Month: August 2004

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Autocratic Vistas


(Soundtrack: The SoviettesLP II)


Rose Curtin questions my description of the final page of We3 #1 as an “Hudson River School” homage–and she’s right, “homage” is definitely not the right word. The painting I was thinking of–again, I’m no expert on American painting, this thing’s on the cover of a Norton Anthology I left back in Montreal–is Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits:

So, here’s what I was thinking when I tossed out that allusion. Suppose those friends on the ledge were actually at the bottom of the ravine (as our three mammalian protagonists are in Quitely’s drawing)–it would change the way we see the painting, wouldn’t it? There would still be a sublime world out there in the distance, but our focus would be on the more earthbound concerns of the beings under its cope…



And then again, imagine if, in lieu of the bright sky full of mountains which Americans have always interpreted as a space in which to realize a further, better self, we were confronted by a video-game horizon which dramatizes the return of all of that nineteenth century desire back upon itself in a whirl of chopper blades?



Our friends here are in a tough spot. Just as they are becoming very dimly aware of the possibility for moral improvement that romanticism promised, but which romantic painters, poets & politicians foolishly identified with room for expansion/manifest destiny–even, in fact, before they are given the chance to look up–the bloody manna called forth by that grotesque American prayer is about to fall.

Good Night Friends!

Dave

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Errors of Decommission

(soundtrack: Radio Dismuque)

We3 #1

(Update!: for more on this fascinating issue, and a discussion of a completely different “ecstatic moment”–report to The (Non)-Beastmaster)

Morrison and Quitely’s We3 is attracting a fair amount of critical attention on Barbelith (aka: the “thinking person’s messageboard”), the most interesting parts of which have focused upon the conversation between “Mr. Wah-Shing-Ton” and “Bandit”, and its aftermath…which I’ll get back to.

In the context of Morrison’s career, I think it’s pretty clear that this is a continuation of the “desentimentalization” of animals which really kicked into high gear with The Filth (which featured a hideous dolphin shrieking “don’t patronize me!” and a chimp bound for hell)… Of course, Animal Man (issue #2) placed the reader in the helpless position of witness to a savage rain of tooth and claw upon an unsuspecting mouse, but that incident is used as a counterpoint to the senseless violence perpetrated by the rapists/hunters. The implication there is that, yes, animals (certainly the carnivores we tend to associate with) are “killing machines”, but only humans can commit murder–i.e. killing as perversity/sick empowerment (“oh man! what have I done? I just shot Bambi! Uncle Walt’s gonna kill me!” “Ha ha ha!”) as opposed to killing as instinct. However, later on in Animal Man, Morrison made a pretty questionable statement by having the dolphins in issue #15 “speak” without really analyzing the impact that the possession of conceptual language has on a being’s actions and worldview. Morrison’s dolphins are just “instinctively good” (“that is not our way,etc”). Sea-bound angels. And, as Kant would say, even the most beautiful acts/sentiments (i.e. a parent’s love for his/her children, a person’s love for “their country right or wrong”) are immoral (or at least amoral) if done/arrived at through a faulty process of reasoning (or, more accurately, not done for any reason at all). Angels cannot serve as examples to humans, because they don’t have the same choices to make–i.e. they don’t have the capacity to will against the dictates of reason.

We3 opens with an extended, technologically souped-up version of Sheba’s hunt. Nothing startling in this sequence (apart from Quitely’s artwork, which, as a few people have pointed out, magnificently conveys the victim’s frantic sense of running in place), just animals equipped with better tools with which to do what they do best… Ah, but then they speak! More importantly, one of them demonstrates that he understands language as a complex system of ideas, rather than a series of triggers. I must confess that the panel in which Bandit asks: “Dee-comm-ish-ond… ?word?” did a number on my spine. The page immediately preceding that one contains an incredible depiction of–possibly–the origin of thought: Bandit’s rote response to the ol’ “how are you?” question (I M Gud R U Gud 2? Mr. Wah-Shing-Ton?) shocks his interlocutor (who wasn’t aware that he was entering into a conversation by bending down to inquire into the dog’s wellbeing), and the resultant derailment of the ritual clears a space for reflection. First, the dog repeats his question, with a concerned shrug, as if wondering, now, if the answer to this question could possibly be “no”. In the flash of a synapse, “good” has gone from connoting “content” or “satisfied” to meaning “right” or “morally justified”–and once this happens, Bandit is no longer willing to accept Wah-shing-ton’s belated assurances that he is indeed a “good dog”. No one can tell anyone else whether they are behaving morally. An autonomous being can only provide those kinds of answers for him/herself–and it all starts, of course, with the question: “what is the Good?” Clearly, Bandit is on to something.

