Saturday, October 06, 2012

Tintin is my Tintern Abbey

A couple of weeks ago I was poking around in a local bookstore, and had just given up on the poetry section when I noticed a few tall, svelte spines sticking up above their squat, chunky peers in the graphic novels section nearby. Having grown up reading a whole slew of French and Belgian comics—Tintin, Astérix, Lucky Luke, Iznogoud, and others—I knew at once what these were: English translations of various volumes of Hergé's series The Adventures of Tintin, in the British Metheun and Magnet editions and the slightly glossier, more luxurious American editions put out by Little, Brown. I scooped them up and headed for the cash register with all the speed and purpose of an addict on his way home with the first score after a long dry spell. I've been reading them compulsively ever since, and I think I know why. It's not just that most of them make for inherently compelling reading, with page-turning narrative cliffhangers and the forward thrust of all good whodunnits. It's that reading Tintin's adventures, as he chases around the globe with his dog Snowy and, at times, the bearish company of Captain Haddock, gives me a kind of double exposure. These were the books of my childhood, and reading them again in my forties both allows me to remember how I saw them when I first read them, and forces me to contrast that with how I see them now. What happens to me as I turn the brightly colored pages of The Broken Ear or The Secret of the Unicorn is like what happened to Wordsworth when he returned to his childhood haunts in "Tintern Abbey": I see myself as I was, and the world as I once saw it. Like Wordsworth, I realize that my perception of the world has become, in some crucial sense, a diminished thing.

The first thing everyone notices, coming back to Tintin after many years, is a certain cringe-worthiness in the depictions of non-Westerners.  While there are certainly characters of all ethnicities that Hergé intends as sympathetic, it's hard to get past the hook-nosed Arabs, buck-teethed Japanese, "Ugh!" and "How!" uttering Native Americans, and so-dark-they're-shiny Africans.  Indeed, this seems to have been a concern for the publishers, who have all-but-suppressed the most offensive volume, Tintin in the Congo, which does not appear listed with the other volumes on the back cover of the books after about 1980, even though other, more marginal volumes—the very early, black and white Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and the posthumous, incomplete Tintin and Alph-Art—make the cut.  It's certainly true that Hergé (the pen name of Georges Prosper Remi) didn't share our sensibilities on these issues.  In some ways, he held quite humane views: King Ottokar's Scepter is an anti-fascist work, and various books in the series express disdain for imperialism: in The Blue Lotus Tintin stops a western businessman in Shanghai from beating a Chinese rickshaw driver.  But nevertheless there's an uncomfortableness in coming back to these books and seeing some of the images.

When I first encountered Tintin, none of this was an issue for me, and I took the wide-ranging internationalism of the books in the spirit in which it was intended: as a kind of invitation to identify with the intrepid boy reporter as his adventures pulled him into all manner of exotic places.  The idea of a wide world spread out for me had an appeal, and a wonder, to it that I find hard to describe.  The best I can do to convey how I felt when I saw the cover of each new adventure—with Tintin striding out of a Balkan castle gate, or waving from a raft in a sea of sharks, or fleeing from the shadow of a Mayan pyramid, or intrepidly piloting a motorboat out to a black rock in the sea north of Scotland—is to quote a poem by the Swedish poet Jesper Svenbro that I had the good fortune to publish in Samizdat some years ago.  It's called "Idiolect," and it describes the way Svenbro, the son of a Lutheran minister, felt when his father spoke of "the world":
In my use of the word “world” there is a strangeness
which I have never been able to shake:
the word carries a hopefulness
which has no strict foundation
in the real world.
The world being what it is!
For although I know it cannot be used
in the sense I want to give it 
it is the same picture that faithfully
returns in my memory
whenever I pronounce it to myself—
it is the light space over my childhood,
white April sun over a province
whose horizon trembles in the distance:
The world rests over there.
It is the late 1940s. In those days
I went to Sunday school every week
in our northern Galilee. To me
Palestine was still a country
with heights, fields, and rivers such as ours;
and by a miracle
the hills of Rönneberga just outside of town
became the light green mountain
where on one spring day Jesus
had said to his pupils: “Go out into the whole world!”
Languages were buzzing in the air.
Jews, Arabs, Kappadocians, Egyptians!
We were in the Holy Land,
coltsfoots were blooming
along the ditch-banks of the whole world.
And among all the tongues that I heard 
was also the sound of my own.
Svenbro gets it exactly, that sense of the promise and the call of the whole world, languages buzzing in the air among exotic peoples, a world rich and strange, and about to include us—in the person of the dauntless and indomitable Tintin, to whom every door opened, for whom every scrape presented an unlikely deus ex machina rushing to the rescue.  What kid doesn't yearn for the world beyond the horizon, where the colors must be brighter and the streets more abuzz with life?  I certainly yearned for such a world away from my dusty, dry city on the Canadian prairies, and it seemed so tantalizingly possible to get there: how I envied my father, an artist always jetting off to then-forbidden China, or Japan, or some other enticing elsewhere, his rugged red duffle bag in the hallway, packed for unknown adventures.  My dad could do it, and Tintin, too: surely I'd soon be on my way.  And the possibilities were broad indeed, as one particularly resonant title in the Tintin series made clear: Destination Moon.  Tintin's globe-trotting appeared to me in the aspect of infinity, of possibility.  Political disapproval of his black-face Africans didn't appear on any map of my reading.

