Monday, September 05, 2011

How We Will Read Cerebus - Part I

As I discussed previously, it's difficult to discuss Cerebus without also directly discussing Dave Sim. The hazards of this kind of ad hominem criticism should be obvious. It's easy to dismiss the whole sum of Sim's oeuvre with some kind of reference to his supposed mental state or mental illness. This is a tempting idea even for those of us who find (on balance) a lot more to like about Cerebus than to dislike. But it doesn't really get us anywhere in terms of approaching the work itself, or salvaging the book's reputation from its own damning testimony.

With this in mind, we'll begin by presenting our argument, a la Sim himself, in the form of a series of statements and explications.

First Statement: Dave Sim is a very intelligent and very talented person.

This should go without saying. His ability to perform at the highest levels of competency within his chosen field of cartooning cannot be gainsaid by even his most vigorous opponents. It furthermore must be said that he is an extremely well read person who has consumed and synthesized a monstrously large range of secondary material in the process of making what can only be the most literate comic strip in the history of the English language.

Second Statement: Dave Sim has an incredibly strong will.

This should never be forgotten in any discussion of the man or his work. He set out to accomplish something that almost any objective observer would have deemed impossible, and succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Furthermore, he didn't need to starve or live in a garret in order to crank out 300 issues of Cerebus: by all accounts he made quite a bit of money, and even if circulation dropped precipitously in the final years has still been able to support himself quite comfortably off the proceeds of his little gray aardvark.

If you haven't already seen it, I would like to recommend a 2008 film called Man on Wire. The film tells the story of Phillipe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It's a fantastic film not merely for the reason that it tells the story of something that should by any measure have been impossible to accomplish, but that it does so without airbrushing the fact that anyone who could accomplish something so monumental would almost by definition be a difficult person with whom to deal. Phillipe Petit did something that no one thought could or even should have ever been done, and the result is that by the end of the movie he has become a raging egomaniac. And really, who can gainsay someone who's done something like that? Who will ever be able to tell that person "no"? Publishing 300 monthly issues of Cerebus from 1977 to 2004 is, I believe, a feat akin to Petit's high wire walk. Dave Sim full well knows this. This is, to put it mildly, a problem.

Third Statement: Dave Sim is an autodidact.

Tim Krieder explains the problem rather well:
Being an autodidact has a lot of the same advantages and hazards for intellectual development that being free of any editorial control does for artistic development: it allows you to pursue original, heterodox, potentially interesting new directions without being hobbled by conventional wisdom. But there's also no one to correct you when you're headed down a blind alley, straying far from your area of competence, or just talking out of your ass.
It would be absurd - not to mention monumentally classist - to assert that someone can't be smart without having gone to college first. College doesn't even do that great a job of making most people smart to begin with, after all, given how many university degrees are little more than trade school certificates for entry to reasonably remunerative middle-class jobs.

But with those caveats well in place, it needs to be said that if you want to be a working intellectual of any caliber, college really is a good idea. You can learn almost anything on your own without the benefit of a professor or a classroom of your peers, but the one thing you can't get on your own is the sensation of being told "no" by someone who is objectively smarter than you. Being told "no" and being able to learn from being told "no" is the single most invaluable experience any intelligent person can have.

Here in these United States we have a lot of respect and reverence for "self-made men" who craft their own destiny through nothing but hard work, perseverance, and willpower. (Yes, Sim is Canadian, but the point still holds.) This idolization of individual autonomy has turned into something of a mixed bag. People who learn from hard-won experience to trust no one's authority but their own, to disregard the wisdom of their elders, and that the habitual breaking of proscriptions carries no negative consequences, are quite insufferable. They make bad neighbors and bad citizens. Dave Sim succeeded in accomplishing the impossible, and in the process became an artist of formidable intelligence, but the price he paid was the acclaim and esteem of his peers and his potential audience. Because he succeeded so definitively in what, to him, became the only possible meaningful measure of success (that is, the exercise of his Herculean will), there's simply no one alive who can tell him "no" in a way he'll understand or respect. In fact, he almost certainly sees the disdain of his detractors and the neglect of critics as perverse reinforcement.

