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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...

Thursday, February 28, 2013

EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS PT. 3

Since writing the conclusion to EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS PT. 2, I've decided that it might be simpler to illustrate my point about the distinctions between "glory" and "persistence" with another pair of hero/demihero examples.

This essay was somewhat informed by consideration of the notion of character-types introduced in Vladimir Propp's MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE, of which I wrote:

What Propp's paradigm [of the "seeker"type of folklore-protagonist and the "victimized hero"] describes is essentially a difference between "heroism in activity" versus "heroism in passivity." "Heroism" in this context must be divorced from the nature of any particular hero: in folklore studies it connotes simply the actions (or non-actions) of the characters with whom the audience is supposed to sympathize. The same parallel obtains with characters who dominantly represent the forces of chaos, with villains representing a very active form of evil, while monsters tend toward greater passivity (dragons who are minding their own business guarding their hoards when knights come calling, and so on.)
Propp's characterization of the latter protagonist-type, the "victimized hero," puts me in mind of a particular type of hero-type which seems, on the face of things, to conform to the paradigm: the castaway-protagonist, who, either alone or as part of a group, is stranded in some unfamiliar locale or environment.  At first glance one might assume all castaway-types to be passive and victimized figures, given that they are generally focused purely on survival and, where possible, finding a way back to familiar territory.  One might inquire as to whether the castaway's efforts to find his way home do not make him the sort of "seeker" Propp writes about in his first category.  Again, in my reading of Propp, the actions of a seeker imply a much more active status than the usual castaway-type-- though there are, as I will show, exceptions to that generalization.

The values of "persistence" and "survival" are strongly encoded in the 1965-68 teleseries LOST IN SPACE, whose family of space-castaways take their name from the novel SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON.  The Robinsons' original mission is one of space-exploration, which again might be read as a sort of "seeking," though not one that necessarily carries the value of "glory."  The characters' spaceship is thrown off course, and for the remainder of the series they follow the standard pattern of castaway-fiction, alternating between attempts to survive and attempts to find a way home.



Many episodes-- possibly a majority-- involve some violent conflict between the Robinsons and various aliens who menace them for assorted reasons.  The explorers command a limited number of space-age weapons.  These register as having high dynamicity-- even though said weapons usually prove ineffective-- and their artifical cast-member the Robot also commands a fair amount of power, as well.  In keeping with my observations on the nature of the combative mode, this opposition of superlative forces does imbue the series with the significant value of the combative, but not the narrative one, as the conflicts are not dominantly central to the narrative, as they are in a comparable series like STAR TREK.

Despite the family's original purpose of space-exploration, the majority of the castaways-- mother Maureen Robinson, children Judy, Penny, and Will, and the cowardly stowaway Doctor Sniith-- are presented as being far from inclined to fight under most circumstances.  Only two of the male protagonists-- "alpha male" John Robinson and "beta male" Major Don West-- show much competence in the combat department, and even then, Major West only rarely shines as being more than just a "good" fighter.  John Robinson-- played by Guy Williams, the former TV "Zorro"-- is more frequently positioned as an above-average combatant, occasionally even displaying Zorro-style swordfighting skills.



Though the Robinsons are potrayed as being willing to go to the wall to save persecuted or put-upon victims from aggressors, they only do so as a last resort, which makes them very different from the concept of the hero as a more active defender of right.  For this reason I find that the tenor of the Space Family Robinson's adventures is concerned with "persistence" first and "glory" second if at all.

But as I indicated above, not all castaway-series necessarily follow this pattern.  Consider in contrast another teleseries, the 1999-2002 "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World."



For simplicity's sake I'll pass over any analysis of the original Arthur Conan Doyle novel, which was a novel of exploration but did not involve any castaway-themes, as well as the various films that purported to adapt the novel.  The syndicated series takes only a few elements from the novel, such as the names of several characters in the party that ends up stranded within the "lost world," a plateau in South America where prehistoric creatures and quasi-human tribes still exist.

On the surface, the "Lost World" party was concerned with the same contingencies as the Robinson party, surviving amidst abnormal dangers and searching for a way back to the real world.  However, from the first, the value of "glory" is emphasized, even in the voice-over to the series' introductory theme:

“At the dawn of the last century, a band of explorers searched for a prehistoric world, driven by ambition, secret desires, a thirst for adventure, and seeking the ultimate story..."

These four thumbnail motivations were meant to suggest respectively the four dominant (and most combat-worthy) members of the original party: Sir John Challenger, Marguerite Krux, Lord John Roxton, and Ned Malone.  The theme also references the "late addition" of the fifth character, Veronica the jungle-girl, introduced as "an untamed beauty."  Veronica was transparently modeled on such jungle-heroes as Tarzan and Sheena, and unlike the others, is eventually given an official status as a mystical protector of the plateau-world.



However, even without focusing on the function of Veronica, the Challenger party don't act as the Robinsons do, simply trying to mind their own business and survive.  Over their three seasons all of them (with the exception of noncombatant character Summerlee, who's killed off in Season One) become de facto "policemen" to the plateau, constantly intervening to sort out good from evil.  Admittedly none of the other regular characters verbally expouse the sort of "mission" that Veronica does.  Still, their various reasons for coming to the plateau all suggest the desire to be magnified in some way.  Since the aim of the LOST WORLD series is to be as exciting as possible-- rather than emphasizing the melodramatic persuasions of LOST IN SPACE-- all five of the heroes are constantly engaging in combative activities, and are seen, more often than not, enjoying the "glory" of martial triumph.

On to "villain vs. monster" in Part 4.





Saturday, February 23, 2013

CREATED AND CREATOR ENSEMBLED HE THEM

Because one of my forthcoming "persona-essays" deals with the monstrous creation of Mary Shelley, I want to set down some thoughts about how characters in the tradition of Shelley's "mad doctor" may or may not enter into ensemble-relationships with their unholy offspring.

Just as some heroes evolve from characters who begin with villainous status, monsters sometimes evolve from the persona of a demihero.  I've termed the Henry Pym of the 1962 "Man in the Ant Hill" a demihero.  Given that he starts out as what I called a "Frankenstein  manqué," it would be easy to imagine the early Pym transforming himself into an ant-monster rather than a shrunken man, rather like this other monsterized scientist-character from another Marvel boogey-tale of the period:





Much later, long after Pym became a full-fledged superhero, writer Roy Thomas referenced that lost Frankensteinian theme, and had Pym/Goliath invent a murderous mechanical offspring, originally called "Ultron-5," who despite his similarity to Shelley's monster was framed as a "villain."



Shelley's original novel FRANKENSTEIN depicts a more complex relationship between the monster and the monster's creator-- and one in which both characters are central to the novel's concerns.  Therefore Victor Frankenstein and the being popularly nicknamed "the Frankenstein Monster"-- although Shelley never gives the latter a real name-- are equally important to the novel's structure, and form an *ensemble* much like that of those discussed here.




However, the interdependence of "creator and created" is not an inevitable development.  In the case of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE, there's the potential for the "two faces of Doctor Jekyll" to be of equal importance, just as Victor and his doppelganger-like creation are in FRANKENSTEIN.




However, in my judgment Jekyll is of secondary importance in the novel.  Stevenson's plot is focused principally upon the revelation of Edward Hyde's true nature, not on the aspects of Jekyll's character that lead to Hyde's creation.  Thus in this example, it is Edward Hyde alone who is the focal presence-- though I have seen renditions of the concept where Jekyll is more important than Hyde.

The reverse of this focus upon "the created" is one in which "the creator" alone is the focus, and his creatures are little more than manifestations of the creator's warped genius.  My example here is H.G. Wells' 1896 novel THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU.  Whereas Mister Hyde is an eruption of Doctor Jekyll's primitive self-- a self that takes on a life of its own, one more dynamic than that of its "parent"-- the monstrous Doctor Moreau is the focal presence of the novel, and his assorted creations-- the beast-human hybrids he forges through the unlikely techniques of vivisection-- are just supporting characters.



At best, the assorted beast-men of the novel are secondary excrescences of Moreau's twisted genius, not separate ensemble-characters in their own right. Moreau's death ends his hold over the hybrids, who eventually revert to their lower natures, but the narrator Pendrick realizes at one point that he might have regained control over them after the passing of Moreau and his assistant:

I know now the folly of my cowardice. Had I kept my courage up to the level of the dawn, had I not allowed it to ebb away in solitary thought, I might have grasped the vacant sceptre of Moreau and ruled over the Beast People.

I've now demonstrated that the co-existence of a "creator" and his "creature" in a narrative does not necessarily mean co-equal status as focal presences. I will further note that these figures are also mutable in terms of their persona-status.  Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, Stevenson's Doctor Jekyll, and the two Marvel characters discussed-- the original version of Henry Pym and the forgettable guy who transforms himself into "Bruttu"-- are all demiheroes.  As stated earlier the persona of the demihero tends to represent the narrative's "life-sustaining" potential.  That persona can turn negative, though usually not to the same degree as one sees in the persona of "the monster." Of the examples cited, the "monsters" who assume centricity include Shelley's Frankenstein Monster, Stevenson's Mister Hyde, and Bruttu.  In the original Henry Pym story, he is a demihero who does not share centricity with the "monstrous" ants he encounters.

The difference in the degree of negativity, however, makes me label Wells' Doctor Moreau a "monster" rather than a "demihero."  As established in EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS PART 2, the term that for me best captures the tenor shared by monster and demihero is that of "persistence."  Moreau's function in the story is to be the originator of the ghastly hybrids, and he does so through a persistent dedication to science not unlike that of Victor Frankenstein or Henry Jekyll. However, the negative effects of Moreau's unscrupulousness makes him into more of a monster than any of his creations, who, as I said, are not as significant, as numinal, as the mad doctor.  Thus, Wells' book is one of those works in which "the mad doctor" is far more of a "monster" than his creations, as well as being the most significant monster in the book.

This compare-and-contrast can't examine in depth the treatment of these very mutable figures in the medium of film. However, I must note-- given that an upcoming essay will deal with one filmic version of the Frankenstein tale-- that many Frankenstein stories vary as to whether the creator, the creature or both enjoy centricity.

It's been commented somewhere that in the Universal Frankenstein series, the creature was the central character, while in Hammer's Frankenstein series, the creator was the center. I would certainly agree with the latter statement: most of Hammer-Frankenstein's creations are no better than those of Wells' Doctor Moreau: mere "excrescences."  However, it's not quite that simple with the Universal Frankensteins.  The first three make a rocky effort to follow the example of the book, in which the mad scientist and the monster are of roughly equal importance to the story.  However, the fourth and fifth films in the series diminish the role of the "mad scientist" to nugatory dimensions. And in the last three films in the series-- all of which were "monster-mashes"-- the Frankenstein Monster shares focal space with Dracula, the Wolf Man, and some version of a "mad scientist"-- though none of the scientists belong to the line of Frankenstein. 
 



JUNG AND CENTRICITY

Before I continue with my observations regarding the "monster" and "villain" personas, I need to iron out some details with regard to my concept of *centricity.*  I had not given the concept this name when I addressed the notion of *focal presences* in 2010 and did not name it until this 2012 essay.

In this recent essay I quoted Jung on what he called the "sovereignty" of a given psychological function in a given subject's outlook:

This absolute sovereignty always belongs, empirically, to one function alone, and can belong only to one function, because the equally independent intervention of another function would necessarily produce a different orientation which, partially at least, would contradict the first. But since it is a vital condition for the conscious process of adaptation always to have clear and unambiguous aims, the presence of a second function of equal power is naturally ruled out. This other function, therefore, can have only a secondary importance.

Jung does not invoke "sovereignty" as a specific term, in contrast to the way Bataille uses it to mean what I'd translate as "megalothymotic dominance."  What Jung is really addressing is the proposition that though a subject's psychological makeup may include influences from all four functions-- once again, sensation, intution, feeling, and thinking-- only one can be dominant.

I compared this broadly to what I term "centricity" in the four Fryean mythoi; i.e., that every coherent fictional story should logically fall into one of the four *mythoi* even though they may possess elements of other mythoi, as illustrated in the essay BUFFY THE MYTHOS SLAYER.  In addition, the same logic that "there can be only one" applies to centricity with respect to the characters in those fictional stories; only one person, or one interrelated group of persons, can occupy the figurative "center" of the narrative.

In PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES Jung doesn't use the metaphor of a circle and its center.  He uses another metaphor to illustrate his insight on the relation of his two principal types-- the "extravert" and the "introvert"-- with respect to their orientation:

For the extravert the object is interesting and attractive a priori, as is the subject, or psychic reality, for the introvert.We could therefore use the expression 'numinal accent' for this fact, by which I mean that for the extravert the quality of positive significance and value attaches primarily to the object, so that it plays the predominant, determining, and decisive role in all psychic processes from the start, just as the subject does for the introvert.


From my reading of Jung I don't think he ever came to use the term "numinal accent" very much, though I think that he always stayed true to the concept of a "quality of positive significance and value" pertaining in the psychologies of human beings.  I imagine that "accent" never became a regular Jung-term because it's a little too limited in the ways it can be applied.  To make it work the psyche must be compared to a word with more than one syllable, as in the Dictionary.com definition of "accent:"

 "prominence of a syllable in terms of differential loudness, or of pitch, or length, or of a combination of these."
 

In other works, however, Jung would emphasize the importance of the circle as a symbol of psychic wholeness. Not only does the circle make the best symbol for the psyche, it is also the ideal symbol of the coherent fictional work, where one finds the "quality of positive significance" at the center while other, less central qualities accrete around that center like debris around a black hole.  And the central character or characters are the means by which we know that central significance.

On a quick aside, once I would have used the term "dynamis" for the "quality of positive significance," which Jung elsewhere called "libido."  Now, however, I've drifted into using the term as a substitute for Frye's concept of "power-of-action," while "dynamicity" applies to a character's literal physical power.  I still would not use "libido" as Jung did, but might use his other word "numinal"-- derived from the term "numinous," devised by Rudolf Otto-- to connote that centralized significance.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS PT. 2

In Part 1 I took the trouble to articulate category-names for Bataille's formulation on humankind's attitudes toward consumption-- elsewhere referenced as "the desire to conserve and the desire to expend"-- as well as to fuse them with my Schopenhauer-derived categories of "will."  To be sure, were Bataille alive he'd probably condemn the endeavor, as Stuart Kendall's biography mentions that the French author had no love for the German philosopher.








Having done all this, I must admit that the categories of "expenditure" and "acquisition," which describe how the affects of fictional characters impress themselves on readers, don't have great utility as working terms.  I've been striving to isolate two common words that summarize the emotional tenor of, respectively, "abstract goal-affects" and "concrete goal-affects."

In my first attempt at finding two such tenor-terms, I drew on a dichotomy of "courage" and "endurance" suggested by actor Christopher Reeve-- though had I wanted to resort to a more intellectually respectable source, I could have just as easily cited Socrates' opposition of "courage" and "temperance" in THE STATESMAN.  I said that Johnny Thunder, despite his mental limitations, was essentially an "active hero" who suggested the tenor of intellectual courage. In contrast I said of Jimmy Olsen:

For all of his flirtations with heroism, Olsen is first and foremost an "ordinary guy," which allowed him to show an "endurance" sort of heroism in some stories, and to be a pure "victim" in others.
 
Later I tended to use terms derived from Hobbes, as in the PLAYING MERRY HOBBES essay:



I would say that the qualities of "glory" and "diffidence" also seem better matches for the characters discussed in that earlier essay, with Johnny Thunder following a pattern of "glory" while Jimmy Olsen follows one of "safety" (which I find that I prefer to "diffidence," as that seems to imply a trait of the character rather than a plot-action).
 
I did so again at the end of TWICE THE MIGHT PT. 2: 

I'll note in passing that I rate the central heroes of both films as "demiheroes" in that they are concerned more with the Hobbesian value of "safety" than of "glory."
 
Of these two terms, "glory"-- which is meant to be applied to the "intellectual will" embodied in the hero-persona and the villain-persona-- is not problematic.  Anyone who makes the effort can imagine "glory" being given positive connotations for heroes and negative connotations for villains.

"Safety," however, does not apply across the board to the two persona embodying "instinctive will," the demihero-persona and the monster-persona.  I believe that I was concentrating so much on defining the nature of the demihero, as against the hero, that I failed to find a tenor-term that applied equally well to the persona incarnating the dominantly negative aspect of the instinctive will, the "monster."  The "concrete goal-affects" of a "monster" are not adequately described by "safety."

However, I think that Hobbes' original terms of "safety" and "diffidence"-- which are entirely in line with the "desire to conserve"-- can be subsumed not by what the monster-persona does, but by what it dominantly wants.  In this essay I said.

I’ve defined the persona of the “monster” as the generally negative counterpart of the demihero. Usually the monster is also defined principally by self-preservation, whether the creature is destructive on a large scale (Godzilla) or covets some forbidden prize (King Kong). Self-preservation and endurance also typify even benign monsters, like Man-Thing...
 
The tenor-term for both monsters and demiheroes must be a positive value that can be turned into a negative aspect.  This leaves out Hobbes' terms "safety" and "diffidence," for neither are positive values.  The same holds true for "temperance," the term used in my STATESMAN translation, which doesn't translate easily into a negative manifestation.  Reeves' term "endurance" wasn't quite right, either, but one of its synonyms-- "persistence"-- does have the desired positive connotation.

I for one find it easy to think of the demihero, the "ordinary guy-hero" like Jimmy Olsen, being virtuous primarily in terms of his persistence.  As I said in the cited essay, Olsen is a reporter first and a hero second, while his opposite number Johnny Thunder is defined by being a hero first and a whatever-he-did-for-a-living second.  Thunder may be a dopey comic hero, but he's all about sharing the abstract glory of fighting crime and hanging out with the Olympian company of the Justice Society.  Olsen, a comic demihero, is content to be "Superman's pal," and his forays into heroism are perforce of limited duration.



However, monsters like the ones mentioned above-- Godzilla, King Kong, and the Man-Thing-- are best seen as negative parodies of either human beings or other animal-species.  And yet, though the audience recognizes that their affects are negative in relation to what their victims want, the monsters are charming because of their quality of persistence.  The persistence-virtue of Godzilla and the Man-Thing manifests in their being very nearly immortal; no matter how many times they die, they just keep coming back in some incarnation.  Kong's original incarnation perishes, and to my knowledge only one latter-day effort made the attempt to revive that specific Kong.  However, Kong still comes back in what might termed "template" versions, versions that have no ostensible connection with the original 1933 entity.  But even though Kong is not diegetically immortal, what Kong's afficionados admire in the big ape is another form of "persistence," his dogged if unrequited love for his female co-star.



Clearly, I need to explore the tension between "glory" and the newly-minted term "persistence" with respect to the two negative personas, "monster" and "villain," so that will be the subject of EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS PT. 3.

Monday, February 18, 2013

EXPENDITURE ACCOUNTS

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.
The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation.-- Thomas Hobbes, LEVIATHAN, Chapter 13.



 It is interesting, however, that Propp's summation of his two protagonist-types also turns on a distinction between a protagonist who makes a grand gesture based in "courage"-- that of the seeker following a villain who's seized someone else-- and the survival-instincts of a "victimized hero," whose principal virtue is one of "endurance."-- COMIC HERO VS. COMIC DEMIHERO.


In THE NARRATIVE DEATH-DRIVE PART 2 I formulated the joint idea of "concrete goal-affects" and "abstract goal-affects," which were affects located within the personas of fictional characters, with whom audiences are meant to identify.  I asserted that the former affects were "directed toward the goal of gain or the goal of safety," that is, to the desire to achieve a specific real-world effect, while the latter were more oriented on the faculty of *esteem,* which the Greeks called *thymos.*  I noted that "neither the logic of the desire for gain nor the desire for safety seems to govern the operations of *thymos.* 

The more I think about Hobbes' "three principal causes of quarrel," however, the more I come to believe that these three might be subsumed into two.  The aggressor who wants to build up his store of goods by robbing his neighbor is in a sense following the same concrete instinct as the victim who fights back, trying to protect what he already has.  The same parallel applies to the paradigm asserted by Propp: an antagonist who simply seizes a victim often (if not always) seeks to satisfy some concrete end, just as the "victimized hero" who endures in order to eventually win free wants to satisfy a similar concrete end.  One might therefore see Hobbes' categories of "gain" and "safety" subsumed into one concrete goal-affect, which I will term "acquisition" after Bataille's use of the term.

"Glory," in contrast to both "gain" and "safety"-- the main manifestations of acquisition-- lacks the practicality of the concrete affects, so that its overriding category is that of expenditure, also covered in the above essay. 

This dichotomy compares favorably with the Schopenhauer-influenced dichotomy formulated in HERO VS. VILLAIN, MONSTER VS. VICTIM PART 3:


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." 


Keeping in mind that I revised Schopenhauer's terms above into terms I found more pleasing-- i.e., "intellectual will" as the principle underlying abstract concepts, and "instinctive will" as the principle underlying concrete percepts-- I will further extend the parallels thus:

Acquisition= the totality of concrete goal-affects, which represent "instinctive will"
Expenditure= the totality of abstract goal-affects, which represent "intellectual will"

Both categories in turn have their positive and negative manifestations.  Following Hobbes' examples, the thief who seeks to acquire property not his own is usually (though not always) a negative force in fictional stories, while the property-owner seeking to defend his goods is usually (though not always) a positive force in fictional stories.  I've gone into detail elsewhere as to why the "persona-types" I've termed "the monster" and "the demihero" stand as representations of the instinctive will.  Both of these personas, then, are dominantly subsumed by the concept of acquisition.

In contrast, most of what I write about the "intellectual will" personas of "the hero" and "the villain" in HERO PT 3 and elsewhere suggests an emphasis on the motive of "glory" for both.  This is clearer with regard to the hero, who sometimes shares the motives of the demihero "writ large" as it were, than with the villain.  However, I maintain that even though we see the villain undertaking acts of "acquisition," the true villain incarnates intellectual transgression.  I wrote in D IS FOR DEMIHERO PT 3: 

Even the mundane crooks as portrayed in these [Batman] stories want more than simple survivial. Typically they desire wealth, which may be seen as establishing a form of willed control over their environment. This will to control often manifests in the crooks forming their own society counter to that of honest citizens. Unlike monsters, who are most often seen as forces gone out of control, villains seek to exercise total control, be it of city-neighborhoods or the entire world.
More on expenditure and acquisiton when I again examine the concepts of "work and play."


Sunday, February 17, 2013

TO BREAK OR NOT TO BREAK PT. 2

In January 2013 I wrote this review of the 1934 Laurel and Hardy fantasy-comedy BABES IN TOYLAND, the first film to be based on the successful 1903 stage-operetta.  I had also reviewed the 1961 Disney version of the film in December, and I posted both reviews on this forum of the Classic Horror Film Board for response.

As I don't have permission to reprint anyone's comments from that board, I won't go into the specific objections raised to my review of the 1934 film, except to say that in part they come down to giving TOYLAND a pass because it was designed as a children's fantasy, which is essentially the same as the "it's only a movie" defense I covered in Part 1.

I re-viewed TOYLAND to examine its narrative structure more closely and see whether or not I felt it offered me any reasons to give the film a pass.

