BOOK REVIEWS (2013): D. McKean’s (2010) Cages

22 May 2013

Summary (in Two Sentences)

What mother does an angel grieve for having lost?

Can a work of art as a solution to the problems it frames in a current undesirable order of things nevertheless provide a desirable alternative to that undesirable order?


McKean_cages_coverLast year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.

A Reaction To: D. McKean’s (2010)[1] Cages

This is the collected version of Cages that McKean published originally from 1990 to 1996, hence the 2010 date. I react to it with some miscellany and the more of its meat.


A thing about these sorts of collections—the extent to which a piece truly presents a novel from start to finish or becomes one over the course of a series can make a difference. Almost no “collected” soap opera would ever resemble, finally, an E.M. Forster novel, no matter what twists or turns developed for the novelist (in my example here, Forster) in the process of writing the novel. This doesn’t necessarily amount to a criticism or a problem; Dickens typically wrote serialized pieces for magazines and one sees clearly at times—as for example in the completely gratuitous and completely hilarious performance of hamlet that Pip attends in Great Expectations—a “set piece” digression, perhaps motivated by a local disturbance of creativity or, in Dickens’ specific case, a deadline and likely a lack of inspiration for the main novel proper.

Having said this, particularly where visually inspired people work, they may be inundated by imagery that seems disconnected; arguably, life itself consists of getting bombarded by the unasked-for presentation of events before our very eyes, and we must then improvise some sense out of all of it, most likely after accumulating quite a heap of “events” first.  In this respect, rather than presenting a “graphic novel” I suspect McKean’s book offers instead novelized graphics. One finds moments when it seems as if McKean himself has deciphered or decided what the various materials he has received and diligently embodied (in illustration) to give. For example, when the very tangential character who has a “consternation” on his head learns to juggle, his teacher says to the effect: the cosmic juggler must know how to juggle. One gets a kind of aha at that moment, as if a truth about this character has been dis closed, but in fact back-writing this realization to the few scant encounters with the character in the book does not yield any additional harvest particularly. Perhaps McKean had conceptualized it this way all along; ultimately, it matters little, but if I would defend my assertion that McKean only “figures out” who this figure represents late in the book, I’d point to a similar very odd little fellow who appears in the protagonist’s house to buy a painting (it seems). That odd figure never returns. And neither does the striking image of the old man surreally rushed under the massive box he brings up to the painter’s flat. He never returns. All three of these figures, early in the book, add an element of disquiet in the supernatural to the proceedings, because McKean presents them in a very non-natural way. These function ably in their role and so, in fact, needn’t return, so that serendipity of whatever sort provided McKean with the inspiration to reuse the consternated fellow, and in the process got “deciphered” as to who he “represented”.

cagesAgain, not all novelists do or must know at the beginning how things will (actually) turn out. Dostoevsky famously suffered from characters who got the better of him and went their own way despite all of his narrative intentions. And where an illustrator in particular decides to amass a novel, I might predict more of a tendency in advance not to plan out everything in advance. One might do this same thing with words, particularly in imagistic poetry. Regardless, this sort of impression describes the feel of the novel overall for me.

One quick objection: novels bout writers, dramas about playwrights, and now graphic novels about painters tend toward the self-indulgent. As a writer, I may tend to find my process fascinating, especially in the wake of having created something—the pleasure of having simply created something makes the (largely) mysterious process by which I arrived at it fascinating (to me), but very likely not to anyone else. McKean’s painter protagonist shows all of the proper self-deprecation about his lack of inspiration and the like, but unless an illustrator makes a satire of such a figure, it tends toward the gratuitous. In point of fact, the worst se of this in McKean’s novel involves the extended, half-trivial, half-obscurantist monologue given by the book’s (black musician) hero, Angel—more on this later. However, the distancing irony that the painter adopts only makes the unpalatable merely cloying.  Supposedly, this justifies itself in the sense that McKean’s illustrations present an impressive range, variation, depth, and the like—in other words, if the protagonist seems highly self-critical, the ultimate result (when “he” accomplishes something) warrants those high standards. In point of fact, however, McKean allows himself to coast in a number of places—by which I mean, his typically elevenish on  scale of 1 to 10 art dips down to an 8. Yes, sometimes even Bach has an off day (e.g., the English suites, say); that doesn’t make it any less of an off day, right? Let the (overstatement of a) comparison with Bach serve as the offset for what might seem a complaint here.

The novel also features a troubled writer—an obvious allusion to Salman Rushdie, but the problem there (for that author) does not involve the process but the consequences of having written, so it seems less indulgent. The problem concerns the failure of its analogy. Salman Rushdie incurred the wrath of fundamental Islamists for insulting Islam; jihad got declared upon him; his life got placed in certain jeopardy. McKean’s novelist, Jonathan Rush, merely said some mean things about Yahweh, and the consequences imputed to him, the effect of that upon his life, turn out to be flatly non-believable. It does not help at all that Rush titled his most offending novel  Cages, because nothing in McKean’s book will prompt masses to grab the pitch forks and torches. Additionally, McKean adds a supernatural under- or over-layer to Rush’s narrative. In a slightly spooky, slightly too contrived, and baiting sequence, Rush and his wife elliptically fail to discuss some kind of affliction their life currently stands under. It seems that anything Rush loves (literally) disappears from his life, and the punch line to this long sequence, punctuated as McKean allows it to get with too much inept exposition, involves the wife asking, “Why am I still here?”

tumblr_ljtrkznaTk1qco124o1_500Whatever Village of the Damned element this adds, Rush drops a cat out of his apartment window—ushering in what seems to be a very long dream or hallucination sequence—part of which includes a daffy vivisectionist who cannot decide how to proceed in the case of a living object, having previously encountered only inanimate objects from Rush’s life. (This answers the wife’s plaintive question, if only for the reader, and not her.) This vivisectionist has the task of discovering the soul of inanimate objects, the thing that causes people to get so attached to things. The fact that a cat has wound up in the man’s lab gets no explanation—other than the whole thing is a dream or hallucination. I summarize this only to point out that the Rush narrative doesn’t devolve simply to a bad graft onto the biography of Salman Rushdie.

