Friday, October 21, 2011

Can an Illustrator Be Objective? -- Anthony Garuccio

In the introduction to The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb, Crumb states “I, R. Crumb, the illustrator of this book, have, to the best of my ability, faithfully reproduced every word of the original text”. This reassurance, in my eyes, is meant to build trust between Crumb and the reader that the book before them is the exact same as the written bible, just with pictures added. Crumb, by calling himself an “Illustrator” instead of an author, veils to the reader that the story we are reading is actually a second hand account of the true text (actually more like 4th hand account if you consider the many translations). This obscurement of the narrative mode helps Crumb’s Genesis to appear to be free of interpretation. However, consider the word “illustrator”; while today it has the connotation of being a voiceless artist—slave to the written word with which it is juxtaposed—originally, it comes from the Latin word illustrātus, which means to illuminate or make clear (Merriam-webster dictionary). So, is it possible for an illustrator to create a book free from interpretation, as Crumb claims to?[1] I claim the answer is no.

To make this point concrete, let us look at the beginning of chapter 30. First, in Alter’s Genesis, we have the story of Rachel and Jacob. Rachel is distraught that she has bore no sons, so she cries out to Jacob for help. Jacob rebukes her for calling out to him instead of god. Then Rachel makes Jacob sleep with her two slavegirls to bear her 4 children. In this version of the story, Rachel is painted as selfish and impulsive—see footnote on page 158. The fact that jealousy and competition are her motivation—not to mention the fact that she forces her husband and slaves to sleep together—paints Rachel as the villain in this story.

Contrasting this with Crumb’s version allows us to see an instance where he is making a major interpretation of —or departure from—the source text. Here, at the bottom of the page that begins chapter 30 in the center, the face of Rachel, as she cries out to Jacob for help, is clearly displaying desperation and sadness. The next image shows her looking down with grief as Jacob yells at her. This is very different from the way Rachel is viewed in Alter’s Genesis. In Alter, Rachel was impulsive and willful, making her the “bad guy”, but in Crumb, Rachel is sad and desperate, deserving of our pity and compassion rather than disapproval.

To further this point, notice the words of Rachel within the first panel on the next page of Crumb: “Here’s my handmaid Bilhah! Come in bed with her, that she shall bear upon my knees, and though her my house, too, will be built up” [emphasis added]. This is one of the instances where Crumb does not use the words of Alter. In Alters version, Rachel does not say so that “my house” can be built up, but rather “so that I, too, shall be built up”. This reaffirms the clear difference between the ways Alter and Crumb want us to perceive Rachel. Crumb’s Rachel desires to build up her family, which is a much nobler goal than that of Alter’s Rachel, who desired to only build up herself. Also, In Crumb, Rachel refers to her servant as a “handmaid” whereas in Alter she refers to her as a “slavegirl”. By removing the association between Rachel and slavery, Crumb again diminishes the vilification of Rachel.

So, now that we have established that Crumb is making a conscience effort to go against the source text by developing the character of Rachel as abject rather than iniquitous, the question of his motivation for doing so is unavoidable. To me this instance of interpretation is representative of the clash between the morals of the bible and the morals of Crumb. In the view of Alter’s Genesis, Rachel is sinful because she jealous, willful, selfish, and does not turn to God for help. However, this morality is not shared by Crumb. While Rachel does commit acts that go against Crumb’s ideas of right and wrong—as evidenced by some of the nefarious faces he draws for Rachel later in the chapter—she is not damned due to her willfulness, desires, and self-reliance (as she is in Alter’s Genesis).

Returning to our original question, as to whether or not an illustrator can suppress his own unique voice and submit to that of the original author, it is clear that the answer is no. This moment demonstrates that Crumb is not merely adding illustrations to the text, but rather reinterpreting the original work in correspondence to his own morals and judgments. This shows that we must view the work of Crumb not as descriptive in nature, but rather argumentative. This new perspective changes the way in which the reader views Crumb’s Genesis substantially.

[1] Alter, Robert obert. Genesis. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. Print.

[2] Crumb, R. . The Book Of Genesis. W W Norton & Co Inc, 2009. Print.

[3] "illustrate." Merriam-Webster, 2011.

[1] Actually Crumb doesn’t claim his Genesis is free from interpretation, however he does say “In a few places I ventured to do a little interpretation of my own … but I refrained from indulging too often in such ‘creativity’” in the introduction.

1 comment:

  1. On the surface, I don't see any easy ways to improve this without adding to its length - you accomplish a lot in a little space, carefully using both texts, and making unusually good use of a latin etymology along the way. Excellent.

    But an excellent beginning does not mean you are done. What work remains?

    To me, the obvious thing left hanging, if you remain focused on the same text and problems, is the question of Crumb's motivations. Crumb is, as you clearly *illuminate*, posing as a "mere" illustrator, but he's doing much more, both through what he draws and through his liberal movement, as convenient, between translations. So, what's his game? Is he simply being briefly self-effacing, the great writer/artist posing as a mere illustrator? Or is he deliberately concealing his real motives and activities - maybe to show "his" genesis as an "authentic" genesis?

    These seem to be important questions.

    On a more prosaic note: while your reading of Rachel as more sympathetic in Crumb than in Alter is very credible, I think you need to do more with Bilhah, and her appearance, for it to work to its full potential.