Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Being in Crisis and the Ontological Text

"Kubla Khan", Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fantasia, and Tezuka’s Science Fiction Trilogy

Early in my career I was immersed in the ideas of a handful of Continental thinkers, including Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, Piaget, and Lévi-Strauss, but, as I explained in an essay, about my encounter with Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, that poem forced me away from a more or less philosophical grounding toward the cognitive briar patch of the newer psychologies. The poem presented problems that simply didn’t register with Merleau-Ponty or even Lévi-Strauss, but that seemed more commensurate with the world of Chomsky, but also, though less directly, that of the neurosciences.

I have subsequently come to realize the “Kubla Khan” is what we might call an ontological text, and that I have an affinity for such texts. While all poems and fictions have an ontological dimension, not all of them focus on ontological matters. Most texts deploy an ontology in order to tell a story. Ontological texts ‘tell stories’ in order to deploy and ontology.

In the case of “Kubla Khan” the poem doesn’t tell a story at all, not in the way, for example, Coleridge’s so-called Conversation Poems do. It presents us with a succession of situations, each in a different world. In the large, the poem unfolds in two movements. The first is set in the physical world of Xanadu around and about a river and some marvelous structure; the second is set nowhere in particular, but is a tissue of thoughts and imaginings. The two worlds are connected only be an emblem: 1) “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice” (l. 36), 2) “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!”. And the nature of that connection is mysterious and problematic. What is at issue in this poem is the stations of Being, if you will, that bind these objects and processes into a world.

So that’s one text I’ve pondered. And pondered.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is another. The action moves toward the third part, which takes place over three days. Sir Bercilak goes hunting in the forests while Sir Gawain goes hunting in Bercilak’s bedroom – more accurately, he is the hunted. At the end of the day they exchange the spoils of their respective hunts. That exchange thus asserts an equivalence between two realms of being, that of the hunt and that of courtship. This action, of course, is framed by the larger action which has Sir Gawain journeying from Camelot, to Hautdesert, to the Green Chapel and then back to Camelot. As I have argued in an essay about the narrative, Hautdesert is an inversion of the ‘normal’ courtly world of Camelot: a woman presides at court, not a man; a woman pursues Sir Gawain, not vice versa. And the Green Chapel seems a negation of the world of human artifice, being but a mound deep in the forest. The narrative sets these worlds into interaction with one another and asserts that interaction through an emblematic object, the green girdle Bercilak’s wife gave to Sir Gawain, which saved his life at the Green Chapel (at the cost of a nick on the neck) and which, upon his return to Camelot, came to symbolize the fellowship of knights at court. (Did it really save his life?)

Another ontological text. A narrative, yes. But a highly ritualized one, one emphasizing different kinds of and modes of being.

As my third text, I take Walt Disney’s Fantasia. It doesn’t present a narrative at all, but is organized as a set of unrelated episodes, each set to a different piece of music from the European Classical repertoire. However, as I have argued in my post, Disney’s Fantasia as Masterpiece, each of those episodes has its own concerns about the world and it’s own mode of animation as well. One gives us abstract shapes moving about in a world that may be three-dimensional, but is not coherently organized. Another presents us with a panorama from the origins of life on earth to the extinction of the dinosaurs. A third depicts animals dancing ballet, and losing it, dropping out of character to be, well, only animals (actually, those cartoon people who appear on screen in the guise of animals). And so on, through all eight segments. In the middle of it all, during the on-screen intermission, Disney presents us with the soundtrack itself, where we hear the sound of a musical instrument – a violin, a trumpet, a harp, the drums – and see the sound of that instrument visualized on screen. Disney has thus goes meta, but without a hint of irony or self-consciousness.

The upshot of it all is that Disney has given us, not simply a set of cartoons set to classical music, but a comprehensive vision of the world, not only an ontology, but a cosmology. Within two hours the viewer ‘samples the space’ of things and events both known and unknown. This is what is, we are shown. And we are asked to marvel and revel.

Finally, let us consider Osamu Tezuka’s so-called Science Fiction trilogy: Lost World, Metropolis, and Next World. Tezuka wrote these around 1950, that is, just after World War II, and in them he uses science fiction devices to reconstruct the entire world – an issue I argue at some length in an essay in publication, “Dr. Tezuka’s Ontology Laboratory and the Discovery of Japan” (Mangatopia: Essays on Manga and Anime in the Modern World, Timothy Perper and Martha Cornog, eds.). What you see in these texts is parade after parade of creatures: plants, animals, humans, robots, artificial beings (NOT the same as robots), and mutated creatures of all sorts. Tezuka also explores the nature of individual identity in relation to the family and the relationship of both to the state.

In the first book of the trilogy, Lost World, Japan isn’t even mentioned, though it is the default setting for half the action, the other half taking place on Mamango, earth’s twin planet. Japan is mentioned in the second book, Metropolis, but is not a setting for any action. But the last book, Next World, opens and closes in Japan, which figures throughout the book as a major locus of action and interest. In this book Japan plays a mediating role between two major powers deep in conflict, obviously stand-ins for the United States and the USSR. This book also reveals gender roles to be social constructs, an astonishing thing in a comic book published in 1951.

