In Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (Volume 5), the epic plot centers around a young woman named Barbie as she travels through the dream world to stop “The Cuckoo” from killing everyone inside. Despite the morbid xenocide that takes place, we learn in the end that the Cuckoo is not in fact, evil, but that her actions are merely part of her nature. And in the same pages we discover that the witch, Thessaly, who is initially presented as a co-heroine, is actually wicked. This wrestling with the nature of evil is the principal revelation of the book. Though it principally focuses on a single moral lesson, its aesthetic and philosophical relevance lie far beyond this single plot. Gaiman deals with the many paradoxes of being human–the moral one only being the most prevalent.
Perhaps the difference between Thessaly and the Cuckoo, is that the Cuckoo’s perceived evil is in balance with Nature; by contrast, Thessaly, the witch’s ambition lies far beyond her reach. Thessaly draws down the moon in order to transport her to the dream world. She claims ownership, and demands his obedience. The moon warns her, “You have disrupted the order of things […] One day there will be a reckoning” (Gaiman 88). We do not know just how soon this reckoning will come.
The Cuckoo succeeds in killing everyone, and Sandman himself is summoned for final judgement. As Thessaly arrives, she demands the right over the life of the Cuckoo. She implores to Sandman, “Dream king. That one there is my legitimate prey–she who calls herself the Cuckoo. She attempted to harm me. Her life is mine” (158). Sandman says no, her life is her own, and Thessaly is trespassing in this land.
Then Sandman ‘unmakes’ the land. He justifies what might at once seem like a sad and depressing chapter. “The land is old, and it is time for it to rest” (152). It is also the fulfillment of a contract. The land was created for the dreams of little girls. But he does acknowledge the present sadness. “Endings are mixed blessings” (157). All the characters, living and dead, vanish into the darkness of his cloak. He picked up the land, and it crumpled in his hand into dust.
In Why Ethical Criticism Can Never Be Simple, Booth argues that despite the ‘virtual’ quality of art, its impact on humanity is both powerful and essential. His dual theses pin all of art on the centrality of ethical considerations, ‘no matter how the term ethical is defined’. His specific definition, for the sake of clarity, is “the overall effect on the ethos, the character, of the reader” (George 25). The unique reversal of evil characters in this volume of Sandman has a lasting moral effect on the reader, perhaps teaching caution and forgiveness with the apparent evils that other people seem to cause us. Those who have a strict moral dogma might be outraged at the notion, because of its seemingly relativistic position. But Gaiman does not show evil as completely nonexistent, merely different from its initial appearance. Booth comments on such outrage, “Ethical judgements are by their nature controversial: the very point of uttering them is to awaken or challenge those who have missed the point” (27).
For three quarters of the novel, we are led to believe that the Cuckoo is evil. Sandman himself is the ultimate reconciler. “[The Cuckoo is] dangerous? Perhaps. But evil? She acts according to her nature. Is that evil?” (Gaiman 164). The setup is a crucial component of the narrative. If we had not made the pre-judgement about evil characters as the story progresses, we would not be able to identify the reversal. Booth in particular talks about the ‘implied author’ and the ‘implied reader’, and this fits well into the idea of a piece as a presentation of oneself.
The presentation of evil is something with which ethical critics are highly concerned. Some believe that the readers will be blindly influenced by the manipulative intentions of the author. Others understand that the ethical result is an emergent phenomenon; that readers can choose to take a critical stance or to suspend their disbelief, in reaction to the author. Booth expands on the complexity of ethics, “… we are dependent […] on an implied relation between our intentions and the intentions imbedded in the author’s choices” (George 28). Ideas can have a real effect on real people, and they hold a kind of solidity in our minds.
In Book X of The Republic, Plato describes how the real world is but a shadow of a higher reality. For Plato, this true reality is built purely out of reason. According to Plato these abstract objects are more true than reality. The characters in Sandman change in every issue, but they seem to be more vital in fewer pages than the real world is in real time. They capture the ideal, the archetype, and the essence of those ephemeral qualities. The act of personification is more than figurative for Plato, they are univocal. So we may nod and say, “Yes. Gaiman’s presentation of delirium, fate, death, and dreams, have a ring of truth to them which corresponds with human existence.” Delirium is personified with severe attention deficit, fate has problems with decision making, and death’s gift to humanity is, tragically, despised and feared. Even though they themselves are dreams, they have a childhood, they have friendships, and they have dreams.
