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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...

Saturday, September 29, 2012


...But ONLY when they are characters occupying an AMBIVALENT story-mythos, rather than a MONOVALENT one.

This assertions condenses much of the argument presented in STATURE REQUIREMENTS. In that essay, I generalized that two of the four Fryean mythoi allow the protagonist to win sometimes, lose sometimes.  One of the two is *drama,* a mythos which possesses a serious tone and a *kenotic* (emptying) audience-function, and *comedy,* a mythos which possesses an unserious tone and a  *plerotic* (filling) audience-function.

In contrast, as I also stated in that essay, the function of *adventure* is "to impart to the audience the "invigorating" thrill of victory, with little if any "agony of defeat," while in contrast "the heroes of ironic narratives usually don't win, but when they do, it's usually a victory in which the audience can place no conviction."  Just to keep symmetry with the above assertions, I'll reiterate that *adventure* is a mythos with a serious tone and a *plerotic* audience-function, while *irony* is a mythos with an unserious tone and a *kenotic* audience-function.

In MAGICK IN THEORY AND PRACTICE Aleister Crowley said, “Magick is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.”  Since I favor a lit-crit theory based in the notion of Schopenhaurean will, I see every outcome of every story as a progress toward a change in the narrative between (in Todorov's terms) one equilibrium and another equilibrium.  The change is worked not by the will of a magician but by that of a creator, who decides how much power to effect change will appear in the *dynamis* of the central character or characters.

In this essay I put forth this formula regarding the struggles of what I deemed the "life-supporting" characters, which is to say those characters with whom the audience is most expected to identify and emphathize:

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

In this formula-- in contrast to the now abandoned formula that appeared in Part 2 of that series-- I have in essence defined the "villain" as the negative, life-denying force that is in large part destined to be defeated, whether through the "serious" methods of the adventure-hero or the "unserious" methods of the comedy-hero.   With the ambivalent comedy there are more exceptions to this rule: I'm thinking here of Plautus' play Amphitryon, of which the titular character's only victory, as Wikipedia puts it, is that "Amphitryon is honored to have shared his wife with a god."  Similarly, most Laurel & Hardy comedies tend to end badly for the two hard-luck protagonists, in decided contrast to other contemporary comedy-heroes played by the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and so on.  These exceptions to the contrary, in these two mythoi the villain has a better than even chance of losing.

 In contrast, the "monster"-- which I have imagined as encompassing anything from a literal antagonist to the invisible Hand of Fate-- gets a is given a better than even chance of winning.  He/she/it absolutely wins out over the ironic protagonist, and has a good chance of being victorious over the drama's heroes.

I should note at this point that while I would have to change the wording in these summations were I dealing with a *focal presence*  that actually was a "villain* or "monster." Nevertheless, the changes would not affect the main point, for even though Dracula is the *focal presence* of the drama DRACULA and Wonderland of the ironic Alice books, those works still require a viewpoint character who embodies the life-affirming viewpoint.  Such characters retain the identificatory tendencies of a protagonist who is also a focal character, so in essence they remain no less incarnations of the life-impulse.  This identificatory potential is not altered by the fact that Van Helsing wins out over the evil menacing him while Alice is unable to do more than escape the ruthless dream-world of Wonderland.

I have found, though, that the term "victim" is not adequate for my purposes in future.  I drew the idea of a pairing of "monster and victim" from Rhona J. Berenstein's semiotic study of horror films, ATTACK OF THE LEADING LADIES, though I've de-emphasized the gender-specific nature of her argument.  It seemed to be that this made a good parallel to the traditional pairing of "hero and villain," and that therefore there would be some interesting cross-comparisons to be had from the association.  However, as I remarked earlier, the word "victim* too readily connotes someone who possesses no *dynamicity* whatever, and it's not my intention to suggest this.  Therefore in the next essay I will substitute another term for "victim," and all labels that pertain the carryover concept will appear in  place of "victim-concept."


Now here's a comparative example as to how dynamicity sorts out in popular fiction.

My chosen examples here are two 1960s teleseries, STAR TREK and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.  Getting some obvious points out of the way:

The former is set in the far future; the latter in the near future.

Both serials deal with heroes in military service who regularly encounter marvelous threats.

The former is a drama with elements of adventure, comedy and irony.  The latter is adventure with only minor dramatic elements.

STAR TREK is a combative drama, in that it regularly features conflicts between the megadynamic forces of the heroes and those of their antagonists. VOYAGE is a subcombative adventure, in which the heroes are essentially mesodynamic though they sometimes overcome megadynamic threats.

The megadynamic forces commanded by most of the TREK heroes-- aside from one character, Mister Spock-- stem from their weapons; without said weapons, the heroes are ordinary men.  The heroes of VOYAGE control one formidable weapon, a nuclear submarine armed with missiles, which despite its superior firepower remains a naturalistic resource.  In both cases, without these weapons, the heroes of both serials are ordinary men (except Mister Spock) who possess varying ranges of combat-ability.

Finally, even putting aside the heroes' weaponry, the most significant difference for the purpose of this essay is that producer Gene Roddenberry's TREK regularly emphasized climaxes in which one or more of the main heroes (most often just Captain Kirk) engaged in battles featurng what I've termed "spectacular violence," while the heroes of Irwin Allen's VOYAGE employed for the most part mere "functional violence" (categories explained in more detail here.)

Here's a fan-favorite example of a Captain Kirk battle, from the episode "Gamesters of Triskelion."

Though Kirk is an ordinary man, his command of fighting-skills is clearly extraordinary, in that out of four opponents he kills two, wounds one and easily subdues the wounded opponent's replacement.

In contrast, though I haven't recently studied Allen's VOYAGE series in fine detail, I have seen all of the episodes, and I'd be surprised if the show contains any scenes that go beyond the most functional: "A shoots B, X punches Y."  It may be significant that most of the screen caps available on the web show the VOYAGE stars standing around in sedate poses like this one:

Because of the lack of spectacular violence, I see VOYAGE as a subcombative form of adventure.  The heroes are perhaps a little better at combat than the average man-on-the-street, but not by much.  This type of hero thus fits my definition of the mesodynamic hero from this essay as possessed of a dynamicity ranging from "good to fair," a grouping that thus far also includes the original version of Aladdin, Doctor Who and Brenda Starr, three other subcombative types analyzed here.

Now Jack Burton, cited here, is also a mesodynamic hero, but unlike the heroes of VOYAGE and the other three, who depend a lot upon luck and/or cleverness, Burton has one decisive physical skill with which he managed to take down a Chinese wizard with clearly megadynamic powers, and that skill is the one thing that at least temporarily boosts him to a megadynamic level of dynamicity.

On a related note, I'm currently debating with myself as to whether the "meso, meso, micro" distinction applies across the  board to all heroes.  It's a possibility that it may that it applies principally to (1) naturalistic heroes like Dirty Harry, (2) uncanny heroes like Zorro and Tarzan, and (3) heroes whose marvelous abilities stem entirely from their weapons, as with (as cited here) Batman.

In other words, it may be impossible or just impractical to speak of such distinctions with regards to characters who possess marvelous intrinsic powers.

For instance, the power to predict the future is a real and marvelous power, as with Dream Girl of the LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES:

Also marvelous in nature is the ability to heal oneself quickly from any wound or sickness, as with Ben Richards of the 1970s teleseries THE IMMORTAL:

However, these are not the sort of talents one wants fighting off your basic alien invasion.  Nevertheless, they are no less marvelous than the talents of Thor and Iron Man.  If these two characters can be fairly deemed as belonging to a "microdynamic" level of force, it would still have a very different character from what I mean when I speak of microdynamic protagonists-- which assumes characters who have only a "fair-to-poor" level of power, and usually connotes those that have no special power whatsoever.

Friday, September 28, 2012


Here's a quick illustration of some other modes in which my "three-part harmony of dynamicity" works in practice, taken from John Carpenter's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.

In this shot, we see four characters.  Of the four, the one to the far right is not a major player in the story, though she supplies the original motive of the other three heroic figures to get involved in fighting a Chinese wizard and his kung-fu henchmen.

At the far left, we see the character Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), a reporter who gets mixed up in the battle.  By my theory of dynamicity she would be *microdynamic,* in that she possesses only minimal ability to defend herself.  I think she gets off one punch to an off-guard henchman during a general melee, but she's not a tuff girl.

Next we see the technical star of TROUBLE, Jack Burton (Kurt Russell).  Played for some degree of comedy by Russell, Burton is supposed to be a tuff guy-- at least in his own bailiwick as a truck driver.  But when he gets mixed up in "oriental intrigue" (cue Todd Rundgren), it's clear that his toughness is no match for even the least formidable of the main villain's henchmen.  He is therefore *mesodynamic,* in that he represents a "middle" level of toughness.

Third over is Wang Chi (Dennis Dun).  In contrast to many Classic Hollywood films in which the Asian Guy was seen as less dynamic than the white male star, Wang is the only one who possesses an exceptional level of martial-arts ability.  Because he's seen engaging the exceptional henchmen of the villain, sometimes with an unquestioned victory, Wang Chi is *megadynamic.*

Burton, however, has one ace in the hole that gives them the victory over the main villain: a simple knife-throwing trick.  It's arguable that his possession of this one special talent *temporarily* raises him to a *megadynamic* level.

Thus the *mesodynamic* level, like a lot of my "middle categories," is one with an intrinsically amphibian nature.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Part 2 of Chicken Colin's mis-analysis of the Silver Age X-MEN starts off in the same vein, harping once again on the supposed discrepancy between the first couple of X-Men tales, in which the heroes seem to be embraced by the American public, and later stories, in which that same public becomes increasingly fearful of the supposed threat of mutantkind. 

For all it matter to his political interpretation, CC might as well have harped on the difference between the speech-pattern of Hank "Beast" Mc Coy in the first two issues-- which has the same lowbrow cadence of Ben "The Thing" Grimm in FANTASTIC FOUR-- and in later issues, wherein McCoy begins talking with a multisyllabic phraseology.  In both cases, the primary meaning is that the creators changed direction for the Beast, as for the concept of the series he appeared in, because they had conceived what they considered a better direction.

CC writes:
The mob, or the threat of one gathering, was a relatively frequent and disturbing presence in Lee and Kirby’s stories.
By itself, this isn't incorrect, though it's myopic not to state the cultural sources of the motif.  By the time of the birth of Marvel's superhero universe, Lee and many of his collaborators had done countless stories for their fantasy/science-fiction anthology titles which invoked the same motif.  Some of them took their idea of "mob rule" from old FRANKENSTEIN flicks, while others had a more sociological take, hypothetically under the influence of the then-successful TWILIGHT ZONE teleseries under the aegis of Rod Serling.

However, it's debatable as to what extent Lee or Kirby meant to invoke the political developments of the time, as CC says:

To be different and hated for being different in the X-Men was a process which constantly haunted the mutants. Every moment of their day was coloured by the consequences of intolerance. Wherever they went, they went in disguise. Whoever they met with, they had to struggle to control the terms in which they were viewed. To anyone who’d ever been bullied, or been disturbed by the sight of bullying occurring, Lee and Kirby’s stories offered a means by which individual experience could be used to inform an understanding of broader political issues.
And a little later:

The autumn of 1965 saw the Sentinels trilogy begin, the most politically outspoken issues of the Lee/Kirby run. In what appears to be an unmistakable pop-comic critique of the witch-hunts of 1950’s America as much as the reactionary social campaigns of the early Sixties, the X-Men find themselves being tracked by an army of privately-developed robots – the Sentinels – designed to “protect” Homo Sapiens from the new race of mutants. The reader is taken so deliberately through the process by which folk devils are defined and moral panics ignited in the first of these three issues that it’s hard to see why X-Men #14-16 haven’t received more attention and respect. After all, in the context of the medium, the sub-genre and the marketplace of the time, they were an undeniably committed, if hardly unambiguously coherent, political statement.
It should be pointed out that for the most part fan-scholars don't know what either Lee or Kirby thought about the political events of the early 1960s, for neither of them went on record either within the text of their works on in interviews.  Most of what we know comes from statements both men made much later, so those statements don't prove what they thought at the time of, say, the Sentinels story in X-MEN.  Both creators may well have disliked aspects of these amorphous "reactionary social campaigns of the early Sixties," but Chicken Colin doesn't say what these campaigns were, so his assertion is baseless.  We don't know what Lee or Kirby thought about the "witch-hunts of 1950's America"-- don't know that either of them worried excessively about the fates of accused Communists or homosexuals back in the day.  The only thing we know for certain is that Stan Lee took a few pot-shots at Frederic Wertham's anti-comic-book crusade, but that in itself hardly translates into a blanket condemnation of all witch-hunts.

