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

Friday, February 28, 2014


Empirical realism is underpinned by a metaphysical dogma, which I shall
call the epistemic fallacy, that statements about being can always be
transposed into statements about our knowledge of being. -- Bhaskar, p. 16.

Given that I have recently proposed the bifurcation of fictive causality into two intertwining but separable aspects, it behooves me to look back at some of the examples I've given in earlier essays to see if they support my conception of those aspects: "regularity" and "intelligibility."  I should note that of the two "regularity" is the primary aspect, given that the human conviction that the world is intelligible to cognition arises from the fact that some if not all phenomena demonstrate patterns of regularity, thus allowing human beings to create empirical hypotheses as to what forces make those phenomena act in a regular manner. Still, as Bhaskar points out above, it's a fallacy to assume that a statement about (physical) being can be transposed into a definitive statement about our knowledge.

In the INTERSECTING AXES essay, I pointed out that both the "naturalistic" and "marvelous" phenomenalities are unitary in terms of what I chose at that time to call the aspects of "body" and "non-body"-- also roughly comparable to Cassirer's "causality" and "efficacy." In contrast, the phenomenenality of "the uncanny" was one in which "body" was at odds with "non-body." I  surveyed examples of my "ten tropes" in search of the way that they could "reveal the uncanny affects in terms of the ambivalence between body and non-body." Now I would say that the ambivalence is one between the aspect of regularity-- that is, the statement that all physical aspects are regular and unchanging, at least in comparison to the irregularities found in the domain of the marvelous-- and the aspect of intelligibility.  In the sphere of the naturalistic it's impossible for anything to be truly unintelligible, but within the sphere of the uncanny it's quite possible to see the same forces of "regularity causation" at work, and yet to see them result in something mysterious; a.k.a. Rudolf Otto's "overplus."
Going trope by trope:

ASTOUNDING ANIMALS-- In the AXES essay I mentioned both Melville's Moby Dick and Steven Spielberg's Jaws as examples of this trope in its uncanny phase, but did not supply an example of the naturalistic phase. Since I've not read Peter Benchley's original JAWS novel, I've no idea whether or not he made his shark "astounding" in spite of the creature's naturalistic limitations. However, I have seen the 1956 film adaptation of MOBY DICK, and would say without question that its prime creators, John Huston and Ray Bradbury, were completely innocent of any intimation that the whale might be something other than a big dumb brute.  In contrast to Melville's leviathan, the whale is purely "intelligible." 

BIZARRE CRIMES-- I commented on three literary or cinematic examples of characters-- Sade's Juliette, Fleming's Blofeld, and Lew Landers' Doctor Vollin-- who committed crimes "for motives that go beyond the ordinary ends of 'acquisition,'" which was simply a very Bataillean way of speaking of the motives appropriate to naturalism.  I supplied no counter-examples in which "body" and "non-body" were in a naturalistic equilibrium, but in this essay I studied two Tod Slaughter films side by side. Whereas Slaughter's villain in CRIMES OF THE DARK HOUSE might be atypical in comparison to your run-of-the-mill naturalistic criminal, everything he does is characterized by nothing but simple "acquisition." In contrast, Sweeney Todd, like the three evildoers cited above, has become a pop-fiction boogieman, and his motives come down to "the psychopathic love of killing"-- which, being a very Sadean mindset, lines up with Bataille's concept of expenditure.

DELIRIOUS DREAMS AND FALLACIOUS FRAGMENTS-- For this trope I supplied no examples at all in the AXES essay.  This one, though, seems unproblematic given that every sentient human being has experienced dreams, and rarely do people ever dream things comparable to Alice's extended dream of Wonderland, or the peripatetic dreams of this fictionalized version of Hans Christian Andersen. Within the sphere of the naturalistic, such highly constructed dream-voyages are very unlikely if not impossible; real dreams are too chaotic to produce such narratives.  Thus a film like 1952's HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN subscribes to a more "intelligible" view of the dreaming process, for this version of Hans does not dream his great fairy-tales.  Rather, they spring out of the function of half-conscious day-dreaming, which in this film is explainable by virtue of the Adlerian theory of compensation.

ENTHRALLING HYPNOTISM AND ILLUSIONISM-- Here I cited the famous hypnotist Svengali as an example of a hypnotist/illusionist whose abilities went beyond the intelligible limits of real practioners of this art.  The 2011 HUGO, with its fascination with showing how a particular form of illusionism works-- that of George Melies' early cinema-FX-- provides a decent enough counter-example. Whereas Svengali's masterful hypnotism can create a silk purse out of the sow's ear that is Trilby, the fictionalized Melies is a brilliant showman, but his talent is still fundamentally intelligible.

EXOTIC LANDS AND CUSTOMS-- Again I cited only an "uncanny" example of this trope, citing how the 1941 serial JUNGLE GIRL took the real-life African tribe of the Masai and created a fictional lion-worshipping tribe.  But a better contrast between "intelligible" and "anti-intelligible" versions of the same concept is featured in this review of two versions of Wilkie Collins' famous mystery novel THE MOONSTONE, which concerns an exotic clique of Hindus who come to England to recover a stolen sacred diamond.  The 1934 film is so uninterested in the exoticism of the Hindu characters that their role is reconfigured into just one Hindu servant, who is innocent of any crime.

FREAKISH FLESH-- In AXES I mentioned one of the most famous literary "freaks" in the Hunchback of Notre Dame as an example of an "uncanny" freak, while in this earlier essay I cited a counter-example: the fictionalized version of "the Elephant Man" in David Lynch's 1980 film. I also mentioned that "phenomena like twins or dwarves" could "convey a sense of supernatural 'strangeness' under the correct conditions," and on my film-blog gave an example of such a contrast with these two films about twinship.  These remarks I find illustrative of the ways in which a creator can suggest the nature of the "anti-intelligible" even while the forces of regularity are constant:

But even without this [prophetic] aspect of the film, Neill confers a sense of  "strangeness" to the proceedings.  It's certainly possible that another filmmakers might have taken the same plot-elements and rendered something more naturalistic, along the lines of Joseph Mankiewicz's DRAGONWYCK.  But in BLACK ROOM the twins by themselves make a very strange pair, at once (as the myth-quotation above has it)  capable of bestowing both beneficence and malevolence equally-- while in RINGER, both twins are just two eccentric human beings.

OUTRE OUTFITS SKILLS AND DEVICES-- In AXES I mention both Tarzan and the Lone Ranger as heroes possessed of, respectively, "outrĂ© skills" and "outrĂ© outfits."  I've mentioned elsewhere that in western films with masked crimefighters, those crimefighters are usually the only uncanny thing in those films, and certainly the Lone Ranger is one of the most anti-intelligible, given that a majority of the stories must deal with him explaining that his mask "represents justice" rather than connoting the more common (and intelligible) meaning of a face-mask. There aren't too many characters who parallel Tarzan's origins without delving into the realm of the uncanny, but one of the few is this serial-hero HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS.

PERILOUS PSYCHOS-- Again I mentioned only uncanny psycho-characters: Norman Bates, Jason Voorhees and Leatherface.  For a time I debated with myself as to whether Hannibal Lecter of the cinematic SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was truly "uncanny" in the tradition of Norman Bates, beginning here with a somewhat negative appraisal, but much later deciding here that Lecter's madness did possess the same "mysterioso" qualities I sought in the earlier essay. In contrast, the film with which I compare LAMBS in this essay, 1999's EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, is satisfied to stick with a very doctrinaire psychological program for its psycho's evolution.  Both Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter are subjected to psychological paradigms, but they exceed the limits of the intelligible, even though they are subject to the same forces of "regularity" as the character from BEHOLDER.

 PHANTASMAL FIGURATIONS-- In TEN DYNAMIC DEMONS I mentioned the Phantom of the Opera as an example of this trope, but in AXES I switched to Conan Doyle's novel HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES because there's far more suspense in that novel as to whether the titular beast is really a spectre or not.  Of the Hound I wrote: "even after it has been revealed to be a phosphorescent dog, one cannot claim that reality has entirely won the game."  Thus far the only counter-example I have offered on my film-blog is producer Val Lewton's 1943 LEOPARD MAN, because though it attempts a hoax even as HOUND does, the hoaxer draws not upon phantasms of spectres or even of madmen, but only of a mundane killer leopard-- in other words, an entirely intelligible menace.

WEIRD FAMILIES AND SOCIETIES-- My only example here was that another "uncanny" version, 1943's THE SEVENTH VICTIM, whose Satanist cult maintains an aura of the mysterious even when its members are revealed to be nothing more than jaded human beings.  Off the top of my head I don't know if it's possible to make a purely naturalistic work about a Satanist or occult society. The closest parallel that occurs to me is a society or family existing in a milieu that is potentially uncanny, but which works against those associations. For instance, the appeal of most "old dark house" films-- including the original 1932 OLD DARK HOUSE-- inheres in the viewpoint character(s) interacting with some weird family or society within that house. But 1945's HOUSE OF FEAR
avoids this approach entirely, as I observed in my review:

The "fear" conjured forth by this work is purely naturalistic in nature, as in the fear of an entirely human killer.  Even though FEAR centers upon events in an "old dark house," the film could almost stand as an example of how to make the least spooky "old dark house" film possible, since familiar Holmes director Roy William Neill eschews most of the usual ghostly goings-on.  Even a stern-faced housekeeper doesn't provide any spook-juice.

In closing, I'll note that since I over-emphasized the "uncanny" versions of each trope in AXES, this time I'll provide illustrations drawn only from the "naturalistic" domain.

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