In a way, Neil Gaiman’s ten volume long graphic novel The Sandman is a kind of Western equivalent to Somadeva’s 11th century multi-volume work entitled The Ocean of the Rivers of Story. Both works make use of a framing device that allows for the telling of (in Somadeva’s case) hundreds of stories. For Somadeva, stories are like rivers that begin at the tops of mountains and flow down to an endless churning ocean of squirming, wriggling narratives; whereas for Gaiman, the metaphor becomes the astral plane itself, a realm which he terms The Dreaming, and over whose rulership he places his central protagonist, Morpheus, also known as Dream of the Endless. Morpheus is one of the seven members of a pantheon of immortals known as the Endless, all of whom are allegorical personifications of Dream, Destruction, Death, Desire, Delirium, Despair and Destiny.
In Gaiman’s case, the framing narrative of The Sandman is actually more interesting than the individual stories themselves, for it tells the tale of the capture of Morpheus by magicians employing black magic to harness Dream in a magic circle, where he remains imprisoned for most of the twentieth century. By the time he manages to free himself, his three talismans—a ruby, a bag of sand and his helm—are gone, and so he sets forth to get them back. He enlists the aid of paranormal investigator John Constantine to help him get his magical world-building bag of sand back from a woman who has become addicted to it like a junkie; and in order to regain his helm—made from the skull and spinal column of a sacrificed god—he must descend into Hell, where he spars with Lucifer and the demon who has stolen it from him; but his ruby, meanwhile, has been taken by an old DC comics supervillain by the name of Doctor Destiny, who escapes, one rainy night, from Arkharm asylum and wanders to an all night diner, whose inhabitants he holds captive while using the ruby to transform the subtle matter of a nightmare into physical reality. In this case, Dream doesn’t quite get his ruby back, since Doctor Destiny destroys it, but in doing so, he unleashes its power back into Morpheus whereupon, like Monkey finding himself imprisoned in the open palm of the Buddha in the Chinese novel The Journey to the West, Doctor Destiny finds himself suddenly reduced to the size of a trinket in the palm of Morpheus.
Upon returning to his castle in the realm of the Dreaming, Morpheus finds it in a state of disrepair. Four dream characters, during his absence, have escaped from the Dreaming and so Morpheus sets out to track them down: Brute and Glob, a pair of monsters; a place which is also simultaneously a cigar-puffing old Englishman named Fiddler’s Green; and a serial killer named the Corinthian—a nightmare specially designed by Morpheus himself–who has a penchant for eating people’s eyes (he himself has no eyes, only two smaller mouths embedded in his eye sockets). But in addition, the Dreaming is threatened by a crisis: a singularity known as a Vortex has appeared in human form as a young girl named Rose Walker who poses an inadvertent threat to the entire architecture of the Dreaming, for a dream Vortex has the ability to erode all the partitions between the separate minds of dreamers and cause all the world’s dreams to intermix into a state of chaos. Morpheus must spend a great deal of energy and effort straightening all this mess out.
Then he decides to journey to Hell once again in order to retrieve a former lover named Nada, a human being with whom he had fallen in love, but since she had refused to become the Queen of the Dreaming, he had consigned her to suffer in Hell. But when he gets there, to his surprise, Lucifer has decided to close Hell down. The demons and the sufferers have all vanished and Lucifer hands the key to Hell over to Morpheus, telling him he can do with it whatever he likes. Lucifer isn’t interested in running it anymore. There follows a great debate at Morpheus’s castle over the issue regarding Hell’s jurisdiction, and all the gods flock to the castle with various bribes and offers to convince Morpheus to give them rulership over Hell. In the end, Morpheus gives the key to a pair of angels, Duma and Remiel, who have decided that, under their new management, Hell will be run with compassion.
In the next main story arc, a young girl named Barbie is summoned to a fairy tale world called the Land: she is given a strange talisman called the Porpentine, which enables her to dream her way into the Land, a realm that is essentially a distillation of all the fairy tale worlds from children’s books. There, Barbie’s talking animal companions inform her that the Land is under threat by a creature known as the Cuckoo, who intends to destroy it. The Cuckoo turns out to be a little girl who tells Barbie that she will leave the Land and will proceed to lay eggs in the dreams of the minds of other young girls. The Cuckoo destroys the magical Porpentine, which summons Morpheus to the Land since, as it turns out, the Land has actually been created by Morpheus and is part of the Dreaming. With the Porpentine broken, however, the Land can no longer function properly, so Morpheus “uncreates” it, taking back into the folds of his robe all the little trolls, gnomes and fairy creatures of the children’s book universe, which will now cease to exist. A witch girl named Thessaly, in addition, has disturbed the Land’s magic by drawing down the power of the moon to help Barbie in her quest, but Morpheus now chides her for such foolishness, since her magic threatens the smooth functioning of the moon.
In the final, and most important story arc, Thessaly then seeks revenge on Morpheus by manipulating the emotions of a woman named Lyta, a previous lover of Morpheus who had borne a mortal son by him named Daniel. In the earlier story regarding the jurisdiction over Hell, Morpheus had made the mistake of allowing the Scandinavian god Loki to run free, and of replacing his eternal punishment in the Scandinavian hell–where drops of poison are dripped slowly into his eyes for all Eternity–with a phantom version of him at Loki’s behest (Morpheus has the habit of granting people boons, even though the boons may prove disastrous later on). And so now Loki has kidnapped Lyta’s son Daniel, and Lyta, grief-stricken, blames Morpheus for allowing him to run free (Odin is not happy about this either). She goes to Thessaly, who creates a magic circle around her physical body while Lyta’s astral body enters the myth world, where she seeks the aid of the Furies, a trio of hissing snake-women who consider making Lyta a fourth member of their group. Loki, meanwhile, has put Daniel into the flames of immortality, which burn away his physical body and transform him (almost, but not quite) into an immortal being. The Furies then enter the Dreaming and begin, one by one, to kill off its protagonists as they stalk Morpheus and threaten to dismantle the very architecture of his universe with the poison of both Thessaly’s and Lyta’s desire for revenge upon him. In a final act, Morpheus meets his sister Death at the top of a mountain where they face off against the Furies, and Morpheus willingly allows his sister to embrace him, whereupon he dies, and the Furies are thwarted and removed from the Dreaming. Before his death, however, he had given a magical emerald to the boy Daniel, (whom a newly reconstructed version of the Corinthian had hunted down and brought back to the Dreaming) which now transforms Daniel into the new God of the Dreaming, no longer Morpheus, but with access to his memories.
That is the main story arc for Gaiman’s graphic novel, although there are scores of other stories, many of them stand-alones, adorning this narrative like the foliated scroll work on a Scandinavian Viking brooch.
The Sandman, in essence, functions as a kind of X-ray that illuminates the current structure of the Western astral plane, and what it shows is that this plane is in a complete state of disarray. Morpheus can barely gain control over his realm; Hell is closing down; the fairy tale realm of children’s literature is destroyed; the gods are involved in a cosmic musical chairs game of shifting signifiers taking up new places in semiotic vacancies once occupied by other gods; and the narrative culminates in the death of the current lord of the Dreaming (a sort of Western equivalent of the god Vishnu, whose dream is actually the substance of world history). Entropy is the characteristic feature of the narrative, which only increases as the narrative unfolds.
Jean Seznec, in his book The Survival of the Pagan Gods, portrayed the Middle Ages as a time when the pagan gods, though present, were imperfectly known by the West. Indeed, from about the time of Charlemagne down to the Renaissance, the gods of the Classical world survived mainly in damaged form: commentators, scholars and translators of Arabic astronomical texts recovered the gods with strange attributes. Hercules, for instance, was given a scythe in place of his customary club; Perseus was shown wielding a scimitar in one hand and, instead of the head of the Gorgon in the other, was given a man with a scraggly beard; Jupiter appears as a monk; and Mercury with angel’s wings, etc. etc. The Arabs, as Seznec points out, did not know the myths associated with the gods, although they preserved the forms of the gods in their correct places in the constellations (and in this way, they survived). So the period of the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was a time during which knowledge of the gods was corrupted. It was not until the fifteenth century, when new texts were being translated (as Greek monks were spilling forth from the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453) that the correct forms of the gods were once again finally restored to their authentic icons, and hence, by the time of Botticelli and Michelangelo, they were not so much “reborn” as correctly “restored.” Their information content, during these centuries while more and more texts were being translated, was on a gradually increasing arc of coherence, while their entropy content was slowly reversing.
From the Renaissance, then, down to about the time of Rudolf Steiner in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, the astral plane—what Steiner called, borrowing from the Tibetans, Kamaloka—was envisioned as a realm of formal order and maximal coherence. Steiner’s gods were essentially an adaptation of the angelic hierarchies of Dionysius the Areopagite, and they were ordered on a plane of organization in traditional “arborescent” fashion as nine ascending tiers: Seraphim and Cherubim at the top, with Archai, Archangels and Angels at the bottom. The evolution of the cosmos, furthermore, was laid out, like the days of the week, as a series of seven distinct epochs. During each epoch, one order of the angelic hierarchies evolved and ascended upwards to the next. Everything was very neat, orderly and systematic.
But Steiner’s vision was, of course, already a swan song, for Nietzsche had by then announced the death of God and the transvaluation of all values, while a decade after Steiner’s death, Heidegger would be lamenting the withdrawal of the gods and the abandonment of beings by Being. The darkening of the gods in Heidegger’s Clearing took place at just about the time when the gods were reappearing in their new guise as the superheroes of pulp fiction and comic strips (which remained invisible to Heidegger due to his complete lack of interest in popular culture).
What Gaiman’s narrative shows us, then, is the reverse of Seznec’s gradual increase of information content of the nature of the gods from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries; for now entropy has once again gained the upper hand, and their informational content is disappearing. Their signifiers have been scrambled, hybridized and overcoded with new signifiers: Hercules has disappeared into Superman; Horus into Hawkman; Achilles into Captain America, Mercury into the Flash etc. etc. The gods, contrary to Heidegger’s insistence, are still with us, but in scrambled and barely recognizable form, just as they were during the Middle Ages when, during the Crusades, the civilizations of Western Christendom were crashing and colliding into the Islamic Society. When civilizations crash into each other, that is the moment when seismic tremors are sent rippling through their respective pantheons and the signifiers become reterritorialized and recoded as parts of new collective assemblages of enunciation.
But with the discrediting of the grand metanarratives and the advent of French (and also German, with Wittgenstein) deconstruction, the astral plane is now in a state of total disarray. The signifiers are shifting; semiotic vacancies have opened up everywhere; and Hell itself is closing down. Even the magical land of children’s fairy tales is being dissolved, dismantled and deconstructed.
And all of this is taking place in Gaiman’s narrative simultaneously with the collapse of the entire field of myth studies, a field which had first opened up during the nineteenth century with scholars like Max Muller and J. J. Bachofen. Gaiman wrote his narrative during the 1990s, at just the time when important books about myth were beginning to trail off, sputter out, and finally, to die off altogether. As I have remarked elsewhere, there hasn’t been a single important study of myths since the publication of Joseph Campbell’s last great book, The Historical Atlas of World Mythology, just after his death in the late 1980s. It is no accident that Gaiman was busy chronicling the closing down and complete disintegration of the astral plane during the early 1990s, just as the Mind of Myth Studies was growing dark and ceasing to manifest itself in the avatars of high intellects.
The field of myth studies—due largely to the deconstruction of grand metanarratives–it must now be admitted, is dead, over, done and gone.
The telos of Gaiman’s narrative seems to be the production of a new god, the transformation of the mortal child Daniel into a human-divine hybrid as the new Lord of the Dreaming. In the first issue of Gaiman’s current prequel to The Sandman, he unveils the origins of Morpheus as a sort of dream of the earth itself: he depicts Morpheus emerging from a plant, like the god Brahma who emerges out of the lotus, or the twins Mashya and Mashyoi in the Zoroastrian creation myth who emerge out of the unfolding of the petals of a flower. Whereas Morpheus, in other words, had been purely immortal—a product of the earth’s etheric body—the new god of Dream, is a hybrid—like Gilgamesh or Achilles—of both human and divine elements.
Gaiman’s narrative, then, is suggesting that a new god might currently be in the process of emerging out of the ruins of the closing down of the astral plane and the dismantling and disintegration of the field of myth studies. A god that is emerging as the result of a cooperation between mortal and immortal elements. New gods require willing minds inside which to incarnate. They require, in other words, insemination by the power of the Muses.
As it stands now, Deconstruction would seem to have won the day. It has dismantled and discredited all the great mythic narratives (after all, as Joscelyn Godwin’s Arktos makes clear, the myth of Atlantis that was popular in the nineteenth century was eventually translated and degraded by the Nazis—for the Indo-Aryans were thought, in some versions of that myth, to have been the survivors of the destruction of Atlantis–into the actual field of historical reality as the Final Solution. If this is where myths can lead us, then who needs myths?)
But one of Gaiman’s stand-alone stories in The Sandman provides us with a suggested antidote to Deconstruction. The story is entitled “Thermidor,” and it is set during the French Revolution, when an early ancestor of John Constantine named Johanna Constantine, has come into possession of the mystical and oracular head of Orpheus. The authorities of the Terror imprison her, demanding that no such superstitious objects should be allowed to trouble the minds of the people during the newly dawning Age of Reason. (Horkheimer and Adorno, in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, have already shown that the Age of Reason was itself a mythic version of the triumph of the solar hero over the darkness of the monsters of night). Johanna knows where the head is located, but she refuses to turn it over. However, it is soon surmised that the head must be located in a nearby pile of heads from the variously guillotined victims of the Sanson scaffold, and so Johanna is taken to the dark part of the dungeon where the heads are located and asked to point out the correct one. She refuses. But at the moment, the head of Orpheus, located in the pile amongst all the other heads, begins to sing its song. And the authorities are enraptured by the trance of the beauty of Orpheus’s songs. They are immobilized, and Johanna manages to escape with the head, which she eventually returns to the Greek island where its sanctuary is located. The song has acted as a neural disruptor, freezing and arresting the deconstructive mentality, for Gaiman shows the authorities themselves soon going to the guillotine.
Gaiman’s point is clear.
Deconstruction did not begin with Derrida and Wittgenstein. The French originated it during the Terror, in which a brand new calendar was instituted with non-mythical sounding names of the months like “Thermidor.” All the old historical narratives were tossed aside onto the midden heap, and anything that smacked of myth, religion or superstition, was indeed put to the scaffold. The French would not resume their deconstructive project until the advent of Derrida, and Foucault’s insistence in The Archaeology of Knowledge that grand historical narratives were obsolete. (A reversion of the Terror by other means).
But the power of the song of Orpheus is tantamount to the power of the mythical imagination, of story, that is to say, which is far, far older and more powerful than any form of nihilism such as Deconstruction could ever amount to. Orpheus is the son of the muse Calliope, the muse of Epic Poetry, and it was precisely Epic Poetry that built and shaped the courses of entire civilizations. As the Terror of the French Revolution itself demonstrated, you can’t build a civilization out of a semiotic vacancy. Nihilism, in the long run, won’t get you very far. And as the historical record amply shows, it never has. (The pharaoah Akhenaten, for instance, was perhaps the world’s first deconstructionist: in eliminating all the astral and funerary myths, he tried to create a Utopian society out of the few scraps of Egyptian myth that were left after his armies of chisellers went across the land defacing the monuments. His reign was confined to a mere 17 years, and his city of Akhetaten went down the drain along with him).
But stories, on the other hand, are the house of Being. If the Clearing of Being, as Heidegger insisted, is made out of language, the grammar of that language is composed of narratives, which act as the DNA from out of which the organism of a civilization is constructed. Let us not forget, as Ovid reminds us, that the magical power of Orpheus’s song actually caused bricks to lift up off the ground and form themselves into structures.
In the main story arc of The Sandman, Morpheus at one point has to return to the Greek island, where he confronts the head of Orpheus (in Gaiman’s mythology, his own son) who begs him to kill it. Morpheus does so. But this lays the groundwork later on for the juridical right of the Furies to harry him, since they can only punish those who have committed blood crimes against their own family.
But the killing of the head of Orpheus by Morpheus is, then, the act that leads to his death and rebirth as a new god, the human-divine hybrid of the new Lord of the Dreaming who appears at the end of Gaiman’s narrative. The song of Orpheus is reborn as the power of the Muses to sing new songs and give birth to new gods.
Heidegger, in his Contributions to Philosophy, insisted that we are located in a time of the Between: that is to say, at the end of the metaphysical age that began with Plato and Aristotle and before the time of the Other Beginning whose annunciation would come with the advent of what he called the Last God.
Perhaps, in a way, Gaiman’s reborn Morpheus is the Last God.
Perhaps some poet somewhere on this planet right now is listening to the whispering in his ear, as Matthew listened to the Angel, of the tale he (or she) will tell which will unfurl the annunciation of that Other Beginning which Heidegger spoke of.
For now, we can only glance up at the stars.