Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: mythology

Father Time: Chronos and Kronos

"Classic" Kronos: The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn

Classic Kronos: The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn (Kronos)

It is easy to confuse the Greek god of time, Chronos (Χρόνος), with Zeus’ Titan father, Kronos (Κρόνος). So easy, in fact, that the conflation has been made for over two thousand years. The Greeks conflated them regularly, at least according to Plutarch. The Romans then coopted Kronos into the form of Saturn, who later became known as Father Time and the god of time.

To make things even more confusing, sometime in the late Roman Empire, Saturn was then conflated with the Greek concept of kairos, which designates a pregnant or opportune “special” time. Kairos is somewhat opposed to chronos, which signifies day-to-day time in general. Chronos is the quotidian, the recurrent, the passing of the years, while kairos is the moment, the event, the suspension of the normal. But both were piled onto Saturn over the centuries.

Time is always a messy concept, in mythology and otherwise. I haven’t found a good overview of the nooks and crannies of these nominal twins; this is my attempt.

The Greek origins are frustratingly fuzzy, as usual. Chronos doesn’t appear in Hesiod’s Theogony, which tells the usual story of Kronos eating his children and then being tricked by his wife Rheia into regurgitating them, then being defeated by them (as well as Zeus, who Rheia hid).

But Chronos does appear in the cosmogony of the sixth century BCE writer Pherekydes of Syros. Pherekydes posits three primordial deities: Chronos, proto-Zeus figure Zas, and proto-Gaia figure Chthonie. Zas marries Chtonie and gives her the earth and sea as a wedding present, turning Chthonie into her present Ge, the earth. The gifts are partly created, however, by Chronos himself:

Zas always existed, and Chronos and Chthonie, as the three first principles.. .and Chronos made out of his own seed fire and wind [or breath] and water… from which, when they were disposed in five recesses, were composed numerous other offspring of gods, what is called ‘of the five recesses’, which is perhaps the same as saying ‘of five worlds’.

Fragment 52, Kirk, Raven, Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers

Then there is a big gap in our knowledge, and the next thing we have from Pherekydes is Kronos (not Chronos) fighting with Ophioneus over who should hold the heavens. Kronos wins. Apart from the oddness of Kronos allying with Zas, there are all sorts of other questions:

Scholars have generally assumed that at some point Chronos becomes Kronos, and Zas Zeus, and perhaps Ge Rheia. Such an assumption seems likely to be right, but poses some problems for our understanding of the relationship between Zeus and Kronos: do they clash as in Hesiod after the fall of Ophioeus, or are they allies in that battle and subsequently, with Zeus simply assuming a more prominent role toward the end of the poem? … There still remains the fact that Zeus (as Zas) and Kronos (as Chronos) have both existed forever, in contrast to Ophioneus, and there seems no good reason why either of them should suddenly engage in conflict with the other….

On the whole, then, I think it best to assume that Zas and Chronos work together in harmony from beginning (of which there is none) to end, and that the battle with Ophioneus (from his name clearly a Typhoeus counterpart) and his brood is the only conflict which Pherekydes envisioned.

Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth

Kirk and Raven say that Pherekydes was clearly “addicted to etymologies,” and so perhaps did the joining of similarly named gods, turning Time into a creator and Zeus and Kronos into allies.

Onto the post-classical Hellenistic world. In his book on the Orphic poems, M.L. West tells of Clement quoting from a hymn to a god that is both father and son to Zeus: “The god is probably Kronos (Chronos), called Zeus’ son because of the story in the Rhapsodic Theogony that Zeus swallowed the older gods and brought them forth again. Cf. Hymn 8.13” This leaves us with the perplexing loop of Kronos killing both his father and children, only to have his surviving son become his father.

And the ourobourus is doubly appropriate because one of Chronos’ early forms was a winged serpent, which developed into a three-headed serpent in Orphic cosmogony:

The serpent form of Chronos may have its origins in Egyptian fantasy, but in Orphic poetry it took on a symbolic significance which justified its retention and elaboration. Chronos was represented, we are told, as a winged serpent with additional heads of a bull and a lion, and between them the face of a god. How is this to be imagined? The detail that the wings were `on his shoulders’ suggests that the whole upper part of his body was of human shape apart from the wings and extra heads. This is also indicated by the fact that his consort, who was `of the same nature’, had arms. If the couple are mainly anthropomorphic above the waist and snakelike below, they are reminiscent of Echidna (Hes. Th. 298-9, Hdt. 4.9.1), and even more of her consort Typhoeus as he is represented on a well-known Chalcidian hydria in Munich.

