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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...

Friday, August 22, 2008


In a recent issue of Kapa-alpha (that's an apazine, for those of you who don't know that before there were messageboards, there were snail-mail versions of same called "apas"), another member expressed dubiousness regarding my search for "complexities in simple entertainment forms." After writing a reply appropriate to that venue, I decided to expand my remarks for this one.

First, it's true that I as much as anyone have seen my share of pretentious, overdetermined essay about such alleged complexities. Naturally I don't think my approach suffers from such faults. One failing of which I don't think I'm guilty is what I call the "thematic fallacy," in which in a critic tries to impose a theme statement on a given work, as if every artist crafted his works with a specific didactic message in mind. It's true that one can generally find some rhetorical appeal in even the most "escapist" fare-- see Wayne Booth's RHETORIC OF FICTION for a good discussion of the "go thou and do likewise" element in fiction. However, both high and low literary works often have more in their medium than just the message.

To take a high literary example first, it's true that the novel MOBY DICK contains the message "it is wrong to obsess over one's misfortune," but it would be foolish to consider that partial message the "theme statement" of the novel. One can find ample quotes in the book to support the notion that Melville also admires Ahab's obsessive questing after truth, if not necessarily his method, making the "message" more than a little mixed. If one wished to see the problems inherent in a translation that does choose to boil a work down to a theme statement, one would only have to screen the John Huston/Ray Bradbury film of MOBY DICK should , which thoroughly misunderstands the metaphysical side of Ahab's quest and focuses only the morally prescriptive view.

The same is true for "low" works of literature, which I've defined in an earlier essay as being centered primarily upon fantasies of wish-fulfillment. The Frankfurt School chose to define some if not all of such fantasies as stratagems for controlling the populace while Doc Wertham interpreted crime, horror and superhero comics as advertisements for a cultus of fascist violence ("I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry"). Whether one chooses to believe these two interpretations as fundamentally separate or as simply two stalks that share the same root is immaterial: both are attempts to force a spectrum of works to fit into a dogmatic declaration as to thematic meaning.

On a side-note, I'll observe that my approach--related to that of Frye and Campbell-- has often been accused of the sin of "symbol-hunting:" of trying to spot mythic symbols amid the diegetic makeup of this or that work. However, Marxist-influenced critics are usually no less involved in the hunt for symbols. It's merely that they have a narrower, more blinkered view of what to look for, as theirs is a continual search for "tools of oppression" and "fetish commodities."

Now, if someone asked me how my approach is fundamentally different from those critics whom *I* consider pretentious and overdetermined, I would say I have a much better handle on the aspect of fiction that a character from Joyce, probably following the example of Epicurus, termed the *kinetic.* To oversimplify the argument for my purposes, this would be the pure sensory appeal of literature in any medium: the semi-voyeuristic allure of experiencing the lives, conflicts, romances and emotional upheavals of other living beings (mostly but not exclusively human beings). It is, Joyce's character Stephen Dedalus tells us, everything that causes us to be attracted to or repelled by aspects of the story.

In my essay on Ursula LeGuin I admitted that it's almost impossible to say anything about potential meanings of a fictional story without falling into didactic statements: "THE DARK KNIGHT is about the struggle to remain moral in an immoral world." But this sort of statement could be applied to dozens of other works high and low, from CANDIDE to MOTHER COURAGE. With high literature one is a little more justified in making sweeping theme statements than with its low kindred, for I for one define "high" and "low" not in terms of value but in terms of their closeness to the kinetic foundations of literature. Low literature is "low" because its appeal to the visceral always comes first. Symbolic complexities do appear in it, but they may do so more erratically than in the higher works, given the privileging of the visceral over the intellectual. Still, even if the "high" artist is perhaps more adept than the "low" one in terms of organizing the rhetorical elements of fiction, it's still a mistake to say that the high artist loses all sense of his characters as visceral beings: that the theme, whether implicit or explicit, is more important than the audience's feeling of kinetically experiencing the author's fictive creations.

It's been a long time since I read any Heidegger, but based on some recent secondary readings (like that aforementioned Jung book I keep meaning to review) I would say that my Joyce-derived-and-Jung-influenced view of the kinetic may bear some kinship with Heidegger's concept of embodiment, of being-in-the-world. With this concept Heidegger seems focused on the notion that human beings often face the temptation of becoming too abstracted from experiential reality, and that "being-in-the-world," being concerned with the immediacies of life, provides a balance against over-intellectualization (which is not to say anti-intellectual, though some have made that accustation). And at a time when even reviewers of THE DARK KNIGHT are perhaps a little too eager to stamp a "simple entertainment form" like TDK with all sorts of self-important theme statements, a little attention to the lasting appeal of the visceral might provide a little analytical balance.

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