Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This 1979 classic novel of time travel and slavery could not be published today.

Imagine it, imagine Octavia Butler temporally jumped to the present and trying to put out Kindred in the current media climate. Assume, because it’s so good, that the novel even finds an agent and a publisher. Then a science fiction press, banking on an excited reception for this relevant, suspenseful, original, and provocative narrative, releases advanced copies to online reviewers. Perhaps the publisher advertises the novel’s plot teasingly, but a bit vaguely: “A modern African-American woman involuntarily travels back in time to the early 19th century, where she has to live among her enslaved ancestors.”

But the advanced readers begin to leak the novel’s true premise on Goodreads and Twitter. Kindred is really about a modern African-American woman forced to travel back in time to save the life of the white man who enslaved her ancestors. What’s more, she also has to ensure that he rapes one of those ancestors over and over again, because if she doesn’t, she herself will not in the course of time be born from the lineage founded by that assault.

The heroine, furthermore, is married in the narrative present to a white man, and is clearly and avowedly motivated by an obscure attraction, at once maternal and sororal, to the white rapist and slave-owner who will become her distant grandfather. Their fatal dance is the novel’s emotional core, even as the other black characters, all enslaved on the man’s plantation, accuse her of collaboration with white power, an accusation she often finds difficult to deny.

The reaction would be swift and shocking. Before anyone but a handful of self-appointed guardians of literary safety had even read the manuscript, Butler would find herself accused of promoting “tropes”—the acquiescent slave, the violated woman who secretly desires her abuse, etc.—whose mere presence in a work, no matter how ironized or contextualized or ramified, have the power to “harm” the audience through some unspecified mechanism formerly known only to fundamentalist preachers in the Satanic-Panic 1980s.

To attempt to defend Butler would necessarily be to perpetuate this tropological harm. To attempt to remind her attackers that their attitude toward the arts is not socially just, as it descends directly from the ideologies legitimating Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, to say nothing of Winthrop’s Boston; to attempt to inform them that their censorious quest is also not resistant to white-male authority (as they will claim it is) since its premises come more or less straight from several grand old men of the European canon, such as Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, and Tolstoy—all of this would take too long for Twitter.

Considering these obstacles, most influential writers and critics would only privately express their discontent as they do nothing to defend their beleaguered colleague in public, while a few bestselling authors and celebrities will even opportunistically amplify the inevitable hashtag campaign: #kancelkindred.

A cringing, scraping, self-humiliating apology, a promise to “listen better” and “do better,” would be demanded of the author. Her publisher, convinced that 20 self-selected tribunes of the oppressed on social media represent some massive groundswell or any genuine constituency at all, would indeed and inevitably #cancel publication of this great novel. Its author, now construed as a sad victim of internalized racism and sexism and certainly not a responsible purveyor of true and positive representations to the polis, would be sent back to clerical work or manual labor.

And the world of literature would be the poorer, because Kindred is as superb as it is disturbing. Butler’s science-fictional rewriting of the classic slave narrative from the viewpoint of a contemporary black woman allows her to question every bit of received wisdom we have on the topics of progress and modernity, of race, gender, and class.

The plot, alluded to above, is as follows. A California writer named Dana has just moved to a new house with her husband Kevin, a white man who is also a writer, albeit older and more established. One day, Dana finds herself mysteriously transported back to the early 19th century to save a drowning white boy, Rufus Weylin. Over the course of about a month in the summer of 1976, Dana—sometimes accompanied by Kevin—is summoned back five times to save Rufus’s life. While with each trip she is only gone from the present for seconds, minutes, or hours, she spends months at a time over a two-decade period in the early 19th century.

Gradually, she grows accustomed to the life-rhythms of the Weylin plantation and begins to grapple with the quotidian ethical complexities of slavery, its way of corrupting everyone it touches, from Rufus Weylin himself, a white man of some moral promise who debases himself as a rapist and human trafficker because his society enables him to do so, to the more privileged among the enslaved, who themselves uphold the system, often by harshly ruling over those lower than themselves in the hierarchy.

Butler deglamorizes the past, giving us not a splendid plantation, not moonlight and magnolias, but a squalid semi-mansion run by whites who are themselves barely literate. As we might expect of a writer devoted to science fiction, she emphasizes the past’s material and technological deprivation, its bodily reek and lethally primitive medicine.

Critics who read the time-travel trope through Toni Morrison’s Gothic lens of slavery haunting the present (as in Beloved) might think Kindred argues that life has changed little between the antebellum period and now. And the novel does make such thematic gestures, most notably through its frequent doublings of Dana’s present-day white husband, Kevin, with the slaveholding white male characters in the past setting, as if to suggest that certain psychosexual patterns of attraction and repulsion between white men and black women were perennial and inevitable:

I scrambled away, kicking [the slave patroller], clawing the hands that reached out for me, trying to bite, lunging up toward his eyes. I could do it now. I could do anything.

“Dana!”

I froze. My name? No patroller would know that.

“Dana, look at me for Godsake!”

Kevin! It was Kevin’s voice! I stared upward, managed to focus on him clearly at last. I was at home. I was lying on my own bed, bloody and dirty, but safe. Safe!

Kevin lay half on top of me, holding me, smearing himself with my blood and his own. I could see where I had scratched his face—so near the eye.

“Kevin, I’m sorry!”

“Are you all right now?”

“Yes. I thought. . . I thought you were the patroller.” (Butler’s ellipses)

Butler’s numerology also references the Faulknerian theme of the past’s not being past. Dana’s penultimate trip to the 1800s, which she thinks will be her last, ends on June 18—on the eve, that is, of Juneteenth. But this emancipation proves to be short-lived when she is called back a final time on July 4, 1976, not only Independence Day, but the U.S. Bicentennial. These dates emphasize the fragility, impermanence, and incompleteness of African-American freedom when considered in the light of slavery’s legacy.

But Butler’s focus is psychosexual more than it is political. It is about the dynamics of libidinal push and pull that ensue with the proximity of free white men and enslaved black women. (Black men and white women play little role in the novel: the former suffer nobly on the sidelines of the action, while the latter are portrayed as one-dimensionally, if bathetically, villainous.) Kindred hints that only partnership and collaboration between black women and white men can save the nation, despite the many pitfalls of their relation:

“But stay close to me. You got here because you were holding me. I’m afraid that may be the only way you can get home.”

Butler deals little with the economics of enslavement, and is if anything anxious to emphasize the distance between contemporary capitalist arrangements and slavery, a message I assume she derives from Douglass and Jacobs’s 19th-century narratives, both of which argue for the moral and practical superiority of wage labor:

I was working out of a casual labor agency—we regulars called it a slave market. Actually, it was just the opposite of slavery. The people who ran it couldn’t have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered. They always had more job hunters than jobs anyway.

If Dana’s and Kevin’s recourse to low-level, low-wage labor to support their writing careers is sometimes enervating, it is at least a choice they make, a practice of freedom that may be circumscribed by economic necessity but is at least not forced upon them as chattel. Both the white man and the black woman are subjected to it equally, even if Butler hints at prevailing racial and sexual inequalities in Kevin’s greater success as a writer.

Butler’s interest is less in freedom, in triumphant individualism, than in survival. Among the classic science-fiction texts she revises is Robert A. Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—,'” a time-travel paradox tale whose protagonist is his own father and mother. While Heinlein suggests the loneliness and solipsism of such white self-making, Butler adds the moral twist that a black person descended from the enslaved who wished to be the true author of her own life would have to ratify what was done to her ancestors.

Butler was famously inspired to write the book upon hearing a black student say that he would have violently rebelled had he been enslaved. In Butler’s view, this is misguided, not only because—as The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go also insist—the vast majority of people are not heroic revolutionaries, but also because the mere act of survival under any system of oppression is morally compromising. Dana’s reflection on Sarah, an enslaved who has carved out a space of freedom and authority on Weylin’s plantation and who finds many abolitionist ideas incomprehensible, makes this point:

She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called “mammy” in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. […] I looked down on her myself for a while. Moral superiority. Here was someone even less courageous than I was. That comforted me somehow.

Dana can hardly afford moral superiority, however. As she understands early in the novel, Rufus is her distant ancestor, and her mission is not only to save his life, but to ensure that he sexually coerces Alice, an enslaved woman with whom he is obsessed. If he does not do so, then, in a time-travel paradox, Dana will not have been born and will thus cease to exist.

We can detect Butler’s overall philosophy in the fact that Dana never seriously considers sacrificing her own existence so as not to participate in such a moral atrocity. Apparently, we are all driven by a ruthless will to persist, at anyone’s expense. Dana’s awareness of this potential within herself makes her, as well as her husband, “kindred” to the men who survived on the stolen labor of her ancestors—she, no less than whites, is heir to the crime.

The novel bleakly intimates that we all exist, insofar as we do exist, by consuming the lives of other people. Kindred, then, can be added to my little canon of tragic-nihilistic American novels that find in the brutal inequalities of race, gender, class, and sexuality not occasions for moral regeneration à la Harriet Beecher Stowe or James Baldwin or the Twitterati, but rather evidence of evil’s omnipresence and redemption’s absence: Quicksand, Nightwood, Sula, Corregidora.

Finally, Kindred may subtract the putative glamor of the past, but its very filth and danger become a perverse attraction, as Dana reflects:

I felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus’s time was a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse . . . Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch. (Butler’s ellipses)

If inequality persists it in the present, it often does so impersonally, through the practices of institutions for which no one person can be held responsible. In the antebellum south, on the other hand, the forces that victimize Dana require her to rise to their occasion and even provide a physical target for her wrath or revenge. Such a nostalgia for a past that was more brutal but more alive is, I believe, the hidden motivation for the troubling phenomenon of the hate-crime hoax, lately in the news: like Dana, the hoaxers may wish that the real hate to which they feel themselves subject could be a nameable actor in their own lives rather than an effect of abstract social and political arrangements.

I began this review with an imagined illegitimate complaint about Kindred: that its ruthlessness and amorality of vision would render it unfit for the politically-conscious reader. I want to end with a legitimate criticism of the novel I’ve encountered. I have known some readers, usually academics, who picked up Kindred because they heard it discussed in the context of literary science fiction or great novels about slavery; and they put it down disappointed not by its themes but by its style. They thought Butler would be a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin or Toni Morrison, but she has nothing akin to their dense literariness, their investment in style and psyche. She wrote books for mass-market genre publication; in consequence, her prose is expertly engineered for clarity and suspense, while her characters exist to carry out the plot rather than being case studies in modernist depth psychology.

While I disagree with the poptimist argument that literary fiction’s stylization is just a pretentious status signifier—for reasons best explained by the Victor Shklovsky passage quoted in my review of Milkman—I will nevertheless defend Butler’s superficial simplicity of composition. By carefully rendering language transparent rather than opaque, she compels our attention to the novel’s animating dilemma. As in Dostoevsky or, closer to home, Philip K. Dick, the novel becomes an experiment in philosophy rather than an art object.

Admittedly, as a partisan of literary fiction, I would have preferred fewer conversations about the whys and wherefores of time travel; it’s not as if the Samsas dwell at any length on the pragmatics of Gregor’s metamorphosis. But when popular fiction is written with the emotional intensity and theoretical verve of Butler’s—and she is certainly better than Dick, in my view—it is as valid a way to write a novel as is Morrison’s or Le Guin’s comparative aestheticism.

