My favourite moment in The Violent Century comes late in the book, but early chronologically. Fogg, Oblivion and their classmates on the Farm are made to exercise outside. It’s a sunny day in 1936:
Sergeant Browning stands opposite them, his thick moustache quivering, a whistle around his neck, his face is red and he is screaming, You will be ready, you will be soldiers, if I have to kill you myself!
Fogg trying to touch his toes with his fingers and failing, feels the blood rushing to his head, it suffuses his cheeks and lips, he grunts and someone, no one knows who, exactly, farts loudly.
And they all, everyone loses discipline. Tank collapses on the grass with mammoth snorts of laughter and Mr Blur joins him, even Oblivion is smiling, Mrs Tinkle looks horrified but even Browning can’t hide, for just a moment, his smile; and Fogg, with relief, drops to the ground, and he’s giggling, he gasps, Tank, stop it, but he can’t stop, it builds up, this deep, this belly-deep laugh, and he rolls helplessly on the grass, laughing until his stomach muscles ache.
The scene echoes back to – or, at least, I’d like to think that it does! – Kurt Vonnegut’s in Galapagos. In that novel, the narrator describes how life would be in the far future, saying:
And people still laugh about as much as they ever did, despite their shrunken brains. If a bunch of them are lying around on a beach, and one of them farts, everybody else around laughs and laughs, just as people would have done a million years ago.
The fart becomes a signifier for the absurdity of the human condition. Which leads me – naturally! – to the concept of the Übermensch, of Nietzsche’s Beyond-Man – the creator of new moral values. I think what is terrifying about the concept of a “Super Man”, and why it’s had such an appeal for Nazism, is that supermen don’t fart. They cannot be humanised by the swaying power bodily functions have on the rest of humanity. The fart is is something beyond our control; to accept the fart is to accept our own mortality, our lack of power over fate. Farts happen, and we accept them the only way we can, by laughing – at our fragile human selves, at the vast uncaring universe, at our accident of being or our mysterious purpose – take your pick between the two.
In 1933, at the same time Hitler rose to power in Germany, two Jewish high school kids, Siegel and Shuster, came up with a new kind of comics hero and, inspired by Nietzsche’s ideas, created Superman. Appropriately, in that first appearance of the character, Superman is a villain, not a hero. The “superhero” – and I’ve argued this at length in a recent piece for SFX Magazine, so I won’t belabour the point now – emerges as an essentially Jewish-American fantasy in response to the atrocities happening in Nazi Germany (see also Batman, Spider-Man, et al).
So when one wishes to examine the shared cultural artefact / multimillion dollar industry that is the “superhero”, one has to go back to the beginning, to World War 2 and the Holocaust – which is what I tried to do in The Violent Century.
It occurs to me that what had happened to the superhero since the 1970s is that it had been reimagined again and again with that perception lost. For Moore the superhero is all about the mask, the secret vs public self; for Nolan it is a near-Fascist argument about power; for Frank Miller it is a way of externalising violent sexual fantasies; and so on. For the studios, it is a carefully controlled product that follows the 14-point plot filled with CGI set-pieces – which leads me back to farting.
I am not much of a comics reader, sadly, and I prefer romantic comedies to most other movies, but every now and then I do watch, or try to, the odd superhero movie. And a few days ago I tried to watch The Wolverine, and gave up somewhere after the Exotic Japanese Fighting Girl (wasn’t she done better in Kill Bill?) and after the carefully-orchestrated Train Chase Sequence (wasn’t it done better in The Matrix Reloaded?) and somewhere after the ponderous dialogues and the bit that tells us how angst-ridden Logan is when someone kills his bear.
What was missing in The Wolverine – why I couldn’t care about Logan, or the “plot” such as it were, or the gorgeous set-pieces one has come to expect – was that there is no sense anymore of a humanity anywhere in these films. To put it another way: Logan don’t fart. And it made me think about the other franchises and questions came into my mind and wouldn’t go away.
How does Professor X take a shit? What does Superman read on the toilets? Hugh Jackman once told the story of having to pee himself on stage rather than stop the show – but would the Wolverine do something as human, and as funny, as that?
I’m not sure I have an answer as to why the superman – that German ideal turned inside-out by a couple of geeky Jewish kids and then let loose on the world, becoming as much a part of the cultural mindscape of late capitalism as Ronald McDonald, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, Mandela’s release from prison or a plane hitting the twin towers – is as successful as it is today. It is both comforting fantasy and, I think, a dangerous one. I felt it most keenly on 9/11, since I had become so conditioned to expect a hero to arise, as he (always a he) always did in countless movies.
Were we standing underneath, on the streets of New York City, looking up –
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s—
It’s a plane. Hitting, as though in slow motion, the top of the north tower of the World Trade Centre.
That slow-moving destruction. That horror, that incomprehension we feel as we watch it, over and over, broadcast around the world, we watch and rewatch in slow motion, in high-definition, the moment the dream dies.
All that time we had expected a saviour. A man. A hero. But what’s a hero? Someone leaping from the colour pages or from the silver screen, gun in hand, to rescue us. To make it stop. To disarm the hijackers, to land the plane safely. To avert this monstrosity.
It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s—
Nothing. No one.
That day we look up to the sky and see the death of heroes.
For what’s a hero? And I have to admit I don’t know, though it’s a word that’s used again and again, whether to justify a war, sell a dream, or just churn out an endless ream of morally-bankrupt product. I don’t know what a hero is, but whoever they turn out to be, I hope when they get together, even a million years from now, someone will fart, and everyone will laugh.
Because to fart is human; but to laugh is divine.