The Hero and the Antihero
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
The Hero and the Antihero: The Clash Between Decorum and Barbarism
Nicholas C. Ridino
Recently I was privy to a telephone conversation during which I heard a mother use the term "antisocial" to describe certain activities undertaken by her son, who at the point of my eavesdropping was the topic of discussion. The activities in question concerned the son painting his nails black and detonating firecrackers in a parking lot. If not illegal, which it might very well have been, this latter activity was unquestionably within the realm of foolishness, given the proximity to vehicles and people, as well as the potential for vehicular damage and bodily injury. But painting one's nails black--is that indicative of pathology, an association upon which antisocialism depends?
Before proceeding further, I would first like to clear up a misconception about the term "antisocial," for it is a common misconception and applied too loosely in society. Technically, antisocialism is a personality disorder, as classified by psychiatric diagnostic criterion. Psychopathy, sociopathy and dissocial personality disorder all refer to antisocialism (Carr 145). Those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder exhibit "a pervasive disregard for the rights of others and consistently violate these rights. Aggressive, destructive and deceitful, [they] engage in theft and lying" (145).
One can, therefore, see why the mother's incorrectly attributing the term "antisocial" to her son's behavior was sufficient to give me pause. Although she clearly did not realize it, she was literally calling her son a sociopath. The painting of the nails black may be viewed as a gothic statement and the detonating of firecrackers blamed on sheer irresponsibility. To be sure, these acts were not inspired by violence. Perhaps what most people mean when referring to antisocial behavior is a form of social ineptitude.
From antisocial behavior we proceed to the antihero. Nearly everyone has his own notion of what constitutes the antihero, which is where the problem lies. For just as the mother who professed knowledge of antisocialism, there are as many laypeople who incorrectly profess knowledge of the antihero.
In literary terms, an antihero is a protagonist lacking the qualities constituting the hero. These qualities vary, and may include bravery, decorum and strength. According to poet and journalist X. J. Kennedy, the antihero is considered a relatively "modern characterization, a satiric commentary on traditional portrayals of idealized heroes or heroines" (G2).
I submit that the traditional hero of past generations has been displaced by the antihero-a displacement so marked that I quite unreservedly declare it tragic. There seems a shortage of iconic figures today exuding virtuous qualities and an alternative surfeit of others idolized for qualities deemed reprehensible to a civilized people. The modern antihero does society a grave disservice; the mixed signals he emits are too easily misinterpreted, which results in a false conception of morality.
The word "hero" conjures up a panoply of images. A hero describes an individual spurred to do good by purely altruistic motives. Unlike the hero, epitomized by such figures as Superman, Beowulf and, more recently, Harry Potter, the antihero is distinctly flawed, and always has highly observable shortcomings. Anti-heroes are as prevalent as they are common. Many are celebrated for their flaws to the same degree heroes are for their virtues. Antiheroes range from older depictions, such as Satan in Paradise Lost, to more recent ones, such as the Marvel Comics character The Punisher, the shooter from the sci-fi horror game Doom, and Hannibal Lecter.
The distinction between the hero and the antihero often confuses people. This is due to the fact that the latter has the capacity to act virtuously. However, one can act virtuously and still commit immoral and illegal acts; we see this in many of the motives of antiheroes. Once an individual neglects the principles of conduct strictly adhered to by the hero, that individual is flawed. He is an antihero because he is against self. A hero is a force opposed only to that which opposes principle.
The components of immaturity, ignorance and cultural influence contribute to dangerous societal trends. Individuals, particularly teenagers, often model their behaviors after the antiheros in books, films, video games and music. The mass media has contributed largely to the transposition of moral with immoral behavior; thus, our collective notion of propriety has eroded, not sharpened, over time. Moreover, how does one account for the abovementioned transposition? An answer may be found in examining the antiheros emulated in today's society.
Adolph Hitler, Friedrich Nietzsche and the German techno group Kein Mehrheit für die Mitleid ("no pity for the majority") are three antiheroic figures after which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the architects of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, modeled their behaviors. Despite the philosophies for which these figures are condemned, they yet retain a certain allure, particularly to the existentially-disposed Harris and Klebold, whose respective pathologies included suicidality and psychopathy (Cullen par. 7).
It is necessary to make distinctions in life, as evident in the case of the mother who misspoke in labeling her son antisocial. While not an egregious error, it contributes to a broader misunderstanding; and in our age of information, where credibility is so often compromised by ignorance, linguistic uniformity serves a valuable purpose. An increased and more comprehensive erudition is the first, and obvious, purpose. A profounder understanding of language, added to a finer appreciation for its correct usage, can only help a society that has become estranged from factual connotation. In other words, Harris and Klebold are examples of an antisocial personality; the mother's son in the preceding example is not.
Unfortunately, our society glorifies the qualities characteristic of the antihero. We witness this glorification everyday. Instead of being vilified for his incorrigible acts, the antihero is instead worshiped and given unmerited reverence. To the eyes of the astute observer, this is a contradiction bordering on absurdity. Yet, this absurdity is rendered sensible in light of the aestheticization of violence, a philosophical concept seeking to "mak[e] the act and the product of violence appear attractive" ("Aestheticization" par. 1).
To some people, the novel, fundamental and moral qualities of the hero are more representative of art; Harris and Klebold, for instance, discerned art more keenly through the immoral and transgressive qualities of the antiheroes they idolized.
How do we increase awareness of this moral decline, and from there attempt to obviate the problem? Linguistic uniformity is the first step. The second step involves interpretation, that is, recognizing the arbitrary, analogous and exact connections between the signifier and the signified ("First" par. 2). In order to bring clarity to our unfocused visions, we need to assume dual roles. In our signifier role, we need to ascertain linguistic patterns; in our signified role, we need to ascertain the concept being signified. After all, one cannot appreciate a concept without understanding the connotation under which it is being used. Otherwise, we will end up confusing decorum with barbarism as easily as we confuse hero with antihero, and social with antisocial.
"Aestheticization of Violence." Wikipedia. 1 Dec. 2005. 6 Dec. 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aestheticization_of_violence>.
Carr, Alan. Abnormal Psychology. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 2001.
Cullen, Dave. "The Depressive and the Psychopath." Slate. 20 Apr 2004. 25 July 2005. <http://www.slate.com/id/2099203/>.
"First Step Towards an Answer." Wikipedia. 1 Dec. 2005. 6 Dec. 2005.
Kennedy, X.J, and Dana Gioia. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. 8th ed. New York: Longman, 2002.