The Heroes We’re Allowed
Moses, Daenerys, Hercules, Jack the Pumpkin King, Walter White: the Christian ethic of modern heroes and the suppression of the Will to Power
In a fun conversation with Richard Hanania, Marc Andreessen notes Tony Soprano and Walter White are the closest we get to Great Men in popular culture. We are only allowed degenerate low-life mafiosos and drug pins. The Social Network needs to make things up to cast Mark Zuckerberg’s rise in a darker light. God forbid we get Napoleon.
Andreessen says we are not allowed Great Men. We are not allowed to peer into the Will to Power (I wrote about this in storytelling Hitler). We live in a Christian morality world that denigrates the Nietzschean Superman. This is the moral framework we demand and the framework that is sold to us. It’s the water we swim in.
I want to unpick this.
To do this we must start with pre-Christianity and the greatest Jewish prophet of them all: Moses. I have a theory that Daenerys Targaryen is modelled after him, in a tyrannical (and heretical) indictment of him. But then I wonder whether this is just a matter of perspective. Maybe he only looks tyrannical through a modern Christian lens. Disney’s Hercules is the perfect example of the Christianisation of heroism, and I consider whether Jack the Pumpkin King from A Nightmare Before Christmas is finally our Great Man. And Breaking Bad may present the most interesting duel between the Will to Power and the modern Christian ethic that seeks to suppress it.
Is this what you are in for?:
I will deep dive on Moses - I think I have an under-considered hypothesis, and it’s worth fleshing out. (I considered splitting the Moses thesis out into a separate piece but I think it’s important here and feedback so far indicates Kvetchers appreciate the deep dives.)
But really the thesis becomes about the heroes we’re allowed and looks something like this:
But that’s for later.
In this Kvetch:
Moses (and Daenerys as Moses)
Jack the Pumpkin King
Are Superheroes Supermen?
The Stories we’re Allowed
The Heroes we’re Allowed
Candidates for Great Men Stories
A few weeks ago, every Jewish congregation in the world read the portion from Numbers 31 about the slaughter of the Midianites and the enslavement of their girls. Moses commands the Israelites to slaughter every man, woman and child. When the soldiers return after having killed only the men, Moses is angry and orders them to go back and kill the women and the boys. Which they do, before taking the girls for themselves, along with the booty.
At our Shule that week there was a bar mitzvah. The portion starts off with rules about vows and the circumstances in which a woman will be held to her vows or when her father or husband will be able to annul them. It ends with a story about Gaad and Reuben hesitating to go into the land of Israel.
Let’s just say the rabbi skipped over the woman vow thing as well as the slaughter of the Midianites.
I’ll extract the main part below for you to read, because I’m pretty sure no one else reads it. The commentaries seem to skip over it. The rabbis I speak to wave it away. But it is a very forceful chapter, and is the denouement that follows several chapters of built up tension. You will recall I wrote about the degraded form of idolatry that the Midianites tempted the Israelites to.
1 The Lord spoke to Moses saying,
2 "Take revenge for the children of Israel against the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered to your people."
3 So Moses spoke to the people, saying, "Arm from among you men for the army, that they can be against Midian, and carry out the revenge of the Lord against Midian.
4 A thousand for each tribe, from all the tribes of Israel you shall send into the army."
5 From the thousands of Israel one thousand was given over for each tribe, twelve thousand armed for battle.
6 Moses sent them the thousand from each tribe to the army, them along with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the kohen to the army, with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding in his possession.
7 They mounted an attack against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male.
8 And they killed the Midianite kings upon their slain: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, and Balaam the son of Beor they slew with the sword.
9 The children of Israel took the Midianite women and their small children captive, and they plundered all their beasts, livestock, and all their possessions.
10 They set fire to all their residential cities and their castles.
11 They took all the booty and all the plunder of man and beast.
12 They brought the captives, the plunder, and the booty to Moses and to Eleazar the kohen and to the entire community of Israel in the camp, in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.
13 Moses, Eleazar the kohen, and all princes of the community went out to meet them, outside the camp.
14 Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had returned from the campaign of war.
15 Moses said to them, "Did you allow all the females to live?
16 They were the same ones who were involved with the children of Israel on Balaam's advice to betray the Lord over the incident of Peor, resulting in a plague among the congregation of the Lord.
17 So now kill every male child, and every woman who can lie intimately with a man you shall kill.
18 And all the young girls who have no experience of intimate relations with a man, you may keep alive for yourselves.
This is jarring to read.
Moses is Israel’s greatest Prophet.
Moses was very humble , more than any human being on the face of the earth (Num. 12:3)
He begins with a stutter, and ends bearing the laws of God down from Sinai and speaking to the entire nation of Israel.
Not only is his humility trumpeted, but so is his integrity. Many times the Torah explicitly places Moses beyond reproach. At Numbers 16:15, during the Korah rebellion, Moses says:
I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, not have I wrong any of them.
There are extensive details of the anti-corruption measures Moses takes. Accounting is done under independent auditors (conducted by the Levites under the direction of Itamar) so that there cannot be even the perception of ill dealings.
Dost he protest too much?
Might a Straussian (and non-halachic) reading be that the text insisting how his integrity could not possibly and under any circumstances be impugned be itself read as a hint to Moses' fallibility? Perhaps we are told surreptitiously that Moses could not be trusted - otherwise why would this pure as snow leader require independent audit? Why vigorously insist his humility as he conquers and slaughters his enemies?
And then the fact of Deuteronomy. The first four books are “God speaking”. The last book, Deuteronomy, is different: Moses wrote it himself. It is his account. We hear from him directly. What do we hear?
He stands before the nation, gathered before him. Following the slaughter of the Midianites, he reminds the Israeli nation of their glory over those they have conquered. Of the greatness he has brought them to. Of the many peopled nation they have become.
Who does this remind you of?
Moses as Daenerys Targaryen
I have a theory that Daenerys Targaryen is modelled on Moses.
Born into royalty
Led her people out of destitution
Suffers trials and doubts and betrayals on the way to the Promised Land
Ends up a hardened warrior, dictator and self-righteous killer of men, women and children
Now, I don’t really mean only Daenerys. We have not been waiting thousands of years to finally have a New Moses suddenly emerge in the fevered mind of a fantasy author. But there is a model here of the Great Man. The Leader who takes a small people to greatness, ultimately over the bodies of their enemies. Daenerys is the best example in our current cultural milieu.
I should note that reading Moses as a power-corrupted and bloodthirsty dictator is basically heretical. The Jewish oral tradition reaffirms Moses’s uprightness. If he had to slaughter the Midianites, ok sure it’s heavy, but there must have been a good reason for it and we don’t know what really happened. A textbook example of the kind of elision that happens over the hard parts of Jewish texts. This is a feature not a bug of Judaism - emphasising and de-emphasising parts over time through complex interactions between scholars, practitioners and communities everywhere.
Moses is so important, that believing in the primacy of Moses is one of the 13 principles of faith enunciated by Maimonides (Rambam). But why does Rambam single Moses out? Why must he remind us of Moses?
Why not make the principle: Believe in the holiness of the Prophets, or something? Why Moses specifically?
Well, I have a theory here too. Rambam lived in the 12th C. What if he had to affirm Moses’s leadership in the face of growing Christianity? (Exiled from Muslim Spain, moving from Morocco to Egypt, he did not live in the bosom of Christianity but would not have been a stranger to it.)
The New Testament and the rise of Christianity subverted the morals of old. Where strength and greatness were once prized, now forgiveness and suffering took centre stage.
What if Rambam wanted to push back against the ethic that would look upon Moses and the God of the Old Testament as brutal and harsh?1
What if Moses only looks brutal from our vantage point sitting in a Christian ethic West?
