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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...

Monday, June 16, 2008


The above title is a riposte to the famous third question of Goethe, to which I alluded in my essay “Two and a Half Questions.” The first two questions are, as I said, valid. What was the artist trying to do?” and “How well did he do it?” speak to what the artist intends to create and to the level of craft he brings to his endeavor, which are both questions on which one can expatiate logically. The third question, however—“Was what he did worth doing?”—is a worthless question as phrased, for no matter what set of standards any given critic may put forth, there can never be any consensual agreement as to what forms of art are or are not worth doing. Nothing affirms this better than the great line formulated by some unknown critic to cover forms of art for which he has no feeling: “For the people who like this type of thing, this is the type of thing those people will like.”

Buried in this flip line is the nugget of a good insight that can reform Goethe’s question, if in place of “type” one substitutes “mode,” and with that term alter the question, “How well does the finished work fulfill the potential of the work’s mode?” This may seem like a rephrasing of the second question, but it is not, since there’s nothing in the second question that pertains to assigning value. Even the most elitist critic-- the sort who believes that, say, “bad Daniel Clowes work” is always worth more than “good Jack Kirby work”—is usually capable of discerning the pure skill evident in the work of both artists. But the third question of Goethe allows him to dismiss the Kirby work for not being as “serious” or as “refined” as the work of Clowes. This intellectual laziness is no longer possible if one follows the logic of a theory of literary modes.

(And lest anyone ask as to whether such elitists actually exist, I strongly recall—though I don’t have to hand—how one Houston artist did a strip eulogizing Kirby after the artist’s death, which still managed to complain about the “boyishness” of Kirby’s oeuvre. So yes, Virginia, elitists do exist.)

So what’s a mode? In literary terms, a “mode” is simply the method by which a literary effect is accomplished. One can analyze modes (as Northrop Frye does in the “Theory of Modes” section of ANATOMY OF CRITICISM) in much the same way one analyzes genres. Genres, though, are patterns of convention and invention that form “families” of literary works given names like “tragedy” and “comedy,” or “westerns” and “mysteries.” Modes, in contrast, cross such familial patterns. THE WRITER’S WEB definition for “mode” supports this:

“MODE: an unspecific critical term usually identifying a broad but identifiable literary method, mood or manner that is not tied exclusively to a particular form of genre.”

Among the examples listed is a “comic mode,” which might sound like a contradiction if “comedy” is also, as I said in the previous paragraph, is also a “genre.” But the contradiction is more apparent than real.

If there are “comic modes” defined by the moods, methods, or manners of communication used by an artist, while a “comedy genre” is defined by “story-patterns,” it should be possible to see how these manifest in any two comedies with some similar elements. For instance, we recognize that Noel Coward’s DESIGN FOR LIVING and Mike Myers’ WAYNE’S WORLD both belong to the genre of comedy because both works are designed to make audiences laugh, and that both use a similar strategy in centering the comic action around the plot-device of two men competing for the affections of one woman. But the modes by which they accomplish their comedic goals are very different. The Coward play is urbane and witty; the Mike Myers film is gross and bawdy (though not without a measure of wit for all that). It is common to speak of their differences as if they were subgenres within the greater genre of comedy, to use terms like “sophisticated comedy” and “grossout comedy.” But I don’t think that these terms should be considered subgenres, after the fashion of genuine subgenres like “horror comedies” or “western comedies.” Rather, “sophisticated comedies” and “grossout comedies” represent concatenations of methods rather than story-patterns.

Now, since the earliest days of criticism—that is, the days of Aristotle, since his POETICS is our earliest extant example of literary criticism—there has always been the tendency to value what is considered “high” over what is considered “low.” Early in the POETICS (going by the translation by S.H Butcher) Aristotle tells us that following a period of “improvisations” in which the rules of art were still being worked out, these “rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry,” and then:

“Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men.”

Taken just by itself—and I’m sure an expert on Aristotle would be more aware than I of the many permutations of Aristotelian thought in other essays that bear upon one’s full understanding of the philosopher’s opinion—there can be little question that Aristotle’s valuation is fairly elitist in nature. He sounds much like any contemporary critic valuing a “serious” work over a “trivial” one. However, even though Aristotle is esteeming “high” forms over “low” ones, he is, unlike many contemporary critics, presenting a synoptic view in which even the “low” forms have meaning within the totality he calls “poetry.” This stands in contradistinction to those critics who feel that only the higher forms have any relevance. Even a middlebrow event like the Oscar Awards show reflects this highbrow prejudice, consistently ignoring comedies in favor of “serious” dramas—though, as an ironic commentary on changing tastes, our own highbrow culture rates the genre of satires much higher on the artistic scale than Aristotle did for the satires of his time.

Now the original third question by Goethe—“Is what the artist did worth doing?”—is a more baldly elitist statement than Aristotle’s, not least objectionable because it’s implied that there is some unitary set of standards by which one can instantly judge the worth of a given work, apart from the skill with which it was crafted. At base, such statements go against the grain of Aristotle’s synoptic theories. I do not know if Goethe himself declared critical war against all things escapist and trivial in favor of things grave and serious, but I’m certain there has been no shortage of critics who imply that the world would be better off if most comedies were of the higher, sophisticated mode and few (if any) were of the low, grossout mode. More often than not, this sort of opinion is informed by the notion that “low” forms have no value in themselves, and that the “high” ones contain all that the low forms offer and more.

However, this doctrine—called by some the “more good things” doctrine—is proved incorrect the more one understands the functioning of modes. It’s possible for a lover of comedy to convince himself that DESIGN FOR LIVING is superior to WAYNE’S WORLD because the former may have intellectual elements that the latter does not. However, it is just as demonstrable that the Coward play (as well as the movie adapted from it) are lacking in the visceral elements found in WAYNE’S WORLD. Both the “sophisticated mode” and the “grossout mode” contain a range of narrative possibilities and are not comparable except in statements of pure personal taste. Thus DESIGN FOR LIVING is superior only to comedies in its own mode, and the same is true of WAYNE’S WORLD.

I don’t expect that anyone well-rounded enough to know the oeuvres of both Noel Coward and Mike Myers will seriously demur that both works were “worth doing,” but even if I’m correct in this supposition, it may only be because critics can be more forgiving toward comedies, which after all are not largely expected to be “grave” or “serious,” even if some can be more sophisticated than others. The high/low prejudices can be much more virulent when dealing with works in differing modes that do not have humor as their aim, leading to (for instance) the tendency to reject modes dealing with adventure or melodrama in favor of those dealing with “serious drama”—on which I’ll expatiate further in a future essay.

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