Alan Moore on Science, Imagination, Language and Spirits of Place

Alan Moore

Follow The Daily Grail on Facebook and on Twitter.

Daily Grail Publishing recently released a new anthology, Spirits of Place, featuring a stellar line-up of writers including Alan Moore, Gazelle Amber Valentine, Warren Ellis, Maria J Pérez Cuervo and Iain Sinclair (among many others). We grabbed the opportunity to ask Alan some questions about the fascinating topics discussed in the book, as well as various other subjects ranging from populism to the eternal nature of time. Hey, it's an Alan Moore interview, what did you expect?!

You can find out more about Spirits of Place - including links to order your own copy in paperback, eBook, or limited edition signed hardcover formats - at spiritsofplace.com.

-------------

The Daily Grail: Hi Alan, thanks very much for taking time to have a quick chat with us. To begin, I thought it might be worthwhile delving into the topic of the new anthology Spirits of Place, which you are a contributor to. The idea that locations have a 'soul', or in-dwelling 'spirit', is an ancient one, but in modern times it's largely been forgotten. Do you think this is something we, in the 21st century, need to reconnect with?

Alan Moore: We live in a world that is mostly predicated on a rational and scientific worldview, which effectively means that any phenomenon beyond the physically measureable is automatically deemed non-existent, including souls, gods, ghosts and human consciousness. While I would agree that we need to recover the psychological connection that once existed between ourselves and our environment – because to do otherwise is to render us all pointless automata in a material world which, by its own admission, has no direction or purpose – I would say that the problem could be more sharply defined if we put aside contentious terms like ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, and instead opted for the less vague but just as scientifically problematic term ‘meaning’. If by coming to know more about the historical or mythological aspects of the places in which we live we make those places more meaningful, to us at least, then I suggest that this will lead to experiencing ourselves as more meaningful in our new, illuminated context.

The big difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘a spirit’ is that where meaning is concerned, we have to do all the necessary hard work in order to invest that place or that person or that object with meaning, whereas spirits just sort of turn up, don’t they? I believe that our world is gloriously haunted with meaning; that it’s we ourselves that are doing the haunting; and that we should be doing more of it, or doing it more strenuously.

In an era where supposedly hard material reality seems to shift more like vapour with every passing day, I think it becomes more evident that timeless and unchanging mythology is the actual solid bedrock on which our flimsy and temporary human realities are briefly erected. Whether you call it soul or spirit or meaning, it is the Real, as opposed to this spasming neo-conservative monetarist/materialist dream that we’re all required to share, and if we care about having a meaningful world in which to lead meaningful lives then we should all try harder to reinvest our environments with the meaning that belligerent materialism has sucked out of them.

Spirits of Place Cover

TDG: On the other hand, in recent times, there’s been a resurgence in so-called ‘populist’ political movements, which seems a sanitised way of saying ‘nationalist’, or sometimes even ‘xenophobic’. In your hometown Northampton you’ve seen changes in demographics to the Boroughs, along with destructive urban development and political pushes to relocate people. When considering the idea of 'Spirits of Place', how do we balance the embracing of the history and spirit of a location with change, progress and moving forward? How do we retain local identity without falling for racism and bigotry?

AM: Firstly, I think we need to uncouple concepts like progress and moving forward from the concept of change, since if we continually use them together people are liable to think they have something to do with each other. They don’t. I don’t think a great many people objected when the pervasive urban darkness was dispelled by gas-lamps, or when illumination was further improved by a move to electric lighting. That’s because these things genuinely represented progress of a kind that everybody could understand and agree with. The move from companionable terraced streets to ugly and alienating high-rise blocks on the other hand, a move made for entirely commercial reasons to maximise the value of a plot of land by building high, is simply change: I fail to see what it has to do with progress or moving forward, save in that it advances the financial situation of the tiny number of people directing the process.

Jerusalem wasn’t a call to somehow reinstate the past, or a suggestion that the past should have remained static, but rather was merely pointing out what an enormous fuckup we’ve made of the future: a future geared towards seemingly endless novelty and change for its own sake, where even the basic principles of progress and moving forward seem to have been completely abandoned and forgotten. There is absolutely no reason why things couldn’t genuinely progress while still respecting and retaining everything that was good and valuable about the situation they were progressing from.

As for the currently highly visible racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, class prejudice and general anti-intellectualism that pervades what’s left of our culture, I can’t help noting that it’s usually when people are being trampled financially that they seem most prone to seeking some other, weaker social group to blame for their government-generated problems, and seem most prone to ugly but thoroughly predictable outbursts of fascism. Perhaps if society was in any way endeavouring to treat people fairly, then they might be more inclined to treat each other in a similar fashion. After all, if society was at all serious about wanting to get rid of these bigotries, then with more rigorous press control and more authentic understanding in the way we run our education system, it doesn’t seem impossible that they could be eliminated within a generation. We somehow never get around to doing that however, perhaps because under our current system it will always be expedient to have some demonised minority to act as a buffer between an electorate that feel victimised and the people in office who are actually responsible for that victimisation.

