Thursday, 2 April 2009
Dr Manhattan and Yahweh
Is the god-like Dr Manhattan from Alan Moore's Watchmen a parody of the God of Judaeo-Christian tradition? (That last phrase itself is a strange chimera.) It seems to work backwards - Dr Manhattan comes into existence by being 'unmade man' in a quantum accident, a single human body reassembled as an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being, a parodic inversion of the Incarnation. The 'Intrinsic Field Separator', in which man becomes god is a metal chamber that might well be a skit on the medieval typological commonplace of the womb of the Virgin Mary as the 'New Ark'. Covenanted to the Nixonian US as Yahweh is to the people of Israel, Manhattan fights in their wars, mercilessly blasting the Viet-Cong to bits. Compare Joshua 5:13-15, in which Yahweh himself appears:
13 And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand: and Joshua went unto him, and said unto him, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries?
14 And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the LORD am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him, What saith my Lord unto his servant?
15 And the captain of the LORD's host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so.
This is clearly softened, an angelic epiphany: scholars agree, I believe, that in older tradition it was undoubtedly Yahweh himself who appeared as a man with a drawn sword. (As Harold Bloom points out, we know what Yahweh looks like - he looks like us, or rather, we look like him.) We also see Dr Manhattan having one representative of the human race to whom he is bound, and to whom he speaks - Laurie Juspeczyk is Watchmen's female Moses, and Mars is her Sinai, in which she argues with the Lord as an advocate for his people. In his gloomy self-exiles, affect-driven rages, and intermittent disgust at humanity, Dr Manhattan is startlingly like the God of the early books of the Tanakh. And of course, the novel continues its reverse trajectory, ending with a renewed Genesis: Dr Manhattan leaves our galaxy, contemplating creating some human life of his own.
This kind of thing is characteristic of Moore's richly ironic imaginative capacity, of course. My friend Peter pointed out to me last night that in Moore's Victorian fiction mash-up The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we arrive at the Island of Doctor Moreau: the reader may or may not realise that Moore has made Moreau's animal-human hybrids, brilliantly but unobtrusively, into the characters from Mary Tourtell's Rupert Bear stories.