From the days when traditional societies dominated our planet, people have always had a certain anxiety or concern with regard to the creation of a surrogate immortality in preparation for death. Put another way, the organic imprints that an average person may make and preserve himself may not be enough to create the kind of surrogate immortality that the person feels will carry on his own unique presence after he passes away. His deeds and achievements as well as the daily memories that he has left behind may not stand out enough in his mind in terms of impacting in a significant way the people around him.
One way a person can at least partly resolve the concern is by identifying with a person who makes and preserves organic imprints much deeper and more intense than those of himself or of other more average people. In traditional societies, a superhero can be an exceptional real person who carried out extraordinary exploits, an imaginary person who frequently had to fight imaginary creatures, or a blurred composite of the two. These superheroes are found in legends, myths and scriptural stories. They are found in oral tradition stories of preliterate tribes as well as in the foundational religious stories found in traditional civilizations. Many times, these stories represent composites of many oral tradition story fragments that have been put together. But in all these cases, they are integrated into the cultural history of the people who embrace them. Average people in a particular traditional culture have embraced these superheroes, because even if the super heroes haven’t actually lived in historical time, they have been validated over cultural time, so that on some level, people ascribed to them a sustained cultural existence that rises above the imagination involved in pure fantasy.
Furthermore, in truth, beyond simply identifying with a superhero, the average traditional person mentally merged with the superhero. The whole culture from which both the traditional person and the superhero stem acted as a template, a foundation which allowed the psychological merger to occur. In particular, the person merged with the superhero much as a child continues to identify with his mother as a result of mirroring and modeling. And to the extent that all the people, particularly all the men, merged psychologically with the superhero, to that extent they joined forces to create one gigantic collective surrogate immortality which strengthened them all psychologically in the face of death.
So if the ordinary traditional person had problems creating a unique presentation with a unique self-definition in order to prepare for death, nevertheless, he could fall back on his culture and the members of his society to fortify him for when his individual consciousness ceased to exist.
Now, in modern technological society, we have superheroes too, but they have a somewhat different function. They are developed for entertainment purposes by writers who have motives of making money. While J.K.Rowling uses classical and folkloric references in building her characters and creatures, most of these references are going to go over the heads of the young people who read her books and see her movies. As would be the case of any author who used classical and folkloric references today. Most people in modern technological society simply are not very acquainted with the cultural traditions of the past.
As to the way people encounter superheroes today, they, the ordinary people, are too connected to modern science and to reason to, on any level, believe in superheroes, except maybe when they are very young. These are not superheroes that become parts of larger cultural and even religious traditions in such a way that people can embrace them as a part of a surrogate immortality. The very fact that new authors are constantly creating new superheroes with their own distinct living environments means that no one or two superheroes can ever command the attention of the majority of the population for a sustained period of time, the way it would occur in more self-contained folk cultures in the past. Instead we almost get to the point of superhero of the month.
And again when supernatural things occur in these stories, people get shocked out of the numbness they experience in modern technological society, but the amazing supernatural exploits don’t lead to a strong sustained identification. In traditional society, people engaged in far more intense primary experience and so they could identify if nothing else with the intense physical effort put forth by their superheroes.
So whereas traditional superheroes and their exploits act to elaborate on and to extend the preserved organic imprints made by ordinary traditional society people, modern superheroes and their exploits merely act to temporarily pull average modern technological society people out of the experiential void in which they constantly live. Superheroes are sources of sustained admiration and identification for traditional society people; they are mere sources of temporary kicks for modern technological society people. Ordinary traditional society people merge in their minds with the superheroes that they admire and this allows them to strengthen their surrogate immortality by adding a collective surrogate immortality component to it. In their minds, these traditional people merge with an anchoring tradition that should last forever.
Today, there are so very many superheroes. Different comic book companies produce multiple superheroes that they start putting in alliance with one another to defeat the seemingly overwhelming forces of evil. But these superheroes are as two dimensional as the images of them that appear on the pages of the comic books. The focus of these superheroes is to shock people out of their numbness rather than to truly inspire people through an identification with greater life narratives and exploits than they themselves would be capable of.
Unfortunately, it seems that more and more people all over the world are electing leaders who shock their citizens with harsh unpredictable rhetoric and harsh unpredictable actions. Trump, of course is the foremost example. With all the real problems that exist in the world today, problems like climate change, where are the real inspiring superheroes when we really need them?
(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow