No more heroes any more—a few everyday thoughts on The Stranglers, Der Wanderer and Kurt Wallander

Sturdy, common, everyday things on our kitchen table
Before properly beginning this address it's worth noting two important ideas that inform it.

Firstly, it should be heard in the context of the powerful suggestion made by Thomas Sheehan (to which I introduced to you a few weeks ago) that we should hear what Jesus was teaching about in a radically different way to that presented to us by Christianity, namely, that “Jesus’ doctrine of the kingdom meant that henceforth and forever God was present only in and as one’s neighbour” and that he “dissolved the fanciful speculations of apocalyptic eschatology into the call to justice and charity.” Sheehan also feels that Jesus’ proclamation “marked the death of religion and religion’s God and heralded the beginning of the post religious experience: the abdication of ‘God’ in favour of his hidden presence among human beings.”

Secondly this address should be heard in the context of the mature position of the philosopher and theologian Don Cupitt as expressed in a talk of 2013 entitled, “A Secular Christian”:

“The moral teaching of the original Jesus, critically reconstructed, was entirely concerned with human relationships and human self-expression, or, as we’d now call it, ‘self-outing’. He seems to be surprisingly secular, a point hard to explain until we remember that in the Last World there is ‘no Temple’, as the Revelation of John says, no religious system, and no centralised or ‘focussed’ divinity. In the Kingdom, God is dispersed into a universal ‘brightness’, a luminous intelligibility in which there is no darkness and everything is plain to view. It’s a purely human world in which everyone is equal, and every heart is open. There is no Beyond and therefore no ulteriority and no deception or duplicity, because we can try to deceive people only if we can envisage a future in which we may profit from our deception. We are not immortal souls, with a very long-term future: we are nothing but our own living of our own brief lives. We shouldn’t be hoarders, because we cannot do it successfully. Instead we should pour ourselves out into life unreservedly. As the popular saying has it: ‘Use it or lose it’. Don’t hide, come out like the sun. Pour yourself out. Burn! Don’t make comparisons, don’t claim your rights. Just put on a good show. Burn!”

(See also:

OK, with these ideas in mind, let's begin by turning to the following poem by William Stafford (1914-1993).

“Allegiances” by William Stafford

It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any, time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things
we live by.

Far to the north, or indeed in any direction,
strange mountains and creatures have always lurked—
elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders:—we
encounter them in dread and wonder,

But once we have tasted far streams, touched the gold,
found some limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful.

Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
where we are, sturdy for common things.



In 1977 a single came out that immediately caught my attention as a twelve-year old just beginning to discover that the world was larger and more open to question than I had been led to believe at home or in school, The Strangler’sNo More Heroes”:

Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky?/He got an ice pick/That made his ears burn. Whatever happened to dear old Lenny?/The great Elmyra,/And Sancho Panza?/ . . . . All the Shakespearoes?/They watched their Rome burn. Whatever happened to the heroes?/Whatever happened to the heroes?/No more heroes any more/No more heroes any more.

I’ll admit that they’re not the greatest of lyrics — and they certainly contain what is possibly one of the worst and most contrived rhymes ever, I mean “Heroes” and “Shakespearoes”! — However, for all that, it exerted a real influence upon me even though I couldn’t fully appreciate this at the time because, in this song, I first heard the news that I was living in a very different world to that of my parents and grandparents.

Today, I’d like to look at what an age of “no more heroes” might mean for us especially in our own free-religious and, in the light of Sheehan and Cupitt's words, even post-religious context. Now, in approximately 2000 words (the self-imposed word limit of my Sunday addresses), I simply cannot do justice to our European culture’s engagement with the idea of the hero and so I’m going to concentrate on just two kinds; the nineteenth-century Romantic kind, and a certain kind of late twentieth-, early twenty-first century hero who is really a kind of anti-hero.

