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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...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

SYMBOLIC VICTORIES

In my MYTHCOMICS #8 post I wrote:

I’ve stated in the past that I don’t think all literary stories must have complex symbolism simply to be “capital-L” literature. Joyce’s DUBLINERS stories have a simpler artistic aim than his ULYSSES, but both are Literature. But when I see how well Dick Matena puts across a complex meaning using a thoroughgoing knowledge of symbolism, I’m all the more disappointed in the bulk of both European and American artcomics. The artists behind them continually trumpet the inferiority of popular comic books to their artistic strivings, but few of them have shown the ambition to attempt even something as complex as this 8-page Matena story, much less a ULYSSES. It’s as if most practitioners of Western artcomics took as their “Bible” Zola’s fulminations on behalf of naturalism, but never actually read the actual Zola novels to see how much symbolism the author himself used.


The problem, however, isn't limited to artcomics-culture. In THE SPHERE OF LONGINUS, I agreed with the verdict of M.A.R. Habib to the effect that Longinus seems to be the first extant literary theoretician to oppose Aristotle's notion that "universality and typicality" (Habib's words) were to be valued over those literary elements that incited wonder and emotional transport.

To double-check Habib's conclusions, I recently reread Aristotle's POETICS to see whether or not I could find in it any validation of "wonder" for its own sake, as opposed to functioning as part of some rhetorical or persuasive scheme. The closest I found was this statement about *dianoia,* which is Aristotle's word for not just the dialectical arguments presented by a work's characters but also for all forms of "thought" in a given work:

Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being,--proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite.


However, the very next sentences establish that all of these elements are subsumed to their role in dialectical argument:

Now, it is evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance, or probability. The only difference is, that the incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while the effects aimed at in speech should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech. For what were the business of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed quite apart from what he says?


Thus, though I can find no passage in the POETICS where Aristotle meditates on symbols as such, this suggests that he saw them as essentially vehicles of dialectic, as against Longinus, who considers the elements of "the sublime" to go beyond the limits of mere "persuasion."

Aristotle does devote a chapter of the POETICS to the subject of metaphor, and acknowledges its central importance:

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.


However, this too does not address the ways in which metaphor works in an affective sense, only in a (somewhat) cognitive manner. Philip Wheelwright remarks:

"...our ways of thinking about [metaphor] need to be rescued from misleading habits and particularly from the long tyranny of the grammarians. The familiar textbook definition, descended from Aristotle and Quintillian, is based upon syntactical, not semantic considerations."-- THE BURNING FOUNTAIN, "Metaphoric Tension," p. 102.

Wheelwright then pursues a detailed analysis of the different ways in which both simile and metaphor carry differing levels of "semantic energy-tension." In other words, Wheelwright's theory, as with that of Longinus, is intimately concerned with the ways in which one may cognitively appreciate the affective dimensions of symbolic communication, rather than committing the logical fallacy of seeing the affectivity as just another cognitive function.

I suspect that most artcomics critics are of an Aristotelian mind. They appreciate works that seem to function as instances of well-wrought *dianoia,* because they as critics can then interpret such thoughts in terms of either ethical or aesthetic criticism-- neither of which is adequate to take in the whole of artistic endeavor, as I explained here.

But in fairness, this mistake is one that much of Western criticism pursued over many centuries. So if nothing else, they come by it honestly.

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