Tuesday, June 30, 2009

AGON IN SIXTY SECONDS

Though neither Rider Haggard's SHE or KING SOLOMON'S MINES are much-read today, they make a convenient example of my combative and subcombative modes.

As far as I can think, the "noncombative" mode doesn't apply to the adventure/romance mythos at all, given the strong emphasis of the mythos upon physical striving. When an author takes a genre with strong adventure-associations, such as the western, and seeks to de-emphasize the "man vs. man" pattern in favor of the "man vs. himself" approach, he's moved from one mythos to another. Peter Fonda's 1971 THE HIRED HAND would be an example of a western that (to the best of my recollection) falls more properly into the category of the drama, for example.

Both SHE and KSM were enormously influential on the development of European and American adventure-fiction, and, being works written in a popular idiom, both are usually given short shrift in the world of literary criticism. To be sure, KSM is a much simpler novel than SHE, and possesses far less mythicity as well, but neither can be understood properly without appreciating how well they capture the spirit of their mythos, for all that their modes are different.

The plot of KSM is clearly the more combative of the two. Allan Quatermain-- who if not for Alan Moore would now be remembered as "Richard Chamberlain's INDIANA JONES" by modern audiences-- is the archetypal great white hunter who leads his employers into the search for a missing white man in Africa and ends up both finding a fabulous treasure and making it possible for a noble black monarch to regain his throne from a usurper. For all the side-action of the missing European and the treasure, the novel builds to the climactic action of the battle, in which the Europeans help the noble African regain his throne.

There are, to be sure, important scenes of combat in SHE. However, there is no particular combat toward which the novel builds, no *agon* which decides the fates of all and sundry. Ayesha, the *She* of the title, is at times frustrated from reaching her goals by meddling fate, but despite her intentions of conquering the modern world once her lost love returns to her-- intentions which make her something of an early "super-villain"-- she is defeated not by any particular opponent but by another twist of fate: stepping into the Fire of Life a second time reverses her gift of immortality (making for a rather graphic illustration of Heraclitus' admonition that one may not step twice into the same river). Still, though there is no definitive battle in SHE, the efforts of the protagonists to survive in her world, as well as to avoid becoming the chattel of Ayesha, still mark SHE as belonging to the mythos of adventure, albeit in a subcombative mode.

Interestingly, for all that Alan Moore did an atrocious job realizing his version of She in BLACK DOSSIER, his method often reminds one more of the Haggard of SHE than that of KING SOLOMON'S MINES, as DOSSIER in particular is devoted less to perilous adventures and more toward windy woolgathering. But that's another essay.

Friday, June 19, 2009

FOUR IF BY STRUCTURE, TWO IF BY TONE

The four modes to which I refer above are often incorrectly called "themes." I've been unable to track down where they first appeared, and they often get revised by this or that author, but the ones that I find most felicitous are:

1) Man vs. Man

2) Man vs. Nature (which includes Fate or Your Circumstances at Birth and so on)

3) Man vs. Society

4) Man vs. Himself

But none of these are not themes, as that word implies some form of didactic/discursive thought. They are modes, in accord with this earlier-quoted definition of "mode" from the WRITER'S WEB:

“MODE: an unspecific critical term usually identifying a broad but identifiable literary method, mood or manner that is not tied exclusively to a particular form of genre.”

Because the word "mode" is so unspecific, though, one has to distinguish between different types of modes. During the essay in which I quoted the above definition, I discussed modes pertaining to *emotional tonality:" in particular comparing the *subtle* mode of Noel Coward's DESIGN FOR LIVING vs. the *gross* mode of Mike Myers' WAYNE'S WORLD. But there are structural modes as well, and the four modes of opposition may well be the most basic modes in all narrative, since it's a commonplace that all narratives must have opposition as an organizing principle.

Now, most web-resources not only call this foursome "themes," but "themes of conflict." I have a definite neologism-nurturing reason for wanting to refer to the modes in terms of "opposition," for I want to use the word "conflict" in its adjectival form, "conflictive," in contrast with another term, "combative," in order to distinguish two tonal modes I've discovered as a result of analyzing the way various narratives make use of the plot-element of opposed forces.

In other words, all narratives possess an equal need for some elements of opposition, but some narratives are "more equal than others."

More on this "combat and conflict" theme anon, probably in the essay I plan to title, "Combat vs. Conflict."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

RITUAL MAGIC

In this essay I pointed out the failings of Northrop Frye's attempt to rather rigidly schematize "narrative values" and "significant values" as he did in his 1951 essay "Archetypes of Literature." I should also point out that it's my impression that Frye did not maintain quite such rigidity in his subsequent criticism, particularly in his book WORDS WITH POWER, where he set down the way in which "secondary concerns" (such as the ones necessary to formulate an ideology) spring from those of "primary concern" (which are those that give rise to myth). I referred to this line of thought earlier here, and would add that the two sets of values on which he expounds in the "Archetypes" essay are roughly comparable to his two types of concern, and that in the later work he's more or less putting "the body" in the driver's seat, where before it was the "mind."

So it's quite possible that in later works Frye had more appreciation for the problems of separating the dancer from the dance, perhaps even similar to that of Theodore Gaster (whose 1950 book THESPIS is referenced in one of Frye's essays from 1960, though I strongly suspect Frye had read Gaster by the time he wrote ANATOMY).

Although Gaster addresses himself to religious myth while Frye focuses upon literature, both deal with the problem of how a narrative articulates significance for its audience. Gaster is of course dealing with a type of narrative which, by its nature, could never have been "experimental" in a manner comparable to the verses of Rimbaud or the novels of James Joyce, but his explanation of the relationship of the narrative to its audience remains relevant to literature:

"Seasonal rituals are functional in character. Their purpose is periodically to revive the topocosm, that is, the entire complex of any given locality conceived as a living organism. But this topocosm possesses both a punctual and a durative aspect, representing, not only the actual and present community, but also that ideal and continuous entity of which the latter is but the current manifestation."-- THESPIS, p. 17.

It should go without saying that no literary critic, least of all Frye, believed that literature possessed the same functions as religious myth, but the discipline of myth criticism is oriented upon discovering the parallel between the "content" (Frye's word) shared by both.

Now, the ideal/real parallel is nothing new, nor was it when Gaster wrote this book. But I draw attention to the way Gaster's uses the linguistic terms "punctual" and "durative" to describe the relationship between the narrative acted out by present-day worshippers and the "significant value" which the narrative incarnates. In Gaster dancer and dance are far more intertwined with one another than they are in Frye's "Archetypes" essay. It might be surmised that it's more natural to separate the themes and/or "significant values" of literature out from the narrative proper, since literary works are generally acknowledged to be made by men rather than being passed down from God or the gods.

Yet, for all that the modern audience knows that the narrative it reads is a man-made artifact, the experience of the narrative can be every bit as engrossing as any sacred ritual. Whether the artifact has made for wide popular consumption, like the Lee/Ditko/Romita SPIDER-MAN, or for a coterie audience, like the Hernandez's various LOVE AND ROCKETS offerings, an artifact that possesses an engrossing narrative can draw a reader back into re-experiencing the story's occurences as much (if not more) than when the stories were fresh. Inevitably the experienced reader may have new meditations on "significant values," as when a re-reading inspires one with some new insight about the literary "topocosms" of this or that author. But those values do not take precedence over the values of pure narrative, which should be judged as a good in itself, rather than just a means to an end.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

POETRY IN MOTION PART 3

"The critic would tend rather to note how popular literature which appeals to the inertia of the untrained mind puts a heavy emphasis on narrative values, whereas a sophisticated attempt to disrupt the connection between the poet and his environment produces the Rimbaud type of illuminations, Joyce's solitary epiphanies, and Baudelaire's conception of nature as a source of oracles. Also how literature, as it develops from the primitive to the self-conscious, shows a gradual shift of the poet's attention from narrative to significant values, the shift of attention being the basis of Schiller's distinction between naive and sentimental poetry."-- Frye, ARCHETYPES, p.18.

"Inertia of the untrained mind?" Why I oughtta--

In addition to Frye's main purpose of diagramming his distinctions between the "narrative values" and "significant values" of literature, this passage shows that, as I noted earlier, Marxist litcritic Fredric Jameson was pretty off-base in attacking Frye as a putative defender of popular fiction. Another essay in FABLES OF IDENTITY gives an even greater putdown to popular literature, implying that it's only of value once it's been tranformed by the superior artist. So yes, Virginia, Northrop Frye, despite having formed a literary hermeneutic of immense value to the critique of both canonical and popular art, had his elitist side. (He was an academic teacher of literature, after all.)

As noted earlier, Frye separated "narrative values" from "significant values" by giving them respective "concrete" and "abstract" tonalities. In this Frye was, as he himself says, preceded by Schiller, though the argument here reminds me more of Stephen Daedalus' lecture on the differences between "static" and "kinetic" literature in Joyce's PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN. The Daedalus character has a revealing moment in his argument when he compares "kinetic" works of art with the activity of the physical neural system. Kinetic art is that which merely calls forth a purely-physical response from the audience, much as one's nerves are automatically stimulated by such gross emotions as lust or fear, while "static" art is that which somehow goes beyond such commonplaces. Again, the lesser experience is concrete; the finer, abstracted.

But though Joyce's schematic, like Frye's, is stimulating, it's hard to avoid the feeling that what both of them are trying to do is, in Yeats' memorable phrase, to "know the dancer from the dance." To me it seems obvious that there is considerable poetry in both the ongoing temporal motion of the narrative and the sorta-kinda-outside-time spatial stasis of the well-wrought pattern of significant images.

Frye is right in observing that popular literature usually deals with a straightforward narrative rather than any structure that might call attention to the work's own artificiality, to its status as a means through which the artist communicates his "meanings." However, there seems no justification for explaining the fascination with narrative motion in terms of "inertia." The reader who never strays from popular works may not ever appreciate the assortment of significant values one may find in canonical literature, but that's a long way from saying that there are none to find in the popular works he does read.

A suiperficial glance might indicate that children are the readers most infected with what Frye calls "inertia." Do not many of them insist that their parents or guardians read them their favorite stories again and again, preferably in the same way? (This frequently-reported tendency may be dying out now that audiovisual tapes and discs make it possible to repeat the experience EXACTLY as before). But is the child who wants to hear RED RIDING HOOD again and again, fascinated purely with the narrative build: the meeting in the woods, the rush to Granny's, the ritual of "what big eyes," etc.? Or is the child fascinated with what the narrative devices lead to: the "significant value" of the climax, with Red being eaten by the Wolf (with or without a Caesarian happy-ending)?

"Untrained" though such juvenile minds are, I tend to think that both the dancer and the dance matter to them equally. How they can be one and separate at the same time will be a matter for discussion when I follow up this discussion of Frye with one on one of the authors who influenced him: the aforementioned Theodore Gaster, whose THESPIS I'm currently reading. Stay tuned.

POETRY IN MOTION PART 2

"Patterns of imagery... are oracular in origin, and derive from the epiphanic moment, the flash of instantaneous comprehension with no direct reference to time, the importance of which is indicated by Cassirer in MYTH AND LANGUAGE."

To recap: in the POETICS Aristotle takes the very concrete aspects of music and dance-- rhythm from both, harmony only from music, and links them with the somewhat more abstract actitivies of making representations of the real world through writing and art. Both activities he files under a greater abstraction, "mimesis."

In the section of Frye's ARCHETYPES essay already examined, Frye takes the concrete organic activity of "rhythm" and relates it to the ongoing narrative found in a work of literature (keeping in mind that Frye was concerned only with print literature, whether in its prosaic or poetic forms). The representational activity of narrative, which seems to be more abstract in Aristotle, becomes more concrete in Frye as he relates narrative to comparable organic actitivies, such as the "synchronization" of animals to their environment. Narrative thus becomes the aspect of literature which moves in time and hence is akin to "rhythm."

