Heroes and monsters: school shootings and Ancient Greek stories
September 12, 2019 10:16 AM   Subscribe

The ancient Greek story of a school massacre is a lesson we need to learn. “We labor in part with the misunderstanding of what the word hero means. And there is dangerous beneath that cornerstone of every college myth class, “the heroic pattern”, perhaps most well-known popularly in the form of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the heroic journey. The “heroic pattern” is a crass oversimplification of narrative myth and a naive perpetuation of its limitations.” A long, critical read.

The ancient Greek hero’s story included the part that gets left out in the modern concept: what happens when the hero comes home and has to reintegrate with the community. Also, what about those of us who aren’t the hero?

For anyone who wants a more nuanced take on the societal role in school shootings that’s not about video games or heavy metal music.
posted by mrcrow (15 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
There is, I think, an essential connection between the severe individualism that desires fame so desperately and the essential ‘maleness’ of heroes and ‘the heroic pattern’. The term toxic masculinity has emerged over the past few years to describe part of this. But like the term white fragility, its ability to indicate a basically true set of phenomena is countered by the nearly violent emotive response it elicits from the very people who best exhibit its traits.
Holy shit this is good.
posted by Mayor West at 11:12 AM on September 12, 2019 [16 favorites]

the part that gets left out in the modern concept: what happens when the hero comes home and has to reintegrate with the community

This is not true. This will seem like a minor quibble, but it’s not. This assertion is only true for a subset of modern stories, usually the violent ones, which...yes, I think you could say this happens because the writers don’t know and don’t care to show that protagonist reintegrating into the community, and that is because the audience for these stories actively does not care about that. These are not the stories where you put “being in a community” on the poster.

You know where this is an essential part of the story? Stories marketed to women. Romances, romcoms, women’s fiction, etc etc etc. The New Normal is an essential story beat. It is the ending.

So this essay...I mean, I’m gonna go finish it now. But it frustrates me to no end when people — men — pretend that the only stories out there are the ones they’re interested in.

The stories aren’t the problem here. Writers and filmmakers and whoever are producing to market. The audience for these stories is the problem, and it is a pre-existing one, apparently for a long, long time.

Which, actually, is terrifying. Because if we can’t blame it on our culture or media or what the fuck ever, then...what?
posted by schadenfrau at 11:56 AM on September 12, 2019 [15 favorites]

This, rather than the entertainment of an adventure tale, should be the true therapeutic goal of an exploration of the hero’s journey because it shows that there is value in putting up your sword, in joining a community, in having a family, and figuring out how to live a life of meaning once your youthful strength has gone.

See also: Avengers: Endgame.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:00 PM on September 12, 2019

This is fascinating:

the rites afforded to Kleomêdês are really about preserving the social memory of the damage that heroes can do

We are so used to considering fame as a good in the long-run—the sense that if future generations know your name, you have succeeded or at least benefited in some respect. Making an impact is valued. As opposed to living so gently that your presence in the world leaves no mark, for good or for bad.

While the piece talks about the Iliad and the Odyssey it reminds me of the Temple of Juno passage in the Aeneid, when Aeneas stumbles on a mural of the Trojan War (which he has recently survived) on a wall in a temple in a land far from home:
For while, expecting there the queen, he rais'd
His wond'ring eyes, and round the temple gaz'd,
Admir'd the fortune of the rising town,
The striving artists, and their arts' renown;
He saw, in order painted on the wall,
Whatever did unhappy Troy befall:
The wars that fame around the world had blown,
All to the life, and ev'ry leader known.
There Agamemnon, Priam here, he spies,
And fierce Achilles, who both kings defies.
He stopp'd, and weeping said:
"O friend! ev'n here
The monuments of Trojan woes appear!
Our known disasters fill ev'n foreign lands:
See there, where old unhappy Priam stands!
Ev’n the mute walls relate the warrior’s fame,
And Trojan griefs the Tyrians’ pity claim.”
In some way, to know you and your story have achieved permanence is to know you have survived it. A mass shooting is such an infamy that someone who commits it will never be primarily known for anything else, so at once you are forcing the world to tell a certain story about you and deciding yourself how it will end. You can see your legacy in the future. And of course, paired with a total disregard of the value of the lives you will take. Kleomêdês’ murder of the children is the destruction of his community and a symbolic attempt to outlive it.

And just so her important point here is not forgotten: We can engage with narrative patterns and alter them over time. But sequestering the tools of mass violence is the most effective way to preserve lives.
posted by sallybrown at 12:05 PM on September 12, 2019 [13 favorites]

the part that gets left out in the modern concept: what happens when the hero comes home and has to reintegrate with the community

This assertion is only true for a subset of modern stories, usually the violent ones

I think this leaves out an important part of the argument: "But even for audiences who can see themselves as subjects of the hero’s journey, nearly all modern versions of it are deficient because the pattern generally says little about what happens after the hero’s return to his community."

He is explicitly talking about a subset of stories: heroic stories, where a central, defining characteristic of "hero" is the capacity to cause suffering. He is not pretending that these are the only kinds of stories that exist. It is these stories, he claims, that have special resonance for understanding the actions of mostly white, male mass killers. "This violence is an expression of assumed privilege denied." I don't think stories marketed to women are a major influence on how mass killers choose their paths.

