Sunday, October 14, 2007

"But History has already written that story" : Heroes and Narrative

The scene: 17th century Japan. Hiro, a young man from the 21st century, has accidentally landed here after attempting to employ a superpower he has recently developed. Hiro can stop time. Apparently he can also time-travel. In last week's episode of Heroes (a show just entering its second season on NBC), Hiro's found a way to write notes in the 17th century that will survive into the 20th and be found by his friend Ando, kept safe inside the hilt of a sword used by the legendary Takezo Kensei. Takezo Kensei has been Hiro's idol since childhood, when his father told him stories of the great warrior. Arriving in the 17th century, Hiro finds that Kensei is not only a drunkard and a middling warrior at best -- but he's not even Japanese. He's English, a traveler. And yet he's supposed to be one of the greatest fighters of all time.

An initial excerpt from Hiro's monologues in the episode:

"Righting History and turning Takezo Kensei into a hero will not be easy. But at least I'm not alone. Ando, I've met the most beautiful woman Japan has ever seen, and I think I've fallen in love with her. The only problem? History has already written that story, and she is destined to be the great love of Takezo Kensei...It was clear Kensei wouldn't become a hero unless I forced him to learn the hard way. If he could defeat the ninty Angry Ronin, he'd have a chance at becoming a hero."

Hiro does Kensei the favor of dropping him off with the ninety Angry Ronin, and leaving him there to either "become" a hero or die. Of course, Kensei has a superpower too -- he can recover from any wound. He is, however, unwilling to use his superpower "wisely" -- i.e., for the good, or the good as Hiro sees it. Part of helping Kensei "fulfill" his destiny means that Hiro must give up a woman he believes he's in love with. The victory over the Ronin solidifies Kensei's place in the Princess' affections.

Later in the episode, Hiro is ready to leave: Kensei asks him how he's supposed to become the warrior he's "destined" to be if Hiro isn't with him. My point in summarizing this lengthy series of scenes from last week's episode is that it bears certain, if tenuous, relations with what I'm hoping to write about as I continue my dissertation prospectus. Thinking through the idea of history necessarily means asking questions about narrative: that much is obvious. Heroes, however, is coming at it from another angle.

Hiro seems to be playing a role that's difficult to imagine. Hiro's influence in the past -- pointing Takezo Kensei toward his "destiny", hoping to restore a timeline somehow made different by his presence there. Hiro remarks on the way in which "History" writes stories -- and has in fact already written the one he's in -- yet his work in the past (if you can call it that) creates the very stories he's claiming as a kind of inherited tradition.

I guess what's fascinating here is the way in which Hiro's position is that of the disembodied "History" he speaks of when he remarks that "History has already written that story." Of course, as viewers (co-conspirators?) we know that Hiro is only partially correct. History hasn't written the story -- or more precisely, hasn't written it yet. What's intriguing is that History -- in the form of Hiro -- has already heard the story - and knew it, in fact, in advance of arriving on the scene as an historical agent.

Heroes, I think, takes an interesting position vis a vis history and the role the subject can play in it (whether or not the writers are aware of it, though I'd like to think they know exactly what they're doing). History arrives from the future (literally in this case) and inscribes a narrative, a trajectory, where before were inert forces, empty lives and silent stones. JJC writes here that in encountering Barber rock at Avebury, My son and I touched a megalith’s cold side and felt our own desires. Hiro's dilemma in this episode of Heroes is that he knows history must be written as he has already heard it -- yet his desire is that it be written differently, perhaps even Otherwise.

I'm mixing a variety of thoughts in this post, which is the product of a long drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier today. However, I think it's a productive mix: Caught between the stories he knows and the feelings he's developed for the Princess who is meant to love Kensei, Hiro's role as agent of History (or History incarnate) becomes mixed: his loyalties divided, he's caught between the past as he Knows it and the future he wants for himself. I wonder if there's a way of thinking through this odd relationship between Hiro, Heroes and the past that could be a productive exercise towards examining the writing of other historiographies. What happens when we bring our own subjectivity to the past? Can we ever escape the desire to see the world not as it is but as we've learned to narrate it, whether we encounter that world in a text we find in the archives or in 17th century Japan as a result of time-travel? My own answer is no, not entirely -- but then, I've never found myself, as Hiro does, writing a history that would be passed down not to others but to Me.

I suppose that History has always written our stories -- both in the sense that our stories are structured by an inherited tradition and by single humans' experiences of those times. The question is whether we can work to find the human agency that wrote that history, and the tensions that suggest there might have been a way of narrating it Otherwise.

cross posted at In the Middle