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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...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


""A living thing desires above all to vent its strength—life as such is will to power— self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent consequences of it."-- Friedrich Nietzsche, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, Part 1, section 13.

"Human life... is composed of two heterogenous parts that never blend. One part is purposeful, given significance by utilitarian and therefore secondary ends; this part is the one we are aware of. The other is primary and sovereign; it may arise when the other is out of gear; it is obscure, or else blindingly clear; either way it evades the grasp of our aware intelligence"-- Georges Bataille, EROTISM, p. 193.

"In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation"-- Bataille, EROTISM, p. 16.

In THYMOS Part 1 I took issue with Noah Berlatsky's express opinion that aesthetic perceptions were rooted in desire; in what Socrates (according to Plato) called eros. I took the contrary positions that eros is not complex enough to explain the multifarous dynamizations offered by the many varieties of human art, and that if art is rooted in any human mental category it would be the one Socrates/Plato called thymos. I will be examining thymos here less in the terms of the philosophers who used it most-- Plato, Hegel, and more modern thinkers like Kojeve and Fukuyama-- than to address the systems of the above-cited Nietzsche and Bataille. Though these two philosophers did not address the concept of thymos in any organized way, both of them had more pertinent things to say about how human beings create art and what it means when they encode real-life aspects of kinetic experience-- particularly sex and violence-- into art. (I should perhaps specify "narrative art," since that's the only kind I'll be writing on.)

I'll start out by giving a simple example as to how one's nous (reason) can make distinctions between eros and thymos. Say that a man has desire for a woman, and succeeds in satisfying that desire. If the man boasts about the encounter later, it is not the desire itself of which he boasts, for the desire has been satisfied, or at least satiated. What he boasts of is the accomplishment of having persuaded the woman to have sex. This accomplishment validates the man's sense of self-esteem, and thus falls under the category of thymos, as described by the Socratic example cited earlier.

The lack of a principle that approximates thymos is one of the many problems with Freudian psychology, which, as mentioned before, is limited by its overdependence on a rigid dichotomy between a "pleasure principle" and a "reality principle." The citations from Nietzsche and Bataille above also propose dichotomies of human nature, but theirs are considerably less rigid and more subtle in nature, thus allowing for an interpreter (like me) to see ways in which the question of the self-esteem dynamization can be discerned within their systems, particularly Bataille's.

Both, it will be noted, propose a principle of human nature more or less like Freud's "reality principle," though Nietzsche's "self-preservation" principle predates Freud while Bataille's "purposeful, utilitarian principle" postdates Big Sigmund. Arguably in many works Nietzsche is not much less rigid than Freud, though he is certainly the deeper thinker, but Bataille, influenced by both of them, arguably took the best both had to offer while grounding their insights in greater knowledge of then-current ethnography and anthropology.

Significantly, where Freud merely imagines an airy, delusory "pleasure principle" as the opposing force to grim reality, Nietzsche sees "the venting of strength" as being the primary goal of life, as opposed to simply keeping one's body in a safe posture of self-preservation. Bataille's EROTISM does not speak so much of "will to power" as the temptation to transgress the "utilitarian" limits of ordinary life. This is why, in his second cited quote, he equates "eroticism" and "violence," which is an equation I do not agree with though Bataille's case for the equivalence is nevertheless more subtle and meaningful than Freud's.

Bataille's primary insight for literary criticism is the image he uses to present eroticism and violence as equivalent phenomena: "sensuous frenzy" (p. 192). Whether this adequately describes real-life sex and violence does not matter for the purposes of literary criticism, but I suggest that Bataillean "frenzy" does describe how fictional sex and violence impact upon the majority of readers. Bataille doesn't substantially address literature in EROTISM, except for the sensualized violence-scenarios presented by the Marquis de Sade, but elsewere he makes the trope of "transgression against the norm" his hallmark, so I feel secure in adapting his terms for the purpose of literary criticism.

What EROTISM makes clear is that even though one may be experiencing fantasies of sex and/or violence through an intellectualized medium (Plato's "copy of a copy"), this is still the essence of a human (as opposed to animal) activity. He does not, as noted before, directly relate this to the subject of thymos, but because fiction is not the "real thing," is not eros in the raw, it is closer to the nature of thymos in the same way that the sexual conqueror's boast, his tall tale of sexual conquest, represents thymotic rather than erotic stimulation.

Now, even though fictional sex and violence share this quality of "sensuous frenzy," one must not ignore the differences between them. In this essay I found fault with Wertham for choosing to interpret fictional comic-book violence as a source of sexual sadism. This half-baked interpretation overlooked the fact that for many readers of (say) Superman comics, as well as creator Jerry Siegel, the matter of crime was not some unreal phenomenon. Faulty intellectuals like Freud and Wertham are usually inattentive to the real forces of violence with which less sheltered humans, particularly male humans, are obliged to contend, and so such poor thinkers fall back on fallacious analyses relating violence to-- well, phallicism.

My essays on sadism dealt with many of these stillborn conceptions, so I probably won't go over the same ground again unless a fresh subject comes to the fore. But knowing the quality of a lot of comics-criticism today, I probably won't have to wait long.

Monday, November 23, 2009


(For the curious, the title of this essay is a perhaps strained pun on a classic book of myth/folklore analysis, Jesse Weston's FROM RITUAL TO ROMANCE, which otherwise has nothing to do with the topic at hand)

In some comments to A. Sherman Barros here I mentioned that the question of rape in comic books had become a cultural taboo in America despite the fact that comic books, in my opinion, are essentially a medium directed at adults. However, in prose romance novels no such taboo seems to exist, and indeed the trope is so embraced that often the rape has been perpetrated on the victimized romance-heroine not by some slavering villain, but by the stalwart hero. I say "has been" because I have seen some articles that state that the "Golden Age of Rapine" (my term) took place in the 70s and 80s and that the trope is not nearly so popular in this millennium's romances.

I cannot refute this assertion inasmuch as I've read very few modern romance novels. However, I do have the impression that the trope still gets ample usage. In some essay or other I have mentioned that when I'm not busy savaging foul elitist scum (who are, as we all know, a superstititous and cowardly lot) I put food on the table as a library cataloguer. And though in this mild-mannered identity I don't *read* a lot of romances, I certainly *see* a lot of them, and many's the time that I've encountered a frontispiece reading something like:

'The lady Arabella Winread blanched at the bold remarks of cocky young Edgar Wagstaff. "But surely, young Lord," she stammered, "you understood that our marriage was to be in name only!"'
'Edgar smiled his devil's smile as he said--'

Actually that's usually about as far as I would usually read, so I can't give a good approximation as to what cocky young Edgar said, though I'm pretty sure it had something to do with taking his rights in the nuptial bed over her feeble protests-- which is to say, that he had every intention of raping her. The passages so excerpted generally capture much better than I can how Lady Arabella would surge with conflicting ladylike passions even as she professed horror at his threat, so just from those excerpts alone there's no question that the threat of rape is meant to titillate the reader, who is more likely than not of the female gender.

So rape, a heinous crime, becomes in fiction a source of titillation, at least when it's being perpetrated by a handsome swain. In itself this is no different than a host of similar dynamizations which fictional narrative makes possible. But having said that, is titillation all there is to the matter?

In THYMOS Parts 1 and 2 I spoke at length of some of the ways there might be some continuity between modern human readers, early humans and even non-humans with regard to how the males of a given community would compete with other males for females and thus for "reproductive rights." I was (for all the good it did me) careful to specify that I was speaking of the way social pressures are transformed into fictional narrative that has more to do with expressing fantasies than recording literal occurences. I also noted here an example of one 20th-century artist, the "King of Comics" himself, who had clearly internalized the myth of such conflict as natural to homo sapiens as he understood things.

But as many others have noted, even in the nonhuman world sexual selection is not confined to which male is the "alpha male." In some species the male seeks above all to impress the female with some sign of his excellence. Jack Kirby speaks of offering the female a "victory," but often the "victory" has nothing to do with a battle but with something closer to a male "beauty contest," in which the prize (the female) is won by (say) the male fiddler crab with the biggest claw, or cocky young Edgar the Peacock and his big ol' beautiful tail.

This pattern of sexual selection does not invalidate the more familiar examples of alpha-male dominated societies, such as the chimpanzee societies discussed earlier. There is certainly a reality to those struggles for sexual predominance: it's simply not the only pattern in existence. Given the fluidity of human beings, it should not surprise anyone if our species is capable of following in some cases the pattern of the alpha male and in others the pattern of the "male beauty contest."

Now, peahens and female fiddler crabs may have been hardwired from the start to go for the most extravagant male appurtenance (no matter how disadvantageous said appurtenance was for its owner in terms of pure survival). Or it may have been a chance assertion of nonhuman aesthetics that later became hardwired over time. We don't know and can never know. But aesthetics aren't the only factor, either.

One study (which I recall only by barest memory) noted that a pattern of behavior in a collection of farm-hens in which they would, before consenting to mate with the local cock-of-the-walk, would perform an examination of the rooster's wattles. The observer theorized that the hens, rather than being enthralled with the fascinating maleness of the wattles, were actually searching for signs of a certain disease which manifested in discolorations of that organ.

Thus it seems that among a variety of animals courting-rituals combine aspects of aesthetics and pragmatic realities which probably aren't as separate for the animals as they are for humans. Does the mare who forces the stallion to chase her do so because the chase stimulates her for mating? Or because the stallion's ability to overtake her proves his genetic fitness? Or both?

