Revelations of an Antihero

hannibal-lecter1Omar – the quintessential Antihero. A black Robin Hood, with a twist … and a shotgun. Mr Omar Devone Little of The Wire was orphaned at a young age and was raised by his grandmother. He has made a career out of robbing drug dealers on the streets of Baltimore: “I’ll do what I can to help y’all. But, the game’s out there, and it’s play or get played. That simple.” He lives in accordance with a self-defined code from which he is loathe to deviate. The kids on the streets of Baltimore fight over who is going to ‘be’ Omar in their cops and robbers game. The next step is an Omar action figure featuring his infamous shotgun, trench coat and scarred face. He has an intense hatred for the Barksdale organisation (biggest drug cartel in Baltimore), which is responsible for the gruesome murder of his boyfriend, Brandon, in Season 1. He is known for his wit and has mastered the art of the one-liner: “Well, you see, Mike-Mike thought he should keep that cocaine he was slinging and the money he was makin’ from slingin’ it. I thought otherwise.” When Omar hits the street, shot gun in hand, trench coat flailing behind him – like a scene from the Matrix, there is nothing cooler. Just as exciting are the plans he hatches to steal ‘the product’ and cash from the dealers. Omar will eradicate anyone who gets in his way. Omar is The Shit! I vigorously champion the cause of this murdering thief, which is of course acceptable because Omar’s victims are those who are deserving of their fate. I tell myself: “It’s justice. It’s vengeance”.

Dexter, the protagonist of Jeff Lindsay‘s fiction series (Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Dearly Devoted Dexter, Dexter in the Dark and Dexter by Design) is another of my favourite Antiheroes. Dexter is a sociopath – he functions as a member of society by mirroring the emotions of others. He carries around what he refers to as his “dark passenger” – the part of him that hosts a bloodthirsty lust for murder. Luckily, for the residents of Miami, serial killer Dexter has been taught to harness this “dark passenger” and only lets him out to play when he finds a victim he deems worthy of death. Dexter, according to his own code, must ascertain sure proof of his victim’s crime and then the “dark passenger” is let loose. By day, he works as a blood splatter specialist for the forensic unit of the Miami police, and tries to blend into normal society as best he can. As with Omar, I am Dexter’s most fervent cheerleader. His actions are justified. Of course it is okay to murder people, as long as they are the vile pond scum of society who deserve to die.

As implied by the term itself, Antihero refers to an individual who possesses the qualities opposite to the traditional traits of a hero. Rather than nobility and bravery, an Antihero displays “lack of courage, honesty, or grace, his weaknesses and confusion, often reflect modern man’s ambivalence toward traditional moral and social virtues”. And therein lays the attraction. Why do we champion the underdog? Because he is a more accurate representation of humanity. Who can live up to the Herculean notion of a hero? Is it easier to be buff and tuff like Arnold or flawed and often incapable?  Option two I think. The Antihero is more accessible. We relate to the dual nature of the violent avenger or the moralising vigilante, as opposed to the clean-cut, impossible-to-achieve hero who reflects moral and physical perfection. It just ain’t real. I love the notion of the dual identity. The inherent tension of the public versus the private, the inner versus the outer, which so aptly reflects how the individual operates within society. Playboy businessman Bruce Wayne by day and kick-ass vigilante by night.  How many faces must an individual put on in order to operate effectively within the restraints imposed by society – whether it is on a macro or micro level? The Antihero fights ‘the system’ (which may represent different things to different people). He breaks the rules. He defies the authority of a society that insists upon a dichotomy between the inner and the outer, forcing the  individual to operate as dictated by context. But never as his whole self. He is broken into pieces and reveals only the parts that are acceptable. The Antihero cannot reconcile the inner with the outer because society will never accept the reality of his complete and truthful existence. The facade put on by humanity is one of strength and morality. The dark and sinful nature inherent in the individual is euphemised.  Thus, the Antihero functions as prescribed. In the dark. Violently. Mysteriously. Immorally. The Antihero is the tormented soul. He represents the struggle of the human condition – the struggle to reconcile who and what we are with that which is expected of us. It is a violent struggle of self. A struggle to express the self as truthfully as possible.

The notion of the Antihero says far more about society than about the Antihero himself. Tyler Durden , Roland Deschain, Batman, Hannibal Lecter, Jack Sparrow, Patrick Bateman. I love them all. It is a little weird right? Why do I identify with these deeply dangerous, dark characters? Does this mean that I think that it is okay to go out and eat those who piss me off or fling around some bat weapons at the people who have done some bad shit? This is an issue explored by Thomas Harris in his Hannibal Lecter series. He provides an astute commentary on society and the impulses and thinking that drive human behaviour and interaction. Harris has created a most detestable character, and yet the reader can’t help but like the psychotic serial killer. Hannibal the cannibal is involved in the vilest and most taboo of acts – the consumption of another human being. Harris taps into the dark part of he reader’s unconscious, forcing him to question his values, reasoning and motivations, and in so doing Harris challenges and tests his reader. Lecter, a renowned psychiatrist by profession, consumes those whom he deems morally perverse. The irony is poignant. Why do we want this freakish person-eater to escape? Why do we applaud when he kills the morally challenged? It is because validating Lecter’s behaviour justifies our own behaviour. The behaviour of the individual fighting to assert his self-hood within society. Through the literal act of  person eating person, Harris illustrates the depravity of the ‘dog eat dog’ manner in which the individual asserts his self-hood – through the emotional and physical destruction of another, based on a hierarchical notion of superiority.  How easy it is to place oneself in the seat of judgment – as if we have the right to decide whether someone deserves any form of treatment. Just as the Antihero assumes the position of judge and jury as he metes out punishment on deserving victims. And yet perhaps, inherently, we know this judgment we impose on others isn’t okay, so we hold back as much as is humanly possible, and in so doing, we vent our judgment through the Antihero. We live vicariously. He champions our cause, and it is okay because he isn’t real.

The Antihero is a metaphor for the human condition – the complexities of self, the duality of identity and the struggle for freedom. Our battle to exist is certain to produce casualties.