Drawn and Disorderly
"Ain't I a stinker?"
Comics, Cartoons, and the Critique of Chronophotography
The saga of Little Nemo in Slumberland began, very auspiciously, on October 15, 1905, in the pages of the Sunday comics supplement of the New York Herald. A lovely prose text, all the more impressive for being squeezed in beneath Winsor McCay's superb illustrations, guides the reader through that first adventure (Plate 6). In this earliest incarnation speech balloons are used minimally ("I wonder what the Oomp will say, Oh!"); the narrative is conveyed by the running (helpfully numbered) captions and the art. The page is masterfully constructed: six tiers, each with a pair of equally sized panels except for the first, in which the immense king of Slumberland overlooks all that follows, and the four-panel sequence at the bottom, as Nemo tumbles through space and, in the final image, out of his bed.
Several important and characteristic elements are at work in this, Nemo's debut. First, one might note that the dream (and the saga) begins not with Nemo but with Slumberland's king, who charges Oomp with summoning Nemo. The dream begins, then, outside Nemo's consciousness. The wide top panel provides a glimpse of Slumberland behind the king-we can make out a broad plaza, pillars, arches, arcades, and a row of columns surmounting all. The foreground space is dominated by the king's massive, bearded presence and, flanking his head, the comic strip's logo. A brick-red framing overlay divides this single broad image into three sections, producing a visual rhyme with the columns but without depth (unlike the ivy-encircled column to the left); in the center is the king. The ambiguity over whether this frame is a design or an architectural element is sustained by the position of the king, who leans casually on, and spills slightly over, the bottom frame border. Thus, through both his posture and his presence in what is really the title panel, the king is as separate from the diegetic space as he is from Nemo's dream. This is one of the two panels that do not represent Nemo in the land of wonderful dreams-the other is, of course, the final panel, in which he lies tangled in his blankets, rudely awakened. In future strips, as McCay begins to open the page to more elaborate configurations of panels, that final panel will increasingly figure as an inset-the one immutable element in the strip-an intrusion into (or carved from) the space of the dream.
McCay has infused the page with his characteristic design work. The second tier presents Nemo in bed, facing right; in the first panel the Oomp introduces himself, and in the next he presents Nemo with Somnus. In the two panels below, Nemo remains on the left side of the panel but now astride his magical mount: the Oomp promises some additional excitement ("Slumberland is the most wonderful place in the sky. You mustn't miss a single thing. See it all!"), and in the next panel Nemo and Somnus gallop through space, encountering the Oomp in the form of a huge white bird ("Gracious! What is that?"). The next four panels, across two tiers, present the race, replete with bunnies riding pigs and monkeys atop green kangaroos, all jumping the hurdles of bursting stars that surround them. Nemo loses his mount in the last panel of this self-contained race sequence, diving headfirst through the reins, leading to his final tumble through space in the final four panels, which are arranged in a regular series of squares along the bottom tier.
Even this description misses much of McCay's brilliant detail. There is the substitution (or is it a metamorphosis?) of bed for horse. There is the increasingly extravagant coloring that accompanies the progress of the race, the muted color of Nemo's bedroom wall yielding first to a richer orange, then olive greens, sky blues, and a deep saturated red. There is the final image of a sprawled Nemo, thrown from his horse, thrown from the journey to Slumberland, and, most immediately, thrown from his bed.
And there is, perhaps most spectacularly, the evocation of movement, which pervades this single page. One image in particular leaps out: after we see Somnus pawing the ground, clearly eager to be off, she is depicted in full gallop, bearing Nemo toward the wonders of Slumberland. McCay has depicted the horse in what can only be described as the Muybridge position, with all four legs lifted from the ground. Nor is this the only image that recalls the pioneering work in motion capture performed by both Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey. Indeed, the evenly sized panels, arrayed in a graphlike configuration, presenting the successive stages of a horse's gait, could hardly be more clear. The stages of the animal's motion will provide visual continuity, dynamic flow, and, importantly, credible naturalistic detail across the six central panels. In two of the panels the beasts leaping the hurdles produce elegant arcs of motion that can be read from left to right as stages in a single movement, as in a chronophotograph. And Nemo's final tumble is a backward somersault, divided into four images (with the last, back in the waking world, representing a kind of somersaultus interruptus) with all the precision (and perhaps more) of one of Muybridge's photographic sequences.
Analyzing the Instant
Muybridge and Marey both used photography to capture and display the stages that constitute the continuum of movement. Marey, a physician and amateur naturalist, attempted, through a series of mechanisms, to record and recreate the movements of bird and insect wings, as well as the running gaits of horses and men. He recognized the value of phenakistoscopes and other similar amusements: "This instrument, usually constructed for the amusement of children, generally represents grotesque or fantastic figures moving in a ridiculous manner." But, with images "constructed with care" that "represented faithfully the successive attitudes of the body," a more accurate understanding of physiological movements might be possible.
As the story goes, and stop me if you've heard this one, the governor of California, Leland Stanford, aware of the experiments with which Marey was occupied, employed the very established panoramic and stereoscopic photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1872 to settle a wager about whether all the legs of a running horse ever left the ground at once. Muybridge continued to experiment with sequential photography for the rest of his career, whether producing book-length studies of human and animal movements or demonstrating his "Zoöpraxiscope," which projected, and effectively reanimated, his photographic sequences.
Marey began using his "chronophotographic gun" in 1882 to take photographic sequences of birds in flight, fencing lunges, and the like. While Muybridge's technique produced individual images on a series of photographic plates, Marey's technique used an automatically advancing disk to capture the multiple vectors of motion, up and down, forward and back, in a series of exposures captured on a single plate. The chronophotograph combined the empirical weight and mimetic precision of the photograph with the plotted precision of the graph. Marey's single exposures yielded evenly spaced intervals in an unambiguous sequence extracted from continuous motion.
Braun emphasizes the difference between Marey's scientism and Muybridge's formalism. Muybridge's use of multiple, spatially organized cameras, as well as his characteristic array of discretely bounded, pleasingly composed images, privileged a sense of time as divisible and discrete. Contained parcels of space become analogous to contained parcels of time. Marey's single plates, by contrast, emphasized a temporal continuum, with the chronophotograph capturing instants along the axis of time's arrow. Against Marey's scientific interest in graphing movement, Muybridge was, through his discrete images, each carefully lit and composed according to acceptable aesthetic conventions, "telling stories in space."
Tom Gunning does not reject the distinction that Braun carefully draws, but he argues that she may be drawing the wrong conclusion. He and others suggest that the codes of an earlier pictorialism that find their way into Muybridge's aesthetic could not dispel, and possibly even emphasized, the fascinating disruption produced by the clearly delineated sequence of movement that demonstrated the camera's astonishing ability to register what the human eye could not. These are not the pictures of a neoclassical age, despite the semiotic cues that invite such comparison; people had never seen such pictures before. Marey's chronophotographs have an amorphous, ghostly quality that clearly separates them from the realm of natural perception, whereas Muybridge's images combine the solidity of familiar figures and pictorial conventions with the new-radically new-experience of perceived time.
Jonathan Crary also emphasizes the decisive rupture produced by Muybridge's first motion studies. He writes that "Muybridge's work obviously opened up possibilities for the rationalization and quantification of movement and time, for the mechanization of the body," but its radically "mutable temporality" suggested an escape from that very rationalism by offering "plural scatterings of attention and the possibility of unforeseen perceptual syntheses outside of any disciplinary imperatives." Crary does not mention Marey, but the temporality of Marey's chronophotographs is clearly not mutable, governed as they are by the rigidity of even intervals and clearly mapped vectors of motion, and suggestive of an impossibly sustained single moment, stretched in time as it stretches across the field of the image. With Muybridge, though, the act of segmentation and the spatial display of stages of movement on a grid might generate new conceptions of the relation between image and world. The organization and display of recorded moments projected the sense of temporal continuity and its relentless rationality, but it also incontrovertibly showed that time could be fractured, our awareness of it newly dispersed along a series or array of demonstrably incomplete images.
Comics became prominent as a popular medium around the same period that these motion studies were taking place, and in emphasizing the radicalism of Muybridge's work, I would argue that Crary is unknowingly also outlining the necessary conditions for the emergence of modern comics. Crary's comments about the temporal rupture offered by the image sequence echo Scott McCloud's discussion of the organized array of panels that characterize comics, which (in McCloud's words) "fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments." Comics uniquely present a combination of static images, often infiltrated by visual cues of captured or continuing movement, arranged in temporal sequence.
In his pioneering discussion of the relation of comics and film, John Fell wrote, "By posing the dimension of time on a visible linear continuum, comics offer something different from cinema. Even after the reader has proceeded from picture to picture, the panels continue to relate to one another on the page." Comics more clearly resemble what Muybridge produced than what the Edison company and the Lumières followed with. To return briefly to the issue of Muybridge's aesthetics, Phillip Prodger has pointed to some of the means by which Muybridge's sequences rupture and mend the usual relationship between photographic image and temporality: Walking Elephant is a photographic array that may be read as either a chronophotographic study of a single elephant or as a chain of multiple elephants marching in parade.
These are methods that comics quickly adopt. Winsor McCay does something like it in the first Little Nemo in Slumberland, as the various and multihued horses, kangaroos, and billy goats are arrayed along a single, elegantly undulating arc of movement that extends across each panel and from one panel to the next (this dialectic between wild kinesis and perfectly rendered stasis has its analogue in the overarching narrative of Little Nemo: the cosmic journeys across time and space counterbalanced by the insistent return of the bed from which no one has moved at all-except sometimes in that brief, rude journey from bed to floor).
The rigid distinction that Braun makes-aesthetic vs. scientific dominants, Muybridge (boo!) vs. Marey (yay!)-bypasses the rich discord that arises when the mechanical marvels of instantaneous photography and chronophotography intersect with the conventions of visual and narrative representation. In the motion studies of Muybridge, Marey, and McCay the singular and the multiple compete for attention.
