Friday, May 29, 2009

GRAND ALLUSIONS

At the end of this essay I mentioned a messboard-poster who had misunderstood me in that he assumed that all it took to create mythicity was to quote assorted archaic myths. It's a common enough misapprehension. I recently re-read John J. White's MYTHOLOGY IN THE MODERN NOVEL (1971) and was surprised that his only criterion for "modern myths" were specific references to archaic figures and situations.

Clearly this is not the approach of Northrop Frye or any other myth-critic with whom I'm familiar. If, as mentioned elsewhere, Frye posited that American "apocalyptic" SF tales owe some debt to flood-myths, he doesn't necessarily assume the primacy of the flood from the Old Testament in the minds of the writers, even though that would probably be the particular flood-myth most Americans encountered as children. Building on Jung's concept of archetypes, Fryean theory would allow for the possibility of a writer having duplicated archetypal imagery without exposure to any particular flood-myths whatsoever.


My concept of mythicity, further, is determined not by mere allusions but by symbolic complexity. And as I wrote in the previous essay, I do think that Oscar Bensol's reference to the Greek Icarus has the effect of making his "Icy Harris" coeval with other "overreacher" figures in myth. The effect is thus to generalize rather than particularize.


Here's an example of a particular allusion that doesn't lead one to anything greater:


That Jack Kirby's "Ikaris" is a reference to the classical Icarus is beyond debate. However, having reread the original Kirby ETERNALS some time ago, I could find nothing particularly "mythic" about the Kirby hero himself, even if there were other aspects of the saga that did register on my "mythicity meter." Classical Icarus flew: Kirby's Ikaris flies. That's about it.
Most of the uses of specific myth-names in ETERNALS are pretty much as superficial: "Sersi," "Makkari," "Zuras," and "Thena." Here the more generalized references are more effective: here the Celestials mime the basic function of the "watcher-angels" found in various Judeo-Christian sources, but played out against a conflict of genetically-produced "lesser gods." I got the impression this is the mythic theme Kirby might've wanted to tap into with his earlier concept on the same theme, THE INHUMANS, but that either he hadn't quite found the right direction or couldn't sell it to Stan Lee.
In many respects what I call a "null-myth" is an empty allusion to something that the author thinks will grab the reader's attention quickly, but without any insight into the content of the original thing.
More on this later.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

INTERROGATING ICY HARRIS

Years ago, when I was discussing the application of symbolism to comic books with a friend, said friend said something like, "But that's not what I think I think of as a SYMBOL." Asked what she did think one was, she responded, "Something like Moby Dick, or the Scarlet Letter..."


While I can understand that this is the way a lot of U.S. students learn about symbolism in their high-school lit-classes (since I probably got the same introduction), it's certainly incorrect to think that a symbol has to be something Big and Important, much less something exclusively from works of Canonical Literature. If there can be any aspects of symbolism that can be codified into a "law" of linguistics or psychology in the manner that we speak of the "laws" of biology, then one would expect said that "law of symbolism" to apply to high and low alike, just as any "law of biology" applies as much to a barnacle as to a blue whale.


And speaking of barnacles, here are a pair o' parasites for consideration:





The one on the left should be familiar to most comics-cognoscenti, as it's perennial Superman villain The Parasite, created by Jim Shooter for ACTION COMICS #340 (August 1966). Shooter's Parasite starts life as a lab technician named Jensen who gained, thanks to exposure to hazardous waste products, the power to draw power and/or abilities from other living organisms. In his inaugural story he found that he could become almost as powerful as the Man of Steel by stealing the hero's super-powers, but he got greedy, sapping far more power than even his mutated body could sustain, so that he was blown to atoms. In the comics, this fate did not stop the villain from returning for more go-rounds with his Kryptonian adversary and others.

The second parasite, however, suffered a parallel but more final fate, appearing just in one episode of THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, titled "The Pernicious Parasite" in December 1966. The scripter, one Oscar Bensol, rang in a few minor changes: this parasite is a crook who breaks into a lab and gets mutated, and even after his transformation he remains an ordinary-looking fellow. But scripter Bensol changes one other thing in an interesting manner, for now the villain's original name became "Icy Harris."

Though the original Shooter tale gave fans a new and durable villain, it didn't do anything more than that. Though Jim Shooter had a penchant back then and in later works for tossing out references to myth and legend in his characters, the original Shooter Parasite meets my criterion for a null-myth: one where any mythopoeic characteristics remain merely potential. One might have drawn parallels between the Parasite, a minor science-fictional villain, and numerous figures from Greek myth who aspire to take on the powers of the gods and are destroyed because they are mortals, too weak to assimilate godly powers. Some of these figures include characters who directly aspire to godly powers, as do Bellerophon and Phaeton, and some simply go beyond the proper boundaries of what men can do...

Like Icarus, who, given wings by his father Daedalus, used them to fly too near the sun, so that the wax binding the wings melted and he fell to his death.

Back in the essay "Political Potty" I said:

'the presence of mythicity is not in the least dependent on whether it proceeds from the conscious mind or from what is better called the "subconscious."'

When I recently re-watched the Bensol-scripted SUPERMAN cartoon, I noticed the obvious myth-reference: "Icarus" clearly became "Icy Harris." I do not know anything about Oscar Bensol except that he wrote a lot of Superman and Aquaman cartoons for Filmation in the 1960s. The name could be a nom de plume for practically anyone: it could be a pen-name for Jim Shooter himself, for all I know. But what I find interesting about this mythopoeic nugget is the fact that it's hidden away in a minor cartoon like a DVD's "Easter egg," but in such a way that no one in the original TV show-audience was likely to pick up on it (certainly I did not, and I was a member of the original audience). The myth-reference may have been a private joke on the part of the author, or he may have been entirely unaware that he had so refurbished a name from classical myth into modern terms.

But here is the nub of the argument: whether the name "Icy Harris" was formulated consciously or subconsciously, it remains a valid mythologem, because it displayed a poetic insight-- however minor-- into the type of "mythicity" underlying the figure of the Parasite, a supervillainous version of the classic "overreacher."

And though this sort of mythologem is a minor one next to a White Whale or a Scarlet Letter, it is as governed by laws of literary formation as both barnacles and whales are governed by laws of biology.

But, as one messboard querent once asked me, "Does that mean that all it takes to make a 'myth' is to reference a myth?" The short answer would be "not in the least," while the long one will take another essay at very least.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE, AND MAYBE THE NEGATIVE TOO

Toward the end of old PU, FJ gives readers a lengthy quote from Paul Ricoeur, of which I'll copy only the essential bits:

"At one pole, hermeneutics is understood as the manifestation and restoration of a meaning addressed to me in the manner of a message... according to the other pole, it is understood as a demystification, as a reduction of illusion... Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen..."

In the next paragraph Jameson cavils at the religious rhetoric of Ricoeur (which I've left out, and which gives me some problems as well, though they're not the same as Jameson's). Jameson asserts that because Ricoeur's "conception of 'positive' meaning" is "modeled on the act of communication between individual subjects," it's useless to the anti-individualistic Political Unconscious except as a rough model from which to conceive some sort of "positive hermeneutic" that *does* fall in line with Marxist dialectic (which conception Jameson doesn't pull off, IMO).

Not surprisingly, all this talk about positive and negative hermeneutics (last mention for that fifty-dollar word) brings to mind what I quoted from David Sandner here, on the different perspectives of fantasy-world creation as practiced by Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien. Sandner called these artistic approaches "emptiness" and "fullness" respectively, but he could just as well have spoken of "absence" and "presence" as Jameson does in his critique of Frye.

