Fractal Fantasies of Transformation: William Blake, Michael Moorcock, and the Utilities of Mythographic Shamanism
In a posting to the Q & A page at the Web site of British fantasy writer Michael Moorcock, I asked about the operation of personal and group mythographies.
My question has to do . . . with the nature of human thought processes, and my feeling—which I was led to by reading your Second Ether [trilogy]—that the source of much of our woe . . . has to do with our thinking in terms of archetypes and Platonic ideals. We create for ourselves (or they are thrust upon us) whole pantheons (or pandemoniums, as Milton would say) of expectations about ourselves, and we seek to
live our lives according to the dictates and strictures voiced by the gods dwelling in these pantheons, and in the end we come up feeling very sad and very sorry, because our lives do not live up to these ideals. We are in a real fix, moreover, when these pantheons are controlled by corporations who use “our” gods against us. . . .
My general question is: My goodness, what’s to be done! My specific question is: Can you reflect upon your reading in Milton and Blake?
Michael Moorcock answered as follows:
In a way Jerry Cornelius and all the multiverse books are about shifting identities to suit one’s context. Since you’re going to find yourself in
a good many more contexts than you might have a hundred years ago (unless a character in a Victorian long-running adventure serial!) you have to learn to move easily and fluidly between them while maintaining a core identity which provides what you might call public sector virtues—morality, commonality. A mixed psychic economy—the public sector doing what it does best, the private sector doing what it does best.
Paradoxically, of course, the “public” involves the most private, the most enduring self. To survive and thrive we don’t necessarily confront our natural enemies—the lumbering dinosaur orthodoxies of big business and big government—we go around and behind them. To live to the full in the modern world, in other words, you have to learn to weave and dodge and drift and take advantage of what the moment offers. This isn’t a particularly new problem for metropolitan working classes. The trick is to choose your masks. To choose your roles. And play them consciously as roles. The old notion of the person of integrity—strike them where you will they ring true—has to be revamped, perhaps. The existential moral being must learn whole sets of roles—Pierrot, Harlequin, Colum bine. On we go. Blake and Milton provide us with models of Law and Chaos, rather than Good and Evil, and that can’t be bad. What a lot of theological abstract fun you can have with that idea. . . .
I am not so much interested in the way William Blake has influenced Michael Moorcock as I am in the way that Michael Moorcock has influenced my reading of William Blake and John Milton. While I have reservations concerning what I understand to be Moorcock’s emphasis regarding Milton and Blake, I am moved by his work—particularly his most Blakean production, the Second Ether trilogy—to identify my own understanding of Blake and Milton and to discover in their epics a practice of mythographic shamanism that is at least as sophisticated, as supple, and as clever as the more broadly understood shamanistic practices and rituals of archaic and preliterate peoples. Indeed, the movement of shamanism from preliterate to literate stages has enriched shamanistic practice and liberated it from the essentially conservative tendencies of the preliterate mind. At the same time, however, the advent of written language has created new forms and processes of orthodoxy. It is the task of the literary mythographer to expose such orthodoxies and to release the poetic imagination from the tyrannies of custom and institution. Suggesting the program if not the techniques of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Blake and Moorcock are engaged in a mythographic house cleaning. Through identifying, exposing, and clearing away conceptual confusion, their works pattern analytic processes that expose and clarify the complex operation of the mythologies that define our self-concepts, our social personae, and our worldviews.
A comparative examination of Blake and Moorcock spotlights the analytic utilities of Western mythographic shamanism. Moorcock and Blake are both men of working-class London neighborhoods. Blake’s love for London together with the distress he felt in beholding the poverty and destitution of the lower classes are amply described and explored in his work. When removed from London during his tenure in the village of Felpham, he was a salient neighborhood fixture. The well-known account of Blake’s arrest in Felpham after ejecting a soldier from his garden and the enthusiastic support he received from his neighbors in court and during his return home are indicative of how the poet was favored by the people who lived around him. In the 1960s, Moorcock’s home in London’s Ladbroke Grove was a center for raconteurs, musicians, visionaries, travelers, and other flamboyant personalities. Many of Moorcock’s realistic fantasies—the Cornelius tetralogy and novels such as King of the City (2000) and Mother London (1988)—are built around the descriptions of life in lower-middle-class and working-class London neighborhoods. It is certainly very possible that the variability, the variety, the fecundity, the decay, the pace, the rapid rates of change, and the phantasmagoria of such neighborhood fabrics drive the complexity and the dynamics of Blake’s and Moorcock’s mythographies.
