Book of the week: The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb

Crumb’s intensely physical style makes the "elemental conflicts" and passions in the stories of the book of Genesis palpable.

(Norton, 224 pages, $25)

You can’t help but worry when the founder and “chief sexist” of the underground comics movement takes on the book of Genesis, said Jeet Heer in Bookforum. In the 1960s, R. Crumb created Fritz the

Cat a feline lascivious enough to inspire the world’s first X-rated animated film. The women that populate his cartoons are “notoriously full-figured, with ample butts and protruding nipples,” and he’s made subversiveness his calling card for more than 45 years. But it turns out that his talents are almost ideally matched to “the sacred text at the heart of Western civilization.” He’s chosen to do a straight illustration of every line of the unabridged text, in the process reminding us that the first book of the Bible is “filled with stories of incest, frenzied bloodlust, and general unsavory behavior.”

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Crumb’s interpretation doesn’t demean the Bible, said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. Though he’s a nonbeliever, he seems to appreciate that the stories in Genesis are sacred “because they speak to elemental conflicts” that drive human behavior. When Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac on God’s orders, or when Dinah is raped and her brothers slaughter the men of Shechem to avenge her, Crumb’s intensely physical style makes the passions palpable. Visiting Crumb’s Sodom and Gomorrah, or watching his Jacob wrestling all night with an angel, we’re reminded that “the point of these episodes is awe, in the most terrifying sense of the word—awe at a universe that defies our reason.”

Still, no one can accuse Crumb of humorlessness, said Robert Alter in The New ­Republic. Any version of the Bible whose cover bears the warning “ADULT SUPERVISION RECOMMENDED FOR MINORS” is clearly the creation of someone alert to how the conventions of cartooning ­affect readers’ experience of the text itself. The biggest problem with Crumb’s project is that any drawing, by its nature, “concretizes, and thereby constrains, our imagination.” Consider the passage describing­ how, after the great Flood, for instance, Noah gets drunk and his son Ham famous­ly­ “sees” his father’s nakedness. Scholars still argue whether Ham’s act was simply a violation of a cultural taboo or if “to see someone’s nakedness” was an idiomatic reference to incest. Crumb, bucking his reputation, chooses the conservative interpretation. Myself, I prefer a Bible whose meanings “cannot be pinned down.”

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