In the quote above, Frye then examines the aspect of literature which moves in space. For this aspect he draws on Cassirer's notion that the fantastic images found in archaic myth are not primarily meant to reproduce reality but to reproduce the image-maker's emotional response to reality, his "instantaneous comprehension" of a "total pattern." His only example in this essay is that of the Yeats poem, "Sailing to Byzantium," in which Frye sees the poet's vision worked out by a pattern of images that reinforce the emotional tone: "the city, the tree, the bird, the community of sages, the geometrical gyre and the detachment from the cyclic world." (The last item on his list sounds more like a theme than an image, for which perhaps Yeats' gyre was the objective correlative.)

Of course, one objection to this might be that, no matter how much images may be constructed into a given literary pattern, they have temporal aspects both within and beyond the text they occupy, just as narrative has its spatial aspects both within and beyond the text. And even though Frye is speaking of images as belonging to a whole greater than the sum of its parts, it still seems odd to speak of spatially-oriented images-- which in the real world denote *things* certainly more concrete than either rhythm or harmony-- and line up such images with the aspect of literature that is implicitly more abstract than narrative: "what [the writer] means."

In addition, though I believe Cassirer is at least partially right about the formative process of archaic myth, one cannot discount that in archaic times as in our own many patterns may not necessarily be produced from the mind of one gifted seer, be he William Butler Yeats or the uncredited author of THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH. Many such patterns are passed through literature not purely in response to insights gleaned from a single artist's "epiphanic moment" but because said patterns work as pure narrative, and so they get used by many, many artists-- some of whom may experience epiphanies that allow them to develop the pattern in significant new ways.

None of this analysis is intended to imply that Frye's fundamental insight is wrong as such. As he himself says, arts that move in time have spatial aspects, and those that move in space have temporal aspects. Thus one should probably expect considerable interfusion between these categories even when Frye himself attempts to schematize those arts according to what he considers the narrative "body" and the meaning-fraught "mind."

One more section and I'm done with both motion and still lifes for now.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

POETRY IN MOTION, AND STILL LIFE TOO

"Some arts move in time, like music; others are presented in space, like painting. In both cases the organizing principle is recurrence, which is called rhythm when it is temporal and pattern when it is spatial...Literature seems to be intermediate between music and painting... We may call the rhythm of literature the narrative and the pattern, the simultaneous mental grasp of the verbal structure, the meaning or significance. We hear or listen to a narrative, but when we grasp a writer's total pattern we 'see' what he means."-- Frye, "Archetypes of Literature," p. 14.

In Frye's preface to his essay-collection FABLES OF IDENTITY, he refers to the essay "Archetypes" as a "summarized statement of the critical program" which came to fruition in his book ANATOMY OF CRITICISM roughly six years later. Much of what he writes with application to prose literature has some interesting parallels to the medium of comics, for all that the comics-form leans a little closer to arts "presented in space" like painting, insofar as the medium depends heavily on pictorial representations to communicate both rhythm and pattern.


It's interesting that though the ANATOMY starts off with Frye building upon Aristotle, father of all litcrit, the Greek philosopher is not cited anywhere within "Archetypes." Some influence does seem likely, though, insofar as Aristotle too defines art in terms of a concept of *mimesis* that takes in "harmony, language and rhythm." "Mimesis," meaning imitation, works well enough when one is talking about constructing patterned representations of the real world through "language"-- be it pictorial representations, as seen in comics, painting, and sculpture, or through the more abstract signs of letters and numbers that make up our prose works. Yet many critics have had problems with viewing the structural components of music and dance as an "imitation" of anything. The harmony and rhythm found in these arts doesn't really "represent" any physical thing, though one can hypothesize some rough pattern to the emotions and associations they call forth in their pure state. However, music and dance don't become truly "mimetic" until they are linked to a narrative. For music this means lyrics at the very least, while for dance this means theatrical storytelling.

