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Monday, October 4, 2010


Before I put aside my copy of Susanne Langer for the time being, it occured to me to revisit my ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY, posted in September 2008, to look over the "50 essential items" I listed there and see what if any relevance they had to my recent ruminations on Langer's dichotomy of symbolic modes.

In my essay comparing the symbolic concepts of Samuel Coleridge and Susanne Langer, I wrote:

So-called "high" and "low" forms of literature, then, preserve some of the myth/tale dichotomy in terms of the usage of presentational or discursive modes, but either can be strong in the *mythicity-force* irrespective of what mode it dominantly takes.

This I find indubitably true of all of the 50 items listed, whether they were particular standout stories or entire runs of a series by a particular creator or creative team. Regardless as to whether the comics cited could be considered of a "high" or a "low" idiom, the mythicity each of them possesses remains complex regardless of that idiom.

Still the two have important differences in other respects. "High" literature can be defined, from a myth-critical vantage, as literature that does what Coleridge claims in his Biographia essay, where the author uses his "conscious will" to shape the materials supplied by the so-called "primary imagination. The creator toiling in the fields of "high" or canonical literature expects to impose a theme upon the phantasms of the imagination, much as (in a different context) Jane Ellen Harrison argued that early myth's early phase, dominated by the "Moira," or fate, gave way to a second phase, that of "Themis," which dealt with the ordering of myth as attuned with "behavior dictated by social conscience." The parallel to the operations of "high" and "low" literature need not be belabored.

I do find that most of the symbolisms offered by my 50 choices dominantly fall into Langer's "presentational" mode, where the symbol-complex is offered up sans much in the way of rational meditation. Some strong particular examples of this mode include Quality's "Karlova Had a True Underworld" from BLACKHAWK #14, with what I called its "weirdo racial myth," and the peculiar alliance of crime and oral fixation in Jack Cole's "A Match for Satan" from TRUE CRIME COMICS #2. Stories like these work primarily by an aesthetic logic and little more.

There are of course "mainstream" works which succeed in blending the non-discursive concepts of the presentational (say, the whole Batman mythos) with discursive symbolism, seen to best effect in Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Some of the discursive focus is merely "how-would-this-shit-work-in-the-real-world" speculation, and critics have been mixed as to how well Miller succeeded on this score. He does somewhat better in terms of projecting his own personal theme onto the raw matter of the Batmythos, though there's not much chance that anyone will be placing TDKR in the realm of "high" art anytime soon. The Moore-Gibbons WATCHMEN probably has a better shot, not least because the novel is a closed system with no ties to a mythos of interrelated stories.

One can see something of the same "discursivity first" pattern in a number of the contenders to canonical/"artcomics" status, such as CEREBUS, JAR OF FOOLS, and PALOMAR. Like WATCHMEN JAR OF FOOLS is a self-contained GN,which in turn makes for a self-contained theme, though I confess I find the ongoing sagas of Sim and Hernandez more ambitious. CEREBUS would seem to be especially indicative of Coleridge's standard that the work of secondary imagination "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate," since unlike the other candidates listed the author Sim more or less re-created his own chosen theme partway through his continuing epic, switching from a Jungian relativism to a conservative Christianity.

I mentioned earlier that there existed certain canonical works, such as Carroll's ALICE books, where discursive concerns were present but were also more strongly concealed by a wealth of presentational materials. It's interesting that this approach is shared both by certain "mainstream" works, such as the Morrison/Quitely DOOM PATROL, by at least one "artcomic" on the list, Chester Brown's YUMMY FUR. Moreover, a work like Windsor McCay's DREAMS OF THE RAREBIT FIEND proves harder to classify that either of these two, since it was syndicated for a mass audience yet seemingly wore a mantle of "classiness" not much affected by most of the strip's contemporaries. It may be that for these three works, many of the discursively-based barriers that critics erect to keep DARK KNIGHT on one side and PALOMAR on the other prove extremely negotiable. Indeed, Morrison's DOOM PATROL, despite its genre affiliations, may excel both McCay's DREAMS and Brown's YUMMY FUR in the discursive department, while remaining equal in the realm of the mythically significant.

1 comment:

Todd C. Murry said...

Hadn't read your library post before. Pretty nice list, but it made me wonder if you'd read Carla Speed McNeil's Finder, which is (to me at least) oddly missing.