Sublimity or Bust!

(soundtrack: Sleater-Kinney, Call The Doctor)

In a comment thread, a couple of days back, Mitch from Blogfonte took issue with my basic interpretation of Heart of Darkness. Specifically, he objected to my introduction of the sublime into the discussion, a term, he argues, which is “best suited to obfuscation”… And of course he’s right–although I would say rather that the sublime itself obfuscates… and that it does no good to pretend that there aren’t things in this world that defy human comprehension. Mitch has already demonstrated, elsewhere, that he is morbidly fearful of nihilism–well, I’m not, and I think that’s the real source of our disagreement…

Mitch claims that “civilization was itself the monster eating the heart out of Africa” in Heart of Darkness. No way man! There is no “Africa” in Heart of Darkness, and no “civilization”. This is no realist tract against “imperialism”, or portrait of “savage customs”–Conrad’s book is a complex allegory, and nothing in this text can be abstracted from the structure without losing its significance…

In the comments-thread, I replied:

I don’t think HOD is about “abominations” of any sort–and no way is it about Africa at all (which explains why Chinua Achebe’s “critique” of the book is the most asinine thing ever written!)…

You have to understand where I’m comin’ from here–I take people like Berkeley (& Fichte) seriously, when they take subjectivity to the limit… on the other hand, I know from personal experience that there are things in this world that pose a visceral (as opposed to an intellectual) challenge to the Idealist position–I describe those things (always other people, as far as I’m concerned) as sublime, because they just cannot be accounted for in any rational way (we know nothing about what caused Kurtz to go round the bend, we aren’t meant to know, he is sublime, not “Africa”!!)…

You seem to feel that “nihilism” is the worst problem a human mind can face–for me it’s solipsism… HOD is about Marlow’s encounter with the sublime, and his decision to live with contradiction!

Okay, so what does this have to do with The Dark Knight Returns? A great deal, I think! First of all–does anyone really think that Miller’s Gotham City is an accurate portrayal of a real place? (I’m not being snarky here, I’d be arguing the same thing if he had called it New York) Ditto his portrait of America in the eighties? Come on! This is a control-freak’s nightmare vision of urban sprawl… Whenever Bruce feels that he can’t keep the lid on things, he pops the top off a cold one and puts his desire for mastery on ice… Why does he come out of retirement? Seems to me it’s because he wakes up bleary-eyed one day and notices that the “Mutant Leader” has done a good job of power consolidation… Bruce wipes the drool off of his cowl and hops in! No more void hoovering his self-respect, just a muscle-guy with crazy fuckin’ teeth and a strange power over the red-visored element! Now that’s a job for The Batman!

The best thing in Geoff Klock’s book is his understanding of Miller’s project as an effort to collapse “a host of contradictory weak readings of a single, overdetermined character” into his own strong vision. I think that’s right–not only that, it accurately describes Batman’s own quest in the book. He wants to take the country back from “mutants” and Mary Hart and David Letterman and Dr. Ruth and namby-pamby liberals of all sorts (even those of the Kryptonian variety) and give it back to…”the people”? No way! Bruce wants to repackage the world in a form that he can understand…anyone that helps him to do that is a “good soldier”, anyone who doesn’t is…well…in trouble!

When all of this starts to work for him, in book three, he begins to be described as “a voice”–and he stops telling us in the first person what he’s feeling… I had it wrong when I argued that Miller made a mistake in opening inside Bruce’s death-drive–now I think it was a brilliant idea! There may not be a better work out there about the aspiration to–and qualified achievement of–sublimity, from the point of view of the aspirant! Even when he’s narrating the story, Bruce is no ordinary first-person narrator, of the kind you meet in The Blithedale Romance, The Sacred Fount, The Great Gatsby, The Thin Man, or It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken… He’s not concerned with showing us the limits of his ability to make sense of the world (and he has no sense of humour–the first-person narrator is usually self-deprecating-not Bruce! although you could read Alfred as the little voice of humility in Batman’s head…), he wants to bulldoze those limits, and confuse us into thinking they were never there…

The switch in narrative point of view thus becomes the most crucial element in understanding the book as a whole. The move from first-person to omniscient narrator and back again reminds me of Moby Dick–a work in which we begin with Ishmael, and end with him, but lose him completely when the novel rams into the sublime! Same thing here, except that we begin in Ahab’s clutches, as it were!

Bruce’s whale is, of course, Superman. But if Miller had wanted us to take this point of view ourselves, I don’t believe he would have done what he did in the nuclear explosion scenes (177-179 in the TPB). Superman is the strongest man on earth, sure, but his strength does not come from the same place that Batman’s does! His “resurrection” is achieved through a renewed sense of a relationship to the things of the earth–birds, bullfrogs,etc; it is not an act of will! In the final battle, Batman takes his best shot at putting his fist through the opaque wall of relationality that is the sublime… and, of course, he fails!

But it’s foolish to assume that that kind of energy will ever use itself up, and that’s where I think DKR may be even more interesting than Moby Dick… Most humans are not Buddhists, and the antagonistic relationship between Desire and World is not going away! Solipsism can sustain itself–can make a “good enough life” for itself…as long as it stays underground! The sublime is above persecution–like Superman, it winks at human striving, whenever it can afford to. Batman is back to being a lone nut with a dream (and a little army composed of “good soldiers”) and he’s back to tell us about it in the first person.

Yikes! I’ve gotta get to work!

don’t forget to check out the links below–those are good people!

Good afternoon friends!



  1. Dave, I find your reading of DKR very compelling & seductive. See if it fits into my comics-historical reading of DKR: I see the book as Miller’s (successful) attempt to wed Jack Kirby’s monolithic dynamism of the New Gods (especially when it comes to the fights between Batman and the Mutant Leader & Batman and Superman) with the with the multifaceted noir of Will Eisner’s late Spirit strips (the ones that play around with point of view and different narrative tricks, etc.) The “struggle” in the book seems to me to be between the character of Batman–full of possibility, full of potential, which in Kirby usually means potential for violence–and the any given story he happens to be trapped in. I’ll expand on this at my own site soon. Cheers, J.W.

  2. JW,

    Sounds good to me–I’m eager to hear more! Kirby/Eisner is a helluva combo! I’ve always loved The Spirit, although my knowledge of the series is far from comprehensive… I’ve got about twenty issues of that Kitchen Sink reprint series from the eighties, I’ll have to go take a look at ’em…

    It occurs to me that I haven’t been very fair to Jack Kirby during the course of these musings–but then, I don’t think I said anything fair about Miller either, until I actually re-read his work! I’m anxious to see how things like New Gods, and the seventies Cap run will affect me when I get back to them (and I will!)…

    Do you think it’s fair to say that Miller’s dynamic work here owes a good deal to Simonson as well? (of course, I’ve always thought of Simonson’s work as Kirbyesque–without being imitative, as Rich Buckler and Ron Frenz are)…


  3. Dave,

    I think the Simonson comparison is apt. Simonson is one of the handful of artists–along with Mike Mignola–who really seem to have gotten a handle on what Kirby was doing and not just copy his tics.


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