Fourth Statement: Dave Sim does not see the world the same way that you or I do.

This fact is a consequence of the first three. Sim rejects modernity on an almost wholesale basis, an abjuration that extends all the way to having a disinclination for computers (his internet presence often takes the form of transcripts uploaded from his electric typewriter). His religious turn - a turn which was preceded by and followed perhaps as an inevitable consequence of his conservative turn - recasts almost the entirety of modern existence in negative terms. He dislikes Picasso and dislikes Freud and dislikes Marx and (although I can't remember specifically if it's come up) probably dislikes Nietzsche as well.

What this means in practice is that he explicitly rejects the language and collective metaphors that we - many of us, at least, of the leftist, liberal or conservative persuasions - use to discuss the contemporary world. Although he has little patience for narrow-minded congregationalists, he has cast his rhetorical lot in with the forces of anti-modernity who insist on using the language of scripture to diagnose the sins of the present. He outright dismisses the language of contemporary (and by "contemporary" in this instance I mean at least the last 250-300 years) philosophy and social theory as meaningless "bafflegab."

This is frustrating on a number of levels. The first level is that, according to our First Statement, Dave Sim is a very smart person. There is no good reason why he couldn't read and understand Sartre (to pick an example mentioned in the most recent issue of Glamourpuss) if he decided it was important for him to do so. Most contemporary philosophy is very difficult to read, and the same goes for economics, political science, literary theory, historiography, sociology - pretty much any highly specialized academic discipline you care to mention. But this is an unavoidable consequence of the accretion of thousands of years of scholars building increasingly complicated idea systems, systems which can most easily be penetrated by recourse to highly specialized and specific jargon. If you think, say, Lukács's History and Class Consciousness (to pick a completely random example of a book on my desk) is dense and difficult to parse, you're very much right (especially in translation). But that doesn't mean you can't understand the book if you try.

Sim rejects this notion outright. The entirety of modern political theory rests so far outside his purview that speaking to him on these terms is futile. He rejects the language of modernity, and refuses to read or willfully misunderstands the books that explain the concepts of modernity. I will repeat for emphasis: it's not that he couldn't if he wanted to. There are lots of conservative academics and intellectuals who defend their worldviews in a persuasive and articulate fashion without being swallowed in the sea of "bafflegab." He chooses not to do so, and so it should come as no surprise that he is left without the means to explain much of what he castigates in contemporary society.

Take, for example, his infamous "Fifteen Impossible Things to Believe Before Breakfast That Make You a Good Feminist." If you've never read them or the screed from which they are taken ("Tangent"), they are helpfully reproduced here. Sim begins from the highly biased position of rejecting the last however many hundreds of years of social development in favor of a worldview that refuses to accept any advancement since (in his exact words!) "the death of God's Last Messenger and Seal of Prophets, Muhammad (peace be upon him) in 632 CE." So that's, uh, 1400 years of backwards progress, I guess. If you read through the list, it's not even as if he hasn't pinpointed a few of what could be construed as legitimate points of contention and grounds for reasonable disagreement within contemporary civilization, but he's done so in a way that cannot be breached by recourse to any reasonable argumentation that postdates the birth of Islam.

When I read back over that list in the year 2011 what I see is a number of assertions that can best be answered by economic data, assertions based on faulty premises, assertions based on a frankly bewildering intentional misreading of selective data, and assertions that are meaningless to anyone who does not believe in God. But he distrusts and loathes the Marxists / Feminists / Homosexualists so much that the possibility that he may, just may be misrepresenting the other side of his imaginary straw-man arguments never even occurs to him. A few of these assertions are issues of domestic politics that, icky as they may seem, do little more than prove Sim's status as a inveterate chauvinist. But the larger part of the list is built on the premise that social conditions which haven't existed in hundreds of years are the default norm and that any possible ethical morass will either find immediate explanation in Scripture or ultimate explanation at The Last Day (again, his words). Put aside the reality that much of the "sins" Sim diagnoses are direct manifestations of economic inequality, because the language of economics - not even, to be sure, Marxian economics, but all economics - simply has no basis in Scriptural authority. The sum of economic theory since the Reformation is predicated on a materialist interpretation of human existence. Sure, the Protestants helped matters considerably by welding economic success to spiritual esteem, but as soon as the general Catholic distrust of industrialization was lifted across Northern Europe, we were off to the races and haven't looked back since. Our lives as citizens are not defined by our relationship to God and King - as per Hobbes - but by our relationship to Mammon, otherwise known as market capitalism. This is something that cannot be adequately explained in terms of religion, and that is why so much of the religious right in the industrialized west is completely unable to produce effective social policy.

Sim refuses to understand the modern world on its own terms. Of course contemporary civilization is going to come up short when measured against the moral proscriptions of prehistoric desert nomads and the people who subsequently wrote their fan-fic. But in order to engage with modernity most people - even religious people - accept the premise that most phenomena can be explained by recourse to the material world. If you put aside those wonderful people who believe that God creates recessions, most economists believe that economic systems can be described by recourse to data, and although the systems they use to interpret this data may differ widely depending on where an economist falls on the ideological spectrum, few of these systems involve reference to the Pentateuch.

To sum up: if you do not believe in the literal truth (although he fudges some on his metaphorical reading of Genesis, for instance) of not just the Bible, but (on equal footing) the Torah, the New Testament and the Koran; if you do not reject the materialistic interpretation of culture that has dominated discourse in Western society to varying degrees since the Enlightenment; if you do not believe in a fundamental equality between the sexes that exists despite uncontroversial and objective differences between the physical makeup of men and women; if you acknowledge the authority of any academic or scholarly writing in the fields of the humanities or the social sciences; if you do not believe that academia as a whole has been infiltrated by inveterate Marxists; if you do not believe that women are unable to distinguish between the cognitive abilities of pets, children and people; if you do not abhor pet ownership as a concession to female weakness; if you do not believe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was ultimately undermined by feminism - well, you have to part ways with Dave Sim. And since there is an infinitesimally small percentage of the world's population who would agree with all these propositions - and that population is essentially one person in Kitchener, Ontario - Dave Sim stands alone as the only person in the world who sees the world in quite this way.

Fifth Statement: Dave Sim's ideas don't make sense to anyone but Dave Sim.

Perhaps this should go without saying. Unless you see the world in exactly the same fashion as Sim, many if not most of his assertions will seem completely untenable, if not simply perplexing.

In the United States (and much of the world as well) we're used to religious conservatism walking hand-in-hand with some manner of populism. It wasn't always like this, of course: the constituency we now call the religious right sat out politics for many decades in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Ironically, it wasn't until Jimmy Carter ran for President in 1976 that evangelical Christianity became interested in electoral politics. After being generally disappointed with Carter's progressive stance on social issues, the evangelicals realigned themselves with the GOP, and they've been a dominant constituency on the right ever since.

Religious conservatism is, in other words, something we're used to dealing with. We recognize it and understand it's arguments. Sim is a religious conservative but he's not evangelical. He is a staunch individualist who lives an extremely regimented life according to a highly personalized interpretation of the three great Abrahamic faiths. To the best of my knowledge he has never seen fit to publicly proselytize his beliefs, outside of the occasional public Bible reading. He does not believe he is a prophet, and Cerebus is not intended to be the scripture of a new religion. He appears to be perfectly content to live his extremely ascetic and highly eccentric life - complete with five-times-a-day prayer, frequent fasting, and compulsory charitable tithing - on his own terms and no one else's.

It is difficult to imagine any conventional Christian denominations seeing anything admirable in Sim's ready acceptance of syncretic heterodoxy. He lives according to some tenets of Islamic law but he is not a Muslim. His reading of Scripture is - well, interesting. He believes that the Book of Genesis to be the (heretofore unseen) story of a battle between God and his female opposite, YHWH. Dave Sim appears to have recreated a highly charismatic form of Zoroastrianism.

Dave Sim's religious conversion is, to put it mildly, not the kind of religious conversion that could happen to just anyone. He came to God through intense study. His reading of the Bible(s) is the kind of reading that could only occur to someone who knew their Bible inside and out, knew some Hebrew, cared about the history of the text as a text. Someone educated and intelligent and confident enough to propose a novel reading of the most read and re-read book ever published in the history of the world. And - it really should go without saying - someone with the balls to assert that he perhaps the first person in the history of the world to really understand what God was trying to say.

