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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 06/09/2003
Volume 2, #80

The Real Self of Superman

When I speak of Superman's self, I'm also referring to the self of almost all the superheroes who used dual identities. But I use Superman since I worked on the character longest and dealt with the "self" problem more directly. Many of my stories were concerned with the dual identity problem, from the story, SUPERMAN'S SEARCH FOR CLARK KENT, to the Ogies story in which Superman is so clearly annoyed at the Ogies' close presence which threatened his secret identity. We know that the reason for the secret identity of the superheroes was "to protect Supes closest friends, like Lois, from being taken hostage to force him to do things at the behest of the bad guys." A pretty lame excuse, but it held up for a long time.

Recently, I looked at the dual identity element itself in terms of bi-polar mood swings and suggested that these changes of mood tend to allow us a sense of self, or more accurately, an awareness of self, since when one's mood is completely flat or stable, it's almost impossible to be aware of oneself. In effect, when things are running smoothly, you don't even notice yourself. But things rarely run smoothly. So one uses the opposing mood to remember oneself in the other mood. Because when the going gets rough, you need to batten down the hatches and take some action, which means some sort of assessment of what you can do and who you are in terms of abilities and strengths.

Also, in some recent columns there were exchanges with readers about self, one reader specifically disagreeing with the Buddhist idea that there is no thing as a "self." And, rather carelessly, I think now, I agreed with him.

I was careless because the question of self is not quite so simple. Apart from implying that there IS a self, like my reader, I should have remembered to raise the question of what we mean by a self in the first place. With our superheroes, it's all rather clear. Superman has another self, Clark Kent, which, by contrast, presumably allows him to define his essential self. The other superheroes, likewise. Or does he? Or they? I think maybe that also is a little facile.

So let's try to tackle this question of self. What is it really? A difficult question since we're not yet sure that the self exists. At least the Buddhists don't seem to think so. But, that's not quite accurate either. We're running into problems of language, for one thing. And even worse, problems of meaning.

So I'll try to get to the meaning first. The term "self" seems to have meaning in distinguishing between where "I" end and the world begins. It has to do, in other words, with a boundary. Now, let me mention that one of the most fertile ideas in cognitive science today is known as "auto-poesis", self-creation. A self is some kind of energy entity that creates its own boundary. It's the bootstrap idea, you lift yourself by your own bootstraps. You boot your computer. In fact, there's a whole new mathematics of self-reference which has to do with things like feedback loops that operate with a newer mathematics, such as "non-linear equations", necessary because the way we see most things today is not in terms of moving in a straight line. The world is non-linear. It's a web. It's a complex of relations rather than of "things." Sounds complicated. Well, it is, really. Because it all gets shaped into something we call complexity theory.

Much major work on the brain, on the immune and nervous systems, has occurred because of this new approach. But I'm not writing this column to be complicated. In fact, I'm going to take all this and boil it down to some attitudes and interests expressed by a recent visitor to my Round Table, Sam Durani with whom I had a discussion during part of last week's column. Sam feels very strongly influenced by

the example of Superman's service to humanity. And even though I questioned the value of Supe's "retail do-gooding" for ordinary mortals like me and Sam, and insisted that, banded together with idealistic people of like mind, a single, non-powerful individual could accomplish far more effective, larger, "wholesale" good works than even Supes with all his special abilities. Now this attitude and aspiration of Sam's and many people like him, and you can count me in too-- tend to transcend the everyday notion of self. In fact, they get much closer to the Buddhist idea of "non-self". Language is so tricky when dealing with concepts like "self." But it really isn't accurate to say that the Buddhists don't believe in the self. They do believe however in methods and processes of stripping down what we think of as the "self" to something that I can now more accurately call the "selfless self."

Think of it that way and you'll see that suddenly this isn't so far from the Christian ideal of the Son of God dying to "save" humanity. The "selfless self." Exactly like the Buddha, Gautama Sakayamuni giving up Nirvana in order to return to earth and help humanity. And without being proud of it. That's ego, not self. And that's how we come to understand the term "humility." Again, the "selfless self." So, effectively, the idea of a self, all by itself, as we normally think of it, is an illusion, something loaded with egocentric and transient desires. No wonder the idea of the self is difficult. It gets applied to the wrong "self" because, in fact, the self doesn't appear until it becomes selfless! How many times have you heard people say of real do-gooders: "Oh, she's so selfless." (And I don't mean Sister Theresa, but that's another story.)

Superman apparently understood that too (insofar as a comic strip can understand anything), bnt actually, the selflessness of self was inherent in the whole idea of the character. The Clark Kent aspect wasn't really another "self" then, just a temporary disguise. And somehow, that's why the strip had such appeal. It was so basic. And as a consequence, the Superman of today, who lacks the kind of super-powers of the Golden and Silver Age Superman, also lacks the meaning that emerges from the idea of "the selfless self."

--Alvin

<< 06/02/2003 | 06/09/2003 | 06/16/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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