Saturday, December 31, 2011

Short Take: Georgy Girl

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The British romantic farce Georgy Girl was a critical and commercial hit back in 1966. In general, it has not dated well. The picture appropriates the hallmarks of the French nouvelle vague films of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, but without making those elements feel intrinsic to the material. The filmmakers seem to be working their way through a checklist. The happy-go-lucky young protagonists, the extensive use of urban locations, the handheld camerawork, the naturalistic lighting and sets, the gritty social detail--they’re all there, and the picture’s dubious distinction is that it makes one appreciate the French films even more. The director, Silvio Narizzano (he’s Canadian), and the screenwriters, Margaret Forster and Peter Nichols, have a sitcom sensibility. The effect of mating that with the existential aesthetic of their French contemporaries is ludicrous. A slightly chubby Lynn Redgrave plays the title character, a young working-class woman who feels inadequate next to her beautiful roommate (Charlotte Rampling). She spends much of her time dodging the amorous interest of her parents’ employer (James Mason). Complicating things further is her growing attraction to her roommate’s boyfriend, a hyperactive goofball played by Alan Bates. The actors leave one feeling the broad contrivance and humor are beneath their talents, but the only one who transcends the silliness is Charlotte Rampling. She walks away with nearly every scene she’s in. Her bitchy hauteur dries out the material, and she turns almost every line into a zinger. She’s the only member of the cast who is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. The great mystery of the film’s commercial success is that it didn’t make her a star. Ken Higgins’ Oscar-nominated cinematography is an accomplished approximation of Raoul Coutard and Henri Decaë’s work in the film’s French forebears. The cheesy though memorable theme song is performed by The Seekers.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Short Take: Horror of Dracula

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster did a fine job on The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), their first Hammer Films horror effort. Their follow-up, 1958's Horror of Dracula, is even better. The story is told with a similar succinctness, and not a single element is a letdown. Christopher Lee is an ideal Count Dracula. He has a regal bearing in his calm moments, a smug glee as he approaches his victims, and a shocking ferocity when he attacks his enemies. He and his antagonist, Peter Cushing’s Dr. Van Helsing, are well matched. Cushing gives us that rarest of movie characters, an intellectual who’s also a decisive, charismatic man of action. The film deserves particular applause for its subtle handling of Dracula’s effect on the women he victimizes. He brings out their sexuality: his castle companion (Valerie Gaunt) is a lusty seductress; the innocent, virginal Lucy (Carol Marsh) gets in touch with her inner bad girl; and Mina (Melissa Stribling) clearly finds the satisfaction she isn’t getting from her husband. The film’s best moment is when Mina returns from her initial encounter with the vampire, grinning from ear to ear. Fisher and Sangster also provide plenty of thrills, chills, and suspense. The climactic battle between Dracula and Van Helsing is especially well staged.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Short Take: Cul-de-Sac

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Roman Polanski’s third feature, Cul-de-Sac (1966), is like The Desperate Hours--as reimagined, perhaps, by Samuel Beckett in collaboration with Edward Albee and Harold Pinter. An American gangster in England (Lionel Stander), fleeing a botched robbery, hides out in the beachfront castle home of a retired factory owner (Donald Pleasance) and his young French wife (Françoise Dorléac). The gangster holds the couple captive while waiting for his confrères to pick him up. The film doesn’t play this scenario for melodramatic suspense. The story is simply the pretext for a series of comic dialogues and confrontations between the gangster, the couple, and at one point, friends of the couple who pay an unannounced visit. The script, by Polanski and Gérard Brach, hilariously pastiches the absurdism of Beckett, the passive-aggressive portent of Pinter, and the farcical hostilities of Albee. As a director, Polanski is in peak form: the tempo of the scenes is masterful, and the dark, humorous tone is beautifully sustained throughout. In some scenes, such as the single-take beach confrontation between the gangster and the factory owner, or the mad slapstick finale, Polanski’s virtuosity is all but astonishing. Stander and Pleasance, generally erratic actors, rise to the occasion here; they both deliver first-rate comic performances. Dorléac (Catherine Deneuve’s older sister) isn’t as entertaining, but her ugly eye make-up notwithstanding, she’s at least pleasant to look at. Gilbert Taylor provides the fine black-and-white cinematography. The jazz score, with its unsettling electronic touches, is by Krzysztof Komeda.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Short Take: Fair Game

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Fair Game, about the Valerie Plame case, should have been a lot better. Plame was a covert CIA officer specializing in nuclear weapons counter-proliferation. In 2002, her husband Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat, traveled to Niger at the CIA’s request to investigate whether Saddam Hussein had purchased enriched uranium there. Wilson firmly concluded the Iraqi dictator hadn’t. A few months later, in the 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush stated that Hussein had indeed sought to make such a purchase. This prompted Wilson to write a New York Times op-ed detailing his findings. Shortly thereafter, Plame’s CIA status was made public in concert with the Bush administration’s efforts to discredit Wilson. The outing of Plame resulted in, among other things, a special-prosecutor investigation that led to the conviction of White House official Scooter Libby for obstruction of justice. The film handles everything up through the revelation of Plame’s identity reasonably well. It provides effective (albeit necessarily fictionalized) depictions of her activities with the CIA. Wilson’s trip to Niger is dramatized clearly and succinctly. The couple’s home life is nicely portrayed, and the performances of Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, who play Plame and Wilson, are spot-on. But the film largely sidesteps the juicy public aftermath of the revelation of Plame’s identity. It doesn’t get into the criminal investigation, the assorted grand-jury dramas, or the trial and conviction of Libby. Instead, it becomes preoccupied with the stress the scandal had on the couple’s marriage. The film doesn't climax with the (modest) justice that prevailed in the case; it ends with the pair’s decision to keep their marriage together. Director Doug Liman and his screenwriters go narrow when they needed to go wide. They don’t appear to recognize that the story became much larger than Plame and Wilson. Treating it as the context for domestic melodrama is a disservice to both the case and the audience.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Short Take: The Curse of Frankenstein

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Curse of Frankenstein, the 1957 Hammer Films adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, doesn’t concern itself with the moral, philosophical, and allegorical aspects of the book. Like most pop-culture treatments of Shelley’s material, it is content with being a reactionary horror melodrama. The story couldn’t be more familiar: A misguided scientist plays God and builds a creature from the remains of human corpses; the creature turns out to be a violent brute; the scientist and the creature confront each other, and only one survives. But director Terence Fisher and scenarist Jimmy Sangster do a better job with it than most; the story is told with an admirable economy. And they hit upon an idea that served the producers well through a number of sequels: the real monster of the film isn’t the creature; it’s the scientist. Their Dr. Frankenstein is a vicious monomaniac. His experiments are all that matter to him, and pity anyone who gets in his way. Peter Cushing plays the role with such sinister relish that one begins to think the character welcomes being interfered with. The body count is part of what makes his work enjoyable. The fresh portrayal of the scientist more than makes up for the letdown of the creature (Christopher Lee, buried under a shoddy make-up job). The monster here is neither tragic nor especially scary; it’s just pathetic. All one wants is for it to be put out of its misery. The real drama is in waiting for Dr. Frankenstein’s comeuppance. With Robert Urquhart, who does an effective job playing Frankenstein's teacher and the movie’s conscience.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Film Review: Rhapsody in August

This review was originally published on Pol Culture. It was first written as an interpretative paper for a 2000 class on Japanese culture.

Akira Kurosawa's next-to-last film, 1991's Rhapsody in August, lacks the historical settings his films are famous for; it's set in and around present-day Nagasaki. In the opening scene, an elderly woman, Kane (Sachiko Murase), receives word that a brother is sick and would like her to visit him before he dies. She refuses; she voices doubts about whether the man is even her brother. It quickly becomes clear that her reasons go deeper than doubts: the brother lives in Hawaii, and Kane harbors a deep resentment towards the United States. Nagasaki is, of course, where the second of two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan during World War II, and Kane's husband was killed in the blast. The film recounts the efforts of Kane's family to convince her to see her brother, and, along the way, it explores the psychological impact of the bombing on three (arguably four) generations of Japanese.

Kane, despite her feelings about the bombing, has not been one to dwell on it. One gets the sense that her looking back has been restricted to participating in annual memorial ceremonies and receiving visits from a fellow Nagasaki widow. (The two sit together in total silence during these visits.) But the news of her brother leads her to search out her memories. She's trying to place him in her mind, and, in the process, she confronts the full anguish and grief the bombing caused in her life. Her husband's death was not the only tragedy in the family: a younger brother was driven insane. Kane ultimately does put her resentment behind her and go to Hawaii; she only insists on waiting until after the annual Nagasaki memorial ceremony.

Kane's four grandchildren are guests in her home throughout the film. When we first meet them, they are as different from their grandmother as night and day. They're completely enamored with the West, and proud bearers of that great American advertising medium, the T-shirt. When the letter arrives asking Kane to come to Hawaii, they are overjoyed: the letter is from their parents, who are visiting the brother (their uncle), and Kane is asked to bring the kids along with her. The grandchildren are initially resentful of Kane's refusal to take them to Hawaii, but their resentment soon gives way to understanding. Three of them visit the bombing memorials in Nagasaki, and they gain a palpable sense of the horror the bomb brought, feelings that are exacerbated by the stories their grandmother tells about the past. The youngest of the four, a boy of 10 or 11 named Shinjiro (Mitsunori Isaki), is especially disturbed by the stories of his great-uncle's insanity. The grandchildren even come to share Kane's animosity towards the United States. When Kane's half-Caucasian nephew Clark (Richard Gere) comes to Japan, the children are quite wary of him. They even refuse to meet him at the airport.

When the film introduces the grandchildren's parents, one well understands where the grandchildren's ignorance of the bombing comes from. (One intuits that the grandchildren only knew it as a date in a history book.) The parents (who, one assumes, are meant to stand for their generation) see the bombing as an embarrassment: it needs to be kept in the past and forgotten. The parents are disgustingly petty-minded: they are upset over Kane's refusal to go to her brother, but only because they're afraid it will block their efforts to find employment with the brother's successful American business. (When Kane hears this, she denounces the parents as beggars; one wants to applaud.) When the parents hear of Clark's plans to visit Kane, they are fraught with worry. Feeling that Americans do not want to be reminded of the bombings, they are terrified she will offend him.

Clark, though, isn't the sort to be offended. Like many Americans after World War II, he is deeply ambivalent about the bombing and sees it as a horrible tragedy. When the children encounter him at the Nagasaki memorials, they lose their wariness of him; they realize he is just as overwhelmed by the sight as they are. Clark and his cousins then become fast friends. Kane likes him a great deal as well. Clark has a particularly strong rapport with Shinjiro. The two play together in a local spring, help each other learn the other's language, and, in the film's loveliest moment, watch an army of ants climb, single file, up a tall, beautiful red rose. The relationship between Clark and Shinjiro is the way Kurosawa seems to feel things ought to be: Americans and Japanese must always acknowledge--and never forget--the terrible bond the atomic bomb built between them, but they must continue on together--in play, in work, and in discovering and enjoying the beauty and wonder life has to offer.

In the film's final section, Kurosawa cautions about what might happen if the bond is treated as a barrier. The news arrives that Kane's brother has died before she could visit him. She had resolved to see him, but it is now too little, too late. Her shame overwhelms her; she goes insane, imagining she is back in 1945 before the bombing. She runs out into a monsoon-like storm, the wind and rain fighting her every step of the way. In not letting go of anger and pain when one has the chance, one condemns oneself to forever reliving it, all alone. Rhapsody in August is an insightful, resonant, and disquieting work.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Short Take: "Q," Sharon Olds

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Sharon Olds' poem "Q" begins with a delightful bit of free-association alliterative wordplay. The poem implicitly asks what one thinks of when one thinks of the letter Q. Olds begins with words that start with the letter--“questions,” “the Queen,” and “quail,” for example—and then builds a sentence out of Q-word nouns and verbs: “Quailing was part of Q’s/quiddity—the Q quaked/and quivered, it quarrelled [sic] and quashed.” Olds then shifts gears into other associations, such as the letter’s phoneme K and their phonic ties to the Semitic caph and koph. She even provides a commentary on the letter’s appearance with a reference to the “Q face,” i.e., a face with the “tongue lolling out.” One can’t help but smile at Olds’ resourcefulness and humor. But after that, the tone of the poem shifts, and one then cannot help but applaud. Olds moves from humorous effects into a disquieting one. She accomplishes it by transforming alliteration into synecdoche: the letter Q also makes one think of Iraq. The poetic masterstroke, though, is the combination of this synecdoche with the one she creates on top of it. The letter Q is the part that signifies the whole of Iraq, which is the whole that in turn signifies the part of those killed during the country’s invasion and occupation. It’s a brilliant progression, one made all the more potent by the irony of it concluding a piece that appeared to start as a lark. The poem couldn't be shaped more elegantly. It originally appeared in the August 10, 2009 issue of the New Yorker. Editors Amy Gerstler and David Lehman included it in The Best American Poetry 2010.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Comics Review: Blazing Combat, Archie Goodwin, et al.

This review was originally published on The Comics Journal's website on March 15, 2010. It was first republished on Pol Culture.

A major goal of publisher James Warren’s 1960s comics was to recreate the glory of the 1950s E. C. line for a new generation. Blazing Combat was his answer to the Harvey Kurtzman-edited Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. These war comics that were E. C.’s most highly regarded titles after Kurtzman’s MAD. The series’ writer/editor, Archie Goodwin, followed Kurtzman’s approach very closely. The stories were set in various wars throughout history, and they emphasized human drama over jingoism and sensationalism. Goodwin even corralled several of Kurtzman’s illustrators, including John Severin and Wallace Wood, to contribute work. The series only lasted four issues, but it is among the high points of 1960s comics. This handsome collection is one of the more welcome reprint volumes of the last few years.

The glory of Blazing Combat is its art. Goodwin’s stories, while they remain thoughtful, well-crafted reads, have dated a bit. None come close to the high points of the Kurtzman books, specifically stories like “The Big If” or “Corpse on the Imjin,” which Kurtzman wrote and illustrated himself. But Severin and Wood surpass their efforts on the Kurtzman titles, and they and the other illustrators Goodwin assembled were perhaps the finest collection of draftsmen in the history of commercial comics. Almost all of them--including Joe Orlando, Angelo Torres, Gray Morrow, George Evans, Al McWilliams, and Gene Colan--were at the height of their powers. The standouts are Russ Heath, whose expert use of mechanical tones makes the story “Give and Take” gleam on the page, and Alex Toth, whose three stories showcase his peerless command of every aspect of comics illustration. Reed Crandall also deserves special mention; the elegant hatch rendering in his contributions recalls the work of such master pen-and-ink artists as Charles Dana Gibson.

The series' only significant flaw was Frank Frazetta’s dreadful cover paintings. Frazetta specialized in violent tableaux, but his sensibility was Romantic. He had no talent for gritty realism, and his efforts here in that mode are ugly to the verge of nauseating. One wonders if the covers were the real reason the series flopped commercially. According to Warren (interviews with him and Goodwin are featured in the collection), sales fell precipitously with the second issue. The issue’s lead story, “Landscape,” climaxed with an elderly Vietnamese peasant being shot to death by U.S. soldiers, and Warren speculates that it led to the American Legion pressuring distributors to drop the title. However, Warren acknowledges that he’s only guessing. There’s no evidence to support his hypothesis. A more likely explanation is that vendors balked at Frazetta’s cover for the issue. The image is nothing short of ghastly. It depicts a soldier impaling an enemy on a rifle bayonet, and in the foreground, another soldier bleeds out through a gunshot wound to the head. A magazine with this cover would have problems with vendors today.

Frazetta’s covers were the source of some trouble with this reprint project as well, but the problem wasn’t that they were printed, it’s that they weren’t printed large enough. The hardcover edition used them to illustrate Goodwin’s interview, and they were featured at quarter-page size. Reader outcry prompted Fantagraphics Books to print them as full pages in the paperback edition. It doesn’t do the book any favors aesthetically, but from an archival standpoint, it was the right call. Blazing Combat showed comics readers the gritty downside of war, as well as the limits of Frank Frazetta’s artistic range. Its subsequent publishers have an obligation to respect both accomplishments, no matter how dubious the latter.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Comics Review: Unlovable, Volume 1, Esther Pearl Watson

This review was originally published on The Comics Journal's website on March 3, 2010.

Esther Pearl Watson’s Unlovable is a rude, crude, and frequently hilarious portrait of suburban teenage life in the 1980s. The book’s narrator, Tammy Pierce, is probably the most hapless 15-year-old girl imaginable. Her home life has nothing to offer, her parents are indifferent, and her little brother is an obnoxious brat. She’s overweight and unpopular. The few friends she has only hang out with her out of boredom, and even then she often has to bribe them. Her life is miserable, but she is anything but depressed. Every moment has urgency for her. She’s crazy-giddy when she’s in a good mood, and drama-queen petulant when upset.

Watson makes Tammy comedy gold. Each episode is superbly paced for laughs, and the naturalistic feel of the proceedings keeps them from lapsing into buffoonery. Some of the material, such as the scatological humor, seems more characteristic of middle school than high school, but everything feels rooted in experience. The narrative generally does a fine job of realizing Watson’s main conceit, which is that the book is an actual 15-year-old’s diary, edited and adapted into cartoon form.

The only significant flaw is with Watson’s visual choices. She’s an experienced artist. Her paintings are a gallery mainstay, and she works as an instructor at the Art Center College of Design outside Los Angeles. The cruddy, grotesque look of the art is deliberate. The idea is obviously to emulate the way an actual Tammy would produce it. Unfortunately, few teenage girls draw or doodle like this. They tend to want everything pretty and colorful, and they try to hide technical ineptitude with lots of decoration. This is especially true of someone like Tammy. Watson’s artwork, with its stark compositions, primitivist draftsmanship, and blah-green wash rendering, is something they wouldn’t be caught dead doing. The look of Unlovable owes more to art-school notions of “authenticity” than any fidelity to its subject.

There’s a lot that suggests Watson’s goal was to create an ersatz version of outsider art. This may give the book some highbrow appeal, but it can’t help but repel just about everyone else. For most people, grotesque primitivism is bad art, no matter how deliberate. Many who might enjoy Unlovable will take one look and pass it by. One wishes Watson had kept her aesthetic pretensions in check, because it is a very entertaining book despite them, and one hopes for it to do well.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Comics Review: Nocturnal Conspiracies, David B.

This review was originally published on The Comics Journal's website on December 29, 2009

Just about every reader of David B.’s memoir Epileptic recalls the four dream sequences that highlighted the closing sections of the book. Purportedly dramatizations of actual dreams, they were obvious allegories of the cartoonist’s complex and conflicting attitudes towards his older brother. These passages are among the book’s most intriguing and powerful moments. They cast the book’s drama in a new light, enriching the meanings and resonances of everything that came before. These kinds of strips have always been a hallmark of David B.’s cartooning. His first major work, Le Cheval blême, was a collection of dream strips. (The book, whose title translates as The Pale Horse or The Ghostly Horse, is unavailable in English. Apart from four pages printed in the interview with David B. in The Comics Journal #275, I have not read it.) With Nocturnal Conspiracies, he has put out another such collection. The book compiles 19 strips adapted from David B.’s dream journal entries between December 1979 and September 1994.

The strength of the dream material in Epileptic gives one high hopes for this new book. One wants to see if, divorced from a larger context, David B. can make the dream narratives effective on their own terms. One hopes for him to create a range of new tropes that would explode across the collection and, like the best poetry and fiction, make it worth repeated reading. Given the time frame in which the dreams occurred, the potential is there for them to enrich a reading of Epileptic as well. Unfortunately, the book is tedious. The strips are dull by themselves, and they don’t create enough of a dynamic relative to each other for their juxtapositions to be compelling. The pieces are often just a showcase of one trope after another for David B.’s self-pity, anxieties, and feelings of inadequacy.

