Featured Post


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...

Saturday, August 31, 2019


Though this post continues some of the thoughts from Part 1, I was tempted to title it something like "Narrative and Significant Dominance in the Two Modes." But that would've been more work to type.

The essential theme of AMPLITUDE PART 1 was to re-examine once more the principles by which I established my literary reading of the economic idea of "active and passive shares." However, though that essay was done in October 2018, its general principles were stated in June 2017 in the short essay EXCESSIVE COMBINATORY FORCE:

So I have at least made the essential statement that for the combinatory mode as for the dynamicity-mode, "excess of strength is proof of strength," as Nietzsche aptly said.

Now, in AMPLITUDE I cited two completed serial runs, using the Silver Age RAWHIDE KID as an example of a work with an "active share" with respect to the combinatory mode, and the 1960s LOST IN SPACE as an example of a work with a "passive share" with respect to the dynamicity mode. Generally speaking, I've aligned the two modes in line with the "narrative" and "significant" values outlined by Northrop Frye. The combinatory mode aligns with "significant values," since only the reader, the audience who interprets a work's significance, can suss out the dominant phenomenality of a work or group of works. The dynamicity-mode aligns with "narrative values," since such values are tied in with the internal values of the story, in this case being whether or not the characters do or do not wield exceptional levels of power in order to produce the narrative.

For that reason, I stated that even though only about nine percent of all RAWHIDE KID stories had metaphenomenal elements, the ones that did have such elements assumed a "value of significance" in the series," Conversely, though there were 23 percent of the LOST IN SPACE stories that boasted scenes of combative dynamicity, I argued that these scenes had a nugatory "value of significance" according to the series' tendency to assert a more pervasive "value of significance" that did not support the combative mode.

What it essentially comes down to is: does a particular aspect of storytelling play a vital role in the story, or series of stories, or is it less than vital?

If the role of this aspect has a strong amplitude, either with respect to narrative or significant values, then it is dominant. If the role of this aspect has a weak amplitude, with respect to either value, then it is, to revive an earlier term, "subdominant."

Some examples may be forthcoming in future.


Poe was such a pivotal figure in the development of modern-day metaphenomenal literature that I devoted several essays on my companion-blog OUROBOROS DREAMS. All of these posts analyzed the phenomena in each of Poe's stories in order to determine whether it was naturalistic, uncanny, or marvelous. I sometimes "doubled up" more than one story per post because I felt like it, so my labels for each phenomenality don't always reflect one story per post. However, skewed though this count was, it suggested that Poe was invested in all three phenomena in terms of the prose fiction he produced, with roughly 16-20 stories fitting each category.

Then it occurred to me that Poe was also unique in creating so many iconic images, usually with Gothic or horrific overtones, that I ought to detail which of his works I rated as high in mythicity.
The following is a list of those works, but the only analysis I'll provide, if any, appears in the linked OUROBOROS essays.

As it happens, I chose exactly 20, with very few examples of "the naturalistic," somewhat more of "the marvelous," and with the majority fitting the domain of "the uncanny." Most of the Usual Suspects fit my criteria for high mythicity, though there are a few obscurities-- "Thou Art the Man," "The Spectales," and "The Power of Words"-- that loomed larger for me than comparative favorites like "William Wilson" and "M. Valdemar," and "Hop-Frog."

Friday, August 30, 2019


I don’t want to take a lot of shots at the late author’s ultrafeminism. I will note that it’s curiously more intense than most Second-Wave feminism, and often resembles the later waves, particularly the current one, in which male priorities and fantasies are ceaselessly attacked. “Is Gender Necessary?”  reads like a very current screed, excelled only by the rhetoric of the short-lived 1970s organization “Women Against Pornography.” And although LeGuin apparently hated sword-and-sorcery with a passion, space opera was at least her second favorite thing to hate.  In “A Citizen of Mondath” the author chronicles her early repugnance at the male-centered nature of most SF magazines:

If I glanced at a magazine, it still seemed to be all about starship captains in black with lean rugged faces and a lot of fancy artillery.

She also showcases her animadversions to the genre’s supposed penchant for “pointy breasted brainless young women” throughout LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT.  Nowhere in the collection does LeGuin entertain the notion that the genre might be reformed to become more woman-friendly, as arguably happened not only with later prose serials like THE EXPANSE but with movies like STAR WARS (which LeGuin reviled in a non-LOTN essay).

Most of LeGuin’s anti-male rhetoric is shallow, but “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” manages to dovetail her feminism with her defenses of the interlocked genres of fantasy and science fiction. Given that I’d been forced to defend the metaphenomenal genres more than once, I’m sure that in my initial reading of LOTN I enjoyed her attack on the tendency of Americans to validate only realistic works of literature, so I had to agree when she claimed that, “We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect or as contemptible.” And I have to admire the concision of her rebuttal: “Fake realism is the escapist literature of our time.”

However, as I reread the way she tends to blame this tendency on “the men who run the country,” I believe that her defense is based in false premises. Often she seems to talking less about the actual tastes of actual persons, and more about some “Puritan work ethic” boogieman. It is also, it seems, a boogieman that infects only men with a lack of imaginative vigor, which leads to their disinterest not only in Tolkien but also in Tolstoy, as well as to their preference for “sterile” works like “bloody detective thrillers on the television” or best-seller fiction.

Although one might assume that American women would become just as influenced by something as pervasive as the “work ethic,” the ladies get a pass. LeGuin tells us that even women read material no less imaginatively impoverished, like “soap operas” and “nursy novels,” they simply haven’t been given the chance to nourish their imaginations, living as they do in a sort of “Femiinine Mystique” America.

