Superman’s Choice

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“The ’Oratorio’ is nothing less than the Shazam!, the Kimota! for Western Culture and we would do well to remember it in our currently trying times.”

Grant Morrison, on Pico della Mirandola’s Oratory on the Dignity of Man

In the marathon Newsarama interview with Grant Morrison on his and Frank Quitely’s newly-finished All-Star Superman series the writer mentions the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola’s famous Oratio de hominis dignitate, or Oratory on the Dignity of Man (1486) as central to his take on Krypton’s famous son (go read the interview: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). He also mentions Leonardo’s even more famous ‘Vitruvian Man’ (c. 1487, detail above) as important to his interpretation of the Superman myth, and as the direct inspiration for this interpretation by Quitely of the character, keeping us all alive by labouring in the heart of the Sun:

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This is of course apt. Leonardo’s depiction of the proportions of man, situates the individual at the centre of the universe, between sacred and profane — a being with free will and the powers of a demiurge to shape himself and the world of which he is part for better or worse. Pico’s text is indeed an almost manifesto-like statement on man’s self-understanding in the modern era, and it remains so today. The following excerpt, on the creation of Man, cuts to the heart of the matter:

“At last the best of artisans ordained that that creature to whom He had been able to give nothing proper to himself should have joint possession of whatever had been peculiar to each of the different kinds of being. He therefore took man as a creature of indeterminate nature and, assigning him a place in the middle of the world, addressed him thus: “Neither fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thyself have we given thee, Adam, to the end that according to thy longing and according to thy judgment thou mayest have and possess what abode, what form, and what functions thou thyself shalt desire. The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world’s center that thou mayest from thence more easily observe whatever is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven or earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul’s judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.”

Leonardo’s interpretation of this same ontology downplays its transcendental aspects and emphasises Man’s immersion in the World. We have free will to fashion ourselves how we wish, but it is only by virtue of our placement at the centre of things that we can exercise it. Through understanding the Order of which we are part. This is the basis for his sfumato technique, where contours are eliminated to convey the fact that there is no separation between individual and cosmos. We are one, and it is in contemplating this oneness that we rise and walk upright.

Superman embodies this choice, and Morrison has delivered one of the definitive takes on the character by realising it. Nevertheless, I think he and Quitely fall somewhat short of the mark in their interpretation, in that Superman becomes an ideal to the extent where the subjectivity with which we experience the world is almost lost. By dismissing the all-seeing Albertian perspective, in favour of a subjective one, Leonardo acknowledged that our experience was filtered by our senses — ie. our brain — a fact that forever makes it less than perfect. Morrison and Quitely instead transform of the Vitruvian Man into a Man of Steel with overtones of revolution-era agitprop.

Let me share with you one of the most moving — if stark — depictions of the facts of life lived in the centre of the World, forever oscillating between the sacred and the profane:

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This is Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, painted late in his life, probably in the 1570s. An interpretation of how Apollo flayed the faun Marsyas alive after the latter had had the temerity to challenge the god to musical duel and lost. Titian’s take is extraordinarily grim, reflecting the horrors of war, of human existence. My supervisor here at Cambridge, Paul Joannides, is usually moved to quote Shakespeare’s Lear:

“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, —
They kill us for their sport.”

While this captures the central tragedy of the picture, of how life can appear meaninglessly cruel, Pico’s interpretation of Man in the World seems to me profoundly reflected in not only this painting, but in Titian’s work in general. The dissolution of the flesh brought about by his bold, open brushwork in his late pictures is a sensual dissolution of the separation between individual and cosmos to match Leonardo’s more analytical, exalted one. But it is simultaneously more concerned with transcendence. Apollo’s act, while basely cruel takes on an almost devotional aspect. The reverence held by the dissectionist towards the body he opens up, by the artist towards the canvas on which he conjures up form, and by Man in contemplation of his own divine nature.

The fact that the blood of Marsyas, freed from his body, flowed to create a mighty river, nourishing the land (seen in the background in Titian’s picture), makes his death a moment of transcendence. The Vitruvian Man — or Christ — turned upside down, Marsyas is in a sense forever caught in the suffering of earthly existence, but at the same time he embodies Our greatest potential.

Read the Oratoriohere, read more by Pico here. Read more about Titian, Marsyas and the sacred and profane here. For the comics-iliterati: Shazam! Kimota!

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