Much has been written about the likeness of the movie version of Superman to Jesus Christ. Superman is an alien from the destroyed planet Krypton and the only son of a famous scientist there, sent to earth with the mission to be the saviour of the world. The theme should already sound a note of familiarity to Christians, and indeed many others familiar with the story of Jesus Christ, God’s only son. Some of the leitmotifs that run through the latest of the Superman movies “Superman Returns” seem more than mere coincidence. The voice of his father that perpetually haunts Superman are: “You are not one of them and you will never be”; “Sometimes you will feel like an outcast but you will never be alone”; “The son becomes the father and the father the son” etc, all have such strong biblical ring in them, that it is impossible to imagine the creators of the comic strip character, but more so those of the movie versions of the same character, did not have Jesus Christ in mind when they went about their job. Not just Superman, but it is indeed fascinating to note how many comic strip characters are actually model on immortal themes.
Be that what it is, but we are more interested not just in the loneliness of the Superman character but many famous artists before him. They were not obsessed with Christ per se, but with the loneliness of Christ. For this loneliness is one born out of a sublime sense of superiority rather than the usual self alienation that results from an overriding feeling of inferiority to the world around. Many famous European painters, including Paul Gauguin, a contemporary and friend of Vincent Van Gogh, was one who was wont to either liken his self portrait to the intensely lonely face of Christ, or to add features of his own face to the suffering visage of Christ on the cross. Gauguin incidentally is the man on whose tortured life writer Somerset Maugham based his famous novel “Moon and the Sixpence”. Here was a man who abandoned the material comfort of an affluent home and well paying profession as a stock broker, to chase his dream of owning the moon, is what the romanticised portrait of the painter that Maugham sketched had to say, and beautifully too. The artist’s loneliness is a different kind of loneliness. His suffering is also a different kind of suffering. He does not think or see like everybody else, hence he cannot be one with them although one of them. Like Superman, he is destined to feel like an outcast, although never alone. All of these senses of suffering amidst plenty seem to be in some ways or the other, derivatives of the sense of the sublime loneliness of Christ of the Bible (as opposed to Christ of historical fictions like “The Da Vinci Code”). Christ too was born amongst humans but cannot be a human. He is God’s Son, and the Son is the Father and the Father the Son. He cannot possibly be merry making, flirting, bingeing, cracking jokes, partying occasionally etc, like all ordinary humans do, therefore he is destined to be lonely – quite unlike the Hindu Gods, Krishna to be precise. The conceptualisation of divinity is so starkly different.
The loneliness of Christ, we would say is the ideal, awesome loneliness. A sense of this comes across strongly even in Superman’s loneliness, and so also of many artists. Often however, this loneliness can degenerate and manifest as a neurosis. This is disturbingly visible in the works of another famous Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, especially in his celebrated painting “The Scream”. Munch however kept his own loneliness distinct from the possibility of where this loneliness can lead his life to, and thus maintained sanity. Vincent Van Gogh was radically different. In one of his intense moments of aloofness and self-exile, he ended up cutting off an ear. At another, he committed suicide. Loneliness for him was like a passionate energy beyond his control that gripped and wrung his soul, and this intensity is evident in all of his works, including in many self portraits. Even the bunch of ordinary flowers in his timeless masterpiece “Sunflowers”, shrivelled and dried as they were had this quality. Lot many such flowers probably would have ended up in the dustbin in most households. But the artist identified his loneliness in them and under the master’s treatment they transformed and came to be in possession of this same passionate and almost cosmic energy. A work of art was born.