Milton, Blake and Moore are philosophical wanderers who share a tendency to connect history, spirituality, and place in their works through philosophers of the past. They journey horizontally through urban, rural, or spiritual locations and at the same time delve vertically through history. As this article will suggest, their legacy is a transformation of familiar landscapes.
Challenging Authority: The Moral Ambiguity of Milton’s Satan
The cultural influence of Milton was vast in the eighteenth century, and continues to prevail in contemporary (popular) culture. This is primarily due to Milton’s portrayal of the devil as a psychological and morally ambiguous character. Around Paradise Lost a rich tradition of visual iconography flourished, building on the visual iconography of the Book of Genesis.
Blake took these two traditions and whipped them together in his illustrations of Milton’s Paradise Lost, frequently adding new elements as he saw proper, attempting to bring out Milton’s original vision more clearly as well as develop his own philosophies on Heaven and Hell.
Blake’s view on the concept of demonic and angelic is further explored in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and most prominently in the chapter titled ‘The Proverbs of Hell’.
Through a set of highly critical proverbs Blake proposes a rebalancing of these principles by looking at them as energies. One represents reason, represented in the angelic, and the other imagination, represented in the demonic. In order for man to reach his full potential, an integration must be established. Blake interrogates the existing more static division of good and evil in order to allow for a possible renewing of social and cultural attitudes. Moore reimagines these works by Blake with a similar purpose: reworking contemporary society.
The considerable presence Blake has within the comics genre is a subject on which much terrain can still be won. This study will explore Blake’s presence within the comics genre by looking at Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell (1999), created with artist Eddie Campbell. It argues that, following Blake, Moore reworks the superhero genre conventions to expose their foundation on static notions of good and evil which enforce cultural paradigms regarding (among others) sexuality, nationality, and spirituality.
In From Hell Moore also utilizes Blake’s concept of the imagination to address historic paradigms regarding the English national identity. He does this through the theme of locale, using historic sites in order to link them to historic figures. The leading character is William Gull, often depicted as the image of an actual gull, a character with a profession rooted in reason, namely, medicine. Throughout the narrative Gull attempts to dissect the notion of life, by dissecting the corpses of his victims. His intentions are selfish and reason is employed in a tyrannical way, which ascribes Gull to the Satanic and to Hell.
Besides this character other seemingly banal portrayals of human behavior are utilized by Moore to reveal a larger social paradigm existing in the 20th century, namely that of the dumbing down of the majority through modernity. This rebellion against the opposing order that can also be seen in Gull’s exploration of the city on street-level, and by combining his portrait of London with spirituality, magic and the occult, Moore defines himself firmly as a psychogeographer.
Power and Magic: Drawing on Place
The symbols referenced in this illustration in From Hell – symbols such as the obelisk and others which lie hidden beneath the streets of London – allude to a literary connectedness that is grounded in the historical and literal notions of place. “Encoded in this city’s stones are symbols thunderous enough to rouse the sleeping Gods submerged beneath the sea-bed of our dreams” (Moore).
The graphic novel From Hell, from which this excerpt is taken, is set predominantly in the impoverished East End of London and centers around the story of the Whitechapel murders which occurred between 3 April 1888 and 13 February 1891. Due to its foregrounding of notions of place, the work can be tied to psychogeography, an approach to geography which was coined in Paris in the 1950s by the Letterist Group.
Rather than being viewed as a product of a particular time or place, psychogeography can be best described as a set of ideas and traditions that are connected historically. It characterizes itself through the idea of urban wandering which has yielded the literary viewpoints of the wanderer, the stroller, the flâneur and the stalker.
In cities that are evermore hostile to the pedestrian, walking can be seen as an act of subversion. Especially due to the street-level gaze, walking challenges official representations of the city such as mapped routes and instead explores marginal and forgotten areas. In this sense it challenges authority. Protests that occurred in the streets of Paris in the 1960s illustrate this dimension of psychogeography. In short, it can be best described as:
… the act of urban wandering, the spirit of political radicalism, allied to a playful sense of subversion and governed by an inquiry into the methods by which we can transform our relationships to the urban environment. This entire project is then further coloured by an engagement with the occult and is one that is as preoccupied with excavating the past as it is with recording the present. (Merlin Coverley)
The literary relevance of Blake to the project of psychogeography lies with the author’s own use of historical and literal notions of place, his connection to the occult, and the inquisitive and occasional subversive nature of his oeuvre.
