Monday, November 5, 2012

Epic Life and the Demands of Time

The hero is complete and unchanging in the epic view of life. The hero faces trials, is confronted by challenges that would break a less capable, less resolute person. These trials may be physical (a test of strength or endurance), emotional (separation from or the loss of a loved one), or moral/ethical (the choice to forsake a friend or help a foe) and their completion, though arduous, affirms the hero’s character. Affirms, that’s the crucial point. These tests don’t reveal character because in order for the epic hero to be truly epic we cannot maintain, in advance, the possibility that those qualities were not already present in the hero, awaiting only the moment that would make them manifest. An epic hero never knows the choice between courage and fear. The hero only requires the right occasion in which to display courage in the face of danger. The trials the hero confronts also do not affect him/her in any fundamental way. The hero does not grow or change, nor does our understanding of the hero develop as we see him/her confront increasingly more difficult obstacles. The hero’s deeds serve only to illustrate for us who s/he was all along. They bring out elements of the hero’s personality that were always and forever present and unchanging. An epic hero’s deeds confirm indeed that s/he could be nothing but an epic hero.  The epic hero, thus, embodies our highest aspirations, presents to us the image of whom we wish we could be. The epic hero cannot change precisely because we believe, implicitly at any rate, that those aspirations and the values they represent are themselves immutable and everlasting.

Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” posits a sort of epic protagonist. This protagonist is a young person facing a transitional moment in his life. The choice he makes will be unconventional—the “rain checks” he refers to—but it is consistent with who he is, which is described in distinctly epic terms: “I get a little bit bigger, but then I’ll admit/I’m just the same as I was/Now don’t you understand/That I’m never changing who I am.” Just as the actions of the epic hero affirm who s/he always was, so too do the choices of this song’s protagonist affirm his static nature. This is of course coded in purely positive terms. His rigidity and fastness seem to be related to an ethical purity that remains untouched by changing circumstances. His body grows bigger, his situation might shift, but he never changes because he is always the person he was meant to be. Like I said before, this is an appealing self-image to have. If we see ourselves as unchanging, that is because we want to see ourselves as living in an uncompromised way the values we hold dear .

The problem behind the epic view of life is that it makes no space for the historical self: the part of us that fails sometimes in the face of life, the part that changes over time, the part that learns from experience, the part that becomes more entrenched in stupid beliefs. In other words, that part of us that confronts and is affected by the motherfucking ticking of the clock cannot really enter into the epic and heroic view of life. The epic hero shows us the person we want to be. Life reveals to us how often we fall short of that ideal.

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