Phone Booth Friday: Let’s Give Our Superheroes A Break

Yesterday I read this criticism of superheroes by Vlad Savov in The Verge, because a well-intended reader of this blog sent it my way, wondering whether I would care to comment on it. In his piece, Mr. Savov raises a number of points, but his general thesis is that the superheroes with whom we’re familiar don’t seem to be very super.  Despite their powers and abilities, they do not eradicate evil and suffering from the world, they only beat it back for a time, and sometimes not very successfully. In essence, the author is asking the question, “What are superheroes for?”

The most important thing to consider when attempting to answer this question is the rather obvious, though perhaps easily-forgotten fact, that superheroes don’t actually exist.  They’re beings inhabiting works of fiction, no different in their way from other characters in adventure tales such as Captain Nemo, Michael Strogoff, or The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Even when there are traces of their being drawn from the lives and experiences of actual persons, theirs are not stories about real people.  As vivid as Bruce Wayne or Steve Rogers may be, they are still just characters in a story.

In most cases, a fictional character is created primarily for the purpose of entertainment.  Not all fictional characters exist devoid of deeper meanings or significance of course: they can often serve important pedagogical purposes, such as teaching us things about human nature, or about anticipating the consequences of our actions.  The best literature, oftentimes, not only entertains, but informs and enlightens.  Yet while one can easily learn a life lesson from The Little Engine That Could just as well as one may do from Thérèse Desqueyroux, in the end if their stories are not entertaining, no one is going to read them.

When we complain that superheroes don’t appear to solve the problems of the worlds which they inhabit, we’re playing a version of the classic game known as the “omnipotence paradox”, i.e., can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?  If Superman is so powerful, why doesn’t he work to eliminate all crime instead of fighting against it with his fists?

If superheroes fail to fix everything that afflicts mankind, it is because they have a fundamental belief that it’s important for people to solve their problems themselves whenever possible.  Certain threats against humanity – an approaching asteroid, a water supply poisoned by The Joker – they will step in and act upon.  Yet to remake the world in their image would be to set themselves up as all-powerful gods or benevolent dictators, negating the ability of ordinary people to exercise their own free will.  As Gandalf points out in “The Lord of the Rings” when Frodo offers him the One Ring, he would try to use its power for good, but in the end the temptation to turn it to his own selfish desires would be far too great for even him to resist.

This is because appearances to the contrary, superheroes are vulnerable.  They get shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, poisoned, and otherwise mangled and mistreated on a regular basis.  While they may have miraculous powers of self-healing, they still have to suffer in the course of their lives and work as we do. They do so in ways which are less mundane than paying the gas bill or being stuck next to a screaming baby on a plane. Yet they keep going, fighting for what matters to them, because they believe that the values which they fight for are more important than their own personal comforts, and because they recognize that the abilities with which they have been gifted call them to a different level of commitment and self-sacrifice.

By no means is this meant to be a complete response or even a riposte to Mr. Savov’s piece, which despite my disagreement with his assumptions and conclusions is worth reading for some of the points and criticisms it raises.  However, the takeaway from this is to remember that the superhero genre is meant to be, first and foremost, a form of entertaining literature: it is FUN, and it is perfectly acceptable, indeed laudable, to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.  While it might be nice for all of our problems to be solved by these beings endowed with unbelievable powers, the reality is, each one of us is called to work out our own problems ourselves whenever possible, rather than having all of our solutions to the difficulties of life handed to us.

So let’s give our superheroes a break, gentle reader.  Give them a chance to kick off their boots, and put their feet up after a hard day of fighting crime.  And let’s encourage those virtues of selflessness, self-reliance, and courage in the face of evil in our lives which, as fictional characters, they try to exemplify in their own.

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross

 

 

 

 

Watching the “Watchmen”: A Beautiful Film from France

If you’re interested in seeing good men doing good work on behalf of the whole world, I can highly recommend a film which for some reason had skipped my notice until last evening, “The Watchmen of the Night”.  I was made aware of it through a tweet posted by my friend Sister Veronica Young, a member of the Sisters of Faith who lives in solitude in Utah, but whom I’ve come to know through social media.  [N.B. Incidentally, if you are on Twitter, Sister Veronica should be on your follow list, Catholic or not, as she regularly posts words of encouragement, prayer, and comfort for those who need it.]

No, this isn’t a review of the superhero movie “The Watchmen”, which in fact I debated about with someone the other day.  Instead, this film is about a Benedictine monastery in the south of France, the Abbey of St. Mary Magdalene in Le Barroux, a town in Provence.  The movie examines the day-to-day lives of the monks, as well as allowing us to get to know some of the monks themselves, and why they chose to enter the religious life. And fortunately, you can watch the entire one-hour documentary on YouTube by following this link.

If this sounds somewhat like another film about cloistered French monks, the German documentary “Into Great Silence”, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were rather similar.  Yet while that piece goes through a year in the lives of the Carthusian monks who reside in the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps, this film is not only shorter and somewhat lighter in tone, it reflects on a slightly different kind of spirituality.  The German film has no narration, very little dialogue, and an overwhelming sense of the mortality of man preparing to enter God’s eternity, whereas the well-narrated French film touches upon these subjects, but presents a more upbeat, joyful tone about the life shared by the brothers in Provence.

Whereas outside of the Divine Office or Mass, the Carthusians spend the vast majority of their day in total silence and rarely if ever see anyone from the outside world, the Benedictines spend a significant portion of their day working in their community and receiving visitors.  This could be overnight visitors making pilgrimages to the monastery for religious services, or interacting with patrons at the monastery shop which helps support the needs of the poor and the monks themselves. The Benedictines have their own periods of silence, particularly at night, but theirs is not the near-total isolation of their brethren in the Alps.

Yet like the Carthusians, the Benedictines in this film respond to the suggestion that what they are doing has no purpose by pointing out that they do not work for a purpose.  They work for God.  As such, they have no need for the secular materialist justifications of this world.  So as the saying goes, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

What I found particularly interesting about Le Barroux was the fact that these Benedictines are not the hippy-dippy sort which one sometimes associates with the Order here in the U.S.  In fact, this monastery was only founded in the 1980′s, although the complex itself looks like it was built 1000 years earlier. Originally, the monks here were aligned with the traditionalist schismatic movement which was spearheaded by the late Archbishop Lefebvre, but they eventually reconciled with Rome, and their monastic community was elevated to an Abbey in 1989.  To see how the monks live and how they worship is to see traditional Roman Catholicism at its most beautiful.

No doubt the lifestyle of the monks is not for everyone – particularly for those of us who could not bring ourselves to become vegetarians.  Yet it would be hard for anyone to look at the lives these men lead, and walk away unimpressed by the faith and the joy which radiates from them, as they go about following the great command of St. Benedict himself: ora et labora – pray and labor.  Particularly for those of you who are curious about traditional Catholicism, or what it’s like to be a member of a cloistered religious Order, or who want a very watchable film to show your children or students about Catholic spiritual life, this would be a fine addition to your film library.

The Benedictines of Le Barroux at prayer

The Benedictines of Le Barroux at prayer

 

 

Review: An Engrossing “Battle Against Hitler”

Today is my turn on the blog tour for “My Battle Against Hitler”, a compilation of the writings of the great German philosopher and professor Dietrich von Hildebrand, translated, edited, and annotated by John Henry Crosby together with his father, John F. Crosby, himself a student of Hildebrand.  Those among my readers who are interested in philosophy, particularly Catholic philosophy, history, and political theory will thoroughly enjoy this volume.  Yet I also want to encourage those of you who do not typically read such subjects to take a look at this work, which kept me fascinated from beginning to end.  It taught me much about a great figure I knew little about, for it not only recounts von Hildebrand’s harrowing experiences using his voice and his pen against Hitler, it also gives an engaging picture of what life in the lead-up to World War II was really like for those who dared to defy Nazism from its inception.

