Sunday, October 14, 2007

"But History has already written that story": Heroes and Narrative


The scene: 17th century Japan. Hiro, a young man from the 21st century, has accidentally landed here after attempting to employ a superpower he has recently developed. Hiro can stop time. Apparently he can also time-travel. In last week's episode of Heroes (a show just entering its second season on NBC), Hiro's found a way to write notes in the 17th century that will survive into the 20th and be found by his friend Ando, kept safe inside the hilt of a sword used by the legendary Takezo Kensei. Takezo Kensei has been Hiro's idol since childhood, when his father told him stories of the great warrior. Arriving in the 17th century, Hiro finds that Kensei is not only a drunkard and a middling warrior at best -- but he's not even Japanese. He's English, a traveler. And yet he's supposed to be one of the greatest fighters of all time.

An initial excerpt from Hiro's monologues in the episode:

"Righting History and turning Takezo Kensei into a hero will not be easy. But at least I'm not alone. Ando, I've met the most beautiful woman Japan has ever seen, and I think I've fallen in love with her. The only problem? History has already written that story, and she is destined to be the great love of Takezo Kensei...It was clear Kensei wouldn't become a hero unless I forced him to learn the hard way. If he could defeat the ninty Angry Ronin, he'd have a chance at becoming a hero."


Hiro does Kensei the favor of dropping him off with the ninety Angry Ronin, and leaving him there to either "become" a hero or die. Of course, Kensei has a superpower too -- he can recover from any wound. He is, however, unwilling to use his superpower "wisely" -- i.e., for the good, or the good as Hiro sees it. Part of helping Kensei "fulfill" his destiny means that Hiro must give up a woman he believes he's in love with. The victory over the Ronin solidifies Kensei's place in the Princess' affections.

Later in the episode, Hiro is ready to leave: Kensei asks him how he's supposed to become the warrior he's "destined" to be if Hiro isn't with him. My point in summarizing this lengthy series of scenes from last week's episode is that it bears certain, if tenuous, relations with what I'm hoping to write about as I continue my dissertation prospectus. Thinking through the idea of history necessarily means asking questions about narrative: that much is obvious. Heroes, however, is coming at it from another angle.

Hiro seems to be playing a role that's difficult to imagine. Hiro's influence in the past -- pointing Takezo Kensei toward his "destiny", hoping to restore a timeline somehow made different by his presence there. Hiro remarks on the way in which "History" writes stories -- and has in fact already written the one he's in -- yet his work in the past (if you can call it that) creates the very stories he's claiming as a kind of inherited tradition.

I guess what's fascinating here is the way in which Hiro's position is that of the disembodied "History" he speaks of when he remarks that "History has already written that story." Of course, as viewers (co-conspirators?) we know that Hiro is only partially correct. History hasn't written the story -- or more precisely, hasn't written it yet. What's intriguing is that History -- in the form of Hiro -- has already heard the story - and knew it, in fact, in advance of arriving on the scene as an historical agent.

Heroes, I think, takes an interesting position vis a vis history and the role the subject can play in it (whether or not the writers are aware of it, though I'd like to think they know exactly what they're doing). History arrives from the future (literally in this case) and inscribes a narrative, a trajectory, where before were inert forces, empty lives and silent stones. JJC writes below that in encountering Barber rock at Avebury, My son and I touched a megalith’s cold side and felt our own desires. Hiro's dilemma in this episode of Heroes is that he knows history must be written as he has already heard it -- yet his desire is that it be written differently, perhaps even Otherwise.

I'm mixing a variety of thoughts in this post, which is the product of a long drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier today. However, I think it's a productive mix: Caught between the stories he knows and the feelings he's developed for the Princess who is meant to love Kensei, Hiro's role as agent of History (or History incarnate) becomes mixed: his loyalties divided, he's caught between the past as he Knows it and the future he wants for himself. I wonder if there's a way of thinking through this odd relationship between Hiro, Heroes and the past that could be a productive exercise towards examining the writing of other historiographies. What happens when we bring our own subjectivity to the past? Can we ever escape the desire to see the world not as it is but as we've learned to narrate it, whether we encounter that world in a text we find in the archives or in 17th century Japan as a result of time-travel? My own answer is no, not entirely -- but then, I've never found myself, as Hiro does, writing a history that would be passed down not to others but to Me.

I suppose that History has always written our stories -- both in the sense that our stories are structured by an inherited tradition and by single humans' experiences of those times. The question is whether we can work to find the human agency that wrote that history, and the tensions that suggest there might have been a way of narrating it Otherwise.


cross posted at Old English in New York

11 comments:

J J Cohen said...

