Monday, April 9, 2012

THE STRENGTH OF OUR CONVICTIONS

From GRAVITY'S CROSSBOW PART 1:


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.
By the conclusion of this essay-series I hope I've made clear that my term for the "agreement" of readers' concerns with the concerns of fictional characters can be subsumed under the term "conviction." 

Correspondingly, I need to clarify that the degree of conviction of readers toward a given mythos does not imply any superiority or inferiority of that mythos to others.  Though I do believe that the adventure mythos involves the greatest such degree-- perhaps because it is, as Frye observes, the closest in structure to a "wish fulfillment dream"-- this does not make that mythos superior to drama, irony or comedy (though there have been no shortage of false critics willing to place adventure at the bottom of the artistic totem-pole).  The entire concept of dynamization, which underlies the emotive context derived from conviction, is posited on a pluralistic ethos:




"Dynamization," however, does work as a term for what the reader of a given work perceives to be happening within him, whether he seeks for unearned or earned gratification.




This perceived dichotomy as to what types of dynamization are or are not approved in society and culture-- with some being viewed as "earned" and others as "unearned"-- is well glossed by Frye's essay "Mouldy Tales," which I covered in this essay.




Frye goes on to point out that because the more "realistic" forms of literature foreground what he terms (following Freud) "the reality principle." Thus even though tragedies like MACBETH and ironies like THE CASTLE (my examples) have a certain storytelling verve to them as well, there's a sort of proto-critical experience one generally has while experiencing them.
This "proto-critical experience" Frye describes doubtlessly influences my conviction about conviction: that, for instance, the same subject matter in an adventure-story, which may be accepted in terms of the *invigorative* emotion it conjures, may be examined more critically in terms of a drama, where the dynamizing emotion is *purgative* in nature.  Thus the original Hamlet stories of the medieval historian Saxo Grammaticus, taking an adventurous approach, present the hero as cleverly pretending madness as a ruse to deceive his enemies.  Shakespeare transforms this notion into a critique of Hamlet's own rational mind and of his responses to his father's murder-- and in so doing, signals that the reader must be more critical toward Hamlet than Hamlet is.  Whereas in the adventure-themed folklore story of Hamlet the evil can be cast out without harm to the society, in a drama the hero is implicated in the evil and is "purged" no less than the villain.


Following the Gasterian scheme outlined here, in the next artistic/expressive stage, that of irony, becomes critical of all experience in the world itself, and thus we enter a *mortificative* stage, in which the reader realizes that he must pull back from identification with a world " in which all human efficacy is missing, and all passion spent."  And yet, precisely because one cannot remain in this spiritual darkness indefinitely, the next cyclical stage is that of the *jubilative* emotion, which dominates the comedy-mythos and puts the reader back on the track of identification, though I argue that the degree of conviction is at its "lightest" simply because there remains a sizeable gulf between "the reality principle" and "the fantasy principle"-- one that is efficiently eradicated when the cycle goes back to the adventure-mythos, in that the protagonist's desires are made real not by dumb luck but by skill and hard battle.

Frye believes that the "proto-critical experience" critics derive from the drama and the irony explains much about why they are more respected in works canonical criticism than either comedy or adventure.  I disagree with this slightly. It's true that the comedy is often rated as less respectable than the irony or the drama, BUT it still gets better critical plaudits overall than adventure.  Indeed, I'm aware of no critics who have accused comedies of being advertisements for fascism, as one regularly reads from critics as diverse as Frederic Wertham and Frederic Jameson.  (Hmm, is there something about the name "Frederic" that encourages this tedious trope?)

I've invoked Theodor Gaster already, and I'll do so again in respect to the "less critical" and "more critical" aspects of literature:


...Gaster introduces two Greek terms that identify how the respective rites work. Rites of jubilation and invigoration are both characterized by *plerosis,* or "filling," because both give the sense that the ritual fills the community with new life. Rites of mortification and purgation are both characterized by *kenosis,* or "emptying," because they "empty out" the community of "noxious elements" one way or another.
I believe that the drama and the irony are more popular with canonical lit-critics (or those who aspire to be like them) not just because they offer a supposed opportunity for critical thought, but because the process of *kenosis* is one that seems to be more "tough-minded," because it puts the reader in the position of being increasingly divorced from the fictional heroes' interests.  Consequently, adventure and comedy smack of that other William James-ian term, the "tender-minded," simply because it's popularly assumed that the readers of such works are identifying outright with the interests of the protagonists.  There's some justice in this; however, I maintain that the level of conviction in the comedy is still in its "lightest" phase, and for that reason the comedy still appeals more to the canon-minded critic than the heavy investment of the adventure-mythos.

Now, I'm not contradicting the earlier-expressed notion that the comedy is characterized by *plerosis,* the feeling that new life is filling the imaginal community.  But it does so precisely by appealing to a different species of "wish fulfillment" than that which underlies its plerotic kindred: the adventure-mythos.

By exploring the possible reasons as to why different types of dynamization are accepted or rejected by non-pluralistic critics, it becomes possible to transcend these elitist tendencies.  To some extent this transcendence has manifested in contemporary critical sites like SLAYAGE, wherein critical investigation of an outstanding adventure-themed work, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, receives as much treatment as any dramatic or ironic work.  Of course BUFFY may be an exception in that, as I noted here, it manages to tap into the dominant dynamizations of the other three mythoi in varying degrees.  But it's a hopeful sign nonetheless.

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