Promises of Lace That Rend Us in Shadows After Lust Evaporates (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part Thirty: The Turning Point)
|Figure 950: Ozymandias rejoices at saving the world. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #12, 1987)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Part of what made Watchmen so successful was that its sense of apocalyptic grandeur was a good fit for the mid-80s. And speaking of apocalyptic grandeur, there seems to be this weird sense that the chapter is progressing towards some sudden and decisive turning point. Wonder what that’s about.
But the most chilling part of Moore’s labyrinth is not the sense of doom that hangs over it. Rather, it is his exploration of what, at first glance, would seem to be an innocuous, even optimistic line of thought. A core element of superhero stories, after all, is that superheroes save people. So how might that apply to the nuclear eschaton looming over Watchmen? To pinch a framing from Grant Morrison, if the bomb is an idea, what better idea could superheroes possibly offer to counter them? But far from offering any sort of hopeful, utopian vision of superheroes averting atomic crisis (that hardly being an original notion, after all), Moore, thinking about this question, came up with a genuinely chilling answer. He did not take the obvious route that he would eventually explore in Miracleman of simply having the superheroes destroy all the nuclear stockpiles by force. Instead he comes up with a far more cracked and strange idea – Ozymandias’s mad scheme to slaughter the population of New York.
|Figure 951: Ozymandias’s television viewing is explicitly presented as using the same nine-panel grid as the comic itself. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #11, 1987)
It is, famously, an absolutelybonkers plot involving faking an alien invasion with a giant squid monster designed by a committee
of artists and scientists that would be teleported to New York with a
malfunctioning teleporter that
would kill it on arrival, releasing a massive psychic shockwave that would kill everyone. But beneath the basic ridiculousness is a dark and ominous vision in the form of Ozymandias’s animating obsession. There is something fundamentally unsettling about the image of a man who can intuit the pulse of the world deciding to take action to change it. Especially in the context of Watchmen, where Ozymandias’s Burroughs-inspired television watching is naturally allied with the way the world works. And Ozymandias’s plan, ridiculous as it is, hinges on a grim structural joke. The world of Watchmen consists largely of superheroes – Moloch is the only corresponding supervillain to appear, and the discussions of “costumed criminals” in the Under the Hood excerpts make it clear that these are fairly generic criminals who dress up in the same way that Hooded Justice or Captain Metropolis did. There’s no villainous equivalent to the sort of high-tech adventuring of Nite Owl, little yet anyone who displays actual or even quasi-superhuman powers like Doctor Manhattan or Ozymandias. Except, of course, for Ozymandias himself, whose plan is a dead ringer for the sorts of elaborate world-spanning schemes of super-villains like Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor, or Ra’s al Ghul might come up with. And so at the work’s climax – in a scene where Ozymandias both aligns himself with and surpasses the “Republic serial villains” of pulp adventures – what had initially seemed like a lack within the narrative is revealed to have been central to it all along.
What’s really interesting about this twist, however, is that even Moore found himself unsettled by its implications. It is not, obviously, a route Moore was keen to see the world go in. It’s worth noting, in particular, that Moore was working on the conclusion to V for Vendetta around the same time, in which he actively disclaimed the idea that violence was an acceptable tactic in political revolution. And yet Moore, in interviews, repeatedly stops short of actually disclaiming Veidt’s actions, noting in one interview that “at one level Veidt is the hero of Watchmen. You can’t take that away from him.” And Moore took active steps to make sure Ozymandias remained sympathetic, in many ways specifically to keep Rorschach from becoming the moral center of the book. To this end, and cribbing slightly from his efforts in V for Vendetta to maintain a level of balance between the fascists and V, he gave Rorschach the ostentatious and pathologically right-wing politics, while making Ozymandias a more straightforward Kennedy-esque liberal respected by the left “for his moral and political pronouncements, which tend to reflect the pacifistic spiritual doctrines that have made him what he is today,” as he put it in the initial pitch. This is a bit of a feint – Moore’s politics are after all anarchist, not liberal – but the point remains that Moore is unable to quite reject Ozymandias’s vision, to the point of making ambivalence over it the note upon which the whole of Watchmen ends.
There is a sense – especially when taken in conjunction with the end of Miracleman – of Moore genuinely wrestling over the question of whether it wouldn’t just be better if someone came down from the sky and sorted the world out. It’s not that Moore ever quite endorses this – his underlying skepticism ultimately wins out in both Miracleman and Watchmen. But it’s an oddly close-fought thing given his larger sensibilities. And it’s impossible not to notice the parallels to Moore’s career and the way in which he recoiled from the success of Watchmen, burning his bridges with DC and retreating to the grimy margins of self-publishing at a moment when the mainstream would have let him do almost anything he wanted. At the moment in Moore’s career when he had the most straightforward amount of power he ever would, given the choice most analogous to the one he was picking at in his major works at the time, he balked.
This, of course, left him with a massive vulnerability. If he was going to be ambivalent about changing the world, after all, that just meant someone else could come along and do it. Someone who, while his skills at comics writing were not yet up to Moore’s (they can’t be; nobody’s can), was more adept and familiar with magic, having been dabbling in it consciously since his adolescence. But moreover, someone who, unlike Moore, craved fame, having tried and failed to hack it as a rock star before falling back on comics. Who, in other words, was drawn to the idea of standing astride the world and bending it to his will in almost precisely the way that Moore was repulsed and terrified by it. And Moore’s halfway measure of locating this monstrous possibility within his labyrinth and then walking away made it all too easy for someone to follow his steps and then take one more.
