Featured Post


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...

Thursday, February 2, 2012


"But for intelligent people-- and I've always considered you a very intelligent person, Gene-- to see Moses and Jesus as the end product of mythopoetic traditions, fictional characters raised above Spider-Man and Tarzan only by literary pedigree, seems to me to be a first intellectual failure.."-- Dave Sim, responding to my letter in "Aardvark Comment," CEREBUS 236 (Nov 1998).
When I first began formulating my concept of "the metaphenomenal"-- partly in response, as I've alluded, to those film-compendia that attempted to collate all fantasy, horror, and SF movies-- I wanted a term that encompassed the one type of "fantasy film" such compendia tended to overlook: the religious "fantasy-film."  The compendium I found most useful, John Stanley's CREATURE FEATURES GUIDE (whose sixth and final edition emerged in 2000), was silent on such films as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or SODOM AND GOMORRAH, which clearly depicted violations of consensual reality.

To my knowledge no compiler of fantasy-films has gone on records as saying, "Such and such is why I don't include religious films" alongside the reviews of, say, THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  Yet the reason behind the omission probably comes down to the fact that many potential readers of such compendia-- largely though not exclusively Christians-- don't regard such films as "fantasies," but as depictions of a higher reality, no matter how compromised by contemporary concerns.  In other words, such films are accorded not a higher "literary pedigree" (Dave Sim's somewhat inaccurate extrapolation of my expressed beliefs) but a "religious pedigree."  Thus even contemporary stories of "Moses and Jesus" are considered a thing apart from any other stories, religious or otherwise.  Elsewhere in his response-- which I may examine more fully in other essays-- Sim states that he has no problem with comparing "Diana and Zeus and Hermes" to modern characters like "Wonder Woman, Superman and the Flash," because all of them are "birds-- not Birds-- of a feather." However, in Sim's opinion the "luminaries of God's prophetic tradition" should be off limits to such comparative analysis.

I remain, contrary to Dave Sim's charges of intellectual failure, a devoted comparativist.  That doesn't mean, however, that I don't recognize differences in mode and content between what I've called "religious myths" and "literary myths."  But in contrast to one of my old cyber-foes on the Forum That Deserves No Name, who felt that those differences so great that nothing literary should ever be called "mythic," I maintain that any story in any medium can be compared to one in another medium, often if not always fruitfully, and that the emotional feelings aroused by religion and by art are, at base, consubstantial.

Now, some may wonder, "What set this off?"  Simplicity itself: I'm planning to review some religious films in the next few days on the NUM blog, and I wanted to provide context.  I don't usually write theory-essays on NUM, so it's here instead.

Dave Sim, as it happens, is not my only contact with a Christian who had an "off limits" attitude to associating Christian myths with those of other "pedigrees."  I recall, albeit only in fragments, a disconcerting conversation with some Zealot co-worker whose name I've forgotten.  I don't remember how the conversation got on the subject of God's use of supernatural forces, but I remember intently that she didn't like the use of the term "supernatural" for anything having to do with the Christian God.  I made one attempt to remain civil, suggesting the term "miracles" instead.  To my surprise, even though this is a term not infrequently invoked by Christians of all persuasions, this particular Zealot didn't even like to say "miracles," since in her mind that somehow implied that what God did wasn't a part of "reality."  At that point the conversation drifted off into inconsequentiality.

I have remembered that part of it, though, because it does suggest a peculiar mental attitude that conflates the "magic" of one's own religion as an intrinsic part of reality, even when it's patently obvious that no human beings goes through life experiencing burning bushes or tongues of fire every quotidian moment.  My invented term "metaphenomenal" has one advantage: it doesn't imply that a given extraordinary phenomenon is necessarily "unreal," merely that it goes beyong the average phenomena that are, as Heraclitus said, "common to all."

In the 2008 essay in which I introduced the term, I compared it to the more-frequently-used academic term, "the fantastic:"

Some fictive universes depict only representations of what our culture calls its consensual reality; the things that a majority agrees on as being real. Other fictive universes depict things that may never exist, or which do not yet exist, and this requires the author to describe such things largely from imagination rather than experience as such. This struck as me as a loose parallel to Kant's "noumenality" in some ways but not in others, so I discarded his term and substituted one for purely literary purposes: "the metaphenomenal," meaning "beyond the phenomenal." I consider it a better catch-all for all things that owe their existence to mankind's imagination than the usual catch-all employed in academic studies: "the fantastic." There's both logic and tradition to using the latter term, yet it seems at times cumbersome when dealing with phenomenon that go beyond phenomenal limits within a given universe, and yet are not supposed to be regarded as "fantastic" within that universe even though they may be to the majority of readers.
By the terms of this argument, even works in which the authors believed (or may have believed) in the metaphenomena depicted-- such as Zeus in Homer's ILIAD, or Isis in THE GOLDEN ASS of Apuleius, or God in Milton's PARADISE LOST-- can still be fruitfully analyzed in terms of how the author imaginatively depicts his concepts of godhood.  Further, one can analyze how emotional expressivity is consistent in spite of rhetorical goals.  There is a common expressivity in the stories of both Zeus and Tarzan, at least in that both are weaned by friendly animal-helpers, and also (dare I say it? I dood it) in both the stories of Moses and Spider-Man, in that both are called to a duty neither initially embraces.

In closing I should add that though I am a comparativist, in that I believe no religion takes precedence over any other (as Dave Sim explicitly does), I don't embrace the empiricist attitude of some comparativists.  For me, all religions are significant in terms of the intersubjective archetypes they evoke.  Further, unlike the belief-systems of empiricism, those of religion are at least obvious about their status as projections.

No comments: