Hello there, Bloggers! I think we must just take a short break from this whole “bunch of stuff I should be writing that hopefully hangs together half-decently except when I’m driven to just totally interrupt it” stuff, because today (as I’d nearly forgotten) is of course the very most perfect day for talking about the problem with Daredevil.
Well, didn’t you know that there was a problem with Daredevil?
Let me just say it up front, that I was an avid reader of Miller’s DD, but after his tenure ol’ Horn-Head became a lot less interesting to me. I won’t blame Ann Nocenti for it — that’d be as silly as me blaming Mary Jo Duffy for me being less interested in PM/IF than I thought I was going to be — and I won’t say that I wasn’t interested in the Bendis/Maleev or Brubaker/Lark DD either, although after a while I confess it did all start to pale, a bit. But I think I can blame Miller and his collaborators themselves, for it! Because their performances were so indelible, and so amazingly reconstructive — after they left, it was still “their” Daredevil everyone had to work with. And it still is. And, rightly so.
But, I miss my Daredevil. Daredevil the Rationalist…not Daredevil the Religionist. That first guy really appealed to me, you see. “When young David Hume was struck by radioactive chemicals, he lost his sight, but his other senses became SHARPER…!“ Yes, of course: but what a recipe for disorientation, when the senses are precisely what we can’t trust, eh? We’re all blind, in that sense: lost in the synaptic gulf between world and self, perception and action, existence and non-existence…
“…They became sharper, but still it DIDN’T HELP…!”
And so the problem with Daredevil is that this May 7th of 2011 is David Hume’s tercentenary, and yet the writers of superhero comics — of all people! — seem to have forgotten all about him. SHOCKER! I know; and yet what other conclusion can we draw, but that they’ve forgotten about him? God help me, I almost feel like I need to put in a link, here…to the historical philosopher I probably most resemble…
…So that we may revisit once again the marvellous world of superhero pedagogy.
Daredevil is a funny old bird; as I’ve mentioned before, somewhere around here, he has the most cleverly-vexed secret identity problem of any superhero: when he’s being DD, he’s in deadly danger of revealing the secret fact that he’s actually just a blind man in a fancy suit, and when he’s Matt Murdock he’s in deadly danger of revealing the secret fact that he’s not just a blind man in a fancy suit. And yet in both cases he is, in fact, a blind man…and as a result of this, as a result of his superpower lying in his disability, his world is under constant, fantastic, paranoiac tension. This isn’t like Superman having to pretend to be a coward. This is somebody who has to remember to keep bumping into things. And once the suit goes on he also has to remember to make everything he’s really doing look like something else. So in a manner of speaking he’s like Clark Kent both ways — he’s Clark when he puts the glasses on, and when he takes them off he’s Clark once more. In place of the amazing world of Krypton and a rocket ship he’s got a boxer Dad with a cauliflower ear who can’t make the hydro payments, and a promise to study hard and do well in school…in place of Perry White and Lois Lane he’s got Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, and so why go on with the comparisons then? What’s the point? If inside most superheroes is a chewy centre of freedom, wish-fulfillment, the pretense of magically-easeful adulthood that is childhood’s greatest privilege, inside Daredevil is the sheer difficulty of negotiating with the adult world that children above all are most familiar with…and also, shadowing it, the difficulty of negotiating with the adult world that adults are most familiar with. Both ways, see? Daredevil’s always getting it both ways. Matt Murdock’s that terrific rarity in superhero comics, the genuine grown-up in his civilian identity who is returned to childhood when he puts on his suit…but the child’s world is hard to navigate too, when one is just pretending. And hardest of all is the way the link between those two states makes it clear — after a while — that it is all just pretending: Matt Murdock dominates his world so completely that he actually holds it up, maintains it, and without him it would just collapse into pieces. He is the spine of the thing, and everything in it refers back to him; he doesn’t fit into a larger society and he doesn’t have people like pillars holding the house of his life up for him, the exterior existence of things doesn’t reflect back on him to make his contexts cheerfully solid, and the things that determine him do not lie outside him, but he himself is the determiner of things. And all this puts a rather edifying strain on the character of Daredevil, that would remain subliminal until Miller et. al. chose to finally have him snap…and when religion entered the picture all was made straight and clear, the uncomfortable dualism given a familiar shape and name: concentrations that were reliable in part because they were stereotypical. Solid, of course. That DD lives a lie instead of merely having a secret is something we always sort of knew anyway: after Miller, the lie has walls and a ceiling, and most importantly a floor. You can see how Matt Murdock moves around in it, counting steps: his most intimately familiar ground, his ultimate fortress of solitude.