The cat may stand as the best-drawn (black) cat ever.


Although called “cages,” the book can’t shut up about that trite and limited mythological figure of Western civilization’s deity, who McKean addresses with the conventional misnomer “God” (substituting the job title for a name). I say limited because the biblical deity YHVH, and deities like him (e.g., Zeus, Jesus, Allah[2]), stand barely as demigods compared to the conceptual breadth (and thus the divine claims) of Kṛṣṇa, Viṣṇu, much less Brahman, and even less capaciously than Ganeṣa, &c. I say trite because the purviews of these western supposedly universal deities involves a depressingly narrow and provincial understanding of the world, both in the deities themselves and in the imaginations of those who composed the narratives about them.

One fishes around for various ways to generalize this crass demigod in question: “biblical,” “western”, &c. His defining feature, however, involves him as “father”. Kṛṣṇa, Viṣṇu, much less Brahman, even Ganeṣa, Hanuman, Lakshmi (obviously)—none of these take on the epithet “father”. Partly because Jesus does not represent the father directly he carries less of the father’s stench; nonetheless, his appearance in Revelations as a murdering psychopath shows the Jungian concept of enantidromia (the return of the repressed) in spades.

In McKean’s book, god stays strictly a father, toward the end appearing in a (metaphysically and narratively) disrupting way as a sort of sub-father, seemingly some sort of a quasi-bureaucrat or pseudo-muse with kitschy overtones—but this amounts simply to the father who knows best at his place of work, the office.[3] Importantly, and in one of the better gestures of the book that gets left behind, McKean starts cages with six or so variations on the story of creation. In every case, creation does not involve merely the perfectly carried off spectacle Genesis provides—errors occurs, missteps, goof-ups. In the opening story, a male and female bob around blindly in a rowboat or the like. So McKean provides the presence of an initial female figure as well, whether a creator or not. Creation remains strictly the male’s prerogative, even as he botches it somewhat, or even (perhaps) as they both discover together something larger, older, and prior to them both. The remainder of the stories reflect (as I remember) only males, but the striking part of this involves the fact of multiple creation stories. Some of the imagery notwithstanding, the stories decidedly all stem from a father. Perhaps McKean selected myths from different human traditions and tweaked them, but I don’t think so. He presents no sequence of creations; these do not seem to be multiple (failures) attempts, but simply six or seven different versions of the same (botched) beginning. Considering the gesture at the end—the notion that each person has their own god-notion—we might read these opening variations as simply the god-notions of various, not-yet-disclosed characters, but it doesn’t read that way, of course. Each story presents, definitively, a story of creation, an whatever we as readers should make of that does not get spelled out.

tumblr_lqdmtbrA4q1qco124o1_1280The unifying trait hinges on hubris, if you will, on the inadequacy of ability to meet ambition; the father fails to Crete the creation he wants. It gets out of hand. Humankind, in particular, proves especially obstreperous an difficult and unpredictable. McKean reprises this later in a reworking of the Tower of Babel story, where a king’s aspiration for a shining, glorious tower leads to (a future vision of) an apocalypse,  wasteland, a disaster—McKean does not show exactly. The problem, the narrator explains—a mother narrates this story to her daughter—hinges on the fact that the perfection the king imagined in his mind became corrupted as he delegated the task of its realization to others, who let their own ideas of perfection distort the King’s. (I believe the narrator expects us to accept that the King’s vision really did constitutes a perfect vision.) This fills out, slightly, the various failures at the beginning of the book, insofar as we may blame the failure of creation on those who allowed the perfection of an originator’s ideas to get corrupted by their own notions of it, whether that includes vanity, pride, or whatnot McKean (and the narrator) do not specify.

On one level, this amounts simply to a structural level expression (in the novel) of the painter-protagonist’s self-deprecating character. McKean received an inspiration from the “originator” and then fucked it up in the embodiment on the page, due to his own (less?) notions of perfection compared to the originator.  As one character remarks, “Creativity is your god,” so—from the notion of god-figures we see presented in the book—the god-figure plants the idea (in McKean’s head) and then it turns out badly—so goes the ironic self-deprecation—because his (McKean’s) ideas of perfection differ from the originator’s.

The major fault of such a thematic line involves the inadequacy of the inspiration in the first place. McKean unambiguously states that the god-figure amounts to little more than a peon and a fiction, so the “fault” of the embodiment of creation, of man (i.e., humankind’s) fucking up the original idea of creation (from the original originator) originates in the original originator’s own failed nature. And if the creator has no more ability relative to his ambition than a mere mortal does with respect to her or his own ambition, then that figure does not deserve the title “god” in any sense.

This is—as the god-figure itself says—a fiction, i.e., a story we tell ourselves. God does not exist; rather, there exists only the failed creator, and in this kitschy valorization of failure we justify our own existence.


This illustrates why god the father provides such  lethal dead-end an trap; even to protest against it leads back to his throne. This, because of the terms it frames the whole thing in in the first place. And this results in benighted, provincial kitschiness about and in the metaphysical stories we tell ourselves; or, as the author Rush demonstrates, it generates such an intense rage in the face of the injustice of it that the whole world has to attack you for attacking it, which means the same thing as demanding you shut up about it.

Importantly, in the narrative told by the mother to the daughter—a narrative that specifically involves only females, although the story concerns a male, a King, and his hubris—the more summarizes her story and it moral, “Shit happens.” The girl laughs, accusing her mother of saying a bad word, and the mother agrees, insisting that bad characterizes most of what happens in the world . Against this ham-fisted overstatement, McKean balances (at the end of the novel) and equally ham-fisted counter-statements (by the protagonist) that this world is the best of all possible ones.

I’ll go out on a limb and eschew the various qualifiers I could add here; I think McKean intends for us to take both of these episodes “straight”. Whatever irony they might carry, the disproportionate bad of the world argued by (wiser) female figures gets answered by the (idealistic) male hope that the world could not get arranged better otherwise.

I say these gestures lack irony, meaning in this sense: however wrapped in irony or intonational question marks, these statements point to two poles in god the father metaphysics: the revelation of absolute fallenness (and failure on the part of the father) in the past and the unregenerate placing of hope in that same father (in the future) for salvation; or, more briefly, “all is not well,” but “all will be well.” Hinduism, by the way, declares, “All is already well, if you would only see that it is, and then continue to see how it is that way.”

The fact that McKean has females relate a story about a male’s hubris points, in theory, to a sort of feminist (or at least anti-patriarchal) angle, but I find little reason to push the idea too far. When we blame the father for the fuck-up of creation, an implicit part of this involves blaming the mother as well, which (patriarchal) tradition suppresses to the point almost of absence. In the book of Genesis—examine this for yourself—the presence of Woman arises in the fact that YHVH emerges from Her womb; his declaration, “Let there be light,” points not to the creation of any light, but to YHVH capacity to open the Great Mother’s  sex and let the light in. &c. In any case, the mother-blaming begins openly in earnest with Eve, but we all know perfectly well that our father only ever consists of whoever our mother says embodies our father.[4]

Cages10 capaSo when Lilith—I shall name the mother-narrator that for this blog—tells her daughter a story about what a fuck-up the King turned out as, for all of his aspirations for perfection, that cannot function only as a “feminist” critique of masculine hubris, because unless Lilith made that daughter herself, then the self-same fuck-up male principle fucked up the daughter as well. And as for fucking up daughters, we might point as well to the rather wooden and unnecessary disclosure (from Jonathan Rush’s Cages) of incest. That notwithstanding, the putative male-bashing one might try to read out of the story is integrates in two ways. First, if we take the moral of the story ‘shit happens” literally, then this excuses male-centered creation; the world went awry not through any fault of the Creator (whether He claimed omniscience and omnipotence or not) but just because “shit happens”. This excuse for masculine hubris leaves wide open the morally reprehensible assertion, “This is the best of all possible worlds”.[5] One might find nothing surprising that a male-authored book allows masculine creation this “out”. Secondly, if the woman and the child should mean a vision of people not constituted by patriarchy, then I would expect some other story than, “Daddy fucked up, darling.”

One of the things very obvious in the Eden myth: a child wrote it, i.e., one of the descendants of the parents who originally fucked up. Had the Eden narrative been written by an Adam or an Eve, we would have something more like the story of Job: “you think I fucked up, you little brat? You have no idea what I had to go through to clothe you, to feed you, to put a roof over your head” &c. In this petulant and peevish broad-siding of the parents, which nevertheless goes on to demand that we honor those parents, no fault accrues to the child except for the (claimed) gross injustice of inheriting a fallen world in the first place. In the same way we hear the voice of a child, not a parent, in the Eden narrative, I hear the voice of a man in the woman’s insistence, “Shit happens.” The most specific shit that happens: the father, the husband, i.e., the one in charge who the mother most decidedly does not represent. Nonetheless, we see her poisoning the mind of her child. We know children do not come out of the womb as racists; someone tells them, “Blacks are inferior, homosexuals are sinners,” &c.

Isis never tells Horus, “Shit happens,” because to whatever extent had gotten established the patriarchal culture that the appearance of her very son Horus signals in Egyptian mythology, She has not yet been reduced to a mere cunt, like Hesiod’s Chaos, or even less in the biblical myth. The “Great Mother” telling her daughter, “Shit happens” has no anti-patriarchal element in it whatsoever and so doesn’t warrant any designation as feminist or any designation as a critique of the patriarchal order. Rather, it forms yet another brick in the wall of patriarchy—and no wonder, because it comes from a male-authored standpoint that must, in the terms presented by god-the-father patriarchy, vacillate always between the twin poles of inevitable failure (all is not well) and vacuous hope (the father will save us). People worry about throwing the baby out with the bathwater; we might risk chucking papa out with the bathtub.

mckeanCages fieldIf this seems over-reading to some extent a passing (mother/daughter) frame in the book, the very fact that it seems passing serves as the first sign that the interpretation actually points to something. Women, according to patriarchy, warrant use as examples—this mother and daughter never appear again; nothing comes of them and their wandering on the beach except to talk about a man for lots of pages. The degree of proportion seems almost exact for patriarchy. But beyond this, McKean’s use of the black musician Angel similarly points to patterns of (imperil, colonizing) patriarchy.

The most unhappy part, of course: McKean obviously and in no way intends to wind up so garishly in the racially determined rut that he does. And I won’t pretend I have no black friends who might find themselves gladdened that a black (man) person occupies (sort of) the hero (or wise man) position in a book. Angel does not occupy that position, however. The most awful part of angel’s representation concerns McKean’s resort to dialectical transcription. This involves a topic of considerable complexity, and if I only present a certain part of it, I do so mostly for the sake of brevity and to avoid allowing the discourse that wants to “correct” my over-reading in order to maintain hegemonic racism not get too much (from me) toward that aim in what I present.

Angel presents virtually every stereotype of the Noble Savage. His name Angel suggests the opposite of earthiness—“natives” being “naturally” closer to the earth, of course—but nonetheless, he communes with stones and has an enormous “hobelisk” in his apartment. On the one hand, that McKean’s transcribes whatever “dialect” McKean’s perceives him as having, on the grounds that “he really talks that way,” disregards not only the fact that “realism” provides by no means the governing principle of composition throughout the work—with all the surrealism and supernatural elements, why this sudden appeal to “realism” in speaking voice; meanwhile, why do we have no transcriptions for anyone else’s voices?—but also the very effect of the gesture: it means, in a very literal way, that Angel does not speak English, and English provides the language of humankind in the novel.  That Angel, as a character, tries to trope on some interplay of “natural” (in the most heinous eugenics sense you can imagine) and “supernatural” (ultimately related to the eugenics sense, through by a very roundabout path) willfully seems to ignore hundreds of years of (white) representation of the Other that empire sought to and did enslave, subjugate, and colonize. By all accounts, Angel provides evidence of the “exotic,” in just the sense that Said in Orientalism identified as so crucial (along with dehumanization) to the success of the colonizing project. People have their own Angel stories. Angel has a supernatural (or unnatural, depending on how you want to parse it) affinity for ivory, all the keys of the piano—white and black, one will note.

Mind you, I don’t mean to say McKean sought to reproduce wearisome stereotypes. He may even simply have captured empirical evidence of (colonized) patriarchy, just like women saying, “Daddy fucked up, dear,” exist. The artist, however, cannot simply hold as it were a mirror up to nature—we know that amounts to a dodge or (more often) sycophancy to one’s patrons. Nor do I mean whites shouldn’t represent non-whites, but certainly more reflexivity that McKean practices seems in order.

mckean_cages_3Two points. First, it seems key to McKean’s conception of Angel that he has no sex drive. In its more scurrilous forms, white bigotry can’t shut up about rampant sexuality among the colored. In the Noble Savage version of this exoticism, sexuality still exists, when it gets mentioned at all, and always has a strikingly “natural” character. McKean renders Angel, like most angels, sexless. This problematizes the representation of the Other (by white colonizing imperialism) because it amounts to a “cleaning up” of the otherwise “impure” sexuality of the Other. Dyer (1997)[6] in White asserts that masculine white morality consists precisely in mastering one’s (literally) “dark” desires; the kind of desires that non-whites have regularly and do not master but, rather, indulge in. By stripping Angel of sexual desires, by sublimating them (perhaps) through the “soulful” channel of spoken-word jazz, McKean “saves” this character, so that the boring trope of the white man saving the colored man gets reprised at the textual level, even as the “go” of the novel (the author) provides the (black) messiah in a whited-up mode—black on the outside, obviously, but white on the inside: an angel.

It hardly bears mentioning that angels get represented as typically white, yes? Okay, thanks.

The second point: Angel gets invested with all kinds of pseudo-voodoo mumbo-jumbo that we seem meant to take as profound. By this, I don’t mean the content of what he says warrants dismissal out of hand; rather, the way his various statements and texts appear in the novel, McKean invests them with an otherly, exotic mystique that itself provides a key trope of orientalism. Angel becomes a mysterious, oracular shaman, which illustrates exactly the kind of orientalist approach that representations of non-whites often get put to use as. The only major time Angel doesn’t come across as some oracular exhalation doesn’t even appear in the story except as a narration, a story told about it. The storyteller can’t provide exact details, but one night Angel comes in having lost someone der, probably his mother, and plays his soul out, devastating everyone in the room.

What mother does an angel grieve for having lost?

God-as-father patriarchy (in its imperial and non-imperial manifestations) denies the mother; she gets subordinated as the mother of the son of god, and people still more attuned to the Mother immediately recognized her and placed her above all else, as she always had and has been. So grieving for one’s lost mother constitutes one of the “whitest” things you can do in (European) god-as-father patriarchy. It constitutes not the most essential loss, but the most essential lie about what we’ve lost. What we encounter in our (terrestrial) mothers—for those who were not adopted—involves a distortion into  vagina, a womb. Of course, terrestrial mothers fuck us up in countless other ways, but the initial and fundamental distortion involves: “that’s what I came out of”. Hesiod didn’t just give vent to misogynistic fantasy when he described the beginning of everything as a “gap”—the hole between the female legs. There we may see a major inheritance of patriarchy, and so of course an angel must weep more plaintively and passionately than at any other time than for that.

cages2Great Mothers like Kali have no such grotesque limitation; she ranges over the whole of existence, creating, destroying, both the ground and the source simultaneously, neither virgin nor maiden nor crone. Isis (literally) re-members her dismembered and dead husband to beget using a golden phallus her son. Unlike the male and female at the beginning of McKean’s book, where the woman must ask the man to create, when Osiris seeks wisdom, Isis on her own initiative brings it to him from the garden of Wisdom, because she, not he, has access to it.

I may sound like I hate McKean’s book; I mention again, I intended to throw all of my weight on one side of part of an argument to ensure that the racist imperialist discourse of the world would have the hardest time offsetting it with a bunch of “well maybe he meant this” and “well, it doesn’t exactly say that” and the like. By focusing on a woman and her daughter—however fatuously the tower of babel narrative ends up in her mouth—and whatever train wreck of representation of the Other one may read out of the figure of Angel, with all of his “salvaged” blackness—this suggests to me a new trope in the history of the representation of the other, the discourse of the “noble salvage”—McKean’s resort to these figures, even in secondary or tangential roles within his book points, however vaguely or tenuously, at the desire for an alternative to “this, the best of all possible worlds”.  Similarly, in the section where an inadequacy of heaven gets pointedly rejected—whether as a place of simple bliss where the denizens insist that art provides nothing more than pleasurable entertainment or a place where art receives no end of presumably pretentious but also mistaken or ironic academic assessment—the desire for an alternative, a necessity of rejecting the current terms available, comes across forcibly.[7]

I do believe he expects us to take that ending seriously. And he might insist that the separate peace that the protagonist and his female accessory reach represents simply their separate peace and does not point to any sort of generalized or generalizable separate peace that we all might in a similar way reach—but that would amount simply to a dodge as well. Because social offerings—like books—do not resonate only “about the characters” and saying so moves beyond disingenuous.

Like anthropology from one hundred years ago,[8] for example the kind of material by Spencer and Gillen (1904)[9] on some of the tribal people of Australia, a certain kind of faithfulness of observation gets much of the right facts on the table, even if the interpretation of those (empirically observable) facts then goes wholly awry. Here, I emphasize the “like” in that sentence; I don’t mean to seem unfair by imputing too much naiveté, thoughtlessness, or lack of reflection to McKean’s novel. It seems a central irony, however, that the kind of offense that Rush’s Cages supposedly generated for how it bad-mouthed god ends up turned inside-out by the ways that McKean’s Cages (inadvertently) good-mouths god. Or, to put this another way, if the diagnosis of Cages involves people aged (in ideas of god), then Cages has yet to escape its own diagnosed condition.

cagesThe desire for an alternative to the current order of things tends to evoke sympathetic responses; those who have such a desire usually suffer in some way—suffering arises when one encounters a threat to the intactness of one’s being—from the prevailing conditions. But such a desire for an alternative constitutes a necessary but not yet sufficient condition because, and without intending to detract from or dismiss the real actuality of the experience of suffering, we must interrogate whether the alternative desired (as a solution to the problem) and the framing of the problem itself themselves constitute adequate (and desirable) framings. The one percenter who suffers because he cannot despoil Cameroon of its resources and desires an alternative to that circumstance  may deserve sympathy for his travail but not for his desired alternative, which involves disenfranchising other people of their right to the very lifestyle he feels entitled to.

On the macrolevel, McKean’s book concerns cages and god—or, perhaps more accurately, the limited and/or limiting way we cage the divine creative principle or, in turn, find ourselves caged by it—either in the existential condition of the world (by a faulty creator who mucked it up) or in the conceptual/psychological world, where we relate to the world through the lens of that god-image (whether as faulty creator or not). McKean offers little in the way of alternatives, which I don’t count  fault of the book, but what he does offer seems problematic: concluding this is the best of all possible worlds stands as a choice primarily open to those who stand highest in the hierarchy of power. Whatever suffering the protagonist undergoes on behalf of his process, he lives in a wallowing luxury and privilege unmarked by where he will sleep, how he will eat, &c. Similarly, the image of Angel as a figure of “the natural” (in terms of “African” or “Primitive” culture) as distinct from the “unnatural” (as “civilized” or “white” culture) does not offer us liberation from our cages.

I can imagine a din going up in response to my remarks about Angel. I assume McKean has a brain; I don’t doubt he gave thought and consideration to the decision, as  white-identified person, to represent people identified as non-white.[10] The possibility remains that this entails a losing proposition ultimately, because however a human being attempts to depict another human being, when one cannot resist (much less simply ignore, as supposedly race-blind policies propose to do) the context of hegemonic power that makes such representations into representations of the Other by Power, then certain aspects of that discourse distort the attempt whether one wills or no. At that point, any solution to the problem can only involve embracing that fact of hegemony; attempting to ignore it serves only to reproduce it, which seems the case here.

tumblr_mildn1x9yw1qj595to1_500McKean’s attempt in Angel appears as a kind of hybridization, an “earth shaman” (or rocks) linked to “sky spirituality” (as an angel). Instead of sex, he has music and seduces (and attempts to transform) the community rather than individuals for the sake of some larger (social) goal than his busting a nut; instead of the conventional “funny black sidekick” (too familiar from Hollywood), he typically reflects n oracular earnestness that arrests people’s attention. At the same time, McKean indulges in kitschy dialect transcription, which no one else suffers from in the novel, and the whole “process” of his magic (as opposed to the magic of the white protagonist painter) remains obscured in mystique—he himself remains wholly otherly, inexplicable, mysterious. Whatever Angel’s “approach” consists of, people (and perhaps especially white people,[11] who remain “not in touch with the earth” or “the vital pulse of life in the earth”) cannot emulate him. He exists as a (theoretical) alternative, but not one available to anyone. He provides the protagonist painter a stone, which he (the painter) should get in tune with—in general, Angel gets represented as in tune with the all-vibe—but that offered stone goes nowhere in the novel; instead, we later get the narrative of the King who disastrously built a tower. His project began by placing a stone on a map: that act spelled the end.[12] Whether McKean intends to connect these elements, it takes little effort to see they do connect, and this serves as a further warning that the “natural” example of the black Angel remains unavailable to “unnatural” white folks. Even McKean’s inclusion of jazz (as thematic content) serves this point, where the discourse that “white people can’t play jazz” (and/or one finds only precious few exceptions)  comfortably overlays the way McKean has presented the issue.

One might accuse all of this analysis as somewhat overhasty or too broad; again, the intent expresses the desire to keep at bay the racist elements of (white hegemonic) discourse that wants to say “this is the best of all possible graphic novels” (this year, as the back of the book declares). One might fancifully declare if Cages aspires to generate the kind of offense that Rush’s cages did, if riots and calls for the head of the author might issue from somewhere, the radical black community might embody a source, but white hegemony wouldn’t put those riots on the news—not, at least, in their terms as a protest against the perils of representation. McKean’s good intentions only make the whole issue that much more ridiculous and fraught. The exasperation that white people might express that I even offer all of this, seeing in it a tangent or misreading, themselves express the heart of the problem in that exasperation; the exasperation of non-white people reading this, not disregarding all the other sources of exasperation as well, in part involves the tedious rehearsal yet again of some white-offered solution, using black people, to get out of the cage that white people have put themselves in.

So, in seeking an alternative to a prevailing social order, we have to ask: how does the problem get framed in the first place? That what little McKean offers by way of a “solution” remains extremely problematic or unworkable—i.e., even if we could become the master of stones like Angel, we would then fuck things up; or we can accede to the luxurious privilege of declaring this, after all, to be the best of all possible worlds—we may look to how he frames the problem, i.e., the two central themes of cages and god. So in the present case, the problem of “god” already proposes a problem in allowing the word “god” to function as a generality; this very gesture itself provides the foundation of god-the-father patriarchy, since in that usage, all other spiritual traditions get blotted out at best or distorted at worst, as for example when well-intentioned people with a lethally partial understanding insist that Kṛṣṇa represents a figure of Christ.[13]

tumblr_mgwkekTLRS1rl1me3o1_500One may trace a bazillion different ways that the god-as-father view of the world differs from the Indian conception, but the root divergence occurs at the very first premise of (spiritual) experience. God-the-father patriarchy assumes a fundamental distinction between humankind and the divine, even as the human animal gets credited with a partial inheritance of divinity. In Judeo-Christian terms, original sin signals this qualified divine element, but it proposes such a stark distinction between the divine and the human that union with YHVH gets ruled out out of hand (without, in the Christian myth, the intercession of Christ). In Judaic and Islamic terms, a person’s moral responsibility consists less in being righteous than in acting righteously. Whether original sin per se gets emphasized, the hypothesized worm-like status of the human animal may nevertheless get redeemed, at least a little, by (blindly, one may argue)following the rules of righteous laid down in scripture and duly sanctioned commentaries on scripture. One may find this emphasis (on acting righteously) in Christianity as well, of course; just as one may find fanatics in Judaism and Islam who claim to be (not just act) righteous.[14]

In contrast to this fundamental and obligatory break between the human and the divine, Indian philosophy and spirituality most frequently begins with an assumption of their identity; the question then becomes why we cannot readily perceive this identity in the world around us. For all else that follows from this assumption, it means that at the very root of religious or spiritual experience, the god-as-father and Indian paradigm diverge. With the former, we enter the realm of victim-blaming—either the creator fucked (us) up or we fucked up creation and we find ourselves paralyzed in the attempt to explain the problem of evil in the world by affixing blame for it. In the Indian tuition, evil arises from an only partial understanding of the reality of things. All other details aside, this point of view recognizes: how you see the problem is the problem, whereas the god-the-father myth declares: the problem is you, or us, or Him, &c.

The theme of the cage usually incorporate the irony that the cage arises of one’s own making; this provides an echo of the realization “the problem is how you see the problem” without providing the epistemology (or though) to get out of that framing. The notion that I have made my cage carries an implication of guilt that may paralyze further action—why would I become the kind of person who puts himself in a cage, but this self-blaming itself may easily and quickly spiral out to blame the god who made it so—but it means also that the escape from the cage involves only me, in a Luciferian rebellion (against myself or the cage that some god put me in). However this plays out, the cage gets taken as (literally) real, whereas Indian philosophy says, “What cage?”

An Indian King retained the great sage Shankara to enlighten him about the characteristics of reality and the like, but the King, with his acculturated sense of royal importance, did not take well to the notion that all is unreal. To make fun of Shankara’s point, the King contrived that next time the sage came to teach, he (the King) would set a heat-maddened elephant upon Shankara. And so it happened. And as soon as Shankara beheld the elephant raging toward him, he fled at once up into a tree. Handlers got the elephant under control and the King approached Shankara in the tree, laughing at the great sage. “But Teacher,” the King teased. “If all is unreal, why did you run away from an unreal elephant?” To which Shankara replied, “Dear friend, what makes you believe that the unreal cannot be harmed by the unreal?”[15]

tumblr_la8uptTsWp1qzhl9eo1_500From the standpoint of god-the-father patriarchy, its unreal character does not spare us its harm; we suffer the problems consequent to its framing as such, but the solution—neither as “become more in tune with the earth” (like Angel) or take on what stands nearly as the truth “this is the best of all possible worlds”—will not be found in those terms. I say “nearly as the truth” because one may take Indian philosophy in one sense as saying, “This is the best of all possible worlds”—the difference however involves the context where that statement occurs. In a god-the-father paradigm, the statement ultimately amounts to quietism: either I forgive myself (for fucking up reality) or I forgive the creator, and both of those forgiveness, whatever their value as a separate peace, excuse an so justify the ongoing and active suffering the current order inflicts on everyone else around the world. Whether one is Christian, Jewish, or Islamic, assent to the god-the-father paradigm advocates a certain kind of behavior toward other people but not without also maintaining irremediably the “divine” and “fallen” (or “saved” and “damned”) distinction that finds its primary source in the “good” versus” evil” distinction asserted between the father and us (humans). “This is the best of all possible worlds” in an Indian context has its own problematic features as well, of course, but it rests on a metaphysics that resolutely denies at root any “them or us” kind of distinctions. The problems of the world originate in the failure to recognize (and so consequently the failure to act upon) the fact that the very distinction of “me” and “you” (and so also “I” and “god”) rests in a limited understanding of things.

From the standpoint of Indian philosophy, one may explain the god-the-father paradigm (as a limiting and limited point of view that one might nevertheless live morally by, so long as you harm no others in the practice of it)—one sees the cage of the god-as-father paradigm. By contrast, the standpoint of a god-the-father paradigm cannot explain or account for Indian philosophy, except at best as an error and at worst as a heresy in need of extirpation. It may belabor the obvious, but as Maya Angelou’s famous poem “I Know Why The Caged Bird Rings” (1969)[16] refrains:

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Liberation involves what Angel seems to offer when, embracing and getting in tune with the obelisk in his apartment, he pushes over the whole world—an image resonant with the destruction of the Tower card in the Tarot deck, which signifies the end of one’s world as one knows it or release from prison and all that entails. But in typical fashion, we need liberation by another (the father will liberate us, a delivering angel),a n the tower in the first place as a prison gets blamed on us or, as Angelou[17] makes clear in an earlier verse, someone else:

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The cage, the clipped wings, the tied feet: these the bird did not do—those go the creator, to the owner, to god-the-father. And the rage Angelou rightly points to here, a blinding rage, echoes in Jonathan Rush’s description of his motivation for writing his Cages—anger at god-the-father for the ruins and damage visited upon his (beloved) wife.

CAGESPOSTER-DAVEMcKEANTundraSo the caged bird sings, makes art, to make its condition bearable. Art, in this setting, becomes a coping mechanism. Tellingly,  study found that domesticated songbirds showed a greater range of vocalization than their wild counterparts. The researchers suggest this occurred because, in captivity, the evolutionary pressure for song specialization (for the purpose of reproduction) gets relaxed. Similarly, human beings, as self-domesticated animals, thus created the occasion for a variety of behaviors no longer governed by any specifically evolutionary demands. In this, we may see the final refutation, if one were needed, for all biological or evolutionary explanations for human (existential) being.

In self-domestication, then, we freed ourselves from strictly biological necessity. But this self-domestication then gets taken as captivity—thus, again, Angelou aptly notes that the caged bird sings “with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still”. In the fear of the unknown, of changing our circumstances for a possibly more disastrous condition, we nonetheless still hope for something better. This arises as a function of the cage, not from the actual condition of human beings (or birds). Whether we made the cage or the creator did, the shapes of our fears of the unknown and the kinds of hopes we hope for differ incommensurably from whatever songs the free bird sings. Such a free bird remains incomprehensible, thus Angel becomes that simultaneously fearful unknown and hoped for liberation.

