An Age in Need of Heroes

The Establishment creates wars and quagmires that require people of integrity, courage, and nobility to waste their talents saving people whom the Establishment assigns to the role of cannon-fodder, writes Vladimir Golstein.

By Vladimir Golstein

For better or for worse, the Romantic Age was the last age of heroes. Yes, we might dismiss these Byronic Loners as idealistic, misanthropic, sexist, or adolescent, but they were heroes, nevertheless.

Since then literature has produced only “anti-heroes” in the style of Dostoevsky’s underground man: self-aware, insecure, cerebral, paranoid, incapable of action and so on.

One of the best renditions of the Romantic Hero was Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov’s Pechorin, the protagonist of the novel, A Hero of Our Time, published in 1840. Pechorin is cool and confident and strong and courageous. He also lives by his own principles.

Lermontov portrait (1837) in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. (Wikimedia Commons)

They are not necessarily informed by high morality or social mores, but they are his own, and he tries to live by them. Most of these principles go back to the age of chivalry. You can kill your rival, but in an honest duel. You can seduce a maiden, but not because you want to brag about it or mock and humiliate her, but because you fell in love.

What authors like Lermontov felt and exposed well is that the modern age lacks all of that. We have petty nasty people who want to win by cheating, not by being the best or the coolest in an honest competition. It is Tonya Harding’s world, in other words.

Pechorin has an admirable formula. I don’t want to be a slave: I was not born for that, nor do I want to be a master — it is too fussy and petty.

What is fascinating about the Byronic Hero, is that interest in him arises in times when societies are going through some soul searching. When it looks around and sees only yes men, corporate men, people without any honor or principles, people for whom winning is everything.

When the Soviets got disappointed with petty apparatchiks capable only of empty sloganeering, they created the film, White Sun of the Desert, which actually has two Pechorin type characters. When Russians became disappointed with post-Perestroika lawlessness, they created the film Brother, which consciously refers to Lermontov and his novel. Lermontov is very much alive in Russian consciousness.

The Western

American Westerns are a film form that clearly continued this tradition of a Byronic hero. A hero of Westerns listens only to his own drummer. He does not like the corrupt town leaders and their pettiness, nor does he like nasty bandits who want to torture, humiliate, and abuse.

One of the great period of Westerns was during the 1960s and 70s, when society was pretty disappointed with itself as the result of the Vietnam war and other counterculture discoveries. The self-reliant loner who obeys rules that he sets for himself became a hero again.

In comes a great director of Westerns, Sam Peckinpah, and transports a tough as nails hero of that genre into a soldier of the Wehrmacht, fighting Russians near Crimea in the 1977 film Cross of Iron. Sergeant Rolf Steiner, the protagonist, is played by a familiar Western actor, James Coburn, who has very few principles, but is willing to die and kill for them. He despises career-driven officers, who hide in headquarters and then expect Iron Crosses. He has nothing but contempt for ideology. He mocks empty rhetoric and can’t stand abuse or unnecessary violence.

Why is he fighting and risking his life every day then? He just can’t let his men be abandoned and left to die. He wants to stay with them, alive or dead. But he expects the same from them. When one of his guys brutally rapes a Russian nurse, he throws the guy to the surviving nurses and tells them that he is theirs. He saves a captured Russian boy and protects him from a nasty careerist who said that the new order is to shoot prisoners.

In another scene, Steiner stares down and ignores a nasty scoundrel of an officer who uses all the imaginary lies and intrigues along with his aristocratic name to get ahead and terrorize those who do not obey him.

Is the film anti-war? You bet it is. But more precise, it is anti-Establishment. The Establishment is made up of institutions that create wars and other quagmires, which then requires people of integrity, courage, and nobility like Steiner to waste their talents on saving people whom the Establishment has assigned to the role of cannon-fodder.

Coburn’s Steiner, or Lermontov’s Pechorin are the rivals and enemies that one dreams of having. They can beat you, but only in open confrontation, and only because they are cooler, smarter, faster, or better trained. But not because they will cheat you, or betray you, or use some lie, innuendo or denunciation.