Archaic myth, even more than literature, concerns the presence of the phenomena early man witnessed, as well as accounting for the absence of things early man could only imagine (a time when mankind was not subject to death, for example). The former schema may well be seen as a "positive" conception of phenomena-- "this river is here because God X did thus and so"-- while the latter schema is negative in its structure; "man is no longer immortal because God X didn't do what he was supposed to do." Literature doesn't approach questions of presence and absence in the same fashion as myth does, but the Sandner example suggests considerable overlap between the two forms.

Underlying both of these schemas are emotional *dynamizations.* Human beings are perhaps just as equally dynamized by breaking things down as by building them up: of showing the will to suspect as much (or more) than the will to listen. I hinted at the dichotomy here:

"...if one looks one can find both tendencies in the works of both authors, as I'm sure Sandner knew. I think Sandner's correct in seeing that both authors tended to dwell on one tendency more than the other, and it may be that much of what any reader favors tends more toward one tendency than the other-- be it the Beatles vs. the Stones or (to name a personal preference) the Hernandez Brothers vs. Daniel Clowes."

To illustrate how these distinct dynamizations play out with comics-authors as distinct in their ways as were Carroll and Tolkien, here's how Daniel Clowes views the topic of nostalgia in this 1999 interview with the online magazine HERMENAUT:

'Actually, although I think about stuff from my own childhood a lot, things I haven't seen in years, all I have to do is see the thing once and I'm cured of it. I've recently bought video tapes of cartoons I hadn't seen since I was four or five years old, and I'm enthralled by them exactly one time, by this feeling of "Wow, this is what I was so interested in?" My memory had turned them into something much more fascinating than they actually were.'

The dynamization here, of being "cured" of a nostalgic impulse, falls in line with the schema suggesting absence: the remembered thing is shown to be emptier than one thought, and it may be that there is a certain dynamization gleaned from this "is that all there is" reaction.

Contrast this to a nostalgic reverie from the three Brothers Hernandez v.2, #10 (2004), wherein Jaime, Mario and Gilbert all celebrate the fullness of their recollections of the trash and treasures of their early comics-collecting days. Remarks include:

JAIME on ZAP COMICS 0: ""Crumb covered every form of comic storytelling in one issue."

GILBERT on Elias' BLACK CAT: "sexy superheroics from a student of the Caniff school."

MARIO on LOIS LANE #48: "A book-length masterpiece."

Plainly, whatever flaws the Hernandezes (probably) see in these mementoes of their childhoods, the works don't lose the dynamizing qualities they formerly possessed, as Clowes' mementoes apparently do for him.

Neither POV is "wrong," naturally. Tastes are what they are, and as the Ricoeur quote asserts, human beings do need both mental approaches at varying times in both life and literary criticism.

The eternal problem, of course, is knowing--

Which times are the right times for suspicion--

And which are the right ones for listening.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

SOCIETAL MEMBER? OR-- SOCIAL DISEASE?

If I'd never read Fredric Jameson's POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS (completed this week), I could probably have deduced most of his critiques of Northrop Frye specifically or myth-criticism generally, just from the fact of his being a Marxist. In contrast with most Marxist critics of popular culture, who toss around terms like "commodity fetish" the way a sexual fetishist brandishes his toys-of-choice, Jameson's critique of Frye seems to meet one of the criteria I mentioned earlier: that any successful critic of Frye would have to be at least as well read as the founder of myth-criticism. However, given that the "political unconscious" resultant from Marxist analyses is the ground of all of Jameson's criticisms, his litany of complaints against myth-criticism will sound pretty familiar with all those who have struggled through COMICS JOURNAL's dominant Frankfurterisms.

You gotcher your attempted refutation of any "positive hermeneutics" that sound too religious (Frye, Ricoeur), though a'course Marxist "negative hermeneutics" are OK even when they incorporate religious motifs? CHECK, p. 285: "any comparison of Marxism with religion is a two-way street, in which the former is not necessarily discredited by its association with the latter."