City Magic: London as the Centre of Occult Forces
Contemporary psychogeographers include Alan Moore but also Iain Sinclair, author of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), a work that similarly explores the Whitechapel Murders. Coverley suggests that it is urban life’s mysterious and unknowable qualities that have encouraged dark and gothic representations of the city in psychogeographic work, and which has spurred a tendency to investigate crime and lowlife.
Moore and Sinclair both dramatize the city as a place of darkness and crime, which can be seen for example in From Hell’s bleak, rainy and gothic depiction of London, sketched wholly in black and grey. An additional dimension of this representation of London is the use of elements of the occult, such as the obelisk. This obsession with the occult is allied to an antiquarianism that views the present through the prism of the past and which lends itself to psychogeographical research that increasingly contrasts a horizontal movement across the topography of the city with a vertical descent through its past (Coverley).
In the opening image Moore depicts the characters of Gull and his coachman Netley roaming the streets of London. When they are standing by the graveyard, an important detail, Gull explains Blake to Netley. He connects him to a “time of magic thinking when the Gods yet walked with men”, and he identifies Blake [mistakenly] as a druid, which indicates a magician or priest.
There is a reference to English author D.H. Lawrence that can be found in Netley exclaiming: “Styled on my John Thomas more like” which refers to Lawrence’s work Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where it is used by the male main character as a nickname for his penis. Lawrence can also be placed with the tradition of psychogeography as he concerned himself with the effects of modernization and industrialization on society.
England’s “Holy Fool”, Blake, was also a Godfather of psychogeography, according to Ian Sinclair and Merlin Coverley. Blake belonged to those artists who aimed to shape the imagination within every man in order to counter a “stifling, deadening influence of a social and cultural environment dominated by restrictive reason” (Behrendt). He aimed, in other words, to counter the banalisation of society. By joining “the Devil’s party” (Blake), the artists which are all connected through psychogeography are on the side of creative energy, an energy both deconstructive as well as capable of renewing.
Beyond Heaven and Hell
A number of parallels can be drawn between Moore’s work which is rooted in the comics genre and William Blake’s illustrated works. These are especially clear in a visual analysis that focusses on the characteristic combination of word and image, and Moore’s appropriation of the themes of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, as this is visualized in his graphic novel From Hell.
His interpretation is based on a philosophy by Blake which is most notably present in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (completed between 1790-1793). From Hell can be read as a contemporary case study of Blake’s philosophies and as a re-establishing of his views and of his energies.
To William Blake, “good is not … straightforwardly good; evil is not evil” (Fernie). The philosophical poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for example, voices an appropriation of the concepts of good and evil that rejects them as rigid fixed categories.
Blake strives for fluidity and adapts the controversial viewpoint of ‘The Demonic’. It investigates “a fundamental spiritual principle in the interest of the infinite efflorescence it [the demonic] enables” (ibid). In other words, the concept is inhabited with a sense of the spiritual that constitutes regenerative energy. This type of energy is indicated as the shared source of both the demonic and the divine. In Blake’s philosophy the angelic is that which obeys the rules; it is reasonable goodness. The demonic is that which moves further, beyond creation, as a creative source on its own. When looking at the Creator from this perspective, it appears that his creative energy deems him a largely demonic force, which is a controversial idea.
The section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell most relevant to this study is titled ‘The Proverbs of Hell’ and is constructed as a set of short sayings. They are characterized by riddling language and actively involve the reader in a seemingly straightforward attempt to reform pre-existent paradigms. Even though they can be considered in isolation they are more coherent when read in the context of the whole.
The tone of the Proverbs is challenging and critiques the uncreative angelic culture since it represents the voice of the demonic side. In line with the favored demonic energy, the form of the Proverbs is irregular and seemingly random. This is done in order to tackle the static nature of the central notions it refers to. ‘The Proverbs of Hell’ has three main targets, namely, “the values of orthodox Christianity, of scientific rationalism, and any philosophy taking a negative view of man’s passional or imaginative nature” (Fuller). The way Blake’s philosophy interrogates the beliefs held by these three targets is through the idea of a shared source from which demonic and angelic energy originates.
From this source of the angelic and the demonic a specific energy can be structured. This creative, diverse and imaginative energy is of fundamental importance to the proverbs. It points to an underlying philosophy which can be illustrated by the following proverb: “Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity”. This is said by the demons in ‘The Proverbs of Hell’ and suggests that being prudent, a value often propagandised by orthodox Christianity, often brings a degree of incapability along. The human imagination is ruled by its passions and to deny them is unwise.
