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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...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


In PART 3 of THE ONLY DEFINTION OF ART YOU'LL EVER NEED, I followed up my examination of "art as fundamental play" with this reference to Bataille:

I considered putting forth a longer definition with special reference to Bataille's "two types of economic consumption," lining up "the reality-oriented aspect of consumption, "production and acquisition" with the dynamic of work and "the desire to pointlessly but satisfyingly expend one's energies" with the dynamic of play. 

I decided not to pursue that line of thought at the time. Now I'm bringing it up again because I've been giving more thought as to the proper pluralist evaluation of the kinetic elements of sex and violence in fiction-- though this will only be developed in subsequent essays.

In the ONLY DEFINITION essay-series, I expanded on my fundamental division of all art into two realms-- that of "thematic escapism" and "thematic realism"-- with reference to Jung's assertion that all creative endeavor requires play, regardless of how much of the "principle of serious work" enters into the mix. From this standpoint the two realms took on the formulas of "play for play's sake" and "play for work's sake."

Now, contrary to some critics, defending escapist narratives is not the same as defending bad narratives. Both realist and escapist narratives can be good or bad, but when they are bad, it is not with reference to one another, but on their own respective terms.

Superior narratives of "thematic realism," a.k.a,, "play for work's sake"-- are what most people would call "good literature." Such stories almost if not always have a moral or aesthetic point to convey, one that aligns with Jung's "serious work" principle. But the best "realist art" can make its rhetorical points without losing the dimension of creative play.  Faulkner's 1932 novel LIGHT IN AUGUST and Coetzee's 1999 novel DISGRACE both take as their subjects the evils of Caucasians abusing Negroes (sorry, there's no other established word that takes in both African Americans and Black Africans).  But Faulkner's novel contains great imagination and creative fertility, while DISGRACE is, well, a disgrace in that respect.  I only have space for a very simplified comparison. Faulkner's "Southern Gothic" exposes the absolute dependence of the then-modern South on the demonization of the black underclass, but makes it part and parcel of their existence, while Coetzee presents a South African scenario whose brilliant insight never goes beyond this Wiki-statement: that its protagonist "is a white South African male in a world where such men no longer hold the power they once did."

I choose to reduce the nature of inferior "thematically realistic" narratives to the following formula: such narratives suffer from "too much work," so much so that the rhetoric overpowers the principle of creative play.

Superior narratives of "thematic escapism," a.k.a. "play for play's sake," have a more involved relationship to the principle of serious work. In these stories the principle of work does not bond with the principle of play as in the previous form. It is always the nature of thematically escapist works to provide a vacation from morals and rigor. Yet the work-principle does have a decided influence on the quality of a "play for play's sake" narrative.

What does the realistic theme of "white sins against black people" look through the lens of thematic escapism? Well, an escapist story can express roughly the same sentiments as the Faulkner and Coetzee novels cited above, but the rhetoric will generally remain superficial because the narrative is predominantly focused upon fanciful content. A well-known example in the realm of comic books would be LOIS LANE #121.  Thus in this tale veteran white journalist Lois Lane temporarily transforms herself into a black woman so that she can see how the "other color" lives. I don't doubt that this story was well-intentioned, but to say the least it lacks the *gravitas* of even a bad literary novel like DISGRACE.

I provide this example only to illustrate the point about political affiliations; it isn't fair to compare a short comic book story with two prose novels. For that reason, and to provide a validation of my criterion that one can find "good play" even in novels with bad ideas, my contrary examples are Margaret Mitchell's 1936 GONE WITH THE WIND and Thomas Dixon's THE CLANSMAN.  Some may regard this a flawed comparison, because I must admit that I have not read the Dixon novel. I only know the CLANSMAN story from the famous film BIRTH OF A NATION, which was technically an adaptation of the play Dixon wrote from his own novel. Nevertheless, from what I've read the film is generally an accurate representation of the author's ideology.

Both CLANSMAN and GONE WITH THE WIND are primarily concerned with presenting an idealized view of the American South and its pro-slavery ethic, and any story-elements that might detract from that ideal are either ignored or dismissed.  Yet the aesthetic failure of Dixon's story is not that it holds stupid political views; it is that it has nothing else to offer. Dixon reportedly despised both Harriet Beecher Stowe's views and her novel, but he seems to have learned nothing from his predecessor about how to create appealing characters that can persuade the target audience into at least a consideration of the author's rhetoric. It's a mark of D.W. Griffith's genius that Dixon's paper-thin characters become vital when they're depicted by a master of the cinematic art.

Mitchell's ideal, in contrast, is not just a superficial paean to the South: for many readers, it is the South. I've mentioned in this essay that GONE WITH THE WIND lacks the affects of the sublime, but that lack doesn't take anything from Mitchell's amazing ability to create characters who can seem well-rounded even though they may appear for no more than a paragraph or two.  Ironically, though Dixon actually experienced the Old South and Mitchell did not, Mitchell succeeds in putting across her fantasized ideal because the people inhabiting it possess the vitality needed to make it seem real.

Now, since I'm downgrading Dixon for over-dependence on his concept of "serious work," that might sound like CLANSMAN, like DISGRACE, could be guilty of the same fault: that of "too much work." On the contrary, though, CLANSMAN suffers from "too little work"; of Dixon's inability to provide the verisimilitude that could make his characters come alive, even in the service of a poorly reasoned ethic.  Mitchell doesn't consciously pattern her characters on literary archetypes, but she knows how to invoke such figures as the whore, the Madonna, the scapegrace, and the vixen with enough verisimilitude that they seem to be real people. This apparent grounding in reality provides the "decided influence" I mention above. Play is the dominant mode of both GONE WITH THE WIND and THE CLANSMAN, but only GONE WITH THE WIND puts any work into the game-- and as some may have noticed, often the best games are those on which the players exert the most effort.

Hmm, I worked in Bataille this time, but nothing on goal-affects. Maybe next time.

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