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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


In SACRED AND PROFANE VIOLENCE PART 1, I outlined a way in which both fictional sex and violence, although ultimately distinct in their various applications, could be subsumed as a sort of narrative "violence" that brought about the transformation from the outset of the narrative to its resolution.  My future discussions of sex and violence in this essay-series, however, aren't meant to be focused on the abstraction of pure narrative, so I've decided to continue this aspect of my ruminations under the rubric COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS. This 2014 essay-series was the first time I considered that both the combinatory mode and the dynamicity mode might be applied to my adaptation of Adler's theory of positive and negative compensation.

The terms "combinatory mode" and "dynamicity mode" are new extrapolations from the established terms "combinatory-sublime" and "dynamic-sublime." The latter terms were appropriate to the particular types of fantasy-narrative I was analyzing in the earlier essays. However, now that I'm speaking of narrative as a whole, I'm forced to apply the concepts across the board. After all, in VERTICAL VIRTUES  and its second part, I took the Huxley-derived position that all fiction is concerned in some way with transcendence, be it "horizontal," "upward," or "downward." The first form of transcendence is defined by its lack of the sublime affects present in the other two forms. But narratives of "horizontal transcendence," while not constituted to deliver the major emotional upsurges seen in the other forms, must be rooted in the same matrix of will and desire that informs the others.  So it follows within my system that a work of horizontal transcendence-- Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND being my chosen example in the VIRTUES essays-- must conform to the same pattern as the two sublime forms. WIND's main theme relates to dynamicity, in that it addresses the regulation of power in its society is negotiated: the death of the Old South and its resistance to the victorious North, even while the North is subtly changing the old values. However, the mode of the combinatory appears as well. Tolkien, whose seminal essay "On Fairy Stories" was a key influence on my refinement of my sublimity-theory, discusses this form of the non-sublime combinatory mode:

Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough. And there is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. That kind of “fantasy” most people would allow to be wholesome enough; and it can never lack for material. But it has, I think, only a limited power; for the reason that recovery of freshness of vision is its only virtue.

And in this regard Mitchell's "freshness of vision." her invocation of the combinatory mode in its non-sublime form, appears in WIND's highly variegated characters. In this essay I mentioned that "GONE WITH THE WIND lacks the affects of the sublime, but that lack doesn't take anything from Mitchell's amazing ability to create characters who can seem well-rounded even though they may appear for no more than a paragraph or two." I'm not an expert on historical fiction of Mitchell's period, or of any period, but I would venture to guess that most popular writers working in Mitchell's idiom did not work as hard as she did rendering all of these characters, both major and minor. For that matter, there are quite a few authors of canonical literature who are must weaker on minor characters than Mitchell, including "big guns" like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Turning back to a topic raised in SACRED AND PROFANE, I sought to bring my Bataillean concept of narrative "violence" in line with what I'd written in the essay THE BASE LEVEL OF CONFLICT. I hadn't noticed until recently that I wrote the BASE LEVEL essay a couple of weeks before I made my breakthrough in deducing two forms of sublimity. Prior to the TWO SUBLIMITIES HAVE I series, I had only defined sublimity in terms of dynamicity. Thus, when I tried to analyze Bradbury's story "The Last Night of the World," I was on some level seeking to express the nature of conflict in terms that would make sense within the dynamic-sublime, and so I asserted that the story was an example of Nietzsche's "will to nothingness." This isn't so much wrong as incomplete, for the "conflict" I was seeking is not one of dynamicity, but of the combinatory mode.

In the past couple of years I've identified instances of "combinatory thinking" in authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Joseph Campbell and Grant Morrison, but the unintentional father of this concept must be, in a historical sense, Edmund Burke, who emphasized its power in this passage:

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.

I still assert that the predominant appeal of "The Last Night of the World" is its defiance of audience-expectations re: the equanimity with which the viewpoint-characters-- and implicitly, all other people in the world except the children-- meet the world's irrevocable end. But this conflict arises from the combination of a dire situation with reactions which do not seem to fit that situation, as seen by this exchange:

"Do you know, I won't miss anything but you and the girls. I never liked cities or autos or factories or my work or anything except you three. I won't miss a thing except my family and perhaps the change in the weather and a glass of cool water when the weather's hot, or the luxury of sleeping. Just little things, really. How can we sit here and talk this way?"
"Because there's nothing else to do."

I should note that this was one of several 1950s stories Bradbury wrote that referenced the possibility of nuclear devastation. "Last Night" hints that the peaceful ending of the world takes the place of such a devastation, and that it comes about specifically because nuclear death is so close to reality:

"There are bombers on their course both ways across the ocean tonight that'll never see land again."
"That's part of the reason why."

Thus Bradbury's strategy for giving "new life and force" to the overly familiar threat of nuclear war was to undercut its power by invoking a greater power, one that simply chooses to end the story of mankind in the manner of "the closing of a book"-- an apt metaphor for a writer frustrated with the follies of mankind.

Thus the conflict of Bradbury's story is expressed through the combination of things that don't quite seem to match, much like the images I reproduced in COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS PART 3.  Of course, these images, like the Bradbury story, seek to evoke the "strangeness" of the sublime, and this provides a contrasting employment of the combinatory mode to what we see in Margaret Mitchell's purely horizontal, representational cast of characters. Yet even the horizontal manifestations serve to illustrate the incredible fecundity of the combinatory mode.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


“Status quo” science fiction. . . . opens with a conventional picture of social reality. . . . This reality is disrupted by some anomaly or change--invasion, invention, or atmospheric disturbance, for example--and most of the story involves combating or otherwise dealing with this disruption. At the story’s conclusion, the initial reality (the status quo) reasserts itself (ix).-- Frank Cioffi, cited here.
…we must inquire into the very nature of narrative. Let us begin by constructing an image of the minimum narrative, not the kind we usually find in contemporary texts, but that nucleus without which we cannot say there is any narrative at all. The image will be as follows: All narrative is a movement between two equilibriums which are similar but not identical.-- Tzvetan Todorov, cited here.

I've mentioned many times that the philosophy of Georges Bataille is key to my project of analyzing the affects of fictional sex and violence in rigorous narratological terms. At the same time, I've gone to great pains to refute this Bataille statement:

In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation.

This 2010 essay states the argument succinctly, but it has recently occurred to me that when Bataille says "in essence," he might have been thinking of the similitudes of sex and violence in terms other than as "the sensuous frenzy" that he claimed was the link between both activities. Now it seems possible to me that Bataille-- though he does not expressly say so-- may have been thinking about the function of both activities in human society, to which topic he also devotes considerable space in EROTISM:

In the domain of our life [the principle of] excess manifests in so far as violence wins over reason. Work demands the sort of conduct where effort is in a constant ratio with productive efficiency. It demands rational behavior where the wild impulses worked out on feast days and usually in games are frowned upon. If we were unable to repress these impulses we should not be able to work, but work introduces the very reason for repressing them. These impulses confer an immediate satisfaction on those who yield to them. Work, on the other hand, promises to those who overcome [these impulses] a reward later on whose value cannot be disputed except from the point of view of the present moment.
In this societal sense, the "domains" of sex and violence are indeed homologous given that they so frequently conflict with the world of useful work.  Yet even given this paradigm, one cannot overlook that both practices admit of being used to support "productive efficiency," channeling the violent impulses of the young into warfare that brings more resources into a given society, or making advantageous marriages in order to create social bonds between separate groups. Nor should one make the Mickey Marx mistake of assuming that these stratagems are imposed upon innocent members of society by their devious rulers. There's nothing that a group's ruler has ever conceived that did not have its genesis in the stratagems used by "ordinary people" in their dealings with one another.

Now, since one of the main concerns of this blog is "fictional sex and violence," how if at all does Bataille's linkage of the domains of sex and violence apply to fictional narrative?

For clarity I return to the two complementary analyses cited above, by Frank Cioffi and Tzvetan Todorov, as to the nature of narrative. It's a well-worn truism that all fiction must revolve around some form of "conflict," but that truism doesn't say anything about the various ways in which conflict operates.

Of the two scholars, Cioffi employs a violent term-- "disrupted"-- to describe the way the "reality" at a story's beginning is transformed into another reality by the story's conclusion. (See the fuller quote in the cited essay for Cioffi's thoughts about the ways in which the "status quo" may be upset, or how the same dynamics apply no less to other genres than to the science-fiction genre with which he's concerned.)

Typically enough, Todorov-- a more elitist critic who barely takes notice of the permutations of popular literature-- avoids any such violent metaphors. Yet it's difficult to imagine what brings about his "movement between two equilibriums which are similar but not identical" except by some kinetic activity. Of course, not all activity is violent activity, and I myself have examined a particular Ray Bradbury story as providing a "base level of conflict." This might be an apt example of Todorov's minimal requirements for narrative movement: the Bradbury story begins with a couple that wakes in the night (initial equilibirum, or Cioffi's "status quo"), discuss between themselves their mutual vision that the world is about to end (movement), and are quickly reconciled to the world ending in a whimper (new equilibrium).

I took the position that the "conflict" in the Bradbury story was not intrinsic, since the tale only has two characters who immediately agree as to their new situation-- but extrinsic, in that their reaction conflicts with the expectations of the story's readers, who are likely to expect a bit more wailing and gnashing of teeth. I termed the characters' acceptance of their lot a "will to nothingness," But the matter may go deeper than that, as I will explore in more detail in the forthcoming Part 2.

[correction: since the essay mentioned above doesn't pertain directly to the matter of fictive violence, I've decided that it fits better as a follow-up to the two COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS essay.]

Monday, April 27, 2015



...I feel revolted by the base Werthamism that crops on some comics-fan boards when those fans choose to rail against any and all use of pulpish sensationalism.  It doesn't matter if it's as well done as Frank Miller's DARK KNIGHT or as badly done as Mark Millar's WANTED; anything that keeps funnybooks out of the hands of kids is part of the vast evil conspiracy of nasty pandering comics-companies, usually though not invariably "the Big Two."
I understand that such overreactions may come from a "good place," in that most devoted superhero fans are introduced to the genre as kids. When these fans become adults, it's not unreasonable to want their own kids to experience something like the same "joy of superheroes," and that's only possible when there are at least some viable superheroes in the vein of "juvenile pulp." For my purposes juvenile pulp would include both those narratives expressly aimed at juveniles of  various ages-- for instance, the DC Comic TINY TITANS-- and those narratives defined as "all ages". I'm cognizant that there are many "all ages" narratives that are capable of appealing to adults, and indeed this amphibian capacity explains much of the success of Silver Age Marvel Comics. In THE DIVIDING LINE PART 2 I noted that I found a "juvenile tone" in some "all ages" comic books like GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW and THE VIGILANTE.