(Click on the picture to enlarge)
I’m a lover of late-Romantic symphonic music and recently I was listening to Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) tone-poem Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life). The titles of each section give you an indication of the ideas at play within the piece: The Hero, The Hero’s Adversaries, The Hero’s Companion, The Hero at Battle, The Hero’s Works of Peace and, lastly, The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Consummation. The world of music divided, and still divides, dramatically over the worth of this piece and even I, who responds well to the basic sonic quality of the music can hear in it a massive and problematic ego and set of ideas at work. But, today, I am not here to offer you a piece of music criticism but what I do want to do, however, is offer you a brief excerpt (just the first minute-and-a-half) of this tone-poem attached to a classic picture of the nineteenth century hero as painted by Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) in his “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” of 1818 (see photo to the right). Our culture has generally taken it as a representation of a man who believes he has, in principle (if not always in practice), the possibility of mastering and controlling both himself and the natural world.

Richard Strauss “Ein Heldenleben” — Symphonie-Orchestrer des Bayerischen Rundfunks — Conductor: Mariss Jansons

Having had heard a bit of the Stranglers and Richard Strauss you’ll appreciate my musical tastes are wide. Well, extending musical taste a little bit further still I can reveal that I’m also a lover of some modern electronic, experimental and dance influenced pop music, especially when it comes from Northern European countries. In connection with this address, I have a particular fondness for a Swedish band called Fläskkvartetten, a string quartet and a percussionist. I came across their work because they provided the music for last films in the Swedish TV crime series, “Wallander”, starring Krister Henriksson. Wallander is, of course, the masterful creation of the Swedish author Henning Mankell.

Inspector Kurt Wallander as underscored by Fläskkvartetten is a very different “hero” from The Wanderer underscored by Strauss. True he, too, is often alone (separated from his wife and often estranged from his daughter and father), but Wallander doesn’t stride healthy and confidently across his landscape with an air of mastery. Oh no, Wallander’s knowledge of his insignificance always trumps any sense of confident mastery he might feel. He drinks too much, continually eats junk food, exercises hardly ever (and then utterly ineffectually), and he continually struggles with his own despair at his own personal life and at the current parlous social and political condition of Sweden.

Wallander is, I think, a good example of the post-heroic hero. He is a hero in an age when there are no more heroes any more. With this in mind, here is Fläskkvartetten’s piece of music from the very last film of the TV series with the singer Ane Brun (who also write the lyrics). It’s called “The Opening” and I think it captures Wallander as post-heroic hero painfully well — not least of all because in this final film he is having to come to terms with the painful truth that he has alzheimer’s disease — something this song is tangentially referring to.

“The Opening” by Ane Brun and Fläskkvartetten

When there’s so much darkness closing in
Just swerve around slowly
You’ll find an opening
A light will appear like an animal between the trees
There you’ll find your pocket of peace

Make a perfect circle, it’s all around you
Put your mark on the map anywhere or nowhere
It’s up to you it’s not too late to find an opening

Trace a track until you find the end
There’s a clearing in every forest, at least one for every man
The light will appear like an animal between the trees
There you’ll find your pocket of peace

Make a perfect circle it’s all around you
You know that everything lingers for you to follow through

It’s up to you, it’s not too late to find an opening
do you wanna rediscover or do you want it all to be over
do you want to see the meaning of the circling?

Now do a little thought-experiment. Can you imagine the Wanderer accompanied by Fläskkvartetten and Ane Brun as he strides confidently across the mountaintops; can you now imagine the opposite, i.e. Wallander being accompanied by the obviously heroic music of Strauss as he struggles to solve crime in the highly plural, secular post-modern age we all now inhabit?

I don’t think we can because there are no more heroes anymore — at least not the kind imagined by Friedrich and Strauss. The old heroes and our new anti-heroes, cannot be exchanged one for the other. Consequently, as we, today, look for a model of how to proceed in the world we cannot go back to the nineteenth and early twentieth-century hero to find it. (In fact this address is, at heart, a gentle warning never to be tempted to do this).

We live in an age which is still only slowly beginning to digest the difficult and challenging idea that there are for us humans no permanencies and no absolute certainties and Wallander’s character helps us to think through some of the possible consequences this realisation. But it’s hard — God knows I know that — and I know you know that too. As the song, “The Opening” puts it, this realisation can, like alzheimer’s, make it feel as if there is only “so much darkness closing in”.

