Wednesday, July 29, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "CHASING YHWH" (CEREBUS #282-289, 2002-03)

At the end of the previous essay, I said:

When I do a corresponding "null-myth" for this entry next week, I'll endeavor to choose a story that relies on purely didactic elements, to its detriment.
Whenever I think of comics-artists who are capable of producing mythic material, but have let their didactic tendencies overrule their symbolic discourses, my short list comes down to three names: Steve Ditko, Alan Moore, and Dave Sim. After due consideration, I decided I should give pride of place to Sim in the didactic department. And nowhere does Sim go further down this particular rabbit hole (inside joke: "maybe it should be "RABBI-hole?") than he does in the sequence "Chasing YHWH," close to the final issues of CEREBUS THE AARDVARK. Among CEREBUS cognoscenti this sequence is sometimes referred to as "the Cerebexegesis," since it largely consists of the main character performing an exegesis on various books of the Hebrew Old Testament. On the whole most of the issues in this sequence consisted of a few pages of "normative" comics-panels, various stand-alone illustrations, and solid pages of small-type text in which Cerebus dissected the Old Testament, sometimes with minor rejoinders to his interlocutor Konigsberg (a spoof of Woody Allen).




This null-myth occupies a unique place in my personal cosmos of badness. In general I believe in re-reading works before writing about them, but I simply can't stand to expend any more minutes of my life in putting the critical microscope to "Chasing YHWH"-- to say nothing of having to use a magnifying-glass to discern all that tiny, tiny type.  So I'll confine myself to some general remarks.

For many CEREBUS-readers, Dave Sim's decision to embrace his personal vision of Christianity-- a little past the midpoint of his 300-issue magnum opus-- proved problematic for the literary values of his work. I was one of the few critics who did not reject all aspects of that sea-change, and I specifically praised the conclusion of this comics-epic here, calling it "a stunning mythopoeic creation." That said, one thing remained constant: both before and after the sea-change, Dave Sim liked to burn up a lot of issues with "much ado about nothing." Because Sim was, and still remains, one of the few artists intelligent to be interesting even when he's essentially running off at the mouth, there's no doubt that one could find interesting concepts and motifs within the corpus of CHASING YWHW. However, since one can find Sim using the same concepts and motifs in more felicitious forms in the "regular" CEREBUS stories, there's not much to be gained from sussing them out in a form designed to be nearly impenetrable.

The title of the sequence is a chimerical one, for Sim's "YHWH" is not the four-letter "God of the Fathers" worshipped by the ancient Hebrews. Rather, Cerebus is chasing "Yoohwooh," an inferior copy of the One True God. As Sim doubtlessly knew, the Gnostics of the early Christian Era were famous (or infamous) for splitting off various manifestations of the Godhead: for instance, the entity that actually created the heavens and the earth might be viewed as a "demiurge," while the entity that was the true source of all things-- including the demiurge-- would be far above the cosmos of profane matter. In a similar manner, Yoohwooh is described as a female spirit with "bright ideas." In addition to using Yoohwooh to critique modern-day feminism and its "bright ideas," Sim can also use Yoohwooh as a hermeneutical tool, albeit within a literary context, as opposed to writing actual religious hermeneutics-- and show how anything that he finds vexing in the Old Testament can be laid at the door of Yoohwooh.

Issue #286 sticks out in my mind, because it's an attempt to re-write the findings of non-religious interpretations, such as the narrative of Genesis 32 that is commonly called "Jacob wrestling with the Angel." A religionist of Sim's absolutist mold cannot hold with the proposals of modern folklore-studies: that the unnamed Angel is literally a representative of God the Father. Sim's solution is to claim that the angel, or "cherubim" as Sim calls it, is actually "Yoohwooh's cherubim, who guards Yoohwooh's garden and who, ordinarily, would make quick work of any one of Adam's descendants. But what's [the cherubim] going to do against Jacob? Jacob is Yoohwooh, who stole away the blessing and birthright of the elder Esau. It's also a reference to the fact that just as God judges Yoohwooh's 'wrestling' with all of her bright ideas... the men wrestle with her bright ideas, and with Yoohwooh." (I left out a phrase or two, hopefully without distorting the essence of the idea.)

As I'm a pluralistic myth-interpreter myself, it's possible that I was on some level offended by Sim forcing his tortured, anti-feminist metaphors upon the original material. Still, if his only aim had been to satirize myth-hunters like Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves, Sim could have accomplished that in a much more condensed form. In some sense the Cerebexegesis exists not because Sim literally believes in Yoohwooh, the way that a Gnostic might've actually believed in the Demiurge, but because Sim wanted to create a means of re-interpreting many problematic texts in the Old Testament so that they would line up with his own vision of the true deity-- though, again, I emphasize that this method has relevance only within the literary cosmos of CEREBUS.

