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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Saturday, July 27, 2019

CHANGING PARTNERS IN THE MONSTER-DEMIHERO DANCE

In my recent examination of the 1950s "Grave Rehearsal," I brought forth once more my narratological concern with the "dance" between monsters and demiheroes, particularly in horror stories.

In that critique, I wrote:

“Rehearsal” also interests me in being a tale where it takes a little work to figure out who is the narrative’s centric presence. The dominant pattern in horror-stories is to place the emphasis upon the narrative’s most monstrous figure, while any lesser heroes—or demiheroes, to use my preferred term for victim-types—are subordinate presences. Thus Dracula is usually the star of any story he appears in, while Jonathan Harker, not so much. There are famous characters whom I would regard more as demiheroes than as monsters, such as Victor Frankenstein. But “Grave Rehearsal,” while nowhere near as famous as these luminaries, does maintain an interesting narrative tension between the story’s monster, the lovely Madam Satin, and its foolhardy worm-who-turns, B.S. Fitts.

In reading the story, I could see ways in which "Madame Satin" might have been presented as the most focal character in the story. Nevertheless, even though the good madame succeeds in killing her victim B.S. Fitts, he, "the demihero," proves much more potent in a narrative sense than "the monster." However, I want to specify that Fitts' narrative dominance doesn't come about simply because he reverses the normal course of monster-victim stories and destroys his murderer.

Many horror-narratives follow the simple pattern of "monster kills victim," often choosing to make the victim deserving of his fate. I mentioned an example of one such destruction in the essay DIAL D FOR DEMIHERO PART 1: that of the 1963 Steve Ditko "The Gentle Old Man." In this short story, a grasping landlord plans to steal from his boarder, but the apparently harmless old fellow turns the tables. Though the landlord is the viewpoint character, obviously the old man, the story's "monster," is the focal presence.



However, in some cases the "monster" doesn't take a definitive form, and usually this means that the demihero's status as the victim of destruction assumes the focal position. I've already discussed in this essay  Ray Bradbury's short story "The Last Night of the World," asserting that the tale's two unnamed viewpoint characters assume the role of focal presences because of the "dignity" with which they meet their end. A similar story (in terms of narrative drive) is another Steve Ditko story, 1962's "The Speed Demon:"



The nasty demihero of the story, Speedy Simms, endangers people with his reckless driving, so of course he must meet a terrible fate. But no particular agent of Providence interacts with Speedy to put him eternally circling the rings of Saturn. Therefore the effect is as if Speedy has created, through his actions, his own private hell, and so he assumes the focal position.



Another undesirable demihero appears in "Den of Horror," from WEIRD TERROR #3 (1953). Nasty rich guy Robert Baker gets warned about the evils of his ancestors by a strange old woman whose identity is never explained. He repeats one of the deeds of a cursed ancestor, and a couple of unidentified phantoms show up to mete our punishment.



Again, as with "Grave Rehearsal," one can see ways in which the torture-happy ghosts might have been the stars of the show. But, like the old woman who warns Baker, they seem vague at best. Why are there two of them?  Two skeletons are seen chained to the wall in Baker's dream-that-isn't-just-a-dream. but the old woman only speaks of one victim cursing Baker's ancestor. It seems obvious that here too, the storyteller was more concerned with Baker setting himself up for a fall than with the agents of that demise.



There are also a number of stories in which one or more demiheroes take over for the monster. In "Partners in Blood" (JOURNEY INTO FEAR #6, 1952), two people with "victim" written all over them-- a psychic investigator named Professor Martin and his niece Rose-- move into an old German castle associated with vampires. They allow a stranded woman, Baroness Von Erich, to take shelter with them, but she turns out to be a vampire who was once exiled from her own castle and now seems very interested in vamping Rose. In the tale's hurry-up-and-finish conclusion, Martin manages to kill the Baroness, but the vampiress has already passed her unholy nature to Rose. Rose kills her uncle, and is all set to take over for the late Baroness when an over-enthusiastic servant picks up Rose and promptly causes both of them to fall to their deaths. (Apparently in the world of "Partners," vampires can be as easily killed by broken necks as by wooden stakes.) Nevertheless, even though the Baroness perishes-- as monsters sometimes do, even in horror stories-- she's still the focal presence, and would have remained so even if Martin and his niece had escaped hale and hearty.



Finally, here's an example of a "fake-out demihero" from a considerably later period, the Wally Wood story "Bridal Night" (GHOST MANOR #8, 1972). The story starts with a sexy young American girl, Helena Ayres, who shows up in a backwards German town. The moment she gets there, she's informed that a local aristocrat, Count Wolfgang Von Roemer, plans to force her to marry him, as the Count has done with many, many local women before Helena.




For the length of the story, it sounds as if innocent Helena is going to be forcibly wed to a serial murderer, albeit one who seems rather retiring, in that he only marries and kills one woman every year. Von Roemer shows no explicit sign of having supernatural powers, though his servant Otto is unusually strong. Up to the last page, it appears that helpless Helena is going to experience a fatal "bridal night" at the hands of a human monster-- only to reveal that she is actually an inhuman monster. She's apparently one of the vampires mentioned only in the opening caption, though she kills Von Roemer not with a bite to the neck but with a parody of the wedding-kiss. We never know why Helena put herself in the murderer's path, though it seems evident that she could have escaped if she so desired. Thus this apparent demihero becomes a "stealth monster," though probably anyone who's read a fair number of such stories would have guessed that there was more to her than met the eye.