TOYLAND the film, as I noted in the first review, bears little resemblance to the Wikipedia summary of the stage-play, with which I have no familiarity otherwise.  The film's main indebtedness to the play is the central conflict.  In Toyland, a town populated by various Mother Goose or fairytale characters, evil old banker Silas Barnaby plots to force sweet young thing Little Bo Peep to marry him (Contrary Mary in the play and the Disney film).  Barnaby holds a mortgage on the house of Bo Peep's mother-- who happens to be the Old Woman Who Lives in the Shoe-- and threatens, in the long-lived tradition of operetta villains, to foreclose on the house if Bo Peep does not marry him. In the film as in the stage-play the heroine ends up marrying an age-appropriate protagonist, named "Alan" in the play and "Tom Tom the Piper's Son" in the 1934 film.  The play also contributes subplots in which (1) Alan is falsely accused of a crime and (2) two protagonists are abandoned in a hostile environment called "the Forest of No Return."

For roughly the first half, the script for BABES IN TOYLAND-- credited to Frank Butler and Nick Grinde-- stays on reliable operetta ground.  Because it's a Laurel and Hardy film, the script emphasizes two well-meaning bumblers-- Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy).  They work in the Toymaker's toy factory-- whose presence is the only explanation for the town's name.  At the factory Stannie and Ollie bungle an order from Santa Claus for tiny toy soldiers, producing instead a group of man-sized soldiers capable of marching around (hence the film's better-known title, MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS.)

For the rest of the film, Stannie and Ollie, who room with the Old Woman in the  Shoe, make it their business to protect Bo Peep against Barnaby and help her marry Tom Tom.  They bungle their first effort to steal the Old Woman's mortgage from Barnaby.  The banker catches them and has the city's ruler Old King Cole sentence the twosome to be ducked in water and then exiled to "Bogeyland"-- the first mention that there's some hostile place outside Toyland, more or less the equivalent of the play's "Forest of No Return."  Bo Peep promises to marry Barnaby if he'll drop all charges against the boys and give her mother the mortgage on her home.  Stannie and Ollie trick Barnaby into giving up the mortgage without marrying Bo Peep.

It's at this point that the script starts to go off the rails.  Barnaby decides to get even by framing Tom Tom for "pignapping," i.e., kidnapping Elmer, one of the Three Little Pigs, and turning him into sausage.  Inconsistencies immediately start to pile up:

(1) Barnaby, despite having a servant, performs the pignapping himself.  Repeating the Big Bad Wolf's routine in reverse, he tries to gain entrance to two pig-houses, gets clonked by both pigs, and then succeeds in capturing Elmer after blowing his house down.

(2) Thanks to Barnaby's servant planting evidence, most of the town immediately turns against Tom Tom, even though the Piper's Son appears to be a standup guy who's never caught doing anything more than sparking his girl.  No one gives the slightest heed to Bo Peep's testimony that Tom Tom was with her, and the two remaining pigs conveniently don't mention that Barnaby accosted them on the same night that Elmer disappeared.

(3) The evidence against Tom Tom includes a link of sausages that are supposedly Elmer's remains.  Elmer is actually alive and hidden away in Barnaby's house.  But this elicits the question: why doesn't Barnaby kill Elmer?  He might not want to make the little pig into sausages, but the longer he keeps Elmer alive, the greater the chance that his plan will be compromised-- which it is, when Stannie and Ollie infiltrate Barnaby's house and free the pig.

However, before Stannie and Ollie find him, the officials of the city transport Tom Tom by raft across a river and to "Bogeyland," a stalactitic cavern whose main inhabitants are the cannibalistic Bogeymen (though in one sequence also displays some etheral dwarves and a figure resembling the Sandman). After the officials leave Tom Tom and return to Toyland, Bo Peep steals a raft and joins her lover in Bogeyland.

When Stannie and Ollie expose Barnaby, he flees back to his dwelling and climbs down a ladder in a dry well behind his house.  He passes through a crevice in the well-- a crevice which he may or may not have created himself-- and enters a subterranean passage which leads into Bogeyland.  Stannie and Ollie alone see the banker descend into the well, but since they don't know about the passage, they initially try to wait Barnaby out.  Eventually they descend and find the passage.

Meanwhile Barnaby comes across Tom Tom and Bo Peep,  both asleep.  The villain tries to steal the girl.  Tom Tom waits and fights with Barnaby.  As I said in my original review:

" For absolutely no reason, Barnaby is suddenly able to enlist the aid of the cavern's monster-men inhabitants, "the Boogeymen," and the villain leads them in an assault on Toyland."



I left out the specific manner in which Barnaby calls the Bogeymen to his aid: after his fight with Tom Tom, Barnaby beats his cane against the stone walls of the cavern.  Tom Tom and Bo Peep flee the monsters and run across Stannie and Ollie, who manage to lead them to the well-exit.  It's not clear why Barnaby doesn't follow them up the well, which would put him and his army directly in the center of Toyland.  Instead, he somehow knows that Bo Peep has left a raft where he can find it easily, and commands his last-minute army to use it to make a frontal attack on Toyland.  Something like twenty or thirty beast-men-- far more than could fit on the raft that we see-- are seen pushing in the apparently unlocked gates of the city, their main motive being to turn the inhabitants into entrees.  (Lots of cannibalism in this children's film!) The only thing that saves Toyland is that Stannie and Ollie figure out how to activate the giant toy soldiers, who repel the Bogeymen and send them back to the river, which is full of crocodiles.  Barnaby is last seen getting clonked on the head by one of the Toyland-people, the young couple is united, and Ollie ends the film with one of the many comic humiliations in the career of Oliver Hardy.

The possibility was raised on the aforementioned forum that Barnaby has some previous connection with the Bogeymen.  The film certainly doesn't make any such connection explicit, but I would certainly concede that possibly Barnaby found that the well led to Bogeyland.  The villain's banging on the walls might be a call he had established earlier in order to call them for feedings-- though there's no evidence in the film that Barnaby ever nurtured any ambition beyond being a rich inhabitant of Toyland, with Bo Peep as his wife.  And if he had fed previous victims to the Bogeymen-- why didn't he get rid of Elmer by dumping him down the well behind his house, instead of keeping the pig *inside* his house?

As I said in Part 1, it should be obvious that I find nothing in the film justifies giving it a pass for its numerous inconsistencies.  I did give a pass to the trope of Batman's escapes, because they serve the purpose of putting the hero's cleverness on display.  But the erratic logic of the Butler-Grinde script serves no purpose but to allow the writers to leap over whatever story problems they may have encountered.

In conclusion, if the defense "it's only a movie"-- or even "it's only a kid's fantasy-movie"-- can ever be used as a defense, it ought to be reserved for a much better film than the 1934 BABES IN TOYLAND.


TO BREAK OR NOT TO BREAK



In this 2010 essay I wrote about the way a fantasy-film like THE LITTLE MERMAID followed narrative rules for its fantastic content which were not based in the appearance of logic.

...Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID is a fantasy-- as well as a fiction-- that is not *essentially* about the appeal of the game's rules. There are what I term *expectations* in the Disney film, but most of the film's "rules"-- that fish can talk, etc.-- are not supported by logic but by *aesthetics.* There is no *reason* that the Disney fish can talk: it's just a given supported by the author's desire to tell a story involving talking fish and the audience's desire to experience one.

Today I wouldn't use the term "aesthetics" to describe the appeal of fantasies, whether they break narrative rules or simply bend them, but the essential point holds true.  No one is likely to demand that LITTLE MERMAID should not portray talking fish because (a) fish can't really talk, or (b) even if they could, they couldn't speak underwater.

Not all issues as to agreement on "givens" will be settled this easily, though.  One film-viewer can go into a tirade on the inconsistencies of a given film, while another can listen to every single objection and merely respond, "It's only a movie."

In the third RULES FOR ESTRANGEMENT essay, I borrowed some terms from the work of philosopher Susanne Langer, describing a narratives like THE LITTLE MERMAID as a "presentational fantasy" while a narrative like the X-MEN comic book was a "discursive fantasy."  However, the question arises: while discursive works usually make more effort to appear logically consistent, are there instances in which some audience-members will give the works a pass, while other watchers will not do so.

