Superman, or Detour on the Way to the Last Man?

While searching Top Documentary Films the other day I came across this documentary about the life and times of Superman. Generally, I’m not that much of a fan of Superman myself; Batman has always struck me as the more rewarding character. After seeing this film I found another reason why:

In 1932 the young and as-yet unknown creators Jerry Segal and Joe Shuster distributed the story “Reign of the Superman” about a villainous telepathic madman called “Superman” with plans for world domination. This superman comes directly from a translation, common at the time (for example in “Man and Superman” by George Bernard Shaw), for the concept of the Übermensch, coined by the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Later, the creators re-framed the character, moving from the earlier Superman’s mental abilities to the buff and burly hero we know today. In the dual character of Superman and Clark Kent, the man of steel now presented an uncomplicated moral compass playing itself out under the crafty combination of the everyman and exceptional man who satisfies our own fantasies of power at the same time as he appeals to our common weaknesses.

The description given in this documentary about Clark Kent by Gene Simmonds was also quite striking, contrasting Nietzsche’s superman with the “greatness of the meek, the mild” exemplified by the mild mannered reporter, he inadvertently makes the man of steel into the champion of slave mortality, which needs to constantly look outside of itself to the “powerful few” to designate its own contrariety as “Good”.  The morality of those who are oppressed is in constant danger of being simply a reaction, or resentful reflection of the oppressors system of morals. This is why Nietzsche designates it a slave morality, because it always needs to follow, as opposed to master morality, that constantly looks nowhere but itself. He calls the driving force of slave morality “ressentiment”, and as depicted by this documentary, superman becomes a kind of embodiment of this understanding of the world.

If superman is an icon of one of the ways that the modern world understands itself mythological, then it does not bode well for popular culture’s future insights into the human condition, for it is, in essence, merely running over old ground once again.

In other words: Be careful what you myth for.

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Death Whistles and Blood Debt

I’ve gained a certain degree of understanding of the religious importance of human sacrifice to the ancient Aztecs. They owed the gods a “Blood debt” for the creation of the world, since the gods sacrificed themselves in the very act of creation. Abhorred and condemned by the Spanish missionaries who encountered them, in some ways, this aspect of the Aztec belief structure may have helped Christianity get a foothold in the region. Indeed its not so far off to say that both god and man were sacrificed in the crucifixion, and the symbolic drinking of the blood of Christ took on a much more tangible form in the mezoamerican context.

In this way, or so it seems to me, there is a decided psychological disconnect between the natives of North and South America. One that more often than not, it seems, in the popular imagination is overlooked.

The Devil’s Doctor

Philip Ball. The Devil’s Doctor. Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. 436 pp., 34 ills.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. $27.00.

“The story captures the emotional truth of the narrative” (p. 102). With this remark Philip Ball summarizes the value of the legends surrounding Martin Luther’s initiation into holy orders. In many ways the same could also be said for the rest of his study of Paracelsus. Ball, a science writer whose interests span the history of chemistry, contemporary theatre, and much more besides, is not an expert on his subject matter, but instead seeks to provide valuable emotional truths to a popular audience. Thus the contemporary scholar may take exception to several of his broad generalizations and normative claims. Despite this, he is still carful to avoid the pitfalls of earlier Paracelsian biographers in trying to firmly place Paracelsus on the continuum of magic into science.

While it is true that scholars looking for a focused discussion of Paracelsus will be disappointed, those interested in a general account of his life and works, as well as the atmosphere in which he lived, will find themselves far more satisfied. Ball begins his discussion by recounting the numerous associations between Paracelsus and the Faust legend before going on to his early life and apprenticeship among the mines near his native Einsiedeln. This is followed by his experiences as a medical student and an account of his travels throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Much of the middle of the book is taken up by context setting discussions of renaissance occultism and the personalities involved in the protestant reformation, and not on Paracelsus himself. After this context setting section, Ball describes Paracelsus’ fluctuating fortunes from Basle to the end of his life, stopping briefly before his death to describe his latter writings. He concludes with Paracelsus’ influence on subsequent thinkers.

