Unappreciated Heroism

A hero is a person who exercises a virtue to a high enough degree to place his or her self at risk either to body or soul. A warrior is a hero because he risks his life for his country or people and is rewarded with medals or trophies. A saint is a hero who exercises a fidelity to a holy virtue, such as forgiveness or charity, sometimes at the risk of life, but often as not in comfort, as is the case with the Fathers of the Church, though there are those who go so far in their pursuit of knowledge, like Abelard, that sainthood is denied to them, given that saints need not be a perfect person, and Abelard was certainly not that. There are also heroes of literature. Joyce is heroic because he spent eleven years composing “Ulysses”, a book that broke ground in how to compose or read a novel, making extraordinary demands on its readership, when Joyce could have settled for composing more conventional ones like the one that had already made him famous, “The Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man”, and so made him a renowned novelist of the sort Thomas Mann was.

There are a number of roles that belong in the collection of roles that surround the role of hero. There is the failed hero. Casaubon in “Middlemarch” tries to pull off a monumental work of scholarship and finds that he doesn’t have it in him. There is the unsung hero: the soldier who goes off and kills the enemy and dies at his work and his deeds go unrecorded. Then, there is the anti-hero, who makes his claim on us for the way he betrays the heroic idea in that he is indifferent to it even while others may parade him about as a hero. That is Brecht’s idea of Galileo—someone just out to survive rather than to die for the truth. There is also the minor hero who performs athletic skills of only moderate difficulty and is rewarded with cheers and prizes appropriate to the deed, such as a certificate for having participated in a five K race or cheered for having made the hit that won a sandlot game. Just about anyone can claim this kind of heroism or the kind of heroism that consists of carrying out what was at one time described as an “existential project”. This person was a faithful breadwinner for forty years. Attention must be paid to Willy Loman because he paid off his mortgage. A teacher remembers those few moments of triumph when a student seemed suddenly enlightened when you explained that “ghetto” was not a derogatory term for poor black communities but had been originally applied to the area of Venice in which Jews had been required to live. A lawyer thinks back to his most illustrious cases and a doctor to the fact that he had never been the subject of a malpractice suit. We are minor heros in that our personalities have been admirable, like Dorothea in “Middlemarch”, someone who never accomplished much else in her life.

I wish to consider another kind of hero. This is the hero who is unappreciated either by himself or others for actions he or she has taken, those in fact subject to ridicule, because of the satisfaction and feeling of liberation provided to this kind of hero even if the person also regards the behavior as mistaken or even a bit evil rather than heroic. This is a complicated category of heroism that reveals much about social life and human nature.

Begin with an easy case, that of a young woman who goes out to a bar showing more skin than she usually does or, at one time, wearing fishnet stockings, all to suggest that she is “faster” than she may really be, so as to experience the titillation of being a bit risqué but with the intention of holding off any bad consequences. She is taking risks for her own satisfaction, whether just to try out a new level of flirtatiousness or to prepare herself for getting in even deeper. She knows that she is being a bit naughty and does not mind that all that much. The activity is itself satisfying, even if others might disapprove and even if she thinks she is giving in a little bit to her own darker side. Here are the elements of unappreciated heroism: behavior that is thought not at all heroic and which the person does not herself think heroic but which nonetheless provides satisfaction and a sense of liberation even if not recognized as such. A male who acts  in similar fashion, trying to be more forward than he usually is with women, will, or used to, come across as heroic because he has entered into the lists of romantic combat and his friends will commend him for having done so, while to go too far down that path is to become something else entirely, which is a Lothario or Don Juan, who simply uses his charms to facilitate conquests rather than to express his true feelings.

Another example of an unappreciated hero is a dinner guest, whether a friend or a relative, who argues just a bit too vociferously in favor of a political or religious cause that preoccupies the guest but which leaves the other people at the table cold or upset. The vociferous person has worn out the hospitality of the others with what is taken as rudeness and the violator will understand that to be the case and sense his or her self as being incapable of self-control even if they think they are correct on the issue, never bothering to consider whether being outspoken is the morally correct thing to do. In “Gentleman’s Agreement”, that late Forties movie, Dorothy Malone is advised to denounce Anti-semitic talk wherever she encounters it, and feels guilty for not having done so in the past even though she knows doing so will do little good in countering the racism of other dinner guests and only earn her a reputation for politicizing everything. These days, similar occasions for conflict emerge when people do or do not talk about Trump at a dinner party. What good will it do? And yet even if people face ridicule or blame themselves for having introduced the topic, there is something heroic about bringing up the topic everyone has in mind and is unwilling to broach.

The most famous example of an unappreciated hero in literature is Huck Finn. He makes friends with Jim, an escaped slave, and even risks his own safety to rescue him from a Southern captivity. He does not think he is being brave but as someone who puts friendship above status, even though that is against the moral code which operates at the time. It is as if it were a compulsion rather than an act of bravery much less of morality, and Twain wants to compliment Huck for being so morally pure that he doesn’t care that what he is doing will be regarded by others and maybe himself as being immoral. That is the highest morality: when it doesn’t recognize that it is moral. So much for Kant, who insists we are most moral when we do things for overt moral reasons.

These three examples would be classified in sociology as examples of deviant behavior: a person is breaking the norms of modesty or polite conversation and so bears the enmity of the community for having done so. It is like spitting in the soup, which is apparently what Jesse Jackson did as a young man when he waited on white customers. Nothing to be proud of, and yet an expression of righteous bitterness that he and others, I presume, outgrew. But these instances cannot be removed into the neutrality of norm violation because they are well understood as assertions of emotions that can be denied but not easily dissipated. There is some merit is showing cleavage, denouncing bigots, and preserving one’s anger

There are a number of characters in literature who qualify as unappreciated heroes and were appreciated as such during the era of Existentialist literature of the Fifties. Camus’ “The Stranger” had as its hero a person who kills an Arab at the beach for no apparent reason and is convicted of murder because he seems so unfeeling that he did not mourn his mother’s death, even though that might have been his reason for turning aggressive. Meursault was taken to be a weird kind of hero because he did not recognize his indifference to the ordinary usages of life as a form of protest or something that put him in touch with the meaningless of life, and certainly ordinary people would not see it as heroism, though the reader of the novel could see it that way, and so come in touch with their own existential angst. Meursault, unknown to himself, had freed us all. Similarly, Barnaby, in Herman Melville’s “Barnaby the Scrivener”, a novella widely read at the time, where the satisfaction of this kind of hero is never established but is left as a mystery, a literary conundrum. Why did Barnaby say “I prefer not” as a response to everything, disengaging himself from all ambitions and ordinary feeling, and yet somehow emerging as a commanding figure who nevertheless goes off to die of his indifference to ordinary life. The message is that such fierce independence is counterproductive, not necessarily a product of reflection, and so Barnaby is a hero to the reader though not to himself.

It is a good question, however, whether an Existential hero is surely that or merely a displaced unappreciated hero. The sense of the known world as an unknown world, strange and ferocious, is a perception as fitting for a madman as one gifted with exceptional though unacknowledged sight. It does not make the person brave or fearless or otherwise moral without knowing it, but rather makes the person merely a freak, equipped with a sixth sense that may also be the diminishment of the insight that every ordinary person carries into the world. The existential hero is a hero to the writer and the reader rather than having heroic attributes that the hero himself may doubt are heroic while still feeling some measure of bravery. The existential hero is therefore a freak, an observer of what is there only for the cognoscenti. But that may be enough to be an unappreciated hero: to see what no one else wishes to see and not being able to help it. It is a condition to be pitied rather than admired.