Likewise, the near-total absence of women in Tintin's world escaped my notice when I first read the books.  It can't escape my notice now.  You can go many, many pages with Tintin without a woman even appearing in the background.  I was surprised, when I recently re-read Cigars of the Pharoah, to find a woman appearing as early as page nine.  She even seems, for several frames, as if she's about to speak, but in the end she merely stands there, silently indignant at the goings-on: a fit emblem, if ever there was one, for the place of women in Hergé's boyish universe.  It's an utterly de-sexed universe, where men behave the way boys imagine they behave, and where anything resembling romance takes on the aspect of a comic trap: when the opera singer Bianca Castafiore takes an interest in Captain Haddock in The Castafiore Emerald, she becomes a figure for the Captain to escape, much as a boy might seek to escape from the cheek-pinching and embraces of an embarrassingly expressive and affectionate aunt.  It reminds one of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster series, where women are out, for reasons beyond a chap's understanding, to tie a fellow down, when all he wants is a good adventure with the lads.

But these matters of one's adult awareness of racial politics and sexuality, contrasted with one's childhood naïveté, are minor league stuff compared with the really important difference in perception one notices coming back to the books after many years away.  I see those pages differently than I did when I was a boy, and it's in noting the specifics of how I see them differently that I notice that these books are a kind of Tintern Abbey for me.

For Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey was a haunted place—not in the literal sense, but in the sense that it was shrouded with past associations.  If you were ever to want an illustration for Wordsworth's precept that, in poetry, feeling gives importance to action, and not action to feeling, the poem "Tintern Abbey" is for you.  Here, the whole action of the poem involves the speaker (let's call him "Wordsworth," since in the convention of the Romantic descriptive-meditative poem the distance between author and speaker largely collapses) standing near the ruined abbey he used to visit a child, remembering things and glancing over at his sister Dorothy.  What's important is the aura of memories and associations surrounding the place—the specific feelings that haunt Wordsworth when he comes back to a location he'd known intimately as a boy, and sees it with both his adult eyes and the eyes of his childhood self.  Here's how he describes the return of his childhood sense of the place, and the difference between that sense and how he experiences the place as an adult:  
...with gleams of half-extinguish'd thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by,)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite: a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. 
He cannot paint what then he was: it's all just too different, too alien, yet uncannily, it is his own experience, and he bears it within himself.  He experiences the place as if he were himself a part of the natural landscape, one of the deer that ran through the scene, and all the sense details passed into and through him as if unmediated.  When he sees the abbey now, he experiences it screened through thought and memory and judgement and layers of experience.  He's analyzing and sorting it—a process that provides its own satisfactions, but it is a "remoter charm" than the charms of youthful experience, something supplied by thought and reflection. The earlier experience was more primitive, more vital—an appetite, a haunting, a fear and a love.

In the end, the difference between adult and childhood perception in "Tintern Abbey" is the difference between Apollonian and Dionysian modes of experience: he stands back and understands things, now; but as a child he experienced no real division between himself and the world.  Freud, echoing Romain Rolland, called this the "oceanic feeling," the mystical oneness of self and other, and the preservation of a sense of this experience lies at the root of Wordsworth's pantheistic mysticism.

