Watchmen: Impediments, Failures, and Splits in Understanding

Photo by Elina Sazonova from Pexels


by Eric Davenport

July 2019
(UBC Arts One LA3, Prof. Michael Zeitlin)



In Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, both Ozymandias and Rorschach think they have found the truth. Ozymandias finds truth in intellectual illumination, like the Gnostic “Eugnostos,” who “is all mind, thought and reflecting, considering, rationality and power” (“Eugnostos the Blessed”). Rorschach finds truth in places of speechlessness, where the pain, suffering, and trauma of existence are so real and horrible that there is a fissure in any attempt to understand them. “Impediment, failure, split. In a spoken or written sentence something stumbles,” writes Jacques Lacan in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. “It is there,” he suggests, “that [Freud] seeks the unconscious” (25). This paper will be an examination of impediments, failures, and splits in attempts to understand reality. Are these “lapses” (Lacan vii) merely obstacles on a journey towards the enlightenment of the mind, or do the lapses themselves reveal a deeper reality beneath conscious thought?

To begin unpacking the word “reality,” let’s first turn to Sigmund Freud and his Interpretation of Dreams:

The unconscious is the true psychical reality; in its innermost nature it is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the communications of our sense      organs. (613)

Just looking at the branches of a tree does not communicate to the senses the complete anatomy of a tree—the tree’s roots stretch deep into the ground, but these places are hidden to the eye. In the same way, conscious thought cannot grasp the psychical reality of the unconscious. Instead, “excitations in order to reach consciousness must pass through a fixed series or hierarchy of agencies (which is revealed to us by the modifications made in them by censorship)” (Dreams 615). As unconscious wishes attempt to force their way into consciousness, they are filtered by increasingly powerful systems of censorship. Desires from the Ucs. (unconscious) system must pass through the Pcs. (preconscious) system, which “stands like a screen between the system Ucs. and consciousness” (Dreams 615). The mind, then, is constructed as a hierarchy of rational agencies. But as one ascends further up this hierarchy, one gets further from the “true psychical reality,” which is the unconscious. Freud suggests that it is “the much-abused privilege of conscious activity…to conceal every other activity from our eyes” (Dreams 614). When we are conscious, it seems that conscious thought is all there is, when in fact “the unconscious is the larger sphere, which includes within it the smaller sphere of the conscious” (Dreams 612). This is why Lacan posits that Freud “seeks the unconscious” in the “impediment, failure, split” (25) of the conscious. Because consciousness conceals, the “true psychical reality” is glimpsed in the lapses of conscious awareness.

Freud looks for unconscious desires in dreams because there is a lapse in conscious activity during sleep. “The state of sleep makes the formation of dreams possible because it reduces the power of the endopsychic censorship” (Dreams 526), he says. He describes a dream that a father has of his dead son—

 After a few hours’ sleep, the father had a dream that his child was standing beside his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully: ‘Father, don’t you see I’m burning?’ (Dreams 509)

—and tells us that “the dream was a process with a meaning” (Dreams 510). There is a “meaning” to the images that crawl up from the unconscious when conscious censorship is caught off-guard in sleep. These images are at least as real as the things we perceive when awake. The father misunderstands what’s happening in “the room in which his child’s body was laid out,” where “a candle had fallen over and set something alight in the neighbourhood of the body” (Dreams 509). But this misunderstanding gives us an insight into a deeper psychical reality in the father’s unconscious. He wishes to see “the child as once more alive” (Dreams 510). Lacan suggests that “there is more reality” in the dream and its message (“father don’t you see I’m burning”) then there is “in the noise by which the father also identifies the strange reality of what is happening in the room next door” (58). “The noise”—which is perceived by the conscious senses—is not as real as the unconscious content of the dream that follows. Because his senses are confused in sleep, because they misunderstand, the father glimpses a truer, unconscious reality in his dream.

Dr. Malcolm Long, in Watchmen, assumes that unconscious reality can be understood by rational thought. He is convinced that he “can help” Rorschach, because “no problem is beyond the grasp of a good psychoanalyst” (VI. 1. 6). He comes up with a “perfectly simple” explanation for Rorschach’s personality: “Kovacs hated his mother. After her death, he needed somewhere to put the anger, and so he chose the criminal fraternity” (VI. 11. 8). Dr. Long has a desire to reduce the complexities of Rorschach’s unconscious mind to a single variable. But we can tell from the look on his face (VI. 11. 8) that he doubts the “perfectly simple” conclusion he has come up with. He tries to convince himself that there is an easily understood answer that can be found through logical interpretation. But Freud would perhaps suggest that Dr. Long is using “conceptual scaffolding” to shield himself from the “unknown reality” (Dreams 610) of Rorschach’s condition. He is attempting to force knowledge onto the unknown by “bring[ing] a particular moment or problem into focus” (Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” 147). Freud suggests that this is an outdated form of psychoanalysis and that the unconscious is too complex to be reduced to “perfectly simple” explanations. Instead, he says, the good psychoanalyst studies “the surface of the patient’s mind, and he employs the art of interpretation mainly for the purpose of recognizing the resistances which appear there” (“Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” 147). Here, Freud looks for unconscious reality in the impediments to conscious understanding. Reality shows itself in “resistances.”

Rorschach thinks that Dr. Long’s attempt to understand unconscious reality is too rational and too simple. “Fat. Wealthy. Think you understand pain” (VI. 9. 6), he says. He then shows Dr. Long that pain cannot really be understood. “Imagined limbless felt torsos inside; breasts blackening; bellies smouldering; bursting into flame one by one” (VI. 25. 8). This horrific image of a body torn apart and smouldered black in the fire does not illuminate anything for Rorschach. Instead, it makes him disillusioned with any notion of grand patterns. “Existence is random,” he says. “No pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long” (VI. 26. 4). “Limbless torsos” deconstruct “vague metaphysical forces,” because the experience of trauma is not “vague.” After a traumatic experience, “patterns,” “meaning,” and “reason” crumble. “The void breathed hard on my heart,” says Rorschach, “turning its illusions to ice, shattering them” (VI. 26. 6). Rorschach’s void, like Freud’s unconscious, is characterized by lapses in understanding. Illusions are shattered and we are left with blackness (VI. 28. 8). This void is the most real place for Rorschach, where constructs of order and claims of knowledge are ripped apart, fissured, and split.

Language reaches its limit in the “impediments, failures, splits” in these constructs of order. As Watchmen begins, we see blood on the street, and a city worker power-washing it down into a gutter. Rorschach is standing in the blood, and we are given the following words from his journal:

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face…. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers…and all of a sudden,    nobody can think of anything to say. (I. 1. 6)

When “intellectuals and smooth-talkers” come face to face with the blood of the “underworld” (Moore and Gibbons V. 28. 7), Rorschach believes that they will be speechless. In the “true face” of reality, language crumbles and people are lost for words. “Conceptual scaffolding[s]” (Freud, Dreams 610) and rational speech fail to communicate the real horror of true experience. For Rorschach, silence is the only possible response in the face of trauma.

Rorschach is silent in the sixteen panels after he is first introduced (I. 6-8.). The first sound that leaves his mouth is not a word but a grunt: “hunh.” Then again, he mumbles “ehh.” Then again, “hurm.” In his opening scene, Rorschach does not use a single word (I. 5-8.). He grunts when he eats: “Chlop. Thlup. Shorp. Lep” (I. 10. 7-8). When attacked he cries: “RRAAAARRL,” “KAAAH!” “UUK,” and “AAANH.” He has rejected conscious language. Throughout Watchmen, characters make these sounds when they experience sensations of the body, like sex (“ngh ngh ngh AAA!” (VI. 3. 2)) and pain (“eeeeeeEEEEYEEEEEEEIGH” (VI. 7. 4)). Rather than communicating concepts, these sounds communicate images. A yelp is not so much representing the concept of pain as it is evoking an image of pain in the mind of the listener or the reader. Even when Rorschach uses words, he still speaks in images, talking about “blackened bellies” and “tire tread on burst stomach.” An image, for Rorschach, is much more real than a concept. Concepts fail and split when they interact with blood. Attempts to understand fail and split when they meet true reality.

So is it a coincidence that Watchmen is a graphic novel? Often, its images are truer than its words. In spite of what he says, the look on Moloch’s face shows genuine fear (V. 2. 8). Rorschach sees a dead dog’s broken skull, not a “pretty butterfly” (VI. 1. 7-8). Freud echoes this same idea. He suggests that “what characterizes the waking state is the fact that thought-activity takes place in concepts and not in images” (Dreams 49). The “waking state” is the state where conscious activity is most active. We have already discussed how conscious activity “conceals” the true psychical reality of the unconscious. For Freud, then, the “concept” conceals the more real “image.”

Ozymandias, however, is obsessed with concepts that enlighten the mind. Writing the introduction for his own self-improvement booklet called “The Veidt Method,” he suggests that “through meditation and intellectual exercise, we may come to use our minds in ways that we never thought possible” (X. 32). He recognizes “the power of dreaming and the subconscious,” but suggests that this knowledge is a “useful technique for the advancement of the mind and intellect” (X. 32). Compare this to Freud, who writes that “we must always be prepared to drop our conceptual scaffolding if we feel that we are in a position to replace it with something that approximates more closely to the unknown reality” (Dreams 610). While Freud is concerned with conceptual scaffoldings that distort the truth, Ozymandias’ power comes from his search for wisdom and his capacity to understand concepts. He is obsessed with the “martial wisdom” (XI. 10. 4) of Alexander, the “immortal wisdom” of the pharaohs (XI. 10. 9), the “seat of learning” at Alexandria (XI. 8. 7), and “intellectual magnificence” (XI. 11. 1). “By applying what you learn and ordering your thoughts in an intelligent manner it is possible to accomplish almost anything” (XI. 31), he says. Following his own advice, Ozymandias “resolve[s] to apply antiquity’s teachings to today’s world” (XI. 11. 2). He seeks to “understand” and believes in the power of the conscious “will” (X. 32). His intellectual and cerebral enlightenment allows him to “accomplish almost anything” and makes him the “world’s smartest man” (I. 17. 2). He finds power in intellectual understanding.

Power in intellect is a Gnostic understanding that underlies much of Ozymandias’ personal ideology. In Gnosticism, the gnōsis (knowledge) of “the spiritual universe…‘the light’” allows the gnostic to transcend the “the material universe…‘the darkness’” (Layton 18). According to Gnosticism, the physical realities we experience now are false, and we can transcend them through rationality, spirit, and intellect. The “Veidt Method” conceptualizes “both the body and the mind” as “parts of a biological robot that our immaterial souls inhabit” (Moore and Gibbons X. 32). It suggests that “explor[ing] the connection between body and mind…helps us to conquer pain without recourse to drugs and medicines” (X. 32). Understanding this separation of body and mind, Ozymandias suggests, frees us from the physical experience of pain. Whereas Rorschach sees “understanding” as an illusion that can be deconstructed by physical experience, Ozymandias sees the physical senses as illusions that can be transcended by a gnostic sort of “understanding.”

But how does Gnosticism address “lapses” in understanding? The Truth, in the Gnostic Secret Book According to John, is “disclosed” to Barbēlō (5:34), who is “the first thinking of the spirit’s image” (5:3). Thus, Truth is given to the primordial rational faculty, the “first thinking.” When Adam, the first man, is confused, he is illuminated by “afterthought,” and his lack of understanding is rectified by a knowledge that transcends confusion: “And at that moment the luminous afterthought was shown forth, for it had removed the veil from his heart; and he became sober out of the drunkenness of the darkness” (BJn 22:8). “The veil” and “the drunkenness of darkness” are impediments, failures, splits, between understanding and truth. But in Gnosticism these “lapses” are meant to be illuminated by the rational processes. “Forethought” and “afterthought” are sorts of saviours from confusion. Whereas Freud analyzes gaps in understanding to try to grasp the true psychical reality of the unconscious, the Gnostic tries to enlighten the gaps in understanding through illumination of the conscious mind. “True light is there, and darkness has been illuminated” (117:10), writes Zōstrianos.

