Saturday, October 29, 2011


"All that said, I can tell you Alex was a character destined to die from the moment she was first introduced in GL #48. I created her with the intention of having her be murdered at the hands of Major Force. I took a lot of care in building her as a character, because I wanted her to be liked and her death to mean something to the readers. I wanted readers to be horrified at the crime, and to empathize with Kyle's loss. Her death was meant to bring brutal realization to Kyle that being GL wasn't fun and games. It was also meant to sever his links with his old life, paving the way for his move to New York. And ultimately I wanted her death to be memorable and illustrate just how truly heinous Major Force was. Thus the fridge."-- Ron Marz, justifying the GREEN LANTERN incident that inspired the title WOMEN IN REFRIGERATORS, from the WIP site.
"Naturally, this formula [of men beating women] is not popular with girls. Granting all the masochistic excitement of terror, it is difficult to identify yourself with a corpse."-- Gershon Legman, LOVE AND DEATH (1949), P. 47.

In the comments section for Part 3 of THE MYSTERY OF MASTERY, Curt Purcell commented thusly:

I certainly wouldn't say there's any encouragement to identify with the villains in the movies I discussed, if only because they tended to be repellently nonhuman--sometimes little more than a writhing mass of tentacles. How does one identify with that?

In that specific case, I can't say with certainty whether or not the particular audience for this particular type of thing does or doesn't regularly identify with something like a "writhing mass of tentacles."  But I can venture a way in which they *might* do so, in keeping with one of the key essays on this site, my take on how Schopenhauer's theory of the will applies to literature:

Was Schopenhauer was right about “Will” inhering in every aspect of our reality? We do not know. However, we CAN be sure that “Will” inheres in every aspect of the various LITERARY realities we as humans create, for we KNOW for a fact that they are all “willed” into existence by their creators (and sometimes, however indirectly, by audiences as well).

Identification need not always connote one's sense of participation in a given character's bodily reality, although when speaking of erotica, that would be the natural assumption.  It's equally possible to identify with a nonhuman creature, or even an inanimate phenomenon, by identifying it as an expression of a particular will to do something within the sphere of a narrative.

The other night I happened to rescreen Sam Raimi's 1981 THE EVIL DEAD.  As many horrorphiles will know, the film's about as simple as a splatterpunk flick can get: five young people camp out in a remote cabin and come under attack by murderous Sumerian demons.  Raimi's film shows particular influence by the "stalker vision" element, where the camera seems to assume the viewpoint of a murderous force stalking its prey-- a narrative element that inspired righteous condemnation from the team of Siskel and Ebert back in the day.  The film-pundits were wrong, though, in thinking that the audience necessarily identified with the violence-happy desires of the murderous stalker. What's more probable is that the audience did identify with the *WILL* expressed by the stalker, be it a deformed human being like Jason Voorhees or an invisible discarnate force such as the demons in EVIL DEAD.  To the extent that I as audience-member want to see the EVIL DEAD demons do demonic things, then I have (whether it gives me a particular fetishy thrill or not) identified with a thing I can't even see on-camera-- certainly a proposition no harder to credence than identifying with a malign mass of tentacles.

The same thing can even apply to phenomena that don't really have benign or malign intent, just some nature that comes into conflict with human agents.  In AGAIN SUPERHEROIC VISIONS: RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, I stipulated that the focus of a given story could be an insubstantial phenomenon, such as the titular force of Rene Clair's THE CRAZY RAY, or even a place, such as The Center of the Earth to which Jules Verne's protagonists journey. 

Now the reason I titled this essay "Negative I.D."  is twofold.  I stated the law of identification earlier:

Therefore, neither a foolish child nor a discriminating adult is in any way wrong to say "I'm Daredevil," as long as either of them has actually identified with the character.
I do deem such identifications to be phenomenologically real within the sphere of literature and literary response.  However, it should go without saying (which is the reason why I didn't explicit say it) that such moments of identification are fleeting.  One moment the reader may identify with the slayer, and then in another, with the slain: with Captain America one moment and the Red Skull the next.  The nature of the human imagination inclines toward such identificatory pluralism, proceeding from "flower to flower to flower" as per the monarch's advice to the bee in THE KING AND I.

So identification can be positive one moment, and negative the next, where "negative" simply meaning that the reader has ceased to identify with a given subject.  Pundits such as Siskel, Ebert, and the above-quoted Gershon Legman understand identification only in terms of the aforementioned "bodily reality." For this reason Legman thinks he's been clever in claiming that "it's difficult to identify yourself with a corpse."  But dozens of horror-stories written from the viewpoints of corpses-- whether said corpses are walking around or are just lying there mulling over their sad fates-- indicate that readers can indeed identify with what corpses symbolize in narrative terms: the extinguishment of a character's ability to participate in the world of living, willing activity.  It's possible, of course, that a poorly executed story of anything-- be it a talking corpse or a discarnate spirit-- may also fail to inspire identification because a reader finds it stupid or tedious.  In DAREDEVIL THE MAN W/O IDENTITY I noted that this was my own non-identificatory response to Clowes' DAVID BORING.

