7/09/2009

X-Men and Philosophy

The other day I purchased X-Men and Philosophy, another outstanding addition to the popular book series that finds philosophical meaning in many of the pop culture items that surround us, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, and Batman. Having read a few of these, one of which being the Super Heroes and Philosophy, I decided that a book like this concentrating on my favorite group of heroes would be a good way to pass the time.

For the most part, the essays in the book are really good. One of them concerns the character of Wolverine and the idea of personal Identity. Another involves Jean Grey and the morality of suicide. The majority of the essays is well-written and thought provoking. However, there is one that made me cringe.

The essay is called X-Women and X-istence and it was written by Rebecca Housel. In it, she discusses the existentialism in a few of the female mutants. The essay starts off in a logical sense, discussing the existence of Jean Grey as it relates to her essence, much of the way Jean Paul Sartre described. Housel goes on the talk about Rachel Summers and Wanda Maximoff and everything seems to go smoothly, though I am beginning to see some flaws in her arguments. It wasn’t until she began to dissect Mystique that her credibility really plummeted. Housel’s rationale of who Mystique really is concerning her character is so riddled with clich├ęs that it becomes almost unreadable. Besides the fact that none of her arguments are accompanied by defining examples, her writing turns really sloppy. Yes, Mystique can “slither out of bad situations” and “live to fight another day,” but what in her past has shown that? I can name many examples, but I am also a comic book fanatic. This book should not have been written for people like me, but for people who know very little about the characters, and thus educate them on the X-Men. I can, and have, have conversations just like this one with others who share my knowledge, so to write to someone like me is senseless. By not providing proof to her claims, Housel comes off as a two-bit writer who doesn’t know her subject well enough.

She describes Mystique as a ‘person’ who makes “bad faith” decisions. The idea of a “bad faith” decision comes from Sartre, and it implies that a person will deceive themselves when it comes to the truth. That person knows the truth, but ignores it. What Housel doesn’t realize about Mystique is that she believes what she knows, so there is no self-deception involved. Mystique firmly believes that her actions are justified, despite what others tell her. The X-Men are wrong for fighting for the weaker humans, not Mystique for fighting for herself. She doesn’t do the things she does to benefit mutants; she does them to benefit herself. A better philosophical analogy for Mystique would be to compare her to Ayn Rand and her justification of selfishness. The hero of Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, exemplifies the idea of selfishness, and that the idea of self-sacrifice is illogical. There is no “bad faith” in Mystique, but there is plenty of self-serving goals.

As I kept reading the essay, I got more annoyed when Housel came to Rogue and Shadowcat. These are two of my favorite X-Women, so her two-dimensional descriptions of these two characters damn near infuriated me. Rogue, in the writers mind, is comparable to Sisyphus, the mythological hero who must roll a boulder up a hill everyday, only to have it roll back down, and repeat the process for eternity. I had to scratch my head at this analogy. Yes, I agree that Rogue’s power is a curse and not a blessing. She cannot enjoy the touch of another human being. But I hardly would compare her suffering to Sisyphus. I wouldn’t look at Rogue in terms of existentialism; the wisest philosophers in the past could not have considered a creature such as Rogue, so likely nothing has been spoken about her condition. Rogue can be described in terms of Karl Jung’s archetypes. I would think Rogue fits more along the lines of The Wanderer. This webpage gives a list of archetypes used for characters, and it describes the wanderer as “an invisible barrier stands between the mind of Man and the Mind of God.” If we consider Rogue’s power as the invisible barrier and human contact as being the ‘Mind of God’ this would be an accurate description. Granted I understand that Jung’s theory of archetypes is psychological, not philosophical, but my comparison still holds.

Shadowcat is also given a half-assed philosophical treatment. Housel concentrates on the Days Of Future Past storyline, in which a future Kate Pryde sends her consciousness into the mind of a young Kitty Pryde, in order to stop an event that causes the downfall of mutant kind. She describes Kitty in a way that Jose Ortega y Gasset calls a ‘substantial emigrant on a pilgrimage of being.” As Housel explains, this idea is that people have no set nature at birth. It is through the events of life that we come to be the people we are. While this could be said of the older Kate Pryde, who had lived a full life and seen much destruction in her time, this is inaccurate of Kitty. True, the young girl is still in flux and her sense of self is still being shaped. But the author seems to focus on the older Kate when she makes her distinction, which is wrong. Kate Pryde sacrificed herself and her future by going to the past to change things. She did not want to see the events that made the hellish world she lived in come to pass, and by changing the past, she would alter her own perceptions and the events that shaped her. She would not have had to live through the imprisonment or destruction of her friends and colleagues. She would have had the chance to find a husband and start a family in peace. While Ortega’s ideal may hold true for Kitty and Kate Pryde, it becomes inaccurate to take the personality of Kate Pryde that we know, and apply it to Kitty.

While I greatly enjoy the idea behind the book of X-Men and Philosophy, I feel this essay is a major fault with the book. It will not keep me from reading on, nor will it keep me from purchasing other books in the same vein as this one in the future. But I think the writers and editors should have done a better job of conveying their opinions, as well as staying true to the ideas of the characters they write about. Of the eight or nine characters talked about in the book so far, these were the most off base. Thankfully, most of the philosophers understand their subjects. It is just a shame that Ms. Housel failed to follow the lead of her peers.

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