Month: February 2005

Cerebus III: #8-10

Cerebus III: #8-10
(previously on Motime–part I and part II)

Sim’s development as a visual storyteller takes center stage in these issues. As the author himself notes in the Swords of Cerebus introduction,  issue #8  (“Day of the Earth-Pig”–how many comic book titles did Nathanael West unwittingly give birth to? Once I’m done my dissertation research, I’ll actually be able to give you a pretty good idea–I mean, Amazing Spider-Man alone could fill up an ark with animal “days-of”, right?) is practically “Mind Game 0″… Cerebus spends the entire first half of the book weaving back and forth between the subconscious and waking worlds, and it is here that the zipatone phantoms which provide the only scenery–not to mention the only ballast–in his nebulous mental landscape first appear.

I find this sequence fascinating:

On page 3, we find him ensnared by black “cords”, indicating, I suppose, that he is struggling, quite literally, to regain his senses (to fight his way out of a solipsistic void)

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and then, quite suddenly, the cords “go gray”, which suggests that he is now conscious enough to import the “stuff” of reality into a dream he never made… and look at them! Sure, they’re holding him back–but they’re also, it seems to me, propping him up:

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Finally, he comes to consciousness, climbing up out of the void using fetters of reality that he appropriates for his own subjective use. And there you have it–a sophisticated philosophical (& psychological) argument in grayscale!


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The non-“Mindgame” aspects of this issue–and the following two as well–deal with mindgames of a different sort: the realpolitik-al kind! As a 14-year old, I think it’s pretty safe to say that my favourite things in life were strategy boardgames like Diplomacy, Dashiell Hammett, the memoirs of Bismarck, hyper-convoluted film noir, and Cerebus–studies of manipulation (with varying degrees of emotion-based commentary on this type of behaviour..which is what I tend to respond to now–back then, the manipulation itself was the key…which I suppose was owing to the Machiavellian wasteland that I grew up in!) Cerebus learns some hard lessons in these books– about military coups (when he is “elected”–at swordpoint–to wrest command of the Conniptin army away from the princely cocaine-fiend pictured above),  about the “honour of kings” (when K’Cor keeps him busy with knightly challenges while he poisons the army Cerebus intends to sack his city with), and about the sources of sovereignty–and its potential uses: also from K’Cor, who seems like your basic “I just want power” tyrant, until he erupts into this Ozymandian oration…

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He may be insane–but he’s good enough to outwit Cerebus, and deprive him of his new army of barbarian “cheerleaders” (the Conniptin motto is: “Might makes right–might for right–might for might–right for might–fight–fight–fight!”, and they’d sooner repeat these words–no matter what the situation–than breathe!)

In issue #10, Sophia returns, much improved, although still not exactly a favourable portrayal of a woman… Instead of being just a ferociously aggressive sexual submissive, she is now a greedy, scheming, and ferociously aggressive sexual submissive. When Cerebus meets up with her, she is fresh from killing the husband she had acquired at the end of issue #3 (she still refuses to “give herself” to a man, unless he defeats her in combat, and the guy just wouldn’t learn) and has moved on to planning some caper that involves stealing a jewel from a well-armed merchant caravan, with the help of some dork with inside information that she has taken along for the ride… she’s a femme fatale, basically. She still wants to have sex with Cerebus–because he had previously “earned her respect” with the flat of his sword–but he makes it pretty clear that he is not interested… On the other hand, he is very interested in the Black Lotus jewel, and this time he gets the better of everyone (including an extremely menacing guard/crossbowman that Cerebus decides it would be more prudent to bribe than to fight) by, for once, really thinking ahead. The ending of the issue is (or ought to be) a classic in the annals of antiheroism –talk about cutting your Gordian knots of chicanery! And, despite how things appear, we know that Sophia will be back, because she proves–through the amplification of characteristics that were merely used for parodic effect in issue #3, alloyed with some new extreme traits–in this story that she is fit to share the stage with Cerebus.

 Also–it gives me pleasure to note that our very own (oh who am I kiddin’–he belongs to the world!) Fred Hembeck–the friend of obscure but good people everywhere–crosses over (in his inimitably knobby-kneed style!) into the aardvark’s world at the back of issue #8!

