Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 48 (Alan Moore's Spoken Word Pieces)

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People who like this blog and in particular this entry are essentially certain to enjoy JMR Higgs's new book KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, which is, by his description, "a story about The KLF, Robert Anton Wilson, Dada, Alan Moore, punk, Discordianism, Carl Jung, magic, Ken Campbell, rave, Situationism and the alchemical properties of Doctor Who." See? Right up your alley if you're reading this. The book is announced here, with links to where you can buy it in the US or UK.

The Cartmel-Virgin era began with overt and self-conscious parallels to the work of Alan Moore. Actually, that might be a little strong. Let’s try this: Andrew Cartmel was a comics fan, and he stole from the best. Sylvester McCoy’s audition piece, itself spun into the bulk of Mel’s departure scene in Dragonfire, was directly inspired by Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. And much of Cartmel’s tenure as script editor can be read straightforwardly as an attempt to do Alan Moore’s Doctor Who. Given this, it’s a surprisingly honest one that understood what Moore was actually doing on a level beyond “he was adding lots of sex and violence to what were ostensibly children’s stories.” But in most accounts that’s where Alan Moore drops out of the Doctor Who story, replaced by Neil Gaiman, whose Sandman ran more or less concurrently with the New Adventures and was an overt influence.

This is, for the most part, because Alan Moore’s career took a bit of a strange turn in the late 1980s. Following a dispute over payment and rights to Watchmen Moore stopped accepting new work for DC Comics, simply seeing out his existing contract to finish V for Vendetta, which he did in 1989. Instead he began working independently, starting with the publication of AARGH! in 1988 under his own Mad Love imprint. That was also the imprint under which he published Big Numbers in 1990, an aborted magnum opus about a shopping center in Northampton and fractals. This was, unfortunately, characteristic of his work in the period - although some shorter and self-contained pieces such as “Brought to Light” and A Small Killing made it out, his other two big works from the period had what can only be described as convoluted publication histories. Lost Girls, his pornographic work with future-wife Melinda Gebbie, saw some issues published in 1991-92 before vanishing for fifteen years. From Hell had an only slightly smoother ride, managing to get all ten chapters out over the course of five years and three publishers.

The latter of these is, to say the least, a transitional work for Moore. From Hell’s memorable fourth chapter, published in 1991, was inspired in part by the psychogeographic work of Iain Sinclair, with whom Moore struck up a friendship that is almost certainly the most important creative influence of his later career. It is also in that chapter that Moore wrote that “the only place gods inarguably exist is in our minds where they are real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity.” Moore later said that upon writing this line he patted himself on the back a bit, thinking it terribly clever, and then realized that, more than being clever, it was absolutely true and he was going to have to completely reconfigure his entire life and belief system. Accordingly, on his fortieth birthday, five days before Doctor Who’s thirtieth anniversary, Alan Moore declared himself a practicing ceremonial magician and began worshipping a fraudulent Roman snake god named Glycon. He then spent the mid-to-late nineties putting out some of the weakest work of his career for Image Comics in an attempt to see if he could write for the nineties American comics market while, on the side, publishing his phenomenally strange and alienating novel Voice of the Fire and, from 1994-2001, doing a series of spoken word performances under the banner of The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels. None of this material is typically viewed as in the least bit inspirational to much of Doctor Who.

This is, however, largely erroneous. Alan Moore’s excursion into the occult was never all that far from Doctor Who. The themes of Big Numbers, with the individual lives of ordinary people in Northampton reflecting and paralleling the structures of the larger society, point straight at the central concerns of Paul Cornell, Kate Orman, and late-career Andrew Cartmel. And his overtly occult work ties in perfectly with the themes of So Vile a Sin and The Room With No Doors. On top of this, the five spoken word pieces are among the most direct influences on this blog. So since we did Moore five entries into the McCoy era, let’s do him again as we begin to wrap these threads up, looking specifically at these five spoken word pieces.

The earliest of them, itself titled The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, sets the tone and pattern for all five of the pieces. It stems from a 1994 performance at the St. Bride Foundation Institute and Library. After a pleasantly unnerving opening track in which a carnival barker implores listeners to enter the eponymous theatre, containing as it does “curiosities to suit your every inclination, demonstrations and displays, unique sensations, and a previously unimagined sexual extremity included in the modest cover fee.” This descends into a repeated chant that they are going to “wake the snake,” at which point the performance proper begins.

The piece begins with a walking tour of London, or, rather, the imagined London - the psychological landscape of memory, history, and myth that we hold inside our heads. (“When we are not in London,” Moore intones, “this apparition is our only London.”) Large portions of this initial section are simply reworkings of From Hell’s fourth chapter, in turn nicked by me for the bits of my Invasion post about St. Paul’s Cathedral. But instead of tracing the path of the Ripper murders Moore winds his way towards St. Bride’s church, the place where the performance itself took place, and finally into the very room in which the audience sits. Here Moore pulls his transition, the switch between the two acts of this performance, inquiring whether, if the room itself possesses an imaginary dimension, mustn’t too the very people within it?

And from here Moore makes the step that is crucial to understanding everything within this blog. If there is such a thing as imaginary spaces, he proposes, there must also be such a thing as a space of imagination. This is his concept of ideaspace - the imaginary landscape of imagination itself, treatable as geography but nevertheless ephemeral. The exploration of this makes up the latter half of the performance as Moore works upwards towards more abstracted and terrifying presences. If we treat the psyche as a landscape, Moore asks, what might live within it? Here he introduces three figures - the Enochian Angel of the Seventh Aethyr, consisting largely of a transcript of Edward Kelly’s summoning of said angel for John Dee, the Demon Regent Asmodeus, a palindromic monologue that I, having no actual ideas of my own, reskinned as the caption for my Logopolis entry, and finally his God and Master, the serpent Glycon. And then he takes a step further into transcendence, suggesting that if, in fact, the universe is understandable only through our perceptions of it that there is such a thing as the absolute unity of all things and…

Then he kind of loses it, actually It’s a first draft, to be fair. His first attempt at a magickal working, and he doesn’t quite stick the ending. It’s all very moving and compelling, but it does not quite cohere. The piece, as a whole, shows the traits common of first works - the over-eager rush to cram everything in and to show off one’s ambition. That The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels contains both the Asmodeus palindrome and the ostentatiously clever “Litvinoff’s Book” section, a monologue about the Cray twins done in stereo with the two voices moving out of sync and then back in, the monologue itself playing at gratuitous length with images of dualisms and pairs, speaks volumes.

Moore’s next performance, The Birth Caul, was in late 1995 at the Old County Court in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This one is altogether more successful, and one of the two to be adapted into comic versions by Eddie Campbell, Moore’s From Hell collaborator. The Birth Caul benefits from what was most excessively lacking in The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, namely a sense of tight focus. Moore works entirely within the scale of his own childhood, using the image of his mother’s birth caul, found among her things when they were being sorted after her death a few months before the performance, to regress backwards from the present moment of the performance towards the primordial state whose mythology is bound up in Moore’s chosen talisman. It is an outright piece of psychochronography, walking against chronology through

In some ways The Birth Caul is directly opposite much of the New Adventures. Where they treat language as the condition that Death interrupts, Moore treats language itself as a sort of death - the framing of the social order that positions us endlessly as small, meaningless pieces of a larger machine. From what he calls “the world’s blunt engine,” the callous and grueling reception we are granted when we make our first attempts at adulthood, back through the endlessly circumscribed rebellions of our teenage years and to the soft totalitarianism of school Moore traces the constraints of the social order and how they wear away at the self. The monologue comes to its anguished head as he describes the savage acts of bullying he was subject to as a child, crying out that it was there that “he learned the words” necessary to conform and respond to such attacks. From there he winds back further, to the very cusp of his own use of language, imagining and reconstructing himself as an infant who has just become aware of the idea of “I,” and who is immediately traumatized by the lack of understanding of himself immediately prior to this moment. And finally he penetrates the moment of birth and language, entering the primordial unity from which the individual is severed.

But let us be more precise in our accounts of things here. In Moore’s conception it is language and history that severs us from the unity of namelessness. In Orman’s conception it is Death that eats our names and leaves us forgotten. These are not different processes so much as they are different perspectives, with Moore writing from within the perspective that Orman would recognize as Death. We ought remember, then, that even as the Doctor resists Death he does not suggest for a moment that Death ought be abolished. Nor does Moore advocate for suicide or the abandonment of life. What we have is an altogether more complex situation in which Death and Time are inexorably entwined. Note that the abandonment of ourselves upon the world’s blunt engine is just as much a loss of identity as the primordial unity. What matters - what The Birth Caul spends the bulk of its time on - is the flickering tension of ourself as we are suspended between the twin oblivions of Death and Time.

The problem is that The Birth Caul remains largely pessimistic. It simply traverses the span of these two oblivions before losing itself and all identity into the primordial. For all of its aesthetic effectiveness - and it is a far, far stronger piece than The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels - it is much more of a dead end conceptually. Its transcendence is negative, finding hope only in the potential from which language stems. It is profound, but profound in a silent, sublime way that permits no productive speech or response.

Moore’s third working, The Highbury Working, came almost exactly two years later in, as one might expect, the Higbury region of London. The piece is the most overtly psychogeographical of Moore’s performances. Moore starts with a withering assessment of Highbury as a place of cultural and historical power, describing it as “one more metropolitan collapsar faced with dreamtime relegation… Highbury wasn’t at Death’s door, it was halfway down Death’s passage, hanging up its coat. An anecdote-free zone. No serial murders, no ghosts, it didn’t even merit bold type in the A to Z. You might as well be on the moon.” From there Moore sets out to redeem the place.

The material concerns of the piece are mirrored in the comparative sedateness of its structure. Unlike the virtuoso formalism of The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels or even the winding regression of The Birth Caul, The Highbury Working plays it straight. Four sections, each divided into two tracks, working up straightforwardly through the standard Aristotelean/magickal elements from Earth to Fire. Moore works through the drug-soaked and hedonistic histories of Highbury, finding in it a taut, neurotic splendor of genius on the brink of cracking. And then, in glorious fiat, he declares the Angel Highbury, the redemptive moment in which all of Highbury’s ghosts are freed to revel joyoushly in its imagined streets, “crushingly beautiful, and there because we say she is.”

The Highbury Working is in some ways the most forgettable of Moore’s five pieces - certainly it’s the one that I’ve listened to the fewest number of times. Its ambitions are particularly limited and focused, and there’s an overproduced feel to the soundscape that feels as though it’s covering up an inferior monologue on Moore’s part, which, to be fair, it kind of is. But while the piece is not Moore’s strongest its relative simplicity allows him to crystalize and clarify some key ideas. The link between the lowly excesses of sex and drugs and the divine fire of the Angel Highbury is a crucial theme gestured at in The Birth Caul but unrealized within its downbeat ending. The act of raw creation, calling the Angel into being through no means other than the declaration of her, finds a solution to the dead-end of The Birth Caul’s void. There are the beginnings of his later and more complete formulation of magick’s status as an art in “Fossil Angels” here. Perhaps most significantly, Moore seems to find a measure of grounding and a way to move forward, locating something transcendent in the muck of the everyday instead of merely at the poles of oblivion upon which it is suspended.

