Operating on a Higher Plane: The Appeal of Dr. Strange


The entrance of Dr. Strange into the Marvel Cinematic Universe gives Marvel the opportunity to explore on screen a type of character they’ve left so far underexplored. I don’t mean that he’s magic. I mean that he’s an asshole. But that’s what you love about him. Like all other great Benedict Cumberbatch characters, he just doesn’t have time for your nonsense. He’s too busy being awesome. And saving existence from extra-dimensional threats, yadda yadda yadda, but mostly it’s the awesomeness. Other than perhaps Tony Stark or Thor, MCU has spent much of its time exploring lovable lunks legitimately motivated by decency and good will. Tony Stark and Stephen Strange make no hesitation in demonstrating their inherent superiority within their fields and indeed seem motivated partially by displays of great virtuosity (and maybe saving people’s lives every once in a while, sure, granted). The problem then is how to translate that into two hours and sell it to people who have not yet, as I have, fallen in love with Dr. Strange. An added problem with Dr. Strange is the complexity of his internal mythology. Tony Stark at least exists within a world of speculative possibility. Dr. Strange, on the other hand, has his own otherworldly mythology nearly as complicated as the greater Marvel Universe. But comic book fans are arguably defined by an appreciation of narrative complexity, the capacity to demonstrate and appreciate great virtuosity within arbitrary parameters, and the tenacity to tackle difficult-to-love characters and love them even harder for it. The average movie going audience, not so much. Dr. Strange especially refuses compression or simplification. He always operates on a higher plane, and that’s why you have to love him.

Since the announcement of a movie based on Dr. Strange, who has been my favorite character since I started reading comics, I’ve offered myself as official Dr. Strange scholar to anyone willing to listen, but it takes a lot to explain the Lovecraftian, multi-dimensional mythology-within-mythology (“You see, there are three main god-like beings who give him power, and they’re called the Vishanti, and Agamotto is the one who looks like the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, and that’s the guy whose eyeball Dr. Strange wears around his neck,” etc.); I readily correct speculation based on nonsense (“Mads Mikkelson can’t be playing Mephisto if he’s a former Ancient One ally since Mephisto is not a dude). I fear I’ll soon degenerate into Ancient Mariner-like babbling to strangers in the delighted delusion that this movie’s existence means somebody cares (“Get this: the god-like being he calls on to generated unbreakable red bands is Cyttorak, the same god who gives Juggernaut his power, so the power of Juggernaut is only one fraction of his awesomeness. That’s an interesting factoid, right? Right?”). However, film adaptations tend to simplify this geek-pleasing gratuitous level of intricacy using cheap tricks to cut through dense mythology and narrative/character complexities that take longer-form stories (like comics) years and years, pages and pages, volumes and volumes to develop. Film is just a structurally limited and inevitably less complex medium than serial storytelling forms like comics.

Marvel Studios in particular, as this decade’s masters of pleasing both general audiences and hardcore geeks, is especially fond of these cheap simplifications, but we tend to forgive the dilution of our beloved complexity amid the rapturous sobs of gratitude. Take, for example, this question: Why does Gamora hate Thanos? That small element of the comic book lore alone has as much complexity as a Thomas Hardy novel, but the Guardians of the Galaxy movie cheaply boils it down to one line: “He killed my parents in front of me.” Well…not exactly…but in just a second of film, despite the extreme simplification, we love Gamora and hate Thanos, and the movie is so great, who cares, right? The fact that a Guardians of the Galaxy movie even exists is enough argument against my overly particular quibbles, right? I fear, however, with the more personally beloved and more internally complex Dr. Strange, the delicate balance between gratitude and my offense at simplification may break the wrong direction.

