Part 3: Shining Knight
This essay appears in a revised form in my book An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Paperback, Hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), other ebook formats
Who then were these gods that pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips? They were voices whose speech and directions could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard today by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices.
Julian Jaynes: The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind
For those of you who’ve got this far and decided I’m talking a load of rubbish – that Seven Soldiers definitely isn’t influenced by any of the things I’ve pointed to – you may well be right. Certainly it’s entirely possible that Grant Morrison didn’t intend any of the things I’m reading into the story. It could just be a silly superhero romp with no other meaning – at least in the author’s intention – though I would argue that just because Morrison didn’t put some things there doesn’t mean that they’re *not* there. We may well get to the question of authorial intention later – or we may not (I intend to deal with this subject in a chapter I’ve not written yet. If I change my mind, what does that say about the intention of this author? Sorry, I’m getting distracted from the subject at hand. Bad habit of mine).
But there is a ton of evidence that Morrison in fact *does* put a lot more into his work than may be immediately obvious from a surface reading. For example, take this sequence from Arkham Asylum:
(From Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, DC Comics. Fun fact, Neil Gaiman was the model for this scene.)
Here’s *part* of the relevant portion of script for this:
Batman pushes the glass into his palm. His face creases with the flare of pain. ((This act deepens some of the ritual symbolism of the story. The recurring Fish motif–which relates to Pisces, the astrological attribution of the Moon card – also relates to Christ, who in turn can be linked to the Egyptian God Osiris, whose life and descent into the underworld parallels with the story of Amadeus Arkham. We also see later that the Asylum is built upon a Vescica Pisces – this symbol (…) forms the ground plan of much religious architecture and is used in the construction of most of the major buildings of antiquity, like Stonehenge and Avebury in England. It is a development of the Greek symbol for Christ (…). We also have the Clown Fish in our story, of course. Interestingly enough, while doing some research into folklore, I came across a book, published in the 16th century by a quack doctor Andrew Borde, called ‘Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham’. The English village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire was famous for the antics of its fools and the three stories mentioned all contained some reference to images in our Arkham story. On one occasion, for instance, the Gotham villagers, upon seeing the reflection of the moon in a pool attempt to fish it out. In another story, they surround a bush with stakes in an attempt to catch a cuckoo. The third story tells of how an eel was eating all the fish in their pond. The villagers take the eel and throw it into another pond, leaving it to drown. Synchronicity is alive and well!
As a final interesting aside on the subject of fish, the Vescica Piscis symbol is a very basic representation of the holographic process in which intersecting circular wave patterns produce three dimensional images. Physicist David Bohm believes the hologram to be an analogy for his vision of a vast interconnecting universe, in which every part is in some sense a reflection of every other part. In a few pages time, the Mad Hatter will endeavour to outline Bohm’s theories as applied to child molestation.
In the same way, everything in this story reflects and comments upon everything else.
What was I talking about anyway?
(From the script, published in the Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary trade paperback)
Now this is, of course, an extreme example – Morrison doesn’t annotate every panel of every script this way – but it shows the kind of thinking that goes into even a fairly poor bit of work like this scene. I’m making this point because while I remember reading an interview with Morrison where he specifically references Jaynes’ The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind as the inspiration behind Guilt, the Sheeda mind-destroyer, I can no longer find it online. Without that reference, a lot of this will look a bit odd. So I’ll talk for a while about the Tower of Babel.
prelapsarian: adj. characteristic of or belonging to the time or state before the fall of humankind
“Phall if you will, rise you must”
Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
We are fallen creatures, sinful, and having been created perfect have become steadily more imperfect, thanks to the malign influence of one individual. This is the message of pretty much every religion in history. The term ‘Golden Age’, as applied to comics (and as Morrison applies it within the story of Seven Soldiers in-story), comes from a belief from comics collectors in the 1960s that their ‘fall’ happened in the 1950s, when, the pinnacle of comic art’s potential having been reached with Tales From The Crypt, the evil Doctor Frederic Wertham condemned them to be forever more just children’s stories. Never again could comics reach the mature literary heights of The Sliceman Cometh or Strop! You’re Killing Me!, and all collectors could do was look back on those glory days.
But that’s not the only example of that kind of thinking, of course. Eric Hoffer has shown, in The True Believer, that most mass movements throughout history have a narrative that goes something like “Once upon a time, everything was great, and people like us [‘Aryans’, men without sin, people who enjoy good comics literature] ruled the world, but then those bastard [Jews, women, Wertham] wrecked that, but if you follow me there will be a glorious future where everything will be just like it was in the past!”
Of course, those are the optimists. Pessimists, who tend not to build great mass movements, tend to predict a trend line into the future. Isaac Newton, for example, believed from the evidence of the Bible that humanity had originally been pure but was sinking ever further into depravity and degeneracy with every generation. (This was a belief that made more sense during his time than most – syphillis had only been introduced into Europe relatively recently, and was both more prevalent and more disfiguring then than it later became.
(Portrait of a sufferer from congenital syphillis by Rembrandt, a contemporary of Newton).
At this point, the sins of the fathers really were being visited on the sons. Newton calculated that degeneracy (and what he considered the Trinitarian ‘heresy’, being a secret Arian) would lead to the ‘true faith’ dying out some time between 2060 and 2374, and the end of the world.
And of course the term ‘Golden Age’ itself has a much longer lineage than that. Hesiod, in the sixth century BC, wrote about how everything had been perfect back in the old days before that newfangled fire stuff came along and spoiled it for everyone, and how everything was just going to get worse forever. (footnote: Hesiod blamed Prometheus for this. This may become important later.) Virgil, on the other hand, a few hundred years later, blamed agriculture for making the world as bad as it is – everything was just find up until those pesky farmers spoiled it all, though at least he had the decency to set a new, better Golden Age in the future. (footnoteL The economist Robin Hanson might agree. Hanson, an interesting-but-odd libertarian type who writes at http://overcomingbias.com, thinks we can divide humanity into two groups – ‘foragers’, the original hunter-gatherers, and ‘farmers’, and that the foragers had it basically right (to get sidetracked for a second, here’s a quote from Hanson’s blog – “I’m just suggesting that human brain design took pre-existing animal brain structures, such as near vs. far modes and left vs. right brain splits, and recruited them to the task of managing the uniquely human task of hypocrisy: simultaneously espousing and evading rules. In particular, the left-right brain split become an important tool for minimizing undesirable leakage between the overt rule-following images we present to others, and the cover rule-evading actions and communication which better achieve our real ends.” This may be important later on…) Jared Diamond goes so far as to call agriculture humanity’s worst mistake (http://www.mnforsustain.org/food_ag_worst_mistake_diamond_j.htm))
But of course the ‘fall’ stories that most concerned Newton, and that have been most influential on Western culture generally, and that concern us in our examination of Seven Soldiers, are those in the Old Testament. There are several of these – not just the Fall itself (though that most definitely fits the pattern we’re looking at here), but pretty much all the stories of God raining down wrath on all and sundry because of mankind’s general naughtiness fit the pattern. Most interestingly for now, we have the story of the Tower Of Babel.
For those of my readers who did not have the benefit of a religious education, I shall now briefly summarise the story. Some time shortly after the Flood, all the people in the world spoke a single language, and decided to found a city called Babel. There they built an enormous tower, which was intended to pierce Heaven and let humanity be Gods. Obviously, God didn’t like this, and as a result He not only destroyed the tower but scattered humanity all over the world and made sure that they all spoke different, incompatible languages. (MANY of these stories – Prometheus, Babel, Adam and Eve – are very specifically about punishment for acquiring knowledge that should only belong to God or The Gods).
This is one of those pieces of the Bible that is *very clearly* an illustrative story, and not meant to be taken literally – so much idiocy from both the stupider type of Christian and the stupider type of atheist comes from asking “so where was this tower, then?” and “what language did they speak before then?” – the fact that ‘Babel’ is a pun on the Hebrew word ‘balal’, meaning ‘to jumble’ or ‘confusion’, and that both words are etymologically linked to the word ‘babble’, should tell you how the story was meant to be read. You might as well believe that humanity started with two people called “Mankind” and “Living One” or something as believe this story was meant to be taken literally! (Or indeed that someone called Christian made a journey to The Celestial City, during which he met Mr Worldly Wiseman, Lord Hate-Good and Giant Despair).
Morrison (remember him? We’re talking about Grant Morrison comics here) combines elements of both the stories of Adam & Eve and the Tower Of Babel here, with the serpentine, apple-eating Gloriana Tenebrae destroying the kingdom of Camelot, and in the process also destroying the single language that was spoken by all humanity.
Gloriana Tenebrae’s name means roughly ‘the glory of darkness’, but also has connotations of Elizabeth I. Elizabeth (who was far less popular in Scotland than in England) was known as ‘Gloriana’ by her supporters after a character of the same name in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queen, an allegory set in the time of King Arthur. Spenser’s poem, each book of which was meant to illustrate a specific virtue, was left unfinished when he died half-way through the seventh volume.
(An aside – is there anything to the point that Gloriana Tenebrae is clearly a Latin name, while the Knights Of The Round Table are talking a pseudo-Celtic language?)
Of course, if we’re going to talk about religious allegories written by poets, we do need to talk at some point about Pilgrim’s Progress, don’t we? But what could the story of an innocent puritan travelling through a world he doesn’t understand, meeting up with allegorical personifications of evil, possibly have to do with Seven Soldiers? (Interestingly, Bunyan was in prison when he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, just as Mallory was when he wrote the Morte d’Arthur). Possibly we’ll get to Bunyan more later. Possibly.
So, anyway, what’s this bicameral mind thing I was talking about a couple of thousand words ago?
Julian Jaynes (no relation AFAIK to the great information theorist ET Jaynes, about whom maybe more later) was a psychologist who wanted to discover the nature of consciousness. He eventually decided that:
“Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world.”
In other words – what we call consciousness is a purely verbal phenomenon. Our minds are made up of words, rather than sense impressions. More precisely, our minds are made up out of the *metaphors* we create, not out of the impressions that cause them. We’re the map, not the territory.
Sparks may say that “A metaphor is a glorious thing, a diamond ring, the first day of summer. A metaphor is a breath of fresh air, a turn-on, an aphrodisiac”, but Julian Jaynes says it’s more than that – that in a very real sense we are metaphors.
Now, I think Jaynes is quite probably wrong here. My own consciousness is *definitely* verbal – if I were to try to pin down what I consider ‘me’, then I would say the constant inner monologue I have is the main part (though not the only part – I also have a constant musical soundtrack. There’s a reason I write so much, both text and music). But I know other people who think primarily visually, and I am sure there are other people for whom the primary sense is tactile or olfactory, and I would be very surprised if those people had a coherent inner monologue in the way I do. I don’t think that makes them less conscious. I may be wrong. Certainly Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins both seem to think Jaynes’ ideas deserve a certain amount of respect. I shall leave it as an exercise for the reader if that makes the idea seem more or less likely.
But it’s certainly an interesting idea, that we are the lies we tell ourselves, isn’t it? It would explain a lot.
So how did this version of consciousness come about, according to Jaynes? Where do these lies-to-humans come from?
Well, there’s this part of the brain called the corpus callosum. It acts to link the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Oddly, in most mammals (and all primates) it scales up with brain size, but in humans and chimps it doesn’t – we have lower-bandwidth communication between our brain hemispheres than macaques or baboons, relative to the size of the brain itself.
Now, the two sides of the brain are, supposedly, responsible for slightly different things. The left brain is claimed to be responsible for things like grammar, vocabulary, mathematical reasoning and so on (things that sexist morons believe to be ‘male’ thinking), as well as controlling the right hand, while the right brain is supposed to be the preserve of music, spatial reasoning, facial recognition, and recognition of tone of voice (‘female’ things) as well as controlling the left side of the body. Quite how this lines up with, for example, autistic people (who have a greater incidence of left-handedness or ambidextruousness, and who are often very musical, but who are usually hopeless at supposed ‘right brain’ things while being good at ‘left brain’ things) I don’t know. From the little neuroscience I know, the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy seems at best an oversimplification. But then, so do most dichotomies. It makes sense as a starting point, I suppose.
But what does all this have to do with anything?
Well, Jaynes’ hypothesis was that in ancient times (up to a point somewhere between 1000 and 500 BC), the corpus callosum was slightly thinner, and that communication between the two halves of the brain was more difficult (this isn’t the only explanation for the communication problem he gives – but the idea of a greater difficulty communicating between the two brain halves is consistent throughout Jaynes’ work). He thought that before this time the right, ‘intuitive’ side of the brain was in control, with the left, ‘analytical’ part more or less along for the ride.
When the left side wanted to communicate with the right side, it was something other, different from the way the right brain normally thought – it was a voice from somewhere else. Originally, according to Jaynes, there was a spoken language of sorts, but it was an imperative one – “Go there, do this” – used to order members of your tribe around. So when one half of the brain ‘talked’ to the other, it ‘sounded’ like a voice from somewhere else giving a command. And these commands would often be good advice – if one half of the brain has put together various sensory clues to figure out that people who go into the cave get eaten, then it will command the other half “don’t go in that cave or bad things will happen”. This voice could very quickly get a reputation for giving good advice – and for punishing those who didn’t take that advice.
Sometimes, these voices would also come along with visual hallucinations, as the ‘visual’ side of the brain tried to interpret things that were too complex for the primitive language of the time in a way it could understand. So maybe if you want to know if that stretch of water is shallow enough to cross, you might see a figure crossing it, or get an image in your head of the waters parting altogether, and know it was safe.
