Thursday, December 01, 2005

On science and trapped birds

I'm mildly obsessed by Joseph Wright's An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, which is in the National Gallery in London. In it, a travelling scientist is teaching physics by depriving a family pet, a bird, of oxygen. The bird is slumped to the bottom of the pump while the demonstrator (sadly to modern eyes bearing an uncanny resemblance to sleazy nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow), impassioned and charismatic, preaches to the family.

The family have a variety of responses: two lovers ignore him; a man with a watch (said to be Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather) looks on intently; an older man gloomily stares at a skull hidden behind a glass. Most powerfully, a man talks to his daughters about the experiment, the elder of whom buries her head in her hands, unable to watch. But it is the reaction of the youngest which is the centrepiece of the painting.

The National Gallery Description mentions "frightened children", but I don't think that's correct. The youngest child is anything but scared. Although she sympathetically holds on to her sister, she is fascinated by the experiment, and looks on, angelic, dispassionate and cold. She is the scientist, and she want the experiment to continue to its end. And Wright, closely connected to a famous group of engineers and philosphers called the "Lunar Society", was a staunch believer in progress.

Which makes it puzzling that he should depict a subject as troubling as this experiment, the cruelty of which might bring us to question the motivation and practice of science. But what I think Wright is doing is showing us, in the way this child is learning from the demonstration, that cruelty may be necessary for progress. Even the light is saying something about science: the way the illumination from a single, hidden, manufactured candle far outshines the full moon.

It's meant to be troubling, this picture, and it is. Deliberately, Wright leaves us unsure about the fate of the bird. I do not think we are meant to assume it survives.

Strangely, there's a similar representation of a trapped bird in Don McGregor's Jungle Action #14. As a consequent of an insurrection, oil has flooded part of the jungle, and a small bird has become trapped. Tayete, a minor character, attempts to free it, only to be stopped by his leader, N'Jadaka.

Tayete, if we lost time saving each helpless stray on our road to greatness, we would never reach our destination.

They walk off, leaving the birds to its fate.

And that's it for the bird, right up to the last page, which shows its death, accompanied by one of the strongest endings of any comic book.

For some, night does not arrive. As usual.

With the last two words, McGregor, the most lyrical of all the comic book writers, pulls the scene away from sentimentality. The "as usual" changes it from the story of a bird's death to an observation on the omnipresence of death. These deaths, individually tragic, are happening all around us, all the time. Death is
commonplace, banal even.

Separated by two centuries, Wright and McGregor have both used the device of a trapped bird, with all the obvious connotations of denied flight and freedom. Wright is inviting us to challenge our own preconceptions to see that this cruelty may have a purpose, which is the attitude which McGregor puts into the mouth of N'Jadaka, implicitly in the wrong.

Both works, one a work of fine art in a national gallery, the other an eight pence comic book, are traumatic and thought-provoking.

7 Comments:

Blogger Psychbloke said...

It's that strange skull cocktail at the front that has always puzzled me......

9:56 pm  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

That little girl is staring at the bird, sure, but she doesn't look like she's enjoying it at all.

4:24 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

I'd agree that she's not enjoying it. My point is that she's fascinated by it: her head is facing upwards and her eyes are fixed straight onto the bird. Unlike her wimpy elder sister, who is clearly traumatised by it.

And the youngest child is the brightest lit character of all, which I think is Wright's way of telling us she's the most important figure in the painting.

4:48 pm  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

My point is that the child can't be equated with the scientist. The scientist is so caught up in the experiment, so bound in the fascination itself, that he's blind to the horror of what's happening. In other words, the doctor is fixated on the air pump, while the child is fixated on the horror of the dying bird inside it. She wants to look away, but she can't, and what's more, she realizes she can't - that's why she's physically covering the eyes of her sister. To misinterpret this as a message that "sometimes the bird has to die," or something along those lines, is pretty damn weird - this is not a subtle picture at all.

5:39 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

No clever insights to add... just wanted to mention that your blog, though infrequently updated these days, is a real pleasure. I never know what I'm going to get with this blog... I usually come to it looking for comic reviews... but even when it's something completely different, as with this particular post, it's well worth my time and leaves me with something to think about.

And you've got THE best title for a blog of anyone in this universe (Earth Prime?). So, thanks for the good stuff.

- Paul

3:01 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

Thanks for your comments, Paul: I've got a working hypothesis that almost no-one reads this, and it's great when someone pops up and says something complimentary. "Nobody Laughs at Mister Fish" was the title of Luke Cage #29, and was written by Bill Mantlo.

I used to be quite rude about Mantlo, whose Howard the Duck run counts as one of the most destructive runs in comics history, until I discovered that he was in a very bad way after an accident. So, respect to Bill for giving me my blog name. My favourite blog name, by the way, is Sleestak's "Lady, that's my Skull."

I haven't given up posting about comics, but the problem is, as it's turned out, I'm not really a proper comics reviewer. I write about ideas, and if a comic I read sparks off an idea, then I can wrap the idea inside a review and hope nobody's noticed what I've done. Most of my reviews don't mention the plot, or characters or artists. Sometimes not even the writers, or how good the comic was.

And I discovered (as it turned out while attempting a review of Peter Milligan's X-Men: Golgotha) that I can't just write about any comic book, even if I want to. I simply had nothing to say about it. If the spark of interest isn't there, I just can't produce a review.

But there are some great comics reviewers out there, like the ones over at Brian Cronin's place, who are well-written and fair and entertaining.

I do have a couple of comics reviews coming up, though, including Infinite Crisis #1 (if I can stop chubbing myself in the face with it).

My (still-developing) blogging philosophy, the common element in the works of many of the writers I most enjoy, is to keep trying out different things. The downside of this is that at least a proportion of my posts are going to seem pointless or annoying or fatuous. On the plus side, though, the next one will probably be different again.

5:01 pm  
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