Genesis Gets the Crumb Treatment
Sunday 25 October 2009
by: Kelpie Wilson, t r u t h o u t | Book Review
The cover of Robert Crumb's interpretation of Genesis.
(Book Cover: Robert Crumb / W. W. Norton & Co.)
I confess that I am one of those feminists who finds a lot to like in the work of Robert Crumb. If his early work in the underground comics movement expressed a "sexual rage" as he calls it, well those were the times to get it all out of your system. Besides, how could I not love an artist so appreciative of the real bodies that women have - big butts, thunder thighs and all?
So, it came as a surprise to learn that this warrior of the id and defender of the flesh has produced an illustrated version of Genesis. That's right, the Bible. What would he do with it? Obviously, Crumb would portray the cruel and jealous God of the Old Testament as some version of the cynical, abusive Mr. Natural, holding secret orgies in Heaven with Devil Girl, and he would base his Abraham on Flakey Foont, Mr. Natural's pathetic sycophant.
But that's not how Crumb did it. On this one, he played it (mostly) straight. And why not? If you have never read Genesis from start to finish, you might not be aware that the stories are as full of sexual perversity and surreal plot points as any comic book. Genesis has lust, inebriation, nudity, polygamy, harlots, men pimping their wives, masturbation, penis cutting, sex with a 90-year-old woman who gives birth, sodomy, incest and a father who offers his virgin daughters up for strangers to rape.
That's a lot of great material for an artist like Crumb, and the genius of his Genesis is that he portrays it all - every word and every illustration is given equal weight. That's not how they taught it to us back in Sunday school. Our Bible coloring books had only selected scenes: Noah and his animals, but never Noah lying passed out drunk and naked in his tent. And even when we outgrew the Sunday school cookies and punch and graduated to wafers and wine, we still never heard about Abraham selling his wife Sarah to Pharaoh in exchange for cattle, gold and slaves. It was a kind of scam for the couple, and they did it more than once, targeting King Abimelech of Gerar next and getting cattle, sheep, slaves and land in return.
Crumb's compositions are cinematic and the rendering of detail is deliciously fine. One is amazed at how well the text adapts to the comic book form with its speech balloons and narrative boxes. The "sweet" Crumb comes through here with tenderly drawn and emotionally insightful expressions. And the faces! Where did he get them all? Each individual in the "begats" is unique. They are all raw, rich and human.
Some years ago, when Bill Moyers convened an interfaith dialogue on Genesis, it was the human dimension of the stories that he found so gripping: "Because their emotions and struggles are so real," Moyers said, "the people of Genesis come to life in every generation, and their stories live on."
Scholars have often said that the Hebrew texts are the first example of written history. Earlier writing from Sumeria recorded myths (including the flood story), genealogies, laws and accounts, but the Hebrews were the first to write a narrative history of their people. Before the "people of the book," the common culture of a clan or tribe was formed exclusively by oral tales and images.
Images are fundamentally different from words. Leonard Shlain, in his book "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess," lays out a theory about this difference and the impact it has had on cultural evolution. Shlain thought that writing stimulated left brain, linear, cause-and-effect thinking, associated with males, while a focus on images produced a more intuitive and holistic style of thought, associated with females.
The "people of the book" crusaded against images, as their God warned them away from the "alien gods" of other people. The most interesting scenes in Genesis revolve around the struggles within the tribe of Abraham over images and other vestiges of goddess worship, for clearly these stories are about a people in transition. And this is where Crumb's work becomes important.
By rendering every letter of Genesis faithfully into images, Crumb has given us a blank canvas on which to color new meaning. Combining words and images together allows us to escape the fundamentalism of either one alone. Shlain discusses this fundamentalism in his chapters on the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. The Catholic Church had never allowed free access to the Bible texts. Only ordained priests were authorized to read and interpret the Bible for congregations. The only direct access people had to the stories was the depiction of selected stories in church windows and other decorations. Then along came the printing press, making the Bible available to lay people, and Martin Luther declared "every man is his own priest." But liberating the Bible from church control courted chaos, and there was suddenly no room for any interpretation at all. Bible literalism was born. And since no one really knew how to respond to incidents like Abraham selling Sarah to Pharaoh, or Lot offering his virgin daughters to a ravenous mob, those stories are generally ignored by all.
Crumb's Genesis does not let you ignore the problem stories - they are imaged just as faithfully as all the others.
Crumb addresses some of these more puzzling stories in his afterword commentary where he quotes from a book by Near East scholar Savina Teubal titled "Sarah the Priestess." I read Teubal's book as background material for my novel "Primal Tears" a few years ago and it revolutionized my thinking about human history. Teubal found it very likely that the biblical Sarah was a high priestess from a disappearing matriarchal culture that still existed in Mesopotamia, alongside an emerging patriarchy.
Ancient Mesopotamian priestesses were highly regarded and their offices were essential to the functioning of society. The priestess was responsible for rituals maintaining the fertility of the land and for decisions on how the stores of grain would be shared. To maintain her impartiality, a priestess was not allowed to bear children of her own, lest she favor her own lineage. Hence all the barren women among the matriarchs of Genesis - they were priestesses in a new land where their ancient prerogatives were being revoked, systematically, by Yahweh.
The heiros gamos, or sacred marriage, was the supreme fertility ritual performed by a priestess with a king. As the priestess embodied Inanna, Queen of Heaven, she would "take the earth-king into the sweetness of her holy loins, and by her cosmic powers ensure the king's powers of leadership and fertility." This explains the two episodes with Sarah and the kings and another one later between Sarah's daughter-in-law Rebekah and a king. Sarah's first liaison with Pharaoh brings down plague and God makes sure that the second of Sarah's sacred marriages, with King Abimelech, is never consummated. Even the threat of it has made all the women in the kingdom barren and God only restores their fertility after Abimelech sends Sarah back to her husband.
And yet, the repudiation of matriarchal power is not complete. Although multiplying Abraham's seed is the driving thrust of the Genesis story, only the descendents of Sarah's child Isaac are counted among the twelve tribes of Israel. Even God backs Sarah up when he lets her banish Abraham's son Ishmael.
It is interesting also that the patriarchs are not the manliest of men. Abraham always does as he is told. Isaac is too weak to resist Rebekah, who deceives him into blessing the mild-mannered Jacob rather than the robust hunter Esau. Jacob is a "dweller in tents" who cannot control his rowdy sons. Joseph, as Crumb says, "is a sensitive man who is moved to tears many times in his life story." Sensitive men and strong matriarchs are one phase of a gender struggle that is endlessly fascinating to us as a species, a struggle that has always been with us (see Crumb's story "Cave Wimp").
Armed with interpretations like Savina Teubal's and with Crumb's accessible picture book, a new territory of exploration awaits the reader. One point that deserves a lot of thought is how the history of one obscure tribe has come to dominate religious practice for thousands of years and what that means for the future.
For instance, if the "chosen people" of Israel believe they have a God-given right to the already-occupied land of Canaan, how can there ever be peace in the Middle East? Genesis has many passages that justify the subjugation of the Canaanites, beginning with Noah banishing his son Ham on the flimsiest of excuses (that he saw his father drunk and naked in his tent?). As Ham and his young son Canaan depart, Noah calls after them, "Cursed be Canaan! The lowliest of slaves he shall be to his brother!" This has the feel of a crude setup for all the smiting that comes later.
No doubt, there has been more than one group of nomads with big ambitions who trolled the earth, searching for opportunities to multiply their seed. The Hebrews were merely the first to write their story and preserve it for generations and so they earned their influence. Because of this continuing influence, passed down to both Christians and Muslims, it is vitally important that these stories do not go unexamined. As Bill Moyers put it: "The more each of us knows and understands, the better our chances for living purposeful lives, creating strong families, building solid communities, and forging a more tolerant and vibrant democracy ... together."