The Need of Attachment

Just as we do not need food to meet the need of hunger if we can identify or invent some other means to meet that need, then also we do not need suffering if we can identify or invent some other means to meet the need of attachment. Moreover, inasmuch as needless attachment leads to suffering, we may read in a different light what Thầy Nhất Hạnh says:

Understanding [needless attachment] always brings compassion. If we don’t understand [needless attachment], we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of [needless attachment], we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need [needless attachment] to grow happiness.

The fact is that [needless attachment] and happiness always go together. When we understand [needless attachment], we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle [needless attachment], we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

Perhaps the appeal to “suffering” in Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s book—rather than an appeal to “needless attachment”—as the source of unpleasantness in human experiences arises from an attempt to reach a certain kind of ear in our Occidental culture. For a very long time now, Thầy Nhất Hạnh has sought to speak to Occidental ears, from his earliest appeals to people in the United States to stop destroying the people of and the world of his homeland to all of his subsequent work for peace worldwide.

Moreover, he stresses over and over that one may neither communicate nor achieve communication where listening cannot or has not occurred. Out of the howling suffering that we live in within our Occidental culture—a howling plastered over by thick layers of materialism, anaesthesia, and a partial knowledge of human experience—perhaps it must seem too abstract to approach the root of “attachment” all at once.

If “understanding suffering always brings compassion,” then a part of what such compassion entails would involve a person’s realisation of the attachment underlying that suffering. Otherwise, such compassion has an only a limited, therapeutic benefit, albeit still a desirable one. No wonder that non-attachment in Buddhism so often reads in Occidental ears as, “Oh, so I’m just not supposed to care about anything?” A focus on feeling or affect (on the sensual experience of suffering) that does not track back to the source of that affect (one born of desire arising from attachment) shifts us only from a disagreeable state of attachment to a seemingly more agreeable one.

The use to which the phrase “we need suffering” gets put acknowledges that suffering serves as a means to an end, and in this way discloses the misleading use of the word “need.” In fact, do not need suffering, although it suffices as a prevalent or prevailing means for meeting the need of attachment. To realise this clearly cuts off at the knees any apathetic or sadistic attempt to justify cruel behaviour or the suffering of others under the banner of “we need suffering”. It debunks every claim both of doing harm for the good of another of doing nothing for another’s harm because we all must deal with our own problems.

We do not need suffering. One would instead have to argue that we have no alternative to suffering as a means for meeting the need of attachment, except that we do have other means both to work against attachment and to work for non-attachment that make such a claim hollow, self-serving, or maliciously intended.

The Need to Suffer

Since a need refers to that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, we must ask then whether suffering names an actual need or if it embodies rather a present or prevailing means for meeting an as yet, still unnamed need. In the same way, just as the necessity of food as the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger implies further that we might meet that need of hunger through means other than food, then the necessity of suffering as the most prevalent means for satisfying whatever as-yet unnamed need it meets implies as well that we might meet that unnamed need through means other than suffering as well.

Here, we may return to the Bhāgavad-Gītā for a clue what might constitute this unnamed need. There, we see:

while contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops; from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger; from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory; from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence; and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

The root of this cascade that ends in one’s disintegration begins from developed attachment while contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops. Contemplation of the objects of the senses itself does not inevitably play out in the cascade, but the attachment to those sense objects contemplated. From that, desires arise; desires that circumstances then either frustrate (leading to anger that the desire failed to be gratified) or gratify (leading to anger that the desire proved non-permanent and transitory).

How we understand the downstream consequences of the desires arising from attachment, not only does attachment itself begin this cascade, we may note that attachment precedes desire. Hence in Buddhism one hears again and again of the necessity of non-attachment as a solution to the problems both of frustrate desire and the perils of karmic rebirth, rather than an initial emphasis on desires themselves. Attachments to desires not desires themselves prove the trap; not affect or feeling itself, but the ground of them, attachment to them.

This already suggests that suffering, understood as an affect or a feeling, does not get to the root; we might simply say that attachment to suffering identifies a prior condition or problem that requires our address. Thus, if we “need” suffering, this hols only because “attachment to suffering” occurs so pervasively, so automatically, so unconsciously, that it already provides the framework or the ground by which we might move towards happiness or peace and away from or out of suffering.

And yet, the understanding disclosed by the Bhāgavad-Gītā shows that by awareness of the issue—by seeing that attachment to desires, not desires themselves—exhibits the root of the problem, we may proceed from that point, and not from the condition of being already trapped within our attachments. This alone shows suffering not as a need but as the prevailing means by which we address the now-no-longer-unnamed need of attachment.

The Bhāgavad-Gītā, Buddhism, and many similar traditions, in fact, insist that suffering results from needless attachment, from attachments that we assuredly resorted to but that it did not have to go that way.

The strangeness or weirdness, the difficulty of trying to come to terms with the notion of non-attachment, so prevalent in Buddhism, arises out of this critique. Even to say, “One might not be attached” seems attached to the notion of non-attachment. But nothing paradoxical hides in this. Just as our best approximation of “objective reality” can only arise from a collectively intersubjective collation of subjective impressions—the Jains would remind us, “No, not even then”—so also must every engagement with the notion of “non-attachment” find expression through our embodied and attached human beingness. We can never talk it, but can only talk about it, but even that talking about it serves, or can serve, to orient one’s attention in the right direction.

But however helpful or unhelpful the elaborations, we see that suffering supplies merely the most prevalent means for meeting the need of attachment.

We may speak of a need of attachment even in Buddhist terms, in that everything manifest being necessarily both transient and limited, then we see attachment to that limitation and transiency as the condition that must be met if the state of affairs of our individual embodiment will continue. Since much Eastern philosophy and religion sees this sort of persistence over lifetimes as a problem needing a solution, its solutions then properly go to the very root of the need that generates the ground of that persistence: attachment.

Just as I cease to exist as a self-aware living individual if the need of separation (apartness, isolation, &c) no longer gets met by some necessity (whether friendship, community, togetherness, &c), so also do we cease to exist as a self-aware living individual if the need for attachment gets no longer met by some necessity as well. That suffering embodies simply the prevalent or prevailing means by which the need of attachment gets met, this means we might meet that need by other means as well.

As such, we do not need suffering.

 

Let Us Not Promote Suffering

Against the notion of this defence of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence that “we need suffering,” to say we need suffering also resonates terribly in English. If we would say that we need suffering, then this means we should also do all that we can to ensure that we and others suffer, so that they may grow, or at least move finally toward that end of happiness or peace that suffering lays the groundwork for.

A very great deal of political quietism and apathy may hide under this notion, even if someone does not have enough strength of character to inflict deliberate suffering in others that they might grow toward happiness. They can at least stand aside and declare the suffering of others none of their affair but certain something good and necessary.

However, as we also know the Vedic injunction—mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone—one might think that this alone should stop any such understanding of suffering—deliberately or perversely inflicted or not—in its tracks. The injunction should already rule out any apathy by people toward suffering, much less any insistence on inflicting or promoting suffering in others through violence due to the necessity and benefit of suffering. However, it does not always work out that way. In his study of the Śrī Vedānta-Sūtra, Adhyāyas III & IV, for instance, David Bruce Hughes summarises the argument around Sūtra 3.1.26:

The Vedas order:

agnisomīyaṁ paśum ālabheta

“One should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña.”

Because piety and impiety is known only from the Vedas’ statements, the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious. Therefore the orders of the Vedas are never impure. The prohibitions “Never commit violence to anyone,” and “Violence is a sin,” are the general rules decreed by the Vedas; and the statement, “one should sacrifice an animal in an agnisomiya-yajña,” is an exception to that general rule. A general rule and a specific exception to that rule need not contradict each other. There is scope for each (29, underlining added).

One may readily anticipate a reading of “the Vedas’ orders to commit violence must be understood to be actually kind and pious” as simply the Orwellian doublespeak of Power.

I will not engage the manifold apologetics, both disingenuous and sincere, that exist for this exception to the general rule of mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone. I raise the point only to make clear the destructive use that some may and have put the phrase “we need suffering” to use, whether to do harm to others for their own good or to do nothing about harm to others for their own good. I do not read that Thầy Nhất Hạnh intends the phrase to stand on its own, and he provides much more text by which to contextualise his intended meaning, as I hear it. Yet I still hear him saying, “we need suffering” out of a sense of his own experience of suffering as it contributed to his growth toward peace and happiness.

