This is one of my longer and older essays on a topic very near and dear to my heart, from 2010, which I reprint for the benefit of any newer readers. I note with considerable satisfaction that there have been more examples in the cinema of comic book or science fiction films since this writing that lend support to my theme:
Part I — On Dehumanity
Let me address a question which, if answered, would answer several questions at once. Why are crass popular comic book superhero movies better than mainstream Hollywood movies?
Why are they better and more honest, more sound, and more true than a modern comedy or tragedy or melodrama, or what passes for it? Why are they better drama?
There are some deep questions unexpectedly connected to this shallow question. Let us see into what oxbows of digression the river of conversation leads. A prudence of space may require the discussion to be drawn over several parts.
The question is also based on some assumptions, such as the assumption that comic book movies, by and large are good, and are good drama. (I am aware of the glaring exceptions, and any useful theory must explain those exceptions as well.) What comic books are not is naturalistic drama; they are high romantic drama—but more on this later.
I am thinking in particular of movies like THE INCREDIBLES, DARK KNIGHT, SPIDER-MAN, IRON MAN, BATMAN, BATMAN BEGINS, and the first SUPERMAN movie by Alexander Salkind, and also MEN IN BLACK and X-MEN. If we are generous with our definition of comic book movies, we can add that best beloved version of FLASH GORDON known as STAR WARS; but I cannot in this space defend that these movies are good, and make for satisfactory drama.
Those of you who disagree, read no more, or accept it in philosophical humor for the sake of the argument, because this article is concerned with discovering the reason wherefore this is so, not debating whether this is so.
To the skeptic, all I can report is that the taste of the public put these films in the top ten to top hundred of highest grossing films of all time, whether ticket price inflated or no, so that if you scorn such films are trash, you do so in a lonely minority.
The second assumption, harder to defend and harder to swallow, is that mainstream Hollywood movies are artsy, trivial, greasy, and bad. I do not mean popular blockbusters like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, inspired by old cliffhanger serials, nor do I mean CASABLANCA, inspired by genius, or WIZARD OF OZ or GONE WITH THE WIND or LORD OF THE RINGS, inspired by widely beloved best-selling books.
I am thinking of movies critics and Hollywood insiders like, flicks such as FULL METAL JACKET, RAIN MAN, DANCES WITH WOLVES, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, AMERICAN BEAUTY, CHICAGO, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CRASH, THE DEPARTED, THE HURT LOCKER. These are not obscure films, and each won widespread critical acclaim, awards, and praise; and you could not, for 357 dollars gold nor with a 357 Magnum persuade me to sit through one showing of them.
The third assumption is that Hollywood movies are made by the elite for the elite, and that it is only with reluctance, or to pay the bills, does Hollywood turn out nutritious fare meant to please and sate the coarse palate of coarse commoners like me, as the popular blockbusters mentioned above.
I do not mean to dwell on this point, I merely ask that you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, accept it as uncontested, since surely the counselor for the Defense of Hollywood dare not claim the actors and studios like us, want to be like us, or like what we like. Their entire claim to be an elite, and superior in taste, intellect, and moral insight to the pathetic bourgeoisie is dashed if they do not discriminate themselves from bourgeoisie tastes.
With these assumptions explicit, let us ponder the question.
Why are comic book movies better than Hollywood movies?
Now, one might assume that anyone asking this question merely has tastes that are common, plebeian, philistine and low.
As for that, I do confess it: it is easy enough to enjoy and appreciate the works of Homer and Euripides and Sophocles, Dante and Milton, Shakespeare and Wagner and Beethoven, the paintings of William Bouguereau or John William Waterhouse, or the movies of Akira Kurasawa and Hayao Miyizaki for the genius of these men is brighter than summer lightning, and darts from so dazzling a high empyrean, and echoes into such profoundest deep that one would be blind and deaf not to be awed by it.
What is difficult is learning to appreciate and savor the artistic genius of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, who wrote comic books and paperbacks, fairy stories and science fiction marketed to children. I have worked hard to lower my taste to appreciating the things as common and simple as fairy tales, and all the simple and true things under heaven. I hope one day my taste will be as coarse as that of St. Peter, who was a fisherman.
The elite of our culture have not yet shouldered that difficult task. We all know that the elite are out of touch with the tastes of the common man, but how far out of touch they are is something of a shock.
Allow me to quote from “J.R.R. TOLKIEN” by Jeremy Mark Robinson:
Philip Toynbee declared, in 1961, that Tolkien’s ‘childish books had passed into a merciful oblivion’, a wonderful statement, just a tad inaccurate. In 1997, The Lord of the Rings was voted the top book of the 20th century by readers in a British bookstore’s poll (Waterstone’s). 104 out of 105 stores and 25,000 readers put The Lord of the Rings at the top (1984 was second).
The results of the poll angered many lit’ry critics in the UK. Howard Jacobson, Mark Lawson, Bob Inglis, Germaine Greer and Susan Jeffreys, were among those irritated by Lord of the Rings‘ success among readers. The Daily Telegraph readers’ poll came up with the same results. The Folio Society also ran a poll (of 50,000 members), and Middle-earth was top again (Pride and Prejudice was second and David Copperfield was third).
It was Tolkien’s incredible popularity that annoyed some critics and journos. Writers are nothing if not bitchy and envious of other people’s success, and British journalists have a long tradition of knocking down anyone who’s successful. So the popularity of The Lord of the Rings served to underline many of the prejudices of the literary establishment and media in the UK:
(1) That people who liked Tolkien were geeks, anoraks, sci-fi nuts, college students, hippies, and so on.
(2) That Tolkien’s fiction was juvenile, reactionary, sexist, racist, pro-militaristic, etc.
(3) And it was badly written, simplistic, stereotypical, and so on. (4) And it was in the fantasy genre, which was automatically deemed as lightweight, as ‘escapist’, as fit only for adolescent boys. And so on and on.
What Mr. Robinson reports of these polls is underscored and emphasized by some that film critic and conservative commentator Michael Medved mentions about movies.
Allow me again to quote, this from a talk Mr. Medved gave at Hillsdale College:
In years past, Hollywood also turned out popular and sympathetic portrayals of contemporary clergymen. Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien and Spencer Tracy played earthy, compassionate priests who gave hope to underprivileged kids or comforted GI’s on the battlefield. Nearly all men of the cloth who appeared on screen would be kindly and concerned, if not downright heroic.
In the last ten to fifteen years mainstream moviemakers have swung to the other extreme. If someone turns up in a film today wearing a Roman collar or bearing the title “Reverend,” you can be fairly sure that he will be either crazy or corrupt—or probably both.
Mr. Medved offers the examples the film Monsignor (in which a cardinal seduces a Nun, embezzles Church funds to the Mafia and CIA) Agnes of God (Nun commits infanticide, stuffs her own baby down the toilet) The Runner Stumbles (seduction again) True Confessions, Mass Appeal and The Mission (various other crimes and offenses). Also, Pass the Ammo, Salvation, Riders of the Storm, In Light of Day, Malone, Crimes of Passion, and that masterwork of bad cinema The Last Temptation of Christ.
In explaining the hostility to our Judeo-Christian heritage that characterizes so many of these films, industry insiders firmly deny any deep-seated anti-religious bias. They insist that moviemakers are merely responding to the beliefs and prejudices of the film-going public. According to this argument, they are merely following the honorable capitalist practice of giving the customers what they want.
There is, however, one gigantic flaw in that line of reasoning: all of the movies I’ve mentioned above—every single one of them—flopped resoundingly at the box office. Taken together, these pictures lost hundreds of millions for the people who made them. Hunger for money can explain almost everything in Hollywood, but it can’t explain why ambitious producers keep launching expensive projects that slam religion.
He next lists films where religious faith was portrayed in a sympathetic light: Chariots of Fire, Tender Mercies, The Trip to Bountiful, Places in the Heart, Witness, A Cry in the Dark: all box-office successes. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was ruthlessly (and pointlessly) slandered, and yet still made an astonishing fortune at the box office.
[…] It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is a perverse sort of idealism at work here. For many of the most powerful people in the entertainment business, hostility to traditional religion goes so deep and burns so intensely that they insist on expressing that hostility, even at the risk of commercial disaster.
Medved goes on to quote a 1982 survey by researchers from the University of Maryland which analyzed the attitudes and practices of key decision makers and creative personnel in the movie business. “Only three percent responded that they regularly attended church or synagogue. In the country at large, by contrast, the same study indicated that just under fifty percent flock to services on a regular basis.”
By no coincidence, a survey by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Psychological Sciences, “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?” found that consumers of “Green” and “Planet Saving Products” are more inclined to cheat, lie and steal.
Risibly, perhaps because Mazar and Zhong are from the planet Mars, and not aware of the last fifty years of human history, the researchers speculate that people who wear what they call the “halo of green consumerism” are less likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal. “Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours.”
Pardon me, but I must pause to wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes.
Those of us from the planet Earth, who remember being lectured-at and talked down to for the last fifty years by these sneering self-anointed Green busy-bodies and Enviro-Marxists know very well why Greens tend to lie and cheat: it is because they are unbathed and draggle-haired hippies.
Anyone who did not note the moral degradation involved in the Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Revolt overlooked the express and often repeated point and purpose of that revolt: it was to degrade moral standards, first in the sexual realm, then in common courtesy, chivalry, common decency, then in independence of character, then in toleration of dissent. Somewhere along the way personal hygiene fell by the wayside, along with respect for one’s elders and respect for one’s word.
The purpose of the Green Movement, which sprang from the unbathed Youth Movement, is not now and has never been to save the planet and preserve the beauty of nature. That is what Boy Scouts and Rod and Gun clubs and other arch-enemies of the Greens mean to do. The Greens want to trash industry and to feel good about themselves.
It is self esteem therapy, not anything related to reality.
If they were interested in reality, they would publish rather than falsify scientific data, such as Global Warming scares.
If they were interested in preserving nature rather than interested in watching brown skinned people die of malaria, they would legalize rather than forbid the use of DDT. Population Explosion alarmist Paul Erlich would have publicly repudiated his exploded theory once he lost his famous bet to Julian Simon, had he been interested in reality, or vulnerable to shamefacedness; and committed seppuku in the proper Japanese ritual fashion once the demographic data made it clear that the Industrialized world is suffering from underpopulation, not overpopulation.
The Greens are not interested in any of these things because their hearts are not true.
We are not dealing with honest people or even with hypocrites who pretend to value honesty. We are dealing with a philosophy of life and a world view that values untruth, and reacts with umbrage, not shame, when they are caught faking data or believing faked data.
Umbrage: because their code regards it as meritorious to lie for the sake of the cause, the party, and political correctness. To cheat is merely to lie with actions rather than words, and to steal is merely to cheat another of money or goods due him: but the root of all evil, despite what the Good Book says, is love of dishonesty.
But we have wandered far afield: let us return to the main current of the conversation. These examples (and they could be multiplied endlessly, I am sure, from your own life and experience, dear reader) suggest that good taste, faith, and trueheartedness are interrelated in some way.
We need not pause to ponder in what why they are interrelated, or whether the chicken of reality-o-phobia comes before or after the rotten egg of aversion to morality and faith. Let us merely for now proceed on the assumption that the elite in the West today accept a moral code, or antimoral code, which in some way encourages and in some way is encouraged by their code of aesthetics.
