Dread apparition in the sky!
A roaring star is dislodged, is falling toward us, and is burning up the world. Follow our hero, Tintin, and look through the lens of Professor Phostle's telescope.
Will that which comes unbidden from the dark deep of space, that monster of impersonal destruction, that which is alien to life, our life … will it burn us and smash us to smithereens?
No, because The Shooting Star (L'Etoile Mysterieuse in its original French) is an entertainment by comic artist Herge. Any prophecy of doom will turn out to be a silly miscalculation.
No doom. There is an earthquake when a fragment of that fiery messenger plummets into our small, closed atmosphere. A chunk of meteorite crashes into the Arctic Ocean and bobs there -- a floating island like a burning shard of unconscious content irrupting into the chill, conscious light of day.
A good-vs.-evil race begins. Two ships launch, each hoping to land first on the meteorite island and claim its extraterrestrial metal. The Aurora is led by good guys -- egg-head intellectuals in pursuit of scientific knowledge (with Tintin along as reporter.) The Peary is crewed by baddies after materialistic profit.
Here is romance. Worlds do not end and heroes do not die in Herge stories. Instead, the pure-hearted protagonist embraces a noble quest that takes him through exotic lands. The hero’s purity of purpose, most clearly expressed in Tintin’s bland, uncanny face, may be what saved Herge, the man, from artistic oblivion. Herge came close to being burned and smashed himself.
L'Etoile mysterieuse was first published in 1942 in Nazi-occupied Belgium, even as World War II was smashing and burning Europe. Herge was 35 years old, a native Belgian, ambitious, and not about to let war interrupt his career. He’d invented Tintin in 1929.
The author’s true name was Georges Remi, but he turned it inside-out and called himself by the French pronunciation of his reversed initials – RG, or Herge. He had talent, as well, for turning circumstances inside-out.
During the war, Herge continued his Tintin strip by publishing with a Nazi controlled newspaper. The original L'Etoile Mysterieuse is crassly anti-Semitic. All good-guy scientists are also white-guys hailing from Axis controlled or neutral European countries. They chase across the ocean in competition with a ship flying the American flag and owned by a rich, conniving Jewish-American banker.
After WWII, when The Shooting Star was republished, its most offensive panels were deleted or redrawn (although a Jewish name and a softened caricature remain.) The Peary’s flag was changed into that of a fictional Central American country.
Was Herge an Axis sympathizer? He certainly appeared reconciled to the German invasion and their New Order. His country, Belgium, had tried to remain neutral when the war started. Perhaps Herge continued with the same strategy on a personal level, remaining neutral and pragmatic.
At war’s end, four different groups accused Herge of Nazi collaboration. He was arrested but never brought to court, and he nursed bitterness about those allegations for the rest of his life. Herge’s immediate postwar reputation was sullied, but the support of friends and the popularity of his hero Tintin overcame war memories. Herge went on to write block-buster Tintin stories until his death in 1983. Most fans and biographers forgive Herge any lapses in judgment and grant him the Indulgence of being an artist trying to survive and create during crisis.
Why are his readers so generous? What gave Herge the artistic resilience to survive black-listing? What is it about the character Tintin that engenders magnanimous feelings toward his creator?
Look at Tintin’s face. His regular demeanor is the universal expression of neutral, unadulterated surprise.
Psychologist Paul Ekman, in his book Unmasking the Face, describes surprise:
The brows are raised, so that they are curved and high.
The skin below the brow is stretched.
Horizontal wrinkles go across the forehead.
The eyelids are opened; the upper lid is raised and the lower lid drawn down; the white of the eye – the sclera – shows above the iris, and often below as well.
The jaw drops open so that the lips and teeth are parted, but there is no tension or stretching of the mouth. (pg. 45)
When Tintin does register a response, and moves beyond simple surprise, he takes on the blend of surprised happiness expressed in the iconic Smiley face.
Most of the time Tintin appears simply stunned. He maintains a detached look of astonishment, of non-judgmental wonder and amazement – that instant when a person is caught unaware, rendered speechless, taken aback. “Surprise is the briefest emotion,” according to Ekman, a resourceful researcher who’s branded himself as a guru on facial expression. He writes, “[Surprise] is sudden in its onset. If you have time to think about the event and consider whether or not you are surprised, then you are not. You can never be surprised for long, unless the surprising event unfolds new surprising elements.” (34)
The constant unfolding of new surprises describes Herge’s storytelling style, fast paced and full of the unexpected. Tintin comes honestly by his perpetual shock. But Ekman stresses the brevity of real-life surprise. It is of the moment. “Surprise lasts only until you have evaluated just what it was that occurred. Once you have determined the nature of the surprising event, you are no longer surprised.”
