Thursday, March 27, 2008

Deconstruction

Many moons ago a commenter by the name of tilts_at_windmills offered up this observation:

When I watched Babylon 5 I found myself getting increasingly uncomfortable with Sheridan's role, and to a lesser extent with Delenn's as well, in the second half of the series. The people who challenge Sheridan's authority are variously brainwashed or murderous, but I found myself feeling like they had a point.

I wasn't really able to articulate what bothered me until near the end, when we flash forward a couple of decades and learn that in the intervening time the only leadership has been Sheridan, his wife, and his best friend. No doubt their governance was benign, and it isn't dictatorship since by implication they were elected, but it's hard to reconcile the scenario with healthy democracy--especially given that a lot of the common folk seem to believe there's something Chosen or mystical about Sheridan, and perhaps Delenn as well.

And offered a follow-up question: “So I guess my question is whether the Hero's Journey only fully works when set in a monarchy, or at least in a heavily hierarchical society. Or, more modestly, whether the Hero's Journey only fully works in a democracy when the Hero doesn't possess political power.” I’ve actually put a bit of thought in to this since it came up, and I figured that a good response would require an entire post, so here goes. First off, it’s pretty hard to give JMS a pass on what Sheridan became toward the end of the show. The first place where it seems obvious that we’re not supposed to take his detractors seriously is in the pseudo-series finale, season 4’s “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars.” It’s a collection of shorts that takes place over the course of a thousand years, each looking back on the events of Babylon 5 from different future perspectives. The first section contains a Crossfire-type debate between pundits directly following the Earth war. The one detractor is basically shouted down by the other two panelists. The second vignette is a debate about the nature of the early days of Interstellar Alliance that takes place a hundred years later. Several professors are running a roundtable debate and poking holes in the legend (as good historians do). A very old Delenn shows up to defend Sheridan from them and her defense is, “John Sheridan was a good, kind, decent man.” (Which has a great parallel: Mira Furlan plays Rousseau in Lost, wherein Ben justifies everything he does with the phrase, “We’re the good guys.”) Then, when they try to delay her, she says, “You do not wish to know anything, you wish only to speak that which you know. You ignore, because it is inconvenient, that which you do not know you invent. None of that matters except that he was a good man. A kind man. Who cared about the world even when the world cared nothing for him.” It’s a massively problematic scene, and one which has the greatest sense of unreliable narration of any in Babylon 5. By the same token, it helps to understand the process of history in looking at this, as it’s actually fairly accurate in many ways. Historians don’t know everything. Even the stuff we have a lot of data on requires a great deal of conjecture and we probably don’t understand most of it. The hardest part is disconnecting myth from reality. If anyone remembers, I quoted a passage from a historian in an earlier post that says people actually prefer the myth, anyway. That’s even more complicated in a situation where the myth actually does contain a certain amount of truth. The people in the debate, however, dismiss the mythology of the Sheridan story right alongside the parts where he was thrust in to greatness and just doing his best and label him a megalomaniac. From the viewer’s perspective, we know that we’re not supposed to believe the debaters because we know the mythology is accurate and that Sheridan really wasn’t a megalomaniacal jerkoff. He was, as Delenn said, “A good man.” So the very wrongheadedness of the attacks leveled against Sheridan undermines the debate from the start. And we completely ignore the fact that from a historian’s perspective the scene itself is utter crap. Let’s take a quick aside in to actual history (and a topic I’ve probably brought up before, but it’s perfect for this). About a hundred years ago the preeminent historian of Alexander the Great was W.W. Tarn, a British gentleman who projected all that was good and right with the universe on to A the G, his personal hero. Alexander could do no wrong and was, in fact, the prototypical Boy Scout. This attitude reigned supreme until Ernst Badian showed up and let the world know that A the G was actually Hitler, Gengis Khan, and Pol Pot all rolled in to one little boy loving package. The Tarn position has largely been abandoned since then and the Badian position is held only by a few, most of whom are more moderate than he, but there are still many points on the continuum and most historians have a tendency to say he had some good points and some bad ones. All of these positions, meanwhile, are based off of a few ancient manuscripts, none of which are primary source material, as all of that has disappeared and even the oldest documents are all removed from Alexander’s life by two to four hundred years. The idea that there would be a similar dearth of information available to a historian looking back at the period of 2260-2282 from 2362 is, to put it mildly, preposterous. It’s not like there was a great cataclysmic event that took out all information on the subject. Sure, there was the Telepath War and the Drakh Plague, but I doubt that wiped everything out. Add to that the fact that any data was probably backed up on Mars, Proxima Centauri, Minbar, and all the capitals of the various races of the Interstellar Alliance. There would have been reams of interviews with members of the command crew, Drazi Ambassadors, Minbari