Painting the Real

There’s a reason ‘fiction’ exists, and is of major importance to our lives. Ask yourself – what is the difference between a newspaper and a novel?

In one way, a novel is made up and untrue, whereas a newspaper is full of facts that actually happened around the world. But if we are asked which one of the two represents humanity in the truer sense, we would probably name the novel.

Adolf Hitler, one of the most successful and one of the least successful leaders the world has ever seen, used to abhor storybooks and heavily favoured newspapers. He did this because newspapers give you facts and figures that can often obscure the bigger, plainer picture. Newspapers can also be tailored and manipulated so that they keep our eyes hypnotized instead of awake. But books written by great writers break down walls and help us see the world for what it is. In this sense, – storybooks use ‘lies’ to say the Truth – Truth with a capital T.

This brings us to the subject of those books that fall in the category of fantasy and science fiction. Many people think less of these genres because they are misunderstood to be childish and simplistic. However, nothing could be farther from the truth.

We can, of course, talk more on this, but for now, let us branch off and explore one subgenre of this style, – the superhero fiction.

Once, a friend of mine told me about a conversation he had had with one of his colleagues. The colleague was trying to argue that flying machines and nuclear weapons actually used to exist back in the Later Vedic Age in India. “If those things were not there in the real world, how could there be descriptions of such things in the books written back then?” – he insisted.

In response, this friend of mine posed a scenario before him. “Suppose,” he said, “our human civilization undergoes a major, global holocaust of some kind, and 99.99% of humanity is wiped out. Only the ruins of our civilization remain. Centuries later, a group of intelligent researchers discover relics from the long past 21st century. Among the relics, they find the records of the life of a person named Harry Potter. In these records, they find mention of something called the Invisibility Cloak. Based on this finding, they decide that people in the 21st century had access to something that can render a person truly invisible if they wear it. — How right would those researchers be, to infer thus?”

The creative human mind can imagine things and weave them into fictional narratives even if they do not exist in the real world. We do not need to see a flying man with our own eyes in order to imagine a character like Superman. We do not need to witness an alien invasion for real in order to make a movie like ‘Independence Day’, or, say, ‘Avengers: Infinity War’.

So has the imaginative human mind dreamt of the lofty and the unearthly through the ages, and so have we created heroes larger than life for our stories and tales. The earliest and most enduring example of this is, of course, the great epics. The Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Iliad, and the Odyssey.

In all of these epics, we find people who are bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, lovelier, viler, nobler than the ordinary folk we see around us every day. In a word – they are superlative in their qualities and superhuman in their appeal. That is why their stories are epic in proportion. That is why they tower even across millennia, and characters like Ram and Achilles hold appeal to this day, as prove the sales charts.

The fact that these characters are infused with fantastical elements does not make them childish and perfunctory. Rather, they lend them grandeur and strength that endures better than pure realism. As you know, pure gold cannot make jewelry, – you’ve got to mix some impurity with it, to lend it resilience. The fact that real people don’t actually have ten heads does not make Raavan a joke of a character. The fact that the Odyssey features monsters that never actually existed does not make it a cheap fairy tale. Their dissimilarity from reality makes them greater than life, not lesser.

This is why it is so important to understand that superheroes are the modern form of epic heroes. Superhero tales are the epic narratives of the 21st century. You need to see them in the proper light if you want to reap something from them.

Every superhero – well, almost all of them… the good ones, at least – are created to bring out a certain aspect of human life and psychology. They are a study in human character, every one of them. If you can learn to see beyond the costume and into the character, you find wells of inspiration and wisdom that don’t fail you in the darkest moments of your life. They teach you to believe in heroism, and if you hold on to that notion for long enough, you sometimes find that you can be heroes.


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