The nihilistic seventies were followed by euphoria connected with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a new confidence in so called Western Values. Nihilists like Steiner or Pechorin went out of fashion. Just follow the orders, climb your corporate ladder, vote for Democracy and capitalism and you’ll be fine.

Well, I suspect, that since most societies end up being corrupt and cynical, there is always a time for a Byronic hero. Maybe in today’s day and age, they’ll take the form of Thelma and Louise, but these heroes are as inevitable as they are inimitable. And they are needed now more than ever.

Vladimir Golstein, a former associate professor at Yale University, manages the Department of Slavic Studies at Brown University and is a commentator on Russian affairs. He is the author of Lermontov’s Narratives of Heroismpublished by Northwestern University Press (1999).

This article was re-published with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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11 comments for “An Age in Need of Heroes

  1. Aaron
    July 8, 2020 at 20:24

    I think in the worst of times, there is a lot of opportunity for heroism. I thought Dave Eggers’ non-fiction “Zeitoun” was pretty great and an example of heroism. Also Erin Brockovich, like when characters with humble beginnings and circumstances, can make a big difference, without super-powers or advantages, just a strong moral compass and determination to do the right thing.

  2. Robert Sepi
    July 7, 2020 at 11:27

    The movie ‘Falling Down’ (1993) was a story of how the U.S. capitalist system has created an expendable class of humans. ‘Defens’ takes a walk through the day of his awakening – not completely understanding or expressing specifically the source of his misery, lashing out at symbols. The deep sadness and complete frustration of his situation, we must believe, is a common American experience. Not necessarily heroic, but his brave, honest, and lonely (neoliberal) attempt at dealing with his situation is sad and realistic.

  3. July 7, 2020 at 11:27

    This synopsis of what it means in the West to be an “ideal hero” is, to say the least, a sad tragedy of lamentable and mournful proportions – Freedom and Liberty are associated with “the right to kill” whether at war or in self-defense, which, in other words, amount to the same thing, war between two or more individuals or war between nations, cultures, tribes, people-groups and countries. So, what is the solution to this vexing paradox that has been the inherited curse of Humanity – That it appears we must do evil first, e.g., war, to then, after the carnage, hugging, puffing, bluffing, and deceiving, murdering and plundering, declare it’s time for “peace,” but, mind you, always “at the end of a bayonet,” “at the end of a sword,” or “by the threat of a bullet.” Which, is, again, to say the least, demonstrating an ingrained, pathological, obsessive, pathetic and pitiable habitual addiction to “taking pride” in modeling mutual co-dependence upon reciprocal sado-masochism, i.e., hurting one another and to then “be sorry, and to then, go about repeating the same pattern again and again. Thus, the result is that, we end up “keeping the peace” in the same wicked, vile, brutal, savage, bloody ways in which “peace was won.” What irreconcilable contradictions! We might as well say, it’s indeed bordering on being “morally psychofrenic” or “spiritually confused,” as to, making up one’s mind regarding what is truly right and what is truly wrong, and being able to act properly, because, we do know the difference between the two. So, how do we resolve this “existential conundrum” once and for all? Well, we can’t do it, in and of ourselves.

    Thousands of years of bloody, terrifying, horrifying Human history of deadly violence, rape, plunder, pillage and terror, that continues TO THIS VERY DAY, in numerous places on planet earth, too many to list, sums of which, providing incontrovertible, irrefutable, undeniable and indubitable direct proof and material evidence for my bold self-evident truthful factual assertions. Given that, according to our above-analysis, our mortal sinful, flawed, error-prone, “intractable Human Nature,” sum of which, is so bent on evil, wickedness, corruption, ill-will, malice, and lawlessness makes us live as, sometimes deceitful hypocrites; at other times, as self-delusive cynics; or worse, at other times, as hopeless idealists, depending on “how fed up” we are with circumstances at hand, then, our only remaining choice is indeed to declare, state, proclaim and honor our persistence and perseverance in “staying alive” for affirming our “innate resilience” in “reckoning with” our own “existential paradox,” by affirming our “firm Reliance on the protection of divine Providence,”as as transcendent, immortal, incorruptible, eternal and universal inner-motive and external purpose for meaningfully living and sojourning temporarily upon this little Planet Earth, as we are justly, peaceably, and lawfully engaged in our miraculous gift to participating in belonging to, and in sharing our common Universe, while faithfully and deliberately committing ourselves to co-labor together, in ensuring security, protection, defense and preservation of all “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” that we have been enjoying on this Planet, as our God-endowed inalienable rights to”life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness!”

