Saturday, October 31, 2009

SMALLVILLE: "An Orgy of Self-Sacrifice," or, the "O-Face" of Altriusm

"Clark, just stop, ok? I mean, your willingness to sacrifice yourself for others is a great strength, for sure, but when it comes to your own happiness, it's definitely a weakness." -Chloe Sullivan, Season 9, "Crossfire"

A line like this just makes me wish that, despite its virtues, the show will end sooner than later. The implications in that line alone just goes to show how philosophical confused this society really is. Do the writers not realize that self-sacrifice means the sacrifice of one's SELF, happiness and all? This is what you THINK you get:

But before you make your "O-Face*," consider what you REALLY get:

Some might say I should feel slightly forgiving; after all, Chloe does urge Clark to work towards his "own happiness." Glass half-full? No, because the implication is still that self-sacrifice is the noble ideal, which, if followed to its ultimate conclusion, will undercut any attempts at personal happiness. Or, better said by Ayn Rand, "The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing." (And if one swallows the pill of "duty" as prescribed by Immanuel Kant, one would drown in that half-full glass, since any attempt to find personal happiness in sacrifice will undercut the good deed.)

And if Chloe is soooo smart, why can't she reason through her contradiction? Because it's not a matter of intelligence, but evasion. Consider the following quote:

We have never made an effort to understand what is greatness in man and how to recognize it. We have come to hold, in a kind of mawkish stupor, that greatness is to be gauged by self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice, we drool, is the ultimate virtue. Let’s stop and think for a moment. Is sacrifice a virtue? Can a man sacrifice his integrity? His honor? His freedom? His ideal? His convictions? The honesty of his feelings? The independence of his thought? But these are a man’s supreme possessions. Anything he gives up for them is not a sacrifice but an easy bargain. They, however, are above sacrificing to any cause or consideration whatsoever. Should we not, then, stop preaching dangerous and vicious nonsense? Self-sacrifice? But it is precisely the self that that cannot and must not be sacrificed. It is the unsacrificed self that be must respect in man above all. -Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead

Besides, why drink from a half-full/half-empty glass of drool, when you can have a nice clean, full glass of non-contradiction?

* "You know what I'm talking about..."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Heroism in Horror Update

I feel it's necessary to make a statement on the status of this series. I've had very little computer time this month, which is likely to continue for the rest of the month, and it looks like I'm getting sick on top of that.

As a result I'm still going to finish this, but there's no way it will be finished before the end of October. Sorry for the
inconvenience, that is all.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Heroism in Horor: WE THE LIVING

"Tell them Russia is a graveyard and we're all dying."

This is the last sentiment Rand took from Russia, and it was the inspiration for her first major novel, We the Living.

There are easy parallels to be drawn, from the heroes of her later novels to modern superheroes, Ragnar Danneskjöld and Francisco D'Anconia especially. All are heroic men of action who fight for their ideals and win, in the end.

Daniel Ust states in his article one of the reasons horror shouldn't simply be dismissed without further examination:

[One] reason comes from Aristotle's notion of catharsis as treated in
in his Poetics and interpreted in Richard Janko's essay "From Catharsis to the Aristotelian Mean". [4] In Janko's view, catharsis involves fine tuning
character, specifically one's emotional makeup. Art can serve this purpose by showing how to feel (as well as act) the right way in extreme situations. In much the same way as working out will tone up muscles even though few weight lifters have to fight hand-to-hand or move boulders for a living, literature tones up the feelings though few spectators would find themselves in the position of Hamlet, Howard Roark, or the characters in a Lovecraft story.

If this is so, Horror may just provide another means of attaining catharsis, and, thereby, of emotional growth. Particular works could then be judged by their contribution to this end.

With that in mind, everything I've read on Rand's state of mind from her early days in America strongly implies that a bit of catharsis was required before she could handle thinking in terms of heroes, and really achieving one's life's goals. She had many more positive ideas in mind for novels she wished to create, but by most accounts it seemed she always obsessed about her past. Escaping the brutal dictatorship of Soviet Russia left a mark on her that would not allow her to move on until she had truly moved through it.

In The Romantic Manifesto essay "The Goal of My Writing", Rand claimed that

The motive and the purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man. My purpose is not the philosophical enlightenment of my readers...My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark as an end in himself. My basic test for any story is: "Would I want to meet these characters and observe these events in real life? Is this story an experience worth living through for its own sake? Is the pleasure of contemplating these characters an end in itself?

