[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama

Edappel8@cs.com Edappel8 at cs.com
Tue May 20 17:20:53 EDT 2008

       What follows is a response by Greg Desilet, with Herb's permission, to 
a paper Herb Simons presented at NCA in 1999.  Greg read and wrote just a 
couple of days ago.  His reply relates integrally to what we've been discussing 
here the past few weeks.  Greg said in his correspondence:

> Hello Herb (if I may),
Will absorb these new papers with pleasure. I add one of my own. Here is a 
commentary on your paper. Gotta go for now.
I love this paper and admire the style. Very refreshing change of pace from 
the usual academic fare—not bloated with references and jargon and very 
conversational in tone. I wish I could write like that! But I improve somewhat with 
age and with good examples to follow such as you have provided. Thanks for the 
opportunity to read it.

The best (read: easiest) way for me to provide commentary or “critique” is 
to compare your slant on these issues with the view I’ve been working on and 
note the differences.

In my 1989 essay “Nietzsche Contra Burke: The Melodrama in Dramatism,” I 
attempted to make a case for seeing the main thrust of Burke’s corpus 
(Dramatism/Logology) as still predominantly melodramatic in the “solution” it offers to 
the tension, as you express it, between “humble irony” and “warrantable 
outrage.” But to characterize this more precisely in the context of the recent 
exchange between me and Ed Appel, I’ll refer to the taxonomy I proposed most 

   Factional                         Universal                        

Tragedy (Shakespeare)        Tragedy (Wagner)           Tragedy (Greek)
Burlesque (other targeted)    Burlesque (self-targeted)  Burlesque 
(all-inclusive) Melodrama (you’re the goat) Psycho-Melodrama         Melodrama 
                                         (I’m the goat; Willie Loman) each 
other mistakenly
     made the goat)                         
 Comedy (satire;                 Comedy (satire; I’m         Comedy (life can
 you’re the fool)                   the fool as Everyman;      make fools of 
us all through   
                                          Don Quixote)                  
blindness we do not choose)

What’s going on with the “universal” category here? Well, the way I read 
Burke, the Iron Law of History (Order/Through Guilt/to Victimage/hence: Cult of 
the Kill) operates as “law” because there is no escape from it. It arises as a 
consequence of the invention of the “negative” in language which serves 
inexorably to identify the “elements to be sacrificed.” So in remarking on a 
difference between “factional” and “universal” tragedy, for example, Burke is 
not suggesting an escape from the mechanism of scapegoating but rather a 
transfer of it from victimage (other inflicted) to mortification (self-inflicted) and 
from real scapegoating (political, social, military) to symbolic scapegoating 
(literature, theater, film). This, it seems, is the best we humans can hope 
for in maintaining “order” while attempting to reduce carnage. 

However, as I argue in the same paper, there appears to be a tension in Burke 
between an essentializing strategy of interpretation in Burke (as per 
Lentricchia and Murray, “seeing the complex in terms of the simple”) and a “
proportionalizing” strategy (also, the “interpretative attitude” where certain 
complexities cannot be reduced). Said differently, this is a tension between “
dialectic transcendence” (where divisions are dissolved through a more “universal 
identification of pollution,” such as “pride”) and “humble irony” (“seeing 
two sides at once”). But this tension between “essentializing” and “
proportionalizing” only appears as a difference because the strategy of universal 
identification of pollution is precisely what, in Burke’s operations, allows for “
seeing two sides at once.” The pollution is identified “within” the main 
character(s) (the self as “everyman”) and symbolically extirpated or “scapegoated.

In the section of your paper on Burke’s Method of Dialectic I agree that the 
method brings us to seeing that what was once “apart from” is now “a part of.”
 But here the “being a part of” means that “we” are consubstantial in some 
humanly shared “guilt.” And here mistakenness (in whatever form) translates 
for Burke as a kind of universal or original “sin” or “guilt.” For Burke, it 
would seem we are “fools” because of our essentially flawed nature rather 
than essentially okay and “made to look foolish” because life’s circumstances 
leave us sufficiently blind that we often cannot avoid choosing wrongly. Either 
way, “scenic” elements creep into the “action/motion” distinction, but, in 
the former, we are inherently “guilty” and in the latter we are inherently “
innocent” (or as Nietzsche says, caught in the “innocence of becoming.”)

So, from my point of view, Burke’s comic frame repeats on another level the 
scapegoat mechanism or the Iron Law of History. I see him as advocating what I 
call (and I think he would have agreed) “universal comedy” as the preferred 
drama in his dramatism. And this “universal comedy” is a comedic (less tragic) 
form of psycho-melodrama (there’s still a “goat”; it’s just moved “inside” 
each of us). Melodramatic comedy features a “fool” (other or self; factional 
or universal). Melodramatic tragedy features a “monster” (other or self; 
factional or universal). Thus, both Burke’s “factional” and “universal” forms 
of drama are still broadly “melodramatic” in structure.