However, some readers reject identification for reasons extrinsic to the story's dynamics (or lack of dynamics.  This is the second form of "negative I.D."

In PART 2 of MASTERY I refuted views expressed by both Heidi MacDonald and the "Women in Refrigerators" site.  Of the two, however, Gail Simone's 1999-created site has had the greater influence over opinions in comic-book fandom. The tone of Simone's initial address on the site is quite measured:

This is a list I made when it occurred to me that it's not that healthy to be a female character in comics. I'm curious to find out if this list seems somewhat disproportionate, and if so, what it means, really.

These are superheroines who have been either depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator. I know I missed a bunch. Some have been revived, even improved -- although the question remains as to why they were thrown in the wood chipper in the first place.

I know I missed a bunch -- I just don't know my comics deaths the way I should. I'm not editorializing -- I'm just curious to find out what you guys think it means, if anything.

However, her criteria for inclusion on this list is horribly skewed, showing a tendency to negatively characterize any violence inflicted on a female character, no matter what justification the violence had within the context of the story.  I attacked one example of this skewing tendency on a recent CBR board:
I do think it's historically valuable that WIR at least encapsulates an attitude characteristic of the time. And perhaps it does record some of the dominant cliches used by comics-creators during that period.

But one of the most objectionable things about the WIR list is that it doesn't provide context. For instance, it might be arguable that if one reads that a starring heroine like Amethyst gets put through the ringer:

"Amethyst (blinded, merged with Gemworld, destroyed in LSH; became a power-hungry witch in Book of Fate)"

That *might* be indicative of a tendency to downgrade or persecute heroines.

But the same can't be said of some other characters on the list:

"Carol Ferris/Star Sapphire (turned into a villain by the Zamarons, possessed by the Predator)"

That's not a fair representation. Star Sapphire was always, if not actively villainous, a somewhat ruthless figure depending on the writer handling her. That was the whole dramatic point of having her be the "Miss Hyde" to Carol's "Lady Doctor Jekyll." It wasn't something radically added at the time she transforms into the Predator, as the above line implies. Englehart's idea was simply an extrapolation of the original concept, regardless as to whether one thinks it was well executed. It didn't belong on a list devoted to female marginalization.

And it's certainly not the only ill-considered example on the list.

 Even more damning is Ron Marz's response, in which he states that he developed the character of Alex (the victim killed and stuffed in a fridge) with the express intention of killing her.  His response too is quite measured, and worth reading in full.  I can't say that the original GREEN LANTERN story achieved its ends of making me "empathize with Kyle's loss;" I failed to experience any identification with the hero or his dead girlfriend, which I define as the first kind of "negativity."  However, Simone rejected the trope of the "dead girlfriend" in terms of the second type of negativity: that it was emblematic of a questionable tendency in comics-crafting.  Here's her summing-up from the WIR site following assorted reactions (no year date given):

I still think women are pretty unevenly portrayed in comics, but so are men, really. Ultimately, we speak most loudly with the choices we make at the cash register. And to future creators - we ARE out there reading. Please don't barbecue all the characters we like!

I have no problem with Simone-- whom I respect as a comics-creator-- questioning a given tendency.  I do have a problem (as did others, whose responses are recorded on the site) with her lack of context.  This lack expresses to me a deeper problem seen also in Ebert, Siskel, and Legman: the tendency to reject a creator's use of sex and/or violence against any figure perceived as "unevenly portrayed."

I didn't like Marz's "Alex in the fridge" story.  However, I support his right to come up with a story in which a supporting cast-member is horribly killed simply to advance a particular plotline, just as I support the notion of the Marquis de Sade having his heroes torture and kill dozens of identical victims to advance his particular brand of narrative.  I've certainly seen my share of poorly-executed executions (*cough* Gerry Conway *cough*).  But one must distinguish between the artistic potential of a controversial trope like girlfriend-killing, and any particular negative example of same.

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.


Saturday, October 22, 2011


'We’ll set aside for a moment the question of whether seeing women “bloodied and bruised” is sick as fuck or not. No, what’s really interesting about this site is how similar so much of the imagery is to actual comic books.'-- Heidi MacDonald, "The One with All the Comments," THE BEAT, 1-31-08.
'If the red slayer thinks he has slain,
'And the slain think themselves slain,
They know not well my subtle ways,
I keep and turn, and hold again'--"Brahma," R.W. Emerson.
So. Back to the main topic of the GROOVY AGE post "Superheroines Lose:" given the nature of pornography in all its manifestations, is it as "sick as fuck" for a given consumer to indulge in images of women, whether superheroic or otherwise, being physically abused/degraded?  Curt Purcell expresses some ambivalence:

Sometimes it worries me, the fantasy material that fascinates me most.  I'd like to think I'm nice and "normal" in real life, but when it comes to imagining and looking at make-believe stuff . . . well, you'll see.-- "Superheroines Lose."

