Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Waiting for a Superman.

Zack Smith conducts a post-mortem on the luminous comic book miniseries All-Star Superman, in the form of a 12-part interview with its creator, Grant Morrison. In the process of retelling the classic Superman story, he also works in a lively subtext of magic, love, life in the face of death and Renaissance philosophy.

I see Superman in this series as an Enlightenment figure, a Renaissance idea of the ideal man, perfect in mind, body and intention.

A key text in all of this is Pico’s ‘Oration On The Dignity of Man’ (15c), generally regarded as the ‘manifesto’ of Renaissance thought, in which Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola laid out the fundamentals of what we tend to refer to as ’Humanist’ thinking.

At its most basic, the ‘Oratorio’ is telling us that human beings have the unique ability, even the responsibility, to live up to their ‘ideals’. It would be unusual for a dog to aspire to be a horse, a bird to bark like a dog, or a horse to want to wear a diving suit and explore the Barrier Reef, but people have a particular gift for and inclination towards imitation, mimicry and self-transformation. We fly by watching birds and then making metal carriers that can outdo birds, we travel underwater by imitating fish, we constantly look to role models and behavioral templates for guidance, even when those role models are fictional TV or, comic, novel or movie heroes, just like the soft, quick, shapeshifty little things we are. We can alter the clothes we wear, the temperature around us, and change even our own bodies, in order to colonize or occupy previously hostile environments. We are, in short, a distinctively malleable and adaptable bunch.

So, Pico is saying, if we live by imitation, does it not make sense that we might choose to imitate the angels, the gods, the very highest form of being that we can imagine ? Instead of indulging the most brutish, vicious, greedy and ignorant aspects of the human experience, we can, with a little applied effort, elevate the better part of our natures and work to express those elements through our behavior. To do so would probably make us all feel a whole lot better too. Doing good deeds and making other people happy makes you feel totally brilliant, let’s face it.

So we can choose to the astronaut or the gangster. The superhero or the super villain. The angel or the devil. It’s entirely up to us, particularly in the privileged West, how we choose to imagine ourselves and conduct our lives.

We live in the stories we tell ourselves. It’s really simple.

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