I've spoken before of a juvenile "tone" in works like CONAN, GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, OMEGA MEN and VIGILANTE that in my consideration do not qualify as "adult pulp," as opposed to Miller's DAREDEVIL and Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG, for two. (Side-note: I might view the Thomas/Smith CONAN as at least a transtional work between the two states.) This tone I evaluate based not on the presence or absence of taboo material but on the degree to which, even in an escapist work, the story's content is influenced by the adult concept of "work" rather than "play." The adult's consciousness not only of "work" as a profession but as an insight to the way the world and all its elements "work" is what provides the dividing-line between "juvenile" and "adult." Across this Maginot line of maturation, both the narrative aspects of extreme sex-and-violence and the significant aspects of deeper and more portentous cognitions are united to create all manner of adult entertainments, both "escapist" and "realistic."
The closest I could come to defining what separates "adult tone" from "juvenile tone" is that the former possesses a quality I termed in the above essay "rigor." I didn't use the term again, but the concept underlies many of my other distinctions between "work" and "play."

Key to the Neopuritans' argument is the desire to keep superheroes accessible to juveniles. However, the possibility has occurred to me more than once superhero comic magazines may have reached a point at which they can only be sustained by adults, at least in the United States. And moreover, the specific genre-medium blend of "superheroes in comics" was preceded many years ago by a similar "adult-eration," with the death of "juvenile western films."

In the 2010 essay STANDARD BARING PART 2  I went into some detail about the parallel ways in which adult and juvenile narratives co-existed in Classic Hollywood cinema, perhaps to an even greater extent than they had for that genre in the pulps and dime novels. But one thing this overview neglected was the huge number of juvenile westerns that appeared during the Classic period. Dozens upon dozens of cheaply-made B-westerns offered only the most elementary plots, inhabited with all-good heroes and all-bad villains. The reign of the many cowboy-heroes of the period-- Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Durango Kid, Lash LaRue, and many others-- came to an end in the 1950s, when television usurped the economic logic of the juvie-western, and offered similar fare free of charge. As I was a baby-boomer, this was the only form of juvenile western I ever knew, so I grew up enjoying programs like LONE RANGER and CISCO KID-- though by the time that I saw any of the earlier films on television, they seemed far more cheap and repetitive than the TV westerns that I grew up with.

For whatever reason, westerns did not endure in the realm of live-action television aimed at the juvenile. The only western theatrical films aimed at juveniles were a smattering of western-comedies that appeared throughout the sixties and early seventies: things like 1968's THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, 1969's SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF (and sequel), and 1978's HOT LEAD AND COLD FEET. Admittedly "all ages" westerns prospered in the 1950s and 1960s, but by the mid-1970s the TV-western had begun an almost irreversible decline. As for the world of the cinema, the "all ages" westerns had been all but displaced by the movies' version of 'adult pulp." Aging John Wayne was the last viable exemplar of the "all ages" form, and despite scattered films from other aging icons like Burt Lancaster and Henry Fonda, the wave of the future had been launched by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood in 1964 via the seminal A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and the majority of successful westerns were increasingly aimed at a purely adult audience. Any kid who grew up in the 1980s and had a yen for westerns would have been forced to watch genre-works aimed primarily at adults, such as HEAVEN'S GATE or THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER-- though of course there were the inevitable exceptions, like the YOUNG GUNS series and the megaflop LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER.

By now the parallel I'm suggesting should be obvious: the juvenile form of the western was largely marginalized by the successful growth of the western in its primarily adult form. And while I'm loathe to define any genre's success or failure purely in terms of socioeconomic factors, it seems that parallel factors have caused a similar marginalization of the "juvenile pulp" superhero comic book-- and not, as some fans, like to think, merely the greed of pandering comics-companies.

Admittedly, juvenile westerns do seem to remain vital in other media, as one can see from this list of young adult historical novels.  But in the world of cinema and live-action television, they seem to have been effectively displaced.

Saturday, April 25, 2015



[Campbell is] entirely justified in making generalized observations of hypothetically universal patterns. No one would criticize a physicist for asserting that gravity ought to work pretty much the same everywhere, except under circumstances that have unusual physical propensities. 

This week, I came across a Jung quote that justifies the use of typology in similar terms:

It is not the purpose of a psychological typology to classify human beings into categories--this in itself would be pretty pointless....we could compare typology to a trigonometric net or, better still, to a crystallographic axial system....it is an essential means for determining the 'personal equation' of the practicing psychologist, who armed with an exact knowledge of his differentiated and inferior functions, can avoid many serious blunders in dealing with his patients

I won't reiterate my observations as to why such typologies are disliked by ideological critics, which are adequately covered in PLENITUDE: IT'S NOT JUST FOR THE END-TIMES ANYMORE. But I will pursue some of the differences between Jung's use of "typology" for the purpose of analyzing the mental problems of living human beings, and its use by literary critics-- Frye being one of the principal "myth critics"-- for the purpose of analyzing the essence of literary characters, who have never lived. It should be patently obvious that even when an author brings some real historical personage into the mix, be if Jesse James or Martin Luther King, the historical figure is transformed into a literary character, even if said historical figure is not seen doing anything he did not do as recorded in our historical records.

Jung's quote is astute in that he clearly realizes how many persons will object to "classifying human beings into categories," even when those "opponents of typology" are not motivated by pure ideological concerns. But what is the objection to trying to classify literary figures into a typology, given that they're not living creatures?

The most frequent objection I've seen is the fear that typological criticism or "myth critcism," however one chooses to define these, will distort what the author was "trying to say." This assumes that fictional works are defined by their rhetoric; that they have moral or ethical concepts to put forth and that anything that doesn't fall in line with those concepts is an error.

Though I disagree with this definition of literature, I've certainly seen a great number of essays in which I felt that the critic was projecting his or her own worldview upon that of a given author. But what is the root cause of such misprisions?

In PLENITUDE I stressed Frye's distinction between "primary concerns" and "secondary concerns." "Secondary concerns," Frye writes in THE DOUBLE VISION, "include our political, religious, and other ideological loyalties," whereas "primary concerns" are those that we share with the animals; "food, sex, property, and freedom of movement."  The "secondary concerns" I have called the "mental strategies" by which a given human seeks to optimize his availability to the "primary concerns," whether he does so for his own ingroup or for some outgroup with whom he sympathizes. Frye specifies that one cannot put aside these more abstract interpretations of reality, and so it's in a sense inevitable that readers will make misinterpretations of one kind of another. Noah Berlatsky accuses me of wanting to "erase difference" by viewing superhero comics through a typological lens, and I accuse him of the doing the same thing through an ideological one.

Yet not all projections of the reader stem from the abstractions of "secondary concern." I remember a remark in THE COMIC BUYERS' GUIDE by Big Name Fan-Writer Don Thompson, wherein Thompson expressed aversion for anthropomorphic sex comics because he correlated the idea with bestiality. Since to the best of my knowledge anthropomorphic comics, sexy or otherwise, do not literally advocate bestiality, Thompson's correlation falls into the realm of "primary concerns." Seeing humanoid characters with the characteristics of beasts connotes "a kind of sex that is not good," and so he projected that animus upon whatever comics he was looking at. My own take, for what it's worth, is that the bestial aspects of anthropomorphic characters are skin-deep, and what one is seeing in, say, OMAHA is less "cat making it with a man" or even "cat making it with dog" than it is two (or more) human beings wearing animal-costumes.

I've repeatedly taken the position that I'm no fan of the statement that "all readings are subjective, therefore one's as good as another." Yet although any number of readers can make objectively wrong readings, even the bad ones are rooted in a desire for significance of some sort, as noted in Part 1 and Part 2 of THE INTERSUBJECTIVITY SOLUTION. A broad typology of the many avenues through which human beings seek significance is therefore indispensable for the pluralist critic.

Monday, April 20, 2015


My most recent review on NATURALISTIC (ETC), was for the 1944 film THE CLIMAX. In the course of the review, I noted that it was structurally the opposite of the film that inspired it: the 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. The earlier film followed the dominant pattern of the American horror film, focusing on "the twisted nature of the monster, mad scientist, etc," as he menaced various victims, who are usually demiheroes as I defined the category here.

Demiheroes, even on the occasions where they triumph against their opponents, don't really choose to stand or fall, because they are governed, just like their monstrous counterparts, by a different form of will than one sees in the heroes and their villainous counterparts.

I later refined the name for this "form of will" as the "existential will." It is that force that urges demiheroes to exert themselves in the name of pure survival, in a manner parallel to their negative counterparts-in-existential-will, "the monsters." This is in contrast to the ways in which "heroes" and "villains" work, given that their function is to exert themselves in the name of the "idealizing will," be it for good or evil.

In horror-films that are centered-- as most are-- upon the figure of the monster, the monster's victims-- almost always demiheroes-- are usually not given much depth. But THE CLIMAX is interesting for inverting the pattern, though there isn't much of an increase in character-depth. That is, the real star is not top-billed Boris Karloff as the malefic Doctor Hohner, but singer Susanna Foster's character Angela, of whom I wrote:

the "climax" of the movie is that [Angela] triumphs over [Hohner's] attempted repression even without ever knowing what he did to her.
Now, as I said in the review, THE CLIMAX could do this easily because it wasn't really a horror film like PHANTOM, but an "uncanny murder-mystery."  And yet, this may have been a little glib. Certainly there are other mystery-films in which demiheroes become the stars of the show, as one can also see in Hithcock's THE LODGER, But though there are probably more demihero-centered mystery films than there are demihero-centered horror films, the majority of mysteries at any given time are more likely to center upon either serial heroes (Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan) or upon the source of the mystery, who like the star of the horror-film is often a monster (not sufficient to stand) or a villain (choosing to fall, as it were). As it happens, in this review of two unrelated films, I touched upon two such films, with 1993's SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER supplying an adequate example of "the murderer as a monster" and MURDER BY DEATH forming an excellent illustration of "the murderer as villain"-- a villain so formidable, by the way, that he confounds several hero-detectives, all of whom are spoofs of famous figures like Holmes and Chan.

It would be more accurate to say, not that works in the mystery-genre are characteristically dominated by demihero-personas, but that they're simply much more open to all four persona-types. The purpose of the horror genre is to fill the audience with what I have called "antipathetic affects," and for that purpose, the "monster" is better than any other persona, though I've noted in various essays that the dominantly positive personas of the hero and the demihero have their negative manifestations. Though Angela of THE CLIMAX reaches heroic heights in overcoming Hohner's influence-- though not in the service of a greater ideal, as would be the case with a genuine hero-- some demiheroes exist to be defeated. In the 1964 suspense-film DEAD RINGER Bette Davis' character registers as a demihero because she propounds the existential will in a negative fashion but lacks the more profound traits of "monstrosity" found even in the crappier monsters, like the featured "axe murderer" of the Mike Myers film mentioned above.

