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The Walls of Samaris, Part 2: The Trompe-d’Oeil and you

by Julian Darius, published before on Sequart Research & Literacy Organization at Monday, 22 August 2011

Having introduced The Obscure Cities and walked through its first volume, The Walls of Samaris in some detail, I ended with that book’s conclusion. I’ll pick up there, so it’s necessary that you read part one of my look at The Walls of Samaris before reading this (you can skip the introduction to the series as a whole, if you so desire).

Read that? You back? Okay.

The conclusion of The Walls of Samaris reveals that Xhystos is a simulacrum like Samaris. At the end of part one, I promised to reveal how, in fact, Xhystos had been this all along.

In Samaris, Franz narrates how people, such as the governor, seem a little mechanical in their speech. Conversations repeat, and everyone seems rather formal and emotionless. Although we we’re not told that conversations repeat in Xhystos, that city always seemed formal and bureaucratic. Despite his wanderlust and later emotion, Franz certainly expressed those traits as well, and it was only his frustration in Samaris, when on the verge of lethargy, that caused him to express himself passionately.

One of the clues to the nature of Samaris is that Franz notes how he sees no children. We see no children in Xhystos either. Both cities seem to have few people with jobs, and those jobs (such as hotel manager, guard, or council member), seem repetitive, offering few unscripted encounters with strangers.

Underlining this, Anna, when Franz announces his mission, warns him of “falling into their machinations.” While the word “machinations” certainly applies to the workings of a bureaucratic, semi-authoritarian council, it also applies to machines, and all the language of machines that Franz applies to Samaris are clues to that city’s true nature.

But the ultimate evidence that Xhystos has always been a simulacrum comes from that odd, four-panel conversation between three unidentified characters at the trolley stop, in the book’s opening pages. One man says, “It’s now been two years… / They are hiding something from us, it’s certain / …I’ve always thought that’s the source of our malaise.” Franz also reports malaise, prior to his departure from Samaris. What “they are hiding” may well be the nature of Xhystos itself, and it’s obviously nothing new.

Further emphasizing this connection is the circular pattern on the trolley station, which looks like an art deco / Xhystos version of the sundew pattern.

But it’s the final panel of this sequence that clinches things. The story emphasizes that this panel is important by forgoing the narrative caption, which represents the story’s main narrative and which otherwise continues through what would otherwise be a four-panel digression involving three faceless, unknown characters.

The lack of a caption also emphasizes the word balloon, in which the cropped man says, ”They’re lying to us. They seek only to trick us.” His placement, at the extreme left of the panel, serves to hide his face from us, but it also serves to emphasize the background. We may be forgiven for thinking that this background is only present to provide Schuiten more space to render the architecture of Xhystos, since he’s already done so for two pages. But in fact, this background provides significant but subtle clues to the very nature of the city.

Note how Schuiten, renowned for his architectural detail, renders the distant buildings as flat spaces, not unlike the façades of Samaris? That’s a standard comic-book convention for backgrounds, allowing illustrators to save time and focus the eye on more important information, so readers may be forgiven for failing to notice it. But observe the people in the mid-ground, along the bottom of the panel. They’re rendered as flat, white boards, although they’re in front of a beautifully-rendered building. Nowhere else does Schuiten use this technique.

The double line around their edges even recalls the limited depth of the flat figures seen both in Samaris and in Xhystos’s council. And the lighting on the faceless man in the foreground, on the panel’s left, subtly echoes this effect. Whether he is himself a simulacrum or not, this provides a subtle visual clue.

And then there’s the dialogue about trickery. To trick is tromper in French. The verb is often used reflexively, as in “je me trompe,” which literally means “I trick myself” but which is best translated as “I made a mistake,” often used in conversation when someone wishes to correct what he or she has just said. What I’ve rendered here as “optical illusion,” to describe the true nature of the buildings and inhabitants of Samaris, is trompe-d’oeil in French (sometimes trompe-l’oeil, both variations with or without the hyphen), which literally means “eye-trick.” It’s actually a sub-genre of what we’d call optical illusions, which in English might include M. C. Esher drawings. But in French, trompe-d’oeil refers specifically to flat images designed to trick the eye into thinking that it’s seeing a three-dimensional image. Because of its more narrow definition, the French term is used in English in fine art circles, including art history. So when this unknown man says “They seek only to trick us,” he ends with the verb tromper, which is juxtaposed to these flat depictions of people and buildings.