Comics, like cinema, depended on the work of Muybridge, Marey, Reynaud, and a host of others who experimented with recording and reproducing natural movement in the late nineteenth century. Comics and cinema offer experiences of both temporal fracturing and temporal flow, but the comics reader has more control over time than the cinematic spectator, with the freedom to look back or peek ahead. Time in comics is represented as territory in space, and the experience of the flow of time can be very carefully regulated, if not completely controlled. This dialectic between the stasis of an individual image and the spatiotemporal movement of the sequence-a dialectic that relates to the diegesis but also to the experience of the reader-is what McCloud calls "the temporal map," and it is a conceptual fundament of the medium.
Modern culture from the late nineteenth century forward oscillated between the sense of time as unbound, mutable, and multiple, and time as rigid, deterministic, and most insistently bound to linear coherence. Muybridge's first studies represent a crucial moment in the "unbinding" of time and perspective, and Crary and McCloud locate in cinema and the comics-the two media that most clearly derive from these motion-capture experiments-some of that same radicalism. Cinema reconstituted the movement that one could infer from the sequence of still images while comics retained the synchronous spatiotemporal array, or "temporal map"-but both media were fundamentally bound to the explorations of time, rhythm, and tempo so characteristic of modernity.
The pictorial narrative had existed as a printed form throughout Europe and Asia since the fifteenth century, but from the middle of the nineteenth century it began to emphasize a sense of continuous movement. The closing chapter of David Kunzle's indispensable analysis of pre-twentieth-century comics emphasizes the sophistication with which comics became, in effect, motion pictures, influenced both by such optical toys as the magic lantern and the phenakistoscope, as well as the experiments associated with Marey and Muybridge. In a later essay Kunzle demonstrates how the large, complete, and "richly accoutered" compositions associated with Hogarth yielded to the line of caricature, a line that was looser, more exaggerated, and just evidently faster, in keeping with a perception that life itself was becoming faster paced, careening in potentially dangerous, albeit thrilling, directions. Töpffer eschewed scenic detail to emphasize dynamic figures trapped in chaotic circumstances. He also developed what Kunzle terms "a battery of montage devices" to emphasize time and motion, including narrowing the frame from panel to panel to indicate both the quickness of succession and the concomitant claustrophobia of temporal inescapability.
Increasing numbers of comic artists played with image sequences that modeled a brief, contained arc of time. An 1868 illustration by George du Maurier for Punch presented three stages in the leap of a horse and rider over a fence superimposed into a single image. Later, Punch published several parodies of Muybridge, such as an 1882 "Zoöpraxiscopic" sequence of an eminent actor's histrionics (he seems to burst into flame by the end) (Figure 4). Thus Winsor McCay's presentation of continuous time through the vehicle of animal locomotion had some significant and precise precedents, and it is worth reviewing some of the ways that comics in the nineteenth century evolved as a vehicle for the registration of time through the figure of (animal and child) movement.
[Place figure 4 about here.]
The extremely popular children's stories and social satires by the German illustrator Wilhelm Busch often depicted brief actions across several panels from a fixed perspective that emphasized incremental change, measuring, with metronomic inevitability, the results of the calamitous pranks committed by those early masters of comic strip mayhem, Max and Moritz, who appeared in 1865. Cat and Mouse, from 1864, laid the foundation for a whole history of feline-rodent (or coyote-roadrunner) conflicts in comic strips and cartoons by reducing conflict itself to a reductio ad absurdum of cause-and-effect moves and countermoves. "Busch's genius," Kunzle argues, "lay in his ability to impose absolute linear and conceptual control over actions and situations out of control." The American illustrator A.B. Frost took up art studies with Thomas Eakins in 1878, when the painter had become interested in using photography and chronophotography to represent movement naturalistically. Frost's picture stories, again centered around animal behaviors, quickly begin to manifest a chronophotographic smoothness, again in works of vehement and hilarious sadism such as "Our Cat Eats Rat Poison," a six-panel sequence of an action and its morbid ramifications published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1881 (Figure 5).
[Place figure 5 about here.]
The visual language developed by Frost and Busch is extended in the series of strikingly elegant strips Adolphe Willette and Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen produced for the pages of the French journal Chat noir. Steinlen's pages demonstrated both a virtuosic display of feline body language and a new precision in the rendering of time. Charting the progress of the cat's attempts to land a goldfish, or get its head unstuck from a bucket, or its play with a ball of yarn, one marks the smooth passage of moment to moment. Here, movement is mapped at a slow, even pace, with a precinematographic (and post-Muybridge/Marey) scientific exactitude. The flexible figure of the monochromatic cat, whose adventures were usually organized in series against a blank field with no panel divisions and only the most minimal scenic detail, was a legible icon, a line of dark graphemes writing time across the space of the page.
A flowing, improvisational line, the sense of an illustration as incomplete unless viewed as part of a sequence, and an increasing emphasis on what McCloud categorizes as moment-to-moment (rather than scene-to-scene or action-to-action) transitions between illustrations all contributed to the increasing association of comics and movement, often through the vehicle of animal motion. So in the first episode of Little Nemo, Somnus, galloping across the panels arrayed on the page, is emblematic of the new representations of time and motion, but Somnus is equally a figure of arrested motion, frozen in every single panel, including in that one perfect posture that Muybridge first revealed to the world of human sight. With Little Nemo McCay demonstrated an unprecedented (some would say unmatched) mastery of temporal mapping while returning to the spatial solidity and scenic richness associated with artists like Hogarth.
Despite efforts to backdate the origin of comics, then, the medium does change fundamentally in the wake of Muybridge and his famed photographic arrays. Comics display a more evident interest in temporality, depicting precise moments arranged in a legible sequence, juggling a sense of both the instantaneous and the causal. And if comics are marked by a new rapidity in production (the looser line) and diegesis (smaller units of represented time), one could note a new rapidity of consumption as well. With the rise of the American newspaper comic strips and sections, a vast new audience was introduced, on a regular basis, to the medium. Comic strips became something to read quickly and dispose of-a part of the ephemera of modern life-which made them very different from Hogarth's prints, Töpffer's books, and even popular magazines such as Punch and Chat noir in Europe (which did not circulate as widely as newspapers). They became a medium of the instant.
Fatigue and the Regulation of Modern Bodies
McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend often presented adult, middle-class men or women trapped in escalating transfigurations of everyday life. The strip repeatedly connected dream content to the stresses and strains of modern life, bringing to mind the tremendous emphasis that was placed on the polarities of efficient and fatigued bodies in the industrial workplace from the mid-nineteenth century forward. The metaphor of the machine was strenuously applied to the laboring bodies of the industrial age. In the discourse of production, fatigue replaced idleness as the enemy of productive labor; the avoidance of work was less significant than the body's productive limits. "The human motor" needed proper care if it was to function with maximum efficiency: it needed proper nutrition, improved hygiene, and a sufficient (but not excessive!) amount of sleep. Instrumental reason had to contend with the imperfection of the human body, a "motor" that was not fully capable of assimilating the stressful pace of modernity, the shock of industrial accidents, and the grinding repetition of the assembly line or office workplace. Anson Rabinbach writes, "Behind the scientific and philosophical treatises on fatigue lurked the daydream of the late nineteenth-century middle classes-a body without fatigue."
To increase efficiency and maintain its role in a viable labor force, the human body had to be studied, its movements graphed and analyzed, its smallest motions made visible to the scientific eye. This is the context in which the scientific visualization of movement must be situated. "Marey's studies in locomotion had an enormous influence on the artists of Europe," Braun writes, "but their more enduring and pervasive effects were on the workers of the world." Well before his experiments with photography, Marey had devised a startlingly inventive set of mechanisms for the recording and measurement of bodily activities, producing early inscriptions of the fatigue. For these experiments to occur, the sciences had to develop a new conception of the body: "We seem to have been traversing an immense gallery of mechanisms of greatly varied combinations," Marey wrote, "but everything here was mysterious in its immobility." In Marey's shift from organic structure to dynamics and the "interplay of organs," Rabinbach locates a new emphasis on mobility: "The single thing that can be distilled from all of Marey's writing is that the body is a theater of motion."
Marey's graphical data served the instrumental rationality of industrial development. Taylorism was predicated on time and motion studies that allowed every task to be disassembled into its constituent parts that could be repeated, in the same way, by anyone. The visualization of movement was innately bound to the regulation of movement within the context of industrial production.
As the nineteenth century moved to a close, the body in comics was increasingly depicted as deformed by the machineries of industrialism. A growing catalog of kinetic effects, including oscillating or blurred outlines and, of course, motion lines, conveyed a stronger sense of motion but also conjured a body reacting violently to the power of technological might. "The body is experienced as machinoid or a machinable substance, and both fear and fascination reside in the artist's rendering of the body as machined almost beyond recognition," Kunzle writes. Gunning has written that Muybridge's photography captured and made visible "a drama that would otherwise remain invisible: the physical body navigating this modern space of calculation. His images of the nude human body framed within a geometrically regular grid capture the transformations of modern life brought on by technological change and the new space/time they inaugurated, as naked flesh moves within a hard-edged, rational framework."
Comics also participate in this rationalist impulse to map the moving body's navigation of graphed space. The breakdown of movement that occurs in the work of Busch, Steinlen, or McCay is part of this history, blending animal locomotion with narrative and gag structures across the pages of magazines, newspapers, or storybooks. But comics do more than replicate the fixed viewpoints and measured progress of chronophotography: the humorous, or gag, strips rather consistently parody-or perhaps caricature-the worldview that underlies the visualization and analysis of movement.
