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 paradoxalist Zeno is incapacitated to the point of paralysis by his own articulateness, self-reflectiveness, and hyperconsciousness. Svevo handles irony in Dostoevskian fashion, which brings him close to “an existential sense of the tragic, rooted in the courage of despair” (p. 69).
Hasek’s caricatural Schweik is an indignant subversive and perturber, who feigns feeble-mindedness in order to survive oppression (the Austrian Army during World War I) with unheroic courage and passive resistance. Denouncing the traditional hero as being “he who dies in absurd and horrendous circumstances called the glorious defense of the Fatherland” (p. 72), the idiot Schweik represents a cloaked “praise of cunning.”
Writing in the aftermath of World War II, the next three authors, Frisch, Camus, and Levi, ponder in nonheroic terms surviving mass extermination and the absurdity of life. Frisch’s work denounces the damage caused by heroic illusion: the hero incarnates the notion of false freedom and litters history with dangerous models. In contradistinction, the antihero embraces the finitude of life and the “courage of failure.” Suspicious of the heroic mode, Camus’s [End Page 437] antihero is “neither saint nor hero” but only a victim-witness, resolved to keep constant vigilance in his permanent state of struggle. Finally, as distrustful of heroic expectations as Camus and Frisch, Levi’s work points to the absurdity of the notion of heroism in an age of totalitarian ideologies and death camps. Rather than presenting the victim as a hero, a rhetoric that tends to focus on physical instead of moral survival, Levi looks into what he calls the “gray zone” of moral contamination, as well as the shame of survival. He imputes redemptive significance to the acts of writing, storytelling, and witnessing in the attempt to reach salvation. Although denouncing heroism for deception and violence (e.g. Achilles or Ajax), Levi longs for the heroism of a homecoming (e.g. Ulysses), and for the courage needed to struggle, daily, against despair.
Brombert’s work raises not only issues of literary interpretation, but also, in an oblique fashion, issues relating to the status of the literary canon. Of course, in an age of postcolonial discourse, In Praise of Antiheroes may be discarded as yet another white male close-reading of the Western canon. In a similar vein, Brombert’s “flexible” approach, that of an “attentive reader and interpreter” whose aim is “to respect the texture and inner coherence of the works in question,” while teasing out the theme of “antiheroism” (p. 2), may be dis-missed as another Euro-centric literary strategy reminiscent of the “orientalizing” tendencies characteristic of academic discourse until the 1980s.
Yet, the above criticism would be short-sighted. Indeed, one could “tease out” a concealed intention in Brombert’s In Praise of Antiheroes. By putting the canon back on the agenda for discussion, might one not say, for instance, that Brombert’s study seeks to disturb and destabilize the multi/culturalist or “heroic” discourse dominating academia at the present moment? A multicultural survey in major European authors (the study deals with texts written in five European languages, over a period of 150 years), the intent of this antiheroic study is to recuperate and bring back home (obliquely underscored by the constant references to Odysseus) the canon from the deconstructed and fragmented state in which the aesthetic and theoretical rage of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s left it. Indeed, Brombert persistently rejects all theoretical approaches to the texts studied!
Finally, after reading In Praise of Antiheroes, we realize that, while a single universal type of antihero would be impossible to imagine, the antiheroisms studied by Brombert do share at least one function in common: Brombert’s notion of antiheroism seems to correspond to a new aesthetics of realism, one which enables the critic, in the words of Levi, to remain closer to the human dimension by subverting the debunked ethics of his times, enacting the birth of new values, and raising issues of sincerity or authenticity in both philosophy and literature.