The last post talked about how people want to know who they are, but either there is no who to know or at least nobody is ever going to figure it out just by thinking about it, so the only way people can figure out who they are is by getting their hands dirty and interacting with the world. This action changes the world and reflects the self back to the person doing, so the person can use the world as a kind of mirror. But that story isn’t finished (not that we’re going to finish it here, but we can at least knock out another chapter).
The first thing that’s missing is that the post understated the role of choice. Any of those actions on the world need to be preceded by a decision. Of course, right? Nobody is just going out and acting in the world without making any kinds of decisions, choices, about what they’re going to do. Before anything happens, you have to want it to happen and choose to exert the effort to make it happen. That’s the difference between people and competent robots and why it’s wrong to take credit for happy accidents.
The second thing that’s missing is that this is all pretty straightforward, but it’s still so damned hard to actually realize. A clever kid could understand it, but whenever anyone actually manages it, they’re pretty much declared a saint, a mystic, a prophet, or similar. So there’s a big gap between saying/understanding and doing. Maybe it’s easier to bridge the gap if you know its dimensions. Here’s hoping.
Superheroes are world-class neurotics, and they provide a common vocabulary, so they’re as good a place to start as any. (Rule: only superheroes in Hollywood movies – there are maybe a dozen people who’ve read every Superman, and I ain’t one of ’em.). Quick question: which is the real identity: Bruce Wayne or Batman, Clark Kent or Superman, Peter Parker or Spiderman.
Superheroes are complex because of their secret identities, so let’s start the game on easy and use a villain: Lex Luthor. He provides an excellent reference value to calibrate the scales because he’s totally at ease in his own skin – 100% Lex all the time, no doubt, no regret. At the beginning of the last Superman movie, he was wearing a toupee to bilk a dying dowager out of her fortune in a long con, but the toupee wasn’t disguising him. The dowager’s family is seething about the ploy and the brazenness of it, yet he struts away from her deathbed. He’s a megalomaniacal villain, but he probably prints exactly that on his business cards. His twitter handle is probably something like Lexth3villain.
There’s just one scene in the movie where you can catch a sliver of a gap between his internal and external worlds. Suffering from delusions of grandeur, Lois wants to get to the bottom of some electromagnetic weirdness and trespasses onto Lex’s inherited yacht with her useless, asthmatic, excuse-for-a-sequel son in tow. She’s snooping around below decks, and is startled by Lex sauntering out of the bathroom in a bathrobe, toothbrush still hanging out of his mouth. When he sees her, there’s a split second of constituting Lex the villain. He misses a beat, but only one, while he’s going from the Guy treating his bacne to Lex the super-villain extraordinaire (In other words, he has to constitute his Symbolic self.) That’s the space of the gap, but the rest is zen villainy. (NB: just because you’re comfortable in your own skin doesn’t mean you’re a good person – another blind spot of the last post that this one won’t cover either, but hey, it’s a blog. We got time.)
Now for Superman, who’s pretty easy. When Superman goes back home to the farm, he’s not Clark Kent, the impossibly awkward, but kind and conscientious loser with a fetish for the gym. He’s an adopted son and he relates to his adoptive parents totally differently to how he interacts with his colleagues at the newspaper. Clark Kent is a costume, an affected identity, but so is Superman. How can you tell? Simple. He can’t be Superman all the time. Lois clearly digs him as Superman (in fact, she ignores Clark), and he doesn’t need the reporter job, but he keeps going back to it. And it works the other way too. He’s not Clark or the son on the farm all the time either. He’s always bouncing between identities; he’s never really comfortable in his own skin, even though he has three different skins to choose from – and he puts a lot of effort into maintaining all three.
If Superman-Clark-Farm boy is shuffling through all three identities, how do you tell who he is? Watch what he does. He bounces. That ambivalence is what defines him. He’s not wiling to go all-in on any one life: settle down on the farm, find a nice farm girl, and watch the world burn from afar; stay Clark and try to trick Lois into liking him warts and all and as far from Superman as he can possibly get (won’t work either, ’cause the warts are an act); be Superman, own it, wow Lois come what may, even at the risk that she loves the costume more than whatever might really be under it.
