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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...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


One last time, from the conclusion of this essay:

I think [the reader's existence in an imperfect world]'s the real reason "fans love crap." It's not that they love the flaws and mistakes that prove intolerable for nonfans. *If* they are experienced enough to be aware of the flaws, then they ignore the flaws in an *intentional* manner because they seek something in the reading-experience that transcends the flaws.

That "something" I've frequently called "myth" or "mythopoesis."

Now, in a comments-post Curt Purcell speaks of the "conventionally rewarding elements" of a narrative. In DEEPLY, MADLY IF NOT TRULY I asserted that the canonical-fiction reader was no less invested (and willing to be immersed in) the type of "rewarding elements" that such a reader seeks. One may be called (after Fiedler) "unearned gratification" and the other "earned gratification," but it should be evident that as both are gratification, any differences between them must be differences of degree, not of kind.

As I've said before, in place of "gratification" I prefer my term "dynamization," which connotes nothing more than a movement of some item, entity or presence from a "static" to a "dynamic" state. In the case of art and literature, the movement takes place in the mind of the reader/audience, and is especially easy to see in the context of narrative fiction, which is generally expected to have a "static" beginning that sets up a situation and a "dynamic" end that resolves the situation. But the simple binary formula of dynamization applies not only to other forms of art but to all other "forms" (as Cassirer would call them) of human cognition.

Northrop Frye takes a Cassirerean tack in THE GREAT CODE when he writes that "mythical thinking is universal or poetic thinking, and is to predicative thought as narrative myth is to history." The main thrust here, in both Cassirer and Frye, is to indicate the development of one from the other, but a secondary focus is to indicate also the continued relationship of these cultural forms.

Myth, being imbricated with the concept of narrative, must also share the binary form of dynamization. For instance, even in archaic myths whose connotations are largely obscure to modern readers, the pattern is evident.

Jesus predicts that Peter will foreswear him three times before the cock crows.
Peter does indeed foreswear Jesus three times before the cock crows.

This is a simple narrative with none of Aristotle's "reversal:" Jesus says an unlikely thing will happen, and it does. What this narrative meant to its original audiences has been the subject of many theories, of course, but that original intent is irrelevant in a narratological vein.

What is not usually considered is that the same narrative movement pertains in terms of what Frye calls "predicative thought." The predicative thought may be buttressed with formal dialectical logic or scientific examples, but the formula remains the same.

Curt Purcell theorizes on the presence of a "passive filtering mechanism."
Curt Purcell, having provided a "reversal" of sorts by considering opposing thoughts, completes his meditation on the "smart filter."

For me the expressive breakthrough that comes to the audience from the presentation of a dynamic resolution is the motive force that makes possible not only myth in its most formal sense but all narrative, fictional and philosophical.

This is not a popular view. Opponents of "myth criticism" often act as if it endangers their hard-won intellectual boundaries, as when T.E. Apter says of Jung:

"Jung's endorsements of the mysterious and the fantastic are fundamentally platitudinous, neglecting as they do the artist's specific aims and rigorously drawn distinctions." (p. 142)

I don't believe this is the case for Jung or for Frye, at whom I've seen roughly the same criticism leveled. A discerning appreciation for the ways in which the human mind constructs myths-- even while buttressing them with logical assertions and scientific evidence-- does not *have* to equate all myths as having the same content, or even the same form.

What is important to ask in all cases is what *dynamis* the artist expects to arouse in his reader, and in my next essay on this theme that will take me back to the matter of what has been called "crap."


Curt Purcell said...

I have no idea why you say that the "smart filter" I proposed was ever conceived in a static manner. Much of the point of calling it "smart" is to suggest its activity in filtering on the basis of meaning, as opposed to the mere physical characteristics of a stimulus. It doesn't operate consciously, and my hunch is that this is what you're objecting to. But the way I see it, it's sort of like the immune system in that regard--active, smart, but entirely nonconscious.

Gene Phillips said...

Breakin' it down somewhat:

(1) I'm not saying that you conceived the idea of the 'smart filter' in a static manner. I'm saying that when you, or anyone, begin a predicative statement, you start with a static proposition and move toward a dynamic conclusion. To quickly sum up the way my source was using "predicative," here's Macmillan online for "predicate:"

"a : something that is affirmed or denied of the subject in a proposition in logic b : a term designating a property or relation"

So that was directed not at you in particular but at all narrative, ranging from those of fiction and religion to those of propositional logic.

(2) Goleman's metaphor of the filter is something of a problem for me, I suppose. A mechanical filter is by its nature passive, and Goleman seems to talk about the filter in passive terms when he says:

"All this filtering goes on out of awareness."

As I said, I can accept some nonconscious filtering, as with your original examples: the reader screens out background noise much the same way he blocks his awareness of every minor bodily complaint in everyday life. But Goleman's theory seems to propel *everything* into the realm of this nonconscious, as with the notion of the "pre-look."

That's why I countered this argument with the example of the "unbelievable twist" in FANTASTIC FOUR #2. Why did my hypothetical "smart filter," even given your declaration that it's an imperfect cerebral mechanism, fail to screen me from that illogical development while it did screen me from others?

For instance, only when I read the issue much later did another such flaw occur to me. In another scene from FF#2, the Torch is captured by the Skrulls but tries to signal his partners by setting off the FF flaresignal out a window. The Skrulls prepare to kill the Torch moments after he shoots off the flare, but the other heroes come to the rescue so quickly that a rational reader would have to assume they were already camped on the Skrulls' doorstep.

Was some "pre-look" responsible for my accepting one plot-problem? Possibly: by then I'd become accustomed to last-minute rescues in all media. But I was aware of no "backup mechanisms" intervening when I goggled at the panel/photo gaffe. It was just a bad moment in an overall pleasing (if not hugely compelling) story.

So I don't see even naive personal aesthetics arise purely from this "screening" process. I will note that I do think the description of the filter as "active, smart, and nonconscious" does accurately describe the way the human mind contrives symbols, but that's another discussion.