This semester in my lit survey course, I decided to focus the theme of our readings around the idea of heroism, the hero’s journey, and the various and complicated ways heroics are played out in prose, poetry, and on screen. As it’s the first time I’m teaching the course in this way, there will be some wrinkles to iron out for the next time around, but thus far it has been fairly effective. My students have a working understanding of Campbell’s Monomyth and we’ve finally moved away from the stereotypical image of the hero as he (note the gender) who protects the weak and innocent from the wicked and powerful. There’s a lot more to it than that, as a cursory investigation into heroic figures will quickly show.
To wrap up the semester, we’re taking a look at two deconstructionist approaches to the heroic myth. First is Watchmen, the iconic graphic novel by Moore and Gibson. The second is The Big Lebowski by the Cohen brothers. Both stories feature ‘heroic’ characters in a certain sense – they solve the mystery, they save the world, they do justice to the unjust. However, there is an issue of intent and nature at play in both stories that holds the heroic acts (the external heroism, if you will) as suspect and hollow when taken in context of the personal intent of the heroes (the internal heroism of the characters). I don’t wish to ruin the ending of either tale, but it is hard to say that either the Dude or Rorschach are internally heroic or intend to do what is ‘right’ for the sake of it. If good comes of their behavior, it is primarily accidental or derivative.
So, that begs the question: Does a hero need intent? If you go out one morning and, purely by accident, foil a bank robbery by slipping on a banana peel and save the lives of seven people, are you a hero? Most of us would say no. Let me provide a different example: if you are forced, at gunpoint, to save a child from a burning house, are you a hero? The answer becomes less clear. Final example: If you are compelled by a psychological or social disorder to run around each evening beating up muggers and dragging them to jail, does that make you heroic? This last instance is where we so commonly come down on the side of ‘yes’, though we seldom have the question put to us so succinctly. Batman (and Rorschach) are compelled by trauma to do what they do in order to feel sane or whole. It can be convincingly argued that they don’t do it because of philosophical ideals any moreso than the guy who slips on the banana peel. If the outcome of the behavior in question is negative (the ‘hero’ does not run around bringing crooks to justice but rather assaults women in an attempt to steal their underwear), the insanity defense will readily and often successfully be deployed in their trial: “They are not responsible for their actions, your honor – this man is out of his freaking mind and needs intense psychiatric care.”
The issue of intent pivots around the long-standing debate over the existence of free will. Not to delve too deeply into philosophy and neuroscience, but in brief it goes like this: It is debatable that you make decisions based upon some concept of independent will. It can be argued that all of us are amalgams of environmental influence and genetic predisposition that dictates our behavior and that, outside of additional outside influence, we cannot change ourselves. Yes, yes – I know a lot of you disagree, and the argument in favor of free will is also robust, so this matter is very far from settled. The question, though, has a significant impact on how we identify heroism. Can you be a bad person but do good things and then be considered good? If I grudgingly agree to save the world, complaining about it the entire time, do I deserve the accolades of the masses for their salvation?
Furnishing answers to this question is far from easy. It is a concept I explore with my character, Tyvian Reldamar, in The Iron Ring. Like me, Tyvian doesn’t know either. Part of telling a story, though, is the exploration of our world, no matter of you set your tale in Alandar or alternate 1985 New York City or even in the City of Angels in the early 90s.
My Technology in Literature class wrapped up discussion of HG Wells’ The Time Machine recently. Every time I read the work, the thing that most interests me is the simple explanation the Time Traveler gives at the very beginning regarding the feasibility of time travel. In essence, he suggest that we already do travel in time–when we remember something or dream of things past–but we cannot remain for any period of time. Thus, we are as constrained in travel in the fourth dimension just as primitive man was in the third (i.e. you can jump up and down or fall of a cliff, but you can’t remain or travel freely through the dimension of height without the assistance of technology).
Wells envisions the solution to this problem pretty simply–the Time Machine works rather like a railroad engine. It can go forward and in reverse, it has a throttle and brakes, and the ‘engineer’ manipulates the whole process with a pair of simple levers. On the whole, it seems even less complicated than driving a car.
Many have been the time-travel tales since then. However, we have envisioned the process differently. One does not
travel through time in the same way as we walk down the street or fly to Atlanta; the devices involve some kind of sudden leap or jolting transference. The process is instantaneous, or nearly so. We go there in Deloreans or weird tubes (12 Monkeys) or telephone booths or even hot tubs. I sort of doubt, however, that time travel (assuming it’s possible) would work that way. I kinda think that Wells, for all his antiquity, had the better theory.
Consider this: How has all travel, thus far, functioned? Air, sea, space, or land, we move progressively across space. Now, granted, that’s space, and we’re talking time. Time, though, isn’t supremely different than space. We can’t define what makes up space anymore than we can time (ask a physicist sometime about ‘what space is made of’ and get ready for some weird, mostly theoretical stuff). The primary difference, though, is that we are better able to perceive of space than we are time. Perhaps, for this reason, time travel is beyond us–we just aren’t smart enough to ‘see’ it as it is.
Not a Straight Line
The average person on the street sees time as an arrow–we proceed from point A to point B along the minutes and the hours and so on. This is why time-travel stories are so concerned about ‘altering the past to destroy the future’. We are, arrogantly, considering time to be a single path of causality and that, if we change something back then, then we will necessarily alter something right now. Time, though, isn’t a line or an arrow. It’s a dimension, like width, depth, and height. If you could travel through time, you could go sideways as well as back and forth. You could even, perhaps, look at time from a different direction.
The Mountaintop of Boethius
Oddly enough, much of my knowledge of theoretical physics has been supported by existential philosophy, and vice versa. I don’t claim to be an expert in either, but I can readily see the connections. Thus, my reading of The Consolation of Philosophy in my freshman-year western culture seminar fundamentally changed my perception of what time travel might consist of.
In this work, there is a part where Philosophy is trying to explain to Boethius how it is that God can be omniscient while, at the same time, mankind can be given free will. I don’t have the text in front of me right now, but in summation, Boethius asks how it could be that all of his actions and the results of these actions could be known to God and, yet, he might still have command over what he does. Couldn’t he then do something God didn’t expect and upset the whole divine apple-cart?
Philosophy’s answer goes like this: God is not part of the flow of time as Boethius or, indeed, as any mortal sees it. God looks upon the world from a mountaintop, and beneath Him is spread all that Was, Will Be, and Is, existing for Him as a kind of eternal Present. He is able to perceive of all time simultaneously. Thus, He can look down at what any one person is doing now, see how it relates to what they have done, and then see how it will lead to what they will do. Presumably, when taking quantum physics into account here, God would be able to see the outcomes of all possible outcomes of all possible actions, viewing them simultaneously, and thus be omniscient without really interfering with an individual’s decision-making process. This idea is echoed in Grendel’s discussion with the Dragon in Gardner’s Grendel, as well as the Architect of The Matrix: Reloaded.
How does this connect to time travel? Well, it makes the device needed to make it happen both monstrously more complex than any other we’ve seen, but also simpler in operation. All that is needed is to be able to see time as it is–as a kind of dimension across which we may travel in any direction–and then make the machine go there. It’s not an instantaneous jump or a lightning-bound explosion, it’s more like a stroll down from a mountain.
The thing is, though, it’s the kind of stroll only a God seems to be able to make.