Superman has godlike powers, but he can’t decide what reality to create. Camus once said something about the free man being condemned to freedom, and this is what he meant. By choosing one thing, you’re simultaneously foreclosing on countless other things, and you have to live with that. The pressure to choose wisely is one reason why it’s so hard to choose at all. (Everything is a test. Remember?)
Batman is a little harder because he’s not physiologically a superhero (i.e. with Superman, you might just say ‘alien genes – whatever’). There’s the same problem here of bouncing back and forth, but Bruce Wayne is no less an act than Clark Kent. In the first Tim Burton Batman, there’s a great date sequence where Bruce has Vicky Vale over for dinner. They start out having dinner at a table so long they can’t even hear each other, and Bruce says he’s not even sure if he’d ever even been in that room before. So they go and continue their dinner in Alfred’s servant’s kitchen, where Alfred tells stories about Bruce as a kid, Vicky is enthralled, but Bruce is distant. Whatever. Maybe he was just thinking about Vicky’s boobs or the new rims on the Batmobile. Later, though, after Bruce and Vicky have given each other a thorough physical, Vicky wakes up and sees Bruce-man hanging upside down on some contraption in the corner, hands crossed over his chest vampire-style, and snoring gently. He can’t sleep in a bed; he has to be upside down like a bat. This is weird in itself, but it’s even weirder when you remember that Bruce is terrified of bats. He doesn’t just use them as his mascot and build his secret headquarters in their cave, he needs to affect their sleeping habits in order to get any sleep himself. Multiple but simultaneous personalities.
Then there’s the death wish. He gets shot in the movie. Not just as Batman, which you can hardly avoid, but as Bruce Wayne – twice. Once is in front of city hall where the Joker’s just assassinated a politician after a speech and his henchmen are making full use of their 2nd amendment rights on reporters and bystanders. Bruce doesn’t duck, doesn’t run, nothing. He’s apparently wearing body armour, but not on his head, and isn’t ducking kinda natural, like jolting when startled? The second time he’s at Vicky Vale’s apartment, Joker and henchmen stop by looking for trouble, and instead of not confronting his arch rival without all his Batman kit, Bruce just walks into the room in a suit. ‘sup!’. He gets shot, which he was expecting, as indicated by the tray he had surreptitiously shoved up his shirt. The reason he’s so attracted to Joker and danger simultaneously is the same as with the bats. Joker scared him as a kid, when he killed Bruce’s parents and almost killed him. Bruceman is terrified of bats, so he lives with them and imitates them; he’s afraid of Joker, so he provokes the object of his fear into terrifying him. DIY exposure therapy, I guess.
Okay, so Superman was defined by his ambivalence, Batman is defined by his fear. Superman couldn’t commit, Batman is totally committed to one thing, but it’s absolutely obsessive. It’s not about overcoming the fear, it’s about revelling in it. It’s a high, an addiction. Why? If the fear defines him, what’s left if you take it away? Whereas Superman was three things at once and couldn’t commit, Batman is totally committed and no longer sees the possibility of choosing otherwise. He has to throw himself into the terror to keep his connection to it.
The same thing happens to some cancer patients who start with shaky identities. The world tells you cancer is a humongous problem, a life altering event, and the word is enough. No particular pathology and prognosis can qualify the connotative howitzer of ‘cancer’. Try posting on facebook that you have totally treatable cancer and it’s been diagnosed early and is under control. You will witness a thermonuclear explosion of sympathy. And it’s something you can’t screw with; faking it for a day off work won’t be forgiven as it might be for a cold. Anyway, some people who get the diagnosis define themselves as cancer patients, then as ‘cancer survivors’ once they hear the word ‘remission’, and then when those magic five years are up (1826 days, not 1820 or 1917), the title of ‘survivor’ is revoked, and they’re lost. The same thing happens with slight variation to pregnant women, recovering addicts of all sorts, etc. What’s left if you take that one life-changing and defining thing away? Phobia is Batman’s cancer, and he’d rather fellate Penguin than get treatment.
