Monday, January 19, 2009

Superheroes, Emergent Teens, Norms and Nobility

Kevin got Kieron a Spiderman game for his 13th birthday, and since then Kieron, never particularly fascinated by the superhero world before, has been informing himself about this strange and peculiarly American world (though I understand that Japan has adopted and furthered some of its ideas). Kieron comes by it honestly, I suppose, because both his mom and his dad went through a similar stage in their adolescence. Kevin still has a superhero comic collection in his office closet, though I don't think he's looked at it for a quarter century; I think I gave my collection to my younger brothers when I left for college, or maybe before.

On one hand, as a homeschooling mom who aspires to introduce my children to our great intellectual heritage, I have some regret at the corresponding tendency of the children at certain ages to fill their minds with the artifacts of popular culture. Even though I did it myself.

On the other hand, as a former young teenager myself, I remember the attraction -- the theme of power to do great things and make a difference, the corresponding temptations and dangers, all played out on a vast but limited, vividly colored stage; the mystery of how some people go "wrong" while others choose the right, again limited to a manageable arena of predictably-outcomed battles where generally, people weren't permanently damaged.

So many of the challenges that will face them in the adult world, as young teenagers are probably just starting to dimly realize, aren't epic battles on rooftops against dramatic villains with scarred or masked faces. Rather, they are going to be worked out in the soul or in the common duties of everyday life. I feel I've had just about as adventurous a life as most people in America, but even the most crucial moments usually came down not to one grand battle but to small recurrent battles partly against myself and partly against the contingencies of whatever was going on. In an odd way, even though the comic book situations are unrealistic, they do portray some of the way the same "villains" recur again and again in one's life, sometimes in slightly new guise, and the way one's own personal weaknesses are part of the problem even as one's strengths and willingness to struggle are part of the solution. Comic book epics, at least since Stan Lee, evoke a bit of this emerging reality while still keeping the playing territory safely fantastic.

Probably the basic themes are not too dissimilar to some of the ones in the Iliad or in boys' books like Treasure Island. In the classic literature, there is more nuance and more permanence. The story in these books start from a point before the work actually begins, but come to a resolution; the superhero cycle perpetuates endlessly, perhaps something like the chronicles of King Arthur. It was interesting to talk to Kieron, after he had pored through Wikipedia, about what was the same about the world of Spiderman now compared to the world I knew. It has changed, but slowly; I suppose the seeming immortality and fixedness of the world also has an appeal to the young teen who is leaving behind the eternal bright world of youth and starting to encounter changes that will often come faster than he is ready for.

A very young child, of course, is often fascinated by the superhero world, as well, though Kieron didn't ever seem to go through that stage. I think the fascination for a young child is somewhat different. They love to dress-up and "become" characters, because that is how they grow into their image of themselves. They usually want to think of themselves as invulnerable and all-powerful, because of their inner realization that the world can be dangerous for a Very Small Person. A small child in pretend-play usually sets up the rules so that he will infallibly win. I remember my little brother convincing my mother to make him a cape that labelled him "Super-Everything" -- being simply Superman wasn't quite enough.

For a young teen, though they still want assert their uniquely powerful nature, total invincibility is no longer as attractive. At this age, they see that games are more fun when the rules are not set up in advance to favor them; they want to compete against themselves; they want their dangers and challenges to have a more realistic veneer. Now that they more realistically take their own weakness into account, they focus their attention on how to overcome it. But the superhero format allows them to control the elements still and distance the struggle from the daily world. I think this is important for a young teen, to ponder through struggles in the playing field of his imagination and make his choice to aspire to better rather than worse.