But once — let me tell you — it was all another way.
If you don’t know David Hume, I’m not going to hold it against you. There’s so much of him to know, after all, and I’ve forgotten most of what I knew about him anyway, so I couldn’t help you out too much even if you wanted me to, which you probably don’t. And you’re probably right not to want that. But the quick rundown’s easy enough: what we think of as certainties are ususally just pretty flimsy probabilities; and what we think of as “probable” is more usually unprovable by the means we employ to assess it. We can have knowledge and we can be empirical, but in this as so much else, man is the measure: knowledge of the world and knowledge of the nature of man is the same knowledge. The world is more shadowy than we think it, causes are doubtful ghosts, reason stems from different sources than we think it does, and the continuity of our world and of ourselves alike is only an assumption we make.
But…where does the assumption come from, then?
That’s a darn good question, so it deserves a darn good answer, but the answer we’re going to use is a bit rougher and readier than that: the assumption comes built-in to us. Why do we assume that the world keeps its shape when we’re not looking at it? Why do we perceive in ourselves a continuity of person? Why on earth do we trust our senses, and why would we ever exalt our powers of reason above them? Hey, I’m not even going to get into the way the Romans managed their inheritance laws! But we could learn a lot from the Romans, actually: they had gods for everything, only because they took nothing for granted. Everything around them was imbued with a character, and every social relationship implied a mathematics; causes and effects were descended from divinity just as people were. Oh, the crazy Romans: they didn’t have gods of numinous qualities, they had gods with jobs. Gods for washing the windows and gods for mowing the lawn, gods to get hungry and gods to get thirsty, gods to go to sleep at night! Gods of keeping yourself neat and tidy so you don’t embarrass your mother when you go outside! And if they’re not boring enough for you, how about the Greeks? Who above the gods set the facts, and went so far as to have causes cause themselves by partaking of causality. Dostoyevsky gets to this later on in The Brothers Karamazov: “and God said let there be light, and there was light.”
“But where did the light come from?”
SMACK TO THE HEAD! “That’s where the light came from, all right? Bit clearer on it now, or do you need a bit more of this theology I’ve got for you right here?”
As far as Hume’s concerned, there’s a lot there to reckon with, if we can just figure out how to reckon with it. But to do that, we have to know what kind of a measure man really is. What kind of registration can we achieve with this instrument, what is it made for? But, you know…all that, you can get anywhere, and for Hume’s 300th birthday I really ought to try doing something a little bit different from the stuff you can get anywhere…not to mention the stuff that almost anyone will be able to do better than me. A more personal note will make me look less like a putz, maybe…and maybe it’ll even not be bad, for a minute or two.
So, you wonder if there really is a link between David Hume, and Matthew Murdock?
I wouldn’t bet against the reading habits of comic-book creators, if I were you. Look, here is a big problem of Hume’s day, and a problem of our own, that I don’t actually hear people talking about very much, which is: once you embark on a Cartesian project of skepticism, where the hell do you go next, and how the hell are you supposed to know where to stop? Doubt can’t swallow the cogito, but that ultimate reduction is what it is precisely because doubt can swallow everything outside it! Inside the chocolatey coating of the superhero is the chewy centre of pretense, but inside the sweet fruit of ontology is a stone, and whether you pick it out or eat around it it’s still a stone. Fine for regular living? Fine for regular living, but if one wants to do some useful philosophizing the problem of knowledge is always there, for Plato as for Descartes as for you. So in Hume’s time there was something like (let’s call it) a Roman-style longing for practicality that was making itself felt, in Scotland particularly: moderation, compromise, balance, the limits of the problem of limits. How does one go about looking for them? Can the search be justified by anything less than a discovery? Because a mere solution just won’t do, if you see what I mean: this thing everyone wants, it’s too tempting to just say “oh, here it is, why it was here the whole time, okay that’s lunch everybody…!” When people deceive themselves all the time, you know, you’ve got to admit the possibility they might be doing because they like it. So what you have to find is some sort of principle that frees you from like-based conclusions. But maybe that’s okay, eh? I mean, maybe this is how the whole problem of the limits of knowledge came about anyway, by not realizing it’s getting too big for its britches! Go back to Descartes: existence exists, anyway. We know that much.