Many null-myths are created when the artists involved merely toss out random ideas that possess little or no symbolic resonance. But in works that emphasize the didactic potentiality, the ideas are not random but rather over-determined, after the fashion of allegory, which Northrop Frye correctly defines as "forced metaphor."



Tuesday, July 28, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "THE RED GHOST" (FANTASTIC FOUR #13, 1963)

In 1001 COMIC BOOK NIGHTS: A RESOURCE, I cited this 2011 essay as an example of an inconsummate null-myth. In the same resource I did not cite, as one of my consummate myth-comics, what I wrote in this 2012 essay, which was something of a counterpart to the 2011 one. As I recall I left it off the list because parts of the essay were focused primarily upon a discussion of Jung's concept of archetypes.  But certainly FANTASTIC FOUR #13 rates as one of the best of the myth-comics from this period.

I also wanted to bring what I wrote in the FF-essay in line with the concept of the "four potentialities," as detailed here. This expansion seems necessary because most critics make the facile assumption that the only creative faculty that informs art is what I've termed "the didactic," the intent to Make a Point. Most of the critics I've assailed here therefore define "good art" as something that supports their ideology, while "bad art" is anything that opposes that ideology.

In the 2012 essay, I did not deny the story in FANTASTIC FOUR #13-- in full, "The Red Ghost and His Indescribable Super-Apes"-- had its aspects of didacticism, to wit:

The story, appearing during the first few years of the feature's successful launch onto newstands, deals with Reed Richards and his superhero pals launching themselves on a private mission to claim the moon for the democratic powers of planet Earth. By chance, a near-identical mission takes off from Russia to claim the same sphere for the powers of Communism. Now, based on this bare description, one might think that the archetype at work here would be the simplistic one of "good vs. evil," with democracy standing in for the former and Communism for the latter. Marvel Comics did a lot of these simple allegorial tales during this period, and I would imagine that a lot of modern fans are embarassed by this simplication of complex political issues, to save nothing of a possible jingoism associated with them. Indeed, a number of critics would not dignify such stories with any sort of archetypal reading, for they would assume, in line with Marxist hermeneutics, that the story is simply propaganda for the American way of life. And there certainly is an allegorical tone underlying the scenario in which the Russian villain Ivan Kragoff trains apes to serve as his fellow moon-vovagers...
The bulk of my argument was that "Red Ghost" escaped the narrow "good vs. evil" dichotomy characteristic of many other Marvel "anti-Commie" stories by virtue of emphasizing "the imaginative, archetypal essence of the story." However, I didn't devote sufficient space to saying why I felt that archetypal essence predominated over didactic political considerations.

One factor is that, even though there is no "God" as such in the narrative, both the "good" and "evil" representatives of mankind receive identical gifts, as from a beneficent creator-god, The first gift is that both of the rivals' respective countries receive a fuel-source from the heavens, which will allow both Reed Richards' group and Ivan Kragoff's team to reach the moon.



The second "gift" relates to this story's extrapolation of the "cosmic ray" concept introduced in FANTASTIC FOUR #1. As any comics-fan should know, the heroes of the story attempt to reach the moon, but are irradiated by cosmic rays, causing them to crash back on Earth but mutating them and so creating the Fantastic Four. By the time of issue #13, the cosmic rays around Earth seem to have been formulated as something resembling the real-life Van Allen radiation belt. Kragoff knows how the rays affected the Americans, and so he aspires to intentionally snatch the Promethean fire that Richards and Company only stole "by accident."


These two organizing incidents share the purpose of giving the representatives of Communist Russia the same advantages as the Americans. A narrative concerned only with teaching young readers about the evils of Communism would not bother to worry about the factor of "fair play," of giving the bad guys weapons equal to those of the good guys. Indeed, the cosmic rays play some interesting jokes: Kragoff's mindless gorilla becomes even stronger than the Thing, and the Red Ghost gains the ability of becoming immaterial, which arguably makes him more elusive than either Mister Fantastic or the Invisible Girl.

However, the determining factor proves not to be brawn, but brain, as Mister Fantastic is able to utilize one of the weapons on the moon to immobilize the Ghost. Once the heroes have won, they receive approbation from the Watcher, who may viewed as consubstantial with the "god" who made it possible for the two groups to meet on the moon and fight on equal terms.



American comics-readers of the period certainly took some pleasure from seeing their own ingroup validated. Nevertheless, the archetypal essence of the story could be just as easily adapted to a narrative that validated some other ingroup, though of course various particulars would change. In contrast, the didactic elements could not be so easily translated into an opposing arrangement.

When I do a corresponding "null-myth" for this entry next week, I'll endeavor to choose a story that relies on purely didactic elements, to its detriment.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "NIGHT OF THE SPIDER" (THE ZOMBIE #2, 1973)



The year after Steve Gerber began scripting duties on MAN-THING, he initiated the ZOMBIE strip in Marvel's black-and-white magazine TALES OF THE ZOMBIE. The concept was initiated by editor Roy Thomas, who apparently decided that Marvel's line of monster/horror titles needed a zombie. To this end, Thomas picked out a 1953 stand-alone horror tale entitled "Zombie," which dealt with a dead man named Simon Garth rebelling against the man who brought him back from the dead. The story was then incorporated by Gerber into a slightly more involved backstory. Garth, a coffee-plantation magnate with business dealings in Haiti, was selected to be zombified in a voodoo ceremony. Once he'd been killed and revived, Garth was a living dead man, largely invulnerable to pain or to physical harm. However, he had almost no emotions, and craved, to the extent that he could want anything, to return to the grave. As in the short story, he had one living relative: Donna, a teenaged daughter. He was protective toward her, though there was always the danger that he might slay her. A magic charm, the Amulet of Damballah, floated around through several stories, and anyone who obtained it could command the Zombie to commit any act of destruction.

Though Gerber scored in fannish annals with MAN-THING, as I showed here, the ZOMBIE strip did not prove rewarding. The Zombie, unlike the Man-Thing, had a meager power of speech, but Gerber usually handled Garth in the same way as his mick-monster: using narrator-captions to describe whatever was going on in the protagonist's head.

Unfortunately, whereas the Man-Thing was interesting precisely because the monster was vulnerable to other people's emotions, the Zombie suffered from a lack of affect. Being dead, he usually didn't care about much of anything, even enemies who tried to destroy him. And the experiences Garth did remember from his former life often put the entrepreneur in a bad light, as a manipulative SOB who alienated his ex-wife, daughter, and many if not all of his employees. This didn't exactly make the average reader sympathize with Garth's plight.

Most of the stories are just middling zombie-tales, but on one occasion, in issue #2, Gerber penned a story, "Night of the Spider." that had mythopoeic potential. Like the Man-Thing tale I analyzed in my previous post, this story included some dicey psychological motifs. However, Gerber didn't explore these motifs in depth as he did in the Man-Thing story, so "Spider" falls into the domain of the inconsummate "null-myths."

For reasons too involved to go into, both the undead Garth and his daughter Donna wind up in Haiti; the zombie seeking death while his daughter seeks the reasons for his disappearance. It just so happens that Donna falls into the hands of a mad scientist who's even madder than the usual comic-book stereotype. This fellow has made it his project to change human beings into giant spiders for no particular reason. He kidnaps Donna, changes her into a giant spider, and she kills him. Spider-Donna wanders into the Haitian jungle, kills another local, and then comes across her wandering zombie-dad. She jumps on him and bites him, but neither her fangs nor her venom can kill an undead man. For his part, Garth doesn't fight back; he just endures her attack and then walks off. To Donna's extreme good fortune, injecting her venom into her dad's body reverses the transformation. She changes back to normal, with no memory of her experience and without further repercussions in the remainder of the series.She wonders vaguely if someone abducted and raped her, and though she doesn't really believe that this happened, little does she know that she's the one who's committed an act that I termed "feminine rapine" in this essay.

Gerber's narrator-captions reinforce this. He's already established that Simon and Donna have an acrimonious relationship, in which she's criticized him for his exploitative practices, so his next symbolic step is to compare the figurative "venom" spilled by the women in Simon's life, in the form of constant nagging, to the real venom the spider-thing injects into Simon Garth.

'Women did this to you [Simon]-- tried to kill you with their venom, called "love..." a poison fully as real to you as the one this creature now spews into your veins... they clawed at you, ripped at you, rent your psychic flesh, made you feel impotent-- and you let them-- for in the end, it was they who withered and died."

In potential this is an almost Faulknerian concept: that Simon Garth, even when alive, protected his potency by simply failing to react to female importunities-- that he essentially "played dead" and allowed them to "spend" themselves, much as a rape-victim would simply endure an attack and wait for it to be over. But though this is an interesting concept, Gerber does not go anywhere with it, either in this story or in any future zombie-adventures. And thus this sequence remains an inconsummate one, a path that runs only to a dead end-- much like the exploits of Simon Garth, Zombie.

Monday, July 20, 2015

MYTHCOMICS: "TOWER OF THE SATYR" (MAN-THING #13-14, 1975)

In my essay PERFECT STORMS OF SEX AND VIOLENCE I asserted that, contrary to the opinion of my sometime opponent Noah Berlatsky, I did not automatically validate every manifestation of the kinetic effects in fiction, a.k.a. "fictional sex and violence." My validation of these, I stated, depends on the way in which they are used. Any ideological critic might make the same claim, of course. However, an ideological critic would assign merit only when the use of the kinetic effect reaffirmed some aspect of said critic's ideology-- an example being Berlatsky's validation of violence in the Marston WONDER WOMAN comic because he believes that these stories supports his ideology, while denying any such validation to the contemporaneous adventures of Superman and Batman.