You gotcher your stigmatization of the narrative opposition of good and evil found in the romance-adventure genre, though naturally when fairy tales or comedies do the same thing it's conveniently overlooked because they're not upper-class? CHECK, pages 115 for the first ("the concept of good and evil is a positional one that coincides with categories of Otherness") and pages 141-42 for the second, ("The materials of comedy, however, are not the ethical oppositions... of its generic opposite.") [Yeah, tell it to Malvolio.]

And finally, you gotcher your usual assertion that adventure-heroes are all violent stooges for a repressive upper class, but ALSO a Harvey Kurtzman-like attempt to make said heroes seem bereft of any forceful characterization? CHECK, page 118 ("Romance... may be understood as an imaginary 'solution' to... the perplexing question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil") and then page 113 for the second, where we're told heroes like Yvain and Parzival reap "the rewards of cosmic victory without ever having quite been aware of what was at stake in the first place."

Faced with all these commonplace Marxist maunderings, I'm tempted to cite again Frye's distinctions between primary and secondary concerns, which ideologues never deal with, but actually, the most important question that arises from the myth vs. ideology debate could be phrased to the naive reader thusly:

Are you, reader, totally defined by what society made of you, making you a cell in the body politic (and thus easy to eject when diseased), or are you defined also by elements not reducible to the sociological matrix?

Since I've championed the four functions of Joseph Campbell as my own "positive hermeneutic," I certainly cleave toward the latter self-definition. It's clear to me that even if all aspects of my being are formed by contingent factors, the idea that all of those factors culminate in an "unconscious" that has class politics at its root is a laugh riot.

Perhaps Jameson could have mounted a better critique of Frye and other myth-critics if he had dedicated the book only to that: as it is, his critique fails because he only picks seemingly-random elements of Frye's works to refute, apparently concerned more with apppropriating the concept of "the unconscious" from Freud and Jung in order to give it a Marxist makeover. But I do like the way he reveals the barrenness of his own "negative hermeneutic" when he takes issue with Frye's use of the term "epiphany:"

"...it suggests that in the secularized and reified world of modern capitalism, epiphany is possible as a positive event, as the revelation of presence. But if epiphany itself is a mirage" [Note: Frye never says this] "then the most authentic vocation of romance in our time would be... its capacity, by absence and silence of the form itself, to express that ideology of desacralization by which modern thinkers from Weber to the Frankfurt School have sought to convey their sense of the radical impoverishment and constriction of modern life." (p. 135)

It's certainly amusing to see yet another example of Jameson's Janus-faced turnings: first romance as romance is stigmatized as a means to trod down The Other, but turn around and it can be semantically re-interpreted as "absence" rather than "presence" so that it seems to express the "desacralization" which is certainly the fault of the Ruling Class, looming above us like the Giant on the Beanstalk looming over downtrodden Jack.

In other words, Marxist class-consciousness was not made for man; man was made for Marxist class-consciousness. And the feeling of meaning-- which is what Joycean epiphany is, apart from whether God's behind it or not-- cannot be in itself a "positive event," but can only serve The Will of the Sociopolitical Unconscious.

Friday, May 15, 2009

POLITICAL POTTY

I continue to read FJ's PU, and am finding it tedious whenever he parses arguments with fellow Marxists like Lukacs and Althusser. Despite Jameson's conviction that Marxist theory offers a gauge of reality that supersedes any other methodological approaches to literature, the fine points of such theory are about as relevant to life as debates about how many angels can dance on Zippy the Pinhead.

So far the book only takes fire whenever Jameson tries to claim territory from myth-critics like Frye and structuralists like Levi-Strauss. His attempts to appropriate mythic material on behalf of ideology are cunningly phrased, which puts Jameson above the tedious "spawn of Frankfurt" from THE COMICS JOURNAL, but his proofs are just as riddled with fallacies and superficial thinking.

