The hero has been a central cultural figure for millennia. Originally half human, half divine this paradigm has gone on to infuse both the deeply pagan tradition of Wolfram von Eschenbach and later Romanticism, and the transusbtantiating harmonies of Baroque perfectionism. Arguably the most overused word in the past 100 years, which I will henceforth avoid, “icon”, has its origins in the same blending of nature and supernature, in the human representation of a divine reality.
It is a tradition in which successive mythmakers have tinged their portrayal of humanity with the divine so that each audience member is enticed, through identification with the particular humanity so represented, to imagine themselves partaking in the divine. As such it is a highly problematic tradition, its emphasis on particular portrayals of the human as a means to access the divine creating exclusions that artists such as Chris Ofili have sought to redress by substituting different humans in the place of exclusionary paradigms. Even those manifestations of this tradition in which a particular human point of entry is absent, such as Tracey Emin’s My Bed or Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, rely on a carefully constructed nexus of cultural references to open the door to the garden of wonders that is the divine secret behind the base facade.
My thesis here is that it is not the particularity of this tradition that is problematic, but the use of those particulars to glimpse something more universal. Importantly, the problematicity remains even when the complicity in this hero tradition is unconscious, when it consists in partaking of a set of common references inexplicably associated with the promise of transcendence. I want to trace the hero-paradigm through some of its more obvious recent manifestations and look at the problems but also the possibilities that recognising its all-pervasiveness offers us as writers.
Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, painted at the height of the Romantic era, is one of the most instantly recognisable images of the modern age, and its iconography is instantly recognisable in everything from the hero-shots of urban exploration to the covers of a thousand lone-hero action novels. The brooding centrality of a figure whose face remains obscure openly invites the reader to insert themselves into the picture, to rise above their physicality and bestride all they survey upon a supernatural superhighway (reminiscent, as if we needed reminding of the link back to the courtly tradition, of Uther riding the dragon’s breath in John Boorman’s version of the Arthurian legend, Excalibur), the reality of the world below them becoming dreamlike as their dreams of superhumanity take the form of reality. This creation of a space that is at once blank, inviting us to fill it, and privileged, inviting us to consider ourselves above and beyond the “normal” or “the everyday” is Friedrich’s legacy to to modern culture. It is a legacy that appears to prefigure the death of the author and the absolute empowerment of the reader, but in fact the cult of individualism of which it forms part is a facade behind which the creator mythmaker reinserts themselves through the willing participation of their audience. Rather than individuals imagining themselves as emperors and empresses of their own preternatural empires, it is the artist who, like a Cyberman guard, strips the audience of their individuality before injecting them into a worldview of the artist’s creation. In doing so, in teasing the striving, questing, individual tendency form out the comlpex knot of our humanity, teh artist – willingly or unwillingly – severs us from our humanity and makes us an isolated pawn in their world.
In literature, the formal manifestation of this tradition (as opposed to the Romantic content of Goethe and Chretienne) is to be found in the first person narrative. Perhaps most interestingly, it is to be found in the most distinctive first person narratives, those that strive for particularity, those that seek to carve out a unique and distinctive voice. It is the attractive difference to be found in these unique voices and the worlds they inhabit, the portrayal of the different as exotic, combined with a first person narrative that allows the reader to elide their inner voice with the narrator’s own, that constitutes the allure of first person worlds from Naked Lunch to American Psycho. Behind these narrators is not a comfortable liminal narrative airlock awaiting the reader before propelling them into the sweetly fetid, unctuously exotic air of a world in which their hitherto trapped self takes glorious flight. Rather, too often there is the overwheening ego of an Ellis or a Burroughs, a Hemingway or Dali, with wing clippers at the ready before jettisoning willing prey into the oubliettes of their own imaginings.
