Thursday, June 22, 2017

where do superheroes come from?

Since the unexpected intersection of my life and the lives of superheroes has been willed into being by Adam, I’ve been thinking about superheros and their place in the American wetdream. One of the ways I go about understanding something (which is a way I have of feeling superior to it) is to find the root of it, the precursors, the historico-etymological unconsciousness from which it was called forth. So I thought that maybe this was found in such proto-fascists as Carlyle.
My advice is, if you think that Carlyle’s essay on Heroes in history is the royal road to the birth of Superman, forget it. Don’t blow the dust from that volume! I am a big fan of the 19th century essayists, but Carlyle is simply too bogus. With respect! Coleridge, De Quincey, the whole Romantic crewe were, like Carlyle, into German literature, but unlike him, they didn’t transform it into dyspepsia and fascism. I remember reading Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution and liking it, but the Hero book, which started out as a series of lectures and was listened to, at so much per seat, by a group that dwindled as it became apparent that Carlyle’s Scot’s accent was here to stay, is not the background to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or any of the great mutants that have now put the lock on our popular culture.
My search for the origins of the superhero cult made a necessary stop at Jill Lepore’s book on Wonder Woman – which Lepore traced back to the peculiar crossroads between utopian feminism and criminology, all staged with Harvard in the background. Wonder Woman was, from the beginning, a super hero like no other – not only because she was a woman (and got the usual comic book sexism thrown at her. Jules Feiffer, in his book on the history of super heroes, claims she is too flat chested. Wha???), but because her back story was expressly mythological. She was not a laboratory accident, or a military experiment, or a creature from another world. Lepore’s was an exemplary intellectual history. B-b-but I was looking for a key to the entire mythology, rather like dotty, repressed Causaban in Middlemarch, and it seems to me that there has to be more – some horizon of possibility that gave  superheroes such enormous importance in American culture.  My suspicion – or theory, since my suspicions have a way of becoming theories overnight – is that the super mutant ethos and fascination is tied into newspaper culture. A culture that, in spite of the efforts of such as Barthes, is too little interpreted from the lit crit aspect.        
My theory, untested by historical research, is that the superhero and his or her obsessions arise in close proximity to the racket of the newspaper format. Newspapers jumble together, in columns that stand next to each other but maintain a monad’s distance, war, crime, weddings, weather, politics and everything else. It is as if news were always a traffic jam. In particular, crime stands out. News media loves crime. So do readers. But with the love of crime stories goes the fear of crime fact. It strikes me that the obsession of superheroes with crime is one of the keys to the mythology. Carlyle’s heroes don’t even bother with crime. They are concerned with founding society and changing consciousness. They are saints, writers, and statesmen. They are certainly not policemen. In Greek and Norse mythology, the heroes are involved with sacred transgressions. They care about sacrifice, not about bank robbery.

Lepore’s exploration of the origins of Wonder Woman takes up this theme. William Moulton Marston, her creator (or one of them. Lepore is very clear about the collective input into this invention), was also one of the inventors of the polygraph machine.

The standard history of superheroes usually begins in the 1930s, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The 30s, too, saw a crime wave the like of which was not seen in the US until the 70s, the Great Depression (which undermined rules about property crime by showing the criminal behavior of the most propertied), and the rise of Fascism. All of which might have something to do with the way that Superheroes were both obsessed with crime and incredibly submissive to the powers that be. One might expect that a man of steel from another planet would have some sympathy with the man of steel from the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Stalin, but there’s no trace of revolutionary in his actions or thoughts. The only revolutionaries are the arch villains, who are still ultimately tied by the hip to the forces of order – they are weirdly willing to destroy the social order to make money, the ideal representative of the social order. There is some blip, some slippage in the thinking of the villains, which may be why they don the clothes of carnival mutants and engage in lumpen-revolutionary acts, out of some tabloid nightmare.


Poem for Stevie Smith

Isn't it dishonesty
this felt disproportion
between the gaps in my head
and the words in my mouth?

What I do around here
What I do
Is lie in bed
Dressed in Grandma's clothes.

In the movie
The old samurai
Dusty at the entrance to the village
Unsheathes an eloquent sword

With a rusty gesture.
I can identify.
To take strategies from the fox
Arbitrager’s carnivore

To fill my hunger
Clucking like an old hen
With oafish bit players
Instead of dangerous prey...

Oh chateaux – oh bandes dessinées!
Maybe I should exit stage left.
It's the dishonor I can’t stand.
Not the woodman’s necessity sharpened axe.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

we become heat tourists

Because my love had a gig in Phoenix, we hied it outta tow last Friday after Adam’s graduation. The temperature in Santa Monica when we left was 80 F. We landed in Phoenix at 9:30 p.m, and the captain blandly announced that the wind was six miles per there, and the temperature was 100. The landing was strange. I had the distinct impression that the plane, like a man on third running out a bunt to home,  slid in. Upon the end of the slide, when the plane seemed normal again, the woman next to me turned and told me that she was always coming into Phoenix in the summer, and the planes always wobbled when they came in – hit by thermals, she thought. Then we speculated about the odd cracking noises the plane made. Unfortunately, I had spent the brief trip reading a thriller I picked up, which contained an elaborate airline crash scene. Talk about killing your paperback sales at Hudson News! I’m not a superstitious guy, but I did lay that book aside.
We deplaned, went outside, and the inevitable oven comparison ensued. I have a better comparison, built upon a famous passage in one of Harold Brodkey’s short stories. To describe the impression of beauty given by some woman, he wrote that to see her cross the Harvard Quad was to see Marxism die. On those lines, to step outside the Phoenix airport last Friday night and wait around for a taxi was to feel the Holocene die. Although one could argue that the Holocene was never very kindly to the Southwest to begin with, what with the drought cycle and the disappearance of Anasazi culture.
So we got our cab, or Uber, really (I apologize to all for participating in maintaining that cursed company) and we were driven to the Scottdale Plaza Resort, where we had booked a bungalow, by a sixty-ish woman who divided her time between driving for Uber and taking care of her two grandchildren, angels of 1 and 2 ½ (she dropped a hint that her son-in-law was currently looking for work), and she gifted us with her advice about how to spend the day in Phoenix. Basically, you can stay out to 10 a.m., then lock the kids up in shadows and air conditioning until 10 p.m., by which time they are asleep anyway. I would be alarmed if my environment was forcing me to spend summers like this, but she seemed very boosterish of Phoenix. She even found something civic achievement worthy in the fact that next Tuesday – which is now tomorrow – it was predicted to be a scorcher on the order of 120F. I could hardly believe my ears.
Then she dropped us off, giving us plenty to think about.
The next day, early, my love left for her gig, and Adam and I slept until 10. 10! I remembered the warning from our Uber driver. Nevertheless, we ventured out, tenderfleshed, and found the central resort center, which offered a modicum of breakfast: wooden waffles, scrambled eggs that were fresh hours ago, and the usual bad coffee. We had cereal. Then we searched around for sun blocks. I bought the children’s 50 and 70, and an adult 50 for myself. Back in our bungalow, I slathered Adam with cream, did the same to myself, put my hat on top of Adam’s head, found our sunglasses, and thus armed, we went out to the swimming pool. The climax of this story is not that we suffered 3rd degree burns, but that you can swim in 107 F sunlight if you stop to slop bunches of sun block on yourselves every ten minutes. After an hour of frolicking, we returned to the shadows of the bungalow and waited for Phaeton to drive his chariot through the azure Arizona air for a while. Then we… did stuff. Vacation, you know. Here narration ends, and dissemination begins, since the two days of vacation we took expired without any narrative anchoring points that went beyond what you’d get in a snap shot. The grocery store for floaties, junk food, and beer. The covey of young women at the grocery store, all clothed in hot pink tee shirts that read “Bride Tribe”, foraging in the liquor section. Adam’s first water squirter, which gained immediate love and affection. Breakfast. More swimming. A gratifying absence of sun burn due to the hyper gobs of sun block. The wonder of parents at the pool allowing their two and a half year old to sit under the sun as it delivered terrific luminous jolts. The restaurant we went to, The Blue Adobe, that served real Santa Fe Carne Adovada. Highly recommended. The giant jar of margarita, which came with an open bottle of Corona stuck in it at a jaunty angle. Excellent. The awarding of a jar of similar build, with the logo of the place on it, to yours truly after finishing said drink. Unnecessary. The ride back to the resort. Drunken.
Ah, and then one last touch. American airlines startled us with a message that they couldn’t guarantee the safety of afternoon flights today, so we had to change our flight to one at 10 in the morning – that magic hour. The heat today was supposed to peak at 117 F.

Yes, its like seeing the Holocene die. Quite the weekend getaway. 

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...