Saturday, March 17, 2012


For the last week I've been meditating over the question, "Does sublimity (a.k.a. "the sense of wonder") occur in all four Fryean mythoi equally?  The answer-- "no"-- is easy.  Figuring out why it should be so is a bit more involved.

I've noted before that of all the major philosophers to write about sublimity in connection with literature, Edmund Burke is one of the most profligate in providing examples.  However, I note that most of his examples fall into one of two mythoi: the "drama" (PARADISE LOST, HENRY IV) or the "adventure" (THE FAERIE QUEENE).  Schopenhauer, for his part, recognizes only "tragedy" (which I regard as identical with the category "drama") as sublime.

Moving to those readerships concerned with "the sense of wonder," it's my informal impression that when fans of fantasy and SF wax enthusiastic about those works with that quality, they rarely if ever center upon works of the other two mythoi, "comedy" and "irony."  In the domain of prose, works like Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END or Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS are celebrated for their ability to elicit wonder.  But though one can find science-fictional marvels and magical mysteries in such works as Fredric Brown's WHAT MAD UNIVERSE or the deCamp-Pratt COMPLEAT ENCHANTER, I would say such works-- both of which are comedies-- are never celebrated for the "sense of wonder."  Ironic science fiction is often celebrated for its intellectual rigor-- indeed, if one reads Kingsley Amis' NEW MAPS FROM HELL, one gets the impression that no one ever wrote good SF but Fred Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth-- but Amis praises them for satirical visions, not for the "sense of wonder."

So, are comedy and irony in some way inimical to the sense of wonder? In the essay REFINING THE DEFINING I placed them in opposition to drama and adventure:

The drama and the adventure, often perceived as two "serious" types of entertainment, are easy to confound, even as are the two types of "unserious" entertainment, comedy and irony.

However, I haven't yet devoted a great deal of attention to what separates notions of "serious" and "unserious" fiction. Since I've noted before that I subscribe largely to Schopenhauer's "incongruity theory" of humor, it behooves me to quote "Uncle Arthur" once again:

“The opposite of laughter and joking is seriousness. This, accordingly, consists in the consciousness of the perfect agreement and congruity of the concept, or the idea, with what is perceptive, with reality. The serious person is convinced that he conceives things as they are, and that they are as he conceives them. This is just why the transition from profound seriousness to laughter is particularly easy, and can be brought about by trifles.”—Arthur Schopenhauer, WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION (trans. Payne), p. 99.

Elsewhere in WORLD the philosopher also speaks of "drama or descriptive poetry"-- which I understand to connote narrative art as a whole-- in these terms:

we call drama or descriptive poetry interesting when it represents events and actions of a kind which necessarily arouse concern or sympathy, like that which we feel in real events involving our own person.

Taking the two statements together, it seems not unreasonable to hypothesize that in narrative fiction "the perfect agreement of the concept, or the idea, with what is perceptive, with reality" accords with the idea of a reader's investment in the narrative's events as if they arouse straightforward "concern or sympathy."  However, if events in the narrative undermines the reader's investment because they seem incongruous, then the reader, while not necessarily losing all "concern and sympathy," is moved to a humorous reaction, which may vary along a wide spectrum of affects from the deep belly-laugh to the more intellectualized "I laugh that I might not weep" response.
Thus I suggest this dichotomy:

Works in which the reader's identificatory investment seems entirely congruous with the "interests" that the fictional characters have in their own fictional lives, are governed by the principle of  *tonal gravity,* in that the reader feels himself "drawn down" into the characters' interests.

Works in which the reader's identificatory investment becomes at odds with the "interests" of the fictional characters are governed by the principle of *tonal levity,* in that the reader "floats free" of that investment and is moved away from "concern and sympathy" and toward a humorous or at least distanced response.

I'm moved to add that most narrative works borrow from both principles at varying times, though I stand by my assertion that every narrative work has a fundamental core that inclines it more to one of the four mythoi over the other three.  Narratives of drama and adventure frequently use humor to break up the relentless seriousness of the story, while narratives of comedy and irony must usually invoke some notion of fateful consequence to keep the reader "interested" in the character's experiences.   But though a film like STAR WARS often uses humor to temporarily dispel tension, the audience recognizes that the humorous moments don't determine the thrust of the narrative, and so the brief appeals to "tonal levity" don't dispel the watchers' investment in seeing the characters live or die.   Conversely, PLANET OF THE APES uses many devices taken from adventure-narratives to make the audience partially invested in the fate of Charlton Heston's astronaut Taylor.  But the spectacle of the intelligent apes repeating all of mankind's old mistakes-- particularly religious fanaticism-- evokes a wry sense of humor in the viewer, confirming the dark pessimism that Taylor expresses early in the film.  Taylor's heroic exertions almost dispel his pessimism, but this development merely sets him up as the butt of a colossal ironic joke, as he's plunged back into despair by the "statuesque" proof of man's stupidity.  Admittedly PLANET's conclusion is supposed to be more sobering than funny, but I'd argue that it still conforms to the principle of "tonal levity" in that the viewer has become distanced from the protagonist's travails.

I'll explore these concepts more in further essays, but I'll note in closing that neither "levity" nor "gravity" lines up with two similar-sounding concepts introduced here long ago, "thematic realism" and "thematic escapism."  While the former terms are specifically oriented toward sussing out the nature of two opposed sets of mythoi-- one which includes two dominantly "serious" mythoi and one which includes two dominantly "unserious" mythoi-- the latter terms apply to any mythos across the board.  "Thematic realism" connotes the attempt of authors to reflect "real-world" concerns in their fiction, while "thematic escapism" connotes the attempt to take "a vacation from morals."
Thus, were I asked for a random film-example for each mythos and each thematic focus, I would write something like this:

THEMATIC REALISM                                   THEMATIC ESCAPISM

Comedy-- MODERN TIMES                        Comedy-- WAYNE'S WORLD
Adventure-- THE WIND AND THE LION           Adventure-- STAR WARS
Drama-- BLADE RUNNER                                  Drama-- DRACULA
Irony-- PLANET OF THE APES            Irony-- 1934's THE BLACK CAT

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