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SIX KEYS TO A LITERARY GENETIC CODE

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...

Friday, January 29, 2021

THE READING RHEUM: THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1911)

 








LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM was Bram Stoker’s final novel, published the year prior to his death. Like DRACULA, the author’s most famous work, LAIR drew upon archaic folklore, specifically the Celtic story of the Lambton Worm, a tiny creature that grows to the size of a rampaging dragon. Onto this slender folktale Stoker grafted a shapeshifter story, in which a monstrous worm, a survival of ancient times, somehow gains the ability to take on the form of a human woman.


Had Stoker focused upon this intriguing presence, LAIR might have been one of his finest works, as well as an anodyne to his next-to-last book, THE LADY OF THE SHROUD, a dull Ruritanian romance with mild Gothic touches. Instead, LAIR is a jumble of mismatching story-tropes, some of which possess great mythic potential, while others merely serve to express contemporary prejudices about race and sexuality. LAIR is still better than SHROUD, in the sense that chaos can be more entertaining than predictability.


Perhaps because Stoker was already ill when he penned LAIR, the book’s plot wanders all over the place. Yet the lack of a rigorous plot is probably less injurious than the thinness of all of the characters, even though the reader will observe Stoker re-using some of the character-tropes he employed so memorably in DRACULA. The dramatis personae include:


ADAM SALTON is a young Englishman long absent from his native land. He returns in order to be groomed as the heir to an estate in a territory known by the Roman-era name of Mercia. Though Adam meets with the current lord of the estate, his grand-uncle, most of his conversations in the novel take place with NATHANIEL DE SALIS, a neighboring landowner who knows much of the involved history and folklore of the land and its various peoples.

One of his neighbors is LADY ARABELLA MARCH, occupying an estate known as “Diana’s Grove.” For almost half the novel, she appears to be an ordinary human woman with a few odd habits, and at first her only motivation is to make a good marriage to allay the debts of her estate. She wishes to marry—


EDGAR CASWALL, another local lord who, like Adam, has come to his estate “Castra Regis,’ after having it managed for years in his absence. However, he shows nearly no interest in Arabella, focusing all of his attention on—


LILLA WATFORD, one of two granddaughters of another local landowner. She has no interest in Caswall, and she receives help against his predacious intentions by her cousin MIMI WATFORD, whom Adam eventually marries.


Parallels with DRACULA should be obvious. Adam is a forthright young man like Jonathan Harker, and Nathaniel plays the part of Van Helsing, instructing the young man on the theory of ancient “wyrms.” Lilla and Mimi emulate Lucy and Mina beyond the resemblance of their initials, for Lilla is as doomed as Lucy while Mimi is a more defiant figure like Mina. Yet Stoker strayed from the parallel by splitting the book between two villainous presences. Whereas DRACULA centers upon the depredations of one monstrous antagonist, a true homme fatale, in LAIR Stoker includes a human homme fatale and an inhuman femme fatale. Yet Stoker doesn’t succeed in making either of these inimical characters a tenth as interesting as the vampire count.


Neither of the villains possesses a clear goal. When Caswall is introduced, Stoker draws parallels between the lord and the ancient Romans who conquered Great Britain for a time, and who left their stamp upon the territory of Mercia. One of Caswall’s ancestors studied under Mesmer, the father of hypnotism, and somehow Caswall seems to have “inherited” an intrinsic ability to dominate the wills of others. However, Caswall only demonstrates this talent three times in the novel, always while visiting the home of the Watfords. During these visits, while pretending to make small talk, Caswall attempts to mentally dominate the weak-willed Lilla. It’s not even clear whether or not the cold-hearted aristocrat intends to make Liila into either his wife or his mistress, for every time he’s there, so is Mimi, who manages to thwart Caswall with her own willpower. The lord doesn’t make any other attempts, even financially based, to control Lilla, and for most of the novel he does nothing but to go fly a kite. In one of Stoker’s oddest conceits, Mercia becomes victimized by flocks of migrating birds, mostly doves and pigeons, with a strong implication that they’re reacting against the presence of a serpentine “devil.” To scare the birds away, Caswall creates a kite in the shape of a hawk. The kite succeeds in its scarecrow purpose, but for vague reasons Caswall becomes preoccupied with this new hobby. He starts sending “messages” up the kite-string, and Stoker doesn’t really explain this, though given the conservative Christian sentiments expressed throughout the book, it may be that Caswall’s activity is somehow seen as blasphemy against Heaven.

But if Caswall ends up seeming more dotty than dangerous, Lady Arabella comes off as a monster without a cause. For half the novel, Stoker plays it cagey. Arabella has a few odd snakelike aspects—for instance, when Adam brings in mongeese to exterminate ordinary snakes, the mongeese show unreasoning hostility toward the noblewoman. Then, in the latter half of the novel, the author drops the whole megillah on the reader. Arabella may look like a human being, and she even married a now-deceased lord in order to gain control of Diana’s Grove. But in reality, she’s a giant worm who has lived beneath Diana’s Grove for thousands of years. Though the Nathaniel character goes into great detail to justify the existence of such an antique survival, no one in the novel explains how a giant worm can change into a human woman, either via biology or Satanic magic.


But as noted earlier, Arabella, like Caswall, has no raison d’etre. In DRACULA, Stoker gave his royal Rumanian a forceful characterization, so that he continued to dominate the novel despite his being offstage for most of the narrative. But Stoker refuses to tell the reader anything about the internal workings of Arabella’s mind, except in one section, where she’s seen to share the xenophobic prejudices of contemporaneous Englishmen (more on that later). What does the Worm-Woman want? The readers won’t be able to tell from what Stoker provides them. The author strains to convince readers that the White Worm is a biological creature—she’s even “white” because of burrowing through caves of white clay—but he never bothers to address the question of what the Worm feeds on to keep its bulk together. Stoker might’ve done better to make the Worm a creation of The Devil himself, for certainly the creature’s associations with the underworld give her a diabolical aspect. Though a serpent-woman would seem to suggest all sorts of psychosexual undertones, Arabella is never a sexual threat to anyone, though it's hard to believe that Stoker didn’t name his protagonist in keeping with the associations between a certain serpent and the original “Adam.” There’s one scene in which Adam convinces himself to marry Mimi because he thinks the act of marriage will protect Mimi from Arabella somehow, but Arabella makes no moves on Adam, and maybe the marriage is meant to protect Adam from some concealed lust on his part. After the marriage, Arabella does try to kill both Adam and Mimi, but the motivation behind the attempt is to keep Adam from revealing her snaky secrets. Because Arabella is such a black hole as a character, Stoker has her do things that make no sense, just to fill plot-holes. The worst appears at the conclusion, when the two villains bring destruction on themselves. Caswall attaches his kite to his mansion by a metal wire, insuring that Castra Regis will be destroyed in a thunderstorm. Adam witnesses Arabella extending the metal line to her own home—which means that the storm’s fury will destroy both her and Diana’s Grove. Why Stoker didn’t just have his protagonist do this, instead of one of the villains, is more than I can speculate upon.


Backtracking a bit, the only time Arabella shows real emotion is when she apparently forgets she’s an inhuman creature and reacts with indignation when a crude African servant dares to propose lovemaking to a “white woman.” Said servant is Oolanga, brought to Castra Regis from Africa by Caswall, though it’s never clear what the black man’s duties for Caswall might be. Oolanga is a former “witch finder,” and he shows a propensity for “sniffing out” scenes of death past and present. Stoker makes no bones about his contempt for Negroes, calling Oolanga (among other things) “ostensibly human,” while Adam jokingly calls the servant a “Christy Minstrel.” Presumably this is wishful thinking, because the death-obsessed Black African is certainly not as subservient as a character in a minstrel-show, given that he tries to initiate sex with a woman above his station. In fact, after Arabella scornfully refuses Oolanga’s suit, Adam and Arabella are briefly allied against the violent African, and Adam first witnesses Arabella’s transformation when Arabella drags Oolanga down to death in her underworld. Oddly, though Stoker can’t stand Black people, he does make Mimi “half-Burmese,” though apparently the author only did this so that he could work in a reference to Burmese snake-charmers.


There are a few powerful moments in LAIR. One is the “plague of birds,” of doves and pigeons whose “cowled” appearance Stoker likens to the habits of Christian nuns (even though Stoker was raised as a Protestant). Nathaniel’s ruminations about the Celtic traditions about underworld dragons and “worms” are modestly compelling, Stoker was clearly trying to construct a multi-leveled metaphor regarding human beings being seduced, if not by Satan himself, by devilish impulses. Yet, to invert William Blake’s encomium on Milton, it seems Stoker was too much “of the angel’s party” to really delve into the realms of the forbidden, particularly that of serpentine sexuality. Perhaps the shadow of DRACULA doomed Stoker’s last novel, making it impossible for him to venture ever again into those realms of transgressive feeling.


THE READING RHEUM: A PRINCESS OF MARS (1912)

 







In one crucial respect, the French writers of the degeneracy school differed from their American counterparts. Where Mather and his cohorts saw the Indian as insatiably lustful, a being of overbearing sexual power, these European writers saw him as sexually weak, cold-blooded, insensitive to pleasure or pain, passionless—perhaps even defective in his manhood.”—Richard Slotkin, REGENERATION THROUGH VIOLENCE, p.203.




Numerous critics have remarked that in A PRINCESS OF MARS, Edgar Rice Burroughs created his “myth of Mars” out of myths of the American West. Prior to publication of PRINCESS (serialized under a different title), Burroughs had already penned three or four traditional westerns. John Carter, the protagonist of the first Martian novel, claims that he remembers no personal history, but nevertheless his main identity is that of a native of Civil-War Virginia and a former Confederate officer. Having become impoverished because his side lost—which is Burroughs’ only direct comment upon Carter’s Southern heritage—Carter goes West. He teams up with another former Rebel officer and seeks riches. However, savage Indians attack the two white adventurers. Carter’s partner is killed and Carter is cornered inside a cave by the hostiles. Believing himself doomed, he suffers a strange paralysis, after which a part of him separates from his mortal body, and he looks down upon what he deems his own “lifeless clay.” His “alternate self” then gazes up at the heavens and beholds the planet Mars, with which he identifies as a “fighting man.” In no time, Carter’s other identity manifests on Mars, where he seems to have as physical an existence as he did on Earth. He learns that Martian gravity gives him fantastic strength, and this leads in turn to Carter becoming the supreme warrior on the planet, as well as winning the hand of a red-skinned princess, Dejah Thoris.


In keeping with the theme of the Roman god of war, all denizens of Mars are warlike, but their warring nature springs from their world’s geological catastrophes, resulting in the planet’s slow loss of its atmosphere. Earlier Martian generations possessed a higher level of technology, which makes it possible for the natives to use super-science on occasion. Nevertheless, every race on Mars—red, white, black, or green—fights with pre-industrial weapons: swords, spears, bows and arrows. The people of Dejah Thoris, who are red-hued like the Indians of Earth, are somewhat more sophisticated than their fellow Martians, but in PRINCESS Burroughs is far less interested in them than in the bizarre green men, the Tharks and the Warhoons. These science-fictional ogres, Burroughs’ most memorable monsters, do not share the humanoid characteristics of most Martians, in that they have four arms and tusks in place of teeth. In addition, they incarnate the deepest idea of the ruthless savage, appearing to have no concept of pity or kindness. Carter will eventually learn that “nurture” rather than “nature” makes the Tharks pitiless, thanks to their habit of being raised by an impersonal village rather than by natural parents. That said, a couple of Thark characters prove themselves capable of being ennobled by Carter’s example. John Carter himself clearly loves the savage life—never once is he disheartened by killing an opponent, since all of his killings are justified—but he is a savage who has not forgotten the benefits of civilized life.


But the closest similitude between Carter and the Tharks is their reserve toward sexuality (hence the opening quote). In Burroughs’s cosmos, the unrelenting chaos of Martian life has made it difficult for the Martians to have more than perfunctory interest in spawning. There are occasional “degenerates”—though “throwbacks” might be a better term—among the Tharks, as with one of the book’s main villains, Thark chieftain Tal Hajus. Of this nasty villain, who later comes close to committing inter-species rape on Dejah Thoris, Burroughs writes:


[Tal Hajus] was, in contrast to most of his fellows, a slave to that brute passion which the waning demands for procreation upon this dying planet had almost stilled in the Martian breast.


Burroughs writes this in Chapter 12, and not until Chapter 27 does Tal Hajus attempt to assault the comely princess. Thus, long before the threat manifests, Burroughs has Carter meditating (on the same page of Chapter 12) that it may be necessary for Dejah Thoris to take her own life as did “those brave frontier women of my own land rather than fall into the hands of the Indian braves.” In Tal Hajus, then, Burroughs allows for the reader to imagine the savage as “insatiably lustful.”


But even though John Carter wanders through a world where he and everyone else walk around near-naked, he himself seems as “underfunded” as the majority of Tharks—and for the same reason, that of being almost wholly oriented on the arts of Mars, with little experience in the ways of Venus. In Chapter 14, Carter gives readers their only view of his own sexual experiences as he thinks about his burgeoning affection for the princess.


So this was love! I had escaped it for all the years I had roamed the five continents and their encircling seas; in spite of beautiful women and urging opportunity; in spite of a half-desire for love and a constant search for my ideal, it had remained for me to fall furiously and hopelessly in love with a creature from another world, of a species similar possibly, yet not identical with mine.


In other words, in Burroughs’ cosmos, inter-species sex is okay when sanctioned by the goddess of love. Yet in contrast to the author’s same-year TARZAN OF THE APES, there’s not a lot of lust in the pages of PRINCESS, except from villains like Tal Hajus and the spite-filled Thark villainess Sarkoja. But then, the loyalty of Carter and most other Martians to the martial spirit mirrors the author’s dedication to spectacular violence. Even though Burroughs does not dwell on the resultant gore from blades piercing flesh, he provides so many guttings and slicings that it’s impossible for readers not to imagine the sights the author denies them. It would be interesting to compare the sheer quantity of violent acts in any Mars book to those in the contemporaneous novels of the period. I tend to think that Burroughs had no literary peers in the realm of spectacular violence until Robert E. Howard came along—but even I am not dedicated enough to the spirit of Mars to undertake such a comparative study.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: [“THE GREENPEACE PLAN,’] DOMINION (1985)

 I’m not deeply knowledgeable about the early career of Osamu Tezuka, but I’ve the impression that even in the 1940s—a time when American comic books were dominated by standalone short stories—Tezuka utilized in many of his works multi-part stories, often comprising the different types of arcs I’ve detailed here. For that reason, many manga-serials started off constructing stories in these more expansive forms.



On the other hand, in some cases appearances may prove  deceiving. Masamune Shirow’s DOMINION serial first appeared in six stories published in 1985, and at a quick glance one might think that all six stories might comprise a unified arc. In truth, though, these six issues are comprised of one two-part short story, two more short stories, and then a final two-parter. Though the tales all share the same characters and concerns, some could be easily read apart from the others, just like any commonplace American comic. This situation is rather ironic, if it’s true that Shirow derived one aspect of this series from the American teleseries HILL STREET BLUES, a cop show that popularized mainstream television’s use of intersecting short-arc storylines.


Over time Shirow has shown himself to be exemplary in terms of sheer creativity, but less so in terms of plotting and characterization, seeming at times to be a disciple of the “throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks” school. The last two-parter in the six-issue series is particularly incoherent, but the first two-part tale, which I’ve entitled “the Greenpeace Plan,” shows impressive mythicity-potential.



It's a dystopian far-future—albeit one played for comedy—wherein much if not all of Earth suffers from serious pollution. Most citizens won’t even emerge from their homes without wearing masks—making DOMINION eerily prescient to current times—and citizens are forever making frivolous complaints to the cops of Newport City. (This may be Shirow’s version of New York if the HILL STREET parallel holds; at very least it’s established that lead character Leona Ozaki is the only Japanese, so it’s not a future-Japan this time.) Leona belongs to the city’s Tank Police Corps, which means that she and her sidekick-driver Al pilot a small-sized super-tank through the city-streets. Though opposed to all crime, the Tank Police are primarily focused on the gang of one super-crook, the portly Buaku.




All of the cops in Leona’s department are lovable goofballs, and Leona herself is no exception, in that she has a quasi-erotic fixation on her mini-tank, whom she names “Bonaparte” (because it's small but powerful, maybe?)  Her nemesis Buaku is first seen robbing a bank, looking like a robber from a silent comedy, and he gets away easily, mocking the police. Later, a tip leads the officers to one of Buaku’s hideouts. They don’t find the gang-leader or his gang, but they find a green-skinned android girl with butterfly-like wings mounted on her back. Someone or other gives the android the name “Greenpeace Crolis,” and the department’s resident science-guy figures out that she’s a “living air cleaner,” capable of recycling the world’s polluted air and producing fresh atmosphere—though of course she’s not big enough to change the reigning ecosystem.




In the second part of “Greenpeace,” Leona’s life gets more complicated when a citizens’ group uses political leverage to get the Tank Police to foreswear their dangerous “toy tanks” and to use instead a new form of tank, equipped with climbing-tentacles. Leona resents this prohibition, but curiosity leads her to investigate the new model. By so doing, she stumbles onto a Big Secret. Super-crook Buaku has manipulated the citizens’ committee into making a new tank so that he can steal it for his own use. As part of his overall plan, he also uses his henchmen to steal back the android Greenpeace.




Buaku captures Leona and goes through the standard “let me tell you my evil plan” routine. The villain claims that the original purpose of the android’s creators was “the Greenpeace Plan,” which would involve transforming all of Earth’s humans into “people who can breathe” the crappy Earth atmosphere. Buaku wants to live on a virgin, unspoiled world, and later in the continuity it turns out that he apparently plans to steal an interstellar ship and take Greenpeace to another world. I say “apparently” because the villain’s plot never completely makes sense. Leona turns the tables on Buaku, and even uses her prized Bonaparte to defeat the rival tank under the crook’s control. Buaku is captured, though the second part ends with him being freed by his followers, implying that the zany duel of cops and robbers will go on unabated.


Toward the end of the two-parter, one cop recovers from being shot, and his comrade breaks the fourth wall by telling him, “If this was a serious comic, you’d be dead as a can of tuna, now.” Shirow comes up with some fascinating myth-concepts involving the ecosystem and humankind’s misuse of it. But it appears he wanted to keep things light for this series. The author didn’t craft many installments for DOMINION, and the next one even tosses out the pollution-angle, possibly because it was too much of a downer. His GHOST IN THE SHELL probably generated far more reader-enthusiasm, and thus resulted in a series of lucrative TV shows and videogames. I’ve read only one GHOST and I found it less challenging than GREENPEACE. However, at some point I may attempt to investigate Shirow’s repertoire in greater depth.


CATEGORIES OF STRUCTURAL LENGTH PT. 4

 Prior to posting my second mythcomic review for the month of January 2021, I find that I need to add a new category to the ones set forth in the original STRUCTURAL LENGTH essay.


In that essay, the first four categories I mentioned were “the vignette,” “the short arc,” “the short story,” and “the long arc,” I further stated that the short arc could take the form of a subplot within a greater context, be it a novel or a continuing feature, though the short arc did not always take the subplot form. This quality of “relatedness” is the main thing that distinguishes the short arc from its relative-in-length, the short story. A short story by its nature suggests an item that can read apart from any greater context, as per Edgar Allan Poe’s encomium on the form. Though his three “Dupin” stories qualify as a series, a reader need not read them all to understand any single story. The short story takes a moderately different form in a more regularly published series, such as a Batman comic book. Any given Batman short story makes more sense if the reader does know something about the Batman mythology, about the ways in which he battles crime and the types of criminals he encounters. That said, before one reads a particular standalone story of Batman fighting the Penguin, one does not have to read any other particular Batman-Penguin story to understand what’s going on. However, not every medium handles the short story identically. It’s rare, though not impossible, that anyone ever issues a prose short story in installments, but the practice is fairly common in the comic book medium. A relevant example appears in the two-part QUESTION story “Saving Face.” As much as any prose short story, “Face” has a definite beginning, middle and end, though it’s extended over the course of two serial issues. I would say, however, that there’s a limit on how much an author can extend a short-story continuity within a comic book format before said continuity morphs into something else. I would tend to say that in comic books three issues would probably be the upper limit.