In contrast, a pluralistic myth-critic validates inventiveness in any fictional cosmos, whether or not he agrees with the ideology of the author or not. Rather than expecting every creative artist to be a source of moral pronouncements that encourage the audience to "go thou and do likewise," the pluralist can also value the author taking a "vacation from morals," and indulging in outbursts of fictional sex and violence for purely expressive ends.



In comics-circles, Steve Gerber's initial tenure on the Marvel Comics feature MAN-THING-- a tenure extending across various titles from roughly 1972 to 1975-- remains one of the premiere works of the so-called "Bronze Age of Comics." The feature-- not originated by Gerber-- concerned the events in the life of a scientist who becomes transformed into the Man-Thing, a near-mindless monster made of mud and swamp-plants. The Man-Thing wandered the Florida swamps getting into various forms of trouble, and was particularly celebrated by fans when Gerber used him to reflect on the evils of human society. I enjoyed these stories as much as any Gerber fan, but most of them don't speak to the mythopoeic potentiality. One of the few Gerber MAN-THING stories that does possess a significant mythopoeic density is a two-part story in issues #13 and 14, which I'll denote using the title of its second part, "Tower of the Satyr"-- but for reasons of perhaps misplaced moralism, this story occasioned a hostile reaction from many fans.

Issue #18's letter column printed some of the responses to the second part of "Satyr." One letter expressed disapporval of "the breakdown in Steve's even-handed approach to male-female situations," and the author boiled down the story to a dicey theme statement: "Give a old goat a young woman and see a miraculous change of life and restored magical power." The Marvel employee answering the letters asserted that "several readers wrote to chastise us about the male-chauvinist elements" of the story and assured the readership that Gerber would not in future "let his baser instincts get the best of him." Like the uncredited respondent, I don't deny the presence of "male-chauvinist elements." But I do think that they are mitigated by their context.

In summarizing the story as simply as is possible, I'll state that the monstrous star of the feature takes something of a back seat to the "guest stars" of the tale. Principally, he serves two functions: that of catalyst or catspaw (occasionally both). The Man-Thing is accidentally taken aboard a cargo ship, and when the ship departs on a scientific expedition, the monster goes along for the ride. The ship has been hired by a lady scientist, Doctor Maura Spinner, a somewhat prickly lady who professes a strange attraction for the area she's going to investigate' the legendary Bermuda Triangle.



After this initial set-up-- which includes the crew's discovery of the muck-monster's presence aboard ship-- the narrative of the story's first half shifts into overdrive. A magical biigantine appears in the skies above the cargo vessel, and from it descend 18th-century pirates, who proceed to abduct both Doctor Spinner and the Man-Thing. (The ship's captain and crew continue to appear in the story's second half as well, but play such minor roles that I'm leaving them out of this summary.)



The minor conflict of male and female in the first half is also amplified in Part Two. Doctor Spinner meets the leader of the pirates, who styles himself "Captain Fate." Fate tells her that she is the modern reincarnation of Maura, the Pirate Queen, who was formerly the captain of a pirate ship, and commanded both Fate and the rest of the crew. Back in the 18th century, the original Maura commanded her minions to help her investigate a small island in the Bermuda Triangle, to search for treasure in its only man-made structure, a single tower with neither doors nor windows. Given the structure's phallic shape, it's significant that Maura is the only one who can break into the tower, making it possible for her rowdy crewmates to follow her in.

They find a treasure, all right, but they also find the tower's sole occupant: Khordes, a master sorcerer who is also one of the last satyrs of the ancient world. Satyrs, as the story acknowledges, are almost always symbols of unrestrained lust, but Khordes has become a withered old goat-man over the centuries. He proposes a bargain: he'll allow the pirates to take his treasure, if they will leave him Maura: "a woman with whom to mate-- one whose charms will replenish my youth and virility."

The pirates accept the bargain and leave Maura behind. Gerber's captions are a little ambivalent about how much of a victim she is, suggesting that she anticipates killing the satyr-- which she does-- and rejoining her men, However, by the time she manages to get out of the tower, the ship has departed the island, leaving her behind for real. Maura curses the pirates to never enjoy their booty, and the dying satyr reinforces her curse with his own power. The pirates and their ship are thrown into a limbo, where they remain for the next 180 years. The tower does what its organic model does when in danger: it retreats-- specifically, sinking beneath the ocean-waves. Presumably the treacherous Maura drowns when the tower and its magical island sink, though Gerber does not say so. Before Khordes dies he specifies that Maura's spirit will live through three generations "e're you return to the sea-- three lives to learn the meaning of love-- e're we meet again."