The "eminent actor" striding the stage in Punch's parodic "Zoöpraxiscopic" study is an early example, but he is not alone. When Wilhelm Busch uses a fixed viewpoint to chart the stages of movement, what we find is the measured onset of chaos. The mischievous crow who stars in Hans Huckebein (1867) systematically leaves his tracks across the clean laundry, then knocks over a row of plates and a bowlful of eggs before spilling a pail of beer down the master's boots. The final pages of the story offer a satisfying chronophotographic sequence: in eleven images Hans takes a sip of wine, tilts his head back to swallow, samples a little more, staggers about the table, teeters into a sewing kit, and, uhhh, accidentally hangs himself (Figure 6). Leaving the Teutonic sense of humor aside for the moment, what is significant is that the visualization of animal locomotion has now been appropriated to describe the breakdown of order and the unleashing of the forces of entropy. Something similar comes across in A.B. Frost's "Our Cat Eats Rat Poison," in which the feline's increasingly frenzied, yet measured, contortions yield to the ultimate image of its prostrate form. While these strips revel in the chaos, the final image is often one of severely restricted movement or even its complete cessation: a crow hanged, a cat poisoned, still another entangled in (and seemingly swallowed by) a ball of yarn.
[Place figure 6 about here.]
The Symbolist-inflected work of Willette and Steinlen in Chat noir was more elliptical than the comical chaos rapturously depicted by Busch or Frost. The cat playing with the ball of yarn is first entangled, then swallowed completely (Figure 7). In another of Steinlen's strips, the chat noir serenades a white kitty who is seen framed by a window in the otherwise minimal and amorphous space. The seductive pleas having had their effect, the white cat leaps to join this mysterious, dark figure, but the leap reveals a chasm between them. In the penultimate image the white cat hangs by a claw as the chat noir recoils. And in the final image, the only one from a different viewpoint, the body of the white cat lies broken on the curb. Steinlen has played with the ambiguous blank spaces of the page, juxtaposing graphic and rhythmic precision with something less mimetic that no longer belongs to the objective gaze of science.
[Place figure 7 about here.]
But the masterpiece of comic art that demonstrates this parodic tendency most obsessively is McCay's Little Sammy Sneeze. The strip is organized around an invariant structure of six panels. A delicate process is delineated, step by maddening step, over the space of four panels. Sammy occupies a fixed position as he begins the stupefyingly predictable windup to his inevitable "involuntary violent expiration of air through the nose and mouth." Sammy Sneeze's tagline read, "He never knew when it was coming," but the reader knew exactly when it was coming-panel 5! Over the first four panels Sammy's nose starts tickling him: "UM" ... "EEE AAA" ... "AHH AWW" ... "KAH" ... and finally in the fifth panel-"CHOW!" The illustration details the immediate effects of the explosion: the puzzle pieces fly, the inkpot spills, the dinosaur skeleton collapses in a heap (as at the end of Bringing Up Baby) along with the music stands, stacks of canned goods, and other fine slapstick standbys. Sammy remains where he is, a stable object against the chaotic repercussions of his eponymous discharge. The final, sixth panel features either a discussion of the aftermath (How did good père Sneeze pay for all the damage?) or, more satisfyingly, somebody kicking Sammy's ass out of the room, in a pose repeated exactly from one episode to the next. In one wonderful episode Sammy holds the candle while his father struggles to repair a broken pipe in a flooded basement (Plate 7). The sneeze blows out the candle, plunging panel 5 into darkness and hiding the ensuing disaster (although an early episode, the pattern is clearly so well established that the actual image is superfluous). In the most famous episode Sammy's sneeze shatters the very boundaries of the comics panel, leaving him to gaze with complete impassivity at the viewer, no doubt wondering why his surname should condemn him to such an unhygienic and antisocial existence (Figure 8).
[Place figure 8 about here.]
The mechanistic, unvarying structure of Little Sammy Sneeze presents a meticulous time-motion breakdown, usually from a fixed perspective: the dishes are set in place, the tea is poured, the cake is served, or, in four delicate panels, a bowler moves gracefully through his swing. But in every case the rhythm of efficient motion is subverted (and I use this wildly overused word carefully) by a mighty "CHOW" that turns all to chaos. And, parallel to the main action, there is the systematic registering of the sequential phases of Sammy's sneeze, offering a powerful counterlogic to the central activity of this week's episode (in much the same way as the Roadrunner's mode of being-in-the-world will present a kind of counterlogic to the Coyote's plans). The sneeze can further be understood as a complete loss of bodily control ("He just couldn't help it!"). It should also be noted that an early kinetoscope offering was Fred Ott's Sneeze (1894)-a violent discharge that Linda Williams has linked to the mechanistic "attraction" of the "money shot" in filmed pornography.
A more nightmarish example of bodily discipline and regulation is The Story of Hungry Henrietta (Figure 9), perhaps the strangest work in the McCay oeuvre and surely the only comic strip I can think of about an eating disorder. In each episode a commotion is made around young Henrietta, who proceeds from infancy through girlhood over the six-month span of the series. As people cluster around her, the child understandably begins to fuss and squirm, eliciting a torrent of advice and increasing attempts to regulate her behavior. The frantic adults can't even finish their sentences: "I think she has the colic or something or other. I guess I had better go for the-" "Oh dear, what do you think ails her? I'm so-so afraid-" "You see you've weaned her and her stomach might be in a ter-" In the penultimate panel, the same old coot (Grandpa, I guess) proclaims that the child is simply hungry ("I think she's alright. Yes. She's probably hungry."), Or the adults might caper about in ever more outlandish postures, spouting infantilizing gibberish ("Umpt tee ump te a dey ump don't you cry"). In the final panel a tear-streaked Henrietta would be pictured, isolated in high chair or seated at the table, glumly spooning up whatever she's been given to alleviate her worries. McCay even offers a crossover episode in which Sammy Sneeze does his thing all over a dish of candies, which doesn't prevent Henrietta from scarfing them off the floor in the end.
[Place figure 9 about here.]
The overlap of characters points to some interesting formal distinctions between the strips. Where the panels in Sammy Sneeze are as equally sized and fixed in perspective as any Muybridge sequence, Hungry Henrietta is bracketed by two smaller panels that present the child in relative isolation (including the occasional small group). The following four panels are wider, permitting the influx of a set of relatives or visitors who rush about manhandling the poor kid, and, as noted, the final panel returns to Henrietta alone, horrifically (and only partially) pacified. Where the equal sizing of panels allowed newspapers to break an episode of Sammy Sneeze into two or three tiers (and sometimes only one), Hungry Henrietta's layout demands a two-tiered presentation. Henrietta is also significantly more diminutive in the frame than Sammy (except possibly in the first and last panels) as befits her far more passive relation to the action. While the position of the adults varies greatly from panel to panel, the strips track Henrietta's growing agitation with terrible precision, her body rocking back and forth from one image to the next, demonstrating her inescapable constraint. The final panels, with Henrietta literally stuck in the corner, are particularly disturbing, not only for the implied commentary on a child-rearing going horribly wrong but also for an unmistakable resemblance to the final panel of every episode of Little Nemo. There, too, a small panel, smaller than any of the others, contains a child sometimes frightened, sometimes disappointed, but always with his sojourns in Slumberland disrupted. The opulence of Nemo's design cannot completely hide the fact that control, attention, and distraction operate in each of these comics, etched upon the relatively mute figure of the child.
So in place of the graphic representation of the body that serves as prelude for that body's incorporation into the field of industrialized labor, comics continue to map, with an identical systematicity, a process of breakdown, a pie thrown in the face of instrumental reason. Moving from comics to cartoons, perhaps I can introduce one final version of the tension that exists in McCay's work between the control and discipline so inherent in every line that he deploys and the resistance to discipline so manifest in his comic characters. In 1911 McCay created a truly pioneering work: an animated film of his Little Nemo characters. The film was released commercially with the addition of a framing narrative in which McCay bets his colleagues that he can bring his characters to life; he can make them move (a striking recapitulation of the wager that led to Muybridge's initial attempts to record animal locomotion). The audience watches him draw some of his characters and gets a glimpse of the labor that goes into the creation of a sequence of animated drawings. Finally McCay screens his film. The animation is dazzling (and I will address it in far greater detail in chapter 3), but part of its magic derives from the contrast with the drawings that we've watched McCay produce-all profiles or frontal poses that have nothing to do with the colorful Flip who suddenly turns smoothly toward us to blow a voluptuous cloud of smoke in our direction. The animated figure takes on a playful and thoroughly profound autonomy and inaugurates the battle between cartoonist and creation that will culminate in Duck Amuck. Flip, the character who continually ruins one Nemo adventure after another, emerges from, but I would push further and claim that he in fact eludes, the rigidity of the chronophotograph. Flip and Sammy-smoke rings and sneezes-mark the disobedient and undisciplined body in McCay's controlled universe.
McCay is not alone in this comic assault on the disciplined and contained body. Other masters of energetic yet carefully managed mayhem include Milt Gross as well as Cliff Sterrett, whose 1920s Sunday pages for Polly and Her Pals burst with a light inventiveness that led Art Spiegelman to label them one of the most emblematic expressions of Jazz Age sensibilities. The best-known installment centers on a fantastically sustained chronophotograph that stretches across the central seven panels, as the hapless Paw Perkins struggles along a tortuous line of identically tuxedoed theater patrons, desperately trying to bring his wife a drink of water (Plate 8). The line of men descend a staircase, recalling Marey or Duchamp; file past a water bottle like hapless workers clocking in at the factory in a set of subdivided panels that evoke the desperately blocked passage through space; and ascend the stairs once more. When a careless elbow causes Paw to spill the water, the smooth regulation of bodies gives way to, first, a cartoonishly exaggerated attack on the uncomprehending violator and then to a panel of jagged yellow and black lightning bolts intertwined with circles and snaking forms-a dazzling abstract composition that suggests Cubist collage while anticipating Abstract Expressionism and even Op Art by decades. The final panel returns to the world of figural representation as Paw sits, glaring, in a moonlit prison cell. Order-in the form of a literal stasis-is restored. As in Little Sammy Sneeze, chaos leads to exclusion, getting bounced, but it's too late: the damage has already been done. The rendering of movement in a synchronic graphing is here returned to the world of moving bodies and temporal duration, resulting in a line of figures locked in step within a sequence that equally suggests both motion and its negation.