Now, a short arc has similar length-restrictions, but it parts company with the short story in being more intimately tied in to a greater continuity. A relevant example is the three-part TOMB OF DRACULA narrative I’ve entitled “Where Lurks the Chimera.” The plot also has a beginning, middle, and end, but the events of “Chimera” are not independent from other ongoing TOMB stories as the events of “Saving Face” are independent from other stories in the QUESTION series. The main plot of “Chimera” revolves around the vampire-lord’s search for a mystical relic, and it concludes with Dracula failing to obtain his goal. Yet the narrative also intertwines with other events from previous narratives, such as the Count’s ongoing conflict with another villain, Doctor Sun, and his ongoing romance with a young woman, Sheila Whittier, and the reader who has not read previous or subsequent Dracula-tales dealing with these characters has missed a lot of content.


Going by my original list, the “long arc” would be the next category, but I’ve come to think that a new category is necessary, to signify an arc that’s a little more involved in terms of both length and story-content. This I’ll term the “medial arc,” and as far as installment-fiction is concerned, I would say that it usually lasts from six to eight installments, while its narrative is much more strongly imbricated with the ongoing continuity. One example of the medial arc is the five-part arc “Motherland” from the series Y THE LAST MAN. Now, “Motherland” was published late in the history of the ongoing feature, and it happened to solve a lot of the mysteries the author propounded about why almost all the males on Earth perished. But it’s just as possible to see the same level of continuity-involvement in a medial arc published at the beginning of a series. “The Black Pearl” occurs near the outset of the INU-YASHA series and serves to establish one of the dominant plotlines of the narrative: the relationship between the heroic Inu-Yasha and his more ruthless brother Sesshomaru.

At present I would not seek to fix a length of chapters for a long arc. I mentioned in LENGTH PART 1 that long arcs were best known to audiences through the form of the television soap opera. Since the only soap opera I’ve seen in its entirety is the 1966 DARK SHADOWS, I would tend to regard each season of this program as comprising a long arc—which, in the case of Season One, came to 135 30-minute episodes. With such a quantity of episodes, there’s certainly no sense of a unifying beginning, middle, and end. Every time a given story-conflict is resolved, some other conflict emerges from the metaphorical wings to take its place, and the final episode of the season is usually just a stopping-point rather than an organic conclusion.


Long arcs in comic books are rarely that long. In practice, I would say that they rarely exceed twenty installments, allowing for variations in story-length, before the author shifts to another arc or short-story. The events of the plot are not as strongly focused as those of the shorter arcs, though there may be an overreaching purpose unifying all the events. In the NISEKOI long arc I’ve entitled “Limit,” all sixteen installments are principally concerned with the teenagers rescuing their classmate Marika from an arranged marriage. Given this expansive narrative, each of the principal characters is given some feat to perform that serves the aim of rescue, and, given that NISEKOI is a comedy, many of these feats draw upon running jokes in the overall series. For instance, one such joke involves the erratic cooking skills of Kosaki, whose meals are almost always vomitous in nature. During the rescue operation, the operation’s planner assigns Kosaki to cook for the guards attending the wedding, with the humorous result that any guard who ate the girl’s meal become sidelined by virtue of stomach pains.


I mentioned in the cited essay that some comic-book serials are unified enough that they could function as “episodic novels” in the vein of Melville’s MOBY DICK. I noted that some long serials, like Akamatsu’s LOVE HINA lacked a “structuring principle,” be it related to plot or to theme, and thus I did not regard these as episodic novels, only as assemblages of arcs and short stories. NISEKOI, however, qualifies as such an episodic novel, in that it combines several of these structural forms into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

THE CAVE OF FREEDOM AND RESTRAINT

 

In my essay AND THE HALF-TRUTH SHALLSET YOU FREE, I noted one of the vital distinctions between philosophy and literature: that philosophy attempts to suss out truth from falsehood, while literature’s primary function is to promote fictions that have an ambiguous relationship to “truth,” whatever a given artist’s personal convictions may be. For instance, Dave Sim may believe explicitly in the revelations of the “Peoples of the Book,” but he’s still encoding those beliefs within the context of the fiction called CEREBUS.


Numerous philosophers have come up with metaphors for the search for truth, but in my personal opinion no one has ever topped Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave," summarized thusly:


Plato tells of men who have remained closed since they were children in a subterranean cave, chained so that they can only see the bottom of the cave.

Behind them stands a high and remote light, and between the light and the prisoners there is a wall that runs alongside a path. On the path walk some people carrying different objects, some argue, others do not.

Whoever is in the caves, having never observed the true object, thinks that the shadow cast at the bottom of the cave must be the real object, and that the echoes are the true voices of those people.

A prisoner frees himself and goes up the cave.

For him it is long and painful, because his eyes, which are not accustomed to light, hurt so much more that he approaches the opening of the cave.

Once accustomed, however, the prisoner can see that the shadows were only the projection of the objects brought by the servants behind the wall and now he thinks these are the real objects.

It tells of men who have remained closed since they were children in a subterranean cave, chained so that they can only see the bottom of the cave.

Behind them stands a high and remote light, and between the light and the prisoners there is a wall that runs alongside a path. On the path walk some people carrying different objects, some argue, others do not.

Whoever is in the caves, having never observed the true object, thinks that the shadow cast at the bottom of the cave must be the real object, and that the echoes are the true voices of those people.

A prisoner frees himself and goes up the cave.

For him it is long and painful, because his eyes, which are not accustomed to light, hurt so much more that he approaches the opening of the cave.

Once accustomed, however, the prisoner can see that the shadows were only the projection of the objects brought by the servants behind the wall and now he thinks these are the real objects.


The dominant interpretation of the allegory is that the chained people in the cave, able to perceive only shadows of the reality beyond the cave, symbolize human confinement to the input of their physical senses. According to the idealism of Plato (sometimes given the chimerical name of “Realism”), the World of Forms is the actual Truth Beyond the Cave, and presumably the individual who escapes the cave, and tries to convey that insight to his chained fellows, symbolizes the dilemma of the Platonic philosopher.


In addition of my deeming this the best of the “truth-seeking” metaphors, I would hazard that this may be the best known metaphor in philosophy as a whole, given that it furnishes the reader with all the basic challenges of epistemology. Further, the Cave-Allegory may be seen as consequential for the two major branches of metaphenomenal fiction: what we call “fantasy” and “science fiction.”

There have been dozens of involved histories of both “super-genres,” but I’m most concerned with the ways in which both categories developed in the late 1800s. Despite many significant precursors, the two super-genres receive their greatest codification in this period, when Jules Verne and H.G. Wells defined science fiction and William Morris defined the alternate-world fantasy. (To be sure, horror fiction undergoes a similar codification in this period, but many works in this genre make so much use of either “fantasy motifs” or “science fiction motifs” that I can’t think of horror as being entirely separable from the other two.)


