The Human Idiot and the Superhuman Giant

Skepticism nags me whenever I watch a movie about a superhero protecting the city or read a novel about the life of generously unselfish person. On one hand, I love that these stories show forces of good combating and triumphing over the forces of evil. And yet, upon closing a book or leaving the movie theater, I wonder if any good was actually gained in the end. What if the hero failed in the end? Even if he or she does succeed, what will prevent a later disruption of the hard-earned peace? No hero, no matter how powerful, can last forever.

The heroes of such pieces exemplify the power of selflessness, or the concern for others’ needs over their own. The power of this selflessness to actually save the subject of the hero’s concern, however, is limited. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot and Warner Brother’s animated film The Iron Giant both present characters that act selflessly. Although intended for different audiences and presented in different media forms, the protagonist in both stories display the capacity and desire to be a good person but elicits hostility, even fear, from the very people he wants to relate with.

The Idiot focuses on Prince Myshkin following his return to Russia after being treated for epilepsy in a Swiss sanatorium. His ingenuous disregard for social norms cause his acquaintances to categorize him as an “idiot.” Myshkin’s unworldliness and compassion, however, intrigues and unsettles many of his contemporaries. Myshkin responds to insults with courtesy and engages in philosophical conversations with great insight. His pitying love for Natasya, the former mistress of a nobleman, compels him to propose marriage to her in an attempt to rescue her from her self-destructiveness.

Despite the sincere purity of his protagonist, Dostoyevsky emphasizes the fact that Myshkin remains completely human to his detriment. When Rogozhin, Natasya’s mentally unstable suitor, attempts to murder Myshkin, his plan is only foiled when Myshkin suffers from an epileptic seizure.  His epilepsy often incapacitates him, making Myshkin physically weak and vulnerable. In addition, his extreme sensitivity to human suffering renders Myshkin emotionally frail. Natasya, while touched by Myshkin’s kindness, considers herself permanently damaged by her experiences of sexual trauma. Her obsession with her own self-destruction destabilizes her, catalyzing her murder by Rogozhin. The sight of Natasya’s dead body mentally breaks Myshkin that he must be readmitted to the sanatorium. Although genuine in his concern, Myshkin cannot alter people’s hardened mindsets. The novel ends with Myshkin not only unable to protect Natasya but also destroyed by the horrors he has witnessed.

If The Idiot presents the limitation of human selflessness through Myshkin’s failure, The Iron Giant poses the opposite scenario of the stigmatism against non-human selflessness through the Giant’s success. Set in the Cold War during the height of McCarthyism, the animated film shows the relationship between nine-year-old Hogarth and a gigantic robot who crash-lands by his hometown of Rockwell. Initially terrified by the robot, Hogarth quickly realizes that the Giant is “like a little kid” in his curiosity about his new surroundings and his unawareness of where he came from. The Giant’s friendship with Hogarth slowly allows the Giant to understand the fundamentals of what makes someone “human.” Even more, the Giant rejects the idea of being a metal monster, declaring that he will instead be “Superman,” the hero who uses his superhuman powers for good.

The Giant’s longing to be good ennobles him. The Giant’s clearly nonhuman appearance, however, prevents him from being accepted into human society. Kent Mansley, the government official investigating reports of “giant metal man,” sees the Giant an alien invader that “we have to destroy before it destroys us.” Mansley’s paranoia ultimately impels him to launch an atomic missile at the Giant, not realizing that the missile is trained on the Giant’s location: Rockwell. Here, however, the Giant demonstrates his selflessness. Understanding that the inhabitants of Rockwell will die, the Giant chooses to fly into missile so that the missile detonates while still airborne. The Giant’s sacrifice saves the very people who feared him, proving himself to be both a “Superman” in capability and in heroism.

Prince Myshkin and the Iron Giant are both selfless characters whose ability to actually demonstrate their good intentions are limited. Prince Myshkin’s empathy for human suffering enables his compassion but ultimately destroys Myshkin. He cannot cure human pain while he himself is human. On the flip side, the Giant’s superhuman capabilities enable him to fly into the missile to save Rockwell, the sacrifice would not have been necessary if the military had not first attacked him for his non-human appearance. From these imperfections, one can obtains oxymoronic requirements for a hero to be capable of saving: intimate acquaintance with human suffering and superhuman strength to endure suffering for others.

We find the fulfillment of these impossible requirements, however, in the person of Jesus Christ. Similar to Myshkin, Jesus was wholly human while abstaining from human corruption. Having been born into the world “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3), Jesus matched the depth of his understanding of human sin and brokenness with the depth of his compassionate love for us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect was tempted as we are, yet was without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) Simultaneously, like the Iron Giant, Jesus was more than human with powers to heal and perform miracles. “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” wondered his disciples, amazed by his ability to calm storm-tossed waters (Matthew 8:27). Later, after witnessing Jesus feed the four thousand, his disciple Peter declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 11:16), thereby declaring Jesus as more than a teacher but God himself.

Furthermore, Jesus exceeds these requirements in two main ways. First, unlike Myshkin and the Giant, who demonstrate selfless love after being thrust into a situation, Jesus had the clear intention to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and knows the price that will be required of him. Throughout the gospels, he repeatedly tells his disciples that he will be scorned and ultimately crucified. Second, God’s plan for saving man through Jesus is complete. Sin, the broken relationship between God and man that can never be healed by human efforts, is the root of human suffering; this is what Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection saves us from. “For by single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:12-14)

Myshkin poured himself out in an attempt to save one woman; the Iron Giant sacrificed himself to save a single town. Jesus died on the cross to extend salvation not only to the people in his immediate timeframe and location, but also to the present day. In Jesus, my skepticism of heroes is assuaged. Jesus’s act of salvation is potent today as it was in A.D. 33. Perhaps the continued motif of the selfless hero in culture perhaps alludes to a continued desire for that perfect hero who will save us completely, who has never failed us and will never fail us. No hero in a film or piece of literature can satisfy this desire that Christ has forever fulfilled.

 

Amanda is a junior who loves reading stories, writing stories, and belonging to God’s story.

 

Image: Rachel Chung – The Columbia Crown & Cross, Spring 2015.

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