Featured Post


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, September 16, 2015


In Part 1 I said:

There's a key irony here. I'm fully aware that one of the very things I like about the "combat myth" is that it doesn't resemble the way real life arranges its various conflicts-- say, with courts and governments and insurance companies. That's one of my main reasons for liking it, whether one cares to believe that's "negative compensation" or not. In contrast, the ideologues want fictional narrative to conform perfectly not to reality as it is lived, but to one that clearly marks out who are the good people and the bad people-- yet not in any escapist terms, but in terms that are supposedly responsive to "reality."

I also said that I would talk about the personal associations of the combat myth for me. In my high school years I didn't know Alfred Adler from a hole in the ground. Still, through whatever processes formed my cultural values, I did believe in the "courage" by which Adler differentiates between positive and negative compensation. Like every kid ever born, I learned early on that "Life Was Not Fair" from an assortment of people, both peers and social superiors. My pedagogical upbringing might best be described as a white suburban kid's version of "Fight the Power."

Was I actually courageous or just hard-headed? I can't judge, but I wouldn't cede any power of judgment to anyone else I knew in those days, either. Early on it became evident to me that the world was full of confused individuals who were all out for themselves, regardless of the ideals they might expouse. It should go without saying that I never bought into the idea that one could simply talk out differences, though I wasn't raised in the "let's communicate" era. In other words, by the criteria of my self-analysis, the combat myth appealed to me because I believed in the fundamental inevitability of conflict.

At the same time, I absorbed some notion of the idea of "fair play" from society. Boxing will never be venerated as a wellspring of honor or honesty, but the sport articulated the ideal of a system of rules for fighting, with the result that the expression "Marquis of Queensbury" has come to signify a system of fair sport, whatever said system actually may have been in lived history. The idea that fighters should fight within weight-classes also promotes at least some notion of fair play, though I don't doubt that this system too came in for its share of real-life abuses.

Though anti-violence pundits like Dr. Wertham could only look at comic books and see unbridled sadism, I as a young reader saw a modern mythology in which honor and fairness-- usually, though not exclusively, represented by the hero-- were valued over the desire to win despite any other considerations.

Take as example a comic book of my long-vanished youth, THOR #152.

When this issue appeared in 1966, there was nothing overly special about Thor tearing up the terrain fighting another super-powerhouse, and the one with whom he's seen grappling, Ulik the Troll, had already appeared in a previous three-issue arc. The plot of #152 doesn't boil down to anything very coherent, for it belongs to a very rambling arc in which Thor and his Asgardian buddies find themselves embroiled in various conflicts, mostly brought about the thunder-god's troublemaking brother Loki.

What does keep #152 from being just another big battle-tale, though, is that Thor and Ulik are arranged to represent philosophical postures. Thor, son of Odin and scion of Asgard, is heir to a philosophy of noblesse oblige, while Ulik describes himself as "lowly-born-- with naught to lose-- and a world to gain."

As soon as Thor and Ulik meet, they go at each other, Thor using his hammer and Ulik wielding a big mace. Thor smashes the mace, and then nobly holsters his hammer to fight the troll on equal terms.

Ulik responds with such ungentlemanly tactics as banging Thor on the ears (clearly a violation of Asgard's version of Queensbury) and grabbing a hunk of sharp rock, which he proceeds to use as a makeshift weapon, mere moments after claiming that he didn't need a weapon to settle Thor's hash.

It's interesting to note that Lee's dialogue-- which seems to match well with the intentions of Kirby's dramatic art-- does not characterize Ulik as a coward. In THE DOUBLE EDGED SWORD OF VIOLENCE I noted:

If there are many Wild West sagas in which a Colt .45 or a Winchester rifle are invested with positive significance, there are also many instances in which weapons register as negative markers. Whenever a narrative wants to show a character as villainous, one of the easiest ways is to have him resort to using a weapon, often-- though not always-- when his sympathetic opponent is unarmed. When the sympathetic character is a hero, rather than a victim, he usually wins out over the armed villain by the demonstration of such a high level of hand-to-hand skill that it negates the supposed advantage of the weapon.

But though the reader of this comic is clearly supposed to admire Thor for drawing on his courage and honor to defeat the armed troll, Ulik isn't the usual cowardly weapon-user. Rather, he's a savage unable to think in any terms save immediate personal advantage.  "Honor is an empty vessel," says the troll, "and none but weaklings do sup of it!" Thor responds that "Courage be the steed-- and honor the spur" and subsequently kicks the troll's ass. I have a sneaking suspicion that Stan Lee might have cadged this metaphor from another writer, since it sounded familiar to me even in 1966-- but it's still a strong image. Fittingly, while Ulik chooses his metaphors from an appetitive activity, in that he compares honor to a vessel that should contain food and/or drink, Thor goes for a equestrian metaphor, as befitting his aristocratic status.

To repeat my observation from Part 1, I have to assume that this version of a "combat myth," and its simple but striking philosophical argument, would mean nothing to an ultraliberal critic. For such a critic, the idea that issues might be worked out through a violent conflict would be anathema, even when enacted by characters of patently fantastic nature. Perhaps Ulik, despite being the sort of fellow who would probably eat ultraliberals for breakfast, would be read as a downtrodden victim of Asgardian aristocracy. I can't imagine how ultraliberals sympathetic to Ulik's oppression would work to liberate his people from Asgard-- sit back and wait for dialectical materialism to bring about the downfall of Odin and company?

For my part, since I know as a reader that both Thor and Ulik are fictional characters, I can learn whatever lessons I choose to learn from their conflict, rather than being subjected to some form of automatic programming by the brainwashing effects of violence.  Violence in the real world is not usually "play," but in fiction it primarily aligns with such elements; largely represented by the Jungian functions of sensation and intuition.

Come to think of it, there is one form of violence that ultraliberals always enjoy, though it's one that doesn't involve direct conflict, violence as such, or even sound.

As the Zen koan doesn't say:

"What is the sound of one knee, jerking?"

No comments: