Avengers and literary truth

Not to dredge up old fights, but a topic we discussed on the blog back in 2009 has cropped up in a couple of recent essays. The issue is whether there is a form of truth that literature can convey, perhaps even a level of literary truth which cannot be conveyed through other means. The topic came up originally in the context of ways we might interpret religious texts, but it applies more generally.

So, in this week’s New York Times book review section, we have an exchange between the editors and reviewer Mohsin Hamid in which Hamid explains:

I’m a political animal. How the pack hunts, shares its food, tends its wounded — these things matter to me. So I write about them. Fiction and nonfiction are just two different ways of lying to try to get at truths. Fiction lies by fabricating what isn’t there. Non­fiction lies by omitting what is. Doing both is useful: it keeps me aware of sentences, a novelist’s obsession, and the power of the void that surrounds them, a preoccupation of journalists.

And in The Guardian, Avengers star Tom Hiddleston (he plays Loki), explains the value he sees in superhero movies:

Actors in any capacity, artists of any stripe, are inspired by their curiosity, by their desire to explore all quarters of life, in light and in dark, and reflect what they find in their work. Artists instinctively want to reflect humanity, their own and each other’s, in all its intermittent virtue and vitality, frailty and fallibility.

I have never been more inspired than when I watched Harold Pinter speak in a direct address to camera in his Nobel lecture in 2005. “Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond with the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Some times you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.”

Big talk for someone in a silly superhero film, I hear you say. But superhero films offer a shared, faithless, modern mythology, through which these truths can be explored. In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out. Ancient societies had anthropomorphic gods: a huge pantheon expanding into centuries of dynastic drama; fathers and sons, martyred heroes, star-crossed lovers, the deaths of kings – stories that taught us of the danger of hubris and the primacy of humility. It’s the everyday stuff of every man’s life, and we love it. It sounds cliched, but superheroes can be lonely, vain, arrogant and proud. Often they overcome these human frailties for the greater good. The possibility of redemption is right around the corner, but we have to earn it.

This connects nicely with a piece John Wilkins blogged a couple years ago, attempting to clarify what it means to be a god:

Philosophers have always treated the deity as a high concept entity, something that has the attributes of perfection: all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent, omnibenevolent and so on. This is a view of God that is presumed in most discussions of atheism, the existence of God, the problem of evil and the like. But it is a very rare view of God in actual, you know, religions. The religions of the Folk have divine deities of all kinds, ranging from the all-too-human and fallible variety of Norse and Irish mythology, through to the distant and unknowable gods of Epicurus. So what sort of a test should we apply to divinities?

I propose a rough and ready kind of test I call the Greek Pantheon Test: If it would be a god in the Greek Pantheon, then it’s a god. Of course, a number of divinities not included by the Greeks, the Titans, would also be divinities in my book, but that is a matter of restricting divine beings to Olympus, which is a cultic matter. If Chronos were unknown to the Greeks, he’d definitely be included as a god when they were given a description.

…

Now the counterintuitive outcomes of this test: angels are gods. St Michael is indiscernibly different from Thor or Mars or Huitzilopochtli as a god of war. Saints are gods. Mary and the Evangelists play a role as intermediaries between the High God and worshippers, just as the Vyantaras in Jainism, or the Demiurge in Platonism and the daimones in Greek mysticism. Jinn are gods. They have, as the Disney film put it, “super-phenomenal cosmic powers”. Prophets can also be gods. Ancestors, especially in the Confucian tradition, are gods. Devas in Tibetan Buddhism are gods. Any religion which has superhuman agents in it, has gods, no matter what the philosophically pure elite theology may say.

The Justin Barrett view of gods as “Minimal Counterintuitive Agents” – effectively humans with superhuman powers – ties in with this. A god is a superhero or supervillain. They are like us in all respects except their abilities or some other superstimulus feature. This is the folk view of gods, and it is something that philosophy of religion had better come to terms with sometime.

Not only is Thor a god in the Norse pantheon, he’s also a god in the Marvel pantheon, and so too is Spiderman, and Superman and Batman on the DC side. Whether written as sequential graphics on a page, or produced as a movie, or written out as a novel, or passed down as oral tradition and edited into a canon over millenia, people use such godlike figures to work through complicated ideas about why the word is as it is, how we ought to behave, and how we can make things better. The adventures of Superman and Batman and John Constantine offer arguments about how things should be, and the literary techniques they use are not so far from what you find in the parables and allegorical letters of the Christian New Testament or the clearly literary stories told in the Old Testament.

