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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, December 17, 2007

CONCERNING GORE AND ALLEGORY


I’ve forgotten what recommendation led me to read CONCERNING THE GODS AND THE UNIVERSE, though I think it had to do with pointing out that its author had some common ground with Joseph Campbell in terms of categorizing aspects of archaic mythology. The short treatise was written by Sallustius, a Roman scholar who wrote in the era of Julian and who was, according to translator Arthur Nock, heavily influenced by the intellectual milieu of his time, which tended to analyze myth in terms of allegory. Thus he makes a convenient platform for speaking of the uses and potential abuses of the “allegory explanation” with respect to analyzing mythic stories.

In Sallustius’ time, the myths of Greco-Roman antiquity were under fire, both by the critics of the early Christian church and by sophisticated “pagan” philosophers. The latter grouping would be “pagan” only by the strict definitions of the Christian Church, for the philosophers of the allegorizing persuasion were almost as offended as the Christians by the salacious and/or sadistic aspects of archaic myths. Here’s how Sallustius attempts to come to grips with how such scandalous stories can possess any sacrality or cultural importance:

“Again, myths represent the active operations of the gods. The universe itself can be called a myth, since bodies and material objects are apparent in it, while souls and intellects are concealed… Why, however, have the ancients told in their myths of adulteries and thefts and binding of fathers and other strange things?” (p. 5)

One sentence later, Sallustius suggests that the purpose of this “seeming strangeness” of the myths is that it’s a strategy meant to “teach the soul” of the gods’ hidden nature. And this rationale is essentially correct, insofar as he claims that myths serve to communicate a mystery that proves obscure to rational discourse. However, like most allegorizers he makes the mistake of thinking that the mystery can, after a little thought, be summed up by a rational-sounding concept.

Here’s Sallustius on the myth of Kronos devouring his children:
“Of myths, some are theological, some physical; there are also psychical myths and material myths and myths blended from these elements. Theological myths are those which do not attach themselves to any material objects but regard the actual natures of the gods. Such is the tale that the god Kronos swallowed his children; since the god is intellectual, and all intellect is directed towards itself, the myth hints at the god’s essential nature.”

Much later Joseph Campbell would suggest a different set of myth-analyzing categorizations more in tune with the philosophies of post-industrial human culture, which would be less likely to view the Kronos myth are so unattached by “material objects.” In modern parlance, Sallustius would be seen as repressing the more visceral aspects of the Kronos myth, and forcing onto it a purely-metaphysical explanation—an act which recalls for me Northrop Frye’s definition of allegory as “forced metaphor.” But this is not to suggest that Sallustius is wrong simply because he renounced the visceral, as it would be just as easy to imagine an interpretation which forced the metaphor in the opposite direction: toward, rather than away from, the visceral. I don’t recall whether or not Sigmund Freud ever made a detailed examination of the Kronos myth, but given the theories he advanced on similar themes, he would almost certainly see the myth informed by the “material object” of the Oedipus complex, in which a near-victim of Kronos’ appetites, such as Zeus, escapes and kills his tyrant father as a stratagem for marrying his mother, which does in fact take place (though we should keep in mind that Kronos devours his female children as well as his male ones, which might weaken the Freudian thesis).

In his book MYTHICAL THOUGHT, philosopher Ernst Cassirer sough a third approach to the analysis of myth that did not depend on either “the essence of the absolute” or “the play of empirical psychological forces.” For this he evoked the authority of Plato:
“Thus, for Plato, too, myth harbors a certain conceptual content: it is the conceptual language in which alone the world of becoming can be expressed. What never is but always becomes, what does not, like the structures of logical and mathematical knowledge, remain identically determinate but from moment to moment manifests itself as something different, can be given only a mythical representation.”


A strongly-evocative image, such as Kronos eating his children, is just such a “mythical representation.” Since the authors of myths are lost to history, there is no knowing what intent was in the mind of the individuals who first formulated this representation. They may have wished to capture the visceral transgressiveness of a father eating his young, or they may have had some notion comparable to Sallustius’ “theological” interpretation, even if it was probably a good deal less refined than the one Sallustius gives. But if Cassirer is right, then the initial intentions behind the myth are unimportant, for the myth expresses something about a conceptual world that is never “identically determinate,” but which can shift to encompass an array of meanings.