Several strips indicate a fear of being aggressive, even (or especially) towards heroic ends. The first in the book, “The Leper,” asks the reader to consider four heroes or leaders relative to one another. The only thing they have in common is that their identities or personalities are somehow hidden from followers, subjects, or those on whose behalf they act. “The Cemetery” builds on this, with David B. showing himself to be afraid and suspicious of taking the heroic mantle. He adopts the role of man of action, but he breaks down crying after shooting a terrorist to death. He is unable to find any rapport with a woman he is attracted to, even when they share circumstances that demand mutual reliance. The attitude being dramatized appears to be that one cannot be a hero and acknowledge oneself, and that there is no fulfillment in heroic actions. “The Attic,” “The Eye” and “The Shaft” all depict David B. avoiding bravery and fleeing foreign armies, an act of fear that “Cats and Tigers” takes even further: David B. shows himself refusing to join a group of locals, armed only with shovels and pitchforks, who have gathered to fight back. One perceives that David B. considers himself a coward relative to societal conflict. He also unconsciously seems to be looking for a way to rationalize this tendency.

The book also leaves one with the impression that David B. is quite anxious and fearful sexually. The depictions of sex betray an extreme self-consciousness relative to the act. The people shown having or about to have sex constantly find themselves in the presence and judgment of others. In “The Attic,” a king and queen are forced into the act by a group of ravenous, man-eating monsters, who proceed to sodomize him and eat her. “Cats and Tigers” features an encounter with a prostitute that is disrupted before she and David B. can begin. He realizes that they are being watched by a figure that is an amalgam of her son and his pet cat. “A Love Affair” has him frustrated in his desire to have sex with a girl he loves because she is sleeping aside a morbidly obese woman. (That woman is a symbol for any number of sexual anxieties.) It seems that, for David B., sex only brings shame and humiliation, with the disdain of others a given.

The most pathetic moments occur in the dreams dealing with David B.’s literary and artistic tastes. They are filled with anxiety over other people knowing his tastes. “Windows” shows him fleeing a carousel of books by a favorite author when he hears people coming. His rationale is that he already has one of the author’s books in his pocket, and he doesn’t want them thinking he is a thief. But this is clearly a trope for the fear of being discovered with the author’s work at all. In “The Serials,” he shows himself sifting through a number of papers in his studio. He encounters a number of drawings that grow progressively more gruesome and titillating, only to be told by his mother that they were his grandfather’s favorites. It’s a classic example of displacement and projection. He cannot acknowledge his interest in this material, so he has to give it the approving imprimatur of his grandfather and mother. One is ultimately left wondering if there is anything that doesn’t fill him with anxiety.

The amount of personal insecurity on display is embarrassing. One wants to scream at the author to lighten up. He isn’t entirely lacking a sense of humor. “The Heads” is an entertaining bit of slapstick, and “The Cowboys” is an amusing allegory of a freelance artist’s dealings with disinterested art directors. But he cannot seem to shed a cloyingly earnest tone when he depicts himself and his feelings of helplessness. One senses he takes himself way too seriously to play the clown. Self-deprecating humor doesn’t seem to be his style.

One could forgive David B. everything--the self-important tone, the failure to create any significant narrative tension, the self-pitying nature of most of the material--if he had just given the reader some powerful imagery. His style here is somewhat different than in Epileptic. The panels are larger relative to the page, which makes the images bolder, and he makes elegant use of the shades of blue he uses as a second color. The book looks very sharp. But the secret to making dream imagery compelling is to give it a sense of tactility or sensuality. Salvador Dalí’s dynamic photorealism achieves this in his paintings, and the effect is not beyond the reach of cartoon styles. Chester Brown’s art in Ed the Happy Clown made one viscerally feel the breaking and piercing of the characters’ bodies. That imagery is nearly impossible to shake off, even years after one has seen it. But David B.’s sleek graphics are almost instantly forgettable. They are there to be looked at, not felt. Some of what he shows should be terrifying, such as the image of a naked man with his wife’s decapitated hands and feet tied to his limbs. One is almost afraid to contemplate what Dalí or Brown would have done with such an image. But with David B., it carries no impact. One’s eye glides over it on the way to the next panel, which promises to be just as cold and affectless.

Nocturnal Conspiracies carries a certain irony. The 1990s almost turned the word “autobiography” into an obscenity for English-language readers of alternative comics. It was the result of one autobiographical piece after another showing its author to have an uninteresting, often pathetic life that he or she was too self-important to have any perspective on. In the 2000s, works like Epileptic helped reinvigorate the genre. The best work of the past decade has often been an autobiography of some sort. In Nocturnal Conspiracies, David B. gives the reader a memoir of his unconscious, and he shows he can be just as dull, narcissistic, and self-pitying as the cartoonists who once gave the autobiography genre a bad name. The man who did as much as anyone to lead comics memoir out of the aesthetic wilderness has now pointed the way to a new wasteland.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Saint Augustine and the Love Poetry of John Donne

This essay was written in late 2003 for Anthony Low's New York University graduate seminar on 17th-century British poetry.

The pervasive influence of Saint Augustine on John Donne is all but beyond dispute. The prevailing view of the great theologian's impact on Donne's work is epitomized by Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke's remark that "Donne holds him [Augustine] highest in esteem among all church fathers, and he quotes him most frequently of all" (86). Witherspoon's comment was, of course, made in specific reference to Donne's sermons, which were composed during his tenure as Dean of St. Paul's in the latter period of his life. However, Donne's regard for Augustine's work is apparent throughout all his writings. Its influence can even be found in the love poetry of his early career, a connection that appears completely unexplored by scholars, contemporary or otherwise. Although surprising, given the fair amount of attention paid to Augustine's influence on the sermons, one can make some reasonable speculations on the reason why: the early Donne had very different views than the later Donne. He characterized his early work as "lascivious discourse," and largely came to regard it as an instrument of the devil (Carey 11). It also the very place where one would think him most at odds with the Church father's thought. This paper will establish Donne's likely familiarity with Augustine's writing in his younger days, It will present the examples of Augustine's writing that appear to have had the most resonance for Donne. It will also examine eight of the early poems in terms of Augustine's thought.

One cannot say with absolute certainty if the younger Donne was familiar with Augustine's writings, but it appears a safe assumption. John Carey describes Donne as bookish and well read as a young man (26), remarking that he "was one of the few Englishmen of his day to know Dante in the original" (18). Carey has also noted Donne's familiarity with such writers as François Rabelais and Pietro Aretino (18-19). Additionally, Carey writes that the youthful Donne, caught up in the conflicts of faith that revolved around his (more or less coerced) renunciation of Catholicism, became extremely familiar with theological writing in general (26). In the time leading up to his apostasy, Donne, in his own words, "survayed and digested the whole body of Divinity, controverted between ours [the Church of England] and the Romane church" (Carey 26). As R. C. Bald notes, "he was doubtless well read in the literature of penitence and conversion from the Confessions of St. Augustine down to his own time" (Bald 235).

Where Donne's love poetry and Augustine's thought seem most at odds is obviously in their attitudes towards sex. Augustine, in the Confessions, characterizes the promiscuity of his youth as "the abominable things I did in those days, the sins of the flesh which defiled my soul" (Conf. II: 1). Avidity for sex is denounced as "desire for a surfeit of hell's pleasures" (II: 1). In the City of God, Augustine argues that while sex is appropriate in marriage, it is only appropriate insofar as it allows humanity to fulfill its procreative function. But the desire for sex remains lust. As such, it is still an appetite, the embrace of which constitutes a fall away from God's presence (CoG XIV: 13). He notes that "[t]he sexual act itself, which is performed with such lust, seeks privacy" (XIV: 13). Paraphrasing the Roman poet Lucan, he writes that "all right actions desire to be set in the full daylight" (XIV: 18). But, because of the sense of shame that accompanies lust, and, with it, the turning away from God, "[a] man would be less put out by a crowd of spectators watching him visiting his anger unjustly upon another man than by one person observing him when he is having lawful intercourse with his wife" (XIV: 20).

Donne's love poetry, in contrast, appears to embrace carnality. "The Flea" implicitly asks its reader to admire the speaker's wit in his effort to seduce an unmarried woman. "Elegy XIX. To His Mistress Going to Bed" is an unabashed rendering of the speaker's lust for the woman he is about to have sex with. And "The Good Morrow" depicts sex as a means to a spiritually transcendent state of unity, a view that would directly appear to contradict Augustine's perception of sex as an acquiescing to appetite that constitutes a spiritual falling away.

But just because the love poetry does not conform to Augustine's views of appropriate behavior or sexual morality does not mean it does not conform to Augustine's thought. Actually, one can well imagine a devout Augustinian using these poems and others collected in the Songs and Sonnets as illustrations for the Church father's views. As a theologian, Augustine was far more a philosopher than a moralist. This is not to suggest that he did not hold firm views on right and wrong, but that his central concern was in relating right and wrong--specifically the Christian view of right and wrong--to human experience. One can see this, for example, in his aforementioned view that sex within marriage retains a sinful aspect. With Donne's love poetry, one can see Augustine's views on the sinful and ignorant nature of young people reflected in and even shaping the material. Also present is his view that the fulfillment one finds in relationships with friends and families is a reflection of--and even practice for--the higher fulfillment one finds in communion with God. And perhaps most importantly, his conviction that for "the individual man [...] the base condition comes first, and we have to start with that; but we are not bound to stop at that, and later comes the noble state towards which we may make progress [...]" (CoG XV: 1) informs the protagonist of "The Good-Morrow" (text here), perhaps Donne's most significant expansion of Augustinian thought. Donne was not content to just follow. He demonstrates a willingness to expand upon Augustine's views of human communion, as well as the Church father's notions of sin.

Augustine considers a human being to be living in sin from the moment he or she is born. He notes that a baby, at first, knows nothing but appetite and other physical sensations (Conf. I: 6). As the child grows older, it learns to communicate its wants and needs, first by crying and other sounds and movements, and then through language (Conf. I: 8). As it grows more sophisticated, it resorts to deceit and other artful uses of language in order to satisfy its desire and greed (Conf. I: 19). In adolescence, the appetites one knows in childhood--those for food, sleep, and comfort--are joined by sexual desire (Conf. II: 1). Throughout it all, Augustine implies, the child lives in complete ignorance of its sinful state. One can see these tendencies combining in the speaker of "The Flea"(text here), perhaps the most callow of Donne's protagonists. His references to the unmarried state of both himself and the girl to whom he speaks, as well as the inference that both are still under the dominion of their parents (11-15), mark him as an adolescent. He is inflamed with desire for the girl, but, finding an earlier advance rebuffed (2), he resorts to sophistry (represented by the body of the poem) in an effort to win her over. And from start to finish, he lives in sin while completely oblivious to his state; words such as "sin," "shame," and "maidenhead" carry no resonance for him (5-6), and terms like "kill," "self-murder," and "sacrilege" have no meaning beyond the opportunity their usage provides for manipulation (16-18).