Shortly following the above paragraph, CC makes explicit reference to the McCarthy hearings:

No one beyond Xavier himself was shown speaking up for the mutants, and no one was portrayed as being willing to intervene to protect their freedoms either. If such a tale had been published just a few years earlier, the undeniable parallels with McCarthy’s quasi-fascism, for example, would have made the Sentinels trilogy a lightning rod for right-wing criticism. (Lee and Kirby would have run the risk in the first half of the Fifties of being associated with the party of the Reds had it been published back then.)
But what the Chicken giveth, the Chicken also taketh away:

Even the tale’s central antagonist Trask finally repents of his prejudice and sacrifices his life after the X-Men prove themselves to him, which suggests that prejudice is just an example of extreme misjudgement which might be reversed with a weight of affirmative evidence.

The Chicken doesn't make clear why this notion of "misjudgement" [sic] so compromises Lee and Kirby's view of prejudice.  I suspect, given his ultraliberal credentials, he would pleased with nothing less than a lynch-mob turned against the agents of bigotry.  Perhaps Lee and Kirby would have considered this outcome a violation of the point they were trying to make.  Certainly *I* do.

Two paragraphs later, CC finally takes the agents of bigotry to task, as he's claiming Lee and Kirby should have:

Instead of suggesting that discrimination is a social fact which serves the interests of profoundly powerful groups, and in the absence of the expectation that the state has to be a – if not the – major player in policing bigoted behaviour, the X-Men are reduced to attempting to win Americans over one by one through good and dangerous deeds.
This birdbrained misstatement of the X-MEN feature's supposed theme is rooted in the ultraliberal's constant refrain: "If you're not part of MY solution, you're part of the problem."  In the real world one may take issue with repressive acts by "the state" or by "profoundly powerful groups" with regard to the marginalization of racial groups/ethnicities.  But in the subcreated universe of the X-MEN, there is no "John Birch Society against Mutants" until the creators say that there is, nor are those creators guilty of committing some political misstep by not positing an exact parallel with the perceptions of real-world history.  Chicken Colin never considers that in the Lee-Kirby world, mutants have only come into prominence within a time-period relative to that of the comic's publication, so the events of the issues examined by CC-- issues #1 through #19-- probably take place in less than three years.  That's not a lot of time for a mutant-focused division of the Klan to get organized. 

As for the actions of the state, it actually did take a bit more than three years for the real-world state to mobilize its forces, for instance, to enforce school de-segregation as the law of the land.  If CC is so anxious to see the real world reflected in the comics, he might actually pay attention to the way the real world works.

The Chicken's basic take on the Sentinels story is that it doesn't go far enough to indict such real-world villains.  He wrings a typical Barthes-style reverse-reading out of this Stan Lee caption:

“Beware the fanatic!” runs Lee’s closing caption, “Too often his cure is deadlier by far than the evil he denounces.” (XM#16)
With foolish literalism CC chooses to believe that because Lee's bromide momentarily takes the POV of the cited fanatic-- that is, in imagining a PERCEIVED "evil" through the eyes of that fanatic-- Lee must be taking the fanatic's part.  Thus we get this incredibly snotty disparagement of the very tale the Chicken praises in other respects:

Two problems, then. Firstly, Lee appeared to be suggesting, in contradiction to many other aspects of his X-Men tales, that mutants were in part at least to blame for the hatred which so afflicted them. Secondly, he seemed to be arguing that there have been times when the “fanatics” solution for the perceived problems posed by despised groups have actually worked.
This is typical ultraliberal cant; no reasoning person would believe that this is the message being expoused by Lee or by Kirby in the story.  Yet, conversely, these are the same creators into whose hearts Chicken Colin so psychically saw, to *know* that they opposed the McCarthy witch-hunts.

As the second part of this essay wraps up, it's abundantly clear that the writer isn't the least interested in the messages expoused by Lee and Kirby.  He's interested in dunning them for not being as radical as he thinks proper:

To note the limitations in how Lee and Kirby discussed prejudice in the X-Men isn’t to suggest that their stories weren’t both inspiring and, in the context of particularly the first few years of the comic’s existence, somewhat daring. But it is to suggest that the X-Men’s creators quickly locked themselves into a way of presenting social problems which was repetitive, unsatisfying and politically nervous.
In the previous essay I've noted that there was a perfectly good extrinsic reason that the X-Men would never be validated for their good deeds: Lee and Kirby were selling angst.  It may be that for the first couple of issues they considered allowing the X-Men to be a traditional rah-rah supergroup.  But once they settled on the notion that the public would despise the heroes for their extraordinary origins, that eternal frustration became the feature's selling-point.  I doubt that the juvenile audience found this emotive tone "repetitive," for their concern, unlike the Chicken's, was not to gauge political correctness but to thrill to the character's heroic acts and to sympathize with their agonies.  On one hand Chicken Colin says that he doesn't expect a  "coherent, ideologically-informed critique of social exclusionism in a kid’s comic of the period."  Then he turns right around and makes it obvious that this lack is exactly what he finds "unsatisfying."

In a larger sense, Chicken Colin's essay is another of many critiques marred by Whitman's "foolish consistency:" in particular the belief that fantasies must be recapitulations of Really Real Reality in all respects.  Of course what Chicken Colin considers "real" is subject to just as much inquiry as the works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  But I can't imagine anyone being all that interested.

PECULIAR FOLLOW-UP: I can't tell if others can see my comment appended at the end of Part 2 of the Chicken's essay; on my computer it says the comment's still awaiting moderation.

I think that it must have shown up for some people, though, as one of my "traffic sources" in the last week traced back to a site that did make mention of the Smith/Phillips altercation.  But I've no idea what the site said about the matter, since the text is in Portuguese.

Possibly I'm better off not knowing.

FOLLOW-UP PART DEUX: The author of the Portuguese post commented on it in the comment-section of TRUISM LIES PART 2.

Friday, September 21, 2012


So who shall be my next victim?  Hmmmmmmmm...

Could it be-- CHICKEN COLIN?  Well, why the hell not?

Granted, it's about as demanding as taking an axe to a real chicken. At least when I take on Charles Reece and Noah Berlatsky, there's an intellect worth opposing.  As the Chicken's too gutless to engage me, I won't get any mental exercise out of the dissection.

