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Saturday, October 24, 2009

OUR BODIES, OUR NONBODIES: Part 2

I take the phrases "body" and "non-body" from an essay by Octavio Paz in CONJUNCTIONS AND DISJUNCTIONS. Paz was mindful of the fact that a lot of the words used by human beings in opposition to the physical body (as well as physical phenomena generally) are highly speculative, such as "soul" and "spirit." For that matter, even words like "mind" and "the unconscious," while more commonly used by materialists, are still "iffy."


"Non-body," then, was Paz's portmanteau term for all that intangible shit. I believe he meant it not as a viable category in itself but just as a means of spotlighting how human beings regard everything that informs their symbolic universe (that's Cassirer, again, BTW), be it tangible or intangible, corporeal or incorporeal, body or "non-body." It appeals to me as a means to subsume aspects of humanity that are sometimes ascribed to "mind," sometimes to "spirit."


So. Back to Superman and his not-so-coy mistress. Here they are in ACTION #5 (Oct 38):






Here one would think that we see a pretty strong verification of Superman's innate, or at least dominant, heterosexuality. But how should we read the fact that even though Superman will at least kiss Lois, he won't go any further that that? Since Superman is stolidly unreflective during the Siegel years, there will be no deep musings on his motivations for assuming the Clark Kent guise. I haven't read all of the Golden Age Superman stories, but I doubt that the diegetic logic ever gets any more complex than it is in the 2-page prologue of SUPERMAN #1, where Pa Kent says:


"This great strength of yours-- you've got to hide it from people or they'll be scared of you."

Concomitantly, his mother then lays on him the injunction to "assist humanity." In a nutshell the reader is given the essence of the self-sacrificial superhero mission, the contradictions of which Siegel did not explore but which Marvel Comics would mine (particularly in THE X-MEN) to great effect twenty years later. Diegetically speaking, though the motivation for the secret identity isn't as solid as it is for mere mortals like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel, the basic logic does hold. Even a Superman doesn't want torch-bearing peasants constantly interrupting his quiet time.


Now, these diegetic factors don't make a queer reading of Superman impossible. But if one dismisses these factors out of hand, the reading begins to sound more like special pleading. Any deep reading, queer or otherwise, has to take into account Siegel's construction of Superman as the archetypal savior who sacrifices personal happiness (bodily pleasures, i.e., ""body") in the name of ethical ideals ("non-body.")


Certainly it's possible to claim that the reasons for sacrificing bodily desires aren't the *real* reasons. The earliest theoretical critics of comic books, Gerson Legman and Frederic Wertham, paid no attention to psychologizing Superman's Clark Kent persona; they were concerned only with the notion that the representation of the muscular male body enabled rampant homosexuality:


Legman: "the fainting adultation of thick necks, ham fists, and well-filled jockstraps.." (L&D, p. 43)


Wertham: "The muscular male stereotype... is in the setting of certain stories the object of homoerotic sexual curiosity and stimulation." (SOTI, p. 188)


I don't deny that some individuals who read comics then or read comics now were/are so stimulated. I do deny that this overrode, for the majority of the audience, a more fundamental dynamization relating to the challenges of armed combat, as channeled through generic formats.
The fact that such factors are still ignored by many modern textual critics comes as little surprise.


On the other hand, it might be a factor in the deep-readers' favor that questioning the sexuality of Superman isn't confined to elitists such as Wertham, Legman, and the majority of Marxists and Lacanians. Superman also finds his sexuality on trial in the work of the man I regard as the first person to advance a pluralist theory specifically focused on comic books: Jules Feiffer. Feiffer might not be the first person to find something odd (and maybe even a little queer) in what he called the "hairshirt" persona of Clark Kent, but his argument in THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES does strike one as more than special pleading.


Having devoted the whole of this essay to setup, I'll be looking at Feiffer's extremely informal but nevertheless influential thesis in OUR BODIES Part 3.

1 comment:

Charles R. said...

Here's my take on the Superman/Clark issue (from another context):

I can't help but think of Bill's disquisition on Clark Kent in Kill Bill 2, where he gives a Nietzschean spin to Superman's secret identity. Therein, Tarantino suggests that Superman is the true identity and the bumbling Clark reveals his contempt for Earthlings as a mocking imitation. Another possible interpretation, more consistent with Superman's own thought balloons, is that Clark represents the smalltown values with which he was raised and can never completely escape, regardless of how much power he might possess. Superman is no ├╝bermensch, but a being who uses his power to reinforce his (and others') place in the flock. It's the all-too-human Luthor with the Zarathustran dreams.