The natural energies of love and sexuality suffer under orthodox Christian values, as well as under scientific rationalism and other philosophies that discourage it. “The careful, calculating or cunning are to Blake’s devils the cultivation of spiritual death” (Fuller). Another interesting example of the philosophy of the imagination can be found in the proverb featuring the crow and the owl. “The crow wish’d every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white”. Both birds in this proverb seem to be expressing a wish for uniformity even though both are of a different species. They share a similar urge for security which leads them both nowhere. Their wish would stagnate the development of individuality and biological diversity and work against progression.
In this work, the devils know that such an attitude is unproductive and unfruitful. To live the way this work dictates means undoing the existing paradigms which dictate oppositional, dialectical, thinking. It is much easier to wish, like the crow, that everything is black, in a safe kind of uniformity. However, the elements of energy, activeness and sexuality are vital to the development of the philosophy of the imagination, which will be underlined when examining the illustrations accompanying the text.
The East End of Hell
In From Hell, the scene of the murders is the East End of London, the poorest region of the city. Most of the action of the narrative takes place here, which adds to the gothic and marginal representation Moore gives of the city. Prostitution is common and widespread here, having become a social ill.
Victorian society named prostitutes ‘daughters of joy’ which highlights an ignorant and insensitive attitude towards these woman which commonly prevailed in that time. From Hell rejects this view and succeeds to reveal that these women might have been very self-reliant and that they formed a close community in order to keep an eye on each other, thus ascribing them with power and disrupting any type of rigid moral classification of these women as evil. Gull’s power, on the other hand, is gradually taken away from him.
Moore spends much time developing the character of William Gull and starts his narrative with incidents from his youth that portray the doctor’s early fascination with nature and science. It begins with the portrayal of a young William who opens the eye of his dead father out of curiosity and continues with a scene in which he slices open a dead rat with a knife. It can be concluded that William Gull is driven by a clean and efficient curiosity combined with “an almost mystical and religious love for nature as the perfect handiwork of the Creator” (Moore). More than once, his victims are first strangled before he mutilates their bodies with medical precision. The fact that Gull’s heart is not moved towards compassion but towards a detached fascination is the key to understanding his actions.
This is illustrated in the narrative through the presence of the fourth painting from the series The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) titled ‘The Reward of Cruelty’ by William Hogarth in the Gulls’ residence. The painting depicts surgeons and physicians dissecting the remains of a murderer. It is an event attended by many academics and physicians. The surgeons show the same detached medical attitude that Gull has towards his victims. Though the series’ intent is moral instruction, its placement in Gulls residence also underlines Gull’s unbalanced imagination.
“In the case of the fraudulent and press-generated ‘Ripper’ letters,” Moore has observed, “we see a clear prototype of the current British tabloid press in action, and for this reason it seemed poetically apposite that the letter be composed in Wapping, currently the home of Mr Rupert Murdoch’s highly popular right-wing tabloid, which, unsurprisingly in this tale of obelisks and other arcane solar symbols, is called The Sun” (Moore).
Magic and the Subconscious Mind
Not only Blake’s philosophy of good and evil as outlined in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell figures in From Hell, but also a famous incident from Blake’s personal life. A specific evening during which he was visited by a scaly phantom and produced the painting The Ghost of a Flea (1819-1820) is depicted and has a supporting function to the narrative.
Moore comments in the Appendix of the graphic novel on Blake and the occult: “Blake saw visions because he ‘spiritually belonged to earlier age of the world’, the implication being that those we call prophets or visionaries simply have a different relationship with their subconscious mind to that enjoyed by the great majority”.
This type of magic and the occult was indeed more common in more ancient times. A notion which is also picked up by psychogeographic thinkers and connected to the gothic depictions of the city and the idea of following footsteps left by earlier artists or visionaries.
Moore and Campbell suggest that the creature which Blake sees in his house that evening is Gull’s spirit. A startled fictional Blake comments on the face of the Flea, “a face worthy of a murderer” (Moore).
The City as Psyche
Blake is often seen as one of the first artists whose works contains themes and characteristics of psychogeographical ideas, together with Daniel Defoe and Thomas De Quincey. This is not just on the level of literal notions of place.
