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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...

Monday, October 24, 2011


"We are hierarchical animals. Sweep one hierarchy away, and another will take its place, perhaps less palatable than the first."-- Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 3.
"A leader, you see, is one of the things that distinguishes a mob from a people. He maintains the level of individuals. Too few individuals, and the people reverts to a mob."-- Frank Herbert's character Stilgar from DUNE, p. 285.
As far as I can tell, there isn't much "mystery" about "mastery" in the view of Paglia's PERSONAE.  A sentence of two after the above quote, she states that "In nature, brute force is the law, a survival of the fittest."  For Paglia, much of literature concerns exposing the elements of sex and aggression that dwell within even the most rarefied works of literature.  I would argue that brute force is *a* law in the natural world, but not precisely the only law.  Further, even if it *were* the only law for nonhuman sentients, one might argue that human beings by virtue of greater complexity have managed to come up with amendments to the original cosmic legality.

Frank Herbert's quote isn't concerned with nonhuman nature, but he does address a mystery about human nature in a more paradoxical fashion.  When one thinks about hierarchical leadership, one does not generally think about a leader doing anything but enforcing his will; certainly not about his "maintaining the level of individuals."  And yet Herbert is correct, and crosses paths with Paglia on this point: individuality is possible only within a hierarchical system that keeps the people from devolving into mob rule.

Drawing on the quasi-Hegelian terminology of Frank Fukuyama, discussed here, one might judge Paglia's view of this hierarchy to be "megalothymotic" and Herbert's to be "isothymotic," as per Fukuyama's definition:

"Megalothymia can be manifest both in the tyrant who invades and and enslaves a neighboring people so that they will recognize his authority, as well as in the concert pianist who wants to be recognized as the foremost interpreter of Beethoven. Its opposite is isothymia, the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people. Megalothymia and isothymia together constitute the two manifstations of the desire for recognition around which the historical transition to modernity can be understood." (The End of History and the Last Man, p. 182).
I extrapolated the following from Fukuyama's terminology re: the subject of "sex 'n' violence:"

While there are ways in which sexual partners can attempt to "assault" one another-- ways which include, but are not confined to, rape-- sex is dominantly isothymic, in that sex usually requires some modicum of cooperation. Violence, then, dominantly conforms to Fukuyma's megalothymic mode insofar as it usually involves a struggle of at least two opponents in which one will prove superior to the other, though in rare cases fighters may simply spar with no intent of proving thymotic superiority.

I've devoted considerable passages to making comparisons and contrasts between these two physical activities and their literary expressions, so I won't repeat any of these here.  But I would refine the passage above by noting how it applies to a phenomenon common to both, explicated here.
The phenomenon of sthenolagnia, of "strength-worship" in both real and literary worlds, could be said to abide in both of Fukuyama's categories.  In "megalothymia" one worships a superior force which extends its power vertically downward.  In "isothymia" one worships a commonality of interlinked and interdependent forces.

Put the two propositions side by side, and naive critics will almost always give the obligatory jerk of the knee (among other things) to the latter one.  As a quick example, I've noted that such critics automatically laud Alan Moore over Frank Miller not purely in terms of formal qualities, but because Moore is more politically palatable.  The sort of alleged anarchism Moore encodes in his works is automatically superior to any POV expressed in Miller's words, which for lazy critics always come down to the "F" word: "fascism."
Anything that suggests an advocacy of "mastery" in this megalothymic sense is verboten.

And yet, the true "mystery of mastery" is that it frequently shows up, as Paglia sometimes successfully demonstrates, even in forms that are thought to be subtle and refined.  It shows up because "the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people," even if it were sufficient for human beings politically, can never be sufficient in the world of literature.  I noted in Part 3 that in fetish-fantasies the reader may be at once "the slayer and the slain," the hero and the villain.  Less extreme meditations on gender conflict, ranging from JANE EYRE to YOUNG ROMANCE, will of course emphasize the isothymic strength of shared experience, of compromise.  But the essence of conflict remains the same, no matter which pathway a given work may take.

To believe that literature should mirror a desired form of experience, an "ought" rather than an "is," is Werthamism in its most obtuse manifestation.  Whether or not one believes that extreme fantasies of sex and violence have value in themselves, at the very least they continually force readers and critics to avoid becoming entrenched in viewing the world purely through the limited lens of morality and highbrow aesthetics.


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