Still, CC's recent over-ideological essay on the Silver Age X-MEN deserves rebuttal, even if he'll never respond.  So here goes.

The very first sentences of CC's analysis of the X-Men feature establishes that this will be a predictably ultraliberal statement founded in righteous oppositionalism:

In a profoundly reactionary society, even a gentle and sincere challenge to the status quo can be read as a significant marker of dissent. When that dissent is expressed in a medium and a form that has been purposefully emasculated so that it supposedly can’t do anything of the sort, the message becomes all the more potentially potent. At the heart of the first 19 issues of X-Men lies a moderate and yet — in the context of the day — challenging set of assumptions about how the America of the age functioned.
In the essay's two parts, the reader will find no justification for defining American society of the 1960s as "profoundly reactionary."  As I stated earlier, this is what defines the ultraliberal as well as his kissing-cousin the ultraconservative: "quoting chapter-and-verse of whatever manifesto they favor."

Having made this unsupported statement, Chicken Colin forfeits any claim he might have on identifying the political content of the feature in question.  But I'll continue to pick apart his analysis as if it had been adequately supported.

CC's first broadside deals with the depiction of ethnicity/race in the Silver Age X-MEN book-- a factor which, as many fans know, becomes of striking importance in the much more successful 1970s iteration of the concept.

That the cast of the X-Men was so profoundly WASP strangely accentuated the message that the Republic was not an inevitably godly and meritocratic endeavour. Instead, Lee and Kirby’s work suggested that America’s insistence upon obedience and conformity could even cause the children of its elite and professional classes to be perniciously defined as the Other.
 Maybe such a message was accentuated to Chicken Colin, but he's overstated his case by a few leagues. 

First, the WASP-makeup of the early X-MEN was one with almost every superhero comics-feature in the early 1960s.  One may assume if one likes that this was all part of some Barthesian scheme to keep other ethnicities down by the insistence on WASP protagonists.  A more likely scenario, though, is simply that comic-book producers aimed their features at WASP readers because those comprised the majority of the purchasing audience.

Naturally, ultraliberals are incapable of acknowledging that ethnic chauvinism may be an automatic response on the part of audiences.  Simply put, most readers like to read about fictional characters who share their appearance, their culture and, in theory, their values.  Whatever political movements or objectives may attach themselves to a fictional character, only a demagogue would claim that it is somehow "wrong" for a Caucasian reader to incline toward Caucasian characters, yet "right" for a reader of Black African descent to incline toward characters that share his ethnicity.

Now, to state the "automatic chauvinism" tenet is not to claim that such an automatic response cannot or should not be modified.  The idea of multiculturalism within American entertainment first began to find a foothold in American popular culture in the 1950s, particularly through the medium of film, as postwar liberals in the film industry sought to redress cultural wrongs by headlining African-American performers like Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.  During these years very few comic books used non-WASP characters as anything but villains or exotic supporting characters, with the significant exception of BROTHERS OF THE SPEAR. This long-runnning feature, which ran as a backup in Dell Comics' TARZAN title beginning in 1951-- one year after Sidney Poitier's first starring film-role-- gave full heroic stature to its black central character Natongo, the "pepper" in a "salt-and-pepper" team of jungle crusaders.

Nevertheless, the mere fact that there were liberal currents fighting against entrenched chauvinism tends to mitigate against Chicken Colin's depiction of America as "profoundly reactionary."  On the contrary, it was no more reactionary than any other society of the period, and a good deal less so than many others.

Let's look at that first sentence again:

That the cast of the X-Men was so profoundly WASP strangely accentuated the message that the Republic was not an inevitably godly and meritocratic endeavour.
"Strangely" is right.  Though Chicken Colin frequently mentions throughout both parts of his essay that the X-MEN series was aimed at juveniles, he constantly overlooks all factors that apply to the needs of juvenile audiences and considers the X-series as if everything in it comprised an ideological resistance to the dominant political discourse of the culture, which was, CC says, "America’s insistence upon obedience and conformity."

But is that what we're seeing in this example provided by the Chicken?

If one knew nothing about the background of this single panel-- that the man wearing dark glasses is Cyclops, a mutant who must wear sunglasses to restrain the power in his eyes-- then I don't believe the average reader would interpret it as a scene showing the "obedience and conformity" present in real American culture.  What the one panel shows is a private citizen making an inquiry of a pair of uniformed policemen-- the sort of inquiry that policemen in all eras don't like to deal with, because it constitutes a private citizen meddling in police business.  In the real world, it would be extremely foolish for any private citizen to approach a cop on the street and attempt to question him for information without at least providing some credentials and some explanation of his reason for being interested.  Cyclops does neither; he acts as if these cops owe him an explanation.

Now, if one knows the backstory, the reader can understand Cyclops making a mistake because he's just overheard news about a sought-after mutant from the two cops.  So he's acting rashly.  But given that he knows he's got this unrestrainable optic power, one would think he'd be far more cautious from the outset--  particularly since the scene does wind up with his glasses coming off, so that Cyclops almost blasts the officers.  Prior to this, the cops' response to this stranger's question is a little preremptory.  But it's not utterly unjustified by the nature of the job they do, and yes, it really is strange for a full-grown man to be wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day. Their response certainly doesn't constitute defining Cyclops as "the Other," nor does show them insisting upon "obedience and conformity" in any significant manner.

I said above that CC ignored the "needs of juvenile audiences," and his misreading of this scene is symptomatic of his poor thinking.  Lee and Kirby knew when they collaborated on this title-- as with all of their superhero titles-- that their juvenile readers wanted lots of action.  Jack Kirby in particular seems to have subscribed to the old writer's dictum: "Once you chase your characters up a tree, throw stones at them."  Cyclops' unwise encounter with the two cops doesn't serve any plot-function within the story, nor does it support a deep thematic reading; it's just another "stone" being thrown at the heroes in order to make readers empathize with them.

Now, one can make a better argument for those examples from CC in which the human hatred of mutants is overtly referenced. One might even read these examples as Lee and Kirby showing some consciousness of the ugly side of their culture's automatic chauvinism, in which, of course, Jewish-Americans like themselves were expected to keep their heads down.  AND YET, even here, one can't disregard that a lot of the problems with which the X-Men face has the *primary* purpose of giving the heroes their own unique set of troubles so as to create continued reader empathy.