It can be argued that this is a banal analogy, and that the likening of the protagonist of "The Flea" to Augustine's characterization of youth assumes the uniqueness of Augustine's perspective to a degree that it perhaps does not deserve. What gives "The Flea" an Augustinian character is that the protagonist, even in his lust, sees sex with the girl as a form of communion, and that he is capable of seeing that communion as existing outside the realm of not only bodily desire, but that of the body's existence as well. In the Confessions, Augustine describes unbridled adolescent lust as reflective of an anxious need to love and be loved, and, furthermore, reflective of the need to love and be loved by God, a communion that exists outside the physical plane (III: 1). Furthermore, he implicitly identifies the increasing development of the intellect as the means through which spiritual maturation occurs, given that the hunger for truth that spurs the development is the hunger for God (III: 6). The protagonist of "The Flea," as anxious as he is to take the girl to bed, is still able to recognize sex as a form of communion. He sees the act as being more than just a means of satisfying carnal desire. This recognition allows him to conceive a metaphor for communion, as gauche and revolting as it is, in the mixing of his and the girl's blood in the body of the flea. This particular metaphor also shows that he is, at the very least, able to conceive of a communion that exists outside the realm of human bodily experience. This spark of insight, though morally inchoate, is the first step in developing the ability necessary for the building of a higher unity with God.

In "Elegy XIX. To His Mistress Going to Bed"(text here), one finds a speaker who is likely somewhat older than the one in "The Flea," if not especially more mature. But his consciousness is a bit more developed in Augustinian terms than his younger counterpart. The protagonist of "The Flea" is only able to project his desire for unity outside of an immediately bodily context. The protagonist of "To His Mistress" is able to distinguish between higher and lower forms of both desire and beauty. He disparages those who value material possessions over people (35-38), for jewels offer those that covet them no possible form of communion and, as such, no path to unity with God. As Augustine writes, "material things, which have no soul, could not be true objects for [...] love" (Conf. III: 1). The speaker also recognizes, though erratically, that the beauties of Heaven are on a higher level than the beauties of Earth. He compliments his mistress by likening her beauty to the heavenly angels that once greeted mankind (19-20). His recognition of what constitutes higher and lower beauty, as indicated above, is not entirely consistent: he likens her girdle to the higher beauty of "heaven's zone glistening" (5), but then declares her breastplate superior to it in glory, although he doesn't present the breastplate as being anything more than beautiful within itself (6-7). The beauty of the mistress' body heightens his awareness of the outside world in that it prompts his memories of "flowery meads" (14), and his fantasies of the newly discovered and allegedly Edenic America (27). He also, in contrast to his counterpart in "The Flea," does not merely hunger for the pleasures of sex, he knows them firsthand. And although he has, as such, fallen into the morass of physical lust, he does have greater knowledge of communion with another, and, as indicated above, he is closer to knowledge, if not purity, to the higher communion of God's companionship.

Donne renders a detailed portrait of the communion of lovers in "The Good Morrow." The poem begins with the speaker's recognition that he and his lover have, through their love, entered into a state of consciousness that they had not previously known (1-2). Their life before was appetite; the speaker makes specific reference to suckling and sleeping (2-4), appetitive behavior that one immediately associates with childhood. Augustine specifically identifies these activities as comprising the world of appetite and sensation that, as noted above, comprise for him the world of sin into which a child is born (Conf. I: 6). The three lines that follow are startling:

[...] but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee. (5-7)

As noted above, Augustine regards sexual desire in the young as yet another manifestation of blind appetite. He also considers their choice of sexual partners to be arbitrary and unprincipled (Conf. II: 2). Donne acknowledges this, but he also asserts the possibility of transcendence in sexual love. The speaker states that his previous lovers were simply "fancies," a characterization, one infers, that denotes a lower order of pleasure than that offered by his current partner. She is a more desirable lover and, by extension, represents a more fulfilling love. Their love leads them to welcome the day and the experience of living it promises ("And now good morrow to their waking souls" [8]), and they welcome it secure in their love and in harmony with both the general and particular of the world around them (9-14). The two find an emotional and spiritual unity in one another (15-18), and, in that unity, locate a strength that shores up any sense of fatigue or fear of death (19-21). Romantic love, in keeping with Augustine's goal for mankind's spiritual education, has put the couple on the path of nobility.

Augustine accounts for the joy the lovers find in one another, even though the disgust he feels towards sexual relations is likely what prevents him from addressing it directly. Emotional communion with another is emotional communion with another, whether they are friends, lovers, or family. The pleasures of these relationships are those that come from a sense of unity with others. Writing specifically about friends, Augustine remarks that "[t]hey can kindle a blaze to melt our hearts and weld them into one" (Conf. IV: 8). He also notes that such relationships serve to bring out generosity and a degree of selflessness in people: "This is what we cherish in friendship, and we cherish it so dearly that in conscience we feel guilty if we do not return love for love, asking no more of our friends than these expressions of goodwill" (Conf. IV: 9). At the heart of this unity is that, in true friendship, friends love each other in God (IV: 9). Donne, in a poem such as "The Good Morrow," expands Augustine's view of relationships to what the Church father had most conspicuously neglected: the higher friendship and the higher communion that comes from the love between sexual partners; romantic love can exist in communion with God as well.

Augustine's distrust of romantic love appears to be related to the incontinent behavior that he felt inevitably accompanied it. In the Confessions, he tells of the time in which he, as a young man, fell in love. He describes the relationship as "a snare of my own choosing" (III: 1). He writes that its bliss was a false bliss, and one that led to all kinds of disgraceful behavior: "In the midst of joy I was caught up in the coils of trouble, for I was lashed with the cruel, fiery rods of jealousy and suspicion, fear, anger, and quarrels" (III: 1). The Donne of the love poetry, although he would have certainly taken exception to Augustine's refusal to consider romantic love as a source for man's spiritual enhancement, was also capable of acknowledging Augustine's position. In, for example, "The Indifferent," the speaker notes his indiscriminateness in love, describing the various and often distasteful women with whom he could have ended up (1-9). In the second stanza, he more conspicuously speaks to the woman in his life, disgustedly arguing with her about her jealousy. Their relationship has become a well for suspicion and anger.

In "The Sun Rising" (text here), Donne also deals with forms of incontinence that Augustine never touches on, particularly the misplaced pride into which one could see the lovers of "The Good Morrow" descending. The poem begins by seeming to address Augustine's contention that sex, because of lust, is inherently sinful because it shuns the scrutiny of both daylight and witnesses. The poem's speaker objects to the sun's presence, complaining of its intrusion into his and his lover's space. His objection initially appears to be the perceived invasion of their privacy and imposition on their time (1-5). Donne, however, is not actually giving support to Augustine's view; subsequent lines suggest that the objections are a reflection of laziness: the speaker angrily tells the sun to bother others who either have been or may be tardy in meeting their morning responsibilities (5-8). The contrast between these lovers and those in "The Good Morrow" is stark: the lovers in that poem welcome the day's arrival; the lovers here avoid it. However, the speaker in "The Sun Rising" then appears to shift into the sort of blissful perspective of his counterpart in "The Good Morrow," indicating that love has bestowed a transcendence from earthly existence ("Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime" [9]), but the statement, as the next line makes clear, is only arrogance dressing itself up as transcendence, The reference to "the rags of time" (10) is an insult to a fact of earthly existence that does not warrant denigration. The lines are of a piece with those that came before; the stanza is the voice of sloth lashing out at those that confront it with the truth about itself, a truth that it unwillingly acknowledges.

In the next stanza, the speaker goes on to belittle the sun, first asserting that, with regard to its beams, "I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink" (13), and then claiming that his lover's eyes could blind the sun's own (15). He then taunts the sun with the possibility of its ignorance (17-19), and proceeds to claim that all earthly power lies with him and his lover in the bed (19-23). He then belittles the sun, calling it decrepit ("Thine age asks ease" [27]), and follows it with a statement of utmost arrogance, a declaration that their room defines the world: "[...] since thy duties be/To warm the world, that's done in warming us" (27-28). He and his lover are the personification of sloth, and the world is centered around them ("This bed thy center is, thy walls, thy sphere" [30]). Sloth is more than Augustine's view of it as pos[ing] as the love of peace" (Conf. II: 6); Donne renders it equivalent to Augustine's notion of original evil: man turns away from God and looks to himself instead, seeing himself as the center of all things (CoG XIV: 13).

"Women's Constancy"(text here) finds Donne very much in accord with Augustine's view of the impermanence of human relationships, the deceptiveness of lust, and the destructiveness of our inability to recognize them as such. The poem begins with its speaker in despair:

Now thou hast loved me one whole day,
Tomorrow when thou leav'st, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou then antedate some new made vow?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons as we were? (1-5)

The speaker fears that his new-found lover will prove to be the seventeenth-century equivalent of a one-night stand. One infers she has said things that indicate the contrary, but the speaker does not trust her veracity. It's an insecurity that is likely borne of experience. One tends to trust until that trust is broken. The speaker is quite possibly an example of Augustine's autobiographical paradigm of the lonely, wayward youth:

I had not yet fallen in love, but I was in love with the idea of it, and this feeling that something was missing made me despise myself for not being more anxious to satisfy the need. I began to look around for some object for my love, since I badly wanted to love something. I had no liking for the safe path without pitfalls, for although my real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul, I was not aware of this hunger. [...] So I muddied the stream of friendship with the filth of lewdness and clouded its clear waters with hell's black river of lust. (Conf. III: 1)

If one allows for this as a description of Donne's speaker, one sees that, in his lonely and desperate need for love, he has chosen a path he supposes--and desire convinces him--is the quickest and easiest way to reach his goal. But the love defined by sex that comes easy, also goes easy; it makes no commitment and breaks none. Augustine's description of his own travails again provides a likely explanation of the speaker's pain:

I lived in misery, like every man whose soul is tethered by the love of things that cannot last and then is agonized to lose them. Only then does he realize the sorry state he is in, and was in even before his loss. In such a state was I at that time, as I wept bitter tears and found my only consolation in their very bitterness. (Conf. IV: 6)

The bitterness fed by the loss of impermanent things, Augustine declares, continually perpetuates itself. Donne's speaker continually loves women who almost immediately leave him; his resignation comes to define him so completely that he accuses the woman of abandonment before she's even announced her intention to leave. The speaker's tragedy is that he has led himself to believe that he cannot trust any commitment. Donne shows him in such a state of despair that he suspects even oaths made in the name of God are fickle (6-7). Even marriage vows are worthless (8), and falseness reigns (11-13). The speaker spirals ever further into his own hell; by the end of the poem he despairs of his own ability to keep his integrity from changing places with deceit (14-17). His inability to maintain faith in the notion of any sort of permanence attests to his distance from what is, in the Augustinian view, the only thing of permanence: the love of God. Donne has presented a protagonist who has sown the wind of "look[ing] for joy elsewhere [than God]" (Conf. X: 22), and is reaping the whirlwind of emptiness.

Still, the speaker of "Woman's Constancy" has not fallen as far as he might; the hell he knows is nothing compared to the one endured by the speaker of "Song (Go, and Catch a Falling Star)." The speaker is again one who feels as if no woman can be relied on. Donne has him say:

If thou findst one [a woman true, and fair], let me know.
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two or three. (22-27)

The speaker feels no good can come of an effort to serve his earthly wants, most pointedly in his belief that a true woman would suddenly become untrue on the cusp of meeting him. In keeping with Augustine's paradigm of frustration in the quest for earthly satisfaction, the speaker finds consolation for his bitterness in his bitterness; he constantly strives to reinforce his disappointment. One cannot "catch a falling star" (1), impregnate a mandrake root (2), or show another where past years are stored (3). The speaker's need to perpetuate his bitterness is so strong that he appears to be daring God to subvert the natural order; he is almost calling for God to treat His works with contempt. This resentment and the alienation that accompanies it is what will keep him turned from God for as long as he acts in a way that maintains the cycle. The speaker is constantly pressing whoever hears to say, "I can't." God, by definition, is omnipotent; by His very nature, he will never say, "I can't." But nothing in Donne's depiction indicates that the speaker will set aside his damning habits and say, "I can" ("I can accept your salvation; I can have faith") to God. The tragedy of the poem's protagonist is that his defeatism will always keep him from salvation and the happiness of God's embrace.

"Break of Day" (text here), takes a different tack towards Augustine's thought: to a certain extent, the poem goes deliberately counter to it. The poem's setting is the bed shared by what appears to be a husband and wife. (In a conspicuous break with Donne's other love poetry, the wife is the poem's speaker.) The wife begins with an implicit rebuke of Augustine's daylight test for the sinfulness of sex, remarking, "'Tis true, 'tis day; what though it be?" (1). Her husband appears to go along with the Church father's view, but her response is to argue with him, saying:

Why should we rise because 'tis light?
Did we lie down because 'twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together. (4-6)

In the second stanza, the wife progresses from rebuke to outright defiance, saying that she doesn't care if the sun is a witness. All it could say was that she, out of love, was inseparable from her husband's side (10-12). Her view of love also runs counter to Augustine, who considers the greatest love to be for God; her greatest love is for her husband. She complains that love has time for the idle ('the poor, the foul, the false" [15]), but none for her and her husband because he has to work (16-18). It's a mild rebuke of God, the one who is supposed to be above rebuke, for giving his blessing to the less deserving instead of allowing her and her husband to share the blessing between them. The couple love each other, but they don't love each other in God, which Augustine would consider to be the only appropriate form of love. All in all, the poem is a sharp little bit of subversion.

Donne did not show sympathy (or, as is the case with "Break of Day," an anti-sympathy) with Augustine's thought in everything he produced. One poem in particular, "Elegy I. Jealousy" (text here), which is an underhanded, humorous treatment of adultery, seems completely divorced in this sense from Augustine's work. There is no effort to render even a glimmer of a transcendent attitude or the tragedy of sin. But it is the exception, not the rule. Donne, in his early poems, depicts Augustine's thought in large ways and small. From his emphasis on the aspects of sin that point the way to redemption in "The Flea" and "Elegy XIX. To His Mistress Going to Bed," to his expansion and elaboration on Augustinian doctrine in "The Good Morrow" and "The Sun Rises," to his rendering of the nightmare of the sinful state in "The Indifferent," "Woman's Constancy," and "Song (Go, and Catch a Falling Star)," to the whimsical subversion of "Break of Day," the Church father's views guide and shape even the most unlikely area of Donne's work. One hope the connections illustrated herein offers a vein with a large amount of ore to mine.

Works Cited

Augustine, Saint. City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin, 1984.

Augustine, Saint. Confessions. Trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin. London: Penguin, 1961

Bald, R. C. John Donne: A Life. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

Donne, John. John Donne's Poetry. 2nd ed. Ed. Arthur L. Clements. New York: Norton, 1992.

Witherspoon, Alexander M. and Frank J. Warnke. Seventeenth-Century Poetry and Prose. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt, 1963.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Comics Review: Other Lives, Peter Bagge

This review was originally published on The Comics Journal's website on April 10, 2010.

Peter Bagge has always had a knack for depicting compulsive and monomaniacal personalities. He never fails to find new variations of the type, and he never seems to repeat himself. One would be hard-pressed to find a Bagge character that isn’t a vivid, unique personality. Best of all, he knows how to play them off each other for maximum impact. There isn’t a better creator of situation comedy in comics (or elsewhere) today.

The four principals of Other Lives are worthy Bagge creations. The first introduced is Javy, a computer-programming whiz and conspiracy theorist, who may or may not be a government agent. He’s followed by Vader, a self-pitying journalist who’s completely hung up over his past. There’s also Vader’s fiancée Ivy, who’s fixated on two things: their wedding and the virtual-fantasy community website Second World. Her companion on the site is Vader’s friend Woodrow, an insurance adjuster who can’t own up to either his gambling addiction or his divorce.

Several scenes are gems. Javy and Vader’s conversations are witty roller-coaster rides, with Vader’s skepticism butting up against every intricacy of Javy’s seeming delusions. Ivy’s aggravation with Vader’s self-loathing is also well handled. Bagge makes the scenes funny while keeping both characters sympathetic, and he never once condescends to them. The most enjoyable scenes are those with Ivy and Woodrow’s avatars on the virtual-fantasy site. Ivy sees the site as an opportunity to cut loose, and the scenes of her committing virtual mayhem against the other site denizens are a delight. Her relationship with Woodrow is also wryly funny. The two aren’t on the same wavelength at all. One can’t help but chuckle at how they talk past each other in nearly every scene.

Parts of the book don’t work. Bagge’s explicit theme is that the Internet has led to people assuming multiple identities within their lives, but he doesn’t develop it into any greater insight or irony. As such, it always takes a back seat to the character comedy. And the book’s climactic scene feels completely wrong. One expects a comic crescendo as the conflicts between the principals boil over. But there’s nothing funny about it when it comes. Bagge gives us a scene of horrible, wasteful violence that ends with two of the characters dead. One wonders what he was thinking. The shift into violent melodrama is not, to put it mildly, consistent with the rest of the book’s tone. Worse, Bagge doesn’t have the kind of chops necessary to pull it off. There’s no sense of dread as the climax approaches, which denies it any cathartic power. Bagge’s highly stylized art works against the scene as well. The drawings are too abstract to give the violence weight. One wonders if it’s going to turn out to be a put-on, and when it doesn’t it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

But Bagge keeps his wits about him until then. He’s been one of the funniest cartoonists around for over two decades now, and Other Lives is a fine example of his work.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Comics Review: The Photographer, Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercier

This review was originally published on The Comics Journal's website on March 1, 2010.

Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefèvre’s The Photographer is an outstanding book in many respects. Based on Lefèvre’s experiences as a photographer accompanying a Doctors Without Borders mission in Afghanistan in 1986, it is a fine memoir that doubles as a compelling adventure story. It also offers a richly detailed portrait of life in Afghanistan, a country most have heard a great deal about but don’t have much knowledge of. And finally, it breaks new aesthetic ground as a memoir, as comics, and as photojournalism. The book doesn’t quite reach the brass ring of being a great work, but it is an extraordinarily ambitious and accomplished effort. Comics rarely come much better.

The book begins in July of 1986 with Lefèvre, a 29-year-old French photojournalist, flying from Paris to the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar. He goes there to join a Doctors Without Borders team that is preparing a mission into Afghanistan, and his purpose is to document their efforts. It is a perilous assignment. The journey into the country involves crossing—on foot—several hundred kilometers of terrain, much of it climbing through mountain passes at high altitudes. The natives’ tolerance for foreigners varies, and matters are complicated even further by the civil war between the nation’s Soviet-backed communist government and the anti-Soviet mujahideen spread across the countryside. Danger is everywhere--it can come from the harsh weather and grueling landscape, or from bandits, bullets, or bombs.

Lefèvre is depicted as largely oblivious to the risks. He mainly seems interested in having a good time, and he greatly enjoys himself in Peshawar. However, once the mission gets underway, he doesn’t seem to fully register how dangerous the journey into Afghanistan is. He just takes it for granted that, while the trip may be physically arduous, there’s no real threat to his safety. His lack of concern is shocking. A member of the team’s native escort gets separated from them at one point, even though he eventually finds his way back to the caravan. It’s clear from his expression--the book shows Lefèvre’s photographs of him--that the experience of being lost in the Afghan countryside was absolutely terrifying. Beyond taking his pictures, though, Lefèvre is shown as being largely indifferent to the man. There’s not even any anxiety over the possibility of what happened to the fellow happening to him. He is far more interested in relating how he came to enjoy the special tea the man is brought to help recover.

The scene that includes the photographs of the lost man is where the book’s format comes together for the reader. Lefèvre and cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert had more on their mind when creating The Photographer than simply creating a graphic-novel account of Lefèvre’s experiences. They were also looking to provide an effective narrative showcase for Lefèvre’s pictures. As the book demonstrates, comics provides a better context in which to present the photographs than perhaps any other medium. Interspersing the photographs throughout a prose memoir wouldn’t work half as well. Photography and passages of writing engage the brain in different ways, and they’re too dissimilar to work in conjunction with one another. A reader can look at one or the other, but they can’t be taken in simultaneously. Comics panels are just close enough to photographs for the reader to switch back and forth between the two without it being too jarring. Lefèvre’s story is richer for having the photographs integrated with it in this way, and the photos are all the more powerful for having the story behind them presented so accessibly.

The only complaint one has with the photographs is that there are far too many of them. Guibert and the book’s designer/colorist, Frédéric Lemercier, don’t stop at including individual photographs at key points of the narrative. There are whole sequences that are nothing but photographs, and they disrupt the story’s rhythms. One can justify it in some instances, such as the 2½-page scene in which a little Afghan girl has a burn on her hand treated by one of the mission’s doctors. The book is as much the story of this Doctors Without Borders mission as it is of Lefèvre’s experiences, and this is the work that they do. But some of the extended photographic sequences are of extraneous material, such as the page in which Lefèvre watches an Afghan boy plow a small field with a pair of cattle. Aesthetically, the worst moments are when Guibert and Lemercier present whole sequences from Lefèvre’s proof sheets, such as the scene in which the doctors treat a boy who has had part of his face torn off in an artillery blast. A page made up of 48 separate photographs thuds hard against the eye; one has to force oneself to make one’s way through the sequence.

One of the most powerful scenes is notable for not using photographs at all. It appears during the book’s middle section, in which Lefèvre follows members of the Doctors Without Borders team around as they tend to the sick and injured in the Afghan countryside. After treating a number of people wounded during the bombing of their village, one of the doctors is summoned to a man’s house to examine his daughter, and Lefèvre tags along. The two discover that the little girl is permanently paralyzed, crippled by a fragment of shrapnel no bigger than a grain of rice. Lefèvre, emotionally drained by the sight of the casualties he has been photographing all day, cannot bring himself to take any pictures; he just retreats to a corner of the room and starts crying. He is there to be an impassive observer, but he has reached a point where he cannot keep his emotional distance anymore; he leaves the camera down. The kicker comes after he leaves the house. He encounters another of the doctors, who just videotaped the death of a young boy who was injured in the attack. She did so at the request of his mother, who told her to do so because “people have to know.” Lefèvre realizes that he is not there to indulge himself. He is there to bring the truth of what is happening to the outside world. Photographing these people in their misery is the only way he can bring them justice. Reinvigorated, he rushes back and photographs the girl as she is being carried out of the house. Irony builds upon irony to create an epiphany, and the protagonist discovers his purpose.

When the photographs work with the narrative, they can be devastatingly effective. This is never more the case than in the book’s final third, in which Lefèvre makes his way back to Pakistan. The nonchalance on display on the journey into Afghanistan comes back to bite Lefèvre, and hard. He is arrogant enough to think that he can safely make his way back to Peshawar independently of the Doctors Without Borders team, and when it is announced that they are going to delay their return by a week, he decides to make the trip on his own. He is woefully unprepared for the journey--he can’t even properly load his supply horse--and he is beset upon by mishap after mishap. In his most despairing moment, he finds himself trapped in a mountain pass during a blizzard. He thinks back on the man who got lost during the trip into Afghanistan, and he understands the man’s terror. Thinking he is about to die, he takes a few last pictures. Three photos, printed across two pages, are of his broken-down supply horse, a trope for his ignorance and failure. This is followed by a double-page shot of the desolate though beautiful Afghan landscape, a land that has finally taught Lefèvre to fear and respect it.

Guibert and Lemercier’s visual inventiveness is on dazzling display in the sequence that frames these photographs. In the panels featuring Lefèvre as makes his way up the pass, Lemercier switches to an almost entirely neutral palette, which makes Lefèvre and his horse look as if they are about to be absorbed into the landscape. As the two continue, the color in the panels becomes increasingly monochromatic, until the two figures are finally silhouettes in a field of greenish gray. Splotches of snow, colored with the same greenish gray, break up the black of the figures, making them look as if they are about to disintegrate. After the photographic pages, the silhouette figures resume, and the panels gradually fade to black as Lefèvre falls asleep. When he is woken up and saved by another caravan, the colors return to their normal palette. The images and coloring brilliantly complement the drama of the sequence as its intensity builds and ebbs.

Moments like these feature great artistry, and coupled with the book having a great subject, many may be tempted to call The Photographer a great work. It isn’t. The supporting characters aren’t distinctive personalities, so it needs Lefèvre to be a great character, and he isn’t self-aware enough to highlight the counterpoints needed for that kind of dynamism. The book is at its most compelling when his contradictions and conflicts take center stage, but these appear only intermittently. They aren’t presented and developed throughout the book. There are also an abundance of narrative red herrings. For example, a good deal of attention is paid to Lefèvre learning to properly speak greetings in Dari (the region’s language), but there is no pay-off later in the book. And when one considers this in addition to the erratic and often frustrating use of Lefèvre’s photographs, one recognizes that as impressive as The Photographer is, it could have been a great deal more.

But what it is remains a great deal. Lefèvre’s account of his experience makes for an engaging story. It also provides a rich, detailed, firsthand view of one of the most intriguing and mysterious countries on the planet. And most auspiciously, it demonstrates the narrative viability of combining photographs with comics. This especially opens doors for photojournalists looking to tell stories with their work; they may no longer have to rely on the awkward combination of photographs and prose featured in most photography collections. A cartoonist can provide a more comfortable and immediate narrative context for their work, and make their pictures richer in the process. The Photographer may be the first work in the comics-meets-photojournalism genre; one doubts it will be the last.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Father & Son, Master & Bondsman: The Hegelian Dynamic of Self-Realization in Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain

The essay below is a revised draft of the paper submitted to Professor Elizabeth McHenry for her African-American Literature graduate seminar at New York University in late 2003.

The major controversy among critics of James Baldwin’s 1953 autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is how to reconcile the book’s intensely felt affirmation of religious faith with the author’s personal rejection of that faith and his expressed contempt for the church, specifically the African-American fundamentalist church he both grew up in and depicts in the novel. The book strikes many readers as a modern-day version of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a spiritual journey that culminates in the realization of faith. However, Baldwin, in his 1962 non-fiction work, The Fire Next Time, condemned the Christian faith as “based on the principles of Blindness, Loneliness and Terror, the first principle necessary and actively cultivated in order to deny the two other” (47). Of the church itself, he writes:

There was no love in the church. It was a mask of hatred and self-despair. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that meant everybody. But it applied only to those who believed as we did and it did not apply to white people at all. (57-58)

Statements such as these have often guided critics to reject the possibility of the novel presenting a favorable view of religious faith. They hold, implicitly and explicitly, that Baldwin could not have rendered faith’s affirmation with such intensity if it no longer held any resonance for him; they argue, essentially, that he is rendering another subject altogether. Wallace Graves writes that the book’s climax, in which John Grimes, Baldwin’s autobiographical protagonist, undergoes a religious conversion, presents a conversion that is not religious at all. Rather, it “stand[s] for John’s (Baldwin’s) feeling of moral energy as an artist […] John emerges into a golden dawn symbolizing the emergence of the artist from his chrysalis” (219). David E. Foster reads the moment as an affirmation of African-American masculinity within John, writing that the character “finds grace not in rejecting blackness but in seeking it the only way it is available to him—as a black man” (55). Maria K. Mootry maintains that the book’s finale depicts John’s acceptance of his homosexuality; the so-called conversion “liberates him from “closet” feelings and brings into the light his homoerotic needs” (52). Other critics, such as James R. Giles, Michael F. Lynch, and Nagueyalti Warren, reject the view that the climactic conversion depicts any kind of affirmation whatsoever.

Other critics, though, accept John’s conversion as a personal affirmation and realization of faith. Shirley S. Allen reads the novel as a depiction of the character’s rite of passage into a mature faith and adulthood, writing, “[t]he love of God becomes, in the end, the cloak of manhood, which is golden like the cross. After seeing the light, John stands up as an adult” (198). Rolf Lunden specifically argues that the reading of the novel as a contemporary Pilgrim’s Progress is a valid one; the conversion depicted was authentic relative to John’s (and, by extension, Baldwin’s) circumstances at the point in his life in question (115). One infers, particularly from Lunden’s reading, that the novel presents only the first part of the character’s journey towards self-realization; one sees John’s attainment of an independent self, but he has yet to attain the final self that is Baldwin.

The classic paradigm of the dynamic of self-realization, posited by G.W.F. Hegel in The Phenomenonology of Mind, functions in two parts. According to Hegel, “an individual makes its appearance in antithesis to [another] individual” (231). In terms of the Hegelian dialectic, one individual is the thesis, while the other that exists in the relationship is the antithesis. The individual constituting the thesis is the Master, described by Hegel as “the consciousness that exists for itself” (234). The individual embodying the antithesis, the Bondsman, is, as its name indicates, the subordinate party in the relationship. The relationship gradually progresses to a moment of culmination or synthesis. In that moment, the Bondsman, “being a consciousness repressed within itself, […] will enter into itself, and change round into real and true independence” (237). It enters into this independence, the first stage of self-realization, through the recognition of itself in the Master. In the Bondsman’s moment of independence, the Master (thesis) merges with the Bondsman (antithesis) to create the independent Bondsman (synthesis). According to Hegel, the Bondsman “must set itself to sublate the other independent being, in order thereby to become certain of itself as true being” (229). In other words, it must negate or eliminate the Master (or, more specifically, its sense of the Master’s power over itself), but preserve an aspect of the Master in its own consciousness as part of a synthesis. The Bondsman, in essence, redefines the Master in its own terms and merges this redefinition with its sense of its own self. Having achieved independence, it is now ready to begin the second stage of self-realization. At this moment, according to Hegel, “it thereupon proceeds to sublate its own self, for this other is itself […] giv[ing] otherness back again to the other self-consciousness [the Master], for it was aware of being in the other, it cancels this its own being in the other and thus lets the other again go free” (229-230). In other words, in the final moment of self-realization, the former Bondsman recognizes the remaining vestiges of the Master within itself and purges them.

Go Tell It on the Mountain dramatizes the first stage of Hegel’s paradigm. In the novel, John Grimes is subordinate to his stepfather Gabriel, a relationship easily characterized as oppressive. Gabriel grounds his authority in religious faith, which proves to be the means through which John breaks Gabriel’s hold on his life. He makes the faith his own, his moment of independence occurring in an episode of religious conversion, the moment when he is “saved” and reborn into the Christian faith. To paraphrase Hegel, Gabriel is the Master, the individual representing the thesis. John is his antithesis, or the Bondsman. In the moment of conversion, the culmination of the two’s relationship, John negates Gabriel’s power over him by appropriating Gabriel’s faith and using it to redefine himself—to establish a new sense of identity. The synthesis creates an emotionally secure, independent-minded John, who locates his strength in the tenets of the church.

Hegel describes the Master as one who “exists only for himself” (236), his self-definition coming from the recognition of others who subordinate themselves to him (235-236). Playing this role seems particularly suited to Gabriel’s personality. He was a sexually promiscuous delinquent in his youth, but, even then, according to Baldwin, he “wanted to be master, to speak with that authority that could only come from God” (95). He sees religious faith as a means of accomplishing this goal. Baldwin writes that “he wanted power—he wanted to know himself to be the Lord’s anointed, His well-beloved, and worthy, nearly, of that snow-white dove which had been sent down from Heaven to testify that Jesus was the Son of God” (95). His using the self-declared purity of his faith to belittle others is present even in his youth. As an aspiring minister, he witnesses a group of more established ministers mock the attractiveness of Deborah, a friend of his family who has been stigmatized by rape. He uses this moment to disparage them:

Gabriel felt his blood turn cold that God’s ministers should be guilty of such abominable levity […] They felt, he knew, that among themselves a little rude laughter could do no harm; they were too deeply rooted in the faith to be made to fall by such an insignificant tap from Satan’s hammer. But he stared at their boisterous, laughing faces, and felt that they would have much to answer for on the day of judgment, for they were stumbling stones in the path of the true believer. (107-108)

Belittling others is the first stepping-stone along the path of self-aggrandizement, and Gabriel calls them on his behavior. He receives a mild rebuke for his boldness, but he feels triumphant. Baldwin writes that, in Gabriel’s eyes, “he had found them out and they were a little ashamed and confounded before his purity. And he understood suddenly the words of Christ, where it was written: “Many are called but few are chosen” (108). Triumph, however, can lead to greater triumph, and Gabriel sees a further means of glorifying himself: he will marry Deborah. His role, as he sees it, is to redeem her from the dishonor of her rape and that “their married bed would be holy, and their children would continue the line of the faithful, a royal line” (109). He has his misgivings; he worries about “what filthy conjecture, barely sleeping now, would mushroom upward […]” (109) as a result—Deborah is considered a ruined woman and he only a recently reformed reprobate—but he comes to see even that as a sign of his innate superiority. Baldwin describes him as feeling “as Christ must have felt in the temple, facing His so utterly confounded elders” (110). Gabriel sees everything as being for his own glory; he is an intensely egomaniacal man.

Masters need Bondsmen, and Gabriel, in his dealings with others, is depicted by Baldwin as always seeking to convert relationships into the Master-Bondsman paradigm. He fails with both Deborah and his mistress Esther. Deborah is eight years his senior and a friend of his mother, but when she hugs him following his marriage proposal, he patronizingly refers to her as “little girl” (113). He never succeeds in making her subordinate to him, though, and that may be why the marriage is so unfulfilling: Baldwin writes that, after the marriage, “he and Deborah never talked” (117). He also seeks to be domineering in his relationship with his mistress, Esther. She attracts him by making him feel inadequate, by treating his work as a minister dismissively. Baldwin writes, “On her tongue the very title of his calling became a mark of disrespect” (123). Gabriel reacts, in one instance, by wanting to strike her (126). He repeatedly argues with her about her unwillingness to accept God in her life but accomplishes nothing. His ultimate response to his failure is a physical one: he forces her to have sex, despite her ambivalence and protestations, in their employer’s kitchen (126-127). But, as with Deborah, he cannot maintain the upper hand in the relationship; Esther repeatedly uses her pregnancy to reassert the advantage in her dealings with him. Gabriel, in breaking off the affair, describes it as a moment of “having fallen” (127), one of failure; he resolves never to fall again. The failure is twofold: the failure to dominate another and the failure of sin. The failure to dominate does not characterize his relationships with John and John’s mother, Gabriel’s second wife, Elizabeth.

As he is wont to do, Gabriel uses religion and the aspiration to live by Christian ideals as his means of conquest. He meets Elizabeth and John at his sister Florence’s apartment. His first conversation with Elizabeth begins with a discussion of the wantonness of New York as compared with that of the South. Florence makes a passing remark that “folks sure better not do in the dark what they’re scared to look at in the light” (184). Baldwin has Gabriel reply, “That’s the Lord’s truth […] Does you really believe that?” (184). Baldwin presents this as a lure for Gabriel’s baited hook, describing Elizabeth as having “felt at that moment the intensity of the attention that Florence fixed on her, as though she were trying to shout a warning” (184). Florence has no use for his self-righteousness, musing at one point that “if Gabriel was the Lord’s anointed, she would rather die and endure Hell for all eternity than bow before His altar” (66); she recognizes Gabriel’s question as an enticement for those he would put in thrall to him. He succeeds: his self-righteous identification of himself with God and Christian ideals brings Elizabeth hope that, with him accompanying her, she can atone for her own sinful past. As Baldwin writes, “Gabriel had become her strength” (186). He captivates John as well. At that first meeting, Gabriel looks at John, then a toddler, and asks, “You reckon you going to dance for the Lord one of these days?” (183). Baldwin writes that, in response, “John looked with a child’s impenetrable gravity into the preacher’s face, as though he were turning this question over in his mind and would answer when he had thought it out” (183). He treats Gabriel with deference. It is not a deference he shows to either Elizabeth or Florence; as shown elsewhere in the episode, he behaves like a normal toddler with them, acting on his impulses.

Hegel refers to “immediate self-consciousness,” a moment when “the simple ego is absolute object” (234). It is a description that fits the general mindset of a toddler, who relates to the world in terms of impulses and appetites, seeing others as simply an object for those impulses or as a means of satisfying appetites. Hegel writes that in the immediate self-consciousness, the mind has “substantial and solid independence” (234). This state ends when a Master-Bondsman relationship is established. According to Hegel, “The dissolution of that simple unity [substantial and solid independence] is the result of the first experience; through this there is posited a pure self-consciousness, and a consciousness which is not purely for itself, but for another […]” (234). The Master is the “pure self-consciousness”; the Bondsman is the “consciousness not purely for itself”. Gabriel is the former. He puts the question to John from the standpoint of “pure self-consciousness”; he asks the question simply because he wanted to hear himself ask it. Given his self-aggrandizing nature, it is likely that he asked it in an effort to impress either Elizabeth or his sister. It is not a question asked in the spirit of interaction; Gabriel isn’t looking for John to respond. One infers from the text that John, in this scene, is less than a year old; he is incapable of understanding what the question even means. The moment is not an interaction for Gabriel, but it is one for John; Baldwin’s description of the boy’s response implies that, at that moment, John is defining himself in relation to Gabriel. The man’s attention is to be respected and returned; John would answer if he could. His consciousness is no longer concerned exclusively with himself; he shows interest in the consciousness of another. He has become the Bondsman to Gabriel’s Master.

Baldwin’s depiction of their relationship during John’s adolescence shows that John continues to define himself in Gabriel’s terms. (Gabriel is now John’s stepfather and John believes himself to be Gabriel’s natural son.) John is an adolescent, though, and adolescence means rebellion. As such, John’s tendency is define his values in opposition to the ones Gabriel professes. Gabriel extols Christian values, which include humility, modesty, and a disdain for appetite. John dreams of a world where he would be someone “[p]eople fell all over themselves to meet […] a poet, or a college president, or a movie star” (19); he dreams of grandeur. Gabriel dreams of grandeur as well, but he identifies it with God’s glory; the grandeur John hungers for is strictly secular. In John’s ideal world, he is also free to indulge in appetite and vanity: “he would eat good food, and wear fine clothes, and would go to the movies as often as he wished […] he drank expensive whiskey, and he smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes in the green package” (19). John describes his ideal world as one “where people did not live in the darkness of his father’s house, did not pray to Jesus in the darkness of his father’s church” (19). The ideal life is one in which Gabriel and his values are negated.

Hegel writes that for the Bondsman, the Master, despite his presence, is independent; the Bondsman, therefore, “cannot, with all his negating, get so far to annihilate it [the Master’s presence in his consciousness] outright and be done with it” (235). As such, John cannot truly reject Gabriel as long as Gabriel’s opinions and values are of concern in his consciousness. As long as they remain, they will reassert themselves; Gabriel will remain the Master. In the scene where John examines his face in the mirror, Baldwin makes clear that Gabriel’s views are still of paramount concern. Gabriel has belittled John by saying that he has the face of Satan; John looks for confirmation that Gabriel is right. He first manages to be both dismissive and accepting of Gabriel’s opinion; he remarks that “the hand of Satan was as yet invisible” (27). The Devil is both absent and present in his face simultaneously; it is absent in that John is unable to see it, but it is present in that it is invisible. The Devil’s presence becomes more palpable the more he looks; he wonders if the shape of his eyebrows or his hairline confirms Gabriel’s view. John then accepts Gabriel’s view without question, noting that “[i]n the eye there was a light that was not the light of Heaven, and the mouth trembled, lustful and lewd, to drink deep of the wines of Hell” (27). There is a moment in the episode when Gabriel’s views are not of John’s concern; John sees his face as “the face of a stranger” (27), and examines it objectively. Gabriel’s views, however, reassert themselves: John looks at the cleft in his chin and remembers that Gabriel said “it was the mark of the devil” (27). John works at purging Gabriel, but Gabriel always returns.

