BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 19, 2009
The Book of Genesis
Illustrated by R. Crumb
(W.W. Norton, 224 pp., $24.95)
A certain amount of sensationalistic misinformation was circulated in the press last spring, here and in England, when word got out that R. Crumb had done an illustrated version of Genesis. Crumb was the leading innovative figure of the underground comics movement of the late 1960s and has enjoyed a devoted following ever since. His graphic work, always memorable, is often physically aggressive, raunchy, and sexually explicit. Against that background of countercultural tawdriness, the press reports suggested that Crumb’s Genesis meant to make a mockery of the biblical text, and that some of it verged on pornography. Even though the jacket of the finished book bears a warning in bold lettering--"ADULT SUPERVISION RECOMMENDED FOR MINORS" (the same may be said, in fact, about Genesis itself)--these scandalous imputations are entirely groundless.
The jacket of Crumb’s Genesis also announces, with the Crumbian emphasis of two exclamation points: "The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!" It is unclear whether "the first book of the Bible" means Genesis or is a claim that this is the first time a book of the Bible has been graphically depicted in its entirety. If the latter is the case, it is, as far as I know, an accurate claim; and it is certainly worth pondering what is gained or lost by representing biblical narrative in graphic frames verse by verse, with images for virtually everything, including the begats.
I should add immediately that I have an indirect entanglement in this book. When Crumb began the project, he sent me the first few chapters that he had done, requesting permission to use my translation of the biblical text, with the stipulation that he would be free to diverge from it when the spirit moved him. Terms were agreed on in an amicable professional manner. The translation that appears in the completed book is for the most part mine, as Crumb duly notes at the beginning of his brief introduction. From time to time, though, he introduces a word or phrase from the King James Version or from another translation, and he also sometimes tinkers--always a little disconcerting to a translator--with my version. I should add that I have absolutely no financial interest in the sales of this book, and so whatever I have to say about it reflects nothing but my considered response to its images.
When some chapters of the book were published in The New Yorker in June, a few people with whom I have spoken about them expressed disappointment. Just the same old R. Crumb, they objected: he has not succeeded in developing a visual style that is adequate to the power of the biblical text. Such criticism does not seem to me justified. Crumb has always been an artist with a single style, a distinctive and emphatic one--in this regard as in others he is certainly no Picasso; and so it should neither surprise nor disappoint us that he has used his style to interpret the Bible. His women have always been broad-shouldered, big-breasted, thick-lipped, erotically energetic figures with the physiques of NFL linebackers, and that is how his biblical women, from Eve to Rebekah to Rachel, appear. The Crumb brand is certainly here; but in this signature visual idiom he has produced a frequently arresting interpretation of Genesis.
I stress that it is an interpretation, because the extremely concise biblical narrative, abounding in hints and gaps and ellipses, famously demands interpretation. (Gershom Scholem once observed that the imperative for interpretation is the hallmark of all canonical texts.) The process of interpreting Genesis began in the Bible itself--in passages from the Former Prophets that elaborately allude to it, in the Prophets, and in late biblical texts such as Esther and Daniel, which are, among other things, interpretive re-castings of the Joseph story. The Midrash, produced in late antiquity, is often an interpretive fleshing-out of the spare biblical narratives, an attempt to fill in the narrative gaps and read closely and imaginatively between the lines. And this is essentially what Crumb does graphically, with a special emphasis on the element of flesh.
His graphic representation sometimes brings alive the reality of the narrated event. Chapter 14, which is almost certainly from a literary source distinct from the three principal ones out of which the book is shaped, features Abraham (still known as Abram) in the anomalous role of warrior-prince. This martial Abraham is so different from the figure who appears elsewhere in the text that I suspect most readers glide through this military episode, this strange war against an alliance of invading eastern kings, without fully registering it. But Crumb’s depiction of Abraham, riding a camel and spearing a fleeing enemy soldier through the back, compels us to take in the violent action of the story. Similarly, Crumb’s image of Joseph flung into the pit by his brothers, lying face down on its rocky bottom, hands clutching the ground, tears rolling from his eyes, makes one recognize the terror and the desperation of the seventeen-year-old, where the spare narrative, silent at this point on Joseph’s reaction, merely says, "And they took him and flung him into the pit. And the pit was empty, there was no water in it." (Crumb is strongest in representing fear, consternation, dismay, rage, lust, and abjection, all of which are abundantly present in these stories, and he is less interesting in the portrayal of more nuanced emotional states.) Onan’s practice of coitus interruptus with Tamar--the term "onanism" is based on a misreading of this story--becomes perfectly clear in Crumb’s image of the two naked figures seen from the back (genitalia are never shown in the sex scenes), Onan obviously having withdrawn from Tamar and exhibiting what one must call an orgasmic facial expression.
When Joseph, in Egyptian royal garb, addresses his brothers, his speech bubble--remember, this a comic book--is filled with hieroglyphics, and the shave-polled figure at his side, holding a tablet and stylus, conveys Joseph’s reported dialogue in the English--which is to say, Hebrew--words inscribed in his own speech bubble. This interpreter, meilits, is mentioned in Genesis 42:23 only after the second dialogue between Joseph and his brothers, as Joseph is about to go off to weep. So the small surprise of a bit of delayed narrative information is surrendered here because of a necessity of the visual medium--but the interpreter’s presence in the graphically represented scene is quite vivid, and amusing. And the final reunion of Jacob with Joseph in Egypt is affectingly visualized: both figures kneeling on the ground, the brothers standing and watching, Joseph seen from behind, old Jacob clasping him with both arms, his uplifted face weeping but in rapture. It is an image that impressively meets the challenge of the high drama.
Perhaps the most winning aspect of Crumb’s Genesis is its inventive playfulness. He is keenly aware that many bizarre things happen in these stories, first in the primeval history because of its legendary character and then in the patriarchal narrative because of the writers’ deep interest in what is odd, paradoxical, and surprising in human behavior and in divine intervention. It is fun to follow Crumb’s images. In some instances, the fun is a direct visual translation of what is conveyed in the narrative report. More often, it derives from Crumb’s play with the biblical text. Here are a few examples of the former category. In Chapter 23, where Abraham negotiates with Ephron the Hittite over the purchase of a burial site, Ephron at first pretends to magnanimity but then shows himself to be a rapacious bargainer in naming an extortionate price; and in the graphic representation, we see a sharp-featured Ephron watching warily and greedily as Abraham weighs out the four hundred shekels of silver in the pan of a scale. God’s resting on the seventh day of creation is shown by his sitting with his eyes closed, fatigued, his back against one of the trees of the Garden, while naked Adam and Eve in the background cuddle together in sleep. The figure of God, with flowing white hair and beard, clearly owes a good deal to Blake, and the dismayed facial expressions of Adam and Eve as they are banished from the Garden are strongly reminiscent of Masaccio’s famous painting of this scene. (Though Blake may here provide Crumb a solution of sorts, it must be said that the notion of God as an old man with a white beard is a hackneyed and highly reductive representation of the deity of Genesis, who is often presented anthropomorphically but is not restricted to a definite image.) The destruction of Sodom--especially the third of Crumb’s four panels, which shows faceless and mummy-like writhing figures, backs enveloped in flame as more fire and brimstone rain down from above--is a tour de force, combining biblical apocalypse with a comic-book science-fiction vision of worlds destroyed. The bizarreness of Pharaoh’s two dreams, prophetic of the years of plenty and of famine, is brilliantly caught by Crumb in his depiction, for the first of the dreams, of the seven "meagerfleshed" cows as savage-looking creatures cannibalistically chomping down on the flanks of the seven fat cows.
By and large, Crumb’s flights of fancy in visually elaborating the spare narrative are beguiling, and they seem to me to be a legitimate treatment of the text. Adam and Eve petting the sweet animals of the Garden is a neat little touch. The gateway to Sodom is framed by two monumental pillars on each of which is carved a winged bull--possibly, a cherub--with a horn-helmeted naked goddess (Anat?) standing on its back and a menacing gargoyle high above it. The facial expressions of Abraham and Hagar as they consummate their union are a fine interpretive invention: Abraham on top, palpably an old man, is squinting or staring straight ahead, perhaps into the future where he hopes his progeny will emerge, while the young and sensual Hagar, recumbent, her lips parted, is either giving herself to the pleasure of the moment or perhaps merely submitting to it. In a very different sex scene, when Lot’s two daughters, imagining after the devastation of Sodom that there is no man left for them on earth, get their father drunk so that he can be led to impregnate them, Crumb provides contrasting variations on the sexual act: the elder daughter is shown in the missionary position, evidently enjoying herself, while in another frame the younger daughter bestrides her besotted father, who is still clutching a wineskin, her face turned to one side in an enigmatic expression that might reflect dismay, or an inner distancing from the act, or a kind of solipsistic concentration on it.
A fine comic sense of the confounding of tongues in the Babel story is conveyed by the speech bubbles over the distraught faces of the builders of the tower: in one there are Hebrew characters; in a second, cuneiform; in a third, hieroglyphics; and in two others, forms of writing that I suspect the artist has invented. A different comic vein is visible in the representation of Rebekah complaining to Isaac about Esau’s Hittite wives: she looks altogether like a rasping Jewish mother objecting to the shiksas with whom her son has taken up. Among other engaging visual elaborations one might note Laban, waving a juicy chunk of meat as he bargains with Jacob; Leah’s little sons squabbling with one another as she holds Dinah, whose birth has just been reported in the narrative; and Jacob exerting terrific effort to roll the stone from the mouth of the well and to push different stones into place as commemorative markers; and Potiphar, having "left all that he had in Joseph’s hands," lying on a couch, feasting, while he takes in a performance of Egypt’s finest topless dancers. In a particularly delightful bit of whimsy, Manasseh, Joseph’s firstborn son, is shown as a naked cavorting toddler, with a little toy Egyptian chariot at his feet.
There has always been an element of wild grotesqueness in the art of R. Crumb, and there are moments in his illustrated Genesis when one is not entirely sure whether this wildness has the effect of drolly playing with the text or of running at cross-purposes with it. For the verse "Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh," Crumb shows a naked Adam and Eve frolicking together in the grass, but with bared teeth and popping eyes that would seem to express something closer to craziness than to erotic rapture. This is, of course, one of Crumb’s trademark looks, and its appearance here may reflect the limitations of his emotional means. When Abraham entering Egypt says, "I know that my wife is beautiful to behold," the image of the heavy-set and coarse-featured Sarah may make us think twice about the accuracy of this judgment, though of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I would guess that the graphic image might actually correspond to the artist’s feminine ideal.
The fifty chapters of Genesis exhibit a broad spectrum of narrative situations, and the visual art is not equally interesting in all of them. Jacob’s enduring passion for Rachel--"Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed in his eyes but a few days because of his love for her"--is one of the great love stories of ancient literature, but Jacob’s facial expressions here, and the images of Jacob and Rachel together, do not seem adequate to the emotional depths of the story. One of the most remarkable moments in Genesis occurs near the end, when the 130-year-old Jacob, asked about his age by Pharaoh, lugubriously intones, "Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of my fathers in their days of sojourning." There is resonant complexity in this piece of dialogue. The ancient Jacob extravagantly overstates the paucity of his days, though conceivably he might have in mind his grandfather, who reportedly lived to the age of 175. He would seem equally to overstate the "evil" of his days, but his words also make us recognize that he is a man who has achieved all he wanted--birthright, blessing, sons, material abundance, marriage to his great love--at the terrible cost of losing Rachel and seeming to lose Joseph, and reduced from a position of power to being the helpless victim and dupe of his fierce sons. Such a tragic figure, with his haunting paradoxes, requires Rembrandt or Tintoretto. Crumb’s picture of a bearded Jacob with troubled or brooding eyes does not do the trick.
Mystery is another experience that is not especially amenable to Crumb’s style. In the breathtakingly terse and disturbing story of the Binding of Isaac, the agonizing contradictions of the narrative are conveyed here chiefly through Abraham’s eyes, which are repeatedly averted from Isaac and stare straight ahead, bleakly or despairingly. This is an earnest attempt to render the emotional tension of this difficult story; but the power of the text seems diminished, not enhanced or illuminated, by these images. In the representation of the covenant enacted over the cloven animal parts in Genesis 15, Crumb tries to get something of the looming twilight mystery of the episode by drawing Abraham in the foreground, with a kind of shimmering bearded Blakean God addressing him from the background; but I think the unadorned words of the text are more effective than the images in evoking this portentous moment. Jacob’s wrestling through the night with the anonymous stranger who will give him a new name is one of the most hauntingly obscure episodes in Genesis, but Crumb’s comics reduces it to two bearded guys in need of a haircut grappling with each other. This is one of those moments when one feels like dispensing with his images altogether.
Such moments expose the limits of the artist’s range, but the book as a whole offers many pleasures in the vigor and the wit of its visual imagination, and there are even some exegetical insights in the way the reticences of the spare narrative are fleshed out visually. Of the first of Tamar’s doomed husbands, all we are told is, "And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the eyes of the Lord." Under these words, Crumb offers an image of a sinister-looking figure thrusting a dagger into an old man’s belly as he seizes his victim’s money bag. The next set of words in the biblical text is "And the Lord put him to death," which is matched with a frame in which we see Er lying on his back in a pool of blood with his throat slit while his killer stealthily leaves the scene, a dagger in his right hand and the money bag in his left. (This may be reminiscent of Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera.) In this naturalist reading, divine retribution is unleashed through human agency.
Most interestingly, when Dinah is led out by her brothers from the house of Shechem, the man who raped her, after they have massacred all the males of the town, Crumb shows her weeping, her feet dragging reluctantly as one of her brothers pulls her by the hand. This is by no means an inevitable reading of the story, but it is certainly a stimulating one. Shechem, after all, falls in love with Dinah after the rape; and only now, at the very end of the story, do we learn that ever since the rape she has been in Shechem’s house--perhaps, as some interpreters imagine, in captivity, but perhaps, as Crumb suggests, of her own free will, because her feelings have been touched by the loving devotion of the man whose desire for her first expressed itself in an act of sexual aggression.
This illustrated Genesis raises a larger question about the narrative medium, about the difference between words and images--a question that is not dependent on the nature of R. Crumb’s gifts as an artist. Western art is of course rich in paintings that represent specific scenes from the Bible, and many of the stories in Genesis have attracted many painters. The banishment from the Garden, the binding of Isaac, the wooing of Rebekah, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, Jacob blessing Ephraim and Manasseh: these have all been the subject of memorable and even great paintings. But all paintings isolate particular moments in the narrative for pictorial representation. They do not portray the whole tale, but only that part of the tale that has for some reason engaged them. And they do not tell, they show.
Crumb’s project is different in kind, because the artist’s images, as in a graphic novel, are integral to the narrative, inviting us to see word and image as inseparable partners in the telling of the tale. There are some distinct advantages to this procedure, but there are inescapable disadvantages as well. A visual representation of a character or an event is inevitably a specification. When we see Er as a cutthroat who gets his own throat cut, the meaning of "was evil in the eyes of the Lord" and the mechanism of "the Lord put him to death" are strongly stipulated, and other possible meanings are closed off. This foreclosure of ambiguity or of multiple meanings is intrinsic to the graphic narrative medium, and hence is pervasive in the illustrated text.
As a prelude to the Flood story, to illustrate the moment when God sees that "the wickedness of the human creature was great on the earth," Crumb is obliged to provide an image, and he gives us a forceful one, in a panoramic panel that spans the width of the page, of armor-clad warriors (including a female one!) stabbing and stomping on naked victims while two royal figures watch complacently from the left edge of the frame. Well, why not? But this strong depiction necessarily excludes theft, economic exploitation, perversion of the judicial system, acts of sexual degradation, and many other possibilities of man’s fecund inhumanity to man that are opened up by the stark generality of "wickedness great on the earth." The image concretizes, and thereby constrains, our imagination.
Let me cite a sexual case, because as a rule Crumb is so keenly imaginative in representing sexual situations. One of the most famously enigmatic moments in Genesis comes when Noah has drunk himself into a stupor in the aftermath of the Flood and "exposed himself within the tent. And Ham the father of Canaan saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside." Exegetes for two thousand years have been trying to make out exactly what transpired between father and son. The most innocent reading, which is the one that Crumb chooses to follow, is that Ham simply saw his father exposed, thus violating what those who adopt this view assume was a grave taboo in Israelite society. This reading may well be right, though the report that when Noah wakes from his wine "he knew what his youngest son had done to him" might suggest that an act more palpable than mere seeing was perpetrated. Some interpreters in late antiquity, encouraged by these words and probably thinking of the Zeus-Chronos myth, imagined that Ham castrated his father, though this notion has always seemed to me rather unlikely.