Curt promises to explore the matter in more depth in a future post, BTW.

Like Curt, I'm not entirely sanguine about this particular kind of spectacle, sometimes simplified in fetish-culture as "m/f," meaning "male over female ".  Despite Heidi's blanket condemnation, I think it feasible that a majority of comic-book readers, and perhaps even a majority of men, are either repelled by or at least made queasy by images of women being abused.  Not to say that any male protective instinct toward women-- whether hardwired by nature or input by society-- cannot be overruled; obviously it can.  At the same time, however, the forced degradation of fictional figures of any gender cannot help but have a different tonality than any experience relating to real violence, be it Elizabethan bear-baiting or a fascination with serial killers.

In HERE COMES DAREDEVIL, THE MAN W/O IDENTITY,  I suggested a literary "law of identification" to complement Aristotle's real-world-oriented "law of identity:"

Because Daredevil is a construct whose sole purpose is to be identified with, whenever anyone does so, that person brings into being the only reality (or "truth" if one prefers that term) that Daredevil can possibly have.

Therefore, neither a foolish child nor a discriminating adult is in any way wrong to say "I'm Daredevil," as long as either of them has actually identified with the character. Both would be wrong to apply that identificatory process to the world of real phenomena, as the poster points out in his tut-tutting manner. But if the act of identification is real, one can say with complete accuracy, "I am Daredevil-- or David Copperfield-- or Captain Ahab-- or Freewheelin' Franklin Freekowski."

With this phenomenological law in mind, one may fairly ask, "How sure are we that the sick fucks who patronized the "Superheroines Lose" material are identifying only with the 'slayer,' and not with the 'slain?'"

At one point Curt Purcell suggests one item that might be viewed as such a proof.  He notes that in all the Japanese materials he surveyed, he found almost nothing that had the jokey tone one can find in less fetish-y forms of pornography.  That's a significant datum.  All forms of entertainment, "mainstream" or "specialized," use comedy as a leveling-mechanism between fictional characters-- particularly those of opposing gender.  Arguably comedic interchanges also bring about a leveling between the characters, who exist to be identified with, and the real-world customer, who is there to do the identifying.  Comedy can be a powerful reminder that "hey, guys, what you're seeing isn't phenomenologically real in the positivist sense" (or words to that effect).  In pornography, one may conjecture that a lack of comedic byplay might suggest that the identification is strictly one-way: the customer wants only to be the "red slayer," getting even with his bitch-boss or his wife or the girl who blew him off in high school.

However, simply because it's a logical conclusion, that doesn't make it correct.

I have encountered testimony from some patrons as to the "doubleness" of the identificatory process in related types of pornographic fiction: the experience of being both the slayer and the slain.  However, I don't advocate the belief that, because some people have made this testimony, this process must be true of all fetish-fiction, either in the "m/f" category or in others.  There's no survey one could ever devise that would show the truth of all human hearts, in this regard or in any other. All one can do is to state, "Some people have made Statement X.  Is Statement X corroborated by a Statement Y in any related venue?"

Well, one could point to the fact that in mainstream comic books, many patrons do have what are commonly called "favorite villains."  The villains, it will be remembered, are the characters who continually lose, at least in traditionally oriented superhero stories.  If a contingent of comics-fans-- call them Contingent R-- consider the Red Skull a great villain, does that mean that they admire the villain and secretly want to be Nazis?  Or does it mean that Contingent R, observing that the Skull gets pounded to a pulp every time he fights Captain America, is secretly getting off on the Skull's sufferings, as if they were Sade's readers enjoying the torments of Justine?  Or does Contingent R, while identifying with the villain in some fashion, appreciate him largely in the function of a fictional creation that makes the stories more visceral, simply because "Everybody Hates Nazis?"

Readers of this blog will probably guess which of these three views I would tend to champion. In addition, this example may show that humor, while useful, isn't especially necessary to encourage free-flowing identification.  There have been lame Red Skull stories that used him as nothing more than a stock opponent, and there have been superior Red Skull stories that gave him some consistency of character to explain why a figure of considerable talents turns into such a monster.  But hardly any of the good stories used humor to get across that identificatory message: at least in the thirty-plus years that I read the CAPTAIN AMERICA feature, I knew it as Marvel's most humor-challenged series, eclipsed only by the Silver-Age SILVER SURFER. 

So the identificatory process remains a mystery.

Though not necessarily the same as "the mystery of mastery."

More on which later.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Before further exploring the topic raised by Curt Purcell's post (see PT. 1), I feel it appropriate to point out this blog's previous encounter with the topic of violence and superheroines, in reaction to this 1-31-08 BEAT post.  However, Heidi's post addressed a different manifestation of the same phenomenon. Whereas Curt addressed a subgenre of Japanese pornography, to which he gave the informal name "Superheroines Lose," Heidi alleged that similar violent material on the porn-website "Superheroines Demise" was uncomfortably close to imagery seen in mainstream superhero comics.

