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Melodrama and Univocity

I have long struggled with a way to describe the triumphant, epic structure when it does transcend the personal and melodramatic. Greg Desilet’s work suggests there is no such thing: that a narrative structure is either tragic, comic, or melodramatic. For him, the comedy may have a hero overcoming something and the tension resolved, but the tension was never dark or dire, never violent, or perhaps never “epic”. For him, any epic hero’s journey is necessarily melodramatic because it necessitates resolution through conquest.

I, on the other hand, think that whether we are talking about music or narrative or any structural development, the extent to which that structure helps us overcome not just external conflict but ourselves, helps us transcend the structure of our generic and conditioned subjectivity striving against other generic subjectivities, and delivers us to that universalizing yet individuating plane where conflicts are transformed, not negated, then the mythic or epic structure is no longer generic and archetypal, but spiritual and immanent. Basically: concretely universal and immanently transcendental, rather than elevating some abstract fiction like the personal ego (or the ethnic ego in something like the music of Wagner) to epic and transcendent proportions.

But perhaps it would be best to frame this distinction as a difference in the mode of transcendence rather than focus on any structural typology. It is easy to get caught up in absolute negations: repressed/not repressed, melodramatic/not melodramatic, etc. And developmental or logical hierarchies only stretch out the negation along a spectrum. For instance, how melodramatic is Beethoven? To use Joyce’s Aristotelian distinction from “Portrait of the Artist” between static and kinetic art, anything that is kinetic is bad because it moves you in a didactic way. In the example of Beethoven’s lauding of Napolean, this might be considered bad melodramatic art because it wants to motivate us to get behind the march of history as conceived in early liberalism. Some would say all political art is bad for this reason. But is there really an art without some level of kineticism?

The ideal in Joyce’s book–of a passive art that “transcends” conscious purpose and desire, and becomes a mode of mystical contemplation, would seem to be somewhat relative and disconnected from the intent of the creator. Maybe Beethoven wanted us to be politically moved, but his music transcends his own desire and upon listening often helps us transcend our own into a rapturous contemplation of universals beyond the historical circumstances of its creation.Jean Gebser and Ken Wilber’s work classifies culture according to a level of consciousness along a spectrum, but this subordinates all differences in kind to merely a difference in degree. It makes complex qualifications less likely.

Aurobindo, however, does something more interesting in his “Future Poetry”. He definitely characterizes specific lines from the history of English poetry according to levels of consciousness, but he makes a distinction between content and expression that seems closer to Deleuze’s semiotic distinctions. For Aurobindo, a poet might have a high level of inspiration from what he calls the “intuitive mind” but it might get filtered through turbid emotions or underdeveloped intellect. Deleuze’s semiotics always distinguishes a form and substance of both content and expression. It develops well Bergson’s demand to think the difference between differences of degree and differences of kind. Any difference of degree is always assuming a homogeneity in kind. While Deleuze’s Spinozian univocality does seem to adhere to some unity of all substance, he makes Spinoza’s singular substance revolve around his “modes” so that things are only one substance in the sense that to exist at all is to differ in kind so that difference is the one substance, and to be means always the same thing, to differ!What that difference expresses is therefore always another difference.

So to analyze art with modes of difference would be, I am thinking, to look at any example in the way it does one thing or another, the way it modifies one differential structure through another. Epic pop music would probably be classified by Gebser as coming from a deficient mode of the “magical” consciousness structure. The magical used to be a powerful mode of expression for people, but for modern person, it is pure ego fantasy–magical thinking in the pejorative sense. I agree with that, but I would add that there are efficient modes that can help that person connect their magical consciousness and their rational ego into a more integrated comportment. Something to help them feel the magic rather than try to use it to overcome their frustration through sentimental projection. Repression is not necessary, and though there are levels of repression at any stage of development, there are levels of productive desire at any stage as well. The stages themselves are only conceived under some kind of assumption of a background of content upon which expression plays.

There is an old Taoist saying that “true sincerity invokes resonance”. When I heard this many years ago I thought: “and extreme irony provokes dissonance, but sincere irony invites harmony”. By which I meant to describe the ideal communion of unity and difference. Good melodramatic art has a measure of distance from itself in what Gregory Desilet sometimes calls “reflexive” melodrama, with Moby Dick being one of his examples. In my last essay I tired to generalize this insight of critical distance, relating it to comedy, late-stage art in general, and the possibilities of mature myth-making that can be sincere and productive without being ideological. But it goes for music too and art of any age that can open up a space of reflection (passive art, irony, cognitive dissonance), as well as invite us to connect our individual reflections into a larger more impersonal movement (a kinetic art that does not make us resonate with one personal emotion, does not make us desire the object of art as in pornography or advertising but invites us into a harmony or fusion of emotions as I framed it in that essay).