I would cautiously suggest that the prevalence of the scenario of "rape-by-the-good-guy" in romance novels (not to mention the related manifestation of the romance genre within the television soap opera; paging LUKE AND LAURA) might also combine elements of the pragmatic and the aesthetic. The threat of fantasy-rape may have some degree of its appeal rooted in the female desire to make certain that the desired male does, indeed, have the goods he advertises, without the onus of waiting for the sanctification rites of marriage.

Thus, the power to rape, if it does signify potency in these stories, also signifies that the rakish hero is worth the heroine's trouble. She would hardly want to bother "stooping to conquer" him otherwise.

I do not know, as stated earlier, much about current romance-novels. For all that I know, the teaser on the frontispiece, in which Cocky Edgar intimates his intention to rape Lady Arabella, may be *never* more than a "tease" these days. But even if this were the case, that does not erase the history of "the Golden Age of Rapine." A heavily-repeated trope such as this one, which flies in the face of common sense, clearly has deep roots in human psychology.

Note that I do not say "feminine psychology." I assume that the doctrinaire Freudian take on the romance-rape trope would be to prate about an inherent masochism in all women. I believe in this sort of "one sex" theorizing as much as I do Eve Sedgewick's nonsense about defining masculinity in terms of some trumped-up "incoherence." There are worthwhile distinctions to make about masculine and feminine psychologies, but anyone who constructs a theory that elevates one gender above the other is merely playing the time-worn games of the morally-bankrupt elitist. As to how both masculine and feminine psychologies might be imbricated in common fantasies of sex and violence, I'll be speaking more to that in THYMOS PART 3.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


In this post and in its comment-section I made reference to the fact that when artists reference an idea like "the evolution of sexual roles," they may not be simply churning out rote ideas but are using said ideas in league with their own observations. I referenced Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as examples of such artists, though I must admit that the annals of comics-fandom probably don't provide any explicit commentary from them on such subjects.

However, one of those annals, THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR, does provide such commentary from another artist of that same generation, the redoubtable Jack "King" Kirby. TJKC was good enough to reprint in their Feb 2005 issue (#44) a long interview Kirby had with Ronald Levitt Lanyi, an academic who also interviewed luminaries like Steve Englehart and Don Rico for academic journals. In keeping with fair-use laws I will only be excerpting two sections of the interview here for purposes of illustrating how an artist of that generation did in fact respond to intimations of "queeritude" in his work.

As one last preface I will say that Lanyi's questions tend to lead his interviewee into deep psychological waters, which may not be a good approach for a well-rounded interview but which did produce some interesting responses.

In the FIRST SECTION, Lanyi asks Kirby "why, in works which you alone have produced, do you diassociate romantic and/or married love from male heroism?"

KIRBY: "...Male heroism, to my mind, is the prelude to romantic love. In other words, a man has to bring something to his girl. If it can't be the pelt of a lion... it's got to be a raise in pay... It's got to be some kind of victory. In other words, a man has to have a victory in order to fulfill either his romance or his marriage or his male status."

In the SECOND section, Lanyi puts forth a rather complicated argument about whether or not Kamandi has bisexual aspects (Lanyi references both Freud and Wilhelm Stekel) because of his resemblance to the female characters and because "Kamandi lets his feelings of powerlessness and frustration get out of control, and often has need of his protector, the mutant he-man, Ben Boxer... Thus, as a girl, he needs a big strong man."

KIRBY: "Well, I feel that you're placing this bisexual connotation on the thing out of your own interpretation. To my mind, Kamandi is the man in puberty; Ben Boxer is Kamandi at the age of twenty-seven. The man in puberty has not gone the route that hardens his muscles to hard knots. He hasn't gone that route yet; he's softer, he's smaller, he's less able to defend himself. Therefore, it's not the bisexuality that's in evidence there; it's the man's need for a brother, for a protective brother... Kamandi does that with Ben Boxer. Robin did that with Batman. And Bucky did that with Captain America. Bucky can handle himself with one or two fellows, but Captain America will come to his aid when he's overwhelmed. And that's my point. My point is little brother, big brother: man in puberty, man at the peak of manhood."

Now, having printed these responses, I hasten to say that these interpretations of Kirby's work are not the only ones possible simply because they came from the artist himself. Polysemic readings are always possible, though they must be grounded in hard data relating to the structure of the narrative. Lanyi doesn't quite accomplish this , though he does make one or two good points that I may cover elsewhere.

I print the first excerpt to illustrate what I pointed out in THYMOS PART 2: that the idea of a fictional character dedicating his victories to an admiring female (but presumably not getting it on with her right off) is not necessarily some sort of elaborate displacement cover for queeritude. Queeritude may come into the equation of this or that artist who uses the concept, but the concept by itself clearly has meaning for Jack Kirby. It follows that it may have a similar appeal for other artists and for their readers, which Jules Feiffer semi-jokingly references when he notes that girl characters were meant to be saved by the hero, who would then dash away. But why bother to save girls if your "real" interest is guys? Plainly the girl-saving ritual is one appropriate to the latency stage of what were originally children-readers: one is ready to prove oneself to girls but not quite ready to have sex with them.

I print the second excerpt to illustrate that Kirby's concern when talking of the adult male/young male team-- as with Captain America and Bucky, whom I profiled (not very seriously) as a "sacrificial lamb" here--is not with sex, but with the threat of violence. This is an aspect which Freudians and their fellow-travelers like to dismiss as being a pure displacement for the matter of sexual release. But though the violence in adventure-fiction is so ritualized that it becomes, from a naturalistic angle, "unreal," that does not mean that "violence" is nothing but "sex misspelled." I should be dealing more with the likenesses and differences of sex and violence in THYMOS PART 3, and may even find room to Friedrich Nietzsche as well this time.

Monday, November 16, 2009


No Nietzsche for now after all. For my second venture into the world of thymotics, I'll address a response to OUR BODIES OUR NONBODIES PART 1, which frankly I'd overlooked until recently. As it happens, respondent "JRBrown," who had also commented on Noah Berlatsky's blog, took issue with the concepts from respondent "Pallas" printed both there and here:

"Superman is battling to win reproductive rights to the girl, who is only interested in him due to his masculine strength providing the best genes..."

I then applied this concept (which I pointed out had been voiced by others as well) to ACTION #1, in which Clark Kent is buffaloed by several thugs until he becomes Superman and raises the ante by trashing the thugs' car. I maintained then, as I still do now, that there is neither homosexual nor homosocial symbolism in either the incident described or in the particular story in which the incident takes place. At best what occurs between Superman and his male foes is a game akin to "king of the mountain:" hence my remarks about the real appeal lying in "the exercise of one's abilities."

JRBrown wrote:

"Well, actually, this Pallas' evo-psych take on the situation is, at best, a massive oversimplification. The evolutionary pressure for great big manly men, is, essentially, the sad fact that great big manly men are more likely to be able to fight off all other men and declare themselves the owner of a woman, whatever her actual preference may be. For comparison: alpha male chimpanzees sire only 30% or so of offspring, despite trying their level best to be the only mating males; females will sneak off into the bushes with "beta" males whom they prefer, even though the alpha males will attack them viciously if discovered. The single best predictor of whether a female will try to mate with a certain beta is the amount of time he spends feeding with her, grooming her, and playing with her other offspring."

Now, let me clarify that while I think that the "evo-psych" interpretation is one way of interpreting Superman particularly and the adventure genre as a whole, I've not suggested that Superman or any other adventure-tale is a pure allegory of human mating rituals, real or imagined. Said rituals-- which one might choose to confine to what Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster witnessed in their own experiences-- could be one of many symbolic influences on the Superman concept, but only one. Therefore, it hardly matters that chimp mothers trick alpha males in order to sleep with beta males. As long as the factor of compulsion is present, one cannot be sure that female chimps wouldn't sleep with both alphas and betas if their choice was the only factor involved.

Except in the most general way, human females can't be fairly compared to female chimps (which statement will, I'm sure, come as a huge relief to women everywhere). However, unlike chimps in the wild, human females in "first-world" cultures do have relative freedom of choice. And according to some of the studies with which I'll be trumping JR, statistics suggest that given such freedom of choice, they can and do seek out both alphas, betas and gammas according to whatever mood moves them.

More from JR:
"In humans, women in modern first-world societies strongly prioritize "good father" traits such as being kind, gentle, and good with kids over physical strength, competitiveness and aggressiveness."
"Men in most modern societies, on average, want to be hypermuscular, masculine-appearing, and masculine-acting. Women, in contrast, overwhelmingly prefer male bodies of average muscularity, male faces with a mix of masculine and feminine features (broad jawlines and large eyes, for example), an absence of stereotypical cultural markers of masculinity (such as scars), and sex-neutral personality traits such as honesty and friendliness. Superheroes are designed to reflect a type of heterosexually-intended manliness that does not actually appeal to most women, but does appeal to many men, including gay men. So from a certain point of view they are closer to being homosexual than truly heterosexual."
Ah, yes. No doubt that preference for "average muscularity" is the reason why so many romance novel-covers (which are, for any cave-dwellers reading this blog, primarily marketed to women) feature men with average builds, modest chest sizes, and spindly arms.
What's that? There aren't that many?
How many? A hundred? A dozen? Half dozen?
One, even?
Interested parties may care to browse UNCLE WALTER'S BAD ROMANCE NOVEL COVERS for some longer period than I did in search of covers that feature those average builds instead of the more common sales-device, the raging pectoral shot.
The fact that the majority (if not the entirety) of the exemplars of a genre directed at women (the genre with the largest volume of paperback sales, last time I looked) privileges the male hardbody should by itself disprove JR's careless statement.
But should one want more proofs that women sometimes do like exceedingly masculine men-- and that therefore Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster knew a lot more about What Women Have Wanted than JR does now-- here's a writeup from 6-6-05 on various studies made of the subject of female attractions.

I call JR's attention to this heading:
"Some women use their long term mates for child raising while preferring other men as sperm donors."
I wouldn't dismiss this possibility, though I think a goodly number of women pursue the "bad boys" because they're something of a challenge-- which also happens to be the theme of about 90 million romance novels. I don't think the ending so often seen in the novels usually works out in real life, though, which may be why an awful lot of women "settle" for Johnny Beta.
Now I'm not a proponent of evolutionary determinism. However, the "evo-psych" paradigm cited by Pallas doesn't rule out the possibility that mating females simply like variety, and that said variety would seem to benefit the long-term diversification of the species (which not all human preferences do). As a critic of fiction I'm not particularly concerned with whether or not Mrs. Flintstone got it on with both Fred and Barney, but I am fascinated at the lengths to which some people will go to try to "gay-ify" a fictional character when there's no textual evidence for that viewpoint.
Let's look at this JR statement again:
"Superheroes are designed to reflect a type of heterosexually-intended manliness that does not actually appeal to most women, but does appeal to many men, including gay men."
So JR does admit that the intentions of (say) Siegel and Schuster was to portray Superman as heterosexual for their readers. Yet because JB wants to claim that women aren't actually so attracted, the portrayal of Superman as a hardbody is really a roundabout way of appealing "to many men, including gay men." I gather that the ones who feel that appeal but who aren't actively gay are merely "gay-curious."
Such statements make Dave Sim sound like bloody Socrates.
Yes, yes, everybody's got both *yin* and *yang* in him (or her). I get that. But if you're setting out to prove that there's a deeper aspect to context to Superman's muscles than signifying his ability to beat up Luthor (even when he has super-powers, doncha know), then you need more than the lame idea that *yin* doesn't and never really did like *yang;* *yin* really likes a lesser version of *yang* while the only people who like *yang* are-- comic book fans? But wait-- I thought they were misogynists who constantly bought T & A books and kept Jim Balent working??
Some time back, I read a post on THE BEAT where some artwad revelled in the idea of the gayness of superheroes because (and I paraphrase) "anything that makes fanboys self-conscious is good." The poster was a dipstick, but at least he was an honest dipstick. I can't say the same for the majority of critiques in which Critic X takes some character who represents some concept thought to be overly dominant (it can be either "conservative" or "liberal," though the bulk I've seen attack supposed conservative targets) and deconstructs them to reveal that the character is actually some psychological defense that displaces an opposing concept.
In other words, it's just Big Sigmund Freud's version of "king of the mountain."
Frankly, I think Siegel and Shuster did it better.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Here I'll present some clarifications on matters addressed in last month's bytewars with Noah Berlatsky.

After I wrote "Ho-Hum, Batman's Gay-- Again" in response to his "Comics in the Closet Part 1" essay, he responded thusly at the end of "Comics in the Closet Part 3:"

"Gene Philips correctly points out that there are types of desire other than homosexual or homosocial which can be dealt with through art, and, sure, I don't have any problem with that (I talk at great length about bondage on this site for instance.) But relationships between men — tinged as all relationships are with desire — seem to me to be especially important, inasmuch as men, even now, play a disproportionate role in running the world."

Noah's response was, so far as it went, appropriate with respect to the context of "Gay Again." In that essay I put forth other examples of "kink" and "deviancy" that I felt were neglected by his overly broad applications of queer theory. Therefore, all the counter-examples I listed-- incest, bestiality-- fall under the category of what Socrates called "eros," which he defined as an appetite or desire for some specific thing. Noah may have a wide-ranging theory of erotism as it applies to literature, but I still fault the essay criticized for taking too doctrinaire a view.

My "Gay Again" critique necessarily focused only on other types of desire, but that's really not the key difference in our respective outlooks. Noah's above-cited remarks about my remarks follow a section dealing with how the concept of desire relates to fictional characters and the fictional lives they lead.

I do agree with this:

"The irony, of course, is that a lot of aesthetic criticism is tied to determining whether a given piece of art is free of desire, or pure, in particular ways. Art that seems clearly intended to make money, for example, is often denigrated as being inauthentic or impure. Similarly, art that caters to observers' prurient interests (which is clearly erotic, in other words) is often downgraded."

But not this:

"Nonetheless, I don't see how you separate aesthetics and desire. You identify with a character because you like something about him or her, and affections are (for humans) tied to desire. Even if you're talking about abstractions, you're talking about beauty, which is certainly linked to desire."