The activity of giving voice to the sensibility of these neighborhoods and the role played by the local prophetic heroes represent a cultural pattern with identifiable historical beginnings in Civil War London. The weakening of upper-class control in the 1640s coincided with the rise of a radical publishing underground. In the wake of the Long Parliament, during the 1640s there was a breakdown of censorship, the collapse of church courts, and the eclipse of upper-class leadership in En glish culture. A fierce hostility to the gentry, the aristocracy, and the monarch was revealed through an explosion of publications advancing the ideas of antinomians, Arminians, Socinians, Arians, Ranters, libertines, Inde pen dents, Anabaptists, Quakers, Levelers, and other radicals. By 1646 the theological scene in London was dominated by the lower and middle classes, who freely spoke and wrote of new liberty, universal grace, the abrogation of church law, and the sinfulness of repentance and who denounced the priestly orders and ministry of the Church of En gland as anti-Christian (Hill 1977, 94). The scene is eulogized by Milton in Areopagitica, where he describes a city in which “all the Lord’s people are become prophets . . . trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. . . . A nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to.” In triumph Milton declares: “Behold now this vast City, a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty . . .” (1930, 749). In the linked celebration of antinomianism, indepen dent theology, professed radicalism, and a DIY approach to self-editing and self-publishing, Blake and Moorcock are heirs to the cultural revolutions of London in the 1640s.
Both Blake and Moorcock pursued careers as artisans to support their more sophisticated artistic projects, and in this respect both authors made their commercial work into subjects and themes that are explored in their more ambitious efforts. Blake, of course, worked as an illustrator. Moorcock has been an editor, a comic book writer, a paperback fantasy writer, and a rock musician and composer. Blake and Moorcock have made their careers a source of material for mythmaking, and their mythography in this respect focuses not so much on the subject of their commercial work, but rather on the activity represented by this work: the activity of the creative process itself. Stories about artisans and artistic creation are central to their mythographies. Indeed, in every sense of the phrase, Blake and Moorcock are “poets of artifice.”
This interest in artifice begins with their approach to language. Following after epic usage, Blake and Moorcock select language to allegorize, aggrandize, illuminate, theorize, personify, visualize, valorize, and validate their idiosyncratic mythological systems. Such words as ad hoc, parodic, and satiric characterize Blake and Moorcock’s usage. Blake draws upon the Bible, Homer, Milton, and Swedenborg for his mythological vernacular, while Moorcock parodies Conan the Barbarian, tabloid news papers, detective magazines, George Meredith, Victorian serial fiction, Sherlock Holmes, Madison Avenue, H. G. Wells, the Beatles, and James Bond. At one end, such language is wonderfully humorous and brings a sense of proportion to the authors’ metaphysical gymnastics, which, if left unbalanced, would grow cloying and burdensome. At the same time, such language accomplishes the analytic purposes of satire, adding to the farrago of perspectives and voices that cannot go too far in providing a full anatomy of the subject at hand. The complexity of their language builds into the sophistication of their composition, creating a work that is nearly unintelligible. But rather than obscurity, the effect of this complexity is itself a source of meaning.
Both Blake and Moorcock combine their ontological and metaphysical concepts so closely that their philosophies teeter dangerously at the edge of idealism. For Blake the notion of such a metaphysic is itself both the result and the cause of a fallen state. For Moorcock the scientific unification of ontology and metaphysics provides the superstructure for an elaborate joke. Moorcock repeatedly portrays characters that use science as a means to hide from the human condition. An enthusiasm for theoretical science figures among the many self-deceptions of his heroes, who, possessing incomplete knowledge of themselves, struggle unsuccessfully against the contours of a hostile and deforming landscape. It is ironic that Moorcock himself so readily promotes a scientific theory of his own. In his metaphysical scheme the world exists in a flux between law and chaos, between order and entropy. There is no good and evil, but only the interplay of these polarized states of being. Such a polarization is descried occasionally by Blake, who provides us with images of a universe laid out between poles of energy and passivity, between poetic inspiration and acquiescence to the empire of social mediocrity and the cosmo-mechanical-vegetable mundane. For Moorcock and Blake, good and evil are not to be found as tending to one or the other of these poles, but rather in the particular experiences of particular individuals who variously perceive themselves, or fail to perceive themselves, between the fluctuations of them. While Moorcock claims this is a mathematical and physical phenomenon, Blake expresses the dichotomy as a matter of perception. Moorcock’s proposition that Milton “provide[s] us with models of Law and Chaos, rather than Good and Evil,” is interesting and attractive, and there is much in Milton that argues for such a model. Moorcock’s proposition easily dovetails with the contemporary pseudoscientific critical habits of identifying dichotomies and reading them as physical forces that drive a dialectical universe, as if our way of seeing, our way of understanding, our scientific method itself were all simply dialectical.
Milton’s project transcends simple dichotomies. As I read Milton, the moral drama that unfolds in the universe is driven not by underlying dialectical energies but by the ability of human beings to choose to use reason as a tool, and this tool itself is an effect (or an artifact) of choice; very often that choice is a decision to test strongly held belief systems, or even to overturn the prevailing worldview. Milton equates morality with reason, analysis, inspiration, and communication. If reason is good, then the lack of reason or the denial of reason is evil. Evil is an absence of good; evil is not itself an active principle. The wild variables of inspiration, apostasy, and intuition are thus not evil—nor are they attributes of law or chaos—but rather they work as the arbiters between the senses and reason. They safeguard human freedom as guarantors of human judgment. In the development and education of the full person, these principles are to be cultivated, and poetry is the chief instrument of this cultivation. For Milton the transformational nature of mythography simply represents a quality of the tool in its uncultivated state. Cultivation sharpens mythography into an analytic tool that—in the familiar terms of the scientific method—allows us to investigate the influences of the observer upon the experiment; a vital and living mythographic process allows us to peer into the human brain’s tendency to rationalize ambiguity and establish patterns—often credulous and fictitious patterns—of cause and effect and of correlation. As Francis Bacon says, “human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds. And though there be many things in nature which are singular and unmatched, yet it devises for them parallels and conjugates and relatives which do not exist” (1620, 50). A fully competent and reflexive mythographic system is keen to highlight and analyze these illusionary specters of understanding. Although cognizant of such spectral manifestations and willing to document them in grotesque and sensational detail, in his larger figure Blake embraces the process of inspiration, apostasy, and intuition in toto, offering as his Parnassus-scaling model a kind of hallucinating noble-savage-with-a-pen. From this heroic perch he casually reduces and rejects even the most sensible cultivation, characterizing it as merely the prevailing neoclassic cant of his rivals in the art world of late-eighteenth-century London. In this consideration Blake is a reactionary antimodernist who uses poetry in a scientific attempt to “return” people to a unified state with the cosmos. He sees the transformational nature of myth as the message itself, an esoteric, pseudoscientific “proof” of epistemic relativism that leaves the world in a shattered and fractured state—a bright, blistering, and gaudy “ultra-modern” universe of exotic sensation and psychological distraction—and thus he has been variously championed, embellished, and imitated by the inhabitants of such spheres. There is, and make no mistake, a price to be paid for achieving unity with the cosmos. Ultimately Blake’s follower is left stranded in a Hobbesian universe whose laws are mechanical, fixed, and inviolable—where the poetical facility, once so full of promise, is reduced to a simple tool for food-gathering, conflict, or escape. Milton, on the other hand, is content to remain alienated and slug it out with existence, so long as observation, reason, and inspiration accompany him for consolation, for in that universe—let’s call it a Lockean universe—the human being is liberated from the mechanism of the cosmos, and rather than being joined with the cosmos is instead separate and free to discover the secrets of the mechanism in order to transcend it. It is this Lockean universe to which Moorcock’s elaborate mythography is tending. It is very possible that Moorcock’s extensive mythic production, when taken collectively, portrays the transformation from the Hobbesian worldview to the Lockean.
Chaos theory and complexity science have many applications in describing the compositional process and the mythological systems that Blake and Moorcock have conceived. Three notions from chaos theory are particularly applicable in an examination of their mythologies.
First is the central notion of chaos theory itself, which is that complex interdepen dent systems pushed into chaos will undergo a phase transition resulting in new order. Moorcock uses this principle to drive his plots, where law and chaos become poles in an epic struggle between supernatural aristocracies of angels and demons, where the unbridled energies of chaos bring about a transformation of cosmic and political order that is shaped by the conceptual designs of law. At a more subtle level, Moorcock explains this dichotomy in terms of form and consciousness. Form and consciousness, like order and chaos, are not so much involved in a struggle as a reconciliation, for it is through form that consciousness survives, and it is through consciousness that form survives.
A second application of chaos theory that can be applied to Blake and Moorcock involves the way complexity itself can be used as a tool to create compositional interest. Blake and Moorcock use complexity in their compositions to make them more interesting, intriguing, and satisfying. The mea sure of this complexity is called “organizational depth.” Architecture critic Charles Jencks describes organizational depth as a sort of ornamentation or elaboration that creates the “resonance,” “deep character,” and “integrity” we perceive in art (Jencks 1995). A complex narrative can force the reader into an act of co-creation with the author, where the reader, faced with compounding confusion, is led to create a parallel personal narrative in order to superimpose narrative cohesion upon the text. In this way consciousness can be said to enter and pervade a narrative.
A third aspect of chaos theory that has its applications in describing our authors is the notion of self-similarity and fractal scaling. Self-similarity is a concept from chaos theory that identifies an underlying pattern of order in complex phenomenon. Best illustrated by the graphic patterns created by the Mandelbrot set formula, self-similar fractal patterns can be seen in turbulence, clouds, waterfalls, coastlines, mountain ranges, and in simple organic forms, where one part of the pattern resembles the whole. Take, for example, a fern plant, in which the sprays or fronds of the fern are representative of a repeated pattern or image seen at other scales. The pointy shape of the frond is replicated in the shape of the leaves on the frond. In turn, the leaves are made up of tapering leaflets that resemble the leaves; and in turn these leaflets are edged with thin, pointed serrations that copy the pointed thematic pattern that is recapitulated throughout the plant at different scale levels: serration, leaflet, leaf, frond, and so on. According to the aesthetic of self-similarity and scaling, parts re semble not only each other but the whole as well. Self-similarity represents a transforming pattern of similarity and not exact replication. Mathematically self-similar patterns are defined by “strange attractors,” reference points that establish recurring patterns of form and movement in a complex system.
In the essay “About My Multiverse,” Moorcock explains that the concept of self-similarity is central to his cosmology: “Since the advent of Mandelbrot’s extraordinary observations, the creation of Chaos Theory and Chaos Mathematics, I have been able to give further coherence to my notion [of cosmology], by suggesting we perceive each fresh ‘plane’ of the multiverse as a ‘scale’—that scale alone differentiates them when so close together. The greater the variance of scales, the greater the variance of history and personal lives. Mass also changes with scale. We can also see the multiverse in terms of constantly renewing shoots and branches, growing more and more complex, each shoot a near-clone of the mother-branch, that branch in turn belonging to another and that to another until, a near-infinity of branches away, the trunk is joined. This fits best with observed reality but is much harder to visualize in linear terms” (1997, 49–50). This “multiversal” metaphysic not only provides an appropriate approach to understanding and mapping the self-similar features of Moorcock’s work, but it also suggests new strategies for reading Blake. Indeed, it provides a template for identifying thematic similarities within the scope of any author’s work, or within any period, or within a particular genre, and so on.
The grand mythological systems of Blake and Moorcock, driven as they are by the compositional techniques employed to create and portray these systems,are particularly well suited to an analysis that reviews the phenomenon of complexity as both an operator and a subject within an artistic work. Concepts that can be described by the vocabulary of complexity include:
1. Organizational Depth: The “building-in” of complexity through obscurity, vagueness, superposition (overlaying), and cluttering.
2. Multivalent Signifiers: Characters, themes, and plots that serve as exponents for a multiplicity of concepts, all of which are intermittently transforming and intermittently reflexive.
3. Feedback/Reflexive Technique: Characters, plots, and themes that serve as exponents for the processes of artistic creation, reading, and interpretation.
4. Catastrophe/Folding/Landslides/Phase-Transition: Sudden and disruptive changes in plot, scene, and character.
5. Scaling: self-similarity and fractal geometry.
The most significant similarities Blake and Moorcock share are their mythographic perspectives and procedures, and the useful (and pleasurable) shamanistic insights that such procedure affords.
What follows are some of the details of this procedure:
Blake’s and Moorcock’s works exhibit narratological self-similarity. Utilizing the same characters, Blake tells the same stories repeatedly in different ways, altering the story either slightly or profoundly at each retelling. He offers cosmogonies and cosmological systems; he offers psychological schemes that resemble metaphysics and metaphysical schemes that resemble psychology; he tells tales of love, birth, jealousy, hatred, misunderstanding, changing perceptions, and forgiveness. Following pagan and classical notions of sympathetic magic and the mythographic patterning of archetypical heroes, gods, and ideas, Blake outlines simultaneous and parallel actions in the world of people, in the world of myth, and in the world of the gods.
