How the Author of Watchmen Tried To End the Word – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Alan Moore!
Written by: Matthew Theriault
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Special Thanks to: Jonathan Ramirez, Helen Thompson, and Trine Daely
How the Author of Watchmen Tried To End the Word – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared again, and today we’re talking about everyone’s favorite drug-addled Gandalf: Alan Moore. Alan Moore has authored many of the most acclaimed comics of all time, including Watchmen, Miracleman, and The Killing Joke. And like the Joker and Batman in that story, Moore straddles the thin line between genius and insanity. “I decided it might be more interesting to actually terrify them by going completely mad, and declaring myself to be a magician.”
He calls himself a ritual magician, not the kind that pulls rabbits from hats, but the Steven Strange variety that consults grimoires and conjures demons. Seriously. At first glance much of what Moore means by magic seems more like the superstitions of a man hitting his corncob wizard pipe a little too hard. But if we take Moore seriously for a bit, there’s a pretty fascinating philosophy at play, here. So, what can we learn from a guy who claims he tried to end the world? Well, we’re going to have to dive into a little known and even less understood occult tradition known as Hermeticism.
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Alan Moore. Today’s topic: Is Magic Real? There’s a ton more to cover, however, so if you want Moore let us know in the comments. Moore is a student of Hermeticism, which is less a religion with set doctrines and more a set of interrelated practices and principles. Hermeticism’s goal is to seek understanding of the world through three methods: alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. The first two are familiar enough, but the third – theurgy – is basically the process of achieving spiritual perfection with the goal of growing ever nearer to God. Hermeticism is largely based its teachings on the Corpus Hermeticum, by the mythical Hermes Trismegistus.
He’s a mixture of Hermes and Thoth, the Greek and Egyptian gods of Language and Wisdom, respectively. To Moore, this mixture of language and understanding is the heart of magic. In his upcoming The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, Moore defines magic as “a purposeful engagement with the phenomena and possibilities of consciousness.” So, what the f**k does that mean? Essentially, Moore is saying that what we call reality can be broken up into two categories: the material and the immaterial. The material is all the physical stuff – matter and energy, space and time, fundamental forces – all that. But we never experience those things directly. Photons hit our retina, pressure waves impact our eardrums, those signals get sent to our brains, and based on that limited sensory information, the brain makes a mental model of what it perceives the external world to be like. That mental model is the immaterial. To understand how the material and immaterial affect each other in profound ways, let’s think of Watchmen.
Moore had an ephemeral idea in his head for the story, but it wasn’t until artist Dave Gibbons gave that idea form by penciling in those panels that it achieved a form. Moore’s intangible thought had a tangible effect on the arrangement of the atoms that became Watchmen. The opposite is true as well. You’re picturing in your mind’s eye Doctor Manhattan’s statuesque and uncensored azure phallus, for no other reason than because I’m mentioning it the physical sound of my voice has altered your perception. By conjuring that image in your mind, I cast a genuine spell. To Moore, that’s all magic is. Magic bridges the divide between the material and the immaterial. Art, language, symbols – these are the real wizard’s wands. Per Moore, “…magic is intrinsically connected with art, language and consciousness to the point where these four things almost become different aspects of the same phenomenon.”
This same principle is seen in the rabbit-duck illusion. At first glance, you see either a rabbit or a duck. Just because someone’s mind initially interprets it as ”duck” doesn’t mean that meaning is fixed. All it takes is for someone to tell them it’s also a rabbit, and all of a sudden, it changes right before their eyes. It’s storytelling as spell-craft. Just as storytelling can be used to cast illusions, it can likewise dispel them. As an anarchist, Moore counts money among the more destructive illusions to ever distort mankind’s collective conscious. When Miracleman tasks himself with making Earth a utopia, among the first things he does is abolish money, suddenly announcing: “Money is a promise, to redeem the cash of every bearer for its worth in gold or merchandise. An empty promise. Should we all demand at once redemption of our coins, we’d learn such wealth does not exist. Money’s imaginary. Real if we believe in it… Come summer, money won’t exist. But then it never did.”
This method of magically altering something by changing the way you think is most clearly seen in Promethea. A notable example happens when protagonist Sophie has a rematch with the demon-king Asmodeus. Initially, Sophie and co are set on slaying Asmoday in anger, but it’s only when they accept that so-called demons are just a part of human-nature – the worst parts – that Asmodeus’ appearance shifts to that of a human. He explains, “Approach us with fear, with hatred and revulsion, and we will be fearsome, hateful, and vile. Approach us humanely and with respect, and we will be human and respectable.” For the magician, expectation creates perspective…
Even Doctor Manhattan is a magician in this sense. He externally appears as an ageless aquamarine Adonis with alopecia solely because this is how he internally perceives himself. So, if a sufficiently compelling story can “magically” change our perception of a single phenomenon, what happens if we tell a story that tries to account for all the phenomena in existence? Moore does exactly that in Promethea, telling a story about everything as a spell to change our perceptions about everything. Of course, we can never quite wrap our heads around the infinite expanse of all spacetime. But we don’t need to. One of Hermeticism’s most famous principles is something called macrocosm and microcosm. Expressed in the maxim “As above, so below,” this principle presumes that every level of reality reflects every other, like an infinite fractal, or like how everything wrong with YouTube can be distilled down to Logan Paul, and all the worst things about Logan Paul are echoed throughout YouTube’s other channels. Being able to understand one part of the pattern allows you to better understand the whole, and in turn move from lower levels to higher levels. With Promethea, the entire structure of the series is deliberately based upon a specific structure that repeats at macrocosmic and microcosmic levels, from entirety of existence to each individual soul: The Khabbalah’s Tree of Life.
For Moore, the Tree of Life is the roadmap to all reality, including our inner lives. At the bottom rung is mere perception, seeing the rabbit or the duck. Above that, is imagination, the ability to make mental models of things not directly apprehended with our senses. Above that, is our capacity for art and language, the ability to tie ideas to sounds,symbols, pictures and stories. And above that, our capacities for emotion and reason, respectively. At the macroscopic level, the physical universe is the basest sphere of the world’s soul. Above that, is everyone’s collective unconscious. And at the very top of the Tree, is what the early Hermeticists called the All. The One. God.
That’s why Promethea is thirty-two issues long, corresponding to the ten Spheres and twenty-two Paths of The Tree of Life added together. The story itself ends at issue 31, so he wrote a thirty-second issue, itself thirty-two pages with each page expounding upon one of the Paths. Thus, the issue was a deliberate microcosm of the series as a whole, and the series, a macrocosm of the issue. Or, “As above, so below.” Another Hermetic principle used by Moore is Solve et Coagula, “Separate and Combine.” Basically breaking a thing down into its component parts to better understand how the whole fits together.
Doctor Manhattan’s arc in Watchmen is all about him learning Solve et Coagula. When we first meet him, he expresses an understanding of the first half, separate, better than anyone else. He’s detached from humanity because he’s mentally broken humans down into their base components, not unlike his father did with watches. His breakthrough on Mars is learning not merely to break humans down into abstract arrangements of atoms, — “In my opinion, the existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon.” — but rather to conceptually recombine and perceive them as holistic four-dimensional objects.
Solve et Coagula is seen even more clearly in the sixth issue of Promethea. Sophie finds herself inside humanity’s collective imagination and faces off with writer, Marto Neptura, the pseudonym for a writer of the Promethea character. As a writer, Neptura’s power over the land of fiction is nearly absolute. Sophie is only able to defeat him by understanding that Neptura was the collective pen name of various novelists cut down to his separate unique styles. So, if a compelling story can change one’s view of the world, what happens when a story is so complete a model of the world that it changes the perception of our entire species? For Moore, when everyone’s way of viewing the world one way ends, the World ends. In Promethea, this is exactly the task that Sophie is given. Margaret, one of the Prometheas before Sophie, explains, “Humans are amphibious… that means they live in two worlds at once: matter and mind.” “Promethea makes people more aware of the vast immaterial realm. Maybe tempts them to explore it. Imagine if too many people followed where she led? It would be like the great Devonian leap from sea to land. Humanity, slithering up from the beach, from one element into another. From matter to mind.”
Moore believes it was through a similar leap from matter to mind that our ideas about the world began in the first place: “Representation… allows for the origination of verbal language, with this sound or this collection of marks somehow also standing for that buffalo over there… language is the necessary precursor of our apparently unique form of consciousness… humanity’s first ‘purposeful engagement with the phenomena and possibilities of consciousness,’ … Out of this engagement sprang, almost full blown, the entirety of human culture: writing, painting, song, music, theatre, science, medicine and even politics.”
And so, in the same way that this idea of “the world” began, it also ends. In the series’ penultimate issues, Sophie succeeds in bringing about the Apocalypse by explaining to everyone the same Hermetic principles we’ve been talking about. Everyone now perceives the immaterial and material worlds as equally “real.” But while Promethea was bringing about the world’s end within the comics, Moore was contemplating how our world will end in a similar fashion. In the twelfth issue, Moore uses the Tarot to trace the history of the world from the initial quantum-vacuum and God Big Banging the universe into existence, all the way to the coming leap to expanded consciousness. Moore places his own Doomsday Clock quite close to midnight, like his character Rorschach carrying a sign reading, “The end is nigh.”
How near? Writing that issue in 1999, Moore predicted the end of the world as we know it would occur in 2017, when the sum total of our knowledge would double at a rate of every half second. With so much new knowledge coming so quickly, our old ways of understanding the world wouldn’t be able to keep up, and we’d naturally need new ways of understanding the new world. Those of you alive back in 2017 may recall that the world did not in fact come to an end. But before the year came and went, Moore himself tried – like his character Promethea – to herald the Apocalypse at the hour he’d appointed. In September of 2016, on the eve of his prophesied world’s end, Moore released his magnum opus, Jerusalem. If Promethea was a spell he cast to magically change the minds of individual readers, Jerusalem was the ritual he performed to bring about world-wide Revelation. As Moore himself attests: “Rather than performing a ritual to produce a successful book, the book itself is the ten-year ritual working that is intended to have a certain (hopefully beneficial) effect upon the consciousness of its readership… Jerusalem seems to me to be my most sophisticated and complex magical working thus far, and certainly the most ambitious in its aims.”
“Ambitious in its aims” is an understatement. Moore writes in such a way that the reader experiences the higher states of consciousness the narrative is at the same moment describing, not dissimilar to the way the Heptapod’s language in Arrival profoundly affects Lois Lane’s perception of Time. This is especially evident in a chapter told from the perspective of Lucia Joyce during her confinement in an asylum. It employs the same linguistic style found in her father’s novel Finnegans Wake – abounding in puns, portmanteaus, and neologisms – in order to replicate Lucia’s condition. Moore explores how those exhibiting certain forms of insanity might be closer to perceiving external reality than those who are deemed “sane.” In Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan perceives every moment of his life simultaneously, a far different perception than “sane” individuals. But Moore, like Einstein, regards time as “a stubbornly persistent illusion,” so the fact that Manhattan is not taken in by this delusion of time makes him more sane, not less.
It’s we who are deficient for perceiving only the now, rather than being able to gaze upon the past, present and future like we might a 3-dimensional plane. In order to get us in the habit of perceiving the dimensions which we might not initially perceive, Moore employs Solve et Coagula to language itself, taking apart the written word into its to base components – separating phonetics – how vocalized words sound – from graphetics – how written words appear. Moore writes dialogue as a series of words that look like gibberish, but when read phonetically, make sense. Moore forces the reader to read multiple layers of meaning in every word. For example, read aloud, you get the the phonetic dimension: Her father, in his time, maintains that we are in a universe composed of four dimensions, only three of which are naturally visible. This phonetic dimension is only one side of the text, and if it’s the only part we observe, we see miss out on its other possible meanings. The “gibberish” is full of double-entendre, like spelling dimension in a way that resembles “dementia” or “universe” in a way that resembles “loony.” Moore teaches us to read with more dimensions than we normally perceive in a text about how the universe has more dimensions than we normally perceive. It’s explanation and example at the same time, magically changing how our mind models the world by changing the language with which our minds construct that model.
Of course, even if everyone if the whole world did read Jerusalem and have their minds expanded by Moore, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’d make the great leap from the murky waters of matter to the solid land of Ideas and Imagination. While Moore may not have managed to bring about his revelation in 2017, given his status as the most influential writer in the history of comics, his literary efforts are likely to remain influential for centuries. So is magic real? If Moore is right, it’s at least as real as our imagination. This is Promethea’s Revelation that ends the world, speaking not to any of the characters in the comic, but to you, the reader: “I’m an idea, but I’m a real idea. I’m the idea of human imagination, which, when you think about it, is the only thing we can really be certain isn’t imaginary… See, I’m imagination. I’m real and I’m the best friend you’ve ever had. Who do you think got you all this cool stuff? The clothes you wear, the room, the house, the city that you’re in. Everything in it started out in human imagination. Your lives, your personalities, your whole world. All invented… There’s nothing here but a funny little twist of amino acids playing a marvelous game of pretend.”
To that list of cool stuff imagination has given us we can certainly add the highly imaginative works of Alan Moore.