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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, May 31, 2013

THE LITTLE NEOPURITANS

Though I've said as much as I need to for the time being on the function of "beautiful people" in narrative, I find that this line of thought returns me to the discussion of "adult pulp," last discussed in detail here.

As I noted here, I was fairly bullish on the concept of "adult pulp" in 2012.  Even though critics as politically diverse as Bill Willingham and Dirk Deppey sneered at "superhero decadence" for very different reasons, I felt that the continued success of decadent superhero comics-- regardless of whether I liked them all or not-- validated my interpretation as to the necessity of the sensational in art, be it of the canonical or popular variety:

...art is built upon a sensational foundation, though with the caveat that everything in art is a "gesture" in the Langerian sense-- an attempt to capture experience which is necessarily less immediate than experience.

I was aware, of course, that there were people who still took opposing positions-- again, for politically diverse reasons.  In Chicken Colin's attack-essay on Sequart, CC took issue with my calling them "anti-pulpsters."  His objection was of course thick-witted, since he had made up his mind from the start not to represent my conceptions accurately.  His sole tactic was to read "sensationalism" as a cover for the "sexism" to which his ultraliberal sentiments were welded, and his strategy was your basic "get thee from me, Sexist Satan" admonition, which seems to have worked pretty well on the majority of Sequart readers.

I will admit, though, that "anti-pulpster" was a clumsy term for those opposing the validity of sensationalism.  It required far too much explanation to be useful.

Now I prefer to call them "Neopuritans," though they still divide up along lines similar to those that separate Willingham and Deppey.

On one hand, we have Elitist Neopuritans like Gary Groth and Dirk Deppey.  Their base conviction is that superhero comics should not include adult levels of sensational material because superhero comics are for kids.  Extreme usages of sex and violence should be for the sort of reading material aimed at actual adults, though to be sure the usage of such sensationalisms in "trash fiction" aimed at adults, such as Mickey Spillane, will usually reap the same contempt shown to the "kiddie" superhero stories.

On the other, we have the Populist Neopuritans.  I haven't read enough of Willingham to describe him in this fashion, but Kelly Thompson is probably an adequate substitute in this respect.  The Populists are on the whole still emotionally engaged with superheroes, as opposed to the elitists' conviction that the superhero genre ideally should be set aside in favor of "better things."  However, the Populists follow the Elitists in subscribing to the idea that extreme sensationalism is no more than pandering, and so many of them would prefer to return comics to the status of "all ages" entertainment.

Though I've said before that I think the days of "comics as juvenile pulp" are a thing of the past, I won't rule out the possibility that someone might conceive of a new marketing approach that could lure back a lot of younger buyers.  That market would probably never again reach the heights of sales in the Golden Age of Comics, but some paradigm shift is still possble.

However, I feel revolted by the base Werthamism that crops on some comics-fan boards when those fans choose to rail against any and all use of pulpish sensationalism.  It doesn't matter if it's as well done as Frank Miller's DARK KNIGHT or as badly done as Mark Millar's WANTED; anything that keeps funnybooks out of the hands of kids is part of the vast evil conspiracy of nasty pandering comics-companies, usually though not invariably "the Big Two."

I remarked on one of these threads that I had little confidence in the kid-market:

Getting kids to buy Batman coloring books and Wonder Woman underoos doesn't mean that the kids will go out and try to buy Batman and Wonder Woman comic books. That's the point: historically a lot of kids wandered away from pamphlet comic books long before the effects of the DM had fully manifested. You say that the Eisners include a lot of children's comics; are any of them in pamphlet form? I suspect most of them are in book-form, which means that those works have successfully moved in on the market of prose-oriented children's books.

In response to a poster who claimed that other countries' comics didn't pander to "the male gaze:"

 Japan for one country has exactly the same kind of attitude I've endorsed here: sexy comics for men and sexy comics for women, as well as other types. The point is, if you're endorsing Japan as a superior example of a comics-producing country, then you can't claim that all the US has to do is clean up its act. To be more like Japan, the US needs equal opportunity dirt.

One idea I repeatedly encountered was that superhero stories weren't "meant to be" sexy in nature, and that all of the recent "adult pulp" endeavors were, in the same fashion Dirk Deppey claimed, perversions of kid's entertainment.  To this I replied (and got no answer):

 But I've also said that superhero comics in their earliest days often had sexual aspects to them that one doesn't find so readily in comics for younger kids, so in that respect they did have their wankery-aspects. They weren't ONLY that, but they were never as squeaky-clean as some people like to think. Thus to have "adulterated" versions is no different than reading a Tijuana Bible where Betty Boop gets it on with Popeye.

 So far I have yet to encounter any rejection of my "bedrock of sensationalism" theme that does not draw upon a Puritanical tendency to cast out anything that smacks of sensual appeal.  I suppose that those who do so have managed the sort of mental separation I argued for in this essay, in which I stated (among other things) that not all violence had a sexual component, as George Bataille had argued.  However, the Neopuritans have taken that separation much farther than I ever would have, claiming that there's a vast divide between "non-erotic violence" and "erotic violence" when in truth the separation between the two is more like a membrane.

As I commented in PRIDE OF PREJUDICE, the affect informing these elementary mistakes is that of pride: the desire to feel that the medium with which you have associated yourself is something in which you can take pride. But what sort of pride is it, that requires validation from those parts of the community who would never consider picking up a comic book at all?  Especially since those readers have their own avenues of sensationalism, ranging from PLAYBOY magazine to FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.






Tuesday, May 28, 2013

QUICK THOUGHT ON IMAGINATION

Kelly Thompson's incorrect use of the term "imagination," examined here, leads me to another line of thought: is "not showing" a given phenomenon inherently put more demands on the audience's imagination than "showing?"

Over the years I've seen innumerable comments in the affirmative.  Here's a book-length study addressing, at least in part, the role of radio serials in promoting the imagination of their audience, since those who listened to radio programs had to conjure up the physical appearance of the perils faced by the Shadow, or the comic appearances of Lum and Abner.

With the horror-genre in movies, some critics have a particular preference for "indirect horror," even though the cinema is inherently a visual medium.  The 1942 CAT PEOPLE frequently receives praise for not showing "the monster," and allowing the audience to make up its own mind as to whether there was a "cat monster" at all.



The absence of a "boogieman" figure, however, does not automatically mean that a given work is more "imaginative" than one that has such a figure.  CAT PEOPLE, though it has its virtues, is not especially complex beyond its basic "is-she-or-isn't-she-a-cat-monster" schtick.

For example, though the 1941 WOLF MAN flirts with a similar "wolf-or-not-wolf" plot, for whatever reason the film does commit itself, making clear that Larry Talbot does indeed transform.



Despite discarding this particular ambivalence, however, I find WOLF MAN to be far more imaginative, far more symbolically complex than anything in the repertoire of CAT PEOPLE's producer, the somewhat overrated, Val Lewton.

However, at this time I don't choose to provide a proof of this opinion, since it is merely a "quick thought."  I don't imagine that any regular reader of this blog would doubt my ability to produce such a proof, though.
 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE ALWAYS WIN PT 3

I have to wind up this essay mini-series by tackling in greater depth this Kelly Thompson quote:

I am shocked by the lack of imagination some of you have when it comes to superhero costumes. Not EVERY costume has to look the same – standard issue spandex and garish colors. There’s a lot of innovation to be found in more fluid designs that embrace current fashion and modern trends rather than pumping out the same old thing. Specific to Meredith’s designs, some of her more sport/athletic looks make far more sense than anything else we regularly see. Professional athletes are the closest things we have to superheroes, and none of them run around in spandex, but any of them might be seen in Meredith’s Powergirl or Phantom Lady designs.

Thompson does not in this column enlarge on what she means by "imagination."  Since all of the outfits she endorses picture superheroes wearing ordinary, generally body-concealing street clothes, one interpretation might be, "You people don't have the imagination to see that these are appealing heroines even if you can't see their figures or their bare flesh."  I imagine Thompson would deny that this is her meaning, but even if she were to do so, her argument doesn't stand up to logical scrutiny.

What, precisely, is "imaginative" about having superheroines:

(1) "Embrace current fashion and modern trends,"

            Or

(2) Wear the same things that "professional athletes" wear?


Just as Thompson hopelessly confused the terms "hyper-sexualization" and "objectification" as I noted here,
here she's invoking "imagination" when what she has truly endorsed is "mimetic fidelity." 

Now, it's certainly not impossible to design a superheroine costume that is based on "current fashions" but which is imaginative enough to have its own identity.  It may be that Thompson thinks that all of the costumes she endorses possess that quality, though she did not state her opinion in those terms.  Mimetic fidelity is all that she uses as her baseline.

I return once more to one of the comments from the column that I found instructive:

'the Power Girl, Phantom Lady, and Cheshire costumes leave me scratching my head — they’re good drawings, but there’s nothing superheroic (or supervillanous) about them.'

This fan, one Rob S (who incidentally did like the "Raven" redesign) hits upon one of the main characteristics of superhero costumes, be they male or female, revealing or non-revealing.  They are meant to invoke the imagination, to make it seem possible that human beings could assume godlike status by their donning of vivid and often impractical outfits.

We hear much from Thompson about the impracticality of Phantom Lady wearing a costume that threatens to "bust out all over."



But not so much about Batman sporting a mile-long cape that ought to trip him up on a regular basis:



Or the Hulk managing to wade throughout innumerable battles without ever having his pants ripped off by death-rays.



Just to clarify the matter of taste this implies, however, let it be known that I'm not critiquing Thompson for liking realistic costumes.

But, except in the sense I mentioned above, there's nothing "imaginative" about it.

BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE ALWAYS WIN PT 2

 

Kelly Thompson's April attack on the male gaze inspired this mini-satire, but here I'll go into my specific problems with her definition of the "beauty factor" in superhero comics.

On one hand, her most famous essay, "No, It's Not Equal," acknowledges that there is some appeal, even for female readers, in identifying with characters who are damn good looking.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want or expect all characters to be unattractive. I understand that we all want to lose ourselves to a degree in fantasy. That fictional worlds provide an escape that we all want. Hell, I grew up wanting to be these heroines because they were powerful and beautiful, I’m not immune to it.

So far, so good.  Where Thompson and I part company is that she sees this tendency toward inequality as purely a consequence of "social conditioning."


We’re all socially conditioned to want youth and beauty, and we’re all conditioned to think specific things are beautiful, but that doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to educate ourselves against it. And it doesn’t make it equal between the sexes. It’s much more frequently true that women are required to be beautiful no matter what, while men have much more flexibility.

This education apparently comes down to harping on the inequality of (1) the prevalence of beautiful people in superhero comics, as opposed to ordinary looking people, and, to a lesser extent, (2) the tendency to allow male villains to be ugly but not female villains.

From anti-heroes to superheroines, and from femme fatales to full blown supervillains it’s rare to find a female character that isn’t drop dead gorgeous.

It's true that there is no statistical "equality" in this situation, as was apparently claimed by some defensive fans.  What Thompson and some of the more monomaniacal Sequart readers chose to overlook is the question as to whether it's ethical to impose equality upon the depictions of fictional characters within a corpus of works dominantly aimed at an audience of a particular gender orientation.

As I did in Part 1, I advocate whatever narratives devices work for the type of fiction the author is attempting.  If one is attempting a work in the vein of "thematic realism," as with the LOVE AND ROCKETS works of the Brothers Hernandez, then great variation in body types such as Thompson advocates is to the good of the narrative.  However, if one is attempting "thematic escapism"-- as I would categorize the Stan Lee-Don Heck IRON MAN continuity I cited-- then a more standardized approach to questions of physical beauty may be necessary.  In the IRON MAN stories cited, the physical upgrades of Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan exist to further the admittedly simplistic aims of the superhero/soap opera narrative.  I speculate, then, that Thompson would characterize Stan Lee's standardization of these two not-too-glamorous characters as a capitulation to social conditioning, rather than a reflection of the influence of beauty (be it socially conditioned or something more complex) in the real social order, on which the narrative is partly modeled.

This seems to me a fair extrapolation, since by that last-quoted statement above, Thompson defines the tendency toward "drop dead gorgeous" characters as just such a capitulation, particularly since a lot of male villains are "allowed" to be ugly while female villains are not.

What this blinkered view overlooks is that while some female villains' beauty *may* be gratuitous, in many cases it's a narrative necessity.  Take the Enchantress-- a character introduced in the original "Thor" feature in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #103, and one of those Thompson includes in her gallery of gorgeous evildoers.

I'm sure that Thompson would be aware that the Enchantress' raison d'etre depends on her being gorgeous far more than, say, Moonstone.  What she probably would not appreciate is that even though extra-diegetic fans may well have ogled the curvaceous conjurer, the main purpose of Enchantress' beauty is its use in tempting the hero of the story.



This scene is one of two in which the villainess tries and fails to seduce Thor.  As with my IRON MAN examples, the purpose of utilizing glamor is to encourage the reader's identification with the soap-opera travails of the main character and his girfriend.  Because the dominant reader is so invested, the only possible threat to that relationship must come from some character whom the reader can believe would be capable of making Thor's hammer stand up straight (as it seems to be doing in the scene above).

I'm not saying that "thematically escapist" works don't include any situations in which a less-than-attractive female makes up to an attractive one.  Changing media for convenience, here's a scene from a 1967 WILD WILD WEST episode in which the hero (Robert Conrad) is being vamped somewhat by the villainess of the story, essayed by 67-year-old Agnes Moorhead.



While the late Ms. Moorehead looked pretty good for her years in this episode, almost no one viewing the show is likely to believe that Moorehead's character has any chance to seduce the hero, which indeed she does not.  And if one replaces the factor of age with any of the "realistic" attributes I mentioned in my satire-- having a bald spot, a harelip, a needle-nose, etc.-- then once again the reader is unlikely to believe that the villainess can seduce the hero.  And so if an author WANTS the reader to believe that the hero can be tempted-- even if his ultimate aim is to have him resist temptation in the name of true love-- then narrative logic demands that the represenative of "vice" be as attractive, or more so, than "virtue," as we also see in this medieval image of Hercules choosing between the two.



With these examples in mind, it should be evident that comic-book artists and writers, like almost every other toiler in the vales of thematic escapism, may have good narrative reasons for emphasizing beauty in their villains: as a constant temptation to the hero or heroes.  In contrast, despite all the silly-ass cant by critics who find deep homosexual patterns in superhero comics, the depiction of male villains as statistically less-than-lovely indicates the fact that they are not constructed to be sexually appealing to the heroes.  Perhaps these critics are revealing their own atypical attractions by their getting boners from male-vs.-male battles.

Not that there's anything wrong with that--

Except when it leads to really bad logical conclusions.






Friday, May 24, 2013

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING DYNAMICALLY DIFFERENT. PART II

Though the earlier "DIFFERENT" essay was just a quick satire of Kelly Thompson's enthusiasm for certain superheroine costume redesigns, I would be remiss not to mention that she returned to the subject within a little less than a month.  The results were interesting, to say the least.  While some of the fan-reaction for the first set of redesigns-- either redesigns executed by the companies or proposed by artists whom Thompson liked-- seemed split over which designs were good or bad, the bulk of the response on the May essay was negative toward the redesigns by artists Kris Anka and Meredith McClaren.  There were a few scattered positive responses toward this or that costume, but remarks such as this were numerically representative:


'The simple problem with your redesigns is that they’re amazingly butt-ugly and boring. “Covered flesh” doesn’t always equal good, and “exposed flesh” doesn’t always equal bad.'