They have bad taste because they have bad morals.
Instead of believing in God, or following the Way of Heaven called the Tao, or seeking Nirvana, or paying heed to any saints, philosophers, or sages of Occident or Orient, the Glittering Generation just believe in Themselves and seek to do it Their Way, and they seek Self-satisfaction. They heed only the inner voice of pop-psychiatry self esteem, which, by no coincidence, happens to coincide with the voice of fashion, of political correctness, of useful idiocy.
No matter in what other way the great ideals of faith, truth, and beauty are intermingled, we can at least establish the sole point we need for our present purposes: a man putting up a vast idol to himself erects a monument to his own execrable bad taste. (See the Confessions of Rousseau for details.)
The vast idol to himself that the modern or postmodern man puts up always is posed in the posture of Promethean defiance: the tasteless slabs of smelt used to create the looming figure always have arms upraised in rebellion. For the modern artist, to be is to be subversive.
But against whom does the rebel rebel? To what cause do these Pied Pipers seek to subvert their ensorcelled audience? To subvert means to use subtle means to pry the fidelity of one from his former loyalty to a new. To what buried and illusory fairyland does the music of the Pied Piper’s piping pull?
You can see against whom these would be Lucifers and play-pretend-Prometheans lift their impotent arms by reading their works. They are not shy about telling you. They challenge authority, and convention, and the bourgeoisie morality. Some are alert enough to know against whose authority they actually rebel, and shameless enough to admit it: the it not the followers of the Ten Commandments the Sexual Revolutionaries conspire, but against the Author.
They regard you as sleepy and stupid sheep who need to be startled out of complacency and educated out of stupidity by the jarring clamor of their art. They do not regard themselves (as more sane and more humble artists do, for humility is sanity) as employees seeking your entertainment dollar by providing you with divertissement and simple enjoyment.
Nor do they regard themselves as did the pagan bards of old, whose purpose was to maintain in the memory of mankind the great deeds, whether joyous or tragic, done by demigods and heroes wise and great who came before, and whose name and fame should not perish from the Earth, or whose example should serve as an inspiration or a caution, lest men forget their forefathers and themselves and drift without roots, and be forgotten by their children when time is done.
No, indeed, the express purpose of the subversive modern artist is to cut those roots, to blind the modern world to the past, to drench the eye in the slumber of oblivion, and leave the soul adrift.
Rebels not only rebel against, they also fight for.
Now keep in mind we can speak only in general terms about what is in truth a complex gathering of many persons acting for many goals over many years: but let us not delay to make all the legalistic qualifications or list all exceptions that might obtain. We are seeking wisdom here, not scientific knowledge, and where a single counter example destroys a general scientific principle, an exception does not undo a generally wise observation. Let us silence this objection before it is uttered: to speak in general terms is allowed, for the same reason that we can speak of a sand dune and observe its shape, or hear the stampede and guess its direction, without naming each cow or counting each mote of sand. Sand dunes do indeed have shapes, even if some grains are tossed aside by the wind, and stampedes do go in one direction, even if one in the herd breaks away.
So what are they fighting for, this modern elite?
After the Great War, Europe went through their Crazy Years period, and during the Cold War, America followed, and the elite opinion makers, politicians, writers, thinkers, intellectuals and entertainers, all those who control the imagination and the deliberation of Western Civilization became enamored and fascinated by the series of ideas the previous two generations of philosophers and literati had conceived: the idea that God was Dead and that life meant nothing, and that life was unfair.
The great moral crusade of that generation, the so-called Sexual Revolution was the main rebellion against morality. In the name of freedom and progress, the progressive bent every effort to undoing the progress of all previous generations of saints and sages and moralists, and enslaving the world to addictions and sins: Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll, a heady mixture of self-indulgence and socialism. The great moral crusade was Antinomianism.
Antinomianism, the idea that moral rules have no meaning, is a logically incoherent idea, easily refuted by human experience. Progressivism, the idea that the rules of the science economics can be replaced by wishful thinking, is likewise incoherent, and likewise alien to human experience. Progressivism and Antinomianism are Siamese twins, since the promised revolution of the Progressivism involves an overthrow of basic principles of justice, such as the maxim that forbids stealing, forbids envy, forbids treason, forbids lying. The more violent and radical version of Progressivism, Socialism, also refutes the principle of justice that forbids murdering the innocent masses in their millions who all have to be trampled underfoot for the Marxist and Maoist revolutions to succeed. Socialism is the first code of conduct in history where to show disrespect to one’s elders and ancestors, and to hate and uproot one’s own history and institutions is regarded as a virtue rather than a vice.
Adherence to incoherence has several consequences for any mind willing and able to carry out the logical corollaries implied: civility, history, politics, and reason are all involved in the downfall of morality.
Simple civility is the first casualty of this world view, for it presupposes a degree of respect, if not for persons, then for rules of courtesy, but in either case for norms. One cannot consistently be an Antinomian and be in favor of norms.
(One also cannot respect the victims of one’s lies: contempt is the only logical way to regard those one lies about or lies to.)
History is simply ignored by the Progressives: they regard it as a principle of Hegelian or Marxist or Darwinian evolution that the past has no control over the future, no merit, and need not be consulted. The extraordinary and risible inability of the Progressives of any age to learn from their mistakes, their astonishing parochialism, and their revolting inability to honor even their own founding members are all explained by this philosophical amnesia.
As a political philosophy, Progressivism is not a political philosophy, and does not pretend to be: it is a psychological strategy to scapegoat others for failures and dissatisfaction. As the National Socialists were with the Jews, as Marxists are with the Capitalists, as Race-baiters are with Whites, and Feminists are with Males, as Jihadists are with the Great Satan, and as everyone is with the Roman Catholic Church, the Progressive scheme of things consists of finding someone to blame and expanding the power of the State in order allegedly to rectify these allegedly blameworthy evils.
Nothing is ever blamed on the nature of things, or natural limitations of reality, or on historical facts: these entities do not exist in the Progressive mind.
Reason, of course, cannot be dethroned from the respect it merits by any reasonable argument: instead it has to be shunned.
To do this is relatively simple: Reason was merely called ‘rationalization’ by Freudians, ‘False Consciousness’ or ‘An Ideological Superstructure’ by Marxists, or an ‘Epiphenomenon’ by various sorts of Behaviorists and radical Materialists. Reasoning, particularly metaphysical reasoning, was denounced as meaningless verbiage according to a metaphysical principle of the Logical Positivist School.
Hence, the one central principle of this allegedly rational and scientific age is its devotion to centerless unprincipled unreason.
The philosophy of centerless unprincipled unreason is called secular humanism, but it should rightly be called dehumanism, since its end is to remove all particular human characteristics from the human soul, and leave man barren, helpless, hopeless, soulless and empty beneath the Mordorian lidless eye of the omnipotent state.
This is the world view and the mission of the elite.
Let me hasten to add that no one person holds all these beliefs, or hold them all to the same degree. The beliefs contradict each other and contain lunatic paradoxes, so of course no one can embrace all Modernist ideals simultaneously. Many folk only have one or two of these slogans they repeat, perhaps lukewarmly, and few are true zealots. The average Progressive or Leftist or New Ager or Lover of Dunderheaded Stupidity does not buy fully into these beliefs simply because no one could: these beliefs are deadly, and only the dead could practice them consistently.
Why are the elite so out of touch with the common man? The common man comes from the common experience of Christendom, and Christendom combined Jewish faith with Greek rational philosophy and Roman civic virtue. The dehumanist who rejects all authority must indeed reject that most demanding of authorities, Christ, and finds he cannot reject Christ without rejecting also faith, reason and virtue.
You may be wondering how our elite, or any elite, could rise to predominance in society they reject? Should not the elite be composed, as in the Old World, of those established ruling and land-owning families whose ancestors founded or conquered the social order, and hence are loyal to it? Or, in the New World, should not the elite be composed of self-made men whose genius and enterprise and good fortune enabled them to contribute so much to society, offering mankind oil and steel mills and rail lines and electrification, that the reward of the free market elevated them to wealth? Would not either an elite of lineage or an elite of money be loyal to the social order?
The answer is that the modern Progressive elite are not the children of iron who whose fathers won land by hard military service and fawning on princes, but neither are they children of wealth whose fathers’ stubborn hands won gold from a hard world by fawning on customers: our elite are self-selected and self-anointed, and they know nothing of the iron of war nor the gold of commerce.
The elite are people who flock to journalism and entertainment and politics and the academy, and they share one outstanding characteristic:
Even though their intellectual accomplishments are relatively modest, they take their ability to disregard morality as a sign of lofty and superior intelligence, as if disobedience were a difficult quadratic equation.
As a corollary, they assume that loyalty to morality can only be due to an absence of intelligence rather than the presence of experience, common sense, honor, grit, manhood, spiritual insight or upright character.
They are people less moral than the rest of us, and they take that lack of moral character to be a sign that both their moral character and intellectual ability supersedes our own.
The pop psychology of high self esteem, the loss of the Christian virtue of humility, is what allows them to have these inflated and false-to-facts self-estimations.
Fan as I am of the free market, Capitalism has one obvious drawback: it is too forgiving. Capitalist societies forgive entertainers and entrepreneurs their peccadilloes, their addictions to drugs or booze or porn or adultery or pederasty, because the society wants the goods produced by the entrepreneur and the diversions provided by the entertainer. There are times when your favorite song is the only thing fending off a gray and rainy day of despair; and nothing else will cheer you. Why should you care if the singer molests children? He does not live in your neighborhood. Your ill opinion will not affect him. There are times when the only car worth buying is your favorite make and model. Why should you care if the manufacturer is an anti-Semite? The free market does not condemn.
The entertainment and media markets are even less condemnatory: Artists are expected to be odd. What would in a normal society be a sin in the world of artists is an amusing eccentricity, or a source of insight, or a sign of the sanctity. In the Academic world, eccentricity to the point of sickness and madness is not a drawback, but a passkey to lauds and fame. See the case of Peter Singer of Princeton for details.
Democracy also has a drawback: our liberty allows for such license, that no accomplishment is needed ere one is called accomplished. Eve our elitism is democratic: Anyone can be a snob!
All you have to do to achieve the paramount of the modern Decalogue is dishonor your father and mother; to be the modern version Horatio, all you need do is betray the ashes of your fathers and the altars of your gods. Hegelian evolution says that whatever comes later is better, right? Well, you come after your forefathers, and you are younger than your teachers, so you must know more.
To be a snob in the Old World you had to be born to a high family, or in the New, to earn a high place. But all you have to do to be a snob in the world of no-fault modern snobbery is look down on the giants who founded and fought for this nation.
The only way to look down on a giant is to turn your soul upside down, can call evil a type of good (tolerance, diversity, choice) and good a type of evil (intolerance, divisiveness, bigotry). And all you need to do to switch the labels on things, change the definitions so that the north arrow of the moral compass reads south, is to be a damned liar.
Yes, I do mean damned. So picture the modern Progressive as a dwarfish figure, head firmly wedged into a chamber pot, who looks down (what we call up) sees the clouds and stars underfoot, and sun and moon, and proudly imagines he is trampling heaven. And when he seeks to soar to higher places, overhead is a blank and cold earth, merely a roof of matter, impenetrable to his wit; and when he dreams of spiritual things his thoughts ascend to hell. The harder he tries to live up to what he thinks are higher ideals, the lower toward the central fire he sinks.
