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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...

Monday, June 9, 2014


In Part 1 I asserted that "most comics-critics are of the view that the realm of the reasonable and agreeable is the one to which all other forms of transcendence should be reduced." The proof of this particular pudding can be best observed in the critical dialogue that came about in response to Noah Berlatsky's essay SUPERHEROES ARE ABOUT FASCISM, which I analyzed in a series of essays on the nature of violence, real and fictional, beginning here. Remembering that what I call "reasonable and agreeable" is also known as Huxley's "horizontal self-transcendence," I'll quickly repeat one of Huxley's examples of this form of reasonable transcendence:

most men and women choose, most of the time, to go neither up nor down, but sideways. They identify themselves with some cause wider than their own immediate interests, but not degradingly lower and, if higher, higher only within the range of current social values. 

For Berlatsky and most of his respondents, the trope of "the hero battling evil" is entirely reducible to sociological factors. If the hero aims to defend the status quo, this is "bad;" if the hero seeks to change it on some level-- as with Wonder Woman's campaign to reform male-dominated society even while beating back Nazis-- then this is "good." In the course of the thread I mentioned Marvel's Doctor Strange as an example of a world-saving hero whose adventures tended to focus on the metaphysical rather than the sociological. Berlatsky allowed that Doctor Strange was not as good a fit as the majority of superheroes but did not choose to modify any aspect of his ideologically-based critical view.

My use of the words "sociological" and "metaphysical" are by no means accidental: they are two of the categories devised by Joseph Campbell in his 1964 work OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY, along with "the psychological" and "the cosmological." I've quoted Campbell at length on these conceptual categories here, so I won't spend time on further definitions. The relevance of Campbell's four functions in this essay is that it shows how each of these concepts for the organization of knowledge and/or insight can be viewed in a manner that is not "reasonable and agreeable."

Here's Campbell on Berlatsky's favorite if not exclusive category, "the sociological:"

Third is the sociological function. Myth supports and validates the specific moral order of the society out of which it arose. Particular life-customs of this social dimension, such as ethical laws and social roles, evolve dramatically. This function, and the rites by which it is rendered, establishes in members of the group concerned a system of sentiments that can be depended upon to link that person spontaneously to its ends.

It should be obvious that this definition is more comprehensive than Berlatsky's in that Campbell does not define the sociological function in terms of what he personally considers liberating or repressive.

Campbell, being human, is certainly not immune to the temptations of ideology: in this essay I pointed out a section of Campbell's HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES wherein the author's ideology does influence what he deems the "best" explanation for the ritual of the Paschal candle. Nevertheless, I also noted that HERO was written in 1949, while Campbell's more latitudinarian concept of the four functions first appears in 1964, so I for one have no difficulty in seeing the later insight as the flowering of Campbell's more mature thought.

It may be correctly pointed out that Berlatsky is only one comics-critic. But I could cite any number of other critics I've disputed on this blog, most of whom have also been guilty of similar "reasonable" reductionism, ranging from Gary Groth and Bart Beaty to the simpletons of Sequart.  Whatever their individual differences, in general all display the desire not to regard the productions of fantasy as significant in themselves, but only as signifiers of "reality" that can be viewed as either ideologically pure or ideologically suspect.

Campbell, though not a literary critic, supplies a corrective to the overemphasis on reasonableness and ideological correctness. In a future essay I will also draw comparisons between Campbell's heuristic system and the forms of transcendence that are not reasonable; that can mount to the heavens or descend into the darkness of Hades-- and in either form, are covalent with what I have termed the combinatory-sublime.

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