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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...

Friday, September 20, 2013


In speaking of an "ethic" with respect to any literary formulation, as with my "mode of the combative," it's necessary to re-state the obvious: human ethics as they apply to the world of art can never be coterminous with human ethics as they apply to life.  Though I've stated some of my disagreements with Camille Paglia here, her statement opposing life and art remains appropriate:

We may have to accept an ethical cleavage between art and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutilations in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message from the beyond, telling us what nature is up to.-- Camille Paglia, SEXUAL PERSONAE, p. 39.

I will not repeat my many statements distinguishing the properties that separate "works of thematic realism" from "works of thematic escapism."  I'll simply point out that the former type often grapple with matters that the other type does not address, matters which are not limited to, but often deal with, the ethical dimension of real life.  One author, be he Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, or Jack London, may have full-fledged propositions about how to make life better, which he encodes in his works.  Another, like Shakespeare, may use his work to imply an ethical dimension without stating it outright.  A third type, like Voltaire, may propose no solutions whatever but still imply that somehow or other, things could be better than they are, and then expresses that conviction through his work.  

Because all such works suggest that they provide utilitarian value-- not because they can actually foster new systems of morality but for providing "thought experiments"-- elitists often presume that these favored few works are as the rare diamonds scattered through a mountainous heap of trash.  I have maintained, however, that the relationship between "realistic works" and "escapist works" is closer to that of conjoined siblings, dependent on one another for life.  This parallels my conclusions in the final LET FREEDOM RIDE essay, that "right choice" and "wrong choice" are inextricably intertwined within a perspectivist concept of free will.  However, perspective plays a greater role in sussing out the ethical nature of real-life events than it does in literary matters, for the simple reason that in real life human beings gamble their own lives rather than participating in gestural re-creations of ideas and emotions.

A minor example would be the ethical disagreement of American citizens circa World War Two, in which some citizens wished to intervene directly against the Axis while others wished to pursue a course of non-involvement.  Today the consensus was that the former choice was "the right choice," but some would claim that it is validated only because "history is written by the victors," and still others might aver to this day that things might have turned out better had the U.S. left Europe and Asia alone. Though I agree that non-involvement was the "wrong choice," that does not dispel all aspects of the rational process by which some citizens thought it the right choice. 

No lives hang in the balance within the ethical scope of the literary process, though in the real world people have suffered or died to have the right to participate in that process.  Yet the nature of merit, including that of ethical consensus, is far more fluid: authors' works may be esteemed in a minor way, forgotten for a time, and then re-discovered in some new perspective, as occurred with the oeuvres of Herman Melville, H.P. Lovecraft, and Fletcher Hanks. Some elitist fans of science fiction have imagined that the genre would have been finer and more literary had the American and European tradition of science-fiction magazines-- particularly those of a pulpish nature-- never existed.  There is of course no way to prove this, but this does not extinguish the reasoning by which those proponents choose to believe that in their scenario the market would have spawned more types like H.G. Wells and fewer like Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I assert, though, that the reasoning is over-simple: another example of over-privileging those works that purport to have thematic-- and thus ethical-- depth, over those that make few if any such claims.  It overlooks the fundamental interactivity of thematic and escapist works in the literary continuum, as well as failing to understand the deeper symbolic nature of the escapist works.

In my previous essay I chose three stories from Grimm's Fairy Tales.  None of them are works of "thematic realism:" like the great majority of stories overall,  I define all three stories as "genre," meaning that they belong to categories governed by reader-expectations far more than by authorial intentions.  I used the three stories as exemplars of differing combinations of dynamicity-conflict.

The first story, "Bremen Town Musicians," portrays a conflict with no spectacular or sublime aspects.

The second story, "Hansel and Gretel," portrays a conflict in which there exists a conflict between one character, who possesses "might," and two other characters who do not possess might but who are able to trick the first character into defeat.

The third story, "The Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was," portrays a conflict between one character who possesses enough "might" to overcome several other mighty opponents.