They are linked … by more than merely a shared preoccupation with London, reflecting a wider awareness of genius loci or ‘spirit of place’ through which landscape, whether urban or rural, can be imbued with a sense of the histories of previous inhabitants and the events that have been played out against them. (Coverley)
In October 2000, Neil Spencer conducted an interview with Alan Moore for The Observer. It was shortly after the publication of the collected edition of Moore’s graphic novel From Hell in 1999. Commenting on his works’ references to William Blake, Moore says:
Blake represents the visionary heroism of the imagination. He was living in a London which was not much more than a squalid horse toilet, on which he superimposed a magnificent four-fold city and populated it with angels, and philosophers of the past. Art at its best has the power to insist on a different reality.
Much of the city Blake visualized is built on the work of philosophers from the past, such as Milton. An example is Blake’s illustrated poem Jerusalem the Emanation of the Great Albion (1804-1820). This work is rooted firmly in the domains of spirituality and philosophy but also in history through the notion of place which is connected to the British national identity. Moore picked up this blend of themes and built his own London in From Hell in accordance.
London Bloody London
The concept of history, the national past, and the tendency to gloss over the imperial parts are central themes in From Hell. In the opening of this study we see how Gull takes his coachman and accomplice John Netley on a tour through London in order to show how official versions of history are often negotiated constructions.
While they pass various sites Gull outlines the story of its Non-Anglo Saxon history. The sites are often characterized by phallic shapes (such as Cleopatra’s Needle, Obelisks, cathedrals and more) and often touristic spots presented as English heritage but founded on violence and trauma. Later on in the novel Gull addresses the concept of the banalisation of society through a vision he experience whilst murdering Mary Jane.
Gull can be seen standing in front of an office building while he in fact is at that very moment mutilating Marie Jane Kelly’s body. In his vision a phallic symbol of power is rising up into the sky before him; he greets it holding up a bloody knife and Mary’s heart. He then asks the 20th century people about him:
Where comes this dullness in your eyes? How has your century numbed you so? Shall men be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder? Your days were born in blood and fires, whereof in you I may not see the meanest spark! Your past is pain and iron! Know yourself! With all your shimmering numbers and your lights, think not to be inured to history. Its black root succours you. It is inside you.
Gull’s address to the dull faces of the office employees in the 20th century is an attempt to bring out the fluidity of history. Through this vision the occult is combined with unconventional Non-Anglo-Saxon history. The vision refers to sites which question the idea of current national belonging.
When constructing identity, Gull says, instead of merely accepting history as a given fact, it is more useful to realize that it forms man at the core. Words such as ‘shimmering’, ‘black root’, and ‘succours’ refer to the concept of fire as a deconstructive but regenerative force.
The Banalisation of History
William Blake’s work lends itself for different utilizations across mediums. Allusions to Blake can be traced within all the categories of popular culture, music, art, literature etc. As Mary Lynn Johnson notes:
His [Blake’s] purpose is to change lives, so that through those changed lives a nation and a world may be redeemed. As the Preface [to Blake’s epic poem Milton] indicates, the New Age demands from its youth new works of imagination – possibly in the form of literary, graphic, or even musical creations that would do for Blake what Blake did for Milton: correct his errors and free up his misdirected creative energies to regenerate contemporary society.
While more research can be done on the contemporary presence and influence of Blake’s footsteps, it can be concluded that his legacy is still being revived in order to encourage those works of visionary imagination that will launch regeneration.
Conclusion: V is For
Within Moore’s oeuvre there are other works which should be included in further research. Watchmen, but also V for Vendetta, illustrated by David Lloyd, outlines a dystopian post-nuclear war England set in the 1980s-1990s in which a fascist government runs the country as a police state.
V, the protagonist, opposes this party through a violent and theatrical campaign and is seen wearing an iconic Guy Fawkes Mask in order to obscure his personal identity. This mask has been adopted by many revolutionists identifying with his cause today, in current society. David Lloyd, the illustrator who designed the mask for the graphic novel comments for BBC News in 2011 saying: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way”.
This direct influence of the novel on popular culture and societies around the globe highlights the medium as an effective tool for social regeneration. In V for Vendetta there are two stanza’s from Blake’s poem “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” from the preface of Milton: A Poem (written and illustrated between 1804-1810). It reads:
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land
As can be seen, the person uttering these lines is V himself in his Shadow Gallery. The “Mental Fight” that is mentioned refers to V’s battle to free the people from the totalitarian government through anarchy.
This is an edited version of The Visionary Heroism of William Blake and Alan Moore by E.M. Notenboom. To read the full article please click here.
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