Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fountain of Youth 2: Neil Gaiman at the Museums of Curiosity

Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

Yesterday, BBC Four interviewed Neil Gaiman, David Eagleman and Sarah Millican on the last episode of its current series for the radio show Museums of Curiosity.  You can listen to the show between June 14 and June 20 here.  After that, it goes offline.  Neil Gaiman is the award-winning British writer whose work on DC's Vertigo comic The Sandman ran from 1989 to 1996, in which he portrayed the Sandman, the master of the realm of human dreams, as a postmodern epic hero. 

Gaiman conceived of Dream initially as "a man, young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell, waiting until his captors passed away [...] deathly thin, with long dark hair, and strange eyes." Gaiman's series built up a whole new netherverse dominated by a family of a immortal siblings called The Endless: Dream, Death, Delirium, Destiny, Destruction, Despair and Desire.  Interestingly, Death was the most sympathetic character, and she was responsible for death and birth; all the siblings dominated their own existential realm of power, as well as its opposing concept.  The Wiki entry on them confirms their intrinsic dualism: "This dualistic aspect of the Endless has been confirmed in the case of Death, who not only ends lives, but also begins them. Destruction has an interest in creative pastimes, including art, poetry and cooking. Dream seems to have some power to shape reality, as seen in The Sandman (vol. 2) #18, A Dream of a Thousand Cats, in which a large number of entities, dreaming of an alternate reality, create said reality. Also, Delirium has some kind of strange logic that only makes sense to her, but that allows her to understand things that others do not. It is likewise hinted that Despair defines hope and Destiny defines freedom."

Sandman, The Dream Hunters #1 (series 2008-2009).

Having collected the Sandman series at its height, I remember the thrust of Gaiman's stories hinged on his characters' immortality.  It's their immortality that has over the ages rendered them into powerful, distilled versions of the human experience - they are the basic archetypes of existence that survive in all societies across the ages.  But there is a price to be paid for this power: each of them suffers terribly, in different ways, from crushing responsibilities and burdens of endlessness.  I particularly remember Sandman's doomed love affairs, like The Doll's House arc (1989), in which he fell for the African princess Nada, who loves him, but then rejects him because it is forbidden for a mortal to love one of the Endless.

"The Doll's House Prelude: Tales in the Sand." The Sandman #9 (Sept. 1989)

Nada kills herself.  Still in love, Dream visits her in Death's realm and pleads with her to return with him to The Dreaming.  She spurns him because their first and only union destroyed her country and her people.

"The Doll's House Prelude: Tales in the Sand." The Sandman #9 (Sept. 1989)

If she becomes his bride, all humanity will be destroyed.  But Dream doesn't care about that.  He refuses to forgive her, casting her into Hell as punishment.

"The Doll's House Prelude: Tales in the Sand." The Sandman #9 (Sept. 1989)

In the epilogue story "A Hope in Hell" The Sandman #4 (April 1989), which actually appeared before The Doll's House, Dream visits Hell, and is led by the Rhymer Demon Etrigan to the Wood of Suicides, where he encounters Nada.  She begs his forgiveness, "but Morpheus refuses. He tells her, 'It has been ten thousand years, Nada. Yes. I still love you. But I have not yet forgiven you.'"

"The Doll's House Prelude: Tales in the Sand." The Sandman #9 (Sept. 1989)

Interestingly, Gaiman suggests that this is how men tell the story, but that the version women tell is different.  He's hinting that men and women have different views of time, youth, immortality, the endurance of love, the eternal, and perhaps also of the seeming rift between immortals and mortals.  Maybe that explains why so many women in Greek myths happen to have children with the gods.  Instead we get Sandman's masculine perspective of his love, cruelly thwarted by a woman.  It's a telling hint at the missing component of human perspective - that all stories and knowledge are fundamentally incomplete because there is a wall between the sexes which conceals a protion of our understanding from each other that cannot be breached.  Dream's knowledge and power are masculine.  His series features a Boy's Club of the usual suspects, Etrigan, John Constantine, the DCU's version of Lucifer (modelled on David Bowie), and J'onn J'onzz.  His sister Death has a thoroughly feminine perspective.  Only their sibling, Desire (modelled on Annie Lennox), is both male and female, and knows the secrets of both sides of every story, of all perception, of all knowledge and all modes of thinking.

"The Doll's House Prelude: Tales in the Sand." The Sandman #9 (Sept. 1989)

Stories like this are an interesting commentary when you consider that the Baby Boomers' Cult of Youth and Cult of Self have dominated popular culture for the past 40 years.  Gaiman's speculative picture goes against the fashionable assault on aging and mortality.  He implies that eternal youth, derived from constant, unremitting preoccupation with the self, is taboo and forbidden, and produces a hellish unreality, which only the most formidable souls can bear.

Still, everyone knows that although it's forbidden, it would be awfully nice to have more time than we've got.  In the BBC Four interview, Gaiman expressed an interest in making time "stretchier" and implicitly acknowledged that our awareness of time, has value, is relative and changes.  As it flexes and fluxes, we notice pockets and dimensions normally hidden from our view.  The two concepts, our fated time on this planet and our grasp of reality, are weirdly related.  It might be possible to lose time, if you're not paying attention, or to snap it up if you are.
NG: “I’d love time to be stretchier. It’s that awful deadline thing, where you just want to lean against a Friday and get another few little days in there before it finishes and you can hand the thing in. It would also be nice if you could just sort of nick days from people who didn’t need them.”
SM: “Who doesn’t need days?”
NG: “Well, there’s lots of people. They’d go, ‘I don’t know what I did on Tuesday.’ I’d go, ‘Yeah, I got your Tuesday.’”

BBC: “You’d take a Tuesday? I’d take a Saturday or something. Tuesdays are crap.”

NG: “That’s just the point. Nobody would miss them.”
Gaiman also talked about his hobby of bee-keeping.  This reminded me of Leo Tolstoy's extended bee hive metaphors in War and Peace, especially his neat summing-up of the limitations of individual subjective perspective as it relates to an object of perception - whose separate existence and meaning for existence can never be properly understood (quoted here):

"A bee settling on a flower has stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and declares that bees exist to sting people. A poet admires the bee sucking from the chalice of a flower and says it exists to suck the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, seeing the bee collect pollen from flowers and carry it to the hive, says that exists to gather honey. Another beekeeper who has studied the life of the hive more closely, says that the bee gathers pollen-dust to feed the young bees and rear a queen, and that it exists to perpetuate its race. A botanist notices that the bee flying with the pollen of a male flower to a pistil fertilizes the latter, and see in this the purpose of the bee’s existence. Another, observing the migration of plants, notices that the bee helps in this work, and may say that in this lies the purpose of the bee. But the ultimate purpose of the bee is not exhausted by the first, the second, or any of the processes the human mind can discern. The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious it becomes that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension. All that is accessible to man, is the relation of the life of the bee to other manifestations of life. And so it is with the purpose of historic characters and nations."
"Apus the Bee," etching by Tallmadge Doyle (2007). Davidson Galleries, Seattle WA.

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