After Fate has detailed this story to Doctor Spinner, she pretty much seems to lose all connection with her modern-day self, and her scientist persona fades into the persona of a piratical hellion for the rest of the story. Fate, having awakened her old self, commands his magical ship to descend once more to the waters of the Triangle. Obligingly, the tower-island of Khordes rises from the sea to meet the pirates, who want Maura to persuade the satyr to remove the limbo-curse. Khordes too has returned to life, still frail and wrinkled, and he still wants Maura to accept "the love you callously destroyed three lifetimes ago." Maura sics her piratical catspaws on the satyr, but Khordes sics his own catspaw, the Man-Thing, on them. The outcome doesn't go well for the buccaneers, thus clearing the decks, so to speak, for a talk-fest between the satyr and the pirate queen.



In SACRED AND PROFANE VIOLENCE, PART 3 I described some of the ways in which the dominant gender-roles of men and women might undergo a *bouleversement,* resulting in male characters who were predominatly lovers and female characters who were predominantly fighters. Khordes and Maura are both examples of these reverse-archetypes. Khordes now claims that he didn't just want Maura for her body, but because he loved her "spirit." Being a wizard, he foresaw that the other pirates, who were entirely dominated by standard male aggression, planned to kill her at some future time anyway. Maura, though still less than admiring of male attributes, is somewhat impressed by the satyr's chivalry and decides to stay with him in his tower. The cargo ship leaves, the magical tower sinks beneath the waves, and eventually the Man-Thing makes his way back to his swampy home.

Some of the reaction against "Tower" is understandable: certainly there's a power discrepancy between Khordes and Maura that inevitably reminds one of real-world parallels between "old goats" and "sweet young things." That said, Maura isn't really all that sweet, her central persona is a murderous, plundering pirate, and Gerber suggests that she even co-operates with Khordes' bargain with the idea of betraying him later. One may be fairly skeptical about Gerber's other formula: the "female who's so competitive with men that she's closed herself off to love." Certainly he doesn't manage to make either of Maura's personas come alive; she remains symbol first and person second. Nevertheless, what Gerber does with the symbols is still interesting. Richard Wagner formulated the mythic idea of the "love-death," in which a man and woman were united either in death or after death. "Satyr" has it both ways: Khordes and Maura die together when the tower first descends into the waves, but on the second descent, it's suggested that they will enjoy some immortal life together-- which might have some appeal for Maura, if the magical satyr literally recovers a youthful body thanks to the pirate-lady's "charms." It's not likely a coincidence that the first name of the doctor-turned-pirate resembles the Latin "mare," meaning "sea," so the tower's descent into the ocean is patently a sexual action. There's no strong connection between the surname "Spinner" and any action the character takes in either persona, though Gerber may have been thinking of "spinster," since this is the fate often assigned to man-haters in fiction. Even so, the "spinster" persona is the one that essentially disappears, in favor of a persona that becomes "married" after a fashion, though without losing all agency, as some irate Marvel readers claimed that she did.

As I've noted here, the confounding of boundaries between the relatively young and the relatively old can lead to a sense of transgression that forms parallels with, but is not identical to, the transgression of incest. It's understandable that the confounding of boundaries makes some readers squeamish, but that in itself is not any sort of barrier to the realm of the mythopoeic.




Saturday, July 18, 2015

CLINAMEN BEGIN AGAIN

While Lucretius is fresh in my mind, I'll make a few observations regarding his Epicurus-derived doctrine of the *clinamen,* sometimes referred to as the "Epicurean swerve."  Rather than quoting from Lucretius' verse, which may prove difficult to follow in the course of an essay, I'll quote this prose-ified version from the Wikipedia essay "Free Will in Antiquity:"

Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order invariable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this freedom (libera) in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will (voluntas) wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? For undoubtedly it is his own will in each that begins these things, and from the will movements go rippling through the limbs.

The essay quotes numerous modern commentators regarding the fact that both Lucretius and his philosophical mentor Epicurus refuted Democritus' idea that the doctrine of atomism implied absolute determinism. Particularly puzzling to modern minds is the idea that the ultimate source of "voluntas," Lucretius' word for free will, is to be located in the movements of infinitesimal atoms. Both men, in trying to explain what physical forces caused atoms to combine with one another, spoke of a "swerve" (Latin clinamen) that had to take place for such combinatory action.

I'm not enough of a classicist to judge the complexities of archaic Greco-Roman culture; I can only say that of the comments cited in the Wikipedia essay, those of Don Paul Fowler seem most accurate in representing the way philosophers of this period framed their conceptual conundrums.

Lucretius is arguing from the existence of voluntas to the existence of the clinamen; nothing comes to be out of nothing, therefore voluntas must have a cause at the atomic level, viz. the clinamen. The most natural interpretation of this is that every act of voluntasis caused by a swerve in the atoms of the animal's mind....There is a close causal, physical relationship between the macroscopic and the atomic. 

