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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...

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Finding common ground between two scholars one admires-- as I've noted I planned to do with Arthur Schopenhauer and Theodor Gaster-- offers a certain challenge.  On one hand, one certainly doesn't want to paper over all the differences between the scholars just for the sake of some (hopefully) artful theoretical cross-comparisons.  On the other, if one can demonstrate parallel developments of thought between scholars whose concerns would not seem to overlap, this might attest to the existence of an intersubjective ethos that surpasses direct influence.  For instance, Theodor Gaster, having lived long after Schopenhauer, could have read the philosopher, but I for one don't find that Gaster's work reflects any of the earlier author's particular concerns.  So any patterns they would share are either (1) part of that ethos, brought about by the nature of the human mind attempting to order perceived existence, or (2) totally within the mind of the person making the argument.

The gross similarity between the two scholars is that both tried to make sense, albeit from very different perspectives, of the human capacity for seriousness and for humor.  Theodor Gaster confines his analysis to the way this capacity had appeared in archaic myths and rituals, at least according to the evidence remaining to contemporary times.  Schopenhauer cast a much wider net in his investigations of human nature, though his mammoth WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION says very little of myth. Building on the old saw that all philosophy comes down to the quarrels between Plato and Aristotle,  I'd opine that where Aristotle might have cared, roughly like Gaster, about his literature's indebtedness to archaic "goat-songs" and the like, Plato cared more about art's relation to the infinite, and that Schopenhauer followed Plato in this regard.   In addition, as I've noted elsewhere, Schopenhauer was definitely an elitist with little or no interest in "lower" forms of art, as he considered that only "genius" could generate the quality of sublimity.

Another similarity is that neither scholar sought to deal with the aforesaid capacity in terms of literary concerns.  Schopenhauer's theory of art is just one aspect of his overall philosophy, while Gaster is careful to assert that the mythology he surveys does not belong to "the department of literature or art; the latter are merely [mythology's] vehicles or instruments."

In other essays I've noted how Northrop Frye most likely derived some aspects of his quaternary theory of the literary mythoi from Gaster's quaternary theory of seasonal rituals. In still other essays, especially the GRAVITY'S  CROSSBOW series, I cross-compared the Fryean mythoi with certain Schopenhauer concepts, thus leading to my formulation of the notion of "conviction."  But though I no longer use that concept in quite the same way that I did earlier, I want to set down just what aspects of the theory are similar to or different from Schopenhauer's writings.

I've quoted a few times Schopenhauer's remarks on his distinctions between "seriousness" and "laughter and joking," which come from Chapter 8 in Part Two of THE WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION.  Chapter 8 builds on previous assertions, particularly in Chapter 7, regarding the interdependence of two types of human representations: "representations of perception and abstract representations."  He does not address humorous discourse in Chapter 7, but gives various examples of serious discourse wherein perception and abstract principle agree.  The easier of these examples is probably the one from Cervantes, where the author wishes to illustrate the abstract mood Schopenhauer calls "profound contemplation" with an accurate perceptual representation:

"...like a draped statue, for the wind moved his garments"

But though Schopenhauer uses literature for some of his illustrations, he doesn't distinguish between serious discourse of the sort he's doing, where he's expounding directly on his personal philosophy, and the serious discourse in literature itself, which is founded more on indirect propositions conveyed through the audience's identification with the characters.  This doesn't hurt Schopenhauer's argument, but it makes it a little harder to apply in a one-on-one manner with literature.

In literature (and I'm concentrating on narrative literature here, though I think the same principles may apply to much if not all forms of art), all of the "representations of perception" within a given narrative are constructs; something I expounded upon in HERE COMES DAREDEVIL THE MAN WITHOUT IDENTITY. All such representations remain constructs, no matter how much or how little fidelity they may show to our world of real-life perceptions.

This fidelity is what we usually call "verisimilitude" in literature, and covers everything from Upton Sinclair's reproduction of Chicago  in THE JUNGLE to  J.R.R. Tolkein's involved history of the Elves and their relations in LORD OF THE RINGS.  It also includes the logic by which all characters within a given work-- with special focus on the viewpoint characters-- pursue their own interests and their own fates, in line with what I wrote in GRAVITY'S CROSSBOW PART 1:

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've subsumed the terms of "tonal levity" and "tonal gravity" under the concept of "conviction."  In Schopenhauerean terms conviction is the "abstract representation" that arises from the "perceptual representation," as well as being comparable, in my much-used Fryean terms, to the dyad of "narrative values" and "significant values"-- though I'll try not to bring this latter comparison in any more than necessary.

Further, the conviction that the audience places upon the narrative situations of the identificatory characters is determined by sets of literary expectations that Frye calls "mythoi." Assuming that one is able to identify both with an adventure-heroine like Buffy Summers and with a drama-hero like Harry Potter, one cannot help but have different expectations of them.  Both suffer, and both triumph, but for Harry Potter, the possibility for failure within his dramatic mythos is somewhat stronger, and causes (I assert) a degree of pulling-back from the character on the part of the audience.  To insert Gaster's terms once again, Buffy's struggles are meant to invoke invigorating emotions, while Potter's are meant to invoke those of purgation, even if Potter's pathos comes with a reprieve.

Similarly, it is because of culturally learned expectations that if the audience does have a "humorous or at least distanced response" to both Marshal Law, representative of irony, and to Ranma Saotome, representative of comedy, then the distinctions within this spectrum of responses is determined by what the audience expects of them.  Only in a spoof could one imagine a jubilative character like Ranma freighted with the heavy satirical content of MARSHAL LAW, or a mortificative character like Law having happy-go-lucky sitcom-style exploits.

Having established at least that the rules for literature are in some ways not like those of the real world Schopenhauer was describing, Part 2 will pursue in more depth the comparisons I've already made between the gloomy philosopher's theory and the functions of literary mythoi.

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