The short answer is that the elite of our culture are not a high elite at all, but the low dregs.
They do not sneer at us as their inferiors despite their embarrassing retardation in experiential, intellectual, philosophical and theological matters, not to mention their bad manners and sexual perversions: they sneer at us as their inferiors BECAUSE of their retardation.
Lest I be accused of exaggeration, let me pause to give a single example, which will have to serve for countless others. Recall to mind Shirley Jackson’s famous 1948 story, “The Lottery” in which the folk of a small rural town in the American heartland gathers every year to implore an unnamed force to grant a good corn harvest. The townspeople consider, and then reject as foolhardy, the notion of ceasing the lottery as other towns have done. A young mother draws the black spot, and is without remorse and without regret stoned to death by her neighbors and kin, including her own children.
A Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Kay Haugaard, a writer who teaches at Pasadena City College, reports the following:
Until recently, Haugaard says, “Jackson’s message about blind conformity always spoke to my students’ sense of right and wrong.” No longer, apparently.
A class discussion of human sacrifice yielded no moral comments, even under Haugaard’s persistent questioning. One male said the ritual killing in “The Lottery” “almost seems a need.” Asked if she believed in human sacrifice, a woman said, “I really don’t know. If it was a religion of long standing. . . .”
Haugaard writes: “I was stunned. This was the woman who wrote so passionately of saving the whales, of concern for the rain forests, of her rescue and tender care of a stray dog.” …
And so on. One student, speaking in quite rational tones, argued that many cultures have traditions of human sacrifice. Another said that the stoning might have been part of ‘a religion of long standing,’ and therefore acceptable and understandable. Another student brought up the idea of “multicultural sensitivity,” saying she learned in school that if “it’s a part of a person’s culture, we are taught not to judge.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, these students are morally retarded. Morally, not mentally. No matter how smart they may be in other areas or academics, no matter how good their vocabulary or grasp of spatial relations, when it comes to making blindingly simple moral calculations, they are like a ten year old with the mind of a two year old, who can neither form sentences nor tie his shoelaces.
Let us turn with disgust from this grisly vision of the triumph of sardonic hell over the innocent minds of stupid youth back to our initial question. Hollywood mainstream movies stink because Hollywood is run by self-anointed elitists whose only claim to being the elite is their inferiority, and their inferiority is a cause and also an outcome of their dehumanist world view.
Can a dehumanist concoct, without betraying his principles a satisfying dramatic story?
To answer this, we first must turn to what makes for satisfactory drama, but that question in turn leads to a deeper question. Are the rules of drama objective, something we can discuss rationally, or are they merely an epiphenomenon or side effect of accumulated accidentally prejudices and social programming?
If we answer this, we can finally turn to what the elements are that often appear in superheroic tales, and whether or which such elements in such tales lends themselves to satisfactory drama. This will require a further digression into the origins of naturalism versus romanticism in literature. We may even have space to observe the relationship between good drama and the doctrine of determinism.
Part II — On Drama
Can a Dehumanist concoct, without betraying his principles, a satisfying dramatic story? The short answer is no. The long answer requires we discover the nature of dehumanism and of drama.
What is Drama?
The muse of philosophy who broods on Mount Helicon must forgive me if I describe what is a sprawling mansion of many chambers with the briefest of blueprints. Again I warn the reader that we are speaking in the most rough-hewn generalities, and that the presences of many exceptions and qualifications (of which, dear reader, I doubt not you are as well aware as I) does not unmake nor invalidate the general result.
To be a satisfying drama, certain basic elements must be present, either in large or in small:
- A protagonist with a goal or dream or need or mission, who is facing…
- An obstacle (it can be a person, as an evil villain, or a situation, as life in an evil village) presenting a real challenge, perhaps an overwhelming challenge, blocking the protagonist’s achievement of this goal. Facing this challenge initiates…
- Rising action, perhaps with unexpected yet logical plot-turns to astonish the reader’s expectations, leading to…
- A climax, a crescendo or catharsis, which in turn brings about…
- A resolution that not only…
- Makes intellectual sense, with no plot threads forgotten and no plot holes showing but also…
- Makes moral and emotional sense, it shows the cosmos the way it is or the way it should be, but also…
- Makes thematic sense, such that it can be used as an example, or a model, or a reflection of life or some aspect of life.
Other aspects of storytelling (such as ornamental language or proper pacing, or the use of humor, pathos, satire, insight into human nature, or character development) are needed at least in some degree, but this varies so greatly from genre to genre and tale to tale that it cannot be simplified to a general rule.
There are five dimensions to any story: plot, characters, setting, style, and theme. Philosopher and theologian Peter Kreeft, writing about the philosophy in Tolkein’s LORD OF THE RINGS, re-words these five as dimensions into work, workers, world, words, and wisdom.
The plot is the work to be done, and a dramatic story gains stature if the work is hard, the cost is high, and the reward immense. This is why Robert Heinlein listed only three basic types of stories 1. Boy-meets-girl 2. The Little Tailor 3. The Man Who Learns Better.
What is at stake in a boy-meets-girl story is the future happiness of the couple; nothing is more immense than love. Stories involving any deep emotional relationship fall into this category, not exclusively romance. Stories of this type are about people and passions, honor and attachment: the boy is changed because he falls in love.
The Little Tailor (if I may remind any reader who don’t read fairy stories) tells of a man whose boast of swatting flies gives him a reputation as a giant killer. Then a real giant shows up. Stories of this type are about people and challenges. Facing the giant changes the tailor. What is at stake here is life and death.
Man Learns Better is an inverse of the second plot. The Man finds his fixed ideas or his innate character, when played out, leads to ruin, and this leaves him sadder but wiser, or humbler but wiser. He changes because he learns and grows. If learning your lesson carries a heavy price, the drama is greater. What is at stake here is the man’s soul.
If the hero fails, he loses his heart, or his life, or his soul.
From these three all basic variations of plots can spring: the chase, the quest, the competition, the sacrifice, or tales of revenge, escape, enlightenment, victory and defeat, but in order for the plot to be a plot something has to be at stake and it has to be meaningful to you and to your readers. The work must be a great work.
The end point of the plot is comedy or tragic or melodramatic. Comedies end happily: everyone gets married, or everyone gets a medal, or Dorothy gets back home, and, Oh, Auntie Em, there is no place like home. Tragedies end soberly: Rhett leaves without giving a damn, or Hamlet and half the cast dies, or Oedipus learns a truth so horrid that he puts out his eyes. Melodramas end, or don’t end, with more of a bittersweet sense that life simply goes on, as when Kwi Chang Kane walks off into the sunset accompanied only by the lonely warbling of a bamboo flute, or the Lone Ranger gallops away, leaving grateful and astonished townsfolk wonder who that masked man was.
Those who do the work of the story are the characters. The characters are more dramatic the more the reader can identify with them: this is sometimes achieved by making the characters well-rounded, with strengths and flaws that flow naturally from their personality, sometime by making them quirky and irregular as men in real life tend to be, with unexpected angles to their personalities, and sometimes by making them simplistic, larger-than-life, and iconic.
Usually a character who is less three dimensional seems less real and therefore engenders less reader sympathy, hence interest, hence drama. An exception arises for iconic characters who have taken up a permanent place in the imagination of the public, and I speak of Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein’s Monster, Zorro, Fu Manchu and the like. In almost every case, the original incarnation in print of the character was more quirky and particular than the many later incarnations, and that the simplification process leaves out details the original author put in, such as the character’s British title, cocaine habit, habits of speech, or added details, such as a characteristic drooping moustache or deerstalker cap or neckbolts not found in the original.
The drama of a character is in his humanity, for unless he is someone you know and love, his triumphs, passion, or losses neither elate nor sting. The complexity or simplicity of the character is merely tool for creating the empathy, the meaningfulness, that allows the reader to fall in love or fascination with the protagonist. This is not to say the protagonist need be loveable: he can have ugly personality traits. But if the author has worked the witchcraft of his craft correctly, the character will be beloved to the reader nonetheless, warts and all. The character flaws are not overlooked: but to love is to forgive.
The setting must have the same verisimilitude as the characters, or the reader will not accept the world, and the spell called suspension of disbelief will break. To that degree, imaginary lands must resemble lands that are or that could be or that should be here in the real cosmos: because stories that leave out a basic part of the cosmic all readers instinctively put less faith in, and get less drama out.
No doubt fans of science fiction and fantasy will object that the worlds in which speculative romances are set either do not yet exist or cannot ever, since they are set in other worlds or beneath the light of far suns, or set in Elfland, that perilous realm, where no laws of nature that we know hold sway. Ah, but I tell you Elfland, or something like it, is real, and that in our hearts we know of it, and it is this heart, and not your head that tells you this dull world is all the world that there is, which leaps in glad recognition at a book of speculative fiction.
Or are you an exile in this world? Nearly every science fiction reader and fantasy reader feels this sensation, and knows deep in his bones that this false and mortal world is not his home. We are in exile here. The science fiction reader in his imagination knows that he is meant for some finer world, perhaps on Mars, perhaps farther than Archenar or Andromeda, perhaps further than the Twenty-Fifth Century. In his imagination, he lives there, not here. This is a shadow or a reflection not of a neurosis but of a deep truth: The Christian in his soul knows that all the sons of Adam are meant for a finer world, a new earth under a new heaven, and in his soul he lives there, not here.
The style must be suited to the subject matter, and cohere with the rest of the tale. An epic, for example, is best served by elevated language; a children’s tale by lucid, even Biblical, simplicity of speech; Laconic heroes are better set in Westerns than in Love Stories. Humorous stories must be droll; Science Fiction requires unexpected oddities of word-use, so that readers are startled with a door dilates, or when a ship lifts rather than sets sail.
The theme is the philosophy behind the tale. It can be something as simple as the moral in an Aesop fable, or something as mechanical as allegory, but real drama is rung from the tale when the theme conveys not merely a lesson that can be put into words, but a vision of life, of man and man’s place in the cosmos, that the reader can use as a lens to view life through, and in sharper detail.
What is a dramatic theme? The Aesop fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf is not that dramatic, or the tale of Chicken Little. They are too simple and didactic. These are merely types, or stereotypes. When you meet an alarmist, or someone who rings a false alarm, you say, “Chicken Little is like him” meaning one small aspect of that complex person is reflected in the simple theme of Chicken Little
But Scrooge is a real person. When you meet in real life a stingy and lonely grasper, solitary as an oyster, you do not say “Scrooge is like that man” but rather you say, “That man is like Scrooge” because old Ebenezer Scrooge is the more lively and realistic person of the two, even if he happens to suffer the disadvantage of being not real or never having lived.
The philosophy of life reflected in Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL is so powerful and so popular that it is almost unparalleled. If I merely told you that generosity and Christmas cheer would save even a stingy and lost old soul from the self-wrought chains of greed and avarice, and save the poor and give them hope, you might nod politely if your reason grants assent to the proposition. But if you read the tale, so that it enters your imagination bypassing the watchful guardians of your reason, in your imagination the world comes alive, scarlet and gold with passions and visions, gray with ghosts and white with snow, and the torch of the giant drops a spark of Christmas spirit in your heart, if you have one to ignite, and the sight of a crutch carefully preserved by an empty stool next to a cold fire chills your heart with tears, if you have them to shed.