'Meredith McClaren’s “redesigns” are just her drawing the characters in street clothes'

'the Power Girl, Phantom Lady, and Cheshire costumes leave me scratching my head — they’re good drawings, but there’s nothing superheroic (or supervillanous) about them.'

Thompson received so much negative response that she first railed at her detractors for their "lack of respect," which in her opinion justified the "basement dwelling socially inept comic book fan stereotype."  She also criticized the respondents for "lack of imagination," which is certainly the pot calling the kettle black.  I would concur with the verdict that McClaren's costumes in particular look like nothing but modified "street clothes," and most of Anka's redesigns are no better.  Thompson made a lame apology for losing her temper and later closed the comments on this essay.

Most revealing is that though in "No, It's Not Fair" Thompson advocated an aesthetic in which women would be more athletic rather than have "pornstar" bodies, it's clear that even if Marvel and DC followed that aesthetic, they'd have to restrict themselves to burka-like coverings to fit her aesthetic, because athletic superheroines should wear exactly what real athletes wear:


'Professional athletes are the closest things we have to superheroes, and none of them run around in spandex, but any of them might be seen in Meredith’s Powergirl or Phantom Lady designs.'

This means that all of Thompson's blather about athletic bodies becomes meaningless.  If they're going to be covered up anyway, why can't all heroines have pornstar bodies?

The agenda is clear: the male gaze must be frustrated and defeated at all costs

Thursday, May 16, 2013

BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE ALWAYS WIN PT 1

My title for this essay-series is meant not as a statement of unalloyed fact, but an indicator of a tendency that I feel to be grounded in the fundamentals of narrative communication. In this, I think it's a little more philosophically sound than a famous, and equally attention-seeking, assertion by Dave Sim; i.e., "No one wants to be a woman."

In one of my earliest blog-essays here I wrote:

For most genre-fiction-- particularly those media which, unlike prose, hinge on depicting the appearance of the characters-- the standardization of sexual attractiveness is a useful narrative tool. In romances, for instance, it's almost de rigeur to depict both hero and heroine as meeting a bland standard for attractiveness. This is not because the narrative is trying to convince anyone that homely people don't mate in real life, but because it's advantageous to the narrative's smooth progression to depict only good-looking people becoming romantically entwined. As long as the hero and heroine meet a basic standard of attractiveness, an audience-member is less likely to be thrown out of his/her participation in the story to think, "How can Character A possibly be attracted to Character B?"

Though my essay touches on some of the disadvantages of this standardization, other critiques by such low-wattage luminaries as Julian Darius and Kelly Thompson show little or no awareness of how this standardization-- or objectification, as some prefer to call it without exception-- serves a consistent narrative purpose. This purpose remains constant regardless of the intensity utilized in a given work, be it one of GLAMOR, TITILLATION or PORNIFICATION.

By way of demonstrating this consistency, I cite an excerpt from this post by fan-blogger Barry Pearl.  In this essay Pearl quotes from an interview with Silver Age IRON MAN artist Don Heck:

“I used to think of Pepper Potts as Schluzie from Bob Cummings’ “Love That Bob” (TV Show). She was always interested in the boss and never could go out with him, and she’s thinking of all these dumb broads Stark is going out with. Happy Hogan was just a pug type, like Joe Palooka.” “Stan called and said he wanted Pepper to be prettier,”Heck laments. “That wasn’t my idea. As far as I was concerned, that killed it. If she’s homely and she winds up going out, then it’s a big deal. If she’s prettier, who cares? “Then, Stan said, ‘Make Happy handsomer.’ I liked him with his banged-up ears and crooked nose. He was fun to do at that point. When suddenly everybody had to be pretty, then I didn’t like him.”

Here we have what many fan-writers would automatically assume to be an appeal to the male reader's groinal region.  Don Heck wanted to depict support-character Pepper Potts as a slightly homely young girl, modeled on, but not quite as homely as, the actress who played the part of "Schultzie" on TV's "Love That Bob."  Under editor Stan Lee's direction, Pepper soon became as "model-gorgeous" as any of the jet-setting babes with whom Tony Stark cavorted.  I believe that writer Archie Goodwin finally tossed in a note about how Pepper had transformed herself, but clearly Heck was justified in feeling that his conception had been put aside.




However, note that Lee also wanted Heck to make the pug-ugly character of Happy Hogan handsomer.  Why would an editor require that if he's just trying to appeal to horny young boys?

The truth may lie in the fact that Lee was less concerned with giving Heck the latitude for more naturalistic-looking characters-- with which I do think Heck did a fine job-- and more concerned with developing the characters in the soap-operatic style that he Lee had started developing for the Marvel superhero titles. 

Soap opera, of course, is all about romantic torment.  Rarely on real soap operas does one see a homely girl catch a handsome guy, or a homely guy nab a real looker.  Why?  Because, even though such things do happen in real life, they seem unlikely to the audience, which expects that "beautiful people always win," particularly with respect to the prize of "other beautiful people."  It's a pecking-order that most if not all human cultures internalize, and even when one sees exceptions, many rationalize the deviation by saying something like, "X married Y for Y's money."

Stan Lee's scripts for IRON MAN show Tony Stark going out with various models and rich bitches, but as far as romance goes, only Pepper Potts resonates as a real romantic interest.  I surmise, though, that Lee thought his readers would find it incredible had the playboy started dating his homely secretary.  Hence "homely" must change to "hottie."



At the same time, Lee surely wanted to promote the "triangle" aspect of the Tony-Pepper-Happy relationship.  In the original Heck version, most readers could imagine Happy and Pepper together, but not Pepper with Tony, nor Happy providing any competition for Tony if the playboy decided to date his homely secretary.  Therefore I surmise that Happy gets a makeover so that he will appear as a credible romantic rival.

Such were the demands of beauty in the innocent Silver Age.  In Part 2, I'll examine some modern permutations.

AT LAST LOST BOYS

Just as I read THE CORSICAN BROTHERS (covered in my previous post) in order to understand the origins of the later "uncanny" films made from it, I recently re-read J.M. Barrie's 1911 PETER PAN in order to justify the comment I made in a review of the 2011 telefilm NEVERLAND:

NEVERLAND, though it was financed by the Syfy Channel as was the two-part ALICE, shows Willing warming to his material to better effect. Possibly this was because J.M. Barrie's PETER PAN has stronger adventure-currents than the source material of either Alice or Oz. To be sure, were I classifying the Barrie novel, I'd tend to consider it a "combative comedy," in that I think the comic tones of the book overpower the adventurous tones. Likewise the Disney version of PETER PAN. However, Nick Willing's version falls more completely into the category of the pure adventure-work.

I never saw PETER PAN performed as a play.  This was the medium in which Barrie premiered his most famous creation in its best known form, though a somewhat non-continuous version of Peter appeared first in Barrie's 1902 novel THE LITTLE WHITE BIRD.  I knew only the Disney film, which didn't impress me all that much.  I don't know when I read the novel except that it was not as a child: it could have been ten or twenty years ago. 




Without question in my mind, the book PETER PAN qualifies not only as a "combative comedy" but as a "combative comedy-adventure" after the fashion mentioned in this essay. However, the example I used in that essay, DC's INFERIOR FIVE, represents a very different form of "comedy" than the one evoked by James Barrie.

In my essay FUNNY BONERS I contrasted Freud's "relief theory of humor" with that of Schopenhauer's "incongruity theory."  However, to be honest I have not read anything but excerpts from Freud's JOKES AND THEIR RELATION TO THE UNCONSCIOUS.  When I recently came across a reference to Freud's having made a distinction between two types of humor-- one "tendentious" and the other "non-tendentious"-- I realized that I had not give Freud his due, having depended too much on secondary sources.  Though I still believe that Schopenhauer's theory encompasses more psychic territory than does Freud's, this Wikipedia entry establishes that Freud was aware of the type of humor that Heinlein called "the gentle smile:"


Freud made a key distinction between tendentious and non-tendentious humor. Tendentious humor involves a “victim,” someone at whose expense we laugh. Non-tendentious humor does not require a victim. This innocuous humor typically depends on wordplay, and Freud believed it has only modest power to evoke amusement. Tendentious humor, then, is the only kind that can evoke big laughs. However, Freud believed a mixture of both tendentious and non-tendentious humor is required to keep the tendentious humor from becoming too offensive or demeaning to its victim. The innocent jokework of the innocuous humor would mask the otherwise hostile joke and therefore “bribe” our senses, allowing us to laugh at what would otherwise be socially unacceptable. Therefore, we often think we are laughing at innocuous jokes, but what really makes them funny is their socially unacceptable nature hidden below the surface.

While I can't say that INFERIOR FIVE ever produced "big laughs," it was intended to do so, in that the feature was meant to "victimize" the standard straight version of the superhero with parodies of clumsy superheroes, dumb superheroes, etc. 

In contrast, Barrie's PETER PAN seems more focused on a low-key, homey type of comedy, tinged with a modest irony.  The opening chapters set the tone with their emphasis on what I've called "the small-scale world of home and neighborhood," and even the Darling children's voyage into a land of unbridled adventure never completely escapes that tone.  The same tone undercuts much of the potential nastiness of the conflict between Peter and his allies vs. Hook and his pirates.  There can be no doubt that the play and the book are combative works (though THE LITTLE WHITE BIRD does not seem to be), but the excitement is subordinate to the tone of incongruity.

Barrie's sense of irony rarely if ever translates to later film or television adaptations.  I can think of none that have communicated the frank but knowing estimation of children Barrie repeats throughout the book, one that most if not all children will instantly recognize:


and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A SUBCOMBATIVE CORSICAN

Within the last year I've reviewed two cinematic versions of Alexandre Dumas' novella THE CORSICAN BROTHERS: one the 1953 B-movie BANDITS OF CORSICA, and the other the 1984 spoof CHEECH AND CHONG'S THE CORSICAN BROTHERS. Since I labeled both films as being "combative" types within their respective mythoi, as well as being "uncanny" in their phenomenality due to the trope of the twins sharing sensations, I felt it behooved me to see how the original book related to these.  I had no doubt that the book would fit the uncanny phenomenality as well, but was Dumas' work in any way a combative narrative?

My verdict, in a word, is no.  I suspect that these two swashbucklers-- one done straight, the other as a jokefest-- borrow their main tropes not from the book but from the influential 1941 Hollywood film starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., summarized here.  IMDB asserts that there were seven previous filmizations of the Dumas story, but none of them have become celebrated by film-fans, so I think I'm correct in suspecting that the Fairbanks film is the primary model for the films from 1953 and 1984.  The makers of the Fairbanks version were probably aware that the film-audience's strongest association with Dumas was his novel THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and so I surmise that the 1941 film was given a "Musketeer-ization" to make it more palatable to lovers of buckled swashes.  The 1953 BANDITS imitates the plotline of the 1941 film, as well as calling the brothers "Lucien" and "Mario."  Rather surprisingly, the Cheech and Chong film is closer to the Dumas work, in that it uses the original names of the brothers-- i.e., "Lucien" and "Louis"-- and, rather than making both brothers formidable fighters, portrays the Louis character as unable to defend himself.

The central theme of Dumas' novella-- which seems like an extended short story-- is to explore the nature of "savage" Corsica, a French holding that was physically and culturally closer to Italy than to France.  Dumas builds on the reality of Corsica's seclusion-- due to being walled off by a mountain range-- to depict the inhabitants as something of a throwback to medieval days.  As the narrator-- implicitly Dumas himself-- travels in Corsica, he happens to visit the estate of the De Franchi family.  The main exemplars of this branch of Corsican nobility are Lucien de Franchi and his mother.  They take the narrator into their home and give him an intimate understanding of Corsican culture, principally the practice of the vendetta, the blood-feud that often pits entire Corsican families against one another to avenge some offense or insult.  Lucien and his mother are both well-spoken and sophisticated, but the narrator soon divines that Lucien is a man of his people, who predicts dolefully that in time his people's rough ways will be overcome by modernity. 

Indeed, Lucien's absent brother Louis has left Corsica to study law in Paris, the better to prepare for the inevitable transition of Corsica into the modern world.  Lucien informs the narrator that Louis shares none of Lucien's passion for hunting and shooting, which foregrounds Louis' unfortunate fate in Paris.  Lucien relates the novella's most famous trope-- that he can experience aspects of Louis' emotions even though the brother is in Paris, because the two of them were once conjoined twins, separated by surgery.  But Lucien also informs the narrator of a tendency shared by all the De Franchi men: that they always or often behold the spectres of their relatives at times of great turmoil.  Surprisingly, the sophisticated Parisian does not play the skeptic in this exchange, but attests that he's had his own psychic experience. This psychic aspect of the story only plays a small role in the story's plot, though it fits overall with the quality of Corsican sentiment: the sense that conflict and vengeance are fated to happen, and that they can only be embraced, not fought against. Throughout the novella Dumas frequently describes separate events that happen fortuitously at the exact same time, which in a rough way prefigures Jung's idea of synchronicity, which I examined here.


Following this long setup, the central conflict finally comes to light. Returning to Paris, the narrator seeks out Louis De Franchi. Louis, far from being involved in Musketeer-like affairs of state, has been asked by a friend to look out for the man's wife while the man is at sea.  Louis himself is in love with the woman, and because of that he somewhat abrogates his agreement to watch over the wife.  A rouĂ© named Chateau-Renard attempts to seduce the woman, and when Louis eventually interferes, the villain challenges Louis to the Parisian equivalent of the vendetta: a duel.  Louis, despite being incompetent with firearms, accepts the duel honorably and meets his death stoically.  However, the novella's reversal of this fate comes when his wrathful brother arrives in Paris-- long before any letter could have reached Corsica-- and scares the crap out of Chateau-Renard, since Lucien looks just like the man the seducer has killed.  The novella winds up with a repeat of the duel, which the villain loses, and the "hero" of the story weeping for his brother.

I say "hero" advisedly, for though many cinematic descendants of Lucien De Franchi have been legitimate heroes in every way, Dumas' original conforms to my concept of the "demihero," a character who may be as dynamic as a hero in some ways, but whose narrative function lacks the quality I call "intellectual will," and aligns better with that of the "intuitive will," discussed here.

Further, Lucien's victory in the duel, though it validates a certain level of martial competence, cannot be considered "combative," in contrast with later epigones from the film adaptations cited.  Even Tommy Chong's comic Lucien displays a power of "spectacular violence" in his none-too-funny antics.  The original Lucien's duel, though satisfying on its own terms, lacks even the modest spectacle seen in the conclusion of Doyle's HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, and I judged that conclusion to be too weak to qualify as "spectacular violence" here.





Wednesday, May 8, 2013

TORTURED, PROSAICALLY

In two of my 2009 posts, here and here, I stated that I didn't become quite as hinky as some comics-readers upon seeing heroic characters practice "inquisitorial torture," i.e., physical or mental torture in order to force a given individual to relinquish information. While I did not in any way condone real-world torture, or express any belief in its real-world effectiveness, I did note that it was often used as a simple narrative device with nearly no moral resonance.