If we seek out the “lesson” in the suffering that befalls us, this occurs only retrospectively. Experiences befall us, and those we experience and name as suffering we may then engage in whatever way we do, even to learn something from that experience. We will see, then: one may only recognise suffering, we re-cognise it; one cannot inflict it, not even the sadist, who may know another human being well enough in advance to know that certain kinds of physical, psychological, or social violence done will instantiate in that person as suffering, that they will experience and name those actions as inflicting suffering. Nonetheless, such a cruel person inflicts only violence, and we may see then in every claim to do harm to another “for their own good” only violence and a violation of the injunction mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni : never commit violence to anyone.

In life, if we will less often meet sadists—those sufferers who spread the agony of their experience deliberately to others—and more often those sufferers whose own suffering makes reaching out compassionately to others too onerous or difficult, still the burdensome of this experience does not mean we must overlook the self-serving character of our attempts to solace ourselves by blunting or deflecting or ennobling the evident suffering of others—especially suffering that arises from social injustice and privilege—under the banner of “we need suffering”. Perhaps I decide I need a suffering, that does not license me to decide that you need suffering in general, and even less so any one or more specific suffering: that cancer, sexual assault, the death of your child, a war, your failure to get into college.

Whatever need of suffering we might recognise individually in retrospect, to prevail over the violence that wrought it argues not for the necessity of such violence but rather to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of an inhuman fate.

 

The Suffering of Need

In English, we have an unfortunate relationship with the word need. We may often hear something referred to as needed, when the thing described rather embodies only the present or prevailing means by which we meet an actual, often unnamed, need.

A need, rather, names only that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. The notion of biological needs, the biology of living beings, gives us our most familiar examples. We call food a need, for instance, but food embodies only the most prevailing means by which we meet the need of hunger. In other words, we may understand hunger as a need, i.e., that condition that must be met so that a given living being may continue to persist as a living being. That food embodies simply the most prevalent means for satisfying the need of hunger means further that we might meet that need of hunger with other means than food. Biologically—for mammals at least, including ourselves—we may name also the needs of thirst, environmental exposure, and fatigue also, which we generally meet with the prevailing means of water, clothing and shelter, and sleep. By referring to these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, I do not intend to offer an exhaustive list.

Since we experience these biological needs of hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion as unpleasant, as something we wish to avoid, but must continue to experience them in order to persist as living beings, then we may say that we need the suffering they entail. Without them, we would cease to exist as living beings. In this light, we may understand how Thầy Nhất Hạnh insists, “We need suffering” (30). We may see how our embodiment in this life, which seems to require this kind of biological suffering in order to persist, makes suffering a prerequisite for the condition opposite of suffering, which we might call happiness or peace.

Being > Biology

For human beings, as one species amongst the many within the counsels of species, what constitutes our human lifedoes not arise from our biology. Experiencing everything through our perceptions, our perceptions define what we deem reality. A living being without self-awareness will have no body, no brain, not even any world or environment in the sense that we experience it. For us to speak specifically of biological needs, then, already emanates not from any physical reality of the world but from our way of conceptualising our experience of it.

Since a need denotes that condition that must be met so that the present state of affairs might continue, inour human experience we not only name under a category of biology such needs as hunger, thirst, exposure, and exhaustion, but also many other needs; Thầy Nhất Hạnh specifically combines the biological and the non-biological when he writes, “Love, respect, and friendship all need food to survive” (9).

One will find few who would object to the notion that human beings—if not all sovereign, living beings—need love, respect, and friendship. But again, we see love, respect, and friendship not as needs but rather the present or prevailing means by which we meet some actual, as yet still unnamed, need. I notice that it does not clarify thinking to imagine food as the opposite of hunger; rather, food embodies a prevailing means by which the need of hunger gets met. So just as the necessity of food meets the need of hunger, then we might ask as well what the necessities of love, respect, and friendship meet the needs of.

To address only one example, we may see that friendship meets a need of separation. Since we cannot have the experience of existing as individuals if we do not experience some reality of apartness or distinction that sets us apart from all other people and living beings, then separation or apartness describes a condition that be met so that the present state of affairs might continue. If we ceased to exist in our separateness, then we as a living being would no longer exist. However, as also with hunger, the unpleasantness of this experience of separation or apartness—this absolute isolation from all others—along with our desire to avoid the on-going state of the experience of that, makes friendship (or togetherness or community) a present or prevailing means by which that need of separation, isolation, apartness gets met.