Scrooge is an excellent example of the third of Hienlein’s three types of plots, the Man Who Learns Better: except that he is wiser and filled to overflow with joy when he learns better, and the dawn banishes the cloaked horror of the final spirit, and the vision of death. Tales of salvation and redemption and forgiveness and reformation are among the most powerful and dramatic stories man can tell.
Pause now and notice what all these elements must achieve if the tale is not merely to be told but well told: not merely diverting, but actually dramatically satisfying.
The plot must be both logical, springing from previous events, and engaging, springing from the choices and deliberations of the protagonist, or, better yet, the hard choices and difficult deliberations. A story cannot be told in a world without free will, because then the characters choices mean nothing.
The characters must either be iconic, that is, posses the grandeur of archetypal myth, or must be realistic, that is, possess the detailed granular reality of real persons, naturally to their own character, but with the irregularities and unexpected textures of life. The character must be empathetic, someone the reader can like, so that the character’s victories elate or woes trouble the reader. The character must be meaningful for his adventures and changes to be dramatic.
The setting must be as the characters, and reflect, remind, or contrast with the real cosmos. Tales that leave out an entire dimension of real life, such as Boy’s adventure stories with no romantic interest, cannot help but be less able to enchant the reader with the illusion of reality. They cannot help but be flat.
By the real cosmos, I do not mean the modern, scientific, naturalistic account of the cosmos. We all know or suspect that this is not the whole of the story of reality, because if material and natural reality were the whole of reality, we who lived in the cosmos would not tell stories, which are unreal, at all. The setting must be meaningful for the tale to be dramatic.
The style must augment the other dimensions of the tale: as in brief and manly speech for Westerns, elevated language for epics, drollery for comedy, and so on. The words must achieve poetry, even if it is only the angular and laconic poetry of the journalistic style best fit to tell a crime story. The words must exceed the mere denotation of words in order for the work not to be a legal document or a journalistic account, but actually to come to life in the reader’s imagination. The words have to be magic.
To be dramatic, the theme either must confirm the world view of the reader, or challenge that world view and lead the reader to a finer and better one instead: finer and better means, if anything, more meaningful, a tale that lends more depth, reality, and meaning to real life rather than vampiring meaning away. Such themes as speak to eternal truths both challenge the wrong and confirm the right in the reader, and it is in the very deepest part of his soul that the deepest themes reach. A theme is a dramatization of a philosophy; and in order for a philosophy to be good, it must most of all be truth.
Let us now descend from these high matters that the Muses on their holy mountain sing, and follow a more Orphic path, and look at where modern footsteps with such good intentions have led.
What is Dehumanism? This question will be addressed in a next installment.
Part III — On Morlocks
What is Dehumanism?
Dehumanism is a term I have coined to describe that soft-edged cloud of modern thinking beloved of the Progressive elite. There is no rigorous definition of dehumanism for the same reason there is no Magisterium for the Wicca, and no Supreme Ruling Council of Anarchists. We are talking about a loose and incoherent alliance of incoherent thinkers. The central principle of Dehumanism is that it lacks principle. It is a disjointed admixture of Machiavelli, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and Nihilism.
Its Machiavellian view of morals says that the ends justify the means, and says that noblest ends, such as world Utopia, justify the basest means, such as genocide; Its Darwinian view of history says that races and bloodlines are locked in remorseless and eternal war to extinction, that men should be bred like a dogs, and the weak and unwanted be exterminated; Its Marxist view of economics is that the free market is a Darwinian war between economic classes which must regard each other as implacable foes; Its Freudian view of ethics says that to repress the natural and selfish impulses in a child leads to neurosis, therefore ethics is unnatural, whereas pride and lust and greed and ire and perversion are not only natural, but healthy. Its Nietzschean theology says that God is dead and therefore Power is God. Its Nihilist philosophy says that nothing means anything, therefore no philosophy has meaning and no reasoning is reasonable.
Let me hasten to add that no one person holds all these beliefs, or to the same degree. The beliefs contradict each other and contain lunatic paradoxes, so of course no one can embrace all Dehumanist ideals simultaneously or with equal fervor.
Some wax and wane. The theme of Eugenics, for example, was quietly dropped from the Dehumanist diapason after Hitler betrayed Stalin. Eugenics is no longer welcome in polite society unless disguised as a concern about overpopulation.
Eugenics is not gone forever, of course. The notion is built into the world view of Progressivism, which sees reality as an endless war of race against race, selfish gene against selfish gene. The National Socialists celebrated this alleged reality and sought the totalitarian power to throw the victory of the Darwianian war to the Teutonic race; whereas the Fabian Socialists abhor this alleged reality, and seek the totalitarian power to impose a cease-fire on the Darwianian war.
The Christian idea of a brotherhood of man, or the Enlightenment idea of limits to government, is alien to Progressive thinking and abominated by them. They think colorblindness permits un-umpired competition between the Teutonics and their dusky inferiors; the duskies cannot win; and not to win means to be oppressed; hence, by the twisted logic of Progressivism, a non-racist government or a non-totalitarian government unable to umpire the competition between races leads inevitably to Teutonic triumph and ergo is racist. The only way to stop pro-White racism is by anti-White racism. This requires Whites to act against their own personal self-interest or Darwinian clan interest. Such interests, oddly enough, by the Nietzschean and Machiavellian theology and ethics, is the only source of life’s moral code. It is merely a matter of time before another variation Progressivism arises with some new formulation of Eugenics in its van. The selfish gene demands no less.
The average Progressive or National Socialist or Leftist or New Ager or Lover of Imbecility does not buy fully into these beliefs simply because no one could: these beliefs are deadly, and only the dead could practice them consistently.
The average Progressive or Leftist or New Ager or Imbecilophiliac does not except in small ways support them: he is like a man who burns his leaves and his trash in his backyard, and empties his spittoon off the dock, while the smokestack factories of Academia fill the air with gassy smog, and the overflowing sewer of Hollywood pours liquid sludge by gallons unnumbered into the flood.
He is himself neither truly a Nihilist nor a Marxist; his contribution to the general moral and mental pollution of the age is minimal, but real, and every little bit hurts. He is someone happy to call M. Night Shyamalan a racist for not hiring blue-eyed Eskimos to play the roles of hydrokinetic tribesmen from a make-believe world.
But such is the poisonous moral atmosphere of the modern age. I call it Dehumanism because ours is the first era in history which holds, as its basic postulate of moral reasoning, that there is no moral code, merely arbitrary or useful social myths, and no such thing as reasoning.
It is possible to raise a child to be a sociopath. A sociopath is a being without a conscience. He is able to avoid punishment, but he acknowledges no authority competent to impose duties on his behavior. Even the authority of reason is dismissed as suspect and partial. It is possible to raise a generation of sociopaths merely by raising a critical number of sociopaths among them.
Possible? It is not even difficult. All one need do is teach no young how to reason nor how to reflect on their consciences. It is no more difficult than raising a generation of illiterates: merely teach no young how to read.
At that point, without recourse to reason and without recourse to conscience, and being unable to perceive or even to imagine abiding by any moral standard, mankind will be reduced to being merely an ape that talks. It will indeed be a rational creature, able to calculate a sum or repair a motor, but it will not be human. It will be a creature that can be tamed, like a dog, not to injure its master’s kin, but also trained, like a dog, to kill its master’s prey, but the ability to reflect upon the moral meaning of its trained behaviors will be lost. It will be human in name only, if it deserves that name. A fitter name for the race replacing Man is Morlock.
Such forms the backdrop of assumptions, the starting point, of what any story teller or film maker expects his audience to accept unasked and unsupported.
How can one create a satisfactory drama against such a backdrop, with such intellectual furniture as the props?
What kind of tales can Morlocks tell?
If a Morlock is a creature unable to make or even imagine moral judgments, he only avoids injuring others to avoid punishment. He cannot imagine any other evil aside from injury, and he cannot but resent the lash of the master who inflicts the punishment. Only a totalitarian system of rewards and punishments can check his impulses. Conditioned to equate “goodness” with reward, and therefore the only good he can imagine is reward, usually physical pleasure, such as wine, women, and song, but sometimes psychological pleasure, such as praise, rank and dignities. The Morlock must be a hedonist.
The primary daydream of the Morlock is to achieve the reward for good behavior without the tedium of good behavior: his daydream is to break the whip of the master. His stories are stories of rebellion, retribution and retaliation.
Any authority figure in Morlockian stories is to be shown as a pretender, a poseur, a traitor to his right to rule, a hypocrite or tyrant. No antagonist other than an authority figure fits the mould for a Morlock story.
Morlocks, lacking conscience, daydream of being freed of control, but not in order to live the productive lives of free men. What they seek is pleasure. What they seek is thrills. The nature of pleasure is that it palls. Pleasure is not joy, it is merely stimulus. Stimulus weakens on repetition. Morlocks thrive on defiance. It does not matter what they defy nor why.
Morlocks also lack reason, a sense of proportion, and a sense of common sense. Seeking stimulus, and resenting any attempts at control, they seek indecency. And then when Hugh Hefner and Lenny Bruce becomes mainstream, and mild indecency is the norm, the only way to find an equal psychological reward is to become grossly indecent, to praise Che and Mao and Castro, and to call all the victims of 9/11 little Eichmanns who deserved to die. Once abortion is legal and commonplace the only way to defy the commonplace (and find the stimulus of pleasure that comes from defiance) is to become Peter Singer, and call in tones of whining self-righteousness for the death of children up to the age of two.
The Morlockian rebellion against reason never ends, because the point is to promote ever more illogical and unrealistic offenses against the conscience. It is addictive: ever larger doses of grotesque ugliness, outrageous perversity, malign brutality, and inhuman cruelty are needed to produce the same rush of smug self-esteem. The note of sadism, sheer brutal bloodthirsty love of pain for the sake of pain, is never very far from the high and lofty symphonic daydreams of the utopians
Let me pause to interpose the description of a movie made and distributed and viewed by modern Americans. Hundreds of people and tens of thousands of dollars cooperated to make this. They volunteered.
Not for the squeamish.
Two men are shackled to saws, with their mutual girlfriend hanging in between them over a larger blade. They decide to spare their own lives by sacrificing the unfaithful woman, who is graphically sawn in two. As the blade cuts through her, she screams (and screams and screams) as her blood spatters the men and her intestines slide to the ground.
Another elaborately grotesque trap involves four people, one of whom is superglued to the seat of a car that will soon fall from a jack, accelerate and kill his three friends. If he can rip his back from the seat and reach a lever to stop the car, he’s told he can save them. He cannot, of course, and his flesh is torn apart in his attempt. One of the tires falls on a woman’s face, shredding it and the rest of her body as the car speeds off. A man’s jaw and arms are attached to the car by hooks—and ripped from his body when the vehicle speeds into the fourth man, who is shackled to a wall. Blood and body parts fly. When asked how many victims there are at the crime scene, a cop says, “Enough pieces to make four.”
A woman’s eyes and mouth are savagely gouged by spikes when Bobby cannot save her from a trap. He must pull a fishhook from another woman’s stomach, ripping her throat in the process—evident by the mound of flesh he heaves out of her mouth. Bobby must pull two of his teeth in order to find a lock’s combination. He twists pliers in anguish, ripping his mouth, causing blood to pour from the wounds. We hear his jaw crunch. In order to reach and save his wife, Bobby pierces his pectoral muscles with large hooks and miserably hoists himself up with chains. Eventually, his chest rips apart and he falls to the floor in a pool of blood.
People are also shot and graphically burned to death. A man’s eyelids are shown sewn shut.
This is the seventh movie in this franchise, which has countless imitators and has spawned its own subgenre, called torture porn.
I solemnly assure you that even the Imperial box, front row center, at a Roman gladiatorial game did not show wounds and torment so vividly and closely. As I said above, the point is not to drive our civilization down to the point of paganism, nor to the point of barbarism. Barbarians are still human. The point is to drive civilization lower, to the subhuman.
What is it about subhumanity that hinders drama? We are now in a position to draw two threads of the argument together.
Part IV — the Contradiction
One can indeed write a story that contradicts one’s own world view. Any author unable to disguise his personal opinions for the sake the story he tells lack the essential Puckish dishonesty of the auctorial tribe, and should not be set to telling tribal lays.
However, one cannot hide the world view of the story itself, since this forms the theme, and informs or influences (at least, in works of art maintaining minimal integrity) the plot, character, setting, and style.
A Dehumanist author can write a dramatic tale, but a dramatic tale cannot be a dehumanist tale except in the one exception already mentioned: any story of rebellion against authority, any story that expresses relief or morbid enjoyment at the discovery that life is meaningless and that no final judgment nor eternal life awaits us, can be written dramatically and honestly.
Aside from a rebellion story with a nihilist theme, the dramatist can write nothing else that fits the dehumanist world, and the dehumanist can write nothing else that is dramatic. The attempts to do so will be dishonest, or, at least, will lack an essential element of drama.
Aside from a rebellion story with a nihilist theme, there is no dehumanist drama.
I have made a bold statement: but if we accept what has been said previously about the elements of drama, no other statement will do. Let us recall these elements. What is required for a drama to be truly dramatic?
Here let me emphasize that I am only talking about how dramatic a tale is, not about other things, aside from drama, that make a tale enjoyable.
To use an example from my own field, DUNE by Frank Herbert and FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov both were set in galactic empires, but Asimov’s short stories were intellectual puzzles, whereas Herbert’s novel was drama of operatic scope, with as many betrayals, escapes, duels, deaths, and prophetic warnings as a Shakespeare play.
Asimov’s work is not bad: it is both popular and entertaining. But I am not here talking about popularity and entertainment. I here discuss drama.
Drama happens when the reader is immersed in the tale, when the reader is touched, perhaps moved, perhaps changed, by the experience.
The drama is satisfying when, after unbearable suspense, the conclusion finally comes, and finally happens as completely as you hoped (if the ending is happy) or feared (if the ending is not). This satisfaction is when all the elements of the plot and theme come together, and something in the reader’s heart has a Eureka-like moment, almost like a moment of recognition. I knew that would happen.
The satisfying richness of the drama can only spring up from stories that bring drama out of each story element.
To be dramatic, the plot events must be logical, flowing one to the next. The Dehumanist world view does not admit of logic and reason, at least, not the nihilist school of thought. Their school of thought has events that have no meaning and no logic, or, better, no events at all: and so their art is angular, absurdist, cubic, dadaist, and their drama follows the pattern of WAITING FOR GODOT, a tale where nothing happens.
To be dramatic, the plot must revolve around the deliberations and the decisions of the characters. No tales can be told about your decision what to eat for lunch. The decision must be about a weighty, that is, a meaningful matter.
Stories involving creatures with no free will, such as Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, or BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts, can be interesting puzzle stories or dark and dramatic mood pieces. There is some Poe-esque drama in a story where a man who thinks he has free will discovers he has none, in the same way a tale about a man waking up in cramped quarters and only slowly realizing he has been buried alive is dramatic: but the sharp risk is run that the reader will suddenly realize he is reading about a dead robot, not about a living character, and the spell of suspension of disbelief will break.
This happened to me during the Spielberg movie AI. Once the mother, who was alive, was off screen, I suddenly realized that the little robot boy — who had no capacity, being a robot, either to suffer or learn from suffering — was a meaningless clockwork doll. This also happened, for me, while reading CATCHWORLD by Chris Boyce: since all the characters had been hypnotically and neurologically conditioned to react a certain way to their mission, there was no conflict between their mission goals and their personal goals, and therefore the story lacked drama.
I will not say it is impossible to wring drama out of a tale where there is no free will, and the characters make no decisions (aside from meaningless pre-programmed ones). My point only is that the more honest such a story is, by definition the less meaningful the actions of the characters will be, and therefore the less dramatic.
As for setting, a tale can only select one of three possible types of setting:
The story world can be a world where there are more things in heaven and earth than our dreamt in your philosophy, that is, a world larger than the real world to which the reader returns when he closes the book. All fantasy, all science fiction, takes place in worlds containing more than our worldly philosophy dreams of. It is the stock in trade and defining characteristic of science fiction.These are larger than life settings.
Or the story world could contain just as many things as the reader world. The two worlds are equal. The stories of Dashiell Hammett or Jane Austin take place in a fictional world containing the same dimensions our world contains. These are lifesized settings.
Or the story could contain fewer things as the reader world. The author’s invented world is smaller, narrower, and dingier than the real world. Stories that dwell on disease and despair occupy this niche. It is the natural location for the Dehumanist story, because it represents dehumanist philosophy, namely, the nihilist philosophy that all human virtues and passions are arbitrary illusions. These are smaller than life settings.
All ancient poetry and epic contained elements of romance and fable, stories of gods and monsters, which could not exist in the reader’s world, or of heroes and villains who were godlike or monstrous. With the advent of naturalistic writing, however, the exaggerations of romances, the tales of knightly deeds, descents into hell, or ascents on hippogriff back to the aery sphere of the moon, all fell into neglect. More realistic and quotidian concerns occupied the center stage.
The spirit of romance that informed ancient poetry was relegated to the nursery, becoming fairy stories, or the pulp magazines, where in purple prose the cardboard characters of boy’s adventure fiction swam in submarines or sailed in airships to encounter the immortal yet unearthly beautiful witch-queens ruling lost races in unexplored continents.
From such pulp roots did both science fiction and superhero comics ultimately come. Pulp adventures were placed off the edges of the map, or beyond the reach of history books, in Atlantis or Africa or Cimmeria, or Pellucidar or Barsoom, because the settled and civilized parts of the world were too small to contain the larger things of which your philosophy has not dreamt. Only the white spaces beyond the edge of the map are large enough to hold the larger than life landscape needed. By the time explorers reached the Arctic or Everest, the edges of the map were offplanet. (And these days, one cannot even set a lovely space princess to rule the crumbling ruins beneath the brooding pyramids of Mars, or set a hero to face a nine-armed Martian in the radium-lit gladiator pits, because too much is known of Mars. The edges of the map have moved.)
Dehumanist and postmodern tales do not need to be set beyond the fields we know, or beneath the colored light of distant suns. Their world is small.
The effort and effect, the point of Dehumanism in its many forms is deconstruction. The dehumanist looks at a tale as he looks at life, not to see it but to see through it.
In a dehuman tale, the handsome prince always must be a philandering creep, the monster an innocent victim of society, the wonder must be an illusion and a lie. The setting of story that is honest and true to the dehumanist message is a world more sinful, meaningless, and broken than our own, and less appealing.
Such a story could indeed be told with considerable craft, but it creates not a feeling of drama, not immersion, but a feeling a distance: a sense that one’s cynical suspicions about the world are confirmed.
As for style, one prominent element of Dehumanist theory is that words have no meaning, and are therefore merely arbitrary tools with arbitrary connotations, to be used in order to manipulate the reader, not to discover the truth of the world. Dehumanism says that all poetry is propaganda. A dehuman author, such as Phillip Pullman, can write passages of dramatic effect raising even to the level of Homeric poetry, but he cannot do so in a sustained fashion without being untrue to his world view: eventually, even if he starts as a poet, he must end as a propagandist.
As for theme, the only messages to be gained from Machiavelli, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and Nihilism are messages of cynicism, savagery, self-righteousness, self-indulgence, moral solipsism and despair.
By moral solipsism, I mean the theory that you and you alone must invent ex nihilo your own moral code and way of life, and that no logic and no judgment and no authority stands ready to help or guide, because all determinations are equally arbitrary, and mean only what you, in your omnipotent whim, take them to mean. Moral solipsism means rejecting the world, heaven and earth, and everything in it.
Stories about rejecting the world and everything in it, cursing heaven and seeking hell can indeed, once or twice, maintain a certain stark Luciferine drama, and even be, to adolescent minds, bracing. I would list VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS as an excellent example of when this was done. But the drama always evaporates because the theme of such tales is that life has no meaning and God is dead.
The ending of Philip Pullman’s otherwise excellent trilogy was bland and undramatic because the character Lyra is, at the end, a smaller person than when she began. She began as someone running with wild street urchins, gypsies and witches, and she was full of loyalty, zeal and adventure, willing to defy tyrants and war on tyrannous gods in heaven; and ended as a melancholy schoolmarmish nobody, whose mission in life was to go to school and be nice to people in small ways. It was a story about moral solipsism. When Lyra rejects the world and sits down to invent her own personal moral code, what she comes up with is a bland and slightly creepy version of underage erotic hedonism. If the moral code of the tale is smaller, rather than larger, than the moral code of the average reader, the average reader is in no way prone to be swept up in the drama.
In sum, the point where the various component philosophies of Dehumanism agree is that life is meaningless. Machiavelli, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and Nihilism all point to the pointlessness of ethics, the bestial nature of man and the bestial nature of nature, the meaninglessness of individual effort or individual property, the illusory nature of the mind, of the soul, and of reason.
If you write a tale where the protagonist stands to win or lose his life, his heart, and his soul, this makes the stakes high and the drama dramatic: if at the same time, your theme honesty puts across the idea that life is merely biological mechanics, emotions are epiphenomenon or social programming, and souls are figments, your opportunity for drama evaporates.
As I said before, tales of salvation and redemption and forgiveness and reformation are among the most powerful and dramatic stories man can tell. But the world view of the dehumanist, the moral relativist, the nihilist says that there is no salvation, no redemption, no forgiveness in the world, and to be reformed is merely to move arbitrarily from one empty form to another.
Drama is meaningful; dehumanism demeans meaning.
The epics of ancient poetry, Homer and Virgil and Fardusi and Vyasa, were filled with sound and fury of great and eternal significance. The modern naturalistic novel took place on a smaller scale, starring heroic realistic humans rather than demigodlike romantic heroes: Sam Spade rather than Sir Galahad. The post-modern subnaturalistic novel took place on an even smaller scale, starring people less heroic than an average police officer, priest or physician. Steerpike and Stephen Daedalus.
The magician Prospero could appear without a jar in many an ancient epic; and his sweet daughter Miranda in any modern novel; and in any postmodern, Caliban.
The question remains whether these opinions about the nature of drama are true only here and now, or only in this writer’s opinion, or if there is some more general or universal ground to support them. If that is answered, we finally can turn to the question of what it is about Superhero tales that lend themselves to better tales than what the mainstream (that is, elitist) of Hollywood evidently prefers.
