08 June 2012

On Heroes

When I saw Snow White and the Huntsman last week, I was filled with a desire to write a story that manages without being cheesy to convey something of the problems of moral development to a modern audience.  In my opinion, Snow White comes close to being a Christian epic.  It has all the structures set in place, with a midsection expandable to no end, and a variety of interesting plot complications.  It establishes the value of virtue and purity in the main characters, who are nonetheless dynamic (as real virtue demands).  Snow White prays in prison, demonstrates filial piety, is compassionate, patient, moderate, etc.  Her one lapse from purity immediately brings about her near demise.  In fact, if we changed the coronation speech and had a bishop crown her, and rewrote her monologue before the battle, I think the film would be undeniably Christian all the way through.

The first time I saw the movie I jotted down a couple of notes on my hand: "I will invent a man composed of all the virtues."  "The pursuit of justice for the sake of something greater."  So, when I went to see it a second time, I brought a legal pad and took more notes, trying to see more precisely what elements would be needed by a story to represent a virtuous hero properly.  This was the crux: that virtuous heroes, i.e., real heroes, are more or less absent from mainstream cinema.  When we have a moral hero, he is generally just a well-meaning person who, despite certain acts of excellence (empathy or courage, usually) shares in most of the vices of the rest of us (impatience, ignorance, impurity, intemperance, pride, etc.), and the visibility of these vices protects us from seeing any of the heroes as a model for action.  The object of the will is the good understood, and so anything with manifest faults is going to be less compelling an object of admiration than one without those faults.  To put it briefly, the heroes we're provided with don't function as moral models, but as protagonists in struggle laden with faults.  The latter certainly make for good drama, but the former have some significant advantages.  They are more readily the objects of moral instruction, where their counterparts are seen as the stuff of entertainment alone.  They are necessarily in contest with their surroundings, where the latter need an antagonist appropriate to their virtues in order to create a struggle.  Spiderman fights Mysterio interestingly, but he would not fight alcoholism or avarice very interestingly.  The multidimensionality of a genuinely virtuous hero also makes him/her more human.  One has to wonder after a while whether certain characters are really even plausible, despite their entertainment value.  Action sequences and high emotions easily conceal the obvious psychological absurdities of film characters.

So the result is this: I have realized that there are not enough (or perhaps any) truly virtuous heroes displayed as such in mass culture, that such characters make for richer drama that is more useful for instruction and truer to the reality of human life.  So I would like to generate one.  My inspiration is this passage from the Apophthegmata Patrum:

John The Short said, “I will invent a man composed of all the virtues. He would rise at dawn every morning, take up the beginning of each virtue, and keep God’s commandments. He would live in great patience, in fear, in long-suffering, in the love of God; with firm purpose of soul and body; in deep humility, in patience, in trouble of heart and earnestness of practice. He would pray often, with sorrow of heart, keeping his speech pure, his eyes controlled. He would suffer injury without anger, remaining peaceful, and not rendering evil for evil, not looking out for the faults of others, not puffing himself up, meekly subject to every creature, renouncing material property and everything of the flesh. He would live as though crucified, in struggle, in lowliness of spirit, in good will and spiritual abstinence, in fasting, in penitence, in weeping. He would fight against evil, be wise and discreet in judgement and chaste in mind. He would receive good treatment with tranquility, working with his own hands, watching at night, enduring hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness and labour. He would live as though buried in a tomb and already dead, everyday feeling death to be near him.”