Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’

I finished Scientologist!  William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ by David S. Wills a few days ago and, for a book that focuses on something that some may see as detrimental to Burroughs’ reputation or intellectual credibility, I was often impressed by the sensitivity and objectivity that Wills brought to this book while also respecting Burroughs’ ideas.  Even with the best intentions, many writers that comment on the Beats either fail on the first front or the second: that is, they either fail at assessing the meaning of the more controversial experiences they had in common or fail to take the ideas of the writers seriously.  Even the close associates of the three main Beats (Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg) tend to fall into these traps.

As someone who has looked up to Burroughs as a literary and intellectual hero, I had mixed feelings about the news that And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks was going to be released.  Burroughs said it was not ready for publication and may never be, so releasing it after his death struck me as churlish.  When I finally read it, I found it to be an uneven but rewarding read.  The fact that it was edited and prepared for publication by James Grauerholz was also encouraging: Grauerholz had been a close friend and confidant of Burroughs since the late seventies and had made an adoring life’s work of curating and editing his bibliography.  If anyone could be trusted to represent the perspective of at least one of the two writers of Hippos, this guy would probably be it.  Because of my misgivings I had about Hippos, I waited a good couple years.  In fact, I read the Barry Miles’ biography Call Me Burroughs and saw the film Kill Your Darlings before reading the Burroughs/Kerouac novelization of what happened between Lucien Carr and David Kammerer.  So I knew basically what happened.

The afterward by Grauerholz was also a good read for the most part.  If Call Me Burroughs had any mention of the disagreement between Kerouac and Burroughs regarding the merits of the book, I don’t remember it.  Soon, though, Grauerholz latches on to a rhetorical point used by Carr’s defense lawyer: that Carr was defending his honor as a straight man.  Grauerholz seems to think that this defense had some justification in Carr’s real life motives.  Grauerholz says that the murder had to be caused by shame and youthful impulse, full stop.

Hippos says little of Carr’s abuse by Kammerer starting in childhood and presents the scenario as a lover’s quarrel between adults.  So, if one confines themselves to that text alone, it’s conceivable (but not likely or defensible imho) that someone might get that impression.  Holding strictly to the letter of Hippos, though, is dishonest when it comes from someone like Grauerholz, who would be familiar with the events themselves and all relevant documentation.  Since all the involved parties are deceased, we have to conclude that Grauerholz was venturing a personal opinion.  In the closing sentence, Grauerholz says that “Lucien took, or accepted, the life of his mentor and soft touch, his stalker and plaything, his creator and destroyer, David Eames Kammerer.”  Meaning, apparently, that he understands the story of Hippos as a tragic love story and nothing else.

What really gets to me about Grauerholz’ word choice is that it seems to reflect some knowledge of the length and depth of the abuse Carr experienced.  It’s more implied than stated (“creator and destroyer”), but it’s hard to get around just how flagrantly Grauerholz is romanticizing child abuse.  It’s also likely that Grauerholz is either experiencing or anticipating some projection that the more blind, diehard Beat devotees may bring to the party.  To those who have cared enough to read about it, it’s known that Ginsberg justified the death of Joan Vollmer as the product of Vollmer being a strong psychic “sender” and Burroughs a strong “receiver”.  That is, Vollmer wanted to die and telepathically compelled Burroughs to pull the trigger.  Purblind fans are typically hyper-defensive of the people they idolize and, in the case of Burroughs, may arrive prepared to victim-blame.

While some of this confusion and projection was definitely encouraged by Burroughs himself, what with his insistence that he was possessed by a demon known as Bradly Martin, Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin or The Ugly Spirit, there are other situations where it’s echoed by people who should know better.

Then there’s the other common mistake of Beat commentators, which is failing to take their ideas seriously.  One of the most flagrant examples of this I can think of is the graphic novel detailing the lives of the three central Beats (No I don’t remember who it was by or what it was called, and I’m sure if the author could be bothered to notice he wouldn’t mind).  To say nothing of the fact that it fails to take advantage of the abilities of the graphic novel medium and does nothing that couldn’t be done with a short tract, it absolutely refuses to engage with any of Burroughs’ ideas.  Reading that comic will literally not tell you a single detail of his actual work.

Part of this has to do with the fact that most readers are probably heterosexual and even within queer culture the legacy of Burroughs is not easily understood.  Not only was Burroughs queer but, while the word likely did not exist yet, he was probably America’s best and most lucid critic of heteronormativity for the entire time he was alive, along with the other institutional evils he targeted.  I realize that to some this may seem like either an obtuse or trivial thing to praise Burroughs for- which makes sense, seeing as it’s so darn subtle and permeates so much of his writing in such delicate ways as to be hard to notice.

And so much of his work was so far ahead of both the straight and queer cultural curve for so many decades. By the time Burroughs’ celebrity as a writer and anti-establishment icon was cemented in the seventies, gay rights had fallen into the second wave feminist fallacy of equating sameness with straight cis people with progress.  This predictably left trans and gender non-conforming people out in the cold, reviled by gays and lesbians as uncle toms, second wave feminists as misogynists and straight cis people as just icky.  At that point in American history, when conformity to traditionally gendered body and fashion norms was being espoused by many queer activists, criticism of heteronormativity was only just beginning to emerge as a priority for many.

The criticism of heteronormativity in the work of William S. Burroughs bears directly on the fine points explored in Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’.  At the time when Burroughs was a child and coming of age, there was simply no easily accessible way of normalizing any variation in sexual orientation or gender identity.  Burroughs, along with any American queer person, had to go through life being pathologized.

