Category Archives: Arts One texts

Mystery and identity in City of Glass

In Arts One this week we discussed City of Glass in two versions: the original novel by Paul Auster, and a graphic novel adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. We only had one seminar discussion on these two works rather than the usual two we have in a week, due to the Easter holiday. As a result, there is a lot that we didn’t get to talk about.

Paul Auster, 2008, by David Shankbone on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Paul Auster, 2008, by David Shankbone on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

I puzzled over many things in these works, but the one I decided to write about here started off with me asking myself the question: this is a novel about a writer of mysteries, but is it a mystery novel itself? And if so, what is the mystery and how might we solve it?

We did talk a bit about this question, as it came up when a student brought up something similar in class. But I wanted to share some of the thoughts I came up with when thinking about it before class. And perhaps, while writing them down here, I’ll come to some further clarity. Or maybe not.

I didn’t read any secondary sources on these texts before writing this, and I expect there is a great deal that has been written about these very questions. I try to challenge myself to come up with my own interpretations before reading anyone else’s. So it could very well be that what I say below is proven wrong by someone else’s more expert reading. I’ve tried to provide textual evidence to support this as a possible reading though.

What’s mysterious?

We don’t have to take this as a mystery novel, of course, and for reasons we discussed in class it might be better thought of as a novel about mystery novels. But I still find some things mysterious in it. Of course, these are not wrapped up nicely in answers as in traditional mystery novels:

  • Why are there two Peter Stillman Sr.’s?
    • In lecture a possibility was discussed that this could be an embodiment of the possibility of the story of a writer going in different directions, and which direction is chosen is somewhat arbitrary.
  • What happens to Peter Stillman Jr. and Virginia Stillman? Why do they disappear?
  • What happens to Quinn? Where does he disappear to?
  • Who is the “author”/narrator of the novel?

Now, maybe some of these questions are not meant to have answers. But I did pursue some thoughts about the last two.

What happened to Quinn at the end?

I came to an answer for this pretty quickly; the graphic novel helped me see it more clearly. None of this is to say that this is the answer, but it’s one that I think makes sense.

When Quinn goes to the room in the Stillmans’ apartment and basically fades away while writing in the red notebook, the darkness starts taking over more and more from the light, and he has less and less time to write in his notebook (Auster 199). And the notebook is running out of pages. These two things are correlated:

The period of growing darkness coincided with the dwindling of pages in the red notebook. Little by little, Quinn was coming to the end (Auster 199).

Quinn was coming to the end of the red notebook, but also to the end of himself: after he discovers that someone else is living in his apartment, that he has no more home, no more job with the Stillmans, he realizes that he has “come to the end of himself” (Auster 191).

Quinn as a character on a page

This suggests a close connection between writing in the red notebook and the existence of Quinn himself. Of course, he existed as a character before buying the red notebook, but at the end, as the notebook runs out of pages, and Quinn slowly stops writing in it, the darkness starts taking him over–he fades away, one might think. His existence at this point and the existence of pages in the notebook seem to coincide. Which in turn suggests that he is little more than a character on a page; when the pages run out, he runs out.

At least, he runs out as the person he was. Just as he had become a different person while keeping watch over the Stillmans’ apartment (Auster 183), he might become a different person when the pages of the red notebook run out. He tries to remember his life “before the story began” (Auster 195), the books he had written as William Wilson, his former agent; but it was difficult and he soon “waved good-bye” to his former life (195). As he continues to write in the notebook, he stops writing about himself: “Quinn no longer had any interest in himself” (200).

He disappears, but perhaps he just disappears as Quinn.

Quinn as a character on a page in the graphic novel version

David Mazzuchelli in 2012," by Luigi Novi on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY 3.0. © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

David Mazzuchelli in 2012, by Luigi Novi on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY 3.0. © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

The graphic novel could be said to illustrate the idea of Quinn disappearing as the pages in the notebook disappear. As one of our students talked about in class, the panels during the period that Quinn is in the room writing in the notebook start to become more chaotic. Whereas before they were regular, with even spacing between even if they were different sizes, at this point they start to have chaotic spacing until they completely fall apart towards the end. This student said that before that, there are indications that we are looking into the story and Quinn’s life as through a window, but now I can’t for the life of me remember what he was saying about this and how it changes when the panels fall apart (I hope he soon posts his argument on our blog site!).

One thing this does for me is make it feel less like we are looking in on a story that is happening as if in “real life” (at least, a sense of real life as one gets in fiction), and more like we are reading a story on a page. When the panels fall apart towards the end and become clearly like pieces of paper, it brings to mind for me the fact that these are pieces of paper we are reading, that this is a book, that the story isn’t, after all, real and Quinn is actually just a character on a page.

Of course, this really is what he is; a character on a page. But the book is foregrounding this, making us aware of it, pulling us out of the immersion in the story where we have a sense that he’s kind of real…in the story at least. I’m reminded of what we talked about with Laura Mulvey, how she discusses that film sometimes tries to keep us immersed, to make the camera disappear, as it were, or at least fade into a simulated reality so we don’t pay attention to what the camera is doing. And how film can bring the filmic medium and the camera to the forefront, such as with the 360 degree pans we watched in class from her film Riddles of the Sphinx.

In the graphic novel, in the two-page spread on 130-131, he himself depicted pictorially in a way that suggests this as well. On the bottom of 130 and on 131 he is shown diving or falling into water with a pen in his hand, the pen going first into the water and the rest of his body following. It’s as if he is writing his way into the water. But the water on the page turns into just blank white pages that fall away into the darkness on 131 and 132-133. He is disappearing into the pages; he is nothing more than the pages in the book.

Another interesting thing about this, though, is that as he himself as a character experiences darkness (the more he starts to disappear, to fade way as a character, as Quinn, the more he experiences darkness), the pages turn white. Again, this suggests he exists only on the page. As he disappears, the page becomes blank.

Who is the author/narrator?

So Quinn the character on a page disappears as he stops writing in the notebook. Who was he written by? Paul Auster the author, of course, who wrote the whole book. But what about the book within the book, as Auster the character in City of Glass talks about with Cervantes’ Don Quixote? Who is the author/narrator in Auster’s novel City of Glass, as he appears towards the end of the text (starting on p. 173)? Maybe there isn’t supposed to be a clear answer to this, and maybe I’m just making stuff up, but here are some thoughts.

The graphic novel could suggest one answer to this question, in part through different fonts. If you look closely, there are different fonts for different characters:

  • “author”/narrator: like typewriter (1, 89, 107, then at end)
  • Quinn and the voiceovers in the story (not the narrator as standing out as a narrator) have the same font
  • Peter Stillman Jr. on the phone (6, 11) and in person (starting p. 15) have different fonts than those for Quinn
  • Max Work has a strong font p. 7
  • Peter Stillman Sr has stylized capital letters (66-67, etc.) and his speech bubbles also have sharp corners
  • Daniel Auster’s speech bubbles have slightly different font (95)
  • On 102-103, the panels have a different font to show that these words are what Quinn is writing in his notebook

One thing the graphic novel suggests with font styles is that perhaps Quinn himself is the noun_159333_ccauthor/narrator who appears towards the end. The very last page starts off with the narrator speaking in the typewriter font, and then the last sentence is back in the notebook. I suppose there are a number of ways to interpret this, but one way could be to connect the typewriter narrator to the Quinn that was writing in his notebook. The same words that appear in Auster’s novel as coming from the same voice, in the graphic novel appear in two different fonts, one clearly connected to Quinn as the character who wrote in the red notebook.

Remember that “Quinn did all his writing with a pen, using a typewriter only for final drafts” (Auster 62). We might think that the notebook pages are his first drafts, and the typewriter is when he came later to write the story up in a final form.

So though Quinn as a character on a page disappears as the story winds down to a close, Quinn as an author starts to appear. The “author” as narrator starts to make conspicuous appearances as Quinn starts his vigil outside the Stillmans’ apartment (Auster 173), which is arguably when he starts to fall apart. Then, when Quinn the character disappears completely the “author” comes in and takes over.

The graphic novel suggests this reading in another way as well. The last three pages of the graphic novel are written in a different style, as we discussed in class: they don’t have clear panels, and the images seem more realistically drawn. That would connect to the fact that at this point in Auster’s novel, it is purely the “author”/narrator’s voice we are getting. But I noticed something else: the pictures on the first of those last three pages mirror pictures on p. 113, from when Quinn was doing his watch of the Stillmans’ apartment. At that point, Quinn leaves his seat and walks to try to get some more money, so it looks to me like the path away from the Stillmans’ apartment.

If this is the case, then why would the same path away from the Stillmans’ apartment be being followed by the author/narrator at the end? After all, in that part of the story the author/narrator is going towards the Stillmans’ apartment, if anything, since he and Auster go there to try to find clues about Quinn. Again, one possible reading of what the graphic novel is doing is that the author/narrator is coming out of the apartment because that is where he, Quinn the character, last was. Quinn the author/narrator emerges from the place where Quinn the character disappeared.

Authors putting themselves in books

Yes, I’ve gone pretty far in my flights of fancy here. But I think there’s a certain logic to it. And it fits with Paul Auster (the author) putting himself into his own book as a character–maybe Quinn (the author) is putting himself into his own book as a character. Maybe Quinn the author had to write himself away as the character who is in despair, who doesn’t really exist except as William Wilson or Max Work; maybe he had to get rid of that self in order to emerge as a writer again.

Since his wife and son died, and before the case with the Stillmans began, he wrote only as William Wilson. In those five years, Quinn had stopped being an author, and had already started to fade away:

Quinn was no longer that part of himself that could write books, and although in many ways Quinn continued to exist, he no longer existed for anyone but himself (Auster 9).

He had, of course, long ago stopped thinking of himself as real. If he lived now in the world at all, it was only at one remove, through the imaginary person of Max Work (Auster 16).

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 11.39.24 AMPerhaps, when he starts writing about the Stillman case in the red notebook, he starts to exist as an author again. Note that in the notebook where he starts writing about the Stillman case, and in my reading where he starts writing the story that later becomes this book with him as the author/narrator, he puts “Daniel Quinn” on the notebook: “It was the first time in more than five years that he had put his own name in one of his notebooks” (Auster 64). If the notebook is connected to this book itself, where this book is the final draft in typewriter form and the notebook is his earlier notes, then this, too, suggests to me that he is the author/narrator who appears later. He is able to become a writer again, in that case.

But he is no longer a writer as Daniel Quinn the character, though, which is a problem with my reading. The author/narrator refers to Quinn as having disappeared. And Quinn as character does. As noted above, he disappears as Quinn the character, but might emerge as someone else. Maybe Daniel Quinn the writer, or maybe an unnamed author/narrator. In either case, the author/narrator says at the end that Quinn “will be with me always.” Why? Because he is a part of the author/narrator, a former self, I’m arguing.

Don Quixote…what’s up with that?

So if this reading makes any sense, then it would be like Auster writing a novel in which he creates a character as himself, and Quinn doing the same. But I expect there’s a lot more to this idea of authors putting themselves in books than I’m getting, with the whole Don Quixote story within this novel. Don Quixote, in Auster’s (the character’s) article, doesn’t so much write his own story as orchestrate others writing his story with him as a character in it. I went down that rabbit hole, trying to connect Daniel Quinn to Don Quixote as we are invited to do with the initials being the same, but came up empty on that path.


Well, this has turned into a gigantic post (over 2500 words!). I think I’ve exhausted all the ideas I had on these topics, but would be happy to hear what others think!


Visual Language in Tezuka’s Buddha Vol. 1

In Arts One this week we read Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha: Kapilavastu, which is the first volume in Tezuka’s Buddha series.

As usual for Arts One, there was so much to talk about and I wanted to raise some issues and questions that we didn’t get time to discuss. The problem is that I left my book in my office and am now trying to write a blog post over the weekend with just my notes. Not so great when you’re writing about manga, where the images matter a lot and I might not remember all aspects of them. But I’ll try.

Visual language

One thing I focused on this week while reading Buddha Vol. 1 is what Cohn & Ehly (2016) call “visual language”:

Just what is meant by ‘‘visual language’’? Humans use patterned ways of communicating in the visual-graphic form (i.e., drawing) just as they do in the verbal form (i.e., speaking). However, there is a terminological gap between these modalities with regards to the system employed in this process: we speak in a spoken language, but we draw in __?___. The answer to filling this gap is a ‘‘visual language” …. (19)

A visual language, as I understand it, is a way of communicating through images without words (because words themselves can be taken as images, as we discussed today in class–the Japanese characters seem to “fit” better in some of the images than the English letters/words because of their shape).

Cohn and Ehly (2016) go on to talk about something like words in visual language:

… graphic patterns are stored as schemas of form-meaning mappings in the long-term memory of their creators, similar to the way that verbal patterns are stored as schemas (words) in spoken languages of the world (Cohn, 2013b). To the extent that people might share the same cognitive patterns, we might say that they draw in a common visual language. (19)

So there can be image-meaning units like there are word-meaning units. Cohn and Ehly (2016) call these “visual morphemes,” and a list of some of the visual morphemes they say exist in manga, according to their research based on what Japanese researchers have said and their own study of many manga themselves, can be found here: Morphology of Japanese Visual Language.

Now, it’s worth noting that their research is not without its critics, of course (as any good research isn’t).  in this post Nicholas A. Theisen calls out Cohn for essentializing “Japanese” visual language as if we could focus all visual language in manga down to a single kind of essence. He also criticizes Cohn (and others) for making arguments based on a biased empirical sample:

In formalist Japanese manga studies discourse (e.g. Natsume, Takeuchi, or Yomota), the basic features of manga in toto are first identified in comics for men/boys and only thereafter are the stylistic conventions of many shōjo/josei manga seen as variants thereof.  An honest question: why isn’t it the other way around?  Why aren’t shōnen/seinen the variants?

So I’m not going to make any claims about a particularly “Japanese” visual language here.

What I’m interested in is just paying attention to the idea of visual language and how we can see certain images as regularly suggesting a certain meaning/range of meanings, just as words will be regularly connected with a (range of) meaning(s).

Visual language in Buddha: Kapilavastu

Where can we see in Tezuka’s text particular images/symbols that are regularly associated with a meaning that we can get just from the image itself? Of course, there are lots of things like drawings of faces, people, horses, ducks, etc., that are representative of certain entities in the “real world.” What I’m interested in are the more abstract images.

Motion lines

So, for example, movement is expressed in certain regularized ways in this book and in other comics too. Quite often, motion lines are used to show how an object is moving or has moved within a panel. Here’s a simple example:

Fast Aeroplane with Motion Lines, Derivation by Chris McKenna of a work by Carlos Latuff, Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

Fast Aeroplane with Motion Lines, Derivation by Chris McKenna of a work by Carlos Latuff, Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

We see these a lot in Buddha Vol. 1, and we also see a different kind of motion line in numerous places in the text as well. Instead of the lines streaking from an object, they take up more of the background of a panel but still suggest motion. This page has a good example of what I’m talking about–see the last image in the vertical series of motion lines (since the page doesn’t say one can reuse the images, I can’t re-post the image here).

One example (and here’s where I wish I had my book with me!) is when Chapra first gets on the horse that Tatta has possessed, and before he finds Budhai being attacked by crocodiles. One of those panels has a background with lots of horizontal lines and the horse is galloping (I’m pretty sure this is from p. 129, if my notes are correct). The lines aren’t going from the horse, but are behind the images in the panel. In one of the panels on p. 129 Chapra is on the horse who is rearing up (if I remember correctly) and the lines in the background are circular rather than horizontal like they are when the horse is galloping. I still get a sense of movement from the circular motion lines, even though clearly the horse and rider are not spinning around in circles. But I’m not sure what kind of motion I’m getting from it, or why the circles might make sense in that context.

What’s interesting to me is that for me, the motion lines like the ones coming from the aeroplane above just feel more natural, they feel more like they are indicating motion. The ones that are in the background of the frame feel less so. Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, argues that these latter kinds of motion lines are more common in manga than in American or European comics (112-113), and perhaps I am just more used to expressing motion with a different kind of “visual language” than the lines in the backgrounds of panels.

Other symbols
Many of the visual morphemes in Buddha Vol. 1 made sense to me, probably because they’re part of a common visual language that I understand.

For example, there are a number of places where things hit one another (swords on shields) or people hit one another, and there are stars that seem to come out of the impact point. That’s a common symbol I’ve seen a lot in cartoons and North American comics. Similarly, when Tatta is disoriented on p. 102 there are stars that look like they’re going around in a circle (is that right? again…working from notes w/o a book) and then in another panel there are those little funny circle things that look like he is disoriented, like those icons with four lines on top of this guy’s head:
It’s clear to me that Tatta is dizzy, partly by the context of what is happening, of course, but also because of those icons that just shout drunkenness or disorientation to me.

In addition, the use of musical notes on pp. 50, 232 and 240 make sense to me. The ones on p. 50 are when Chapra is about to get his cloth back after Tatta stole it, and it seems to me they are signaling him being happy about it–he is reaching out to the cloth and excited to be getting it back. Later, I think on 232, the girls who come to fawn over Chapra have both hearts and musical notes above their heads–the hearts clearly signaling love or desire and the musical notes signaling, perhaps, something like joy or excitement. Chapra has music notes near him on p. 240, but there I think he might actually be singing what the words are saying.

Symbols I am not sure about

Then there are some I find more puzzling, one of which I think I get and the other I don’t.

First, there are a lot of speech bubbles with just ellipses in them in this text. Looking at the context of those, it seems that the characters are not saying anything, and somehow the ellipses mean more than just pure silence. They are somehow a meaningful silence. As I mentioned near the end of class today, they suggest a silence that calls attention to itself. So then I did a web search on ellipses in manga, and Wikipedia says this (okay, yes, maybe those who wrote it don’t know what they’re talking about, but it resonates with how the ellipses feel to me):

In manga, the ellipsis (i.e. three dots) is also used to express silence in a much more significant way than the mere absence of bubbles. This is specially seen when a character is supposed to say something, to indicate a stunned silence or when a sarcastic comment is expected by the reader. (Wikipedia, Speech Balloon)

The one that’s still puzzling me, though, is the symbol that looks a bit like a mushroom that has been cut from the ground and still has some stem on it. It’s found on p. 94 (I think in a panel with Budhai laughing), then on 202, 210 and 216 in the scene with the snake (in two of those it is near the snake’s head when the snake is dead or dying), and again on 377 and 379 (my notes don’t tell me what is going on on those pages). I just didn’t get what that might refer to. And it occurs often enough that I don’t think it’s just a fluke; it seems to be there on purpose, for some reason.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of this, and/or some particular symbols you found interesting or puzzling…

Foucault’s Discipline & Punish–outline of parts 1 and 3

cell block d, Flickr photo shared by Sean Hobson, licensed CC BY 2.0

cell block d, Flickr photo shared by Sean Hobson, licensed CC BY 2.0

In Arts One this week we are discussing Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, but just parts 1 and 3. I gave a lecture early on in the week, and realized the next day that there was something I should have done in the lecture: because this text is complex, how the parts fit together may not be clear to people reading it for the first time, and I should have tried to outline that in the lecture.

