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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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...

Friday, May 3, 2013

SUBLIMITY VS. MYTHICITY PART 2

Usually there's not over a year's time between a "Part 1" and a "Part 2" in my postings. This one was brought on, however, by my recent elaboration of the concept of the combinatory-sublime and its possible effect on my earlier statements on the sublime affect.

The first SUBLIMITY VS. MYTHICITY was primarily oriented on making a distinction between the possible validation of each of these literary qualities.  I suggested that the manifestation of the sublime was dependent to some degree on public reception:

I am toying with-- though not completely committed to-- the idea that the sublime affect can be perceived best through works that have proved popular with a majority of their audience, be it a "high-art" or "low-art" audience. With works that have not proved popular with some audience at some time, it's harder to divine this specific affect.
 
On the other hand, mythicity, I asserted, was not dependent on popular acclaim, but on a critic's ability to reconstruct a symbolic discourse within a given narrative:


This [status of the literary sublime] is in strong contradistinction with [that of] the mythic, which... is properly a discourse rather than an affect...
 
In this essay I'll be revising this distinction somewhat, by invoking Northrop Frye's dichotomy of "narrative values" and "significant values."  I summed up the dichotomy in this essay:

To blend a foursome of terms derived from disparate Frye essays, narrative values are those that are “centripetal,” applying to values within the structure of the narrative; the values that make the narrative work. Significant values are“centrifugal,” in that they apply to the values that make it possible for audiences to relate to the actions of the characters within the narrative structure.
 
The dichotomy proposed in the March 2012 essay borders on constituting "mythicity" as a "narrative value" alone and "sublimity" as a "significant value" alone.  This does not stand now that I've articulated two aspects of sublimity-- one of which, the "combinatory-sublime," is implicated in the condition of "mythicity," while the other, the "dynamically sublime," is implicated in the condition of *dynamicity.*  Further, both "mythicity" and "dynamicity" must be seen as having both narrative and significant values, with the sublimity each generates being the primary significant value.  To word it in a schematic sense:


MYTHICITY
is to
THE COMBINATORY-SUBLIME
as
DYNAMICITY
is to
THE DYNAMICALLY SUBLIME

I will illustrate all four principles by drawing on one passage from one of the foremonst literary myths, Herman Melville's MOBY DICK:

"Hark ye yet again – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me."-- Chapter 36.
 
Beginning with the principle of mythicity:

Narratively at this point in the novel, Melville chooses to introduce the full extent of Ahab's obsession, which goes beyond personal revenge and becomes a credo of protest against the inscrutable reality behind all of the masks.  This credo is a "narrative value" in that it provides Ahab with a fanatical motivation, making it probable that he will continue his quest until its very bitter end. 

At the same time, Melville knows that his "ideal reader" should experience a fascination with Ahab's demonic philosophy, beyond its function in the story proper.  This philosophy goes beyond its statement in this one passage, including many other mythic manifestations, not least being Ahab's baptism of the whale-spears "in the name of the devil" in Chapter 113.  Since Ahab's belief-system must appear to be coherent, no matter how improbable it may seem, Melville constantly builds that belief-system out of a dizzying (and hence potentially sublime) combination of elements: Zoroastrian fire-worship, the Old Testament Leviathan-myths, the Greek Zodiac, and many other myth-elements besides.  This is the "significant value" of Ahab's credo in every instance of the novel where Ahab holds forth on it.


At the same, Ahab is not some airy scholar spinning webs of mythological comparison; he is an experienced whale-hunter who kills other beasts of Moby Dick's species during the novel and renders them down into their constituent parts. By this speech and others like it, he makes himself a fit opponent for Moby Dick, a creature typified by "outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it."  In terms of narrative values, Ahab conjures forth this vision of the White Whale's dynamicity in order to suggest the magnitude of the task he sets himself by attempting the beast's death.  The degree of Ahab's passion, together with his real experience as a whale-hunter, suggests the possibility that he may be able to do what he intends.  Without the possibility that Moby Dick may lose the climactic conflict, the novel would lack the tragic power Melville intends.

At the same time all of Ahab's pronouncements about the whale-- that it may be an "agent" of the "inscrutable thing" behind the masks, that fighting it is comparable to "striking the sun"-- function to imbue the White Whale with a sublime dynamicity that goes beyond the mere power of an ordinary whale; goes beyond the domain of natural fear and into the realm of "daemonic dread," to quote Rudolf Otto.  This dread of a power beyond the natural gives both Moby Dick and his pursuer the significant value of the dynamically sublime.

Having provided this schematic analysis, showing how each principle can have either a narrative or subjective value, I'll proceed in Part 3 to explain how each of them tends more toward one value than the other.

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