Both Scientologist! and Call Me Burroughs mention that Burroughs did not know how sexual procreation worked until he was in Harvard and both mention that it was a shocking and dismaying discovery for him.  As strange as this sounds, I think it lined up with his lived experience at that point and even has a dark consistency to it.  If you were queer in the early to mid twentieth century, imagine being treated as either ill or evil by both society and academia and then learning that heterosexuality is tied up with procreation.  On a visceral and emotional level, it makes sense that one would feel rejected by both humanity and nature.  Burroughs did not have a productive encounter with psychoanalysis until middle age, which meant by the time a medical provider helped him to accept his sexuality, he had lived with that internalized rejection by humanity and nature for a few decades already.  If one had gone through so much of their life being told that they’re both diseased and unnatural by society and academia, it’s not at all surprising that the scientific mainstream would appear to be hostile and unapproachable.

Since Burroughs’ pre-occupation with pseudo-science and fringe science was a factor in his eventual conversion to Scientology, it makes sense that Wills spends a lot of the book examining it.  Barry Miles did as well in Call Me Burroughs.  But out of everything I’ve read detailing Burroughs’ passion for orgone accumulators, E-meters, telepathy and space travel, I don’t think I ever read anything that mentioned the possibility that mainstream science, during the early and mid twentieth century, had probably galvanized resistance from queer people with their hostility.  If one was queer and as educated and intellectually hungry as Burroughs, the apparent failures of the scientific community would naturally compel you to wonder about variations of science that had been pushed to the margins or even superstition.  While many of the inventions and theories Burroughs latched onto turned out to be pseudo-science, the emotional drive toward pseudo-science makes complete sense given the time and place in which Burroughs lived.

If Burroughs’ homosexuality complicated his feelings toward both physical science and psychology, then the abuse he experienced as a child had to have cast an especially long shadow.  In fact, this experience came up more than once during Burroughs’ auditing sessions with Scientologists.  Evidently, the experience enabled him to open up about it in ways that his psychotherapy had not.

Wills’ exploration of Burroughs’ psychology and his attraction to fringe science sheds some light on common ideas throughout his work that could possibly inform a new reading of it.  I think this is especially relevant concerning the parts of Wills’ book outlining Burroughs’ fascination with the Scientologist concept of the reactive mind.

In Scientology, the reactive mind can be loosely compared to psychoanalytical concepts like the id and the subconscious.  The reactive mind is the layer of the psyche that is the most in touch with the body and the sensory apparatus and as it reacts to stimulation it can easily overwhelm conscious thought.  Not only does the reactive mind exert a powerful hold over the rest of one’s self that can rarely be understood or resisted, it also retains the imprint of any stimulation it ever encountered, exercising the same reaction if anything resembling a past event ever happens.  These imprints of past events are called engrams, according to Scientology.

The reactive mind differs from the subconscious, though, in that Scientologists believe that it’s a foreign entity that has invaded the minds of every living human.  This seamlessly meshed with Burroughs’ prior belief in possession and the demonic as well as the role that possession played in Burroughs’ understanding of his murder of Joan Vollmer.  One could argue that his belief in the spirit called Bradly Martin was a way of exonerating himself of the murder, or one could stick to the letter of Burroughs’ utterances and accept that, whether he was delusional or not, Burroughs had been truthfully reporting what he believed to have happened.  In either case, his belief in possession played a huge role in how he processed the killing of Joan Vollmer.

It’s hard to imagine something more welcome to such a person than the idea that the subconscious and it’s record of traumas is a foreign spiritual invader that can be purged.  In his book, David Wills details both the Scientologist explanation of the reactive mind and the ways in which Burroughs altered the concept according to his own reasoning.  If you’ve read the body of work called the “word hoard”, consisting of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, you could probably think of a handful of different ways that Burroughs re-invented the reactive mind.  A few of the biggies actually converge on the topic of heteronormativity, these being Johnny Yen and the other half.

When the character Johnny Yen is introduced in The Soft Machine chapter called Case of the Celluloid Kali, he’s presented as a Venusian demon that embodies the gods of all religions and maintains all religion through making men and women both dependent on each other and pitted against each other in a zero-sum game in which someone must always win at the expense of the other.  Orgasm is presented as a natural consequence of the zero-sum tension and proof of its necessity; the “bait” offered to keep everyone invested in the tension.

The Ticket That Exploded contains a similar indictment of heteronormativity.  As Burroughs had made clear in prior works, he believed that men and women were whole in and of themselves and had no need to be “completed” by the other.  Not only are men and women naturally whole, according to Burroughs, but in their wholeness they are so different as to be naturally hostile to each other.  This naturally segues into Burroughs’ lifelong suspicion of women and the association he made in his mind between women and heteronormativity.  When looked at carefully, though, the stated origins of these thoughts lead back to the animosity Burroughs had for the psychological model of human nature that posited heterosexuality as universal and necessary, which naturally leads to models of society in which women and men need each other in order to be “complete”.

Getting back to The Ticket That Exploded, though: that book portrays heterosexuality as something that had been sewed by hostile aliens, rather how Scientologists view the reactive mind.  Put bluntly, this is how it worked in The Ticket That Exploded: two complete beings (the two sexes) are taught that they are incomplete.  Already, they are primed to chase the solution of a non-existent problem.  In the fictional universe of this book, the farce of heteronormative dependence is borne up by the common mythology of the soul and death, which itself echoes some psychoanalytic ideas.

Myth number 1 is that death is necessary: if death is necessary, then the soul, the non-physical state of the self, must also be there for continued existence afterward.  If one is prepared to entertain the idea of the soul because they believe death is unavoidable, then the soul is a category waiting to be filled.  Meanwhile, the malevolent Venusian puppet masters are growing parasites in the minds of everyone on earth.  Burroughs describes this parasite as “the other half” and it’s essentially an energy refinery that turns the human soul into consumable energy for the Venusians.  What the other half actually does should sound very familiar: it rests in your psyche and gathers a sensory record of every viscerally painful or pleasurable event that ever happened to you.  This happens by draining the sensory information of these traumas and ecstasies as soon as they happen, turning into a repository that your personal history is placed into in order to be consumed.  When you die, then, the only remaining part of yourself that your soul can be paired with is the record of things that have already happened.  This is basically a siphon that your soul disappears into in order to be consumed.  As Burroughs put it in the book, “the other half is you next time around”.

