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Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I mentioned earlier that I was reading Philip Wheelwright's THE BURNING FOUNTAIN, subtitled "A Study in the Language of Symbolism." Wheelwright's prose is much like Northrop Frye's: intellectual but not academic, and generous in the use of specific examples as against drowning the reader in general theory. For me Wheelwright's theories of symbolism don't quite eclipse those of Susanne Langer, but unlike Langer he does devote more than a little attention to the concept of symbols having different levels of complexity.

On the Forum That Dare Not Speak Its Name, I remember trying, without success, to convince one individual of the demonstrable fact that certain symbols or symbol-clusters have a phenomenological ability to attract more associations than do other representations. It's true that one cannot say, in any meaningful context, that real eagles are more important, more significant, than real mudlarks. However, in any symbolic universe the symbolic (or gestural) eagle is worth more than the symbolic/gestural mudlark. This is an important strike against the empiricist tendency to view all connotational associations as equally epiphenomenal, and relates back to the Frye quote which remains the foundation-stone of this blog:

“Archetypes are associative clusters, and differ from signs in being complex variables.”—ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, p. 102

To be sure, Frye doesn't present an adequate theory of symbolic complexity, but Wheelwright glosses Frye's comment more than adequately.

"Certain particulars have more of an archetypal content than others; that is to say, they are 'eminent instances' which stand forth in a characteristic amplitude as representatives of many others; they enclose in themselves a certain totality, arranged in a certain way, stirring in the soul something at once familiar and strange, and thus outwardly as well as inwardly they lay claim to a certain unity and generality."-- FOUNTAIN, p. 54.

This is not, of course, Platonic essentialism, an accusation leveled at Jung by some empiricist critics. Wheelwright is not saying that there is an archetype of "Eagle-ness" that sends its *eidolos* down to the huddled masses that they might worship the Glory of the Eagle. The "characteristic amplitude" is not bestowed upon the "eminent instances" by something outside history, and yet, the eminence of the eagle is not *simply* the humdrum concatenation of all the particular times that various human cultures decided that eagles looked cool, as a materialistic blockhead like Roland Barthes would insist. Wheelwright compares his notion of "archetypal content" and "amplitude" to Goethe's concepts of beauty, though personally I think Kant's concept of the beautiful and the sublime might make a better comparison.

Of course, Kant has been accused of essentialism, too, but even if one believed this, only another blockhead of Barthesian proportions could believe Kant's "a priori" categories to be one with Plato's archetypes.

Another significant theme Wheelwright explores throughout FOUNTAIN is what he calls "the intrinsically threshold character of experience." I made direct reference to the concept of the threshold in this discussion of Jungian theory and the Cambridge myth-ritual school. But in a sense a tremendous amount of my theory involves movements from one phenomenolgical threshold to another. My theory of the uncanny derives in part from Tzvetan Todorov's preoccuation with his own "threshold" concept, "the fantastic." The dominant emotional associations I assign to my AUM theory-- fear, dread, and awe-- inevitably shade into one another, and make it difficult, though not impossible, to make phenomenological distinctions between each conceptual experience. And the same applies to such categories as the beautiful and the sublime, the connotative and the denotative, Superman and Batman, ad infinitum.

I may explore a few more of Wheelwright's concepts in future posts, but for now, it's sufficient to focus on these two almost oppositional concepts:

The concept of complexity, which suggests an "eminent instance" with a huge accretion of associations, not unlike the outer periphery of a black hole:

And the concept of a threshold, which suggests the black hole itself.

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