I don't think "desire" (which Noah defines as inherently erotic) is at the heart of human experience. I think that desire is but one interdependent chamber of a three-chambered heart that Socrates chose to call "the tripartite soul," with the other two parts being nous (intellect) and thymos (passion).

But I hear some wonder whether or not "desire" and "passion" aren't the same thing. Here's how Socrates illustrated the distinction with a specific example:

"Well, I said, there is a story which I remember to have heard, and in which I put faith. The story is, that Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight."

Socrates then derives the general rule from the particular example:

"And are there not many other cases in which we observe that when a man's desires violently prevail over his reason, he reviles himself, and is angry at the violence within him, and that in this struggle, which is like the struggle of factions in a State, his spirit is on the side of his reason; --but for the passionate or spirited element to take part with the desires when reason that she should not be opposed, is a sort of thing which thing which I believe that you never observed occurring in yourself, nor, as I should imagine, in any one else?"

(REPUBLIC quotations tr. by Benjamin Jowett)

Thus Socrates demonstrates that what we translate as *passion* (though the most accurate translation seems to be "spiritedness," as the root word for thymos comes from "breath"), is not identical to desire since it can oppose desire. I can think of examples in which *passion* might side with desire against intellect, but that doesn't undermine Socrates' distinction, for in both cases thymos is still a separable concept. Further, this *spiritedness* has a lot to do not with just satisfying one's temporary appetite to have something, be it food or money or sex, but to have esteem for oneself regarding one's own personal self-control. Socrates' example applies to one's internal esteem but it obviously has a wealth of applications with respect to gaining the esteem of others in more social situations.

Socrates does not apply the concept of *thymos* to literature, but I've long thought that there was fertile ground for comparison there.

Again I return to this sentence from above:

"You identify with a character because you like something about him or her, and affections are (for humans) tied to desire."

I don't believe that an an audience-member's identification with a character-- or for that matter, a plot-situation or even a mood called forth by a musical piece-- can be fairly called "desire." One can say that one desires to have food or sex, but should one really say that a reader's desire for a particular type of character is a desire of the same nature?

I think audience-identification is far more complex than that, particularly since in narrative fiction the identification doesn't simply stop with one character. For instance, readers of DAVID COPPERFIELD may want the titular character to be an "everyman" because that's the easiest type of character with which identify.  However, the novel also provides several more colorful characters, so Copperfield's colorlessness would seem to be a narrative strategy designed to make the colorful figures more accessible. No one who starts out reading the novel does so with the intention of "identifying" with the comic Mr. Micawber, or even with the villainous Uriah Heep. Yet as Dickens presents the characters, and reveals to us some clues about why they are the way they are, the reader will identify with them, if only in a broad way.

I consider audience-identification to partake less of particularized "desire" than thymotic "passion." The reader has his own passions, his own sense of self-esteem, which will probably not correspondly closely with those of Micawber or Heep, but the reader can identify with those characters in terms of their fictional "spirits." Indeed, even though Socrates/Plato presents reason as being the charioteer who keeps passion and desire in their proper places in the ideal human life, in literature I see a different arrangement: thymos is the charioteer, and reason and desire are pulling the chariot.

Thymos, also, can be connected with the Jungian concept of libido, which I addressed earlier as a corrective to overly Freudian readings:

'I don't know if Freud or any of his spiritual heirs were aware of the kind of "pleasure," to which Pallas alludes, that comes from the exercise of one's abilities. As I discussed earlier, Jung was aware that all human energies did not come down to sexuality, which is why he tried (though he failed) to advance "libido" as a term to describe all potential human energies, sexual and otherwise. I have, as some may know, advanced "dynamization" as a substitute neologism for Jung's "libidinization," and will be using it somewhat in the next essay in this series.'

All this and Nietzsche too, in Part Two.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Although in the preceding essay I pronounced Jules Feiffer the first pluralist comics-critic by virtue of his remarks in THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES, I also critiqued him for being overly dependent upon the crude hermeneutic tools of Sigmund Freud. But perhaps his greatest fault is this:

Arch-elitist Gary Groth liked his work.

Therefore, how good could it be?

I'm being somewhat facetious here, but not entirely. Marxist critics are well acquainted with the process by which a hypothetical "dominant" can suborn and adapt elements of revolutionary concepts and feed them back to the proletariat as a means of controlling the masses. For example, if the hippie subculture of the 1960s attempts to rebel against The Man, The Man gets his TV station to put out THE MOD SQUAD.

Of course, Marxist rhetoriticians took hold of this same process of deliberate misprision and used it for their own purposes. Thus, even though Feiffer's project is to invalidate the elitism of Frederic Wertham (not that he Feiffer calls it that), Gary Groth's 2002 introduction to Fantagraphics' reprint of TGCBH ignores this and uses Feiffer's nostalgic reminiscences as a club for attacking a different species of pluralists.