That higher plane Dr. Strange operates on makes him less like Peter Quill and more like Dr. Who or Sherlock Holmes, struggling to relate to normal humans, having transcended human normalcy through a mix of natural genius, exhaustive self-education, and relentless dedication to his field. He’s more like Liam Neeson in Taken than Bruce Willis in Die Hard: he has a “particular set of skills,” and we delight in watching him practice this set of skills to the mortal detriment of his targets. Dr. Strange’s targets happen to be demonic, godlike, and/or cthuloid entities, but the principle remains the same. Marvel Studios tends more toward the normal, relatable, lovably-flawed Bruce Willis-type of character: Steve Rogers is the bullied, scrawny kid with quixotic ambitions; Bruce Banner is a timid and introspective nerd; Peter Quill is a normal guy acting out an 80s movie fantasy; Scott Lang is a well-intentioned but bumbling dad who Robin Hoods his way to jail (much more relatable than Hank Pym, the genius inventor who more commonly plays the role of Ant Man in the comics). When a character is a less relatable higher-plane-type, like Tony Stark or Thor, Marvel Studios tends to use grounding characters (like Pepper Potts and Jane Foster) who balance the beyond quality with overt discombobulated earthiness; or origin plots, the classic lofty-character-falling-from-grace gimmick that balances out the otherwise transcendent skill set (Tony has his injury, and Thor is humbled in exile, stories already well known to hardcore fans). If you have read the comics in the last few decades, you’ll see Thor is still an arrogant god despite experiences in humbling exile, and Tony Stark is still an arrogant billionaire genius despite various physical or psychological challenges – through decades of history, they’ve had hundreds of falls from grace and glorious returns to create the tapestry of their present character, and longtime fans appreciate the well-worn, threadbare comfort of each characters’ humanity as it weaves in the most complex ways with all their transcendence and brutality. Like any worthy relationship, it takes work over years and massive love/hate frustration.

However, the eternal return of origin stories gets especially tedious, and hardcore fans certainly wouldn’t tolerate hearing about radioactive spiders and cosmic rays a third time, so Kevin Feige claimed early in the Dr. Strange movie rumor-disseminating process that we would not have another origin story, and this came as some relief. But later rumors and set images and the teaser trailer have reversed this claim – Dr. Strange would be an origin story after all – so amid the joyous weeping and the ululations of “Oh, to be alive at such a time as this!” there is the more subtle antithetical “this again” which I have to struggle against hearing inside my own head.

Dr. Strange’s origin superficially reads a lot like Iron Man’s (and Stan Lee, who created Dr. Strange with Steve Ditko and Iron Man with Jack Kirby, loved the physical-injury-as-motivator story as much as he loved the classic dead-relative gimmick). Like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange started as an arrogant expert in his field disinterested in humanity; in the case of Strange, he was an arrogant brain surgeon who suffered nerve damage in a car accident and was no longer able to practice, a grounding factor not unlike Stark’s heart injury. Here’s where Stark’s and Strange’s stories diverge a bit: Stark has a family history and natural genius for technology (lumping him with another Hollywood favorite: the chosen one with greatness thrust upon him who must choose to responsibly use his gift); Strange, in contrast, must learn a brand new craft from a base of zero knowledge. Strange, in seeking a cure for his hands, finds the Ancient One who teaches him various forms of magic, and Strange soon becomes the greatest practitioner. Granted, some writers frame this progression from zero knowledge to mastery as a chosen one narrative, but the original and most common version of this story is that Stephen Strange encountered an unfamiliar craft and mastered it no time, a level of unrelatable virtuosity far beyond Tony Stark, a natural tech-genius raised in a tech-genius household. Here’s another basic difference: Stark is limited by what technology has the capacity to do; Dr. Strange is essentially limited by nothing.

