Thursday, October 22, 2009

Robert Crumb's Rhetoric, And How We Read It

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-­seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

--C. S. Lewis, "As the Ruin Falls"

When Robert Crumb tells us his intent (or when John Hobbins does), then that should settle it for us. The trick is to believe what he says as if he believes it himself, all the time, when he's awake. (Robert Hughes believes Crumb's a genius, an anti-modernist, a severe satirist, and so Hobbins believes that and says "I certainly am enjoying my copy" of his Genesis. Hobbins enjoys because it's intended to be satire and satire intends to offend. In my library's copy of The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book, there's nude pictures of Crumb's wives and his other expressions of intent: "It started as a kid when we [Crumb and his brother] would make our own home-made comics. We developed the habit of filling up notebooks with stuff.... I started looking at the old masters in books... Leonardo, everybody. I thought I wanted to draw like that, so I drew like a motherfucker! That was a breakthrough... When I look LSD... it was the road to Damascus for me!.... I was egoless, drifting along, totally passive. About the only thing I could do was just draw in my sketchbooks. It was while I was in this fuzzy state that I told my wife, Dana, I was leaving. I just walked out and left everything. I went to Chicago and stayed with Marty Pahls. I remember wandering around Chicago on the public bus aimlessly. My mind would drift into these crackly grotesque cartoon images accompanied by off-key tinny music. It was in my brain. I had no control. NO control ... which was good for art." [page 77])

A couple of days ago, I posted to bring attention to the fact that there is sexism, misogynistic rape portrayals, anti-Semitism, and other racism in Crumb's art and that few bibliobloggers reacting to his latest comic book of Genesis have noticed. Chris Brady kindly linked to that, confessed he knew little yet of Crumb while just reading his Genesis, and got us asking "the age old questions of authorial/artist intent and how much we should allow our (pre)conceptions of the author/artist influence our reading of their work."

So what does Crumb intend? What did Robert Alter intend by his English translation of Genesis? What did Moses intend when he wrote it in Hebrew (if you believe he wrote it)? What did God intend to write (if you believe he inspired or dictated what is read as Sefer Ma'aseh Be-Réshit)? And what did I intend by my post a couple of days ago (since a few of you commented to tell me, or so it seems)?

I think there are rhetorical answers to these questions. There are readerly answers to these questions. The answers go beyond anyone's ability to enjoy satire that intends to offend. To get to some of those answers, I'd like to look at a couple of things Julia O'Brien has posted recently and then at some things Karlyn Kohrs Campbell has written not too long ago and then a couple of things C.S. Lewis wrote. If there's time, maybe we'll look (again) at some of the things Alter and Crumb said and, presumably, intended.

Here's what I intend by this post: to say that authors and artists may intend one thing but always do more than they can say they intend. Readers make meanings of the rhetorics in ways the authors and artists may or may not approve of.

O'Brien posted a post she originally entitled "Rereading Trible's Rereading of Eve and Adam" and then later as (the link) "Phyllis Trible systematically shows how the tradition has misread the text." Notice what's going on here. First, there's the text of Genesis in which and out of which people have been "reading of Eve and Adam"; then there's Phyllis Trible's feminist re-reading of that traditional reading; then there's O'Brien's readers re-reading what Trible wrote; then there's O'Brien giving her own readers a more instructive title (i.e., that "the tradition has misread the text" early on according to Trible's systematic re-reading). After all of that, O'Brien brings in another Genesis reader, or re-reader, in her more recent post, "Phyllis Trible and Sojourner Truth on Eve." When you and I read that post, then we also "read" Alfre Woodard. We read Woodard's intonation and her inflection and her body language as she reads Sojourner Truth reading on Eve from Genesis. We are reading by viewing a youtube video that O'Brien has embedded in her post; we are, in fact, watching and listening to Woodard reading what turns out to be a re-reading of Sojourner Truth's speech.

