Happy 75th Birthday Superman: an excerpt from Trouble on the Dance Floor
Chapter 39- Superman, the Overman, the Underman and the Opti-Man
Clark Kent and Superman, two manifestations of the same body, are different as night and day. Clark Kent is inhibited and weak. Superman is empowered and strong. In the comic book, Kal-El (his Kryptonian given name) consciously chooses which identity he manifests. But suppose the comic book had been written differently. Suppose Kal-El had little control over which self, Clark Kent or Superman, would be manifested at any given moment? The story line of the comic book would have played out in a much different way. The story would have unfolded more like my life.
While I am not a comic book character, early on in my nightclub career of 25 years I began to notice that I warped the reality around me. I acquired super powers when I stepped onto the dance floor. While I couldn't leap tall buildings in a single bound I was astonished by the dance moves I would pull off. While I didn't have X-ray vision to see through the souls of the other dancers, I could feel my dancing would enliven the crowd and lift them to a higher level of expression.
As the years went by I began to notice that my dance floor super powers were increasing. In fits and starts, the peaks of my expression kept getting higher. One night ten years ago I received a spontaneous standing ovation from the crowd after dancing solo on an empty dance floor. Even then I didn't understand the profound effect I was having on the energy of the nightclub but it was becoming clear that something special was emerging from me when I danced. I somehow became greater than my normal self and I liked it very much.
I used to think Superman was a good looking white guy with great hair and a pure heart. As it turns out, the original conception of Superman was sinister and dark. He was a starving vagrant in a breadline. An evil scientist subjected him to a dangerous experiment that gave him power over others. He was transformed into a superior being and became demented by his new found superiority. Important note: only use my methods if they make you a better personâ€?seriously.
The original conception of superman was inspired by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's Ubermensch. The Ubermensch roughly translates into English as the Overman. Nietzsche posited that the Overman would be the next step in the evolution of Man. The Overman would come to be when Man threw off the shackles of moral convention and unleashed what we think of today as our animal appetites.
Strikingly, Nietzsche saw these appetites not as a satanic force but as a source of a perfect energy that could be guided with the clear vision of a newly expanded intellect. This amoral, highly intelligent, animal-man is the perfect monster for the Judeo-Christian mind. The Overman is like us but is stronger, smarter, and not bound by our rules. He is either an unpredictable menace or a savior, depending on how the cards play out.
The Overman thrived in direct intercourse with nature. Nature, not spirit or a godhead, was the root source of its power. The Overman was a product of Nietzsche's pagan trust in nature, Darwinian belief in forward evolution, and the primacy of the individual founded in The Enlightenment. The Overman was a being that was tearing free from the chains of tradition and culture that had bound him for centuries.
The Overman was a perfect product of this culture and its egocentric, evolutionarily new intellect, the Conscious Self. When Nietzsche wrote of his Overman, conscious Man was taking his first toddler steps after being reborn from the womb of the dark ages. The Overman opened its eyes and gazed into the mirror of Narcissus and was enthralled by the beauty of its own intellectual image. Although 19th century wars and the upheaval of society caused by the industrial revolution had tarnished this perfect image of Man, these sorts of problems would somehow be solved or sundered in the ideal world of the Overman. The problems of politics, religion, and capitalism were the problems of Man, not problems of the Overman.
The Overman was to be the fullest expression of Man's intellectual power. Nietzsche, however, somehow understood that the Overman would be empowered by its underlying primal urges but he couldn't fathom that these urges were separate from the intellect. The theories of the unconscious were largely unknown to Nietzsche. Freud and Jung developed their concepts of the unconscious mind after Nietzsche created his Overman. So with some naivety, Nietzsche imbued the Overman with an ideal intellect, driven by a primal carnality, but bereft of savagery. It all seemed to work at the time....
