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Previously in The Last War in Albion: The complex symbolism of Arkham Asylum was, in Morrison’s theory at least,
52 ‘brane universes vibrating in the same space, all at different frequencies, within the all-enclosing Bulk, otherwise known as Bleedpsace. Four Bleed Siphons have been drilled in from the Monitor Sphere to the Orrery, to permit harvest of the miracle Ultramenstruum fluid. –Grant Morrison, Multiversity Guidebook
Bohm was a theoretical physicist, albeit an oddball in that field whose career took the sort of pth that involved publishing books with titles like Science, Order, and Creativity and Changing Consciousness: Exploring the Hidden Source of the Social, Political and Environmental Crises Facing our World, and resulted in the Dalai Lama penning a one-page introduction to the posthumous collection The Essential David Bohm. (“Because he was the one I could question in detail about quantum mechanics, I consider him to have been one of my scientific ‘gurus.’”) His career began with an oddness that would characterize it; an early interest in radical politics ensured that he couldn’t get security clearance to work on the Manhattan Project, a situation that plunged into farce when his doctoral thesis proved useful to the bomb effort and was classified such that Bohm no longer legally had access to his own work and was unable to defend it, leading Robert Oppenheimer to have to personally intervene to ensure he got his PhD. In the 1950s, he became interested in the complex debates around how to reconcile the strange implications of quantum mechanics with the observable universe, where he came up with a radical and unorthodox solution.
The underlying problem Bohm was looking at concerned the behavior of electrons, specifically the fact that they simultaneously behaved as both waves and particles. The usual demonstration of how breathtakingly weird this is is called the double slit experiment, and involves firing a controlled burst of electrons at a plate with two parallel slits. If one observes how the electrons strikes a screen behind the plates, it forms an interference pattern suggesting that the electrons are behaving as a wave. But if one sets up a device to observe how the electrons are actually passing through the slits, they switch instead to forming two distinct bands on the screen, behaving like particles. This is, to put it mildly, extremely fucking weird, and the underlying mechanics of it have been a subject of fascination by both scientists and various flavors of magicians and occultists.
The prevailing theory within physics is known as the Copenhagen interpretation, and involved a sort of dualism in which the electron existed within a field of probabilities that collapsed to a single certainty upon observation. Bohm, however, found himself taken by a counterproposal offered and then discarded by Louis de Broglie called pilot wave theory. This was what was known as a hidden-variable theory, postulating that there exists some fundamentally unobservable aspect of electrons that guides their behavior. This disposes of the weird probabilistic nature of the Copehagen interpretation in favor of its own extreme weirdnesses: an entirely deterministic universe in which the principle of locality is discarded, and where objects at great distances from each other can nevertheless directly interact. Bohm cleaned up the flaws that had led de Broglie to abandon the pursuit, resulting in what’s known as the de Brogilie-Bohm interpretation.
From there his career commenced exploring increasingly radical and elaborate implications of this, especially probing the potential intersections between quantum mechanics and consciousness. It was from this line of thought that his landmark 1980 book Wholeness and the Implicate Order emerged. Here he established the theory that Morrison referenced in Animal Man and Arkham Asylum. As Bohm frames it, his goal is to create a vision of reality that is “a coherent whole, which is never static or complete, but which is in an unending process of movement and unfoldment.” The result of this discards the notions of space and time as absolute features of the universe, treating them instead as a phenomenon derived from an unobservable “implicate order.” More to the point, Bohm argues that consciousness operates the same way. Crucially, this implicate order is omnipresent—Bohm, as Morrison states, uses the analogy of the hologram and the way in which information about the whole of the image is contained in every part of the holographic plate, in contrast to a conventional photograph in which each area of the photograph corresponds to a specific area of the object portrayed.
This is, obviously, a difficult concept, not least because Bohm’s specific framing of it is deeply rooted in high level quantum physics. It is thus perhaps best understood through an example more directly relevant to Arkham Asylum: the Tarot. Tarot cards emerged in 15th century Italy, about a hundred years after playing cards in general reached the continent. These were a modification of the traditional four-suited playing cards, adding a set of cards known as “triumphs” or “trumps” that depicted various abstract and allegorical concepts. Games using these cards are still played to the present day, but in the 18th century they became a popular tool for cartomancy, based on the idea that it was associated with the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth, a claim based on the French clergyman Antoine Court de Gébelin’s argument in 1781 that the word “Tarot” derived from the Egyptian words Tar and Rog, translating roughly to the Royal Path—a remarkable argument given that the Egyptian language was not successfully deciphered until the early 19th century.
