Tuesday, March 1, 2011


“The opposite of laughter and joking is seriousness. This, accordingly, consists in the consciousness of the perfect agreement and congruity of the concept, or the idea, with what is perceptive, with reality. The serious person is convinced that he conceives things as they are, and that they are as he conceives them. This is just why the transition from profound seriousness to laughter is particularly easy, and can be brought about by trifles.”—Arthur Schopenhauer, WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION (trans. Payne), p. 99.

For some time I’ve been meaning to explore certain relations of the humorous impulse to “serious” affects as the thrill of the agon and the agony of the pathos. I mentioned in the essay SATIRE-RIASIS that in interviews Harvey Kurtzman subscribed to the idea that satire was a literal corrective to what he considered false beliefs. This idea may have some truth for sociopolitical affairs, but from a pluralistic POV it has no applicability to art.

A similarly deluded attempt to impose upon art a Freudian “reality principle” is seen in this essay by Noah Berlatsky, in which he claims that superheroes are intrinsically comic:

The desire to be so strong and fast and smart and wonderful that you can save the world with one hand while winning at backgammon with the other — it’s cute when kids imagine it, embarrassing when adults do, and silly at all times and in all seasons.

Berlatsky conveniently overlooks the potential of every aspect of human reality-- real-life or literary-- can be made silly. The fact that the 1966 BATMAN film does a good job of spoofing superheroes does not prove logically that superheroes are silly, any more than ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN proves HAMLET silly. As Schopenhauer says, "serious" works privilege congruity over any possible incongruity, and "comic" works do the opposite. Each mode depends on a process I have called "dynamization," which in essence comes down to a superiority dance. No dance is wrong on its own terms, but one ought to know more than one.

Now, "cute monsters" are not always used for outright comedy. However, again going on the assumption that a given child knows that the model for his "soft lion" or "soft monster" could be dangerous to him in its original form, most "cute horrors" fall under Schopenhauer's concept of incongruity, where "the apprehension of the incongruity between what is conceived and what is perceived, i.e. reality, gives us pleasure."

An interesting contrast to the Kurtzman-Berlatsky "reality principle" appears in some of the remarks of Curt Purcell’s respondents, which he collates here. Two of these horror-bloggers view these cutesy transformations of serious horrors as a compromise of what John of MONSTER MAGAZINE WORLD tellingly terms “deeper complexities.” He concludes:

Maybe we are only simply trying to reduce our fears with the vanquishing of the element that makes the monster fearful, leaving nothing more than a sanitized version, a parody to laugh at and cuddle.

Similarly, the VAULT OF HORROR essay, "Monster Cereals: Eating What Scares You," views this cereal-murdering of monstrous icons as an attempt to “take away [monstrous] power by turning it into a parody,” while Doctor Gangrene's prognosis is that softer versions of monsters arise because adults wish to share their own favorable horrific experiences with children, albeit in dampened form.

Though in terms of personal inclinations I’m more in tune with the horror-bloggers than with the advocates of Really Real Reality Principles, I have to point out that in keeping with Schopenhauer’s above remarks, humor is a natural consequence of seriousness in any human endeavor. Thus it’s possible that a humorous or parodic transformation can possess its own “complexities.”

Admittedly, monster-toys and monster-cereals are not the best source of symbolic complexity. They do appeal to the human love of the incongruous, but only in simple, though not insignificant, ways. But some works manage to be, as CLASSIC HORROR avers, “merry and scary” at the same time without compromising either spirit.

In this essay I looked at how Charles Addams’ ghoulish-goofy ADDAMS FAMILY cartoons derived from such vital horror-texts as THE OLD DARK HOUSE and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. One could probably reel off a good-sized list of works that create their own symbolic universes rather than being nothing more than straight parodies, but that's a project best left for some future post.


Dr. Gangrene said...

Whew! That's some heavy stuff there, but good. There are many layers to cutesy monsters, and it's interesting to read everyone's takes on them, and also all of them referenced in one piece as well. Nice work!

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks for your comment, Doc. Much appreciated.