I don't believe any reputable philosopher today would subscribe to the idea that non-sentient atoms can display "will" of any kind. However, the Epicurean swerve may still be a useful metaphor for the nature of human agency, and it does resemble one of the models constructed by theoretical biologist Stuart A. Kauffman. I examined Kauffman's concept of "quantum coherence" in my essay LET FREEDOM RIDE PT. 1: 


There is a possible objection to Kauffman's philosophy.  In REINVENTING THE SACRED he does not manage to show in what way his principal of "quantum coherence"-- proposed as a principle that may have contributed to the formation of the "open thermodynamic systems" of living organisms -- makes the subject's will an "uncaused mental cause."  In the view of most reductivists, if quantum-energy factors did influence the formation of life on our planet, those factors would just be another set of contingent influences, as much as the sun's radiation or the presence of oxygen. Kauffman repeatedly explains his title by saying that humans do not need supernatural forces to explain life any more, but that humans should regard their own "agency" as sacred.

Kauffman's insistence on validating the "sacred" human world of culture strongly resembles the attitude of the Epicureans, though he doesn't cite any of them in REINVENTING THE SACRED. Persons of a reductive viewpoint will of course dismiss "quantum coherence" as quickly as they will dismiss the "Epicurean swerve," but as I've stated many times on this blog, I don't believe philosophy should be determined by the data of experimental science. Metaphors for the way the human mind works-- or even discrete parts of the mind, such as "the heart" or "the imagination"-- will always be not only necessary, but entirely preferable to reams of dubious data.

In closing I'll note that because Lucretius shares the Epicurean belief that "nothing can come from nothing," he takes a rather "atomistic" approach to the human imagination as well. He asserts that although there is no hell, humans have extrapolated their experiences of earthly pain into the torments of Avernus. Similarly, though centaurs and "the spectres of people who are dead" have never existed, these are imaginary composites formed from humans' tendencies to combine the forms of nature, be it hybridizing humans and horses to produce centaurs, or simply imagining formerly-living people taking on a quasi-physical existence in the form of ghosts. I gave some thought to the possibility that I might view Lucretius as early advocate of that form of sublimity I've named the "combinatory-sublime."  But though Lucretius may be writing about roughly the same creative process that Tolkien described as a "refracted light" that is "endlessly combined in many shapes that move from mind to mind," Lucretius doesn't share Tolkien's fascination with the process. Lucretius is a poet in the tradition described by Chesterton: "one who is in love with the finite." ON NATURE is full of colorful descriptions of erupting volcanos and burgeoning fields of grain, but all of these images are for Lucretius mere evidence of the world's conformity to physical law. For Burke and Kant, a volcano might be something that evoked in human beings the feeling of the sublime-- but I suspect such a volcanic emotion would have run contrary to the equanimity endorsed by Lucretius and his fellow Epicureans. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

MYTHS TO THRIVE BY

It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed.-- Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus.

Now that I've launched my current project to suss out "1001 myths" from the millions of comics I've read, I may as well talk a little about the value I place upon such a project.

In THE MIGHTY MARVEL COLLECTIVE SUBCONSCIOUS, I wrote:

One of Northrop Frye's most trenchant observations on popular literature was that it provided a "window" through which one could view Jung's archetypes in pure form, as opposed to seeing those archetypes reflected covertly in the scenarios of fine literature. In this "pure" archetypal sense (one might also say "primitive"), Marvel comics of this period were no better or worse than the contemporary works of DC, Dell or Charlton. But Marvel found a way to persuade older readers that there was some dramatic heft to be derived from stories of spider-men, thunder gods, and giant green-skinned monsters.  

From the standpoint of the mythopoeic imagination, Fox and Sekowsky's JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA might actually reflect just as many "archetypes in pure form" as Lee and Kirby's FANTASTIC FOUR. However, FANTASTIC FOUR was easily the superior of JLA in regard to the dramatic potentiality, and so older readers could enjoy Marvel Comics' "gods" far more than DC's, by virtue of the slightly greater sophistication Marvel brought to its myth-figures.

One reading of this historical situation might be that, for many if not the majority of readers, the archetypes alone are not enough: that they must be presented in a way that the audience-members find pleasing. With that in mind, one might ask what value there is in the project of trying to suss out the symbolic discourses of individual comics-stories, and trying to separate the elements of the mythopoeic out from the elements that I would file under "other potentialities." I believe that these symbolic discourses are crucial in understanding why anyone finds entertainment in stories of bizarre metaphenomenal entities like monsters and thunder gods. At the same time, I have no illusions that the average hardcore fan of any metaphenomenal collections of works-- be they in a particular genre, like horror, or in discrete media, like films or comic books-- is a myth-hound like myself.  If I were a populist-- that is, someone who validates only that which is popular-- then I would have to concede that myth-criticism cannot be important, because it has not been, and may never be, generally popular.  Fortunately, I'm a pluralist, which means that I can value all elements of a given work, regardless of whether one element may be more popular than the other.