A criticism sometimes lobbed at Dr. Strange by longtime fans of other comics is that his presence in the story functions as a lazy deus ex machine for lazy writers. In his defense, he has a long history of being poorly used outside his own comic, but that doesn’t mean his deus ex machina tendencies are necessarily a problem. Sure, when he shows up in a story at the last second – say, when Scarlet Witch has already killed Thor, and nobody else can stop her – and he is the only one who can save the day, sure, that’s a lazy deus ex machina. But his capacity to solve essentially all problems beyond any other character is not intrinsically a flaw. He could generate a spell to eliminate all crime in New York and put Spider-Man and Daredevil out of business, but he doesn’t because that’s below his interest when fundamental natural and supernatural forces require him to focus elsewhere. Here is a brief list of his powers just off the top of my head: flight, teleportation, mind reading, hypnotism, astral projection, generation of unbreakable bonds, at least three varieties of force blasts, generation of fire and mist, and the list goes on. In my favorite Dr. Strange story, he created life out of essentially nothing. However, Dr. Strange is one of the few superheroes whose power functions more like an anime character. He increases his own power to match the situation. He finds a new magical object or he accesses some hidden or forgotten or deep recess of power based on the fact that he’s a badass and a genius and has such a vast store of knowledge and power, not based on sloppy storytelling. If Spider-Man spontaneously manifested the ability to fly because this is the only way the writer could imagine him beating the Green Goblin, this would be ridiculous, partly because Spider-Man’s power range has remained roughly the same for half a century. In contrast, in Bleach, when Kenpachi is fighting Nnoitra Gilga, and he suddenly announces that he can double his power by using both hands on his sword, that’s not sloppy storytelling, that’s badass, but it’s a different kind of storytelling than American comics. Anime characters are constantly expected to increase power and excel at their particular brand of fighting. Likewise, if Dr. Strange meets an obstacle he can’t overcome with his present set of abilities (which is often in his stories) then he finds a way to outsmart his enemy or access new power to win.

Then there’s the other grounding method: Rachel McAdams will appear in the Dr. Strange movie as a Pepper Potts-like character who has no correlation in the comics, but Dr. Strange in the comics most often has no grounding character and arguably has no need for a grounding character. The closest thing Dr. Strange has to a powerless human counterpart or damsel in distress is his servant Wong, but Wong is an initiate in the same cult from which Strange learned his art so hardly a stand in for normal non-initiates. Strange’s most common love interest is Clea, the niece of his greatest enemy, Dormammu, a godlike being whose power is exponentially greater than Strange’s. Clea is also the daughter of Umar the Unrelenting (easily the greatest character name in comics and one of the most underrated badass female villains). Dormammu and Umar are both Faltinians, godlike energy beings who have each on various occasions ruled the Dark Dimension. Clea, in the Game of Thrones-like subplot of constantly-shifting royal succession, has also functioned as queen of the Dark Dimension. As much as I appreciate Pepper Potts as a counterpoint to Tony Stark, Clea as a half-flame-god queen of her own dimension is not quite the down-to-earth gal Friday type. It’s nothing new for arrogant pricks of great genius to be paired with a grounding character – Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Who, characters who operate on a higher plane who need the lower-plane normal to translate their geniusness. But nobody reads a Sherlock Holmes story for Watson. He’s that little dash of salt that makes the cake taste better.

This is why Benedict Cumberbatch, who has played Sherlock Holmes and nearly played Dr. Who, is such obvious casting for Dr. Strange – so obvious the announcement of his casting seemed so mundane, I could only say, “Well, duh. He’s been playing Dr. Strange for years now.” The appeal of the Cumberbatchian character, Dr. Strange included, runs counter to a whole batch of not-so-true truisms of storytelling that are ultimately simplifying tricks more than absolutes. The idea that characters should be likable, vulnerable, lesson-learning normals in order for audiences to relate or at least have someone present who stands in for normality is as much nonsense as “write what you know,” the most egregiously false of all writing clichés. Arthur Conan Doyle may have known a lot about crime fighting, but Stan Lee was no magician – thank Hoggoth he wrote Dr. Strange anyway and ignored that terrible advice. More accurately, the material for storytelling is the tension between the familiar and unfamiliar in various measures. Similarly, creating a likable, normal, vulnerable, relatable character is only a simple starting point and only vital when placed in contrast with unlikable characters and/or unlikable tendencies within that likable character. A normal character gains most vitality in being placed in contrast with abnormal circumstances or abnormal characters; stasis is the substance of stories only in its interruption.

