It’s pretty rare that I use this blog to post anything about my life, but I’m going to now, beginning with a little explanation of why. For those who don’t know, I’m coming out of a very difficult half-year, dominated by the fact that my dad Mike O’Brian was diagnosed with brain cancer in June and died in December.
The whole thing felt like a slow-motion car crash, a catastrophe that unfolded day by day. Initially, I kept people informed via mass email, but in September transitioned over to a CaringBridge site. There, I wrote a summary of what had happened, and (along with my mom) added occasional updates on the story as it developed. About a month after Dad’s death, I wrote the
story of his last day and posted it to that CaringBridge site.
There’s more I want to document about the subsequent time, but my mom has asked that I put that story elsewhere, as she feels that the “last day” post is a good cap on the site. So the story is going here! I want to talk about the next few days after Dad died. It won’t be as comprehensive as that final CaringBridge post, but I do want to capture some of the lovely and ridiculous moments from those days.
I grew up in a suburb of Denver called Aurora. I currently live in a differentsuburb of Denver, and my sister Jenny lives in Los Angeles. My mom still lives in Aurora, and that’s where my dad’s surgery and subsequent care took place as well. He spent his last few months at an excellent skilled nursing facility called The Springs at St. Andrew’s, though we usually just called it St. Andrew’s.
Dad died on a Friday, and Jenny had booked a flight to Denver for Saturday afternoon. Mom and I headed out that morning to clean out his room at St. Andrew’s. As soon as we got there, we were greeted with so much love and compassion by the floor nurses, the CNAs, and everyone. Even the housekeeper came and gave us both big hugs. It’s a staff of such good people.
It was not a surprise, but it still was a shock to walk into his room without him in it. Everything else was just as we’d left it the night before. The hospice staff had transported his body to the mortuary the night before, after we’d left. We had to take a moment to absorb that scene — it had a feeling of finality to it. After that moment, we packed everything up, put it in our cars, and carried it into her house.
We called the mortuary to make sure everything was going smoothly — Dad would be cremated, and his ashes interred with military honors at Ft. Logan National Cemetery, since he was in the Air Force from age 17 to 21. It’s not that those years of service were a huge part of his identity, though. More that it’s a free burial — he was the kind of guy who would always strive to take advantage of any benefit to which he was entitled.
That afternoon, Jenny arrived and we all went out to dinner. I think we were all a bit shell-shocked still. The previous day had been quite an emotional wringer. We just started talking, sharing stories and reminiscing about my dad. We’ve been incredibly blessed through this process by the fact that all three of us have been on the same page — mentally, emotionally, practically. It was easy to make care decisions, because we were all coming from the same basic set of values: quality over quantity, better days rather than more days.
Similarly, when we talked, we felt free to talk about the full 360-degree picture of him — the parts that could be difficult, or scary, or frustrating, right alongside the parts that were generous, loving, and incredibly helpful. It felt so good to be able to speak with affection about the whole person, rather than feeling the urge to somehow beatify him once he was gone. It made our appreciation and our grief feel grounded rather than performative. I made it home late that night, after the rest of my family was in bed, and found a sweet display of special stuffed animals arranged around a sign that simply said, “We love you. We’re here for you.” It’s a good family I’ve got.
I hadn’t been home for a couple of days, so I was very grateful for my shower the next morning, and even more grateful for the chance to tell Laura about what had transpired after she left on Friday, and how it felt. Before long, though, I headed back down to Aurora, to start tackling the many tasks.
There’s an enormous amount to do after a family member dies. In the case of a spouse, there are all manner of financial and administrative contacts and errands, getting accounts and memberships set to the correct status, canceling or updating subscriptions, and so forth. My parents made this a bit easier on themselves by having most things in both their names, but just taking inventory of all the necessary work was a job in itself. Luckily, my friend Tina had provided some excellent resources for surviving spouses that at least gave us a basis from which to work.
Then on top of all this, you have to plan an event! We knew that Dad wouldn’t have wanted a religious service (and he had said so in his estate planning documents), so that meant finding an event venue, hopefully nearby. We agreed on the format — Jenny and I would give eulogies, and then we’d invite all present to share their memories and stories. This is my favorite kind of memorial service — I guess it’s again that 360-degree view, seeing the person through all the lenses of those around him. Jenny did the research, and we settled on some venues to visit the next day.
That night, at Jenny’s request, we had a Christmas-light hunting expedition. Some people in the suburbs absolutely love to light up and decorate their houses, and from the time I could drive I would always make sure to go look at wild house lights at least once during the Christmas season, generally with my family in tow. It’s ridiculous fun and always puts me in the spirit. Apparently Los Angeles (at least Jenny’s area of it) seems to lack this vibe, so she’d really been missing this event. Thus, out we went into the Aurora night!
The suburbs did not disappoint. We always pick out some destination houses (generally based on newspaper or web listings) but allow for numerous side trips as different displays catch our eye. With a wide variety of holiday music on in the car, we treat ourselves to all the peculiar and magnificent work that people put into lighting up the night. Possibly my favorite was the yard filled with, I swear, at least fifty different inflatable decorations, including a holiday avocado whose hat read “Guac-in’ Around the Christmas Tree.” As my mom said, “Look at all those guys!”
The next day, we spent the morning resting and dealing with some of the online tasks, and then ventured out again, to check out event spaces. We started with lunch, though, at a sushi restaurant where all the sushi is on conveyor belts — you can order from the menu if you want, but it’s easier and more fun to just grab a plate off the belt when something good-looking passes by. They’re small plates, with a small charge for each, so you end up making a meal out of lots of different choices. It was incredibly enjoyable.
We chose that restaurant because it was reasonably close to our first stop on the Aurora event venue tour. Rather than name the venues (because some of these stories are pretty silly), I’m just going to number them. Venue #1 was quite familiar to me, because I had spent a bunch of time there about 15 years ago. See, I work for the University of Colorado Boulder today, but back then I worked for the umbrella IT organization that serves all CU campuses, which include locations in Colorado Springs and Denver. At the time, we were going through the process of selecting a new student system to replace our antiquated mainframe, which would soon no longer be supported. All those vendor demos took place at Venue #1, because it was more or less centrally located between those three campuses. Oh the many PowerPoints and awkward live tryouts I witnessed there.
We spoke to the Sales Manager for this place, a lively character named Roxie, who took us through all the details in clipped, colorful sentences. The most memorable part works better as a spoken story than a text story, but I’ll give it a shot. She’s laying out for us all the various pieces involved — the catering, the tables, the video projection, the sound. She says, “So I’m thinking we’ll put a podium up front that anybody can speak from. Mike will be up there.”
At this point I jumped in, a little agitated. “No, no, no,” I said. “This is not that kind of service. He’s being cremated. His body will not be present.” She looked at me, utterly bewildered at what I was on about. My sister then realized my misunderstanding, and clarified that Roxie meant “Mic will be up there”, as in “microphone.” She then turned to Roxie to explain that my Dad’s name was Mike, and we all had a good laugh.
Venue #2 was listed as an event venue on a web search, but when we arrived we found its full billing was actually “Sports Bar and Event Venue”. Even the front door was in full sports bar mode — neon beer signs, Broncos posters, et cetera. This was immediately feeling hilariously wrong, but we’d come this far, so in we went. It turned out that the event manager was unavailable at the time we arrived, but her assistant led us to the venue space.
To get to the venue space, you’re pretty much going through the bar itself, which at this time of day (like 2pm on a Monday) had several guys sitting around loudly, good-naturedly, and (I suspect) drunkenly arguing about some kind of tournament or something. We’d catch bellowed phrases like, “Well I was in first place until THIS GUY came along and put up HUGE numbers and I was like WHAT THE HELL???” The picture of a parade of elderly mourners coming through here was getting more amusing by the minute.
Then we went into the space itself, which was dominated by an enormous bar, along with a few widely scattered tables and chairs, with several steps down from the bar area to a larger floor. There were large windows that overlooked a golf course. That part my dad would have liked, but the rest of it… yeah, wrong ambience altogether.
Jenny had had a somewhat confusing conversation with the event manager for Venue #3. As we were driving out there, she explained that the guy had a fairly thick Indian (i.e. South Asian) accent, but she believed he had said we needed to go through the restrooms to get to the venue? This seemed super wrong, but we drove out there anyway, to a spaced-out strip mall, and started looking for restroom doors near the address. There was a big curry place there, and pretty soon we figured out that she had probably heard “go through the RESTAURANT”, but that the message had gotten garbled a bit.
We went into the restaurant, and indeed connected with the event manager, who took us into the space. He started explaining how the space worked. They had their own fog machine. They had laser lights. There was a space where our DJ could set up, or a stage for a band. The dance floor was strategically located between all these features. As he walked off explaining some other thing to Mom, Jenny whispered to me, “He definitely does not remember that I said this was for a funeral service.” No kidding.
We got back to the car and laughed our heads off. Venue #1 was the clear winner! I did not expect it to be quite so difficult or weird to find good choices for event spaces in Aurora, but those three were the top contenders, and two of them turned out to not be contenders at all. I mean, they might be great for a birthday party or fantasy football draft or something. Memorial, not so much.
That night Jenny made a delicious dinner for the 3 of us, after which I headed home. She was leaving the next day, but we found time to have one more delightful lunch together. Our curry-flavored explorations the previous day had put us in the mood for Indian food, so we searched around for someplace nearby that had a good buffet. I found it at a place called the Yak & Yeti.
When I told my mom this name, she was incredulous. “Is that really the name or are you being funny?” I couldn’t see what was funny about it until my sister started singing, “Tweedly-deedly-deet! Tweedly-deedly-deet!” to the tune of “Rockin’ Robin.” Oh yakkin’ yeti yeah we’re really gonna yak tonight.
Once home, we made some final decisions for the event, and my sister called Roxie to get the process started. We also started sifting through photos to include in a video slideshow. Jenny’s husband Ryan kinda blew my mind by activating Apple’s facial recognition software to immediately identify all pictures that had my dad in them. I knew I’d need to find the Windows version of that, which I did, though it was never quite as satisfying.
Finally, she was headed to the airport. It was strange — these four days following an awful event were weirdly wonderful. I felt carried by the deep kinship I had with my people — not just blood kinship but true spiritual and emotional kinship — and I hope they felt a little bit carried by me too. When my dad was in his last few hours here on planet Earth, we told him he could go, that we’d be okay. And at least for those four days, we were.
Oh my it’s been a year. I know that pretty much every person who lives long enough will witness their parents declining and dying, but the commonness of the experience didn’t stop it from feeling utterly unique to me. My dad experienced a health catastrophe in June — a glioblastoma diagnosis, and then a massive stroke during the craniotomy to remove his tumors. He died on December 9th. That experience obviously left the biggest mark on my year, but it was a year of pain and loss in other ways too. Two key colleagues at my job — one my boss and one my peer — moved on to better opportunities within a few months of each other, and both shortly after Dad’s health crashed. Also around the same time I underwent a major change in my role at work, a change that is definitely for the best but that still felt like another loss.
I’m so grateful, though, that through all this, Laura and Dante have remained rock-solid. Their steady support has been an incredible comfort through all this other turbulence, and their presence has been the source of some of this year’s sweetest memories. In particular, Dante and I went on a wonderful Pacific Northwest college-visit trip in the spring, meeting with Laura at the end in Portland, where she’d gone for a library conference. Then, just after Dad’s surgery, the three of us visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park, staying at a marvelous and unique vacation rental when we weren’t out exploring.
It’s a blessing to have those times to look back on, and there have been some silver linings to the other parts too. Mom and I have spent a ton more time together — I saw her and Dad pretty much every weekend while he was alive, as well as some weekdays where she and I took care of all the various pieces of financial and logistical business that all this spawned. Even though the reason is shitty, I’m glad to have spent all that time with her. And though I’m way out of my comfort zone at work, as Laura always says, when you leave that zone you find it’s larger when you come back.
Musically, I’ve spent time as usual doing deep dives on albums alongside exploring new reaches via Spotify. There’s some music that I finally checked out after long intending to, some stuff from beloved artists who had newer material, some left-field finds from random experimentation, and some things that just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I also saw my first concert since the pandemic — Stevie Nicks at Red Rocks, which, come on, I wasn’t going to not see. It was outdoors, and felt safe enough to me. When I was there, it felt like revisiting a part of myself I’d locked away for a long time.
This mix kind of shook out into thematic pieces, and that’s the arrangement that felt best to me, so it really moves from one major destination to the next, starting at home.
1. Steve Forbert – Romeo’s Tune
I came across this song in a really sideways fashion. For a while there pre-pandemic, I had a side gig putting together trivia rounds for a pub quiz company, including audio “name the artist” rounds. I made one with a “Romeo and Juliet” theme, and unearthed this gem while searching for tunes to fit the theme. I was totally unaware of this song when it was popular, and it never got any play on local radio, but I absolutely loved it when I found it. That made me search out a Forbert collection, another piece of which will appear a little later on. As for this song, I find it to be a sweet tribute to the comfort of a strong relationship.
2. Taylor Swift – Sweet Nothing
With every passing year, I become more and more of a Swiftie, I was listening to folklore on repeat right as I passed from this year’s listening period into the next one — so look for that on next year’s mix — but right at the end of October, Midnights came out and I switched into listening to that on repeat. On one level, I don’t exactly vibe with this song, because I don’t think it’s a real thing (or at least a good thing) for a relationship to demand nothing from you.
But at the same time, there are times when the world can feel so demanding, when it’s so healing to come home to someone who knows you and only needs you to be you, and be there. That’s how I take this song. With everything going on in the latter half of the year, it sometimes felt like I was on a Twister mat, just trying to cover everything and adjust to whatever new things come up. At home, at least some of the time, I’m able to untwist.
3. Frightened Rabbit – An Otherwise Disappointing Life
Again, on one level this isn’t me. I’m not disappointed with life overall. But this year has been filled with disappointments, disasters, and frustrations outside my door, so it’s an immense relief to have a choir at home to sing my life back to life. Frightened Rabbit mostly trades in depression and despair (though they make it sound incredible musically), so I love it when they let just a little bit of hope peek through.
4. The Who – Break The News
During the period when a ton of stuff was unfolding every day, I’d come home nightly and just tell the whole story to Laura. She would listen, and witness, and it was the best thing anyone could do for me. In the slow-motion car crash that was June, July, and August, there was so much to take in, and talking through it was crucial to processing it all. This song has a bit of ambiguity to it — it could be read as the words of somebody who only tells the good things, so as to keep the happiness flowing, but I see it as being allowed to break the news, speak the truth, as long as the other person lets you.
It’s interspersed with sweet images of closeness, hearkening back to earlier days of the relationship, but leavened with the security that comes with a longtime connection. “If there’s an answer, we’ll find it without doubt.” “We fell through time and space / And cast upon this place / And so far we’ve been saved.” And most of all, “Life’s amazing, but it’s been a bumpy road.”
5. Regina Spektor feat. Ben Folds – Dear Theodosia
This year I listened to The Hamilton Mixtape, a wild ride of various artists covering, reinterpreting, or riffing on songs from the musical. This one feels so precious to me — a moving crystallization at the feeling of wonder you can get from your own child. Watching Dante bloom this year has knocked me out. He has turned into this person who knows what he wants, and is deeply dedicated to making the most of his opportunities. He takes a raft of challenging classes and involves himself in a bunch of extracurriculars, mostly centered around making a better world — High School Democrats, Environmental Advocacy, National Organization for Women, Sexuality & Gender Alliance.
Then on top of that, he’s thrown himself into the cello, practicing hours and hours a day in the summer, and finding time even during school to keep his chops up. This summer (and extending into the fall), he worked a job he disliked at KFC so that he could save up the money needed to upgrade his cello, and in the spring we spent many an hour driving to various string shops around here so that he could upgrade his bow. He’s blowing me away already, and I can only imagine what’s to come.
6. America – Ventura Highway
This spring, Dante and I visited some colleges together. He wants to pursue a forestry major, and had done some research into what schools a) have the best forestry programs, and b) are places he’d want to spend four years. We built our visits from that list, starting with a drive up to Colorado State in Fort Collins. Then we flew to Seattle to visit the University of Washington, and drove down to Oregon State in Corvallis. After that, we headed to Portland to meet up with Laura and some longtime friends of hers, some of whom live in Portland and another one of whom was there for the same library conference as Laura was.
The visits were great, and one of the fun parts was that during the drives, we traded off who would pick the album we listened to. So Dante got to hear a lot of classic rock (among other things), and I got to hear a lot of video game soundtracks. One of my picks was America’s Greatest Hits, and this song in particular always brings me back to those drives together. Also, we had a lot of fun dissecting how truly weird their songs can be sometimes. Alligator lizards in the air?
7. Austin Wintory – Nascence
Now it’s only fair to include one of the video game songs. This is a special song for a lot of reasons, and it requires a bit of explanation. For years now, Dante has been a fan of certain video game music composers, and one of his favorites is a guy named Austin Wintory, in particular his compositions for a game called Journey, which follows a traveler through the desert on a symbol-laden, uh, journey. “Nascence” is the first song on the Journey soundtrack.
Dante loved these songs so much that when he had the opportunity to nominate a song for his school orchestra to play last fall, he selected a song called “Apotheosis” from the Journey soundtrack. His teacher agreed to have the orchestra play that song, and asked Dante to play the cello solo, which is a challenging piece of music. Basically, it’s the motif you hear at the beginning of this piece, but played much lower down on the cello’s strings, so that the tones are pitched high and hard to keep in tune. As I learned from Dante’s college essays this year, it was that experience, of focusing on making that solo good, that inspired the passionate commitment he’s acquired for his instrument.
This year, we drove to Great Sand Dunes National Park, an environment that looks a lot like the setting of Journey, and while we were still playing the album rotation game from the spring during our drives, we agreed that as we approached the park, we should play the Journey soundtrack. This song filled the car as we got closer and closer to those dunes, and it will always, always make me think of that day, of Dante, and all the hundreds of times I heard him practice those notes. He still plays it today, just for fun.
