Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Alpha Heroes as Nietzschean Supermen

Pure silliness ahead.


A lot of people know that the lyric from Kanye West’s “Stronger”, “N-n-now that that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger” is sort of a Nietzsche quote. Well, I happened to be reading Nietzsche today, then heard “Stronger” on the way home, then the idea for a post came to me. (Plus, a Texas lit prof was banned, temporarily, it turns out, from putting the German version of Nietzsche’s most quoted sentence, “God is Dead” on his office door, so I felt like I needed to spread the Nietzsche as much as possible in retaliation.)

Nietzsche was very critical of everyday morality — the “we are all equal”, “go along to get along”, “subordinate your will to the will of the group” morality —   which he felt kept the “higher types”, the truly excellent, flourishing human beings, down, ashamed of the very things they should be most proud of. Judeo-Christian morality, Nietzsche felt, was a complicated and ingrained rationalization for a lot of base human emotions, like envy, resentment, and fear. He hoped that, among other things, his critique and exposure of morality as a disease could help in releasing/creating these higher men.

So, what characteristics did these higher men (and they were always men) possess (you can read more here)?

They were solitary, pursued a unifying life project, healthy, life-affirming, and self-reverent.

Solitary — not congenial, not nice, not eager to curry the favor of strangers. Unconcerned with what “they” think.

Unifying life project – he is driven, he seeks out burdens and responsibilities, rather than shying away from them. But it’s not random boldness: he has a life purpose that animates everything he does.

Healthy — resilient, strong (the Kanye West lyric above). Even when the higher man is down, is tortured, is physically ill, he uses it as a challenge to overcome.

Life-affirming — No regrets. The higher man turns everything somehow to his advantage, makes it a part of the narrative of his life. Would he do it all over again, exactly the same way? Yes.  (Nietzsche writes: “I myself have never suffered from all this; what is necessary does not hurt me; amor fati [love of fate] is my inmost nature” (Ecce Homo H III:CW-4).

Self-reverential – not plagued by self-doubt, self-loathing, he has a “fundamental certainty” about himself. He is powerful, and has power over himself. He is severe with himself and others. He is noble, he is of a different rank than other men, has a different bearing.

“Our weak, unmanly social concepts of good and evil and their tremendous ascendancy over body and soul have finally weakened all bodies and souls and snapped the self-reliant, independent, unprejudiced men, the pillars of a strong civilization” (Daybreak 163).

Not all romance heroes have all of these qualities (the Chase cover works better for the pose mirroring Nietzsche’s than for the hero possessing these traits), but it struck me that there’s some interesting overlap, especially when alpha heroes transgress everyday morality to exact revenge, seduce a virgin, steal, etc. in the name of a life-organizing project.

It would be interesting to try to think of a hero who fits all of the above. I’m all out of ideas at the moment.

Published in: on November 10, 2008 at 10:13 pm  Comments (22)  
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22 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love you. I mean it, I’m devoted now.

    Possibly since I just finished rereading it, I thought of Kev from Seduce Me At Sunrise, but he doesn’t fit the “self-reverential” bill. Although Cam works a little better.

    Pedestrian choices, probably. I just don’t read a lot of overly alpha-males since they tend to piss me off.

    (Oh yes, and well done Temple College for preventing higher learning in a place of higher learning. I’ve spent eight years trying to explain that dissent isn’t illegal. Apparently it’s just against code. Whatever.) (No, not associated with the school.)

  2. Wow,this is an amazing post. I’m not sure where to start. Have I ever read a hero with ALL of these qualities? I’m don’t think so. Believe it or not the first ‘hero’ that comes to mind is Stuart Redman from Stephen King’s Book The Stand. I believe he has all these qualities – but not until he is faced with having to live in a post-apocalyptic world and must do everything in his power to save what is left of planet earth and the people still living on it.

    Perhaps a ‘hero’ only acquires all of these traits when faced with the most extreme circumstances.

  3. The one character that did come to mind for me while reading this was the protagonist in Camus’s L’Étranger. I don’t remember the novel particularly well, since I last read it in secondary school but I do have the impression that he resembles the Strong Man in many respects. Rather crucially, however, Camus’s protagonist lacks a “Unifying life project.”

    I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, to write a romance hero with all these qualities. For example, if he’s solitary, what’s going to motivate him to abandon his solitude and spend the rest of his life with the heroine? Often, in romance, the hero is a loner because of some torment/problem he’s suffered in the past. But the higher man has “No regrets” and is “not plagued by self-doubt, self-loathing.” That rules out all the angsty romance heroes. In addition, in romance the hero’s “Unifying life project” is often shown to be an incomplete source of satisfaction to him. His business interests or military conquests may have made him highly successful, but romance tends to suggest that what he really needs is the love of a good woman to make him complete.