One cannot dismiss the linguistic fact that to see someone’s nakedness is a recurrent biblical idiom for incest. In the pointedly parallel story of Lot’s daughters, which also occurs after a sweeping cataclysm--the first time the flood, the fire next time, in the words of the Negro spiritual--there is another drunken father, and he is explicitly the object of a consummated incestuous impulse on the part of his offspring. None of this, of course, is conclusive evidence of what Ham actually did to his father; but the deep interest of the story derives precisely from the nimbus of ambiguity that is generated by its extremely laconic formulation. Perhaps the writer or editor felt that this mythic material was too hot to handle except through the most reticent ellipsis. (A similar dynamic seems to be at work in the cryptic story of the sons of God coupling with the daughters of man.) My own preference as a reader is to relish the shimmer of murky possibilities, including the more lurid ones, even if I am left without a concrete or confident picture of what actually happened. Pictorial representation forces you to decide one way--which, however appealing or plausible that way may be, imposes a limit on the story told in words.
This disparity between how words and pictures work as narrative vehicles is by no means limited to the Bible. Imagine for a moment an illustrated version of Anna Karenina or The Charterhouse of Parma, in which there would be one or more graphic frame for every sentence of the novel. An artist with Crumb’s inventive energy might provide many pleasures along the way, but what is enabled in the novel through words--the deft slide in and out of the point of view of the characters, the subtle play of irony, the nice discriminations of the narrator’s analytic observations--would inevitably be flattened in the pictorial representation.
Biblical narrative, unlike the novel, does not use minute specification, but its very concision elevates ambiguity to a fine literary art. "And Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game. But Rebekah loved Jacob." The odd imbalance of this sentence invites us to ponder its implications, as the matching images in the graphic version do not. The material cause for Isaac’s favoring Esau is peculiar, perhaps raising questions about the soundness of the old man’s judgment. Rebekah’s favoritism, on the other hand, is given no explanation, leading us, as so often happens with biblical characters, to speculate about motives. Is she fond of Jacob because he is the sedentary and--as we learn later--emotional son? Does she admire the quality of shrewdness she may perceive in him? Could she have some intuitive maternal sense that he is the one worthy of the birthright? Might she simply prefer smooth-skinned boys to hairy ones? This sort of hovering among possibilities is an essential element of the richness of biblical narrative.
A quasi-novelistic interest in the workings of consciousness, moreover, is often manifested in biblical narrative in its brief interior monologues, in the narrator’s report of inner states, and in the jumps from narration to dialogue, and this is another dimension of experience that does not fare well in graphic representation. When Joseph as regent of Egypt beholds his brothers prostrate before him, that sight triggers in him the memory of his double dream of predominance over them: "And Joseph remembered the dreams he had dreamed about them, and he said to them, 'You’re spies! You’ve come to see the land’s nakedness!'" The image of Joseph with a speech bubble filled with hieroglyphics over his head standing next to the interpreter scarcely does justice to the way the verbal narrative shows Joseph’s mind leaping back to a crucial moment in his adolescence, nor to how that recollection sets off an explosive accusation--is it a spontaneous outburst of anger over remembered injustice or the beginning of a calculated scheme to torment his brothers into recognizing their guilt? The accusation, one should note, is couched in language that, with the family matrix still compelling consciousness, carries an intimation of incestuous violation (and it may be relevant that the firstborn brother Reuben has in fact slept with his father’s concubine). At this point in the story, moreover, the narrator has not yet informed us of the presence of an interpreter, and the immediacy of Joseph’s accusatory dialogue, felt as though he were speaking to his brothers in their native Hebrew, is extremely important for the psychological power of the moment. In this instance, the graphic representation actually deflects us from the complexity of the encounter.
Crumb’s Genesis is a bold undertaking, and most readers will be grateful for the many delights afforded by its visual inventiveness. But every artistic medium takes advantage of its own resources, and these ancient Hebrew stories use the resonance and the reticence of well-chosen words to proliferate possibilities of meaning, and to create access to the inner zone of human experience in multifarious ways. They cannot be pinned down, which is one of the sources of their power and their beauty.
Robert Alter’s new book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, will be published by Princeton University Press in February