In GESTURE AND GESTALT 3  I examined a trope that has been a favorite in BATMAN comic books as well as the 1966-68 teleseries-- that of the villain who places the hero in a deadly trap-- and found that it was impossible to make the trope seem logically consistent:


It should be obvious that there can be no hint of verisimilitude in this trope. While real people have been known to torment other real people for amusement, the notion that nearly every single villain in the Bat-universe would choose to indulge in this trope, rather than a more expedient solution for hero-killing, points up the nature of the device as presentational of a certain absurd-flavored form of suspense.
Audiences who take no pleasure in the trope will be the joykillers in this instance, making the reasonable objection that if the villains want to see the hero die slowly, why don't they hang around and watch? Why do they always leave the room?  And of course the only answer is one that steps outside narrative logic: the villains have to leave or there's no way the hero can demonstrate his cleverness in contriving an ingenious escape.

In all probability there will never be any universal consensus as to when it's proper to give a work a pass.  Therefore I can only state my own preferences.  When I give a story a pass on its strict adherence to discursive logic, it's because I think that doing so achieves a positive effect in some department.  I number four departments in which this positive effect can be achieved: the kinetic, the thematic, the dramatic, and the mythopoeic.  The demonstration of Batman's genius for escaping traps would fall under the heading of the mythopoeic.

In Part 2 I'll examine a film where I was the joykiller and others asserted that the flick should have been given a pass

Thursday, February 14, 2013

ELICITING ELITISM PT. 2

Since rereading Booth's RHETORIC OF FICTION, mentioned here, I had been meaning to write something about the inherent manipulativeness of canonical fiction. Synsidar on this BEAT thread gave me the chance to expound on it a bit more.

To a comment regarding the supposed manipulative nature of  "continuing character" works-- one guess what Synsidar had in mind-- I posted the following.

_____________________



Actually, I think the element of manipulation in art is very strong, it's just not as obvious.  Some critics make much of ambiguity.  But does Nabokov really just leave it up to the reader as to whether or not Humbert Humbert's take on morality is genuinely moral?  I would say that Nabokov has definite ideas on the subject, and that he manipulates readers into taking his view of things-- even if he makes his points more subtly than a Jerry Siegel.


I don't know why it would make any difference as to whether or not one is dealing with continuing characters.  When I considered buttressing my above argument that some HU guys don't like traditional stories, I returned to the Ng Suat Tong essay whose reprinting started the fracas:


"Once we recognize this, we must begin to wonder why some of the most esteemed critics in the field so often choose to place these comics over any other series of adult war comics. Do we find Joe Sacco’s truthful and engaging writings concerning Palestine and Yugoslavia hampered by his lack of exciting narrative technique and close-ups? Do our healthy appetites for dramatic, swanky portrayals of death betray our immature desires? This is the corrupting influence of the EC War line: artfulness and dexterity in place of truth; voyeurism without horror; content in the service of style instead of the reverse."

To me this is just as much a "cri de couer" as your own against the evil power of manipulation.  But all of the EC stories Tong is condemning are anthology stories with non-continuing characters.  Ipso facto, the presence of continuing characters makes no essential difference to the presence or absence of manipulative elements.

Monday, February 11, 2013

AN ANCESTOR TO THE "MARVEL METHOD"

I didn't get much satisfaction out of my recent reading of THE BLACK TULIP, one of the last novels of adventure-writer Alexandre Dumas, as the book was bereft of the adventurous qualities one expects from the author.  However, my reading did lead me to this interesting statement on Dumas' practice of authorship, put forth by one David Coward in his introduction to TULIP:

"[Dumas] left much of the historical spadework to his collaborators.  Under his direction they furnished substantial plot outlines which it was his practice to rewrite completely, adding the 'Dumas touch' with which he stamped his personal, unique mark on the published product.  It is in this sense that he claimed, rightly, to have been the author of all the books he signed."


Coward does add that at times Dumas let manuscripts pass without revision to every section, which means that not everything in every Dumas book did receive the "Dumas touch."  Nevertheless, Coward adds that no one ever succeeded in proving any charge of plagiarism against the author, though some of his collaborators made the attempt.

I shouldn't need to dwell much on the immediate likeness between this scenario and the one that describes the "Marvel Method" supposedly originated by Stan Lee in the early 1960s.  The main difference is that in recent years Stan Lee took the position that he was the primary creator of all his collaborative works because he was the editor who had authority over his collaborators, and that he had ordered the creation of every single character copyrighted by Marvel Comics.

Many fans resent Lee for having made this assertion, particularly when some artists have testified that Lee's input on a given character could be little more than a name or a sentence. In this TWOMORROWS interview John Romita Sr. describes the paucity of his input at times:


The only thing he used to do from 1966-72 was come in and leave a note on my drawing table saying "Next month, the Rhino." That's all; he wouldn't tell me anything; how to handle it. Then he would say "The Kingpin." I would then take it upon myself to put some kind of distinctive look to the guy.
 
And yet, in the same interview, Romita also seems to subscribe to the same  principle of a "Stan Lee touch" that Coward attributes to Alexandre Dumas.

Well, we joked about it. I would kid him about it. Originally nobody thought about plotting credits, except Ditko. Ditko got plotting credits, then Jack Kirby got plotting credits immediately. I got no credits at all during the first run; I got them in retrospect. Later on, he would tell people we co-plotted. I never was offended by it, and I always assumed it was his right, because it was thought these characters really came from him. Even the ones Jack Kirby created with him, I felt were full of the Stan Lee stamp.
 
Of couse, Lee wasn't literally imitating the pattern of Dumas. If anything he may have been patterning his writer-editor duties after the more prominant comic-strip artists of the time.  There had certainly been earlier comic-book editors who imposed a "stamp" of some sort on their lines, but comic strip artists like Al Capp and Chester Gould are better known for subsuming the contributions of unbilled assistants like Frank Frazetta or Russell Stamm (respectively) under their own respective creative umbrellas. In essence, this is also what Stan Lee did when he collaborated with Marvel stalwarts like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby-- though no one will ever know how much which collaborator created, and how much Lee contributed in terms of rewriting others' concepts.


Friday, February 8, 2013

ELICITING ELITISM

Ng Suat Tong (henceforth NST) said:

'A few decades later, the EC line occupies no less than 4 spaces in The Comics Journal’s Top 100 comics of the century list, a ranking exercise which should put paid to any claims that this magazine has an elitist stance. The question for today’s readers is why a line consisting of “the best pulp fiction” and sometimes “a good deal better” is still considered among the best comics ever made.'


Since I've repeatedly called the Journal elitist and still do, I'll challenge NST on his terminology.

The only thing demonstrated by the presence of EC Comics on the Journal canon-list is that their brand of elitism is not the same as that of NST.

Once again, elitism, whose root-word means "to choose," is defined by one online dictionary as:

1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.

2.
a. The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
b. Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.
 

In literary criticism this "perceived superiority" manifests as a subject's devotion to a unitary set of standards, as opposed to a multivalent set of standards, which is the hallmark of pluralism.  The elitist measures all things by one ruler. However, instead of choosing to measure objects in terms of the side of the ruler with "feet," or or the side with "meters," the elitist lit-critic dominantly measures in terms of either "form" (Aristotle's "katholou") or "content" ("hupothenta.")
 
NST's quote above demonstrates that here he is a "form elitist."
 
The "form elitist" is concerned with whether all works meet the criterion of being excellent by virtue of their form.  Naive forms of narrative-- that is, narratives that simply tell an entertaining story, be they "pulp" or some related popular form-- cannot pass the gate at all.  Whether or not NST practices "form elitism" in every one of his essays I neither know nor care.  But in the quote above he makes it clear that the form he and others call "pulp fiction" cannot under any circumstances pass through the restricted gates that should keep out everything but NST's choice of "the best comics ever made."
 