MYTHCOMICS: "EXTEND THE HAND..." (GOODY GOOD COMICS #1, 2000)



Prefatory note: the full title of the story under discussion is "Extend the Hand of Love to All Who Can Use It," and it's the longest story in the stand-alone issue of GOODY GOOD COMICS. The cover illustration-- which is the only free image I found on the Net-- has nothing to do with "Extend," though the image of a robot munching on a meaty rib fits the ironic nature of not only this story, but the whole oeuvre of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez.

In fact, I've recently thought that the best way to sum up the worlds of the Hernandez Brothers is that of "Betty and Veronica trapped in the nauseous world of Sartre's Roquentin." I've expressed my admiration for the best of the Hernandez's work, but much of their appeal grows out of their mastery of the kinetic and dramatic potentialities. Neither artist is particularly good at the more abstract potentialities: both seem to have no deeper understanding of didactic concepts than warmed-over Marxism, and their ability to evoke mythopoeic ideas is often short-circuited by their over-reliance on pseudo-literary absurdism. I pointed this tendency out in my review of Jaime Hernandez's TI-GIRLS project:

When I read the original serial in LOVE AND ROCKETS: NEW STORIES 1-2, the story seemed random and unfocused.  For the reprint volume Jaime added 30 new pages which went a long way to providing closure to the story, though there are still plenty of surrealistic moments where strange things happen and the only response is, "who can figure comics?" For instance, Santa Claus appears in the story briefly, to little purpose except so that Jaime could indulge in a little whimsy not connected to the usual fantasy/SF tropes of superhero comics.

Like Jaime, Gilbert Hernandez has often dipped his toe into SF-fantasy of the absurdist kind. Usually, though, his efforts (and Jaime's) lead to more "random and unfocused" fantasies, as with a Gilbert story in NEW COMICS #1, where two obscure Martin-and-Lewis clones get shunted to an alien planet and have a lot of silly adventures.



"Extend," though no less absurdist than other Gilbert works, is one of the artist's tightest stories in a mythopoeic vein. The story's protagonist Roy has appeared in assorted stories, where he appears to be an ordinary fat Earthman with a Beatles haircut. I've read some of the other Roy stories and I was not especially impressed.




"Extend," however, is a pretty strong satire of space opera, particularly in terms of Gilbert showing off his penchant for gory effects that don't appear in the more mainstream SF offerings. With no explanation, Roy is first seen wandering around an alien world. He's apparently been there for some time, for he pals around with a diminutive alien friend whom Roy calls (for unknown reasons) by the name "Homo." He's also not thrown for a loss when he spies a group of three uniformed women, who are seen making enormous leaps over the countryside, which might be a reference to Burroughs' jumping-jack hero John Carter, or to Buck Rogers and his anti-gravity belt, or both. Roy refers to the women as "the Leapin' Elitists," but they don't stop to converse with him.

When Roy goes hunting for food, he accidentally spooks the mount of a young local ruler, whom I will denote as "the Good Boy King." The young "despot" (as Roy calls him) gets his knee wounded, and in seconds, the wound expands to a huge boil. At the king's insistence, Roy takes up a sword and slices the boil. However, with the usual lack of explanation, a fully formed clone of the Good Boy King springs from the bloody wound, swipes the sword and kills his double, thus establishing himself as "the Bad Boy King."

Gilbert's intention is clearly to satirize the adventurous fantasies of normative space opera. Roy passively allows the Bad Boy King to take him prisoner and bring him back to the Good Boy King's city, where the villain has no problems posing as the real ruler. When Roy is contacted by two of his friends from the Leapin' Elitists-- who are monitoring the situation but don't actually intend to rectify it-- he does at least tell them about the clone. The two females, rather than helping him, conduct Roy into a dark tunnel where he sees visions of his lost Earth-life, whereon he moans about being a coward:"That's why I couldn't live in my own skin." Then he exits the tunnel into an arena, and is gorily killed when the Bad Boy King sics a monster onto Roy.

However, after Roy has died, the Leapin' Elitist girls suddenly feel free to resurrect him, even though one of them thinks it may be a contradiction of their non-interference policy. Whatever the girls do to Roy not only reconstitutes his own body, but also releases a clone of Roy-- again born from a swelling in the knee. Just as the Bad Boy King was the opposite of the original, Roy's copy is a courageous fellow who says things like, "The air of freedom stirs me as I re-enter the world, ready to do God's work." The Roy-clone ends up by perishing as he kills the king-clone, and Roy awakens, none the wiser for all the drama happening around him. He ends up re-uniting with Homo and the two of them ride off on the back of an alien beast.

In contrast to some of Gilbert's other attempts at satire, this spoof of space opera works in part because he adroitly mimicks the genre's penchant for over-ripe phrases, as seen in the story's title. The chimerical idea of having clones erupt from people's knees bears a nodding resemblance to the archaic story of Dionysus's unusual birth. In this tale, the God of Ecstasy has yet to be born from his mortal mother Semele, but his father Zeus accidentally incinerates Semele, and the Father of Gods can only save Dionysus by sewing the fetus into Zeus's own thigh. Gilbert's use of "knee-wounds" to spawn clones is first and foremost a way of using gore to besmirch the squeaky-clean facade of the space opera. But it's also a visual motif of unnatural birth, which provides the most compelling image of the author's ironic domain, wherein all the rules of "serious" tales have been turned topsy turvy.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

TREK HARD

I've finished THE IMPOSSIBLE HAS HAPPENED, Lance Parkin's history of "the life and work of Gene Roddenberry."

In terms of propounding a thorough overview of the STAR TREK creator, Parkin's book does what it purports to do, regaling readers with all the details of Roddenberry's career (though I can't picture anyone but TREK enthusiasts bothering with said details).

There's one problematic aspect of Parkin's book, though. In an overview, it's impossible to emphasize any of a subject's accomplishments over any others. Parkin does give us "the life" of Roddenberry, but no aspect of the producer's work is any more important than any other. Thus Roddenberry's history with his primary accomplishment, "Classic Trek," cannot be allowed to loom larger than his role in his first show, THE LIEUTENANT, or his severely adumbrated influence on the set of STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION. Indeed, Parkin spends a lot of time talking about Roddenberry's failed projects.

So what made Classic Trek so persuasive to its audience? Parkin talks around this problem, but only provides circumstantial answers: how bad all the other SF shows of the time were, and so on. But the author is unable to see what it seems obvious to me: that Roddenberry was simply a more nuanced and vital creator/producer in the 1960s, and that he lost ground as he began repeating himself, as indeed many commercial creators do.

Certainly Parkin cannot deal with anything along the ideas I promoted in this essay...


ADDENDUM: I got interrupted in the midst of writing this essay, so here's the rest of it.


In the linked essay, I wrote:

Perhaps the best illustration of the difference might be the various iterations of the STAR TREK franchise. Though there are certainly some inferior episodes within the three seasons of "Classic Trek," Roddenberry in his capacity as head producer (for the first two seasons, at least) infused the show with a substructure of mythical ideas that balanced the show's apparent enshrinement of sweet reason.
In my commentary on the second-season episode "Amok Time," I mentioned that even though the writer was Theodore Sturgeon, I suspect that Sturgeon came up with the idea for the story as one he hoped that a producer with Roddenberry's tastes would purchase: one focused on the struggle of two males over a female. Even the caveat that one of the two doesn't actually want the female-- that Kirk is actually fighting Spock with the object of saving Spock from a more dangerous antagonist-- does not banish the archetype that I've termed "Savage Masculinity." This archetype of "men gone wild" persists in many episodes penned by many authors-- all of whom, it's been alleged, Roddenberry re-wrote for his own purposes-- and helps keep the TREK universe from being too antiseptic.
Parkin goes into great detail as to how sterile Roddenberry made the first two seasons of STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION, which is a POV with which I and many other TREK fans agree with, even though I may well be the only one concerned wit "mythical ideas." What I said of the later TREK follow-ups applies equally to NEXTGEN:

Rational overthought dominates almost everything, and for the most part there's no sense that any other mode of thought can even exist.

Lance Parkin, however, is so fixated on Roddenberry's lack of success in his later projects that toward the end of the book he states the case against the producer (without really ever stating "the case for"):

At the heart of the case against Roddenberry is the idea that he's a one-hit wonder, that he only ever came up with one show that worked, and that most of the best things about STAR TREK are demonstrably the work of people who aren't Gene Roddenberry.

Though I would affirm that Roddenberry was somewhat sparing of praise to those who worked with him on TREK, Parkin commits the same sin by attempting to minimize Roddenberry's contribution. Throughout the book he cites many anecdotes in which this writer or that actor gripes about not getting proper credit. Yet how many of these "behind the scenes" people can be said to have careers any more amazing than Roddenberry's? There's no question that Gene L. Coon was instrumental to infusing TREK with some needed elements, not least being that of humor. But by the same harsh standard Parkin imposes on Roddenberry, Coon is just one of dozens of journeymen writers in the world of television. He has just six producer-credits, and none of the shows even come close to the number of episodes he did for STAR TREK.

Parkin clearly feels the need to puncture Roddenberry's admittedly self-serving image of himself as the only driving force behind Classic Trek. Nevertheless, Roddenberry was, for two seasons, the man who made the decisions about what did or did not get produced. It's possible that at no time in his career was he as good at writing humorous scenes as Gene Coon. Nevertheless, if Roddenberry hadn't recognized the value of humor in TREK, then there probably wouldn't have been any humor in TREK. I can see, as well as anyone, ways in which Roddenberry may have vitiated certain scripts, as I discussed in my review of A PRIVATE LITTLE WAR. But at no time does Parkin demonstrate decisively that Roddenberry lacked control over the elements that went into making Classic Trek, outside of those that the network may have altered under the standards they applied to all of their shows.

I don't expect that Parkin should share my regard for the mythic elements of Classic Trek. But he should have at least considered the possibility that Roddenberry's creativity did not remain precisely the same throughout his career. I don't claim to be an expert on all the scripts Roddenberry wrote in the 1950s and 1960s-- a part of the producer's career that Parkin passes over quickly. But even looking at the twenty-four scripts Roddenberry did for the western HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL reveals a level of literacy comparable with his work on Classic Trek, a level that all but disappears once Roddenberry attempted to seek new professional venues, both in his one film-script for PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW and in all of his failed 1970s TV-pilots. I don't know what sea-change caused the change in Roddenberry's work following the end of Classic Trek. But I know that Lance Parkin is wrong to judge the best of the producer's work by the standards of his worst, much less by the idea that none of the good stuff came about from anything Gene Roddenberry did.

