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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...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


At the start of this three-part serial essay, I asked:
Philosophically speaking, what does it mean to be a metaphenomenalist? Or, for that matter, an isophenomenalist?

The short answer is that to be an isophenomenalist, you must believe that everything within the scope of human experience reduces down to natural experience of some sort.  Even cultural experience is informed principally by whatever material factors provide the experiential root of a given culture.

However, with metaphenomenalism, one can choose one of two paths.  One path, that of the Rationalist, asserts that there is some "essence" that is beyond all experience, and hence trumps the banal round of existence.  The other path, which Cassirer called "critical idealism," follows the thought that Kant expressed at the start of CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON:
...though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience.

In part 2 I also noted the problems Kant addressed with both Empiricist and Rationalist arguments, and that C.S. Lewis was essentially in the Rationalist camp, as one who tended, in Kant's words, to "intellectualize phenomena."  Nevertheless, the schema Lewis depicts in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN-- the Fear/Dread/Awe affects that he invokes to explain the range of human responses to the Numinous, as well as what only seems like the Numinous (i.e., mundane danger)-- possesses an internal consistency not seen in most of his proselytizing arguments.  I find it interesting that Lewis' argument, like many of his other insights, seems to apply better to literature than philosophy as such.

I've stated as far back as MYTHS WITHOUT FANTASY in 2007 that fantasy (the generally used term for all metaphenomenal concepts) is not, strictly speaking, necessary for myth to flourish.  But as I said in that early essay, one does need, even in isophenomenal fiction, some sense of the "larger-than-life" in order that mythicity/symbolic complexity may function.

I extrapolated somewhat on similar themes in THRILLER KILLING:

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.

While it's quite possible for isophenomenal genres as far apart as the suspense thriller and the domestic comedy to be mythically complex, there may be a certain tendency against such complexity given the fact that many authors see their fictive worlds in terms of pure representationalism, and so lose track of the "larger-than-life" qualities.  These are worlds where neither ghosts nor gods have any true symbolic presence.  Here there be tigers, and nothing more than tigers.

The metaphenomal category of "the marvelous" is the exact opposite: however the author may choose to violate rationalism and causality for the sake of a marvelous story, some *deus ex machina* can be invoked.  To be sure, many marvelous works merely imitate others, and it might be argued that often the "gods," the metaphenomal marvels of such works are what Ursula LeGuin conceived to be "false myths."  However, the symbolic strength of gods is that for every worshipper they lose, they gain more converts down the line, and the "larger-than-life" qualities are brought forth in works that imitate in an inspired rather than perfunctory manner. 

The metaphenomenal category of "the uncanny" is, in a structureal sense, midway between the two as critical realism stands between Rationalism and Empiricism.  Like all or most neo-Kantian philosophies, the uncanny does not seek to usurp causal reality completely, as does the marvelous.  Yet its metaphenomena, its "ghosts," remain outside the affective boundaries characreristic of the isophenomenal world.

Lewis' use of the term "ghosts" for his interstitial category of "Dread" takes on ironic context in my system.  In said system any work that depicts a ghost as being unquestionably existential does of course fall into the category of the marvelous, not the uncanny.  There are a few exceptions where the ghost's nature is so tentatively known that it does fall into the latter category (see my review of Laurence Olivier's HAMLET as an example). Still, the ten tropes of the uncanny-metaphenomenal evoked on my film-blog may resemble Lewis' ghost in that they too tend to inspire dread more than awe.  Given that uncanny works also have a tendency toward pure representationalism-- best seen in the idea of the "phony ghost" Gothic-tale to which Tzvetan Todorov refers-- it may be argued that they too tend somewhat away from the higher degrees of symbolic complexity.  Naturally, this is not to suggest any agreement with Todorov's fallacious statement that any version of "fantasy" is primarily defined through "the real."

Thus, though I am frequently vexed by Lewis' in terms of philosophy, I must admire the deductive logic at which he produced this schema, even if it does work less well in the sphere of philosophy than in that of literature. Northrop Frye expressed a similar phenomenological discontinuity in ANATOMY OF CRITICISM:

If men were compelled to make the melancholy choice between atheism and superstition, the scientist…would be compelled to choose atheism, but the poet would be compelled to choose superstition, for even superstition, by its very confusion of values, gives his imagination more scope than a dogmatic denial of imaginative infinity does. But the loftiest religion, no less than the grossest superstition, comes to the poet, qua poet, only as the spirits came to Yeats, to give him metaphors for poetry.


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