This leads us in neatly to Moore’s fourth piece, in April of 1999: Snakes and Ladders, performed at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square in Holburn. Of the five pieces, this is, I think, fairly clearly the best. On a basic level it’s a simple Kabbalistic ascent from Malkuth to Tiphareth (“simple,” he says), or, if you want it in marginally more concrete terms, sections 10, 32, 9, 25, and 6 of the Logopolis post. On a broader level, it’s an act of dizzying hubris that makes The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels look pleasantly restrained. Moore weaves the psychogeography of Holburn, his Kabbalistic structure, the creation of the universe, and the life of Arthur Machen together in a study of divine ascension. But this latter choice provides the grounding focus that The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels lacked. Everything within the piece is grounded in the death of Machen’s wife and his account of his psychological turmoil in its aftermath.

Moore uses this visceral confrontation with death to frame a piece that runs continual interference between the two poles set out by The Birth Caul. On the one hand he retains the psychogeographic grounding of The Higbury Working, a variation on the web of social circumstance that The Birth Caul struggled against, while on the other his narrative of the creation of the universe and of life evokes nothing so much as The Birth Caul’s final plunge into the primordial. But in Snakes and Ladders Moore finally manages an answer to these challenges: “clay looks on clay, and understands that it is beautiful. Through us, the cosmos gazes on itself, adores itself, breaks its own heart. Through us, matter stares slack-jawed at its own star-dusted countenance and knows, incredulously, that it knows.”

On one level this is simply a restatement of the end of The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, where our perceptions and interiority come to define the universe. But instead of being framed purely in terms of the act of magic it is this time framed in terms of the universe itself. Moore holds to this approach in later work - in an issue of Dodgem Logic he writes:
There is, of course, always the possibility that we’re alone. If the first seeds of life arrived from somewhere else with comet-dust, as in Fred Hoyle’s Panspermia hypothesis, then we should shortly find at least their remnants in the water-ice deposits that most probably exist upon Earth’s moon or on the planet Mars. In the absence of such a discovery we could only conclude that life developed locally, and lacking a full understanding of the processes by which inert and lifeless chemicals connected accidentally to form amino acids, RNA and DNA, we cannot possibly begin to calculate the odds of such a lucky chain of circumstances happening spontaneously elsewhere. While our universe is very large it is by no means infinite, and without knowing the exact means by which life originated or the probability of such a thing occurring there would seem a reasonable chance that there is not so much the first scrap of moss abiding anywhere beyond the confines of this planet. 
If that were to be the case, bearing in mind that as yet we possess no proof that it is not, then that would surely place our species under a compelling biological responsibility to be less lackadaisical regarding our continuing existence. After all, if we allow our world to be made uninhabitable, an unending toxic gas-storm in the mode of Venus, then it may be more than our own intermittently annoying species that we are consigning to oblivion. It may be that we leave our whole continuum an empty, echoing immensity that exists only for a dozen or so billion years between its pyrotechnic start and icy finish or incendiary collapse, completely unobserved and without meaning, as if it were never there at all.
The endless dance of history and oblivion that constitutes our fragile existences, then, amounts to nothing so much as the Panopticon through which the universe is allowed such notions of Time and Death in the first place. This is the Holmesian conception of the Time Lords writ large. “As above, so below” is true because it is only below, where the entire cosmos is nailed to mere matter, that above can be observed from and thus conceptualized. “If there is to be progress,” Moore intones, “there must be sex. There must be death, and all Earth’s children, all the myriad creatures must destroy each other to survive. Into mortality and evolution we descend.” And so in the searing fire of Arthur Machen watching his wife, Amy, slip away to a long illness we find the secrets of creation itself: the transcendent within the mundane.

The middle passage of Snakes and Ladders follows this train of thought further, exploring once again the landscape of Ideaspace first broached in The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels. The realm of imaginations and fictions in which all attempts to frame and capture this flickering moment. Circumscribed by history’s oppressive language and the onrushing erasure of death, we create and invent, trying desperately to frame the infinite, to capture it, to see it in the first place. Our fictions and ideas are the observations that render the universe seen, observed, and meaningful. But there is more than that. As Moore puts it, “the written page becomes too frail a barrier. Things start to tear their way through from the other side, almost as if the realms of waking substance and of fantasy were not two separate worlds at all.” Moore recounts his own visitation by John Constantine, who once stepped from the shadows and whispered the ultimate secret of magic into his ear.

If this is so, then, we have at last our framing of Time’s Champion. Himself an idea, a mere fiction - a story, even, he is that process through which Time transmutes from the grinding lead engines of eternity into the gold of significance. Nameless and thus untouchable by Death, his name, as Orman has it, broken “into thirty-eight tiny pieces” and scattered throughout the universe in the forms of his friends and companions. “And once they went their separate ways,” Orman writes, “his name continued to grow within them, and made them into something better, something bigger, than they were before. Or just something different.” The Doctor, his name already eaten, providing for us safety in the slow tempering of time.

Moore’s fifth and final working is Angel Passage, performed another two years later at an evening of readings and performances in honor of William Blake. It is good, but brief - a fleeting forty minutes that feels like an epilogue to an already completed work. He reached his peak in 1999 with Snakes and Ladders, at least within this form. The look at Blake is just wrapping things up. A footnote, or a small passion project without wider ambition. Two things about it suggest the broad figure of an explanation. First is the date. Angel Passage was done in February of 2001, while Snakes and Ladders was done in April of 1999. Moore, it seems, is at his best when staring the eschaton in the face. As he says in Snakes and Ladders, “these are the fretful margins of the twentieth century, the boomtown’s ragged edge, out past the sink estates, the human landfill, where the wheelchair access paving quakes, gives way like sphagnum moss beneath our feet. It’s 1999, less like a date than a number we resort to in emergencies. Pre-packaged in its National Front bunting, its millennial mummy-wraps, the zeitgeist yawns, as echoing and hollow as the Greenwich dome.”

A masterful bit of millennial paranoia, that. But it reveals a larger truth about Moore’s work: he is, at his heart, eschatological. As only a child of the fifties, sixties, and seventies can be, he relates to the future in terms of its end. His spoken word pieces, brilliant fire as they are, work only in the meandering run-up to that great odometer rollover of the millennium. Lose that onrushing moment of certainty and the fragile moment they arise from dissipates. Which brings us to the second aspect of Angel Passage: the fact that Blake, for his part, exists in relationship not with the eschaton but with Eternity.

There are, of course, broadly speaking two approaches to magick to be had. The first is the eschatological approach from which Moore’s more ceremonial tradition derives - an approach in which we approach some distinct transformative event. But there is also the cyclic approach, in which instead of approaching an ending we progress through an endless process, coming back around to the same point. The Wiccan and Druidic approaches - both well enmeshed in Britain’s occult heritage - both take this view, as, for that matter, does Buddhism, itself well enmeshed in Doctor Who’s heritage. Blake’s Eternity, in many ways, can be read as a cycle of infinite shortness.

What if, then, we turned to a more cyclic version of Moore’s approach. A story that never ceases, but goes on forever, regenerating itself. A story that is told for fifty years straight, constantly refining itself and, more importantly, us. One that makes the dizzying leap from dull and brutish matter to the vaulted skies of infinity. A story whose endless chanting quietly holds up a corner of the universe, a Lamed Wufnik unaware of just what it is. It simply tells itself, and in doing so sees the vast scope of everything. A mistranslation, then. Not Time’s Champion.

Eternity’s Champion.

Comments

John Higgs 4 years, 2 months ago

What always amuses me about the Highbury Working is that, at the exact time Moore was at Highbury Corner declaring that the Angel of Highbury existed because he imagined Her to, Dido was sat in a small Highbury flat writing her insipid 'No Angel' album. That album went on to conquer the world and, I fear, negated all Moore's best intentions.

1 - nil to the forces of darkness.

Thanks for the mention of my KLF book, BTW!