    I very much doubt that the Nietzsche’s Strong Man could be “tamed” by a romance heroine, because any man in need of taming, or amenable to it, would by definition not be a “Strong Man.” And beta heroes aren’t Strong Men to start with. I wonder if there’s a fair proportion of “fake Strong Men” in the genre, just like there are a lot of “fake rakes”? If so, perhaps that’s because while some of the power/lack of social constraint of both the rake and the Strong Man seems attractive, other characteristics required to be a true Strong Man or rake are not particularly compatible with domestic, romantic bliss.

  4. I think the one problem with it is the “self-reverential” part. The core of the most successful romance heroes is their uncertainty with and about themselves that the heroine (other hero) overcomes to make them whole. You can have a self-confident hero, but they have to have something missing inside of them that their romantic opposite fills and fulfills for the romance to ring true.

  5. Kate, thank you! Cam and Kev are interesting choices. I didn’t read Cam’s book, but Kev was too tortured and self-loathing, I think, to count.

    Marisa — I agree — he has to be tortured, but not by self-doubt.

    Laura — I agree that Meursault lacks the trait of having an organized life. just the opposite, he is the very epitome of existential crisis. He’s man looking into the abyss and the abyss looking back, as Nietzsche would say.

    But your comment made me think about which men Nietzsche himself identified as higher men: Goethe, Beethoven, and Nietzsche, and their romantic lives.

    Goethe was happily married, at least for a while, and Nietzsche was in love with Richard Wagner’s wife (Cosima, the daughter of Franz Lizst) and later experienced another unrequited love with a much younger Russian philosopher. As for Beethoven, I believe he never married, but, like Nietzsche, fell in love with a much younger woman. Both Nietzsche and Beethoven wanted to marry their young loves.

    Does this represent a tension against the “solitary” quality of the higher man? Maybe.

    How about JD Robb’s Roarke for a higher man? (I am sure this came to me because of Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, another higher man). I think he might have all of the qualities, and maybe it could be argued that he doesn’t lose them when he marries his higher woman equivalent, Eve.

    Alternatively, maybe the point of romance is to bring the higher man down to conventional morality. Get him shackled, married, and breeding, a great loss to civilization, from Freddy’s point of view. 😉

  6. Ohh — we were posting at the same time, Sarah. Thank you, thank you for visiting and commenting.

    Yes, I think you are right about that — the hero in romance is not an island. He can’t be. But how literally do we have to take “solitary” for Nietzsche? Maybe he meant “unique” more than “alone” (I tried to make that case in my response to Laura). That’s something I will think about.

  7. Where did I get the term “Strong Man” from? Did I just make that up? Oh dear.

    Anyway, moving swiftly on, re solitariness, could it be meant more metaphorically in the sense of Byron’s phrase about “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart; / ‘Tis woman’s whole existence.” So these men could be married, possibly even happily so, but it would only be a small part of their lives. That makes me think of Betty Neels. Her heroes are generally (medical) super men, with medicine being their Unifying life project. Others respect them greatly but they take this for granted and they feed the heroines but don’t show much sign of emotion towards them.

  8. That was Byron? I always thought that was de Beauvoir!

    Yes, that may be it. I don’t have the German with me at the moment (plus my German was barely enough to pass comps, and you know how bad that is), but I will see what exact word he used — sometimes that helps.

    ps. I’m afraid you did make up “strong man”. Nietzsche uses “superman” or “overman” very rarely, and only in less mature or very rhetorical work, tnending to favor “higher man “or higher type”.

  9. That was Byron? I always thought that was de Beauvoir!

    While I was Googling I found this:

    One of the most deeply annoying quotes I have ever come across is mentioned in her book. Byron’s ‘Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart: ’tis woman’s whole existence.’ Even Simone de Beauvoir says something similar in The Second Sex: ‘What he requires in his heart of hearts is that this struggle remains a game for him. While for woman it involves her very destiny. Man’s true victory…lies just in this: that woman freely recognizes him as her destiny.’

    Also via Google, a translation of part of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Woman in Love” which has that quote from Byron in its first paragraph.

  10. Thanks Laura for the quotes. I wasn’t challenging you by the way. I meant “Wow! I never realized that was Byron”, not “You are so wrong! It was Beauvoir!” Ah, the internets.

  11. It’s fine. I thought that was what you meant, although I did have a tiny suspicion that maybe you were joking and you really did know.

    I’ve done a bit more Googling and here‘s more of the context. The quote is from Byron’s Don Juan, Canto the First, and they’re words that Julia writes in a letter:

    “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
    ‘Tis woman’s whole existence; man may range
    The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart;
    Sword, gown, gain, glory, offer in exchange
    Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,
    And few there are whom these cannot estrange;
    Men have all these resources, we but one,
    To love again, and be again undone.

  12. I think it was Hemingway whose work always included an example of the ubermensch. Here are some more, though they’re not exactly romance heroes:

  13. I think Sarah makes an excellent point with the lack of self-reverential romance heroes and reasons thereof, especially in terms of the sweeping historical types of romances. I wonder if they may not be more possible in contemporaries?

