Alan Moore: Death is a perspective illusion of the third dimension
It’s thanks to Alan Moore that comics have ceased to be just funny books with pictures – and instead have become a distinct genre with its own philosophy and culture. The legendary graphic novelist, writer and performer shares his worldview in a rare interview.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today is an extraordinary man in all senses. I don't know if you recognised him. He is a graphic novelist. He's a wizard of arts literally. He says on his books, ‘writer and performer’... Have I forgotten something?
Alan Moore: I don't think so other than somebody who is firmly rooted in the magical city of Northampton.
SS: Alan Moore, ladies and gentlemen, we'll be talking about life in its larger sense. Alright, so I want to start off with ‘Jerusalem’. And I suppose there is no univocal way of reading that book, right? So for me, it's like an anthology of stories and characters and genres. And I mean, history that spread on that sheet of what? – thousands of years. And, for me, all of the above is decorations. And then there is Northampton, Boroughs. To me, it seems like it's the only real character in the book – is that you?
AM: Well, that is possibly true. The Boroughs is certainly the foremost character in the book, it’s created all the other characters. It created me, it created many of the real characters that are in ‘Jerusalem’, and most of them are real, I think, other than the obviously fantastical characters like the angels and demons and all the rest of it. There are only two made-up characters in the whole book, characters like Tommy-Mangle-the-Cat, he was real. The little ghost girl who's got a feather boa made of dead rabbits.
SS: Was she real?
AM: She was real.
SS: Did you see her in your real life?
AM: I interviewed her as an older lady. She was the mother of one of my good friends. I went round there, and she told me all about how they used to collect rabbit skins from the streets in the Boroughs and then take them up to a place where they'd get perhaps a halfpenny each for them and that she has got this boa of rancid rabbits so no one could bear to stand near her. All of these stories, they were all true. And they all grew out of that area. So yes, the Boroughs was the origin of the whole book, this was the place that both industry and free-market capitalism both started at the junction of Gas Street and Town Street which was an extraordinary fact, which I hadn't expected, but which justified the entire title of the book, in that this was the first, dark, satanic mill of William Blake from the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. So, that was lucky that I managed to come across that fact before I'd finished the book. Otherwise, the title wouldn't have made any sense at all.
SS: If we look at your previous work, it's always been this sort of a dip into non-fictional cares of the world through pulp. This book ‘Jerusalem’, you say it yourself, it’s your main legacy. What does this legacy tell us about the world we live in today?
AM: Well, I hope that it tells us that the world that we live in today is eternal and that everything in it matters eternally. Our lives matter. That the last busted table light or the last dog turd in the gutter is important, because it is a part of this eternity, that we all share that we all have our moment in. I wanted to remove the fear of death because I believe that that stops us from living.
SS: It's funny [that] you speak about eternity and you speak about us, that we shouldn't have this fear of death because it comes in a way of living life to its fullest. Because we know we all grew up with this ‘doomsday clock’ notion that you've actually brought along and last I've checked it's even closer to midnight than in ‘Watchmen’. So back then it was the nuclear war threat. I don't know why it’s closer to midnight now. I don't know if it's global warming or artificial intelligence, human stupidity...
AM: I don’t think that artificial intelligence is really a factor. It's because of the political instability of the world and because of the environmental crisis. we've become obsessed with big-scale apocalypses, the mushroom cloud going up, the complete environmental collapse. Because they dramatise something, which is the end of us is the end of the world, at least to us. Everything ends, or at least, that is the way that we are conditioned to perceive life and death. And so big-scale apocalypses that worry us, I think that that is a way of perhaps deflecting our concerns about our own individual mortality, which I think hangs over all of us. What I wanted to do with ‘Jerusalem’ was to give people an alternative, There is a persistent illusion of transient, that the shows that we used to love aren’t on television anymore, you can't get those sweets that we used to enjoy when we were kids, that lovely building that we walked past every day, they pulled that down, our grandmothers, the people in the past who died, we’ll never see them again. No, I think that everything is eternal. And so when our consciousness gets to the end of our lifespan, it has nowhere to go - so back to the beginning. And I believe that we have our lives over and over and over again. And it always feels like the first time. It always feels like the first moment that we did those things. Except for those occasional moments of deja vu when we think “Hang on, this has happened before”. And if we knew that, if we knew that we each have an eternity contained within our life, then perhaps we would live that life without the fear of death. And perhaps we would remember not to do anything that we can't live with forever. Perhaps that would affect our morality. It was just an aspiration. But I hoped to at least give people an alternative.