One of the few subtypes of horror film that allows for greater latitude in the use of personas is the comedy-horror film. Though in PUMPING THE PRIMACY I was addressing a different subject-- that of the NUM theory rather than the subject of personas-- I mentioned that it was possible for the demihero star of a comedy-horror film to be the main focus of the narrative, rather than whatever spooky phenomena he encountered. I cited Bob Hope's 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY. However, this pattern was not meant to be determinative either, for in the same essay I also mentioned another comedy-horror film-- 1941's THE SMILING GHOST-- in which the plot followed the same pattern as the "serious" horror flick, making the titular monster the narrative focus.

Of parallel interest is the way in which the narrative focus changes in Universal's "monster-mash" films of the 1940s. There's not much question in my mind that in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN,  HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and HOUSE OF DRACULA, the monsters are the stars of each film. Yet, when Universal chose to put paid to the continuing sagas of their "starring monsters," the story chosen put the emphasis upon the comedians. Arguably this was because Abbott and Costello carried more clout for the audiences. Similarly, Bob Hope is arguably the star of the 1939 CAT AND THE CANARY, even if the monster known as "the Cat" may be the main focus of the original 1927 silent film, of which the 1939 flick is a remake.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


I've often referenced Alfred Adler's theory of compensation on this blog, particularly in the series COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS, beginning here. In the first of those essays, I loosely compared Adler's idea of "positive" and "negative" forms of compensation with the two forms of fictional "escape" Tolkien references in his essay ON FAIRY STORIES: in the sense of "escape from responsibility" and of "escape from a prison"-- implicitly as much a conceptual prison as a physical one. I considered expanding on that thought for a full essay, but felt that I needed to study Adler a bit more than I have since I wrote this 2009 essay.

I chose to read THE INDIVIDUAL PSYCHOLOGY OF ALFRED ADLER, an overview of his work  edited by one Heinz Ansbacher, with copious excerpts from Adler and explanatory notes form Ansbacher. I did not find the main thing I was looking for: a single Adler essay in which he expatiated at length on his two forms of compensation. However, this idea definitely appears in his first work on the subject, 1907's "Organ Inferiority and Compensation." In this essay Adler sets the groundwork for his conviction that pathological psychological conditions may evolve out of a subject's perception of personal inferiority: "The inferior organ is not a pathological formation, although it represents the basic condition for pathology." As a negative example of overcompensation, Adler posits a situation in which a paranoiac is so impelled by "the drive to see" that "the weakness of the overcompensation expresses itself in hallucinatory fits and visual appearances." Adler is certainly not saying that all paranoia evolves out of imperfect visual apparati-- he states that he does not offer his examples as "complete proof"-- but puts his examples forth as a tenable explanation for certain cases.

In contrast to this, Adler gives a positive example of a documented writer with poor vision: Friedrich Schiller, who exorcised his nearsighted demons by creating a fictional hero reputed for faultless aim and vision: William Tell. Current elitist criticism generally deems this form of compensation to be "negative." I mentioned in COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS, Jerry Siegel himself portrayed himself as the weakling who couldn't get lots of girls, and "compensated" by creating a mighty hero who easily attracted the female of the species.

What does it mean, that Adler deems this form of "artistic exorcism" as a positive response to perceived inferiority? Ansbacher notes that about the same time Adler broke away from Freud's circle and his doctrine, Adler took a palpable influence from the now-forgotten philosopher Hans Vaihinger. Ansbacher says of this author:

Fictions, according to Vaihinger, are ideas, including unconscious notions, which have no counterpart in reality, yet serve the useful function of enabling us to deal with [reality] better than we could otherwise.

Adler's former mentor Freud could not place any value on such fantasies, and he stands as one of the greatest influences upon the tendency of 20th-century intellectuals to devalue fantasy and/or "the pleasure principle" in favor of a supposed "reality principle."  Whereas Adler eventually wrote "I began to see clearly in every psychological phenomenon the striving for superiority" his old mentor wrote pessimistically that all should "abandon the belief that there is an instinct toward perfection at work in human beings." Most amusingly, Freud is so pessimistic that for him there could no future evolution along the lines of Nietzsche: "[The leader of the primal horde] at the very beginning of mankind was the Superman whom Nietzsche only expected from the future,"

Now, so far as I can tell from the Ansbacher book, Adler did not write of "negative compensation" in terms of literature. As he was a psychologist, he was most concerned with the ways in which human beings became psychologically dysfunctional. I have no idea if he had any particular feelings about the popular fiction of his day, though if he validated Schiller's personal fantasy of a far-sighted archer-hero, I would posit that he might not be entirely hostile toward the pop-fiction "supermen" of the early 20th century. At worst he might consider them in the same terms as Vaihinger: useful fictions that help one deal with reality.

In elitist criticism, it's a given that all escapist fiction is by its nature a "negative compensation" that insulates the audience from reality, as I've noted with respect to Theodor Adorno in particular. "Positive compensation," if one could put the elitists' convictions into Adler's terms, would presumably be the sort of "high literature" that validates the intellectual's struggle for personal meaning.

For a pluralist like myself, the matter is more complex. Though I prefer works with symbolic complexity to works without it, I can't state outright that the latter are "inferior organs" next to the latter. Even a story that works as nothing but a good "thrill-ride" fulfills, for me, Tolkien's definition of fantasy as an "escape from a prison," i.e., "positive compensation."

So is there a principle that works across the spectrum of "art-fiction" and "popular fiction" that parallels both Adler's "negative compensation" and Tolkien's "escape from responsibility" (which, to be sure, is not something Tolkien himself endorses; he's simply explaining the position of his opponents). The closest I can come is to repeat what I said in JOINED AT THE TRIP PT. 4.  Both types of fiction are fundamentally defined by the activity of "play," though "art-fiction" is play turned to the purpose of "work," while "pop fiction" is play for play's sake. In that essay I said that I found that DESPAIR, a work of "thematic realism," was inferior to Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST because the former had too little "play," while THE CLANSMAN, a work of "thematic escapism," was inferior to GONE WITH THE WIND because the former showed too little "work." This, then, would be my criterion for both "negative compensation" in literature and the only ways in which fiction can be correctly seen as escaping responsibility. Only when a given work of a given mode fails to be true to its own mode would it be "escaping" from anything in a negative manner; that of escaping from its own potential as fiction.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


In a recent post I gave some thought to reviving the "1001 Myths" feature I instituted back in 2011. For anyone who's interested, here's the original rationale. I don't plan to follow the same schedule I followed at the time, nor will I necessarily use the format I used before. Whether I do or not will depend on how well I think the format elucidates the meaning. The topic here, the 1985-6 limited series CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, requires a little more flexible handling.  This being one example--


I don't have as much of a problem with commercial art as do the more ideologically minded critics. In tune with my loosely Jungian beliefs, I consider that the commercial artist's sheer need to come up with something that might sell can *sometimes* play the midwife to a breakthrough in creativity. There's no guarantee that the creative lightning will strike more than once, of course. The same commercial artists who gave birth to Superman also gave birth to a lot of unexceptional features, like "Slam Bradley" and "Doctor Occult."

That said, I generally prefer that commercial artists maintain the illusion of storytelling for its own sake while they entertain me: that is, not injecting anything that strongly reminds me of the commercial status of the work, such as advertisements for the publisher's other publications. In the early Silver Age Marvel Comics managed to perfect the device of "the crossover," so that the company could advertise other works without seeming too blatant about their commercial motivations in, say, having Spider-Man meet Daredevil. That brings me to one of my biggest problems in reading CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS (henceforth COIE for short)-- for often the appearances of the hundred-plus heroes who answer the "call to crisis" are often so perfunctory, so nugatory, that I can't think of them as anything but advertisements for the history of DC Comics.

I don't know how COIE would read to someone completely unacquainted with that history. The limited series was clearly meant to be an insider's thing: one could not appreciate it unless one were "universe-versed." And the most important message COIE had to convey was that DC Comics was undergoing a massive universal sea-change.

Whereas Marvel Comics had in essence 'started fresh" with the publication of 1961's FANTASTIC FOUR, DC Comics's history involved a tremendous number of franchises, some of which were originally intended to stand as part of a loose "continuity," while others were not. When DC began reviving the basic ideas behind some of its once popular Golden Age heroes-- particularly the Flash in 1956 and Green Lantern in 1959-- they initially intended to "start fresh," without making references to other aspects of continuity. However, both the FLASH and GREEN LANTERN features were more heavily invested in science-fiction concepts than their forbears had been-- and this led to both features' greater use of the concept of "parallel worlds."

GREEN LANTERN was first to evoke a parallel universe in its second,October 1960 issue, as the hero encountered denizens from the anti-matter universe of Qward. The original story did not make any special references to past history, but over time, Qward's central world would be re-fashioned as the anti-matter counterpart to Oa, the planet of the Guardians, who mentored the law-keeping forces of the Green Lanterns.

Roughly one year later, FLASH #123 (which shared the same writer and editor as GREEN LANTERN #2) featured a different parallel-world concept. Though the first FLASH story was written as if the Golden-Age version was just a comic-book character, #123 established that the Golden Age Flash occupied his own world, "Earth-2," which existed in a dimension parallel to that of the Silver Age Flash, who termed his own world "Earth-1."

In time DC found the "alternate Earth" paradigm to be a convenient way to account for other franchises that the company acquired, notably those of Fawcett Comics and Quality Comics. There was never a clear distinction between the "alternate Earth" concept and the "matter/anti-matter" concept, but COIE depends greatly on this distinction, more or less taking the position that all of the "alternate Earths" belong to a universe of "positive matter," while only Qward belongs in the universe of "negative matter."

Unfortunately for DC, twenty years after the birth of the Fantastic Four, Marvel Comics had become the leader of the comic-book market. And since Marvel's universe was more or less unitary, COIE was conceived to boil down all of DC's unruly universes into one conceptual cosmos. They did so by orchestrating a massive conflict between two immortal being: the Monitor, the representative of the "positive matter" universe, who could call on all the heroes of all the Earths for aid, and the Anti-Monitor, the representative of the "negative matter" universe, who wishes to destroy everything but ends up doing the will of the extra-diegetic series-creators, killing off only what they want killed.