And that's where Epicurus comes in.

I read the extant works of Epicurus a few years ago. Although "Epicurean," the word derived from the philosopher's name, has been unfairly linked with the idea of hedonism, Epicurus and his followers stressed not heedless pleasure for its own sake, but the cultivation of a philosophical equanimity that would make one capable of enjoying life without becoming enmeshed in the desperate pursuit of pleasure for its own sake.  More recently, the Greek philosopher was brought back to my mind when I finally read ON THE NATURE OF THINGS, the definitive work of Epicurus' foremost Roman disciple, the poet Lucretius.  Lucretius, like his master, was heavily influenced by the materalistic atomism of Democritus. However, neither Epicurus nor Lucretius can be considered as thoroughgoing materialists. Both abjured the idea that the gods controlled mankind, or that human spirits survived death to face either reward or punishment. Yet as the beginning quote shows, Epicurus believed that "the legends of the gods," for all their absurdities, were preferable to the "yoke of destiny," the doleful determinism, represented by the advocates of pure materialism.
In Book V of ON THE NATURE OF THINGS, Lucretius asks how it has come to pass that mankind has become so invested in the "legends of the gods." Rather than taking the standard dismissal of the materialists, Lucretius says:

Because, in sooth,
     Even in those days would the race of man
     Be seeing excelling visages of gods
     With mind awake; and in his sleeps, yet more—
     Bodies of wondrous growth. And, thus, to these
     Would men attribute sense, because they seemed
     To move their limbs and speak pronouncements high,
     Befitting glorious visage and vast powers.
     And men would give them an eternal life,
     Because their visages forevermore
     Were there before them, and their shapes remained,
     And chiefly, however, because men would not think
     Beings augmented with such mighty powers
     Could well by any force o'ermastered be.
     And men would think them in their happiness
     Excelling far, because the fear of death
     Vexed no one of them at all, and since
     At same time in men's sleeps men saw them do
     So many wonders, and yet feel therefrom
     Themselves no weariness. 


So Lucretius is saying that the gods, even though they were above humanity and did nothing to overtly affect humanity, did appear to human beings in their dreams-- and from humankind's misunderstanding of the gods' nature, superstition arose.

The obvious question arises: why did Lucretius want to keep the gods as part of his philosophical system, while he dismissed superstitions about the afterlife-- particularly the punishing domain of "Avernus"--as nonsense created by priests to manipulate mankind? In modern Jungian terms, one might venture that Lucretius wants to keep the positive image of the gods as dispassionate beings, because their image of serenity mirrors the goal of the Epicurean philosopher. Lucretius does not suggest that mortals can imitate the powers of the gods, for the gods enjoy a state of perfection beyond the mortal realm-- but he believes that the gods' equanimity is a quality mortals should emulate. And though the Roman poet does not examine the beliefs of the materialists in detail, it seems likely that he would share Epicurus' opinion that those beliefs-- which would define all human action as being determined by contingency-- are inimical to the Epicurean project, to promote pleasurable equanimity. The materialists, being invested in pure contingency, can offer mankind no particular model of behavior to follow. The images of the gods, however much they've been polluted by superstitions, do offer such a model.

In modern Jungian terms, the gods represent for both Epicurus and Lucretius archetypes of a desired form of behavior. A Jungian, of course, would reject these philosophers' attempts to dismiss images of darkness or ugliness as unimportant, and so do I: the "shadows" of darkness and evil informs what we are and what we do as much as the dispassionate potency of deities.

Both philosophers practice a very simple form of myth-analysis, usually seeking to reduce myths of satyrs and "scyllas" into morbid imagination. But by their adulation of the gods, they recognize that humans gravitate toward models of behavior, even when there may be no actual interaction between themselves and those ephemeral models.

It should be plain that for me, the Epicurean gods hold much the same place as the archetypal figures of fiction. No matter what forms of drama appear in our lives, our lives will never be dramatic in the same *structured* manner as are the lives of fictional characters-- and this is true whether one is speaking of Raskolnikov or Superman. But the dramatic potentiality can only give a sense of verisimilitude to those characters. For a sense of the characters' essential meaning-- one must turn to the potentiality I call *mythopoeic.*

And that, if it clarifies nothing else, may at least describe why I have devoted myself to the project of sniffing out myths wherever I can find them-- even despite all the critics who would like to think nothing matters except their ability to "model behavior" of a narrow and ideological nature.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: SUPER GREEN BERET #1 (1967)

In this week's analysis of a BLACKHAWK myth-comic, I admitted that there wasn't much doubt that it included racial symbolism. Ideological critics would automatically condemn the story as irredeemably racist, because the stigmatization of the villains-- who are small and dark-skinned-- is an automatic taboo. In contrast, I find that any racist content exists only *in esse,* as defined in this essay.