What the Overman really was was a delusion of grandeur generated by a throbbing mass of evolutionarily new neurons two inches above and back from our eyes, The Conscious Self. The Overman was a mirrored creation of this new, naive, idealized sense of self, a self that had yet to be undermined by the corrosion of rational, existential self-examination. Unbeknownst to Nietzsche, the Overman was really like the tot sitting on his daddy's lap with his hands on the wheel thinking he really was driving the car. As an operationalized reflection of the Conscious Self, the Overman came replete with the nonconscious support of an Underman, The Primal Self. But of course, the Overman attributes none of its power to its primal counterpart. In sum, the Overman was the crowning achievement of a new and malignant human self-consciousness as it overwhelmed the foundational primal awarenesses that underlay it.
Don't disparage poor, dead Nietzsche for falling into this trap of self aggrandizement. The Conscious Self had been growing uppity for generations. The incessant crybaby shouts from these cortical neurons had increasingly drowned out the quieter primal voices. Since the shouts had become so loud for so long, the rest of the brain didn't argue when the Conscious Self crowned itself king of all that Man is. If it wasn't Nietzsche's Overman, it would have been some other equally self aggrandizing superman figure created by someone else. Our Conscious Self is that hung up on itself.
My Opti-Man is a novel synthesis of the Conscious Self and the Primal Self. The Conscious Self is seated in the forward cortical parts of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. The Primal Self is seated in the quieter rear cortex and the lower structures of the brain. These lower brain structures drive our urges and reflexive actions. Fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals (including humans) all share similar reflexive brain structures. These brain structures respond to challenges and desires without overt thought.
Whereas in fish and reptiles these structures control their actions in total, in humans we have been both graced and cursed with the additional, evolutionarily recent, mental capacities of our upper brain. On the plus side of the equation, our uppermost portions of the brain facilitate complex behaviors such as language and rational thought.
Despite the development of these new mental capacities, our basic urges and desires are still driven by primal brain structures. The Primal Self has at its disposal a powerful ancient wisdom that has been conserved in our genome since time immemorial. It is the surviving wisdom of a very long line of ancestral forbearers. The wisdom is coded into rudimentary brain structures and far ranging nerves that emit chemical secretions. The rudimentary brain structures exert control over which thoughts, memories, and perceptions make it into our conscious awareness. The nerves of the lower brain reach up into our cortex and secrete chemicals that tell the Conscious Self how to think, how to act, and what is real. The Primal Self is the controlling source of the reality built by the Conscious Self. It is ironic that the Conscious Self is not cognizant that it is motivated by its evolutionarily more primitive counterpart.
Although the Opti-Man does not suffer from this irony, he does suffer from the convoluted twists and turns his evolutionary history has taken. The Opti-Man is faced with the challenge of manifesting the deep, primal urges of the lower brain while still accessing the thrilling thoughts and perceptions of the higher brain. However, for the Opti-Man there is no conflict, per se, between the high and low brains. Rather, what I have discovered on the dance floor is that the Opti-Man makes its appearance when a new detente is established between high and low... a detente where cortical functioning is circumscribed and primal functioning is revealed.
I recall a time when I was visiting the ancient Mayan ruins at Tulum, Mexico. I was staying in a cabana on a nude beach nearby and visited the ruins one day after becoming too sunburned to lie on the beach. The ruins were interesting enough but what struck me most deeply were the iguanas that were sunning themselves on the ancient cut stones of a temple.
One iguana struck my interest more than the rest. He was big, about four feet long, and his color seemed faded, like he was very old. The spines on his head and back had become monstrously exaggerated with age. I spent an hour sitting with him that afternoon. He watched me with his head cocked to keep one eye on me. Even though I was but a few feet away he remained utterly motionless on his sunny perch. If I moved closer, the iguana would move into a position more commodious to flight and sit motionless in that pose until I would move back. He would then relax into his former pose.
Everything about his being seemed perfect. He was ideally suited to this ecological niche. At that moment he had no need to evolve further. I noticed his faded color matched the moss and lichen covered stone upon which he sat. He was fat, healthy, and calm, he didn't fear predation. I suppose the humans mulling about the ruins chased off all of his predators during the day at least. His vision was keen. I observed subtle, nuanced motions in his eye that matched my every move.
As strange as this may sound, I felt a communion with him. I had the feeling that we understood each other in some fundamental way. Evolutionarily, we shared a common ancestor very long ago. This iguana and I were distant cousins. As I gazed into his eyes I could subtly feel that we shared some common awareness.
