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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...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


"Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall."-- Milton, PARADISE LOST, Book 3.

In Part 2 of this series I expatiated for a bit on this concept:

I argued that Schopenhauer's term "objective" compared well with both the irony and the drama-- and thus with Freud's so-called "reality principle"-- and the term "subjective" could be aligned with the adventure and the comedy, and thus with the "pleasure principle." But what's the nature of the disagreement in the heterogenous forms, "irony" and "comedy?"

The nature as I express it is summed up by the different metaphors of "hero vs. villain" (pleasure principle) and "monster vs. victim" (the reality principle).
After meditating on the matter off and on over the past few months, I've decided that my metaphors were too narrowly chosen for the sake of holding symmetry with the Schopenhaurean formulas.  I don't necessarily dismiss my comparisons with Schopenhauer, but it now seems to me that my primary model ought to be what the stories do first, and their comparisons with the gloomy philosopher second-- even though early on I noted that said philosopher is a key influence on my overall literary theory.

The "vs." reference in my essay-title does have Schopenhauerean implications insofar as I believe that all fiction can be boiled down struggles of the will, however one may choose to define the term. 

An important point I overlooked, though, is that in every such conflict, narrative sympathy always flows in the direction of the characters-- whether "focal" or merely "viewpoint" types-- whom the audience regards as "life-supporting" in some way, and against those deemed to be "life-defeating" in whatever manner.

In "plerotic" narratives, it's a basic given that the forces of life will win the most significant struggles, whether they do so through *agonic* effort or through *incognitive* good fortune.

In "kenotic" narratives, it's a given that the forces of life will lose the most significant struggles, whether they do so under the sway of *pathetic* or *sparagmotic* forces.

Because I've meditated somewhat on the factor of narrative sympathy, I'm discarding the "reversal" metaphors I used in Part 2.  Now my metaphorical summations of the four Fryean mythoi read like so:

ADVENTURE= "hero vs. villain"
DRAMA= "hero vs. monster"
IRONY= "victim vs. monster"
COMEDY= "victim vs. villain"

This arrangement has the advancement of making clearer that "hero" and "victim" are the life-affirming forces in all four pairings, while "monster" and "villain" are the "life-denying forces.

There's not been a lot of fan-debate about the differences between "heroes" and "victims" because the two seem separated by an abyss of power; one presumes that a "victim" must normally be a disempowered character.  Yet as I've stated in earlier essays, comic and ironic characters aren't necessarily less powerful overall than those of adventure and drama.  What separates them is not lacking power to save themselves, but lacking *stature.*  For the time being I will assume that this point has been made clear in the essay STATURE REQUIREMENTS.

In contrast, there has been a fair amount of debate on the difference between "monsters" and "villains," not because all of these character-types really *are* similarly powered but because we tend to think only of those that possess excessive dynamicity. 

For instance, author Jeff Rovin attempted to separate the two concepts in terms of their usage in fantasy-oriented fiction for his two comics-oriented encyclopedias: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF VILLAINS and THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MONSTERS.  I won't discuss Rovin's definitions of the two terms at length because I feel that in practice he contradicts himself repeatedly in his applications, but in short, Rovin emphasizes emotive quality.  Villains, he says, are often "sadistic," while monsters are "terrifying" to some character in the story or the audience but may lack any "malevolence."

I found a more persuasive argument on this site, authored by one S.C. Butler:

What is the difference between a villain and a monster, anyway? To my thinking, a villain is someone who chooses to be evil. (Or, if that’s not morally relativistic enough for you, who chooses to oppose the aims and goals of the hero for the sake of narrative tension and structure in theme and plot.) There has to be a conscious decision on the villain’s part to do things that are to his benefit, and others’ detriment. It has to be a rational choice.
Monsters, on the other hand, are just doing what comes naturally. They’re forces of nature. They do what they have to do, what is essential to their being. They have no choice in the matter, no more than a hurricane has choice. Monsters just are.
I can think of possible exceptions to these categories even as I can with Rovin's.  For one, I look upon the Martians of H.G. Wells THE WAR OF THE WORLDS more as "monsters" than as "villains," even though textually they are supposed to be intelligent aliens capable of a rational choice between good and evil.  In Butler's view, this would make them villains, the same way his example of Tolkien's Sauron is a villain.  Yet to me the Martians seem less like discrete, responsible entities than like a ravening plague.

I've also long thought, in line with my Milton quote above, that there is an element of choice one associates with villains: that they are "sufficient to stand" but that they "choose to fall," much like Milton's own uber-villain Satan.  Many monsters do not seem "sufficient to stand."  As Butler argues, they have no more choice about being monsters than a force of nature.

Rather than the element of "choice" suggested by both Milton and Butler, I will suggest the key element is actually that of  "will"-- or, to be more specific, two types of will, whose designations I borrow from Schopenhauer even though they aren't derived from him as actual categories. 

In WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION, Schopenhauer distinguishes between "intuitive" and "abstract" representations: humans share "intuitive representations" with other animals, in that they are based in the body's "percepts."  But humans alone have the power to conceive "abstract representations," for humans alone can base representations in "concepts."  I will use this basic opposition here, though I'll substitute "intellectual" for "abstract" purely for euphony.

Rovin and Butler's categories for villains and monsters are if anything enhanced by the consideration that their "monsters" are essentially embodiments of an "intuitive will," while "villains" are embodiments of an "intellectual will."  But the real advantage is that this dichotomy applies just as well to the positive "plerotic" forces in the respective equations.

Heroes, of course, are recognizably heroes because they, like villains, choose a given course in an intellectualized manner.  And of course the idea of villains mirroring heroes is an old one.  What has received less comment, however, is that the narrative figure of the "victim" is a mirror-image of the "monster."

The victim's true characteristic is to be allied to the ludicrous just as the hero is allied to the serious, as per my various remarks on these Schopenhaurean categories.  With this in mind, "victim" should not connote a disempowered state within the sphere of narrative analysis, for when he is a primary actor he can be quite powerful.  But he creates the expectation of losing even as the hero does of winning.  And further, most victims encounter conflict in what I term an "intuitive" manner-- that is, not actively seeking trouble as heroes often do, but simply seeking to live life on a basic level-- just as many if not all monsters seek to do.

 With the current arrangement, the "kenotic" mythoi of drama and irony are shown to reverse the normal trend of the "plerotic" mythoi by "switch-hitting" opponents.  In the adventure-mythos, the hero is "meant" to conquer the villain.  However, he may or may not be able to conquer a "monster," whether that monster is a discrete entity or the mindless mechanisms of destiny.

In irony, the victim is meant to be conquered by the monster; he has essentially no real chance, any more than the villain does against the hero,  However, in the comedy, the victim can triumph for the most part against the figure of the villain.

In a future essay I will expand on these formulas in terms of specific examples.

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