Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In the Beginning...

There may be no better instance of "high" art meeting "low" than R. Crumb's new version of the Book of Genesis (complete and unabridged, primarily using Robert Alter's translation)--an NPR review is here. Crumb, best known for his notoriously carnal and countercultural work in underground comics, explained that the warning on the book's cover--"Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors"--is needed because of the story, not his artwork. And indeed, his version is straight up, honestly depicting the extensive sex and violence of the original without gratuitous detail.

In his generally favorable review from The New Republic, Alter himself explores and questions the extent to which Crumb's illustrations add to the power of the original. However, is this really the primary criterion by which graphic work--whether drawn, staged, or filmed--should be judged? After all, as Alter implies, any one graphic interpretation, inasmuch as it favors one visual version, steers the reader away from imagined alternatives. Indeed, such is the power of primary text that any "strong interpretation" could potentially detract as much as add.

While graphic works can't be considered altogether in isolation from their source texts, I think they also can stand or fall based on their own visual impact. For instance, I love William Blake's illustrations, but I think they retain much of their power even if the words (prodigious in themselves) are blocked out. And some primary texts seem to me to be so profound and uncontainable in themselves that visual interpretations seem almost a distracting disservice. Shakespeare is like this--while I've enjoyed a fair number of staged and filmed versions, I would much prefer to reread the original.

Another way of saying it is that graphic interpretations, while perhaps professing to complement or even enhance the textual original, cannot avoid competing with it and threatening to limit it as well. Perhaps this is why Islam forbids illustrations of the divine. But interpretation, just as criticism itself, can be appreciated as a parallel pursuit, just as I might enjoy Mozart's Mass in C Minor without counting myself a believer. As Santayana I think put it, "There is no God, and Mary is his mother."

When I first read Genesis as a teenager I was most struck, for whatever reason, by the story of Lot's family's flight from Sodom and Gomorrah and his wife turning into a pillar of salt when she turned to look behind her. Perhaps there was some adolescent avidity to know what exactly was going on in Sodom and Gomorrah, but as someone with a weakness for nostalgia to begin with, I also took it as a minatory tale. Descending from high to low culture, I would then proceed to play Boston's "Don't Look Back" at high volume.

So the Book of Genesis, a work of towering influence, doesn't need R. Crumb to augment its stature, but the graphic work is compelling in its own right, establishing its own imaginative region even if, in narrative terms, it does little more than flatter the original. But one definition of a classic--I forget where I read it--is a work that continually generates a buzzing cloud of interpretation.

1 comment:

Retriever said...

Good post. I only read the Bible in youth for the sex and violence....

I've posted this before, but thought you might like this:

Lot's Wife
by Anna Akhmatova
Translated by Max Hayward and Stanley Kunitz

And the just man trailed God's shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed."

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.