Monday, October 20, 2014

Genesis: Crumb's Mental Outlet

The film Crumb depicts the life and work of the cartoonist Robert Crumb. It focuses on his life, but also includes interviews other members of his family: his two brothers and his mother. He is the only son of the three who is not diagnosed with a mental illness. A difficult childhood and suppressing emotions gives him a pseudo-insanity that connects his mind to his brothers’ illnesses. Crumb’s illustration of the Book of Genesis shows the psychological effects of his childhood and the mental illness that plagues his family. Through his depiction of certain images he shows the true pain and suffering he endured as a child and its mental impact.
As a child, Crumb grew up in the projects of Philadelphia with very little money. His parents were in an unhappy marriage consisting of constant fighting. Crumb describes his father as, “an overbearing tyrant” who made his life hell. To escape the wrath of his father, he and his brothers became obsessed with comics. Ironically, his older brother Charles was the most passionate about this obsession. Crumb has since always felt a need for Charles’ approval in his work. His depiction of characters having mental illnesses shows his dedication to honoring his brother, as well as his own personal struggles.
Crumb is an artist who has often been criticized for his offensive ideas in comics. Few critics have actually gone as far as to argue that he is actually insane. However, the events of his childhood caused mental illness in his brothers who are both medicated to control such behavior. Perhaps this behavior has affected Crumb in a similar way causing mental instability, and he uses Genesis as an outlet to show the inner workings of his mind that he cannot suppress. In an image towards the middle of Chapter 15, Abram is shown sleeping on the floor of a cave. He lies in a curled up position as if he is frightened or trying to protect himself. As he sleeps, images of faces line the walls of the cave. The faces are depicted as dark, haunting, and depressing which is seen in their sullen expressions. They encompass the walls with no free space as if they possess the cave that Abram is sleeping in. The caption for the frame states, “And as the sun was going down, a deep slumber fell upon Abram, and now a great dark dread descended upon him.” Abram is a symbol of people suffering from mental diseases that cannot escape their own mind. The “great dark” represents the struggle that Crumb or his brothers cannot fight. The faces are the voices in his head that hold him hostage always controlling him. Crumb has witnessed the impact of illness on his brothers, and therefore uses this image to show not only his own struggle, but also his brothers’ struggles.  
Another depiction of a character showing a mental illness can be seen in the end of Chapter 32. As Jacob leads his wives and family in attempt to keep them away from his brother, Esau, he is “left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” He then wins against the man and is renamed Israel because he “struggled with divine beings and won out!” The man that appears when Jacob is alone symbolizes the mental illness of individuals that appears when they are alone. Crumb is playing with the fact that it is a physical struggle between yourself and the other things controlling you. The fact that Jacob is renamed when he wins shows that when someone learns to control their disease, they literally become a new person. His brothers’ medications help them control their illness. Crumb may even feel that his mental struggles make him a completely different person, changing who he truly is.
Crumb was a very experienced artist by the time he decided to illustrate the Book of Genesis. He was able to look back on his life and see the effect his childhood had on him. The situations he witnessed are reason to give anyone mental stress, if not mental illness. While he is not technically diagnosed with a mental illness, he shows through Genesis the inner thoughts of someone, including himself struggling with such issues. By depicting characters in the Bible as victims of mental illness, he makes the connection between the divine and the individual. He shows that it is acceptable to be struggling with problems and he symbolically shows the strength his brothers and others go through every day by surviving with their illness. More importantly, he uses it as therapy to deal with the struggling childhood he had and the impact it still has on him today. Perhaps all of his drawings, even the most obscene are all coping methods to move past the horrors of his childhood.

1 comment:

  1. This is a straightforward, readable essay, with a reasonable thesis, and which picks extremely interesting and important moments in the text/comic to analyze. There’s a universal challenge with this sort of essay: moving the connection you want to make between the artist and the work out of the area of speculation, and into the area of something that we can demonstrate with some confidence. How to do this?

    Asserting that Genesis is partially a response to his own childhood and the sufferings of his brothers is interesting, but essentially unprovable.

    But turn that idea on its head for a moment. Why should we care that *Genesis* might be, or is, in some way a kind of therapeutic response to his childhood, and/or a memorial to his brothers? What does that get for us?

    Maybe you have your own answer, but here’s mine. If we emphasize these moments of dread and supernatural struggle (another point of connection - Joseph’s traumatic youth, transitioning into his obvious mental scars, which maybe connects to his visions, which we would probably understand as a sign of mental illness), then Crumb’s Genesis isn’t a satire, or at least not primarily so (which is arguably the dominant reading among your peers). Rather, it is an example of how the traditional and universal can also *be* the personal and therapeutic.

    In short - you needed to work a little harder to turn this set of worthwhile speculations into a working argument.