This lasts until John’s conversion, which, in the novel, functions as the process through which the Bondsman achieves independence from the Master. It begins for John when he recognizes that independence is what the conversion offers him. Delivering himself to God, becoming “saved”—these mark a moment when John, according to Baldwin, “would no longer be the son of his father, but the son of his Heavenly Father, the King […] He could speak to his father as men spoke to one another” (145). John, however, still lets his hatred of Gabriel define him; Gabriel, not God, is still the guiding presence. John muses that conversion “was not what he wanted. He did not want to love his father; he wanted to hate him, to cherish that hatred” (145). He wants Gabriel dead, but, in contemplating the prospect of this, he comes to realize that Gabriel is not the source of his sense of oppression; what he hates is the guiding presence of Gabriel in his consciousness. Gabriel’s death will not release him from that oppression. He realizes that with Gabriel’s death “it will not be finished. The everlasting father” (146). He realizes the need to negate the eternal of Gabriel with the eternal of God.

Hegel writes that negation is partially achieved through a confrontation between the Master and the Bondsman:

The relation of both self-consciousnesses is in this way so constituted that they prove themselves and each other through a life-and-death struggle. They must enter into this struggle, for they must bring their certainty of themselves, the certainty of being for themselves, to the level of objective truth, and make this a fact both in the case of the other and in their own case as well. (233)

Hegel is not positing that the Bondsman literally kill the Master on the route to self-realization. If that were the case, then fathers would traditionally die at the hands of their sons. The struggle he describes is the life-and-death struggle to maintain or eliminate the Master’s presence in the Bondsman’s consciousness. John and Gabriel look into the other’s eyes; that is the means of their confrontation. Baldwin writes that “Gabriel had never seen such a look before; Satan, at that moment, stared out of John’s eyes” (150). Gabriel sees John’s certainty of being for himself; John’s defining desire is to negate Gabriel’s presence within his consciousness. As Gabriel identifies himself with the voice of God, he would equate the desire to negate his presence with the desire to negate God’s presence. He would, therefore, view such a desire as the presence of Satan. John, in unleashing the full intensity of this desire for Gabriel to see, raises it to the level of objective truth. Gabriel, once the initial shock of the confrontation is past, begins to see John’s gaze from that standpoint. He sees in John’s eyes the gaze of every set of disapproving eyes he has ever confronted, and, in that moment, he is defeated. Baldwin writes that John’s eyes “seemed to want to stare forever into the bottom of Gabriel’s soul” (150). Gabriel recognizes John as a judging presence within his own consciousness and the tables are turned. The finality of the break comes when John turns away from Gabriel towards the altar; Baldwin describes the turning as a “movement like a curse” (150). John rejects Gabriel with finality by turning to God.

The realization of independence from Gabriel is not, however, complete. Hegel writes that the freed consciousness must see its freedom “as pure existence for itself or as absolute negation” (233). The consciousness must confront the possibility of absolute negation, of its own failure to achieve independence. After turning from Gabriel, John’s consciousness shifts into a metaphysical realm. He sees himself alone, in nothingness; Baldwin writes that he finds himself, “helpless, screaming, at the very bottom of darkness” (193). He recognizes himself as an individual, an other; all the people of importance in his life—Gabriel, Elizabeth, Florence, a young parishioner named Elisha—are seen as standing apart. He then confronts Gabriel’s presence in his consciousness for the last time; he feels Gabriel look into soul—a moment of terror—but then he looks into Gabriel’s. He sees past Gabriel’s holy pretense, saying, “I don’t care about your golden crown. I don’t care about your long white robe. I seen you under the robe, I seen you!” (199). John has been presented with the possibility of returning to playing Bondsman to Gabriel’s Master and rejects it. He then ascends to what he takes to be the presence of God. Baldwin writes, “The light and the darkness had kissed each other, and were married now, forever, in the life and the vision of John’s soul” (204). John’s independence from Gabriel has been achieved.

This is not to say that John has come into the presence of God; this is simply how he perceives the synthesis of Gabriel’s Master and his Bondsman into his new, current self. He must accomplish this, in Hegel’s terms, by sublating Gabriel’s presence within his own consciousness; he must negate Gabriel’s presence but preserve it as a partial element within his mind. He does this by purging the presence of Gabriel’s personality while embracing the ideals that Gabriel putatively represents. He becomes suffused with what he perceives as the love of God, which he extends to all he encounters. The synthesis is clear in the novel’s final moment:

And he felt his father behind him. And he felt the March wind rise, striking through his damp clothes, against his salty body. He turned to face his father—he found himself smiling, but his father did not smile.

They looked at each other a moment. His mother stood in the doorway, in the long shadows of the hall.

“I’m ready,” John said, “I’m coming. I’m on my way.” (221)

John meets Gabriel as an equal, what he realized would happen at the beginning of his conversion if he embraced what he perceives as God. He smiles at Gabriel, a sign of his embrace of Christian ideals—he forgives the one he has hated the most. Gabriel does not smile back, which signifies two things. The first is that he does not embrace Christian ideals, regardless of his posturing; he cannot find it within himself to forgive John for his perceived transgressions. The second is an acknowledgement of defeat; John has defeated Gabriel in their battle of wills. John has absolutely triumphed over Gabriel as a personality; he has defeated Gabriel entirely on Gabriel’s own terms. He goes on to walk life’s road as an independent self.

The statement, “I’m on my way”, however, is troublesome; one infers that John has not yet reached his destination. And the novel’s opening lines suggest an ultimate destination very different from the one depicted in the novel’s conclusion:

Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late. (11)

These lines, particularly the “by then it was already too late,” indicate a hostility to religion that one infers is ultimately John’s. (It corresponds to Baldwin’s hostility as well.) There is, however, no section of the novel that depicts a shift from the sense of affirmation found in the finale to the contempt for religion and the faith suggested by the opening. Hegel’s paradigm of self-realization, however, suggests what is missing. John has completed the stage of finding independence, but he has yet to complete the full act of realizing himself as an individual. According to Hegel, the final transformation will come when John has sublated the last vestiges of Gabriel present in his consciousness; self-realization will be achieved when he repudiates the tenets of the Christian faith through which he fought free of Gabriel’s presence in his consciousness.

At the novel’s conclusion, John may strike one as having traded one Master for another; he gives up Gabriel for the church. The latter is personified by Elisha, the parishioner who, in effect, becomes John’s new father. He’s a logical candidate for this role: John is described as looking up to Elisha even before his conversion. Baldwin writes:

John stared at Elisha all during the lesson, admiring the timbre of Elisha’s voice, much deeper and manlier than his own, admiring the leanness, and grace, and strength, and darkness of Elisha in his Sunday suit, wondering if he would ever be holy as Elisha was holy. (13)

Elisha is clearly a role model for John. He also functions as a father figure, a genial alternative to Gabriel. Both Elisha and Gabriel are described as admonishing John for not learning his Sunday school lesson. Baldwin includes the descriptions in the same paragraph, so a contrast seems intended. John’s inattentiveness earns him Gabriel’s “wrath” (13), which, one infers from other passages, includes beatings. However, Elisha, according to Baldwin, “would smile and reprimand him gently” (13). Elisha’s response seems much more appropriate to the circumstances; one would think him the most likely candidate to become an alternative authority figure for John. And he does assume this role, in a way, before John’s conversion. He is the one who encourages John to seek divine affirmation. During the conversion, Baldwin writes of John, “[a]s he cursed his father, as he loved Elisha” (195); the transference of John’s allegiance to Elisha becomes clear. Elisha also shepherds John through the conversion process; he was this brother-in-faith’s keeper, shouting encouragement to John throughout. In the conversion’s aftermath, he even assumes, teasingly, the role of disciplinarian that Gabriel will never again fill. Elisha can be said to personify the sublation of Gabriel achieved by John during his ascension.

According to Hegel, John must sublate the sublation of Gabriel in order to achieve self-realization; he must filter out the vestiges of Gabriel’s presence that Elisha represents. These are the attachment to the church and the tenets of Christian faith. As Baldwin’s remarks in The Fire Next Time reveal, and the novel’s opening suggestively confirms, this constitutes rejection of the church and the tenets of Christian faith. (This, of course, assumes that John is an autobiographical character.) A coming rift between John and Elisha is implied, and the reason for that rift is readily apparent: John’s homosexuality. As James R. Giles and Maria K. Mooty, among many others, have observed, John’s budding homosexual desires find a focus with Elisha. Given Elisha’s heterosexuality and commitment to the church, both of which would preclude a homosexual relationship, one can justifiably assume that he is on a path towards rejecting—perhaps very harshly—John’s interest in him. Elisha personifies the synthesis of John’s self with Gabriel during the intermediate independence stage of self-realization; he embodies for John both religious faith and homosexuality. The synthesis of the realized self from the independent self requires, in John’s case, the elimination of religious faith. The necessary sublation of Elisha will leave only homosexuality. Go Tell It on the Mountain illustrates and suggests a path to self-realization that ends, one infers, with the novel’s protagonist recognizing himself as homosexual.

Hegel’s paradigm of self-realization provides a coherent reading of the novel in addition to providing of synthesis for some of the critical views debating it. In using that paradigm, one is able to acknowledge that opposing critical camps—those who read the novel as sincerely religious and those who read it an affirmation of homosexuality—are both right. The novel allows for and may even demand both views. One must only realize that the novel does not begin or end with the printed text.

Works Cited

Allen, Shirley S. “Religious Symbolism and Psychic Reality in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” CLA 19 (1975): 173-199.

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial, 1962.

Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Dell, 1985.

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Ed. N. H. Keeble. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.

Foster, David E. “ “ ‘Cause My House Fell Down”: The Theme of the Fall in Baldwin’s Novels.” Critique 13 (1971): 50-62.

Giles, James R. “Religious Alienation and Homosexual Consciousness in City of Night and Go Tell It on the Mountain.” College English 36 (1974): 369-380.

Graves, Wallace. “The Question of Moral Energy in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.” CLA 7 (1964): 215-223.

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind. Rev. 2nd ed. Trans. J.B. Baillie. London: George Allen, 1949.

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