On at least some level this statement seems at odds with setting a story in the worst conditions of abject human suffering. In We the Living, the reader is dragged through the feeling of being obsessed with where the next meal is coming from and fearing that, if it comes, it will not be enough to fight off starvation. It's a nightmare scenario to which one cannot adjust because the rules are always changing, and the next unimaginable nightmare is coming right around the corner.

The worst part of all this is that as it happens, you see yourself, and everyone you care about, slip into one sort of living death or another. There is a living death of just giving up, doing whatever is required to survive, and never thinking further than two minutes in the future. There is also the living death of becoming one of the monsters yourself, joining your tormentors, giving in to the worst within yourself, and being richly rewarded for it.

There is another possibility, perhaps the worst of all: actually being taken into the mentality of your tormentors, willingly doing everything their "morality" requires and being happy and proud to do it. Living your life this way every single day until you realize in the story of your life, you are the real villain, more than any of your enemies could ever have aspired to. The world will never seem to be full of "Draculas and Frankenstein's Monsters" if you happen to be one of them.

I guess what I'm saying is that if Rand thought horror barely qualified as art, her first novel had a funny way of showing that.

-Landon Erp

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Heroism in Horror: Introduction

"The Horror Story, in either variant represents the metaphysical projection of a single human emotion: blind, stark, primitive fear. Those who live in such terror seem to find a momentary sense of relief or control in the process of reproducing that which they fear--as savages find a sense of mastery over their enemies by reproducing them in the form of dolls...[S]uch writers are not presenting their view of life; what they are saying is they feel as if life consisted of werewolves, Draculas and Frankenstein monsters." ---Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto; "What is Romanticism?"

This is one of the few definitive statements made by Rand on the subject of the Horror genre of writing. Of all of her aesthetic statements, this, while being one of her most bold, is conversely one of her least controversial statements. You'll often find people who would tear the rest of her aesthetics to shreds but who are in complete agreement with this statement.

That always personally caused me problems. As a teenager and young adult I cut my teeth on horror. The stories I'm drawn to now often bear little resemblance to horror, but at the same time when I look at my own writing and my own tastes I see that horror has left a permanent mark. The question I found myself asking for many years was, "Is this something I'm comfortable with?"

When I first discovered Rand, I had an AHA moment reading the essay "Bootleg Romanticism" for the first time, since it outlined in vivid detail many ideas which, while very important to me, my own intellect had barely scratched the surface. Reading that essay helped me determine, once and for all, what I saw of value in things like superhero stories.

But since then, to some degree I'd been living a contradiction. My approach to superheroes was at peace for the first time, but now I had a completely new problem to deal with. Horror in many ways works as an exact opposite to romantic/heroic fiction, with the Slasher Film and the Superhero Comic working almost as opposite sides of the same coin.

In the superhero story, the individual or group representing justice is imbued with special talents which make conflict against evil a stacked deck (even more so than the fact that evil by definition is seeking out an irrational goal). It's as if since a hero represents an often unexamined "good" that intrinsically makes him more capable in all things. Granted, if it were left as this, the stories' would have very little credible or interesting conflict. This leads to creating an equally capable villain by which the hero will be judged.

A flaw in this system is that while the hero's "good" qualities are to be taken for granted and above evaluation, no villain sees himself as such. This leads to a situation where a villain is given a substantial amount of back-story and justification sometimes leading becoming genuinely sympathetic, and his hero becoming

In the slasher story, the roles are reversed. A character by virtue of his evil is granted supreme competence. His evil is often of such a grand scale it becomes beyond being worth any analysis. Granted, some fans of this type of story will tell you that's what makes it better, and the story is ruined if you understand the killer's mentality or justification too deeply. By converse, the heroes of the story are simply normal men. They have nothing which guarantees their survival, quite the contrary, actually; most of them will not survive this situation.

But this is where something interesting comes into play. The heroes have motivations. They want to protect their own lives or that of the ones they love. They want to reach a point in their lives where this will simply be an unpleasant footnote about this point in their life and it will not define them.

One of the defining elements of horror is that it stands in striking opposition to Rand's view of what a story requires. It isn't a situation played out that you'd like to live through or at least witness. It's a situation you would be happy to have lived through, but not one you would relish or wish to revisit. The draw is the idea of being stuck with an unenviable metaphysical situation, and coming though to the other side, preferably unscathed, but at the very least a bit stronger than you were before and a bit wiser.

