The core component to the act of reading is inquiry; the series of organized questioning (and the attempting to answer those questions) that can lead to increased understanding. Today I will be talking about a specific line of inquiry that I use to cut straight to the core of a book; straight to the value system that it purports.
The reading strategy I want to introduce you to today is one that I call heroic analysis – a strategy designed to uncover a story’s central value system. Though it most aptly applies to stories, it can also be adapted to your day-to-day life as well (I’ll show you how in a later section of this article). But first…
How Does It Work?
The primary question we are asking when we are exploring a books heroics is “What is being presented as good, and what is being presented as bad characterologically?” This includes morals, physical attributes, attitudes, worldviews, and anything else that makes up a character in a story (also be aware that, especially in more poetic works, nonhuman entities can possess characteristics too – characteristics in the strictly human sense of the word – through a range of literary devices).
Asking this question is useful because it reveals what limits the author has set and focuses on, and can thus lead one to understanding what attitudes and values a book is set to program you for or against. In other words, it reveals the dialectic nature of what symbolizes good and what symbolizes bad in the image of reality that is being presented to you.
At this point it might be useful to briefly address the nature of narrative. Some less scrupulous folk (publishers for example) might make a serious distinction between fiction and nonfiction– indeed I know people who claim to deplore fiction and pride themselves on only ever reading nonfiction. But what do they mean by these terms? Typically, what people mean by fiction is “not true”, while nonfiction usually connotes some recent historical account – something that most likely occurred in the last century or so. It’s more or less a publisher’s term, and it’s not the most useful one available for categorizing books clearly and definitely, though it is the most well-known.
At this level of distinction, instead of fiction/nonfiction, I prefer imaginative literature/expository work, as it gets us out of the quagmire of absolute truth/absolute falsehood and into more accurate representations of what one typically is trying to distinguish anyway.
One thing to know about history (and thus what many people mean when they talk about nonfiction) before we move on is that it is, the same as fiction, narrative by nature. This means that the writer decides what to include and what to exclude, what’s important and what’s not, and, unavoidably, what is good (sometimes described as progress) and what is bad (dark ages, failed crusades, cultural malaise, etc.). A good writer of history might be more objective, but any history book written by a human is bound to be to some degree subjective, if only because no book can cover everything (and it would be a useless book that did) and because a book needs order.
I bring this up because things based in narrative, like fiction and nonfiction, are open to aesthetic analysis, since there is always going to be a subjective value judgment being made in a work, based on what is included, excluded, emphasized, and played down.
Analyzing a Book’s Heroics
What I recommend readers pay attention to is the dialectic nature of a work’s value system. What I mean by that is that we should look not only at what the book says, but also at what it doesn’t say. We should investigate what issues the writer has deemed worth writing about and what might have been conspicuously left out. We should look at the types of conflicts and the ways they are resolved. We should be asking ourselves questions like: “What moral judgments are being made here?” “What appears noble, virtuous, and good in this work, and what appears evil, vile, or bad?”
One thing that I find particularly fruitful to analyze is what values the characters in the book have/represent (represent if it’s not a great book – characters in less than stellar books oftentimes represent values instead of characterizing them).
I’ll write a post on why heroics is such an important topic of consideration sometime soon – I’ve been working around the topic for some time now – I just haven’t figured out a good way to explain it so it is clear, comprehensive, and also practically applicable. But suffice it to say that the heroic value system of a thing is important to recognize primarily because it functions as a key to interpreting the way we organize and prioritize our values, so with it we can cut past all the fluff and get straight to deep meanings.
Why is this important?
Simply put: because the foundation of anyone’s writings is their value system. It is what is being proposed; argued; questioned, and without it there would be no occasion to write. From thence stems the growth, whatever form it may take, that we call a book (or article, or essay, or novella, etc).
The Strategy in Practice
It would be tedious to write out the complete process (it’s bound to be a unique process for each person and situation), so here is an example of some illuminating insights that analyzing a book’s heroics has led me to, so you can get a better idea of what kind of realizations this can lead to.
