Antihero Reassessed: “Humility, An Uncommon Courage”

by LJ Frank

Dust. The bodies are now “dust”. The light from their spirits glow, some of them for centuries. The antihero intrigues me. He or she are human and possess character flaws. And at the end of their life questions dance in the mind about their nature. Even literary antiheroes leave us with a query or wonder for literary and historical characters overlap. A light from their existence remains and quietly flickers.

The etymological root of hero implies superhuman whereas antihero implies the opposite. There are gray areas between the extremes. Allegedly antiheroes have more flaws than the typical caricature of heroes.  And not all antiheroes are wicked or corrupt except in the imagination of the writer and through storytellers (viva voice – word of mouth and oral tradition). There are villainous and narcissistic traits in heroes and antiheros and those individuals that exist in the gray areas in the environs of legends. A few may perform heroic if not seemingly miraculous or magical acts or so it appears in a given text whether considered sacred or profane.  

In the antihero there is the questionable and existential decisions regardless of time period that suggest the immediacy of his or her predicament. Believing something is real is only a belief, and an assumption of a truth. There is no such thing as an alternative truth, but where does the truth exist? For me that is a central question, if not the taproot of the remarkable antiheroes I identify here.

The ambiguous antihero plagued with doubt captures my attention for their actions and reactions are easily misread. What is the situation and context of his or her acts and the questions they have about meaning? Their inner face is lined with the deep crevices of experience from the battle and searching within.

All things considered I find certain types of antiheroes more interesting than the fabulous stories of the hero.  Opinions evolve with experience and information scattered through the filters of one’s own sight and insight.

I never could get into superman, spiderman or whatever as a child for very long. The grade school mentality of the superhero caused a conflict and emptiness within my heart. I wanted the rawness of life. I used humor to find that which became a source of solace to the meaninglessness. What is it within that defines us? It sounds strange but I was attracted to connotation, effect, content, and essence.  

To a good measure I found meaning in the archaeology, architecture and human context of place and time.

From the paleolithic nature of the literary-historical character through the antihero narrative of humility, doubt, and compassion espoused by the man depicted as Jesus of Nazareth in Nikos Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ (reminding me of the Mediterranean Jewish Peasant/cynic in the words of theologian John Dominic Crossan) who questioned truth and displayed self-doubt and offered love in return, and to Hypatia of Alexandria who questioned the origins of man, the world, and man’s role in the world through the science of the day, to Joad, the ex-convict in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath whose family is caught up in the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the injustices and humiliating sacrifices, to the anti-warrior Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and the mindlessness, brutality and meaningless of war and violence.

There were others…found in the works of Shakespeare, such as Hamlet and Shylock from the Merchant of Venice to Christopher Marlowe’s Tragedy of Doctor Faustus and his quest to know and bargain with Mephistopheles and the realization in his last moments, his own flaws – the cry for redemption…My God! My God! Look not so fierce on me!

In each of these examples the antihero in my mind represents the courage of inevitable humility, and the strength of conscience – the will to be singular, full of error, incompletion seeking completion, a resolution to their quest for meaning. Miguel Cervantes would understand.

The antihero has a multitude of faces. A postmodern man who knows the mind and heart bequeaths its genetic recipients a want of deeper explanation…and not to be forsaken. It’s the Kierkegaard willingness to sacrifice a child for the sake of belief as in a leap into the face of an absurdity.

Why does there have to be meaning? Why heroes and antiheroes? We label to what end?

The physical stuff of our short life is a temporal, fleeting sensation in which we design and give rituals and rules to garner some poetic expression to our existence. And then we vanish. Eventually, all records of our individual existence with names attached will dissipate and become a non-beingness. Eventually the digital may disappear. Will Artificial Intelligence which has no soul or sensation of pleasure or pain be that which survives?

I relish those antiheroic moments of pleasure. Consciousness is a form of non-superhuman antiheroic energy. Will it find a home once the eternal enfolds its arms around us?