Friday, July 4, 2014

Horror as tragedy? Pt. 2

In my last post, I looked at how traditional understandings of tragic plot structure might be said to compare to Noel Carroll's Overreacher Horror plot. But, what about the actual aesthetics of tragedy? How might they relate to horror? The purpose of this post is to give an example that might point to the answer.

An Example of The Dionysian/Apollonian Duality in The Shining.

Nietzsche’s philosophical conception of The Dionysian and Apollonian dealt with the genre of Tragedy specifically. And – as stated above - the critique of Tragedy would seem to be the model of philosophical literary criticism. How, then, can we start applying this to horror?

One answer might come from American horror literature giant Stephen King. When speaking of the Apollonian/Dionysian duality in the Horror genre, King says of his own works that, “I use the terms Apollonian (to suggest reason, creativity and rationality) and Dionysian (to suggest passion, destructive action and sensuality).”  

Nietzsche’s most obvious influence on King might be demonstrated in a work like The Shining.
First of all, and perhaps most obviously, “to shine” means, for the young, Schopenhaurian Nietzsche, at least in some capacities, synonymous with “to oraculate”; this, it seems obvious, is an Apollonian structure referencing the fact that Apollo, “The Shining One”, was also the God of prophecy.  

 The meaning of all this becomes clear when one looks at someone like the analytic feminist aesthetician Cynthia Freeland. Freeland - herself heavily influenced by Carroll   - would seem to agree with King about Nietzschian tragedy’s connection to horror, asserting in her excellent 1999 book The Naked and The Undead,  that, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film of King’s novel uses, “…complex…visions of [a type of] uncanny evil…[which can] be traced as an aesthetic category of the sublime.”

Now, taken together with the fact that, as Robert Kolker puts it, “Kubrick create[d] obsessively symmetrical [photographic] compositions…entrapping characters in an uncanny balance of redoubled elements.”  of being highly unsettling in a way that is at first difficult to be to put one’s finger on  is certainly important. At the same time, though, it is quite easy to see the connection between “Radical Symmetry” and “Apollonian Order.” In totality, then, we can note the Apollonian principal – at work both diegetically and non-diegetically – being used to create what Carroll calls a sense of art-horror in the viewer. But what of the Dionysian?

Freeland has insightful comments there, too. She proceeds to note that the aforementioned sense of the uncanny is largely achieved by, “Music and sound (or noise) combin[ing] with…dialogue…to conjure up a pervasive aura of evil and dread. Ominous sounds accumulate: strange music, heartbeats, and the noise of the little boys tricycle [for example]…”  So the sonic elements of the film – which Nietzsche would have equated with the Dionysian – do their part in creating art-horror in the viewer as well. But this goes deeper that it would initially appear, too.

Philip Brophy, in considering the use of atonal music the film , comments on the fact, for example, that none of the ghosts in the movie have any of the ‘ethereal’ qualities one typically sees in cinematic ghost. This gets even weirder when one realizes that that ghost can apparently do things that only corporal beings should be able to do: they get drunk, they bleed, they apparently have the capability for sexual desire, they open heavy steel doors, their flesh rots away – and, most telling – they appear indistinguishable from actual dead bodies in the hotel.  Remember the scene toward the end of the film when Wendy Torrance is running through the halls, attempting to flee the hotel as an example.

o The first ghosts she sees are effectively desiccated corpses that look like they have been sitting there so long, they are mummified and covered in cobwebs. This goes to a basic contradiction in the film used by King and Kubrick as a way of creating horror in a manner of creating terror similar to the kind H.P. Lovecraft suggested when he said that, “…fear-literature must not be confounded with…literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome….A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of…unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint…of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

o Next, she sees the former caretaker, who greets her with  the smug comment, “Great party, isn’t it?” as he sips a martini and blood gushes out of the (rather eerily conspicuous) gunshot wound in the back of his head.

o In the next room, one of the most genuinely unsettling images in the whole film – that of a couple of  ghosts apparently about to engage in some kind of homoerotic sex act involving a paraphilia for incredibly creepy bear costumes – greets her enigmatically. This  - combined with the trippy, soundless, slow motion image of the elevator doors gushing blood - would seem indicate the kind sexual hermaphrodite ism generally attributed to Dionysus. After all, not only is one of the ghost in the image effectively about to submit sexually to one of the principal symbol of the Dionysian – the man-animal in the bear-suit – but in doing so, he will implicitly bow before another in the form of his lover’s erect phallus. On the other hand, though, the Freudian subtext implied by the bleeding elevator doors is hard to miss: somehow, apparently, it would seem the whole building is also capable of menstruating.
o Next, Wendy comes across the (real) body of Scatman Crothers, who was literally just killed by Jack Torrance. Here again we see the contradiction between living and dead that represents the Dionysian’s being beyond rational thought.

Brophy notes that the atonal percussive music underlying the whole scene is more akin to an imitation of the metabolic processes internal the characters’ than anything like a traditional, Wagnerian leit-motif. This observation implies the contradistinction inherent in the idea that the ghosts are corporeal beings. Likewise, the fact that music is apparently chaotic and initially presents itself as more akin to noise than music points to the fact that, in the this film, the Dionysian element of the auditory is even more chaotic than it appears to be in the meticulously organized harmonies of someone like Wagner. Thus, in can be said that Dionysian effectively overwhelms the Apollonian in creating the affect of art horror. But here, Freeland is again on point.

In her reading of Nietzsche, “The highly regulated structures of tragedy enabled audience’s to view its horrific visions…The Apollonian elements of order and rhythm provided a way to sustain individuality in the face of…destruction...”  By comparison, in horror, “…it is always the monster…who…accepts the fact that he himself must suffer the most violence- like Dionysus.”

Moreover, in seeing all those things, Wendy Torrance is effectively encountering destruction in witnessing the death(s) and orgiastic sex of others. At the same time, though, if what Brophy asserts about the music is true, her metabolic rate shoots up as she is presented with them. That is to say: the encounter with death entices her to be more alive, as it were.

But then again, the music is purely rhythmic, rendering the excitement implied by it contained in Apollonian concept of rhythm. On the other hand, the Dionysian references in the content of the all images she sees combined with the general blurring lines already noted means that the Dionysian is not only represented in the visual as the Apollonian is the musical, but also that the Dionysian effectively wins, because ‘category jamming’, is, after all, an inherently Dionysian process.

Horror as tragedy? Pt. 1

A lot of people have asked me to further clarify what I'm trying to do with this blog. Allow me to demonstrate my greater point by way of a few clear examples:

Western narrative is at a strange impasse during the first decades of the 21st century: while, on the one hand, we have the greatest access to as many different narratives in as many different media-forms that anyone has ever had in all of human history, on the other hand, most of this ability is used, it seems, to concentrate on a fairly narrow spectrum of pop-cultural ephemera. Moreover, as the great mythologist Joseph Campbell once put it in an interview with the late Michael Toms on the New Dimensions radio program , "Anything from the past, like an idea of what man of this or that culture might or should have been, is now archaic…”

This presents an obvious problem for philosophy in particular, since it’s one of the oldest academic pursuits. How, then,  is a modern intellectual steeped in the Western philosophical tradition to deal with this problem?

The purpose of this post is to solve this apparent problem by elucidating the philosophical/aesthetic connections between Tragedy and Horror as multi-media narrative genres. These two genres are ideal for this purpose:

on the one hand, there is Tragedy, which, more than any other narrative genre, is the ‘Philosopher’s Genre’ of story; this situation is a product of historicity. Aristotle, in writing The Poetics, not only laid the groundwork for much of Western Aesthetics, Literary Theory, Musicology, etc., but also famously argued for the superiority of Tragedy as a genre of poetry/drama. Following him, a number of Western intellectuals – most notably Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Freud – took various examples of tragic stories as central to their philosophical programs.

