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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...

Saturday, June 21, 2014


In this essay I began my current set of essays on the interlinked topics of sublimity and transcendence in reaction to the outlook dominant among comic-book critics, and possibly academics generally as well:

Whatever their individual differences, in general all [comic critics] 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.

In my follow-up essay I cited a discussion-thread on HOODED UTILITARIAN, whose link I provided there. Here is a prime example of a critic deciding to reduce a fantastic text to realistic signifiers:

Any status quo is heterogeneous. When you’re fighting to keep things the same, you’re fighting to keep things the same. I guess it would depend on the particular narrative at hand, but (for example) in Crisis on Infinite Earths, the destruction of the universe is embodied in the anti-monitor, who’s basically a super-villain; opposite of all that is good (monitor, anti-monitor, whatever.) So fighting to save the universe is figured basically as just another especially big battle against bad guys who are trying to change who’s in charge. They’re evil rebels, a la Shakespeare (who also always supported the status quo.)
I think you’d have to talk about a particular green lantern story, but this is how a lot of destroying the universe stories work. It’s just a big, impressive way of saying “you’re going to destroy the status quo!”

Since I recognize that this was not a formal analysis of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, I won't repeat the points I made in the thread to refute Berlatsky. However, since I have myself stated that it's possible to produce narratives whose appeal is largely on the "horizontal plane," this means that there are some narratives where this sort of reasonable "status quo" argument can be correctly applied. Further, since so many sociological readings of this type boil down to "Superman= Super-Imperialist," I may as well choose three examples of texts that involve the sort of race/class struggles so beloved by critics of the Sociological School.

For my horizontal example, I choose Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND. I recently finished this work for the first time, and it's my verdict that although it's rife with all manner of agreeable "sympathetic affects" (the blissful images of the Southern aristocracy) and disagreeable "antipathetic affects" (those uppity Carpetbaggers and white trash), I find no trace of any affects that reach into the realms of the sublime, either going "up" or "down." Religion appears in the novel but only as a social form; a character like Scarlett's mother may incarnate a sort of mundane Madonna-figure, but she's only significant to the novel as a whole as an incarnation of the blessed South. There can be little question that this is a novel set up to defend a status quo, albeit one that has been overthrown. Mitchell's justification for slavery is based on the viewpoint character's conviction that all black people are essentially childlike, except when bad whites put ideas of freedom in their heads, thus causing the blacks to run amuck. Interestingly, Mitchell makes a brief reference to the Haitian slave revolt of the late 1700s, but no one in the novel ever inquires as to the reasons for this revolt.

However, not all works involving slavery can be reduced to "is it ideologically pure or ideologically suspect." Case in point: in 1855, less than ten years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Herman Melville wrote BENITO CERENO. This fictional tale was based on a real 1805 incident wherein a group of slaves revolted aboard a Spanish ship and took it over, only to be later defeated by American forces. Melville does not argue for or against slavery in this novella. Rather, his purpose is to show how the Spanish captain, the "Benito Cereno" of the title, is traumatized by the suspense of being captured by the black slaves. The viewpoint character is an American, Captain Delano, who comes aboard the ship after the slaves have taken it over. However, Delano is so dense that he never guesses until the end that the slaves are forcing the Spaniards to pretend that everything is normal. The Spanish captain Benito Cereno is particularly terrorized by the slaves' demonic-seeming leader "Babo," who at one point holds a razor to Cereno's throat in full view of Delano, on the pretext of giving Cereno a shave. In time Delano tumbles to the deception and naval forces re-take the slave ship. Babo is sentenced to death but never once shows any concern for what the white people may do to him. The last conversation between Delano and Cereno makes clear that Cereno, despite having escaped his captors without injury, is haunted by the power of the rebellious slave. Cereno even goes to his own grave a mere three months after Babo's execution, signifying the typical fate of a man enthralled by a demonic presence.

To call this story either a defense of slavery or a refutation of it would be foolish in the extreme. Melville is concerned with portraying Cereno as a man haunted by ill fortune, in terms similar to the fate of the author's more famous Captain Ahab. Babo is at no time a literal demon, but he and his fellow slaves are spectres of demonic retribution, and as such, are grotesques who produce the effect of downward transcendence as surely as more obviously monstrous figures like Dracula and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Is it possible to realize the obverse, to transform the ugly realities of American slavery into something that suggests "upward transcendence," the experience of a sublime affect that expands consciousness?  I find a serviceable example in the novel Leslie Fiedler asserts to have been the first novel to create fully realized black characters: Harriet Beecher Stowe's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.
Like GONE WITH THE WIND and BENITO CERENO, CABIN is resolutely naturalistic in its phenomenality. However, whereas in GONE WITH THE WIND religious symbols are used merely to buttress Mitchell's beatific vision of Southern society, Stowe uses religious discourse to condemn the abomination of slavery. As Fiedler and others have observed, though, this does not signify that the Connecticut-born authoress believed that African traditions were on a par with the Christianity of her world. Fiedler asserts that she envisioned a future in which black people were both freed from slavery and sent back to Africa, where their Christianity would spread throughout the "Dark Continent." Modern readers might find this only slightly more palatable than Margaret Mitchell's political views. Still, the fact remains that Stowe used her religious ideals to oppose the secular defenses of the slave institution.

Yet UNCLE TOM'S CABIN at base is not a political novel. Stowe's commentary attests that the novel began with a vision of a black man being beaten to death by a white man: later, the novel itself would feature the titular character beaten by two black slaves under the aegis of the Yankee slaver Simon Legree. CABIN recapitulates many motifs common to the Christianity of Stowe's time-- not least that of the mother wailing for her children, a motif that had strong emotional appeal for an author who, like Stowe, had borne children. But the most important one is that of the imitatio dei enacted by Uncle Tom when he gives up his life to shield two slaves who escape Legree. Whatever emotions the scene may inculcate in modern readers, clearly the intent at the time was to invest Tom's sacrifice with the gravity of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Thus the effect of seeing Tom forgive his murderers before he dies is an expansive one, one that transforms Tom's sufferings into a scenario of expansive, positive emotion-- that is, in Huxley's terms, "upward transcendence."
Again, this is not to suggest that there are no affects in the latter two novels that approximate the "horizontal transcendence" affects that dominate the Mitchell novel. But BENITO CERENO and UNCLE TOM'S CABIN are more concerned with bringing forth extreme states of sympathetic or antipathetic affects-- and for that reason, they cannot, any more than a fantastic farrago of apocalyptic superheroes, be reduced to simplistic sociological factors.

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