Leaping forward some decades, we find Chris Ware's Quimby the Mouse, which appeared in multiple formats but whose most characteristic form was a large page comprising dozens of tiny (and tinier) panels. Chronophotography is invoked through the moment-to-moment transitions, the regular array of images, the fixed viewpoint (in sequences if not the entire page). One episode ("Quimby's Travelling Blues-Part Four") is billed as an "ACME Kine-comics Cut-Out Movie (Pat Pending)," a seventy-two-frame Zoöpraxiscopic sequence featuring Quimby driving his car head-on into a pole, flying through the air, and grimacing in agony. Ware's comics, which frequently reference older optical toys, perhaps chart the most minute changes of state this side of Sammy Sneeze-a traffic light changes color, a character's eyes shift to the left, a tear is wiped away. The forward momentum of comics is retarded as a new paralysis takes over.
Thus comics inherit the techniques of chronophotography but frequently deploy them to parodic effect, and this tendency continues to subtend their existence through the next century. Perhaps we can find a similar mapping of spatiotemporal illogic in the hurled brick bopping the bean of Krazy Kat, a sustained (thirty year!) act of violence perpetrated by Ignatz Mouse that is interpreted by the Kat as an ardent gesture of love. The agent of the law, one Offisa Pup, is constantly hauling Ignatz to jail for what he clearly recognizes as a transgression of the proper order of things. But the poor Pup is condemned to perpetual bewilderment at Krazy Kat's romantic fulfillment, while Ignatz is always free to pursue his proclivity in the next day's episode. Krazy Kat introduces a kind of geometric plotting-the brick's trajectory ("ZIP") and impact ("POW") often occur in the same panel, along with Krazy's reaction, a transfer of kinetic energy that often takes the radiant form of an iconic heart seemingly bursting from the Kat's chest or the image of an angelic, winged Ignatz as the answer to the Kat's prayers. In any case the emphasis on the brick's transit through space is a constant (the most constant constant in the history of the medium). And finally, what could be more similar to the sporting bodies on display in the work of Muybridge and Marey than good ol' Charlie Brown's carefully prepared run up to a football that is, always and forever, destined to be snatched away at the final instant by Lucy?
The culmination of all of this can be found in the terrible logic of Chuck Jones's Road Runner cartoons-the entire enterprise smacks of scientific rationalism before overturning it with almost equal rigor. Once again, we begin with the problem of understanding bodies in motion. A Road Runner cartoon begins with at least the titular character, and often both characters, in motion and in medias res, usually midchase, and they are little more than streaks of motion against the stylized desert landscape, moving too fast for even the cinematic apparatus to map. But it is within the power of cinema, and the chronophotographic sequence before it, to permit the arresting of movement in the form of a freeze-frame that yields a detailed view of the streamlined and single-minded form of the Road Runner, who is helpfully identified for us by both vernacular name ("Road Runner") and the mock-Latin form ("Accelerati Incredibilus"). The next few seconds allow the viewer to see the Road Runner running in slow motion, the camera tracking elegantly alongside it; as in the chronophotographic sequence, movements too fast or too detailed to see clearly are presented in such a way as to become intelligible to the human eye. As Jean Epstein argued (and demonstrated), the cinema is uniquely capable of magnifying time, thereby enabling our understanding of it. But something else is happening here: the cinematic apparatus has not recorded the movement of the Road Runner, the better to analyze it; the apparatus has produced this movement. This is a construction rather than a reconstruction. The cartoon mimics, parodies, the cinema. The still image of the Road Runner (with all feet in the air, needless to say) is not a frozen moment of movement but rather the basic unit of the animated film: the single drawing.
Chuck Jones has described the initial impetus of the Road Runner cartoon to be a sort of parody, a reductio ad absurdum of the ever-popular chase cartoon. But in stripping the form to its essentials, the cartoons achieved a perfection of form: "Donald Graham, the dean of all art teachers for cartoonists, always said that cartoons were unique in the way they established space by movement. And he said that the Road Runner series was the only case that he knew in which a form moved in 'pure' space, where the space was achieved entirely by the form moving through it." This recalls (or indeed anticipates) Deleuze's concept of the movement-image, which holds that "cinema does not give us an image to which movement is added, it immediately gives us a movement-image." Deleuze himself cites cartoons as exemplary of the movement-image (although later theorists have complicated this in useful ways): the cartoon is cinematic precisely "because the drawing no longer constitutes a pose or a completed figure, but the description of a figure which is always in the process of being formed or dissolving through the movement of lines and points taken at any-instant-whatevers of their course. It does not give us a figure described in a unique moment, but the continuity of the movement which describes the figure." And, as Donald Graham would have it, Road Runner cartoons are the most perfect iteration of this.
Wile E. Coyote is often depicted mired in blueprints, elaborate time-motion studies aided and abetted by materials from the Acme Corporation and its various holding companies. His plans are always eminently rational, as are the cartoons themselves-Jones elaborated a number of rules that would govern the action of the cartoon: the Road Runner remains on the road and never instigates a situation; the Coyote causes his own disasters and nearly always recognizes the impending disaster a frame or two before it strikes. The Coyote's own plans are equally thought through: "1. Carry anvil out onto tightwire. 2. Drop anvil on Road-Runner. 3. Road-Runner-Burger." Sometimes the Coyote will allow himself that luxury of a written "HA HA!!" on the plans. The scenario is mapped and plotted, and X marks the spot where the bird will meet its maker. But the wire will stretch under the weight of the anvil until the Coyote is standing on the road instead of far above it; the Coyote will toss the now-useless anvil aside; the wire will snap back to its initial position; and the Coyote will shoot upward like a guided missile. The cycle repeats, forever-from gag to gag, from cartoon to cartoon. The Coyote's body is continually "machined beyond recognition," only to appear, entirely whole and unmarked, in the very next scene.
The Coyote's contraptions are animated instances of Rube Goldberg's impractical, yet seemingly workable, devices for accomplishing simple tasks. Like Goldberg's inventions, the Coyote gives us the machine as ungainly assemblage rather than harmonious whole. The filmmaking also participates in an aesthetic of assemblage-Jones was openly influenced by Buster Keaton's machine-age comedy, and as in Keaton's films, the gag-and what is a gag but a machine designed to produce laughter?-often takes place across a number of shots, edited together. The machines are designed to bring down the Road Runner, but for what purpose? In some cartoons the Coyote's motives are clearly gastronomic in nature-in Scrambled Aches (1957), the Coyote's mock-Latin name is "Eternalii Famishiis," but if food is the goal, dynamite seems a poor choice of weapon. Jones has described the Coyote as a fanatic, in that his quest greatly transcends any rational goal. Pavle Levi has suggested that the Coyote's manifold machines pose as utilitarian, but what they really stage is the impossibility of fulfilling desire. These baroque creations become ends in themselves, as irrationality masquerades as, and thus undermines, the very image of scientific rationalism. The net effect of all the meticulous preparations is always only misdirected energy, entropy, a series of steps off a cliff, and a long slow fall into oblivion.
All of this may be most pronounced in Road Runner cartoons, but it is not limited to them. What better indication of the cartoon's resistance to the rational spaces and disciplined bodies mapped by chronophotography than the phrase "cartoon physics"? The world works differently in cartoons; how differently was first systematically explored in a 1980 article in Esquire, "O'Donnell's Laws of Cartoon Motion," which included such postulates as:
• Any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation.
• Any body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter.
• All principles of gravity are negated by fear.
And so forth. This list has been amended over the years to include other facts of cartoon life, including the completely valid observation that, in cartoons, holes are movable. Cartoons reverse the production process associated with chronophotography and with the cinema: rather than recording a moving world as a series of still images, a series of still images is projected in sequence to produce movement where none existed. As if in recognition of this signal difference, cartoon logic reverses, in fact rejects, the logic and physics of "the real world."
So the navigation of a body through measured space is carefully mapped in the comics and cartoons that follow in the wake of chronophotography, but the instrumental reason that demanded that mapping is, in so many ways, upset.
Of Reveries, Reflexivity, and Rarebit
"Is it nervousness, or that Rarebit?"
A day in October 1904. An elderly gent approaches an intersection that bustles with traffic. "Why this is Broadway be gosh," he remarks to himself. "Well it's t'other side of it whar I want to go." He steps into the street, only to be run down by a speeding carriage that slices his arm cleanly off. He waves after the offending vehicle. "Say you darn cuss, see what you've done. Come back here and pay for this or I'll report ya." Unfortunately, he's still in the street and now a water wagon thunders over him, severing a leg this time. Now the man is really angry. "I got as much right here as he has!" Sadly, a trolley plows into him, chopping his head off at the neck. The man considers calling a constable, but a motorcar smashes into whatever is left of him. "Well! I believe I see my finish at last!" But it's all been an anxious dream, dreamt by the man's wife while he slumbers, whole and intact, beside her. "I'll eat no more rabbits," she vows. "Oh!" (Figure 10).
[Place figure 10 about here.]
This horrific traffic accident took place in the pages of the October 26, 1904, edition of the New York Evening Telegram; as the last line of dialogue reveals, it was in an episode of Winsor McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (one of the earliest). In the strip people of all stripes, but primarily urbanistes, partake of the rich, cheesy dish and, under its influence, dream away. More than any of his other strips, Rarebit Fiend spoke to the anxieties of the bourgeois citizens of the industrial age. This particular protagonist-can you be a protagonist of someone else's dream?-is of an earlier time, a kind of Uncle Josh of the thoroughfare. He doesn't belong in a world where speed and locomotion are the order of the day.
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend appeared in the newspaper, that most emblematic of urban forms, and Ben Singer has written of the morbid fascination that American newspapers had with grisly traffic accidents-metaphors, it seems, for the collision with modernity itself. The growing role of a sensationalist press was viewed as both a consequence of, and a contributor to, the stresses of urban modernity. Gregory Shaya writes that in French culture at the threshold of the twentieth century, the newspaper was regarded as "one of the most distracting of the many distractions of modern life." He notes that George Beard, in American Nervousness, "pointed to the railway, telegraph, telephone and the periodical press" as the primary culprits of this modern disorder; Max Nordau, in Degeneration, "pointed to alcohol, the city and the newspaper." The newspaper was perceived-negatively-as "a mechanism of sensory stimulation" for the urban population, and this could be seen through increasingly lurid crime reporting, the growing number of illustrations (first black and white, later color), and the popularity of the brief, punchy, fait-divers that observed and distilled the dynamic ebbs and flows of the metropolis. Siegfried Kracauer discoursed on the transient spaces of hotel lobbies and picture palaces for the Frankfurter Zeitung. Such elements, Shaya argues, "had overthrown the daily order of the newspaper." Not only did the newspaper mirror the city's "phenomenal flux" in its very form; Shaya observes that, "The problem of modern life was among the favorite tropes of the press itself." Illustrations in the Sunday supplements of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World luxuriated equally in the construction of the new subway system and the potential Armageddon of a sudden earthquake.
McCay's strip, itself a kind of fait-divers, began its run in the New York Evening Telegram in 1904 as a quarter-page feature but went through a dizzying array of format and name changes, including a run in color at the New York Herald in 1913. It was McCay's longest running strip, and versions of it appeared as late as 1924. McCay used the pen name "Silas" at the request of the Herald's publisher, James Gordon Bennett, who wanted to separate this material from McCay's more kid-friendly work that was concurrently appearing in his paper. The weekday strips, which appeared approximately twice a week, spun to their chaotic conclusion in about nine to twelve panels, whereas the quarter-page Saturday strips, twice as wide as the dailies, used twelve to twenty panels to extend the agony a few meticulous steps further. In later years lobster was the culprit rather than rarebit, and in other iterations of the strip the dreams had no assigned cause at all. The strip had no continuing characters, only the recurrent situation: quotidian reality gradually giving way to wilder and wilder exaggerations until the end, when the dreamer wakes.
For the most part McCay eschewed the play with panels that would characterize the slightly later Little Nemo in Slumberland, which I will explore in the next chapter. The frame size remains largely constant, and where, in Little Nemo, something growing might cause the very panels to morph and change size, in Rarebit Fiend the result is a more crowded frame of constant proportions. The chronophotographic influence, discussed in relation to Little Sammy Sneeze, remains strong: the perspective is often fixed, which emphasizes the change that occurs from one panel to the next, as objects and people variously grow and shrink, morph and transmogrify. The strip provides ample opportunities for McCay to demonstrate his prowess in depicting, in a kind of protoanimation, a smooth sequence of transitions. In this, Rarebit Fiend is perhaps McCay's most "cinematic" comic strip, and it was adapted to the screen by the Edison company as early as 1906.
On the comics page the rarebit fiends dream anxious dreams for an anxious age, an age of nervous disorders of all sorts ("Is it nervousness or that rarebit?" one befuddled character wonders). Tom Lutz notes that neurasthenia was quite the floating signifier of fin de siècle America. It could be a sign "of either moral laxity or extreme moral sensitivity": "Whether seen as a sign of refinement and position, as a form of cultural bootstrapping, as a space for social climbers, as a disease of the shabby gentility, as a mark of distinction, a sign of social deterioration, a fearful response to modernity, or a sign of old-fashioned values, it is clear that neurasthenia helped people negotiate the large-scale changes in culture and structure which radically changed the face of social life in America between the Civil War and World War I."
Its symptoms and diagnoses varied, but there was common ground; neurasthenia was readily understood as a consequence of modernity. Beard noted that modern civilization was "the chief and primary cause" of this new malady, and he singled out such phenomena as noise, the telegraph, railway travel, business, "Domestic and Financial Trouble," the rapid development of new ideas, and "The Necessity of Punctuality" as contributing factors. Similarly, in Europe, Nordau observed that "even the little shocks of railway traveling, not perceived by consciousness, the perpetual noises, and the various sights in the streets of a large town, our suspense pending the sequel of progressing events, the constant expectation of the newspaper, of the postman, of visitors, cost our brains wear and tear."
In Paris the first to suffer from the new breed of neurasthenic disorders were the delicate aesthetes associated with symbolism, but this "virus" was not so easily contained. Workers suffered as much as poets maudites. "As the typologies of the maladies nerveuses left the halls of the Salpêtrière and permeated the public domain," Debora Silverman writes, "the arena of susceptibility expanded; politicians, journalists, literary critics, and social theorists were faced, in the late 1880s, with the startling revelation that nervous debility was not restricted to the hothouses of literary decadence but was incubating as a collective condition."
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, although a few decades and an ocean away, expressed a similar uneasiness-or, really, a queasiness-about the modern world. The rarebit dreamers were haunted, it seems, by modernity, and one can find episodes that correspond to each of Beard's catalog of anxieties: A woman trails a telephone wire to find out what her late-working husband is really doing, betraying a suspicion of these new technologies, which both bind and separate. Trains, streetcars, and automobiles are frequently encountered, oftentimes out of control: in one episode a scab worker operating an elevated train to South Ferry is unable to stop it-the train goes off the rails entirely, crashing through buildings and the Statue of Liberty before ending up in the bay. In another, a man rides with a circus stunt driver and the car loops the loops, leaps over chasms, and navigates increasingly serpentine roadways as he yells to be let out: "If you were not a woman, I'd kill you!" (Figure 11). Noise could be bothersome: one man daydreams of fitting his garrulous wife with a muffler designed for a riveting machine (actually, there are few strips about noise, perhaps betraying McCay's-and his medium's-visual bias). Time was of the essence: a top-hatted fellow runs for his streetcar, but the street curves up around him, trapping him in a treadmill ("I do not seem to be making any headway!") in a neat metaphor for what would later be called the "rat race" (Plate 9). There are new inventions, but they rarely work as advertised, or, conversely, they work too well: a woman gives her older husband a youth tablet; he regresses to handsome young manhood, but continues on through boyhood and back to infancy.
[Place figure 11 about here.]
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was almost inevitably set in urban locations, at a time when anxiety about cities was rife. The city was an attractive environment, even, one suspects, for those writers who were most critical of its excesses and sought to find new rhetorics adequate to the compacted, hectic, fragmented experience of urban life. Urban populations were increasing exponentially, and in the United States and Europe this new public needed to learn the city: its scale, its pace, its relative anonymity, its fierce commercialism and congestion. And the city was often damned as the source of those nervous disorders, a site of exaggerated stimulus that defied bodily and perceptual accommodation. In his 1858 book Paris, Gustave Claudin wrote that new discoveries and technologies "bend our senses and our organs in a way that causes us to believe that our physical and moral constitution is no longer in rapport with them." Ben Singer has summarized a number of distinct ways that cultural critics of the period linked the urban environment to a "recalibration of the individual's perceptual capacities": perhaps the city provided "artificial invigoration" for an exhausted populace, or maybe it further deadened the citizen's already overstimulated nerves. Whatever the case-and whether or not there was any validity to the belief whatsoever-there was general agreement that the populations of Paris, Berlin, and New York were being bombarded by ever more stimuli and were thus becoming ever more susceptible to breakdown.
The city was a place of business and high finance, and countless Rarebit Fiends detail the anxieties attendant upon those worlds. A couple is given five million dollars by Andrew Carnegie but go mad with the responsibility of it. In a pointed strip that looks ahead to McCay's years as an editorial cartoonist, two men roll a gargantuan pair of dice from the roof of the stock exchange to the street below. A traveling salesman dreams of hordes of eager buyers, stopping traffic and producing trainloads of orders. A man rockets from New York to San Francisco to close a big deal; another has himself telegraphed to the steamship he had missed. An employee goes to his boss to ask for a raise ("I must appear big and speak up"); he towers over the boss at the outset, but shrinks over successive panels while the boss looms ever larger above him (Figure 12). These might be dreams of success or dreams of failure, but they are always dreams of commerce, and money, and power.
[Place figure 12 about here.]
Judith O'Sullivan has pointed out that Rarebit Fiend featured bourgeois urban protagonists "whose fears include loss of respectability and community esteem." They are frequently humiliated by the events of their dreams. An after-dinner speaker becomes more tongue-tied with every panel, while his elegant wife turns toward us in horror, buries her face in her hands, and finally rises to lead her desperately stammering, torrentially perspiring hubby away to safety, away from the public eye (This is the rare strip in which either of the main characters might be the dreamer.) (Figure 13). A loose hair-a possible sign of infidelity-grows longer and longer, more and more impossible to deny, until the resulting entanglement finally swallows the couple (Figure 14). And a daydreaming woman, worried whether her checkered dress is too loud for proper society, must suffer the progressive swelling of the pattern to undeniably improper proportions before she awakens in a streetcar ("I wonder if anyone noticed me! I wish I hadn't eaten that melted cheese!"). Writing of these anxieties around respectability and social status, O'Sullivan suggests that "These preoccupations may be in part due to the Evening Telegram's practise [sic] of soliciting suggestions for 'Rarebit Dreams' from the public."
[Place figure 13 about here.]
[Place figure 14 about here.]
Not every strip speaks immediately to the condition of modernity-many are simple metamorphosis dreams: a cute puppy grows to monstrous proportions; a man in a bathtub finds himself in the open ocean. Matrimonial disharmony was a constant theme: angry over his wife's spending, a man storms home, getting hotter and hotter until he finally bursts into some Art Nouveau-inflected flames. A husband coming home late is tossed like a rag doll by his increasingly hysterical wife-there are far too many to catalog. In-laws, needless to say, are incessantly targeted.
There are some happy episodes-a woman borrows millions from Morgan, Russell Sage, and Rockefeller against a mythical box of securities, for example-but they are few, far between, and entirely unconvincing. More likely, a man will be tarred and feathered for revealing lodge secrets to his wife, or an increasingly desperate couple will be forced to move-to Brooklyn. So much goes so terribly wrong, and so, so publicly.
