Interview with Dale DeBakcsy, Author of The Cartoon History of Humanism

Later this month, The Cartoon History of Humanism, Volume One: Antiquity to Enlightenment will be published by Humanist Press. According to John Loftus, author Dale DeBakcsy “has produced a delightful textbook case in creativity, containing superior research expressed in a concentrated engaging style, with cute cartoons at no extra expense!” In order to understand the purpose behind the book and the effort that went into making it, I talked with Dale DeBakcsy about his inspirations, his process, and his goals.

What inspired you to create the Cartoon History of Humanism (not just the book, but the strip at thehumanist.com)?

I’d say nothing so much as my basic dread of societal amnesia. It viscerally pains me to think about historical figures fading into absolute nothingness, and pretty much everything I do creatively is a desperate and totally futile attempt to fight back against that, to drag my readers to my favorite nearly-forgotten things and yell, “Here! Here is a comic about Arnold of Brescia! Laugh, but remember!!” I’m like the Rockbiter in The Never Ending Story, staring down mournfully at my hands as the Nothing approaches—”They look like such strong hands—I tried to save Count Rumford, but I just couldn’t hold on…”

When I started kicking around ideas for The Cartoon History of Humanism, I made a tally of people that I had always wanted to talk about but never got a chance to in Frederick the Great, and found a flood of them. Not just people like Grazida Lizier or The Archpoet or Hermann Reimarus who get a bit dimmer in our memory from year to year, but people who are known, but for totally the wrong reasons, like Heloise d’Argenteuil or Epicurus or Machiavelli. The chance to tell those stories was too lovely not to take.

How do you go about choosing who to write about, and doing research for each episode?

My basic requirement is, “Did this person do something significant to free humanity intellectually and emotionally from its self-imposed but needless restraints, and is there something about them that ought to be said but generally isn’t?” At conventions, I get a lot of “Why isn’t [my favorite thinker] there? Are you seriously telling me that Isabelle d’Este is more important than Socrates?!” Which doesn’t sound too intense, but when the person saying it is carrying a Klingon Bat’leth, the whole encounter is kicked up a few notches. I think we all have a pretty good idea of what Socrates was about—ask a random person what he stood for and, by and large, the answer you get will be in the ballpark. But if you ask somebody what Thomas Hobbes was about, the image will be that of a madman shoving orphans into a grinder to feed the king while cackling, “Nasty, Brutish, and Short” over and over. That is a massive disservice to a thinker whose ideas about the relativism of social prestige get truer every year. Those are the kind of stories I’ll never get tired of telling.

Dale's comic on Nietzsche. Click to see it full size.
Dale’s comic on Nietzsche. Click to see it full size.

Reading through a couple of the posts at thehumanist.com, I found your work to be both enjoyable and edifying (I especially liked the line about Nietzsche’s landlady asking him to “peer into the abyss of the cabinet”). While it is often trite to ask ‘where do you get your ideas’, are there general considerations you use when approaching each episode to ensure a proper balance of humor and thought-provoking substance?

The nice thing about having the break between the comic and article section of each column is that it allows me to separate my thought processes. During the research phase for each piece, I have very responsible and sober streams of thoughts about the continuity of intellectual history and the resonance of passages with their philosophical environment, and then every once in a while my whim fixates upon some absurd detail about the philosopher’s life or their times and chews on it and chews on it, building absurdities on absurdities without me really even consciously thinking about it until, at some weird moment in the day (usually walking back from the comic shop or doing the dishes) the comic strip script just flops into my hands fully formed. That act somehow exorcises 92% of my innate need for silliness, allowing me to write the article with more concentration on rigor and context. I don’t know how it works, or if it even makes sense to others, but without the strip it would be a much greater struggle not to keep slipping into Python mode during the article.

I was pleasantly surprised to see an entry on Heloise d’Argenteuil (someone I didn’t know anything about). Her presence in the book shows how great humanists aren’t necessarily the greatest writers or the most systematic thinkers, but sometimes they are individuals who are willing to act on principles of justice in the face of overwhelming opposition. What are some other similarly radical figures that you have covered? How have issues like race, class, gender, religion, etc. been incorporated into your work?

Dale's strip on Grazida Lizier. Click to see it full size.
Dale’s comic on Grazida Lizier. Click to see it full size.

Some of my favorite people from the series have been precisely those normal people who, in the face of monumental philosophical and religious systems, stood courageously up for their basic dignity as humans. I’d say Grazide Lizier turned out to be the most interesting—a peasant girl from the fourteenth century who experienced just about every personal tragedy those times could throw at her. Under interrogation by the Catholic Church, she swore to a belief that sex wasn’t sinful if it brought pleasure and expressed fundamental doubt about the whole notion of Hell. It’s people like her who open up our entire conception of how theology worked in the Middle Ages. We have a picture of the Church running things with a perfect, righteous iron fist and then along comes Lizier with a totally idiosyncratic personal system of belief that belongs more in the twentieth century than the fourteenth. People like that are always very exciting to share.

