Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Superman: Will to Power or Will to Love?

Jordan Ballor is less than thrilled with the evangelical bandwagon to baptize Superman as yet another in a long line of literary and pop-cultural Christ figures. Maybe it is a bit uncritical and perhaps a bit overdone. But I have to take issue with Ballor when he suggests that Superman is more reminiscent of Nietzsche's Ubermensch than he is of the Son of Man.

Having read my share of Superman comics through the years and having taken in many, many pop manifestations of the character, one thing is clear: Superman is not Nietzschean. Although he has all the power in the world, he has a prevailing morality that trumps his own power. A perfect example of the anti-Nietzschean aspect of the comic Superman is that he has virtually always refused to kill, even when a villain richly deserves it. He is also the type of fellow, who though often indestructible, has always been ready to sacrifice himself for his friends (and everybody else).

There are a couple of examples that go against the grain. For instance, in the lamentable Superman IV, our hero drops any pretense of respect for democracy and imposes his will on the globe when it comes to nuclear weapons. He simply throws them all into outer space. No word on whether he then intended to police every border where the Soviets might have had tanks ready to roll! I would argue this Superman is a version (a lefty-liberal Greenpeacey type) of the will-to-power superman, but he is an exception that virtually all fans would excise from the legend. Another example occurred in a graphic novel tracing out alternative worlds with a Superman. In one of the alternate planes, he sets himself up as a king. Pretty logical, eh? But again, this was the authors' funnin' around and not setting up a new idea of the hero.

17 comments:

James Elliott said...

Ballor isn’t the first reviewer to notice the heavy-handed Christ-imagery in the new Superman film - but then, that’s one of Bryan Singer’s stock-in-trades.

Superman as Ubermensch has been explored in some very good fashions, most notably by Warren Ellis during his run on “Stormwatch” and by Brian Michael Bendis in his superb “Powers” series. Ellis was perhaps the most blatant (“You could all be up here with me...”) with the open comparison, but his critique is rather interesting as well: His Superman-icon character dies after seeing his dream for a better world shattered by the superior forces of the status quo (the American and UN governments). This mirrors Nietzsche’s theory about the struggle between conformity and modern society and the revelation of the self the Ubermensch personifies. In Bendis’s iteration, “Supershock” - a truly godlike being - goes off the deep end, frustrated by man’s endless hypocrisy and pettiness and “solves” the world’s problems by vaporizing the Vatican and the Gaza Strip as object lessons. In the end, he wills himself into oblivion, having recognized the futility of trying to force people into being more virtuous. This is another Nietzschean critique - that the Ubermensch risks becoming that which he rebels against if he uses his superiority in such a fashion: By forcing others to conform he becomes just another form of shackle, like the arbitrary religious and cultural rules he is supposed to rise above.

“Superman is not Nietzschean.”

Of course not. There’s no such thing as a Nietzschean. At least, not if one remains true to the line of thinking in his work. Nietzsche himself insisted that no such creature could exist if they truly comprehended his work.

“Although he has all the power in the world, he has a prevailing morality that trumps his own power. A perfect example of the anti-Nietzschean aspect of the comic Superman is that he has virtually always refused to kill, even when a villain richly deserves it.”

This is a oft-misinterpreted aspect of Nietzsche’s work, thanks in part to the perversion of it by some modern movements, like the Nazis. Nietzsche’s thought doesn’t view power as an end-all-be-all. The will to power is an exercise in human faculty to realize its potential, not an exercise of power for the sake of power. Superman’s creation of his own morality - after all, he has no constraints on his own actions, should he wish to exercise his might (as has been explored in some works, like those you mentioned) - is an aspect of his will to power. The restraint of his might is a further exercise in his faculty as an Ubermensch. He creates his own limits; they are not imposed upon him by society, other people, or inherited cultural rules.

The use of the word power often becomes semantically confused. As I have read it, power is not used by Nietzsche in the sense of ability to control or affect others, but more in the sense that we might say someone has willpower - the strength to control one’s self in all things.

“He is also the type of fellow, who though often indestructible, has always been ready to sacrifice himself for his friends (and everybody else).”

Nietzsche also insisted that the Ubermensch must be willing to lead by example. By exercising his own will to power, the Ubermensch teaches others the same. That is his responsibility.

“ I would argue this Superman is a version (a lefty-liberal Greenpeacey type) of the will-to-power superman, but he is an exception that virtually all fans would excise from the legend.”

