on unlikeable heroes in novels and their social meaning

How are we to explain the eeriness of the novel, or its social function within novel cultures? Or, to put this in a narrower way, to speak of a certain species of novel that emerged in the 19th century – from an ancestry in the criminal picaresque: why would anybody want to read about the actions, thoughts and words of a hero one dislikes? Why would you do this for fun?

The line in lit crit, which was cemented in mid twentieth century, was that the modernists invented the novel in which the anti-hero is the dark eminence, and true prince of our sensibilities. This, however, really isn’t the case. Greek myths, the Grimm’s fairytales, Daoist anecdotes are all seeded with mildly or strikingly dislikeable personages. Aristotle, in a sense, is asking a similar question in the Poetics about tragedy. We can admire Antigone, we can even admire Achilles, but we don’t – we are intended to – befriend them. For Aristotle, plausibility is a sort of meta-rule of narrative production. Plausibility is not reality, but rather, reality as seen by a certain credentialed set. It inscribes class into the very heart of aesthetics. Plausibility is not just continuity and logistics, but it gives us our sense of what typifies a character – what they would do in character. This is not a neutral judgment about norms – it is an imposition of a certain class’s norms upon narrative. And, always, the artist has squirmed under that imposition. The slave’s impulse – irony –counters the demands of plausibility even in fairy tales. When La Fontaine portrays the ant and the grasshopper, for instance, we know, from the point of view of plausibility, that the ant is right Mention, say, welfare at a dinner party in the suburbs and you will hear a chorus of ants. But La Fontaine surely makes the reader uncomfortable with this judgment. We see the cruelty of ants, and the beauty of the grasshoppers.

Plausibility and likeability get us to reflect on what these narratives do in the culture. And I think that this is what really happened with the novel in the 19th century in a Europe that was still largely peasant and ancient regime: the novel was a tool for encountering the Other. The Other outside the bourgeois norms, as orphan or ax murderer, as adulteress or unhappy wife.  This is where the anti-hero collects within his unlikeability the collective unconsciousness, and opens up the dreamlike possibility that the plausibility-ruled reader is, perhaps, Other. The novel hymns what Foucault calls the experience-limit – the limit in which you test to see whether you are a human or a monster. How much of a monster can you be? And so far, in the sweep of the imperialist eras, the genocide, the famines, the wars, we find that often, dizzyingly, the likeable is the monstrous, systematically liquidating the dislikeable, which it has previously created in its anti-image. Its negative, that appallingly chilling word for the photographic process by which the original film shows the reverse of the colors or tones of the final photograph – black or darker for white or lighter, and so on.  John Herschel, who coined the terms in a paper in 1840, wrote about them within the framework of an assumed theory of the original and the real: “To avoid much circumlocution, it may be allowed me to employ the terms positive and negative to express respectively pictures in which the lights and shades are as in nature, or as in the original model, and in which they are the opposite, i.e. light representing shade and shade light.” Nature and its substitute, the original model, produce, of course, a system of representation. In the novel, the original model is not only reversed in the negative character, but retrospectively shaken out of its originality. As in photography itself, the negative precedes, in time, the representation of the original model, the positive. Upon this complex of reverses, our canonical novel – and play, and movie, and ballad -rests.