Likewise, a character who operates above our mundane normalcy may seem unrelatable but becomes vital precisely in contrast to our own mundanity. The appeal in listening to Jimi Hendrix is not in how easily I relate to his guitar playing skill (I don’t play guitar at all, for the record) but in his virtuosity far beyond seemingly-normal human capacity. The appeal of virtuosity doesn’t have to be related to any real skill. Kids could make up a game out of throwing random objects at random targets – the parameters are irrelevant – but the kid who demonstrates greatest virtuosity will become admirable within parameters that only came into existence moments before. This is even more significant in fictional worlds where writers have the freedom to make up all the parameters. Stan Lee and subsequent Dr. Strange writers made up the rules of his magic (with a healthy dose of Lovecraft tributes/ripoffs but based on imaginary scenarios nonetheless) and they set up entirely fictional obstacles, and the capacity of Dr. Strange to demonstrate great virtuosity using made up skills to overcome made up obstacles becomes as exhilarating as the guitar mastery of Jimi Hendrix. Stan Lee from the very beginning set up seemingly impossible obstacles, unbeatable god-like enemies though we only had Lee to believe about how unbeatable these godlike enemies actually were. Dr. Strange’s first enemy was Nightmare, the embodiment of all nightmares, and Strange demonstrates great magical skill, breadth of knowledge, and practical cleverness in overcoming Nightmare, and in doing so, our admiration comes from this heightened level of skill, not his normalcy.

Don’t get me wrong, Dr. Strange’s appeal is in both his humanity and his super-humanity. The appeal of his humanity comes from the complexity of flaw and failure layered into the sediments of his history but remaining in many stories sub-textual motivations longtime fans know and new fans feel viscerally. Even beyond this, Dr. Strange is unique among heroes informed by intrinsic fractures in that his inter-dimensional travels are often embodiments of introspective journeys inward in which he explores all the unfolding dimensions of his own soul. In this sense, normalcy in art, any art, is grossly overrated, and the delight in the multifaceted complexity of supposed escapism is grossly underrated.

That being said, I am eternally grateful that a Dr. Strange movie exists even if the movie must, by necessity of the form, be a pale shadow of his greatness.

Dr Strange and the Avengers pig latin

Ecstasy as the Deepest Level of Aesthetic Purity: The 7 Levels of Aesthetic Subordination

Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination

The discussion of value of a particular narrative too often misidentifies rhetoric or realism as the sole factor placing a text at a high (or the highest) level of quality; realism, in particular, has this false association with narrative purity, and rhetoric in narrative has the mistaken association of intellectual engagement as a necessary component of artistic value. This is a narrow perspective born from the notion that rationality has a greater value than emotional/visceral reaction. A more significant problem with this perspective is that it displaces value from the text or the work of art itself. The text has no intrinsic value, only its capacity to represent something else: so-called reality, a philosophical concept, a social condition, a sociological perspective, etc.

This is the aesthetic problem of subordination which art in the twentieth century strove to and should have eliminated. William Carlos Williams and the Abstract Expressionists should have, finally and completely, highlighted the falsity in the notion that subordination is superior to aesthetic purity.

Alas, critics seem resistant to accepting what Williams should have taught the world, slow to accept that thousands of years of traditional Western concepts of artistic value have been upside down this whole time (something that Eastern concepts of artistic value have acknowledged for just as long). This is partly because there are so few systematic ways to analyze a text given the elimination of subordination. Understandably. How do you rationally analyze something that is at its core irrational? When writers say (as so many writers do) that they have no rational purpose or intention in writing a narrative other than to explore a character’s tapestry of emotions, how then do critics take that irrational but perfectly valid claim and honor it without forcing rational analysis in places it doesn’t necessarily belong?

This is why I keep attempting to make something systematic, hence the Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination.

A more effective way to approach a work of art which has greater potential to give the irrational core its due weight is to look at the various levels on the spectrum between aesthetic purity and subordination. Considering this as a spectrum better highlights the value at both ends (since critical analysis has been stuck at one of the spectrum for too long).  By “aesthetic purity,” I just mean acknowledging the text based on its own value without subordinating the value to something outside of it. The most aesthetically pure is the least subordinated; the most subordinated is the most rational/cerebral but also furthest removed from its aesthetic core, that which gives it stimulant (visceral/emotional) value.

A spectrum, however, is not the most accurate way to consider these levels since each element in the scale builds on the next, so a work of art must start with that pure, irrational core as a condition of being a work of art. Thus, one could argue the higher levels have greater value in their relative complexity. What I have identified as the “Rhetorical” level, the highest level of subordination, most likely contains the other six levels as well, thus allowing the possibility of argument for the superiority of this type of text. However, as this level is farthest removed from the aesthetic core, it is least likely to be enjoyable, beautiful, viscerally stimulating, etc. Also, this complexity is not a necessary condition of the Rhetorical level, and containing each of the previous six levels is likewise not a necessary condition. For example, most children’s narratives are Rhetorical without necessarily being complex and without necessarily containing all seven levels within them.