Recognizing that truths exist in these literary works doesn’t require science to surrender any epistemological ground, nor does it require us to take any stance for or against the claim that there is some additional form of truth in religious texts.

The great science writer Stephen Jay Gould expressed an element of this in his essay Wide Hats and Narrow Minds:

But if we laugh with derision, we will never understand. Human intellectual capacity has not altered for thousands of years so far as we can tell. If intelligent people invested intense energy in issues that now seem foolish to us, then the failure lies in our understanding of their world, not in their distorted perceptions. Even the standard example of ancient nonsense – the debate about angels on pinheads – makes sense once you realize that theologians were not discussing whether five or eighteen would fit, but whether a pin could house a finite or an infinite number. In certain theological systems, the corporeality or noncorporeality of angels is an important matter indeed.

And, in a world before calculus, the amount of space occupied by an infinite number of infinitely small objects was hardly a trivial matter. Here, angels were standins for the sorts of fictional objects scientists often invoke: point masses, magnetic monopoles, frictionless surfaces, etc. Angels were the only object everyone involved could coherently conceive of that existed in great numbers but might have no mass or volume, so they were invoked to clarify a confusing and complex mathematical problem. Just as these sorts of scientific fictions show us truths about scientific reality, characters in fictional works let us take ideas to a limit and perceive truths about reality we might not have seen otherwise.

To me, and no matter what fictional engineers say, this view ennobles literary works, whether we are tracking Job’s travails, Ahab’s monomania, or Joss Whedon’s take on the Avengers.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Olson
    April 30, 2012

    This is the best explanation of human behavior/faith/psychology that I’ve read in years. It is concise, clear, very logical, but also very empathetic to all persons in a given historical context. This was a truly pleasurable and informative read. Thank you.

  2. #2 Wow
    May 1, 2012

    “But it is a very rare view of God in actual, you know, religions.”

    However, for most of the western world, religion, without qualifier, means Christianity or Abrahamic.

    Where that view of God as perfect, omnipotent and omniescent is not only common, but MANDATORY.

    Or does John Wilkins subscribe to the Scandanavian Gods?

  3. #3 jermox
    May 1, 2012

    Yes, but it is weird for a discipline who is claiming to search for truth to only analyze the most predominant concept of God. Personally, I always found it odd that philosophers never moved towards a more inclusive definition of gods. Then again, many of these discussions stem from the medieval period, which is predominately concerned with the Abrahamic version of God.

    BTW, I find this post extremely interesting.

  4. #4 Wow
    May 3, 2012

    “Yes, but it is weird for a discipline who is claiming to search for truth to only analyze the most predominant concept of God.”

    It’s because there’s something you’ve missed: people tell lies.

    Even to themselves.

    They may even believe they are really “just looking for the truth”, but since religion requires faith, you have to start with what you’re going to bother believing in.

    Check out the psychological term “investment”.

    They’re not looking for the True God, but to find out how they can prove the god they already believe in exists.

    Pastafarianism (and Jedi) both ridicule and illustrate the point. Those “looking for the truth” REALLY don’t take them seriously. But who is to say that this started because the FSM touched someone and gave them the truth? Or the inspiration to George Lucas was given by the universal Midichlorians?

  5. #5 Emil Karlsson
    May 6, 2012

    What does it mean to say that something is a “literary truth” and how does this differ from saying that something is “true” in a scientific or philosophical sense?

  6. #6 lenoxus
    May 7, 2012

    I thnk the Abrahamic God is “supposed” to be omnimax but theists still naturally think of him in lesser terms. Even core theological practices like prayer make much more sense with a less-than-omnimax diety, and are obvious “vestiges” of a more pagan past.

  7. #7 wow
    July 7, 2012

    Lenoxus, prayer isn’t about telling god your problem because hemissed it, but merely an appeal to him to change his mind.

    Christan, Muslim and Jewish faith canon have a perfect god.

    And when you talk to someone in the west, this is the god that people will understsnd

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