TRUMP VS. SHAME CULTURE PT. 2

When I said at the end of Part 1 that the ultraliberal turnabout resulted in Donald Trump coming to power, I was in no way agreeing with the view expressed by many ultraliberals (like the moronic newscaster Don Lemon), to the effect that Trump rose to power as part of a "whitelash." In fact, I denied that facile interpretation when I first commented on Trump's victory in SO-- PRESIDENT TRUMP in 2016. I ended that essay with these words:

None of these observations should be taken as conferring approval on Trump or his noxious campaign. But I think our Clown-in-Chief put his finger on a lot of ways that poor whites feel marginalized-- and it's not all about either money or the fear of liberal policies.
I did not specify what I found "noxious" about Trump's campaign. For the most part, I did not like Trump's clownish persona, five parts vulgarity and five parts narcissism. Both of these factors resulted in him making awkward statements like this one:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
— Donald Trump, announcement speech, June 2015

Now, at the time I heard this, I did not agree with the Left's dominant interpretation, that Donald Trump was revealing his deep and thoroughly entrenched racism against people of color. To me he was simply following in the tracks of numerous Republicans before him in objecting to the incursions of illegal aliens. A more sensible politician would have foregrounded his remarks against said aliens by leading with something along the lines that, "even many of the illegals may be good people, nevertheless there are criminals and rapists among them, etc."  Trump was simply a terrible speaker, and at some other time, his clumsy words would have sunk his campaign immediately.

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro has frequently said (and I paraphrase) that for years the Left constantly accused any number of relatively centrist conservatives of being racist, with the result that over time the Right became so inured to such accusations that they decided that they might as well support a candidate who refused to apologize when twitted with accusations of deep-dyed racism.

Shapiro's idea is persuasive. He has pointed out that although current pundits have championed John McCain against Trump, liberals in the past often used the same rhetoric against earlier conservatives that they now use against the Donald. Recently on THE VIEW Whoopi Goldberg asserted that if Democratic Congressman John Lewis said that someone (such as Trump) was racist, then that person was indubitably racist. Then Shapiro noted that Lewis had made the same pronouncement against John McCain that Lewis made against Trump. Somehow, this nugget of information was not communicated on THE VIEW, and even John McCain's daughter Megan seemed either sanguine about, or ignorant of, Lewis's denunciation of her father.

In the end, though, Shapiro's concept may be a little too intellectualized. One should not forget that most "insider" Republicans did not support Trump during his campaign, and that he derived much of his support from the rank-and-file. Some voters may have liked Trump for explicitly monetary issues, as with employees of the coal industry. However, I think Trump gained ground not because he was definitively racist, but because he projected an indifference to being called racist.

In other words, Trump's very existence was a thumb in the eye to the Left's shame culture, which insists that nothing is more worthy of total condemnation than white racism. (Thus, the Donald's "both sides" Charlottesville remark far outpaces George Dubya getting the country mired down in Iraq in order to make money for the oil companies.) Sadly, Trump himself is not capable of enunciating an actual credo that might fight back against the virulence of shame culture; he merely says whatever he wants to say and basks in the attention it earns for him. Half the time conservative intellectuals like Shapiro ends up denouncing Trump's more inflammatory statements, and Trump merely goes on to his next bothersome tweet.

Trump may or may not go on a second term. I don't believe that his presidency will bring about the sort of sea-change necessary in order to reverse the incursions of ultraliberal shame culture. Still, to the extent that he subverted that particular dominant, perhaps he will serve as an "opener of the way" for a greater intellectual examination of the issues-- a proliferation of the spawn of Jordan Peterson to counteract the tides of Sartrean ideologues.

TRUMP VS. SHAME CULTURE PT. 1

I've often discussed the problems of "victimage addiction" here, as in this 2015 essay. However, I confess that until recently it never occurred to me to relate the ultraliberal penchant for victimage to the concepts of "guilt culture" and "shame culture."

Wikipedia opines that Ruth Benedict's 1946 THE CHRYSANTHEMUM AND THE SWORD did not originate the terms, but popularized them at a time when postwar Americans became curious as to how the culture of defeated Japan differed from that of the United States. Benedict observed-- admittedly on incomplete evidence-- that America was dominantly a guilt culture, in that its citizens were expected to feel internalized guilt if they did wrong, while Japan was dominated by shame culture, in that its citizens were expected to subordinate their personal desires to society's view of what was shameful.

I find this distinction useful in a general sense, and not only with respect to Japan and America. This HUFFINGTON POST essay provides this broad summation:

Shame cultures focus less on individual responsibility and abstract legal transactions, and more on how one’s betrayal of the community creates estrangement and stigma. In a guilt culture, if I do something wrong and the public does not know about it, I am still expected to feel guilty and to seek to make amends by being punished. This is not the case in a shame culture. In a shame culture, if I do something wrong and there is no public knowledge of it, then I experience no shame, and have no motivation to seek amends.  Shame is all about public identity, and whether or not one is honored or dishonored.

However, there is one particular arena in which American culture seems entirely governed by the shame ethos, and that is the arena of race relations.

