Friday, December 31, 2010

On R. Crumb's "The Book Of Genesis Illustrated"

very dissapointing. He starts with an expansive epic text shimmering in mythic ambiguities, a text that counsels against pinning itself in fixed images. And then proceeds to pin it down with hundreds of tiny discrete literal images.

very odd. strange thing to see after so many years absorbed in the TEXT a text that says, no pictures! so many years in playing with the wordplay, the resonance between words that weave the text together. the poetry, the mythic qualities. the epic qualities.

on the illustrations: i was dissapointed with the pedestrian imagiinations with the text. when i read torah, i perceive mythic stories with epic proportion. after all it starts with the creation of the then known universe and the interaction with the creator of that universe...

when i read the text, which is extremely terse, which calls out for expansion, as indeed the rabbis through the ages expanded it in countless midrashes, reading between the lines, i too expand the stories. so it is dissapointing to see no expansion here. he illustrates exactly what is in the text, he does not extrapolate. he does not draw out the connections between the stories (and indeed the connections carry out between stories throughout the whole old testament!).

And of course the ultimate insult to the text, is a literal reading of it. As it is written, the text is incomplete, full of ambiguities, mere suggestions in so many places. and the purpose of the text, in the jewish tradition is that we are called to go with those hints, to create our own connections, extrapolations. the text cries out for it, and the tradition is seeped in this activity. It is holy. But Crumb's illustrations rather than preserving these ambiguities, pins them down in fixed graphics.

Language is a much more powerful medium for creating ambiguities, holding paradox, multiple viewpoints in the mind. It takes extraordinary efforts i.e. M. C. Escher and Picasso (and these are rather trivial cases) to do this in graphics.

one thing that really bothered me was that he wasted a LOT of panels just drawing faces showing various facial expressions in response to the text. instead he could have drawn images of what the text suggests, he could have drawn out the messages behind the text, the connections with other parts of the story, played on the poetry of the text, more of the mythic elements.

it's so focused on the individuals, petty human stories, but the individuals also clearly 'stand for' archetypes and peoples. Israel is at the same time a person and the whole people israel themselves. Adam is at the same time an individual (not much of one) and all humanity. Moab son of Lot is at the same time the whole people, the Moabites whith much future roles to play in the story ahead...

another point on the literalism of his illustrations: he draws god as a bearded old man. Now as Elohim, say in the first creation story, Elohim is clearly a force of nature and not a personality for humans to respond to. and even as yhvh, a much more personal presence that humans relate to... the point of tora is that yhvh is a voice, a calling, not an experience you can pin down in a picture.

there are plenty of instances for Crumb to draw, where god comes down as a messanger, i.e. when he comes to Abraham to announce he will have a child, and then argue with him about destroying Sodom.

I mean, you've got to build up to the point in Exodus where yhvh is clearly a monstrous volcanic force to be wrestled with, who does NOT even show his face, even to Moses.

In all, the text has always struck me as WAY bigger than Crumb draws it.

on the plus side, focusing as he does on the characters, i did come to some new excitiing realizations about what was going on with these characters. they made many messes of their lives and their children's lives. finally culminating in the reconciliation and forgiveness that joseph finally performs, closing the story. an interesting message. with larger closings as the old testament goes on, culminating in the reconcilation of Moab and Israel in the story of Ruth.

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