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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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

Thursday, June 12, 2014

FIEDLER NABBED

I've recently finished THE DEVIL GETS HIS DUE, a 2008 collection of largely un-anthologized essays by Leslie Fiedler, an academic critic I've cited occasionally on this blog.  Most of the essays repeat opinions and insights that will be familiar from his earlier writings, but my chosen subject is the misprision of Fiedler's work that appears in an introduction written by one Samuele Pardini.

In this introduction Pardini cites Umberto Eco-- whose views on comics I found problematic here-- as an authority to "prove" that the only reason Fiedler ever asserted an aesthetic equivalence between "art" and "junk" was because he Fiedler was being "criticially avant-garde." Eco claims that Fiedler did not really believe that there could be aesthetic equality between the two, that he simply wanted "to break down the barrier that has been erected between art and enjoyability." Pardini enthusiastically echoes this sentiment. It somehow escapes him to prove his case by citing even a single word that Fiedler-- who passed away in 2003-- wrote about popular art or culture, not even from the essays included in DEVIL, which include meditations on the RAMBO film-series and the cinematic persona of Jerry Lewis.

While it's not impossible that Fiedler may have made some statement along these lines-- I haven't read everything the man ever wrote-- it's clear to me that Eco and Pardini are "nabbing" Leslie Fiedler in service of their own elitism. In Fiedler's 1982 work WHAT WAS LITERATURE, he decisively turned his back on the elitism of academia, though without, to my knowledge, ever stating that "art" and "junk" were works in the same mode. In this essay I boiled down Fiedler's 1982 attitude toward the "ecstatic" qualities that the two forms of communication hold in common:

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

I never got around to writing another essay on Fiedler's concept of "ecstatics," partly because he gives one so little to go on.  It's evident from WHAT WAS LITERATURE that Fiedler could derive some profound pleasure from both Faulkner's SANCTUARY and Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND, even knowing that the latter work could not compared with the former on either ethical or aesthetic grounds. Regrettably, Fiedler never formulated a "poetics of ecstacy."

Pardini notes that Fiedler believed in trying to keep his critical essays straightforward and free of critical jargon. This style made Fiedler one of the most eminently readable literary critics of the 20th century. The down side of this strategy, however, was although he could point the way to a deeper understanding of the mythopoeic roots shared by canonical art and popular culture, Fiedler's anti-jargon posture meant that he could not write in depth about these roots. His magisterial LOVE AND DEATH IN THE AMERICAN NOVEL (1960) touches on matters of popular art at times, but only as a means of outlining the history of influences upon the American literary canon.  It's clear that he's aware that there are significant figures in that canon whose significance cannot be explained by ethics or aesthetics, and even in the DEVIL collection he continues to expatiate on the "problem of the bad good writer" as represented by Fenimore Cooper. However, perhaps because his earliest academic outlook was staunchly elitist, Fiedler was never able to grapple with the issues of what might called "the good bad writer," which might in theory take in both his beloved Margaret Mitchell and Jack Kirby, whom Fiedler confused with Stan Lee in a 1970s essay about Kirby's "New Gods" comics.

I realize that my own love of jargon is one major aspect of this blog that makes it less than hugely popular. Still, in essays like the recent FOUR BY FOUR, I hope to provide a deeper explication of the sort of "ecstatics" I believe Leslie Fiedler was responding to. At the very least, even if he did not wish to invest very deeply in abstract arguments, his openness to the charms of the popular puts him far ahead of the fatuous positions taken by both Umberto Eco and Samuele Pardini.


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