If it is not some part of our culture that is messed up, what is it?
posted by nequalsone at 12:42 PM on September 12, 2019 [8 favorites]

Implicit in that passage (and those preceding it) is the idea that these heroes are, by definition, male, yet the author also cites Joseph Campbell's idea (promulgated through lots of screenwriters) that this is in fact the One True Story at the heart of all stories.

This is true in the sense that a certain subset of the audience / writers etc very much believe that only stories about men are worth telling, and that only men are heroes. (When women follow that arc they are mad monsters.)

But the author is claiming a universality that doesn't exist. Again, the problem isn't the stories. The problem is the audience for those stories.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:51 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Those stories are part of how culture reproduces itself, and that culture then shapes the audience that lives inside of it. So I don't think you can neatly shove those stories into the bin marked "effect", because they are deeply entangled as both inputs and outputs of culture.
posted by Pyry at 1:01 PM on September 12, 2019 [8 favorites]

Those stories are part of how culture reproduces itself, and that culture then shapes the audience that lives inside of it.

I thought the piece explored this cycle in great depth, though. It was a core part of the point.
posted by sallybrown at 1:11 PM on September 12, 2019 [7 favorites]

The author is sharply criticizing Campbell, and rightly so, and not at all suggesting there is only one story form or that it is without criticism, which can be noted throughout the piece, such as here for just one example.

Two fundamental problems that emerge from this are the monomyth’s content and form. Because the heroic pattern is reflective of latent and immanent social relationships and structures, it enforces damaging stereotypes. Women, for example, have little space to act as independent agents in its plot and heteronormative male sexuality is almost always a dominant structuring force even if it is not explicit (of course, there are multiple angles to a feminist critique of the hero’s journey.) So, the heroic pattern is simply harmful to audiences who are incapable of conforming to the external identity of the ‘hero’—it constrains who they think they can be and implicitly communicates that the best option is to work in service of someone else’s narrative.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:14 PM on September 12, 2019 [14 favorites]

Again, the problem isn't the stories. The problem is the audience for those stories.

I'm honestly trying to figure out what this means... The audience created itself? Is it biological determinism? Underlying forces of evil?
posted by nequalsone at 1:52 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I can read it as saying, you're not going to solve the problem by changing the stories. The market for them will still exist, the hunger for them.

There's an unresolved chicken vs egg thing that needs to be addressed.
posted by philip-random at 2:06 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think the key to the social utility of this story is articulated by the Delphic Oracle:
Pausanias, 6.9.6-9

“In the Olympiad before that one they say that Kleomêdês the Astupalaian killed the Epidaurian Hippos while boxing him. When he was charged by the referees with cheating and was deprived of the victory, he went out of his mind with grief and returned to Astupalaia.

There, he attacked a school there which held as many as sixty children and knocked down the pillar which supported the roof. After the roof fell on the children, the citizens threw stones at Kleomêdês and he fled into the Temple of Athena. Inside, he climbed into a chest and closed the lid over him.

The Astupalaians wore themselves out trying to open or break the chest. When they finally broke open the chest and did not find Kleomêdês there dead or alive, they send representatives to Delphi to ask what kind of thing had happened with Kleomêdês. The Pythia is said to have given the oracle that:

Kleomêdês the Astupalaian was the last of the heroes—

Honor him with sacrifices since he is no longer mortal.”

For this reason the Astupalaians have honored Kleomêdês as a hero since that time.
By saying he is the last of the heroes, the Oracle attempts to put a period to the pattern of actions he performed, namely getting angry about being denied the rewards he thought he deserved and then killing a bunch of vulnerable schoolboys (presumably) to get redress and revenge; and by establishing a ritual of sacrifice which honors him, the Oracle provides a substitute victim (the sacrifice) to allow men who might have the same impulses to discharge and sublimate those feelings.
posted by jamjam at 5:49 PM on September 12, 2019 [8 favorites]

This is really fascinating especially when I think about how this applies to superhero fiction
posted by captain afab at 6:21 PM on September 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

It’s a bit of a derail, but... the problem with superhero fiction is that it’s fundamentally serial, not dramatic. The general structure of a superhero story is

1. The world is ordered
2. Someone/thing brings disorder
3. The hero applies their “heroic tools”
4. Order is restored
5. Repeat

The superhero can’t be reintegrated into the community because there is a next adventure coming. It’s also why films go to origin stories over and over — they can force a dramatic arc on a non-dramatic story. This is a simplification of some of Robin Laws’ ideas about narrative.

The serial cycle is exacerbated by capitalist forces, too, although I think some of the pattern emerges from pre-capitalist forces as well.

Getting back to to TFA, there’s some story traditions that deal with this very differently — the sagas are not really equivalent to Greek legend, but they grapple head-on with the disruptions caused by heroic individuals and inflexible codes of behavior. Egil has trouble settling down in old age less because of his heroism but because he’s sort of an asshole. Grettir is your guy when a monster needs killing, but those same qualities drag him to his death. Chinese legends, on the other hand, have a lot of social engagement — officials sent to deal with, say, a flood solve the problem less through their individual genius than through the intervention of divine forces assisting to make the world whole.

So would this pattern of story change the outcome of frustrated young men being violent?
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:17 AM on September 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

I saw this as a story that could teach boys about processing their emotions instead of lashing out. Kleomêdês negates himself. There’s a lot to unpack about his reaction and disappearance that could lead to an interesting discussion. No one who comes after him can be a hero, so what do we call the next person who does something like this?
posted by mrcrow at 10:03 AM on September 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

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