8. Indigo Girls – Muster
One more “parent” song. I dove deep into Look Long this year, and I really appreciate how Amy and Emily are incorporating their experience as parents into their music. I tend to feel pretty hopeless about the gun issue in America, but this song both puts that issue into a broader context and also brings in a little hope, with the promise of persistent dedication and the inspirational image of the Parkland kids. This song also connects to a movie I saw this year called Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, a documentary that draws a pretty clear connection between her recovery — slow, agonizing, partial — and our ability to push against the culture that proliferates gun warfare throughout our country. But stepping back, progress is visible. And possible.
9. MARINA – Man’s World
This is one of those off-the-wall tracks that Spotify served up to me, and it caught my ear. She is apparently Welsh! (Just like my friend Siân, a recipient of this mix gift.) I like the production, and the sound of her voice, and the central statement appeals to me. I don’t wanna live in a man’s world anymore either.
10. Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
I wasn’t super wild about this album overall — I tend to prefer the less slick versions of both Lewis and Rilo Kiley. But this song is a gorgeous exception to the overall tone of the album, and one of her all-time best. Most of the songs on this mix I relate to personally in some way, but this one is just a lovely piece of writing, attached to a touching piece of music, produced well and sung with sincerity. That’s enough!
11. The Decemberists – Make You Better
I was never a Decemberists fan — not that I didn’t like their stuff, but I just never made the effort to get to know it. This song was my way in, this year. I heard it on a Spotify playlist and was immediately captivated by the killer chorus, the excellent bridge, and the grainy harmonies. I like a band that harmonizes male and female parts, like the New Pornographers, or Jefferson Airplane, or, well, Fleetwood Mac.
12. Simon and Garfunkel – Fakin’ It
Speaking of harmonies. This album has been with me for pretty much the entire time I’ve cared anything about music, which is to say about 45 years, and different songs speak to me at different times. In the beginning of this year, I was trying to make the best of a weird work situation, and “Fakin’ It” could have been my theme song. I mean, I always have some amount of impostor syndrome going on, but this year has felt even more like frantic ad-libbing than usual — pretty much the minute the work situation was resolved, I was already trying to grope my way through the wholly unfamiliar terrain of terminal illness, medical bureaucracy, and omnipresent grief.
13. Frightened Rabbit – Break
Into that landscape stepped this song. Those moments when I want to hear a song over and over, learn it by heart, are precious and rare for me anymore, but WOW did this one ever vault over that fence. I identify with pieces of it so much. I was listening to it amidst work struggles that felt just like “off the ledge throwing punches”, and bending so I don’t break has been pretty much the order of the summer and fall. I did lots of driving back and forth to my home town of Aurora during my Dad’s illness, and I had a very memorable drive where I just sang my head off to this song on repeat — very cathartic.
14. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – The Minstrel Boy
From Scotland to Ireland. Part of the cruelty of my Dad’s condition was that the stroke didn’t just stop his body — it broke his senses too. He had severe double vision that prevented him from reading or watching video. In addition, his hearing (or perhaps his auditory processing) became muffled and distorted, which interfered not only with conversation but with music. It was unclear at first how severe this impairment was, and in the early days of his recovery we used to ask him if there was anything he wanted to hear. The answer was always “Minstrel Boy”.
He had various versions of this (and many many other folk songs) on his phone, but the Clancy Brothers’ rendition always seemed to bring him the most pleasure. Why he found this song and this version so compelling I don’t know, but I cherish the memory of his closed eyes and half-smile when it began to play. He later slipped away from the place where this worked for him anymore, but it was a sweet moment on the path.
15. Steve Forbert – January 23-30, 1978
As I said, I’ve been making a lot of trips to my old hometown over the last several months, so the mood of this song works for me right now. Not that I’m hanging out with old friends, but I am definitely visiting or passing by a lot of old haunts, kind of inevitably, and helping out with my childhood home. It’s a feeling that combines a sense of time travel with a sense of dreaming, because some things are exactly the same, and other things are so different. It feels strange, but as Steve says, “Life is strange, oh yes, but compared to what?”
16. The Eagles – Peaceful Easy Feeling
This song connects to my favorite movie of the year, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. This came to me kind of unexpectedly — I knew nothing about the viral videos that had come out in 2010, 2011, and 2014. I just went into it knowing it had gotten great reviews, and oh my gosh how I loved it. I don’t want to talk it up too much, but seriously, give it a try. It’s not just funny (it’s hilarious), it’s also a profound meditation on grief, loss, letting go, and moving forward. It was the perfect movie at the perfect time for me, and this song plays an important part in it.
17. The Zombies – Brief Candles
I always loved “Time Of The Season”, “She’s Not There”, and “Tell Her No”, but I’d never gone any further with The Zombies. Then they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as Stevie Nicks, so of course I watched the ceremony and saw this incredible outpouring of love for their album Odessey and Oracle. I gave the album a try, and I wasn’t disappointed. Picking a track for this collection, at the time I was pulling it together, this one just jumped out at me, not just as the right song to include but an impeccable title track as well.
18. The Alan Parsons Project – Old and Wise
A nice side effect of listening to more Zombies was to give me a deeper appreciation of Colin Blunstone’s voice, and in turn his vocal contribution to this Alan Parsons Project track that I’ve liked since high school, and that I absolutely love now. I can’t put into words what this song brings me today. It’s exactly what I need, and the peace it expresses is all I could wish for my dad.
19. Taylor Swift – Anti-Hero
Almost anything would be an anticlimax after the last song, but “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser” feels like a pretty divine transition. Like I said, I ended October listening to Midnights on repeat, and while there are plenty of good songs on that album, this one is a clear standout. Not only is it a brilliantly catchy melody, it also beautifully articulates familiar feelings of self-doubt and inner criticism. Every time I hear it, I want to hear it again. Pretty great video, too — a deft mix of comedy and parts psychology.
20. Stevie Nicks – Wild Heart / Bella Donna (live)
For the end of this collection, I wanted to revisit one of the best moments of the year for me — Stevie Nicks’ return to Red Rocks over the summer. She had held off touring during COVID, so I hadn’t seen her for a long time. In fact, I hadn’t seen anybody in concert since before the pandemic started. Her set list hadn’t changed much from her pre-COVID shows, but that’s okay, because she’d gotten more adventurous at that point. Case in point is this medley of the title tracks from her first two albums — I never expected to hear either of these songs, because I suspect she’s not capable of singing some of the parts anymore. This blend skirts those tough parts, and is more than satisfying to me.
21. Stevie Nicks – Rock and Roll (live)
This was the final song of Stevie’s show, and it felt so perfect. It really had been a long time! I still get goosebumps hearing it now — it felt like all 8,000+ of us were re-embracing life and joy in that moment. I know I’ve put this on a previous collection, and I usually try not to repeat stuff, but this cover took on whole new layers of meaning for me this year, and there was no other choice for an end to this collection.
That’s all for 2022! Eyes closed, deep breath, eyes open, and forward.
NOTE: Spoilers, Spoilers, here they spawn / First read Watchmen, then read on.
We’ve reached Chapter 5 in this Watchmen odyssey, a chapter justly famed for its fascinating structure. The 28-page chapter is perfectly symmetrical. That is to say, the grid on page 1 reflects that on page 28. Page 2 reflects page 27, and so on, meeting in a spectacular (and still symmetrical) double-page spread on pages 14 and 15.
Not only do the panels reflect each other, the scenes they depict match as well. Pages 1-6 and 23-28 show Rorschach in and outside Moloch’s apartment building. Pages 7 and 22 are Detective Fine’s investigation, pages 8-9 and 20-21 are the newsstand and pirate comic, pages 10 and 19 are Dan and Laurie, et cetera.
Pages 9 and 20 of chapter 5, reflecting each other in layout and content
Why is the chapter structured like this? We find the key in its epigraph, an excerpt from another justly famous work, “The Tyger” by William Blake. As has happened before, the Watchmen excerpt takes some liberties with the original, this time in its punctuation and line-breaks:
In the forests
of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Like the other epigraphs, this one gives the chapter its title: “Fearful Symmetry”. Moore and Gibbons rise to the challenge of this title with a magnificent piece of craftsmanship, a symmetrical comic with a thoroughly ominous tone, deepening the book’s overall plot, theme, and characters at every level.
I’m going to save further examinations of symmetry for a later entry, because there is so much to unpack when it comes to Blake and Watchmen. There’s also quite a lot to unpack when it comes to Blake and Moore, but again I’m leaving that for later.
William Blake was a poet, but to label him as such is also misleading and reductive. He was active during the literary time and place we now call Romanticism, but identifying him as a Romantic is problematic.1 He was a visual artist in many media — paintings, illustrations, and illuminated prints. He was an engraver by trade, but an inventor as well, who created new methods of printmaking to suit the needs of his own creations. In addition to all this, he was a mystic, a prophet, and a visionary — someone whose brain operated on distinctly different parameters from those of his peers, a fact which inspired a variety of reactions but certainly limited his ability to reach a broad audience in his time with any of his creative works.
Blake was, to put it mildly, one of a kind. Not only that, he and his work changed and evolved significantly over the course of his life and career, moving from the reasonably accessible verse of Songs of Innocence and Experience to the deeply weird and nearly impenetrable magnum opus Jerusalem. (Like I said, he and Moore overlap a lot.) Importantly for his connection to Watchmen, his visual artistry is inextricable from his literary productions.
Blake didn’t write comics — his art isn’t sequential in any meaningful way, at least not most of the time. However, he integrated words and pictures far, far more than any of his contemporaries, and that combination at least gives him a kinship to comics. Here, for example, is the full page upon which “The Tyger” was published in Songs of Experience:
Poem and illustration are intertwined, with the tree’s branches separating stanzas of the poem — sometimes approaching a panelling effect that should feel familiar to comics readers — and the tiger standing at its climax. This could be read as just text with illustrations, a form which wasn’t foreign to Blake’s era. The difference with Blake, though, is that the poet and the illustrator are one and the same, and the entire thing is created as a single unit of art and writing, literally etched onto a metal plate by Blake himself, and its print later colored, also by Blake. Like a comics auteur, Blake brings his words and drawings into being as an indivisible unit. That hasn’t stopped publishers from reprinting his text by itself, but that text is always just a portion of Blake’s creation, a transcript.
What The Hammer?
There is still another element, one which doesn’t survive as a written artifact: music. Blake was untrained but quite musical, and was known to break out into melodies fitted to his own poetry. (The Portable Blake, pg. 2) One imagines this happening seldom with his many Prophetic Books, the majority of which are written in free verse, but the Songs of Innocence and Experience truly are songs, though none of Blake’s freely composed tunes were preserved.2 “The Tyger” in particular is intensely rhythmic3, hammering trochees pounding out an insistent beat:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Watchmen, too, brings an insistent beat to the beginning of Chapter 5, with the panels’ color reflecting the flashing red sign of the Rum Runner. I usually credit Watchmen to Moore and Gibbons for brevity’s sake, but here’s an example where the work of colorist John Higgins makes an enormous difference to the book’s storytelling. Similar to the Moloch flashback in Chapter 2, the Moloch scenes in this issue are punctuated by the light of the Rum Runner, resulting in pages where a bright X overlaps a dark O, or vice versa.
Even setting aside the full-page effect, though, the regularly gridded panels create a strong sense of rhythm, and the cycling light and dark lets us feel a pounding emphasis, a visual equivalent of poetic meter. There’s a musical quality, too — some panels are double the length of others, some triple, and in moments of greater power we can get double or triple height as well. Three panels per tier set up a triplet rhythm, like a waltz, where the smaller panels are quarter notes, double-length panels half notes, and so on, while the height of the panels feels analogous to dynamics in music.
In the case of “The Tyger”, the hammering rhythms synchronize with the poem’s controlling metaphor, that of a “maker” who creates life like a blacksmith, with hammer, furnace, and anvil. Blacksmith imagery is crucially important to Blake’s entire poetic vision, but to explain why, we need to take a few more steps into his overall oeuvre.
While Blake is probably best known for his more accessible poetry, like the Songs of Innocence and Experience, the vast majority of his work consists of the free-verse prophecies I mentioned earlier. In these prophecies, he constructs an entire mythology and pantheon without really bothering to explain to his reader who the figures are and what they may represent. This makes for an often frustrating reading experience, but has been a gold mine for literary critics, who spend careers unpacking all the symbolism and allusions in Blake’s mythopoeics.
There’s always plenty of room to debate interpretations, but some general consensus has emerged around the main figures:
Urizen, who represents Reason and Law. Blake was deeply skeptical of the Enlightenment’s privileging of reason above imagination and faith, and his stories tend to depict Urizen as tragically limited by his viewpoint, while failing to understand that those limitations exist. He is sometimes depicted as an architect, who creates and constrains simultaneously.
Orc, the spirit of revolutionary energy. Blake saw Orc ascendant in the American and French revolutions, and while Orc seems to be a savior figure early on, he becomes shadowed with violence and destruction as the latter revolution devolved into the Reign of Terror.
Los, the spirit of imagination. For Blake, imagination was supreme, and therefore Los is the divine hero of his myths, and to some extent a stand-in for the poet himself. Los is the father of Orc, and Blake depicts him as a blacksmith, from whose fires emerge works of art and poetry. Or possibly Tygers.
Blake’s painting “The Ancient of Days” depicts Urizen engaged in creation, compass in hand.
Did He Who Made The Lamb Make Thee?
Urizen and Los are another reflection of Innocence and Experience, with Urizen possessing the more naive and limited perspective (though he doesn’t realize it), and Los taking a broader view. Los’s creativity transcends moral judgments. “I will not Reason & Compare,” he says in Jerusalem. “[M]y business is to Create.” (William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, pg. 307) For Los (and, the texts strongly suggest, for Blake), the creations of imagination are neither good nor bad. In the view of experience, they simply are. Thus, in answer to the question Blake poses in “The Tyger”: Yes, he who made the lamb also made its predator, a framing begun in possibility (with “Could”) and finished in audacity (with “Dare”).
How might these personas and concepts map onto Watchmen? Ozymandias seems like a possible candidate for an Urizen figure — he creates an extraordinarily elaborate plan which he believes to constitute a complete salvation of humanity, but we as readers can understand that he may not be as far-sighted as he believes himself to be. Rorschach, too, partakes of Urizen’s insistence on clear and unsullied moral judgments, a black-and-white Law that transcends any messy human intricacies. Blake, and Los, would approve of neither — they are anti-creative, though Adrian surely fashions a fearsome Tyger.
Who could stand in for Los, then? Dan Dreiberg is the most demonstrably creative of the bunch, inventing a wide variety of gadgets, vehicles, and super-suits. There’s also Doctor Manhattan, of course, who is able to reshape matter and reality at a whim, and who declares his intention to “create some” human life in the story’s final pages.
Neither of these makes a terribly satisfying Los avatar, though. Dreiberg may have the ability to create, and seems once to have had the drive, but his creative days are behind him — by the time the story begins, he’s long since quit. Jon Osterman is still making things, but he would deny any imagination or creative authority at all — in his own words, he’s just “a puppet who can see the strings.” Surely the real Los-figures, if there are any at all, would be Moore and Gibbons themselves, who frame the world of Watchmen and populate it with all its tygers and lambs.
Urizen and Los at least have potential analogs. Orc doesn’t seem to be personified at all, at least not in any one figure. Certainly not The Comedian, who thinks nothing of tear-gassing protestors, nor Silk Spectre, who seems for most of the book to want nothing more than a peaceful life. The closest we get to revolutionary spirit is the protestors themselves, with perhaps some frustrated flashes from the diametrically opposed bastions of Nova Express and The New Frontiersman.
Speaking of diametrical opposition, the Songs of Innocence and Experience have plenty of their own symmetry and reflections going on, though not to the exactitude of this Watchmen chapter. Songs of Innocence came out first by itself, and when Songs of Experience appeared, it contained many poems which seemed to be in direct dialogue with those of its predecessor. In the case of “The Tyger”, its innocent companion was a poem called “The Lamb”, which was similarly concerned with creation and authorship: “Little lamb who made thee / Dost thou know who made thee”, it asks.
Blake’s self-invented heroes and deities don’t appear in the “Songs”, so his answer stems from traditional Christian imagery:
Little lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little lamb I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee,
Little Lamb God bless thee.
In the world of innocence, Jesus is the Lamb of God, who became God incarnated as a child, and who (as God) created and blessed all the little lambs. The world of experience troubles these placid waters. “The Tyger” outlines its fierce subject, and then wonders of its creator, “Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
As we’ve seen, within Blake’s personal mythology, the answer is clearly “Yes”. Further, he saw no conflict between his own myths and those delivered in Christian scripture (though he saw plenty of conflict between scripture and the established churches.) So God made the Lamb, and Jesus is the Lamb of God. God also made the Tyger, but if the Lamb equates with Christ, what does that make the Tyger? Who is the Tyger of God?
Could it be… Satan? Blake wasn’t afraid to include Satan in his prophecies, and his Satan was not the fallen angel of Milton.4 Rather, he was more the personification of “Error, the accuser of sin, who blinds the mind to the divine.” (The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, pg. 283) But if the Tyger devours the Lamb, that’s not really Satan’s gig, is it? In the New Testament, it isn’t a devil with horns and pitchfork who tortures and kills Jesus. It’s us. Only us.
For as biased, singleminded, and plain crazy Rorschach is, he is not wrong about Watchmen‘s world being rudderless.5 That’s what makes Watchmen the songs of experience to golden and silver age superhero comics’ songs of innocence — we cannot find a divinely touched hero to worship in its pages, not even the supremely powerful Dr. Manhattan. Indeed, in Chapter 5 it is Rorschach, more than any other, who exemplifies Blake’s Tyger. He is dangerous, stalking the forests of the night and, on page 26, literally burning bright.6
That phrase, “forests of night”, recurs in one of Blake’s prophetic texts, Europe: A Prophecy. That text is much more difficult to decipher than the Songs, but let’s take a look at the “forests of night” section by itself (Blake’s creative punctuation retained):
Thought chang’d the infinite to a serpent; that which pitieth;
To a devouring flame; and man fled from its face and hid
In forests of night; then all the eternal forests were divided
Into earths rolling in circles of space, that like an ocean rush’d
And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh.
(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books pg. 184)
This part of the poem laments humanity’s fall from the infinite to the finite, via the creation of the senses, and the section immediately preceding this one discusses how sight and smell are “barr’d and petrify’d against the infinite.” The serpent seems to be a reference to ancient Druids, whom Blake loved to associate with this fall, and “forests of night” become a sheltering place from this terrifyingly transformed infinitude.
Thus the camera swings around to show us the opposite view. Where in “The Tyger” we’re looking into the forest at the dread burning eyes within, in Europe we flee into the forest to escape the burning outside it. By the end of Chapter 5 in Watchmen we get a similarly reflected perspective. If Rorschach is that Tyger, stalking the forests, he is also the prey of Ozymandias, whose thoughts and plots set him up for the capture he suffers at the chapter’s end. It is Ozymandias who constructs himself a serpent (well, a squid), out of pity for humanity. It consumes millions of lives, leaving behind just a finite wall of dead flesh.
Did He Smile His Work To See?
For that matter, the word “watchman” occurs from time to time in Blake, such as in the eighth plate of America: A Prophecy:
The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books pg. 161)
The context here is the American Revolution shutting down England’s empire — there’s no more need for guards, as Orc’s morning has set free the “redeemed captives.” We don’t see the night decay in Watchmen until the last few pages of the book, at which point the Watchmen have mostly left their stations — Rorschach dead, Dr. Manhattan missing, Ozymandias turned traitor, and both Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II in hiding, though these last two look to be heading back into the life of adventure. In any case, for Blake the disappearance of these guardian warriors is a good thing, as it means the threat is gone. As he learned after the French Revolution, though, sometimes the threat just changes shape, and there’s every possibility of that after the final page of Watchmen.
There’s an even more interesting permutation of “watchman” in Blake, though: Los himself is repeatedly depicted as a watchman. For example, the frontispiece of Jerusalem depicts Los, “dressed like a London night watchman”, entering a Gothic arch in search of truth, and beginning a journey into the Underworld.(William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books pg. 298) In plate 83 of the poem, he refers to himself as “your Watchman”, and the poem narrates his watch over “the meteors & terrors of night”. (William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books pg. 380)
We normally see Los as a maker, but here (and elsewhere in Blake’s works) he functions as a guardian and observer. He works throughout the poem to resurrect Albion, the incarnated spirit of England. In fact, Blake saw Albion and Jerusalem as intimately connected in a way that’s beyond the scope of this essay to explicate, but still looms large in the British psyche today — the words to a Blake poem, which has also (confusingly) come to be titled “Jerusalem”, have been set to music and become a sort of unofficial English national anthem.
So if Moore and Gibbons are the Los figures for Watchmen, then in Blake’s iconography, they become watchmen themselves, observing their surroundings and making art to warn us of dangers, to show us what they see. And like Los, perhaps they too work for a resurrection. For Moore especially, I’d venture to say that the project was to guard and revive comics as an art form, to show the capabilities of the medium by way of demonstrating that even the superheroes which dominated it can reveal unexpected depths. Moore has by now renounced comics, having been repeatedly disgusted by the industry which surrounds the medium, but I have to imagine that when he, Gibbons, and Higgins had put the finishing touches on Watchmen, they must have smiled their work to see.
3 Mark Scarbrough, of Walking With Dante fame, tells a funny story in his Lyric Life podcast, of first encountering this poem via a college English teacher who read the poem out loud, pounding out its beat on a desk with such near-sexual abandon that afterwards she dismissed class five minutes in, waving the students away and telling them to, “go do what comes naturally.” What came naturally for Scarbrough was to immediately change his major to English. [Back to post]
4 He also wasn’t afraid to include Milton in his prophecies, including an extended meditation in which the great poet’s spirit enters Blake’s body via his foot. Not kidding. [Back to post]
5 Though I would argue he is wrong about it being morally blank. [Back to post]
6 Not to mention, the cop literally refers to Rorschach as a Tyger in the preceding panel. [Back to post]
NOTE: Spoilers for Watchmen are included in this article, by design.
Starting in the mid-17th century, the authority of religious revelation began to come under unique and increasing threat. The enthusiastic inquiries of naturalists were uncovering disturbing geological and fossil evidence that the earth was much older than anyone had previously believed. Skeptical treatises from philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume challenged the foundations of what we think we know and what is possible to know. At the same time, scientists (who up until the 19th century were called “natural philosophers”) kept learning more and more about the laws of nature, solidifying a worldview in which everyday occurrences are based on those laws, rather than the commonplace intervention of a deity.
Into this breach stepped William Paley, a Cambridge graduate who was ordained in 1767 and spent decades combining the pulpit with the pen, authoring several influential works of mainstream Christian argument. His health began to decline around 1800, but he still was able to finish and publish his greatest and most famous work, Natural Theology or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature, which understandably tends to get referenced as just Natural Theology. The book was published in 1802 and was immediately an enormous success, finding a large audience eager to reconcile scientific discoveries with received religious teachings.
Who Makes the World?
Paley’s essential argument in Natural Theology is this: given the vast array of biological adaptations which are analogous to human-made machines, there is no other plausible explanation for them but a designing deity, a “contriver” as he often puts it. The opening sentences of his text are his most famous encapsulation of the argument (with 1802 punctuation and spellings intact, though with some of the 1802 wordiness abridged):
In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there, I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to shew the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be enquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch, as well as for the stone? […] For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the several parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use, that is now served by it. […] This mechanism being observed… the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.
This watchmaker analogy would have been back in the news while Alan Moore was writing Watchmen, thanks to the efforts of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In 1986, Dawkins published The Blind Watchmaker, which began with Paley’s analogy and then proceeded to thoroughly dismantle it via explicating the natural selection theory of that other Cambridge man, Charles Darwin. Darwin, for his part, had not only studied Paley’s books, he in fact lived in the very same set of Cambridge rooms that Paley had occupied seventy years prior. (The Watch on the Heath: Science and Religion Before Darwin, pg. 20) Darwin quite admired the clarity and force of Paley’s arguments, writing in his autobiography:
The logic of [an earlier Paley book] and as I may add of his “Natural Theology” gave me as much delight as did Euclid. … I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.
Later, of course, Darwin could no longer take Paley’s premises on trust, having found in natural selection a much more convincing and satisfying answer to biological phenomena than Paley’s “argument from design”.
Chapter 4 of Watchmen is entitled “Watchmaker”, and in it Dr. Manhattan ponders the same question that moved Paley and Darwin: who makes the world? The web annotations quite rightly recognize the link to Paley:
The title of this issue, “Watchmaker,” refers also to the famous “argument from design,” saying that the universe as a complex creation must have a creator. The metaphor was first proposed by William Paley in Natural Theology; his example was that of finding a watch somewhere, and that its complexity implied a watchmaker. This term has come to symbolize an intelligent creator, and thus is particularly appropriate to Dr. Manhattan, as is “The Judge of All the Earth.”
Note the connection to Linette Paley, a very minor character who appears later in Watchmen.
(Linette Paley, for those keeping score, was an avant-garde composer who was among the artists recruited and then killed by Adrian Veidt. Aside from the name, it’s hard to see any connection to William.) Leslie Klinger also connects the creator reference to Dr. Manhattan, noting that “Jon calls the universe a ‘makerless mechanism’… Yet he ultimately chooses to move on and become a maker himself”. (pg. 140)
Now, there’s a lot to dig into here, but I want to take a moment for something I rarely spend much time on in these essays: sheer appreciation. Moore’s use of clock, watch, and time imagery throughout this book is simply astonishing. Let’s take stock:
The title Watchmen in one sense implies guardianship, but in combination with all the clock imagery can’t help but evoke timekeeping as well.
The early years of the Watchmen universe feature the Minutemen, whose name also implies both guardianship and timekeeping.
There are twelve chapters, corresponding to hours on a clock.
Each chapter ends with an image of a clock, ticking down towards 12:00.
That clock not only counts down toward the story’s climax, it also resonates with the nuclear anxiety of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, first cited in the newspaper on Veidt’s desk in Chapter 1.
Large clocks appear at various key locations in the story — Veidt’s Antarctic stronghold, the exterior of Madison Square Garden, Jon’s clock-like Mars ship.
The art is full of circles with an indicator of position, like clocks — Dr. Manhattan’s symbol, The Comedian’s blood-streaked badge and its many echoes, and the Vitruvian Manhattan that ends this chapter.
Let’s not forget about those melting clocks in the art on Dr. Manhattan’s wall.
Jon is constantly mentioning seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years — with an awareness that (allegedly) encapsulates all of time, he cannot stop talking about pieces of it.
Jon’s father repairs pocketwatches — he too is a watchmaker, albeit one who stops believing in his craft. We see the pieces of his work fall to earth as he rejects them, linked with the meteors that fall at the end of the chapter.
A broken watch precipitates Jon’s accident.
Shortly before the main events of the plot, Jon and Laurie buy an issue of Time magazine, whose cover is a stopped watch.
A denizen of the newsstand intersection, who berates Malcolm Long and dies from Adrian’s attack, is a street vendor of watches.
It all meshes together with soft precision, and it’s just… beautiful. Exquisite. Crafted. It leaves absolutely no doubt of a contriver. One of the ironies behind Dr. Manhattan’s question is that we know exactly who makes his world: Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins. For our world, at least the biological parts of it, the answer seems clear as well: evolution. Dawkins leaves us no room to doubt that.
William Paley, though, was without the benefit (or challenge) of having On The Origin of Species at hand, let alone The Blind Watchmaker. That said, he certainly wrestled with its precursors, including the work of Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who argued that biological diversity proceeded over enormous spans of time from a single “filament”, in some ways anticipating the gene-centric view that Dawkins would later champion. But for Paley there was simply no way for that filament’s progression to explain the incredible array of phenomena he catalogued in Natural Theology. His reaction to human anatomy was essentially the same as my reaction to the clock motifs in Watchmen: an intense aesthetic rapture, followed by the desire to inventory and analyze.
Genesis Sui Generis
Most of Natural Theology consists of Paley rolling out example after example from anatomy, zoology, botany, and like biological fields. His reasoning, over and over, proceeds along this line:
Here is something we know about anatomy. (Or a similar field.)
This really reminds me of a machine! There’s often an analogy offered here. For instance, he might compare the operation of an eye to the operation of a telescope.
Doesn’t it remind you of a machine?
This thing in the body, not made by humans, really reminds us both of things that are made by humans. Therefore, God exists.
(optional) He will often follow this up with a sentiment along the lines of, “After that example, no further examples should be necessary.” He will then give many more examples.
I’m being a bit flip here, and with what we know today it’s awfully easy to see the gaps and flaws in Paley’s thinking, but before the notion of natural selection had been articulated, Natural Theology had a pretty sound argument! It is quite seductive and intuitive to see a designing hand in biological details — I know people even today who learn enough facts about the human body that they dare anyone to know that much about it and not believe in God.
For the inhabitants of the Watchmen universe, the problem is even knottier due to the existence of Dr. Manhattan, an existence which appears to steamroll Darwin’s founding assumptions. The theory of natural selection rests on four pillars:
Variation — individuals within a species vary.
Genetic inheritance — traits are passed down via reproduction.
Super-fecundity — organisms can produce more offspring than necessary to replace themselves over their lifetimes.
Filtering — environmental and genetic factors prevent populations from increasing geometrically.
Combined, these factors tell us that only those best equipped to deal with the filters survive, and that those survivors pass their traits on to their progeny, who have been naturally selected for the best chances of survival.
None of these pillars apply to Dr. Manhattan! He was created artificially and accidentally. He is unique, irreproducible, and invincible. He exemplifies the notion of a massive change happening instantly rather than Darwin’s notion of gradual changes over millions of years. Yet I suspect Paley would find little comfort to his Biblical beliefs if he were aware of Jon Osterman’s sudden transformation.
William Paley, detail from a portrait painted by George Romney
For one thing, Paley’s “contriver” is nowhere to be found in Dr. Manhattan’s genesis. Instead, Jon assembles himself into a sui generis species which indeed does have a “watchmaker”, but not the creator reported in Paley’s Bible. Dr. Manhattan, in fact, fits the category of god better than the category of organism. Janey Slater says as much on page 11 of this chapter: “They say you’re like God now.” Jon replies, comfortingly, “I don’t think there is a God, Janey. If there is, I’m not him.” But then he tells her he’s still the same person, and that he’ll always want her, and in his self-narration he describes this moment starting with, “As I lie…” So is he lying too when he says he’s not God? Perhaps, but given his “makerless mechanism” remark at the end of the chapter, I suspect not. He might (eventually) think he’s a god, but never thinks that he’s the God.
Still, Jon’s near-omniscience and near-omnipotence would certainly be terrifying to Paley, a feeling shared by Milton Glass at the end of the chapter. But even more terrifying would be Jon’s overwhelming indifference to human life. Paley, it’s important to note, felt he not only had to prove the existence of the Christian God, but the goodness of that God as well — remember that the second part of his title specified that he would provide “Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity”. For Paley, God is not just a force who set the clockwork in motion, but one who did so out of love for humanity.
In the final quarter of Natural Theology, Paley abandons his litany of examples arguing for a contriver, directing his rhetoric into chapters with titles like “Of the Personality of the Deity”, “Of the Natural Attributes of the Deity”, and of course, “The Goodness of the Deity”. To support this final claim, Paley contends that “in a vast plurality of instances in which contrivance is perceived, the design of the contrivance is beneficial.” (pg. 237) He proceeds to back this up by explicating the overall pattern in which a creature’s abilities are well suited to its needs, a relationship we now can see clearly as owing to natural selection. Even without that lens, though, the question must be asked: beneficial to whom?
The Shark and the Herrings
Paley wasn’t unaware that nature could be red in tooth and claw. A plant or animal’s abilities are certainly beneficial to itself, but not to its adversaries, and those adversaries sometimes include us, the purported beloved of our creator! The tiger’s teeth, claws, and powerful frame are to its own benefit, but the distinct detriment of the lamb. Despite the New Testament’s exaltation of the meek, and of turning the other cheek, Paley “proves” divine goodness in part by pointing out the effectiveness of killing machines. What kind of “good” deity would frame such fearful symmetry? Well, that’s a question for next time.
Paley does try to address this dilemma, devoting a substantial portion of “The Goodness of the Deity” to the question of “animals devouring one another”. (pg. 246) There is much reference to “the natural order”, and an argument that being killed fast is better than dying slowly, framing predators as agents of mercy. Paley’s moral calculus is deeply utilitarian, based in a larger philosophical movement of the late eighteenth century which held that as long as good things outweigh bad things, the universe must be good. It’s an approach to morality that Watchmen readers may find familiar — an approach that depends heavily on who we see as the hero of the story.
Super-fecundity, later to become a pillar of natural selection, is for Paley an amelioration of misery for prey species: “In rivers, we meet with a thousand minnows for one pike; in the sea, a million of herrings for a single shark.” (pg. 250) Whether this is a valid defense of God’s goodness in the face of devouring animals depends on who you see as the protagonist of their interaction. If you’re the shark, plenty more herrings will be along later. If you’re the herring, you only have the one life!
In Watchmen, Ozymandias is the shark, and the shoal of herrings gathers throughout chapter 11. (And maybe a few guppies, according to Joey the cab driver on page 9 of that chapter.) Adrian sees himself as the hero of the story, and if a few unfortunates have to die along the way, it’s all for the greater good. Like Paley’s version of God, he rests on the rationale that if his actions benefit the “vast plurality”, the universe he aspires to make must be a good one.
Part of the genius of Watchmen, though, is that we understand many of those “herrings” as unique, irreplaceable lives. The two Bernards. Joey. Her girlfriend Aline. Malcolm and Gloria Long. Steve Fine and his partner Joe. Ralph the Gordian Knot locksmith and his brother Milo, of the Promethean Cab company. The watch seller who berates Malcolm. None of these people are protagonists in Watchmen, and we don’t spend a whole lot of time with any of them, but we know them as people, with their own lives, emotions, and agendas. They are not anonymous prey, and when they die, more of them will not be along later.
Reading Paley’s utilitarian moral arguments in his context as an 18th-century Englishman, it’s easy to see how this notion of disposability propped up the logic of colonialism. If the goodness of God is axiomatic, proven by the happiness of the person writing about him, then surely those Englishmen must be the heroes of the story, the sharks to all those savage herrings in the lands they were bravely “discovering”.
Paley, attempting to justify the goodness of God despite the existence of evil, invokes a colonial analogy directly, making the case that, “A West Indian slave, who, amidst his wrongs, retains his benevolence, I, for my part, look upon, as amongst the foremost of human candidates for the rewards of virtue.” Now, it’s arguable whether Paley’s mention of “wrongs” carries within it a critique of slavery itself — if so, it’s quite submerged, as it would have to be given the general audience for whom he was writing. In any case, Paley trots out in the very next sentence “the kind master” of this slave, stating that this master “is likewise a meritorious character; but still he is inferior to his slave.” It’s a “noble savage” trope, similar to what we see in “Gunga Din” — seemingly uplifting the victim of a system while taking the system itself as just a part of God’s plan. In general, Paley’s justifications for what he calls “civil evil” (aka the evil that humans do) are redolent of what today we’d call unexamined privilege.
Seeing Ozymandias deploy that same utilitarian logic, reciting his hero’s journey narrative to his Asian servants as they die from the poison he’s given them, prompts us to examine the privilege and colonialism embedded into superhero stories themselves. “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” can be read as a recasting of the White Man’s Burden, a missionary notion of rescue in which one who assumes himself superior decides that it’s his job to save his subalterns from themselves, no matter the cost to them. By generally remaining reactive, most superhero stories cling to a moral high ground, a version of protection which responds only to external threats. Ozymandias shows us how thin is the line between that version of goodness and that of Paley’s God, insisting that we believe in a universe whose violence and death are mere byproducts of goodness and love.
This is the craft of Watchmen. While Paley’s watch on the heath uses regulated motion to point out the hour of the day, the object created by Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins uses intricately meshed narrative to point out the uncomfortable truths within its genre, and to highlight the broken versions of humanity we sometimes exalt as heroes. It’s less like a watch than a pair of spectacles, bringing a familiar world into a new focus, and revealing what was always there, if only we’d had eyes to see it.
Happy New year, and happy new 2021 music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2021 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.
This is my first full year in quite a while with no album assignments — that project remains on semi-permanent hiatus while we continue to deal with what’s thrown at us. In its place, I really dove into Spotify this year, trying out random playlists from all over the place to find new songs to love. Several of those show up in this mix, along with stalwart favorites like Neko Case, Tori Amos, and Stevie Nicks. This was also the year my iPod finally gave up the ghost, and I kept my listening records in Spotify rather than iTunes, though I sometimes had to make notes about what was missing.
As usual, I tried to craft the mix with a bit of flow to it, an art that relies much more on the gut than the head. Sometimes songs would join up like puzzle pieces, based on a sound or a mood or a theme. Gradually those joined up pieces accumulated until they made bigger pieces, which eventually fit together like tectonic plates — not seamless but close enough. By the time the order was finalized, I felt like it told a story, which is the best I can hope for these mixes. Here are my stories behind the songs.
1. Muse – Apocalypse Please
On January 1, I posted the liner notes from last year’s mix, ending with the words, “Here’s to a brighter 2021.” Five days later, United States senators were dropping to the floor of the chamber, hiding under tables, and attempting to crawl to safety as a mob of armed lunatics stormed the Capitol building, beating the crap out of cops while waving “thin blue line” flags. To me, it felt pretty apocalyptic. I never thought I’d live through a coup attempt in my own country, especially one that felt more driven by nihilism and stupidity than any particular revolutionary philosophy. So much for a brighter 2021.
2. Pink Floyd – Goodbye Blue Sky
I love the gently sinister feeling of this song, the pretty voices mixing with the stark words. “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on” really captures a 2021 feeling for me. During the Trump presidency, every day felt like it brought fresh horrors, and this year didn’t feel like that, thank god. But there’s still so much pain happening — the never-ending pandemic (thanks for that by the way, unvaccinated people), the economy struggling to deal with new realities, the ongoing partisan nastiness lurking around every corner, and a world that just seems to keep getting hotter. When Dante heard this mix, he asked me if this song was meant to refer to the way that all summer, wildfire smoke clouded the sky. I hadn’t thought of that connection, but it sure fits.
3. Simon & Garfunkel – The Times They Are A-Changin’
As I was putting this part of the mix together, a feeling of familiarity kept nagging at me. Finally I uncovered it — I used both this song and “Goodbye Blue Sky” in my 2016 mix. It feels fitting that they surfaced again for me, though with the cover/original relationships reversed (in 2016 I used Heart’s version of “Blue Sky” and Dylan’s original of “The Times”.) That year, I even framed “The Times” as hopeful, and this early Simon & Garfunkel rendition certainly feels full of freshness, youth, and enthusiasm. But I just can’t shake the way that “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call / Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall / For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled / The battle outside ragin’ will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls” has a new and horrifying resonance.
4 and 5. Genesis – Fly on a Windshield/Broadway Melody of 1974
I don’t think I’d ever really given The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway a fair shake, or maybe there was a long time where I just wasn’t quite ready for it. This was Peter Gabriel’s last album with Genesis, and while I love them both, this album had never fully engaged me. For a long time I had a homemade cassette with songs plucked from it, labelled “Lamb Chops” (yes, thank you, it is awfully clever, isn’t it?), but looking back that was a pretty strange thing to do with a concept album. So this year I spent some time with it, or at least the first disc of it, and really enjoyed it back to front. It’s Peter Gabriel leveling up, before he was about to really level up.
Nevertheless, whether through familiarity or preference, it was the “Chops” songs I gravitated to even on this listen. The moment in “Fly on a Windshield” where the band kicks in still blows me away, and the image felt fitting in connection with the previous 3 songs. Then there’s the bizarre parade of cultural figures that floats through the “Broadway Melody.” I enjoy list songs, and this is a really off-the-wall one. For me, it brings to mind the way the pile-up of input that comes through all channels can start to feel grotesque, with even familiar and beloved figures beginning to take on a menacing cast.
6. Neko Case – Oracle of the Maritimes
I felt like the ending of “Broadway Melody” blended really nicely into the beginning of this one, taking us from the center of Times Square with everyone stepping on everyone else, to a lonely boat with a mysterious oarsman. This for me was the standout song from Neko’s 2018 album Hell-On, the one that felt most like her Middle Cyclone tracks — my favorite period of hers, and one that will appear later on this mix. I love the surreal, dreamlike lyrics (“ride a chest of drawers into the waves”), and of course I find her voice endlessly thrilling, especially as it rises above doubt, fear, and confusion to a crescendo of self-affirmation. It’s a song that never fails to elevate me. And oh man that cello — Dante’s playing has improved to the point that now I get to hear a lot of lovely cello in my house, and it really makes me appreciate when one shows up in a pop song.
7. HAIM – The Steps
Speaking of self-affirmation. It’s rare anymore that a song will grab me so hard that I have to listen to it on repeat for days, but that’s what happened as soon as I heard this one. I think it’s my favorite song on this mix, which is part of why I made it the “title track.” (The other part is because so many of the feelings in these songs make up the steps I went through this year, often over and over.) I was never really on the HAIM train (or the Haim train? I feel like I see conflicting versions of how they style their name) before this, but holy cow do I love this song, just everything about it. The California instrumentation, the frustrated/resigned lyrics, the swooping melody, the power harmonies, the emotion-drenched vocal… whew. This was one I ran across on Spotify, and I’m so glad I did.
8. IX Reflections – New Man’s Born
Here’s another Spotify discovery — this band came up on some playlist I stumbled across, and their sound immediately captivated me. I switched over from the playlist to their one full album, and by the time I’d finished listening to it once, it went on my “to buy” list. It turns out they are quite an obscure band, without even a Wikipedia page to their name. They’re on facebook, though, where I learned that they are a “Moscow darkwave band”. So… I guess I like Russian goth synth music? I sure do love this album, and in particular this song, which feels like the rebirth I needed.
9. Lizzo – Good as Hell
This is a whole different style, but a pretty similar message, I think. I spent some quality time with Lizzo this year, and really appreciated both her music and her persona. I have to say, though, this song has become primarily associated with Nimbus in our house. He’s got a bunch of fluff that looks just like pants, and when he’s on his way somewhere, the vibe is totally “walk your fine ass out the door.”
10. Baby Blue feat. Wretch32 – Run (TDH remix)
The “Spotify finds” section of this mix continues with this song, another one that I randomly ran across and decided I needed to buy. This time I didn’t so much dive into the artist, but I dig this song a lot. Lyrically it’s typical rap braggadocio, but I love her London accent, her “I’m so London / Scratch that, I’m so the world!”, and the beat, which always gets me moving.
11. The 1975 – The Ballad of Me and My Brain
I ran across The 1975 on Spotify, but via an even more sideways process than usual. In searching for Stevie Nicks stuff, I unearthed a podcast called The Face, in which Matty Healy (frontman for the band) interviewed Stevie for over an hour. The interview is super fun, and the two of them have a great rapport, in which it emerges that Stevie is a huge fan of The 1975. Well, that was certainly impetus enough for me to check them out, and sure enough, I loved them and bought their first two albums. This song jumped out because of its fantastic title, and stuck around because of its intriguing sound and playful words.
12. Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate
This might look like another Spotify find, but I’ve actually known Kristin (whose real last name is Gundred) for a long time. I first ran across her when she was fronting a band called Grand Ole Party (ugh that name, but the band was wow) opening for Rilo Kiley in 2007. I wrote about it at the time and predicted that Kristin was going to be a big success. And as indie artists go, it kinda seems like she has been! GOP broke up a couple years after I saw them, and Gundred started the band Dum Dum Girls. That lasted for about 8 years, and then she reinvented herself into Kristin Kontrol, with a synthpop feel straight out of the 80s, like IX Reflections but with clearer vocals and the occasional New Order-ish guitar part. In other words, my kinda thing. I think this is my favorite version of Kristin yet.
13. Bruce Springsteen – Dancing In The Dark
Some songs are played so much that they need decades to recover, and this is certainly one of those for me. But I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with Bruce in recent years, not just as a singer but as a speaker and a writer. I listened to his autobiography as an audiobook a few years back (highly recommended), and this year I absolutely devoured Renegades, his podcast with Barack Obama. That brought me back to this song in particular, and I gained a deeper appreciation for it not just by hearing it fresh for the first time in a long time, but also because I emotionally connected with it in my ongoing pandemic loneliness. “I ain’t nothin’ but tired / Man I’m just tired and bored with myself” — I really feel that some days.
14. 10,000 Maniacs – These Days
Another melancholy song — Jackson Browne’s original is great, but there’s a special place in my heart for this 10,000 Maniacs version, which somehow feels even more wrenching to me. I wrote last year about how the isolation produced by my change in working habits (along with everybody else I work with) has had some personal downsides for me. Sure, it’s nice not to have to commute, but I find it much more challenging to maintain personal equilibrium when so much of my “social contact” outside of family is via a screen, and some of the cornerstone routines of human connection for me — biweekly D&D games, basement bowl trivia — have just gone away. Now, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in 2020 when everything was really really locked down, and I am grateful for the connections I do have, but there are still those days.
15. Neko Case – I’m An Animal
Here’s Neko again, this time from the classic Middle Cyclone album. This song to me is about the pure need for affection and connection. Typically when we talk about the “animal side” of humans, we’re referring to violence, domination, brutality, and so forth, but here it means the animal need for comfort, Mary Oliver’s “soft animal of your body” that just wants to love what it loves. That’s what this song is about for me, and it flows from the previous two.
16. The Waterboys – And a Bang on the Ear
This one is about affection too, but from a little different direction. I spent about a week with Fisherman’s Blues this year, and found that certain songs on it perfectly embody a mood. “Sweet Thing” is absolute ecstasy, “We Will Not Be Lovers” captures defiance… and this song is quintessentially wistful, or at least it is once you know that a “bang” is a kiss or affectionate pat. It’s not just about romances, either, at least not for me. I feel it as a tour of past selves, returning to memories both happy and painful with a settled affection and grace, a making peace. As I get older, this song moves me more and more. “Not surprisingly,” as Werner Herzog would say.
17. Stevie Nicks – Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?
“You to me are treasure / You to me are dear” says the previous song, and for me this song will always be about my dear treasure of a spouse. 2021 was our 25th wedding anniversary, and we celebrated in a few ways, including ziplining across the Royal Gorge(!). My most precious memory of it, though, is the gift that Laura gave me on the day, a 45 of this song pressed into a frame with an image of the sheet music and quotes from the lyrics. A harpist played it at our wedding, and having it return this way was just profoundly lovely.
18. Tori Amos – Flying Dutchman
Just as the previous song is about Laura for me, this one (and the next) is about Dante, or at least what my imagination projects onto him. Or maybe it’s about me, as I imagine myself onto Dante. His social world is mostly closed to me, but it’s my perception that he doesn’t have many of his own tribe in his life, at least outside of us. I think that’s slowly changing, but it still feels to me like he’s an outlier among his peers, and that they can’t see what he’s born to be. But he’s got his own rocket ship, and I hope one day he finds the planet that’s home to him.
19. Brandi Carlile – The Joke
This is a song in that same vein, and was my entry into appreciating Brandi Carlile. Laura dove into Brandi’s catalog this year much more than I did, but when I heard this song on Spotify, I knew it would be part of this mix. I don’t know that Dante gets harassed in the way that this song implies, but I know that I’ve repeatedly experienced his exasperation with most of his peers and his conscious separation from their juvenile energy. I think that’s changing as he and they get older — as other kids settle down he’s able to find more common ground with them, but even so he’s often pretty well apart from what they find cool, what they find interesting, and what they find funny. But before long the joke will be on them.
20. Dan Wilson – Closing Time
Dan Wilson used to be the lead singer and songwriter of a band called Semisonic, best known for their song “Closing Time”. That band went on a long hiatus in 2001, and Wilson moved into a songwriting career. In that career he wrote or co-wrote some huge hits, including Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” This year I listened to his album Re-Covered, in which he sings his own versions of all those songs he helped create, and at the end he performs this absolutely gorgeous version of “Closing Time”, with just piano and a bit of subtle synth. I’ve always adored this song — it’s how I became a Wilson fan in the first place — and it felt like a perfect grace note for this collection. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, and I’m ready for another new beginning.
NOTE: Watchmen will be spoiled below. And maybe a little melted.
On page 16 of Chapter 4, Jon and Janey have a discussion (verging on a fight) about his experience of time. He gives her examples, just as he’s been doing for us throughout the chapter: “In 1959, I could hear you shouting, here, now, in 1963.” Also, in his typically impersonal way, he spends most of the conversation with his back to her, staring at a painting on their wall.
The picture on the wall is Salvador Dalí’s “Persistence of Memory” (1931), one of his most famous paintings, which features watches melting on a tree branch and a sofa.
As is often the case, the annotations are useful but not entirely accurate. The title of the painting is The Persistence of Memory (including the definite article), and there’s no sofa in it. Here, take a look for yourself:
A watch melts on a tree branch, yes, as well as on a solid block from which the tree somehow grows. The third watch melts atop an object that could be many things, but a sofa isn’t one of them. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (which houses the painting) calls it a “monstrous fleshy creature”, and notes that it could be Dalí’s own face in profile, which appeared similarly in some of his other works from that period such as Illumined Pleasures and Face of the Great Masturbator. There could be a visual pun at work here, as watches themselves have faces — the last one, face down, is beset by ants, which for Dalí were a symbol of death and decay.
Overall, these watches symbolize a destabilization and deformation of time. Leslie Klinger suggests that “Jon may have selected this print for his apartment as a physical representation of his own unique relationship with time,” (pg. 128) but I don’t think so. If anything, Jon experiences time as even more stable and perfectly formed than the rest of us do. His metaphor, when he uses one, is of an “intricately structured jewel”, an image that suggests super-hardness, not the super-softness of Dalí’s watches. That softness is closer to Jon’s father lamenting (in reference to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), “If time is not true, what purpose have watchmakers?”
So what does it mean for this painting to appear on Jon’s wall, and in Watchmen at all? To find out, let’s start with a little context. Dalí today is nearly synonymous with Surrealism, but he associated himself with the Surrealist movement for only a dozen years of his long life, joining in 1929 and then beginning to attack it in 1941, an attack which, well, persisted, until his complete rupture with the Surrealists in 1948. He would live another 41 years. Nevertheless, The Persistence of Memory is squarely within Dalí’s surrealist period, so it’s worth taking a look at what that movement represented, and how it might relate to Watchmen.
Surrealism as we know it today emerged in 1924, with the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto by French writer, poet, and philosopher André Breton. Like many artistic and cultural movements, it had a fractious beginning, with multiple claimants to its foundation and definition, but Breton has emerged as its historically recognized leader, and he functioned as such throughout the movement’s heyday. Breton had served as a psychological counselor in World War I, treating shell-shocked soldiers, and he was fascinated with the theories of Freud, particularly his concept of the unconscious mind.
Breton proposed to tap into that unconscious, bringing its products into the world as literature, and eventually as art, films, and theatre. He adopted two primary methods for collecting unconscious thought: automatism and dreams. Automatism, the production of words or drawings with little to no conscious mediation, was his emphasis in the early days of the movement, but over time it revealed its limitations, whereas the exploration of dreams proved endlessly fruitful. Breton attracted a cadre of followers, entranced by the possibilities of elevating irrationality and using it to overthrow what they saw as oppressive political and social structures. In 1929, Dalí became one of those followers.
The Paranoiac-Critical Method
Breton was energized by Dalí, writing in a 1929 exhibition catalogue that Dalí’s art is “the most hallucinatory we know”, and that it “constitutes a real threat” against bourgeoisie rationalism and order. (Dalí, pg. 84) Dalí, for his part, embraced the movement enthusiastically, frequently invoking the word “surrealist” to describe various aspects of his works, and introducing new concepts such as the “surrealist object”, including his famous Lobster Telephone. Even more importantly, he introduced a new avenue for bringing images from the unconscious into the waking world, an approach he called his “paranoiac-critical” method.
With this label, Dalí uses the concept of paranoia differently from how we understand it today. Rather than a persecution complex, he frames paranoia as the perception of connections and overlaps where none exist in reality, but which are difficult to gainsay with any rational argument — the same mental mechanisms which create and propagate conspiracy theories. Dalí cultivated this mindset in his creative phases, resulting in canvases that teemed with multiplicities of meaning, and images that presented themselves differently when seen from different viewpoints, such as the bodies of women making up the face of Voltaire. In his essay “The Rotting Donkey”, first published in 1930, Dalí sees the potential of this mindset:
I believe the moment is drawing near when, by a thought process of a paranoiac and active character, it would be possible (simultaneously with automatism and other passive states) to systematise confusion and thereby contribute to a total discrediting of the world of reality. (The Surrealism Reader, pg. 264-265)
Systematize confusion and discredit reality. This is an agenda particularly relevant to our times. The surrealists rather naively believed that such an action would overthrow the alleged rationalism behind World War I, fascism, and the rise of Hitler. In our own era, we’ve seen right-wing movements in the U.S. and elsewhere systematizing confusion and discrediting reality to their own advantage. Aspiring dictators and their media machines systematically undermine any authority outside their own — scientists, academics, journalists — and insist that any misfortune that befalls themselves is a result of conspiratorial persecution rather than their own shortcomings. In creating a paranoiac alternate reality, they are able to discredit the evidence of their followers’ eyes and ears, resulting in a surreal landscape which always serves their own ends.
There’s nothing quite so sinister in Watchmen — for once, the book is actually less grim than our world. Sure, it’s true that Ozymandias’ great practical joke systematizes confusion through an enormous surrealist object teleported into New York, and discredits reality by pulling a hoax on the world’s superpowers, but at least he’s doing it in an attempt to avert nuclear catastrophe, rather than simply seizing and maintaining power. That said, his Burroughs-esque stare at his wall of televisions certainly feels reminiscent of Dalí’s paranoiac-critical method, and his own cut-up mental state can be seen as a paranoiac one, systematizing ethical confusion such that he is able to discard it. As Dalí says, the paranoiac reaches “conclusions that often cannot be contradicted or rejected and that in any case nearly always defy psychological analysis.” (pg. 265) How can anyone tell if he’s gone crazy?
In a larger sense, and one more relevant to the scene we’re examining, the simple fact of Dr. Manhattan discredits the reality of the world that existed before him. We can see this in Nite Owl I’s sudden sense of irrelevance and subsequent retirement, and even more starkly in Professor Milton Glass’s article at the back of this chapter. Glass says, in reference to Jon Osterman’s American-associated omnipotence, “A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane.” Glass also asserts that Dr. Manhattan’s “very existence has deformed the lives of every living creature on the face of the planet”, just as Dalí’s solid objects deform the watches that drape over them.
One of Watchmen‘s best traits is the way it realistically portrays the impact on a national psyche of the emergence of supernatural powers, and the geopolitical power struggle that would ensue over control of those powers. As we gaze at Osterman gazing at Dalí, a metatextual level of surrealist subversion presents itself, albeit as a reversal — acknowledging real connections that have been ignored rather than paranoiacally imagining connections that don’t exist. The mainstream superhero universes of 1985 teemed with magic, superhuman abilities, and hyper-advanced technologies, but with almost none of the political or cultural impact those things would inevitably have on the world. Moore, by introducing just one superpowered individual and logically following the deforming consequences of his arrival, soundly discredits mainstream unreality, seeing the connections where they would naturally be and making us question how we could ever have missed them.
Juxtaposition and Dreams
Dalí sometimes demonstrated unexpected connections through his use of the double image — arrangements of objects that look like multiple things at once — but also relied heavily on simple juxtaposition of objects, such as the lobster on the telephone. Many surrealist artists used juxtaposition as a strategy for surprising and provoking the viewer, as memorably appears in the work of René Magritte. Magritte’s images routinely place objects in unexpected relation to each other, such as The Beautiful Relations, which shows facial features placed onto an open sky, with a hot-air balloon as one of the eyes, or Golconda, which shows dozens of men dressed for work, hanging midair at various heights in front of an unassuming block of flats.
Watchmen, being a comic, exercises its juxtapositions more between words and images than within images themselves, but it does so almost constantly. I’ve written before that if the book hadn’t been called Watchmen, it may as well be called Juxtaposition. In some scenes, such as the interpellated panels from Tales Of The Black Freighter, or Rorschach’s journal entry at the end of Chapter 2, the words and images overlap in numerous and multi-layered ways at once. In other, more story-oriented sections, such as the one where Dalí’s painting appears, the juxtaposition is a little more restrained, but it’s still definitely there. Take Janey’s words over the newspaper image in panel 1 of the Dalí page, or Jon’s narration from Mars overlaying panel 9. In fact, I would argue that Jon’s entire experience of time, living through all of it at once, is the ultimate multi-layered juxtaposition, making his reality into a constant surreality.
Like the other surrealists, Dalí was fascinated by dreams as well. He called his work “hand-painted dream photographs”, and devised various methods to keep himself as long as possible in the borderland between sleeping and waking, the better to retrieve products of the dream-state. Watchmen depicts a surreal dream too — Dan’s nightmare on page 16 of Chapter 7. There’s no question that this dream speaks to what dwells in Dan’s unconscious, so let’s take a closer look.
Dan’s dream, like much of Dalí’s work, is suffused with a mixture of libido and fear. It springs from the previous scene, his episode of impotence with Laurie — a scene, by the way, which leverages juxtaposition with the television narration to effects both funny and poignant. As the dream starts, we see a silhouette of the Twilight Lady, reflected in Dan’s glasses. This character, introduced just a few pages earlier, pretty clearly symbolizes the sexual side of Dan’s adventuring, even before we see her in the dream — a part of himself that he keeps meaning to throw away, but you know how it is. Her appearance in his lens repeats the motif we’ve been seeing throughout the chapter, starting with the cover, of lens reflections.
He runs up to her, fear on his face, framed in the crook of her arm. They embrace, their feet wreathed in smoke, and peel each other’s clothes away like rinds. They stand naked, embracing, this time on a flat plain leading to a mid-panel horizon. and then she peels another layer — Dan’s skin sloughs away, revealing his costume underneath. Then it’s his turn — he peels the Twilight Lady to find Laurie underneath, in her costume, the horizon having lowered to their knees. The two of them embrace, and the motif of body framing repeats, except that framed in between their two bodies is the beginning of a nuclear explosion. The explosion grows larger and larger, the horizon very low in the panel, until it engulfs them, removing the horizon altogether and peeling the final layer of their flesh to reveal embracing skeletons beneath, an image that repeats yet another motif, the graffiti of the silhouetted lovers first seen by Rorschach on page 11 of Chapter 5. Thus ends the dream — after this death-sex image, Dan awakes on the final panel of the page. We are left with the products of his unconscious — frustrated desire, rampant fear, and a sense of unreality to Dan Dreiberg, who becomes a flimsy wrapping around Nite Owl II.
Blots and Simulacra
Dalí’s work wasn’t sequential, and therefore each of his works must be taken on its own, but nevertheless he would have found some of these images familiar. The flat plain with its horizon is common to many Dalí paintings, The Persistence of Memory included. He showed his own flesh deformed often, especially early in his Surrealist period, and possibly even in The Persistence of Memory itself. He also featured his wife and muse, Gala, in many paintings that revealed her form emerging from some other construction, as in Galatea of the Spheres and Lapis-Lazuli Corpuscular Assumption. The bodies that shred away like tissue paper echo the super-softness that fascinated Dalí in many early works, where he showed formerly stable objects like clocks and cellos melting away like Camembert in the sun.
In particular, not only did he make no secret about his fear of sex, he highlighted it in painting after painting. Breton said about Dalí in a 1952 interview, “On the mental plane, no one was more struck by psycho-analysis than he, but, if he uses it, it is to maintain jealously his complexes, to carry them to exuberance.” Dalí was not interested in becoming “well-adjusted” or “curing” his psychological struggles, for if he rid himself of them, where would he find the images that kept spilling onto his canvases? In this way, he connects to yet another Watchmen character: Rorschach.
Walter Kovacs adopted an explicitly psychoanalytic image around which to base his identity, but he didn’t do this from a sense of introspection. Indeed, he wonders in his journal, “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”, using the “us” to explicitly include himself in that category of stability and mental health. He is what others wish to see in him, but he wastes no time looking into himself.
Surrealist art sought to render visually the landscape of the unconscious, via automatic drawing and the depiction of dreams. Rorschach blots, on the other hand, are meant to go the other way — abstract images intended to stir unconscious associations. Rorschach, like Dalí, uses psychoanalytic imagery to reinforce his own neuroses, not to “solve” them, though unlike Dalí, he doesn’t do it quite so intentionally. Dalí’s own double images operated on a similar principle, allowing the viewer to receive the painting based on idiosyncratic and unconscious responses. Paranoiac Face is an emblematic example. Art historian Kirsten Bradbury describes it thus:
The painting was based on a photograph of African villagers. At first sight, Dalí believed that the photo was of a Picasso face, as he had recently studied them. He showed the card to Breton, who thought it was a picture of the Marquis de Sade, who interested him. Therefore Dalí rationalized that the individual’s mind gives an image the desired characteristics; viewers see what they want to see. (Essential Dalí, pg. 67)
Viewers see what they want to see, or what their unconscious directs them to see, just as in Rorschach blots and Rorschach himself.
We haven’t quite finished the roundup of surrealist images in Watchmen. While Dan’s dream is likely the most surrealist moment provided by Dave Gibbons, as the artist ofWatchmen, there is also an artist inWatchmen, one whom the text explicitly identifies as a surrealist: Hira Manish. Manish receives this description on the last page of Chapter 8’s back matter, and in that same chapter we see the only canvas of hers shown in the story, her rendering of the monster that will be teleported into New York.
Once again, this illustration is a mix of sexuality and fear, and I would make the case that it’s a Dalínian double image as well, what I’ve described before as “pretty clearly a nightmare version of female genitalia.” Even the panels surrounding this image on page 11 refer to sex and pregnancy as both potential pleasure and potential horror, and though we don’t get to see it, Manish is clearly sketching this bizarre vision from a real model, albeit one based on her work, a strange loop of representation and reality.
In “The Rotting Donkey”, Dalí refers to the products of his paranoiac-critical method as “simulacra” — semblances of the dream world given tangible form in our world. He calls them “new and menacing”, and tells us that connoisseurs of images “have long ago learned to recognise the image of desire hidden behind the simulacra of terror”. (the Surrealist Reader, pg. 266) Surrealist paintings are simulacra in image form, but surrealist objects move these simulacra into all three dimensions. For Veidt’s grand joke, nothing less than a giant surrealist object would do, and he explicitly procures a surrealist to ensure that this object would contain the requisite equal measures of fear and desire.
The Persistence of Memory
So it’s pretty clear at this point that the appearance of a surrealist artwork inWatchmen can draw our attention to the surrealist moments ofWatchmen: the systematized confusions, the juxtapositions, the unconscious eruptions of dreams and unbidden associations, and the paranoiac death-sex simulacra which provide the book’s most terrifying moments. What can we make of this specific surrealist painting appearing on Doctor Manhattan’s wall?
As I’ve said, I disagree with Klinger that Jon may have picked it out to symbolize his relationship with time — while his all-at-once juxtaposed experience may be intensely surrealist, it represents a crystallization of time rather than a liquefaction of it. Instead, if we’re going to make a headcanon story about how that painting arrived in the apartment, I’d speculate that Janey herself bought it and hung it, attempting to use a familiar cultural artifact to find her way toward understanding Jon’s massively changed perspective. She fails to understand it, as the page so clearly proves.
However, as a phrase, “the persistence of memory” captures a great deal about Watchmen. That phrase could serve as an alternate title for Chapter 9, in which Laurie’s memories persistently bubble up through her conversation with Jon, eventually overcoming her own mental blocks to present her with the fact of her father’s real identity. Tellingly, it is only by Jon persuading her to consider his surreal experience of overlapping moments that she can put the pieces together. Even beyond this chapter, Watchmen has flashbacks galore — in fact the very scene in which the Dalí painting appears is itself a flashback.
What’s more, the persistence of memory is a theme in Watchmen overall — for Sally Jupiter and her ever-brightening past, for Rorschach and the images that haunt him, for the spirit of ’77 and how it refuses to stay banished. Thus, both the specific painting and the movement it represents pertain directly to Watchmen, a book peppered with surrealist moments, which tells its story through persistent memories, and which itself plays on our memory of both bygone superhero conventions and those that were very current to its decade.
Just one more thing before I wrap up: according to Dalí expert Dawn Ades, the artist had a close relationship with one Robert Descharnes, a French photographer who served as Dalí’s secretary through to his death, and managed his copyright beyond that. (Dalí, pg. 206) This name is awfully close to the “human sensitive” Robert Deschaines, whose brain gets cloned and placed inside Hira Manish’s enormous surrealist object. Given that Dalí was still alive while Watchmen was being written, and therefore Descharnes’ name might have been in the news from time to time, I have to wonder whether this is coincidence, or whether Moore found inspiration for a character name from a surrealist-adjacent real-life figure. Perhaps I’m just seeing connections where none exist, but if so, wouldn’t Dalí be proud?
Abandon all hope of avoiding Watchmen spoilers, ye who read this post.
Our journey through Watchmen references has now crossed into Chapter 4, a chapter devoted exclusively to exploring the character and memories of Jon Osterman, Doctor Manhattan. One of those memories contains the next reference — from his early foray into superheroing:
The eagle-eyed Annotated Watchmen v2.0 finds a reference here that even Leslie Klinger missed, looking behind the caption box to notice:
The name of this “crime-den” is “Dante’s,” a reference to the Italian author best known for the Divine Comedy, which included a trip to Hell. The name and red lighting seem to be intended to invoke a hellish atmosphere.
Aside from the fact that the writer likely meant “evoke” rather than “invoke”, and that “vice-den” is improperly quoted as “crime-den”, this is an astute observation! The club name is mostly obscured, but once we see it as “Dante’s”, we can’t possibly see it as anything else, and indeed Dante’s version of Hell is underground, just as Moloch’s vice-den is said to be. The connection is very clear.
Dante and the Commedia
So let’s dive a bit into Dante and his greatest work. Dante Alighieri was born in 13th-century Florence, Italy. His birth year is widely accepted as 1265, though the logic behind establishing this birth year is, as Mark Scarbrough points out in his stellar podcast Walking With Dante, pretty specious. But it’s enough for our purposes to know that he was born midway through the 13th century, became active in Florentine politics as an adult, and was exiled in 1302 as the political terrain shifted. He died in 1321, having never returned to his home.
Dante had been writing and releasing poetry since well before the turn of the century, but it was in exile that he composed his master work, a work he simply called Comedy — “Commedia” in his medieval Tuscan. (The “Divine” would be added by his fan and commentator Boccaccio, well after Dante’s death. It’s also worth pointing out that the name “Comedy” isn’t after our modern sense of hilarity, but the older sense of a happy ending.) Comedy was a trip through the known universe, as Dante understood and imagined it, and it was also a comprehensive catalog of his moral and philosophical thought, deeply rooted in the Christianity (specifically Catholicism) of his time.
Dante composed his poem of individual cantos (think chapters or sections) grouped into three canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It’s written in the first person voice, and claims to be an account of how Dante became lost in a dark wood, and with help from the ghost of the classical poet Virgil, traversed every level of Hell (Inferno) and Purgatory (Purgatorio). He must leave Virgil behind to travel through Heaven (Paradiso), so Beatrice — his idealized woman and the object of his courtly love poems, who had died in 1290 — becomes his guide for the final piece of the trilogy.
Comedy makes a number of surprising literary moves, not least the way that it mixes together figures from disparate parts of both literature, religion, history, and local politics. In his travels, Dante the pilgrim meets characters from the Bible standing alongside men, women, and creatures from mythology. People from history and Dante’s own Florentine contemporaries populate the mix as well, so that the landscape of God’s judgment includes everyone who ever was or ever was imagined.
From our modern perspective, mixtures like this may not be too startling — we’ve seen Bill and Ted joshing with Socrates and Joan of Arc, or a Marvel comics universe where Thor and Hercules (and seemingly all the members of every other pantheon) run around with futuristic scientists and soldiers. For that matter, we’ve got Watchmen, in which we get The Comedian shaking hands with Gerald Ford and Doctor Manhattan with JFK. But in the 13th century, religion, myth, history, and current events didn’t mix in fiction — until Dante.
In addition to its bold approach to bricolage, Comedy also displays an astonishing level of structure. Medieval numerology is everywhere, peppering the work with threes, nines, tens and hundreds, among other sacred numbers. Three, being the holy number of the Trinity, appears at the highest level of abstraction — three parts of the Comedy itself — down to the lowest level of the poetic lines, which are written in a form called terza rima, in which rhymes repeat and interlock three times each. Nine, being three times three, is holy times holy, which is why we see nine circles of Hell, nine spheres of heaven, and so forth. Thirty-three is also a big one, with two of the canticles containing 33 cantos each, and most stanzas containing thirty-three syllables. (Dante would love the fact that this post is entry number 33 in the Watchmen Bestiary.)
Ten appears various places in the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments or the ten plagues of Egypt. Similarly, tens show up in the Comedy as well, such as when we add the “vestibules” to the nine levels of Hell and Heaven. Ten times ten — a perfect number in Dante’s sight — was the number of overall cantos in Comedy, and in fact that hundred is made of three thirty-threes plus an introductory one. (Inferno has 34 cantos.) This formulation of 9+1 or 99+1 undergirds the Comedy‘s structure, but there’s more to it than just numbers. Structure appears thematically, such as in Inferno, where Dante the pilgrim often echoes the sin he sees punished, and linguistically, such as the fact that each canticle of Comedy ends with the word “stelle” — stars.
In this way, Comedy resonates with Watchmen, which is itself richly structured. Moore and Gibbons aren’t so concerned with numbers, though Dante would doubtless appreciate the nine-panel layout employed throughout the book. With Watchmen, structure becomes more a matter of rhythm, such as the way that (for most of the book) plot-driven chapters alternate with character-driven chapters, or the way that changes in scene or lighting can create “X” and “O” shapes on the page.
Structure also shows up on the chapter level. In the Love & Rockets post, I went on at length about the structure of Chapter 2 — a present-day storyline interspersed with flashbacks, progressing in chronological order, with each showing The Comedian from a different character’s viewpoint. Probably the most famous structural trick in Watchmen occurs in Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry”, in which the panel layout for the entire issue is completely symmetrical, meeting in the middle with a double-page splash of Adrian Veidt fighting his would-be assassin. (Adrian, appropriately, is at the center of the story.) Symmetry appears in Comedy as well, with the mountain of Purgatory reflecting the cavern of Hell, and Purgatory itself poised midway through Dante’s journey, its middle cantos discussing the questions of free will that underpin the entire moral and theological structure of the poem.
