- In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature, 1830–1980
Nearly forty years after his seminal work on the intellectual as the unheroic hero in the modern French Novel (The Intellectual Hero), and nearly thirty years after having edited an anthology of major essays dealing with the changing concept of heroism from antiquity to the present (The Hero in Literature), Professor Victor Brombert brings an additional mise au point to the idea of the hero in modern European literature, that of the “antihero,” as well as an aggiornamento of the issue of the canon in an academic environment dominated by the “cultural studies” phenomenon.
From the start, Brombert draws our attention to his paradoxical title: “To write in praise of antiheroes could seem ironic, if not downright perverse” (p. 1). He explains that, although partly inspired by Dostoevsky’s “antihero,” the plural “antiheroes” does not suggest a universal type. Indeed, heir to the “unheroic hero,” the prototype of heroes of inaction, the “antihero” designates a multifaceted concept, to which no single definition or theoretical approach would do justice. For Brombert, it is above all a “question of mood as of mode,” which “implies the negative presence of the subverted or absent model” (p. 2).
After sketching a brief history of the “denunciation of the heroic code,” Brombert proposes to examine the various ways the heroic model was subverted, as well as the underlying causes of the trend to portray modern protagonists as “failures” who manage to address the needs of our age and captivate the reader’s imagination. Thus while critics such as Primo Levi praise the antihero’s “allegiance to the strictly human dimension,” but denounce hero worship for “fostering illusions, dishonesty, and moral inertia that come from relying on ideal and inimitable models” (p. 5), Brombert diagnoses such criticisms as implying a “moral void as well as the paradoxical nostalgia for heroic values and models no longer found relevant” (p. 5). This leads him to hypothesize that such a void cries out to be filled and to conclude that the “ironic memory of the absent or unattainable model acts as a steady reminder [End Page 436] and as an incentive. The very notion of the ‘antihero’ depends on such a memory” (p. 5). Brombert explores this notion through works by Büchner, Gogol, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Svevo, Hasek, Frisch, Camus, and Levi.
Through stylistic or rhetorical strategies, each author’s antiheroic perspective enables him to raise moral and political issues. For instance, lifting his pen against the militarism of his times, Büchner’s Woyzeck deliberately undermines the grandiloquence of tragedy and recasts the genre in the unheroic mode. Gogol uses the pathetic downfall of a bureaucrat in “The Overcoat” to point to the “inhumanity” present in civilized man. His antiheroic stance generates a myriad of meanings through narrative strategies and “mutually canceling ironies” (p. 30). In denouncing the materialistic rationalism that overwhelms his age, Dostoevsky manipulates the “duplicitous resources of the confessional mode,” thus interring his morally crippled underground man in the concepts of antiheroism and paradox. While the subversive qualities of antiheroism represent a move towards authenticity, the incongruities of paradox lead to “countertruth.” For Brombert, both “inform an ironic thrust whose aim is to carry the underground message to its radical extreme” (p. 34).
In “A Simple Heart,” Flaubert casts a simple-minded servant in terms similar to those of the preceding two authors, but the self-sacrificing Félicité has no inkling of her potentials. In contrast, the author’s complicated and ambivalent narrative strategies and complex handling of the concepts of “pathos and irony” allow Félicité to attain the status of sainthood. To bourgeois heroism, steeped in the deliberate confusion between the commercial and religious spaces, Flaubert opposes the notion of the “heroism of art” which entails a “closer and closer bond [...] in Flaubert’s mind between the idea of sainthood and the vocation of the artist” (p. 53).
In contrast to his antiheroic predecessors, Svevo’s lethargic and...