Friday, June 21, 2013

Of Saints and Supermen

A lot of people don't know that when Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster first came up with the idea for a character named "Superman" that he was intended to be a villain.  The name came from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Some of you may be familiar with Nietzsche.  He is especially popular with teenagers who are looking at a way to rebel against "society."  Nietzsche believed that morality was something imposed upon on us and that right and wrong do not exist objectively.  Most people are like sheep who follow whatever their culture deems good and appropriate.  But if a man could somehow look beyond all of that, if a man had a strong enough will to power that could take him beyond good and evil, he would transcend ordinary humanity and be truly above the fold.  He would be an "Uber-mensh" or "Superman."

Sadly, some in history have tried applying Nietzsche's ideals and tried to make them real.  If you listen to much of Hitler's words on the master race, you find the DNA of the philosopher's thought.  And in art, there have been many attempts to dramatize the "Superman" in stories.  But to my mind, no one has ever realistically done so.

I can understand the appeal of a character who has no morality.  How many of us have known the hell of a guilty conscience.  There is a freedom in not caring about right and wrong.  Let us be honest, if we found out that God would give us a 24-hour pass to commit whatever sin we desired without any consequence, how many of us would indulge?  The idea of the Superman is that he cannot be tied down to conventions and is above consequences.

The problem is that you cannot get beyond consequences and you cannot get beyond your nature.

This is one of the reasons that the art of story-telling is so important for us to understand why Nietzsche is wrong.  Story-telling is the only universal art form and it is the oldest one at that.  CS Lewis understood that when we tell stories, particularly myths, we circumvent the analytic part of the mind and experience the thing directly.  This is not to say that the experience is irrational or merely emotional.  It means that we touch the truth of reality in a straightforward way.  In other words, I can describe to you what friendship is, give you every type of definition, but it will not compare to experiencing Samwise Gamgee taking Frodo onto his back saying, "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you!"

Think about all of the characters in movies or stories who have embodied the Nietzschian Superman.  First of all, we find that most of them are villains.  Emperor Palpatine says to Anakin "Good is a point of view."  Jack in Lord of the Flies descends into utter savagery.  Voldemort tells Harry Potter that there is no good or evil, but "only power."  Even the Joker from The Dark Knight said he wasn't a monster, he was just "ahead of the curve," meaning that he was the first to understand that morality was a joke that he had moved beyond.

And even attempts to make these "Supermen" heroic often falls flat.  Hipster-geek favorite Joss Whedon has tried several times to do just his.  Angel, the vampire with a soul, concludes that his war against evil is pointless, but he fights because "what else is he going to do?"  Whedon's Mal Reynolds does not believe in archaic things like sin, but he fights for his people with ferocious faithfulness.  Non-Whedonverse character Jack Bauer commits deceit, torture, and murder of innocents to achieve his ends.  We admire these men for their heroism, but their motivations leave us empty.

In the realm of the less fantastic, we see characters like the heroes of Wag the Dog who enter a campaign of lies and smears to get a president re-elected.  We find them them diverting and entertaining.  But part of us also finds them horribly disgusting.  The reason why is because we intuitively get that they are living against their nature.

The best example I have ever seen of a Nietzchian Superman is Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part I and II.  Particularly by the time you get to the end of Part II, Michael has become a man with ice water in his veins who orders the death of all of his enemies, even those in his own family.  And all of his plans have been successful.  He has achieved, through sheer force of will, the triumph he sought.  And yet how haunting is that last shot of Michael sitting alone.  Alone.


Nietzsche should have warned us of the terrible loneliness of those who don't play by society's rules.  Who would want that person cannot see you as anything other than a means to an end?  There are no heroic "Supermen" successfully portrayed in art.  But that does not mean that there are no heroes.

As I wrote in my essay "The Cape and the Cross," we can find copious amounts of heroic characters, particularly those who act as Christ figures.  There is a reason that we latch onto Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and, yes, Superman.  They touch on the truth of heroism, which is self-sacrifice.  This is the nature of a hero, the nature of a saint.

I also think that there is another reason why we intuitively reject the portrayal of the "Superman" but can accept the depiction of the saint.  The reason is that the Superman is a fiction, while the saint is a reality.  Nietzsche concocted the idea of the "Superman" as a way for him to fantasize about an existence beyond his drab life.  Yes, Nietzsche was a great writer and a genius.  He also had the temperament of a petulant child and he went insane and tried to strangle a horse.

But saints are real.  We see them in history.  Who hasn't been moved by the courage of the early Christian martyrs: of Peter, Paul, Andrew, Bartholomew, Agnes, Barbara, and the rest.  We see them in the world today.  As bad as the news of the world is, we also read stories about those like Mother Teresa or Pope Francis, who lovingly devote themselves to the anawim ("the least ones").

And we see them in our every day lives.  We see them in the parents who cradle a crying child at 3am.  We see them in the neighbor who helps you with your home repairs "just because."  We see it in the teacher who stays hours after the last bell has rung to make sure that their student has everything they need to pass.  We see it in that one person in our life who is unfailingly kind to us, even when we don't deserve it.  We see those who do what is right for no other reason than it is right.

When we see Nietzsche's "Superman" in art, we are staring into a window of fantasy.

When we see a saint in art, we are looking at a mirror held up to reality.

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