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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

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.

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