In sum, all you should #cancel are your immediate plans to read anything but this most viscerally dispiriting and intelligently alarming of novels.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López, The Eternaut

The EternautThe Eternaut by Héctor Germán Oesterheld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though The Eternaut only appeared in an English translation in 2015, it is often considered one of the central texts in the canon of Latin American comics and graphic novels, a work of the stature of—in other national or linguistic traditions—Maus or Watchmen, Tintin or L’Incal, Barefoot Gen or Akira.

A newspaper serial originally running in Argentina from 1957-1959, The Eternaut is a science-fiction epic about an alien conquest of earth launched from Buenos Aires. It has both local and global political resonance in its immediate context: its narrative can be seen as a refraction of anxieties over the menace of dictatorship in Argentina and of Cold War fears on the global periphery. But its hero became a kind of graffiti icon in his native country, as Juan Caballero reflects in “The Eternaut: Superpowers and Underdogs,” an afterword to the Fantagraphics translation, due to the grim fate of his creator. Héctor Germán Oesterheld, along with four of his daughters, was “disappeared” in 1977 for his leftist activities during the military dictatorship then ruling the country. He became, in Caballero’s words, “a kind of martyr not just of far-Left art and culture, but of humanism more generally.”

Humanism is the chief theme, the subtext and supertext, of Oesterheld’s tale of alien invasion. It begins with a card game in a Buenos Aires suburb among friends in the house of Juan Salvo. An eerie, glowing snow begins to fall, and it kills everything it touches. Salvo and his friends, men of a scientific bent, grasp the grave situation and begin a quest for survival that extends over the subsequent 350 pages. Along with Salvo, the other protagonists are his old friend, the tireless rationalist and physics professor Favalli, and a friend he makes along the way, the spirited metal-worker Franco.

eternaut2

While references to Robinson Crusoe and his own struggle for survival abound in the early parts of the novel, The Eternaut emphasizes collaboration and solidarity rather than the Protestant individualism of Defoe’s hero. Numerous critics point out the significance of Juan Salvo’s name: the generic, everyman “Juan” combined with “Salvo” and its overtones of battle, rescue, and salvation. In other words, ordinary people are the most salvific forces in the universe. To quote Caballero’s aforementioned essay:

Salvo is an icon of Argentine aspirations, a specifically Argentine kind of superhero: an everyman who fortuitously cracked the code, and when coincidences and circumstances piled up, was able to save the day by combining and coordinating the motley technological and human resources available to him.

Likewise, the band of men that Salvo leads evokes collaboration among all classes and types of humanity, a union of reason (Favalli) and energy (Franco) as of bourgeois and proletarian, which portends Oesterheld’s later commitment to Marxist politics. The book’s translator, Erica Mena, quotes in a preface Oesterheld’s own reflections:

The true hero of The Eternaut is the collective hero, humanity. Considering it now, though it was not my original intention, I feel strongly that the only real hero is “en masse”: never the individual hero, the hero alone.

In his study, “El Eternauta,” “Daytripper,” and Beyond: Graphic Narrative in Argentina and Brazil, David William Foster emphasizes the distance of this midcentury masculinist proto-Marxism from contemporary progressive ideas. Women appear in The Eternaut only in the form of Salvo’s good, beautiful wife and daughter, avatars of Goethe’s “eternal feminine,” drawing the men onward in their journey; the only other female character, playing the whore to Salvo’s madonna of a wife, is a seductive catspaw of the invaders. After noting “the work’s overall contextualization in Argentine cultural production of sixty years ago and unalloyed masculine dynamics of power in Argentina,” Foster concludes:

One is confident in venturing the opinion that Oesterheld’s public could find no grounds to reproach the manliness of these warriors and that the unspoken, probably mostly unconscious, desire of predominantly male readers to enter into this homosocial inner circle is one element that accounts for the enormous success of El Eternauta at the time of its original publication and its continuing favor with Argentine and Latin American reading audiences.

But the graphic novel’s overt allusions to the perils of existing on the semi-colonial periphery of superpower conflict—toward the end, the Northern powers show no more hesitation in bombing Buenos Aires than did the alien invaders—give it a continuing relevance; Caballero is worth quoting a final time for his conclusion that The Eternaut can be read as an assertion against our age of culturally flattening globalization:

It is as if the Cold War and its us/them categories are too small-minded to imagine a truly global and human response to shared challenges, but that response might just spring up on the sidelines of thought and power, in places like Buenos Aires. This, I think, is what makes the work so uplifting and affirming even in its seemingly total darkness for its Argentine readership, and for an international one as well: globalization runs both ways, and for all the Mickey Mouse and Katy Perry that America is exporting to the world, something of the world’s creativity, difference, and vision is flowing back through the same channel. Or so we hope.

The most poignant passages in The Eternaut, aside from its now perhaps over-familiar portrayals of urban apocalypse, come when characters praise a universal spirit of invention, creativity, and freedom, which the mysterious, enslaving alien invaders want to crush. The invaders, called only “them” in the book’s dialogue, are shown to enslave all alien races; Salvo and friends’ conversations with members of the poetic, many-fingered civilization whom “they” cruelly enlist as unwilling administrators draw out this theme of force vs. freedom, as when one of the dying aliens marvels at the commonplace beauty of a domestic teapot.

eternaut1

In a climactic speech, another of these aliens informs Salvo, now displaced in time in his quest to save the earth, that all races share in this spirit of liberty and creativity:

Just as there is between men, beyond the sense of family or nationality, a kind of solidarity among all human beings, you’ll find that there is also a kind of solidarity among all the intelligent beings in the universe. Though we may be very different, we share a loyalty to all that contains spirit, that links extraterrestrials with humans, links the tripeds of Rlima, Vega’s fifth planet, with the globe-beings of Laskaria, the home of the “Gurbos”…

The artistic form of The Eternaut itself breathes this spirit of energetic creation. The pace is deliberate, even slow, as we join the characters’ thinking-through of what possibilities for survival lie to hand. And while Francisco Solano López’s artwork is underemphasized in commentary on the graphic novel, its wonderful dense realism, its apparent facility with pen, marker, and brush, creates an immersive stage for Oesterheld’s cosmo-political drama; if, as in the contemporaneous American comics of the time, the storytelling is a bit staid, with block-like panels next to one another and a lot of shot/reverse-shot transitions, the quality of illustration is superlative, a true visual correlate to the aforementioned Defoe’s meticulously detailed realist literary style.

The main narrative of The Eternaut has a framing device: the titular hero, Juan Salvo, wandering through time, tells the story to Oesterheld himself over the course of a winter’s night four years before the alien invasion. The novel concludes, then, with Oesterheld’s realization that the only way to prevent the calamities the Eternaut has communicated might be to communicate them in turn—to us. The book we hold, then, testifies to a humanistic wish to forestall not so much alien enslavement, but the more mundane tyranny over the spirit that science fiction allegorizes. This is Oesterheld’s ultimate gesture of fidelity to freedom: he puts the end of his story in our hands.

eternaut3

If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

But was I wrong, in “In Praise of Semicolons,” to be so severe in my judgment of Kurt Vonnegut, to castigate him for infantilism? I decided to find out by reading what is regarded as the author’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s sixth novel, and includes characters from many of its precursors and successors. Part of the charm of his books, I imagine, is that each feels like an episode in an ongoing conversation with the author; with each visit, readers receive an update on this fascinating man’s struggle with his preoccupations and obsessions. And what I like best in Slaughterhouse-Five, what still seems original half a century later, and what moreover still seems useful and usable, is Vonnegut’s mix of two modes considered wildly incongruous: memoir and fantasy.

He begins with a chapter about his writing of the novel, the qualms and researches involved in converting into fiction his most notable wartime experience: the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. (The novel takes its title from the slaughterhouse in Dresden where Vonnegut was held prisoner.) Will he glamorize war, as an old army buddy’s wife worries?

“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”

He promises that he will do no such thing: that he will write an anti-war book, that he will represent himself and his fellow soldiers as “babies.” Hence the novel’s subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, and hence Vonnegut’s emphasis that he made the novel’s outline on the back of a roll of wallpaper with his daughter’s crayons.

But Slaughterhouse-Five is a semi-satirical fable, not a realistic autobiographical war novel in the manner of All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms. Its main plot concerns an American everyman named Billy Pilgrim, who is “unstuck in time”: as he slips between all the moments of his life, we are treated, non-sequentially and in brief bursts of narrative, not only to his youthful experience as a prisoner of the Germans, during which time he survived the firebombing, but also to his middle age as a rich optometrist living an American life of “quiet desperation” and to his time as an exhibition in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.

The Tralfamadorians’s perception of time helps to explain the novel’s structure. For them, time is not a linear flow but an object in space. They liken the past to the part of the landscape you can see behind you and the future to the objects ahead of you. Their fiction, then, reads to Billy like Slaughterhouse-Five reads to us:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out-in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of-symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene, We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

This idea of all space and time compressed into one art object is a modernist ambition, from Pound’s Chinese ideogram to Benjamin’s dialectical image. And as Pound’s and Benjamin’s desire to fuse word and picture suggests, the ideal format for such a perception of spacetime is less prose than comics: each page of a comic represents a time-sequence as a spatial array of images. Perhaps the best artistic treatment of spacetime, then, is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, which I have to imagine took some leads from this novel.

Seemingly aware of this temporal theory’s need for pictures, Vonnegut includes a few cartoons throughout Slaughterhouse-Five; I very much could have done without them, particularly the climactic middle-schoolesque drawing of the banal serenity prayer hanging between a pair of crudely-rendered breasts. But the novel’s simple telegraphic style itself moves away from narration, from literacy, and toward the juxtaposition of images. It is a graphic novel avant la lettre.

But if the novel’s form sides with the Tralfamadorean desire for fiction with “no moral,” how does that square with Vonnegut’s avowed intention in the first chapter to produce anti-war fiction? The best answer is “uneasily.”

Without a plot, exactly, Slaughterhouse-Five is structured by its verbal refrains and motifs, from the depiction of “blue and ivory” feet to signify death to the repetition of a dying colonel’s poignant declaration, “If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!” The most insistent of these motifs is “So it goes,” the phrase with which the Tralfamadoreans greet news of a death; the novel’s narrator repeats it any time he has to tell that anyone has died. If death is unimportant because a person’s life persists elsewhere in the solid structure of time, then what does it matter if anyone is killed in a war?

Opposed to the Tralfamadorean quietism and aestheticism (their recommendation is to “spend eternity looking at pleasant moments” rather than dwelling on such unpleasantries as war) is a countervailing anger in the novel at all forms of cruelty and injustice. This anger animates Vonnegut’s satirical portrait of upper-class Americans’ empty, privileged, self-satisfied lives, and his frequent mockery in particular of the political right.

Billy reads a novel by the (invented) science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout which traces injustice to an ethical flaw in the Biblical narrative of Christ’s life. Because the story tells us that humanity erred in “lynching” a man who was really the son of God, it allows us to go on thinking that there are people, not sons of God, whom we may legitimately lynch. The story should be revised so that the Christ-figure really is powerless, as Trout imagines an alien’s new gospel revealing:

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had.

Trout’s alien is anti-Tralfamadorean; those amoralists don’t care at all about Jesus:

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements.

I’m not sure that is a fair summary of what Darwin taught, and I’m also not sure we should judge scientific theories by moral criteria; nevertheless, Vonnegut several times inveighs against a cruel social Darwinism that upholds the brutal calculus of those who make war, those who regard human lives as expendable in the name of profit or power. This theme comes out especially when Billy encounters the wealthy Air Force historian Rumfoord in a hospital:

The staff thought Rumfoord was a hateful old man, conceited and cruel. He often said to them, in one way or another, that people who were weak deserved to die. Whereas the staff, of course, was devoted to the idea that weak people should be helped as much as possible, that nobody should die.

