It's R. Crumb's Bible Now
By Naomi Seidman
November 10, 2009
Among the most surprising things about underground comics master R.
Crumb's new illustration of the first book of the Hebrew Bible is not
only how straight he plays the visual translation, but also the
affinity between his own sensibility and the fleshly materiality of Genesis.
Among the other odd and entertaining sights that spelled last
Halloween night in San FranciscoMichael Jackson on the MUNI bus,
Barbara Streisand teetering on four-inch heels at Starbuckswas this
one: comix artist Robert Crumb onstage at the San Francisco Jewish
Community Center, headlining the Jewish Book Fest at its sold-out
Basically it was the usual Jewish Bay Area crowd, coming out in
droves for Crumb, who had apparently become an honorary member of the
tribe by illustrating that tribal book of ours, Genesis; no doubt a
few of them were just now being introduced to Crumb, through his
freshly-minted biblical pedigree. But there were some hipsters
standing in line to buy a copy ($60 for the autographed version) who
looked as if they had never set foot in a JCC before, and who were
only reading the Bible now that Crumb had, so to speak, recommended
it. Among that group was Crumb's elegant onstage interlocutor,
Françoise Mouly, the art director of The New Yorker, who began by
confessing, "You know, Bob, I never actually read the Bible before
you showed me your illustrations," to which Crumb gamely answered,
"No, of course not, why would you?"
For those of us who were reasonably familiar with both the Bible and
underground comix, the experience was not of being introduced either
to a new artist or to an ancient literary work but rather of their
unexpected juxtaposition: Where Genesis and Crumb had until now
occupied distinct areas of the brain or psyche (the academy versus
the comic book store? The cerebrum versus the reptilian cortex? The
superego versus the id?), they now coexisted on the cramped quarters
of a single page. There are some peculiar pleasures in the union of
these realms, in a biblicized Crumb, a Crumbulated Genesis.
A Certain Crumbitude
The unspoken assumption in most reviews I've seen is that the latter
is the more interesting phenomenon, or at least the more important
one, with the greater cultural stakes. As others (including Robert
Alter, whose translation undergirds most of Crumb's text) have
commented, Crumb's illustrations quite literally flesh out the
biblical stories, giving face and formand nipples, backsides, lips,
teeth, and hair, lots and lots of hairto its characters, including
the especially hirsute character of God (a kind of manlier and more
ancient Mr. Natural, with an even longer beard); the names of the
Genesis genealogies, Mehalel and Jared and Enoch and so on, who'd
barely registered in consciousness before (even the rabbis are
uncharacteristically silent in the face of these endless begats),
come to life again, recognizably products of Crumb's art but
nevertheless individual people, with unique and distinct faces.
What seems to have surprised many of the reviewers, including this
one, is not only how "straight" Crumb played the Bible, but also how
far from jolting even the most striking of these illustrations are,
as if he were not imposing an alien and coarse modern sensibility on
an exalted ancient text but rather uncovering a certain Crumbitude
that had always been inhabiting it. There was, it seemed to me, an
affinity between whatever it was Crumb stood for (sexual lewdness as
well as emotional honesty, a fascination with the unbeautiful body,
the interconnections between desire and vulnerability or beauty and
power) and whatever Genesis had on offer.
What does it mean that the Genesis that emerged from Crumb's
eccentric pen could nevertheless seem so familiar, that there should
be no mismatch between Crumb's idiosyncratic style and a book of such
broad and, to many readers, sublime reach as the Bible? Could it be
just a kind of fortuitous connection between the mythology of Genesis
and the background to Crumb's coming-of-age as a comic artist among
the stoned biblical types that rolled half-naked around the Eden of
Golden Gate Park? Was the missing link in the evolutionary scheme
that begins with Creation and ends with Crumb on the JCC stage not a
half-upright ape but just a shaggy hippie?
Of course these are surface similarities, and the criticism of
Crumb's version has been that it reduces the Bible to surfaces, to
"mere" appearance. Buber once said, though, that what was needed in
the case of the Bible was not more and deeper digging but rather a
return to the surface, through the layers of "meaning" and
"significance," the accretions of interpretation and tradition that
had buried the biblical story until we couldn't see the nose on its
face. The fleshiness of Crumb's characters is not foreign to the
biblical worldview: The "hairy mantle" that covers the newborn Esau
is a key to his character and, a few chapters later, a pivotal plot
point. Crumb's visual translation brings us back to that forgotten
surface, lost not only to the pieties of religious readings but
inevitably also to its translation out of Hebrew.