Which brings me uncomfortably to my second image. I say uncomfortably because in the world of the twentieth century creator-mythmaker Pablo Picasso has few equals. With a bawdy machismo to rival Pollock, a chutzpah to rival Dali, and a self-chronicling streak to rival Hemngway, he imposed himself upon everything he came into contact with to the extent of almost bending a buibble of space out of shape around him as he walked. Yet, in Guernica, Picasso succeeded in creating a first person narrative in which the artist is utterly absent. With a grim prescience he perfectly captures the absence of God that Adorno would later describe in relation to the horrors of the Holocaust. By creating a reality so fractured we cannot possibly relate to it, he has made a tiny shard of the attrocity of the genuine fracturing of reality ice the hearts of everyone who witnesses it. Like the shattered mirror of Dionysus, this abnegation of the self-as-artist through the extreme exertion of the self-as-artist in simultaneous expression of subjectivity and oblation to subject matter, a tiny piece of something bigger – both subject matter and subjectivity – is lodged separately within each audience member, bringing them together in a genuinely shared moment of antiheroism, of self-emptying before the same reality that Friedrich sought to impose himself upon. When we experience Guernica, we become Picasso’s proxies not in the empire of his own imagination but in the moment of horror reflected in something beyond imagining. It is Picasso, not the audience, who vacates the scene, leaving his audience changed but themselves, connected to a reality from which they were previously separate.
Contrast this with the twentieth century’s two great archetypes of absence, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. I love Rothko. His work has had a transformative influence on my own. But I am under no illusions that the absence at the heart of his work is simply a non-figurative expression of Frierich’s Wanderer, the fuzzed outlines of his frames the mist above which the beckoning abyss imposes itself. Where Picasso’s ego hides a brilliant and genuine absence, Rothko’s stage-centre absence masks a gigantic injection of the self. As we feel our sense of self sucked out of us into the vacuum of these glassless and inviting windows, we fail in our headlong rush to notice that the void into which we are plummeting is one that is first, last, and in every way Rothko and teh Abstract Expressionist Dream he embodies.
The absence Warhol offers us is the absence that comes with ubiquity. No one, he tells us, is special in the world of the free market, because in such a world the poorest and most powerful each fill themselves with the same brand of packaged emptiness. OK, apologies, I have to use the word again, because whilst we think of Andy Warhol as the man who created icons in the everyday sense, he was actually, and disingenuously at odds with the consumer leveling he proclaimed, creating icons in the original Greek and subsequently Orthodox sense of bringing the divine down to earth and embedding it in the physical. By proclaiming that JFK and the man on the street both drank the same Coke, Andy was not offering his audience the reassurane that in the age of consumerism JFK truly was just one of us, a genuine primus inter pares. What he was offering them was the promise of a tangent, a point of contact however ephemeral, with their gods. If you eat Campbell’s Soup, the promise would be heard, you will create a moment you can share with Marilyn. Empty yourself by submitting to choice, and you can be like your idol (it is no coincidene, of course, that the Greek translation of Genesis’ assertion that God made humanity “in his image and likeness” uses the words eikon and eidolon), the idol served up to you as such by the parameters of consumerism as presented by Warhol himself.
Fast forward through Emin and Hirst, whose place on this spectrum should by now be clear – Hirst’s shark is a simple replacement for Friedrich’s Wanderer, for Rothko’s Void; Emin’s expression of the uniqueness of her suffering circumscribed by a double yoke of cultural references missing from Guernica – and you arrive at two fascinating contemporary works.
Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present is at once exquisitely quixotic and endlessly slippery. Its declarative, yet highly ambiguous, title (“the artist” – is that Abramovic or her audience, those who share the space with her; “present” – a gift, in residence, sharing space, a space from which she is otherwise absented, in which case isn’t it her absence elsewhere that her ephemeral presence here signifies?) aside, this is a quite brilliant work of momumental importance I still haven’t fully unpacked, and probably never will. Perhaps the best response is a series of disjointed thoughts. Abramovic clearly contextualises herself. To enter into the literal absence, the empty seat across the table from her, into which we are invited means placing ourselves into a time and place of her choosing not ours. Nonetheless, the clear physical and emotional effort of maintaining her presence throughout the course of the exhibition represents an act of exertion that is simultaneously expressive and oblative, expressive perhaps, of her desire to empty a piece of herself into each of her co-artists so that rather than build herself from their participation at their expense (though in cultural and reputational terms this is inevitable) she literally diminshes herself, allowing each audience member to leave with an enhanced sense of self-awareness and a shard of the artist that, taken together, form a commonality amongst audience members. That Abramovic’s pain remains given but unexpessed is a piece of artistic alchemy that seems at once to make her work confessional but egoless, inviting us to consider our own pain on our own terms, to fill the empty space not within a framework of her creation but within ourselves. This, it seems, captures something fundamentally important about being an artist.