Of these three patterns, I've hypothesized that the middle one, labeled "Might vs. Non-Might," is the most popular in the totality of literature (by which I mean, the "bad stuff" as well as the "good stuff.")
Now, assuming the truth of this, what would this pattern mean?

It might mean that the surest way to appeal to a human audience is to play upon their fear that they-- represented by the viewpoint characters of their stories-- are always on the verge of being overwhelmed by powers greater than themselves.  As noted in this essay, the aforementioned H.P. Lovecraft felt that fear was the most primal emotion:

THE OLDEST and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

Though there are a lot of stories in which ordinary humans are menaced by the forces of "the unknown," the basic pattern is not confined to supernatural stories: a story like the 1962 film CAPE FEAR sports only a "known" fear, that of a ruthless criminal who impinges on an almost-helpless family.  It is also the same pattern we see in Hegel's opposition of the "bondsman"-- who in my system would represent "non-might"-- and the "lord," who of course represents "might."

I cannot speak to all of Hegel's subtleties on this point, but I find it interesting that, for all that the philosopher emphasizes 'the effects of the "fear of death" on "being-for-self,"' he doesn't show much interest in one other consequence of the lord-bondsman conflict: that the bondsman inevitably seeks to become a lord, to take on the lord's power and privilege.

One cannot do this, however, through the evasive maneuvers of trickster-heroes like Hansel and Gretel.  One only proceeds away from the condition of "non-might" by acquiring "might" oneself. 

In fairy tales as in superhero stories, "might" can be thrust upon a story's protagonist, as it is with characters ranging from Aladdin to the original Captain Marvel.  However, though the story about the Youth Who Sought Fear doesn't inform us as to how he got so mighty, one may speculate that he could have acquired his might by the Batman method: training and effort.

In either case, there is a change in the ethos of the "might vs. might" stories, as opposed to the more popular "might vs. non-might" type.  Suddenly, might is not an overwhelming force that exists outside the human subject, imposing fear as the lord does to the bondsman.  Might is something that can be summoned from within oneself, and is thus available to all human subjects who manifest the necessary will.  In addition, might is plural in nature: it has many faces, and in folktales and fairytales this many-sidedness often appears when a beleaguered viewpoint character receives supernatural help from some benign donor to "even the odds" against a powerful enemy.

Thus, within stories that emphasize "might vs. might"-- which is to say, combative stories-- the plurality of might implies that no lord is ever so mighty that a bondsman cannot assume his power and knock him from his lofty position. Of course, in real life this often means "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."  But in fiction we can indulge in the possibility that the new lord will make better choices than the old one. 

Kant repeatedly stresses that all of his observations upon the sublime affects are that they arise spontaneously from humans, themselves in positions of safety, observing the potent forces of nature expending themselves with their own version of "might."  He does not attribute to these affects any ethical consequence in themselves, though as noted before he did assert that all aesthetic emotions did lead to ethical application.  When he introduces the concept of "dominance," which is his terms for the conflict I call "might vs. might," it too is intended to have only indirect ethical application

I suggest that one such application is this appreciation of the plural manifestations of might.  Nearly every schoolchild is exposed to some approximation of the "caveman looking up in wonder" as he espies the birds in flight and wishes to imitate them, which becomes a symbolic representation of human progress as a whole.  But no single act of wonder exists by itself, and from what we know of early man, it does seem that many of them viewed the world as a concatenation of powerful presences, from which the earliest versions of "shamans" could derive power. In later years such presences would codified into polytheistic mythologies, and there too, though men were always inferior to the gods, there remained a conviction that they were worthy to stand with the gods in terms of the will-to-power if not sheer power itself.

The shaman deriving power from his numinous presences, the warrior gaining supernatural presents or guidance from his patron god, the bondsman studying the ways of the mortal lord in order to overthrow him-- all of these participate in the ethical dimensions of the combative mode.  Thus "might" exists to continually challenge others to partake of its nature, rather than being utterly inaccessible, as it is to the humble creatures of "Bremen Town," or being something that can only be overcome through trickery, as in "Hansel and Gretel." This potency, to challenge one's own will to greater acts of agency, is the essence of the ethic that springs from the combative mode.

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