The moral of the novel is clear enough, then, but the form of the novel works directly against it. This is not only because the kaleidoscopic narrative structure endorses the fatalism of Tralfamadore, but also because Vonnegut won’t, and perhaps can’t, create characters of sufficient depth to validate his crypto-Christian humanism, his sense that we are each inherently worthwhile and irreplaceable and so ought not to be oppressed or slaughtered:

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.

Because humanity is no more than a pawn of inhuman forces, the old way of writing novels, rich in character, is out of date. In a mental hospital, Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim turn to science fiction to help them “re-invent themselves and their universe,” a task at which older fiction can’t assist them:

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Even leaving aside the problem of how to “re-invent” self and universe in a deterministic cosmos, though, Vonnegut’s taste for cartoons over characters contradicts his humanism even more directly than does his novel’s fatalistic structure. As James Baldwin wrote of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Franz Kafka wrote of Charles Dickens, sentimentality is often an overcompensation for cruelty. Consider two of this novel’s characters. The first is a mean and pitiful soldier whose stupidity leads to Billy’s capture by the Germans:

Roland Weary was only eighteen, was at the end of an unhappy childhood spent
mostly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had been unpopular in Pittsburgh. He had been unpopular because he was stupid and fat and mean, and smelled like bacon no matter how much he washed.

The second is the woman Billy will marry:

His fiancee was out there now, sitting on the visitor’s chair. Her name was Valencia Merble. Valencia was the daughter of the owner of the Ilium School of Optometry. She was rich. She was as big as a house because she couldn’t stop eating. She was eating now. She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar. She was wearing trifocal lenses in harlequin frames, and the frames were trimmed with rhinestones.

Their grotesquery, their selfishness and foolishness, is never mitigated or explained. They are never given any deeper background than this: they are simply detestable, and Valencia’s death in particular is played for laughs.

Stowe and Dickens at least would have imagined them as fantastic, visionary gargoyles even if they would not have depended their characters with pathos, as, say, Chekhov or George Eliot might have done. But Vonnegut seems incapable of even the highest level of caricature: the likes of Uriah Heep or Miss Havisham are as beyond him as are three-dimensional characters in this novel that claims to represent the fourth dimension. We are left with cruel cartoons against cruelty, fat Americans who stand in for American greed and meanness, and Vonnegut performs the artistic equivalent of firebombing them.

So for all this novel’s originality of design and thought-provoking fabulism, I conclude where I began with Vonnegut: his artistic simplicity is not an indirect route to depth but rather over-simplification. As for Slaughterhouse-Five‘s quarrel with itself over fatalism and humanism, amoral vs. anti-war fiction, I see a lazy indulgence of confusion passed off as complexity. I will keep faith with Dostoevsky and semicolons.

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Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, Providence

Providence Act 1Providence Act 1 by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is with hesitation that I write anything about Providence. This recent three-volume graphic novel—a prequel/sequel to the earlier works, The Courtyard and Neonomicon—represents Alan Moore’s meticulously-researched and carefully-arranged synthesis of H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos, whereas I am only the most casual reader of Lovecraft and a mild skeptic of his new eminence in the literary canon (I attempt, in the voice of an imagined devotee, the best case I can make for Lovecraft in my review of At the Mountains of Madness). But I wrote this summer about Moore’s earliest comics opus, Miracleman, so for symmetry’s sake I will essay on his latest, Providence.

Moore is, in any case, skeptical of Lovecraft too. While a number of Providence‘s allusions no doubt wriggled tentacularly over my head, I think I got the book’s point. In this narrative, set mainly in 1919, Lovecraft is the unknowing channel used by an occult conspiracy to influence both popular and high culture so that the immemorial dream-world, vanquished at the founding of human civilization and populated with the creatures envisioned by Lovecraft (and kindred writers like Poe, Bierce, Dunsany, and Chambers), can triumph over the earth again. Not for nothing does Borges appear in its penultimate chapter: as a commenter at the Providence annotations site points out, Moore is in essence retelling “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” only with figures from Lovecraft’s life and work. 

But is it a good thing that Lovecraft’s visions triumph? The final chapter of Providence stages a philosophical debate among the characters—including real-life, living Lovecraft scholar, S. T. Joshi—about just that. As we know, Lovecraft and many of his precursors and successors, from Poe to Burroughs, held illiberal views, while our present literary culture, ostensibly including Moore, is ever-more militantly liberal. 

Moore addresses this question through Providence‘s protagonist: Robert Black. Black is a closeted gay, Jewish journalist from Milwaukee, rather than being the WASP scion Lovecraft was. He travels from New York to New England investigating signs of the aforementioned occult conspiracy. When at the narrative’s first climax he meets the man himself in the eponymous Rhode Island city, he lets Lovecraft borrow his journal, in which he’s both reported on his experiences and written down story ideas and literary criticism. Both Black’s record of what he’s seen in his travels and his theorization of the need for a new kind of fantastical literature inspire Lovecraft to write his most important works. Black, meanwhile, realizes he has been the pawn of the occult conspiracy all along, engineered as the “herald” (in fact, he writes for the New York Herald) to Lovecraft’s “redeemer”—a John the Baptist for the Cthulhu mythos’s Incarnation.

This narrative arrangement leaves us with two possible interpretations of Lovecraftian politics. On the one hand, despite Lovecraft’s own abjection of the non-white, of the queer, and of much of modernity at large, he actually owes his visions to these social forces; much of his own inventiveness must be credited to these prevailing conditions allegorized through the figure of Black (and communicated through Black’s understanding of how much “weird fiction” as theory and practice owes to the various social and artistic avant-gardes Lovecraft scorned in favor of the 18th century). 

By contrast, insofar as the Lovecraftian lifeworld, not only inhumane but inhuman, colonizes culture then its collaborators, including real and made-up marginal figures from Robert Black to Burroughs and Joshi, may have something to atone for. (Moore makes clear the grisly methods of coercion it uses, for which rape, as in so much of his work, is here again the metonym.) Perhaps we ought not to have so hastily thrown the realist novel—the “literary fiction” Black anachronistically complains about to his journal—in the historical dustbin.

Providence never quite resolves this conundrum over the worth of Lovecraft or the weird for which he serves as figurehead. When earth becomes Yuggoth at the novel’s conclusion (or perhaps, per the fictionalized Joshi, realizes that it always was Yuggoth), the violated mother of Cthulhu herself says, “I think we should learn to dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.” Moore makes heavy reference to Freud on the unconscious and Jung on dreams to suggest that such a return of the repressed, such a habitation of the dreamworld, is true and inevitable. Yet it was purchased with lies and bloodlines, wrought on the bodies of prostrate women by metaphysical fascists. Can you have magic and ethics, even magic and everyday decency?

We are back in the dilemma, if dilemma it is, of From Hell: the character who speaks for Moore’s occultism is a misogynist murderer, the character who speaks for his humanism the only victim to survive. But perhaps this Yeatsian tension between spirit and humanity, between the work and the life, is preferable to the fantasies of their resolution that we were getting from Moore a little over a decade ago in the not-entirely-convincing polemics of Promethea and Lost Girls.  

Added to all the foregoing to give it an extra savor: Providence is Moore’s love-hate letter both to comics and to America (and maybe they are the same thing for him). Providence is only part-comics. The comics part is drawn in the painstaking ligne claire of Jacen Burrows, avowedly influenced by Hergé and Otomo. Burrows must have once seen that interview where Eddie Campbell called Bill Sienkiewicz a prima donna for not finishing Big Numbers, because he seems to have devoted his life to doing whatever Alan Moore tells him to do. Yet Moore gives over a third of each chapter to the prose of Robert Black’s diary—too often undistinguished prose, alas. The occult paraphernalia Black inserts is usually better, my favorite being the weekly circular for the church in Moore’s Innsmouth stand-in, written all in piscine puns beginning with a hilarious Gospel misquotation: “I will make you fishes of men.” The book itself, then, is divided between Moore’s devotion to comics and his desire to escape into literature.

Likewise, through Black’s speculations on how to write romances for the modern age, we hear Moore’s tribute to American literature: he carefully roots Lovecraft’s achievements not only in the fin-de-siècle avant-garde but in the American modernity of Poe and Hawthorne. It all made me consider for the first time in literally 30 years of reading him (I read The Killing Joke when I was six!) how odd it must be to be Alan Moore: to have spent so much of one’s career writing for and about a country you don’t live in, a country whose culture has—shades of Providence‘s Cthulhu cult—semi-colonized one’s own, even if part of one welcomed it as a liberation from one’s overly familiar everyday world. Comics, pop culture, America: Moore must love and loathe them in equal measure. No wonder he writes fiction of such tortured ambivalence, in contrast to the sometimes unwelcome certitude of the interviews he gives.

Should you read Providence? You probably have to come to it already caring about Lovecraft and Moore. You should also be willing to deal with the nastiness Moore uses to emphasize the inhumanity of his cultists. Providence isn’t as bad as Neonomicon, with its outright attack on the audience, and its most disgusting scene is partially penitent, as it represents a Moore surrogate assaulting the reader (i.e., a character placed in the reader’s point-of-view position). Still, it’s not for faint of heart. (As for the often raised question of Moore and rape: he writes about it as much as he does for the exact same reason as second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin or Adrienne Rich talked about as much as they did: both think it’s the foundation of all human hierarchy.)

Providence does contain much too much relatively lifeless prose from Black, all given in annoying cursive handwriting. I understand Moore’s goal in dividing the narrative, but I remain convinced the man who often included three strands of narrative in a single tiny panel of Watchmen could have told almost the whole story in comics form. 

Black’s characterization is also seriously flawed. Moore can’t seem to decide if he’s an aw-shucks hayseed or an experienced habitué of the queer demimonde who is au courant with the avant-garde. He’s naive when Moore needs him to be, not when Moore doesn’t; therefore, he never comes into focus as a character.

But for all that, I enjoyed Providence, particularly the time-jump audacity of its last two chapters. For personal reasons I love that the spread showing Yuggoth as it overcomes urban space takes Pittsburgh as its victim city. And the ethical debate at the end—accept sublime change, whatever form it takes; or fight for humanity and for humanism?—is one that our technological condition will never let rest. I admired Burrows’s heroic feats of drawing and Juan Rodriguez’s distinctive grayish-greenish digital palette.

Finally—a test of the most powerful works—for all its flaws, I have lingered in the disquieting mood of Providence for days after finishing it.

Screen Shot 2018-12-24 at 2.08.13 PM
Borges’s appearance in Providence #11

If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira

Akira, Vol. 1Akira, Vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 1980s—the latest, the last golden age. The length and breadth of our politics, our pop culture, even our high culture, was laid down in that decade. Everyone now is either trying to overthrow it or recapture it or some incoherent combination of both, but we are all oriented toward it.

Comics has a privileged relation to the 1980s as well: traditional historicization aside, it is comics’s true golden age. The top Goodreads review of Katsuhiro Otomo’s epochal cyberpunk manga Akira puts the work in precisely that context:

The importance of ‘Akira’ is difficult to express, but it certainly rivals US contemporaries ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, and it ran far longer than either title, giving it an epic scope and grandeur that exceeds both of those seminal works. If it was a decision between: Katsuhiro Otomo, ‘Domu’ and ‘Akira’; Frank Miller, ‘Batman: Year One’ and ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’; or Alan Moore, ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Watchmen’; I’d say that Otomo created the best and most influential works of the 1980’s. That ignores some huge titles, like ‘Love and Rockets’ and ‘Maus’ and ‘Raw’ and ‘Weirdo’ and ‘Yummy Fur’ and ‘The Incal’ and ‘Les Cites Obscures’, etc… but I’ll stand by it, with all due respect.