  4. Christian J. Chuba
    July 7, 2020 at 10:40

    Loved Cross of Iron. A hero has empathy and does not just follow orders. He has no desire to get awards and recognition from his superiors and he does not want to be called a hero. He only cares about the well being of his men, we need more Sgt. Steiner’s.

    Okay, they did he overplay the anti-establishment theme a bit too much but it was the 70’s, I felt bad when Sgt Steiner unleashed his ‘I hate all officers speech’ on Col Brandt. Brandt did not deserve that but it was a memorable line. If you see nothing else, you have to watch the scene, ‘Demarcation’ brilliant.

  5. Jeff Harrison
    July 6, 2020 at 20:20

    Interesting. The author is, of course, correct. A hero will march to his (or her) own drummer. They can be acclaimed after they’re safely dead but whilst they are alive, they are generally considered trouble and hard to get along with,

  6. jmg
    July 6, 2020 at 19:56

    Where are today’s fearless heroes?

    In the twentieth century, we had Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Daniel Ellsberg, Victor Jara, Oscar Romero, Petra Kelly…

    In the twenty-first century, we have Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange.

  7. July 6, 2020 at 15:35

    I am not sure you can even have heroes in a society so divided as the United States is now.

    No one could even agree on what constitutes a heroic act.

    I think heroes are reserved for different kinds of times.

    • John Drake
      July 6, 2020 at 19:41

      The heroes are the Black Lives Matter protesters who risked Covid 19 and obscenely violent police day after day to make a point; while the obscenely violent ( and clueless) police were busy proving their point.

    • Vladimir Golstein
      July 6, 2020 at 22:28

      Well, one does not really need an external consensus to know how to act. The Byronic hero has an inner moral compass and no ideology. Pechorin is quite insistent on that. That he does not buy any ideology peddled to him, yet, has principles to act upon.
      Which principles? The ones that Don Quixote articulates again and again, and which were worked out by the centuries of social interaction: help the person in need, protect an orphan or an elder, stand by your team.

      These principles, in fact, predate humans and go back to the principles of social interaction among apes.
      Franz De Waal is pretty insistent about “morality in primates.”
      And there are experiments to back it up.
      One set of experiments shows how a young male ape was doing something stupid and ended up throwing something at the leader. The leader comes to the kid and whacks him. Other males acquiesce. But then, under different circumstances, one male misbehaves, while the leader — by mistake – starts beating up on an innocent one. At that moment all other young males band together and corner the leader, sending a very clear message to back off. Which he does.

      These are very complex patterns, and they are basically created to maintain social order. Thus, reciprocity, fairness, helping the weak and what have you. In fact, I suspect that one has to have an ideology to act like a scoundrel. By instinct, we all want to do the right thing.
      And yes, maintaining a social group (as your genes are preserved by our brothers, children, lovers) — is more important than oneself. Thus, the ideas of sacrifice, heroism and so on. Of course, humans might call these principles sublime, moral, religious or what have you. But it has very real factual, material reasons behind it. In short, I think it is the ideology of a group, an external consensus, that screws us up, and not individualism.

  8. Daniel Fry
    July 6, 2020 at 15:22

    The author’s heroes never lived very long, and mostly met a short and brutal death. Take Lermontov for example. That said, it is better to dies standing than on your knees.

    • Leroy
      July 8, 2020 at 20:20

      Thanks for the clarification, Mister Golstein. Looked up De Waal as a result. Most edifying!


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