The Superman Syndrome

June 19, 2011 in Other Stuff

Turn back the clock to a newspaper stand sitting idly at some miscellaneous street corner in the early summer of June, 1938. Your eyes scan the stand’s publications, flipping past the grim headlines of the day, and settle on the bright artwork and bold title of Action Comics, #1. On that cover, you find a character that is so utterly appealing in that age of financial depression, despotic power grabs, and civil listlessness. This is Superman, lifting that car like it is the easiest thing on Earth — this alien at once a part of home and so enticingly removed from it.

Overseas, the idea of man transcending the frustrations of the age was taking shape in other forms. A deep appeal to the populace of Germany and its psychotic ruler, Hitler, was the idea of Übermensch, their very own implacable human ideal ready to crush the obstacles unfairly brought against the population. So, either for a republic or a fascist dictatorship, both forms of government and their citizens longed for a person or persons capable of easily rising above the trials of the early twentieth century.

So it goes today. Consider the issues we face that feel insurmountable: energy independence, global famine, wars on nearly every continent, population unrest, a near-total collapse in any belief in the government’s competence, out of control inflation, rampant unemployment, and crushing debt (both American and otherwise). In this time where even the Superman of old temporarily renounced his ties to America, we are drawn psychologically to men and women that can achieve what we all only wish we could: the answer. The answer being always out of the reach of the capabilities of normal human beings, but available if only we achieve some superhuman level of existence. Witness the bumper crop of media capitalizing on this desire: Limitless, I am Number Four, and the endless stream of superhero flicks (which, of course, your humble author finds much appealing).

Perhaps this should be depressing. Are we acknowledging on some level that it is impossible for us to solve these problems? Have we admitted that there is some hard-wired limitation in our abilities we were born or with; our skills we were trained into — to handle these issues? Are we retreating into fantasy: a mental fiddle-playing while Rome burns? A party held in the basement of the Reichstag while the Russians close in? Or could this be something better: a return to humility and an escape from the falsity that mankind is always in complete control of his destiny?

I call this amalgamation of social trends, cultural artifacts, and psychological preoccupation the superman syndrome. I’m not claiming to have first thought of the idea — in some form, people have talked about this phenomenon forever. Rather, I am both fascinated and a little disturbed by watching it run rampant in our modern-day world. Is it harmless or distracting? Benign — an obsession with mutant superheros, for example — or malevolent, the kind of drive which could underpin obsessions with human “perfection” and programs that could chase such a goal?

At the very least, I could see it as occupying human effort that could be directed towards better use, like actually solving the challenges we face. At the very worst, I find more faith in the idea that people really would follow an Anti-Christ if given the chance, as long as he or she looked to be the superhuman that could pull us out of our pit. People have certainly elected terrible leaders under less anxiety-provoking conditions.

We’re scared. We’re frightened. We implore someone, anyone, to pick up the car with the bad guys in it and chuck it away. And we might just worship the person that did it. Here’s hoping we pick ourselves up after stumbling, as opposed to leaping tall buildings in a single bound. And if we simply must experience a reset, a global correction on some massive scale to correct these issues — that it is over as quickly as a speeding bullet.

Stay tuned.