Hero and Master: Carlyle and Žižek

by Mark Wallace

Carlyle’s theory of the Hero no longer enjoys much in the way of scholarly repute. “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here” is not a formulation to which many modern thinkers would subscribe. Famously, of course, it enjoyed considerable currency in the 19th century, and its shadows can perhaps be seen later in Freud’s speculative account of human history in Totem and Taboo (1913), wherein primitive history is indeed controlled by an all-powerful despotic leader, albeit one who had to be overthrown and murdered to make way for a more democratic leadership. History, for Freud and other anthropologists of the era like Frazer, had been the history of Great Men, but modern history had moved away from the paradigm.

But perhaps the Hero or Great Man isn’t dead. Perhaps if we consider the more acceptably theoretical figure of the master we will discover echoes of Carlyle’s concept. The master is often associated with Jacques Lacan. As well As Lacan’s theory of the “discourse of the master”, there is also his assertion, often quoted by Slavoj Žižek, that the revolutionaries of 1968 in Paris were “hysterics who demand[ed] a new master.” It would appear, then, that even when the master disappears from history, he remains in the human unconscious, even that of the most revolutionary subjects.

And Žižek himself is very much alive to this feature of our unconscious. Trouble in Paradise (2014) has a subsection entitled “Towards a New Master” in which he argues for the historical necessity for a master. It is the role of the master to “simplify [the situation] into a point of decision” (179). Žižek is explicit that in making the necessary decision, the master is bound by neither rationality nor by democracy. His historical example is De Gaulle, who claimed in 1940 to speak “on behalf of true France” even though he had no popular mandate (and, Žižek points out, had a democratic vote been possible, the Nazi-collaborator Petain would have won it). Žižek’s point is that De Gaulle’s assumption of the master role as the one who speaks for true France was unarguably for the greater good, and that a democratic approach here would have been been a disaster.

With reference to contemporary politics, Žižek again calls for a master, a “Thatcher of the left”, as only such a figure can transform “the entire field of presuppositions” (185) and create room for radical change. It is not that ultimate power will come to rest in the hands of the master, but that in the intermediary stage the voice of the master is key. And how to produce a master? Even Carlyle didn’t think that the Hero entirely produced himself from nothing: “No man works save under conditions. The sculptor cannot set his own free Thought before us; but his Thought as he could translate it into the stone that was given, with the tools that were given.” So to help free the space in which the master may speak, Zizek insists that “we should shamelessly reassert the idea of ‘vanguard'” (185). How we do this is not clear.

But the point is that the superior individual is central both to Žižek and to Carlyle. The difference is that for the latter he is the locus of absolute power and for the former he is a sort of vanishing mediator who ushers in the revolution then fades into the background. This is a surprisingly idealistic view of the master from Žižek. Where are we to find such masters, with the wisdom to provide guidance and the humility to step away from power at the right moment? Perhaps we don’t have the embodiment, but we have kept alive a certain ideal, and a moment may yet come when it can be put into practice.