Monday, February 26, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Part Seven

After being in the forefront for the massive length of "Church & State," religion retreats into the background in "Jaka's Story," although it's not completely missing. We have Oscar's arch comments in the "Jaka's Story" within "Jaka's Story" (aka "Daughter of Palnu"), and of course we have some pro forma Cirinist dogma from Mrs. Thatcher at the end -- although Cirinism is present in the story primarily as a governmental rather than a religious force, with the religion underpinning the government even further in the background than in "High Society."

However, the whole plot ends up turning on an incident featuring the most incendiary religious topic of our time: abortion.

When we last saw Jaka, after Red Sophia left and Cerebus told Bear to go get her, she was married, and she was going to have a baby. "I won't tell you that I love him," she told Cerebus, "He's good to me . . . I can rely on him . . . "

(We'll explore that thought in a moment)

"You don't love him, Jaka," insists Cerebus, "You love Cerebus and you know you do . . . "

"You may be right," she admits into her hands, which cover her face as she huddles up into herself. "It doesn't matter. It can't matter."

And the reason it doesn't matter is that she's pregnant.

"I didn't want a family this soon," she says. "We need the money I make in the tavern. It's going to be difficult."

Cerebus says that she's afraid, and she agrees. A blank panel follows, and then, a poignant little almost-funny throwaway scene that's full of pathos, but on rereading has an ominous tone:

Do you know what I'm most afraid of? The one thing I'm most afraid of . . . is that having a baby will make me ugly . . . and I won't be able to dance for a living anymore. Isn't that silly? Isn't that the funniest . . .

She stops, dissolving into tears, so of course it's not really "funny," in the sense of humorous. It's considerably less funny in retrospect, knowing that not long after this conversation she went out and had an abortion, precisely because of the insecurity on display here.

The first we hear about the abortion is a repetition of the lie Jaka has already told Rick, told now to Cerebus just after their reunion.

CEREBUS: Where's your baby?

(three silent panels)

JAKA: Do you know what a miscarriage is?


But of course, it wasn't a miscarriage -- or rather, it was -- the medical term for a miscarriage is, after all, "abortion," the only difference being that what we usually use that word for is an *induced* abortion. We don't see Jaka's explanation to Cerebus, because the scene cuts away, but this exchange takes place on page 49.

(A parenthetical insertion that has nothing to do with religion: this is another example of Dave's deliberate ambiguity regarding the passage of time. Cerebus was apparently on the moon for a fairly short time, and a "Note From the President" says that at the beginning of "Jaka's Story" a fortnight has passed since Cerebus and Jaka saw each other in the hotel on the side of the mountain. Yet many have pointed out that it seems more like a year has passed -- Jaka's hair is much longer for instance. And surely Cerebus wouldn't expect a woman who was not even visibly showing signs of pregnancy two weeks ago to have given birth already).

There is a subtle reference to the real reason for the abortion even earlier, in the parallel "Jaka's Story" (aka "Daughter of Palnu") that is being written by Oscar -- though we don't discover that for some time -- describing Jaka's upbringing as a young girl in Lord Julius' household. It involves Jaka's fantasies while riding on the mechanical horse, which she calls "Magic," imagining herself riding into the City Coliseum to wild acclaim, and her relationship with her doll, Missy.

It was never quite clear, in the Pageant Game, what it was that Jaka had done to merit the thunderous ovation that greeted her arrival at the stadium. But thunderous it was (without exception) and reserved for her alone: a solitary and noble rider, nodding first left and then right in stately and imperial fashion, acknowledging her tumultuous greeting (which greeting included her own Missy, face bright with adoration, slightly to the left and rear of the reviewing stand).

Jaka had once asked Nurse, in hopes of adding a certain authenticity to the Pageant Game, if Pageants were ever held to hornor little girls as they were held to honour war heroes and adventurers. Nurse had replied (most emphatically) that it was the duty of little girls to clean their plates so they grow up to be strong and healthy mothers and have many strong and healthy babies . . . and there were no Pageants to honour *that*, make no mistake, and there never *would* be.

Thus enlighted, Jaka had briefly considered that she was being honoured for having given birth to the strongest and healthiest baby of all time: Missy. Despite her best efforts to incorporate this new element, it became obvious that if Missy were, indeed, the strongest and healthiest baby of all time, well, it would only stand to reason that the strongest and healthiest baby of all time would *not* be at the left and slightly to the rear of the reviewing stand but *might*, rather, be something of an object of adoration herself.

Which led Jaka briefly (very briefly) to visualize herself seated on the reviewing stand while Missy rode Magic triumphantly before her, nodding in stately fashion as Jaka cheered herself hoarse, in concert with the hysterical throng.

Bad Missy.

Bad Missy indeed. Jaka needs to be the center of attention. She cannot contemplate having a child who receives the acclaim that is rightly hers. This is of course a very young Jaka (not yet five), moreover it is revealed to be a fictional Jaka on several layers of metafiction, derived from her selective memories, strained through whatever protective coloring they have been relayed to Rick, then based on which of these memories Rick told Oscar, and how accurately or not he may have relayed them, and finally what has been selected by Oscar for his own artistic purposes and how he may have arranged or even altered them.

Still, given the whole thrust of the book, it is difficult to escape looking at this passage in retrospect as representing the deep reason for Jaka's actions that she won't admit even to herself.

He's just so . . . so . . . impractical sometimes. Thinking we can life forever on three copper bits a day . . . and have a baby. I try explaining to him how much it costs to raise a child . . . food . . . clothing . . . schooling. And all he can talk about is buying the baby a horse. We live in an apartment on the side of a mountain. Where would we keep it? I ask him. What would we feed it? I ask him. "I'll figure something out" He always says that. "I'll figure something out." But he never does. It's just his way of ignoring the truth. That we're poor. We've always been poor and we always will be poor. Always."

This is Jaka, on pp. 202-203, finding her own way to ignore the truth -- for instance, that she's a Princess of Palnu and hasn't "always" been poor and is poor now by choice and could change that circumstance any time she likes. And of course, that although her critique of her husband's obliviousness to reality is quite valid, it is not, in the long run, the real reason why she had her abortion.

Jaka deals with inconvenient truths by simply ignoring them. When Mrs. Thatcher tells her that she's responsible for the death of Pud Withers, she broods on it and on their next meeting, the first thing out of her mouth is a demand to know why she said that. Thiis conversation ensues on pp. 436-440:

MRS. THATCHER: You KNEW dancing in taverns was illegal AND you KNEW that to EMPLOY a dancer was against the law as WELL.

JAKA: "Against the law! Yes -- but I didn't know you were going to kill him.

MRS. THATCHER: Now you know that's not true, my dear. You were QUITE well aware that employing a dancer WAS and IS a capital offense. WEREN'T you.

(silent panel of Jaka refusing to answer)

MRS. THATCHER: COME now, Mrs. Nash. We are ALways FAR better served by the TRUTH than were are by LIES . . . AREN'T we.

JAKA: I'm NOT lying.

(several panels of Mrs. Thatcher flipping through her book)

MRS. THATCHER: Ah. "Interview . . . Mr. Michael Cave, owner and proprietor, the Dog and Thrush Tavern." YOU remember Mr. Cave, DON'T you, Mrs. Nash. Mmm? "I told her she was always good for my business, but things were different now with the new laws! I told her I couldn't hire her and I told her she'd have to leave the premises -- I SAID TO HER . . . ! THEY'D SHOOT ME DEAD AS A DOG IF THE EVEN SAW YOU STANDING IN HERE"

MRS. THATCHER (cont.): The interviewer asks Mr. Cave to characterize your response. Mr. Cave replies "Se said she understood. She said she was sorry. And then she left."

We will see Jaka's ability to simply put inconvenient truths out of her mind entirely again in "Going Home."

This is what she has done with the abortion. When she talks about it with Cerebus, she's probably practically convinced herself that it *was* a miscarriage. And certainly she has convinced herself that the *only* reason for it was the impracticality of having a child at this particular moment in her life, that she and Rick need to take some time and settle into more stability first -- Rick needs to get a job first, for one thing. But that isn't the real reason. The real reason is hammered at us over and over, yet most readers, being more than half in love with Jaka themselves, refuse to see it, sharing Jaka's own attitude toward inconvenient truths (I know I was this way for years until my eyes were opened in the Yahoo Cerebus discussion group by rainmandu). Here's another example, from pp. 216-218:

JAKA: Pud . . . am I ugly?

PUD: What?