With all due respect, as a matter of literary judgement, I simply can’t rate Akira over Watchmen or Maus or (what I’ve read of) Love and Rockets or Les Cités obscures, nor even over The Dark Knight Returns, though I concede the latter may only be my own nostalgia talking. Over The Incal‘s oppressive metaphysics, though, certainly—and over anything (save the aforementioned Mausterpiece) in the miserable R. Crumb-Chester Brown line. And, while I claim to be no manga maven, I also can’t rate it over the shōjo and josei works only that have only recently been translated, some of which preceded it and all of which are literate in a way it can only dream of being: The Heart of Thomas, Claudine, Helter Skelter.

The two crucial points being made in the quotation above, though, are that 1.) the comic-book 1980s was a decade of miracles, one when, as they used to say, “BAM! POW! comics grew up!”; and that 2.) Akira was perhaps more influential than any other work of the period—not necessarily better but more influential—on how we think and how we see, even if only as a part of the broader cyberpunk movement.

First, what is Akira‘s role in comics’ maturation process, this 2000-some page epic about eternal, evolutionary, revolutionary youth? For one thing, like Frank Miller’s own manga- and BD-inflected work of the same period—the oft-neglected Ronin is the key text here—it signals the breakdown of the international barriers: Otomo brings both a drawing style and a storytelling ethic from the west. Gone is the cuteness and the address to the audience of even some of the mature work of Tezuka; they are replaced by an immersive style of impossibly detailed drawing—a world unto itself. The characters are concerned only with one another and with their conflict rather than with us; as one critic incisively observes, Otomo’s characters look at each other.

Just as Alan Moore and Frank Miller eliminated the Stan Lee editorial voice avuncularly conscripting the reader into the fan club in favor of wordless pages or narrative captions that drop us directly into the characters’ stream of consciousness, Otomo provides only action and dialogue in a self-contained fictional cosmos. If many landmark ’80s comics have a postmodern political attitude—irreverent toward all authority, all metanarratives—many of their formal innovations ought to be classed by contrast as neo-modernist: they raise the fourth wall to seal themselves off as bounded art objects, recursive and complex—incitements to the apophenic insomnia Joyce wished to induce in the critic.

So mighty is Otomo’s storytelling craft that it paradoxically consumes attention even as it commands it, which neither Miller nor Moore, neither Jodorowsky nor Peeters, would be willing to do. In other words, you are never tempted to linger, but only to speed on. It is only a very slight exaggeration to say that one of Akira‘s six 400-page chapters can be read in the same time that it takes to read one of the 32-page chapters of Watchmen: about an hour. This reflects Otomo’s absolute mastery of layout and composition; he never puts an obstacle athwart the onrush of your eye across his collapsing cityscapes. Language does not get much in the way either: vast swaths of pages, all violent action, go by with no more demanding words than onomatopoeiac sound effects, grunts and profanities from the characters, and the heroes and villains crying one another’s names.

The characters are accordingly not personalities-in-the-round but archetypes for the conveyance of story energy. The emotion of the book comes not from our devotion, necessarily, to any one figure, but rather our absorption of the affects they convey. When the hero confesses to his antagonist at the climax, “All I wanted to be was your friend,” we are moved less by the particulars of their relation than by our own knowledge of how that feels. The narrative vortex spins around these affects, not the characters who embody them.

Such anti-literacy—very much against the Anglo-American “spirit of 1986,” which saw comics strive for and often attain the density of the 20th-century novel—bears upon Akira‘s theme of energy washing away all hierarchies. I called Akira “cyberpunk” above, as everyone does, but why? There are barely any computers in the book, no hackers, no consensual hallucinations, no sojourns in the data stream. In fact, as with much ’80s pop culture, it recapitulates the fantasies and anxieties of the 1950s: military testing, nuclear explosions. Tokyo is destroyed on no less than four occasions in the course of the narrative—the final time by American bombs.

Far more in evidence is the punk sensibility. Akira is about a group of teenagers in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo who are drawn into a top-secret government conspiracy rooted in Japan’s attempt to train psychic children as super-soldiers. This has unleashed forces beyond any one agency’s control. The work as a whole dramatizes our small cast of characters in confrontation with the social and psychological transformations brought about by the vast psychic abilities of the titular Akira and of the novel’s overall anti-hero, Tetsuo.

What allies Akira to cyberpunk is its dominant attitude of political cynicism, a refusal of allegiance to state and society. In the book, the state collapses under the assault of forces it cannot tame or rationalize, and power is whatever can be won by rival gangs in the jungle of the city. While other cyberpunk texts place more stress on the role of the corporation in such a decomposed postmodern polity, Akira nevertheless gives us the basic lineaments of what has perhaps excessively been called neoliberalism.

Otomo’s metaphysics, too, uphold energy against the institutions. At the climax of the final chapter, one of the uncannily aged psychic children who haunt the text explains to one of its protagonists that the most powerful psychics, Akira and Tetsuo, are only channeling and expressing a kind of universal life force:

MIYAKO: Say rather, it is the world of the spirit…freed from the shackles of the flesh.

[…]

MIYAKO: Life in all its countless evolutions. Do you not think evolution too vast and grand…to be mere environmental adaptation?

[…]

MIYAKO: Akira may have wanted to alter the course of human evolution…

KANEDA: What for?! Isn’t evolution programmed?!

MIYAKO: Cannot the human spirit choose its own currents?

KANEDA: You mean humanity wanted to evolve again?

MIYAKO: The results…are for your children to see.

The line about escaping the prison of the flesh evokes cyberpunk’s gnostic motif as well as its glam-despair over the neoliberal dystopia. The book’s message is that energy, passing through youth, transforms society whether anyone likes it or not. In that case, the appurtenances of literature, or of a more formalist—in the sense of defamiliarizing—approach to comics storytelling à la Alan Moore, could only get in the way, like the old lumbering Cold War nation-state with its secrets and bureaucracies.

RCO038_1473743664
From Marvel Comics’s colorized version of Akira, issue #38, via readcomiconline.to

After the world-spirit strips off the flesh of our anti-hero and his nation—and there is much Cronenbergian body horror in Akira too: evolution figured grotesquely as bulbous, venous carcinogenesis—there is a chance to rebuild. As the punkest theorists of the high theory era warned, deterritorialization will be accompanied by reterritorialization. Though our surviving heroes leave the letter “A” for their sign, it stands for Akira—power—not anarchy. They throw the Americans out of Japan, reconstitute the sovereign nation, and ride through a cityscape restoring itself around them in one of the best endings of a graphic novel I can remember, its implicit nationalism aside.

Akira cannot exactly be read—only withstood. A work singularly obsessed with the ruins of modernity is one of the popular monuments of an age we have lost or are losing; it showed us images that allow us to see the present already under the sign of apocalypse. That it is the Futurist manifesto of comics modernism makes it an object all the more fascinating in our fallen present.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart, Seaguy

SeaguySeaguy by Grant Morrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to all my regular readers who come here in search of slightly more traditional essays on the “classics,” however defined, for holding on tight through my now year-long re-reading of comic-book writer Grant Morrison.

My own perhaps too hasty disparagement of Morrison in my review of Greg Carpenter’s The British Invasion was my initial impulse to revisit his work, and I have had another powerful stimulant in the Morrison discussions going on at Dave Fiore and Elise Moore’s excellent podcast. Dave and I were discussing Morrison back on the comics blogs in 2003 (“bliss it was in that dawn” etc.), and I’ve enjoyed hearing his and Elise’s considered responses to Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Flex MentalloThe Filth, and now Seaguy. It makes my own re-reading feel like what our friends on BookTube call a readalong, and it has helped to change my perspective on the writer, or changed it back to what it was when I was younger.

As I wrote earlier this summer on Tumblr: in the middle of the 20th century George Steiner tried to explain modernity and modern literature by asking, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? I wonder if by the middle of the 21st century some critic will try to produce a book-length investigation of postmodernity by positing a similarly rival pair of powerful imaginations: Alan Moore or Grant Morrison? While my heart will probably always rest in the end with Moore, I have had periods of my life where I was more interested in, or persuaded by, the worldview of Morrison, and this is one of them. Something in his wilder style, his refusal of neat artistic formalism or political formulae, his odd mixture of aggressive experimentalism and grotesquery with no less flagrant sentimentalism, speaks to me now.

Even so, I was hesitant to revisit Seaguy, a projected trilogy of three-part miniseries, two of which have so far been published by DC/Vertigo, the first in 2004 and the second in 2009. Not only didn’t I grasp Seaguy at all the first time around, I was not alone; it sold poorly and was received mostly with bafflement. I seem to recall Morrison in interviews around 2004 berating the bewildered audience for not understanding it because they had not read Chrétien de Troyes or someone like that—this from an author who these days likes to tell interviewers he doesn’t read anything and is only influenced by TV!

Seaguy is set in the (imaginary) city of New Venice in a dystopian—or, more accurately, falsely utopian—future. The eponymous hero, along with his comic sidekick Chubby Da Choona (a floating cartoon tuna fish who talks like a character in a gangster movie), is one of the few remaining superheroes after the cataclysmic defeat of Anti-Dad, a cosmic villain whom the world’s superheroes took down in an apparently pyrrhic victory. This apocalyptic liberation parodies DC/Marvel’s habit of using regular crossover catastrophes (or crises) to reboot their continuity as well as (note Dave and Elise) the geopolitical projection of the post-Cold-War “end of history.”

In the wake of Anti-Dad’s defeat, the pacified world is now a consumerist pseudo-paradise under the corporate control of Mickey Eye, a cross between Disney and Big Brother. Artist Cameron Stewart’s superb art evokes the disquiet of this seeming utopia, the uncanny unease of a bad normality, most unforgettably through his scary-funny illustrations of anxious adults and traumatized children shuffling through an amusement park.

seaguy

After this set-up, Seaguy becomes an essentially unsummarizable sequence of bizarre adventures, involving sentient food-stuffs, a mummy on the moon, and a first shot at liberating the Mickey-addled world. 

In keeping with Morrison’s ingenious crossing of two very different genres, the medieval romance and the modernist dystopia, the themes that emerge from Seaguy’s sojourns are twofold and at odds: first, Morrison demonstrates through his naive and brave hero a constant need for heroism, a refusal of the merely given, even when the given entertains or pacifies, just as the romance hero is urged ever onward toward the transcendence embodied by the Grail; on the other hand, every exercise of heroism in Seaguy’s world seems to generate in its turn new forms of authority and control, from the mummy’s tale of his own overweening performance as Pharaoh to the new normal brought about at the conclusion of the second miniseries, where the restored superheroes who have defeated Mickey Eye speak of protecting the status quo. 

As a political polemic, Seaguy might be considered an attack on corporate monopoly and its mask of benevolence. The mask has been growing ever more benevolent since Seaguy‘s first publication—Benetton was once more of an outlier, but all the tech monopolists now parade as “woke,” whatever their actual labor practices, environmental impact, or stultification of culture—so Morrison can be credited with prescience.

The narrative is probably better read biographically, though, than as some kind of political statement. It was Morrison who was counseling his audience in the early 2000s to accept the fact of corporate dominance and to use it to disseminate counterculture aesthetics and ideals; by the middle of the decade he was one of DC Comics’s chief writers, a development that would have been unimaginable in the ’80s or early ’90s.