So it's probably for the best that he is not an evangelical. His religious methodology is so pervasively anti-populist that it's difficult to imagine him being able to gather followers even if he wanted. Anyone intelligent enough to retrace Sim's steps in order to recreate the revealed wisdom he has discovered is, frankly, too intelligent to ever agree with him. These are ideas that make sense only to Dave Sim. He is a religious conservative (small "r," small "c") but he has about as much to do with the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin as they do with Lukács. They are populists, whereas he is essentially a hermit, a modern-day anchorite living in modern society but not of modern society. We understand the likes of Beck and Palin because they are - each in their own way - permutations of political and social movements that have been a part of United States society for decades and centuries. Dave Sim is and will likely remain a movement of one.

Sixth Statement: Dave Sim's ideas must be understood in order to understand Cerebus.

Roald Dahl was very lucky to be blessed with a series of extremely courageous and patient editors who were able to excise most examples of his corrosive racism, sexism, and pervasive anti-semitism. It is possible, thanks to these men and women, to be able to enjoy Dahl's essential and strangely heart-warming cynicism without also being exposed in the process to his vituperative rants against international Jewry. The world is better for having Dahl's books, even if the world was perhaps not so blessed to have had Dahl himself.

We're not going to get off quite so easily with Cerebus. All of Sim's beliefs - and the evolution of his beliefs along the way - are part and parcel of Cerebus in a way that could never really be extricated without leaving the work itself crucially bowdlerized. Tim Callahan could not have said it better when he said that, "Cerebus is as autobiographical as any comic book ever written." It's Sim's story, from page one right on through to the end. It is the greatest example comics has produced of a Künstlerroman: not merely the story of a young man's growth and maturity, but the growth and maturity of an artist. That the story does not end, as David Copperfield or Wordsworth's Prelude, with the artist having attained some degree of nineteenth-century Romantic idealism and spiritual empathy, is incidental. By issue #300, Sim has become an artist of exacting skill and intellect, but instead of growing into a great and more nuanced engagement with the world as it exists over the course of twenty-seven long years of labor, Sim's muse (a term I use gingerly considering our subject) has led him away from society and towards a wholesale rejection of modernity.

In order to come to grips with Cerebus we must grapple with Sim's philosophy - as contrary, repulsive and downright unintelligible as it may appear from the outside. The work's unique, even demoniacal power comes from the fact that to be immersed in Cerebus is to be completely immersed in the another man's mind, with all his prejudices and irrationalities wholly intact. It is highly likely that by the end of Cerebus you will hate Sim, you will be angry with Sim, you might even pity Sim, but you will understand him as you have understood few other human beings on this planet.

Seventh Statement: Cerebus will never be widely read.

If Dave Sim set out to create a work of great literature that would be widely read and disseminated in his lifetime he failed fairly definitively. As the years proceed there will most likely never be any kind of "Cerebus renaissance." Perhaps one day after Sim's death when the work has passed into public domain the book will be anthologized and may appear in some expurgated form. But I do not believe the work as a whole will ever be read by any but a very small minority of even the comics-literate population. When I say, "we will read Cerebus," I'm conscious of two things: one, we don't read Cerebus now; and two, when the time comes for Cerebus to be rediscovered and to reenter the critical dialogue about comics in any meaningful way, it will be championed by the audience Dave Sim himself is probably least eager to cultivate, the critics and scholars of academia.

Even if you discount the controversial second half of the run and winnow Cerebus down to the "good" first half - High Society, Church & State, Jaka's Story - you're still left with something like 3,000 pages of extremely dense, highly allusive, very wordy, and very cerebral stories about a talking aardvark who becomes Pope. And of course the further into the back half of the run the reader progresses, the further down the rabbit's hole of Dave Sim's psyche the reader falls. It is quite simply too complicated and too involved for any but the most dedicated reader to penetrate.

