500In a lecture titled, We are who we choose to be,” Eric Berlatsky remarks on the strange construction of time in superhero narratives and the way it undermines any sense of moral responsibility. Heroes make choices, and choices have consequences; but in superhero stories, Berlatsky notes, “rarely, if ever, are these consequences permanent.” He provides several examples: the death and return of numerous heroes (most notably Superman), Peter Parker’s repeated reversion to high school, marriages that do not end but are simply forgotten, Superman rewinding the world to save Lois Lane. Sometimes these miracles are achieved through time travel, sometimes heroes are literally resurrected. Sometimes such “events happen . . . ‘in the continuity’ of the basic Marvel or DC universes,” sometimes “in ‘alternative continuities’ in the comics,” and sometimes in “other media like video games, television shows, and movies.” Occasionally, the existing continuity is scrapped altogether and a new one introduced. But whatever the mechanism, “all of [them] continually elaborate new paths forking.”

The result, Berlatsky argues, is the decay of the idea of artistic choice:

like their own characters, the editorial staff of Marvel and DC never have to live with the ethical and material consequences of decisions they make about characters and worlds. Instead, time can be rewound, universes rebooted, and/or alternatives created, allowing mutually contradictory outcomes to coexist, just as they do when Superman both fails to save Lois and rescues her.

The observation brings to mind a comment Stanley Cavell made about television:

“serial procedure can be thought of as the establishing of a stable condition punctuated by repeated crises or events that are not developments of the situation requiring a single resolution, but intrusions or emergencies — of humor, or adventure, or talent, or misery — each of which runs a natural course and thereupon rejoins the realm of the uneventful. . . .1

The conservatism of such a structure is obvious: There is a permanently stable universe — an established cast of characters, a consistent setting, a predictable range of interests and concerns. Anything that disrupts this order is a threat, whether it is explicitly treated as such or not, and the plot will largely consist of finding the means to eliminate it. In the end the status quo is reestablished and even the characters themselves remain unaltered. In the perfect case, the cycle will repeat a week later, with no acknowledgment (and seemingly, no memory) of what had occurred before. And it will go on that way indefinitely — episode after episode, in perpetual stasis, with no connection between them and so no development.

Television has partly outgrown this pattern, but superhero comics have been slower to mature. The Marvel/DC business model — selling Spiderman and Superman stories forever — has had a distorting effect on the genre. The paradox of superhero time is that the stories require action and drama, and yet the universe the heroes inhabit and even the basic structures of their lives must retain or return to a stable form. Something has to happen, yet nothing can change. New Spiderman stories come out every month, for years and decades, but Peter Parker is eternally, essentially, a teenaged boy. Complicating things further: to sustain dramatic tension, and audience attention, it isn’t enough to just have new adventures, the stakes have to rise over time: The hero cannot simply punch out this month’s villain. Secrets must be revealed, alliances formed and broken, worlds imperiled. People must die. But at the end of the game, all the pieces need to be returned to their original position so that play can begin anew.

In a way, it makes sense that our Superman fantasies would take this form. Nietzsche proposes:

the ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo —2

— from the top, from the beginning.

Nietzsche’s point, as I understand it, was to give our lives a timeless, mythic quality — and to give our decisions a kind of eternal weight. Choosing this now means acceding to it for all time. So perhaps it is fitting that our quasi-mythic hero stories would take much the same form. Professor X is forever striving for inter-species peace; Batman is eternally matching wits with the Joker. Those struggles define the characters, and the mythic nature of those stories requires that the conflicts not be resolved.3

Yet it’s not as though the characters and the stories never change. Frank Miller’s Batman is not Neal Adams’ Batman, not to mention Adam West’s — and nevertheless he is. The challenge for creators is to make something new of these stories, to reinterpret and thus change the characters, while also keeping them recognizably the same.

In terms of stories as stories that is not all bad. Why not find new and inventive ways of telling old tales? No one complains that after a million productions Romeo and Juliet are no wiser, and no older. No one is surprised that each new performance begins with them alive again and just as foolish as before. The play’s the thing — not just the script, but the production, the performance. We know at the outset that the lovers always die, but to some degree understanding Shakespeare means appreciating the variations, even the accidents — pigeons invading the stage at the Globe, as I once witnessed. There is no question as to whether Charlie Brown will kick the football, or as to what Ignatz intends to do with that brick. The interest, the drama, the art resides precisely in the tension between what we know must happen and the seemingly endless variations on how it happens.4

And yet, as a worldview the eternal recurrence is deeply conservative. As Orwell observed:

the theory that civilisation moves in recurring cycles is one way out for people who hate the concept of human equality. If it is true that ‘all this’, or something like it, ‘has happened before’, then science and the modern world are debunked at one stroke and progress becomes forever impossible. It does not much matter if the lower orders are getting above themselves, for, after all, we shall soon be returning to an age of tyranny.5

The problem, I think, is that Marvel and DC — or perhaps, their readers — do not conceive of their products simply as stories, but as composing a “Universe.” The stories, so strangely resistant to change, nevertheless do interlock, as separate performances of a play or purely episodic television shows do not. Therefore time both does and does not exist, or occur, or move, or whatever it is that time does. Even catastrophic events have few and typically short-lived consequences. Heroism, sacrifice, and risk lose their meaning. Tragedy becomes well nigh impossible. It is not a coincidence, then, that the best stories are nearly always those that occur outside the continuity.
That is also, Berlatsky, suggests, where racial and other forms of diversity exist. Yet rather than view the multiple continuities and resulting indeterminacy as a way of creating a world in which many worlds can fit,6 Berlatsky sees it as just another way of preserving white supremacy, elevating select representatives of minority groups to esteemed but marginalized positions while leaving the overall structure in place.

