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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "CHASING YHWH" (CEREBUS #282-289, 2002-03)

At the end of the previous essay, I said:

When I do a corresponding "null-myth" for this entry next week, I'll endeavor to choose a story that relies on purely didactic elements, to its detriment.
Whenever I think of comics-artists who are capable of producing mythic material, but have let their didactic tendencies overrule their symbolic discourses, my short list comes down to three names: Steve Ditko, Alan Moore, and Dave Sim. After due consideration, I decided I should give pride of place to Sim in the didactic department. And nowhere does Sim go further down this particular rabbit hole (inside joke: "maybe it should be "RABBI-hole?") than he does in the sequence "Chasing YHWH," close to the final issues of CEREBUS THE AARDVARK. Among CEREBUS cognoscenti this sequence is sometimes referred to as "the Cerebexegesis," since it largely consists of the main character performing an exegesis on various books of the Hebrew Old Testament. On the whole most of the issues in this sequence consisted of a few pages of "normative" comics-panels, various stand-alone illustrations, and solid pages of small-type text in which Cerebus dissected the Old Testament, sometimes with minor rejoinders to his interlocutor Konigsberg (a spoof of Woody Allen).

This null-myth occupies a unique place in my personal cosmos of badness. In general I believe in re-reading works before writing about them, but I simply can't stand to expend any more minutes of my life in putting the critical microscope to "Chasing YHWH"-- to say nothing of having to use a magnifying-glass to discern all that tiny, tiny type.  So I'll confine myself to some general remarks.

For many CEREBUS-readers, Dave Sim's decision to embrace his personal vision of Christianity-- a little past the midpoint of his 300-issue magnum opus-- proved problematic for the literary values of his work. I was one of the few critics who did not reject all aspects of that sea-change, and I specifically praised the conclusion of this comics-epic here, calling it "a stunning mythopoeic creation." That said, one thing remained constant: both before and after the sea-change, Dave Sim liked to burn up a lot of issues with "much ado about nothing." Because Sim was, and still remains, one of the few artists intelligent to be interesting even when he's essentially running off at the mouth, there's no doubt that one could find interesting concepts and motifs within the corpus of CHASING YWHW. However, since one can find Sim using the same concepts and motifs in more felicitious forms in the "regular" CEREBUS stories, there's not much to be gained from sussing them out in a form designed to be nearly impenetrable.

The title of the sequence is a chimerical one, for Sim's "YHWH" is not the four-letter "God of the Fathers" worshipped by the ancient Hebrews. Rather, Cerebus is chasing "Yoohwooh," an inferior copy of the One True God. As Sim doubtlessly knew, the Gnostics of the early Christian Era were famous (or infamous) for splitting off various manifestations of the Godhead: for instance, the entity that actually created the heavens and the earth might be viewed as a "demiurge," while the entity that was the true source of all things-- including the demiurge-- would be far above the cosmos of profane matter. In a similar manner, Yoohwooh is described as a female spirit with "bright ideas." In addition to using Yoohwooh to critique modern-day feminism and its "bright ideas," Sim can also use Yoohwooh as a hermeneutical tool, albeit within a literary context, as opposed to writing actual religious hermeneutics-- and show how anything that he finds vexing in the Old Testament can be laid at the door of Yoohwooh.

Issue #286 sticks out in my mind, because it's an attempt to re-write the findings of non-religious interpretations, such as the narrative of Genesis 32 that is commonly called "Jacob wrestling with the Angel." A religionist of Sim's absolutist mold cannot hold with the proposals of modern folklore-studies: that the unnamed Angel is literally a representative of God the Father. Sim's solution is to claim that the angel, or "cherubim" as Sim calls it, is actually "Yoohwooh's cherubim, who guards Yoohwooh's garden and who, ordinarily, would make quick work of any one of Adam's descendants. But what's [the cherubim] going to do against Jacob? Jacob is Yoohwooh, who stole away the blessing and birthright of the elder Esau. It's also a reference to the fact that just as God judges Yoohwooh's 'wrestling' with all of her bright ideas... the men wrestle with her bright ideas, and with Yoohwooh." (I left out a phrase or two, hopefully without distorting the essence of the idea.)

As I'm a pluralistic myth-interpreter myself, it's possible that I was on some level offended by Sim forcing his tortured, anti-feminist metaphors upon the original material. Still, if his only aim had been to satirize myth-hunters like Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves, Sim could have accomplished that in a much more condensed form. In some sense the Cerebexegesis exists not because Sim literally believes in Yoohwooh, the way that a Gnostic might've actually believed in the Demiurge, but because Sim wanted to create a means of re-interpreting many problematic texts in the Old Testament so that they would line up with his own vision of the true deity-- though, again, I emphasize that this method has relevance only within the literary cosmos of CEREBUS.

Many null-myths are created when the artists involved merely toss out random ideas that possess little or no symbolic resonance. But in works that emphasize the didactic potentiality, the ideas are not random but rather over-determined, after the fashion of allegory, which Northrop Frye correctly defines as "forced metaphor."

ADDENDA: I should note that in CEREBUS #288, the aardvark has a long conversation with an interlocutor-- whose identity is a Big Surprise, and about the only thing fun in CHASING YHWH-- and that in that discourse, Cerebus reveals that he sometimes made shit up if he couldn't figure out a particular scriptural passage. I believe Sim did this in part out of concern for verisimilitude: his aardvark character was semi-educated at best, and in some ways his scholarly fuffering about Biblical hermeneutics broke from his usual character. Nevertheless, I don't think that the artist Sim, who put all those tiny-type words into Cerebus' mouth, in any way compromised his message by admitting that Cerebus was an unreliable interpreter. Even if the interlocutor points out problems with the "angel-wrestling" interpretation-- though not the same ones I've identified-- none of the discrepancies take away from Sim's essential message: that all the "bright ideas" of Yoohwooh are stupid because they foolishly attempt to supplant the wisdom of the True God. So even though Sim probably does not believe in Yoohwooh as a literal entity, she remains a potent literary symbol of the artist's animadversion to a host of modern-day "bright ideas."


Sandeep Atwal said...

Very interesting! Would love to see a similar write-up for Moore or Ditko...

Gene Phillips said...

Almost certainly will examine their stuff in August!