Challenging Taboos

Challenging Taboos

Eros Graphic Album No 1. Mark Sobels Essay part 3

Birdland Section Two
Following Fritz’s revelation is a confusing but brilliant section in which the reader is meant to experience a series of visions under hypnosis.  To enhance this trance-like effect, the storytelling is primarily silent and jumps randomly throughout time and space.  While fascinating on the one hand, these final 24 pages are also the most confusing and difficult in the entire book.
The second section is structured into three seemingly unrelated scenes, like a series of disjointed wet dreams, silent and surreal, profound and enigmatic.  The sustained assault of sexual content overwhelms this section, and the meaning is difficult to decipher even after multiple readings, yet once understood, the whole book coalesces into something far more satisfying than just a pornographic fantasy.

The First Dream

The first dream in this section (pages 70-77) begins with the big bang, the scientific origin of the universe, and is followed by a highly graphic scene, which includes an infamous image of dinosaur coitus as well as a series of bizarre sexual encounters with various prehistoric human characters.

Throughout this scene, cryptic words are embedded into the images, like breadcrumbs intentionally left by Gilbert for his readers to decode.  The definitions of these terms are likely unfamiliar to most readers, but their meaning within the overall story is important.

The dozen text clues in this first dream scene are all names of pre-historic dinosaurs and birds, many of which are the earliest known species on record (see end note #1 for specific definitions of each term).  There is no clear commonality between the 12 species mentioned; they come from different time periods and different parts of the world.  Yet nothing is accidental or random about this scene.

The references to dinosaurs and birds represent “answers” that science has used to explain the origins and meaning of life.  Yet, according to Gilbert, these answers are flawed.  The big bang and the theory of evolution may be true, but by depicting them as by-products of the sexual frenzy, the implication is that science alone cannot explain the ultimate meaning of an individual’s life.

The precise location of the words within the sexual imagery is also critical to understanding the scene.  The provocative placement implies that the characters’ orgasms are somehow resulting in these terms.   Like Mark Herrera in the opening pages, these words are fleeting thoughts that pop into the characters’ heads in the throes of sexual orgasm.  By positioning them right at the point of sexual contact, Gilbert is again mocking Wilhelm Reich, implying that the exaggerated state of orgiastic potency may lead to glimpses of “answers” but those answers are fundamentally wrong.

The Second Dream

In the second dream (pages 79-84), the pornographic imagery depicts what appears to be a classic love triangle set in a small Latin American village (reminiscent of Palomar).  But once again, the sexual activity is merely a distraction, while the embedded text holds the secret to the deeper meaning.  In this scene, the 16 embedded Spanish words (see end note #2 for English translations) refer to a single event — the Catholic legend of the “Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.”

According to the legend, the 40 martyrs were soldiers in the Roman army in 320 A.D. who were captured and sentenced to death when it was learned that they were secretly Christians.  On a bitterly cold night, the 40 men were stripped naked and forced to stand exposed in a freezing pond.  Facing certain death, the forty condemned men gathered together, singing songs of prayer all night as they alternated who could stand in the middle of the group, benefitting from the relative warmth of the huddled mass of bodies.

After several hours, the guards on the shore built warm baths and promised to spare any of the Christians who renounced their faith.  One of the forty men broke, and sought the comfort of the baths; however, upon witnessing this, it is said that one of the guards “beheld a supernatural brilliancy overshadowing” the remaining 39 men, and immediately stood up, proclaimed himself a Christian, and dove into the pond to take his place, thus preserving the group of 40.  The others welcomed this newcomer with more songs of joy and prayer.

Eventually, at daybreak, the soldiers murdered the surviving members of the 40 men and scattered their ashes in the nearby river, but after the Romans left, Catholics in the town gathered up the ashes of these 40 martyrs and dispersed them all over the world, spreading their sacred remains so that their inspirational story would be preserved throughout time.  Today, centuries later, there have been hundreds of churches erected in honor of the 40 martyrs, and the story of their unwavering faith still inspires Christians around the world.

While science and evolution were dismissed in the first dream, this scene points to religious faith as another false answer to the question of life’s great mysteries.  Despite the faith with which these 40 men died, their lives were not enriched with meaning.  Rather, their blind devotion only accelerated their death.

The Third Dream

The final dream (page 86-93) is perhaps the most difficult and confusing of the three.  Throughout this wild scene on the alien ship (a setting clearly inspired by Peter Reich’s book), not only are the text clues themselves puzzling, it’s also difficult to follow what is happening within the images.

The scene opens with Bang hypnotizing herself and transporting onto the alien world, where she encounters a man aboard the UFO and begins having sex.  However, in the middle of the encounter, Bang pulls some levers and is soon replaced by another woman.  Eventually, other characters are summoned in a similar fashion, and yet another orgy ensues.