The book's title, POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS, is meant to appropriate on behalf of Marxist theory the notion of a psychological "unconscious" that literary studies inherited from Big Daddy Freud. By the same token, all hermeutical systems that center upon factors of individual "desire" (Bataille, Deleuze) are mistaken precisely because they focus on the individual rather than the social. In a similar vein it's amusing to see Jameson try to replace Levi-Strauss' concept of the "mythologem"-- a term Levi-Strauss meant to define a "unit" of mythological narrative equivalent to a phoneme in linguistics-- with the clunky Marxist term "ideologem," with the assumption that Marxist ideology is just that all-encompassing a hermeneutic.

As an example of Jameson's evasive argumentation, we have his attempt to dismiss myth criticism, not even with his own argument, but with that of another scholar:

"To such allegories of desire, indeed, may be applied Norman Holland's powerful critique of myth criticism as a whole, about which he observes that it works only if we have been told the work is mythic ahead of time, the unquestionable 'resonance' of the mythic rewriting presupposing not the operation of some mythic unconscious, but rather our own preliminary conscious 'set' around the reading in question."

I don't know what logical proofs Holland offered for this opinion in the cited work, but I'll assume that they're of a piece with those of Jameson, who took exception to Frye's supposed indiscriminate championing of "resonance" in pop culture.

Now, what objects of pop culture did Northrop Frye champion? His references to it in his signature 1957 work ANATOMY OF CRITICISM are exceedingly general, but at one point he remarks (and I paraphrase) that science fiction uses many of the motifs of myth, particularly in stories about the earth undergoing some great deluge or upheaval. But in 1957 I don't believe any influential voices were speaking on behalf of science fiction as being "modern mythology," as noted in this much later essay. Thus on the face of it the Holland-Jameson assertion is nonsense. By their lights, Frye could not consider a given SF work to be mythic because no one previous to him, be it other academics or the genre's reading public, had been told "ahead of time" that the work was mythic.

Clearly Jameson is trying to "de-mythologize" myth criticism with much the same strategy one might use to "de-mythologize" an actual myth. But whereas there might be some justification for speculating as to how a myth is created for and received by its audience, no myth critic is trying to claim that a literary work with myth-like qualities operates in precisely the same way as an actual myth. One may agree or disagree as to whether a modern work possesses "resonance" (or what I call, in a similar vein, "mythicity"), but the attempt to analyze the presence of resonance is quite independent of some outside agency having told the critic "ahead of time" that the work is mythic.

As for the "operation of some mythic unconscious," I can't speak for the late Professor Frye, but for me the presence of mythicity is not in the least dependent on whether it proceeds from the conscious mind or from what is better called the "subconscious." As I showed in my rebuttal of Steven Grant's essay, there's no reason to think that mythic material is only properly mythic as long as it remains subconscious. Indeed, even where a mythic association is clearly earmarked as a conscious product of the artist's mind (like Melville's many meditations on whales and leviathans), one cannot discount the possibility that the conscious reference sprung from a subconscious association that has been given conscious articulation, just as Joseph Campbell asserted that it might.

I'll be discussing this in more detail in a future essay: "Interrogating Icy Harris."

Monday, May 11, 2009

SAW BOTH WOLVERINE AND TREK

...And it's interesting that here we have two movies, both re-interpreting franchises that began in continuing-serial formats for the purpose of intermittent-serial films. where both original franchises were very continuity-intensive.

The approaches of the two new films are essentially opposite to one another. While the X-MEN film franchise never did follow closely the continuity of the X-comics, once the first film established its own take on the mutants, that take then became canon with the scope of the films. Thus WOLVERINE is a fill-in-the-blank tale that establishes what happened with the character before he debuted in the X-films. The results are modestly enjoyable but not particularly inspired: I'll be surprised if WOLVERINE makes very many "best superhero film" lists.

J.J. Abrams' STAR TREK, though, goes out of its way to acknowledge the canon created by the continuing TV-serials and the intermittent bigscreen movies, and then subverts that canon by creating a new "timeline" which effectively gets the "Abramsverse" out from under the huge weight of TREK continuity built up by pioneer Roddenberry and his crew, and then continued (some would say run into the ground) by Rick Berman and his crew.