For roughly three hundred years since the colonization of the U.S., there seems to have been little doubt regarding the supremacy of Caucasian Americans over that of "persons of color," as well as certain Caucasian groups regarded as "outliers," such as immigrants from Ireland. A representative example of the cultural distance between Whites and Others appears in Fenimore Cooper's "Natty Bummpo" novels of the early 1800s. Natty, despite frequently hanging out with various tribes of Indians, summarizes his separation from the Red Man by occasionally stating that "there is no cross in my blood," by which he means no interaction with non-whites. The clear implication is that to have sexual interaction would be shameful to a white person. There were certainly exceptions in which certain romantic entanglements were viewed through a sympathetic lens, as with Cecil B. DeMille's 1914 THE SQUAW MAN (which DeMille remade twice). Yet shame was still the dominant response to the idea of "mixing the races." Even simple interaction with non-white persons could be viewed as eroding the distinctions between the ruling white race and those not so privileged, and this emotion too would evolve not from personal guilt but from socially imposed shame.

During the 19th and 20th centuries assorted philosophical and literary works put forth the case for the equality of the races and for the necessity of equal treatment, but in the United States the case did not gain any ground until the 1950s, marked by the legal ramifications of Brown vs. Board of Education. Having myself been a liberal of a slightly later period, I would assert as civil rights continued to make advancements, most liberals celebrated them, in the belief that true parity would evolve. The only exception would seem to be the hardcore Marxists like Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote this sentence in a prologue for a 1961 Franz Fanon book:

To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man.

About forty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, though, Sartre's ugly nihilism became emblematic of the Left's politics of ressentiment, as I summarized in COMBAT PLAY:

This mood of continual ressentiment leads, ironically enough, to its own form of "lynch law," in which the ideologues can condemn anybody for anything, without providing any sort of internally consistent proof. 
Now, without making the assumption that the Left deserves total credit for the valorization of "people of color," it can be fairly said that liberals were most known for attempting to turn the earlier shame culture's priorities around. Natty Bummpo's assumptions of a beneficent whiteness gave way to portraits of white supremacists as either entirely vile, as seen in popular films like the 1951 anti-KKK film STORM WARNING, or as harmless by reason of sheer stupidity, as with Norman Lear's Archie Bunker. But even in these liberal attempts to reverse reactionary thought, one does not see the extremism of the Sartrean POV, in which ultraliberal pundits view "whiteness" to a source of shame as a *bouleversement* of the way non-white races were formerly treated.

And it's because of that massive reversal that Donald Trump came to power.

More in Part 2.


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

HOW ABOUT THOSE CORPSE-FIGHTERS?

Not until recently did I come across the mini-controversy regarding Ohio's Bowling Green University's decision to remove the name of long-deceased actress Lillian Gish from a campus theater. Apparently various unnamed activists (or, as one writer calls them, "attack-ivists") complained to the school that it wasn't woke to have a theater named after the lead female actor from the 1915 silent film BIRTH OF A NATION. The film remains infamous for its championing of the Ku Klux Klan as the solution to the empowerment of black citizens during Reconstruction in the American South.

Several celebrities collaborated on a letter defending Gish's post-mortem judgment, in the hope of making  Bowling Green reverse its decision. Predictably, the university was less concerned with whether or not (some of) their students were offended rather than any considerations of fairness to actors. As the celebrity letter correctly observes, the attack-ivists were resorting to an elementary form of scapegoating, particularly by attacking a long deceased actor who could not defend herself. Indeed, back in February of this year Twitter became inflamed over forty-year old comments by another deceased actor, John Wayne.


On THE CLASSIC HORROR FILM BOARD, I participated in a discussion of the Bowling Green incident, and one poster asserted that one problem was that there wasn't a coherent argument to mount against the people who were claiming that society must purge itself of all theoretical suggestions of approval of racism. The poster said:


The problem is that no one has yet come up with a suitable 'yes, but...' argument to counter efforts to remove Gish and such examples. When an energized activist group pushes for removal, absent a 'yes, but...' argument. the easiest thing to do is comply and move on.

I agree in a broad sense that the only thing that can counter such scapegoating arguments are concise refutations of their position. To some extent the Right adopted the term "politically incorrect" as a means of combating Leftism in all forms, be those forms just or unjust. However, this phrase has become so over-used that it no longer has any power to make the extremists seem ridiculous.

Mostly for my own pleasure, I'll toss out the contemptuous phrase "corpse-fighters," to make clear that these are not fearless warriors confronting real threats in the real world, but only a bunch of cowards who can only battle people who can't fight back, counting on the fact that equally craven administrators care nothing about defending said people.

As much as I despise bullies like the Antifa criminals, even they look a little better than people who can only score points against dead people. At least Antifa goons take the risk that someone may strike back at them during their assaults.

POLITICAL EXPEDIENCY

I usually save my musings on this blog's direction/accomplishments for the start of the new year. Still, over the years a certain irony has repeatedly occurred to me: that even though I've frequently claimed that I consider politics merely a part of a greater whole, as I did in (say) in the essay RACIAL NON-POLITICS IN DJANGO UNCHAINED, I would say that the majority of responses on this blog have been reactions to my political musings, rather than addressing matters of myth or aesthetics.

I don't cavil at this. Subjects like "myth" or "literary quality" are infinitely mutable, and no single person sees these things the same way. Politics, however, speak to the immediate questions: who's trying to control my speech, who's infringing on my rights, and so on. In reality any individual's politics aren't REALLY identical to those with whom that individual aligns himself: political animals are always really out for their own individual priorities. But an individual can come to feel as if he participates in a greater group, and thus are political alliances made.

The ARCHIVE's primary purpose is to trace the way mythic concepts appear in fiction, and the way a "myth-critical" person like myself analyzes narratives with this priority in mind, so political commentary will never dominate this blog. I despise the tendency of even news-blogs to use simplified forms of political discourse as mere "clickbait," when said blogs have no intention of exploring the issues they raise. But as the political climate grows ever stormier, I find myself wanting to commit a few "political myths" to print, rather than yet another meditation on the interrelation of centricity and charisma.