That’s the second reason it’s hard to choose: sometimes the choice involves foreclosing on the one thing you are (not the many you could be), and having to reinvent yourself from scratch. Thanks for the invite, but I’ll stay in tonight, where it’s safe and comfortable.
Spiderman is even harder because Peter Parker actually struck paydirt with Spiderman. It’s what he always wanted. It was a massive upgrade. But again, he hides that identity (compare this with Johnny in the Fantastic Four movies, who brags about it). Great power comes with great responsibility, right? He just wants to protect the ones he loves, right? Good enough to put on the tombstone, but it’s not what’s eating Peter. Imagine it from his perspective. He had been fantasizing about being something like Spiderman for a while before he became just that. Yes, this includes sexual fantasy, and yes, that’s a certain fact because he’s the right age: on the downslope of puberty and dying to use all that new physiological equipment. (If you doubt that, consider that the most blatant sign of his potency is to, uh, squirt sticky web juice all over town – in unlimited frequency and supply.) Every teenage boy fantasizes about being a superhero with some form of supreme potency, and when some of these teenagers turn 30, they might buy guns; at 50 it’ll be a Harley.
So if Peter the math Olympiad runner-up has become his own fantasy, how devastating would it be to have Mary-Jane discover that he is his own fantasy? The high-minded way to interpret this is that he’s afraid she’ll just love the powers and not the Peter, so he has to get her to love Peter independently of the powers. Yeah. Maybe. (you could apply the same logic to Clark/Superman and Lois if Clark weren’t a way bigger doofus than farmboy) The other possibility is that it would kill the fantasy. If he’s really Spiderman and she knows about Peter, he has to deal with that reality, and kids and mortgages and fights about the dishes might ensue, which cannot happen to fantasy-Spiderman. In order for Spiderman to be worth fantasizing about, part of him has to remain the geeky Peter looking up to Spiderman as a superior self (which is why you can’t be equally committed to your Harley and your wife). They can’t remain in the same head if Spiderman is to be special, super-human senses or not: “Oh yeah, Saturday mornings I’m Spiderman, afternoons I clean the apartment and watch my kids while the wife has mom’s day out.”
So the third reason it’s hard to choose? The ideal Self you’ve been carrying around in your wallet like an optimism-condom for the last 5 years will have to face reality, and nobody can stay ideal in reality. Reality has an irresistible talent for making things real.
Superman is committed to multiple possibilities, which prevents him from committing to anything else or even one possibility. Analogue Guy you know: is 3 credits away from 3 different degrees; has never had a single relationship longer than 3 months but quite a few of them; gets increasingly bitter with age. Result: no progress, just more frustration as each birthday reveals another wanna-be to be a never-was.
Batman is absolutely committed to his pathology, and he’ll nix anything that gets in its way. Analogue Guy you know: most noticeable changes are bounces from one addiction to the next, even if it’s just vidya games; pushes away any help; relationships are short and stormy; sabotages any apparent improvements; obsessed with some claimed but apparently manageable ‘sickness’. Result: there’s a word for people devoted to their own pathologies, and it’s not flattering.
Spiderman is absolutely committed to an ideal image of himself, and he protects it anxiously from reality. Analogue Guy you know: obsessed with cleanliness/orderliness/a certain style and will reject people and possibilities that detract from it; is willing to take ‘roids that’ll eat his balls if they’ll help his biceps; dating is more like shopping for an accessory; grooms, tans, and considers plastic surgery while still oddly young; might be ‘successful’, but will sell everyone’s mother for a better-sounding title. Result: the Situation, Goldman-Sachs, Lance Armstrong, late-imperial dreams of the good ol’ days returning.
So those are 3 possible reasons why it’s so hard for people to choose to change and follow it through. Before the choice even came up, they had already chosen something else. Either some pathology, which they wear like Gorbachev’s birthmark right on their foreheads, or a self-image that other people could only ruin, or maybe just the ability to keep all their options open and stand at the buffet without having to fill a plate.
PS: Here’s some more topical wisdom via @FrugalStoic: https://twitter.com/FrugalStoic/status/294310043694821377