I read once that societies begin with poetry and end with polemics. Personally, I would go further than this; I believe that societies begin with tales of heroes and stagnate once the protagonists start to become anti-heroes.
The world of the protagonist shapes his journey just as the world of the author shapes his sense of what story is for and what it can achieve and how it should be told. Good times create weak men, weak men create hard times, just as good times create antihero tales, which then create hard times, both culturally and literally.
Good Times, Weak Men
Go back to the year 1999. The dotcom boom, the soaring economy. Post USSR, post history (in Fukiyama’s famous phrase), pre-9/11, pre-smartphones and social media with all of its attendant delights and distractions and damage.
A time of prosperity, a time of safety. Good times, at least in retrospect. And what stories were in the zeitgeist at that moment? Well in fiction you had Harris’ Hannibal riding up the bestseller charts and Houllebecq’s Atomised beginning to build a cult following, and at the multiplex you had Fight Club, American Beauty, The Talented Mr Ripley, Man on The Moon.
Now whether such stories were a mere reaction to what was in the air or whether they had a role in shaping the zeitgeist is debatable. It was very likely to be both things occurring at once. But what is less debatable is the impact in both contemporary consciousness and on the quarterly profit sheet. These things succeeded. People were interested.
People, given the comfort and safety around them, could handle such stories of unpleasant, amoral, selfish, sometimes downright sociopathic men. Men presented as being neither clearly good nor evil in a narrative universe of moral relativity, affectless neutrality, and unsatisfying affluence. The IKEA furniture, job security and mild suburban ennui, rather than being luxuries and boons won from decades of incremental societal progress, were recast as shackles to authenticity, as consolation prizes, as affronts.
The antihero, you see, has no time for gratitude, only resentments in his personal and perpetual teenage wasteland. The sneering ironic detachment of cool has a way of melting under the illuminating heat lamp of historical perspective. Contentment is for squares, sincerity and honest effort and anything that smacks of belief in the potential goodness of the other is passé. Dullsville.
In good times you can hold such self-defeating worldviews and still prosper, because the invisible safety nets and steadying hands of plentiful jobs and affordable rents and consumer goods are there to protect the would-be real-life antihero from many of the consequences of his own toxicity. You can pretend to be Tyler Durden in good times—Paper Street rentals are within your wilfully meagre budget, rich people will buy your overpriced soap, employers won’t fire you at the first hint of agitation or backtalk.
But as this attitude and its accompanying lack of action, vitality, commitment and hope spreads, the good times are soon not so good. And with that the bracing, transgressive, stylised thrill of the antihero tale starts to sour. Wit is revealed as mere snark, rebellion as mere posturing, and the fight against the forces of mediocrity as being mere tilting at windmills or worse as kicking at the head of the giant whose shoulders you were fortunate enough to be standing on.
This is the point at which we presently find ourselves.
Hard Times, Strong Men
Now for those of you who are frequent readers of my weekly essays, this might seem contradictory. I claim that we find ourselves in the post-antihero hard times, yet I have previously argued that this new decade of ours shall be the Soaring Twenties. How can that be?
Well, in the new era of decentralisation, opportunities abound but are not equally distributed. It’s easier to become a ‘have’, but on the flip side, it is also easier to become a ‘have-not’. The good times safety net is now tattered and shopworn and can’t be relied on in the same way. There are no guarantees, but with decentralisation there aren’t the same ceilings either.
But back to the idea of heroes…
See, in hard times the reader can no longer stomach the antihero in the same way. The real world is now bleak and ambiguous and murky and grim enough without getting a second dose of such darkness from what you consume as a pastime. In hard times, readers and moviegoers want escapism or at least something that offers them solid ground to stand on. They want to see real problems (like the ones they themselves are facing) tackled in truthful ways. The want light in the darkness, humour, romance, triumph over adversity, bravery, daring, discovery, joy.
They want to be moved by the story, not harangued into lethargy.
In short, they want heroes. In stories as in life a hero is forged and measured by the toughness of the circumstances he finds himself in. Even Tyler Durden knew this. Hence the craving for self-destruction as a means of artificially creating a fake adversity in a life that was completely lacking in any risk, adventure, or possibility of heroics. Lack something real to either fight for or against and you will split yourself in two. But a house divided against itself cannot stand.
So the adversity of the present, when seen aright, can help you define who you are and where you stand and what you intend to do with your one and only life. It can be the means through which the heroic can be forged. All societies begin in poetry as we said, and poetry concerns the deeds of heroes whether epic and bloody or quiet and contemplative.
And at this very moment in history, at the beginning is where we find ourselves.
Strong Men, Good Times
Though they share many commonalities, each new period of hard times are different. And so the heroes of each of these eras are a little bit different. History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.
What the heroes of the 2020s will look like (either Soaring, or otherwise) is hard to say. The times will create them, and it will all seem obvious and inevitable only in retrospect. But we can say that they will be courageous, because heroes always are. We can say that they will do what they can to protect their family, their band, their gang of fellow travellers because that’s what heroes always do. We can say that, though tempted many times, they will not sway from their own moral compass because that’s what makes a hero.
And we can say that, when all is said and done, stories will be told of them and passed on and used as a means of transmitting truth and wisdom on down through the ages.
Wisdom and truth on which good times can be built. Which is then soon taken for granted and eroded by complacency. And on and on this story of generations goes, compelling, cyclical, eternal.
Until next time.