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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Friday, June 21, 2013


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.-- Northrop Frye, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, p. 51.
Eddie Valiant: You mean you could've taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?
          Roger Rabbit: No, not at any time, only when it was funny. 

Frye's statement that the characters of myth are "characters who can do anything" might have been a little more judiciously phrased.  I understand that he's contrasting the world of the gods with that of humans in terms of the power-differential: that humans, prisoners of "reality," are limited to a small sphere of power, whereas deities can do innumerable things that men cannot do, and often would like to be able to do. 

However, it isn't really accurate to say that gods can do anything.  Whether any sort of gods exist or not, the stories that we tell about them are always informed by the human perception of limitation-- and therefore the stories about gods perforce limit their power.

For instance, if Zeus can do anything, then he cannot be overthrown, even temporarily, by Typhon.  The story of his combat with Typhon requires that he be vulnerable.  Similarly, in the story of Demeter, the wasting of the seasons during Demeter's sorrows is not something Zeus can undo by sheer will; only through compromise with the Earth-goddess can the Earth be saved.

In all of the major religions the Hindu Krishna may be the incarnate god who most seems able to do any feat he attempts.  Nevertheless, when a story was needed to illustrate the death of Krishna-- or perhaps just Krishna in that incarnation--  then Krishna succumbs to the same fatal limitation as mortals.

With an otiose divinity like the Judeo-Christian god, it's harder to determine whether or not he is as omnipotent as the texts claim.  Some authorities have argued that fragmentary mentions of conflicts with "Rahab" or with a "bent serpent" in the Old Testament are remnants of a story akin to that of Zeus and Typhon.  Even so, though it's taboo within the religion to suggest that God is anything but omnipotent, one cannot get away from the admittedly comic logic of the proposition, "Can God make a weight so heavy he can't lift it?"

In both fictional and religious narrative, then, power cannot be articulated without the storyteller imagining some form of limitation, even a self-imposed one like God's decision to let human beings choose good or evil.   Unquestionably what Frye calls the realm of "myths proper," allots a much greater diversity of powers to some-- though not all-- inhabitants of that domain than one sees in more realistic narratives, where the absence of such powers is a key aspect of being "plausible and credible."

Those powers, further, are not infinite, for they are always in the service of creating a narrative effect, as per Roger Rabbit's confessed limitation, that he can only slip out of the handcuffs when the effect is funny.  The same principle holds true even if the effect is meant to be invigorating, purgative, mortificative or whatever permutations of the above can be imagined.

In Part Two I'll explore how this determination meshes with my previous writings on Ernst Cassirer's concepts of *magical efficacy.*


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