Here's NST again, showing that the very qualities that many critics find engaging in EC war comics are the pulp-born qualities whose basic form excludes them from the vale of serious literature:
 

Once we recognize this, we must begin to wonder why some of the most esteemed critics in the field so often choose to place these comics over any other series of adult war comics. Do we find Joe Sacco’s truthful and engaging writings concerning Palestine and Yugoslavia hampered by his lack of exciting narrative technique and close-ups? Do our healthy appetites for dramatic, swanky portrayals of death betray our immature desires? This is the corrupting influence of the EC War line: artfulness and dexterity in place of truth; voyeurism without horror; content in the service of style instead of the reverse.

 
 
In contrast we have Gary Groth's essay defending the EC books from a dissenting review by Chris Mautner.  I have considered Groth's essay more fully here, but here I only intend to show that Groth's essay is also a demonstration of the opposite type of elitism, "content elitism."
 
Once more, here is Groth's working definition of literary values:
 

What constitutes “literary” values won’t be disposed of in this paragraph, but maybe we can agree that form and content have to be successfully married to create something of human relevance, depth, and substance, or otherwise offer the play of pure aesthetic pleasure.

 
Groth references a marriage of "form and content," but in comparison with NST's exclusionism, Groth is willing to cede some ground to the kinetic effects of the art elevating the content of the stories, whose style he deems less outstanding. 
 
The stories occasionally rose to the level of a decent noir movie — never at the level of, say, Night and the City, but closer to a programmer or B-movie such as Somewhere in the Night; Bill Mason likened one of Wood’s short stories in Came The Dawn And Other Stories to Storm Warning, a 1951 “preachy” starring Ronald Reagan and Ginger Rogers (and an almost unrecognizable Doris Day), which I thought was on target. Many of EC’s suspense stories were roughly coterminous with an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or one of TV’s 1950s dramatic anthologies like Four Star Playhouse (aired the same time as EC was publishing) — not literary by any means, but not too shabby, either.
 
I take it from this section that Groth allows for some merit in the content of a "preachy" like STORM WARNING.  Since the film is also not noteworthy in terms of forging a new artistic form, I conclude that what he finds substantial is the content, the subject matter.  Similarly, his defense of EC Comics hangs not on trumpeting its mastery of artistic form, but on placing it in a historical context with regard to the depiction of "straight drama"-- or, in some cases, "melodrama."

"Content elitism" is certainly a little more palatable than "form elitism," where a critic like NST can get by on standards even less rigorous than those Groth offers.  But in the end, both are more closely related than one finds in pluralist criticism, which can make its choices without privileging either form or content alone.
 

RACIAL NON-POLITICS IN FLEMING'S "LIVE AND LET DIE," PART 3

To paraphrase Kanye West, did Ian Fleming care about black people?

If one depends entirely on a reading of 1954's LIVE AND LET DIE, the only answer one can surmise is that he didn't particularly care about the sociopolitical struggles for the cause of "Negro emanicipation" (as Mister Big calls it).  Yet even that observation is qualified by the fact that LIVE is intended primarily as an escapist thriller.  Such a work, as I've argued in my other two Fleming essays, is not defined by its realistic political content.

When 007 first arrives in America to seek out contacts for his mission, he reflects upon the fact that all the American authorities will know him, so that he must sacrifice his spy's anonymity, making Bond feel "like a Negro whose shadow has been stolen by the witch-doctor."  This reflection foregrounds Fleming's need to convince his readers that the majority of black people are inherently superstitious, the better to make Mister Big's voodoo empire seem somewhat probable.  Given the amount of research Fleming did on contemporaneous American culture, I think it very unlikely that he seriously believed that most American blacks were regular practitioners of voodoo rituals, or even conversant with the basic concepts of the Haitian religion.  It's more believable that Fleming simply posited this misinformation as a "one gimme," by which he could unify Mister Big's spy network through a religious ideology.

Further, black characters are not the only ones who believe in voodoo.  The Caucasian Solitaire believes in her own psychic talents, and though the novel doesn't provide irrefutable proof of their reality, once or twice she does seem on target.  Even Bond, though not a believer, does not scoff at the immense persuasiveness of the religion-- and more, he does so without the usual recriminations.  Voodoo is exotic and fearsome, but Fleming doesn't characterize it as a creation of a "savage race," as so many pulp fiction works had done.

Admittedly Bond is not particularly sensitive to the marginalization of black people in America, though to be fair Bond tends not to be sensitive to anyone's suffering unless he witnesses it personally.  Still, a modern reader may take Bond's silence for agreement when he listens to two cops in Chapter 4 discuss what might be done about Mister Big.  One cop wants to "take [Big] down to the Tombs and give him the works."  The other denies this possibility, not out of any ethical objections but because he thinks Mister Big's influence is so pronounced that his mistreatment could bring about another race riot like the ones "in '35 and '43."

But here too, Fleming's main concern is probably to establish a level of verisimilitude appropriate to an action-thriller.  If the reader should question why local American cops can't rein in Mister Big themselves, this sequence provides the answer, and shows why a heroic outsider is needed-- one who ends up conquering the villain not on American soil, but in the vicinity of the British possession Jamaica. 

On a side-note, I find it interesting that Fleming relates in such casual fashion the idea that the New York cops routinely resort to inquisitorial torture, whether of blacks or any other suspects.  There's a slight possibility that Fleming might have read James Baldwin's GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, in which one of the minor black characters is subjected to such police brutality despite being completely innocent.  The timing is rather close-- MOUNTAIN's publication date is 1953, while that of LIVE is 1954.  Still, I don't think it's entirely coincidental that when Bond and Solitaire flee New York on a train bound for Florida, their porter is named "Baldwin."

Bond himself makes no untoward remarks about black people, American or otherwise, aside from those dealing with superstition, which as noted are rooted in the author's story necessities.  Responding to M's imputation that Big is the first black supercriminal, Bond says that it's his impression black Americans are "pretty law-abiding chaps on the whole."  When he and Leiter are captured in New York, he naturally fights the gangsters ferociously-- indeed, 007's hard-hitting escape from Big's goons is the hero's first spectacular action-exploit, given that he doesn't acquit himself all that well in CASINO ROYALE.  Yet Bond resorts to no racial calumnies.  The first American edition did eliminate one use of the n-word, though it appeared in the form of a place-name, not an epithet as such.  If 007 is not particularly sympathetic to the plight of black people, he doesn't practice racism himself.

It may be argued that Fleming was hedging his bets: crafting a novel that might appeal equally to bigots, who wanted to believe in a black uprising, and liberals, who wanted to imagine black people as fully capable in any walk of life-- be it medicine, science, or crime (though Mister Big insists that he is an "artist," not a mere criminal).  There's probably some truth in this.  However, even if Bond evinces no "white guilt" over the history of slavery, he's fully capable of understanding racial loyalty and the burdens of history.

In Chapter 20, Bond imagines how Captain Morgan might have arranged the burial-site for his treasure by commanding a group of black slaves to dig a cave, after which Morgan then killed all the slaves to keep his secret.  Then he thinks upon what might have happened when a modern black Jamaican discovered the treasure:

The Shark Bay fisherman who suddenly disappeared six months before must have one day found it rolled away by a storrn or by the tidal wave following a hurricane. Then he had found the treasure and had known he would need help to dispose of it. A white man would cheat him. Better go to the great negro gangster in Harlem and make the best terms he could. The gold belonged to the black men who had died to hide it. It should go back to the black men.
The disappearance of the treasure-finder may suggest that "the great negro gangster in Harlem" may have rewarded the fisherman with death, but the principle of race-loyalty remains important both in LIVE AND LET DIE and in other Fleming works. 

So to come back to the original question I posed, though I speculate that Fleming cared nothing about the sociopolitical success of black people-- for him, loyalty to his own race would have taken pride of place-- he felt that one ought to be able to care about "people of color" as much as anyone, on a one-on-one basis.  I haven't touched on Bond's friendly relationship with Quarrel, the black Cayman Islander who trains him in snorkeling and whose life Bond saves, for one might argue that this is a friendship of convenience.

