I could have been really cheeky and declared that I couldn’t come up with an idea for this column.
That, after all, is the situation of Richard (aka Ric) Madoc in “Calliope” — he’s a writer who has published one novel, The Cabaret of Doctor Caligari (a title that would be, I must admit, just about enough to make me buy the book without knowing anything else about it), but who has run into total writer’s block. From an elderly writer, Erasmus Fry, Madoc gets a muse. Literally. He gets Homer’s muse, Calliope, the muse of heroic poetry. Fry has held her captive for decades, and trades her to Madoc for a bezoar.
A bezoar, in case you don’t know (I didn’t) is a hairball that has gotten stuck in a stomach. They’ve been prized over the centuries for their supposed anti-toxin powers.
Hairballs are one of those things that are both gross and hilarious. In “Calliope”, they’re mostly gross — or, perhaps, creepy. But the word hairball has something funny about it (unlike bezoar, which is little comic potential), and if you imbue hairballs with a bit of sentience, they immediately seem more amusing. Take, for instance, an excellent play by Mac Wellman, Sincerity Forever, in which Mystic Furballs bring chaos to the world. After the play caused some consternation in the U.S. Congress (certain Republicans didn’t like the character of Jesus H. Christ represented as a black woman speaking vernacular English), Wellman was forced by the National Endowment for the Arts to remove all indications that he had received funding from them to write the play, even though he had. This, too, could have been the fault of furballs. Jesse Helms, one of the Congressors who tried to punish the NEA for Wellman, achieved eternal fame as the dedicatee of Wellman’s next play, 7 Blowjobs.
I just adopted two long-haired cats, so furballs and hairballs and even bezoars are on my mind a lot these days.
Now, what were we talking about before I got sidetracked? Ideas? Ahhh, yes, ideas and the not having of them because of hairballs in the brain. Or something like that.
Clearly, I need a muse.
But I don’t think I’ll go about getting one the way Richard Madoc did, because it didn’t work out too well for him. “Calliope” is in some ways a story in the old EC Comics mode — a predictable tale of somebody punished for greed and general obnoxiousness. I don’t mean predictable as a bad thing, either; part of the fun of such stories is that we know, while we read, that this person will suffer some awful fate. Alfred Hitchcock famously said that real suspense comes from the audience knowing something the character doesn’t, and so, he said, it’s much more effective for us to see a bomb the character doesn’t know about than for us to be as ignorant as the character, because while, in the first case, we will be shocked by the bomb’s explosion, the filmmaker can gain a whole lot more sustained emotional power from the audience wondering when the bomb will explode. Similarly, we know things are not going to work out for Richard Madoc the way he intends, and one of the pleasures of “Callope” is watching gleefully — indeed, schadenfreudally! — as Madoc takes one step after another toward his doom.
In fact, “Calliope” is not only a little bit like an EC comic, it’s like a good episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (You would think my favorite episode of that show was “The Cheney Vase”, I know, and it is, indeed, a good one — including a fine performance from the marvelous George Macready — but my real favorites are two adaptations of Roald Dahl stories, “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Man from the South.”) There’s a symmetry to the story, too, as it begins with the marvelously multi-meaninged statement by Madoc, “I don’t have any idea,” and ends with him saying, “I’ve got no idea any more. No idea at all.” When he says it at the beginning of the story, it’s with regret and frustration; when he says it at the end, there’s a certain sense of relief, because The Sandman has punished him for imprisoning and assaulting Calliope by inflicting a torrent of ideas on his brain, and it is only through Calliope’s forgiveness of him that the torrent subsides.
The Dream Country collection contains a special bonus as an appendix: the original script Neil Gaiman wrote for “Calliope”. I discovered it after reading the completed comic, and it was fascinating, because I’ve never looked at a comic script before. A few things stuck out for me: one, how detailed it was. Gaiman’s script, at least, offers a closer approximation to the final product than does the average script for a play or movie — different media, certainly, but the script serves a relatively similar function of giving the other people involved in the project a blueprint from which to work. Super-detailed scripts tend to be frowned on, though, because of a perception that the writer is trying to do other people’s jobs for them, and a less-is-more approach generally prevails these days for playscripts and screenplays. Having these as my templates, I had assumed a comics writer saying, for instance, how many panels belong on a page would be as frowned upon as screenwriters trying to dictate the details of how scenes are shot, but this is not so in the “Calliope” script. And that makes sense — the shape and progression of panels determines much of how a story is paced and perceived.