The main problem of the “Dragons” essay is that LeGuin is entirely too dismissive of the appeal of verisimilitude in itself, whether it appears in a Tolstoy novel or in a “bloody detective thriller.” Throughout most of its history, American students were raised, as were students in many European cultures, to value naturalistic works of art above those dependent on “imagination.” I’m sure LeGuin would hold Tolstoy blameless insofar as his accomplishments provided support for the position of the “naturalism-first” crowd. I, however, consider WAR AND PEACE to be just as guilty of encouraging the marginalization of the metaphenomenal as any best-seller or “nursy novel.”

LeGuin’s antipathy for the commercial side of book-selling lies at the roots of her skewed rhetoric. She can’t conceive that the naturalistic form of artistic fiction might have a deleterious effect upon Americans’ ability to dream of dragons; it has to be the work of those evil fiction-factories and their soulless hacks. In truth, though, there’s no one to blame. As Northrop Frye wrote, all of literature aligns itself along a spectrum ranging from the purest “verisimilitude” to what Frye called “myth”—which, for him, included beings who could do anything, in contrast to mortal limitations. A critical viewpoint unable to recognize how much the reader of Harold Robbins has in common with a reader of Tolstoy and Zola remains, in the final analysis, no more sophisticated than that of an Edmund Wilson who rejects hobbits and dragons as a matter of course.

Elsewhere in "Dragons," LeGuin cites a definition of the imagination that seems to borrow from both Kant and Tolkien:

By imagination, then, I personally mean the free play of the mind, both intellectual and sensory. By "play" I mean recreation, re-creation, the recombination of what is known into what is new. By "free" I mean that the action is done without an immediate object of profit-- spontaneously.

Philosophically, I have no serious problem with this statement, but only with LeGuin's elitist application of the position. She immediately hedges her "sponteaneity" argument to claim that "the free play of an adult mind" can be something as sophisticated as Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE. Okay, but Tolstoy was a landed aristocrat; he had a lot of free time for his free play, and though he didn't need to write for a living, he certainly wanted his work to have some effect on society. To say that only the object of "profit" invalidates an author's intentions for his work strikes me as special pleading as defined thusly:

Applying standards, principles, and/or rules to other people or circumstances, while making oneself or certain circumstances exempt from the same critical criteria, without providing adequate justification.  Special pleading is often a result of strong emotional beliefs that interfere with reason.

In the process of LeGuin's project to defend imaginative art, she has chosen to blame Americans' supposed preference for realistic art on their seduction by Puritanism and the Protestant work-ethic. But the work-ethic came about in large part because America had few or no aristocrats; almost everyone had to work for a living. And thus a lot of people don't want to "work" for their entertainment as well as for their daily bread. If they reject both Tolstoy and Tolkien in favor of current bestsellers, it may just be that they have a taste for verisimilitude because they don't want to work too hard to be amused. I don't mind challenging such tastes. But I think LeGuin merely sought to create a new aristocracy of taste to replace the more plebeian version she opposed-- and that, for all her highflown rhetoric about imagination, she herself failed to imagine the position of her perceived opponents.


Years ago, during one of my many forum-arguments, I made some comments about the elitist mentality, and an opponent demurred at the use of the term, claiming that the word I ought to have used was “snob.” I countered by saying the word “snob” was too imprecise. After all, though snobbery is more often associated with elitism than with its conceptual opposite “populism,” I’ve encountered my share of “populist snobs,” by which I mean persons who are validated only by their association with works that have proven themselves popular in the marketplace.

“Elite” stems from a Latin word meaning “choice,” the usual connotations being that to be of “the elite” is either that one is “chosen,” or that one has such developed good taste that he/she can make better choices about what is good than can the average consumer.

Many of the essays in Ursula LeGuin's LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT are full of fulminations against hackwork in many genres, though she seems to have taken particular pleasure in assailing the then-popular sword-ands-sorcery genre. Yet, unlike many elitists of her time, she also takes aim at authors whom she considers “earnest snobs,” which would seem to indicate that LeGuin did not consider herself guilty of snobbery.

Who were these “earnest snobs?” LeGuin never specifies, either in the essay where the phrase occurs, the aforementioned “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction,” or in any other part of LOTN. In "Archetypes," LeGuin responds to the question of whether science fiction can be a “modern mythology,” and her response is framed in terms that are, if not snobbish, are certainly elitist. After defining all the tropes in science fiction that she doesn’t like as “Submyths,” she resolutely excludes all of them from even deserving to be called science fiction:

The artist who deliberately submits his work to [the Submyths] has forfeited the right to call his work science fiction; he’s just a popcultist cashing in.

In other words, to submit to the Submyths is the modern equivalent of prostrating oneself to the modern devil known as Commercial Hackery. Thus, by a rather accomplished sleight-of-hand, LeGuin affirms the idea of calling science fiction “modern mythology,” but only if it fits her elitist vision of the way true art works. 

However, at the time LeGuin wrote this essay, there were stirrings of pluralism even within intellectual circles, in which some artists and critics asserted that even popular art contained “myths” worth studying. LeGuin rejected this viewpoint by claiming that such persons were not aware of the true breadth and depth of mythic meaning: “they mistake symbol (living meaning} for allegory (dead equivalence). So they use mythology in an arrogant fashion, rationalizing it, condescending to it.”

To be sure, it’s hard to keep track of what “they” LeGuin refers to, since in the previous paragraph she starts talking about would-be writers learning the wrong lessons from uninspired academics. Her basic point is certainly undeniable: writers and critics who over-rationalize myth do exist. However, LeGuin weakens her case by conveniently not naming any of these offenders against true myth, and so these unnamed academics are treated the same as the nameless hacks: infidels who whore after the wrong gods.

The closest she comes to naming an offender of sorts, at least in the “Archetypes” essay, comes toward the end, when she proposes  this odd equnivalence:

There are never very many artists around. No doubt we’ll continue most of the time to get rewarmed leftovers from Babylon and Northrop Frye served up by earnest snobs, and hordes of brawny Gerbilmen ground out by hacks.
The sudden and unjustified mention of Frye in this context raises some interesting flags. It’s true that Frye’s fame had endured for the past twenty years, since he published 1955’s ANATOMY OF CRITICISM. But though he had a degree of influence in academia, I find it very hard to believe that any “earnest snobs” sought to find rationalizations of mythology in the ANATOMY, or in any other Frye work. Frye was at heart a pluralist, able to appreciate many different genres (certainly more than LeGuin), and he even gives SF an approving nod once or twice in the ANATOMY. It’s true that LeGuin doesn’t call Frye an “earnest snob,” but her loose association implies that there’s something in his work that would appeal to rationalizers. Or—is it just that Frye doesn’t insist on the type of high-toned myth that LeGuin prefers?

This hypothesis finds confirmation in one other LOTN essay, “Escape Routes.”  Prior to the essay proper, LeGuin identifies the piece as “an amalgamation and summation of several talks” that she gave to “teachers of SF.” In keeping with its name, “Routes” goes in more than one direction, lacking the focus of LeGuin’s more organized essays. But only one passage concerns me here: her slam, again unjustified, at another critic known for defending popular culture.

…outside the [SF] ghetto, there are critics who like to stand above SF, looking down upon it, and therefore want it to be junky, popcult, contemptible… and it’s one of the many games Leslie Fiedler plays.

As with Frye, there’s no telling what critical crime LeGuin thinks Fiedler committed, nor any attempt to clarify what he said or why it affronted the author. As I’ve read most of Fiedler’s writings, I would say that any “contempt” she thought she perceived existed in LeGuin’s own imagination. Fiedler was as much a pluralist as Frye, even though the two critics followed extremely divergent methodologies, and Fiedler devoted far more attention than did Frye to defending popular culture. That said, I don’t see in Fielder any of the “ha, ha, this is so bad it’s good” attitude that one can find, for instance, in Jules Feiffer. Fiedler is usually careful to map out the intellectual qualities that distinguish canonical “art” from pop art—but apparently, that wasn’t enough for LeGuin.

In the “Archetypes” essay, LeGuin accuses the rationalizers of myth as “arrogant.” The real truth of the matter, though, may be that LeGuin didn’t like Fiedler or Frye because, by offering even mild apologias for popular fiction, they didn’t validate her screeds against what she deemed as “bad art.” Thus she comes across as being not as a wise soul who wanted the best in art and literature, but as an arrogant elitist snob able to appreciate myths only if they shared her own high-toned themes.

Thursday, August 29, 2019


I dimly remember reading the 1979 edition of Ursula LeGuin's LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT (henceforth LOTN) sometime in the 1980s, probably as soon as I found a copy at some public library. At the time I think that  I liked certain essays in the book better than any of LeGuin's much-heralded fiction: THE DISPOSSESSED HAND OF EARTHSEA and all that. Even the best of the late author's works I found characterized by a certain intellectual hauteur that didn't resonate with me, even when I recognized the general quality of the style and content.

Still, for the most part I had good memories of the essays, even if I didn't care for the way LeGuin took unjustified pot-shots at comics characters, referring in one essay to "the Superman and Batman dope," showing little originality in her comparison of superheroes to addictive drugs. And then there's "Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction," whose wholly inadequate definition of "myth in literature" irked me for many years before I finally blogged my answer to LeGuin in the 2008 essay THEMATIC REALISM PART 2.

Still, it's possible that LeGuin was a partial influence on me in terms of my desire to come up with a better and more pluralistic understanding of the interactions of myth and art. I've now recently re-read the original essays once more, and in my next two essays I'll cover many of the flaws in LeGuin's logic. At no time do I deny LeGuin the right to have had tastes that don't align with mine. But the ways in which she justified her tastes are, as always, open to debate.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019


In the last two sections of FOUR AGES OF DYNAMIS, I found myself questioning the conclusions I'd made in the 2012 essay-series GRAVITY'S CROSSBOW. In Part 1, I wrote:

I've noted before that of all the major philosophers to write about sublimity in connection with literature, Edmund Burke is one of the most profligate in providing examples.  However, I note that most of his examples fall into one of two mythoi: the "drama" (PARADISE LOST, HENRY IV) or the "adventure" (THE FAERIE QUEENE).  Schopenhauer, for his part, recognizes only "tragedy" (which I regard as identical with the category "drama") as sublime.
Moving to those readerships concerned with "the sense of wonder," it's my informal impression that when fans of fantasy and SF wax enthusiastic about those works with that quality, they rarely if ever center upon works of the other two mythoi, "comedy" and "irony."  In the domain of prose, works like Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END or Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS are celebrated for their ability to elicit wonder.  But though one can find science-fictional marvels and magical mysteries in such works as Fredric Brown's WHAT MAD UNIVERSE or the deCamp-Pratt COMPLEAT ENCHANTER, I would say such works-- both of which are comedies-- are never celebrated for the "sense of wonder."  Ironic science fiction is often celebrated for its intellectual rigor-- indeed, if one reads Kingsley Amis' NEW MAPS FROM HELL, one gets the impression that no one ever wrote good SF but Fred Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth-- but Amis praises them for satirical visions, not for the "sense of wonder."
So, are comedy and irony in some way inimical to the sense of wonder? 

I then explored Schopenhauer's remarks on how the "serious" forms of literature encouraged emotional investment while the "ludicrous" forms did not, and, glossing this statement by categorizing the forms along Fryean lines, I attempted to show reasons why comedies and ironies did not manifest subimity in the form of "the sense of wonder."

Now, at the time I wrote the CROSSBOW series, my definition of sublimity was still fuzzy, as were some of the philosophical definitions available to me. A year later, I wrote the series TWO SUBLIMITIES HAVE I, in which I distinguished two forms of sublimity, "the dynamic-sublime," more or less identical with Kant's formulation in CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, and "the combinatory-sublime," which I considered more applicable to literature than Kant's second form, "the mathematical-sublime." Thus, early in the same month that I wrote the CROSSBOW series, I cited (in the essay SUBLIMELY SUPER) this example of the literary sublime:

This example suggests to me is that at the time I was groping toward a vision of the combinatory-sublime, which in the aforesaid essay I defined as sublime because of its appeal to "unboundedness."

So this was the kind of sublimity I found lacking in various works of SF/fantasy, among them being the above examples of works by Frederic Brown and Pohl-and-Kornbluth.

Now, my current system does not claim that comedies or ironies are unable to conjure with either "the dynamic-sublime" or "the combinatory-sublime." In 2012 I had not aligned my concept of "mythicity" with that of the combinatory mode, and so, in the mythcomics essays I began in 2011, I had no problem in finding examples of high mythicity for both comedies (the URUSEI YATSURA story "A Good Catch") and ironies (the "Ed the Happy Clown" continuity from YUMMY FUR).

However, I do think Schopenhauer's distinction does apply to one SUBCATEGORY of the combinatory-sublime. I think it's more difficult for "ludicrous narratives" to bring forth the specific "sense of wonder" theme of "unbounded beauty," the sort of thing one can also get from the great "mind-meld" in CHILDHOOD'S END or Tolkien's vision of elvish elegance in LORD OF THE RINGS. Beauty is harder to get across in works of the ludicrous, no matter the intensity of the "tonal levity" involved. In comedies the reader learns to expect to see another joke or slapstick pratfall just around the corner, while in ironies the reader certainly doesn't expect to see any form of beauty, unbounded or otherwise, to stand against the relentless ennui of entropy.

And thus what I wrote regarding the nature of "conviction" in the CROSSBOW series similarly applies not to the combinatory-sublime in general, but specifically to the subcategory of unbounded beauty.

Because even the unbounded type of beauty needs some degree of gravity, if only for contrast.

Saturday, August 24, 2019


For this week's mythcomic, I selected the second of two "Bug-Eyed Bandit" stories scripted for the Silver Age ATOM comic by Gardner Fox. In the essay I stated that I didn't rate the first "Bug-Eyed" story to be a mythcomic, but I suppose that had I examined it in depth I would have rated it a "near myth."

Over twenty years previous, Fox scripted "Vampires of the Void," in which the Justice Society contended with "metal men" from space. Apparently these aliens were not robots but had evolved as entities with a penchant for nourishing themselves by eating solid metals. Each of the segments of the story sends an individual Justice Society hero up against a small cadre of metal men, all intent upon eating up whatever metals they find. None of the heroes can beat the aliens in one-on-one confrontations, but in each segment, a given group of aliens become obsessed with consuming just one metallic element, be it copper, gold, silver, etc. Once the aliens have filled themselves with Earth-metals-- Fox calls the process "imbibition"-- the heroes are able to defeat each separate group of metal men by exploiting some weakness inherent in the Earth-metal.

For instance, Hawkman fights robots who have "imbibed" silver, so he charges them with electricity, so that he can short-circuit them.

Doctor Mid-Nite, perhaps as a contrast to his status as a healing physician, gives his group of opponents "lead poisoning." 

And the Atom exposes a bunch of iron-eating metalloids to oxygen, causing them to rust themselves to death.

Now, I mentioned in this week's ATOM-analysis that I didn't consider the first "Bug-Eyed Bandit" story by Fox to incarnate a cosmological myth even though the author inserted a bunch of factoids about insect life at the beginning. In "Void," Fox has at least spread out his factoids, so that they're are a functioning part of the story.

But do they function as cosmological myths? I would still that they still do not, more because of presentation than content. Every single episode in the story is practically a duplicate of every other, except for the supposed humor of the "Johnny Thunder" segment. Thus none of the "epistemological patterns" possible for a juvenile superhero story about metallic elements really develop. I would also say that this story fails in terms of "underthinking the underthought."

In contrast, I did validate Robert Kanigher's 1967 "Plastic Perils" METAL MEN story as a mythcomic. Despite all of the indications that Kanigher was far from serious in his attitude toward the story, he did a little more than simply research the properties of a bunch of plastics. He gave a little thought as to how to exploit those properties in terms of their potential in a fantasy-combat situation, and so each of the heroes' encounters with this or that form of plastic carried a quality of active, rather than passive, imagination. 


One more line of thought did indeed develop from my meditations here on the alignment of the four Fryean mythoi with my concepts of tonal gravity and tonal levitty, and that is to consider how the current arrangement, patterned after Ovid's "Four Ages of Man," lines up with Frye's own meditations on the ways in which critics validate or do not validate the four mythoi.

"...all critics are either Iliad critics or Odyssey critics. That is, interest in literature tends to center either in the area of tragedy, realism, and irony, or in the area of comedy and romance... Many of our best and wisest critics tend to think of literature as primarily instructive... They feel that its essential function is to illuminate something about life, or reality, or experience, or whatever we call the immediate world outside literature. Thus they tend... to think of literature, taken as a whole, as a vast imaginative allegory, the end of which is a deeper understanding of the nonliterary center of experience... They value lifelike characterization, incidents close enough to actual experience to be imaginatively credible, and above all they value 'high seriousness' in theme..."-- Northrop Frye, "Mouldy Tales," A NATURAL PERSPECTIVE, pp. 1-2.

So, in Part 3, I sorted out the four mythoi thusly with respect to the orientations of levity and gravity:

COMEDY-- plerotic and levity-oriented
ADVENTURE-- plerotic and gravity-oriented
DRAMA-- kenotic and gravity-oriented
IRONY-- kenotic and levity-oriented

Now, Frye's main point in the "Mouldy Tales" essay is to state that "Iliad critics" tend to prefer irony and drama because these seem to appeal to what Frye, borrowing from Freud, calls "the reality principle." Frye does not in that essay invoke the corresponding "pleasure principle," but it seems evident that he means to say that the mythoi of adventure and comedy align with the latter principle, if only because the other two mythoi tend to embrace "happy endings" for the main characters.