Robert A. Segal, in his introduction to The Gnostic Jung, states that gnostic illumination must be revealed to people through a saviour:

Gnosticism here is the belief in…the present entrapment of a portion of immateriality in human bodies; the need for knowledge to reveal to humans that entrapment; and the dependence of humans on a saviour to reveal that knowledge to them. (3)

“My intellect set me apart” (356), says Ozymandias. I will argue that Ozymandias is “set apart” in Watchmen as the novel’s gnostic “saviour.” How?

Firstly, Ozymandias has an obsession with Egyptology, which is particularly interesting when we consider Gnosticism’s roots in ancient Egyptian religion. Douglas M. Parrot, in his article “Gnosticism and Egyptian Religion,” analyzes “Eugnostos the Blessed,” a “first century A.D.” (78) Gnostic text, and comes to the conclusion that “Egyptian religion played a major role in developing the super-celestial realm in Eugnostos, Part A” (88). In Watchmen, Ozymandias owns a company called “Pyramid Deliveries” (XI. 21. 3). His “Antarctic retreat” is called “Karnak” (XI. 21. 4), which is the name of an ancient Egyptian temple complex. Even the name “Ozymandias” is Greek for Rameses II, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh (XI. 21. 3). “The Egyptian Gospel” is one of the core Gnostic scriptures. The Nag Hammadi library, where the Gnostic scriptures were found, is located on the west bank of Egypt’s Nile River (Layton 7). Ozymandias is undoubtedly associated with Egypt, as has been Gnosticism, historically.

Secondly, there seem to be numerous allusions to Christ in panels containing Ozymandias. Notice, as Ozymandias pushes the button to release his monster and “save” the world from nuclear annihilation, the three crosses in the foreground of the panel (XI. 5. 8): “I’ve finished my work now” (XI. 5. 8), he says. Isn’t this alluding to the words of Christ, who declares on the cross, “it is finished” (John 19:30)? He also invites the other heroes “for a small drink in the vivarium, before dinner” (XI. 5. 8), reminiscent of the Last Supper, where Christ first pours out wine before breaking bread (Matt. 26:26-29). Later, his arms are stretched out at his sides as he cries “I did it!” (XII. 19. 7) just as Christ called out “it is finished.” After catching Laurie’s bullet, his hand is bloodied and marked with stigmata like the wounds put into Christ’s hands on the cross (XII. 16. 2). And yet there is something obviously missing from this Christ imagery. Ozymandias does not die. What kind of Christ does not die? A Gnostic Christ:

Hence [Jesus] did not suffer. Rather, a certain Simon of Cyrene was forced to bear his cross for him, and it was he who was ignorantly and erroneously crucified, being transformed by the other, so that he was taken for Jesus; while Jesus, for his part, assumed the form of Simon and stood by, laughing at them. (“Basildes” 1.24.4)

Basilides’ Gnostic Christ “transformed however he willed” because “he was an incorporeal power and was the intellect of the unengendered parent” (1.24.4). Because he does not have a physical body, he does not need a physical crucifixion and resurrection. He uses his “intellect” to escape a physical crucifixion. This is a stark contrast to the Christianity of the New Testament, which details extensively the torture and burial of Christ’s body (John 19) and attributes deep meaning to the physicality of it.

Ozymandias has a physical body. He is not an “incorporeal power.” He even declares: “I will give you bodies beyond your wildest imaginings” (XII. 6. 1). But this is not a glorification of the body. On the contrary, he believes that the normal confines of the body can be transcended through “understanding the self,” and “physical and intellectual exercises which…can turn YOU into a superhuman, fully in charge of your own destiny” (X. 32). He catches a bullet and cheats death, just as the Gnostic Jesus uses “incorporeality” to cheat death on the cross. Both reject the body as powerless when compared to incorporeal spirit or conscious “understanding” (X. 32) and “illumination” (XII. 17. 2).

A connection here can be drawn to Freud. “The anointed (Christ),” in Gnosticism, is “a luminous spark” (Layton 25). “Luminous afterthought” (BJn 22:8) and “portions of immateriality” (Segal 3) are “entrapped” (Segal 3) within the physical body. Freud speaks of “‘the daemonic power which produces the dream-wish’” (Dreams 614). This “‘daemonic power’” is a sort of unconscious “spark.” Both Freud and the Gnostics believe in some sort of force within the person that is beyond physical sense perception but affects the person’s thoughts and actions. But Freud sees the “‘daemon’” as “the uncontrolled and indestructible forces in the human mind…at work in the unconscious” (Dreams 614), which is “inadmissible to consciousness” (Dreams 615). For the Gnostics, gnōsis of the spark can illuminate consciousness, but for Freud, the “‘daemonic power’” is incomprehensible, though it still makes its way into consciousness through desires and images that have been contorted by the censorships of the Pcs. (Dreams 615). The influences of the “‘daemonic power’” can only be seen where our understanding fails, and where the conscious mind is impeded or split apart.

And in the place where our conscious understanding is impeded, where it fails or splits, Freud recognizes a kind of comic absurdity. In dreams we begin to touch the truths that our conscious mind cannot comprehend. As the dream gets closer to the psychical reality of the unconscious, as it becomes more profound, the mind deconstructs the rational faculties. The result is “foolish,” “absurd,” anti-intellectual: “Dreams, then, are often most profound when they seem most crazy. In every epoch of     history those who have had something to say but could not say it without peril have eagerly assumed a fool’s cap” (Freud, Dreams 444). The Comedian, in Watchmen, has “assumed a fool’s cap.” His life is nonsensical. It exists in a total lapse of any sort of structure, the place of “madness, the pointless butchery” (IV. 19. 5). When Ozymandias suggests that “none of the world’s problems are insurmountable. All it takes is a little intelligence,” The Comedian’s response is to burn down the plan that brings order into chaos (II. 11. 4). “It don’t matter squat” (II. 11. 4), he says. Rorschach says,

Blake understood. Treated life as a joke, but he understood. He saw the cracks in society, saw the little men in masks trying to hold it together…he saw the true face of the twentieth century and chose to become a reflection, a parody of it. (II. 27. 2)

The Comedian “has something to say,” as Freud puts it. He “understands.” But his “understanding” is not a cerebral, intelligent sort of understanding. It is definitely not a gnōsis. Instead, he is the one who understands “the cracks,” and deconstructs everything into fissures, gaps, and lapses.

But “lapse” is perhaps too weak a word to describe The Comedian. “I have never met someone so deliberately amoral” (IV. 19. 4),” says Dr. Manhattan. When Rorschach tries to brush past Blake’s “moral lapses,” he is confronted by Laurie. “Moral lapses?” she exclaims. “Blake was a bastard. He was a monster. Y’know he tried to rape my mother” (I. 21. 4). “Moral lapses” assumes that The Comedian had a morality to begin with, but his only morality is to be absolutely and completely amoral. He not only understands the “cracks in society” but embodies them and becomes them. He attacks even the basic moral structures and is publicly, unabashedly amoral. He is chaos.

Wouldn’t The Comedian’s absolute amorality and complete rejection of structure cause the public to dismiss and reject him? On the contrary, Hollis Mason remembers “that it was funny how the more serious things got, the better the Comedian seemed to do” (IV. 29). Freud says that the fool’s “forbidden speech…was tolerated more easily if [the audience] could at the same time laugh and flatter themselves with the reflection that the unwelcome words were clearly nonsensical” (Dreams 444). As Watchmen’s political situation becomes less and less stable, and as the world comes closer and closer to nuclear war, the fool’s position in society begins to rise. Dismissing The Comedian’s violent and horrible actions as absurd becomes a barrier against really facing trauma and horror. Laughing at the “nonsensical” maintains the illusion of sense. Thus, even though The Comedian embodies “impediment, failure, split,” he is appropriated by society to maintain a false illusion of order and stability. Perhaps this is why Watchmen begins with his death. “The cracks in society” can no longer be pushed aside as ridiculous and comically absurd. The first image in the novel is of The Comedian’s blood. “Now the whole world stands on the brink” (I. 1. 6), writes Rorschach. Blood has stained one eye of the smiley-face. The illusion of symmetry has been lost.

Ozymandias tries to re-institute the illusion. Though his “utopia” (XII. 20. 1) is supposed to usher in an “age of illumination so dazzling that humanity will reject the darkness in its heart” (XII. 17. 2), this “illumination” is ironically built on an illusion. Though the world becomes stable after the attack on New York, the thing that stabilizes it is completely illusory, fabricated, and not real. Just as it is “the much-abused privilege of conscious activity…to conceal every other activity from our eyes” (Freud, Dreams 614), Ozymandias manipulates the social “consciousness” into believing in “alien contact” (XII. 19. 2) to conceal the reality, which is that nothing really is holding the world together except for the illusion of an external threat. “I would trick [the world],” says Ozymandias, “frighten it towards salvation with history’s greatest practical joke” (XI. 24. 4). The Gnostic Jesus similarly tricks Simon of Cyrene “to bear his cross,” while he stands to the side, “laughing.” Both Ozymandias and the Gnostic Jesus “trick [the world]…towards salvation” with a joke. The Comedian’s absurd parodies trick the world into an illusion of stability. Watchmen, Freud, and the Gnostic scriptures are thus united by a reliance on comedy to reveal the “impediments, failures, splits” while also concealing them.

What about Rorschach, Watchmen’s least comedic character? Though he doesn’t laugh once in the novel, he aligns himself with The Comedian. He writes: “Others bury their heads between the swollen teats of indulgence and gratification, piglets squirming beneath a sow for shelter…but there is no shelter…. Blake understood” (II. 26–27. 8). Rorschach sees in The Comedian an understanding of reality that is similar to his own. Both of them believe that “shelter” from pain and trauma is only illusion, and Rorschach’s illusions have been “turned to ice” and “shattered” (VI. 26. 6). But even though Rorschach’s illusions have been shattered, and even though he sees reality as a void coloured completely black, an abyss, he still has a morality—he commits to telling the truth. “Never compromise” (XII. 20. 9), he says. His journal, which he releases to the New Frontiersman, tells the truth in a very practical sense by holding “Adrian Veidt responsible” (X. 22. 5) for the attack on New York. But the journal is also true in a deeper sense, in that it paints an image of the bloody places in the world, deconstructing the intellect’s grandiose mythologies. “If reading this now,” writes Rorschach, “you will know truth” (X. 22. 5).

But Rorschach also grapples with “so many questions” (II. 25. 6). His understanding of truth is impeded. It fails, it is split. And yet these “impediments, failures, splits” do not discourage him. “Never mind,” he says. “Answers soon. Nothing is insoluble. Nothing is hopeless. Not while there’s life” (II. 25. 7). Perhaps “we are compelled” (Moore and Gibbons VI. 15. 6) as individuals to look into the darkest, most confounding places and still have faith that we will find answers. “All I can do is tell the truth,” writes Jacques Lacan. “No, that isn’t so—I have missed it. There is no truth that, in passing through awareness, does not lie. But one runs after it all the same” (vii).



Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated and edited by James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 1954. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through.” Translated by James Strachey. 1924.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller and translated by Alan Sheridan. London: The Horgath Press, 1977. Print.

Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures. New York: Doubleday, 1987. Print.

Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. Burbank, California: DC Comics, 2014. Print.

Parrott, Douglas M. “Gnosticism and Egyptian Religion.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 29, no. 1, Jan., 1987, 73-93.

Segal, Robert A. “Introduction.” The Gnostic Jung. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. 3-30. Print.

“Basilides’ Myth (IrBas),” “The Egyptian Gospel (EgG),” “The Secret Book According to John (BJn),” “Zōstrianos.” The Gnostic Scriptures. Translated by Bentley Layton. New York:    Doubleday, 1987. Print.

“Eugnostos the Blessed.” Translated by Douglas M. Parrott.”, The Gnostic Society Library,

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2002. Print.