It's interesting, then, that when Frye defines "narrative" he does so in terms of "rhythm," because narrative, like music, moves in time. One can argue that within the narrative the characters move in both space and time, and certainly the reader moves spatially from the beginning of the story to its end. Frye may have been drawing a mental comparison between the way music compositions and prose literature can be read: as lines of symbols on a page, though there's a crucial difference in that prose *can* be read aloud but music *must* be performed to reveal either "rhythm" or "pattern." (To be sure Frye admits that one can find spatial patterns in arts that predominantly move in time and temporal rhythm in those that move in space, but he doesn't make a lot of the observation in this essay).

This dominant comparison of narrative with temporal rhythm has interesting consequences. Aristotle tries to tell us that "harmony and rhythm" are as much a part of humanity's mimetic impulses as are the direct reproductions of real or imagined experiences found in other arts. Thus Aristotle seems to be taking two activities that would seem to be "concrete" insofar as they don't really represent anything but themselves (unless joined to a narrative)-- and then making these two actitivies seem more abstract by asserting that they are indistinguishably a part of humanity's desire to attain greater knowledge of the world by making representations of it.

In contrast, Frye alters the Aristotelian paradigm so that "narrative," the totality of spatio-temporal events within a (written) work, becomes the "concrete" part of the work, and so is compared to the "rhythm" that underlies all arts that "move in time." For Frye, making representations is not an abstract philosophical activity, part of man's overall "need to know," but is more comparable to the rhythms of organisms. For all that Frye says later in ANATOMY that the comparison is not exact, for animals cannot abstract their experiences enough to tell stories about them, narrative as such arises from man's attempt to imitate "the natural cycle." In this, as I observed before, Frye was probably following the theories of Theodore Gaster, who in turn was building upon the "myth-ritual school" of earlier academics like Murray, Harrison and Cornford.

(as this is becoming a long post I had better break it off here before proceeding to what Frye says about the more abstract aspects of literature, the "total pattern" referred to above)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

MONSTER MUSH

As a professed lover of crossovers, monstrous and otherwise, I suppose it's a comedown to admit that I haven't yet viewed 2003's FREDDY VS. JASON, particularly as I like both monsters and view them as good sturdy death-dealing cultural icons.

Nevertheless, when my library got a copy of the 2008 tpk of FREDDY VS. JASON VS. ASH, which is a comic-book sequel to that film-crossover, I read it anyway, counting on the book's raconteurs to bring me up to speed. As it happens, that may be all they did right.

I will say that I'm not as fond of the EVIL DEAD mythos invoked by the presence of the "Ash" character, as I regard those flicks as decent timekillers but not quite as interesting as the mythoi of Kruger and Voorhees. As it happens, the script for FVJVA-- based on a never-produced movie script that would have teamed these "titans of terror"-- pretty much centralizes the EVIL DEAD mythos, as heroic Ash gets involved while searching for a mystical book seen in those movies. The script suggests that the book's power created the unstoppable Jason, but the primary opponents here are Freddy, who wants the book in order to use its power to make himself a god, and Ash, who wants to use it to banish both Freddy and Jason to the dimension of evil deadness.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the shortcomings of the tpb's art and script, considerable though they are. Artist Craig's compositions have the usual slickified look of an Image comic, and are able to render neither tension nor balls-out grossness with any conviction. Scripter Kuhoric, apparently hoping for a shot at a BUFFY comic, pours on the wry humor with a ladle-- no, make that a tureen. Anyone hoping to see so much as a good stupid pun coming out of Freddy Kruger's mouth will probably be disappointed.

What is interesting to me about reading this compilation of the six-issue Dynamite series is that (a) though I found it very dull, (b) I could imagine its being much more entertaining had it been rendered as a film.

As a film the script wouldn't have been anything more than it is now: a repetitive game of "Evil book, evil book, who's got the evil book." But films have a long history of playing that game, and of getting a helluva lot of kinetic mileage out of the simplest of plots, such as the 2006 Jason Statham flick CRANK.