I must confess I was a bit intimidated when I was asked to review this book.  Although I have studied history, political theory, and theology throughout my life, I certainly couldn’t attempt to hold my own in a philosophical debate on some of the deep questions of human nature and existence with authors like von Hildebrand explored in their writings. Yet I needn’t have worried, for while such underpinnings are important to understanding who von Hildebrand was and why he did what he did in the battle against Nazi totalitarianism, this engrossing volume is less of a philosophical textbook and more of an adventure story, chronicling not only the timeline of how von Hildebrand became a prime target of Hitler’s regime, but also the people and situations he encountered along the path to eventual exile to the United States at the outbreak of war.

Using a collection of materials, including von Hildebrand’s own journals and published writings between 1921 and 1938, Crosby not only gives the reader the opportunity to follow von Hildebrand from his rise to prominence as an outspoken critic of Nazism in Munich, to his “last stand” in Vienna before the Anschluss, he also provides many of the writings which encapsulated von Hildebrand’s ideas, and what got him into trouble with Hitler in the first place. As such, this is a hugely entertaining read, if one may use so seemingly flippant a categorization when reviewing such serious material. Even those who are wholly unfamiliar with von Hildebrand will be drawn in to understanding the man in a way that is not normally attempted in writing about historical figures.

For example, in the journal portion of this volume, von Hildebrand recounts his friendship and meetings with the great conductor Otto Klemperer, who had to flee Germany as a result of being Jewish, and eventually chose to head to the safety of the United States. During their time in Vienna the two men were able to meet often and share their love of Germanic culture, appreciating among other Germanic artists the dignity and elegance of the world evoked by the music of Mozart:

To experience such a distinctive and refined world, filled with the special air of Mozart, and embodied in such a concrete and individual manner, is something very rare. How unusual it is to find the beauty and nobility of this world realized in such perfection, concreteness, and fullness. And what a great and unusual gift it is to find oneself unexpectedly in this world, not for the sake of enjoyment but transported there by life circumstances, not as a spectator but as someone inhabiting it in an entirely natural way.

This idea of the crystalline perfection of Mozart which von Hildebrand expressed in his conversations with Klemperer and in his journals is similarly reflected in his published writings. In one of the selections for this book, “German Culture and National Socialism”, published in June 1934, von Hildebrand’s essay takes aim at the notion that German culture is the slogan-laden caricature presented by the Nazis, rather than the “expressions of the spirit” which come through in its greatest interpreters of art, poetry, and music. “[A]nyone whose heart has been moved by the angelic, sublime beauty of Mozart’s music,” he writes, “can feel nothing but deep revulsion at the sound of the Nazi ‘Horst Vessel Lied’, and must inevitably feel that here two irreconcilable worlds have confronted each other.”

The pairing of von Hildebrand’s private thoughts and experiences with selections from his published writings give us a well-selected overview of the life and work of one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, in a way that those who know little or nothing of the study of philosophy can appreciate as much as those who are experts in the field. Anyone who can read the chapter entitled “Escape from Vienna” and not be on the edge of their seat, wondering whether the von Hildebrands will be able to get out in time as rumors of the German Anschluss begin, has no taste for adventure. From false alarms to cars that mysteriously break down, angry crowds trying to block taxis to the Gestapo at the door, this chapter alone reads like a film script – except we have to remember that it was real. These are not simply intellectuals with important ideas sitting around waiting for things to happen, but real people, with real relationships, feelings, and concerns, anchored by von Hildebrand himself, who are trying to fight against the greatest evil that had befallen Western Europe since the Plague, and at the same time preserve their own lives and those of their loved ones.

There is so much material to explore in this single collection, that to attempt to do it justice in a single blog post would be an *in*justice.  From von Hildebrand’s outreach to and speaking out on behalf of German Jews, to his quarrels with fellow conservatives who realized too late that Hitler and Nazism could not be contained or controlled, to stories of heroism and courage contrasted with cowardice and betrayal, it will be difficult for the reader to put this book down.  In fact, I myself intend to go back and read it more closely, lingering over the details and some of the debates which von Hildebrand raises in these pages, something which I confess I rarely do after having read a book.  Perhaps that then, is the best review recommendation I can give you, gentle reader, as to why you, too, should add this outstanding work to your library.

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