"...in 1965 no one wrote about comic books, much less superhero comics. Today our budding academicians subject superheroes to Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derridaean philosophical speculation. Thankfully, Feiffer knew better than to apply ponderous theoretical models to the superhero comics he enjoyed in his youth... And when he theorizes, when he describes the anti-social virtues of junk, for instance, it's eminently rooted in human experience-- his experience."

I'm not quite sure why Groth would Feiffer say "knew better" than to apply ponderous theories to superhero comics: if no one was doing it, why would one "know better" than to do what no one else was doing? But Groth's wrong to say that there were no "ponderous theories" before the academicians. I don't know precisely by what logic Groth disincluded both Frederic Wertham and Gershon Legman, both of whose works I'm sure Groth knew about in 2002, and whose theories (which *I* would certainly deem "ponderous") had not by any stretch been utterly forgotten in '65. I tend to think that the real reason that Groth leaves out reference to either writer-- one of whom, Wertham, was specifically refuted in TGCBH-- was because he felt far more threatenened by modern academicians than by the now-mostly-defunct projects of Wertham and Legman.

I've seen and heard my share of bad theorizing about comic books, superhero and otherwise. But I suspect Groth's real problem with them pointy-headed academicians is that their analyses, good or bad, might be seen as validation of junky comics.

That's why, in my previous essay, I find fault with Feiffer's unwillingness to analyze superhero comics in much depth. Once Feiffer has defined said junk-comics as being totally defined by the "pleasure principle," he doesn't devote any further thought to what they are or what makes them appealing. That's somewhat excuseable in Feiffer, whose only project in TGCBH is to write an apologia for his nostalgia. But Groth has never had Feiffer's interest in theorizing about the "anti-social virtues of junk," and has generally spoken of the comic-related passions of his youth with intellectual disdain. That's his privilege, but the wise reader should be aware of Groth's position as an "advocacy" (his term) critic, and how deftly he tries to turn Feiffer's somewhat-simplistic but inescapably pluralist theory into Yet Another Defense for (wait for it)...


Monday, November 2, 2009


"The strawberry grows underneath the nettle

And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best

Neighbour'd by fruit of baser quality"--

HENRY V, Act 1, Sc. 1, lines 60-62.

The churchman Ely makes the above statement as explanation to his fellows (as well as to the play's audience) as to why newly-crowned King Henry V has transformed himself from a royal reprobate, given to hanging out with lowlifes ("fruit of baser quality"),into a wise and "wholesome" ruler of his people. We do not know if Shakespeare believed this sentiment about the felicitous association between what I'll call "the base" and "the noble;" he may have merely thought it an appropriate allusion to come from the mouth of a learned pedant. In any case the Bard of Avon reverses the horticultural metaphor employed much later by Frederic Wertham at the start of SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, where a well-protected child is made analogous to a well-kept (if overly antiseptic) garden. Shakespeare doesn't tell why nobility might benefit from contact with "baser quality," for the metaphor isn't pursed in the play, but it seems a rough evocation of the idea of "hybrid vigor," even though said vigor is achieved through sheer propinquity rather than some more mundane interaction.

A parallel to this notion of felicitous interactions between noble and base-- albeit one focused entirely on literature-- can be seen in GATE OF THE GODS 1, wherein I quote Northrop Frye's early elitist-sounding pronouncement on the "babbling chaos" of popular fiction, which he viewed as worthless in itself though it did sometimes give rise to the orderly arrangements of Great Art. BREAKING OPEN MOULDY TALES notes how in later years Frye refined this early position into a more pluralist stance that recognized the validity of conventionalized fictions for their own sake, rather than validating them in terms of some superior art to which they contributed.

Though I'm a pluralist, I confess that a part of me does find some appeal in the image of popular fiction as a reservoir of pure expressive power from which Great Art draws a "vigor" that it loses when it becomes too stuffed with pretentious maunderings. Nevertheless, I do have to reject this concept as another form of elitism, one which I do find loosely suggested in Jules Feiffer's GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES essay (yes, I'm getting to him).

At present, I recognize two forms of elitism: "content-centered elitism" and "style-centered elitism."

"Content elitism" takes the view that popular art's base content-- usually appeals to kinetic effects like sex and violence, though not only those-- utterly distances it from Great Art. This position has been asserted in one context or another not only by Frederic Wertham but also by moderns like Gary Groth and Dirk Deppey. Priorities, of course, differ according to period and culture. Wertham objected to letting children be exposed to bad popular art, but was allegedly willing to allow what he termed "crime comics" to be perused by juveniles over 15. Dirk Deppey takes a roughly opposite tack: the superhero comic is inherently juvenile and so cannot bear the weight of any attempts to render it in a more "mature" mode, and fans who stick with the genre are merely revealing their own inherent childishness. Deppey is less militant than Wertham, but in essence their approaches take the same "let's consign this stuff to the outer darkness" attitude.

