There be dragons!

Thursday, June 1, 2006

The Heroic Ideal

My father tells stories of how, when he was a young boy growing up in the 40s, his parents had few worries about what he was reading, or seeing, or learning in school. Life was fairly safe. Unfortunately, we parents no longer have the option of being unaware of our children’s environment. “The price of freedom is eternal diligence,” and if we wish our children to be free we must diligently make ourselves aware of their environment. America has created, and continues to create an environment of violence. The result is violent creatures. One particular of the modern environment, though certainly not the only particular, is the realm of fiction. More specifically, within the realm of written fiction there seems to be a not so new genre which, though not directly promoting violence, undermines the bulwark which could prevent violence from becoming the norm. The fictional novels of one author, Gary Paulsen, are prime examples of this phenomenon. His stories, in the genre of “novels for young people” such as are written by Judy Blume, R.L. Stine, Shel Silverstein, and others, purport to write for young people, but what they really do is work against young people. In so doing, they strike a serious blow to the moral framework of society and contribute to the environment of violence in which our children live.
We can’t lay the entirety of the blame at the feet of these authors, but they certainly do have a share in the problem. We live by stories and view the world with those eyes formed in the cave in which we choose to make our dwelling. Fiction itself comes in many forms; movies, music, still photos, the spoken word, and written fiction. In terms of imagery alone, one could, of course, argue against the many gross and graphic images within Paulsen’s books, but these are not at the root of the disease. What Paulsen does is far more dangerous, for he essentially abandons the heroic ideal.
When I was a youth I was given a book called "the War Party" by an author who has since, thankfully, drifted into the obscurity of my imagination. In it, the Indian youth is all aquiver to go on his first war party. The book tells of his preparation, his fear, and ultimately his agony in battle when, after getting clobbered, he lies on the ground with blood oozing from his head, wondering how long it will be until someone comes to rescue him. What "the War Party" did for my imagination is what the books of Paulsen, Blume, and the others do for young people now. Essentially, it wrecks their belief and faith in the heroic ideal and leaves them with a sense of despair and abandonment.
What, then, is this heroic ideal? The heroic ideal consists of images and stories of man as heroic or engaged in something noble. This concept is ingrained in us from an early age; through the stories we read and hear, the games we play, the images we see. For example as a boy, the first real novel I read was a version of Gawain and the Green knight. As I read, I was filled with a sense of adventure and a concept of knighthood and nobility. Any young child reading such a story of the heroic ideal makes it his own. He plays at these concepts, emulates them, mimics them, conforms his life to them, develops an affection for them.
The images of the heroic ideal do three major things in the mind and soul. First, they provide a corpus of imagery and abstract concepts such as goodness, beauty, and nobility. Second, they encourage affection and love for the heroic and hatred for the unheroic. Third, they promote a conformity of the young life around these ideals.
This concept of the heroic ideal can be better understood by observing the opposite or lack thereof. First, without the corpus of images created by the heroic ideal the mind has no language for that which all men must experience. It cannot express in youth or adulthood the emotions and thoughts which make man what he is. Like a plant without water, the soul withers, or grows corrupt with bad imagery.
Second, the ideal encourages affection while the lack of the ideal retards the soul from ever learning to love that which it ought. It is impossible to love that which is not even hinted at to be known. Either the soul ceases to love or else strikes out to love what it thinks it ought or what is given to it to love (often an inferior copy of love).
Third, the ideal promotes a conformity without which the habit of living goes astray. Our habits from early on are formed and often dictate how we are to live. Without the image of the ideal life conforms around things which are inferior, even at a young age becoming unruly or entirely impotent.
Essentially, the heroic ideal is that thing which shows us at an early age that men can be virtuous; that our state as humans, though fallen, can be redeemed in some way. This prepares one for adulthood in three ways. First, it allows for the conception of abstract ideas of goodness. To understand the philosophical concept of "the good" one has to have a history of having seen "the good." At last, studying it as an adult, one then says, "Ah! So that is what this has meant all along," or "that is why Gawain refused the lady of the castle." This concept of the good, then, leads one to God.
