God’s privy parts

You probably noticed that I had a little trouble staying out of the gender issue when summarizing the high-Church conflicts across the 300 issues of Cerebus the Aardvark (God, an aardvark, and the man in between). That’s ’cause the gender of God is the topic the institutions bicker over in the fiction … and because the whole story is structured as a mirror-image between male-centric and female-centric ideologies … and because the prevailing metaphysic of the climax of the book apparently takes sides in the most macro-possible expression of such a conflict.

So it’s pretty interesting that the main character has both a penis and a vagina, and the associated plumbing for each, right?

More important internet people than I have written extensively about what Dave Sim might mean by/with his epic comic. Here at little Comics Madness, though, the ground rule for discussion is that I don’t read this or any comic as a one-man memorandum, as if the author were sitting next to me holding the comic open. I even bit my tongue in the previous post at my wishy-washy “according to some” phrasings about him-the-person, settling for saying, “I’ll get to that gender stuff later” which is now. And I’m talkin’ about what’s in the story.

The shape of Cerebus. My take is that most of the 300 issues are set up as a mirror: first, marginalized women inside a male church; then, marginalized men inside a female church. As I mentioned earlier, in this comic, without exception, churches suck. In High Society through the end of Church & State Part 2, the Tarimite (male) church is dogmatic to the point of incoherence, imperially overstretched, in political turmoil across its nominal holdings and due to the veto power held by its military, and confused and entangled within its own ossified rules of hierarchy and leadership. The active participants’ over-seriousness about their obviously doomed social construct is easily played for comedy, as with Bishop Powers, but the whole situation is also clearly a vast engine for gross, nasty tragedy for all persons. It’s even cyclically so, having recapitulated the trial for heresy many times.

In the thick of this, the covert opposition is complex, nuanced, and full of dramatic personal back-story.

  • At the biggest/mystic scale, the whole “priestesses” thing – and if you blink you’ll miss the part where the cards tell us Cerebus is more female than he knows
  • The opposition is itself ideologically split between Cirinism (mothers) vs. Kevillism (daughters)
  • There’s a lot of murky personal conflict wrapped up in both of these, concerning Cirin, Astoria, Michelle, and a possibly grotty back-story with the never-seen Sir Gerrick

By the time Cerebus gets anywhere near the seat of power, the opposition is flatly winning; said seat’s current inhabitant is already proclaiming himself a Kevillist and getting assassinated, and it’s not even the first time. The male manipulators like Lord Julius and Weisshaupt are themselves overtaken, even the extra-big-male example of Necross/Thrunk. Through a number of squeaking-past moments and hallucinatory end-runs, Cerebus then wild-cards the female manipulators to a great extent by setting himself up as as the ultimate male and unexpectedly managing to amass the gold he needs for the Great Ascension.

Then, for a roughly equivalent amount of pages in Mothers & Daughters [Flight, Women, Reads, Minds], Guys, Going Home, and Form and Void,  the context is reversed: the female institutional church-and-government, which is clearly just as authoritarian, internally screwed-up, and self-defeating. It’s especially clear at the personal level – even more so than Cerebus, Cirin is prone to humiliating and imprisoning anyone who disagrees with her, creating a culture of sycophancy, misery, and self-silencing. It’s not just Astoria, either; there are a lot of women in the official hierarchy who aren’t on board with her policies and who suffer for it, and ultimately it’s revealed that Cirin’s whole identity is founded on a lie and a highly personal betrayal. Furthermore, when Astoria does get herself back into power, she finds herself playing the same passive-aggressive bullying role too.

Contrary to most casual summaries I’ve seen, the female characters during this sequence, especially in Mothers & Daughters, still present an extensive breadth of emotional, intellectual, and story-driving presence, which calls for a sequel-post. Suffice to say here that “this misogynistic book presents negative portraits of women” is simply inaccurate. However, the men who seek power and relevance within this context are not a mirror-image of the women in the earlier parts. The “male style” violent insurrection Cerebus tries to instigate is quickly put down in a memorable curb-stomp sequence, and the Punisherroach’s “men’s last stand” after that is defeated when he gets laid and then heartbroken. All the men attempting to defy institutional power are at best feckless and often helplessly insane. OK, there are one or two with some insight, like the Kingsley Amis expy, but they utterly lack power.

Here the “mirror” is definitely skewed – within the male establishment, women seeking power were exceptionally shrewd and effective; men in the corresponding position are anything but. The majority of Guys definitely lampoons the female establishment, but loses no time nor any opportunity in showing men as profoundly stupid. In fact their most literal maleness, their cocks and associated urges, take front-and-center (heh) for the dumbest entities in the entire 300 issues, in a variety of ways pretty much foreshadowed by the earlier fate of the Punisherroach. Furthermore, continuing through Going Home and Form and Void, the various major and minor characters all illustrate the ways male inspiration gets muddled and drowned – literally in alcohol – when it gets confounded with a romantic relationship. The same dynamics back in the bar seem to hold outside it, for men in this society.

But crucially, the female church-government is no better at the Ascension. Cirin’s golden sphere fails again and again, and even if she does succeed in making it enormous, it’s doomed; the back-story has already shown that people have tried that before. Cirin and her whole society is stuck in the same old cycle, and only Astoria succeeds in freeing herself from it.

The linchpin(s). Let’s take a look at the complicate hinge-point between these two frameworks. One of them is the attempted Great Ascension which is evidently the covert goal of anyone who manages to seize the reins of military and church power simultaneously. Which turns out really really badly.

cerebusherm2But here I want to focus one of the associated events, just before Cerebus makes it to the moon, when a rival aspirant appears – a very obvious hermaphrodite, composed of … OK, take a deep breath. There was a wizard named Claremont who created the Woman-Thing, and then there was an artist with funny hair who had the Sump Thing, and when the two monsters fought, they started screwing instead, and squished Claremont … anyway, somehow the artist with the hair got merged with the two Things, he/they showed up as a three-party entity in one of the earlier hallucinatory sequences, and here he/they is again now.

His outlook is quite clear in the accompanying page, to play soft-agnostic with the gender of God. If the upcoming divine encounter is male (Tarim), he’ll lead with Fred (Sump Thing); if it’s female (Terim), he’ll lead with Ethel (Woman-Thing). As a foe, he-and-they is quite menacing and Cerebus can’t stop them from overtaking him. They fail because the whole idea of “divine encounter” is way not what anyone expects.

In the ensuing conversation, the Judge casually mentions that “Fred, Ethel, and the little guy with the hair” was doomed to failure, that you don’t get to play both sides of the gender fence when you do divine/cosmic stuff. Why not, he doesn’t say, but although the Judge eventually turns out to be not quite right about more than one thing anyway, in this case, events seem to bear him out, and the hermaphroditic “solution” seems at this point to have been a bit of comedy relief.

The hinge-point is a lot bigger than that, however. The entirety of Jaka’s Story and Melmoth serve as the textual turning point as well, the first with its 99% certain implication that she had aborted her pregnancy by Rick, and the second with the institutional destruction of Oscar, the non-masculinized man. At this level, considering huge chunks of text as units and poised between the two sides of the above-described mirror, the story holds up the ambiguity and especially the emotional uncertainty of what being “a woman” or “a man” might mean or is for. These are two of the most sympathetic and most basically-people characters in the entire comic, and their big-picture structural role I’m describing doesn’t get enough eyeballs on it.

cerebusherm1Later in the story, when Cerebus, Astoria, Cirin, and Suenteus Po arrive at a many-cornered confrontation, the mirror-model is thrown into a whole different light when Cerebus’ own hermaphroditism is revealed, both to the readers and to him (it’s already known to the other characters). It makes a lot of sense, especially in terms of why the various conspirators back in Church & State Part 1 worked so hard to control him, to the point of gaslighting. It’s never safe to say whether a given retrospective insight into the plot of Cerebus is a matter of retcon or writing in the moment, but I’m retroactively impressed by Weisshaupt engineering Cerebus’ and Sophia’s marriage, which nails down Cerebus to “be” male in the chess-match among all the covert operators.

A bit after that, the hermaphroditism receives another plot-twist, when it’s further revealed that during his childhood, the knife-wound inflicted by another child permanently damaged his womb. is the explicit break with this model, or rather, disrupting its equal-mirror quality.

This suggests two contradictory interpretations at this point in the story:

  • Fred-Ethel-and-the-little-fellow-with-the-hair may not actually have been on the wrong track after all, or at least, in his error, was leaning more correctly than either an uber-Male (Cerebus) or an uber-Female (Cirin) was or will be. OR,
  • Cerebus was not a valid candidate for insight into the cosmos unless he was forced by events into being wholly male. This gains some textual support by the negative effects of his “part-chick” psychology during Guys.

I say again, don’t try to resolve this by going by “what Dave says” even if Dave in various incarnations is including himself in the story. Never mind all the explanations and essays. I’m staying with plain old characters and plot.

Another look. I’m going to approach the issue a bit sideways, by bringing in another title entirely: Alejandro Jodorowskys’ and Moebius’ Madwoman of the Sacred Heart, published in 1997. Which is entirely insane, but not in the sense of inadmissible and why bother paying attention, but rather, in the sense of anything-goes, oh shit, what next, and I can’t believe you showed that. It’s wonderfully bonkers.

There’s no summarizing it at the fine-grained level, any more than you can summarize the go-here go-there hijinks of the typical Tintin plot. Suffice to say that Alan Mangel, a middle-aged celebrity professor, is yanked hither and yon at the behest of his young and pregnant mistress Elizabeth, a reformed (well, not very) French-Muslim hoodlum named Muhammad, a Colombian drug lord’s schizophrenic daughter named Maria, and his own wicked younger self, all in the context of relinquishing his hard-won status and trying to (i) arrive at a new spiritual outlook, (ii) not get shot by any number of deranged criminals, and (iii) avoid the worst consequences of chronic diarrhea. Lots of sex too. If you’re merely looking for a fun ride, it’ll do fine, as a cross between Tintin action-travelogue and various, uh, set-pieces by Milo Manara.

Yes, it’s heretical to suggest that anything by either creator is less than sublime, but I happen to think each has produced his share of slumming works. This isn’t one of them though, as the issues it raises are intellectually solid and interesting, and structurally it doesn’t miss a beat and stays right on track throughout.

OK, first thing is to identify the titular madwoman, which is not entirely obvious because every single woman in the story and possibly every single man too is nuts. But I’ll tell you, it’s the crazy homeless lady outside the Church of the Sacred Heart, whom he encounters a few times, mainly antagonistically.

Her big moment comes when a gaggle of religious experts give her some air-time to share her views during their high-falutin’ and sterile debates, and then react very badly to her claims. Alan, witnessing this, breaks entirely with his commitment to his professional reputation (he never mentions it again) and experiences his single genuine moment of empathy in nearly the entire story.

When he feels sorry for her and tries to make a little contact, she turns out to, well, take a look at the next page I chose.

madwoman1If you think that this is too grotesque for words, please recall that Alan’s last lecture, provided earlier in the story in great detail, concerned the ecstatic physical union between elderly characters in The Gospel According to Luke, and how much true love and divine will was wrapped up in the grannybanging blessed event.

Now, I take the fifth on whether he should have dropped trou and screwed the bag lady in the street in front of the church, but he definitely should have stopped and listened to her in some way instead of stealing the holy oil, which at this point he doesn’t know is going to be used as the lubricant when he’s unexpectedly fucked up the ass, yeah, you see what kind of story this is.

Anyway, one might get the idea (forgetting the title) that this whole encounter was yet another zany bit in a sea of such and focus on what happens among the small band of spiritual miscreants after that, which, along with the above-mentioned bed-obatics, mostly concerns frying pans into fires in all kinds of ways.

madwoman2These events culminate in Maria becoming the hermaphroditic Jesus, or “Jesusa,” which is definitely a curveball, as Alan has barely managed to retain his skepticism. Her altered appearance and almost-evident miracle during the (ew) massive blood-drinking ceremony shake him up pretty well.

… but not entirely. It’s not enough, either for him, or for the basic questions that have been driving him – and that’s valid, because, well, so Maria is now hermaphroditic Jesusa – so what? She and her new condition are not the solution for our hero’s philosophical problems. These events close out her and Muhammad’s story-roles and actions from their introduction. Although she points Alan and Elisabeth to their next destination, her whole situation and the rebels and drugs and whatnot are completely put aside and, in story terms, never seen again.

madwoman3Following her directions, they encounter a (the?) madwoman in the different form of a bruja at the top of the mountain. Alan finally does listen – not without much bitching and whining – as she leads him through a Castaneda-style rebirth. It’s very detailed, making quite clear that his intellectual gyrations have been useless as what he’s always sought is faith, and also that his willingness to live the wild life is wrapped up in a lot of nasty feelings and is thereby hampered in making him actually happy.

You kind of have to know what you’re looking at here: this is a prime example of a Get Yourself Right Before Tackling the World situation. Structurally, it returns to the initial plotline in which the guy is simply falling apart despite his carefully-constructed persona, and then meets a madwoman who provides a particularly pure and focused version of love for him to experience. Now he gets to do that again, and since he rejected it the easy way because his hangups are so deeply entrenched, he’s gonna have to meet this much more difficult madwoman and build himself over entirely.

And yeah, that’s totally grounded in the matters I wrote about in Buddha on the road, Steve – get ‘im! Regardless of whether any of these authors knows it or approves, these and similar works are textbook Encounter. You know what you’re looking at regarding comics history, right? This is good old Cosmic Zap, and more power to it.

Therefore all the running around, wild sex, and escalation of bonkers violence turns out to have been a detour. This absolutely and specifically includes Jesusa, who as character and plotline is fully left behind. Whatever he-and-she gets up to next, what in the world his-and-her androgyny means or even is, is simply gone from the purview (framing) of what matters in the real story.

That’s a lot like what happens in Cerebus. The final, realized story is about setting aside all this craziness  and purported cosmically-gendered greatness that’s dragged you into it, going inward instead, and rooting out your own very basic flaws via radical, hallucinatory therapy. The gender-bending is a detour here too. In the first Ascension, the self-styled hermaphroditic avatar simply fails to succeed whereas Cerebus, the real hermaphrodite, does – but when all of that is finally revealed to the reader, the real hermaphrodite turns out to be an incomplete one and is (now) actually male, so the whole issue is moot.

So wait. Wait, wait, the real question’s still there. In both stories, why is divine hermaphroditism brought into the picture as a solution at all, if it is to be obviated in some way? I mean, if you’re writing a comic all about the the inner whatnot and the ultimate transcendent big-why and surfaces aren’t to be trusted, et cetera, and if this gender stuff happens to be on your mind, then why not posit that the cosmos itself is the ultimate Taoist-style hermaphrodite and call it a day? I got a dick, you got a snatch, God has both, so we’re both cool! It’s cool! It’s kind of the way Hedwig and the Angry Inch goes, and it’s not any crazier than saying that one or the other has to be On Top because that’s what you find at God’s Down There.

But neither story does that. Which is even odder considering that both stories end, not with a clear alternative, but rather with gaudy, symbolic, Christian-loaded what-in-the-heck conclusions, which today is called the Gainax Ending after its notorious over-use by the studio of that name.

  • Madwoman ends with a fully nuclear-family with a rejuvenated Alan and Elisabeth raising their divinely-inspired son. It’s a bit facile and has all the flaws of such endings, e.g., dodging what this new state of affairs is specifically supposed to do.
  • Cerebus ends with the book Latter Days, which is a text-heavy argument posing the dichotomy between the female demiurge Yoowhoo and the male actual God, including what appears to be yet another subversion and distortion of the latter by the former. The big swerve is that what looked like a dualistic balance-y story looks to have become perceiving truly antagonistic, more Manichean sides, and choosing one.

This may indeed be the case regarding what Dave Sim the actual person experienced as a religious epiphany, and continues to practice as his personal faith. I really don’t care if that’s true or not. In the text, you don’t find out – Cerebus finds out what he thinks. You never meet God, you receive a case for Him (as a He) which happens to convince Cerebus.

The “hermaphrodite detour” strikes me as a manifestation of the 1990s as a whole – the deeply-stressed concern with gender essentialism, seeking an “is” so the “ought” of policy can be resolved for us. I found it then, and still find it, quite dishonest – if gender is to be perceived as independent of sex (genitals, gonads), then why bother naming the various relations between the two? If it “doesn’t matter,” then why is the desire to switch physical sex (genitals) considered important? I fully agree that the conservative or reactionary backlash against these things is a source of great misery and harm, but at least that’s a simplistic problem. I’m really talking about the internal lacerations and put-downs I see constantly among those who purport to support sex-and-gender reform, who strike me as even more essentialist than the OMG-bathrooms crowd.

Keep in mind, I’m anarchic to the point of obliviousness to morality. If someone wants to be called a given pronoun, I’ll do it; if someone wants surgical and other alterations to feel more at home in their body, I’m good with it; et cetera. I’m all for a policy debate and activism to influence it. What I’m criticizing here is one of the worst and most agonizing examples of the Naturalistic Fallacy imaginable – actually needing The Whole Fucking Cosmos to look like, to be, exactly the policy you want to support. It literally hamstrings the debate and the policy-making.

