BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, & Stan Woch’s (2013) Swamp Thing: the Saga of the Swamp Thing (volume 4) – Part 2

3 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, 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 2

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 the previous one, I sketched in some of the orientalism at work in this volume; in this one, I address the whole of volumes 1 through  4 together.[2]

Before proceeding, however, let me hazard two things about the remainder of Moore’s run (not replied to in this blogs specifically). Proposing a world-destroying apocalypse that involves the Original Darkness definitely sets up a sort of “well hell, what next” kind of narrative challenge. And in the future volumes, Swamp thing definitely veers further into Moore’s favored territory of superhero-as-god—and, therefore, if a god, then why act in any human way at all; why not, as Miracleman does, simply remake the world in your image, if you can? An open question. Although, on the opposite side, this threatens to make the entire narrative too unreal, too detached from existential humanity (even as it may provide an interesting or entertaining story), &c, because, of course, no such gods exist, except as pieces of human discourse used by Power in the conducting of culture and society.

From what little I can gather, I think that Moore has introduced in volumes 1 through 4 all of the primary themes he tweaks in 5 and 6—correct me, if wrong. And if I see one dominant thread occurring again and again in the series, it involves the remarkably simple fact that many times Swamp Thing resolves a crisis by talking to people. In the case of the power-addled Woodrue (in volume 1), Swamp Thing conversed with the Green and let the plants know, “If you kill all of the meat monkeys, then you will die off as well.” And of course here, in volume 4, Swamp thing’s conversation with the Original Darkness has nothing of the “arrogance” of confidence that Etrigan, Dr. Fate, and the Spectre exhibit when confronting the “villain”—confrontations that “teach” the Original Darkness fatalism, inevitability, contempt, and a desire for vengeance.

SWAMP THING: I have nothing. I came in resignation. Whatever you are, I cannot fight you, but I cannot stand and watch.

ORIGINAL DARKNESS: Then will you answer my question? Little thing, will you tell me the purpose of evil?

SWAMP THING: I cannot. I am not the one you seek. I have tried to make sense of that darkness and I have failed. I have seen evil, its cruelty. The randomness with which it ravages innocent and guilty alike. I have not understood it. I asked the Parliament of Tree, whose knowledge is older, greater than mine. They seemed to insist that there was no evil. But I have seen evil and their answer was incomprehensible to me. And yet, and yet, they spoke of aphids eating leaves, bugs eating aphids, themselves finally devoured by the soil, feeding the foliage. They asked where evil dwelled within this cycle and told me to look to the soil. The black soil is rich in foul decay yet glorious life springs from it. But however dazzling, the flourishes of life in the end, all decays to the same black humus. Perhaps … perhaps evil is the humus formed by virtue’s decay and perhaps, perhaps it is from that dark, sinister loam that virtue grows strongest? I do not know. I do not know what they meant.

ORIGINAL DARKNESS:  I see. Little thing, little thing, I sense a great and final end approach. I would be alone. Leave freely s you came (213–4).

And, of course, what follows involves the implied handshake between the hand of the Original Darkness and the figure of light in heaven—also another reconciliation without a battle.[3] This sort of reconciliation leads to the primary “take-away” at the end of the issue:

SWAMP THING: But the nature of good, the nature of evil, they have not changed?

The STRANGE: Perhaps not, but I suspect a different light has been cast upon their relationship. In the heart of darkness, a flower blossoms enriching the shadows with its promise of hope. In the fields of light, an adder coils, and the radiant tranquility is lent savor by its sinister presence. Right and wrong, black and white, good and evil, all my existence I have looked from one to the other, fully embracing neither one, never before have I understood how much they depend upon each other.

SWAMP THING: And after the events of this day, what then? Surely, things must change.

DEADMAN: Yeah, I guess so (219–20).

And Moore then shows us Cain and Abel again, the prototypical figures of storytelling, debating over the implications of this all for storytelling.

In the opening episode of this volume, which illustrates two radically different trips taken by people who eat part of Swamp Thing’s yam-like growth, the “moral” of the story involves how a person’s character, his or her disposition, plays a central role in whether the trip turns out cosmic and marvelous or demonic and horrific, but it also prominently features a yin/yang symbol, which a junkie steals from the main character.

Moore’s image of a flower in the heart of darkness and adder in the field of light exactly analogizes the yin/yang symbol, which features a spot of black against the white field and a spot of white against the black field. What organizes the action in this apocalyptic episode involves heroes (demonic and otherwise) who not only see the world as too black and white in the first place, but they fail to recognize the darkness (the evil) within themselves, even as they harangue the Original Darkness. Thus:

DR. FATE: Evil? Evil is a quagmire of ignorance that would drag us back as we climb towards the immortal light. A vile, wretched thing, to be scraped from the sandals like dromedary soil.

ORIGINAL DARKNESS: Am I so low, then, and is he you serve so high that there can be no possibility of respect between us? Little thing, you have taught me contempt (203).

We may find this place all over the place in human history, made in different ways; Jung (1955–6)[4] documents it exhaustively in the work of Occidental alchemy;[5] in any number of the late romances of European literary history (the kind with knights and such), it begins to happen that when the hero confronts the monster they merge together in a kind of mutual recognition, rather than simply the hero slaying the monster outright (as, for example, Beowulf does twice). This outcome does not represent the norm, however, sometimes even when the hero attempts a reconciliation, as Stevenson’s (2008)[6] Kung Fu Panda exemplifies.[7]

In the context of morality tales—whether European romances or comics—the rejection of an unambiguously black and white world does indeed represent a paradigm shift; and a shit-ton of Japanese manga and anime has for decades not shirked the gesture of allow its villains tragic sympathy, Tetsuo in Otomo’s (1988) Akira representing simply a most famous-in-the-West example. However, this recognition offers a different claim than that good and evil “depend upon each other” (220). I will, though, skip my usual tirade against this idea, except to say that making a necessity of evil for the sake of good provides the very foundation for an thus the justification for human barbarity. Jung, in many places, railed against the notion that evil represents simply the absence of the good, and insisted rather, if you will, on a “metaphysical” independence for it. He, with Swamp Thing, might have admitted that he too had seen evil—whatever we might mean by that—but the existential occurrence of evil does not yet address Swamp Thing’s and the Original Darkness’ question: “what is evil” or “what is the purpose of evil”; two very different questions, obviously.

A fine hair needs splitting here. Whatever Swamp Thing (or Moore) decides evil consists of, it becomes “the humus formed by virtue’s decay and perhaps, perhaps it is from that dark, sinister loam that virtue grows strongest?” (214). I do not ignore the question mark here or that Swamp Thing admits after saying this, “I do not know. I do not know what they meant” (214). Here we see the argument for the necessity of evil, its intertwining with the good. By contrast, Jung offers no such apologetics. He begins by saying, without offering a justification for it, shit happens, in so many words. From that disaster, one may then try to make sense of events, try to integrate them (or deny them), &c. Resolutely, he denies that one can “force” the unconscious to do what one wills, which serves as an argument (in practice) against any sort of hubris that one might harness the thing; in other words, he defuses any argument that we might consciously or deliberately employ evil in what Dr. Fate calls our “climb towards the immortal light” (203).

The closest Jung comes to suggesting something like necessity in all of this involves his characterization of the complementary action of the unconscious, how too much one-sidedness in an individual’s life will call up a compensating “correction”.[8] Thus, “shit happens” involves an observation about the actual occurrences in the world, while “good and evil are intertwined” involves an interpretation of those events. To this we might add the point that one’s disposition plays a crucial role in whether the trip seems cosmic or demonic; or, as Meister Eckhardt gets paraphrased or quoted (paraphrase or quoted here from my memory) in Lyne’s (1990)[9] Jacob’s Ladder: “if you have not made your peace with life, those that beset you will seem as demons; but if you have made your peace, you will see that they are angels”.

However these big questions all get deployed or played out or discoursed, at the center of much of Swamp thing’s activity in these four volumes involves trying to address oneself to ‘evil” (the villain) rather than simply destroying it immediately or out of hand. This does create some problems as well, though the primary world-catastrophes all get avoided in this way—just as peace negotiations averted a nuclear apocalypse with Russia or just as Obama acknowledged when he said he’d give diplomacy a chance with Syria. Whatever the smaller details, the worst conflagrations get avoided when we try addressing our “enemies” first.