Plato’s allegory in itself evokes both images of freedom and restraint; of human beings bound by their physical circumstances but nonetheless capable of obtaining some degree of freedom. Readers of this blog will be familiar with my assertion that human existence is characterized by both “affective freedom” and “cognitive restraint.” We can imagine nearly anything, despite being restrained by all the demands of physicality, winsomely styled as the “Four F’s:” food (edible matter), flax (clothing), flags (shelter) and frig (continuance of the species). As I wrote previously, the imagination may or may not lead to useful inventions that enhance the physical quality of life, but it should always be seen as instrumental to all mental formulations.


Now, fantasy and science fiction pursue distinct epistemological patterns, each in tune with the dominant matrix in which they exist. In science fictional worlds, all wonders are predicated on extensions of scientific principles, while in fantasy, they arise from the concept of magic, which may range from traditional “faerie” spellcraft to organized notions of thaumaturgy. Within all of these worlds, the main characters are generally in the position of the man freed from the chains of his fellows and propelled into a greater cosmos.


In fantasy, a common trope is to show a youth who lives in a bucolic existence, and who finds himself drawn into events of cosmic importance, often involving the combat of good and bad wizards and/or deities. Morris uses a rough variation of this trope in his four fantasy-novels, particularly in THE SUNDERINGFLOOD, though he isn’t as successful in giving his protagonist a grounding in the magical principles governing the world. Morris’s spiritual disciple Tolkien is of course famous for having hurled protagonists Bilbo and Frodo into the greater world of sorcery, walking trees and enchanted rings. The bucolic world of the Shire, from which both hobbits hail, does not as a whole wish to be tainted with all of these momentous and enigmatic presences, but its inhabitants are not really able to reject the magical cosmos in a manner comparable to the chained people in the Cave. The very idea of magic, as a force that transcends the limits of time and space, stands aligned with the concept of affective freedom.


In contrast, the epistemology of the Cave has a more ambivalent function in science fiction. For all the differences between Verne and Wells, they have in common the fact that many of their scientific seekers—the ones who part company with the world of ordinary reality—meet catastrophic fates, explicit with respect to Captain Nemo, implicit with respect to the Time Traveler. Thus, science fiction can be somewhat aligned with the concept of cognitive restraint, and not only because the forces of science—even those of made-up, “impossible” science—are supposed to cohere with the limits of time and space.


At the same time, science fiction shows a greater emphasis upon following the destiny of the society than that of the individual. Wells’ Eloi and Morlocks are bound by the chains of a chimerical evolution much as are Plato’s cavepeople, and they are doomed never to escape, existing to illustrate to the protagonist the futility of life. Yet many of Wells’ disciples altered the Platonic paradigm in order to promote a triumphalism of science. It would probably be difficult to find a science fiction author who advocated “truth” in a Platonic World of Forms, but there are hundreds who see capital-S “Science” as such a truth. Science fiction is riddled with protagonists who live in some constricted society, whose people know nothing of scientific principles, but who break free and bring the Good News of Science to convert disbelievers. Such cosmic conversions underlie the enduring appeal of a series like Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION trilogy, where the advocates of a logical means of “reading history” are proven to have superior insight over all competitors.


Not a few advocates of science fiction have shown themselves to be hostile to the representations of fantasy, confounding the fictional premises of fantasy-stories with resentment of real-world religion and/or superstition. In so doing, they validate only those products of the imagination which seem to champion real-world science—even though, in point of fact, constructs like Niven’s “Ringworld” and Blish’s “Cities in Space” are not likelier to come into being than elves and orcs. It’s a shame that science fiction enthusiasts have made this conflation, for the activity of trying to fit the human imagination into a box is not only fatuous, but futile beyond anyone’s attempt to—imagine.

MYTH AND SEXPLOITATION

 In the response-thread for EYES OF THESERPENT, reader AT-AT Pilot brought up the topic of mythic content with respect to comics using cheesecake art. After making my response there, I decided to build on it with respect to the overall topic of art with a “sexploitation” angle and its possible relation to myth-content.

To define the second term first, “myth-content” arises in fiction when its authors produce what I term “epistemological patterns” in their work. These patterns are drawn from real-world observations about the way things work in different aspects of reality: patterns of the physical and metaphysical properties of the cosmos, or patterns of human beings in both their individual and social matrices. These patterns, when transmuted into literature, should not be valued in the same fashion that scientific data is valued: as reproductions of how those factors function in reality. Rather, the patterns serve to deepen the symbolic universe of each myth-narrative, thus allowing readers to reflect upon all the different factors that make up experience, when seen through the free play of imaginative fantasy.


The first term, “sexploitation,” also requires some analysis. The term seems to have sprung into being as a tag for works that sold themselves to the public by focusing upon spectacular versions of sexual depiction and/or activity. This view assumes a sort of baseline for normative sexual depiction, which might extend even to those works that seek to avoid sex as much as possible, like Stevenson’s TREASURE ISLAND. Starting from this supposition, one must assume ever-increasing levels of sexual depiction, and for convenience I tallied three such levels in this essay. More on the levels of spectacular depiction later.


While a number of critics have sneered at sexual depiction as taking audiences’ minds away from “better things,” sex and myth are certainly not in conflict in my system—not least because sex is an important aspect of archaic religious mythologies. Since I’ve continually favored the analysis of literary works through the heuristic tool of Joseph Campbell’s four functions, I thought it would prove stimulating to look at four sexploitation works I’ve already reviewed, each from the viewpoint of a particular function.



THE PSYCHOLOGICAL FUNCTION arises most often in literary myths involving sexuality, probably because each individual’s sexual nature is as a bedrock of that individual’s personality. In my review of Wally Wood’s PIPSQUEAK PAPERS, I noted that he encoded his fairly misogynistic feelings about women into a short series of riffs taking place in a burlesque (in more than one sense) fantasy-verse. Perhaps the most revealing projection in PIPSQUEAK is the way he undermines the sex-fantasies of main character Pip toward his perpetually nude mate, the nymph Nudina. Pip starts the story as an undersized sprite whose dinky wang can’t possibly satisfy Nudina. He acquires a “second body” that allows him to enjoy the naughty nymph, but soon finds that it’s a drag to always be defending her from rapacious villains. At the end his reward for remaining true to Nudina is that he loses his alternate body and falls into slavery alongside her, in a situation where he can no longer satisfy her and must also put up with the child he sired by her. Whatever psycho-demons Wood sought to lay to rest via this satire, he nevertheless gave them much more complexity than he did in a romp like SALLY FORTH.