But if it exists…then it must also be something, mustn’t it?
So if figuring out what that is can be a task, then it can also be a positive task. Skeptical empiricism need not be entirely concerned with finding ultimate reductions of pure logic and reason like the cogito; the mind is not all that there is, nor even all there is to find stuff out with. A big task? It’s a big task, indeed, and it all but makes the entire Scottish Enlightenment come into being. What did Voltaire and Mandeville alike miss? Hume is interested in the question, and will not have anyone tell him it is not a question. It costs him his job, his girl, and his home, but his question remains, and even succeeds. Three hundred years after his birth (um…give or take an hour or two, sorry Our Dave) we can only stop and stare at the vision of a non-Humean world zooming by us to the vanishing point, philosophy grown too compactly crystalline to allow anything but a conclusion. I am not saying the Scottish Enlightenment had no radicals in it; indeed Hume was its chief radical! But he was a more sober one than Voltaire, a more sober one than Hobbes too…like Rousseau (uh, in my opinion I guess), he saw that even limits must have limits. We can talk all we want about divinity, we can be fer it or agin’ it…but it doesn’t really matter either way, because God is not really the issue at hand. And Hume proved that, you know.
Everybody else thought about it, but he actually went and did it!
At least, according to me he did. But then you can’t necessarily go by me, because I am also saying that Daredevil did it. There’s a thing we don’t see too much anymore in DD comics, partly because of the abandonment of thought-balloons (so necessary for this superhero, of all superheroes! Yea, even unto Spider-Man!) but also partly because of Matt Murdock’s post-Millerian religious background. I mean, yes DD was getting a little pointless before Frank injected that stuff, but in typical Frank style reinvigoration for the Batman of Hell’s Kitchen came at the cost of the existing mythological programme’s subtleties. When Matt Murdock was Daredevil, he used to be the closest thing to a “happy-go-lucky” hero Marvel ever had: the schismatic nature of his identity was (paradoxically?) intact, and the nightly escape into renascence worked…at any rate, far better than it ever had for Peter Parker. But since Miller everything about the character is unified in a way it wasn’t before. Look at that movie they made of it, Ben Affleck crunching handfuls of painkillers each evening. Hey, I do understand it — hey, I do! Remember, I liked it! But maybe if you’ll remember that you’ll also remember my main artistic complaint about the DD movie: that Matt never smiles when he’s under the hood. And he should smile. Heck, he should grind down those Tylenols while grinning. Because it’s the only way to recall, even (though I prefer it as an irruption of unexpectedness into character) to recontextualize, that old happy-go-lucky stuff that used to be such part-and-parcel with Daredevil’s underlying grimness and seriousness in the pre-Miller days. Hmm, and I guess I should also make a note to myself here, to remember to hunt up the relevant links: Zom’s wonderful Miller/Mazzuchelli posts, my own revisitations of the Affleck movie, wherever the heck David Brothers hid that first “Ann Nocenti’s DD is all about how violence is stupid” thing…
…But it’s getting pretty late now for a David Hume tercentenary commemoration, and I’m getting goddamn sleepy, so I guess I’ll just have to do all that tomorrow. And use this time instead, to return once more to the thing we never see in DD stories too much anymore: Matt’s own point of view. Remember that? The silhouetted horns, the radar-circles, and the shadows they show up to his perception…my God what fantastic use was once made of such devices! Dude cannot see. What we would see, what in fact we do see there on the printed page, with all the contextualizing assumptions trailing in that sight’s wake, Matt doesn’t even know is there. So he can’t put it all together as we do: immediately, easily, soothingly. He has to fight his way through Humean “connexion” even to get to the point of recognizing other superheroes who’ve got their own books, and even when he does get there, there is still…strangeness. Look away from the world and then look back, are you really that sure it will be the same? Are you really that sure all the logical consistency will hold? Daredevil may see in every direction all at once (well he does, you know), but he is always surprised by the world and what’s in it. The other Marvel characters are even weirder to him, then they are to us! Because we are closer to their contextualized reality than he is. All the other characters can see what we see, see as we see, even if it’s only us that know we’re holding a comic book in our hands. But Daredevil reminds us that assumptions, even the assumptions that make up “suspension of disbelief”, are reasonably hard work. And hey, I know it verges on the dumb to go that metatextual with it all, I really do: Daredevil represents a different reading that lies under the text, which is a basic perplexity that we as readers share with him even if we can delight in the play of its contradictions and he can’t, yes yes, I know that’s all very airy-fairy and very far-off from the point — indeed the act — of reading these things in the first place…I mean what am I really saying there, that can’t be said more elegantly and more truthfully by simply noting that Daredevil is a superhero with a disability that occurs in the real world? Not gamma-poisoning, not supercharged spider-bites, not mutations that make you look and function like a neat-o Jack Kirby drawing meant to tell a story but blindness or something. But is even that phrasing entirely honest? Is Matt Murdock really a representative of diversity in superhero comics, automatically because somewhere between Stan Lee and Bill Everett there grew an “oh wow cool” moment made up of the words “what if he were blind?“ No one credits Iron Man with opening peoples’ eyes to the reality of heart-disease sufferers, so why should Daredevil receive any similar credit? After all — and you knew I was going to say this, of course — if you actually are blind like Matt Murdock is, you can’t feel he is speaking there on your behalf, as your lawyer if you’ll allow me that, if you can’t actually read the comic. Can you?
