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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...

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Having now devoted over 50 posts to the topic of "the sublime" in one form or another, I find myself giving thought as to whether or not other comics-critics would have any takes on these matters.  I tend to doubt it, though, and the least self-aggrandizing reason I can concoct for said critics' general disinterest in the sublime comes down to their affection for a type of transcendence that I find to be of lesser interest.

Sublimity, as coiner-of-the-term Longinus pointed out, is not something that takes part in the everyday or the "agreeable"-- a term which Kant may have borrowed for his own theories of art and the sublime.  This translation of Longinus says:

A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no. Skill in invention, lucid arrangement and disposition of facts, are appreciated not by one passage, or by two, but gradually manifest themselves in the general structure of a work; but a sublime thought, if happily timed, illumines an entire subject with the vividness of a lightning-flash, and exhibits the whole power of the orator in a moment of time.

Though all of Longinus' statements on the sublime are significant, they are not all necessarily correct. I believe that all of art exists to "take [a reader/listener] out of himself," but not that every effect that does so is sublime.  In this essay I quoted and/or paraphrased a great deal of Aldous Huxley's 1953 essay "On Self-Transcendence, comparing and contrasting Huxley's concepts of "downward transcendence" and "upward transcendence" with cognate concepts in Carl Jung's system.  In the middle of these two forms of transcendence, Huxley describes "horizontal transcendence" in terms that may compare with Longinus' idea of the "that which is merely reasonable or agreeable."

In order to escape from the horrors of insulated selfhood 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. This horizontal, or nearly horizontal, self- transcendence may be into something as trivial as a hobby, or as precious as married love. It can be brought about through self-identification with any human activity, from running a business to research in nuclear physics, from composing music to collecting stamps, from campaigning for political office to educating children or studying the mating habits of birds. Horizontal self- transcendence is of the utmost importance. Without it, there would be no art, no science, no law, no philosophy, indeed no civilization.

Why does Huxley say that horizontal self-transcendence is "of the utmost importance?" I presume that it is because "self-identification with any human activity" may be deemed the bedrock of cognitive experience. It is the way every human being learns his or her individual propensities: what one likes to do, what one does not like to do, what one is good at doing, and so on. I'm enough of a Bataillean to state a slight disagreement, to the effect that there will always be the temptation to transcend the horizontal plane of the "reasonable and agreeable."  But I take the point-- assuming that I have read Huxley's point correctly-- that there is a primacy to the horizontal plane, albeit not a supremacy.

Unfortnately, 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.  Not that the practice is confined to critics, whom I'll explore a little more in Part 2.  Often it's a prime source for humor.

Harvey Kurtzman's story "Man and Superman" (WEIRD SCIENCE #6, 1951)  is a spoof not of the Man of Steel on that character's own terms-- Kurtzman would produce such a spoof two years later in MAD, with the famous "Superduperman." Rather, "Man and Superman" spoofs the comics medium's happy ignorance of basic scientific principles. Charlemagne, a thick-headed "muscle culture" nut, exposes himself to a physicist's ray, which increases his density to fantastic proportions, just as one sees in countless superhero origins.

However, the upshot of the satire is that Charlemagne ignores the scientist's warnings about how his "expenditures of energy" will cause him to "wilt away."  Not only does his mass constantly cause him to fall through walls and floors-- a consequence of greater mass that Superman never had to deal with-- he, the massive muscleman, ends up evaporating into "rapidly dispersing neutral mesons."

Of course Kurtzman's made-up science is no more probable than that of Superman. What's significant in the aesthetic sense is that Charlemagne's admittedly lunk-headed attempt to transcend the limits of normality is shot down by the author's all-knowing appeal to reason and logic.

In the next essay I'll show how this paradigm informs the reductive principles of certain critics of fantasy-literature, both within and without the medium of comic books.

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