A creative essay by G. David Schwartz
My eight-year-old son goes into a frenzy each time Clark Kent leaves Lois Lane and returns as Superman. The child is sufficiently wise, or sufficiently naive, to know that clothes do not make the person.
Clothes occasionally, however, unmake the person.
People should not be fooled by the removal of glasses or a slight modification in the way a person wears a hat or carries a glove. My son, at such a tender age, is capable of cutting through the superficiality of appearance in order to reach the ontology of identity.
He knows that Clark Kent is Superman and Superman is Clark Kent. He is not yet, at age eight, to the stage where he knows that Superman is Steve Rieves, or George Reeves.
The identities of Clark Kent and the Man of Steel are frequent topics of conversation in our house. Why doesn’t Lois notice the obvious?
Why doesn’t Jimmy? Lois claims to have a romantic interest in Superman and to resist the supposed romantic intentions of Kent. Jimmy claims to be Clark’s best friend.
To complicate matters, these people are reporters, trained with a critical eye. Perhaps the Superman series, movie, and television revival are a collective satire?
In each of the venues through which Superman has made an incarnation, including the comic book, Superman engages our willing suspension of disbelief against the hard and newsworthy evidence of our eyes. Or, as Dan puts it, they are stupid. Neither of us are convinced that the issue of putting on or taking off glasses as a disguise of identity is a secret meant to be shared between the “actors” and the audience. Dan might say the “actors” want us to be as daft as Lois and Jimmy.
In my opinion, the writers and producers are propagating the obviously false idea that small changes betoken major events, a notion that might help them sell mascara or hair coloring, ointments and creams.
I have to admit that I enjoy Dan’s agony or, more correctly, the fact that his mild disturbance results in our continually talking about the issue.
The television, movie, and comic book’s loss of recognition is our gain. I also enjoy the fact that when I was Dan’s age I, too, shouted at the television for Lois to get a little critical distance and notice that Clark was Superman.
I phrased it thus: “Don’t be so stupid.”
Being privy to secrets of one kind or another can be a burdensome thing.
Perhaps Dan, as I once did, nourishes the hope that Lois, too, has a secret. Perhaps she will turn to Clark at some point or another and say, “Hey, Clark. Want to hear something really funny? I’ve known for years you’re Superman. That’s right. I’ve known it all along. But I’ve done the decent thing, the human thing, and kept your secret because you’ve wanted it that way. But here’s the funny part. Here’s the really funny part. I have a secret, too. You see, I’m not Lois Lane. I’m…”
But I go astray.
Attributing to Lois a moral stance, the secret that she has never betrayed Clark’s secret, has the advantage of allowing us to see her in some way other than stupid. In fact, if my hypothesis is correct, Lois did such an outstanding job of keeping the secret and buttressing her knowledge by playing the utter fool that she needs to be designated the very best actor on the show—possibly in history.
Lois not only knew and did not tell; she did not behave in any manner that would have led her co-workers to know she knew. Jimmy, I assume, is just stupid.
Perhaps that’s the point of fantasy and fancy, miracle stories and other culture-bound inspiring work: to enkindle us with questions and statements of what we know to be obvious.
What is obvious to one person is a deep mystery to the next. What can best be done in those situations is to arrange conversations not between those who know it all and those who know nothing… The conversations that need be arranged are between those who know the obvious and those who know the obvious as mysterious. Each will gain by being informed by the other.
I did not understand the fact that the identity issue was a charade until I was older. Not Lois, but Clark, was in a predicament about expressing character issues.
It was, after all, Superman who purchased glasses—a symbol of seeing clearly—he did not need. Superman clothed himself in conventional clothing and hid his functional suit. Superman was the one who wanted to look like less than what he was.
I did not understand this until I had to purchase glasses. Until I purchased them, I not only did not recognize their benefits and virtues, but claimed I did not need them.
Perhaps the refusal to change appearance is vanity. Perhaps dressing in style is a vane conceit. Perhaps switching glasses, or clothing, or hair styles, is to engage in the ebb and flow of appearance.
Perhaps the becoming and changing of reality occurs, as it were, through the vessels of our clothing. Or, perhaps the identity, not the duality, of Clark and Superman is more real than any of the “spectators'” concentration on glasses in one scene and removal in the next. Perhaps consistency of change is more important than identity. Or perhaps not.
That’s the way it is with “perhaps”.
I knew my eyes were bad for some time, but thought I could live without the sheer anguish of glasses; I had been accustomed to wearing glasses to see into the distance, but slowly, ever so slowly, the lenses deteriorated—they didn’t work as well as they once had. The fact of faulty lenses did not bother me; all it meant was that I was becoming accustomed to not seeing as many things, a condition I rationalized as acceptable given some alternatives.
Well, it was acceptable until those other cars on the highway suddenly began appearing in lanes where they had not been moments before.
So I needed new glasses. So what! I would get them. Some day. In the mean time, I’ll just drive a little slower. You’ve wanted me to drive slower for years.
And now I will. So there!
What was most annoying was that I noticed, faster than a speeding bullet, that I could not see things up close.
I could not read as easily as I had so recently been able to do: When I first became aware of it, I was curious to know if the economy was so horribly bad that all books were now being printed in a fuzzy, obviously cheap, ink.
Then I began to notice that the economy was so terribly bad that even books I had possessed for years had retrospectively been affected.
“Why are you holding that book so close to your face?”
I resisted the urge to say the reason was because I was convinced it was a razor.
I thought that perhaps, just perhaps, such a statement would not make my reasonable defense against getting new glasses so reasonable. I do not know who first uttered the word “bifocal”, but I adamantly refused to purchase glasses that would make me look like my grandmother.
Split lenses, indeed! I already was bi-focal. Some things I could see, and some I could not see.
So I ended up getting two pairs of glasses. One pair was simply for seeing (which, as suggested above, I was accustomed to doing); the other, which had a secondary purpose, bore the less obnoxious name “reading glasses”.
I despise the very concept of bifocals, with their smug suggestion of growing old and their self-complacent suggestion of double vision. It suggests indecisiveness, and the one thing I am not is indecisive, I think.
So I made an appointment with the optometrist and explained sadly to Dan, “I can no longer see through these things.” I grew instantly accustomed to the reading glasses. I could see what I was reading without squinting or straining my eyes.
Reading was enjoyable again.
Because my long-distance vision was corrected perfectly with the glasses I had, and would remain so for a solid week after I received my new reading glasses, I chose to have two pairs of glasses.
Consequently, I grew accustomed to switching back and forth between corrective lenses. I grew accustomed, that is, to taking off one identity (one set of circumstances, requirements, and modes of being) and putting on another.
I became, in a phrase, a virtual Superman of the visceral world.
I felt great. I felt like I was able to leap tall buildings in a single bound—if I was standing atop their roofs and had overcome my fear of heights.
Now, if I could only break the habit of whipping off a pair of glasses and staring into my son’s eyes—or an imaginary camera if he is not available—and saying, “I’m Batman.”
G. David Schwartz is the former president of Seedhouse, an online interfaith committee. Schwartz is the author of A Jewish Appraisal of Dialogue (1994) and Midrash and Working Out of the Book (2004). He is currently a volunteer at Cincinnati, Ohio’s community center, the J (Mayerson JCC); and Meals On Wheels. His newest book, Shards And Verse (2011) is now in stores, and can be ordered online.