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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


  • Give me a firm spot on which to stand, and I shall move the earth.-- variant version of Archimedes' quote.

To inquire into the substance of what has been observed
is possible in natural science only where there is an Archimedean
point outside. For the psyche, no such outside standpoint
exists—only the psyche can observe the psyche. Consequently,
knowledge of the psychic substance is impossible for us, at least
with the means at present available. This does not rule out the
possibility that the atomic physics of the future may supply us
with the said Archimedean point. For the time being, however,
our subtlest lucubrations can establish no more than is expressed
in the statement: this is how the psyche behaves.-- Carl Jung,
"The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales."

The comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit; for we find that such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero have a worldwide distribution--appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same. Furthermore, whereas in tales told for entertainment such mythical themes are taken lightly--in a spirit, obviously, of play--they appear also in religious contexts, where they are accepted not only as factually true but even as revelations of the verities to which the whole culture is a living witness and from which it derives both its spiritual authority and its temporal power-- Joseph Campbell, PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY, p. 3.

When I re-read the Jung essay, I was once again struck by his point about how the human psyche possesses no "Archimedean point" on which an observer can stand upon, whereby to either move its substance or to analyze it.  

Of course, Jung has his detractors. That arch-Rationalist C.S. Lewis remarked of Jung's writings that "the definition of water should not itself be wet," which was Lewis' way of taking a shot at the psychologist who believed that all religions had their roots not in revelation but in psychological intuitions.  I imagine that Jung might have answered this criticism by saying that the psyche is not a substance which could be dispassionately observed "from outside," as the element of water is; thus Lewis' comparison is clever but meaningless.  It's also interesting that if one did not know Lewis' history, from that one remark it would be possible to imagine him an Empiricist of a particular positivist slant.

Empiricists, however, have been the current shapers of the reflective mode of thought, and those who have most consigned Jung to the periphery of science, like the remark I first reprinted here:

Post-modern critics have more or less dispatched Jung. At the same time his archetype concept has morphed into the more empirically testable prototype theories of cognitive linguistics and visual arts. Developed in the 1970s and 1980s largely by Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff, prototypes reinterpret Wittgenstein's 'family resemblances' and basic-level categories, arguing that cognition produces a set of canonical categories (mental schema) that aid memory by producing somewhat abstracted or idealized feature sets of an object or object class (birds, for example) (Lakoff 1987).

I replied:

I believe I understand the appeal of this sort of science, particularly where its adherents believe it gives them weapons to knock down the idols of superstition and religion. But even if all of humankind's abilities to abstract and conceptualize *may* have arisen from cerebral attempts to conserve energy, that base fact does not define what the power of abstraction finally means, any more than the seed of an oak tress "means" the birds that nest within the tree.

It further struck me that this desire for an Archimedean point, from which one can imagine that one stands far enough removed from a given subject to analyze it, is common in elitist critics. Thus, though I wrote here that the appeal of Freud and Marx for elitists is founded in the appeal of a "reversal of values," I also noted at the essay's conclusion that such elitists did not prize revolution for its own sake. They want, as I concluded, "only one revolution, one story-- and sadly, just one truth." To accomplish that end, they attempt to give their analyses the pretense of psychological or sociological certainty, or, as I said in the above-cited "Dead-Alive Hand of the Past," following Freud and Marx because "Freud and Marx offer reductive paradigms which boast the rock-solid integrity of the physical sciences."

In passing I will note that the concentration upon supposed scientific veracity, or at least a "tough-minded" attitude comparable to the sciences, might also be the mark of what Northrop Frye calls an "Iliad critic," an argument I explored in my 2009 essay BREAKING OPEN MOULDY TALES.

In the quote above, Jung stressed the fact that we can only speak of the behavior of the psyche, and not of its substance. In doing so I believe he was trying to break out of the false positivism of his mentor Freud and of the psychological field generally, and present the experiences of the psyche as phenomenologically valid in themselves.   And in Joseph Campbell's above quote, he fundamentally agrees with Jung on this point, even though the two scholars approached the same material from very different orientations (Campbell being far less the Kantian that Jung was, for instance).

Nonetheless, when I encounter a remark from someone who believes that archetypes are somehow limiting, such as I referenced here, Campbell's quote proves instructive.  Campbell, like Jung, sees endless fascination in the productions of the psyche, even though they might reduce down to countless variations on a few limited themes. I repeat one phrase from the quote:

...such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero have a worldwide distribution--appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same. 

What might this mean to a subject aligned to science and reflective philosophy?  Presumably that individual would view such themes as restrictive because they might bind those who give them credence in the same way religious precepts have bound whole civilizations, at least according to the dominant "myth of religion" propounded by the more fanatical adherents of science. Such a reader would only see the words "always the same" and would assume that it was an attempt to convert others to a static, religion-based view of the universe-- and entirely overlook Campbell's emphasis on the "new combinations" that could spring "like the elements of a kaleidoscope," from those repeated themes.  And of course, that individual would conveniently overlook that supposed "scientists" like Freud and Marx have proselytized for their visions of the universe no less often than Jung and Campbell.  In fact, I've also sometimes suspected that the real popularity of Freud, Marx and all of their kindred is that a budding intellectual, by grounding himself in these doctrines, can safely ignore all the "speculative philosophy" that went before-- and a few representatives that endured into the twentieth century, such as Frye and Cassirer.  Certainly Edward Skidelsky, whose tome on Cassirer I began analyzing here, starts from the assumption that reflective philosophy has already won the day against the remnants of what I call "speculative philosophy."

On a side-note, I'm impressed yet again by the emphasis in Campbell on "combinations," just as I was upon finding a similar concept in Edmund Burke.  But any meditations on how Campbell relates to the combinatory-sublime will wait for a later essay.

Monday, November 24, 2014


In retrospect, I should have expected that the majority of works reviewed in the "uncanny phenomenality" would be dominated by "terror" more than "wonder," given the statement I made in THE ETHIC OF THE COMBATIVE PT. 2, where I also cited the now familiar Lovecraft quote:

Of these three patterns, I've hypothesized that the middle one, labeled "Might vs. Non-Might," is the most popular in the totality of literature (by which I mean, the "bad stuff" as well as the "good stuff.")
Now, assuming the truth of this, what would this pattern mean?
It might mean that the surest way to appeal to a human audience is to play upon their fear that they-- represented by the viewpoint characters of their stories-- are always on the verge of being overwhelmed by powers greater than themselves.  As noted in this essay, the aforementioned H.P. Lovecraft felt that fear was the most primal emotion:

THE OLDEST and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
Though there are a lot of stories in which ordinary humans are menaced by the forces of "the unknown," the basic pattern is not confined to supernatural stories: a story like the 1962 film CAPE FEAR sports only a "known" fear, that of a ruthless criminal who impinges on an almost-helpless family.  It is also the same pattern we see in Hegel's opposition of the "bondsman"-- who in my system would represent "non-might"-- and the "lord," who of course represents "might."

So if fear has primacy in human emotions, as Lovecraft claims, then that would be the reason why terror might dominate all literary phenomenalities, if indeed it does. To oppose a viewpoint character's "non-might" with the overwhelming nature of some source of "might"-- be it an entity like Dracula or a domain like Wonderland-- would be the easier way to appeal to one's audiences.

That said, the appeal of "might vs. might," which implies that a viewpoint character may become a liberating source of might, using that potency to battle a source of domineering might. In the above essay, I complained that Hegel did not address this possibility.

...within stories that emphasize "might vs. might"-- which is to say, combative stories-- the plurality of might implies that no lord is ever so mighty that a bondsman cannot assume his power and knock him from his lofty position. Of course, in real life this often means "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."  But in fiction we can indulge in the possibility that the new lord will make better choices than the old one.

But the elegant simplicity of this process is of course not acknowledged by ideological critics. Ironically, some of them are more terrified by the hero who rises to fight the tyrant than by the tyrant, rather than feeling engaged with sympathy for the hero's travails. The ideological critic-- the obvious example seen here--   is on some level attracted to the "might vs. non-might" formula, in that he imagines himself defeating tyrants by lofty rhetoric and psychological analysis.  From there, it's just a short step for the ideologue to defend the tyrant as being a mistreated "other," tyrannized by some superheroic storm trooper-- a tendency I identified in both Frederic Wertham and Gershon Legman. In POP GOES THE PSYCHOLOGY I noted that their fatuous attempts to read all crimefighting heroes as exemplars of lynch-law were undone by their ignorance of the actual structure of adventure-fiction:

...while the jury may remain out on the question as to whether the adventure-genre can inspire any sort of sadistic vibe in their audiences-- a question I'll address more fully in a future piece-- it seems obvious to me that when heroes fight villains in adventure-tales, the narrative action could not be less like a lynching, much less a Sadean sadist torturing helpless victims or a gangster shooting down old ladies in the street. Wertham and Legman dance around the difference by trying to make it sound as if the villains are merely stand-ins for despised minorities and the like, which argument remains a linchpin of Marxist oppositional thought, both in modern comics-criticism and elsewhere. But neither author can totally expunge this difference of narrative action: in the adventure-genre, *the villain can defend himself.* He may be fated to lose the struggle-- indeed, until recently he always did-- but the struggle itself is essential to the adventure-genre, as it manifestly is not with the crime genre. As Wertham and Legman both point out, the crime-genre books usually ended with a last-minute destruction of the rampaging crook as a "sop" to morality. But the struggles of hero and villain in the adventure-genres-- best represented in comic books by the superhero-- are not thrown in at the last minute. Narratively, structurally, such physical struggles are the selling-points of the genres, and so cannot be conflated with either the crime genre or the Sadean paradigm by any truly rational approach.
 Since both writers made so many cutting remarks about conflating superheroes with fascists, it would have been interesting to ask both if they believed that the real Nazis had been defeated with lofty rhetoric and psychological analysis.

In conclusion, while I believe it likely that the formula "might vs. non-might" dominates the majority of all literary works, in all three phenomenalities, I will speculate of the three the domain of the marvelous may be most amenable to the formula "might vs. might," simply because works in this domain are given the license to stray the furthest from consensual experience, and thus, to imagine ways in which heroes can fight tyrants on the tyrants' terms, without becoming tyrants themselves.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


(While in other essays I've used the terms "wonder" and "terror" to label experiences of sublimity in keeping with the marvelous phenomenality, for this essay only I'm going to use these two terms to replace, respectively, "sympathetic affects" and "antipathetic affects.")

