Friday, October 05, 2007

Religion in Cerebus - Mothers and Daughters - Part Six

There's not as much directly about religion in Women as one would suspect. Oh, certainly, there are the facing pages from extracts of the writings of Cirin and Astoria, and one would assume they are there to exhibit some of the fundamental principles of Cirinism and Kevillism, respectively. And of course they are, in a way. But they are not spiritually oriented, really. There's little talk about The Goddess here, really. There is certainly discussion of morality, in the sense of a set of rules for living one's life (making sure girls tell their mothers all about their dreams, for instance). And there is discussion of the broader legalistic aspects of morality, more properly political than religious, such as the Alcohol Sanction. But we learned more about what Astoria believed in, what she thought about her Goddess, during the brief conversation between her and Cerebus in her jail cell in Church & State than is revealed in any of the writings here.

From the opening salvo, where Astoria asserts that "The penis is an organ without scruple" and advises women to take advantage of that fact, giving herself as a demonstration of how this can be done, and Cirin on the opposite page advises tolerance with daughters and assurance that they will "grow up" when they become mothers themselves, to the final debate on the nature of The Eye in the Pyramid, there is little here that provides insight into Cirnism or Kevillism as religions, although we learn much about their general attitudes toward life.

Nonetheless, I'll be dealing with these pieces as well as the few overtly religious moments in the narrative parts of "Women," because religious or not they do provide our deepest and best insight into Dave's ideas of what Cirinism and Kevillism are.

As I say, the first item is a call for women to be ruthless and unscrupulous in their use of sex to control men, on the justification that men are controlled by the penises anyway, and that organ has no scruples. It is at once boastful and celebratory, and Astoria seems totally unaware that the avenue she has chosen to travel is not available to all women. Like many women who are both attractive and intelligent, she completely discounts her appearance as contributing in any way to her success, congratulating herself that it entirely due to her intelligence, even while describing a path that could hardly have been taken by a homely woman. Cirin's counter is to call for tolerance of bad behavior by daughters, because they will eventually grow out of such excesses once motherhood overtakes them. While the percentage of fertile women is much higher than the percentage of attractive ones, Cirin is herself ignoring the fact that extremely homely women unlikely to attract a mate and those attractive enough to do so but infertile -- a substantial chunk of women, put together -- will never experience childbirth, in any case. She refers to it as a universal condition, but it is not so. They both, in other words, universalize from their own personal experience (gee, who does that sound like?).

This is not to deny a certain amount of truth in both positions. A young, attractive woman who is willing to use sex the way Astoria describes will indeed be able to get almost anything she wants from most men. And it's true also that childbirth does something to most men and women that alters and matures them, and that this effect is more pronounced in women than it is in men.

Their next debate is about power -- Astoria, as a daughter, chafes under the control of a matriarchy, arguing that mothers are by nature conservative and overly cautious, creating a static and stagnant political system. Cirin, points out that the expendability of males causes them to love disorder and chaos, seeking to make their mark on the world, and cautions that daughters with an "irrational fear of childbirth" may engage in the same behavior.

The next debate contains what is, for me, the first false note in the proceedings. Remember that long ago Dave said that modern-day feminists were Kevillists, and of course on the central political issue of modern feminism, abortion, the Cirinists are obviously firmly on the side of the anti-feminists.

So it seems odd to find Astoria charging that the Cirinists are hypocrites when it comes to children and family:

. . . at the upper levels of Cirin's government (and, in fact, at most levels of her bureaucracy) the children of her officials are cared for by nannies and governesses until the age of five when they are unceremoniously shipped off to government-run boarding schools. Cirin's own son, Gerrkick told me that he did not spend a full day in his mother's company until he was nearly sixteen; and then it was merely to observe her working day so that he might have a fuller appreciation of the complexities of governing Upper Felda.

Leaving aside the question of why Cirin's son, who as a male could not ever hope to hold any position in a Cirinist government, would be taught the complexities of governing, there is a very real problem here, in my opinion. There is an obvious solution to the problem of governing by mothers if motherhood is itself all important -- the delaying of career until after the children are grown, or at least until they are of a certain age. It's something many women have done through the years, something Cirin almost hints at in her rejoinder here. It seems obvious to me that if Cirinism were real that would be the standard and preferred way of doing things (though there certainly might be exceptions, especially among the upper echelons). It seems to me that Dave, eager to attack feminist motherhood and unable to do so through the Kevillists, whom he has artificially determined will all be childless daughters, has twisted Cirinism into something totally false and inherently hypocritical, something he will develop further later in the book but which seems to me to grow out of Dave's desire to paint women in the worst light possible rather than truly out of the inherent nature of the philosophies he claims to be representing here.

Cirin basically says that women should wait until childbirth to start a career, that before childbirth they are too immature, but that one shouldn't worry too much about a young woman who insists on putting career first -- for most of them, they will soon abandon it when a suitable mate comes along. She finishes:

In those situations where the cart is before the horse; where career comes before childbirth; it is interesting to note that few daughters ever return to that career. In those situations where the career comes after childbirth, career is kept in its proper place as an ancillary interest to the fuller and more important task of child-rearing.

There are a couple of things of note here. First, note the word "return," clearly and unmistakable implying that women who give birth in the Cirinist system do, in fact, wait at least some time before they begin a career, or return to one they have already started. How long? Six months? A year? Could it in fact be that the ideal is six years or twelve and that Astoria has distorted the situation, focusing on a few exceptions to the rule (such as Cirin herself) among the highest of the high? On the other hand, unless we discount Astoria's description of Gerrick's relationship with his mother as completely fabricated slander, there's an irony and an undeniable hypocrisy in Cirin insisting that a woman's career should be ancillary to the "fuller and more important task of child-rearing."

Before moving on to the next pair of quoted texts, I'd like to speak about Cerebus' meeting with the mysterious woman whom we much later discover to be the real Cirin. She tells him that women literally read men's minds -- something Dave has stated that he actually believes.

It's a little more complicated than that. "Women's intuition" is a nice way of putting it. "Women are more sensitive" is another. A not-so-nice way of putting it is that women rape men's minds the way men rape women's bodies. It's not an exact analogy, of course, because rape is invasion and invasion is the man's way, not the woman's way; absorption and consumption are the woman's way; what they're built for. Consider the two genders, one that invades and violates and the other that absorbs and consumes. The nice way of putting it is that they're complementary. The not-so-nice way of putting it is that they deserve each other; serve each other right.

I'm quite aware that these are the words of a character -- and a female character at that, and can't be taken at face value as Dave's opinion. Still, it's quite insightful that at this point in the story we're talking about a balance, about women being just as bad as men, but in a different way. There's no hint yet of the equivalent of "two legs bad, four legs good" kind of "anti-feminism" that discounts the value of half the human race Dave will develop later. "One that invades and violates and the other that absorbs and consumes." That strikes me as about right. The notion that men are all Goodness and Light and Reason and women are just absorbers and consumers of that Light strikes me as false.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Next: more of Women.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Time in Cerebus: Suenteus Po

We were supposed to discuss Alexx Kay's Cerebus Timeline some months ago, but somehow it never happened.

I am very sympatico with Alexx, having created my own timeline not unlike his a long, long time ago. Mine was not nearly as complete -- for one thing, the comic wasn't halfway finished yet at the time. I was thinking of pulling it out and working on updating it when I first ran into Alexx's first version (or was it his second?) on the Internet. Wow. He'd gone much further and deeper than I had even then, so I resolved to let him do the hard work.

Still, while I'm grateful to him for compiling lots of good factual information and agree with most of his choices where subjectivity was unavoidable, there a couple of places where I think he got it wrong. Moreover, the deeper into studying the notion of time and its passage in Cerebus, the clearer it seems to me that Dave Sim deliberately and quite calculatedly made Alexx's task utterly fruitless and impossible, muddying things so that no one would ever be certain how much time had passed when.

First, an obvious thing I think he got wrong: Suenteus Po.

Alexx does acknowledge the contradictions and troubles in trying to pin down just when the three main Suenteus Pos lived, and the further problem of the fact that there are large numbers of people by this name -- there are at least six separate characters by that name in Cerebus, if you count the successive lives of the Suenteus Po we meet in Flight as separate characters, possibly as many as eight, not even including things like the brief mention that "at the time of his [Alfred, aka Suenteus Po the Second] death at the age of forty-one, fully one third of the population of the Lower City was named Suenteus Po and believed themselves to function within a single, divine consciousness."

But in the end he puts the events of the three main Suenteus Pos as having happened long, long ago, sometime before the original Tarim and therefore before the count that produces the years we see in High Society and other places. This despite the fact that he quotes extensively the Flight's Suenteus Po about his "subsequent incarnation" (after living and dying as "Suenteus Po the First" and not referred to by any name but in light of the above mention about 1/3 the population of Lower Iest there's at least a good chance that his name was Suenteus Po), including the fact that he worked with gold coins, and in the next breath points out that the original Tarim invented coins -- supposedly sometime AFTER Suenteus Po was working with them.

But not only was he a goldsmith who worked with coins, but he mentions specifically that he worked with the "gold coins which served, as they do to this day, as the foundation of each family income in Iest," and mentions that they were "traditionally carved with the symbol of the family" who owned them. It's clear that coins are not a new invention, but have been around long enough to build up "traditions."

With Dave Sim's cyclic view of history it is indeed possible that this happened long before the "invention" of coins, just as his story "The First Invention of Armour" takes place not just long before the invention of armor that *we* know of but before a subsequent invention even within the world of Estarcion. But for there to be a long-held tradition of coin-making and coin-keeping in Iest prior to the recognized invention of coins seems unlikely in the extreme. It would have had to have been long enough ago that all records from that time were lost, which doesn't seem to be the case.

So, it didn't happen more than 1400 years ago, as Alexx supposes. When then did it happen?

