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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

INCEST WE TRUST PART 1

It sounds not only disagreeable but also paradoxical, yet it must nevertheless be said that anyone who is to be really free and happy in love must have surmounted his respect for women and have come to terms with the idea of incest with his mother or sister.-- Sigmund Freud, "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love."


"[The incest taboo in man was the]fundamental step because of which, by which, but above all in which, the transition from nature to culture was accomplished."--Claude Levi-Strauss, ELEMENTARY STRUCTURES OF KINSHIP.


In LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION I agreed with George Bataille's theory of transgressive sexuality, in which even "right" sexual relations are essentially transgressive. I do draw my own non-Bataillean distinction about differing types of transgression, though, and will expound on the differences between "cooperative" and "competitive" forms of transgression in a future essay.

Now the two scholars quoted above both privilege one particular form of sexual transgression, that of incest, as being central to mankind's experience in some way. Obviously Freud focuses on individual development and Levi-Strauss emphasizes societal factors, but both are putting "the Big I" right at center-stage.

In HO HUM-- BATMAN'S GAY AGAIN I assailed as wrongheaded any literary or philosophical theory which privileged one particular form of sexuality over any other. An example of this purblind tendency can be found in Eve Sedgwick's EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE CLOSET, where she argues that "any aspect of modern Western culture" is "damaged" if it does not "incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition." Freud and Levi-Strauss cannot be accused, as I believe Sedgwick can, of forming a concept of sexuality based purely on their personal sexual tastes, but the tendency all three share, that of making one aspect of human sexuality the centerpiece of their theories, is no less problematic.

George Bataille's EROTISM, though strongly influenced by both Freud and Levi-Strauss, disagreed with them on this score:

"The taboo within us against sexual liberty is general and universal; the particular prohibitions are variable aspects of it... It is ridiculous to isolate a specific 'taboo' such as the one on incest, just one aspect of the general taboo, and look for its explanation outside its universal basis, namely, the amorphous and universal prohibitions bearing on sexuality."-- EROTISM, pp. 50-51.

Later, in the chapter entitled "The Enigma of Incest," Bataille examines Levi-Strauss's ELEMENTARY STRUCTURES in depth. The chapter-essay also includes a few side-comments on Freud, as well as quoting L-S's own commetary on TOTEM AND TABOO, which L-S valued for being "an inveterate fantasy" even though the book described the origins of incest in mythic terms that probably never took place in real time. Bataille shows tremendous respect for L-S's theories, praising (page 212) its "accuracy" in answering questions about "the nature of the taboos on incest in archaic societies." However, on the previous page, he says "it is rather a pity that Levi-Strauss has paid so little attention to the bearing of eroticism" in the exchange of women between one tribe and another.

By "eroticism" Bataille means what he calls the "sensuous frenzy" that potentially disrupts societal homeostasis and yet remains indispensible to the continuance of society through propagation of new societal members. One might think he wants Levi-Strauss to be a little more like Freud, more concerned with human syndromes of compulsion, but I feel that Bataille was a little less concerned than Freud with defending his own concept of societal homeostasis. For Freud, the taboo against aberrant sexuality is one with the Law of the Father, and is not meant to be violated without serious repercussions. Bataille, in this and other sections, emphasizes rather that "the transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it." It it because Bataille is aware of man's separateness from other animals that his concept of sexuality is better than that of Freud, Levi-Strauss, or (certainly) Sedgwick, in that Bataille understands that it is in the nature of man that:

"the bounds set on freedom of action give a fresh fillip to the irresistible animal impulse."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

ADVENTURES INTO SCARY STUFF

Here be more reactions to Curt Purcell's CAN COMICS BE SCARY post, where I see via the comments-thread that at least one poster, Martin Wisse, shares my impatience with the way the question was originally framed by Richard Cook. Wisse calls the original post:

A mess of baseless assertions and naive reasoning...

I'd just say "ditto" if Rush Limbaugh hadn't tainted the word. Of course mere agreement doesn't make for a good essay, so I'll move on to one of the offhand comments of CWRM, who says:

Aside from the formal challenges of communicating certain varieties of fright, there's the fact that most horror comics aren't really interested in communicating scares. Many of the titles out there (I'm thinking of '70s stuff like "Tomb of Dracula" and modern stuff like "Marvel Zombies") are really more adventure titles with some horror trappings. Then there's a strain of highly structured classic horror. The older anthology titles, like the EC family of titles, with their almost ritualistically repetitious stories and O. Henry "surprise" endings, seem to be less frightening than darkly, almost ironically humorous. Not to drag on (too late), there's also a strain of extreme comic horror that's less about fear and more about the shock of the extremely grisly. Not that any of these are illegitimate exercises in comic horror, but they aren't really meant to frighten the reader.


I agree that there are a lot of EC stories that are so self-conscious about their twist endings that they seem more like shaggy-dog stories than horror tales. But some, like my earlier example of "Foul Play," don't communicate that sort of humor to me. The ending of "Foul Play" is over-the-top and becomes ridiculous if you give it any sustained thought, but I don't think the story's almost ritualistic desecration of the human body (albeit the body of an inhuman villain) is humorous. If I'm correct that a receptive reader can "take in" a given sight depicted in comics-panels and convert it within the mind into something more horrible than what the eye sees, then I think that in "Foul Play" you have a fine recipe for what Lovecraft called "the thrill of unutterable ghastliness," and not just, as CWRM says in his next paragraph, "anxiety."