The other half naturally fills the function of the Freudian doppelgänger, a non-physical echo of the physical self that was originally meant to save the self from physical death, but later turns out to be mortal threat that depends on the certainty of death.  In Freud’s break down of the uncanny, the doppelgänger is a frightening concept because it needs us to die in order to exist and is perfectly proportioned to fill the void we would leave behind.

Anyway, in the fictional world of Burroughs’ “word hoard”: the two sexes are trapped, by malevolent aliens, in a mortal scramble for a kind of completeness that cannot exist since both sexes are complete to begin with.  The failure of the pursuit of completeness is explained by the inevitability of death and suffering and the expectation that the completeness should be there creates a category that can be filled by the alien puppet-masters.  This expectation of an unobtainable state of being sets the stage for the other half, the accumulation of your past traumas that will envelope your soul and consume it upon death.

This actually ties into a deeper pre-occupation with death and the afterlife that Burroughs kept with him until his very last writings.  Repeatedly, but most notably in The Western Lands and the two books proceeding it, Burroughs claimed that immortality was attainable and the expectation that death should happen was to be avoided at all costs.  For our purposes, though, it’s enough to gather that Burroughs equated death with the annihilation of the self and the institutions that furnished conventional notions of the soul and the afterlife, such as organized religion, were preparing human souls to be exterminated and in general preparing humans to anticipate their own destruction.  A world bound by the threat of a catastrophic and inevitable death, in this mythos, sets the stage for all of the other unsurvivable conditions that humanity is forced to tolerate, such as the unstable zero-sum game between men and women that heteronormativity creates.

Speaking of The Western Lands, the concept of the reactive mind even lasts as long as that book, which Burroughs wrote within a few years of his death.  The Western Lands contains a description of the soul derived from ancient Egyption mythology, as presented by Norman Mailer in the book Ancient Evenings, that is divided into tiers of different feelings and experiences that are struggling to bog down and consume the main self, such as the Ba (sexuality and earthly desire) and the machinations of the Sekem which derives energy from powerful emotional experiences.  There are benign manifestations of the soul, such as the Khu, which can protect your existence at its own expense, and the Ka, a benign doppelgänger whose existence hinges on your own and is the only one to be trusted.  Interestingly, none of the seven different souls are equivalent with your one true “real” self.

David Wills’ main assertion in Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ is that Scientology cast a longer and more fundamental shadow in Burroughs’ thoughts and work than most critics and commentators have allowed, and a reading of the work itself definitely bears that out.  Another fundamental claim Wills makes is that Burroughs’ trauma from childhood abuse also played a part in his tendency to succumb to dominant personalities.  Wills points out the whimsical flexibility that Burroughs applied to the idea of facts, which for him was whatever he subjectively connected with.  His fickleness with his skepticism in his personal life can actually be seen within many of his relationships.  Perhaps describing this as a fickleness of skepticism isn’t as accurate as, say, a willingness to believe certain things that allow him to resist a feeling of helplessness.  This could even be traced back to the childhood sexual abuse he experienced.

A professional nanny, who eventually exposed Burroughs to the man who abused him, was the first one to ever teach Burroughs magical curses.  After Burroughs was victimized, she threated to put a curse on him if he ever told anyone what happened.  It’s hard not to see a link between these events and his lifelong obsession with magic, spirits and the supernatural.  That Burroughs often claimed to magically influence things far removed from himself speaks to feelings of both power and helplessness before the wider world.  His mind turned to curses, more often than not: he was fond of telling a story in which he cursed someone who short-changed him.  After the curse had been cast, this person lost both of his hands in an accident with open gas fumes and fire.  I am not a clinician so I cannot diagnose anyone, much less someone who has been dead for over twenty years, but I think the role of trauma that David Wills explored in his book was apt and has far reaching implications.

My connection with the writing of William S. Burroughs is tied up with both my literary ambitions and my own strained and occasionally torturous experiences with coming to terms with my own queerness.  This book was a welcome opportunity to revisit a writer who occupies a special place in my heart and reflect on his work with the eyes of an older female-identified reader.  Since Burroughs’ thoughts about men and women were often conflated, in his mind, with his animosity toward heteronormative society, these reflections on Burroughs have been particularly eye-opening.  Since Burroughs did not often differentiate between his thoughts about women and his thoughts about heteronormativity, he would occasionally come off as misogynist.  His eagerness to emulate Brion Gysin only exacerbated this.  It was his deep and profound attack on heteronormativity, though, that helped me believe that I am sane even though so many other forces in society insist that I cannot be and to trust myself enough to be own judge of truth and untruth and to discern my own unique path and calling.

Dune and Alejandro Jodorowski

“Here lies a toppled god-
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.”
-Tleilaxu Epigram

 

Lately I’ve been getting ready for a move which naturally entails going through your stuff and deciding what to keep and what not to. One hard fact of life that I’ve had to come to terms with more and more over the years is that books take up a ton of space and, as we bibliophiles know, our collections get harder and harder to move over the years. Especially if you’re like me and you love having physical copies of things. I’m even like that with music and movies- I just have to have the actual object with it’s artwork and anything else that might be packaged with it. And so…I’ve had to make some very harsh calls with my own library. One thing I decided I needed to come to terms with is that I needed to get rid of most of my paperbacks, especially the long series- beautiful hard backs excluded (and even the paperback rule had it’s exceptions, such as my Sandman comics and my William S. Burroughs and Victor Hugo collections). Since I’m only keeping the real keepsakes (signed copy of Blood Communion…a rare and out of print collection of Hugo poetry from the sixties…assorted precious vintage stuff…), I’ve had to really invest in my tablet to get digital back ups. Inevitably, I had to make a decision about my six Dune books by Frank Herbert. Would they get the paperback pass of Burroughs, Aligheri, Hugo and Neil Gaiman? Possibly. And then last night I visited a friend of mine who showed me the documentary Jodorowski’s Dune, which made the decision that much harder to make.

At a certain point in the film, Jodorowski says that he had not actually read Dune at the time that he pitched it as his next film. Nonetheless, he made certain creative decisions that seemed to indicate at least some thoughtful familiarity with the book, wild departures from the text and all. I was also charmed by how philosophically optimistic his reading(?) of the story was. The Dune novels are, fundamentally, a meditation on power. Within all of it’s other layered explorations of language, ecology, religion, politics and psychology is the discussion of power dynamics within those things. Out of all of those permutations of control, institutional power is the most common touchstone in the plot of every book.

In all fairness, Alejandro Jodorowski has not been alone in his reversal of the tone of Dune. I have to jump on a large bandwagon here and say that I think the David Lynch adaptation to be a complete train wreck for many reasons (Jodorowski thinks that as well and says so at the end of the documentary). I’m also aware that Lynch’s adaptation was the victim of studio meddling but, whether this was the fault of Lynch or the studio heads, one of the most deeply egregious errors in that film was the ending, when Paul Atreides conjures water on Arrakis.

To say nothing of the fact that it flies in the face of how Dune discusses the relationship between humans and the ecosystems in which they live (Paul terraforms Salusa Secondus, the secret home planet of House Corrino and the Sardaukar, as a way of destroying the brutal survival ethos of the Sardaukar and crippling their military might), it also introduces a truly random genre break…or perhaps world break. No in-world explanation is furnished for Paul’s ability to conjure rain- it therefore stands to reason that he did it because he was magic. Why would he be magic? Evidently, because he’s the literal Messiah- the dude is literally Jesus. Which speaks to another thing every adaptation to date has overlooked- the Bene Gesserit are after power consolidation just like everyone else.

In a way, the Bene Gersserit are the contemporary heirs of the machine overlords overthrown by the Butlerian Jihad. In the distant, nearly mythic past of Dune, humans were enslaved by artificially intelligent machines. An Islamic cleric named Serena Butler led a revolution against them and, from that point on, the creation of AI was forbidden by every religion and government. What the Bene Gersserit are doing, with their breeding program and use of the spice to awaken ancestral memories in women, is to create a human supercomputer. In essence, they are attempting to make a creature to subjugate the world, the difference is that it’s a human being. Ergo, they are the heirs of the machine overlords. Paul does not play completely into their hands, but in the end he became what they wanted him to be. In a sense, Paul Atreides is part of the same “rise of the machines” trope as Victor Frankenstein’s creation or the machines in The Matrix. The text also makes it clear that the Bene Gesserit also frequently manipulate religions on the planets owned by the inter-galactic feudal lords. Interpreting Paul as a literal Messiah reflects an appallingly lazy reading. At least, in the case of David Lynch, it seemed appallingly lazy. There were just too many other lazy decisions in the film to accommodate any forgiving context for Lynch’s ending.

What makes me prepared to distinguish between the philosophical optimism of Lynch’s and Jodorowski’s visions is the consistency of Jodorowski’s handling of the tropes. It’s obvious at a glance that Dune analyzes and deconstructs the myth of the dying and returning fertility god in the form of Paul Atreides, even if he’s not presented as a genuine god (no such thing exists in the novels). Alejandro Jodorowski was willing to break the genre consistency at least to the point of making Dune science-fantasy rather than science-fiction (high science-fiction, though it is). Jodorowski’s Dune would end with the death of Paul Atreides at the hands of Thufir Hawat (the documentary didn’t get into the nuts and bolts of Thufir’s motivation but on it’s face I’d love to see that unpacked somewhere) which would complete the sacrifice for universal redemption, ala Jesus, Baldur, Cybele/Attis, Osiris/Horus, etc. This would necessarily make Jodorowski’s Dune a standalone film. David Lynch, meanwhile, wanted to adapt more of the books at some point.

I don’t know how Lynch would carry out his reversal with Paul being a literal divine being, but I don’t see it going well. This may seem like a fine point, but for me that matters because Jodorowski’s rendering, while wildly divergent, would only take enough from the source material to make itself complete- Lynch, on the other hand, wanted to carry his inversion further into the rest of the series. Alejandro Jodorowski doesn’t make any bones about having a huge ego in Jodorowski’s Dune, but I think keeping his adaptation as a standalone story demonstrates a certain confident reserve, as if his vision is complete in and of itself and can exist alongside Frank Herbert’s original story. The standalone version is also neat because it covers the scope of the mythic arc and nothing else, which was what Jodorowski was fundamentally interested in.

It’s the specificity of this focus that I think gives Jodorowski’s vision of Dune more credibility than the version of David Lynch’s movie that we ended up with. The archetypal nature is established early on with a scene invented entirely by Jodorowski, involving the immaculate conception of Paul. This version of Leto Atreides is a eunuch, castrated by a bull. Jessica, meanwhile, is a witch, who pricks his finger and turns his blood into semen, with which Paul was conceived. Later on, Leto is dismembered by Piter DeVries, Osiris style, with Jessica and Paul disappearing into exile and completing the mythic parallel. While complication can be messy, simplicity has it’s own challenges and can often be trickier. If you like rock or pop music, think of your favorite rock or pop song: a rock musician often only has three to four minutes with which to capture your attention. Direct riffs on mythology need a similarly deft handling, however simple or abstracted an archetype may appear. When I read Dune for the first time, it occurred to me that Frank Herbert was one such talented person, particularly during the scene where Leto dies from his suicide capsule. The haunting legacy of a father felt by a son is something we’ve seen many times in many different stories, and at that moment I realized I was believing it, that Herbert had succeeded in bringing it to life. Tolkien had a deft hand at this as well, but that’s a subject for another entry. This delicate familiarity with myth would have made an Alejandro Jodorowski Dune film a very compelling meeting of the minds. Jodorowski and Herbert would have meshed as perfectly as David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs had through the Naked Lunch film.

