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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, March 27, 2017


For the most part, whenever I've used the term "complexity" on this blog since its beginning in 2007, I've been referring to "symbolic complexity," a.k.a. "mythicity." As I recall my earlier writings for THE JOURNAL and AMAZING HEROES on myth-criticism didn't define the potential of literature to be "myth-like" in terms of a level of symbolic activity, or, if I did, I may have followed the lead of Joseph Campbell in declaring narratives to be "myth-like" if they closely followed a template derived from authentic myth. Over time, though, I've tended to view narratives in terms of Jung's idea of phenomenology, which emphasized the multifarious nature of the human personality. This was the type of "complexity" with which Jung dealt, and of his many dissections of the human soul, the one that I find most persuasive is his concept of the four functions, which he boils down thusly:

The essential function of sensation is to establish that something exists, thinking tells us what it means, feeling what its value is, and intuition surmises whence it comes and whither it goes. 

Jung did not apply the functions to literature at all so far as I know, so I did so, extrapolating from the four psychological functions four potentialities, as described in FOUR BY FOUR. The potentialities don't follow the same ontogeny as the functions, because the former apply not to general perception but to the application of the functions in human art, which result in four potential modes of literary action:

The KINETIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of sensations.

The DRAMATIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of discrete personalities.

The DIDACTIC (formerly "thematic") is a potentiality that describes the relationships of abstract ideas.

The MYTHOPOEIC is a potentiality that describes the relationships of symbols.

In Jung's schema every human psyche must include all four functions, though inevitably individuals will favor one over all the others. However, not every work of art is designed to reflect all four potentialities. An artwork can favor one potentiality and display no direct reference to any other, as I also said in FOUR BY FOUR:

I might attempt to use Jung's function-terms to assert that Dave Sim's cerebral CEREBUS privileges the function of "thinking" more than any other, and that Frank Miller's SIN CITY privileges the function of "sensation." 

Naturally, even authors who may be fixated upon a particular function always have the potential, so to speak, to try their hands at the other three.

Now, throughout this blog I've largely been analyzing works from the standpoint of the mythopoeic potentiality. This concentration stems from my rejection of ideological criticism, which centers principally upon the the didactic. I've distinguished between "functional" and "super-functional" uses of symbolism, in which "super-functional" implies largely the same as "high symbolic complexity," as well as Wheelwright's notion of "the plurisignative." But in previous essays I had not evolved a symmetrical approach to the other three functions, which is what I seek to do at this point.

For instance, here's Dave Sim, with his focus on "thinking," providing a complex (though not irrefutable) take on the philosophy of one particular character:

In contrast, Miller doesn't tend to give his character particularly complex didactic outlooks:

I could muster other examples of "complex vs. simple" applications of the other two potentialities as well, perhaps one that would be more to Miller's advantage than to Sim's. But the point is that any excellence within a particular potentiality stems from a given author's mastery of the narrative complexity relative to that potentiality. Raymond Durgnat's term "density" has some application as well, for it is through the density of details that even sensational fictional effects have the greatest impact upon readers.

For instance, these three DAREDEVIL action-panels by Miller--

Are innately more complex than these two rather static DAREDEVIL panels from Bob Brown.

I don't plan to continue tracing the different forms of complexity/density within each of the four potentialities: the mythopoeic is still my particular obsession. However, I have a bit more to say in future essays on the general theory of the four potentialities.

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