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Tintin and the Secret of Literature

Tintin and the Secret of Literature by Tom McCarthy. Granta, 2006. 14.99 pounds (UK only as far as I can tell)

A rare book about Tintin in English, Tom McCarthy’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature so far is a UK only publication (you can order it from Granta’s website though), a 200 page hardcover featuring great cover art from (Oubapian) Jochen Gerner’s TNT en Amerique (where he created a whole comic from blacking out most of the art in a Tintin book). Unlike the previously discussed Benoit Peeters book, this book looks at the Tintin series as a whole, taking a broader thematic view of the books. McCarthy draws on a variety of sources and theoretical outlooks from Barthes’ narratology to Freud’s psychoanalysist, from biographical to close readings, with ideas borrowed from Derrida, Bataille, Baudelaire, and others.

McCarthy’s writing is clear and fairly jargon free (though I come to it having read broadly but shallowly in literary theory), probably accessible to any attentive reader. His readings and insights are astute and fascinating in a way that (again, like good criticism should do) made me want to reread the Tintin books (or read the ones I haven’t yet). My biggest issue with the book is that as a whole it does not flow well from one section to the next. The seven sections of the book have rather oblique connections, one to the next, and in the end I didn’t come away with any real conclusion. What is packaged like a single work reads like a collection of six essays that draw upon each other in different ways. Again, that ends up a small quibble, as the six sections themselves provide much to ruminate over.

My other issue is the way we once again get very little by way of discussing the comics as comics. That Tintin’s adventures come in the form of words and pictures is mostly neglected. McCarthy focuses on narrative and theme. This is my bias, of course, but it’s like discussing a novel without mentioned the way the words are put together, or discussing a painting without mentioning the paint.

But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a worthwhile read. McCarthy’s excavation of thematics and enigmas in the Tintin books expose a wealth of connections in Hergé’s oeuvre, such as: forgery/counterfeiting, the uncovering and recovering of enigmas, host/guest relations, the “profanizing” of the sacred, etc.

Briefly, part one outlines Barthes’ S/Z (again a touchpoint as it was for Peeters) and its discussion of a kind of economics of narrative, the contract of stories, the trading of stories. McCarthy relates this to events in the Tintin books and notes the prominence of interpretation and reading (and misinterpretation and misreading) in the stories. Tintin is the hero because he is best reader. A passage that I believe heads towards McCarthy main point (particularly that “secret” in the title):

Hergé’s work has what Barthes calls a ‘vanishing point’, a spot in which it ‘seems to be keeping in reserve some ultimate meaning, one it does not express’. It could be that this spot holds the ultimate truth of the Tintin books, their secret. Or it could equally turn out that this spot lies at what Barthes calls ‘the degree zero of meaning’; that what it holds in store is not the treasure of the unexpressed but, borrowing Barthes’ words agin, ‘the signifier of the inexpressable’. (29)

In this sense also, Tintin, whose name means “nothing” and who really has no personality, is as Hergé described him a “degree zero of typage”. A blank, a cypher.

Part two begins with Hergé’s early right-wing politics (in the first TIntin adventure he is sent to the Soviet Union to basically debunk communism) and his shift towards the left. In conjunction we see a shift from politics as the focus to friendship and a shift from the sacred to the profane. All of which gets wrapped together as the stories end up profanizing both politics and friendship by the end.

Part three enters psychoanalytic and biographical territory with Hergé’s family history: an unknown grandfather and the twins sons that were Hergé’s father and uncle (doubling here, which is another popular theme of the books). McCarthy uses a reading of Freud’s Wolf Man case (a reading of a reading) by Abraham, and Torok as a framework for unravelling Hergé’s family past and psychic trauma as it is evident in the Tintin books. It’s a fascinating read, in particular the idea (from Abraham and Torok) or a “crypt”:

…this is the name Abraham and Torok give the non-place at the heart of their thought. It is a loaded term that binds the architecture of burial to the language of secrets. Their crypt encrypts (both ‘crypt’ and ‘encryption’ come from the Greek word kryptos, “hidden”). It buries and, in doing so, generates noise, coded speech. The crypt is resonant. It is also porous: its secret words can travel (in, for example, the number of wolves in a dream) through the partitions between the conscious and the unconscious — provided they are encrypted. They can also travel onwards, hidden on the underside of actual speech or via actions which perform them while still leaving them encrypted (such as, for example, torturing an insect), out into the world. The crypt’s walls are broken; it oozes; it transmits. (82-3)

The crypt encloses trauma and its messages “reveal and re-encrypt, a double-move.” (84) McCarthy’s connects to a surprising number of scenes in the books where Tintin is enclosed in crypts and messages are transmitted. He also draws out the connection to artistic creation and the repetition of patterns and variations in the book.

Part four discusses the opera singer Bianca Castafiore (the only repeating woman character in the books), in particular in The Castafiore Emerald, and the idea of her jewels and castration. Part five looks at economy: gifts, counterfeiting (Haddock as a counterfeit, trying to pass himself off as the real thing), etc. McCarthy takes a concept from Derrida — tobacco as “pure loss: a luxury item, it goes up in smoke. But it also leaves remains, ashes, which maintain symbolic links to memory, death, and inheritance,” (135) — and traces the a number of tobacco related scenes in the books.

Part six takes a tour of comedy, in particular the fall as comedic and metaphorical. Part seven summarizes the relationship of the books with pirated editions and take-offs.

My brief summaries cannot do much to explain all that is here (if it were so easy, the book itself would not be necessary). There is much to chew on in McCarthy’s reading of the Tintin books and much to bring back to rereadings.