Herge’s plots are episodic and rapidly resolved. Each event leads to a quick punch-line. The reader can take time to react, but Tintin does not. He is on to the next situation. He simply acts. He does not process events … does not analyze or judge. He is the wide-open innocent, the holy fool, who responds instinctively, from his hero’s pure heart, without assessment or reflection. He always chooses rightly. We cheer his good results because they prove his inner goodness.
Like all romantic questers (an American version is Huckleberry Finn), Tintin embarks on a thrilling, magical, pulse-pounding adventure guaranteed to yield a victorious, yet (and this is crucial) bittersweet ending. It is the formula for a coming-of-age story … except that Tintin doesn’t age.
In the real world, the surprises resulting from innocence lead to reflection, and that develops into experience. Every time we are shocked into wonder, we are stimulated to reconsider what we know of the world and to integrate the new piece of information. Somehow, we will react, and our initial surprise melts into another cognitive state with which we interpret the event. Ekman writes,
Once you have evaluated the unexpected or misexpected event, you move quickly from surprise into another emotion. … [S]urprise itself is neutral in hedonic tone. It is, rather, the following emotion that gives a positive or negative tone to the experience, depending upon the nature of the event. Surprise turns to pleasure or happiness, if the event is or foretells something you like. Disgust greets the noxious or distasteful event. If the event is provocative of aggression, surprise yields to anger. And if the event poses a threat which you cannot obviously mitigate, you feel fear. (35-6)
So what does it mean when Tintin breaks this emotional “rule”? ... when his face remains fixed in a stunned look and does not morph as expected?
My first reaction when I encountered Tintin, was to be put off by that vacant, rather stupid, non-reactive persona. He didn’t provide clues, positive or negative, so I put my own spin on it and decided he was dumb.
Ah! Intelligence must be important to me. Lack of it was the first cognitive state I assigned Tintin. His empty face became a mirror reflecting back my own insecurities and prejudices. (This embarrassing insight came much later.)
I continued reading, mainly out of curiosity. Why is he so beloved by a wide public? Tintin is not my cup of tea. I’ll never be a fan. But, like others, I discovered that Herge’s plots are fun, the jokes are comfortably predictable, the characters are amusingly wacky. The story is a pleasant diversion. Suddenly Tintin was not stupid, but clever and resourceful and brave in his cartoon way. Without my knowing it, Tintin lured me into filling his emotional blanks so I could better enjoy the story. Tintin sucked me into a strange codependency, where I supplied his missing affect.
Once I become an invested reader, I won’t allow Tintin his perpetually empty neutrality. That would make him uncanny, otherworldly, non-human. Instead, I look past his wonderment and flatter myself that I know him. But Tintin has nothing internal to know. He wears a mirror into which I gaze approvingly and interpret my own reflection.
The human brain is wired to interpret … something, anything. We crave meaning, which we invent by looking for patterns. Perhaps this yearning is the reason neutral surprise lasts such a brief spell. Our neediness doesn’t tolerate unasked, unanswered questions. The insatiable monkey mind of the brain insists on judgment. It cannot balance on a peak of pure, numinous wonder, but slides into emotionally charged reaction.
Unhappy, damaged people project onto Tintin as easily as does any other reader, which means that all is not going to be wholesome in Tintin-land. He may be blond, apple-cheeked and wide-eyed, accompanied by a spunky dog, but there is darkness in his holy fool act.
Paul Ekman has more to say about the “surprise” facial expression. Of all the emotions, it is the easiest to fake and the easiest to use for deception.
Surprise can be used to mask any other emotion. For example, if you are told of someone’s misfortune and are supposed to feel sad but really feel glad, you may mask with surprise. In fact, some people habitually react with apparent surprise to any piece of information to avoid showing their immediate emotional response... The clue that the surprise expression is a mask should be timing. It must be prolonged to succeed in concealing, but as we explained earlier, surprise is a brief emotion. If it is prolonged, it is likely to be false. (148)
The ever-ready expressor is the label Ekman gives to a person who chooses one safe facial expression and hides other emotions behind it. Ekman could be describing Tintin when he writes, “An ever-ready expressor might, for example, show a surprise face to good news, bad news, angry provocations, threats, etc. No matter what happens, surprise is his initial expression.” (156)
Herge, the comic artist, chose wisely when he masked Tintin with surprise. He masks himself as well. He becomes the neutral narrator, the invisible story-teller, the clever spinner of adventure tales for a universal audience. If he has an agenda it is masked along with Tintin’s emotions. If an unfortunate bit of agenda leaks through (like an anti-Semitic joke), it can be corrected (redrawn or excised) without major loss of face. Pun intended?