The job of becoming "hit men" to the old DC multiverse went to writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez. As commerical artists, part of their job involved persuading comics-buyers to invest in the new cosmos without feeling that the new one had displaced all the beloved aspects of the old one. Thus COIE follows a loose plot that allows for maximum appearances of almost every then-current DC character, as well as guest-shots from characters who were no longer published, such as the cave-boy Anthro, who only enjoyed seven appearances in his 1970s series. Very few characters were strictly necessary to the plot, which somewhat resembles those of old movie serials. Villain launches Plan X, heroes prevent Plan X, villain appears defeated but then launches Plan Y, and so on. With such a structure, no single character was vital to the story. Even the series' much-ballyhooed "celebrity deaths" of the Barry Allen Flash and the Kara Zor-El Supergirl could have been written out had that proved necessary, with no damage to the overall structure of the plot.

So in my re-reading of the series, its commercial motives are even more clear than they were in 1985: loose plot, innumerable guest-stars, and an extra-diegetic reason behind the cosmos-shifting changes. But even if all of these audience-stroking devices make COIE less than pleasurable to read, do they exclude the series from the realm of the creative "breakthrough?"

They do not, though the symbolic complexity of COIE is certainly compromised by all the commercial stuff. In this essay I pronounced a particular CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN story as "inconsummate" because, although it had some interesting mythic content, the story was rather half-assed, so that "the gears of the symbol-making machine" appear to be "a little out of whack." But I must admit that COIE, unlike a lot of the apocalypse-tales that emulated it, has a sense of the pathos involved in trading old worlds for new.

By "pathos" I'm not referring to Wolfman's tortured prose or Perez's frequent head-shots of characters' faces distorted in horror. I'm referring to the creators' references to figures of Judeo-Christian mythology, as seen through a lens superheroic, as evinced by the following:

(1) PARIAH. This is the first character who speaks diegetically within the COIE storyline. He is the only survivor of the first positive-matter earth to be destroyed by the series' villain, the Anti-Monitor of the negative-matter universe. He believes himself to be responsible, due to certain scientific investigations, for having unleashed the Anti-Monitor upon the positive matter dimensions. Late in the series, Pariah is exonerated of this crime. Nevertheless, as a consequence of his special destiny he keeps flitting from parallel world to parallel world, presaging the destruction of each world he visits, so that he becomes something of a conflation of the Biblical Jonah with the extra-Biblical legend of the Wandering Jew.

(2) THE HARBINGER.  This character is an orphaned Earth-woman raised as an adoptive daughter by the Monitor. Long before the COIE series officially began, the two of them were seen endlessly researching the affairs of DC Comics heroes, and COIE was the pay-off to that continuing mystery. However, only in COIE was it revealed that Harbinger's destiny was to become enthralled by the Anti-Monitor so that she would kill the Monitor. This destiny, however, turns out to be more or less stage-managed by the Monitor, much as Judas' betrayal of Christ is destined to accomplish the Crucifixion. Obviously, the Monitor's goals are far more secular in nature-- he wants his death to liberate certain energies to use against his enemy, sounding more like Obi-Wan Kenobi than Jesus. But this consideration doesn't nullify the potential symbolism of the Judas-archetype.

(3) ALEXANDER LUTHOR JR. Like Pariah, this character is a survivor of one of the worlds destroyed by the Anti-Monitor. He is the child of Lois Lane and a good version of Lex Luthor, but he survives via a method copied from DC's favorite Messiah, Superman. The child-- who grows to maturity in short order, like many folkloric "wonder-children"-- combines "positive matter" and "negative matter" in his body without their imploding. This "alpha and omega" constitution is, like the Monitor's sacrifice, principally a chess-move that can be used at a certain point to counter the villain's efficacy. Nevertheless, though he is the son of one Earth's Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, he vanishes from continuity by going into another (spiritual?) world, along with the original Superman and Lois Lane from the Golden Age. It might have been a good commentary on the "father, son, and holy ghost" trope if the creators hadn't decided to have a stray alternate-world version of Superboy go along for the ride.

These three characters all play roles that bear a striking resemblance to characters associated with the Christian Passion. This observation does not speak to what either of COIE's creators thought about religion. COIE is a secular comics-story and all the Judeo-Christian allusions are secular as well, just as were (Jewish) Marv Wolfman's uses of Christian mythology in the TOMB OF DRACULA series. But the fact that Wolfman and Perez invoked such complex associations at all speaks to the likelihood that they were attempting to endow their commercial endeavor with the significance of a great mythic tale, rather than just tossing together a crock-pot full of super-dudes and letting the chips fall where they might. COIE is at best a jumbled mosaic, and I frequently don't feel that the whole was more than a sum of its parts, any more than DC's "new unified world" turned out to be.

But at least some of the parts proved interesting, which is more than most DC epics can say.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


I'm going to try like heck to make this my absolute last essay that owes anything to the HOODED UTILITARIAN post to which I first alluded here. But I have the usual excuse: Noah Berlatsky has a way of bringing into focus exactly the issues that distinguish elitist critics from pluralist critics.

NB, in response to a comment by me about what I termed Sigmund Freud's reductive nature, made an odd comment about something he called "plenitude:"

I don’t see that tradition as particularly reductionist. It tends to argue that authors mean more than they say (and/or say more than they mean.) It’s a criticism of plenitude. People resist it because they dislike the implications of excess, in my experience. 

I won't repeat the thread's discussion regarding the definition of "reductionism," except to say, of course, that I was right. I quizzed NB on the provenance of his term "plenitude" and he said he wasn't "quoting anyone re: Freud." NB's syntax is jumbled, but he seems to be associating Freud's investigatory process as revealing the unvarnished truth beneath what they say or even think they mean, and thus he concludes that anyone who objects to Freud "dislikes the implications of excess." 