I would give Sallustius credit, though. Even if his specific interpretation of the Kronos myth is forced, he seems to have been among the first to conceive ways in which myths might contain a wide array of meanings, even going so far as to note that some of the myths contained “blended” elements. In his OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY Campbell put forth four categories—given the headings of “the cosmological,” “the metaphysical,” “the sociological,” and “the psychological”-- by which one might analyze the contents of mythic stories. Although Campbell would later use other names for his categories, these remained largely in the tradition of the ones used by Sallustius. Perhaps appropriately, the most telling criticisms of Campbell have been those that focused on his more allegory-oriented interpretations.

In a previous essay I noted that there might be a way to counter the interpretation of Eric Gould, of viewing myth as a failure to bridge an ontological gap between the world we live in and what our minds make of it. I would suggest that Campbell’s categorical approach—as long as it is restrained from pure allegorizing by a Cassirer-like understanding of myth’s indeterminate conceptualizing nature—does bridge the ontological gap, as much as humanity can expect to. Campbell’s categories are, at their base, attempts to discern patterns in reality, whether one is dealing with external realities (what Sallustius calls “material objects”) or internal ones (“souls and intellects.”) To the extent that these patterns are coterminous with the world we live in, then myth in its most conceptual aspect is an intuition of how the world works, and how men relate to it. And as such, it is not simply failed ontology. It is the mirror that shows us both unity and diversity: which, in showing us all of our indeterminate faces, also shows us our identity.

Friday, December 14, 2007

INNOCENTS BROADSIDED (Spoilers)

"[Henry] James' world... is ruled by women. With a few slick exceptions, men are limited, subordinate or ludicrous. The mother herself presses turgidly on the late novels, a paralyzing biographical force whom James both resists and adores"-- Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 621.

I recently had occasion to reread James' TURN OF THE SCREW and re-view the 1960 film adaptation THE INNOCENTS. Despite minor differences, both end the same way: the hysterical governess trying to cast out the ghostly spirit that she thinks has possessed her ten-year-old charge Miles, on whom she dotes as if she were the boy's mother. The result is that though she forces Miles to speak the name of the ghost Peter Quint (which the governess thinks will exorcise the spirit or its influence), the boy's spirit is also cast out, so that he dies in the governess' arms, sort of a literary-horror version of Michelangelo's Pieta. In essence Miles dies because the governess fears the shadow (Jung would say "animus") of malefic masculinity dawning within the prepubescent boy, represented (at least in her mind) by the ghostly image of a dead dominant male.

Interestingly, James comes very close in TURN to a setup described in Philip Slater's study of Greek myth and society, THE GLORY OF HERA. To summarize Slater briefly, he felt that the Greeks of the classical period suffered from a mother-complex that grew out of the strong bifurcation of male and female roles in classical Greek society. The husband went away to pursue war and/or business affairs (much as in TURN, there is an uncle who arranges for the governess to take charge of his niece and nephew but then has no more to do with the situation). This situation left his wife totally in charge of the affairs of the house, but without any avenue for sexual gratification in misogynistic Greek society (though naturally the husband was not so constrained). The governess of TURN, who indicates an almost subliminal lust for the uncle, is in much the same situation, and never seems to have any yearnings for a separate romantic life while in service to the uncle, though arguably her sexual desires are realized by her encounter (or fantasy) of the ghost of roisterer Peter Quint.

Slater went on to give copious examples to show that in myth and literature at least, the frustrated desires of real-life mothers in Greek society came out in the form of fantasies about fictional mothers who killed, harmed, or controlled their sons-- sometimes as small children, sometimes as full-grown men (particularly in the legend of Heracles, who was persecuted until death by his stepmother, and whose translated name forms the title of Slater's book). All such violence Slater regarded as projections of a displaced sexuality.

It's not hard to see a similar pattern in TURN OF THE SCREW, where the social roles of James' England were not much less stratified than those of classical Greece. But perhaps in one respect the movie adaptation inadvertently came even closer to the archetype of the devouring mother than the original book. In TURN, the unnamed governess is a very young woman, perhaps so that James might suggest her instability due to age (in the frame-story she goes on to continue her career as governess, and the reader never knows from the frame how Miles' tragedy affects her). But THE INNOCENTS casts 40-year old Deborah Kerr as the lethal child-care minister, and thus puts the character more in the mold of the frustrated spinster. Arguably, then, Miles' death in her arms is an even more mythically-appropriate "Pieta" than the one seen in the original prose of mother-worshipping James.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

MYTHICITY, THREAT OR MENACE?

