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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, February 15, 2014


Good intellectual intuition first:

I think the real reason many fans (and some creators) of the character may see him as a secular Christ-figure is that, unlike many of the exotically-powered superhumans that followed him (Green Lantern, the Flash, and even the Spectre, who had the literal "Power of God"), Superman always seemed like an ordinary fellow despite his having been born with "power from above." That touch of the mundane was also a pronounced aspect of both Judaism and Christianity, and marks one of the dialectical elements that most separates them (as well as that later "Religion of the Book," Islam) from earlier myth-systems, where arguably the mundane is subsumed by the mythic.-- Gene Phillips, CHRIST WITH MUSCLES, 2008.

And now the bad one:

Superman himself is a response to fascism, a kind of New Deal mirror image of the Nietzschean Nazi Superman, both embodiment and critique.-- Noah Berlatsky, THE RUNNING SUPERHERO, 2014.

To be sure, this observation on Superman's mirroring of Nietzsche is just a throwaway in an essay on a tangentially related subject, so here's one from an essay explicitly on Superman:

In an article in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Chris Gavaler argues that the Klu Klux Klan was one of the main historical sources for superheroes. Specifically, Gavaler says, pulp pro-Klan novels like Thomas Dixon's 1905 The Clansmen put in place many of the tropes used by Siegel and Shuster when they created their first Superman stories. According to Gavaler, Dixon's "Ben Cameron, aka the Grand Dragon, represents the earliest twentieth-century incarnation of an American vigilante hero who assumes a costume and alias to hide his identity while waging his war for good."

Now, my point in juxtaposing these takes on Superman is not to say that my intuition is right and Berlatsky's are wrong.  Given that I have defined "intuition" as "knowledge or belief obtained neither by reason nor by perception," both intuitions are rooted in the perceptions of each subject.  Neither intuition can be proven right, any more than one person's personal tastes can be proven right.

But obviously, I think that the intellectual procedure I use to argue in favor of my intuition is superior to Berlatsky's. Can I prove it to anyone who has not already made up his mind, either to like Superman or to hate Superman?  Possibly not, but it's worth a shot.

Berlatsky's judgment, I'll argue, depends on reflective philosophy as defined by Cerf:

It is typical of reflective philosophy... that it relies on arguments, proofs, and the whole apparatus of logic... that it tries to solve intellectual puzzles rather than give the true conceptual vision of the whole...

The first Berlatsky quote links Superman to "the Nietzschean Nazi Superman" as if all the commonplace links between Nietzsche and the Nazis had been scientifically verified.  Many scholars have pointed out that this is not the case, not least Edward Skidelsky:

Nietzsche's philosophy was commonly read as an incitement to throw off these disguises [of "lofty creations of philosophy and religion"] , to assert the will to power in its glorious nakedness...Nietzsche was never a straightforward vitalist; he always insisted on the creative power of sublimation, symbolized for him by the figure of Apollo.  But to no avail, it was the 'Dionysian' Nietzsche who captured the imagination of Germany in the years after 1890... The German Jewish philosopher Karl Lowith was not alone in embracing the war of 1914 out of a "passion for 'living dangerously' which Nietzsche had instilled in us." An estimated 150,000 German soldiers went off to the trenches with ZARATHUSTRA in their knapsacks.

It would be correct to say-- and here I'm drawing on traditional reflective methods of judgment in saying this-- that the "Nazi Ubermensch" was "vitalist-Nietzschean."  Even by the reflective criteria Berlatsky follows, his pronouncement fails.  The real Nietzsche who suffered his mental breakdown in 1899 and who died in 1900 cannot be logically implicated in Nazi ideology.  All that can be implicated is "vitalist-Nietzsche," whom the Nazis did not create but used for their own purposes.

Again, by the standards of reflective philosophy, does Berlatsky provide any scientific proof that Jerry Siegel or Joe Shuster was aware of even this pseudo-Nietzschean influence at the time they created Superman?  Or, to turn to the second quotation, that Siegel and Shuster borrowed "tropes" that they derived from pro-KKK authors like Thomas Dixon?  He does not, and therefore, by the standards he has professed to follow, his intellectual defense of his intuition fails.

Now, I cannot prove my intuition by reflective standards, either.  But unlike Berlatsky, I don't follow those standards as a primary guide.  I start by observing that assorted depictions of Superman in various media conflate him with Jesus Christ.  In the original essay I demonstrate that I'm aware that there are ways in which Superman's image radically diverges from that of Christ:

Of course, Superman/Christ is not a perfect fit, if for no other reason than that Superman's adventures are a lot less about "turning the other cheek."

Still, I argue that there are aspects to the character-- his mundaneness, his forbearance ("a god almost constantly forbearing to strike with full force even against the evil")-- that contributed the semi-conscious association of the two figures, one that becomes overt in Richard Donner's SUPERMAN and Bryan Singer's SUPERMAN RETURNS, as explicated in this online essay.  My project is, to revisit Walter Cerf's distinction for "speculative philosophy," one devoted to "the true conceptual vision of the whole."  That means that I, unlike Berlatsky, am willing to mention both the continuities and discontinuities that proceed from my intellectual defense of my intuition.  The only parallel to this in Berlatsky is the point where he claims that Superman is both "embodiment and critique," but there's no intellectual support given for this wishy-washy assertion.

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