Eloquent post. I fear you will make me unable to resist adding another TV show to my rotation. I love these time travel narratives.

As I read your synopsis, I couldn't help thinking: haven't I heard a version of this narrative before? Some beloved history turns out to be, in the encounter with it as Real, a tawdry and all too human affair. The hero (or Hiro) must therefore sacrifice himself or sacrifice his desires to set things aright, to elevate the story and make it worth of passing on, to transform it into the thing he always knew it was. So, it is a given that Hiro will have to yield his ardor for the princess. A more brutal version of the story would also have demanded that Hiro give up his life for Takezo Kensei to endure as legend.

Why does it feel so natural to have the sacrificial economy in place? Why is such sacrifice the only thing can redeem a human, all too human history?

(And you can see that what I'm implying is that there is something deeply Christian about the structure, one in which the messiah from the present plays his effaced role in the past, though all too aware via some Gethsemane moments of what is required of him).

I suppose an alternative is for Hiro actually to take Takezo Kensei's place ...

Jonathan Jarrett said...

Michael Moorcock did this with the story of Jesus in Behold The Man. I won't spoiler it here, but I will say that even though the twist becomes obvious reasonably early on, it continues to exercise a horrid fascination because of the characters Moorcock's using and the story he's perverting. That was a while ago. mid-eighties I think? But he can't have been the first.

Jonathan Hsy said...

These recent "Heroes" and "Avebury" postings are beautiful and already speak to each other so productively. When I first read the title of MKH's posting I expected it to be about romance protagonists and interlacing narrative technique etc., but it turned out to be something else. So here goes: any thoughts on Malory's "Le Morte Darthur" as medieval point of convergence between these two postings? Malory's text is full of abrupt generic/tonal shifts, narrative disjunctions and temporal paradoxes; Merlin pops in all the time to give "spoilers" to the readers and the characters within the narrative so we all know the outcome of events before they occur. I'd say that Malory's Arthurian protagonists--in the expansive middle of the text--are burdened by Weight of the Future; ironically (or paradoxically) it is a narrative Future known to the text's readers as the "past."

P.S. I need to start watching "Heroes" again. I find it interesting (given the English pun implied by the Japanese name "Hiro") that Hiro's hero turns out to be an Englishman in Japanese clothing. Assuming the writers know what they're doing, the convergence might even suggest parallels between Japanese and Anglophone desires to re-claim a feudal (dragon-slaying!) past...but I'm just thinking aloud here.

Adam Roberts said...

jonathan j.: Moorcock's Behold the Man was published in 1966, not the 80s. I agree it's an interesting book, but rather one-note ... the inferiroity of the historical Jesus to the Jesus of myth and religion is the whole point of the story. Heroes, despite many clumsiness, does manage to keep a great many juggle-balls in the air at once.

Eileen Joy said...

MKH: this is a truly lovely post. I have been meaning to catch up on "Heroes," but it will have to wait until I work my way through other series that are ahead of it, like "Lost" and "House" and "Ugly Betty," etc. I think I watch way too much television; indeed, I know I do.

MKH, you write,

"Can we ever escape the desire to see the world not as it is but as we've learned to narrate it, whether we encounter that world in a text we find in the archives or in 17th century Japan as a result of time-travel? My own answer is no, not entirely -- but then, I've never found myself, as Hiro does, writing a history that would be passed down not to others but to Me."

I, like you, would answer "no, not entirely," but I would also add that, like Hiro, in some ways, when we write or narrate history, we are in some sense writing letters to ourselves in the future, or rather, we are inserting ourselves into a kind of future narrative about the past [because what we write will, hopefully, be read by others who will see us as one among many historical "actors" but also as one of "them" who is also "us," but also because the act of writing itself is always partaking of a type of futurity--it opens onto the plane of the future at the same moment it expires, so to speak].

jonathan: thanks so much for bringing in Malory's "Morte d'Arthur" to this project, as you have given me some renewed confidence in a current project I am working on that has to do with temporality and history and the construction/destruction of the self in "Balyn and Balin," a story in which, at one point, time literally stops [for twelve years] and an entire kingdom kind of shakes apart and everyone falls into a sleepy stasis. It's the freakiest tale in this work that *no one* ever writes about, which strikes me as somewhat odd [and, of course, Merlin pops up in here as well, mainly to keep warning Balyn that his "quest," which might just be the most purposeless and senseless quest in the entire work, is always going in the wrong direction: both time-wise and otherwise]. And because Balyn and his brother Balan are indistinguishable from each other and end up accidentally killing each other on a kind of deserted island, the end of the tale is a kind of return to origins [a time before birth/splitting]. I could say a lot more about this, but I'll wait until after I work more on this project, but I'm just glad that someone is thinking about Malory's work in relation to issues of historical-temporal interlacements.