M.L. West, The Orphic Poems

Zeus and Typhoeus (Chronos?)

Zeus and Typhoeus (akin to the Orphic Chronos–minus two heads)

West sees a common Indo-European origin to these myths shared by Indian, Egyptian, and Greek sources. He speculates:

The snake was an ancient and natural symbol of eternity because of its habit of sloughing its skin off and so renewing its youth. It may also be relevant that the serpent with human head and arms is the regular shape of river-gods. The idea of Time as a river is present in at least one passage of tragedy (Critias 43 F 3.1-3 `Tireless Time with his ever-flowing stream runs full, reborn from himself’); and it would be assisted by the fact that Oceanus is usually the father of rivers, if in the Orphic poem Chronos was represented as born to Oceanus. River-gods are not usually fitted with wings, of course, and would have no use for them. But they are a natural adjunct for a cosmic serpent with no earth to glide upon. We may compare the wings of Pherecydes’ world tree, and in art the wings of the sun’s horses. In a wider context, wings are freely bestowed by archaic artists upon all manner of divine beings, and fabulous monsters such as sphinxes and griffins are also winged; the type of the winged Typhoeus has its place with them. That Time should be winged is something in which it is easy to find symbolic meaning.

M.L. West, The Orphic Poems

As an anthropomorphic god, however, Chronos fades out while Kronos retains his standard position as Zeus’ father, parricide, and filicide in classical Greek sources.

Plutarch, though, continues to speak of a more figurative allegory known in the Orphic cults and to the Greeks in general:

And they are those that tell us that, as the Greeks are used to allegorize Kronos (or Saturn) into chronos (time), and Hera (or Juno) into aer (air) and also to resolve the generation of Vulcan into the change of air into fire, so also among the Egyptians, Osiris is the river Nile, who accompanies with Isis, which is the earth; and Typhon is the sea, into which the Nile falling is thereby destroyed and scattered, excepting only that part of it which the earth receives and drinks up, by means whereof she becomes prolific.

Plutarch, “Of Isis and Osiris”

Kronos was not the only one to be allegorized into chronos, however. There are bits of evidence of hero-demigod Herakles/Hercules also being equated with the winged serpent.

Athenagoras and Damascius both record that the winged serpent Chronos was also called Heracles. Why? What was there about Heracles that enabled him to be identified with a creature of such physical monstrosity and such cosmic importance? Only one plausible answer has so far been suggested. In the legendary cycle of twelve labours, in the course of which Heracles overcame a lion, a bull, and various other dangerous fauna, some allegorical interpreters saw the victorious march of the sun through the twelve signs of the zodiac. Time is measured by the sun and the solar year. It is thus that Heracles-Helios can be addressed by the author of the Orphic Hymns as `father of Time’ (12.3), and by Nonnus as `thou who revolvest the son of Time, the twelve-month year’ (D. 40.372). By the same token, it may be argued, the Orphic Chronos, Time himself, might be identified with Heracles, the indomitable animal-tamer of the zodiac.

However, there is another possibility. For Plato, time is defined by the complex movements of the sun, moon, and planets; and when they have played through all their permutations and returned to the same relative positions, the `perfect year’ and the `perfect number of time’ are complete. The early Stoics derived from this their doctrine of the Great Year, at the end of which the cosmos is totally dissolved into fire. They defined time as the dimension of cosmic movement. Time was therefore coextensive with the Great Year, and could be considered to pause in the ecpyrosis. Now we find in Seneca, after a thoroughly Stoic exposition of the identity of God, the author of the world, with Nature and Fate, the argument that he may be equated with (among other divinities) Hercules, `because his force is invincible, and when it is wearied by the promulgation of works, it will retire into fire’. The allusion is on the one hand to the Stoic ecpyrosis, on the other to the pyre on the summit of Mount Oeta in which Heracles was cremated and achieved apotheosis after completing his labours. In this Stoic allegorization of the Heracles myth, then, the cycle of labours corresponds to the totality of divine activity in the course of the Great Year. Since divine activity is coextensive with the cosmos, that means that Heracles’ labours represent everything that happens in cosmic time.

M.L. West, The Orphic Poems

This is admittedly rather speculative. It is noteworthy, however, because it links Chronos to one of two Greek cults that thrived heavily under Rome, those of Herakles and Dionysus.