    I do think in the unique v. solitary discussion that solitary doesn’t have to mean an island of themselves, and that’s possible in many – heck, lots of romance heroes. Man/woman does not have to be *alone* to be *solitary*, which is how I think of the solitary man/woman.

    But again that self-reverential part is such a blocker in my head when trying to imagine the romance novel “higher men,” bearing in mind I’m particular in my choices and don’t read a wide spread of romances. Would it be possible to see the higher man hero in some of the fantasy/urban fantasy novels?

    Roland from the Dark Tower series/Stephen King comes to mind, but I’ve only read the first in the series so don’t hold me to it 🙂

  14. *raises hand tentatively*

    Uh, maybe Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer’s Don’t Look Down hero (what was his name?).

    Interesting that I picked one that’s written by a man…

  15. Laura — Thanks for tracking down that quote. It’s amazing how many people who have meditated on the genders have shared that sentiment.

    JenB — Leave it to Wikipedia to have an entry discussing the higher men in pop culture! Thanks for the link. I agree that Hemingway heroes, maybe Hemingway himself, shares several of these qualities.

    Kate — Yes, the self-reverential part is tough. I have been so busy this week I haven’t had the space to even try to think of a self-reverential hero, although I guess if we are saying that by definition a romance hero cannot be self-reverential, then I will never be able to find one!

    –Actually, I think Eric Northman of the Sookie Stckhouse vampire mysteries, may qualify, based on my reading of the 1st three books only, but he is not, at this point at least, romance hero material, further supporting the point Sarah, Laura, Kate and the rest of you have been making.

    I haven’t read the Dark Towers or much of any Stephen King since high school. I have no idea why.

    Heloise — please don’t be tentative. Unfortunately, my lack of reading is shining through as I admit to yet another book, the Crusie and Mayer, that I have not read.

  16. I haven’t read the Sookie Stackhouse novels, so no comment on that, but Heloise, I think you may be on to it – J.T.? Or was that the guy from the second Crusie/Mayer book? (…shuffling through old reviews) – yup, JT in Don’t Look Down, and maybe Shane in Agnes and the Hitman as well.

    Also interesting that the only ones we’ve come up with are written by men. Hm.

  17. Because you have the cover of Kinsale’s Seize the Fire up in the sidebar, I can’t help but think of Sheridan and how he’s the antithesis of most of these traits (with the exception of solitary — all of Kinsale’s heroes are solitary). He is a fascinating hero, or more accurately, anti-hero, nonetheless — or perhaps even because he does not conform to these traits.

    How is your reading of the book coming? I’m dying to know your opinion of it.

  18. What an excellent post! Yeah, I think part of the problem with identifying romance heroes that fit this bill is a lot of what Laura said. In a way, you get a lot of the women healing or saving the men, and couples completing each other. But I think Roarke is an excellent choice, judging from the little I’ve read of that series, and I have always thought that, too, by the way, about his origins in the Fountainhead.

    Eric may be a good choice, too. OOOOOH! I can’t wait for you to read further!!

    Also, Laurel K. Hamilton’s vampire character Jean Claude is something like this, especially across the first 7 books. Oh! As well as her killer buddy, yikes, I can’t remember his name. However, he is not a romantic hero. Jean Claude is.

  19. Okay, less tentatively. What interests me about this question/topic is that I agree with the overall premise that a successful romance hero needs to feel a lack in his own character/life so that the romance heroine can complete/fulfill that lack.

    BUT, typically (maybe I should use traditionally) in historicals the first encounter of the heroine with the hero doesn’t involve her observing this lack. In other words what often draws the heroine to the hero is not his clear need to be completed but his innate power/confidence/self possession among a field of lesser men. Very in keeping with said ubermensch.

    Hmm, what we find attractive from across the room is not enough to create a satisfying emotional journey for 300 pages? I guess that’s not rocket science.

  20. Heloise, I think you are right on, especially with historicals, not that I know them that much, but on first encounters from the heroine’s POV, (I’m thinking about Nick Gentry or even Dane from LOS) the hero is that stronger man. But the reader knows different. Maybe that is some of the tension, wanting the heroine to see the wound. It’s the same with paranormals like BDB: the reader sees the hero’s need and lack, but all the heroine sees is the strength and steeliness and lack of need. And often vice versa. And part of the fun, often part of the plot device is that recognition. I feel like I just restated a lot of obvious stuff. But it’s newly interesting in light of this “Stronger Man” concept.

  21. I think you are onto something — maybe there’s a duality. An outward appearance or initial posture of being isolated and self-reverential, which gives way as the romance progresses.

  22. I agree with Sarah that in romance there is often one missing jigsaw piece in the hero that he needs to the heroine to complete and in this sense, I don’t think this is a particularly prevalent type despite the many common characteristics.

    In fact, it strikes me that the type you mention is very much a man’s man, a James Bond figure for example.

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