Caricatures – and minimalistic art – are compelling arguments for the existence of magic. Start with a blank page, add a line, add another line, add a third line, and a bird explodes into life, convulsing the page with movement.
You may have seen Scott McCloud’s explanation of how comics work: they’re a subtractive art that works by stripping away details and forcing the viewer’s mind to fill the empty holes. Art is a heavy stone, and either the artist or the audience can carry it. For realistic art, the artist has done all the heavy lifting. David Ligare’s Naxos (Thrown Drapery) requires little reconstructive work for the audience: everything he wanted to say is there on canvas. But for a caricature, the “real” picture exists in the viewer’s mind: and the drawing is a series of keys and ciphers recalling it to memory.
That makes the magic even cooler, though. Because you performed the trick of making the bird looked real. Your mind contained the blaze: all the artist did was light a match. It also implies the possibility of failure: a person who has never seen a bird would never know what it looks like based on a three line sketch. A caricature is worth a thousand words…but you have to write the thousand words yourself.
This also explains how (successful) caricatures are frequently so different to each other. They rely on cached images in the viewer’s brain, and two people might have different caches. As an example: Ben Garrison is a political cartoonist who supports Donald Trump. He has often been noted for his flattering depictions of Trump’s physique.
I would call this a caricature of Trump. Garrison has identified certain qualities (Trump’s height and powerful build) and created an image his audience will instantly recognise.
Anti-Trump cartoonists draw him differently: a grossly obese pile of half-melted wax perpetually throwing a tantrum (art by Damien Glez, reproduced here for educational purposes):
Again, an unrealistic pastiche of traits, but you can easily recognize the figure being depicted. People are made of different, sometimes contradictory elements (Trump is tall and muscular but also somehow fat and shapeless) and a cartoonist can choose which traits to emphasise or ignore.
(I’ve noticed a lot of people laughing at Garrison’s depictions of Trump, but nobody laughing at Glez’s. Maybe this is for tribal reasons, but some of us also seem uncomfortable with cartoons that improve reality instead of mocking and defacing it).
But caricatures have a dark side. They are unreliable. They can reify lies or misconceptions. A cartoon short man wearing a bicorn hat will instantly be identified as “Napoleon” even though the real Napoleon wasn’t short. And even if Trump starts cycling steroids and pumping weights to become the muscular ubermensch of Ben Garrison’s nocturnal dreams, left-wing cartoonists will still draw him as a fat manbaby.
* * *
It seems to me that history is a caricature. And the longer the given period of history, the more extreme the caricatures become.
Nobody’s ever written a complete biography of a person. It would be unreadable. Nobody wants to hear about the shit Arthur Schopenhauer took on Monday 21 May 1810, at 3:31pm. Nobody even knows these things to begin with.
Biographers – even honest ones – curate what they need from their subject, slicing out sections with the care of a florist taking a graft from a plant. Their choice is driven by the same factors as Garrison and Glez’s – personal taste, propaganda, and (overwhelmingly) availability bias. Biographers can’t write about what they don’t know about. We portrayed dinosaurs as huge lizards for decades, not because of malicious conspiracy, but because the feathers didn’t survive fossilization.
According to some people, biographical flexibility is a feature, not a bug. Some of history’s most famous and heavily emulated heroes – Jesus Christ, Siddh?rtha Gautama, – have an element of interpretability. They’re like blank canvasses. Or half-drawn birds. Their words are open to translation, their private thoughts unknown and inscrutable. Traditionalists, radicals, kings, and paupers all see themselves reflected in these figures. People love them for the same reason they love getting a blank tile in the game of Scrabble – you can make it say whatever you want.
Some of pop culture’s thorniest debates (what would Martin Luther King Jr have really thought about black people rioting in 2020?) touch on this anxiety. How is it that one man is being split into two or three or more by his biographers? Which is the real one? Is this not an insult to his memory? Does he even have a memory to be insulted? Does he even exist except as a puppet to be manipulated by his followers?
According to the Church of Scientology, founder L Ron Hubbard is “much-decorated war hero who commanded a corvette and during hostilities was crippled and wounded”. Other biographies regard him a different way. Competing caricatures. I think the internet’s current conception of him as a worthless con artist misleading as well: he could also be a brilliant author. There’s a battle happening between caricatures, with the real L Ron Hubbard (if he can even be reconstructed) gradually getting trampled.
History contains wars. History also is a war. WWII ended almost eighty years ago now, but the iconomachy of competing images – Winston Churchill, saint or sinner? – continues.
* * *
H. P. Lovecraft was a New England fantasist whose big idea was to de-emphasise the human experience. The earth isn’t the center of the universe, and the human mind isn’t the center of all possible mind-spaces. This seems obvious now, but wasn’t in the 1920s. In the average science fiction (or scientifiction) story from this period, aliens from distant worlds are portrayed as people. There’s always the scene where the bug-eyed monster lusts after our women: human males like attractive girls, so aliens will as well.
Anyway, a statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer. A statuette of this racist man’s head sits beside my Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and my Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award (an award given to the best speculative fiction by a person of color). I’m conflicted.
Yes, Lovecraft’s racism was part of his character and I don’t want people to stop discussing that. But there’s the opposite extreme of viewing historical figures solely as cultural footballs. Team Racism does not win if Lovecraft’s face is on the WFA prize. A statue dedicated to HP Lovecraft is not a statue dedicated to racism. It remains a statue of HP Lovecraft: who was a complex and troubled person irreducible to politicized buzzwords.
* * *
In 1484, a man called Christopher Columbus resolved to sail westward from Spain to the Indies across the Atlantic Ocean. But there was a problem: it was impossible.
Obviously, America is in the way. But even in theory, sailing to the Indies wouldn’t work. According Eratosthenes the world is 40,000km around, and Japan’s coast is approximately 20,000 kilometers from the Canary Islands. A 15th century ship couldn’t have made that kind of journey.
But Columbus had salesmanship, so he shopped around for smaller estimates of the Earth’s size. He finally settled on an estimate of 29,000km. He furthermore insisted that the landmass of Eurasia took up about six sevenths of the earth’s circumference, leaving only one seventh of the circumference covered in the Atlantic. As a result, he calculated a voyage that was many thousands of kilometers shorter than it actually would have been. The Spanish monarchs were dumb enough to finance it.
Deception, math errors, stupidity…but it led to the great success of the century, perhaps the millennia. The colonization of the new world.
For years, the caricature of Columbus as a brave explorer dominated. But as with Lovecraft, other caricatures have since come to replace it. It appears that Columbus vastly mismanaged his early New World colony. Allegations of tyranny and brutality soon grew to the point where he was arrested and imprisoned upon his return to Spain from the third voyage. “He was a man of his time” isn’t much of an excuse. He wasn’t a man of his time. The other men of his time put him behind bars.
Columbus Day is now a holiday celebrated in the United States. It has also become politically controversial, as the unpleasant connotations of Columbus’s name grow larger in the public’s mind.
For some people, Columbus means “brave explorer”. For others, it’s “tyrant”. A day with Columbus’s name is either symbolic of the first or the second – it can have no other connotations. And as with Garrison and Glez’s radically different visions of Trump, neither side is really correct or incorrect. The concept of Columbus somehow instantiates both ideas, although not among the same people at the same time.
I assume one of the two narratives will finally crush the other some day. Probably the politically correct one. Columbus, Ohio will have to change it’s name, or exist as a flagrant reminder of colonialist brutality. The 2355 people surnamed “Columbus” in the United States will probably seem as socially ridiculous as the handful of people still surnamed “Hitler”. It should be impossible for one person to insist that their distorted reality is the true one, but in practice it happens all the time. Even Ben Garrison would probably start drawing Trump has morbidly obese if he had a gun held to his head.
Trump, who is eminently still alive, largely exists as a word-cloud associative symbolism matrix (tall + fat + weird hair + orange skin + (…)). Political cartoonists grab whatever keywords they need to describe him, and as the years condemn, they’ll soon grab fewer and easier words. Trump will simplify. Flatten. He’ll lose dimension. He’ll break free from reality, the words absorbing his essence.
The problem with history is that it keeps getting longer, which means everyone inside it gets smaller, and simpler.
Earlier, I said that Napoleon wasn’t short, and he wasn’t. But the day might come when he’s historically short: when so many new events and faces are crowding the books that he’s crushed away to almost nothing. In ten thousand years, his final protean nub of biography will be something like “SHORT. FUNNY HAT.”
In the Hindi language there is a word called ???, Jhootha, which literally means “food partially eaten by someone”. All of history is Jhootha, masticated stickily in someone’s mouth and then spat in a chewed-up lump into your mind. There’s bite marks all over your conception of Donald Trump. Saliva is dripping from your mental cache of HP Lovecraft and Christopher Columbus. Jhootha has a second meaning, by the way: Liar.