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jane 4 years, 2 months ago

*Now* he mentions the KLF book, long after Christmas lists have gone out. Thanks, Phil. ;) Anyways, this entry is great. I love seeing the other influences that helped shape this blog and the thoughts therein.

So, is this psychochronography a magickal working?

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Anton B 4 years, 2 months ago

The KLF book is on my Kindle right next to the two (so far) Eruditorum books. I'm gonna have loads to keep me busy this Xmas.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 2 months ago

I believe the KLF book is ebook only, so not a terribly useful Christmas list item anyway. Or at least, that's why I didn't worry about mentioning it before now. :)

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 2 months ago

No problem. Sorry I didn't get it up sooner, but I knew this post was coming, and it just seemed the obvious place to plug it.

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Sean Daugherty 4 years, 2 months ago

"He then spent the mid-to-late nineties putting out some of the weakest work of his career for Image Comics in an attempt to see if he could write for the nineties American comics market...."

I take it you're not a fan of his run on "Supreme," then? More's the pity, I guess: it's one of my favorites of his, second only to "Watchmen" (and possibly tied with "V for Vendetta," depending on my mood).

To be sure, though, I'm not sure it's the best blueprint for "Doctor Who" stories in general. Though I could see parts of it being appropriated for another Land of Fiction story. It would have been a better model than Steve Lyons's two New Adventures dealing with that setting, anyway.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 2 months ago

At first I read this and was very excited to see how you would collapse all this back into Doctor Who.

Then I realised you'd most likely closed off the most productive path I could have (and should have) taken for my "A Tail in Twain" post. Looks like I need to rewrite that *again*...

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Ununnilium 4 years, 2 months ago

Very interesting. Makes sense.

...but...

"He then spent the mid-to-late nineties putting out some of the weakest work of his career for Image Comics in an attempt to see if he could write for the nineties American comics market"

I am sorry, but Supreme is dazzling and awesome, Moore working past the ego-death of Watchmen and finding something transcendent and universal on the other side, the holiness to which Miracleman is the qlippothic shell.

(Also, as a revamp of a character that's all about the character's personal experience of being revamped, it ties in very well to the Time-War-as-cancellation narrative.)

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Kit 4 years, 2 months ago

Still reading through this, but:

"Lost Girls, his pornographic work with future-wife Melinda Gebbie, saw some issues published in 1991-92 before vanishing for fifteen years. From Hell had an only slightly smoother ride, managing to get all ten chapters out over the course of five years and three publishers."

Lost Girls had five chapters published in Taboo in 1992, then two more in the second Kitchen Sink floppy in 1996, then the whole lot a mere ten years later.

From Hell started in Taboo in 1989 (work started on the strip in 1988, the Ripper centenary), and the final serialised chapter appeared in 1998. I'd call it ten years and five publishers, as the Eddie Campbell Comics edition in 1999 was what really cemented the work's status as a finished book. [Before that I count Aardvark One (co-pub on early Taboos), Spider-Baby, Tundra, and KSP. {Mad Love's sometime credit was in logo only.}]

This nitpicking is just for if you end up revamping and using the above in a book edition - looking forward to digging into the post proper; I've long said The Birth Caul is the best thing he's ever done.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 2 months ago

...oh, and now I've gone cross-eyed. :-o

I think my mind glazed over midway through the section on Snakes and Ladders, but really, just because Glycon might be a reality in Moore's mind does not make him actually real.

I love Watchmen, I really do, but Moore went off the deep end. :-(

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Phil 4 years, 2 months ago

Reality doesn't really enter into it. Moore's point is that what a god does to your mind and to your life is far more important than whether it's literally real in the same sense as the Eiffel Tower. Or as the man himself said, "the idea of a god, is a god."

Glycon's basically a story, like any other religion. It doesn't matter if it's literal, it matters if it's important. Which to Moore, it is, even if he's a bit tongue in cheek about it.

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