Well, actually, there's more evidence than just the gold coins. All the way back in the first appearance of Suenteus Po -- or at least someone who calls himself Suenteus Po -- in "Mind Games," we have the following exchange:

PO (at this point still an unknown voice in the dark): Well it's not as if I don't have anything *better* to do. I have my own quasi-religious movement to worry about . . .

CEREBUS: Cerebus doesn't . . . uh -- your *own* movement?

PO: I thought you'd recognize me -- I'm Suenteus Po . . .

CEREBUS: Founder of Illusionism . . . ?

CEREBUS: Cerebus thought you were dead . . .

PO: Quite *understandable*. Most people one hundred and eighty two years old *are* dead.

Now, leave aside for the moment *which* Suenteus Po Cerebus is talking to here. The obvious supposition is that it's either the Suenteus Po we later meet in Flight, or one of the "capricious aspects" of that Po's personality acting independently. In any case, this seems to clearly establish that Illusionism, at least as an organized (to the extent the Illusionists are organized) movement identified by that name, is a relatively recent newcomer to Estarcion, at least compared with the Church of Tarim. Whether or not the entity he's speaking to is telling the truth is irrelevant to this important point: Cerebus takes it as either an already-known truth or an unsurprising new detail that the founder of Illusionism was born one hundred eighty-two years ago.

And who was the founder of Illusionism? Well, according to the Suenteus Po of Flight, it was Suenteus Po the Second, aka Alfred, the son of Suenteus Po the First.

Therefore, the invasion of Iest by Suenteus Po -- at least the one we hear about in Church and State from the Judge and again in Flight by Suenteus Po -- took place something less than 200 years ago. It was all very recent, as historic events go.

This does not jive with the impression that these things all happened unimaginably long ago, but then, neither does the story we learn about the origin of Cirinism and jive with its presentation as something that's been around for "thousands" of years. Dave may be making a deliberate point about sweeping historical changes that, once they are accomplished, make people think things have "always" been that way.

And of course, we know that Dave does deliberately mess with his readers' heads, and especially in regards to the passage of time. It was almost like he was toying with Alexx and I (even though I'm sure he didn't know of our existence, as neither of us knew about each other and our timelines) when he said that a fortnight had passed since Cerebus had last seen Jaka and then gave her a year's worth of new growth on her hair. This goes all the way back to the infamous gap between issue #20 and #21, when Cerebus not only got transported from Togith but lost several weeks.

At the time -- or at least a bit later, Dave attributed this to a party where he had gotten high and lost time, but if we can trust Viktor Davis there was an even more significant loss of time and disorientation in Dave Sim's life:

Viktor Davis looked down and saw two cookies on a small, flowered plate. He realized he was in the kitchen of his grandparents' house in Stoney Creek, Ontario. A female voice (his mother? his grandmother? his sister?) was telling him that the cookies were for Santa Claus. Moments before, Viktor had been seated in a classroom at Forest Hill Public School, trying to focus his attention on some lesson or other. Evidently a period of a year and several months had elapsed.

We don't know for sure that this happened. "This is my autobiography," says Viktor Davis, standing in for Dave Sim, in Reads. "This is as accurate a word picture as I can paint for you of who I am." But elsewhere in Reads Viktor tells us of a decision made the night John Lennon died to stop the series at 200 issues, and to keep this decision secret. Later, he tells us he was only joking. Viktor is an unreliable narrator. But I happen to believe this story, and even though it's treated lightly, a throw-away anecdote slipped into the narrative, I think it was probably one of the defining incidents in Dave Sim's life.

Dave Sim created Viktor Davis to stand between him and the audience because he didn't believe in the concept of reliable narrators, didn't believe in the possibility of a text that could be said to be True. I think the childhood experience so briefly alluded to in Reads is so profound and so disturbing that it probably is vital to understanding Dave Sim's psychological makeup and because of that fundamental to understanding his use of time in Cerebus.

He doesn't want you to be able to map things out the way Alexx tries to do, because he doesn't believe in the reliability of chronology. He deliberately makes this not only difficult, but in fact impossible. He places clear contradictions, as in the case with Jaka's Story following Church & State -- even if you disallow Dave's offstage claim that it's been a fortnight, you can clearly see by the state of decomposition of Bran's body that Cerebus hasn't been away a year or more when he returns to the hotel (yes, that's left out of the phone books but it was in the comic). How long could it have taken him to walk from there down to the place where Rick and Jaka are living? Hours? A day? Certainly not weeks or months.

Then there are the Cirinists and their abolition of the calendar. We can see the changing of at least some seasons in Guys -- but how many years pass, exactly? Again, in an offstage comment, Dave has spoken of months passing unnoticed between one panel and the next. My guess is that Guys spans ten years or more. Someone else thinks five. We can never know for sure.

Dave Sim obviously has a unique perspective on time, born of his unusual experience in childhood. It might be interesting to do a close reading of Cerebus studying the myriad ways in which this perspective pops up -- but I'm not going to do it now. I'm still working on the religion angle, which I promise another installment of soon.