Sunday, November 13, 2011

Tintin and the eternal search.

I have been a fan of The Adventures of Tintin for much of my life: I discovered the classic comic books of Belgian graphic artist Georges Remi (alias Hergé) in public libraries in Massachusetts when I was a child, and I went on to amass a respectable collection of books by or about Hergé; I can even say that I've seen every episode of the early '90s Ellipse/Nelvana Tintin cartoon series. As an adult, I have had much less time to read The Adventures of Tintin than I had in my boyhood, but Hergé's creation has still influenced my life in small and subtle ways: on the day of my law school graduation, for example, I wore a Tintin necktie.

Despite my history with Tintin - or perhaps because of it - I am ambivalent about the new Tintin film directed by Steven Spielberg, which reaches these shores in December. I share Gavin Plumley's concern that Spielberg's film "seems to have bypassed the central charm of Tintin" by eschewing the unique style of Hergé's illustrations in favor of flashy, computer-generated 3D effects. Of course, I also face the classic dilemma of the fan who is used to thinking about cherished literary characters in particular ways and does not wish to see those views forever altered by Hollywood.

An interesting side effect of the hoopla surrounding Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin has been the publication of at least a couple of articles in the Catholic press considering the potential place of faith and transcendence in the Tintin books. First, in the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, we find French journalist Denis Tillinac explaining why Tintin may be seen as "a Catholic hero":
Tintin is not a Catholic identifiable as such: he never prays to God during his brushes with death and you never see him in a Church. A brief allusion to St. John the Evangelist hints at a residue of the Catechism. The guardian angels of Captain Haddock and Snowy, at war with an imaginary devil, make you smile. Religion – Incas, sun cults, Buddhists, Muslims – is that of others, to be respected as it perpetuates a culture. On this level, Hergé is something of a relativist. The treasure of the Incas (The Temple of the Sun) or the burial of pharaohs (The Cigars of the Pharaoh) should not be the object of Western curiosity. Only twice does Tintin utter, “May God have his soul!” when he learns of the death of a evil Japanese man (The Blue Lotus) and of the two scoundrels on the high seas (Red Rackham’s Treasure). As for millenarianism, it got what it deserved from the enlightened one in The Shooting Star, who announces the end of time by striking his gong.

Yet Tintin is a hero of Catholicism, imbued with the ideal of the scouts, which was important in Hergé’s formation and which is seen in his first works, Jo, Zette and Jocko and Popol Out West. He is ageless, does not even really have a sex or ordinary yearning, he has a job which allows him to wander around and an art of disguise which hides his identity: he is an angel, or almost one. Curious, adventurous, helpful, like Chesterton’s priest detective Brown, he seems to have come to earth to defend widows and orphans. He is Roland crossed with Mermoz and Saint-Exupèry, who has, like Durendal, a dog that speaks and reasons. He challenges the arrogance of the powerful, the veniality of colonizers, protects the weak and the oppressed. . . .

. . . Tintin is a Western knight of modern times, an unstained heart in an invulnerable body. He crosses through common humanity like a meteor – his geography, his psychology – doubly exalted by his profane taste for mystery and a sacred moral imperative: save the innocent, defeat evil. He loves life too much to be a saint, his curiosity ties him to humanity, sometimes he awards himself with a cruise or a beach to rest in the bucolic refuge of Marlinspike Hall, from where, around the corner, you can see the bell tower of the village. This double for the castle of Cheverny, seat of Haddock’s ancestors, reclaimed (with its treasure) thanks to the generosity of Prof. Calculus, is more or less the time of a Grail. If paradise existed in this world, Marlinspike Hall would be its headquarters. But he needs to leave it to go rout out evil, to gather the crumbs of exoticism here and there like the crusades that Tintin revives (without their warmongering) and like the missionaries (without their proselytism). He is the guardian angel of Christian values that the West denies or constantly denigrates. Without fear, without blame, Hergé’s creation unites with candor the virtues which they tried to teach me in the Catechism. . . .
Tillinac's passing reference to Hergé's background in the Catholic scout movement invites a further consideration of the influences and ideas that motivated Tintin's creator. In a recent article in The Tablet (regrettably unavailable to non-subscribers) entitled "Tintin and the eternal search," Brian Morton notes that Hergé began his career in the 1920s as an illustrator for Le Vingtième Siècle, a Catholic newspaper edited by the outspokenly right-wing Abbé Norbert Wallez, who was later jailed as a Nazi collaborator. As Morton writes, scholars have tended to forgive Hergé for his youthful ties to Wallez as they seek to mine the illustrator's work for deeper meanings:
Posthumous revisions of Hergé’s reputation – he died in 1983 – initially centered on his political defaults. It was as if a generation that had grown up on Tintin suddenly discovered that a much-loved uncle had a murky past. A comic strip once read by torchlight became the subject of PhDs. Young academics wanted the character to grown up with them and move into the same sober contexts. So, over time, a “psychoanalytic” Tintin emerged, and a “Derridan,” and inevitably a “postmodern.” Above all, a Tintin who had begun in conservative error morphed into a liberal hero.

