Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist

Major Contentions

  • The concept of the antihero has shared a developmental history with twentieth century entertainment media, and so it is so clearly entrenched in our minds as to be an archetype of desirable moral conduct; as such, it demands a serious analysis.
  • A third development in pop culture accompanied the rise of entertainment media and the antihero which affected both: the postmodern cultural critique.
  • The origin of these three cultural markers can be traced to the Romantic movement’s emphasis on pantheist intuition expressed through powerful emotions aimed at an increasingly literate middle class in the process of rejecting all institutional authority.
  • Victorian formalism dominated the sociological literature of the second half of the nineteenth century, advancing a formulaic and conventional propriety that sought to domesticate Romantic emotion; the result was a sclerotic sentimentalism in narrative fiction.
  • This sentimentalism’s purpose was to capture the archetype of experience rather than experience itself.
  • By the World War I era, an antithesis emerged, first in narrative fiction and almost immediately in the exploding film industry; it was marked by a conscious rejection of typologies in favor of unique individual experience set against a Darwinian struggle for survival.
  • This new naturalism competes in popular media with a remnant Victorian sentimentalism to this day.
  • Other factors contributed to the early stirrings of postmodern existentialism, and they all became distilled more through popular media than through disciplined academic analysis, at least until the 1960’s, and so the concept of the antihero, like the Romanticism that had inspired it, filtered from popular media into academia, where it was refined and taught to post-secondary students through literature and humanities courses in the last half of the twentieth century.
  • The grounding question for the antihero is always this one: “What gives meaning and purpose to individual experience?”
  • The existentialist answer is “nothing,” a response that stimulates a search for meaning that combines despair and Gnostic catharsis with an utter contempt for sentimental convention.
  • As postmodern thinkers began appropriating phenomenalist arguments drenched in existential angst for dissemination through popular fiction, they began to transform their protagonists from victim of unknowable and contingent reality to heroic rebel fighting the bad faith of conventional society.
  • This battle was largely formalized in narrative media, and it became the dominant moral model by the close of the twentieth century, picturing an isolated protagonist resisting the hypocrisies of the larger culture by rejecting its values in favor of dimly intuited virtues of honesty, courage, loyalty and moral freedom.
  • Accompanying this transformation was a rejection of any sense of loss in favor of a witty irony that now dominates popular culture; rather than mourn a loss of meaning, the antihero could celebrate his radical preferential freedom.
  • But by the last third of the twentieth century the antihero had been disseminated so widely that popular culture could hardly be resisted without rejecting the now-stereotyped antihero himself, an irony completely in tune with the zeitgeist.
  • We see narrative fiction now that toys with the stereotyped antihero to demonstrate not a conventional sellout but a betrayal of the defining moral code of the antiheroic life, which never ends well.
  • Both our admiration for the stereotyped antihero’s dogged pursuit of personal freedom and our contempt for his occasional betrayal of it imply that these fictional characters are the moral exemplars of our age; they take their preferential freedom seriously and pursue moral ambitions that are paradoxically quite well-defined even in the face of their existential freedom, implying universal moral values that their postmodern creators most certainly would deny.


His partner (girlfriend, mother, witness) has been brutally gunned down. Warned by his superiors (whom he distrusts, who are clueless, who are corrupt) to follow department regulations, he sneers, unable to hide his contempt. “Tell that to Mike” (“Kate,””my mother,””Terrell”) and storms out of an office full of mindless drones. After a series of close calls, he finds the killer and his gang in an abandoned warehouse (garage, amusement park, office building). Though grossly outnumbered and outgunned, he shoots it out with the villains, in the process suffering a gunshot wound (blow to the head, stabbing, ten-storey fall), but exacting revenge in the thrilling final scene, emerging bloody, torn, and triumphant (if before 1976, dying after a final utterance).

