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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...

Monday, October 26, 2015


Many many years ago I read a book by the Orientalist Lafcadio Hearn. It seems like it might have been GLIMPSES OF UNFAMILIAR JAPAN, but the only part I'm referencing is the ending. As I recall, Hearn narrates a final scene when he's attending a dinner party. He glances down at the bowl of soup before him, and sees his own face reflected. In a moment of clarity, he realizes that everything he's ever written is also a reflection of his inner self, which, if it could take on material form, would look something like the image of his own face.

Whether I'm remembering this narrative trope correctly or not, every writer, whether of fiction, non-fiction, or both, does the same thing Hearn was doing. No matter how adeptly one seeks to represent the reality in which one lives, one always comes back to depicting that reality through the prejudices and sentiments of his own inner self.

Now, last month I provided this working definition of the term "superhero":

The superhero is a hybrid figure, in which the reader's feelings of awe and admiration for the spectacle of heroic endeavor are melded with those feelings typically called "the sense of wonder" by science fiction, fantasy and related genres.

I glossed this by asserting unequivocably that this was my attempt to boil down my theories of sublimity-- of "the dynamic-sublime," which is heavily influenced by Kant, and of the "combinatory-sublime," which derives variously from Burke and Tolkien-- into a simplified formula that focuses on the "sense of wonder." It should go without saying that even though I consider these sublimities to be as universal as any affects can be, they don't necessarily have across-the-board appeal for every sentient human being ever. Nor could I say that the way I perceive the two sublimities is in every respect identical with the way others perceive them. I can only say that the writings of Kant, Burke and Tolkien persuade me that they experienced something akin to what I Gene Phillips experience in the department of the sublime.

Therefore, if I want to emulate Hearn's epiphany, then I would have to say that my definition of superhero, in which I find it a confluence of two distinct but complementary affects, necessarily reflects that my inner self has a particular liking for both the affect associated with dynamicity-- with special though not exclusive reference to the dynamicity of combat-- and with the affect associated with the free symbolic interplay of everything in existence.

As I said, these are only "universal" in the sense that a lot of people register the appeal of these affects-- though not always in combination with one another. Some readers only like to view scenes of dynamicity when they take place in naturalistic worlds which those readers can find credible: for instance, prior to the success of STAR WARS, many film-goers scorned any form of fantasy-fiction-- whether it was violent or not-- as "that Buck Rogers stuff," while fully investing themselves in violently-heroic films about cowboys or detectives.  At the same time, some enthusiasts of particular types of fantasy-fiction scorned violent entertainment of all types, and only liked fantasy-fiction when it was full of "deep thoughts," so to speak.

So if my inner self is "guy who likes both fights and fantasy of all kinds," then who would be my Bizarro-opposite?

I've complained a lot on this blog about ideological critics on the web, but most of them are not iconic enough (or interesting enough) to use for drawing comparisons.

At length I decided that my perfect Bizarro would have to be a composite of two iconic figures, a la DC Comics' The Composite Superman:

On one side, my Composite Bizarro would look like Frederic Wertham:

HOODED UTILITARIAN is currently a go-to for all manner of kooky types who share a righteous revulsion toward violence, glossed by an omnipresent fear that somehow, somewhere, even fictional violence can be used against well-meaning Lefties. A little while back I critiqued J. Lamb, here and here, for blatantly misrepresenting the theme and plot of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. I almost thought, "Wow, that's such an egregious misreading that it's worthy of Frederic Wertham himself." But though Lamb is every bit as incoherent as Wertham, he lacks Wertham's studied vitroil against even the most minor acts of violence-- slapstick, vanilla fistfights-- and so Wertham represents the ideal icon of one who takes pleasure in rejecting the affect of dynamic sublimity.

Wertham occasionally tossed in a few brickbats against the fantasy-elements of comic books, too: he didn't like an issue of SUPERBOY that misrepresented history by showing the young hero helping out George Washington at Valley Forge.  But the arch-foe of all forms of fantasy really has to be Wertham's fellow traveler Sigmund Freud.

Many other intellectuals had preceded Freud in attempting to reduce human fantasy-constructs down into simple formulas of negative compensation: not least Voltaire and Marx. But Freud more than anyone succeeded in tapping into the righteousness of "reality thinking," and he did so by tying his version of "reality thinking" to the ontogeny of the individual human being, forever ensnarled in the web of the "family romance." Fantasy could never be anything but an escape from the prison of reality, made up of one's erotic fixations-- or lack of same-- upon one's parental units.

In COMPENSATION CONSIDERATIONS PT. 4 I mused that some readers only enjoyed the manifestations of the "combinatory mode" and the "dynamicity mode" when they were, in essence, recapitulated in "non-sublime forms:" as, essentially, lions whose fangs had been drawn. The Freuds and Werthams of this world are also somewhat devoted to "non-sublime" versions of the affects that enthrall the vast majority of readers, but they are "non-sublime" for a different reason: for the purpose of illustrating some ratiocentric theory of reality, rather than as a way of engaging with a less overwhelming version of fictive "reality."

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