Weather for the west side of Vancouver tonight: very mild, with the tiniest pinpricks of freezing rain. Somewhere out there a Squamish wind must be blowing; beneath the aroma of woodsmoke, the faint hint of the mill’s hoppy sweetness.
Most who live here seem to hate it; Schiele found it romantic; I consider it a little glimpse of Paradise. Call it Jack London weather. It’s just not like anything else.
This began life as a long, long, long post…far too long, even for me. So here’s the Reader’s Digest version.
Have you read Black Dossier? Lost Girls? Promethea? Regular-strength LOEG? Have you read any of the myriad negative reviews of these books?
In most of them, the question comes up: just what the fuck is Alan Moore on about, these days?
Some say, nothing at all. Some say that all his time is taken up with pointless panegyrics meant to uncritically glorify “Imagination”…but which, apparently without irony, make “Imagination” staler and staler the more it’s looked at. The sexual congress of fictional universes in “Alternity”! Frankenstein and Dracula, Huckleberry Hound and Quickdraw McGraw! Flash and Blur! Chip and Dale! Mickey and Minnie! Up-se-daisy Hep-zi-bah! Ipso facto, where you are!
They say he’s lost it. At least, they say that in some of his more recent efforts he’s allowed himself to get a little lazy, thus allowing a certain self-indulgence to come to the fore. Or, he’s just blowing his own mind so much, that he can’t help sharing too much — one is reminded of Chesterton’s comment about Wells: that he’d “traded his birthright, for a pot of message.”
Well…pots and kettles, and all that. And besides, isn’t writing all about self-indulgence, really…?
Still, it isn’t like the critics of Moore’s recent work are just experiencing some sort of mass hallucination. Something is going on there, in the past few years: he seems to be getting more ostentatiously playful, but at times it seems to threaten becoming a dreadfully self-serious sort of play, verging on the solipsistic. Many see it; even I see it.
I’m inclined to think there may be just a bit more to this phenomenon, after all.
Here’s where I start to shorten it up: as for what Moore is “on about”, I defy anyone to read Promethea and not feel pretty sure that he’s laid out at least a very good fictional approximation of what he believes, stands for, admires, exalts, is interested in…but then again, any priest of the Imagination could tell us any of that, and Alan’s no priest, of course: rather, as we all know, he’s a magician. So, though the comics-blogging world fears that he’s chosen to subsume fiction into lecture (instead of going, typically for him, the other way around), I’m not sure those fears are properly justified. Amidst all the capital-R representations, Moorean plot and character and dialogue still persist, with all their trademarked tension…by turns sensitive and explosive storytelling, and the very antithesis to a lecture or a diatribe: because in the making of a story, the philosophical destination really never is the point, is it? Or if you prefer, the point of a story is never simply the making of the point, but rather what happens to the characters as the point gets made. We can just about stomach Promethea saying “oh, that’s right, I almost forgot…Reality and Imagination together make the world, don’t they?”, but to straightforwardly make Mina Murray the mouthpiece of philosophy must seem somewhat repellent to us; to make Allan Quartermain merely embody the generic protestations of the novitiate must seem something of a cheat. These aren’t the characters we’ve come to know, and perhaps love, at all! Are they?
If, like me, you’re willing to believe for a moment that they are not, can’t be, mustn’t be…
Then let’s deconstruct this shit, a little. Shall we?
Alan Moore’s seeming “collapse” into self-indulgence is, I believe, a bit of an illusion: as easy a summation, as seductive a summation as it is to just say “he’s losing it”, I think a little examination will show that all these perhaps sometimes off-putting things (I mean I am not put off by them, but many people evidently are) are nonetheless not actually the same thing — and because of that, they don’t really sum the way that they seem to.
And I believe it all starts — or rather, ends — with “Jimmy Bond”.