In stories where [inquisitorial torture] is used as a minor narrative device that has all the drama and suspense of driving one's car over a road-bump, it's morally neutral. The formula "hero needs info so he roughs up a hood to get it" has no more symbolic significance than "hero needs to get somewhere fast so he steals a horse/car/spaceship to get there."
I did not, however, state that the act never had moral overtones. I gave as one example the work of hardboiled mystery-writer Mickey Spillane.  In Spillane's novels it's clear that the hero's ability to haul ass on his victims possesses strong ideological content, given that the author uses the excuse of anti-Communism to unleash his hero's brutality.




Because I grew up in a time when scenes of inquisitorial torture were rare in the comics, it's possible that I have a predilection to see such scenes as having a purely narrative (and hence non-ideological) function. In other words, a scene with Captain America beating up the Red Skull to make him talk is not necessarily emblematic of the fascism in American culture. I can think of comparable scenes that *might* imply a real ideological stance as such, as when Mike Hammer hauls ass on Dirty Commies in KISS ME DEADLY, but not every such scene carries ideological weight. All cats may look grey when one dwells in the darkness of ideological thinking, but the light discloses quite a bit more variegation.


In the shadow of the 9/11 catastrophe, television gave us 24, an eight-season wonder described by Wikipedia as "the longest-running espionage-themed television drama ever."  Though in its first season 24 avoided endorsement of inquisitorial torture, it was soon retooled to reflect what some have called the "Bushco" ideological mindset.  Scenes of torture, in which Jack Bauer or his aides successfully wrung vital information from America's enemies, became more than simple "speed bumps," as I claimed that they were in, say, Batman stories.  But even aside from its bad ideological content, I disliked the 24 series because the torture-scenes became one of the main selling-points of the teleseries.  I once complained about the tone of the series on Some Forum, and the usual yapping jackals claimed that I was contradicting myself, given that I had defended violence in its non-ideological manifestations.

In the last couple of months, I happened across not one but two instances of "inquisitorial torture" which weren't even directed at "America's enemies" but still managed to exude the odor of bad ideology with regard to the rights of the accused.  I'll look up titles and airdates of the episodes involved should anyone inquire, but for right now, I'll confine myself to brief summaries.

In a two-part episode of ABC'S CASTLE, the light-hearted title detective walks on the rough side of life a la the Liam Neeson film TAKEN.  Castle's daughter is kidnapped and whisked away to Europe by dastardly types.  The police find a skeevy fellow implicated in the abduction, a man who has sustained some injury (I forget the specifics).  The cops won't torture him for info, but they leave the anguished father alone in a room with the perp.  In moments, implicitly because Castle has tortured the man's injury, the perp gives up the information.

More recently, a rough simulacrum of the CASTLE scene appeared on the CBS cop-drama HAWAII 5-O.  To be sure, scenes of inquisitorial "leaning" appear consistently in this series, with cops invariably managing to force confessions or info from their captives, with seldom any scenes of  a lawyer's involvement.  The episode in question, though, resembles CASTLE in that the stakes deal with a little girl being abducted by ransomers.  Toward the end the cops get hold of a perp who's unquestionably involved in the caper, who refuses to give up the girl's location because he thinks he has "leverage."  One cop, the one played by James Caan' son, punches the crook, who then claims that cops can't do that.  The other main cop (the two are barely distinguishable, being alike right down to their "badboy stubble") asks Caan to give him his badge and leaves the room while Caan punches the info out of the crook.

Now, what's interesting here is that in both of these cases, the cops flagrantly abuse the laws they supposedly protect, based on the exigency of a life in danger.  This is a familiar trope, whose best-known exemplar remains the scene in 1971's DIRTY HARRY, where the hero tortures a criminal in order to make him reveal the location of a kidnap victim. 



However, the greatest difference between HARRY and the two television versions is that in HARRY, there is blowback as a result of the hero's actions: the villain is exculpated because the evidence of his crime becomes "tainted."  Whether one views the movie's script as a subtle manipulation of moral attitudes or a condemnation of societal molly-coddling, clearly its writer was aware that the action of torture had consequences.

In contrast, these two recent shows, more in less in the vein of 24, show no consequence to the action of torture.  However, with 24, lack of blowback was probable, given the hero's governmental connections.  But with more mundane crime-shows, why wouldn't the perps who suffered inquisitorial torture make noise about it?  I don't know if their cases would get "tainted" as quickly as the one in DIRTY HARRY, but surely the crooks would attempt to milk their abuse for all that it was worth.  The one in CASTLE might be hard to prove, but the other assault leaves the crook with fist-prints all over him. 

One probably shouldn't expect two lightweight TV programs to display any cognizance of real-world legality.  And of course, a lot of cop shows prior to this were known for some level of inquisitorial torture, though probably not as overt as the one in the FIVE-0 episode.  It suggests that the Bush ideology is alive and well, that the police may now arrogate to themselves the level of discretionary power usually attributed to a Jack Bauer, and that any criminals they choose to target will just become lost in the system a la the accused at Guantanamo.





MANDARIN DUCKED

Though I haven't seen IRON MAN 3 yet, I recently responded to an online comment on the general theme of "why did the adaptors bother to use the name of the Mandarin if they weren't going to keep anything else about the character?"  As usual, though I'm aware of some of the immediate contingent circumstances (e.g., Chinese investors and audiences), my response takes a more generalizing approach.

_________________________

Though I can't claim to have any direct knowledge of Hollywood thinking, I'm going to say that this is not a phenomenon not confined to comic-book adaptations. I think a lot of Hollywood adaptors have or come to have an adversarial relationship with the material adapted. In both the films KISS ME DEADLY and MODESTY BLAISE, the adaptors use assorted bits from the novels adapted, but play with those bits to suit their desires, often to pursue themes opposed to the original authors. That's why Frank Miller's SPIRIT doesn't resemble Eisner's SPIRIT. Miller didn't want to make a respectful Eisner movie; he wanted to make a Frank Miller movie.

Why even keep those bits if they're going to change them entirely? I think the adaptors are under some pressure to have SOMETHING that resembles the property the company buys. I have no idea who in the chain of command said, "Let's use the Mandarin in IM3," but once it was sent down, the adaptors were stuck with it. In this case the exigencies of political correctness probably informed the changes in the character, rather than personal preference as it seems to have been with DEADLY and BLAISE. But the principle is the same.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A FINAL PARTING OTTO-SHOT

In HOLY NUMINOSITY -- PART 4 I said:

I seem to remember that at some point Otto mentions his awareness that one response to the numinous is a desire to become "godlike" oneself, but as yet I can't locate the passage. 
 
I would have expected that a doctrinaire Christian would have little regard for the idea of any mortal undergoing apotheosis, and when I scanned my collection of Otto-quotes, I found that this one came the closest to what I seemed to remember:


The daemonic-divine object may appear
to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same
time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm,
and the creature, who trembles before it, utterly cowed and
cast down, has always at the same time the impulse to turn to
it, nay even to make it somehow his own.
 
Here the "potent charm" stems from the aspect of the numinous which Otto terms the *mysterium fascinans.*  I've argued in this series of essays that one might take the desire of a subject to "become like God" to be a natural extension of the numen-aspect, in contradistinction to the "fear and trembling" next to a force one cannot oppose.  In Part 4 I said:


This [desire to become godlike] would seem to be a natural extension of the idea of celebrating numinous "worth," however: not just feeling that Zeus is the mysterious creator of the universe, but that Heracles, begotten on a mortal by the Father of the Gods, can provide a conduit by which mortals can participate in that divine mystery.

On reviewing other relevant sections of THE IDEA OF THE HOLY, though, I see that the only way in which Otto can see a subject legitimately trying to become one with the divine is through the process of conferring praise upon the source of the numinous, not by any actual physical or mental transformation. 

Here's Otto taking snipe shots at the different types of mystics who identify themselves with the numinous power:

A characteristic common to all types of Mysticism is the
Identification, in different degrees of completeness, of the
personal self with the transcendent Reality. This identifi-
cation has a source of its own, with which we are not here
concerned, and springs from moments of religious experience
which would require separate treatment.
 
