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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...

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

DISCOURSES WITH LIVING SYMBOLS

In DISCOURSES WITH DEAD MEN, I said:

So any artistic narrative always has this dual potential: it can be produced for a wide audience, or for the author alone. Psychic mediums notwithstanding, artistic narrative-- which term here subsumes also music and the visual arts-- is almost the only way that artists can keep "talking" with people long after the artists themselves are dead. To some extent non-fictional narrative shares some of the power of the arts, but artistic narrative seems to hold much more power to remain relevant to audiences born long after the narrative was originated.

I also mentioned in the same essay that I began addressing the subject of "discourses" recently as a way of sussing out the function of the mythopoeic potentiality, whose content is sometimes hard to separate from that of the other three.

Yet, once one is able to isolate a work's symbolic discourse, it often provides much more of a meaningful connection to the author's work than any of the others. One may not care for an author's ability to transmit sensory experiences, personalities, or intellectual ideas, or if one grants that the author has some ability, one still may not like the world-picture he transmits. But there's something ineluctably persuasive about the symbolic process. One can reject whatever intellectual ideas may be attached to it, and yet still admire the author's ability to converse in the language of symbols.

I'll take as example C.S. Lewis, whose non-fiction I've frequently discussed on this blog. While I find Lewis's ruminations on literature stimulating, his remarks on religion have often struck me as narrow-minded and self-serving, particularly in MERE CHRISTIANITY. In this book, Lewis responded to questions about the Christian religion, originally propounded via radio. Here's the one I disliked the most.

“Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the 'Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?’ But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather—surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.”

Intellectually, this is nonsense. Lewis is trying to distance religion from its involvement in the witch-hunts of the past by claiming that modern religionists are too educated to believe in such nonsense. Yet he can't completely condemn the fanatics of yesteryear, stating that if he could believe in people who made deals with the devil, he would regard them as "filthy quislings" deserving of death. His position also suggests that at the time he wrote this, whatever "wiccan" practices existed in England had gone so far underground that an educated man like Lewis could believe that no such persons existed in modern times. Lewis passed in 1963, so it's possible he never encountered the idea of modern witches worshiping archaic deities that were in no way affiliated with Satan. Even if Lewis had known of such cults, the writer would probably have given them no more respect than outright Satanists.

Yet, within his creative work, Lewis could entertain syncretic visions of religion. Narnia, despite being patterned on Christian belief, reproduces many of the images and icons of Greek paganism, and in THE LAST BATTLE, there is a dim suggestion that Aslan is not exclusively a "Christian" deity, but will give sanctuary even to righteous men who do not worship him.

The irony of my title is that, while I know that symbols are not alive apart from the role they play in the language of living persons, they can take on a "life" of their own, Indeed, the symbolic formulations of an author may seem much more "convivial" to a reader than the characters or the plot that serve as vehicles for symbolic events-- sacrificial dramas, world-saving conflicts, etc. Nor is there any symbolic formulation that is absolute. Lewis's Aslan is just one of thousands of literary sacrificial dramas, and one may name others that share none of Lewis's particular themes, but which still possess the same "unity of action" I've identified with strong symbolic discourse in this essay.  The 1971 film THE OMEGA MAN is concerned with many intellectual subjects foreign to Lewis, not least being an American preoccupation with racial matters. However, it is an evocation of the sacrificial pattern no less valuable than that of NARNIA. I quite preferred the film to its prose source material. Yet even though I found Matheson's I AM LEGEND less formidable in its mythic "unity of action," there would have been no OMEGA MAN had the novel not suggested the theme to the film's scriptwriters.

Despite my usage of the established term "unity of action," the unity involved in plurisignative communication is far more about unifying a plurality of affects, both sympathetic and antipathetic. For myths of sacrificial figures, it's about transcending the death that we know all mortal entities must experience. Aslan literally transcends death, while Robert Neville's transubstantiation is more figurative, but symbolic constructs may be said to enjoy both literal and figurative transcendence, if only because, having never lived, they can never really die.




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