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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 02/25/2002
Volume 2, Number 25

Superman an Existentialist?

An odd question. Why would it even come up in the context of Superman? Or of any superhero? But that's looking at it the wrong way. The way I see it, all or most of the superheroes of comics are existentialists. In fact, the difference between ordinary humans and superheroes lies precisely in the existential validity of the latter.

Existential validity? What does that mean?

It's not as complicated as it sounds. All I need to do now is explain what existentialism is. Well, that part is maybe not quite so simple. As a philosophy, existentialism has been explained by a rather large number of professional philosophers, and very few of them have said quite the same thing. So I'll put it all together for you, and then you'll know what I mean about superheroes being existentialists and why that very fact had a lot to do with the great success of superhero comics in the thirties, forties and well into the fifties.

Let me explain, first of all, that I never considered this an important question until I had this interview with the editor of the New York Times Book Section back sometime in 1947. He was doing a story about my then forthcoming book, THE BLOWTOP, which, in the masquerade of a detective story, was, in actual fact, a philosophical novel. Philosophical because it seemed to start out by asking the question, "Who done it?", but was actually asking: "What was the meaning of this particular murder?" The way I answered that question in the story, led the editor, a man named Harvey Breit, to conclude that I was an existentialist, probably the first one in America. The reason he was especially interested in my being an existentialist is because existentialism was all the rage in France during the Second World War and among its leading exponents was that very popular writer, Jean Paul Sartre, along with his close friend, Simone de Beauvoir, and a number of others, somewhat lesser known on these shores because they were genuine academic philosophers such as Jean Wahl and Gabrielle Marcel. They all had different takes on existentialism. For example, Marcel was a leading Catholic thinker and his existentialism was very much tied to his religious ideas. I could go on and mention that there were even German existentialists during the war, one of whom, Martin Heidegger, was allegedly a Nazi. And then there was Karl Jaspers, a Jew. Looking back a little further, we find the man that some philosophers regard as the father of the modern aspect of the movement, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Actually, it appears that existentialists were scattered all through history, going all the way back to the Greeks. But the Americans had never had an existentialist novelist,. so my presumably being the first conscious one, according to the New York Times, was quite a distinction.

Of course, NYTimes editor Harvey Breit didn't have a particular interest in existentialism. What interested him was that America's first existentialist writer should also turn out to be the secret and anonymous author of that very popular newspaper strip, Superman. And as readers on this site know all too well, the real authors of leading comic strips at DC in those days were indeed deep dark secrets. It took years of digging and research, primarily by the late Rich Morrissey and his friend, Martin O'Hearn to establish who the real creators were in the DC stable. So it was neither existentialism in itself or the Superman strip by itself that especially interested Harvey Breit. What piqued his reportorial interest was that the author of Superman should also be an existentialist. He especially wanted to know whether, for example, I had managed to inject existentialist matter into Superman. To which my answer at the time was a definite "No!"

To have existentialism existing side by side with Superman in a single head, well, even the New Yorker got intrigued by that and sent a fellow named Spencer Klaw to ask me how I managed to keep the two things apart. But rather than repeat a story I've told many times before, let me get back to the original question, what is existentialism? Is there a way of explaining it that will embrace all those other philosophers with their different views? I think there is. And it's actually quite simple.

The fact is that you can never keep up with existence. In other words, ev ery time you try to theorize about reality, about life, about the world, you're actually theorizing about something that has already passed. Even while you're theorizing, you see, time is moving on, and the world or situation you're trying to analyze is already gone. Now the philosophical differences start from here, with the question, "Given the impossibility of ever being able to make a true statement about reality, because it moves too fast to get hold of, how shall we live? How shall we view our lives? What do we do about things like truth and beauty if we can't locate them in any immediate moment since it's already passing?"

For someone like Sartre, for example, the attempt to define oneself becomes impossible because we change in the very act of attempting self definition. So Sartre, in despair, you might say, resorts to the idea that man is definable only by his situation. That is, by what's happening to him. It's a despairing attempt to fit himself into something so Protean, so shifting and unstable, that man's condition is essentially one of despair. The effort to understand that condition also leads to what Sartre describes as La Nause, which somehow, because a man can understand this, he can learn to live with. In short, Sartre advocates simply knowing that such a condition exists and just suffering along and living as best one can despite that. Not a cheering philosophy, certainly, but in light of France's war time agonies, quite understandable. To Marcel, the Catholic, this was truly despair, or in the language of Catholic theology, accedia, a mortal sin. Now lets get back to Kierkegaard for a moment, just to mention that the savvy old Dane understood this despair very well, but he also understood something else. A man didn't have to be defined by his situation because there was always the possibility of transcendence. That is, of rising above one's situation. In Kierkegaard's view, that transcendence became possible through faith in God. Okay, enough. I won't discuss the merits of this in any greater detail. I'm heading straight back to comics and its superheroes.