officials, and common people who were on Babylon 5 when everything happened. To actually believe he was a megalomaniac would have required a belief in a conspiracy of silence so vast it would dwarf every conspiracy theory in Earth’s history combined. On top of that, it’s basically impossible to believe that there would be three people in a panel discussion on the topic who agree with each other so completely about something for which there is little to no evidence. Delenn’s appearance rightfully shamed them, but for all the wrong reasons. Being a “good man” did not mean that Sheridan was a perfect man or raise him above criticism. The second problem, as brought up in tilts_with_windmills’ comment, is the credibility of Sheridan’s contemporary critics. Garibaldi was his highest profile detractor, but he was all screwed up by Bester’s mind games at the time. The rest of the people who had a problem with him were collection of xenophobes and thugs, most of whom were against progress and alliance, not Sheridan himself. So they don’t really get (or deserve) much credit. Since I was using Babylon 5 as the centerpiece of a modern rendition of the Hero’s Journey, we then get to visit the question of whether the Journey itself has been rendered obsolete by the move away from monarchy and government by strong men. That’s just an awesome and massively difficult question on so many levels. Kudos. It’s entirely possible that this particular issue was somewhere in Joseph Campbell’s mind when he attempted to place the Hero’s Journey in the context of the modern subconscious mind. The idea of liberating the mythological set up from Beowulf and giving it to Bill is positive in most ways I can think of (the negatives being mostly based on having everybody think that they’re some sort of special mythological hero and behaving accordingly. That’s got chaos written all over it). In fact, it works so well that, regardless of Campbell’s reasoning, I’m going to work off of this idea for my response. The Hero’s Journey itself has not been made obsolete by modern political architecture. In fact, politics are completely irrelevant to the underlying lessons that can be learned from it. However, since we live in a world where it is largely considered a good thing to choose one’s public officials, we need to remember that the Hero’s Journey is descriptive, not prescriptive. We don’t choose Presidents and Prime Ministers, Congressmen and Members of Parliament based on which one can successfully slay the beast, rescue the damsel, and return with the Golden Trinket of Maximal Power. Moreover, we’re aware of the fact that heroes don’t necessarily make the best heads of government and that ability in one field does not necessarily translate to another. We’re also aware of the fact that there is no one who is perfect, that good people make bad decisions, and that we shouldn’t trust anyone who has been in power too long. The prince doesn’t actually come back and marry the princess and live happily ever after in a perfect kingdom ruling happy subjects with grace, wisdom, and general, overall wonderfulness. We can actually look in to history and see good examples of the pros and cons of maintaining the Hero’s Journey mindset in representative politics. George Washington comes readily to mind. He was a war hero and almost universally loved then and now. He could have basically made himself President for Life (and John Adams seemed to want him to, at least on some level). He stepped down after his second term precisely because he did not want to risk the implications of a President for Life system. A hundred and fifty years later FDR made the opposite decision and things didn’t turn out so bad, but the Constitution was amended just in case someone else tried to stay in power for a long time for less noble reasons than FDR. Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, was a great military general, a hero of the people, and a lousy President. It wasn’t that he was corrupt or evil; it was that his skills on the battlefield were significantly better than his skills at politics and government. The underlying problem, though, is that people seem to want a hero. If Brett Favre ran for President, lots of people would probably vote for him in spite of the fact that we know nothing of his political skills. But he’s Brett Favre, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. That has to count for something, right? Um, probably not. I don’t think we should give up looking for heroes. I do think, however, that we should stop expecting heroes to bring about a happily ever after ending.

3 comments:

Yvonne said...

I thought B5 got needlessly messianic in the last 2 series, and that Sheridan was starting to believe in his own myth.

Can you have the hero journey in a non-hierarchical world? Yes if it's an inner process and not projected outwards onto the world.

Stinger said...

Pretty much what yvonne said. If we were all running around trying to *be* mythological heros -- chaos indeed. But to use the Hero's Journey as a means of giving structure or narrative to one's own life may be helpful to those of us who are, um, flailing.

Fiat Lex said...

If every person fashioning their lives around a narrative in which they'd invested belief also had the conviction that they were legitimate authors of their own mythology, mass heroism would work. Every heroic vision would be tailor-made to the person inspired by it.

A heavily hierarchical society, whether it be political or social, tends to enforce its legitimacy by imposing a certain narrative or interpretation thereof on its members. Many modern hero myths, and I'd say almost by definition all postmodern hero myths, involve individuals who break down such externally imposed controls.

The heroic potential of all should be realized to the fullest extent possible! Every system of belief I'm aware of--religious, secular or aesthetic--agrees on this point.