Philip Demuth

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805

The saga of Superman takes on an entirely different cast if we regard it psychologically…. In this light, the character of Superman becomes simply the elaborate fantasy wish-fulfillment of mild-mannered Clark Kent.

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Imagine Clark, a frail child, raised in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Smallville. He is an only child, introverted by nature; his parents are straight, old and remote. Although little is known of his early childhood, somewhere along the way Clark seizes upon the idea that he is "special." Many children entertain the idea that they might secretly be adopted, but for Clark this holds a peculiar fascination. He turns it over in his mind. Could it be that his real parents were great scientists from another planet?

By the time Clark reaches high school, his style is set. Unable to cope with the social demands of adolescence, he retreats more and more into his fantasy world. At school, he is bullied by the boys, who regard him as a weakling; the girls don't regard him at all. He doesn't participate in sports, doesn't date and promptly returns home after school every day to work in Pa Kent's general store or look at his rock collection.

Perhaps Clark's most remarkable feature is his attenuated moralistic outlook, his seeing in all events a clear-cut conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Whenever the external situation becomes anxiety provoking, he withdraws into fantasy. As Superboy, the most popular girl in his class, Lana Lang, loves him, while it is he who can afford to be standoffish. His parents respect him, and he becomes the envy of his peers. He gets to go out on exciting adventures every day instead of sweeping up the store or staring at his rocks. His inferiority complex has given rise to a compensatory delusional system.

In adulthood, the pattern continues unabated. He seeks out an employer who chews him out regularly. The sole woman in his life, Lois Lane, thinks of him as a spineless jellyfish. His only friend seems to be Jimmy Olsen, who is kind of an inadequate personality himself. But really he has no friends. Whenever situations make him tense, he flees into his Walter Mitty fantasy life where he is worshiped by Perry [White, his employer], Lois, the police and indeed the whole world. He sedulously guards the existence of his secret identity, however, because somehow he knows that if he were to reveal it, it would cease to exist (a phenomenon psychotherapists often observe in such borderline cases). Apart from his fantasy solutions, Clark's main means of dealing with problems is through avoidance. In fact, he frequently needs to escape into a telephone booth (a return to the womb). Can we detect in his desire to dress up in leotards and tights some repressed homosexual tendency, as well?

Even as Superman, however, he is not omnipotent. Naturally, there are various underworld (read unconscious) forces out to get him at all times, so he has to keep alert. His nemesis is green kryptonite, fragments of his exploded planet that have become radioactively toxic to him. An exposure instantly saps his powers. This is because it symbolizes the breakup of his fantasy world. A psychoanalyst might detect certain scatological elements in green kryptonite as well.

The question of the proper psychiatric diagnosis is a tricky one. Technically, Clark Kent is not a multiple personality, because he is really the same person playing two roles. The dual identity is only a ruse to fool outsiders. Similarly, he is not quite psychotic or schizophrenic, because he shows an adequate grasp on reality—holding down a job, thinking and writing clearly and so on. He doesn't really believe he is Superman, he just enjoys the fantasy.

In fact, Clark displays the characteristic anomalies of the schizoid personality: shyness, inability to show anger and daydreaming his problems away. (pp. 64-5)

[The] revival of Superman represents more than a nostalgic longing to return to the bliss of bygone decades. If this were all, it would be little more than a socially sanctioned form of regression—a retreat from the anxieties of the present into a magical fantasy world, much like Clark's own form of escapism….

Humanistic psychology affirms that we are more than the sum total of our external repertoire of roles and achievements, more than we ourselves even know, and yet such inner promptings and intuitions find no articulation or credible counterpart in our crass and competitive culture. This alienation we share with Clark Kent. Superman has the freedom physically that we all desire psychologically. In this sense, the superman myth becomes, in a secular, technologically complex society, the bearer of our hopes for self-actualization. (p. 65)

Philip Demuth, "The Secret Life of Superman," in Human Behavior (copyright © 1978 Human Behavior Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 63-5.

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