Inkling of immortality

Those in power don’t depend on heroes. They produce heroes only for the other side. In the beginning the Spirit was God, then it became Man, now it is becoming the mob.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

We live in a universe that we only understand through stories. As the stories change, our beginnings, middles, and ends transform themselves too. The original purpose of stories, involving mythical gods, was to make the world meaningful. For example, in Australia, long before any contact with the colonisers, human beings standing under the starlit sky saw a particular band of heavenly bodies shining more brightly than the others around it and imagined it to be the Creation Serpent. The Creation Serpent is probably one of the earliest heroes from a culture that has existed and maintained its identity through oral narratives for at least 50,000 years. Human beings are perhaps the only animals aware of their own mortality consciously and, therefore, seek to create mental categories that would give an inkling of immortality. Because of this consciousness, the original heroes, gods and goddesses, play with human beings as secondary characters. In earlier stories, human beings were not eternal and were playthings for the gods. The mythical creatures existed to remove the burden of guilt from the lives of poor, mortal human beings. For human beings, it was possible to commit rape and assign the guilt to Eros for inciting the whole thing.

With the arrival of monotheism, human beings also experienced guilt at a new level. They became the heroes of their own story and were responsible for all their acts even after death. A new metanarrative and a new way of looking at the world needed a new way of coping with the burden of being human. The messianic figures became larger than life. There were human beings who could wash away everybody’s guilt. The collective could relax again. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son to please God. Jesus was ready to be crucified to absolve everybody. Martyrs were going to make the collective body of the faithful glorious. Ordinary people had extraordinary beings at their disposal so that life could become guilt-free as it was when mythical creatures took the guilt upon themselves.

Stories change and with them protagonists also change. The story of the Western Enlightenment created a new hero. The White Man, the scientific master of the observable universe, ready to dispel the fog of superstition and usher humanity to a new glorious future. But the White Man ended up causing two world wars and his search for a scientific and industrialised utopia had heated the entire planet and, as Talal Asad points out, the White Man himself needed to be absolved. So, a new language was invented to remove the guilt of the White Man. The global environmental crisis was the result of “human activity” not just the result of the hubris of the White Man. Now humanity, the same boring, sweating multitude that always needs to feel eternal in its inglorious drudgery of everyday life has many ways of feeling heroic. Every now and then, the media finds a story of exceptional bravery. Everybody is up and shouting: we are worthy of a glorious life. Look at that man who destroyed his fighter plane and sacrificed his life to save us. Look at this boy who was readily blown up while hugging a suicide bomber. Through all these narratives of short-term and long-term grandeur, the character that is glorified is the common unheroic person. Look at the Pakistani milkman whose dirty, water-laden milk was saved by Rashid Minhas and Aziz Bhatti from the connivance of the equally boring and miserable Hindu vegetable vendor. The heroic person is the uncritical person because he or she has taken the boring multitude too seriously. Those in power know of this desire in the ordinary human being. The mortal, sentient beings crave immortality. Let them have it. Those who have superior weapons, as Ashis Nandy observes in The Intimate Enemy, always praise the bravery of those who have inferior weapons because they are not afraid of the heroic figure as long as the material dominance is theirs. Those who have superior weapons are afraid of the hypocritical, scheming, intimate type of cowardly beings. That’s why every surprise act of terrorism is always labelled a ‘cowardly act’. What they hate is the element of surprise because essentially there is no difference between cowardice and guerilla tactics.

The Indus Valley has survived countless invading armies and colonisers not because of being heroic but because a large number of people ingratiate themselves to the new rulers and start gnawing away at their infrastructure. Those, in other colonial encounters, who took the discourses of bravery too seriously came in direct conflict and got wiped out and left the stage free for the dominant forces. There is no victory for them except that they are considered brave. The real victory often belongs to those who use hypocrisy and acknowledge the tactical superiority of their masters and then infiltrate their houses as servants and then create strategies to occupy or bring the whole edifice down.

What is so heroic about you if you consider the West as your enemy and the West also knows it and probably has a drone aimed at you? It is probably more damaging to be Edward Snowden who reveals his real intentions after using their infrastructure and resources and says here are more than 10,000 reasons that can convince everybody that the moral authority of the West is in a shambles. A similar logic was visible in Martin Luther King’s decision to always dress in best suits. The dominant population, because of its own ideas of respectability, would also think of the activist as a respectable human being while the activist is busy undermining the entire epidermal schema. Those in power don’t depend on heroes but on superior weapons. That’s the logic of the drone. There are no heroes needed. It is an unmanned killing machine. It produces heroes only for the other side. The truly dominant don’t depend on heroes anymore.

Published on January 19, 2014