The word he uses for “they” isn’t ils but on, which is best translated as “they” here but which means people more generally. On is the pronoun used to in French to say “one doesn’t do that.” It’s possible that everyone in Samaris, rather than just the council or the powers-that-be, is the “they” this man refers to. The pronoun on is also used in some expressions to mean “we,” as in the often-heard on y va, which literally means “one goes there” but which is best translated as “let’s go!” That’s not this man’s meaning here, because he also uses nous, and he wouldn’t mix on and nous if he meant both to mean “we.” But there’s nonetheless a hint of self-implication here, a tiny hint that what the man (whether he knows it or not) is really saying isn’t, “They’re lying to us. They seek only to trick us,” but rather “We‘re lying to ourselves. We seek only to trick ourselves.”

This aspect of self-implication is exactly what we find with the trompe-d’oeil, in which the viewer, through his or her eyes, plays a part in his or her own tricking. It is, like Samaris or Xhystos, a seductive illusion, but it’s one that we ourselves construct, in our eyes and in our brains, and find pleasurable even if, like these three men by at the trolley station and like Franz, we wish to resist being tricked.

The more one considers it, the more that single panel becomes haunting, as if the truth is right there in front of us, if only we’re willing to see.

The Trompe-d’Oeil and Art History

This concept of the trompe-d’oeil deserves additional attention, because it has a long history in art, one that directly informs the story of The Walls of Samaris.

The trompe-d’oeil has its origins in ancient Greek and Roman art, but it really took off in the Renaissance, with its discovery of perspective that used a vanishing point to create more realistic depictions than ever before. The idea of this art was to generate works that looked as if the viewer were looking through a window, and it’s a short step from this to the illusion of the trompe-d’oeil. But it was really in later, baroque art, known for its appreciation of fine detail and filigree, that the trompe-d’oeil took off.

In painting, this could take the form of a frame that was painted, rather than real, or a fly or a curtain, painted to look like it was sitting on the painting or draped over it. It could even take the form of a figure reaching out of the painting itself, as in the Spanish painter Pere Borrell del Caso’s 1874 Escaping Criticism. The technique could be adapted for furniture, so that a table could appear to have a set of playing cards on it, and for the interior of buildings, so that a wall might appear to have a door or items hanging on it that weren’t, in fact, there.

A more popular popular type of trompe-d’oeil was the ceiling painting that gave the illusion of three-dimensional space. This was used to create realistic illusions of Jesus ascending into Heaven, or the assumption of Mary, or of saints and angels rising into the clouds. But it was also used to trick the viewer into thinking that a building had a much higher and ornate vaulted ceiling than it really had. (That religion went hand in hand with trickery should not surprise us, given its history, but that’s a subject for a very different article.)

This technique was used in the Renaissance, but it was perfected in the baroque period, especially in Jesuit churches. The finest example is often considered the Jesuit church in Vienna, Austria, the ceiling of which was painted by Andrea Pozzo in 1703. Its ceiling is only slightly curved, but under Pozzo’s brush, it became an ornate vault with a much greater curve and a dome, all ornately decorated. But in fact, it’s all a sophisticated illusion, a trompe-d’oeil.

Of course, this technique was also adapted for theatrical sets, from the Renaissance onward, to give the illusion of an expansive, three-dimensional setting. Motion pictures continued this practice, although such paintings have today largely given way to computer-generated imagery (which may still be considered a trompe-d’oeil).

Today, the most famous contemporary trompe-d’oeil are architectural, although they call attention to themselves, producing pleasure rather than intending to deceive. They take the form of murals, and it sometimes seems as if every city has at least one.

France is no exception. In Paris, the façade of the Saint-Georges Theatre was repainted to add architectural details, including many windows that not only seem inset into the building but even contain painted illusions of passing clouds.

Lyon, France’s charming, second-most-populous city (not counting the suburbs, which would put Marseille in second place), has a more fanciful trompe-d’oeil mural, in which enormous books fill painted windows, which also have painted birds and a set of eyeglasses resting on them.