Part V — On Aesthetics
Are the rules of drama subjective, conventional, or objective? The short answer is a qualified yes: a heavily qualified yes. Drama is subjective, but also conventional and also objective, even if the objective element is requires wisdom to discover, and even if the discovery can never be utterly free of doubt.
The first qualification is that any work of art follows the conventions of its genre, and these conventions, being conventions, are subjective from the point of view of the universe, but objective from the point of view of the individual. Like the rules of chess, the rules for how to write a sonnet cannot be changed by an individual. If you play a game where the pawns move backward, it is not chess; if you write a poem where not of 14 lines of ten syllables in iambic pentameter ending with a rhyming couplet, it is not a sonnet. Call it something else.
The second qualification is that personal matters of taste cannot be fully removed from the question. This does not mean we should fall into the opposite error of assuming all aesthetics is merely personal taste and nothing but: and yet it means that any conclusions admit of doubt, mayhap of grave doubt.
The reason why we know that more than mere personal taste is involved is that any reader, assuming him even partly honest, can bring to mind some example of a work of art he acknowledges to be good or even great, but does not appeal to him personally; or some work of trash he knows in the abstract to be without artistic merit, skill, or craft, but which he pursues with pleasure, and, if he is a snob, it is a guilty pleasure, because he learned to be ashamed of his taste for common things.
If you want my own testimony, I can list the BROTHERS KARAMAZOV or the short stories of Flannery O’Connor as acknowledged classics utterly not to my taste, intolerable to me, or the remake of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA—an artistic triumph I could not continue to watch because I abhorred the political themes intruding. I enjoy the Shadow novels by Maxwell Grant, even though these are mere pulp, the artless and execrable writing of HP Lovecraft, comics by Steve Dikto, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Do not leap to the defense of how great is the art of Kirby and Dikto: I acknowledge these are fine cartoonists, perhaps the best the industry has produced, but I do not take their work to be equal to that of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or Da Vinci’s fresco of the Last Supper.
The third qualification is that we must restrict our inquiry to what human beings living in the human condition can know and see. The speculation that Martians or Ghosts, Elves or Angels might have such different apparatus to sense and interpret the world that no rules of art which apply to our sphere and to the human condition could apply to theirs simply need not concern us: we are hunting for an objective rule of art the way a philosopher hunts for an objective rule of science. Let us not conflate universality with objectivity. Universal refers to what is true in all times, places and conditions: Objective refers to what does not change when the observer changes. Simply because the curve of an airplane wing will not, in outerspace, nor on the Moon, produce lift, does not mean Bernoulli’s Principle is merely a local prejudice.
The fourth qualification is that some works of true artistic merit are buried where the world has not found nor acknowledged them: consider that some of Maxfield Parrish’s work first appeared as advertisements, or Norman Rockwell as magazine covers.
Likewise, in the modern day, the Lord of the Hell has raised his iron scepter above its cindery lava plains, and at the signal of their Great Sultan, his reigning Dukes, Peers and Ministers, with folded wings of membrane, bowed their flame-crowned heads, and in his name commanded the world to acknowledge, and praise as if it is fine art high-flown the merest rubbish, junk, filth, poop, and vomit imaginable, starting with Picasso and ending with Piss Christ.
There are works of no merit whatsoever raised by the clamor of dog-eyed establishment critics and beauty-hating gargoyles to world wide fame. If you for a moment thought these gargoyles were not liars to the marrow of their crooked bones, you might wonder, all aghast, if perhaps all taste in art, all rules of craft, were not indeed mere personal preference and arbitrary and subjective.
But no, these things are not art, but anti-art, and they correctly express the world view of those that made and admire them. They are Morlocks, and their works consist, as Morlock-work must do, of taking the beautiful things of the sunlit Eloi world, dragging them down into the sewers, and chopping them into grisly strings of meat.
The leitmotif of all this modern art is the spirit of violent rebellion. For reasons I have stated above, drama and even a certain angular and sinister beauty can flow from such Promethean rebellion against established forms: but every other dimension of the human experience aside from the heady emotions rebels on the barricades can know are closed.
Example: An honest art critic can look at Duchamp’s NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE, and see in it something jarring and startling and new, something that tries to tear his perceptions away from the human method of perception, something that shatters, and violently, the bourgeoisie conventions of representation and perspective.
Nude Descending a Staircase by Duchamp — wait. Is that pic upside down?
But there is nothing else aside from this dimension to the work. You cannot study the perspective, because it is not a perspectival drawing. You cannot comment on the accuracy of the representation, because nothing is represented. You cannot notice the beauty of the nude’s face or comment on her rapturous expression, because she has no face. You cannot even comment on where and how the original myth is reflected or reinterpreted, because there is no myth, no tradition, no context, no nothing.
Ravishment of Psyche by Bouguereau
Contrast this with the RAVISHMENT OF PSYCHE by Bouguereau. You can remark on the composition because there is composition, and talk of the theme because there is a theme present; there is an erotic dimension (no pun intended) because the nude figures of Eros and his beloved are dawn well enough to see them; there is a classical dimension, as this is a scene from myth; there is a romantic dimension, as well as symbolic, as well as the technical skill required to draw the feathers on the wings of the love god, or the folds of the banner fluttering from the nude and swooning form of his ascending bride. There is even a religious dimension here, for any with eyes to see it, since this is an image of the soul ascending in to heaven in the arms of divine love. Anyone who has ever been swept aloft by love will know something of a shock of recognition studying this picture.
Your talk indeed might consist of nothing but dismissive contempt for the way the artist has handled his subject, theme, technique, perspective, eroticism, romanticism, classicalism, spiritualism: but at least you have something to talk about. There is something actually present in the work to discuss and judge, aside from merely rebellion against convention. (There is, of course, rebellion against convention in Bouguereau as well, albeit a jaded modern audience might not see how radical the rebellion is. Show this painting to a Marxist-Feminist, and listen to her tired and trite politically correct condemnation of it, and then you will understand against what the flight of Psyche flies.)
But for what it is, the eye-jarring rubbish of Duchamp does correctly what it means to do. This means we have to add another qualification: we must restrict our comments to what all art, including modern art, has in common. Whatever is actually present in modern art (and by design there is damned little of it) that speaks to beauty and to the sublime, must also be taken into account. There is indeed something brave and breathtaking in the rebellion of Lucifer.
These qualifications seem to leave us with very little room to establish an objective aesthetics. If the rules of art are not mere personal taste, nor mere conventions of genre, nor something created by specifically human biases of the human race, and if we cannot depend on the testimony of critics and experts to determine what is great art and great drama, and if we cannot even dismiss the deliberately rubbishy modernist rubbish as rubbish, how can any allegedly objective rules be deduced or discussed?
Let us start, as good Thomistic scientists must, with common sense observation. I remind you of the primary data that we all have experienced great art that does not appeal to our taste, and we have all seen art produced from other cultures which appeal to us even in translation, or even across the gulf that separates Orient from Occident. If you have not experienced this, dear reader, then read no further: my comments are not addressed to you.
All of us, if we are not merely children or possessed of childlike tastes, recall works that we had to work to learn to love, such as obtuse poems which has to be explained before they were beautiful, words of archaic or foreign cant, or novels referring to experiences in life we were too young, on first reading, to recognize or know. Even science fiction and fantasy has some introductory learning that needs be done, a certain grasp of the scientific world view or the conventions of fantastic genre that must be gained, before the work is loveable. The only art I know that has no introductory effort at all is comic books, but even they, in recent years, now require introduction, since no one unaware of the decades of continuity can simply pick up a comic book and read it with pleasure: they are written for adults, these days, not kids, and adults expect and are expected to try harder to get into the work before getting something out of it.
The reason why modern art can pass for art is that the Tailors of the Emperor’s New Clothes can claim, and the claim cannot be dismissed unexamined, that modern art merely is has a steeper learning curve than real art. Once you get all the in-jokes and palindromes and Irish and Classical references in James Joyce (so the Tailors say) you can read ULYSSES with the same pleasure that a student, once he learns Latin, reads Virgil. And as long as you are in sympathy with the effort at destruction and deconstruction, this modern art has the same fascination as watching a wrecking crew tear down a fair and delicate antique fane with fretted colonnades and an architrave of flowing figures recalling forgotten wars between giants and gods. What child will not cheer when he sees a wrecking ball crash through the marble and stained glass of old and unwanted beauty? How he will clap when the dynamite goes off, and squeal, and hold his ears! I am not being sarcastic: there is something impressive in such acts.
Let us add a second observation: great novels and great paintings, symphonies, even great comic books, are ones that reward a second rereading or heeding or viewing. A book is something you read once and enjoy and throw away. A good book is one you read twice, and get something out of it a second time. A great book is one that has the power to make you fall in love, and each time you reread it, it is as new and fresh as Springtime, and you see some new nuance in it, the same way you see more beauty each time you see your wife of many years, and will forever, no matter how many years you see her face. (Those of you who are not in love, or not happily married, or who have never read a truly great book, will not know whereof I speak. Alas, I cannot describe the colors of a sunrise to a man born blind.)
Let us assume that there is no beauty in art, no objective rules. If that were so, how do we explain the two observations noted above, first, that some art must be learned before it is loved, and second, that some art rewards additional scrutiny indefinitely, a fountainhead that never runs dry. The explanation that the learning is not learning but merely acclamation, an Eskimo learning to tolerate the tropics, a Bushman growing to enjoy the snow, would make sense if and only if any art or rubbish would reward equal study with equal pleasure.
If the pleasure I get out of a work of art I had to grow and learn to like was merely due to me and my tastes, and the learning was not learning at all, but merely an adjustment of taste from one arbitrary genre convention to another, then the outcome or result could not differ from artwork to artwork, as long as I were the same.
If I can see more rich detail each time I reread Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and if indeed there are beauties that piece like swords, and if this were due to me and only to me, and not due to something in the work, I should be able to study a pile of rocks besmirched with stains of oil and offal in a rubble heap, and with the same passage of time and effort, force myself to see equal beauty within.
But I cannot, nor can any man. Therefore the sublime is not just in me the observer; logically, it must be in the thing observed. There must be something really there.
If this argument satisfies, it tells us, with the clarity of a Deist argument, that there is an objective beauty in the world, but not what it is.
As in theological argument, in aesthetics we can only know more of the beauty of the universe if it comes to us in the artistic equivalent of revelation. We have to look at beauty in nature and see what is there, and what its rules are, before we look at beauty in human handiwork.
This requires a leap of faith. To my atheist and agnostic readers, I apologize, for now the discussion leaps across a gulf you cannot, with unaided human reason, cross. Only to my fellow theists can I make the next step and draw the next conclusion. Again, my apologies, but to you, aesthetics will always remain a branch of philosophy either of no interest, or the source only of frustration.
Jews and Christians, Heretics, Heathens and Pagans, you know we live within a living work of art, the handiwork of heaven. If there is a Platonic Form or Idea of beauty, all art is art which correctly reflects this, and the same author who established the Form in its place in the hierarchy of true ideas, also created the cosmos with cosmic beauty in it, and created our hearts so that they leap with joy and recognition when that beauty is revealed.