One might elaborate a long list of non-biological human things—for example, love, respect, friendship, fairness, cooperation, compassion, recognition, &c—that we would incorrectly call needs, since these things embody rather the present or prevailing means for meeting some as yet still unnamed need. But in all cases, however one builds such a list, the experience of the unpleasantness of those needs and our desires to avoid experiencing the state of them points again to the sense of Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30) if we would attain its opposite: happiness or peace.

However, I would further emphasise that any so-called “biological” needs do not differ in kind at all from these otherwise “non-biological” needs.

A living system self-aware or not that fails to meet the need of hunger disintegrates; the organisation of its life as an organism falls apart and it ceases to have being. Conventionally, we say it dies. In the same way, for self-aware living beings, if one fails to meet the need of separation, the organisation of its life as a living being also falls apart and it ceases to have existence. We sometimes metaphorically say people die of loneliness, but sometimes this happens literally as well.

Moreover, whatever importance I accord my conceptualisation of my biology, that conceptualisation itself already represents a “non-biological” value. Thus, when someone gives me food to eat—when someone meets my need of hunger with the necessity of food—I say we might more clearly understand this not in terms of biology but, rather non-biologically, as meeting the need of separation with friendship.

Someone might object, “Why only the need of separation? Why not also the need of hunger?”

I intend to erase here the false distinction of the biological as somehow prior to human existence or simply more important. Instead of “one does not live by bread alone,” I would say, “one does not live by bread at all; one only persists.”

But further, that I should cease to have being “biologically” does not end my life—it ends only my experience of that life. Whatever role our human imagining of biology plays in the shaping of our lives—and it plays a considerable role, one assumes—it describes neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for understanding the character or experience of self-aware life. When I die, my life continues in the lives of other living beings; the framework of “biology” cannot explain this aspect of human experience, an experience shared by other living beings who express grief over the death of another, for instance.

For the experience of a self-aware life, then, the qualities of difference one may identify between different needs (like hunger or separation) have felt consequences, but do not finally rise to a difference in kind. In other words, one perhaps may not ultimately find a satisfying distinction of difference between the so-called “biological” and “non-biological” needs of self-aware living beings.

To make this more starkly dramatic, rather than speaking of a need for hunger, one might describe the need for starvation in human experience. It seems no accident or coincidence that one of the riders of the Apocalypse has the name Famine, not Hunger. Or again, people in prison and in poverty and in alienating workplaces may receive food and yet feel (correctly) that they have ceased to live. Or yet again, like those on hunger strikes who specifically refuse to meet the need of hunger with food, they may yet feel (correctly) that their life, perhaps for the first time, has at last attained significance and meaning. At the end of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton reflects on his impending (and voluntary) execution as giving for the first time a weight and significance to his otherwise wasted life.

In all of this, we may understand all human needs as the needs of self-aware living beings, and refuse to misleadingly distinguish between biological and non-biological needs and the means that meet those needs. Such a view remains resonant with Thầy Nhất Hạnh’s insistence, “We need suffering” (30)—we need the human experience of hunger and separation, thirst and loneliness, &c. In the case of all such human needs, the unpleasantness of the experience of those needs as well as our desire to avoid those experiences, points to the (human) need of suffering Thầy Nhất Hạnh identifies; an experience we then either meet with the present and prevailing means that meet that need or fail too and experience the disintegration of the organisation of our lives, i.e., we die or cease to exist.

In the same way that if we cease to experience hunger this in all likelihood means that we have died, then more generally if we cease to suffer, then this in all likelihood means we have stopped humanly living.

 

Summary (TLDR Version)

A collection that really benefits from appearing as a collection; a collection that successfully turns into a graphic novel.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Morrison, Truog, Hazelwood, Grummet, Cullins, Montano, McKenna, & Farmer’s (2013)[2] Animal Man (omnibus edition)

I have a memory of reading something that very disimpressed me by Morrison (the Invisibles), and only the sheer length of this tempted me back. Good for that.

While obviously replete with some patently silly stuff, the moment significant part of this issue involve the way the writer publicly implicates himself in the relevance, or irrelevance, of the genre he works in. this appears most of all in the breaking of the fourth wall at the end, when the character of Animal man confronts his then-lifewriter, but it shows up more subtly in the way Morrison tried to integrate his real-world issues about animal rights (an vegetarianism) into the issues. This appears also in his attempt to make sense of the discontinuity that results from him taking over someone else’s writing project for the character.

This obviously embodies the sort of critique of form that Moore’s Watchmen so thoroughly proposed, but Morrison seems simultaneously more inside and outside of that issue. In other words, if Moore represents purely an artist, a figure who would have cropped up as a major writer in whatever form the culture had available at the time, with Morrison it seems more that he would only have appeared as a writer of comics. If Moore can take the genre as a genre less seriously, whether to critique it or to leverage it to whatever project he wants to work on, for Morrison—at least in this run—he seems more obliged to accept it at a kind of face value, even when he turns it inside out at the end.

Put another way, that Morrison appears in his own issues puts a more personal slant on things than Watchmen. You might not know where Moore stands at some point—especially about the character Rorschach—but with Animal Man, one already knows where the author’s identity tends to reside, even before he bifurcates into his own representation in order to speak with his creation.

Perhaps because this “self-conscious” element remains so thoroughly a part of the various texts it makes the turn at the end seem less contrived and very well-integrated into the whole thing. It certainly represents an appropriate closure. And the frame-busting episode, thanks to the Psychic Pirate, makes not only an impress tour de force but also, again, a logically motivated episode in the whole arc of the thing. Thus, the soul-searching at the end of the run hearkens back to the “soul-searching” of the run itself as Morrison tries to work out the incoherence between previous version of Animal Man and his own incarnation of him.

Of course, the thrill of reading each next edition has its own charm, but collecting all of these issues together helps put the whole arc together in a way it deserves. This means a few issues could get left out without going missed, but this in order to strengthen the arc overall. In other words, while this represents a collected series, it does for the most part represent an actual novel.

This and Hines Duncan the Wonder Dog (part 1) supply some serious grist for animal rights activism. I could say more, but more simply I’d recommend reading it. You have to winnow through some patches, but this collection doesn’t waste your time usually.

Endnotes

[1] I planned 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. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Morrison, G, Truog, C., Hazelwood, D., Grummet, T., Cullins, P., Montano, S., McKenna, M., & M. Farmer’s (2013)[2] Animal Man (omnibus edition), pp. 1–708.

mā hiṁsyāt sarvā bhūtāni – never commit violence to anyone

नमस्ते. Namasté. “I bow to the divine within you, and am grateful for your presence.”

In The Art of Communicating, Zen teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh says that “when we listen to someone with the intention of helping that person suffer less, this is deep listening” (42). One must “take the time to look and see the suffering in the other person” (44), and to say to yourself as you listen, “I am listening to this person with only one purpose: to give this person a chance to suffer less” (44).

I honour to remember this as I comment on what he has written about suffering. And I remember also verses 62 and 63 in chapter 2 of the Bhāgavad-Gītā, where Kṛṣṇa offers a detailed description of the origin of suffering. I give this below with the hope that you may as well savour the beauty of the original Sanskrit script, the strangeness—for those, like myself, who cannot read Sanskrit—of an encounter with its transliteration into the Roman alphabet, and also the insight offered by one of its translations into English of the sequence Kṛṣṇa identifies as the source of suffering, how it comes about:

              2.62

2.63

dhyāyato viṣayān puṁsah saṅgas teṣūpajāyate
saṅgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ kāmāt krodho ‘bhijāyate
krodhād bhavati saṁmohaḥ saṁmohāt smṛti-vibhramaḥ
smṛti-bhraṁśād buddhi-nāśo buddhi-nāśāt praṇaśati

While contemplating the objects of the senses, attachment develops;
from attachment desires are born; from desire arises anger;
from anger delusion occurs, from delusion bewilderment of memory
from bewilderment of memory the loss of spiritual intelligence
and from the loss spiritual intelligence one perishes

Thầy Nhất Hạnh—the word thầy suggests an honoured teacher in Vietnamese—writes that “we need suffering” (30, emphasis in original), and adds further:

Understanding suffering always brings compassion. If we don’t understand suffering, we don’t understand happiness. If we know how to take good care of suffering, we will know how to take good care of happiness. We need suffering to grow happiness. The fact is that suffering and happiness always go together. When we understand suffering, we will understand happiness. If we know how to handle suffering, we will know how to handle happiness and produce happiness (31).

The purpose of my commentary in this essay aims to respond to the points made here by Thầy Nhất Hạnh, endeavouring as I do to remember to listen for the suffering in his writing, that I might make him suffer less.

 

Summary (TLDR Version)

Does this answer the quest for a “female hero”; I don’t know. As a redemption narrative, it falls flat.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Keatinge, Campbell, Hamilton, Bergin III, Gieni, Solis, & Sherwood’s (2014)[2] Glory (the Complete Saga)

If I wanted to get really deep into this, I might try to decipher why some reviewers rave about this book. Amongst the people giving it low marks, this includes both males and females—only two seemingly female reviewers gave it four stars on a five star scale; the rest were between one to three. But not that many males gave it a four anyway.

The major complaint involves shifts of art style (Glory gets bigger and smaller) and perhaps also just sheer incoherence of story. One certainly gets some juicy splatterfest, but indeed, the storytelling has some really glaring lapses. This often comes about with unconvincing jokes, usually from the “mere mortal” in the story, who seems like she should have died about a billion times over before ever getting past page fifty.

However, I want to chew on only two issues.

From my reading, it seems that Glory obtains permission to visit the land of the dead—to see the people her actions have killed but also to reunite, if briefly, with her lover—but only on the condition that when she actually dies she will not go to the world of the dead herself. Of course, like a stoic hero, she never divulge this fact to those she visits, even when they tell her that the world of the dead rocks and they all look forward to her arrival once she actually dies. The narrative plays this element so close to its chest, I actually cannot tell if I read it correctly. I mean, perhaps Gloriana will go to the land of the dead once she dies, contrary to the earlier prophecy. It seems that we should have some moment when glory completely breaks down, because she knows all of this talk about “we can’t wait to see you; it will be so great!” will never happen. The reader needs some signal of this, not only to confirm it as the case, but also to drive up the pathos of the encounter. In other words, the authors should do some of the work to actually write the dramatic irony, and not leave it entirely up to the reader. Especially since delicacy or subtlety hardly marks this narrative otherwise.

More generally, vast portions of the narrative remain unmotivated. The text makes a great fuss about Glory’s parents having had another child, and that sister and Glory apparently have to try to kill each other every time they meet. Except, rather than being some sort of titanic “let’s finally settle this” confrontation, it turns out as something that just happens, and the text even makes jokes about “we don’t even have to do this, I guess.” A lot of the bloodbaths have a similar gratuitous quality. Having recently read Grant Morrison’s omnibus Animal Man, he supplies a much smarter example of how to handle the comic book “we need a fight sequence here; things are getting dull” issue—from which obviously the movie of the Hobbit learned nothing as well.

Beyond this, the author(s) commit the grotesque gaffe of deflating all sense of the epic. This shows up in stupid insertions of jokes. One cannot just throw in the sort of wise-cracking asides of a sidekick. You can see it handled with some deftness sometimes by Tarantino; you can see it very deftly deployed in Cabin in the Woods (and sometimes by Whedon generally, when the narrative has not already become utterly exhausted with itself). But not here. Gods fixing waffles devolves to stupid kitsch and simply makes the epic depictions later seem dumber, rather than more epic, by comparison. Mere banality of family sits poorly; at least the Sandman and his sister never seem like suburban boobs, &c.

So this cheese-corn makes the whole redemption arc of Glory cheaper. The redemption of a divine force and the redemption of a mere mortal don’t equate. And this then brings up whether or not this redemption narrative changes with the redeemed figure as female.

I tend to dislike redemption narratives. Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant gives you an idea of one I find brilliant; Moorcock’s Warhound and the World’s Pain seems adequate as well.

The most recurrent problem involves proportion; 95% of the narrative consists of the jackass behaving badly, with 5% devoted to the redemption itself, usually in very maudlin terms, i.e., out of love for some otherwise narratively meaningless love interest, sometimes a person’s offspring. In a world where men can get away with murder, 95% of raping, pillaging, and plundering, marked by a sudden change of heart—again, on grossly sentimental grounds already extremely familiar to patriarchal culture—reads to me more as an apologetics for the shitty behaviour. Remender, Moore, Opeña, & Hawthorne’s (2014)[3] Fear Agent (Volume 2) supplies a really gross case of this.

The problem turns not simply on the arrogant practice of male license by the character, which comes off as sanctioned by the author—that’s the most important part—but that the redemption merely turns on the flipside of that arrogance: being touched by a female self-sacrifice, or by some “touching” sentiment of fatherhood suddenly. Underneath it all, it seems—boys will be boys—the jackass simply embodies a hurt little boy (never a hurt little girl; this matters) inside. And on those grounds, the author expects us to forgive him. We understand his awful behaviour as simply a yearning for love.

Moore spares us such stupidity in the Comedian, for instance.

Given how integral gender remains for such redemption narratives, it seems tweaked in a context with a female hero. Irrationally in the first place, Gloriana’s parents create her not only to provide a pretext for peace between their two warring factions, they also train her so that she will enforce that peace through unstoppable violence. In other words, her parents create a super-weapon, but whatever sense this makes, the authors can’t stop re-creating more children (i.e., two more sisters). We have a theme of a failure of parenting, when Glory wilfully runs off to hang out on earth just because, but it begs the question of what her narrative redeems her from.

In general, the problem that Glory poses turns on her demonic nature, not her divine nature. She gets into a bloated fit of rage, and then destroys everything, eventually even one of her friends deliberately. So, if males need redemption from hurt little boy feelings, which we at least theoretically may understand or sympathise with, what Glory requires redemption from involves demonic irrationality. She needs redeeming from her “nature” which certainly makes for a problematic assertion. Not all men will come to the point of requiring redemption, so long as they don’t become assholes; for female characters, they would all require redemption. In fact, all of civilization must rise up—the mother and father alike eventually coming to realise they need to work together to undo what they have made.

But let me stop. The narrative nowhere has sufficient coherence to bear close analysis. And even if Glory starts as female, like the Valkyries upon which she seems more based than anything Greek, she ultimately starts to seem like a male figure with a female skin on top. Specifically, at the height of her rage, she kills Riley—or Riley sacrifices herself, in one of those typical “eye-opening” gestures that redemption narratives love so much. It always involves that moment when you “go too far”—just as we have to hear about those haunting moments for heartless soldiers who suddenly can’t forgive themselves for deliberately killing a child.

Whatever tortured lie you tell yourself to justify your shittiness, that doesn’t make it any less obviously shitty to everyone else. Thus, the soldier who can’t forgive himself for killing the child still believes he did nothing wrong in killing women and men. I don’t count that as redemption. So also Glory: if she ultimately feels she went too far in killing her friends, she shows no compunction whatsoever for everything else she has destroyed. Once again, that doesn’t constitute a redemption.

In our culture, that shows up in discourse form as: one should never rape a child, but to rape a woman, well: shit sometimes happens.

Ultimately, the reviewers (male and female alike) of this book correctly point to the disjointed, incoherent sloppiness of the narrative. If we get spared many of the usual grotesque blandishments of masculine excess in the narrative, because Glory likely won’t run around raping people, for instance, this does not ultimately detach the narrative, in this case, from the unconvincing tropes that ground redemption narratives.

A friend of mine notes our culture’s desire for comeuppance. This presupposes, of course, some range of activity warranting that punishment, but when we have an anti-hero who seems too safely tucked between some quotation marks, so that by “anti-hero” we really understand (wink-wink) someone we should more admire than not admire, then we see an article of bad faith around the notion of comeuppance. In other words, Glory acts badly, and has to come to a more or less bad end—for the sake of comeuppance—but the authors don’t really believe she constitutes the “problem” that the narrative calls her. Or tries to.

This always comes across more clearly in sloppy redemption narratives with males. A print run will come to an end, so you kill the guy off supposedly to atone for his many sins. To really sell that, the redemption would have to come at the beginning, because the effect of redemption should show in the future consequences of it. When the State executes a serial killer, nothing of the future of that “justice” comes into the picture; the whole cases consists of nothing more than a litany of horrors by the “hero” (hero in the eyes of the psychopath, centre of the story or protagonist from the public point of view), so that somehow the throwing of the switch, the comeuppance, should settle the whole matter. If he goes out with a sardonic smirk at his executioners, that differs little than if he breaks down at the end, begs forgiveness and apologises—except that the latter confirms the whole of the patriarchal structure that he himself so (perversely) embodied in his life and crimes.

Endnotes

[1] I planned 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. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] J. Keatinge, J., Campbell, R., Hamilton, S., Bergin III, J., Gieni, O., Solis, C., & Sherwood’s, D.E.(2014)[2] Glory (the Complete Saga). Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 1–352.

[3] Remender, R, Moore, T, Opeña, J, Hawthorne, M (2014). Fear agent, vol. 2. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse, pp. 1–520.