Herge dodged politics during a time when politics meant life or death. He maintained neutrality during the occupation of a brutal enemy. I want to say he stayed neutral beyond what is ethical. But I am a poor one to condemn Herge, having never faced such danger.
The hopeful among us can call it a tribute to human nature that Herge survived blacklisting after World War II. Readers looked into the mirror of Tintin’s face and saw goodness rather than deceit. That means more people are wholesome and virtuous than are suspicious and evil-minded. Right?
Or ... perhaps it’s a tribute to human gullibility. Herge’s popular success could mean that too many people are naive dupes eager to grin at themselves in any mirror. After all, psychopaths lure victims this way. The con-artist acts the part of a charmed looking-glass, reflecting back to the mark his or her own earnestness and sincerity. Oh, dear. Perhaps Herge was just a comic con-artist.
I don’t think so. Because the con-artist feels no remorse, and there is evidence that Herge suffered deep anguish after the war. “Exhaustion” and “nervous breakdown” are euphemisms used by biographers to explain at least three episodes when Herge retreated from the world. In the late ‘50s Herge consulted a psychiatrist to whom he described nightmares of blank whiteness. Herge ignored the doctor's advice that he stop cartooning. Instead, he self-medicated with art. It appears to have worked. Herge banished his bad dreams by writing and drawing Tintin in Tibet, page after page of snowy, frozen whiteness through which Tintin searches for Chang, lost friend of his youth. The adventure was published complete in 1960.
Artistic redemption. Tintin in Tibet has all the story elements of a hero’s journey into the underground of his own soul, on a quest to recover and reintegrate a part of himself that he lost long ago. And sure enough, after its publication Herge’s life stabilized. He stopped procrastinating and acted on several major life decisions, one of which was to divorce his estranged wife. He immersed himself in abstract art and painting. He began an ambitious schedule of travel. He regained artistic control over the publication of his stories. We are not told of any more break-downs or bad dreams.
The character Chang did, in reality, represent a lost part of Herge’s youth, both personally and artistically. Chang was based on a real-life friend from the 1930s, sculptor Chang Chong-jen. During his stay as an art student in Brussels he served as Herge’s China expert for the 1936 Tintin adventure, The Blue Lotus.
Herge found it rewarding to research a foreign culture and translate it into a setting for his boy-reporter’s story. This marked a turning point in Herge’s art. After The Blue Lotus, he continued to invest the same care in background detail. His drawings became a sort of National Geographic of cartoons.
After the real-life Chang returned to China, real-world upheavals caused the two friends to lose contact. These were the same upheavals that led Herge to lose or betray a part of his soul. The character Chang also disappears from Tintin’s life. From ’36 to the late fifties, he is absent. Then, unexpectedly, like a ghost from a Greek epic, Chang reappears in a dream, calling to Tintin. The past can no longer be ignored.
This is the supernatural summons of a forgotten friend.
Soon afterward Tintin learns that Chang is dead, killed in a plane crash on a Tibetan mountainside. At least the newspapers say Chang is dead. Tintin hears an improbable inner voice telling him otherwise. Against all common sense and worldly advice he travels to Tibet, to the scene of the accident, on a desperate mission to recover the unrecoverable, to resurrect the dead.
Tintin finds the wreckage amid sublime scenery of cold, still, impersonal, ancient mountains. To me, this picture is a graphic portrayal of a broken soul. That part of us, made to fly above the mundane world, is smashed beyond repair. That part of us, holding the warmth of compassion and joy, is snapped apart - the heat hemorrhaged away and the remains frozen. That vehicle which houses the “better angels of our nature” to guide and comfort us, is lost in a hostile wilderness.
Today we might call this a self-portrait of a psyche shattered by PTSD. War and violence crash many souls in our brutal world. In real life, a wreck this total would be un-salvageable. Fortunately, in the symbolic world of the soul physical laws do not apply.
In the dream world, the Self is not one self-contained entity. The Self opens to reveal its inner workings as a complex society where multiple personalities interact. Each dream character or object can be seen as representing one part of the whole dreamer. Similarly, a story can be looked at as a inner drama. The story characters become the competing inner voices that cause strife and conflict within each of us.
Read this way, Chang, the one surviving crash victim, becomes the one weak, wounded but surviving piece of a war ravaged soul. Even symbolically, he can’t endure a Himalayan blizzard. He needs a rescuer.
And a savior appears.