There have been some very interesting explorations of this theme, most notably in “The Authority” (originally conceived by the aforementioned Warren Ellis, one of the three best writers in comics today, along with Bendis and Garth Ennis; though Mark Millar comes close). It is my understanding that Nietzsche would have rejected such an iteration of the Ubermensch, as they are imposing their own will while denying others their example. Interestingly, a super-hero, or group of super-heroes, acting in this sense fulfills the Platonic (and of certain types of neo-conservatives’) ideal of the philosopher-king. But I agree. It is a profoundly anti-democratic imposition (and one in which The Authority, for example, ultimately fail, brought low by a group of humans with superb skill, technology, and a will to power).

Matt Tapie said...

Hunter,
It seems like the idea of a "super hero" emerged around the same time the idea of the "nation as secular savior" peaked (30s and 40s). He is a secular savior with a secular morality.

Superman represents the best possible human being in a secular view of the world without God. And, you know as well as I do that secular views of the world do their best to construct "moralities." To say that Superman has a "morality" does not necessarily make him a Christ figure or even one who ascribes to the natural law. Jonathan Glover's popular book "Humanity" is a great example of a secular morality that "seeks the good of the other" based on its own terms (rather than God's or any divine law). In my book, Superman is just another secular attempt at having our secular cake (a world without God) and eating our morality too.

James Elliott said...

"In my book, Superman is just another secular attempt at having our secular cake (a world without God) and eating our morality too."

Mmm... Secular cake. ::CHOMP!::

Actually, Superman is the perfect Ubermensch for precisely the reason the commenter derides.

"And, you know as well as I do that secular views of the world do their best to construct 'moralities.'"

How are religious moralities any less constructed?

I'll leave it to my guru, Eric Hoffer, channeling Nietzsche, to respond best: "Take man's most fantastic invention- God. Man invents God in the image of his longings, in the image of what he wants to be, then proceeds to imitate that image, vie with it, and strive to overcome it."

Matt Tapie said...

James,

I am glad you enjoyed that chomp of secular cake. Secular ideologies often construct morality by selectively borrowing raw moral materials from reality--a reality that is full of knowable facts and contains a startling amount of order. This order seems to point to One who has the intelligence and power to provide order. This reality and the one who has organized it is acknowledged by theistic groups as the source(s) of knowing what existence is and how one might respond to existence. If these things are true (that there is an ordered reality) then religious morality is not constructed-it is already there before one attempts to construct alternative realities (or add to theistic ones). Theistic moralities are sort of like mirrors that remind us of what we look like despite the fact we try to forget. Some mirrors function better than others. Who would have thought a post about Superman would kick-start a conversation on moral philosophy?

Amy & Jordan said...

It depends in part on what you think of Nietzsche. There are at least two ways to interpret Nietzsche's Superman. One is the fascist, Nazi-esque way, in which it is a straight line from Nietzsche to Hitler.

The other is a rather more sympathetic one, which does not view Nietzsche as against all morality per se, but rather in favor of a rigorous and lively morality founded in the human person. In this sense, Nietzsche is the ideal "humanist," one who emphasizes the truly human as the ultimate reality.

The figure of Zarathustra, for example, is one that does not deride love as such, but only the weak-minded, pitiable love of Christianity.

Zarathustra, you may recall, derides the hypcrisy of the Christian saint who claims to love God but not man...Zarathustra loves man a great deal! This is why he travels down from his mountaintop to enlighten humankind. Nietzsche wants to create a new morality, not one based on superstitious religion but an ardently realistic, existential, and secular humanism.

Nietzsche replaces God with the ubermensch. One of my college profs, David Leibowitz, said what Nietzsche "had in mind surely isn't fascism: The superman he's talking about would be a man of infinite delicacy, not a clown like Mussolini or a brute like Hitler". Nevertheless, when Nietzsche "spoke of the desirability of great wars, selective breeding, cruelty, tyranny, slavery, and the extermination of inferior races," (all elements present in the immediate and distant history of Krypton, btw) Nietzsche contributed to the existence of an environment in which tyrants like Mussolini and Hitler could play to the nationalistic passions of the people.

Nietzsche made an effective argument against the existence of God, but did not provide an adequate replacement for humankind to aim at.