While it would have been a rich meeting between two scholars of religion and world history, Jodorowski’s different approach to the archetypes within Dune had a sharp contrast to Herbert’s. Along with the true nature of the Bene Gesserit and the fearful examination of power, Paul’s adherence to the arc of the tragic hero is also frequently overlooked. Tragic in the classical literary sense: the story is about a central weakness that eventually destroys the main character and turns him into a monster. Often, while reading the Dune novels, I was reminded of a line from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “Coriolanus has turned from a man to a dragon.” The first novel traces Paul’s journey as a young man vulnerable to manipulative forces beyond his awareness into a super-human theocratic precog. Over and over again he desperately searches for ways to escape the Jihad that he sees himself leading and ultimately succumbs to his own prophecy. Of all things, Paul Atreides frequently reminded me of Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. Paul’s dread of this destiny is what gives the duel with Feyd-Rautha all of it’s dramatic weight- Feyd-Rautha’s death seals the confirmation of Paul’s worst nightmare and his ugliest transformation. It’s also hard to overlook the role that Paul’s firstborn son played in this: while his infant son was definitely killed, he had every reason to believe that both his son and his wife were dead for much of the ending. As far as he was concerned, he had lost his roots on Arrakis and had nothing left but revenge, which propelled him to the imperial throne and the Jihad. He was only reunited with Chani after this fatal step had already been taken.

Another part of Frank Herbert’s handling of mythic tropes is his tendency toward deconstruction. The Bene Gesserit knowingly manipulate religions across generations and Paul is frequently reminded of the fact that he is walking into an artificial prophecy that’s been designed as a step toward consolidating power. The Dune novels also frequently use lengthy internal monologues and in-world texts that reflect specific, in-world interpretations rather than objective facts. This is something that either lures the reader further into the book or turns them off. This is complicated by the fact that in Frank Herbert’s fictional universe information literally exists. Ancestral memories are past from generation to generation. Our perspective on Paul’s prophetic abilities also speak to this. Other than the generations of selective breeding before he was born, the essential ingredient in Paul’s psychic awakening was his mentat training. Mentat computation can happen in the blink of an eye and often subconsciously. This ability is even more powerful and even more subconscious in someone like Paul, who was bred to be a human supercomputer. Some of his prophecies are clearly the result of powerful, subconscious information processing that can only consciously express itself as apparent prophecy. This, however, does not account for how Paul and other precogs can receive specific fragments of sense perception, a sight or a sound, from the future. Evidently, the information exists out there to be grasped by precognitive minds. As the ancestral memory phenomenon tells us, one’s subjectivity exists objectively, but that doesn’t make it any less subjective.

I hope I’ve made it obvious that I don’t think that the version of Dune that Alejandro Jodorowski wanted to make would have been a cinematic equivalent of the first novel: merely that the deviations that Jodorowski planned on making revealed an interesting awareness and perspective on the book’s subject matter. Later in Jodorowski’s Dune we learn that many of the concepts from the film were recycled later on for Jodorowski’s comic series L’Incal, which I am now determined to read. Diverse interpretations are also an inevitable part of how a book continues to live on after it leaves the mind of it’s creator. Sometimes, by force of contrast, a different interpretation can create different readings of the book by people who encounter the original text after experiencing a derivative. While Jodorowski’s reading of the mythic tropes threaded within Dune were starkly different from Herbert’s own rendering, it is something of a natural sequential echo, as Frank Herbert himself was very much concerned with the nature of myths and their ripples throughout culture and history.

Victor Hugo & The Man Who Laughs graphic novel

I think Victor Hugo’s novels are always going to be tricky to adapt. And probably on every level, from the reason why a lot of people enjoy them to how both casual readers and those adapting these books read them. Which may be the root of the conundrum: how exactly to read Hugo.

One of the major obstacles on that front is how and where he’s been classified in the history of world literature. Hugo was contemporary with Alexandre Dumas and Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand and is intuitively grouped with the French Romantics, yet in some ways his work is quite at home in more modern, experimental conventions. There are a few incidental reasons why a modern reader might detect a certain psychedelic flourish that we shouldn’t get too caught up with, such as the divided eighteenth century European literary trends of hyper-realism and florid, unbound subjectivity. On one hand there were socially and politically grounded artists who saw the living pressures of society as their foremost responsibility, on the other, there were those who thought the exclusive province of art was the internal life.
It makes sense that Victor Hugo would be fully aware and involved in the contemporary passions of his day and, while many writers, painters and composers would choose a side and stay there, the fact that Hugo would alternate between the two shouldn’t surprise us that much. There is another aspect of his writing, though, that I think could potentially place him close to the likes of William S. Burroughs, Mark Z. Danielewski or even modern graphic novelists. This was Victor Hugo’s inclusion of the sensibility of visual, three-dimensional mediums such as painting and architecture into his novels.

Obviously, Notre de Dame de Paris (known to the English speaking world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is a glaring example of this and in many ways can be read as a sort of key to the rest of Hugo’s novels. While Hugo was a meticulous literary craftsman and researcher and very concerned with things working appropriately in their context, his work is far from being traditionally linear. Many of his novels begin with orienting our view of events as readers rather than orienting the characters themselves. Notre Dame de Paris starts with Pierre Gringoire and Jehan Frollo, who do not participate in the events that drive the plot so much as they witness them. And they usually witness the story around them without understanding much, if anything, of what is happening around them. Les Miserables begins with Charles-Francois Myriel, the Bishop of Digne and an outline of the events that led him to believe the things that he does before meeting Jean Valjean. We even get more than a few indications from these chapters about the scope Hugo projected for Les Miserables: Myriel came from a noble family and, as a young man, he had a zest for pleasure seeking. An unspecified trauma related to the French revolution destroyed his appetite for libertinage and he dedicated himself to a life of ascetic spirituality. A chance encounter with Napolean led to him being appointed Bishop of Digne. Most memorably, one of Myriel’s first visits to someone suffering on their death bed was an elderly member of a revolutionary government. Set as the story is after the restoration of the French monarchy, this old exile is “little better than a monster”. This encounter rocks Bishop Myriel to his core and it’s the last really personal glimpse we have of him before we see him in the company of Valjean. While the rest of Les Miserables is largely bound by a plot, we get an attitude toward a period in the history of France along with meditations on the role of religion, capitol punishment and death. At the beginning of Quatre-vingt treize, we meet the mother of the two small children that accompany us throughout the novel before we meet Cimourdaine, Lantenac or Gauvaine.

L’homme qui rit, or The Man Who Laughs, is no different on this front. Before we have a proper encounter with Gwynplaine we get two Preliminary Chapters. One shows us the inside of Ursus’ cart where he lives with Homo the wolf, covered in lineages and careers of the families of the British Peerage. The other is an exhaustive break down of the history of the fictional Comprachicos, Spanish nomads with their own unique Creole tongue, fiercely loyal to the Catholic Church, who have traditionally practiced and maintained the art of mutilating and crafting children from a young age to grow into marketable curiosities. Within this practice there are different disciplines and arts that bear the stamp of specific individuals or schools of practice. One we learn about in short order is masca ridens, the laughing mask, a hallmark of the work of a Doctor Conquest and his heir Hardquanonne. Another literary device we see in L’homme qui rit and other works by Hugo are fictional scholarly documents and resources that are introduced within the book but distinctive from the story, after the manner of supplementary material for something that actually happened.

This can happen in glaringly obvious ways, such as the in/famous Waterloo or Sewer chapters in Les Miserables, but some of the more effective usages of this device happen in less overbearing ways. For example, for all the times that Hugo dives right into the private subjectivity of his characters, there are others where he claims not to know their thoughts any more than he could read the mind of a real person, as if all he can do is impartially report things as they happened and anything else would be speculation. Consider this moment in Notre Dame de Paris when Frollo is watching Esmerelda and Phoebus have sex:

“In what sinister order was he arranging in his thoughts La Esmeralda, Phoebus, Jacques Charmoloue, his beloved younger brother, so lately abandoned by him at the dung hill, his archdeacon’s cassock, his reputation perhaps, thus degraded to La Falourdel’s- all these images, all these adventures of his? It is impossible to say. But certain it is that these thoughts evoked horrible pictures.”

Likewise, in Les Miserables, there is the chapter Une tempete sous un crane in which Valjean has to grapple with the possibility of breaking his cover. Hugo ventures several long glimpses into Valjean’s mind but, when Valjean goes to sleep briefly, Hugo refers to a fictional collection of documents left behind after his death that describe the dream he had that night, with the deserted village, the ghosts and the dark rider upon the skeletal horse. The emphasis on the reader’s perspective as something outside of the novel itself is emphasized by Les Miserables division into five books with a neat line drawn down the middle: Valjean as the protagonist in the first half and Marius in the second. The novel ends with an anonymous epitaph on the grave of Valjean, again, as if Hugo can only relate what happened, but can’t speculate outside of his scope.

In L’homme qui rit, one of the expressions of this more quiet use of fictional objectivity happens when Hugo’s narrative voice will blend with the internal narration of Ursus, which keeps us in touch with our first Preliminary Chapter in which we see the writing on the walls within Ursus’ cart. Sure enough, our last image in the novel is that of Ursus waking up to the absence of Gwynplaine and Dea, with Homo at the edge of their boat, “baying in the shadow and looking down upon the water”.

In every Victor Hugo novel I ever read, the orientation of the reader’s perspective is given at least as much attention as the design and mechanics of the plot. The very act of reading, how, when and where the novel reveals itself to us, is an essential concern for any writer, but the nature of Hugo’s shaping of our own perspective and the text’s own treatment of authenticity seems almost post-modern. Consequently, reading Victor Hugo well is a gradual and layered experience, which contrasts interestingly with how his stories are treated with archetypical simplicity in the modern west. While we’re on the subject I’d like to recommend a YouTube video by Lindsey Ellis called The Case For Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame which deals carefully with this contrast, although I do think Lindsey committed something of a minor, forgivable oversight. She says that Notre Dame de Paris was motivated entirely by the historical vandalism of Notre Dame Cathedral and a wish to drum up attention for it’s preservation. I’m just not sure how you could walk away from that book and continue to think that: the relentless and flamboyant cynicism at least seems indicative of Hugo’s constant pre-occupation with the oppression of ancient, medieval institutions like the Catholic Church and monarchy in general. Then there’s the Ceci tuera cela (This Will Kill That) chapter that breaks down that very phrase in the mouth of Claude Frollo (Frollo’s inner narration blends with that of the narrator almost in the same way that Ursus’ does). It is a comment on how architecture is losing ground to literature as the most influential and important art form in the west. Given the attitude Hugo expressed toward literacy in other works, it’s hard to read Ceci tuera cela as a strictly negative statement, especially since he equates the shift with the transition from monarchy to democracy.

Lindsey Ellis makes an important point, though, in that adaptations of Hugo’s work tend to be far departures from the letter of the source material. The west seems to have adopted these stories as mythic archetypes, perennial outlines with fluid relevance, rather than the work of an individual writer. Victor Hugo himself anticipated and possibly encouraged parts of this, as an operatic adaptation of Notre Dame de Paris was made in his lifetime with his blessing and co-operation. Hugo even corresponded with an anarchist named Louise Michel who would often sign her name as Enjolras. Hugo was intimately familiar with art influencing life and vice versa, and his anticipation of the diverse ripples of his work makes sense given that he did not write his novels strictly as…well, novels. He would meticulously shape and manipulate the reader’s point of entry and understanding of his stories, so much so that reading Hugo often feels like watching Hugo. A three-dimensional object is situated in three-dimensional space; it’s very existence presupposes a a wider setting and other objects with relative relationships to it.

This is why reviewing an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s work requires a certain amount of care. A wide diversity of interpretations is a natural consequence of Hugo’s legacy. Also, as with any artistic legacy, diverse readings and interpretations are simply how the living relevance of important works manifests. So deviation from the original letter of the work is to be expected and does not, in and of itself, constitute a weakness. However, deviations from the letter do invite new readers to wonder why a given adaptation makes its deviations. With many adaptations of Hugo’s work, the stripping away of the narrative complexity is obvious: it simply makes it easier for a mainstream audience to digest. Other deviations speak to more idiosyncratic details of newer readings, though.

Consider Hugo’s attitude toward women: he was probably as feminist as we could reasonably expect an eighteenth century upper class, philandering French male to be. To hear him tell it in his own words, he probably believed in the social equality of men and women as strongly as he believed in universal literacy and representative government (that is, after he forged his bond with his mother’s side of the family and began to grow apart from his male-line attachment to French nobility and Peerage). Nonetheless, he has some typically chauvinistic moments regarding female characters, such as his tendency to sexualize and infantilize characters that represent daughters. There is, though, a difference between Hugo’s expressed misogyny and how others have read that misogyny. Eponine from Les Miserables, por exemplo. In the original novel, she is probably one of Victor Hugo’s best written female characters, along with being morally ambiguous. Eponine would knowingly trick Marius into joining the Friends of The ABC Society at the Rue Saint Denis barricade out of sexual jealousy and possessiveness. Along with her foot in the door of the dangerous woman trope, she also dresses as a man to join the revolutionaries, taking us into the trope of the deceptive female. For some reason, though, the author(s) of the musical decided to render Hugo’s misogyny differently, even worse in some places.

A current script for the musical has Eponine goggling in awe at Marius’ books and fawning over his hair. Is that deviation going to hugely impact the character of the musical? Maybe not hugely. It does effect the audience’s perspective of Eponine. Nonetheless, it’s curious that the stage writers decided to downplay the existent misogyny in Hugo’s portrayal of Eponine and invent different and more obvious misogyny. In an essay, Oscar Wilde singles out Fantine as uniquely romanticized and sexualized, writing that Hugo invites the reader to “kiss her bloody mouth”. Evidently, many readers have observed Hugo’s misogyny over the years and those that attempted new adaptations have channeled it differently. So much so that it’s hard not to anticipate some version of it in current adaptations; unlike the complicated filtering of the reader’s perspective, Hugo’s misogyny was more changed in translation than lost in translation. In any case, both of those changes are familiar to anyone who has read Hugo and experienced newer renditions.

Other deviations and interpretations have obvious contemporary motives, such as Disney wanting to continue their early-to-mid nineties winning streak and create a lucrative segue toward Broadway, as Lindsey Ellis explains in her video. In the wake of the success of Les Miserables as a musical, multiple live action films were made, either to cash in on the renewed interest or to provide a more “complete” and “faithful” option for those who felt the need for one in response to the structural changes the musical made.

The journey that L’homme qui rit has made throughout pop culture has many similar complications. One thing that’s bound to effect the modern American reading of L’homme qui rit is how the Joker was inspired by Conrad Veidt’s portrayal in a nineteen-thirties film adaptation. I know I was pretty gobsmacked when I learned that Victor Hugo helped give birth to the Joker. In an afterward to the graphic novel adaptation of The Man Who Laughs, written by David Hine and illustrated by Mark Stafford, Hine points out that very through-line and it’s role in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. He refers to Heath Ledger’s Joker speaking the lines “let’s put a smile on that face” as “a twisted version of Gwynplaine”. It’s hard to disagree, at least in terms of direct influence. Even if it’s the nature of mythic archetypes to be perpetually relevant but in a different way for each era, this particular emanation of Gwynplaine is a stark departure. I don’t know the precise mechanics of Hine’s creative process for this book, but hypothetically put yourself in the position of someone writing a Man Who Laughs comic after decades of the Joker. Compared to the original, the only apparent connection is the total moral pessimism and paranoia. Making a completely new, personal and organic interpretation would necessitate breaking one hell of a pattern.

For the most part, David Hine and Mark Stafford had no problems with making something unique and memorable. There were a few other problems, though, some of which I remember other writers stumbling over while attempting to bring unconventional subject matter into the graphic novel medium. I remember reading a graphic novel about Bertrand Russel a few years ago in which the author would go meta every now and then, draw himself and show us sketches and chats between the creative team and his own rants about how he couldn’t find a way to capture this or that concept. I found it entertaining and it kept me hooked for a little while, but eventually I started wondering why the metafictive device was used and eventually I put the book down since so much about the presentation seemed to be taking up my attention and not providing anything meaningful to the telling of the story. A really egregious example of someone trying to innovate and bring in exciting subject matter to graphic lit happened when some biographies of the central figures of the Beat literary movement were published as comics. As a Burroughs aficionado, I naturally couldn’t resist, and sure enough almost the entire script was bland, lifeless explication. The series was like reading a pamphlet about the Beats with these simple little sketches with word balloons providing trite, out of context quotes.