Also, to clarify, I focus on levels  narrative subordination particularly because the first two levels (“Ecstatic” and “Paratactic”) work well with any type of art, but the other five apply best to narrative. For example, considering the rule systems relevant to each level is a way to understand its level of subordination, a consideration that is less helpful for non-narrative art. As a more specific example, the “Mythological” level functions based on its own internal rule system, a concept that is very useful in understanding narratives but not as useful in understanding visual art. Rule systems in narratives are an important aesthetic consideration since violation of a perceived rule system may seem like a flaw. To say this is an intrinsic or universal flaw is false, but it is important for a writer to recognize that the reader is likely to perceive this as a flaw. For example, a story on the Mythological level may include imaginary creatures who must adhere to an internal rule system without necessarily adhering to the rules of the so-called real world. A violation of this internal rule system may seem like a flaw no matter how beautiful the text may be at its core. Likewise, what I identify as a Rhetorical story must adhere consistently to the premises of the argument, and failure to do so may seem like a flaw even if the story itself is beautiful and adheres to internal rules irrelevant to the argument.

Here are the seven levels:

1)Ecstatic: The direct, visceral, irrational experience that eliminates the barrier between self and other.

  • Rule System: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No distance between the work itself and the experience of the reader/viewer.
  • Analytical strategy: As this is the most irrational level based purely on individual experience, the easiest element to access and analyze is individual emotional/visceral reaction.
  • In brief: As the narrative or artistic experience requires the elimination of the barrier between self and other, this is the most basic and purest level of an artwork or narrative, and each subsequent level must contain this at its core. This level could be called “Absurd” as absurd narratives are the most characteristic examples and least likely to contain one of the other levels as well, and it’s provocative to say that all narratives must be absurd at their core, but that word contains so much baggage it may be counter-productive. Most philosophical treatments of absurdity as a concept are Rhetorical in nature, not truly and purely absurd. The Ecstatic level is the level of pure artistic absurdity where philosophy is irrelevant and unnecessary (in other words, absurdity certainly isn’t a problem to be solved). To clarify, narratives or artistic works can function on other levels, and often with more purely absurd texts critics attempt to impose order and meaning on them (the need to impose unnecessary order and meaning on things is a common and often intense desire); however, since absurdity/ecstasy is at the core of all successful narratives and art works, meaning and order are more incidental factors than necessary components. There is resistance to recognizing this as the core of all art, arguably, for two reasons: 1) artifice appears impure; 2) pleasure for its own sake engenders discomfort and seems like a frivolous, indulgent, gratuitous, or self-serving moral violation. The answer to both of these objections/misconceptions is in the nature of ecstatic engagement: it eliminates the barrier between self and other. It is artifice (and all art is artifice to a degree) only in that it has no necessary relationship with physical reality and exists primarily in the interaction between self and other free of barriers. Tangible/physical/material reality is only more pure than this if you believe science is the only authentic mechanism for discovering truth. That is a valid position to hold, but it is hardly helpful in creating or understanding art. This connects likewise with the notion that ecstasy is mere frivolity or self-pleasing immorality, but empathy (elimination of the barrier between self and other) should be the root of morality, arguably, and is the root of morality in many religions, from the “Love your neighbor as yourself” of Jesus to the compassionate non-duality of Buddha. To feel the pain and joy of another can only be immoral frivolity if your moral system is devoid of empathy as an essential component. Again, this is a valid position but hardly relevant to art.
  • Favorite Examples: Incidences by Daniil Kharms, Amedée by Eugene Ionesco, “Sorrows of a Family Man” by Franz Kafka, etc. Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is essential reading in understanding the one-to-one interaction of the ecstatic text and the irrelevance of universality.

2)Paratactic: The juxtaposition of viscerally stimulating but seemingly unrelated images without a rational, directly stated, or necessary connection.