SS: So basically, you're saying we should all get over our physical mortality?
AM: Yes, because I don't think it exists. I believe that death is a perspective illusion of the third dimension and that we shouldn't worry.
SS: Well, talking about the third dimension, there's also this prophetic thing to you and to everything that you say and write. I mean, when I look back at ‘V for Vendetta’, the way you described the totalitarian right-wing England then is… right now we're getting a personification of it in the Brexit party. I mean, do you kind of feel like – not only [in] that work, [but in] a lot of other works [too] – do you feel like Cassandra, whose prophecies are coming true, and you can't really do anything about them?
AM: No. Well, sometimes that can be a little bit worrying. Not with ‘V for Vendetta’. I wrote that in 1981. I was thinking, “Right, let's set it in the far future”, which would be the far-distant world of 1997. And I thought “Alright, so how are we going to make the reader understand that this is a fascist, totalitarian dystopia?” And I thought “Well, you could put, say, cameras on every street corner, that's a pretty fascist touch.” So imagine my surprise when the Tony Blair Labour government, which was basically a different flavour of Conservative government, but when they came into power in 1997 and immediately rolled out security cameras across the entire country, I wondered whether they had perhaps been enormous ‘V for Vendetta’ fans in their youth.
AM: This was probably my fault in some way. I think I'm fairly intelligent and I read an awful lot about the trends in the world, whether they be political or scientific or any other form. And so I also throw a pretty good tarot reading. So I'm probably going to get it right perhaps more than 50% of the time.
SS: I mean you certainly do, including the trends as well. I mean, the whole mask-wearing thing, it's something that you set with your comics, right? I mean, we see people wearing masks now. They want to be anonymous, right? Because you said the superheroes, they don't exist. These are just regular people who put on masks. When people put on masks, it's usually, correct me if I'm wrong, to hide their psychotic disorders, their fears –
AM: – or their crimes, right? I mean, I've been quoted, when I was in a bad mood about comics – and that could have been any time during the last sort of 40 years – but I was asked about the origins of capes and masks in the superhero genre. And I said, look, all you need to know about capes and masks in American superhero comics can be learned by a close viewing of D. W. Griffith's ‘Birth of a Nation’. Because I genuinely believe that, that that is where it all comes from. We don't have a tradition of masked heroes really anywhere else in the world apart from America. I mean, Guy Fawkes, who the ‘V for Vendetta’ mask is based upon, that wasn't a mask, that was his face. It's like, Robin Hood. That was his name. He wasn't wearing a mask. But I think that there is something that possibly dates back to those... the Ku Klux Klan intervention in ‘Birth of a Nation’, the idea of dressing up in a mask, so that what you do doesn't get back to you. It's a form of evasion so that I can completely understand it in the context of the modern protest movements.
SS: But what about in the context of the internet right now? I mean, it's like a free, accessible way and it's sort of a replacement of a mask, you get to be the freaks that you want to be without anyone really knowing who you are. I mean, is it a good thing or a bad thing?
AM: I think that is a very bad thing. And have among friends the author Jarett Kobek, he was pointing out that, yeah, anonymity on the internet that allows all of these trolls and much worse, to invade everybody's lives, that wasn't a glitch, that was a feature that the people who designed the internet designed that in as a feature, it wasn't a mistake. And it has enabled the very worst elements of society to spread their influence throughout the entire organism. So no, I'm not a huge fan of anonymity. I'm very pleased that an idea that I had all those years ago has been useful to modern protest movements. And most of them I am wholeheartedly behind. However, there was a point where I was shown some footage of children in a Tunisian playground. This would have been a couple of weeks before the revolution in Tunisia, which sparked off the Arab Spring, again, these children were all wearing ‘V for Vendetta’ masks. And then, yes, I think Anonymous doxed the Tunisian government, they released all their documents to the Tunisian people that kicked off the revolution. And then Anonymous moved on to Egypt, where they did the same thing. And then they moved on to Syria. Where it didn't really go so well.
SS: What about heroes? I mean, I know your take on superheroes, you think that people are cowards, make superheroes to cover up their own complexes. But what about heroism without the prefix ‘super’? Do you think it exists in the world? And if yes, then what is it?
AM: Of course it is. And it is an everyday heroism to choose to do the right thing, rather than not to do the right thing. These are moments of heroism, and they're basically what hold the culture, the species together. Without them, we'd be nowhere. So they are vitally important. Yes, I’m all for heroes – and I have my own heroes. I idolise William Blake, I don't think that there was probably a better human being in the entire British history.
