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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...

Thursday, April 19, 2018


In short, ODKIN SON OF ODKIN is an assortment of odds and ends, lacking the relative unity of KING OF THE WORLD. But certainly many of those conceptual "bricks" possess considerable mythic power by themselves, even if they aren't assembled into a satisfying structure. In contrast to the works I've labeled inconsummate, the symbolic value of the building-blocks has not been distorted. The value merely "lies in state," like one of Atlan's bodies, and fails to come alive.-- NEAR MYTHS: ODKIN, SON OF ODKIN.

This 2016 essay is the only one in which I adapted Levi-Strauss's concept of bricolage to literature. I'm sure other critics have ventured the comparison, though I also tried to tie it to the Aristotelian concept of the "unity of action," which in two essays, here and here, provides my "line between fair and good." In the second essay I compared different examples of Jack Kirby's work, just as in ODKIN I had opposed two examples of Wally Wood's work. It occurred to me, though, that two of my essays on Al Capp's LI'L ABNER might better illustrate both bricolage and unity of action, not least because the two story-cycles-- ["D. Yokum's Visit"] and ["General Bullmoose's Debuts"]-- were produced right on top of one another, at a time when the artist's powers of expression were undiminished (in contrast, say, to Wood's debilitating condition at the time he completed ODKIN).

"Visit," starting in late December 1952 and lasting through March of the next year, is shorter than "Debuts," lasting from March to August 1953. Brevity sounds like it might be conducive to Aristotle's unity of action, since the philosopher argued that the most unified works should focus on one primary action, though not without the potential for assorted subplots. (For instance, the primary action of THE ILIAD is "the wrath of Achilles," though there's room for quite a few subplots about Paris and Helen, Hector and his family, et al.) However, in modern fiction brevity does not necessarily confer unity.

In the second part of THE LINE BETWEEN FAIR AND GOOD, I mentioned that the superior works were those that seemed to articulate a sort of "theme statement," though I was careful to distinguish between themes associated with discursive thinking, or "the overthought," from those associated with symbolic discourse, or "the underthought." I also specified that these themes could reinforce one another, though they did not necessarily have to do so. In the case of both Capp story-cycles, Capp succeeded in having them reinforce each other for the most part, though I consider the overthought and underthought weaker in "Debuts" as opposed to "Visits." Thus, since Capp's powers of expression had to be roughly equal when he produced the two sequences, I had to decide what if any factors led him to de-emphasize what I've started calling the "vertical meaning" of "Debuts." And back in RETHINKING THE OVERTHOUGHT, I identified the somewhat competitive partner of vertical meaning, "lateral meaning:"

The literal meaning is, amusingly enough, also the "lateral meaning;" one arrives at it by following the progression of events and expressed feelings from point A to point Z, and that is "what happened"...Most readers quite logically are concerned with lateral meaning, which takes in both "the function of sensation" and "the function of feeling"-- and in truth, the abstractions of both overthoughts and underthoughts are only possible when constructed on the foundation of concrete experience. Thus, I personally can still enjoy many narratives that don't have much in the way of abstract meaning, as long as they excel in terms of sensation, feeling, or some combination thereof. 

Thus it seems to me that Capp's approach to ABNER, from its genesis in 1934 to its conclusion in 1977, was one which, like most comic strips, privileged lateral over vertical meaning, as I mentioned in 2015's STRIP NO-SHOW:

What the elitists missed, however, was that comic strips, even at their greatest levels of excellence, were always hampered by the factors of serial progression. Certainly Sunday pages like NEMO and PRINCE VALIANT could get away with a somewhat "painterly" approach to comics-narrative, but they were the exceptions. Most story-strips, whether they appeared only on weekdays, on Sundays, or in a combined form, chose to pursue a straightforward linear narrative-- again, one designed to seduce the readers into regularly partaking of the newspaper that carried the comic. Caniff may have been the paradigmatic figure here, in part because one can see him channeling the "invisible style" of most Hollywood films of his time.... This linear narrative, in essence, followed the same association I've outlined for the sensation and feeling functions. The visual part of a given strip communicates what kinds of sensations that the characters are experiencing, and the verbal part gives it feeling-context: whether the reader is supposed to be happy or sad when a given character is killed.
While there's no inevitable conflict between vertical and linear meaning, any more than there is between overthought and underthought, such conflict can take place when the artist becomes a little too "workmanlike" in terms of how he assembles the "bricks" of his storylines. This is particularly true of Capp, who shows a particular fondness for piling one story-trope atop another, with no detectable concern for Aristotelian unities.

In the upcoming Part 2, I'll justify the connection of the two types of meaning with my title regarding the nature of strong and weak propositions.

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