However, to reach outside this novel briefly-- two or three years later, during which time Fleming wrote his fourth Bond book, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER-- Bond again showed that he could relate to suffering on a one-on-one basis.  In that novel Bond, visiting a spa, is forced to stand helplessly by while two armed thugs punish a disobedient jockey by pouring hot mud in the man's eyes.  Yet Bond is strangely less moved by the white jockey's sufferings than the pistol-whipping injury one thug commits upon a spa-attendant-- an attendant who happens to be old, fat, and-- black.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

RACIAL NON-POLITICS IN FLEMING'S "LIVE AND LET DIE," PART 2



At the end of Part 1 I wrote:

I assert that even though LIVE AND LET DIE does incarnate some genuine political content-- which would be its only defining content to a Marxist-- what we have here is a hero looking for a dragon to slay, one who reminds him of earlier dragons who wounded him and then disappeared. At base one should view this as a manifestation of an archetypal, rather than a political, unconscious. 


To be sure, there are no explicit mentions of dragons in LIVE AND LET DIE.  However, Mister Big, in addition to being foregrounded as a major nemesis for Bond—one who announces his advent to the reader by personally overseeing the first assassination attempt on the British agent— can be read as the mythic incarnation of a dragon. European dragon-myths usually picture dragons as either guarding vast treasures or requiring maidens to be sacrificed to them. Mister Big fulfills both roles.
 
I’ve mentioned earlier that Mister Big’s scheme is a more romanticized version of Le Chiffre’s mundane paymaster-duties.  Thanks to Mister Big's ties to the Caribbean, the villain has gained access to the fabulous treasure of Captain Morgan, which Big smuggles into America through working-class proxies.

This dragon, in fact, has both a treasure and a maiden.  After the failure of the assassination attempt—largely an attempt to scare Bond off—Bond and his FBI ally Felix Leiter are abducted by Big’s goons.  While Leiter is sequestered elsewhere, Bond meets not only Mister Big, but also Solitaire, Big's “psychic reader.”  Mister Big believes in her powers, though the novel never decisively shows more than circumstantial evidence of Solitaire’s psychic abilities.  As soon as Bond and Solitaire meet, electricity passes between them.  Mister Big senses the attraction, and punishes both of them.  First Big lashes Solitaire across the shoulders with a small whip.  Then he orders his goon Tee Hee to break Bond’s little finger.
 

Solitaire’s punishment carries a minor vibe of the black slave turning the tables on a former white master (Solitaire’s family were Caribbean colonials).  Bond’s injury is more complex.  First, the injury to a finger can be interpreted as an injury to the phallus, which certainly applies to the specific situation, where Bond is caught desiring another man’s possession.  It’s also interesting that the prior novel CASINO ROYALE dealt with the explicit torture of Bond’s genitals—though purely as an act of torture, not having anything to do with any sexual transgression.  As noted in Part 1, nowhere in LIVE does Bond recall either his torture by Le Chiffre or his betrayal by Vesper Lynd.  However, as if to substitute for these painful memories, he does obsess about the injury a SMERSH agent dealt to his hand.  Now, as if in mimicry, this Haitian-born SMERSH servant also visits violence on one of Bond’s hands.  Later, when Solitaire escapes Big and joins Bond on a train, there’s explicit mention of Bond’s inability to “perform” with the virgin girl due to his injured hand.
 

In contrast to Le Chiffre, who is just a cog in the Communist machine, Mister Big-- who becomes known to all by this cognomen because his three initials fortuitiously spell out "big"--is the heart of a formidable spy network.  This network is comprised of dozens-- perhaps hundreds-- of lower-class black workers who make excellent spies because of what Ralph Ellison might call their "invisibility." Fleming also stresses Big's imposing size and endows him with the uncanny-trope I've called "freakish flesh," because Big is repeatedly described as having "grey-black flesh" and a "football-shaped" head.  Big is repeatedly seen as a world-beater: one British agent remarks that he's glad the Americans are stuck with him.  
 
I've called Big a "supervillain" earlier, though this has nothing to do with the sort of super-science gimmicks one sees in the Bond movies.  Neither Big nor Bond display much in the way of gimmicks here-- Bond uses steel-toed shoes once or twice, while Big has a desk with a gun built into it.  Big’s claim to supervillain-hood is his ability to convince Negroes from New York to Jamaica that he Big is the voodoo god of death, Baron Samedi.  This also renders him an "uncanny" figure in terms of my trope “phantasmal figurations.”  Big also professes a quasi-Nietzschean philosophy, to make it clear that though he speaks of “black emancipation” once, he’s actually a “wolf”out to shear as many “sheep” as possible, regardless of their color.

But it’s the beasts of the sea, not the land, with which Big is most frequently associated.  Joseph Fontenrose's 1959 myth-study PYTHON exhaustively catalogues many instances in which dragon-like beings are associated with both the sea and with death.  With the exception of one specific Fleming-metaphor—which I’ll address shortly—there’s no way to determine whether or not Fleming made any conscious identification between the dragonish actions of his villain—both hoarding a treasure and guarding a maiden—and said villain’s closeness to the sea.
 
 
 
 

Most of those associations seem rooted in mundane realities.  Big’s treasure is a pirate treasure, originally culled by pirates from their raids on ocean-going ships.  In order to smuggle the illegal tender into the United States, Big builds up a business that engages in the shipping of rare fish—including some fish so poisonous that customs officials will not examine them closely.  When Bond and Leiter seek out Big’s concern, Leiter is caught alone and is fed to a shark in a tank—a grisly fate omitted from the film of LIVE AND LET DIE but recycled for a later Bond-film, LICENSE TO KILL.  Leiter survives the ordeal, but his suffering intensifies Bond's desire to bring Big down, far beyond the agent's comparatively mild and nearly business-like wish to discomfit SMERSH.  Bond investigates the Florida worm-and-bait factory Big uses for his smuggling activities and wins a literal shootout with the very henchman who maimed Leiter.  Bond makes sure that the biter gets bit by feeding the henchman to a shark in a tank, possibly the same one that tore up Leiter.
 
Later 007 pursues Big to Jamaica, and the agent takes a prolonged period to train himself in the ways of snorkeling with the help of a black Jamaican ally named Quarrel.  Bond’s underwater training allows him to plant a time bomb aboard Mister Big’s boat, but he himself is taken prisoner.  Big, having also re-captured the traitorous Solitaire, wishes to execute 007 and the woman together. But instead of performing the sort of voodoo sacrifice a reader might expect-- especially given how much detail Fleming devotes to this exotic religion-- Big decides that the best way to kill his enemies is to drag them to death behind his boat.  Thus the local sharks and barracuda-- creatures who have become emblems of Big's voodoo rites-- will finish them off.  However, before Bond and Solitaire meet their end as fish-food, 007's time bomb destroys the boat, freeing the heroine and his lady.  Big survives the explosion but meets the demise he meant for his nemesis; the figurative dragon of the sea is devoured by the real monsters of the vasty deep.
 

I mentioned one interesting metaphor that suggests that Fleming had some knowledge, conscious or not, of his mythic material.  The same concern that deals in rare fish also deals in supplies of “worms and bait,” and the business’ name is “Ouroboros.” Bond provides the only definition given of the name: he calls Ouroboros as “the Great Worm of mythology.”  Presumably Fleming felt he had to say “worm” rather than the dragon’s ancestor the snake, given that he was dealing with a worm-and-bait factory.
 
In point of fact, though, most references I've seen speak of Ouroboros not as a worm, but as a snake-- or a dragon!-- with its tail in its mouth, like so:
 
 
 
 
 
Fleming takes this mythic wordplay even further, for the name of the henchman who manages the worm-and-bait factory-- as well as the one who almost kills Leiter and duels with Bond-- is "the Robber," which Bond and Leiter realize is merely a distortion of the name "Ouroboros."
 
Fleming doesn't devote much detail to any of Mister Big's colorfully named henchmen.  The henchman called "Whisper," who functions in the novel as a communications expert, has his whispery voice explained as the result of having lost a lung to tuberculosis, but aside from that he gets no more biographical background than the aforementioned Tee Hee.  Therefore it's not unusual that Fleming doesn't give the reader any biographical background on "the Robber," and allows the agents' explanation of his nickname to go unchallenged. 
 