This has a peculiar vagueness to it.  Does Otto mean, by speaking of a "source of its own," to imply that the Devil Made Them Do It?  But it's not likely: the rest of the book doesn't show any passion for demon-hunting.  Going by a later section, it seems likely that Otto's putting the pretensions of mystics into the same category as the "weird" beliefs of superstitious natives: as religious practices that are explained in part by anthropological findings, in part by Otto's conviction that the religious beliefs have not been "developed" enough:

...there is a series
of strange proceedings which are constantly attracting greater
and greater attention, and in which it is claimed that we may
recognize, besides mere religion in general, the particular roots
of Mysticism. I refer to those numerous curious modes of
behaviour and fantastic forms of mediation, by means of
which the primitive religious man attempts to master the
mysterious , and to fill himself and even to identify himself
with it. These modes of behaviour fall apart into two
classes. On the one hand the magical identification of the
self with the numen proceeds by means of various transactions,
at once magical and devotional in character by formula, ordination,
adjuration, consecration, exorcism, &c. : on the other hand
are the shamanistic ways of procedure, possession, indwelling,
self-imbuement with the numen in exaltation and ecstasy. All
these have, indeed, their starting-points simply in magic, and
their intention at first was certainly simply to appropriate the
prodigious force of the numen for the natural ends of man.
 
Though Otto turns up his nose at both of these "strange proceedings," he's roughly on track in making a valid distinction between the pratice of the primitive magician, who seeks to compel the gods or to assimilate their powers through "formula, ordination, etc.," and the primitive "shaman," who seeks to commune with the numinous through "exaltation and ecstacy."  What Otto fails to appreciate, of course, is that within all species of Christian worship one finds just as many appeals to the "numen of Christianity" for "the natural ends" of its worshippers.  One can find a few Christian credos that have attempted to place an insuperable wall between Deity and the needs of worshippers, but in a statistical sense these must be judged as "rare birds" that do not represent the prevalent norms of Christian worship.

To put a final point on the matter, Otto is so opposed to the idea of impinging on the numinous source that he similarly conflates the systematic approach of the medieval Scholastics with he views as a similar "rationalization" in archaic myth:


Representations of spirits and similar conceptions
are rather one and all early modes of rationalizing
a precedent experience, to which they are subsidiary. They
are attempts in some way or other, it little matters how, to guess
the riddle it propounds, and their effect is at the same time
always to weaken and deaden the experience itself. They are
the source from which springs, not religion, but the rationalization
of religion, which often ends by constructing such a
massive structure of theory and such a plausible fabric of
interpretation, that the mystery is frankly excluded. Both
imaginative Myth, when developed into a system, and intel-
lectualist Scholasticism, when worked out to its completion,
are methods by which the fundamental fact of religious
experience is, as it were, simply rolled out so thin and flat
as to be finally eliminated altogether.
I submit that Otto's real objection is to any system that does not validate the experience of the numinous as it is asserted by the "higher religions."  There is, to be sure, an element of the rational in the formation of archaic myths, as I argued here, but Otto is simply mistaken as to how much the rational elements exclude the non-rational.  Building on Jung's infinitely more latitudinarian understanding of the religious consciousness, I wrote in this essay:

In Jung's paradigm, it's impossible to imagine a primitive trying to explain the regular motions of the sun in terms of a figure like Helios driving his chariot across the sky. However, it would be fair to state that many of the features of the physical world that science would study in terms of their etiology-- the movement of celestial bodies, the characteristics of vegetation, et al-- became for the primitive sacred clues to the nature of divine power. The "empty and purely formal" archetype is the principle around which these "clues" aggregated. For Jung the emotional wonder of beholding the sun as a sacred mystery would be the keystone of making a myth about it, while the specific local details of any given myth were the "ions and molecules" upon which the organizing power acts.
 
Nevertheless, I maintain that though Rudolf Otto may have looked askance at the claims of magicians and shamans, their concepts of assimilating the numinous are archetypally identical with Otto's description of the *mysterium fascinans,* even though Otto himself saw the proper response as awestruck praise of the numen. 

Further, what the magician/shaman seeks from a numen-source in his theoretical reality is archetypally identical with what the typical subject of a reading-or-viewing "audience" desires from his experience of a fictional narrative: an identification with (1) various levels of meaning from the simple to the complex (comparable to the experience of the "combinatory-sublime") and/or with (2) various levels of dynamicity from the paltry to the exceptional (comparable to the experience of the "dynamic-sublime.") 

I should say that nothing in Otto's book supports my own personal deduction of "sympathetic affects" that I outlined in TRIPLE THE TREMENDUM AND THE FASCINANS.  But to be sure, though Otto does use all three of the terms that appeared in Lewis' PROBLEM OF PAIN essay, he never brings them into the same schema that Lewis uses in that essay.  Thus my formulation of three "sympathetic affects"-- "admiration" as a parallel to "fear," "fascination" as a parallel to "dread," and "ecstasis" as a parallel to "awe"-- is more properly a response to Lewis than to Otto.  But in my final anslysis both scholars' formulations suffer due to a mutual overemphasis of the antipathetic affects.

 







Friday, May 3, 2013

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING DYNAMICALLY DIFFERENT

Kelly Thompson's stalking that damn male gaze again.


I'm now anxiously awaiting another set of redesigns in line with one of Kelly Thompson's documented pet peeves: the idea that hot villainesses pander to the male gaze.  This will undoubtedly result in some masterful re-imaginings.

SEE-- The Viper, with her brand-new harelip and bald spot!

SEE-- The Norn Queen, with her smart new needle-nose and jutting chin!

SEE-- Granny Goodness and Ugly Meg, with their...
...uh...



...I know there has to be some change, but I can't...





Ah yes!  With one brand-new nose-wart apiece!

Yes, these are great times for feminism, comics-fans!

SUBLIMITY VS. MYTHICITY PART 3

Though it may not be evident from the argument in Part 2, I am oriented on finding a rapprochement between my earlier statements, to the effect that "mythicity" and what I now call "dynamic sublimity" were independent of the phenomenality involved, and my current statement here, where I've said that the nature of the phenomenality does make a difference to the "combinatory sublime."

My solution, then, is that the earlier statements were not adequately worked out with regard to the "narrative value-significant value" schism.

Both "mythicity" and "dynamicity," to the extent that they have particular functions in making a narrative work, comprise "narrative values."

The sublime affects associated with them, "the combinatory sublime" and the "dynamic sublime," are inevitably "significant values."

Nevertheless, there is a slight skewing in purpose between each of the two interrelated categories.

I conjure forth once more the three pop-fiction films I used to illustrate "violent sublimity," aka "dynamic sublimity."

Within each of these worlds, the phenomenality makes no difference to the narrative function of the "focal presence" involved.  As far as the film DIRTY HARRY is concerned, there is no being more powerful than Harry Callahan, though some of his foes, particularly Scorpio, are capable of challenging the hero.  The same holds true for Lee and his foe Han in ENTER THE DRAGON, and for Luke Skywalker and his opponent Darth Vader in the first three STAR WARS films. 

These diegetic dynamicities inevitably call forth significant values, of course.  But viewers do not often think of the "dancers" of violent conflict-- the presences of the narrative-- as being separate from the energy of their "dance," which is the significant value experienced by those who watch.  Thus the narrative value of *dynamicity* often takes precedence over the significant value of the *dynamic sublime* evoked by it.

Mythicity, however, is much more referential in nature.  As soon as one descries the presence of symbolic discourse, one tends to think less of its function within the story and more about what it means to the person experiencing the story.  Say, for sake of argument, that the symbolic discourse in all three of the cited films is equally complex.

