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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...

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


"The sublime is a response to an imaginative shock, the complex recoil and recuperation of consciousness coping with objects too great to be encompassed. The grotesque, on the other hand, is a quality usually attributed to objects, the strange conflation of disparate elements not found in nature. This distinction is true to their difference. The sublime expands consciousness inward as it encompasses limits to its outward expansion of apprehension; the grotesque is a projection of fascinated repulsion/attraction out into objects that consciousness cannot accommodate, because the object disturbs the sense of rational, natural categorization. In both cases, the reader/perceiver is shocked by a sudden estrangement from habitual perception, and in both cases the response is to suspend one's confidence in knowledge about the world, and to attempt to redefine the real in thought's relation to nature."-- Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. 'On the Grotesque in Science Fiction', Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 71-99.

I confess that as of this writing I've only skimmed this academic's essay, but at present I see no reason why it would apply only to that branch of metaphenomenal narrative labelled "science fiction"-- especially since
Csicsery-Ronay also notes within the text of the essay that in some science-fiction tropes the sublime and the grotesque appear to unite, as with the T-1000 from James Cameron's TERMINATOR 2: "Its fascinating shape-shifting would be the object of sublime awe were it not for its sadistic violation of mundane flesh."  This is a convenient admission from my standpoint, as I think that the interpenetration of Ronay's concepts of "the sublime" and "the grotesque" demonstrates that they are best seen as mirror-images of transcendence, but transcendence that is, as I examined here, so radically different from the commonplace that it feels as if it is either "upward" or "downward." 

I've noted in the aforesaid essay that most of the phenomena Huxley uses to characterize "downward transcendence" suggest, as Ronay suggests, "fascinated repulsion/attraction out into objects that consciousness cannot accomodate," for they relate to the human body being subjected to various kinds of stress-- principally drugs, degrading sex, and crowd-induced delirium, though Huxley also mentions the effects of "rhythmic movement," "rhythmic sound," and "corporal penance."  Huxley unfortunately does not provide as many examples of upward transcendence, though in this follow-up essay I noted how Joseph Campbell tended to focus only on images that I find suggestive of Huxley's upward transcendence, as well as having the effect of "expanding consciousness" in a manner shared by both traditional accounts of the sublime and modern accounts of the "sense of wonder."

Re-establishing my earlier suggestion that sublimity and "sense of wonder" are fundamentally covalent, it follows then that although science-fiction enthusiasts often use the latter phrase only to connote wonder in this "upward" end of its spectrum, it should be used no less to connote the aspect of terror in the "downward" manifestation.  Both of these forms of sublimity share the nature of what I called, in this essay, the "strange-sublime," and are phenomenologically opposed to the remaining form, "the odd-sublime," which can be roughly correlated with Huxley's horizontal transcendence, the transcendence in which one does not truly exceed what Ronay calls "habitual perception."

The two extremes of the "strange-sublime" suggest a possible parallel with Octavio Paz's dichotomy of "body/non-body."  I've already made a purely illustrative (i.e., not constitutive) comparison between my NUM formula and Paz's dichotomy in this essay, so I don't want to confuse matters by bringing sublimity into that mix.  But given that Huxley's downward transcendence suggests becoming overly attracted by, and perhaps subsumed by, the body, while upward transcendence suggests becoming liberated from same, into "non-body" in some manifestation, I will venture this comparison:

Horizontal transcendence= Paz's "the body"
Upward transcendence= "non-body" in the sense of Ronay's "expansion of apprehension"
Downward transcendence= "non-body" in the sense that "the object disturbs the sense of rational, natural categorization"

I must note then that neither "the marvelous" nor "the uncanny" firmly line up with either form of transcendence exclusively.  It's true that we're perhaps more likely to associate "expansion of apprehension" with thinking about wonderful things like Campbell's dragons or Ronay's molten cyborg, and "repulson/attraction" with icons of terror.  Yet "the marvelous" also includes a horror like ALIEN, while the "the uncanny" can include cheery upbeat action-fantasies like Miyazaki's CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, reviewed here.  For the latter, obviously, "attraction" to those things that suggest but are not reducible to "the body" would supersede "repulsion."

Having more or less concluded this game of intellectual connect-the-academics, the only thing that remains will be to cite three specific examples of my perceived sublimity: the "odd-sublime" in a naturalistic context, the "strange-sublime" that suggest upward transcendence, and the "strange-sublime" that suggests downward transcendence.  More on that in a separate essay.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Recently posted this to a private listserve on the subject of the attempt DC Comics made in 1971 to make their books pricier:

It's always been a mystery to me that the preteen and teen buyers of that time chose the 20-centers from Marvel Comics over the bigger 25-centers from DC Comics, since the latter seems like the better bargain.  I understand that in hardcore fandom, Marvel has gained a great deal of good will/popularity and might be considered top dog there.  But the hardcore readership then was surely just a fraction of the mass market.

I can only surmise two possibilities: (1)  that the casual buyer of the time was "penny wise and pound foolish," in that he didn't mind getting fewer pages overall as long as he had five actual comics in his hand rather than four, OR (2) that the casual buyer was dominantly indifferent to or turned off by all the recapitulated reprint-material with which DC padded its 25-centers. 

By the conventional wisdom of the time, the casual buyers should've welcomed all the reprints by the logic that "any story you haven't read is a new story."  Yet it seems that they did not, perhaps because they weren't hardcore enough to be appreciative of the intricacies of DC Comics history.  Indeed, DC may have alienated some new readers by throwing all this copious old material in the faces of Casual Buyer Guy.  Most of the casual buyers in the 1960s probably barely noticed if a regular issue of Superman included a reprint, unless the editors explicitly called attention to it.  But counter-intuitive though it seems, a lot of buyers may have rejected DC's emphasis on their storied past, using it to support the long standing characterization of "DC" as connoting "Doddering Codgers."

Sad though it is to many hardcore fans, many casual buyers don't like having another generation's fantasies dumped in their faces.  Regard, in more recent years, how the kickass-but-retro double-film GRINDHOUSE, by two popular directors, crashed and burned in the theaters.

ADDENDA: An undocumented source adds that when Marvel did their "quick-change" in the same period-- where they converted many books in their line to 25 cents, and then back to 20 cents the next month-- that they also made themselves more attractive to distributors by giving them a better percentage deal.  But though that might have pushed more Marvel comics onto more stands, that in itself probably doesn't explain the audience's acceptance of the "bargain" of fewer pages for a marginally cheaper price.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Does one necessarily *need* "arresting strangeness" to convey a sense of the marvelous? It would seem not, but at the same time there must logically be a coherent asesthetic governing these very different approaches to enchantment... -- from this essay.

As much as I admire the deductive reasoning behind C.S. Lewis' introductory essay in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN-- analyzed here and in my other essays referencing Lewis-- one might criticize Lewis for broadly implying that the "awe of the numinous" could be associated only with those things that suggested a "mighty presence," i.e., gods or God, while things of the ordinary/isophenomenal world could only imply "fear."  Clearly Joseph Conrad could find both wonder and terror in the "marvels and mysteries" he creates in his stories, most if not all of which take place in an isophenomenal world of naturalistic presences.

What can save Lewis' insight, however, is a closer look at the the terminology employed by Rudolf Otto, whom Lewis quotes briefly but does not explore in depth.

Quoting myself once more:

In my own conception the pure horror film doesn't necessarily need the element of the supernatural, but it does need the element of the *mysterium,* which is my shortened form for the two Latin phrases invoked by Rudolf Otto is his classic IDEA OF THE HOLY, where he explains the numinous experience in terms of the *mysterium tremendum,* the overwhelming mystery that compels fear and trembling in the viewer, and the *mysterium fascinans,* which compels the viewer to be attracted to the fascinating mystery.

Lewis' trinity of fear, dread, and awe-- which I've paralleled to my Todorov-derived trinity of the naturalistic, uncanny, and marvelous-- works quite well as long as one is considering only the *mysterium tremendum,* which seems to be the only aspect Lewis regards.  But Otto's other formulation, the *mysterium fascinans,* suggests a less antipathetic attitude toward whatever-it-is that inspires the sense of something beyond ordinary experience. 

For instance, regard the opening paragraph of Chapter 3 of Conrad's LORD JIM:

A marvellous stillness pervaded the world, and the stars, together with the serenity of their rays, seemed to shed upon the earth the assurance of everlasting security. The young moon recurved, and shining low in the west, was like a slender shaving thrown up from a bar of gold, and the Arabian Sea, smooth and cool to the eye like a sheet of ice, extended its perfect level to the perfect circle of a dark horizon. The propeller turned without a check, as though its beat had been part of the scheme of a safe universe; and on each side of the Patna two deep folds of water, permanent and sombre on the unwrinkled shimmer, enclosed within their straight and diverging ridges a few white swirls of foam bursting in a low hiss, a few wavelets, a few ripples, a few undulations that, left behind, agitated the surface of the sea for an instant after the passage of the ship, subsided splashing gently, calmed down at last into the circular stillness of water and sky with the black speck of the moving hull remaining everlastingly in its centre.

Plainly, in contrast to the TYPHOON passages I cited earlier in my Conrad analyses, this is Conrad picturing a naturalistic scene with just as much "sense of wonder" as anything in fantasy or science fiction.  In AGE OF WONDERS David Hartnell centers his definition of the term "sense of wonder" in an awestruck fascination with strange phenomena that does not suggest the aspect of the *mysterium tremendum:*

Any child who has looked up at the stars at night and thought about how far away they are, how there is no end or outer edge to this place, this universe – any child who has felt the thrill of fear and excitement at such thoughts stands a very good chance of becoming a science fiction reader. To say that science fiction is in essence a religious literature is an overstatement, but one that contains truth. SF is a uniquely modern incarnation of an ancient tradition: the tale of wonder. Tales of miracles, tales of great powers and consequences beyond the experience of people in your neighborhood, tales of the gods who inhabit other worlds and sometimes descend to visit ours, tales of humans traveling to the abode of the gods, tales of the uncanny: all exist now as science fiction. Science fiction’s appeal lies in combination of the rational, the believable, with the miraculous. It is an appeal to the sense of wonder.
Now, I've also gone on record as comparing the affect of the "sense of wonder" to the affect identified by Burke and Kant as "the sublime."  Burke and Kant do not make any distinctions as to whether the sublime affect arises from a phenomenon or a fictional work that has either isophenomenal or metaphenomenal characteristics, and as I pointed out here, Burke is as apt to find the quality of the sublime in works as far apart in phenomenality as HENRY IV and THE FAERIE QUEENE.

I have not previously referenced Arthur Schopenhauer's concept of the sublime.  Most of his meditations on it oversimplify its character due to his focus on its antipathetic, *mysterium tremendum* characteristics, as noted on this site:

For Schopenhauer, the sense of the sublime is attained by the aesthetic contemplation of an object that is inherently hostile to one’s will (or to human will in general).

This focus upon hostility, like Lewis' focus upon similar antagonistic states of mind, makes no allowance for the more "fascinated" state of sublimity.  However, in THE WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION, the gloomy philosopher does conceive one notion of the sublime not found in Burke or Kant: the idea that the sublime can appear in differering *degrees.*

I won't quote Schopenhauer's particular examples of sublimity's degrees, since they are all predicated on what I deem an incomplete vision of the concept.  But the notion of such a concept having different degrees proves very useful for my investigations of the sublime in fiction, for I too conceive that there are differing degrees of sublimity according to the phenomenalities of a given work.

Since works of an entirely naturalistic phenomenality are always defined by limitations, in which it is deemed impossible to transcend the cause-and-effect universe, such works do not evoke "arresting strangeness" in Tolkein's sense.  They do, however, depict worlds in which "the typical" is frequently superseded by "the atypical."  This may include anything from an anomalous event, such as a bank robbery, to a personal epiphany, such as Conrad's narrator describes by catching a ship at sea in a mood of sublime repose.

This kind of sublimity/sense of wonder, which does not break with the order of causality, I term the "odd-sublime," in that whatever takes place in the naturalistic world does not transcend either the cognitive or affective aspects of that orderliness.

Works in the sphere of the uncanny and the marvelous, however, fall into a category best termed the "strange-sublime."  Marvelous works break with both the cognitive and affective aspects of normative order, while uncanny works break with the affective aspect appropriate to causal relations but largely stay within the cognitive sphere of causality.

And of course, it should go without saying that the aspects of the *tremendum,* which Lewis's schema captures so well, also fall in line with this division, so that his "tigers" can be repositories of the "odd-sublime," whether they inspire fear or fascination, while his "ghosts" and "gods" incarnate the "strange-sublime" in all its aspects of dread, awe, and fascination.

I should note in passing that "the odd-sublime," where it occurs in naturalistic fictional works, sometimes has such a strong familial relationship with the "strange-sublime" that it can cause makers of film-compendia to incorrectly associate the two.  Many isophenomenal films by Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, are listed in such film-compendia as belonging within the sphere of metaphenomenal works.  But a film like 1972's FRENZY carries none of the "strangeness" of 1960's PSYCHO, even though the two films share a basic subject matter (the actions of a psychotic killer).  If FRENZY is sublime at all, it is only "odd-sublime," and shares more kinship in its phenomenality with LORD JIM, while affectively speaking PSYCHO is a phenomenal kissing cousin to THE LORD OF THE RINGS.


Monday, February 13, 2012


"And so a legend is born, and a new name is added to the roster of those who make the world of fantasy the most exciting realm of all!"-- Stan Lee, AMAZING FANTASY #15.

A suggestive analogy is to be seen in the case of the grayling moth, which prefers darker mates to those actually offered by its present species. For if human art can offer to a moth the supernormal sign stimulus to which it responds more eagerly than to the normal offerings of life, it can surely supply supernormal stimuli, also to the IRMs [Innate Releasing Mechanisms] of man and not only spontaneously, in dream and nightmare, but even more brilliantly in the contrived folktales, fairy tales, mythological landscapes, over- and underworlds, temples and cathedrals, pagodas and gardens, dragons, angels, gods, and guardians of popular and religious art. It is true, of course, that the culturally developed formulations of these wonders have required in many cases centuries, even milleniums, to complete. But it is true also . . . that there is a kind of support for the reception of such images in the deja vu of the partially self-shaped and self-shaping mind. In other words, whereas in the animal world the "isomorphs," or inherited stereotypes of the central nervous structure, which for the most part match the natural environment, may occasionally contain possibilities of response unmatched by nature, the world of man, which is now largely the product of our own artifice, represents to a considerable extent, at least an opposite order of dynamics; namely, those of a living nervous structure and controlled response systems fashioning its habitat, and not vice versa; but fashioning it not always consciously, by any means; indeed, for the most part, or at least for a considerable part, fashioning it impetuously, out of its own self-produced images of rage and fear.-- Joseph Campbell, PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY, p. 75.

Stan Lee's conclusion to the first Spider-Man tale was plainly intended not as philosophical statement, but as hyperbole designed to convince readers of the hero's significance within "the world of fantasy."

But, even though it is hyperbole, one may examine it to see what philosophical import it has, quite apart from the author's intentions.

When I as a teenaged comics-fan read Lee's hyperbole, I was gratified to see him validate fantasy as a "world" in its own right; a bit of self-referential analysis on Lee's part, the sort of thing rarely found in other comics-writers of the time.  During that period both adults and peers tended to denigrate anything fantastic as juvenile escapism, irrespective of the medium, though of course comics were the most despised of the escapist works because they were supposedly the crudest, the least thoughtful.

All that said, it's easy to poke holes in Lee's claim.  By what criterion could one say that "the world of fantasy" was "the most exciting realm of all," and who are the other contenders in the Mister Excitingness Paegant?  "The world of reality" would seem to be the only logical competitor to "the world of fantasy," and if in 1963 one were going by popular acclaim, "Reality" certainly attracted the lion's share of the consumers and far greater accolades from the critical establishment.

Further, even in this new century, wherein the cultural paradigm now validates fantasy to an extent no one could have imagined in 1963, it's still questionable as to which of the contestants is more popular.  In this essay I wrote:

Some readers preferred only realistic wonders, as [Joseph] Conrad apparently did, some readers bowed down exclusively at the fane of [J.R.R.] Tolkien, and some learned to appreciate both intersubjective wonders.
Joseph Campbell's theory of "supernormal sign stimuli" offers a heuristic tool for understanding the separate-but-equal appeals of "fantasy" and "reality" (or as I usually call them with regard to literary works, "the metaphenomenal" and "the isophenomenal.")   Though Campbell only mentions "popular art" fleetingly at the end of the second sentence in the passage quoted above, he implies that popular art could invoke the emotional effect of the "supernormal stimulus" as easily as did religious art.  He would embrace that position in spades once Campbell came to be seen as A Significant Influence on STAR WARS, which film not coincidentally caused much of the paradigm shift toward fantasy noted above.

"The world of reality," then, would line up with the animal responses that are designed to "match the natural environment," while "the world of fantasy" parallels those responses that are "unmatched by nature."  This in turn suggests a further parallel with Kant's concepts of reproductive and productive imagination, though I'll pursue that on its own terms in a forthcoming essay. 

In addition, though Campbell's list of supernormal stimuli may seem somewhat of a catch-all, the chaos can be brought to a greater semblance of order by seeing it through the lens of Aldous Huxley's distinctions between "horizontal transcendence" and "vertical transcendence," explicated here.

Huxley characterizes those who experience "horizontal transcendence" as  people who "identify themselves with some cause wider than their own immediate interests, but not degradingly lower and, if higher, higher only within the range of current social values."  This suggests a concern with one's "natural environment," and thus with the common perception of the "world of reality." 

Interestingly, while I observed in the earlier essay that Huxley listed very few examples of his "upward transcendence"-- which is merely one end of the total spectrum of vertical transcendence-- Campbell takes the opposite tack.  Almost everything in his list of supernormal stimuli suggests "upward transcendence"-- temples and cathedrals, angels and gods, and even (depending on one's cultural background, perhaps) dragons.  The only mentions of signs that might connote negative, "downward transcendence" are one reference to "nightmares," one reference to "underworlds" (in the sense of the worlds of the dead), and one reference to "rage and fear."

Nevertheless, it would seem that as a concept Huxley's "vertical transcendence" is oriented upon both the heavenly and the hellish, particularly because Huxely suggests that the latter can sometimes be the portal to reach the former.  As both strategies of transcendence are so linked, they clearly echo the same dynamic as Campbell's supernormal sign stimuli, for all that the two men had very different orientations in other respects.

In the era sometimes called the Silver Age, which happened to be the time of my own youth, one often had to justify a liking for fantasy.  Now, there is no real cultural need to do so: enough people openly like it-- even in comic book form-- that justifications are rarely seen.  Nevertheless, if one had to justify fantasy in terms of being in some sense "useful," I would do so by linking it to the human need to exceed nature, to make its own cultural "habitat," which is too often seen as human beings simply responding to nature.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem-- especially to those of an atheistic persuasion-- for human beings the only way to truly create their reality is (to reinterpret the famous saying of Virgil) is to first "move" both heaven and hell.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Without an understanding of man's deep-seated urge to self-transcendence, of his very natural reluctance to take the hard, ascending way, and his search for some bogus liberation either below or to one side of his personality, we cannot hope to make sense of our own particular period of history or indeed of history in general, of life as it was lived in the past and as it is lived today. For this reason I propose to discuss some of the more common Grace- substitutes, into which and by means of which men and women have tried to escape from the tormenting consciousness of being merely themselves.-- Aldous Huxley on Self-Transcendence, opening paragraph.
As the online reprint of Huxley's 1953 essay notes, the author wrote this roughly a year before he took mescaline under a psychiatrist's guidance.  The result was the famous book THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION, which took a very different attitude than this essay toward one's finding "transcendence" through chemical substances.  To be sure, Huxley does allow in the 1953 essay that some brief "moment of spiritual awareness" can be acquired through drugs, but he's skeptical as to whether it can be maintained.

Regardless of one's opinions on this particular issue, the salient concern of Huxley's essay is to understand "the urge to self-transcendence."  The last sentence of his opening paragraph, speaking of "escape from the tormenting consciousness of being merely themselves," seems to imply that such escape is a form of what Adler would call "negative compensation," but the bulk of the essay shows a more analytical approach.

Briefly, Huxley sees the "urge to self-transcendence" as taking three forms:

UPWARD TRANSCENDENCE-- a state of mind that Huxley doesn't adequate define, though he associates it with "theophanies" and the veneration of a " liberating and transfiguring Spirit."

 DOWNWARD TRANSCENDENCE-- a state of mind in which the transcendence "is invariably downward into the less than human, the lower than personal."  Huxley's three main venues toward this form of transcendence are "drugs, elementary sexuality and herd-intoxication," though he mentions some others as well.

HORIZONTAL TRANSCENDENCE-- Huxley himself is worth quoting at length here:
In order to escape from the horrors of insulated selfhood most men and women choose, most of the time, to go neither up nor down, but sideways. They identify themselves with some cause wider than their own immediate interests, but not degradingly lower and, if higher, higher only within the range of current social values. This horizontal, or nearly horizontal, self- transcendence may be into something as trivial as a hobby, or as precious as married love. It can be brought about through self-identification with any human activity, from running a business to research in nuclear physics, from composing music to collecting stamps, from campaigning for political office to educating children or studying the mating habits of birds. Horizontal self- transcendence is of the utmost importance. Without it, there would be no art, no science, no law, no philosophy, indeed no civilization.

To invoke Jungian terminology once more, "horizontal transcendence" most nearly approximates the idea of a given subject's purely "personal" psychology, dealing with activities that pertain to one's day-to-day consciousness, such as acquiring a given skill:
If Person One wants to build a birdhouse, that individual is in a static state with respect to his non-knowledge about birdhouse-building, and he reaches a dynamic state once he has learned the method of crafting birdhouses and does successfully build one.-- A SIEGEL SEGUE.
Jung's concept of the "transpersonal," however, compares favorably with Huxley's concept of both "upward" and "downward transcendence."  Even though the latter concerns a descent into sordid physicality that Huxley deems "lower than personal," it, unlike horizontal transcendence, can lead to the other kind:

To what extent, and in what circumstances, is it possible for a man to make use of the descending road as a way to spiritual self-transcendence; As first sight it would seem obvious that the way down is not and can never be the way up. But in the realm of existence matters are not quite so simple as they are in our beautifully tidy world of words. In actual life a downward movement may sometimes be made the beginning of an ascent. When the shell of the ego has been cracked and there begins to be a consciousness of the subliminal and physiological othernesses underlying personality, it sometimes happens that we catch a glimpse, fleeting but apocalyptic, of that other Otherness, which is the Ground of all being.
Jung does not speak of "downward transcendence" as such, but in some writings he too views the darkness in man-- what he terms "the shadow"-- as a source of upward transformation:
Taking it in its deepest sense, the shadow is the invisible saurian tail that man still drags behind him. Carefully amputated, it becomes the healing serpent of the mysteries.-- Jung, The Integration of the Personality (1939)

Huxley's theory also has some worthwhile applications to my theory of metaphenomenality and isophenomenality.  Obviously the working manifestion of isophenomenality, "naturalism," denotes a state of being in which the subject remains on a horizontal plane.  Within that plane, all phenomena are essentially the same, differing only by degree in terms of how typical or atypical a given subject considers them.

In contrast, the two characteristics of metaphenomenality are marked by the attempt to transcend the world of sameness, of contingency, as I noted in a not unrelated context here:

But what form can transcendence take, if one does not nullify the world of the contingent?

In a sense "strangeness"-- the quality that I find in both divisons of metaphenomenality-- is that nullification of the world of the contingent, of sameness, in that strangeness presents to us a world of ghosts and gods, a world that implicitly trumps the tigers of materialism.  Strangeness can operate equally well in terms of "upward" or "downward" forms of transcendence, evoking presences that are beyond one's horizontal consciousness, irrespective of whether they incline more toward heaven or hell.   One might even loosely term the supergenre "fantasy" as having a predilection for images of upward transcendence, while "horror" tends toward images of down-bound movement.

More to come in the next essay.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


the fantastic in literature consists, when all has been said, essentially in showing the world as opaque, as inaccessible to reason on principle... Franz Rottensteiner, THE FANTASY BOOK, quoted here
But perhaps one should go a step farther than Barthes [in THE PLEASURE OF THE TEXT] and say that the facts that lead him to propose these two views [of "joissance" and "plaisir"] indicate that we are dealing not so much with a historical process in which one kind of novel replaces another as with a kind of opposition which has always existed within the novel: a tension between the intelligible and the problematic.-- Jonathan Culler, STRUCTURALIST POETICS, p. 191.

Culler's opposition-- which is to my knowledge original with him, at least in that phrasing-- is probably useless to my phenomenological project in terms of Culler's philosophical underpinnings.  As I've noted earlier, structuralism as a discipline is largely predicated on empiricism, and though Culler's book puts forth some trenchant criticisms of Roland Barthes, I see nothing in Culler's book that departs from the empiricist philosophy behind Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss.

Culler doesn't explicitly define his two terms, "intelligible" and "problematic," but I would assume from the tenor of his remarks that he's concerned only with how intelligibility registers within a structuralist framework: in relation to how human beings regard some aspects of existence as solid and dependable: "naturalized," to borrow Barthes' term, and therefore perceived as the principal subject matter of the "classic novel."  The "problematic," then, would cover aspects of reality that are more dubious, which essentially becomes the subject matter of the "experimental novel."

Nevertheless, even though Culler's dichotomy's arises from a limited and hyper-literary classic novel/experimental novel comparion, Culler's statement is accurate in saying that his opposition originates in the textual nature of fiction itself, rather than in some historical contingency.

The Rottensteiner quote above, which relates to his restatment of another critic, emphasizes that fantasy is "inaccessible to reason on principle."  For me this statement captures much of the appeal of fantasy; not to simply recapitulate the aspects of life with which everyone is familiar, but in slightly altered form.  The central appeal of fantasy is to *actively* transgress consensual reality; to render it-- in Culler's word-- "problematic."  This applies even to works that only transgress within the "affective order," as I have argued with respect to works I label "uncanny."

Thus, to invoke once again the C.S. Lewis trinity referenced here: the "tigers of fear" belong entirely the world of Cullers "intelligible," in that they may cause one to fear for one's physical safety but nothing more.  In contrast, both the "ghosts of dread" and the "gods of awe" belong in the world of the "problematic," if one defines the problematic as the human desire to exceed the limits of the merely intelligible.

In a future essay I'll be expanding on these thoughts in what I hope will prove to be a general phenomenlogical definition of "fantasy" and "reality" in art, with particular attention to an essay by Aldous Huxley, last referenced here.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


I recently troubled to excerpt a portion of a Dave Sim letter from about fourteen years ago.  Having delved that far back in the past already, I may as well put that matter in my personal historical context.

I remember being fascinated with comic strips and kiddie comics as soon as I could read, though the only thing I can date is a 1960 sequence from DICK TRACY, which would have been in newspapers when I was five.  When I saw the sequence reprinted in a post-1990s TRACY reprint book, I clearly recognized a visual involving a villain named "Spots," who possessed literal spots floating before his eyes.  When the story concluded with Spots dying in a shootout with Tracy, the "spots" evaporate like his dissolving soul-- and I was sure I'd seen the same scene before.  Whether I really remembered it from the age of five, I do not truly know.

I didn't get into superhero comics initially.  Around '65 I remember seeing some Julie Schwartz comics that grossed me out.  Then in 1966, my opinion on superheroes changed and I dropped the kiddie comics for superheroes, westerns, and the occasional horror-genres.  I think the changeover had something to do with a TV show that had the sound "Da Da Da Da Da Da" in the theme song.

I remained pretty isolated from fans, except for one or two "pen pal" relationships.  In 1972 I met a couple of local fans with whom I kept contact, which may have encouraged my fledgling fan-writing.. Though I'd started getting comics-fan mailers through the post, it was one of those friends who first showed me the JOURNAL around 1976. Impressed with the magazine's thoughtful and inquiring tone, I submitted, and my first JOURNAL essay saw print in issue #35 (June 77), three issues after the magazine took on its current name (having been "THE NEW NOSTALGIA JOURNAL" before that).

I remained loosely associated with the JOURNAL throughout the 1980s, except for a brief period in which I tried to quit the fannish thing, with no evident success.  Toward the late 1980s, as I mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I became very critical of the JOURNAL's increasingly elitist attitude.  My last overture to the magazine occured during 1989.

However, also during that period I'd also come to admire the lively discussions in Dave Sim's CEREBUS lettercol, and I'd written Sim letters off and on.  A few years after I quit submitting to TCJ, a feud broke out between Gary Groth and Dave Sim around 1992.  Since the Internet still wasn't viable, Dave's lettercol became for me a enjoyable place to debate matters of comics criticism, including the faults of the JOURNAL-- though I had a sense that on one level Dave was just as elitist as Gary Groth.

Dave gave me irrefutable evidence of that in a essay called "Annotated Hart," and I wrote what I considered a letter of friendly rebuttal, focusing on the old Wildean debate between "ethics and aesthetics."  Dave didn't precisely answer my objections, but he did take major exception to what he considered a conflation of popular fiction myths and the genuine revelations of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions.  I could be wrong, but until then I don't think he'd completely "come out" as to his religious convictions, or I might not have made the comparisons I made in quite the same language.

Naturally, I wrote a long re-rebuttal letter, but Dave didn't print it for reasons too involved to mention here.  (I've sometimes considered excerpting parts of the letter here for my own amusement.)  Dave did print a much shorter rebuttal in CEREBUS #243 (June 99) and did not append any reply, which was better treatment than I got from AMAZING HEROES in response to assorted complaints.  Even without making further contributions to the lettercol, though, I continued to follow CEREBUS to the end and sent Dave a congratulatory letter when he finished his epic, to which he replied in cordial fashion.

Oddly, the end of the 1990s, when I wrote my last letters to Dave Sim, was about the time when the Internet took off, which gave me new venues wherein I could be a bane to bloody comic book elitists everywhere.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Holy Frijoles, it's another response to an essay on The Beat!


"The thing that surprised me the most was that the answers, as I saw them anyway, were not insane, drastic measures that companies would need to take. These are all within the grasp of comics publishers and retailers."

Ms. Asselin's assertion would have been more convincing had she been more explicit about her non-insane, non-drastic measures. From reading the interview, the only measures I noted were:

"make sure the content was woman-friendly" (with a concomitant increase in advertising)

and on a related note:

"More product made for women, definitely. Product that’s made for men that’s less misogynistic. Product that is aimed at both genders."

The problem with these initiatives (if they are more than one) is that before you can court one audience you'd better be sure you don't lose the one you've got.

I don't think extreme violence in adventure-comics is, even when directly against fictional female characters, intrinsically misogynistic (though to be sure, Ms. Asselin doesn't define her use of the word in specific terms). I didn't care for the original story that spawned WOMEN IN REFRIGERATORS but the author wasn't wrong to use violence to motivate an adventure-character into action.

Whatever you want to say about the DM audience that supports the Big Two, it's clearly an audience that's reasonably comfortable with extreme violence against both male and female characters. The big question is, if DC and Marvel started directing resources toward this hypothetical "both genders" market-- and DC at least has made some stabs in that arena-- will the old audience follow, or seek out other media?

Thursday, February 2, 2012


"But for intelligent people-- and I've always considered you a very intelligent person, Gene-- to see Moses and Jesus as the end product of mythopoetic traditions, fictional characters raised above Spider-Man and Tarzan only by literary pedigree, seems to me to be a first intellectual failure.."-- Dave Sim, responding to my letter in "Aardvark Comment," CEREBUS 236 (Nov 1998).
When I first began formulating my concept of "the metaphenomenal"-- partly in response, as I've alluded, to those film-compendia that attempted to collate all fantasy, horror, and SF movies-- I wanted a term that encompassed the one type of "fantasy film" such compendia tended to overlook: the religious "fantasy-film."  The compendium I found most useful, John Stanley's CREATURE FEATURES GUIDE (whose sixth and final edition emerged in 2000), was silent on such films as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or SODOM AND GOMORRAH, which clearly depicted violations of consensual reality.

To my knowledge no compiler of fantasy-films has gone on records as saying, "Such and such is why I don't include religious films" alongside the reviews of, say, THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  Yet the reason behind the omission probably comes down to the fact that many potential readers of such compendia-- largely though not exclusively Christians-- don't regard such films as "fantasies," but as depictions of a higher reality, no matter how compromised by contemporary concerns.  In other words, such films are accorded not a higher "literary pedigree" (Dave Sim's somewhat inaccurate extrapolation of my expressed beliefs) but a "religious pedigree."  Thus even contemporary stories of "Moses and Jesus" are considered a thing apart from any other stories, religious or otherwise.  Elsewhere in his response-- which I may examine more fully in other essays-- Sim states that he has no problem with comparing "Diana and Zeus and Hermes" to modern characters like "Wonder Woman, Superman and the Flash," because all of them are "birds-- not Birds-- of a feather." However, in Sim's opinion the "luminaries of God's prophetic tradition" should be off limits to such comparative analysis.

I remain, contrary to Dave Sim's charges of intellectual failure, a devoted comparativist.  That doesn't mean, however, that I don't recognize differences in mode and content between what I've called "religious myths" and "literary myths."  But in contrast to one of my old cyber-foes on the Forum That Deserves No Name, who felt that those differences so great that nothing literary should ever be called "mythic," I maintain that any story in any medium can be compared to one in another medium, often if not always fruitfully, and that the emotional feelings aroused by religion and by art are, at base, consubstantial.

Now, some may wonder, "What set this off?"  Simplicity itself: I'm planning to review some religious films in the next few days on the NUM blog, and I wanted to provide context.  I don't usually write theory-essays on NUM, so it's here instead.

Dave Sim, as it happens, is not my only contact with a Christian who had an "off limits" attitude to associating Christian myths with those of other "pedigrees."  I recall, albeit only in fragments, a disconcerting conversation with some Zealot co-worker whose name I've forgotten.  I don't remember how the conversation got on the subject of God's use of supernatural forces, but I remember intently that she didn't like the use of the term "supernatural" for anything having to do with the Christian God.  I made one attempt to remain civil, suggesting the term "miracles" instead.  To my surprise, even though this is a term not infrequently invoked by Christians of all persuasions, this particular Zealot didn't even like to say "miracles," since in her mind that somehow implied that what God did wasn't a part of "reality."  At that point the conversation drifted off into inconsequentiality.

I have remembered that part of it, though, because it does suggest a peculiar mental attitude that conflates the "magic" of one's own religion as an intrinsic part of reality, even when it's patently obvious that no human beings goes through life experiencing burning bushes or tongues of fire every quotidian moment.  My invented term "metaphenomenal" has one advantage: it doesn't imply that a given extraordinary phenomenon is necessarily "unreal," merely that it goes beyong the average phenomena that are, as Heraclitus said, "common to all."

In the 2008 essay in which I introduced the term, I compared it to the more-frequently-used academic term, "the fantastic:"

Some fictive universes depict only representations of what our culture calls its consensual reality; the things that a majority agrees on as being real. Other fictive universes depict things that may never exist, or which do not yet exist, and this requires the author to describe such things largely from imagination rather than experience as such. This struck as me as a loose parallel to Kant's "noumenality" in some ways but not in others, so I discarded his term and substituted one for purely literary purposes: "the metaphenomenal," meaning "beyond the phenomenal." I consider it a better catch-all for all things that owe their existence to mankind's imagination than the usual catch-all employed in academic studies: "the fantastic." There's both logic and tradition to using the latter term, yet it seems at times cumbersome when dealing with phenomenon that go beyond phenomenal limits within a given universe, and yet are not supposed to be regarded as "fantastic" within that universe even though they may be to the majority of readers.
By the terms of this argument, even works in which the authors believed (or may have believed) in the metaphenomena depicted-- such as Zeus in Homer's ILIAD, or Isis in THE GOLDEN ASS of Apuleius, or God in Milton's PARADISE LOST-- can still be fruitfully analyzed in terms of how the author imaginatively depicts his concepts of godhood.  Further, one can analyze how emotional expressivity is consistent in spite of rhetorical goals.  There is a common expressivity in the stories of both Zeus and Tarzan, at least in that both are weaned by friendly animal-helpers, and also (dare I say it? I dood it) in both the stories of Moses and Spider-Man, in that both are called to a duty neither initially embraces.

In closing I should add that though I am a comparativist, in that I believe no religion takes precedence over any other (as Dave Sim explicitly does), I don't embrace the empiricist attitude of some comparativists.  For me, all religions are significant in terms of the intersubjective archetypes they evoke.  Further, unlike the belief-systems of empiricism, those of religion are at least obvious about their status as projections.