Real Heaven Is a Troubled Stream: Examining My Love of the Anti-Hero

It all began with my fascination with characters such as the Beast from the classic Faerie Tale, the Phantom of the Opera in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s modern opera, and Javert in Les Miserable.  It was a circle that quickly expanded to include Mr. Rochester and Mr. Darcy, a whole host of comic book characters and a number of vaguely remembered characters that ran against the grain of the commonly accepted model of Masculine Good in literature and art.  I grew to understand that I would always be more drawn to the scintillating charisma of The Evening Star–the representation of defiant masculine imperfection. But there are a number of finer points to examine.  I cannot assume that I am drawn to “bad boys” as a rule, because a number of characteristics associated with legitimate “badness” leave me rather cold.  So let’s frolic among the field of literature and art’s most delicious male characters.  I know you want to come along.  Don’t be coy.  It should be noted that I have a penchant for Anti-Heroes of both sexes, but they should each have their own segment, don’t you think?

Byron and the Byronic Hero

I don’t know if you’re aware, but Mr. Lord Byron was an awfully naughty, overly-sensuous, highly-sexed and creatively free individual in an era when social repression and self-regulation were a major fashion trend…along with those distressingly tailored breeches worn by men that accentuated certain physical attributes no one was supposed to notice.  That’s not to say there wasn’t sexual license practiced, or that it wasn’t practiced by those of Byron’s station.  Oh, it was, like there was no tomorrow.  But he tended to violate certain social customs and rules that turned heads, such as eloping with his half sister who was a minor and also his ward at the time.

Enter the Byronic Hero.  Byron, the Original Bad Boy Extraordinaire stepped afoul of his peers.  While his celebrity was only slightly tarnished and it didn’t really make a dent in the (metaphorically) screaming masses of women aching to take a tumble with him, it did make living in England a bit uncomfortable, since it earned him the censure of his social circles. This was ultimately the seed of what would transform this Regency Era Rock Star into the very material from which the Byronic Hero is crafted.  His half sister was first stigmatized and then, after a period of illness, died.  Byron was tormented, and that shows in the subjects and style of writing of his work following this period.  Naturally, students of his work and literary theory will have a deeper understanding of this transformation.  But even to such a dilettante as me, it’s pretty obvious.  He became the “troubled stream from a pure source”, the Titan standing in defiance of the all-consuming social mores of his milieu.

This is the Byronic Hero–Promethean in his defiance of society.  In this character trope, I see the origins of today’s Anti-Hero, a creature who is not truly bad.  They are not villains, which can still be excellent characters, but I think we should table a consideration of them until a later date.  They are flawed, but essentially, they hold to a high set of principals as rigorous as those conventions to which they stand opposed.  It is this clean sort of rebellion that draws me.  A steadfastness, an integrity that transcends the fickle mores of society, selecting a standard that lies beyond the Pale.  They are often stoic in their suffering, they bear a burden of guilt or a secret torment, one that is often of their own making.  But they elect to suffer rather than sating themselves with idle pleasures.  The Byronic Hero is at once a character of intense, pure brilliance and sepulchral darkness–a Janus.


Anti-Heroes and Real People, Too

While I accept that the Hero is a literary mechanism, and one that must necessarily exist outside of human reality, I see Anti-heroes everywhere.  It isn’t just about Batman or Gambit, Mr. Rochester or Malcolm Reynolds.  It is a suite of characteristics I see present in people with whom I have dealings on a regular basis.  In a way, I suppose you could say that they are my “Type” of man.  To be a “bad boy” is not enough.  I find that many individuals who aspire to this title–on the page or on the street–are in fact, little more than spoilt, overgrown children who can’t follow directions and have no internal compass to compensate for this shortcoming.  I don’t find it attractive when someone breaks the rules just because they want to break something.  I do find it incredibly sexy when someone defies conventions and social rules for the sake of a higher purpose.  And then, accepts any backlash society may have to dish out for this infraction.  Personal responsibility is totally hot.


Why Heroes Leave Me Cold

While I can readily acknowledge that stock Heroes have their place in literature, I think that their goodness turns me off.  This goes for men and women.  While altruism is very much a verifiable phenomenon in human cultural evolution, it is, by necessity, quite rare to see it in its purest form.  To get a little nitty-gritty about that, we have to understand that a high incidence of selflessness would decrease the evolutionary value of that trait, as well as lead to a reduced number of individuals who survived long enough to pass on ideals that correspond to it.

It is a common feature of a culture’s moral cosmos to place altruism upon a pedestal, to laud it and ascribe such behaviors to uncommon characters–in folk lore and in everyday life.  A more detailed investigation of this tendency might take up several thousand words, and most of you would be unconscious, typing an endless row of “k” with your forehead.  So, let’s table this as well.  Just suffice it to say that it’s a thing we keep for special people and characters because being unselfish is not only difficult, it doesn’t pay very often.  Because Hero characters aren’t just uncommonly “good.” They also embody a suite of other cultural sensibilities deemed the Ultimate in Awesome. (Read that as, No good deed goes unpunished if you fall short of the mark in looks, talent,  or other prestige social goods.)

Modern Heroes, much like Prince Charming, annoy the shit out of me, to speak bluntly.  They’re too perfect, too good.  They never fuck up.  They never have a bad hair day.  They don’t wake up with morning breath.  Why would I want anyone like that? I can’t compete, and that would take a toll on how sexy I thought they were after a while (as in about 3.5 seconds after the glamour of their actual existence wore off.) Let’s take Cyclops, for example.  Scott is little more than an overgrown hall monitor in spandex.  While he isn’t the perfection of say, Superman, he seems to try to fill his shoes.  In the context of the storyline, he’s officious, pertinacious, and downright catty.  I never knew what Jean saw in him, in the first place.


A Nutritious Part of This Complete Breakfast…

So, here’s the deal men.  I think I can comfortably speak for a large portion of my fellow ladies on this, because it’s not too incredibly specific.  We gravitate towards the “bad boys” because they’ve got, at first glance, a lot of the characteristics of the Anti-Hero.  By the time we figure out they’re really just spoilt bullies who can’t wipe their own asses, it’s too late.  They’ve had time to erode our self-confidence with their persistent, passive-aggressive criticisms and spiteful behaviors.  It usually happens so gradually, we don’t see it coming.

We don’t want a “good guy” if that means a Casper Milktoast who has no opinions of his own, never puts a foot foul of us for fear we will take away the Sex (or the possibility of it), and is Mr. Considerate-at-his-own-expense.  We want the Anti-Hero.  We want some Byronic backbone.  Yes, be uncompromising in your high standards–which show us that you respect yourself.  Yes, break the rules open-handedly, but stick around and take responsibility, and if necessary punishment for your actions.  Be a little flawed, a little dirty, a little vulnerable, and maybe, just maybe, a little wrong.  Be willing to see us as who we are, and accept that we aren’t perfect or there to serve your whims and goals.  Be human.  We will love you for it.  I promise.





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