While he looked at me I got the idea that he pitied me. Something like, with a Brooklyn accent for some reason, Tough break, cousin, you being human and all. I got everything I need here on this rock, see, and you gotta build houses, buy cars, have a job, gotta be tough being a human. I feel for you cousin, I feel for you. But your side of the family had to go and turn mammal millions of years ago I guess you had it comin' to you. Thanks for comin'down to see me cousin, give my best to all of the warm blooded relatives up north.
Cousin Iguana and I share a common ancestor. Our families branched 200 million years ago but we still keep in touch. We both still show up to the family picnics together. You can tell who is from which side of the family if you look at the snapshots carefully. It is like the Iguanas and I think the same way sometimesâ€?like we have the same mind sometimes.
It would be too simple to suggest that the mind of the Primal Self is like the mind of my iguana cousin. Note the brain of the iguana has been in evolutionary fine-tune mode for a few million years or so. I can only imagine that whatever consciousness cousin Iguana has it is spotless, clean, elegant, and perfect. I have never seen a mentally ill iguana. They never sweat the small stuff (I'm not sure they sweat at all for that matter).
No, the mind of my Primal Self is fraught with the phylogenic confusion stemming back to the days when our ancestors stopped eating their young and started nurturing them. Our physical and social environment is constantly changing; our genome struggles to keep pace. Mother and child became family, then pack, clan, community, city, nation, and League of Nations. Our personal survival strategy became a communal survival strategy. The increasing complexity of our culture required the evolution of a large amount of new and untested cortical brain hardware. My Primal Self, possessor of an evolutionary endowment from the Iguana side of the family, has also updated its brain hardware to cope with the expanded cortex. It is still working out the hardware bugs through evolution today.
My point here is that humans are at the very tip of a recent, relatively untested, very rapidly changing evolutionary branch of life. The human race is not at a fine and finished point like cousin Iguana's branch of the family tree. The human race branch has a ripped and jagged edge with a great deal of textured diversity. You only have to pick up a newspaper (if they still exist when you are reading this) to see that concord and conformity are not the strong suits of the human race at this point in time. The jagged edge of our genome generates random variations in our brains that cause us all to see the world differently.
Compared to cousin Iguana's side of the family, our recent evolution has progressed at breakneck speed. The size of the hominid cerebral cortex has been on an upward march with each successive model upgrade. Although many accommodations and alterations are constantly being made to the brain hardware of the Primal Self, these accommodations cannot be made fast enough to keep it working seamlessly with the sprawling mental McMansion of the suburban brain, the cerebral cortex.
I suggest that many of the problems of what we call The Human Condition stem from the functional misalignment of the mental realms of our Conscious and Primal Selves. The Conscious Self bosses us around too much in everyday life and the sequestered Primal Self gets too crazy when he finally breaks loose during stressful situations.
I have a pretty easy life. I infrequently suffer from the depression or anxiety of the human condition that results from the misalignment of the conscious and primal parts of the brain. This may be because I give my Primal Self a good workout every week at the nightclub. Nonetheless, I still get a tremendous kick out of getting my conscious and primal brains aligned. What troubles I do have in life either dissolve or seem more manageable when the Opti-Man gets loose on the dance floor.
A final point: I have found that my Primal Self is neither sinister nor misanthropic. Actually, as best as I can recall my Primal Self is a jolly good fellow. Despite the repeated positive reinforcement it gets at the club, I am still reticent to manifest my Primal Self. I suppose it is like letting your good daughter go on a date with a strange boy. Even though she has repeatedly demonstrated good judgment you still worry a little bit.
It is within this context that at midnight on club night I, in the guise of Kal-El, step onto the dance floor faced with a choice. Will I manifest inhibited Clark Kent or will I manifest an unhinged Superman? Normally my Opti-Man is something in between but with a lot more Superman and a lot less Clark Kent than usual. While it is never certain who will actually emerge on a given club night, I have developed techniques that help keep Clark Kent at bay while encouraging Superman to step up. I'l tell you more about my techniques in upcoming chapters.