Now, my formulations of "tonal gravity" and "tonal levity" did not arise from the question of what mythoi were most popular with critics. Rather, the GRAVITY'S CROSSBOW series started with the question of whether or not "the sense of wonder" thrived in the "levity-oriented" mythoi as well as it did in the "gravity-oriented" mythoi.

Works in which the reader's identificatory investment seems entirely congruous with the "interests" that the fictional characters have in their own fictional lives, are governed by the principle of  *tonal gravity,* in that the reader feels himself "drawn down" into the characters' interests.
Works in which the reader's identificatory investment becomes at odds with the "interests" of the fictional characters are governed by the principle of *tonal levity,* in that the reader "floats free" of that investment and is moved away from "concern and sympathy" and toward a humorous or at least distanced response.
But most critics are not concentrating upon whether or not a work delivers "the sense of wonder," which elsewhere I've compared to Huxley's ideas of "upward and downward transcendence." If one agrees with Frye, what they want is "the reality principle," which Frye compares to the notion of "high seriousness." Yet, even if this is true of drama, works of irony are not predominantly serious, even though their humor is what many would call "dark" or "black," suggesting a strong difference in tone between works of irony and works of comedy.

I tend to validate Frye's judgment on "Iliadic critics" since I feel myself to be, like Frye, part of the minority of "Odyssey critics." Certainly during my tenure writing reviews for THE COMICS JOURNAL in the day suggested that most of the people writing for Gary Groth tended to emulate the critics of canonical literature, and that even if some of them valued comedy more than the average canon-critic, they were foursquare against the mythos that most dominated American comic books, that of adventure.

This suggests to me that my original writings on levity and gravity need some modification, which caused me to contemplate different concentrations of these concepts of identificatory investment.  Thus I would now alter the above definitions of the mythoi to read to address the strength of the levity-orientation or the gravity-orientation:

COMEDY-- plerotic and oriented on light levity
ADVENTURE-- plerotic and oriented on light gravity
DRAMA-- kenotic and oriented on high gravity
IRONY-- kenotic and oriented on high levity

Now, as it happens, in arranging the four mythoi, I followed Frye's season-based arrangement, which to the best of my recollection did not involve Ovid's "four ages." In the first two FOUR AGES essays, I said that the *dynamis* of each mythos compared well with one of the "ages of man:" child, adolescent, mature adult, older adult. Thus I perceive that even though adventure is "serious" in terms of how its readers are expected to invest themselves in the character's struggles, it is a "light seriousness" that canon-critics do not regard as covalent with their "high serousness." Adventure-stories, while they may not involve adolescent characters, are often regarded as adolescent in nature because they tend to have happy endings, no matter what sufferings their characters may endure  to reach said ending. Not all works within the dramatic mythos have unhappy endings, of course. But critics tend to prefer dramas because there is a certain expectation of a stronger chance for a dolorous, and therefore more bracing, conclusion to the story. Thus dramas meet the critic's desire for high seriousness.

With the two "mythoi of levity," comedy, more than irony, still allows for more identification with its characters than does irony, and thus comedy also shows a predilection for happy endings. Though the phrase "light comedy" does not apply to all comedies across the board, it suggests something of the attitude that the Iliadic critic has toward comedy in general: there's still enough of a tendency for viewers to invest in the characters' fates and to want to see said characters validated to some degree. This is not true of the irony, for the creator of the irony has, so to speak, turned up the dial on his levity-making machines until everything in the story floats free of any readerly attachment. Again, some ironies-- such as Voltaire's CANDIDE-- may have relatively "happy" endings in comparison to other, more relentless ironies. But there is no sense, to paraphrase Frye, that the world has been reborn by a ritual of jubiliation: if anything, even the worlds with relatively happy endings are doomed, just as "older adults" are doomed to end their days and their experience of the ongoing world.

Thus, this current rethinking invalidates the verdict of the GRAVITY'S RAINBOW series, in that I would now opine that both adventures and comedies show a greater tendency toward encouraging reader identification than one sees in dramas or ironies. To pursue the metaphor of the four ages once more, it's as if the comedy and the adventure allow for the most identification because their characters were designed to be triumphant, while the drama and the irony are designed to allow the reader to pull back from the characters, even if for very different reasons.

Friday, August 23, 2019


Here's a follow-up statement to my two July issues on the above topic, originally written on DEBATE POLITICS.


The original "shame culture" was the one that a dominant WASP population promulgated against all those who were not WASPS. It was bound to fail as Classic Liberals showed its ideological stupidities.

The current "shame culture," though, has an advantage. It's just as stupid as the first version, but it piggybacks on the genuine accomplishments of  Classic Liberals, much the way a dum-dum like Al Sharpton piggybacks on the accomplishments of Martin Luther King.

I think that real racism still exists, as can be seen with the much delayed, and just, firing of Daniel Pantaleo. However, there is as yet no real metric, no standard of measurement, for what is or is not a racist act. Joe Biden telling a black audience that Mitt Romney wants to put them back in chains is not a just identification of a racist act or even a racist attitude. It's just bad, overblown rhetoric, much like the supposed anti-racist rhetoric that Biden still attempts to use against the Donald.

As I said in the OP, Trump is not even close to being a person able to evolve or enable such a standard. But now that he's stood up to the new shame culture, maybe someone better than him will come up with such a metric.


