Friday, January 29, 2021


Eventually, the person Rick mentioned in the dream comes to Cerebus: it is Woody Allen. Of course it is. And the book is the Bible. Of course it is. Cerebus starts to read the Bible. And everybody else stops reading Cerebus.

Cerebus sits down with Konisberg and goes through the book of Genesis, line by line, explaining what he thinks each line means. This is exactly as interesting as you would expect. It is presented as a transcript. Something of Cerebus’s voice survives in the voice of Cerebus the Expositor, and occasionally it is almost quite funny:

“Better put a little star next to that, and a little star at the bottom”

“A footnote?”

“Okay. Sure. As long as it’s got a little star next to it, and a little star at the bottom.”

This joke format goes right back to High Society:

“Shall I put it on your nightstand, Sir.”

“No, just put it on that little table by the bed.”

And some of the ideas are not one hundred per cent devoid of interest. But it goes on for (if I have counted correctly) sixty pages. 

The Viktor Reid material in Reads was, in my view, quite interesting in its own right, and was interleaved with the climax of the graphic novel: so there was a certain tension in two different narratives interrupting each other. The Bible commentaries are interleaved with scenes from the life of Allen/Konisberg. These scenes also consist of large blocks of text; mostly consisting of side-swipes at psychoanalysis and other intellectual pretensions. (Konisberg’s analyst is called “Sigmund Fraud” which is about as sophisticated as it gets.) 

So. The Bible. 

All scholars agree that the book of Genesis is a composite document made up of several even more ancient texts. [1] They distinguish between the “J” document, the “E” document and the “P” document, as well as the voice of “R”. In “J”, God is a relatively anthropomorphic figure, referred to as YHWH. In “E” he is more like the ineffable God of monotheism, and is known as Elohim. “P” stands for Priest, and the “P” passages are concerned with Temple ritual and ceremonial purity. And “R” is the redactor who brought the whole thing together. 

This is why there are two radically different creation myths in Genesis; the “E” version where Elohim speaks the universe into being, and the “J” version where YHWH takes a walk in the garden and Adam hides in the bushes. 

As early as the second century CE, ultra-literalist Christians decided that YHWH couldn’t be the true God. Jesus must have been the son of a different, superior deity: the Jews had been worshipping a false God all along. [2] This theory, known as Marcionism, may even pre-date what became Christian orthodoxy. It isn’t clear whether Sim was aware of Marcionism or the documentary hypothesis when he wrote his commentaries. It would be interesting to know if he had read the Book of J — Harold Bloom’s brilliantly dotty attempt to extract the lost book of J from the YHWH passages in the extant Biblical texts. Bloom claims that the recovered Book of J is the first great work of literature. He thinks it must have been written by a woman, and she must have been a contemporary of King David. So J was Bathsheba; almost definitely. 

Cerebus refers to YHWH, not as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”, but as “the Yoohwhoo” which is possibly the only good joke in the entire volume. He decides that God and the Yoohwhoo are two separate beings, but that the Yoohwhoo is a part of God’s spirit which split away from him. Yoohwhoo and God have been in conflict ever since. God, being invisible and ineffable, has to communicate with Yoohwhoo by making things happen in the world — anything in history can therefore be seen as allegory. Yoohwhoo can talk to God in words. 

The idea that the contradictory passages in the Old Testament represent a debate or argument between God and Yoohwhoo is quite productive and not unclever. The first creation story in Genesis is about Big Male God saying “I created the universe like this” (“Let there be light!”), the second is Small Female God saying “No, I created the universe like this”. (“When the Lord God made the universe, there were no plants on the earth and no seeds had sprouted, because he had not sent any rain, and there was no one to cultivate the land; but water would come up from beneath the surface and water the ground…”)

A very nasty smell hangs over the whole endeavour. It isn’t simply that Sim is trying to make gender-essentialism a cosmic principle. It’s that his conception of “man” and “woman” is so narrow — so small — so petty. We aren’t in the realms of “men are mighty thrusting trees but women are shrubs with deep roots” — the kind of slightly old-fashioned separatism you sometimes get in Ursula Le Guin and which Terry Pratchett pokes gentle fun at. 

If I had to defend Dave Sim against the charge of misogyny, which thank goodness I don’t, I might say that it is all too silly and trivial to be worth dignifying with the name of hatred. Is there a word meaning “a little boy who thinks little girls are silly”? 

Here is Cerebus commenting on the Yahwist creation story:

“And the Yoohwhoo God said: It is not good that the man should be alone: I will make him a helpe meet as before him” As before him? There was a “help-meet” before the man? And what the heck is a “help-meet” anyway? It’s okay, Cerebus reminds himself. It’s okay — just keep nodding and smiling. Which is getting difficult at this point because there are — obviously — you know, major parts of the story MISSING here. Cerebus came to learn when he was married: if you just keep nodding and smiling most of the time — gradually, but eventually— you will be given the missing piece as know...go along. Whereas if instead you yell really loud. “YOOHWHOO GOD WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?” all you are going to accomplish is to hurt her feelings and get her so upset she can’t remember what she was talking about and she’ll get all huffy and she wont talk to you for a few days.

It may be that — on the whole — other things being equal — with exceptions — some men — not all men by any means — are more linear than some women, and that some women, not all women by any means, are more digressive than some men. That most men focus on facts and figures and most women focus on networks and relationships. Many men prefer thrusting stories about ships harpooning whales; while many women prefer undulating narratives about prejudiced ladies ironically realising that they have misjudged proud men. I don’t think that some men would accuse some women of gossiping and some women would accuse some men of mansplaining if those words didn’t represent something that is more often true of men (or women) than it is of women (or men). 

But honestly. 

Going back to the Bible, going back to the Creation, to find out that, baked into one of the foundational texts of western civilisation is the fact that Big Male God finds it irritating that Little Female God goes on again, on again, on again, on again... 

Cerebus’s irritation with Jaka — Dave’s irritation with Deni — as a clue to the meaning of the universe. 

The Hebrew Bible says that YHWH made Adam a kenegdow, "suitable", ezer, "helper". The Latin similarly has adiutorium similem, "a suitable helper". The Greek has βοηθόν κατ, "a helper according to him". Older forms of English use the word “meet” to mean seemly or appropriate or even decorous. (Desdemona says “it is meet that I be used so”—it is appropriate to treat me like this; Octavius tells Pompey that it is “meet”—fitting—that they should talk before they fight.) We still occasionally use “the help” as a noun to refer to an employee or servant. So God makes Adam “a help, meet for him”. Modern translations render the expression “a helper suitable for him”, “a helper fit for him”, “a helper comparable to him”, “a helper corresponding to him”, “a helper who is just right for him”, “a helper as his complement”, “a helper compatible with him”. Sim pretends that he doesn’t know what “help meet” means because the actual translation — that men and women compliment and are compatible with each other — would undermine his whole case. He must be aware of different translations because he pedantically calls Eve “Hawwa” even though he is working from the English text. 

Once you have thought up the God / Yoohwhoo theory, almost any text can be twisted — sorry, interpreted — to fit in with it. You will recall that after the great flood, Noah planted a vineyard and got drunk; and that the descendants of Ham were cursed because he caught a glimpse of his father’s prick. (Shem and Japheth avert their eyes.) Not one of the better known or more edifying stories in the Good Book. Here is Cerebus’s exegesis:

Basically, God is making fun of Yoohwhoo's version of the story of creation that she told in chapters two and three. 

“And Noah became a husbandman and planted a vineyard” 

See, Noah represents Yoohwhoo, who said in chapter two that she planted the garden eastward in Eden. 

“And hee dranke of the wine, and was drunken and hee was uncouered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan saw his father’s nakedness and told his two bretheren without." 

Yoohwhoo ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge-of-good-and-evil and declared “the man and his wife were both naked and they were not ashamed,” “the man and his wife”. Adam and Hawa, representing God and Yoowhoo. Only this time, God leaves Himself out of it — so instead of God you have Yoohwhoo, God and “his” three sons...Shem, or She-Yoohwhoo, Ham or He-Yoohwhoo and Japhet or It-Yoohwhoo. 

“And Shem and Iaphet took a garment and laid it vpon both their shoulders, and went backwards, and covered the nakedness of their father and their faces backwards and they saw not their father’s nakedness.” 

God is making fun of She-Yoohwhoo — Hawwa — and It-Yoohwhoo — the “talking snake” — going backwards in chapter three from the “who told the thou wast naked?” question and coming up with their “dialogue” as a cover story or a “garment”— consisting of a conversation between them that never actually took place to cover Yoohwhoo’s nakedness.

Truly, you have a dizzying intellect. 

When everything is allowed to be a symbol of everything else, then anything can mean anything. Much of Alan Moore’s later work is based on highly esoteric magical theories: but Moore always seems to be working according to a tight, rigorous, symbolic structure which could be understood by other occultists. The tarot, the kabala and the zodiac all have meanings that existed and were agreed before Alan Moore started interpreting them. But there is no way anyone but Dave Sim could possibly get from “two of Noah’s sons put a blanket over him to spare their embarrassment” and “YHWH lied about the conversation between Eve and the Serpent.” We are randomly drawing connections between things. 

I am told some kinds of drugs can have that kind of effect on you.

The “Chasing YHWH” episodes represent perhaps ten percent of the Latter Days novella, which runs to seven hundred pages — thirty five issues — overall. Again, the claim that Sim stopped drawing a comic and started publishing theological essays instead is not entirely true. 

The idea that at the end of his life, Cerebus is given a book that contains all knowledge and spends some years interpreting it, is a not uninteresting culmination of the life of the Aardvark Mercenary Prime Minister Pope. And making the reader spend a long, long time reading Cerebus’s commentaries is certainly one way of conveying the idea that Cerebus spent a long, long time commentating. Sim is not the first writer to make artistic use of repetition and silence and monotony. One thinks of post-modernist art like John Cage’s Four Minutes Thirty Three Seconds, or John and Yoko’s four hour Smile.

And, once again: there is the smallest suspicion that Dave is deliberately messing with our heads. 

Cerebus is given a book containing the meaning of life. He sets about telling us. There is a page of text: we read it; we are possibly quite impressed by its cleverness, but equally possibly quite bemused by its craziness. We read another page. More of the same. And another. And another. It goes on and on. The deeper it goes, the denser and the stranger and the more obscure:

Yoohwhoo’s Angel was the only one who had a relationship with Hagar to that point, a relationship which started when Hagar fled from Sarai. Hagar represented Yoohwhoo’s Egyptian plan....

So, naturally, even the keenest reader — even Dave Sim’s most generous and incisive commentator — finds his eyes skimming over the paragraphs, His finger trying to find the next bit of plot, his brain thinking he has probably got the gist. Tarim forgive us, he skips. And as we come to the end of the extended text section, and the comic strip picks up, Cerebus starts to speak directly to an unseen interviewer. 

And this is what he says to her:

People are always asking: What is the meaning of life? What does it all mean? Why are we here? Hey, right. Okay. So Cerebus gives it to them, see. Here. This is the meaning of life. This is what it all means. This is why we’re here. And what’s their reaction? “You mean I have to read all THIS?”

Cerebus says this. 

Right after I started to skip. 

Prophets tell us what is going on in the world. People don’t listen to them. Dave Sim has tricked me into exemplifying a universal truth. I am become the representative of the masses who will not listen to what the wise man says.

It makes one think of psychological transference, where the relationship between therapist and patient becomes an emotional replay of the patient’s relationship with his father.

Maybe Sigmund Freud wasn’t so much of a fraud after all?

Dave Sim is messing with our heads. Even when Cerebus becomes literally unreadable, the unreadability may be part of the point.

Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we kill those people. 

Bill Hicks

So. I re-read Cerebus right through to see how it stands up.

Some of it I liked: some of it was heavy going: some of it was horrible.

The bits I remember being good were still good. A lot of the bits I remembered being bad were much less bad than I remembered them being.

It is difficult to read. It needs to be compared with difficult novels Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow [3], not with classic comic books like Watchmen or the Fourth World.

The tone, the rhythm, the voice, the texture became part of my life.

I felt bereft when I had come to the end.

I will read it again.

Not immediately, but soon.

I re-read Cerebus to see how it stands up.

It stands up very well indeed.

"Er, well, Swann, Swann, there’s this house, there’s this house, and er, it’s in the morning, it’s in the morning - no, it’s the evening, in the evening and er, there’s a garden and er, this bloke comes in - bloke comes in - what’s his name - what’s his name, er just said it - big bloke - Swann, Swann...." 

Monty Python’s Flying Circus 

"Just what the predicament is can be seen from a standard work of reference, the Oxford Companion to English Literature. It sets out to summarise Tristram Shandy for us: [...] Sterne would have relished the fact that this summary suggests a man throwing up his hands or throwing in the sponge." 

Introduction to Penguin Classics edition

[1] Sentences beginning "all scholars agree" are nearly always false.

[2] I am no longer a member of the Labour Party

[3] I have never read Gravity's Rainbow


Jeff Seiler said...

I started reading Cerebus with the Wolveroach issues. I stopped at Jaka's Story, but started up again near its conclusion and bought and read the past issues of that storyline.

I bought every subsequent issue until the end. For a good 15 years or so, it was the only comic I bought every month. And, yes, I read every word of the Cerebus Torah Commentaries. Probably never again, but I did it once.

Michael said...

Hi Andrew,
I discovered your writing recently when a friend linked to your Rings of Power entries (which I enjoyed enormously). I didn't realise then that you'd written about Cerebus, and I've just finished reading them now.

Cerebus was part of my life from the Wloveroach issues (picked up in the Glasgow Virgin Megastore) to the end of The Last Day. I also supported the Cerebus digital remastering, and the recent #1 re-print. Even now, there are two pieces of art framed on my walls, and a full collection of phone books mouldering on my bookshelves.

When did I stop reading Cerebus? I guess I never did.

Dave and I stopped corresponding after Going Home - he more or less accused me of missing the whole point of that story, I wrote a furious reply, stuck it in a drawer and then 9/11 happened, it didn't seem so important anymore, and that letter stayed in the drawer (or, more accurately, it's probably on the back up of the back up of the back up of several MacBooks).

Funnily enough, I rode over the controversy of #186 fairly easily. I thought he was wrong, often quite hilariously wrong, about men and women, but I never thought of his work as toxic, or hate literature, or anything other than a barmy take on life. If I stopped reading fiction (or watching movies, or listening to music) because I disagreed with the author, life would be pretty dull.

I stopped buying monthly after Going Home (I came as close as I've ever been to comics immortality when Dave toyed with the idea of putting a bottle of "Mooney's Whiskey" on a cover to wind me up, since I was always accusing him of not knowing how to spell whisky). I think that was mostly because I wasn't living near a comics' store anymore, but it did mean that I consumed the Latter Days as collections - I think that made it easier for me to make it through the text pieces, knowing that they were only part of the bigger volume.

Anyway - thanks for bringing back the memory of a book that once meant a lot to me, and that I"m well overdue to reread.