But this “even-handedness” by Swamp Thing essentially permits Phoebe’s death (the were-woman) in volume 3. The text describes him as specifically in her place of power and having no right to intervene, only the necessity to do so. But even then, he does not intervene and merely offers a useless and helpless “no!” as she commits suicide on cutlery designed to make the housewife’s existence more palatable. This represents the most glaring case of Swamp Thing’s “quietism,” his mere witnessing to events and refusal to intervene, whether because he feels he can or should. Other figures in the series (as also countless other figures in literature) offer similar justifications: the Monitor simply watches and the Parliament of Trees merely stands in the Amazonian forest doing whatever they do. Even in Skyrim, the renunciate Greybeards get scolded by the Blades for refusing to do anything in the face of the oncoming end of time, the monk Arngeir arguing that perhaps people should let the world end so that it may get on with its next rebirth.[10]

Between doing nothing and doing something too confidently of one’s own righteousness, we can reject this false dichotomy in an attempt to determine more precisely when and where “addressing evil” may more fruitfully get accomplished. Swamp Thing attempts to speak to the wolf-woman, but it suggests no exaggeration to say he gives up too readily, in part because Moore makes Phoebe unreachable, i.e., too caught up in the (female) “hysteria” of her rage. As often happens in helpless werewolf narratives, it becomes a matter of restraining (not destroying) the werewolf, but Moore rules that possibility out—slightly odd (or wholly unconvincing) given that Swamp Thing find himself able to converse with Original Darkness itself.

More precisely, to make some hay out of it, Swamp Thing communes with Original Darkness and the Green, but can’t talk to a moral (female) werewolf. A telling imaginative lacuna, especially as the eventual outcome involves suicide. How does that apply to Orientalism’s inability (much less its unwillingness) to converse with the constructed fiction of “the Arab mind”?

Endnotes

[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] In volume 5, similarly, while Swamp Thing and Batman duke it out considerably, that too ends with a rapprochement not ending in either figure’s death—partly, of course, for business reasons, but Moore has definitely paved the way clearly enough that Swamp thing doesn’t not always, or necessarily even first, resort to violence. John Constantine similarly represents a fast-talker, especially in volumes 1 through 4, where he seems to do nothing but teleport and manipulate people into doing things for him.

[4] Jung, CG (1970). Mysterium coniunctionis: an inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. (Vol. 14, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. R.F.C. Hull) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, i–xix, 1–702.

[5] See also: Psychology and Alchemy (Collected Works 12, [1944], 2nd ed. 1968), Alchemical Studies (Collected Works 13, 1968)

[6] DreamWorks Animation., Stevenson, J., Osborne, M., Cobb, M., Reiff, E., Voris, C., Aibel, J., Berger, G., Black, J., Hoffman, D., Jolie, A., McShane, I., Cheng, L., Rogen, S., Liu, L., Cross, D., Kim, R. D., Hong, J., Fogler, D., & Duncan, M. C. (2008). Kung fu panda. Glendale, CA: DreamWorks Animation.

[7] The villainous snow leopard gets offered a chance to give up his vengeful ambition but opts out and blows up as a result.

[8] Whether we believe this or not matters less in this context than the narrative it tells. It “blames” human beings for acting in a one-sided way, as distinct from a narrative where we imagine evil as a necessary consequence of goodness, a prerequisite to goodness even.

[9] Carolco Pictures Inc., Robbins, T., Peña, E., Aiello, D., Lyne, A., & Rubin, B. J. (2010). Jacob’s ladder – DVD. Special ed. Santa Monica, Calif.: Artisan Entertainment.

[10] Against this notion, we may recall the Australian aboriginal sense of injustice often associated with most depths, even though they also believe in reincarnation. Most deaths constitute crimes that require investigation and resolution, because such  death affects the social body; the individual’s body and spirit will receive dispensation and disposition accordingly per reincarnation, but the death itself requires a (literally) judicial/criminal resolution. So whatever gets involved in the death of the cosmos, we need not merely stand by and call it necessity any more than we must accept the death of an individual as not a crime (an offense against the social body).

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