In an earlier post I tossed out the term "mythicity," which term was, to the best of my knowledge, originated by Eric Gould in his MYTHICAL INTENTIONS IN MODERN LITERATURE. As I understand Gould's theme (I read the book some years back but don't have it handy), "mythicity" connotes the quality of being "myth-like" that one can find in all literary productions, thus making plain how one can justifiably speak of certain stories as "myths" because of that quality, rather than because they fulfill all other qualifications of myths. A distinction between "literary myths" and "religious myths" is probably appropriate, as well.



Though it's risky to write of a scholar's meanings without his work close to hand, I do have some excerpts provided in William Doty's MYTHOGRAPHY, which support my case. Here are some of Gould's comments on the intersections of myth and literature:



"The meaning of a fiction is always potentially mythic" (113)

"It is impossible to create a fiction without approaching the condition of myth"



I agree with both of those statements, though I would probably say that what makes a fiction actively mythic is a matter of "symbolic complexity," which notion I more or less derive from Northrop Frye. Here's Gould on what myth signifies in fiction:



"The fact that classical and totemistic myths have to refer to some translinguistic fact-- to the Gods and Nature-- proves not that there are Gods, but that our talents for interpreting our place in the world may be distinctly limited by the nature of language." To that I would answer, "Possibly," but Doty's summarization of Gould troubles me: "We live within a world where symbolic meanings may help-- do help-- yet are never fully able to bridge the ontological gap." In other words, primtives who don't know what a storm is, but who simply formulate a storm-god as a relational aid to the unknown phenomenon, have made an ontological myth, but one which is bound to collapse.

But is this really the case? Is is always going to "one step forward, two steps back," ontologically speaking?

I would suggest that in its most complex form the act of symbolification is a little more than just a vain attempt to bridge an ontological gap: that it is a way to see at least an aspect of selfhood. Though I'm not a Hegelian, I'm drawn to this phrase in a foreword to Hegel's PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT, written by one J.N. Findlay:

"...in construing the world conceptually [absolute knowledge] is seeing everything in the form of self..."

And also....

"In its conceptual grasp of objects it necessarily grasps what it itself is..."

I will enlarge on the specific application of this conceptual grasping with respect to complexity in a future post.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

THAT OBSCURE OBJECTIVIZATION




For most genre-fiction-- particularly those media which, unlike prose, hinge on depicting the appearance of the characters-- the standardization of sexual attractiveness is a useful narrative tool. In romances, for instance, it's almost de rigeur to depict both hero and heroine as meeting a bland standard for attractiveness. This is not because the narrative is trying to convince anyone that homely people don't mate in real life, but because it's advantageous to the narrative's smooth progression to depict only good-looking people becoming romantically entwined. As long as the hero and heroine meet a basic standard of attractiveness, an audience-member is less likely to be thrown out of his/her participation in the story to think, "How can Character A possibly be attracted to Character B?" Of course there can be negative feedback against this narrative strategy, as when film-audiences begin to find this or that actor too pretty or too shallow, or when a comic-book series like LOVE AND ROCKETS places an intentional thematic emphasis upon the depiction of characters who do not meet the consensual standard for attractiveness. However, neither of these forms of negative feedback take away the basic applicability of the narrative strategy of standardization, which is loosely coterminous with what people mean when they speak of sexual objectification.

The matter becomes more complex when dealing with genres that mingle the conflicts of sex with those of violence. Most of the genres that would fall under the rubic "action-adventure" follow the same basic pattern as the romance-genre. Male heroes are usually as buff and squarely handsome as their parallels in romance-novels, although in the more outre superhero books, the musculature of some characters can become exaggerated past the hypothetical standard for attractiveness, when the desire for sheer physical power to win battles takes the place of romantic conquest.

Female heroes, however, have to make more of a transformation. In the non-fantasy worlds of action-adventure, it's difficult to imagine an action-heroine who could conform to the willowy female aesthetic that appears on romance book-covers. It's somewhat more possible in a more overtly fantastic world, where a superheroine with a willowy look could possess extraordinary abilities despite her looking no more powerful than a throw-rug. However, it's more characteristic for female heroines, even those who do not specialize in combat, to meet a median standard for buffed fitness and facial attractiveness. And just as male musculature can be exaggerated to a level of grotesquerie, the same is true for the fatty secondary sexual characteristics of female characters, usually with hilarious results. Still, despite such overindulgences, the majority of heroes and heroines in the action-adventure genres tend more toward the "Golden Mean" of attractiveness as opposed to the extremes. And this level of objectivization, like the type practiced in the romance-genre, exists to facillitate reader-participation of a certain level.