I've seen the comparison between Cerebus and The Birth of a Nation, and while I think that's not necessarily a bad analogy I think a better one would probably be between Sim himself and Martin Heidegger. Heidegger is without a doubt one of the most significant and influential philosophers of the twentieth century, but he was also a card-carrying member of the Nazi party from 1933 through to the end of the war. This problem is compounded by the fact that, despite a long and prolific career in the years following the fall of the Third Reich, he never publicly addressed his Nazism in any but the most abstract and disinterested fashion. He never came as far as Günter Grass, who after six decades of outright lying finally admitted his membership in the Waffen-SS and pleaded, with the equivalent of sixty years' "good behavior" (and a Nobel Prize), for clemency in the court of public opinion.

Emmanuel Faye has argued, in essence, that Heidegger's work needs to be cordoned off from the mainstream of philosophy and exiled to the realm of "Nazi studies." Heidegger's work, some argue, actually provides a philosophical rationale for Fascism that would otherwise never have been created. (It's worth noting that Heidegger himself was anathematized by factions within the party on account of the fact that his books and articles were primarily gibberish to anyone not extremely well-versed in academic philosophy.) But on the balance I think the problem of Heidegger's fascist tendencies is self-correcting. The reason for the this correction is blessedly simple: no one can understand Heidegger. I've read Heidegger and someday I will almost certainly have to read more. I can say with some confidence that there are very few writers in the history of literature less user-friendly than Heidegger. I believe that in order to be able to read and understand a book such as Being and TIme a reader will already need to be sufficiently well-versed in the subject matter and possess a considerable understanding of the historical context. He or she will have been trained and given the necessary tools with which to grapple with the most problematic aspects of Heidegger's philosophy. Just the most simple question as to whether or not dasein reflects the ultimate manifestation of fascistic ontology is so far beyond even the educated the layman that the question of whether or not these are dangerous ideas is moot: no one able to approach Heidegger on his own terms will be unprepared to deal with the ethical consequences thereof. The people who will care whether or not Heidegger was a Nazi will be such a miniscule percentage of the population as to be statistically negligible, but for those who do the question has and will continue to inspire decades of fruitful investigation.

So too with Cerebus. I keep stressing that no one now reads Cerebus, because I think that's essentially true. And the audience for Cerebus is now probably as big as it will ever be. But it will not be forgotten. The conundrum at the heart of Cerebus is the contrast - a contrast that only became larger and more fascinating with every passing issue - between Sim's personal conservatism and the formal radicalism of Cerebus. Sim's transformation into an arch-conservative Biblical literalist was not accompanied by any diminution of his cartooning prowess. On the contrary, his understanding of the depths of formal invention still hidden within the medium rivals that of any Fort Thunder experimentalist. It's hard to see, sometimes, because of how conservative the narrative appears: Sim doesn't appear to have been influenced in any way by manga, most of the action throughout the entirety of the story consists of long conversations, and Sim is heavily enamored of textual exposition. But in practice what this means is that he's been given almost complete free reign to explore a corner of the medium that has been more or less abandoned by his peers in "serious" cartooning. To this effect he's turned his post-Cerebus vehicle Glamourpuss into an examination of the genealogy of "fine line" realistic cartooning, the school of Stan Drake and Alex Raymond. To say that this is fallow territory among contemporary non-mainstream cartoonists would be a severe understatement.

With Cerebus Dave Sim has produced the longest and most diverse sustained poetics yet devised in the comics medium. If we need another analogy then the Cantos of Ezra Pound will do. The Cantos stretch and warp the shape of poetry almost beyond recognition, pulling form past all recognition of function and turning language in on itself. It's an immensely complex work of forbidding erudition. It is also the product of an avowed fascist who spent many years in mental hospitals. His support of Mussolini was no mere theoretical concern: it is addressed directly within the text of multiple sections of the Cantos. His work was immensely influential and important, and yet is now almost exclusively the domain of graduate students and that miniscule portion of the population able and willing to devote their leisure time to parsing some of the most difficult and ethically compromised poetry ever written. So too with Cerebus.

Next: We will discuss the function and importance of parody in Cerebus, and the significance of parody in the work's continued relevance.

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