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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities.-- Aristotle, POETICS.

Our survey of fictional modes has also shown us that the mimetic tendency itself, the tendency to verisimilitude and accuracy of description, is one of two poles of literature. At the other pole is something that seems to be connected both with Aristotle's word mythos and with the usual meaning of myth. That is, it is a tendency to tell a story which is in origin a story about characters who can do anything, and only gradually becomes attracted toward a tendency to tell a plausible or credible story. Myths of gods merge into legends of heroes; legends of heroes merge into plots of tragedies and comedies; plots of tragedies and comedies merge into plots of more or less realistic fiction. But these are change of social context rather than of literary form, and the constructive principles of story-telling remain constant through them...-- Northrop Frye, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.
Prior to investigating in greater depth the idea of the "combinatory-sublime" as it applies to works within a "super-real" context, I must return to the concept of "coherence" as I formulated it in GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 3:

...symmetry requires that if there are works that are to be judged examples of "presentational incoherence," such as TROLL 2 and GLEN OR GLENDA, then there must exist works that are almost like fever-dreams, full of what Langer calls "diffuse meaning," but which still possess "presentational coherence."

In that essay I provided contrasting examples of coherence and incoherence as it applied to Susanne Langer's concept of "presentational symbolism." I stated that the positive value of coherence was characterized by "the way the writers present the [applicable] trope to the audience, and whether or not they succeed in putting across the absurdity affect with some degree of cleverness."  By contrast, it's a given that the incoherent types of presentational symbolism lack that clever quality; that there's something comparatively desultory about the author's *attempt* to be wild and crazy.  The same dichotomy was applied in PART 4 with regard to coherence and incoherence in terms of Langer's matching concept of "discursive symbolism." In that essay I found fault with the knee-jerk nature of Christopher Nolan's "imposition of overly-realistic strictures upon an escapist concept," i.e., that of Batman.

With all that in mind, I turn to Frye's opposing poles of literature.

What Frye calls "verisimilitude" overlaps with Langer's discursive symbolism. The author seeking verisimilitude seeks to make his work consistent with his culture's ideals with regard to proper mimesis and consistency, which can only be arrived at through discursive thought.  The quality of verisimilitude is certainly not limited to realistic fiction, though.  Zola's desire to write kitchen-sink novels of observed life displays one form of verisimilitude.  Nevertheless, when a science-fiction writer like Isaac Asimov seeks to ground his fantasy of super-intelligent robots in an aura of believeability, he too resorts to a form of verisimilitude, by invoking the discursive symbolism found in current scientific theory, from which he then extrapolates in order to buttress his fantasy.

Frye's general concept of "myth" similarly overlaps with Langer's "presentational symbolism," but arguably the former has many more mansions.  With respect to the above quote, the only conceptions of importance are that (1) myth in its original form concerns beings who "can do anything," and (2) myth set up what he later calls "fictional formulas" that can be adapted for stories more invested in plausibility, as when "birth-mystery plots" like those of Perseus and Moses are reworked for naturalistic novels like TOM JONES and OLIVER TWIST. 

I should say here that nowhere in his analysis is Frye concerned with how well a given author succeeds in his evocation of the "verisimilitude pole" or of the "myth pole;" he's only concerned in the ANATOMY with how each tendency inevitably shades into the other.  My attempt to provide standards for attributing merit in each department is entirely my own.

Now Aristotle's homily is one with which many readers may agree. The philosopher's example of a "probable impossibility" probably would not mean much to moderns, but for modern readers this might be something like J.R.R. Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS, a secondary world worked out with such detail that it seems "probable" on its own terms, even though all prudent persons would deem it "impossible."  By contrast, a "possible improbability" seems more like an authorial cheat.  Christopher Nolan's BATMAN film-series is full of improbabilities that undermine his supposed realism, a few of which I addressed in this quasi-review. I've had my share of encounters with viewers who defended, say, the variable characterizations of Nolan's Catwoman simply by saying that it was "possible." Those viewers were quite comfortable with possible improbabilities.

The defense of such improbabilties usually takes the form of asserting either that the form of a fictional work is a dismissable game anyway ("It's only a movie") or that a specific genre is one to which verisimilitude need not apply ("It's a story about a guy who dresses up like a bat, fergodsake!")
I agree that every genre is a game with some operating rules, though inevitably players will project some of their own ideals into the game and often dismiss the "official" rules.

But some improbabilities do have positive values of coherence.  As noted in the GESTURE series, there's no verisimilitude to be found in the trope of a hero's villains setting him up to be killed in some death-trap.  Still, the trope possesses "presentational coherence" when it's done with enough cleverness to serve its mythopoeic purpose: to display the hero's superior escape-abilities.  Lack of verisimilitude is not an error within that context, while within a structure that purports to show superior discursive mentality, lack of verisimilitude simply shows a lack of mental rigor.

All that said, what I find most interesting about Frye's schema of opposing poles is that Frye clearly imagines a "great middle." Hypothetically within this "middle"-- as with my "uncanny" category-- it's possible to place works that are more invested in verisimilitude than the stories of gods and legends of heroes, but are as deeply implicated as is Kitchen-Sink Zola in the discursively organized limits of causality.

Within this middle ground one might find all "coherent improbabilties," ranging from improbable "comedies and tragedies" like PERICLES and THE WINTER'S TALE-- as well as those works that I have denoted as having an "uncanny phenomenality."

Monday, April 29, 2013


Let us next consider whether we can point to anything further that contributes to sublimity of style. Now, there inhere in all things by nature certain constituents which are part and parcel of their substance. It must needs be, therefore, that we shall find one source of the sublime in the systematic selection of the most important elements, and the power of forming, by their mutual combination, what may be called one body. The former process attracts the hearer by the choice of the ideas, the latter by the aggregation of those chosen.-- Longinus, Chapter X, On the Sublime.

 Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.

-- Tolkien, from a letter he wrote and cited in

Neither of these quotes influenced my choice of the name for the "combinatory sublime;" that name came from some half-remembered passages from Ernst Cassirer's writing on Leibniz.  I have chosen to pass on looking for that passage, though, for as I remember it had no particular application to art/literature.  Far more interesting are these references to the idea of "combination" in the works of (1) the writer known for putting forth "the sublime" as a formal literary term, and (2) one of the foremost defenders of the "sense of wonder" in Western culture.

Of course, Longinus, despite his conviction that the sublime is "beyond nature," is not concerned with marking out any borders between different phenomenalities.  Tolkien is, though throughout his essay he makes clear that he is defending only one genre within the sphere of literature.  The Oxford don does not make very many comparisons between the "fairy tales" he loves and other metaphenomenal forms, and only invokes the isophenomenal for purposes of making the virtues of fantasy clearer.

Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being “arrested.” They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination.
In essays like this one I've stated that even isophenomenal works have their own form of sublimity, which I choose to call the "atypical-sublime."  I have tended to subsume the two categories of the metaphenomenal, the "uncanny" and the "marvelous," under the rubric of the "strange-sublime," but in this recent essay I began to rethink this, asserting that each phenomenality should possess its own form of sublimity, based on the parameters of the world conjured forth.

But how to make such a distinction, given that I've stated that all three phenomenalities have an identical capacity for the sublime?

The answer comes swift if not clear in all respects: they have the same capacity in terms of "might," in terms of the "dynamically sublime"-- but they do not all have the same capacity in terms of "the magnitude of associations," that is, "the combinatory-sublime."

In other words, the further a given work ventures into the domains of the metaphenomenal, the greater its capacity for "endless combinations in living shapes that move from mind to mind."

And the proof of this will be the subject of Part 4.


In THE CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, Kant deduces two categories of the sublime: the "mathematically sublime" and the "dynamically sublime."  As noted at the end of Part 1, I have tended to write only about the latter, where Kant deals with such concepts as "might" and "dominance." 

His other category, the "mathematically sublime," seemed of little importance to me given my focus, which was to adapt what was useful in Kant to a project of literary phenomenology.  I found it interesting that Kant claimed to find "the sublime" in natural phenomena suggestive of "infinity:"

Hence nature is sublime in those of its appearances whose intuition carries with it the idea of their infinity.-- Part 255.
Kant is always careful to state that the natural phenomenon itself does not possess sublimity; sublimity is the mind of the observer:

Sublime is what even to be able to think, proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of sense-- Part 250.
But this principle, however interesting, seemed to possess no application to human art.  On those rare occasions when some form of human art seems to impress Kant as having the quality of the sublime, it seems to be more influenced by the opposing principle of the "dynamic sublime," in that the form so honored suggests "vigorous" or "agitating" emotions.

Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment: 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth, etc.  This commandment alone can explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people in its civilized era felt for its religion when it compares itself with other peoples...-- Part 275.  

By contrast I could think of no way in which the "mathematically sublime" would be applicable to human arts, with the result that I addressed my considerations of the sublime and the coeval "sense of wonder" to the idea of "might." 

But it has occured to me that in literature, there are ways to express "infinity" that are not ineluctably entangled with the idea of might, and which will prove consequential for my attempt to formulate the foundations of the three worlds of artistic phenomenality.  This kind of "infinity" may have some "overwhelming" characteristics, but it is not really related to "might" as such.

It is the charm of mythic narrative that it cannot tell one thing without telling a hundred others. The symbols are an endless inter-marrying family. They give life to what, stated in general terms, appears only a cold truism, by hinting how the apparent simplicity of the statement is due to an artificial isolation of a fragment, which, in its natural place, is connected with all the infinity of truths by living fibres.
 The "infinity" of which Yeats speaks here-- like the "richness and profusion of images" I found in Edmund Burke-- suggests another form of the sublime with a different nature than the "dynamically sublime."  It is one that overwhelms in a manner roughly analogous to the "mathematically sublime," but the "magnitude" is one that stems not from physical size, but from the magnitude of how many conceivable connections can be made within a given phenomenality.

Hence the name I coin for this exclusively artistic property--

The COMBINATORY-sublime.

More in Part 3.


I began writing about the various iterations of "the sublime" as defined by such authors as Longinus, Burke, and Kant with the intent of comparing this affect with the more widely known "sense of wonder."  As I sought to formulate some common ground used by all authors, I came up with this:

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.
This suggested to me the affect Rudolf Otto termed the *mysterium tremendum,* but even prior to reading Otto I did not think that this was an adequate characterization of all aspects of sublimity/sense of wonder.  Here I noted:

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:*
Similarly, at times I sought to expand on the meanings explicitly stated by the philosophers, to bring it into line with my impressions of the sublimity in myth.

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.

Once again, I repeat the W.B. Yeats quote I used in my first post here as a touchstone for the "familial" nature of myths of all kinds:

“It is the charm of mythic narrative that it cannot tell one thing without telling a hundred others. The symbols are an endless inter-marrying family. They give life to what, stated in general terms, appears only a cold truism, by hinting how the apparent simplicity of the statement is due to an artificial isolation of a fragment, which, in its natural place, is connected with all the infinity of truths by living fibres.”
Now, however, rather than simply seeing this as an "expansion," I think that I was actually seeking to conflate two distinct aspects of the sublime.

I'll be expounding on the dichotomy further in Part 2, but I end this retrospective post by noting that the majority of my posts dealing with "the sublime" deal with only one species of its nature, what Kant calls the "dynamic sublime" in CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT.  Most of these posts have dealt with the sublime in its aspect of "might," but there is another aspect that proves equally important, particularly with regard to my recent attempt to suss out the quality of sublimity within the three phenomenal worlds, seen here.


I've mentioned earlier that during my first re-readings of C.S. Lewis' introductory essay from THE PROBLEM OF PAIN, I found it curious that Lewis should have used the figure of the "ghost" for his figure of dread.  For many readers, the idea of a "ghost" may evoke the feeling of "awe" as much as "dread," since ghosts are no less marvelous entities than gods, if one views the marvelous as a breach in the nature of the causal order.

Lewis' use of the term "ghosts" for his interstitial category of "Dread" takes on ironic context in my system. In said system any work that depicts a ghost as being unquestionably existential does of course fall into the category of the marvelous, not the uncanny. 
However, as a result of reading THE IDEA OF THE HOLY, I realize now that for Lewis the phenomenon of the ghost was not a true marvel.  Lewis was almost certainly following the lead of Rudolf Otto, who views the ghost-fears of primitive cultures to be no more than gross superstition, informed by the numinous impulse but not possessed of any existential reality, as a ghost in a M.R. James story would have.

In fact, the passage I've previously quoted from Otto firmly sets all such superstitions within the sphere of "daemonic dread," a state clearly lower than that of "developed religions."

 The numinous only unfolds its full content by slow degrees, as
one by one the series of requisite stimuli or incitements becomes
operative. But where any whole is as yet incompletely
presented its earlier and partial constituent moments or elements,
aroused in isolation, have naturally something bizarre, un-
intelligible, and even grotesque about them...[Daemonic dread]
looks more like the opposite of religion than
religion itself. If it is singled out from the elements which form
its context, it appears rather to resemble a dreadful form of
auto-suggestion, a sort of psychological nightmare of the tribal
mind, than to have anything to do with religion ; and the
supernatural beings with whom men at this early stage profess
relations appear as phantoms, projected by a morbid, unde
veloped imagination afflicted by a sort of persecution-phobia.
One can understand how it is that not a few inquirers could
seriously imagine that * religion began with devil-worship,
and that at bottom the devil is more ancient than God.
What's fascinating about this passage is that in his dismissal of superstitious faiths-- sometimes characterized as "uncanny"-- he characterizes superstition in ways that resemble three of the fiction-tropes to which I attribute the phenomenality of my "uncanny" category.  Just as my category connotes the way "strangeness" can appear without violating the causal order in the cognitive sense, Otto is, for very different reasons, concerned with associating the uncanny with a level of religion which is explicable in terms of causality and contingency.

"Auto-suggestion" strongly resembles my trope "enthralling hypnotism and illusionism," which I have used to describe those works in which manipulative individuals can sway the wills of others with the art of suggestion and/or illusion-effects.

"Psychological nightmare" calls to mind my trope of the "perilous psycho," in which madness takes on uncanny status when it discloses a level of "strangeness" that goes beyond empirical concepts of simple insanity.

"Phantoms projected by a morbid, undeveloped imagination" bears comparison with the trope of "phantasmal figurations," in which a figure like a ghost is unreal in some way, either because it's an outright counterfeit projected by a human agent, or because it has some questionable origins.  In this recent essay I compared two films that used this trope, one of them not too well known-- REVENGE AT THE OLD DANISH CORRAL, or something like that.

I 'll note that if I were rewriting Lewis to fit my scheme, his "fear/dread/awe" trinity would be illustrated with the three examples of "tiger," "daemon," and "god"-- for even in archaic Greek tradition, the notion of the daemon was often ambivalent as to whether it was a real entity or not. 

Lastly, I noted here that though Otto does not formally propose that "the uncanny" as an interstitital category, it is a term that he often applies to the process of "daemonic dread"-- and this dread, which he states to be an *a priori* quality, does occupy an interstitial place between simple, natural fear and the awe of Abraham before his Maker. 


Though Rudolf Otto may disagree with Kant in terms of the application of *a priori* qualities, he registers complete agreement with Old Immanuel in terms of judgments of taste.

On the other hand, those judgements that spring from pure
contemplative feeling also resemble judgements of aesthetic
taste in claiming, like them, objective validity, universality,
and necessity. The apparently subjective and personal 
character of the judgement of taste, expressed in the maxim : "De
gustibus non disputandum," simply amounts to this, that
tastes of different degrees of culture and maturity are first
compared, then so opposed one to the other that agreement is
impossible. But unanimity, even in judgements of taste, grows
and strengthens in the measure in which the taste matures
with exercise ; so that even here, despite the proverb, there is
the possibility of taste being expounded and taught, the
possibility of a continually improving appreciation, of con-
vincement and conviction. And if this is true of the judgement
arising from aesthetic feeling in the narrower sense, it is at least
equally true of the judgement arising from contemplation.
Where, on the basis of a real talent in this direction, contemplation grows by
careful exercise in depth and inwardness, there
what one man feels can be expounded and brought to
consciousness in another : one man can both educate himself to
a genuine and true manner of feeling and be the means of
bringing others to the same point ; and that is what 
corresponds in the domain of contemplation to the part played
by argument and persuasion in that of logical conviction.
It's probably no coincidence that Otto speaks of taste in terms of "different degrees of culture and maturity" just a chapter or so after he has asserted that the the beliefs of primitives appear "bizarre" or "grotesque" because the whole experience of the numinous has been "incompletely presented" to them.

I won't spend a lot of time refuting this, since I've already asserted that the only "unanimity" of taste that I recognize is that of *intersubjectivity,* which does not see any particular taste-judgment as valid, but only the general psychic processes that lead human beings to make taste-judgments.

Similarly, I reject the idea that taste can radically shift due to "exercise," or being "expounded and taught," or "contemplation."  I am not saying people don't learn new things and alter old views in some respects. But those things that are altered would best be termed, "inconstant tastes," things that do not express the deepest core of a subject's personality, but are aroused by contingent factors.

"Constant tastes," however, are those experiences for which the subject continually seeks throughout his or her life.  A contingent factor such as the changes of a subject's age may cause the subject to seek the desired thing in new forms, but there will remain constant factors beneath the surface of each of those strong enthusiasms.

The practice of reading comic books is necessarily influenced, though not determined, by the subject's age-range. At the level of elementary school, kids read "kiddie comics."  At the secondary levels, one sees older kids graduate to less fanciful fare, including, but not limited to, superhero comics, which generally employ a greater degree of discursive logic than the "kiddie comics" do.  In Piaget's theory the superheroes and their ilk come in right on the cusp between the "concrete operational stage" and the "formal operational stage." 

However, when adolescent fans set aside the pleasures of youth-- an action which also can be influenced by external contingent factors-- it does not occur because there is some unanimous "adult taste" to which they are drawn.  It is because their liking for those pleasures has been an "inconstant taste," one that does not define them at the core.  It should be axiomatic that one cannot judge the "constant tastes" of those who remain fascinated by a given form by the "inconstant tastes" of others-- and certainly not by invoking the baleful spectres of "education" or studious "contemplation."

Saturday, April 27, 2013


Happily this will be the last post wholly concentrated on Rudolf Otto's THE IDEA OF THE HOLY, though I plan to draw upon Otto to finesse aspects of my NUM formula in future posts.

I would be less than honest if I didn't say I was getting a little weary of Otto's book in the last few days, even though he's a breath of fresh air next to dogmatic positivists and Marxists.  The fact that I'd devoted a post to three individual chapters from THE IDEA OF THE HOLY made me worry that I might be giving Otto far more explication than he deserved; certainly far less than I've given the superior work of, say, Ernst Cassirer.

But Chapter 8 was something of a turning point, as I began to take the measure of Otto's argument.  Ultimately I realized that although he had rejected the empiricist interpretation of religion,  he was offering in its place a modified version of Aristotle's "teleological evolutionism," seen through the prism of an apologist for the Christian religion.  Just as Aristotle felt that tragedy was a superior form of art to its crude "goat song"plays that preceded it, Otto believes that "the cruder phases" (which phrase comprises the title of Chapter XVI)  of mankind's religious development were a necessary prelude to the growth of genuine religion.  This apparently includes Judaism, Islam and Buddhism as well as Christianity, though presumably the latter still outshines its rivals.  Otto expilicitly states the superiority of Christianity in Chapter 8, and he devotes several chapters to the special quality of numinosity in different branches of the Christian faith, ranging from particular parts of the Bible to exponents like Martin Luther.  Because I discerned that his investigations of Christian numinosity were all pretty much of a piece, I merely skimmed them, given that they're irrelevant to my more pluralist project. 

The most I can say of Otto's interpretation of "the cruder phases" of early religion is that I enjoyed seeing him reject empiricism's reductionist explanation of humankind's early religious practices.  Interestingly, this occurs only after Otto begins to apply sustained Kantian concepts to his basically Rationalist philosophical outlook:

To try, on the other hand, to understand and
deduce the human from the sub-human or brute mind is
to try to fit the lock to the key instead of vice versa ; it is to
seek to illuminate light by darkness.
And later, he gives "the cruder phases" of religion their due-- or what he deems their just desserts-- at the beginning of Chapter XVI, by way of demonstrating his conviction that religious feeling deserves the status of an *a priori* quality, even in its lower manifestations.

It is not only the more developed forms of religious experience
that must be counted underivable and a priori. The same
holds good throughout and is no less true of the primitive,
crude , and rudimentary emotions of daemonic dread which,
as we have seen, stand at the threshold of religious evolution.
Nevertheless, it's clear that Otto prefers the "more developed forms" of religion, and his description of the early religious manifestations shares the provincialism of many other writers of the period.

The numinous only unfolds its full content by slow degrees, as
one by one the series of requisite stimuli or incitements becomes
operative. But where any whole is as yet incompletely
presented its earlier and partial constituent moments or elements,
aroused in isolation, have naturally something bizarre, un-
intelligible, and even grotesque about them...[Daemonic dread]
looks more like the opposite of religion than
religion itself. If it is singled out from the elements which form
its context, it appears rather to resemble a dreadful form of
auto-suggestion, a sort of psychological nightmare of the tribal
mind, than to have anything to do with religion ; and the
supernatural beings with whom men at this early stage profess
relations appear as phantoms, projected by a morbid, unde
veloped imagination afflicted by a sort of persecution-phobia.
One can understand how it is that not a few inquirers could
seriously imagine that * religion began with devil-worship,
and that at bottom the devil is more ancient than God.
Compared to the sort of "inquirers" who believed that all pagan faiths were inspired by the Christian Devil, this is a fairly liberal outlook.  Of course it's also special pleading from a believer who must perforce to see archaic religions as stepping-stones to true religiosity.  Nevertheless, his take on the "uncanny" nature of early religion compares favorably with my usage of "the uncanny" as a category of literary phenomenality.  That's a separate essay, however.

In the final analysis, the most impressive aspect of Otto's "teleological evolutionism" is that it gives him the leeway to suggest that the Christian God may be the "end-result" toward which the numinous feeling strives, though Otto does not make his argument dependent on the reality of that deity.  Since as I noted earlier Otto does not draw comparisons in depth, he merely implies Judaism, Islam and Buddhism qualify as "developed religions" without stating that they are precisely equal of the one he considers "a more perfect religion."  No one will see in Otto anything comparable to Joseph Campbell's view that all religious paths lead to the same destination.

The chapter entitled "Its Earliest Manifestations" spotlights the contradictions of Otto's special pleading.  In this chapter Otto moves Heaven and Earth trying to prove that primitive man did not have any sort of belief in the supernatural as we moderns understand the concept.  I theorize that though he wants to give some degree of respect to primitive man's religious aspirations, he cannot allow even the slightest possibility that primitive gods were anything more than "psychological nightmares" or "phantoms... afflicted by a sort of persecution-phobia."  Although Otto is striving to place this gut reaction within a greater "context," he isn't precisely rejecting this aesthetic response to the "bizarre, unintelligble, and grotesque" elements of primitive religious belief.  Pagan religions are "bizarre" and "grotesque" because they're incomplete parts of a greater whole, or at best dead-end alleys on the pathway of proper teleological development.   In this he's identical to the Biblical prophets who define the heathen as "bowing down to idols of wood and stone."

In Part I of this series I said:

...I also reject Otto's tendency to group the religons of "primitive" man with the level of the merely "weird" and "eerie," particularly revolving about "the fear of ghosts."
Though I didn't mention it earlier, I was rather amazed that Otto would suggest that primitive religions were centered around a "fear of ghosts."  I've seen this opinion expressed by empiricists, but Otto is hardly that.  But the later comment-- that the "supernatural beings" seem "projected by a morbid, undeveloped imagination"-- illuminates this "fear of ghosts" in terms of Otto's Christian priorities.  As a monotheist, he must reject any notion of "the miraculous" that is not Heaven-sent, though instead of attributing the gods of other religions to Satan, as many early Christians did, Otto follows the lead of empiricism by attributing those gods to psychological and materialistic factors. 

In similar fashion Otto attempts to dismiss the idea that primitives recognized any sort of spirits or souls:

We consider next ideas of souls and spirits . It
would be possible to show, did not the subject lead us too far
afield, that these were not conceived by the fanciful processes
of which the animists tell us, but had a far simpler origin...
The essence of the soul lies
not in the imaginative or conceptual expression of it, but
first and foremost in the fact that it is a spectre , that it
arouses dread or awe , as described above.
And he also denies, with extremely poor logic, those anthropologists who attested to a primitive belief in "supernatural force" under such names as "mana" and "orenda."

We turn to the idea of power , the mana of the Pacific
Islands and the orenda of the North American Indians. It
can have its antecedents in very natural phenomena. To
notice power in plants, stones, and natural objects in general
and to appropriate it by gaining possession of them ; to eat the
heart or liver of an animal or a man in order to make his
power and strength one s own this is not religion but science.
Our science of medicine follows a similar prescription. If the
power of a calf s glands is good for goitre and imbecility,
we do not know what virtue we may not hope to find in frogs
brains or Jews livers.

By the transparent nonsensicality of this argument-- of arguing that a belief in a pervasive supernatural force must stem from observations from primitive "science"-- one can see how extremely important it was to Otto, to rationalize anything in primitive faith that smacked of God or the Spirit as dependent upon mere contingent factors, even if the primitive religious experience of "daemonic dread" itself was *a priori.*

In conclusion, though Otto's "Christianity is Number One" arguments became tiresome, I can appreciate the sheer ambition of his attempt to borrow both from both of the parties opposing Rationalism-- Empiricism and Kant's "transcendental idealism"-- and to use them to support his particular Rationalist agenda.  His reference to "slow degrees" of numinosity parallels a similar observation by Schopenhauer regarding sublimity, and I fully approve of his argument that religion has an *a priori* element, even though I see it, as did Jung, as an element that interpenetrates aesthetics, art, and philosophy as well, rather than being exclusive to religion.  Otto does make a few mentions of aesthetics and literature in the course of HOLY, and in this his book is somewhat the reverse of Todorov's THE FANTASTIC, which is concerned only with "the uncanny" and "the marvelous" in literature, with no appreciation of his categories' application to myth and religion.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013


In Chapter 8 I've now come across one of the sections where Otto unquestionably stumps for the superiority of the Christian faith over other religions, as his translator mentioned that he did.

No religion has brought the mystery of the need for
atonement or expiation to so complete, so profound, or so
powerful expression as Christianity. And in this, too, it
shows its superiority over others. It is a more perfect religion
and more perfectly religion than they, in so far as what is
potential in religion in general becomes in Christianity a pure

This approach stands in contrast to a more rigorous thinker like Ricoeuer, who demonstrates a preference for Christian forms in SYMBOLISM OF EVIL but still grounds his theory in anthropological studies of religious practice. Otto does not justify his opinion in this comparative fashion. This leads me to conclude that his attitude was essentially the same as C.S. Lewis as I described it here:

When Lewis wants to show the universality of the concept of "the Numinous" (first named as such by Rudolf Otto), he has no problem quoting examples of awe-filled responses from Ovid and Virgil alongside examples from the Old Testament. Nevertheless, it's clear throughout his screed that no mere pagan religion can possess its own validity. There's only enough room in town for One Revelation.

 However, Otto's attempt to separate all the shadings of the *mysterium* experience are so thorough that he manages to tap into general archetypal attitudes toward religiosity, even in spite of his Christian preference-- though at times it's best to gloss Otto's opinions with those of authors more versed in comparativist analysis of all religions.

The shading that most interests me here is one that Otto makes on the subject of "the holy as a category of value" (also the chapter's title).  Having isolated various attributes of the mysterium-experience, such as that of "tremendum" and "fascinans," Otto proceeds to ask how the idea of the holy is valued, given that it cannot be valued in the way human beings value natural assets, and invokes the Latin term "sanctus," meaning "holy:"

And at the same moment he [the person experiencing the mysterium] passes
upon the numen a judgement of appreciation of a unique kind by the category
diametrically contrary to the profane,
the category 'holy," which is proper to the numen alone, but to it in an
absoIute degree ; he says : Tu solus sanctus . This sanctus
is not merely perfect or beautiful or sublime or good ,
though, being like these concepts also a value, objective
and ultimate, it has a definite, perceptible analogy with them.
It is the positive numinous value or "worth," and to it corresponds
on the side of the creature a numinous disvalue or "unworth ."

I placed quotes around the words "worth" and "unworth" for emphasis. Although Otto's use of these terms arises from his specifically Christian idea of a God who invokes fear and trembling, as in his example of Abraham before his deity as seen here, such terms can go beyond the bounds of Christian valuation. For one thing, even though Otto views "worth" as applicable only to the deity while "unworth" applies to the groveling worshipper, one can also see such terms in a wider spectrum, as affects comparable to those proposed by Theodor Gaster.

Rites of jubilation and invigoration are both characterized by *plerosis,* or "filling," because both give the sense that the ritual fills the community with new life. Rites of mortification and purgation are both characterized by *kenosis,* or "emptying," because they "empty out" the community of "noxious elements" one way or another.
In ENERGY EXCHANGE I advanced a tentative comparison of "plerosis" and "kenosis" to Otto's "tremendum" and "fascinans." But "worth" and "unworth" more nearly approximate the *affects* that the participants of a ritual action or narrative derive, with plerotic rituals filling the community with a sense of renewed self-worth-- giving them the opportunity to celebrate either heroic action or comic good cheer-- and with kenotic rituals giving the participants the chance to expel from the community the sense of negative forces of "unworth" that stem from "black humor" and from tragic flaws. 

More unexpectedly, I find that in this chapter Otto, despite his Christianity, anticipates some of the formulations of Georges Bataille.

The feeling [of transgressing aginst the numinous]is beyond question  
not that of the
transgression of the moral law, however evident it may be that
such a transgression, where it has occurred, will involve it as
a consequence : it is the feeling of absolute *profaneness.*

By itself this is just Otto re-emphasizing his earlier point that one cannot reduce the sense of
transgressing against the numinous to transgressing against human law, as Freud famously asserted.
However, it makes interesting comparison to Bataille's anthropologically informed concepts of transgression.

First, Bataille makes clear in EROTISM that all forms of transgression, legal or religious, stem from a universal human need for transgression:

"The taboo within us against sexual liberty is general and universal; the particular prohibitions are variable aspects of it... It is ridiculous to isolate a specific 'taboo' such as the one on incest, just one aspect of the general taboo, and look for its explanation outside its universal basis, namely, the amorphous and universal prohibitions bearing on sexuality."-- EROTISM, pp. 50-51.

Second, because of this need, "the transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it."  However, this transcendence was essentially rejected by Christian philosophy, as Bataille explains in Chapter VIII of EROTISM, which is subtitled "Christianity, and the sacred nature of transgression misunderstood":

The main difficulty is that Christianity finds law-breaking repugnant in general. True, the gospels encourage the breaking of laws adhered to by the letter when their spirit is absent. But then the law is broken because its validity is questioned, not in spite of its validity.-- EROTISM, P. 89.
I suspect that Otto will not be capable of seeing any such limitations of his preferred faith.  Still, it's fascinating to see that Otto has conceived of a "profanation" that goes beyond the strictures of utilitarian moral law, for one can see a similar will to profanation and transgression in any number of non-Christian beliefs.  For instance, one sees mortal defiance of the gods in such ancient works as the Gilgamesh Epic and the Epic of Aqhat.  Quasi-tragic heroic figures like Aqhat and Enkidu may be doomed for such transgressions, but their relationships to the numinous are far removed from the "fear and trembling" of Abraham in the earlier-cited quote.  I seem to remember that at some point Otto mentions his awareness that one response to the numinous is a desire to become "godlike" oneself, but as yet I can't locate the  passage.  This would seem to be a natural extension of the idea of celebrating numinous "worth," however: not just feeling that Zeus is the mysterious creator of the universe, but that Heracles, begotten on a mortal by the Father of the Gods, can provide a conduit by which mortals can participate in that divine mystery.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


Though Otto uses the word "sublime" at least once in the first six chapters, Chapter 7 is the first time he invokes "the sublime" as a technical category, showing his awareness of its intellectual history with Kant, and presumably, other earlier essayists like Burke.

The analogies between the consciousness of the sublime
and of the numinous may be easily grasped. To begin with,
the sublime , like the numinous , is in Kantian language an
idea or concept that cannot be unfolded or explicated (unaus-
wickelbar). Certainly we can tabulate some general rational
signs that uniformly recur as soon as we call an object sublime ;
as, for instance, that it must approach, or threaten to overpass,
the bounds of our understanding by some dynamic or
mathematic greatness, by potent manifestations of force 
or magnitude in spatial extent. But these are obviously
only conditions of, not the essence of, the impression of sub
limity. A thing does not become sublime merely by being
great. The concept itself remains unexplicated ; it has in
it something mysterious, and in this it is like that of
the numinous . A second point of resemblance is that the
sublime exhibits the same peculiar dual character as the
numinous; it is at once daunting, and yet again singularly
attracting, in its impress upon the mind. It humbles and at
the same time exalts us, circumscribes and extends us beyond
ourselves, on the one hand releasing in us a feeling analogous
to fear, and on the other rejoicing us. So the idea of the
sublime is closely similar to that of the numinous, and is well
adapted to excite it and to be excited by it, while each tends
to pass over into the other.
Prior to this, Otto makes clear that he regards "the sublime" as being "a pale reflection" of the experience of "numinosity."  Otto does not deny the applicability of the sublime to human experience, but considers that the term stems from "a region belonging to... aesthetics" as opposed to that of "religion."  That may be enough to establish Otto's priorities re: how he rates religion and philosophy. I can appreciate his conviction to frame the experience of numinosity as if it stemmed from an experience of Deity (as per his example of Abraham).  He's certainly prejudiced by this preference, though he doesn't limit the experience of the numinous to Judeo-Christian hermeneutics.  Later, borrowing Kant's concept of the "schema," he says:

And it is for the same reason inherently probable
that there is more, too, in the combination of the holy with
the sublime than a mere association of feelings ; and per
haps we may say that, while as a matter of historical genesis
such an association was the means whereby this combination
was awakened in the mind and the occasion for it, yet the in
ward and lasting character of the connexion in all the higher
religions does prove that the sublime too is an authentic
scheme of the holy
In this chapter Otto never quite defines the distinction, but instead pursues the subject of "associated feelings" with respect to how "the erotic" and the nature of music impinge upon the concept of numinosity.  Possibly in future chapters he will explore the "connexion" a bit more doggedly.

ADDENDA: Given that I'm a Schopenhauer fan, I decided that I ought to add another "religion vs. philosophy" quote that appears at the very end of Chapter 6:

But we must beware of confounding in any way the non-
rational of music and the non-rational of the numinous itself,
as Schopenhauer, for example, does. Each is something in its
own right, independently of the other.
Since Schopenhauer didn't recognize any deific entities, it seems likely that he would consider that Otto's "numinous" covalent with all the affects that produce sublimity.  I tend that way myself, but I must admit that as a pluralist I can appreciate Otto's attempt to make mental distinctions between such complex spheres as those of religion and philosophy.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


To follow up on an observation I made in Part 1, Otto does indeed use the term "the uncanny" as a specialized term, just as did Freud in his 1919 essay "The Uncanny."  It's tempting to imagine Freud coming across Otto's Rationalist usage of the term prior to writing his own essay, and determining to claim the selfsame term for the forces of Empiricism in his own quasi-scientific endeavors.  However, if there's any proof of this influence, I have yet to come across it. 

From the end of Chapter 6, Otto (as translated by Harvey) quotes one version of a famous line from Sophocles' ANTIGONE:

'Much there is that is weird ; but nought is weirder than man.'

He then justifies this assertion of man's essential "weirdness" (or "strangeness," if one prefers the more standard translation of Sophocles) in terms of his beliefs about the nature of "the numinous."

'This line defies translation, just because our language has no term that can isolate distinctly and gather into one word the total numinous impression a thing may make on the mind. The nearest that German can get to it is in the expression * das Ungeheuere (monstrous), while in English weird is perhaps the closest rendering possible... The German ungeheuer is not by derivation simply huge , in quantity or quality ; this, its common meaning,is in fact a rationalizing interpretation of the real idea ; it is that which is not geheuer , i. e., approximately, the uncanny in a word, the numinous. And it is just this element of the uncanny in man that Sophocles has in mind. If this, its fundamental meaning, be really and thoroughly felt in consciousness, then the word could be taken as a fairly exact expression for the numinous in its aspects of mystery, awefulness, majesty, augustness,and energy ; nay, even the aspect of fascination is dimly felt in it.All of the qualities Otto lists in the final sentence are qualities he has apprehended in the experience of "the numinous."'

Since I'm simply making notations as I read the book, I can't be sure whether or not this passage is the only one where Otto conflates his version of "the uncanny" with "the numinous."  I noted in Part 1 Otto seemed to be applying the adjective "uncanny" specifically to early, "crude" forms of religious awe characteristic of pagan beliefs, which he characterized as "daemonic dread."  In neither use of the word is he giving "the uncanny" the status of an interstitial category, as Todorov did in THE FANTASTIC and as I have done on this blog with my phenomenological rewriting of Todorov's (clearly derivative) categories.  However, earlier in Chapter 5, Otto does suggest such a "neither fish nor fowl" state of being.

'In accordance with laws of which we shall have to speak again later, this feeling or consciousness of the wholly other will attach itself to, or sometimes be indirectly aroused by means of, objects which are already puzzling upon the natural plane, or are of a surprising or astounding character; such as extraordinary phenomena or astonishing occurrences or things in inanimate nature, in the animal world, or among men. 
But here once more we are dealing with a case of association between things specifically different-- the numinous and the natural moment of consciousness-- and not merely with the gradual enhancement of one of them the natural till it becomes the other. As in the case of natural fear and daemonic dread already considered, so here the transition from natural to daemonic amazement is not a mere matter of degree. But it is only with the latter that the complementary expression mysterium perfectly harmonizes, as will be felt perhaps more clearly in the case of the adjectival form mysterious . No one says, strictly and in earnest, of a piece of clockwork that is beyond his grasp, or of a science that he cannot understand : That is " mysterious " to me.'

The relevant sentence is this one:

'But here once more we are dealing with a case of association between things specifically different-- the numinous and the natural moment of consciousness-- and not merely with the gradual enhancement of one of them the natural till it becomes the other.'

Todorov does not have a phenomenological conception of an interstitial state where the phenomenality of a fictional work is not either subsumed by "the real" or characterized by an avoidance of "the real."  In contrast, the NUM theory uses the category of "the uncanny" to take in those narrative works in which cognitive reality (what Otto calls "the natural") appears to be upheld as it is in within the naturalistic phenomenality, but the sense of "strangeness" (Otto's "wholly other") prevents the "enhancement" of the naturalistic on the plane of the affects.  Otto's idea of "gradual enhancement," in which either "the natural" subsumes "the numinous" perfectly describes the phenomenological approach of all naturalistic works, while in all marvelous works the progress goes the other way, whether the numinous takes the form of a literal divinity, as in Milton's PARADISE LOST, or something on a lower plane, like a miraculous submarine in Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.  An example of the latter subsumption was noted here, when I showed that even the naturalistic wonders in Verne's work were tied to the fantastic resources of Nemo:

Without the marvels produced from the genius of "superman" Nemo--  the diving-suits, the Nautilus-- this richness of imagery would be inaccessible to the eyes of humankind, at least in this fictional universe.  Thus even naturalistic details within a marvelous cosmos might be said to take on "the strange-sublime."
Once again, I am encouraged to see that Otto, despite his Rationalist tendencies, prove far more insightful than those of Empiricists like Freud and Todorov.  It doesn't quite make me want to join the party of Rationalism, however.

More on the way.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Since I'm about to do a review of the 1959 film LI'L ABNER, I decided to take a quick look at the phenomenality of Al Capp's original 1934-77 comic strip.

During its long run the strip featured a considerable number of marvelous entities in assorted adventures, such as the Wolf Gal (seen above), the Schmoos (a race of creatures that love to be devoured by mankind), and Joe Btfsplk, the "world's world's jinx."  However, despite the presence of these and other bizarre characters, ABNER might not be considered a "fantasy comic strip" in the minds of its readers, in contrast to a literal science-fiction comic like FLASH GORDON or even a strip dealing with outre dream-fantasies like LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. 

Of course, I too might hesitate to deem ABNER a marvelous strip.  In this essay I put forth my "51 percent rule," which I applied not to the phenomenalities of features but to their alignment with particular Fryean mythoi.  Still, the principle remains the same.  If it's the case that the majority of Abner's adventures legitimately fall within the domain of the naturalistic, then ipso facto it must be judged a naturalistic feature. And when one looks at the first ten years of the strip as reprinted by Kitchen Sink, one may tend to consider the bulk of those adventures to be naturalistic, concerning the comic confrontations of Abner Yokum and his hillbilly kindred with snooty society and big-city gangsters.

There is, however, one element that, though it was not *constantly* referenced, might tip the strip into the domain of the uncanny, and that would be the unusual levels of strength attributed to Abner and his mammy, a.k.a. "Mammy Yokum" (seen below).

Indeed, within the first year of the strip, Li'l Abner undergoes an unexplained transformation.  In his first sequence in 1934, he's just a big brawny guy, capable of being knocked down by another brawny guy.  By 1935, he's taken on a near-Herculean level of power, amazing ordinary audiences when he beats down an angry gorilla.  Though Abner does this without full knowledge-- the fight takes place in a dark room, causing the hillbilly to mistake his opponent for a fellow in a fur coat-- clearly artist Capp was extending the limits of what Abner could do for comic effect.  Later episodes make Abner practically invulnerable, at least in the head region, as items like safes and concrete blocks bounce off the hillbilly's skull without giving him more than a headache.  This might not be quite the level of the mythic Hercules, but it's on the same uncanny level as many of the less extraordinary cinematic versions of the Greek hero, two of which I reviewed here.

The one objection that might be made to this observation is: did Capp keep referring to this "trope of the uncanny," or did he drop it over time?  If it ceased to be utilized at all in the strip's later days, then it might not be applicable to judging the overall fantasy-content of the strip, any more than the frequent fantastic guest-stars.  But that question is rendered moot until such time as the entire run of the strip becomes available.

I'll note that I tend to believe that once an author has established this sort of phenomenality-trope, it usually still has applicability unless expressly contradicted.  On my movie-blog I've been slowly reviewing episodes of the 1972-75 KUNG FU teleseries.  Some episodes show the hero Kwai Chang Caine as being capable of feats that belong to the uncanny-phenomenality; some episodes do not show him as anything but a skillful man.  But I tend to believe that once an author establishes that heroes-- even those as unalike as Caine and Li'l Abner-- possess such unusual properties, they should tend as narrative properties that don't disappear simply because the author isn't using them every time.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


As I admitted in ENERGY EXCHANGE, when writing of the work of Rudolf Otto I have depending on partial excerpts of his most famous work, originally published in 1917 as The Holy - On the Irrational in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, but currently published under the title THE IDEA OF THE HOLY.  I'm now reading the 1923 English translation by John W. Harvey, who also wrote a preface which provides a brief biographical overview of the German scholar.

My principal, though not exclusive, source for Otto was the C.S. Lewis essay in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN.  In an earlier essay, though I praised the quality of Lewis' intellectual schema, I rejected Lewis' Rationalist outlook.

In part 2 I also noted the problems Kant addressed with both Empiricist and Rationalist arguments, and that C.S. Lewis was essentially in the Rationalist camp, as one who tended, in Kant's words, to "intellectualize phenomena." Nevertheless, the schema Lewis depicts in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN-- the Fear/Dread/Awe affects that he invokes to explain the range of human responses to the Numinous, as well as what only seems like the Numinous (i.e., mundane danger)-- possesses an internal consistency not seen in most of his proselytizing arguments. I find it interesting that Lewis' argument, like many of his other insights, seems to apply better to literature than philosophy as such.
Otto, too, is of the Rationalist party. Harvey, though he describes Otto as "international and liberal in grain," describes Otto as a devout Lutheran who hoped to see a renaissance of German Christianity and was aghast to see the growth of Nazi ideology in his native country prior to his death in 1937.  In the second chapter of HOLY, Otto refuses to characterize the experience of divinity as the result of mere psychological factors, as his contemporary Freud would famously claim.  He cites as his first example of this mental state the attitude of Abraham in Genesis 18:27:

Then Abraham spoke up again: "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes...
This attitude is what Otto styles the "mysterium tremendum," and views it as an affect that extends beyond the bounds of the Christian revelation, though he shows, like Lewis, a marked preference for the Judeo-Christian tradition.  He asserts that one cannot use the term "holiness" for this mental experience, given that the word has become dominantly associated with "the perfectly moral will."  Thus he coins the term "numinosity" to describe the subject's response to the "tremendum:"

This mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other; and therefore, like every absolutely primary and elementary datum,while it admits to being discussed, it cannot be strictly defined.
 As recounted in Lewis' essay, the state of simple physical fear is distinct from that of "dread," which Otto, following the Greek concept of the daemon, refers to as "daemonic dread."  The aforesaid marked preference for Christian "purity" over pagan "crudity" appears in Chapter 4:

Before going on to consider the elements which unfold as the
tremendum develops, let us give a little further consideration
to the first crude, primitive forms in which this numinous
dread or awe shows itself. It is the mark which really
characterizes the so-called Religion of Primitive Man , and
there it appears as daemonic dread . This crudely naive and
primordial emotional disturbance, and the fantastic images to
which it gives rise, are later overborne and ousted by more
highly-developed forms of the numinous emotion, with all its
mysteriously impelling power. But even when this has long
attained its higher and purer mode of expression it is possible
for the primitive types of excitation that were formerly a part
of it to break out in the soul in all their original naivete and
so to be experienced afresh.
Not having read the full text of THE HOLY, I cannot say as yet how pervasively Otto's religious preferences affect his argument.  The provincial attitude of this passage is fairly typical of the period, though not universal: in this essay I showed how Ernst Cassirer was fully able to describe the processes of archaic mythico-religious systems without deeming them "crude" or "naive" in comparison to later cultural "forms" like organized religion, formal art and science.

But regardless of Otto's religious sentiments, they do not necessarily undermine his philosophical arguments any more than they did with C.S. Lewis.  It's significant that one of the phrases Otto uses to describe daemonic dread is the feeling of "something uncanny," which as noted earlier is the exact same term Sigmund Freud used two years later in his essay, "The Uncanny."  However, Otto perceptively regards the early "uncanny" state of pagan mankind as "the starting-point for the entire religious development in history." Freud the Empiricist simply uses the "uncanny" ("unheimlich" in German) to signal the presence of concealed psychological states.

In general we are reminded that the word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight. Unheimlich is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of heimlich, and not of the second.-- Freud, THE UNCANNY.
I've stated before that Todorov's adaptation of "the uncanny" to his system of literary hermeneutics is unquestionably Freudian, though it's not clear if his other category, "the marvelous," may have been borrowed from Northrop Frye, given that Todorov devotes a section of THE FANTASTIC to tearing down Frye's ANATOMY.  I abjure Todorov's Freudianism, of course, but I also reject Otto's tendency to group the religons of "primitive" man with the level of the merely "weird" and "eerie," particularly revolving about "the fear of ghosts."  I've expressed in TIGERS PART 3 my reservations about lumping "ghosts" with "gods," since both are manifestations of what Frye and Todorov call the "marvelous."  But I do agree with Otto that "daemonic dread" is at least one aspect of a mental state, the other half of which I term "fascination" in this essay. In my system I associate this binary mental affect with phenomena that do not quite break with causality, as does "the marvelous," but still evokes the experience of Tolkien's "arresting strangeness."

More to come.


Monday, April 8, 2013


God degenerated into the contradiction of life . Instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yea! In him war is declared on life, on nature, on the will to live! God becomes the formula for every slander upon the "here and now," and for every lie about the "beyond"! In him nothingness is deified, and the will to nothingness is made holy!-- Nietzsche, THE ANTICHRIST.
I've often stated that the "combative mode" is one that must be situated within the total spectrum of all possible permutations of the principle of conflict, which is, in turn, congruent with the nature of the Schopenhaurean will.  That said, some expressions of conflict in the *microdynamic* level of dynamicity are so adumbrated that something like Harvey Pekar drinking lemonade is practically a Kirbyesque battle-scene.

Case in point: Ray Bradbury's 1951 short story for ESQUIRE magazine, "The Last Night of the World,"  reprinted in the paperback collection THE ILLUSTRATED MAN as well as being one of the tales adapted for a 1969 film of the same title.  In this very short tale, a man and wife have a conversation in which they realize that not only have both of them have dreamt that the world will soon end, but that everyone else in the world has had the same dream.  Neither they nor anyone else panics at the impending and inexplicable onset of extinction; it's simply something everyone in the world accepts.

Wherein, then, lies the conflict?

Though Nietzsche's invocation of a "will to nothingness" has a very different context, the "base level of conflict" here invokes a similar willed acceptance of extinction.  In the minds of some if not all readers of the story, there will be the expectation that if humanity were faced with an "end of days," it would be an occasion of great tumult, of "raging against the dying of the light."  What Bradbury's story offers is, in keeping with the literary audience to which it is directed, is a triumph of the "will to nothingness" against all the audience's expectations.

I will further note that this essential approach is one of the commonest bag of tricks in the history of "canonical art" fiction.  Non-artistic approaches to momentous occurences-- be it as great as the end of the world or as private as an ilicit love-affair-- focus principally upon what I have called *the kinetic,* which is oriented on reproducing strong sensations in various combinations. In response to this tendency, aspiring "artists"-- both good and bad-- tend to take the opposite approach.  If the reader expects a bang, give him a whimper.

This is a natural enough evolution.  It only becomes problematic when art is defined by this ironic device, rather than considering it to be merely one of many arrows in art's quiver.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


In OUR ARMIES AT WAR, WITH MONSTERS, I devoted some time to comparing 1954's GODZILLA and 1953's WAR OF THE WORLDS-- films which both depict scenes in which unstoppable entities wade through the megadynamic forces unleashed by mortal armies.  I demonstrated that both films satisified the "signicant value" of the combative mode, but that WAR OF THE WORLDS did not satisfy the "narrative value" because the defeat of the alien conquerors comes about not because of any effort by Earth's defenders, but by forces not allied to those defenders.  When opposed megadynamic forces exist in a narrative but are not the main focus of the narrative, such a work is "subcombative" and the opposed forces are what I will term "diffuse forces" rather than "centric forces"-- on which I may write sometime later.

This essay, though, deals with the differing ways in which works which possess the same "narrative value" of the combative may pass or fail the test of the "significant value."  I dealt with this subject earlier with respect to spectacular violence-- or the lack of same-- in MEGA, MESO, MICRO PART 2.  In this essay I stated that the 1960s teleseries VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA demonstrated only "functional violence" despite the fact that its heroes frequently overcame "megadynamic threats."  In contrast to that, the 1960s STAR TREK satisfied the significant value of the combative because both the heroes and their antagonists demonstrated their superior energies in scenes of spectacular violence.

Though I did not stress it at the time, I will now state that "spectacular violence" is the only narrative functionthrough which one can descry the "megadynamic" or "exceptional" level of two opposed forces.  To show this, I will return to the same subject matter as the ARMIES essay: giant monsters (or similar forces) taking on the armed forces.

In my review of the 1961 Danish monster-flick REPTILICUS, I labeled this film a "combative drama."

However, in my same-year review of an American "creature feature" from 1957. THE DEADLY MANTIS, I labeled it only as a "drama," though not a "combative" one.

Both films feature scenes in which military forces blast away at giant hostile critters.  Why is one combative and the other is not?

The reason is that in REPTILICUS, there is-- despite the inferior nature of the FX, upon which I commented in my review-- an attempt to portray the forces of the Danish military as awesome forces in their own right, comparable to the bombardments seen in the influential model of GODZILLA.  One of the more impressive scenes-- again, going more by the concept than by its execution-- is one in which the army manages to set the giant monster on fire.  This development does not stop Reptilicus, who simply dives into the sea and waits to regenerate its wounds before making another attack on humanity.  But it does show that the military commands its own spectacular, and hence exceptional, forces.

In contrast, though THE DEADLY MANTIS does boast generally better FX-- and probably enjoyed a better budget for them-- the creators of this creature-feature's "mise en scene" don't succed in potraying the military's efforts as spectacular, though of course the Mantis itself is.

In contrast to Reptilicus being given pause by a fire-attack, here's the Mantis simply brushing off a soldier's attack with a flamethrower.

When the Mantis is brought low, it's by accident.  The U.S. Air Force is unable to shoot down the flying fiend, but while flying through a cloudbank the Mantis collides with a jet.  The creature's resultant injury brings it down to earth, so that it takes refuge in the Holland Tunnel. 

This makes it possible for a squad of armed men to confront him on their own level.  As the wounded creature attacks the men, it initially shrugs off most of their gunfire. Only a last ditch effort by one of the lead heroes saves the day, as said hero lobs a bomb right into the arthropod's face and kills it.

Still, this victory is comparable to those enjoyed by the crew of the Irwin Allen teleseries: the heroes in both cases triumph not by superior force or strategems, but by luck and dogged persistence-- which is not the characteristic of exceptional megadynamicity.

On a tangential note, I think that in general most works that focus on the military-- be they naturalistic or otherwise-- tend to emphasize the "emotional tenor" of "persistence" rather than "glory," as those terms were defined here. The military is more often defined by the quality of winning conflicts through group effort rather than individual excellence, and that may be one reason I couldn't view the heroes of STARGATE as fully in the genre of adventure, despite some superficial likenesses.

Obviously, though, there are some exceptions.


 ...I consider that both [STAR WARS and ALIEN] qualify as "spectactular violence," which I re-define as "that violence whose depiction is more the point of the story than the ostensible plot." Spectacular violence is the violence of the spectacle: it's meant to be looked at.-- BATTLE OF THE MONSTER TERMINOLOGIES (2009)

I should qualify that my comparison of Holmes to a "pulp hero" is made in comparison to the staid 1922 film I mentioned. Though ADVENTURES does emphasize its violent elements in terms of a strong combat, it should be noted that the degree of violence never goes beyond its function in the plot. In contrast, the 2009 SHERLOCK HOLMES does emphasize violent combat in scenarios that add little or nothing to the plot as such, and so qualify as "spectacular violence."-- FX MARKS THE SPOT PART 2 (2012)

I've re-watched the relevant scenes of ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, and will now reverse myself on my verdict in the second quotation.  Yes, ADVENTURES has more of a linear, straightforward plot than the aforesaid Holmes film of 2009.  Nevertheless, ADVENTURES doesn't focus on the type of mysteries characteristic of the majority of Holmes stories and films, where the essential point is to disclose some hidden human fault-- thus aligning such stories with the standard conception of the "drama."  But all the violent acts in the 1939 film-- the attempted assassination of an innocent woman, Moriarty's attempt to steal the crown jewels-- aren't merely functional in the terms I described in the FX-essay, where I said that "the violence is there to illustrate the theme, not to assume its own importance in the story."  I cited as examples works by Hemingway and Faulkner, but a more accessible example would be one that I cited in the BATTLE essay: Fritz Lang's 1953 crime movie THE BIG HEAT.   As this Kim Newman review has it, "The Big Heat is a film of violence, opening with a close-up of a gun about to be used in the suicide of corrupt cop Tom Duncan, and proceeding rapidly through its plot with jolting horrors that malform the characters."

In contrast to this relatively "literary" usage of violence, the violent acts in ADVENTURES exist to set up the climactic battle between Holmes and Moriarty, respectively glossed as symbols of "good" and "evil."  Yes, the violence may seem less intense in the 1939 SHERLOCK than in the 2009 version, but the discrepancy can be marked down to the nature of the FX-technology available to filmmakers in the era of Classic Hollywood.  If I were to downgrade the conflict of Holmes and Moriarty purely on the basis of the intensity of the violence, I would have to exclude every other Classic Hollywood film in which fight-choreography was not nearly as much "in the viewer's face" as it is in contemporary films-- which would include a lot of the serials of the era that I have labeled combative, like ACE DRUMMOND and THE GREEN ARCHER. Indeed, when I reviewed ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES in 2012, I didn't even remember that I'd labeled its violence as "functional" in 2009, and so categorized it as a "combative adventure."

Now the reason that I dwell on this minor point at such length is because in the past year I've formulated the idea of "the combative mode" as one that exists exclusively where at least two exceptional-- or "megadynamic"-- forces come into conflict, thus producing Kantian dominance.  Since the 1939 film has a naturalistic phenomenality, both Holmes and Moriarty can only express their respective levels of "might" through naturalistic means, but such works have the potential to be just as spectacular as either those in the uncanny or marvelous categories.

Further, I should re-emphasize the defintion of the difference between "functional violence" and "spectacular violence" in the 2009 essay, when I said that the differences between them "are not determined by intensity of effect but by narrative function." 

The question then arises: are Holmes and Moriarty "megadynamic" as they are presented within the scope of ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES?  In MYTHOS AND MODE 2 I put forth a similar re-definition.  In an earlier essay I'd labeled Shakespeare's drama MACBETH as a "combative drama."  But upon re-examination I decided that though MACBETH satisfied the "narrative value" of the combative mode, it did not satisfy the "significant value."

...I can find nothing in the play that makes the two characters “exceptional” in their dynamicity. They are good fighters, without a doubt, but not necessarily exceptional. Lacking that dynamicity, both the characters and and the play lack the significant value of combative sublimity. 
The case could be made that Holmes and Moriarty are also nothing but "good" fighters.  There are, for example,  no references in ADVENTURES to Holmes' storied boxing-skill.  Still, he does show, as per my comment that he seemed like a "pulp hero," much more athleticism than one sees in earlier versions of Sherlock. Additionally, the somewhat aged Moriarty takes on Holmes with considerable gusto-- to say nothing of departing from the role of the manipulator, as the professor puts himself on the front lines in plundering the Tower of London.  So in contrast to MACBETH-- a play where the concluding violence is kept offstage-- the spectacular nature of the final fight in ADVENTURES inclines me to rate the two antagonists as "megadynamic," so that the film does indeed feature combative sublimity.  Since it's a given that a hyper-athletic character like Batman could trounce both of them, Holmes and Moriarty might be seen to skew toward the "low" end of the megadynamic, as I suggested in the essays DYNAMICITY DUOS PART 1 and PART 2.

In Part 2 I'll have more to say about how the spectacular mode of violence proves necessary to the manifestation of combative sublimity.  In conclusion, I also have one even more minor amendment to a statement from FX MARKS THE SPOT PART 2:

Some of the other Holmes dramatic narratives, such as THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, would probably qualify as combative dramas.
On reconsideration I don't think that in the novel, the 1939 film version, and the 1959 adaptation, the violence is no more than functional in nature, playing a secondary role to the disclosure of the mystery.  Some adaptation might be done to boost the violence to a spectacular level, but I know of no such adaptation.  The closest thing to it would be Simon and Kirby's freewheeling take on the Doyle story in a 1942 CAPTAIN AMERICA story, where the "hound" turns out to be a malefactor dressed up in a dog suit.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


In this essay I said:

Dirty Harry inspires ADMIRATION in terms of his physical and strategic abilities...
Some may observe that a more usual pairing would be "physical and mental."  I didn't want to parse that particular issue at that point, but I had reasons for choosing the word "strategic" instead.

In defining my "mode of the combative," it's entirely necessary that no less than two exceptional forces should clash in order to yield the sublime-affect Kant termed "dominance."  However, though there is a long-standing tradition wherein a momentous battle ends with a final triumphant blow-- be it Aeneas ending THE AENEID with the killing of Turnus, or Captain America clobbering the Red Skull-- a conclusion using a battle-related strategy is just as valid a conclusion as a punch in the jaw or a sword in the belly.

In TWICE THE MIGHT 2 I made this narratological assertion regarding 1956's FORBIDDEN PLANET:

To be sure, when the Id Monster is defeated, it isn't because of the clash between the weapons of Earth-science and the power of the Krell machines. The Monster is defeated by undermining the source of its power in Morbius, who is in essence the Monster's Achilles heel.

Nevertheless, without the clash of energies that establishes how potent the Id Monster is, there would be no narrative perception of the need to seek such a vulnerable point.
Thus the conflict in FORBIDDEN PLANET concludes not by one force conquering another in a direct sense, but rather in an indirect one, as the Earthmen use strategy to divine the Id Monster's weakness.

I consider this sort of "Achilles Heel" maneuver to be just as related to battle as an actual physical triumph would be, and therefore its presence does not negate the combative mode.

In contrast, there are other ways to work against one's foes that I do not consider to have common kinship with the principles of *forza.*  In KNOWING THE DYNAMIS FROM THE DYNAMIC I wrote the following estimation of Doctor Who.

The Doctor is typically portrayed by a male actor who is, for one reason or another, not meant to resemble the typical he-man of adventure-fiction, which is one element that signals the serial's intent to avoid the pattern of dynamization set by those more typical stories. The Doctor, though, does not triumph over his many foes solely by luck-- though on many occasions he is considerably outgunned, and luck is at times invoked as a force that keeps him from being vaporized. But typically, the Doctor fights his foes with the centuries-spanning knowledge of a Time Lord, not with martial abilities. His doctrine is *froda,* not *forza.*
Some might view the Doctor's assorted schemes to undo evil aliens to be allomorphic with the "Achilles Heel" strategy of the Earthmen in FORBIDDEN PLANET.  But even though DOCTOR WHO can't be combative anyway, due to the lack of seeing any exceptional energy manifested by the hero, I want to underline that "strategy" should only apply to the combative mode when such exceptional energies are present in two or more opposed parties.  By making this determination, it is possible for me to include characters who may function largely behind the scenes-- as with the Fu Manchu of the original Sax Rohmer novels-- as being in control of the literal forces they unleash upon their antagonists.

"Strategy," then, when allied to the unleashing of *forza,* becomes a form of *forza.*  When not so allied, it can only be viewed as an aspect of *froda.*

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Just to explore a minor point I neglected in RUDOLF, MEET THEODORE: I don't think I was sufficiently clear on the common ground between the two. 

In the paradigms Gaster formulates in order to deduce his categories of *plerosis* and *kenosis,* he takes the basic view that ritual exists to mirror a society's views as to whether the forces of life are on the ascent or in decline.  A ritual need not be a full-fledged story, as a myth almost always is; a ritual can be a simple recital of the proper acts one takes at a critical juncture.  But any ritual does depend on the idea that a society-- usually represented by a protagonist or group of protagonists-- must either invite into themselves the energies one associates with life (plerosis), or else expel the energies one associates with death, or at least life in a worn-out condition (kenosis).

Rudolf Otto's analyses with regard to the two different manifestations of "the Numinous" are not as overt in implying an "energy exchange" between the Numinous and the subject who beholds it.  Otto is, based on my limited reading, more focused on the internal response of the subject.  I hope to read THE IDEA OF THE HOLY fully in near future, but it would seem that a few authors, among them Carl Jung and C.S. Lewis, have been able to configure Otto's dichotomy of responses-- the *mysterium tremendum* and the *mysterium fascinans*-- so as to apply them to the sphere of human art and storytelling.  Given that I've already stated my tenet that literature and religion are opposed yet intimately interelated pheomena, I would tend to see that in literature the reader is more or less in the same position as the protagonist in Gaster's paradigm: one who must formulate either a sympathetic or antipathetic relation to the "energies" he beholds in the narrative.

More later.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


As noted in the previous essay, I've stated that I accept the deduction of C.S. Lewis as to the tripartite nature of antipathetic reactions to the powerful and/or the unknown, which he describes as "fear," "dread," and "awe."  In this essay I wrote:

The idea of a tiger provokes fear in the subject. The idea of a ghost provokes dread, which lies upon "the fringes of the Numinous." And the idea of a "mighty spirit" provokes awe, awe of "the Numinous."

However, antipathy is only half the story. Rudolf Otto, on whom Lewis depended for his notion of "the Numinous" in the essay cited, also cited the idea of the *mysterium fascinans,* which by its nature implies not the subject's antipathy for the unknown force or entity, but a state of comparative sympathy.

It could be argued that the last affect named by Lewis, "awe," implies more sympathy than its companion terms of "fear" and "dread."  However, Lewis was a doctrinaire Christian, whose idea of a "mighty spirit" would by defintion be covalent with the transcendent God of the Fathers.  Thus I would suggest that in this particular essay his concept of "awe" still reveals a tonality of antipathy before an omnipotent and omniscient creator-deity.  One gets a strong sense of this sort of fear-inspired awe in Francis Thompson's magisterial poem "The Hound of Heaven," which ends with a soul-annihilating confrontation with a supreme power:

'Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught' (He said),
'And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou meritedOf all man's clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
Since I've also used Lewis' terms to gloss the affective tonalities of my three phenomenalities-- at least with respect to the antipathetic affects-- it follows that I should also have a tripartite division with regard to the sympathetic affects.  I could use any number of forces or entities in order to illustrate the sympathetic affects for each phenomenality.  But I may as well use the three heroic film-characters I've already employed in both this essay and my more recent meditation on THE THREE PART HARMONY OF SUBLIMITY.

In my naturalistic example of film-heroism, Diry Harry is intended to arouse a level of sympathetic identification with his martial competence.  Since he is entirely a naturalistic hero, defined by the laws of causality in all respects, Dirty Harry inspires ADMIRATION in terms of his physical and strategic abilities, in approximately the same way that the tiger inspires only physical FEAR.

Bruce Lee's character of "Lee" from ENTER THE DRAGON is cognitively defined by causality, but affectively by non-causal associations.  I've mentioned the fact that Lee's villainous opponent is "pushed toward the domain of the supervillain proper," which alone would be enough to place Lee in the proximate role of the superhero.  But in addition, Lee goes beyond the limits of even more naturalistic types of kung fu fighters, since in the course of DRAGON he trounces such a quantity of guardsmen that he no longer seems like an ordinary skilled man, but like a god walking among men.  He is not diegetically a god, but extra-diegetically, he excites more than mere admiration.  For this level of "uncanny hero," the affect most approximates the word conjured by Otto: FASCINATION.  This parallels the effect of DREAD, in that dread does not delve into "the Numinous" but still indirectly conjures its "fringes."

Finally, in place of AWE as a fearful response before a Numinous figure-- perhaps best captured in prose fiction by the abasement of H.P. Lovecraft's narrators before the hideous truths of the Universe-- I suggest that a sympathetic response to a Marvelous Universe such as that of STAR WARS is best described as ECSTASIS.  Ecstasis means the feeling of "standing outside" one's own body, as if one's spirit/soul were in communion with things outside itself.  In contrast with "awe," ecstasis is almost always constituted as a positive emotion, as is the dominant use of the word "marvelous."  In effect I am identifying the "anti-real" nature of marvelous works as one which breaks down all borders, creating a fearful awe in the antipathetic circumstances of a Lovecraft text, but ecstatic sympathy in the case of a more benign setting like that of STAR WARS.  Though Luke Skywalker is but one of an ensemble of heroes in the first three films, he best symbolizes the affect of "ectasis" in that the story describes his progress from spiritual ignorance to martial illumination.  It is this affect, rather than fear-informed awe, that best characterizes the SF-fan's idea of "the sense of wonder," as recounted by David Hartnell:

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.
I will note that Hartnell does define his "wonder" as a combination of "fear and excitement," but this merely shows that such affects are not easily separable.