FRANCIS SCHAEFFER ANALYZES ART AND CULTURE Part 101 BEATLES,(MANY CHRISTIANS ATTACKED THE BEATLES WHILE FRANCIS SCHAEFFER STUDIED THEIR MUSIC! Part B) Artist featured today is Cartoonist Gahan Wilson

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Francis Schaeffer did not shy away from appreciating the Beatles. In fact, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND album was his favorite and he listened to it over and over. I am a big fan of Francis Schaeffer but there are detractors that attack him because he did not have all the degrees that they have. However, even many of them give Schaeffer credit for inspiring many young people to further their education and to engage the culture. Professor Barry Hankins of Baylor University noted concerning Francis Schaeffer:

George Marsden had been following Francis Schaeffer’s career since the sixties, having visited L’Abri himself. Marsden’s first occasion to write about Schaeffer came in 1968, during one of Schaeffer’s lecture tours, when Marsden was a young assistant professor at Calvin College. Marsden covered Schaeffer’s visit for an underground newspaper called The Spectacle, where he wrote: “For a Calvin Faculty member the most startling aspect of this achievement is that Mr. Schaeffer, without displaying any particular academic credentials and with an apparent disregard for the usual academic standards and precautions, did exactly what we always have hoped to do-make Christianity appear intellectually relevant to the contemporary era.”14 Noting the strengths and weaknesses of Schaeffer’s style, Marsden compared his lecture to a person sketching a map of the world in five minutes. There would be many erroneous details, but the general outline would be quite helpful. “

“Within a typical hour,” George Marden wrote, “he may present the thought of Antonioni, Aquinas, two Francis Bacons, the Beatles, Bergman, Berstein, Camus, Cezanne, Cimabue, Francis Crick, Leonardo Da Vinci, Eliot, Fellini, Gauguin, Giotto, Hegel, Heidegger, several Huxley’s, Jaspers, Kierkegaard, Leary, Henry Miller, Picasso, Rousseau, Marquis de Sade, Sartre, Terry Southern, Siessinger, Tillich, and Zen Buddhism. Intellectual modesty is not Schaeffer’s long suit. One might sympathize if in the audience another scholar who had spent most of his adult life trying to understand, for instance, Kierkegaard, was appalled.” In contrast to Calvin College at the time, which had censured the official school newspaper for suggesting that students go to movies, Schaeffer, in Marsden’s words, “has seen the dirty movies, read the dirty books, and even heard the dirty words, yet for all that he is a better Christian. Doubtless such evident empathy for the contemporary culture accounts largely for Schaeffer’s remarkable appeal “

In Robert M. Price’s book BEYOND BORN AGAIN we read the reason that many Christians had avoided Beatles’ music:

Bob Larson warns, ” Lyrical content which is directly opposed to Biblical standards and accepted Christian behavior should definitely be avoided. For teenagers listening to the Beatles sing NOWHERE MAN or ELEANOR RIGBY would stop to realize the philosophical implications of the lyrics of these sayings. Nevertheless, the philosophical outlook conveyed will influence their thoughts.”

| On Apr 05, 2013

Jake Meador writes on Edith (and Francis) Schaeffer over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Without the Schaeffers, I sincerely wonder if we’d have magazines like Relevant and Cardus or journals like Books & Culture or the Mars Hill Audio Journal. I know that the nonprofit Ransom Fellowship, run by two very dear friends of mine, would not exist as it does. And even as some of the work they inspired has fallen out of favor in recent years (most notably the Christian worldview movement spearheaded by Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey), I suspect its critics would not be nearly so well equipped to address the movement’s shortcomings were it not for the trailblazing work of the Schaeffers. After all, the worldview movement’s most astute critic, Jamie Smith, is drawing from the same (reformed) theological well as the Schaeffers.

The Schaeffers made it possible in a way it had not been before to be thoughtfully engaged with (and even delighted by) much of popular culture while still holding to Christian orthodoxy. That is a tremendous accomplishment when one considers that today’s evangelicals are, by and large, the theological descendants of fundamentalists who emphasized separation from the world. When Francis Schaeffer first came to Wheaton in 1968, he spoke on the music of The Rolling Stones and THE BEATLES and Pink Floyd. He talked about the films of Bergman and Antonioni–and at a time when Wheaton’s honor code forbade students from seeing any movies at all! That the Schaeffers accomplished such an enormous cultural work while also modeling a tremendously generous, sacrificial hospitality at L’Abri that imaged the Gospel to thousands of guests over nearly 30 years is nothing short of remarkable.

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In the video THE AGE OF NON-REASON Schaeffer noted,  ” Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band…for a time it became the rallying cry for young people throughout the world. It expressed the essence of their lives, thoughts and their feelings.” 

How Should We then Live Episode 7 small (Age of Nonreason)

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Saving Leonardo: Book Trailer

Take a look at Nancy Pearcey’s story:

I became acutely aware that I had no answers to the most basic questions: Where did I come from? Was life just a chance accident of blind forces? Did it have any purpose? Were there any principles so true and so real that I could build my life on them?

Eventually I embraced RELATIVISM AND SUBJECTIVISM and several of the other popular “isms” of modern culture. For I was determined to be ruthlessly hon-est about the logical consequences of unbelief. IF THERE IS NO GOD, THEN WHAT CAN BE THE BASIS FOR OBJECTIVE OR UNIVERSAL TRUTH? I REALIZED THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO STEP OUTSIDE OUR LIMITED EXPERIENCE–OUR INSIGNIFICANTLY SMALL SLOT IN THE VAST SCOPE OF THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE–IN ORDER TO GAIN ACCESS TO UNIVERSAL KNOWLEDGE, VALID FOR ALL TIMES AND PLACES.

AND IF THERE IS NO GOD, THEN WHAT CAN BE THE BASI FOR UNIVERSALLY VALID MORAL STANDARDS? Once, when a classmate described someone’s action as “wrong,” I shook my head and began arguing that we cannot know right or wrong in any ultimate sense.

Eventually I began to wonder whether I could even be sure about any reality outside my own head. I began doodling little cartoons of the entire world as nothing more than a thought bubble in my mind. When I graduated from high school, I wrote a senior paper on the topic of “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Later I would discover that Bertrand Russell had written a famous essay by that title (which I had not read yet)–but this was my own manifesto of unbelief.

It was a few years later, when I was attending school in Germany and studying violin at the Heidelberg Conservatory, that I stumbled across L’Abri in Switzerland, the residential ministry of Francis Schaeffer. I was stunned by this place. It was the first time I had ever encountered Christians who actually answered my questions–who gave reasons and arguments for the truth of Christianity instead of simply urging me to have faith. When I arrived, the most obvious thing that struck me was that most of the guests were not even Christian. The place was crowded with hippies sporting long hair, beards, and bell-bottom jeans. At the time, it was extremely rare to discover Christian ministries capable of crossing the countercultural divide to reach alienated young people, and my curiosity was sparked. Who were these Christians?

Schaeffer himself used to strike people as somewhat odd, with his goatee and knickers. (Though when you were actually at L’Abri, it didn’t seem odd at all: After all, this was the Alps–and he dressed like a Swiss farmer.) But when he opened his mouth and began to speak, people were transfixed: Here was a Christian talking about modern philosophy, quoting the existentialists, analyzing worldview themes in the lyrics of Led Zeppelin, explaining the music of John Cage and the paintings of Jackson Pollock. You must remember that this was in an era when Christian college students were not even allowed to go to Disney movies–yet here he was, discussing films by Bergman and Fellini.[34]

[Footnote 34: “This small, intense man from the Swiss mountains delivered a message unlike any heard in evangelical circles in the mid-1960s. At Wheaton College, students were fighting to show films like Bambi, while Francis was talking about the films of Bergman and Fellini. Administrators were censoring existential themes out of student publications, while Francis was discussing Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger. He quoted Dylan Thomas, knew the artwork of Salvador Dali, listened to the music of THE BEATLES and John Cage” (Michael Hamilton, “The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer” [Christianity Today, March 3, 1997], at www.antithesis.com/ features/dissatisfaction.html).]

Seeing Christians who engaged with the intellectual and cultural world was a complete novelty. In fact, it was such a novelty that I was afraid that I might make a decision for Christianity based on emotion instead of genuine conviction, and so, after only one month, I returned to the States. (To be honest, I fled back home.) And I thought, “I’m going to test these ideas in my college philosophy classes, and see how well they stand up in a secular university setting.”

The most dramatic response came almost immediately. Signing up for my first philosophy course, I discovered it was a huge introductory class, with some three hundred students. Pretty intimidating. For the first major assignment, I took out my copy of Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason and wove some of its themes into my paper. A week or so later, the professor said, “I have your papers to hand back … but first I would like to read one of them to the entire class.”

It was my paper.

Needless to say, I was astonished. And even more so when the professor went on to say, “I have never seen such mature thought in an undergraduate.”Of course, it wasn’t really my thought–it was the Christian worldview analysis I had been learning through L’Abri.Again and again, I tested these ideas in my university classes, and I saw that Christianity really does have the intellectual resources to stand up in a secular academic setting.

While still at L’Abri, I had once accosted another student, demanding that he explain why he had converted to Christianity. A pale, thin young man with a strong South African accent, he responded simply, “They shot down all my arguments.”

“Total Truth” – Nancy Pearcey Book Talk 2006

(Nancy Pearcey below)

The Beatles Help ! | Subtitulada

The Beatles “Help” Live 1965 (Reelin’ In The Years Archives)

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Artist featured today is Cartoonist Gahan Wilson

GAHAN WILSON: Born Dead Still Weird – Q & A screening at 2011 San Diego Comic Con

“I’LL SHOW YOU!”

INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Steven-Charles Jaffe and ‘Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird’

Gahan-Wilson-Steven-Charles-Jaffe-2013

“If Crumb can have a documentary, then so can Gahan Wilson!” The decision had been made.

Gahan Wilson is a force of nature. And so is filmmaker Steven-Charles Jaffe. Wilson found in Jaffe someone who would do justice to his legendary career that spans over 50 years of cartoons for The New Yorker, Playboy, and National Lampoon. Who else even comes close to such an output? That’s why a documentary had to be made. It is called, “Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird.” Yes, you read that right, “Born Dead, Still Weird,” and it is currently the subject of a Kickstarter campaign that you can join here.

It was upon seeing “Crumb,” Terry Zwigoff’s landmark 1995 documentary on underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, that Jaffe resolved he needed to create a similarly worthy documentary of his friend and idol, Gahan Wilson. The idea of Jaffe and Wilson working together had already been kicking around for a few years. One plan that continues to interest them is a feature length animated movie based on Wilson’s illustrated book, “Eddy Deco’s Last Caper.” Jaffe and director Nicholas Meyer have approached IMAX about the project so we shall see. A Gahan Wilson animated movie in 3-D would be worth the wait.

For a taste of what it’s like for Wilson and Jaffe to work together, you can view the 2008 animated short, “It Was a Dark and Silly Night.” A story about children determined to have a jello war, even if it’s in a cemetery, this animated short is based on a collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Gathan Wilson for an illustrated anthology, compiled and edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, “Little Lit: It Was a Dark and Silly Night.

There is so much to a Gahan Wilson cartoon: it is entertaining, memorable, scary, and above all else, it won’t let go. “I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a Gahan Wilson cartoon that relates right back to his own life.” Jaffe makes the observation with awe and admiration. An artist of the caliber of Wilson has both a keen sense of whimsy and a backbone made of steel. He was a child of two out of control alcoholic parents. For him, he had to grow up fast while holding on ever tighter to his dreams.

The dream behind “Born Dead, Still Weird” is to give it as wide an audience as possible. Much in the same way that “Crumb” was transcendent, so too this documentary aims to show you the real man and artist. “That’s what struck such a chord with people, to see Robert Crumb on a human level,” says Jaffe. Both Crumb and Wilson climbed their ways out of adversity to unprecedented success. If Jaffe can accomplish his goal of stirring up the pot and getting his documentary considered for an Academy Award nomination, it will go a long way in securing a high profile for “Born Dead, Still Weird.” The essential stage, getting the documentary made is done. But the last stage, marketing and distribution, and just making sure the documentary is known about, is still ahead.

Jaffe recalls the kind words from Robert Redford in support of “Born Dead, Still Weird.” After viewing it, Redford wrote back to Jaffe, “I’m a huge proponent of art not only getting into the educational system but for its ability to save some lives and enhance some lives. It is a fine piece of work and I thank you.” Saving lives. What a joy to be able to make such a difference. This is something that has genuinely stuck with Jaffe. He’s the first to say that he did not set out to make an inspirational film and yet Gahan’s life attracts just that.

From Jaffe’s first encounter with a Gahan Wilson cartoon in Playboy at the tender age of 10, up to today, Jaffe’s felt his own life enriched by Wilson. “He is a total nonconformist,” Jaffe says with delight. In a world where being different can have harsh consequences, as with bullies in school, Gahan Wilson is a shining example of someone who is going to live his life his way.

I hope you enjoy the podcast below that includes the entire interview with Steven-Charles Jaffe. Just click below:

Steven-Charles Jaffe

Be sure to stop by and visit the Kickstarter campaign for “Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird” right here.

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Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird – Official Trailer

Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird

Veteran Horror Producer launches Oscar Campaign for GAHAN WILSON Doc

, wilson-eye-doctor-actual-image

Veteran producer Steven-Charles Jaffe,  the man behind such FANGORIA-approved classics as MOTEL HELL, DEMON SEED and NEAR DARK and the romantic sci-fi/fantasy gems TIME AFTER TIME, GHOST and STRANGE DAYS recently turned his energy towards the life and times of legendary macabre socio-political cartoonist and illustrator Gahan Wilson with his already award-winning doc BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD.

And though the film has screened to great acclaim at festivals around the world, it is unfortunately still somewhat invisible. Jaffe is hoping to change that and he needs your help.

The filmmaker’s hope is to get GAHAN WILSON: BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – aka The Oscars –  for nomination consideration as Best Documentary. To do this, Jaffe needs to raise $26,000 by September 16th. A longshot? Jaffe  is adamant that this loveletter to the inimitable Wilson gets the love it deserves and he’s hoping the artist’s legion of fans around the world feel the same.

Visit www.borndeadstillweird.com to learn more about the hilarious, moving and fascinating film, how you can pledge, the incredible rewards you can receive for being part of this campaign and more. And keep an eye out for an upcoming feature article and interview with Jaffe in FANGORIA where he discusses his thirty-year career producing, directing and writing genre film classics.

Stephen Colbert Extra extras

Hef’s Cartoon Method extra extras

101 Weird Writers #28 — Gahan Wilson

Hearts Like Oysters in “The Sea Was Wet As Wet Could Be”

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

gahanwilsonGahan Wilson (1930 – ) is an iconic American writer and cartoonist who has received the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. (The World Fantasy Award bust of H.P. Lovecraft was designed by Wilson.) His art, routinely appearing in The New Yorker and Playboy, intersects with his fiction in their shared playful grotesquery. Stories of his have appeared inPlayboy, Omni, and, perhaps most famously, in Again, Dangerous Visions with a tale whose title was simply an ink blob. The three-volume set, Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons (2010), recently showcased his art. “The Sea Was Wet As Wet Could Be” (1967), using Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass as partial inspiration, is one of the weirder and more disturbing tales included in The Weird. In this latest installment of 101 Weird Writers, returning contributor Leif Schenstead-Harris pays tribute to Gahan Wilson and dissects the weird power of “The Sea Was Wet As Wet Could Be” through both its own effects and its connection to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

 – Adam Mills, editor of 101 Weird Writers

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 I. What to do when Santa dies in your chimney?

Early in his career Gahan Wilson had a tough time finding a publisher for his cartoons. After all, as he’d be the first to admit, his pictures possess a dark and cruel whimsy. Despite Wilson’s initial difficulties finding a publisher for his work, however, none other than Hugh Hefner tells us that, in the history of Playboy—Wilson’s first and longest publisher—“no cartoonist was more popular, or more enduring, than Gahan Wilson” (7). Wilson’s long tenure as cartoonist for Playboy reveals two general tendencies in his work which I’d like to draw attention to here: the first, a weird fascination with the figure of Santa; the second, situations where a skeleton sits unnoticed among the living, to their laughably myopic failure to see or, more darkly, their failure to care.

A cartoon from October 1964 illustrates a convergence of the two fascinations—but with a twist, as if the time of inattention has come undone and the previously unseen skeletons have fallen into view—only in this case it is Santa’s skeleton that has appeared.

gahan-wilson, Playboy Oct-1964-miss-emmy, page 106(1)

The morbid wonder of the cartoon turns on the caption’s black joke. The illustration shows a skeletal Santa-corpse at the feet of two gray, cloddish workmen and a shapeless and vague-seeming Miss Emmy, her mouth a tiny line reflecting the faint curve of her almost hidden eyebrows. Only Miss Emmy’s oversized eyes and tiny, anxious hands betray any sign of human emotion. Like so many of Wilson’s cartoons, the faces here make the piece, faces which “convey a fearful and discombobulated response to the bewildering and unnerving circumstances they usually find themselves in” (Groth 882). These rare faces are some of the few sites available to sympathy in Wilson’s cartooning work, which is otherwise dominated by, as Neil Gaiman writes, “strange, squashed, Plasticene-faced people […] raggedy mummies and acts of unspeakable cruelty and nightmare” (328). Poised against this aesthetic is Wilson’s nuanced idea of human frailty: “If you’re alive,” Gahan Wilson says, “you’re vulnerable by definition” (Tibbetts 244). Perhaps it’s a mark of his concern for such vulnerability that engenders his fascination with cruelty. Why should a little perversity surprise us?

The October cartoon’s importance lies in its convergence of three features: a morbid theme, a fantastical subject, and an emotional spectator. Each is an important feature of Wilson’s artistic vision. With Santa’s corpse dislodged from Miss Emmy’s chimney, the three characters are confronted with something that challenges their worldview. What would you do if Santa came tumbling dead down your chimney? Coming dead into the world and only belatedly noticed by grey, dull people (despite his soft speech in interviews, Wilson seems very much a contemporary believer in the old cry épater le bourgeois, “shock the middle class”), the fantastic or weird object provokes only widened eyes and anxiety—and, deepest of all, the reminder of death’s inevitability. We might note too that Wilson’s skeletons gesture toward his own early brush with death. Declared still-born at birth, “born dead” as he puts it, young Gahan was only resuscitated by an icy plunge into cold water (Groth 885). The cruel shock saved his life. As the cover of I Paint What I Seesuggests—a grotesque family portrait of the dead, the abnormal, and the rapacious living—Wilson’s art is a straightforward and uncompromising examination of cruelty and morbidity (Altobello). The weird intersections between these ways of being are the channels through which his art takes shape. Being dead, being strange, and being alive: to Gahan Wilson these aren’t ontologies but phases, and troublingly fluid at that.

gahan-wilson-i-paint-what-i-see-cover

The Running lady

Gahan Wilson and The Chicago Art Institute

II. Writing for children: “nobody really gets hurt”

A crucial difference between Gahan Wilson’s cartoons and prose is found by examining their different emotional valences. These differences emerge by comparing certain expectations about artistic genre. The cartoon is a very particular genre, Wilson says, in which “the basic thing is that it should be funny. If it isn’t funny I’ve failed. If I do a monster which just terrified you, or made you sick or something like that, I’d have blown it. What you have to do is take these horrors and end up being a joke, or it’s not a cartoon” (Schweitzer 106). Whatever disconcerting implications his cartoons might engender about human cruelty, death’s inevitability, or so on, a cartoon by Wilson must first be funny.