As Buber also pointed out, Hebrew is much richer in corporeal
language than the languages of its greatest translations: the
preposition translated as "before" is, in Hebrew, "to the face"
[lifney], while the word yad (hand) appears in a host of prepositions
and expressions and the literal meaning of the biblical term for
"patience" is, somewhat more oddly, "length of nostrils" [erekh
apayim]; a trace of this use of the body as touchstone for all
relations in space survives in the KJV rendering of "surface" as
"face" in Genesis 1:2: "And darkness was upon the face of the deep."
What Buber argues is that the profound Hebraic connection between the
material and spiritual universe, in which the single word ru'akh
means wind AND breath AND spirit, has been lost in the spiritualizing
afterlife of the Bible.
Crumb's illustrations do not merely restore the physical dimension
suppressed by theologizing abstraction, at their best they convey
that there are no differences between these realms, as there is none
betweenin one of the more charged corollaries of the distinction
between Earth and spiritsex and love. My favorite illustration in
the book is for the last verses of Genesis 24, in which Isaac
"brought [Rebecca] into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and took Rekah
as wife, and he loved her, and Isaac found solace after the death of
his mother." The panel shows the lovers lying spent among the
voluptuous, almost vaginal folds of Sarah's tent, Isaac fingers
half-buried in Rebecca's wavy hair, a leg wrapped around her ample
hips, both of them with eyes half-closed.
If this picture forthrightly restores something integral about the
earthy-sublime worldview of Genesis, it also gives us another angle
on its creator, spiritualizing the Crumb most known for his
raunchiness. The book is dedicated, without further comment, "to
Alene," Crumb's Jewish wifeand a comix genius in her own right.
Alene is everywhere in the Crumb's rendition of female characters of
Genesis, as if he in taking on the task of illustrating Genesis he
had also committed himself to discovering the primeval but
nevertheless recognizable ancestors not only of his Jewish wife but
also of all those other strong-featured, wavy-haired,
prominently-nippled Amazons that have populated Crumb's comics for decades.
"The Footwear, Show Me the Footwear!"
During the Q and A at the JCC event, waiting her turn in the line
going up one aisle, was Crumb's wet dream in the flesh, the two
pigtails, breasts like projectiles, shoulders like a linebacker,
short skirt over full thighs. She was speaking, but Reb Crumb clearly
wasn't hearing a word: "The footwear, show me the footwear!" On the
laptop before her, Mouly found and clicked on the appropriate image,
as she'd been deftly doing all eveningand on the screen behind them
appeared a self-portrait of the young Crumb, sniffing the inside of a
woman's boot. The woman clomped onto the stage and leaned over the
distinguished guest speaker, who was theatrically wiping his brow. On
her feet, shiny Mary Janes with two-inch platforms, over the
surreally muscular calves that signal, in Crumb's universe, the
apotheosis of female desirability. Crumb may have been putting on an
act, but the rest of us were in genuine ecstasy.
In case you're wondering, I'm a feminist. But as lewd and even
grotesque as Crumb's depictions of women undeniably are, I've never
felt offended by them. They're so clearly an honest and precise
reflection of a fascinatingly perverse sexual fantasy, in which a
hairy little near-sighted comic-book geek obsessively worships the
powerful woman who had come to life in the Q & A line at the JCC. In
the comix, the artist was no superhero fantasy of masculine power but
rather the very embodiment of male sexual vulnerability. That there
were men out there that were turned on not by the airbrushed blonde
cheerleaders of Playboy but rather by, well, big women, with
strangely prominent teeth and lips and frizzy hair, was a pleasant
surprise, one that I took almost as a personal compliment (while
recognizing that no one, not even Alene, actually looked like that).
I love Philip Roth, and appreciate his particular combination of
literary talent and erotic weirdness. But Portnoy's Complaint, in
case someone still hasn't noticed, is no paean to the sexual allure
of Jewish women (unless they're holding an Israeli Army-issue gun).
The Jewish man who chases shikses is, by this point, a tired cliché.
In Crumb, we had something new: an anti-Portnoy, a goy (but really,
wasn't he an honorary Jew, with the Woody Allen neuroses and his
Harvey Pekar connections, and his wife, his wife!) who loved us! Of
course it's not entirely newthe dark and erotic "Jewess" features in
the European literary imagination (philo- and anti-Semitism often
inhabit neighboring regions), and I suppose she is, technically, a
third cousin to Crumb's juicier women. But sitting in the audience of
the JCC and watching her up their with Crumb, I enjoyed how they were
sharing the stage.
Come back to the JCC anytime, Reb Crumb. And regards to Alene.