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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...

Saturday, June 21, 2014

VERTICAL VIRTUES

In this essay I said: "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..."  However,Campbell will have to wait, as I delve a little more into the heuristics of Aldous Huxley, the man who conceptualized the concepts of vertical and horizontal forms of transcendence.

I noted in this essay that Huxley's essay on self-transcendence included barely any examples of "upward transcendence," but he may have felt it unnecessary to do so given his previous book, 1945's THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY. This book, which I have not read, represents itself as "an attempt to present this Highest Common Factor of all theologies by assembling passages from the writings of those saints and prophets who have approached a direct spiritual knowledge of the Divine."

One may fairly speculate that this book's pluralistic vision of mankind's ongoing attempts to seek for a mystical "ground of being" parallels the dynamics of the 1953 "self-transcendence" essay, which appeared as an epilog to Huxley's non-fiction work THE DEVILS OF LOUDON. Throughout the essay Huxley scorns the tendency of human beings to lose themselves within the mazes of the countervailing "downward transcendence." However, he's fair-minded enough to admit that some of the techniques used to produce this sense of transcendence-- what Mircea Eliade has called "techniques of ecstasy"-- can be used in a disciplined fashion, as when Tantric priests utilize "elementary sexuality" as part of their sacred rites, so as to "transform the downward self-transcendence of elementary sexuality into an upward self-transcendence."

What's puzzling about the 1953 essay is that even though Huxley had been publishing fictional works since 1921, he does not apply his concept of transcendence to any aspect of art, which has, as much as religion, a reputation for allowing its audiences to escape "the tormenting consciousness of being merely themselves." That is not to say that he never addressed this possibility elsewhere in his voluminous writings. However, since Huxley was not a systematic literary critic, I find it probable that he never explored this aspect of "transcendence."

In my essay UP THE DOWN TRANSCENDENCE  I drew a brief comparison between Huxley's two forms of vertical transcendence and two categories proposed by SF-critic Istvan Csicsery-Ronay.
Csicsery-Ronay asserted that "sublimity" was produced by an "expansion of apprehension"-- an argument very much in line with philosophers of sublimity like Burke and Kant-- and added that his parallel category, "the grotesque" was produced by "a projection of fascinated repulsion/attraction." I reject Csiscery-Ronay's separation of these two affects, and instead regard them as "expansive" and "contractive" forms of the same affect: the affect of of the sublime. Further, these forms differ with respect to whether the art-work producing the affect is more dominated by "sympathetic affects" or "antipathetic affects." Sympathetic affects produce feelings of expansion and harmony, while antipathetic affects produce feelings of contraction and separation. (I first posted my conception of these affects on this blog here, though I formulated them long before I ever began this blog, in dissatisfaction with Aristotle's inadequate categories of "pity and terror.")

Here I should specify that I am not limiting either type of affects to works that produce the sublime. Every conceivable narrative is defined by these affects, and the reader generally orients himself within a text according what the focal characters "like" or "don't like." This is not to say that the reader is confined to the feelings of the viewpoint character alone, a matter I've covered in some detail here. But his reactions, so far as he is engaged by at least one character in the text, will be patterned by what the story's significant characters like or dislike. I concluded the above essay by adapting Huxley's schema to one suggested by Octavio Paz:

Horizontal transcendence= Paz's "the body"
Upward transcendence= "non-body" in the sense of Ronay's "expansion of apprehension"
Downward transcendence= "non-body" in the sense that "the object disturbs the sense of rational, natural categorization"

Thus the domain of horizontal transcendence is one where the reader experiences things as one experiences one's own body in a state of relative stability. Whether one encounters things one likes or does not like, those things have no special power to inspire either the expansion or the contraction of apprehension. In this state, one can self-identify with any human activity-- collecting stamps or studying birds, to cite two of Huxley's examples-- or, equally, one can choose not to find these things of interest. But one's sympathy or antipathy to the activity of collecting stamps remains on a stable, horizontal plane; the activity cannot act as (to use Campbell's felicitous phrase) as a "supernormal sign stimulus" that propels one into either a radical expansion or a contraction of one's consciousness.

In my next essay I'll use this formulations as a springboard to discuss the problems I have detected in the overly "horizontal" critical attempt to run roughshod over narratives that possess a more vertical appeal.


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