My main qualm about the new Abrams franchise, though, is that I question whether Abrams can wrap his mind around a science-fictional theme that doesn't involve crashing planets and messed-up timelines. I had little love for the reliance on technobabble seen in the Bermanverse, but the Abramsverse goes to the other extreme, giving us what is basically a thriller with SF elements that garnish it, like those ALIAS episodes where Sydney had to chase around after some super-doohickey or other.

Of couse, Abrams may not stick with the franchise as a director, and so there may be wiggle room for someone to build on his ideas and incorporate more of the best Roddenberry motifs-- perhaps in the way Louis Letterier made a better HULK movie by building on what Ang Lee established, and then cross-pollinating elements from the comic and TV series.

I give both WOLVERINE and TREK both a rating of "fair."

Friday, May 8, 2009

IDEOLOGICAL READINGS ARE FOR P*SSIES

I mentioned last post that I'd just finished Sandner's FANTASTIC LITERATURE, but there was one excerpt I left off reading because I decided that if I was refute it in all fairness, I'd have to read the whole book. That excerpt was from THE POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS (1981), by Marxist litcritic Fredric Jameson. I have started it today and am already wryly amused by his insistence that a "properly Marxist interpretive act" will take priority over all other interpretive methods-- "the ethical, the psychoanalytic, the myth-critical," and so on.

I'm amused because although every critic of substance WILL inevitably argue why his system is best, Jameson's approach is the ideologically-minded inverse of Northrop Frye's opening chapter in his 1957 classic ANATOMY OF CRITICISM. In said chapter Frye argues that critics need an awareness of literature as literary structure before interpreting literature through any other conceptual lenses-- including, of course, Marxism. Both Frye and Jameson are doing in these opening intros what any good critic should do; staking their respective conceptual territories-- but Frye's approach, whatever its flaws, seeks to understand literature as literature, while Jameson takes the well-worn ideological path of reading literature as something else.

So why are ideologues (i.e., followers of ideological reading, as I read them) p*ssies? (Note: hopefully that asterisk keeps my blog from being sorted with porn sites, though I'm not betting the farm on it.)

Because they use the weapons of their opponents to attempt taking power, but they won't admit they're doing so. They employ a half-assed hermeneutical method-- most notoriously employed in Roland Barthes' execrably superficial MYTHOLOGIES-- in order to appear as if they are exposing the hidden truth beneath the facade of a given literary work, so that they themselves are (however indirectly) perceived as the new revealers of truth, and, by implication, as those most worthy of the reader's trust.

"Trust me, because I'm an empiricist, exposing the lies of the idealists."

"Trust me, because I'm a rationalist, exposing the lies of the irrational."

"Trust me, because I expouse real comics with drama and irony, and expose the lies of stupid superhero comics."

The other side has its shell games as well, of course, but the point is that the ideologue who pretends to be unveiling truth is the bigger liar, and thus the bigger p*ssy.

Now, I wouldn't bother trying to read Jameson's book at all if I didn't think that some thoughts expressed in the unfinished excerpt offered some sort of mental challenge. Interestingly, given the similarity between the opening of his book and Frye's, much of PU (heh) focuses on his critique of not only Frye but a number of other figures important to structuralism and cultural studies, including Levi-Strauss and Propp. It's possible that I'll even agree with some of the flaws he points out, though I doubt anything will make me trust an ideologue out to sell himself as the voice of THE critical interpretive method.

Just to bring up a small point: though on this blog I've used Frye as an interpretive lens through which to view popular culture works, the late critic himself did very little analysis of pop fiction, though various passages indicate that Frye was open to what "subliterature" had to offer. But even though he did not expressly champion pop literature along the lines of, say, Leslie Fiedler, on page 107 of PU Jameson can't resist taking a potshot about how "older generic categories" of literature "persist in the half-life of the subliterary genres of mass culture," which "await the resurrection of their immemorial, archetypal resonance at the hands of a Frye or a[n Ernest] Bloch."