"Style elitism" is closer to Northrop Frye's early elitist phase. This position argues that popular fiction has no value in itself, but that it can formulate crude ideas that real artists can reformulate (or even just steal), yet transform through attention to literary style and theme. Thus a "Race Williams" detective tale by Carroll John Daly is of no value in itself, but a Dashiell Hammett detective story transforms the same basic material into something finer and more meritorious. In SPIRIT A LA MODE I noted how Mickey Spillane's trashy detective novel KISS ME DEADLY was rendered into a film by Robert Aldrich and A.I. Bezerides, which film was then celebrated by assorted critics as superior to the original novel. I argued that both forms were good for the type of work each was, but two of my respondents argued the position of the "style elitist:" that KMD was not a worthwhile work in itself but that Mickey Spillane was "lucky" to have the privilege of seeing his tough action-opus travestied and converted into a tony satire.

Jules Feiffer was, as I've said earlier, far more in line with pluralist rather than elitist thought by virtue of his arguing that the popular works of the comics-medium-- which he labeled as "junk"-- had its own valid purpose within human culture. He certainly did not argue that it had no relevance, as does the "content elitist," for he asserted that its very value was being able to "say or do anything" and to be "the least middle-class of all the mass media." And he did not argue that greater works were spawned thanks to great artists having crummy pop art to use as a chaotic reservor of ideas from which to swipe and/or reformulate.

Where Feiffer's pluralism needs some fine-tuning, though, is that he subscribed a little too uncritically to the Freudian "pleasure principle/reality principle" dichotomy. I've used said dichotomy myself here and there for the purposes of broad illustration, though I'd disagree in more specific terms as to how Freud characterizes both "pleasure" and "reality." In Feiffer's characterization, though, "junk comics" serve the sole purpose of being a retreat from pressures and responsibilities for most readers, particularly juveniles: "a place to hide where he cannot be got at by grownups." Because Feiffer's only subject is the comic books of his childhood, he doesn't address other questions about those "mass media" not solely directed at children. It should be evident that when Mickey Spillane (a onetime comics writer) broke into the adult market with KISS ME DEADLY, he was offering adults a similar retreat from pressures and responsibilities.

But is "escape" all there is to "the pleasure principle?" As one influenced more by Jung than by Freud, I have to take a different position, albeit one that subsumes aspects of Feiffer's Freudian stance.

In my earliest piece on Feiffer I quoted his definition of "junk" as being "there to entertain on the basest, most compromised of levels." I do not differ with Feiffer on this. Popular art is what Joyce calls "improper art" because it functions only the kinetic level, evoking responses of pure attraction or repulsion (even if the two are sometimes mixed, a matter Joyce didn't explore).

However, I disagree with Feiffer's next sentence, which I neglected to quote earlier:

"[Junk] finds the lowest fantasmal common denominator and proceeds from there."

"Fantasmal" is an odd choice of words, particularly in that it's not a much-used word, and its context isn't clear in HEROES. The word derives from "phantasm," meaning a ghost or spectre, but the dominant definitions of "phantasmal" stress that it means "delusory" or "illusive."

Did Feiffer mean that of all the escapist power-fantasies one might have, those presented by the likes of Superman and Batman are the closest to this "lowest common denominator" taking in, one presumes, everything from Nick Carter (whom Feiffer does mention, if obliquely) to Mike Hammer (whom Feiffer doesn't reference). I suspect that was his meaning, but if so, that position flirts with the position of "style elitism." I enjoy, on a purely kinetic level, both Mike Hammer and his distant ancestors (including not only Race Williams but also Siegel and Schuster's "Slam Bradley"). But I don't see Hammer as being less escapist/illusive than Slam Bradley. The only thing that seems to separate Mickey Spillane from Jerry Siegel is superior hardboiled style, although both men are a long way from being "up there" with Dashiell Hammett.

Interestingly, Wiktionary lists a tertiary definition for "phantasmal:" "expresses qualities of or produced from fantasy." This meaning was probably not on Feiffer's mind but it fits about as well as the "illusive" usage. But how would one judge whether or not one escapist concept was a better fantasy than another?

As noted earlier, I favor a Jungian approach to such matters over a Freudian one, but the precise system is not as important as asking the question, "By what method could one judge one fantasy as better than another?" It's a question that Jules Feiffer doesn't really answer even though he raises the topic of "low vs. high" in this indirect manner.

Is Mike Hammer a better fantasy than Slam Bradley, I ask? Probably.

Is Mike Hammer a better fantasy than Superman, Batman, or the Spirit?

Let's just say that even to try answering the question would require tools more finely-tuned than the blunt instruments Feiffer inherits from Big Sigmund Freud...