Even more clearly, Washington recognizes that autonomy and murder-as-policy (otherwise known as “soldiering”–and you have to wonder if Morrison is prompting the reader to think of “our brave men and women in Iraq” when he writes: “the animals are the hardware”… “what kind of lunatic would teach a killing machine to talk?” how about the killing machines who already know how to talk? Even if all they know how to say is “yessir” or “God is Great”…talking isn’t thinking–conversing is!) don’t mix. When Washington shoots down Bandit’s attempt to clarify the meaning of “dee-comm-ish-ond”, he instead makes it abundantly clear that there is no place for a conversation–and thus no place for morality–in a chain of command. By decommissioning the animals, Washington actually commissions them to seek out a place (call it “home”) in which to conduct the kinds of conversations they now seem impelled to have. And that final page–a Hudson River School (a 19th-century movement closely related in spirit to Transcendentalism) homage clouded over by a murder of ‘copters–suggests that America, which has always told itself that it is that place, may be deluding itself more than ever before…

Can’t wait for the rest of this!

Good Night Friends!

Dave

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Hey! Speaking of “anti-gnostics”…

I give you… Dr. Roseanne Berry, of We3.

Trendle: Are you alright? You know it’s best not to get attached to things.

Berry: But isn’t that the point of it all?

I’ll have more to say tomorrow, once my syllabus is absolutely finalized…

Good night friends!

David

 

 

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The World is Not a Gnostic Oven

(Soundtrack: Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs — this guy plays Magnapop, ’nuff said!)

Right then–what the hell was Geoff Klock saying about Emerson, a while back? (sure, sure, I know he was actually talking about The New X-Men, more than anything, but give me a break, I haven’t read those yet… I will, I promise you!) Oh yeah–he said this:

Emerson’s Gnosticism is evident in his remarks about his son. He laments that grief (which occurs at the level of the psyche) cannot get him closer to “real nature”; for a Gnostic everything but the pneuma is unreal, including to a large extent other people. Bloom associates the spark with Genius;[5] it is probably best to think of it as the self that is beyond all categories, catalogues of traits, and definitions.

I feel I must object! Not to the linking of Morrison to Emerson (I’ve done that over and over again in this space in the past year–and, in fact, I have tended to discuss both of these artists as defiant anti-gnostics), but to Klock’s particular slant on the “Sage of Concord”. Of course, he’s entitled to his opinion–and, as he points out, he’s got Harold Bloom on his side!–but still, I just don’t recognize this “post-human” Emerson, who sees the world as a “vast prison”! On the contrary, the Emerson I know says things like “let us treat the men and women well; treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are” and he sees every blessed moment that we are granted on this planet as an opportunity to make that leap of faith, while we still have ground to run on. Sure, Emerson declares that he cannot “get [his son’s] death near enough to him”–but the corollary of that lament is, in fact, that other people are so real (not a part of “me”) that, no matter how much we might wish to hold onto them after they are gone, we simply can’t! Emerson is not saying that little Waldo didn’t matter, he’s saying that Waldo was matter. And when the material beings that we love die–or even just withdraw from our lives–it’s a reminder–not a rebuke!–of our absolute dependence upon the world we are called to love. Subjectivity is a means, not an end–there’s no nourishment for the soul in it!

Now, again, I can’t comment on the accuracy of Klock’s assessment of The New X-Men (I’m really going to try to get to the books soon, but my time is very limited these days!), and the interpretaton of Morrison’s Prof X as a gnostic sounds plausible to me…but there’s no way Morrison could possibly be endorsing that philosophy, unless he’s changed more than I think he has since writing Animal Man (not to mention The Filth). What do people think? Have others been writing about this? I’ve been a little out of it!

Good night friends!

Dave

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Letter From An Unknown Frantic One

(Soundtrack: Pop Critical Radio–not nearly as good as Musique du Mouchette, but still a damned site [sick!] better than anything you’ll find on your radio dial)

Stanley Cavell describes “the melodrama of the unknown woman” (which he derives from Max Ophuls’ film Letter From An Unknown Woman, a paragon of the genre, no doubt, along with the author’s other favourites Stella Dallas, Gaslight, and Now, Voyager) as the negation of the “morally perfectionist” “comedies of remarriage”. They achieve this melancholy distinction by giving us protagonists who fail (usually through no fault of their own, it’s certainly not for lack of trying!) to reach the intersubjective plane which makes the philosophical adventure possible. For Cavell, there are many other types of adventure, and all of them are fuelled by irony (our only defense against “conformity”), but only moral perfectionism staves off the rot into cyncism by (almost magically) preventing the ironists in question from ironizing each other.

(I remain very skeptical about the applicability of this model to real life–and Cavell does acknowledge that it works far better on film, and that, even there, the relationships he prizes so highly are always on the verge of dissolution, or, perhaps more accurately, that the parties to it are continually turning toward and away from each other, as they also turn toward and away from the world–this is called “aversive thinking”) (yes, Aaron, these are the kind of questions philosophers ponder–and personally, I find them far from barren inquiries, even if–or perhaps because–they do not yield any specific answers…) As an(other) aside, I must also voice my bewilderment at the fact that Cavell persists in obliviousness to the works of William Dieterle–Portrait of Jennie is a finer instance of the genre in question than any of his pets…and so, for that matter, is Capra’s The Miracle Woman

Anyway, the quintessential/eponymous “melodrama of the unknown woman” revolves around the sending of a letter which, far from bringing its writer and reader together, actually heralds both of their deaths (and even causes one of them). These people die of miscommunication. Lisa has to die in order for Stefan remember/recognize her… Cavell makes a great case for interpreting Henry James’ “The Beast In the Jungle” in a similar fashion–the “beast” which John Marcher (and his enlisted lieutenant May Bartram) gird themselves to confront is, in fact, their anticipatory relationship itself! They miss every opportunity to declare themselves “present” to each other, preferring to think of “life” as something that they will confront together, rather than live through, and when the confrontation does come, it is over her dead body… Groundhog Day builds toward a similar climax–and then, magnificently, veers off into “comedy of remarriage” territory.