The movement from the literal to the figurative is not the only direction. The process works in reverse as well. What subsequently happens is a combining and recombining in which incompatible features are freely merged and tossed away. Here the best single guide is Ernst Panofsky’s article “Father Time.”

In none of these ancient representations do we find the hourglass, the scythe or sickle, the crutches, or any signs of a particularly advanced age. In other words, the ancient images of Time are either characterized by symbols of fleeting speed and precarious balance, or by symbols of universal power and infinite fertility, but not by symbols of decay and destruction. How, then, did these most specific attributes of Father Time come to be introduced?

The answer lies in the fact that the Greek expression for time, Chronos, was very similar to the name of Kronos (the Roman Saturn), oldest and most formidable of the gods. A patron of agriculture, he generally carried a sickle. As the senior member of the Greek and Roman Pantheon he was professionally old, and later, when the great classical divinities came to be identified with the planets, Saturn was associated with the highest and slowest of these. When religious worship gradually disintegrated and was finally supplanted by philosophical speculation, the fortuitous similarity between the words Chronos and Kronos was adduced as proof of the actual identity of the two concepts which really had some features in common. According to Plutarch, who happens to be the earliest author to state this identity in writing, Kronos means Time in the same way as Hera means Air and Hephaistos, Fire.

The Neoplatonics accepted the identification on metaphysical rather than physical grounds. They interpreted Kronos, the father of gods and men, as nous, the Cosmic Mind (while his son Zeus or Jupiter was likened to its ’emanation,’ the psyche, or Cosmic Soul) and could easily merge this concept with that of Chronos, the ‘father of all things,’ the ‘wise old builder,’ as he had been called. The learned writers of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. began to provide Kronos-Saturn with new attributes like the snake or dragon biting its tail, which were meant to emphasize his temporal significance. Also, they re-interpreted the original features of his image as symbols of time, His sickle, traditionally explained eithcr as an agricultural implement or as the instrument of castration, came to be interpreted as a symbol of tempora quae sicut falx in se recurrunt; and the mythical tale that he had devoured his own children was said to signify that Time, who had already been termed ‘sharp-toothed’ by Simonides and edax rerum by Ovid, devours whatever he has created.

Ernst Panofsky, “Father Time”

Note that pace Panofsky, the snake/dragon imagery of time was not new to the 4th/5th centuries CE. Neoplatonics like Proclus were aware of the Orphic cosmogonies and were resuscitating an existing, though latent, symbolism.

Nonetheless, we have some ex post facto justification here. New explanations are created that invoke anachronistic features of the deities. If Kronos devouring his children originally had nothing to do with time, now it does. Time now becomes gloomy because Saturn is gloomy. In place of Orphic “unaging” Time, we now get aged, cranky, hungry Time.

Far from being an abstraction limited to philosophy, Time seems better thought of as one of those absolute metaphors darting between concept, symbol, and personification. Time latches onto Kronos because of a lexical similarity, but it latches onto Herakles through arcane associations mostly lost to us. It infects myths like a virus.

By the age of Petrarch (1304-1374), Renaissance humanism makes for a new recombination. Petrarch’s Triumphs portrays a menacing, conquering time. Saturn was readymade for the job. Saturn’s castrating scythe now signifies the ravages of time. (Destruction is always an easily-reappropriated metaphor.) The scythe also links time easily to his compatriot Death, who is associated with the scythe as early as the 11th century.

Small wonder that the illustrators decided to fuse the harmless personification of ‘Temps’ with the sinister image of Saturn. From the former they took over the wings, from the latter the grim, decrepit appearance, the crutches, and, finally, such strictly Saturnian features as the scythe and the devouring motif. That this new image personified Time was frequently emphasized by an hourglass, which seems to make its first appearance in this new cycle of illustrations, and sometimes by the zodiac, or the dragon biting its tail.

Ernst Panofsky, “Father Time”

Petrarch's Triumph of Time

Petrarch’s Triumph of Time

And with this new conception of time, the menacing portions stick while the innocuous features–like the wings–do not, even though it was the wings that were associated with time in the first place! The serpent imagery is long-gone, overwritten by Christianity.

By this point, the idea of time devouring his children (not Zeus, but us) has taken on real metaphysical weight, and time the destroyer proceeds into the present day. It’s not Goya’s Saturn but Rubens’ Saturn that captures this new Saturn-as-Time, white beard, decrepit body, and staff/scythe.