This firm stance on genre and corresponding admission of a dominant black humour shatters into pieces when taking shape in Wilson’s prose. His short stories achieve a variety of effects, of which “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be” illustrates the blackest terror. At the other end of the spectrum, playful stories such as “The Science Fiction Horror Movie Pocket Computer” could almost pass for a Facebook meme today.

The Science Fiction Horror Movie Pocket Computer; originally published in The National Lampoon

The Science Fiction Horror Movie Pocket Computer; originally published in The National Lampoon

Wilson’s children’s literature—books such as The Bang-Bang Family (1974), Harry the Fat Bear Spy (1973), Harry and the Sea Serpent (1976)—stands in contrast to his work for adults. Here Wilson barely touches his erstwhile fascinations with the monstrous and the horrific. For instance, in Harry and the Sea Serpent, the barely-able bear-spy must overcome his fear of being put to sea in a boat so that he can investigate strange rumours of a sea monster. This accomplished, he discovers that the monster is, in reality, nothing other than an elaborate charade of mirrors. We might say that Wilson’s children’s writing comes packaged with all the normal ideologies of “realist” fiction: that everything is as it seems and, further, that weird threats to this worldview will always have some rational explanation.

While Harry the Bear Spy comes bundled with his genre’s usual accoutrements—cloaks and mysteries, villains and code phrases—the world in which he moves lacks teeth. (But itis one in which macaroons play a signature role.) “[T]he absolute rule in the Harry books is nobody really gets hurt in any sense,” Gahan Wilson says. “And the villains are not really villains, they’re simply sort of silly” (Tibbets 242). In other words, this is hardly fare for even young adults. Wilson’s children’s books are, he admits, “definitely aimed at children. The only adults who are likely to read them are adults with children who are reading them to their kids” (Schweitzer 109). This narrowly focused approach effectively clears a space in Wilson’s writing for adult audiences for material darker, more cynical, and much more threatening.

III. Stories about picnics with “bored and boring drunks”

The characters of “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be” are recognizable as fleshy relatives of Wilson’s skeletal living dead, further examples of his obsession with the posthumous and the skin-creep. Take Carl, Phil’s ominous boss, both threatening and pathetic; in him, despite the bluster of noir-ish cynicism—“Don’t tell me, you never heard of the Walrus and the Carpenter? […] Disgusting, […] You’re an uncultured bitch” (418)—lurks an inner deadness, a disturbing sense of life’s failure. Let’s face it. These aren’t the most sympathetic characters in the canon. Although Carl convincingly acts vivaciously, Phil, our narrator, gives the game away:

Once you got to know Carl, and it took a while, you realized that none of it was really happening. That was because Carl had died, or been killed, long ago. Possibly in childhood. Possibly he had been born dead. So, under the actor’s warmth and rage, the eyes were always the eyes of a corpse. (419)

Furthest from Carl is Irene, perhaps the most sympathetic sketch of the story. Yet even Irene has a twist of weariness about her—she lives with the despair of unsuccessful suicide attempts. Her body is wearing away and she seems “frail and thin against the sunlight” (421). As for Phil, he admits himself to be a veritable archive of regret: “I smoked too much and I drank too much. I did all the wrong things. I didn’t do any of the right things” (421). Between Horace and Mandie, the remaining members of the picnic quintet, readers can almost hear the leaden echoes of a passive aggression that marks their only line of communication. A faint masochist, Horace—Phil “had a sneaking suspicion that [Horace] was really happier when groveling” before his family (417). One wonders about her source of joy in their marriage. All told, then, a ragged and disreputable bunch or, in Phil’s self-loathing judgment, “a crowd of bored and boring drunks” (416).

Wilson’s characters suggest what is also apparent in the story’s narrative arc and context. This is a much different take on the genre than is familiar to the modernist expectations of a James Joyce or Katherine Mansfield. It is more rough-hewn than Edgar Allan Poe, more grounded in its milieu than H.P. Lovecraft. All told, Wilson’s story argues for a changing conception of the genre’s reliance on emotional intensity, epiphanies, and horrific effects. In 1975, eight years after the story’s publication and speaking at the first World Fantasy Conference, Wilson tellingly observed that “[y]our standard television news show is more horrific these days than many of the gothics” or stories such as Dracula or Frankenstein(Schweitzer 105). The prosaic access to this source of horror dulls its effect and through incessant repetition—the “news cycle” works 24 hours a day, every day of the week—flattens emotions. Resultantly, a short story struggling to disrupt this reality cannot come up with a profound epiphany or revelation, as Joyce might wish. It’s all the story can do to overcome its own sense of knowing self-dismissal, even irrelevancy, and produce a clear and overpowering single emotion, to adopt Poe’s famous mandate. The story’s beginning instead sets a tone of weary disgust. “We’re like a group of sticky bugs crawling in an ugly little crowd over polished marble,” thinks Phil (416). He’s not far wrong, despite the simile’s grossness. These days we’ve all read a little Nietzsche. When confronted by nihilism, it’s difficult not to give in to its wearied appeal, let alone critically analyze its effects.

“The Sea Wet as Wet Could Be” turns on its affiliations with Lewis Carroll’s poem (and, more broadly, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass). From Carroll, Wilson’s story takes its name, antagonists, and logic. If the short story, as writers from Poe to Joyce to Henry James argue, depends on knowledge and perception, on secrets and surprising twists, then Wilson’s story finds fertile ground in its knowing use of such well-known stories. In his typically obnoxious fashion, Carl mansplains to Mandie that “[t]he Walrus and the Carpenter are probably two of the most famous characters in literature.” (418). Don Quixote and Elizabeth Bennett, take a seat. What’s significant here are at least two things. First, that Carroll’s Alice is a notoriously relentless truth seeker, a born rule-maker whose adventures through Wonderland exemplify the terror of logic and the demand for conformity in the face of startling disorder. Second, that Carl, Mandie, and Phil knowingly discuss the similarities of the two men they meet with Carroll’s characters. Phil even cites Tenniel’s famous illustrations to cinch the question of whether the Carpenter wears an apron or not. It doesn’t seem that they grasp the significance of these figures, however, as if the glamour of fiction clouds their critical faculties. Maybe they’re too ironically knowing to think twice about it. Maybe they’re simply too tired and drunk to wonder.

walrus and carpenter

Unlike Carroll’s Alice, Wilson’s characters linger on superficialities of appearance. Not for them the grasping for the internal logic of size-changing food, nor any patience for a pedantic Caterpillar’s riddles and logical word games. Although conveniently able to quote from Carroll’s poem, they’re unable to understand the relevance of its lines. They are unwilling, perhaps, to think critically about the emergence of these imagined figures from the world of art into their own world. The truth seems before their eyes, but they refuse to see it, swayed by the denials of the two uncanny interlopers from Wonderland. “I would have sworn you were looking for oysters,” Carl manages to piece together, but is rebuffed by Tweedy: “Oh, no, we’ve got the oysters. All we lack is the means to cook ’em” (419). But, with a classic touch of dramatic irony, the trust Wilson’s characters have for these two looks all wrong to readers. The story is fairly transparent in its machinations, as the intruders themselves indicate. Thus when the Walrus ingratiates himself into the picnic party’s logic of alcohol and storytelling, his nature as a loose fragment from another world is exposed, his monstrous presence announces itself as such. “His specialty was outrageous fantasy: wild tales involving incongruous objects, events, and characters. His invention was endless” (420). Warning bells should be ringing for our picnickers.

Hammering the point home, the text intersperses lines from Carroll’s poem, effectively forming direct, textual parallels between the two stories—only now the characters from the poem are telling stories to an audience who once heard stories told about those characters. It would take an Alice to understand the weird logic here taking shape. Despite the utter implausibility of figures wandering out from a fucked-up children’s tale and into a story seemingly of the contemporary world, the Walrus and the Carpenter make a place for themselves—despite the very nonsense of it all. Perhaps they bring the nonsense over with them from Wonderland. We’d be right to be wary. Writing an afterword to his story, Gahan Wilson admits that, when he was a child reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandand Through the Looking Glass,

If it hadn’t been for brave, stolid Alice (bless her stout, young British heart), herself a child, I don’t think I could have survived those goddamn books.

But there is no Alice in this story.

IV. “They’d eaten every one.”

So to avoid the dilemma of the story’s characters, then, and to play Alice a little ourselves, we could retreat a little from the story and give context to the poem it takes its name from. As the poem’s tellers Tweedledee and Tweedledum tell Alice, “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is the longest poem they know. Further, they tell it to her without proper consent. She is lost and in need of directions, more concerned with dealing with a fairly bewildering decision: how is she to escape the dark wood in which she’s lost—a forest becoming ominously dark. Alice’s dilemma comes directly from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first canto of which begins

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Or, in Robert Hollander’s English translation,

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

The Tweedles are no Virgil. They give her not directions but a poem characterized by nonsense. What kind of aid is this? Is it guidance at all? Perhaps it is a warning about signs. The poem begins thus:

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright—
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done—
‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said,
‘To come and spoil the fun!’

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead—
There were no birds to fly. (118-119).

The lively, regular iambs and skipping rhyme of the Tweedles’ ballad masks a dark process. The poem’s objects are given and then immediately negated, as if the iambic foot’s rhythm of up-and-down, here-and-there became one of presence-and-absence, existence-and-negation. The feet beat out duplicitous time. In this uncanny doubling words repeat themselves as self-descriptions (“wet as wet,” “dry as dry”) and seem to empty themselves of meaning (well, then, what does it mean to be wet, or dry?). In this way the poem narrates nonsensical objects that exist simply because. Or they don’t. But, in a twist of negative tautology, you only discover their non-existence in a double take after you’ve imagined them into being.[1] The secret here is language. “One of Carroll’s general techniques,” French philosopher Gilles Deleuze reminds us, “consists of presenting the event twice, precisely because everything occurs by way of, and within, language” (34). The Tweedles’ apparent nonsense can only be rationalized by an act of meta-interpretation, an act that violates the sanctity of our suspension of disbelief and draws attention to the poem’s material existence as words on a page. To conclude, then, there are neither clouds nor birds because both are linguistic figments—the sky, as is so often said, is the only limit of the imagination. The Tweedles’ poem is also, Phil realizes, “a perfect description of a lifeless earth […] Carroll was describing barrenness and desolation” (420). As soon as images are conjured into being they self-destruct, leaving behind word-traces only.  Fiction proclaims its unreality, but—weirdly—we believe in it anyway.

Already we can see how Gahan Wilson rapidly spins the tables on art’s usual distance, bringing it directly into the world, though allowing it to remain inhuman (despite their human names, the Walrus and the Carpenter cannot be taken seriously in this disguise). In his story the negativity of art’s paradox (that it “is not” real as it claims to be, but exists nonetheless; “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”) consumes the conventional signs we intuitively understand, represented here by the regular seeming characters together at a picnic, drinking. What could be more normal? The inclusion of the poem’s lines disrupts narrative coherence, while such familiar figures as Carroll’s bring with them further cognitive dissonance. The fabric of the story is being eaten away. So too are our assumptions about fiction’s relationship to life. The weird aesthetic draws attention to itself as a fabrication but then dismantles the distinctions we normally draw between the imagination and reality.

But how does Alice, that model of Victorian morality, respond to the Tweedles’ poem? After some hemming and hawing, she goes straight to the obvious: “Well! They were bothvery unpleasant characters—,” she says of the Walrus and the Carpenter, but leaves her thought unfinished. She has been distracted, hearing some sound. “‘Are there any lions or tigers about here?’ she asked timidly” (122). Only the Red King snoring. Still, Alice is right to fear. She too is to be incorporated by Wilson’s story, ingested so fully her name disappears and, with it, her caution, her prudence.

Written almost a hundred years after Through the Looking Glass, “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be” replaces middle class Alice with disillusioned and boozy Phil. What else has changed? Carroll’s Wonderland has already been called a vision of “monstrous mindlessness” where “life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician,” and from its vision readers can conclude that “we all live slapstick lives, under an inexplicable sentence of death” (Gardner 13). Gahan Wilson, for his part, clearly sees the dangers of Wonderland. He “distrusted the Alice books from the start. […] I knew they were dangerous,” he says; “I opened them only rarely and gingerly” (“Author’s Note”). Compressed into a vicious short story, opposed to the blasé normalcy of the Miss Emmys of the world, Wilson’s weird tale turns Carroll’s poem inside out. It upstages our assumptions about how fiction works, despite all our foreknowledge as grown up Alices who’ve read Carroll through and through: twas brillig, and the slithy toves… Most startlingly, the story does so despite its sheer implausibility—just imagine the narrative equivocation on which the story’s denouement rests: a heart for an oyster!

V. The Terror

Wilson’s voice is one of the growing chorus who tell of the dangerous weirdness of art which we only notice too late, like so many Santa Claus skeletons fallen into uncomprehending view. It has been in our midst all the time. Writing in broad sweeps, Thomas Leitch argues that the “American short story as a genre presents a critique of the notion of a stable and discrete personal identity constituted by an individual’s determinate actions—a means to the author’s unmaking, and the audience’s unknowing, an active determinate self that was only an illusion to begin with” (134). Maybe Leitch is right—now is not the time to properly investigate his claims. But this much is true: if, like Alice, we try to make sense of the world, we will face madness and ultimately disappear into fiction and if, like Phil, we are insensate to fiction’s rapacious appetite for the raw material of human life, we will not only disappear but become consumed, much as the characters of the story are prey to their own consumptive interests: alcohol, pills, destructive relationships. Remember Carl, who “used drinks like other sadists used whips” (416)? It may be initially counterintuitive, but the reader’s consumption of fiction is similarly dangerous, for what else is reading but a resurrection of the ghosts who lie dormant in the body of the text, flitting uneasily in the pages, waiting to spring into the mind of the reader? The land of “make believe” is enticing but full of risks, especially when we think of it as a place to which we might escape. Such is the great ironic appeal of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, for instance, or the seeming betrayal of heartless George R.R. Martin. Such is also the moral of Gahan Wilson’s short story, if it is to have one at all, signaled by the return of the Walrus and the Carpenter, loosed from their textual bonds in Carroll’s Wonderland to invade a world that eerily looks similar to our own.