Perhaps even these more straightforward strips can be seen as symptomatic of modernist ills. Neurasthenia was, after all, linked to that familiar condition of fatigue-mental fatigue, to be sure, but fatigue. Beard writes that "we are under constant strain, mostly unconscious, oftentimes in sleeping as well as in waking hours, to get somewhere or do something at some definite moment." For the rarebit dreamers, whatever the particulars of their dreams, sleep offers no respite from the day's demands; they can only struggle on.
Beard further claims that "among the signs of American nervousness specially worthy of attention [is] susceptibility to stimulants and narcotics and various drugs, and consequent necessity of temperance." Nordau similarly links the disorder to addiction and narcotics: "A race which is regularly addicted, even without excess, to narcotics and stimulants in any form (such as fermented alcoholic drinks, tobacco, opium, hashish, arsenic), ... begets degenerate descendants." Why not add rarebit to that list? These are, after all, rarebit fiends. O'Sullivan argues that "although McCay's choice of rarebit as the dream stimulant was based on its inoffensive quality, the sophisticated nightmares thereby induced have more in common with alcoholic hallucinations than with the nocturnal terrors of childhood." And it has something in common with the effects of opium: Silas himself muses at the end of one episode, "Rarebit is worse than hop!"
Thomas De Quincey wrote that under the influence of opium, "whatsoever things capable of being visually represented I did but think of in the darkness, immediately shaped themselves into phantoms of the eye; and by a process apparently no less inevitable, when thus once traced in faint and visionary colours, like writings in sympathetic ink, they were drawn out by the fierce chemistry of my dreams into insufferable splendour that fretted my heart." McCay, too, with his own "sympathetic ink," transformed the visible into subjective "phantoms of the eye," drawn from "the fierce chemistry" of dreams. De Quincey describes dreams in which he is "stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by parroquets, by cockatoos"-an everyday occurrence for many of the eaters not of opium but of McCay's rarebit. Further, "Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time," and this, too, describes so many of the artist's fantasias. Small wonder, then, that like so many of the comic strip's poor dreamers, De Quincey often "awoke in struggles, and cried aloud-'I will sleep no more.' "
I don't think it's too much of a stretch, then, to declare the dreamers of Rarebit Fiend to be, collectively, neurasthenic. The strip belongs firmly to the fin de siècle, with its concerns about overstimulation, overtaxed nervous systems, and the increasing demands of modern life. Nordau condemned the self-absorption and enervation that marked the aesthetes of his era: "With this characteristic dejectedness of the degenerate, there is combined, as a rule, a disinclination to action of any kind," and these fiends are certainly a sluggardly lot, overindulging in rich foods and dropping off, often on the job. Thus, just as Tom Lutz located various and competing understandings of neurasthenia, we can define the rarebit fiends variously: some are go-getters who continue to pursue their ambitions, even in sleep, while others are more indolent figures retreating from the demands of modernity. Nordau further fulminates: "With the incapacity for action there is connected the predilection for inane reverie."
In this reading, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend comes off as a highly conservative enterprise, each episode exposing the protagonist to the worst excesses of modernity, as well as to the panoptic gaze of the family, the citizenry, or the constabulary (even the interested gaze of the reader of the comic strip!). The strip suggests a status quo that is humiliatingly violated, leading the protagonists into escalating agony. But there are still other ways to consider McCay's strip, ways that equally reflect the conditions of modern life and return us to the consideration of discipline and resistance encountered in the first part of this chapter.
The mechanical grind of the Fordist assembly line hardly solved the problem of fatigue, no matter how rationally organized it was. Despite the efficiency promised by the new experts, human subjects were not so easily reduced to mechanisms. Retrofitting the subject for the industrial age involved more than mapping the body; it required new means of soliciting and sustaining attention. The complex phenomenon of attention, understood as directed perception, took its place alongside the study of the body in space: controlled perception was a necessary correlate to the regulated body.
Crary takes up the phenomenon in his Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, where he links the debates around the issue of attention with efforts to analyze and control the laboring body. Suspensions of Perception differs from his earlier Techniques of the Observer in its shift from visuality to "richer and more historically determined notions of 'embodiment.' " In the "unbinding" of vision, new structures of obedience and resistance are summoned into being. As attention was being theorized by such figures as William James as pragmatic and creative, something that worked against automatism, Europe and America saw "the historical emergence of increasingly powerful technologies and institutions that would determine and enforce externally the objects of attention for mass populations." The rise of Fordist production methods broke the act of labor down into a set of invariant, repetitive movements that required not thought, not the engagement of the "higher powers of mind," but precisely the mobilization of automatic stimulus-response mechanisms.
Attention and distraction provide the context for Henri Bergson's 1900 treatise on laughter, in which he wrote that "what life and society require of each of us is a constantly alert attention that discerns the outlines of the present situation, together with a certain elasticity of mind and body to enable us to adapt ourselves in consequence. Tension and elasticity are two forces, mutually complementary, which life brings into play. If these two forces are lacking in the body to any considerable extent, we have sickness and infirmity and accidents of every kind. If they are lacking in the mind, we find every degree of mental deficiency, every variety of insanity." Bergson refers to an "inelasticity of character, of mind and even of body" and reminds us that "the attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine." Thus, well before Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times, the condition of the assembly-line worker was almost innately laughable: the world of work mitigated against, selected against, elasticity in favor of a response so habituated that it hardly seemed like attention at all.
Attention was constantly haunted by its dark double, distraction. Distraction raised the specter of breakdown, whether physiological, psychological, or technological. A careless worker could bring an assembly line to an abrupt halt, leaving the acrid stench of burning oil hanging in the factory air. City dwellers had to watch out for the traffic, the signs, and the cops, and gruesome streetcar accidents (almost like the one in Rarebit Fiend) were endemic to metropolitan life. Distraction was the cognitive-perceptual equivalent of fatigue: it posed similar problems but could also demarcate the limits of external authority. The citizen's inability to focus could be understood as passive resistance to efficiency, regulation, and the co-optation of labor, just as Anson Rabinbach later argued that the ubiquity of fatigue at the turn of the century "was evidence of the body's stubborn subversion of modernity."
Distraction might also serve as the occasion for reverie. Crary suggests that the daydream constituted "a domain of resistance": regulation and discipline created conditions conducive to their own subversion. For Bachelard, reverie "helps us escape time," in this case, the heavily regulated "clock time" of modernity, and this escape can be understood as a form of resistance, of liberation. The reverie exists outside clock time-it takes place in a "relaxed time" removed from the demands of production. It is "a flight from out of the real that does not always find a consistent unreal world."
One last quote from Crary, then back to work-he writes that "attention always contained within itself the conditions for its own disintegration," that "it was haunted by the possibility of its own excess," and perhaps no work of popular culture spoke to that condition more clearly than Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. In this sense it might be productive to read these episodes less as dreams than as daydreams. A number of protagonists do awaken somewhere other than their beds (in a barber's chair, for example), and more than a few fall asleep on the job following a hefty helping of that darn rarebit. Each strip promises a metamorphosis or deformation of the real, but each is also unique-there is no "consistent unreal world," no Slumberland on the other side of the journey, no place but the place of the quotidian, newly deformed. And each provides a temporal caesura: time is indeterminate in the dream, and perhaps even more so in the daydream. A catnap might produce an epic. And for the worker zoning out on the assembly line, who can say how long a reverie lasts? These rarebit dreams might be momentary lapses or the work of an entire night. It isn't always clear. What is clear is that these dreams occur in that "relaxed time" of which Bachelard spoke.
As I have noted, the Rarebit Fiend strips rely on a fixed perspective (and often the characters occupy a fixed position) more than the picaresque adventures of Little Nemo, which could further suggest the fixed location of the daydreamer, whose reveries are closer to consciousness, more firmly anchored in the here and now. Whether the body of the dreamer slumbers in private or public, the dreams of those rarebit fiends all begin in familiar spaces associated with everyday life. Little Nemo strips might open in the fabulous realm of Slumberland with the king summoning a minion to ferry Nemo or with Nemo and his friends embarked on adventures in Befuddle Hall or even on Mars, but each episode of Rarebit Fiend is grounded in the mundane.
The baroque fantasias of encroaching wildlife, mechanical breakdowns and the dissolution of the familiar bounds of reality, understood as reveries, begins to appear less conservative and more disobedient. Again the comic strip offers a resistance to the instrumental rationality of the waking, working life, but where Sammy Sneeze and Hungry Henrietta organized themselves around issues of bodily control, the hypnotic reveries that dominate Dream of the Rarebit Fiend enact a hallucinatory breakdown in perceptual control. In one episode a patient, bitten by "a mad douma," is instructed to exercise his will to resist the hallucinations that must result from the bite (Figure 15). "Oh. I'll be as game as possible but it's rather tough. I am seeing all kinds of-" Meanwhile, in each image, the doctor morphs into a different fantastical beast; when he becomes a huge bird with a coiling neck and a gigantic phallic beak pointed at his patient's midsection, the patient has had enough. He can no more control his perception than Sammy Sneeze could his body.
[Place figure 15 about here.]
The fixed perspective emphasizes the gradual, if accelerating, metamorphoses. Everything is the same but for that alarmingly animate purse, or the gyrations of an automobile that moves every way but forward, or the disturbingly swelling hands that keep "Silas" from drawing today's episode. From panel to panel, moment to moment, McCay builds his metamorphoses. The gradual transformation of everyday life continues, building inexorably toward chaos and breakdown. A celebrated Saturday strip from 1909 begins with a baby knocking over a small stack of blocks and culminates in whole buildings crashing into one another serially, like dominoes. In its metamorphic excess the strip constantly enacts the moment when "attention inevitably reaches a threshold at which it breaks down," when "the perceptual identity of its object begins to deteriorate." In many of the Rarebit Fiend strips a character is focused on a single object or phenomenon that grows in stature, that expands to fill the frame and the page as surely as it has filled the field of the dreamer's consciousness. There's that alligator purse that transmogrifies into an actual alligator, the tumble down the stairs that goes on forever, the stray strand of hair that becomes an impossibly tangled web.
