Monday, March 18, 2013

Jason Molina and the missing superheroes

[The following is cross-posted with my academic group-blog, little group is taken. I probably ought to have been cross-posting for the past little while, but c'est la vie. I will in the future, at least for substantive posts.]

I don't claim an exhaustive knowledge of superheroes, or even of a subset of them. I know only the pop heroes—Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the X-men, basically whoever's had a tv show or movie made about them. The pop heroes tell us something about ourselves, I think, tell us about our aspirations. They also tell us about who, and what, we erase about ourselves.

This is a post inspired,1 in part, by the death of Jason Molina. Molina was the creative spirit behind Songs:Ohia and the Magnolia Electric Company, projects which I can only compare to the sense of watching the stars and understanding—being terrified, really—of your own insignificance; but having someone else's hand to grip while you do it.

The music, the songs, provide simply the knowledge that, even if you can only go through your darkness alone, you are not the only one.

Is that solidarity? Of a sense, I suppose.

But superheroes. Molina's song "Farewell Transmission" goes like this:

"I feel his ghost breathing down my back
I will try and know whatever I try,
I will be gone but not forever
I will try and know whatever I try,
I will be gone but not forever
The real truth about it is
no one gets it right
The real truth about it is
we're all supposed to try
There ain't no end to the sands
I've been trying to cross
The real truth about it is
my kind of life's no better off
if it's got the maps or if it's lost"

and this—this and bizarrely this—is what made me think of superheroes, of the superheroes I don't know exist. Specifically I think of superhero motivation: Superman is the embodiment of All That Is Good; Batman is driven by the misattribution of vengeance onto the "criminal class"; Spiderman is "just like us" and has to learn responsibility; Wolverine of the X-men is gruff, and reluctant, but fights for right when it counts.

I could go on. "Farewell Transmission," I think, presents an emotional logic missing, or erased. It is Superman who does not marry Lois Lane, because he wants to be loved for being Clark Kent; it is Bruce Wayne driven not by revenge but by the oceans of love that remain dry within him.

These heroes, my putative Clark Kents and Bruce Waynes, are heroes to earn the love of others; but that love is a love for them exclusive of what they do. They don't feel loved for who they are, but the paradox is that in helping others they become all the more loved for what they do.

These heroes do good to contain the tragedy within themselves.

Even if these heroes exist in the comics—and they very well may—she is not present equally in wider cultural life. They don't make for a good movie, but the struggle is completely internal. But it solves a different problem: why Batman never gets bored of being Batman. They do; but quitting makes the problem worse, not better. There is no need for goodness to shine through, just the hand in the dark.

I don't want to suggest that Jason Molina was a superhero, or like one. I never knew him. I hazily recall meeting him once many years ago, and mostly this memory is that he wasn't so slight as I had expected. He died, reportedly of organ failure.

In "The Big Game is Every Night," the lyrics

"Let it be me helping
Let it be me honestly
Let it be me working
On being a better me"

become, at the end of the song

"If I'm all fangs and all lies and all poison
if I'm really what they're saying
I don't want to disappoint them"

So I suggest this only about the persona that wrote Magnolia Electric Co: that the narrator of the songs ached to be loved for his faults, rather than for his accomplishments. But trying, creating, was that hand in the dark looking at the stars. Without it, the dark is all encompassing. Without it, we have only ourselves. We try, and perhaps fail, but we try.

"The real truth," Molina sang in "Farewell Transmission," "is we're all supposed to try."

1"Inspired" in the sense of "got me into contemplative reflection," rather than "touched by the muse of" Jason.

Tidepooling, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Moss Beach, California