Despite the generalities of the text, Bell is not entirely uncritical of his subject matter. He seeks to weigh in on murky topics such as the question of Paracelsus’ relationship with his student Johannes Oporinus (1507-1568) (p. 197-199), and tries to dispel illusions like the commonly held belief that Paracelsus gave the metal zinc its name (p. 37). Ball is also unafraid to use the psychology of Carl Jung to try to elucidate element of Paracelsus’ psyche. While this may offend some scholarly interests, it is much in keeping with his efforts toward an emotionally true narrative.

Some may accuse Ball’s use of quotations of being undisciplined, and in this they would probably be correct. In his discussion of mumia, the healing powers latent in organisms and preserved in mummy wrappings, he presents references to several of Paracelsus’ works (p. 265). While he indicates separate sources in his presentation, he does not indicate separate contexts. What begins as a discussion of the healing power of mumia is concluded with a reference from Paracelsus’ De Natura Rerum, in which its role in enabling a person killed by violence to be resurrecting from their own mumia is actually discussed. If used more carefully, this could have added to his argument, but without any indication of its proper context, it will leave some paracelsian enthusiasts unsatisfied.

While having avoided many anachronisms in regards to the role of science and magic, Ball nevertheless continues in the tradition of semi-scholarly writings that take up the difficult task of presenting Paracelsus to the wider public. It is tempting to think, given his dedication to the vernacular and disregard of scholastic institutions, that these accounts of Paracelsus’ life naturally lend themselves to this kind of treatment. However, it could also be said that such a study only deepens the puzzles surrounding a figure as paradoxical and demanding as Paracelsus. Despite this, Bell’s work is true to it’s own goals, if not to those of the scholarly community, and presents itself as a very readable introduction to its subject matter.


I happened upon the Swedish Symphonic Metal band Therion while researching the life and works of the naturalist and Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. It is Fueled by mythology, occultism and the operatic metal that makes Nordic rock so interesting. The band takes its name from the Celtic Frost album To Mega Therion, yet the word itself comes from the Ancient Greek for “Beast”.

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Statistically Tentacled, the Giant Squid and You

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World: Monsters of the Deep (1980)

Statistics can drive you mad if you let them, so naturally, when I first switched over to WordPress from BlogSpot I was both delighted and disconcerted to learn all the various ways I can keep track of viewer interest in The Starry Messenger. Still, some interesting trends have emerged over the months, the most striking of all is the sheer number of people who are lured to these pages through the less than innocuous channel of the giant squid.

I’ve tried to keep my own chaotic corner of the internet as eclectic, dare I say eccentric as possible, but over fifty percent of the thousands of hits the site has received since its creation have been directly related to my cephelopodian benefactor. Something about giant squid, or the people who are interested in them, cause more people than any other topic to navigate here, rather than passing over the strangely titled articles on Faust, Monboddo or some esoteric artist. While I suppose this could have been expected, it wasn’t.

Today I’d like to tilt my hat to all those who’ve come here seeking mysteries of a deep and tentacled nature with this 1980s mini-documentary narrated by Arthur C. Clark as part of his World of Wonder series. They hadn’t captured living footage of one yet, nor did they know about the giant squid’s heftier relative the colossal squid, so the aura of mystery is even more profound for them than us.


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The Soviet Block

Despite myself, being Canadian, I still feel a strange resonance with Russian culture and history. Perhaps its the snow, the Montreal-based film “The Trotsky”, or the socialism, or maybe even the chronic angst that emanates from nations in constant danger of fracturing, physically and psychologically because they simply don’t make sense. Probably the last one, though.

Does Putin worry me? Yes. In general the political situation in Russia has been frightening and difficult for at least the past hundred years, but the sense of identity and history to emerge from this maelstrom is quite remarkable. From Mendeleev to  Dostoevsky, from Rasputin to Nabokov, and many more if you also include the Russian diaspora. As readers of this blog have noted, I’ve also had an illiterate eye on the occult art emerging from this corner of the world.

In any event, here are some resources to delight and terrify.

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