essays

The Hole Picture

Art, Religion and Identity



"...all beings have a twofold face, a face of light and a black face. The luminous face, the face of day, is the only one that the common run of men perceive. Their black face, the one the mystic perceives, is their poverty The totality of their being is their daylight face and their night face"
-Henry Corbin


If, in the realm of human endeavour, there is one single activity which closely parallels or even mirrors the workings of identity, it has to be art. Art and the experiencing of art can define, describe, delimit, and categorize the personal in much the same way that identity does.
It should be no cause for wonder, then, that art and identity get conflated more often than not, with artist and spectator both viewing the engagement with art as integral to their personality.
Where this identification of art or culture with identity is a common occurence in the 21st century Occident, it has almost completely occluded a relationship that was previously of
immense significance- that between art and religion.
These days, inasmuch identity, or the experience of the personal, is a prerequisite for the production of art, it should be unsurprising that much of contemporary spiritual or religious art lacks character. It is a risk of all art that genuinely and honestly seeks to express any sort of mystical experience; for the apex of the religious experience is a transpersonal one. It is exactly the direct transcendance of the limitations of selfhood which incapacitates the mystic to express that experience, for he lacks the personality to express it with. Like the captive shaman in Borges'  'La Escritura del Dios' who discovers the secret name of God and the infinite power it would grant him, but who declines to use that power to escape his prison because the newly acquired infinite, cosmic vantage point makes him see the futility of his human desire to be free.
Perhaps art's function has always been to express what is no longer there, to fix what moves onward in constant flux, to capture ghosts; thus to be, in a sense, non-being.

In that spirit, to propose how art can move beyond its (and our) own identity, i will offer an exegesis of the following panel from the comic-book The Dark Knight Returns by Miller,
Janson & Varley (DC Comics, 1986).



It is a Batman comic, with all the connotations about 'secret identities' that are apposite to our subject. Like most comic-book periodicals promoting the corporate-owned product of superhero characters , this book moves a fixed set of characters along a chessboard grid. That this particular version acquired a modicum of mainstream fame in its time, due to the introduction of certain radical elements into the Batman mythos, is of little significance.
Its central achievement is that it understands the medium; constrained by its nature as corporate product and juvenile entertainment, it finds freedom in the technical aspects of
storytelling, in the dance of the draughtsman's hand.
A tale of an aged Batman coming out of retirement to fight crime one last time, it metes out, on the narrative level, heavy-handed symbolism and clunky metaphors in an attempt
to instill the juvenile concept with a measure of adult validity. There is the Joker, whose face-paint reveals rather than masks his identity; Two-Face, one side of his visage horribly disfigured, mirroring the Batman's dual nature, Superman portrayed as a spineless slave
to political power. The mask, the masked, nature and morality, with these themes and more, the book plays a pleasing aesthetic game, but for all its visual rhyme and striking juxtapositions, as a narrative it does not delve very deep.

Yet despite this narrative superficiality, there are statements which only the comic-book
image-maker is capable of making, and the comic-book storyteller through his technique must push the image-maker to the point where meaning (relevance to the plot's progression, or symbolism pertinent to the story's subject) becomes subsumed in the textures of the drawings - where the ink, as it were, is allowed to speak its own language; to comment, in blackness, on the proceedings in the narrative, creating a counter-narrative, the majestic current of a subterranean river traversing chthonic realms of obscure meaning.
There are statements which only the image-maker has the authority to make, and I hope to unearth some of these statements, and by this reversal of the artistic process, the extrication not just of meaning but of meaningfulness, the being-full-of-meaning, to show that the making of art is a ritual burial, a negation which  leaves the disinterment , or resurrection, even, to the reader or spectator. It is a dying of the Self into the Other.

Taking as context the surrounding images, the panel reads as a face emerging over the rim of a circular mirror which has just confronted the face with the result of cosmetic surgery restoring its disfigured left side. But this reading does not take into account the key to interpretation we are offered when reading on. There, we find what is in every sense a key moment to the book; a flashback scene showing the pivotal moment that (however shallowly )motivated multimillionaire Bruce Wayne to 'fight crime' as the Batman: the death of his parents at the hands of a street robber. The flashback, designed as a rigid four-by-four panel grid imbuing the scene with the staccato inevitability of fate or nightmare, stretches and stretches until coming to a slow halt in the relentless close-up focus on the robber's gun getting tangled in mrs. Wayne's pearl necklace, showing the gunshot against her neck only through the increasing distance between the pearls of the necklace as it tears; a constellation of white orbs against a black background, which becomes the blackness of outer space, unmooring the young Bruce Wayne from all notions  of home and safety. Suddenly this boy is cast into a deep interplanetary coldness; his universe stretches like the necklace; the gaps widen as the pearls scatter, the planets fall;time stops; and the void yawns wide.
On the narrative level that scene is simply the key to the Batman's pathology. On
the visual level, we have been presented a manual instructing us how to read these images. Time has stopped; the pearls are no longer connected; it is Judgement Day, and each picture must stand on its own.

 Thus, we come to the panel at hand, with all sense of human scale utterly blasted. An image of apocalyptic implications, with its opaque black globe encroaching upon a human face, leaving only one amazed, or frightened eye visible. A vast face peeking over the curving horizon of a blackened planet, like a sunrise witnessed from space.
And the word balloon says 'oh, my god,' -but who or what is it, that speaks?
The face has no mouth, no visible mouth at least, and the balloon's tail points towards the
black globe- black as the theatre of Lord Chamberlain's men ( Shakespeare's troupe),The Globe, after it had been reduced to ashes by fire- a blackened Globe, a full stop, an end to masks and costumes and assumed identities.
The blackness, unmasked, speaks. Let us pause to examine how this  blackness manifests itself in a few other instances, to help give direction to our reading.
Batman's costume is traditionally depicted as having a blue colour, we can assume to suggest night or darkness while still keeping the figure legible when drawn against a night sky or in darkness. But throughout The Dark Knight Returns, the night sky is painted in subtle hues of dark metallic blues and greys, with Batman outlined starkly against its
gradients in pure black silhouette. Like the familiar trick of the picture that represents at once two faces and a vase, foreground and background here shift their significance between them:the sky becomes illustration, painted backdrop behind the iconic shape of
Batman's absolute blackness, but it might also be perceived that the perfect night sky has been pierced, revealing a more profound darkness behind it. An image not to look at, but through.
Let us return with this idea, the suggestion that there is a darkness underlying all surfaces,
to our original picture, and examine it anew.





It is, of course, a hole. A hole in a picture of a face. Or rather, it is the face of nothingness of that face, the individuality punctured, and it is this face of nothingness which exclaims, with the last vestiges of personality: 'oh, my god.'
As Shaykh Lahiji writes in his commentary on Mahmud Shabestari´s Golshan-e Raz (the Rose Garden of Mystery): "Suddenly i saw that the black light was invading the entire universe. Heaven and earth and everything that was there had wholly become black light and, behold, I was totally absorbed in this light, losing consciousness."
This black light (nur aswad), which in some traditions is seen as the hair of God invisibly permeating the universe (predating by several centuries the concept of Anti-matter of contemporary physics) is not to be mistaken for mere darkness, a simple absence of light.
It is very precisely not a matter of negativity, of emptiness or absence.
In fact, in the light of what we have previously established, it is the Ink that speaks, that articulates the blackness. And this Ink, because it holds the promise of all forms, as writing, or drawing, can be said to represent an incomparable plenitude.

There are two curious and little known sayings of the prophet Muhammad: "All that is in the revealed books is in the Qur'an and all that is in the Qur'an is in the Fatihah [the Qur'an's opening verse], and all that is in the Fatihah is in Bismi' Llahi 'r Rahmani 'r-Rahim
[the Fatihah's opening line or Basmalah]." and "All that is in Bismi' Llahi 'r Rahmani 'r-Rahim is in the letter Ba'[ب] , which itself is contained in the point that is beneath it."
Shayhk Ahmad Al-'Alawi, who lived in Algeria at the beginning  of the previous century, wrote a treatise on this subject, titled 'The Book of The Uniqe Archetype which signalleth the way unto the full realization of Oneness in considering what is meant by the envelopment of the Heavenly Scriptures in the point of the Basmalah,' and therein, to
illustrate his point (and The Point), he quotes at length Abd al-Ghani an-Nabulusi, from the Diwan al Haqa'iq, about Ink:

"For it was before the letters, when no letter was;
And it remainteth, when no letter at all shall be.
Look well at each letter:thou seest it hath already perished
But for the face of the ink, that is, for the Face of His Essence,
Unto Whom All Glory and Majesty and Exaltation!"


It is a commonplace of the comic-book craft that a picture must not describe what the text is saying and vice-versa, but the obverse of that coin is that a text which means the same as the picture but describes it in a different way is a felicitous convergence and divergence at once; the two aspects of the medium maximizing each other's potential.
Of our picture and text- our picture as text-both instances are true. Without exclamation mark, the phrase by itself is a quiet expression of baffled incredulity, a sigh perhaps, although its subtlety is undermined by the italicized emphasis of "god," while the open-endedness of the sentence as indicated by the three dots articulates a bridge to the surrounding image.
But the words, too,form a picture, the 'oh' being both the sound and the form of the silent black void encroaching upon the face."O" is the circumference of the Basmalah's Point; the outward manifestation of the all-encompassing blackness of the Ink representing the Incomparable Plenitude of the Divine. The "O" therefore signifies the same as the italicized "god."
The third word in the balloon("My") is there to act as a bridge between these two manifestations of the Divine, if only it can allow itself to surrender to the engulfing Black Light spreading over its image. Like a mirror, it is the conduit through which the Divine  passes on Its way to Itself. In Its path, It completely obliterates "my" and "I" and all notions of Selfhood, for once the Self has seen the True Reality of its Absorption into the totality of the Ink, it ceases to be anything other than the Ink; It can only recognize, from then on, the Ink-ness as it were, of its existence. As the "my" falls away from the text, and the face is obliterated in the picture, God as text and God as meaning cross the divide of Selfhood to become the One which the illusion of "my" tried to oppose. Identity perishes. Blackness surrenders to the meaning of blackness. And that is the Face which ever remains.


TWINED WEEDS: COMICS AND THE GOTHIC








Like the label of 'Comics ,' the designation 'Gothic 'can be a confusing one. The Gothic form shares its name with widely divergent forms of cultural expression, from which it takes inspiration and which it influences in turn. The term is used as the designation of a people; of a building style not originating with this people; of an expression of fashion; of the aesthetic of certain films; of a literary mode.

It is this last one, the literary mode, which has brought forth a direct progenitor to the North-american comic book periodical, in the form of the18th century Penny Dreadfuls or Bluebooks (chapbooks presenting illustrated and abbreviated versions of popular Gothic novels).There is, however, a deeper connexion between comics and the Gothic, beyond their aesthetic convergences and their overlap in the history of printed matter. At the level of their basic functioning, both the medium (comics) and the genre (the Gothic) exhibit characteristics that are not mere approaches or tactics but part and parcel of their nature.
Thus, due to certain shared essential qualities, comics and the Gothic, given the circumstances, can each serve as function of the other.

BUILDING THE RUINS
             
The Gothic is, not unsuprprisingly, given its namesake, a highly architectural genre. Consider the centrality of The House: from Walpole's 'The Castle of Otranto,' to Danielewski's 'House of Leaves,' the house exemplifies both the narrative's maze and the monster awaiting at the center of that maze. As in the building style, there are serpentine arabesques that twine and link and uncross again. Folding both inward and outward, a Gothic narrative is never a focussed one; nor is clarity its aim. Quite the contrary: showing the mental states of characters through the description of the environment, or conversely, showing the environment through the prism of the mental state, the genre utterly collapses the definitions of identity and environment. In effect, that arc of collapse is what the Gothic narrative is built of. The Gothic is an edifice in perpetual ruin: it rises, blasted, from the prefiguration of its own destruction. Like the house from (and into) the tarn of Poe's Usher, its fall perfectly describes its rise.

Contortedly echoing the crucial trick of Gothic architecture( the use of mass and weight to suggest light and weightlessness), prose and narrative construction subservient to the demands of the literary Gothic are often dense, encrusted, layered and winding, to create the illusion of solidity, the suggestion of weight, mass - in short, of space.
What the Gothic needs, comics has got, in  spades, by definition: in comics, relations between characters, even when expressed through dialogue, are read spatially (balloon placement), the illusion of the passage of time is effected through the laying out of events spatially. The declaration of space is an innate characteristic of the comic book page to such an extent that it can be said to define the medium. This characteristic in turn influences another of the medium´s traits: the embodiment of time.

 PHYSICAL DEMAND

The Gothic house, especially the castle or mansion, serves another aim, and that is the making visible of age. The ancient rituals and traditions in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast,  the lineage that precedes its young heir Titus down the centuries, these are all embodied by the sprawling enormity of the castle Gormenghast  itself.
Thus history acquires a massive physicality, an actual presence that can hold, and keep; can ask, and demand. The influence that the past will inevitably exert over the actors in all Gothic fiction (family curses, revenge for ancient misdeeds), is not the influence of a ghost. It  is not even the hand of Time itself: it is the presence of the story itself, in time, as an encrustation of layers enveloping the characters in the stone embrace of actual hallways, real cellars and attics and drawing-rooms.
A pervading sense of  imminent doom is thus conveyed by the continued working of the past within the skein of the present. Events are not merely foreshadowed but set in massive stone, not mirrored but duplicated as totemic effigies.

In comics, past and present exist simultaneously on the page; a 'flashback' on a comics page does not so much gaze at the past as embed the past firmly  in the present. That very simultaneity gives the lie to the panel borders, which are made to seem feeble guardians indeed; like the past and present represented that they contain, they merely affirm, by their placement, the souvereignty of the Wall, of the House as Gothic Body.


NATURAL BORN META

Finally, it is in confronting the individual with History embodied, the mortal with the Undying, the scientist with the Unthought-of, that the Gothic makes its well-known thrust for the Sublime, and exhibits its most essential trait, which is scale.
If, with Edmund Burke, we claim that the ruling principle of the sublime  is terror, the terror of scale is the terror of consciousness shifting to accomodate a new perspective, a perspective that brings out the true proportion of things. 
It is what the critic John Clute calls 'Vastation,' the "moment when the real world cannot any longer be apprehended as knowable." It is the crumbling of the House of Usher, and thus of the Gothic Body in its entirety; a negation of all that was articulated before. The ghostliness, not just of the ghost, but of the whole narrtive, stands revealed. "There was nothing there, all the time."

In respect to this facet of the Gothic, comics can be said to offer such a realization continuously. The medium possesses  an inherent weirdness, a wrongness if you will, that may serve as a perfect visual corollary of the effect of Vastation actuated by scale.

Because of the aforementioned simultaneity of depictions it can be argued that comics wears its artificiality on its sleeve. It only takes a glance further down or up the page to be reminded that time passing in the narrative was a mere illusion. With comics, it is far easier to 'step out of'' the narrative than it is while watching a film, say, and this enables, even subtly encourages, the reader to experience the differences in scale occasioned by the shuzhyet as differences of scale in the fabula; it doesn't take a lot of imagination to read a close-up of a visage next to a long shot, as a huge face dwarfing a panorama. All this means there is probably no other medium which has such  a power to jolt the reader out of the story, to the surface of its telling, to shift the perspective so radically.
Vastation is to comics what movement is to film.

This is not to declare the entirety of comics a purely Gothic medium, but  the parity is  strong enough to claim that comics are the medium- the mediating agent, the communicator- of the Gothic, par excellence, and any thorough reading of works of comic art must necessarily take into account that the very medium utilized by its authors slant their narratives, however slightly, towards the Gothic.







A NOTE ON READING POE



Upon re-immersing myself in the works of Poe in preparation for the Blackbook editions, I was initially daunted by the prospective task of translating prose to visuals, of reshaping a narrative told to a narrative shown.
What I  found, to my surprise and relief, was that Poe does not really tell stories at all. Most of his tales do not focus on a plot or action to speak of, or feature any kind of significant development. Instead, they will often have as their starting point some statement or theory or notion, which the ensuing 'tale' then proceeds to illustrate, or embody. Thus, the reward seldom lies in their dénouement. 

That the narrator publicly confesses his crime at the end of 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' will come as no surprise, as he has been confiding in the reader from the very start, and the inevitability of the final paragraph is clearly prefigured by the tone and demeanour of the first. What Poe does give us, and gives us in abundance, is the mind of the confessor. And this he accomplishes without resorting to abstracts, through purely visual means. 
With Poe, all emotion and thought are projected outward. Mirrorred in the scenery, endlessly refracted in faces, tarns, flames, shadows, they become thoroughly materialized, which method perversely  points to the possibility of its own inversion - that all matter is  mere thought. Pursuing this poetic principle with scientific exactitude, Poe gives us, with the cold unblinking objectivity of a final and total immersion in the subjective, a vision of the World as Mind.
The world becomes mind; existence, a crime in the locked room of individual consciousness; this cruel fate is the paradigm that all of Poe's characters find themselves embodying, and it is why all his princes and poets and castaways and madmen plunge wildly to-wards their annihilation: to escape. For their world is essentially a Gnostic one: a demiurge's confused imaginings made claustric flesh. As Philip K. Dick summarizes in the 'Exegesis-' section of Valis, his pop-cultural update of the Gnostic mythology: 
'The phenomenal world does not exist, it is a hypostasis of the information processed by the Mind.'

Poe's narrators are, like the demiurge Yaldabaoth, trapped in a world of total subjectivity, and the Luciferian hopelessness of their position is summed up in the figure of William Wilson, taking up the knife against his own mirrored image. Yet smashing the mirror entails no escape: his doom is circular. Every time we reread the story, his fictional existence describes the form of the curse. He becomes the prisoner who surveys, over and over again, every nook and cranny of his cell - describing the lineaments of his imprisonment -  measuring the odds of escape.


This circling by itself would classify our author as a writer of Horror, which is indeed how Poe most of the time ends up being categorized, but his project does not stop at a mere description of the predicament. Thrashing wildlly in the cage that is the solipsistic Hell of the Gnostic position, his work speaks of, and to, and from within, the Self, but only because he is reaching for something Other. 
One of his best-known fictions is itself a rending of all the tropes and symbols that inform the Gothic tradition, an unshackling from its tactics of terror. This is of course The Fall of  the House of Usher. Taking both the edifice and the lineage of Usher's House to stand for the entire body of the Gothic tradition (cf. John Clute, The Darkening Garden, a short lexicon of horror), the tale is a thorough deconstruction of an entire literary mode. It doesn't so much indulge in its gothicisms as prop them up and shoot them down one by one. The Fall of the House of Usher is no celebration of a genre, it is a summary execution. It is nevertheless a testament to Poe as a technician that even in this demolition job he shows singular mastery over all elements of the mould he intends to break: he coaxes poisonous effulgent fumes from a black tarn; gives us a candle-lit tour of a crumbling mansion; allows lichen, moss, and gas their own pre-Lovecraftian consciousness; he invents songs, paintings, and books to complete the spell, and when the reader is wholly absorbed in this phantasmagoria, he tears the whole building (mansion and narrative both) down, with all the aplomb of a Prospero abdicating his powers.
Like Shakespeare's magician, Poe enchants only so as to more effectively disenchant. The goal of his fiction's perfect surface is to reveal its own surface to be false. It is the kind of statement that becomes a nullification of that statement directly upon reading it -There was nothing there, all the time. Thus, Poe's prose is the sound of the Void, speaking in tongues. And his words - at heart - are Silence.