I have to assume, then, that "plenitude" and "excess" are linked in NB's mind. A quick Google search confirms that NB is at least familiar with Georges Bataille's use of the term "excess," though if NB is associating that idea with anything in Freud, he's certainly seeing a very different Bataille than I do. I quoted this Bataille passage a couple of months ago, from his 1957 EROTISM:

In the domain of our life [the principle of] excess manifests in so far as violence wins over reason. Work demands the sort of conduct where effort is in a constant ratio with productive efficiency. It demands rational behavior where the wild impulses worked out on feast days and usually in games are frowned upon. If we were unable to repress these impulses we should not be able to work, but work introduces the very reason for repressing them. These impulses confer an immediate satisfaction on those who yield to them. Work, on the other hand, promises to those who overcome [these impulses] a reward later on whose value cannot be disputed except from the point of view of the present moment.

Freud, of course, would never have countenanced this extreme liberalism. Freud believed explicitly in the sublimation of "the pleasure principle" in favor of the "reality principle." Again, it's hard to tell because NB bobs and weaves so much, but I think he's got the idea that "excess and/or plenitude" are not just "wild impulses" that everyone shares. I suspect that he's reading Freud through an ultraliberal lens: plenitude is everything that Straight White Males have traditionally renounced as inferior to their superior existence.

I have a much less ideologically oriented view of plenitude. expressed in this 2009 essay:

Ideological concepts are always spun off from what Northrop Frye terms "secondary concerns," which are no more than the assorted mental strategies humankind devises whereby they get or secure the "primary concerns," which are humankind's primary conduit to both sustenance and its concomitant pleasures. I suggested that the "primary concerns" come down to what some pagans termed the "four F's"-- flags (housing), flax (clothing), fodder and frig. 

Frye's assertion of the primacy of the sensuous is, I believe, much closer to Bataille's meaning than anything written by Freud. It also relates strongly to what the word "plenitude" means to me personally, though with a slightly more Jungian air. Jung regarded the human capacities for "sensation" and "intuition" as "mutually compensating functions." Plenitude for me is the interdependence of the senses with the mind's first attempts to understand them through symbolic action.

If as I believe NB has conflated plenitude with The Things Straight White Males Don't Want to Think About, then the only way this plenitude will ever be realized is in some distant future, a Marxist "end-times" when all the old fictions of Capitalism and Imperialism will be overthrown for good.

If that's the truth NB wants to embrace, that's his business. But as I've said in A BEDROCK OF CHAUVINISM,  I think the sins that elitist critics like to attribute only to Straight White Males are implicated in all peoples in all cultures and at all times. 

To rephrase Luke 17-21:

Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, plenitude is within you!


"Too many people warp the word 'heritage,' Monica. They use it to mean superiority-- when it is only meant to give one-- identity."-- The Black Panther as written by Don McGregor, JUNGLE ACTION #8, 1974.

The situation that prompts this Panther-assertion is one in which his Black American girlfriend Monica has just intruded upon a sacred Wakandan rite, resulting in her being roundly condemned by the king's right-hand man W'Kabi.  One might fault the hero's sentiment for being a little too preachy, but I've always considered this one of McGregor's best stand-alone lines. I'd criticize its philosophical stance only in one respect. Unlike McGregor, I don't think "heritage" was essentially "meant" to be either benign or malign, though I find it easier to picture the phenomenon beginning in the latter phase, that of superiority, as in "Those Hill People aren't as good as us Rock People," etc.

In fact, I don't think that it is possible to express pride in one's heritage without making some degree of comparison to some other perceived group that doesn't possess the same traits. For my purposes I choose to express this range of ingroup-pridefulness via an adaptation of the familiar word *chauvinism."

To do so, I have to regard these meanings from Merriam-Webster as indicative of nothing but a negative form of ingroup-pride: (1) excessive or blind patriotism, (2) undue partiality or attachment to a group or place to which one belongs or has belonged.

It is, fortunately, possible to feel pride in one's own group and yet not actually disparage others, even if one doesn't necessarily feel any strong interest in the culture of the perceived others.  I recall an anecdote from a British doctor who worked amid East Indian tribes for many years. At one point, one of the old women, who wished to express her appreciation of his services, wished him what she considered the best possible fate: that someday he might be reincarnated as a Hindu.

From the tone of the anecdote (whose source I have forgotten), the doctor was not offended by this cultural temerity, nor do I think most persons would be. This is what I would term "benign chauvinism." There's no question that the speaker of the sentiment is entirely wrapped up in the pride felt for an ingroup, but only a noob would bother trying to correct the speaker's benign prejudice. The one exception would be if the speaker were a white person wishing that some person of color might be reincarnated as Caucasian, for that would be perceived as racism, though only by persons of limited intelligence.

Malign chauvinism, in contrast to the benign type, is not content with merely asserting ingroup-pride. Malign chauvinism is indicated by an overt attempt to claim or prove the superiority of one's group, not a mere expression of preference. This is actual racism, but contrary to the opinion of some pundits, it did not simply come into being with the rise of European colonialism. I won't deny that the earliest systems of "racism-as-psuedo-science" came into being as Europeans spread throughout the globe, seeking both profit and explanations of the racial variety they encountered. But the core of racism has always been in the human heart, and it traces from that desire to find one's own group unstintingly superior to all other groups.

Having defined chauvinism as a spectrum of possible responses, in my next essay I'll seek to define what this bedrock phenomenon means to a culture that should endorse pluralism.