The case for optimism, cont’d: “A blaze of color, a stylized lightning bolt, a burning heart”

I’ve just finished Supergods, Grant Morrison’s meditation on the history and meaning of comic book superheroes (and his own not-insignificant role in shaping it), and it’s quite a read: at times off-puttingly self-regarding, occasionally full of shit, but very often truly provocative and revelatory. His final chapter, invoking no less than Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” is a clarion call to humanism and a spirited argument that superheroes — despite the “dark sides” that have recently been written into their characters, in the name of gritty “realism” — are, at their core, our ceaseless attempts to imagine our better selves.

Here he is, very much echoing the “deep optimism” of Matt Ridley:

[W]e have a tendency to reenact the stories we tell ourselves. We learn as much (and sometimes more that’s useful) from our fictional role models as we do from the real people who share our lives. If we perpetually reinforce the notion that human beings are somehow unnatural aberrations in the ever-encroaching Void, that story will take root in impressionable minds and inform the art, politics, and general discourse of our culture in anti-life, anti-creative, and potentially catastrophic ways. If we spin a tale of guilt and failure with an unhappy ending, we will live that story to its conclusion, and some benighted final generation not far down the line will pay the price.

If, on the other hand, we emphasize our glory, intelligence, grace, generosity, discrimination, honesty, capacity for love, creativity, and native genius, those qualities will be made manifest in our behavior and in our works. It should give us hope that superhero stories are flourishing everywhere because they are a bright, flickering sign of our need to move on, to imagine the better, more just, and more proactive people we can be.

In other words, it’s not that we don’t have the capacity for selfishness, greed, and evil; clearly we do. But if the only stories we tell ourselves are those that examine and affirm the darkness in our souls, then we lose sight of the other half of the human equation, which is equally true: that we are capable of goodness and greatness. It’s an idea as old as the Cherokee parable of the man who teaches his grandson that within every person there are two wolves locked in battle: one the embodiment of hate, anger, envy, greed, and the rest; the other its opposite, embodying joy, peace, hope, compassion, and everything good. “Which wolf will win?” asks the boy. His grandfather replies, simply, “The one you feed.”

We are who we choose to be. And the stories we choose to tell ourselves matter.

Grant Morrison should know; he’s the writer behind All-Star Superman, one of the most inspiring and soaringly hopeful Superman stories in recent memory. Morrison understood that Kal-El was, in his words, “pop culture’s finest creation” — the repository of all our hopes and ideals, of the stories we tell about the very best of ourselves. We are the gods of imagination, and we fashioned Superman in our image: not as a flawed and inferior copy, but as the very apex of decency and humanity — “patiently reminding us,” Morrison writes, “of who we are and what we wish we could be.” In his telling, Superman

bar[ed] the soul of an indestructible hero so strong, so noble, so clever and resourceful, he had no need to kill to make his point. There was no problem Superman could not solve or overcome. He could not lose. He would never let us down because we made him that way. He dressed like Clark Kent and took the world’s abuse to remind us that underneath our shirts, waiting, there is an always familiar blaze of color, a stylized lightning bolt, a burning heart.

And there’s the key insight: “He would never let us down because we made him that way.” If we have it within ourselves to imagine a Superman, then we have it within ourselves to imagine a better world and make it real. Morrison elaborates, in a passage that is pure Carl Sagan:

If our shallow, self-critical culture sometimes seems to lack a sense of the numinous or spiritual it’s only in the same way a fish lacks a sense of the ocean. Because the numinous is everywhere, we need to be reminded of it. We live among wonders. […] We are the hands and eyes and ears, the sensitive probing feelers through which the emergent, intelligent universe comes to know its own form and purpose. We bring the thunderbolt of meaning and significance to unconscious matter, blank paper, the night sky. We are already divine magicians, already supergods. Why shouldn’t we use all our brilliance to leap in as many single bounds as it takes to a world beyond ours, threatened by overpopulation, mass species extinction, environmental degradation, hunger, and exploitation? Superman and his pals would figure a way out of any stupid cul-de-sac we could find ourselves in — and we made Superman, after all.

It’s a simple idea, really, that everything we do to each other and to the planet can be traced back to the ideas we allow ourselves to entertain, the cultural narratives we inherit and accept (or reject), the stories we choose to tell. Stories have power, and we have the power to make them real: “Stories can break hearts or foment revolutions. Words can put electricity into our hearts or make our blood run cold.” What are the old religions, after all, but stories that have shaped and reshaped the world a thousand times over? And as Morrison points out, “the idea of Superman is every bit as real as the idea of God.”

If we must look to an ideal, to an embodiment of guiding principles and aspirations, I’ll take Superman over God any day — because humanity’s adopted son asks us to believe not in him, but in ourselves.

More reasons for optimism here.

(Image by Frank Quitely)

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