3 years, 11 months ago
“This dread world and the rolling of wheels” -William Blake, The Book of Urizen, 1794
|Figure 17: The working class neighborhood of Northampton|
Alan Moore grew up in was called The Boroughs
Burroughs provides no such easy access route, and is beloved less by the academic consensus than by generations of committed counterculture figures who, like Ballard and Moorcock, “weren’t so much influenced by him as inspired by him.” At times not so much a writer than a stunningly competent criminal, Burroughs effectively hit on the brilliant scheme of supporting a drug habit by writing about it. Famed for shooting his wife to death in an ill-advised drunken William Tell impression, Burroughs’s style is an obvious antecedent for Ballard’s harshly visceral lists in The Atrocity Exhibition
. His masterpiece is Naked Lunch
, an unstructured ramble of a book that was the subject of several landmark obscenity trials, all of which it won. It wanders from misadventure to misadventure, steadily dissolving reality into a paranoid dreamscape that seems to have been Burroughs’s drugfucked experience channeled onto the page, a world where “One Friday Fats siphoned himself into The Plaza, a transulcent-grey foetal monkey, suckers on his little soft, purple-grey hands, and a lamprey disk mouth of cold, grey gristle lined with hollow black erectile teeth, feeling for the scar patterns of junk,” a paragraph that exists as part of a sprawling multi-paragraph sentence with no end in sight.
|Figure 18: Heroin|
Burroughs transitioned this into a literary career such that a reasonable circle of admirers that improbably allowed him to live a heroin-addicted lifestyle until the ripe old age of 83, sustaining a pleasant existence in Lawrence, Kansas where he could have his drugs without the preying cityscape waiting to devour him. But his paranoia was not merely of the perverted rabbit hole of criminal culture that urban drug culture offered him. Rather, he feared the very technology of language, describing it as a “control machine” that was indistinguishable from his own addiction in its tyranny over his thought. This sort of paranoia struck a chord as the technological utopias of the post-World War II era fully gave way to a more unsettled pre-apocalyptic nightmare of nuclear war led human science to become what Iain M. Banks, vanguard of the post-new wave generation of science fiction in the UK, described in 1996 as an Outside Context Problem - something that “most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.” As science became dangerous so did science’s imaginative dimension.
Burroughs, like many figures within and without the war, was overtly an occultist, creating with British performance artist Brion Gysin the cut-up technique, in which written works are physically shredded into strips and remixed to produce new phrases, a practice Burroughs believed to have actual magical import, to the extent that he joined the chaos magic organization the Illuminates of Thanateros late in life. His parallelism with Grant Morrison’s later work is profound enough that it is tempting to suggest him as the real origin for Morrison’s Near Myths stories. But in a 1989 interview Morrison boasts of having “used cut-ups and non-sequiturs before I’d even read a Burroughs book,” specifically pointing to his “unreadable Gideon Stargrave” stories in Near Myths. This suggests that Burroughs provides a sort of deep-lying influence here, filtered through the new wave science fiction writers Morrison was more overtly following from.
This, at least, suggests the tradition in which to position Morrison’s earliest work - a casually eschatological tradition focused on formal experimentalism. But none of this captures the peculiar iconography of Morrison’s comics: the juxtaposing of dandy secret agents and sword and sorcery apocalypses, or the psychedelic Bond pastiche of Gideon Stargrave. Explaining that requires turning to the influence Morrison’s anxiety runs higher regarding, Michael Moorcock.
Moorcock is an oddity of a writer in part because he’s worked in so many genres, or, perhaps more accurately, so many flavors within the basic sci-fi/fantasy genre. For the purposes of talking about Gideon Stargrave, however, it is specifically his Jerry Cornelius series that matters.
|Figure 19: The first Jerry Cornelius|
book remained vaguely in the realm
of the normal
Jerry Cornelius is an attempt to do heroic fantasy in the style of The Atrocity Exhibition. Where The Atrocity Exhibition attempted to blur the mediated pornographies of sex and death into one psycho-cultural landscape, the Jerry Cornelius novels switch quickly among narrative frames and worlds, with characters dying and coming back freely and casually. Moorcock admits to the similarity, saying, “just as Ballard found his remedy in the form he used for Atrocity Exhibition and the later stories published from 1965 onwards, I felt I’d found my remedy in the form I used in The Final Programme.” And so Jerry Cornelius adventures through an ever-shifting world. But what’s key is that he adventures - for all the formal complexity of his world, the Jerry Cornelius books feature deceptively straightforward plots.
