Thomas Carlyle, such a pervasive influence on mid-19th century thought, was a great believer in the power of exceptional individuals to shape collective human destiny: “The History of the world”, he once wrote, “is but the Biography of great men” (On Heroes 34). And what must we do when we recognize one of these great men in our midst? Why, we must worship him, of course. Carlyle was also a great believer in the importance of worship. What one worships, it could almost be said, is a matter of secondary importance, primary importance being given to the fact that one does, at least, worship something: “[W]hoso cannot obey cannot be free […] [O]nly in reverently bowing down before the Higher does [man] feel himself exalted”, insists the Carlylean avatar Professor Teufelsdrockh (Sartor Resartus 189-190).
How one recognizes the fit object of worship is something Carlyle wasn’t altogether clear on, though often his stance seems reducible to the formula “might is right” (i.e. he who has managed to secure physical power is he who has proved himself worthy of obedience), and, indeed, in analysis Carlyle’s philosophy often has been reduced to this formula.
But whatever one may think of Carlyle’s social and political philosophies, he was surely on the button when he asserted the apparent psychological importance of worship for the “omnivorous biped” that is man (Sartor Resartus 51). Though we no longer tend to engage in the open power worship of a Carlyle, we yet have a need to make heroes. If one was to make a massive generalization, the Victorian era was the time of power worship and the late 20th/ early 21st century is that of victim worship. The wittiest and most succinct illustration of this I can recall, and one that often reoccurs to me when I witness the phenomenon, is from an early episode of The Simpsons:
Homer: That Timmy is a real hero!
Lisa: How do you mean, Dad?
Homer: Well, he fell down a well, and… he can’t get out.
Lisa: How does that make him a hero?
Homer: Well, that’s more than you did!
(Season 3, Ep. 13, “Radio Bart”)
It’s perhaps funnier seen in context than read, but nevertheless… it illustrates in nuce the current state of hero-worship in western culture. We no longer draw our heroes from among the powerful; indeed, they tend to becomes scapegoats and objects of opprobrium in times of trouble – we now tend to believe implicitly the dictum that “power corrupts” A corollary of this for 21st-century man and woman is that powerlessness sanctifies, or at least prevents corruption. Homer encounters a victim, Timmy, and sees a hero. Ironically, it is the über-woke Lisa who rejects the ascription of heroism to Timmy. I think this places this episode of The Simpsons firmly in the 90s: 21st-century Lisa would not denigrate the claims to heroism of a true victim.
I have written on this thorny topic elsewhere, in an essay on the BBC Oliver Twist (2007):
Fagin’s demeanour at his trial in the face of the obscene and sadistic injunctions of the symbolic authority (Fang) demonstrates par excellence “the gaze of a perplexed victim” that Slavoj Žižek sees as being the central image of contemporary ideology. The representation of such a gaze neutralizes the threat of the other, but at the same time deprives him/her of the possibility of agency. Such an ascription of victimhood functions to render the other tolerable. Following Žižek’s analysis, we can see the contemporary quest for tolerance as the source of the emphasis on the victim-figure, and its imposition on pre-existing characters bearing a relevant identity, whether it be ethnic, religious or other. [“Adaptation, Transtemporality, and Ideology: The BBC Series Oliver Twist (2007)”, in (Re)Writing Without Borders: Contemporary Intermedial Perspectives on Literature and the Visual Arts, Ed. By Le Juez, Shiel and Wallace, Common Ground Research Networks, 2018 https://doi.org/10.18848/978-1-61229-993-8/CGP]
Fagin, the ostracised criminal, is not a force of evil as in Dickens. Rather, in his ultimate downfall and the shades of racism that haunt it, the makings of a 21st-century victim-hero are found.
On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (Chapman and Hall, 1869).
Sartor Resartus, ed. Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor (OUP, 1999).