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June 09, 2006

Eternal returns


The latest trailer for the forthcoming Superman reboot underlines his role as latter-day Christ-figure. Neil Gaiman discusses the pop culture demi-god standing "between humanity and a capricious universe" in the June issue of Wired.

About a decade ago, Alvin Schwartz, who wrote Superman comic strips in the 1940s and ‘50s, published one of the great Odd Books of our time. In An Unlikely Prophet, reissued in paperback this spring, Schwartz writes that Superman is real. He is a tulpa, a Tibetan word for a being brought to life through thought and willpower. Schwartz also says a Hawaiian kahuna told him that Superman once traveled 2,000 years back in time to keep the island chain from being destroyed by volcanic activity.

Which is a neat idea. The tulpa has underlined most of the last century's psychologized "magickal" practice. This particularly through the influence of one-time Crowley devotee, Austin Osman Spare and a more recent trend toward "chaos magick"; itself strongly indebted to pop-culture influences including comics and the work of Neil Gaiman. Much as the rest of a secularized society only half-believes in much of anything, thinking of spirits and such as "thought-forms" allows would-be magick-practitioners to believe without believing. Where our cognized environments are thought to be ultimately unknowable except as projections of internal psychic dramas there is no reason for make-believe to be any less real than anything else.* Reading Gaiman's piece now I think back to an argument with an ex about the relative importance of the Bible and the Marvel Multiverse. I argued that the Bible's influence was obviously greater if only because so much of the Marvel Multiverse is dependent upon it for its inspiration. Now I wonder. Much of the New Testament, and so much of the myth that has grown up around what is actually written in it, is derivative of Mithraic myth and mystery. The absence of a local Temple of Mithras suggests a derivative story can become far more influential than its inspiration.

It is, however, not thought-forms but Gaiman's closing observation which caught my attention. Gaiman argues the difference between Superman and other superheroes is not to be found in Superman's specific abilities but in his relationship to his alter-ego, Clark Kent. Where Spiderman is really Peter Parker in super-drag and Batman is really Bruce Wayne on a psychotic jag, Clark Kent is a disguise for the real - super - man. I think Gaiman is mistaken. Clark Kent may really be Superman but Superman is in turn "only" a nick-name for his real Kryptonian name, Kal-El (and even more originally, Kal-L).**

Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Kal-El: the science-fiction of the DC Comics continuity allows us to keep our angels without the bother of believing in them too carefully. Kal-El is a special kind of angel, however; the kind that actively intervenes on behalf of a humanity to which his father's aims were often at best ambivalent. The kind that dies and is brought back from the dead to save humanity again and again. This Christology has both the strength of familiarity and the reassurance its inspiration lends to so many, including many in the comic character's audience. To me this perfection - and not kryptonite - is the true weakness of the character. What drama is possible for a character who cannot fail, who cannot be even witlessly cruel or unkind and who cannot properly die? Peter Parker's teenage angst - and not Lex Luthor - is Superman's antithesis.*** I have expressed my frustration with the idea of Superman Returns and wondered what the latest retelling could possibly express in the story that has not been expressed before. Perhaps I was wrong to think of the Superman story as fiction in the first place. The latest film is less a reinterpretation than a re-enactment; not an action movie but a nativity play.

All of which leads me to thoughts about the latest X-Men effort. I have been spared quite a bit of effort myself because k-punk has already done the heavy lifting. "'Father, can't you see I'm burning? The Death Drive in X-Men: The Last Stand" can be found here while "Phoenix as Symptom", his gracious reply to my questions about the first piece, can be found here (spoiler warning). An executive summary: the truth of these identities lies not in the public or the obscene mask but in the Spaltung - the split - between them.

In other words, there is no authentic self of any kind; what is authentic is not either Jean or Phoenix but the spaltung. There is no Jean without (the repression of) Phoenix. At the same time, though, there is a radical asymmetry; Phoenix (as avatar of the Death Drive) is eternal because undead, whereas Jean is a particular mortal.

This echoes the non-Euclidean horrors of H.P. Lovecraft's alien and demonic entities, existing "not in the spaces known to us, but between them. They walk calm and primal, of no dimensions, and to us unseen." Scarier even than the reassuring horror of the Batman.

*I once wrote a piece called "Infernalism, the power of positive thinking and you"; a critique of Aleister Crowley's introduction to the Goetia (sometimes misattributed by his followers to Michael Aquino after he wrote a response to my article). My central point was a demand that if I was going to go tinkering with damned books for raising demons the minimum I wanted for the trouble was spiders bursting out of people's faces and so forth; not another self-help manual from the mind-body-spirit section.

**Things get tricky here. "Superman" is a side-effect, perhaps intended by his father, of Kal-El living in the light of Earth's sun and Clark Kent an equally contingent performance meant to allow Kal-El to lead "a normal life" on Earth. This is quite different than the emergent personae of Spiderman and Batman, expressions of powers developed in adolescence or the consequence of childhood trauma respectively. Kal-El may have an alter-ego but I suspect he would need to travel back in time and find an analyst on Krypton to explore it. The computers and Kryptonian recordings at the Fortress of Solitude tend to toward pronouncements of the symbolic law and not introspection and are unlikely to help him out much.

***Which is another way of saying that the Marvel Multiverse and not "the real world" is the antithesis of the DC Continuity.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at June 9, 2006 11:08 AM


I have always loathed Superman for reasons I know and probably I don't. I find him to the lamest of all the big superheros. His outfit is naff to start.

Posted by: Andrew Ian Dodge [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 10, 2006 06:31 PM

I never found Superman inspirational let alone identified with him in the way it is so easy to identify with Peter Parker. Part of me wonders if you have to be American to grok him. Though I think Captain America is cool, if not as cool as Nick Fury, so that was not the issue there.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 10, 2006 07:23 PM

But then you are American so clearly it is an insufficient, even if necessary, precondition.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 10, 2006 07:24 PM

Americans do not use the term naff. Have u seen Gaiman's Mirrormask? Brilliant, & Stephanie Leonidas is fetching & engaging

Posted by: beautifulatrocities [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 12, 2006 10:57 AM

I think Andrew has been there long enough to have gone native.

Haven't seen Mirrormask yet... zut!

Posted by: Ghost of a flea [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 12, 2006 11:49 AM

Posted by: beautifulatrocities [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 12, 2006 12:12 PM