One excuse I have heard from rabbis for Moses’ slaughter is “that’s how it was done back then”. This is an awkward and half-hearted excuse - you can’t really be temporal with these things, otherwise you might just start casting doubt on everything else.
But maybe we can reframe this: what if the moral lens through which we see has changed?
Disney’s Hercules is a wonderful example of the way the West’s Christian ethic transforms heroism.
Hercules meets with his leery
Jewish satyr trainer, Phil, who trained the great heroes of lore: Odysseus, Perseus, Theseus - “a lot of "yeuseus””. And of course, Achilles.
Perhaps here with Hercules we have our Great Man? Like Achilles, seeking glory? Hercules wishes to be a god, reunited with his parents Zeus and Hera in Olympia.
And so Hercules goes off on a classic bildungsroman, transforming from a super-strength awkward lad to a famous Hero.
And yet… none of this is enough to make Hercules a true hero.
Hercules only becomes a God after he sacrifices himself for the girl he loves. She betrays him, he dies and rises again.
Curse! Our Hero, our Great Man is transformed into Christ himself.
3. Jack the Pumpkin King
It is perhaps in the The Nightmare Before Christmas that we find one of the singular Great Men of the screen. Are we allowed this one good Nietzschean Superman to get behind?
Nightmare opens with another successful, ghoulish, most horrible Halloween.
The Master of Fright, Jack the Pumpkin King, retreats from his adoring ghouls to stroll through a cemetery on a moonlit night.
He laments in song - there’s a yearning in his heart:
There are few who'd deny, at what I do I am the best
For my talents are renowned far and wide
But who here would ever understand
That the Pumpkin King with the skeleton grin
Would tire of his crown, if they only understood
He'd give it all up if he only could
The fame and praise come year after year
Does nothing for these empty tears
Then Jack stumbles into Christmas Land - a strange place without ghouls under beds and jolly gifts for children and a great king by the name of Sandy Claws (to Jack’s ear anyway. Jack explaining Christmas is wonderful).
Jack has found his purpose, his vigor. No more same old Halloween. He brings loot back to his minions from Christmas Land. This indisputable master of his craft, this revered leader in his land, now steels himself to conquer Christmas.
We have our Great Man.
A hero king who concocts a plan, fulfils a deep longing in his soul, to exert his will unto the world. He even has his besotted admirer, a Frankensteinian beauty, to whom he is largely indifferent in his pursuit of Greatness (until the end anyway).2 And the ethic of this universe is fittingly contemptuous of democracy - Halloween Town's mayor is merely a sycophantic event-coordinator. At Jack the Pumpkin King's absence he scurries around crying: "I'm only an elected official here, I can't make decisions by myself.”
And yet… of course, this example doesn’t work at all. Jack is a skeleton. We are watching a twisted parody. We laugh at his earnest dreams of conquest. In fact, he may be an unbeknownst villain (isn’t every villain unbeknownst?): he kidnaps Santa Claus and is shot out of the sky. We can only peer into his Will to Power through the twisted prism of (literally) cartoonish quasi-villainous parody. A musical in this style would work wonderfully for, say, Hitler. But we can’t help but love Jack the Pumpkin King. And as I’ve said before, under no circumstances, of course, are we to “love” Hitler. Speaking of which, who does this song sound like?
But I never intended all this madness, never
And nobody really understood, how could they?
That all I ever wanted was to bring them something great
Why does nothing ever turn out like it should?
Well, what the heck, I went and did my best
And, by God, I really tasted something swell
And for a moment, why, I even touched the sky
And so the example of Jack the Pumpkin King as our counterexample to our revulsion at Great Men falls away.
It cannot be any other way.
We cannot have our good Great Man. Just degenerate low-life mafiosos, drug pins and skeleton kings.
4. Are Superheroes Supermen?
What of superhero stories? You know, the schizophrenic ADHD-brained Marvel kind we’re drowning in? Surely superheroes are Nietzschean Supermen.