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Good Evening Friends!
Dave

Umm…This Was A Really Good Book…

Umm…This Was A Really Good Book…

T. J. Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 presents a fascinating, if somewhat disheartening, case study of the role of oppositional discourse in strengthening cultural hegemony. His discussion of antimodern theory and practice at the turn of the past century centers upon the quest for “the real”–through the “cults of inner and outer experience”–in an increasingly abstract mental and physical environment. Lears’ focus upon bourgeois intellectuals and popularizers is crucial to his argument that, in protesting against the inauthenticity of modern life, these “hollow men” (and women) helped to spread the contagion of hyper-subjectivity beyond the narrow confines of their own class, as defined in strictly economic terms; a process which he sees as ongoing at his own historical moment. For Lears, every “way out” of alienation and despair only aggravates the problem and feeds the liberal-capitalist dynamo–and even his own (immensely attractive) doctrine of “ambivalence”, which at least does provide some respite from the fevered dreams of modernity, cannot truly be said to offer much hope of staying the course of the disease at the societal level.

The common denominator which unites the subjects of this book is subjectivity itself. The cry of “disconnectedness”–from God, from the land, from a meaningful understanding of labor and social roles–rallies these figures to their ostensible war against the forces of modernization. Beneath the multiplicity of discontents, Lears uncovers two fundamental modes of protest–the cults of inner and outer experience. The former encompasses all of those activities which would eventually cohere into the “therapeutic worldview” of self-help culture. The latter conduces to a doctrine of bluff vitality which privileges a proactive relationship to the world, in lieu of “morbid introspection”. The author makes a powerful case for thinking of both strategies as part of a general pattern of “evasive banality” (7)–which is not to say that he concurs with the description of these activities as “mere escapism”. On the contrary, Lears identifies his bourgeois antimoderns as, paradoxically, the principal disseminators of the cultural forms they opposed–both to the lower classes, and to the world at large.

Each chapter of the book works relentlessly toward a reenactment of Lears’ overarching thesis–i.e. that the only “exits” from the prison of subjectivity lead to ever deeper levels of self-involvement. His analysis of the search for “wholeness”–through attempts to reconnect with the transpersonal imperatives of medieval culture and the Catholic Church, through the gospel of “simplicity” and resistance to market values manifested most notably in the “arts and crafts” movement, etc.–traces out the various ways in which each of these “critiques” eventually became “coping mechanisms” that addressed key psychological “trouble spots” unforeseen by the more straightforward proponents of “modernization”, thus enabling the project itself to forge on.  Meanwhile, the cult of outer experience–or “strenuosity”–performed an analogous function, by encouraging angst-ridden bourgeois subjects to cathect the malaise of modernity upon each other (on the playing field), the wilderness or, alternatively, and even more usefully (given the necessity for capitalist expansion) the rest of humanity–through militarism and the “muscular Christianity” typical of the Protestant missionary culture that blossomed in the late 19th century.

Each of these routes out of despair led inevitably back to the starting gate of “the rat race”, only reconceptualized in various ways–through the rhetoric of “personal growth”, bodily well-being, or meaningful action/”real living” (i.e.”be all that you can be”)–so as to make this position seem, at least momentarily, more palatable. Lears reveals Emerson’s  “soldiery of dissent” as, in fact, a self-diagnosing and self-medicating (though most emphatically not a self-abnegating) soldiery of peace and of war, whose ranks have swelled–both within and without the borders of the United States–in the decades since the close of the period here under consideration. Far from a means of “escape”, with which one would associate the dissipation of energy, “evasive banality” unleashes powerful antimodern frustrations upon  the world, with very “real” effects.

Given Lears’ sense of the inevitability of these processes, it is not surprising that his own proposed “exit strategy” from the modern condition–ambivalence–can only be understood as a more “genuine” form of escape. By privileging  the early, tension-wracked cultural criticism of Van Wyck Brooks, most notably America’s Coming-of-Age (255), and the poetic oeuvre of T.S. Eliot, Lears appears to be arguing: “if you can’t beat ’em, at least don’t join them”–that the way to halt the machine is not to “rage against it”, but to look upon its manifestations (and its impositions upon the “modern soul”) with a sense of tragic/ironic bemusement (i.e. that the dream of “wholeness” could never have come about without the “reality” of alienation, and that, without our sense of loss, we would founder) . While this is an extremely appealing formulation–and may even be correct–it is impossible to imagine that any society, as a whole, could attain the ambivalence that Lears so admires in Ash Wednesday (moreover, Eliot himself failed, quite spectacularly, to maintain this attitude in his more political writings), and it could certainly be argued that this entraps the author within the logical futility of antimodern self-absorption that he describes so well.