PUD: Why . . . Why NO, Miss Jaka

JAKA: I feel so ugly . . . so . . . ordinary

JAKA (cont.): It used to be . . . all I had to do was start getting ready for work . . . and I was Jaka! Not "Mrs. Nash." JAKA! With an exclamation mark . . .

JAKA (cont.): Now. Now I'm Mrs. Nash. ALL the time.

Jaka needs to me "Jaka!" with an exclamation mark. She is not happy being Mrs. Nash. She would be even less happy being Richard Jr.'s mother.

And that is why she had the abortion. And for all the talk about rape and incest and the like, the fact is that most of the abortions that take place in the U.S. are more like Jaka's than they are like the one that was denied Norma McCovey.

That's not to say that she didn't have other reasons, or that it might not have been, in the long run, the wisest decision. Rick was insufferably unrealistic and demonstrates a concerted laziness, as it were, almost a determination *not* to get a job that precludes any chance of him finding one. The very first day he gets up late, wears inappropriate clothes, having forgotten that it's market day and he was going to look for a job, then says that's it's really too late to find anything, but when Jaka reacts badly he does go -- but of course comes home without having found work.

The scene with Oscar on pp. 196-199 where his desire for a son and a horse come up ends with a repetition of this theme, and is a perfect demonstration of why Rick is a poor candidate for fatherhood:

OSCAR: And that's your heart's fondest desire? That's it . . . a son.

RICK: I close my eyes and I can see him. Literally see him . . . just as if he was standing right there. And he isn't a skinny runt like me, either.


RICK: Heck no . . . He's a fighter! Tough as nails. I'm going to give him a foal when he turns ten years old. Ask me why I'm going to give him a foal when he turns ten years old . . .

OSCAR: Tell me, Richard. Why are you going to give your son a foal when he turns ten years old?

RICK: Every morning he's going to lift that foal over his head! Every morning.! For three years. So by the time he turns thirteen, he'll be able to lift a full grown horse over his head. That'swhy I'm going to give him a foal when he turns ten years old.

OSCAR: What a perfectly charming notion.

RICK: Of course, Jaka wanted . . . wants a little girl.

OSCAR: Mm. I have a publisher with the same preference.

RICK: Like I told her, first a son. Thenshe can have all the little girls she . . .

JAKA (offstage): Rick.

(Rick looks at Jaka in the door of their apartment)


(shot of Rick and Oscar)


(shot of Jaka in doorway)

RICK: (sigh)

(Rick goes over to Jaka. They talk -- argue really, though we don't "hear" any of the dialogue. A shot of Oscar observing the argument is interposed, then Jaka goes back inside, slamming the door. Rick returns to Oscar and begins putting his shirt back on.)

RICK: I can't help you paint any more today, Osar. It's Market Day. I have to look for a JOB.

OSCAR: Quel dommage, dear boy.

The anger on Rick's face over the fact that Jaka has (almost certainly) reminded him that he had already said he was going to go look for a job is eloquent.

So Rick is every bit as good at fooling himself as Jaka is. And he's *not* really father material.

Of course, we know that after being removed from Jaka, without the enabling of having her "income" to support him (the tight little economy of that hillside, with its endlessly circulating three copper bits, is another whole story in itself), Rick *did* find work, and even managed to bulk himself up. Perhaps if the baby had been born it would have forced him to mature, as babies so often do to their parents.

But we will never know. Jaka made her decision, a decision that she not only gave Rick no input into, but hid from him. She didn't just kill her baby, she killed his baby too, and he didn't even know until Mrs. Thatcher told him. Even most of us who think she should have had the right to make that decision think there's something wrong with that.

There's no simple "Jaka is evil because she murdered her baby" or "Rick is evil for hitting Jaka after finding out about the abortion" presented here, although both people do suffer negative consequences for those actions. Dave hadn't found religion yet, and didn't yet think abortion was a "sin" or "against God's will" or anything like that. But the seeds are sown here for the disenchantment with Jaka that Dave hopes his readers will have by the end of "Going Home." Jaka *is* shallow. Jaka *is* spoiled, if not in the obvious traditional way of needing and expecting lots of expensive material possessions. It is not material things that Jaka craves, but attention. She has to be "Jaka!" With an exclamation point. People have to notice when she comes into the room.

Not necessarily a terrible thing. Many people have far worse personality flaws. And yet, this one is responsible for the death of a child.