Book Review: Spiritual thought becomes grist for new graphic novel

Book Review: Spiritual thought becomes grist for new graphic novel

By Keith Armando Gomes | | 11 March, 2017
This Dog Barking, James Farley, Tibetan Buddhism, Richard Wagner, Nicholas C. Grey, U.G. Krishnamurthy, Theosophist Society, Harper Element
Multiple-panel sequence from the graphic novel, This Dog Barking.
Nicholas Grey and James Farley’s graphic novel, This Dog Barking, recounts U.G. Krishnamurthy’s life, its trials, and his revolt against the orthodoxy of spiritualist thought, writes Keith A. Gomes.

This Dog Barking

Publisher: Harper Element

Pages: 145

Price: Rs 599

James Farley, in a letter he wrote to the editor of his graphic novel, This Dog Barking, uses a particular term: “total art”, something he can link to Richard Wagner, the composer, and to Tibetan Buddhism. What Farley emphatically tries to convey is his understanding of the graphic novel as a form which finds hard to attain equipoise in itself. He remarks that all aspects, which include the plot, the characters, the art and the intellect, of the work must form a cohesive whole. The fear, he believes, is the state when either the art or the intellect gets highlighted, but not both.

This Dog Barking — co-authored by Nicholas C. Grey, a self-taught artist, and James Farley, a literature graduate from Oxford University, who now does social work — is an attempt at attaining this cohesive whole.

The graphic novel is a biography in black-and-white artwork, of a rather unheard-of figure from the recent past of the planet: U.G. Krishnamurthy. The man is notable due to his contention with primary religious figures like “Jesus, Buddha and the whole gang” and their idea of “enlightenment”. His contention begins with his question: “What is that state?” and his journey from this point on builds the narrative of the text.

Another aspect of the work that creates indelible effect is the colourless art which surrounds the word-bubbles. The art at first reminds one of “chiaroscuro”, the study of the play between light and dark in art, photography and cinema which helps to create deep images. Even though the graphic novel does not explicitly attune itself with the idea, it nonetheless, in its use of black-and-white and deep layers of images, creates a space where light comes into play with darker shades, especially when the work tries to expose workings/processes that are not simply expressed in words. Many of the mental trance images in the text have the effect of “play”, which even though delightful can also take the reader/receiver into an overwhelming and engrossing nosedive.

The text follows the simple structure of a conversation taking place in a room where U.G. Krishnamurthy is seated among “seekers”. But unlike the expected image of the spiritual teacher who has forsaken all for “enlightenment” and sits under a tree, U.G. Krishnamurthy is seated on a sofa in a living room in California, drinking coffee. It is within the dialogue between the “seekers” present and U.G. Krishnamurthy that the entire text resides. While the dialogue provides the reader with the content, the recollections of how this knowledge came to form a subterranean space. The text also, very effectively, tries to understand the value of words themselves. Primary questions like “What is this state?” are not simply in bubbles but become somewhat materialised and surround the characters. This is an interesting exercise since it also helps to highlight Krishnamurthy’s idea of thoughts being outside and around us.

The book introduces the Theosophist Society, which tried to “form a universal brotherhood of humanity, encourage the comparative study of religion and investigate the unexplained laws of nature”. The ideas of this society professed human conscious participation in the process of cosmic evolution. It was under this school that the famed Jiddu Krishnamurthy came before the eyes of the world as the “World Teacher”, and went on to abandon the whole effort by claiming, quite unclearly, that truth was a pathless land where none could reach.

The text also, very effectively, tries to understand the value of words themselves. Primary questions like “What is this state?” are not simply in bubbles but become somewhat materialised and surround the characters. 

Krishnamurthy, whose grandfather was an ardent disciple of the society, grew under its influence and entered into the pursuit of understanding spiritual existence. It is on his journey to understand “enlightenment” that he came to figure his own idea of the “natural state”. The text foregrounds this journey to the “natural state”.  The journey involves Krishnamurthy, who in no way is related to Jiddu Krishnamurthy, coming into contact with various members of Eastern philosophy. The text and the art unite to form myriad images on the glossy sheets, in order to convey with utmost clarity the ideas of many great spiritualists like Swami Sivananda and Sri Ramana Maharshi, along with other central figures like Gautama Buddha, Shankara and Lao Tzu. His interaction with the spiritualists and their teachings creates the rich matter of the text, which is what makes it a riveting read.

It is here that it must be mentioned that the textual content sometimes gets so captivating that you almost begin to slide from one bubble to the next while ignoring the images. But this is counter-productive, because once you break out of the movement you are left in a stagnant moment where you carefully observe, analyse and fathom each image that is on the page.

U.G. Krishnamurthy’s leap into his own understanding took place after he came into physical contact with Jiddu Krishnamurthy. He endured a painful state, in which he gave up on the material and social needs of his life and began to

wander from one country to another. It reminds one of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, since it echoes a similar pursuit. But in this case the critical moment is when U.G. Krishnamurthy learns of silence and what he calls the “comparative mind” — a state when the mind compares two experiences of silence. This along with the question of “enlightenment” is what takes him to his key point.

The text and the art unite to form myriad images on the glossy sheets, in order to convey with utmost clarity the ideas of many great spiritualists like Swami Sivananda and Sri Ramana Maharshi. 

The first page of the book shares quotes on “thought” by James Joyce, Friedrich Nietzsche and Milan Kundera. At this point of the text something, which sounds similar to Kundera’s ideas, becomes visible as U.G. Krishnamurthy’s key point — all thought comes to us, and none of it is truly ours to begin with. He tells of how culture conditions us and how all knowledge is nothing but something being passed from one generation to the next as the collective knowledge of human consciousness. This leads him to explain that all continuity which is visible to us is nothing and is created by thought. Through the images in the book, we can see the way Krishnamurthy perceives the world. He sees nothing in continuity; everything is seen in single frames which are separate from each other and all this information is experienced by parts of him. He believes that the body is not there; only the thought of it makes it whole.

There were physical symptoms to all the realisations that took place in Krishnamurthy, and these are also shared in the art of the book. Surprisingly, all these symptoms are adaptations of various spiritualist myths — the lotus-shaped swelling on the forehead and the snake-shaped swelling around the neck, which recalls the Buddha and Shiva respectively. U.G. Krishnamurthy shares details of his conversations with Aldous Huxley, and goes on to state that “the psychedelic experience is the basis of religious experience. The great spiritual heritage of India, of which they are so proud, was created by acid heads”. But these aren’t the only links he establishes.

He goes on to question the listeners present in the room and addresses them in the second person with the pronoun “you”, which sometimes creates the impression that he breaks out of the work and addresses the reader. His answers show an indifference to the world and its calamities, he talks about the clinically insane, the purpose of the conversation and the meaning of “I”. Even though he is outright and strong in his speech, he underlines it with a fact that subverts all problematic interpretations: he says that he has accepted the world, “I accept it.” He accepts everything for the way it is.

When the “seekers” say that they wish to understand, he makes the ultimate move of all, he says that there is nothing to understand. By the end of the text, Krishnamurthy establishes, on firm ground, that the “mind is myth”.  His teaching, or “barking”, as he calls it, leads to claiming that “Fear is God” and that to be able to do anything at all one must not go to spiritualists but “stand alone”. 

The book begins with a black eye with a spiral in it, and ends with the same — the idea of some form of cyclic unity is built within the work. But overall what holds the graphic novel other than the art is the textual content itself. Krishnamurthy said that when people questioned him in order to learn, they were basically throwing stones at him, and when he spoke back he was just barking. This anecdote gives the graphic novel its title, This Dog Barking, but by the end of this work you begin to embrace the barking for all it’s worth.  


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