We are cynical people. This statement is admittedly a gross generalization, and yet it holds an element of truth. Our cynicism extends even to the nature of truth itself. We have become a generation that doubts and has grown weary of the lies of the institutions to which we once gave our unwavering trust and admiration.
The postwar era was both hopeful and depressing. On the one hand, there were hopes of world peace and a generation of love as reflected in the ideologies that sparked the sexual revolution and the hippie era of the 1960s. On the other hand, the remembered horrors of the war and the looming threats of the communist regime contributed to a worldwide moral pessimism that has endured to this day. Add to that the many catastrophes and global crises that have ensued, all whipped into hysteria by an omnipresent media, and you have yourself an anxious planet.
We experience hope and desolation in equal measures, maybe not as individuals, but as a society. One look at the daily news makes this clear. Technological and scientific progress makes us hopeful, and yet moral degradation and ethical uncertainty bring us down. Truly, it is a perfect age to be cynical, not just towards institutions and philosophies, but about the human condition itself. But this cycle of hope and cynicism is one that has recurred throughout history. From the beginning of time, we have woven myths and legends to make moral sense of our world, and, at the same time, we have cynically demythologized the moral landscapes we have created.
Morality and myths are intrinsically linked. We are mythopoetic beings, fabricating narratives since time immemorial to understand the cosmos, how we relate to it, and how we should respond to it. Imagine the ideators of the Upanishads, Greek cosmogony, Norse poetry, or Babylonian myths - they were immersed in a mysterious world, unsure of almost everything except perhaps one thing: that there was a necessity for order amidst the chaos of existence. They believed that there is a correct way in which to act in the midst of this mysterious world, there is a code, a morality, and hence a cogent and cohesive narrative that must be elaborated to put everything in its rightful order and perspective. In Maps of Meaning (1999), Jordan Peterson states that “Myth can be more accurately regarded as description of the world as it signifies (for action). The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valence, their value, their motivational significance” (p. 9). Myths are not meant to describe what is, but what to do about what is.
Nonetheless, for every myth that has ever existed, there has been a response, a counter-argument, a replacement, a demythologization of sorts. In a very Hegelian way, the theses of many mythmakers have found antitheses in the later generations of their cultures, and in some cases, perhaps even a synthesis of sorts that has renewed antiquated mythology. Interestingly, one of the most antithetical forces has been that of cynicism, that moment in which doubts begin to overtake certainties about the validity and value of the cherished traditions and narratives of the earlier generation. The old is seen as passé, and the need to deconstruct in order to rebuild begins to brew. Even if the cynics of each generation are not the ones to create new theories, their doubts and cynicism hold within them the seeds of those theories.
A prime example of such cultural shifts is the emergence of the antihero. The re-evaluation of the hero has become an almost all-encompassing trope in modern narratives, but it is, of course, not original to our era. Since the dawn of consciousness, constructed narratives of the hero have been transformed and reinvented to take on a deeper, darker (and perhaps more realistic) iteration.
The story of Prometheus has been reshaped many times, but its central theme remains. Prometheus, the “forethinker”, etymologically speaking, was a Titan who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to primitive humans in order to help them progress. This infuriated Zeus, who had Prometheus nailed to a mountain in the Caucasus and condemned to have his liver eaten every day by an eagle.
In Hesiod’s seminal work Theogony, written around 730-700 B.C, Prometheus is presented as a trickster who defies the infallible wisdom of Zeus, the mighty ruler of Olympus who, in Hesiod’s own words, is "the high lord of the thunder, whose wisdom never wears out" (p. 34). Zeus is the hero of sorts, and Prometheus is the villainous trickster who goes against his ordinances. Zeus punishes not only Prometheus but also humanity by having Pandora release upon the world a great variety of evils such as disease and toil. Approximately one century after Hesiod comes Aeschylus, whose tragic works create a narrative that is distinct and critical. In his Prometheia trilogy, he depicts Prometheus as a hero and Zeus as a despot. Now, the Titan Prometheus is a revolutionary who willingly accepts martyrdom at the hands of an oppressor. Furthermore, his role as a hero is highlighted by the fact that he alone knows the prophecy of Zeus’ downfall, and, at any given moment, could cease his torment by capitulating to the god of lightning.
Aeschylus’ Prometheus proclaims his rebellious spirit, sealing his fate with the following words:
Let him loose upon me all the fires of his lightning, all the blows of thunder from above and beneath the earth. Let him mix earth and heaven together over my head. Never, until I am released from these bonds, shall I reveal to him the thing he wishes to know and the thing which will, in the end, plunge him downward from his dictatorship (986-995).
This is quite a different picture from a simple trickster - this is Prometheus the rebel, who gave humanity “every art and every science” (p. 317) against the designs of the tyrant who wished to keep humanity ignorant and submissive.
A similar paradigm shift occurred in relation to Western narratives of Good and Evil. For centuries, Christ the Saviour was the ultimate hero, and Satan was evil incarnate, the seductive malice to be avoided at all costs, and the originator of lies and sin. Many heroes and villains depicted in medieval lore mirrored these characterisations - heroes had something of the divine, and villains had satanic elements. Sir Gawain from Arthurian lore is a pure and saintly figure, represented almost as sinless, while Morgan le Fay is portrayed as a sorceress with recourse to diabolical powers, immersed in the occult.
