pay no attention to the man behind the curtain?

Two gnostics go head to head. Harold Bloom on Robert Crumb’s Genesis was a classic review. America’s greatest underground comic artist from the 60′s and a literary genius in Bloom from the depths of Ivy League academia. They are both answering the question of whether art is a defense against madness and both thoroughly understand the strangeness and absurdity in the historical. In fact, they arrive at similar conclusions, but expressed in widely varying styles. It begins with the idea for them that Judaism or Christianity are just metaphors. The blood on the napkin at Passover is just wine and Christians are not swallowing the blood of Christ with communion wine. But, the poetry of the Bible and the liturgy, is overshadowed by something more deep-rooted. The intensity. Something that pre-dates and pierces the normative tradition of religion and focuses on the odd, the shouting, speaking in tongues, miracles and the all-out assault on the senses. Everything that is rough around the edges and crime and punishment in its most stark and appalling fashion is what is brought out in Crumb’s Genesis.

In the North and Western world we seem to prefer our  faith bland and anemic and of short duration. Although parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition- an artificial construction according to Bloom- can be seen as moving or uplifting, much of the darker side is viewed as too macabre and bizarre such as the excessive lusting of the Old testament, devils, resurrection and so on, more akin to Greil Marcus’s Old Weird America that how we conceive our lives as guided by a more noble and enlightened narrative.  In fact, Bloom calls the Bible, sophisticated children’s stories whereas the real goods are delivered in his Book of J which captures the rough and ready; in fact Bloom sees Islam with its archaic practices as hand dismemberment, lapidation etc. as being closer to Biblical lore than our diluted version.

That said, you don’t have to voyage too far to understand how faded and bleached  our version has become. In South American Christianity, blood and ecstasy are in your face and the blood drips from each of Jesus’s wounds, and benign saints are represented under  graphic and fathomless suffering. Likewise, among the religious in Israel, God, Yahweh, is not known more for his absence as Bloom asserts, but rather is interventionist; and miracles are a daily occurrence, a potential for new sainthood. The divine intercession of friendly saints to save from peril is almost expected.

Read More: ---In a patriarchal environment such as the Canaan of Genesis, the situation is discordant and problematic. Dr. Teubal suggests that the difficulty is eliminated, however, if we understand that Sarah and the other matriarchs mentioned in the narratives acted within the established, traditional Mesopotamian role of priestess, of a class of women who retained a highly privileged position vis-a-vis their husbands. Dr. Teubal shows that the “Sarah tradition” represents a nonpatriarchal system struggling for survival in isolation, in the patriarchal environment of what was for Sarah a foreign society. She further indicates that the insistence of Sarah and Rebekah that their sons and heirs marry wives from the old homeland had to do not so much with preference for endogamy and cousin marriage as with their intention of ensuring the continuation of their old kahina-tradition against the overwhelming odds represented by patriarchal Canaan.---

Bloom: Illustrating the Hebrew Bible has been a grand quest for painters, with Michelangelo and Tintoretto perhaps dividing the palm. A cartoon or comic book reduction of Genesis ideally should be the work of an unlikely fusion of Rembrandt and William Blake. That is not a fair criterion to invoke when considering R. Crumb’s venture into the Book of Genesis. Staring at the women and men of Crumb’s Genesis, I dimly recall someone showing me an issue of Mad magazine. To my untutored view the work of Crumb recalls that publication yet somehow also is touched with what I remember as the doughty proletarian style of Ben Shahn. At the least, Crumb’s cartoons have the initial merit of strangeness in their portrayal of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the first book of the Hebrew Bible….The people of Genesis are indeed picturesque but powerfully ugly in Crumb’s vision. I do not regret the men but the women from Eve to Rachel, are so dreadful that I am made unhappy. They hardly suffice even if you try to defend Crumb’s approach as one of healthy realism. What reply could suggest itself to me if a Crumb admirer asserted : “That is what they really looked like, back then”? There was no “back then”. Genesis, like Exodus and Numbers after it, is fabulous tale-telling, and not historical fact. You can call it myth if you want to or whatever you think best fits the tale of the tribe…..Read More: a

Read More: ---Crumb: The text is often very terse. When they say that God was angry at the human race and its evil ways, and He was going to destroy them with a flood, it doesn’t tell you what the evil ways are. It doesn’t tell you what exactly made God so angry. What were people doing that was so bad? Well, I basically made it up. I’d just show some really bad shit, some bad behavior. I just had to think that up on my own. And there’s lots of stuff like that where you just have to fill in the missing bits, and I was very careful about that; I didn’t want to take too much liberty that way.---

…Crumb: I did not adapt it reverently. I respected the text insofar as I did not want to ridicule it. But I see the text as actually a quite primitive document. It’s primitive; it’s full of ancient, very old, ritualistic ideas, which are very crude. And there’s a lot going on there that is not consciously understood by the people who are telling the stories. And then you have pasted over that this really annoying religious priestly stuff, which is trying to nail the whole thing down so that people can’t get out from under it. [Laughs.]

At a certain point while I was working on it, after about 25 pages, I actually started to despise the text. For a while I went through this phase of hating it. It is really a hateful thing actually. A hateful document that kept people down, kept people in ignorance and darkness, and from advancing intellectually or mentally. To hold a text like that over people as the only thing that they should take seriously, that that’s their whole prescription for living and for morality and all that, is a terrible thing to do. It just proves how insane and crazy the human race is that still in this day and age, to take a text like that as a source of moral guidance. That just causes nothing but trouble. [Laughs.] And the same can be said of the New Testament, the Qur’an, all the Western religious stuff. The Eastern thing is different, the Buddhist and the Hindu things are very different. They’re much more democratic and open, and not as rigid….