CC writes:

One fine act might win the X-Men a moment’s grace, it seems, and yet tomorrow, nothing substantial would have changed where anyone but a few converts to their cause are concerned.
Well, of course not.  In a serial concept like X-MEN, for the heroes to win the status of "secular saints" (CC's words) would undermine the very factors Lee and Kirby meant to invoke to make them sympathetic.

Now, to be sure, CC does provide a short summation of Marvel's early Silver Age characters, noting how many of them were, like the X-Men, outcasts of one kind or another.  It wasn't universal, however:
Set against that developing tradition were the first incarnations of the likes of Thor, Iron Man, the Wasp, Captain America, and Giant Man, who’d been accepted and admired by society from the off. If there was little logic in why the Avengers were so adored when their peers were so often not, then there might just be little immediate sense either to a child wondering why this strata or that in their own experience should be loved or loathed.
CC does not pursue this point adequately, but to me the logic is first and foremost one relating to the concepts underlying the characters, to which Lee and his collaborators adhered with the hope of selling comics-magazines.  It's pointless to ask, "why were the X-Men not honored as the Avengers were;" they were different concepts with different dynamics. The Avengers had been modeled on DC Comics' Justice League, so early Avengers stories attempted to duplicate that type of larger-than-life concept.  I suspect that even though Stan Lee articulated and fomented the motif of "heroes with problems," he was intuitive enough not to want EVERY hero-feature to be dogged with the SAME set of problems.  Thus, while the five characters he names don't have a lot of trouble with the public, after the fashion of the X-Men, the Hulk, Spider-Man et al, they certainly do have their own set of troubles, all conceived so as to make the characters empathetic.  Thor has daddy issues, Iron Man had to plug himself into a wall-socket, Captain America was a man out of his time.  Giant-Man and the Wasp were more about their romantic dysfunctions.  There was no consistency as to the public reception of different heroes because the creators didn't believe that such equal treatment would be advantageous in terms of exciting the readers' empathies.

CC's ideological interpretations of these editorial exigencies are thus typically overstated:
Lee and Kirby’s collaboration on X-Men suggested that there really were good people who wouldn’t ever be valued for themselves.
Now, in perhaps the most radical of all of Marvel’s first-wave super-books, a mixture of an utterly committed love for America in Lee and Kirby’s work had been combined with a powerful suggestion that the home of the brave and the free was anything but for at least some of its people.
This much is true: Lee and Kirby were aware that the chauvinism in their culture could and did lead to bigotry and repression. There's no question that this is a recurring theme in their work, both with each other and separately. 

Nevertheless, Chicken Colin is far too desperate to see this inherently liberal (though not ultraliberal) theme as the defining theme of X-MEN, and one that sets it apart from the other Marvel features of the early Silver Age.  At the same time, he gives Lee and Kirby the backhanded compliment of having made only a "gentle and sincere challenge to the status quo," while overlooking that such an insistence upon ideology is a misinterpretation of the very nature of a fantasy-series like THE X-MEN.

More on CC's part 2, in my part 3. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Most stories in the popular vein also appear at a glance to sustain themselves on mere truisms: good conquers evil, etc. And there are some stories that offer little beyond truisms, as they are made up of nothing more than (so to speak) “simple variables.” But for others the apparent truisms are window-dressing for more important matters of myth and symbol, and to proving that theory I dedicate this blog.-- STATE(MENT) OF THE UNIFICATION THEORY, 2007.
My initial post on this blog dealt with Northrop Frye's elegant definition of archetypes--or at least his quasi-Jungian definiton of same-- as "associative clusters" that were (or at least had the potential to become) "complex variables." 

More recent posts, such as CAMPBELLIAN CONUNDRUM, have delved more deeply, theory-wise, with working out the way in which archetype-clusters, which by definition must be inchoate and variable, take on specific shape through the creator's mediations on the nature of the psyche, of society, of the cosmos in all its manifestations.

But, the skeptic may ask, why bother talking of archetypes?  Why not believe simply what Northrop Frye said most people believe: that " that the critic's task is to get out of a work what the author put in?" 

This is the way most American elementary students learn to write about literature.  They must learn how to recount, in a coherent and discursive manner, the underlying themes of THE SCARLET LETTER or MOBY DICK or whatever, in order to prove their ability to master the appropriate level of reasoning.  For elementary and even secondary-school levels, it would be too demanding to speak of the expressive depths of any sort of literature, be it high or low.  Most students are better off dealing with literature only in this flat, discusive sense of chasing after the Big Themes-- which by themselves, are no better the "simple variables" of the truisms I describe above.  To say that "MOBY DICK is about the struggle of man with the will of God" isn't any more profound than saying that Superman is about the struggle of ego and id.

I dealt with some of the problems in this sort of allegorical reduction of literature in THEMATIC REALISM II:

I’ve noted elsewhere that the emphasis on the privileging of “real literature’s” orientation upon thematic realism can lead to the mistake of seeking meaning in terms of allegory. LeGuin, both in this essay and others, asserts that the mythic visions she seeks are not reducible to simple allegory, which by itself is laudable, though whenever she seeks to put into words the potential meaning of a given text, her statements do take on an allegorical ring: “Tarzan is a direct descendant of the Wolfchild/Noble Savage on one side, and every child’s fantasy of the Orphan-of-High-Estate on the other.” The statement is not so much untrue as banal, and it may be that it’s impossible to state any potential meaning of a text without verging on the allegorical.
No less banal are critical readings that attempt to reduce the expressive power of any given text to the ideological as expressed not conciously but subconsciously.  In this department we find such gems as Noah Berlatsky's queer-ified reading of superheroes generally and Frederic Jameson's addlepated text THE POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS.

An awareness of-- NOT, by any means, a slavish adherence to-- the plurisignative potential of the archetypes behind literature can go a long way toward preventing this sort of "lying-by-truisms."

In Part 2 I'll proceed to rip apart one such proponent of weak-brained ideological readings, which, as I've noted in a previous post, are for pussies.

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.


Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.-- 2 Corinthians 3:6.
 Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history, mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives becomes dissolved.-- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 249.
In this 2009 essay I took issue with an essay by comics-writer Steven Grant on his Comic Book Resources forum.  In this essay Grant oversimplified the themes of Joseph Campbell while taking some incoherent shots at George Lucas for good measure.  Grant said, in part:

Obviously, almost no one using the "Campbell structure" had ever actually read Campbell, or they would have gleaned his important but widely overlooked caution that it only has meaning as unconscious structure – and conscious application voids it of meaning and resonance. But that's the result of most formal structures. If that's what you focus on, you end up with material whose only meaning if what it draws via reference. It's ultimately dead-end nostalgia, replicating form without content or context.
As I noted in my essay, I queried Grant on his then-current message board, asking if he cared to name the Campbell work in which the author made the "unconscious structure" statement, given that he Grant was so disdainful of those who quoted Campbell without reading the work.  He claimed very loosely that his remark on "unconscious structure" *might* have appeared in MYTHS TO LIVE BY, but that he Grant wasn't about to go looking for the source of his own interpretation.

With no great surprise, I didn't find anything resembling the "unconscious structure" quote in that book, but I allowed in my essay that Grant might have remembered something Campbell said elsewhere, and that even though Campbell might have said something of the sort:

The way Grant phrased the "caution," it's not in agreement with other themes in Campbell's work, but it's a given that from Aristotle to Wittgenstein there's never been any philosopher who has been able to keep his observations free from inconsistency. Given this inescapeable condition, one has to evaluate any philosopher -- even a "popular philosopher" like Joseph Campbell-- according to his dominant themes.

Now, the aforementioned analyst Robert A. Segal also shared Grant's belief that Campbell had a penchant for preferring the unconscious, archetypal structure of myth over its specific manifestations.  Segal quoted the above passage from Campbell's HERO in support of this view, and, after having read the chapter in which the passage appears, as well as selected passages of HERO, I would agree that this focus on "unconscious structure" is indeed *one* of Campbell's dominant themes, though not the only one, and certainly not one that supports Steven Grant's take on the topic, which I still consider as much hogwash as I did in 2009.

Further, my current readings also support my earlier notion that Campbell may have been guilty of inconsistency in his interpretations of myth, as Segal also argues.

In the chapter entitled "The Keys," from which the "unconscious structure" passage hails, Campbell gives assorted examples of cultural situations in which, as the author of Corinthians asserts, "the letter killeth."  By far the longest example deals with the symbolism associated with the Catholic ritual of the Paschal candle, which Campbell believes to have been overlaid with "secondary anecdote and rationalization"-- specifically, the notion that the ritual "washes away original sin."  Campbell insists that the primary meaning has more to do with the union of sexual opposites; that "the female water spiritually fructified with the male fire of the Holy Ghost" provides "a variant of the sacred marriage, which is the source-moment that generates and regenerates the world and man."

Yet at the conclusion of the chapter Campbell claims that "mythological symbols ... have to followed through all their implications" seems to be contradicting this edict by saying that one must consider one implications "primary" and the other "secondary."  And of couse Campbell cannot be certain that the Paschal ritual started as a development from "sacred marriage" rites.  The concept of "washing away sin" is a motif of considerable venerabillity in Judaic and Chrisitan mythologies, so it's not clear as to why it *must* be secondary.

In addition, though the Campbell of 1949 (when HERO was published) cannot be precisely held to account for what the Campbell of 1964 said (in his MYTHS OF GOD series), the Campbellian "four functions" theory which evolved within that book-series deserves to be seen as a heuristic tool by which Campbell did in fact continue tracing the assorted "implications" of "mythological symbols" in all their variety.  And by that system, there's no reason for preferring what might be termed the "cosmological" implications of the "sacred marriage" rite-- in which qualities suggestive of physical femaleness and maleness are displaced into elemental states-- over the "metaphysical" implications of a "sin-purging" ceremony.

Both interpretations are, according to my current terminology, secondary symbolic elaborations in which the "ions and molecules" of concrete associations assemble themselves around the "axial system" of an originary but essentially formal archetypal experience.  Could one not imagine that over the centuries humans have been ceaselessly fascinated with the fierce opposition indicated by the mixing of real-world fire and water-- perhaps sublimely fascinated?-- and that in some sense these real-world elements have become a part of the language of archetypal cosmos; a *coincidentia oppositorum*  from which any number of specific symbolic elaborations can stem.

A fuller examination of Campbell's intellectual development might reveal whether or not he, working through his theories, ever managed (as Segal claims that he did not) to balance the demands of the abstract/archetypal and the concrete/symbolic.  I will agree with Segal that at times Campbell was overly condemnatory of rituals that he personally felt to be mere "nostalgia."  However, inconsistencies or not, Campbell was certainly never blandly facile in his condemnations-- a trait still appearing in many many current essayists, and often in far more intellectually embarassing manifestations than that of Steven Grant.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


In my previous essay I gave an example of an inconsummate comic-book story, with the aim of breaking  down the difference between (1) the "formal" nature of an archetype underlying a mythic narrative and (2) the mythic aspects of the story proper, which evolve logically from the archetypal idea but are not necessary components of the archetypal process.  To cite the earlier metaphor, they are the "molecules" that a particular creator (or set of creators) choose in order to make the raw idea born from the archetypal process into an organized narrative.  The Jack Kirby CHALLENGERS story is one that displays the essence of a good archetypal concept, but the "molecular structure" of the narrative falls apart on close examination.

In contrast to this, one of the strongest Lee-Kirby collaborations-- on a feature often compared with the earlier Jack Kirby series-- is the fulsomely titled tale "The Red Ghost and his Indescribable Super-Apes," which appeared in FANTASTIC FOUR #13, about six years following the CHALLENGERS story.  I don't get the sense that this story is one of Silver Age fandom's favorite FF-stories.  Yet whatever the flaws of "Ghost," it has a stronger mythic discourse than most FF-tales of the period, and so makes a good example as to how archetype and symbol become "consummated" (though admittedly I didn't make this refinement explicit earlier).  My thoughts on this tale also comprise another entry in the list of my "1001 myths" essays.

The story, appearing during the first few years of the feature's successful launch onto newstands, deals with Reed Richards and his superhero pals launching themselves on a private mission to claim the moon for the democratic powers of planet Earth.  By chance, a near-identical mission takes off from Russia to claim the same sphere for the powers of Communism.

Now, based on this bare description, one might think that the archetype at work here would be the simplistic one of "good vs. evil," with democracy standing in for the former and Communism for the latter.  Marvel Comics did a lot of these simple allegorial tales during this period, and I would imagine that a lot of modern fans are embarassed by this simplication of complex political issues, to save nothing of a possible jingoism associated with them.  Indeed, a number of critics would not dignify such stories with any sort of archetypal reading, for they would assume, in line with Marxist hermeneutics, that the story is simply propaganda for the American way of life.  And there certainly is an allegorical tone underlying the scenario in which the Russian villain Ivan Kragoff trains apes to serve as his fellow moon-vovagers.  Late in the story heroine Sue Storm makes the allegory explicit, by comparing the enslaved apes to the enslaved but sympathetic Communist masses.