One thing Alan Moore has never shied away from in his many investigations into Imagination and Identity is the necessity of showing the reader how essentially problematic this relationship is: Imagination gives us a name, but what’s underneath it? No matter how great and glorious the name happens to be, there is always something underneath it…at least, a restless something. The masks of identity, of Imagination, are applied to a secret Self at the same time that they themselves bestow Selfhood — and Promethea is both greater than Sophie and less than Babalon, but Sophie is still more than any Great Truth, to us: in the context of a story, Sophie is what Matters.
But then again…what’s Story, if not that selfsame Imagination I’ve just opposed it to? And who is Sophie, without her story?
There: I’ve just described her whole life’s difficulty. “Now she discards my mask,” she says, and lets loose a tear — and to my mind, it is not just for the destruction of the world. Eh?
Because there’s a more essential conflict there. As a matter of fact, there is always a more essential conflict there. And to be careful that I don’t just simply reiterate Promethea’s storyline, let me point out that the principle goes a lot further than Promethea — although that, too, may be reiterating Promethea’s storyline — but what I mean is that we should look at Alan Moore’s entire oeuvre: in which Alec Holland, appearing to be the identity Imagination is only laid on top of, is revealed as a fiction himself, a necessary scaffolding for a fake fakeness…and now that you mention it, who’s realer, Mike Moran or Miracleman? Mike, the real and non-manufactured one, would confess that he’s the fake — but as soon as the freedom of the dream-self is manifested, just look how quickly it becomes poisonously un-free…
And is that proof of its “real” reality, or not? The photograph lies at Dr. Manhattan’s feet, as Rorschach’s real face gets put on, stripped off, put on, stripped away…but note at the very last moment it does both at once…
So what I’m saying is: it’s this very conflict which is Moore’s stock-in-trade. Think about it.
Imagination is not just simply grrrREAT!
Identity is not just something GOOD TO HAVE…!
And sex is much more — and less — than just the celebration of the Idea. Because anonymity, the secret identity — the secret identity — is on the Tree Of Life too. Promethea has a great time with Jack The Faust, and he with her…but it’s Sophie he likes. It’s Sophie he cares for, and fears for.
Let’s look more carefully at the somewhat greasy beauty and transcendence of the Blazing World in Black Dossier, with its pop-eyed Prospero bellowing his creed from its most topless towers: the absolute perfected image of what our local Morrisonheads would call a Knowledgeable Beard! Rather suspicious, ain’t it? Rather makes one squirm, don’t it? Not to mention go reaching for the Excedrin. You want something to deconstruct, here it is: the Golliwog as Deus Ex Tar-Baby, the repulsive convenience of Orlando just “happening” to be in female phase as Allan Q. and Mina arrive — how fortunate it all is! How extraordinarily fortunate!
But, what’s the message?
Just: that Imagination is grrrREAT?
That it — what? — swings?
That sex — I mean Identity — oh no wait, I mean Freedom — or do I? — is GOOD TO HAVE?
What seems most suspicious about that, if you ask me — and I’m surprised I should have to say it — is its aggressively ominous tone. Because that seems to work against everything Moore has previously done with the LOEG characters, doesn’t it? Everything is settled now, hurray! Onward and upward, everybody except Susan! HURRAY! Aslan’s here!
Forgive me, but I just can’t believe that.
Because actually what’s most suspicious about all this is the notion that Moore himself doesn’t know what disturbing or dissonant threads he’s working into his stories. There’s the Golliwog, stuck like a big black Messianic doorstop into the entranceway to Final Perfection…and, what, do you think he just pulled that choice out of a hat, or something? There’s Orlando, suddenly bloody everywhere, guiding and directing, shaping…but why?
You think he ran out of ideas, and so decided to fill a million pages with Orlando, just at random?
Sex is just Imagination, and ain’t it great, so let’s all have a lot more of it, and Orlando’s perfect for that so why not?