Seaguy, also published by DC though a creator-owned property, reads to me like an expression of bad conscience in the midst of this success: it suggests that, despite Morrison’s hopeful rhetoric to the contrary, heroism in collaboration with the powers than be will always find itself compromised, will always function as a ruse of control. Reverting to my allusion above to the Morrison vs. Moore feud, this Pynchonian or Dickian or Foucaultian paranoia powered by wistful ’60s anarchism is a characteristically Moore-like point (as with the false utopias that conclude Miracleman and Watchmen), not one we associate with Morrison, whose insistence on interpersonal love generally overpowers the political as such to provide an image of redemption in his work.[1]

Seaguy gives us two moving relationships in this vein—that between Seaguy and his animal sidekick Chubby and that between Seaguy and his love interest She-Beard—but the tone of the book remains, from first to last, alienating and ungraspable. Maybe this is itself the point. Morrison is a writer often accused of perpetrating “weirdness for weirdness’s sake”—but what is the sake (that is, purpose) of weirdness?[2] I suggest the surplus of the inexplicable and incomprehensible in Seaguy, its extraordinary weirdness that so put off the initial audience, is a desperate and wishful demonstration that even in corporate comics sheer unbridled imagination can do its best and its worst.

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[1] One more Moore/Morrison observation: Moore has resentfully and accusatorially noted points of convergence in the two writers’ careers, which he interprets as vindictive imitation. Seaguy, then, may be read as a response to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If that series came out of Moore’s desire to trace the superhero archetype back to its roots in 19th-century popular fiction, Morrison in Seaguy goes Moore one better by finding the roots of superheroes in 12th-century Arthurian romance.

[2] There is also the dispiriting possibility that the weirdness in Seaguy has precise meaning available only to occultists. Early and late in his career, from Arkham Asylum to Nameless, Morrison has used various magical systems to structure the meaning of his stories, which he has then elaborately explained in afterwords, interviews, or published scripts, like Eliot annotating his own Waste Land. I dislike this artistic practice; as Coleridge explained 100 years before Eliot and 200 years before Morrison, the symbol is preferable to the allegory because both more grounded and more open-ended. A story you have to read a grimoire before you can understand is not a very good story; Eliot, anyway, was in his rather dryly macabre fashion being ironic, which many subsequent writers failed to understand.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Alan Moore, Miracleman

Miracleman, Book Three: OlympusMiracleman, Book Three: Olympus by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1980s, Alan Moore, the most celebrated writer in the history of mainstream Anglophone comics, made his name by telling the same story four times.

In Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, a commanding male figure, superior of intellect and sometimes even god-like, remakes the world, or at least part of it, into some version of utopia.

In two cases (V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing), the reader is invited to celebrate this transformation, generally because Moore keeps the ideology of the hero and his utopia within the remit of the political left; in two cases (Watchmen and Miracleman), the reader is invited to question this transformation, generally because Moore surrounds the hero and his revolution with echoes of fascism.

In each case, including the more positive ones, doubts dog the utopian narrative; even the anarchist V and the environmentalist Swamp Thing trample ordinary people and democratic institutions, and all these utopian men, whether metaphorically or literally, attempt to control or fall to degrading women, with the female body seeming to stand in Moore’s imagination as a metaphor for ungovernable reality.

Evidently grasping the problem of his attractions to inhumane and even inhuman utopianism, Moore attempted a correction in his opus of the 1990s, From Hell: here the utopian hero is Jack the Ripper (AKA royal physician William Gull), his victims working-class prostitutes. Surely, we are not asked to sympathize with this vivisectionist-misogynist-revolutionist?

Yet Moore himself was quite literally ensorcelled by his hero-villain’s rhetoric, persuaded by his creature’s own monologues to become an occultist. In the final chapter but one, Gull ascends the Tree of Life into the white blankness that is God while his final, escaped victim Mary Kelly remains below with only those human appurtenances of flesh, family, and nation (to be more politically specific, female flesh [her murder-spared body], female family [her daughters, named for Gull’s other victims], and colonized nation [Ireland, occupied by the English power Gull served]) to console her.

The balance of Moore’s career shows his increasing efforts to synthesize magic and revolution with democracy and humanity, some more persuasive (Promethea) than others (Lost Girls), even if rather severe problems remain (why in the name of Glycon is the figure of love at the center of the universe in Promethea an image of Pan raping Selene?), and I’ll certainly get back to you if I ever finish Jerusalem.

My goal today is to account for Miracleman, which I have just re-read in part and in part read for the first time. As an adolescent I was never able to assemble all the out-of-print back issues and graphic novels, so I have only now read the whole saga in Marvel Comics’s recent reprints.

Miracleman was originally titled Marvelman. Marvelman was a 1950s English superhero created by Mick Anglo (whose Anglicized surname sounds like that of an English superhero) modeled on Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam. Both characters are boys gifted a magic word by a wizard, a word that when spoken transforms them into superheroes.

Marvelman spent the 1950s having adventures with his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, and then went into publishing dormancy. Moore, an ambitious up-and-coming writer, was given a chance to retool the character in the early 1980s for the British comics anthology Warrior (in which his anarchist dystopia V for Vendetta also appeared).

Upon publication in America, the series’s title was revised to Miracleman under legal threat from Marvel Comics. The publication history of the series is dispiriting and complicated, with Moore publishing first in Warrior in Britain, then in an American series published by the indie company Eclipse. Moore turned over the series to Neil Gaiman after he completed the story he wished to tell, and Gaiman managed to publish six issues with Eclipse. Then the series and characters got caught up in an unfathomably complex legal entanglement, the result of which allowed Marvel to republish Moore and Gaiman’s work only in the last decade, with the anti-corporatist Moore’s name removed at his own request. His work is now credited to “The Original Writer.”

The difficulties of publishing the series means that it took almost a decade to get Moore’s whole story out, with a changing crew of artists. The story, though, was evidently planned from the first as cohesive whole by the meticulous Moore, and showcases his brutally realist-revisionist approach to superheroes in the 1980s.

Miracleman, according to Moore, is not really a 1950s superhero; his Mick Anglo–penned adventures were a Matrix-like delusion fostered by the crypto-fascist intelligence program, headed by one Emil Gargunza, which created superhumans by repurposing the technology found in a downed UFO. Once Miralceman learns this truth, defeats the corrupted Kid Miracleman, dispatches Gargunza, and has a baby with his mortal wife, the aliens return to discover what earthlings have made of their tech.

This alien incursion draws Earth into the Cold War between two rival interstellar empires who eventually agree to make our planet the staging-ground of their détente. Meanwhile, Miracleman and his fellow superheroes (now including a newly-discovered Miraclewoman as well as his own daughter, Winter), transform earth into a utopia without money, poverty, disease, war, or oppression. Such transformation is all the more necessary after the aforementioned Kid Miracleman returns to destroy London in a gruesome episode before his final defeat.

Moore’s story ends not only with miracle people but with a miracle world, even as the hints that this utopia is really a dystopia from the perspective of ordinary mortals become increasingly hard to ignore.

Completed between 1982, when Moore was just starting out, and 1989, when Moore was at the height of his powers, Miracleman displays extreme variations from beginning to end in the quality of its scripting. The early episodes are clumsy, with corny comic-book narration a cut below even that of contemporaries like Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont. I am being cruel, but here is one egregious narrative caption:

A can of worms has been opened. A can of worms called “Project Zarathustra.” And every time you open a can of worms…you need a bigger can to get them all back in. (ellipses in original)

Why would you need a bigger can for the same amount of worms? This is prototypically bad writing: choppy, portentous, clichéd, and nonsensical.

Moore’s style improves exponentially, though; the final chapters, making up the narrative’s third division, Olympus, are almost an illustrated text as much as they are comics, with Miracleman himself narrating retrospectively in an epic (some say purple) prose-poetry that one might compare, among writers of the 1980s, not to Marv Wolfman but to Cormac McCarthy or, in the SF genre, to Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin.

Consider this passage, which stunned me when I was 14; it is Miracleman’s elegy to a fallen alien warrior, its fantastical imagery passing into a sighed diminuendo as binary code becomes the mourner’s cry:

And Aza Chorn, so swift that by compare the thunderbolts crept earthwards with the speed of stalactites…? Why, Aza Chorn is dead. Just dead. About his monument, the ghosts parade, the zephyrs shriek and howl and tear apart the clouds, rail uselessly at death and in frustration snatch up blossoms shaped like human lips, and fling them like blood-red confetti from Olympus to those mortal pastures far below, a rain of angry kisses showering down upon those tiny, distant lives…[11010000]: the And/oroids use this term to denote the sorrow that is felt on realising sorrow is a thing one can no longer truly feel. One one, oh one, oh oh, oh oh. (ellipses in original)

The art shows similar variations. The first artist, Garry Leach, is an excellent but rather literal illustrator, while the final artist, Moore’s Swamp Thing collaborator John Totleben, provides a moody, mixed-media extravaganza, often applying legendary pulp artist Virgil Finlay’s psychedelic pointillist technique to provide a visual corollary to Moore’s high rhetoric.

So what can all this mean? Is Moore on the side of his miraculous utopian revolutionary? Despite the unevenness in quality and the pains of production, is Miracleman a cohesive statement worth reading as political speculation?

Despite the overused term “graphic novel,” the novelistic texture of the work is thin. The characters are flat archetypes, except for two disruptive figures of the early episodes, Miracleman’s fascist “father,” the scientist Emil Gargunza, and the black assassin (with sapphire teeth) Evelyn Cream.

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Art: Alan Davis

Gargunza is a Mexican displaced by the Revolution and its aftermath; he later sojourns in Germany and then comes to England to birth superheroes by mingling alien technology with captured orphans. Physically unattractive, intellectually brilliant, and wishing for immortality, he is a genuinely poignant figure. The chapter where he tells his life story (which oddly takes its title from Warren Zevon’s “Veracruz”) is more successful than anything in V for Vendetta in humanely and anti-fascistically rooting fascist ideology in actual human fears and needs.

Evelyn Cream is even more compelling, his complex character one key to the meaning of the whole book. At first, the reader fears he will be a dire racist stereotype out of James Bond, but his rich inner monologues provide much-needed political reflection on the meaning of Moore’s fable. Here one aspect of his psyche accuses the other in an instance of racial double consciousness:

Really, old horse! These antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume. It seems one cannot take the jungle out of the boy after all. What do you say, Mr. Cream? Educated at Rugby. Trained at Sandhurst. You read the untranslated novels of Collette [sic] and own an original Hockney. Good God, sir, you are practically white! […] And yet you follow this white loa, this Miracleman who leaves a trail of dead and fisheyed fellows in his wake! Can it be that you have gone native, Mr. Cream? Mr. Cream, do you at last believe in juju? Great grandfather, pass me down the gris-gris and the pointing bone, for I have opted at this late stage to become another crazy n—–.

I believe, by the way, that the last word, censored by Marvel, was spelled out in the original publication. But this linguistic whitewashing cannot conceal Cream’s ambiguous assessment of Miracleman as a survival from before modernity, the white atavism the Nazis often dreamed of. Moore’s words above perhaps don’t pass racial-justice muster today, but note, in mitigation, Moore’s (or the letterer’s) own poignant failure of upper-class white-imperialist cultural-capital mimicry signaled by the misspelling of “Colette.” Race is obviously not the only variable at work here, and Moore is as little superhuman as are his human characters.