THE SOCIOLOGICAL FUNCTION looms forth wherever a given work seeks to show how human society is affected by the disparate natures of men and women. Thus, Russ Meyer’s FASTERPUSSYCAT KILL KILL, which starts out by welcoming the audience to “violence,” shows male and female social roles breaking down by the new breed of the Sixties Women. Three go-go dancers, less criminals than lovers of life in the fast lane, become involved in murder, mostly because of their bad-tempered, karate-chopping leader Varla. Instead of butting heads with the patriarchal order in the form of lawmen, the trio of hot babes—who have abducted a young, na├»ve woman who witnessed the murder-- comes into conflict with a trio of men living in a remote desert-cabin. Both the three men and the three women have various dark secrets, but none of the characters have “psychologies” as such. The Old Man, father to a normal young man and to a mentally impaired hulk, represents not so much abstract patriarchy as a male sexual desire to prey on women. Varla, hoping to rob the old hermit, pits both her feminine wiles and her penchant for violence against this male prerogative, but her victory proves pyrrhic. She sacrifices both of her female followers to her greed and almost destroys all three men, only to be ignominiously defeated by the girl hostage.




THE COSMOLOGICAL FUNCTION perks up with some loony effects in the 1961 film INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES. Though the viewpoint characters are Penn and Philbrick, a pair of goofy army privates, the real stars are the titular stellar villains, the risibly named “Doctor Puna” and “Professor Tanga.” CREATURES was almost certainly conceived by writer Bruno VeSota as a baggy-pants reaction to a spate of “space Amazon” films seen during American cinema’s sci-fi boom of the 1950s. As one sees in most space-babe films, Puna and Tanga are designed to provide cheesecake-fantasies for the two homely schmucks. Both alien babes are tall and stacked, and though they’ve supposedly been hidden on Earth for ten years, both have coiffed hairdos and walk around in high heels while wearing outfits that look like swimsuits with flared collars attached. They came to Earth to scout the planet for possible conquest by their people, and they’ve just managed to get their damaged ship ready to return to “the black voids of space” when the army-ants come knocking. Yet the big girls are not only spies, but also scientists, and they maintain a small standing army of “vegetable men” as guards (a conceit probably swiped from 1951’s THE THING). Unlike most space Amazons, the two women are both physically and mentally superior to the male leads, and they display impressive mastery of sciences far beyond the Earthmen. Still, the alien ladies are defeated by their biology. Tanga tells Puna that the sympathy she feels toward the puny Earthlings is the stimulation of her “maternal nature.” Nevertheless, after ten years of raising little vege-men in incubators, Puna is hard up enough that even Philbrick’s dubious charms can persuade her to “sleep with the enemy.” Tanga also falls for Penn without putting up that much resistance. Science gives you weapons and technology, but sex, even with shrimpy guys, keeps you warm at night.




THE METAPHYSICAL FUNCTION culminates with in Frank Thorne’s first graphic novel featuring GHITA OFALIZARR. Ghita, a cheerful prostitute who seems willing to have sex with nearly anyone, has her receptive feminine nature (as a metaphysician might see it) invaded by a violent masculine propensity for violence. Necromantic transference is at the root of it, when Ghita gets raped by an undead king, one significantly named for a Philistine fertility-god. From then on, Ghita is a reluctant badass, able to slaughter opponents with a sword rather than inviting them to her bed. Late in the story it’s revealed that her transformation was somehow stage-managed by one of her world’s gods: Tammuz, a female deity using the name of a male Sumerian myth-figure. In this raucous ode to conjoined sex and violence, Thorne suggests that both male and female natures proceed from mirroring forces in heaven, which means that Ghita is pretty much stuck between the rock of masculinity and the soft place of femininity for the remainder of her career.


Returning quickly to the topic of the levels, I would judge that the first three of these sexploitation examples fall into the category I term “titillation.” Only GHITA falls into the most overtly spectacular category, “pornification,” insofar as Thorne is evoking the fantasy of endless, cost-free sex and violence, paralleling, though not indebted to, the dominant associations of sexual pornography.


I chose works that fit these more extreme categories since they’re the sort of thing most readers envision when they think “sexploitation.” But to be sure, sexploitation also appears in what I termed the least spectacular category, “glamor.” Examples of glamor-sexploitation might have included such works as the 1966 BATMAN—which repeatedly appealed to older male viewers with sumptuous female eye-candy—and also Akamatsu’s LOVE HINA, which I also attribute to the glamor category despite the series’ frequent use of female nudity. I may devote a future essay to discussing the aesthetic that separates the three levels, but for now, that’s all folks.

THE READING RHEUM: THE LADY OF THE SHROUD (1909)

 




SPOIILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


I don’t know what was going on in the mind of Bram Stoker in 1909 when he wrote his second-to-last novel THE LADY OF THE SHROUD (succeeded by THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM). I don’t even know how he felt about his 1897 masterpiece DRACULA, given that one account claimed the book didn’t sell all that well. But the first time I read SHROUD over thirty years ago, my impression was that Stoker was re-purposing old story-tropes and turning them on their heads, while unfortunately showing little awareness of what the tropes appealing in the first place.


SHROUD, like DRACULA, is a novel told via the letters exchanged by various characters. The action of the novel is the geographical reverse of DRACULA, since (aside from a short prelude) the story starts in England and then shifts for the remainder of the narrative to Eastern Europe. Instead of setting the novel in a real country e.g. Transylvania, Stoker takes a page from Anthony Hope and invents a small Balkan nation and gifts this fictional locale with the wordy cognomen “The Land of the Blue Mountains.” (In my review I will just call it “that Balkan place.”) Whereas DRACULA only devoted fleeting attention to the culture of Transylvania, SHROUD reads like a Balkan chamber of commerce report, with the author constantly extolling the steadfast charms of the locals.


SHROUD also includes vampirism, but (remember my spoilers) it’s of the fake variety. Stoker doesn’t even concoct a decent Gothic hoax, for his main interest is in providing a wish-fulfillment fantasy for his main character, an impoverished young adventurer who ends up becoming the ruler of this untamed Balkan land. Rupert Saint Leger, a poor relation to a rich family (whose history is given in exhausting detail in the novel’s first fifty pages), lives the life of a footloose adventurer, which includes investigating a lot of cultures and their claims to making magic. Then he’s summoned to England to receive a rich relative’s bequest. I’m not sure who was the first author to have a legatee forced to stay in an old mansion to gain his inheritance, but Rupert may be among the first. Rupert inherits his uncle’s castle in the Balkan place, but only if he stays there a year, overseeing all of the uncle’s business affairs with the Balkanians. Rupert happily accepts, for he has almost no real family ties. His father perished as a soldier in India at some unspecified time, and Rupert was twelve when he lost his (never named) mother. He does have strong ties, though, with his maternal aunt and surrogate mother Janet, who eventually joins Rupert in his new castle.


Rupert, who immediately appreciates the Balkanians for being as flawlessly noble and generous as he is, only encounters one impediment to success. One night a beautiful woman clad in grave-clothes wanders into his castle. She doesn’t give him her name or her history, and then wanders away again. On her second visit Rupert trails her and finds that she’s sleeping in a mausoleum, which is enough proof for Rupert that she must be a vampire (though she never claims to be such). Considering that the young man dismisses most occult beliefs as superstition, his credulity might raise a few eyebrows. Naturally love takes Rupert by storm, and he even marries the unnamed shroud-lady believing she’s undead, before eventually learning that she’s participating in an involved (but non-malicious) hoax.