I was also struck at how informal the tone of the script is. Instead of being a generic, impersonal document, the script is a friendly communique. The description of page 11 begins, “I dunno it’s half past five in the morning, and the TV is showing an ‘In-Depth Examination’ of the closing of a Canadian railroad; at four in the morning I was rung three times in succession by someone or soemthing who didn’t speak.” And it goes on for a few more sentences.
I am enchanted by this. Here is the sense of a communal endeavor that one gets with a good play or film production, but there is also the strong presence of a guiding hand in the details of the scripts — in which the writer is not only writer, but director. And because the cost is only pen and ink, the special effects can be anything imaginable. It seems like the perfect form to me, the ultimate joy for a writer who is also interested in collaborating with artists of varied skills.
The only question that remains for me, though, is what became of Erasmus Fry’s collection of hairballs?
A Dream of a Thousand Cats
What an appropriate time to read the second story in Dream Country, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” — I have only in the last two weeks become a servant to cats again, myself. One of them, a long-haired black and white fellow named Alex, seven years old and quite happy to no longer be at the shelter where he lived for a few months, sat on my lap and observed what I was reading. His brother, Oliver (white and brown), watched from a chair across the room. They are champion nappers, but neither napped while I read. They seemed both intrigued and suspicious.
As well they should be, for “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” proposes that we humans enslaved the feline race by out-dreaming them. Previously, humans were small creatures who served their massive cat masters, but groups of humans got together and dreamed the current situation into reality. One cat travels the world, proselytizing for cats to out-dream the humans, to bring back the old reality.
Of course, feline unionism is a doomed idea, given that cats seem hardwired for a philosophy of rational self-interest. (Or maybe not rational. More instinctual. Ayn Rand apparently learned everything she knew from cats, and then claimed she thought of it herself, which was, it seems to me, her only claim to reason. But I digress…) It’s no accident herding cats is a popular expression for impossible tasks.
I have another hunch for why the cats do no follow the rabble-rouser and unite their dreams: they’ve got it pretty good. She identifies them as an oppressed group (“plaything, possession, and toy”) and urges them to revolt, but the bourgeois world she herself escaped from is not a bad one — it is, in fact, a triumph of feline manipulation, as anyone who is possessed by a cat in a bourgeois household knows.
Possessed by a cat is indeed the most accurate expression. While dogs may be subservient to us, in many ways dependent, cats are much less so. They use us as sources of food, warmth, and amusement, but the balance of power is clearly on the cat’s side. For a cat who can visit the outdoors, the life is even better: access to the wide world (with all its marvelous rodents and birds), plus a human to provide regular meals, medical care, and a lap.
Alex and Oliver were not particularly bothered by my reading the tale of a certain kitty Communist because even though they can’t go outside (because they never have), they know they’ve got it better than they would were they at the mercy of nature. Cats, in addition to being die-hard believers in self-interest, are Hobbesians when it comes to nature, seeing the life it offers as one that is nasty, brutish, and short. What cat wouldn’t want to escape such a fate? Thus, their life as pets is exactly as they wanted it.
Oliver and Alex have reached an age where they have mastered all the arts of manipulation. It’s why they and not one of the 200 other cats at the shelter went home with me, even though they were a little bit older than what I thought I was looking for. They saw me coming. They looked through the bars of their cage plaintively, they sprawled on their backs, they jumped into my arms when I opened the cage, they purred, they pressed their faces against mine.
Cats get what they want.
Domestic cats may not be larger than humans in our current reality, but they still have humans to groom them, feed them, pet them. In this reality, we humans are larger and possess more consciousness, so we’re able to build pet stores and to have the desire to spend money at those stores on combs, beds, scratching posts, gourmet foods, catnip, and all sorts of silly toys. We’re much more useful to cats in this form than we would be as little naked creatures in the forest, which is what the feline Rosa Luxemburg in “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” yearns for.
There are terrible humans out there, it’s true — humans who kill their cats’ babies, humans who neglect or assault innocent creatures. These sorts of humans are the ones that radicalized the cat in the story.
Perhaps this is why Oliver and Alex seemed happy that I was reading this issue of The Sandman. Perhaps they saw it as a warning to me — and to all humans. Perhaps they were saying to me: “Beware! Fail in your duties to us, and we, too, will start dreaming of the old world!”
It will, according to the story, only take a thousand or so dreamers to change the universe. To obliterate the world as we know it. A thousand cats dreaming of a better reality…
Sorry — I can’t keep writing this column. I have to go feed the cats. Believe me, it’s better for us all if I do!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Dates in fiction always cause my meaning-minded ears to prick up, and when a date is the first text in an issue of Sandman, a work rich with allusions, I pay close attention.
“June 23rd, 1593” are the words that invoke this story, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. June 23rd: St. John’s Eve, one of the days of the midsummer solstice. 1593, the year Christopher Marlowe died.
Many scholars fix the earliest possible date for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 1594, the year when, famously, King James in Scotland had a chariot brought in to a feast by a Moor instead of a lion, because people feared the lion would cause too much terror amongst the audience. The Rude Mechanicals in Midsummer fear bringing a lion into a royal gathering for similar reasons.
In his introduction to the Arden edition of Midsummer, Harold F. Brooks discusses the date and occasion of the play for more than twenty pages, finally concluding, “The hypothesis which fits the largest number of facts and probabilities — though it must remain a hypothesis — is that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was composed in the winter of 1595-6, for the Carey wedding on 19 February…” Plenty of scholars are less certain about the occasion, but 1595-6 is one of the most accepted probable dates for the play’s composition, putting it on one side or the other of Romeo & Juliet, a play with which it shares many similarities of plot, theme, and, especially, style.
But all of this is, as Brooks admits, hypothetical. It’s possible the play was performed during the summer of 1593 — in fact, it’s more likely that it was performed that summer than that it was first performed for an audience of faeries and goblins.
The key to understanding why 1593 is a good choice for Sandman’s “Midsummer” is Marlowe. We saw Marlowe and Shakespeare briefly in issue 13, “Men of Good Fortune”, and learned there that Shakespeare’s creative genius was the result of a bargain with the Sandman. (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” clarifies exact terms of that bargain — terms that Shakespeare himself will not understand until 1596, when his son Hamnet dies.)
On page 16, the Sandman reveals to Shakespeare that Marlowe has recently been killed. Shakespeare is shocked and saddened, which surprises the Lord of Dreams, who says, “I did not realize it would hurt you so.”
“You did not realize?” Shakespeare says. “No, your kind care not for human lives.”
Emotional distance is one of the primary concerns of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and it is tied closely to questions of the value of art and creation. (Note that the faeries call the Sandman “Shaper”.) Shakespeare is hurt and horrified by the Sandman’s inability to empathize with a mortal’s view of death, while Hamnet is pained by his father’s absorption into the world of his plays. “All that matters to him,” Hamnet says, “…All that matters is the stories.”
As in “Calliope”, we see again the dangers of art. Creative acts require a certain distance from the stuff of life, because within the distance lies creative vision. Many writers speak of embarrassment, even shame, at the part of themselves that sees all their experiences as potential material for their art. No experience, no matter how ecstatic or traumatic, can be fully inhabited if part of the brain insists on considering how the experience can be shaped and used for a story or a poem or a song or a play. Devotion to art, too, often makes people bad parents, bad spouses, bad friends — not just because of the distance between experience and art, but because creativity is, at its best, all-consuming. All that matters is the stories.
Shakespeare is unaware that the genius allowing his work to become immortal (or as close to immortal as anything made from the perishable goods of language, ink, and paper can be) is also a force that makes his emotional life rhyme with that of the immortal beings for whom human death is nothing to get worked up over. He might be surprised to discover his son finds him distant and thinks his true loyalties lie with his plays and poetry, not people. Readers who know that Hamnet died in childhood will immediately see the personal tragedy presented here; readers for whom the last panel of the issue, which notes Hamnet’s death, is a surprise may feel the tragedy even more acutely at the moment of surprise.
Somewhat more subtly, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” considers how the world is represented through the art for which people sacrifice lives and loves. The audience for the play is not just a bunch of strange and marvelous beings — the audience for the play is the beings who are themselves represented in parts of the play. When Puck takes over for the actor playing him, he becomes not just Puck or “Puck”, but Puck playing an actor playing Puck. This is much like what happens with female characters in many of the comedies where women disguise themselves as men (e.g. Twelfth Night). In the original performances, such plot devices had added resonances. Women were forbidden from being actors in Shakespeare’s England, and so, as we see in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the women were played by boys. The role reversals created performances where boys played women playing men.
What, then, is authentic and meaningful in art? What is art’s value and purpose? Is there something other than just entertainment — a diversion to kill some time — here?
Meaning is produced not by authenticity, but by representation. Questions of truth and fact come up many times in this issue of Sandman, and Dream himself addresses the question toward the end, when Lord Auberon says, “This diversion, though pleasant, is not true. Things never happened thus,” and the Sandman replies, “Oh, but it IS true. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” Dream made his bargain with Shakespeare as a way to keep old stories alive, to pass along versions of truth from era to era, reality to reality — to escape the dust of memory.
Representations do not have to be authentic to be true, nor does authenticity create durability. Long-lasting art can be as artificial as one of Shakespeare’s most artificial plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play full of rhetoric and whimsy and fantasy. Such things allow a distance from the stuff of life, and within that distance we can find the objectivity to discern truths otherwise invisible to us. Artists risk loneliness and devastation when they delve into that distance, but the result can be a work — a truth — for the ages.
Stories about faces freak me out.
This wasn’t the case until I was nineteen and my face changed quite severely because of what was, I was told, basically a lymph node disorder. It took a year to get a proper diagnosis, and another year of heavy-duty medications to solve the problem, so I spent about eighteen months with a severely and obviously swollen face, the sort of face that caused people to ask me if I’d been stung by a bunch of bees, the sort of face that made people look at me for just a few moments longer than they would have otherwise: I had a face that was clearly not right.
The only picture of myself I have from that time is my college ID. I worked hard to avoid photographs. I worked hard to make jokes about my grotesqueness, or to have quick soundbyte explanations ready for the inevitable questions. (What was worse, the people who pretended not to notice anything, but obviously did; or the people who just said straight out, “What wrong with you?” I don’t know. Depended on my mood; depended on the day.) I hid a lot, not because I was afraid of people or didn’t want company, but because it was the only way I could rest. If nobody was looking at me, my brain didn’t go in all of its neurotic directions, trying to figure out what they were thinking, wondering, whispering. If nobody was around, if I was alone, if there was no mirror, no reflection … then I could feel normal again.
Once the barrage of toxic drugs did whatever they did (my dermatologist, one of the best in the country, said nobody quite knew why the condition happened or why the one particular combination of drugs worked, and too few cases had been diagnosed to do anything but speculate), my cheeks and forehead shrank, I didn’t wake up every morning barely able to open my eyes, and I didn’t look like a freak. I called friends and family and said, “I got my face back.”
So you can see why the story of Rainie in “Facade” hit a lot of my nerves. It’s been fifteen years since I got my face back, and I hadn’t really thought about that whole ordeal for a while, but from the first few pages of “Facade”, it was a parallel story biting at my memory as I read.
I expect Rainie’s story is one that pricks a lot of people’s nerves. You don’t have to have lost your face to know some of what she’s feeling. Lots of people have cause at one point or another in their life to think, I am hideous.
As I read “Facade”, I kept hoping there would be a pleasant solution. (We all have certain fantasies we’re especially vulnerable to.) I wanted Rainie to encounter someone who didn’t care what she looked like. I wanted her to find someone who found her beautiful in whatever form she took. There’s room in some of the Sandman stories for characters of strange, freakish, even repulsive forms to find realms where they can relax and rest and even, perhaps, flourish. This is one of the keys to the comic’s popularity, it seems to me — no matter how horrible the events get, there’s still a sense that this is a world where, on the whole, there’s a place for everybody, if they can just find it.
Rainie couldn’t find it, and it broke my heart. Sure, maybe in whatever realm she ended up in, wherever it was the sun god Ra evaporated her to, maybe there she found liberation from her form.
But that’s not the happy ending I was yearning for. During the most gut-wrenching scene in the story (for me, at least), where Rainie’s mask falls off while she and Della are dining, I wanted Della to just say, “Oh please. You’re not half as bad as Joan Rivers must be under her mask. Here’s a napkin…”
Not that she gave Della a choice. Rainie just ran away, back home, to hide and suffer.
I can’t blame her. When you think yours is the face of a freak, you don’t wait for people to confirm your fears.
There are quite a few issues of The Sandman I’m looking forward to rereading. I can’t wait to revisit the serial killer convention, or the diner massacre, or any number of violent and disturbing stories.
I don’t plan to reread “Facade” any time soon, though. Not because it’s not well done. It’s well done. The art, the pacing of the story … it’s all great.
But it’s hard to read through tears.