No doubt, a current failing on my part.

Monday, July 15, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: AMAZONIA (1997)

Despite the many diverse iterations of Wonder Woman since creator Marston shuffled off this coil in 1947, few later interpretations have shown a sense of historical perspective with regard to the feature's feminist message.

Marston, of course, conceived of his Amazons as a reaction against the patriarchy of ancient Greece. After establishing this backdrop for the origin of Wonder Woman's lost Amazon isle, he then brought the heroiine and her people into contact with the modern world, particularly with 1940s America, so that Marston's idealized matriarchy could function as tutelary spirits to the young democracy, guiding it away from extreme patriarchy and toward gender equity.



AMAZONIA follows in the footsteps of earlier projects under the Elseworlds imprint by transporting one of DC's venerable characters into a new historical milieu: that of Victorian England. The graphic novel's setup dispenses with Marston's meliorating approach, by showing a domneering patriarchy reducing the idyllic Amazon isle to a shambles, and turning Princess Diana, as well as the mortal women of Great Britain, into mere chattels.

As far as the story's rhetorical argument is concerned, it hardly matters whether or not the real Victorian England was the ultimate expression of patriarchy, either in comparison with other contemporaneous cultures or with England in other eras. Writer William Messner-Loebs and artist Phil Winslade are concerned with a literary myth of Victorian England, even if the creators demolish one of the keystones of that matrix: a mass assassination of the Victoria and most of the British Royal Family. Thus AMAZONIA's version of Victorian England is an alternate history not only for having Amazons in it, but because the world is historically changed on its own terms. Further, after getting rid of most of the Royals, Loebs and Winslade choose to embody the patriarchy of the era in one historical-yet-legendary figure: the same one featured in Alan Moore's FROM HELL.

There had been assorted English serial killers before Jack the Ripper gained infamy. Yet if there's any single figure who has come to embody British patriarchy to modern minds, it probably would be Saucy Jack. His infamy springs not from simply killing women, but from both mutilating and sometimes dissecting them-- thus making him a cardinal representative of male misogyny.



But later for the Ripper: AMAZONIA opens with a scene clearly riffing on a similar setup in Marston's 1942 origin-tale, wherein Princess Diana gets a job showing off her amazing skills on stage. In Alternate-England, long after the demolition of her Amazonian homeland, Diana has grown to maturity as an orphan waif in England, and, upon reaching maturity, she's discovered by an evil (and British) version of Steve Trevor, who marries her, spawns her children, and exhibits her supernormal strength in stage-plays for the wonderment of audiences. Moreover, though Diana does not know it at the time, Trevor is also the reason her homeland was devastated by the English military, thus inverting his original role as a conduit between the Americans and the Amazons.



But the real source of misogyny in Alternate-England is not Trevor. Though the nascent Wonder Woman is the star of the story, she's too far from the seat of power to provide an overview of the situation. Thus the Loebs-Winslade tale is narrated throughout by one of the few survivors of the death of England's aristocracy; Edward, Duke of Clarence. Ripperologists will be familiar with this historical personage as a frequent candidate for Britain's most famous serial killer. Here, he is saved from the (apparent) accident that claims the lives of the other Royals, but reduced to a cripple who nevertheless becomes a near-transcendent spirit who chronicles all that happens in the narrative. But though this Edward is not the Ripper, his survival makes possible the improbable ascension of an American adventurer to the throne of Alternate-England-- and though his surname, "Planters," is supposed to signal his ties to the Plantagenet family, the reader will immediately guess his real nature through his given name: Jack.



Apparently not content with being the King of England, King Jack's rampant misogyny brings about new customs, like having Englishwomen forced to wear chains on their wrists as signs of their submission (another transparent Marston-borrowing). And though he's no longer in a position to go around stalking scarlet women in Whitechapel himself, he has a group of misogynistic nobles run around in masks and stovepipe hats, attacking women. By so doing, King Jack unwittingly brings forth his own nemesis, as Diana defends women against such attacks, and slowly begins to remember her buried history.



Like many a villain before him, King Jack takes steps against his heroic enemy, capturing her but foolishly not killing her. Instead, he takes her to the remnants of the Amazons' devastated island home, which Diana hazily remembers as "Amazonia," and prepares to execute her, along with some other Amazon survivors that the King has kept around, just for this dramatic finish. The Amazons' opponents are none other than Trevor and various Jack-imitators, given a "distillate of masculinity," so that they all change into musclebound monsters reminiscent of the many boulder-shouldered brutes seen in Golden Age WONDER WOMAN.





Naturally, not only does Wonder Woman marshal her own strength against these foes, she also inspires her fellow Amazons to action, while indirectly moving enslaved Enlgishwomen to rise up against their oppressors. Nevertheless, following the defeat of odious males like Jack and Trevor, Loebs and Winslade end the story with an image of a hieros gamos between the world of patriarchy and that of matriarchy, as the Princess Diana becomes wedded to the good son of evil Jack, who just happens to be named Charles-- and yes, Loebs makes the most of the real-world wordplay.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

NARRATIVE AND SIGNIFICANT DISCOURSES PT. 2

It may be that my revised versions of overthought and underthought will in future serve me as shortened forms for the respective effects that "the function of thinking" and "the function of intuition" have upon literary narrative.  I concluded in REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE PART 3   that both myth-critics and ideological critics were in a similar unenviable position as far as converting the majority of readers to pursue more abstract readings of texts. 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.-- RETHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT, 2015.
In my essay POETRY IN MOTION PART 3 I noted how Frye made a distinction between the narrative and significant values of literary narratives. To boil Frye’s argument down to its essentials, he regarded a given element as having a “narrative value” to the extent that it functioned to play a role in the way the narrative was constructed, while a “significant value” applied to an element which was meant to serve the purpose of a pattern hypothetically extrinsic to the narrative, what is usually called “theme” or “meaning.”-- NARRATIVE AND SIGNIFICANT DISCOURSES, 2017.