Tell me you haven’t seen this scene and I will know you have lived your life under a monitor lizard in Borneo. For the last eight decades we have been drenched with antiheroes in film. Ever since the Little Tramp kicked his first Keystone Cop, since Sam Spade fondled his gat, since Howard Roark blew up the Cortland Building, we have held them to our hearts: the lonely, the doomed, the noble, the brave. If we are readers, we recognize the flickering images on the screen as familiar extensions of archetypes: the old man in the small boat with the bloody hands, Mersault on the beach, Holden in the Lavender Room, Gatsby reaching for the green light. They are all different. The experiences they confront are unique, painful, cathartic. But these familiar figures are also in a sense the same. They are alone, They consciously reject the dominant culture. They violate convention. They are deeply if confusingly moral. They are the antiheroes of popular culture and from Emma Bovary to John McClane, from Huck Finn to Han Solo, we can no more ignore them than we can the tone of our inbox.

We all know nearly everything there is to know about these antiheroes, if only because they structure the stories that entertain us. But we are naïve if we think entertainment to be their only intention and effect. These characters are models for our moral being. They not only exemplify the moral dilemmas we face. They also show by example the means to resolve them. The serious thinker who discounts their influence on the zeitgeist makes two mistakes. She ignores the taproot of the antihero clenched in the soil of the postmodern (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents). And she ignores the effect of the popular culture’s obsession with the antihero on an age in which a thousand times more people see the film than read the book it is based on (see “Tall Tales.“). Do not underestimate the impact of the fictional narrative on the moral development of a culture that explicitly rejects authority (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”) while also embracing the radical equality of private belief (see “Belief in the Public Square”),  and do not think that a narrative projected on a screen is either inferior to or independent of one engraved on a page. The days of dividing culture into “high” and “popular” are long gone. The antihero as an archetype has a serious and impressive past that ties him to vital issues of truth and goodness. His history and influence are worth discovering.

In Western cultures, literature of the first half of the nineteenth century is Romantic. Two features of that movement are relevant to this discussion. First, Romantics felt they had found a solution to the problems of modernity uncovered by the Enlightenment, itself a reaction to the epistemological crisis produced by the collapse of the all-powerful warrant of authority in the Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (see “Premodern Authority“). The Enlightenment had promoted reason and closely examined experience as imperfect replacements for hallowed (later hollowed) authority as confirmations of truth and goodness claims. Imperfect isn’t the half of it, for the methodology of the Enlightenment cannibalized these efforts almost from the beginning (see “Modernism and Its Discontents“). By the latter half of the eighteenth century, Enlightenment warrants for truth and goodness were under more or less constant attack by their own adherents as logic uncovered numerous flaws in “the science of man” and produced numerous alternatives to the theories that science had produced. Romanticism offered a simpler alternative to the cumbersome rationalism that peeled back layer after layer of the rationales we offer for our truth claims. It proposed intuition as a certain alternative to reason and a replacement for lost authority, its certainty guaranteed by a pantheist god who suffused nature and communicated through emotion. That vision was spread by the second vital product of the age: mass culture. Byron expressed shock that he had left England in 1812 an unknown, only to return after the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to find himself famous. Napoleon was the darling of literate society at least until he signed the Concordat with the papacy in 1801, revealing himself to be something we are so familiar with today: just another ambitious politician. Literacy exploded during the nineteenth century and its shock wave carried Romanticism into every receptive heart.

The second half of the century saw two important developments. First, literate culture embraced the novel as a form of popular entertainment. Think Dickens, Hugo, and Melville. Second, Victorianism fundamentally changed Romantic emphases in ways that fatally perverted both Romanticism and the rationalism good Victorians tried to leaven it with (see “The Victorian Rift“). Victorian values cast the emotional and individualistic emphases of Romanticism into a formulaic and conventional recipe for behavior that robbed it of its power and charm. This sclerotic sentimentalism, typified by the wildly popular novels of Dickens, Hugo, and Tolstoy, produced a kind of sociological literature that examined the relations among social strata. Characters became representatives of conventional types: the gallant cavalry officer, the orphan, the pure or fallen woman. Victorians thrilled at the moral lessons available from these works. In this view literature’s purpose was to capture the archetype of experience rather than experience itself. The moral was the thing, and Victorianism saw literature’s purpose as a clear exposition of moral conflict with equally clear resolutions. We should not find such efforts exotic: they shape most Hollywood productions and popular tastes today. You might wonder how the literary tradition that gave us Milton, Byron, and Blake could consider Sidney Carton and Philias Fogg as improvements. As an almost unconscious instinct, the last decades of the nineteenth century generated an antithesis: a new emphasis on individual experience without moral thrust. Literary historians call this movement naturalism or realism. Its focus was on life as it is lived rather than as it should be. In place of the Romantic faith in a pantheist god-in-nature that guides human action toward the good, the new literary focus, perhaps rooted in Darwinism, saw nature as deterministic and contingent rather than teleological and sympathetic. So writers like Crane and Flaubert and Hardy posited a world without divine influence or moral purpose, and by the turn of the twentieth century, this new naturalistic view held sway. Its parameters were eventually delineated by new theories of the unconscious. Where Victorian literature laid bare the interactions among sociological types in theatrical crisis, the twentieth century would mine individual experience and inner turmoil.