However, in 1667, with the publication of Paradise Lost, John Milton gives the devil himself a new twist. According to commentator Peter Schock, in Milton's reframing of the story, Satan rebelled against his Maker because “he saw no sufficient reason for the extreme inequality of rank and power” (p.1). When punishment comes his way, he bears it with fortitude because “he disdained to be subdued by despotic powers” (p.1). It is a point of much debate whether Milton intended Satan to be the hero of Paradise Lost. However, whether or not it was intentional, British Romantic poets of the early 1800s clearly took Satan to be Milton’s hero. William Hazlitt affirmed that Satan was the indubitable hero when he states that he is “the most heroic subject that ever was chosen for a poem” (2000, p.173). William Blake calls Milton “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (1994, p.39), and Shelley proclaims with a heretical spirit that "Milton's Devil, as a moral being, is as far superior to his God as one who perseveres in spite of adversity and torture” (1903, p.63). There is a complete reversal of roles, a heroicness attributed to the once villainous character.
In more recent times, the demythologization of once-heroic protagonists can be seen across a great variety of genres in cinema. An example of these shifts in perspective is the repeated reformulation of the superhero genre. Not only is there a plethora of antiheroes and villains-turned-protagonists, such as Joker, Suicide Squad, and The Boys, but the formerly unassailable moral excellence of the heroic protagonists is now being called into question. What makes them so sure that what they stand for is right? Moral quandaries and fallible heroes are what make the most interesting films nowadays. Filmmakers give us background narratives in which the villains are relatable, even likable, and the heroes are turned against each other or ruled by ambition. What if Superman turned tyrannical, or Batman broke his moral code? What if Joker's vision of society wasn’t actually so far from the truth? The scenarios prompted by such questions become more interesting than the prototypical hero’s journey that storytellers have repeated ad nauseam.
It is interesting to ask what these paradigm-shifting narratives, these modern myths, tell us about who we are and what we want.
Dan McAdams (2011) defines narrative identity as “an internalized and evolving story of the self that provides a person’s life with some semblance of unity, purpose, and meaning” (p. 100). This refers primarily to individual narratives, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we like, a mixture of our reconstructed past experiences and our imagined future. Furthermore, in social structures and cultural milieus, we share a type of collective narrative identity that influences the stories told by storytellers and screenwriters, the myth-makers of our generation.
This goes beyond such ideas as Carl Jung's collective-unconscious archetypes or Joseph Campbell's hero of a thousand faces. This is a more dynamic, conscious narrative, a fully fledged reflection of our day and age, of its cynical views on moral structures that we, as a society, deem to be hypocritical, ineffectual, or outright wrong. In an analysis of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s identity theory, Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan (2008) speaks of the “perceptual non-sufficiency of the human subject” (p. 4), which, on some analyses, comes to mean that we are “confined to a partial inside perspective” of our narrative identity, “which can only be transcended through an exterior vantage point” (p. 4). This can be said of any moral structure that proposes a narrative identity about itself. Perhaps the riling criticisms of the cynics provide the best vantage points from which to evaluate the validity of accepted moral systems. If so, we need villains at least as much as we need heroes.
Aeschylus (2017) The Greek Plays: Sixteen Plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. New York. Modern Library.
Blake, W. (1994) The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York. Dover Publications.
Cawelti, J. G. (1995) "Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films”, Film Genre Reader . Austin. University of Texas Press.
Dougherty, C. (2006) Prometheus. New York. Routledge.
Erdinast-Vulcan, D. (2008) “The I That Tells Itself: A Bakhtinian Perspective on Narrative Identity.” Narrative, 16 (1), 1–15. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30219268
Hazlitt, W. (2000) “On Shakespeare and Milton,” The Fight and Other Writings. New York. Penguin Books.
Hesiod (2006) Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia. New York. Oxford University Press.
Lyons, S., (2018) “Nietzsche, Satan, and the Romantics: The Devil as Tragic Hero in Romanticism” Researchgate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301780204_Nietzsche_Satan_and_the_Romantics_The_Devil_as_%27Tragic_Hero%27_in_Romanticism
McAdams, D. (2011) “Narrative Identity,” Handbook of Identity Theory and Research. Miami. Springer.
Peterson, J. (1999) Maps of Meaning. New York. Routledge.
Schock, P. (2003) Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley and Byron. London. Macmillan.
Scully, S. (2015) Hesiod’s Theogony: from Near Eastern Creation Myths to Paradise Lost. New York. Oxford University Press.
Shelly, P. B. (1903) A Defence of Poetry. Indianapolis. The Bobbs-Merrill Company.
Warner, R. (1967) The Stories of the Greeks. New York. Straus and Giroux.
Cover: Martin, J. (1841) Pandemonium [Oil on Canvas]. Louvre, Paris, France. (2008) https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Martin_Le_Pandemonium_Louvre.JPG#mw-jump-to-license
Figure 1: Munch, E. (1893) The Scream [Oil, Tempra and Pastel on Cardboard] National Gallery of Norway (2003) https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edvard_Munch,_1893,_The_Scream,_oil,_tempera_and_pastel_on_cardboard,_91_x_73_cm,_National_Gallery_of_Norway.jpg
Figure 2: Romano, G. (1535) Gods of Olympus [Fresco]. Palazzo del Te, Mantua, Italy. Retrieved from: http://art-now-and-then.blogspot.com/2015/02/painting-greek-gods.html?m=1
Figure 3: Fuger, H. (1817) Prometheus Bringing Fire to Mankind [Oil on Canvas]. Fine Art America (2018).https://fineartamerica.com/featured/prometheus-bringing-fire-to-mankind-heinrich-fuger.html
Figure 4: Rubens, P. P. (1612) Prometheus Bound [Oil on Canvas]. Heimatmusueum, Oldenburg, Germany. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prometheus_Bound_(Rubens)
Figure 5: Doré, G. (1882) Paradise Lost 44 [Illustration]. Wikimedia Commons (2015). https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paradise_Lost_44.jpg
Figure 6: Dalon, Y. (2019) Joaquin Phoenix as Joker [Digital Illustration]. Twitter (2019). https://mobile.twitter.com/yanndalon/status/1125095384831934464?lang=ga