2012-09-30

Everybody Loves a Hero

Originally published in the Chris Achilleos album "Beauty and the Beast", Everybody Loves a Hero is a poetic essay about the nature of heroes. I first read it when I was about twelve years old, and I have come back to it over and over again. I believe that it was and is a cornerstone of my understanding of the nature of stories themselves – and the way that our culture creates stories out of people, and the way human beings make themselves into stories, and stories into themselves.

The album was published by Paper Tiger in 1978 and reprinted several times. It is now out of print. You can get a used copy from alibris. I am reproducing the essay below without authorization. If you are the copyright holder and object to my reproducing it here, please get in touch with me.


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The time is out of joint. Behold, the Hero comes to set the clock aright.
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Man lives forward,looks backward. The present is ever intolerable. Now—the moment of existence—full of pangs and passions. "Tomorrow will be better—like the good old days."
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From this contradiction, "the hero" arises: the hero is a model of the past bound to the present to create the future.
The hero is a paradigm of time.
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The hero is unique but not alien. He is singular not solitary. Even when abandoned and alone, shunned by his tribe, the hero cannot be solitary. For he contains the flower of his race and the seed of civilization within him. The hero is not primitive, he is primal. Think of Aeneas.
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The hero emerges from the barbarous to destroy the barbarous. The first steps of the hero are away from the primordial ooze whence his race took birth. Thus Beowulf destroys Grendel and Grendel's dam. With all the barbarity of his race Beowulf destroys the barbarity that bedevils that race.
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Beowulf fertilizes the ground with his victim's blood. The seed of civilization is sown. The seed is the action itself.
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The hero cannot act once and be done with it. He must act again and again and again. The hero is an incomplete verb.
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Beowulf slays the dragon but is slain himself. His tribe survives. He is dissolves in flames. This is the point of the hero: he is mortal. Everything that lives with him is by its very nature, the epitome of his race and its destiny. His action is that destiny. When his tasks are fulfilled, his energy is absorbed by the race and he must vanish. He becomes a withered limb on the tree of his tribe. A monument. The tribe moves forward. The hero remains.
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Heroes are always perceived in the past. There are no living heroes. The hero is a verb whose action is complete.
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The Greeks, who more than most generated heroes like sparks, considered that even for them, the age of heroes was dead.
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A courageous man who fights fiercely to defend his country is not a hero. He is a courageous man
A hero defends the spirit of his race, acts singly and by his own will. He is condemned to be a hero. He cannot be drafted from the factory floor.
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Gengis Khan built a city of skulls
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Heroes are not humanitarians. They are racialists. They dash the infant brains of their enemies on building blocks of their tribe.
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The hero is eccentric, abnormal. He cannot be submerged in the masses. His gravity makes him rise. The spirit of his tribe is the centre of his individuality.
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The hero has nothing to do with politics — just as politics has nothing to do with heroism.
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The hero works for the race and against the masses. The masses retard, are retarded. "Hero of the Soviet Union" is a contradiction in terms.
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Early heroes are confused with gods. "Great men have been amongst us: the gods walked in the market place ". This is quite natural. Gods are made in the image of man, heroes in the image of gods: Horus, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl.
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Later heroes are fully mature, their humanity greater and more moving that obscure godhead: Hector, King David, Cú Chulainn, Beowulf, Siegfried.
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Mature Heroes are mortals who die and are defied: Hercules, Castor and Pollux. King Arthur?
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Heroes are human because they seeks to be more than human.
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It would seem that all legendary heroes are derived from actual historical figures – even oldest of them, Gilgamesh.
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Heroes emerge when a tribe is menaced or menaces. Triumph alone determines the virtue of the cause.
Heroes respond to menace.
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A developing tribe needs menace. Menace hastens change.
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Heroes arose late. Racial identity was long coming in human history. There were cavemen genuises. There no caveman heroes.
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Genuinely primitive societies have no heroes. Heroes are a symptom of change, the assertion of tribal domination and demonstration of tribal superiority. By the time a hero appears, his tribe is already beyond the palisade of mere survival and brute simplicity. The hero is the Will of the tribe.
The hero is historian who make history.
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Who are the heroes of the Eskimos?
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Developed societies which resist changed are deficient in heroes – the Egyptians, for example.
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Heroes know nothing of morality. They deal with what-is. Heroic action is impossible in the face of justice. Whatever heroes do, is correct. Heroes personify that "might is right". The most interesting acts of heroism occur when two heroes— the spirits of two races—clash: Hector and Achilles. David and Goliath. History goes to the victor. Morality is the jewel the defeated display.
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Alexander the Great murdered his Father. Who cares? Alexander is a hero.
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Shakespeare describes Achilles as a cheat and a coward. Who cares? Achilles is a hero.
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Heroes are more then brute, they are brain. They incarnate Man's rise above animal. They are sly, wily, cunning. They are confidence men: they lie, bewilder, deceive. Ulysses. They must have their way, and so they make it.
Everything falls before the hero, or he is no hero. And we should not know his name.
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Force and violence are cake and custard to the hero. Trickery is a sugar plum.
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The hero cannot exist apart from the menace. When there is none, he will make some. If Fafner did not exist, Siegfried would invent him.
Cú Chulain did battle with the sea.
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The hero requires that the world be a poison planet. There is no need for heroes in the Land of Milk and Honey.
The hero carouses with demons.
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The hero chastens and hastens. He moves from birth to death in a smooth arc of terror, murder, deception and triumph. Out of his vice comes the virtue of his tribe.
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Men need heroes more than heroes need men.
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Societies in decay are bedevilled by heroes.
Third century Rome witnessed Emperors disguise themselves as Hercules, as if their mere appearance were not his 13th labour.
An obsession with heroes is the wound of spiritual and racial Eunuchism.
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Report on the 20th century:
Item 1:             Heroes abound on football fields and prove all men equal. They wear and advertize "Brut", sign contracts for $2 million, and have two children, central heating and an album of press cuttings. Their heads are stacked at Madame Tussaud's. They speak poor English.