The L’homme qui rit graphic novel doesn’t get that bad ever, but there are still a few moments that made me squirm a little inside. In the early panels, we see Gwynplaine in the company of the Comprachico’s boarding the ship at Portland Bill. One of them steps in front of Gwynpaine an shouts “Not you!” as everyone boards the ship without him. It’s just such a bald moment and there’s no obvious reason for it. Was it to let the reader know what’s going on? We don’t hear about the recent kingly ban on the Comprachico’s mutilations until later in the story (in the book we hear about the illegalization of Comprachico’s slave trade early on). And, for the purposes of the graphic novel, that’s a perfectly good place to address it. In order to understand this opening scene, though, all we need to understand is that Gwynplaine is left behind. And there’s no obvious reason why the reader needs to be told that explicitly in the moment it happens. What if Gwynplaine is off playing on the beach, looks up and sees the boat floating off, having had no warning? Something like that would have worked just fine and the effect of seeing it before we hear about it would create dramatic weight when the Comprachico’s write down a collective confession that they toss away in a bottle as they capsize.

There are a few other awkward moments of explication, such as the omniscient narrator interjecting out of nowhere the origin and role of Lord David Dirry-Moir / Tom Jim Jack. During the same explicatory break, we also get explication on the roles of the Duchess Josianna and Barkilphedro, which, at least, is arguably efficient. As someone who loved the novel (the first and so far only book I ever read in French) I can empathize with the desire to include the off-beat friendship between Lord David and Duchess Josianna: it’s colorful and entertaining in the original story, especially the various clubs that Lord David belongs to (such as The Fun Club, whose members break windows and set the huts of poor people on fire) and his passion for boxing, which compels him to live and sleep with a given boxer for a long time while training them and carefully monitoring and dictating their diet. Then there’s Hugo’s florid descriptions and voyeuristic pre-occupation with Duchess Josianna. Her pre-occupation with slumming, living a separate life in disguise and wanting to become super-human- combined with her different colored eyes -actually made me think of David Bowie a little. Pleasantly uncanny. While Hugo definitely get’s very typically voyeuristic with this character, it’s handled very differently from other sexualized female characters, and I can understand the temptation to want to draw her in a comic, simply to see what she would look like. I empathize with David Hine’s desire to include Lord David and Duchess Josianna- if I made my own adaptation, I’d be excited to think of how to portray them as well -I’m just not sure why he did it the way he did.

When Hine writes as an omniscient narrator, his diction maintains a connection with the language used by the characters which helps support the tone, but that doesn’t add a strength so much as it simply makes the explication easier to come and go from. Like the “Not you!” moment at the beginning, it’s not terrible, but I can’t help but wonder why. And both of those hiccups are unfortunate, since the illustrations and the sequential connections between the panels are very creative and a more tightly written script could have really made it pop. Another missed beat between writer and illustrator is the handling of Gwynplaine’s face in different contexts. Gwynplaine is largely incapable of any facial expressions besides his gruesome, artificial smile. There are parts in the original novel that I could picture being really poignant in a visual medium: when Gwynplaine is taken to the prison where Hardquanonne is being interrogated he loudly protests his innocence. Gwynplaine is reduced to hysterical shrieking and rambling, since he thinks he’s being accused of something but doesn’t know what. I could clearly picture his pale, sweaty, terrified face with it’s perpetual smile, with tears rolling down his face, screaming the lines “You have before you a poor mountebank!” For any visual adaptation, a live action film, an animated film or a graphic novel, how to portray Gwynplaine’s face with different emotions would be one of the really interesting parts. During most of the parts when Gwynplaine is afraid or anxious, though, his smile in the graphic novel comes off as lecherous. Maybe that was intentional, maybe not. Maybe it was meant to be vulnerable awkwardness.

Another significant departure is the softening of Ursus’ tone. In both the original and the graphic novel, Ursus is a cynical yet enthusiastic verbal performer. In the original, though, he is almost relentlessly sarcastic and angry. If ever he says anything positive, it’s ironically suggested by a frank negative comment. Graphic novel Ursus is hard-bitten, but not relentless. I don’t think this would draw the attention of someone familiar with the book too much- more of a nit-pick, I suppose.

In general, though, the plot was smoothly adapted. The chapter breaks are well placed and the thematic artwork on each chapter’s title page adds something to the graphic novel’s character. I think the tone of the ending was also handled well. There was a live action L’homme qui rit film a few years ago that seriously botched it with a scene with Gwynplaine sinking beneath the waves and encountering a ghostly, angelic Dea. (I also have a bad attitude about that film for several other reasons…not least of all why they decided go with a vampire-like sex appeal for Gwynplaine. Someone I watched it with said he reminded her of Brandon Lee in The Crow).

Speaking of Dea, I think Hine and Stafford did alright with her, given how much Hugo neglected her character development at times. You could say they did their best with what they had. I’d put it on par with the portrayal of Cossette in the 2012 film adaptation of the Les Miserables musical. Cossette certainly did not furnish a ton of depth to work with for future adaptations, especially if they were determined to remain faithful to the original text, and although her changes in the film script from the stage one were slight- such as the altered lyrics of some songs like In My Life and the reprises of A Heart Full of Love and Suddenly at the end -I found them welcome. In the original novel, Ursus tries to trick Dea- who is bedridden and blind -into thinking Gwynplaine is still there with his ventriloquism. The book encourages you to think he’s almost supernaturally talented at this and that Dea seeing through it is shocking. In the graphic novel it looks pathetic, which adds to the sorrow of the moment in a good way. I also enjoyed the graphic novel’s portrayal of Gwynplaine’s speech to the House of Lords at the end: he seemed like he was raging and letting himself go with his anger for the first time in his life, which I thought was neatly consistent with the original. In the live action film, I think they tried to play it like a mental break down, which played badly.

With adaptations of stories you care a lot about, it’s easy to foresee a lot going wrong and get protective. That’s definitely how I felt after seeing the live action L’homme qui rit a few years ago, and I think the graphic novel compares well to it. I can’t say that’s a high benchmark, though, especially since Hine struggled a little with the story structure and the tone. I’d be interested to hear what someone thought of it who knew nothing about the story beforehand. My curiosity has also been piqued with regard to David Hine, particularly another collaboration he did with Mark Stafford in a Lovecraft anthology.