Both Cerebus the Aardvark and Madwoman of the Sacred Heart stand as a combined artifact of these unnecessary traumas: the anti-intellectualism and defensive crouch of both the reformers and the resisters. Each text also strikes me as disturbingly clear in its failure to cope with its own content, ultimately retreating into highly standard forms of religious iconography as their “solution.” They are, I think, the lonely voices of the rebellious-intellectual conservative, a political breed which used to be very well-represented in fringe-pop culture, but found itself out in the cold about twenty years ago and is practically extinct today. I’m not especially sympathetic to this outlook and don’t mourn much, but if you want to see its dying gasp in the modern political landscape, here it is.

That might not be good news. I look over into the realm of those I don’t agree with much, to see only faux-intellectual useful idiocy, the increasingly isolated and desperate Christian Right, and resurging hard-hat intolerance. People who’d see both these comics as unacceptable, irresponsible, pornographic, immoral. I see those who’d match the profile I described above driven into their arms, just as each comic does internally.

Links: Hermes & Aphrodite

Next comics: Sword of God, Friends, p. 7; One Plus One, Two, p. 10; Ophite, Gnosis, p. 1

Next column: One twist of the wrist (December 4)

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on November 27, 2016, in The 90s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’m not sure it makes sense to say too much about comic(s) I haven’t read, but I again feel like I’ve learned a good amount – this time about Cerebus/genderstuff, which feels important in, um, “geek history?” The intricacies of Tarimite/Cirinist/etc. are beyond me, but I can see how the in-fiction structure might be interesting and compelling. And of course the actual sociopolitical drama/realities are just flat-out important, so art that wrestles there is at least looking at the right things (which is maybe my rephrasing of your “problematic is GOOD”).

    I suspect I wouldn’t enjoy Cerebus – something about the story seems likely to rub me the wrong way, and my visual-art appreciation impulse is pretty stunted – but I can see where I might admire much of it. “Madwoman of the Sacred Heart” seems more fun, but perhaps all the more frustrating in its’ ultimate failings (as described here) because of it.

    I’m reminded of 70’s/80’s fantasy novels with pre-historic Matriarchies (not always benevolent) – lousy as history, and at best muddled as metaphor, but still, somehow, touching on something important.

    Liked by 1 person

    • EDIT: Translate “70’s/80’s” as “stuff I read in the 70’s/80’s” – quick research reveals that at least one case (Mary Renault’s Theseus novels) is earlier …

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      • The Mists of Avalon, and much more with non-fiction (or rather semi-non-fiction) counterparts like The Chalice and the Blade. One of the earlier biggies would be John Gardner’s The White Goddess.

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        • “The White Goddess” (Robert Graves, I think) is definitely a huge influence for Renault, and that interestingly-problematic label seems appropriate for both, in perhaps varying degrees.

          I think I’m mostly remembering stuff before The Mists of Avalon (which I oddly never did get around to reading). Nancy Springer? Or …. I need to open those so-long-stored boxes of paperbacks. There will still be stuff I read but didn’t own (and a few books that just disappeared, somehow), but I can hope SOME memories will be sparked!

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        • Robert Graves! Yes, brain melting.

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    • The history here is invisible in popular form; one has to seek out women with solid feminist political history who are willing to criticize the popular mythology about it. I wrote about it in Long live Lib – that the whole goddes-thing, transform society by finding our true feminity first, was co-opted by bourgeois feminism and itself transformed into a brand. Particularly a brand which tossed black civil rights, sex work reform, anti-militarism, and prison reform under a bus.

      I see Cerebus the Aardvark as an especially painful victim of this process, but not lacking in potentially insightful points. A great deal of the story concerns how badly the protagonist is dehumanized by women, and how much he is led to believe it, and the reversals of the final third strike me as a dedicated “I can’t stand it any more” response which overtakes both the text and its included commentary. I don’t have to agree with its details to identify the problem as real, and also to say that current discourse is no help at all. It is perfectly understandable that men are not saints and share no intrinsic gender-based goodness, and until we get past taboo in acknowledging the same about women, feminism will continue to suffer from its own brand of objectification.

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  1. Pingback: More women | Comics Madness

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