And, at one level, this does seem true. If our benchmark for in what consists a full and bright life is anything like the old heroic ideal, with it’s over-confident ideas of (and desires for) complete mastery and control over oneself and the natural world, then, yes, darkness is closing in.

(In passing the Batman "Dark Knight" trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan, especially the eponymous second film, is a brilliant exploration of an old-school hero painfully discovering that there are no more heroes anymore.)

Some, perhaps many people, regret this but I, for one, welcome this “darkness” because it allows another, gentler and more subtle, human-scale light to emerge into view.

Ane Brun beautifully, if allusively, expresses this in her lyric by suggesting this light appears “like an animal between the trees” in “a clearing in every forest” and suggests that it is one which can guide us to a “pocket of peace”. Brun sees something hopeful in the possibility that all our everyday things linger for us and we can follow them through to this opening in which, at last, we can see the “meaning of the circling” of our transient lives.

This kind of post-heroic language may seem at first puzzling but we can draw upon another beautiful poem by William Stafford to whose work I introduced you a couple of weeks ago to help clarify it further.

Stafford feels (and I agree with him) that it really is time for all the old heroes to go home, if they have any, because the time has come “for all of us common ones to locate ourselves by the real things we live by.” This needs to happen because we are a people who have, at last, come down to earth and we have brought to earth with us all the old heroic ideas, especially those we once associated with God or the gods.

The circling of our culture’s life (which has included our descent to earth) has caused us to "taste far streams", to "touch the gold", to "find some limit beyond the waterfalls" and all these things, and others, have revealed to us that the strange creatures we imagine lived “out there”, elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders and, I would add, our old conception of God — all of whom we once encountered "in dread and wonder" — are simply not there, they were creations of our imaginations. This realisation marks a change of season in our culture, a change from the season of heroes, of Romantic Wanderers, to a season of the Wallander-like everyday, anti-hero who has to locate himself by the real, everday things we live by today.

In this changing of season, however, there remains a real danger that an "insane wind" will get up. That in the moment before the transition from the old to the new has had a chance fully to bed in we lose courage before the "darkness" and in the direction we are heading and we step back and commit the sin of trying to revive the old, crazy, destructive heroic dreams of old and to seek to bring back, if not the gods of old, then certainly the far more dangerous, heroic, nationalistic, totalitarian demigods of old such as Stalin and Hitler, to name but two iconic examples. (The current rise of many nationalist parties across Europe should cause us to be concerned).

But I think we, "ordinary beings", need to keep our courage and "cling to the earth and love" where we are and learn to be "sturdy for common things" and not dangerously distracted by the old, wild dreams for uncommon divine and heroic things.

To conclude. All the foregoing is why I am so attracted to Sheehan and Cupitt’s reading of what Jesus was all about because both of them see in Jesus a man who was, ahead of his times, sturdy for common things, a man who located himself by the real things we live by, who shone brightly and used himself up in everyday acts of justice and charity in the circling of his own earthly life. In fact, if we take Sheehan’s claim seriously (and I do), we can see how in doing this Jesus “marked the death of religion and religion’s God and heralded the beginning of the post religious experience: the abdication of ‘God’ in favour of his hidden presence among human beings”.

When we have fully appreciated and embraced the age of “no more heroes” and truly learnt to leave behind a desire to model our lives on the divine or quasi-divine super-heroes of old and see instead something of the divine light in anti-heroes like Wallander, then I believe we will see that the darkness is not really closing in at all because we’ll be better able to see the divine light in every human being (and, for that matter, every non-human being) we encounter. And, miracle of miracles, we will find, potentially at least, that every being of them becomes for us “like an animal between the trees” in “a clearing in every forest” and that, when we greet them in the spirit of love and justice, they will help bring us a genuine “pocket of peace” which, when you come to think about it, is surely simply another name for the kingdom of heaven on earth — the only true home we’ll ever have — and, as Ane Brun says, it’s not to late to find an opening to it.

So, may I be so bold as to suggest that we keep our eyes on anti-heroes like the human Jesus and Inspector Wallander and finally let the old worn-out heroes, like Friedrich's Wanderer, go home.