December 21, 2011

Ironic Hero, Absurdist Villain

If an iconic hero remains true to himself and thereby changes the world around him, the ironic hero hews to his inner compass and is disappointed by the way the world changes despite him. We don’t see the ironic hero much in fiction, because that pattern is too much like life.

As is apt for a playwright, the life of Vaclav Havel divides readily into three acts—from avant garde dramatist to dissident to head of state. In that third act, he becomes an ironic hero. The act begins with heady early days, scored to deep Zappa cuts, as he strives to infuse his office with an artist’s humanism. From these scenes of bohemian promise, the story shifts tones. He presides as a constitutionally weak President over a society quickly bored by his ideals. Despite his efforts, his country splits in two. He urges the dismantlement of the lucrative Czech arms industry, and is rebuffed. Havel remains a hero to the outside world, and certainly to me. To the home audience, not so much. Heroes get tiresome when they stick around too long. We prefer them when they to ride off into sunset in timely fashion.

The ironic hero is sadder than the tragic hero, and leaves the stage without catharsis. The tragic hero falls from greatness, brought low by his telling flaws. The ironic hero fades, due to ours.

In a bid to provide easy contrast for blog posts, Kim Jong Il died on the same day as Havel. By immiserating an entire nation and killing millions by famine in order to maintain his cult of personality, he leaves a legacy as one of the era’s most monstrous real-life villains. The scale of his crimes makes him almost too monstrous for fiction. Another of his qualities definitely disqualifies him as a fictional bad guy—despite his enormous body count, he was as ridiculous as he was menacing. This is a consistent trope of the modern mega-mass-murdering dictator. Comic characters become funny through a gap between self-perception and the way others see them. Mussolini, Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein all embodied not just the banality but the absurdity of evil. It’s not always the case—Pol Pot managed to be straight-up sinister, and the publicity-shy goons running Burma are no barrel of yuks. Kim, however, might have been a character in one of Havel’s allegorical plays.