On an individual level, of course, everyone is responsible for their own decisions and a racist is a racist is a racist. Looking at the broader picture, though, it becomes clear that some people, statistically speaking, are given a lot less choice about whether they’re racist or not. Here’s an idea – why don’t we sort out the poverty situation, and then see what happens to all the other problems?

TDG: Moving onto less complex issues, let's talk scientific and philosophical theories of time and the cosmos. The theme of transcending time has recurred in your work over the years - I'm thinking things like Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan ("There is no future. There is no past. Do you see? Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet."), a wonderful möbius strip time-loop full-page spread in Promethea, and it also seems to be one of the core themes in your recently released novel Jerusalem. Is time simply a fun concept to play with in story-telling, or is there a deeper fascination for you?

Mobius strip time loop panel in Promethea

AM: Obviously, as a storyteller the element of time and the narrative uses to which you can put it are tremendous fun, but I think if I’ve been drawn to telling stories like this – and I certainly appear to have been – then that would be because time itself is a subject that has fascinated me since my early childhood, when studying framed photographs of deceased forebears it came to me that at some point in the future, after I was dead, people would be examining photographs of me, and that from a certain perspective this was already happening.

As I’ve grown and have come to understand more about the position that I have learned is called Eternalism, then I’ve come to feel that it offers a vivid alternative to both ridiculously optimistic religious belief and an atheistic pessimism that is probably psychologically unworkable. I recently received wonderful letter from someone who said that reading Jerusalem had helped resolve the terror of mortality that had dogged them since childhood, bringing with it debilitating anxiety and depression. This is all I ever wanted the book to achieve; the hope that it might offer a solidly rational new view of death that would provide an alternative to letting our life be morbidly overshadowed by our paralysed and fruitless fear of its end.

TDG: You are considered one of the great wordsmiths in modern culture, and for me reading Jerusalem was like a sumptuous feast, where I could only take it in a few pages at a time due to the richness of the text. And yet Terence McKenna once said something about language that resonates with me as well, but seems to be in complete opposition to my fascination with how language can be so beautiful and transmit so much. Here's what he said:

Culture replaces authentic feeling with words. As an example of this, imagine an infant lying in its cradle, and the window is open, and into the room comes something, marvelous, mysterious, glittering, shedding light of many colors, movement, sound, a transformative hierophany of integrated perception and the child is enthralled and then the mother comes into the room and she says to the child, “that’s a bird, baby, that’s a bird,” instantly the complex wave of the angel peacock iridescent trans-formative mystery is collapsed, into the word. All mystery is gone, the child learns this is a bird, this is a bird, and by the time we’re five or six years old all the mystery of reality has been carefully tiled over with words. This is a bird, this is a house, this is the sky, and we seal ourselves in within a linguistic shell of dis-empowered perception.

How do we reconcile these two seemingly opposing views - the beauty of raw experience, vs the beauty of language?

AM: Well, McKenna’s point is of course completely valid, and it is no more than the truth to point out that language separates us from the probably psychedelic pre-verbal reality that we enjoyed as infants. What is also true, of course, is that if the infant individual (or infant culture) does not acquire language, then they will find themselves at something of a disadvantage when it comes to surviving in the physical world: in short, they very probably won’t. What I’m saying is that the acquisition of language seems to involve a necessary trade off in terms of our direct experience of the world versus our ability to function in that world. This is our human situation, and the way to make the best of it is to utilise language to its fullest and most spectacular extent. No, it won’t reconnect us to the universe in the way that we were connected as infants – this is possibly what psychedelic drugs are for – but I would suggest we take a look at what medium Terence McKenna chose to beautifully express the loss of our speechless Eden before we come to personify language as some form of neurological tyrant.

TDG: You are a great supporter of the power of the scientific method, but also have suggested that beyond physical reality there might be 'Idea-space', a location inhabited by all of our ideas and imaginings. In embracing science and making it an authority, have we perhaps over-extended and allowed it to define 'reality' as being restricted to physical things that science can measure? I'm reminded of a recent review of Daniel Dennett's new book by Thomas Nagel, where he rebuked Dennett's dismissal of consciousness and subjective experience thusly:

The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgement that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain.

What are your thoughts on the importance, or non-importance, of including consciousness, imagination and subjective experience in any theory of what 'reality' is?