From the critical and countercultural impulse épater le bourgeois Wilson develops Angela Carter’s ideas on the Gothic tradition of short stories. This type of story’s only humour, she writes, is “black humour”; its only morality “a single moral function—that of provoking unease” (133). We may not have much left for hearts by the end of the story. What does remain is Phil’s inconstantly compassionate mind. Truthfully, the characters do experience an epiphany of sorts, a dramatic realization of imaginative beauty in inventive storytelling. This mid-story epiphany causes Phil to drunkenly think “the whole secret of everything, the whole core secret, was simply to enjoy it, to take it as it came” (420, my emphasis). Such banality is triggered by the seemingly infinite possibilities of the “endless” and “outrageous” artistry with which the Walrus tells his tales; it is also, however, deeply nonsensical (what does “it” refer to, precisely? Some general feeling of goodness? Beauty?). The Walrus’ epiphany is generated by a world possible only in the imagination—an inhuman world that dreams

Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.

The emergence and welcomed reception of such nonsense in the otherwise disillusioned world of Phil, Irene, Carl, Horace, and Mandie is the sign of art and language forcibly colonizing life. It is what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben would call an aesthetic of Terror. In this twist, where “the secret” of pure absurdity and excess annexes our prosaic world of suspicion and pills, arguments and cynicism, the characters share “the dream of a language that would be nothing but meaning, of a thought in whose flame the sign would be consumed” (Agamben 8): the disturbing nature of Wonderland reveals itself not in the question of why its inventions exist—simply because—but in their actual and weird existence. “The dream of the Terror,” Agamben writes, “is to create works that are in the world in the same way as the block of stone or the drop of water; it is a dream of a productthat exists according to the statute of the thing” (8). Here is a visceral demonstration of inhuman agency—the dream of a work of art that is its own object: nonsensical, intransitive, deathly. This artwork is as alien to humans as the beach lazily stretching itself before Phil at the end of the story: “vast, smooth, empty, and remote” (422). The beach resembles the perfect space of art: a blank canvas teeming with potential, a dead letter voracious for human attention to invigorate its emptiness. For what is the life of the work of art but one that demands our full investment? No wonder Agamben calls this feature of art “the Terror.” Before such a demonstration (as if a dead Santa Clause has appeared) our eyes may widen, our hands wring. Maybe there’s more than a little of Miss Emmy in each of us.

photo (4)

Works Cited

Agamben, Giogio. The Man Without Content [L’uomo senza contenuto]. 1970. Trans. Georgia Albert. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.

Altobelo, Stephen. “Great Gahan Wilson and Poor Miss Emmy.” Peel Slowly 18 March (2010). Web. 10 May 2013.

Carroll, Lewis. The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. 1865 & 1871. Ed. Martin Gardner. New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2000. Print.

Carter, Angela. Fireworks: Nine Stories in Various Disguises. London: Chatto and Windus, 1974. Print.

Dante Aligheri. Inferno. Ed. Giorgio Petrocchi. Trans. Robert Hollander. Princeton Dante Project. Web. 20 May 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense [Loguique du sens]. 1969. Trans. Mark Lester. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Print.

Gaiman, Neil. Introduction to Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons, Volume Two. 3 Volumes. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2009. 327-329. Print.

Gardner, Martin. Introduction to The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition. Ed. Martin Gardner. New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2000. xiii-xxii. Print.

Grossman, Lev. The Magicians. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.

Groth, Gary. “Appreciation and Biography.” Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons, Volume Three. 3 Volumes. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2009. 881-899. Print.

Hefner, Hugh. Introduction to Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons, Volume One. 3 Volumes. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2009. 5-7. Print.

Leitch, Thomas M. “The Debunking Rhythm of the American Short Story.” Short Story Theory at a Crossroads. Eds. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Print.

Schweitzer, Darrell. “Interview with Gahan Wilson.” SF Voices: Interviewed by Darrell Schweitzer. Kansas City, MO: T.K. Graphics, 1976. 104-109. Print.

Tibbetts, John. “Gahan Wilson’s Diner: Interview with Gahan Wilson.” The Gothic Imagination: Conversations on Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction in the Media. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 238-244. Print.

Wilson, Gahan. Author’s Note to “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be.” 1967. Sci Fiction / SciFi.com. Web. 10 May 2013.

———. Harry and the Sea Serpent. New York: Dell, 1976. Print.

———. Harry the Fat Bear Spy. New York: Dell, 1973. Print.

———. I Paint What I See. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. Print.

———. The Bang-Bang Family. New York: Scribner, 1974. Print.

———. “The Science Fiction Horror Movie Pocket Computer.” The Year’s Best Science Fiction #5. Eds. Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss. London: Sphere Books, 1972. 116-117. Print.

———. “The Sea Wet as Wet Can Be.” 1967. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. New York: Tor, 2011. 518-520. Print.

Wolf, Ror. “Nothing was Said.” Trans. Jennifer Marquart. Guernica 3 June 2013. Web.

———. Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions. Trans. Jennifer Marquart. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2013. Print.


[1] For an unsettling version of this effect starkly at work in contemporary prose, see the fiction of Ror Wolf, especially the vignettes titled “Nothing was Said” collected at Guernica Magazine. These are excerpted from Two or Three Years Later: Forty Nine Digressions, a selection of Wolf’s work translated by Jennifer Marquart.

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