It should be noted that most of the dreamers are unhappy with their lot-they say things like "Oh what a terrible dream!" and snarl endlessly about staying away from that rarebit. These are not quite the conscious, authored, poetic reveries that Bachelard celebrates, nor do they point the dreamer back toward the status of the child (Bachelard again). To the extent that they are real dreamers, they are helpless dreamers, as helpless as De Quincey's opium eater or any alcoholic with the DTs. Are these simply Nordau's "inane reveries," or do these reveries constitute some resistance to power's accelerating encroachment? It's not certain, and either case can be made. What is clear, however, is that these dreams and daydreams are the side effects of modernity's demands and stresses; despite their involuntarism, they operate at or even beyond the limits of control. They are, each of them, small acts of misperception, perceptual misbehaviors.
But the fact is, they are not real dreamers; they are rather functions of McCay's (and his readers') playful imaginations, and we would be remiss not to consider the playfulness of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Johan Huizinga describes the mental play involved in mythopoesis, the "tendency to create an imaginary world of living beings (or perhaps: a world of animate ideas)," and the notion of play as an animating force tells of something about Rarebit Fiend's own animistic spirit. "Which of us," Huizinga asks, "has not repeatedly caught himself addressing some lifeless object, say a recalcitrant collar-stud, in deadly earnest, attributing to it a perverse will, reproaching it and abusing it for its demoniacal obstinacy?" This is the strategy of many a rarebit dream: landscapes and purses, streets and streetcars, hair and hands, all exhibit an unaccustomed willfulness that puts them at odds with their ostensible masters. But taken in toto, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend conveys the sense that is the modern world itself, in its overwhelming entirety, that exhibits that "demoniacal obstinacy," putting Silas's dreamers through continuing hell but giving Silas's readers continuing pleasure.
"I do most certainly love my wife, but oh! this guy Silas!"
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend is at its most playful when it refers to itself, which it did quite often. Ulrich Merkl catalogs thirty-two episodes of self-referentiality, and there are still more that play with the conventions of the medium of comics. This play takes several forms. Numerous episodes refer to the Rarebit Fiend comic strip, with characters declaring that they should send their dreams to Silas. Silas himself is the dreamer in a half dozen strips-in one he gets a swelled head as a result of all the compliments he is receiving for his vaudeville act (Figure 16). Not all his dreams are of glory, however: in one strip his hands become useless, jellylike appendages, forcing him to draw with his feet.
[Place figure 16 about here.]
A few strips acknowledge the presence of the reader. One rather chilling example has a seemingly drunken character aware that he's being observed (Figure 17). He moves into the extreme foreground, and it becomes clear that he is addressing the reader directly: "You, I mean-holdin' thu paper!" A newsie comes up, and asks him, "Have they got you in a rarebit drawing?" Then he addresses the reader: "I sold you that paper, eh? Didn't I?" A crowd gathers; the man grows increasingly irate. Finally he takes off his coat and threatens: "Turn over to the news part of the paper or off comes your block!" And, indeed, he punches the reader: a massive fist approaches, followed by the explosion of the blow. The dreamer wakes; he has indeed fallen asleep reading his paper.
[Place figure 17 about here.]
The most striking examples meditate on the material base of the medium itself. A man dreams that he is a fashion drawing illustrating men's fashion, but, thanks to a sloppy artist, he becomes increasingly ink spattered as the strip progresses (looking at the original artwork, one marvels at these impeccably drawn spatters) (Figure 18). In another episode the panels collapse about a man who only wants a good night's sleep. "Silas forgot to fasten these panels," he complains, as he endeavors to tack the corners back into place. There is a strip in which an ardent wooer, jealous of his fancy's love of Silas, tears the very comic strip in which they appear to shreds-the penultimate panel is just a pile of ripped up paper (Figure 19). A man on his wedding day is drawn with less and less detail until he resembles a child's crude drawing (it seems that Silas has been sick).
[Place figure 18 about here.]
[Place figure 19 about here.]
Some episodes put the creator and his creation at odds with one another. In a strip that anticipates Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. the scenery that a painter is trying to capture arbitrarily changes: it's a mountainscape, then a swamp, a city, and finally a farm. "Aw! I'm going home-I'm no lightning artist!" (Of course, McCay, the tormentor, was a lightning artist.) In the capriciousness of these various mutations, as well as in the growing frustration of the artist, the strip also prefigures Duck Amuck, which begins with Daffy trying to adjust to the shifting backgrounds behind him. Duck Amuck is also foreshadowed in a strip in which a man peers around the panel boundary and sees himself in the next panel (Figure 20). Each thinks the other is someone else rather than multiple iterations of a single self, and they do battle; in the Jones cartoon the slippage of the image frame gives us two Daffy Ducks and a similar ontological dilemma.
[Place figure 20 about here.]
This lengthy review serves to demonstrate not just that reflexive gags were a prominent part of McCay's strip but that there was an almost systematic exploration of reflexivity itself. Self-reference extended from mentions of the author to his actual presence as a character, from the pen-and-ink characters to the flesh-and-blood reader, and to the various aspects of the medium of the comics. The playful images that are the comics now extends to images that play with their very status as comics.
McCay is probably not the first comic artist to play in this manner, and he is surely not the last. It seems as though reflexivity is almost endemic to the media of comics and cartoons. Certainly every medium has its share of metatextual reflection-the tradition extends at least as far back as Don Quixote (a coyote in the deeply reflexive Krazy Kat is named Don Kiyote) and the anamorphic insertions found in Renaissance painting. The cinema hardly wants for reflexive exercises. Yet comics and cartoons seem particularly given to this sort of play. One could provisionally offer several reasons for this predilection. The great majority of reflexive work in the comics is, well, comical, and comedy has always been a haven for reflexivity. Film comedy often refers to the cinematic apparatus, a kind of return of the repressed, as in many films with or by Hope and Crosby, Bugs Bunny, Mel Brooks, Frank Tashlin, and Jerry Lewis.
Formally, comics and cartoons are less beholden to mimesis than many other forms of pictorial representation. From the time of Töpffer, comics were characterized by simplified lines to be produced and consumed quickly. The anti-illusionistic devices of reflexivity, such as breaking the fourth wall or acknowledging the unreality of the drawing, are less disruptive in the comics than they would be elsewhere. The "walls" represented by the panel boundaries are evidently drawn and, as such, can be easily erased. And while there is a long tradition of what Paul Wells calls "realist" animation, which is mimetic of live-action filmmaking in its use of lighting, camera angles, and the stability of form, other traditions, including what Sianne Ngai terms "animistic animation," emphasize mutability, metamorphosis, and continual transformation. McCay animated a dinosaur precisely because nobody could photograph one.
I would also suggest that the status of the comics image-which, since Töpffer, has been understood to be poised somewhere between writing and drawing-becomes a very personal mode of inscription. The rest of the newspaper is typeset, but the comics are the direct product of the artist's hand. In animation it is common practice for animators to use mirrors to model facial expressions and postures for themselves (more on this in chapter 3). These are very intimate modes of creation, and it's easy to understand the temptation to "put a bit more of oneself" into the work, sometimes literally.
Characters in cartoons and comics are also cursed by never being quite complete: there will be another picture of him, her, or it in the next panel (or frame), and in the next after that. They are quite obviously not the masters of their fate and exist at the behest of the constantly inscribing and reinscribing creator. Each image modifies the last; therefore, nothing is inviolate. This power is made explicit in Duck Amuck, as Bugs Bunny puts Daffy through his paces, and it's evident in Rarebit Fiend: a married man dreams that Silas is drawing him having good times with a variety of comely young women ("I do most certainly love my wife, but oh! this guy Silas!"), but the artist betrays him at the end by drawing his wife into the scene (Figure 21). The hand has the power both to build a world and to destroy it.
[Place figure 21 about here.]
Reflexivity also marks the inscription of the author in the work, whether as an active force (the person behind the pencil), a character in the strip, or as the creator of a widely circulating comic strip. In this, Rarebit Fiend prefigures his animated films, three of which show McCay producing the drawings that the cinematic apparatus will then, in his absence, animate (in a later chapter, we will consider the dialectics of appearance and disappearance in early animated films, films that insist on human creators before effacing and erasing them from the scene). Here, too, McCay continually reveals himself, reaching out to "own" the comic strip, insisting on its provenance and returning him to the scene as an active, ongoing participant in the consumption of the strip. Recall that McCay had a very popular vaudeville act (repeatedly referenced in Rarebit Fiend), performing as a lightning sketch artist on the New York stage. His presence in the strip, then, is something of a vaudevillian turn: the performer demonstrating, performing, his mastery with virtuosic flourish. This is the hand of Silas, the hand of the genius McCay, which conjures the fantastic from the mundane. Do not ignore that man behind the curtain. In the strip about the philandering husband Silas's hand is visible in each panel-in the first it is the only visible object, poised before the white surface (this is two years before McCay's hand will "star" in his Little Nemo film).
The insertions of McCay or "Silas" into the proceedings constitute a kind of vaudeville performance akin to what Neil Harris has called an "operational aesthetic"-a performance that makes the work of creating the comic strip visible (or at the very least acknowledges that the comic strip was, in fact, "made"). But in another sense McCay here becomes a figure not just of modernity but of modernism. Reflexivity introduces an instability into the text: it no longer follows its own rules, describing an everyday world deformed by dreams; now it exposes itself as a comic strip posing as a dream record. The imagination stands revealed, not as that of the dreamers but of the Dreamer, McCay, and the materials of production are not that gooey substance known as Welsh Rarebit, but rather the tools of the artist's trade: pen, ink, and Bristol board.
In these examples McCay permits his text to vacillate between representation and a critique of representation. This is a ludic reflexivity. Robert Stam writes, "Like gods at play, reflexive artists see themselves as unbound by life as it is perceived (Reality), by stories as they have been told (Genre), or by nebulous probability (Verisimilitude)." What they create "is not subject to the laws of sublunary nature; it is subject, ultimately, only to the constraints of language itself." This is not the "didactic" demystification of medium practiced (at times) by Brecht and Godard-clearly. And it is far from the "aggressive" assault on the audience that features in films by, say, Buñuel, although it is rather disturbing to be threatened by a comic-strip character who tries to knock my block off. Another strip uses first-person perspective to give us, literally, a corpse's eye view, from the botched operation that kills him, through the funeral procession, through the burial, all the while hearing the nasty things said by family and friends-actually, this isn't so far from Buñuel, at that.
Earlier I characterized the (day)dreams of the rarebit fiends as disobedient acts, a resistance through misperception, but now it should be said that these strips are themselves disobedient, cheerfully undermining their own structures and conventions. This is what Steven Millhauser understands about McCay when he describes Figaro's Follies, a comic strip by his own animator/artist J. Franklin Payne. The comic strip featured a clownish monkey who would play with the panel boundaries in a different way in each strip: "In the first panel of the first strip, Figaro was shown in jail. In the next four panels, the monkey sawed through the frame of the panel and escaped; in the last panel, he stood on top of the cartoon frame." Figaro's Follies is clearly about escape: escape from the little boxes that contain us. It reminds me of (and was perhaps inspired by) a Winsor McCay strip of unknown provenance: it depicts a clown who unravels the lines that bound his frame; finding himself now suspended in a white void, he turns away from the reader and disappears into a hole in the whiteness. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, too, can be said to turn on this same set of dialectics: oscillating between waking and dreaming, stasis and metamorphosis, containment and release.
The recurring appearance of "Silas" suggests that there is one other dreamer involved in Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, and that is its creator, Winsor McCay. In his film appearances, self-representations, and even a fictional manifestation McCay appears as a prodigious, and particularly American, dreamer-more human motor than decadent neurasthenic.
For Nordau, the European, neurasthenia was the pathology that defined the "degenerate" arts of European fin de siècle culture, whereas for Beard, as the title of his study suggests, neurasthenia was preeminently American and functioned, at least in part, as a sign that American civilization was, simply, the most advanced. Understand the disease in America, he held, and you understand it everywhere. "All this is modern, and originally American; and no age, no country, and no form of civilization, not Greece, nor Rome, nor Spain, nor the Netherlands, in the days of their glory, possessed such maladies. Of all the facts of modern sociology, this rise and growth of functional nervous disease in the northern part of America is one of the most stupendous, complex, and suggestive." Some of the rarebit fiends, the indolent ones, fit neatly in Nordau's worldview, while others, the ambitious dreamers, are a more congenial fit with the more energetic and productive American nervousness.
American nervousness fed, and was fed by, American progress. The United States, after all, has always been a nation of crazy dreamers: crazy dreamers going west, inventing a nation, reinventing themselves. Here, dream stands not for indolence or sloth, escape or decadence, but for a creative engagement with the world, an imaginative engagement that has an effect on the world, that, it can be said, builds a world. Steven Millhauser's novel about the designer/world-builder Martin Dressler is subtitled, The Tale of an American Dreamer, and in "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne" the American dreamer is a thinly disguised version of Winsor McCay: a feverishly inventive comic strip artist and animator.
Millhauser has produced a unique body of work, although Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino serve as fair comparisons. He is, like McCay, concerned less with character than with systems and structures, and his protagonists tend to be dreamers, inventors, and designers. Such eclectic and uncanny phenomena as dime museums, amusement parks, cat-and-mouse cartoons, and automaton theaters are at the center of his narratives, and his stories often take the form of dispassionate, almost clinical, descriptions of mechanical marvels and built environments-a stance that might also be said to mark McCay.
Payne, like McCay, has multiple strips running concurrently. His first successful strip, Dime Museum Dreams, is a neat amalgam of Sammy Sneeze and Rarebit Fiend:
The format was invariable: in the first panel an unnamed boy was seen holding his mother's hand-nothing was shown of the mother except her hand and forearm-and staring at an exhibit in the dime museum.... In the next three panels the freakish creature became more and more frightening ... until in the fifth, climactic panel the height of horror was reached and the boy shrieked out in terror. In the last panel the exhibit had returned to its original shape, while the boy sobbed against his mother's leg and listened to her words of comfort.
Later, Payne introduces Phantom of the City, a "hymn to the city" that, with rich architectural detail, explores hidden urban spaces in each weekly episode, and Figaro's Follies, a reflexive enterprise featuring a monkey that played with the borders of the panels that composed the strip itself.
Payne is a noctambulist, prowling his own little kingdom while everyone else sleeps. He spends his nights producing the thousands of drawings for increasingly elaborate animated films. Taking a break, he steps from his window onto a sloping roof and, by the light of the moon, perambulates around his house and whispers, "I'm only a dream."
In some ways "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne" operates as something like an American À rebours, J.-K. Huysmans's scandalous novel of 1884, which Nordau viewed as emblematic of fin de siècle decadence and solipsistic withdrawal. À rebours featured an aristocratic aesthete, Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, of unusual sensitivity: hypochondriac and neurasthenic, he exists in "such a state of nervous sensitivity that the sight of a disagreeable person or thing was deeply impressed upon his mind and it took several days even to begin removing the imprint." Overwhelmed and "weighed down by spleen," he chooses to withdraw from the overstimulating world of human commerce and congress. He retires to a secluded villa, whose windows he entirely covers and whose interior he obsessively designs to precisely order every sensory encounter: color, smell, taste, and sight. Before his retreat he famously throws a funeral dinner in which everything-the approach to the house, the décor of the dining room, the dishes and glassware, even the food itself-is black. He creates, through the use of a porthole, an aquarium with tinted waters and mechanical fish, and assorted railway timetables and barometers, an environment suited to a kind of virtual travel that dispensed with the discomforts of the real thing-imagination providing a "more than adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience." Huysmans writes, "Artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius." This quest of Des Esseintes, to establish complete aesthetic control over all aspects of his existence, represented for Nordau the most decadent of worldviews (recognizing irony is not, it seems, one of Nordau's strengths).
Payne increasingly withdraws from the world of commerce as well, reveling in the artificial worlds his pencil conjures, whether in comic strips or the drawings for his animated films. Millhauser writes of Payne's "need to escape from the constriction of physical things into a world entirely of his own devising," which echoes Des Esseintes's retreat from Paris to the carefully controlled environment of his villa. But unlike his European counterpart, the American Payne equally needs the solidity of the real-reality and irreality must maintain a balance. And where Des Esseintes is singularly unproductive of anything but his own living environment, Payne does nothing but produce: comic strip after comic strip, and animations of increasing ambition and perfection.
Millhauser's Martin Dressler functions even more clearly as an American À rebours. The book is ostensibly a novel, but it is remarkable more for its cataloging of the various, increasingly opulent, environments that Dressler designs and builds. Dressler is characterized not by nervous sensitivity but by nervous energy, a restlessness born of the sense that he is meant to be doing "something else, something grander, higher, more difficult, more dangerous, more daring." Dressler is drawn to hotels and department stores, each of which "sought to be a little world in itself," and his aesthetic centers on what an architect refers to as "the enclosed eclectic." His ever more wondrous creations-part hotel, part housing, part amusement center, part park, part theater, part commercial district-become increasingly dedicated to the unpredictable and the surprising. (I don't know whether Millhauser drew on Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York, but his novel revives a similar sense of the city as fundamentally irrational.) Dressler's is a control that eludes control, that becomes something of its own, an animate space with a life of its own.
J. Franklin Payne loses everything as he sinks ever more deeply into his own obsessive act of creation, this construction of another world-his wife, his best friend, his comic strips (like McCay, his publisher presses his talents into the service of the real rather than the unreal and has him drawing editorial cartoons instead of his creations). But the production of his cartoon provides relief and release from all that: "He sank back into his black-and-white world, his immobile world of inanimate drawings that had been granted the secret of motion, his death-world with its hidden gift of life." These drawings are the product of the night; while everyone else dreams, Payne creates a dream that becomes a new reality. Des Esseintes is also engaged in the creation of a substitute reality, first with opiates then without: "The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself." They are strange bedfellows, Payne and Des Esseintes, yet they are engaged in similar projects, just spun differently. In fact, in their desire to impose an aesthetic vision upon a misunderstanding world, they both resemble protagonists in a Vincente Minnelli melodrama, and we should pause to consider just how right Minnelli would have been as the director of choice for an adaptation of À rebours-especially the "black dinner" sequence.
It would be wrong to say that where Des Esseintes seeks solitude, Payne has it thrust upon him-one's monomania seems as self-willed as the other's-just as it would be wrong to see one as emblematic of industry and the other of indolence. They are both dreamers, yet it is possible to understand Payne as an American dreamer in that his dream extends beyond himself-he creates something that takes on a life of its own, even if that life has the most profound meaning for the dreamer/creator himself: "It was desperately important to smash through the constriction of the actual, to unhinge the universe and let the impossible stream in, because otherwise-well, otherwise the world was nothing but an editorial cartoon." Whereas Des Esseintes is subject to "a whole cavalcade of dreams to which he passively submitted, without even trying to get away," like De Quincey's powerless opium eater, Payne draws, using that "sympathetic ink," to, again, objectivize the subjective in visual terms and permit fantasy to enter the world of things with a life of its own.
In the final chapter of Degeneration Nordau foresees the end of the decadent strain: these artists, he holds, cannot reproduce themselves and so must die out in favor of a heartier sort: "Let us imagine the driveling Zoroaster of Nietzsche, with his cardboard lions, eagles, and serpents, from a toyshop, or the noctambulist Des Esseintes of the Decadents, sniffing and licking his lips, or Ibsen's 'solitary powerful' Stockmann, and his Rosmer lusting for suicide-let us imagine these beings in competition with men who rise early, and are not weary before sunset, who have clear heads, solid stomachs and hard muscles: the comparison will provoke our laughter." Let us imagine, in other words, the European decadence that (Nordau imagines) is Des Esseintes in competition with "the human motor" that is Franklin Payne or, if we call him by his right name, the American dreamer Winsor McCay.