humiliating feelings are compounded by even more humiliating acts of subordination to bullies, officials and institutions, and other power brokers in the often brutal arena of social dominance. In response to this humiliation, the shadow of heroism grows deep and viciously strong.

At the same time we’re crying out for traditional heroism, the shadow of heroism works against it, upending its familiar ideals and values. We’ve all heard comments about how American culture loves to build up heroes, and equally loves the sport of tearing them down. We tear them down because inevitably the hero we have is not the one we want, not the perfect one we deserve—the hero who reflects the fantasy of our perfect selves back to us. 

When the shadow hero—the anti-hero—is in ascendence, one reverts to simplistic thinking, unable to see the complexities and nuances of the archetype. We’re blind to the shadowy elements of heroism at work within ourselves because the shadow has malformed heroism into a dark parody of itself, insisting that overcoming our own powerlessness and need is its greatest and only justification. Far from inspiring nobility and grace, such contemporary misconceptions of heroism have freed the squalid meanness of our lives to dominate public discourse.

“The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast,” as Joseph Campbell so beautifully writes in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (2), may indeed be standing on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, but they no longer wait patiently for the light to change; blind and helpless, they’re bolting angrily into Gotham City traffic with no other intention than to create confusion, chaos, and fear. Meanwhile, the traditional, mid-twentieth century hero of my childhood seems nowhere to be found.

Perhaps that is all as it should be; perhaps in the long run, we’re better off without obsolete notions of heroism. Perhaps the anti-hero, having vanquished the conventional, classical hero, has done us the favor of forcing us to discover we don’t need heroes “out there” in the world. We need to find heroism within ourselves, we need to discover that we already are the heroes for which we’ve been hoping. That is the truly heroic turn: to attempt to consciously reach beyond the archetype in an effort to become unflinchingly empathetic, mercifully humane and entirely human human beings.


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