When I came back to Tintin, one of the things I noticed about the difference between how I read the books now and how I had read them as a boy was quite simple—and apparently quite trivial, compared to the differences Wordsworth felt vis-a-vis his childhood self: I read the books much faster now. This isn't a simple matter of being a better reader, being able to parse out sentences and arcs with the speed and skill of a longtime English professor, who totes around enough advanced degrees in literary studies to wallpaper a small faculty lounge. It's a matter of intuitively choosing the details that I'll treat as important. That is: I zip along in the narrative, noting which characters have entered the plot-arc, noticing the various narrative gaps that need to be filled in, and anticipating the curves in the road down which this plot-driven vehicle is heading.  I spend a lot less time than I did on seemingly irrelevant details: no longer do I pore over the depiction of a car's radiator grille, or the way a little Egyptian tea table in the background is put together, or how a Russian soldier's overcoat buttons up.  I remember how I lavished attention on these sorts of details, how I felt like I could spend a whole day sucking the juice out of each detail-rich page.  And it wasn't just visual details that held me: I remember trying to imagine the worlds in which those details would make sense.  In The Broken Ear, for example, Tintin's adventures take him to a couple of Latin American banana republics, and he ends up wearing an elaborate colonel's uniform—but it differs in cut and color from other uniforms worn by other colonels in the same army.  I tried to imagine the different branches of the military that might give rise to such differences, the social world and bureaucracy in which they'd make sense.  It haunted me for hours.  Or, in The Cigars of the Pharoah, I'd stare fascinated at a scene in which Tintin begins to hallucinate from the effects of a poison gas while trapped in an ancient Egyptian tomb.  He sees images out of Egyptian mythology, combined with the faces of people he knows, and as he passes out sees an image of his own face on the body of a baby crying in a cradle.  It all had a quality I'd recognize instantly when, as a teenager, I read a paperback copy of De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater—and that I would recognize again a few years later when I first took certain hallucinogens in the company of a bunch of grad students in anthropology.  I remember groping for the significance of the image, and building a kind of nightmare vision of helplessness, of my own smallness in the vastness of that ancient Egyptian architecture and the huge duration of civilizational time.  It was one of my earliest intuitions of the sublime.  I could never get a sense like that from the image now: there's just no way it could cut through me like that.  I see the frame on the page, note the significance ("Tintin hallucinates, is helpless: plot point logged, time to move on") and turn the page.

The difference between how I read Tintin as a boy and how I read Tintin now is best understood by appealing to Aldous Huxley's notion of the mind as a "reducing valve."  In The Doors of Perception Huxley quotes the philosopher C.D. Broad, who says
The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. 
Huxley then adds his own commentary, including these remarks
… in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, mind at large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet…. Most people, most of the time, know only what comes through the reducing valve and is consecrated as genuinely real by the local language. Certain persons, however, seem to be born with a kind of by-pass that circumvents the reducing valve…. Through these permanent or temporary by-passes there flows… something more than, and above all something different from, the carefully selected utilitarian material which our narrowed, individual minds regard as a complete, or at least sufficient, picture of reality.
We adults are experts at screening material for relevance, at editing out phenomena that are, or seem to be, of no particular use to us. We need to do this just to get through the day, and, depending on the kind of things we do in our highly-specialized society, we screen out very different things. I still remember going on bicycle rides with a field biologist friend, and being perpetually humbled by how much more he saw on the trails around us, how he could read the nuance and significance of the way a dead cicada's body had decayed. He was hopeless at reading a poem, though, having no idea what to look for in terms of allusion or alliteration, a fact in which my wounded pride found some comfort.  He'd learned a framework of understanding that revealed a great deal to him, but also took him away from whole swathes of experience, and I'd done the same in a different way.  We were both living in highly screened worlds, sorted for relevance to the way we lived and the things we did in our daily experience.  These are adult ways of perceiving: a child sees things differently.  A child does not yet have a framework of relevance to use as a screen, and as a result the child's experience is radically different from the adult's.

