Nothing Stops A God

It looks like the people who wrote this movie are fully aware of the trouble with Superman: nothing can stop a god, since a god is, obviously, immortal, perfect, and, yeah, unstoppable. That’s the Platonic view which probably got Socrates in trouble with the Athenians—who executed him on a cross of hemlock!—dying for a love of knowledge rather than our sins!—but to go even further, and to look at God from the perspective of Islam, and Ali Farka Toure, God Is Unique; there is nothing like God, nothing can be compared to It; It cannot have arms, legs, thoughts, feelings, or any recognizable features. This philosophical view naturally eliminates any possibility of drama, since if God Is Unique, and everywhere and everywhen and nowhere and nowhen, then It’s also doing everything and nothing, and there’s no plot, no tension, no payoff. Buddhists take things even further. God The Creator doesn’t even exist in Buddhism. And, like Mohammed, the Buddha is just a dude, though he’s a really special dude, so we have to say Peace Be Upon Him whenever we say his name (for Mohammed) and we have to build giant temples and golden statues and bow to them and make sacrifices to them (for Sakyamuni). Even though he isn’t a god. He’s just a dude. A really, really, really, special, dude…

In the case of Superman and in the case of all these traditions as well as many others, it’s more or less impossible to write a story about god unless god has flaws—in other words, unless god isn’t god. In Job, God is dimwitted, making a bet with Satan, which everyone knows is a bad idea; in Superman, there’s kryptonite, a contrived substance, a sort of MacGuffin which makes the hero more human and therefore more interesting: the most memorable scenes of the very first Superman film involve Clark Kent getting blown off by Lois Lane: Christopher Reeve is so amusing and so charming an entire film could have been made about his life working as a reporter, without even the slightest hint of a red cape, because, really, Superman is best when he’s just Man. You’ve got to Christopher Nolanize him. Throw him under the ice, turn him into a hitchhiker, and make him grow a beard!

In the ancient Greek stories of the gods, their flaw is usually lust or jealousy; Plato thought this ridiculous, since how can a perfect being be jealous of anyone?; but it does leave the door open for plenty of drama. Zeus falls for some woman, turns into a bull to seduce her (since obviously what woman wouldn’t be seduced by a bull?), bones the shit out of her, and then gets found out by his wife, who turns her hair into live snakes (I’m mixing stories to illustrate a point). In Ovid, at least, divine justice is so arbitrary it’s almost random, and the gods are never the victims, so, as in Seinfeld, they never learn from their mistakes, which keeps the hilarity rolling. And in Homer everyone knows Athena totally has a thing for Odysseus. Which makes no sense.

But in the poetry of Horace, a more-or-less contemporary of Ovid, the gods are good, the gods really are flawless, nothing stops them, they fuck shit up left and right, and the delight comes from watching them do it, almost like a video game. The ancient Roman equivalent of modern Hollywood blockbuster special effects is poetry: the power words have to conjure feelings and images.

…The nations know
How with descending thunder He
The impious Titans hurl’d below,
Who rules dull earth and stormy seas,
And towns of men, and realms of pain,
And gods, and mortal companies,
Alone, impartial in his reign.
Yet Jove had fear’d the giant rush,
Their upraised arms, their port of pride,
And the twin brethren bent to push
Huge Pelion up Olympus’ side.
But Typhon, Mimas, what could these,
Or what Porphyrion’s stalwart scorn,
Rhoetus, or he whose spears were trees,
Enceladus, from earth uptorn,
As on they rush’d in mad career
‘Gainst Pallas’ shield? Here met the foe
Fierce Vulcan, queenly Juno here…
Strength, mindless, falls by its own weight;
Strength, mix’d with mind, is made more strong
By the just gods, who surely hate
The strength whose thoughts are set on wrong.
Let hundred-handed Gyas bear
His witness, and Orion known
Tempter of Dian, chaste and fair,
By Dian’s maiden dart o’erthrown.
Hurl’d on the monstrous shapes she bred,
Earth groans, and mourns her children thrust
To Orcus; Aetna’s weight of lead
Keeps down the fire that breaks its crust;
Still sits the bird on Tityos’ breast,
The warder of unlawful love;
Still suffers lewd Pirithous, prest
By massive chains no hand may move.

This was translated by John Conington, whose brilliant works infest the internet. I’m sure I lost every last one of my readers by posting that lengthy excerpt, but for me it doesn’t get much better than that: titans piling mountains on top of one another, knocked aside by a gleaming shield, and thrown down deep inside the groaning Earth, weighed under the molten lead of Aetna. This is CGI that will never look outdated: these are gods who entertain without a hint of kryptonite.

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