10.18.2013

The Necessary Self


When I was young, I didn't really get Superman - I still don't, more than likely, to be honest with you. But one thing one notices about Superman, to me rather apparently, as that at root, he is a character we are to wish to emulate. Superman is, it seems to me, the ideal self in the American popular imagination (well, that's not true - perhaps it is simply the ideal man? I'd love to, as an aside, hear what the impression women had of the character in their exposure to him). He's strong, he's invulnerable, he is noble, he is attractive, etc. He's also an outsider, an immigrant (more or less - does interstellar space count as immigration?), an individualist, an, if you will, entrepreneurial hero - a believer in individual hard work, I suppose.

Well, I  came across this comic via twitter earlier this evening, and it made me consider, what does that mean? To be an ideal hero. I have an interest in this, because once upon a time, I thought I should like to write an epic poem, and epic is, naturally, attracted to the heroic. What always struck and bothered me was that, at some level, I never really believed the heroes of the great epics. Odysseus, Aeneas, Achilles - I never could quite believe the author was trying to draw an image of a real person. Superman? The same way. Batman (in his more modern incarnations) perhaps is somewhat different, he's supposed to have an internal psychology. Superman, in the incarnations I know him (and understand, I'm no comic books expert, I know there were some angsty Supermen out there at one time) is not human. He's an image of a man.

This bothers me, it troubles me. Because, you could not WRITE Superman as a real person. Oh, you could write a real person with superpowers, you could write other stories. But he wouldn't be Superman anymore. Superman can't JUST be someone who leaps tall buildings or what not. He also, in order to truly be what I'd consider Superman, stands for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Not like... he has to put a show on for TJ&AW, or do his best to approach it. He is meant to TYPIFY it. Putting Superman in a situation is less a story than a sort of physics experiment, with the impossibly pure variables that high school physics always presents. This is the difference, to me, between a Superman and a Batman (or even Spiderman, say) - when you ask me what would Batman do if he had to choose between saving a bus of screaming children, or the woman he loves, I think "Well, what is Batman like? What would Batman choose?" When you put Superman in the situation, it becomes a simple matter of ethics: "What is the virtuous decision?" Answer that question, and you know, that's what Superman would do (but then, that's a thorny question, I understand). The rest is just logistics.

At first glance, this limits Superman, perhaps, and this is how I always thought of him - what fun is it to read Superman? He's not human. I can't identify with him. But reading this comic today, got me thinking of all that I could learn from it. Because Superman is the Perfect Man - the Man to Emulate as it were - I can look at a comic book like this, and think:

"What does this say about virtue in our culture?"

Of course, I understand, there are people who would disagree with the comic as presented - culture is a generalization, and we all differentiate from our straitjackets in our own ways. But in general: this comic rang true to me. This is what the movie-ending right thing to do was.We value life, but we value freedom to make our own choices. We value compassion. We value kindness. We value democracy, and just a BIT of anti-establishmentarianism. These are who our heroes are, people like this. Our heroes are NOT John Stuart Mills-like, they do not calculate, they seldom work for the greater good in the abstract (when they do, they often turn evil). They work for the good of the individual, they work, most powerfully, saving one person at a time. Stopping a bomb from going off that will destroy New York, well, that's a MacGuffin, we don't sit there identifying with all the folks that would get blown up. We identify with revenge, or with saving a child, or with redemption, or any of the other human, individual stories that movies are about.

More than this, what is fascinating about this comic is that, in the end, Superman, inhuman, impossible, unapproachable, is all about wish fulfillment. He is superhuman, and this (much like Christ, or Buddha) makes him that-which-we-would-be, you know? And sometimes that's silly. Sometimes its, we wish, perhaps, we had enormous pecs and could look good in spandex, or a good square jaw, or that women swooned, or whatever nonsense.

Sometimes, though, its the utterly impossible and silly situation laid out here. This isn't how it happens in real life. Have you talked to a depressed person? It isn't like this, this is performance art, not mental illness. But, when someone IS depressed, it terrifies those who see them, it's this feeling of utter, complete helplessness. And we want to believe, NEED to believe, 'If I could just talk to her, just me, not all this nonsense the rest of the world is throwing at her, just the two of us. I could change her mind.' There is an arrogance there, but it is the saddest, most human form of arrogance - the arrogance born of desperation and fear. So, Superman, invulnerable, impossibly effective, is less an image of how we think things really are, but instead, a vision of how we wish they would be. If only I had been a bit kinder, a bit wiser, a bit stronger, a bit more steadfast, a bit more loyal.

The truth of course is messier. The truth is, sometimes, there is no strong enough, no wise enough, no kind enough. Sometimes, my apologies to John Lennon, but Love is NOT all you need. We cannot will the world to be right, simply by being our best selves. We can just throw ourselves at the problem, sometimes fail, and usually haunt ourself with that fear: Was I not enough? What if I had been just a little more than I am?

You can't. You can only be what you are. But that's not comforting. That's a pronouncement of doom. Some people perhaps, they can take that philosophically, find the peace of the serenity prayer, often prayed, seldom really attended to. Some people, some people need Superman, some people need to keep trying to be more.

Maybe that's what Superman is. Like Christ, he is the love so great, it inspires self-loathing, the security so great, it pricks our fear, the comfort so great it stirs our guilt. Grace and Works. The queer alchemy of redemption, that says you must be so terribly much, and realize it is never enough, and then it is enough.