Petrarch, Triumph of Time

Rubens' Saturn (1638)

Rubens’ Saturn (1638)

Your grandeur passes, and your pageantry,
Your lordships pass, your kingdoms pass; and Time
Disposes wilfully of mortal things,

And treats all men, worthy or no, alike;
And Time dissolves not only visible things,
But eloquence, and what the mind hath wrought.

And fleeing thus, it turns the world around.
Nor ever rests nor stays nor turns again
Till it has made you nought but a little dust.

Time in his avarice steals so much away:
Men call it Fame; ’tis but a second death,
And both alike are strong beyond defense.
Thus doth Time triumph over the world and Fame.

 

Continuity as Commodity and Fetish

Q: How do you keep an idiot in suspense?

A: I’ll tell you part of the answer for sixty minutes each week for the next six years.

FRY: Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared.

Futurama, “When Aliens Attack”

The First Final Problem

Sherlock Holmes is the defining case of the problem of continuity. Conan Doyle killed off Holmes because he was sick of the character, then was faced with the problem of bringing him back. It wasn’t such a terrible problem, even if the solution was a little tacky. Because the stories were written by a fallible first-person observer in the form of Watson, he simply had the smarter character sneeringly assert the unreliability of the narrative:

In your picturesque account of the matter, which I read with great interest some months later, you assert that the wall was sheer. That was not literally true. A few small footholds presented themselves, and there was some indication of a ledge…A mistake would have been fatal. More than once, as tufts of grass came out in my hand or my foot slipped in the wet notches of the rock, I thought that I was gone. But I struggled upward, and at last I reached a ledge several feet deep and covered with soft green moss, where I could lie unseen, in the most perfect comfort. There I was stretched, when you, my dear Watson, and all your following were investigating in the most sympathetic and inefficient manner the circumstances of my death.

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Empty House”

Hence the problem of continuity: the need for a post hoc coherence to a storyline that was never planned out in the first place.

Because of the nature of mystery fans, Conan Doyle scholarship embraces the eccentric tendency of trying to justify all discontinuities that Conan Doyle never did bother to explain:

The most curious facet of this undeniably sumptuous package lies in Klinger’s decision to play the parlour game of Sherlockian scholarship. Initiated in 1911 by a Catholic priest who intended it as a spoof of scriptural exegesis, the game assumes that Sherlock Holmes actually existed, that the stories really were written by John Watson MD, and that Doyle acted only as the doctor’s agent. The supposed fun lies in ensuring that the canon’s numerous mistakes, implausibilities and inconsistencies are coherently explained away, no matter how tortured the logic required. Klinger fills page after page with the kind of wilfully pedantic literary mischief-making which John Sutherland has turned into an art form. How many wives had Doctor Watson? Did Holmes love the only woman ever to have outwitted him? What colour was the Baker Street dressing gown? And what really happened at the Reichenbach Falls? The whimsy of this conceit swiftly becomes grating and, in relegating the author to the role of mere go-between and front man, also seems faintly insulting to Doyle himself.

Jon Barnes, “Too Spirited for the Spooks,” TLS 07 January 2005

I’m fascinated by the seemingly futile efforts of fans to render coherent what was never intended to be such. In effect, they are rationalizing God’s ways to man.

When John Sutherland does it in books like Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in Nineteenth-century Fiction or Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?, he does so with a wink and a nod, but the method is essentially the same, postulating clues in order to obtain solutions that aren’t there. Seeing Sutherland ply his craft is instructive because he applies it to works that don’t normally entertain it. He does so in the same spirit as well, coming out of an obsessive love for the world creation of Victorian novelists. Compared to Joyce or Proust, Victorian worlds never felt particularly real to me and so I have little desire to make them more real.

I am, however, easier on the fans than Barnes is. The rationale this “supposed fun” is that it in fact fun of a deep and meaningful variety, and rather than an insult to the author, it is a gesture of fanatical love for characters now elevated to the level of myth. This form of myth, unlike traditional myth, tolerates inconsistencies only inasmuch as they can be explained after the fact, giving  it a strangely paradoxical character.

The results, like the results of theodicy, are almost inevitably disappointing, since the absence of a grand plan makes it impossible that such a plan will be discovered. The attribution of too great a level of reality puts both the fans and the creators in a tight spot. The near-inevitable failure of grand unifying moments occurs because the arbitrary restrictions make impossible any satisfactory unification of ex post facto continuity.

 

Stan Lee’s Shared Rhizomes

Stan Lee was probably not the first to consciously commoditize continuity, but I believe he was the first to achieve massive success through it. The Marvel comics that were written by Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby have far more value for their visual artistry than their plot, but the plot sold the art at least as much as the other way around.

In the 1960s, Lee’s titles fostered fan involvement by printing fan addresses in the letters columns, so that the more involved fans could contact one another. (I thought that Lee invented this gambit, but it turns out to have been originated by DC’s Julius Schwartz. See this excellent Wikipedia article.) But more significantly for our purposes here, Lee loaded up stories with cross-references to previous issues and other titles, putting asterisks in dialogue balloons that pointed to footnotes reading “As seen in Fantastic Four #42! -Ed.” (Lee did not invent this device either, but he put it to far more work.)

Lee, far more than anyone before him, created a tight network of “hyperlinked” content that, naturally, encouraged fans to make sure they bought every single issue of every title, so as not to miss out on part of the continuity. This has come to be known as a “shared universe,” but this term is something of an insult to genuinely fleshed-out universes. It is a network of gaps and contradictions claiming the illusion of coherence. At least call it a “shared rhizome” or something like that.

Yet the embrace of continuity worked, and fans bought into a concept that inherently guaranteed disappointment. The claim of writers like Lee to possess the hidden gnosis of the entire “universe,” to be revealed in dribs and drabs, went mostly unquestioned even when patently false, even when acknowledged to be false.

So one can only attribute fan dissatisfaction to real cognitive dissonance, as here:

One such tool is retconning, short for “retroactive continuity”, where later adjustments result in the invalidation of previously-written material. The most severe form of retcon involves a wholesale rewrite of the groundwork for the entire setting. These reboots, most closely associated with DC Comics, are not always effective at resolving underlying problems and may meet with a negative reaction from fans.

Shared Universe

This in turn fosters an attitude of contempt from many writers, who see themselves as absurdly boxed in and know that there is no way to please the fans. In effect, the reaction is: “How can you hold our titles to their false promises of coherence when those promises were so blatantly ridiculous?” You can see the dynamic on display as Lost scribe Damien Lindelof squirms under interrogation from Josh Horowitz, half-embarrassed and half-condescending. Hence Fry’s quote at the beginning of this essay. (Lindelof had acted in especially bad faith by earlier claiming that the show had been planned out from the start.)

 

Doctoring the Doctor

When fans become part of the creative apparatus, this contempt becomes internalized, and the simultaneous effort to worship continuity while knowing it is a lie can come to resemble the internal workings of religious bureaucracies.

The posts at the Tardis Eruditorum hypothesize a particularly nasty form of this self-immolation occurring in the 1980s with Doctor Who, which became both nastier and more incoherent as it incorporated fandom and fan feedback into its creative process, under the diabolical show-runner John Nathan-Turner.

There, in the context of discussing the killing off of a character no one liked anyway, Philip Sandifer writes, “The problem is that so much of fandom seems unaware of the ‘guilty’ part of guilty pleasures.” I think it’s more epistemological than that, at least for the more fanatical of fans. It’s a matter of cognitive dissonance. The pleasure of buying into a world of continuity, and the suspense of having it revealed slowly, requires an ongoing suspension of disbelief that is impossible to sustain in the face of growing evidence that nothing is in fact being revealed.

Doctor Who, sheerly by dint of being on continuously for longer than any other such continuity-based program short of a soap opera (where large-scale continuity isn’t an issue since characters can simply be abandoned), probably faced this problem first, a point which I’m grateful to Sandifer for pointing out. That the results were frankly disastrous bears repeating. Sandifer puts the logic succinctly in talking about the 1983 twentieth (!) anniversary special The Five Doctors, in which the five actors to have played the part to that point (one a ringer for a dead actor, another appearing only through leftover old footage) had to be worked into a single story:

On the one hand, Nathan-Turner is obsessed with strip-mining the program’s history. On the other, Nathan-Turner remains obsessed with distinguishing himself and glorifying his tenure as producer. And so the program is increasingly obsessed with referencing its past for the sole purpose of trying to show how much better it is than the very past that it sees itself as primarily existing to reference.