Read More: ---Crumb: The set designs, the costumes, the clothing on the people: such a rich variety of people in the Exodus scene. There’s a woman carrying a cage full of chickens on her head. There’re mules pulling a cart with big terracotta urns tied to it: just great detail. Full of rich, very well-thought-out, very well-produced detail, the whole movie. All those sets in Egypt: those aren’t computer generated, that’s all fuckin’ real. The only thing that’s fake is the parting of the Red Sea. It looks very fake. But the avenue of the lion statues, or whatever, sphinx statues, they built all that! It’s incredible. Incredible.---

What probably threw Bloom was the way Crumb approaches the  differences between satire and por

aphy, art and entertainment, confession and repression, and being at the edge of sanity. With Crumb, there is always an aspect of voyeurism that lets us see an elevated risk of madness madness hiding just behind the flaying of nerves and a hint of panic. A disquieting madness that seems too ordinary and commonplace yet is somehow embedded within our society.

…Groth: And more generous spirited?

Crumb: Well, they are not as hard-line. They’re not as defined. Like the Hindu religion has 4,000 different gods and you can take your pick of which ones you want to revere according to how they appeal to you. You can worship this one or that one. You can worship Ganesh, symbolized by an elephant, whatever you want. So it’s different, it’s very different. But the Western religions are pretty awful, actually. All three of the major Western religions are contentious and antagonistic and aggressive. Read More:

Groth: Did you see a conflict between your wanting to pay homage to certain lurid conventions of comics and transcribing this?

Crumb: None at all. [Laughs.] No conflict whatsoever [Groth laughs.] Like if you wanted to illustrate an ancient folktale or a folk song. I did that, I did illustrations of an old Grimm’s Fairy Tale, “Mother Hulda,” and it’s the same thing. It’s full of lurid detail, incredibly, all the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Besides from the fact that the Bible is considered the word of God — Genesis particularly is full of the most harrowing, lurid goings-on. Chapter 34 is probably the ugliest chapter in the whole book. That’s the one where the sons of Jacob decide they’re gonna kill all the men of Shechem because the prince slept with their sister Dinah.

Groth: Yeah, that was a terrifying act of treachery and betrayal.

Crumb: Wasn’t it, though? And what’s the moral resolve of that? Jacob scolds them for it and says, “You have made me odious in the eyes of all the people around here, and if they decide to attack us, they could kill us because we are few and they are many.”

And the sons say, “What, our sister should be treated like a whore?” And that’s the end of it. [Groth laughs.] So what lesson are we supposed to gain? What’s the moral inspiration? What is God telling us there, if it’s the word of God?

Groth: Have you come to a conclusion? Have you resolved that yourself?

Crumb: It’s like, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s obvious from the resolve that it’s not the word of God, it’s some ancient crazy fuckin’ tribal shit [laughter]: some guys defending their sister’s honor. Read More:

Image: Read More: ---Let’s start with the sniggering, which we hear whenever Robert gets together with his older brother Charles (still living with their mother and unemployed since 1969) or his younger brother Maxon (living alone in a San Francisco flophouse, meditating two hours daily on a bed of nails). Both of his brothers are also exceptionally gifted, self-aware artists, but unlike Robert they’re misfits who never climbed out of obscurity and often wound up institutionalized, on medication, or both. Most of what’s memorable about Crumb has to do with these brothers; by the time the film is over, one is fully persuaded that if Robert weren’t drawing constantly and compulsively he’d be every bit as doomed as they are. (Referring to these people as if they were fictional characters makes me uncomfortable, but the film’s careful establishment of their personalities makes it hard to do otherwise; whether Zwigoff intends this or not, they become characters within the context of the film.) The terrible yet familiar laughter Robert shares with his brothers reveals a kind of tortured complicity in sexual obsession: as a five- or six-year-old kid Robert was sexually drawn to Bugs Bunny; Charles as an older kid was secretly preoccupied with Hollywood boy actor Bobby Driscoll; and Max in his late teens — the most sexually repressed of them all and subject to epileptic fits — became a molester of women. He describes stalking a woman on the streets of San Francisco and pulling down her shorts with a curious mixture of horror and relish. The fact that each brother is fully aware of his obsessions and even lucid about them only heightens their shared amusement, which sounds unnervingly like ordinary locker-room repartee, enchanted with its own gross-out dementia.---


Crumb:So I would say in that way, by literally illustrating all of that stuff, there is a slightly subversive quality to it. As you say, secular interpretation. It’s slightly subversive to show a story like that, illustrate it, literally show it. What it’s really about. And it’s very hard to give any moral rationale to a story like that. And then in my commentary in the back of the book I bring up Savina Teubal, this Israeli woman writer, and her explanation for those stories, for the “she’s my sister” routine, and how her reasons make much more cogent sense than any of the previous explanations that I’ve come across, and she wrote this stuff in the 1980s. It’s probably the first time anyone has ever examined that stuff from that matrilineal, matriarchal angle. I think she’s probably right about it. Read More:

Read More»: ---The Bruegel-esque Crumb is an ironic observer and social chronicler, and if that’s all his art consisted of Crumb wouldn’t be nearly so disturbing. But then there’s Crumb the asocial narcissist and devoted nose picker, tireless explorer and exploiter of his own inner demons — closer to Hieronymus Bosch than to Pieter Bruegel — fueled by self-absorbed pornographic fantasies, bent on creating images for masturbation, and getting some of his rocks off by celebrating gratuitous violence, much of it against women. (One feels sure that Crumb himself can’t always tell whether these episodes critique or celebrate violence, and wonders how much acid he actually took back in the 60s and 70s.) His wife defends this work, however, as an expression of pure id that has nothing to do with what her husband is really like (”He gets it out in his artwork”).---

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