Friday, November 24, 2006

The Concept of Redemption in Cerebus - Part Two

"What would have constituted Cerebus (the character) *redeeming* humanity?"

I said that I find the question irrelevant, but that's probably an exaggeration. While not an important buried theme underlying the entire work or anything like that, one can look at the overall plot structure as an answer to this question, as we shall see. Besides, when Larry said that "yes, he really did" want to get me started on the subject of redemption, that was the question he posed, so I would feel remiss if I ignored it altogether.

During the chess game in "Flight," Suenteus Po speaks of Cerebus being a "Reformer," and during that section also says that Bishop Posey believed in him as "the Redeemer." The first time I read this, I was completely thrown for a loop. Cerebus a reformer? Cerebus was a greedy little shit who didn't care about anyone or anything -- except possibly Jaka. He certainly didn't seem to be someone who want to reform the world.

And yet . . .

At the end of "High Society," Cerebus says to the Elf, "For a while there, Cerebus thought he could . . . make a difference."

Earlier, when Astoria explains to him the precariousness of the city's financial condition and how it's all about to collapse like a house of cards, his first impulse is to try to fix it:

ASTORIA: If you're the last one of the city before the collapse, there's a good chance of getting out with a king's ransom.

CEREBUS: No! There has to be something we can do . . . some way to keep Iest solvent.

It's true that he immediately changes his mind:

ASTORIA: You COULD donate all your future earnings to the treasury . . .

CEREBUS: On the other hand, there's no point in financing a lost cause . . .

(Dave is very, very fond of the ellipsis, I've discovered after years of transcribing dialog)

That last panel has Cerebus staring out a window, brooding. he is obviously not happy about the situation. Indeed, I'd say that his expression here (page 196 of the first printing) combined with the comment to the Elf at the end, suggest that despite his flip remark he had *not* in fact resigned himself to the collapse of Iest, and was going to try to save it.

And of course, while we might be horrified by the society the Cerebites bring about in "Latter Days," there is no doubt whatsoever that Cerebus is responsible for "re-forming" the social structure. So Suenteus Po's analysis of Cerebus' character turns out to be quite accurate. Especially if we lose our normal sense of the word "reform," in the sense of "make things better" and think of it as making things *different* -- of course the reformer will think they're better, but it may not actually be so. Hitler was a reformer.

"Reformer" and "redeemer" are not quite the same thing, of course, but there are essential similarities.

Christian culture has come to think of "redemption" in spiritual terms, and a "redeemer" as one who teaches people to live better lives, rather than one who alters their material well-being, but this has not always been the case. At the time Jesus was born, many Jews were expecting a Messiah who would "redeem" them by bringing an end to the Roman Empire -- not just freeing them from oppression, but in fact starting a New Age in which the world would be run from Jerusalem. Although transliterated into English differently, Jesus' real name was the same as that of the Old Testament's Joshua, who slaughtered the inhabitants of Jericho and went on to do the same with the rest of Canaan, conquering in the name of YHWH and providing land and wealth for his people.

In almost exactly the same way, Hitler was trying to be the redeemer of the Aryan people.

If you wanted to outline the plot of the whole 6,000 pages of Cerebus in less than 25 words, you might say: "A would-be redeemer is blocked at every turn, gives up, then years later almost by accident becomes one and changes the world." Of course it's incomplete, but it's one way to look at the story.

After failing to redeem Iest, after failing in two Ascensions to redeem humanity, after giving up entirely on the dream of being Cerebus the Redeemer or Cerebus the Conqueror (not necessarily antithetical goals, as we have seen), in "Latter Days" Cerebus "redeemed" the men of Estarcion by getting them to throw off the yoke of the Cirinists. But in the end the forces of Yoohwhoo were stronger, and his reforms languished and the New Joannists, which were different in details from the Cirinists and Kevillists, but at root driven by the same wrongness of putting women in power (I'm speaking from Cerebus' -- and Dave's -- point of view), ended up in control.

Is that a redemption story or a failed redemption story?

Of course, this is looking at the words "redeemer" and "redemption" in a decidedly different way than we usually do, saying almost nothing of spiritual matters and little or nothing about personal redemption as opposed to bringing about change on behalf of the society. It is also speaking strictly in terms of plot, the surface details of the events in the long saga of Cerebus' life.

Next time, I'll talk about Cerebus in context of the personal redemption stories of the type outlined in Part One.

The Concept of Redemption in Cerebus - Part One

First off, since Larry first brought this up, and since he originally posed it in terms of "what would have constituted Cerebus (the character) *redeeming* humanity," I want to deal with the Christian notion of redemption and why it's largely irrelevant to redemption stories even within a Christian culture. Most of this early stuff isn't going to be directly relevant to Cerebus, so please bear with me because I need to clear some ground.

Also, before I begin, I'm going to "spoil" some old movies, none less than 10 years old. Titles include The Killer, Magnificent Obsession, "Night of the Meek" (an episode of the old "Twilight Zone" show featuring Art Carney as an alcoholic department store Santa Claus) Pulp Fiction, Shane. I also mention "The Vampire Lestat" but don't spoil it, although talking about it does to some extent spoil "Interview with the Vampire."

Don't say you weren't warned.

Theologically speaking, for a Christian there is only one possible path to redemption: by the Grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Period. There is nothing you can do to redeem yourself, for anything, ever. End of story.

Unless you are perfect -- and none of us are -- you are doomed to hell, because you have committed some sins along the way, and nothing can ever undo those sins. Any good deed you do is simply what you should have done anyway, and in no way "makes up for" whatever wrong you've done. So you are doomed to hell without the divine intervention of God's son, who took on your sin and became a blood sacrifice to expiate that sin in the eyes of God.

Why the God who demanded blood sacrifice back in the days of the ancient Hebrews would change the rules and accept Christ's sacrifice in place of you killing a lamb for him, rather than just change the rules altogether and leave the blood sacrifice part out of it altogether, is something no Christian theologian has ever been able to explain to my satisfaction, but let that go. That is the Christian concept of redemption. There is one Redeemer, Jesus Christ, without whom we are all doomed.

Except that most people don't really believe that. Well, I shouldn't say that, since I can't see into their minds to see what they "believe they believe," as it were, intellectually speaking. But it's certainly true that most people don't live their lives as if they believed that, and don't respond to stories of characters redeeming themselves through their actions as if they believed it. Not just recently but for hundreds of years, our culture has been filled with stories of people who did bad things, repented, and then redeemed themselves through some heroic, selfless act, often large and self-sacrificing but sometimes quite small and ordinary. In most redemption stories the hero does, contrary to Christian theology, "earn" his redemption.

Ironically, there have fairly recently developed a rash of books and movies featuring *failed* redemption stories, which could be seen to at least implicitly support the Christian view -- a bad man tries to turn his life around, but his past catches up to him and things end tragically, often for those around him as well as himself. (Yeah, I know, that's not what "ironically" means -- but it's what most people mean when they say it, so you *do* know what I meant, so it must mean that after all).

I say ironically because these stories are usually viewed as atheistic and cynical and the result of a materialistic worldview where the universe is a hostile or at best uncaring place, rather than promoting the Christian point of view that because the hero was trying to save himself, which is from a Christian point of view impossible, he necessarily failed.

A typical example is John Woo's "The Killer," where the hitman who accidentally blinded a lounge singer takes one last contract to try to raise money for a corneal transplant for her, but everything goes wrong and he ends up being gunned down and she never gets the operation.

Contrast this with the overtly Christian "Magnificent Obsession," a 1929 novel by a minister and made into movies in 1935 (Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne) and 1954 (Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman). Rich wastrel Robert Merrick is indirectly responsible for the death of a good man, and more directly responsible for the blindness of his widow, but goes on to become a selfless doctor and a good man and even by the end manages to restore her sight -- and win her love.

If you actually pay attention to Christian theology, "The Killer" is much closer to the core message of Christianity, or at least the first half of it: you are a sinner with no hope of redemption. It's true that "The Killer" stops there and doesn't allow for redemption through Christ, either, but at least it doesn't turn Christianity on its head and essentially say, hey, you can *become* like Christ, and you don't even have to get crucified for it but be a rich and classy doctor and even get the girl! And yet, "Magnificent Obsession" is considered an overtly Christian movie.

Another common theme, particularly in American redemption stories, is the perverse notion that the hero continues doing bad things, but does them to other bad people and thus becomes a hero. The quintessential example of this kind of story is "Shane," where the former gunman desperately seeks to put his past behind him and become an ordinary farmhand, but finds his redemption in gunning down the gunslinger hired by the cattle baron to run off the small farmers. They recognize each other, and we realize that Shane was not so long ago the same kind of man as the villain. He wants to be a different kind of man altogether, but unless he fights fire with fire, the gunslinger will kill the innocent men and women Shane has allied himself with and come to love.

It's a strange kind of redemption, though, because in doing what he needs to do, he has discovered that he is not, in fact, fit to live among his fellow "good" people, and must ride off into the sunset alone at the end.

Anne Rice, after failing miserably with her second and third novels, returned to the scene of her best-selling first, but had no appetite for spending more time with Louis, the hero of "Interview with the Vampire," so she decided instead to rehabilitate the more fascinating villain, Lestat. Early on in "The Vampire Lestat," he tells us that Louis lied about him and you can't trust what Louis says and he's not nearly as bad as he appeared in that book, and his main proof is that what he *really* does is go out at night and hunt evil men. He doesn't suck the blood of young innocents, well, not very often and not to kill them. He only kills evildoers, so it's OK that he's an evildoer himself.

Now sometimes there is a more overt Christ-analogy being made, and the hero sacrifices himself to redeem the community. One could argue "Shane" is that kind of story. He has sacrificed himself not literally, but sacrificed the life he'd hoped to lead there, and he has redeemed the community in terms of saving it from the oppressive cattle baron -- at least for now.

A final note before we move on to Cerebus: some, but not all, redemption stories do at least make an implicit or oblique reference to the Christian theological notion by intervening some miraculous happening or signal of divine intervention. This is usually not in and of itself redemptive, but it in some manner allows the redemption to take place.

One example is "Night of the Meek," an episode of the old "Twilight Zone" TV show written by Rod Serling and starring Art Carney. Carney places an alcoholic department store Santa Claus who is fired on Christmas Eve for coming in drunk. Wandering around outside, still in his suit, he stumbles across a bag -- a bag that gives out any item that's asked for. Now there are a hundred ways one could devise to use such magic for oneself in a selfish manner. None of them even occur to him. Instead, he spends the episode spreading good cheer by giving gifts to people, many of whom would otherwise not have them. In the end, the bag is empty, dawn is coming, and he wishes he could do this every year, when an elf comes up and says he needs to get in the sleigh, it's time to go home . . .

Another example I've spoken of before is "Pulp Fiction," which has two redemption stories, one overt and linear of a not-so-bad man who does a bad thing but is redeemed, and the other fractured and not obvious on the surface about a very, very bad man who finds a better way to live.

Butch's story is linear -- he's told to throw the fight, he doesn't, and in fact kills a man who came into the ring expecting him to play along, goes home to get his gold watch, kills Vincent Vega, who was hiding out waiting for him, planning to kill him, runs into Marcellus Wallace, gets kidnapped by the pawn shop owner, escapes while the latter is brutallizing Wallace, and could just go, but instead goes back and saves Wallace, who agrees to let him off without retaliation for having essentially stolen money from him, so that when he rides off with his girlfriend on Zed's bike, he is scott free and without the burden of having to look over his shoulder the rest of his life.

The *real* story, though, is that of Jules, whose story differs in plot details but is essentially the same story of redemption. Perhaps because Jules has done so much more bad than Butch, however, divine intervention is necessary.

Jules and Vincent show up to retrieve the suitcase that has been stolen from Marcellus Wallace and kill the thieves. They do, but another thief hiding in the bathroom emerges and empties a gun in their direction. Not one bullet connects, and they blow him away.

Afterward, Jules and Vincent talk this over in the diner. Jules is convinced that they were saved by a miracle, that for whatever reason, an Angel or perhaps the Hand of God Himself reached down and saved them from certain death. Vincent blows him off -- perhaps because he doesn't believe that God would interest himself in saving hitmen, perhaps just because he's a cynical guy who can't believe in God. However, Jules says he is going to change his life. He's going to get out of the business of killing people and "Walk the earth, like Caine," referring to David Carradine's character in the old TV show "Kung Fu."

Because Jules has made this decision, when Pumpkin and Honeybunny rob the diner he doesn't intervene, and manages to talk them into giving him back his wallet so he can leave with dignity and not feel obligated to blow them away. And then he and Vincent go to deliver the suitcase to Marcellus Wallace, and if you put together the movie chronologically, that's the last scene with Jules in it. The Butch stuff, which appears before the diner scene but takes place afterwards, does not feature Jules. Indeed, it's clear that Marcellus Wallace is acting as Vincent's partner is watching Butch's apartment -- obviously because Jules quit and hasn't been replaced yet. So Jules goes off to "walk the earth" and become a better person, and is redeemed by recognizing the miracle he is given, and Vincent Vega, who rejects it, is gunned down by Butch with Vincent's own gun.

As with most redemptive stories, there is no hint here that the heroes are redeeming anyone but themselves. Which is why I think the question "What would have constituted Cerebus (the character) *redeeming* humanity?" is largely irrelevant.

Nonetheless, we'll deal with it next.