Arthur Asa Berger

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1506

In recent years Superman has been changing…. When we discarded our old legacy of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, we also abandoned the view that a heroic super-powerful individual might solve all our problems with some magnificent gesture.

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But what is important about Superman is not that he is changing…. It is what Superman represents, as a symbol, before he started changing that I am most interested in; and it is his symbolic significance that is most important, I feel, for our purposes.

Though he may have been a relatively simple-minded hero in the old days before he became socially conscious, as a symbolic figure he presents many difficulties. This is because his symbolic significance has many different dimensions. For example, the notion of a superman, a strong, heroic figure who transcends ordinary man, has obvious Oedipal interpretations. The desire of young boys to rid themselves of their fathers coupled with their need for the knowledge and protection of their fathers is very closely realized in the role Superman plays in his adventures.

Superman also is a superego figure, a symbol of conscience. He is pledged to be a champion of the oppressed and to help people in need. In the course of his activities he often must fight with evil, and his triumphs can be seen, from a Freudian perspective, as representing the dominance of a highly developed superego…. Superman's fantastic powers make the superego's dominance most apparent. (pp. 147-49)

[Superman] may also be analyzed from a sociological and political standpoint. After all, there is something strange about a democratic, equalitarian society having a hero who represents values that are antithetical to our basic beliefs, and which have been associated with Nazi Germany, in particular, and European elitist culture in general.

There is a fairly close relationship, generally, between a society and its heroes; if a hero does not espouse values that are meaningful to his readers, there seems little likelihood that he will be popular. The term "super" means over, above, higher in quantity, quality, or degree, all of which conflict with the American equalitarian ethos. I believe the answer to this dilemma lies in Superman's qualities and character. He is, despite his awesome powers, rather ordinary—so much so that he poses as a spectacled nonentity of a reporter in order to avoid publicity and maintain some kind of privacy.

His superiority lies in his powers, and though he possesses great physical attributes and abilities, they are always at the service of his fellow man. He is not, by any means, an aristocrat who values "breeding" and has a sense of superiority. What [Ralph Waldo] Emerson said about Napoleon, an everyman with superhuman capacities, can also be said of Superman; he is "the idol of the common men because he had in transcendent degree the qualities and powers of common men" ("Napoleon, Man of the World").

Thus a difference in degree (of power) has not led to a difference in kind (sense of superiority). It might even be said that Superman is rather shy and quite bland. In a society which will not tolerate pretensions, which has no hereditary aristocracy, even Superman is forced to present himself as a supreme democrat. He is an ordinary person who just happens to be the strongest man in the world. (pp. 151-52)

The problem that Superman faces is that, as a superior man in a society which is stridently equalitarian, he must disguise himself, lest people be envious and cause difficulties. In the tale of his origin this is made evident. A scientist from the doomed planet Krypton sends his infant child to earth, where it is discovered by an elderly couple, the Kents. (p. 152)

As he grows older, his powers develop. After his fosterparents die, we find the following:

Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created—Superman, champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.

The language almost has a Biblical ring, with the use of the passive tense in "and so was created." This suggests that his origin has a mythical dimension, and perhaps a sacred one. The Biblical parallel is furthered by the similarity between the way Moses and Superman were found. (p. 153)

The matter of identity is one of the central problems of Superman. Underneath the mask, the persona of an incompetent reporter, is a Superman. There is some kind of schizoid split in having one person with two separate beings. As Kent, Superman is often fooled by Lois Lane; it is quite inconceivable that Superman would fall for her tricks, yet Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. It is almost as if there were two separate beings with complete dominance with their particular sphere of operations. When Superman is pretending to be Clark Kent, he actually is Clark Kent and when Superman is Superman, he bears no relation to Clark Kent, though they are one and the same being. Superman seems to be a "divided self," to use R.D. Laing's term from The Divided Self, except that Superman/Clark Kent does not seem to be psychotic.

There is a great deal of confusion in Superman. Clark Kent likes Lois Lane, who spurns him, while Lois Lane likes Superman, who in turn spurns her. We find ourselves in a situation in which a woman likes and dislikes the same man or, rather, his different identities. The only way we can explain such matters is to postulate two separate identities in the same person which are autonomous in their own particular realm.

In this respect the costumes Superman and all superheroes wear are significant. When he has his usual work suit on, and his glasses, Superman is not really Superman, so to speak. He is timid, somewhat incompetent, and terribly boring. It is only when he strips off his veneer and his suit, and emerges resplendent in his cape and leotards, that he acts like Superman. The Superclothes make the Superman; no doubt about that. (pp. 153-54)

It is the costume that counts, and Superman's costume is probably a version of the old costume of the swordsman and nobleman, brought up to date for pseudo science fiction.

Superman's lack of interest in Lois Lane correlates closely with symptoms found in schizophrenics…. The narcissist takes himself as an object of love, though it must be pointed out that self-love cannot be equated with self-interest; indeed, the two are often opposed to one another. The point is that a withdrawal of the libido and an element of self-love might possibly explain Superman's lack of interest in Lois Lane. As a Superman he has learned, so Nietzsche explains, to forgo fleeting pleasures—one of which may be romantic involvement with Lois Lane, members of the opposite sex in general, and perhaps everyone. After all, a Superman "deserves" a Superwoman.

In a number of ways Superman's divided self and history are significant (and perhaps even paradigmatic) for American society and culture in general. Superman has left a destructive—in this case self-destructive—place of origin for a new world where his powers make him the strongest man on earth. His history is similar to that of the Puritans, who left a corrupt old world for a blissful new one, where their spiritual powers might flower. And like Superman the Puritans labored heroically for goodness and justice, as they interpreted both.

Just as Kryptonite weakens Superman, so does contact with the corrupting old world weaken innocent Americans and destroy their moral integrity…. [The] notion of America as innocent and Europe as corrupt is part of the conventional wisdom and mythology of the American mind. Superman, like the American, thus must avoid contact with the past in order to maintain his powers. With the American this has led to an antihistorical attitude, a belief in the future and repudiation of the past. (pp. 155-56)

The schizoid split within Superman symbolizes a basic split within the American psyche. Americans are split like Superman, alienated from their selves and bitter about the disparity between their dreams and their achievements, between the theory that they are in control of their own lives and the reality of their powerlessness and weakness.

Superman's identity problem is very similar to ours. The American's obsession with identity is a well-known phenomenon. It is because we have no sense of the past that we have no sense of who we are. Like Superman we perform superheroic tasks, one after the other, but they do not seem to give us any sense of being. Just as Superman keeps his identity hidden, so do we hide ours by repudiating the past. (pp. 157-58)

Arthur Asa Berger, "Dissociation in a Hero: Superman and the Divided Self," in his The Comic-Stripped American: What Dick Tracy, Blondie, Daddy Warbucks, and Charlie Brown Tell Us about Ourselves (copyright © 1973 by Arthur Asa Berger; used with permission from the author), Walker and Company, 1973 (and reprinted by Penguin Books Inc., 1974), pp. 146-59.

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