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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

THE EMPIRICIST OF DREAMS

“What does rock ‘n’ roll mean but fucking?”—Nigel Cox, TARZAN PRESLEY.

""Say, whoever you are, you know what Freud said about dreams about flying? He said it means you are really dreaming about having sex."
"Really? Then tell me, what does it mean when you dream about having sex?"-- Neil Gaiman, SANDMAN #15.

My title is one of my many puns-that-no-one-else-gets. This time the source is more obscure than usual, as it's the first line of Clark Ashton Smith’s epic poem THE HASHISH-EATER: “Bow down, I am the emperor of dreams.”

So who’s the “empiricist of dreams?” Well, though Sigmund Freud's far from being the only reductivist in the game, he does cast a long shadow over the interpretation of dreams and related fantasies, whether explicitly (as in the statement of the SANDMAN character Rose Walker) or indirectly (as in the quote from a Nigel Cox book-- which I confess I obtained from a secondary source).

To be sure, certain manifestations of pop culture *are* about nothing but sex, though maybe not quite in terms of Freudian psychology. Whatever one thinks about the multivalence of rock 'n' roll, clearly "Skinemax" movies and Tijuana Bibles can't be concerned with very much else. However, the Sandman’s riposte to Freudian dream-interpretation should remind one of the perils of overstatement.

In this essay I asserted that Frederic Wertham, obsessed with finding evidence of comics’ overabundant sexuality and violent transgressiveness, was unable to comprehend that certain fictional fantasies, such as the fantasy of crimefighting, might have some relation to an audience's fear of violent crime in the real world, as opposed to those fantasies being a "cover" for something else, like hatred of one's father. Later, in yet another essay I approved of Carl Jung’s ability to see fantasies as having their own integrity as psychic creations, as opposed to being camoflague for other psychological conflicts. Jung might have expanded on the Sandman’s riposte by saying that even though human beings cannot fly, fantasies of flight don’t automatically translate into the more “realistic” activity of sex. It's as easy to suppose that the fantasy of flying could connote for an audience the pleasure in being able to behold what is impossible in the normal world. From such contemplations, not tied in and of themselves to specific "realistic" referents, there arises what Kant calls sublimity and what the 1940 film THIEF OF BAGDAD calls "the beauty of the impossible."

The battle between Freudian reductionism and Jungian amplification has been fought on other fronts, as when Northrop Frye describes the “distinction between two views of literature that has run all through the history of criticism. These two views are the aesthetic and the creative, the Aristotelian and the Longinian, the view of literature as product and the view of literature as process.”—Frye, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, p. 66.

Frye probably borrowed the terms "product and process" from the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, while his opposition of Aristotle and Longinus may remind some readers of this blog of a similar opposition by R.A. Habib, which I reprinted in THE SPHERE OF LONGINUS. I frankly don’t like Frye's terms “aesthetic” and “creative,” which Frye himself doesn’t use often, either in the ANATOMY or elsewhere. I much prefer the opposition he makes in another essay, quoted here, between a story’s “narrative values” and its “significant values.” In contradistinction to what Frye writes in this section of the ANATOMY, I would say that while I agree that Aristotle is indeed more aligned to the view of literature as product, this goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to see literature as a means of transmitting “significant values.” Thus literature is just one step up from rhetoric, in that its purpose is to convey those values through a fictional façade, much as Freud would’ve believed that a dream’s purpose was to convey the psychological truths of sexual repression. In contrast, though Longinus wasn’t without his own concern for “significant values,” on the whole he seems more concerned with pure “narrative values” when he speaks of how poetry’s effects bring forth the internal ecstasy he calls “the sublime.” This in turn squares up with Jung’s tendency to value dream-fantasies for their own communicative power, not as representations of something else.

I may as well also reference this essay too, where I compared the two different species of Frye-values with Jane Ellen Harrison’s concepts of *moira* and *themis.* In essence art and literature worship at the fanes of both “gods,” even if particular works may be more slanted toward one than the other. The flying horse of Powell’s THIEF OF BAGDAD seems to signify the raw exuberance of fantasy far more than it does sex, but the aerial ballet of Superman and Lois in Donner’s SUPERMAN is clearly more in the Freudian mold. In between the two I find Gaiman’s SANDMAN, for though I quote one of its stories to support Jungian priorities, that work generally succeeds in “worshipping” both *moira* and *themis* in such a way that one can hardly separate “narrative values” from “significant” ones—a consummation devoutly wished by many readers, if one rarely achieved.

4 comments:

michael said...

Hello Gene. Just to let you know we've excerpted from and linked to this post at our Frye blog, www.theeducatedimagination.com
Michael Happy, Webmaster, The Educated Imagination

michael said...

A quick P.S.: We post extensively on Frye and popular culture, a couple examples of which you'll see if you scroll through just the first page. We'd be delighted to get a submission from you.

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks for the link, Michael. I'll plan to check out your website in detail this weekend. I look forward to seeing the late Professor Frye get more of an Internet presence.

michael said...

Good to meet you, Gene. Come by anytime. If you'd like to post with us, let us know. We're very keen on Frye and popular culture -- we've got something on Frye and John Lennon coming up next week. That's no joke. And, if you glance at the posts just this past week, you'll see the whole issue of Frye and pop culture is a particularly hot topic these days that we're working our way through. I believe that Frye is of course completely relevant to contemporary popular culture, and I try to engage him from that angle as much as from a more traditional scholarly one.