Saturday, May 14, 2011

Understanding Superman Through Victor Hugo

(Originally published at Superhero Babylon)

"You will believe that a man can fly."

The last episode of Smallville has aired. It was an epic sendoff to a show that's brought me much more than entertainment, so I'd like to offer my tribute and thank you to all those heroes, real and otherwise, with my thoughts on the future, if they are to survive.

Although my childhood favorite was Spiderman, perhaps no character in the 20th century has garnered so much recognition than Superman. It's fitting that so much recognition has been paid to him, and Smallville in particular, here at Superhero Babylon, both positive and negative. But the negative was always in the constructive spirit of what could be; as one of the greatest heroes in the popular imagination, we all want our vision to be the vision. No matter what version of him, Superman inspires in so many the same thing: the idea that we, in our own way, can fly. Even his enemies know this; as Lex Luthor quotes in the finale, villains are defined by their heroes, a reversal of the cliche that heroes are defined by their villains. Despite my philosophical differences with the explicit religious overtones, this one line made it all worth it.

The very existence of Superhero Babylon was a reaction to the hate towards heroism and values in general, as characterized by the "grim and gritty" school of comics. With the return of heroes in the popular media, however, the tone shifted toward the fight between conflicting claims over the ideas that make a hero, and Smallville has led the way. I had my disagreements with the show's philosophical premises. I take my disagreements seriously, but at its most antagonistic, I found it a worthy adversary. At its best, however, I found it an ally in its spirit. If this seems strange, especially in regards to cartoon characters, consider how Ayn Rand felt about the work of the Romantic writers, especially Victor Hugo:

The distinguishing characteristic of this top rank (apart from their purely literary genius) is their full commitment to the premise of volition in both of its fundamental areas: in regard to consciousness and to existence, in regard to man’s character and to his actions in the physical world. Maintaining a perfect integration of these two aspects, unmatched in the brilliant ingenuity of their plot structures, these writers are enormously concerned with man’s soul (i.e., his consciousness). They are moralists in the most profound sense of the word; their concern is not merely with values, but specifically with moral values and with the power of moral values in shaping human character. Their characters are “larger than life,” i.e., they are abstract projections in terms of essentials (not always successful projections, as we shall discuss later). In their stories, one will never find action for action’s sake, unrelated to moral values. The events of their plots are shaped, determined and motivated by the characters’ values (or treason to values), by their struggle in pursuit of spiritual goals and by profound value-conflicts. Their themes are fundamental, universal, timeless issues of man’s existence—and they are the only consistent creators of the rarest attribute of literature: the perfect integration of theme and plot, which they achieve with superlative virtuosity.

If philosophical significance is the criterion of what is to be taken seriously, then these are the most serious writers in world literature.

She also writes that
The Romanticists were far from Aristotelian in their avowed beliefs; but their sense of life was the beneficiary of his liberating power. The nineteenth century saw both the start and the culmination of an illustrious line of great Romantic novelists.

And the greatest of these was Victor Hugo.
Of his characters, Rand writes:
Do not say that the actions of these giants are "impossible" because they are heroic, noble, intelligent, beautiful–remember that the cowardly, the depraved, the mindless, the ugly are not all that is possible to man.
Of the charge of escapism:
Do not say that this glowing new universe is an "escape"–you will witness harder, more demanding, more tragic battle than you have seen on poolroom street corners; the difference is only this: these battles are not fought for penny ante.

Do not say that "life is not like that"–ask yourself: whose life?
That is how I feel about Superman, and superheroes, and, well, heroes in general.
Superman does not make people believe that they will fall, but fly. And when I criticize, it's because I know their importance; if they were simply kid's stuff, as many would have you believe, I wouldn't be outraged when they are forced to espouse ideas antithetical to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." You see, it's not the literal stories and characters, that matter, but the ideas they represent, not the powers and the primary colors, but the vision of what life might or ought to be. That antagonism is, again, paralleled by Rand's analysis of Hugo's contradictions:
"Grandeur" is the one word that names the leitmotif of Ninety-Three and of all of Hugo's novels–and of his sense of life. And perhaps his most tragic conflict is not in his novels, but in their author. With so magnificent a view of man and of existence, Hugo never discovered how to implement it in reality.
He never translated his sense of life into conceptual terms, he did not ask himself what ideas, premises, or psychological conditions were necessary to enable men to achieve the spiritual stature of his heroes....It is as if the wide emotional abstractions he handled as an artist made him too impatient for the task of rigorous defining and of identifying that which he sensed rather than knew–and so he reached for any available theories that seemed to connote, rather than denote, his values.
When I think of the Superman as the "Man of Tomorrow", I can't help but think that his ideals were full of contradictions of good and bad from the past. Rand noted a similar contradiction in Hugo that sums up the current "Superhero Babylon":
Hugo the thinker was archetypal of the virtues and the fatal errors of the nineteenth century. He believed in an unlimited, automatic human progress....Feeling an enormous, incoherent benevolence, he was impatiently eager to abolish any form of human suffering and he proclaimed ends, without thinking of means: he wanted to abolish poverty, with no idea of the source of wealth; he wanted the people to be free, with no idea of what is necessary to secure political freedom; he wanted to establish universal brotherhood, with no idea of what is necessary to secure political freedom, he wanted to establish universal brotherhood, with no idea that force and terror will not establish it. He took reason for granted and did not see the disastrous contradiction of attempting to combine it with faith–though his particular form of mysticism was...closer to the proud legends of the Greeks, and his God was a symbol of human perfection, whom he worshipped with a certain arrogant confidence, almost like an equal of a personal friend.
Gee, that sounds a lot like how generations viewed Superman, doesn't it? And that is why I write this tribute today; Superman, despite being an alien, inspires the same hope in this world that Hugo inspired in Rand:
A professed mystic in his conscious convictions, he was passionately in love with this earth; a professed altruist, he worshiped man's greatness, not his suffering, weaknesses or evils; a professed advocate of socialism, he was a fiercely intransigent individualist...he achieved the grandeur of his characters by making them all superbly conscious, fully aware of their motives and desires, fully focused on reality and acting accordingly....And this is the secret of their peculiar cleanliness, this is what gives a beggar the stature of a giant...this is the hallmark of all of Hugo's characters; it is also the hallmark of human self-esteem.
And that, above all else, is the value, and the danger, of the Superman mythos, and of heroism in general. A hero, by definition, is one who "defends" and "protects." A hero can be a blessing, but a curse, if allowed to become a crutch. The best heroes don't just save the day, they inspire and enable us to become our own heroes, so as not to require others to need to sacrifice themselves. Then and now, the idea of Superman has, time and time again, promised to unite America Babylon. That may be a job too big even for Superman, but should it ever come to be, his message that the greatness comes from within us, should we choose it, will have played no small part.

Perhaps the most important theme throughout Smallville has been the lesson for Clark to become a hero without sacrificing his own needs, to embrace his community, his humanity, without sacrificing his self. To say "I love you," someone must first say "I." The best thank-you one could offer a hero, a Superman, would be this, engraved over the Fortress of Solitude:

"I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

For those heroes among you, thank you, and shine on.



1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Joe! Although I am not a comic aficianado, I know the genre and have read a few over the years. For my 60th birthday, I treated myself to several Flash compendia. However, as a child, I read Superman by preference. Later, as an adult, a more literary friend pointed out the weaknesses versus his preference, Batman. I had to admit that as literature, he was right, but I clung to something less tangible: the brightness. Superman is upbeat. I especially liked Kandor and the occasional glimpses of Krypton. Again, it was the promise of a better utopian future, the Gernsbach Continuum, as Gibson called it.

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