The plots of the two works are quite different, of course. Watchmen operates (on the surface level anyway) as a mystery, while Comedy is essentially a tour — a very long tour through all the levels of a highly structured afterlife. That afterlife is divided according to sins and virtues, with each division populated by emblematic examples of the behavior — Judas as the ultimate traitor, Midas as the icon of avarice, and so on.
That said, Chapter 1 of Watchmendoes take us on a tour, with Rorschach as our pilgrim and his own paranoia acting as his guide. As we follow, he takes us to each circle of “superhero” existence in his world, circles which encompass a number of solid archetypes. There’s the rough Comedian, grizzled and dark like a Punisher or Nick Fury. There’s the earnest Nite Owl and his cave full of gadgets and vehicles a la Batman. Ozymandias embodies the wealthy altruist — again Batman, but also Iron Man, Green Arrow, and many others — as well as the perfected human athlete such as Captain America or, uh… Batman. Silk Spectre comes across as the sex-bomb gymnast type, like Black Canary or Black Widow, while Dr. Manhattan has both the super-science of a Mr. Fantastic and the godlike power of a Superman. Thus our introduction to Watchmen takes us through a Dante-esque journey of figures exemplifying ideas, but the book holds their fates until its final chapter.
Manhattan and Morality
About those fates — one aspect of the moral structure that pervades the Inferno (and to a lesser extent Purgatorio) is the notion of contrapasso, which we may define more or less as “the punishment fitting the crime.” Thus usurers must carry a purse around their necks as they avoid fire raining from the sky. Soothsayers who tried to predict the future spend their time in Hell with their necks twisted 180 degrees, so they are only able to look backward. Flatterers are, well, immersed in shit. And so forth. Watchmen doesn’t portray an afterlife of just desserts, but it does endeavor to show a variety of human (and superhuman) natures and their consequences, with no shortage of poetic justice, or at least poetic irony. Thus The Comedian, who lives his life as a fallen hero, becomes a truly fallen hero at his life’s end. Thus Nite Owl, who can only really feel like himself behind a mask, ends up adopting a whole new identity at the story’s end. Thus Ozymandias, whose name evokes Shelley’s poem about a king whose works were far less lasting than he belived they would be, creates a peace so fragile that a diary can tip it over. Thus Rorschach becomes a blot on a featureless white surface.
And what of Doctor Manhattan, the character whose chapter gets the Dante reference? Here we see some of the widest gaps between Comedy and Watchmen. Dante’s entire project is to flesh out a moral universe overseen by a stern and loving God, whose limitless knowledge pairs with a vast array of punishments, rewards, and (in the case of Purgatorio) one that can lead to the other. The closest thing to God in Watchmen‘s universe, though, is Doctor Manhattan himself, and the transformed Jon Osterman has very little interest in engaging with humanity at all, let alone constructing an afterlife of individual contrapasso for each member of it. The moral universe of Watchmen, as I discussed in the Biblereference posts, inverts traditional Christian stories to become a parody of their viewpoints.
Thus Doctor Manhattan’s story ends with him deciding to become God, and having observed him through the course of Watchmen, we might justifiably have our doubts about the sort of universe he will create. Where Dante’s God has love, Manhattan has only curiosity, and a rather weary curiosity at that. But there’s even more to this question of creators and the moral dimensions of their creations.
Consider this: Dante presents Comedy as the exploration of an afterlife created by God. But is it that, really? Of course not. It is the exploration of an afterlife created by Dante. And to make things even more complicated, Dante the creator poet explores his creation via the viewpoint of a pilgrim… who is also Dante. These two — the poet and the pilgrim — claim the same identity, but they are clearly not the same. Dante the pilgrim is a fictional character, entirely controlled by Dante the poet, who was a real person.
Moore and Gibbons don’t insert themselves into their story, but they do create a world that opens thorny questions about the nature of authorship. In the last entry, I asked whether Jon Osterman might have collapsed the probability waveform of his universe at the moment he became Doctor Manhattan, thus creating the future of his world at the moment he observed it. Maybe, maybe not, but the story does make very clear that at least he can see that future. More than that, as Chapter 4 shows, he lives it in all in the same moment, inhabiting a bewildering consciousness of mixed simultaneity and linearity.
He is, he tells us, a puppet who can see the strings. But he clearly can’t see all of them, because he remains unaware of his creators: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. He is a sort of stand-in for the reader (or at least, the repeat reader) in his awareness of the full story, but even aside from not knowing the authors of it, there are other dimensions of his story that he fails to understand. In the panel that inspired this post, his voiceover states, “the morality of my activities escapes me,” as we see him exploding a gunman’s head. Let’s unpack that a little.
In the context of the story Dr. Manhattan is telling us, he’s been placed at that moment into a dubiously moral framework by the newspapers calling him a “crimefighter”, and the government insisting he live up to the label. So he might be saying that despite the entities claiming otherwise, he fails to see the morality of what he’s been sent out to do. As readers, we might agree with him there. But as is so often the case in Watchmen, the juxtaposition of words and pictures strikes a heavily ironic note — in this case, we’re watching the “crimefighter” casually murder a human who poses no threat to him. (No humans pose any threat to him, no matter how heavily armed.) The rest of the crowd, whatever their other vices, is shocked and horrified at this sight. Yet the immorality of Dr. Manhattan’s activities escapes him as well.
But it doesn’t escape us, and it doesn’t escape Moore and Gibbons. In that moment, they are clearly showing us the distance between Manhattan’s moral compass and their own, and presumably ours as well. So while Manhattan may be able to see the strings, that doesn’t mean he understands them. He is a compromised reader, and a compromised author. Why is he this way? I would suggest that, like Dante, Jon Osterman is an exile, and like Dante, the experience of exile fundamentally shapes his consciousness.
Osterman in Exile
In fact, Jon suffers a series of exiles, several of which we see in this chapter. In 1945, his father reacts to the news of Hiroshima by throwing away Jon’s cogs, in effect exiling him from his childhood identity as an aspiring watchmaker. From there, he is ejected from his childhood home, first to Princeton and then to Gila Flats. At that lab, inside the intrinsic field chamber, he suffers an exile far more profound: permanent estrangement from his own body.
There’s a section of the Inferno where Dante (the pilgrim) encounters the fate of suicides. The contrapasso for these souls, who shed their bodies voluntarily, is that they are forever denied those bodies in the afterlife. They are transformed into strange trees and bushes, gnarled and devoid of leaves. In this form, they can see other humans only as menaces — breakers of branches. After he constitutes an artificial body for himself, Jon Osterman finds himself similarly distanced from humanity, watching and participating in its activities with diminishing interest.
Finally, in the course of the book, he chooses to exile himself from humanity altogether, first to Mars, and then (we presume) much further by the story’s end. Perhaps in a sense this series of exiles echoes the progression of Comedy. Where at first Jon finds his expulsion from the life he imagined hellish, he seems to experience the removal of his body as purgatorial, a purgation of self, albeit an involuntary one. His final exiles out into space echo the images of the Paradiso, which was a journey through the celestial spheres of Ptolemaic medieval astronomy, including Mars. But Dante’s story of paradise centers the notion of transcendence, and Jon’s resignation and removal manifest as a parody of that paradise, not an attainment of it.
Jon’s detachment from humanity isn’t just because he loses the physical, carnal aspect of being human. Dante’s suffering shades have lost that aspect too, but those who haven’t ascended are as human and limited as they ever were. Dr. Osterman, though, reconstructs his consciousness as he reconstructs his body, and in doing so, becomes an exile from the human experience of linear time.
In Canto 29 of the Paradiso, Beatrice explains how the mind of God exists in an “eternity outside of time”, and that “after” and “before” did not exist until He created them. His angels, she says, have never turned their vision from the face of God, “so that their sight is never intercepted / by a new object, and they have no need / to recollect an interrupted concept.” (Translation by Allen Mandelbaum.) Dante scholar John Took sees these lines as defining a fundamental difference between human and divine experience:
Thus time enters into human experience in respect of one of the most fundamental aspects of man’s activity as man, namely in respect of his intentional reconstruction both of self and the world beyond self as the basis for everything coming next by way of its proper conception and celebration. The intentional reconstruction both of self and of the world beyond self, Dante thinks, is always temporally conditioned. It is always a matter of its successive moments. (Dante, pg. 386)
Took tends toward the obtuse and rococo, and this passage is certainly no exception, but it does help us understand just how far away Jon Osterman has been sent from us. If human experience is always temporally conditioned, always a matter of successive moments, then human experience is no longer available to Jon.
Given that reality, is it any wonder he finds himself a stranger to human morality? This panel, in a club called “Dante’s”, shows us how removed he has become from such concepts, even in 1960, well before the main events of the book’s plot. In fact, that panel is pretty much entirely devoid of morality — not just the Manhattan murder, but Moloch himself and all the sinners in the vice-den. Naming the club “Dante’s” is a perfect irony generator by Moore and Gibbons, since human morality was the basis of Dante’s entire project.
Dante explored morality by constructing an extended encounter between the human and the divine. Moore and Gibbons do something similar, but in their case the human and divine meet in a single figure, and that figure is very far from Christlike. Instead, he personifies the morality of the atomic bomb, of humankind ascended to godlike power without transcending its fundamental flaws. Jon Osterman cannot resolve this tension within himself, but he does his best to abandon it, hoping to leave our (and his) complicated and messy humanity behind for the cleaner and simpler stars.
I’m the same age as the kids in Stranger Things. Like them, I rode my bike around the neighborhood a bunch, loved my Kenner Star Wars stuff, and dropped many a quarter on arcade games. Also like them, I played a whole lot of Dungeons and Dragons as a tween and early teen.
Exact ages and dates are a little hazy behind the mists of time, but my introduction to the game happened on a birthday — 11th or 12th I think. On some gift-giving occasions, my parents would send me on a treasure hunt through the house, following a trail of clues until I finally found a present. On that birthday, I opened a drawer at the end of the trail and found… something?
It was a bunch of solid shapes — a pyramid, a cube, and others with many more sides. Each one was a different color, and each side had a number written on it. They seemed like dice, maybe? The note with them said, “What are these? I don’t know either, but let’s find out together!”
The survivors of that original batch of dice — edges worn down from many rolls!
Then out came the purple box, with the red rule book, each of which sported a picture of a couple of adventurers taking on a big water-dwelling dragon. I learned about the dice, the attribute scores, the combat, and all the other mechanics, and was quite intrigued. But what hooked me was this new kind of game playing, one that combined elements of the board games I loved with themes from the Tolkien and Zelazny books I’d been reading, while at the same time bringing in an element of pure pretend play, a part of childhood I’d been leaving behind with some ambivalence.
My dad was the Dungeon Master for our D&D session that night. I was an elf, lured into an underground vault to uncover its secrets alongside another character played by my mom. I still remember our kitchen table, Dad behind the cardboard screen, narrating our adventure. “You creep as quietly as possible through the dark underground passage. From far off, you hear the sound of water slowly dripping. Your torches illuminate gauzy threads, strung across the passageway AND SUDDENLY A GIANT SPIDER DROPS DOWN FROM THE CEILING!!” Oh man, my mom and I just about jumped out of our skins. But I was enchanted.
That was the last time for a very long time that I got to be a D&D player. I corralled some friends to play, but the only way I could sell the concept was if I was the Dungeon Master. That was okay — I was utterly fascinated with the game, and more than happy to spend hours populating dungeons with monsters and making up narrative threads for my friends’ characters. Through a combination of allowance spending and holiday gifts, I acquired all the advanced rulebooks, and many an adventure module. I even branched out into RPGs (role-playing games) from other genres — science fiction, James Bond spy stuff, and of course Marvel superheroes.
On a regular basis, 3 or 4 kids would gather in my basement and I’d take them through adventures. Or try to. As much as I dug everything about the game, there was always something a touch unsatisfying about those gaming sessions. My friends and I weren’t quite on the same wavelength, and I didn’t have the skill to even identify that, let alone talk about it. I wanted to be transported into a story and soar on the high-flown fantasy of it all, but most of the time everything remained stubbornly prosaic, a hack & slash gold-grubbing exercise, never really suspending disbelief. I suspect that’s down to my lack of skill as a DM, our ages, and the overall awkwardness of role-playing among non-theatrical types.
In any case, after a few years all the RPG stuff got packed away, and we all moved on to other pursuits, including — for me — actual theater. I sold a bunch of D&D modules and such on eBay some time ago, happy to recoup a little money for papers that were just mouldering away in a box. Selling that stuff made me quite sure that the D&D part of my life was over.
Then came Dante. As he became a teenager, Dante began to be deeply interested in game design. He’d always been someone who immediately wanted to make up variants to any game we played together, but as his brain matured, he started seriously exploring whatever gaming avenues he could find and learning about all sorts of genres and mechanics. This led him to discovering some retro roguelikes, in particular Angband. As he unpacked Angband‘s mechanics, he got very interested in their origins, which allowed me to explain to him all about Dungeons and Dragons.
Some of those childhood rulebooks and accessories — I didn’t sell everything!
He wanted to try it. Of course, I’d sold much of my D&D stuff years ago, and I had no concept of the way the game had evolved since. But between the Internet and the resources I still had, I cobbled some rules together, getting as far as helping him put together a character and taking him on the rudimentary beginnings of an adventure. Right after that, magic struck.
I’d been talking to a co-worker of mine socially about Dante’s interest in D&D and well, it turns out her husband is a longtime DM who wanted to start up a campaign again. They invited us to join. I was a little shy about it at first, intimidated by the gulf between my early-teen self and my current self, and all the D&D lore that had gone by in the meantime. But “for Dante’s sake”, I warmed up to it, and we created some characters.
Starting then, and for about 16 months, Dante and I took our dwarven cleric and half-orc barbarian through a series of great adventures. The 5th edition D&D rules are a deep well of delight, and I got to be the D&D player I’d always secretly wanted to be, with a great DM and a great group. During that time, I realized something pretty profound: Dungeons and Dragons played a crucial part in making me who I am today, and some of my most ingrained personality characteristics are either extensions of the D&D aesthetic or attempts to complete the experience I reached for as a kid but couldn’t quite grasp.
Take that theater, for instance. You know one way to get involved in a story, becoming one of the characters? Audition for a play! In improv, you can even invent that character’s direction as you go along! I wouldn’t make the claim that my heavy involvement in high school theater was a direct outgrowth of my preteen D&D session frustrations, but I will say that being in plays scratched an itch that I could never quite get at via RPGs.
Here’s a broader, deeper one: systems and randomness. For all of my adult life, I’ve been someone who makes decisions via diceroll, in the framework of a set of rules. Not huge decisions, mind you (usually), but routine and daily ones. Today I decided to drink water (instead of tea or soda) via diceroll, and also what book I would read — 1950s Ditko/Lee comics on Marvel Unlimited, also selected randomly. I’m focused on writing this post today via a random choice. I’m drinking a beer right now because of what I rolled a half-hour ago.
Writing about it a little over fifteen years ago, I called this habit “a coping mechanism to deal with a world of too much choice.” And that’s still true. But after returning to D&D, I realized that of course I’d imprinted on this behavior because I fell in love with its manifestation in the D&D rules. One of the most fascinating and incredible things about the game is the way that the dice shape the characters’ lives, taking both mundane and exotic moments in directions that nobody can wholly predict, and around which everyone’s stories must flow. Of course, in the game those dice are merely symbolic of the randomness in the universe, but my personal universe’s randomness comes directly from dice and other random number generators.
Once I started thinking in this direction, I was floored to understand how much of my identity has its roots in the D&D experience. My love for interactive fiction, I realized, is also an attempt to find what childhood RPGing didn’t provide. Even the best IF doesn’t let you have totally free rein to take the story in any direction, but honestly neither does the best RPG session. The best IF does give you an interactive experience with a storyteller who is fully committed to immersing you in a compelling fictional world, with no risk of other humans ruining the vibe. Those hundreds upon hundreds of hours I spent text adventuring had an intrinsic value of their own, of course, but they were also a balm to the part of me that just kept longing for a deep, immersive role-playing experience.
Why was that longing so powerful, that it set me on these lifelong courses of extension and compensation? Judging by the ache that comes up in me when I write about it, I think some part of it is deeply connected to loneliness. By most measures, I’m not a lonely person. I have a family who I genuinely enjoy living with, and friends across many different realms, from workplace to trivia to IF to longtime high school bonds. But looking back on those childhood D&D sessions feels lonely in a specific way: the loneliness of being with people who are all there for a different reason than you are.
That’s nothing against those childhood friends, who were perfectly fine and most likely very patient with my D&D obsession. It’s more about trying to find a match for a part of me, and it not being there. For all the friends and family I have, I still never found that match, until my adventures with Dante and my co-workers.
Getting to have that experience after all, almost forty years after first opening that drawer with the dice inside, was an enormous blessing. But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending. Our D&D campaign broke up about 9 months ago, foundering on the pandemic-scarred shoals of some ugly real-life events. According to our DM, it’s not coming back anytime soon, certainly not in 2021.
I miss those gaming sessions terribly, with an outsized grief that I only now understand has been sublimated for most of my life into other forms. Finally assuaging that lonely feeling and then having it come back makes it so much sharper. I really, really want to return to Dungeons and Dragons again, or more specifically, I really really want to be a Dungeons and Dragonsplayer again. That’s where I found the joy for which I’d been unconsciously yearning. Dante hasn’t been grieving it the way I have, of course, and unlike me he’s more into mechanics than story, but I know he hopes to return to the D&D table as well.
Anybody want to run a campaign for a 50-year-old lapsed roleplayer and his gentle, genderqueer 15-year-old son?
Spoilers for Watchmen are relatively plentiful below.