So I’m going to do so now, here, instead (and add this into the lecture next year! It’s much faster if I say it than writing it all out).

What follows isn’t an outline of the whole text, just an attempt to show how what he’s doing in Part 1 and Part 3 work together.

From the public execution to the prison

The subtitle of the book, in English, is “The Birth of the Prison” (in French it’s Naissance de la prison). And we don’t get much about the prison in parts 1 and 3; it comes in part 4. But part of what he’s doing in the text is talking about how, in Europe, punishment moved from a kind of spectacle of sovereign power, whether in public executions or other public punishments, to the enclosure of people in prisons. “I would like to write the history of [the] prison, with all the political investments of the body that it gathers together in its closed architecture,” Foucault writes at the end of the first chapter.

In the second chapter of Part 1, “The Spectacle of the Scaffold,” Foucault describes the public spectacle of punishment, and in Part 2 he describes what reforms were called for in punishment in France in the latter half of the 18th century (Part 2 was not assigned for us to read). But they didn’t call for what actually happened: most crimes ended up being punished through imprisonment. The reformers though of imprisonment as just one possible punishment among many, and only reserved for certain kinds of crimes (114). However, Foucault notes, “within a short space of time, detention became the essential form of punishment. In the penal code of 1810, between death and fines, it occupies … almost the whole field of possible punishments” (115). He then asks why that should have become the case.

The two stories that open the text, that of the execution of Damiens and the time-table for the prison for young people written up by Faucher, exemplify this shift in types of punishment. And imprisonment is not just a matter of locking people away; it also focuses on the “soul” rather than the body: much more attention is paid to the criminal and his/her “passions, instincts, anomalies, infirmities, maladjustments …” (17). Punishment connected to the prison now considers not just the crimes someone did, but “Where did [they] originate in the author himself? Instinct, unconscious, environment, heredity”? (19). It’s not just a matter of punishing the act, but also the person themselves, and of asking how that person can be transformed: “the sentence that condemns or acquits is not simply a judgement of guilt …; it bears within it an assessment of normality and a technical prescription for a possible normalization” (21). The time-table described by Faucher (6-7) is part of  technique of attempting to reform individuals, not just punish acts.

So, again, Foucault’s question is: Why did Europe (and in particular France, which is what he is focusing on here), move from the public spectacle to the normalizing prison?

A screen shot of a new slide I added to the Prezi visuals for my lecture on this text

A screen shot of a new slide I added to the Prezi visuals for my lecture on this text

Disciplinary power

What happened in the meantime was the development of disciplinary methods. Those are what he is describing in Part 3. The partitioning of space, the observation of people to try to make sure they are acting in the most efficient manner, the breaking up of actions so as to manage them in a deep way (like the action of raising a rifle, p. 153), the attempt to get as much use out of elements of time as possible, and more are part of the “docility-utility” that disciplinary mechanisms attempt to enforce on the body. They try to make people more “docile” (compliant, submissive) and at the same time more “useful” (efficient).

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 10.35.09 PM

The examination–which is a practice that can range from exams in schools to exams by doctors or psychologists, to examinations of prisoners to determine if they are ready for release or parole–is an important disciplinary mechanism that Foucault talks about in the chapter entitled (“The Means of Correct Training”). It combines surveillance with normalization, with judging people against a norm, classifying and ranking them (as discussed in lecture). The examination allows for individuals to be both visible and knowable: they become described in documentation that makes of the individual a “case” that is “described, judged, measured, compared with others … [and also] trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc.” (191).

— Did you catch that? Seeing and knowing…our course theme! —

The panopticon is both a building plan for a prison developed by Jeremy Bentham (and a design for some actual prisons) and a conceptual model for how disciplinary power works. It emphasizes the visibility of individuals for the sake of surveilling them, of examining them, and developing knowledge about them (203-204).

It also has the benefit of getting people to conform to norms on their own, to discipline themselves: “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (202-203). When you think at any moment you might be being watched, but you can’t be sure if you are (the “unverifiability” of the observation (201)), it’s much more likely that you will discipline yourself to act as you are supposed to: “it is not necessary to use force to constrain the convict to good behaviour, the madman to calm, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to the observation of the regulations” (202).


From disciplinary mechanisms to the prison

These disciplinary mechanisms and the panoptic model developed in many institutions and practices: in the military, schools, hospitals among other places (138). But what happened was that they were useful, and ended up spreading; Foucault refers to “the gradual extension of the mechanisms of discipline throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their spread throughout the whole social body, the formation of what might be called in general the disciplinary society” (209).

Soon they were used by the police and the legal system (213-215). And they, and the panoptic model of the prison, became embedded in punishment.

All the great movements of extension that characterize modern penality–the problematization of the criminal behind his crime, the concern with a punishment that is a correction, a therapy, a normalization, the division of the act of judgement between various authorities that are supposed to measure, assess, diagnose, cure, transform individuals–all this betrays the penetration of the disciplinary examination …” (227).

Foucault ends part 3 with a question that, hopefully, now might make more sense: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons”? (228). Because according to him, the prison developed in large part through the spread of disciplinary mechanisms that were used in these other institutions.

And Foucault, as noted in my lecture, leaves it up to us whether we want to question, and possibly resist, the disciplinary and panoptic aspects of all of them.


Mirrors, reflections in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber

In Arts One this week we read Angela Carter’s collection of short stories entitled The Bloody Chamber. I really enjoyed this collection, though I found it challenging because we could have spent at least an hour on each story rather than talking about the whole book in two 80-minute seminar discussions. Each story has so much going on in it, so much complexity and symbolism, that I found myself thinking each one was as full as an entire novel itself.

One thing I wanted to talk about in seminar but didn’t get the chance to is the many references to mirrors and reflections. And, since our theme this year is Seeing and Knowing, I really wanted to at least write a blog post about this theme. Here are some of my fairly fragmented thoughts, fragmented partly because I don’t think mirrors and reflections necessarily have the same meaning across all stories.

Beauty is truth's smile ...", Flickr photo shared by Beverley Goodwin, licensed CC BY 2.0

Beauty is truth’s smile …”, Flickr photo shared by Beverley Goodwin, licensed CC BY 2.0


Seeing in mirrors others’ images of oneself

I got the sense in at least a couple of the stories that mirrors showed women seeing themselves through how they are seen by others: the reflection showed not the woman’s own view of herself, but how others view her.

The Bloody Chamber

I saw this first in “The Bloody Chamber,” the first story in the collection. On p. 11 the narrator explicitly says as much: after noticing that her husband-to-be is looking at her with lust, she saw herself in a mirror and says, “And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire.” But more significantly, she sees in herself “a potentiality for corruption” (11), which he also sees in her (20).

Later, she sees herself in the mirror after he undresses her, and sees the image of a pornographic etching that he had shown her (15). Given his penchant for pornography, it makes sense to say that there, too, she is seeing herself as he sees her: he is the “purchaser unwrapp[ing] his bargain,” and she a tender “lamb-chop” as in the etching.

What about the fact that their bedroom is covered with mirrors? She saw that she had “become the multitude of girls [she] saw in the mirrors, identical in their chic navy blue tailor-mades …” (14). For me, this brings up how she is one in a string of women he has treated similarly, women he has seen in the same way as he sees her. To him, the women may be somewhat identical: his ring, he says when he demands it back from her, “will serve [him] for a dozen more fiancées” (38). But I’m not sure it’s just his problem (though he is definitely a problem); Carter might be pointing to a more systemic issue, that too often this is how women are viewed and treated, as objects to be seen (he has a “gallery of beautiful women” (10)) and lusted over, and to be used, and used up. The narrator “watched a dozen husbands approach her in a dozen mirrors” (15), and as they have sex, “a dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides” (17). This suggests, I think, a more systemic problem–this happens to many husbands and wives.


I saw this theme again in “Erl-King,” even though there aren’t any literal mirrors in the story so far as I remember. But the narrator speaks of her reflection in the Erl-King’s eyes (both of the following are from p. 90):

The gelid green of your eyes fixes my reflective face. It is a preservative, like a green liquid amber; it catches me. I am afraid I will be trapped in it forever ….

Your green eye is a reducing chamber. If I look into it long enough, I will become as small as my own reflection. I will diminish to a point and vanish. … I shall become so small you can keep me in one of your osier cages and mock my loss of liberty.

Of course, much of this story is about being enclosed, being caged: “The woods enclose” (84 and also 85); she felts she was “in a house of nets” in the woods (85); he takes girls and cages them as birds. What I find interesting here is that part of the caging is through his eyes:

I know the birds don’t sing, they only cry because they can’t find their way out of the wood, have lost their flesh when they were dipped in the corrosive pools of his regard and now must live in cages (90).

Connecting this with what I said above about “The Bloody Chamber,” I thought of the narrator speaking of her reflection in his eyes as a kind of entrapment. Then I considered that perhaps, again, the reflection could be symbolic of the view of these women from the perspective of the male figure, which holds them in a particular image that they have trouble finding their way out of. The narrator, at the end, plans to find her way out, though; still, she has to ask him to turn his gaze away first before she can do so.


Seeing only oneself, one’s own reflection, when seeing others

This is related to the above–it’s more from seer’s standpoint than what I talked about above, which is more from the standpoint of the seen (being trapped in the regard of the seer).

I saw this in “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” though a similar theme can probably be found elsewhere too. There is an emphasis early on with the “Beauty” character on how she sees the lion as so very different from her:

She found his bewildering difference from herself almost intolerable; its presence choked her (45).

It was in her heart to drop a kiss upon his shaggy mane but, though she stretched out her hand towards him, she could not bring herself to touch him of her own free will, he was so different from herself (48).

This makes sense on a literal level of the difference between a lion and a human; she thinks, after all, “a lion is a lion and a man is a man and, though lions are more beautiful by far than we are, yet they belong to a different order of beauty …” (45). But I think that as we read further into the story, another meaning can emerge.

When she looked into his eyes, “she saw her face repeated twice,” which can suggest that when she looks in his eyes all she sees is herself (47). This idea is amplified later when she goes to London and lives a life of luxury: “she smiled at herself in mirrors a little too often, these days …” (49). The “beauty” she sees is when she looks at herself in the mirror: “she took off her earrings in front of the mirror; Beauty” (48).

But then when the spaniel comes to her at the end of winter, “[h]er trance before the mirror broke” as she remembered her promise and that she had broken it (49). And when she goes to him she sees that he has eyelids:

How was it she had never noticed before that his agate eyes were equipped with lids, like those of a man? Was it because she had only looked at her own face, reflected there? (50)

That is the quote that sent me thinking in this direction in the first place! And the ending of the story could suggest that after all him seeming to be a lion could have been because she didn’t really see him as he was: she noticed that “he had always kept his fists clenched but now, painfully, tentatively, at last began to stretch his fingers”; and she saw that his nose gave him a look of a lion (51)–perhaps he just had that resemblance and it was she who thought of him as a lion? And perhaps that is because somehow he was different from her, and she wanted, at first, only sameness, only the sort of being she saw reflected in a mirror?

The view she had that “a lion is a lion and a man is a man” is questioned in numerous stories, I think, given the transformations between humans and non-human animals that happen in many of them. And this connects back to something that was said in the lecture on this book that we had on Monday: Carter may have been trying to get beyond the binary of predator and prey, master and slave, aggressor and victim that is often apparent in fairy tales and in some depictions of sexual relations (such as with the Marquis de Sade). The “Beauty” character in this story at first thinks of Mr. Lyon as a lion and herself as “Miss Lamb, spotless, sacrificial” (45).

  • Actually…is this supposed to be her name, as in Mr. Lyon and Miss Lamb? Don’t know…just thought of this.

So she at first has that sort of binary view of their relationship–he will “gobble her up” as the nursemaid of the “Beauty” character in “The Tiger’s Bride” says of the tiger-man (56). But perhaps the “Beauty” of the “Mr. Lyon” story gets past this binary view to some degree when she sees that he is not a lion after all (or perhaps he really turns from a lion to a human when she pulls away from her mirror…it’s hard to tell).



Reflecting Bullmation, Flickr photo shared by 6SN7, licensed CC BY 2.0. Okay, I know a dog isn't a wolf, but you get the picture.

Reflecting Bullmation, Flickr photo shared by 6SN7, licensed CC BY 2.0. Okay, I know a dog isn’t a wolf, but you get the picture.


I am bringing up this story as a separate section because, frankly, I’m having trouble figuring out what to do with the mirrors in it.

The Duke, who appears to be a werewolf, also doesn’t have a reflection in a mirror at first (120), which, as someone pointed out in small groups in class today, suggests he also is like a vampire character. This seems partly because “he passed through the mirror and now, henceforward, lives as if upon the other side of things” (121)–you can’t have a reflection if you’ve passed through a mirror.

  • This reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: Alice goes through a looking glass one winter night and finds herself in a garden full of talking flowers and a chess queen, as well as humpty dumpty and others. But I haven’t really thought this through.

I wondered if maybe this crossing over to the other side could be related to him going over quite strongly to the “beast” side. He is an undeveloped character in the story, who is focused only on eating:

At night, those huge, inconsolable, rapacious eyes of his are eaten up by swollen, gleaming pupil. His eyes see only appetite. These eyes open to devour the world in which he sees, nowhere, a reflection of himself (120).

He doesn’t see himself in the mirror or in anyone else in the world—-the narrator says that Wolf-Alice has “as little in common with the rest of us as he does” (120). His vision is limited to devouring.

But then by the end the mirror shows the Duke’s reflection, after he has been shot and lies wounded, and Wolf-Alice licks his wounds. She brings him back through the mirror, back from the other side. Perhaps at this point there is a connection between the two so that in a way, he now has a reflection in the world, someone similar to him in some sense, namely her? Or at least, she has sympathy for him, and he can see something more in the world than just what he wants to eat? The narrator says that as he lies wounded he is “locked half-and-half between such strange states, an aborted transformation,” and that he is like “a woman in labour” (126). To me this suggests he is somewhere on the border of whatever it is that the mirror represents, the border he had crossed through and of which now he is sitting in the middle until she pulls him back over.

By this point in the story Wolf-Alice has moved from mostly animal to more human-like. And “two-legs looks, four-legs sniffs”–there is something about vision in this story that seems connected to humanity. As Alice bumps against the mirror the Duke has passed through (123) and eventually comes to see it as providing her an image of herself, she comes to be more human. She wears clothes and thereby has “put on the visible sign of her difference from them” (125). So one might think that here at the end the Duke passes back over into humanity.

And yet, with this story and this last scene ending the book, I wonder if things aren’t a bit more complex than that. By the end of the story she is still sniffing and prowling like a wolf; she has moved into the territory of humanity, but still retains some of her wolflike aspects. She is “Wolf-Alice,” a kind of in-between being, and perhaps we are to think that the Duke becomes and remains such an amalgamation as well. I see something of a progression in the three stories at the end:

  • In “The Werewolf” the people think of wolves as dangerous and the people who turn into them as evil witches who must be stoned.
  • In “In the Company of Wolves,” as discussed today in class, the Red Riding Hood character has sympathy for the wolves howling outside, because they are cold (117), and she doesn’t fear the wolf but instead has sex with him. There is some kind of closer rapport happening here, though the girl and the wolf are still clearly separate in the last line: “See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf” (118)
  • Then in “Wolf-Alice” we might see an overcoming of the binary of beast and human, with a human raised by wolves who takes on some aspects of the human, and the man who became a beast but can then move back into a middle space. But then again, I may be making that up, really; I think I just want to see that, as was questioned in lecture, she may actually have some evidence of moving beyond this binary!


That was quite a pile of thoughts, and I hope they were coherent, and that at least some might be, if not fully convincing, then at least thought-provoking!

Countess Told in Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler

In Arts One this past week we were talking about Weimar cinema:

We had great discussions on all of them, but one thing we didn’t get to, and that still puzzles me, is Countess Told’s character in Dr. Mabuse. I don’t have clear ideas on her role in the film, which is why I’m writing a blog post–sometimes I can write my way through to some ideas (and sometimes not…but I have to try in order to find out!).

Spieler, Spielerei

According to the Wikipedia entry on the movie, “der Spieler” can refer to “gambler, puppeteer, or actor.” Clearly all three meanings fit with Mabuse’s character, who manipulates others to his will, who puts on disguises as an actor, and who also gambles–but really, he is less a gambler in the traditional sense than someone who fixes games to make them come out his way. As the Count accuses him at the end of Part II, he plays falsely (cheats); this is of course ironic because Mabuse has forced the Count to cheat against the Count’s will.

According to Mabuse, everything is “Spielerei,” which the English subtitles render as “pastime” but clearly the root is the same as “Spieler” (Part 1, 2:28:26). So perhaps everything is a game, a matter of playing or gambling, according to Mabuse (see also the Collins dictionary translation of “Spielerei”).

But Countess Told is portrayed explicitly as someone who doesn’t play.

Screen shot of Countess Told at 1:01:05 of Part I

Screen shot of Countess Told at 1:01:05 of Part I

The Countess as passive observer who needs “strong sensations”

Countess Told is introduced to us in Part I of Dr. Mabuse as the “passive lady” at Schramm’s club, because she only watches and never plays. She is simply an observer, and frequently bored with what she sees: she says to Mabuse that everything you can see from a car, a window, an opera box is “partly disgusting, partly uninteresting, always boring” (Part 1, 2:02:48). While others involve themselves in gambling and séances, while her husband involves himself in collecting expressionist art, she simply watches from the sidelines.

The Countess describes herself to Wenk as having become “sluggish,” and says “to rise to life, I require strong sensations” (Part 1, 1:02:42). She claims to need “relief from the dead atmosphere” of her house with the Count, and seeks it in “night-spots and gambling dens” (Part 1, 1:17:02). But while others who play, who are directly involved in gambling, might get some degree of strong sensations from it (a sense of risk, a desire for wealth), it’s not clear how watching others could provide her with the “strong sensations” she craves. She tells Wenk that she needs “life, the strong breath of the unusual–sensations–adventures–but [she is] afraid they are extinct” (Part 1, 1:17:35).

She does seem to find something of what she seeks when she agrees to go to the jail to try to get information out of Carozza. When she discovers the depth of Carozza’s love for Mabuse, she writes to Wenk that she thought she would find “the paid tout of a notorious criminal,” but instead found “a woman full of love, before whose simple and unconditional feelings [she is] not suitable to be [Wenk’s] ally” (Part 1, 2:25:45). Later she tells Mabuse, “I have encountered something which until recently I did not believe existed–something of greater value and more deeply stirring than even the strongest sensation,” namely love (Part 1, 2:31:29). To me, this suggests that while she used to seek surface sensations, she was struck even more strongly by a deeper, somehow more real and authentic feeling than what she can get by watching others in their “night-spots and gambling-dens.” It’s clearly something she doesn’t experience with her husband, and the only other portrayal of a romantic relationship in the movie is clearly a false, surface one: Carozza and Hull. I think we are supposed to take it that Carozza really loves Mabuse, that she hasn’t just been influenced by him to love him (or he would have stopped her later, since by the time during which the narrative takes place he is clearly tired of her). This sort of deep feeling seems missing in the lives of the rest of the characters in the film, who spend their lives seeking spectacle, stuffing themselves with food and drink (the scene introducing Schramm’s has a lovely montage of food and drink, with a great image of a man sitting by himself at a table, stuffing himself greedily: Part 1, 56:00).

Mabuse lives off of the more superficial desires of people in the city: he gets rich through their greed (the stock market, gambling). He himself succumbs to those superficial desires–he himself is clearly greedy for money, he is shown frequently drinking, and though we don’t know exactly when he cast off Carozza, it could have been when she started to actually fall in love with him. He tells the Countess: “There is no love–there is only desire!” (Part 1, 2:31). And when, during the séance scene in Part 1 the Countess tells Mabuse that nothing can keep her interest for long, he says only one thing can do so: “playing with people and their destinies” (2:03:36). But she doesn’t play.

Perhaps the Countess can’t be drawn in by Mabuse because she doesn’t indulge in the more superficial pleasures he draws people in with, and she doesn’t engage in playing with them and their destinies–as noted above, she doesn’t play, she only watches. She is one of the few in the film who who resists him. Wenk resists him during his card game with Mabuse in the disguise of the old man, but later falls prey to him during the Weltmann show in Part 2. The Countess is influenced to invite him over to a party in Part 1, which we know because later she says to her husband that she’s not sure why she invited him, nor why she wants to withdraw the invitation. But in Part 2 the Countess doesn’t fall under his influence, resisting him the whole time she is captivity. It’s possible that Mabuse doesn’t try to influence her through his psychological means, because he asks her if she will come with him of her own free will or if he’ll have to force her, so perhaps he wants her to join him by choice.


I’m not sure I’ve come to much in the way of a reading of the Countess’ character in the film. I have ventured some thoughts, but I have not been able to put it all together into a coherent interpretation of her role. But sometimes that happens, and I do think I’ve gotten a bit further in my own interpretation of her character than I was when I began!

The power of film

In Arts One this week we discussed Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It was really challenging trying to talk about everything we wanted to discuss about both works, in two seminars (1 hr 20 minutes each, but still…). One thing I asked towards the end of class yesterday was something like:

What can film do that a book with just words can’t do, or can’t do as well? And how can we see that in Apocalypse Now?

I had a few ideas, and I heard some of the small groups in class yesterday giving a few others. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the things I thought of couldn’t be done in text alone (some of them could, in ingenious ways), but here are some things I thought film does especially well in comparison to written texts without images.


Obviously, film has the benefit of visual images different from just the visuals of words. One thing that stood out to me in Coppola’s film is how we can get meaning just from the way the images are and work together.

For example, we can get a sense that Willard and Kurtz are in some ways the same, or at least similar, by:

  • In the scene in which the water buffalo is killed, and Kurtz is killed, towards the beginning we see Kurtz standing in the doorway looking out over the sacrificial ceremony, then going inside. Then after Willard kills him we see Willard standing in the doorway, looking out over the people who were conducting the ceremony. The shots aren’t exactly the same, as Kurtz is in shadow, backlit, and Willard is lit by the front, but he’s in the same place, facing the same people–who then bow down to him as they did to Kurtz. My point is that putting them in pretty much the same position in a shot can communicate a lot, even if nothing else were to happen to make us see them as similar.
Ruins--Apocalypse Now, Flickr photo by Ian Burt, licensed CC BY 2.0.

Ruins–Apocalypse Now, Flickr photo by Ian Burt, licensed CC BY 2.0.

  • At the very end, after Willard and Lance leave Kurtz’s compound, we get a juxtaposed shot of Willard’s face and the image of the statue in Kurtz’s compound. That statue was associated with Kurtz–it was being shown while Kurtz was reading Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” At the end, Willard’s eye moves to be superimposed onto the statue’s eye, which to me suggests a melding of Willard and Kurtz.
  • Also, at the beginning, we get a shot of Willard’s face while he is in the hotel room, on the left of the screen while there are various things on the right, one of which is that statue again. In the beginning, Willard’s face is upside down, but at the end his face is right-side-up next to the statue before his eye becomes superimposed onto it. This might suggest a kind of disconnect between Willard and Kurtz at the beginning, but more of a connection at the end.


A great deal can be shown by particular choices of lighting in an image or a film. One thing that really struck me in this regard was the Do Lung Bridge scene, where the light comes only in flashes, so you see a little bit and then you’re back in darkness; then there’s a little light, then darkness. A number of meanings might be connected with this, such as that at that point, they are on the border between order and chaos. That’s the last army outpost on the river, if I remember correctly (“beyond it was only Kurtz,” or something like that), and there is a very tenuous grasp on order and military activity. There is no clear commanding officer, but people are still fighting. There’s a veneer of doing what they’re supposed to do–they keep blowing up the bridge but the army keeps rebuilding it so they can say the road is open. The flashing of light and mostly darkness can express this borderline between things happening as they should and utter chaos.



One thing that can really stand out in a film as providing another layer of meaning or evoking feeling is the background music. I didn’t pay as great of attention to this as to other things, but one thing that stands out is the silence after Willard kills Kurtz and comes out of the building to face the rest of the people. It’s completely silent except for the crickets, even though there was loud music before that (The Doors’ “The End”). Then we just get the rain as Willard and Lance move away in the boat. Willard even turns off the radio when “Almight” is calling for them on it. For me, this suggests perhaps that this is “the end” for Willard. There is nothing left for him–no military, no Kurtz, no Kurtz’s voice (in the book he is nothing but a voice, so silence would make sense), no nothing. But I don’t feel strongly about this interpretation; there are likely other interesting things to say about this silence!

I also wanted to say something about the song “The End,” as was discussed in the lecture on this film. The thing that struck me about it is that we get it both at the end of the film and at the beginning. That seems rather paradoxical–the end at the beginning? Or better, it’s circular. This is not actually the end; not the end of the war in the context of the storyline in the film, of course, nor the end of people like Kurtz, nor the end of insane wars altogether. It will just start again. Which, yes, goes a bit against my point in the previous paragraph about this being the end for Willard, which is partly why I’m not that thrilled about that interpretation!


These are the things I came up with on first thinking of this question…curious if others have other ideas!

E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman”

In Arts One last week, we read a number of texts by Freud, including “The Uncanny,” in which he discusses a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann called “The Sandman.” Here’s a version of this short story, though it’s not the translation we read:

E.T.A. Hoffmann Self-portrait, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

E.T.A. Hoffmann Self-portrait, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

We used the version of the story in this book: Five Great German Short Stories, ed. Stanley Appelbaum. Dover, 1993.

We didn’t get a chance to talk about this story much at all in our seminar meetings last week, having spent all of our time on the assigned texts by Freud. And I am so intrigued by Hoffmann’s story (and yet still pretty confused) that I thought I’d try to write my way through to possibly feeling like I have a better handle on an interpretation.

Our Arts One theme this year is “Seeing and Knowing,” and “The Sandman” fits into this theme quite well with its emphasis on eyes and vision. I can’t give a short synopsis here without more or less explaining the whole story, so I’ll just refer anyone who wants an overview of the plot to the Wikipedia page.

This post will be less a worked-out interpretation of the story than a series of observations that might be useful for others working out an interpretation (or me doing so later).

Clara and Olimpia

There are interesting parallels and contrasts between these two, I think.


Clara is presented in her letter, and by the narrator, as having “a very bright mind capable of subtle distinctions” (65). Her name suggests clarity as well. The narrator speaks of her eyes in glowing terms, saying that poets and musicians said of them, “Can we look at the girl without having miraculous heavenly voices and instruments beam at us from her eyes and penetrate our inmost recesses, awakening and stirring everything there?” (65).

  • Not sure what to make of this, but this reminds me of how in Nathanael’s poem, Coppelius takes Clara’s eyes and throws them at his breast … (71).

Nathanael reacts badly to her “good common sense” (61), and accuses her brother Lothar of teaching her logic because he can’t imagine that she could be capable of such clear thinking otherwise; he tells Lothar to “let that go” (57)–yikes. What’s up with that? Nathanael doesn’t want an intelligent fiancée, perhaps?

Nathanael used to write stories that Clara would listen to and appreciate, but after the experience of Coppola coming into his life and reminding him of Coppelius, Nathanael’s stories become “gloomy, incomprehensible and formless,” as well as “boring,” and Clara no longer enjoyed listening. Nathanael starts to accuse her of being “cold” and “prosaic” (69), and then, after she tells him to throw his poem about they two and Coppelius into the first, he calls her a “damned lifeless automaton.”

Nathanael seems to think he is somehow expressing some deep poetic sensibility, seeing some real truths unavailable to “cold, prosaic people” (67, 69, 89). But to Clara his works have become prosaic themselves.


Jacquet-Droz Automata, by Wikimedia Commons user Rama, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0 France

Jacquet-Droz Automata, by Wikimedia Commons user Rama, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0 France

It becomes clear pretty early on that Olimpia is an automaton. Hoffmann doesn’t try to hide this for very long, I think. Unlike Clara, she is described by others as “taxed with total mindlessness”; even Spalanzani calls her “witless” (87). Though Nathanael calls Clara a “lifeless automaton,” it is of course truly Olimpia who is such.

Yet Olimpia, unlike Clara, appears to list attentively to Nathanael’s creative works. Where Clara finds them “boring,” Olimpia is the best listener Nathanael has ever had (91). Where Nathanael thinks Clara is cold and unfeeling, he sees Olimpia as expressing deep and powerful feelings of love and longing.

Of course, Olimpia is not really feeling anything; these feelings are being projected onto her by Nathanael.

So we have:

Clara Olimpia
intelligent, bright, capable of subtle distinctions witless
really loves N incapable of love, but N thinks loves him
N thinks cold, unfeeling, prosaic actually cold, unfeeling, but N thinks passionate
thinks N’s artworks dull, boring doesn’t think anything about N’s art, but N thinks she loves it as much as he does

Nathanael and Olimpia

There are hints throughout the text that Nathanael is or feels like an automaton:

  • In his first letter, when he is recounting the frightening encounter with Coppelius in his father’s room, he says that after Coppelius threatens to steal his eyes, he started unscrewing his hands and feet and trying to put them in different places, speaking about the “mechanism” of these appendages.  Coppelius puts them back where they were, saying,”The old man knew what he was doing!” (47). I’m still puzzling over who the “old man” here is (Spalanzani?)
  • When Nathanael comes home to visit his family and friends (after the letters in the beginning of the story), he is gripped by the conviction that free will is an illusion, that “every person, under the delusion of acting freely, was merely being used in a cruel game by dark powers …” (67). To me, this suggests that he feels he is not in control, that someone else is controlling him as if he were an automaton.
    • He even feels pulled to look at Olimpia through Coppola’s spyglass as if by “an irresistible force” (81)


It’s also pretty clear that when Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, he is falling in love with a reflection of himself:

  • When he looks at her for the first time through Coppola’s telescope, at first her eyes seem “strangely rigid and dead. But as he looked through the glass more and more keenly, moist moonbeams appeared to radiate from Olimpia’s eyes. It seemed that her power of vision had only now been ignited; her eyes shone with an ever livelier flame” (79).
    • This sounds to me like it is only Nathanael’s looking at her that brings Olimpia’s eyes to life. She seems to be capable of vision only through the fact that he is looking at her and imputing that to her.
  • Later there are some statements that make it obvious that Nathanael is seeing himself in Olimpia:
    • N to O: “you profound spirit in which my entire being is reflected!” (85).
    • N to Siegmund: “It was only for me that her loving looks grew bright, filling my mind and thoughts with radiance; only in Olimpia’s love do I find my own self again” (89).
    • Then there is the very telling passage on p. 91, that makes it clear that when Nathanael thinks Olimpia is saying just what he would have said about his art, it must only be Nathanael’s own voice.


Finally, I find it interesting that when Nathanael touches Olimpia, she is at first ice cold, but then as he looks into her eyes she seems to warm up (83). There may be something here about Nathanael looking into her eyes, seeing himself, and then her skin seeming to pulse with life. He is bringing her to life with his looks and with his touches.

Some thoughts from all this so far:

  • Nathanael doesn’t want Clara to be intelligent, doesn’t want her to see rationally and clearly into what is going on with him. She says that his fears are due to him allowing them to come to life, and he doesn’t want to hear it.
  • Nathanael really loves a woman who has no mind at all, who sees nothing (literally), and who can therefore serve as a perfect mirror to Nathanael himself, reflecting himself back to him as his object of love.


Nathanael and the narrator

The narrator speaks of having an experience that you want desperately to communicate to others, but when you try, “[e]very word, … everything that human speech is capable of, seem[s] to you colourless, glacial and dead. You try and try, you stutter and stammer, and your friends’ sober questions blow upon your inward flame like icy blasts of wind until it almost goes out” (61). This struck me as descriptive of what Nathanael was trying to communicate to Lothar and Clara about Coppelius and Coppola, and his response to Clara’s “good sense” as thinking of it as cold and unfeeling. Nathanael struggles to express what he wants to express to Clara, and finally hits on the poem about he and Clara and Coppelius, which she eventually tells him to throw into the fire.

Similarly, the narrator him/herself says that Nathanael’s story had been so gripping that s/he struggled with how to begin. So, the narrator says, “I decided not to begin at all. Gentle reader, accept the three letters (which my friend Lothar kindly made available to me) as the outline of the picture, to which I shall now, while narrating, strive to add more and more color” (63). This is similar to how the narrator describes trying to tell others of a profound experience by first providing an outline and then later shading it in with colour. The letters are the outline that the narrator begins with, but Nathanael’s first letter is also the outline he begins with in telling his friends of his experience, and he tries to fill in the colour later.

So there is some kind of parallel being drawn here between Nathanael and the narrator of the story, I think, though I’m not sure what significance that might have.



Really, this whole story centres around eyes. And we have an essay topic students could write about, asking them to discuss the significance of eyes and vision in the story. I hope someone takes this up, because I’m still unsure myself. Here are some random thoughts.

  • When Coppola/Coppelius takes Olimpia away and leaves her eyes, Spalanazani says to Nathanael that the eyes were “stolen from you” (95).
    • This makes sense to me insofar as her eyes only came alive, only had the power to see, when he looks at her and sees her as having the power of vision. Her eyes are his eyes, in that sense.
    • This also brings up the experience Nathanael had when he is spying on Coppelius and his father, and Coppelius catches him and threatens to take his eyes because they need some eyes (for some reason). He was going to steal Nathanael’s eyes, until his father begged Coppelius to let N keep them. What to make of this, though, I don’t yet know.
  • In Nathanael’s poem, Coppelius takes Clara’s eyes and throws them at N’s chest, and they enter his chest “like bloody sparks, singeing and burning” (71). To me, this could suggest a fear of Clara really looking into his heart, that he doesn’t want that?
    • Clara later says that Coppelius fooled him and she still had her eyes, that what entered his breast was drops of his own blood. But when he looks at Clara’s eyes it is death looking back (Olimpia’s eyes?). Perhaps it’s that he fears that if he really were to “belong to her” (71), and she were to really see into his heart, he would die.
    • Notice that when Coppola/Coppelius takes Olimpia away, Spalanzani picks up her eyes from the floor and throws them at Nathanael’s chest, at which point he becomes mad: “Then madness seized Nathanael with red-hot claws and penetrated him, lacerating his mind and thoughts” (95). So the scene in N’s poem gets repeated here.
    • In addition, Coppola’s spectacles scattered over the desk are “shooting their bloodred rays into [Nathanael’s] breast” (77)–another similar image.
    • Finally, when Nathanael looks at Olimpia through the telescope at the party, her “loving look … pierced and inflamed his heart” (83).
  • There is some connection between fire, heat and eyes that I can’t yet make sense of:
    • There is the childhood scene where Coppelius and N’s father are working over the fire, and Coppelius calls for eyes; then Coppelius grabs N and threatens to put “red-hot grains” into his eyes (47).
    • In N’s poem, Clara’s eyes singe and burn his breast when Coppelius throws them at him; similarly, when this scene is repeated and Spalanzani throw’s Olimpia’s eyes at N’s chest, then madness seized him “with red-hot claws” (95).
    • When Olimpia’s eyes seem to come to life when N is looking at them through Coppola’s telescope, the power of vision is connected to fire: “It seemed that her power of vision had only now been ignited; her eyes shone with an ever livelier flame” (79).
    • As noted above, Olimpia’s loving look “pierced and inflamed his heart” (83).


Well, that’s about as much rambling as I can do for today, and I really haven’t come to much in the way of conclusion yet. But perhaps these thoughts might be helpful for others in their own interpretations.

Drowning Prospero’s Books

Books Destroyed, Flickr photo shared by darkday, licensed CC BY 2.0

Books Destroyed, Flickr photo shared by darkday, licensed CC BY 2.0


In our seminar group for Arts One this week we puzzled over several things in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, including why Prospero drowns his books at the end. In the play he says he is going to do so:

But this rough magic
I here abjure; and when I have required
Some heavenly music–which even now I do–
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book. (5.1.50, p. 190)

In Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books we see the books actually being drowned: he and Ariel throw them in the water. Though as an aside, I think it’s Ariel who throws the books in the water except the last two books: Ariel gives The Works of William Shakespeare to Prospero, along with the “missing play” from it, according to the film, which is The Tempest. Then Prospero throws those books away. I think Ariel does all the others, and Prospero does those. I haven’t yet figured out what to make of that (thus it’s an aside).

In this post I want to suggest a couple of interpreations of Prospero giving up his “art,” drowning his books, at the end of the play. Along the way, I’ll also give my ideas about what interpretations we might give to his magic in the first place.

Prospero as Shakespeare, or a playwright generally, or a filmmaker

As one of our seminar members pointed out, Prospero getting rid of his books makes sense if we take him as a representative of Shakespeare himself, and if we take this play as a kind of farewell to the theatre on Shakespeare’s part.

Title Page of the First Folio, 1623, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Title Page of the First Folio, 1623, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

And there is good reason why we might think Prospero is Shakespeare: he does act like a playwright, insofar as he puts on a show for others that is a false reality, created through music, actors (the spirits) and what the spirits say (such as in the harpy scene). He also literally puts on a kind of theatre performance in the form of a masque for Ferdinand and Miranda. And his speech right before the bit quoted above about how he’ll give up his “rough magic” certainly sounds like the “magic” could refer to the power of theatre, or of fiction generally:

… I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war; …
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
… Graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. … (5.1.41-49, p. 190)

These certainly sound like the sorts of things one can do in fiction, and also in fictional plays of course.

Thus one interpretation of Prospero’s “art” or magic is the power of the playwright to create entire worlds, to make (almost) anything happen as they wish, to create an apparent reality that others might believe to the degree that they allow themselves to be immersed in the play.

Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books takes up this idea as well, interpreting the play in such a way that Prospero is clearly the playwright of the whole story, as well as a character in it. Though of course, as the film is not a theatre production, and doesn’t look like one until the very end (as noted in lecture), we might say that Prospero is a filmmaker, that his magic is the power of filmmaking. (In both of these cases, plays and films, I’m combining the work of the writer and director, the latter being the person who decides what everything is going to look and sound like…so the magic would be that of the person writing and the person directing.)


Why he would give up his books under this interpretation

If we take something like this to be a valid interpretation of Prospero’s magic, and Prospero as, therefore, a playwright like Shakespeare, then it makes sense he would give up his magic at the end. Not only insofar as we think of this play as Shakespeare’s “goodbye,” but also in the sense that the play/film comes to an end. The magic of immersing the audience in a story is ending, the magic of creating a fake reality that we might get lost in and forget ourselves and our reality for some time (remember Gonzalo towards the end saying that Ferdinand found a wife “where he himself was lost,” Prospero found his dukedom in the isle, “and all of us ourselves/ When no man was his own” (5.1. 210, p. 199)). Just as Alonso, Gonzalo, Antonio, Sebastian and the others come to see the “real” reality at the end, after having Prospero’s charms wear off, so the audience of the play/film will soon be emerging from the false reality into the more “real.”

I noticed how in the film Alonso, etc., had cloth over their eyes during the whole film until towards the end, after Prospero has Ariel take off his magic cloak and presents himself “As [he] was sometime Milan” (5.1.86, p. 192). When Prospero has taken off his cloak (or right before it…I can’t remember), Ariel takes off those blindfolds and the nobles can now see the “true” reality. This is also when they are able to speak in their own voices, when they and Ferdinand and Miranda move their lips rather than having Prospero speak for them as during the earlier part of the film. These elements of the film really show well, I think, how Prospero is no longer using his magic to put on a show for them, that they are themselves at this point (including Ferdinand and Miranda, who were being “written” by Prospero earlier).

So I think we can interpret Prospero giving up his books as the ending to the false reality that he has created.



Another way of thinking about Prospero’s art and why he gives it up

As I mentioned in class, we can also add a political element to the power of the playwright/director/filmmaker, given the purpose of court masques at the time. According to an article entitled “Prospero’s Dream: The Tempest and the Court Masque Inverted,” by Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen,

The court masque played a crucial role in the way Renaissance monarchs chose to think about themselves. Masques served essentially as images of the order, peace and harmony brought about by the monarch’s mere presence, and expressed didactic truths about the monarchy. . . .  Under James 1, the form of the masque developed into two contrasting parts. The first section, or antimasque, offered an image of vice and disorder, which, in the second section, the masque proper, was superseded by the workings of royal power, and an ordered, harmonious world, with the king at its centre, was established.

James I of England, c. 1620. Public domain on Wikimedia Commons.

James I of England, c. 1620. Public domain on Wikimedia Commons.

The way I understand this is that court masques showed a visual and auditory spectacle of the monarch’s power, and portrayed that power as able to create “an ordered, harmonious world” out of chaos. As van Dijkhuizen goes on to say, “The court masque, then, manifested an important theatrical image of kingship; royalty’s prime mode of expression was fundamentally histrionic,” where “histrionic” means related to theatre, acting, drama–especially insofar as one is overly dramatic, affected, over-playing a part.

I’m thinking, then, that Prospero’s magic could be related to how royal power at the time may have been propped up in part by something like an idealistic image of that power, something portrayed through court masques but also through other trappings of royalty such as rituals and ceremonies, lavish clothes and properties, even extreme exhibitions of power through grisly executions meant to show how great the “ordering” power of the monarch is against “disorder” (this last bit comes from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which we’ll read some of later in the year). And this, ultimately, is all show, a fake reality meant to manipulate what the populace thinks of the monarch.


So why would Prospero give this up?

If this makes sense as an interpretation of his magic, why give that up at the end? He is, after all, going back to Milan to rule at least for some time, during which “every third thought shall be [his] grave” (5.1.311, p. 204). Once he has gotten his political power back, wouldn’t this sort of spectacle of power be useful?

There are probably several ways to think about this, but here’s one.

Prospero may be said to realize that there could be problems with focusing too much on providing the “show” of power and not enough on ruling in actuality. He of course found out what happens when you don’t pay attention to the state, when he more or less gave control of Milan to Antonio. But during the play itself he also could be said to realize that putting on a show is not enough. During the masque he has Ariel and the other spirits perform for Ferdinand and Miranda, he suddenly interrupts it and says:

I had forgot that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates
Against my life …. (4.1.139-140)

While paying too much attention to the show of power, and trying to convince Ferdinand and Miranda to keep chaste through this masque that counters the disorder of Venus and Cupid trying to entice the two lovers to give into their lust before marriage, Prospero forgets what is actually going on in his “kingdom” on the isle. One can get so lost in the show of power that one fails to pay enough attention to what is necessary to keep it.

We might then connect this to what Professor Crawford said about James I not being a very politically savvy monarch, but someone who loved books and also the theatre. But I don’t know enough about him to take this very far.

As for Prospero, and maybe a Shakespearian comment on royal power, perhaps he gives up his magic because he realizes that the practicalities of ruling are more important than the show of power? Or at least, that focusing too much on the latter can be a dangerous distraction from the former. And further, Prospero then follows this interruption of his masque with his famous speech about how the “vision” he has produced is “baseless,” and so is our lives:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. … (4.1.148-158, pp. 180-181)

Prospero seems to realize that there is a problem with “The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces …” that are part of the trappings of royalty. It is all “baseless,” false, unreal. So perhaps he is ready to give that up?


Still, there’s a problem

But that doesn’t mean we can go from this false reality of the show of power to some more substantial reality, according to this speech. Indeed, everything is in some sense “insubstantial,” destined to “dissolve”; our lives are like dreams.

Public domain from Pixabay

Public domain from Pixabay

This idea is exhibited elsewhere in the play and film as well. When Prospero gives up his magic and Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo and the others come back to their senses, the “reality” they then inhabit is still within the play and the film, of course. They emerge out of one false reality into another false reality within the play and the film. So too, when we as audience members leave the theatre, it is not perhaps to some substantial reality that is significantly different from a play or a film.

The fact that the film starts to look more like a filming of a stage play after Prospero gives up his magic (which I hadn’t noticed until Professor Mota pointed it out) also pointed me in this direction. The film is over, but then we are still in a fictional story. At the end of the film, after the Epilogue, the characters applaud as Ariel runs down the stage, towards the camera, and the last image in the film looks like the page of a book that is being written on. Ariel then jumps out of the frame of that book (perhaps being free from the author, Prospero?), but we are left with the page on which writing is still happening.

Ultimately, this complicates the reading I was giving earlier about Prospero giving up his magic because it is insubstantial, baseless, fake, and he wants something more “real” in terms of being a ruler.

But then again, as one of the members of our seminar said in class, he is nearing death after all; so maybe he is just pondering the end of his own life!



Watchmen Part Two

Well, I didn’t get around to writing this second post on Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen (for Arts One) as quickly as I’d have liked. That’s a four-day holiday weekend for you, I guess. But I did still want to write out my thoughts on something about this text, in order to clarify them for myself if nothing else.

Here is a link to the first post I wrote on Watchmen, a few days ago.

In this post I want to think through the treatment of women in the text.

Sexual violence

Apparently a number of people have criticized Alan Moore for having so many scenes of rape, or discussion of rapes that have happened in the past, in his comics. He replies to these concerns in a very long interview (scroll down to the “sexual violence against women” section). I’m not so much worried about having an attempted rape scene in this book as I am about how the characters react.

Sally Jupiter, who suffered an attempted rape at the hands of the Comedian, apparently blames herself, at least in part, for the rape. In an interview published at the end of issue 9, she says:

You know, rape is rape and there’s no excuses for it, absolutely none, but for me, I felt … I felt like I’d contributed in some way. … I really felt that, that I was somehow as much to blame for … for letting myself be his victim not in a physical sense, but … but, it’s like what if, y’know? What if, just for a moment, maybe I really did want ….

And this is just after we’ve discovered that Sally went back to the Comedian, slept with him, and had her daughter Laurie as a result.

One could try to argue, well, this could be read just as a potentially accurate portrayal of how some women feel after they’ve been raped, that maybe it was their fault somehow. And it’s true that women do sometimes feel that way. But this feeling of Sally’s is not questioned in any clear sense, not problematized. In fact, it’s supported by the fact that she went back to the guy and had sex with him later. Worse, in the last scene we see of Sally she has kissed the picture of the Comedian in tears.

Now, this doesn’t show that the text suggests the attempted rape was okay, but it does suggest that perhaps he was more right than he realized when he forced her, thinking she wanted it too. It not only blames the victim to some extent, it could appear to reduce the evil of what he did because, after all, her “no” did kind of mean “yes.” In an era in which sexual violence against women is still alarmingly high, I think this is a very bad thing to portray without problematizing it.

[But after writing the rest of this post, now I’m wondering if maybe it IS problematized? See last section of the post, below.]

Sure, this was published in the mid-80s, and maybe that should make a difference in the degree to which we blame the author, but nevertheless, I find it very disturbing regardless of whether he/they should have known better at the time. That doesn’t mean we can’t still criticize it now.

Women and sex

I also got the sense that pretty much every woman who is a prominent character in the text is somehow connected to sex.

From, licensed CC0.

From, licensed CC0.

  • There is all that above about Sally Jupiter
  • Laurie is the one who initiates sex with Dan Dreiburg at first.
  • Malcolm’s wife Gloria complains that he works when she wants to have sex (6.13), and when she leaves him she subjects him to “crude sexual insults” (6.28).
  • Josephine (Joey) talks about just wanting to sleep with Aline towards the end (11.9).
  • Rorschach’s mother was a sex worker (as is his landlady).
  • Janey wasn’t too terribly connected with sex in the text, only being shown having sex with Jon once.

The only major-ish female characters I could think of who were not connected to sex were in the pirate comic-within-a-comic (the narrator’s wife, and the woman he kills and puts on a horse to ride with her into town).

It just struck me that there are a good number of men in the text who are portrayed doing many things, none of them being sex, but few women. E.g., Bernard & Bernie, Rorschach, Veidt, Hollis Mason, Malcolm…. It feels like when there is a woman in the text who has a major role, she must be shown having sex, or wanting to have sex, or being subjected to sexual violence. But that men can do other things.

One good thing, at least

I do like how Laurie complains about her costume off and on, and at the end says that she needs something that protects her, maybe with a mask, and that she ought to carry a gun (12.30). She, at least, doesn’t buy into the idea that female costumed heroes should be wearing skimpy clothes and be treated as sexual objects. This is in contrast to her mother, who likes it that she is portrayed in a sexually objectifying way in a “Tijuana Bible” (2.4).

Now that I think about it, though, perhaps we can take this fact about the difference between Sally and Laurie as a critique of Sally in the text. Laurie realizes how degrading the images of her mother are, but her mother finds them flattering. Laurie is angry about what the Comedian did to her mother, while her mother can’t sustain her anger (interview published at the end of chapter 9; 12.29).

Perhaps the text is portraying Sally’s attitudes towards and actions after the attempted rape as problematic, whereas Laurie’s attitude is better? Hmmmm…. Now I’ve written myself into not being sure of my own earlier views. That’s one of the powers of writing!


Watchmen Part One

Our final text of the year in Arts One is Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen. We only had one seminar meeting on this text this week, as opposed to our usual two. Which means I didn’t spend as much time going over the text, deciding on my own interpretations, as usual: usually I spend at least 3 hours before each seminar, and this week I spent just 3 hours before one seminar rather than two. I wanted to spend some time in this blog post going through my thoughts on a few things–writing them out is really the only way they get clear for me.

This first post is starts off talking about Rorschach, then moves into broader themes related to black/white, dark/light and. I also wanted to write about my concerns regarding the novels portrayal of women (which really bothered me), but I’ll save that for the next post (hopefully tomorrow) b/c there is a lot to discuss here already.

Rorschach Blot 1 from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Rorschach Blot 1 from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Why do I dislike Rorschach?

A number of people disagreed on whether they liked this character. Some of us (myself included) find him to be highly questionable as a person, and others sympathized with him because of his bad childhood, or thought he was at least somewhat likeable in other ways. Why don’t I like Rorschach? I’m trying to figure that out.

One obvious thing, for me, is that he reads and trusts the New Frontiersman. This paper publishes racist things, like saying the Ku Klux Klan may have had “later excesses” but “originally came into being because decent people had perfectly reasonable fears for the safety of their persons and belonging when forced into proximity with people from a culture far less morally advanced.” And then again: the Klan worked “to preserve American culture in areas where there were very real dangers of that culture being overrun and mongrelized” (end of Chpt. 8). Now I just don’t see any way to read these statements that isn’t racist. And I don’t believe that as readers the point is for us to take this paper seriously or sympathize with it. Since Rorschach does read this paper, and thinks they’re the only ones he can trust, that tarnishes him for me.

I suppose one might say that well, if anyone is going to print his story it’s going to be a paper that doesn’t mind printing things that sound crazy or controversial in the name of what it thinks of as truth. But he does read the paper himself, going to the news agent Bernard to get it most days.

He also says a couple of things in the first issue that are offensive. After visiting Heidt he asks: “Possibly homosexual? Must remember to investigate further” (1.19). As if being homosexual is something that he needs to investigate, as if there is something about it that requires his further attention rather than just being, well, a fact like someone being heterosexual. Next, as Laurie rightly notices, he refers to the Comedian’s attempted rape of Sally as one of the “moral lapses of men who died in their country’s service” (1.21). Laurie correctly gets upset about this seeming trivialization of her mother’s attempted rape.

These, I think, are the main reasons why I really can’t bring myself to like him. Yes, there’s also the violence he engages in, but arguably that’s against people who have done very bad things: the guy who kidnapped and murdered a child, the guys who came to his prison cell to murder him; wasn’t the man he killed to protest the Keene act a serial rapist? I can’t find that right now, but that’s interesting, in contrast to what he said about the Comedian. It’s not so much the violence that bugs me as the stuff above.

Black and white

At first I wondered whether the book was asking us to see Rorschach somewhat sympathetically b/c of his integrity, the strength of his convictions. There is something valuable in his idea that it’s wrong to let Veidt get away with what he has done, to not tell anyone. In issue 12, p. 23, he tells Jon that he can’t go along with keeping silent, because “Evil must be punished. People must be told.” Veidt can’t get away without being punished. There is some truth to this–he’s done something awful, and it is wrong to let him get away with it. But there’s also truth to the other side, that if they say something it’s likely to destroy a possible peace that millions of people have died to achieve.

As I said in class today, I feel like there’s a kind of dual extreme between Veidt and Rorschach: Veidt (and Dr. Manhattan agrees) says that the moral choice is clear–they must say nothing. Rorschach, too, thinks the moral choice is clear–evil must be punished. I think the moral choice isn’t clear here, that it’s not that black and white, to refer to Rorschach’s face and worldview. It’s a tough choice, and as Dan asks, how can humans make the decision? Perhaps, insofar as Veidt, Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach can make the decision, they are inhuman? But then again, Dan does make the decision to agree with keeping quiet, even though he at least struggles with it.

Rorschach’s face is made of fabric that is, in his words, “[b]lack and white moving, changing shape … but not mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful” (6.10). Veidt refers back to this when he describes Rorschach as “a man of great integrity, but [who] seems to see the world in very black and white, Manichean terms,” and Veidt sees that as “an intellectual limitation” (last page of issue 11). This would speak against my statement above of Veidt seeming to be very sure of himself, somewhat black and white himself, but I think he is sure of himself as having decided that things are not either good or evil, but evil can be used in the service of good. And, as noted in class today, Rorschach refuses to “compromise”: “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise” (12.20; see also 10.22).

This black and white stance, this inability to compromise, reminds me of course of Miller’s The Crucible, where he criticizes (in his notes) the Manichean worldview of “us” vs “them,” where “we” are the good, the Godly, and anyone who is against us is diabolical. When then leads me to think also of the cold war, and both sides being unwilling to compromise, to back down for fear the other would take advantage of this. And I don’t think this is portrayed in the novel as a positive thing! When two groups or two people are both so certain they are right and refuse to move towards the other in any way, we are going to end up in conflict rather than, as we discussed in class today, coming together, uniting, connecting (which seems to be one of the things valued in the text).

Darkness and light

Finally, I want to think a little about the black and white images in the text. There is one panel that’s entirely black, and another that’s entirely white. The entirely black one is at the end of issue 6. Malcolm is looking at a Rorschach blot, thinking about why people argue, like he and his wife, when “Life’s so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud, suspended in endless nothing” (6.28). He begins to muse about the meaninglessness of life, the “real horror” of life (echoes of Heart of Darkness?). Looking into the Rorschach blot, he tries to find meaning there, but can’t: “The horror is this: in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else” (6.28). And the next panel is merely blackness, as the ‘camera’ zooms in on the blackness of the Rorschach blot, followed by a quote from Nietzsche: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you” (6.28).

I haven’t looked into this quote from Nietzsche much, but one possible interpretation of “the abyss” that fits with its use here is the utter lack of meaning, the emptiness of the universe in the sense that we just don’t matter; it will go on with or without us, uncaring. There is no meaning to life, no morality but what we impose on it. Rorschach says something similar in 6.26: “Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose.” And he imposes a stark, black-and-white morality on what is, at root, just empty blackness.

The all-white panel  is at the end of issue 11 (11.28) when the creature Veidt has sent to New York arrives and kills millions of people. Bernie and Bernard are split apart into fragments the same way that Jon is before he becomes Dr. Manhattan. On 4.8, where he is depicted being pulled apart into fragments, he says, “the light is taking me to pieces.” The same thing is happening on 11.28, where the characters’ faces are lit up before they are taken to pieces and all that’s left is light in the last panel.

This light and the fragmentation that results is of course reminiscent of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the “shadows” of people that were sometimes left on the walls are like the black images of Jon and then Bernie and Bernard left in the panels on 4.8 and 11.28. On 6.16, Malcolm points out the link between the silhouettes painted on the street walls and the atomic shadows. While the black darkness of meaninglessness is a horror, so is the blinding white light that tears us into pieces.

Veidt talks about ushering in “an age of illumination so dazzling that humanity will reject the darkness in its heart” (12.17) (again, echoes of Heart of Darkness). He is associated with ‘light’ in the sense of enlightenment, knowledge, but also with the light in the television screens he is continually watching. I’m not sure what to make of this, exactly, except it seems that the kind of light he brings, the “dazzling illumination,” is more like the cold, calculating rationality of someone who sees things only in the big picture, who weighs the lives lost to the lives saved as if they are mere numbers. It is like, I think, the inhuman perspective of Dr. Manhattan, whose view-from-all-time makes him think of human life as invaluable and unnecessary. He does, that is, until he sees individuals as improbable “miracles” (9.27)–until he begins to see the value of specific individuals, of their particularity coming from chaos as being miraculous. Veidt doesn’t care about individuals, only the abstract concepts of “humanity” and “peace” vs “war.”


Well, I think that’s quite enough musing for the moment. I’m not sure I’ve made anything any clearer for anyone else, but I do think I’m a bit clearer on some of my own views of these characters and this story.