In Caro’s recent post she argues that Asterios Polyp fails to deliver a kind of literary complexity.

The result is the reiteration – on the level of performance if not assertion – of a hierarchical division between “the literary” and the “graphical”: a dichotomy that is aggressive and dismissive in precisely the same way as Asterios’ treatment of Hana. It is completely uninformed about how literary fiction works. It creates a destructive incoherence at the center of the book.

I’ve probably bashed Asterios Polyp enough for one lifetime at this point. But I thought it might be interesting to look at a couple of examples of works that I think demonstrate the kind of literariness Caro is looking for.

I’ve been rereading Wallace Stevens recently, and I’m quite taken with this poem, the first in his first collection:

Earthy Anecdote
Every time the bucks went clattering
Over Oklahoma
A firecat bristled in the way.

Wherever they went,
They went clattering,
Until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the right,
Because of the firecat.

Or until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the left,
Because of the firecat.

The bucks clattered.
The firecat went leaping,
To the right, to the left,
Bristled in the way.

Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes
And slept.

As with a lot of Stevens’ poetry, nobody seems all that certain what the fuck this means. I’ve seen various efforts to parse it as some sort of allegory (the firecat means “change” was one particularly painful example.) But none of them are very convincing. Even the relation of title to poem seems maddeningly obscure. How is this earthy? Is there some sort of bizarre sexual double entendre known only to Stevens? That seems fairly unlikely — and yet, no other explanation presents itself.

The confusion here is, I think, on one hand simply a result of looking too deeply, or of coming at the poem from the wrong perspective. A lot of Stevens’ writing seems to me to be inspired not by abstruse epistemological theories or Romanticism, but by children’s poetry. “Earthy Anecdote” makes most sense if read not as allegory or complicated symbol, but as nonsense verse. Dr. Seuss’ battling tweetle beetles aren’t symbols of the futility of martial endeavor. They’re just goofy fun for kids. Similarly, the clattering bucks and the firecat are entertaining images. It’s fun to say “bucks went clattering over Oklahoma.” (Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait.)

At the same time…Stevens was also, and undoubtedly, inspired by abstruse epistemology and Romanticism. And he was writing verse for adults, not kids. Starting his first volume of poetry off with a bit of extravagant silliness is a fairly dramatic line in the sand — even if the line is curved. It’s a certain kind of statement; an elliptical declaration of love for the earthy, clattering bucks rushing about in glorious, purposeless panic — metaphors in frantic search for a meaning. In that vein, perhaps you can see the firecat as Stevens himself, leaping here and there to goad his images (and perhaps his readers) into a lather, before closing his bright eyes in self-satisfied pleasure. Or, alternately, Stevens might be the bucks, thrashing this way and that in an effort to avoid a meaning which is always leaping to thwart them — and which, in lazy triumph, curls around the poem at the end despite every horse’s best efforts.

None of these explanations are “right”, I don’t think. Rather, the point of the poem is the pleasurable possibilities of the point of the poem. That’s how the modernist puzzle works; the poem is playing with its own interpretation. Form and content (buck and firecat?) aren’t separated, or even separable; the content of the poem is its own metaphors. The reader doesn’t so much understand the poem, as shuttle about inside it. It’s a joke where the punchline is that the form of the joke is the punchline.

There are not a ton of comics that play these kinds of shell games with meaning, form, and content. But one example that does spring to mind for me is Yuichi Yokoyama’s Travel. In my review on Comixology I wrote:

Yokoyama had wrong-footed me. I was looking for realism, and so I found the epistemological uncertainty frustrating. But the book isn’t realism — or not exactly. It’s pomo; Yokoyama’s tongue is in his cheek the entire time. Take the scene of ducks flying over the plane as hunters shoot at them. The footnote points out that the hunters all miss, and indeed, you can see the ducks traveling in a perfect V, not even disturbed by the shells exploding in pristine, regimented bursts all around them. The demands of narrative (somebody shoots, somebody hits) are sacrificed, with a wink, to the exigencies of layout. It’s as if the hunters and the ducks are not adversaries at all, but part of some single great mechanism, controlled by one guiding hand. As, of course, they are.

In Travel, as in Stevens, the sleight-of-hand manipulation of the tropes of the medium, the formal elements of the work, are themselves the content. As a result, modernist works like this are like two facing mirrors; absolutely flat surfaces leading into infinite depths.

I’m not saying that this is the only kind of worthwhile art by any means. I don’t want all art to be playful modernist puzzles anymore than I want all art to be slasher films or shojo. Still, Stevens and Yokoyama are great, and I wouldn’t at all mind seeing more comics that followed in their hoofprints.

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