Moorcock follows the same practices and patterns, utilizing variations on the same characters and placing these characters in relations to one another that are repeated frequently in his novels so that in each successive retelling the fortunes of the characters may result in different outcomes, but the essential relationships, emotions, challenges, victories, and failures remain the same. In his Eternal Champion stories, of which his albino prince Elric of Melniboné is the best-known example, Moorcock presents a comic-book Armageddon involving the opposed “supernatural” forces of law and chaos. At the center of each of these tales is the eternal champion, a Byronic hero—a “Byronsattva,” so to speak—who is reincarnated in each volume to play a decisive role in the cosmic conflict between law and chaos. Depending upon the strength and depth of the champion’s character, the cosmic balance swings to a state of either more or less entropy. The key to the success of the champion depends upon his or her ability to reveal the weaknesses of the gods and transcend their influence so that the Byronsattva can emerge and exercise his or her real power to control the universe. In other sagas and cycles Moorcock variously portrays the commedia dell’arte, or harlequinade. In these stories he achieves resolution by unmasking the players. He redeems his characters by exposing them to the artificiality of the roles they play.
The practice of telling the same stories over and over again is enhanced by the bibliographic complexities that are characteristic of Blake’s and Moorcock’s output. Both Blake and Moorcock are notorious for their variorum. Blake altered the order of the pages in his handmade epics; he altered the position of illustrations and sometimes omitted them entirely; and he colored his illustrations and his texts differently at each production. Not only are his stories retold in different ways, but his physical texts are characterized by alteration. Moreover, the illustrations themselves add still another dimension to this textual variability. When reading Blake’s illuminated manuscripts the reader is confronted with the problem of resolving the illustrations to the text. Formulating the narrative is made complicated because there are many ways to combine the illustrated and written narratives. Inconsistencies can be read into a comparison of the illustrations and the text. In formulating the narrative does the reader privilege the illustrations over the text, or the text over the illustrations? By providing illustrations to his stories, Blake has compounded the problem of interpreting his texts; but he has also opened up the possibilities for multiple readings. By leading his reader to confront these multiple readings (and viewings), he highlights the dynamics and the mechanics of mythographic practice.
Moorcock has also altered his texts. During a career that now spans more than fifty years, Moorcock has continued to revise, alter, and retitle his texts. He has reshuffled the order in which they appear in collected editions. While these textual alterations and reorderings represent a daunting challenge to the bibliographer, such practices confirm and enrich the practices of the mythographer. In effect Blake and Moorcock draw their readers into an act of co-creation that is absolved and shielded from the orthodox dictates of the textual Brahmins. The personal revelations of the reader supersede the text, thus disenfranchising the Urizenic lawgivers and deauthorizing the ecclesiastical courts of their hermeneutic bishoprics.
Once again, Blake and Moorcock are “poets of artifice.” As I earlier hinted, in the Western liberal tradition of the Netherlands, Britain, and America—specifically the Lockean nexus of theological and political thought that joins Grotius, Cromwell, Milton, the “Good Old Cause,” the Glorious Revolution, the En glish Bill of Rights, Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Act of Religious Freedom, the American Bill of Rights—the archetype of this politicized intellectual tradition was patterned in London in the 1640s. The power to create artifice is not limited to the upper classes but lies within the reach of all the people.
In the Second Ether trilogy, his most Blakean production, Moorcock tells a group of related stories branching off from the central human story of love, underscoring his observations with a circumspect commentary on the role of love in the continuation of culture and the human species. Turning the facets of his jeweled lens to reveal a succession of incomplete perspectives, Moorcock explores how culture and nature use love to control individuals. His main theme in this respect is loss: boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl; boy loses girl; boy goes crazy trying to get girl back. The madness and frustration as well as the hope and inventiveness that are driven by this loss lead to an examination of the psychological dynamics of suffering prompted by longing and the problem of being displaced in both time and space from somewhere you have been and wish to be again—and from someone you have been with and wish to be with again. In Blood, the first volume of the trilogy, these questions are considered in the case of Jack Karaquazian, who must come to terms with his own loss of love by confronting the mythological beliefs and philosophical assumptions that are created by his loss and are the cause of his loss. If he can identify the gods that make up his pantheon of woe and demythologize them, he has a chance of altering their influences. By understanding the mythographic dynamics of his suffering, he can redeem himself from his fallen state. But the process is spiritual as well as mythographic; it is a process of ontological growth as well as conceptual clarification. The primary tools for affecting Jack’s transformation are humility, faith, forgiveness, and love.