But today's Superman hero is an attempt to give something for nonreligious enlightened postmoderns to aim at. The world may or may not think it needs a savior, but if it does need one, it thinks it needs the Superman kind of savior, not the Jesus Christ kind. As Nietzsche held, sin is not the problem with humanity...it's the idea that there is sin that is the problem. All the Jor-El quotes in the movie underscore this secular messiah role of Superman, who is there to lead the people into their natural capacity for goodness.

As I've said, I think the Christian approach that simply emphasizes how similar Superman and Jesus are as two savior figures misses the real point. It completely reverses the relationship between the two.

I'll conclude with this relevant quote from Bonhoeffer: "It is not Christ who has to justify himself before the world by acknowledging the values of justice, truth, and freedom. Instead, it is these values that find themselves in need of justification, and their justification is in Jesus Christ alone. It is not a 'Christian culture' that still has to make the name of Jesus Christ acceptable to the world; instead, the crucified Christ has become the refuge, justification, protection, and claim for these higher values and their defenders who have been made to suffer."

James Elliott said...

"This order seems to point to One who has the intelligence and power to provide order. This reality and the one who has organized it is acknowledged by theistic groups as the source(s) of knowing what existence is and how one might respond to existence."

The above statements contradict the following ones. As you yourself indicate, the act of perception of theistic underpinnings is a subjective one, subject to human interpretation. Or, as Eric Hoffer said, "The Greeks invented logic but were not fooled by it."

"Who would have thought a post about Superman would kick-start a conversation on moral philosophy?"

You're new around here, aren't you? =] Welcome.

Matt Tapie said...

James,

Thank you for the welcome. My statements contradict each other only when one pretends that the phrase I used, "knowable facts", means something other than knowable facts.

Allow me to try and be clearer: My argument is that reality is full of order and it is a knowable order that always exists. Theistic groups acknowledge this order and its religious implications. Notice I wrote that theistic groups acknowledge this order and the One who created it. They do not merely perceive it as you are implying. Theistic groups acknowledge that reality exists--an ordered, created, reality that always IS whether or not we are completely able to see it any given moment.

For example, if someone throws a ball through a glass window, and then says that they understand something different to have happened, it does not change the fact that the ball actually went through the window. The fact that the ball went through the window does not change. The reality does not change simply because one pretends to perceive something else.

What stuns me about people who hold to views of the world such as yours is that they go about daily life relying on the knowable reality I've described above (e.g. the stop light is green so I will drive; the stop light is red so I will stop) but when it comes to the moral life, reality is suddenly about perception and is subjective. I have never met anyone who completely holds to nihilism with both thought and deed.

Matt Huisman said...

The reality does not change simply because one pretends to perceive something else.

Very true, Mr. Tapie – though I’d add that one may also be mistaken and/or unable to describe the reality. I think James’ comment that “The Greeks invented logic but were not fooled by it” is telling. Do we invent the world around us or is it more likely that we discover it?

From this point of view, invention is merely a fabrication - a creation independent of reality. Everything else is discovery. Given the availability and universality of logic, I'm not prepared to deny its reality. But who knows, maybe I've been duped.

Hunter Baker said...

In favor of the more negative view of Nietzsche, I seem to remember him praising his hero as a "blonde beast." (I can't imagine how anyone would confuse him with Hitler.)

Apologies in advance if I'm wrong on this one, but I don't think I am.

James Elliott said...

"In favor of the more negative view of Nietzsche, I seem to remember him praising his hero as a "blonde beast." (I can't imagine how anyone would confuse him with Hitler.)"

Nietzsche made a point of deriding his homeland at every turn. He was hyper-critical of Teuotonic expansionism and exceptionalism. His sister Elizabeth's anti-Semitism was the focal point of a break between the two of them. Unfortunately, upon his death, she won the rights to his body of work and - being a Nazi supporter, anti-Semite, and fervent German exceptionalist - edited his works to give such a mistaken impression.

For example:

"I feel kinship only with the most cultivated French and Russian people, but not at all with the so called distinguished elite among my own countrymen, who judge everything from the principle: 'Germany above everything...'"

"I have recently been overwhelmed with anti-Semitic letteers and pamphlets; my repunance for this party (who would be only too pleased to avail itself of my name) is as pronounced as it possible could be."

"Let him come to Zarathustra who has unlearned the love of his people because he has learned to love many peoples."