Moorcock has cited Mike Harrison, a friend within the New Worlds scene who wrote three Jerry Cornelius stories of is own. Harrison, as Moorcock explains it, “said that Jerry was more a technique than a character,” going on to muse that “he’s a narrative device.” In a 2009 interview Moorcock explained that Cornelius “is someone learning to exist, through all kinds of strategies, in our contemporary world,” a character he found useful because he felt like his other writing “was able to deal with the big philosophical issues but not the specifics of modern life,” while he “wanted a character who was able to exist in a lot of different contexts in contemporary cities, especially London.” So Cornelius was a shifting cipher of a character who filled a narrative function in a story that endlessly changed what sort of world it was in.
Moorcock drew attention to this fact by basing the first Cornelius novel, The Final Programme, upon his earliest story with his most famous creation, Elric of Melniboné. “Since Elric was a ‘myth’ character,” Moorcock explains, “I decided to try to write his first stories in twentieth century terms.” This quote comes in an essay towards the end of the collection Elric at the End of Time entitled “New Worlds - Jerry Cornelius,” which contextualizes the Cornelius books in the entire tradition of new wave fiction that Moorcock, as editor of New Worlds, was a central figure in.
But it is in many ways more interesting to approach Cornelius through the character whose story The Final Programme is based off of. Elric of Melniboné is an inversion of the standard sword and sorcery tropes - a scrawny albino with no interest in war partially possessed by his black blade Stormbringer and forced to feed it souls over the course of a weary and tragic journey as a roaming warrior. Like Cornelius, he is as much a narrative structure as anything - Moorcock has always insisted that “I don’t do world-building,” and the stories attracted early letters complaining about the lack of detail in Melniboné’s background and history. Elric is, by Moorcock’s own admission, himself as a late teenager - “angsty, self-blaming, feeling I was doing harm to others around me and so on,” although, in typical Moorcock style, he also cites Charles Maturin’s 1820 gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as inspiration.
|Figure 20: Michael Moorcock contributed plotting to the|
1972 issue of Conan the Barbarian in which Conan met
his literary inversion Elric of Melniboné, which was written
for Marvel Comics by Roy Thomas. From Conan the
Barbarian #14, 1972
The Elric novels are probably Moorcock’s most enduring creation, serving as the centerpiece for Neil Gaiman’s quasi-autobiographical short story “One Life Furnished in Early Moorcock,” which Gaiman describes as “a story about a boy a lot like I was once and his relationship with fiction… when I was twelve, Moorcock’s characters were as real to me as anything else in my life.” Within the story Gaiman describes the Elric tales as “honest. There was nothing going on beneath the surface there. Elric was the etiolated prince of a dead race, burning with self-pity, clutching Stormbringer, his dark-bladed broadsword - a blade which sang for lives, which ate human souls, and which gave their strength to the doomed and weakened albino.”
This was itself a reasonable pastiche of Moorcock’s style in the Elric novels, which were themselves an excited pastiche of the sword and sorcery style epitomized by Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories. “Elric had wound a scarf around the rail and tied the other end to his wrist,” Moorcock writes in the first book. “Dyvim Tvar had used a long belt for the same purpose. But still they were flung in all directions, often losing their footing as the ship bucked this way and that, and every bone in Elric’s body seemed about to crack.”