In Cream’s second and final major monologue, he reverses the meaning of the first and finds in Miracleman not a white atavism but a white ultra-modernity, even a kind of ultra-colonialism, as he laments his own postcolonial compromises:

I wanted the white miracle. I wanted to touch the pale god that they had birthed in their machinery. The thing they had which we had not. And thus I reached out for that ivory promise, as did my father, as did his father before him…and I learned that thing which I must tell: That whiteness which we pursue through the dark trees of our inner continent…it is not the whiteness of hot steel, or of sanctity…it is the whiteness of bone. It is death. (ellipses in original)

So is Miracleman (or Miracleman) pre- or postmodern, emancipatory or oppressive, anti-fascist or fascist? Cream’s confusion, or Moore’s confusion about what a man in Cream’s subject-position would actually say and think, extends to the whole tale. One of Moore’s weakest major works overall, Miracleman is nevertheless productively confusing. It brought to my mind many conflicting political philosophies, all the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” in Orwell’s words.

I thought, for instance, of the Marxist theorist Christian Thorne. In a sharp essay occasioned by the carnivalesque and French-Theory-infused elements of the various alt-right subcultures that helped bring Trump to power, Thorne warns that fascism is not merely cultural conservatism or political authoritarianism. Thorne implores the American left to reckon with the bohemian, anti-bourgeois, avant-garde, and even authentically multicultural and queer commitments of historical fascism lest the fascism in the left’s midst, in its very anarchist pedagogy, be overlooked:

Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes.

Faithful to Marxism, Thorne doesn’t make the other half of the argument, which I have done in my writings on, for example, Lukács and Camus: namely, that Marxism often just is, like the stereotype of fascism Thorne repudiates, a disturbing doctrine of political authoritarianism and cultural conservatism.

Both of these befuddling ideologies, a radical fascism and a reactionary Marxism, came to mind as I read and re-read Olympus. Miraclewoman introduces polymorphous queerness into the erotic life of the general population as a prelude to her superman-breeding eugenics program, which, while more democratic, is not a lot different from what Gargunza had intended. Is this sexual emancipation or sexual domination?

Miracleman, for his part, abolishes money and takes central control of the economy. When a frail-looking and sympathetic Margaret Thatcher protests, he curtly implies that, in her own words, “there is no alternative.” Thatcher here briefly occupies the position of Rorschach in Watchmen: in both books, written by an avowed leftist who at the period of composition liked to be photographed in a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, conservatives and conservative ideology come to stand in for nothing less than humanity’s free will.

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(via)

By contrast to these evocations of fascism and communism, Peter Y. Paik, in his brilliant (conservative) study of superhero and science fiction narratives as political philosophies, understands Olympus to prophesy the triumph of liberalism after the Cold War, and liberalism’s becoming in turn an unaccountable hyperpower. On Paik’s view, Miracleman is not Hitler or Stalin but rather an amalgam of Bush and Obama, smugly insisting that their reign of surveillance and imperial global dominance is on the right side of the end of history:

Miracleman: Olympus, completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, envisions the predicaments and crises that would follow when an interminable stalemate gives way, when the sources of catastrophe become more elusive and thus more alarming and ominous. Moore’s shattering of the geopolitical taboo accordingly serves to give flesh to the ineluctably revolutionary dream of an unconstrained expansionism and unlimited power that has been dreamt—and become magnified—within liberal democratic society.

The value of Moore’s Miracleman as political speculation, then, is that it can support Thorne’s anti-fascism, my anti-Marxism, and Paik’s anti-liberalism, not to mention Evelyn Cream’s anti-colonialism, because its real philosophical function is to warn of the severed head at the base of every capitol and all capital, the et in arcadia ego of every utopia, the murderousness of every politics, even as it also, through Moore’s soaring rhetoric and Totleben’s visionary illustration, refuses to deny the gorgeous attractions of our revolutionary dreams.

Roaming the preserved killing fields of London, ravaged by his former sidekick, Miracleman considers just this theme:

These charnel pastures serve as a reminder, a memento mori, never letting us forget that though Olympus pierce the very skies, in all the history of earth, there’s never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones. (ellipses in original)

And while Marvel Comics trolls Moore by printing in the back of Olympus a never-before-published Miracleman story by his rival and nemesis Grant Morrison (whom I read as a crypto-moderate in politics), Morrison’s story is slight. The true repudiation of Moore’s radicalism comes in the work of his hand-picked successor, Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s Golden Age is a collection of short stories portraying (via the intelligently mixed-media artwork of Mark Buckingham) the private lives of those in Miracleman’s imperial utopia. I find it to be gimmicky and precious, as much of Gaiman’s work, so impressive to me in adolescence, reads to me now.

In the interests of critical fairness, I will quote eloquent praise for what Gaiman does in The Golden Age from Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the original collected edition (not reproduced in Marvel’s reprint, but available in Delany’s Shorter Thoughts):

The last movement of the previous Miracleman book [i.e., Olympus] was a raging panegyric, a dithyramb, a jeremiad dancing, hot and searing, right up off the sizzling griddle of language. There was no place to go—so Gaiman threw the whole machine into reverse. His six entwined tales here come like sapphires afloat on a supercool liquid, like shards of sea-ground glass, shadow-cooled; these understated stories almost hide their theme: For Miracleman is a book that is largely, generously, compassionately about mourning.

Delany’s sentences, which I am tempted to call better than anything actually found in The Golden Age, repay the tribute of Gaiman’s own allusion in the book to Delany’s classic short story, “Driftglass.”

The highlights of The Golden Age are two. One is a Dick-style tale about a city populated entirely by spies, overseen by the resurrected Evelyn Cream, a homeopathic dream-world meant to bring spies out of their mirror-halls of suspicion so that they may enjoy an honest life in the perfect state of the superheroes.

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Art: Mark Buckingham

The second highlight is based on one line in Moore’s series (Balzac’s praise of Stendhal for writing entire books on single pages might apply to Moore). A resonantly mythological feature of Miracleman’s Olympus is its underworld, where the recent dead are resurrected using alien technology. At the conclusion of Olympus, Moore mentions the arrival to this underworld of Andy Warhol, which Gaiman takes as an occasion to do a comic-book rendition of “A Dream” from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, a Warholian monologue on the meaning of this science-fictional world. Considering Miracleman’s abolition of money, Warhol laments:

He stopped [money]. Said it was bad. That’s fine, I suppose, but how do you know if you’re more successful than anyone else? How do you know if what you’re doing is working? You’ve got to keep working.

Spoken like Margaret bloody Thatcher: without signals from markets, how can you know your art is good or your society free?

Gaiman, whose early work did so much, by affirming marginalized identities, to portend today’s social-justice revolution in comics, never pretended to be an anti-capitalist or a radical. He aspired to, and after writing Miracleman ascended to, the Olympus of the bestseller list. His watchword was “the personal is the political,” which is true, but not true enough for the philosophical ambitions proper to Moore’s Miracleman.

As for the Original Writer, he always was aware that the market, no less than those utopians who would overthrow it, might err. We are left, as ever, with his second thoughts, imperfectly expressed. This is, in its way, as it should be, since with his second thought, if not his first, he cautions us in this flawed epic against the pursuit of inhuman perfection.

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Art: John Totleben

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Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some books are so famous, so ubiquitous in the culture, that you feel you have read them well before you ever read them. You feel, in fact, that you don’t need to read them. This is what kept me from reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) for so long. (And I should note that I’ve seen neither the 1990 film nor the recent series.) Then, as with so many other famous books, I read it and found it to be very different from what I was expecting.

Often summarized as a dystopian/feminist riposte to the rise of the Christian Right in 1980s America, and moreover a riposte with ongoing relevance as this movement remains a potent political force in U.S. life, The Handmaid’s Tale is in fact a defense of liberal culture and as much an entrant in the so-called sex wars dividing the feminist movement in the 1980s as it is an attack on conservatism. It is, as well, a recursive and unreliable metafiction rather than a straightforward narrative, though this is not made clear until the conclusion.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person narrative of a 33-year-old woman who serves as a conscripted surrogate mother to an elite family in a near-future America, rechristened Gilead, and ruled by an authoritarian fundamentalist regime called the Sons of Jacob. Now named Offred (“of Fred,” signaling her possession by the Commander in whose house she serves), our heroine has vivid memories of life before the country’s takeover. Through her eyes, we see the new world of Gilead, with its ordered hierarchies of class and gender and its organized violence, and we also see the old world—our world—defamiliarized through her recollections of her husband and child, her gay best friend, her feminist mother. In a move that likely influenced Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Offred is an avowedly normal person, one without exceptional reserves of heroism:

I’ll say anything they like, I’ll incriminate anyone. It’s true, the first scream, whimper even, and I’ll turn to jelly, I’ll confess to any crime, I’ll end up hanging from a hook on the Wall. Keep your head down, I used to tell myself, and see it through. It’s no use.

Her observant passivity, as well as exhibiting realism about most people’s capacity for heroism, also makes her an ideal guide to the landscape Atwood wants to explore, and her sardonic, lyrical monologue, full of wordplay and symbolism, makes what could be a one-note narrative of misery more emotionally various.

Offred’s narrative ends ambiguously, in media res, but an epilogue, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” set at an academic conference two centuries in the future, both contextualizes her narrative and makes us doubt its reliability. We learn that we have been reading a future (male) academic’s transcription and organization of an audio recording of Offred. The text is presumably colored by his own—and his time’s—bias and agenda, which, Atwood carefully hints, is not at all free from the misogyny informing Gilead.

From its Chaucerian title and Swiftian epigraph to its Orwellian afterword, then, The Handmaid’s Tale places its main narrative—an impassioned, intelligent monologue associated with the realist novel and akin to those of Moll Flanders, Pamela Andrews, or Jane Eyre—within a tradition of satire (of which the dystopian, with its caricatural extrapolation of bad present-day tendencies into a future defined solely by them, is a subgenre). Of satire, Atwood’s teacher Northrop Frye observes in The Anatomy of Criticism:

The satiric attitude here is neither philosophical nor anti-philosophical, but an expression of the hypothetical form of art. Satire on ideas is only the special kind of art that defends its own creative detachment. The demand for order in thought produces a supply of intellectual systems: some of these attract and convert artists, but as an equally great poet could defend any other system equally well, no one system can contain the arts as they stand. Hence a systematic reasoner, given the power, would be likely to establish hierarchies in the arts, or censor and expurgate as Plato wished to do to Homer. Satire on systems of reasoning, especially on the social effects of such systems, is art’s first line of defense against all such invasion.

In other words, satire is literature’s immune response to religious, political, and philosophical encroachments on its autonomy. Frye sees this autonomy as beginning with Homer, who in the Iliad describes both Greeks and Trojans with sympathetic understanding, thus turning the poem into complex, dialectical art rather than a propaganda tract that speaks for only one side. It is this vision of literature, which arguably came to fruition with the dialogism of the realistic novel, that Atwood is protecting within the carapace of her satire. In the high tradition of the twentieth-century dystopia—a basically liberal genre—Atwood is warning us against extremism, totalitarianism: in a word, ideology.

This admonition accounts for the elements of the novel that I was not expecting: not only the anticipated critique of religious patriarchy, but also Atwood’s accusations of complicity directed against second-wave feminism. Early in the novel, Offred recalls attending a book-burning with her mother and her mother’s feminist friends; their immolation of pornography seems of a piece with the novel’s other images of women abused and tortured for sexual transgression:

I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.

Likewise, the language of the “aunts,” those who instruct the handmaids in Gilead’s ideology, echo certain strains of feminist complaint:

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Offred even at one point addresses her absent mother with the accusation that feminist separatism is adjacent to female subordination:

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.

Atwood is here not only at one with the dystopian Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also with Orwell as the inner critic of his own party, the Orwell who wrote in “Inside the Whale,” “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”

With the novel’s floral motif (“They’re the genital organs of plants”), Atwood announces that nature (a vital feminine force) is on the side of her heroine, even if this sacred feminine, this real Holy Grail, is presently in thrall to man:

The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards.

Nature, like Offred’s own complicated inner life, itself often moved by love and desire even in the most atrocious circumstances, suggests that there is always an outside and an underside to ideology, a nature and a human nature that surges up, that expresses itself in literature and art, despite all attempts at repression.

The novel’s argument, therefore, is only locally against American fundamentalism; it is more broadly directed against any and all reductionisms, whatever their alibi (right or left, Christian or feminist), taking the helm of the state, controlling culture, and subduing the individual. She specifies the female individual not only to advance feminist ideals but to take a stance within the broad and various field of feminism. This stance no doubt accounts for Atwood’s controversial objection to what she sees as the potentially totalitarian excesses of today’s #metoo movement:

If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers? It won’t be the Bad Feminists like me. We are acceptable neither to Right nor to Left. In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.

Writing in the Guardian, Moira Donegan observes that this debate about the #metoo movement reveals a divide in feminism between individualist and social visions; I think it is fair to say that The Handmaid’s Tale is a consummate work of the individualist imagination. In any case, the apparent longevity of these cultural debates, and the political context that necessitates them, mean that The Handmaid’s Tale will retain its relevance for some time to come.Screen Shot 2018-05-13 at 8.38.07 AM

Because Atwood does seem to believe in the autonomy of art, its inability to be reduced to ideology, I would like to pay her the compliment of concluding with an aesthetic evaluation of her work. My ideological analysis aside, did I, do I, like The Handmaid’s Tale qua novel? Well, I have mixed feelings, some of them unrelated to this specific book.

I increasingly distrust dystopia as a genre, on grounds both aesthetic and political. It just makes everything too easy, I think: yes, if [X] in contemporary society were magnified times 100 and [Y] diminished times 100, it would be a terrible thing. But in the world I live in, [X] and [Y] (let us say liberal cultural norms and the conservative backlash thereto) exist in a precise and complex interrelation, and if this relation were to shift, everything would be so different as to have little relevance to my actual existence right now. Why not write about [X] and [Y] in all their present-day singularity, Henry James’s “present palpable intimate”? Aren’t the oversimplifications of dystopia for children, a moral pedagogy for those not yet equipped with the tragic awareness of competing goods? This will be a too-extreme argument in the present atmosphere of total aesthetic relativism, so let me move on to some more specific observations.

For one, Atwood is uninterested in the theology of Gilead; she seems to regard it solely as the alibi of power-hungry brutes. But the novel would have been much more interesting had it contained any element of ideological debate or awareness, something comparable to Goldstein’s tract in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And while Atwood amusingly sets the tale in Cambridge, MA, and bases her theocracy on the Puritans, her novel gives no flavor of the most interesting aspect of Puritan culture: its incessant and paranoid inwardness—the self-scrutiny, self-doubt, and self-torment of John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, a quality of interiority from which the liberal individualism Atwood seems to celebrate took some cues. An Offred who actually begins to doubt herself, to search herself, would be a richer character, and the novel would thereby be deepened. Or what if her oppressors—the Commander and his wife—were wracked with Puritan self-consciousness, and a defiant Offred were able to turn it against them? Evoking Puritanism without doing its specificity any justice seems a missed opportunity for inner and outer conflict in a novel that sometimes plods along with its passive protagonist.

Meant to be a statement on America, a warning that “it can happen here,” The Handmaid’s Tale actually evades cultural specificity. Would American fundamentalists really rename the country? They love America—real American fundamentalists would dress Offred in the flag! Gilead, by contrast, resorts to quasi-Orientalist stereotype: it just looks like the Iranian Revolution with more Catholic iconography—veiled women and sinister Gothic ceremonies. Moreover, the American experience that most resembles what Atwood describes is slavery rather than Puritan theocracy. In fact, it would be useful to know when Atwood first read Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a book whose themes—and whose problems of textual transmission and verification—are echoed in and by Offred’s own narrative. Such resemblances account for charges that Atwood perpetuates “white feminism.”

Offred as narrator, too, never comes into focus for me. Her trauma is often implied—she has lost not only her freedom, but all of her loved ones—and I suspect Atwood intended the sarcastic tone of her narration to come across as a compensatory avoidance of feeling. Yet Offred often sounds too much like, well, a satirical novelist, like Margaret Atwood. As Mary McCarthy complained in an early review:

But the most conspicuous lack, in comparison with the classics of the fearsome-future genre, is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life. No newspeak. And nothing like the linguistic tour de force of ”A Clockwork Orange” – the brutal melting-down of current English and Slavic words that in itself tells the story of the dread new breed. The writing of ”The Handmaid’s Tale” is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality.

I agree with McCarthy when she finds Atwood’s science fictional imagination wanting; as Jennifer Helinek wittily observes of the novel’s “compubanks” and “compucounts” and the like (not to mention its “prayvaganza”), “the people in charge of pre-Gilead America appear to have been underpaid Fisher-Price employees.” As for the novel’s lyricism—McCarthy dryly refers to the book as “a poet’s novel”—it sometimes “dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry,” to quote Zoë Heller’s actually rather unfair comment on a better novel that treats Atwood’s themes, Toni Morrison’s Paradise:

I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing. Treacherous ground, my own territory. I become the earth I set my ear against, for rumors of the future. Each twinge, each murmur of slight pain, ripples of sloughed-off matter, swellings and diminishings of tissue, the droolings of the flesh, these are signs, these are the things I need to know about.

But there is also much to admire in The Handmaid’s Tale. Its rich and allusive imagery turns it into a summa of and a metacommentary on the novel of female experience; Atwood so often implicitly asks us to think of Hawthorne’s red letter and Brontë’s red room that her book gives us another view of a vital literary tradition.

Further, the intense irony introduced by the epilogue, with its snickering sexist and relativist professors in a multicultural far future, undoes the oversimplifications of dystopia and practically enjoins us, as Gerry Canavan argues, to read the novel again and again with different perspectives and possibilities in mind. Atwood so brilliantly alters her tale in its last 20 pages that its preceding 300-some pages become bewildering complex, an interpretive labyrinth, whereas they had appeared on a first reading to be almost transparent.

To say that a novel remains relevant because the themes it treats are still with us is to say nothing about the quality of the novel. The quality of The Handmaid’s Tale seems to me mixed—as befits a defense of impurity and ambivalence, of the liberal imagination—but I believe its textual richness and intelligence will keep it alive, as alive as Chaucer or Swift, even after the likely disappearance of its polemical targets from the earth.

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J. D. Bernal, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry Into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational SoulThe World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry Into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul by J.D. Bernal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I saw Verso’s 2017 reissue of this 1929 book in the library, I picked it up because I vaguely recalled that it had informed Grant Morrison’s work around the turn of the millennium, such as The Invisibles, which I recently re-read. Unfortunately, I can’t find any evidence that this is true, but I read the Irish Marxist scientist Bernal’s brief, spirited utopian tract anyway.

Bernal fell into a disrepute as a thinker in the mid- to late-twentieth century not only because he was a Marxist, but because he was an outright defender of Stalinism, even after those breaking points of the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisings in the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, this new edition of his first book features an introduction by McKenzie Wark (from which I derive the above information) defending its continuing relevance on the two grounds of the political left’s 1.) need to deal with science (and not just philosophy and art) in “the Anthropocene” and 2.) need to appeal to affects other than Adornian miserablism. I certainly sympathize with the latter goal, and was charmed by Wark’s linkage of Bernal not only to the socialist Shaw but to another Irish literary predecessor:

Bernal’s thinking in this era is, among other things, the aesthetics of Oscar Wilde expanded to a scale that imagines making over the cosmos itself as a work of art.

Bernal’s title refers to three areas of human existence that, he hopes, will come increasingly under rational control with the progress of science: the world is nature, the external environment; the flesh is the human body itself; and the devil is the psyche or human consciousness. In other words, as Bernal puts it, the physical, the physiological, and the psychological.

He imagines the future conquest of nature as a conquest of space: we will live, Bernal claims, in small globes among the planets, bounding through open space across low-gravity plains. As for the human body, it will extend its life as a brain in a cylinder connected to the world by various wired and wireless mechanisms; not only that, but it will join itself to collective brains, which will change our perception of what it is to have a self since they will persist in some ineffable quiddity even as constituent parts join up or die off.

Finally, Bernal relies on Freud for his psychology and imagines that as we distance ourselves further and further from nature, sublimation will play a greater and greater role in our experience: the energy that once went for biological reproduction will now go toward technological and social reproduction; Bernal, who uses the word “perversity” as an honorific description of evolution’s ingenuity, gives his latent aestheticism full rein:

The art of the future will, because of the very opportunities and materials it will have at its command, need an infinitely stronger formative impulse than it does now. The cardinal tendency of progress is the replacement of an indifferent chance environment by a deliberately created one. As time goes on, the acceptance, the appreciation, even the understanding of nature, will be less and less needed. In its place will come the need to determine the desirable form of the humanly-controlled universe which is nothing more nor less than art.

Again, I share Wark’s wonder that the left used to be able to strike this tone, before the defeat of its prophecies, at least in their orthodox form, turned it to the “ruthless criticism of everything existing” less as the negative moment in an ongoing dialectic than as an end in itself, whether exhibited by the grandeur of Adorno’s all-encompassing denunciations or by the anhedonic carping of social media.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to mistrust utopianism, from whatever ideological quarter. At the end of this short book, Bernal worries that psychoanalysis will actually make us happy by restoring us to the innocence of our animal desires and thereby turning us away from sublimation’s glorious goad to self-transcendence. The scientists, though, will never be appeased, Bernal speculates; in the evolving Soviet state he imagines that scientific bodies will actually be able to seize political control (“the scientific institutions would in fact gradually become the government, and a further stage of the Marxian hierarchy of domination would be reached”) and take to the stars, leaving psychoanalyzed bovine mankind to graze on the earth, itself now considered by the future star children as a “a human zoo, a zoo so intelligently managed that its inhabitants are not aware that they are there merely for the purposes of observation and experiment.”

Bernal signals by his title that his speculations are religion by other means (he inadvertently echoes Dante: “consciousness itself may end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealized, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light”), but he often forgets to account for that as he elaborates his eschatologies. As for aestheticism, it is often misapplied when joined to politics, just as politics is often misapplied when joined to aesthetics: artists might provide hints to the multiple agencies who make the world, but in general no one party or guild—not even my own—should have total control, of this planet or any other. With these twentieth-century cautions in mind, though, maybe we can begin to think again about making a future that at least fascinates, if it does not offer salvation.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Grant Morrison, The Invisibles

The InvisiblesThe Invisibles by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This will be a pitch. You should read The Invisibles. Certainly those of you who have been reading some of the other things I write about here: not only Alan Moore, but also Herman Melville, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Grant’s alt-universe sister, Toni Morrison.

I had not read The Invisibles all the way through since about 2001 or 2002. I assumed, because it was so timely, almost reading at moments like a journal Morrison was keeping about 1990s cultural trends, that it could not possibly hold up. But rereading it over the last month, I was surprised to find that its time has come round at last. So what is The Invisibles? Why should you read it?