It's not offensive to me that Jameson should take a shot at Frye (who was alive to defend himself when this was written). But the dig, when coupled with the fact that Frye did not, in fact, write many defenses of poplit, makes Jameson look petty, pathetic, and-- a p*ssy.

Not to mention that even if Frye had been more vocal in defense of popular culture, I seriously doubt he would have been imparting "archetypal resonance" to every single paperback bestseller in the airport kiosks. But that's the strategy of the ideologue: not just to disagree with an opponent's position, but to desperately exaggerate the position to the point where it no longer resembles the original statement.

I also doubt that this guy asserting his ability to discern a "political unconscious" in everything will show that he's conscious of his own weaknesses. But I shall see.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

THE UNBEARABLE FULLNESS OF EMPTINESS

I've recently finished David Sandner's FANTASTIC LITERATURE: A CRITICAL READER (2004), which is a collection of essays and book-excerpts dealing with the concept of fantasy in literature, whether in the form of archaic romances, fairy tales or the particular modern genre known as "fantasy." It's an excellent collection, ranging from critics who are well known for their theories on the subject (Samuel Coleridge, Northrop Frye, Eric Rabkin) to those whose writings touch on the subject more indirectly (Mikhail Bakhtin, Fredric Jameson). But for me the best insight into the ambivalent heart of fantasy appears in the lead essay by Sandner, who says that the genre depends upon "the tension between its potential fullness and its surprising emptiness."

Having established that theme statement, he describes how two fantasy-creators-- Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien-- both began their most significant works from contemplating single sentences that led both authors to create the respective worlds of Wonderland and Middle-Earth. I won't recapitulate Sandner's argument here, but in essence he demonstrates that dichotomy between the "empty" and "the full."

For Carroll, Sandner says, "fantasy is an empty set" that shows the implicit emptiness behind all of our arbitrary assignments of meaning, as in the scene where Alice asks Humpty Dumpty if a name must mean something, and is told, in essence, that his name does but that hers does not.

Tolkien, though, chooses to fill the void rather than empty it further. "While Carroll offered nothing to hold, and makes one dizzy with the emptiness of language, Tolkien also offers nothing in the language itself: but he hints that, read aright, it will awaken a meaning... that lies beyond the language, too full for mere words and their proscribed meanings."

Sandner then, views the genre/mode of fantasy as directly comparable to the emptiness/fullness of human language, which is natural enough, inasmuch as fantasies are made from language, even the "picture language" common to both archaic mythology and comic books.



But do these categories of emptiness and fullness describe actual qualities of language? Or are they, rather, processes, comparable to those described by medieval alchemists--"Solve" (breaking down) and "coagula" (building up)? I tend to favor the process theory.



This line of thought also brings me to consider another set of differences: between the meaning given the term *mythicity* by the critic who first used it, Eric Gould, and my own use of the term. I quoted this phrase from his book, MYTHICAL INTENTIONS IN MODERN LITERATURE, back in this essay:

"We live within a world where symbolic meanings may help-- do help-- yet are never fully able to bridge the ontological gap."

I recognized the logic behind that statement, but it still strikes me as special pleading, as if symbolic meanings are necessarily untrue because they do not, say, lead one into a universe of pure being, be it one like Wonderland or like Middle-Earth.

It seems demonstrable to me that language is always in a continuous process of "breaking down" and "building up," much like the concepts of "War" and "Love" in Empedocles. Thus Carroll's "empty set" take upon fantasy is simply his apprehension of its potentiality in the "breaking down" of seemingly fixed concepts, while Tolkien's "full set" take shows an awareness of how language, and any structure created by language, also has the propensity to "build up" associations and connections of all kinds.

And of course if one looks one can find both tendencies in the works of both authors, as I'm sure Sandner knew. I think Sandner's correct in seeing that both authors tended to dwell on one tendency more than the other, and it may be that much of what any reader favors tends more toward one tendency than the other-- be it the Beatles vs. the Stones or (to name a personal preference) the Hernandez Brothers vs. Daniel Clowes.

ONE LAST SHOT AT GRANT'S FOLLY

'The Hulk?!! What does the Hulk help anyone understand?Especially since his creators (sorry, Stan & Jack) got it all wrong. (i.e. "Massive doses of radiation don't give you leukemia, bone cancer, failed internal organs and agonizing death, they make you Big and Strong!") I don't blame Stan or Jack, those were the times, but as object lesson or explanation of complexities of science or modern existence, the Hulk means absolutely nothing. They don't even beat the "tormented, innocent outsider" drum much anymore.(Doesn't mean people can't enjoy Hulk stories, though.)'


After I posted my pair of essays about Steven Grant's misreading of Joseph Campbell, I was pretty sure that he would not reply, either here or on his forum, where I posted notice that I had refuted him. Thus Grant joins the select company of Jeet Heer, Alan Moore, and Heidi MacDonald who either don't realize they've been refuted on this blog, or know and don't care because there's no profit in taking issue with it.


Neither of these is objectionable to me. If I was Alan Moore, I'd certainly find better things to do with my time than reading (or even keeping) any blogs. And most professionals who are even aware of being dissed on blogs have no stake in refuting the refutations. They may respond if someone challenges them in their own bailiwick, because not to respond makes them look wussy. But responding elsewhere is usually a zero sum game, which costs time, which means (as the cliche goes) money. That I respond to any of them is thus merely an exercise in logical argument, without expectation of engagement.


Still, I decided that a good argument could also be built from Grant's above quote-- taken from the PERMANENT DAMAGE message boards, in response to someone who suggested that the Hulk might be a modern myth, contrary to Grant's essay. I find the quote interesting in part because it buttresses my assertion that Steven Grant is like many current misreaders of mythology who believe that myth's goal was to help people "understand" things in a proto-scientific sense-- understanding why the sun seems to travel across the heavens, etc. If this were true, then THE INCREDIBLE HULK comic book would indeed be at fault for promoting a fallacious view of radiation's effects.


But of course Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were no more at fault for "distorting" science than if they had had the Hulk created by some exotic chemical, like the one that was supposed to have split Doctor Jekyll into Mister Hyde. Nor would they have been distorting science had they gone the Captain Marvel route and had the monster transformed by a magical lightning bolt (maybe with a bunch of mythological progenitors-- Heracles Ulikummi Loki and Kullervo-- thrown in for good measure). Stan and Jack could not have distorted science with any of these creature-creating tropes because their story was not an extrapolation of the then-known facts of science but an expressive reaction to the perceived potential of science.


As for being an "object lesson," well, that's where we get into the question of allegorical meaning, as in the many "giant beastie" monster-movies that influenced the HULK comic no less than the example of Doctor Jekyll. I've noted elsewhere that it's almost impossible to allude to the symbolic discourse inherent in a fictional story without unfortunately making it sound like an allegory, but often even where an allegorical statment is explicitly made in a text (as in the oft-heard "He meddled in things man should leave alone!"), this sort of "didacticism for dummies" often conceals what's really going on under the story's surface. So while it could be fairly stated that the Hulk was one of many pop-cultural artifacts designed to respond to the double-edged sword of nuclear science, it would be erroneous to state that the HULK's "object lesson" was, "Don't mess around with atoms or you'll spawn a nasty green muscleman."


Finally, I find it amusing that Grant should assume that the Hulk can have no meaning if the Green Goliath's adventures do not include any "explanation of complexities of science or modern existence." As I noted before, this is tantamount to claiming that only those systems that utilize discursive thought-- the sciences, and quasi-scientific disciplines like economics-- can be a source of meaning. This is merely a naive form of positivism in modern dress, not to mention representing an aesthetic so barren that even the fulminations of the "culture industry" crowd are preferable. At least to those elitists, a character like the Hulk represents the threat of "mass culture"--no matter how poorly that concept may have been thought out-- rather than "nothing."