Looking at this web object, you might think that it is surely an epyllion graphicizer rather than an epyllionizer – it juxtaposes fragments of the text of “Venus and Adonis” with a collage of manipulated artwork to create a randomized graphic narrative (or webcomic) version of the epyllion. Yet each time my webpage generates one of the 191 952 possible combinations, it will expose a (sometimes unexpected) facet of Shakespeare’s poem but also stand on its own as a (very) miniature epic webcomic. Informed by the object-oriented philosophy of a universe filled with nothing but objects that are “strangely strange all the way down” it has been created to help us understand the objects of nature in “Venus and Adonis” by creating exponentially more objects – or if not understand, at least avoid reducing them to the sum of their relations (Morton, “Here Comes Everything” 184).
The epyllionizer is a web page that produces comics by randomly inserting lines from “Venus and Adonis” into two speech bubble slots and one caption slot around a single image. In order for the website to generate these lines, I curated a library of text objects in three categories: Venus’s dialogue (92 entries), Adonis’s dialogue (23 entries), and narration (85 entries). There are also 200 blank entries that I spread among these categories so that the comic’s slots would be empty at rates roughly proportionate to each category’s number of lines in the original poem (i.e. my Adonis speaks a tenth of the time because slightly less than a tenth of the poem is his speech). The text was copied from the Open Source Shakespeare website and, other than formatting, the only change was to remove short dialogue tags where they occurred mid-sentence. The image is a composite of animals, plants, landscapes, and one human figure which were cropped out of 33 paintings in the public domain (mostly 17th to 19th century European oil paintings). I did not manage to include every animal mentioned in “Venus and Adonis,” but the image does include: a hare, four rabbits, a fox, a bear, a lion, two tigers, two horses, giraffe, two doves, an eagle, a falcon, an owl, a snail, two deer, a boar, two dogs, a snake, and many sheep.
Does the amount of time the poem spends discussing the non-human demonstrate some kind of positive valuation of ‘nature?’ Or does the fact that this generally occurs within the context of figurative language or to illustrate arguments about human behaviour mean that nature is instead rhetorically instrumentalized? My first impulse of how to create a graphic adaptation that tilted things more in favour of the non-human was to make Adonis effectively disappear by making his body literally assembled out of parts of other objects. The flower version of his body that I ultimately created is therefore built out of fragments of the owl, tiger, falcon, rabbit, giraffe, sheep, and dress ruffles that appear elsewhere in the image. Having Adonis functionally absent while also present in a form that is more obviously vulnerable also appealed to me. It exaggerates the poem’s uneven power dynamic, which is one of the elements that I’ve always found quite compelling. More importantly, though, it seems to raise the question of appropriate and inappropriate ways to relate to different objects. Does respect, love, or lust, look the same when directed at a flower as when directed at a boy?
Against my initial intentions, the Epyllionizer’s image places more focus on the animals that appear in Shakespeare’s poem than plants, minerals, or other non-sentient objects. The reason for this is more practical than theoretical – I had more luck finding images of specific animals than specific plants, and as I began to assemble the image it seemed to me that stuffing it with animals was more eye-catching and that animal presence seemed to push back more strongly against the anthropocentricism of my foregrounded Venus. The text is much more focused on plant life, however. As I selected lines to use for the dialogue and narration I began to notice just how heavy the poem is on figurative language that refers to vegetation, and I ended up choosing as many of these lines as possible in order to play against the heavy visual presence of animals. It seems particularly appropriate, too, to have so much discussion of ripeness, growing, and nectar next to an image of a human addressing a plant. The fact that so many of Venus’s lines seem like they could be addressed to a plant make it clear that the issue of “human access” to real objects is also an issue for gods. As much as she uses every sense available to catalogue the traits of her beloved, Venus grasps at surface attributes – Adonis’s “sensual qualities” – and they seem to inevitably point to anything but Adonis himself.