Megan Boyle’s Live Blog is a work that makes me angry. In what is probably a good way and a testament to the fact it deserves its place here. Angry because even in the internet age it is unorignal (JenniCam predates it by 17 years), disngenuously conceived (Boyle promises to blog everything she does. Everything? Really? A fascinating idea to convert that to literature but that idea would manifest itself as “I am now typing the words ‘I am now typing'” and so on. Boyle promises everything and delivers her own framing of that without the admission), and overly hyped within some parts of Alt Lit who overplayed its originality greatly. Compared to Emin’s Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995, which plays with a similar blend of confession and all-encompassingness, this feels very flimsy. But there remains an intractable feeling that it is important, in large part because this is the epitome of the practice of one group of internet practitioners who have a fascinating relationship between introspection and representation. Alt Lit’s subject is itself, and the subject of its practitioners is themselves. And that makes it a very transparent art form. Its foregrounding of the artist is never hidden. And yet the artist is always “in-relation-to” the audience. Even the art itself is mutable as it is added to and recontextualised by comments, image macros, and reblogs. What seems to be the epitome of the hero-tradition in whcih the audience enters the world as framed by the artist turns out to be more complicated. What we glimpse the other side of an artwork is never fixed, it is a world that is self-contained within the context of a community but subject to distortion by that community. The audience can displace not only the absence at the centre of the artwork but, much more radically, the parameters that frame the artwork so that the artist finds themselves pushing back against their audience. Neither party retains their subjectivity but neither surrenders it. Rather the process of contesting the ground for subjectivity becomes the art itself. We the audience are offered, in proportion to the artist’s vulnerability, an invittion to step inside the artist’s particularity which, through our stepping inside, becomes a shared particularity.
So, what does all this mean for first person narration in literature? Well, the first nagging thought I hope I’ve pricked into being is that we are part of something we may be unaware that we are part of. And, most important, our unawareness does not mitigate the effects of our participation in that something. When we write in the first person (and, of course, close third – but that’s another piece), we invite the reader in, we invite an identification, an insertion into the narrative. And the form that invitation takes will determine whether our work forms part of the disindividuating, imposing imperialism of the hero-tradition, or the strand of artistic self-emptying that leaves readers transformed versions of themselves, brought closer to and not further from both their own individuality and the other individuals who share their space. It is not enough for a writer to wash their hands of these matters and say they lie outside all that. No one, whatever they write, lies outside of literature’s discourses, and choosing to ignore them does not remove one’s work from them.
So, if we do care, and if we do want to give our readers their voice, to stand outside the subsumptions of the heroic paradigm, how are we to proceed? The key seems to me to lie in the paradox at the heart of The Artist is Present, Guernica, and to some extent Megan Boyle’s live blog. That paradox is to exert oneself to express oneself as an artist and yet at the same time offer oneself up completely to one’s subject matter. Where the hero-tradition fails is less in the specificity of its heroes (though there are massive issues of cultural appropriation that need addressing here) and more in the fact that they are offered to us as routes to something more, be that a glimpse of the divine, or simply the path to self-knowledge.
To oblate oneself before one’s subject matter seems to me to mean to forget everything but the subject matter. This need not mean setting out to create something deliberately jarring or alien, though the value in the discordant is that it reminds the reader that what they see is not intended to be familiar, or relatable, or FOR them, but is intended to be only itself. But it does mean forgetting the reader. It also means forgetting about the work’s meaning, beyond itself. And it means pouring oneself into that act of forgetting with absolute intensity, hiding nothing from oneself, not a single point on a hidden agenda of the ego. Which, of course, at once means investing one’s whole ego in te work, believing that yo and only you can tell this story, this story that is of infinite value precisely because it is for nothing other than itself.