David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: August 2006

David B.: Two Stories

The Armed Garden and The Veiled Prophet appeared in the Winter and Spring/Summer issues of MOME, Fantagraphics’ otherwise unremarkable comics anthology. David B., though, is perhaps the greatest living comics writer/artist, and certainly the most mystical. His work draws heavily on portraying visual representations of internal and metaphysical states. He deployed these techniques at length in Epileptic (L’Ascension du Haut-Mal in French), his three-hundred hundred page chronicle of his brother’s severe epilepsy and his family’s life with it. At some point in the future, I will attempt to come to terms with the scope of David B.’s achievement of creating a visual weltanschauung as universal as that of any of the old masters. Here, though, are two little religious fables about crossing the gap between the human and the heavens, and the horrors therein.

“The Armed Garden” is the more straightforward of the two. Jog describes it in detail here, but in brief, it concerns a Prague blacksmith, Rohan, who is subject to visions of Adam and Eve urging him to lead humanity back to paradise before the fall.

This he does, setting up camp in a verdant garden and descending into debauchery. One defiled woman under his reign asks, “You claim to be men of God, yet you commit the most abominable crimes,” and Rohan responds:

We are now one with God; we are no longer held to observe the commandments! We have the right to satisfy all our desires! If you refuse me, I shall kill you but you will be the one at fault!

Then the twist. Eve now appears to the militant Ziska, telling him, “Your brother Rohan has lost himself on the road to Paradise.” Ziska takes up arms and invades the garden, where they have regressed to a pre-human state of existence, having been absorbed into the trees, rocks, and ground. Rohan himself has undergone some kind of false apotheosis into a sun, and Ziska is able to destroy him with the aid of a talking goose.

Though the mythos is Christian, the story uses a more ancient mode of divine-human interaction that is closer to Greek and Norse mythology. Rohan loses the approbation of the gods even as he embraces their words and leaves humanity behind; it’s Ziska, who remains human, who comes out the victor, along with the backing of Eve.

“The Veiled Prophet” (also described by Jog) is very much the complement of “The Armed Garden”: this time, the divine intrudes on the human instead of the other way around. Set in a vaguely Arabic milieu, A veil falls from the sky onto an average man and transforms him into an all-purpose religious leader, appearing as any and all former prophets to others and inspiring an immediate and immense following. He amasses an army and sets about conquering all around him, until the Caliph marshals a large army against him. The prophet holds forth with rhetoric reminiscent of Rohan:

This world does not exist! It is an illusion! The real world is behind this veil. But you cannot see it without perishing! Here, there is neither law nor religion. The violation of every law is the first step toward the real world.

But unlike Rohan, the prophet is divine. He unleashes a literal flood of the skeletons of the victims and martyrs of injustice from all of history. The Caliph fights wisely and bravely, but he doesn’t have a chance. He’s only human.

The tenors of both stories are similarly folklorish, but the differences in setting and outcome are salutary. Reading “The Veiled Prophet” after “The Armed Garden,” I expected the prophet to come to grief, led astray by the intrusion of a piece of eternity–the veil–into the human world. But no, the prophet is now eternity (or the “real,” as the prophet would have it), and he is as destructive to the world as paradise was to Rohan’s sect. Humans touching eternity and eternity impinging on humans. David B.’s cosmology in these two stories has the same axioms:

  1. The eternal world is more real than the human world.
  2. It is hostile to humans in its very nature.

This cosmology is a gnostic one in that the eternal world reveals itself subjectively and in pieces. Yet David B. seems ultimately concerned with the idea that it is precisely the illusory world that allows we as people to exist and to survive. Every incursion of the Real destroys us. Merely to touch the Real, as Ziska does at the end of “The Armed Garden,” is enough to blind one. People exist in the space between the Real and nothingness, condemned to see the world in lies and misunderstanding, and it is those fictions that form our very existence. Fictions keep the Real at bay, though it remains a constant presence. Hence the theme of compulsory, obsessive creation that underlies Epileptic.

In addition to gnosticism, it’s also a Hermetic metaphysic. Hermeticism thrives or dies based on the ability of its advocate to enthrall the aesthetic appreciation of the reader, and David B. is sublimely skilled in this regard. Hermeticism is particularly suited to the comics medium, just as Lull and Bruno communicated more intuitively and persuasively in their charts and graphics than they could in their writing.

As for the source of David B.’s inspiration, I can’t say, not being a gnostic or a hermeticist myself, but I cannot deny the overwhelming reaction (illusory or real) that his world (illusory or real) is more freestanding than those of most artists, requiring less support from the shared assumptions of his culture, and that this is a crucial aspect of at least one sort of genius.

What’s Missing from Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake has so many languages, so many people, so many sheer things that, although they don’t defy enumeration, they defy easy categorization. I spoke before of Joyce’s obsession with overlaying contradictory, consubstantial layers of signification and structure. But the one spot where Joyce can’t pull this trick is in omission and elision. I.e., there are certain areas which are conspicuous by their absence, or at least their relative scarcity. Here are several that were always present in my mind by dint of their absence in the text.

