[10 September 2012]
In one of the many moments of profundity from A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, Winnie the Pooh explains why he prefers visiting Rabbit to Owl: “I like talking to Rabbit. He talks about sensible things. He doesn’t use long, difficult words like Owl. He uses short, easy words, like ‘What about lunch?’”
With that simple dismissal of Owl’s professorial airs, the proverbial bear of little brain helps explain the appeal of books like Open Court’s recent release, Neil Gaiman and Philsophy: Gods Gone Wild! As the cheeky subtitle suggests, the book’s language and tone might even pass the criteria of Strunk, White, and Pooh.
Neil Gaiman and Philosophy features 14 essays that explore the relationship between Gaiman and some of the most famous examples of Western philosophy. For readers like me who possess merely a cursory understanding of philosophy, the book might seem intimidating, but there’s no need for worry. When the primary philosophers on call include Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Sartre, it’s pretty clear we’re only coloring out of the Crayola box of eight.
The formula for these pop culture and philosophy books is pretty well established now. Thirty years ago, few would have predicted that when Benjamin Hoff used the stories of Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Eeyore to help explain the basic tenets of Taoism, he had laid the foundation for what has become a cottage industry in the publishing world. A generation after his bestseller, The Tao of Pooh, three different publishers have released a combined total of over 100 pop culture and philosophy books with more on the way. Yet, despite the potential for oversaturation, this recent entry on Neil Gaiman has much to recommend.
One of the most compelling and impressive essays deals, surprisingly, with one of Gaiman’s lesser-known works, the short Batman comic, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? The story, while charming, is an undeniably minor work, but Brandon Kempner manages to use Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal recurrence” to explain Gaiman’s overall worldview in a way that not only deepens the Batman story but also provides a stronger context for reading Gaiman’s entire body of work.
Similarly effective at capturing Gaiman’s overall vision, Wayne Yuen explores the way Gaiman’s young adult novel, The Graveyard Book, supplies a template for the age-old philosophical question of how to live a good life, invoking everything from the Ancient Greeks to the existentialists. In another good essay, Ray Bossert takes a somewhat more esoteric approach, seeing Gaiman’s adult novel, American Gods, as a metaphor for the entire field of American philosophy, where the old, forgotten gods of the novel symbolize the struggling voices in American philosophical studies.
Even the more flawed essays offer some simple pleasures. Readers will find both equal parts fun and frustration in “American Gods is all Lies!” by Greg Littmann, in which the writer offers a defense of Gaiman’s novel against a hypothetical critical drubbing by the mythology-hating Plato, whom Littman uses as his straw man. Littmann’s writing is spirited and witty—the most energetic in the whole collection—but his actual thesis is probably too cute by half. Even straw decomposes long before two-and-a-half millennia.
More troubling is one of the essays on Gaiman’s Sandman comic which poses the question, “Could a fantastic dreamy world like Morpheus’s exist, and do we effortlessly travel there whenever we dream?” It’s not a question that seems particularly in need of answering, and the belabored exploration reads less like a philosophically-informed analysis of The Sandman and more like one of those fannish Star Trek essays explaining how matter-antimatter reactions really could power a warp engine.
Structurally, the book is a bit disjointed, as well. Most of the essays are grouped thematically, but the first section simply compiles all four of the essays on American Gods. In addition to making the book feel top heavy, it also betrays the lack of equity in the choice of subject matter. American Gods and The Graveyard Book together comprise literally one-half of all the essays. This means several of Gaiman’s major works, such as Neverwhere and Coraline, get short shrift. In fact, Stardust is left out entirely, and even Gaiman’s legendary Sandman merits only two essays.
As a result, despite its pleasant innocuousness, the book ultimately comes to little effect. Unlike Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh, where the focus is on understanding Taoism by using Pooh as a metaphor, in books like this one, the metaphor has become the subject. That’s okay, at least in concept. Fans of a particular subject get a book of smart essays on one of their favorite subjects, and they pick up a little bit of Western philosophy at the same time. Acquiring knowledge tangentially can be a beautiful thing. Yet, something keeps nagging me with this particular volume.
At first glance, Gaiman seems like an ideal subject for one of these books. Unlike many writers of popular fiction, Gaiman’s stories have never been particularly plot-driven. He tends to linger on ideas and concepts, textured with layers of history, mythology, theology, folklore, literature, pop culture, and politics. Perhaps that’s the problem. If the goal of Neil Gaiman and Philosophy is to give Gaiman’s readers some tangential knowledge, the book is always going to feel a bit redundant. If you want to absorb sophisticated ideas painlessly, just go back and re-read Gaiman. At least, that’s my philosophy.