The Perverse Appeal of Anti-Heroes
Updated: Feb 10
Why do some people seek straightforward narratives that present heroes they can admire, while others (like me) are drawn to ambiguous narratives about complex and conflicted anti-heroes we don't wish to admire--but to whom we are powerfully drawn, nonetheless?
I remember, about 20 years ago, watching the TV series The Shield, starring Michael Chiklis as a cop named Vic Mackey in a tough part of LA. Vic Mackey was an anti-hero par excellence: he embodied, simultaneously, the qualities of loyalty, bravery, dedication, a good family man, and a dedication to protecting innocent people from criminals...And he also represented selfishness, greed, sociopathy, and multiple acts of vicious betrayal. Vic Mackey was all those things at once. He was charismatic, confident, funny, fearless, loyal, heroic...And an utterly despicable and corrupt murderer who brought tragedy and suffering wherever he went.
Mackey was hero and villain, and neither quality negated the other. The qualities that made me like him as a character were totally mixed up with the qualities that I knew should make me hate him...But I didn't hate him so much as I just flowed with the experience, rolling through a whirling gamut of conflicting emotions and responses that were never really resolvable into yes or no.
That's not what anti-heroes are about, after all. Anti-heroes embody an ambiguity, a gray area, where we are set loose from the usual prescriptive, normative, coercive, black-and-white, good vs. evil thinking of the dominant culture that flows into our lives through the mass media--through Hollywood movies, television, Facebook or Twitter, schools or universities, webpages and YouTube, where a few people mass-generate ideological straightjackets for the rest of us to wear.
In a culture in which most people seem to be looking, desperately, for a savior to tell them how to think and how to feel--perhaps because they can see for themselves that the world is neither good nor evil, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither black nor white, so there is actually no seat of righteousness we can occupy in the real world without getting dirty--some of us prefer to sit with the narratives of the anti-heroes that let us flow with what we are thinking and feeling without someone to tell us how to think or to feel. Allowing all of those conflicting emotions boil to the surface and drift through our awareness without trying to suppress or cleanse the experience.
This is why the hyphenated word anti-hero contains the word hero within it, after all. It's rather like the word anti-establishment, meaning "opposed to or directed against the establishment (= the important and powerful people who control a country or an organization, especially those who support the existing situation)" (according to Cambridge Dictionary). Anti-establishment makes no sense apart from establishment. We all live, today, in a world of coercive, mass-generated, establishment narratives, and even the most perversely creative figures are thrashing about in the same establishment muck as everyone else. Concepts in language always sit in opposition to other concepts: good has no meaning apart from evil. And we cannot live in a world sealed off from something because we are told not to think it. When someone commands you "Don't think of an elephant!" all you can think of is an elephant. Perhaps this is why fundamentalist religions that are so wound up by sin and depravity find themselves leaking into that "dark side" they are so luridly and incessantly told to avoid.
And this is why the anti-hero narratives are so compelling to many of us, I suspect. The anti-hero gives us something both powerful and profoundly ambiguous to dive into without the demand from the narrative that we choose the righteous path. These are not villains, like Hitler or Stalin, whose qualities of villainy leave no ambiguity. These are also not the "heroic" figures so often served up to us in the black and white world of the mass media--figures who embody an ideological narrative of good vs. evil that allow no room for dissent.
The establishment is always present in the anti-establishment, even if it's something against which we struggle mightily. And the hero is always present in the anti-hero, if only as a way of saying, "This character is oddly compelling and attractive...Even though he also represents something I loathe."
Vic Mackey. Walter White. Dr. Faustus. Don Corleone. Bill in the Kill Bill movies. Lindsay Ford in Shantaram. These anti-heroes from literature and the movies are compelling enough, but there are also narratives about historical figures whose lives are a fascinating jumble of that which is repellent and that which is fascinatingly alluring.
Think of the life of the Soviet mole and traitor Kim Philby and his wild father, St. John Philby, as told in the fascinating book, Treason in the Blood, by Anthony Cave Brown.
Kim Philby's story has been told many times, always highlighting the conflicting and irreconcilable qualities of the man. But the story of Kim's father, St. John Philby, was rarely mentioned in any detail. St. John Philby was born in 1885 as a member of the British establishment. Philby was also a bona fide eccentric and charismatic wild man who converted to Islam, moved to Arabia, became a desert explorer, and was a figure of horror and fascination to all around him. St. John Philby made brave and wild decisions, a bold man who nonetheless vacillated between being a conventional Englishmen and an outrageous figure whose rejection of his own culture was absolutely incomprehensible to those around him.
Kim Philby grew up with this fascinatingly difficult father and his bizarrely conflicted "anti-establishment" persona--a father who both craved the attention and approval of the British establishment and sought with all his might to subvert it and to escape from it. St. John Philby was an anti-hero in that he was a heroic explorer, a fearless individualist, a fascinating man not afraid to embody a life that was incomprehensible to others...But also craved the attention of the same British establishment and sought the approval of those whom he had so resolutely rejected. He was neither a genuine part of Arabian society, nor a genuine part of British society. St. John Philby was a conflicted and compelling mess whose life cannot help but be profoundly interesting.
This is the anti-hero undercurrent of Treason in the Blood. Did the anti-establishment wildness of the father somehow create a tension within the son? A tension that made Kim Philby want to be a part of the British establishment, while also betraying and subverting it in a way that would have shocked even his father? Kim Philby was a charming, literate, accomplished man with many friends. He moved through the ranks of British Intelligence as easily as the most conventional patriot. He was also, of course, a Soviet spy, recruited by the barbarous regime of Stalin while he was at Cambridge, a traitor and liar who ruthlessly betrayed his friends and his country.
