Patrick Colm Hogan
Professor of English
University of Connecticut, Storrs
Remorse and the Ambiguities of Heroism:
Ethical Conflict in the Generation of Narrative From Emotion Prototypes
Cross-culturally, heroic tragi-comedies appear to be structured, in part, by the goal of individual or group domination, understood as one prototype for the eliciting conditions of happiness. However, one common element of heroic tragi-comedy–an element so widespread as to constitute a literary universal–is an "epilogue of suffering." This epilogue is focused either on the misery of those who are vanquished or on the anguish of the victorious hero, who surrenders the domination he/she has won, suffering deep remorse and despair or undergoing some external punishment.
This seemingly anomalous "second ending," following the heroic triumph, clearly involves ethical concerns. It is most easily understood and accounted for if we view ethical thinking as prototype-based, not as based on abstract, schematic principles, and if we understand specific prototypes to be triggered by particular situations. Heroic tragi-comedies regularly involve a conflict between two ethical prototypes, one based in group protection, one in individual compassion. This conflict leads to "traumas of heroism" in which the hero acts in ways that deeply violate the ethics of compassion. The epilogue of suffering is, in effect, a reparation for those acts or a mourning for that trauma.
Traumas of heroism do not occur simply because of ethical conflict, however. They also involve the triggering of empathy. We may distinguish between "categorial empathy," which is based on shared lexical categories, such as nation, race, or sex, and "situational empathy," which is based rather on similar experiences, especially experiences of suffering. Very often, these two forms of empathy conflict. Moreover, heroic tragi-comedies are frequently structured in such a way that categorial empathy is aligned with the ethics of defense while situational empathy is aligned with the ethics of compassion.
Again, these ethical and empathic conflicts are particularly likely to arise whenever an author develops heroic tragi-comedy. For the nature of the initial narrative conflict (usually some apparent injustice to the home society) is apt to trigger categorial and defense-oriented responses, while the painful resolution of the narrative (usually heroic victory involving mass destruction) is likely to trigger situational and compassionate responses. In addition, authors often set out to develop the latter at the expense of the former, cultivating situational empathy, while undermining mere categorial empathy. In stories of this sort, traumas of heroism and epilogues of suffering appear not so much as the product of individual evil, or even individual error, but as the almost invariable result of pursuing social domination. Put differently, these works suggest that the prototype eliciting conditions for social happiness–individual or group domination–are inseparable from the creation of a morally conflicted world and thus that they are irreconcilable with ethical happiness.
Patrick Colm Hogan is the author of The Politics of Interpretation: Ideology, Professionalism, and the Study of Literature (1990), Joyce, Milton, and the Theory of Influence (1995), On Interpretation: Meaning and Inference in Law, Psychoanalysis, and Literature (1996), and two forthcoming works: Colonialism and Cultural Identity: Crises of Tradition in the Anglophone Literatures of India, Africa, and the Caribbean and Introduction to Philosophical Literary Theory: From Classical European and Eastern Texts to Phenomenology, Post-Structuralism, and Cognitive Science. Much of his recent work focuses on literary universals and cognitive structure. See for example, "Literary Universals," Poetics Today 18.2 (1997): 117-28; "Toward a Cognitive Science of Poetics"; "The Possibility of Aesthetics" (full papers on-line).