The charade is so transparent, and Rupert is so dumb, that I’m tempted to banish LADY OF THE SHROUD from the annals of metaphenomenal literature. However, dull though all the pseudo-vampirism stuff is, I suppose the book still qualifies as an uncanny Gothic. But Stoker’s passion is clearly not for the phantasmal but for the political, for he devotes many sections to the role of the Balkan state in the European political scene of the time. Over time noble-souled Rupert becomes a noble in truth, for his phony vampire-lady is actually a real Balkan princess, and Rupert’s courageous defense of the Balkan people against invading Turks propels him to the position of the Balkan place’s king. But even as a political thriller, LADY OF THE SHROUD feels like a poor man’s PRISONER OF ZENDA—at least in part because Rupert is so fearsomely dull.


Given that DRACULA has been subjected to a thousand and one psychological readings, one would hope that SHROUD would at least hold some interest in that department. But Big Sigmund would have found little of interest here. Rupert’s father is barely mentioned, nor does any character serve as a credible paternal surrogate. Rupert’s mother is equally under-characterized, with Aunt Janet serving as the maternal substitute. The fact that Rupert brings Janet to the castle to live with him could be interpreted as “desire for the mother,” but there are only two suggestive moments. In one scene, Rupert observes that his very aged aunt has nevertheless kept her “girlish figure.” In another scene, he imagines his aunt (who is irritated with him for some reason) trying to spank him, a grown man, the way she did when he was a child. But this reflection is played for comedy, as are Aunt Janet’s unsubstantiated claims to “the second sight.” Since Rupert’s mother died when he was twelve, he ought to remember her, and Stoker could have drawn some parallels between the lost mother and the recrudescent Lady of the Shroud. Such parallels could have been maintained even once the revenant-fantasy was dispelled. But Stoker’s characters are such stock types that even this line of thought leads nowhere, and the novel is at best a curiosity, being an attempt to crossbreed tropes from both political thrillers and “fake supernatural” Gothics.

Friday, January 8, 2021

MYTHCOMICS: “EYES OF THE SERPENT” (SUPERMAN FAMILY #174, 1975-76)

 



In one reminiscence Roy Thomas recalled that his one-time DC editor Mort Weisinger was the first person he Thomas heard use the term “mythology” for a corpus of comic-book stories, in particular the “Superman Family” titles over which Weisinger held sway for the entirety of the Silver Age. I would guess that this was just a convenient tag for the editor, that he probably cared little or not at all about what comprised a genuine archaic mythology, or what status if any modern-day stories might have as “myths.” Still, in the late 1950s Weisinger made some concerted effort to have his writers utilize far more fantasy/SF tropes in the Super-books than had previously been the norm. Not all such metaphenomenal tropes are automatically mythic in nature. Yet as it happened, many writers in Weisinger’s stable—Otto Binder, Leo Dorfman and of course Jerry Siegel—did manage to use these tropes to tell a handful of stories with a high level of mythic concrescence.


However, Weisinger was edged out of DC just in time for the debut of the Bronze Age in 1970, and the Super-books were parceled out to assorted editors. Julie Schwartz took custody of the two titles starring the Big Blue Cheese, SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS. But though Schwartz’s Silver Age writers had also produced a respectable number of myth-stories, in the Bronze Age the editor favored in large part two writers given to penning very gimmicky, superficial tales: Cary Bates and Elliot Maggin. When three of the ancillary Super-features—SUPERGIRL, JIMMY OLSEN and LOIS LANE—failed to sell well, DC cancelled the individual titles and transferred their features to a portmanteau book, THE SUPERMAN FAMILY. As it happens, it was in this title that editor Schwartz and writer Maggin produced one of the few stories that can stand alongside the best myth-outings of Siegel, Binder and Dorfman.



The first page of Kurt Schaffenberger’s art for “Eyes of the Serpent” is a splash-page portraying a scene that does not literally occur in the story: Supergirl flying into combat against a giant winged dragon, while on the dragon’s back rides a green-scaled humanoid. The humanoid looks a bit like a frog-man, but Maggin’s caption makes clear that this fellow so viridian is also ophidian: “At the dawn of time, it was the acid tongue of a serpent that brought evil into the world—a serpent much like the one that now challenges Supergirl!” In this introductory sentence, Maggin establishes that in this world, he validates as real the story of the Garden of Eden, including Eve’s temptation by a serpent later identified with Satan. However, the story Maggin tells is about a serpent who is only “much like” the Biblical tempter, the better to avoid any accusations of mixing serious religious figures with the “let’s pretend” of a comic book.

As the story proper begins, the same serpent-man from the splash, Lord Beriak, stands in an indeterminate location (full of rocks and smoky vapors) along with other serpent-men, who give Beriak his assignment. He must journey from wherever the serpent-people make their home to a college in Florida, where the Kryptonian heroine works as a guidance counselor in her Linda Danvers identity. Beriak's purpose is that of “reasserting our dominance over the human race.” (Some influence from Robert E. Howard’s “serpent-men” stories seems likely, given that the snake-people are never identified as either aliens or supernatural demons.)



Once Beriak arrives in the fictitious Florida town of New Athens—where, for once, the locale plays a role in a Super-story—he takes on the appearance of a good-looking human male and contrives to meet Linda Danvers. Linda/Supergirl is somewhat attracted to the false flesh of Beriak, but she doesn’t immediately agree to date him. Since Beriak’s as-yet-unrevealed master plan requires him to gain mental dominance over Supergirl, he decides that she may become more pliable if he wears her down a little. To that end he summons a dragon from the vasty deep of the neighboring ocean and makes it run amuck in New Athens, so that the heroine will appear and bring the beast to heel. (Though dragons have some status in Bible lore, this critter is just another of DC’s countless convenient prehistoric survivals.)




While all this is going on, a mysterious young fellow named “Davy” appears at the college, and he like the serpent-man shows some ability with exerting persuasive mojo. The Davy character, created by Maggin for a three-part Green Arrow story in ACTION COMICS, is given no precise origin, but he’s clearly meant to be identified with the youthful David of the Bible, since Davy carries a lyre on which he can play enchanting music, and a sling with which he can cast stones, like the one David used to defeat Goliath. Maggin does not ever say that Davy is identical with Bible-David, who after all aged, sinned and died in the course of his narrative. But since the House of David was associated (in a roundabout way) with the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth, Davy is as associated with the powers of Heaven as the serpent-men are with the Devil.


In addition, in what may be the shortest foreshadowing in a comic book, an orange-picker falls unconscious after eating an orange in a local grove. The man is never seen again, though by customary expectations the reader would assume he’s okay once the threat of the serpent-men has been vanquished.


The disguised Beriak once more encounters Linda Danvers after her heroic other-self has driven off the winged dragon. This time, he places her under his mental thrall, at least enough that she accepts a date with him. As Beriak leads his victim to the slaughter, Davy follows along, sometimes playing the music on his lyre, though for reasons undisclosed the serpent-man can’t hear it. (Perhaps Maggin believed the legend that snakes can’t hear or thought that his audience would believe as much.)




Beriak takes his date to an orange orchard—possibly the same one where the unnamed man collapsed—and ramps up the Eden-references by getting Linda to eat one of the tree’s “forbidden fruits.” Whjen Linda eats the orange, it apparently puts her under Beriak’s total control. Beriak then reveals his scaly other self and makes the Girl of Steel perform a few super-feats for his amusement. Then he finally reveals his master plan. Beneath one of the orange-trees in the orchard—presumably the one from which Linda ate, just to keep up the parallel with the Biblical Tree of Knowledge—lies a “golden stone” called the Eden Rock. Once Beriak compels Supergirl to surrender her life-energy to the stone, this maneuver will give the serpent-race total dominion over humanity and all of its superheroic defenders.




However, Supergirl has been shamming: she caught on to his imposture early on. The two super-beings fight, and though Beriak gets the upper hand once, Davy is on hand to distract him with a handily-hurled sling-stone. Beriak finally recognizes Davy as an old foe of his Satanic species, and Davy uses his magic to keep Beriak restrained while Supergirl tunnels beneath the earth and destroys the Eden Rock, so that no one can use it again. Then, as the enemies square off again, Beriak’s fellow serpents, who are watching from afar, decide to call back their agent, commenting that he was stymied by “our old nemesis, the immortal singer David.” Supergirl and Davy converse briefly and the story ends with a minor coda at Linda’s workplace.



It would appear that the serial’s Florida setting was the only reason for Maggin to substitute an orange for the forbidden food, though to be sure some scholars don’t believe the Biblical fruit was an apple, either. Maggin doesn’t say why this particular delicacy is forbidden, or who forbade it, or why eating it doesn’t really affect Supergirl at all. Presumably the only parallel is an inverted one: unlike Eve, Supergirl resists the blandishments of the serpent, and so preserves her world in contrast to Eve losing Eden for herself and Adam.


As noted, since the Biblical David was not “immortal” like Davy, there can only be a symbolic connection between the two. Davy is what Carl Jung might have called a “puer eternus,” an eternal child—which is, to an extent, an archetype to which Youthful David subscribes as well. Bible-David has no connection with the mythology of Eden except in the sense that David provides a link between Adam and Jesus of Nazareth. In a larger sense, of course, the expulsion of the first Man and Woman from Eden leads to Christ’s sacrifice to redeem humanity, so the Fall foreshadows the Redemption, and the general defeat of Satanic evil. In addition, in Maggin’s scenario Davy is meant to be something of a destined warrior like David: able to overcome evildoers who seem far more powerful than he.


There is nothing paralleling the Eden Rock in Genesis. However, there are a few foundation-stones in the Bible and in later Judeo-Christian commentary. In the Zohar, God is said to have unleashed the flood—the instrument by which the Divinity eradicates almost all the sinning spawn of Adam and Eve—by moving a foundation-stone called the Eben Shetiyah. There is no firm evidence in the story that Maggin knew of this trope. But given that he was already juggling the myths of Eden, it’s not improbable to think he might work in one from the Flood-Myth, even if he does turn it into a standard comic-book gimmick, “the thing that makes all humanity bow down.”


Lastly and leastly, Beriak’s name doesn’t seem to have any strong forbears, Biblical or otherwise. There is a Canaanite deity named Berith or Baal-Berith, who later becomes a Christian demon, but in this case it’s just as possible that “Beriak” took no influence from this figure, that the serpent-man just has a nonsense-name. It’s of passing interest that “Berith” means “covenant,” which reference could take us back to Flood-mythology—but that’s not a holy hill on which I’d choose to make my stand.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

TAKING STOCK OF 2020

 I haven't done a lot of "year-end reviews" for my blog or for culture generally, but 2020 was obviously a year of big changes. Thus, some ruminations seem in order.

The Year of Covid did restrict some of my activities, and this did result in three of my most extensive re-reviewings. Two were on the NUM blog, where I finished reviewing all the episodes of the third season of KUNG FU, a project I believe I'd let lie fallow for two-three years. More exclusive to year 2020 was my analysis of all of the BATMAN '66 episodes (though I've yet to find time for the '66 theatrical movie). I had started a retrospective of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books in late 2019, but the majority of the posts appeared in 2020, so I feel like this extensive look at Rohmer's great villain is largely a 2020 project. Nor was my reading completely confined to moldy oldies, since the manga NISEKOI is now one of my new favorites, though it finished up in 2016.

As far as significant critical additions to my always-expanding "theory of everything." notable entries would include all of the following.

I further evolved some of my concepts on "structural length" and the potential, if any, for finding thematic unity in the more episodic categories. This led to meditations like THE MANY MYTHOI OF BATMAN, which in turn generated offshoots like DEGREES OF MASTERY AND BACHELORDOM and DARK GROTESQUES AND COLORFUL ARABESQUES. Both of these were instrumental in answering the question as to whether or not the irony-laden adventures of BATMAN '66 sustained a core of thematic meaning, and if so, what forms that theme took.

The three-part SELF-MASTERY MEDITATIONS, beginning here, should prove fruitful in showing how the two major story-tropes of the combative mode reflect the notion of self-mastery.

I investigated the process theory of Whitehead and the phenomenology of Husserl, finding that some of their formulations might turn out to gloss "myth criticism" literary theory in ways the respective philosophers might not have sanctioned.

I picked up Whitehead's use of the term "vector" and began seeing how it might apply as a master metaphor across many of my conceptual categories.

Finally, I analyzed, in this post, the way in which fears of the Covid pandemic led American society (and possibly others as well) to seek for a sacrificial pharmakon by stigmatizing the entire past history of the United States as racist. And while I abominate the utter corruption of the Left in this respect, I should note that the Right nurtured some similar atavisms with the onset of "mask-hatred," in which the proponents sought to stigmatize health measures as a way of refusing to acknowledge the virulence of Covid.

As to the future, my best hope for 2021 is that possibly the country can muddle through the aftermath of Covid with the help of the Trump Vaccines. I don't think that Biden at his best is anything but a thoroughly average politician, and thus whatever blunders he makes with respect to China and the Middle East will not have any immediate consequences. I believe a lot of people voted for Biden with the idea that he would bring them a measure of normalcy, but his effect will be that of a lid placed atop of a boiling pot: he can contain things for a while, but sooner or later the water will boil over. If it does so during his tenure, I guess we'll see if he's really the organizational "tough guy" he likes to claim that he is.