The burden of my argument is that, in the wake of Japan’s loss of the war, Tezuka had to do more than reconstruct his sense of the geopolitical world. That much he certainly had to do. While Tezuka was no militarist, we was Japanese and had expected Japan to win. That Japan lost was surely a sign that something was deeply wrong somewhere. At the very least he had to make peace with the American occupation and reconceptualize Japan’s place in the contemporary world. On the evidence of these texts, however, that bit of conceptual reconstruction necessarily entailed the entire world: animal, vegetable, mineral, lock, stock, and barrel, male and female, ying and yang. The geopolitical realm is not separable from the rest. Pull its threads and the whole ontology unravels.

Rather astonishing, that, and for comic books. But then we know that children too are ontologists. In fact, ontology is a major childhood project, learning the things of the world, distinguishing between living and inanimate, animal and plant, and so forth. Keeping those distinctions intact is a major adulthood project, one that all too often collapses in times of personal, familial, or national crisis.

Each of these texts marks times of crisis. We’ve already seen the crisis Tezuka faced: Japan lost WWII, forcing Tezuka to rethink a worldview that put Japan at the center of the world. What of our other texts?

Coleridge published “Kubla Khan” with that preface that famously proclaimed the poem to be but a stub left over from and opium-induced vision. That preface has been subjected to reading and rereading, to no definitive avail. That Coleridge was dependent on opium seems beyond doubt, as does the fact that opium can induce visions. But we have only Coleridge’s not too reliable word about what happened. Yet, on the face of it, “Kubla Khan” is unique in Coleridge’s repertoire, if not in the canon of English lyrical poetry. It is without precedent and without issue. It is thus not unreasonable to believe that the poem, and its genesis, was deeply problematic to Coleridge and that he expressed that problematic in the preface. That the nature of the poem itself is in doubt signifies a crisis in the ontology of the poetic and thus of the poet.

Fantasia presents a different set of problems. It placed a severe strain on the studio’s finances, a strain that was exacerbated when World War II deprived Disney of his European market. But that’s not the crisis we see in the film. The crisis that gave rise to the film was the crisis of Disney’s success. Animated films had overwhelmingly been short subjects. Though Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not the first animated feature, it’s the one that established animation as a medium capable of carrying a feature – a point on which Disney himself had doubts before Snow White became a smash success.

Fantasia was an effort, not only to validate that success, but to extend the victory. In using classical compositions as the soundtrack Disney took his popular medium and sent it up against high culture, a theme of many films and cartoons. Disney wanted to make “the classics” successful to an audience that had heretofore had little interest in them, thereby showing that he could do what others had failed to do. He wanted to change the configuration and standing of his medium within the extant cultural ecology. Such a move necessarily calls that ecology into question in a fundamental way. It calls for a reordering of the ontology, as Tezuka’s texts called for a reordering of their ontologies.

That leaves us with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the circumstances of which are all but unknown. We don’t know who wrote it and we only know approximately when, the late 14th Century, and approximately where, the West Midlands. We know one other thing: the world depicted in the poem was long gone by the time it was written. All we know is that the poem itself depicts a crisis in the mythical court at Camelot, for the Green Knight tested nothing less than the legitimacy of that court, a legitimacy that was, in the end, affirmed, but just barely so.

We can’t know whether or not this text was written out of a sense of personal or institutional crisis. One can even imagine quite the opposite, that it depicts a crisis in a world gone-by as a way of affirming the current world through its ironic distance from Arthurian legend, for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a deeply ironic text. As the other three are not. To be sure, one might argue that the figure of the poet in “Kubla Khan” is ironic. There is a dissonance there, but it’s not ironic. If the poem were ironic it would assert success while demonstrating failure. It does the opposite, asserting failure while demonstrating success. As for Fantasia and Tezuka’s trilogy, they are unabashedly sincere.

What, then, are we to conclude about the relationship between irony and ontology? On the basis of four examples, I’d say nothing much at all. But perhaps there’s something we can look into. Is it that, when the world is deeply in question, one cannot afford ironic distance? Irony, for all its pretense of doubt, in fact demands a secure platform from which to launch its missiles of skepticism and superiority. The ontological text creates the possibility of worlds. When the ironic text takes ontology as its subject, as seems the case in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—Ay! and what then?


  1. Nice. Trying to think if i have come across anything similar with the same strong sense of irony as G.K.

  2. I'm no Medievalist, so I have little sense of what the typical narratives are. But SGGK certainly has its interesting aspects. And the thing about its irony is that it is not a corrosive or destructive irony, at least I don't think it is.

  3. Playfull from the opening line which may hint towards a claim that the written word is superior to the spoken.

    "I schal telle hit as-tit, as I in toun herde with tonge"

    It suggests elements are well known but I think the writer is aware of his power and the power of the written text and is at play.

    The text would be spoken at court rather than read by individuals but the writers are keen to highlight the novelty and differences of the written word to the spoken.

    "I can say that with confidence, for so the source-book testifies."