Beauty is the emotional apprehension of truth and goodness in the same way that truth is the rational apprehension of what fitting and perfect, and in the same way that goodness is apprehension by the conscience of what is true and fair. A beautiful thing that has a piece missing is imperfect in the same way a truth that hides part of the truth is a lie, or a virtue exercises in service of vice is vicious. We are dealing with three different types of integrity or perfection. If there is One divine author or fountainhead of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, there can indeed be, and perhaps must be, a integrity between them: if there is no God, there is no explanation of any coherence between the three, nor any reason why we humans should just so happen to be able to apprehend the same, and no reason why, given a choice, we should.
Skeptical Deists like Thomas Paine do not think God wrote scripture, but do think the Creator wrote creation; and even skeptics such as this will look to nature to see what the rules of art and beauty are.
In general, beauty reflects integrity and perfection; a nude figure otherwise well featured who has a hook for a hand, or whose one breast is larger than the other, or a symphony with one theme in jarring disharmony with itself, or a landscape painting of a factory with dead fish heaped above a polluted shoreline. Even a woman who is outwardly fair to the eye and inwardly vain and shallow and cruel is repulsive because of the imperfection, the disharmony, the lack of symmetry between her physical and spiritual appearance. There are exceptions, of course: the Venus di Milo, or unfinished symphonies or poems, can be beautiful, perhaps in a melancholy way, but the perfection is those cases in implied; these are not works deliberately meant to be marred, nor meant to praise and draw the soul toward imperfection.
The rules of drama found there are roughly what we discussed above. In the cycle of the year, for example, we see the elements of plot drama. Spring is filled with love stories, Summer with war and work, Autumn with Harvest, Winter with the still coldness and frozen beauty that reminds us of the graveyard or the inhuman beauty of Elfland; and then, as all great drama must, the plot turns to themes of redemption, salvation, transformation, and the world is saved from the grip of monstrous winter by the heroic yet fragile armies of spring, green twigs, twittering birds returning from far exiles like Elves returning to the Blessed Isles, while the white knight who saves the maiden Mother Nature and ends her snowy woes rides in his triumphal car in heaven, Apollo, too bright to look upon.
What drama do we see in nature? That depends on the insight of the onlooker. Let us list them from least to most.
Those dull-eyed and scientific people who see nature merely as a battlefield of infinite battle, red in tooth and nail, the meaningless and remorseless struggle for survival of selfish genes manipulating hypnotized beasts to carry out their blind and mindless program of endless Xeroxlike self-repetition, pointless as wallpaper, do not see the drama or the melodrama.
The pagan view of the world is like an island of joy in a melancholy sea of chaos. The bright armies of Spring, the rose with her thorn, array in battle against the hosts of Winter, icicles like spears, and the Summer King dies and is reborn, and Demeter walks the Earth hooded and weeping, seeking her daughter in Hell, who in due season will rise again. One eyed Odin roars with laughter, hearing the japes of Loki who will soon betray him, and he needs no other food aside from his horn of mead and the mystic waters of the well of wisdom, in which he sees the visions of the Twilight of the Gods, from which nor man nor god shall rise again. The worm Ouroboros eats its own tail, the very world serpent himself, and the endless cycle of endless sorrows endlessly return.
The world view of the Orient reflects this theme of endless return, and submission to cosmic law and order. Confucius, eminently practical, speaks only of the order that must obtain among gentlemen, if a life of virtue and a virtuous rule is to be maintained. Lao Tzu places his finger on his smiling lip, and says that the truth when spoken of is not the truth, but this truth guides the way of the world. For the Hindu, as for the ancient Egyptian, the Sumerian and the Chinaman, the beauty of the world is in the cosmic order: karma, ma’at, me, tao.
All of Asia might agree, with the one exception of the Buddha, the Enlightened One, who lifts a lamp from the windless sea beyond the edges of the world, from Nirvana, and tells of a place where all sorrows are dissolved in selflessness, and one can become one with nothingness. The stoical resignation to fate and cosmic law is mingled with the hints of an escape into a perfect void, where mourning ceases because there is no mourner. For the Buddhist, the beauty of the world is part of the illusion of the world, therefore the Buddhist sage closes his eyes when he meditates.
The Jew is a rebel to all this. They are a people apart, for they were told the great secret. The world was created, and the creator pronounced it very good. Light and heaven and earth and sea, the green growing things, fish and fowl, and all that creeps and walks and runs, all are good and very good, and the crown of creation who walks upright is made in the very image and likeness of God: a work of art that is also the self portrait of the Divinity.
The religion of Abraham, like the religion of Odin, ends in the cosmic war, except that, unlike Ragnarök, in the battle of Armageddon, the forces of heaven are promised victory and joy unmeasured, and not glorious sorrow in glorious defeat. The final winter of the world is ended, and the endless Springtide rules.
Here is the element of drama, the great story, in which the numberless lesser stories are woven like the curls of a Celtic knotwork: the great tale begins with a sympathetic protagonist, Love Himself, brighter than Apollo, encountering the challenge of the Fall, an obstacle as terrible and final as the tears of Demeter when she found her daughter lost from the fields of Enna. The Messiah descends as the main act in the plot, albeit Christians say this happened already, and Jews say not yet. Then salvation, judgment, the reward of the just, and the punishment long over due of the sneering mustachio-twirling villains, and all swords are bent into ploughshares and all tears wiped away, and all lovers reunited. Roll credits.
Tragedies are those tales that end, as Milton’s PARADISE LOST, or Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA, with the triumph of sorrow. Eden ends in exile from Eden, and as the dead body of sweet prince Hamlet is drawn away, Horatio stands aghast, and wonders at the death of the whole dynasty. To my fellow Christians I can tell you the secret that tragedies have such power to move us because we know in our souls that this world is tragic, and that Eve ate an apple as filled with poison as the cup Queen Gertrude raises to toast her son.
Comedies end in marriages. True comedy is not mere witty sarcasm, japery, or gallows humor: true comedy is joy. To my fellow Christians I can tell you the secret that comedies have the power to bring joy because we know in our souls that one day our prince will come, and the long exile in this land of death shall end, and the bridegroom shall marry his mystical bride the Church, and heaven and earth shall wed.
Adventure stories end in victory, and romances end in consummation. There are feminists who object to tales where knights and princes disguised as churls or shepherd boys rescue princesses chained to rocks from the leviathan in the sea, and carry her off on his white charger, or, better yet, carry her aloft in his winged shoes to a royal wedding. The feminist called such tales, where the princess is merely the prize to be won, examples of male chauvinism. Blind vipers! Were only their eyes opened, they would call this female chauvinism, because this is a type or a shadow of the rescue of all the soul of the Church by our beloved Bridegroom. He saves us not to win us as a prize; He saves us because He prizes us, and knows us worthy to be won. Compared to Him, we are all women, our souls are female: they receive, like soil receiving a seed, the inspiration and infusion from which new life shall grow in us. Speak no more of Man’s search for God. Speak instead of God perusing and wooing Man, and carrying off our souls like Psyche in the arms of Eros. He first chose us.
In addition to comedy and tragedy and adventure and romance, this one grand true drama also contains the modernist elements of shock and rebellion. Nothing is more shocking to the Jew or Mohammedan that the thought of God Himself, pure and unstained and divine from eternity, entering into time in the womb of a mere woman. This is as jarring to convention as any mere cubist abstraction. And as for rebellion, Christ defied the Prince of Air and Darkness that rules this world, spoke back to Pontius Pilate, and not merely rebelled against the world system, but overthrew it.
Even you atheists and your dramas are not absent here. When the crucified Savior cried out on the bloody tree, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? surely he cries with your voice. Or perhaps you are an atheist because you rightly scorn the hypocrisies and lies of smug established churches and their niggling rules: when the Messiah faces the Pharisees and called them sons of vipers, hypocrites, blind fools, and he overthrew the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, His anger and disgust at all the folly of false religion was as great as yours.
All the elements of great drama are present in the tragic world in which we are trapped, and in the heavenly comedy, adventure, and romance beyond the shores of this world reaching like a beam of starlight down to us, smiting the heart with hope that burns like cold iron.
Here we have the most likeable protagonist of all, whose suffering all men have alike in each his own life; the stakes are high, nothing less than the salvation or damnation of the world, or of each soul in the world; the foe is ferocious and mighty and dark, no less than death itself, and monarch over all creatures on earth, no less than Lucifer, the greatest and noblest and wisest of the archangels that fell; the plot is ripe with shocking surprises, almost to the point of absurdity, secret princes born in stables, mages following strange conjunctions in the starry sky, signs and wonders, blind men weeping with eyes once more opened to light. There is intrigue, betrayal, courtroom drama, torment and death. And then there is the one thing every springtide hints of.
And this is only the end of Act Two. Somewhere down the corridors of time rages the knightly battles of the Twilight of the Gods, and the clamor of the end of the world, and the roar of the last trumpet is so loud that prophets can hear the echoes from the future in their dreams, and haunt us with riddles and signs of things to come.
The setting is the infinite and infinitely precious world around us, the globe of Earth as an island of life in a sea of endless night, galaxies above so vast the numbers themselves must fail before the immensity. Do not wonder at the width of the universe: our Bridegroom must prepare a wedding gift as large enough to represent an endless love to give us when waiting is done. To human eyes the cosmos looks dark. In truth, it is filled with light.
The characters, beloved readers, include you and include me. We are the players. (My role is comedy relief: Bottom with an asses’ head beloved of a bewitched fairy queen of supernal beauty.) Have any characters ever been so well drawn in any drama? Are any villains as horrific as what human beings can be?
As to the style of the drama of creation, there words fail. You must consult both scientists and artists to see the intricacy and elegance of the laws of nature and the beauties of nature.
And the theme is the theme that makes for the most dramatic tales: we are living, all of us, even those poor atheists who cannot see it, in the middle of a desperate tragic drama with a possible ending, for some of the characters, of joy beyond immensity.
This life, and the life to come, is a tale of salvation and redemption and forgiveness, of transformation and reformation. It is a Divine Comedy. We are all the poet. We will one day see our beloved Beatrice again. First we must go through the pits and fires of Hell and climb the cornices of mount Purgatory.
Why did the Creator put creative people in His creation? Why did He give us, like Him, the power to speak Words, a power no beast shares? Why do poets exist?
Life is a Divine Comedy. We need a Virgil to lead us up as high as worldly art can reach.
Finally we can reach the final question. What is it about Superhero movies that make them better than mainstream Hollywood movies? But this will be explored in another installment.
Part VI — On Heroics and Superheroics
Finally we reach the question: Why Superheroes? What is it about the Superheroic genre that makes supermovies better than modern mainstream movies?
The answer is threefold.
First, older mainstream movies, such as GONE WITH THE WIND and WIZARD OF OZ did not follow the modernist and postmodernist tastes which have ruined so many recent movies. Those mentally empty and morally corrupt philosophies had not yet reached mainstream popular entertainment in those days.
So the first part of the answer is not that superhero movies grew better than normal, just that mainstream movies grew worse. This happened as nonconformists of the 1960’s and 70’s became the establishment in Hollywood. Their world view, which I here have called dehumanism, when consistently portrayed, lacks sympathy, drama, purpose, point and meaning; and therefore the films that win acclaim by accurately reflecting the dehuman world-view lose the ability to tell a tale in a dramatically satisfying way. Dehumanity and drama are mutually exclusive. More of one means less of another; and it is a rare genius who can reconcile the two.