I would agree in one sense when you say that the more proper tension in Burke 
for critics to note is that between comedy and melodrama (not comedy and 
tragedy). For as Burke understood, comedy and tragedy can be close cousins in 
terms of structure. The “lesson of humility” contained in tragic drama completes 
the comic circle “that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness
” (ATH, p. 41). But, on the whole, I think the tension is more adequately 
drawn between factional/universal structures conforming to the Iron Law of 
History and the synagonistic structures I think offer an alternative way of 
structuring conflict.

But, moving back to your paper, these differences I’ve just noted turn around 
the question: Who is Burke and what is he saying? The answers to which are 
largely “academic” in the sense that they are of interest to those in the field 
who care about who is saying what.

More fundamentally I see your paper focusing on the broader question: How to 
appreciate the complexity of life and conflict while also remaining capable of 
responding with potent critique and calls for “appropriate” action and 
decision. This may boil down to a tension between Burke’s act and scene ratio. If 
we act out of some measure of blindness, how “responsible” are we? Even when 
some group “knows” what it’s doing, (as, for example, the “U-North” corporate 
executives in the film Michael Clayton) and they act in full understanding of 
the ethical dimensions of their actions, it can be argued that the ethical 
shortcomings of its actions are a result of the combined flaws of each person in 
the group A) flawed DNA, B) poor parenting, C) inadequate education, D) 
waywardness in the given culture, etc. If we open the door to the slippery slope of 
“scenic” influences, where do we draw the line in understanding culpability 
or accountability?

As you argue, it comes down to a process of judgment, of going through the 
steps of melodrama to high comedy (this would be the same as high tragedy for 
me), to ideology critique. Or, as you say, from righteous indignation, to 
comedic self-examination, to warrantable outrage. But everything here depends on 
that process of “self-examination” as you note regarding “Camp Two” at the end 
of your paper.

Here I’m reminded of the criticism of Davy Crocket and the “go ahead” boys 
and the era of “manifest destiny.” Davy used to say: “make sure you’re right, 
then go ahead.” Trouble was, what counted as “self-examination” then doesn’
t count for much these days. Today we require a “deeper” degree of 
reflection. But how deep? Thus, once again, your question at the end of the paper: after 
humble irony, then what? Perhaps another way of asking this is: How much 
humble irony before we “allow” ourselves to break into “warrantable action”?

I have an appendix to a book I’ve done that I’ve attached. It deals with the 
issue you raise of “how to deconstruct without at the same time 
self-destructing?” No way around the need for judgment here as opposed to some form of 
self-evident calculation or formula application. As a launching theme it uses the 
Paul de Man controversy and Derrida’s response.

As for your example of “warrantable outrage” in the Roth excerpt: What do I 
think of that? How does it fit into the “synagonistic” slant that I 
recommend? Well, as I index above, this type of satire falls into the category of 
factional comedy. It has a definite target and it does nothing in terms of balance. 
It does not attempt to suggest how these “friends of Nixon” (or for that 
matter Nixon himself) may be seen as in any way “mistaken” in a sense that would 
evoke any tragic sympathy. None of these men are simple fools (although 
Quayle and Ford certainly “stress” that assumption). They believed in what they 
were doing (they had an ideology). And adequate “ideology critique” would 
require something more than satiric depiction or caricatures of who they are (and 

In other words, a synagonistic treatment would need to be more balanced. 
However, it would not preclude laying out a thorough “debunking” of ideological 
shortcomings and showing how these shortcomings, when compared to shortcomings 
of opponent ideological stances, are, on the balance, “shorter” shortcomings.

In other words, your example (at least in its excerpt form) certainly arouses 
a measure of outrage, but in the absence of “perspective” gained by 
comparison or contrast with opposing “ideologies,” it should not serve to arouse “
warrantable outrage” and warrantable means of collective censure. We need to see 
at least two sides of the argument, both presented in the fairest light, 
alongside the most penetrating critical exposure, in order to arrive at “
warrantable outrage.” This can be done narratively or discursively.

Now you may respond that by the time this is done, “warrantable outrage” may 
have been reduced to “complete inertia.” I would not agree. The model I’m 
proposing here is not much different than our judicial system and its assumption 
of “innocent until proven guilty” (although our judicial system arguably 
does have a measure of inertia in it—but that may work in our favor in many 
cases). We need to see the strong evidence on both sides (May this be one reason 
why Aeschylus takes the Oresteia to the conclusion of a jury trial?). Then, and 
only then, can a genuinely “warrantable” judgment be made. And even then, 
there is no guarantee we will not act blindly.

Nevertheless, on the whole, I agree with the tone and direction you are 
heading in the paper. You frame the problem well, but do not quite find the 
resolution (or accommodation) I would favor. But then my friends have judged me to be 
a certifiably warrantable outrage, so please approach what I say with all due 
caution and a gain of salt.

All for now,



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