As it happens, in the last week the racial politics of anti-Trumpery manifested in a minor comic-book kerfluffle, courtesy of Art Spiegelman. As detailed on this BOUNDING INTO COMICS essay, someone or other asked Spiegelman to write an introduction to a collection of Golden Age reprints from Timely (later Marvel) comic books. An editor asked Spiegelman to remove a political reference that had nothing to do with Timely Comics in the 1930s: one in which the artist compared the CAPTAIN AMERICA villain the Red Skull with Donald Trump, cleverly disguised as "the Orange Skull." Spiegelman refused to remove the reference and retracted his essay. He then publicized the disagreement, with the result that, as he himself states, far more people saw what he wrote through online news-media than would have read the intro in the Timely reprint.

No one will be surprised that, whatever my own reservations about Donald Trump, I find comparisons between the President and Nazi leaders to be yet more "bad, overblown rhetoric," much like the anti-Trumpery that appears at the conclusion of Spike Lee's BLACKKKLANSMAN. Spiegelman went on to claim that Marvel wanted to be "apolitical," which just shows that he's apparently read less current Marvel comics than I have. Though a lot of current Marvels use their fictional platforms as bully pulpits, it seems likely that someone on the editorial staff thought that an introduction to a bunch of Golden Age funnybooks was not a fit place for such a pulpit.

Most of the respondents on the BOUNDING thread tended to agree, and I for one thought it ironic that a comics-artist who has made much of his Jewish heritage would align the Donald with Nazism, given that he's been pretty supportive of both Israel and Jewish heritage, even if he's shown his usual goofiness by, say, claiming that all Jews ought to vote Republican. Nevertheless, I chose to chime in with the following:

All political leaders, before entering office, must ask themselves, "What Would the Red Skull Do?" And of course, the logical conclusion would be-- acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Yep, that's just what the Red Skull would do

While Spiegelman is free to make any comment he pleases to anyone willing to give him a podium, no one is required to give him such a podium, particularly in a venue that has a dubious relationship to politics. Yes, Captain America was seen punching out Hitler, and other Marvel heroes made forays against the Axis or doppelgangers thereof, but the stories were barely "political" in the true sense of the word. And though Trump is certainly guilty of his own political sins, conflating them with the heritage of even fictional Nazis like the Red Skull is ridiculous in the extreme.

Thursday, August 22, 2019


In the first section of AND THE HALF-TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE, I dovetailed my concept of "concrescence" with my current penchant for addressing the things being "concresced" as "epistemological patterns:"

...the term "patterns" aligns better with the process by which all forms of concrescence-- whether belonging to the mythopoeic potentiality or one of the other three-- in that I at least can picture how various motifs coalesce to reinforce one another and thus become a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

But as I've consistently emphasized, this "greater whole" only comes into effect when the various *quanta* belonging to a given potentiality reinforce one another. For instance, an author doesn't create a cosmological myth just by trotting out a handful of cosmological factoids in a given story.

Gardner Fox does just this at the opening of the story that introduces DC-comics readers to the awkwardly-named villain, "the Bug-Eyed Bandit." (To be sure, in THE ATOM #26 the felon isn't given this name in Gardner Fox's script, but only on the cover-- though Fox falls into line by using the "bug-eyed" name in the character's second and last Silver Age appearance.) Long before Ray (The Atom) Palmer has any inkling that he's about to meet an insect-themed villain, the scientist holds forth to his fiancee's nephew about the wonderful aspects of our buggy friends, like the aphid and the atlas moth. Afterward, the scientist stumbles across a burglary, and changes into the Atom just in time to fight the burglar's aide, a mechanical flying insect.

To be sure, the Bandit (real name "Bertram Larvan," which sounds a bit like the name of comic Bert Lahr) has created his robot insect as a model designed to kill real insects, but he resorts to robbery to make said model. Once he starts stealing things and fighting superheroes, though, Larvan's project of mechanized mini-exterminators is pretty much forgotten, and he becomes just another super-villain. However, though the Bug-Eyed Bandit is the same sort of "theme villain" that I described in this essay, Larvan doesn't incarnate a cosmological myth, because he doesn't pattern his mecha-insect after the capacities of real insects, aside from the thing being able to fly.

The Bandit's second appearance, though, shows Fox exploiting the cosmological appeal of the "theme villain" for all it's worth. It starts out with Larvan in prison for his crimes, though he's forgotten his experiences with the Atom due to an amnesia-gas. (If he doesn't remember his crimes, couldn't his lawyer have pleaded temporary insanity?) Amnesiac-Larvan actually seems to be a nice guy, making toy insects for kids.

However, Larvan's memory comes back, and the first thing he does is to use the robot-insects' powers to break him free, (Why toys for kids can bite through prison-bars is not enlarged upon.) Then he does everything a good theme villain should do, unleashing a tide of crimes with other robot insects who also imitate the properties of real insects, like a robot centipede (which carries a lot of "cents," ha ha) and a robot grasshopper.

Inevitably the Atom tracks down his insect-happy adversary, and once again the major part of his battle takes place against the same size-changing robot he met before, This time the robot even has a buggy application, entangling the hero in a spider-web. It also has the ability to make the Atom sneeze, but this is just an unhappy accident, having nothing to do with any particular insect-power.

Toward the climax Larvan captures the Atom and accidentally reverts him to his Palmer form. He works in one last insect-themed weapon, threatening to crush Palmer in a contracting "cocoon." The hero escapes, of course, and both defeats the villain and returns him to his amnesiac state, so that he can't reveal the Atom's secret ID.

I should note in passing that, just as the first Bandit story contained a dramatic subplot about Larvan's former girlfriend-- who just happened to be a Jean Loring lookalike-- "Atom Assassin" has a subplot in which the hero gets some minor aid from a little girl, "a Korean war orphan." I suppose there were still orphans from Korea emigrating to America for adoption in 1967. But that was over ten years after the Korean War, so I can't help but wonder if Fox had some idea of making the kid a survivor of the then-current Vietnam War, only to be overruled by the editor.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


In my never-ending quest to search out examples of combative narratives that stand as ancestors to the superhero idiom, I re-read THE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT in its 1970 edition as a Ballantine paperback (a popularization only possible after the Tolkien boom made fantasy-novels hot items).

