BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2014): Jim Woodring’s (2011) Congress of the Animals [Part 3]

18 December 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

When interpretation runs afoul of imagery or actuality.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] 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). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies 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 do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our 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.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Jim Woodring’s (2011)[2] Congress of the Animals [Part 3]

This continues my replies to Woodring’s book from a while back (see here and here). There, I suggested that the crib-notes (on the dust jacket of the book) that interpret the imagery Woodring supplies int eh book might not tell us the “correct” interpretation as reliably as seems. This looks specifically at this disjunction between what images “say” and “authoritative commentary” commentary about them.

Visual Art as Moral

Part of me wants to dig into all of the imagery in Woodring’s book; part of me frets that I’ve not described it in enough detail (in previous posts) so that unfamiliar readers can make use of what I’d say; part of me keeps hearing those who would say, “Jesus Christ, going on and on and on about a Frank cartoon.”[3]

I can answer the last point most easily: the crib-notes of the book itself already suggest one should read Woodring’s book as intending much more than a cartoon. So if you only read Congress of the Animals for the weird images and the emotional rush of this or that it fosters, then you have likely failed Woodring’s intention. Enjoy your life.

Meanwhile, because a picture says a thousand words, trying to control the meaning of those thousand words becomes a major challenge for artists. Vaughn-James obviously did not trust his images to say what he wanted and added a great deal of (often unfortunate) text. Woodring resorts to crib-notes—a wilier and less intrusive method but perhaps not always adequate.

Linking together the crib-notes and back text linked to imagery, as I did in the previous section, a large interpretative weight seems to swing in the usual earth/sex/down = bad and sky/love/up = good kind of discourse, symbolism, and imagery. The agency that makes one feel at home in the earth hinders the progress forward/upward to that soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders (and romantic cohabitation); the vagina, “something too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess” must first undergo transformation or else, at best, it amounts to “a brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace”. Taken simply in these terms, this reiterates that banal trope: sex = bad, love = good, and perhaps that explains how such a promisingly weird book could come to such a banal and conventional end; because underneath all of the visual pyrotechnics, little else beyond the most banal of old hats lurks, mouldy.


Usually, when one critiques worshippers of the gut, this amounts to railing against vulgar materialism, that kind whereby someone lives only by appetite, never seeing any of the higher things in life. By accident or not (and whether Woodring still intends a criticism, if different), he undermines this typical critique by making the vision of the “gut” have cosmic breadth. If the “brief side trip down the endless corridor of that insanity that seems like grace” amounts to or intends to point to the “fireworks” of orgasm—or, to put the point more decorously, sexual love—then it seems a misstep of metaphors on Woodring’s part to allow a sense of “peyote ritual” into his thematics.

I mean, if we (or Woodring) insists on reading the encounter with the gut-worshippers in a sexual sense—I haven’t included all of the readily available details one might further point to—that reading would still have to contend with the specifically transmutating “head” trip involved. This does not boil down to a “little” head trip, even when the gut-worshippers pull out part of Frank’s intestine and examine the head of it. Phallus as intestine suggesting sex = shit makes a simple enough equation, but even here Frank himself gets found wanting. If Frank (and Woodring) equate sex and shit (just to stick to that locution), it seems the gut-worshippers do not. And whatever they have wrong, still from the base of the statue that has a gut-worshipper’s face, Frank finds his crappy “transcendent love”.

When it comes to sex and love, patriarchy often loses its mind and its way. The saint/whore dichotomy of women (“too attractive to resist and too exalted to possess”) makes the whole thing too often in a fatuous desire to elevate the desire to fuck into something no longer even bodily and thus holy: “soul-warmth expressed as a sky full of wonders for the delectation of our animals”.

From the waist up, the gut-worshippers all seem men; what genitals they possess challenge categorisation. As such, I suspect they have a more interesting story to tell than the one Woodring did. Or that, as a temporary anthropologist amongst them (in his imagination), Woodring may have misread their traditions in light of his own saint/whore, mind/body duality. I suspect I’d find more stories about them, not filtered through that lens, telling

One reading of Oedipus in his confrontation with the sphinx and her riddle says his hubris rests in believing he got the answer right. In other words, had he remained blocked by the sphinx, he would have escaped his destruction. Frank, too, “answered the riddle” and received the tragedy of a happy ending resting on a deluded notion of love, as it were. Had he gone over into the heady depths instead or shown more fortitude (of spirit) with the gut-worshippers, he might have avoided that tragedy as well.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Woodring, J. (2011). The congress of animals, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphic Books, pp. 1–100.

[3] Obviously, better that one should go on wondering what this book intends than Gaiman’s vacuous Signal to Noise.


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