No, of course you can’t. Even his problems with not being able to piece together a rationale for the presence of other superheroes in his world (I mean superheroes, who believes in those, they don’t make any sen…oops here is one!) are only educational in the sense that they put before sighted kids some narrative uses of blindness…maybe a bold thing for superheroes at the time, to use Matt’s blindness as a psychodramatic inflection of superhero action, but then again the superheroey-ness of it all makes him kind of not really blind, too…so…
Where’s the real diversity, here?
It actually could be in Hume. Because Daredevil’s blindness gives him a recurring problem to deal with, but it probably would be a stretch to say that the problem is only logistical, or that it only refers to the Superman-style secret identity business, when beyond doubt there is an existential problem here as well. It isn’t that super-hearing is just another modality for story explication. Until Steve Gerber comes along DD’s non-sighted-ness won’t be made explicitly Phildickian, but then again up until Gerber there is still the paranoia this particular secret identity engenders, and even Gerber’s capacious bookshelf can’t find any improvement on the absence of God that permeates a world where Matt Murdock is the defining character, the orienting character, the one-and-only pole of his own milieu’s tent, that holds it up…and yet is still a work of many hands, necessarily schizoid, changeable, I mean who is Matt Murdock, really? Until Frank Miller and his local geniuses come along, the question will go forever unanswered…after they come along, it will go forever darn well answered. But our old friend (I hope by now you will consider him a friend) David Hume would say, much as Marvin Minsky or the Buddha, that there is no self, that the self’s solidity undergoes transpiration as soon as it is looked at carefully, rises slowly up from the lotus pond into the golden cloud of the atmosphere, and then is seen no more. In other words: the mirror turns into mist, and diffuses away. Of course all the Enlightenment thinkers, Hume not least, would probably remind us that Newton already showed each tiny water-droplet to be a prism in its own right (hey, maybe Morrison should write DD?) (that’d be cool!), but that doesn’t exactly do much more to tether “selfhood” to earth, does it? But rather makes it a thing essentially dispersible anyway. Naturally if God is in the picture all the water-droplets turn to iron and fall right to the solid ground, even find a magnet to cluster around: and we call that “character” today, that sort of clustering…
But once — let me tell you! — it was all another way.
A way in which neither the senses nor the reason could be fully trusted, and yet we were still not ever relieved of the burden of having to try to understand. So…yeah: I guess it isn’t that Daredevil has a problem I wish could be solved, it’s that the problem of Daredevil is what I miss about Daredevil. Hey, so: Romans, I come not to bury Daredevil but to praise him…!
And maybe that seems like a bit of a weak ending, here? After all it is easy for me to plug in all this stuff after the fact, and make a pattern of comprehension where maybe none ever really existed. But that pattern made a big difference to me as a young comic-book reader, and so I’m not willing to say it never really existed at all…
Only to say, perhaps, that if I have seemed to see further in this case than can be seen, it’s only because I have swung across the rooftops of giants…!
And so further, deponent saith not.
And anyway it’s time for bed.
Happy Birthday to David Hume, and to all the ships at sea! There was a three-hour delay on this one, but then they do say no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.