I am also a great fan of Xun Zi, a third century BCE Chinese philosopher who looked at tradition and religion from the perspective of performative utility rather than metaphysical truth. He spoke out in favor of elaborate Chinese funeral practices not because he believed they propitiated spirits or represented deep truths of the cosmos, but because holding to a set of practices curbs extremes. It gives a person in deep mourning a secure lifeline of ritualized practice to hold onto during a difficult time, and it gives people who honestly don’t care all that much something to do to make it look as if they do care (and thereby not bring shame on the proceedings). His massive pragmatization of cultural and religious practice from the depths of civil war took astounding courage and intellectual integrity.

Class is of course something that becomes more and more important as literacy becomes more widespread and alternate voices find ways of making themselves heard. Lizier could only communicate through testimony, but others like The Archpoet used their artistry to speak about their poverty as against the wealth of the Church and the power of the Emperor. Much later, Aphra Behn has a good deal of that as well—her plays refuse to impose bourgeois civility upon human instinct in a way that’s still entirely fun to read. Volume Two, though, that’s when class issues get their full turn at the table!

It is well known that the thinkers you cover in your book have at times disagreed widely with one another (e.g. Spinoza and Hobbes), and with our current point of view (e.g. Voltaire’s views on race). How do you explore these differences of opinion in your work? Do your essays focus on the perspective of the person you’re writing about, do you discuss the different sides in philosophical debates, or do you draw attention to some of the ways esteemed thinkers from the past are quite opposed to contemporary ideas?

The beauty of writing about philosophy from the point of view of intellectual history rather than internal argumentation is that my job is to report on tensions, inconsistencies, and basic moral horrendousness in equal measure with unity, progress (whatever that means), and genius. Voltaire was a terrible spy who threw his business partners routinely under the bus when under pressure. Jules Verne wrote some of the most disgustingly anti-Semitic caricatures in world fiction. Frederick the Great sent tens of thousands of men to their graves to get revenge on the Habsburgs and cut a figure on the world stage. And Isabelle d’Este wasn’t above profiting from Cesare Borgia’s conquests to add to her personal art collection. Leave any of that out and you can’t understand fully the things we like remembering them for. Humanism only suffers from dishonesty, from failing to ask the question, “Where else might this strand of thought lead, and is that somewhere we’re comfortable going?”

Your bio on thehumanist.com mentions several other positions you hold and publications you contribute to. How does your other work relate to the work you’ve done for The Cartoon History of Humanism?

Thereupon hangs a tale. Back in Stanford, my best friend Holland and I used to attend Richard Rorty and Paul Robinson’s lectures on the history of philosophy during the day and then spend our evenings writing sketch comedy for a little television show we had called Lowest Common Denominator. It’s where I had my first shot at writing philosophy-themed humorous works in a short format. We both went to Berkeley after that for grad school, he in Russian Literature and I in Modern Intellectual History, and we both hated it. Oh, so much. So, so, so very much. When we recovered from that, our first project was actually a rock band formed with Geoffrey Schaeffer called The Gentleman Scholars which had a British Imperialism theme and featured songs like “Upright Exemplars of British Manhood.” We dressed in pith helmets and Union Jack capes and tried to make guitar picks out of giant Sherlock Holmes pipes.

So, that went about as well as you might imagine.

We stuck together, though, and decided to turn to the medium of the comic strip, creating Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy Breaching Space and Time, a twice weekly webcomic about Frederick the Great, Peter the Great, Isaac Newton, and Abraham Lincoln traveling through time and trying to set history right through an ill-advised mixture of enlightened despotism and differential calculus. That started in 2007 and, even though Holland had to drop out early, Geoff and I are still doing it, delivering a mixture of history, philosophy, science, foppery, and humor that resonates very strongly with our key demographic of other self-loathing grad students.

That series, combined with some magazine writing I did for The Freethinker, The New Humanist, and Philosophy Now, led to a chance to create a column for MadArtLab in 2013 called Women in Science, that mixed biographical essays with comic strips. About six months later, after The Humanist published an article of mine about the erasing of female religious skeptics from the Harlem Renaissance, the editor mentioned that they were starting up an online component to the journal and I offered to do a similar biography-and-comic series for them about some of my favorite dusty corners of the history of humanist thought, which has done pretty okay and forms the basis of the book.

All the while, I’ve been a high school teacher since 2003, and if anything ties all of this together, it’s probably that. I have so many things that I love about the world and its past, and my dearest joy is when, during a lecture or a class discussion, I see that the students have made something personally meaningful to them. The best way I’ve always found to do that is through a totally unashamed profession of my complete geeky love of Nearly Everything, conveyed through humor. And the books and articles and comics are just further manifestations of that basic impulse to teach as best I know how.