We each have this inner resource/rescuer. It lurks in the bleakest, most isolated and frozen wasteland of the psyche. It’s a resilient part of the Self, a part not fully human - more like a hybrid beast-person. Tradition calls it by many names: the Tibetan Migou, the Nepalese Yeti, the English Abominable Snowman. This creature lives wild and is unable to join or communicate with the society of the Self. But it recognizes helplessness and distress. It takes hostage whatever lost piece of soul might crash in its inhospitable corner of our being. This hostage-taking is usually benign. The creature keeps its captive alive but under primitive conditions, separate and apart and deeply hidden from the conscious attention of the Self.
Edgar Rice Burroughs conjured the same creature to rescue infant Tarzan. Burroughs invented a species of Great Ape he called the Mangani, sub-human, but with its own culture and language. His story told about the feral child, so his isolated environment was the hot, moist, fecund jungle.
Herge’s beast-person, as drawn for Tintin in Tibet, is predictably more buffoon than monster, a shy, lonely, gorilla-type creature, more fearful than aggressive. In its possession, Chang is as helpless as a baby except for the one thing a baby can do, which is cry. Chang sends his call for help through the thin atmosphere of the dream world, and a snoozing Tintin picks it up.
Chang’s call is the signal needed to galvanize the conscious mind: somewhere in the wilderness is a lost piece of itself. Like the shepherd of Christian symbolism, if even one lamb is missing from the flock, the Hero Self must go out into the dark night and retrieve that orphan.
And since this is a Tintin story, no one will be surprised to learn that against all odds, Tintin rescues Chang (by shining the camera-light of consciousness on the Yeti) and is reunited with his friend. That resolution happens in 1960. And we already know how the symbolic reintegration calmed Herge’s soul.
What is astonishingly unbelievable, beyond the scope of the most outrageous Tintin adventure, is that twenty years later, in 1982, the real Herge and the real Chang Chong-jen come face-to-face in the real world. The odds against this are so incalculable that the event is worthy of Tintin’s permanent expression of utter surprise.
Each man, in separate parts of the world, endured the greatest upheavals of the gory twentieth century, and after decades of violence, dislocation, and death, managed to find the other and reconnect. To put perspective on how incredible this was for them to survive and then to meet, read on for some numbers from The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities by Matthew White. (I recommend White's book as an antidote to self-pity and complacency.)
It is not possible for the meek human brain to conceptualize that World War II caused, from 1939 to 1945, the deaths of 66 million human beings - that's 66,000,000 ...
... 20 million soldiers and 46 million civilians. White ranks World War II at the top of his list of “The One Hundred Deadliest Multicides” in world history (529). So first, Herge and Chang had, each separately, to survive the horrors of global cataclysm. When I try to imagine the magnitude of suffering in Europe and China respectively, it makes clear that any person, lasting through this, would lose a big part of his or her soul, just by having experienced such trauma.
Once Herge made it through WWII, he had “only” the vicissitudes of personal fate with which to struggle. Chang was not as fortunate.
Mao Zedong took over a war ravaged China and, from 1949 to 1976, reduced the population by another 40 million murders. White awards Mao Zedong’s rule the number 2 spot on his list and writes, “Mao is almost certainly the deadliest individual in history to have wreaked havoc inside a single country.” (429)
Actually, Mao’s claim to the number 2 spot is a tie with Gengis Khan, but the Khan killed over a much wider area.
Mao’s horrors were creative. He collectivized China’s farms, which resulted in the most ghastly famine of world history. White admits he doesn’t know if 30 million deaths from starvation make Mao “among the ten most evil people of history, or merely among the ten most incompetent.” (433) Those victims he didn’t starve to death, were tortured and killed in various purges and work camps. Chang hid as a street sweeper, to avoid the terrible Red Guard who sought to eliminate exactly the sort of person he was, an educated, Westernized intellectual.
Chang’s survival is a bona fide miracle. A person of faith might say that his reunion with Herge was a supernatural event staged by God. My take is that it is an astounding trick of probability, infinitely mysterious and charged with wonder because of its randomness. I believe all events of life have this numinous charge, but we are jaded. We tend to notice those phenomena that are outliers.
Tintin, child hero, is the opposite of jaded. If I will tear myself away from that mirror where I’m preening, maybe I can enjoy Tintin as a cartoon-Buddha, detached from the eight worldly concerns of gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disgrace, happiness and suffering. It may be the closest I get to Enlightenment.
Herge's personal story is as well-plotted as his fiction. In 1942 a fragment of The Falling Star crashes and burns and sinks into the ocean. In 1960, Herge recovers a piece of that same star from the frozen heights of Tintin in Tibet. Herge fixes the star back in his personal sky and in 1982 seals it in place with the help of his re-discovered friend. Like this circle of angels, the circle of his life is complete.
Real life is not supposed to be that tidy. Herge and his dumb-founded Tintin will always be a mystery.