Superhero films are Nietzschean, but it’s the villains who are the Nietzschean Supermen.
Here I’ll quote a messaging counterparty who I have not asked permission to be quoted and so who shall remain nameless:
The tipoff is that in superhero stuff -- and anything like it -- it's always the villain that has the master plan, never the hero. The villain has his goal and his plan for executing it, the hero is reactive.
Again here, we are only allowed to have the narrative that the Nietzschean Superman is evil in the eyes of Christian morality.
This was lampshaded a bit in "The Dark Knight" where the Joker explicitly scorns plans, but yet has an extremely elaborate plan to do so.
In contrast, the heroes are almost always lunkheads.
Actual Superman as the ultimate lunkhead. Stands around until something happens, and then uses brute force to try to stop it.
Is this just a demand thing? Audiences just don’t watch anything without capex anymore. HBO’s Rome, about Caesar (definitely a Nietzschean Superman) was cancelled after 2 seasons.
This is consistent with my theory though -- the audience can't just want these things, our dominant morality doesn't let them. The audience can only want the degraded, degenerate version where the Superman is bad.
5. The Stories We’re Allowed
This cycle repeats across all our stories: We are Not Allowed Great Men. No positive vision, win at all costs, ruthless, charismatic hero.
Only bad guys have plans, and guys who have plans are bad (Zuck). Even Nolen’s Joker pretends to be an agent of chaos (Do I really look like a guy with a plan?) but is actually a hyper-capable elaborate scheme weaver. (This is, funnily, the same inversion as in the classic TV comedy Get Smart. The conniving bad guys are called Chaos and the hero idiot intelligence agency are called Control.)
Good guys can only foil. They are not allowed Great Visions. They have no future of the world to realise. They are not allowed to wrap the power-fabric of the world around them. They sacrifice themselves so that their worlds can be redeemed and evil vanquished.
Note how sexless everyone on this arc tends to be - the evil guys are too enamored with power and the good guys are too emasculated - emasculated virgins or one great love somewhere. (Tony Soprano and Don Draper are exceptions).
No Will to Power / all-id evil creeps like Homelander and Orcs are warped fetishists: mummy fantasies for Homelander and man-flesh for Orcs.
Moses is the perfect embodiment of Good Visionary. Good in a very literal, tautological sense: the entire foundation of civilisations built on the Old Testament, which is relentless about how much of a mensch Moses is.
And of course, we’ve discussed the almost-example of Jack the Pumpkin King.
Even Daenerys: initially we are led to believe that here, finally, is the Hero we deserve. A true Will to Power Heroine. People name their daughters after this virtuous, tough, beautiful woman. Even when she crucifies the slavers, well, they’re slavers. But no! We are not allowed this. They have to turn her into a bloodthirsty Mad Tyrant. We are denied our Great Man once more.
The Lord of the Rings can be considered purely on this spectrum: Sauron is the evil one with the evil plan, and the only reason Frodo and the Hobbits are chosen to carry the Ring is because they’re the least ambitious of all, just wanting to garden, ankle-leer and smoke pipes in the Shire. Men are in between: untrustworthy, pining for power and Kingdoms. Unsurprising, given how steeped in Christianity Tolkien’s world is.
The dual-ending of Breaking Bad is a kind of explicit wrangling between Christian moralism and the fruition of the Will to Power in all its glory. The penultimate episode finds Walt broken: alone with only cancer as his blizzard companion. Despised by his wife and son who are left destitute. His empire in ruins, an ignoble Ozymandias. A fitting Christian comeuppance to our anti-hero. And then the finale. It emerges like a poppy flower through the suffocating bleakness. He rises. He finds a way to channel dirty money to his family. He saves Jesse. Confesses to his wife: I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really—I was alive. He vanquishes each of his enemies (Lydia! The Nazis!). He goes down in a blaze of glory - spiting cancer itself. We shriek with glee. Our Superman confounds the feminised gatekeepers who would chain our Will to Power in the civilising garb of Christian ethics. For a moment we have our Hero. Yes he built the Coca Cola of meth, let a heroine addicted goth chick die and accidentally got his brother-in-law killed - but for just a moment we got to taste the eternal sun of man’s Will to Power.
Conan the Barbarian (and his remake in The Northman), not coincidentally, is set in the distant atavistic past. In a pre-Christian past (Achilles falls in the same bucket). For a hero to go out and conquer, to escape the feminised chains of our culture, to be Conan the Barbarian and fill the yearning our hearts we must wait longer.
It’s funny when the charisma of the anti-heroes nevertheless escapes the confines of their loathsomeness.
The left look upon Breaking Bad and are repulsed:
They see something real: the magnetic charisma of power dripping in the aesthetic excellence of the show. They are repulsed. To them power can only be draped in the baggy ill-fitting uniform of an apparatchik. Beauty is offensive. Beauty is profoundly hierarchical, unequal, un-distributable. Like wealth, they cannot create it, so they must tear it down so that everyone lives in the same grey morass.
They resent the charisma of characters like Walt and Gordon Gekko and Tony Montana.
No woman ever fantasised about being tied up by a liberal.
Speaking of which: sexlessness is, ironically, a feature of Great Men.
In their conversation, Richard asks Andreessen why the Breaking Bad universe is so sexless. The Great Men of power are never seen bonking women. Walter is somewhere between sexless and fiercely loyal to his wife (and they have ravenous sex only after he breaks bad and feels like a man again). Sexlessness, Andreessen argues, is consistent with the Nietzschean theory of the Superman. Sex is not a motivator.
The Superman does not need to be motivated by women, because the Nietzschean Superman in his full glory is perfectly capable of attracting any number of women who are attracted to male success and empire building and the Nietzschean Superman just has whatever wife he has…. Sex pales in interest in comparison to empire building. Which is consistent with the archetype of the Superman.
This is, by the way, a perfect description of Hitler’s sexlessness and sex stardom in the Third Reich.
6. The Heroes We are Allowed
There is a realm of Nietzschean Superman we are allowed: sports stars.
Rock stars have a similar vibe, but every music star’s story must end in downfall (drugs, breakup, enslavement to decades of re-playing the same hits).
But sport stars can win.
My favourite recent example of this is Ford vs Ferrari.
The transcendence of obsession. The knife fight at the frontier of engineering prowess. Masters brushing death in pursuit of their craft. The raw male compulsion to win. The same id that propelled man to the moon, built the bomb. Riveting.
And yes both protagonists are flawed in normal ways.
But we root for them, and are allowed to root for them. They are world-class men striving to win at all costs. They have a plan and seek to bend the world to their Will. And they win.
Sport stars are our remaining Great Men.
7. Candidates for Great Men Stories
There are, if we want, countless Great Man stories hiding in plain sight. An example list, just top of mind:
Bezos / Musk / Zuck / Bill Gates etc
Cortez / Pizzaro
Lee Kwan Yew
Whether they killed people or not, the definitive attribute must be Visionary.
The Person of Politeness will look at this list and gasp. Napoleon! But he launched the great slaughter across Europe. Moses had the Midianites. Genghis Khan conquered the largest empire in history and literally seeded the greatest dynasty in history like a
n absolute based king bad dude. Bill Gates has the… vaccines and the mind control?
Fear instead of Strength. Apathy instead of Vision. Deference instead of Leadership. Passive funds over active. The elevation of the weak, the suffering of the victim over the strong. This is the Christian air we breathe.
I welcome any feedback from Jewish scholars on this or any point by the way - keen to hear reasons I’m wildly off track or more corroborating evidence.
The charisma of Jack and his Greatness is in fact one of the reasons Nightmare is so much better than its cousin Corpse Bride, which while cute is led by limp lettuce protagonists.