Later Tonight–Cerebus #8 to 10!
Dave

Here It Is–One Reason Why I Love Comics

Here It Is–One Reason Why I Love Comics

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(a Ditko moment from Tales To Astonish #1–is that guy awesome or what? He’s just playing with that ghost–and our heads! )

These people have been far more diligent than I in chronicling their love for the medium. There’s a lot of great stuff out there!  People seem to be repressing their feelings about Mike Murdock, which is sad, in this day and age, but what can ya do? Also–unless I missed it (and I probably did), there hasn’t been any mention of Bernard the Poet and the Cafe-A-Go-Go (from the Roy Thomas/Werner Roth period of the X-Men) or Big Jim’s P.A.C.K

Back to Cerebus tomorrow!

Good Night Friends!
Dave

Get on the (Cere)Bus — Part II: issues #4-7

Get on the (Cere)Bus!

(Part II: issues #4-7)

So, in my first Cerebus post, I mentioned issue #2’s audacious manifesto of the “serial survivor”. Cerebus is about to be killed by a succubus? Well, that’s fine, except that, y’see, he’s immune to that sort of thing–because this is Cerebus. Of course, this is a given in any ongoing narrative that focuses upon one protagonist, from David Copperfield through The Continental Op to Superman. But I like the way that Sim drives home the fact by refusing to produce an explanation for this bit of ontological melodrama:

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Where is its soul?

Again–Cerebus is all soul. All fantasy. And as real as his creator. That is all ye need to know.

Issue #7 builds toward an even more demented instance of this same unlawful law (and manages to anticipate, in some obvious ways, the explosive deus ex machina that brings  Joe Vs. The Volcano to a joyous conclusion! Tom & Meg shoulda stopped right there…)

But the way I see it, the real drama of the early issues of Cerebus is in Sim’s effort to generate a troupe of actors hammy enough to compete for the spotlight with his short gray anti-hero. Obviously, he struck paydirt with Elrod–who first appears in #4, and then, a mere three issues later, returns for some of this:

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(Cerebus is upset because this scene takes place just outside the lair of the Black Sun death cult…Elrod is looking for a cocktail that goes by the same name)

That entrance! It’s pure Groucho–in “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” mode–and even if we didn’t know that Sim was a mere seven issues away from bringing Julius Marx himself into the narrative, we could have predicted it… Elrod, like Cerebus, is “fit to stand the gaze of millions”–and consequently exempt from the bloody logic of whatever situation he stumbles into (or, as is more usually the case with The Albino, instigates)  Is Elrod a parody of Elric? That’s what they always say–but I don’t buy it. He’s a pop-alchemical miracle is what he is.

So what else happens in these issues? Well, Cerebus comes across two separate groups of lunatics (the Pigts–led by Bran Mak Mufin & Fret Mac Mury–and the aforementioned Black Sun) who worship his graven image; he makes some quick illicit cash (although usually not as much as he thinks he’s going to), and he spends it just as quickly.

Oh yeah–and he meets Jaka…
 


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Look at that Charles Schulz grin in panel four! It’s the spitting image of Lucy at the piano, putting the moves on Schroeder. That’s what’s so great about Sim’s work, even at this stage in the game–the juxtapositions. This is supposed to be a Conan parody? No way! That was just a cover story. Barry Smith people don’t grin like that. “Realistic” figures can’t. So much the worse for us realistic types. I’ve felt that grin coming on many times–but I’ve never quite managed to screen it for the world…

So what’s Jaka’s story, anyway?

Well, she’s no Elrod–that’s for sure. She can’t compete with Cerebus on the cartoon plane. But what she can do is force a shift in focalization–an even rarer feat in the context of this particular narrative:

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And here’s one explanation for why it happens:

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Happy–sniff!–Valentine’s Day Friends!
Dave

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Nothing Ever Ends…however…


Our course is about to leave Watchmen behind!
If you have anything to impart to the youth of America concerning Moore & Gibbons’ brilliant book–now is the time to do it!

I’ve done my best to cut a “greatest hits compilation” from the music of the blogosphere… But I’m sure I missed a lot of stuff–so don’t be shy about bringing your own favourite links to the comments section!


Thank You and Good Night Friends!
Dave

I’m just Sayin’…

I’m Just Sayin’…

1. John Ostrander has a weblog! That makes me very happy… Sure he’s famous (or, as he would put it–“semi-famous”) for Grimjack, Suicide Squad, The Spectre, and his all-too brief run on Firestorm with Tom Mandrake…

 (I love it when two of my favourite genres come together…)

And yet–his epistolary involvement in the Gwen-Stacy Clone Saga  is still tops with me!

2. You’ve all seen it by now, but it just has to be said–ADD’s 100 Things I Love About Comics is a joy to behold! There truly is something for everyone on that list, including Ross Andru’s Spider-Man for me! (I should add that Fred Hembeck got this thing started–in 1983! And that Beaucoup Kevin has brought the meme back down to purely textual earth in fine style!)

3. Last but not least–did you know that Magnapop are still alive and kicking? I can barely contain my glee! Don’t know who they are? Well, I’ll ya–they are without a doubt the best thing that ever came out of Athens, Georgia! Sure, sure–I know they’ve got some competition… I signed up for their e-newsletter a long time ago–but I chuckled melancholically to myself as I did so, never believing for a moment that I would actually get one… As usual–I am delighted to be proven wrong!

Okay–back to the Cerebusiness at hand from now on!


Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

Get on the (Cere)Bus!

Get on the (Cere)Bus!

(Part I: issues #1-3)

Okay! Time for me to test my stamina, and my conviction that Cerebus is the Pierre; or, the Ambiguities of our era…

I don’t say that I’m going to get this whole mother read in anything like record time–but I will be keeping a record of the time that I do spend on it!

It begins as a parody (a mode I generally despise)–of a genre (sword n’ sorcery) I don’t give a fuck about. No way would I have bought Cerebus #1 off of the stands, if I’d been tall enough to reach for it, back in 1977. Sim himself describes these early efforts as mere Smith(Barry Windsor-, that is)-forgeries. Well, there’s a bit more to ’em than that. But not much. The most interesting elements of the first two issues, for me, are the text pieces–one at the front (by publisher Denise Loubert), and one at the back (yes! the lettercol, by Dave and–in issue #2, at least–various interlocutors)… Not to mention the pleasurable bonus of Sim’s Swords of Cerebus intros., which were included, along with all of the aformentioned editorial material, in the wonderful Cerebus Bi-Weekly reprints that emerged, in the late eighties, just in time to get me up to speed on the story!  Anyway, here’s the author himself, on the genesis of the book:

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How can you not love that? Oh the humility! The joyous uncertainty of it all! Clearly, this guy already has scruples against pandering to the market–but he is groping for a route to the hearts and minds of its constituents. So you take some stuff that people recognize–barbarians, wizards, “funny animal” protagonists–and you start re-inventing the alphabet, one familiar letter–and pen line–at a time, in the hopes that, eventually, you and your audience are going to slip into a passionate correspondence, without ever quite knowing how it happened.


My favourite things in the story proper are those elements which seep in from yet another pop cultural stream that was destined to play an increasingly large role in furnishing the stuff that Sim’s dream-world is made of–old Hollywood. So we get the “freak-out” scene, in which our little gray friend’s mind is wallpapered across a void generated by poppies, as their evil progenitor gloats in his corner of the page… Yes! It’s The Wizard of Oz! (mixed with Murder, My Sweet) And is there any doubt how Cerebus “the small (but certainly not meek!)” will defeat the Wizard? Of course–by stumbling past the illusion into the decrepit reality (although the Aardvark achieves this without any assistance from a Toto–you might say that he is his own Toto…) Our hero is also a little more bloodthirsty than Dorothy was, and, instead of tsking his Professor Marvel, he runs him through! And then there’s the finale, in which the macguffin of the piece–the “flame jewel”–is revealed to have been a walnut, traveling incognito… Cerebus takes his cash from the small-timers who paid him to retrieve the object, and he might just as well have said: “you got your dingus–it’s your hard luck, not mine, it wasn’t what you wanted.” Of course, Cerebus has no police, and no Brigid O’Shaughnessy (not yet!) to deal with–and so he is free to ride off and spend his earnings…

You don’t have to dip very far beneath the “surface” of the second issue to discover that Sim’s famous gender-troubles were always a part of his make-up. “Captive in Boreala” builds toward a climactic struggle between the “earth-pig” and a particularly nasty succubus, bent upon stealing his mind! ‘Nuff said, right? And the only thing that saves the poor creature is the fact that he is, somehow, so constituted as to be immune to the power of this “soul-sucking jerk”… It’s kind of remarkable, actually–Cerebus doesn’t do anything to win this fight. There is no panel-straining scene of the genus “must find final reserve of strength” or “must rely upon the power of love”… he merely exists through it, overpowering the monster by virtue of his ontological necessity to the storyline! The scene prompts us (and, no doubt, Sim himself) to ask the question that the next 298 issues attempt to answer–not “what will Cerebus do next?”, but “what is Cerebus?” Character is destiny.

One thing he is, is an unsentimental little fucker:

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or, at least, so it would seem

Issue #3 (“Song of Red Sophia”) is much funnier–although, here again, the ominous ghosts of gender-political future darken some of the brightest gags…especially Cerebus’ executive decision re: the best way to “torture” a man–i.e. force him to marry Sophia (who, it must be owned, is very annoying indeed!)… “Oh! how many torments lie in the small circle of a wedding ring.” Well, at this point, it’s merely anecdotal evidence of Sim’s crypto-misogyny–one characterization does not an ideology make–but, you know, with hindsight you can see plenty…

Oh yeah–and there’s a prescient letter from a guy named Terry Hamilton at the back of this issue. He reminds Sim that: “The advantage of funny animal characters is their flexibility. They can fit into any format.” No kidding! More to the point: any format can be fitted to them–as the next 25 years’ worth of stories will demonstrate…even if Robert Fiore (in that Cerebus roundtable issue of TCJ) thinks that Sim made a mistake by tethering his imagination to the “giant squirrel”… I could not possibly disagree more strongly with that statement! In Simian parlance, it’s the fantasy/fantasy that matters… the various “realities” that enshroud it are mere shades of the ineffable… That “giant squirrel” is Sim’s imagination–and, I suppose, his “soul” too!

 
Good Night Friends!
Dave

Welcome to the Panblogticon


Welcome to the Panblogticon

(soundtrack: The Amps — Pacer)

Is it just my imagination, or are we in another period of exciting new comic-blog growth?

In the past couple of days, I’ve stumbled across all kinds of great new stuff!

Naturally enough–given my predilection for close-reading–I place GraphiContent at the top of this list!

Their manifesto is stirring, and Pete Mortensen’s essay on Scott Pilgrim is fantastic (“Nintendo realism”–great term! and some stuff about G.E. Moore–who deserves any attention that he gets!)  They’ve also posted an essay on Morrison’s Marvel Boy,  which I have never read, so I resisted the temptation to skip straight to the critique (although the first two paragraphs–in which Chad Nevett declares that he intends to look at the series as a microcosmic reenactment of the history of the Marvel Universe–are enticing!)

I’m also intrigued by Lizzybeth’s Two-Dimensional–her essay on “mature readers” comics is a particular stand-out (and perhaps she can be coaxed to contribute to my class-discussion of Locas, when the time comes?)

Comic Book Commentary is another site that I’ve been enjoying the hell out of!  Guy LeCharles Gonzalez even reviews fanzines, and that’s cool!

And plus there’s Layne’s And Plus–where you can find the following assertion: “Movies and comics. I got your apples and oranges right here.”

Also–I love this quotation from Don Simpson, at Content Overload: ”
In comics, where shots are visually separated by space and not by time, peripheral vision is the enemy
“–although I strongly disagree with his contention that “more challenging, nuanced emotional content overloads the formal capacities of the medium”… but maybe that’s because I don’t believe in the form/content binary itself(I do think that
“mosaic confusion”, Don’s addition to formalist vocabulary, is inspired!)

okay, that’s it for now, except that I want to announce that, for the next little while, my plan is to use this blog to force myself to read Cerebus #1-300, in order! There are so many things going on in my life right now, and there are so many other books to read–for seminars, and for my own class–that there’s no way I could ever discipline myself to do it, without the transparent eyeballs of the panblogticon upon me! I’m convinced that there’s critical gold (at least an article’s worth!) to be mined from that there text–and I want to get in on the rush! So help me won’t you–maybe even read along, if you’ve got ’em! Don’t leave alone with Dave Sim–he frightens me… We’ll start tomorrow!

Good Night Friends!
Dave

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Romancing the Subaltern
(a critical response to Lauren Berlant’s “Fantasies of Utopia in The Blithedale Romance“)

Yes! Here’s some more on Blithedale for ya, Abhay!

Lauren Berlant’s careful reckoning of utopian and tragic crosscurrents in The Blithedale Romance blazes an interpretive trail through the text, but her own destination, in “Fantasies of Utopia”, is somewhat pedestrian. The application of Jacques Ehrmann’s historiographical dyad to Coverdale’s narrative brings some of its fundamental tensions sharply into focus, and, given the terms of the investigation, it is perhaps inevitable that the figure of the “hitherto unwedded bride” should take center stage in Berlant’s analysis. However, it is upon this point, and, more pecisely, this inevitability, that her argument founders.  Is Hawthorne’s Romance merely a parable designed to expose the inability of American political discourse–and its most characteristic representational mode–to accurately reflect (or reflect upon) the complexities of the historical record? Or does the text, in fact, revel in these limitations, pushing off against its own weakness by transforming its narrator’s failed sympathies–and his scarred subjects–into “undead brides”, which bring the promise of life after the “death-in-life-of narrative”?

The relevance of Jacques Ehrmann’s twinned spatio-temporal modes of thought to The Blithedale Romance is indisputable; but the more important question is whether Berlant substitutes an elucidation of Ehrmann’s theory for an interpretation of the romance. She moves quickly, and very convincingly, to establish the parallels between her chosen theoretical frame and Coverdale’s (and his culture’s) speculative tics–but this interpretive haste puts the reader on the defensive. Berlant’s model of the erotics of “willful ignorance” opens up fascinating new routes into the text; but, in her drive to make her theory “tell the whole story”, she is no more successful than Coverdale (or any of the other characters) is.

The conundrum is well-delineated, and its political significance is clear: in order to maintain itself, utopian drive (whether toward a “perfect community”, or toward “perfect communion” with an object of romantic desire) must stave off the will-sapping lessons taught by history (which, from this point of view, can only be a record of failure); and yet, untempered by the humility that comes with experience, this same drive will inevitably batten upon the suffering of others–a suffering which, for reasons made clear in the first clause, cannot be acknowledged. What is less clear is whether this scheme (and its sin qua non–the hymen) can bear the interpretive weight–vis-a-vis this specific text–implied by Berlant’s laundry list of hymenal figures:

Zenobia’s virginity and/or hidden sexual history, Coverdale’s bachelorhood, Priscilla’s virgin strength, Hollingsworth’s agreesively sexual “availability” to Zenobia, Priscilla, and Coverdale (5)

In other words–did Hawthorne actually write this book in order to “exhibit the problem of constructing a knowing historical discourse, one that honors individual and collective fantasy while revealing corruption in their local operations” (28)? Or does  this conclusion depend upon the author’s own “utopian repressions”?

The stakes of Berlant’s interpretive power play are clearest in this summary:

To write the complete American history on its utopian trajectory would be to write the history of scandal (mass killing) and to read a series of failures; thus what we get instead is a record of the obsessions of a failed (his)storyteller and a bachelor to boot (Coverdale), who writes about a failed world-historical figure (Hollingsworth), a dead “unwedded bride” (Zenobia), and a pallid yet self-satisfied audience (Priscilla), the single-minded reader who gets what she wants–a “great man” whose authority she never questions (23).

Many of these statements are questionable in themselves, but her elisions are even more telling. For example–where does the Westervelt/”Veiled Lady” plot fit into this scheme (and how does this revise her description of Priscilla–the performer–as a figure of the “audience”)? What are the consequences of Berlant’s failure to address Coverdale’s actual involvement in the failed world-historical undertaking, to say nothing of his pretensions/claims to the status of “poet”, as opposed to (failed) historian? Most importantly, what about the Coverdale/Zenobia relationship itself–which is far more complex than Berlant’s reductionist insistence upon the narrator’s obsession with her sexual past?  

The argument that an untoward focus–by “friendly” and “unfriendly” witnesses alike–upon the foibles and sexual peccadilloes of American political agents has served, time and again, to distract a prurient/naive public from the limitations of the political discourse itself makes a great deal of sense–but does it really make the best sense of The Blithedale Romance ? Is this text merely an ironical re-enactment of the same old story of universal hope betrayed by private lust–simultaneously pandering to and sneering at a tenaciously hopeful (because committed to an aesthetic of inexperience) reading public?

The key to Berlant’s interpretation is this passage (from the chapter entitled “The Crisis”):

Altogether, by projecting our minds outward, we had imparted a show of novelty to existence, and contemplated it as hopefully as if the soil beneath our feet had not been fathom-deep with the dust of deluded generations, on every one of which, as on ourselves, the world had imposed itself as a hitherto unwedded bride (119).

The eponymous “crisis” results from Hollingsworth’s “proposal”, and Coverdale’s rejection of it–with the implication that this decisive shift  in mental “orientation” (refocusing the “projector” inward), by one (or, rather, by two–for Hollingsworth’s project is here revealed as the unambiguous fruit of a “monstrous egotism”) of its burgeoning pillars, is almost solely responsible for the destruction of the community. To stick with Berlant’s terms–the hymen-figure in this chapter is knowledge of a comrade-in-arms’ private reasons for locking arms in the first place. In order for the community to remain operative, its origin in the condition of alienated subjectivity must be shrouded in a veil of silence. So far so good. This supports Berlant’s argument in fine style–and yet, this “crisis” comes halfway through the novel, and the remainder of the book is not, as one would have to believe, in order to accept her thesis, merely a “working out” of this moment of recognition (and simultaneous loss of faith).

In fact, a far more profound crisis–the retrieval of Zenobia’s body–comes one hundred pages later, and here, despite Berlant’s confident assertions, neither the figure of the hymen nor that of the “unwedded bride” will do. Coverdale’s famous assertion that

Zenobia, I have often thought, was not quite simple in her death. She had seen pictures, I suppose, of drowned persons in lithe and graceful attitudes. And she deemed it well and decorous to die as so many village maidens have, wronged in their first love, and seeking peace in the bosom of the old familiar stream,–so familiar that they could not dread it, –where, in childhood, they used to bathe their little feet, wading mid-leg deep, unmindful of wet skirts. But in Zenobia’s case there was some tint of the Arcadian affectation that had been visible enough in all our lives for a few months past (218).

is ironic in that it is the not the dead woman but the narrator himself who betrays “affectation” in this passage–by drawing his astonishing conclusions from the fact that the corpse’s arms will not remain in the pose that accord most closely with the ballad he composes on the spot. Moreover, the specific content of this conceit (what Berlant rightly identifies as a vulgar/reductionist “love plot”) had been given to him, in the preceding chapter, by Zenobia herself, who, while alive, demonstrates very few signs of being so fully in thrall to the apolitical discourse of romance.

The conversation between the doomed woman and her diffident eulogist offers a direct refutation of Coverdale’s (possible) and Berlant’s (explicit) wish to reify her as a (dead) avatar of the “hitherto unwedded bride”. Exasperated with her interlocutor/judge, she gives him mocking license to “put his soul’s ache into [her ballad]”, and exclaims that: “the whole universe, her own sex and yours, and Providence, or Destiny, to boot, make common cause against the woman who swerves one hair’s breadth out of the beaten track” (206). Zenobia ought to have placed Coverdale–as narrator–at the top of her list of powerful conspirators, and she does so, implicitly, when she opts out of the story. Zenobia doesn’t “conceal” any more information from Coverdale than the will-less Priscilla does–and she is quite capable of compelling him to accept any version of the truth that suits her. The trouble is that no version suits her,  any more than “truth”/certainty itself does. If Zenobia is “not simple” in death, it is because she was complex in life. Coverdale’s lament that, in his sophisticated age, “we cannot even put ourselves to death in whole-hearted simplicity” (218), depends upon his assumption that this was ever possible, and that, moreover, he would recognize such simplicity, if he ever saw it. This is the ending that his “ballad of Zenobia” requires–and has required since he first began to “long for a catastrophe” (145)–the collapse of the distinction between the “political woman” and the “heart-broken village-maiden” (or, the “unwedded bride”–who is fated to be “known”, and feared for the same the reason), and yet, he cannot fit her corpse to match his expectations.

The reason that Zenobia never tells Coverdale “the secret of her life”, is that she has no secrets (at least, no secret that Coverdale will accept as the “key to her personality”). She simply is life–which is never simple. Likewise, in death, she haunts the narrator, as she haunts Hollingsworth, from beyond the “death-in-life of narrative” (Berlant, 25)–just as Priscilla, her sister (and counterpart), whose sham-life, blown about by fate, through narration (or, in Westervelt’s case, through stage direction), haunts both male characters (by presenting them with an alternative to the romantic quest that may be more seductive than desire itself). Neither Zenobia (the ghost of female subjectivity), nor Priscilla (the hyper-suggestible, zombie-like object–“always already” a bride), represent anything like Berlant’s “hitherto unwedded bride”. They are more like “undead brides”–twin agents who assault the logic of the male symbolic order (epitomized by the Utopian/unrealizable promise of communion), both from within the citadel of its most characteristic institutions (marriage, “the romance”), and from without.


Works Cited and Consulted

Berlant Lauren. “Fantasies of Utopia in The Blithedale Romance,” in The American Literary History Reader, Gordon Hunter, ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.

Good Afternoon Friends!
Dave

Remind me Again Why It’s A Wonderful Life…

Remind me Again Why It’s A Wonderful Life…

Why has Dave been posting so much, after announcing that he was going into an academic cocoon for a while? Well, I’ll tell ya. For the second time in less than a year, one of my cats fell desperately ill, and I’ve been up 24/7, alternately coddling her and trying to force-feed some nutrients into her body. But it didn’t work. I had to euthanize Simpson this morning, and man, it fuckin’ sucks, that’s all I can say…

I first met her when my friend Ingrid and I began looking for a place together–11 years ago–and, once we all settled into our wonderfully decrepit Verdun apartment,  it didn’t take long for an insanely strong bond to form. She and Ingrid never really hit it off, so I didn’t even have to beg for custody, when I moved in with my girlfriend, a year later. I’m not sure who was more obsessed with whom, but it was definitely a co-dependent relationship. She wasn’t always nice to others (that old question, “were you raised in a barn?”, actually means something… Simpson was–that’s where Ingrid got her from–and it showed!), and it was probably unwise of me allow a cat who made so free with her claws to chomp on my eyelashes all of the time, but it made her happy, and, miraculously, no one ever got hurt… She was famous for summoning food by way of her unique “accordion dance”, and my first clue that all was not right came about three weeks ago, when she stopped doing it (a half-full bowl was not nearly good enough for Simpson–she always planned ahead) I have no idea what it’s going to be like to sleep without her tonight, and I’m very worried about how all of this is going to affect Dashiell–they weren’t blood-relations, but she nursed him anyway, once his mother (Arizona–who still lives Ingrid) got tired of the whole thing (Zoner is a great cat, don’t get me wrong), and we’ve all been together for so long…

I walked home from the clinic, and, on the way, I ran into a nice guy from one of my seminars, my favourite student from last semester, and the bus driver who had brought us to the vet’s earlier this morning (which is insane, because I don’t normally see anyone I know on campus–there are 50 000 students, after all)–and each time I described what I had just been forced to do, it got worse… but at least I was in practice for this post–which isn’t nearly as glorious a tribute as she deserves, but what the hell? One thing about the death of a loved one–it makes it sickeningly easy for the survivor to hypostatize the relationship into something that could have gone on, perfectly, forever… The thing about it is, with Simpson (and, I suppose, with all beloved pets), I don’t doubt that this is true… She was still purring when they came in with the poison…