He writes: “diversity is almost always presented in the form of a ‘What if’ question. What if, for instance, Spider-Man were black?” Such is the case in one Spiderman title. The white Peter Parker dies, leaving the black Miles Morales to take on the superhero role. That, however, “is only one ‘forking path’ and, in fact white, straight, male Peter Parker remains as Spider-Man in the primary Marvel Universe. . . . [D]iversity here becomes a consumer option,” not a challenge to white supremacy. So long as there is a white Spiderman, Berlatsky suggests, a black Spiderman will always be apocryphal.

That’s a depressing thought, but if it’s true I think that says more about the collective interpretation of readers, and which stories they canonize — or should I say, privilege? — than it does about the stories, or the heroes, or even the Big Two publishers.

Berlatsky describes the indeterminate variety of the multiverse in terms of “forking paths” and he suggests that such a structure exists so that we can, morally and politically, “have things ‘both ways'” — and thus dodge difficult choices and avoid necessary sacrifices. But he misunderstands his own allusion. Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” famously conveys an idea of time, not “absolute and uniform” as conceived by “Newton and Schopenhauer,” but as

an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time — the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other though the centuries — embraces every possibility.7

This idea, we are told, is conveyed in a novel that takes the form of “a shapeless mass of contradictory rough drafts,” but which in reality manifests a “symbolic labyrinth.”8 We get only a glimpse of the labyrinth, relating contradictory accounts of the same epic battle — but these stories, and the idea of the novel/labyrinth, and the thesis about time, are all themselves embedded in a short story. That narrative is not merely a framing device, but supplies, in fact, the plot — and the moral. Significantly, the story is presented as a confession. “Dr. Yu Tsun, former teacher of English at the Tsingtao Hochschule,” is living in England and spying for the Germans.9 He has learned the plans for a British offensive and, adding urgency, fears that he is about to be discovered. As a cryptic signal to his Chief, he murders a fellow scholar, the man who tells him about the novel, the labyrinth, and time.

Preparing himself for this “atrocious enterprise,” Tsun resolves to “act as if it were already accomplished. . . [and] impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.”10 He remains resolute, but his deterministic outlook does not free him from his sense of responsibility. Perhaps the story of the forking paths shook his confidence, revealing to him that many futures are possible and, while all are also inevitable, by his action he chooses one — and only one — for himself. That path becomes his, even as other paths remain for other versions of himself. Subjectively — in his life as he lives it — his decision has committed him to one course and ruled out all others. He is a single point of view, within a single story — even if other Tsun’s have their own perspectives, their own stories. As he reflected, earlier in his journey, “all things happen, happen to one, precisely now. Century follows century, and things happen only in the present. There are countless men. . . , and all that really happens, happens to me.”11

At the end, he is despondent, waiting to be hanged, suffering “infinite penitence and sickness of the heart.”12

The choices we make matter, and the stories we tell matter — but they do not matter in the same way. Some stories are better than others. One might even say that some are more true than others. Some are read once, and forgotten; others are told and re-told, taking on mythic importance or calcifying into cliché. But no story that we tell can ever rule out any other story that might be told. The best, instead, fire the imagination, tantalize us with possibilities, and invite contradiction.

Life is something else. You only get the one. And the things you do cannot be undone. We choose, we act, we live with the consequences — or the consequences come, at any rate, whether we survive to witness them or not. As time unfolds, we create, often unconsciously, a different kind of story. It’s the story that makes sense of what we’ve done and reveals the kind of person that one becomes.
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1.Stanley Cavell, “The Fact of Television,” Daedalus (Fall 1982) 89.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and EvilI, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1992) 258.

3. Albert Camus offered a different vision of the Eternal Recurrence, and another sort of superman. Sisyphus, too, is locked in an endless cycle, repeating the same set of actions again and again for eternity. And as he contemplates his fate, he is, “One must imagine. . . happy.” (Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1960) 91.) But where Nietzsche implores us to say Yes “without reservation, even to suffering, even to guilt, even to everything that is questionable and strange in existence,” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, in Basic Writings, 725), Camus recognizes “to say yes to both slave and master. . . was to give one’s blessing to the stronger of the two ­­the master.” (Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage Books, 1991) 77.) Sisyphus, in contrast, was a rebel. He is not reconciled to the world, but is resigned to his struggle: “His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. . . . One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. . . . The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” (Camus, “Myth of Sisyphus,” 91).

4. I am grateful to Emily­Jane Dawson for raising this point, with the Charlie Brown example in particular.

5.George Orwell, “W.B. Yeats,” in Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, Volume II: My Country Right or Left, 1940­1943, eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968) 274.

6. “Many words walk in the world. Many worlds are made. . . . In the world we want many worlds to fit.” Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, “Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle,” January 1, 1996 [http://schoolsforchiapas.org].

7.Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in Ficciones, ed. Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Press, 1962) 100.

8.Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” 96.

9.Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” 89.

10.Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” 92­3.

11.Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” 90.

12.Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” 101.

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