The Hero as Other

Note: For those interested, the following is the rationale I wrote for my senior colloquium at New York University: Gallatin School of Individualized Study (for more information, click here). This rationale is basically a map of my personal history, thought process, and creative inspiration. The notions explored here hold great significance in all my work.

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The Hero as Other

From an early age, I found the idea of the hero and his journey fascinating. During middle school, Joseph Campbell’s universal formula of the hero’s quest became the nucleus of my understanding of all narrative mediums. For me, Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a work of cultural anthropology, which identifies a remarkable array of elements occurring cross-culturally within the ancient tradition of storytelling.

During my first year of college, I took a course at Smith College called “Writing, Japan and Otherness,” which helped evolve my understanding of the hero’s quest. This course was my introduction to the dual concept of self and other. Through Modern Japanese literature, I discovered how social constructs of identity affect the way in which the hero moves through his journey.

At Gallatin, I continue to pursue and develop my interpretation of the hero’s journey through the perspective of self and otherness. Gallatin courses such as “Yellow Peril: Documenting and Understanding Xenophobia” and “Globalization: Promises and Discontents” provided an opportunity to investigate how stereotypical social constructs influence the way in which society interacts and how society portrays otherness in narrative mediums. Courses such as “Tragic Visions” and “Dante’s World” further educated my notion of the hero’s journey, complimenting my knowledge of Modern Japanese heroes with those of Western classics. A variety of writing courses such as “Writers as Shapers” and “Crafting Short Fiction From the Sentence Up” allowed me to examine self and otherness within my own creative process.

The hero is a universal presence. Originating from the mythology of the ancient world and passed down throughout traditions of narrative mediums such as literature and more recently film, the hero is an essential figure in the art of storytelling.

Society is captivated by the notion of the hero. But why are these figures essential to society? What makes the hero a hero in the eyes of society?

Predominantly, the hero possess a characteristic that sets him apart, designating him a solitary figure within a greater society. Often, the hero is misunderstood by the world around him and subjected to society’s constructs.

Through his challenging journey of trials, the hero undergoes great suffering. And, as a result of his journey, the hero is distinct from the rest of society.

But how does society perceive the hero and his journey? How does society identify the hero? Where does the hero occur within the dual concept of self and other?

In terms of identity, the other is that which defines the self. The self is regarded as the archetypical social “norm,” while the other in contrast embodies that which is foreign to the self. Typically, the self is overcome by the need to tame the other for fear that the other poses a threat to the authoritative identity of the self. The self and other are trapped in a perpetual struggle against one another sustained by the self experiencing a simultaneous attraction to and repulsion towards the other. The identity of the other remains other only through the perspective of the self. In this way, the presence of the other causes the self to constantly question its own existence.

Across boundaries of culture, time period, and narrative medium, the hero protagonist is universally other. The hero exists exclusively as other in that the hero occurs only within the context of society, that which constitutes the self. According to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero transcends the status of “…mere human beings…” in that the hero is bestowed with some variety of “…extraordinary powers…” (319). The hero is distinguished from the average human being, a member of the social self, by an atypical “power,” or by what otherwise takes the form of a deviation from society in the hero’s physical existence (his strengths, his flaws, etc.), his place in society (race, ethnicity, social status, etc.), and/or his psychological or intellectual state of mind.

Due to his otherness, the hero protagonist is engaged in an eternal struggle with the rest of society. This struggle stems from the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that society as self feels towards the hero other. How do these conflicting attitudes coexist within the social self? In The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud discusses the duality of that which is heimlich – “…the homely and the domestic…” – and that which is unheimlich – what is “…removed from the eyes of strangers, hidden, secret” (132-133). The duality of heimlich and unheimlich expresses how a single entity can be perceived as simultaneously familiar yet foreign. The social self is attracted to the hero other as an entity that undergoes suffering for the sake of greater society. At the same time, the social self is repulsed by the hero other as an entity that possesses traits that do not typically occur within society and thus challenge the authority of the social self. In this way, the social self is conflicted as to whether to embrace or to eradicate the hero other, spurring on the struggle between the social self and the hero other.

