The Hero Discussion

19 March 2008

torn, the hero pulses
thru thicks of woods.
each step smashes the ground,
forcing small worlds toward gravity’s source.
it’s natural, it’s natural.
in order to walk forward
we imprint the ground.

sticks snap brisk and clear.
small bursts of frost explode
toward each expulsion of cloudy breath.
when forward stops, a vast and burdensome
silence engulfs the hero’s head.
keep moving.

is the hero a vehicle for change?
or must something be fixed?
is there room for a hero if nothing is broken?

a cold branch brushes ice
across quickly closed eyes
and the journey moves back into the hero’s feet.
it’s natural, it’s natural.

all creatures need something
to walk towards.
thru woods and across pavements,
in silverware cafes and silent winter bedrooms.
headfirst, we all chew our breath.

The Hero Discussion

9 March 2008

Response to Jeremy Tucker’s last posting:

- In a culture of self reliance how does the role of the hero play into the identification of the individual?
Self reliance manifests ultimately into the idea that we should be able to accomplish all tasks without the help of others. Of course, most people know this to be impossible. Who is termed then to be self-reliant is the person who holds some portion of knowledge about how to accomplish many things, and/or the person who executes basic survival skills without the assistance of society (i.e. the jack-of-all-trades and/or the Alaskan homesteader who lives off the grid).
When those who depend on others, or those who live within society and cities, then look toward the self-reliant person, the dependent then separate the self-reliant into a category different from their own. Some would call the self-reliant ‘heroic,’ while some would use the term ‘crazy,’ and all subtleties in between. This nomenclature depends on the individuals own goals and life views. Albeit, most of us consider the self-reliant to be heroic, and so strive to fulfill what it is that self reliance means to each of us.
- If society could be seen as a machine or mechanism what part of that mechanism would the hero play?
The hero can play any part within the machine. Because we individually define a hero within the boundaries of relativity, the hero can come from any walk of life. For example, an impoverished person can be considered heroic when that person brings food for the family, while a king must benefit an entire country to be considered a hero. A heroic deed is an overcoming, a rising up, a feat of change, all perpetrated with nobility and the illusion of selflessness.
- Is there a clear division of individual from the group when it comes to the function of society, or is it that society as a whole function through a group of individuals?
Society does function as a group of individuals. It is only when removed from that society, that we can observe it as a whole. For example, I can only exist day to day, perceiving that individual day as the whole of my existence, yet when I look back, at say 2006, I am able to place each individual day into a thematic year. And so, in addressing my comment that the hero is somehow diametrically opposed to the social group, I see a blurred line here. In this statement, I see room for an individual to commit heroic acts without breaking the dynamic of the group. As we are in fact animals, it is impossible to imagine a community in which an individual, or group of individuals, does not step forward and act as sort of leader or inspiration. However, there is room for this behavior while still maintaining the integrity of the community.
- Is there an importance placed on the strength of an individual or is it a hindrance to the function of the machine if the individual stands out separate from the group?
I see the hindrance occurring when the group focuses on the individual as being virtuous. The fear I have is that the group may fall into a sort of hero worship, where the deeds of an individual become more important than the benefits of those heroic deeds. But to commit a deed which benefits the group, or to be a strong individual who assumes responsibility within a group, is a virtue not necessarily attached to the acts of a hero. The hero part of it comes in the nature of the deed, the relativity of the situation, and in the measure of the obstacles overcome.
- Does the strength of society only come from unified strength or individual strength?
The strength of society is a culmination of both. Within a movement of unified strength, there will be those individuals who rise above, or stand out from, the average output. A sustainable society must maintain unity. This unity, however, is not exempt of strong individuals.


