Tuesday, April 3, 2012

American Dreams, part two: The Gods Be Made

The superhero is uniquely and essentially American. The typical superhero character is someone who hides their identity when using extraordinary powers to fight evil. Can we be certain why they hide their identities? Various explanations have been put forward, one of the most popular being that it is to protect those closest to them. Can this be the only reason?

Closely related to the hero, given his or her extraordinary abilities, are the gods of ancient Greece. Placed on a higher plateau to us mere mortals, they could perform extraordinary feats. Invariably, in stories such as Homer's Odyssey, we are confronted with gods who take human form. That is, they cannot make their presence known unless they somehow converge themselves upon a single human body. In the case of Neptune, god of the sea, this is like the power and drive behind the waves themselves being distilled in human form while never taking anything away from the power and force of tidal forces around the world. Essentially, it is easy for a god to take human form.

What we see here is the dual nature of the gods. It is their ability to take human form, while not risking the complete collapse of their other identities as the wind, fire, or the sea. In fact, not risking any collapse of that identity at all.

Why do the gods take human shape? Simply because they can. It proves their omnipotence. They are untethered from the mortal world. They need not engage in the normal process of exchange, cause and effect, or even the modern scientific formulation of the conservation of energy. "Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, just changed from one form to another," Einstein famously decried. This is not the case with the gods. There is no loss of energy when they take human form. This is just a performative act on their part, a piece of theatre in which they take human form simply to show us that they are omnipotent.

An act of powerful dominion, to show who is the boss? Or a meaningless act, simply done because the gods can do everything?

We can find a definite parellel between the gods as I have described them and certain superheroes. Even the ones which have been grounded in a reality share this performative aspect with the gods. That they dedicate themselves to fighting evil grounds this action in morality. But strip that away (and this applies to comic book villains too) and you're left with this purely performative act either to express power and dominion or out of a macabre boredom at a limitless existence. And that is essentially what the superhero is presenting to us when he takes human form; I may be doing this because I really am better than all of you. Or, I may be doing this because I've got nothing better to do.

Superman is a prime example of this. He becomes meek, mild-mannered Clarke Kent by day, only to reveal himself as the last son of Krypton (read: immortal, in an age more prone towards science fiction than supernatural) who is nonetheless instilled with with "Truth, justice and the American way." Here the mythological, the impossible, holds a greater reality than the ordinary, the mundane. Though we cannot live our lives like this, perhaps a curious reversal happens when we attempt to situate our lives in grander contexts, for instance as a citizen of a nation. Perhaps we then hold on to the extraordinary because of our lack of proximity to the event. So, for example, the myth of America being the land of the free sustains itself through displacement. No matter how detailed some histories can be, history (perhaps in a broader sense of spoken or even intuitive history) lends itself to the shaping of myth around itself.

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