AM:Is it helpful to observe that subjectivity is the only thing that we know is objectively real, or does that just muddy the waters even further, as with so many of the well-intentioned things I say? I mean, we do not experience the universe directly: we experience it only through our limited senses, with our sensory impressions arranged moment by moment into this immersive psychic movie that we agree to call reality. From this point of view, our entire universe can only ever be a subjective neurological phenomenon, at least to us, and a quick glance around will confirm that it’s only us who seem to be much bothered either way about this ontology business. I think Nagel is correct in his criticism of the materialist worldview, and I would further state that even should science ever accomplish its goal of unifying classical and quantum physics, of achieving a grand ‘Theory of Everything’, then if it only describes the physical universe and does not take account of the marvellous, supernatural phenomenon – consciousness – that has arrived at this theory, it is nowhere near a theory of everything, is it? It’s more a theory of everything we perceive, which by definition does not include our own act of perception.

In fact, were we to derive at a theory of reality from only consciousness, imagination and subjective experience, I think we’d have at least as good a chance of arriving a workable and comprehensive model of how reality works. After all, as an essay in one of Dennett’s own excellent anthologies, The Mind’s I, points out, if current quantum theory suggests that our reality to some degree depends upon having us here as observers, then a dismissal of consciousness and subjectivity would seem a bit intellectually reckless, even from a materialist perspective. I think it’s time that we stopped trying to exorcise the Ghost in the Machine and perhaps, instead, tried communicating with this haunting presence, trying to find out what it is, what it wants, and why it cannot rest easily. Maybe then, and only then, will consciousness find peace and stop chucking our mental furniture about or sucking our children into malefic television sets.

TDG: You’ve largely moved on from the comics genre, but have noted in the past that comics were an “incredible stimulus” for your imagination. Where do you see kids of the modern day finding their inspiration?

AM: I must admit, this is an issue about which I entertain some concerns. Yes, when I was a child, comics and books dealing with fantasy or mythology were incredibly stimulating, but I think that has to be seen in a context of what was, for me, a far greater stimulus to the imagination, this being my otherwise complete lack of imaginative stimuli. What I’m talking about here is leaving some un-colonised space for a child’s imagination to grow into, rather than rushing in to fill that space with an insatiable desire to flog as much merchandise as possible to a malleable audience of trend-conscious juveniles.

As an illustration, when I was around seven years old and first discovering American superhero comics, I would have probably given just about anything for a set of, say, Justice League of America toy soldiers. However, such things didn’t exist in 1960, and even if they had existed, my family would not have been able to afford them. Thus, if I wanted to play with a team of toy superheroes I had to invent one myself from the motley assortment of mismatched toy soldiers, cowboys, Indians and Trojan warriors that I already possessed. This required a certain amount of ingenious repurposing: an Indian Chief-type figure became a time-travelling medicine man with magical powers. A seven-inch tall American G.I, probably from a non-regulation set of soldiers I’d acquired somewhere, was obviously a superhuman giant, and by the same logic those tiny little Airfix military figures that used to be available could be pressed into service as heroes with shrinking abilities. A plastic Robin Hood giveaway figure from a box of cereal became one of the ubiquitous masked archers familiar from my superhero reading, and as I recall the green plastic robot figure from an arcane general knowledge novelty board game – The Magic Robot – was re-cast as a more science-fiction oriented non-magical robot, possibly with a human brain. As a headquarters, I customised and decorated a cardboard shoebox, and as a principal villain I took an unpleasant bruise-coloured lump of merged and forgotten Plasticene discovered down the back of the settee, and re-imagined it as an amoebic shape-shifting alien monster from another planet, capable of engulfing my heroes and thereby somehow stealing their powers. My point is that, lacking a readymade set of Justice League of America toys, I had to exercise my imagination by creating characters and situations of my own. Whereas I fear that kids today, assuming they or their parents can somehow scrape the money together from somewhere, can completely satisfy any imaginative whim without having to do a stroke of (actually very enjoyable) work or exhibit any creativity of their own.

In my opinion, this has been an increasing problem throughout the closing decades of the 20th century and has only been greatly exacerbated in the opening decades of the 21st. And, if I’m right, this is only likely to get worse. By not investing in the imaginative growth of the young we would seem to be setting up a massive failure of creativity, progress and imagination for the not too distant future. This may seem a bleak appraisal, but a quick glance at mainstream film, television, music, literature or comic books appears to confirm that the last twenty or thirty years haven’t been exactly bursting with new and transformative ideas.

What I seem to be arguing for here is a greater degree of imaginative deprivation during childhood, isn’t it? While I admit it sounds a bit startling and unattractive put like that, I would only say that it doesn’t appear to have done either myself or Kevin O’Neill any harm.