Now, I ask you: has the “marriage” between Marvel and its readers veered the other way, into “unknown territory”? There are no more letters pages. (besides, its been a long time since anyone at the “House of Ideas” understood how to respond to a letter in the key of Stan or Roy) In their place, we’ve got message boards. And we all know what a joke they are. As far as I can see, the only person working in superhero comics today capable of upholding the tradition of “serious fun” epitomized by the mid-sixities Marvels (“upholding” is not the same thing as “going retro”–in fact, the two are diametrically opposed to one another–nostalgia is the worst cynicism of all…), is Grant Morrison…which reminds me, We3 #1 is coming out on Wednesday! I’m ready!

Good night friends!

Dave

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Where Do We Find Ourselves?

(Soundtrack: Musique du Mouchette, has anyone else out there discovered Live365 Radio? It’s amazing!)

Just blazed through Stanley Cavell‘s new book, which I got from the Michigan State U. Library (they’ve got everything! and, when it comes to comics, I mean everything… even more fascinatingly–to me anyway!!–the curator of the Special Collections, Randall Scott, published citation indexes to the Hulk, Iron Man, and Avengers lettercols in the late seventies… can you imagine my joy? yes, things are good here–except for the fact that the best thing in my life is not–here, I mean… that would be Christine…) But I digress…

Anyway, Cities of Words is wonderful, and very helpful to a comics scholar of my own very particular bent… It’s kind of the summation of a career (Cavell is almost eighty) that has, increasingly, zeroed in on an elucidation of a theory of “moral perfectionism” best represented, wackily enough, by Emerson, Wittgenstein, and selected classical Hollywood “comedies of remarriage” and “melodramas of unknown women”… As it happens, Cavell has become increasingly wont to fixate with doddering intensity upon a passage from “Self-Reliance” that I have associated with superheroes since I first read it, a long time ago:


I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.

The idea here is, in part, the fairly common one that the artist must turn away from those immediately near and dear to him/her in order to “open up intercourse” with a larger segment of humanity (by writing something outlandish in a very public place–“Whim”), and (this is where it gets interesting), if you believe Cavell, to both instruct and derive instruction from them (by inscribing a place for imaginative, even transformative, criticism–like Nietzsche’s, Thoreau’s, Stanley Cavell’s, and maybe Grant Morrison’s too!–into the text itself)

You mean like a letters page Dave?

You mean that Peter Parker puts on that suit in order to express the “moral perfectionist” sentiment that the “world he converses with [at the Daily Bugle] is not the world he thinks?” and to enter into an adventurous dialogue with the kinds of people who might be similarly dissatisfied with the world as it is (alienated teens and college freshmen? you bet!)?

Oh yes.

And consider the applicability of this statement (from another Cavell book–Pursuits of Happiness–in reference to Clark Gable & Claudette Colbert in Capra’s It Happened One Night) to the relationship that Stan Lee and his writer/editors (through the agency of their protagonists and their engaging, conversational narrative style) cultivated with “Marvel Zombies” (they used to call ’em “Merry Marchers”) in the sixties and seventies:

What this pair does together is less important than the fact that they do whatever it is together, that they know how to spend time together, even that they would rather waste time together than do anything else–except that no time that they are together could be wasted. Here is a reason that these relationships strike us as having the quality of friendship, a further factor in their exhilaration for us. Spending time together is not all there is of human life, but it is no less important than the question whether we are to lead this life alone.

Needless to say, I have more to say… but I must go now! I’ve got a week’s worth of nine-to-five orientation days beginning in eght hours!

Welcome back friends!

Dave

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I’m Not Really Back Yet, But…

I don’t have Internet Access yet at my new home, and so I have not been able to keep up with what my blogopeers have been up to lately (I did, of course, take a peek at last week’s Ninth Art, but who cares about that right?) Anyway, I’m not comfortable writing this thing unless I’ve got the cats gathered round the keyboard and some appropriate music blaring, so I’ll just have to wait to say anything of substance until my DSL connection is set up. I’m loving East Lansing, I’m tormented by the fact that Christine is headed back to Montreal in two days, and I’m eager to get rolling on this Doctoral thing! In the meantime, I want to direct your gaze to my friend Maggie’s new Victorian-lit focused weblog, which is off to a delightful start (Maggie has never been one to let herself fall into the trap of overspecialization however–and already she has veered into a discussion of the Olympics)

See you next week friends!

Dave