J J Cohen said...

I had a sense of deja vu as I read the summary of this episode ... then realized as I sat at a dissertation defense today that's because this is a plot uncannily similar to that of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. That film likewise consigns the hero to myth, discovering the weak and dwindled state of the one assigned to such a role.

Karl Steel said...

I've been absent for ages. But this calls me out:
jonathan j.: Moorcock's Behold the Man was published in 1966, not the 80s. I agree it's an interesting book, but rather one-note ... the inferiroity of the historical Jesus to the Jesus of myth and religion is the whole point of the story.

A work I haven't (yet) read, Jim Crace's Quarantine. So far as I've heard from my familia, is, well, just follow the link...

J J Cohen said...

Chaucer-addled me also adds: in a way this is similar to Griselda's story in the Clerk's Tale, where she is translated into a role with which she cannot fully coincide. True, there's no dark secret (the tale begins froma different founding principle), but so much of the Clerk's Tale is a meditation upon the gap between the place occupied in the social order and the fit of a particular body to that allotted space.

Rachel K. said...

MKH: What an interesting way to read Hiro and Heroes. The whole story-in-the-sword device had me thinking about pens and swords and the power to effect change. It also reminded me of a fun Orson Scott Card novel I read a bunch of years ago called Enchantment which, in addition to time travel, notes to a future version of oneself, and a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale, throws in some stuff about comparative linguistics and folktales.

Rachel K. said...

I also wonder if it might be useful to think about history and the time travel motif(the voice from the present/future "doing" the past the way it "should" be) in comparison with the motif of prophecy (the voice from the past/present informing the present/future what should be.) Heroes has that built in, too - the combination of Isaac Mendes' prophetic drawings and Hiro's time travel abilities made a mess of things last season. You could go all the way back to Oedipus...all the way forward to Harry Potter...stop by Star Trek, the Terminator films on the way (Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married on the way back.) Thanks for giving me so much fun stuff to think about today!

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Finally getting back to the thread I started nearly a week ago -- amazing how a weekend's vacation can put you behind!

JJC> It's a show worth adding! I'm obsessed with this idea of time travel, and particularly with that problem of how the past can't live up to our vaulted expectations of it. And I'd agree that the need for a sacrifice -- the need for someone to give themselves to save this deeply insufficient past -- is very much a Christian motif. It has something to do with time, too, though: the idea that some Other kind of time (Kairos, perhaps) intersects our own, and in its infinite difference changes Chronos, makes it more than simple succession. Which of course harks back to your Augustine posts...

Jonathan Hsy> I'd actually not thought about Malory relating to this, but after reading a brilliant dissertation chapter on him today I've been starting to think more about it. I love the way you're constructing the text: burdened by Weight of the Future; ironically (or paradoxically) it is a narrative Future known to the text's readers as the "past. I think this is a part of what I'm interested in in terms of Anglo-Saxon historiography and the collectives that are written into them (cue: dissertation theme music -- yup, the Imperial theme from Star Wars, how's you guess?) -- histories all too often rewrite their own progenitors, in a sense. The idea that the Future, that "answer" Bakhtin notes as part of the conditioning of the "living word" is already present, already forming a "past" received by the reader of Malory's text.

Eileen> Isn't it terrible how often TV shows get piled up? I just finished catching up with Pushing Daisies and began the long trek through the episodes of Grey's Anatomy I missed the past few weeks....

we are in some sense writing letters to ourselves in the future, or rather, we are inserting ourselves into a kind of future narrative about the past [because what we write will, hopefully, be read by others who will see us as one among many historical "actors" but also as one of "them" who is also "us," but also because the act of writing itself is always partaking of a type of futurity--it opens onto the plane of the future at the same moment it expires, so to speak].

I'm curious about that last phrase. I've been thinking a lot about horizons of late -- i.e., the horizon as an unfixed and semi-permeable boundary, only viewable from the middle by the subject, but only crossable by the object - in this case, history. Histories cross these horizons, coming into view of the subject who will rewrite them....hm. And I like the way you're figuring the "us" as a larger historical "us" -- if I read you right, of course -- in that this community is imagined by a past...when I start posting the long series of fragments of my dissertation prospectus, I might have more to say about that....

Rachel K> That's one of my favorite Orson Scott Card books. Quite pretty, even if my fellow NC native is a bit of a loon, as has been pointed out elsewhere.... I also think you're quite right about Isaac Mendes' drawings, not to mention Hiro coming back to the past. I think it complicates things -- because of course everything he draws must happen. But when? Where? To whom? And how clear is it really? It seems it's as perilous to write the history of the future as it is to write the history of the past......