TDG: Returning to Spirits of Place: Your own piece, "Coal Memory", recounts a number of your recurring magical connections with Newcastle - starting with one of your fictional characters, John Constantine, and then later through two rituals, separated in time, where you attempted to summon, or evoke, the local 'spirit of place'. Do you feel that you were in control of that process, or more that 'something' drew you repeatedly to Newcastle? And by extension, I'm wondering - given the topics we've already discussed in this interview - what your thoughts are on the 'reality' of the entities one can conjure up through magical ritual?

Coal Memory by Alan Moore, in Spirits of Place

AM: Well, given my Eternalist preoccupations and my belief that this is an entirely predetermined universe without Free Will, I don’t really see that I’m in control of any process. Added to this, the fact that all of those connections with Newcastle were for the purpose of creating art tends to reaffirm my lack of control, at least in terms of how I’m coming to see the writing process in general: a common misapprehension regarding writers is that they have an idea and then they write it down, whereas this is not my experience when it comes to writing. Ideas are usually generated by the act of writing itself. William Burroughs spoke of ‘the word vine’; the process by which if you write down a word, this will shape and suggest the next word, and so on. Take this thinking to its counterintuitive conclusions, it suggests that writers, far from being the god-like creators of worlds that they may imagine themselves to be, are in fact only vehicles by which means ideas can have themselves. By the same token, if we are talking about the ideas embedded in a certain location – the complex aggregate of these ideas representing that location’s ‘spirit of place’, if you will – then I think we can reasonably and realistically speak of a place exerting its influence over someone who finds themselves writing about it.

As for the reality of conjured entities, I think we have to begin from the point that the word ‘reality’ is a very loosely defined construct. Is the reality based upon our own perceptions, when we know those perceptions to be limited and often misleading? Is the reality, then, based upon logic and mathematics, even though we know several self-consistent but mutually exclusive forms of logic and mathematics? Reality is pretty clearly a relative state, and even our generally-agreed-upon consensus of what can be said to be materially real is ultimately a subjective rather than an objective phenomenon. When it comes to other conscious entities – in this current reality or any other – it is part of our condition that we can never know for sure that they are real in the sense we feel ourselves to be real. This is unfortunately true whether you’re talking to the demon Asmodeus, to a supposed Artificial Intelligence, to an LSD-provided hallucination of Yogi Bear, or to your mum.

In practical terms I personally find that the best test, whatever kind of entity we’re talking about, is to determine whether this entity is providing you with any real information, be that intellectual or emotional or, for want of a better word, spiritual. If it spouts nonsense that has no resonance or relationship with anything in your experience of reality, then it’s generally safe to regard such an entity as being in all practical terms unreal, even if it’s your mum or, say, an apparently existent President of the United States. If, on the other hand, its information seems to be coherent and has application to the world as you yourself perceive it, then it would seem only polite to interact with and address such an entity as if they were as real as you yourself, even if it’s an LSD-provided hallucination of Yogi Bear.

I think if we acknowledge that the world of matter and the world of mind are both equally ‘real’, albeit it completely different ways, then what we are left with are the above criteria. The question, rather than “is this entity real?” becomes instead “is this entity of either use or ornament?” In these terms, Glycon and all the people I met down at the homeless shelter last week are definitely real, while Boris Johnson and Barney the Dinosaur definitely aren’t.

TDG: To finish: you've recently noted that your comic writing days are winding down, and your novel Jerusalem has recently been published. Are you at a loose end, or can we expect new and wonderful things from Alan Moore in the near future?

AM: I’ve had strangers and near-strangers approach me in the street to tell me that they’d heard I was going to stop writing. I can only assume that, having heard that I intend to stop writing comics, these people have been so impressed with thirty years of Batman movies that they’ve forgotten that there once used to be other forms of writing. No, I’m definitely not at a loose end, and you can certainly expect new things from me in the future, barring any unexpected whims of fate, Donald Trump or Kim Jong-Un. In the near future you’ve got the last pieces of my comic work, including the fourth and final volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen appearing later this year, and after that it will be whatever I feel like doing and can put my heart into unreservedly. So, new things, but whether they’ll be wonderful or not will of course be for you to decide. All I can say is that if I didn’t at least think there was a chance that they might be wonderful, I almost certainly wouldn’t be wasting my time with them. And I don’t want to speculate on what those projects might be, for fear of spoiling the lovely surprise/crushing disappointment for both myself and the audience. Let’s all wait and see.

TDG: Thanks Alan, appreciate your time.

Learn more about Spirits of Place - including links to order your own copy in paperback, eBook, or limited edition signed hardcover formats - at www.spiritsofplace.com.

Spirits of Place Cover

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Inannawhimsey's picture
Member since:
14 April 2009
Last activity:
5 weeks 5 days

Wow
What an honour
To actually be able to talk with the Mystik Grognard Hisself

---------
All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake

Inannawhimsey's picture
Member since:
14 April 2009
Last activity:
5 weeks 5 days

Boingboing has picked up this article

---------
All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake