What drives the current interest in noir fiction is that the stories validate our worst fear. There are no longer any heroes who will ride to the rescue, put things right between those in conflict. What has happened to the heroes who rose above the crowd to serve the large community interest? Or did those people always live deep in mythology and not the real world?
I write a crime series about a private eye, Vincent Calvino, who works inside a system of vanished heroes. Many of the Calvino readers like the realism of the novels and critics have commented on their authentic insight into Thai culture.
It seems like a lifetime ago when Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces was read and quoted; it was part of the public conversation that people who read books had with one another. The new age has hugely diminished the idea of heroes. We have become too cynical to celebrate heroes. The concept has been tainted by disappointment of those elevated to hero status who performed in less than heroic ways.
Our preoccupation as writers and readers has taken a different course. Readers, if what is selling in fiction is a barometer, are more interested in exploring the political, social and economic landscape in search of the Villain with a Thousand Faces. The popularity of crime fiction is connected with this new reality. The reader devours stories where villains are unmasked. The crime novels confirm our deepest suspicions about those who have power over others by virtue of skill, wealth, family name, status and position.
Deference to authority has been undermined worldwide. It seems no institution or ruler has been spared scrutiny and criticism. When respect for authority is replaced with hostility, mistrust and hatred there is a deeper effect: people begin to believe this hero business has always been a sham. There aren’t a thousand faces; there isn’t even one face that is heroic. The idea of heroes is nearly dead. They seem old-fashioned and remote. The first casualty suffered by the traditional elites is the privilege to use heroic status to advance their interests, position, and privileges. Once the sacred veil has been lifted, people lose their fear to challenge authority. It is that absence of fear that is a defining characteristic of people who have taken to the streets calling for change.
Anti-heroes like Richard Stark’s Parker, the professional criminal, have a code of conduct, one that says a bullet in the head is the penalty for a double-cross. Parker doesn’t pretend to be decent, nice, sociable or sentimental. He is a practical organizer and outlier who exploits an opportunity solely for personal gain. He doesn’t try to be heroic when one member of the criminal team double crosses him, Parker has no problem shooting the traitor in the back as he or she tries to escape.
These villains are unmasked as consumed by greed, envy, motivated by revenge, fueled by money, powerful connections, and high status. They often, on the surface, resemble the kind person who used to be a hero. But something is absent. We rack our brains to ask what has slipped away, leaving the heroes without the emotional scaffolding that has supported them for thousands of years.
I don’t pretend to have the full answer. But an explanation has been the challenge to the sacred. In the West, the sacred has been on the way out for more than a hundred years. Ever since Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche proclaimed that God was Dead, the sacred has been in the death throes. In our life time, we’ve watched the sacred in the West die; we’ve witnessed a clash between the crowds demanding changes and the authorities using violence to retain position of power that were traditionally sacred based. Those who are part of the old political structure fear that they will gradually lose out to and will be replaced by the profane, the material, the now, and consumerism.
Looking back, we can see how importantly linked the sacred and heroes have always been connected. The heroes with thousand faces explored by Joseph Campbell through many civilizations and cultures shared a common thread—they were associated, touched by or served the sacred. When the society shifts from the sacred to an acceptance that we are in a secular battle with he selfish gene, and no amount of worship or ritual is going to change our biological destiny, no higher power, no sacred book, person or code gathers a community into one that inspires men and women to sacrifice themselves to such a larger purpose. Sheltering in the cozy common purpose to worship the sacred has always been a convenient refuge in gloomy, miserable times.
We have secular teams in sports, offices, the military, political parties, and loyalty to the team is often thought of as heroic. Though if there are dark secrets the team is keeping away from the rest of us, then disclosure of that conduct becomes, in some quarters, the new avenue for heroes to walk. Wikipedia has been part of the mythology of hero creation for a modern era.
In noir, it is every man and woman for himself or herself. With the sacred in many parts of the world abandoned or marginalized, we need to accept a world without heroes created in the traditional way. Heroism was another way to celebrate the sacred. There is little celebrating in that realm today. The void is filled with cynicism and pessimism. The new noir gives expression to the collective feeling that in an age of villains, there is no way out of the existential dead end. All of the elites have been corrupted by self-interest. This Hobbesian world streams at us through our TV screens, in blogs, newspapers, non-fiction books and novels. We are still trying to absorb the lesson of what it is like to live in a world without heroes. We haven’t worked our way through exactly what this new world will look like.
Perhaps all times have been gloomy and miserable but our time, this time, having jettisoned the mysticism of the sacred, our base delusions have exposed those who would have occupied the shoes of heroes in the past are ordinary mortals like the rest of us. That makes people restless and angry. Turn on the TV news; you see them filling the streets around the world. You are watching people shedding their ‘sacred’ notions, their heroes, and their traditions and, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, they are waiting for someone who will never come. Heroes, like God, are dead. It will take a lot more courage to live happily in such a world. If I had to lay down a bet, it would be that the people with this special kind of courage that gives the rest of us hope that we can be better than we are. And just maybe will realize that deep down that has always been the definition of being a hero.