The most hackneyed critique of such objectivization is that it supposedly dilutes the ability of audiences to perceive the real world in all of its homely, messy normality. Of course, it would seem to be highly debateable as to whether "normality" is a virtue when it is the aim of a given work to depict a fantastic world where it is quite reasonable, on the fantasy's own terms, for all princes to be handsome and all princesses beautiful (and sometimes busty, in the case of warrior-princesses like Xena). If one granted that exception, then maybe the "dilution" argument would work better with respect only to works taking place in a more "realistic" cosmos. However, I don't even think the objectification charge sticks in such less fantastic realms. I see the tendency to standardize attractivness that one that is rooted in an inescapeable narrative requirements: in the need to convince a wide cross-section of audience-members as to the characters' desireability. This requirement can be satirized or circumvented in certain works that have different objectives, but for the works that desire a basic level of reader-participation, it would seem to be instrumental.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

MYTHS WITHOUT FANTASY




The following analysis was a messageboard response to the imputation that all myths, literary or otherwise, had to involve "fantastical, larger-than-life heroism or villainy:"

...I haven't actually checked dictionaries to see if any of them employ this definition, but I would certainly say that "larger than life" is a colloquial meaning of "mythic." This has ramifications for one of my specialized definitions of mythicity, since I defined myth in terms of "emotional tonality." Following Cassirer, who offers the term "tonality" in this sense, I would say that "mythic emotion" manifests more strongly where the fictive representations have a larger-than-life quality, and I think that can be shown by contrasting two famous comic-strips that belong to the same subgenre. Additionally, though both are "cartoonish" and exaggerated, neither has explicit fantasy, or heroes & villains as such.

BLONDIE and BRINGING UP FATHER are my choices. Both belong to the subgenre I would call "the perplexed paterfamilias," in which the bulk of the humor is the repeated humiliations of the male breadwinner. In the case of McManus' Jiggs in BUF, he's a lower-class guy who's been catapulted into high-class life, with the consquence that his social-climbing wife Maggie is constantly nagging and abusing him to become more refined.

Dagwood, the real star of BLONDIE, is on the other hand permanently stuck in the middle-class rat-race, but his sufferings are, if anything, far more exaggerated than those of Jiggs. Slapstick violence, found in both strips, is amped up to an often-bizarre level in Chic Young's BLONDIE (which bears little or no resemblance to the milkwater strip that runs today). Of course both strips also used a fair amount of simple verbal humor as well, but I think both are best known for slapsticky shenanigans: Jiggs getting thumped about by his harridan wife, or Dagwood being harried by his boss, his neighbors, his children or his wife (though Blondie usually confined her abuse to nagging, rather than violence).

The crux of the difference between these two similar strips, IMO, is that Jiggs' humiliations are more particularized, and so less "mythic." BUF is probably the better drawn and written strip of the two, but though Jiggs has some "universal" aspects (otherwise no one could relate to him), his sufferings are fairly unique to his situation.

Chic Young's Dagwood, in contrast, is EveryHusband-- or maybe EveryGoat, since far more than Charlie Brown he is the Goat of the World, constantly under attack by someone out to aggravate or humiliate him. Occasionally he brings these sufferings on himself but more often than not he's just the "schlemozzel," the guy that things always happen to. If then one accepted that "mythicity" could be equated with "emotions of a larger-than-life character," then I would say that a demonstration of Dagwood's superior Goathood would make him a more mythic character than Jiggs, even though none of their adventures involve either "fantasy" or "heroes & villains."

Friday, December 7, 2007

LINUS THE RAIN KING


With the idea of preserving some of the insights I've tossed out on messboards, here's one pertaining to a simple-seeming but strongly mythic sequence in the PEANUTS comic strip, circa mid-1960s, which appeared in the Peanuts collection PEANUTS EVERY SUNDAY.

Here's the story:

STRIP ONE: Linus & Charlie Brown stand in an open field while rain starts coming down: CB is wearing a baseball hat & glove. CB walks away, complaining that the rain interrupts every time you want to do something. Alone, Linus recites the well-known "Rain rain go away" chant. The rain stops. Shocked, Linus runs home and tells Lucy, "Hide me" in the last panel.

STRIP TWO: It's raining again as Linus leads Lucy outside to show her what he can do. He chants the words again, and even Lucy is startled by the rain coming to a halt. Linus gets hysterical: "Do you think I'm a demon? Do you think they'll stone me? I DON'T WANNA BE STONED!" Lucy calms him down and asserts that they have to wait for it to rain one more time, to be sure that the rain-stopping isn't just coincidence. (Apparently she's a believer in "the third time's the charm!") The strip ends with another gag.