Item 2:             Boy meets girl. Hero marries heroin.

2012-09-17

On the role of memory in both reading and writing

By happy accident, over the last month, two of the novels that I worked on both revealed and illustrated what is for me the most fundamental element of narration, and of storytelling, which is the role of memory in the process.

Both books contain high excitement, fast-moving action sequences, but the two authors take a very different approach to narrating those sequences.

One (we'll call him Adam) tries (and often succeeds) to make the pace of narration match the pace of the action. Sudden events are suddenly described; fast events are described fast, fleeting view are fleetingly presented. Loud noises are loud. Pell-mell sequences of events are related pell-mell, and in sequence. The consequence of Adam's approach is that reading is fast and rather breathless. It is, in my opinion, a very effective approach to narrating excitement to seek to excite the reader, and when Adam's attempts are a success they are both enjoyable and exciting. In some cases, however, they fail. In those cases, the action is choppy (pace jumps around or changes gear suddenly and joltingly), confused, obscure or incomprehensible.

The other (we'll call him Bob), takes a more leisurely approach. In Bob's writing there is almost no onomatopoeia. Rather than telling the reader suddenly that something sudden occurs, Bob takes the time to give the reader a sense of the state of mind of the protagonist, leading up to the sudden event, and then takes time to describe it in some detail. He takes a couple of pages to describe a shoot-out that we learn from his description must have lasted a few seconds. When Bob's technique succeeds, somehow it manages to be just as exciting as Adam's. Sudden shocks and wild alarms are somehow just as shocking and wild when told from a fireside armchair as when told from a speeding motorbike. When Bob's technique is weak (it never fails completely) it is because he takes the time to give, sometimes, a little too much local colour or background detail. That said, because he takes more time, more space, more words, he has more opportunity to develop pleasing images, satisfying turns of phrase or amusing observations. This can and does compensate for occasional mismatches between the pace of narration and the pace of events.

Adam's technique is unforgiving. There is no room for mitigation or compensation.

If you're wondering why I'm not giving examples, it is because Adam and Bob's techniques, fascinating though they would be to study in detail and to learn, are not the issue. The juxtaposition of the two reveals something rather strange, which is that they both work.

Talking to authors, I get the impression that the ones who try Adam's technique are doing so because they have thought hard about how to convey the pace and excitement of events, how to convey sudden shocks and surprises, loud noises, etc. Those who use Bob's technique do so instinctively. The other differences is that over the small sample that I have available to me, the Adams are younger (generally under 35) and the Bobs are older (generally over 50). I think there may be a connection but my sample size is too small for me to formally claim causation from this particular correlation.

What interests me the most is the question "why do both techniques succeed?".

I believe it is all down to memory, and the nature of the way in which we all experience what we like to call the present.

I will take this into the realms of theory in my next post.

2012-09-03

Sounds Odd. Sounds like something?


Sounds of unknown things present the narrator with a problem. You can't describe a sound accurately. Indeed, it is almost impossible to go beyond very basic onomatopoeia. So the narrator has to decide what general category of noise it is and its volume.

Is it sharp (technically, a "report") like the crack of a distant rifle? Is it a dull thud? Is it continuous? If so does it rattle, wail, drone, grind, etc?

How loud is it really? And how loud does it seem? (authors often get this wrong; for instance, your clothes make loads of noise as you move about but you don't hear it unless you're trying to be silent in a very quiet place).

How near or far is it really? How near or far does it seem?

Does it echo or resonate?

Answer some of these questions and you will be near enough without being vague, and why? Because the reader won't bother to imagine the sound until he knows what made it and how. Once he knows this, he will remember the sound at the right point in the narrative.

As he crawled through the darkness of the cave, Greg thought he heard, and became increasingly convinced he could hear, a regular sound ahead of him. Not a footfall, unless something was really dragging its feet; not breathing, as from time to time it seemed to sigh and stop.

He knew from bitter experience how your imagination could run you ragged into fear, and how panic now would be more likely to kill him than a thousand imagined terrors. And it would be the long, slow death of thirst and starvation, lost and hopeless in the tunnels.

As he advanced, and the sound grew louder, though no more distinct, he fell to concentrating on the sound itself instead of trying to ignore it. Pictures formed in the dark in front of him of vague scraping, small stones sliding, images of sandpaper sounds. He clamped his eyes shut and fought to concentrate on the shape of the tunnel and found the narrow ledge, passed two openings and entered a third, larger opening.

With his eyes open he began to think he could see light ahead, though he knew this was impossible. He had another mile to go before the entrance would reveal itself suddenly after a short elbow of tunnel. Now that he could walk upright, the sound seemed to diminish, and for a short while he didn't hear it at all - or didn't realize he heard it.

Remembering, he stopped to listen. It was surely closer now.

With the familiar gravel crunch under his feet, Greg at last began to relax, and breathe normally. He felt around inside his jacket for some chocolate and munched on it as he walked casually along the familiar tunnel in perfect darkness, turning the last corner from memory alone.

The wooden door in the barrier across the tunnel entrance had been left open, and was bouncing gently against the gravel floor in the light breeze. As he passed the door, he barely noticed the sound at all.