Friday, March 05, 2004

Dave Fiore continues his consideration of Miller's the Dark Knight Returns:
In a comment thread, a couple of days back, Mitch from Blogfonte took issue with my basic interpretation of Heart of Darkness. Specifically, he objected to my introduction of the sublime into the discussion, a term, he argues, which is "best suited to obfuscation"... And of course he's right--although I would say rather that the sublime itself obfuscates... and that it does no good to pretend that there aren't things in this world that defy human comprehension. Mitch has already demonstrated, elsewhere, that he is morbidly fearful of nihilism--well, I'm not, and I think that's the real source of our disagreement...

Mitch claims that "civilization was itself the monster eating the heart out of Africa" in Heart of Darkness. No way man! There is no "Africa" in Heart of Darkness, and no "civilization". This is no realist tract against "imperialism", or portrait of "savage customs"--Conrad's book is a complex allegory, and nothing in this text can be abstracted from the structure without losing its significance...

I have a morbid fear of nihilism, of course, because it's deadly. Twentieth-century nihilisms have a body count approaching, and perhaps exceeding, that of the bubonic plague. Your garden-variety solipsist is harmless; your rare occasional sociopathic solipsist might take out a McDonalds before eating a bullet. Nihilism is catching, especially in fetid and intellectually unhygenic environs. I have a morbid fear of nihilism in the same way I have a morbid fear of infectious disease.

As for Heart of Darkness as allegory, I begin to see why Tolkien was so irate about folks who insisted on reading his work as allegory. The Congo was a real place, the Belgian democide was a real series of events, and Conrad had been there. Kurtz himself is a construct, but he isn't constructed out of whole cloth. I believe it is a mistake of the very first water to insist on reading any of Conrad's novels solely on allegorical or idealistic terms. He was a political writer, with very political, journalistic goals. Which is not at all the same thing as calling him a realist, or naturalist. I don't think I can call him a realist in style – he's too broad and colorful for the dull shades and prissy precisions of realism and naturalism. But I believe he had journalistic intentions – Conrad was intent on providing an interpretation of the world – not an allegorical thrice-removed-from-the-flesh abstraction of archtypes and ideals.

Back to the Miller book. Fiore has some excellent points about the shift of narrational voice, and compares the structure favorably with Melville's similar narrational tricks in Moby Dick. All this talk of sublimity always makes me think of Moby Dick, of course, because that's the text when you're talking about the Sublime in English-language fiction. Of course, it's also that book that makes me hostile to the very existence of the term, Sublime, because it reminds me that oftentimes "the Sublime" is sophisticated code for divinity. Certainly y'all have noticed by now that I have a slight streak of Ahabism about the concept of literal divinity.

Bruce's whale is, of course, Superman. But if Miller had wanted us to take this point of view ourselves, I don't believe he would have done what he did in the nuclear explosion scenes (177-179 in the TPB). Superman is the strongest man on earth, sure, but his strength does not come from the same place that Batman's does! His "resurrection" is achieved through a renewed sense of a relationship to the things of the earth--birds, bullfrogs,etc; it is not an act of will! In the final battle, Batman takes his best shot at putting his fist through the opaque wall of relationality that is the sublime... and, of course, he fails!

That's odd, because I've never read Batman as failing at the climax of DKR. He outmaneuvers, outthinks, and tricks the boy scout, and scores an existential victory over the forces of order. Really, it's a conflict between "order" and "justice", and "order" goes wobbling off with the apparent victory, while "justice" dies, lies in the grave for three days, and is reborn. In order for Superman to be a Moby Dick-esque object of divine nemesis, Miller's Batman ought to have been destroyed by standing against him. Superficially, in the supertext, he is – the world perceives the outcome as such. In the text and subtext, however, the identification of Superman as divine nemesis is undermined, indeed, made nonsense. Africa doesn't destroy Kurtz – Kurtz suffers his revulsion against Africa, and does his damnedest to destroy it. Likewise, our Ahab tricks Moby Dick into eating him, and then is reborn Christlike from the beast's blow-hole.

I don't think that Batman relates to Superman in any such fashion, of course. Superman isn't the world – he's just a man of the world, in Tom Wolfe's neostoic formulation. On the other hand, you can see the Superman as the icon of supernaturality, of unresistable force. Meanwhile, Batman is the abyss - the unfillable void. That's sort of interesting.

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