These days, heroic qualities are often subjective. Whereas literature’s Beowulf and Sir Lancelot were heroes through and through, the meaning of a hero today isn’t quite as clear-cut. Take Edward Snowden, who, in the wake of leaking NSA’s security policies has been deemed both a hero and a villain. And it’s people like him, who question the purported meaning of heroes and villains, that seem to be cropping up everywhere.
To learn the history of heroic conduct is to realize the importance of challenging the title of a hero. During the late 5th and early 6th centuries of King Arthur’s reign, heroic qualities and chivalry were tightly intertwined. Chivalry comes from the French word for knight and, in those days, only a member of the aristocracy could afford the necessary means to be a knight. Ipso facto, you had to be part of the aristocracy to perform chivalry and, by extension, to employ heroic conduct-which typically took the form of helping women. Just the mere fact that heroism was contingent on an aristocratic status should be reason enough to challenge this label.
Perhaps that explains the rise of the antihero who, in fact, does just that: challenges the ostensible meanings of heroes and villains. The antihero could have been born out of a reaction to the intrinsic injustices laced within the meaning of a hero, or out of a reaction to our modern-day concept of a hero, which more and more seems to be synonymous with fame. Victor Hugo was a proponent of the latter explanation, as Victor Brombert explains in In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature, 1830-1980, “While nostalgic of heroic values associated with epic literature, Hugo repeatedly called for the demise of the traditional hero, and for liberation from hero worship.” Whatever the reason, the upsurge is undeniable: antiheroes are the new heroes.
Don Draper is one figure in contemporary pop culture that is without a doubt an antihero. In particular, he seems to fit the breed of antihero whose life amounts to a bunch of disappointments strung together. There are spontaneous, sporadic bouts of success, which help Don gain some sympathy points from the audience-or at least enough to maintain their attention-but he ultimately fails. He almost fits the mold of a Byronic hero-that is, someone who subsists through life with a tragic, self-induced flaw that will ultimately be the cause of his demise. Especially in this past season of Mad Men, Don’s life really has amounted to a bunch of slip-ups and disasters. But the tragedy and irony of it all is that he was the cause of all of his suffering. And one could ultimately boil it down to one tragic flaw: he just doesn’t care enough. And yet, he is not a villain. He’s not someone to model your life after either, but he’s certainly not someone others are quick to condemn. When all is said and done, he’s mostly just human.
Mad Men‘s writers seem to be adhering to what Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish chemist and writer, advocated. He discouraged the figure of the hero for its idealistic message and for its innately inhuman nature. He “praises the antihero,” as Brombert wrote, “For his allegiance to the strictly human dimension.” In this sense, Don evokes similar traits as Lolita’s Humbert Humbert. Objectively, and especially on paper, both Don and Humbert Humbert are despicable, revolting, and worthy of reproach. But, reading and watching their nuances, it’s hard to hate them. For, as we come to learn, they are indelibly human, and it is their utter, chronic humanism that they use to justify their behavior.
There’s another type of antihero on the rise, whose behavior is often a reflection of larger social or political commentary, and Kanye West seems to belong to this school. Kanye has always possessed elements of this strain of antihero, but he seems to be shouting it rather explicitly in Yeezus. Whereas some antiheroes such as Don Draper still possess a visible heroism, Kanye has discarded any trace of heroism. Instead, as Brombert explains, this antihero “Is often a perturber and a disturber.” Kanye ends “On Sight” with, “But I got her back in and put my dick in her mouth,” and in “I’m In It” he boasts, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.” Moreover, Brombert explains, this antihero “Distrusts conventional values,” and what is Yeezus if not an entire backlash from traditional ways? In “Black Skinhead,” he raps “They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong.” Even the production in Yeezus is contrarian; unlike Kanye’s previous albums, this one is not public-friendly. You can hardly tap your feet to the beat of the songs. “Such characters do not conform to traditional models of heroic figures,” Brombert continues, and here’s the clincher: “They even stand in opposition to them. But there can be great strength in that opposition…they cast doubt on values that have been taken for granted, or were assumed to be unshakable.” Kanye has embraced his position as misunderstood and anomalous, living on the outskirts of society. “How much do I not give a fuck?” he rhetorically asks in “On Sight,” and raps in “Black Skinhead,” “I’ve been a menace for the longest / But I ain’t finished, I’m devoted / and you know it, and you know it.”
The blatant aggression and hostility in Yeezus can sometimes distract from its purpose. Kanye is standing in opposition, bravely and resolutely. Antiheroes, Brombert wrote, “May embody different kinds of courage, perhaps better in tune with our age and our needs.” It’s time we stop making heroes out of Courtney Kardashian and Jayden Smith, and start celebrating the antiheroes. Kanye, like Edward Snowden, may not be politically correct, but their urgency is human. And so, I leave you with this, a rather apt interlude in “On Sight”:
He’ll give us what we need /
It may not be what we want.