Monday, February 23, 2009

Axis Monday: The System of the World in a Cartoon

(The above cartoon is by Alex Gregory and first appeared in the New Yorker on 18 February 2002. You can order merchandise here)

According to the explanation on the linked website, the people are Hollywood types in a hot tub.

Allow me to explain this obfuscated cartoon for you. Yup, this essay will be a rather unartistic ekphrasis on wonder. Haven't had one of those from me in a while, despite the promise in the header.

Unsurprisingly, the cartoon's obfuscation comes from its imagery, which is so terribly simple that you dismiss it outright.

All the human elements of the picture, both the people and the objects of their design, are crowded into less than a quarter of the image. The rest is dominated by three objects: the palm tree, the distant mountain, and the endless sky.

The quick and simple lines of these three carefully chosen objects reveal the meaning of the cartoon's captions. Mr. Gregory cleverly tears down the dichotomous wall between the two seemingly far-flung demes of Hollywood Glamour and those Muslims who see the world through a purely religious lens.

The religious see the world in terms of archetypes and revelations of the Sacred. They understand that man and his material world is just a tiny corner of all that Is. Hence the wise relegation of earthly things to the corner of the cartoon.

But although Hollywood does not see the world in the same way, the stories film tells accept that view of the world as though it were true. Campbell explained how the ubiquitous quest narrative is composed of equally ubiquitous archetypes. Hollywood's most traditional--and successful--tales all are versions of this one story, the same story which is shared to some extent or another by all the truly religious of the world.

Thus, the human element of the cartoon is by far the least important. Consider each of the other three images in turn.

First we have the endless sky, which takes up well over half the cartoon. It is self-evident, and corroborated in the literature of every culture which has yet come up in the course of Axis Monday, that the sky is the Sacred Realm, and it is either the emanation of all holy things or that from which they emanate. The world of the Sacred cannot in any way be understood by man; hence the seeming blankness, the pure white, of the inimitable sky in the cartoon. It is only natural that Mr. Gregory's cartoon juxtaposes the incredible force and power of the sacred with the smallness of man.

But Mr. Gregory spoons out the irony in droves, because despite the words of these moguls, only one of them truly understands all the implications of what they say. Only the third figure (of course it is the third. There are three sacred objects, three profane humans, and one prophet, who is third in the line of humans) looks skyward, and because this character faces away from us, we know nothing of her. All we can presume is that she does not speak. She alone stares upwards at the endless sky and understands that she is miniscule in comparison. The others are absorbed in their material objects and their banter. The others look at each other. She looks at Heaven.

The second symbol, of course, is the Holy Mountain. The Mountain is that natural point, the horizon, where the sacred meets the profane. It is vastly distant and vastly high, as evident in the picture. Humans can perceive it but, by and large, they cannot reach it. It is that liminal threshold between the worlds. Once in an aeon a man may stand upon the Mountain (few mortals indeed summited Olympus, by far the most obvious example; even today few humans have seen the heights of Ararat, next week's signature topic). Moses spoke to God upon Sinai's height but he ventured there alone. Innumerable other examples available on request. All great religious acts occur on or in the shadow of the Mountain. Thus it is ineffably remote from the conspicuous consumers, who tell stories in accord with the Mountain even as they themselves deny its veracity and efficacy.

But it is, of course, the palm tree which brings the entire piece together.
So many small elements here:

The palm is the symbol of many of the countries of the Middle East, notably Arabia and its city Mecca where Islam was born.

None of the four people in the picture look at the palm. Not even the fourth woman: her level gaze makes clear that she has eyes only for her compatriots. None of them have room for it in their lives.

Most important of all, note that the palm reaches from level ground, past the line of the Holy Mountain into the Endless Sky. It alone, of all the objects in the picture, reaches both the Sacred and the Profane.

The Palm Tree is the

The Sky is purely sacred. The Holy Mountain is the unapproachable barrier between the worlds. But the AXIS MUNDI, here represented aptly by the palm tree, which through its connotations with Araby evokes the MASJID AL-HARAM, is the only force capable of connecting the worlds. It is the hierophany, the divine revelation of the sacred to the human world, the vibrant and living proof that something exists that is greater than humanity. The Axis Mundi is the very center of the System of the World.

Every religion person knows this, in not so many words. At some point in the history of every religion, a great event has happened which revealed the sacred to man. This hierophany unveils the Axis Mundi, eternal, unchanging, hitherto invisible. And two worlds, at that one holiest place, become one.

Here it is the palm. The "Islamic fundamentalists" of the caption understand implicitly that the world of the Sacred is vast compared to the Earth. The Hollywood folks think they understand this, and thus think the fundamentalists should like them. They think they must be kin.

But all of the figures in the cartoon, save the one who is clearly silent, turn their backs on all three indicators of the sacred: the Mountain. The Sky. The Axis.

It's a great punchline. These earthly moguls truly do not understand why the most extreme among the Islamic faithful do not like them. They think they know the sacred, but all they see are dancing shadows on a cave wall, even though Truth surrounds them.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Awful good!

    This post, that is. The New Yorker, not so much, with its long and meandering journalism, comically pretentious fiction, and fictitiously pretentious comics. Everything else about the magazine is pretty good, though. Like, the, uh. . . covers?

  3. The New Yorker is fantastic; the cartoons are mediocre at best.

    Long Meandering Journalism! Wait until you find out about books!