The Carlylean Hero and Zero Dark Thirty
by Mark Wallace
The Carlylean type of hero is not a major presence in our society. There are certain aspect of contemporary heroism that don’t fall in with Carlylean ideals. The 21st-century Hero is much more domesticated. This is a contemporary trait that is often seen in adaptations of 19th-century fiction, most clearly, perhaps, in North & South, wherein Thornton as Carlylean Captain-of-Industry type enters into dialogue with contemporary conventions and emerges a gentle, father-type figure more interested in his children than in organizing and subduing the urban proletariat. Or just think about the recently anointed best-selling movie of all time, Avengers: Endgame, whose central hero, Tony Stark, has to balance the needs of the universe with those of being a father – and puts the latter first, though still managing to save the universe. The male hero, then, is far more domesticated and indulgently paternal than he used to be. But if we want to understand the Carlylean hero, there are a small number of contemporary narratives that provide suitable protagonists.
The single most Carlylean figure in contemporary Hollywood is Maya (Jessica Chastain) in Zero Dark Thirty (2012). There are many similarities. In discussing Sherlock Holmes in an upcoming publication I noted three elements of the Carlylean Hero that Holmes displayed. In short:
1 The Hero evinces an absolute dedication to work in a cause which transcends him or herself as an individual
2 The Hero possesses an immediate and infallible insight. Insight truly Heroic, and is always superior to knowledge:
The healthy Understanding, we should say, is not the Logical, argumentative, but the Intuitive; for the end of Understanding is not to prove and find reasons, but no believe […]. [T]he man of logic and the man of insight; the Reasoner and the Discoverer, or even knower, are quite separable — indeed, for most part, quite separate characters. (Carlyle, Characteristics, 1831)
A Hero, as I repeat, has this first distinction, which indeed we may call first and last, the Alpha and Omega of his whole Heroism, That he looks through the shows of things into things. (On Heroes, 1841)
3 The Hero is not prone to self-consciousness. Carlyle posits it as a maxim that: “The sign of health is Unconsciousness” (Ibid.)
So work, insight and the absence of self-consciousness. These are three of the central traits of Carlylean Heroism, and the three I found most applicable to the figure of Sherlock Holmes. They are dealt with in more detail in the essay linked above. To begin with, we can map these onto Maya:
1 Maya is dedicated to her work at the expense of all else. Interestingly, though this is a perfectly obvious observation to make regarding the film, there is no explicit textual reference to Maya’s attitude to work in the film. However, she is almost never seen doing anything other than work, and the attitude of focused intensity she shows at work contrasts with the lethargy and disinterest she displays on other occasions (e.g. when having dinner with Jessica). In the film’s shooting script, there is a direction that sums it up: “Maya is here too, working. She’s always working.”
2 Maya brings about the death of Bin Laden (according to the movie) through her irrational confidence that she is right about his whereabouts in Abbotabad, Pakistan. As one of the soldiers’ about to undertake the mission says: “Her confidence is the one thing that’s stopping me getting ass-raped in a Pakistani prison. I’m cool with it.” As this soldier knows, there is no sufficient proof that Bin Laden is in there. As the committee approving the mission note, there was better evidence for WMD in Iraq than for this mission. It, and several previous steps in the process, is based on an insight of Maya’s rather than concrete proof. An insight that transcends rationality is the pre-eminent characteristic of the Carlylean Hero.
3 The theme of self-consciousness is not dealt with directly in Zero Dark Thirty. Of course, a person who is not self-conscious does not talk about their lack of self-consciousness; they are, by definition, not conscious of it. But that is the whole point. Unselfconsciousness does not know itself. That is its strength and its Heroism.
Aside from these elements Maya holds in common with Sherlock Holmes, there are several further points that link Maya to the Carlylean Hero:
4 The lack of importance of personal relationships in her life. This is something of a corollary to Point 1, and is central to a number of Carlyle’s portraits, from the fictional Diogenes Teufelsdrockh (Sartor Resartus) through Abbot Samson (Past and Present), Dr Francia and Frederick the Great. It is almost unheard of for a modern Hollywood film to show its protagonist as friendless, sexless, family-less and unconcerned about this state of affairs. Even Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films rely heavily on his friendship with Watson and give him a sexual life of sorts. But Zero Dark Thirty is truly radical is this sense: Maya never speaks to or of any friend, partner or family member. In a scene with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Maya is gently prodded about her love life:
Jessica: Little fooling around wouldn’t hurt you
J: So no boyfriend
J: You got any friends at all?
This last question is greeted with a long silence, mercifully broken by Jessica’s phone ringing. The implication is No, Maya has no friends, and this is borne out throughout the film.
5 The dissociation from the concept of happiness. Carlyle was very big on this idea, that happiness was not the goal of man. It was not something that could be attained, or should be striven for. Historically, he felt mankind had never been motivated by happiness, but rather the opposite: “They wrong man greatly who say he is to be seduced by ease. Difficulty, abnegation, martyrdom, death are the allurements that act on the heart of man” (On Heroes, Lecture II). Maya’s refusal to ever show or, it appears, feel happiness or contentment is of a piece with the Carlylean conception of heroism rather than that of our culture, which almost invariably ends with the Hero in domestic bliss. Maya doesn’t end in domesticity, or in bliss. At the end of the film, in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Bin Laden, as the men congratulate each other, Maya stands aloof and inscrutable, physically present but emotionally inaccessible. Just after this, in the final scene of the film, she takes a seat alone in a cargo plane. The pilot enters and asks her where she wants to go. She doesn’t answer but her eyes well with tears as she gazes into the empty distance. It is at this moment that Maya becomes truly heroic in the Carlylean sense. Nothing could be more Carlyleanly heroic than to meet with total triumph and to be unable to enjoy, unable to feel happiness for even the briefest moment, a moment of absolute triumph over one’s greatest foe.
It this point it would have been easy to show Maya overcome with happiness, or returning to the bosom of a loving family. That Zero Dark Thirty does not do this removes it from mainstream contemporary depictions of heroism.
6 The willingness to indulge in violence in the name of the great goal towards which one is working. This was the most contentious element of Zero Dark Thirty – not violence per se but more specifically torture. Zizek, among others, has had much to say on this topic. Maya was readily prepared to participate in torture, to Zizek’s chagrin:
When Maya, the film’s heroine, first witnesses waterboarding, she is a little shocked, but she quickly learns the ropes; later in the film she coldly blackmails a high-level Arab prisoner with, “If you don’t talk to us, we will deliver you to Israel”. Her fanatical pursuit of Bin Laden helps to neutralise ordinary moral qualms.
Maya looks on while her colleagues torture their detainee into submission, and (according to the film) important information leading to Bin Laden is attained thereby.
In sum, in her attitudes to work, relationships, self-consciousness, happiness and violence, Maya is the closest thing contemporary Hollywood has to a true Carlylean hero. The distinguishing feature is that she is a woman. Carlyle never conceived of a female hero in On Heroes. Yet in a 21st-century when male heroism has moved away from the Carlylean vision, the Carlylean Hero as Woman is finally born.