The 10 clues in this final scene are particularly perplexing.  The references are to obscure figures from Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Mesopotamian mythology; however, to most, if not all readers, these names will likely be unfamiliar.

While a detailed explanation of the meaning and historical significance of each name is beyond the scope of this essay (see end note #3 for brief summaries of each), their collective presence seems to be a reference to mythology in general as the third broadly defined “answer” to the great mysteries of life.  As with the first two dream scenes, Gilbert is implying that mythology, or various cultural beliefs in deities that influence certain aspects of our lives, is also not “the answer” that the characters have been searching for.

But the question remains: why these particular names?  Why not Zeus, or Athena, or Prometheus, or any of the hundreds of other mythological figures?

Even after researching each one, the common thread between these 10 names remains murky and with so little context, it’s hard to discern exactly what Gilbert was going for with this seemingly random list.  However, the one aspect that all of these particular references share is that they represent myths in which mortals attempted to either defy the gods, or breach the veil separating man from deity.  For example, Sisyphus was condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down the other side after he attempted to deceive Satan and cheat death.  Similarly, Gilgamesh, in his grief over the death of a friend, sought to attain immortality before realizing the foolishness and impossibility of this task.  The story of Daedalus, too, is “another instance of the destruction of a mortal who came too close to the gods.”  The father of Icarus, Daedalus tried to escape the labyrinth in which he had been imprisoned for aiding Theseus in defiance of the God, Minos; however, when Icarus flew too close to the Sun, melting the wax used to affix the wings Daedalus had made in order to facilitate their escape, he was forced to watch helplessly as his son plunged to his death.

These mythological stories of mortals punished for their arrogance in trying to attain godhood seems like an appropriate metaphor for what Wilhelm Reich was attempting to do.  With his theories of a cosmic “life energy,” Reich was attempting to capture God in a bottle.  Through manmade technology, specifically his orgone accumulators and cloudbusters, he believed he could control nature and manipulate weather patterns, but like many of the mythical characters mentioned, Reich suffered the ultimate price for his hubris.  At the end of his life, he was humbled and ridiculed, his theories widely disregarded, and he died alone and bitter in a prison cell.