All of this strongly recalls The Walls of Samaris, lending credence to its depiction of a city that is nothing but an elaborate trompe-d’oeil. The false doors of Franz’s hotel in Samaris are perfectly in keeping with this tradition, and the stage lights atop the façades of Samaris reference the history of the trompe-d’oeil in theatrical and motion-picture set design. Moreover, the ability to create complex architectural illusions, as seen in church ceilings, lends credence to the idea of Samaris as one big, moving trompe-d’oeil.

Schuiten and Peeters certainly were aware of this history. In his afterword, Peeters describes the blend of architectural styles used for Samaris as “notably eastern architecture and the Renaissance style, but above all the baroque buildings that, so often, played with the trompe-l’oeil and whose ornate façades seemed to us to lend themselves admirably to the art of dissimulation.” Xhystos may have been an extension of Victor Horta’s work, beloved by Schuiten, but the architecture of Samaris was specifically chosen to reflect the history of the trompe-d’oeil.

The Trompe-d’Oeil and Culture

In art history, the trompe-d’oeil has always had philosophical implications. These go back to the ancient Greek tale of a context between the painter Zeuxis and his rival, Parrhasius. For the contest, Zeuxis created a still-life painting of grapes that was so realistic that birds flew down to peck them. Parrhasius’s painting was covered by tattered old curtains, and a confident Zeuxis demanded that his rival pull back the curtains and reveal the rival painting, which seemed certain to lose. Parrhasius then revealed that the curtains were his painting. It was a trompe-d’oeil. Zeuxis accepted defeat, saying, “I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.”

Several works of trompe-d’oeil have referenced the story, and several have included either grapes or false curtains. Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst seen by many as the successor to Freud, used the tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasius to illustrate a point about the difference between superficial appearances, like the illusion of grapes, and the hidden, as demonstrated by Parrhasius’s curtain. Throughout its history, the trompe-d’oeil has been a vehicle for discussing the nature of illusion and its effects, both pleasing and deceptive.

In his afterword, Peeters says that the whole story began with the idea of “an entire city that would be a trompe-l’oeil.” And it’s this theme that Peeters says he and Schuiten can still enjoy about the book, although what Peeters finds resonant about it is “this idea of a kind of universal conspiracy, this anguish, coming from childhood, of a world that is only lies and machinations, of a world where nothing is what it looks like.”

For Peeters at least, the revelation that Samaris and then Xhystos are false isn’t merely the clever idea of “an entire city that would be trompe-l’oeil.” It’s tied to Franz’s alienation, and it stems from a childlike rejection of the adult, bureaucratic world as unexamined and ultimately false — a world where titles “the order of the Grand Commander” and positions of authority like those of the council seem permanent and substantive but are ultimately only paper-thin words.

And kudos to Peeters for pointing this out. Because all “everything you know is wrong” stories have such overtones, but one wouldn’t expect the makers of, say, The Matrix to be sophisticated enough to recognize that their “it’s all an illusion” stories, while powerful, played with feelings generated, especially in adolescents, as they reject and adapt to the adult world. It’s the thoughtful creator who recognizes such overtones, even while acknowledging their continuing power into adulthood.

These overtones are perfectly suited to Xhystos, where no one seems to question the bureaucratic, vaguely authoritarian order. After all, the story isn’t really about Samaris; it only seems to be because of the secret of Samaris is so delightful and unique. The story is really that of Franz’s journey to Samaris and what that journey means to this inhabitant of Xhystos. It’s not too much to say that the story is really about the walls of Xhystos, as revealed by an encounter with The Walls of Samaris.

Taken on this level, it doesn’t matter whether the trompe-d’oeil that is Samaris or Xhystos makes perfect sense or whether it could be achieved in practice. After all, we don’t see behind the scenes of Xhystos, the way we do with Samaris. Rather, the city as trompe-d’oeil acts as a metaphor for Franz’s alienation and sense that the world is composed of “only lies and machinations.” And like Schuiten’s depiction of the trompe-d’oeil that is Samaris, this metaphorical meaning has roots in art history, through the story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius.