Through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, as well as Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny, I would like to explore the following themes within the domain of “The Hero as Other”: 1) the elements that define the hero as other; 2) the transformation of the hero other; 3) the simultaneous attraction and repulsion towards the hero other; 4) the role of violence in the journey of the hero other; and 5) the hero other as self.

What elements create the hero other? The following social constructs may factor into the hero’s otherness: race, ethnicity, nationality, regional identity, culture, subculture, language (accents, dialects, etc.), social class, age, gender, sexuality (sexual orientation, sexual “deviation,” etc.), nature of personal relationships (e.g. dysfunctional families, childhood trauma or other traumatic experiences, etc.) and one’s role within these relationships, belief system (religion, morals, ideology, spirituality, philosophy, beliefs, etc.), mental disorder, physical appearance, physical illness or handicap, addiction or obsession, mythical or supernatural elements (hero transformed into creature; hero is living man among the dead; hero is a demigod, vampire, etc.; hero possesses supernatural  powers; etc.), occupation or skill (artist such as painter, writer, director, actor, comedian, etc.; scientist, etc.) and one’s success or failure in one’s field, individual or individuality, and/or personality. The social self dictates the “norm” of these social constructs. The hero may possess one or more traits that deviant from these “norms,” resulting in the hero’s otherness.

What establishes the hero as other? At what point in the hero’s journey does the hero become other? Does the hero undergo a physical or mental transformation that results in his otherness? Is the hero othered from birth, or by preordained fate? Or is the hero metamorphosed into other through human experience, through conflict with or within his own society?

How does the social self perceive the hero other? Why does the social self feel both attraction and repulsion towards the hero other? How does the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that the social self feels towards the hero other influence the hero other and his journey? Does the audience, as witness to the hero’s journey, experience both attraction and repulsion towards the hero other parallel to that of the social self?

What is the role of violence in the journey of the hero other? Why does violence take such a prevalent role within the hero’s existence? Does this violence originate in the struggle between the hero other and the social self? For the hero other, does violence function as a means of survival or as a coping mechanism to confront the negative pressure of society’s repulsion towards him? Who is responsible for this violence – the hero other who chooses to lash out with violence or the social self who incites this violence through the oppression of the hero other?

Although the hero is universally other, does the hero simultaneously exist as self? In The Uncanny, Freud states that, “…a person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self…” (142). What do these unstable boundaries of identity reveal about the social self and the hero other? Does the existence of the hero other jeopardize the stability of the social self? Does the social self’s instinct to suppress the hero other arise from the fear that the identity of the hero other will overwhelm the “norm”? Campbell asserts that, “…the hero is… a symbol… a revelation of the omnipotent Self, which dwells within us all” (319). Does the social self, as well as the audience, relate to or sympathize with the hero other because all members of society have experienced otherness in their lives?

In my exploration of these themes within “The Hero as Other,” I would like to analyze both hero others of Western traditions (Oedipus of Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex, Dante the Pilgrim of Dante’s The Devine Comedy, Hamlet of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, etc.) and hero others of Modern Japan (the narrator protagonist of Kenzaburo Oe’s novel Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, Chiaki Saionji of Hakase Mizuki’s graphic novel The Demon Ororon, Shiina of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s film, The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker, etc.).

Since my expertise lies in Modern Japan (as in starting from the late 19th century Meiji period onwards), I would like to emphasize the hero protagonists of Modern Japan across various mediums (literature, film, graphic novel, etc.) while at the same time juxtapose these hero protagonists with those of classic Western origins, striking a balance of cultures, time periods, narrative mediums, etc.

Copyright 2012 by G. E. Gallas

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About gegallas

G. E. Gallas is a screenwriter and graphic novelist (writer/illustrator) best known for "The Poet and the Flea," a fantastical reimagining of the life of the poet-painter William Blake. Originally from Washington D.C., she spent her year abroad in Tokyo, Japan and graduated from New York University: Gallatin School of Individualzed Study with a major involving cross-cultural storytelling. Spring 2013, she attended the Cannes International Film Festival and spoke upon invitation to The Blake Society, London. February 2014, her illustrations will be featured in the young adult title "Scared Stiff: Everything You Need To Know About 50 Famous Phobias." View all posts by gegallas

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