I’m fond of Haruki Murakami’s book The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, but after analyzing the heroics of it, I realized that the value system that is being coded for (and thus introducing to my subconscious value matrix as worth it’s recognition and consideration) validates the detached mediocre, with characters who seem to have solved the problem of finding meaning in life in neurosis (as opposed to transcending neurosis and becoming an actively creative person). So even though the writing style and the stories are entertaining, the core value system is potentially harmful – especially for young people who are just starting to develop a sense of self. The value system presented in the book could block them from getting through “the fog” – leading to a more detached adult character. Another way of saying this is that it validates escapism.
This wouldn’t be a problem if people were reading critically, but when people are reading passively, as typically is the mode of a reader trying to escape a mundane reality, and indeed, we could safely say is (sadly) the predominant type of reading people engage in, some problems will likely develop (try and determine whether a woman who reads a lot of Romance likes to read Romance, or needs to read Romance, for example), problems based, at their core, around a cultural malaise of heroes.
The Cult of Celebrity
One thing that I find interesting about most popular literature (and media in general) is that it tends to celebrate either The Everyman or the unattainable heroics of The Superman. This trend really took off in the early 20th century with Willy Lowman alongside the creation of superheroes and the like, and has continued on, branching out across most all channels of media ever since (especially mainstream). Either we have some unattainably powerful hero or someone who is extremely flawed (who then usually becomes strong in some irrational – often magical – way in the story). If you look around you, in almost all forms of media – whether it be television, paintings, comic books, music – you may notice that the heroes you are presented with that are human are in general much weaker in character and more superficial than what has been expressed as heroic in the past. You might do well to meditate on why this might be the case.
There is also this vast, insensitive/oversensitive polarization of characters, which I can only assume reflects a general feeling of powerlessness in individuals, as powerless people tend towards extremes (e.g. delusions of grandeur, dissociation).
An example of this polarization might be the largely unnecessary social movements of women vs. men that is being maintained through massive self-perpetuating propaganda campaigns to keep the proletariat (the “99%”) out of the public sphere by giving them relatively unimportant issues or even completely fabricated issues to focus on (think the cult of celebrity for example, which is rampant in the US and elsewhere). This is actually one of the core causes of the vice of verbalism, which so ubiquitous in our decadent times.
By looking into a book’s heroics we can become aware of what values the book is presenting to us. This is the first step to understanding a thing: being aware of it; being able to distinguish it from other things.
It is often that we encounter spurious information – in the news, in books, and across all forms of media. Propaganda is pretty much guaranteed – it’s not a secret or anything, many of us just don’t want to acknowledge the depths of social programming because it’s an uncomfortable thing to think about. This desire for comfort, if you look around yourself, is clearly most people’s primary value. So if you’re one of those and are reading this – my bad, but, if it’s any condolence, you’ll repress this info soon enough anyway. But if you are aware of the value system behind the propaganda – the heroics of it – it will affect you significantly less and help you get past the bifurcation, passivity, and verbalism rampantly coded for through mainstream media.
Heroic analysis is a powerful tool not just for analyzing written characters, but also for real life characters.
If you just remember that books are a product of a writer’s memory and thinking processes, it is not a stretch to use this analytical strategy on those you encounter in your day-to-day life. This way, you can understand them on a deeper level, and through that understanding you can gain power to help them (and also, though I recommend you don’t do so, to hurt them).
All you do is, when reflecting on someone, ask yourself questions about the way they are presenting themselves, and what it says about them as a person. The more conscious this process becomes, the more discerning you can be as a person, and the more you can appreciate someone for who they are (while also knowing who to keep away).
As a caveat: don’t just go around analyzing people all the time. That will make your situational reaction time abysmal. Instead, think of this more like weight-lifting: it should be something you typically do by yourself and for only short periods at a time. Trust that your subconscious ability to discern will improve as you work out your conscious muscle.
Also, remember that in both people and books you will find inconsistencies and half-baked ideas. This is unavoidable, though a great book, and a great man, will have less of these.
Books are a form of media, which means that when you read you are opening yourself up to acquiring new information and the potential to greater understanding. Your purposes can be to stimulate yourself in some way, to find something out, or to understand a thing. When you encounter media that is worth striving to understand, there are different ways to go about doing so. When that media is narrative by nature (like fiction, non-fiction, history books, or to a degree humans), analyzing it’s heroics is an efficient way to come to terms with its explicit and implicit arguments, and thus be able to criticize it based on your understanding.