Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Far Side of Religion: Notes on the Prophet Gary Larson

Great article by the author of The Gospel According to Bob Dylan:

The Far Side of Religion: Notes on the Prophet Gary Larson

BY Michael J. Gilmour

    This was a psalter in whose margins was delineated a world reversed with respect to the one to which our senses have accustomed us. As if at the border of a discourse that is by definition the discourse of truth, there proceeded, closely linked to it . . . a topsy-turvy universe, in which dogs flee before the hare, and deer hunt the lion.1
The speaker is a Benedictine novice named Adso of Melk, narrator of Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose who, in 1327, accompanied the Sherlock Holmes-like monk William of Baskerville to a wealthy Italian abbey. They are in the scriptorium, visiting the workstation of the recently deceased illuminator Adelmo of Otranto, and Adso describes the strange drawings Adelmo placed alongside the biblical Psalms. He reports a long list of bizarre images: bird-feet heads; animals with human hands on their back; zebra-striped dragons; quadrupeds with serpentine necks; monkeys with stags’ horns; armless men with other human bodies emerging from their backs like humps; humans with horses’ heads, and horses with human legs; fish with birds’ wings and birds with fishtails; monsters with single bodies and double heads or single heads and double bodies; cows—yes, cows!—with cocks’ tails and butterfly wings; women with heads scaly as a fish’s back; centaurs; elephants; manticores; “sequences of anthropomorphic animals and zoomorphic dwarfs joined, sometimes on the same page, with scenes of rustic life in which you saw, depicted with such impressive vivacity that the figures seemed alive, all the life of the fields”; a towered city defended by monkeys; and on and on it goes.2
The universe found in these comics is theistic and broadly biblical, which is more than one can say about most others.
What is startling about the scene Adso describes, especially in the context of a fourteenth-century monastery, is the location of these pictures, appearing as they do alongside the sacred Scriptures. This inverted world “where houses stand on the tip of a steeple and the earth is above the sky” intrigues Adso, who finds himself “torn between silent admiration and laughter, because the illustrations naturally inspired merriment, though they were commenting on holy pages.”3 Some are not so impressed, particularly Jorge of Burgos who finds such indulgences in the fantastic an evil (one even justifying murder). Jesus, he argues, “did not have to employ such foolish things to point out the strait and narrow path,” and further, “Nothing in his parables arouses laughter.” Humor and laughter, in Jorge’s view, “is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh.” William of Baskerville, on the other hand, is far less severe, suggesting, “Marginal images often provoke smiles, but to edifying ends.” As in sermons, William continues, “to touch the imagination of devout throngs it is necessary to introduce exempla, not infrequently jocular.” Similarly, “the discourse of images must indulge in these trivia.”4
Allow me to be the first (I think it is safe to say) to describe the great cartoonist Gary Larson as an illuminator not unlike Adelmo of Otranto who could take “known things” and from them “compose unknown and surprising things, as one might join a human body to an equine neck.” Like this medieval illuminator, who “worked only on marginalia,”5 Gary Larson also writes alongside other texts, including the sacred Scriptures. He does not do so literally, doodling in the margins of actual Bibles (as far as I know) but rather figuratively, taking familiar ideas, characters, and stories, biblical in origin, and repeating, retelling, “re-drawing” those scenes in order to “provoke smiles.” The extent of this biblical and religious-themed content in Larson’s work might surprise casual readers of the cartoon, and as a widely disseminated pop culture art form, engagement with sacred subject matter warrants consideration. As a starting point, the observations of academics in another field suggest a way forward.
The American biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson describes Larson as “the madcap sage of the  CONTINUED HERE, Christian Leader, all 2010  ·  Vol. 39  No. 2  ·  189-203

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