Month: September 2004


News From the Outer (Comics) Blogosphere

John Commonplacebook offers an outline for the first movement of a “Superman-for-adults” opus! (I’d buy it!)… he also assembles the ultimate cross-company superhero strike force and declares his preference for mid-to-late 19th century living (or, at least, for the perspective on the world that was available to inhabitants of that period in Western history)

Gardner Linn (September 16th) traces the respective downfalls of one-time “hot creators” Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and John (as in “Gospel of”)

And the splendid Matt Rossi moves toward the center of comics-blogospheric gravity by joining the Howling Curmudgeons

Good Afternoon Friends!



Off-the-cuff Links

(Soundtrack: The Rondelles– Fiction Romance, Fast Machines)

So much going on today!

Grant Morrison’s biggest fans are not at all happy with his Arthur comments! They were preceded in these sentiments by the always wonderful John Commonplacebook… My own position, of course, is that that guy who’s calling himself “Grant Morrison” has no special connection to the works attributed to the author with that name–’cause the author is dead!

Interesting piece on The Filth by Gary Wilkinson over at Ninth Art, marred only by the occasional facile statement, such as:

There’s also a comic within a comic, STATUS QUORUM, which illustrates the utter banality of the characters and plot from comics past compared to the cutting edge of now (ie THE FILTH itself) as the characters from STATUS QUORUM interact with those of THE FILTH.

Come on man! Status Quorum isn’t just there to beat on the superhero past! If I thought there was nothing more to it than that, I’d have been pretty annoyed.. In case you’re wondering what I did make of it, well, some of it is here. Basically, as far as I’m concerned, “Secret Original” is Buddy Baker, and the interpolated comics are not a parody of the silver age, they’re an attempt on Morrison’s part to further interrogate his own “Coyote Gospel”!

On the other hand, I can definitely appreciate Gary’s sentiments here:

Each person approaching a text will bring with them different experiences that will affect how he perceives the work. For me, but maybe not for you, THE FILTH was deeply affecting. Some things I took out of it were not even intended by the authors. While reading, I became convinced that the inclusion of a pair of artists who enjoy playing with filth may be a key to unlocking the text. I asked Morrison why he used Gilbert and George for Man Green/Man Yellow. “They crawled up out of my subconscious in that form. It just seemed right,” he explained. Ah, well…

Meanwhile, Ed Cunard has responded to my “anti-respectability manifesto”. It’s a good post, and I don’t have too many problems with it really–I’m certainly the last person to argue that “comics should be for kids” (on the contrary, I’ve always argued that superheroes are a particularly unsuitable genre for children–as distinguished from the “intelligent fourteen year-old” that I think we should all try to be for as long as we can!)

Ed and I part ways (or rather, we see the same path, we just disagree on where it will take us), however, right here:

You wouldn’t know it from reading the New York Times Book Review now, but there was a period in time where prose fiction was considered substandard and not worthy for discussion by the literary establishment of the day, who preferred the poetic form to the novel. However, as prose became legitimized, the canon itself was changed to a more catholic form – now, I don’t really see the day where comics are taught alongside Oscar Wilde in every school in the country, but I do feel that there are comics works suitable for academic study – as Dave obviously does as well. However, where he sees the legitimacy of the medium imposing some kind of standard that all creators will shoot for literary acclaim, I see the chance for people to “keep on keepin’ on,” and I – optimistically, true – hope that the works deserving of attention will find an easier time getting that acclaim. Right now, where comics are perceived as illegitimate, there are people out there trying desperately to find that critical acclaim, and in most cases, their intentions are completely transparent – for example, I had the misfortune to pick up a comic called “An Open Place,” or something, that is trying so desperately to be IMPORTANT that it’s simply laughable. I give readers the credit to be smart enough to know the difference.

See, my position is that the novel was terribly damaged by its accession to cultural respectability! Most of my favourite novelists: E. Bronte, Dickens, Melville, Hawthorne…even Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Dash Hammett… were considered practitioners of an “illegitimate” art form (James and Conrad are sort of on the cusp, but they certainly weren’t around for the novel’s true “baptism of respectability” in the twenties; Hammett was, but, in his case, he was working in a specific form–the “pulp”–that avoided the curse of “respectability”) Now, this has a lot to do with my personal aesthetics–and I can’t force anyone to share that with me!–basically, I have no use for the “pale affirmations-through-negation” of the modern “literary” genre–and it is a genre, believe me! (Marc Singer has referred to this as the literature of “little epiphanies”, and I think that’s apt)… I like my complexities and subtleties to emerge out of “concurrent hysterics” (can you tell by the way I write this page?) I privilege the generation of melodramatic intensity (nourished, to be sure, by a truly creative irony) in art over the kind of lame-ass diffidence that masquerades as irony in a lot of novels written in these more “respectable” times…

Now, of course, no one is forcing our “literary stylists” to write the way they do–and Paul Auster is a perfect example of a guy who, right now, is writing novels the way I think they should be written…precisely because he harkens back to the medium’s disreputable past. Paul Thomas Anderson is doing the same thing in films–while the Coens render sly hommage to the Hollywood genres, PTA is actually generating the kind of hyberbolic power that Capra, Dieterle, Borzage, and many other directors did regularly in pre-Cahiers Hollywood.

Jesus! I’d better go! And I didn’t even get a chance to discuss
Neilalien’s thoughts on Strange #1 (gonna pass on that one I think…where’s Morrison when we need him indeed?) and The (Veitch) Question (you may be right about this one Neil–but I have to see for myself!)

Oh yeah–and Dan Jacobson is having fun (and entertaining us!) with the Defenders issues which provided the catastrophic backstory for Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme–which I’ll get back to any day now, I promise you!

Also–Todd Murry discusses Following Cerebus… Wonderful discussion here…now I’m convinced that I have to get it!

Good Evenin’ Friends!


Boiling Over:
In Which Fiore Sort of Defends Bendis’ Daredevil for a Second Time, Whilst Becoming More and More Convinced that he will never read the book in Question!

(Soundtrack: The Bobbyteens — Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’)

This little rant has nothing to do with comics (some would argue that nothing I write has much of anything to do with the medium–and they may well be right–but I know my American lit goddamnit!) and everything to do with a critique of a specific TPB… Ladies and gentlemen, welcome Adam Stephanides back to the program!

Two things bothered me about this post.

Here’s number one:

Well, I finally read Daredevil: King of Hell’s Kitchen, the trade paperback collecting the arc of which Daredevil #56 was the first issue. And I’m sorry to disappoint anybody looking for blood, but I didn’t hate it. Which is not to say that I liked it, or would be willing to spend money for it; but I have to confess that I found it mildly interesting. In any case, whether because this time I knew not to expect anything like real literature, or because right now I don’t feel compelled to be an aesthetic missionary, I have no urge to dissect King of Hell’s Kitchen the way I did its first few pages.

“Real Literature”, Adam? With apologies to Foreigner (and Kathleen Hanna, who, as “Julie Ruin”, did an awesome cover of the bloated track I’m about to allude to)–I wanna know what that is… Please, O reluctant missonary, don’t leave savages like myself to burn in our ignorance!

What distinguishes “real literature” from its opposite?

But here’s what really bugged me:

In issue #59, one of the yakuza says “Killing an American hero? This has never been done.” Bendis’s overall aim seems to be to combine superheroes with the hardboiled city-as-cesspool school of crime writing (viz. Milla’s speech about how “the city” has taken everything away from Matt); and this latter presupposes an amoral cosmos. On the other hand, to state that heroes never die implies a cosmos that’s fundamentally moral. You can’t have a hardboiled crime story in which it’s guaranteed that heroes never die: like the proverbial irresistible force and immovable object, these two can’t both exist in the same universe. (Please note that I’m not objecting on the grounds that it’s unrealistic; I have no desire to revisit that argument.)

“You can’t have a hardboiled crime story in which it’s guaranteed that heroes never die.”

What are you talking about man? Can you possibly be unaware that just about all of the important items in the hardboiled canon come to us via indestructible first-person narrators? (who’ve obviously survived whatever ordeal they are describing!) Are you confusing hard-boiled literature with films like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard? Sure, James M. Cain wrote the way you describe–but Cain is a pretty minor figure when compared to the true masters of the genre–Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (with Ernest Hemingway lurking on the more “respectable” fringe of the movement). By your definition none of these writers is “hardboiled”! As a person who has read each of their novels several times, and obsessed upon the hard-boiled aesthetic for years, I just could not let this pass! From what Adam himself has revealed about the series, it sounds to me as if Bendis has got the genre’s cosmology down cold. These stories dramatize the moral stalemate–it’s protagonist vs. corruption, and neither the hero nor the “darkness” ever wins out…(sometimes–fairly often in Hammett, actually–the hero becomes implicated in the corruption, but it never crushes him, or his capacity to pass judgment on the world!) Chandler conceived of his protagonist–Philip Marlowe–as a modern-day knight, incapable of successfully completing his quest of purifying the world, but absolutely dedicated to his knightly praxis…almost out of spite! Sounds a lot like the superhero genre no? (Especially at its most Ditkoesque) I’ve been saying that for years!

Good Evening Friends!


When Life Gives You Rocks…uh, Domesticate Them?

(Chuck kinda looks like Rorschach in that drawing, dontcha think?)

I just came across an excellent essay on “Godot and the Great Pumpkin” whilst gathering net fuel for a short story I’m working on: “Sincere Went Away”.

I like the way this guy (Forrest D. Poston) thinks:

Near the end of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” Sally’s patience ends with, “I spent the whole night waiting for the Great Pumpkin, and all that came was a stupid beagle.” My initial reaction to Waiting for Godot was much the same as Sally’s unsatisfactory Halloween, but when dealing with trick or treat, you sometimes get the trick. As a result, I spent several years feeling grumpy at the mention of Samuel Beckett, but I was never quite convinced that the darkness was quite so absolute or necessary. The more someone quotes “there’s nothing to be done,” though more I look for something to be done. When I realized that the Great Pumpkin equals Godot in absurdity, but we respond to the two stories differently, I knew that I’d found some wiggle room to alter the perspective, interpretation, and application.

Check it out–it’s not a waste of time!

Good Evening Friends!


Okay–This is Fun!

(Soundtrack: The Rezillos —Can’t Stand the Rezillos)

Inspired by Will Pfeiffer (whose blog is great!) and The Comics Journal.

My Favourite Moments in the History of Comics (not in any particular order, y’unnerstand–and certainly not comprehensive):

1. Peter Parker’s first confused glimpse of the resurrected Gwen Stacy Amazing Spider-Man #143 (later in the issue, Peter & MJ enjoy a very cinematic first kiss!)

2. Cerebus and Jaka come to a horrifying impasse in a beautiful art deco corridor at the end of Cerebus #36.

3. Nite Owl serves coffee in Watchmen #7.

4. “Time becomes visible to the naked eye”, courtesy of Dave Cockrum & Steve Englehart, in Giant Size Avengers #2.

5. Dr. Strange and Clea watch a Gene Colan pteranodon smash into the Allied Chemical building on News Year’s Eve, uh, “some time ago”…(Dr. Strange #180)

6. Roy Thomas and Barry Smith ask: “Did you ever walk through something that isn’t?” (of course you haven’t!), in Avengers #66.

7. Dr. Strange meets Eternity in Strange Tales #138.

8. Barry Allen finds Cecile Horton (alive!) in a sensory deprivation tank beneath the rubble of her exploded house, in Flash #336.

9. Buddy Baker discovers that “the mystery is me” in Animal Man #22.

10. A group of animate costumes wave to a holographic procession of lost loved ones in Secret Origins #46

11. “Green Lantern wins the war” in All-Star Squadron #20.

12. Mary Jane tells Peter that she’s always known he’s Spider-Man, in Amazing Spider-Man #258

13.Peter Parker realizes that the waiters are aliens–sort of… (in Spectacular Spider-Man #50)

14.Krypto dies (sniff!) in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

15. The Spirit confronts “The Half Dead Mr. Lox” (I don’t remember where that’s from!)

16. Henry Pym decides to kill himself, after a last (viewscreen) conversation with Janet Van Dyne, in West Coast Avengers #17.

and, finally, because I’m tired, not because I’m really done:

17. MJ decides not to leave the room, at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #122

Good Night Friends!

Bull-Necks & Chicken Heads:The Irreconcilability of the Ideal and the Real in Cane

Bull-Necks & Chicken Heads!
The Irreconcilability of the Ideal and the Real in Cane

Jean Toomer’s Cane is
the lyrical suicide note of modernist sensibility; a prescient epitaph for an
aesthetic doomed to be trapped between the binary poles of alienation and
“wholeness”. Part one of the book presents a lyrical portrait of the
American South, mainly by sacrificing the region’s inhabitants (particularly
its female inhabitants) and system of racial oppression upon the altar of
symbolism. The male protagonists of part two are less easily dissociated from
the narrator(s); the perspectives nearly converge at the point of Paul’s
isolation at the end of “Bona and Paul”–a mood which intensifies and
echoes through the nightmare first “act” of “Kabnis”. Acts
two to five of “Kabnis” manifest an unprecedented dispersal of
subjectivity, made possible by a new willingness (or ability), on the part of
the narrator, to scrutinize his own position and the symbolic order he has
constructed. In act six, this temporary rapprochement with “reality”
begins to disintegrate, as the “cast” of the drama thins out and the
conflict between solipsistic subjectivity (represented by Kabnis) and
otherworldly wisdom (represented by
Carrie and Father John) rises to a shrill crescendo.

Jean Toomer has been praised at various times (and for various
reasons) for his “accurate depiction of the black world welling up against
the white” (Benson and Dillard, 34) and his “ability to suggest
character lyrically, . . . [his skill in telling] a story intended merely to
help the reader perceive the individual” (Turner, 15). However, in recent
years, critics have generally accepted (or attacked) Cane‘s depiction of the South (and female individuals in
particular) as stylized and heavily symbolic. When scholars have treated Cane as a “black” text at all,
they have focused upon its fragmented narrative as an expression of a
marginalized self–a “representation of race or racial consciousness only
insofar as such representations are the words that Toomer wants to transform
into facts” (Webb, 209).

Jean Toomer voiced a deep sense of indebtedness to Sherwoood
Anderson and was very much committed to(although not unreflective upon) the
modernist aesthetic–an aesthetic which positively disdained sociological
analysis (nor did it aim, generally, to provide vivid characterizations). The
author of Cane might just as well
have been writing about his own work when he remarked that Waldo Frank’s Holiday

is first of
all a subjective design; it has utilized certain elements of the South because
these seemed most suited to its purposes. Hence whatever local or racial truth
or untruth the work may contain must be considered as a purely secondary factor
(Selected Essays, 7).

Part one of Cane is
dominated by six female characters–Karintha, Becky, Carma, Fern, Esther, and
Louisa–and the male narrator who objectifies them as muse-figures and, more
importantly, possible bridges between walled-in men of all racial backgrounds.
Fern, whose “face flowed into her eyes”, is perhaps the most purely
symbolic of the women. She possesses absolutely no subjectivity; she
“desired nothing that you could give her; there was no reason [her eyes]
should withhold”(14). The narrator posits a virtual democracy (or
“brotherhood”, since women appear to be excluded) of desire for Fern:
“anyone, of course, could see her, could see her eyes” (15). Fern’s
desirability is largely due to her unattainability, or rather her emotional unavailability.
She functions perfectly as a symbol for the eternal
will-o’-the-wisp–“wholeness”–precisely because Toomer refuses to
flesh out her character. She is merely a pair of hypnotic eyes and a
heartbreaking voice. There is nothing for the narrator or the other men who “were
everlastingly bringing her their bodies” (14) to latch on to, and so he
and they persist in their fruitless quests without any conflict–even finding
the time to discuss the affliction with each other like the members of a
support group.

If Fern is a pure symbol for what the alienated modernist
narrator seeks–strange eyes that “seek nothing”, a connection to
centuries of folk wisdom through the “sorrow songs”–then Louisa, of
“Blood-burning Moon”, is a profane version of the same symbol. Unlike
those who pursue Fern, the men who bring their bodies to Louisa–Bob Stone and
Tom Burwell–actually believe that they “possess” her. The two men
are able to fool themselves by ignoring or pummeling neighbours who point out
the obvious, but also because Louisa, unlike Fern, manifests a modicum of
subjectivity herself. She does desire
something, and she allows each man to believe he can fulfill her, although she
clearly does not believe this herself:

[Tom’s] black
balanced, and pulled against, the white of Stone, when she thought of them. And
[Louisa’s] mind was vaguely upon them as she came over the crest of the hill,
coming from the white folks’ kitchen. As she sang softly at the evil face of
the full moon (28).

In fact, Louisa is closer to
the narrator than to the earlier female figures in part one. She, like the
narrator, uses the black and white people around her like puzzle-pieces in a
quest for meaning that transcends individual relationships; which is why, after
the lynching, she can sit and contemplate the moon and wonder if Tom Burwell
will respond to her song. It does not matter that Tom is dead, so long as
someone like him arrives–for Louisa
sees only black and white, and the patterns they create.

Louisa is a transitional figure, “othered” by a male
narrator who refers to her as “vague” and “indolent”, and
yet engaged in an identical symbol-making enterprise. The male protagonists in
part two are more fully embraced by the narrator(s). “Avey” is
narrated by a dramatized “I”, but this story too is transitional–it
is more about Avey (and what she symbolizes) than the narrator. “Box
Seat”, however, is more concerned with Dan Moore and the nature of his desire–his “impulse
to direct [Muriel]” (59)–than its object. Dan interacts with Muriel in a
way that is unprecedented in Cane. He
lectures her. In “Box
Seat”, the perceiving (or projecting), questing, “philosophical”
consciousness is privileged over the unattainable symbol of perfection. When
Muriel says that she has tried to make people happy, Dan replies:

Happy Muriel?
No, not happy. Your aim is wrong. There is no such thing as happiness. Life
bends joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, in such a way that no one may isolate
them. No one should want to. Perfect joy, or perfect pain, with no contrasting
element to define them, would mean a monotony of consciousness, would mean
death. Not happy, Muriel. Say you have tried to make them create. Say you have
used your own capacity for life to cradle them. To start them upward flowing

No longer content simply to
project an image of perfection upon an unattainable object, the alienated
figure (Moore)
now sees fit to instruct the object (Muriel) upon how to bear up under the
pressure of this questionable “honour”. With the introduction of Dan
Moore, a note of shrill anger, as opposed to stoic resignation, invades the
consciousness which narrates Cane.

It cannot be coincidence that “Box Seat” is
immediately followed by “Prayer”, which radiates a serenity that is
the antithesis of Dan Moore’s position. The speaker of the poem avers that
“A closed lid is my soul’s flesh-eye./O Spirits of whom my soul is but a
little finger,/ Direct it to the lid of its flesh-eye” (68). In the
juxtaposition of these two pieces, the divided consciousness of Cane, and of the modernist sensibility
as a whole, is manifest. By fusing with Dan Moore’s subjective position, the
quietistic narrator of part one fades, and lyricism degenerates into an urban
burlesque. Thus “Prayer” arrives as a pantheistic corrective to the
extreme alienation which haunts “Box Seat”. However, pantheism is
merely existentialism blown up to fit the contours of the universe, and
“Prayer” sets the seal of solipsism upon Cane, confirming that the narrator has lost the ability to perceive
the “otherness” of “the other”.

“Bona and Paul”, the last story of part two, is a
counter-movement which makes use of a stylistic element introduced in “Box
Seat”–the internal monologue. In the earlier story, Muriel reflects upon
her confrontation with Dan, and her thoughts are presented thus: “Muriel:
Never see Dan again” (62). Later, Dan watches Muriel in the theatre:
“Dan: Old Stuff. Muriel–bored. Must be. But she’ll smile and she’ll clap.
Do what you’re bid, you she-slave. Look at her. Sweet, tame woman in a brass
box seat” (63). In chapter one of “Bona and Paul”, it is Bona
who thinks: “he is a candle that dances in a grove swung with pale
balloons” (70) and “he is a harvest moon. He is an autumn leaf. He is
a nigger. Bona!” (70) Later, Art wonders: “What in Hell’s eating
Paul? Moony ain’t the word for it” (75). Then Paul performs an internal
soliloquy, thinking (about Bona): “I’d like to know you whom I look at.
Know, not love. Not that knowing is a greater pleasure, but that I have just
found the joy of it” (76).

Paul seems to think that he must choose between
“knowledge” and “love”, and certainly, in Cane, this binary is pervasive. The
beloved objects (notably Fern) are always inscrutable, and that which is known
(perhaps only the self– which may be only a closed flesh-lid) is not lovable
or, at least, it is not enough. Unlike the centers of consciousness in the
earlier pieces, Paul refuses to play the symbol-making game; insisting instead
upon truly knowing Bona. In
“Bona and Paul”, it is actually Bona who projects an image of desire
upon a screen which (from the first) is not quite blank (white) enough for her.
The contrast between these two characters is nowhere clearer than in the scene
in which they are about to kiss, “in the slim shadow of a tree
trunk”, and Bona insists that Paul declare his love prematurely. When he
refuses, she says: “Ach, you never will. Youre cold. Cold” (74).

Ironically, if human “warmth” is measured by a genuine
desire to connect with others, then Paul is the warmest character in Cane. Throughout “Bona and
Paul”, he strives against the pervasive tendency of the book’s narrators
and protagonists to objectify other human subjects. Thus Paul’s isolation at
the end of the story is doubly tragic, because he is, or was, uniquely gifted
with the ability to perceive the reality of that loneliness. However, there are
signs that Paul had, mercifully, given up his quest for knowledge before Bona
deserted him. His “conversation” with the black doorman is
ridiculously one-sided (the doorman says only “Yassur”), and Paul’s
language marks a return to the lyrical style of the narrator of part one:

I came back to
tell you, to shake your hand, and tell you that you are wrong. That something
beautiful is going to happen. That the gardens are purple like a bed of roses
would be at dusk. That I came into the Gardens, into life in the Gardens with
one whom I did not know . . . That I am going out and know her whom I brought
here with me to these Gardens which are purple like a bed of roses would be at
dusk (78).

Though Paul continues to
speak of his quest to “know” Bona, he now describes her (just as
Louisa thinks of Bob and Tom) as merely an element of colour in a symbolic
pattern. Still, the final words of part two are “Bona was gone” (78),
and Paul does not have Louisa’s consoling song and moon.

Paul’s isolation is insignificant in comparison to the stark
loneliness experienced by the eponymous character in the first “act”
of “Kabnis.” The piece opens with a troubled man lying on a rickety
cot in a dacaying shack, trying to comfort himself with a book. He cannot
concentrate, as he is distracted by a haunting refrain “whispered” by
the night winds. He thinks to himself:

Ralph Kabnis
is a dream. And dreams are faces with large eyes and weak chins and broad brows
that get smashed by the fists of square faces. The body of the world is
bull-necked. A dream is a soft face that fits uncertainly upon it (81).

Kabnis has a violent
confrontation with a hen, after screeching: “Hell of a mess I’ve got in:
even the poultry is hostile” (82). Then he utters a teary prayer:

Almighty, dear God, dear Jesus, do not torture me with beauty. Take it away.
Give me an ugly world. Ha, ugly. Stinking like unwashed niggers. . . There is a
radiant beauty in the night that touches and . . . tortures me . . . Come,
Ralph, old man, pull yourself together” (83).

He reflects upon his
intolerable position as an educated man in a world of ignorance, superstition,
and terror. He feels “cut off from everything” (83).

Trying to “pull himself together”, Ralph Kabnis
imagines the Sunday to come, expecting that he will:

see Halsey and
Layman, and getgood square meal. Thats
something. And Halsey’s a damn good feller. Cant talk to him though. Who in
Christ’s world can I talk to? A hen. God. Myelf… I’m going bats, no doubt of
that (85).

The “acts” which
follow this first one–at Halsey’s home, back at Kabnis’s shack, at Halsey’s
workshop, in Halsey’s cellar–have been treated by critics as a sort of hybrid
prose-play. However, there is every indication that everything which occurs in
these scenes actually takes place in Kabnis’s head. The key to this
interpretation is that none of the “dialogue” in acts 2 to 5 of
“Kabnis” is placed in between quotation marks. There are quotation marks in
“Kabnis”, but they only appear when Ralph is speaking to the hen, or
God, or himself. Perhaps Kabnis is correct when he muses that he cannot speak
to Halsey (or to any other human being, for that matter). Perhaps everything which
occurs after Kabnis talks himself to sleep is a dream, perhaps it is a mad
delusion; but one thing is certain–it cannot
be the realistic dialogue that most critics have taken it for, because the
punctuation attached to the words “spoken” by Layman, Halsey, Lewis,
Hanby, Carrie, Father John, and even Kabnis himself marks them as interior

It is my contention that acts two to five of “Kabnis”
represent the last-ditch attempt of a solipsistic sensibility to process an
increasingly threatening universe, before succumbing to either a completely
dissociative state or the mind-numbingly theistic trance of “Prayer”.
This reading makes a case for Jean Toomer as uncannily aware of the pitfalls
presented by the modernist aesthetic. The degree of respect granted to Toomer
as a self-aware artist has varied greatly from critic to critic. Charles
Scruggs lauds the author for transforming (by historicizing)

Anderson’s nightworld of human personality in Winesburg, Ohio into the nightmare of racial oppression in Cane . . . Anderson’s real influence on
Toomer’s Cane was not the
“spiritualization of the immediate,” but Kabnis’s realization that
“things are so immediate in Georgia, for Toomer realized that the South’s
“intangible oppression” reshaped the lonely grotesques of Winesburg into the anguished souls of
Halsey’s cellar (77-8).

On the other hand, Barbara
Foley asserts that

The text’s
conflation of social oppression with individual alienation in its movement
toward closure . . . reflects Toomer’s limitations in relating Kabnis’s
internal dilemmas to the larger social forces framing those dilemmas(194).

Perhaps more to the point is
Darwin Turner’s interpretation of Cane
as a study of

a waning way
of life . . . [but also] unconsciously [about] the death of an artist. Jean
Toomer the lyricist was dying; Jean Toomer the philosopher, psychologist,
reformer was coming into being (30).

Parts 2 to 5 of “Kabnis” represent Toomer’s bid to
place the “soft face” of the “real (idealized) Ralph
Kabnis” upon the “bull-neck” of the American South. Kabnis avers
that the “real Ralph Kabnis is a dream”, and perhaps this is the most
plausible reading of what follows the close of part one. After counting, or
not-counting, himself to sleep, Kabnis plunges into his “real self”,
which encompasses not merely the irritable schoolteacher who strangles the hen,
but also every human being on earth (for he is but a “finger” of the
“great soul”), particularly those that the earthly Kabnis has come
into physical contact with, even if he “cant talk to” them.

Part two of “Kabnis” opens in the parlor of Fred
Halsey’s home, which Ralph had been visualizing in his cot as he fell asleep.
He trails across the dreamscape, behind Layman and Halsey. He explains that
“this is my first time out–” (86), and perhaps this particular
excursion is an astral projection, not a real encounter. Certainly, the three
men are more comfortable together than the reader has any right to expect after
the paranoid ravings of part one; another indicator that this “fireside
drama” is occurring entirely within Ralph’s head. In order to “pull
himself together”, Kabnis has absorbed all of his neighbours into his
head. In this ideal environment, he has distributed subjectivity equally
amongst the characters–giving the alienated shard of selfhood known in the
first part as “Kabnis” a much-needed respite from solipsism.

The characters introduced in parts two to five of
“Kabnis” are different from those in the rest of Cane. They are inconsistent; they have discernible speech patterns;
they even express a certain amount of humour. Their dialogue is certainly
“real” enough (compared to the absurd, unrealistic lines given to
Paul, for example) to be enclosed in quotation marks–but it is not. This can
only mean that Kabnis, unlike all of the previous “centers of
consciousness” in Cane, has been
paying enough attention to his fellow men and women to be able to recreate them–as they really are, not as merely symbolic
figures–within the theatre of his own mind. He also demonstrates enough
self-awareness to portray the Kabnis character as a paranoid man given to
creating his own Hell. By taking modernist subjectivity to an absurd extreme,
Kabnis manages to (imaginatively) alienate himself from his own alienated self,
thus achieving a more global perspective upon his life and situation. Kabnis
realizes–at least for a while–Paul’s dream of “knowing” the world,
rather than “loving” it (by transforming it into a symbol of beauty).
Unlike most people, who “pull themselves together” by making a
decision and doing something to affect their physical surroundings; Kabnis
achieves “integration” by going to sleep and allowing his unconscious
mind to create links to his neighbours that he cannot forge in daily life. This
is what marks Kabnis as an artist.

However, like many artists, Kabnis has a morbid sensitivity to
hostile societal pressures. This is where Kabnis’s racial identity comes back
to haunt him. He knows that (as Layman “says”)

nigger’s a
nigger down this away Professor. An only two dividins: good an bad. An even
they aint permanent categories. They sometimes mixes um up when it comes t
lynchin. I’ve seen um do it (87).

The rock which shatters
Halsey’s window also shatters Kabnis’s concentration, and he sprints off,
shrieking (in quotation marks, to himself, or God, or the hen): “God
Almighty, theyre here. After me. On me. All along the road I saw their eyes
flaring from the cane . . . Why in Hell didn’t they catch me?” (91). The
voices outside Ralph’s door–searching for him–are also in quotation marks,
but once Halsey enters the shack, the familiar internal-monologue punctuation

The threat of lynching as an instrument of racial oppression,
ominous throughout Cane, continues to
dominate Kabnis’s thoughts, even after his “friends” placate him, and
the activist Lewis enters the drama within Ralph’s mind. He is described as
“what a stronger Kabnis might have been” (95). Lewis is often adopted
by critics as a representation of Toomer’s “inner race-man”. Webb
describes Lewis’s departure from the story at the end of part five as a
resurrection; evidence that he has become “not only Christ, but . . .
Father John, the symbol of the slave past who not only touches but lives in the
earth . . . the soil that would release Kabnis, and does release Lewis, is the
materiality of the symbol” (223-4). I do not see how Webb can argue that
Lewis has “merged with Father John” (224)–in the text we find that
the activist leaves because he “finds himself completely cut out” (110)
of the male-female pairing which occurs after the drinking is done. Clearly, if
parts two to five of “Kabnis” depict an internal drama which is more
“real” than the nominal reality of Ralph’s isolated existence in the
shack, then the presence of Lewis, as the representative of “social
awareness”, is essential in maintaining the balance. When Lewis is driven
away by the “intense pain [of the] . . . southern town” (Cane, 110), Kabnis’s connection to his
integrated dream-self slips away.

Thus, in part 6 of “Kabnis”, Ralph begins to act more
like his old paranoid self–barraging the old man withan assortment of epithets previously reserved
only for unruly chickens. The final act of the “play”–and of the
book–degenerates into a war between the two unreconcilable poles of the
modernist sensibility: radical subjectivity and complete immersion into
mysticism and/or “tradition”, as an antidote to the
“wasteland”. Toomer’s effort to place the dream face of Kabnis upon
the bull-necked world results in a horror-show hydrid of earthly vulgarity
running parallel to–but never touching–the beatific world within the
“soft circle” that haloes Carrie and Father John. In my reading, it
is an extremely ominous sign that the last words spoken aloud in
“Kabnis” (and the first spoken since Ralph’s delusional flight into
the woods) are “Jesus, come”. The return to quietism and religion,
heralded by the final (hackneyed) paragraph, is renunciatory–not ironic, nor
realistically hopeful–in tone. It also heralds the end of Kabnis’s artistic
sensibility, which is as dead as the coals in the bucket he carries. Toomer
himself soon abandoned the lyrical mode of Cane
in favour of pedestrian essays on Gurdjieff and Quakerism.

Webb argues that, “for Toomer, identity is not what you
think–it is who you are. But . . . identity is not exclusively a property of
the self” (212); thus, if lynch-mobs are just as likely to hang you as
anyone else who looks like you, the modernist dream of individuality is
continually under assault. Of course, this is true for every artist, but
Toomer’s position as a man labeled “Negro” in early-twentieth-century
made it harder for him to ignore the fact. Sherwood Anderson’s notoriously
hideous praise of Toomer as

the very first
artist of the race, who with all an artist’s passion and sympathy for life . .
. can write about the Negro without the surrender or compromise of the artist’s
vision . . . Cane is a book of gold
and bronze, of dusk and flame, of ecstasy and pain, and Jean Toomer is a bright
morning star of a new day of the race of literature (quoted in Turner, 2)

makes more sense if he is
interpreted as saying: Jean Toomer is the first modernist gifted–or
cursed–with “double consciousness”.

In Toomer’s case, the gift of “second sight” seems to
have been instrumental in goading him to dig beneath his lyrical vision of the
external world as a symbol for internal conflicts; however, the same
perspective, “granted” by a climate of extreme racial oppression,
seems to have kept Toomer from being able to maintain the tension between the
ideal and the real for more than twenty-six pages of Cane–and he would never again attain such a high level of

Works Cited and Consulted

Brian Joseph and Dillard, Mabel Mayle. Jean
. Boston:
Twayne, 1980.

David. “Looking Behind Cane.”
Southern Review 21:3 (1985): 682-94.

W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays
and Sketches
. Chicago:
A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903.

Barbara. “‘In the Land
of Cotton’: Economics and
Violence in Jean Toomer’s Cane.”
African-American Review 32:2 (1998):

Donald B. The Politics of Literary
Expression: A Study of Major Black Writers
. Westport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Frederick T. “‘Sorcery is Dialectical’: Plato and Jean Toomer in Charles
Johnson’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice.”
African American Review 30:4

George. “Jean Toomer and American Racial Discourse.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 35:2
(1993): 226-46.

Robert B., ed. Jean Toomer: Selected
Essays and Literary Criticism
. Knoxville:
Universiy of Tennessee
Press, 1996.

Charles R. Invisible Darkness: Jean
Toomer and Nella Larsen
. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.

Joel B. “Jean Toomer’s Cane:
Self as Montage and the Drive Toward Integration.” American Literature 72:2 (2000): 274-88.

Charles. “The Reluctant Witness: What Jean Toomer Remembered for Winesburg, Ohio.”
Studies in American Fiction (Spring
2000): 77-97.

Jean. Cane. New York: Liveright, 1975.

Darwin T. In a Minor Chord: Three
Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity
. Carbondale:
Southern Illinois
University Press, 1971.

Webb, Jeff. “Literature and Lynching:
Identity in Jean Toomer’s Cane.”
ELH 67:1 (2000): 204-25.

Bye Friends!




Adverse Opinion

Had an interesting night–saw Mervyn Leroy’s Anthony Adverse, which I hadn’t seen in years (a special presentation at the library on campus–the sound was great, always important with a melodrama, especially one scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold–composer of my favourite film score of all-time, for Kings Row: a possible inspiration for spider-man)… it’s a crazy movie! Fredric March (the title character) plays an orphan who muddles his way into slave trading; Olivia de Havilland (less of a prop in this film than she usually was in the Errol Flynn cycle, which was just getting rolling aound this time–although still not given nearly as much to work with as she deserved…) is his beloved, who somehow gets mixed up with Napoleon; Claude Rains essays a vicious, gouty, goateed Spanish nobleman, and delivers what is undoubtedly the most triumphantly operatic three-minute-long villainous cackle in the history of melodrama, before settling down into his more customary brand of suave decadence; Gale Sondergaard (who won the first best supporting actress oscar for this film–the category ddn’t exist until 1936) tells us everything we need to know about pure amorality with her eyebrows and her teeth; Edmund Gwenn (best known for his performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) as a sensitive Scottish merchant, is the kind of adoptive father that every Dickens kid wishes they could meet up with; and Akim Tamiroff (Jamo take note!) steals the whole damned movie with his five-minute turn as a sybaritic Cuban with a heart of gold!

The movie ends in a completely unexpected way, which seems to have disatisfied many IMDB commenters, but I think it’s great… Leroy really tests our ability to empathize with the protagonist of this latter-day bildungsroman–the battle to “master the desire for mastery” is played out in a crazily literal way!

Even crazier, however, was my walk home,
a little after midnight, through the vomit-fogged atmosphere of a Big-Ten-Campus-on-the-eve-of-a-big-game (with Notre Dame)… it’s every bit as primal as it’s portrayed in the movies! The number of young drunks was staggering (and so were the drunks!)… A bit of glass bounced off of my forehead when, for some reason, people started throwing beer bottles at each other while waiting for the lights to change at a busy intersection… Two groups of marauding girls addressed me with a bluntness that one usually associates with construction workers… I don’t think it was personal, that’s just how these kids operate! And I was only out there for about twenty minutes!

I’m not going anywhere tomorrow–which means I should finally have a chance to get back to the Squadron Supreme

Good Night Friends!