Superman and Dehumanity Part IV — the Contradiction

Continued from previous.

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 Hammet 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 school marmish 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.