I offer 1914 as the demarcation line. The film industry in industrialized societies had reached a maturation point. World War I called into question the explanatory powers of Victorian values. More importantly, the war called modernism itself to the witness stand. Victorianism had posited an intelligible reality tinted with divine concern expressed in modes that reason could comprehend. But the war now expanding like an blood stain from Ypres and Tannenberg did not resemble the Victorian conception of a beneficent God or a comprehensible reality. It seemed much more a Kafkaesque nightmare. I have marked the birth of postmodernism from this moment. Nothing is so fascinating as studying the era from 1915 to 1925 in the western societies, regardless of the subject: music, art, architecture, literature, film. The leap into novelty is even more apparent in more challenging fare: physics, philosophy, and the human sciences.

Like all cultural influences, the antihero was an old idea twisted into a new shape to support current notions. Forget about Don Quixote, Achilles, and Byron swimming the Hellespont. The twentieth century antihero was to be molded by the collapse of modernism and the dawn of postmodern thought. Born in the senseless slaughter by machine gun and mustard gas, the early antihero was colored by regret. Indeed, the movement termed literary modernism that dominated Western societies until World War II was most strongly characterized by this sense of loss. This is the matrix that produced the new notion of the antihero. He –antiheroes were typically male, at least until the 1980’s– suffered. Part of his confusion stemmed from this sense that the fundamental way of the world was tragic. Old forms had failed. While the scientific world was struggling with the unrelenting assault of contingent determinism, the new antihero was left to try to reconcile his antiquated sense of honor with the new realities of a world without nobility, of truths without moral direction (see “The Limits of Empirical Science“). What made Jake Barnes walk out into the rain in The Sun Also Rises drove George Wilson toward Gatsby’s pool and Prufrock to walk upon the beach. We see an answer in these works of the 1920’s to a question that had arisen before the war: Roskolnikov’s morbid curiosity, Ahab’s obsession with the white whale, Jude, Christopher Newman, Henry Fleming, Emma Bovary, Ethan Frome. The question was this: what gives meaning and purpose to individual experience? What ennobles and directs our existence? The answer, framed by the senseless savagery of World War I and the assault on sense that was the theory of general relativity in 1916, was unequivocal: nothing. The endless careening of wills and the contingent nature of circumstance produced only chaos, at least as far as human intentionality and purpose could determine (see “A Preface to the Determinism Problem and “The Determinism Problem“). The despair this answer produced dominated the intellectual life of the twentieth century. It has produced only two possible responses in literature. The first is an embrace of Victorianism: its conventionality, its tenacity and optimism, and its sentimentality. It attempts the same kind of impossible, formulaic synthesis of Romantic emotionalism and Enlightenment rationalism that failed so miserably at the turn of the twentieth century. The other, which developed over the entire course of the twentieth century,  is the postmodern response with its elevation of individual experience and personal construction of truth and goodness. This is the soil in which the antihero grows. But it bears strange fruit.

When Gertrude Stein characterized the Paris expatriates as “a lost generation,” she might have been speaking to all Western intellectuals over the whole of that painful century. Both postmodernism and the antihero developed in the subsequent confusion. It is an open question whether the epistemological system know as phenomenology shaped the antihero or the other way round. Originating in the Kantian dualism that saw reality as unknowable in itself, phenomenology advocated for a turning inward toward a study of experiential consciousness, the individual mind trapped within the perceptual wall of its own reflections. Though reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche is hardly entertaining for most persons, once French academicians simplified the phenomenalist critique into popular novels, ideas that had been circulating for a century could now enter the societal mainstream . By the end of World War II, literary modernism with its dirges and black crepe had abandoned its funereal tone in favor of a kind of witty irony that now dominates popular culture. What Salinger, Vonnegut, Bellow, Ginsburg, and Nabokov introduced was a full acknowledgement of the meaninglessness of existence coupled with a sardonic embrace of existential freedom. Their argument is this: Sartre was right: we are condemned to be free alone among all the objects in the universe. We have no purpose, no final cause. Life is absurd. And that makes it funny. The drones who embrace the Victorian alternative are clueless inheritors of a ridiculous value system. With their materialism, religion, and adherence to grand narratives, they live lives of self-delusion. Those cops in the cubicle, those workers glimpsed in skyscraper windows, those women polishing the stovetop are all the same. It is better to be Jim Stark and face that truth even without knowing what to do about it or to be Ben Braddock and act, however irrationally, or Travis Bickle, and simply pick a quest to kneel before. But why pursue meaning when you can be Ferris Buehler or Jeff Lebowski and enjoy the carnival?

The second interesting change is what might be called the stereotyping of the antihero. Yes, we all know he (and increasingly “she”) rejects cultural conventions, only dimly understands the intuitions that guide his actions, follows a code of honor that includes loyalty to friends and idiosyncratic attachments, displays courage, and combats hypocrisy, which by the way is the essential postmodern no-no because it violates its only truth test, the principle of non-contradiction. But what should set all postmodern ironists’ hearts athumping is that this exemplar of individualism has been so thoroughly appropriated and domesticated by the Hollywood establishment that he has been reduced to merely one more flat stereotype, one more stock character whose actions are every bit as predictable and culturally determinant as the worst of Kafka’s clueless bureaucrats. The unique circumstantial freedom that condemned the existential hero to be free is not an issue for today’s media antihero. Walter White is as much a puppet on a ratings string as the most laughtracked sitcom jokester. Today’s antihero is just one more example of the domestication and diffusion of postmodernism. And other than the theories of identity politics that dominates academia, it is probably the most wasteful. For the notion of the antihero is a legitimate attempt to answer one of the great questions of the last century: How can freedom exist in a contingently deterministic universe?

It is choice and the freedom it implies that challenges the antihero (see “Our Freedom Fetish“), and choice—the confluence of context and opportunity—exists most clearly within a conscious construct: the narrative, which explains why the antihero has been the darling of serious literature since the 1920’s and of film since the 1960’s. The antihero faces a goodness issue that he defines as a moral one, but which more conventional characters choose to see as involving utility only (see “What Do We Mean by Good?“). Their insensitivity to the moral dimensions of the issue damns them as either hopelessly conventional or hopelessly corrupt. They exemplify Sartre’s bad faith, failing to confront reality because they fail to recognize one of the three freedoms that allow us to choose. They may be so dulled to experience that they have blunted their natural freedom, unwilling to even recognize the options presented to them, a failure marking them literally as drones, like the mindless masses in Metropolis. Or they fail at the next level, preferential freedom. They see the choices facing them but either follow the herd decision thoughtlessly or refuse to commit to the moral choice they know to be better. Worst of all, they may ignore the moral component of the choice altogether, reducing it to a simple issue of utility. In this they echo powerful philosophical voices like John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, but to the antihero, their self-interest is venal (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). Do note that the antihero archetype was built on the groundwork of the coherence virtual circle (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”), so the failures of other characters in the narrative cannot be excused. The moral universe they inhabit is of their own making. Their failures always stem more from cowardice than from ignorance and invariably displays itself as hypocrisy, the only unambiguous moral failing recognized by postmodernists. The antihero squarely faces the moral vacuum that surrounds him, and, in fact, the disjunction between the pretensions of other characters and the reality they participate in gives to these narratives their sense of anomie and grotesqueness. The antihero senses that existence precedes essence even if he never says it or even understands it. The moral universe he inhabits is as empty as that of the other characters, yet he fills it with his own values—though it always takes some flailing for him to identify them, choose the option he prefers, and take action. This confusion and delay, I think, is meant as more than a narrative expedient to build tension. It is a parable of the moral dilemma facing each of us. The antihero’s options signify an explicit rejection of determinism. His struggles to understand the three kinds of freedom are morally required in a world without inherent meaning, a world of personally constructed virtual circles. As he hesitates and begins to wander in the weeds, a tenacity, even a bull-headedness, keeps him doggedly moving. For the antihero must not only choose but act. Action is the key element of the existential choice he makes. It proves both his circumstantial freedom and his moral superiority to those he opposes.