But this style is markedly different from that of Moorcock’s other major lines. In the Dancers at the End of Time line, for instance, Moorcock told the tales of Jherek Carnelian in the dying days of the universe itself, as it collapses inwards upon itself. Full of time travel and decadence, the Dancers at the End of Time line offers an almost completely different tone. “From the farmhouse came a great banging about,” begins one passage in An Alien Heat, the first Dancers at the End of Time story, “shouts and barkings, and lights appeared downstairs. Mrs. Underwood grabbed Jherek by the sleeve and drew him inside the first building. In the darkness something snorted and stamped. ‘It’s a horse!” said Jherek. ‘They always delight me and I have seen so many now.’”
It is not, crucially, that Moorcock simply maintained a wide variety of franchises and writing styles. Moorcock freely mixed his worlds together, as in the novella Elric at the End of Time, which, as its name suggests, thrusts Elric into the decadent world of Dancers at the End of Time. Its style is giddily parodic of Elric’s at times nonotonous angst. Elric is prone to lengthy cod-epic monologues where he proclaims “I am of older blood, the blood of the Bright Empire itself, the blood of R’lin K’ren A’a which Cran Liretn mocked, not understanding what it was he laughed at” and other such nonsense. And yet at the End of Time such monologues are but curiosities - when he demands to be returned to Melniboné “so that I may fulfill my own doom-laden destiny” another character looks at him “with afectionate delight. ‘Aha! A fellow spirit! I too have a doom-laden destiny.” His gloom giving him no particular credential here, Elric is reduced to muttering, “I doubt it is as doom-laden as mine.”
The intersections of these fictional worlds is governed by an overall system Moorcock calls the Multiverse, which is based around the idea of the Eternal Champion, a figure that exists in all worlds and that all of Moorcock’s protagonists are iterations of. Within the Multiverse the struggle between law and chaos (the latter represented by an eight-point star that, in 1978, was appropriated by Peter J Carroll in Liber Null as the symbol of his newly created system of chaos magick), is endlessly mediated by said Champion, any given manifestation of which is just a facet of the whole. Many, though not all of the incarnations have the initials JC, hence the similarity in names between Dancers at the End of Time’s Jherek Carnelian and Jerry Cornelius.
|Figure 21: Text as visual object in|
A Cure for Cancer, 1969
In many ways Jerry Cornelius is the purest expression of this. As mentioned his first book, The Final Programme
, is a relatively straightforward style. But by the second volume, A Cure for Cancer
, Moorcock found it necessary to append a reader’s note that notes “this book has an unconventional structure,” and Moorcock is doing things like having an entire chapter entitled “Mystery of Yowling Passenger in Snob Auto” where the majority of the text consists of a man in the backseat of Jerry’s car, the controls of which are “beautifully designed in diamonds, rubies, and sapphires” and “responded with delicate sensuality to his touch,” screaming incoherently. “'Aaaaaaaaaaaahhh! Why? Why? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
awhyaaa,” one representative passage comments, “whyaaa
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawhyaaaaaahhhhh! YOU WON'T GET AWAY WITH THIS YOUNG MAN! Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! You'll regret thisaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! WHY! WHY! WHY!,” before continuing “AAAAAAAAAAH! Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh! Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh! THE AUTHORITIES WILL SOON CATCH UP WITH YOU, MY FRIEND!,” and concluding “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO OOOOOOOOH. URSH! YAROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I SAY, STOP IT, YOU ROTTERS! OOOOOOCH! GAARR,” at which point Jerry inserts a comment, setting off another round in which the character’s screams of “AAAAAAAAAA” are typographically arranged so that the As themselves form larger letters A on the page.
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The Cornelius books are characterized by large quantities of philosophical dialogue in amidst the action set pieces, which often fade towards the background. A few chapters after the yowling passenger Cornelius recalls a conversation where “a girl had once asked him, stroking the muscles of his stomach, ‘what do you achieve by the destruction of the odd library? There are so many. How much can one man do?’ ‘What he can,’ Cornelius had told her, rolling on her. ‘It’s History that’s caused all the trouble in the past.’” Moorcock has commented that the Cornelius books are populated by “characters who are aware of the psychological implications of their statements and actions. That is they are as aware of the unconscious as the conscious. [continued]