The Great American Myth
The Great American Myth
It is not really American, the roots for us come from Europe. I believe it reached it’s zenith in the U.S. during the John Wayne era. You may or may not like John Wayne. The important aspect is to realize the myth behind the character– The Hero. Western culture has a unique figure as the hero. Not only must he save the day, he must be chaste and pure of heart. The basis of the hero model comes from the Western concept of Romantic Love. Much of my information comes from reading I have done from Robert Johnson, a noted Jungian writer, and others of that vain.
The short outline on Romantic Love, it is the model for the young girl in the West, being in love with love. Her hero has no flaws and he will walk through fire and slay dragons for her– Not for sex, but for love. Romantic love roots are in Courtly Love, the practice of loving someone without any physical contact. Heroes of Romantic Love in the knightly times are reported to have worn the symbols of their woman into mock battle, the joust. Victorian guilt separates us from that past. So, I am not sure how pure the romantic love was in actually practice In the U.S. Over time, that quality was attached to the role of the cowboy in the Old West. Dime novels portrayed them as selfless heroes bent on beating the bad guys. Yes, pulp fiction existed during the Old West. The knowledge of its existence prior to then escapes me as I write.
When I grew up the model of the Great American Hero was the role I had to struggle with. It wasn’t enough to be part of a winning team but one must suffer and die to prove their real worth. We can find the threads running through sports and the military. My father is immortalized by his family as hero. I have never heard one person speak ill of him. After all he died for his country in a land far away.
Today we have a mercenary army, not doing for God and Country but for cash. Cheapens it a bit doesn’t it? Not for me, it’s the media which cheapens it. A person who enlists and defends their country in combat deserves some respect regardless of their intention. Many of our soldiers do carry the pledge of defense of the Republic into combat.
An alternate of the Hero model is the “bad boy” we find in the characters of Marlon Brando and James Dean. The latter gave up his life trying to live up to the movie reputation a case in point to the romantic image martyr.
Which brings me to the point, Chivalry is great when it comes to poetry and fiction but damn hard on us as men living in athe real world. Cervantes spoofed the concept in Don Quixote, but few else have taken on the western concept of the hero with much success.
Today it still kills young men across the U.S. Acts such as Columbine are acted out by young males believing, in my opinion, to be larger than life. The Rural U.S. suffers car accident deaths even today, as young men and now women act out the role of immortals.
For me the more realistic model of the hero is to be found in works such as The Seven Samurai. This black and white movie became the template for The Magnificent Seven. The samurai characters were quite a motley group. The Samurai class were hired guns, not champions of the good but mercenaries hired to serve the leader.
When I was in Japan during 1967-68 I watched many Japanese samurai movies. They were the black and white equivalent of our old westerns. The samurai traveling through the country, finds a cause and wins the day. So, it is surprising that the Western Hero lived there also. Most of the Honk Kong based ‘Shootem Up’ cult movies of the late 80’s were based on deeply flawed characters as heroes. Usually, bad guys or cops gone bad acted in a selfless way only to lose their own lives in the end. These were very unlike our Hero who is good and pure and rides into the sunset.
While selfless acts are important to each us in defense of our family, home and country, there is little benefit to the larger purpose. We are to expand our universe to encompass all its aspects, not crash ourselves meaninglessly into a tree. That is not heroic but suicidal.
Any one claiming to be a hero needs to check their credentials at the door, because they have checked their honor their before they opened their mouths. If one claims to be cut from the cloth of Chivalric Love, they need to carry out the suicide associated with the role. One may be a hero through a selflessness act but is destroyed when the act becomes a mantle worn publicly.