DIRTY HARRY-- symbolizes the psychology of the (fictional) Old West, reborn in a modern urban environment
ENTER THE DRAGON-- symbolizes the psychology of the peerless martial artist, whose power lies not only in physical strength but also in his ability to "see" the weaknesses of his enemies
STAR WARS-- symbolizes the psychology of the archetypal orphan-hero, seeking to prove himself in a cruel world and finding his strength in opposition to a father (and a grandfather) archetype

On the level of the narrative value, all of these myth-functions are equal.  HOWEVER-- the potential of myth-combination is inevitably limited in Dirty Harry's world, since a naturalistic world always values verisimilitude over myth's improbabilities.  Works in an uncanny world have more leeway to be improbable, and thus greater combinatory power-- while marvelous works, able to present various levels of "the impossible," can present more combinations of elements than either.  Thus it seems demonstrable that because mythic/symbolic aspects are so highly referential in nature, this principle skews more toward the significant value of the "combinatory sublime," toward calling attention to the difference between the dancers and the dance.

On a somewhat conclusive note, I probably will not attempt to introduce the term "dynamic-sublime" into my tags.  Since as I explained in Part 1, almost all of my references to "sublimity" have been predicated on the Kantian concept of might.  So for the future I will continue to use "sublimity" as a tag to denote only "dynamic sublimity."



SUBLIMITY VS. MYTHICITY PART 2

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Thursday, May 2, 2013

TWO SUBLIMITIES HAVE I -- PART 5

“The fantastic in literature doesn’t exist as a challenge to what is probable, but only there where it can be increased to a challenge of reason itself: the fantastic in literature consists, when all has been said, essentially in showing the world as opaque, as inaccessible to reason on principle.”-- Lars Gustaffson, cited in Franz Rottensteiner's THE FANTASY BOOK.


Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough. And there is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. That kind of “fantasy” most people would allow to be wholesome enough; and it can never lack for material. But it has, I think, only a limited power; for the reason that recovery of freshness of vision is its only virtue. The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits; but it cannot do more than that: act as a time-telescope focused on one spot. Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.-- Tolkien, ON FAIRY-STORIES.

There are fictional works that come as close to pure verisimilitude (as defined by Frye here) as is humanly possible, and many writers follow Zola's dictum that the best fiction is that which adheres to observed reality.  Still, fidelity to nature can be in the eye of the beholder. When I read GERMINAL, I found it incredible that Zola's brutish peasants apparently subsisted on nearly no food at all.  This would be, in the terms I introduced in the above essay, an "incoherent improbability."

In all naturalistic works, both improbability and impossibility can only be sources of incoherence, even in works from a period less demanding than that of Zola's era.  At the climax of THE WINTER'S TALE, the audience is asked to believe that Queen Hermoine, supposedly dead for the last sixteen years,can fool her husband Leontes into thinking she is a statue of herself simply by standing very still. And Leontes seems to be convinced, though he does express curiosity that the sculptor has made Hermoine look the same age she would be in the present, rather than the age she was at her "death."  Some audience-members might jeer at the improbability, while others might cheer.  But in neither case has the improbability served any function comparable to the one Lars Gustaffson assigns to "the fantastic:" that of forming a "challenge to reason" itself.

 This "challenge" is the foremost element which gives rise to the affect of "strangeness" in a fictional work, irrespective of whether or not the work abides by the rules of causality (at least on the "cognitive" level) or thwarts those rules.  In works like GERMINAL and WINTER'S TALE, the "incoherent improbability" cannot challenge causality either in its cognitive or affective senses.  The audience simply passes over these moments of improbability like a fleet of trucks trundling over low speed-bumps.  Such moments have no positive value in themselves: they're nothing but minor instances of "the atypical," instantly subsumed by the straight road of naturalistic typicality.  Because naturalistic works seek to be "iso-real," to imitate consensual reality, their ability to produce the affect of sublimity-- of feeling as if the boundaries of experience have been dizzyingly extended-- is necessarily, as Tolkien observes in the above quote, "only a limited power."

In Tzvetan Todorov's formulation of his Freud-influenced version of "the uncanny" in THE FANTASTIC, a work that even takes an ambivalent stance toward the marvelous has all but capitulated to the forces of causality and reason:


“Although the resurrection of Usher’s sister and the fall of the house after the death of its inhabitants may appear supernatural, Poe has not failed to supply quite rational explanations for both events.”
What Todorov fails to comprehend here is that the "quite rational explanations" in USHER do not dispel the sense of something bizarre taking place, as is seen when the "statue" in WINTER'S TALE seems, ever so briefly, to have come to life.  The slight nods to possible rational explanations in USHER do not the banish the strangeness of the House, with its face-like facade, its doomed occupants and its cataclysmic descent into the tarn.  This is the common element of all of my ten uncanny-tropes.  In each case the uncanny-author plays a game that resembles the game of the advocate of naturalism, in that he does not violate causality.  But he does so not to reify "the real," as Todorov suggests.  He does so to create a "supra-real world," one in which there is a far greater potential for combinatory sublimity than in any naturalistic work. 

I suspect that if any current comics-critics read the above statement, their collective panties would become as twisted as tourniquets.  "How dare you say," they might protest, "say that any of the works you cite as "uncanny" are in any way "better" than any naturalistic work!  Even if THE WINTER'S TALE is not the greatest Shakespeare, it's still greater in every way than all those things you list in TEN DYNAMIC DAEMONS, except maybe the approved canonical literary works by Carroll, Hugo and Melville."  (Current comics-scholars tend to suck on the tits of High Literature without about as much comprehension of the juice of their sustenance than a swaddling infant has.)

Of course, what I've stated is that the potential is always greater, not that every work in the "uncanny" category fulfills that potential.  I've experienced a considerable number of "Lone Ranger" comics and television shows, but with very few exceptions the franchise has only rarely fulfilled the potential of the "supra-real sublime."  However, I have no scruples against asserting that a pop-fiction work like Sax Rohmer's MYSTERY OF FU-MANCHU does tap into a higher level of combinatory power.  Whether or not it's as great or greater than the sublimity-quotient of Hugo's NOTRE DAME DE PARIS scarcely matters to me.  Once a work partakes of  the uncanny phenomenality, that work is dealing with far more than mere "freshness of vision."  Such works are "coherent improbabilities," in which the source of the "strangeness"-- be it a weird house or a weird society, a wildly improbable hero or criminal-- circumvents the causal reality in which that element exists.  I don't know if this will be any easier to understand that my having said that "affectivity exceeds causality," though.

Obviously the "marvelous" phenomenality is one where both the cognitive and affective worlds of the work break with consensual reality, so that the combinatory sublimity here is of an "anti-real" nature.  Sometimes the marvelous phenomenon is relatively minor in its combinatory power: I recently reviewed a 1940 B-horror film called THE APE, in which the only marvelous element was a mad doctor's rather grotesque cure for polio.  But the potential of "anti-real" worlds for combinatory power is always greater than the execution, as Tolkien analyzes in his hypothetical example of a fiction about a "green sun:"


To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.
I've stated before that the three phenomalities are absolutely equal in terms of their potential for mythicity-- defined as the complexity of symbolic discourse-- and in terms of their potential for what I now define as "dynamic sublimity."  But I'm reversing myself on the first of these. The sublimity of combinatory power is not one where equality reigns.  The marvelous possesses the greatest power of this kind, followed by the uncanny, with the naturalistic possessing nothing more than the power to  recover "the freshness of vision."


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

TWO SUBLIMITIES HAVE I -- PART 4

At the conclusion of Part 3 I said:

...the further a given work ventures into the domains of the metaphenomenal, the greater its capacity for "endless combinations in living shapes that move from mind to mind."
To put it another way within my terminological terrain, the capacity for "endless combinations"-- what I call the "combinatory-sublime"-- is at its lowest ebb in all works that possess a naturalistic phenomenality. This capacity stands independent of any other standards of merit that might separate, say, some low-rent romance-melodrama from Shakespeare's HENRY IV-- which happens to be the play from which Edmund Burke derives one of his definitions of the sublime: "richness and profusion of images."

