Myth is conveyed – and consumed – in narratives and images. So it is important to understand our most fundamental mythic image. The American obsession with individualism has been built up and buttressed by three centuries of stories, repeated in thousands of variations, of the lone, violent hero.
All societies evolved versions of Joseph Campbell’s classic “monomyth” — except America. Whereas the classic hero is born in community, hears a call, ventures forth on his journey and returns sadder but wiser, the American hero comes from elsewhere, entering the community only to defend it from malevolent attacks. He is without flaw but also without depth. He is not re-integrated into society. Not knowing his own darkness, he cannot symbolize genuine renewal.
When confronted with the villain (his mirror-opposite), he never strikes first because, above all, he embodies the Puritan quality of self-control. This is what proves his superior character. And since his adversaries lack self-control, they embody the Dionysian Other. He is individualistic, lonely, extraordinarily powerful, selfless – and, like the Christ he is modeled upon, almost totally sexless. Classic heroes often wed beautiful maidens and produce many children. But the American hero (with few exceptions such as James Bond and comic antiheroes) doesn’t get – or even want – the girl.
Consider John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, Red River, The Searchers, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Horse Soldiers. In each of these films he portrays widowed, divorced or uninvolved loners. They symbolize the man who has failed – or never attempted – the initiatory confrontation with the feminine depths of his soul. He carries with him the myth of violent redemption.
Am I exaggerating? How common is this unattached American hero? Consider some others: Hawkeye, the Virginian, Josey Wales, Paladin, Sam Spade, Nick Danger, Mike Hammer, Phillip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Dirty Harry, John Shaft, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, Mr. Spock, Rambo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, the Man With No Name, the Hobbits, Gandalf, Mad Max, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Hornet, Spiderman, the Hulk, Iron Man, Human Torch, The Flash, Dr. Strange, Hellboy, Nick Fury, Swamp Thing, Aquaman, Daredevil, Lone Wolf McQuade, Sargent Rock, Braveheart, Conan the Barbarian, Jack Sparrow, Captains Kirk, Picard, Atom, Nemo, Phillips, Marvel and America, as well as the heroes of Death Wish, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Pale Rider, Unforgiven, Under Siege, Lethal Weapon, Blade, Casablanca, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, No Country for Old Men, Gran Torino, Walking Tall, Delta Force, Missing In Action, Avenger, Extreme Justice, The Equalizer, Terminator, The Exterminator, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Million Dollar Baby, Open Range, The Exorcist and countless other movies, novels and comic strips.
All are either single, divorced or (especially in Wayne’s films) widowers. Robert Jewett and John Lawrence write, “The purity of his motivations ensures moral infallibility,” but denies both the tragic complexity of the real world as well as the possibility of healing through merging with and incorporating the values of the Other.
In this mythology, women are merely excuses for the hero’s quest. I googled “prominent Libertarians” and discovered 17 women out of 194 (about 9%). Even the Senate has a higher percentage of women (23%). Again: the Libertarian’s allegiance, if he is honest (and he is usually a he), is to himself, whether he claims to be part of a family, a relationship, a business or a military unit.
The classic hero endures the initiatory torments in order to suffer into knowledge and renew the world. In this pagan and tragic vision, something must die for new life to grow. But the American hero cares only to redeem (“buy back”) others. Born in monotheism, he saves Eden by combining elements of the sacrificial Christ who dies for the sins of the world and his zealous, omnipotent father. The community begins and ends in innocence. And the Hero – absolutely unique in all the world’s mythologies – remains outside of that community.
Only in our salvation obsessed culture and the places our movies go does he appear. Then, he changes the lives of others without transforming them. This redemption hero has inherited an immensely long process of abstraction, alienation and splitting of the western psyche. He exemplifies that peculiar process upon which our civilization rests: dissociation. He is disconnected from both the feminine and the Other (psychologically, his own unacknowledged darkness), whom he has demonized into his mirror opposite, the irredeemably evil. Since he never laments the furious violence employed in destroying such evil, he reinforces our characteristic American denial of death.
Our monotheistic legacy of dissociation and our sense that we individuate by separating ourselves from the tangles of relationship and community merged long ago with the Puritan’s profound contempt for the poor. Together, they inform both the libertarian’s disinterest in social responsibility as well as his stunning ignorance of how centralized government built up his white privilege (oh, did I mention that there were few people of color in that list of prominent libertarians?)
The Hero’s appeal lies deep below rational thinking. He requires no nurturance, doesn’t grow in wisdom, creates nothing, and teaches only violent resolution of disputes. The regular repetition of his stories in the mass media clearly has a modeling effect on millions of adolescent males in each new generation. Defending democracy through fascist means, he renounces citizenship. He offers, writes Jewett and Lawrence, vigilantism without lawlessness, sexual repression without resultant perversion, and moral infallibility without intellect.
Unlike the universal hero who lifts the veil between the worlds to discover eternal values, the redemption hero pulls the veil back down, confirms our innocence, and puts everyone back to sleep.
Read Part Five here.