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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...

Monday, August 20, 2012


Having spent Part 1 discussing literary culture in terms of its being “high” or “low,” in this part I’ll confuse that familiar metaphor all to hell by suggesting a counter-metaphor: that of “big” versus “little.”

In some ways a dualistic metaphor relating to size might prove less prejudicial than the high/low dichotomy.  As humans are hierarchical beings, they have a tendency to conceive that things rated “higher” than others on a given scale are perforce “better.”

There’s arguably more leeway in using size to denote quality.  Some individuals will argue that “bigger is better,” while others will respond, “good things come in small packages.” In biological terms, an elephant fits one ecological niche, while a mouse fits another.  This dichotomy applies equally well to the ecological interactions of canonical literature (usually considered to be “high culture”) and non-canonical literature (usually rated as “low culture.”)

Canonical literature perpetuates its existence through its promulgation of “big myths”— which means by and large “literary myths” rather than “religious myths,” though the distinction is not always as absolute as some critics have claimed.  “Big” literary myths are those works of such colossal significance that they will (in theory) appeal not just to the sophisticated audiences of their own time, but also to many if not all sophisticated audiences from then on.

To be sure, not every work that attempts to obtain the status of lasting “for the ages” succeeds in doing so.  However, even the failures “prove the rule,” as it were, while some works may seize the brass ring of canonical status for a time and then fall into comparative obscurity.  Or, like Melville’s MOBY DICK, some works may not succeed in their time but become canonical myths long after an author’s death. 

In contrast, non-canonical literature is meant to serve the needs of contemporary buyers only, and shows few aspirations toward literary immortality.  It propagates “little myths” that have more widespread accessibility in their time, spreading hither and yon like dandelions on the wind. Canonical myths propagate themselves more like frogs, as the “eggs,” the works themselves, depend on a complex process of cross-fertilization from peers and critical journals in order to obtain their desired “big” reputations.  It’s possible for certain “little myths” to take on a quasi-canonical status—I’m thinking here of the Sherlock Holmes tales of Arthur Conan Doyle.  However, Sherlock Holmes’ “little myth” reputation is partly sustained not solely by the original stories, but by the accessibility of the concept to adaptation in other media—films, prose pastiches, and so on.  In contrast, Melville’s MOBY DICK sustains its “big myth” reputation on the appeal of the original work alone, irrespective of how many movies or pastiches may spring from that appeal.

Now all this talk about “popularity” should not be seen as opening a door to the mistaken definition of “myth” as simply being “that which is popular,” which is what many comics-fans mean when they speak of Batman being “mythic.”  As I’ve specified many times, literary mythicity is defined by the complexity of symbolism in a given work, not by its popularity.  Literary myths, like religious myths, must construct their narratives around aspects of life that their audiences deem important, or else no one would trouble to read any kind of literature, “big” or “little.”  These life-aspects have been most insightfully organized by Joseph Campbell—who admittedly applied them dominantly to religious, not literary, myths—into four crucial functions: the psychological (the dynamics of individual personality), the sociological (the dynamics of the society), the cosmological (the dynamics of the physical world), and the metaphysical (obviously, dealing with whatever is conceived as “behind” the merely physical).

As a quick side-note, I can’t help observing that the function that receives the least amount of attention from canonical critics—that of the cosmological—is extremely important to both of my chosen examples.  Through Ishmael and his fellow whalers, Melville explores the physical nature of the leviathans of the deep.  Through Sherlock Holmes, Doyle anatomizes the physical nature of London itself.

Having re-stated a major component of my theory, I recognize that popularity—or the attempt to garner popularity—is the medium through which the germs of myth are dispersed.  In this essay I examined how a particular story from a Silver Age comics-feature, ADVENTURES OF THE JAGUAR, displayed a higher-than-average level of mythicity.  Still, the author of the story was certainly attempting to garner some level of non-canonical popularity, for the tone and substance of the story are imitative of Silver Age SUPERMAN comics, which were among the best-selling comics-features of the period.  Most JAGUAR stories imitated the tone and substance without managing to convey any content, and this may be a key reason that the existing fandom for Silver Age comics pays scant attention to the Jaguar’s 1960s incarnation.  In contrast, even weak Superman stories of the period derive some glamour from their association with a host of better-regarded stories.

        When I speak of “the care and esteeming of little myths” in my title, I have in mind the point I made in Part 1: that neither “big myths” nor “little myths” are worthy of love as such.  However, one can esteem them as well-made artifacts, artifacts that in some cases succeed in attempting more than the average artifact does.  I’ll add that because modern elitist critics are so concerned with emphasizing the portentous importance of the “big myths” they champion, as against the “little myths” that usually enjoy wider contemporary popularity, those critics are unable to analyze the “big myths” in terms of their actual content, too often falling back on parroting the intellectual arguments of Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx, as if the work became good simply because its complexities can be explained through those conceptual lenses.  Alternately, those same techniques can be used to prove a work to be bad, because the work is then reduced to the level of a symptom of some undesireable "false consciousness." An example can be seen in the Charles Reece WONDER WOMAN essays I critiqued in June, starting here

        Without a firm grasp as to how narrative works in its "little" manifestation, one can have no genuine insight into the way it works in the "big" version.


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