But this, again, arises only by accepting the cage (its imposition) as real. Indian philosophy, however badly this metaphor might fit, would tell the caged bird singing of freedom, “Already you are free.” In such a context, the whole complex of blame or self-blame the caged bird views the world through can barely hear this assertion without feeling indicted or accused, and that provides some reason why at least part of what I offer as an analysis of this book may seem entirely off.

Again, captivity (as domestication) enables a range of behaviors not previously possible but at the same time makes art into a coping mechanism. In the hallucinated fantasia, art gets reduced to mere entertainment or supercilious academia—two outcomes that make heaven into a hell one should reject, the book suggests—reasonably enough coming from a visual artist. Doubtless, McKean does not want the significance of his life, if not also the significance of his work, to boil down to mere masturbation, either affectively as mere entertainment or aesthetically and intellectually in the ivory tower no one ever visits. If we blame ourselves, then the function of art as a coping mechanism devolves to a shameful practice one indulges of necessity; humiliatingly, one might even get paid for it and suffer the vanity of some fame in the (fallen) world. If we blame god-the-father, then the very act of (rebellious) creation itself gets infected with the father’s imputed failure, and so it takes on a kind of satanic glory, Satan and YHVH finally exposed as one-and-the-same (“don’t you know that there’s no devil, that’s just god when he gets drunk”), and thus the godlikeness Jung warns about.

cages-pl-169Either way, the function of art as potentially paradigm shifting gets co-opted into the current order of things an neutralized, precisely because the framing of art (symbolized by the frames that contain it or the boxes that frame McKean’s illustrations in his book) as a cage gets taken as real in the first place. I don’t see that McKean sees this in his book. He seems to accept the trap set by the god-the-father paradigm and then tries (a little) to work his way out, with the “alternative” (but stereotypically familiar) images of the woman/daughter and black angel (as possible sites where genuine alternatives, in the he forms of feminism and anti-colonialist critique, both reside, if “woman” and “other” were not constituted as we see then in McKean’s books in fundamentally patriarchal terms) an the quietistic “coping mechanism” at the end of “this is the best of all possible worlds”. Then genuinely revolutionary possibilities of “woman” and “other” imagined in non-patriarchal terms here become grist—i.e., they get used, in the objectifying sense of the word—simply as contributing elements to the song that Cages’ caged bird sings.

McKean’s (implied) “horror” that his work might become mere entertainment or mere grist for academic pother—arguably of the sort I’ve provided here at such length—becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The very entertainment value of the book itself provides a coping mechanism for the unbearable conditions of the actual world—it offers an escapist fantasy that allows one to “enjoy” this “best of all possible worlds”.  On the opposite (academic) side where “shit happens” so that creation can only fail when (fallible) creators undertake it, the book may or may not anticipate “my” kind of criticisms, so that one may dismiss the whole thing (as also one may dismiss the entire cosmos) as a fundamentally bad idea from the very start: shame on the hubristic King, &c. One might add as well that academic pother constitutes a form of coping mechanism in an undesirable world as well—intellectuals must keep themselves busy and fed somehow, &c.

The “helplessness” this all implies, the sort of delusive bad faith to put it perhaps too harshly that McKean may feel he tricked himself with when he set out, like that King, even to write Cages, I see signaled in the very last images in the book, when the black cat jumps into—by implication returns to—a wholly black painting in a frame in a gallery (museum). Out of darkness the cat appeared—a black cat, incidentally, that specifically and more than once questions god, though without rely hammering the critique home—only to return to it again. Viewed in one way, this points to how everything amounts, finally, to a mystery we cannot fathom—god works in mysterious ways or the unconscious represents an unfathomable murk we cannot be rid of (even if we wanted to); on this point, Todorov (1984)[18] pointedly observes:

From the classical age to the end of romanticism (i.e., down to our own day), writers and moralists have continued to discover that the person is not one—or is even nothing—that Je est un autre [“I is another”], or simple echo chamber, a hall of mirrors. We no longer believe in wild men in the forests, but we have discovered the beast in man, “that mysterious thing in the soul, which seems to acknowledge no human jurisdiction but in spite of the individual’s own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts” (Melville, Pierre, IV, 2). The instauration [the restoration or rebuilding] of the unconscious can be considered as the culminating point of this discovery of the other in oneself (248–9).

mckean_cages1992Indian philosophy does not fetishize this mystery; “everyone has a partial understanding, so let us not fight about it” becomes the baseline observation from the Jainist point of view. The instauration of the unconscious, what Jung identifies as the process of encountering the complementary imagery out of the unconscious he calls individuation, points to an alternative meaning and function of art than art as a coping mechanism for doomed creation.

Notwithstanding we needn’t accept on blind faith a discourse of art as a pathetically trite and human coping mechanism or a predestined failure of divinely reaching hubris, we may say also that McKean’s book stands likely greater than the hobbling he thematically subjects it to.[19] Unfortunately, for any spirit of simplification, McKean ends to bring all sorts of intelligence even to frames that might otherwise seem merely throw-away. Metaphorically, we might seek more of the kind of desirable function of art I identified “between the frames” (as between the bars of a cage)? Certainly in the richness of most of the images, more so than with most illustrators, one might more readily find the very contradiction to the surface “narrative” of the book, which I say comes down ultimately on the side of god-the-father patriarchy and quietism to that paradigm. If, as a proposal to some future archaeologist of this text, one might first distinguish between the “workaday material” of the book that seems primarily geared toward simply getting done the work of the narrative itself and other places in the text where the “hard” or “non-porous” surface of the text gets boggy an lets more contradictory, elusive, ambiguous material (from the world of Woman or the Other) to creep through, then a more sketched out picture of Cages as an embodiment of an alternative to the god-the-father paradigm it too completely (I say) accepts might emerge.

