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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...

Saturday, March 31, 2012


I established in Part 3 that Northrop Frye had dealt with the nature of protagonists’ power-of-action—henceforth called *dynamis*—purely in terms of its physical nature within the story, which would make it a “narrative value.” However, *dynamis* of any kind or degree must possess “significant values” as well.  As I observed here, *dynamis* can apply to either of the principal axes of narrative—plot or character—though in this essay I will deal with it only with respect to characters.

At present I’ve discerned only two (though there may be more) universally applicable significant values.  Universality means that they will apply to any *dynamis,* no matter whether one speaks of characters who symbolize “might” in their respective narrative worlds—which can be anything from Superman to Dirty Harry—or those who represent a more compromised form of *dynamis,* as with Kafla’s “Joseph K” or Graham Greene’s Henry Scobie, who both exist primarly not to act but to suffer.

The first significant value is “centricity.”  As noted here it is possible that a “focal presence” need not be the viewpoint character; rather, the focal character is simply the focus of the author’s narrative concerns, which the viewpoint character may only exist to illuminate.  The “focal presence” can even be a setting rather than a character, such as Carroll’s Wonderland or Verne’s Center of the Earth.  I note that this need not contradict my earlier statement re: character if one remembers that Aristotle deemed setting and character as subsumable under “ethos.”

  I’ll explore the permutations of centricity further in another essay, but for now, what I’ve written on focal presences seems sufficient.  As a significant value it serves to clarify that the focal presence’s power-of-action may be more important to the story than that of an opponent’s, even if in a physical sense the opponent’s power may seem greater, as seen in the contest between Wagner’s knight Parzival and his sorcerer-villain Klingsor.

The other significant value, the one I referenced at the end of NOTES, requires much more explanation.  The value alludes to the unique ways in which audience-members relate to each mythos in terms of identifying their real-world concerns with those of the characters.  Readers should recall that in Part 1 of this essay-series, I based my discussion of this interaction in terms of Schopenhauer’s incongruity theory of humor.  Works which demonstrated a strong degree of congruence between character-concerns and audience-concerns I characterized as possessing “tonal gravity;” works which demonstrated a strong degree of incongruence between character-concerns and audience-concerns I characterized as possessing “tonal levity.”

For this reason I considered using “congruence” as a rubric to describe a significant value that embraces all these manifestations.  But the idea of congruence is purely relational: it doesn’t adequately define the affects arising from “gravity” and “levity.”

Thus I choose to swipe another academic’s term and put my spin on it: in this case, film-critic James Monaco’s concept of *conviction,* which in my re-interpretation adequately describes the emotional tenor experienced by the audience-members as they discern what level of gravity or levity is appropriate to the narrative mythos in question.

Now, in “Theory of Modes” Frye explores the manifestation of the physical *dynamis* in his mythoi along the pattern of Aristotle, so that this schema follows this downward progression:

Romance / Tragedy / Comedy / Irony

However, this is not the order Frye follows when he’s describing how the mythoi progress in accordance with the patterning of seasonal rituals.  This progression is as follows:

Romance—The ritual of summer
Tragedy—The ritual of autumn
Irony—The ritual of winter
Comedy—The ritual of spring

Of these two patterns, I see the process of the audience’s identificatory conviction as matching that of the seasons.

Conviction, I assert, is at its strongest and most elemental when one is invested in the visceral struggles of the adventure-mythos.  This does not mean that every work in the adventure-mythos conjures forth this deep level of conviction: obviously many make the attempt but do not succeed.  But when the mythos is executed at its height of performance, the audience will experience near-total identification with the hero’s struggle to thwart the forces of evil and destruction.  Summer is still a period of relative vitality, so the audience can invest fully in the possibility of the hero’s triumph.  For tribal man, such victories became relevant to assert the martial spirit of the tribe, for in just three months the forces of seasonal “evil” would begin to eclipse those of good.

Conviction becomes somewhat weaker in the autumnal drama.  As noted many times before, I chose the term “drama” over “tragedy” because in common parlance many people assume that every tragedy ends badly.  Not even Aristotle claimed this, despite the fact that his endorsement of what we now call “the fatal flaw” contributed to the confusion.  In contrast, audiences are accustomed to thinking of dramatic stories as being narratives that may turn out well or badly for the protagonist(s).  However, the mere fact that the audience knows that failure is more possible results in a pulling-back from identification to some degree.  One wants to watch the logical consequences of Gloucester blinding himself as a self-punishment for his figurative blindness, but one does not identify with Gloucester or even Lear in quite the same uncritical manner.  Even in a drama that turns out well for the protagonists in the end, such as Euripides’ IPHEGENIA AT TAURUS, the possibilities of triumph seem yet dimmer, the protagonists’ *dynamis* more in danger of being outmatched.

Autumn still allows for good or bad fortune to win out, but winter is the domain of the irony, where the forces of vitality and *dynamis* are at their lowest ebb.  Conviction is even “lighter” as this point: the audience recognizes that the odds are stacked against the protagonists from the beginning and that the best the heroes can achieve is to find some marginal haven from the ever-present forces of evil, a fate which befalls the surviving protagonists of both CANDIDE and THE WATCHMEN.  Since the very meaning of “irony” is that it says one thing but means another, the audience can take some measure of pleasure from seeing the near-powerless heroes put through their paces, and even treat their fates as a sort of gigantic cosmic joke.

However, winter is at last banished by the forces of good, albeit in a more innocent, less bellicose guise than they assume in summertime.  In spring, the world is reborn from what seems absolute darkness and lack of vitality.  This redemption elicits a joyful response to the very absurdity that, within the mythos of irony, is only a cruel sort of joke.  The unserious aspects of life then assume a life-enhancing quality, comparable to the triumphs of the adventure-mythos but with less sense that the triumphs have been earned in a “serious” sense.  Dumb luck tends to govern the mythos of comedy, as Frye himself observes: “As the main character interest in comedy is so often focused on the defeated characters [at the story’s beginning, I think Frye means], comedy regularly illustrates a victory of arbitrary plot over consistency of character.”  This arbitrariness, this freedom from real consequence, is the reason I consider the comedy-mythos to be the one in which the audience holds the least degree of conviction—though such levity is precisely comedy’s appeal. I note in passing that in common parlance the word “levity” almost applies to this sort of humor, not to the more dolorous forms of irony and satire.  But even if human desire could keep one up in Cloud-Cuckoo Land forever, the seasons will continue their relentless turnings, and so the audience will inevitably proceed from least conviction to greatest conviction, as it readies itself to fight the forces of evil once again.

While the significant value of centricity applies across the board to all mythoi—though I note that I’ve never seen an adventure-story in which the setting was the real star— the significant value of identificatory conviction waxes and wanes according to the audience’s expectations of a given mythos.

Apart from being used to chart the admittedly abstract progressions of literary response, the concept of conviction also provides a tool for better sussing out how different fictional characters align with a given mythos.  In BUFFY THE MYTHOS SLAYER I placed four supernormal characters within each of the four mythoi, but their placements become more logical once the value of conviction provides an intersubjectively-objective justification for their respective assignments.    


Before proceeding to the fourth of the GRAVITY’S CROSSBOW essays, I’ll detail some of the possible intersections between my NUM theory and Northrop Frye’s reformulation of the Aristotelian “power of action” in ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.  I’ll note at the start that within different sections of the ANATOMY Frye explores two overlapping but not identical sets of terms for literary functions—“modes” and “mythoi.”  Both terminological sets are organized in terms with a grand quaternary scheme based upon the four seasons, one which may have taken inspiration from a similar scheme in Theodor Gaster’s THESPIS.  In most of my ARCHIVE essays I’ve utilized the term “mythoi” and avoided the complication of Frye’s writings on “modes.” However, Frye’s most penetrating insights on the “power of action”—which henceforth I’ll simply call *dynamis*— appear at the opening of the chapter “Theory of Modes.”  I provide this detail not because I want to discuss Frye’s modes any more than I have, but simply to be specific as to the context of Frye’s remarks on *dynamis*.  For simplicity’s sake I’ll continue to skip the matter of Fryean modes and will continue directly relating his concepts of *dynamis* to the narrarive *mythoi* he introduces in “Theory of Myths;” the same mythoi I’ve tweaked for my uses: adventure (which Frye calls “romance’) comedy, irony, and drama (which Frye calls “tragedy.”)

Whereas Aristotle’s division of *dynamis* has the fixed arrangement of an aristocratic pecking-order—noble / less noble / ignoble—Frye’s reformulation suggests a more Spenglerian vision of *dynamis*, in which human power of action becomes less and less efficacious as each mythos in its turn becomes less “romantic” and more “realistic.”  In addition, where Aristotle only tangentially mentions the influence of religious myth upon art and literature, Frye begins his literary system by designating religious myth as expressing the height of *dynamis*, even though myth proper is “outside the normal literary categories.” This is because myth pre-eminently concerns the stories of “divine beings” rather than men, so that myth-protagonists are “superior in kind to both other men and to the environment of other men.”

Romance/adventure takes the next rating in terms of dynamic potential, in that it concerns the type of protagonist who is “superior in degree to other men and to his environment.”  Following this category, the next three mythoi—tragedy/drama, comedy, and irony—focus upon protagonists whose personal *dynamis* becomes more and more compromised by the intrusions of reality.  In all these characterizations of *dynamis*, Frye is regarding each level of power purely in terms of its physical manifestation within a given narrative

I’ve studied Frye for many years, I didn’t have Frye’s “romantic-to-realistic” transitions of *dynamis* consciously in mind when I formulated the NUM theory, though there is a loose correlation.  Frye’s formulation proceeds from “extremely marvelous” (myth) to “somewhat marvelous” (romance) to “entirely realistic” (the three increasingly realistic mythoi: drama, comedy and irony).  In contrast, I’ve asserted three levels of phenomenality:

“the marvelous”— cognitive and affective aspects of phenomena do exceed causality
“the uncanny”—causality cognitively preserved, but affectivity exceeds causality
“the naturalistic”—cognitive and affective aspects are both contained by causality

It should be noted that Frye’s “somewhat marvelous” level includes all sorts of things that I deem fully marvelous, even lacking the presence of divine protagonists: “enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power.” As a side-note, it’s interesting that, given Todorov’s negative mention of Frye in THE FANTASTIC, it’s possible Todorov’s uses of the term “marvelous” may have been influenced by Frye, even as Todorov’s use of “the uncanny” almost certainly derives from Freud.  Of course, as noted here, Todorov defines the marvelous in terms of “the real,” whereas Frye is careful to specify, with a Jungian pluralism, that all the above-listed marvels “violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established.” 

  I’m aware of nothing in Frye’s theory that parallels any concept of “the uncanny,” be it Freud’s, Todorov’s, or my own.  However, it’s interesting that the “somewhat marvelous” (my words) characterization of the romance can be interpreted as an interstitial category between the completely marvelous and the completely naturalistic/realistic.

The most problematic aspect of Frye’s *dynamis* schema is that in its attempt to cohere with Aristotle’s pattern, it implies that “the marvelous” is located purely within the mythoi of myth and romance.  I’m sure that, even staying within the confines of the canonical “high” literature with which Frye concerns himself, the scholar was quite cognizant that there exist many literary works which have marvelous content but which are not adventure-romances as Frye himself defines that mythos.  Apuleis’ novel THE GOLDEN ASS concerns a man magically changed into an ass, who then listens in on the secret conversations of human beings, while Shakespeare’s TEMPEST concerns a genuine practitioner of magic—but neither work is centered upon what Frye terms the *agon,* the conflict between representatives of good and evil.  If one agrees with me that these two works belong to other mythoi—my choices would be “comedy” for one and “drama” for the other—then it does not make logical sense to say, or even to imply, that aspects of marvelous phenomeanlity appear only in the adventure-romance category.

Similarly, not all heroes of archaic romance exist in marvelous worlds.  The 12th-century Spanish poem EL CID concerns a hero who is mighty but never more than mortal, and all of his opponents are purely mortal as well.  Thus it’s obvious that the mythos I call “adventure” is not defined by its metaphenomenal content.  It’s axiomatic, then, that all four mythoi can be include works that align with any of the three phenomenalities.  Thus Frye’s implied association of his four mythoi with particular phenomenalities—“marvelous” with romance, “naturalistic” with drama, comedy, and irony—proves insufficient.

However, this imperfect schema applies only to reading the *dynamis* attributed to each mythos in purely physical terms; as to how much temporal power each mythoi’s ideal protagonist may possess.  The real strength of Frye’s schema is to be found not in the implied “narrative values”— how each *dynamis* manifests in physical terms—but in terms of one “significant value” that more neatly characterizes each mythos, irrespective of whether its phenomenality is marvelous, uncanny, or naturalistic—a value on which I’ll expatiate further in GRAVITY’S CROSSBOW 4.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


In Part 2 of this essay-series I alluded to, but did not explain, a dichotomy between two distinct aspects of the power of action, aspects which Frye suggests in other writings but does not formulate in his rethinking of Aristotle at the beginning of the "Theory of Modes" chapter of ANATOMY OF CRITICISM:

In the second paragraph of the Poetics Aristotle speaks of the differences in works of fiction which are caused by the different elevations of the characters in them. In some fictions, he says, the characters are better than we are, in others worse, in still others on the same level. This passage has not received much attention from modern critics, as the importance Aristotle assigns to goodness and badness seems to indicate a somewhat narrowly moralistic view of literature. Aristotle's words for good and bad, however, are spouddos and phaulos, which have a figurative sense of weighty and light. In literary fictions the plot consists of somebody doing something. The somebody, if an individual, is the hero, and the something he does or fails to do is what he can do, or could have done, on the level of the postulates made about him by the author and the consequent expectations of the audience. Fictions, there fore, may be classified, not morally, but by the hero's power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same.-- Frye, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.

Frye's interpretation of Aristotle's terms make a fair comparison with those I've introduced in previous parts of this essay: "tonal levity" for comedy and irony, "tonal gravity" for drama and adventure.  Like Frye and unlike Aristotle, I'm not interested in viewing these qualities of weightiness and lightness in terms of moral rectitude.  However, Frye may have erred by defining "power of action" purely in physical terms.  In my comparison between PLANET OF THE APES and KAMANDI, I noted that the protagonists of these works-- possessing similar subject matter though very different themes-- might have near-identical physical abilities, yet the way those abilities manifested in the narratives could be very different.

Taylor and Kamandi, both of whom are tough human beings with no fantastic powers or weapons, are identical in terms of their *physical* power of action, but not in terms of their *thematic* power of action. 
In this essay and others I've drawn attention to a dichotomy Frye introduced about 4-5 years before the publication of ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, in an essay entitled "The Archetypes of Literature," sort of a dry run for ANATOMY.  The dichotomy was between what he called the "narrative values" and the "significant values" of any given narrative.  The former set of values denote those aspects of the narrative that are important to its function as a narrative, while the latter set are relevant to those that cause the narrative to be significant to audiences in a moral, ethical or aesthetic sense (my definition).  As it happens, though Frye does not repeat these terms in ANATOMY, he does, within the same chapter that introduces his reformulation of "power of action," draw a distinction between "fictional modes" and "thematic modes."  These are so close in essence to the earlier terms that I choose to keep using the earlier ones.

In this early essay I summarized the ways in which Frye defines "power of action" into five different modes, only four of which were applicable to literature proper, and which generated the mythoi I've re-termed "adventure, comedy, drama, and irony."  Yet in essays like this one, I've tangentially pointed out that in none of these mythoi are the protagonists limited in terms of PHYSICAL power.  All four-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (representing adventure), Harry Potter (drama), Ranma Saotome (comedy), and the so-called "Watchmen" (irony)-- incarnate various degrees of marvelous power.

A strictly "narrative values" interpretation of Frye's formula could not allow for such distribution of power.  Frye allots the idea of heroes who perform marvelous actions to the mode/mythos of "romance" alone:

If superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvellous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established.

In all likelihood, given that Frye was primarily focused on medieval and Renaissance works, it's likely that within his specialty one usually did not see "prodigies of courage and endurance" or "talismans of miraculous power" anywhere in any literary category save that which he calls the "romance," and which I've termed "adventure."  But plainly in many types of later literature, marvelous powers are not confined to the heroes of the adventure-mythos.

This means that if anything separates such super-powered heroes as Buffy, Harry, Ranma and (just to choose one "Watchman") Doctor Manhattan, it's not the NARRATIVE nature of their "power of action," but the SIGNIFICANT nature, the nature that determines to what thematic ends the power is used.

More later.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


In Part 1 I formulated the concepts of "tonal levity," which governs the dynamizations of comedy and irony, and of "tonal gravity," which governs the dynamizations of drama and adventure.  The main focus of both principles is the congruity, or lack of congruity, between the interests of the fictional narrative's protagonists and those of the viewing/listening audience:

Works in which the reader's identificatory investment seems entirely congruous with the "interests" that the fictional characters have in their own fictional lives, are governed by the principle of *tonal gravity,* in that the reader feels himself "drawn down" into the characters' interests.

Works in which the reader's identificatory investment becomes at odds with the "interests" of the fictional characters are governed by the principle of *tonal levity,* in that the reader "floats free" of that investment and is moved away from "concern and sympathy" and toward a humorous or at least distanced response.
Though I also provided a brief comparison between two SF-works, using one (PLANET OF THE APES) as an example of tonal levity, and another (STAR WARS) as an example of tonal gravity, I didn't address the original problem: why does it seem, in an intersubjective sense, that sublimity/"the sense of wonder" is more often perceived in works of tonal gravity than in works of tonal levity.

Kant suggests a starting-point in his defintion of the sublime.  For Kant, the only way a subject can experience the aspect of the sublime is if, while observing the might and magnificence of a given phenomenon (for Kant, natural wonders), the subject can feel safe enough from natural disaster to contemplate the phenomenon.  Though Kant does not clearly locate the sublime in art, as Burke and Schopenhauer do, this "position of safety" does resemble that of the invested audience-member, who is "drawn down" into investment in the interests of the characters.  Thus the viewer of Kant's sublime takes the threat of the phenomenon "seriously," in that he can imagine being caught up in it even though he is reasonably safe from that peril.  This suggests that in order to experience the sublime a sense of "gravity" is necessary.

The mode of "levity," however, convinces the subject that he is essentially independent of the world of grave consequences.  In this mood the Kantian paradigm of the subject faced with awesome natural phenomenon takes a different course: feeling himself safe, this subject laughs at the inability of natural forces to touch him.  In fictional narrative, the audience-subject may read about any number of perils to the lives of comic or ironic characters.  But the audience-member has learned not to invest too much interest in these types of characters.  The comic ones will usually be saved by fortunate fate; the ironic ones are doomed from the start.  In adventure and drama, there is generally more emphasis upon what Frye calls the characters' "power of action," which I'll be exploring more thoroughly in Part 3.

While STAR WARS and PLANET OF THE APES are adequate broad examples of my concepts, a narrower application can be seen using works that involve similar subject matter.

I would not claim that there are no attempts to conjure forth the "sense of wonder" in the 1968 film PLANET OF THE APES.  As I note in my review, roughly half an hour ensues before the film's protagonists-- a group of Earth-astronauts, who will soon be whittled down to just one protagonist named Taylor-- encounter the society of the apes. 

There is a strong, if possibly negative, "sense of wonder" attached to seeing humanoid apes usurp all the functions of mankind, including treating human beings as if they were mere "dumb animals." I myself, on a recent viewing, almost judged the film a "drama" in my initial review (the correction appears in the essay), until I realized that Taylor's "power of action" is not commensurate with that of the majority of dramatic protagonists, nor did the plot allow for what Aristotle termed the "reversal" that takes one from good to bad or from bad to good.  Taylor allows himself to hope that his situation may improve, but when that hope is cruelly crushed by the film's final revelation, the only "reversal" is one of "from bad to worse."  The film's scenes of social satire, though I found them overly long, are nevertheless vital to seeing that the world of the APES is one which Northrop Frye calls a "demonic epiphany"-- particularly of the type where one sees that "the goal of the quest isn't there." 

Contrast this film to KAMANDI, the popular Jack Kirby comic book which took its inspiration, however indirectly, from the APES films.

Kirby's work was of course conceived to be an ongoing serial from the beginning, while PLANET OF THE APES only begat sequels once the initial film-- potentially a stand-alone work-- proved successful.  However, though Kirby occasionally includes moments of loony comedy or even existential despair in the adventures of the "Last Boy on Earth," the cumulative emphasis is principally upon hot-blooded adventure, as with the combat-scene shown above.  Taylor and Kamandi, both of whom are tough human beings with no fantastic powers or weapons, are identical in terms of their *physical* power of action, but not in terms of their *thematic* power of action.  Because the audience-subject can potentially invest himself in the myriad adventures of Kamandi without reserve, Kamandi's world-- where assorted other humanoid animals have joined apes in usurping man's birthright-- is a place of endless wonder, and therefore, an uncompromised vision of sublimity.

The mythos of the comedy invokes tonal levity after a different fashion, and for a different purpose, though one might assert that it ends up with the same basic "unserious" affect of the irony.  For an example of this mythos, I turn from an "animal society" to an "Amazon society," largely because I have already discussed the appearance of sublimity in a review of this comically-themed film.

INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES, which is by no means as well known as the previous two examples for irony and adventure respectively, neverthless illustrates my point as to how the effect of sublimity can be present and yet be defused by the devices of tonal levity.

In my review of INVASION, I didn't prize its actual humor very highly, but I noted that the script did have some "insights" into what made the more serious versions of its SF-tropes successful.  The story's main conflict takes place between two foolish protagonists attempting to keep two representatives of an alien, Amazon-like society from conquering Earth.  I appreciated the fact that these "space Amazons" were something of a reversal of the normal depiction of such types in "serious" SF films of the time:

The space amazons are, in essence, the element of Haze’s script that most pushes the crude humor from the ridiculous to the sublime. Sci-fi cinema of the 1950s sports a fair number of stories about alien worlds ruled by women, as seen in 1954’s CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON and 1958’s QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE. In these films the females possess technology superior to that of Earth, but their feminine emotions make them vulnerable to the charms of hunky Earthmen. INVASION follows this basic pattern, but Tanga and Puna are scientists who are far more intelligent than any Earth-denizen in the story, rather than simply inheriting technology from their culture. Their ability to loom over the short soldiers is of course exploited for sex appeal—lots of shots of Philbrick looking straight up into Puna’s cleavage—but it also allows an interesting reversal, in that Puna and Tanga can and do frequently push or knock the two males about with impunity.

I also had some praise for the fact that the scripter actually devoted a little thought as to how the aliens' society functioned, at least enough thought that it could've passed for the average space-opera tale.  However, though the film makes no bones about the fact that the Amazons are both physically and intellectually superior to the dim-witted Earthmen, any "sense of wonder" one might have toward the Amazons-- that is, "wonder" apart from your basic lust-- is squelched by the way the two schmuck-heroes triumph by sheer dumb luck: that "fortunate fate" I mentioned earlier.  One shot of the Amazons' reduced status by picture's end probably captures best the levity-stratagems involved here:

To complete this comparison, I'll choose one of the "serious" films that may have served as the inspiration to INVASION.  Admittedly CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON is given such a cheapjack and clumsy presentation that many viewers have probably enjoyed it less as a drama than an unintentional comedy:

Nevertheless, the basic theme of a female society seeking to subvert male-dominated Earth society is played essentially straight, in keeping with this description from the site MONSTER SHACK:

 A popular film genre during the 1950′s and 1960′s was the "Amazon" film. The plot typically revolves around a group of men who discover a secluded society of women who have no apparent need of men. The "Amazon" society is often ruled by a dictatorial "Queen" with the power of life and death over her subjects, yet despite this overbearing totalitarian government, the women somehow consider themselves to be more "advanced" than the "primitive" culture of "men". Due to the fact that they are cut off from the opposite sex, Amazons usually have underdeveloped or nonexistent emotions, often with no idea what "love" means. The dashing men swoop into the Amazon society (usually taken prisoner in the process) and are typically sentenced to death by the jealous and possessive "Queen". At the last moment, one or more of the Amazon women fall in love with the men and betray their society in an effort to save their new found "mates". The Amazon Queen almost always die in the end (at the hands of the men), thus releasing her followers from their draconian existence and giving them the freedom to feel love and emotion for the first time.

While this summation can't help but sound risible, the theme of male-dominated society-- represented by stalwart Earth-astronauts voyaging to the moon-- versus the insidious persuasive power of the alien "cat women"-- is one in which a viewer *could* be seriously invested, if the film was not handicapped in terms of its presentation.  The scene above shows Helen, the one female astronaut (Marie Windsor), being mesmerized to join the society of the Cat Women, who wish her to betray the men in the moon-expedition.  Significantly, the only way that the hero can break the spell on Helen is with good old masculine force:

Doug rushes back and tells Kip what the Cat-Women are up to. Kip, of course, is already aware of the plans from his previous chat with Helen, but it suddenly hits him that Helen is back under the Cat-Women’s control, and is getting information from Laird in the other room. (Alpha is then receiving what Laird says about the ship via telepathy.) Kip rushes into the room and finally discovers that if he can cover the moon-symbol on Helen’s hand, she will be freed of the Cat-Women’s mind control. (Are you following all this?)

Kip forcefully grabs her hand and covers the moon mark, breaking the spell.
As the review covers in greater depth, this display of force also awakens Helen to her love for Kip, which in theory is supposed to arouse the identificatory responses in the audience, since the film encourages audiences to want to see the characters together.  The defeat of the Cat Women depends less on full-fledged heroic activity than any roughly comparable situation in KAMANDI, so this is a lower level of the "power of action," one more befitting the label of "drama."  Nevertheless, Commander Kip and his buddies are not, like Penn and Philbrick of INVASION, depending on dumb luck to save their bacon.

Further, though the film botches the poetic resonance inherent in the title, it's certainly feasible that the basic association of "cats," "women," and Earth's lunar satellite could be conveyed so that the film succeeded in conjuring the sense-of-wonder.  And 1950s cinema is replete with more than a few examples where this sort of "feminine sublimity" was successfully conjured.  CAT WOMEN is, sadly, the closest thing the period offers to a "serious" take on alien Amazons. 

In conclusion, the basic effect of the comic or ironic strategies characteristic of tonal levity-works is that they defuse the "gravity" of the potentially sublime phenomenon, so that the audience-subject is no longer fully invested in it. Without full investment, the subject rises above the sense of grave consequence, and in the safety of being on the other side of the page, or screen, he can laugh-- whether heartily or bitterly-- at the storm's fury.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


For the last week I've been meditating over the question, "Does sublimity (a.k.a. "the sense of wonder") occur in all four Fryean mythoi equally?  The answer-- "no"-- is easy.  Figuring out why it should be so is a bit more involved.

I've noted before that of all the major philosophers to write about sublimity in connection with literature, Edmund Burke is one of the most profligate in providing examples.  However, I note that most of his examples fall into one of two mythoi: the "drama" (PARADISE LOST, HENRY IV) or the "adventure" (THE FAERIE QUEENE).  Schopenhauer, for his part, recognizes only "tragedy" (which I regard as identical with the category "drama") as sublime.

Moving to those readerships concerned with "the sense of wonder," it's my informal impression that when fans of fantasy and SF wax enthusiastic about those works with that quality, they rarely if ever center upon works of the other two mythoi, "comedy" and "irony."  In the domain of prose, works like Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END or Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS are celebrated for their ability to elicit wonder.  But though one can find science-fictional marvels and magical mysteries in such works as Fredric Brown's WHAT MAD UNIVERSE or the deCamp-Pratt COMPLEAT ENCHANTER, I would say such works-- both of which are comedies-- are never celebrated for the "sense of wonder."  Ironic science fiction is often celebrated for its intellectual rigor-- indeed, if one reads Kingsley Amis' NEW MAPS FROM HELL, one gets the impression that no one ever wrote good SF but Fred Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth-- but Amis praises them for satirical visions, not for the "sense of wonder."

So, are comedy and irony in some way inimical to the sense of wonder? In the essay REFINING THE DEFINING I placed them in opposition to drama and adventure:

The drama and the adventure, often perceived as two "serious" types of entertainment, are easy to confound, even as are the two types of "unserious" entertainment, comedy and irony.

However, I haven't yet devoted a great deal of attention to what separates notions of "serious" and "unserious" fiction. Since I've noted before that I subscribe largely to Schopenhauer's "incongruity theory" of humor, it behooves me to quote "Uncle Arthur" once again:

“The opposite of laughter and joking is seriousness. This, accordingly, consists in the consciousness of the perfect agreement and congruity of the concept, or the idea, with what is perceptive, with reality. The serious person is convinced that he conceives things as they are, and that they are as he conceives them. This is just why the transition from profound seriousness to laughter is particularly easy, and can be brought about by trifles.”—Arthur Schopenhauer, WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION (trans. Payne), p. 99.

Elsewhere in WORLD the philosopher also speaks of "drama or descriptive poetry"-- which I understand to connote narrative art as a whole-- in these terms:

we call drama or descriptive poetry interesting when it represents events and actions of a kind which necessarily arouse concern or sympathy, like that which we feel in real events involving our own person.

Taking the two statements together, it seems not unreasonable to hypothesize that in narrative fiction "the perfect agreement of the concept, or the idea, with what is perceptive, with reality" accords with the idea of a reader's investment in the narrative's events as if they arouse straightforward "concern or sympathy."  However, if events in the narrative undermines the reader's investment because they seem incongruous, then the reader, while not necessarily losing all "concern and sympathy," is moved to a humorous reaction, which may vary along a wide spectrum of affects from the deep belly-laugh to the more intellectualized "I laugh that I might not weep" response.
Thus I suggest this dichotomy:

Works in which the reader's identificatory investment seems entirely congruous with the "interests" that the fictional characters have in their own fictional lives, are governed by the principle of  *tonal gravity,* in that the reader feels himself "drawn down" into the characters' interests.

Works in which the reader's identificatory investment becomes at odds with the "interests" of the fictional characters are governed by the principle of *tonal levity,* in that the reader "floats free" of that investment and is moved away from "concern and sympathy" and toward a humorous or at least distanced response.

I'm moved to add that most narrative works borrow from both principles at varying times, though I stand by my assertion that every narrative work has a fundamental core that inclines it more to one of the four mythoi over the other three.  Narratives of drama and adventure frequently use humor to break up the relentless seriousness of the story, while narratives of comedy and irony must usually invoke some notion of fateful consequence to keep the reader "interested" in the character's experiences.   But though a film like STAR WARS often uses humor to temporarily dispel tension, the audience recognizes that the humorous moments don't determine the thrust of the narrative, and so the brief appeals to "tonal levity" don't dispel the watchers' investment in seeing the characters live or die.   Conversely, PLANET OF THE APES uses many devices taken from adventure-narratives to make the audience partially invested in the fate of Charlton Heston's astronaut Taylor.  But the spectacle of the intelligent apes repeating all of mankind's old mistakes-- particularly religious fanaticism-- evokes a wry sense of humor in the viewer, confirming the dark pessimism that Taylor expresses early in the film.  Taylor's heroic exertions almost dispel his pessimism, but this development merely sets him up as the butt of a colossal ironic joke, as he's plunged back into despair by the "statuesque" proof of man's stupidity.  Admittedly PLANET's conclusion is supposed to be more sobering than funny, but I'd argue that it still conforms to the principle of "tonal levity" in that the viewer has become distanced from the protagonist's travails.

I'll explore these concepts more in further essays, but I'll note in closing that neither "levity" nor "gravity" lines up with two similar-sounding concepts introduced here long ago, "thematic realism" and "thematic escapism."  While the former terms are specifically oriented toward sussing out the nature of two opposed sets of mythoi-- one which includes two dominantly "serious" mythoi and one which includes two dominantly "unserious" mythoi-- the latter terms apply to any mythos across the board.  "Thematic realism" connotes the attempt of authors to reflect "real-world" concerns in their fiction, while "thematic escapism" connotes the attempt to take "a vacation from morals."
Thus, were I asked for a random film-example for each mythos and each thematic focus, I would write something like this:

THEMATIC REALISM                                   THEMATIC ESCAPISM

Comedy-- MODERN TIMES                        Comedy-- WAYNE'S WORLD
Adventure-- THE WIND AND THE LION           Adventure-- STAR WARS
Drama-- BLADE RUNNER                                  Drama-- DRACULA
Irony-- PLANET OF THE APES            Irony-- 1934's THE BLACK CAT

Sunday, March 11, 2012


"My conviction gains infinitely the moment another soul will believe in it.”-- Thomas Carlyle's translation of an epigraph by Novalis.

In this essay I pointed out some of the parallels between the sublime affect and mythic complexity, emphasizing mostly this similarity:

Neither Burke nor Kant demonstrate any great fascination with mythic symbolism as such. However, I would expand some of the terms they use to describe the sublime, such as "might" or "magnificence," to include the sense of a greater mythic pattern that brings the events of a given story into the wider "family" of mythic narrative.

Now, as a result on my recent meditations on the sublime's operations in both literary and popular narratives, I should point out one of the salient differences between the two.

The Novalis/Carlyle epigraph bears on the question as to how one can ratify the existence of the sublime.  I don't agree with Schopenhauer's statement (in  WORLD) that it is perceived only by either men of genius or by those who have been "guided" by men of genius in their tastes.  However, it does seem that, as it is an affect more elusive than more familiar ones, such as happiness and sadness, the easiest way to ratify its existence is in terms of its popularity.

In Part 1 of NUM-INOUS ENCOUNTERS I asserted that Kant's essential definition of "dominance" could also be discerned in the "violent sublimity" of popular films, as exemplified by three very popular adventure-films.

That said, though the very popularity of these films suggests that the violent acts go beyond the merely functional, and so become an appreciation of "might" in and of itself, I cannot demonstrate the presence of the sublime on these terms in less popular films of the same types.  I might personally find the sublime in a Dirty Harry imitation, a martial-arts tournament flick, or a STAR WARS ripoff.  But if the other three films were of no more than moderate popularity, I could not argue that others also venerated them because of the sublime affect.

Thus, I am toying with-- though not completely committed to-- the idea that the sublime affect can be perceived best through works that have proved popular with a majority of their audience, be it a "high-art" or "low-art" audience.  With works that have not proved popular with some audience at some time, it's harder to divine this specific affect.

This is in strong contradistinction with the mythic, which, as it is properly a discourse rather than an affect-- albeit a discourse determined through what Langer terms presentational symbolism, can be demonstrated in any work, irregardless of popularity, as I demonstrated in the essay AN UNPOPULAR YET EXEMPLARY MYTH.

A further essay is needed to explore in what ways the sublime might be seen as an intensification of the "diffuse meaning" that Langer perceives within objects of presentational symbolism.

Friday, March 9, 2012


In this essay I commented that I found Schopenhauer's doctrine of the sublime unsatisfying, but I didn't specify on my reasons.  This time out I'll enlarge on those reasons as well as my use of his concept of "degrees" of sublimity.

In his WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION, Schopenhauer gives this short definition of the sublime:

"The feeling of the sublime arose from the fact that something positively unfavourable to the will becomes [an] object of pure contemplation."
I can agree with every aspect of this statement but one.  For the word "positively" I would substitute "potentially."  Longinus, Burke and Kant all agree that the affect of sublimity comes into being only through a subject's contact with some overwhelming power/might/infinitude.  However, none of them go so far as to say that this power must be invariably unfavorable to the human will.  Of all the intellects that I've examining over the past few months regarding the interlinked concepts of "the sublime," "transcendence," "numinosity," and "the sense of wonder," only C.S. Lewis resembles Schopenhauer in his tendency to characterize the awestruck affect purely as a negative affect.  (The consequences of Lewis' tendency are examined here.)
To extend some of those remarks here, Lewis and Schopenhauer both to characterize the "mysterium" (Rudolf Otto's term) purely in terms of what Otto calls the fearful response of the "tremendum."  Neither adequately accounts, at least in the works examined here, for the opposing response Otto chronicles, the sense of attraction denoted as "the fascinans."

Still, Schopenhauer did conceive the notion of sussing out the sublime in terms of its degrees of expression, though none of his specific examples in WORLD are useful to me here.
In Part 1 I put forth three fictional characters from heroic cinema-- the protagonists of DIRTY HARRY, ENTER THE DRAGON and STAR WARS-- and argued that they incarnate sublimity in the quasi-Kantian  form of "dominance."

However, for each work the affect has a different characteristic due to the degree to which the phenomenality of the work bears on that affect. 

In DIRTY HARRY, as noted before, the hero dwells within an entirely naturalistic cosmos.  The viewer is undoubtedly led to feel as if Harry is a divine avenger, and delights in seeing him dominate and destroy the evildoer, particularly because Scorpio has proved a worthy foeman.   At the same time, the viewer knows that the fantasy is essentially an illusion in both Harry's world and his.  I submit that this factor lessens the power of the sublimity-affect upon the viewer's mind.

In ENTER THE DRAGON, the hero dwells within a cosmos that largely appears naturalistic but deviates in a few vital aspects, which have a marked effect on Lee's struggle for dominance.  These aspects open up new possibilities, what Kant calls "free play," within a world that can no longer be purely naturalistic, but must rather be termed "uncanny."  To be sure, most of Bruce Lee's films do remain resolutely within naturalistic confines.  However, the Hong Kong kung-fu film that his legend furthered (even though it did not create that film-genre) would continually spawn many quasi-realistic works in the same basic tradition as ENTER.  In such films, the sublimity-affect is considerably freer.

In STAR WARS, the heroes dwell witin a cosmos that may be "natural" to them but which is clearly "marvelous" to us.  Though there are some theoretical limitations-- Luke Skywalker presumably cannot encounter a fantasy-version of a genie, though he might encounter a science-fictional version of same-- the free play of phenomenal content is wide open.  Of the three, STAR WARS, whether one speaks of the film, the film-series or even the whole corpus of media-adaptations, clearly has the strongest resemblance to Burke's characterization of the sublime in terms of "the richness and profusion of images."
Of course, to say that the last version of the sublime possesses the freest nature is not to say that it is "the best."  Some readers will prefer only sublimity in its naturalistic forms, some in its uncanny forms, and some in its marvelous forms.  My form of pluralism does not stoop to meaningless preferences, but seeks to identify the spectrum over which human desire distributes itself into fictional narratives.

More on Schopenhauer to come, though not with respect to sublimity.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Though Kant remains the go-to person for this basic definition of the beautiful and the sublime, as per this oft-quoted-by-me passage...

"The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in its being bounded. But the sublime can also be found in a formless object, insofar as we present unboundedness..."-- Section 245.

...one must admit that Kant requires some retooling for a post-psychological age.  Kant's ideas of boundedness and unboundedness probably owe much to Classical philosophers like Plato and Anaximander, but as Kant presents them, they don't have any apparent links to human psychology.

The modern philosopher Georges Bataille, however, took no small influence from early Freudianism.  In my recent reading of a Bataille biography I can find no indication that he was definitely aware of that Freudian offshoot "object relations," spun off from doctrinaire Freudianism by Ferenczi and Rank in the 1920s. However, whether by accident or influence, his theories of transgression suggest a basic understanding of what it means to violate the borders of the human body, particulary in EROTISM (p. 106):

The [sexual] urge is first of all a natural one but it cannot be given free rein without barriers being torn down ... Demolished barriers are not the same as death but just as the violence of death overturns - irrevocably - the structure of life so temporarily and partially does sexual violence...

This in turn bears interesting implications for my revisions of sublimity as covalent with Huxley's concept of "vertical transcendence," as a radical ascent from or descent into the imagined nature of the body.

I've addressed elsewhere my disputation with Bataille with respect to his tendency to regard sexuality as an aspect of violence.  From that argument it should be clear that many forms of narrative violence are not notably sexual in nature, but despite that disagreement with Bataille I believe that his concept of "demolished barriers" shows how sublimity can arise from violent encounters in fictional narratives.  As noted earlier this does not mean that ALL violent encounters, any more than all sexual encounters, will possess the intensity needed to convey the sublime.  The potential is always there, however.

I've chosen three examples of cinematic heroism which are so well celebrated that I believe their violence goes beyond mere functionality; that it becomes an aspect of transpersonal myth for audiences.  Each of these examples focuses on a hero whose violent action becomes sublime, though each with its own phenomenal character.  In addition each focuses upon a climactic part of the narrative, when a given hero has a deciding impact on the narrative's conclusion, and each narrative appears in the decade of the 1970s, which would prove a critical period for the rennovation of heroic narratives in that medium.

First, as an example of the naturalistic phenomenality, I offer DIRTY HARRY (1971):

As most movie-mavens will know, this shot capsulizes the violent final encounter that will soon take place between the protagonist Harry Callahan and his maniacal enemy Scorpio.  Despite the criminal's "supervillain" name and the dastardly act he undertakes at the film's climax-- i.e., kidnapping a busful of children for ransom-- both villain and hero are entirely mundane in nature.  Diegetically Harry is an ordinary man with no special abilities beyond those conveyed by police department training.  However, at this climactic moment Harry becomes, in symbolic terms at least, an avatar of "the wrath of God" that will soon be visited, to the audience's implicit delight, upon the heinous antagonist. 

At this point, if no other, Dirty Harry takes on a transcendent quality.  I would call this particular quality (revised since I last wrote of it here) as the "atypical-sublime."  In a naturalistic world, even the most extreme actions by hero and villain can never be more than atypical occurences in a world dominated by typical events.

As an example of the uncanny phenomenality, I offer ENTER THE DRAGON (1973):

DRAGON, which I've not yet examined in depth on my film-blog, is one of many action-films that could be entirely naturalistic in nature with the removal of certain content within the film.  For instance, had Bruce Lee's character (also named Lee) simply battled the villainous Han in a more mundane setting, that would have removed one metaphenomenal element from the film.  However, the idea of a villain trapping a hero in a "hall of mirrors" goes quite a bit beyond the habits of even the most inventive of the naturalistic villains, such as the aforementioned Scorpio.  A hall of mirrors certainly does not violate our ideas of causality, so it is not metaphenomenal in any cognitive sense, but because it does suggest the metaphenomenal in an affective sense-- pushing Han more toward the domain of the supervillain proper-- this scene in particular captures violent sublimity in one of its two metaphenomenal modes, both of which I still designate as "the strange-sublime."

Finally, as an example of the marvelous phenomenality, STAR WARS (1977) proves efficacious:

The climax of STAR WARS takes a different tack from the previous two films in that it deals with a much more monumental threat, the Death Star, and destroys it not in a *mano-a-mano* confrontation as in the other two films, but after the fashion of "David and Goliath," with the heroes defeating a superior enemy through an attack on a weak point.  The two heroes most involved, Solo and Skywalker, employ during the climax offensive weapons that are perhaps "natural" to the characters, but to the viewing audience remain as fundamentally marvelous as the spells of a wizard.  There is of course still a sense that the two heroes put their lives as much on the line as the other referenced characters, but once again the audience is given an ecstatic pleasure at the sight of seeing this particular body demolished, just as in the more down-to-earth films a particular villain must be destroyed.

More on this in part 2.

Monday, March 5, 2012


It occurs to me that before I can write the aforementioned essay on three types of human-centered "might" (and their consequences for sublimity) I need to define more particularly what might represents in my system, as opposed to a pure Kantian framework.

First, a quick re-acquaintance with the nature of the term "dynamic" as cited in KNOWING THE DYNAMIS FROM THE DYNAMIC:

DYNAMIC (noun): An interactive system or process, especially one involving competing or conflicting forces.

It's in this context that I invariably use the Greek term "dynamis" for any energy generated by the forces within this process.  For narrative such energies are often generated between elements of plot, characterization and other aspects of narrative, though the conflicts of character interplay and plot interweavings have proven the most fundamental to my system.

That narrative is a system, albeit not a closed one, should be obvious. In this essay I cited one of the few workable concepts I've adapted from Tzvetan Todorov:
"All narrative is a movement between two equilibriums which are similar but not identical.”

-- Todorov, THE FANTASTIC.

One of the best comics-sequences that catches the bare minimum of this narrative movement appeared in an issue of AMERICAN SPLENDOR by Harvey Pekar, celebrated by Alan Moore in a recent video.

Man is hot (first equilibrium). Man makes lemonade (transition).  Man is refreshed (new equilibrium).  The transition from one status to the next generates the energy, the *dynamis,* that makes this a narrative.  Take away any section of it and the interactive system is gone.

Now, there is *dynamis* in this enacting of a mundane chore, both in the narrative world and in the real world where presumably the real Harvey Pekar did make himself a glass of lemonade on a hot day.

But is there any "might" in it?

On this philosophy blog (which, quite frankly, I found while looking for Kantian passages to copy so that I wouldn't have to expend *dynamis* typing them), one Nate Hawthorne also cited the Kant passage I did in my last post, and adds this interpretation:

Humans have might as well. The surgeon who removes a tumor exercises a certain force to lift and hold a scalpel, and presses the scalpel to pierce the patient’s skin. Those are operations of might. A person who walks through a strong wind pushes against the force, the might, of the wind using their own might.
I disagree.  The surgeon who pierces the patient's skin, the person walking against a strong wind, and the comic-book writer who makes himself a glass of lemonade are all exerting *dynamis,* but not might (German *macht*).  Since Kant defines might as "an ability that is superior to great obstacles," then the surgeon and the comic-book writer are not exerting "might."  One could argue that the wind-walker is at least competing with the wind, but since (as Hawthorne mentions) there exists the real possibility that the wind may win the contest, the walker's exertion can't be considered superior to his particular great obstacle.

Now, it's possible that "superior" should not be taken to mean unconditional superiority, for if it were, then there would seem to be no need for Kant to distinguish "might" from "dominance."

A key element of Kant's concept of sublimity is that the person experiencing the sublime emotion must be witness to a phenomenon that is "mighty" enough to awaken the subject's sense of vastness, and yet the subject must feel that he is not in immediate danger, in which the forces of self-preservation would interrupt the subject's general mood of pleasurable displeasure, of awestruck "sense of wonder" (my term of course).

Therefore a phenomenon like a storm at sea can be "mighty," but not involve "dominance," since though there are contrary forces at work in a storm there is no sense of struggle in Kant's sense:

"Might is called dominance if it is superior even to the resistance of something that itself possesses might.”
So, to recap, we have three overlapping but distinct terms:

Dynamis= any kind of energy
Might= an energy which to some degree is "superior" to some unspecified lesser forces
Dominance= a superior energy which specifically arises from conflict

The latter two, it would seem, are implicated in Kant's theory of the sublime, and in mine as well.  But since the Pekar piece only evokes energy in its most general sense, then it would not be in any way sublime. I belabor this point in order to critique (once again) the dubious logic proposed by Douglas Wolk in his book READING COMICS, where Wolk attempted to read many if not all alternative comics as possessing Kant's quality of "unboundedness," simply because the altcomics weren't "bound" by commercial restrictions.

I foresee the need of some clarification on the functioning of the sublime in Frye's four mythoi, but may put that off until finishing the aforementioned NUM examples.

LATTER-DAY NOTE: Though I generally don't go back and revise earlier essays, I'm picking this one as an example of a place where I most misused the concept of *dynamis.*  Anyone reading this in 2012 should note that the *dynamis* term as used here has now been superseded by *plot-dynamicity," which see.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


If we are to give an example of it that is fully appropriate for the critique of aesthetic judgment, then we must point to the sublime not in products of art... where both the form and magnitude are clearly determined by a human purpose…but rather in crude nature…. that is, merely insofar as crude nature contains magnitude...-- Kant, CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, pt. 253.
Unlike his predecessors Burke and his follower Schopenhauer, Kant does not attribute the quality of the sublime to art-objects, or indeed to any aspect of human experience, but only to "crude nature," as in his examples of thunderstorms, stormy seas, et al.

Yet obviously the classical writer Longinus, to whom the earliest extant use of the term is credited, did not mean it this way.

I suggest that in JUDGMENT Kant becomes too wrapped up in the antinomy between the idea that the imagination can conjure with what is (in Longinus' words) "beyond nature," and the idea that reason shows that "nothing in nature can be given, however large we may judge it, that could not, when considered in a different relation, be degraded all the way to the infinitely small."  For Kant "products of art" (his only specific examples are "buildings" and "columns"), being "determined by a human purpose," cannot by any means conjure forth the pleasurable displeasure of the sublime as can nature in the raw.  One must assume, at least from the argument presented in JUDGMENT, that like the plastic arts he cited other arts are also tainted by "human purpose" and so cannot be sublime.

Strangely, however, at the beginning of paragraph 28 Kant does define the sublime in more general terms:

Might is an ability that is superior to great obstacles. It is called dominance [Gewalt] if it is superior even to the resistance of something that itself possesses might.
As noted in this earlier essay, Edmund Burke found the sublime in several literary narratives, and specified, in the case of Shakespeare's HENRY IV, that he found sublimity in "the richness and profusion of images."  This reaction suggests that Burke, unlike Kant, did not consider HENRY IV, PARADISE LOST and the rest of his examples to be entirely determined by "human purpose."  Indeed, Burke would probably be more in tune with modern critic Philip Wheelwright, who distinguishes artistic narrative from rhetorical narrative in terms of "assertorial lightness," which restates Sir Philip Sidney's dictum that "The poet never lieth, for he asserteth nothing."  That does not mean that nothing the poet/artist says holds any importance; it merely means that it is not a literal statement, and hence, contrary to Kant's notion, not "purposive" in a pure sense. 

Thus it seems probable to me that when writers as diverse as Longinus, Burke and Schopenhauer do find the sublime in literary works (if not explicitly the architectural works Kant mentions), they do so because they are attracted to images of "might," or even of "dominance," which arises from the struggle of opposing forces. In a related manner, Burke's "profusion of images" depends on a struggle of sorts; a mental struggle within the mind of an audience-member as he is hypothetically overwhelmed by said profusion.

This definition of artistic sublimity, though, still essentially falls in line with Kant's dichotomy re: the beautiful and the sublime. 

In SUBLIMELY SUPER I argued that the Jerry Siegel-Wayne Boring story "Superman's Return to Krypton" displays both propensities, albeit within a popular culture matrix.  One's mileage may vary as to whether or not Boring's art succeeds in capturing any aspect of beauty, but at the very least it must be admitted that the artist is exerting himself to create a mood of beauty and romance in order to support the story, in contradistinction to the way he would have approached (and did approach) many dime-a-dozen adventures of the Man of Steel fighting aliens or crooks or somesuch.  Those scenes in which Boring focuses on the growing attraction of two hot-looking individuals are scenes in which the bodies involved are still essentially "bounded," and so can be contemplated in terms of beauty.

In contrast, the scene in which Superman and Lyla culminate their romance (in terms of Silver Age kid-comics, at least) displays a propensity for the sublime, using churning magma and a vaulting rainbow as objective correlatives for the unleashed passion.  This indirect depiction of physical passion not only displays Burke's "profusion of images," but also explicitly (thanks to Siegel's caption) associates their passion with might:

"But the flames of the planet are like cold glaciers compared to the mighty love blazing between Superman of Earth and Lyla Lerrol of Krypton"

There's even a reverse-Kantian irony here, in that Kant insists that the person experiencing the sublime should feel as if nature were superior to humanity, even though reason tells us that this is not the case.  Here, the author is asserting that the passion of two mortal individuals-- one of whom has been a sort of god elsewhere, but not in this story-- can eclipse the power of an erupting planet, although the chracacters, the creators of the story, and the readers of the story know that said passion does not have that power.

Through this demonstration I've shown that there should be no conflict to one's location of sublimity-- a.k.a. science-fiction's "sense of wonder"-- within human art, or within any fictional creation within art, even in a purely human-seeming individual.

The next and last part of this sublimity examination will examine this literary phenomenon in terms of three such fictional characters, in order to show how sublimity functions within the categories of the naturalistic, the uncanny and the marvelous.

Friday, March 2, 2012


Continuing in a vein sublime once more, I return to Kant for a general distinction between the sublime and the beautiful:

"The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in its being bounded. But the sublime can also be found in a formless object, insofar as we present unboundedness..."-- Section 245.

I should add that practically any narrative work of any kind or medium always has the *POTENTIAL* to produce either beauty or the sublime in some form, though of course the majority of these works fail to do so.  Most works, whatever their merits in other respects, are not able to bring poetic/archetypal life to the characters and situations depicted, and so are usually content to use such characters and situations purely on what I've called "functional" terms.

I mention "characters" in contradistinction to all the "sublimity" authors I've mentioned before on this blog-- Longinus, Burke, Kant, Schopenhauer-- because most of them have not referenced particular human-sized characters as exemplars of the sublime.  I'll be touching on the notion of sublime fictional characters in another post in more detail, with reference to my NUM formula, but for now, I want to lay out some basic difference between the narrative use of beauty and the narrative use of sublimity.

Briefly, though there are many works, literary and extraliterary, which conjure with the image of purely human beauty, it's debateable as to which ones succeed in the sense Kant specified.  Of course, he probably would not have seen any exemplary beauty in popular works, so he and I part on that score anyway.

Since in this essay I already referred to the 1960s story "Superman's Return to Krypton" for purposes of illustrating the sublime, it occurs to me that it's equally useful for beauty:

This, for instance, is an example of artist Wayne Boring portraying both Superman and his Kryptonian girlfriend Lyla Lerrol in terms of an ethereal but still bonded beauty:

Here, however, is the same story evoking, as I noted earlier, the passion of the two romantic characters in terms I find to be sublime in nature:

The obvious contrast between boundedness and unboundedness needs no further comment.

To be continued...