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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...

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BOOLA, BOOLA, BOULEVERSEMENT PT. 2


I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison.

The Break-Though... is also marked by the promulgation of a theory of revolution as a good in itself, and most notably perhaps, by a new concept of inwardness... Quite as influential as Diderot (or Richardson or Rousseau) in the bouleversement of the eighteenth century is the Marquis de Sade, who stands almost emblematically at the crossroads of depth psychology and revolution-- Leslie Fiedler, LOVE AND DEATH IN THE AMERICAN NOVEL, p. 32--33.

Obviously Jefferson and Fiedler are talking about two very different forms of rebellion/revolution, the first as purely political, the second as literary and cultural, though both of the latter are inextricably influenced by political developments, as per the American and French revolutions. Both authors are weighing the benefits of a revolutionary *bouleversement,* though Jefferson speaks of occasional attempts of the citizens to rebel against "encroachments," while Fiedler addresses a change in the history of cultural values, which he terms "the Break-Through"-- a change that transpired within one particular time-frame and influenced a variety of Western cultures.

Given my many admonitions against reading literature along overly politicized ideological terms-- seen prominently in a series beginning here-- it should be obvious that I'm concerned with art and literature, not with politics as such. In the OVERTHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT series, I took issue with what I called "adversarial criticism," which specialized in creatively misreading literary narratives in order to take aim at supposed political boogeymen. Nothing that I write here contradicts that philosophical stance.

However, because I am a real liberal rather than an ultraliberal, I find it necessary to situate even wrong-headed comic book elitists within the history of revolutionary concepts.  I don't believe there's any substance to Berlatsky's claim that the Superman character is a fascist or a bully, as he's stated in separate essays. In this essay I refuted Berlatsky with much the same way that I refuted Reece earlier:

I might understand your queasiness about "extra-judicial violence" if we were frequently seeing Superman descending on African villages to make the natives obey the colonial powers. But Superman's first heroic deed in ACTION #1 is to prevent an act of bullying, beating down a man who is beating his wife (can't remember if the text calls her that or not). Yet in your view Superman becomes a bully even when he stops bullying. How many real-life bullies do that-- unless, of course, it's for some ulterior motive?
I don't buy your objection to vigilantism because you're applying it only to narratives you don't like for whatever reason. Wonder Woman is just as much a vigilante as Superman; she acts with no authority save that of the goddess Aphrodite, whom I suspect would be considered extra-legal in American courts. Any number of WW stories have scenes in which WW slaps down bully-boys with the same ease that Superman does, so is she a bully? Is she therefore "not good" for the same reasons? Or does she get a pass because you agree with Marston's politics?

Readers of this blog may refer to the aforementioned thread to see if they find Berlatsky's response any more informative than I did. Still, even though I think the assertion itself is nonsense, it stems from a powerful, possibly archetypal motif:  the Reversal of Values.

Leslie Fiedler does not reference either Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx in his opening chapter of LOVE AND DEATH, though they are referenced elsewhere in the book, and I deem it axiomatic that both Freudianism and Marxism inform most if not all of Fiedler's judgments.  I've remarked elsewhere that these two "titans of tedium," as I like to style them, have enjoyed their dominion over much of Western thought because of their affective, rather than their cognitive, appeal.  Freud shocked Europe by asserting that the purity of the parent-child relationship was sullied by the brute mechanics of sexual stimulation and emotional entrainment. Marx preceded him, though, not only by "turning Hegel upside-down," as the saying goes, but more importantly, by promoting his secular revision of the archetypal concept that "the last will be first."

Of the two, Marx has been much more influential than Freud in terms of producing an overall "theory of revolution," to which many of Marx's latter-day fellow-travelers-- Adorno and Foucault, for two-- have subscribed. But there's a huge difference between the Marxist theory of revolution and that of Jefferson, much less that of how reversals work in literature.

Political comparisons first: Jefferson envisions a republic in which there will always be discontent, which will be expressed through assorted forms of rebellion, but which can be ameliorated through education and pacification of the electorate.  Marx is certainly aware that even in his imagined workers' paradise, there will continue to be conflicts within the body politic. But most later Marxists do not deal with this practical aspect of life. For them, every defense of an allegedly mistreated or marginalized subject is a step toward paradise, World Without End.

In literary studies this can become even more fatuous. Frederic Wertham remains the go-to guy for Reversing Values in the comic book medium. In his view, every hero is a bully and a fascist, irrespective as to the nature of the villains upon whom he wreaks violence.  In this Berlatsky is his earnest pupil, except insofar as he esteems Wonder Woman for promoting the politics that he Berlatsky agrees with.

In our exchange Berlatsky accuses me of wanting to promote some sort of "one truth" hermeneutic simply because I advocated giving every narrative a fair, close reading. In addition, I've consistently asserted that one of the cornerstones of my criticism is Schopenhauer's theory of will. For me the very appeal of literature is reducible to one form of "will" with "another," not a "politically correct will" with a "politically incorrect will."  Obviously this would apply to a literalist "mainstream" reading as much as to an adversarial one.

I'm also heavily invested in Bataillean transgressivity-- also produced through the influence of Freud and Marx, albeit with an artful mediation via Nietzsche. So I can only approve when Fiedler writes of his "Break-Through" that "whatever has been suspect, outcast, and denied is postulated as the source of good." But aside from some of the more hectoring practitioners of literature-- and Sade would be one of these-- most authors would not be comfortable with a single great revolution. Most authors take pleasure in being able to rebel even against rebellion, if it means telling a good story.

 Elitists, however, want only one revolution, one story-- and sadly, just one truth.


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