In my early writings on the subject of sublimity, I tended to try to see this image-profusion as simply one of many manifestations of a general idea of the sublime, one which depended on a quality of being "overwhelming."  As I noted earlier, since I was primarily influenced by Kant's writings on the "dynamically sublime," at times I attempted to subsume all aspects of "infinitude" under the rubric of "might," as I did in the 2012 essay SUBLIMELY SUPER. Analyzing the story "Superman's Return to Krypton" from SUPERMAN #141 (1960>


Within my then-current formulation of "the sublime," I reprinted this panel:



And in a subsequent essay, I wrote of this scene:



...the scene in which Superman and Lyla culminate their romance (in terms of Silver Age kid-comics, at least) displays a propensity for the sublime, using churning magma and a vaulting rainbow as objective correlatives for the unleashed passion. This indirect depiction of physical passion not only displays Burke's "profusion of images," but also explicitly (thanks to Siegel's caption) associates their passion with might:


"But the flames of the planet are like cold glaciers compared to the mighty love blazing between Superman of Earth and Lyla Lerrol of Krypton!"
 I don't withdraw that insight re: "might."  However, I will note that the scene could be equally sublime-- in a combinatory sense-- if it took place against any other strange Kryptonian background, such as the "Living Jewel Mountains" or "the Scarlet Jungle." 

The Krypton of the "Silver Age" period of Superman comic books is, in contrast to the barely described setting seen in Jerry Siegel's first Superman stories, portrayed as a cornucopia of wonders, many of which are pleasing re-combinations of phenomena known to us on Earth, such as J.R.R. Tolkien described in the essay "On Fairy Stories:"

Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.  To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.
Tolkien is of course not concerned with any formulations about "the sublime" here, but he does speak of an affect that he calls "enchantment."

Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World.
Tolkien probably would not have cared to see this quality of "enchantment" as a subspecies of what I call "strangeness," which appears not only in the sort of fantasy Tolkien means, but in all manner of "marvelous" and "uncanny" metaphenomenal works.

In Part 5 I will deal more fully with the combinatory capacity as it occurs in both phenomenalities.






TEN DYNAMIC DAEMONS

Having put forth the idea of "coherent improbabilities" here, it occured to me that though I've given examples of particular tropes or literary works that fit this category, characters are probably more accessible as exemplars.  Thus here are ten characters to match each of the ten tropes with which I've illustrated the manifestation of the "uncanny" phenomenality.

In all but one case, I chose an exemplar who appeared during the period that gave birth to the phenomenon of popular fiction, though a few of my choices come from canonical literary works.




ASTOUNDING ANIMALS-- Moby Dick, from Herman Melville's MOBY DICK.  Melville's book technically remains within the causal realm in a cognitive sense-- that is, the colossal cetacean is constantly compared with godlike beings, but there's no evidence that he's anything but a formidable animal.  But the Great White Whale, like his obsessed co-star Ahab, dwell in a world that constantly pushes into the metaphenomenal in a purely affective sense.



BIZARRE CRIMES-- Juliette, from the novel of the same name by the Marquis deSade. Sade is, in his way, something of an apostle of naturalism to the extent that he constantly denies the ideas of divinity.  Nevertheless, for Sade as for Goethe the motto is, "In the Beginning was the Act!"  But for Sade the act is not creation, but the obsessive need to find new and more exotic ways to destroy human beings-- a need which seems embodied most strongly in the character of Juliette, the blood-hungry sister of the innocent Justine.




DELIRIOUS DREAMS AND FALLACIOUS FIGMENTS-- Alice, from Lewis Carroll's two books starring that prodigious dreamer.  Within this trope, even though causality seems to win the game when Alice wakes from her descent into meaningful nonsense, it's the dreams that become more real to us than the reality.



ENTHRALLING HYPNOTISM AND ILLUSIONISM-- Svengali, from the 1894 TRILBY by George DuMaurier.  As yet I haven't reviewed any of the films starring literature's most famous
hypnotist, though most moderns know the Svengali of the movies if they know him at all.  As noted elsewhere, both "hypnotism" and "illusionism" have the effect of waking persons that dreams do upon the dreamer; making the impossible and improbable become real for the subjects.



EXOTIC LANDS AND CUSTOMS-- Allen Quatermain, from H. Rider Haggard's 1885 novel KING SOLOMON'S MINES.  The novel is famous for launching the genre of the "Lost World story," in which an archaic civilization has managed to survive in some remote corner of the world without contact with the onrush of history.  I have not read any of the "Allen" books aside from the one in which Haggard encountered Haggard's other great character, "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed," but have gained the impression that most of the other Allen books possess an uncanny phenomenality, rather than a marvelous or naturalistic one.



FREAKISH FLESH-- Quasimodo,from Victor Hugo's 1831.  Though Hugo's original novel hews closer to the genre of the "historical novel" than that of horror, the image of the hunchback-- be it Quasimodo's or that of some lesser epigone-- has become a familiar icon of horror.  In contrast to a naturalistic exhibition of a "freak of nature," as one sees in the 1980 David Lynch film THE ELEPHANT MAN, Quasimodo's physical freakishness in the novel is constantly tied to the dark nature of humankind as a whole.




OUTRE OUTFITS, SKILLS, AND DEVICES-- These three aspects do not always occur together in a given character, though I group them together because weapons and costumes, as much as a character's physical skills, are extensions of his persona as an uncanny spectre.  One character who combines all three in significant fashion is The Lone Ranger, spawned by a 1933 radio series.  Although the hero moves through a largely naturalistic world in most of his incarnations, the very notion of an Old West champion able to dispense justice despite wearing a bandit's mask and firing silver bullets with flawless accuracy, is a figure who resides only in an uncanny domain.



PERILOUS PSYCHOS-- Norman Bates, from Robert Bloch's 1959 novel PSYCHO.  Though Jack the Ripper is a more famous psycho-killer, he's disallowed here by virtue of being a real character, however mysterious.  The Norman birthed by Bloch and midwifed by Hitchcock seems to have the fictional psycho who, directly or indirectly, spawned the greatest number of imitators.  Some of these may be considered merely naturalistic versions of the original, as with the current BATES MOTEL teleseries.  But an uncanny psycho is always discernible by his ability to invoke more "dread" than simple physical "fear."



 PHANTASMAL FIGURATIONS-- The Phantom of the Opera, from Gaston Leroux's 1909 serial novel of that name.  Leroux also employs the trope "freakish flesh" for this famed monstrous presence, but the trope that most informs the novel is the character's ability to lurk beneath the Paris Opera House, pretending to be "the Opera Ghost."  Regardless as to whether readers believed or did not believe in the existence of this particular ghost at the outset, the Phantom remains far more than the sum of his impostures.



WEIRD SOCIETIES AND FAMILIES-- Fu Manchu, first appearing in Sax Rohmer's 1913 MYSTERY OF FU-MANCHU.  Admittedly, even in that first novel, Fu Manchu displayed more "marvelous" characteristics than any of the other characters cited here, in that he often controlled assorted weapons of "mad science." At base, though, Fu Manchu's greatest appeal to readers was one that did not depend on the marvelous elements of the series: his status as a sort of "Alexander the Great" of Oriental Evil, in that his "Si-Fan" organization embraced a wildly diverse group of Asian fiends-- Indian thuggee, Burmese dacoits, the Sea-Dyaks of Borneo, and so on.  This vast conspiracy by itself stands as one of the period's best evocations of a "weird society" that goes beyond the bounds of a mere criminal organization, and sometimes seems more like a "Pandemonium" presided over by the Satanic genius.