One of the issues that constantly plagues me as a homeschooling mom is how far to acknowledge and respect the developmental tendencies that lead to this kind of intense interest, and how far to try to, let's say, sublimate them and lead them towards more durable culture. It is probably the tension between what David Hicks calls "Norms" and "Nobility". There is a sense in which education is meant to affirm and consolidate where a child is developmentally. But there is another sense, which Hicks brings out well, in which education is meant to stretch and expand the child's horizons. It is to bring out the real, not fantastic, not simplistic hero in all of us; to give us the air of the eternal things to breathe. Metropolis and Gotham City are icons -- Kieron tells me that in a Superman game for the X-Box, Superman's health points dive to zero if Metropolis is destroyed, which seems like a nice referent of the Aristotlean polis and incidentally a telling critique of the Nietzschean ubermensch . But like other icons, it seems they have to stand for something beyond themselves, and I want the children to have some understanding of that as they move out towards the adult world.

This "expanding" view of education has to be a restrained one; acknowledging that a human child has the capacities within him for his own development; they aren't to be imposed upon him. One of the unique ways a human being is different from the non-rational animals is that he is to some extent in charge of his own development. The purpose of education isn't to wrest away this freedom, but to enhance it, give it room, and keep it in tune with the Real Things.


Stephanie said...

I sure hope not to offend any of your readers with my experience in this matter, but here it goes. In my opinion, the superhero phase means: nobility found in protecting the helpless or hapless; awareness of personal limitations; first opportunity to become young adult discriminators in matters of taste and value within a genre; and mostly, symbolized aspirations to be and do and see and act bigger.

I honestly believe it's healthy.

Willa said...

Um, I think my post is more likely to offend my particular readers than your comment : D. But if there was any doubt, I think it's healthy too, for the reasons you mention!

lissla lissar said...

There was something even a little offensive in either of your posts?

I think comic book stories (and fantasy and sf novels) are a development of, or maybe, sometimes, the same as fairy tales. They provide a big, colourful, and structured world, with obvious villains and heroes. I think (and speaking from personal experience) the only occasional problem with fantasy and comic books is when the fantasy world becomes much more desired than the real one- when instead of living through the heroes, and then leaving them, one becomes eaten up by longing for the fantasy.

I spent a lot of my teenage years reading bad, escapist fantasy. I know Tolkien's remark about jailers being the only ones who fear people escaping, but sometimes they made it much too easy to ignore what I didn't want, and go hide in a book.

I'm sure I had a point. I think I left it somewhere.

Willa said...

Well, I have to have SOME superhero zealots among my readership -- at least, it's more likely than the alternative, that I'd have readers who had absolutely no truck with superheroes : ). I thought my husband or sons or brothers might possibly have a problem with my seeming to dis Superman, at least, LOL.

I escaped with books, too, Lissla, though seriously I can hardly believe you had time to read anything bad when you've read so many good books that I haven't gotten to.

I regret reading the "bad stuff" I read in my younger years (I don't count superhero comics as bad) but I do think I probably had excellent reason to want to escape, and in fact, it was probably a somewhat healthy coping device in general. Maybe that's true of you too.

I do notice that it's been a challenge to get rid of the HABIT of escaping into bookland, even though I don't really read many bad books anymore except by accident.

OTOH there's truth in what Chesterton said that fairy tales teach you what dragons are and that they can be defeated... certainly sometimes the fairy tale world seems more "real" in some ways than the superficial surface of "reality" at least.

lissla lissar said...

Yes. I think for me the habit of escaping into bookland, particularly in crummy or popcorn-y books, is part of acedia. Do you remember the part of Acedia and Me where Kathleen Norris describes reading book after book, and getting no pleasure from them? That's it. At least sometimes. I think you're probably right about escaping being a good thing, when I was a teenager, though.

"Dragons can be defeated"... have you seen Pan's Labyrinth? It's an interesting movie about fairy tales and reality. We really liked it. It's not cheerful, though.

And thank you. You have no idea how many reading hours I wasted on trash. It's really sad. I'm pretty sure that it was reading Madeleine L'Engle's nonfiction that kept me Christian, distantly connected to reality, and eventually lead to reading Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, George MacDonald.

All right. This is turning into a novel. Stopping now.