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On Heroes and Humiliation

Monday, May 11th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

Oh where have you been, Lord Randall, my son,
Oh where have you been, my handsome young man?

Not to the greenwood, that’s for sure, and not eating eels and toadstools, though sometimes the job application process (not to mention the writing career) can feel like it. Let’s just chalk up my recent absence from this space to life generally and move on. Though, parenthetically, it’s strange how fragments of ballads you haven’t heard in decades can suddenly breach the darkness. Now I can’t get the impossible-to-sing tune out of my head….

We read together as a family at my son’s bedtime and have been making our way through Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. It wears well after all the years (I won’t say how many) since I first read it. We also recently saw Paul Blart: Mall Cop. That was not an experience I want to repeat in the decades to come, but the momentary temporal conjunction of the two got me thinking about the humiliation of the hero as a trope. It’s an exceedingly common one in comedy, and I can think of a zillion examples in movies, everything from Bridget Jones’ Diary to There’s Something about Mary. That it’s uncomfortable to watch (at least I find it so) even while I’m laughing (sometimes, anyway) must have something to do with the cathartic value of comedy–the second half of the arc in that genre is success, especially romantic success, and among other things the hero’s humiliation makes his/her success all the sweeter.

Then there’s Dostoevsky. (Yes, I acknowledge that to be a whiplash-inducing segue.) D’s first novel was a rather bizarro fantasy called, aptly enough, The Double. It’s about a man whose double shows up and takes over his life. No explanation; it just happens. The problem is, the double is better at leading his life than he is, steals his girlfriend, wins over his boss, and so on. As elsewhere in D.’s writings there are some utterly excruciating scenes of public humiliation (he was an expert on ’em). In this instance the protagonist tries to make his case for himself and fails. With Dostoevsky, my seat-of-the-pants, decades-later interpretation would be that the theme of humiliation is connected to identity, especially to one’s social identity. There’s no second half of the arc that’s about a subsequent gain–The Double is about losing identity–but I think there is a certain affinity to comedy or romance. In those story types, the success half of the arc is mostly always about success with other people, whereas part of what’s so excruciating about humiliation, vicarious or otherwise, is the way it is about isolation, exclusion, and alienation.

Genre fantasy is a romantic genre too, in that it has a strong impulse toward integration, but the hero’s social success is often dependent on more inward aspects of identity–hidden talents, destiny, inner strength–which don’t supply any aid to The Double‘s hero. Humiliation has its place as a trope, but its potential role in forging the protagonist’s new identity isn’t always exploited as fully as it might be. A classic plot type has the protagonist begin in essentially humiliating circumstances–an orphan, a servant, bullied, disregarded–but once launched on the adventure, tends to meet each challenge and, most of all, acquires friends. Humiliation is more an initial situation than a purifying process.

I’m sure there are plenty of counter-examples that will occur to you, and to me in the course of time. But we are now in the fourth book of the Prydain series, Taran Wanderer, and I am struck at how Taran (or rather the author) still finds new situations in which to encounter helplessness and shame–at least for the duration of that scene. He is on the surface one of those orphan farm boy-scullery drudge fantasy heroes who saves the world and makes good for himself. But unlike many such, the subject of the books is really his character–not just in a storytelling sense but in a human and moral sense, which is probably why they’ve become classics. He never turns into a powerful magician or great warrior. A repeating pattern throughout the series is the way his immaturity or sheer ordinariness leads to humiliation, which he then responds to by growing wiser, or tougher, or cleverer, or a better friend. He actually remains a farm boy–his care for and understanding of animals is background to a lot of the plot–and calls himself Assistant Pig-Keeper, albeit often enough in anger and self-castigation, throughout the series. Testing through humiliation leads eventually to genuine inner humility. That’s what ennobles him in the end, and allows his social and romantic integration.

In real life, humiliation is an eel-and-toadstool dish most of us would like to do without. In writing fantasy, it’s a technique I’m going to think more about.

2 Comments »

  1. I am trying to remember…there was a literary critic I read, back in the old days, talking about Roman comedy. Comedy, he suggested (especially Roman comedy) is about exploring an re-establishing the limits of the social order. The goal of the comedy is, unlike tragedy, to reaffirm the life as part of a social group, rather than to blaze a trail and conquer and shatter the natural order &c.

    Humiliation in comedy served as a tool to teach the lesson that no man is apart from his community. Humiliation in tragedy caused a man to get angry and set everything on fire.

    Comment by braak - May 11, 2009 3:38 pm

  2. Maybe it was Northrop Frye? He talks about comedy, IIRC, in similar terms. He also had some interesting things to say about realism, myth, metaphor, and romance (as in larger than life adventure) that felt as if they were written in a critical universe that could comfortably include genre literature.

    Comment by Judith Berman - May 19, 2009 1:40 am


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