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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 01/19/2004
Volume 2, #109
Alvin is on secret assignment. In the meantime, please enjoy this classic reprint...
Fans of the superheroes, especially Superman, as the archetype of all comics superheroes, should get acquainted with the Greek notion of enantiodromia.
That's it - enantiodromia.
This sesquipedelian word may not be seven feet long but it at least has seven syllables. So it's a big and important word in a lot of ways. It means "the tendency of things to turn into their opposite," from the Greek, enantios, meaning opposite, and dromia, meaning side. Grasping the significance of enantiodromia offers a remarkable sense of the way the world works. It has significance for comics, for peoples, for politics, for the moral life, and even something as fundamental as pure process in so-called inanimate nature. The idea of enantiodromia probably developed among the Attic Greeks, in Athens, around the time of Solon and Plato and Aristotle. . . around 380 BC. Actually, the idea is built into primitive languages, and sometimes breaks into our own thought by a roundabout way. Freud, who is not held in high regard these days, also contributed his own interesting essay on the subject. In my opinion, it was one of his most insightful pieces, called The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words. I won't go into that one here. But I suggest you look it up and see for yourself. Or better yet, allow it to work on you and produce its own interesting effects on your mind.
All right- this mysterious enantiodromia-how does it really work? Let's consider some examples. We can begin with the noble idea of communism, the workers' state which was supposed to produce a paradise for everyone, through the simple contribution of each according to his/her abilities, and providing for each and everyone according to their needs. It was in its original form a notion that was eminently fair, reasonable and, as Marx insisted, inevitable. So strong was the power of this idea that most intellectuals of the twenties and thirties supported it and usually for the most altruistic of reasons.
And then something happened. Enantiodromia set in. This noble idea turned into its opposite. It became the worst oppressor, the most rigid and incompetent and undemocratic of societies. In effect, you can say it became the very thing it was supposed to be fighting against.
Let's look at our own country-the good old USA, the ideal and symbol of democracy and individual freedom, with individual rights specifically having precedence over collective rights. A society in which the tyranny of the majority was eliminated. We have only to look around now and see how the power of money, operating through unfettered campaign finance techniques seems to be gradually threatening to turn this nation into its opposite-the most powerful oligarchy in the history of modern civilization.
Looking at a simple artifact, such as the handgun, the ideal defensive weapon, the means by which the ordinary citizen can defend himself against government excess and private aggression and crime. This has turned into one of the most powerful instruments of crime, and vastly reduced the power of the citizenry to defend itself both from criminal power, and even the power of government. Once more, enantiodromia.
Can any harebrained gang of hand-gun owners and militia members possibly resist the overwhelming power of the oligarchy's vast military machine? Can the profit minded gun-makers behind the National Rifle Association really provide the ordinary citizen with the means to resist criminal and government aggression? Is it any more possible to believe that people kill people, not guns. when we know all too well that people with bows and arrows no matter how ill-intentioned have little chance of killing as many or as efficiently as ill-intentioned people with guns. We can't take away the ill intentions, we can reduce their power by taking away the guns. But we'd better first be aware of the enantiodromic nature of the handgun. How, from being a defensive weapon for the ordinary citizen, it has become a menace to that same citizen, and, in many places where gangs rule, a real threat to democracy.
But let's step away from politics for now. Let's consider the pure form of enantiodromia which works so effectively at every level of culture. Let's look once more at Superman. Here we see almost unlimited personal power and capacity. That very unlimitedness invites the enantiodromic counterbalance. How could Superman, the amazingly popular comic strip that set in train a whole series of superhero imitators, possibly have become popular without the inherent limitation on his overwhelming power? Because if Superman could just solve everything and handle everything as it came along, there'd be no story, no tension, no suspense. In fact, as I've pointed out in my memoir, An Unlikely Prophet, I couldn't see how I could write interesting Superman stories until I began to understand the role of Clark Kent.
In the light of enantiodromia, it's easy to see the way in which an extreme of any sort, such as Superman's power, can only be interesting through its built-in limitation, such as Clark Kent. Clark is the opposite side of Superman, the powerless, inept, bumbling aspect which must always continue to assert itself to create the tension that makes for story. From this, it's easy to take a jump and look at the notion of the savior as it presents itself in religion and human history.
To begin with, why a savior, when God himself could handle things? Why does God need an intermediary, or a Son, or a human representative of some sort? Because without that element of human weakness and vulnerability, the drama of salvation becomes too distant, too abstract, too unreal and TOO STATIC. Unless the Divine is somehow represented as more like us, as also having the capacity to suffer, as participating, enantiodromically, in the human condition, religion loses its humanity. And to be sure, it often does that. The history of religion has been a history of swings from inestimable and unconditional love to inestimable and unconditional hatred, death, war, persecution and evil.
To be sure, the worst effects of enantiodromia take place in time, with one state being succeeded by its opposite. But the more stable instances where the two states are present at the same time, as in the case of Superman, Batman, and all the other superheroes- there is far greater stability. In a sense, the success of this type of comic strip, its capacity to soothe people at such difficult times as World War II where it was widely read by troops in combat regiments, tends to bear out what some of history's greatest philosophers have always said.
Speaking through Socrates, Plato expressed the necessity for bringing the opposites together. Goethe insists that the secret is to unite the opposites. Kierkegaard said the same thing. And even Karl Marx, drawing heavily on Hegel, based his dialectic on the notion of joining the opposites which is why, in theory, he saw his vision of a human Utopia as necessary. But he overlooked the fact that unless that opposite or antithesis was already present in the thesis, that is, unless that social condition already existed in the imperfect society he knew, the one state would always turn into its opposite.
Getting back to comics, and looking at it through the principle of enantiodromia, it becomes possible to enrich the apparently fading superhero concept by reshaping and reconfiguring the Clark-Kent aspects of the hero. The superheros of today are too many. They move through too many universes and face too many cosmic challenges while the simple human side, the Clark Kent side is lost from the story. There needs to be a shift back to the weaker side, the fallible, human side of the superhero personality to restore the tension and power of the original stories.
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