But Albion is not a young realm, and none of this is new. Not the apocalyptic visions, not the dense labyrinth of symbols, and certainly not the bitter clash between two rivals. All of it, for instance, was tangibly present within the work of William Blake, perhaps the greatest prophet and magus in the history of the realm. Indeed, if the War can possibly be said to be “about” one thing (it can’t be; nothing can), it is about the psychic legacy of Blake, a figure who embodies both Moore’s instinct to push towards the margins and cast deep roots into the conceptual terrain and Morrison’s zeal to reshape the world to his will. In a real sense, Blake defines Albion – at times even literally, with Albion being his name for primordial and undivided man.
|Figure 952: Scofield in chains, burning. (By William Blake, from Jerusalem Copy E, 1821)
Perhaps the biggest difference between Blake and the combatants in Albion’s last War is that Blake did not have a creative rival against whom he struggled. Instead he worked in relative isolation, remaining on the fringes of his own culture for his own life. His most important works sold in quantities that would not trouble even the lowest reaches of the Diamond sales charts, and he was famously dismissed as an “unfortunate lunatic” in the one contemporary review his work got. The closest thing to an adversary Blake had was John Scholfield, a soldier he quarreled with after finding him drunk in his garden, and who subsequently accused him of sedition. The incident would count as one of the few times Blake’s vision of political revolution actually employed violence as a tactic, were it not for the fact that Scholfield’s accusations were little more than the bullying of a drunken brute. Blake was ultimately found not guilty, the incident was deeply traumatic for him, a culmination of a lifelong fear of political persecution, and Blake subsequently vented his fury at Scholfield by working him into his prophecies as an antagonistic and contemptuous figure. But while Blake’s depiction in Jerusalem of Scofield (or Skofield, Skofeld, Schofield, and Scofeld, as he variously deliberately misspelled it) burning and in heavy iron chains is a legendary swipe to rival the phrase “herpes-like persistence,” Scholfield was a grudge and a vendetta. Not a rival.
|Figure 953: Urizen with one of his books of brass. (By William Blake, from The Book of Urizen Copy G, written 1794, printed 1818)
And yet for all of this, his work is full of rivalries and oppositions. His expansive and bespoke mythology brims with figures who are divided against themselves, splitting in two (or, in the later revisions, four) and warring against each other. Perhaps the most basic of these struggles comes between Los and Urizen, a fight first detailed in The Book of Urizen and revised/expanded repeatedly over the rest of Blake’s life. The basic form of the conflict is simple. Urizen is a figure of cold and brutal reason, dividing and measuring space and inscribing books of absolute and universal law in brass in pursuit of “a solid without fluctuation.” Los, on the other hand, is the Eternal Prophet, a blacksmith who is endlessly creating and generating. It is Los (from whose side Urizen is rent in The Book of Urizen) who is most regularly associated with Blake, and with good reason; Blake, after all, fancied himself a prophet, and was self-evidently a creative force. Indeed, for a man who famously proclaimed that “I will not reason and compare: my business is to create” it seems self-evident that Los would be the sympathetic figure and Urizen the antagonist. And yet Peter Ackroyd argues persuasively in his biography of Blake that Urizen is just as much an analogue of his creator as Los, pointing out that Urizen’s declaration that “I in books formd of metals / Have written the secrets of wisdom” could just as well describe Blake’s own engraving process. And for all that Blake was a creative figure, he was also one of ruthless, obsessive precision, tinkering and revising his work at considerable length. In this light it is perhaps most significant to note simply that The Book of Urizen is not some heroic tale about Los’s triumph over the oppressive Urizen; instead Los’s attempts to craft a body for Urizen lead to further disaster, with Los being sucked into the mire of single vision and materialism with Urizen instead of freeing him.
In this, Blake offers a remarkable level of insight into the tumultuous self that exists beyond the placid exterior of face and identity. It is not that the insight that people are divided against themselves is terribly original; rather it is the scope of Blake’s vision that stuns. Blake elevates the internal conflict between his instinct towards fussy precision and his creative zeal to the organizing mythology of the universe, simultaneously parodying Paradise Lost and Genesis in a dark and ominous vision of a world hopelessly and terminally constrained by Newtonian fixity. This, of course, is the central characteristic of the War itself, and indeed of magick – the way it traverses from the most intimately personal realms to the most sprawlingly cosmological. But within that scope is, of course, the material world, hence Blake’s terror in the face of Scholfield’s slanders. Indeed, in later printings of The Book of Urizen Blake excluded an important plate seemingly because of a line in which Urizen imposes “One King, one God, one Law” upon the world, the mention of the King ultimately proving too fundamentally unsettling for Blake. And this is hardly unreasonable of him – the depiction of Urizen as a suffocating tyranny is clearly one that implicates the monarchy, and that’s intended to do so.
As Blake’s dualism suggests, his instinctive mode of resistance to Urizen, both within himself and without, was creation. Specifically, in Blake’s case, the creation of art. As The Book of Urizen itself makes clear by depicting Los’s failure, the point is not that this resistance will “stop” or “defeat” Urizen, or indeed any other figure one wishes to inveigh against. Indeed, the point is often simply a matter of need or compulsion. [continued]