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First, its author: Grant Morrison, a Glaswegian working-class magician, punk, and failed pop star, became one of the most notable writers of American comics during the late-1980s British Invasion. He wrote a metafictional treatment of Animal Man and an avant-garde superhero saga in Doom Patrol; most consequentially on the material plane, he wrote the delirious Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, which, coinciding with Burton’s Batman movie of 1989, made him rich. He traveled the world, took all the drugs he had theretofore avoided, got abducted by aliens in Kathmandu in 1994, had the secrets of the universe explained to him, and began a new creator-owned series for DC Comics’s adult Vertigo imprint about a cell of anarchist terrorists called The Invisibles who war against evil insectoid Archons bent on controlling the world.

Morrison’s series begins when The Invisibles need to add a new fifth agent to their cell, which consists of the glamorously violent Englishman, King Mob; the fragile psychic waif Ragged Robin; the former New York City cop, Boy; and a trans magician from Brazil, Lord Fanny. This quarter tries to recruit a Liverpudlian teenaged delinquent named Dane MacGowan, who may be a new Buddha.

The 1500+ pages of the series narrate how Dane’s becoming an Invisible coincides with the mounting crises leading first to the millennium and then to 2012. On this date, humanity is due to ascend into what Morrison calls “the Supercontext,” or a matured experience of spacetime as an integrated simultaneous totality to which terms like good and evil will not apply. invisibles2.pngEarly in the series, Morrison reveals that what looked like a “war” in the first few chapters, a cliched fight between rebels and empire, is in fact a “rescue mission.” Images of medicine and midwifery abound: our heroes aim not to kill but to cure and to convert the enemy, to turn the enemy into a friend. Evil is just misrecognized good, usually misrecognized by itself.

While The Invisibles is, in practice, about as didactic as I’ve made it sound, its moral is nonetheless dramatized through a compelling and often very moving story: it is the tale of Dane’s growth from aimless violence to supernal serenity; of King Mob’s seduction by and then weaning from the habitual practice of brutality; of Boy’s quest for revenge against the racist powers-that-be who murdered both of her brothers and her slow realization, like Dane’s and King Mob’s, that force is not the solution; of Fanny’s endless initiation into her family’s matriarchal magical practice; and of Ragged Robin’s (bear with me here) composition of much of the tale we’re reading in a sensory deprivation tank in 2005 and her subsequent (or is it?) travel through time. invisibles3.png

(Time travel is an important image for Morrison, since the time-suit Robin uses to navigate the temporal rapids is just a picture of ourselves as we would look sub specie aeternitatis, not only an extensive body but an unfolded life.)

There is more to the story even than the above, though, since Morrison creates an expansive and global story with a multitude of characters. He affectingly tells villains’ tales. The rueful story of a foot soldier shot by King Mob in the first chapter even becomes a kind of moral compass for the series and is the first episode in which we hear, albeit garbled, the crucial advice to call on the Buddha of compassion. Then there is Sir Miles Delacourt, an occultist who succumbs to the lust for power and control precisely because he, as he belatedly understands, lacks the compassion urged upon us at intervals throughout the whole epic.

Most movingly is the story of Quimper, a character who first appears as a nightmare villain; I might compare him to Robert Blake’s character from Lynch’s Lost Highway. Yet we learn that he was originally a kind of angel fallen into our dimension of matter and tortured and abused until he became evil. His plaintive whisper, “Once I was a little light,” is for me the most moving line in the whole series (because weren’t we all?), and the climax of his tale, wherein he is redeemed by a kiss, saved by love, is the climax of Morrison’s evolving ethics.

Morrison recommends an evolution beyond politics, beyond violence, beyond us vs. them. This, like postmodernism in general (or even Romanticism in general), might be described as the internal conservative critique of the radical left: a warning of where the way of Robespierre and Lenin leads. (Hence the unsoundness of now-fashionable pronouncements that postmodernism is “cultural Marxism.” It would make far more sense to call it “cultural anti-Marxism”!)

Early in the narrative, The Invisibles travel back to the French Revolution and meet the Marquis de Sade as Byron and the Shelleys debate freedom and necessity. Sade is the hero of this tale insofar as his epics of degradation allegorize reason at its limit and thus tell the truth about the revolution’s sadism, while Percy Shelley’s idealism is humbled by the suffering of his family. At the end of the book, Sade reappears as a kind of Wilhelm Reich figure, trying to engineer sexual liberation, and he is rebuked in his turn for what we can only assume is a lack of love by another of the series’s heroes, Lady Edith Manning. Edith is an occultist of the modernist era who meets King Mob in 1988 and then later (yes, later: time travel, remember) in 1924. Morrison historicizes his own aesthetics when he shows the future to have begun with modernism, even though he already showed it to have begun in 1792. Every era that opens itself to change prepares the way into the supercontext. King Mob tells Edith to tell Robin to call on Buddha, a message intercepted in infancy by the soldier King Mob kills, a plea for peace echoing through time and unheeded until the conclusion.

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My pitch so far has been narrative and thematic, but what about aesthetics? How is this as a reading experience? I won’t, like other ad-men, lie to you: the quality is uneven, for reasons that have everything to do with the exigencies of comic-book serial publishing. The Invisibles has a revolving cast of artists, wildly distinct in quality, and even two different letterers, one of whom is the comics legend Todd Klein and the other of whom is, putting it politely, not.

Because Morrison writes in such various tones and moods, from Pythonesque farce to Lovecraftian horror, and even parodies with Joycean aplomb a host of comics storytelling styles, it is not necessarily a problem to have multiple artists. It only detracts from the book when they are not all as good as Jill Thompson, Phil Jimenez, and Frank Quitely, who are the standout artists of the series’s three main divisions. Thompson’s sketchy somberness matches the brooding tone of the first third, Jimenez’s superhero art via fashion spread echoes the middle third’s themes of the temptations of glamor and violence, and Quitely’s lived-in Eurocomics futurism makes for a plausible conclusion in 2012. The rest of the many artists aren’t bad, and in fact Chris Weston is in his way positively good (though more appropriate, because disgustingly inappropriate, for Morrison’s later work, The Filth); but they aren’t quite up to realizing Morrison’s extraordinary literary ambition.

The narrative, as well, is spread too thin in places: whatever anxiety of influence Morrison is working out with regard to British detective TV shows of the 1970s is lost on me and feels like an absurdly lengthy digression, for instance, though maybe it works better for British readers. In general, Morrison writes in a kind of cut-up style, raining content down on readers’ heads in what sometimes feels like random order, much of it cynical and ugly, and half the addictive pleasure (and I’ve always found Morrison a very addictive writer) is sorting through it all to find the moving lyrical grace notes that occur and then recur: the story’s threads, heart-red, binding it internally even when it seems to be a meaningless collage. Hence my recommendation for fans of Pynchon and Joyce. For all that, though, a tighter narrative might not have been amiss, especially when without it great characters like Boy and Robin disappear for far too many pages.

All that said, I will, speaking only for myself, never understand people who think the recent spate of “literary” graphic novels from Chris Ware to Richard McGuire is the best the medium has to offer when they don’t seem aware that something like this, which recreates the whole universe to explain it anew, even exists. The Invisibles has not been without influence, but its influence has been too confined to an in-crowd and coterie, and their recent productions (I have sampled some of the Young Animal material as well as the works of Aleš Kot) seem to me like the attempts of a later generation to recapitulate an artistic revolution without having thought through whatever made it necessary in the first place and without trying to make their own advance; Victorian poets in relation to Romantics, for example. Whatever the equivalent of The Invisibles in the present or future will look like, it will probably not look all that much like The Invisibles, except that it will be audacious and irresistible and a mess. But maybe this is too harsh; I leave it to you to decide.

Let’s end with politics. The Invisibles is a story about the necessity and irrelevance or immorality of revolution. It is also about conspiracy theories. I have not emphasized the latter enough yet, but Morrison does explain in the course of his book what crashed at Roswell and why the establishment killed Princess Di, among other things. Perhaps “this hasn’t aged well,” as the Twitterati like to say. Aren’t conspiracy theories the province of the MAGA/Brexit crowd nowadays? Doesn’t the present state of things necessitate a redoubled attempt at revolution?

One Youtube personality who began on the left and who now retails exegeses of QAnon flatters his audience by hailing them as “the conspiratorium clerisy.” He is friends, moreover, with Roseanne Barr, herself an adept of the same baffling oracle. On Roseanne in the mid-1990s, an Invisibles poster hung on Darlene’s bedroom wall, just as one was taped to my own. Who could have foreseen where we’d all end up? Then again, The Invisibles hasn’t aged a day, give or take a Kula Shaker reference; it is odd to read a book prophesying a future that is now past, when its depiction of the past as a time of befuddling and agitated complexity still feels like the present, only a bit heightened, a bit degraded, and, for now, less optimistic. “Future proves past” after all.

invisibles7What if the comrades are correct and the simultaneity of time is not a timeless philosophical proposition but just a description of cultural arrest under the reign of the corporation? At the conclusion of The Invisibles, King Mob prepares the way for our ascension to the supercontext by the release of a game that is, transparently, The Invisibles itself. The allegory is plain, and Morrison in interviews made it clearer: we can get free not by fighting the power but by becoming the power. While the Battle of Seattle raged, our author told us to enter the boardroom rather than fighting in the street. He was surely wrong—I think we see this now—to imagine liberation through the counterculture’s seizure of corporate control, to bank everything on feedback rather than opposition; this countercultural control is what has happened, and the results are mixed to poor, with liberal democracy hollowed out by Silicon businessmen and frightful insurgencies rising in reaction. DC Comics, in any case, isn’t publishing any new stuff this interesting, unless I’m missing something.

invisibles8On the other hand, the comrades must be wrong, or else shooting one’s way out of this problem would have worked the last hundred times it’s been tried. If you fight the forces of repression, you become repressive; this is not a childish moral equivalence but a description of reality. War itself is the ultimate force of repression. Promulgators of salvation-through-arms from Marxists to neoconservatives rage so fiercely against “moral equivalence,” in fact, because acts that are phenomenally equivalent often are morally equivalent. It isn’t better or more justified when we do it, unless there is no such thing as universal ethics and/or unless they are not people. (This need not be a strictly pacifist credo, just an ethically rigorous one when it comes to violence of all kinds.) Despite superficial dissimilarities, Albert Camus is an author very like Morrison in that both oddly end up redescribing anarchism as the essence of political moderation; as the philosopher explains in The Rebel, once you have embraced a politics that postpones the ethical until after the millennium you are, for all practical purposes, already committed to the guillotine and the gulag.

Morrison makes this point not didactically, but through narrative structure: he first incites the reader to swoon at King Mob’s reign of terror by having it surrounded by pop culture and erotic imagery, all conveyed through Jimenez’s deliriously slick linework. But eventually we are repulsed and learn to love the arts of peace: King Mob becomes defined as Robin’s lover more than as a lone assassin, and we thereby find ourselves rooting for love not war. Such an investment in the personal pries us from our desire to be members of anybody’s clerisy. Horizontal, not vertical relations. “Once I was a little light.” How to be so again? Morrison mistook the economic for something other than war by other means (and I am sufficiently non-doctrinaire to think the question remains open, though I am also hostile to corporate monopolies and see no salvation whatsoever coming from that quarter). But he had the end (as in purpose) right, and was moreover correct in his warning that violent means will corrupt the end itself.

“Edith says to call on Buddha”: the moral buried in the heart of this vast, exhausting crypt and cryptogram, like those similarly encoded/entombed in the labyrinths and pleas for peace crafted/coded/cried by Joyce and Pynchon: “Love, says Bloom”; “They are in love. Fuck the war.” If that does not make you want to read The Invisibles, I don’t know what will.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!