Still, I'd argue that in mythic terms the Robber is to Mister Big as one of Vishnu's avatars is to Vishnu: a lesser expression of the main 'deity." Though the Robber is an expert marksman, he goes out of his way to punish Leiter by consigning him to the teeth of a sea-beast, just as Big tries to execute Bond and Solitaire by feeding them to the Jamaican sea-life.  Both men, having used or tried to use ocean-creatures for their executioners, are later devoured by the same creatures. 
 
And finally, they would both seem to be products of racial admixture. The Robber is the only Big-henchman not explicitly identified as Negro, though Fleming doesn't supply the same racial breakdown on him that the author does with the main villain.  However, the Robber's skin-color is described as “yellowish-beige.” Perhaps Fleming only meant that the character was "sallow."  However, in a novel so strongly about race, it's equally possible that Fleming meant the Rober to be a “high yellow,” meaning either a light-skinned Negro or a hybrid.  It's possible that this detail was inserted purely for verisimilitude, for in 1954 Fleming may have believed, correctly or not, that a person of color could not have overseen the operation of a major concern like Big's warehouse-- unless that person of color were able to “pass” as white so as to avoid raising the eyebrows of local white authorities.  It's also interesting that both characters are described as mixes of colors: "yellowish-beige" for the Robber, "grey-black" for Mister Big.
  
        In Part 3 I'll discuss in part those aspects of Fleming's novel that some might see, rightly or wrongly, as entirely political, though even here, I intend to show that things are not always what they seem.

 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

THE ONLY DEFINITION OF ART YOU'LL EVER NEED, PT. 3

The promised definition of "art" has to be a two-part one, given that the word "art" has two different meanings in this context-- said context being apart from art as "representations through drawing, sculpture, etc." and everything that flows from this representational activity.

The word can mean the totality of all forms of art, which I've stated can be subsumed by Jung's concept of play. 

It can also mean only High Art, which as I argued in Part 2, cannot be properly described as "play" alone.

I considered putting forth a longer definition with special reference to Bataille's "two types of economic consumption," lining up "the reality-oriented aspect of consumption, "production and acquisition" with the dynamic of work and "the desire to pointlessly but satisfyingly expend one's energies" with the dynamic of play.  But as I reread the BACK TO BATAILLE essay, the comparisons seem obvious to me given my further parallels between "the two types" and my Wheelwright-derived concepts of "assertorial gravity" and "assertorial levity."  By now, anyone who's read this blog with any attention ought to be able to draw the applicable parallels.

Therefore, the second definition is as follows:

"Art is play for work's sake."

While the first, more inclusive definition would be:

"Art is play for work's sake and play for play's sake."

To quote John Keats:

"that is all /Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know"

   

THE ONLY DEFINITION OF ART YOU'LL EVER NEED, PT. 2

In this essay I provided a definition of "play" from Johann Huizinga:

Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means.
Elsewhere in the essay I didn't see the need to provide a definition of "work."  However, it now occurs to me that "work" does require some definition when one is speaking of how its dynamic appears in the criticism of art-- with special attention here to literature as such.

In a series of 2008 essays beginning with MERIT RAISED, I sought to show the differences between three Frye-derived critical methodologies, applying all three-- "ethical criticism," "aesthetic criticism," and "archetypal criticism"-- in a compare-and-contrast of two thematically related works.  Of these three methodologies, I've stated elsewhere that "ethical criticism" and "aesthetic criticism" are the dominant approaches in academia.  Certainly one can see both approaches implied in Gary Groth's statement of standards in his January 2013 essay, examined at length here:

What constitutes “literary” values won’t be disposed of in this paragraph, but maybe we can agree that form and content have to be successfully married to create something of human relevance, depth, and substance, or otherwise offer the play of pure aesthetic pleasure.
The phrase "play of pure aesthetic pleasure" can hardly be separated from the general concept of aesthetic criticism, however the speaker might define said "play."  As for Groth's values of "human relevance, depth, and substance," I think, based on his many jeremiads against authors he has regarded as less than moral, I believe that the vague terms "relevance" and "substance" are simply stand-ins for his take on ethical criticism. (And indeed, most of the evaluations he makes of EC comics in the January essay deal with ethical rather than aesthetic concerns.)  Historically Groth, like the majority of comics-critics, has dominantly pursued ethical criticism, while only a smattering of these critics, such as R.C. Harvey, tend to examine aesthetic matters. 

Despite Gary Groth's inappropriate use of the word "play," I believe that both of these disciplines are focused not on "play" but on "work." As evidence of the real attitude underlying both disciplines, here, I cite Leslie Fiedler, who in his 1982 work WHAT WAS LITERATURE took a contrarian attitude toward the priorities of academic literary criticism.  Here he describes the dominant attitude of the hidebound academic to "junk literature:"

"...such 'trash' is available to almost anyone, requiring neither subtlety of perception, 'education,' or anything resembling good old true-blue Protestant Hard Work."

Slightly later in the same chapter, Fiedler proposes to "drastically downgrade both ethics and aesthetics" in favor of what he terms "ecstatics"-- a concept that deserves a future essay here.  Putting that concept aside for now, it's enough to see that Fiedler conflates both ethical and aesthetic criticism with what Max Weber defined as the dominant value of American culture:"hard work," the basis of the Protestant Ethic.

Is this conflation accurate?

There can be little question that ethical criticism is concerned with having a utilitarian effect on culture and/or society. In Part 1 of this essay-series I asserted:

"Serious work," in my view, includes the idea of using art to instruct, to inform, to render judgments upon "the selfish, the foolish, and the cruel," to make readers aware of the old homily "actions have consequences"
Now, in that same essay I mentioned the "art for art's sake" movement as one that opposed any ethical orientation in literature, citing Ortega y Gasset as a representative of that opposition:

...preoccupation with the human content of the work is in principle incompatible with aesthetic enjoyment proper.

I further noted that the proponents of a purely aesthetic justicification of high art used an approach similar to my concept of "thematic escapism:"


It's ironic that the "art for art's sake" ethos, in claiming that that art's technical excellence exempts it from moral considerations, employs a basic logic not far from my exculpation of popular literature from the expectation that it must be moral.
That said, "basic logic" does not imply identity, for the proponents of aesthetic criticism are in their own way advocating a different form of "hard work," the work that a skillful author produces when he goes beyond the formulas of  what Clement Greenberg chose to call "kitsch," and succeeds in producing "ambitious art and literature."  Greenberg cites the "art for art's sake" movement:


Retiring from public altogether, the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point. "Art for art's sake" and "pure poetry" appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague.
In the end, though Greenberg evinces the usual Marxist fustiness toward the  "ruling class," he still validates the avant-garde artist in terms of the "high order" of the work produced:

That avant-garde culture is the imitation of imitating -- the fact itself -- calls for neither approval nor disapproval. It is true that this culture contains within itself some of the very Alexandrianism it seeks to overcome. The lines quoted from Yeats referred to Byzantium, which is very close to Alexandria; and in a sense this imitation of imitating is a superior sort of Alexandrianism. But there is one most important difference: the avant-garde moves, while Alexandrianism stands still. And this, precisely, is what justifies the avant-garde's methods and makes them necessary. The necessity lies in the fact that by no other means is it possible today to create art and literature of a high order. To quarrel with necessity by throwing about terms like "formalism," "purism," "ivory tower" and so forth is either dull or dishonest.
This stress upon constant reinvention, rather than the rehashing of familiar motifs seen in  kitsch, implies "hard work" just as much as ethical criticism does.  The only difference is that whereas the ethical critic advocates the utilitarian "work" that art and literature can perform upon culture and society, the aesthetic critic advocates what might best be called "work for work's sake."

But neither species of work is covalent with "play," and as Fiedler observes, both are inadequate to describe the nature of art. 

More in a forthcoming final section.