“You alone understand that if we’re gonna win
We’ve got to get together – stay together – be together – stick together –
So tell me why can’t you understand
That there ain’t no such thing as a superman?”
You could take that quote of Dostoyevsky’s (all right, it belongs to the doctor mentioned second-hand in Brothers Karamazov, but still) about detesting man individually as a result of loving mankind as a whole, and vice-versa, and nod it towards Gil Scott-Heron, in ‘There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Superman’, bemoaning the American black community of his era’s tendency to look for saviours. That show of care for society over the individual could be to do with the nature of the civil rights movement of that time, the ‘stick together’ attitude, or it could be something to do with the modesty of the artist, who always seemed to see himself as a spokesman for the whole. Check out his concert recordings and count the number of times he drags each and every band member out of the shadows for a solo and a couple of rounds of applause. Or his obvious preference for ‘we’ (‘we’, the band, not the royal ‘we’) over ‘I’.
But it has its price. I shouldn’t be shocked that aspects of Gil’s music are racist. It was a more racist time, and if it was racism, it was directed by righteous anger towards racism among whites. On the other hand, I don’t want to add a qualifier to that statement above, something like ‘aspects of Gil’s music may seem racist to us today, but...’, because so many black US artists did work at attacking racist white authority while avoiding racism themselves. Can we really compare Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to the brutal, nihilistic rap at the climax of his cover of Inner City Blues, where Gil glorifies Mark Essex (the ex-Navy dentist and victim of racial abuse who went on a rampage around New Year 1973, killing nine people, police and civilians, black and white)? Is this really the man who tapped into tangible, universal human emotions in Pieces of A Man, Home is Where the Hatred Is, or We Almost Lost Detroit?
“Did you ever hear about Mark Essex and the things that made him choose
To fight the Inner City Blues?
Yeah, Essex went to the rooftops guerrilla-style,
And watched while all the crackers went wild.
Brought in six hundred troops, brand-new, I hear,
Only to see them crushed with fear.
Essex fought back with a thousand rounds
And New Orleans was a changing town,
And rat-a-tat-tat-tat was the only sound.
Yeah, bring on the stony rifles to knock down walls
Bring on the elephant gun
Bring on the helicopters to block out the sun
Yeah, made the Devil want to holler,
Because eight was dead and a dozen was down
And cries of freedom to a brand new sound
New York, Chicago, LA, justice was served and the unjust were afraid
Because after all the years and all the fears
Brothers were alive, their courage found
And spread them goddamned blues around.”
It doesn’t help that Inner City Blues is one of my favourite songs of all time; but if you’re a fan of Dostoyevsky and G.K. Chesteron, you do already have ample preparation for coping with your artistic heroes’ occasional inhumanity (though you might start to wonder what the hell is wrong with you).
But communities are, by their nature, factional; they set themselves instantly against an ‘other’. It’s probably true that world peace and world unity could only be achieved if aliens, outsiders, were to attack and give us a collective foe. And it’s just as true that this wouldn’t solve the issue at all.
So me? I am (sorry, Gil) a believer in the individual Superperson. I’ve been reading Thus Spake Zarathustra again – an eternal delight for a reader, and a current delight for an article-writer, since pretty much every line is eminently quotable – and I can’t fault Nietzsche’s logic. “Where three men gather together, a fourth must die”; but the true individual, who can exist among others without ever joining a clique, will have no enemies because his or her values are entirely their own.
The only issue with this notion is the nagging possibility that it might be entirely impossible; that is, that humanity will never quite overcome its urge to become members of a tribe, rather than true, solitary individuals. Nietzsche himself didn’t ever quite getting round to including half of the species in his plan for ‘Supermen’, and managed to spend a surprisingly high proportion of Zarathustra being very rude about women. A certain infamous political regime of the 20th century did take the ‘Superman’ concept and attempted, rather than seeing it as a personal transcendence, to make it about race, and dictatorship. And I will always be haunted by those final lines in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Punishment’, which imply that tribalism is instinctual - something beneath our flesh that cannot be chiselled out.
“(I) who would connive
In civilised outrage
Yet understand the exact
And tribal, intimate revenge.”
Even Nietzsche believed we were not yet ready for the Superperson – all we can do is become his/her ‘heralds’ and prophets. It’s a creed I’m happy to adopt, since its aim is so lofty. But from the Second Coming to the Philosopher’s Stone, I do often fear that our species is always doomed to be on the very cusp of something, and never quite attaining the goal.