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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, December 14, 2016

JUDGING DREAD PART 2

That the experience of horror is first physiological, and only then maybe numinous, is revealed by all its hybrid and mutant linguistic forms.-- James Twitchell, DREADFUL PLEASURES, p. 11.
...though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience.-- Kant, CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON.
By this early statement in DREADFUL PLEASURES, Twitchell makes clear his Freudian, and counter-Kantian, position: the "experience of horror" arises principally from physiological factors:

...the shiver that we associate with horror is the result of the constricton of the skin that firms up the subcutaneous hair follicles... From this comes the most appropriate trope of horror: creeping flesh, or "the creeps."-- PLEASURES, p. 10.

Kant's concept of "a priori"influences upon human experience doesn't come up in the course of the book, but Twitchell does find time for a few disparaging words on Jung, making clear that he would probably also dismiss the Swiss psychologist's concept of "superordinate ideas" as well, much less that of the collective unconscious.

In defense of his primarily physiological definition of horror, Twitchell follows an interesting, if ultimately incorrect, line of thought. Whereas, as I showed here, Ann Radcliffe promoted the sublime superiority of terror over horror due to the former's greater ability to "expand the soul," Twitchell rethinks both terror and horror along doctrinaire Freudian lines, and valorizes horror precisely because it emphasizes "body" over "non-body." In contradistinction, while Radcliffe wanted to minimize the significance of horror because it was too explicit, Twitchell minimizes his version of terror because he deems it rooted only in transitory phenomena:

...terror will pass... but horror will never disappear, no matter how rational we become about it"-- p. 16.

Shortly after this statement, Twitchell makes a statement that almost sounds Jungian:

;;;the eriology of horror is always in dreams, while the basis of terror is in actuality."-- p. 19.
 However, the "dreams" Twitchell has in mind are what might termed the Freudian "collective unconscious," because they are a concatenation of images and symbols rooted purely in physiological factors. Twitchell's figures of horror are primarily those literary figures that have stood the test of time-- Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Mister Hyde--because he believes that they all owe their long-lived nature to being in tune with Freudian complexes. In contrast, figures of "terror" are not so much those that are "actual" in the sense of a naturalistic phenomenality, but in the sense of being overly dependent on transitory "fads" and obsessions of a particular time-frame. Thus he finds most of the sci-fi terrors of the 1950s to be beneath his scholarly notice, because they're merely rooted in transitory fears of The Bomb or Communist invasion. (He does devote some space to 1956's FORBIDDEN PLANET, surely because it upholds his Freudian paradigm.)

As I noted in Part 1, Twitchell is aware of Rudolf Otto's use of the term "dread," but he's not interested in the "numinosity" of Otto or of C.S. Lewis, only in the Freudian concept of "the uncanny." Freud's "uncanny" is no less subsumed by physiological factors than anything else: it's just that these factors have "gone underground," becoming what Twitchell calls "projections of sublimated desire." This is the reason that Dracula and his kindred outlast terror-figures like "big bug films" and "The Leech Woman," because the latter represent transitory, overt fears, rather than those that have (so to speak) become "sublime" by virtue of being "sublimated."

Though Twitchell's book stimulated new trains of thought for me when I read it in the 1990s, it was rather painful to read the early chapters this time. For one thing, it's easy to refute his idea that "the Freudian collective unconscious" (as I'm calling it) was responsible only for the great figures of Dracula et al. Plainly one can also find numerous Freudian tropes in any number of the 1950s SF-flicks that Twitchell sneers at, such as THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES. I'm not saying that BEAST is an exemplary film by my own lights. But if one is going to claim that "sublimation of desire" is the key to the excellence of Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN or Stoker's DRACULA, then that criterion ought to apply to every work that fits that formula, and not just to those works that have already acquired some cachet in literary circles.

Further, because Twitchell is something of a literary snob, he fills the pages of DREADFUL PLEASURES with numerous pontifications on the history of horror in legitimate art and literature, while showing considerable ambivalence on the status of pop-fiction horrors. Sometimes it sounds as if the "slasher-killers" of the 1980s are mere figures of terror, and other times it sounds like they may participate in the same Freudian dreamscape as any other "Mr. Hyde"-like figure. I think that Twitchell, like many academics who seek to deal with popular art as if it was as simple as its critics aver, falls victim to the same tyranny of "the literary" that I criticized in Todorov:

I suspect Todorov's emphasis on horror-story authors stems from literary elitism. In 1970, names like Poe and Hoffman were still accepted in the Land of the Literary Canon, but Wells and Verne had barely established a foothold in academia, much less modern authors of SF (including Lem himself), or any authors of fantasy except for perhaps Carroll. By the mid-to-late 70s this would change, but clearly Todorov's theory is geared to highbrow tastes only. Arguably the horror genre is privileged by Todorov not because it possesses the best or more fulfilling examples of "the fantastic," but because artists known for their more naturalistic works, such as Balzac and Dostoyevsky (also briefly mentioned in TF), dabbled in it.

It's a mark of Twitchell's literary elitism, that he chooses to focus on just one form of the metaphenomenal and builds his entire theory around that aspect, rather than seeking to see that form (in this case, horror) in a continuum with its kindred. This approach may be designed as a sort of "defense mechanism"-- in Freudianism, a "disavowal"-- to convince other academicians that the speaker does not plan to overthrow the standard categories of literary excellence. It's a shame that Twitchell's schema doesn't stand serious scrutiny, but at least it does provide me with some interesting insights into my own more pluralistic conception of the narrative arts-- as I'll discuss in Part 3.

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