Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Thoughts on Irving Layton's "Paging Mr. Superman"

The fascinating puzzle to Irving Layton's "Paging Mr. Superman" hinges on the "I" persona. Many dimwitted readers of a particularly knee-jerk, surface-reaction predilection will see the "I" in terms of Layton as Messiah, roll their eyes, and go no further. Others may see the "I" as an everyman just out to stir up trouble among the infinite number of dullards around us each day if for no other reason than to relieve one's own boredom. The poem, then, would seem a catty stick-in-the-ribs, and could then be reduced to a cheap Laytonian squib. I'll argue that both positions are wrong, and that the "I" of the poem is an enlightened intercessor, though nowhere near the promised land himself.

Though the poem is rendered as a dream, fantasy, or phantasmagoria, it also has many images of psychological aptness and real-world imagistic association. This mix of reality and imagination begins with the speaker immediately telling the clerk that the latter's "raw nose/Was part natal umbilicus". This is the kind of dialogue bold dream characters instigate all the time: goofy, but sometimes with a symbolic or at least provocative teasing. Much later in the poem, the clerk "rub[s] the umbilical/Part of his nose that was raw and itchy." In the second-to-last line, the Sheraton is referred to as a "bell-shaped womb". We don't need our umbilical cords immediately after birth; we can breathe on our own. Yet, the clerk's nose is (twice noted) raw, and after the main action -- itchy, denoting a self-consciousness, if not a realization.

Why is the tie-pin "made of the rarest onyx"? And why does the clerk not deny the narrator's request? Ezekiel ch. 28 v. 13: "Thou hast seen in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tablets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created." Not only is the umbilical cord not needed at birth, the glory of the newborn is readily apparent. Divinity is immediate. We aren't born in sin, and suffer no separation between a manufactured God and ourselves. The narrator knows this, but unlike Jesus' hortatory compassion, his paging request is unable to effect change. The humorous irony in the clerk granting the narrator's wish resides with appearances. The tie-pin obviously means the narrator is wearing a tie: he's respectable. And he also doesn't exhibit any outward manifestation of audacity. But the devil is a gentleman, said Shakespeare, and the umbilical provocation, along with the strange request doesn't faze him because the narrator is presentable.

The next character is the even more fascinating call boy. But this is no boy: he's "gray-haired", "one/Of the ignatzes the cities now breed/Reliably and with a more exact/Efficiency than former days." The key word here is "ignatzes". It has multiple associations, but the most obvious and immediate one would have to do with the last two syllables. When you join "Nazis" with "reliably" and "a more exact/Efficiency than former days", it shouldn't take a history PHD to figure out that the SS, and their later offshoots, had to have replaced the brownshirts in order for the party to be more than your typical haphazard internal political thugfest. So what the hell ties the National Socialist German Workers' Party to a fetched call boy at a Sheraton on a sleepy, sunny day in a prosperous, contemporary Western city? Well, what were the exigencies of those soon-to-be Nazis pre-1933? Hitler's party were roundly denounced, laughed at for a decade, even during the barest depressions after the Treaty of Versailles. But power, and a winning team, is an aphrodisiac. And Supermen and Gods live in the darkest recesses of the mind. Note the comical apprehension, later, of the five men and one woman: doubt mixed with hope. The vacillation between the two is always there. But "ignatzes" also has another intriguing association. Ignatz Mouse was one of three central characters in a comic strip extremely popular before and throughout the Nazi regime. Krazy Kat, the carefree, joyous, and naive feline of indeterminate gender was the victim of continuous bricks to the head by the mouse who hated it. To Krazy Kat, this was just the mouse's way of showing affection. Stockholm Syndrome? [edit: No, there's a difference between naivety and masochism. No need to provide the parallel to Krazy Kat in this situation.] But if I'm right, there's also no doubt about the poem's removed and hidden reference to the third main character, Offissa Pupp, the "law" who only occasionally manages to prevent the bricks being thrown. In this sense, the call boy is Ignatz/Schutzstaffel, but Hindenburg and Papen are Offissa Pupp. "He saw/Nothing remarkable in the clerk's request." And why would he? He's not there to reflect, or wonder, or imagine, or wrestle with spiritual dilemmas, or even to question the motive of customers. He's a time-server, more so than the clerk. He fulfills commands. But his voice and imagination were "constructed/In the faraway days of childhood in rooms/Alone with Atlas and the last pages/Of boys' magazines." Meaning, there's a sentimental bone remaining somewhere in his body, even if it's the vestigial tailpiece. But sentiment is the operative word. Sentiment and terror often go hand-in-hand in the banal psychological workings of the evil.

Superman's Kryptonian name "Kal-El" means, in Hebrew, "voice of God". (Superman's co-creators were both Jewish.) And it's impossible to ignore the comic book hero's link to Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch. Just as Superman has nothing to do with Nietzsche's conception of the hero (the icon was an upholder of moral norms), so too did Hitler's perverted interpretations of Nietzsche's ideas have nothing to do with Nietzsche's works. As a Nietzschean himself, Layton must have intended this. The complacent middle-class hiding behind social niceties to mask their moral cowardice and lockstep.

But when the hero's name is announced, "all the elevators raced upwards". The aftermath of the action is brilliantly realized, and a reference to "abunas" ("our father", also priest or bishop) is included, thereby linking it with the priestly origins of onyx. But the abunial dead-end of the elevators are a far cry from the valued onyx. Superman flies upward in a conscious choice to meet his foes; the elevators (and the imaginations of those so disposed) fly upward in a feeble hope, a pointless and reactionary one. But there is no Superman, at least not an actual one, but one in the minds of Depression-era creators Siegel and Schuster. It's a comic, after all, a kid's diversionary fantasy. Or is it? Remember that umbilical-nosed clerk. And the magazine-reading call boy. Many people never grow up, even if they discuss complicated schemes during "the cocktail hour when love/Is poured over ice-cubes". Superman vs a Godlike individuality. No wonder the six (and so many more) still wait. And what could be a better conclusion than the curiously ambivalent "ordinary sunshine"?

No comments: