The Phenomenology of Sleep: Ganges #3

Posted by on August 3rd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Kevin Huizenga; Fantagraphics; 32 pp., $7.95; Color, Softcover; ISBN:978-1-60699-338-5


This and all other images ©2009 Kevin Huizenga.
Click on images to enlarge.


Kevin Huizenga has been wrestling with the philosophical issues surrounding mind and perception for quite some time through his everyman character Glenn Ganges and his wife Wendy.  This approach has allowed him to humanize these problems through an ordinary man with an agile brain and fertile imagination.  He first used this approach in Supermonster #14, the “Gloriana” issue, as he explored the depiction of the simultaneity of perceptual apprehension through Glenn experiencing a powerful moment watching a sunset in a library.  It was a depiction of Glenn’s sensory filters being turned off for a moment, not unlike a psychedelic or mystical experience.  That kind of experience forces one to deal with sensation and perception in its rawest and most immediate states, shoving aside everyday understanding of an event.

Phenomenology is a philosophical technique that first assumes that the material and perceptual qualities of something we observe are its true qualities, and that its essence doesn’t lie in an idealized state beyond our perception.  From that assumption, the observer is asked to put aside his or her everyday understanding of an object, say, a glass of water.  Then the observer is asked to be aware of but also put aside the environment in which the observed object resides.  Then, and only then, can it be described.  It differs from the psychedelic state in that it presupposes a level of control and concentration of perception that isn’t possible in a psychedelic/mystical state.  That said, it’s similar in that it asks the observer to put aside the perceptual filters he or she use in everyday life simply to get through his or her days.



In the first story of Ganges #3, “Mind and Body,” Huizenga cleverly uses the visual language of comics to depict Glenn’s difficulties falling asleep.  This is a funny, fascinating narrative about the way one’s mind can wander when trying to find some way to get to sleep and is in its essence a phenomenology of sleep—or more accurately, a phenomenology of falling asleep.  The way Huizenga uses the raw materials of a panel as story objects, like word balloons, reflects the way Glenn’s consciousness considers its mental environs.  As the story opens up, Glenn’s mind literally wanders out of the bedroom and climbs a tree.  Unable to relax, it takes a look at the mess on the kitchen table before walking back over to Glenn and climbing into the “hole” that is the big black dot of his eye (another use of iconic comics art as a storytelling device).



Once again, the physical aspects of comics come into play as Glenn’s mental image is assailed by thought balloons, with one of them stinging “like a jellyfish!”  Glenn sinks into a deeper layer of consciousness to reveal that the late-night coffee he had consumed (in an earlier issue of Ganges) was the culprit for his restlessness.  From there, his mind tries to calm down through “sheer force of will,” depicted in his mental image using machine guns in an attempt to obliterate his wandering thoughts.  His mind then wanders into a state that’s half-asleep, half-awake, leading to perhaps the key sequence in the entire issue.



In a callback to the idea of the simultaneity of experience depicted as a repeating and fractured series of words and images, Glenn’s mind realizes that the act of thinking and the act of doing have a “back-and-forth” quality to them.  That is, there’s an immersive quality to “doing and reacting and doing” that is almost independent of time.  It’s when the mind adds another layer and starts thinking about doing that creates a sort of mystery.  How does one flip from one state to the other?  The same sort of binary state, as Glenn notes, exists in the difference between sleep and consciousness.  The problem is that once you’re out of the flow, it’s impossible to directly will oneself back into it.



Eventually, Glenn remembers a relaxation technique that focuses on splitting one’s body into quadrants and relaxing them individually, concentrating on breathing.  It’s a technique of deflection, one that empties the mind by focusing on the body.  The technique works, as Glenn’s mental image starts to slip back into his black-dot eye that’s now a black drain hole.  That image of sleep as oblivion for consciousness is a powerful one and is so alarming that Glenn’s mind rebels against his body drifting off, forcing him awake.