In short, Jaynes believed that ‘God’ or ‘the Gods’ was/were originally one side of our brain talking to the other.
(Please note, I am NOT, N-O-T, saying that this is a true and accurate description. I think Jaynes’ model is a good and interesting Just So Story, and haven’t got anything like the knowledge of neurology to go any further, but it smells wrong to me).
So what we have when the Sheeda unleash Guilt on Sir Justyn is a new ‘God’ (as opposed to a New God, of whom more later) appearing. Before the fall of Camelot, as is made clear, there is no pain, no suffering, even the bacteria were under the control of King Arthur, and with no suffering what need is there of guilt? (What need is there of a fighting force, either? But perhaps the knights of the Round Table only became Knights once the Sheeda attacked.) Guilt kills with words because he’s really the verbal part of Sir Justyn’s brain, letting him (footnote: The question of Sir Justyn’s gender and sexuality is an open one. While obviously biologically female, I think the story as a whole tends to suggest that we should see him as a gay transsexual man. If nothing else, given the speculation about a neurological cause for transsexuality, this adds extra resonance to the story. Therefore, I shall refer to him as ‘him’.) know just where he’s gone wrong. The Sheeda have introduced the concepts of sin, of wrongdoing, and of guilt, into previously unspoiled minds.
And this is where all Jaynes’ ideas, and all this imagery, tie up. Jaynes claimed that there was evidence of a catastrophe in the middle east at some time between 1000 and 500BC, the documentary evidence of which is in the Bible, the Iliad and other sources (Sumerian myth, for example). All of these sources seem to show the same thing. At some point there was a big catastrophe – a flood, an earthquake that destroyed cities, perhaps a combination of them. All through this time there were massive wars, huge migrations of people – and two other events occuring with them.
One was the invention of writing (Jaynes’ history is all wrong here, by several thousand years, I think – but I am not an expert on the history of writing), which meant that ‘voices in the head’ could no longer be the highest authority – before, you could hear the voice of the dead king in your head and know he was still giving you orders as a god, but now his words were written down in books of the law, and that was more proof than his spirit talking to you.
The other event that Jaynes points out is that, over time, the ‘Gods’ seem to have stopped talking to people. Over and over again we see the same story – the ancients knew the Gods, but now they’ve gone away. And they’re not coming back. Whereas at the time of the Iliad, there was no such thing as consciousness for the most part – people didn’t have volition themselves, they acted at the behest of the ‘Gods’, apart from Odysseus, who Jaynes cites as an early example of non-bicameral man – by the time of the later Old Testament prophets, God talks to them only occasionally and much of the time is spent interpreting writings about those older prophets who were in touch with God all the time. There’s no discussion of ‘free will’ in pre-first-millennium-BC philosophy, and we don’t read of heroes acting of their own volition.
I have deep, deep problems with this hypothesis – not least that it purports to explain the whole of one of the most important periods in human history and becomes almost a theory of everything for consciousness (an explanation for everything is isomorphic to an explanation for nothing). But it’s still, *as an idea*, one of the best I’ve come across, and one of the most fascinating to mine for ideas.
And so Morrison here has a bicameral hero – one guided not by thought but by gut instinct, and with, rather than a consciousness made up of metaphors (which is to say a consciousness made up of lies), a brain that deals solely in truths about the world around him. But that world is a richer one, one with gods and demons, one where Sir Justyn is the puppet of forces beyond his control. In important ways, Sir Justyn is to all intents and purposes a different species to ‘modern humanity’. (Although it has also been suggested that visionaries, schizophrenics, and poets like William Blake are also ‘bicameral’. The MRI evidence from examining the brains of schizophrenic people shows very little – but some – evidence for this).
Sir Justyn comes from before The Fall, an age of heroes, a Golden Age. Before we were corrupted by logic, by thought, by reasoning. Whether you consider that a good thing or a bad depends very much on which way you’re looking. And no matter what we think, we, living in the present, can’t go around worrying about whether we’ve fallen or not – we are where we are, and we need to rise up from it. Fall, we may have, but rise we still must.
Comic issues Shining Knight #1-4
Artists Simone Bianchi (line art), Dave Stewart (colours)
Other credits Rob Leigh (letters), Harvey Richards (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)
Connected Morrison works Marvel Boy has a very different look at this kind of story, while both The New Adventures Of Hitler and Seaguy in their own way seem to show bicameral people.
Look Out For This is the infodump one. This is the story where you find out the actual plot – everything here matters.
Still to come in Seven Soldiers Stop the wedding! Mermaid film stars! Motherboxx! And a crossword puzzle!