And seriously, we all should have a lot more of it, but that’s not what this is about…
There’s no doubt whatsoever that Moore thinks Imagination really is great — hell, I think so too — but quick, let’s jump over in the direction of Lost Girls: where on the eve of the Great War, Monsieur What’s-His-Name (no, I didn’t get that wrong), proprietor of the Garden Of Eden Hotel, invites our heroines to a hootenanny, wherein his infamous Book is always prominently on display, catalyzing the escapades…if I may be so pudicious. Or, should I say: immanentizing the Eschaton? Slightly less so. But anyway in the White Book is a remarkable passage: the story of the incestuous family locked up with each other. Warning, reader: this is where it crosses the line from porn, over to something else…and indeed even one of Herr Whosit’s houris expresses a carefully authorially-controlled disquiet with it. “But, I’m a Mum myself” she says, or something very like that…
This is where that famous line comes in: about how Imagination is Imagination, and Reality is Reality, and only moralists and magistrates can’t tell the difference…
Which is true enough, certainly…
But does that sound like Alan Moore, to you? “Tush, now, it’s so easy to draw a line between real and unreal, why are you being so foolish…?”
No. I mean, it’s true. It’s even very true, when one is an artist speaking of their art. But inside the book…!
Alan’s a cleverer writer than that. He likes issues. For proof, note that as soon as he’s said that nutty thing Herr Voluptuous Geezer immediately points out how he supposes he might himself have crossed that Reality/Imagination line just now…and so you can’t go by what he says…
But, hey! Lucky for him and us, he’s a fictional character…
And maybe more than one, in fact: but of course he doesn’t say that.
“I’m a Mum, too”: if you’ve read the passage in question, you know that this is not a “Simplicio”-type objection. Sr. Sexual Socrates, proprietor of the White Hotel, doesn’t answer it back with quite the ease he seems to, because as readers we look at this passage in the Book and think: oh my God, ha ha, Good Lord that is really taking the conceit pretty far, Alan…
We are meant to feel disturbed by it, I think. This is not Watchmen, where Imagination is automatically prophylactic (and so you dare not take the costume off) — this is the real deal. This could be trouble: there isn’t a costume in sight. And, as we’ve been repeatedly told, it’s porn, too — so if we are looking for excuses, we will be looking in the wrong place if we pick up Lost Girls. Herein, no quarter is given. Well, really that’s hardly important; of much greater significance is the fact that no quarter is asked…but, yes, if one wanted to pick at it, no quarter is given either.
Or in other words, here Moore’s allusive layering is more than just trompe l’oeil, more than just encryption…and indeed the point is that you could find yourself in a bit of trouble if all you do is crack it. In point of fact if you try to crack Lost Girls or Black Dossier, the greatest danger is that you will — you’ll hear Father Inevitable say that only moralists and magistrates can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and you’ll see that War kills Imagination, but that’s all you’ll see and hear…you’ll notice Allan Quartermain despairing of the condition of modern British pop-fiction, and you’ll notice that sex is magic and magic is Idea…but you won’t notice anything else. You won’t notice, for example, any irony in the presentation of the moral woof! woof! Imagination is Great, and Sex is Good to Have!
Which, I think, will mean that you’ll hardly notice anything at all.
Although, come on: Imagination is great, and sex is good to have…
But let’s get parabolic, and do some more tearing-away of concept from concept, before we fall down and re-enter the sexual: let’s talk referentiality vs. interreactivity. I hope you can see that the two are not the same: interreactivity’s top potential is actually the land of No-Reference, No-Motive…where subject rules, and object sucks. Or rather, where object doesn’t exist at all. Pure inter-reference, the word that defeats the sum of its parts — where meanings are made from themselves, incestuously, cannibalistically, with no past at all: because the past does not exist. Where the moment just gone by is unrevisitable (if you’ll pardon me again), and so the only past there ever has been is the past of now…and as to how that works, look: don’t even ask.