Gaiman’s construction of the metaphysical world is even complete in scope. Every immortal is made of ultimately the same substance, though they have divided minds; and all creatures (human or otherwise) are composed of the immortals. Plato reasons: a true form is singular by necessity,
Because even if [God] had made but two, a third would still appear behind them, of which they again both possessed the form, and that would be the real bed, and not the two others. (Kaplan and Anderson 4)
This notion rests on the reducibility of concepts into components. By the same syllogism, one can quickly reach a holistic worldview (oneism, pantheism, theistic omnipresence). Each character has unique skills, flaws, and ambitions.
For Plato, all art is even further removed from the mental reality than reality, for reality is what builds our experience, and experience is itself the truest medium. The function of a bed is best known by using it, not by painting it or even building it. Thus the painter is thrice removed from the concept.
Then must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators, who copy images of virtue and the other themes of their poetry, but have no contact with the truth? (7)
However, Plato only sees imitation as a passive process, not a creative one. Hordes of artists from the rest of history would adamantly debate him, but we must admit that there are artists who thrive solely on formulaic renderings. Plato succinctly surmises, “[The poet understands] their nature only enough to imitate them” (7). And while such parasites dominate the profits of the market, this does not dishearten the passionate artist.
In Sidney’s Apology for Poetry, he stresses the significance and superiority of pathos in contrast to logos. He begins with the personal story of John Pugliano. “He said, soldiers were the noblest of estate of mankind, and horsemen the noblest of soldiers. […] if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse” (102). He emphasizes the qualities of nobility and beauty, and how these captivated his imagination far greater than any propositional statement or piece of legislation.
He even goes so far as to say that poets “grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature” (105). At the time he was writing, this could have been considered heretical, for in essence he was placing the ingenuity of man above that of God. Man’s imagination is not merely limited to possibility, as Aristotle deeply attested; but continually finds new combinations. The impossible becomes possible, it is an overwhelming prospect. In the suspension of disbelief, we become saturated with the frontiers of the future. What better basis for fantasy and science fiction genres could be described?
Sidney describes three ‘kinds’ of poetry, or I might think more aptly named ‘topics’ of poetry. Those that reveal the Divine, those that are philosophical, and those that teach and entertain (106-107). I think all three are present in some form in The Sandman. Its divinity is subtle, for God remains even further untouchable, and largely mysterious to the immortals themselves. Its philosophy is universal, bringing new perspectives to the considerations of everyday life. Its teaching and entertainment is sporadic and unkempt, behaving more like a puzzle than an instruction book.
Cuckoo birds are themselves usurpers, making a perfect analogy to the Cuckoo herself. And even though they take advantage over other birds, they would not be able to sustain taking advantage of every bird. The load would be too much to bear and the entire system would collapse. Instead, the Cuckoo is an exceptional character, only partaking the dreamland of a single individual out of the whole of humanity (even though it is directly responsible for a hurricane and other disasters in the real world). The underlying moral of the story bears striking resemblance to The Frog and the Scorpion, a variation of Aesop’s fable.
A Scorpion wanted to cross a river, but he couldn’t swim. So he went to the Frog, and asked for a ride. Frog said, “If I give you a ride on my back, you’ll sting me.” The Scorpion replied, “It would not be in my interest to sting you since as I’ll be on your back we both would drown.” Frog thought about this logic for a while, and accepted the deal. The Scorpion hopped onto the frog’s back when about halfway through the Scorpion developed an overwhelming urge to sting him. As he planted his tail deep into the Frog’s skin, the Frog cried out, “Why did you sting me, Mr. Scorpion? Now we both will drown!” The Scorpion replied sadly, “I can’t help it, it’s in my nature.”
Despite his cognizance of the self-danger invoked in his actions, he cannot overcome his most basic instinct. The Cuckoo is like a ‘dream virus’ of sorts: the dreamland acts as a nest free from dangers and provides a nurturing environment. But she’s outgrown the small world, and has the entire universe to explore. Sandman explains to Barbie that the Cuckoo is stuck in that skerry largely because of Barbie (Maybe it was the responsibility of every princess to close the contract, but it was delayed for many generations). Like a cornered cat, it is only natural to fight. The bird must leave the nest and learn to fly.
In Imaginative Writing and the Jewish Experience, Malamud talks about the applicability of stories to humanity. Whereby the story of the Jews, for instance, is not simply an ethnic history, nor even simply a creation-story, but a representation of humanity itself. “[…] the primal knowledge is that life is tragic no matter sweet or apparently full” (George 221). It is via the acceptance of the apple that we can see that it is wrong. This self-dooming knowledge is inescapable, prolonging the tragedy indefinitely. “[…] the antagonist seems no longer to be God but history” (222). History is just as unchangeable as God (in an abstract sense), but we imagine it is less judgemental. Malamud pins his hopes of circumventing the human tragedy via awareness and persistence. We are continually accountable, and therefore we have a continual opportunity to regain trust.
By braving the humanistic future with wild optimism, Malamud establishes the goal of human efforts:
The reader, in comprehending the art, frees the meaning, which in its totality contains the moral. To free it he must respond to the art with his deepest emotions; and to do so spontaneously and fully he must understand what is valuable in human experience. […] In literature, therefore, it may be said that morality becomes esthetic. It becomes–is–beauty; and that suggests the highest purpose of the writer: to create beauty indivisible from morality. (223)
This makes sense, for we know by experience that superficiality is ugly in a mask, and that truly beautiful situations often underlie hardship. And while the aesthetic movement clearly shows the existence of technical issues outside of morality, the true embodiment of beauty is deeper than that. One of the most crucial components of a character’s development is the pursuit of moral means or ends. If they are pursuing immorality, it still contributes to the moral question. Malamud clarifies this existential change:
[…] despite life’s tragic quality (a never-ending shipwreck, Ortega y Gasset calls it) the rewards of life, if not in sheer being (a miracle too often forgotten nowadays) are centered about a spirituality that raises man to his highest being. (221)
There is a lot of debate about whether or to what extent Albert Einstein was a spiritual man, but one of his most memorable quotes is about ‘existential inertia’. The universe’s greatest puzzle is why existence continues to exist. This is a wonderful, highly personal gift, if some Agent is responsible. If we only take for granted our existence, or become depressed because of some unfair hardship we have suffered, then we squander and disrespect a beautiful opportunity. Anne Frank establishes a duty we have to live our lives as best we can. “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
The Sandman accomplishes a masterful ethical commentary in Volume 5, though it reaches magnitudes over a simple cautionary tale. As humans, we are simultaneously humbled and lifted. For the epic scale of the stories render humanity as a feeble and ignorant child. On the other hand, we are brought to witness special events in the personified forces of the universe. Not only that, but the immortals’ very purpose is to serve us, in both their implied roles and in the act of literary entertainment. Life is both individually fragile and resilient as a whole. Humanity is both innately good and continually evil. Likewise we all hold positions of power; but also of vulnerability and disadvantage. How are we to respond to such a barrel of contradictions? We respond much the same as the characters of Sandman do: with sheer awe.
Booth, Wayne. “Why Ethical Criticism Can Never Be Simple.” Ethics, Literature, and Theory: An Introductory Reader. Ed. Stephen K. George. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. N. pag. Print.
Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman. Volume 5. DC Comics. 1991.
Malamud, Bernard. “Imaginative Writing and the Jewish Experience.” Ethics, Literature, and Theory: An Introductory Reader. Ed. Stephen K. George. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. N. pag. Print.
Plato. “Book X of The Republic.” Criticism: Major Statements. Ed. Charles Kaplan and William Anderson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. N. pag. Print.
Sidney, Philip. “An Apology for Poetry” Criticism: Major Statements. Ed. Charles Kaplan and William Anderson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. N. pag. Print.