Like Watchmen itself, The Annotated Watchmen v2.0 is divided into chapters, and the beginning of each chapter’s annotations outlines its motifs, its focus, its cover, and the source of its title quotation. Thus it is that as we enter Chapter 4, we focus on its epigraph, which the annotations cite as “A quotation from Albert Einstein.” Specifically, the epigraph is this:
The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.
— Albert Einstein
There’s only one problem: Einstein never said this. As Leslie Klinger correctly points out, the source of this alleged quote has not been found, and professional quote verifier Ralph Keyes has flatly stated that “Einstein said no such thing.” (The Quote Verifier, pg. 53.)
The “quote” is in fact cobbled together from various things that Einstein said or sort-of said, but assembled to imply a sense that is quite false to Einstein’s actual viewpoints. There are three fundamental pieces to the epigraph:
1) “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking.”
Our world faces crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.
In the context created by Watchmen, this first portion of the Einstein “quote” sounds a bit resigned. In its true context, however, and with its final clause restored, it’s meant to instill a driving sense of urgency. The telegram winds up with a pitch for money — two hundred thousand dollars for a “nationwide campaign to let the people know that new type of thinking essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”
Einstein passionately believed that atomic weapons were too dangerous to rest in the hands of individual nations, and that the information on how to create them should be held only by a “supranational” world government organization. This was the mode of thinking he wished to change — a focus away from nationalism, and toward a one-world philosophy. Away from competition, toward cooperation. Having lived through two World Wars and having seen a Holocaust perpetrated against his people, Einstein felt convinced that if individual nations held atomic weapons, they would certainly use them against each other. He saw arms control as humanity’s best hope.
Unfortunately, though the Emergency Committee promoted peace plans, gave speeches, and even produced a couple of shortmovies to support its peaceful message, that message failed to gain a foothold in a world whose international temperature was rapidly plummeting toward Cold War. The Committee disbanded in 1951. Incidentally, one of the groups it funded during its lifespan was the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, also co-founded by Einstein, and more importantly for our purposes, creators of the Doomsday Clock whose iconography Moore and Gibbons weave into every issue of Watchmen.
2) “The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”
The ellipsis in Chapter 4’s epigraph is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Normally that punctuation mark suggests that we’re skipping over some superfluous material to arrive at a later point in the same quoted document. However, this “heart of mankind” sentence does not appear at all in the Emergency Committee’s fundraising telegram. It instead paraphrases a sentiment that the post-WWII Einstein frequently expressed, one which was arguably most prominent in a June 23, 1946 article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Real Problem Is In the Hearts of Men.” Note that here Einstein does not argue that the solution is to be found in humanity’s heart, but rather the problem itself.
This article leads off with a recapitulation of the “new type of thinking” quote from the Emergency Committee’s telegram, so it’s reasonable enough to assume that “this problem” does in fact refer to the change in thinking Einstein saw as necessary. He then goes on to argue that the bomb makes armies irrelevant, now that nations can wage war on each other with rockets while never crossing each other’s borders. Furthermore, science has no defense against this kind of attack, and therefore national military buildup has become an obsolete strategy to secure safety. This article has several versions of Einstein’s famous “We cannot simultaneously plan for war and peace” sentiment, in service once again of the world government proposal.
The problem, as he states it, is that humans must cooperate to avoid self-inflicted destruction, but that competition comes much more easily to us than does cooperation. “It is easier to denature plutonium,” he asserts, “than it is to denature the evil spirit of man.” And yet, his only option is to speak to our higher selves, hoping to persuade enough people to change their way of thinking. “We will not change the hearts of other men by mechanisms,” he says, “but by changing our hearts and speaking bravely… When we are clear in heart and mind — only then shall we find courage to surmount the fear which haunts the world.”
This topic comes up a lot in a book called Einstein and the Poet, a fairly low-quality retelling of some Einstein interviews in which “the poet” (as the author has dubbed himself) speaks with Einstein on four different occasions: once before World War II, once during, and twice after. In the later discussions, Einstein returns again and again to the theme that humanity’s only hope is to alter its own heart. A sample:
I agree with you, intellect has never saved the world. If we want to improve the world we cannot do it with scientific knowledge but with ideals. Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Gandhi have done more for humanity than science has done. We must begin with the heart of man — with his conscience — and the values of conscience can only be manifested by selfless service to mankind. (The pages are unnumbered in this book, so I can’t cite a page number.)
However, while it’s true that Einstein saw this change as humanity’s only hope, his outlook was not optimistic. When “the poet” asks him, “Why is it that you stand so alone in your plan to create a supranational government?”, Einstein replies, “Because men don’t want to change their hearts. At the bottom of all problems stands the human animal, with his greed.”
If the need to change our way of thinking is the problem, than of course the solution must come from within us, but Einstein didn’t tend to see “the heart of mankind” as a solution, but rather as a problem which must be overcome despite humanity’s natural inclinations.
3) “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”
Here we come to the most problematic piece of them all. While it’s very difficult to prove a negative, no one who has researched this quote can find any place where Einstein expresses any wistful proclivity for making watches. More’s the pity (I almost said “Moore’s the pity”) for Watchmen, which relies on that sentiment to tie Jon Osterman the walking bomb to his watchmaking father, and to the clock motif of the whole book. The very chapter title, “Watchmaker”, relies on the one word of this quote that Einstein does not seem to have said at all.
Not only that, but where Einstein did express this sort of regretful sentiment (albeit always with other professions like plumber or cobbler), it was not in the context that this epigraph tries to present. In the “quote” of Chapter 4’s last panel, the “if only I had known” seems to refer back to “the release of atom power”, and “this problem” of needing to instill new thinking in old human brains. The suggestion seems to be that if Einstein had known his investigations into relativity would result in the atomic bomb, he would never have become a scientist at all. But while he did feel some amount of guilt for his role in the bomb’s arrival, he never tied that guilt to any hindsight renunciation of his scientific career. On the contrary, science remained the guiding light of his entire life through his old age, and he continued passionately to advocate on behalf of its search for truth.
Now, he was certainly known to inveigh against things that irritated him in the human or physical realm, and to do so by rhetorically making a retroactive change to his profession — just not about his role in the creation of the bomb. Probably his most well-known use of this formula was in an 1954 interview in which he was bemoaning McCarthyism’s effects on academia.
In pushing back against the politicization of his profession, he stated that if he were young again and had to decide how to make a living in 1954, “I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler, in the hope of finding that modest degree of independence still available.” In other words, he’d still pursue science, just outside the academic cloister that had become a target of the political right. (This assertion, by the way, won him an honorary membership card in a plumber’s union.) (Einstein: His Life And Universe, pg. 533-4)
Even thirty years earlier, in a 1924 letter to Max Born, he made a statement like this about his deep discomfort with quantum physics and its notions of using probabilities and uncertainties in its model of the physical world:
I find it quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will not only its moment to jump off but also its direction. In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee of a gaming house, than a physicist. (Ibid., pg. 325)
This is not a statement of regret or guilt, but more an ultimatum delivered to physics itself. Though he’s often mistakenly associated with relativism (rather than relativity), Einstein in fact believed wholly in a physics whose rules were certain and unvarying — in fact he nearly named his theory of relativity the Invariance Theory, due to its strict causality and its assertion that the relationship between space and time remains constant no matter from what perspective it is viewed.
Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, 1925
He spent the latter half of his career challenging Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Niels Bohr’s probabilistic model of the atom, frequently reiterating various versions of “God does not play dice with the universe.” Far from dramatically abandoning his discoveries, his letter to Born about wanting to be a cobbler or gaming-house employee was a rhetorical position that demanded the falsity of quantum theory in order for physics to retain Einstein’s allegiance. He remained loyal to his deterministic vision throughout his life, ironically displaying a reluctance to change his own mode of thinking.
The closest approximation I could find to any wish on Einstein’s part to revise his past because of the bomb didn’t invoke any other profession at all. In 1939, Einstein had co-authored a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, warning him that a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium could be made into an extremely powerful bomb, and that German scientists might be pursuing such a bomb. The letter suggested that Roosevelt may want to have “some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America.” Roosevelt agreed, and the result was the Manhattan Project.
After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the conclusion of World War II, Einstein was horrified by the moral dimensions of the bomb. Due to his letter to Roosevelt and his E=mc2 equation demonstrating the relationship between mass and energy, the popular press tagged Einstein as “father of the bomb”, though he’d done none of the technological work necessary to bring it to fruition. He was deeply uncomfortable with this label, lamenting the Roosevelt letter in a 1947 Newsweek article: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”
Again, this quote does not in the slightest shy away from a career in physics, let alone yearn for one in watchmaking. Instead, his sense of regret spurred his quest for a world government. Meanwhile Truman, that leader so beloved by Rorschach, dropped the bomb “with little high-level debate.” (Ibid, pg. 484)
Pieces of Time
So okay, Einstein didn’t really say what Watchmen says he said. But Chapter 4 focuses on Doctor Manhattan, and even choosing Einstein as the figure for the epigraph, regardless of the accuracy of the words, feels like a rich connection. What light can Einstein shed on the good Doctor?
Well, for one thing, their personalities have some attributes in common. Einstein was rebellious where Jon is passive, but they shared a similar difficulty in dealing with humans, especially in Einstein’s childhood. Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson wrote, “To use the language of psychologists, the young Einstein’s ability to systemize (identify the laws that govern a system) was far greater than his ability to empathize (sense and care about what other humans are feeling).” (Ibid., pg. 12) This doesn’t necessarily mean that he was “on the spectrum” as we say now (though some have certainly argued that case) — in fact he became very socially skilled in his adulthood. But human beings did pose more of a puzzle for him throughout his life than other natural phenomena — he knew how everything in this world fits together except people.
Perhaps related to this sense of remove, Einstein seemed to share with Dr. Manhattan a certain indifference to death. Here’s a quote from his letter of condolence to the family of his dear friend Michele Besso:
Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. (The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, pg. 113)
Not only does his quote (to a grieving family!) veer rather close to “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles” territory, he also seems to echo Doctor Manhattan’s insistence that linear time is an illusion.
From here, it’s probably worth a step or two into the theory of relativity, a theory that has some rather surprising implications for the Watchmen universe. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, and I’d welcome any corrections, but based on my understanding, the first piece of this theory that Einstein worked out, leading to his landmark paper on special relativity in 1905, was a realization about time. In the Newtonian model of the 19th century and prior, time exists in a pure form, detached from observation — Newton wrote in his Principia, “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.”
Einstein, however, asserted that time is not absolute, but rather localized to each individual observer, with no way to determine what observation is “correct”. What seems simultaneous to one observer may not be so to another, and those observations depend upon the observer’s position and movement through space, thus revealing time and space as dimensions of the same fundamental fabric.
Now, consider that realization in light of a universe in which one tall blue observer experiences all occurrences as simultaneous, independent of his relationship to space. Does this disrupt the relativistic model? Jon certainly seems to think so. In his frustration at how humans insist on on seeing the “intricately structured jewel” of time edge by edge, he strongly implies that his viewpoint is the correct one, whereas in a relativistic model, he might see that his experience of time is no more or less true than Laurie’s. The notion of time as an “intricately structured jewel” rather than a quality woven together with space seems to me somehow even more Newtonian than time as “absolute, true, and mathematical.” One wonders if Jon is mistaking his own observations for fact, just as Newton did before he was upended by Einstein.
But while Jon’s experience of a whole and “true” time may seem Newtonian, the idea that all of it is predetermined actually fits quite well into Einstein’s worldview. In a 1929 interview, Einstein stated plainly: “I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will.” In this way, his viewpoint comports well with Dr. Manhattan’s experience of reality. As Isaacson explains, “Einstein… believed, as did Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet, or star.” (Ibid, pg. 391) For Einstein, everything was governed by natural laws, including humans. It must have been enticing to believe that if he could only discover the full truth of those laws, the future would be laid out before him, just as it is for Doctor Manhattan.
Spooky Action At A Distance
This is why Einstein was so deeply discomfited by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that, “an electron does not have a definite position or path until we observe it… It asserts that there is no objective reality — not even objective position of a particle — outside of our observations.” (Again, summarized by Isaacson, pg. 331-32) This assertion undermined the strict causality in which Einstein believed, and further fueled the arguments he had been having with Bohr about the structure of the atom and, by a web of interconnections, about the fundamental nature of reality itself. Bohr’s theories and observations seemed to argue against the existence of laws that determined a strict system of causation, and therefore against the existence of an objective reality, and certainly against Einstein’s determinism.
It would seem a question more for philosophers than physicists, but the quantum theory of Bohr and Heisenberg stood against Einstein’s notions of invariance to pose the fundamental query, “Is everything in the universe predetermined?” In the Watchmen universe, at least as experienced by Doctor Manhattan, the answer would seem to be: yes! It would have to be, in order for the Doctor to perceive time as all one piece. Einstein insists that God does not play dice, and Dr. Manhattan’s experience proves him right. But in fact, it appears that in our universe, he is wrong. In our universe, Bohr’s rejoinder is relevant: that it is not for us to tell God how to run his creation.
Einstein refused to accept quantum mechanical theory throughout his life, asserting that at best it is incomplete — he steadfastly refused to believe in the “spooky action at a distance” its tenets seemed to require. Consequently, he devoted much of his brilliance in the latter half of his career to devising thought experiments that could undermine the foundations of quantum physics. He co-published one of the most effective of these with Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky, and it became known as the EPR paradox, after the initials of its authors’ last names.
An illustration of the EPR paradox, in which Alice and Bob are two separate observers.
Put simply, the argument asks us to consider two particles that have collided or been emitted from the same source, and whose properties are thus correlated. Quantum theory states that until these particles are observed, their position and momentum exist in multiple states at once. But once we observe the first particle, we know something about the second due to their correlation, without ever having observed the second. For Einstein, this meant that the second particle has a reality of its own which exists independent of its observation — otherwise the first particle would have to somehow communicate with the second particle faster than the speed of light, which would violate the theory of relativity.
Bohr responded by introducing the concept of quantum entanglement. Because the particles have affected each other, they are “entangled” despite their distance from each other, and thus part of the same system. To deal further with the EPR paradox, some quantum theorists introduced the notion of branching alternate histories. Isaacson:
In the case of the EPR thought experiment, the position of one of the two particles is measured on one branch of history. Because of the common origin of the particles, the position of the other one is determined as well. On a different branch of history, the momentum of one of the particles may be measured, and the momentum of the other one is also determined. On each branch nothing occurs that violates the laws of classical physics. The information about one particle implies the corresponding information about the other one, but nothing happens to the second particle as a result of the measurement of the first one. So there is no threat to special relativity and its prohibition of instantaneous transmission of information. What is special about quantum mechanics is that the simultaneous determination of the position and the momentum of a particle is impossible, so if these two determinations occur, it must be on different branches of history.(pg. 460)
Thus histories branch out from each other based on the “decisions” made by particles of their direction & speed. This “decoherent histories” view is fundamentally antithetical to Einstein’s determinism, and to Dr. Manhattan’s experience of time as a single coherent block. Yet the Doctor is no stranger to submatomic physics, locating gluinos & being muddled by tachyons. How can we reconcile his subatomic awareness with his encompassing knowledge of the future, which seems fundamentally hostile to the notion of probabilities and uncertainties?
Are alternate histories a way out? Perhaps what the Doctor thinks of as his single jewel of perceived time is only one of an infinite array of such jewels? I think this line of reasoning shuts down rather quickly. Doctor Manhattan doesn’t just know or predict the future — Chapter 4 demonstrates clearly that he experiences the future even as he experiences what the rest of us would call the present and the past, all simultaneously. If there were any uncertainty involved, he’d be experiencing a range of possible futures all at once, not just one. His experience still stands with the theories of Einstein, shutting down those of Bohr.
But wait. We may be able to reconcile these two seemingly antagonistic theories through the work of one more quantum physicist: Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger, like Einstein, had his doubts about the prevailing interpretations of quantum theory, and also like Einstein, loved a good thought experiment. In fact, his most famous thought experiment by far was directly influenced by Einstein, both his work and Schrödinger’s discussions with him. I’m referring of course to the unfortunate feline known as Schrödinger’s cat.
A brief summary: Schrödinger posited a cat inside a closed, opaque box, in which there is a tiny amount of a radioactive substance, one which has a 50% chance of decaying in the course of an hour. If the substance decays, it emits a particle which causes the cat to be poisoned. If it doesn’t, the cat is safe. The prevailing quantum theory of the time (called the Copenhagen interpretation) asserts that the particle’s behavior is governed by a probability waveform until such time as its behavior is observed, at which point the waveform collapses into an observed behavior which conforms to classical mechanics. Thus, until the box is opened, the cat is (according to the Copenhagen interpretation) both alive and dead at the same time.
For us humans, the future is rather like that closed box — indeterminate and existing in a variety of possible states at once, until we observe what actually occurs. As it becomes the present and then instantly the past, its waveform collapses into a single, clear reality. Up until November 22, 1959, that’s what the future was like in the Watchmen universe too. But on that day, Jon Osterman reassembled his components in the correct sequence, and became the fully fleshed Doctor Manhattan for the first time. On that day, he became aware of all times simultaneously, experiencing them as a coherent whole. On that day, he opened the box.
Might it be the case that Jon’s incarnation as Doctor Manhattan is the event that collapsed the waveform of the future into a single reality? And if so, knowing that his powers also allow him to control that reality down to its smallest particle, what part might his consciousness have played in the shape that future took? In becoming unmoored from linear time, could his sudden awareness of the future have created that future? At the end of the book, Jon decides he’s going to go to some less complicated galaxy and create some human life. But what if he already has?
All the living and dead cats and other beings of Watchmen snapped into a single observed reality in that one November moment. What influence Jon had over them, it’s obviously impossible to say. He was an oddly passive 20th century man, a frustrated watchmaker and a reluctant physicist. The course of his life was forcibly altered by his father, based on the existence of the atomic bomb. He had recently experienced the profound trauma of having his body dismantled down to the atomic level, then putting it back together for himself. If he decided the future, might it look like a confused horrorshow that somehow does stop the bombs from falling? Perhaps it might.