But such a critical reading would be far more simplistic than even the simplest comic-book story.
What it misses is that the core of the story is not simply pitting a flat good against a flatter evil, but having them battle for the approval of a god-like alien, who may be regarded as  a symbolic stand-in for God Himself.

Further, in contrast to other, less complex allegories-- whether from Marvel Comics or elsewhere-- Lee and Kirby devote an inordinate amount of effort to contrast the exemplary behavior of the four American heroes versus the selfish and controlling behavior of Ivan Kragoff.  This elevates the argument beyond merely "good democracy vs. evil Communism," for it speaks to what is good in humankind generally to what is evil in humankind generally.  I note, just for one possible example, a scene in which Reed announces his plan to fly to the moon alone.  His comrades set him straight with a little horseplay, which nevertheless underscores that though Reed Richards leads the group, he does so with "the consent of the governed."

Thus the archetype operating here is not simply "good vs. evil," though it is not unrelated.  I see in the FF-tale something closer in nature to the motif folklorist Aarne-Thompson labeled, "The Kind and the Unkind Girls," which is represented by the (coincidentally Russian) tale of "Faster Frost."  Reprinting Wikipedia's summary:

A  woman had a stepdaughter and a daughter of her own, and she hated her stepdaughter. One day, she orders her husband to take her stepdaughter out into the winter fields and leave her there, and he obeys. Father Frost finds her there, and she is polite and kind to him, so he gives her a chest full of beautiful things and fine garments. When her stepmother sends her father to bring back her body to be buried, he goes to fulfill his task. After a while, the family dog says that the stepdaughter is coming back beautiful and happy.
 When the stepmother sees what her stepdaughter had brought back, she orders her husband to bring her own daughter out into the fields. The girl is rude to Father Frost, and he freezes her to death. When her husband goes out to bring her back, the dog says that she will be buried. When the father brings back the body, the old woman weeps.
I am not claiming that Lee and Kirby copied, intentionally or accidentally, the pattern of this story, but rather, that the story's pattern is archetypal, which is to say that it inheres in human culture's need for narratives organized around diametrically opposed factors or essences.  But certainly, even if the heroes of the tale are not especially polite to the Watcher, they are at least deferential, while the Red Ghost trespasses on the Watcher's home and so suffers the Wrath of God.

Interestingly, though the Watcher insists that the two forces fight for ownership of the moon-- which the alien is more than willing to cede-- the heroes defeat Kragoff more by outmaneuvering him than by decisively vanquishing the scientist and his apes in direct combat. The story's creators could have done so, but it might have undercut the tale's final irony, in which the three super-apes get hold of the paralysis ray (see above) and turn on their tyrannical master-- patently, a wishful forecast of the fortunes of the enslaved people of Russia.  One might argue that something like this did come about in real life, though it's been argued that the citizens merely exchanged one yoke for another.

Like the "kind girl" in the folktale, the heroes of the story are rewarded, not with treasure, but with the blessing of the godlike Watcher, who tells them that "space is your heritage" and that even though the Watchers will not involve themselves in human affairs, humanity will never be "alone."

By focusing first on the imaginative, archetypal essence of the story, one can avoid the more typical ass-backwards interpretation. In such readings, any story's sociopolitical elements are the underlying cause of its genesis, as seen in Frederic Jameson's blockheaded notion of a "political unconscious," disputed here. Jung's idea of archetypal patterns, which he compares to the "axial system of a crystal." 

My distinctions on the nature of archetype and symbol will be explored further in a forthcoming Joseph Campbell essay.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


If language is born, indeed, from the profoundly symbolific character of the human mind, we may not be surprised to find that this mind operates with symbols far below the level of speech.-- Suzanne Langer, PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY.
Susanne Langer, who believed that human beings could articulate a sort of "diffuse meaning" below the level of discursive speech, makes an  interesting gloss on Jung.  As noted in JUNG LOVE FIRST LOVE, Jung defines archetypes as being essentially "empty and purely formal," but when they are experienced through the medium of an individual human's needs, they manifest in "big dreams" that possess an "overwhelming" quality.

I used a Langerian approach when I critiqued a Jack Kirby CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN story in the essay CONSUMMATELY CHALLENGED.  However, in some ways Jung applies to the story just as well.  Repeating the relevant Jung-quote once more:

"[The archetype's] form, however ... might perhaps be compared to the axial system of a crystal, which, preforms the crystalline structure in the mother liquid, although it has no material existence of its own. This first appears according to the specific way in which ions and molecules aggregate. The archetype in itself is empty and purely formal, nothing but a facultas praeformandi, a possibility of representation which is given a priori."
In the Kirby-CHALLENGERS essay, I demonstrated how the story had tossed out a number of *inconsummate* motifs, by which I meant motifs that did not coalesce into meaningful content, whether of a "discursive" or "presentational" nature, within the sphere of the story.  The closest I could discern to a discursive meaning in "The Secret of the Sorcerer's Box" was a haphazard comment on codes of masculinity:

I noted earlier that the story does touch upon the nature of masculinity, and it does, in the sense of evoking pleasure in the heroic acts of the Challengers. But the story doesn't work well as far as positing Morelian as the obverse of the heroes, simply because he pays them to do a dangerous job. Is Morelian in some sense "anti-masculine" for having done so? This is a possibility, but Kirby's story (and Dave Wood's dialogue) offer little to explain why the heroes suddenly take a dislike to Morelian at the end.
How might one label the archetype underlying this sort of story?  One might make of it a sort of Levi-Straussian dyad: "good masculinity vs. bad masculinity."  Whether the germ of the original story came from Jack Kirby or his collaborator Dave Wood, one might understand that this sort of concern would logically occupy an artist launching a comics-feature focused on daredevil acts of courage.  But all of the specific myth-references in the story-- to Merlin, to the Christian devil, to Medusa's box-- all of these would be in the nature of what Jung called the "ions and molecules," associations suggested by the archetypal theme, which the artists attempted to bring into a coherent whole.  But in contrast to other stories by Kirby, whether by himself or in collaboration with others, "Secret" failed to cohere even on the basic level of successful formula.

Nevertheless, an inconsummate story allows the chance to see how the gears of the symbol-making machine perform when they're a little out of whack, whereas when they work in perfect synchronization, the process is harder to descry.  Then, one cannot know "the dancer from the dance" or the "axial system of the crystal" apart from the "ions and molecules" assembling around it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


"Not all dreams are of equal importance. Even primitives distinguish between 'little' and 'big' dreams, or as we might say, 'insignificant' and 'significant' dreams. Looked at more closely, 'little' dreams are the nightly fragments of fantasy coming from the subjective and personal sphere, and their meaning is limited to the affairs of everyday. Significant dreams, on the other hand, are often remembered for a lifetime, and not infrequently prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure-house of psychic experience. How many people have I encountered who on the first meeting could not refrain from saying: 'I once had a dream!' Sometimes it was the first dream they could ever remember, and one that occurred between the ages of three and five. I have examined many such dreams, and often found in them a peculiarity which distinguishes them from other dreams: they contain symbolical images which we also come across in the mental history of mankind." (C.G. Jung,1945)

I've recently finished Robert A. Segal's THEORIZING ABOUT MYTH, a general overview of several scholars who've written on the topic of myth, including Jung, Campbell, and various others.  Segal's book doesn't go much beyond a basic summary of the scholars' positions and a few of Segal's disagreements with those positions: Segal doesn't formulate any grand theory of myth-interpretation himself.  But as is sometimes the case with such simple summaries, he touched on some points I hadn't yet covered here.  In his chapter on Jung, Segal says:

"An archetypal experience is not any emotional event but only an overwhelming one, the extraordinariness of which stems exactly from the power of the archetype encountered through projection."-- p. 93.

The Jung passage above supports Segal's reading: Jung believes that the "big dreams" dreamed by humankind "prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure-house of psychic experience," because they partake of "the mental history of mankind."  Thus, though Jung doesn't use the word "overwhelming" in the above passage, thr word seems fully applicable to Jung's concept of how archetypes operate.

It then occured to me that Jung's characterization of archetypal inspiration as "overwhelming" compares nicely with what I wrote in this essay:

"Longinus, Burke and Kant all agree that the affect of sublimity comes into being only through a subject's contact with some overwhelming power/might/infinitude." 
So does that mean that archetypal inspiration is one with the experience of the sublime?

In a sense, yes.  However, whereas the descriptions of the sublime by Longinus, Burke and Kant depict the beholder of the sublime in a passive state-- simply being overwhelmed by the might and maginificence of what he beholds-- Jung's subject, upon experiencing archetypal inspiration, becomes active and creative. 

"[The archetype's] form, however ... might perhaps be compared to the axial system of a crystal, which, preforms the crystalline structure in the mother liquid, although it has no material existence of its own. This first appears according to the specific way in which ions and molecules aggregate. The archetype in itself is empty and purely formal, nothing but a facultas praeformandi, a possibility of representation which is given a priori. The representations themselves are not inherited , only the forms, and in that respect they correspond in every way to the instincts."-- Jung, THE ARCHETYPES AND THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS, p. 79.

In Jung's view, myth, both in its archaic and modern manifestations, is a creative response to the archetypal experience.  He opposes the idea of "myth as primitive science" advanced by E.B. Tylor and James Frazer, claiming that primitive man possesses an "imperative need... to assimilate all outer sense experiences to inner, psychic events."  I agree, but with the caveat that in many instances primitive humans did look for aspects of "outer sense experiences" that were regularly replicated.  This is the sort of thing Tylor mistook for primitive science; the idea that, for instance, a story about a sun-god was an attempt to understand how the real sun worked. 

In Jung's paradigm, it's impossible to imagine a primitive trying to explain the regular motions of the sun in terms of a figure like Helios driving his chariot across the sky.  However, it would be fair to state that many of the features of the physical world that science would study in terms of their etiology-- the movement of celestial bodies, the characteristics of vegetation, et al-- were sacred clues to the nature of divine power.  The "empty and purely formal" archetype is the principle around which these "clues" aggregated.  For Jung the emotional wonder of beholding the sun as a sacred mystery would be the keystone of making a myth about it, while the specific local details of any given myth were the "ions and molecules" upon which the organizing power acts.

Now, in my essay
PARALLEL PATHS: THE SUBLIME AND THE MYTHIC, I attempted to describe my impression of their parallel qualities, noting:

Neither Burke nor Kant demonstrate any great fascination with mythic symbolism as such. However, I would expand some of the terms they use to describe the sublime, such as "might" or "magnificence," to include the sense of a greater mythic pattern that brings the events of a given story into the wider "family" of mythic narrative. 
For instance, the story of Persephone weaves together a collection of godly figures-- Zeus, Hades, Demeter and Persephone; a literal "family."  We can for sake of argument assume that the first three of them pre-existed the story of Persephone; that a god of the heavens, a god of death and a goddess of the harvest preceded anyone's idea to imagine the annual death and rebirth of vegetation as the descent of Demeter's daughter into darkness.  This would be not only "mythic" in the sense of formulating a more complex story; it would also be "sublime" in giving a basic fact of life an "overwhelming" character, as of something irresistible and fundamental to life. 

However, in
SUBLIMITY VS. MYTHICITY, I wrote that it's difficult to demonstrate the presence of sublime emotion-- whether in archaic myth or contemporary fiction-- except through popular texts.  We know that thousands of moviegoers were entranced by seeing Clint Eastwood incarnate the myth of "frontier justice" in DIRTY HARRY.  But there were any number of "maverick cop" movies before and after DIRTY HARRY that did not so captivate huge audiences.  We cannot say that a more obscure film, like Roy Rowland's 1954 ROGUE COP, did not possess some of the formal qualities found in the Eastwood film.  Yet since it did not inspire an awed response in any audience, contemporary or latter-day, the film cannot be an example as to how a fictional creation inspires a sublime (and essentially passive) response in a large audience.

ROGUE COP could, however, be as mythic as DIRTY HARRY, despite the former's lack of popularity.  Mythicity as I've defined it in my Campbell-derived terms concentrates not on the "organizing principle" but on the "sacred clues" organized by that principle.  I'll have more to say on the potential conflicts between the sublime organizing principle and its mythic "ions and molecules" in a future essay, centering more on Campbell.