In the 19th century Éliphas Lévi, who built on Court de Gébelin’s arguments to connect the Tarot to the Jewish Kabbalah, or at least to his understanding of it, linking the trump cards to the Hebrew alphabet while connecting the numbered cards to the ten sephiroth of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. This interpretation was spurious in the extreme, but was the sort of completely spurious and troublingly imperialist assertion out of which major magical systems are formed. The iconic refinement of Lévi’s system came a few decades later with the formation of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1888. Initiation into the Golden Dawn involved the production of one’s own Tarot deck in the style of the official one, typically assumed to have been created by MacGregor and Moina Mathers. This deck was a secret, and has not been released per se, although multiple nominal reconstructions of it have made it into the public sphere. Two of these decks went on to have major lives of their own, becoming in effect the two standard Tarot decks that one buys at your local occultism/head shop. Both of these decks were executed by female artists, with their work overseen by male magicians whose names are most commonly associated with the deck. The first, the so-called Rider-Waite deck, was painted by Pamela Coleman Smith according to designs by Arthur Edward Waite, and departed from the Golden Dawn system in any number of ways, explained away by Waite in his accompanying The Pictoral Key to the Tarot as an act of discretion. The result has been the template for the majority of popular Tarot decks. The more venerable deck within the occult community, however—and the one depicted within Arkham Asylum—is the Thoth Tarot, painted by Lady Frieda Harris under the instruction of Aleister Crowley. This deck hewed closer to the symbolism and structure of the Golden Dawn Tarot, with changes made not out of any discretion (Crowley delighted in lobbing bombs and spilling secrets at his former order) but as part of Crowley’s conscious break with the Golden Dawn tradition in favor of his own Thelemic religion.
Crowley kept, however, the core of the Golden Dawn’s refinement of Lévi’s system, specifically the identification of the 21 trumps (known also as the Major Arcana) with the twenty-one paths along the Tree of Life to codify the Tarot as a complete model of the Tree and thus the cosmos. As Crowley said of the overall structure of the deck, “At first one would suppose this arrangement to be arbitrary, but it is not. It is necessitated, as will appear later, by the structure of the universe, and in particular of the Solar System, as symbolized by the Holy Qabalah.” The Tree of Life is typically presented as a model of creation, and specifically as a model of how the energy of the divine flows downwards into material existence. This has obvious resonances with Bohm’s notion of implicate and explicate orders (as, to be fair, do a number of religious concepts across various traditions), but the understanding of the Tarot as a representation of this system takes the notion even further.
Consider the Tower. On one level it is a symbol of destruction. But it is not simply a metonym for the concept; instead it’s a metaphor for destruction as the link between Hod and Netzach, thus implicitly connecting to all four of the eights and sevens within the deck. It also, however, exists as part of the common interpretation of the Major Arcana as a narrative of human history, connecting the Devil to the Star, and in that context also implicitly connects to those two cards’ linking roles within the Tree and thus to Tiphireth and, depending on your choice of interpretations, either Chokmah or Yesod, and thus to the sixes, the nines, and the twos. The connections spread methodically outward, so that the Tower and its destruction can only make sense as an aspect of the whole of creation. Its meaning as destruction, in other words, is an explicate order whose existence encodes the whole of the implicate order of the Tarot at large.
Morrison directly invokes Bohm in the script to Arkham Asylum towards the end of their lengthy vesica piscis explanation, noting that “As a final interesting aside on the subject of fish, the Vesica Piscis symbol is a very basic representation of the holographic process in which intersecting circular wave patterns produce three dimensional images. Physicist David Bohm believes the hologram to be an analogy for his vision of a vast interconnecting universe, in which every part is in some sense a reflection of every other part… In the same way, everything in this story reflects and comments upon everything else.” And in the comic itself Morrison has the Mad Hatter muse that “the apparent disorder of the universe is simply a higher order, an implicate order beyond our comprehension” before suggesting that “the asylum is a head. We’re inside a huge head that dreams us all into being. Perhaps it’s your head, Batman. Arkham is a looking glass. And we are you.” In the script, Morrison describes this moment as “The Mad Hatter obligingly explains the book for anyone who hasn’t figured it out yet.” So It is clear that Bohm serves as the mechanism by which the archetypes Morrison is reiterating and reordering interact. Morrison has crafted what is, in their view, a complete representation of Batman’s psyche distributed across a set of archetypes just as the Tarot does with the cosmos, moving them around and around them to reveal the whole.
Of course, there are complicating factors. The Mad Hatter’s speech about Bohm, for instance, is interrupted by his musing about “why children interest me. They’re all mad, you see, but in each of them is an implicate adult. Order out of chaos. Or is it the other way around? To know them is to know myself. Little girls especially. Little blonde girls. Little shameless bitches!” Morrison wryly describes this in the script as “the Mad Hatter will endeavor to outline Bohm’s theories as applied to child molestation,” which is certainly a choice on their part. On one level this is yet another implicit comment about Batman—a sly riff in the Frederic Wertham-fueled interpretations of Batman’s relationship with Robin, which Morrison earlier has the Joker allude to. (Morrison had in fact intended for Robin to appear in the comic; in his [surely exaggerated] telling, McKean “felt that he had already compromised his artistic integrity sufficiently by drawing Batman and refused point blank to bend over for the Boy Wonder.”) But it’s also a comment on the Mad Hatter, who is of course named after a character from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
Indeed, allusions to these books are scattered throughout Arkham Asylum. The Mad Hatter himself, for instance, makes mention of a “looking glass,” while the description of the Asylum dreaming its occupants into being reflects the plot point around the Red King in Through the Looking Glass, who Tweedledum and Tweedledee (also Batman villains, who make a fleeting appearance in Arkham Asylum) speculate might be dreaming Alice into existence. [continue]