CONVERSATIONS Mousse 41
A for Alan Moore
by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Everyone is familiar with the mask of Guy Fawkes, adopted by the hackers of Anonymous, which has spread like a virus among the activists of the Occupy movement and many other anti-establishment militants around the world. Alan Moore is the man behind the birth of this epochal symbol. Often indicated as the best graphic novelist of all time, as well as one of the most outstanding British writers of the last fifty years, the anarchic author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell met with Hans Ulrich Obrist to talk about complex narratives and the heat of information.
HUO: How did you come to art and writing?
AM: There wasn’t a moment of epiphany, per se. But when I was about 13 years old I became a big fan of Michael Moorcock’s Sword and Sorcery books. When I heard that Moorcock was editing a science fiction magazine called New Worlds, I hunted it down. And it was like a paralyzing shock to the nervous system. I remember opening it and reading the first part of a then-unfathomable Jerry Cornelius story, with illustrations by the late, great Mal Dean. There was a piece by J. G. Ballard in one of those earlier issues where he was writing about his admiration of William S. Burroughs. All of these names started to go onto a list for me. I began to gravitate away from science fiction, science fantasy, and adventure toward the more avant-garde end of the spectrum. I first read Burroughs when I was about 14. I didn’t completely understand him, but I found it intoxicating. I was fascinated by the strange things that his cut-up approach to language did to my sensibilities and perceptions—that just changing the syntax, the grammar, and the words, chopping them up, changing them around, has a very strong effect on the reader. It’s so completely different from the normal way in which we absorb prose. And from Burroughs I moved onto the other Beat writers, notably Allen Ginsberg. I remember reading Howl when I was 16 and completely falling in love with it, just the visionary sweep of the language, the “starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” It was language used almost as song. It was an approach to language that had connotations of religious litanies or incantations, all worked into a very modern sensibility. I became very fond of the Decadent movement, which was very contemporary with the Art Nouveau movement. I began to read people like Guillaume Apollinaire.
HUO: A more visual kind of poetry?
AM: Yes, it was a more visual sort of writing. I could see sympathies between the disparate movements. They were all reaching for something hitherto inexpressible in their period. And they had to come up with a new vocabulary in order to express these things, which any artist in any medium should always be doing, especially in a world that moves as quickly as ours does.
HUO: How would you describe the influence of Thomas Pynchon on your work?
AM: I found Thomas Pynchon through Richard Fariña. If I’ve got this right, Pynchon was a close friend or disciple of Fariña’s. I checked out V, which I found really engrossing and extraordinary. I liked how he was telling a kind of metaphysical mystery story, and the richness of his thinking and his language. How he wasn’t afraid to compress quite unusual or fragile ideas into these marvellously dense pages, and relying upon the reader to do a large amount of the work in decoding them. I started to formulate my idea that any successful work of art, inevitably, only happens in some kind of conceptual space between the artist and the audience. The more work the audience has to do, the more they will enjoy the piece of art in question. With a lot of modern movies, the viewer is not asked to be part of the process. Increasingly, they’re encouraged not to bother about plot or structure as long as there is a constant stream of sensation, explosions, special effects. For me, this is not what art is about.
HUO: So you would agree with Marcel Duchamp when he says that the viewer—and, in relation to literature, the reader—does half the work.
AM: Absolutely. I think the reader should do at least half the work. It adds to the enjoyment. The more you can engage with a piece of art, or a piece of culture, the more you establish your own relationship with it.
HUO: This leads us to your current writing of the Jerusalem book.
AM: On the spine of a book you usually note the genre, and in my previous book, Voice of the Fire, I resisted the idea of fitting it into any genre. With this new book, Jerusalem, I was hoping to note the genre as scientific fiction. Now, admittedly, that’s partly mischievous, as it’s a book that has angels, demons, ghosts, and a lot of things one would normally expect from supernatural fantasy. But the entire book is predicated upon a scientific idea: that every scientist since Albert Einstein seems to think that we inhabit a universe that has at least four spatial dimensions. As I understand it, our continuum is like a massive four-dimensional solid with its “big bang” and “big crunch,” or however else the universe turns out to end. Both of these points are coexistent in this giant, four-dimensional luminous egg of space-time. And every moment that has ever existed in the universe, or will ever exist, is suspended, unchangingly, forever, somewhere inside this massive solid. It is my belief, and I think Einstein might have been implying something very much the same, that when we reach the end of our lifespan, our consciousness probably has nowhere to go but back to the beginning of it. An eternal recurrence. And this kind of thinking can be applied everywhere, even our meanest and most degraded urban areas, such as the place I grew up in, which is the main subject of Jerusalem.
HUO: You’re speaking of Northampton in England.
AM: A tiny little area of Northampton called the Boroughs. It was where the War of the Roses concluded. The original site of King John’s castle, and the castle of Richard the Lionheart. At least two of the Crusades started from there. It was where Thomas Becket was brought to trial before escaping to France for a few years. Where the entire Anglican Church was overhauled by Philip Doddridge to include the dissident faiths. The Boroughs was originally the whole town. Today, it’s the red-light district. It’s a miserable thing to happen to such a glorious place. In a sense, with Jerusalem I’m trying to redeem and reimagine places like that.
HUO: It ties in fully with what Adam Curtis was saying: “Alan Moore’s genius is that he takes dystopianism and uses it to create alternative realities.”
AM: I’ve known people who claim to have seen flying saucers or ghosts. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody successfully claim to have seen objective reality. I presume it must exist. But that is not our experience of the world. Our experience of the world is subjective.
HUO: You’ve created so many masterpieces, from Swamp Thing to V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell, and Lost Girls. What do you consider your first work in which you invented this idea of new complex narratives?
AM: Dating it would be difficult. But there was a point when I was working on probably one of those early Future Shocks where I realized the unrealized possibilities of the medium. A specific story would probably be Chronocops, with Dave Gibbons, which was quite an intense and careful piece of structure, where I was going back and revising things earlier in the stories to keep all the time paradoxes neat and straight. It allowed me to hide things in the panels that readers wouldn’t notice until they were shown the same panel again, later in the story. That was, I think, quite elegant. Another was The Reversible Man, which I did with the artist Mike White. The story basically follows a human life backward through time, starting off with the moment of his death. He’s lived with this woman and their two grown-up children for as long as he can remember. The woman gets younger. The two boys get younger as well. They attend a ceremony where somebody is dug up from a grave. And then a couple of days later he goes into the hospital and visits this old woman whom he likes immediately, although he’s never seen her before. It turns out to be his mother. His life progresses backward. His wife goes into hospital with each of their two children, in turn, when those children are newborn babies. The wife takes them into hospital and comes home alone. When both the babies are gone, he and his young wife have a couple of years of blissful happiness. Then they go through a marriage service, after which they live separately. But they still see quite a lot of each other. And there’s a final moment, which is obviously the first night they met. It involves bumping into each other on a railway platform, and the newspaper pages flutter up from the platform to reassemble into newspapers in their hands. Their eyes meet, and he thinks she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Then they back away from one another, reading their newspapers. And he never sees her again.
AM: I realized that there is something unbearably poignant about ordinary human experience if you just run the film backward. All the secretaries at IPC, the magazine company that published 2000AD, used to read advance copies of 2000AD on their lunch break, and I heard that The Reversible Man brought them all to tears. Which is not to say that every story I wrote thereafter was a good one. The nature of the business being what it is, sometimes there will be issues or stories you’re less fond of than others.
HUO: I watched a film interview where you talked about magic and this whole idea that everything around us is inhabited by spirits or essences that can be communicated. In terms of literature, can you talk a little bit about this link between fiction and magic, and what we can learn from it?
AM: Well, the obvious link between writing and magic is that they’re pretty much exactly the same thing. It is my belief that all these phenomena—writing, language, representational art, consciousness—were originally one phenomenon, which was magic. Magic is a different way of looking at human consciousness and its relationship with reality. I would say that, to a certain extent, magic and all art are practically interchangeable terms, and share an awful lot of the same language and vocabulary. Particularly in terms of writing, where the idea of a grimoire, the book of dark magical spells and secrets, is basically just another way of saying “grammar.” And certainly the most used and most useful magical book in my extensive collection is an etymological dictionary, where I can trace back what words actually mean and where they came from. On the broader issue of art and magic, I would say that it’s a way for artists to re-empower themselves. I think we got sold down the river when art became less a magical activity and more a commercial activity. Yes, everybody has to live. But artists should not have begun to think of themselves as entertainers who must please the audience in order to secure our future prospects. Artists and writers should believe that what they are doing is a magical act of tremendous importance. If you think about what any piece of art is actually doing, both to its creator and to its audience, then you have a very complex interaction on a high level of abstraction.
HUO: I have one last question about politics. There is a sort of desire among many younger artists to reconnect with politics. V for Vendetta, which you wrote 30 years ago, has developed a political urgency through Occupy Wall Street.
AM: A political dimension is inescapable. In everything we do, in every aspect of our lives, it’s all political. Just as, in another sense, it’s all spiritual. With a work like V for Vendetta, I was first able to really stretch my wings in the political arena. I was able to explore my own thoughts about politics. I thought, what are the twin poles of politics? It’s not left-wing and right-wing, because those are pretty much just different ways of ordering an industrial society. There has to be something more fundamental than that. So I conceived of the two poles as fascism and anarchy. With fascism, you have the complete abdication of human responsibility to the state; in unity, there is strength. At the other extreme you’ve got anarchy, which, at least in the way I conceive of it, means the individual taking ultimate responsibility. Taking responsibility for yourself gives you power over yourself, which is probably the only moral form of power that any of us should ever possess. V for Vendetta became a kind of thought experiment, if you like. Or a drama, where I had my little chess pieces representing anarchy and fascism, and I allowed them to play themselves out in an interesting and romantic way.
HUO: That brings us to my very last question, which I always end with: “The future is . . .”
AM: It seems to me that one of the main elements underlying our entire existence, our entire universe, is information. Information is a peculiar substance that we cannot actually see. We can’t put it in a jar. It’s invisible. We can only see its effects, which we can see in the technology that’s erupting around us all the time. You are accumulating information, and you can’t get rid of it once you have it. So the information keeps mounting up. I believe that in the past year, there have probably been more discoveries than in the whole of previous human development. I think it was a French economist who first came up with the idea of period information doubling. He suggested that sometime between 2012 and 2017, we would reach a point where human information was doubling every fraction of a second. Now, I cannot really imagine what human culture would be like after that. Very different, I would guess. It struck me that an analogy that you could use would be that in the Neolithic period, we were cold water. And if information is a kind of heat, or energy, then, given the amount of information we’ve accumulated since the Neolithic period, today we are very hot water. And whatever lies beyond this point, where information goes completely exponential, is likely to be as different from our current state as steam is from water. Cold water and hot water are still water. Steam, you can’t predict. It’s a completely different substance, with totally different behaviour. If these particular figures and theories are correct, we should be seeing it in the next five or ten years. So, those are my thoughts about the future. I also tend to think that it’s going to happen whatever we do, and we will be a part of it. Sometimes you throw ideas out there and they have to wait until the actual situation is a little closer to reality. I do think that everything we do, everything we say, to some small degree, affects the future, and this is one of the powers that artists have. They’ve got a voice. Or they can have a large, resonant, powerful voice, and the waves from that voice perhaps have a better chance of affecting how things turn out in the days to come.
Originally published on Mousse 41 (December 2013–January 2014)