Now we come to the reason I refer to the superheroes as having existential validity. It's just because transcendence is exactly what the superhero always achieves.. It's what makes him or her a superhero. Very simple, really. A superhero is always someone who can leap beyond the barriers of reality as represented by time, by space, by situation because of a certain innate gift or ability. That ability of course is defined by the artist, the creator. At first glance it all seems kind of childish, and a little too simple. But quite clearly, behind that simplicity, is something much more important, the thing that gives the reader at the very least a synthetic experience of transcendence. We need this kind of experience in our lives, even if only vicariously. In the end, some do achieve it in reality, but mostly, this is a mystery. I say mostly, but in many ways, the arts can give us direction. It can happen through a piece of music or a painting, or a book.

Remember, I was asked whether I tried to inject existential matter into Superman and I said no. I didn't realize it at the time, but I didn't have to. Superman had it already. And there it was in my book, The Blowtop. And I really didn't know how it got there!

I suppose I could say I was in the grip of the muse. I didn't get there on my own or because I had some intellectual understanding. I was only twenty seven years old at the time. But it was there in the book, and I discovered it many years later. I discovered it so well, I can now point it out to you so you can see it for yourself. Actually, in writing Superman for years, I had somehow been getting acquainted with transcendence. It had been seeping into my being, (dasein), , that is, my way of seeing and thinking about things.* In any case,.if you spend day after day plotting the kind of Superman stories we wrote in those days, it can happen. Perhaps too it helped to have had a leaning in that direction, some innate sense of the necessity for transcendence, so that in working on a superhero, you're also subtly calling on that innate sense.

But you can see it for yourself. The Blowtop has just been reissued . This new edition also has a special introduction written by me 53 years later. Get yourself a copy of the Blowtop's new edition (there are originals floating around without the introduction, but they'll cost you over $100). In the NEW edition, turn to page 146 and read through to the end of 147. Near the bottom of page 147 you'll find the following, where the main character is trying to confront an extreme situation:

It began to occur to him that every act made a difference. The step he took toward the chair, the movement from the door, each had its profound effect on every subsequent act. Life was shaped instantly and continuously. Perhaps then, the answer to death not being the end was in this, this matcstick. One could not choose one's death, but one might, if every act were taken seriously, be able to influence one's dying.

That's the nub of it. You'll see where the matchstick comes in. But to trace it down, well, I'm afraid you'll have to read the whole book. However, with the clue I've just given, the experience comes as a jolting surprise. I can't guarantee a revelation. I'm not in charge of that department. But I'd say you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. It beats anything else you can buy for under $15, even a couple of Ecstasy trips. Besides, you only buy it once. I'm trying to sell you a book. But even more, I want to share an experience.

Mostly, The Blowtop, as mentioned in the new introduction, has been rediscovered because it appears to have influenced "the beats", in which case it explains how the "beats" eventually got to Buddhism which is above all else a vision of transcendence.

I'm also urging that you buy this new edition of The Blowtop to help advance the publication date of the sequel, No Such Mirrors which I'll discuss in a subsequent column.

It's like this in publishing today, For example, I have a friend named Lynne Heitman who writes marvelously and revealingly about what really goes on inside airports. Her latest book, TARMAC, just came out and she's managed to send out emails to everyone she knows to buy her book, and to get all their friends to buy her book. Unlike my experience in the forties and fifties where the publishers invested heavily in promotion, most writers today have to do their own promotion. And here I am, way out in the boondocks of Ontario with about ten neighbors within a square mile radius.

So I really have to ask my fans and readers to help me get the word out about The Blowtop. Lynne made me realize how necessary that is. I do this with some reluctance because I've always had a problem with self-promotion. But I've been learning. You can order the book directly from this site. Then,. by the time you read your way to page 147, you'll know you haven't just bought a good story, you've acquired a grasp of transcendence. A dazzling little insight that will put a strange new power in your hands. That's the real reason I keep writing. If you've already read An Unlikely Prophet, you'll understand.

*Being, in existential terminology, usually expressed by the German dasein , as against existens That is, dasein is what you might call the overall pattern of the constantly shifting existens. Professional philosophers have their own special way with terminology.

--Alvin

<< 02/18/2002 | 02/25/2002 | 03/04/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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