I didn't think then, and don't think now, that Heidi proved her case:

It seems to me that the jury is still out as to whether this dominance imagery “pervades” the superhero genre as Alexa claims. Heidi names three examples of similar-looking image but doesn’t (at least in this post) claim that it’s pervasive. Steven Stahl cites one other example that may be the only one I’ve read, too long ago to remember anything except a general impression that MS. MARVEL was a really vanilla book.

I think you need more than four examples to prove pervasiveness. Should I check out WOMEN IN REFRIGERATORS?

Another general impression I’ve had is that there are more triumphant, kickass female characters in comic books than at any other time in comic-book history. But maybe that’s just me.

Now, here's a new thought::

Suppose I am right, and there exist within any given year, contrary to Heidi and WIR, far more depictions of triumphant rather than trounced heroines in U.S. comics books specifically and in U.S. media generally.  Admittedly, to assert this, one cannot define a "heroine" simply as any lead female character: it would have to be a character possessed of ample power to defend herself in a violent situation-- which would certainly be the principal context for costumed superheroines, though not for the Lifetime Channel's treasure-trove of endlessly imperilled female leads.

IF that were indeed the case, then it could be that "Superheroines Demise," if its organizers and contributors are dominantly U.S. citizens/residents, might be a reaction AGAINST the valorization of superheroes in mainstream media, as opposed to being an outgrowth of a general male audience's imperfectly-concealed desire to torment the female figure.  ("Not that there's anything wrong with that"-- at least, AS LONG AS IT'S A FRICKING FICTIONAL CHARACTER!) 

Naturally, I'm not interested enough in the answer to go out and buy every mainstream comic book that features a (super)heroine and count the number of times she kicks ass as opposed to the number of times she's slammed silly.  Even if I did, statistics alone would never prove the matter.  People on either side of the question would believe what they want to believe.

But here's the point to which my series-title, "Mystery of Mastery," refers:

Is there as radical a disconnect as some would believe between the triumphant and trounced modes?

Do not both depend on the arousal of sensation, in reaction against ideas transmitted through cultural matrices (such as fiction)?

I'll go into more detail in future essays.  But in parting I'll point out that where the Japanese are concerned, they pretty much corner the market on every type of fetish imagineable-- and that I may be able to find at least one "triumphant" Japanese superheroine for every "trounced" one in Curt's survey.

More later.

Monday, October 17, 2011


To what extent, and in what circumstances, is it possible for a man to make use of the descending road as a way to spiritual self-transcendence? At first sight it would seem obvious that the way down is not and can never be the way up. But in the realm of existence matters are not quite so simple as they are in our beautifully tidy world of words. In actual life a downward movement may sometimes be made the beginning of an ascent. -- Aldous Huxely on Self-Transcendence.
So rape, a heinous crime, becomes in fiction a source of titillation, at least when it's being perpetrated by a handsome swain. In itself this is no different than a host of similar dynamizations which fictional narrative makes possible. But having said that, is titillation all there is to the matter?...

...the power to rape, if it does signify potency in these stories, also signifies that the rakish hero is worth the heroine's trouble. She would hardly want to bother "stooping to conquer" him otherwise-- me, FROM ROMANCE TO THE RITUAL OF RAPE.

This essay is a prelude to an essay-series responding in part to Curt Purcell's recent GROOVY AGE post, entitled "Superheroines Lose."
I have not yet decided how many essays will comprise the series.  I've written more than a little here about the intertwined cultural subjects of sexuality and violence.  Because I don't get a lot of commentary, I'm not certain to what extent I'm talking to myself.  This in itself isn't necessarily a problem, as the blog was essentially conceived as a method of working out various aspects of my theories.  However, lack of input makes it tougher to avoid duplicating points.
The bracketed quotes above have in common a refusal to consider even the most physical aspects of human culture-- which in Huxley's essay involves an assortment of practices that he terms "downward transcendence"-- to be no more than physical.  This may be harder to demonstrate, though, with the subject matter of Curt's essay than with, say, romance-novels.
Time will tell. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011


At the end of the first essay in this essay-series, I said:

...I'll wind up by describing the relevance of their respective intersubjectivities for the literary analyst.

"Their" refers to the two authors I've now compared and contrasted: Joseph Conrad, who championed the "marvels and mysteries" found in isophenomenal fiction, and J.R.R. Tolkien, who defended the more "arresting" wonders of faerie and fantasy, which is at least one major aspect of the metaphenomenal expanses of humanity's ongoing narrative universe.

Now, it must be said first of all that from the standpoint of taste, or what Kant calls "the agreeable," there can be no particular logical valuation placed on either the preference for realistic or fantastic wonders.  In the realm of the agreeable, Conrad is justified in finding the former marvels fascinating, and Tolkien is equally justified in "desiring dragons," as he once put it.