Edenic, by some standards, absolutely. David Cronenberg’s, maybe? But…
Then you’ve got referentiality: where everything’s essentially tied, like a bunch of floats bobbing on the waves, but nevertheless anchored to the seabed. And the ropes and the chains only stretch so far, only move so much…in other words there’s some physics here, some constraint on absolute interpenetrability, absolute anti-topological cosmic virility…a restraint, on what some might call storytelling senility…
Sorry, little bit of the late-night preacher, there…
But what I’m saying is, let’s not confuse one with the other. And especially where LOEG is concerned, let’s not confuse the intention to invoke one, with the intention to invoke the other, see what I mean? Even if they do get tangled up.
A short digression, on our way back to regularly-scheduled programming: what’s the difference between sex and gender?
Gosh, you know I don’t know if I’ve ever made a digression that short; let’s return to it later.
Meantime, how about Mina?
You know Mina: the long red scarf. The maiden name. Sure, but it’s not that weird — look, everybody uses their “maiden name” in LOEG. Allan sinks himself in opium. Jekyll and Hyde don’t know who the hell they are, who’s concealing who (and no, that isn’t a mistake either). Griffin is, for Heaven’s sake, invisible. The man named Nemo — say, what does that little name mean agin? — lives under the sea. A mystery surrounds “M”. The name of the evil they first battle is “The Terror Of Limehouse”…and we know why. The unnamed detective looks up to the top of the waterfall, wonders…climbs up…disappears.
And then he’s gone.
But, really gone?
Out in the green sea of the South Downs, the strange thing called un-identity is found. Or, is it really un-identity at all? Allan talks about how it feels “like Africa”, and this surely isn’t an accident either…this is Moore doing Victorian literature in a few extraordinarily deft, and ultimately recursive strokes — one can’t help hoping that the next “M” is Marlow. And what would he say about “the state of the English adventure hero”, when Moore himself has made the fascinating suggestion that the allure of fame has in the mid-to-late twentieth century time replaced, in fact supplanted, come to stand in for, the allure of the sea? The black water of the Thames goes up and down still, and if anything in LOEG bestows character, it’s anonymity itself: Mina’s red scarf. Alan Moore’s Allan Quartermain, or his Mister Hyde…or his Nemo. “Kiss me,” Hyde begs Mina. “Bite my neck,” Mina asks Allan.
These are Alan’s own characters. Beyond a doubt.
And yet: the red scarf.
Big, isn’t it?
They cannot even be his characters, without first being someone else’s…and then, being cleverly obscured. We are not paying enough attention: is it at all remarkable that Jimmy Bond just can’t seem to secure any sexual advantage over the women he meets? Though the world is full of Pussy Galore and Oodles O’ Quim. You know I heard once (and I’ve said this before) that in the Forties and Fifties “Jimmy Bond” was precisely the same sort of name as “John Doe” — a name meaning “no one”. A euphemism for a dead body. So this is Jimmy, not James; he has not even had his anonymity notionalized. And so, he cannot get the damn thing sexualized either? This may in fact be the key matter: in the world where Harry Lime fairly boils out of the name-swamp at Greyfriars to become (oh, brilliant! And who else?) Big Brother, Jimmy Bond is still the biggest joke that ever was. I mean, he cannot even get to bed with a sixteen-year-old Emma Peel, who doesn’t even have a name yet! The place is a riot of pop-culture spaceships, but for Jimmy as for Emma, as indeed for Winston, there’s absolutely no escape to be had anywhere. All those going-tos are barren, for the anonymous — the anonymized — self…
And yet, isn’t it interesting that Allan and Mina can go? Because they’ve been anonymized too, three different times: once at introduction, once in a hotel room, and once in a glorious pool. Of course sex makes anonymity just as surely as it crafts identity: the ultimate Unknowable is always the partner’s own Body, that very indissoluble cornerstone of identity…that ultimate Anonymous thing, that mirror that simply swallows the reflection…
Gender, in case you’re wondering, is not the same as sex. Sex is only the parts you’ve got; gender, on the other hand, is who you are. Not that it doesn’t have anything to do with the parts you’ve got! As a matter of fact it has everything to do with them! And that’s because, quite naturally, the body is the indispensible root of personhood. That’s sex, if you like; and gender forms the branches, upon which all the blooming flowers are identities. And, the nectar of those flowers…?
Literature, I suppose: Jimmy Bond and Orlando face one another across the big Baccarat table of life, with Jimmy dying for Imagination, any old Imagination — he is the imagination-less man, the seeker, the clay — while meanwhile Orlando is beset, has always been beset, by too damn much Imagination — just as much mutable Idea as any Psammead, any Golliwog, any Aslan, Orlando is entirely bereft of the security of the body, and the body’s own Truth. He/she has completely lost track of the clay. Kings of Ennui face each other across the table, waiting for cards. One will never hit. One will, horribly, always hit.
These are Alan Moore characters too, you may notice.
But they’re kind of “Big ‘R'” ones. Allan and Mina are still different, still adrift in the intermixture of identity and anonymity: Allan’s sexual stodginess persists on into the Blazing World itself, his very own Big Red Scarf, though his body’s been wiped clean of all marks and histories…still the world of problematic tensions he belongs to has not been unmade, only temporarily avoided, and the ears don’t grow on unripened corn as much as all that! Meanwhile Mina is still beautifully recognizable as Mina, whatever she does…her scarf is still there too, and her scars. The scars left by Idea. So, the place they arrive at is a kind of Nowhere (onward and upward, except Susan!), and Nowhere’s not exactly synonymous with “escape”…unless those are the rules of the game, after all, that the Blazing World is no more than the flip-side of IngSoc’s embedded oppositional nature…but then in that case the two must partake of each other, mustn’t they?
So…where’s that escape, again?
Cheers. Thanks for reading so far. And now back to Lost Girls, and its terrible crowning image of the most very ultimate kind of fucking…or, maybe let’s go just a bit further back, to Alice and Wendy and Dorothy, and how their fantasies intertwine with reality. Because they choose that, naturally: the upward stroke of the lightning, reaching…the downward stroke, finishing. They choose them both. Peter is ruined as surely as he’s made, the Red King is woken on purpose by the rebellious Alice…and why, after all, does she rebel? Can we responsibly imagine the debate over the White Book is not set at least in superposition to Alice’s actions in her dream-life?… and there never was a Tin Man at all, only a secret eventually impossible to cover up with false names and bright new places. In the end, when the mirror is broken, it isn’t only War killing Imagination, you see…War, after all, is a kind of Imagination. Descending into reality, a finishing stroke. Margaret Case is not just Alan Moore’s mouthpiece. None of the characters in Promethea are. Not really. Lost in interreactivity, we think the author is getting lost too, but he isn’t.
At least, that’s my contention.
Remember, the Woman is Imagination. The Snake is Reality.
And Alan’s God is the Snake.
Although, you may notice…well, he says so himself…
It is a fictional Snake.
So, maybe we’re meant to notice the sterility of “pure” or “blazing” Imagination, and be annoyed by it, and go reaching for the Excedrin? Why else in the world would Bertie ever fight Cthulhu, for God’s sake? What else in the world is the Golliwog doing there, at all?
And whoever said Imagination was always “nice”? Who on Earth would ever believe them, if they did?
And whoever said Sex and Identity were just simplistic expressions of its awesomely awesome awesomeness?
Somewhere, the restless Self, never to be known, gets its dirty fingers into this stuff too. Or, are they clean fingers, that it gets in there? Into that filthy old pot of message?
Whatever; as I think Moore makes terribly clear throughout his oeuvre, the only sure way to tell what Identity really is, is when it disappears. Sometimes fatally.
As events conserve their meanings most, when juxtaposed with a gravestone.
…And, well, so much for the Reader’s Digest version, Bloggers! I confess I missed out quite a bit of stuff I’d meant to cover! Oh, you’re welcome, you’re welcome…really, it was nothing. Just…going away for a few days, you know. Thought you’d like some raw meat to tear off the bone in the meantime.
But if you will try to be gentle with a poor Blogger, I will try my best to lie back, and think of England.
So ta-ta for now.