Whose work do you turn to for inspiration?

I listened to Tom Lehrer and Monty Python albums obsessively as a kid while reading The Far Side over and over again until I knew all the captions by sight. Later on, Douglas Adams, Blackadder, Ren and Stimpy, John Byrne’s Sensational She-Hulk, and the electrically inane patter of Sinclair Lewis’s boosting charlatans all crowded in my head as well. That mixture is pretty much what comes out on the page when I’m writing an article or creating a comic. Those guys, and more recently That Mitchell and Webb Look, are the sources I keep coming back to whenever I need a reminder of how historical and scientific humor work.

I also hear Richard Rorty’s voice in my head a lot when I’m writing the article portions of each piece. Not the way he wrote, but how in class he stepped down from all the jargon-gerrymandering every once in a while to aim a brutal deadpan colloquialism right at the forehead of a philosopher we had all taken as entirely sacred and inviolable. That made philosophy approachable and pushed us all forward. As a teacher, that’s my job.

One of Dale's favorite Far Side comics.
One of The Far Side comics that inspires Dale.

I remember loving the many references to science and philosophy that I saw in The Far Side and Monty Python. What have you learned from these shows/strips, as well as from your own experience, about how one can best communicate difficult ideas with others?

The Far Side is almost beyond explanation for me—Gary Larson had to, in one panel of art and maybe fifteen words of text, not only come up with a solid and unexpected joke about the natural world, but also educate the reader up to the point where they’d be able to understand that joke. As a kid, I didn’t know what mimicry, insect ballooning, Freudian slips, or differential equations were until Larson’s comics, by absurdifying them, communicated their essence and, simultaneously through laughter, made them indelibly stick in my head. I cannot do that, but luckily in my comics I have the luxury of three or four panels. This gives me all sorts of options for how to pace the info-comedy interchange, providing enough background to set up the normalcy that lunacy needs to push against. “How can I push both of these aspects forward at once?” is my more or less constant question in massaging together a comic script, and that’s because of Larson.

Python, on the other hand, tells you how to do the same thing through time. My absolute favorite piece of historical comedy of all time is the Grammatical Roman bit in Life of Brian—I loved it even before I learned Latin, and that’s the whole point – it taps into universals of the education and language-learning processes as a bedrock and then builds its Latin particulars in a way that’s ridiculous but totally relatable until, by the end, you’ve learned really a great deal (how many people got the gist of the locative case from that sketch?) but have hardly noticed it through the tears of laughter. They use each new element as a lever to lift you up to another level of ridiculous abstraction, and by chewing on that abstraction you do some deep and spontaneous engagement with the material that’s magnificent. How to layer your absurdities by weaving in perfectly timed bits of reality, that’s what Python wrote the book on for me.

Do you have any advice for philosophers who are interested in making philosophical ideas more prominent in public discussions?

That is the question isn’t it? We remember the daring days of the Frankfurt School or of Sartre and de Beauvoir, when philosophers were sought out as crucial commentators about the direction of society and what stands to be lost and gained at each step. Then we look at today, when the last person pretty much anybody wants to hear from about anything is a professional philosopher. How did that happen? Can it be fixed? Do we want it to be fixed? Has philosophy really been reduced to just waiting around for science to tell it which of its hunches turned out to be sort of right? That’s the perception I’ve noticed at conventions, and there have been some brave and promising attempts to fight against it by reaching out to other disciplines honestly. I think Catherine Malabou is doing wonderful things in bridging the gap between continental philosophy and neuroscience, and that that’s going far towards making philosophy something people are ready to engage with again and listen to in a public forum. We lose our power to turn philosophy into a living concern when we isolate ourselves and insist that whatever was good enough for Kant is good enough for us. Display the uneven seams of philosophy, pick them apart in front of the people’s gaze in a way that engages what they know of the world and invite them to pull the threads too. Discussion follows, and concern, and just maybe even renewed relevance, if we’re lucky.

 

Dale DeBakcsy is the author and artist for the Cartoon History of Humanism column at TheHumanist.com and the Women in Science column at MadArtLab.com.  He also writes the Great Minds feature for Free Inquiry Magazine and contributes to the Brief Lives feature for Philosophy Now.  Dale has co-authored the Frederick the Great comic strip since 2007 with Geoffrey Schaeffer, and his books include Godless Nerdistry: Or How to Be a Bag of Chemicals and Still Have Fun, two collections of The Illustrated Women in Science, and The Cartoon History of Humanism: Volume One.  When he isn’t writing, he’s probably on eBay trying to find a nice copy of Journey Into Mystery 103 for a good price…

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