Due to the randomness of the epyllionizer, many comics will have a somewhat nonsensical “conversation” between Venus and Adonis. As Loraine Fletcher points out, however, this is not entirely at odds with the original. She argues that “the animals communicate with each other or with a close observer, though they do not speak; while Venus and Adonis do the opposite, they speak but do not communicate, ignoring or rejecting one another’s meanings” (2). My comics seem to make the most ‘sense’ (or most resemble the original poem) when only one of the three slots happens to have text, but the incoherence that often occurs when two or three fields are populated nonetheless corresponds to this sense of expression at cross-purposes. Fletcher also understands the possibility of animal communication as standing in contrast to not only the non-communication of Venus and Adonis but also to the hermeneutic resistance of the poem itself. While many readers unsuccessfully struggle to understand the poem in terms of human (or godly) morality, she suggests that embedded narratives like the flight of Wat the hare are straightforwardly compelling: “we forget the deadlocked couple to follow Wat. He is more engaging and more human than the speaking characters” (8). This may be true of Shakespeare’s poem, but celebrating Wat only in terms of his supposedly human characteristics is this is a fairly limited and backwards position. Disrupting this possibility was one of the main reasons to diverge from my initial plan to make a multi-panel comic that had some form of linearity.
One of Timothy Morton’s clearest insights about the connection between object-oriented ontology and ecocriticism is his linking withdrawn objects (which Morton glosses as “we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either”) to what he calls the “strange stranger” – “an uncanny, radically unpredictable quality of life-forms” (“Here Comes Everything” 165). By preserving the abundance of animals inside “Venus and Adonis” but breaking them out of coherent narrative arcs, I hope the epyllionizer will maintain some degree of their strangeness – even as it clearly leans on conventional modes of their representation by human artists. Even without the abstraction imposed by my comic’s randomization, narration (or captions) on a single panel comic seems to invite ambiguity; in the absence of sequence and continuity the focus of narration seems to be less clear, and when no space is used for other panels graphic narration often becomes more nuanced. Although size, placement, saturation, and outlining put much more emphasis on the figures of Venus and Adonis in the epyllionizer, my hope is that when the generated narration fits poorly with these figures and/or the dialogue it will appear to apply just as much or more to other objects – thus making them stranger to the reader and detaching them from any obligation to serve as instruments of human moral allegories.
In order to actually discuss the specifics of my work, I saved images of a few of my favourite comics that the epyllionizer has created. However, I’ve come to realize that to do so would be both desperately old fashioned and potentially an undoing of the openness that I’ve tried to create. Timothy Morton claims that “Art forms have something to tell us about the environment, because they can make us question reality” which he connects to staying “as long as possible in an open, questioning mode” (The Ecological Thought 8). If this is the benefit of art, what good can possibly be said of any single act of literary criticism, which necessarily closes off meaning? Therefore, (although I have some hesitations about the broader applicability of his argument) I am going to suggest that my epyllionizer is an act of object-oriented literary criticism in the mode proposed by Graham Harman of criticizing texts by “showing that they are to some extent autonomous even from their own properties” (“The Well-wrought Broken Hammer” 202). Shakespeare’s poem, and the people, flowers, dogs, celestial bodies, and snails all have their own realities that withdraw from any impression that could be made by any single reader (or collective of readers). By adapting the poem into an object that is more obviously impossible to fully read while still only using Shakespeare’s original text, I hope that my epyllionizer will expose the necessary withdrawal of “Venus and Adonis” and everything within it.
Fletcher, Loraine. “Animal Rites: A Reading of Venus and Adonis.” Critical Survey 17.3 (2005): 1-14. ProQuest. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
Harman, Graham. “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object Oriented Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 43 (2012): 183-203. Project Muse. Web. 4 October 2015.
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.
—. “Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology.” Qui Parle 19.2 (2011): 163- 190. Project Muse. Web. 4 October 2015.
Shakespeare, William. “Venus and Adonis.” Open Source Shakespeare. George Mason University, 2016. Web. 24 April 2016.