If this is so, Horror may just provide another means of attaining catharsis, and, thereby, of emotional growth. Particular works could then be judged by their contribution to this end. It would seem that the fantastic subgenre of Horror would fail in this respect, but this must be put into the context of the stories themselves. Some of the attraction of Horror probably has to do with a desire to live in a world that is not boring and where choices matter. This projection of a meaningful world, where one can live or die depending on one's immediate choices or on one's success or failure at understanding the extraordinary, is the hallmark of much Horror, though not much fantastic Horror. An example of the former is Bram Stoker's Dracula.--Daniel Ust Toward an Esthetics of Horror

The truth is that, at its worst, horror is little more than a metaphysical license to give up, simply viewing the world as both incomprehensible and malevolent and abdicating any legitimate responsibility one might have to dealing with reality and one's own life.

But at its best, ironically, Rand described it very well when she spoke of one of the few horror stories she saw value in:

All of these forms of literature are rational when they serve
some abstract purpose applicable to reality. . . .

The best example of this kind of fantasy is "Dr. Jekyll & Mr.
Hyde". The literal subject of the story -- a man who changes himself
physically into a monster -- is impossible, but this is only a
symbolic device to convey a psychological truth. The story is a study
of a man with contradictory premises. By drinking a special medicine,
Dr. Jekyll indulges in the fun of turning himself into a monster. At
first he is able to control the process, but then he reaches a stage
where he cannot control it anymore, where he turns into the monster
whether he wants to or not. This is what in fact happens to bad
premises: at first they might be hidden or controlled, but if
unchecked, they take control of a personality.

"Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" is a brilliant psychological study
projected into a fantastical form. The issue of the story is
rationally applicable to human life, and very important.
--Art of Fiction Pages 169-70*

The issue of many horror stories can, in fact, be "rationally applicable to human life, and very important." On the way to fighting for your ideal, you often have to first fight through something terrible to even reach the point of fighting FOR something wonderful. The truth of the matter is even Rand herself knew this.

Coming Next: We the Living.

*thanks to Stuart Hayashi for helping me find that quote.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


I was going to discuss Smallville's last episode, "Metallo," (did you catch the torn Superman flag in Lois's nightmare, a la this site's banner? Who/what was that man lying in the Superman crest/crater? I wanna know, I wanna know!*) followed by a review of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, but synchronicity has graced me with the time-saving coincidence of a parallel theme, allowing me to condense the two into one meaty review (and a really long introduction sentence...)

Anway...both are united in characters and theme: "Metallo", aka John Corben, the "Man with the Kryptonite Heart." (Aka Brian Austin Green, the second 90210 alumni to appear as a villain. First Torri, now Green...who's next? Shannon Dougherty as the Banshee?) Anyway, Metallo is intent on exposing "the blur" as an irresponsible vigilante, who, through a twisted rationalization, blames "The Blur's" involvement with a bus crash, which spared the life of the man who killed his sister:
What gives you the right to interfere with our lives and change our fate? You stand apart from the world while the rest of us live in it.
I contend that that is a fair criticism by itself, even if Lois tags him as a "textbook hero-hater," and Corben's attitude is reminiscent of Lex Luthor's, who views Superman as an "intruding alien." (More of that to come.) Morality should be based on the conditions of human-life, not imposed from above by gods. But the overall result does shake Kal-el from his self-imposed exile from his "Clark" identity (along with his burgeoning love for Lois):
What's the point of protecting life if you don't know how to live it?
Despite my atheism, I submit that this is a good touch, in a literary sense, demonstrating the theme of Clark's parallel as Christ-figure, mirroring the biblical transition of a God over men to the "savior" who walked as "one of us." And that's what makes Metallo so interesting as a character, and not just a two-bit villain: how does mankind take responsibility for itself, if it's subject to the interference of "the gods?" Corben is guilty of faulty logic in his assessment of "the Blur" and the acceptance of "fate" (and Corben has no qualms about taking the law into his own hands, or kidnapping Lois, hypocritically.) Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, Metallo's "sin" is to question the authority of the gods, their right to intervene without accountability. (Where they differ is that the Joker is for anarchy, while Corben wants there to be order, and sees himself as "heroic" in his own right, avenging his sister's death.) One is "mis-integrated," the other "dis-integrated." This is not "judge not, lest not ye be judged," but "judge...and prepare to be judged." John Corben is just a human, but as "the man with the Kryptonite heart," he has the power to question a god and hold him accountable. This is not "judge not, lest not ye be judged," but "judge...and prepare to be judged." And gods do not, traditionally, like to be challenged...

Metallo on Smallville is (as far as we know, the origin of his krypto-heart is still a mystery), but in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, he is acting under the orders of the President of the United States...Lex Luthor. In a storyline similar to that of Marvel's Civil War, metahumans are required to register with the government, and vigilantes are held accountable to the law. Luthor uses Metallo to stage a fight with Superman and Batman, while framing the "World's Finest" for Metallo's murder. Consequently, Metallo's motives are transferred to Luthor himself, claiming that an alien has no right to interfere with the affairs of men without consequence. It's very "Promethean," reminiscent of Luthor's motives in Superman Returns. Luthor is not totally wrong, either: his argument is that the use of retaliatory force should be under objective law, in his words, Superman and Batman, by taking justice into their own hands, are "in violation of the laws that bind us all." The problem here, however, is that Luthor, and people of his ilk, are prone to lie and abuse the offices of power for their own games. (Like Machiavelli, with kryptonite rings.) The frameup leads to a confrontation where Luthor's evil is revealed; we know this because he tells us that "he knows evil." It's the one jarring flaw in an otherwise sophisticated story; Luthor is much more interesting when he, like Doctor Doom or Magneto, believes that he is in the right, and the "Promethean" aspect to his character makes him much more formidable in gaining the high ground (by a villain's standard, anyway...).

In comparing the two, Smallville does not have the luxury of delving in-depth to the issues raised in Public Enemies, give the serial nature of the show, and having to carry other storylines and subplots.
Public Enemies, meanwhile, as a one-shot, is able to not only touch a number of elements: the role of government versus vigilantes for one, but also questions raised in the debate over minarchy versus anarchy: "who watches the watcher" debate, the coercive actions of an individual versus the coercive power of a state that holds a monopoly on retaliatory force...even the question of psychiatry is introduced: Luthor makes the claim that Kryptonite has, over the years, clouded Superman's mental capacity and uses that as a means to outlaw the Man of Steel. Thomas Szasz would be proud...

The movie is overall very well-done, certainly an improvement over the Green Lantern/Wonder Woman features; the action is intense, the acting on-target, and the storyline compelling. (Being based on an established storyline from the comics doesn't hurt, either.) The very role of heroic deeds is never called into question, and the more troubling..."altruistic" aspects are pretty neutral. It doesn't address the nature of heroism, only accepts it as a given. (Even the Toyman character, usually a villain, acknowledges his inspiration for his machine, shaped like a Superman/Batman hybrid, as being made when "he was way into hero-worship.")

If there were wider scope available, it would have addressed the government's role in heroism philosophically...but then, it'd would be Atlas Shrugged....But it's nothing of the sort; and once again, we are reminded of the "folly" of Prometheus, Icarus, and the like, even if does conclude on a witty note: as Luthor, exposed and disgraced, is carted away, argues for respect of his "office," he shouts "God Bless America...God Bless ME!" And once again, we are reminded of Superman as the "Christ figure." What makes this ending culturally relevant today is the reminder by the likes of Glenn Beck that America's failure is in its "godlessness," as the liberals embrace the likes of Richard Dawkins and "The God Delusion," while they attempt to replace God with the State.

Gods...who needs em? Oh well..."Who is John Galt?"

*See Heroes, that's how it's done!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Real-Life Heroes: Welcome Back, Captain Sullenburger

Captain Chesley Sullenberger is back in the air, his first flight since the "Miracle on the Hudson." Welcome back, Captain.

New Series: Heroism in Horror

Over the course of the month of October I've taken it upon myself to discuss a type of heroism that doesn't get mentioned very often. In fact, an argument could be made that the heroism of which I plan to write doesn't even have a place in any sort of moral hierarchy.

This series will be my sole focus here throughout the month of October. It seems fitting, since October is the month of Halloween, and Halloween is often synonymous with horror. Another reason it seems fitting is that the first topic of discussion will be Ayn Rand's novel
We the Living, set in the early days of Lenin/Stalin's Russia.

I hope to give everyone some food for thought with this series and this is all I have to say until my first entry is ready.