Or perhaps this isn't quite right.  Perhaps it's not just that, as children, we don't know what's relevant to us, and thus experience the world in a less thoroughly mediated way than do adults.  Perhaps it's that, as a necessary part of our building up of our mental worlds, we're taking in as much as we can about all things at all times.  Maybe I pored over those Latin American colonel's uniforms to learn about the visual manifestations of authority (shoulder braid and jodhpurs and peaked caps), and to learn about the possible varieties of hierarchy and social organization.  Perhaps it's not that I had no sense of relevance, but that so much more was relevant to me, back when the mental tabula was so much more rasa than it has since become.  Either way, the physiological differences between the child's brain—in which the channels for, say, language acquisition are so much more open than they are later in life—must surely play a role.

This screening of experience for relevance is a powerful thing.  It certainly allows me to absorb a great deal of information quickly: when one "guts" a critical book, taking from its 250 pages everything one needs in an hour of selective reading, one is screening quite efficiently.  But something very real is lost in the process of learning to screen for relevance.  In fact, what's lost is every bit as profound as what Wordsworth feels he's lost in "Tintern Abbey"—and may amount to much the same thing.

What Wordsworth lost was a kind of selflessness, not in the sense of being a giving or unselfish person, but in the sense of not feeling, immediately and intuitively, any division between the self and the world.  He lost the oceanic feeling, the mystical intuition of the essential unity of all things.  When I read Tintin without regard for the usefulness of particular details for my understanding of the plot, I was reading in what a Kantian philosopher might describe as a disinterested way.  Not uninterested (far from it), but without self-interest, without a desire to limit perception to what is relevant to my intentions and goals.  This is pure aesthetic experience, for Kant, and it takes us out of our individual desires and goals and self-interests—it takes us, that is, out of our selves.  We become like the ecstatic Ralph Waldo Emerson when, in "Nature," he depicts himself in a state where "all mean egotism vanishes" and, as he says, "I become a transparent eyeball—I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me."  It's no small thing to Emerson, who continues his sentence by adding that, in such a state, he is "part or particle of God."

When I recall how I read, without self or self-interest, without the screening for relevance to my adult sense of what is significant, I feel that not having that experience any more is an enormous loss.  I feel the entry into self and self-interest—the entry into identity—is a loss, much as it is in Wordsworth's famous "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," where it is an entry into the "shades of the prison-house."  But, just as Wordsworth could recall his early, selfless self by returning to his childhood haunts, I can recall of my prior state by going back to the things over which I lavished my attention as a child—the two dozen or so volumes of The Adventures of Tintin.

Some might think there's a sad process of decline to be seen here, in that Wordsworth had his experiences of this sort at the dramatic ruins of an ancient abbey, and in the sublime forms of nature, and I'm describing mine as having occurred while reading the pages of that still-despised genre, the comic book.  But to think in this way is to miss out on a couple of things.  Firstly, there's the fact that Wordsworth's setting for such experiences only seems appropriately significance and literary to us because we live in the shadow of two centuries of Romantic and post-Romantic aesthetics.  Not too long before Wordsworth wrote, it would have seemed undignified and odd to locate significant experiences in a place as trivial and specific as an old, beat-up building in the boondocks.  When Milton wanted sublimity and significance, he took us to Eden, Heaven, and the halls of Pandemonium.  Secondly, it's less worthwhile to judge differences between the old abbey and the Tintin books than it is to understand their significance.  And there is, I think, some significance to the difference between how Wordsworth came to understand what he'd lost, in terms of childhood perception, and how I came to understand the same thing.

Wordsworth didn't experience his world as deeply rooted and traditional (his great poem "Michael," for example, is about the destruction of the rooted and the traditional).  But compared to us, he and his generation were astonishingly rooted—and this plays out in the ways we have our important experiences.  He has his by returning to a place he knew well as a child, a place near which he spent almost the entirety of his youth.  I, like a lot of people of my generation, had a much more mobile childhood—I lived in a city on the prairies of Canada, but I'd spend many weekends at a house on a lake up in the great evergreen forests, and part of each year in an industrial town in Ohio, and much of the summer in our house in Maine.  I moved houses more times than I can remember, often every year, and I've kept on moving ever since.  This may not be exactly typical, but it's indicative: we are no longer a people who grow up in one place, close to where our parents grew up, and then return to the same area for our adult lives.  We are a mobile people, and I think it's appropriate that my own early experience of self-loss, and my later experience of the difference between that early state and the world of adulthood, with it's very different charms, happened not in the rich experience of a physical locality, but in the act of reading.  Like other wanderers before us, we are a people of the book.