Second, the ideal allows one to love that which ought to be loved. As love develops it is trained and encouraged by the memory and the corpus of images which say "this is good," or "this is worthy of love"; "do good, avoid evil." This ultimately leads to a love of God.
Third, the ideal allows one to conform one's adult life to virtue. As habits are established early they do not simply go away but rather change to become the habits of adult life; as the child, so the man. Slovenliness in youth becomes selfishness or carelessness in adulthood. Eagerness in youth becomes zeal in adulthood. These habits of childhood, encouraged and trained in the right direction, of course, lead to the virtuous life.
Now, this is not to say that without the heroic ideal a person becomes a shambles. Rather, a person creates some ideal for himself (or has it created for him) and goes on living. But to say that a sick man is not sick does not help him to get well. It stands to reason that the man without the heroic ideal in his life might lead a life which seems perfectly normal. Indeed it stands to reason that his life might be good and true and devoted to God. In the same way, a man cast overboard in a storm might survive and make it to shore, but a life preserver sure would help (or better yet, it would help if the boat never went into a storm but made it safely to port without mishap).
What Paulsen, Blume, and the author of "The War Party" do is project their own sense of despair and abandonment onto the minds of those who read their works. The authors have given up on the idea that man is heroic and this makes itself painfully obvious in their writing, both in the graphic realism prevalent in their technique and in the basic hopelessness of the stories they tell. Whatever the case, to depict man as gross, helpless, hopeless, a mere puppet of fate who will eventually die a gruesome, ignominious death is to deny the redeeming qualities that still exist even in fallen man. It is, finally, to deny salvation itself. Abandon the heroic ideal in the worst of times and one abandons the beatific vision.
There are several ways in which Paulsen, Blume, Silverstein and the others wreck the heroic ideal. I will limit myself to three major ones. First, by the excess of gross imagery in their works they focus only on the basest functions of human existence. Like a lens focused on the worst of human life, such imagery tends to blot out all that is good in us. Furthermore, such imagery stays in the mind, effects it, and can damage young minds that cannot yet discern the difference (I’m still horrified at the memory of hearing children playing in the front rows of the movie theater when I went to see “Saving Private Ryan”). Second, the sheer loneliness and commonality of the characters makes them seem base and unheroic. Paulsen’s characters are not young people who achieve great deeds (like the Hardy Boys), but ordinary messed up kids who stumble through awful situations and barely get out alive. More terrifying than impressive. Third, the very stories themselves which Paulsen tells are essentially unheroic. Heroism is the conscious decision of a person to survive, to achieve, to succeed and thus to transcend themselves. Paulsen’s stories are not about this action, but about barely surviving in the face of impossible odds. Amidst all the grossness, frailty, awfulness of life, Paulsen’s characters have terrible things happen to them. They survive by a stroke of luck, only to return to the same gross, frail, awful world which they left without ever experiencing the heroic, the noble, the blissful, or the joyous. Pretty miserable.
Children raised without such images do make heroic ideals for themselves. They worship icons of power, violence, strength, unremitting hate and merciless retribution. After all, the devil can be a pretty attractive fellow when he wants to be. Lacking any other alternative, a person will grab at any image of strength that offers him or her a way out of their predicament. Since the modern American educational system refuses to offer images of the good, and since images of the opposite are abundantly available in every movie, billboard, magazine, musical guru, and fashion explosion in existence it only makes sense that they would have chosen what seemed to suggest to them a powerful means of overcoming their enemies. Perhaps what we are witnessing in places like Colorado are the symptoms of an emaciated and heroism-starved society dying a slow but violent death. Life ought not to be simply survival. If survival alone is that for which we aim, then we will not survive at all. Nor will our children. Be diligent. If you do not, your children will not only not grow up free, they may not grow up at all.