. . .

One sensed in the 1980s that revisionists only debunked Hergé in order to forgive and rehabilitate him, writing off many of his attitudes as specific to time, place and circumstance, opportunistic distortions of his “natural” liberalism. The reality is not quite as straightforward as that and Wallez’s influence – and that of Catholicism – cannot be easily written off.

News that Steven Spielberg has made a film version of Hergé’s greatest creation is unsurprising but potentially uncomfortable, given the uniform failure of most previous attempts to bring Tintin to the screen. The young reporter is almost a Spielberg ready-made: an eternal boy, lonely, innocent but alert to darker realities. We can assume high-class entertainment from Spielberg, something worthy of the source material, but one doubts whether it will capture the original’s multiple levels: boxes within boxes, narratives within narratives; those dark-lined, flat-coloured images seem deceptively literal but are laden with subtexts, spiritual or agnostic, sexual or asexual.
As far as the "spiritual or agnostic" bit goes, Morton does not follow Tillinac in anointing Tintin as a "hero of Catholicism," but he still manages to find "some possibility of the numinous" in Hergé's work:
It is hard to say what Tintin is, what he stands for, what he (or Remi) believes. The stories almost always lead from the revelation of a secret into Melvillean blankness, which might be the face and front of God or the revelation of a cosmic nullity. When Tintin flies to the moon, it is not covered in oases and peopled with small green aliens, but realistically blank and empty, a tabula rasa. In one of his most radical and celebrated frames, Tintin looks out of [Bianca] Castafiore’s bedroom window at Marlinspike and says (reassuringly?) “Nothing here, signora. Absolutely nothing.” The night outside is flat black.

Yet, we always sense in Tintin that there is some possibility of the numinous, that God – and Hergé stands in his place, as Remi stood as the head of the increasingly collaborative Hergé studio – has not absconded but is simply inexpressible. Never a passionate Catholic, Remi does not make a convincing atheist, either. Tintin’s escape from prison and other confinements – from human relations, from death, torture and sex – are an escape from meaning, or rather from any specific meaning. “Tintin” itself is a name packed with ambiguity. It suggests nothing or everything, a sonorous tintinnabulation or the empty tinkling of bells, most likely on cash registers.

In holding back the ultimate secret, though, he only convinces us that the secret must be there, out of reach of rockets and telescopes, close analyses of text, radio waves, treasure hunts. It would be a stretch to recast Georges Remi as a mystical Catholic (some irony now in a Jewish movie director turning to a character whose first sponsor, Abbé Wallez, was a fervent anti-Semite) but as Hergé he addressed ultimate questions in an ultimate and irreducible way.
I don't think that it ever occurred to me before to consider questions of belief and ultimate meaning in The Adventures of Tintin, but I'm glad that others have done so. As a Jesuit who is also a longtime Tintin fan, perhaps I should think more about this; I don't think that I'm likely to revisit this topic on this blog - I doubt it would interest most of the readers who lurk or comment here - but if you are interested in more about God and Tintin, please feel free to drop me a note. AMDG.


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