The light is like a spider.
It crawls over the water.
It crawls over the edges of the snow.
It crawls under your eyelids
And spreads its webs there–
Its two webs.
The webs of your eyes
To the flesh and bones of you
As to rafters or grass.
There are filaments of your eyes
On the surface of the water
And in the edges of the snow.
“None of us can leave.”
The wonderful independent British comic book publisher SelfMadeHero has just released the English edition of Sandcastle, a graphic novel written by Pierrer Oscar Lévy and illustrated by Frederik Peeters, winner of the Utopiales Best Science Fiction Graphic Novel 2011 prize. The original French edition, from 2010, was originally published in French by Atrabile, and was nominated for the Grand Prix at the Angoulême International Comics Festival 2011.
It is not an easy read, and this is precisely what makes it an enjoyable graphic novel. For starters, it is hard to locate its genre. “Psychological drama” would be a possibility, but (as proven by its Nantes award) science fiction and mystery fans will also recognise familiar plot structures. I am inclined to describe it as psychological drama because of its dialogic narrative, the clearly circumscribed setting (a secluded beach surrounded by green cliffs) and the focus on a specific set of characters (a dozen holidaymakers and an Arab immigrant man on the run). The story’s premise is simple: a young woman’s body is found floating in the waters, and the thirteen characters are left face to face with mystery.
Peeters’s black and white inks play with varying degrees of light/shadow balance, going from clear and delicate lines to baroque, clustered shadings and blocks of black. As the story progresses, white spaces recede, giving place to a darker, silhouetted reality. My first reaction to the way the story evolves was very physical, not unlike a truly uncanny feeling. After I finished it two names came to mind: Camus and Sartre.
(Peeters and Lévy, Sandcastle, page 29)
I tried reading L’Être et le néant (1943) when I was perhaps too young to understand it. I was 15, and having read L’Etranger (1942) and having made the connection with The Cure’s “Killing an Arab”, I became interested in the term “existentialism.” La Nausée (1938) was a title that had puzzled me for a long time, but I would not read Sartre in school until perhaps ten years later, in university. Not much later I would teach Qu’est-ce que la litérature? (1947) and L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (1946) in my own lectures.
The phrase “Hell is other people” was known to me first of all because my father quoted it constantly; later I would read it quoted all over the place. Huis Clos (published in English as “In Camera”) means literally “closed door”, probably “Without Exit”, or, perhaps, “Dead End” but this last option would have serious interpretive implications) is a short play from 1944, with only four characters, taking place in only one scene, “a drawing room in Second Empire style”, where there are three sofas of different colours. There are no windows, one single door, a “massive bronze group” on a mantelpiece, a pen-knife and an interior doorbell that not always works to contact the exterior. The main characters are two women and a man. The fourth character is a “valet” that introduces one by one each character into the room. It is of this play that Sandcastle reminded me of.
Stuart Gilbert’s English translation of “In Camera” suggests different things to the contemporary reader, and it can orient different interpretations. It is interesting that the words “camera” and “chamber” (as in “torture chamber”) are indeed related. It will be no spoiler to say that Sartre’s play is about three characters, already dead, facing purgatory. They soon realize there are no torture instruments in this drawing room except the other people they were put together with for eternity. Even the opportunity to escape the room provides no exit, and voluntarily they choose to remain together…
Sartre must have known of course of the surveillance techniques of totalitarian regimes, but the technological developments of his day had not yet allowed the baudrillardian “totalscreen-ness” of the world we live in today. “In Camera” reads like an antecedent of reality shows, especially Big Brother, where strangers are put together in a room and are not allowed to leave. As we all know, the Other in the reality show ethos plays the role of the torturer or at least always-potential punisher.
What makes the situation in that chamber that is Sartre’s stage hellish is the constant observation and judgement of the other characters. It’s not only that the presence of the Other is annoying, but that the Other keeps talking, and not only talking but passing judgement. And, of course, the set-up of two women and only one man makes the situation more than tricky. Somehow the fact that none of them were “innocent,” that the three of them had a reason to be “punished,” guarantees the non-existence of any moral superiority. In other words, judges and judged are all guilty and equally amoral and each of them play both roles. From a contemporary perspective the play suggests that in a perfect totalitarian state of continuous observation there is no need for torturers or judges any more. The ones that will imprison and condemn us will be our neighbours, our lovers, our fellow human beings, and finally our own selves.
“Hell… is other people” sums up this state of total surveillance where the judgement of those nearer to us is permanent and merciless. Furthermore, there is no escape from it, even when there may be a slight possibility for it we may not know what to do with it or how to go about it.
Lars von Trier’s film Dogville (2003) also comes to mind, set in a stage that is nothing but representation and make-believe, a town without walls (“pueblo chico infierno grande” -”small town, big hell”- goes the saying in Spanish). In some way, the roads of “Cyburbia” are potentially not less hellish than Sartre’s drawing room, where nothing goes unnoticed, and where we willingly expose ourselves to our harshest judges, our fellow men and women.
(Peeters and Lévy, Sand Castle, page 65)
Sandcastle belongs, in my view, to this same literary and philosophical tradition. Like Huis Clos (but unlike Dogville), Sandcastle is a narrative based on dialogue and purely graphic narration (in other words, there is no “narrator”, at least not in words). The narrative depends, as in many other comics, on the sequence of still drawn images and the speech balloons containing the characters’ dialogues (rarely do the characters stop talking). The enclosed scene (the beach) works like a stage, where the men and women are merely players (“Why not pretend that all of this is happening in a book that you’re writing right now?!” asks a character in the seventh panel of page 59).
In Sandcastle Peeters and Lévy offer a truly unsettling and profoundly moving experiment in psychological dramatic graphic narrative, and as such it is a book which (if I’m allowed a stereotype) reads as eminently European. The sense of uncanniness and eroticism developed through its exploration of the physical nature of the naked, fragile, ageing human body within a seaside setting is not without echoes to Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1954) or even Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967).
In the end, Sandcastle is both an exploration of the medium of comics to convey time and narrative and a reflection on time passing. It is also the staging, in graphic narrative form, of the dialectics between Eros and Thanatos, family and society, freedom and destiny. In Sandcastle hell is other people, and the only way to discover if there’s an exit one has to read the book.
The following independent stores have limited stock of Sandcastle, which include a limited edition art print created especially for SelfMadeHero by Fredrik Peeters:
Gosh! Comics, Soho
Mega City Comics, Camden
Orbital Comics, Charing Cross
Forbidden Planet Megastore, London
Travelling Man, Leeds & Manchester
OK Comics, Leeds
Plan B Books, Glasgow
Dave’s Comics, Brighton
Culture fosters social cohesion by aligning people within a similar ethic of critique and engaging them in discursive networks that inevitably coalesce into communities. Cultured subjects do not celebrate themselves or their beliefs because they are never fully self-confident, but always in the process of realizing their identity between the ephemeral fullness of felt truth and the alienated, discursively mediated re-cognition of their framing assumptions. The ethic of constant self-interrogation implicit in this model is incommensurate with the glorification of any particular identity, national, ethnic, or individual, since it contains as one of the crucial moments the stepping back from habitual practice, the contestation of everything that goes without saying.
If there is an underlying universal ideology of Culture -a tacit scenario of “natural” behavior that draws on the deep logic of culture- it would simply be this: that we contest all of our unexamined assumptions, and especially those that we rely upon when we engage in Cultural critique and arrogate its claim to truth. The moment that one steps back from one’s own practices and assumes a position of greater wisdom is the moment of greatest susceptibility to error, if only because, convinced of one’s averted perspective, one is less likely to question one’s conclusions. Culture demands that we resist such convictions, and to that extent, that we resist its authority.” —William Ray, The Logic of Culture (2001: 189)
To write, I meditated, must be an act devoid of will. The word, like the deep ocean current, has to float to the surface of its own impulse. A child has no need to write, he is innocent. A man writes to throw off the poison which he has accumulated because of his false way of life. He is trying to recapture his innocence…
The best thing about writing is not the actual labor of putting word against word, brick upon brick, but the preliminaries, the spade work, which is done in silence, under any circumstances, in dream as well as in the waking state. In short, the period of gestation. No man ever puts down what he intended to say: the original creation, which is taking place all the time, whether one writes or doesn’t write, belongs to the primal flux: it has no dimensions, no form, no time element. In this preliminary state, which is creation and not birth, what disappears suffers no destruction; something which is already there, something imperishable, like memory, or matter, or God, is summoned and in it one flings himself like a twig in a torrent. Words, sentences, ideas, no matter how subtle or ingenious, the maddest flights of poetry, the most profound dreams, the most hallucinating visions, are but crude hieroglyphs chiselled in pain and sorrow to commemorate an event which is untransmissible.” —Henry Miller, Sexus, as quoted by Michael Heim in Electric Language. A Philosophical Study of Word Processing, 1987