That essay, POSSE COMIC-TATUS, was devoted to showing that despite the ideological critic's tendency to cry "fascism" at the drop of a cowl, there may be some situations where the cry of fascism is justified. The same holds true for racism, and so this essay concerns a comic book that represents one of the worst *in posse* examples of both fascism and racism.



TOD HOLTON, SUPER GREEN BERET appeared in two 25-cent comics in 1967, from a short-lived publisher, Lightning Comics. Although the Beret's creators included two illustrious comics-figures-- writer Otto Binder and artist Carl Pfeufer-- neither man is well-served through association with this jingoistic enterprise. There are no deeper symbols underlying the first issue's cover image: it really is all about a big, strong Caucasian guy slamming around goony-looking Asian opponents. (I'm not sure their strange orange skin-hue is much of an improvement over the "canary-yellow" more frequently used to depict Asians.)

Clearly the publishers wanted to capitalize on the popularization of the Green Berets as a specialized fighting-force in the Vietnamese conflict. The popular 1966 song "Ballad of the Green Berets" could have easily inspired Tod Holton's genesis, although the greatest structural influence is clearly the origin-story of the Fawcett CAPTAIN MARVEL, to which feature Binder frequently contributed.

Following the lead of Billy Batson in CAPTAIN MARVEL, BERET's protagonist Tod Holton is a boy of high-school age who can magically transform into a super-powerful adult. However, since the creators had no half-reasonable way to place Tod himself in Vietnam, the vehicle through which Tod gains his method of transformation-- a magical green beret-- is his uncle, currently serving in the field.




The uncle-- whom Tod clearly idolizes-- returns to the U.S, on furlough and tells Tod a story of how he saved a South Vietnamese monk from the depredations of the "Vietcong." The monk then placed a supernatural blessing on the uncle's beret, telling him that it would imbue its wearer with great power if the wearer was "young and noble by nature." The uncle doesn't believe in the monk's hoodoo, but as soon as juvenile Tod dons the beret, both he and his uncle behold that it gives Tod fantastic powers, whenever he touches his hand to the beret in a salute.  The uncle thinks this is a great opportunity for Tod to become a military-themed superhero. The uncle promptly disappears from the remainder of the story and never appears in the rest of the stories.

None of the charm of the Fawcett CAPTAIN MARVEL is evident in this rinky-dink imitation. The Vietnamese wizard, who does occasionally tune in to Tod's heroic adventures, is never called anything but "the Jungle Wizard," and it's interesting that he's colored with pink, rather than orange, skin. Perhaps this signaled his true sympathies, since on reading the origin one is likely to wonder, "What, the Wizard couldn't find anyone in all of Vietnam who was both 'young and noble by nature?''"

The idea of Tod activating his near-infinite powers by performing a military salute was meant to imbue the gesture with heroic stature; instead, it just looks stupid. Super Green Beret can perform any number of genie-like tricks-- making himself super-strong and bulletproof, or changing grenades into real pineapples. However, he has to be concentrating to make anything supernatural happen, so he can be knocked out from behind, and if the superhero loses his beret, he reverts to plain Tod Holton.

Apparently the publishers weren't engaged in a particular political agenda, for Super Green Beret doesn't spend much time in Vietnam, but also squashes a rebellion in South America and forces the tyrannical ruler of an African country to give power to his people. To add variety, the hero also travels in time, fighting German soldiers during WWII and English soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Still, the book's very simplicity-- lacking even the florid, one-sided rhetoric of Marvel's contemporary anti-Commie comics-- makes it even more of a fascist comic *in posse.*

As for racism, aside from the visual depiction of Asians, there aren't any overt racial tropes. However, Binder comes close in the Beret's first adventure. In WWII it wouldn't have been unusual to see Japanese soldiers mocked as being "sawed-off monkeys," thus derogating both their stature and their supposed resemblance to apes. But in one scene, the Beret sees a few Vietcong snipers climbing up a tree to take pot-shots at American soldiers. His solution? He manifests a giant saw, saws through the tree-branches, and sends the snipers plunging to the ground-- after which he adds the quip, "Seems your limbs are being sawed off, you sawed off monkeys!"  The cleverness with which Binder manages to re-work a racist trope is almost admirable. Were he called upon to defend it, he could have said, "Well, they're climbing trees like monkeys, and they've been literally 'sawed off' because the hero cut through the tree's limbs!" I doubt that anyone would have credited such a defense. But even ingenuity used for a bad end is still ingenuity.