The strength and virtue of an individual is an important component of any animal group. This is not the thing that troubles me. I am troubled by the elevation of that individual to what I perceive to be an unhealthy stature: the hero. In heroicising a person, we run the risk of thinking that person contains something that we do not, that they are able to commit acts that we fundamentally cannot. Take Christianity for example. This has haunted Christians for two thousand years – how can one live the life that Christ did? It seems, or is, impossible. And so Christians have both suffered through guilt and invented the action of Christ dying for all our sins that we inevitably will commit because we cannot possibly live as Christ did. Out of a fear of eternity, Christians have re-written history and haunted their existence with the deep dissatisfaction of knowing they will never be as good as their hero. It is within this manifestation, within this view of the hero, that I detect a danger. It’s not to say Christ did anything wrong. It’s not to say that admiring his ‘heroicism’ is harmful. It’s in the level of admiration that harm occurs.

To be continued…

The Hero Discussion

16 February 2008

New input from Jeremy Tucker:

In a culture of self reliance how does the role of the hero play into the identification of the individual? If society could be seen as a machine or mechanism what part of that mechanism would the hero play? Is there a clear division of individual from the group when it comes to the function of society, or is it that society as a whole function through a group of individuals? Is there an importance placed on the strength of an individual or is it a hindrance to the function of the machine if the individual stands out separate from the group? Does the strength of society only come from unified strength or individual strength? Can an individual succeed with out the support of a group?

Are the ideas of the Hero in society born from the accomplishments of the individual? Is the importance of defining a hero to give strength to the group, where other wise weakness would disable there function? Could society survive without hope, and could it be that the hero is no longer needed in contemporary society? More so, could it be that the group should splinter into functioning individuals as to identify oneself as his/her own hero - is so much as finding ones own strength to function wholly, without the whole? Are these statements and questions contrived, empty and or other wise pointless? What in these answers illuminates the human psycho dynamic equilibrium of existence?

Is this the direction? Or from other sources that speak similarly but more eloquently:

Life Death and the Heroic Archetype by Jeff Barneson

The heroic archetype is a creative expression borne of the individual’s desire to know and to understand the uncontrollable and often chaotic world in which he lives. In the popular culture of America we can find many reflections of the heroic figure; in writing, in the graphic art of comic books, and most certainly in the aftermath of September 11th, heroes are ever present. Our cultural champions speak to our collective need to make sense of the nonsensical and to establish order in both our external and internal worlds. Indeed it is through the internal world of the psyche and the lens of psychological thought that we may gain a better perspective of the fusion of creativity and knowledge that we have come to call the heroic figure.
Creative experience and its expression cannot exist without some contextual framework by which it is understood and appreciated. The very survival of all that is creative depends upon such knowledge. Just as a bird released from its cage must eventually return to roost or perish in the wilderness so must our creative thoughts and imaginings eventually return to the reality of the corporeal world and the causal laws that govern it. This is the very nature of that which we call ‘learning’ and it is in such a way that creative thought gains relevance and weight, becoming part of our conscious reality. It is through this relationship between creativity and knowledge, between that which we imagine and that which we know, that we may gain a greater understanding of the heroic figure and its cultural significance.
The archetype of the hero is an expression of our imagination as well as a reflection of our experience. Carl Jung develops this idea in his essay, On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry, when he writes, ‘The primordial image, or archetype, is a figure-be it a daemon, a human being or a process-that constantly recurs in the course of history and appears wherever creative fantasy is freely expressed’ (186). Throughout history and across cultural divides the heroic figure appears a symbolic expression of mankind’s struggle to at once define as well as challenge the boundaries of existence. The stories of mythological heroes such as Herakles and Odysseus survive today not because they entertain us but because they teach us. Speaking of these mythic figures in the essay, Ancient Myths and Modern Man, Joseph L. Henderson writes, ‘Their special role suggests that the essential function of the heroic myth is the development of the individual’s ego-consciousness-his awareness of his own strengths and weaknesses-in a manner that will equip him for the arduous tasks with which life will confront him’ (112). By looking to the hero we are really looking back into the reality of our own state of being, searching for signposts in the landscape of the mythic that will somehow provide texture and traction as we navigate through the obstacles of our daily lives.
Through the heroic figure we gain a better understanding of who we are. It is no coincidence then that in our conscious and subconscious journey of self-discovery we have colonized our popular culture with the ethos of heroic myth. In comic books we find reassurance that even those who appear meek and mild mannered may only be a phone booth away from revealing their true nature and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Movie icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made his debut in the 1970 film, Hercules in New York, has spent three decades defying the aging process (in and of itself a heroic act), and reminding us in countless bad movies that a single individual with a lot of guns may indeed rescue the world from evil. On television, a top rated show chronicles the adolescence of Superman as its opening theme song pleads, ‘Won’t somebody save me?’ In newspapers we read of heroes in sport, astounding us with feats of physical supremacy. And we stand in awe, amazed by the acts of heroism that survived and defined the pathos of September 11th.
The hero educates, informs, and inspires. In surmounting adversity, the hero offers the individual a similar opportunity for transcendence, beyond the heroic ideal and into the realm of autonomous individuation, ‘the process by which a person becomes a psychological in-dividual, that is, a separate, indivisible unity or whole’ (Jung 27). In her essay I Will Be My Own Hero, Kristen E. Hughes comes to such a realization: ‘It is not by aspiring to be a great man, or even by following one that I can find my answers. So now I am involved in a new search for a hero within me, but this time the hero will not be a bull, or a Ulysses, or even a Tudor queen’ (52). Through her relationship to the archetypal figure Ms. Hughes realizes the need for a heroic quest of her own, a quest in the pursuit of the ultimate knowledge, knowledge of self.
This newfound insight into individual identity, accessed through the portal of creative thought, can also serve the needs of the collective. In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, an entire city, indeed all of America itself, looked towards the heroic figure as a means to give some context to the chaos and some meaning to the immeasurable loss that we all witnessed and in some way suffered through. Heroes like NYPD Officer Moira Smith, was such a figure, a thirteen-year veteran of the department as well as a wife and mother of two who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. A final photo of Officer Smith shows her escorting an injured man out of the Trade Center minutes before its collapse. After delivering the man to a paramedic, she returned to the building to look for more survivors, a final selfless action mirrored by hundreds of others who perished in the line of duty (‘Policewoman’ B4).
Through the story of Officer Smith we unite in not only grief but in courage, gaining through her sacrifice a new understanding and respect for the heroic ideal. As separate entities trying to cope with the magnitude of this disaster, we feel isolated and alone. By focusing on the beacon of light held by our modern day heroes, by firefighters and policemen, the individual finds strength and comfort and unity within a larger group. In Man and his Symbols, Carl Jung explains, ‘In other words, his identity is temporarily dismembered or dissolved in the collective unconscious. From this state he is then ceremoniously rescued by the rite of the new birth. This is the first act of true consolidation of the ego with the larger group, expressed as totem, clan, tribe, or all three combined’ (130). In this Jungian model of ego identification we see how the individual seeks salvation through dissolution into what is commonly referred to as the collective unconscious, defined by Bem Allen in his book, Theories of Personality as ‘a storehouse of ancestral experiences dating to the dawn of humankind and common to all humans’ (54). This state of grace is achieved through creative rituals and symbolic expressive figures, such as the archetypal hero. It is in this way that we come to know, understand, and survive psychic experiences that defy and confound the boundaries of rational thought. For the individual as well as the group, the hero hands us hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Just as in mythology, however, such a valuable gift is never without its price.