End Notes
  1. In the second dream (pages 79-84 in the collected edition), the following 16 Spanish words (with the corresponding English translation) are embedded:
  1. Martirizar – to martyr; to torture or torment
  2. Galeote – galley slave
  3. Cuarenta – forty
  4. Sonora – audible sound/signal, dramatic
  5. Sapo – ugly creature, soldier, to curse
  6. Sobadura – quack, smooth talker
  7. Subsanar – to rectify, to put right, to overcome
  8. Sinonimo – synonym
  9. Muela – gluttony, trickery, to crush
  10. Prieto – dark, dark-skinned, tight
  11. Suerte – luck, fate
  12. Proeza – feat, heroic deed
  13. Ejercitar – to train, to exercise, to practice
  14. Caramba – good gracious
  15. Chorizo – idiot
  16. Ofuscar – to dazzle, to bewilder, to blind
  1. In the third dream (pages 86-93 in the collected edition), the following 10 Latin names are embedded:
  1. Sisyphus – “mythical founder of the city of Corinth, was condemned to spend the Afterlife rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back again to the bottom just as he neared the top.  His transgression had been to call into question the fundamental difference between gods and mortals: that mortals die, whereas gods do not.  He had tried to elide this distinction by using two tricks.  First, he bound and thus incapacitated Thanatos, god of Death.  Secondly, he instructed his wife not to perform burial rites for him, thus cheating Hades of his due.”  (The Complete World of Greek Mythology)
  2. Lachesis – Klotho (“she who spins”:), Lachesis (“disposer of lots”) and Atropos (“she who may not be turned”) are known collectively as “the fates.”  “The symbolism underlying these names is that of the spinning, measuring and cutting of a woolen thread, a thread to whose length there corresponds the duration of a mortal’s life.  Since this triple process takes place at birth, there is, in theory, no scope for subsequent renegotiation: what’s cut is cut.” (The Complete World of Greek Mythology)
  3. Gilgamesh – the hero of an ancient Mesopotamian epic poem, Gilgamesh, “the son of king Lugalbanda of Uruk,” is the subject of many heroic and fantastic adventures.  Gilgamesh had many adventures; however, relevant to Birdland, after his partner Enkidu is fallen by an illness, “Gilgamesh goes mad with grief and … fear of his own death.  He leaves Uruk in a vain quest for immortality, traveling through strange desert lands and mountains until he reaches the ocean and crosses to the island of Ut-napishtim, the immortal survivor of the Flood (the Greeks’ equivalent of Noah).  Ut-napishtim criticizes Gilgamesh’s foolish and irresponsible behavior and finally makes him aware of his limitations by challenging him not to sleep for seven days.  Unsuccessful in the lesser feat, Gilgamesh accepts that he cannot conquer death and eventually returns to Uruk to achieve immortality by his public works, wisdom and good governance.”  (Understanding Ancient Civilizations: Ancient Mesopotamia: New Perspectives)
  4. Daedalus – According to Greek mythology, “Ikaros’ (or Icarus) father was Daidalos, a mythical master-craftsman … credited with inventing … King Minos’ Cretan Labyrinth …  It is in fact on the Labyrinth that the most poignant part of his story is concentrated.  When the Athenian hero Theseus came to Crete to slay the Minotaur, he and Ariadne — Minos’ daughter, with whom Theseus fell in love — sought Daidalos’ help in order to escape from the maze.  Daidalos gave them a thread to unwind behind them and thereby retrace their way out; Minos retaliated by imprisoning Daidalos and Ikaros in the Labyrinth.  Resourceful as always, Daidalos constructed wings for the two of them, and they soared out of Minos’ clutches.  But when Ikaros ignored his father’s warning not to fly too close to the sun, the heat melted the wax with which the wings were fixed, and the boy plunged to his death.”  (The Complete World of Greek Mythology)
  5. Taweret – the Egyptian Goddess of childbirth and fertility.  Taweret is “the patroness of childbirth in ancient Egypt … normally depicted as a hippopotamus, sometimes dressed in the robes of a queen and wearing a lion’s mane and a crown.  Her head had the shape of a crocodile’s snout and she had the feet of a lion … she carried daggers that she used to smite the spiritual and physical enemies of Egypt.” (Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Revised Edition)
  6. Clytemnestra – “During (her husband) Agamemnon’s absence at Troy (the Trojan War), Clytemnestra took Aigisthos as her lover…and when Agamemnon returned from Troy with Cassandra as his concubine, the situation was made worse still.  The outcome was a grim parody of the appropriate welcome for a victorious conqueror, for Clytemnestra and/or Aigosthos murdered the defenseless Agamemnon.  According to one account, he was slain while in his bath, in the act of symbolically cleansing himself from the accumulation of ten years of bloodshed at Troy.”  (The Complete World of Greek Mythology)
  7. Orestes – the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon.  Orestes murdered his mother, Clytemnestra, and was pursued by the Furies afterward, but was ultimately acquitted of his crimes by Athena, who viewed the matricide as just, because he was avenging his father’s death.  (The Complete World of Greek Mythology)
  8. Apophis – “A giant serpent with mystical powers who was the enemy of the god, Re … He attempted each day to stop Re from his appointed passage through the sky … Apophis never gained a lasting victory, however, because of the prayers of the priests and the faithful…A series of terrible assaults were committed upon Apophis each time the serpent was defeated, but he rose in strength that following morning, an image of evil always prepared to attack the righteous.  Apophis was the personification of darkness and evil.”  (Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Revised Edition)
  9. Lucretia – is a legendary figure in the history of the Roman Republic. According to the story, told mainly by two Roman historians, Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, her rape by the king’s son and consequent suicide were the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic. (Livy’s History of Rome)
  10. Duecalion – “Greek accounts, too, record the occurrence of a primeval Flood, which had the effect of eradicating the humans who had existed hitherto, and of regenerating a new breed from which all subsequent humans are descended.  The survivors of the Flood are named … Deukalion and his wife Pyrrha … The genealogy of this pair — Deukalion is the son of Prometheus, and Pyrrha is the daughter of Epithemeus and Pandora — seems to imply that they are seen as ‘doubles’ of Prometheus and Pandora.” (The Complete World of Greek Mythology)
  11. The fact that these terms are in Latin may also bear some significance in the broader context.  Throughout the book, Gilbert uses random Latin words or phrases as foreshadowing devices.  There are several individual panels where Gilbert uses obscure Latin phrases to infuse meaning into the sexual situations.  For example, on page 42, during a particularly acrobatic encounter between Mark and Petra, Gilbert adds the phrase “fortuna favet fortibus” (“fortune favors the brave”).
Earlier, on page 40, in a flashback sex scene between Simon and Petra, the two phrases “acmesthesia” and “ontogeny” are injected into the story. The first is a medical term referring to a “sensation like a pinprick but usually without pain,” while the second is a scientific discipline describing “the origin and the development of an organism from the fertilized egg to its mature form.”
Finally, in a strange scene featuring Maria and Hector (Petra and Fritz’s parents), Maria’s comment, “sic itur ad astra” is Latin for “thus do we reach the stars” (a foreshadowing of the scene on the UFO that follows), which is a famous line from a poem by the Greek lyricist, Virgil.  Hector’s response, “finis coronat opus” is also a famous line from another Latin poet, meaning “the ending crowns the work.”  This phrase is attributed to Ovid, a Roman poet who wrote about “love, seduction and mythological transformation.”  Ovid and Virgil, (along with Horace) are traditionally referred to as the three canonic poets of Latin literature.

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