The modern movies that most obviously defy these corroded modern conventions are deliberately nostalgic homages to serial cliffhangers: STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. These are among the bestselling movies of all time, and they transformed the industry and the audience expectations: summer blockbuster tentpole movies spring from nostalgic roots.
Second, there have always been superhero movies, such as CAPTAIN MARVEL serial cliffhangers. Not until recently has the special effects been able to match what pen and ink portrays. The amount of suspension of disbelief needed to feel a real thrill untainted with cynicism when watching some feat of derring-do portrayed with cheesy special effects is rather high, and only small children have that much imagination to spare. We grown-ups need more realistic special effects before we will believe a man can actually fly. So technical advances, not any change in the manners and morals of the people, allow superheroics to appear on the silver screen in a fashion that they once upon a time could not.
Third, and most importantly, superhero movies, like homages to serial cliffhangers, are fundamentally nostalgic, fundamentally childlike. One of the conventions of nostalgia is that the audience is not allowed to scoff or look cynical at the simplistic purity of the drama. If someone says STAR WARS is simply too blatantly black-and-white, with its orphaned farmboy hero in a white gi, and evil warlock-knight villain in a black cape, black skull mask, black Nazi helmet, and black lung disease wheezing, that someone just does not “get” the film. The purity of the theme is not a bug, it is a feature.
The superhero movie, along with the crowd of science fiction and fantasy movies, was welcomed into the movie theaters only after STAR WARS made such genre films respectable (which it did by tallying up a respectable profit).
Now, mere nostalgia is not the selling point. GONE WITH THE WIND or MEET ME IN SAINT LOUIS or CINDERELLA MAN or SEABISCUIT are all nostalgic movies, historical period pieces taking place in periods still within living memory (at the time they were made) of the older members of the audience. No, the rise of cliffhanger serial movies and superhero movies are a particular type of nostalgia: a longing not for our childhood, but instead for the stories from serials and comics of our childhood.
And this is for the most practical and obvious reason imaginable: stories from the serials and comics of our childhood were more decent, more entertaining, and, in their simplistic way, a better reflection of the Great Tale of salvation and redemption which makes all great stories great.
Childhood tales of heroes and superheroes are not tainted with deconstructive postmodernism. Tales of heroes are about salvation, saving people in the most literal sense of the word.
The only superhero comic that is deconstructionist, ironically, is one of the most famous: WATCHMAN by Alan Moore. The point of this tale is how spooky and creepy real superheroes would be, vigilantes and supergeniuses who take the law into their own hands, and who therefore take our lives and all human destiny into their own hands. The one character who believes in the stark contrast of black and white, Rorschach, even while being portrayed as a filthy psychotic nutbag, and whose fate is to have his head blown off by God Himself (or God’s stand-in, Dr. Manhattan), nonetheless ends up as the most popular hero of this antiheroic story. Irony upon irony.
That exception aside, what is the dramatic appeal of such unrealistic tales? The short answer is that the realism innate in real drama has been exiled by the postrational postchristian postmodern elite, and therefore real drama can only sneak back into the theatre in disguise, wearing a spider-mask, so to speak. Disguised as harmless boyish adventure stories, really good stories about good and evil can slip past the watchmen.
The appeal of superheroics is merely the appeal of heroics write large.
Satisfying drama stars a sympathetic protagonist with a dream or need or mission, who is facing an obstacle that presents a real challenge. Facing this challenge initiates the plot, whose resolution not only makes intellectual sense but also makes moral and emotional sense, and shows the cosmos the way it is or the way it should be. Characters, plot, setting, style and theme are the basic elements.
Comic books usually have quite sympathetic heroes. Keep in mind that nearly all the superheroes to appear on the silver screen were invented during or after World War Two, back when the nation still had some sense of decency and normalcy. In those days, writers were not embarrassed by patriots dressed in red, white, and blue.
Superheroes are never supermen in the Nietzschean sense of the term, creatures beyond good and evil. (Only Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan of Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN fall into this category, a villain and an antihero respectively). The main point of superheroes is that they are masked men, and therefore they get no reward, not even thanks, for their deeds of derring-do: when Superman saves the planet from an asteroid or an invasion of robots or something, usually he gets is a snub from the alluring Lois Lane, or a browbeating from his irate boss Perry White. Peter Parker’s boss J. Jonah Jameson is even more irate and beat his brows even more completely. Bruce Wayne might be a wealthy playboy, or Diana Prince an Amazon Princess, but even they are orphans or exiles. The more famous superheroes are the ones who, despite their strange powers or strange backgrounds, have human aches and pains all humans can sympathize with, and the power they have is never self-serving. Superheroes go masked for the same reason knights of old painted their shields blank before tourney: so that he deeds would be done for their own sake, not for praise or reward.
While it is true that Superman in costume might get a ticker tape parade, or a nod of thanks from the Warden, Clark Kent out of costume gets nothing; and Spiderman in or out of costume gets even less, since he gets blamed and called a menace even while he is saving people. Were it not for this meekness, superheroes would be insufferable.
This description does not describe the Fantastic Four, who, in a breach with convention, have no secret identities; nonetheless, the appeal of the Fantastic Four is that, in a second breach with convention, they squabble among themselves, and have problems with neighbors in the Baxter Building complaining about superexperiments exploding in Reed’s lab, or with the ghastly Ben Grimm he seeks only the return of his human face and form, and regards his distorted super-strength as a curse. The Fantastic Four have other means to retain their essential humanity and human appeal aside from disguises.
Superheroes face challenges commensurate with their powers. If heroes with superpowers fought mere crooks and gangsters, the tales would indeed be the merely adolescent power fantasies they started as. But Superman discovered kryptonite and Batman faces the Joker in order that the obstacles be proportional to their powers. For this reason, in many a superhero tale, the supervillain is as grandiose and memorable as the hero, or more so.
The plots tend to be refreshingly straightforward: the hero fights for truth, justice, and the American Way, or learns that with great power comes great responsibility, or hunts down criminals, who are a cowardly and superstitious lot, in an endless vendetta for parents slain before the hero’s eyes as a child. The supervillains seek wealth through crime or world power or merely want to see the world burn, because they are evil, or insane, or both. Even those supervillains who have an arguably noble motive, such as Magneto, the mutant master of magnetism, are placed clearly beyond the pale by the remorselessly evil means employed. The conflict is about as stark as can be, and this stark simplicity allows for a sharply dramatic plot.
The stakes are always high. Supervillains do not knock over curbside newsstands: all of Metropolis, all of Gotham City, the entire West Coast, the entire world, the universe, the multiverse, everything is at stake.
The setting is our real world, or something close to it, with the exception that, for some reason, lots of men tend to wear hats.
Such a setting places less of a burden on the imagination of the audience, because the expectations of a strange world need not be imposed nor explained.
The style is suited to the subject matter: superheroes rarely speak in poetry, and often speak in the direct, manly, laconic fashion of movie cowboys and action heroes, sometimes tinged with wit or wisecracks, sometimes with patriotic sentiment.
The theme is about as close to the great themes of myth, pagan epics of heroes in their agony, of even the self-sacrifice of Christ in His passion, as anything produced in this morbidly decadent modern age.
The reason why Luke turns off his targeting computer before making the thousand-to-one shot in the plasma exhaust basketball hoop that blows the armored battlestation to smithereens is because this is an act of faith. In the real cosmos, the real world the agnostics do not believe in, faith with eyes shut sees farther and more clearly than skeptical squinting. This kind of faith is by no means restricted to Christian faith, or even the sci-fi flavored Taoism of the Star Wars galaxy ; it is also the faith in oneself preached by the dominant religion of our times, pop-psychology, and witnessed in those holy books of our times, self-help manuals. Similar scenes and themes in superhero movies reflect similar values admired and loved by the audience, without being too obvious so as to drive away the customers.
There was many a ticket buying customer who enjoyed AVATAR for the same reason that I enjoyed LORD OF THE RINGS: the underdog were the weak and innocent and nice little hobbits being menaced by the scary mechanized might of Mordor. This was a film I did not get around to seeing only because several persons whose judgment I trust warned me that Mordor was me and mine, more or less. But the film did very well, not just for its dazzling special effects, but for the purity of the theme, where the meek (in this case, the Blue-skinned redskins) fend off the White Man and inherit the Earth. He is not to my personal taste, but Captain Planet is still a superhero, and films made by those in his camp have the strengths of superheroic films.
I notice I am talking about superhero films, but I used two examples from best selling science fiction films. I trust that where these genres overlap is clear enough. Heroes can use the Force or use the mystical bio-cybernetic unity of all life on Pandora to accomplish their Herculean labors or conclude their desperate wars against overwhelming powers of darkness for the same reason capes can use their superpowers or super bat-gizmos attached to their utility belts: the theme is that nature, or supernature, or the fairy godmother will favor those who fight in the side of right.
The reason why supernatural or superhuman power always arrives to aid the hero, whereas merely a natural power is not quite as satisfying, is that supernatural powers have a hint that moral goodness or purity of heart is being rewarded.
When the Jedi were discovered in the first prequel to derive their fantastic powers from micro-organisms in their bloodstream, a collective groan went up from fandom. Why? While this made Jedi powers something more clearly science fictional, it robbed those powers of the dignity the moral virtue bestows. If the Force is just an energy field produced by mitochondria (or whatever) then there is no especial reason why the Dark Side of the Force is a Mordorian temptation that will always an inevitably dominate your destiny and consume your soul. If the Force is a biotechnological machine, there is no reason not to use it in wrath, or for selfish reasons. An archangel might care if you pray, and try to use angelic powers for evil ends, but an arcwelder does not care. Power tools do not mind if you use their power for wickedness.
It is the moral component of the superpowers that makes the superhero dramatic. With great power comes great responsibility; For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.
To be sure, there are superhero movies that either failed in their execution (how can anyone manage to make a Catwoman movie unwatchable? That takes perverse genius) or intruded some modern and relevant theme (such as making Superman, of all people, a deadbeat Dad, who knocked up a girl without putting a ring on her finger) or just did not get what superheroes are really all about (Fantastic Four springs to mind) or so changed the character so as to rob the tale of point or appeal (I am not the only one who winces at the memory of the Cathy Lee Crosby version of Wonder Woman, or who recoiled with dismay at the trailer for the remake of Green Hornet).
Not to worry. There are bad versions of Hercules brought to film and cartoon also: but the essential mythic grandeur of the genre allows, despite our rather cynical and unheroic age, for larger than life heroes still to win the day.
It order to make a bad superhero film, the modernist writer or film-maker must sweat and work to intrude the cynical anti-heroic postmodern characters, senseless plots, ugly styles and nihilist themes which confirm the modern view of life.
It is easy to make a Western into an Anti-Western, where the Cowboys are the bad guys and the Indians the good guys, because the Indian were indeed the underdogs, outnumbered and outgunned; and it is easy to make a war picture into an Anti-War picture, because of the innate horror and inhumanity of war.
But it is hard to make a superhero film into an anti-hero film without violating so many conventions of the genre as to merely make it a horror film, or a film about vigilante revenge, or just some other type of story altogether.
Dehumanizing moral relativism, for the reasons given above, robs tales of drama and interest. Superheroism lends itself easily to stories with drama and moral clarity. This is the moral clarity so utterly lacking in the modern world. It lends itself with difficulty to the dehumanizing moral relativism beloved of the elite.
And that is why superhero films are better than modern mainstream films.