The heroic figure owes its very existence to the adversarial forces that oppose it, a symbiotic relationship not unlike the one that exists between creativity and knowledge. Without darkness there can be no light just as there can be no appreciation for the creative without the intellectual awareness and knowledge that infuses it with meaning. The hero seeks to unite these divergent energies through his deeds and in the process must recognize and challenge the ominous shadow self that resides within him. Henderson explains, ‘For most people the dark or negative side of the personality remains unconscious. The hero, on the contrary, must realize that the shadow exists and that he can draw strength from it. Indeed before the ego can triumph, it must master and assimilate the shadow’ (120-1). The challenge before the hero is not only to acknowledge chaos but also to embrace it, a symbolic representation of the challenge before us all.
The hero reminds us of our own inner demons, of dragons sleeping in dark places that we would rather not visit. Part of us wishes, like the knight in shining armor, to awaken the beast within and slay it while another part yearns to seduce the serpent, to slide our fingers along its silvery scales and feel its hot breath against our cheek. With either action we run the risk of unleashing a creature we may not be able to contain. Addressing this conundrum in her essay, The Process of Individuation, M.L. von Franz writes, ‘Divining in advance whether our dark partner symbolizes a shortcoming that we should overcome or a meaningful bit of life that we should accept-this is one of the most difficult problems that we encounter on the way to individuation’ (175-6). And so we applaud the hero’s action, amazed and inspired by her fortitude and courage while at the same time subconsciously outraged at the audacity of her endeavor. It is beyond our capacity to accept without reservation the heroic figure, a figure whose very existence confronts us with a side of our psyche we strive to keep from conscious thought. For this threat to our psychic security, the hero must pay.
When Icarus dared fly too high on waxen wings, the heat of the sun and his own hubris sent him plummeting like a rock into the roiling sea below. The landscape of the hero is littered with such warnings, cautionary tales that remind the individual of the risk one takes in challenging accepted boundaries. Kristen Hughes hints at the cost of her own self-exploration when she writes, ‘I am finding a new Hero in myself to follow. She can be violent at times, because she can be everything, but she will always be sorry. No matter how hungry her heart, indifference will not suit her. She has an indomitable will but is never proud for long’ (54). Hughes acknowledges the limitlessness of the hero within her. Flying on newfound wings, much like Icarus, she can ‘be everything.’ Hughes however, unlike the mythic hero, realizes the sorrow and humility that come with such freedom and knowledge. She also recognizes the violence inherent in a heroic struggle, as anything worth realizing must be worth fighting for.
Perhaps nowhere is this thought more clearly illustrated than on the actual battlefield of war, a home ground for the heroic ideal. Tim O’Brien in his essay How To Tell A True War Story, speaks of the revelatory nature of warfare and its repercussions: ‘Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost’ (447). The experiences of Hughes and O’Brien mirror that of the heroic initiate and in some way bring us a sense of comfort in their commonality. One cannot touch the face of God without consequence. For daring to dip into the well of the subconscious and stir up its dark and troubling waters, the hero may wear a laurel wreath only if it has first been dipped in his own blood. That we find some sense of satisfaction in this retribution speaks to our ambivalent relationship with not only the heroic figure but our own humanity as well. We turn to the hero for hope but with the very promise of transcendence we find ourselves pressed against our own mortality, like fading flowers in the pages of a vast and heavy book.
The heroic figure calls to us precisely because he resonates with the promise of life after death, a prospect that simultaneously enthralls and terrifies. Echoes of this theme can be heard in Kristen Hughes’ search for the hero within herself when she writes, ‘It is not by aspiring to be a great man, or even by following one that I can find my answers’ (52). One gets the sense that for Hughes, an ideal or dream has somehow died, opening a doorway to self-discovery. For O’Brien the very real possibility of physical death on the battlefield grants him a sensation of being ‘more alive’ and aware, in communion with all of creation. In Greek mythology heroes were buried with a coin beneath their tongue, payment to be offered to the ferryman Charon for transit across the River Styx to an afterlife in the Elysian Fields. And Carl Jung, in his essay, Approaching the Unconscious, refers to arguably the most well-known heroic archetype in the Western World when he writes, ‘The general idea of Christ the Redeemer belongs to the world-wide and pre-Christ theme of the hero and rescuer who, although he has been devoured by a monster, appears again in a miraculous way, having overcome whatever monster it was that swallowed him’ (72-3). Like moths to the proverbial flame, we are drawn to the concept of Death and the promise of Life Everlasting that flickers within it. Evading all empirical evidence, our belief must be built upon a foundation of faith, in and of itself a creative construct. Knowledge thwarted, still we stumble forward, desperate to find some proof, some real life experience to substantiate our conviction. Such is the fuel with which wars are waged.
More compelling than any religious or territorial or economic contention, our collective need to experience and substantiate the state of being for which the archetypal hero stands, drives us forward onto the fields of battle. Given that the dead are unable to confirm that life exists after life has been lost, mankind must console itself by marching to the brink of the abyss fortified with the belief that the end is, in actuality, just the beginning. This is the certitude that must shine in the eyes of the soldier; it is the fervor of the suicide bomber and the kamikaze pilot. It is the creative thinking that must be entertained in even the most hopeless of hearts. It is the belief that allows us to live in a world that we will always imagine more completely than we will ever know.
We reach into the caldron of creative thought, hoping to gain some kind of knowledge that will bring order and explanation to the world that exists within and without. As we pull back our hand, hoping to grasp one single solid answer, we sadly find ourselves instead with a handful of quivering questions. Mythology and the archetypal figure cannot explain our physical reality; they can only serve as creative expressions of it, with all its ambiguity and doubt. Indeed, the heroic archetype owes its very existence to the uncertainty that confounds our desire to know ‘how it all turns out.’ Through the heroic figure we write a story with no ending but one full of possibility. It is a tale at once uplifting and disheartening, shedding light and casting shadow. Knowledge will never answer the questions that this story poses, but it will expand our appreciation of it, uncovering nuance and meaning, adding dimension and depth to every thought we have and every action we take.
What we forget in our desire to know is that chaos and ambiguity are the very nature of creativity. It is only upon the Dionysian landscape, in the warm, wet, rich soil of imagination that the creative flower may bloom. What we also wish to forget is the fact that our physical reality, far from being removed from this chaotic energy, is merely another reflection of it. While we may live in a world governed by the familiar causal laws of science, it is a world, as Thomas Hobbes reminds us in The Leviathan, where life can be solitary, brutish and short. It is no wonder then that in the face of such insecurity the clarion call of the hero is so keenly heard.