If “Mind And Body” is this issue’s main course, then “Getting Things Done” is dessert.  With Glenn awake, Huizenga puts his twitchy protagonist through a bit of slapstick.  Glenn is determined to get something done with his time and resolves to make a list.  Of course, the problem is that he needed music to properly concentrate, which led him to putting noise-canceling headphones on his sleeping wife.  He knew that if he woke his wife up at such a late hour, she’d be furious—and she’s a light sleeper.  The headphones work so well that he turns his stereo up so high that the cops investigate, snowballing like a classic comic strip might.  The fact that the whole issue works its way toward a single gag—Wendy being awakened by a creaky floorboard after sleeping through all sorts of hijinks prior to that—was easy to see coming but no less funny.

Huizenga’s mastery over his extensive array of visual tricks made this issue flow smoothly, with said techniques never becoming more important than the story itself.  Indeed, the tricky subject of mind/body dualism has rarely been more successfully portrayed than in Huizenga’s cleverly designed pages featuring Glenn’s interaction with his own consciousness.  Huizenga’s ability to turn formal qualities of comics into story markers is both charming and seemingly effortless.  When Glenn’s mind rebels against his body and rails against sleep, he jumps onto a passing blank word balloon (containing one of Glenn’s exhaled breaths), floats away on it, but then starts to sink further down into his consciousness.  The full-page image of Glenn standing atop a word balloon looking at a river is simply a lovely piece of drawing, expressing the battle between the activity of consciousness and the “flow” of sleep.



Indeed, Huizenga’s work in Ganges as a whole has been the best-looking work of his career.  Part of it is working a bit bigger than usual in the Ignatz line of books, giving his pages a chance to really breathe.  Another factor is his use of color; the sea-foam green of this issue gets at both the sense of a late night and the ways in which his body sought to calm itself.  Huizenga also gives the reader some comics-as-diagrams in the way he explains the relationship between thought and action and some just plain funny drawings in the last story, like when Glenn is rocking out to some song with “mammoth riffs”played at top volume.

Huizenga’s project as a whole with Ganges seems to be something along the lines of the phenomenology of a life lived, thought and felt.  In just the span of a few days spent with Glenn and Wendy, we’re privy to their thoughts in a way that doesn’t try to impose an outside narrative structure.  Instead, Huizenga zeroes in on small moments and blows them up so as to see the tiniest bits of details that make up a moment.  Glenn is constantly thinking about his place in the world and the world as a whole, but never in the sort of navel-gazing sense that drives many a slice-of-life story.

In a sense, Ganges is frequently a stream-of-consciousness story that is not told in first person.  It’s one where Huizenga, like a good phenomenologist, carefully observes and then describes what he sees.  He leaves judgment and interpretation to others and is always careful not to ascribe a particular significance to any of Glenn’s actions.  Indeed, he’s making the argument that all of Glenn’s actions, that all of our actions, have significance in every moment that we act, think and engage the world.  Every experience as a being existing in a temporal world contains countless moments of choice.  Huizenga’s particular interest in consciousness and perception is a key aspect of the series, especially in terms of the “flow” he describes in this issue.  Given that we have so little awareness of our moment-to-moment actions, Ganges in some sense is another way of thinking about how we perceive the world.

I can’t really think of another artist who’s doing anything similar to Huizenga’s project in this series.  Paul Hornschemeier is the only other cartoonist I can think of who’s done something similar with regard to philosophy (in The Three Paradoxes) and even that used a much more direct and self-conscious approach to the subject of perception and time. Huizenga’s command over his tools as an artist, the integration of his love of depicting wide-open spaces, and his general restraint in delivering prescriptive messages is what sets him apart as an artist.  He’s not afraid to go into exacting detail on some technical point regarding time or consciousness, but it’s always done in the voice of an affable, self-effacing and highly unreliable guide who’s really trying to figure it all out himself. His work feels highly autobiographical in the sense that the artist has always been a thinker, and Ganges reveals the depths of his inquiries, while still remaining playful on the page and appealing to the eye.  When the series is eventually collected, it may well be Huizenga’s masterwork to date.


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