Home / Morrison & Borges — Orqwith + Uqbar, Tlon, Orbis Tertius

Morrison & Borges — Orqwith + Uqbar, Tlon, Orbis Tertius

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“Curdle Your Pilgrimage”
(Soundtrack: Frank Black–Teenager of the Year)

I just re-read “Crawling From the Wreckage”, phase one of Grant Morrison & Richard Case’s revamp of the Doom Patrol, from issues #19-22 of the series… Suffice it to say: if there weren’t huge gaps in my collection (where is #26? How about #29? I just don’t know man!), I wouldn’t be here at the keyboard right now…

I also took another look at blogospheroid Marc Singer’s conference paper: “On Byron Shelley and Crazy Jane: Romanticism and Modernity in the Comics of Grant Morrison”, which, in addition to presenting some interesting ideas about the DP that you ought to read, advances the notion that Modernism and Romanticism are, in a way, complementary aesthetics, and I’m 100% behind that kind of talk!

But let’s crawl back into the wreckage for a sec hunh?

The Doom Patrol, circa early 1989, was an awful mess! (and thanks to John Byrne, I’m sure it will be again soon!) I like Paul Kupperberg, but the man succumbed to Claremontian angst-demons in DP #1-18, and once that happens friends, the victim cannot help himself. There’s nothing to do but call for the exorcist.

Fortunately, DC had one under contract.

Most of Kupperberg’s overwrought zombies were laid to rest in issue #18–an Invasion tie-in for chrissakes!–and this cleared the operating table for a stab at the eerie core of experience that those crocodile tears had drowned out.

Morrison begins his tenure with a postcard from within the mind of Cliff Steele, a (Robot)man on the edge, if ever there was one. The first page of issue #19 is so reminiscent of Miller’s opening to The Dark Knight. Nightmare vision/memory of a man in a speeding racecar on a collision course with death. Simonsonian artwork. Catastrophe averted (sort of!) at the last minute. In DKR, the protagonist controls the narrative–he decides that this death isn’t “good enough” and goes home to drink instead… Cliff isn’t so lucky–or, rather, Cliff isn’t in charge. The crash comes, as it must; however, Morrison “saves the beautiful bit” of his protagonist. His brain.

In just one page, we’ve cut to the heart of what superhero comics (like all romance narratives) are about: how does a mind, trapped in a body it never made, relate to the world? Morrison doesn’t give us any answers. Narrative was born to scratch this epistemological itch, and God help you if it ever subsides!

Dirk Deppey is talking out of his ass when he claims that superhero comics are “repressed” (unlike “cool”, “liberated” porn); but he’s close to being right about one thing, while superhero comics aren’t asexual, they are presexual. You have to get partway out of your own head before you can actually have meaningful sex… It isn’t easy to crawl from the “wreckage” of an inescapable subjectivity. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible. But of course that struggle is what life’s all about. As soon as you give up on trying to find something real outside of yourself, you might as well be dead–you might as well be watching porn 24-7.

So Cliff wakes up screaming, encased in his metal shell.

“Dreaming about our accident again, are we?” a nurse asks. “That’s what happens…when we refuse to take our medication.”

Emerson wrote in Experience: “It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.” That’s the “accident” that Morrison is referring to here…

Cliff, “Rebis”, “Crazy Jane”–these are archetypal romance characters. By necessity, they spend more time fighting themselves (not, as in Claremont’s soap opera world, each other) than their enemies… It’s not easy to calibrate your senses to reality–you have to make adjustments constantly.. Get complacent and that beautiful metaphorical swirl of otherness will reify into a silicone breast-pumpkin in two seconds flat.

Is life a pilgrimmage without a destination? The scissormen are onto something! Every stopping point is a curdling of the human spirit.

“Why is there something instead of nothing?”; or, Why did the Idea Cross The Void?; or then again, maybe just: Synchronic Apocalypse

Creativity is a fascinating thing, no? Where do ideas come from? And how do they get here? (that little, flawed, intersubjective realm we call the “waking world”, I mean) Personally, I think this a far more interesting question than the one that has sidetracked western thought since about 400 BC: who had the first idea? You know–this week on A&E’s Platonic Investigations: the “Unmoved Mover” revealed!! (does anyone know if any bright transportation company has snatched up this Aristotelian monicker? “We’ll get you there America. Nothin’ gets to us!”)

Grant Morrison’s “Crawling From The Wreckage” is a stunning assault upon the ontological project (which is viewed as a “man made crisis founded upon human logical processes”)–stunning because it lays waste to western metaphysics without succumbing to the kind of cynicism/goofing around that you have to deal with in similarly-motivated twentieth-century philosophers like Heidegger or Derrida. This is why I think of Morrison as a descendant of Emerson: he channels all of his willpower into upholding the premise that there is something instead of nothing, while admitting that there’s no way we’re ever gonna get a clear fix on what that something is. It’s just the “Not Me”, and that’s enough. That’s my problem with Nietzsche (and “empowerment theorists” in general)–he thought Emerson was talking about the “Me”, when, in actuality, he was talking about everything but.

Okay, getting back to creativity. It’s a disease man! And narrative creation is by far the severest strain… The “villain” in “Crawling From the Wreckage” is a fictional construct, called Orqwith, which threatens to engulf the world. Morrison tells us:

Walk a hundred miles, a thousand miles, in any direction, and you will still be in Orqwith. The city has spread like ripples in a pond from one central point–the Quadrivium–which is itself the terrestrial image of the God at the Crossroads. And in the center of the Quadrivium stands the Ossuary, the great Cathedral of Orqwith(DP #22, 1).

The “cathedral of bone” is human memory. All storytelling is an attempt to assemble the fossilized remains of past experiences into a thing that makes sense to the narrator. And so we’re back to the problem of making something out of nothing… Echoes out of the void? Rose is surely right to argue that we tell stories (even if it’s only to ourselves) in order to prove that “the Me” exists; however, that same process poses a constant threat to the “Not Me”, and it’s important to remain aware of this fact. The point at which we find ourselves saying, “ah ha! So that’s why that happened”, is ground zero…and every nod of the head sends another shock wave through the world. The perfect work of art qua work of art would account for everything, stop time, and devour our communal reality. That’s what Orqwith threatens to do. A little later on in the Doom Patrol series, we’ll get to “The Painting That Ate Paris”, an even more successful product of the visionary impulse.

What Are You Tlön, Man?

I must say, I’m deeply grateful to Jess Nevins & Rose Curtin for urging me to pick up Borges, at long last. For now, I’ll stick to Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and its relationship to “Crawling From the Wreckage”, but I’m sure I’ll get around to discussing the rest of the Collected Fictions, once I’m done with them, because it’s truly wonderful stuff!

And before I go any further, let me also direct your attention to this great piece on Morrison by Steven Shaviro, which contains, among other things, an anticipation of a key aspect of my projected dissertation:

The mechanically reproduced object has two lives: one as an ephemeral throw-away item, the other as a precious fetish. This also corresponds to two ways that comics are consumed by their audience. On the one hand, you need to leaf through them quickly, with what Walter Benjamin calls distracted attention: it’s precisely in this suspended state that they become so strangely absorbing. On the other hand, you need to go back over them, studying every word and every panel, with a fanatical attention to detail. The letters pages of any comic book are filled with the most minutely passionate comments and observations. The letter-writers worry about inconsistencies and continuity errors, express approval or disapproval of the characters, engage in lengthy symbolic analyses, critique the artists’ renderings, and make earnest suggestions for future plot directions. In this way, these books become interactive; as Marshall McLuhan was apparently the first to note, comics are “a highly participational form of expression.” It’s all so different from the old habits of highbrow literary culture. A comic book has fans, more than it does “readers.” The medium is the message, as McLuhan always reminds us. The disjunctive mix of words and images, the lines and colors, the rapid cinematic cuts, the changes in plot direction, the tactility of newsprint at your fingertips: all these are more important than any particular content.

I love it.

I do take issue, however, with Shaviro’s (approving) characterization of Morrison as “a sly hipster” bent upon replacing “the old book’s naive earnestness with [a series of] tongue-in-cheek provocations” aimed squarely at “stability, normality, conformity, and everyday boredom” (the real enemies, according to Shaviro)… Frankly, I don’t see it. I can’t address anything after Animal Man & Doom Patrol (this is a situation I plan to remedy over the course of the summer and fall), but the Morrison that I’m familiar with is no mere trickster. In fact, I would argue that he (perhaps along with Mark Gruenwald) is the most earnest person ever to have written a superhero comic. Morrison never deconstructs for deconstruction’s sake, nor does he take cynical pleasure in shocking “dull normals”. His work is strange, certainly, but not any stranger than it has to be in order to convey the genuinely eerie aspects of human existence. And no way is Morrison the kind of yay-saying postmodernist that agrees with this statement:

We aren’t interested in duration or preservation; we devour and squander at a frantic pace, latching on to one thing only to throw it aside in favor of something else the very next moment. Everything is negotiable, everything is available for exchange. So let yourself go. Don’t be a good citizen. Don’t produce, expend. Be a parasite. Consume images and be consumed by them.

Forget about the way the guy presents himself in interviews! The concept of the self may be an illusion in Morrison’s mind, however, precisely for this reason, relation, morality and “otherness” become even more important in his work. This is where postmodernity and radical protestantism meet. Perhaps I am projecting too much of myself onto the author of Animal Man & Doom Patrol, but I don’t think so…after all, I got to be this way largely because of him (along with Capra, Dickens, Hawthorne, and one very important ex-girlfriend).

I’m running out of time here, so I’d better make some kind of point quickly! Let’s begin with a very important difference between Borges’ Tlön & Morrison’s Orqwith, and then take it from there tomorrow.

Okay, here’s Borges’ take on expansionary metafiction:

Contact with Tlön, the habit of Tlön, has disintegrated this world. Spellbound by Tlön’s rigor, humanity has forgotten, and continues to forget, that it is the rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already Tlön’s (conjectural) primitive language has filtered into our schools; already the teaching of Tlön’s harmonious history (filled wih moving episodes) has obliterated the history that governed my own childhood; already a fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing certain–not even that it is false.

Tlön is a totalitarian episteme, it literally forces everything to make sense. And the takeover is insidious.

Orqwith’s assault on the intersubjective realm is a tad more aggressive. Instead of bright shiny ideological trojan horse-artifacts infiltrating the landscape, we get a downpour of fish (makes you wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson read the DP, no?) and the Scissormen. This fictional construct doesn’t change you, it brains you. Borges posits an ideological war of all against all. Fiction abhors a vacuum. You could wind up living in Tlön and never know it. Something’s gotta give structure to the world, and there isn’t any way to step outside of that structure to criticize it. The best you can hope to do is draw up the plans for a successor-world and fool the next generation into migrating en masse across the state (of mind) line. But you can’t be present for it yourself, because you would see the fiction, and that would spoil things, see? Moses got (death)carded at the entrance to the Promised Land. And Christ had to evaporate before Christianity could live.

That’s Borges– at least, that’s what I’ve got on him so far, from the little I’ve read.

Morrison’s aesthetic is radically different. He takes a more grass roots approach to world-building. “Reality” is built up one person at a time. Whenever you meet someone you can believe in, your footing gets a little more secure, but the structural flaws are always visible to anyone who bothers to look, and all cosmologies are suspect! More importantly, people can do without them, and ought to do their best to smash up the ones which threaten to make life too easy for the lazier members of the human family…

That’s where the Doom Patrol comes in, you see! They’re a postmodern “Society of Friends”.

The Doom Patrol musings will continue throughout the month at Motime Like The Present!


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About David Fiore