Contrast these with Hitler: "Our party rests on a racial conception of the universe; tat is the essential part of its doctrine; it works for the final triumph of racialism."

Nietzsche was an outspoken opponent of racism and nationalism in general and anti-Semitism in particular.

James Elliott said...

"What stuns me about people who hold to views of the world such as yours is that they go about daily life relying on the knowable reality... but when it comes to the moral life, reality is suddenly about perception and is subjective."

You should have been here a few threads ago. =] To speak for myself, I know that a perception of causality (an actor behind the "rules" for example) is not necessarily the same as causality. There is an aspect of dualism here, because consciousness is simply not subject to the same rules as, say, a rubber ball bouncing through a window, or the act of seeing such in the physical world. Man, in his quest for simplification, is at risk of oversimplifying. It's possible to enjoy this life without needing a prime mover.

To put it another way, your world view is foreign to me because I cannot fathom how one rationalizes an infinite number of personal variances into one coherent whole; or why one needs there to be one in the first place. Faith in a god or natural law is the assertion of an unprovable in the service of the temporal.

"I have never met anyone who completely holds to nihilism with both thought and deed."

But then, that's because you misunderstand. The absence of God is not nihilism. It's a reverence for life, as the one thing we can be sure of.

I could be wrong. Maybe there is a god. You could be wrong. Maybe there isn't. I acknowledge that doubt is the only thing we can honestly base our actions upon.

Tom Van Dyke said...

How can you do good when you can't even say what good is? Or call something evil?

There's Nietzsche's trap: he claims to be beyond all that. But he's not, is he?

BTW, Superman fights evil. Pathetic dualist, and like Nietzsche, fixated on the negative.

Better he concentrate on root causes. Plow the world's fields to feed the hungry. Do some Superhabitat For Humanity thing. Come cut my lawn.

Matt Huisman said...

It's possible to enjoy this life without needing a prime mover.

This is the part - and it's pretty standard with non-theists - that confuses me. If God exists, you'd like to choke the life out of Him. If He doesn't, life is (or at least can be) beautiful.

What gives? Is life miserable or not?

Matt Tapie said...

James,

You said: "I acknowledge that doubt is the only thing we can honestly base our actions upon."

What you are saying seems to mean that ulitmate reality is one's thinking mind. Please correct me if I am wrong. This sentence makes me think that you are closer to Descartes than any postmodern thinker. Do you believe in truth?

If there is no truth than how can it be "true" that human life deserves reverence? Why is human life more important than trees or other biological life? How can one be certain of these truths if, as you argued, the only certainty we have is that we are doubting minds?

James Elliott said...

Tom,

"How can you do good when you can't even say what good is? Or call something evil?"

I'd say that's a misunderstanding of relativism, and something we've discussed before.

Matt Huisman,

"What gives? Is life miserable or not?"

You mistake my motivation for wanting to choke the life out of God. It's not for life being miserable - for those whom it is, I blame themselves or other human actors. The point was that if I must accept the Judeo-Christian version of God as truth, then he is a selfish, whiney fellow who has needlessly doomed billions of souls because of his pathetic need to be revered. If your "history" is correct, then he is the most genocidal creature that ever existed. Even God shouldn't be above justice.

Matt Tapie (darn, this is going to get confusing),

"How can one be certain of these truths if, as you argued, the only certainty we have is that we are doubting minds?"

Doubt doesn't exclude anything else, including your choice to believe in a creator on whom to base your morality. It's a false dichotomy. We are referring to metaphysical truth and doubt, not some ultra-post-modernist silliness about reality only existing in our minds.

Matt Huisman said...

Even God shouldn't be above justice.

Given that He would be its source, I’m not sure how that could be avoided. But I get your drift. Life itself is not so bad, despite all the pain and suffering in the world. Obviously, there must be something good out there that makes it worth all the fuss. God’s out of the picture, so I suppose –as you have said - that by default we’d settle on the one thing we can be sure of, life itself, as this good.

And so we come to have a reverence for life; especially our own. Now we might choose something else besides life to revere, but isn’t it odd that we always end up at reverence? Do these things that we revere need our reverence or do we need something to revere? Life, it seems, without such a delusion, would be miserable. Or maybe even pathetic.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Don't recall jumping into the relativism stuff, James, which gets mushy to incomprehensible in a hurry. But when you do good to someone, is it by your definition of good or his?