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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...

Saturday, March 31, 2012


I established in Part 3 that Northrop Frye had dealt with the nature of protagonists’ power-of-action—henceforth called *dynamis*—purely in terms of its physical nature within the story, which would make it a “narrative value.” However, *dynamis* of any kind or degree must possess “significant values” as well.  As I observed here, *dynamis* can apply to either of the principal axes of narrative—plot or character—though in this essay I will deal with it only with respect to characters.

At present I’ve discerned only two (though there may be more) universally applicable significant values.  Universality means that they will apply to any *dynamis,* no matter whether one speaks of characters who symbolize “might” in their respective narrative worlds—which can be anything from Superman to Dirty Harry—or those who represent a more compromised form of *dynamis,* as with Kafla’s “Joseph K” or Graham Greene’s Henry Scobie, who both exist primarly not to act but to suffer.

The first significant value is “centricity.”  As noted here it is possible that a “focal presence” need not be the viewpoint character; rather, the focal character is simply the focus of the author’s narrative concerns, which the viewpoint character may only exist to illuminate.  The “focal presence” can even be a setting rather than a character, such as Carroll’s Wonderland or Verne’s Center of the Earth.  I note that this need not contradict my earlier statement re: character if one remembers that Aristotle deemed setting and character as subsumable under “ethos.”

  I’ll explore the permutations of centricity further in another essay, but for now, what I’ve written on focal presences seems sufficient.  As a significant value it serves to clarify that the focal presence’s power-of-action may be more important to the story than that of an opponent’s, even if in a physical sense the opponent’s power may seem greater, as seen in the contest between Wagner’s knight Parzival and his sorcerer-villain Klingsor.

The other significant value, the one I referenced at the end of NOTES, requires much more explanation.  The value alludes to the unique ways in which audience-members relate to each mythos in terms of identifying their real-world concerns with those of the characters.  Readers should recall that in Part 1 of this essay-series, I based my discussion of this interaction in terms of Schopenhauer’s incongruity theory of humor.  Works which demonstrated a strong degree of congruence between character-concerns and audience-concerns I characterized as possessing “tonal gravity;” works which demonstrated a strong degree of incongruence between character-concerns and audience-concerns I characterized as possessing “tonal levity.”

For this reason I considered using “congruence” as a rubric to describe a significant value that embraces all these manifestations.  But the idea of congruence is purely relational: it doesn’t adequately define the affects arising from “gravity” and “levity.”

Thus I choose to swipe another academic’s term and put my spin on it: in this case, film-critic James Monaco’s concept of *conviction,* which in my re-interpretation adequately describes the emotional tenor experienced by the audience-members as they discern what level of gravity or levity is appropriate to the narrative mythos in question.

Now, in “Theory of Modes” Frye explores the manifestation of the physical *dynamis* in his mythoi along the pattern of Aristotle, so that this schema follows this downward progression:

Romance / Tragedy / Comedy / Irony

However, this is not the order Frye follows when he’s describing how the mythoi progress in accordance with the patterning of seasonal rituals.  This progression is as follows:

Romance—The ritual of summer
Tragedy—The ritual of autumn
Irony—The ritual of winter
Comedy—The ritual of spring

Of these two patterns, I see the process of the audience’s identificatory conviction as matching that of the seasons.

Conviction, I assert, is at its strongest and most elemental when one is invested in the visceral struggles of the adventure-mythos.  This does not mean that every work in the adventure-mythos conjures forth this deep level of conviction: obviously many make the attempt but do not succeed.  But when the mythos is executed at its height of performance, the audience will experience near-total identification with the hero’s struggle to thwart the forces of evil and destruction.  Summer is still a period of relative vitality, so the audience can invest fully in the possibility of the hero’s triumph.  For tribal man, such victories became relevant to assert the martial spirit of the tribe, for in just three months the forces of seasonal “evil” would begin to eclipse those of good.

Conviction becomes somewhat weaker in the autumnal drama.  As noted many times before, I chose the term “drama” over “tragedy” because in common parlance many people assume that every tragedy ends badly.  Not even Aristotle claimed this, despite the fact that his endorsement of what we now call “the fatal flaw” contributed to the confusion.  In contrast, audiences are accustomed to thinking of dramatic stories as being narratives that may turn out well or badly for the protagonist(s).  However, the mere fact that the audience knows that failure is more possible results in a pulling-back from identification to some degree.  One wants to watch the logical consequences of Gloucester blinding himself as a self-punishment for his figurative blindness, but one does not identify with Gloucester or even Lear in quite the same uncritical manner.  Even in a drama that turns out well for the protagonists in the end, such as Euripides’ IPHEGENIA AT TAURUS, the possibilities of triumph seem yet dimmer, the protagonists’ *dynamis* more in danger of being outmatched.

Autumn still allows for good or bad fortune to win out, but winter is the domain of the irony, where the forces of vitality and *dynamis* are at their lowest ebb.  Conviction is even “lighter” as this point: the audience recognizes that the odds are stacked against the protagonists from the beginning and that the best the heroes can achieve is to find some marginal haven from the ever-present forces of evil, a fate which befalls the surviving protagonists of both CANDIDE and THE WATCHMEN.  Since the very meaning of “irony” is that it says one thing but means another, the audience can take some measure of pleasure from seeing the near-powerless heroes put through their paces, and even treat their fates as a sort of gigantic cosmic joke.

However, winter is at last banished by the forces of good, albeit in a more innocent, less bellicose guise than they assume in summertime.  In spring, the world is reborn from what seems absolute darkness and lack of vitality.  This redemption elicits a joyful response to the very absurdity that, within the mythos of irony, is only a cruel sort of joke.  The unserious aspects of life then assume a life-enhancing quality, comparable to the triumphs of the adventure-mythos but with less sense that the triumphs have been earned in a “serious” sense.  Dumb luck tends to govern the mythos of comedy, as Frye himself observes: “As the main character interest in comedy is so often focused on the defeated characters [at the story’s beginning, I think Frye means], comedy regularly illustrates a victory of arbitrary plot over consistency of character.”  This arbitrariness, this freedom from real consequence, is the reason I consider the comedy-mythos to be the one in which the audience holds the least degree of conviction—though such levity is precisely comedy’s appeal. I note in passing that in common parlance the word “levity” almost applies to this sort of humor, not to the more dolorous forms of irony and satire.  But even if human desire could keep one up in Cloud-Cuckoo Land forever, the seasons will continue their relentless turnings, and so the audience will inevitably proceed from least conviction to greatest conviction, as it readies itself to fight the forces of evil once again.

While the significant value of centricity applies across the board to all mythoi—though I note that I’ve never seen an adventure-story in which the setting was the real star— the significant value of identificatory conviction waxes and wanes according to the audience’s expectations of a given mythos.

Apart from being used to chart the admittedly abstract progressions of literary response, the concept of conviction also provides a tool for better sussing out how different fictional characters align with a given mythos.  In BUFFY THE MYTHOS SLAYER I placed four supernormal characters within each of the four mythoi, but their placements become more logical once the value of conviction provides an intersubjectively-objective justification for their respective assignments.    

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