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”-- H.P. Lovecraft, SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE.

Over the years I've specified several times-- most recently here-- that just because one phenomenon *may* have come first, it should never be assigned primacy, simply because of primogeniture. Burke, Otto, and Lewis all seem to give some primacy to the affects of "terror" over those of "wonder." Perhaps, like Lovecraft in the quote above, see the "brute man" of humankind's origins as being more moved by the emotions relative to physical survival than to the latter, since the latter affects depend on one's having some degree of perceived safety.

Having written so much about the affects recently, I wondered to what extent they appeared in the films of the uncanny that I've reviewed on NATURALISTIC UNCANNY MARVELOUS. I felt certain that I could find a good distribution of both "wonder" and "terror" in films of the marvelous. But many of my ten tropes were formulated in reaction to narratives dominantly concerned with "terror." Many of the tropes as I christened them even reference ideas of repulsion more than attraction, as with "freakish flesh" and "weird families and societies."

So I scanned over the lists of the reviewed films that had been filed under each trope, trying to determine whether indeed most of them were more dominated by "terror" than by "wonder." And sure enough, as if moviemakers had been in tune with Rudolf Otto himself, most of the uncanny films were based in terror-- UNLESS those tropes occurred in a film focused upon a wondrous hero, whose main purpose was to banish terrors with his life-affirming attitude.

For instance, though most of my films in the "phantasmal figuration" category centered upon kenotic figures of terror, like THE SMILING GHOST, some heroes, like THE PHANTOM, used "phony supernaturalism" to serve the cause of justice. Usually, though, in heroic narratives it's the antagonist, not the hero, who incarnates aspects of terror-- the "bizarre crimes" of Goldfinger, the "freakish flesh" of Dick Tracy's villains, the "exotic lands" faced by Tarzan, Bomba, and other jungle heroes. So obviously the only one of my ten categories to be dominated by the affect of wonder is "outre outfits, skills, and devices," even though all of the elements that fall under this rubric can and have been used by antagonistic figures as well.

Villains, as much as monsters, are also dominantly kenotic figures of terror, even though villains incarnate "idealizing will" rather than "existential will."  However, even today it's rare for villains, unlike monsters, to become the focal presences through which the audience receives its dominant affect.

Demiheroes in uncanny films present a complication. Often they don't inspire a lot of wonder, even when they are unquestionably the stars of the show, as is the Bob Hope character in 1939's THE CAT AND THE CANARY.  But when they are stars rather than simple viewpoint-characters, their triumph, however comic or ironic, still suggests life-affirming forces.  The most fruitful category with respect to life-affirming demiheroes was that of "delirious dreams and fallacious fragments."  Often, even though character would have to awaken from their dreams or their fictional imaginings at story's end, their encounter with the world of dream could be generally wondrous-- as in THE DAYDREAMER--  as easily as they could be filled with terror and confusion, as in both DREAMCHILD and HEAD.

Whether these observations lead me down any deeper pathways remains to be seen.


In recent essays I've re-examined Edmund Burke's work with regard to the ways subjects experience sublimity, either with an affect of sympathy or one of antipathy.  Because of those essays, I find myself looking at how both the sympathetic affects and the antipathetic affects appear in works of popular fiction-- specifically, how narratives tend to center around either one set of affects than the other, though both may easily appear in both. 

This, however, suggested to me a parallel with my writings on centricity with regard to myth-radicals, probably best summed up in JUNG AND CENTRICITY.  Jung specified in PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES that each individual had within him four psychological functions, but that only one of these would have "absolute sovereignty" as against the others. I asserted that the same logic could also be applied to Frye's four mythoi, using as example the teleseries BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, which I regard as falling properly into the category of adventure, even though the series regularly also calls upon elements common to the comedy, the irony, and the drama.

However, to complicate the matter further, I also linked Frye's four functions with the four "moods," as I called them, that Theodor Gaster listed for the dominant functions of his categories of religious ritual. REFINING THE DEFINING was one of the relevant essays on this topic:

ADVENTURE conveys the INVIGORATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon how protagonists who defend life and/or goodness from whatever forces are inimical to them. The protagonists' power of action is at its highest here.
COMEDY conveys the JUBILATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon how the heroes seek happiness/contentment in a world that has some element of craziness to it (what I've termed the "incognitive" myth-radical), yet does not deny the heroes some power of action.
IRONY conveys the MORTIFICATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon characters in a world where the "power of action" is fundamentally lacking.
DRAMA conveys the PURGATIVE mood, and does so by centering upon "individuals who find themselves in some way cast out from the main society." Power of action here is more ambivalent than that of the adventure-mythos but seems more crucial to the individual's problem than it does for that of the comic hero.

But this raised in my mind the question: what difference is there, if any, between an "affect" and a "mood?"

The best conclusion I've come to, for the time being, is that the Gasterian moods are functions of plot: he and Frye both speak primarily of the *actions* characters take in order to facillitate one dominant literary or religious mood. In contrast, "affects" spring from the main characters, the focal presences, with whom the readers identify. In this formulation, then, "affects" spring from "character," even though the focal 'character" may not be a human being, since the cathexis of emotional affects can focus upon any number of phenomena, ranging from the will-less robot hero of GIGANTOR to the amorphous spirits of THE EVIL DEAD. For the time being, then, I will allot the Gasterian moods to the domain of "narrative values," while the affects-- indebted, as I've said many times to the thinkers Rudolf Otto and C.S. Lewis-- would be "significant values," in keeping with my first essay on this Fryean distinction.

Obviously the two sets of emotional reactions overlap, just as plot and character must, and here's one example. One further complication to my system is that in this essay I have also formulated four persona-types-- the hero, the villain, the monster, and the demihero-- with respect to the ways in which they incarnate a given story's "life-affirming" (or plerotic) forces or its "life-denying" (kenotic) forces. I have also related these types to my own concepts of the *idealizing will* and the *existential will.*   So my persona-types are also narrative rather than significant values. Gigantor, even though diegetically the character has no will as such, incarnates both "the idealizing will" in combination with a plerotic attitude. The "Evil Dead spirits" are monsters, and they incarnate the "existential will" in combination with a kenotic attitude. And just to complete the quaternity, Fu Manchu incarnates the idealizing will as much as Gigantor, but with a kenotic, life-denying attitude, while the demihero Doctor John Robinson incarnates the "existential will" in tandem with a plerotic, life-affirming attitude.  Of course I've specified elsewhere that none of the persona-types are locked into these relationships at all times-- that they are "plerotic" monsters and "kenotic" demiheroes-- but these four are the dominant ways in which the four types are employed in human art and literature.

Having crossed all these critical "t's," I'll return to the question of affects again in the next essay.

Monday, November 17, 2014


My re-reading of Burke's ENQUIRY INTO THE SUBLIME AND BEATIFUL sparks a reminiscence of something I wrote about C.S. Lewis with regard to his evocation of a trinity of antipathetic affects, borrowed from Rudolf Otto, through which both philosophers viewed humankind's development:

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"...However, antipathy is only half the story. 
Otto's book-long work THE IDEA OF THE HOLY went into more detail than Lewis' short essay, and Otto did, as I noted in the above essay, evolve the notion of the "mysterium fascinans" to parallel his fear-based idea of the "mysterium tremendum." Still, I would have to say that Otto did not do any better than Lewis in defining the parameters of the sympathetic affects: both seem firmly focused on the antipathetic ones.

Edmund Burke is more aware of the sympathetic affects, but he chooses to view them under the rubric of "pleasure," and he considers them appropriate to the experience of "the beautiful" rather than that of "the sublime." In Section Seven of the ENQUIRY's first part, Burke explicitly aligns the sublime with the experience, or at least, the possibility, of pain.

WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasure which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy....When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience. The cause of this I shall endeavour to investigate hereafter.

Patently, as noted in my many essays on Kant's theory of the dynamic-sublime, the German philosopher accepted and recapitulated many of Burke's formulations-- though Kant proves less useful than Burke with respect to my project of formulating the combinatory-sublime.

Later, Part Two is devoted to the many stimuli that can bring on the sublime.  I'll pass over Burke's inclusion of discrete physical phenomena like "sounds and loudness" and "the cries of animals," valid as they might be on one level or another. I'm concerned here with the abstract qualities Burke invokes, which as are follows: Terror, Obscurity, Power, Privation, Vastness, Infinity, Difficulty, and Magnificence. "Difficulty," in fact, might have subsumed all of Burke's abstractions much better than "pain," for Burke is concerned with the ways in which the human subject responds to anything suggestive of resistance to human will, in marked contrast to the relaxation the subject experiences when one apprehends "the beautiful."

It is the last-named section, "Magnificence," from which I've quoted in this early meditation on the sublime, as well as the essay in which I defined the concept of the combinatory-sublime, also with reference to Burke's section on "magnificence."  In both of the above essays, I was struck by Burke's use of the term "richness and profusion of images" to describe the experience of the sublime with regard to his examples in "Magnificence." For me this described in large part the very appeal of marvelous imagery, as I noted with respect to Tolkien and his "endless combinations." But though I believe that I fully understand Burke's chain of associations, I can't agree that the profusion of images is primarily characterized by such antipathetic affects as "pain," or even "difficulty." It's true that the examples Burke names-- visionary passages from Shakespeare, Virgil and others-- are not characterized by ease of access: the subject who identifies with them will feel his own emotions overwhelmed-- but not in a way suggestive of pain. If anything, it is a pleasure closer to that of the "voluptuary" Burke mentions above; it is, as I said here, "wonder" more than "terror."

Burke, as I noted in ENQUIRY PART 2, was an early defender of the power of the human mind to formulate images that did not correspond to anything in common, observable reality. James T. Boulton, editor of my 1968 reprint from Notre Dame Press, credits Burke as being "in open revolt against neo-classical principles." Burke's opening section on the virtues of "novelty" is echoed by the section "Imitation" from Part One:

It is by imitation far more than by precept, that we learn everything; and what we learn thus, we acquire not only more effectually, but more pleasantly...When the object represented in poetry or painting is such as we could have no desire of seeing in the reality, then I may be sure that its power in poetry or painting is owing to the power of imitation, and to no cause operating in the thing itself. So it is with most of the pieces which the painters call still-life. In these a cottage, a dunghill, the meanest and most ordinary utensils of the kitchen, are capable of giving us pleasure. But when the object of the painting or poem is such as we should run to see if real, let it affect us with what odd sort of sense it will, we may rely upon it, that the power of the poem or picture is more owing to the nature of the thing itself than to the mere effect of imitation, or to a consideration of the skill of the imitator, however excellent. 

 "We should run to see if real" threw me for a moment: at first I thought he meant that if the thing was real, those who beheld it would run from it. But to maintain the parallel with the subject's disinterest in the objects of still life, Burke must have meant that if the poetry or painting depicted something novel, perhaps even outside the realm of nature, then people would run to see that novel thing if they heard about it, just to see if it was real.

This dichotomy also expresses the double-sided significance of Joseph Campbell's "supernormal sign stimuli:" to have their sublime effects, the stimulating signs must be something uncommon, yet somehow they must also share the mundane existence of those who observe them-- an existential conundrum I referenced somewhat in my essay MIRACLE MILES.

Still, it may be that Burke, being of his time, could not entirely escape the neoclassical influence of the eighteenth century, which may be why he tends to think of profusions of colorful imagery as painful and difficult rather than entrancing, as Tolkien does.

Nevertheless, Burke remains, as Boulton correctly says, the first major prophet of the sublime experience:

[Burke was] the principal exponent of the sublime as [being] at once an irrational and a violent aesthetic experience... Whereas in the early stages [with Longinus] the sublime is essentially a style of writing, with Burke it becomes a mode of aesthetic experience found in literature and far beyond it.
 He himself could not picture his "magnificence" as a sympathetic affect, leaving such affects to the realm of the less overwhelming world of "the beautiful." But even though Immanuel Kant proved the superior logician with respect to the sublime, Burke may have been Kant's superior in terms of the aesthetic instincts needed to apprehend this "irrational and violent" experience.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


VERTICALLY CHALLENGING was the first essay in which I attempted an in-depth exploration of the applicability of Joseph Campbell's heuristic system of "supernormal sign stimuli" to works of differing phenomenality. I reprinted a section from PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY in which Campbell listed an assortment of possible sign that might stimulate human beings in a "supernormal" fashion:

A suggestive analogy is to be seen in the case of the grayling moth, which prefers darker mates to those actually offered by its present species. For if human art can offer to a moth the supernormal sign stimulus to which it responds more eagerly than to the normal offerings of life, it can surely supply supernormal stimuli, also to the IRMs [Innate Releasing Mechanisms] of man and not only spontaneously, in dream and nightmare, but even more brilliantly in the contrived folktales, fairy tales, mythological landscapes, over- and underworlds, temples and cathedrals, pagodas and gardens, dragons, angels, gods, and guardians of popular and religious art. It is true, of course, that the culturally developed formulations of these wonders have required in many cases centuries, even milleniums, to complete. 

I also mentioned in the same essay that this list was something of a catch-all, and I attempted to impose some order upon it with reference to Huxley's theory of vertical transcendence. I also compared my own distinctions between "reality-fiction" and "fantasy-fiction" to Campbell's distinctions between the differing ways in which animals may react to its environment.

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

Now that I've re-read Burke's ENQUIRY INTO THE SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL, I find it interesting that the eighteenth-century philosopher also made a distinction between the aspects of art-- which he calls "poetry" for short-- in terms of its abilities to imitate observable nature, and of its abilities to go beyond nature.  In the ENQUIRY, Burke entitles one short section-- the next to last of his sections-- "Poetry Not Strictly an Imitative Art," and presents the argument below:

HENCE we may observe that poetry, taken in its most general sense, cannot with strict propriety be called an art of imitation. It is indeed an imitation so far as it describes the manners and passions of men which their words can express; where animi motus effert interprete lingua.There it is strictly imitation; and all merely dramatic poetry is of this sort. But descriptive poetry operates chiefly by substitution; by the means of sounds, which by custom have the effect of realities. Nothing is an imitation further than as it resembles some other thing; and words undoubtedly have no sort of resemblance to the ideas, for which they stand.

In the next and final section of the ENQUIRY, "How Words Influence the Passions," Burke details three modes of influence. One mode deals with the influence of our opinions and those of others. The second deals with those things which "have never been at all presented to the senses of any men but by words, as God, angels, devils, heaven, and hell," though Burke does not explicitly confine these  representations "which can seldom occur in the reality" only to representations of the marvelous-metaphenomenal.  And then Burke's final mode of influence practically provides a gloss to my own formulation of the combinatory-sublime.

Thirdly, by words we have it in our power to make such combinations as we cannot possibly do otherwise. By this power of combining, we are able, by the addition of well-chosen circumstances, to give a new life and force to the simple object. In painting we may represent any fine figure we please; but we never can give it those enlivening touches which it may receive from words.
Though I've noted in earlier essays that I had read Burke before, I doubt that I remembered this section of the ENQUIRY when I formed my term. To the best of my recollection, I derived my term "combinatory" from my readings of both Cassirer and Tolkien.

For Burke, this final emphasis on the mind's power to combine disparate objects proved important enough that when the ENQUIRY, first published in 1757, received a second edition two years later, Burke expanded on this combinatory theory, prefacing his "sublime and beautiful" arguments with an essay entitled "Introduction on Taste," published for the first time in that 1759 edition.  Here he descants upon his opinion that there is an imagination-stimulating pleasure in finding "resemblances" between disparate phenomena, while no such pleasure attends discovering the sort of differences one expects to find in such things:

When two distinct objects are unlike to each other, it is only what we expect; things are in their common way; and therefore they make no impression on the imagination: but when two distinct objects have a resemblance, we are struck, we attend to them, and we are pleased. The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances than in searching for differences; because by making resemblances we produce new images; we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock; but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination; the task itself is more severe and irksome, and what pleasure we derive from it is something of a negative and indirect nature. 

Here too it is not incorrect to see another parallel between "reality" and "fantasy." Reality is the domain of distinctions between this or that: all things that "match the natural environment," while fantasy is the domain that annihilates those distinctions, producing "new images" that are "unmatched in nature." And I may as well throw in Tolkien's remarks on the "newness" of what he calls "creative fantasy:"

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was  dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.

Having demonstrated some of the interesting similitudes between Campbell and Burke, my next essay will talk in more detail about Burke's concept of the sublime, and why it has superior application to art and literature in contrast to Kant's concept, on which some of my earliest essays on the sublime were perhaps overly dependent.


I don't think my "Golden Age of Metaphenomenal Fiction" started at the age of 12, as the old joke more or less has it. My earliest memories attest to my liking fantastic works more than realistic works, even though I could see the appeal of both. But I will say that I probably became a *devotee,* rather than a casual consumer, of metaphenomenal works at least by the age of 12. I was 11 when the BATMAN teleseries hit the airwaves, and the accessibility of the Caped Crusader encouraged me to venture into the strange world of comics-that-weren't-primarily-funny, unlike "Archie," "Donald Duck," and the occasional funny superhero-type like "Mighty Mouse." I probably started reading paperback SF regularly a couple of years later; my first such purchase may have a used copy of Michael Moorcock's THE FIRECLOWN.

In this devotee-period I began to read whatever histories of SF. fantasy and horror were available at my local library. In one of those works-- I no longer remember which-- I encountered the assertion that the appeal of science fiction was its simultaneous capacity for "wonder and terror."  

I don't imagine that this work-- probably something published in the 1960s-- was the first to use these tandem terms. But I've never forgotten how the conjoined words resonated with me, though of course I did not feel that their appeal was confined only to one form of metaphenomenal fiction.

Fast-forward to the near present. In this 2013 essay I formulated my terms for the types of emotional affects that accompany the experience of the sublime. For all works of "the marvelous"-- that is, works that stimulate the "anti-real sublime"-- I said that henceforth I'd term the sympathetic affect "exaltation" and the antipathetic affect "awe"-- the latter derived from Rudolf Otto and the former from my reaction against Otto's one-sided hermeneutics.  But I have to admit that these two states of mind can shade into one another rather easily, and it's difficult to invoke Otto's hermeneutics every time I invoke the affects.

Thus, for this essay and at least the next few, I'm substituting "wonder" for "exaltation" and "terror" for "awe."

So for my trinity of sympathetic affects, each of which is responsive to the phenomenality of the work involved, are now FEAR // DREAD // TERROR.

And my trinity of antipathetic affects are now ADMIRATION // FASCINATION // WONDER.

On a quick side-note I'm moved to observe that at least one writer, Anne Radcliffe, viewed "terror" as a faculty which "expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life," as opposed to the contractive effect of "horror." Interestingly, in the passage from Radcliffe's work reprinted here, she makes a number of references to Edmund Burke's work on the sublime-- which I may attempt to address in more detail later on.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


As I've admitted in some of my later writings on the topic of sublimity, my earliest blog-essays depended heavily on Kant and his concept of the dynamic sublime, while more or less dismissing the author's formulation of the "mathematical-sublime" as irrelevant to my project.  I had by that time read not only Kant's primary works on the subject but also that of his predecessor, the English empiricist Edmund Burke, but I must admit that then I had a preference for Kant's superior power of categorization. Burke's signature work-- A PHILOSOPHICAL ENQUIRY INTO THE ORIGIN OF OUR IDEAS OF THE SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL-- is marked by a tendency toward arbitrary categories, supported by what editor James Boulton calls "highly selective evidence."

Nevertheless, as I noted in this essay, Burke was much more prodigal than Kant when it came to identifying the sublime within literary works.  Recently I began to meditate once more on the possible connections between Joseph Campbell's concept of "supernormal sign stimuli," first referenced here, and the two forms of the sublime as I've now formulated them, "the dynamic-sublime" and the "combinatory-sublime." On some level I suppose I was coming back to a topic I said that I'd write about at the end of this essay, but never did.  Perhaps at the time I felt I'd said all I needed to say about Huxleyan transcendence.  In VERTICAL VIRTUES  I defined the interrelationship of this concept of transcendence with the concept of the sublime:

Csicsery-Ronay asserted that "sublimity" was produced by an "expansion of apprehension"-- an argument very much in line with philosophers of sublimity like Burke and Kant-- and added that his parallel category, "the grotesque" was produced by "a projection of fascinated repulsion/attraction." I reject Csiscery-Ronay's separation of these two affects, and instead regard them as "expansive" and "contractive" forms of the same affect: the affect of of the sublime.
I should add that in portraying "the sublime" as unitary, I was following the lead of Csicery-Ronay, who speaks of the sublime as "a response to an imaginative shock."  Within the sphere of my own system, I agree that this shock is responsible for the sublimity-affect, whether it manifests through the subject's reaction to "power" or to "endless combinations."  I must admit that in some cases, I have found the concept of the "combinatory-sublime" more widely applicable, as in the aforementioned conclusion of the essay TRANSCENDENCE WHAT AIN'T SUBLIME PT. 2:

Campbell, though not a literary critic, supplies a corrective to the overemphasis on reasonableness and ideological correctness. In a future essay I will also draw comparisons between Campbell's heuristic system and the forms of transcendence that are not reasonable; that can mount to the heavens or descend into the darkness of Hades-- and in either form, are covalent with what I have termed the combinatory-sublime.
I see now that this was a misstatement. I believe that Campbell's own evocations of the sublime-- even if he does not use that word-- depend largely on the imaginative shock that arises from "endless combinations," an assertion I demonstrated in the essay COMBINATORY CONSIDERATIONS.  However, in works by other authors, the dynamic-sublime can play just as great a role in evoking downward and upward transcendence. I established this in the later essay VERTICAL VIRTUES PT. 2, where I asserted that Melville's BENITO CERENO derived its sense of downward transcendence from the power of its demonic African character Babo, while Stowe's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN derived its sense of upward transcendence from the power of Uncle Tom's self-sacrificing imitatio dei-- even though Tom is only figuratively aligned with the Son of God, and has no power save the power of a noble example.

What would these modes of transcendence look like when applied to examples of the combinatory-sublime?
The easiest comparison that comes to mind occurs because I referenced Doctor Strange in the second TWAS essay. The good doctor exists in a world where he, a mortal human, straddles countless dimensions dominated by all manner of colorful entities and phenomena. Yet the dominant emotion is one of enchantment, since the hero's power to triumph is a given, and thus all of the varied phenomena in this series-- at least in its classic Lee-Ditko iteration-- would be an example of upward transcendence.  H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Call of Cthulhu," however, evokes just as many entities and phenomena, but this tale registers as an example of downward transcendence, because it suggests that the universe is infinitely horrible by virtue of its infinite variegations. (Of course, the "dynamic-sublime" appears in both of these, so neither choice represents the "combinatory-sublime" in isolation.)

So I've now concluded that if I do analyze Campbell's supernormal sign-systems further, they will be best described with reference to the two modes of sublimity rather than the two forms of transcendence, because the first deals with what kind of stimulus produces the affect while the second deals with its sympathetic or antipathetic tonality.  And with all of that in mind, in my next essay I'll finally be able at last to inquire into Edmund Burke, and show that contrary to my earlier opinion, his work on the sublime may prove more fruitful than that of Immanuel Kant.

Monday, November 10, 2014


I've followed the works of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez from their first Fantagraphics publications, and I still re-read both Jaime's "Locas" stories and Gilbert's "Palomar" works from time to time whenever I want to immerse myself in comics done at the uppermost level of accomplishment.

That said, I often have not liked their attempts to write other stories outside those respective universes. I suppose I could be accused of being one of those fans who wants a creator to keep doing the same things he's always done, but I don't think that's accurate.  Liking Miller's DAREDEVIL didn't make me wish he'd never done SIN CITY, etc., so I think in many cases the Hernandezes' attempts to trail-blaze new concepts simply haven't been as well realized as their first two innovations.

GOD AND SCIENCE: RETURN OF THE TI-GIRLS sort of-kind of takes place in Jaime's "Locas" universe.  The early stories originally included a few SF-trappings even though they took place in what looked like modern urban California. Gradually most of those trappings went away and the series became firmly grounded in the present day, though strange phenomena still took place.  Maggie, one of the series' principal stars, might read about superheroes in comic books, but there were no superheroes as such in her world, though occasionally Mexican wrestlers acted out such larger-than-life roles.

TI-GIRLS, however, rewrites the Locas-world so that it's evident that superheroes have always been around in some form, even if their doings rarely impact on the lives of ordinary humans like Maggie. The story begins when Angel, an athletic friend of Maggie, takes it into her head to become a superheroine, in part because one of the women in Maggie's apartment house seems to be one. Jaime's story does not admit to easy summation, but suffice to say that Angel finds herself meeting dozens of superheroines and supervillainesses.  Despite a complaint by one of the heroines that it's hard for women to get ahead in a world that's predominantly oriented on white males, the only time the reader sees any male heroes or villains in the story's present is a short sequence in a bar full of seedy, costumed guys, and only one among them seems like a half-decent fellow. It may be that Jaime concentrated on females with some idea of redressing old wrongs, or he may have just wanted to draw a lot of female characters of varying body-types-- something he and his brother Gilbert do better than anyone in the field.

When I read the original serial in LOVE AND ROCKETS: NEW STORIES 1-2, the story seemed random and unfocused.  For the reprint volume Jaime added 30 new pages which went a long way to providing closure to the story, though there are still plenty of surrealistic moments where strange things happen and the only response is, "who can figure comics?" For instance, Santa Claus appears in the story briefly, to little purpose except so that Jaime could indulge in a little whimsy not connected to the usual fantasy/SF tropes of superhero comics.

One reviewer said that there were two forces at work in Jaime's story. On one hand, he creates a lot of characters meant to have emotional resonance, even if their backstories are only sketched in. On the other, there's constantly an air of, "but this may go away at any moment."

Not until my third reading of TI-GIRLS, though, did I find an angle on it by which I could appreciate Jaime's accomplishment.  TI-GIRLS is in essence both an homage to 1960s Marvel Comics and an inversion of the company's priorities.

There have been any number of tedious homages to Marvel's groundbreaking works, the worst being Alan Moore's witless 1963 imitations. But while Jaime's inspirations go beyond the Marvel artists of the sixties, he 
puts his finger unerringly on Marvel's appeal.  Where Marvel specialized in alternating skull-bursting fisticuffs with soap-opera melodrama, Jaime's homage provides the same wild action but tempers the fight-scenes with brief melodramatic snippets that aren't intended to be developed continuously like a soap; they're just there for a quick "dose of reality" amid the crazy fantasy.

I don't think I'll re-read TI-GIRLS quite as often as I do the signature works of Jaime and Gilbert. But it's not a misfire like certain standalone Hernandez works, some of which I wasn't even able to finish.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


On the previously mentioned Sarkeesian BEAT-thread Heidi McDonald intimated that by my comments I was allying myself to the "winning side" in the Gamergate conflict.  I assume that the "winning side" must be the aggro male culture that allegedly opposes change in the sexual representation of gamer characters/situations-- if, indeed, the culture is as Anita Sarkeesian describes it.

To me it seems a little early for Heidi to proclaim that side the winner in an ongoing conflict, not to mention that it appears to conflict with her moral stance, which has always been to insist that the fight for equality goes ever on, no matter what opposition one encounters.  So I'm going to speculate that Heidi's real meaning is quantitative: I've aligned with the "winning side" because males are numerically superior in gamer culture, and she assumes that I am defending male privilege.

On the contrary, my whole purpose in responding to the Sarkeesian interview is to better define what constitutes a genuine infringement upon the rights of an individual, or group of individuals, in society. No prudent person could possibly doubt that Anita Sarkeesian's personal rights were contravened by the individual who sent a death-threat to Utah State University, as well as by any others who sent similar threats on other occasions. The bone of contention, however, is whether or not all of these threats to Sarkeesian are also exclusively aimed at women, which was Sarkeesian's statement on the Colbert show. One BEAT-poster disproved this statement by listing three male individuals who had received anonymous threats, theoretically because of those individuals' relationships to the Gamergate controversy. When other posters continued to claim that this "toxic" behavior was characteristic of "fanboy culture," I pointed out that the alleged female-phobic behavior was common to sports and politics, where those targeted by anonymous threats may well be males just as easily as females.

None of these observations reduce the seriousness of the actual threats. They do, however, call Sarkeesian's accuracy into question, and raise the possibility that she has purposely distorted the overall facts in order to create a narrative of gender polarization.  The girls just want to have fun, but those cro-magnon guys keep kicking them out of the clubhouse.

If Sarkeesian had admitted that men who took unpopular stances had also been targeted, would that have weakened her talking-points?  Ethically, it should not. Threats against both men and women should be just as insalubrious as threats only against women-- particularly since Sarkeesian claims to be a feminist, and supposedly believes that men and women possess equal rights.  Certainly, from the standpoint of the law-- the principal medium by which men seek to both deny or affirm rights for one group or another-- a crime against a woman is not, generally speaking, more odious than the same crime committed against a man.

Now I've demonstrated that the sexes are theoretically equal before the law, and that if anyone should believes that, it ought to be Anita Sarkeesian, by her own stated convictions. I've also stated that the makers of anonymous death-threats-- who, for sake of argument, may be viewed as dominantly male-- also make such threats against both women and men.  Having established that broad spectrum of this kind of criminal behavior, only then can it be fairly stated that some of the people making such threats are, as Sarkeesian claims, particularly phobic to females and/or feminism. Indeed, one of the three threats issued in the USU case-- does not make any statements re: game culture, but only to Sarkeesian's species of feminism.

"We live in a nation of emasculated cowards too afraid to challenge the vile, misandrist harpies who seek to destroy them," the threat stated. "Feminism has taken over every facet of our society, and women like Sarkeesian want to punish us for even fantasizing about being men. This is why I’ve chosen to target her. Anita Sarkeesian is everything wrong with the feminist woman, and she is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU. I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood, and you will all bear witness to what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America."

It's my position that one can only correctly identify such extreme positions of anti-feminine bile by situating them with a greater corpus of overall animus, an animus often directed at anyone, of any sex, who challenges a given fanatic's opinions. Obviously, Sarkeesian's possible "lie of omission" is not as great a sin as someone who breaks the law and issues a death-threat.  Yet it should be evident that I am clearly not aligning myself with the "winning side" simply because I want Anita Sarkeesian to abandon a false polarization-- no matter how much that might vitiate her crusade.

In closing I should note that my approach with respect to aggrieved threat-makers is roughly the same as my approach with respect to aggrieved feminists claim that any and all representations that seem to diminish female characters are *de facto* indicators of male hostility against women.  First one must establish a corpus that takes in all relevant behavior, as I do in ABJECTION APOLOGIA,  being careful to note whether or not male characters are also subject to similar diminutions. Only then can one fairly state that any particular depiction does or does not present evidence for misogynistic tendencies.