After the novel was published to absolutely no acclaim in 1856, its author George Meredith never did another fantasy, but did find some fame in his day with naturalistic romances. I don't know that he would have been a particularly great fantasy-author had SHAGPAT succeeded. The novel suggests that Meredith had an abiding love for the wild fantasy-content of THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, as well as for the comic attitude of many of the stories.

The name "Shagpat" is pure faux-Arabian, being the name of a corrupt ruler who hasn't had his hair or beard shaved in many a moon, so that he bears a "shaggy pate." Unknown even to Shagpat himself, he owes his temporal power to a single hair, called the Invincible, which got transplanted onto his scalp in a very involved fashion. It seems a sorceress, one Noorna, was seeking to destroy the hair in order to overthrow its original owner, a tyrannical genie who wants Noorna to marry him. After she fails to destroy the Invincible, she decides that the only way to eliminate the genie's power for all time is to give Shagpat a shave-- and for that, she needs a barber.

The viewpoint character is just such a barber, with the equally faux name of Shibli Bagarag, and he alone can wield the mystic "Sword of Aklis" to cut down the Invincible. To say the least, a fantasy about a barber advertises his status as a comedy, but there are a number of combative elements in the story, not least assorted magical battles between Noorna and her nemesis, the witch Goorelka. This may be the aspect closest to the original Arabian Nights, since there are a number of stories in which sorceresses of great powers play major roles.

Like the Oriental stories that inspired the novel, SHAGPAT wanders from wonder to wonder, and doesn't have a lot of coherence overall. Still, it does stand as one of the earliest novels of combative fantasy since the days of the courtly romances, and though it didn't have any influence on the evolution of the superhero idiom, SHAGPAT does make an interesting footnote.

Monday, August 12, 2019


Here I'll be bringing my formulations in Part 1 and Part 2 into line with some of my observations regarding audience-conviction.

In the FOUR AGES OF DYNAMIS series, I argued that there were four states of "dynamis," which both Northrop Frye and I use to signify the "power of action" of characters in fiction. and that those four states parallel the four-staged development of human beings as described by Ovid in his METAMORPHOSES. In the poem Ovid asserts that every human being starts out as being like Spring, "quickening yet shy," develops into "Summer's hardiness," loses those "first flushes" upon entering Autumn's "temperate season," and finally enters the domain of "senile Winter," which is marked by the "terror in palsy" that will precede Death. These states I then compared to my four quasi-Fryean mythoi, respectively comedy, adventure, drama and irony.

Now, all of my formulations regarding kenosis and plerosis, informed largely by the analyses of Theodore Gaster and Jane Ellen Harrison, which are focused not on individual growth and decay but upon a given society's attempt to maintain itself in what Gaster calls the "durative" sense. Thus there are four forms of ritual-- what Gaster calls "the jubilative,""the invigorative," "the purgative," and the morificative," all of which also align with the four mythoi, and in the same order.

So the four mythoi line up well when paralleled to the "ages of man," or to the yearly rituals of archaic societies , which are intended to maintain the society as if it were a cyclical living entity, able to reconstitute itself indefinitely, unlike individual persons. However, there's far less uniformity in terms of the ways each mythos works with the audience's *conviction* regarding the narratives of each mythoi, since it's possible for audiences to take some mythoi seriously and others unseriously:

The drama and the adventure, often perceived as two "serious" types of entertainment, are easy to confound, even as are the two types of "unserious" entertainment, comedy and irony.-- GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, PART 1.
In the GRAVITY'S CROSSBOW series, I meditated upon the attitudes of "serious conviction" and "unserious lack of conviction." In the POETICS, Aristotle had characterized these states of audience-perception as "weighty" and "light" respectively. I followed this formulation somewhat by speaking of the first category as being dominantly characterized by "tonal gravity," while the other was dominantly characterized by "tonal levity." Assuming that one keeps to the order by which Frye arranged his mythoi, explicitly patterned after the four seasons, then here we have not a smooth progression, but a sort of oscillation. We start with the jubilative form of the unserious, which is perhaps the "lightest" of the four, and proceed to the invigorative, which is dominantly serious. The purgative mythos then increases the "gravity" and instills an even greater sense of seriousness-- and yet, this particular center cannot hold, and the mortificative mythos arises from the purgative, taking on a new form of "levity," one so free of the bonds of literary gravity that hardly anything can be valued.

Similarly, the ritual processes of *kenosis* (emptying) and *plerosis* (filling) also follow this oscillating progress, as I pointed out in SOMETIMES THEY WIN, SOMETIMES THEY LOSE:

I generalized that two of the four Fryean mythoi allow the protagonist to win sometimes, lose sometimes.  One of the two is *drama,* a mythos which possesses a serious tone and a *kenotic* (emptying) audience-function, and *comedy,* a mythos which possesses an unserious tone and a  *plerotic* (filling) audience-function. In contrast, as I also stated in that essay, the function of *adventure* is "to impart to the audience the "invigorating" thrill of victory, with little if any "agony of defeat," while in contrast "the heroes of ironic narratives usually don't win, but when they do, it's usually a victory in which the audience can place no conviction."  Just to keep symmetry with the above assertions, I'll reiterate that *adventure* is a mythos with a serious tone and a *plerotic* audience-function, while *irony* is a mythos with an unserious tone and a *kenotic* audience-function.

So here too we see an oscillation between modes:

COMEDY-- plerotic and levity-oriented
ADVENTURE-- plerotic and gravity-oriented
DRAMA-- kenotic and gravity-oriented
IRONY-- kenotic and levity-oriented

In the same essay plerosis-kenosis essay, I specified that what society is being "filled with" is whatever a given society perceives to be "life-supporting" elements, while the same society attempts to "empty itself" of "life-denying" elements. But then the objection arises: if the jubilative and mortificative mythoi address their respective processes of filling and emptying with only a "light" sense of conviction, why would those processes have any societal importance?

My best solution for the time being is that most if not all societies need what I've called "vacations from morals," and that works of tonal levity, simply by the fact that they are NOT meant to fill the audience with a sense of "the grave and the constant," serve as a counterpoint to their more serious-minded counterparts. Hard to say if this line of thought will bear more fruit.

Thursday, August 8, 2019


In ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, Northrop Frye asserts that adventure and irony are practically inversions of one another, and I tend to agree, since these two mythoi seem to interweave far less well than the other two mythoi, comedy and drama. Most Marvel franchises fall squarely within the mythos of adventure, and any ironic content-- say, that of Peter Parker having to work for the man who wants to ruin Spider-Man-- is subsumed by the more exhilarating aspects of adventure.

In most of the Silver Surfer's incarnations, the character has been bereft of ironic content. Norrin Raad is known for being a pop-Christ figure, spouting doleful speeches about man's inhumanity to man, and he demonstrates a level of power that necessitates pitting him against opponents able to match his level of potency. However, for four issues of the 1990s SURFER feature, writer Jim Starlin and artist Ron Lim took the surfboard-riding stalwart in a darker direction.

Issue #39 concludes a plotline in which the Surfer overcomes a suitably cosmic menace-- the much-heralded Thanos, who dies yet another temporary death at the end of the narrative-- and #40 follows up with the Surfer and his allies ruminating on the villain's demise. Unexpectedly, the Surfer receives a summons from an outer-space satellite community, Dynamo City. The authorities of the satellite want the Surfer to testify as to the demise of Thanos. Though the summoner cannot compel the powerful hero to comply, the agent plays on Norrin Radd's curiosity by claiming that Thanos left behind a taped message for the Surfer as part of his last will and testament.

As soon as the sky-rider arrives in Dynamo City, however, he finds that he's been too confident in his great powers. Dynamo City's rulers insist upon a total hegemony of power, and as soon as Norrin enters the satellite, his cosmic powers are drained from his body, making him entirely mortal. Though bemused by this development, Norrin accedes to the authorities' demand for testimony regarding his role in Thanos's death. The court rules the Surfer innocent of Thanos's murder. But the villain's taped message suggests that Thanos has somehow mousetrapped the hero by bringing him to the satellite.

The Surfer finds out why when he tries to leave, for a local policeman informs he cannot depart without paying an "exit tax." Of course the hero has no money of any kind on his person, and he's forced to do what any ordinary shlub in Dynamo City would have to do: get a job in order to pay his debts. Starlin and Lim capture a rare level of ironic humor as the Surfer faces the horror of job placement, trying to explain his talents as a former herald to Galactus. Unable to get regular employment, the Surfer is forced to join Dynamo City's huge community of homeless vagrants. He makes the acquaintance of a scruffy little alien, Zeaklar, who knows the workings of Dynamo City even though he's never been able to escape the poverty level himself. It's through Zeaklar that the Surfer learns that he can make some money by selling his memories to the citizens of Dynamo. The Surfer is disgusted by this prospect, but he badly desires to escape the city, and so he makes a deal to let the jaded Dynamo populace be titillated by his personal experiences. However, the producers of the memory-show take advantage of his lack of business sense and cheat him.

Once more relegated to vagrant status, the Surfer gets the idea that even if the underlings serving the system are corrupt, he may win clemency from the ruler of Dynamo City, "the Great I." Of course any reader who hears that name will rightfully suspect that the hero is setting himself up for a fall, since "Great I" sounds a much more famed ruler of pop-fiction, "the Great Oz." When the Surfer manages to confront the ruler, he finds that there isn't even a clever mountebank behind the curtain of power. Instead, the "Great I" is just a near-brainless creature who does nothing more than process information. There isn't even a particular power behind the throne: just a bunch of self-interested, self-important  bureaucrats.

Indeed, even the down-trodden citizens of Dynamo are largely complicit in the corruption. By his continued defiance of the city's mores, the Surfer earns himself a trial, and though he's guilty of all the charges brought against him, the court can't resist tossing in a bunch of false charges as well. This scene is one of the few in which any female characters show up during the four-issue story, but they're just as bad as any of the males in terms of framing the Surfer for phony crimes.

Both the Surfer and Zeaklar are scheduled for execution, and the hero can do nothing about it. Only dumb luck, and the inherent stupidity of the Dynamo hierarchy, saves the two of them, for their means of execution is to hurl condemned prisoners into deep space.

This, of course, turns out to be a case of throwing Br'er Rabbit into the briarpatch, though the Surfer has no inkling that this is what the authorities plan to do. Once he's in space, his cosmic powers return and he saves Zeaklar from extinction. The Dynamo cops send a few robot spaceships after the Surfer, and the hero gets the chance to vent some fury by wiping out all of these mechanical maraudders. However, when the hero considers wreaking vengeance on the satellite-city as a whole, Zeaklar reminds him that to do so will expose thousands of innocents to death. The Surfer decides that he will find some way to avenge his suffering, but since Dynamo City has never appeared again in a Marvel comic, that threat turned hollow.

This story was certainly not the first time Jim Starlin attempted to make satirical points in his various works. However, this is probably his most thoroughgoing attempt to mount a story devoted purely to the satire of a particular social system, implicitly that of commodity-driven capitalism. Starlin is no subtler here than anywhere else, but at least his mythic theme is fully developed, and at no time can the normal thrills of the adventure-genre overthrow the sense that Dynamo City's way of life cannot be undone even by "the Power Cosmic."