SS: Okay, I believe you. I’ll take a little twist. I know magic is something that is very important to you. It is to me, too. Where does magic come in, in all of this? Everything that we've been talking about – the books, the comics, the life, the human race, where does it come in?
AM: We are used to having voices in our heads occasionally or sudden vivid memories of something or vivid pictures, because we know what the mind is, or at least we have a decent idea of what the mind is. We understand things about the unconscious, we have a concept of mind. But our ancestors, they had no such conception. So where could those voices, those visions, those images be coming from, except from the gods, from spirits? It was a natural way of perceiving the world. And I believe that the early shamans in their dancing around the campfire, disguised as animals, perhaps knocking together bones to make a rhythmic sound, I think that in that we have the origins of all modern culture apart from possibly sport, which might have been like the hunters showing off, or something. All the rest of it, all arts, all sciences, they go back to that figure.
SS: What's the common denominator between magic, or esoterics, and art? ‘Cause you always say it's super closely intertwined?
AM: Well, I think that they're the same thing. I think that when we just… when we discovered consciousness and language, then art and magic were part of the same equation; that art and magic are both concerned with taking something which does not exist and then bringing it into manifestation. This is not done by, I don't know, saying a few words and throwing some powders into a brazier and making gestures. No, it's done by working for a couple of years at something really, really hard. Say you've had an idea for a book. That doesn't exist anywhere except in your mind. It is less than a phantasm unless you bring all of your personality and your abilities to bear and are prepared to go through however long it takes through serious hard work. And then at the end of that, you will have ‘Jerusalem’, you will have brought something into materialisation that would not have existed otherwise.
SS: Okay. So for you, magic is actually creating something from consciousness mind to real life but not doing rites and –?
AM: Sometimes there'll be rites involved. Not for a number of years now.
SS: Yeah? Do you do rites and some sort of…?
AM: That was when I started because I think I needed the spectacular results to convince me that there was something worth pursuing in all of this. And back then, yeah, we had some unusual experiences. I was trying out all of the things that magicians are supposed to be able to do. I found myself on one evening talking to something which I believed - it claimed - to be a demon. One that was first mentioned in the book of Tobit, in the Apocrypha, The same demon turns up in ‘Jerusalem’, because I feel that I have a working knowledge of him. But these things may have been hallucinations, this is quite possible, some sort of psychotic episode, but they were part of my experience. They were things that I believed were real.
SS: I've heard a lot of people say same thing about trying ayahuaska or LSD, and they're saying, you know, it just makes so much more sense – the world that we live in – after you've taken and experienced this, you know, other reality or the only real reality but you just see it in 5D instead of 2D. So I know that you’re saying the conspiracy theories are actually made up by people to make sense of the chaotic world that we live in because if we were truly faced with the chaos in the world, we wouldn't take it. Does magic help you deal with that chaos?
AM: I think it does. And I think that also magic, at its heart, is a psychedelic experience. The word psychedelic means soul-revealing, which is as applicable to magic as to a dose of LSD or ayahuasca or psilocybin. The effect of psychedelic drugs, particularly psilocybin, is to actually impair a number of the connections that you have built up during the course of your life and your engagement with society and with other people. So you've built up restraints upon your thinking that govern the way that you think, the way that we all think. But these psychedelic drugs break down those restraints so that our state of consciousness is actually much more like the state of consciousness that we had when we were preverbal infants. Apparently, I was reading in one of my favourite science magazines, New Scientist, it was saying that if you want to experience what it's like to be an infant, it says, go to Paris, drink lots of wine, have about eight cups of coffee, fall in love, smoke three packs of Gitanes…, and then yes, you will definitely be waking up at three in the morning crying without knowing why –
SS: You forgot absinth.
AM: Yeah, but the people in New Scientist were saying, to which we would only say – yes, and take some magic mushrooms as well, then you will completely recreate the state of consciousness that we had when we were children. If magic could bring about that kind of change in consciousness, or art could bring about that kind of change in consciousness in the readers, in the audience, then that would surely be its main purpose, its main justification, the main reason for doing it - just to try and spread propaganda for a state of mind. The useful ideas that people might find handy in getting through their lives that might make it a better society that surely is the only reason for doing any art – to try and if you think that you have ideas that might be useful to other people, then art is a wonderful, mystical, esoteric way of placing your thoughts into somebody else's mind. And I think that that at the basis is what those people dancing around the prehistoric fires were doing. And I think it's what any modern artist or writer, or musician is doing when they create.
SS: Thank you so much. I loved every minute of our talk.
AM: It’s been my pleasure.