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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, April 30, 2013


Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities.-- Aristotle, POETICS.

Our survey of fictional modes has also shown us that the mimetic tendency itself, the tendency to verisimilitude and accuracy of description, is one of two poles of literature. At the other pole is something that seems to be connected both with Aristotle's word mythos and with the usual meaning of myth. That is, it is a tendency to tell a story which is in origin a story about characters who can do anything, and only gradually becomes attracted toward a tendency to tell a plausible or credible story. Myths of gods merge into legends of heroes; legends of heroes merge into plots of tragedies and comedies; plots of tragedies and comedies merge into plots of more or less realistic fiction. But these are change of social context rather than of literary form, and the constructive principles of story-telling remain constant through them...-- Northrop Frye, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.
Prior to investigating in greater depth the idea of the "combinatory-sublime" as it applies to works within a "super-real" context, I must return to the concept of "coherence" as I formulated it in GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 3:

...symmetry requires that if there are works that are to be judged examples of "presentational incoherence," such as TROLL 2 and GLEN OR GLENDA, then there must exist works that are almost like fever-dreams, full of what Langer calls "diffuse meaning," but which still possess "presentational coherence."

In that essay I provided contrasting examples of coherence and incoherence as it applied to Susanne Langer's concept of "presentational symbolism." I stated that the positive value of coherence was characterized by "the way the writers present the [applicable] trope to the audience, and whether or not they succeed in putting across the absurdity affect with some degree of cleverness."  By contrast, it's a given that the incoherent types of presentational symbolism lack that clever quality; that there's something comparatively desultory about the author's *attempt* to be wild and crazy.  The same dichotomy was applied in PART 4 with regard to coherence and incoherence in terms of Langer's matching concept of "discursive symbolism." In that essay I found fault with the knee-jerk nature of Christopher Nolan's "imposition of overly-realistic strictures upon an escapist concept," i.e., that of Batman.

With all that in mind, I turn to Frye's opposing poles of literature.

What Frye calls "verisimilitude" overlaps with Langer's discursive symbolism. The author seeking verisimilitude seeks to make his work consistent with his culture's ideals with regard to proper mimesis and consistency, which can only be arrived at through discursive thought.  The quality of verisimilitude is certainly not limited to realistic fiction, though.  Zola's desire to write kitchen-sink novels of observed life displays one form of verisimilitude.  Nevertheless, when a science-fiction writer like Isaac Asimov seeks to ground his fantasy of super-intelligent robots in an aura of believeability, he too resorts to a form of verisimilitude, by invoking the discursive symbolism found in current scientific theory, from which he then extrapolates in order to buttress his fantasy.

Frye's general concept of "myth" similarly overlaps with Langer's "presentational symbolism," but arguably the former has many more mansions.  With respect to the above quote, the only conceptions of importance are that (1) myth in its original form concerns beings who "can do anything," and (2) myth set up what he later calls "fictional formulas" that can be adapted for stories more invested in plausibility, as when "birth-mystery plots" like those of Perseus and Moses are reworked for naturalistic novels like TOM JONES and OLIVER TWIST. 

I should say here that nowhere in his analysis is Frye concerned with how well a given author succeeds in his evocation of the "verisimilitude pole" or of the "myth pole;" he's only concerned in the ANATOMY with how each tendency inevitably shades into the other.  My attempt to provide standards for attributing merit in each department is entirely my own.

Now Aristotle's homily is one with which many readers may agree. The philosopher's example of a "probable impossibility" probably would not mean much to moderns, but for modern readers this might be something like J.R.R. Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS, a secondary world worked out with such detail that it seems "probable" on its own terms, even though all prudent persons would deem it "impossible."  By contrast, a "possible improbability" seems more like an authorial cheat.  Christopher Nolan's BATMAN film-series is full of improbabilities that undermine his supposed realism, a few of which I addressed in this quasi-review. I've had my share of encounters with viewers who defended, say, the variable characterizations of Nolan's Catwoman simply by saying that it was "possible." Those viewers were quite comfortable with possible improbabilities.

The defense of such improbabilties usually takes the form of asserting either that the form of a fictional work is a dismissable game anyway ("It's only a movie") or that a specific genre is one to which verisimilitude need not apply ("It's a story about a guy who dresses up like a bat, fergodsake!")
I agree that every genre is a game with some operating rules, though inevitably players will project some of their own ideals into the game and often dismiss the "official" rules.

But some improbabilities do have positive values of coherence.  As noted in the GESTURE series, there's no verisimilitude to be found in the trope of a hero's villains setting him up to be killed in some death-trap.  Still, the trope possesses "presentational coherence" when it's done with enough cleverness to serve its mythopoeic purpose: to display the hero's superior escape-abilities.  Lack of verisimilitude is not an error within that context, while within a structure that purports to show superior discursive mentality, lack of verisimilitude simply shows a lack of mental rigor.

All that said, what I find most interesting about Frye's schema of opposing poles is that Frye clearly imagines a "great middle." Hypothetically within this "middle"-- as with my "uncanny" category-- it's possible to place works that are more invested in verisimilitude than the stories of gods and legends of heroes, but are as deeply implicated as is Kitchen-Sink Zola in the discursively organized limits of causality.

Within this middle ground one might find all "coherent improbabilties," ranging from improbable "comedies and tragedies" like PERICLES and THE WINTER'S TALE-- as well as those works that I have denoted as having an "uncanny phenomenality."

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