Now, the reader may object that comic books, too, have their rich history of mindless action. But it occurs to me that this may signify one of many differences between the comic book medium and the film medium: comics are better at potraying action in far shorter bursts, but not so good at sustaining really long intervals. The average American comic is designed to read actively for a few minutes, while the average film holds its willing audience in thrall for at least 90 minutes.

Now, it's true that part of the reason FVJVA was boring was due to deficiencies in the art and script, but off the top of my head I can't think of any crossover books of equal length (six or more issues) that have impressed me in the kinetic action department. Part of the reason may be that comics are in part a medium of words, and that written words exert their own narrative restrictions, far more than words spoken by a filmed actor. Even the reigning master of action comics, Jack Kirby, had to rest up in his longer storylines with far greater frequency than one sees in a balls-out action film like CRANK-- or any number of ACF ("almost constant fighting") flicks.

In conclusion, while I still plan to see the battle of Freddy and Jason at some future time, I can wait till half past Armageddon before I'll feel I need to see another threeway between the two of them and the EVIL DEAD guy.

Friday, June 5, 2009

AIN'T ESSENTIALIZIN'

A week or so back I came across a mention of this blog, with the note that the poster couldn't agree with my positions because of what he termed my "essentialism." This raised some interesting questions with me inasmuch as I don't think I've ever given anyone reason to deem me an essentialist, though there are those who would think that the slightest positive mention of, say, Carl Jung instantly puts the mentioner on the fast train to Platoville.

Here's Encarta's definition of essentialism:

"the doctrine that things have an essence or ideal nature that is independent of and prior to their existence"

This doesn't seem to have much relevance to any critique that I've written here or elsewhere. I suppose it would be true if I ever had said something along the lines of, "Jack Kirby is a mythic artist because he made copious reference to myth-figures in his comics." But what I said here clearly shows that the mere mention of a given myth-figure doesn't automatically confer some mysterious "essence" upon the work in question. I did a quick scan of my blog-articles and didn't find any essay in which I had taken such an essentializing posture, or one that someone might credibly mistake for such a posture.

Merriam-Webster's definition of the word might put one a little closer to the source of the error:

"the practice of regarding something (as a presumed human trait) as having innate existence or universal validity rather than as being a social, ideological, or intellectual construct"

Now, that hits a little closer to the mark, for I have taken issue with reductionists and naive positivists on many occasions. However, in pointing out how this or that creation has mythic qualities scorned by the reductionists, I haven't claimed that said qualities are either "innate" or "universal." The simplest way to describe this difference of opinion is that where a reductionist like Steven Grant wants to regard, say, "the Incredible Hulk" as a purely synchronic product, while I'm more likely to emphasize its status as part of a diachronic process.

To emphasize diachronic factors, of course, is not to speak of essence, but only the fact of repeated usages of a given motif, as Jung does here:

"Myth is not fiction; it consists of facts that are continually repeated and observed over and over again."

Jung, of course, is rarely given credit for the more phenomenological sides of his system. To naive positivists, all that matters is that he made a shaky claim for the existence of racial memories-- his version of Freud's Oedipal "smoking gun"-- and that said claim has never been scientifically validated. Therefore Jung is a flawed empiricist, or even a Platonist, rather than being (as this essay shows in detail) a good Kantian.

Both Jung and Campbell have been of great help to me in making my own attempt to reunite the Kantian dichotomies, as stated by this earlier-quoted summarization of Cassirer:

"In the end, it is only such a never to be fully completed process of historical-philosophical interpretation of symbolic meanings that confers objectivity on both the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften — and thereby reunites the two distinct sides of Kant's original synthesis."

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cassirer/

I've also recently encountered one messboard-poster who fervently believed that if you didn't agree with his Empiricist screed, then you must be (horrors) a Rationalist. This naturally overlooks the fact that thinkers like Kant, Schopenhauer and Cassirer were (albeit in different ways) trying to forge a bridge that might join the best aspects of Rationalist (i.e. Plato) and Empiricist thought into a coherent system. None of them tried to assert the fundamental existence of a "mysterious essence" or an "unmoved mover" with which to support their systems.

And neither do I.