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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...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


""A living thing desires above all to vent its strength—life as such is will to power— self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent consequences of it."-- Friedrich Nietzsche, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, Part 1, section 13.

"Human life... is composed of two heterogenous parts that never blend. One part is purposeful, given significance by utilitarian and therefore secondary ends; this part is the one we are aware of. The other is primary and sovereign; it may arise when the other is out of gear; it is obscure, or else blindingly clear; either way it evades the grasp of our aware intelligence"-- Georges Bataille, EROTISM, p. 193.

"In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation"-- Bataille, EROTISM, p. 16.

In THYMOS Part 1 I took issue with Noah Berlatsky's express opinion that aesthetic perceptions were rooted in desire; in what Socrates (according to Plato) called eros. I took the contrary positions that eros is not complex enough to explain the multifarous dynamizations offered by the many varieties of human art, and that if art is rooted in any human mental category it would be the one Socrates/Plato called thymos. I will be examining thymos here less in the terms of the philosophers who used it most-- Plato, Hegel, and more modern thinkers like Kojeve and Fukuyama-- than to address the systems of the above-cited Nietzsche and Bataille. Though these two philosophers did not address the concept of thymos in any organized way, both of them had more pertinent things to say about how human beings create art and what it means when they encode real-life aspects of kinetic experience-- particularly sex and violence-- into art. (I should perhaps specify "narrative art," since that's the only kind I'll be writing on.)

I'll start out by giving a simple example as to how one's nous (reason) can make distinctions between eros and thymos. Say that a man has desire for a woman, and succeeds in satisfying that desire. If the man boasts about the encounter later, it is not the desire itself of which he boasts, for the desire has been satisfied, or at least satiated. What he boasts of is the accomplishment of having persuaded the woman to have sex. This accomplishment validates the man's sense of self-esteem, and thus falls under the category of thymos, as described by the Socratic example cited earlier.

The lack of a principle that approximates thymos is one of the many problems with Freudian psychology, which, as mentioned before, is limited by its overdependence on a rigid dichotomy between a "pleasure principle" and a "reality principle." The citations from Nietzsche and Bataille above also propose dichotomies of human nature, but theirs are considerably less rigid and more subtle in nature, thus allowing for an interpreter (like me) to see ways in which the question of the self-esteem dynamization can be discerned within their systems, particularly Bataille's.

Both, it will be noted, propose a principle of human nature more or less like Freud's "reality principle," though Nietzsche's "self-preservation" principle predates Freud while Bataille's "purposeful, utilitarian principle" postdates Big Sigmund. Arguably in many works Nietzsche is not much less rigid than Freud, though he is certainly the deeper thinker, but Bataille, influenced by both of them, arguably took the best both had to offer while grounding their insights in greater knowledge of then-current ethnography and anthropology.

Significantly, where Freud merely imagines an airy, delusory "pleasure principle" as the opposing force to grim reality, Nietzsche sees "the venting of strength" as being the primary goal of life, as opposed to simply keeping one's body in a safe posture of self-preservation. Bataille's EROTISM does not speak so much of "will to power" as the temptation to transgress the "utilitarian" limits of ordinary life. This is why, in his second cited quote, he equates "eroticism" and "violence," which is an equation I do not agree with though Bataille's case for the equivalence is nevertheless more subtle and meaningful than Freud's.

Bataille's primary insight for literary criticism is the image he uses to present eroticism and violence as equivalent phenomena: "sensuous frenzy" (p. 192). Whether this adequately describes real-life sex and violence does not matter for the purposes of literary criticism, but I suggest that Bataillean "frenzy" does describe how fictional sex and violence impact upon the majority of readers. Bataille doesn't substantially address literature in EROTISM, except for the sensualized violence-scenarios presented by the Marquis de Sade, but elsewere he makes the trope of "transgression against the norm" his hallmark, so I feel secure in adapting his terms for the purpose of literary criticism.

What EROTISM makes clear is that even though one may be experiencing fantasies of sex and/or violence through an intellectualized medium (Plato's "copy of a copy"), this is still the essence of a human (as opposed to animal) activity. He does not, as noted before, directly relate this to the subject of thymos, but because fiction is not the "real thing," is not eros in the raw, it is closer to the nature of thymos in the same way that the sexual conqueror's boast, his tall tale of sexual conquest, represents thymotic rather than erotic stimulation.

Now, even though fictional sex and violence share this quality of "sensuous frenzy," one must not ignore the differences between them. In this essay I found fault with Wertham for choosing to interpret fictional comic-book violence as a source of sexual sadism. This half-baked interpretation overlooked the fact that for many readers of (say) Superman comics, as well as creator Jerry Siegel, the matter of crime was not some unreal phenomenon. Faulty intellectuals like Freud and Wertham are usually inattentive to the real forces of violence with which less sheltered humans, particularly male humans, are obliged to contend, and so such poor thinkers fall back on fallacious analyses relating violence to-- well, phallicism.

My essays on sadism dealt with many of these stillborn conceptions, so I probably won't go over the same ground again unless a fresh subject comes to the fore. But knowing the quality of a lot of comics-criticism today, I probably won't have to wait long.

1 comment:

Gene Phillips said...

Hah, less than one day passed before I thought of a perfect contemporary example of a BNCB (Big Name Comics Blogger) blurring the distinctions between sex and violence in a simplistic way. But it'll have to wait till after the holidays--