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Monday, November 19, 2012


In a recent issue of my comics-apa, the question arose: can one fairly make symbolic interpretations of a work when there’s no evidence that the creator of the work intentionally structured the work to reflect that symbolism?

On one hand, any answer one gives must take into account the centrality of symbolic action to the experience of fiction.  The human mind has the ability to associate the nature of a fictional character—that is, whether he represents “goodness,” “badness,” or something in between-- with the reader’s concerns, so that the reader can identify (whether in a mood of sympathy or antipathy) with that character.  Without this ability, fiction holds no meaning.  It might be tempting to dispense with any symbolic associations that are not explicitly called up by an author’s text.  But direct allegory, while to some degree present in all fiction, is not the way most authors express themselves.  Perhaps the reason so many critics must hunt literary meanings is because authors have evolved so many ways to camoflague their symbolic themes and motifs.

On the other hand, everyone has seen examples of critics who can be fairly accused of “snipe-hunting”—with the modification that in such cases, it’s the critic who creates his own Monster of Deep Meaning and proceeds to hunt it anywhere and everywhere.  The first semi-thoughtful critiques of the comics-medium boiled down to snipe-hunts, where the critics found in comics symbols of immoral modernity and psychosexual perversion.

One approach, possibly designed to circumvent the problem, takes a relativist tack.  One of my apa-members described having seen a poet who, upon meeting a reader who subjected the poet to a long and earnest critique of his Real Meaning, responded to that reader, “If you see that there, then I meant for it to be there.”  The poet may have spoken this way to avoid a conflict, or he may have been of the honest opinion that there are no untrue responses to a given work.

I would frame the problem differently: there can be untrue responses, but they may spring from true causes.

In the same apa-issue that continued this mini-debate about symbol-hunting, another member cited the opinion of writer Alan Moore on the best-known character of another author: Ian Fleming’s James Bond.  Quoting from an introduction to Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Moore said:

“…we begin to see that the overriding factor in James Bond’s psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women.”

Years later, Moore would produce a satirical version of Bond for BLACK DOSSIER, a chapter of his LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN series, in which Moore’s Bond-doppelganger was in every way a rotter, an abuser of women, etc.

Moore’s second commentary on what he thought of James Bond, since it takes the form of fiction, cannot be deemed criticism as such.  His first comment can, although it’s extremely weak criticism. 

Nowhere in the introduction does Moore cite examples of the “utter hatred and contempt for women” he finds in the Bond books, nor is he clear as to whether Fleming presented his misogyny overtly or covertly.  I *suspect,* however, that at the time of the comment Moore knew that Fleming, though predominantly an author of “male” fiction, did have female readers.  Thus Moore would be most likely to claim that Fleming’s female readers did not pick up on the misogyny of either author or character because it was hidden, though not from the discernment of a dedicated snipe-hunter like Alan Moore.

In case it isn’t evident from my calling Moore a “snipe-hunter,” I do deem Moore’s critique of Fleming to be a case of an untrue response to the symbolism present in the Fleming Bond-books.  That response does however spring from true causes, both within the fiction being critiqued and within the critiquer.

Ian Fleming was, in essence, what critics today would call a “masculinist.”  Many authors have written fiction aimed at a predominantly male audience without being masculinists. Bond’s multiple conquests of beautiful women were a staple device in popular men’s fiction.  Fleming is often attacked for this trope, but that in itself does not make him excessively masculinist.  Moore’s animus for Fleming may have originated from Bond making sexist remarks that were typical for men of that period.  Some of these remarks mock women, or show confusion about women.  But do they connote “utter hatred and contempt for women,” or are they attempts to capture the real way men of the period spoke? 

Based on my own readings of the Bond books, I do consider Fleming an arch-conservative who had little empathy for anyone outside of his own bailiwick.  That lack of empathy for women, however, does not translate into “hatred and contempt.”  A woman-hater might pretend to defend women from attacks in order to bed them, but Bond does not bed Tiffy in “Man with the Golden Gun” after villain Scaramanga kills her pet birds; instead, he gives her money to buy new birds and never sees her again.  One can’t imagine Moore’s phony Bond sparing the life of the female assassin in “The Living Daylights” out of a knightly reluctance to kill a woman.  Despite Fleming’s masculinist tendencies, the Bond books are replete with powerful or imposing women, ranging from villainesses like Rosa Klebb and Irma Bunt to heroines like Domino Vitale and Tracy Draco—possibly one reason Fleming has sustained a female readership.

The other “true cause” results from the critiquer’s own biases and priorities, which are inevitably present in all readers.  The most desirable relationship between reader and work is one I call “projected reciprocity,” in which the reader faithfully absorbs everything the author says, whether direct or indirect, and projects it upon the “viewscreen” of his own priorities, to gauge in what ways he agrees and/or disagrees with the author’s world.

However, when the reader rushes to judgment as I believe Alan Moore did, what one gets is “pure projection.”  Here the reader is “set off” by whatever offends him and recognizes no ambivalences.  A reader like Moore may have “true” cause for his animus against, say, real-world misogyny, but he’s aimed his ire at the wrong target.

Whenever I attempt to “read” the latent symbolism of a work—by which I mean, whatever the author has not made literal and manifest—I frame it as a philosophical proposition, for which I can offer proofs drawn from my own experience of “projected reciprocity.”  Because so much symbolism is covert—sometimes hidden even from the author—the propositions of a symbol-hunter are not so much “X symbolism is there” but rather “X symbolism could be there, if it can be justified by some chain of associations.”  But even these justifications must be mediated by a reader’s subjective reaction to the work.  So it’s understandable that for many, even the most articulate search for covert symbolism may seem no better than an Alan Moore snipe-hunt.     


Vicente [NFN] said...

that was a great post! a lot of "thoughtful" comics-criticism suffers from this problem.

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks very much.