The strange thing about it, though, is how predictable the antihero’s choices are given how free he is to make them. From the beginning, he demonstrates a kind of ethical framework we would not expect from a character with no shackles on his moral outlook other than the logical consistency of his virtual circle.

Of course, he resists authority, is loyal to his sub-culture while opposing the dominant and corrupt larger culture, and hates hypocrisy; these are all hallmarks of postmodernism. But he also prizes courage, demonstrates self-sacrifice, and is ultimately deeply committed to justice. And this moral pattern has been a pretty consistent component of the antihero in literature and film from Hemingway to Spiderman. It is this predictability that has allowed for the domestication and stereotyping of the antihero in today’s media. Doesn’t this stability and uniformity of values call into question the whole “man is condemned to be free” basis of the antihero?

Now it may be simple economics that drives authors of fiction in search of an audience to appeal to virtues that we cannot help but admire. Certainly, their heroes’ initial appeal in the thrill-ride atmosphere of novelty right after World War I was their rejection of the stifling Victorian conventionality that had preceded them, but perhaps they were not quite as liberated from the era they so passionately rejected as they might have thought. If this reading is true, the antihero is merely a slightly less stereotyped Victorian hero, for all of postmodernism’s efforts to reject all that age stood for. It is certainly plausible to characterize the film examples of the last thirty years that way as the hard edges of our antiheroes get smoothed into a conventional shape. But we should consider another possibility. Perhaps even fictional persons are not as free to choose their morality as Camus and Sartre might have wished. Recent writers have certainly pushed the envelope. Brett Easton Ellis comes to mind, though his later works confirm Ortega Y Gasset’s warnings about the corruptive effects of media success. When the antihero wanders into the funhouse of the alienist aesthetic, he seems to lose both appeal and definition. Why is that?

The notion that even radical freedom has its universal moral guardrails is such an important one that creators of popular media have had to toy with it. Scratching that itch has given us what might clunkily be called the “counter-antihero,” this is a protagonist who begins as the stereotypical anthero we are all so familiar with but who betrays his own existential code of loyalty or obsession with private justice. Characters like Walter White or Michael Corleone hardly embrace conventional rules. They sell out their authentic selves, nearly always in a quest for power. It almost never ends well for these characters, which, of course, offers its own moral lessons.

As I am an adherent of virtue ethics, I would argue that certain elements of moral character remain admirable regardless of culture or epoch because they are the raw ingredients of a fulfilling human life (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer). While the conundrum of our being the only free things in a contingently determinist universe may continue to provoke creative replies, I would argue that the argument for tabula rasa, for the core position that existence precedes essence, the moral void that makes the antihero possible, is doomed in this age of genetic discovery to fade into silence. That is no loss. Existentialism and postmodernism that formalized it were largely rebellions against the strange perversions of reason and emotion that we know as Victorianism. But even if we were to escape the twisted grasp of the Victorian worldview, we would bump against the triumphs of the natural sciences that reveal our apparent natural, moral, and circumstantial freedom to be a delusion. Perhaps we are awaiting another ingenious synthesis of morality and empirical truth. But I cannot think of us ever reducing our natural human proclivity to see choices everywhere into some simple bit of genetic programming, not that such a hard science conclusion would change anything about our sense of moral responsibility. Nor does it seem possible to me that we could ever regard our preferential freedom to be merely a delusional evolutionary adaptation masking some deep determinism we are unaware of (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument”). We will continue to wrestle with discovering and developing our final cause as moral agents just as we continue to be thrilled by love’s first passion even when we know we are the victims of our endorphins. Science presents us with truths that our moral system must transmute into choices that science cannot address.. The antihero, putatively free to do as he wills, consistently acts as a person of good character, one who cannot invent himself but rather discovers in an apparently random reality his—and our— common moral nature.

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