Featured Post


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, October 20, 2008


I'm in the process of reading Iris Murdoch's METAPHYSICS AS A GUIDE TO MORALS, which, based on a series of 1982 lectures, covers several developments in the history of philosophy up to the 2oth century, with particular reference to Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Hume, Kant and others, as well as some observations on structuralism. (Nothing in there about artcomics, though; I'll get to that later.) Both structuralism and semiotics are hermeneutical systems of criticism that have influenced my Cassirer/Frye approach to literature, and I would be lying if I didn't admit that my notion of different gradations of symbolic complexity (myth vs. null-myth) are strongly derived from the concepts of signal and symbol as named if not originated by semiologist Charles Morris. Murdoch shows too much of a tendency to meld structuralism with deconstruction (it being hard to break down the difference thanks to Roland Barthes' having joined both clubs), but she has a nice breakdown of structuralism's objectives that bears on the signal/symbol linguistic dichotomy of semiotics:

"Structuralist thought is then also driven to distinguish discreetly between 'low,' fairly simple... self-referring linguistic codes... and 'high,' sophisticated, creative, self-aware, uses of language by scientific geniuses, or by philosophers and poets and poetic writers who... invent concepts and hint at values"-- Murdoch, METAPHYSICS, p. 48.

Murdoch goes on to specify how this awareness of the "deeper" reading of linguistic codes has the result that "literature is required to be linguistically self-conscious... and to treat language as an experimental adventure playground where what is important can only be said by poetic or quasi-poetic means."

Later in the book, Murdoch referred to a lecture which Heidegger gave on his own concept of poetry; a lecture centered entirely around one poem, "The Ister," written by German poet Holderlin (sorry, can't add the little "tilde" to his name on this keyboard). Though it's probably not prudent to quote from a writeup of the lecture rather than the lecture proper-- and maybe not at all from Wikipedia-- I will quote here from the uncredited Wiki writeup, since what it says seems to concur pretty well with what Murdoch says of Heidegger.

Wiki writes:

'Rather than delving immediately into this question, Heidegger makes a detour, elaborating the "metaphysical interpretation of art." He argues that metaphysical interpretations are incapable of comprehending Hölderlin's poetry.

According to the metaphysical interpretation, art presents objects in nature such as rivers, but this presentation is at the service of something else, of their "meaning" in the artwork. Heidegger speaks in this regard of the etymology of the words "allegory" and "metaphor." The metaphysical interpretation of art relies on the distinction between the sensuous and the non-sensuous, the aesthetic and the noetic, the sensible and the intelligible. And according to this interpretation the artwork exists not for itself, not as a sensuous object, but for the nonsensuous and suprasensuous, which is also named "spirit." In this way the superior and the true come to be identified with the spiritual.

Against the metaphysical interpretation of art, Heidegger asserts that the rivers in Hölderlin's poetry are in no way symbolic images of a higher or deeper content. He draws attention to the final lines of the poem—"Yet what that one does, that river, / No one knows"—in order to indicate that, whatever the rivers are, or whatever the river does, remains an enigma. Even the poet knows only that the river flows, but not what is decided in that flowing'

Now, from the standpoint of structuralism/semiotics, it would seem that here Heidegger is choosing to read Holderlin's poem as an enigma based in the "self-referring" world of the sensuous. It's not quite identical to what Morris calls a SIGNAL, a "low linguistic code" that stands for nothing but one representation or representational concept ("red stop sign means STOP.") But Heidegger is certainly trying to get AWAY from the notion that the river ought to refer to the noetic/intellectual CONCEPT of the river, whether it would be Holderlin's particular concept of riverness or some concatenation of concepts from the history of literature featuring rivers. So Heidegger manifestly does not want the river to be a SYMBOL, the sort of linguistic code that Murdoch says leads to higher concepts and values, etc.

Be that as it may--

It does occur to me that Heidegger's concept of a sort of non-symbolic "enigma" may explain the approach of certain practitioners of artcomics. Despite admiring certain exceptions, in the main I find many of the most praised artcomics to be intellectually unchallenging works that don't merit the word "literature," at least in the terms of the best prose literature has to offer.

A particular example: Charles' Burns' BLACK HOLE. When I began reading this much-praised work-- a series of "vignettes" (for lack of a better word) about a weird mutation-inducent plague that descends on a small town-- I don't think I expected Burns to give me an experience typical of unreflective narratives. I didn't expect the closure of either a happy or tragic ending, or that the disease would be explained neatly.

But still, after reading these rather rambling vignettes-- in which the obvious objective correlatives for the mutations are the hormonal changes of the average teenager-- I thought, "What are artcomics readers getting out of this?" Burns' art is finely rendered, if not to my personal taste-- but surely, given the praise it's received, BLACK HOLE has some sort of significance for its readers beyond just the horrors of the hormones.

But then, on re-reading the Heidegger passage, I wonder: is this what Burns and maybe a lot of artcomics-practitioners are going for? Are Burns' mutant-mouths-that-appear-in-throats supposed to be rough parallels to what Heidegger thought Holderlin's river signified? Despite a modicum of symbolism in Burns' conception, did Burns consciously AVOID trying to inflate that symbolism in order to keep the plague enigmatic and imponderable-- as arguably, it would not have been had he layered on references to Sartre's FLIES or Cronenberg's THE FLY or whatever?

Or is it that artcomics practitioners in general-- over and above any particular artistic aims of Charles Burns-- are radically divorced from the very concept of symbolism, for reasons having to do with their oppositional stance toward unreflective narratives, particularly that of genre narratives?

Food for thought, perhaps.

No comments: