(or the HU Bande Dessinée Roundtable Part 1)
(or Noah wrote it and Kinukitty meowed in approval, so don’t ask me what the title means.)
This is the first entry in the Hooded Utilitarian BD Roundtable. Vom Marlowe, Derik Badman, Kinukitty and Noah will be along later in the week with their own articles on various European comics.
I wrote the following article in the early 90s. It has never been published and the yellowing manuscript has been sitting in a dark closet for the last two decades.
The first third of the article is presented below (with some editing). The latter parts of the article concern two other books in the series namely, Fever in Ubricand and The Tower. Both of these are far superior to The Great Wall of Samaris and show off Benoît Peeters’ and François Schuiten’s abilities to a much greater extent. Anyone who has the slightest interest in European comics owes it to themselves to check them out if they haven’t already.
Second hand copies of The Great Walls of Samaris go for about $40 to $100 at on-line second hand book retailers. NBM has been publishing the albums in the series at a slow pace. I suspect that they aren’t big sellers for them as they’ve never been reprinted. Still, they are to be congratulated for printing and translating them at all. The latest books in the series to be translated are Brusel and The Invisible Frontier Volumes 1 and 2 both of which are still in print.
François Schuiten received the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême in 2002.
Philosophical Cities (Part 1): The Great Walls of Samaris
The English speaking world was introduced to the comics of the Belgian artist, François Schuiten, nearly 30 years ago. His first album, Aux médianes de Cymbiola (Heavy Metal 1981-82; created with Claude Renard) was done as a sort of graduation piece from Saint-Luc. His short stories have been published in the pages of Pilote and Metal Hurlant, among them the acclaimed Carapaces. It is, however, upon his more recent work on Les Cités Obscures (co-authored with writer Benoît Peeters) that his fame rests.
Parables are designed to simplify, persuade and to communicate spiritual truths. To a certain extent, the stories in Les Cités Obscures seek to do just that. These albums represent intriguing introductions to a world of ideas and are sparkling illustrations of basic philosophical tenets. The architectural motifs which can be found throughout the series are not merely functional but highly expressive of the societies which produced them. The architectural content of the buildings illuminate the personalities of the people who inhabit them and provide valuable clues as to the meaning of these tales.
Les Murailles De Samaris (The Great Walls of Samaris, English edition published by NBM in 1987) is the first album in the series and like the other albums, it is steeped in allegory.
It concerns the latest exploratory mission from the city of Xhystos to the enigmatic city of Samaris. Xhystos is an Art Nouveau fantasy with twisting, organic architectural forms and heavy ornamentation: a lounge seems to suggest a tribute to Victor Horta’s Hotel van Eetvelde; buildings are framed by metal girders and stanchions bent into shapes reminiscent of Hector Guimard’s Metro entrances.
Indeed Schuiten’s sensibilities permeate the entire album with Art Nouveau furniture, floor patterns and book covers. The city, however, is monstrously huge and impersonal; overcrowded but underpopulated. “Stifling” is the way one citizen descirbes it. The flamboyance and complexity of the buildings embody the values of its inhabitants who, while aesthetically astute, appear superficial and careless.
At the story’s start, the protagonist, Franz, is invited to undertake a mission to Samaris to dispel the fears and questions which are circulating among the citizens of Xhystos about the city. He accepts but his reasons for doing so are a mystery even to himself. His overwhelming fascination with Samaris belies a surface attraction for wealth and position. Though rejected by friends because of the dangerous nature of his mission, his mind is filled only with the promise of the unknown.
Franz reaches the strange and bewitching city after a journey across vast wastelands via train, altiplane and boat. His observations concerning the city and its inhabitants provide a wealth of useful information for readers interested in unraveling the conundrum the authors have set before them. For one, Samaris sports elements of the Romanesque, Classicism, Neo-Classicism and Art Nouveau. As Franz describes:
“Many different architectural styles seemed to merge together, as if the city had conserved traces of all the civilizations she had sheltered.”
Samaris is shrouded in mystery: a constant humming pervades the entire city; walls lie behind open windows; secret alleys open up in unexpected places and familiar buildings with similar details appear along unexplored paths. Her inhabitants wander aimlessly through the streets following routines which are never departed from. By his own account, Franz’s faculties are similarly dulled as soon as he enters the city. A woman named, Carla, who he meets everyday at the same time and the same place bears a striking resemblance to Anna’s sister, Clara, who has been presumed lost on a previous mission to Samaris. Yet Franz fails to recognize her and has absolutely no idea why they meet at all. Their conversations are at once banal, strained and repetitive.
This last point proves useful in deciphering the theme of Peeters’ and Schuiten’s tale for it seems to be a direct reference to what Martin Heidegger called “idle talk”. Arne D. Naess describes it as a situation in which:
“… talker and listener do not stand in any genuine personal relation or in any intimate relation to what is talked about…”
Gradually, Franz comes to “look and act” like all the other “lethargic wanderers” of Samaris. He pursues his mission with all the zeal of a sloth and becomes increasingly disenchanted with his discoveries. This reflects what Heidegger called “curiosity” which is described by Naess as:
“… a form of distraction, a need for the “new”, a need for something “different”, without real interest or capability of wonder.”
Realizing this and rousing himself by an act of will, Franz decides to leave the city with Carla. The violent scene that ensues when she refuses to comply reinvigorates him and leads to a renewed determination to find out the inner workings of Samaris.
What he discovers is at once shocking and horrifying – a rude awakening from a lifetime’s slumber and a revelation which brings new meaning to all his future dealings. For behind Samaris is a vast labyrinthine complex where the streets circulate according to his needs and where buildings are mere facades. Her inhabitants are two dimensional cut-outs committed to sustaining an illusion solely for him. The city represents a world of lies and alienation; a deterministic society as depicted by a clockwork town.
With this penultimate revelation, an echo of Søren Kierkegaard’s “three spheres of existence” or “stages in life’s way” may be perceived. The first is an aesthetic stage (Xhystos’s Art Nouveau) where one lives “for the moment” and develops one’s skills. It is a life symbolized by the casual love affair which ends in despair (a situation which Franz has found himself in). The next stage is characterized by an ethical life where one shows commitment and duty (the routine existence and comparatively sober architecture of Samaris) which results in the recognition of one’s shortcomings. The final religious stage is left undepicted but not without reason.
At the centre of Samaris, Franz discovers an ancient tome filled with images of the “sprawling” Drosera, a carnivorous plant upon which Samaris has been based. Here is a metaphor within a metaphor, the interpretation of which becomes clear only with the demystification of the rest of the author’s imagery.
Franz escapes from Samaris but returns only to social and political rejection in the city of Xhystos. The pattern of existence within that city no longer holds its charms for him. His friends and lover have never existed and in a final revelation he discovers that the citizens of Xhystos are little better than those of Samaris, puppets controlled from without by some impersonal force. The story ends with Franz stumbling back to Samaris, “the city [he] should never have left to begin with”.
The Great Walls of Samaris paints a picture of utter hopelessness and an eternity of searching. There are no answers given to Franz’ dilemma. Certainly, Samaris does not hold the key for Franz would only be returning to superficial friends and trivial, monotonous pastimes. Samaris represents a kind of existence described by Heidegger as inauthentic and anonymous (ethical stage). It is a world where people try to hide the “nothingness” of existence or the non-reality of its possibilities behind the mask of daily concerns (Nicola Abbagnano). Heidegger saw an escape from this in a recognition and embracement of death, and through this the acceptance of “the possibility of the impossibility of existence” thus leading to the appropriation of the authentic existence (religious stage).
This authentic existence, however, remains undefined by Peeters and Schuiten. In fact, the authors have rejected all firm ideas as to what exactly constitutes this state. Hence the complete absence of all religious edifices and acceptable alternatives in Samaris. Kierkegaard found his answer in Christianity and the acceptance of salvation through faith and not by works. A humanistic existentialist might devote himself to revolution and social change but Franz, like so many others, must continue his search.
When Franz fully comprehends the nullity of his existence in Samaris, his response is one of “dread” (“the sentiment of the possible”), a situation which leads to the apprehension of a “common destiny to which all men are subject”. His return to Samaris at the end of the story demonstrates the methodological importance and consequences of an awareness of death and its associated feeling of dread. From Abbagnano’s concise commentary on these two factors:
“…they offer to him, therefore, the possibility of remaining faithful to his destiny and of freely accepting the necessity that all men share in common. In this fidelity consists the historicity of existence, which is the repetition of tradition, the return to the possibilities from which existence had earlier been constituted, the wanting for the future what has been in the past.”
This statement becomes meaningful if one recalls the diverse architectural styles in Samaris and the quotations from the ancient tome Franz discovers at the centre of the city. In Peeters’ own words, Samaris is “free from impurities”, “will have always been and will always be” and will “seize the images” of those she has captured. She is “never changing yet always different” and her roots will always grow “further and further”.
Thus Franz’s returns to Samaris constitutes a faithfulness to the common destiny shared by all men since Samaris, as judged by her architectural content and characteristics, encapsulates the history of man. This last point in itself represents an interesting idea for it suggests that mankind’s existence has hitherto been singularly inauthentic.
Allegory is not an unfamiliar tool in the realms of existentialist thought. Kierkegaard created a series of books under various pseudonyms (embodiments of the aesthete, the ethical person and the religious person) to fully express his ideas on the three stages of life. Writers such as Albert Camus have chartered similar territory in The Rebel and The Outsider, dwelling mainly on the ultimate futility of one’s efforts, “the absurdity of existence” and the meaningless of life.
This would appear to be the message of The Great Walls of Samaris if one fails to consider the themes of the authors’ later albums…(cont’d)
Update by Noah: You can see the entire roundtable so far here.