However, both of these paradigms of wonder-production are not confined only to these particular authors.  Both of them, in exploring their own creative preferences, translated their particular tastes into intersubjective literary myths, and so expanded the potentials of both paradigms by instilling such wonders, be they of natural typhoons or unnatural dragons, in the hearts of their readers.  Some readers preferred only realistic wonders, as Conrad apparently did, some readers bowed down exclusively at the fane of Tolkien, and some learned to appreciate both intersubjective wonders.  Since I have written with appreciation of both writers here, obviously I'll be disposed to use myself as a representative of the last type of reader.

That said, though I respect the party of Conrad, I hold more regard for Tolkien's POV despite the fact that I disagree with a number of his specific opinions.  For Conrad, taking a naturalistic stance, tends to treat fiction as if it had to be based upon one's view of the "real world."  But for me this is the domain of nonfiction.  Fiction will always be more about the hypothetically possible than the actual: more about "becoming" than "being" as it were.

Kant also believed that qualities such the beautiful and the sublime were not purely products of pure association, which he labeled as "reproductive imagination" and which seems to deal, like Coleridge's concept of "fancy," with what Samuel Taylor called "Fixities and Definites."  Conrad's type of "marvels and mysteries" are clearly of this nature, since Conrad takes pains to tell us that all such enchantments are simply impressions made upon our minds by the "visual and tangible world."  This is the limitation of all isophenomenal fiction.  Within those limits great work can and has been done.  But often the greatness of the work comes of exploiting the tension between the limitations of the real and human expectations of illimitability.

In both its "uncanny" and "marvelous" manifestations, however, the metaphenomenal stands free to delve into the depths of what Kant calls the "productive imagination."  Kant's remarks, cited earlier in my "Finding Sigmund" essays, bear repeating:

“For the imagination… is very mighty when it creates, as it were, another nature out of the material that actual nature gives it… We may even restructure experience; and though in doing so we continue to follow analogical laws, yet we also follow principles which reside higher up, namely, in reason (and which are just as natural to us as those which the understanding follows in apprehending empirical nature. In this process we feel our freedom from the law of association…”—Kant, CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, Section 314, tr. Pluhar).

Cassirer, whom I troubled to introduce in the INTERSUBJECTIVITY INTERLUDE, reifies Kant in such a way as to clarify that these "principles which reside higher up" are at once grounded in human subjective responses to the world and yet possess an objective nature by virtue not just of reason, but of their function within the overall human community.  Cassirer's concept of "magical efficacy" makes clear that the particular charm of metaphenomenal fantasy resides in one's embracing of that sense of infinitude and illimitability, even if it is something we can only know through the interrelated forms of myth and literature.

And that's why, even though the fight between Metagodzilla and Isoghidrah never truly concludes, the former, by the nature of the "homeground" advantage, will always be the victor.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Before proceeding to the conclusion of the METAGODZILLA VS ISOGHIDRAH essay-series, I'll divert to the subject of Cassirer once more to explore the interrelation of intersubjectivity and myth.

Ernst Cassirer never formulated a poetics of art and/or literature.  His principal significance to literary theory is his conceptualization of irreducible cultural forms, including not only art/literature but also mythology (covalent with religion), science and philosophy. Cassirer's conception is fundamentally pluralistic, in that no form subsumes any other, in contradistinction with the way a figure such as Sigmund Freud viewed both art and mythology as extensions of his (alleged) scientific paradigm.

Now when conceptualizing the above forms, particularly "myth," Cassirer focused almost exclusively upon the evolution of archaic mythico-religious systems.  He seems to have been aware that some thinkers believed that myth survived into his contemporary times in one guise or another, but in his writings on art he did not strongly expouse myth as a principle overlapping with literature, as was the case with Northrop Frye, the best-known proponent of "myth criticism" as well as a critic strongly influenced by Cassirer in other ways.  Cassirer's work explored the ways in which archaic cultures, dominated by mythico-religious systems, gave birth to the discursive theoretical forms of science and philosophy.  Thus whenever Cassirer speaks of myth, as in his book MYTHICAL THOUGHT, he primarily refers to the state of myth in archaic human societies, prior to the rise of the theoretical forms.

Nevertheless, some of Cassirer's formulations certainly influenced Frye.  I've mentioned in other essays Frye's conception of literature as a spectrum with naturalistic "verisimilitude" at one extreme and what Frye termed "myth" at the other-- by which, of course, Frye did mean a form of myth-like complexity present in formal literature.  This parallels Cassirer's opposition between the world of causality, over which science comes to hold dominion, and the world of internal expressivity, which is first communicated among humans through myth and mythic rituals.  Indeed, though "intersubjectivity" as a term does not appear in Cassirer, his analysis of archaic myth makes clear that it can be easily regarded as mankind's first attempt at intersubjective communication.

In MYTHICAL THOUGHT Cassirer defines causality as "the general concept of force" (p. 14).  Cassirer knew that primitive peoples were as aware of causal forces as was Isaac Newton; otherwise, they could hardly have constructed those objects that take advantage of Newtonian forces, such as clubs and boats and pyramids.  However, in addition to their awareness of such forces, Cassirer asserts that primitives also believed in what I would term an "acausal force," though Cassirer's term is "magical efficacy."

"Magical efficacy" almost certainly traces from the "mana" theory of Robert Codrington's book THE MELANESIANS (1891), to which Cassirer refers in other works.  However, in keeping with Cassirer's post-Kantian project, he's concerned with the application of this "efficacy" as a prelude to religion:

"More and more clearly we see the beginnings of a mythological view which assumes a distinct concept, neither of God nor of the psyche and personality, but starts from a still entirely undifferentiated intuition of magical efficacy, of a magical force inherent in things." (p. 16) 

This force approaches ontology from a different perspective than that of commonplace causal reality, in part because space itself is transformed by internal sensation:

"For myth all difference of spatial aspect involutarily changes into a difference of expressive features, of physiognomic characters.  Thus [myth's] spatial view, in spite of its tendencies toward objective formation, remain bathed in the color of feeling and subjective sensation" (p. 152).

Given that myth "appears closely bound up with the world of efficacy," the two of them together comprise "a translation and transposition of the world of subjective emotions and drives into a sensuous, objective existence."

To be sure, Cassirer does not emphasize that this objectivity is dependent upon its transmission through culture, in contradistiction to scientific law, which science assumes to be true independent of any human opinion on the subject.  But in my view it's only a short step from Cassirer's "expressive features" and "physiognomic characters" to the archetypes of Jung, which, as past essays have demonstrated, provide clues to a phenomenology capable of putting both causal and mythical worlds into their proper perspective.
And in the conclusion to the METAGODZILLA series, I'll go into more detail as to how the antithesis of the causal and the intersubjective throws light on the valuation of different literary phenomenalities.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being “arrested.” They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination.

And in this corner we have the "Godzilla" whose 1939 essay "On Fairy Stories" has repeatedly been invoked to battle "Primary World" champions like Joseph Conrad/"Isoghidrah."  "Metagodzilla" is of course J.R.R. Tolkien, who may start rolling in his grave if his ghost ever hears that I've just compared him with a giant radioactive lizard.  It's meant to be a compliment, of course, not least in that the big lizard almost always wins the fight.

OTOH, this isn't a "winner take all" fight: more like an inevitable conflict between world-views.  Tolkien proclaims that:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

Compared to Conrad's sneer at the mental "elasticity" of those who believe in the supernatural-- which as noted in Part 1, doesn't even differentiate between literal belief and fictional credence-- this statement shows a far broader conception of the nature of literature as a whole, not merely those particular departments of it that one may term "ghost stories," "fairy stories," or even my "metaphenomenal fiction."  One can question some of Tolkien's conclusions here, but there's no question that he's looking at literature from a much more pluralistic stance than Conrad.  For me this statement wins Tolkien the fight "on points" as it were.

Of course it must be noted that both authors were writing about those aforementioned departments only, so neither is making a blanket condemnation or defense of all metaphenomenal fictions.  Indeed, at one point in the essay Tolkien, not content with taking swipes at the Conrad-like modernists who condemn fantasy as "unreal," also takes a jab at science fiction:

The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant's bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only much less ugly than a robot-factory, it is also (to use a very modern phrase) “in a very real sense” a great deal more real. Why should we not escape from or condemn the “grim Assyrian” absurdity of top-hats, or the Morlockian horror of factories? They are condemned even by the writers of that most escapist form of all literature, stories of Science fiction.

To be sure, there have been a lot of SF-writers and SF-critics who defend science fiction over fantasy as supposedly being more "realistic," by which they really mean "more tied to the naturalistic world of cause and effect."  But the dichotomy doesn't really hold.  While there are assorted science fiction stories that are scrupulous about translating real-world science into fiction, many of the best-known SF-concepts are not any more supportable than a Gaelic giant's-bag.  I appreciate that the late Isaac Asimov could write rings around me in terms of real-world scientific knowledge.  But he didn't draw on such knowledge to posit his "Three Laws of Robotics."  These "laws" are no more than concepts designed to make his robot-narratives function as he the author chooses, and those narratives depict not naturalitic "reality" but a far-flung fantasy-corpus tenuously bound together with strands of real-world scientific data. 
Of course, were Conrad actually battling Tolkien, if only in debate, Conrad might well stick to his guns that fantasy does indeed insult reason.  And since Conrad states that he considers that fantasies of life-after-death are nothing more than "a desecration of our tenderest memories," one would expect that he would have little interest in the Christian underpinnings of Tolkien's arguments, particularly his view of "consolation:"

And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death. Fairy-stories provide many examples and modes of this—which might be called the genuine escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit. But so do other stories (notably those of scientific inspiration), and so do other studies. Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies. The Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness. But our stories cannot be expected always to rise above our common level. They often do. Few lessons are taught more clearly in them than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living, to which the “fugitive” would fly. For the fairy-story is specially apt to teach such things, of old and still today. Death is the theme that most inspired George MacDonald.

Yet in his next few paragraphs, Tolkien emphasizes that this consolation is more than just "the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires."  Its principal purpose is the Eucatastrophe, or "happy ending." 

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale) : this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

I omit here the parallels Tolkien draws to his own Christian belief, which I as a pluralist see as part of a more widespread cultural pattern, best summed up by Theodor Gaster in his book THESPIS.  I in turn summarized his concepts of *plerosis* and *kenosis* with respect to their applicability in literary terms in AN OPEN QUEST PART 2.

But even though I find Tolkien's literary view to be immensely more well-reasoned than Conrad's, I must add that it is not insignificant that Conrad believes that he sees "marvels and mysteries" in the "visible and tangible world."

Does one necessarily *need* "arresting strangeness" to convey a sense of the marvelous?  It would seem not, but at the same time there must logically be a coherent asesthetic governing these very different approaches to enchantment-- which I'll discuss in the last part of this essay-series.    

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Weighing in as the "Isoghidrah" of my title, we have the esteemed modernist author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924).

In 1915, Conrad wrote a story entitled "The Shadow-Line," which like many of his tales involved a psychological study of men at sea.  To Conrad's immense displeasure, a few critics interpreted the tale as some sort of ghost story.  This prompted Conrad to write a long "author's note" which not only disparages the verdict of those critics but seemingly of the entire concept of what he calls "the supernatural," whether in real life or fiction.  In so doing Conrad put forth a doctrine of what I term "the isophenomenal," a doctrine asserting that there are no phenomenon outside those that we commonly call "natural:"

This story, which I admit to be in its brevity a fairly complex piece of

work, was not intended to touch on the supernatural. Yet more than one

critic has been inclined to take it in that way, seeing in it an attempt

on my part to give the fullest scope to my imagination by taking it

beyond the confines of the world of the living, suffering humanity. But

as a matter of fact my imagination is not made of stuff so elastic as

all that. I believe that if I attempted to put the strain of the

Supernatural on it it would fail deplorably and exhibit an unlovely gap.

But I could never have attempted such a thing, because all my moral and

intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that

whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and,

however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other

effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a

self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and

mysteries as it is; marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and

intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the

conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my

consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere

supernatural, which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured

article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies

of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless

multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our


Whatever my native modesty may be it will never condescend so low as to

seek help for my imagination within those vain imaginings common to all

ages and that in themselves are enough to fill all lovers of mankind

with unutterable sadness. As to the effect of a mental or moral shock on

a common mind that is quite a legitimate subject for study and

description. Mr. Burns' moral being receives a severe shock in his

relations with his late captain, and this in his diseased state turns

into a mere superstitious fancy compounded of fear and animosity. This

fact is one of the elements of the story, but there is nothing

supernatural in it, nothing so to speak from beyond the confines of this

world, which in all conscience holds enough mystery and terror in

The rest of the essay deals solely with Conrad's conception of the story and does not concern me.

I don't recall whether or not academics consider Conrad to belong to the literary movement called "Naturalism."  However, in the sense that I am using the term "naturalism," which is denote a particular type of literary phenomenality, Conrad speaks not just for his own particular tastes here, but for the whole literary tradition of isophenomenal naturalism, which explicitly rejects anything suggesting "fantasy" or "supernaturalism" as being very like what Conrad calls "vain imaginings."

Conrad, having taken umbrage at the slight that anyone should deem his "complex" work to be a mere ghost story, spends no time considering what the appeal of ghost stories or any other "supernatural" works might be for those readers that like that sort of thing.  Instead, the author vaults over the distinctions between a ficitonal consideration of the supernatural and a real-life belief in it.  Conrad places himself above any whose minds are "elastic" enough to credence the supernatural, which is "but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living."  Conrad may have had similar thoughts about other aspects of the alleged "real supernatural," but here he centers his polemic on the idea of its existence as a "fabrication" originating purely from human beings' "relation to the dead and to the living."  This part of Conrad's polemic seems much like an overcompensating reaction to the "ghost story" accusation and doesn't merit much discussion.

What is most interesting about Conrad's essay, however, is his assertion that even without the fabrication of the supernatural, the world is still a place of "marvels and mysteries," whose interaction upon human minds would "almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state."

That "almost" neatly sums up not just Conrad's skepticism on things enchanted, but that of all or most works in the naturalistic-phenomenalist tradition.  In such works enchantment is not impossible, but author and reader must always remain aware that it does not arise from any link to supernatural realms or beings.  Rather, such human moods  are generated only by the "inexplicable" ways that wholly natural "marvel and mysteries" act upon "our emotions and intelligence."

Within the corpus of this essay Conrad does not give any examples of these enchantment-inducing "marvels and mysteries," and frankly, if he meant to put any in "The Shadow-Line," they failed to have any enchanting effect upon this reader.  However, other Conrad works, such as his story "Typhoon" (1902), proved far more successful.  Here's a section from the viewpoint of two sailing-men caught within the toils of a gigantic storm at sea:

The motion of the ship was extravagant. Her lurches had an appalling helplessness: she pitched as if taking a header into a void, and seemed to find a wall to hit every time. When she rolled she fell on her side headlong, and she would be righted back by such a demolishing blow that Jukes felt her reeling as a clubbed man reels before he collapses. The gale howled and scuffled about gigantically in the darkness, as though the entire world were one black gully. At certain moments the air streamed against the ship as if sucked through a tunnel with a concentrated solid force of impact that seemed to lift her clean out of the water and keep her up for an instant with only a quiver running through her from end to end. And then she would begin her tumbling again as if dropped back into a boiling cauldron. Jukes tried hard to compose his mind and judge things coolly.

The sea, flattened down in the heavier gusts, would uprise and overwhelm both ends of the Nan-Shan in snowy rushes of foam, expanding wide, beyond both rails, into the night. And on this dazzling sheet, spread under the blackness of the clouds and emitting a bluish glow, Captain MacWhirr could catch a desolate glimpse of a few tiny specks black as ebony, the tops of the hatches, the battened companions, the heads of the covered winches, the foot of a mast. This was all he could see of his ship. Her middle structure, covered by the bridge which bore him, his mate, the closed wheelhouse where a man was steering shut up with the fear of being swept overboard together with the whole thing in one great crash -- her middle structure was like a half-tide rock awash upon a coast. It was like an outlying rock with the water boiling up, streaming over, pouring off, beating round -- like a rock in the surf to which shipwrecked people cling before they let go--only it rose, it sank, it rolled continuously, without respite and rest, like a rock that should have miraculously struck adrift from a coast and gone wallowing upon the sea.

"As if taking a header into a void"... "as though the entire world were one black gully"... "this dazzling sheet"..."tiny specks black as ebony."  I can't be sure that these are the sort of sensory experiences that Conrad would have deemed properly "enchanting," but I think it likely.  Indeed, I can see how such descriptions capture, even in isophenomenal vesture, much of the same emotion science fiction has come to call "the sense of wonder," even if the "wonder" is confined in Conradian hermeneutics to the here-and-now.

Conrad's existential position reminds me of the empiricist philosopher Burke's postiion on the emotion of "the sublime," which similarly arose from naturally-inspired associations. Yet the aforequoted section from "Typhoon" most resembles this citation from Burke's opponent Immanuel Kant:
  “…consider bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky [and other examples of furious nature]... Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle. Yet the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place. And we like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range..."-- Section 261.

Kant's theory of the sublime was designed to demonstrate that sublimity-- which also bears some resemblance to sci-fi's "sense of wonder"-- did not arise purely from naturalistic associations.  However, Kant wrote too little on the subject of literature as such to be useful in combatting the naturalistic ethic of Conrad.

Next essay: Conrad Meets His Metagodzilla.

Monday, October 3, 2011


In my POETRY IN MOTION essays I agreed with Northrop Frye's analysis that all fictional narrative can be seen to contain both "narrative values," the elements which allow the "body" of the story to function properly, and "signficant values," the elements that endow the narrative as a whole with significance.

Nonfictional narratives, such as my essays here, cannot be fully reducible to the same dynamics as those of fictional narrative.  Nevertheless, there are rough parallels to these two types of values in nonfictional narrative.

It might be asserted that most of my essays on the subject of literary phenomenality (beginning with this May 2008 post) have concentrated upon building up the "body" of my own critical narrative.  First I sectioned the body off into two distinct portions, the isophenomenal (those phenomena which are "the same" as what we know in consensual reality) and the metaphenomenal (those phenomena that go "beyond" the bounds of what we know or accept as "the real.")  The metaphenomenal side has received much more attention than the isophenomenal side, in that I continued to analyze the former in terms of literary tropes that may be categorized as either "uncanny" or "marvelous."  By contrast, all the tropes of the isophenomenal fall within the realm of "the naturalistic," though one could mount an argument that even within a naturalistic framework some tropes may seem more "natural" than others.

All that recapitulated, one may fairly ask-- what are the "significant values" of this critical narrative?

The answer, insofar as one can be set in stone (or cyber-characters), is that however authors or their readers may conceive the phenomena of their experiental worlds, in fiction phenomenality is what I call (after Susanne Langer) a "gesture."  It does not assert reality, as nonfictional narrative does, but an abstracted gesture toward reality.  Thus, whether a fictional narrative portrays a world within a naturalistic, uncanny or marvelous mode, it does not do so purely to mirror the author's own convictions on the subject.  In fiction  authors inherit and continue a wealth of cultural motifs that can be fairly called intersubjective, in that they communicate to readers a set of shared meanings that go beyond simple societal functionalism.

At the end of Part 2 of THE INTERSUBJECTIVITY SOLUTION, I wrote:

Each story resonates with some though not all readers precisely because each evokes a "significance" in those readers; a significance founded in the conventions of storytelling and in the expectations of readers looking to have those conventions both confirmed and denied.
In the next two parts of this essay-serial, I'll look at how two different authors have described the phenomenality behind their literary universes.  Then I'll wind up by describing the relevance of their respective intersubjectivities for the literary analyst.