Whatever the workings of the city, Xhystos is a trompe-d’oeil because it is phony. It is a bureaucratic place with an oppressive air. Franz begins the story caught in that mentality, so much so that his relationship with Anna seems superficial. He rushes back to her, after his friends frighten him by mentioning Clara, but he displays no such emotion with Anna herself, nor to his friends. Anna quickly decides not to wait for him, effectively ending their relationship — or claiming that he has done so, by agreeing to take the mission to Samaris. When she initiates sex with him, it’s not to connect emotionally, merely to say goodbye. Franz is no more emotional: when he gets up from her bed to look out on the city, he’s already accepted that he’s leaving, implying that he’s already written Anna off. Similarly, he shows no signs of emotion when recounting that Anna wouldn’t come to the trolley to see him depart.

In Samaris, the hotel manager challenges Franz when he inquires about other hotels and ridiculously claims not to hear the noise Franz asks him about. In both cases, Franz’s reaction is to offer a polite apology. Similarly, he does not challenge the hotel manager’s unconvincing explanation of the boarded windows. Had he continued to press these issues, he might have found out the truth of Samaris far earlier, but instead he follows an unwritten code of polite behavior that doesn’t conform to the reality of the situation, in which he’s quite understandably confused at bizarre behavior. In doing so, Franz is actually being dishonest, as phony as the cardboard cutouts of people he will eventually encounter.

His relationship with Clara is equally dishonest. He spends weeks talking with her without engaging in real conversation, let alone confessing his feelings. He doesn’t even confess them to us, although they’re easy to guess.

It’s only when he feels himself becoming lethargic, as if his quotidian routine in Samaris is going to drain the last bit of vibrant humanity from him, that he acts to save himself by escaping. Of course, he doesn’t realize that he can’t escape: Xhystos is just as stifling, and that’s why he left, whether he knows it or not. It was only more seductive because it was home, and it offered the comforts of Anna and the Stork Club.

This rebellion against the lethargy of total acclimation to routine leads Franz to the one instance in which he acts like a three-dimensional human being with Anna, exploding about the monotony of his daily life when he asks her to leave with him. That he assaults her when she cannot explain her rejection of his offer is troubling, but it at least represents him breaking out of his cardboard politeness, and we may attribute the extremity of this action to how unpracticed he is at being anything other than polite.

His discovery of the truth about Samaris, which follows that very night, also represents a divergence from his own mechanical behavior: first by deciding to stay up all night, and then by attempting to break down what he thinks is another guest’s door, merely because a strange but non-threatening sound is coming from inside. It’s a great break from his past polite behavior.

Once he’s done this, of course, he cannot reintegrate with Xhystos, which is almost as mechanical as Samaris.

What Peeters describes as a story of adolescent suspicions that the whole world is false and superficial may also be seen as a parable about repression, in which going through one’s life politely, following social expectations, is tantamount to being cardboard, to being an automaton, to being a trompe-d’oeil.

Seen this way, The Walls of Samaris can be seen as a coming-of-age story, albeit with an older character. It can be read as social commentary, disparaging the repressive society of Xhystos.

In this, The Walls of Samaris has much in common with Blade Runner, released in the summer of 1982, the year before The Walls of Samaris was collected in book form (although I’m not arguing one influenced the other, merely for their thematic closeness). Both tell stories about falsehood and emotional repression, are remembered for their visionary cityscapes, and added philosohpical depth to their respective genre (sci-fi movies) or medium (comic books). But whereas Blade Runner, set in the future, uses androids to demonstrate the robotic nature of human society, The Walls of Samaris, imbued in art history, uses the idea of the trompe-d’oeil to demonstrate the same thing.

These two choices of metaphor is illustrative of the difference between America and Europe. America has traditionally located its Golden Age in the future, and that’s enshrined in its constitution, which proposes “a more perfect union”: in America, utopia is always just out of grasp. European nations may have different Golden Ages, but they’re uniformly located in the past, whether in ancient Greece or ancient Rome or in the British or French empires. Both views have their advantages and disadvantages. America’s lack of history has led to a sense of limitless possibility, of unlimited personal reinvention, as well as a sort of psychosis, in which this same lack of limits can lead to limitless disappointment, as well as a refusal to acknowledge facts or historical precedents. In Europe, where city after city is filled with centuries-old buildings, one is immersed in the richness of history, but the result can often be a sort of stagnation. So it’s natural that Blade Runner, produced by an English director but by an American studio and based on an American novel, would use the futuristic metaphor of androids, whereas Peeters and Schuiten would choose a metaphor with deep roots in European art history. And the richness of this metaphor, which is able to inform nearly every aspect of the story, demonstrates the power of this more European approach.

The social critique that it contains is also particularly European. Even putting it in terms of repression, as I have, reflects my American bias. In fact, the culture of Xhystos that the story criticizes, as Peeters describes it, sounds like it suffers from a very distinctly European form of the blues: Peeters calls it “calm and a little fatigued, almost maternal in its enveloping power.” It is a European bureaucratic state, one filled with a plethora of beautiful buildings but lacking that emotional expression that Americans take for granted. It’s no coincidence, then, that the book’s criticism of this state is, for Peeters, tied to childish feelings — and not only because he was a younger writer at the time. In the younger nation of America, we generally have a more hostile attitude towards repression, even as adults.

Of course, even if Peeters and Schuiten outgrew the book’s social critique, that doesn’t make it any less powerful. Similarly, the fact that I’ve put that critique into somewhat American terms doesn’t mean those terms don’t apply.

And the trompe-d’oeil offers a unique means of making this critique because of its dual nature as both a deception and a delight. The repressed societies of Xhystos and Samaris are comforting, and their architecture is delightful. Routine and rules bring comfort, if not fulfillment. Franz certainly finds his own repression comforting, and that’s why it’s hard for him to break out of it. It seems to be his automatic response to an unfamiliar situation, as if slipping into a habit. But once Franz sees this comfort for the deception that it is, there’s no going back.

The Trompe-d’Oeil and Comics

But besides carrying art historical and philosophical depth, the theme of trompe-d’oeil also reflects the comics medium itself — and appropriately so, for a book and a series defined by their ambition.

After all, comic books are flat works of art that, as narrative, construct not only a three-dimensional space but a four-dimensional one, through their depiction of time. Yet these additional dimensions are only an illusory. The good comic book is usually one that conveys these illusions well enough to make the reader believe in and care about them.

In other words, the medium of comic books may be seen as an advanced version of the trompe-d’oeil.

This to is implicit in that same panel, from the end of the conversation between three men at a trolley station in Xhystos. The panel’s use of flat people and buildings certainly invokes the trompe-d’oeil. But we, as readers familiar with comics, probably don’t recognize this immediately because such flat renderings are so common in the medium — even if they’re uncommon in Schuiten’s work.

In this panel, Schuiten and Peeters do the trompe-d’oeil one better: they manage to trick us, in the manner of a trompe-d’oeil, into not seeing the obvious trompe-d’oeil in the panel. And they’re able to do so precisely because of the grammar of the comic-book medium.

It’s a trompe-d’oeil squared, a meta-trompe-d’oeil, if you will — one that points to the medium itself as a trompe-d’oeil.

The idea of comics as a form of trompe-d’oeil is similar to what Grant Morrison has said about the flat page of the comic book acting as a sort of hologram, which is constructed in the nexus of the creator and the reader, requiring the participation of both. Except that Grant Morrison, who is Scottish but writes for American audiences, uses a technological or even a sci-fi metaphor, whereas Peeters and Schuiten use an art historical one — which reproduces the American / European dichotomy between the trompe d’oeil and Blade Runner‘s androids, discussed earlier.

The choice of the trompe-d’oeil as metaphor for comics also works perfectly with Schuiten’s realistic style, filled with detailed architectural renderings that utilize perspective to their advantage. His realism is no more common in European comics than it is in American comics, and the idea of comics as trompe-d’oeil shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of less realistic or more cartoony artistic styles. But this metaphor does seem suited to Schuiten’s style to such a degree that it’s hard to imagine many other artists pulling it off.

This is one way in which The Walls of Samaris works especially well as the first book in The Obscure Cities. Yes, Schuiten and Peeters returned to many of its its themes, as Peeters says in his afterword. But The Walls of Samaris also begins the series with a volume that revolves around a metaphor for the medium itself, one with art historical roots — roots the series will continue to explore. It’s a metaphor for comics that intimately tied to Schuiten’s style, which has come to define the series. And it’s perhaps the most ambitious idea in a book — and a series — defined by ambition.

Next time, I’ll reveal more secrets of the book, including how Samaris “consumes” its visitors, how to understand Franz’s apparent jump forward in time, and other unanswered questions. Thanks for reading about this French comic you probably haven’t read!