Subsist or Save?

My friend Dr. J has been talking about anti-heroes for several years now. It was she who first introduced me to the beautiful cruelty of Dexter, a show whose third season I am eagerly anticipating on DVD (so no spoilers, please!) She recently directed my attention to Joshua Alston’s Too Much of a Bad Thing, where he argues that: 

What TV needs now, in these uncertain times, is dramatic characters…who aren’t trying to save the world or plunder it, but are just trying to subsist in it. After all, aren’t the times we’re living in dramatic enough?

Dr. J disagrees:

What we love about antiheroes is that they are trying to subsist in the world in just the same way that the rest of us do, which means that they often plunder when they are trying to save, save when they are trying to plunder. They aren’t heroes and they aren’t villains, because there is no such thing as a hero or a villain in the world that we look rationally upon.

It seems to me that many of the great antiheros are trying to save the world, and that some of the rest are trying to plunder it. Dexter and Jack Bauer, for instance, are messianic figures who take on the sins of the world and suffer its torments so that we don’t have to. Tony Soprano and Mad Men‘s Don Draper, on the other hand, are here to plunder the world, and though they may feel qualms on occasion, what we really love about them is their shear braggadacio and apparent lack of scruples. 

I love these character because they’re complicated and fun, not because they’re human and fallible. They don’t just subsist: they thrive or fail with gusto, applomb, brioche, zest, or whatever other Romance-language term we want to use for ἀρετή. (Some have proposed Greg House as an anti-hero, but I think he’s exempted because his status as a Magic Asperger’s Cripple leaves him with little internal monologue or even motivation to interpret: House isn’t an anti-hero, he’s a Sherlock Holmes knock-off.)

This discussion of anti-heros puts me in mind of an earlier conversation: vampires and zombies. In general, the last couple of decades have been ruled by vampires, with short vacations for zombie outbreaks: Ann Rice, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and now Twilight and Let the Right One In. Vampires are the original tortured tempters, sexy sociopaths that invite us to measure our meager hold on deontological duties against their centuries of perspective. Vampires are charismatic exceptions to the rule, haunted by the burdens of unending existence and authentic because of all that angst. In outline, Dexter Morgan is a classic vampire-with-a-conscience, and Tony Soprano is a vampire who never quite develops one.

Zombies, on the other hand, have been presented as an unquenchable plague, a torrent of shambling flesh eaters who cannot be stopped, only avoided. Life in a world overrun by zombies is life that is constantly contemplating its negation. There’s no time for weighty pondering or the anxiety of influence: there’s survival or not, being consumed by the hordes or not, and no virtue, whether it be bravery, intelligence, good looks, or common sense, will garantuee safety.

Where Vampire Movies are psychological thrillers, Zombie Movies are social commentary.  In part this is a contingent fact about the genesis of zombie films: there’s nothing inherently political about the mindless walking dead, but since such films were initially written during the Cold War era and derived many of their tropes from the post-apocalyptic visions of life after nuclear war, it’s unsurprising that these doomsday scenarios would include trenchant commentary on the political situation that threatened to bring them about. Ever since Romero told that first zombie story in 1968, zombies have been used to offer ironic criticism on the politics of fear, consumerism, racism, and class.

That said, I’d like to see what a surviving-a-day-at-a-time hero looks like. Whatever collection of writers can come up with that story and characterization will make a lot of money breaking with the current anti-hero conventions. More to the point, it might be good for us. Though we may have had too many actual-or-metaphorical vampires of late, perhaps we do still need to see complicated characters dealing with the morally ambiguous world, and for that I think there’s nothing better than a survivor’s tale, where ordinary folks face the ravages of an apocalypse without losing their humanity. Post-apocalyptic stories capture the sense of morally ambiguous survival without pretense of authenticity or excellence.

One candidate: the father and son from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. If anything can stem the tide of beautiful cruelty, it’ll be the wan face of Viggo Mortensen trying to keep his truncated family moving, without any destination in mind and with no salvation in sight.

6 thoughts on “Subsist or Save?”

  1. Hey AnPan, thanks for the shout-out. I'll have to think about this some more, but I am inclined to say that antiheroes, even when they are trying to "save or plunder," are ALSO human and fallible. This is what distinguishes them from bona fide "heroes" and "villains," I think. I would even venture to say that, despite your objections to the contrary, this is probably what draws YOU to them, too.

    I really like your vampire/zombie stuff here. I really didn't know anything about that.

  2. You know, Dr. J, I'd like to engage you on this further, but you just dropped the show stopper in that second comment. Truly, we live in an age of wonders and miracles. Thank you!

    I don't disagree with your main point, that despite the massive differences, antiheroic television requires identification to work, and these characters are popular precisely because we are constantly struck by moments of recognition with figures who we normally see as inscrutable, even monstrous. Dexter is a murdering sociopath, but in his alienation from social life he presents a series of accurate observations that put up a funhouse-mirror of our own. In that sense, you're right. What I love about him is that he is both human and fallible: he encounters a familiar world with familiar reactions, and he makes mistakes and has limited knowledge of that world in many of the ways you'd expect.

    So, okay: we're running into some ambiguity. What Alston seems to be getting at isn't the distinction between heroes and antiheroes, but a distinction within the broader antihero genre between mediocrity and excellence. That's what I was trying to capture with the vampire/zombie distinction.

    The antiheroes we've been discussing are capable of doing the right thing, but they've either deliberately decided not to or else their context drives them to choose wrongly systematically. It's not a matter of fallibility, because of course these antiheroes fail, on occasion, but rather of reach: when they fail, they fail big. The weak, ordinary antihero is incontinent: she has basically good intentions, but due to circumstance or spinelessness, she lacks the capability to execute those intentions. Her accomplishments are quotidian, her triumphs ephemeral, and her failures always knock her back further than all the progress to date.

    That, it seems to me, is the recessionary hero we need. Not a charismatic exemplar, but a shlubby underachiever: an education in Heideggerian dwelling and Sisyphean endurance, where what we ultimately recognize in every story is that even at the limits, something is still better than nothing, survival is still better than death.

  3. Hmmmm…. I'm reminded of a disagreement that I had with Booga Face in the first iteration of this discussion 2 years ago. At the time, I was using the Wikipedia defintion of "antihero," which is "a protagonist whose character and goals are antithetical to traditional heroism."

    On that definition, I think that antiheroes can still be human and fallible, but I don't think they can be quotidian, which is what the last paragraph of your post calls for. The "shlubby underachiever" isn't a hero, even in the "anti-" sense. I agree with you that such a character might be a welcome addition to television, but s/he wouldn't qualify as an "antihero."

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