You often hear people talk about how there are only seven stories in the world. It’s an appealing theory because it’s so simple, so quotable. It lets us unify narratives across civilisations into a cohesive whole, yet is loose enough that it doesn’t constrain us. We can use it to draw parallels between Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Taxi Driver, War of the Worlds and Beowulf, or Heart of Darkness and The Hobbit. It’s a convention so familiar that we know it on an almost instinctive level.
But all of this hinges on a more basic assumption that isn’t challenged – that there is a hero or heroine, someone who will act. This feels particularly true of genre fiction, where our protagonists live in fantastical places, often in times of strife. But the same still applies to the most sedate ‘literary’ fiction. The protagonist – from the Ancient Greek protagonistes, ‘player of the first part, chief actor’ – leads our way.
Heroes and anti-heroes alike are compelled to act. Maybe by their principles, long held moral beliefs, maybe by the desire for revenge or wealth, or maybe it’s the more primal matter of self-defense - we don’t all freeze like rabbits when trapped, after all. Whatever their motives, they choose to act for their own reasons. It seems obvious, because the alternative would undermine any narrative based around it, right?
To be without ego is to have no sense of self-importance. It calls to mind modest people, those able to see the greater significance of events and make decisions for the greater good. The Freudian ego is the bit between the unconscious and conscious mind, the part that keeps our instincts in line, the way we enact our desires. Can you take these away and still have a story?
It rules out classic quests. Detective stories driven by the need to solve, or survive, a crime. Every prophesied deed – prophecies become particularly troubling from this angle in fact, denying a sense of individuality and free will to their subject. The trend of deconstructing fantasy might question the heroism, but it doesn’t deal with the egoism. Take Abercrombie’s drunks and scrappy losers looking out for themselves, even Lamb from Red Country, who does his best to avoid being part of anything but is still compelled to great deeds.
So is it possible to have a hero without any desires, or ego?
Perhaps the best place to start is with Ursula le Guin, queen of the atypical protagonist. In The Dispossessed, her classic exploration of anarchist government, the very word ‘egoism’ is an insult. So much of Shevek’s life is spent in service of his work, he is consumed by it to the extent that you wonder if he has any choice or if his nature impels him. In all his time spent on Urras he acts only to ensure his work will be made available to all. In some respects he is all id and superego, made up of only instinctive anarchist values and critical self-reflection.
Even when he is called upon to speak to protesters, to become the paragon for his way of life, he can only offer semi-religious evocations: ‘You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.‘
It is at once his defining moment as the perfect embodiment of his system, and his greatest failure in serving it. He speaks as the perfect anarchist, free of ego or sense of his own worth. But the people need a focus for their revolution, and he only makes himself complicit in their failure. At the same time on Annarres the anarchist state is struggling with the way doing things efficiently inevitably creates formal organisation, and with this organisation comes personal interest. Part of the genius of The Dispossessed is that Shevek’s heroic solution that cuts the Gordion knot is to completely remove any self-interest and give everything he has away. Anarchism succeeds as a personal philosophy whilst the cracks are showing in its societal application.
Margaret Atwood gives us a different angle in The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps the quintessential anti-story. Offred is suppressed to the point that her very name, Of-Fred, is part of her objectification. So much of the book is her internal world, with the narrative drive forced upon her by the men. Underpinning it all is how she imagines situations and the outside world, inhabiting her memories whilst locked in her cell. Ego isn’t allowed for her, and it’s only her memories of a life before that give her an alternative.
Reading The Handmaid’s Tale is an endurance test as we watch Offred alternate between being used by everyone around her and imagining all her lives that were and could have been. She starts to doubt her own memory, and narrates from her limited perspective. So in one sense her ego is all she has, but as readers we can only experience that being continuously crushed and disregarded. It’s desperation more than anything. And when there is finally a chance of freedom, the narrative finishes. The story is her lack of story. What makes that particularly troubling is how complicit we are made, calling her into being by reading. But that’s another article…
Then there’s Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Pilgrim carries such a strong sense of indifference – if such a thing is possible – because he has lived his own future. The dissociation has its roots in the traumatic events he witnessed in the Second World War and makes for a compelling story, made fascinating by his second life on Tralfamadore. But throughout the book Pilgrim seems indifferent to it all. He knows what happens next, he is at peace with the revelation that his life is pre-determined, and so he lives in a state of grace, even passivity. It’s not hard to see why he infuriates so many people he comes into contact with – his lack of ego manifests as a withdrawal from the social contract. He gives no consideration that others don’t share his enlightenment.
Other possibilities, although admittedly full of agency, desires and action, come from Iain M. Banks’ Culture. Gurgeh in The Player of Games has things in common with Shevek. He is another loner in a stable anarchist society. He is free to be a purist consumed by his work – the playing of games to Shevek’s theoretical physics – to the exclusion of most other things. He is a man in need of a sufficient challenge to match his skill. In some respects he is looking to lose himself, to complete an act of symbiosis with the game, for the same reason Edmund Hilary climbed mountains. Gurgeh is somewhere between the need to be everything and nothing at the same time. For him it’s only as he uses the game as the metaphor it always was to look at his own role that he can recover his ego and become the goal of his quest. Mind you, he cheats and has to be blackmailed into doing anything in the first place, so he’s maybe not quite as noble as Shevek.
Whilst in Excession the Outside Context event provides the perfect foil for the gargantuan egos of the ship minds up against it. These ship minds are amongst the most advanced entities in the universe, and they know it. Boy, do they know it. But they are Outside Context; the excession doesn’t care. It represents an impasse, the supreme aporia, and ultimately the only way to move past it comes from humility. In that respect the excession the ideal ego-free character, reflecting only, as Arthur C. Clarke’s monolith absorbs. But Excession is a story about the fear of the unknown for those who think they know everything, a pertinent one now that computing is allowing an ever-faster rate of achievement. Banks might just have been telling us that ego is overrated, that sometimes the happy ending depends on letting go of your self-worth.
Perhaps it is an unworkable demand, to have a truly ego-free character, and even Shevek was full of self-interest. But the attempt to create a character who is content to simply be, one who is more than just a cypher, gives a distinct angle on narratives. It might just create an alternative to the seven stories, a journey for those of us who aren’t heroes.
And does it say more about these characters, or us, that the closer we get to creating them the more they seem to exhibit true nobility, or grace?