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Courageous manhood in dark, chaotic times.
Superman is backwards.
When we think of heroes, and especially that American invention of superheroes, we start with Superman. Why Superman? Well I’m not the Comic Book Guy and I can’t vouch for the fidelity to canon of DC and Marvel and other universes, but we all know Clark Kent, Smallville and Superman well enough for this to be a good start. The basic framework is that Superman is basically all-powerful with one weakness. In that, he is godlike. All gods are all-powerful but have no power if no one believes in them. Jerry Siegel’s invention follows that pattern. Somebody should tell me if the Man of Steel ever performed a superhuman stunt while in mufti. It would make for an interesting episode.
At any rate, the popularity of Superman was a product of his times. In the wake of the Allied victory with peace and prosperity in America it comes as no surprise that this powerful hero comes to represent ‘truth, justice and the American Way’. Needless to say, today peace, prosperity and the calm, restrained and conscientious demeanor of the Clark Kents of the world hardly represent the American mainstream any longer. As anyone who watches HBO knows, the successful formula for entertainment has much more to do with embracing anti-heroes. If you ask me, nothing strikes through the heart of ordinary America like the entirety of Breaking Bad. Let’s give credit where credit is due. It all started with Tony Soprano. Or was it Michael Corleone?
As the poet said,
Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge I'm trying not to lose my head It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder How I keep from going under
This is not heroic, but I can understand. It is the confession of the traveler witness to rats in the front room, roaches in the back, junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. Which way does the traveler turn?
I’m not seeing real heroes in popular culture these days. I could rant on for hours about how various countercultures have worked to subvert the various traditions of bold and courageous manhood here in the USA. Striking through that same heart is double edged sword of the beta male. On the one hand, no other word serves to outline the change quite as well as ‘pussification’. On the other hand, nothing gives so much false credibility to uber-macho overcompensation. This ain’t a fern bar and this ain’t Sparta. We thoughtful people ought to disavow microaggressions and agro. But let us go deeper.
I’ve been trying to write an essay, and I may yet, entitled ‘What I Don’t Know About Women’. The answer is a very humble one that suggests that I don’t need to know much outside of what the women I care for want me to know about them. I conclude that I know all I need to know about ‘women’ is mediated by love, care and respect of the several with whom we pledge our mutual responsibilities. The rest are theoretical, as is the audience who do not subscribe to Stoic Observations. I might pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all. But I can also say that multiple waves of ideological feminism can’t all be right, and I’m not generally favorable to ideological adherence as a character trait. One can still serve mankind without such loyalty oaths. So not only do I perceive that masculinity is getting a raw deal in the mainstream, so is femininity. And I do not believe that there is and there should be no difference between masculine and feminine heroism. A king is not a queen and I fear the portents of efforts to rewrite and rescript our inherited mythology. We will know we’ve hit rock bottom when critics are reviewing Pinochietta.
Like many things that led me from mere brainy smarts to actual approximations of wisdom, I’ve learned much in my later life. I was certainly over 40 when I began investigating H.P. Lovecraft. The same late freight train I rode had me missing many other enrichments to my life. I never read Solzhenitsyn or Robert M. Pirsig when I should have. Because of this, I thought anti-communism was a joke as I did the self-deprecation of Pirsig’s liberal demeanor. Given the brutality of chess, I never enjoyed the delights of Dungeons and Dragons, not that I knew many players or masters. Yes pity the poor underprivileged kid. So I also only watched Superman & Batman and only expected those heroes from space exploits to be like James Tiberius Kirk. So in much of my young life I actively pursued second place. I thought it more noble. That’s another tale. As for the likes of Lovecraft, it only seemed to me from the outside as more loser goth rubbish or superstitious nonsense. Same thing with all them Hobbits.
Then I fell across three or four authors who really changed my perspective. What a tonic for the kind of man’s man I have mostly been all my life. The first of these was Jim Butcher. His protagonist is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. You would be right to guess that his superpower is magic. The second was Charles Stross and his hero was Bob Howard the computational demonologist. The third was Richard Kadrey and the man he invented was Jim ‘Sandman Slim’ Stark.
Each of these are Lovecraftian heroes. I’m not so sure there is actually such a category in the literary academy, and surely some English prof might set me right, but this is how I perceive them - as the opposite of Superman. Rather than have a number of supreme powers and one weakness, these heroes have a number of weaknesses and only one power. Each encounter they manage to survive by the skin of their teeth and a little bit of luck puts them in greater mortal danger than the previous challenge. They loathe and fear what they are up against, but as much as they loathe and doubt themselves they would hate themselves even more if they failed to stand up to what stands before them. Without being masochistic and without virtue signaling they get into the thick of things and inevitably end up in over their heads. They don’t behave like any of the Three Stooges, they are as we used to say as kids ‘serious as a heart attack’. And yet they find themselves laughing and crying, moaning and bleeding over their own dumb luck and stupid mistakes, even in triumph.
The Lovecraftian hero improvises his way forward, sideways and backward. He has only a modest amount of courage, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to let the bad guy get away with it unopposed. He ends up owing favors and trying the patience of people who care for him. He almost always seems to be on his last leg. He is the original Die Hard John McClane scared shitless and tiptoeing barefoot through broken glass. He is the shuddering lip on Gandalf upon the realization of the Balrog. He stands on the precipice of annihilation in dumbstuck awe of the depth of the black hole before him. Then he steps forward.
David never got inside the reach of Goliath’s overhand right. He sucker punched the giant with a rock. The Lovecraftian hero has no such opportunity to snipe. He must, however have a fundamentally awkward sense of his own capability that gives him confidence. Aside from whatever his actual power will be, it is his way of knowing and being faithful to his hard-won integrity that confuses the demons who intimidate everyone else into fetal positions.
In the olden days when I was growing up, the critics held Ellison’s Invisible Man as the greatest American novel of the 20th century. In it was written:
Once I saw a prizefighter boxing a yokel. The fighter was swift and amazingly scientific. His body was one violent flow of rapid rhythmic action. He hit the yokel a hundred times while the yokel held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and knocked science, speed and footwork as cold as a well-digger’s posterior. The smart money hit the canvas. The long shot got the nod. The yokel had simply stepped inside of his opponent’s sense of time.
There is great beauty in this. Such is the province of the amateur, the hacker, the one who does it for love. The hero is only that when he is doing. Not like Superman, who always has the option to remain Clark Kent and almost never faces someone from his own planet. Superman remains super whether or not he’s fighting crime. The Lovecraftian hero disappears into obscurity after the he survives the battle. He never goes viral. There is certainly virtue in Kal-el’s humility and determination to do right. He is somewhat homeless and perhaps even condescends to mankind in his Fortress of Solitude. Bob Howard lives in a rooming house. Jim Stark lives in the upstairs room of a video rental store in low rent Hollywood, alternatively somewhere in Hell.
The fourth author is actually the troupe I still read, again taking from sources I never expected. They are mythological. The best of them all is undoubtedly Gene Wolfe. There are also Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cixin Liu, Joshua Gayou and Jeremy Robinson. All of them invite the end of the world as we know it and are absolutely ill-prepared to deal with it. They help me to understand what cannot be taken for granted.
The Modern Metaphor
I’m a peasant who has had the occasion to have beers with a genius or two. I used to work for a submariner XO. That’s as close as I think I’ve ever been to a ruler. For the most part however, I’m at a firewalled distance from the people who truly know what’s going on and what to pay attention to in the world. As I think about it, when I met a particularly smart dude and asked him where I could get the closest approximation of ground truth available in open sources, he could only confess what I paraphrase here. “Look. When I’m getting intel from my guys in the field in that SCIF, I’m riveted. I sweat out of my shirt every day. When I come off duty I am completely exhausted from knowing what goes on in the world.” In other words, dude you really don’t want to know what I have to know. Plus he wouldn’t trust anyone else’s version. Somebody has to figure out a game theoretic way to get some of that out. Then again, I don’t believe in the wisdom of crowds. All this is a preface to say, it’s nasty out there and we don’t have royals whose character we might ape to our social benefit. These are dark days. Outside of our bourgie play pens where we mumble about Pelosi and DeSantis, March Madness and kung fu time travel movies, nobody is going to help us grow up. We can only hope to train ourselves to bear up under the complexity buried in our every encounter.
Like millions of other Americans, I knew things could break. It took 9/11 to prove it. Then when Bear Sterns went under and Washington Mutual disappeared I saw it again in slow motion. When everything about ‘moderate conservative’ was washed away by the Trump phenomenon, I knew all bets were off. Things went from “It can happen here”, to “Dude, it’s happening right here, right now!” And yet we circumnavigate a small cloud of questions and answers as if somewhere somebody has it all under control. No. There are gibbering horrors only occluded from the dimensional space we live in. Shooters have an understanding about the difference between cover, and concealment. Cthulhu lurks outside your sense of time, and it can step inside at any moment.
If you live long enough and have a modicum of contemplation in your life, you are likely to realize your vulnerability. This is especially the case if you meet with success. I am not rich, but by the standards I was raised with, I am. There have been too many instances in which my standard response has been “I can’t complain.” That’s my smart brain telling my stupid instincts not to complain. A confession and a command. On those occasions when I catch a glance of the situation about to come unravelled, I think about what it means to survive. It means I am not distracted by those things that turn out to be a bad investment when one thinks they are covered but are only concealed. This is a Stoic cornerstone. It’s waking up and asking what broke while I was sleeping.
The poet reminds us:
Don't be tempted by the shiny apple Don't you eat of a bitter fruit Hunger only for a taste of justice Hunger only for a world of truth Cause all that you have is your soul
A man in control of his soul can be heroic if he shapes it properly. This is the tonic for the toxicity of our dark days, because a heroic soul gives us courage in the darkness. Remember that trust is the fundamental currency of society. How can you earn the trust of those who fail while you succeed? Well, those lessons are many; it starts by recognizing that you could die tomorrow. But ultimately the hero trusts in his integrity. He trusts in his ability to command his soul. He is self-possessed. He is willing to step into the ring against the monster. Maybe he is not ready, but he’s willing. Rabbi Hillel said, when there is no hero, you be the hero.
I noticed today that Tom Sizemore is dead, as is another of my favorite actors, Lance Reddick. All we have is the memory of what they represented in life. We don’t get to persuade after we are dead, when everyone will be rummaging through our closets. What can we do, alive?
I want to keep going but I must close. I close with the memory of my dosh point. Like many before me, I was attracted to the idea of Fuck You Money. I worked in places for a time when that was my sole pursuit. All I needed to do was reach that directorship and it would be in the palm of my hand. What would I put up with so that in the end I could fly the middle finger? I recall that one boss at the time thought that The Hangover was one of the best films ever. That’s about as deep as he got. How long do I put up with this? Where do I hide my soul? What is the appropriate mask for the task? It turned out that it wasn’t really about exploiting the darkness where everybody is waiting for the one day to say Fuck You. Money was not the vehicle. What I really wanted to do was save my soul. Acting soulless for a time was the exact wrong direction. I found myself in that situation of having Fuck You conversations on the precipice of being kicked to the curb. They cut me a check and sent me the implied middle finger. I mistook concealment for cover. It’s a sad example, but the juicy details require a decent bourbon face to face.
All that you have is your soul.