If I offer as the one sentence summary of this long reaction, “Can inept representations of the Other still serve as (symbolic) representations of alternatives to the current order of things?” then the slightly broader version of this question becomes, “Can a work of art as a solution to the problems it frames in a current undesirable order of things nevertheless provide however inadvertently a desirable alternative to that undesirable order?” Deconstruction accepts as a premise that one always may, that the terms of the “system of art” proposed already carries its own contradiction, but what such an assertion leaves out—that, in fact, shifts attention away from—concerns that this requires a human observer to note the implied negations. Such terms do not exist of themselves, external to human observers. Given that how we see the problem is the problem, that the presence of the observer changes the thing observed, we may tentatively answer, “yes” then to our question, provided we frame the problem (of the work of art) adequately.


Movie_cages_mckean[1] McKean, D. (2010). Cages. Milwaukie, Or.: Dark Horse Books, pp. 1–496.

[2] From what little I know of Odin’s mythology, as raging sky fathers go, he certainly seems more interesting than the charlatan Zeus or complacent Jupiter; he also seems to have little to nothing of the childishness of the biblical conception of deity, who presents at best the picture of an empty braggart and at the worst a narcissistic bully.

[3] A problematic element here, seemingly not addressed or really intended in McKean’s narrative involves how this god-figure—simply the god-figure for a given individual and thus representative figure for the notion that we all have such a “personal notion of god” figure—puts ideas, memories, notions in the mind of the person who conceptualizes them. This in practice amounts to a kind of possession or manipulation, but McKean seems to try to present it as innocuous and not even obligatory, since the god-figure readily admits its fictional character.

[4] Modern DNA testing provides an alternative to this at last.

[5] On an individual level, in the face of my own suffering, in the confrontation with events I cannot understand, and in trying to make my own peace with the events that happen to me, it might prove very consoling to start from the premise that everything happens for a reason, that matters could not have gone otherwise, and so forth. To take this as a general principle we might tell the raped women of the Congo, the children dying of cancer, the transracially adopted children who commit suicide, could hardly take a more grotesque form, and on that ground I call such a statement morally reprehensible.

[6] Dyer, R. (1997). White: Essays on race and culture. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 1–284

[7] Even if a concern with “how art gets interpreted” seems like something only an artist would care about with any substantial passion. This vision, in any case, seems to originate not in the mind of the protagonist artist (or the writer).

[8] Or more recently.

mckean029gf[9] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from here, pp. i–xxxv, 1–787.

[10] Angel does not constitute the only figure in this regard, and one might easily wax even less charitable about how he went about this in his representation of certain aspects of “jazz” culture, but let that stand.

[11] McKean has at least one character, admittedly a dough-headed and judgmental one, express manifold opposites and confusion about Angel, but the non-white jazz musicians express an equal confusion about Angel.

[12] By default, in English composed works, and in works in this particular passage where line drawings represent the king, although he in principle might embody some sort of Sumerian figure, he “looks” white; so also the mother and daughter providing the frame, who in this case McKean has used actual (treated) photographs to represent. Whatever qualifiers one might add to this vis-à-vis racial commentary, giving the white man a stone leads (in the case of the King) to total devastation.

[13] This error occurs in both directions, from Christianity to India and from India to Christianity; Satchidananada (1988) more than once likes matters in the Bhagavad-Gītā to parallels in Christianity. However, just as one may see that reversing the terms of a metaphor changes everything, i.e., war is hell, hell is war, a similar sea-change occurs when one reverses the direction of the comparison, i.e., Christ is Kṛṣṇa and Kṛṣṇa is Christ. In particular, the well-intentioned but lethally partially aware individual referred to point to those people from the biblical tradition who see a figure of Christ in Kṛṣṇa. If I had to pick simply the one most important difference, then it boils down to this: Kṛṣṇa represents no one’s son and even less any sort of father. Kṛṣṇa has no beginning, so there exists no “source” in the (western) sense that brings with it the priority of “parent”. Christ may in some (mysterious) sense remain identical with the Father, but an essential feature of him precisely involves his sonship and anteriority to the Father (and the disregarded Mother).

cages_conversation_10-11[14] I can’t resist pointing out at this juncture that one of the more conservative commentators on the Bhagavad-Gītā A.C. Swami Bhaktivedanta unambiguously provides a relevant point about this. He states that one should never try to imitate Kṛṣṇa. Viṣnu, for instance, consumed an ocean of poison; limited humans should not do this, as they will die. Judaism and Islam certainly never advise that one should (or could) act like YHVH or Allah, although this does not prevent biblical raving or fanatical arrogance, while the meme “what would Jesus do” shows a far more ignorant expression of this topic. Bhaktivedanta would say the proper dive consists rather in asking, “What does Jesus say I should do in this circumstance.” Jung speaks of “godlikeness,” as a condition of ego-inflation; in the present context, this illustrates the human moment of giving oneself the liberty to act like one’s scriptural myth. Given the amount of scriptural material devoted to Kṛṣṇa, one might find some justification for a piece of godlikenessed tyrannizing in there somewhere, but since a very great deal of his disposition, especially toward Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gītā, concerns him acting concerned, sweet, patient, kind, and gentle, we may find ourselves less often in social hot water if people get godlikenessed by this god than one derived from a god-the-father paradigm.

[15] Shankara further adds, “And what makes you think that unreal you saw unreal me flee up an unreal tree?”

[16] The whole is here.

[17] If only one might find some justification to impute a link between Angel and Angelou in McKean’s compositional conceit.

cages_conversation_01[18] Todorov, T. (1998). The conquest of America: the question of the other (trans. Richard Howard). Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, i–xiii, 1–274.

[19] No doubt, someone might say that the hobbling of his work thematically falls on my shoulders, not McKean’s. Avoiding what Eagleton refers to as “all vacuous hope,” make the argument to me that McKean’s book provides, even if by accident, an alternative to the god-the-father paradigm I say it remains trapped in, I would gladly embrace that. Tell me “you liked the book,” then fetch off into your useless and egotistical world of psychological coping; trouble yourself to discuss briefly or at length the aesthetic significance of the book while women get raped in the Congo at exactly the same moment, I’ll leave you to masturbate in peace, as I’d find that particular pornographic performance uncompelling.

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