I've written a fair amount about some of the problems I've encountered in sussing out where the horror-genre stands with respect to my chosen Fryean mythoi, with certain strands verging closer to the adventure-mythos (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) while others, like the prose DRACULA, hew closer to the mythos of drama, which I view as a mythos of compromised power. So while I understand CWRM's tendency to see a Marvel book like TOMB OF DRACULA as an adventure title with horror trappings-- after all, the one thing one can always find in a 1970s Marvel book is a gratuitous fight-scene!-- I still think of TOMB OF DRACULA as hewing closer to the dramatic mythos than that of adventure. Possibly in future I'll look at a few representative TOD stories to make my case, just to satisfy my own classification "jones."

Saturday, April 24, 2010

COLD COMFORT COMICS

A lot of thoughts, both even-handed and oddly-formed, have appeared in response to Curt Purcell's blogpost, "Can Comics Be Scary?" Inasmuch as a number of comics-fans do testify to memories of comics that scared them (and many have done so long before the era of blogging), I'm going to nitpick Curt's title and say that it shouldn't be about whether comics can be scary but under what circumstances are they scary, and to what audience. The factor of a willing audience is one I touched on fleetingly in the post I made in the comments-section:

I think I have a way to logically put paid to the notion that the square panels & borders make all that much difference to the reader amenable to the horror-comics experience-- and my logic involves sex.

The apparent continued success of the porn comics market, as testified by the continuance of the Eros Comix brand and assorted others, demonstrates that those readers who really want to get into sexually-explicit comic books can do without their, er, responses being inhibited by panel borders and page-turning.

So if the porn-lovers can conjure in their minds a kinetic experience even in the less-than-kinetic medium of comic books--

Why should horror lovers be any less capable of such mental magic?


One could certainly hypothesize at length about what kinds of mental adjustments a willing audience-member must make to let himself be pulled into the horror within the bland white panel borders, but at base I don't think it's all that different from doing so with prose horror. Much has been made (not so much on Curt's blog) of the notion that when a willing reader gets freaked by the descriptions of a Stephen King tale, he's in part conjuring up the horrors suggested by the words, and perhaps even improving upon them in his own mind. But I don't see why the same amplificative process can't take place for a comics-reader, and in truth I think that it does for those capable of such amplification. Should a reader testify that he was freaked by the sight of the dismembered body of the evil ballplayer in EC's "Foul Play," I submit that it's not because the horror of the Jack Davis drawings leaped out at him, as similar sights in a George Romero flick might do, but that the reader has amplified the body's depictions into something near-tangible in his own mind. I submit that this is essentially the same process one goes through when a reader of SALEM'S LOT extrapolates King's prose description of his Nosferatu-wannabe Kurt Barlow into a mental reality. I doubt that any lover of prose horror has ever complained that the white borders of a book's pages distracted him from his desired frisson, and I'd argue that people who think comics-borders are a big problem are over-intellectualizing the semiotic process, are unsympathetic to the horror-experience, or both.

Over-intellectualizers tend to underestimate the facillity of the human mind to compensate for the shortcomings of any medium in the quest for a particular "kinetic experience," as my counter-example of the effects of sex-comics should make clear. They also serve as a counter-example to this blogpost by Tom Spurgeon:

Since everything's possible, the better question might be why aren't more comics scary? The answer to that is that people don't want them to be. 1) The primary genre in comics is about comfort rather than fear, so it's what many people come to them expecting and as a resulting function of the market what we find scary in a modern sense has been largely unexplored. 2) The medium puts tools in the hands of the reader that they can more easily avoid being scared if they wish it, and they frequently do. 3) How most people measure scary is through the effects brought about by scary films, and the differences in the way identification works in comics as opposed to film puts comics in a bind when it comes to duplicating those effects.


The (3) comment about the competition from scary films is one many respondents have made but seems basically irrelevant to the question I reformulated above. Since Tom's blog doesn't allow responses I couldn't ask him what he means by the "tools" referenced in the (2) comment. By tool does he mean the hand of the reader itself, that puts down the comic if he's not scared enough. Maybe he'll address this somewhere, as I honestly don't get his point.

That brings us to (1), which is-- sigh-- another attack on the "primary genre in comics." "Comfort rather than fear," Tom? What are you think is the reigning form of superhero comics these days: THE BATMAN ADVENTURES? In the last year two of the biggest "events" from the Big Two mainstream companies have concerned the "dark reign" of a sadistic super-villain who becomes Marvel's version of Donald Rumsfeld, while the other, as Curt Purcell covered in depth, dealt with the unfortunate tendency of various DC villains and heroes to recrudesce as rotting zombies.

Cold comfort, indeed. I think one can argue that the average consumer of sex comics, whether those of Eros or another publisher, might be a better example of the consumer entirely preoccupied with a "comforting" kinetic experience and nothing more.

This figures in with some of my "adult pulp" posts as well, as will be seen in a later essay.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION

"In the structuralist paradigm as developed by Lévi-Strauss in Les structures élémentaires de la parenté--whose limitations are dissected by Bataille in one of the sharpest chapters of his book [Erotism]--"incest" is simply the violation of marriage rules. Implicit in this binarism is that what is not a violation is legitimate and therefore unproblematic. Durkheim’s ambiguous and never fully analyzed notion of the sacred is reduced to precisely what Durkheim insisted it could not be reduced to: the opposition between "right" and "wrong" sexual relations. But, as Bataille makes clear, sexual relations are always transgressive. Marriage as a rite of passage is not simply a permitted move in a game; it is the conferral of a right of transgression..."-- Eric Gans, Originary Thoughts on Sexuality, the online journal of ANTHROPOETICS.

If even "right" sexual relations are a transgression, as Bataille clearly *does* argue in his 1957 book EROTISM, then what is being transgressed against? Clearly, although there have many marriages in which one or both of the spouses were coerced into marital bliss, many were not so coerced and so did not transgress against either the will of the spouses or the will of the community.

