BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, & Stan Woch’s (2013) Swamp Thing: the Saga of the Swamp Thing (volume 4) – Part 1

2 October 2013

Summary

So shall we say that those times when we give up attempting to address the Other, because we believe we cannot reach that Other’s mind, mark the frontier of our Original Darkness?

Pre-Disclaimer

Last 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 (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These 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 provide one 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 reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, & Stan Woch’s (2013)[1] Swamp Thing: the Saga of the Swamp Thing (volume 4) – Part 1

Except for the first episode in this volume, the entire thing gets taken up (sensibly enough) with the impending apocalypse threatened in the previous volume. The first episode uses a parallel structure to show a dying woman and a generalized sleazebag (in separate narratives) tripping out differentially on a Swamp Thing yam—a little enfabled observation about how drugs only bring out what already exists in a person’s personality.

An unaddressed, possibly unintentional, implication in this set-up arises from the fact that the sleazebag (but also the woman, to a lesser extent) seem to enter Swamp Thing’s consciousness (more properly, his memories) than have a “trip” per se, that the trip one experiences with hallucinogens involves getting into the mind of another, as opposed to merely accessing some other part of one’s own consciousness. Hallucinogens can make us “go out of our mind” but then the question becomes “to where?” Conventionally, we imagine this where as still part of ourselves—sometimes this involves the “mind of god” or whatnot, but whether that deity exists “inside” or “outside” of us remains an essentially unaddressed question—but here the “where” specifically comprises Swamp Thing’s memory and consciousness (not his present consciousness; he does not notice people trip in his “mind”).

This post covers two points in two posts: in this one, I sketch in some of the orientalism at work in this volume; in the next, I address the whole of volumes 1 through  4 together.[2]

The main action of this volume involves approaching the nasty Brujería of South America, who seek to invoke the Original Darkness, not to destroy the world (although the world will suffer for it) but to destroy heaven. John Constantine plays a major role in this, of course. Swamp Thing visits the parliament of trees, a collection of his plant elemental forebears, and we then return to the edge of Hell and people previously seen to combat the rising darkness—all with not only a proper sense of drama and scope appropriate to an apocalypse in general, but also with something of a satisfying twist on the usual thing as well.

You might read the collection yourself to get the fine twists yourself; I don’t feel I need to weigh in with more praise for the praise-worthy parts of the story. I want to pull out, instead, a problematic aspect, not to throw the whole thing under the bus, but simply to highlight it. As Said (1978)[3] makes clear in his book, the discourse of orientalism produced things; Said states:

One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away … Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment. Continued investment made Orientalism, as a system of knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness, just as that same investment multiplied—indeed, made truly productive—the statements proliferating out from Orientalism into the general culture (6).

In the present case, this kind of orientalism operated as well vis-à-vis the (global) North and (global) South, and Moore’s narrative results from the kind of statement proliferating out from Orientalism into the general culture, to itself become a part of that general culture as well.

Previously, and in part arising out of Condis’ (2011)[4] observations an critique of the specific Swamp Thing issue “the Curse” (included in volume 3), problematic representations of the Other (specifically women and Native Americans) came to the fore in this series. I know one should take it as vogue to superciliously breeze over this stuff—to generously acknowledge as Condis (2011) does the general good intentions of Moore’s gesture or simply to offer an apologetics that people simply wrote different “back then” (back then being barely twenty years ago)—but insofar as anything, from any era, whatever the thing might consist of that intrudes into the pleasure of reading or that punctures the “skin” of the story still actually does “intrude” as part of that experience.

Again, I don’t want to fuss about this in infinite detail or dudgeon. My object does not aim to throw Moore’s text into outer darkness (or the Original Darkness, for that matter). My basic attitude resembles Condis’, when she acknowledges the non-intent to defame or harm (particularly Native People) in Moore’s work, even though precisely this results—with my point specifically additionally informed, as noted above, by Said’s (1978) Orientalism.

In Moore’s text, the people of South America get the orientalist stick, in no small measure due to Chatwin’s (1977)[5] career-making In Patagonia,[6] his travelogue of his South American travels[7]. Of this book, his first, it:

established his reputation as a travel writer. Later, however, residents in the region contradicted the account of events depicted in Chatwin’s book. It was the first time in his career, but not the last, that conversations and characters which Chatwin presented as fact were alleged to have been fictionalized (from here).

By orientalist I mean (with Said) that kind of culturally closed internal dialogue centered on representations of an Other. Said’s concept by no means limits its application only to Occidental descriptions of the Middle and Far East, though his study centers precisely on that. We should expect, precisely,[8] (global) Northern efforts to represent the (global) South similarly, where someone like Chatwin plays a role similar to Flaubert (also a travel writer and novelist) in the Middle East.

Such fictionalization by Chatwin echoes Carlos Castaneda’s massive anthropological fraud in his ostensibly nonfictional Don Juan novels—see Fike’s (1993)[9] Carlos Castaneda: Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties—but the issue of misrepresentation does not end only with the most famous se of it. Napoleon[10] Chagnon’s (1968)[11] equally widespread ethnography of the Ya̦nomamö has since been exposed not simply as misrepresentative but as an actively complicit component of Northern adventurism in South America, though lots of spin has since played this out to an indeterminate degree.[12] And while it might seem convenient simply to denounce Fikes as some kind of hack—or to fire up a defensive apparatus of an extent equal to the one fired up on Chagnon’s behalf—Weigand in Roberts and Hruby (2002)[13] observes at some length:

Periodically, [Fikes] informed me of his progress [on studying the sacred traditions of the Huichol people of South America], developments which progressively disheartened and discouraged me more and more as the study began to assume the shape of this book. There was something deep inside me that did not want to believe the extent of misinterpretation and sensationalism in the works of Furst and Myerhoff [previously definitive ethnographic authors on the subject of the Huichol; see e.g., Myerhoff (1976)[14] and Schaefer & Furst (1998)[15]]. We felt obligated to cross-check many of [Fikes] findings, which we did with our own interviews (some of which are taped) and the re-study of the corpus of ethnography under consideration. In addition, I read several articles by Furst and Myerhoff for the first time. I had stopped systematically reading their material after the publication of Myerhoff’s 1974 book, because so little of it seemed replicable in our own field work; because it was completely decontextualized; and because it appeared to have an agenda that was not anthropological in nature. I felt what was worthwhile in their works was simply rehashing of materials that had already been published, especially Lumholtz[16] and Zingg.[17] In my cross-checking of many of Fike’s findings, I never found any inaccuracies on his part. I had simply no idea how deeply the ethnographic errors and misinterpretations had penetrated the Furst/Myerhoff works on the Huichols. By 1985, I had become convinced on my own that these works did not have real ethnographic value, but following Fike’s investigation, I suspected that we may be faced with what deMille might recognize as prima facie evidence of fraud. (page xi)

Fikes is cautious about concluding that ethnographic data were intentionally misrepresented or fabricated. He believes that most of the mutations he has identified can be interpreted as a manifestation of a cavalier neglect of the canons of ethnographic research. His research suggests that an intolerable level of indifference to ethnographic truth may have caused problems I regard as a product of fabrication. One of these problems, turning an acculturated Huichol into something he was not, i.e., a Huichol singing shaman, could be a consequence of Furst and Myerhoff having failed to discriminate between Huichol religious types such as healer, singer, and cahuitero. Regardless of whether one decides that fraud, as I have defined it, best explains a specific ethnographic anomaly, all scholars must agree that maintaining the credibility of our discipline depends on our willingness to comply with standards of honest ethnography. (pages xvi – xvii) (quoted by Roberts & Hruby here).

Let this suffice as a metonym for an orientalism of the (global) South by the (global) North, then just s Condis (2011) flagged down the problematic historical traces of sexism and racism in the discourse inadvertently taken up by Moore in “the Curse,” so we have the same effect in his adoption of the villainous Brujería and their horrific guardian the invunche, taken up (wholesale) from Chatwin’s discourse about Chilote spiritual traditions.

An essential part of orientalism involves what one might call sublime horror—as opposed to mere revulsion; very frequently, one encounters descriptions of “primitives” that do not merely turn the nose up in distaste but that seem to wallow, if you will, in the fascinating but gory spectacle of it all. One needs only imagine the popular imagination bout abstract “Mayans” or “Incas” or “Aztecs” to get at this, while comparing this to our current popular view of (Orientalized) Arabs, who seem at most to represent something like bellowing Spartans as they go headlong in a suicide run. I mean that something has happened to the classical sublime horror of the Middle East, which Said (1978) and Canetti (1960),[18] for very, very different reasons, provide apt examples of, from the French novelist Flaubert and French journalist Titaÿna,[19] respectively:

Quid dicis of the following fact: some time ago a santon (ascetic priest) used to walk through the streets of Cairo completely naked except for a cap on his head and another on his prick. To piss he would doff the prick-cap, and sterile women who wanted children would run up, put themselves under the parabola of his urine and rub themselves with it (quoted in Said, 103).

The madness seizes the children, even the very young ones. Beside a fountain, a mother, drunk with pride, hugs a child who has just mutilated himself. Another woman comes running, shouting, ‘He has gouged out an eye. In a few minutes he will put out the other.’ The parents watch it with delight (quoted in Canetti, 154).

Canetti says of this female-authored passage, “It would be hard to find anything more compelling or more frightening” (153). And at least three times Titaÿna emphasizes the madness of the crowd she witnesses—“500,000 [Muslims], seized with madness … infecting them with their own madness …there is not one man who retains the balance of his mind” (Canetti, 153).

Meanwhile, in Moore’s text, he leverages the typically black-humored John Constantine to describe the sublime horror of the invunche (which we’ve seen already, as a half-naked figure with its head twisted around backward):

CONSTANTINE: A few months ago, [an invunche] threw a girlfriend of mine out of a window.

SWAMP THING: I am sorry. I did not mean to intrude.

CONSTANTINE: No, no. That’s all right. It’s okay. I can talk about it. See, to make an invunche, they take a baby about six months old, and … and then they disjoint the arms, a-and the legs, and then hands, and, and then they … they … Look, I’m sorry. I’ll tell you some other time, okay? (100).

Smart writing that this offers—utilizing the sarcastic character having a moment of paralyzing emotion to underscore the sense of horror, set in contrast to the fact that girlfriends thrown out of windows remain within the domain of the discussable and the okay even as the creation of an invunche goes far beyond that—this nonetheless relies entirely on making a sublime horror out of the Other, and the fact that Moore does so on the basis of a written authority (Chatwin’s) makes this text book orientalism (pun intended).

I actually remain immune to this gesture—I disappreciate greatly right-bastards who suddenly reveal some secret grief or capacity for compassion hitherto invisible. In particular, I find this an extremely Occidental masculinist trope, and the rigorously applied female compassion for such “troubled lads” therefore falls right into a patriarchy-enabling scheme that seems quite essential to keeping the whole mess (of patriarchy) rolling. This point came to the fore when Phoebe, in “The Curse,” found herself not only incapable of even scratching her asshole husband but, in her penultimate dying breath, had to express relief that she’d barely even displaced a hair on his head.

That all of this maudlin emotion comes up for Constantine in the context of an ostensible concern for a baby—and a poor brown one at that—makes the attempted manipulation that much more suspect.[20] And even if we want to grant or assume that Constantine the arch-manipulator simply gets the better of even the reader here, the passage “works” on an orientalist basis in the first place—whether as the demonization of the brown Southerner or pity for the innocent (male) babe who might otherwise become one of the heinous Brujería himself.

I do not ignore the gesture that makes the Brujería themselves diegetically non-human, that they pre-date humankind by millions of years: “We are millions of years old. Before man, was the Brujería. After the Brujería, nothing” (145). This, theoretically, “excuses” the Chilote Indians—the people fictionalized by Moore through Chatwin for the purpose of this narrative—of any actual implication of wrongdoing, but only because it negates their historical existence on a technicality, much as Meir (1969) declared, “There were no such thing as Palestinians.” My example actually cuts more precisely than at first glance. Meir’s notoriously gross point comes with an equally grotesque justification:

There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.

So, whatever one might mean by Palestinian takes advantage of the fact of the artificiality of British colonialism imposed on the region. Contra Meir’s assertion, to this day locals refer to the region in question as Damascus country, pointing in fact to the rich cultural traditions being negated and erased in this kind of statement. Similarly,

Chilote mythology [which Chatwin, &c report on] is based on a mixture of indigenous religions (the Chonos and Huilliches) that live in the Archipelago of Chiloé, and the legends and superstitions brought by the Spanish Conquistadores, who in 1567 began the process of conquest in Chiloé and with it the fusion of elements that would form a separate mythology (from here).

In banal language, the category of Chilote mythology reflects something we encounter through a post-Contact paradigm, so that to address oneself to it involves the opposite of encountering the people of Chiloé themselves, just as Meir pretends no one existed in Damascus country, but addresses herself to its geopolitical history through the lens of orientalism. As a sad-amusing note, even the list of myths and mythical creatures of Chiloé from Wikipedia cannot resist the phrase “the macabre Invunche” (from here) when mentioning the creature—just  wee touch of sublime horror even in the midst of a prosaic list.[21]

Moore’s choice of South America entails some curious, perhaps even deliberate, implications, since the “heart of darkness” in his run of Swamp Thing involves the United States itself (or, as we say more colloquially, America). One specific frame shows the Brujería stirring the pot of evil in the shape of the United States when preparing the black pear of infinite mayhem, &c. But to some extent, this implies only a blame-shifting; if Moore’s object has centered on something like Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” (meaning: people from the United States, I assume), then this Brujería scheming represents a possessing or malign influence (whether from before the age of humanity or not), the secret puppet masters returning the favor of moral colonialism upon those (US) who believed they’d colonized the South. However this works out, at a minimum Swamp Thing himself constitutes a USer (someone from the United States) over against the South American (specifically Chilean) evil, a kind of vegetative variation on the White Man’s burden perhaps, locally grown, or an example of US exceptionalism.[22]


[1] Moore, A., Bissette, S., & Totleben, J., et al. (2013). Saga of the Swamp Thing. (volume 4). New York: DC Comics., pp. 1–221.

[2] I realize Moore continued to write through volumes 5 and 6, unavailable from my local library—so my irresponsible generalizations will just have to risk running afoul of later developments, the problematic hints of deityhood for Swamp Thing (perhaps another kind of test-run at the mindset of Dr. Manhattan), the effort to narratively play against a growing sense that swamp thing has become completely indestructible and/or invulnerable, &c.

[3] Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

[4] Condis, MA (2011). The saga of the swamp thing: feminism and race on the comic book stand. ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 5(4) retrieved 10 Sep 2013 from here.

[5] Chatwin, B. (2003). In Patagonia. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

[6] This use of the word “Patagonia” itself already puts it squarely in the domain of orientalism in Said’s sense.

[7] Moore specifically quotes Chatwin on page 106.

[8] And Said at times makes allusions to

[9] Fikes, JC (1993). Carlos Castaneda: Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties. Victoria, BC: Millennia Press

[10] Said would probably laugh (sadly) at the irony of this author’s first name, given the absolutely central importance Said ascribes to Napoleon Bonaparte in the establishment of academically formalized orientalism.

[11] Chagnon, N. A. (1977). Ya̦nomamö, the fierce people. 2d ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[12] Insofar as the spearhead of this debate principally involves Tierney’s (2000)* Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, with its spectacular claims that “Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel directly and indirectly caused a genocide in the region through the introduction of a live virus measles vaccine” and that “the whole Yanomami project was an outgrowth and continuation of the Atomic Energy Commission’s secret program of experiments on human subjects,” the consensus opinion that these claims no longer have any support does not negate that “that Chagnon’s account of the Yanomami are based on false, non-existent or misinterpreted data, and that Chagnon actually incited violence among them” (see here).  Whatever the “truth” of all of this, the co-optation of the South American Other by (global) Northern individuals remains the apparently undisputed point I wish to emphasize.

* Tierney, P. (2000). Darkness in El Dorado: how scientists and journalists devastated the Amazon. New York: Norton.

[13] Roberts, TB, and Hruby, PJ (2002). Religion and psychoactive sacraments: an entheogen chrestomathy. Council on Spiritual Practices (from here).

[14] Myerhoff, B. G. (1976). Peyote hunt: the sacred journey of the Huichol Indians. Ithaca [N.Y.]: Cornell University Press.

[15] Schaefer, S. B., & Furst, P. T. (1998). People of the peyote: Huichol Indian history, religion & survival. 1st paperbound ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

[16] e.g., Lumholtz, C. (1900). “Symbolism of the Huichol Indians”, “Decorative Art of the Huichol Indians.” Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, Volume III. New York; and Lumholtz, C. (1903). Unknown Mexico – Volume I & II. London: MacMillan & Company Ltd.

[17] e.g. Zingg, RM. (1938) The Huicholes: primitive artists. New York: G.E. Stechert and Company; and Zingg, RM. (1982). Los huicholes. 2 vols. (transl. C. Paschero). México: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.

[18] Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press. (paperback).

[19] Titaÿna, the pen-name of Elizabeth Sauvy-Tisseyre (1897–1966), a journalist for Paris-Soir and traveloguist whose reputation got sullied by accusations of collaboration during the Nazi occupation of France. She made a name for herself publishing works on cannibalsa, headhuntersb, prisoners in the United Statesc, and other exoticsd, the last being the one quoted by de Félice, a French theologian, in his (1947) e text on the collective ecstasy of delirious crowds, which he describes as an “essay on some lower forms of mysticism.”

a Chez les mangeurs d’homme (Nouvelles-Hébrides) (1931), Paris: Éditions Duchartre, collection “Images” (photographies par A.-P. Antoine et R. Lugeon).

      bUne femme chez les chasseurs de têtes (Bornéo et Célèbes) (1934), Paris: Éditions de la nouvelle revue critique, collection “La Vie d’Aujourd’hui”; reissued and expanded as Une femme chez les chasseurs de têtes et autres reportages (1985), Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions – 10/18, collection “Grands Reporters” No. 1735 (préface par Francis Lacassin), (ISBN 978-2081254251).

      c Ombres d’hommes. Version Française de Titaÿna des révélations de Jim Tully sur les prisons américaines (1931), Paris: Louis Querelle, collection de la revue “Jazz”.

      d La Caravane des morts (1930), Paris: Éditions des Portiques.

eFélice, P (1947). Foules en délire, extases collectives: essai sur quelques formes inférieures de la mystique, Paris: Albin Michel

[20] I banish to this footnote the possibility that Constantine merely engages here in his later very well-established capacity for manipulating people, which we should never for a moment think does not include us as readers. In the remainder of volume 4, we witness him often tricking various people into joining the séance to save the world, but Moore specifically allows us to see the manipulation. One might, retrospectively, wonder to what extent Constantine has similarly tricked Swamp Thing (and thus us), but the text seems to give little reason to believe this specifically occurs. Constantine does not seem to actively manipulate Swamp thing by lies and misinformation, as he does nearly everyone at the séance. This doesn’t rule it out, of course, but his method seems, with Swamp thing, to string him along by withholding information (whether he actually possesses it or not). In one frame, after he succeeds in getting Swamp Thing to act, he declares to the reader, “No we’re both in over our head,” but this does not function so much as an admission of the same kind of manipulation as practiced against Dr. Occult and Winter, &c. In any case, the scene where Constantine alludes to the creation of an invunche seems played too straight to find a plausible basis in the text for believing the maudlin sentimentality of it does not provide the “correct” reading of the scene. But even if Moore secretly intends an irony, that he prevents showing his hand about, this leaves the discourse of the scene itself squarely in the zone of orientalism’s sublime horror, which rests thickly on the humanitarian imperialism of worry over brown baby boys as the pretext for invasions, colonialism, programs of salvific rescuing by Northern (whites) and so forth.

[21] And of course, as a more general remark, one would like to think it unnecessary to say but: however preeminently the brujo chilote might stand amongst the people of Chiloé, they obviously represent only a portion of the culture (or, perhaps more exactly, the cultures of the Chiloé Archipelago generally) and give no cause for use in a narrative whether intentionally or unintentionally defaming an entire people any more than a handful of Saudi terrorists justifies telling stories about all Muslims everywhere as malevolent cabals bent on destroying heaven or the world.

[22] One might try to say that the problem with “America” (north and south together, not just the United States) arises, like the chilote mythology particular, from a post-contact paradigm, but Moore has banished the origins of the Brujería themselves to the time before humanity itself. So their evil cannot get laid at the feet of the Conquistadors at least.

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