Northrop Frye is the direct source of one "word pair" of terms that I've frequently used, that of "the narrative-significant schism," and the indirect source of another pairing: "lateral meaning" and "vertical meaning," with the former encompassing the Jungian functions of sensation and feeling and the latter encompassing the functions of thinking and intuition (which IN TURN beget the narrative's "overthought" and "underthought"). It's sometimes occurred to me that I could simplify things for myself to abandon one set of terms for the other, and that, if I did so, it would be a truly Fryean action, since I don't believe the critic himself made much use of any of these jargonistic terms. He probably refrained from regular use of the terms simply because jargon always needs a lot of explanation to potential newcomers.

But I knew from the first that this literary-theory blog would not be read by many newcomers, and so I've made much heavier use of Frye's jargon than he did. I've found over the years that the terms "narrative and significant" work best for describing just the bare functions of literary dynamics, while the terms "lateral meaning" and "vertical meaning" are efficacious to break down the dynamic of the reader's response to the narrative. Thus, in VERTICAL VIRTUES (2014), I aligned lateral meaning with Aldous Huxley's concept of "horizontal transcendence," and vertical meaning with his concept of "upward and downward transcendence." On occasion I've probably used "lateral meaning" and "vertical meaning" to mean almost the same thing as "narrative" and 'significant," though the first pair were designed to describe the process of readerly transcendence.









Saturday, July 6, 2019

MYTHCOMICS: "GRAVE REHEARSAL" (STRANGE FANTASY #7, 1953)




One problematic if minor aspect of the 1953 horror-tale “Grave Rehearsal” is the meaning of the title “Grave Rehearsal.” The phrase sounds like it’s meant to be a pun, but if so it’s an obscure one. Sometimes one encounters the phrase “grave reversal” in a context to denote reversals in the business world, but it's not the sort of commonplace construction that appeals to punsters. If the title is not a pun, the title would seem to be describing something about the story. The splash panel teases the reader with an event seen later in the story: a feminine dominatrix-type ordering a middle-aged man to be hurled into a grave full of mud. Possibly the unknown author of the story conceived of this scene as a “rehearsal” for the villain’s later, more murderous assault upon the protagonist. Further, given that psychological pontifications infused American culture throughout the 1950s, there's a slim possibility that  the author had heard some theory about the psychological appeal of mud-baths: that they allowed the participant to relax as if he were "rehearsing" his original sojourn in his mother's womb-- or even that the bath's relaxing effects presaged the ultimate relaxation of the grave.

“Rehearsal” also interests me in being a tale where it takes a little work to figure out who is the narrative’s centric presence. The dominant pattern in horror-stories is to place the emphasis upon the narrative’s most monstrous figure, while any lesser heroes—or demiheroes, to use my preferred term for victim-types—are subordinate presences. Thus Dracula is usually the star of any story he appears in, while Jonathan Harker, not so much. There are famous characters whom I would regard more as demiheroes than as monsters, such as Victor Frankenstein. But “Grave Rehearsal,” while nowhere near as famous as these luminaries, does maintain an interesting narrative tension between the story’s monster, the lovely Madam Satin, and its foolhardy worm-who-turns, B.S. Fitts.

Even before we meet the capriciously named Mister Fitts, the opening caption informs readers that Fitts is an “egomaniacal yellow tabloid publisher,” and that he’s about take one crucial step that takes him from “journalistic mud-slinging” to “health resort mud bathing.” This step only takes place, though, because Fiits is given to throwing fits, as is seen in the first three panels in the story. He castigates an assistant for daring to run “decent news stories” instead of sensational fodder to attract Fitts’ desired readers—whom he significantly calls “swine.” Then Fitts promptly has a heart attack.



Though the publisher accepts his doctor’s verdict that he Fitts must learn how to relax, he has no idea how to proceed. Then he gets a providential package from a health institute in the country of “Transvania.” A letter enjoins Fiits to find relaxation in smearing the muddy contents of the package  upon his face—and Fiits, also prone to fits of irrational enthusiasm, does so. He’s so pleased by the results that in no time he’s in Transvania, meeting Madame Satin as she conducts him to her resort.



The next day, the good Madame enters Fiits’ room with two helpers and that iconic weapon of the domme, a riding-crop.  The helpers strip the enraged publisher of most of his clothes, transport him to a graveyard, and fling him into a grave filled with mud. To his surprise, Fiits, though intimated by the Madame, finds that he experiences “heavenly ecstasy” as a result of wallowing in mud (as one caption tells us) “like a contented hog.” Madame Satin informs Fitts that the mud has marvelous curative properties, but she chooses not to share the secret with the world (thus making her the obverse of Fiits, who reveals every secret he uncovers to a sensation-hunting public). She claims to live solely off endowments by wealthy clients. Fitts, possibly desperate to protect his newfound lease on pleasurable life, makes Satin his sole life insurance beneficiary.



The impulsive publisher then suffers donation-remorse, but it’s too late. Satin’s real agenda is to murder him by burying Fitts alive, as she’s done with her previous beneficiaries. (Apparently in Tranvania, the police don’t ask too many questions about multiple vanished businessmen.) However, Fitts gets the last laugh, sort of. Once he dies, he becomes a ghost, able to see all the other unfortunate specters haunting the graveyard. Fitts then galvanizes the other ghosts by appealing to their sense of injustice, and together they muster the power to capture Madame Satin and sentence her to her own premature burial. For the final touch, back in America the late Mister Fiits invisibly looks on as his journalistic subordinates receive the full story of his demise and vengeance. The final words of one reporter: “Trust B.S. to file a sensational yarn, even after death.”



A few commentaries on this odd story have viewed the mud-baths as scatological in nature:  that what the publisher really wants to wallow in is shit. Given that the character’s initials  quite probably connotes “bullshit,” this is a logical conclusion, though it doesn’t take in everything interesting about “Rehearsal.”

What makes “Grave Rehearsal” a mythic story is the way in which it opposes two modes of existence, which, after Jung, I’ll call “the extroverted” and “the introverted.” In the first few pages of the story, Fitts is an extroverted type, in that he is an unscrupulous exploiter concerned only with making money through “mud-slinging” to readers he considers “swine.” Extreme extroversion, however, puts his life at risk, at which point Madame Satin inexplicably seeks him out. Given the speedy effects of the mud-sample, apparently the soil of Transvania really has some magical properties (not unlike the virtue the Original Vampirefound in his “native earth"), and Madame Satin knows in advance what over-active businessmen really need. She turns Fitts from a subordinator to a “sub,” calling forth his inner masochist, even though his syndrome goes no further than his embracing a sort of womb-like “ecstasy.”  Significantly, Fitts belatedly tries to jump off the sub-train by realizing he’s given away a little too much, though by that time it’s too late for him to keep his life. Contrary to her appearance, Madame Satin is even more of an exploiter than Fiits, being willing to kill multiple victims in order that she can live the good life. Yet once he’s dead, Fitts expresses his alpha-male power much as he did in life: stirring up resentments in the other spirits just as he used to stir up his customers’ desire for titillation—and he even makes his own death into grist for the sensation mill. It’s because of this belated act of extroversive will, overcoming his own desire to return to the womb, that makes Fitts, rather than his exotic murderess, the star of this particular mythcomic.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

WORK PLAY ACT

In FREEDOM VS. FREEDOM PART 2, I mentioned that:

both "work" and "play" are interdependent necessities, not opposed in the conventional sense that people oppose, say, "right choice" and "wrong choice."

Nowhere is this more true than in the domain of art. There are any number of work-forms that do not invoke the spirit of play: no one asks whether a plumber or a carpenter infuses his labor with such spirits.

It's arguable as to whether some forms of art may be easier to turn out as on an assembly-line. Certainly any number of popular genres, be it mysteries, romances, or superheroes, have been critiqued as being all but identical in form and function. Nevertheless, this elitist criticism overlooks the fact that not every genre-product seems identical to its audience. Writer X succeeds more than Writer Y precisely because the audience thinks Writer X has some quality that Y does not. Often, if not always, this quality stems from X's ability to come up with characters or situations that fire the audience's imagination. This is only possible if Writer X possessed what Kant called (in a different context) "the free play of the imagination."

The art of acting might be considered less amenable to the assembly-line ethic. Millions of actors perform in stage and screen every day, and all of those performances, whether judged as "good work" or "bad work," fall under the rubric of work.

Yet the dynamic of "play" in acting is harder to pin down. On one hand, an actor must strive to mirror the emotions of a given character with as much fidelity as is possible. If the actor plays a tough guy, he must project toughness; if a buffoon, buffoonishness, and so on.

And yet, even though this reproduction sounds like "work," in the same way that an assembly-line worker would produce one identical automobile part after another, the superior actor is distinguished from the inferior one by his imaginative qualities.

To take a couple of examples from Classic Hollywood, I would compare contemporaries George Raft and Humphrey Bogart.



George Raft broke into Hollywood stardom thanks to his role in Howard Hawks' 1932 SCARFACE. Though Raft enjoyed his share of cinematic successes, today he's also known for passing on a number of potentially career-building roles, HIGH SIERRA and THE MALTESE FALCON (both 1941), ostensibly because he thought the roles would make him seem unsympathetic. In my view, he was a limited actor who couldn't manage to put himself in the shoes of such morally ambiguous characters.



One anecdote avers that Humphrey Bogart and George Raft knew one another, and that Bogart sometimes advised Raft not to take this or that role, only to take the role for himself. This has the ring of truth, since actors have been known to undercut one another to get ahead. But if Bogart did this, his actions probably produced better results for films like HIGH SIERRA. It's hard to imagine Raft putting across the combination of toughness and sentiment that make up the character of Roy Earle, as did Bogart.

How does "play" manifest in a performance, be it live or preserved on celluloid? It may be through innumerable bits of physical "business" that convey to the audience a more organic sense of the character's actuality, or it may be something more sweeping, a mental concept of the character that assembles all of the disparate "parts" of the performance into a whole greater than the sum of those parts. But in any case, the profession of the actor seems particularly apt as a means of distinguishing the interacting forms of work and play.