We hear, starting in, Truth saying, “Well, chilern, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin’ out o’ kilter. I tink dat ‘twixt de niggers of de Souf and de womin at de Norf, all talkin’ ‘bout rights, de white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all dis here talkin’ ‘bout?” But this is Frances Dana Barker Gage's transcription of what Truth might have said. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell tells us that these words we hear Woodard reading are Truth’s “words” as they “appear in the argot of blackface minstrel shows” of Gage. Kohrs Campbell tells us that Gage got Truth's words from newspaper reports, which happen to be the “racist caricatures of writers such as Thomas Dixon and Thomas Nelson Page.” Kohrs Campbell was so outraged by the racist depictions that she, for her book, modified Truth's speech to what it might have really been; Kohrs Campbell explains: “When the text of Gage’s version of Truth’s speech was published in [my history text] Man Cannot Speak For Her, I removed the dialect that smothers the speech with racist stereotypes.” Now, Kohrs Campbell sees value in the racism, though in principle, as a feminist, she's opposed to such denigrations:
I now believe that it was wrong to do so [i.e., to remove the racist language of Dixon, Page, and Gage put in Truth's mouth by them], although it could not and should not have been published as originally written without the kind of analysis done here. But agency is perverse: the stereotypes that gave rise to penning the speech in this demeaning argot ironically give the text special force. Admittedly, as Truth herself illustrates, not all former slaves spoke in such language, but the women she most represented, the experiences and history she most embodied, are rendered more perfectly in language that expresses so painfully the terrible costs of slavery—the loss of literacy, the loss of education, the loss of access to public dialogue that, even when overcome, is constrained by being rendered in language that ridicules and demeans. (“Agency: Promiscuous and Protean,” Communication and Cultural/Critical Studies, 2 (March 2005): 1-18. NCA Golden Anniversary Monograph Award, 2006.)
There's rhetorical irony here. Dixon, Page, and perhaps Gage intend racism by "the argot of blackface minstrel." Kohrs Campbell would leave the racist caricature as does Woodard (and as does O'Brien) because it gives Sojourner Truth agency. Agency and rhetorical power is what the racist portrayals of her give her. What white authors intend as offending racism black rhetors may turn around and use rhetorically against racism. But never is denigrating racism made right.

So that brings us to C.S. Lewis. In the lines of his poem (my epigraph above), Lewis confesses the intention of "flashy rhetoric," which ironically hides and casts doubt upon his love for his lover, whom he addresses: "you." Each subsequent line begins with "I" - his confession that deconstructs his "flashy rhetoric" and becomes, then, a new rhetoric of humility, his now un-original rhetoric of real attention away from himself toward her, his love: "you." What is Lewis's original intent? His later intentions? His reader's (i.e., his addressed lover's) intentions as a result?  Your intentions as you analyze or enjoy Lewis's poetry?

Lewis knows that writers and rhetors don't always know what they're doing. Their intentions give way to "second meanings." And Lewis has two insightful chapters on second meanings (meanings beyond the authored and intended ones) in his book Reflections on the Psalms. Lewis's entire book is his literary critical view of Jewish Psalms from a non-Jewish (i.e., a post-atheist, anti-modern, and distinctly Christian) perspective. He talks of Plato describing Jesus Christ when intending to describe the ideal man (i.e., Socrates in his passion). Lewis also talks of Virgil's really prophesying the Virgin Birth (though the writer intends not to write about The Christian accounts that come later).

That brings us to another thing Lewis knows: readers don't always limit themselves to the meanings that authors intend. For example, in the heavily edited third edition (after the heavily edited second edition) of his allegorical autobiography that he had intended to be obscure, Lewis makes this complaint in the appendix (as if complaining aloud to his publisher for trying to make the book clearer so that it would sell better): "The map on the end leaves has puzzled some readers because, as they say, 'it marks all sorts of places not mentioned in the text'. But so do all maps in travel books. [The protagonist's] route is marked with a dotted line: those who are not interested in the places off that route need not bother with them." What Lewis is getting at is how his readers don't always follow his intention as author. But then the author was having a hard time following the intention of the publisher, who intended to follow the money of the readers.

One of my favorite Lewis quotations on author or artist intention, and the rhetorical listening of readers, is in his essay "Transposition." Lewis is talking about the Christian interpretations of "speaking in tongues," and "transposition" is the taking of one form and putting it into another. It's like taking the Beatles song "A Hard Day's Night" and putting it into the form of "lift music" or "elevator music" - not exactly what John Lennon intended when writing and performing the song with his band or when making an entire album around it or when transposing all of that into a film by the same title. It's like taking God's words presumably, writing them down (if you're Moses), translating them into English (if you're Robert Alter), converting that into satirical offensive comic book drawings (if you're Robert Crumb), and publishing that for mass production for between $12 and $25 a book gross (if you're marketers and part of the sales force for W.W. Norton & Co. and booksellers worldwide). Lewis says, "I have tried to stress throughout the inevitableness of the error made about every transposition by one who approaches it from the lower medium only. The strength of such a critic [perhaps of Robert Hughes appreciating Robert Crumb's art and of John Hobbins's enjoying it] lies in the words 'merely' or 'nothing but' [as in merely and nothing but severe offensive satire with misogyny rampant]. He [the critic, whether Hughes or somebody else] sees all the facts but not the meaning [especially not even the second meanings, the rhetorics]. Quite truly, therefore, he claims to have seen all the facts. There is nothing else there; except the meaning[s that the critic, from his position, may be ignoring]. He is therefore, as regards the matter in hand, in the position of an animal. You will have noticed that most dogs cannot understand pointing. You point to a bit of food on the floor; the dog, instead of looking at the floor, sniffs at your finger. A finger is a finger to him, and that is all. His world is all fact and not meaning[s]." (page 71 of The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses)

When Robert Alter discusses his intentions for allowing Robert Crumb to illustrate his translation, he nearly sighs on the page when Alter writes, establishing the facts, that "genitalia are never shown in the sex scenes."

So now I'm suggesting that if we listen rhetorically to what Crumb says, then we hear meanings and not just facts. Krista Ratcliffe advises that we may listen not just to the author's expressed intention but also for our intentions and with our own intentions. So listen:
His comix (which had never been particularly woman-friendly) became violently misogynistic, as he graphically poured what were essentially his masturbatory fantasies onto the printed page. Women were raped, dismembered, mutilated, and murdered, sometimes all at once.
"I do this stuff, and then I'm horrified and embarrassed when I see it on the paper, and I say, 'Oh, my God,' but somehow I can't stop doing it," Crumb says. "I have this hostility toward women," Crumb admits on camera.
Fact is, that's just offending satire. Enjoy it if you can. Never mind if you're a woman on bottom with breasts showing.

[update:  Ben Witherington III, biblioblogger, gives his opinion (as if not in the position of a woman or for women):

"What I think is that in an age of visual learners, some of this material in Crumb's book is user friendly for church and synagogue folk, though one has to pick and choose and be discerning. Lord knows our Sunday school and Bible study literature could use some updating of its images.  One grows weary of the Rococo Jesus, and Rubenesque cherubs."]


Sue said...

This is hilarious. There is one obvious aspect that no one comments on. Adam is displayed with his organ at rest, as a generic and almost cerebral human male. Eve, on the other hand, all buttocks and boobs, has her erect nipples shoved in the face of the reader.

What female cannot see that the author and male readers of these comics think of women as continously at the ready and in a receptive state to be grabbed and done.

That the average male reader cannot see this and be self reflective, and say to himself, "oh, women are not really like that- at least not the women I meet in public places." That's too funny!

A man needs to establish a relationship with one woman and share his thoughts of Crumb with her, off the internet, in the appropriate way, and seek intimacy and dialogue. He might then ask what she thinks and why. Women will all have their unique perspective about what it means to have nipples erect and protruding from the image, into the face of the reader.

Rod said...

This guy is grossing me out.

People who enjoy his "artwork" uncritically really underestimate the power of the human imagination.