Homosexuality. Given Joyce’s obsessive depiction of the body and its functions, explicit homosexuality is downright marginalized in the Wake. It takes such a secondary role next to heterosexuality that one always wonders where it fits in the cosmology of the book. It is less present in the Wake than it is in both Ulysses and Portrait, where homoerotic male friendships and gender confusion both play a significant part. Shem and Shaun are brothers-in-arms in both opposition and camaraderie, but there appears to be no element of a sexual relationship between them. HCE masturbates and has his obsession with anal and urinary functions, but appears wholly heterosexual. Hints of gender confusion are present for Issy and the Tristan-Isolde pairing, but this is relegated to a pre-adult portrait of sexuality, not one of homosexuality per se. What of this marginalization? Homosexuality does not move history along by generating descendents, but as an expression of the body, I find its rarity puzzling. If I had to hazard a guess, it would be that Joyce simply did not consider homosexuality to be primary, and thought of it as merely a misdirected heterosexual urge. But surely there is more….

Eschatology. I mean this in two senses, both in the sense of general finality and of religious teleology. The absence of finality from the book is core to its structure; nothing ever ends, and nothing ever develops. History and individual human lives reiterate the same patterns and archetypes. This much is evident, but by avoiding any greater eschatology, Joyce goes after any notion of “higher purpose” that is not contained in the physical world itself. We sin and do good, we reproduce and die, but the ideas that these things have a greater meaning and we are just shadows on the wall are anathema to Joyce. The chief religious myth he uses is that of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and even there he takes from it the cycle of sun rising and setting, Osiris’s journey through the underworld to be reconstructed and resurrected, and the inexorable battle between enemies. The idea of any paradise or finality, or even the idea of eternity itself, is as nonsense in the Wake. It is a temporal sequence that can be viewed forwards and backwards, but it is always moving and always changing. One can counter that Joyce views the archetypes and repeating events as eternal, but even in their repetition, they are always changing even as they are always the same. It is Heraclitus without the logos. Needless to say, this also extends to interpretations of the Wake itself: not postponed or unstable, but merely evanescent.

Metaphysics. As with eschatology, Joyce rejects any notion that the phenomenal world may only be a representation of something greater or hidden (in the gnostic sense, for example). His epistemology is simple and uncomplicated: what you see is what you get. Nowhere does he seem to imply that what he is representing is in any way unreal or questionable. Rather, the facts of human life, suffering, and pleasure are nearly sacred to him, and I feel as though he would be offended by any attempt to dismiss them. Samsara is it.

Politics. There is a caveat here, since the details of several political struggles, especially English-Irish relations, are quite frequent in the book. But Joyce always refers to them in a near-fatalistic manner, and even when he appears to take sides, it is on the more general grounds of anti-oppression rather than nationalistic partisanship; even then, he quickly points out the massacres and crimes of both sides. Intrigues and strategy are not particularly present; violence and death are.

Introspection. Yes, the author famed for stream of consciousness has comparatively little of it here. Physical description, third-person histories, and interrogation (lots and lots of it) are the order of the day here. ALP and Issy are the only two figures given extended spots of first-person monologue, and even ALP’s monologues are often given in the form of letters containing words shaped by Shem. Her verbiage in II.2 and IV, constantly analogized as a river, is less a “stream” of consciousness than it is the stream of existence, as both are interrupted by passages that could in no way be termed stream of consciousness.

There are unities amongst these omissions, especially in the hardcore physicalism that more and more pervades my view of Joyce. It becomes easier to understand his dislike of psychology and Freud specifically. Psychology, with its normative states of neurosis, repression, and mental health, would not hold an appeal to someone who had a tendency to see everything (or nothing) as normal. Perhaps homosexuality was not so notable, nor perverse, to obtain an primary position in the schema of the Wake. But I still don’t know.

Postscript: Fritz Senn adds one very significant omission that I can’t believe I forgot: eros. As he says:

There is a lot of sexual content, for some readers there seems to be nothing else. One unfortunate result of finding something sexual in every passage is that thereby SEX is removed from the book. What I do miss, however, is anything erotic.

In my response none of the abundant parts with sexual content, or overtones (or vibrations, etc.), are erotic as something pleasant or stimulating, or cheerful.

And I would agree with him. The joyous personal sexual reveries of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly are not apparent in the Wake. My own explanation for this absence is that Joyce’s exhaustive study of sexual behavior was, by this point, at the level of anthropoligical and biological activity: primarly procreative. At the level of archetypes and history, this may have been all sex seemed to be to Joyce. Eros was too particular and personal to fit into the figures of HCE and ALP.


RIP Arthur Lee

If you don’t already have Forever Changes, do go out and get it. Rather than pulling a track from it, I’m posting Robyn Hitchcock’s tribute to Lee, which seems too appropriate:

Robyn Hitchcock: The Wreck of the Arthur Lee

Personal issues have kept me from writing, and posting will probably be very sparse for at least another week or two.

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