On the other hand, there is Horror, a pop-cultural genre which maintains a perennial popularity not really afforded Tragedy anymore. One of the most groundbreaking text in modern, Analytic aesthetics – Noel Carroll’s seminal 1990 text The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart -  made waves upon its publication for tackling a subject formally alien to many serious, Western academics – one from (God forbid!) the popular culture.

In the nigh-on 25 years since its publication, the book has aged extremely well, even becoming what many would consider to be a central text in a growing field that might be called ‘horror theory’.
I intend here to draw definitive, concrete connections between the aesthetic philosophy of the horror genre put forth by Carroll and other aestheticians in the modern Analytic tradition and philosophies of tragedy – culled mostly from the ancient Greek and German Idealist/Romantic traditions – that so heavily inform the Western Aesthetic Tradition. Though vague/intuitive references to the similarities between genres have been referenced in a variety of different texts, I intended to focus on a much more strictly Analytic approach in the Modes of Aristotle and Carroll.

Goethe ‘s Faust and The Importance of Carroll’s “Overrearcher Plot”

In writing the introduction to The BFI Companion to Horror, acclaimed British genre fiction author and critic Ramsey Campbell lamented the (otherwise rather extensive) volume’s exclusion of entries on the tragedies of both Shakespeare and Goethe, because the topic would implicitly be too large for the scope of that particular book.

For an example of this problem, consider all the ways in which Faust, Part I  might be said to represent the penultimate pre-horror prototypes of what Carroll called “The Overreacher Plot.”

Carroll defines the Overreacher as “…criticizing science’s will to knowledge…the recurring theme of the ovverreacher plot is that there is some knowledge better left to the Gods (or whomever).” Further, Carroll defines the Overreacher plot as having four major plot points:

1. Preperatation for Experiment or Magic Ritual
2. Execution of Experiment or Magic Ritual
3. Results of Experment/Magic Ritual and Karmic Boomeranf
4. Conforntation.

This differs from the more common structure Carroll calls the Complex Discorvery plot in that it is the failure of the protagonist of the story – as stated, usually some kind of Mad Scientist, Black Magician, Machiavellian Tragic King or Pygmalian-type artist – that brings about the final confronatational situation at the story’s climax.

Cynthia Freeland, clearly keeping Carroll in mind, would cite Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as the root of this trope . But, as I stated, I believe the root of this idea back to further, first to Goethe’s Faust.

We know that Goethe was an influence on Shelly’s novel, since the monster, in learning to read, cites the plot of The Sorrow of Young Werther as having much in common with his own story.
But, Goethe’s connection to horror is demonstrated even more clearly in Book I of Faust. Immediately following the “Prologue in Heaven”, the reader is greeted with a scene of Faust in his antechamber, spelling out his reason for turning away from his role as a model enlightenment-era scholar  - a man of rational, logical thought and empirically-based knowledge - back  to, “…the abyss of Magick.”  Faust says,

“I’ve studied now Philosophy
And Jurisprudence, Medicine –
And even, alas! Theology, -
From end to end, with labor keen ;
And here, poor fool! with all my lore
I stand, no wiser than before…

A few lines down, Faust continues,

“…I do not pretend I could be a teacher
To help or convert a fellow creature.
Then, too, I’ve lands nor gold
Nor the world’s least pomp or honor hold –
No dog would suffer on like this!
So mine eyes, turn, now, to the abyss
Of Magick…”

If we recall Carroll’s imperative that, in the horror genre, “…monsters…[are] of supernatural origin…breach[ing] the norms of ontological propriety assumed by the positive human characters in the story”    it becomes perfectly clear how Goethe, in pitting a rationalistic man of letters like the learned scholar Faust against the ideals of what Isaiah Berlin called the “anti-enlightenment” of Romanticism  – here represented, along with Mephistopheles himself, by sundry evil spirits, witches, shape shifting animals, and various other frightening supernatural entities which bare very obvious genealogical connections to the monsters of the horror genre – writes a kind of “proto-Overreacher Plot” right from the very beginning of Faust, Book I.

This example is important here for several possible reasons. The key for us, though, is directly related to Hegel and Aristotle’s respective tragic plot structures.

Starting with an approach to Hegel which may at first seem superficial, we look generally at the logical structure inherent to his dialectal logic, noting, in comparison,  both the stages of Carroll’s Overreacher plot, and the steps in the Scientific Method.

First, we take the “the preparation of experiment” stage as simultaneously equivocal to Hegel’s notion “Thesis” and everything that anyone performing an actual “experiment” would naturally do up until they were ready to form a legitimate scientific hypothesis. That is, we assume that by “preparation for experiment”, Carroll is implying a fairly standard notion of the term, and that character is either implicitly or explicitly

I. Asking a Question,
II. Doing some sort of background research (however revolting or Macabre that might be), and/or
III. Forming an actual experimental hypothesis.

Keeping all of this in mind, we could assert that the “thesis” is “hypothesis” is literally a type of Hegelian thesis.
In our Faust example, the reader is greeted by Faust’s implicit question from the first lines of the scene in which the titular character first appears. A few lines later, he succeeds in conjuring a wayward air spirit. This could counted in the model of the scientific method demonstrated above as (II) Background Research. When he finally does succeed in conjuring Mephistopheles, he thus also finally gets to question him face to face, thus counting as (III) stating his true intention – his ‘experimental hypothesis”, as it were.

The rest of plot of this – or any of the many versions - of the Faust story fall right in place. Step two (2) of Carroll’s Overreacher plot (“Experiment”) aligns perfectly with the scenes in which Mephistopheles ‘shows Faust around the world”. That many aspects of the world which turn out to be quite literally antithetical to Faust’s expectations of them only demonstrates the ways in which Hegel’s “Antithesis” fits neatly into our model. This all having been said, though, what about Aristotle?
Remember that when it came to tragic plots, Aristotle stressed two major plot devices above all else: recognition of errors and reversal of fortunes. So far, neither has happened yet. That is, until the next stage of our plot - the one simultaneously representing what Carroll called “Results of Experiment and Boomerang” and Hegel would call “Synthesis.”

In our example text, Faust next meets Gretchen while touring the world with Mephistopheles. He proceeds to seduce her, which ends up sending her to prison, and, ultimately, hell. Backtracking a little, though, we see that, when he first meets he falls in love, and is visibly happy for the first time in the entire poem. As Lane Davis notes,

“Faust meets a young girl with whom he immediately falls in love. Margaret, or Gretchen for short, avoids his advances but cannot help and think about the older, noble stranger she met on the road that day…”

It seems that his fortunes have changed for the better for the first time in the poem. It seems, at least for the moment, too, that the synthesis of everything that has happened to him until this point is also diametrically – and dialectically – in opposition to what has happened up until this point. But, the totality of the synthesis is that Gretchen is not only imprisoned for killing their baby, but also eventually dragged to hell, where Faust must follow; facing Mephistopheles in what Carroll would call “the Confrontation”. In going down into tell – a place from which he knows no own escapes – he is also forced to recognize all the sins he has committed, thus making all Book II of the tragedy conform to both Carroll and Aristotle’s models, while the very fact that Goethe chose to separate the two books at this point in the plot implies the beginning of a brand new dialectical relationship in the plot structure – one which has grown dialectically out of the three previous dialectical steps in the Book I.

These analyses, I think, clearly demonstrate how Carroll’s Overreacher plot compares to Tragic plot structures outlined by earlier philosophers. But what of the actual aesthetic choices made by the creator of a work of Horror? How might they reflect a tradition related to tragedy? Find out in my next blog entry...

Thursday, February 6, 2014


I would like to take a moment here to apologize for my long absence; I have been in the process of finishing grad school, and thus more than a little preoccupied (to say the least).

Thank you for your patience,