Thursday, September 23, 2010

The One-Panel Critics: The Peril of Art

That's a little envelope doodle that appeared in my mailbox this week from New Zealand. Dylan Horrocks has a new minicomic!

You can order your copy using this link (and Paypal).

It's a "conversation jam," similar to those Kochalka/Thompson and Kochalka / Brown conversations that Top Shelf published, between Horrocks and the writer Emily Perkins. In their conversation, Horrocks and Perkins start with the question of why we write stories, and the talk drifts pretty quickly to Horrocks's anxieties about whether fiction (or any story) can really tell the truth about living.

"We're still in thrall to narrative unity ... resolution and catharsis," Perkins says. "Maybe the lie is not in metaphor but in structure."

Horrocks replies:

I'd argue that metaphor and structure don't need to be easy or simple, but I can see why Horrocks has some anxiety about this.

It's is actually a topic we've been discussing in my graphic-novel course, relative to Maus and the implicit structures of memoir: from the perspective of Rego Park, it's easy to construe Vladek's survival as a story of resourcefulness, smart decisions, necessary ruthlessness and scrupulous generosity. But while those events are being lived, there's no way to assess their value or their wisdom: Vladek could have made the same decisions, or other decisions on the same principles, and not have survived after all. It's only the post-facto construction of a story (or the opportunity to reflect and construct such a story) that makes Vladek heroic.

And there are elements in the logic of such a story that deceive, in some fundamental way, about lived experience. In the case of Maus, Vladek's story might seem to imply something about the capability of a wily and resourceful person to survive the Holocaust; this would in turn imply that the millions of victims had failed, in some way, to rise to heroic levels of self-preservation. Objectively, we'd never say that about the Holocaust victims, but something about the nature of narrative implies it anyway, contrary to anything we (or Spiegelman) would want to believe.

(Did I just run afoul of Godwin's law?)

It isn't merely that reality has too many details to fit into a comics panel, or that too many events take place for a memoirist to represent them all. The problem isn't simply one of completeness. It's that the structures of literature (and, as some might argue, even the structures of memory) necessarily distort reality, and in ways that we should probably find alarming: not distortions of fact, but distortions of the value of facts; structures and analogies of meaning.

Of course, maybe we could argue that until these distorting structures of narrative, analogy, and value are used on the materials of experience, there's no way to assess meaning at all. "We [tell] [stories] lest we perish from [inconsequentiality]; we [create] [structure] lest we perish from [chaos]."

Or something like that.

Thanks for the thought-provoking mini, Dylan. (And for the envelope doodles!) Everyone else, why not order a copy? It's smart stuff.

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