I may be taking Bataille into something more like the territory of object relations with my own answer, but it seems evident to me that the only constant transgression is that of one body interacting with at least one other body so as to violate the integrity of both, as Bataille says here:

"In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation"-- Bataille, EROTISM, p. 16.

In this essay, I essentially agreed with this statement insofar as both sex and violence could both be broadly defined as transgressions of somatic boundaries. However, I also said Bataille was guilty of over-identifying the two modes of human action, and suggested that the Hegel-influenced theories of Francis Fukuyama could be used as a corrective. Bataille was strongly influenced by Hegel but I don't think he ever made any attempt to crossbreed his theories of transgression with Hegelian recognition. Such a cross-pollination might prove an interesting project but I won't pursue it here.

Now, while I critiqued Bataille for over-identifying sex with violence, I've also said that the two do intersect in literary narrative in a variety of ways. Thus I
don't have to draw a hypothetical dividing line between the phenomena as I did with the literary associations of juvenility and of adulthood. The domains of literary sex and violence are better seen as two intersecting circles, where some parts overlap and others do not. At the same time, while it may be a murky matter to sort out where the two modes disassociate themselves in the psyches of real people, in literature it's a good deal easier. In literature, when sexuality and violence do intersect, one tends to dominate over the other in a pure narrative sense. Thus, if one pairs these two classes of dominance with those in which there's no meaningful intersection at all, one gets four classifications of the two modes:

1) EROTIC VIOLENCE
2) NON-EROTIC VIOLENCE
3) NON-VIOLENT SEX
4) VIOLENT SEX

Each of the illustrations featured in the previous post illustrates one of these classes. In showing distinctions between these categories, I'll be relying on both narrative and significant values (see this essay for definitions) to support my distinctions. Hopefully, though all such interpretations are somewhat subjective, by looking at both I can avoid the sloppy one-on-one equivalences asserted by Freud-influenced elitists, who come up with howlers like, "Duh--hh, da supahhero's big muskles I think looks like some sorta toigid pinnis, so dat proves supahhero's is gayboys!"




First up is an example of erotic violence: the cover of DETECTIVE COMICS #203, in which the villainous Catwoman has somehow trapped Batman and Robin into performing in a cage alongside a handful of big cats. Plainly both this comics-cover and the story it advertises-- originally marketed to juvenile readers-- is meant to emphasize the heroes' peril in this sticky situation, both from the big cats and from Catwoman's whip. It would certainly be possible to frame an alternate version of the cover in which there was only a violent threat: indeed, the cover of issue #9 of DC's 1970 JOKER title shows the Joker cracking a whip at Catwoman in a similar circus-y situation, but because the Joker isn't dominantly seen as a sexual icon, I'd argue that JOKER #9 is non-erotic violence (though not interesting enough to be my chosen example for same). But because the established mythology at the time of this 1954 comic continually emphasized a romantic tension between Batman and Catwoman-- that's the narrative value-- the scene (which isn't in the story) takes on a significant value of "battle of the sexes," which is certainly one motif within the story proper (a reformed Catwoman returns to crime because she wants to challenge Batman again). We cannot know if the adult raconteurs who crafted the story (Edmond Hamilton and a "Bob Kane" ghost) were aware of the S&M associatons of the whip, particularly when it's wielded by one gender against the other, but if they did they may've assumed that the scene would "tease" readers into buying the comic even though, being 1954 juveniles, they might not know consciously why the scene seemed appealing. All of the violence in the cover and story is of course "clean" violence, but some "dirty" symbolism does find its way in.




In earlier posts I've assailed Dirk Deppey's attack on this comic for its supposed decadence, so I won't repeat my earlier arguments here. I've reread SUPERGIRL #14 (2007) a couple of times and still find that the narrative by Joe Kelly and Ian Churchill is purely about two super-chicks fighting each other, with Batgirl trying not to fuck Supergirl but to cut her bloody head off. Patently the argument that reads this scene sexually is one that ignores the narrative values of the story, and how they are expressed, in order to force the imagery into a Freudian lockbox that doesn't reflect what happens in the story. Perhaps if Batgirl were stabbing Supergirl with one sword, a Freudian could rejoice at seeing yet another confirmation of the female gender's secret desire for a phallus. But Batgirl's using two swords to cut off Supergirl's head doesn't make much sense as a displaced sex act. If Supergirl was a male, one might buy into the Freudianism "head=phallus" motif, but if the subject of the beheading doesn't even have a phallus, then maybe, just maybe, her head is just a head, and the only reason Batgirl has her legs locked around Supergirl's waist is to set her up for being sliced up by the magic crystals growing from Supergirl's back. Thus the significant value to be derived from the narrative has more to do with setting up Supergirl's X-MEN-style anxiety over her body's freakishness than with suggesting girl-on-girl sex.

\

SWAMP THING #34's story "Rites of Spring" (Moore/Bissette/Totelbein) features about the most non-violent sexual encounter one can imagine, since the sex act is abstracted into an interweaving of minds rather than bodies. The narrative concept is that because Swamp Thing doesn't have a penis, he uses one of the hallucinogenic fruits growing on his vegetable body to give his human love Abby an ecstatic ride into his enhanced consciousness. Thus the mind-sex scenes in ST #34 bear kinship with those Hollywood sex-scenes which depict the literal sex-act as a flurry of abstract movements, with lots of touching but no hint of one body actually entering another body. I imagine that a simplistic Freudian would read the significant value of this story as an instance of "castration anxiety." But since the sex-scene takes place in a story that hypothesizes that all living things possess energy-fields to which Swamp Thing and Abby are both attuned, it's more accurate to the narrative to see "Rites of Spring" as a celebration of Jungian energy/libido in all things. In addition, to the extent that Swampy does "put" his consciousness "into" Abby, he doesn't function as a castrated male in narrative or significant valuations.



Finally, from Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, we get an encounter of superheroes in which the "fighting" really is all about sex, as Superman and Wonder Woman have themselves a super-shag that shatters icebergs, knocks down airplanes, etc. Previous to this encounter Frank Miller seems to take great pleasure in overturning Wonder Woman's "porcelain saint" image, portraying her as a hard-bitten man-hater who continually busts Superman's balls (figuratively) because she realy, really wants them inside her. Whether Miller subscribes to the notion of female castration anxiety I don't know, though I wouldn't be surprised given some other Freudianisms in his past works. It's a little harder to talk about narrative or significant values in TDKSA because it's something of a jumble of Scenes Frank Miller Thought Would Be Really Cool. Still, all the violence-in-real-sex that we see elided in the SWAMP THING scene and its congeners comes roaring back with a vengeance here. Of course even rough sex is still sex first and violence second, and the super-shag does result in a super-kid who may or may not have a certain Oedipal relationship with her super-dad. Notably, her name is the same as Superman's mother, while Batman's female sidekick, "Catgirl," dons a costume plainly (to the reader) modeled on that of Catwoman, Batman's old flame.

However, that particular extrapolation of significant values leads me into a deeper delving than I can cover here. Possibly an essay on the aforementioned critique Bataille made of Freud's incest complex will allow for more attention to this type of transgression.

NONE OF THESE THINGS IS AT ALL LIKE THE OTHER

--at least not with respect to the aspects of sex and violence I'll be analyzing in my next essay.











Wednesday, April 21, 2010

SMOKEY UNLOCKE AND HIS TEMPTATIONS

The 4-20 episode of LOST, "The Last Recruit," reminds me of words I wrote here in response to the notion that Desmond Hume was more of a hero than Jack Shepard.

I don't deem Desmond all that much of a "hero." He's a good guy, no doubt, but to me he's just as prone to anxiety and doubt and self-questioning as Jack Shephard ever has been.


I don't retract that, but I will qualify it in light of "Last Recruit" and its newest wrinkle in the program's long-running theme of temptation. The particular scene involves Sayid, who has given in to the blandishments of Unlocke in search of a prized goal (his wife's restoration), and who has been told by Unlocke to kill Desmond. In relation to Sayid, Desmond certainly is more of a "hero," and their interaction underscores this. Says Desmond to Sayid:

This woman, when she asks you what you did to be with her again… What will you tell her?


Viewers don't see whether or not Sayid shoots Desmond, but we're pretty strongly led to believe that Sayid doesn't do the deed. If Desmond does indeed succeed in helping Sayid throw off Unlocke's influence, then I would affirm this as the act of a hero. More, it's an appropriate one for Desmond, as he faced the temptation himself.

In the third season ep "Catch-22," Desmond has a psychic flash that seems to suggest that he will be reunited with his own lost love if he allows Charlie to perish in a death-trap. Because Desmond heroically rejects this temptation-- albeit only a moment before Charlie's killed-- this gives Desmond's confrontation with Sayid special resonance beyond the immediate concern of whether or not Sayid will pull the trigger. So in respect to overcoming temptation, I will say that Desmond's pretty heroic, though he's not any less messed-up than Jack.

Speaking of Jack, he surely seems the next target to be offered his heart's desire by Unlocke, since at the end of "Recruit" Jack's the only castaway that Unlocke has still in his power. But the question is-- does Jack even have a heart's desire?

What do you use to tempt a man so screwed up with his daddy issues that he can't stay with the woman he loves over them?

My guess--

You get him daddy's absent love.

(Or an unreasonable facsimile thereof)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

TWO WRONGS MAKE A PROPERTY RIGHT

"I created SPIDER-MAN."-- Jack Kirby, COMICS JOURNAL interview, Feb 1990.

As I noted in this essay, Jack Kirby was certainly not the originator of any form of Spider-Man. At best, he inherited a small bundle of ideas put together by his partner Joe Simon and two freelancers Simon had employed: Jack Oleck and C.C. Beck. This proposal-idea was called "the Silver Spider" in its submission phase, though to emphasize its actual creators I'll call it SOB (Simon/Oleck/Beck) for short.

I won't revisit the same points I made in the previous essay, but after ruminating about some of the discussions of the Kirby family's current litigation against Marvel, I thought it ironic that their claim on Spider-Man is based in the notion of "intellectual property."

That is, because Kirby worked on the character when he and Simon rejiggered it into Archie's THE FLY, and because Kirby submitted a bare concept of the character to Stan Lee, Kirby's transmission of the idea of a spider-powered hero gives his estate claim to the "intellectual property" of Spider-Man.

But Kirby based his idea on the SOB concept. Does that mean that Simon and the two late freelancers also participate in the intellectual property that is Spider-Man?

One presumes that lawyers could be found to argue such a case, but such dubious legality isn't my concern.

What I find ironic is that when Kirby brought the rough Spider-Man concept to Stan Lee, he was in effect nullifying any "intellectual property" rights that the three SOB authors had to the concept, in that he claimed it as his own. Had Lee chosen to let Kirby do the SPIDER-MAN concept-- which as Greg Theakston once argued would probably have turned out a lot like THE FLY-- Kirby would have even further nullified the intellectual property claims of SOB.

Of course, back in that day and age, few people working in comic books worried about "intellectual property." The companies might have occasionally persecuted competitors, as with DC's suit against Fawcett, for copyright violations. But for those working in the trenches, ideas were common ground shared by all. One artist might resent another for "swiping" an idea, particularly if said idea made more money for Artist 2 than it did for Artist 1. But nobody owned the ideas as such.

I'd say that by the act of Kirby presenting the SOB bundle to Stan Lee as if it was Kirby's own "intellectual property" to sell, he was in essence ratifying the treatment he received by Marvel, in which even the intellectual properties to which Kirby undoubtedly created were entirely co-opted by Marvel Comics.

Like many others who've commented on the Kirby/Marvel suit, I doubt that the Kirby family will be able to get more from Marvel than "go-away money." But I'd feel a lot better about supporting them if they weren't laying claim to a property that Jack Kirby essentially "swiped" from other artists. It may have been a "swipe" given an approving nod by Joe Simon, as some fans have claimed. But IMO it vititates the rightness of the greater case, by further ratifying earlier wrongs.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

LOST'S LABORS LOVED

I used the above title because, occasional complaints aside, I do love the incredible mind-blowing work that the LOST producers put into giving viewers one of the few serial television programs that might have some claim to the cachet of High Art.

At the same time,I came close to entitling this essay, "LOST's loves labored," because I did feel the writers were a touch laborious about introducing the notion that love could breach the barriers between the rival timelines. I mean, take Libby's line in "Everbody Loves Hugo": "Have you ever felt you were connected with someone-- like soulmates?" That deserves at least a minor ARGHH.

So as of now we have five "Timeline-B" characters-- four male (Charlie, Desmond, Faraday, Hugo) and one female (Libby)-- who have definitely experienced intimations of the original "Timeline A," where three of the five (Charlie, Faraday, and Libby) have perished. But it should be noted that some of these intimations have involved *thanatos* as well as *eros.* Charlie has his vision of a beloved blonde inamorata (presumably Claire) while choking on his stash, and Desmond has his "flash" of Timeline A while battling both for Charlie's life and his own. One could venture that either love or death can awaken one's knowledge of the original temporal cosmos, and that this is why Desmond runs down John Locke with a car. "Sorry, brutha, yuir love life is jus' runnin' too smooth!"

Desmond is of course the only one who's likely to sense his simultaneous existence in both timelines, though I think it's likely that the timelines will remain separated until (possibly) the climax. I'll be as surprised as anyone if we actually see two Desmonds meeting face to face a la THE TIME TUNNEL.

A quick segue about Desmond, based on Sean Collins' 4-7-10 remarks:

Desmond's the kind of character I'd call "Internet-beloved" and mean it as a sneer, I'm afraid. He strikes me as what people who hate Jack wanted Jack to be: A hero. Desmond will never let anyone down, which is what makes him much less interesting to me than Jack.


I don't agree, for I don't deem Desmond all that much of a "hero." He's a good guy, no doubt, but to me he's just as prone to anxiety and doubt and self-questioning as Jack Shephard ever has been. Desmond's first arc begins with his letting Penny down by letting himself get sucked into a dominance-ritual with her father Charles Widmore-- and it's a fairly pointless ritual at that, which may have ended up serving Widmore's ends more than Desmond's. At least when Odysseus left that other Penelope, it was for definite goals: to retrieve the bride of Menelaus and sack Troy.

In further arcs, we also learn that Desmond wusses out in other contexts. The earliest thing we know about him is that he leaves a woman at the altar out of "cowardice," goes into hiding in a monastery but by dumb luck meets the woman of his dreams there. And AGAIN he leaves the girl, though to be fair some of his angst is provoked by a scary old lady who tells him he's gonna fuck up the universe if he doesn't do so. Still-- leaving two lady-loves in the lurch isn't especially knightly. Jack Shepard may have married neither wisely nor well, but he had the stones to attempt a commitment.

If Desmond resembles any heroic figure from the classics, it's probably less Odysseus than Parsival, the Holy Fool. The fool's "heroic" action is to act on impulse in such a way that he bollixes up anything that smacks of the customary and the expected, including the course of fate. This brings me back to my earlier analysis as to whether or not LOST's ending would end up siding with "free will" or "determinism."

In this essay I stated that I thought LOST's conclusion would chart a middle course between the extremes of the ethos of determinism (represented by Sartre's NO EXIT) and the ethos of Christian free will (represented by the works of C.S. Lewis, whose name, incidentally, informs that of LOST-character Charlotte Lewis). I think the recent images of *eros* and *thanatos* breaking down the barriers between worlds supports my contention that the LOSTguys will give us some sort of transcendence of cruel fate in the end, and so they will reject the ethos of Sartre. However, the LOSTguys will also not pursue the kind of overt transcendence seen in Lewis, and so their championing of "free will" will likely take a somewhat figurative character, not unlike that of M. Night Shyamalan's THE HAPPENING. So far I've no idea what form this will take, but "Everybody Loves Hugo" indicates that I may be on the right track.

BTW, I'll note that I consider this "middle course" as I envision it comparable to the one Immanuel Kant charted when he sought to build a philosophical bridge between the extremes of idealistic "rationalism" and realistic "empiricism." Of course, given the fact the LOSTguys are likely to leave a mountain of questions unanswered, the completed show may prove to be the sort of Rorschach test into which anyone can read pretty much anything...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

CLARIFICATION

In this essay I've now defined what I call "literary myths" are "open" in terms of how they can be modified by their tellers and audiences, while by comparison religious myths are meant to seem "closed" by virtue of how much stuff people can make up about them, even though in point of fact new stuff does continually attach itself from every religious myth-figure from Adam Kadmon to Zeus.

(Side-note: closely related to "religious myths" would be "cultural myths" such as the legend of King Arthur, which does not promulgate any religion as such but which serves a more exemplary purpose to its audiences than does, say, Sherlock Holmes.)

I further defined the "form" of myth as being one which is not "dominantly SUPPOSED to change as humans do" over time, while the form of art/literature is expected to shift with the tastes of the audiences.

Now, in this earlier essay I did state:

Though I reject the simplistic notion that myth, as myth, was unchanging, or even universally intended by its makers to be unchanging, obviously art (at whatever point it became definitively separated from myth) could change to meet the needs of the community much more quickly.


In this essay I was taking issue with writers that I've critiqued elsewhere, like Roland Barthes, who chose to view myth as a mental/moral calcification of accreted superstitions. (He's not cited in the essay but he would fit my critique of writers who accept "chimarae like 'commoditiy fetishes.'") I believe that wherever tribal storytellers tried to put forth certain narratives as having a permanent authority as to the origins of the universe, they did want those narratives to be perceived as DOMINANTLY unchanging.

But not, as the reductive anthropologists would have it, UNIVERSALLY unchanging. Again, we don't know precisely how prehistoric myth-makers dealt with catastrophic changes in climate or society or any other of the thousand natural shocks that flesh-- and religion-- was heir to. We ASSUME-- because it's a practice we can observe today-- that they would have handled it the same way modern priests handle change. If Haiti is rocked by a horrible earthquake, it's because God is punishing its people for past misdeeds.

Possibly this sort of weasely rationalizing was the only way that ancient myth-tellers got out of difficulties, too. But it's important to remember that those mythmakers probably didn't have to put down attacks by rationalistic advocates of atheism or Marxism or whatever, because human society hadn't advanced to the point that such critiques of religion could even be formulated.

I surmise that when ancient mythmakers were faced with massive changes in life, they probably knew they would have to adjust their theoretically-unchanging mythoi to account for those changes. Perhaps they did so with as much of an eye to manipulation of the flock as we see today in Pat Robertson's Haiti remarks. Or perhaps they did so with a Job-like knowledge that the creator could change up the apparent rules any time he felt like it, and that all they could do was try to hold things together for the laity.

We don't know. But I do know that this are the problems one has to deal with whenever we speculate about the motivations of our long-gone ancestors, and even our best solutions to those problems may tell us things that are dominantly-- but probably not universally-- true.

Monday, April 12, 2010

RITUALS OPEN AND CLOSED

Over two months ago, at the end of NO MYTHS FOR MISTER GROTH, PLEASE I said:

There are some significant differences between archaic myth and all forms of modern literature, though they do not relate to the aforementioned method of promulgation. I'll be addressing this topic in a future essay, tentatively titled, "Rituals Open and Closed."


Though in that essay I took issue with Gary Groth's pig-ignorant confusion of the principles of myth and literature, the fact is that there's a great deal of confusion even among scholars who actually study both phenomena, including the two I probably cite most frequently, Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell. In this essay I touched on the relationship in terms of speculations on their common origins:

Religious concepts, like concepts of art, surely evolved through a process of trial and error, in which the storyteller perceived patterns of meaning and managed to communicate them to his audience. But as Frye observed, religion's purpose is to say "this is so," while art's purpose is to say, "what if such-and-such were so."

Though I reject the simplistic notion that myth, as myth, was unchanging, or even universally intended by its makers to be unchanging, obviously art (at whatever point it became definitively separated from myth) could change to meet the needs of the community much more quickly. This would lead to a greater emphasis on the use of the individual intellect to use symbolic tableaux for didactic purposes-- one of the earliest being the Gilgamesh Epic, where the hero, derived from older and cruder-seeming myth-tales, becomes an object lesson on the meaning of man's mortality.


A little later I added:

any poetics that tries (as mine does) to wed aspects of Frye and Campbell will tend to let Frye be "king-of-the-mountain," at least most of the time, because Frye has a superior cognizance as to how both mythworks and artworks are made.


I still believe that, though I have had occasion to see ways in which Campbell exceeds Frye:

And just as I thought Campbell was perhaps a bit too imprecise regarding the dividing line between art and myth, so that I opined that Frye might serve to present a little more rigor in that department, Frye's dividing line between literary and subliterary is a bit too rigid and could benefit from some Campbellian input to show how even works that might be deemed "thematically escapist" possess their own orderly structure and communicate their own sort of messages


But if Frye's barrier between literary and subliterary was too rigid, there might be ways in which his equation of art and myth were too loose, though for different reasons than those of Joseph Campbell. Simply put, Campbell's equation of the two was based more in Jung and all of his Kantian forbears, while Frye was far more indebted, as I've shown here, to the Cambridge "myth-and-ritual" school. For Campbell, the thing linking art and myth is the "innate idea." For Frye, it is ritual, albeit in a figurative sense.

As most comics-critics are (as seen in my above example) largely ignorant of mythology, they generally prefer to see art as independent of the processes of mythology. Most comics-critics prefer to see literary works as heuristic tools by which authors work through their crises and the like, and for them art is individualized and thus as far as one can get from the formulas and/or rituals by which mythological narratives are sustained. Their conception of art is a bunch of separate trees which no-how no-way comprise a forest, except in the imagination of the learned critic who shapes them into the kind of forest he calls a "canon."

In contrast, I agree with Frye's tendency to see works of art in continuity with works of mythology, and that the process that unites them is that of ritual. But I have one refinement, hearkening back to my earlier-cited point about how art was more capable to responding more quickly to change in a given community than myth could.

Myths do change over time. There is no way that they cannot, being transmitted by ever-mutable human beings. But because myths are supposed to link thei audiences with the divine, myths are not dominantly SUPPOSED to change as humans do. (In saying this I may seem to be departing from a statement made above about "universal" unchangingness of myth, but I'll clarify this in a separate essay.) Thus these types of narratives are CLOSED rituals, based on the expectations of their audiences.

The narratives of art and literature, however, are OPEN rituals. They repeat many of the same tropes one finds in mythico-religious narratives, but even though certain figures and themes are repeated again and again to win audience approval, there is no sense that any of these stories must follow a "canon." Thus the narratives of art are OPEN rituals, which the audience believes free to be changed whenever someone comes up with a better version of an old story.

This is the one flaw I've found in Frye's early essay "Archetypes of Literature," where he uses the arguments of the myth-and-ritual school to make a persuasive case for humanity's need for rituals in both artistic and mythic narratives. But as I think a closer reading of Cassirer might have shown him, human priorities in one "form" of cognition (to use Cassirer's term) are not the same as in another such form.

Against my open/closed distinction one might argue that works of art do, indeed, get treated as if they were closed entities. And yet, because we know more about the processes of art than of originary myth, it's easier to see that they are not. One may put Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN on a canonic pedestal, right enough, but when one knows that Twain left out large portions of the narrative because he simply didn't think they worked well, one cannot doubt that even the author saw his text as essentially mutable. Whether the authors of any originary myths saw their texts that way will never be known with certainty--

But based on modern treatments of myth and religion, I tend to doubt it.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

SLASHIN' MARX

Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return – that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent – a misfortune.


I've already taken one Wolverine-sized chunk out of Brother Karl Marx in this post. Here's my second swipe, courtesy of Martin Buber and his conception of the two fundamental human relations: the "I-it" relation and the "I-thou" relation.

Every Thou in the world is by its nature fated to become a thing, or continually re-enter into the condition of things. In objective speech it would be said that every thing in the world, either before or after becoming a thing, is able to appear to an I as its Thou. But objective speech snatches only at a fringe of real life.

The It is the eternal chrysalis, the Thou the eternal butterfly — except that situations do not always follow one another in clear succession, but often there is a happening profoundly twofold, confusedly entangled.


I'm not nearly as much a Buberphile as I am a Cassirerphile, and I depart from Buber on an assortment of philosophical positions. Still, the above passage from I AND THOU strikes me as a cogent summation of the impossibility of altering human relations so that they are purely a matter of "love for love, trust for trust." I regard Marx's assertion as one grounded in naive idealism as to the nature of human relations. Further, even if human culture could be transformed so that all or even most people related to their fellow humans with Marx's "specific expression," I believe that it would take a lot more than a new economic system to effect such a transformation.

Buber's quote is the more profound of the two, for he admits that it's inevitable that humans will downgrade everything in their compass to the status of things. I believe that Marx and Buber would agree that every "I" possesses what Marx terms "a real individual life," but Marx does not perceive the fundamental dynamic that changes the "thou" to the "it." Rather, he implies in the passage above that to downgrade an item to the status of an "it" runs contrary to the nature of humanity. The "human relation" he describes above is a "Thou" relationship alone. What Buber would term the "it" relationship would therefore be in Marx less than fundamental, perhaps a manifestation of inhuman factors like "market forces" and "commodification," two of the ruling devils in Marx's Pandaemonium.

In the real world human interactions are not determined soley a matter of a given person's "specific expression" of his "real individual life" to another person. In terms of societal function it may be true that no man is an island, but experientially every man (and woman) must be so. Things like love and art break down the barriers between one human and another to some extent, but they can just as easily build up different barriers. Love can certainly go from chrysalis to butterfly and then back to chrysalis. That's why we have divorce lawyers. In the above passage Marx speaks of art as if one's experience of it were a one-way street navigable only once one has become an "artistically cultivated person." In truth "I" find in art what "I" seek or need to find. "I" cannot find it for "Thou," only for "I." "I" can appreciate intellectually that others have different priorities, but as that is merely an intellectual understanding, to some extent that appreciation is also an "I-it" relationship.

Relationships between artists of similar dispositions are not even capable of bridging the gap between "I" and "Thou." First comes what Herman Melville termed the "shock of recognition," as one recognizes that another cognitive being shares some of the same goals that "I" do. But after the shock wears off, one usually gets in its place "the anxiety of influence," as "I" recognize that the apparent "Thou" has separate thoughts or desires that may well reduce the "Thou" to an "It"-- which, if I recall correctly, was what basically happened with Melville and the fellow who inspired his recognition-shock, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Nine times out of ten, when I hear a Marxist rail against the evils of commodification or the culture industry, what he's railing against has nothing to do with evils arising demonstrably from economic causes. What the Marxist rails against is the perception that he's not finding what his "I" wants in all the "Its" out there in, say, popular culture. But it's possible that in many cases the butterflies are really there, hidden in chrysali, and that your Marxist has stuffed his head so full of economics that he doesn't know from basic biology.

Monday, April 5, 2010

THRILLER KILLING

"I think the biggest thing that separates horror and thriller is the supernatural. If a movie has supernatural stuff in it, to me it's automatically horror. Even though there are horror movies that are reality-based and not supernatural. So it's tough."-- B-Sol, from this 3-25-10 post on THE VAULT OF HORROR.

The problem of the generic colloquialism "thriller" is indeed a tough one. As an actual name for a genre "thriller" is pretty much useless, for even a glance at Wikipedia gives one of a cornucopia of subtypes-- action-thriller, horror-thriller, erotic thrillers-- that wander all over the genre-map. However, the debate between B-Sol and Merilyn Merlot isn't concerned with any subtypes that aren't directly related to horror. B-Sol's suggestion of a divide between natural/supernatural is an attempt to find a dividing line between the pure horror film and what Wiki would probably have termed the "horror-thriller," as per some of the examples discussed, like JAWS and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Parenthetically let me suggest a different term in place of the scattershot colloquialism "thriller." I used said term in this essay earlier:

In some ways, THE HAPPENING shares elements of both horror and suspense films. The idea of city-dwellers thrown into a mammoth catastrophe evokes the suspense-oriented narrative of the disaster film, with a side-dish of terrorist-fantasy flavoring. However, the theory about the source of the malady is presented in so oblique a way that it partakes less of the well-defined threats of a suspense-film and becomes more of a *mysterium*


The "suspense" genre, I said in a related post, was oriented not on seeking to scare the audience, but to "startle and disorient." In my own conception the pure horror film doesn't necessarily need the element of the supernatural, but it does need the element of the *mysterium,* which is my shortened form for the two Latin phrases invoked by Rudolf Otto is his classic IDEA OF THE HOLY, where he explains the numinous experience in terms of the *mysterium tremendum,* the overwhelming mystery that compels fear and trembling in the viewer, and the *mysterium fascinans,* which compels the viewer to be attracted to the fascinating mystery.

Like B-Sol, I find many non-supernatural films have enough of a "mysterioso" aspect to them that they remain conceptually within the bounds of the pure horror film. Hitchcock's PSYCHO is one example. Nothing supernatural occurs in the story, but the disintegration of Norman Bates' mind seems to be a transformation of normality as profound as if he had been possessed by a demon or the like.

However, while the horror film needs the *mysterium* in some form, the suspense film-- which is what I'd hazard is really what most people mean when they say "thriller"-- does not in general dwell on any overwhelming mysteries, as I would say is the case with both PSYCHO and the film I originally discussed in the above citation, THE HAPPENING. The Shyamalan film does have a *mysterium* at its core that aligns it with the pure horror film, but 1971's ANDROMEDA STRAIN is still a textbook example as to how to craft a suspense film that does have metaphenomenal (though not supernatural) underpinnings.

For that matter, the SILENCE OF THE LAMBS film also seems to have more in common with the suspense genre than that of horror. Hannibal Lecter is certainly mad, but it's questionable as to whether his madness is as grotesque and transformational as that of Norman Bates. Both characters inhabit essentially realistic worlds, but Hannibal's madness has far less mystery to it.

More on these matters later, probably.


ADDENDUM, 2-26-14: Just a note to myself that currently I do regard SILENCE as having its own "mysterium," albeit not one as overt as that of PSYCHO, and that therefore SILENCE does effect a "transformation of normality."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

LOSTIN' THOUGHT: PAIK'S PIQUE

Verisimilitude is far from an absolute value in my literary cosmos. I don't think Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR is less a work because the Bard has clocks striking the hour back in ancient Rome, and it doesn't matter to me that whenever Batman gets captured, his captors stick the hero in some death-trap and leave him to his devices rather than putting a bullet through his Bat-skull. In fact, verisimilitude is a secondary value next to what Frye calls the work's "total vision."

Still, some logical lapses are more annoying than others.

Take LOST's 10th episode, THE PACKAGE. We learn here that on Lostearth-2 Jin and Sun have come to America but are not married as they are on Lostearth-1. The genesis of the trip is a little hard to suss out but from their dialogue it seems as if Sun got permission to go on a "shopping trip" to the States and to take Jin along as apparent bodyguard. Sun has a ulterior motive, though, as she and Jin have slept together out of wedlock and she's hoping to talk him into staying in the States to escape her father, sinister crime-boss Paik. To that end she's even established a secret bank account to facillitate their escape.

However, Daddy Pike knows all about the liaison prior to the trip, and boy, is he piqued. (I just had to repeat the pun for any pun-haters reading.) Apparently having figured out what Sun has planned, he lays plans to give his little girl an object lesson of his power. To this end he both closes Sun's secret account and gives Jin an errand to perform during the trip. This errand, rather like Bellerophon carrying the letter that is intended to provoke his execution, is to deliver a sum of money to a group of assassins who plan to whack Jin. (One presumes that they would then send Sun back home duly chastised, though this isn't stated.)

But the money intended for the hoods doesn't get to them-- allowing for more narrative tension and necessary delaying of the execution-- because the money's confiscated by airport security when Jin and Sun enter the country.

So--

Why?

Maybe Jin knows nothing about the laws about proper declaration of money entering another country.

But why wouldn't Mr. Paik know, or have experts who would so advise him? The LOST writers want the delay, of course, but there's no reason for Paik to want it. He wants the gangsters to get their money expeditiously so that they kill Jin dead.

And it would have been such a simple fix! Instead of Jin trying to check through the money with no paperwork, how about he comes through with the requisite paperwork but it's been screwed up in some minor fashion. (It's not like Capricious Fate has ceased to operate on Lostearth-2 just because Jacob seems to be gone!) Then the same scenario plays through the same way, but nobody has to think that the ruthless crime boss Paik doesn't know the proper way to get someone killed.

I mean, jeez-- at least when the Joker puts Batman in his latest trap, the villain wants not just to kill the hero; he also wants the satisfaction of knowing the Bat dies without managing one of his vaunted escapes.

I'll note that on the whole the episode was pretty well executed. I enjoyed the fact that Sayid didn't simply cut Jin free, but simply enabled Jin to escape on his own. Sayid had enough to worry about with his own setup, and had no reason to borrow someone else's troubles.