Terence Dicks has said that his strategy in writing The Five Doctors was to just put everything in and trust that nobody was going to look too hard at the glue. This is, again, essentially correct. The story proceeds not according to narrative logic but according to a paratextual logic. It is driven by a need to shove in every signifier of Doctor Who it can find, and more to the point, its audience knows it. It works not according to plot logic but according to the logic of nostalgia.

The Dalek is the point where this is most blatantly signposted. It appears, gets one scene, and is abandoned, having served its purpose. The audience, upon seeing this, knows exactly what sort of story this is.

The Five Doctors

Not all of the audience. For a substantial number of fans, frequently the most vocal ones, the story remains one more set of jigsaw pieces to assemble into a puzzle that does not in fact fit together. And so continuity purposes and creative purposes become an ever-more-quickly-spinning ourobouros.

This intolerable self-loathing seems to have resulted in what Sandifer terms the nadir of the series, “The Twin Dilemma,” a rewriting of the Doctor mythos so horrendous as to be indefensible. I will let Sandifer, whose sense of betrayal is palpable, tell it, since his passion conveys more of the sheer hatred at the heart of the story than a rote plot summary would:

Colin Baker’s Doctor isn’t just unlikable here. He’s intolerable. He’s an overtly bad person who any reasonable audience should actively dislike and want to see get his comeuppance. Whereas the series still visibly thinks he’s the hero. It’s not just that Baker’s Doctor is prickly and hard to like, it’s that he’s a bad guy.

…The Doctor attempts to choke his heavily sexualized female companion. He physically and violently assaults her in a manner that is chillingly familiar as a real-world phenomenon that happens to women at the hands of their male partners. Then he drags her against her will to what he says could be an entire life in which “it shall be your humble privilege to minister unto my needs.” She readily forgives him and grins stupidly at his charms. It’s not Nicola Bryant’s fault – she plays the material as well as it can be played. Nor is it Baker’s fault. They try to make the scenes watchable, but nobody could possibly make this work. Peri is violently assaulted by a man who overtly sees her only purpose as being to serve him, and chooses happily to stay with him. The show treats this man as its hero and expects the audience to tune in nine months later to watch his continuing adventures.

Of course they declined to. Baker’s Doctor is completely poisoned here. There’s nothing whatsoever that can be done to make this character watchable to anyone who has seen this. And I speak from experience here. This is the story that killed my parents’ interest in Doctor Who. To this day my mother refuses to accept the possibility that Baker might be good on the audios simply because of how much this story made her hate him. That’s how bad this played to people. That’s how you kill Doctor Who in under a hundred minutes. You make it about a battered woman idolizing her abuser.

Yeah, OK. I take it back. This is the worst fucking story ever.

The Twin Dilemma

 

Tommy Westphal’s Head

These days the embrace of continuity is done with simultaneous irony and fanaticism, sort of a post-Nietzschean “God is dead but can we pretend he’s alive?” approach. It’s prima facie absurd to try to figure out all the television characters who were only in Tommy Westphal’s mind on St. Elsewhere by tracing crossovers, but then again, someone did it. There doesn’t even need to be the stated intent of continuity to practice this game.

This is ultimately because the problem of continuity is unavoidable. As long as you are recycling the same characters or other pieces of a creative franchise, there has to be some addressing, even unintentionally, of the relation of this particular version to other versions. There is only one actual explanation, which is that the decisions are made pragmatically and haphazardly on a case by case basis with more or less respect for the past.  The best writers simply pick and choose the bits that work best for them, weaving a particular version into the fabric.

But the shared, commoditized myth of continuity mandates that the appeal of such work be in its continuity linkages, and so there is a tension between the big picture fandom appeal and any desire to make art. This is analogous to the more general trend of genre-conformity vs. individual artistic achievement, played out in the more restricted context of actual characters and plot rather than in the context of mere archetypes. Instead of “revenge tragedies” or “knight-errant novels,” we get “Dragonlance novels” or “Star Trek movies.” Such franchises become their own sub-genres.

Assorted sleights-of-hand have been established: the dreaded reboot is the one in common parlance, while alternate universes remain a semantically more acceptable method of changing established rules arbitrarily. Ignoring or finessing continuity will only result in fans trying to solve the problems themselves, as with Sherlock Holmes. Foisting this work off onto fans is probably the best approach anyway, so as to free the writers from plotting and character constraints that make crap art almost inevitable, but creators can’t be seen to say this explicitly, so instead it is sublimated into contempt for their audience. The altar of continuity is a shrine to a false god.

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