STRIP THREE: While they wait, Linus continues to worry about being thought a demon, and Lucy assures him that science will find some use for him. Charlie Brown wanders up, giving Lucy the chance to explain to him (and any readers coming in late) what's going on. The rain starts. Lucy urges Linus to "say the words," and then yells at him, flustering him. Linus utters a mangled-up version of "Rain rain go away," and the strip ends with the three kids being drenched in a torrent of rain, as Lucy calls Linus a "blockhead."

Now, a Christian critic might make this little tale into a meditation on false gods or hidden talents or other themes. I don't think it's that allegorical. However, I also don't think Schulz' well-documented knowledge of Christian themes is entirely irrelevant, either. There's no doubt that Schulz's overriding purpose is to make his readers laugh, even as a superhero artist's purpose is to give thrills and chills. But humor and mythicity are not mutually exclusive, and here the humor proceeds from the notion of a mundane little boy finding himself in a very mythic situation, sans any guidance apart from Lucy's dubious help.

Most probably Schulz rooted the idea in a commonplace fantasy-- how many kids and adults alike have wanted the power to bid halt to an inconvenient rainfall? But it doesn't remain a commonplace fantasy in Schulz's world, which is what lends it the quality of mythicity. Linus' anguish about being thought a demon, while comic, is nonetheless a logical extrapolation of his mythic situation.

The seasoned PEANUTS reader knows that the situation is funny because Linus is not a demon and Schulz is not going to let him be stoned. However, that reader also knows that were this sort of miracle to occur in his world, stoning is not an unlikely outcome for anyone who seemed to arrogate to himself the powers of dat ol' storm-god Yahweh. Somehow, to get back to the status quo, Schulz must undo one mythic situation with another. This he does by having Linus mangle his magic words, essentially "un-saying" them. Since the reader has accepted the author's ability to confer this unexplained power on Linus, he accepts just as readily the author indirectly stating (through Lucy) that once Linus has blown the "third time" test, that was his last chance to prove the power real: thus the whole arbitrary rain-stopping power goes away and everything's back to normal.

Although-- no, don't even get me started on the blanket.

STATE(MENT) OF THE UNIFICATION THEORY

As with many blogs mine starts with the desire to set down assorted thoughts and/or ideas. My primary reason for doing so is to keep them in an easily-accessible form, though of course I’m open for comment as well.

My basic posture is what has been called a “myth critic” or “archetypal critic.” I subscribe to the idea that literature in all its modes and media-manifestations is essentially homologous in form (if not function) with archaic myth/ folklore. There are differences that can be explored as well, but I find the similarities to be of greater importance.

Most of the essays and articles that I’ve had published in assorted magazines have concerned popular media like films and comic books. This blog can in theory allow me to deal with pretty much any sort of fictional narrative, whether deemed “high” or “low” by the more repressive representatives of academia. (Whether I actually will or not remains to be seen.)

One of the themes I hope to explore is what I call “mythic complexity,” which I derive from an almost-offhand statement made by Northrop Frye, often considered the ancestor of all literary theories that stress literature’s continuity with myth:

“Archetypes are associative clusters, and differ from signs in being complex variables.”—ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, p. 102

At this point I won’t go into talking about what Frye calls “signs,” which is a term he loosely derived from early writings on semiology. The essential thought here is that there is a hierarchy between simple and complex manifestations of the units of communication—whatever one chooses to call them—that make up a narrative. Frye doesn’t go into great depth in terms of using “complex variables” as a means of evaluating how well a narrative communicates, but it’s a centerpiece of my theory. Often, in the critique of popular artforms, I have seen any number of complex symbolic formations show up in narratives that are, on the surface, apparently simple, as are most of the myth-stories in the handed-down forms that we have them. This appearance of the complex within the apparently-simple convinces me that even these variables that we call “archetypes” have a propensity to generate themselves, at times without the conscious intent of the author. The poet William Butler Years, commenting on the poetry of Blake, said:

“It is the charm of mythic narrative that it cannot tell one thing without telling a hundred others. The symbols are an endless inter-marrying family. They give life to what, stated in general terms, appears only a cold truism, by hinting how the apparent simplicity of the statement is due to an artificial isolation of a fragment, which, in its natural place, is connected with all the infinity of truths by living fibres.”

Most stories in the popular vein also appear at a glance to sustain themselves on mere truisms: good conquers evil, etc. And there are some stories that offer little beyond truisms, as they are made up of nothing more than (so to speak) “simple variables.” But for others the apparent truisms are window-dressing for more important matters of myth and symbol, and to proving that theory I dedicate this blog.