The picture of Philby on the cover of Treason in the Blood is rather cold, ambiguous, giving away nothing--but in giving nothing away, we have a sense of the pathological secretiveness of the spy, the constant anxiety of being revealed, the decades of gross betrayal rumbling under the surface of his life as a conventional, if somewhat naughty, member of the establishment. Much as one despises Philby's treason, what astonishing reserves of courage and self-control (so prized by the establishment!) must have been required to maintain his double life? What qualities of loyalty and charm were required to maintain his position in British society?
One understands why his peers were loathe to believe that Philby was a traitor. He was one of them--but he wasn't. He was a "sound fellow" and a man one can count on in a pinch. He was a member of that society characterized by love of country, supporting the values of friendship and loyalty, freedom and the British sense of fair play as embodied in school sports and parliamentary democracy. Except that he didn't...He was a Communist and a traitor who, when he finally defected to Moscow, spent his declining years mostly ignored by the Russians and pining to be back in England...
How could someone both embody all that the establishment held dear, and yet ruthlessly betray it as a Soviet mole? How was it possible for Philby to betray the establishment for so long? How do you know that people are who they say they are? Whom can you trust?
Suffice it to say, figures such as St. John Philby or Kim Philby are both unsettling and fascinating in their different ways, like Vic Mackey or Walter White. I remember talking to a woman about The Shield once and she told me that she had to stop watching it after a few episodes because she so resolutely hated Vic Mackey and couldn't understand how anyone could enjoy the series. To her, he was a villain and that was the end of it. She wanted a story with someone she could "relate to," a story with characters who embodied her values and reenforced her sense of what is right and wrong. She wanted an experience that got rid of ambiguity and told the story of good triumphing over evil, full stop.
And that is the antithesis of the anti-hero. Insofar as Breaking Bad is the story of a man who knows he's going to die soon because of his cancer diagnosis, and who reacts to this death sentence by (in very relatable fashion!) breaking completely and utterly out of every single dull and stultifying limitation his life had ever placed on him; it is also the story of a criminal and murderer whose desire to support his family after his death is tied to brutally anti-social behavior. The two parts of the story are in creative tension, not mutually exclusive. As an experience, Breaking Bad is profound, compelling, complex, difficult, fascinating, relatable, utterly alienating, and so on. It makes you think and feel rather than tells you what to think and feel.
I saw an article recently about anti-heroes that basically said that antihero narratives mostly appeal to sociopaths and narcissists. That no decent person would ever be able to "relate" to ambiguous narratives such as The Shield or Breaking Bad unless it was a form of sociopathology or debased and wicked wish-fulfillment. One relates to anti-heroes, apparently, because one is bad and secretly wishes to hurt people.
This made me laugh out loud. It suggests to me someone with a rigid, fearful, almost hysterical need for certainty in a world that is rarely so black and white. That's why we tend to jump to Hitler in arguments about morality--he offers a rare opportunity to feel some unambiguous certainty!
But for the most part, the world just doesn't offer a lot of such certainty--at least not to someone who is prone to question the conventional narratives around him. Anti-heroes are not about wish-fulfillment. They are emotionally compelling because they allow us to experience a free-flowing stream of thought and feeling, not experience them in someone else's restricted and controlled canal. We may not want to be Walter White, but to flow with Heisenberg is a much more memorable and compelling experience than watching So-and-So virtuously save the day once again.
As an author, one presents an anti-hero as he is, warts and all, as we say; but presenting a hero is always a very selective and needy process of trying to stifle those parts of someone we don't want people to see so as to justify one's own admiration and sense that the person represents one's own sterling qualities.
This was so obvious to me writing about E. A. Wallis Budge. I found his story fascinating, compelling, full of complexities and powerful ambiguities. Budge was not my hero. That was never my goal. He was something of an anti-hero because I knew about his failings as a smuggler of antiquities, for instance, but found his story fascinating and compelling precisely because it was full of dramatic conflicts in a context of profound social and political upheaval. He could be angry and kind, brilliant and blinkered, loyal and ruthlessly ambitious, a poor and needy country boy trying to find his way in a world of privilege and a powerful figure of the establishment. He related effortlessly to Egyptian boatmen and members of the British aristocracy. He believed in a reformed and rational Christianity and that he was a spiritual medium who saw ghosts in country houses. He was a sort of wild man, in his own way.
Budge was not my hero, as I say, but look no farther than Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology by Margaret Drower, to see how hero-worship deforms a narrative...Renders the story into something cartoonish instead of something complex.
Budge's story, as I have told it, is an epic novel, not a comic book. It paints a picture of a whole man emerging in his age with all the complexities and conflicts that story brings with it. I'll be curious to see if the history of Egyptology--and particularly the story of Flinders Petrie--can ever get beyond the comic book level. So far, I just don't see it. Hero-worship continues to cast its banal veneer of progress and respectability over a story of ruthless imperialism and the opportunistic exploitation of British rule.
At any rate, comic book heroes vs. fully-fleshed and epic anti-heroes. That is why anti-hero narratives appeal to some but not to others. Hero-worship is the pipe that seeks to funnel our experience into a drain; anti-heroic narratives are the wild river flowing through the mountains and flooding the plain at the end, creating both new life and suffering in the process.