Wednesday, 21 September 2016

A Lovely Swiss Watch: page two of Watchmen, issue four

The painting that Dr. Manhattan is studying is “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali.  The melting pocket watches, in this context, symbolize the malleable nature of time with respect to Dr. Manhattan’s perceptions, while the title of the work itself is another way of looking at Dr. Manhattan’s quantum perception.  

To him, all things happen at once, which is to say that he remembers everything about his life because he has already experienced it, thus he has a persistence of memory.

Armed with the knowledge from the first page's abstract - that the panels will not follow a lineal chronology, that issue four is concerned with Dr Manhattan's battle with his identity and memories and that time will be a major theme, the reader can turn the page. 



Moore and Gibbons have not, however, finished with the abstract and orientation. Page two uses another convention of comics - and cinema - to remind the reader that this page is part of the prologue, namely the title at the foot of the page. Focusing almost exclusively on Dr Manhattan walk on Mars - only panel four pictures another location, it repeats images from page one to continue its non-chronological impetus (panels two, five, six with seven arguably a long shot of five).

The repetition of key images effectively slows down the narrative. Not only does it jump backwards and forwards it time, it returns the narrative to certain points. Moore and Gibbons are exercising considerable control over the pace of the reading, building a vocabulary based on specific images, marking a return to the protagonist's intellectual starting points. Yet the issue has not yet reached the story proper, despite offering more hints about its path. 

The detail and pace of these pages provides the tone that will characterise issue four: Dr Manhattan's philosophical ponders accompany a series of spectacular images. The backdrop of stars, especially in the final panel of the page, provide the context for his meditations, and he introduces his inquiry. He is trying to understand the force that has put what appears to be a clockwork universe into motion.

A Clock Set Running By God

The model of the Universe as a clock has two famous advocates: Isaac Newton and William Paley. Both of them believed in God, although their models have been put to very different uses. Dr Manhattan alludes to both of these models on page two.

Newton's Principia represents an attempt to reconcile the emerging consensus of scientific thought with a belief in God. Writing in the seventeenth century, Newton spent time developing a mechanical, and evidence-based, understanding of natural laws, as well as dedicating himself to Biblical exegesis. 

The metaphor of the universe as a mechanical entity is made explicit by Newton in his arguments with Leibniz,  who commented in a letter that

Sir Isaac Newton and his followers have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.

The compromise in Newton's conceptual clockwork universe came from his desire to include an interventionist God within a scheme that appeared not to need one. However, his model provides a clear answer to Manhattan's question: the force that set the stars in motion is called God. 

Paley, arguing for religious belief through the evidence of design in Natural Theology (1802), called up an argument first used by the Stoics and mentioned by Cicero.

Suppose I found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think … that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for a stone?… 
For this reason, and for no other; namely, that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, if a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.

The Watchmaker becomes a name for God in Paley's formulation - and this claim is parodied in the title of Richard Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker (1986), in which natural selection is promoted as an alternative explanation, without any need for a divine creator.

In alluding to these hypotheses, Moore and Gibbons set up a clear line of inquiry, expressed by a being who, at several points in issue four, is compared to God. In the first three panels, Manhattan establishes his credibility as a thinker, by revealing his awareness of the physical processes around him - he describes the passage of light from the sun to the outer reaches of the galaxy - before revealing his personal history. His father inspired him with an interest in the natural world, and drew the comparison between the universe and the watch.

That his father is a watchmaker adds to the theological tone of the words - father often being used as another description of God. This is also a foreshadowing of a later scene in issue four - with the repetition of panel four signposting this explicitly. 

Dr Manhattan's theology, however, is at this point distinctively pre-twentieth century, and ignores the revolution in science that is marked by Einstein's theories of relativity. The reference to the speed of light in the first panel aside, Manhattan uses sense-based evidence as the foundation of his meditation. He observes the motion of the stars, the cogs of the deconstructed watch, draws parallels but questions the invisible metaphysics beyond them.

Finally, he drops the photograph, walks across the deserted surface of Mars, and the title appears. Ambiguously, it could refer to Manhattan himself, the Newtonian God or Manhattan's father. 

The issue is ready to begin. Page three reveals a sudden shift in mood, location and character, heralded by a repetition of panel four (the cogs).


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