Works Cited
Allen, Bem P. Personality Theories. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000.
Franz, M-L. ‘Science and the Unconscious.’ Man and His Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. New York: Doubleday, 1964. 304-310.
Henderson, Joseph L. ‘Ancient Myths and Modern Man.’ Man. Ed. Jung. 104-157.
Hughes, Kristen E. ‘I Will Be My Own Hero.’ Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 50-54.
Jung, Carl G. ‘Approaching the Unconscious.’ Man. Ed. Jung. 72-73.
—. ‘The Archetypes and the Collected Unconscious.’The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. 2nd ed. Ed. Carl G. Jung. London: Routledge, 1990. 393-417.
—. ‘On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry.’The Advanced College Essay. Ed. Don Golini. Boston. McGraw-Hill. 2002. 170-188.
O’Brien, Tim. ‘How to Tell a True War Story.’ Advanced.Ed. Golini. 439-557.
‘Policewoman’s Remains Found at Trade Center.’ The New York Times. 21 Mar. 2002: B4.

There is a great question on the concept of the hero from Carl Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Paragraph 5 on page 4):

The term archetype occurs as early as Philo Judaeus, with reference to the Imago Dei (God-Image) in man. It can also be found in Irenaeus, who says ‘The creator of the world did not fashion these things directly from himself, but copied them from archetypes outside himself.’ (Could it stand to reason that which it is we wish to be is not looked for by us, in us, but looked for outside of us by us?) In the Corpus Hermeticum, God is called archetypal light. The term occurs several times in Dionysius the Areopagite,
Another well-known expression of the archetypes is the myth and fairytale. But here too we are dealing with forms that have received a specific stamp and have been handed down through the long periods of time.
The archetype is essentially an unconscious content that is altered by becoming conscious and by being perceived and it takes its colour from the individual consciousness in which it happens to appear.
Myths are first and foremost psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul.
It is not enough for the primitive to see the sunrise and set: this external observation must at the same time be a psychic happening: the sun in its course must represent the fate of a god or hero who, dwells nowhere except in the soul of man.
In this lies the role of the ego, the need or not of the hero. The thirst of the individual, the strength of the whole embodies in the one.
What has become of the hero, who is the individual, what reliance on the hero archetype does the strength of ones consciousness rely? Is this integral to the dynamics of the group to function as a whole or is there relevance?

Jeremy Tucker
Executive Director
Rake Art Gallery
325 NW. 6th Ave.
Portland, Oregon 97209