  • Rule system: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No element is necessarily subordinated to another, by definition, but images can relate to elements or concepts outside of the text itself.
  • Analytical strategy: Determine the images that create a visceral response in juxtaposition. Do not look for a rational connection but a purely irrational resonance. If you find a rational connection, especially where one element is subordinated to the other, this likely qualifies as the Representational level and muddies the aesthetic purity with overt rationality.
  • In brief: The line between the Ecstatic and Paratactic level are blurred since both levels function quite similarly. However, the Paratactic differentiates from the Ecstatic in that images can relate to concepts or a so-called reality outside of the text. For example, a William Carlos Williams poem might relate a “red wheelbarrow” and “white chickens” without stating how they connect (a classic, basic example of parataxis), but understanding of this parataxis might relate to the reader’s own experience or concept of farming or poverty without necessarily subordinating the images to the concepts or experiences. The text, however, becomes one step away from the pure ecstatic experience in this outward-stretching web. Another example: a text might contain multiple blue objects, and the reader may yearn to find some rational connection between these blue objects. However, the yearning for connection (a type of visceral stimulation vital for this level) is far more important than an actual, rational connection, and the reader may think of traditional associations of blue and the Virgin Mary without necessarily subordinating the text to Christian concepts. In other words, the color blue does not necessarily make the text about (“about” generally implying a level of subordination) the Virgin Mary or Christianity simply because of the presence of blue, but this irrational connection could add visceral value to the text. If the weight of history aids in arguing the importance of parataxis, subordinating a text to abstractions may be the traditional Western way of understanding a narrative (thus the taken-for-granted superior position), but parataxis is the traditional Eastern way of understanding imagery in multiple art forms.

3)Mythological: This narrative level functions based on its own internal rule system.

  • Rule system: Internal rule system set by the author, genre, narrative conventions, etc.
  • Subordination: A concept of order is grafted on the irrational/visceral elements of the text, but this rule system is essentially arbitrary; it may relate to rule systems in reality/outside of the text, but this is not necessary.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal rule system and how the text fulfills or violates this rule system; recognize the relationship between the imposed order and the irrational, visceral core. For example, if a character has imposed a system of order on the absurd universe, does he/she violate this imposed order, or does the universe violate/fulfill this order in some way?
  • In brief: I call this level “mythological,” not because it has a relationship to myth criticism (as most of that sort of criticism functions on the Representational or Rhetorical level) or any narrative identified as myth (which is only one of many other types of stories on the Mythological level) but because it comes from the same impulse as myth making: to impose order on the disorderly whether or not that order has any rational relationship with scientifically measurable reality. Myths, likewise, must conform only to their own ordered system and not necessarily to any system outside of themselves. I would go further and say most narratives, by the nature of being a narrative, are intrinsically mythological if they have any sense of order or conform to any rule system. The most obvious place to see this is in so-called “genre” fiction – a vampire story follows the well-established vampire rules or sets its own but follows those consistently. However, internal rule systems are as relevant to a so-called “literary” work as they are to a so-called “genre” work. The terms “literary” and “genre” are grossly inaccurate and sloppily applied in most cases, but considering their relationship with internal rule systems clarifies their basic difference more accurately: a “genre” work conforms to rule systems within its own type and a “literary” work establishes its own, supposedly (and a “literary” work becomes “genre” when it follows the rule system established by the “literary” type). However, the most egregiously applied term associated with this level is “escapism” – escapism is indeed one of the effects of works which remain more purely within the Mythological level, but this one effect is hardly its most significant value. “Escapism,” especially in its pejorative sense, inverts the value system placing so-called reality above the narrative experience. The narrative experience can as easily be considered a greater level of reality. The relationship between the mythological and the realistic level is incidental – so-called reality fills in the gaps left by mythology but is far from a necessary condition of mythology.

4)Psychological: A separation between the purer aesthetic levels and reality by attributing the contrast to an internal/external split.