But if Jon truly is the observer of the open box of time, there are some things we’re hard pressed to explain given the evidence of the text. There are several times we witness limits to Jon’s understanding, superior though it may be to any human’s. What are we to make of his drive to search out particles and add them to the bestiary? Surely if he’s aware of every infinitesimal piece of reality, he’d already know where all the gluinos are, wouldn’t he? So there must be a frontier of his awareness at the subatomic level. Furthermore, his awareness of the single jewel of time must be incomplete if he can be muddled by tachyons, right? There must be parts of the future whose waveform is still intact, still within that closed box, shielded even from his sight.
This is the level at which Watchmen itself begins to decohere. For all its astonishing structural integrity, the early issues of the book were released before the final ones had been written. Moore himself has affirmed on numerous occasions his surprise at some of the deeper levels that he and Gibbons found themselves reaching as the creation continued. Thus are inconsistencies introduced, and although Moore and Gibbons do a marvelous job of spackling most of the cracks, they don’t get them all. If Watchmen were a true “graphic novel” — created as a single whole and released as such — rather than a Dickensian serial collage, perhaps we wouldn’t bump into these logical problems with Doctor Manhattan.
In the world of comics, we call these continuity problems — the way something established in an early issue grates against something in a later one. People loved to write into Marvel and point them out, and Marvel decided to give those people a little award made of words only, literally called a “no-prize”. Then they got even cleverer, crowdsourcing solutions to these problems by saying that they’d only give no-prizes to those readers who not only find the problems but find an explanation to solve them.
So let me take my own shot at a Watchmen no-prize, with this suggestion about Doctor Manhattan. On the day he becomes himself, he experiences all his times at once, and perceives himself as knowing how he’d act in all of those times, and how others would too. But his understanding is more limited than he knows it is, and his freedom less limited than he believes. He could in fact choose to behave differently than he experiences himself doing, but if he did, he wouldn’t be Jon Osterman anymore, the man whose moves are all made by other people. His fate isn’t pre-determined, but rather calculated on a scale that is precise but not infinitely precise. He is still vulnerable to thermodynamic miracles he wasn’t expecting.
It’s January 1, and that means it’s time for another year-end music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2020 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.
As terrible a year as 2020 was, I spent much of it feeling pretty lucky. My job was able to smoothly transition into working safely at home, and I never felt the economic threat that hit so many people. (Laura’s job wasn’t quite so smooth, but she still has it at least.) I love the people I live with, and even after being in close proximity for much more time than usual, we still have a great time together. Our house has enough space for each of us to do our thing remotely if that’s needed.
Also, I’m so grateful that Dante is in high school, and therefore can pretty much self-manage everything he needs to do while we’re working. My colleagues and friends who have young children at home have it much rougher. For that matter, I’m grateful that school and work can even happen remotely. It’s hard to imagine how much more disruptive a pandemic like this would have been in pre-Internet days. I’m even able to virtually get together with friends for things like trivia, board games, and the occasional celebration, thanks to the Jetsons technology we all have now.
Still, god, what a year. As good as we have it, I defintely felt my share of disruptions, and one of those was in my life with music. The Album Assignments project went on pause, as Robby took on the daunting task of educating 5th graders remotely and I transitioned into a very different way of working. In the course of that transition, I found myself listening to music much less than I had before. My previous time with music was mostly spent on my commute, which evaporated after COVID-19 hit. I also worked a lot with music on, but that dried up too as I acclimated to working from home, with other people around.
Finally, sometime in June, it hit me that I was desperately missing music, and I made some changes. While I still listen to podcasts on my walks, I switched over to music while doing the dishes, cooking, and other household chores. I figured out ways to integrate it back into my work life, and I made it a part of the time I spent with Dante, including an awesome music trivia habit where we quiz each other on our favorite musical canons so that we can each learn from the other. (His are all instrumental videogame music, definitely not a strong genre for me.) We also found ourselves doing a lot of text adventures and board games (physical and virtual) together, activities which lend themselves to background music.
In any case, when it came time to make this mix, I was picking from a much shorter list than usual. Nevertheless, I’m very happy with how it came out. Here are some musical highlights from a pretty tough year.
1. Jonathan Coulton – Pictures Of Cats
How 2020 are these opening lines? “All at once, it fills up my feed / More bad news that I didn’t need / I can’t stop reading but I wish that I didn’t know.” I had that experience over and over this year, and definitely ended up doomscrolling through Twitter plenty of times when I should have just switched over to looking at pictures of cats. Strangely, I listened to this song before the full 2020 of it all hit the world, but when I reviewed the list, I knew there was no better song to kick off this mix.
2. Aimee Mann feat. James Mercer – Living A Lie
Like almost all of these tracks, this one was written prior to 2020, and in fact came out before the Trump era. And I don’t think it was ever intended politically — it’s about a relationship — but I felt like it perfectly captured a mood this year. When you’re stuck with a frantic liar, you have no choice but to live inside a lie. That was never more clear than in 2020, when the President’s relentless need for self-aggrandizement and seeking short-term advantage had him undermining and upending every single institution that any of the rest of us could trust. It got to the point where we couldn’t even be sure our own Centers For Disease Control were able to provide us reliable information. Often it felt like all we could do is wait for a crack in the shell. Thank god one came at the end of the year.
3. Richard Thompson – Keep Your Distance
I listened to a fair amount of Richard Thompson (and Linda too) toward the beginning of the year, so I wanted to include a song of his in this mix. When I looked over the list, the words “Keep Your Distance” jumped out at me. Once again, this is meant in the relationship sense, but “keep your distance” is so 2020! This was the year that simple trips to the grocery store felt like foraging expeditions into deadly territory, not helped by the wingnut contingent who wear their masks under their noses or not at all, because freedom or whatever. Keep your distance, wingnuts! (And sadly, everyone else too.)
4. Frank Sinatra – Mood Indigo
This was from one of the few 2020 album assignments, Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours. (Well, actually the tail end of 2019, but my listening year goes November-October, so it’s 2020 to me.) This was a concept album of sadness, and Sinatra’s smooth reading of this wonderful, melancholy Duke Ellington tune felt like a good summation of the story so far. Also, “Indigo” was particularly important this year, but more about that later.
5. Aretha Franklin – Chain Of Fools (unedited version)
And here’s the turn. I vividly remember waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store when this version of “Chain Of Fools” came into my ears. I’d never heard it before — it came up on Spotify or something. The slow, soulful intro — “the sound of pain” — suddenly bursting into “chain chain chain”… BLEW MY MIND. I’ve always loved the single version of this song, and having it set up like this made little fireworks of joy go off in my head. When I finally figured out in June that I needed to bring more music back in, Aretha’s Lady Soul was the album I started with, and it worked perfectly. I will never forget giddily dancing around the kitchen to these songs, like some kind of solo remake of The Big Chill, blissfully losing everything else in music and simple tasks.
6. Prince – Little Red Corvette Lady Soul was the first album that brought music definitively back into my life. The Very Best Of Prince was the second. Prince hit big in the early ’80s, ages 12-14 for me, and I didn’t know how to process him. I think he scared me, honestly. I had friends who were fans, but all that sexuality, androgyny, and funk — I couldn’t deal with it. I pushed it away. This year, I invited it back in, and found that I love it now. Like a lot of parties, I’m very late to it, but having a great time now that I’m here.
7. Stevie Nicks – Stand Back
Anytime I hear “Little Red Corvette”, I’m pretty much always going to think of “Stand Back.” That’s because Stevie has a story she’s told many times, of driving on the highway towards her honeymoon of a short-lived, ill-advised marriage, pretty much the opposite of “a love that’s gonna last.” When “Little Red Corvette” came on the radio, she was inspired. She found a tape recorder, and composed her own song on top of Prince’s. Then, when recording “Stand Back”, she found the courage to call him and tell him this story, and in response he showed up and played the synth riff on it. “Stand Back” is the love child of ’80s chiffon royalty’s king and queen.
8. Stevie Nicks – Crying In The Night (live 2017)
You can hear that story, and many others, in Stevie’s concert film from her 24 Karat Gold tour. Despite the pandemic, I found my way to a movie theater twice this year. Once was for The New Mutants, a superhero movie that features my favorite Marvel character of all time, a Scottish mutant codenamed Wolfsbane. Having loved this character since I was 12, there was simply no way that I was going to miss seeing her played by Maisie Williams on the big screen. The movie had plenty of flaws, but it got Wolfsbane right, and for that I will always love it.
The other movie I showed up for was Stevie’s aforementioned concert film. It’s a filmed version of what I called “the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.” In it, she told lots of stories like the one above — seriously, the movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes, and I think about 30 minutes of it is storytelling. She also sang songs she’d NEVER sung before in concert, including this one from the Buckingham Nicks album. That album isn’t even available on CD! What a thrill it was to hear her sing it in concert, and the movie brought back that thrill. Totally worth braving the virus.
9. Prince – Kiss
The next couple songs are just more sweet memories of my “soul kitchen” moments this year. “Kiss” is a super fun song on its own, and I can’t help hearing it in my mind juxtaposed with the version that The Art Of Noise recorded featuring Tom Jones. I thought about including that version in this mix, but after I went back and listened to it, I found that Prince outstripped it so dramatically that its inclusion could only feel disappointing after the real thing.
10. Aretha Franklin – (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
There’s not a lot to say about this one, except that it’s another standout moment from Lady Soul. My thick socks sliding around on our wooden kitchen floor, with this song playing in earbuds, led to great moments of happiness this year.
11. clipping. – All Black
Conversely, there is a lot to say about this one. First, some explanation of who this band is. The vocalist is Daveed Diggs, who has a bunch of credits, all of which are far overshadowed by the fact that he originated the roles of Jefferson and Lafayette in the Broadway production of Hamilton. clipping. is an experimental hip-hop trio in which Diggs joins producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. Their album Splendor & Misery was the last album assignment I wrote, posted just a few days before everybody went home and stayed there. Listening to it now, the music feels shockingly prophetic of what was to come. First of all, most of the story on the album is about a guy who is alone in space, first captured and then in control, but exiled from the world he knew. There have been plenty of times this year where I felt like I was in a space capsule, well-furnished and supplied with plenty of entertainment, but orbiting Earth rather than on it.
Secondly, the album and in particular this song is centrally concerned with Blackness and oppression. As it turned out, so was the summer of 2020. I wrote about this in the album post, how “all black everything” partakes of many layers of meaning, including as an allusion to other hip-hop songs that take it as a declaration of pride and strength. Those two images together — all black everything but isolated from everywhere — bundled up a lot of 2020 for me.
12. Jonathan Coulton – All This Time
Here’s another sci-fi song, albeit one in a vastly different musical mode. “All This Time” is from Coulton’s album Solid State, which I listened to a lot early in the year. It’s a wonderful album of thoughtful power pop about surveillance, technology, and love, and this is one of the standout songs. However, my attachment to this song in this year was more about its video than the song itself. That video was in the form of a text adventure — it’s by far the best text-adventure-themed video ever made, no disrespect to MC Frontalot’s “It Is Pitch Dark”.
That fits this year perfectly, because this was the year I jumped back into my passion for interactive fiction. Part of that was creating a new blog to house the many IF reviews that live on my old web page, and another big part of it was revisiting many games from the Infocom canon, but this time with Dante guiding the play. Together we replayed (or in his case, played for the first time) all the Zork and Enchanter games, and had a fantastic time doing it. I may write about it in the new blog at some point, but even if I don’t, I’ll treasure that experience. This year, many things were taken away in exchange for all this newfound time, and sometimes we made the most of it.
13. Genesis – No Reply At All
Some of those losses, though, had a really negative effect on me. Here’s one that I didn’t expect, until I understood how much I counted on what I didn’t have anymore. I found myself dealing with a pretty shocking (for me) level of insecurity this year. Uncharacteristically, I found myself frequently fretting about my relationships with pretty much everybody who doesn’t live with me, especially co-workers. Absences of replies, or even delays, had me worrying I’d somehow done something to upset whoever my anxious mind chose to focus on. It turns out that I really depend on mundane social interactions at work to provide a normalizing effect that reassures my brain that everything is okay. Take those away, and throw in a round of really stressful and destabilizing layoffs, and suddenly I become Anxious Guy.
By the way, I absolutely adore the bridge to this song. (The part that starts “Maybe deep down inside…”) I find bridges fascinating in general, the way they’re like a miniature new and different song inside the bigger song, and this one just really grabs me.
14. Adele – Cold Shoulder
Continuing the insecurity theme, this felt like the right Adele song to pick for my 2020. It’s not even that people were giving me the cold shoulder. (I don’t THINK?!? :P) I just spent way too much time worried about it. I’m still working on coping with that one.
15. Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth
What is all this anyway? It’s paranoia, that’s what. So here’s “For What It’s Worth”, the best song I know about paranoia. On the personal level, my paranoia strikes deep, but isn’t really justified. On the larger cultural level, I’m not so sure. There’s the erosion of trust I talked about in #2. There’s the general bone-chill about how much support there still is for the lying, bullshitting, racist, bullying Toddler-In-Chief and the party that bent its knee to his every whim. As Bruce Springsteen said in a recent interview, “Overall, as somebody who was a born populist, I’ve got a little less faith in my neighbors than I had four years ago.” And then, of course, there are the police.
The comparison that keeps coming to my mind, that I haven’t heard anyone else make yet, is to the Catholic church. Both the church and the police in America are these institutions that many of us (at least, the “us” at less danger of victimization) grow up seeing as helpful, honorable, and virtuous. In both cases, there are some fundamental problems with the concept and structure of the institution itself, but they also perform a great deal of good in the world. In both cases, becoming part of the priesthood or fraternity requires an amount of self-sacrifice that is reflexively seen as noble, but that carries within it seeds that can bloom into full-blown evil.
In the movie Spotlight, there’s a moment that has always stuck with me. The team of reporters is just figuring out the scope of the abuse that has happened in the Boston diocese, and they’re on the phone with a researcher (a former priest and current psychotherapist) who has spent years gathering data about it. The researcher says “Look, the church wants us to believe that it’s a few bad apples, but it’s a much bigger problem than that.” How much bigger? “Well, based on the research, I would classify it as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon.”
That’s big. I think something similar is at work with cops, race, and violence. In both cases, the evil behavior (I don’t think there’s any reasonable way out of that descriptor) is so shocking and repugnant when it comes to light that it permanently cracks my ability to ever trust that institution again. But even worse than that, in both cases, the institution does absolutely everything it possibly can to ensure that the perpetrators of that evil escape detection and escape the consequences. Over, and over, and over again, to the tune of thousands of cases. Thousands of innocent victims raped, molested, traumatized, killed. How in the hell is anybody supposed to trust them after that? In both cases, for me, that combination taints the institution so thoroughly that I don’t think it can be redeemed. We have to demolish it and start over with something fundamentally different.
Now, I know there’s about as much chance of doing that with the police as there is with the church. But I believe that there’s a version of it that could be as much a godsend to the police as to marginalized communities. What if we had another kind of first responder, someone trained to deal with issues of mental illness and addiction? After all, we don’t send police to fires. We don’t send them to epileptic seizures. We don’t expect a single kind of responder to have to deal with everything. What if we saved the police for, y’know, CRIME, and created a new role to take over some of the stuff we’re currently asking armed, uniformed officers of the state to take on, despite the fact that they’re trained much more for situations that require force, and therefore tend to bring it to situations that don’t when they’re sent there?
Okay, that was a long digression, wasn’t it? Anyway, great song, right? Moving on.
16. Indigo Girls – Pendulum Swinger
Amy and Emily were crucial to Laura and I this year. For a while there, as Look Long was getting ready to come out, they were doing weekly or near-weekly livestreams, and for each one we would joyfully gather ’round the screen, find a way to turn up the music, and feel like we were hanging out with old friends. The one they did where they were “playing for tips” to raise money for their crew, was an utter high point for me. Hearing them play stuff I’d never heard them do before — Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, Elton John’s “Love Song” and “Holiday Inn” — OMG it was so wonderful.
They featured this one in their “parking lot” concert in October, with Emily introducing it as just, “This is a song about change.” It felt like a little prayer, or a little wish that came true.
17. Amy Ray – Tear It Down
This was another special moment from that concert. I love how Amy here grapples with how she genuinely loves where she grew up and the traditions that shaped her, while still unshakably rejecting the racism and hate that is inextricably interwoven with that past. The studio version is a little sweeter and more subdued, but her solo acoustic live performance of it was just electrifying.
18. Mudcrutch – I Forgive It All
The Mudcrutch albums are hidden gems in Tom Petty’s catalog, and this one in particular is special, because it’s the last studio recording that Petty did before his death. For this mix, the Indigo Girls lift me out of fear and paranoia, into hope and resolution. Petty provides the final piece: forgiveness.
19. Stevie Nicks – Show Them The Way
Hope, resolution, and forgiveness all blend into Stevie’s 2020 song. Besides “All This Time”, this is the other song in this mix that I strongly associate with its video. That video, directed by Cameron Crowe, blends black and white footage from the 1960s into black and white footage from 2020 and points in between, drawing a clear line from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. And over it all, Stevie prays for all of us to find our way to a better future. Invoking the icons of 60s dreams — JFK, RFK, MLK — she tries to dream us back to ourselves. And Crowe, piling powerful images on top of each other with increasing urgency, ends with a simple message: “Vote”. In October of 2020, it felt like exactly the magic we needed.
20. Prince – 1999
When it came out, this song was about an apocalyptic future. Listening to it now, it feels like Prince was only 20 years off with the “party over, oops, out of time” description, and 1999 sounds like a pretty good place to be. The mood of it is of jubilation even through devastation, and I think we could use a little of that. Here’s to a brighter 2021.