  • Rule system: Two separate rule systems, internal and external. The internal rule system may function the same as the Ecstatic, Paratactic, or Mythological level, but the subordination implies that the external rule system functions the same as the Realistic level.
  • Subordination: The non-realistic or seemingly disorderly elements are subordinated to external reality because they are attributed to psychological reflections of external factors.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal and external elements in the story and determine how one reflects the other; for example, how does a non-real element reflect some more realistic element within a character’s world or something psychologically significant to the character?
  • In brief: This is the transition between irrational and rational levels because it acknowledges the value of both sides. However, this dilutes the aesthetic power of the Ecstatic core because it is subordinated to so-called reality. This is not necessarily limited to psychoanalytical criticism or rules of psychology, psychoanalysis, etc. though this can be enlightening method for approaching texts on this level. Most forms of criticism hover in the Representational level, but the Psychological level can resonate in both directions as long as it remains rooted in this two-level contrast between internal and external forces. For example, elements can function by internal rules, thus making it a Mythological narrative, but function simultaneously on the Representational level if elements stand in for abstract concepts. If this resonance takes place on two levels – for example, Mythological elements take place inside a character’s mind while Representational elements are outside of the character’s mind – and the internal elements are subordinate to the external elements, this narrative exists on the Psychological level.

5)Realistic: The narrative exists to depict something in the real (material, tangible, physical) world.

  • Rule system: The narrative must follow the rules of the scientifically measurable, so-called real world.
  • Subordination: The narrative is subordinated to the real world outside of it.
  • Analytical strategy: Focus on the accuracy of the narrative within the context of the real world. For example, an element inaccurate to material existence, scientifically established rule systems, or social conventions becomes a flaw.
  • In brief: While works within the genre called “Realism” are often depicted as purer forms for their elimination of imaginative elements, they are aesthetically impure because of their dependence on a material, tangible, physical reality outside of the texts. Any consideration of the text’s basis in reality displaces value from the text and places value in elements only incidental to the text’s core Ecstatic value. This is not applicable only to texts based on real events or texts in which events are depicted as being real. More important at this level is recognition of a narrative as being dependent on reality and valuation of the accuracy of this depiction of reality. However, if a text functions to reflect some universal concept (like the “human condition,” etc.) or has non-realistic elements which stand in for universal concepts, it is more likely Representational, a step further in subordination.

6)Representational: The narrative stands in for some abstract concept such as philosophy, sociological perspective/condition, or universalized concept of humanity.

  • Rule system: The narrative may follow essentially the same rules as the Realistic level but applied universally or at least broadly to a sociological condition, or it may follow the rules or principles of a particular philosophy without necessarily making an endpoint argument.
  • Subordination: Both real and non-real elements are subordinated to universal/philosophical concepts.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Rhetorical level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: When considering narrative analysis, this and the Rhetorical level are too often considered the only relevant levels or the levels with the greatest capacity to highlight the value of a narrative – this is the limited perspective I’m attempting to correct. The concept is that a narrative has value in that it “means” something or is “about” something when this perspective separates, by several levels of subordination, the narrative from its core aesthetic value. The Representational level essentially bridges the Realistic and Rhetorical level in that realistic elements are elevated into the abstract realm by being treated as representations of universal conditions (humans aren’t humans but stand in for all of humanity, for example) or reflect one of thousands of possible philosophical perspectives without necessarily making an argument (which would qualify it as Rhetorical). The various philosophies are well-established within criticism, so I need not spend much time explaining them, but an example might be a Marxist perspective which views elements within a text as representations of class oppression, commodification, historical cycles of revolution, etc. Characters aren’t people but social forces and conditions and only have value in their capacity to represent.

7)Rhetorical: A catch all term for anything with an endpoint value based in some abstract concept, argument, lesson, etc.

  • Rule system: The narrative must consistently follow the principles of the argument or lesson.
  • Subordination: Elements within the narrative are subordinate to the argument or lesson.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Representational level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: I call this level “Rhetorical” for the sake of the catchy three R’s of rational-level narrative subordination, but this includes many types of narratives beyond the argumentative – didactic narratives, for example. The significance is that the narrative has a purpose or that the narrative is leading to a particular end. This endpoint may be open to interpretation, but the writer is proposing some rhetorical premise subject to the rules of rhetoric or a moral principle subject to the rules or designed to develop or disseminate that particular moral principle. It differs from the Representational level only in that a Representational narrative can function more purely as a portrait of an abstract or universalized concept, but the Rhetorical level further subordinates that portrait to the ultimate purpose, argument, lesson, etc.