In the introduction to Blood, Moorcock claims to be the editor of the work, which he has put together from fragments of typescript and handmade magazines written by one “Edwin Begg, the famous Clapham antichrist.” Moorcock explains that he did not know what to make of the confused collection of material: “It looked like remains of a psychedelic undergraduate project which very properly had been abandoned. . . . However, as I worked on the manuscript I began to perceive its coherence. A complex and intriguing story emerged as all the disparate elements came together to form an unfamiliar whole” (1994, 1).
Blood opens along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River, where Jack Kara quazian and his friend Sam Oakenhurst are riverboat gamblers. Pools of color have recently been discovered in the Gulf. Suggesting at once the computer revolution and the crude oil that drives our plastic civilization, the color is an apparently limitless source of electronic energy. At a more fundamental level, the pools of color represent the human brain’s capacity for credulous rationalization, conceptual confusion, orthodox scientism, and intellectual myth, Greedy prospectors drill into the color and create an ecological disaster—a metaphysical fault in space-time that engulfs the region in webs of conceptual distortion. Rivers change course in midstream, zombie policeman bubble like burning plastic, guns shoot carcinogenic projectiles, and meat boats steam through phantom dimensions. Against the backdrop of this distortion, the gambling games Jack and Sam play take on a multidimensional significance. Do they play with cards? Video games? Complex fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons? Moorcock describes Jack and Sam dealing each other subsets of intellectual history and the trajectories of hypothetical civilizations. According to Moorcock, “whole universes, species and nations were created, sometimes down to the most ordinary individual, and then manipulated in a game which sometimes took decades of subjective time, yet only a few minutes of real time” (1994, 30).
All this is very well, and Sam and Jack adapt easily to their distorted universe. But then two women come into their lives: Colinda Dovero and “The Rose.” Colinda offers Jack an unconditional love that he is not ready to understand or accept, until he loses her. The Rose brings both men into contact with the Second Ether, the ulterior mythological cosmos that Sam follows in his collection of handmade illustrated magazines. These magazines contain the tales of The Corsairs of the Second Ether.
Chapters from The Corsairs of the Second Ether are presented in Blood in staggered chronological order. The beings that inhabit the Second Ether are divided between two competing groups, the “Singularity” and the “Chaos Engineers.” Captain Billy-Bob Begg, Fearless Frank Force, Little Rupoldo, Pearl Peru, Professor Pop, Kapitan Kaos, Manley Mark Male, Little Fanny Fun, Corporal Pork, Karl Kapital, and others crew the various spaceships that, at different fractal levels, they variously blend and transform into. These ships go by such names as I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea, The Right Choice for Recovery, The Smollettsphere, and Now the Clouds Have Meaning. Traveling through space and time and scaling up and down through fractal levels, the ships and their crews resemble mental states, moods, motivations, passions, and archetypes in a grand confused myth about self-fulfillment, self-understanding, and the end of the universe.
Jack and Sam “scale up” to the Second Ether (the Rose flies them there in a Dornier flying boat), where they assume a central role as both subjects and observers in the so-called Game of Time, an eternal conflict between the Chaos Engineers and the Singularity. Jack and Sam are absorbed into the personae of the corsairs—now psychic archetypes—who arrange themselves into an epic last judgment, an apocalypse of contraries, syntheses, and metamorphoses that is highly suggestive of Blake’s mythographic patterns of reconciliation and redemption. Blake’s epics, of course, were printed and colored by the poet himself. In this light, the “handmade” magazines devoted to The Corsairs of the Second Ether gain especial significance. After the corsairs have absorbed Sam and Jack, the corsairs themselves begin to combine and absorb into each other, until Fearless Frank Force, representing the Singularity, and Captain Billy-Bob Begg, representing the Chaos Engineers, are fully sexualized and ready to copulate. Through their union an enormous cuttlefish named The Spammer Gain—representing after a fashion St. John the Divine’s vision of the Virgin of the Apocalypse—is saved from Old Reg, the Original Insect, or Satan. Through their copulation Force and Begg make it possible for The Spammer Gain to recover her lost fishlings, and thus the cycle of life continues. In order to achieve the union it had been necessary for Sam to sacrifice himself in the preliminary moves of this play of archetypes, or what Blake would call a “mental war.” Sam’s annihilation is at once an act of love and an act of self-deceit. As he lies dying he judges himself, confessing that his initial explorations in the Second Ether and his pursuit of the archetypes he sought to emulate were actually an escape act. He has been destroyed thus by his own code of conduct, and as he expires his mythic self reverts, as Moorcock says, “to the ser vices of entropy; to roam the quasi-infinite, a demigod blessed by death’s eternal simplicities” (1994, 241). At the scale of human existence, Sam’s sacrifice has made it possible for Jack to recover his lost love, Colinda. Not surprisingly, and again deeply in the vein of Blake, Jack learns to forgive, trust in himself, and love.
Such patterns of sacrifice are reflected by Blake in his portrayal of judgment scenes, where eternals, emanations, and more human characters struggle to come to terms with the psychic fallout of accusation, guilt, possessiveness, jealousy, and pity. Early in the poem Milton, an Eternal suddenly appears in the midst of the proceedings and declares, “One must die for another throughout all eternity” (11:18). Blake revisits and further develops this concept in Milton and again in Jerusalem, explaining that the struggle between ideas and perspectives is a struggle to arrive at truth, and that the personified ideas locked in this struggle “fight and contend for life & not for eternal death” (43:41). “Such are the Laws of Eternity, that each shall mutually Annihilate himself for others’ good” (Milton, 38:35). In respect to Sam Oakenhurst, the sacrifice is not the sacrifice of a person, but the rejection of an idea as perceived in a mental vision. Ideas are personified in order to animate them and render them as dynamic and as supple as the poet’s altering visions and attributions. In the apocalypse portrayed at the end of Blood, the events that unfold are subject to Jack’s point of view. The problem is, of course, that Jack—like comparable observers in Blake’s epics—is not a reliable observer of the events he experiences.
In Blood Jack does succeed in redeeming himself, but, as Moorcock intimates, Jack is the fictitious product of an imagination that itself dwells in a fictitious world. Fabulous Harbours, the second volume in the trilogy, dilates upon this theme of artifice versus reality. Moorcock anatomizes the interaction of real life and the Second Ether by recounting a series of related stories—ranging from a commonplace discussion over lunch with the Clapham antichrist, a scatty and somewhat destitute priest still trumpeting the 1960s mantra “Love is the answer,” to a psychedelic swords-and-sorcery yarn that follows in the aftermath of war in heaven. This latter tale, “The Black Blade’s Summoning”highlights the central themes and the mechanism of Moorcock’s Second Ether project. The sky suddenly opens and vomits forth a host of howling angels that perish as they plummet to Earth. Agents of chaos, the angels become animated and irradiate the landscape with conceptual distortion. The tale’s protagonist, the albino prince Elric, the most popular of Moorcock’s creations, escapes from the seductions and hungers of the fallen angels by hiding in a small temple that is miraculously impervious to their destructive and distorting influences. Inside the temple he discovers a gateway opening to the network of silver moonbeam roads that lead between the infinite worlds making up the multiverse. Elric passes through the portal, making his escape with a group of refugee children who are described as having “second sight” and who have been “tutored in the ways of the Multiverse” (1995, 59). Out on the moonbeam roads they are confronted by an angel with an insect face who wants to eat the children in the name of law and the continuation of the human species. Fortunately the fallen angel is repelled, and the companions are free to take the paths that will lead them to their respective home worlds. The tale concludes with Elric and his companions viewing the beauty of the moonbeam roads. The spectacle brings solace and understanding: “They were free forever of the common bounds of time or space, of pressing human concerns, free to explore the wonderful abstraction of it all, the incredible physicality of this suprareality which they could experience with senses themselves transformed and attuned to the new stimuli. They became reconciled to the notion that little by little their bodies would fade and their spirits blend with the stuff of the multiverse, to find true immortality as a fragment of legend, a hint of myth, a mark made upon our everlasting cosmic history, which is perhaps the best that most of us will ever know—to have played a part, no matter how small, in that great game, the glorious Game of Time . . .” (78). The outcome is Blakean inasmuch as the point of the fable is the cycle of the myth itself. In “The Birds of the Moon,” the final story told in Fabulous Harbours, a middle-aged hippie, who had been separated from his wife and children twenty years before, travels to Glastonbury, enters a church, and discovers behind the altar a gateway leading to the moonbeam roads. He enters the portal hoping to be reunited with his family. Moorcock remains ambiguous on the question of whether or not the protagonist will be reunited with his family, though the possibilities do seem to be as numerous as the moonbeam roads themselves: “The paths are reproduced over and over again, in millions of scales, each slightly different, yet each a detailed version of the other. They weave the fabric of the multiverse together. They are the means by which human intercourse is achieved and the soul, as well as the species, is sustained” (227).
In The War amongst the Angels, the third volume in the trilogy, Moorcock resumes the story of Jack Karaquazian, this time intermingling it with parallel subplots that examine the possibility of recovering a world that we have lost or have been thrown out of and of once again dwelling with people who, much to our regret, are no longer part of our lives. The War amongst the Angels begins as an autobiography of Margaret Rose Moorcock. Rose describes a childhood filled with gypsies, magicians, scholars, mad uncles, and absurd postwar BBC radio personalities. Growing up among these influences, she learns to enter—literally—the world of Edwardian serial fiction. She falls in love with masked American cowboys and the En glish highwayman Dick Turpin. Together with her outlaw lover, Rose preys upon a quasi-Victorian tram system that radiates across the south of En gland. Inspired by her early love affairs, Rose becomes an interdimensional Robin Hood, who, beginning at the convergence of rail lines at Clapham Junction, scales up to the moonbeam roads to spread truth and justice across all the scales of the multiverse. Enlisting the aid of characters introduced earlier in the trilogy, Rose embarks upon a journey of redemption and restoration that involves a trip through the Egyptian desert to find the legendary university city of Aton, hunting fallen angels with elephant guns in the American West, a quest for the Holy Grail, and a starship ride through the Second Ether to once more defend The Spammer Gain, the archetypical Madonna-cuttlefish. Once more Spammer and her fishlings are beset by Old Reg. The outcome to this final conflict is altered from what Moorcock presents in the first volume. This time Jack does not recover his lost universe. In an act of selfish ferocity Jack sacrifices himself, making it possible for Sam to gain his heart’s desire, the Rose. Jack assumes the role of a principle or idea that is rejected in the eternal process of imaginative warfare. It is difficult to determine whether Jack or Sam represents the superior principle, as it is difficult to read moral superiority in one or the other figure, though the Rose is evidently the creative principle—perhaps a fractal emanation of the great cuttlefish herself—that determines the outcomes of such engagements. The Rose stated clearly at the end of Blood that she had hoped at that time that Sam, rather than Jack, would survive as the prevailing principle. Perhaps it is possible that the first round of the Game depicted in Blood was a dry run, utilizing Jack’s particular qualities as a player and a gambler to realize and define the parameters of the Game, while the struggle depicted at the end of The War amongst the Angels, now with the contours of the Game established, allowed the Rose to redeem Sam and reject Jack as an obsolete principle that was no longer needed. Sam is not as complex as Jack, nor as self-serv ing. He fits better into the human community, and he is thus better fit to be an accommodating lover, a cooperative husband, and a well-grounded father. In retrospect, what remains clearest is that the differences between the struggles depicted at the conclusions of Blood and The War amongst the Angels highlight the supple and ductile mythographic mechanism represented by the continuum and the symbol of the Last Judgment itself.
Rather like Professor Pop broadcasting through his omniphone, Moorcock’s voice dissipates and concentrates signifier and signified across all the scales of the multiverse. His language is a meta-academic polyglot of Christian humanism, transformational mythology, fractal geometry, and generic science fiction that increases in profundity as it becomes more ridiculous. Moorcock translates mythography into epiphany. This satiric translation, I should like to suggest, is Blake’s game as well.
Blake and Moorcock advance comparable notions of a Last Judgment, and these are closely identifiable with their mythographic activity. Although Blake and Moorcock are careful to represent minute particulars with all the detail made possible by language, it is not actually their plots or their characters that represent the primary themes of their stories. Rather, what is of importance in the mythographic activity itself. This is the activity of the Last Judgment. As S. Foster Damon suggests, for Blake the Last Judgment “occurs whenever an error is recognized and cast out. . . . Jesus is the principle of Truth, and his appearance puts an end to all errors” (1988, 235). The primary mechanism of this casting out is the forgiveness of sins, but incumbent upon this is a mythographic activity with strong parallels in the procedures of Apophatic theology and twentieth-century analytic philosophy. These connections are underscored by Wittgenstein’s explanation of aesthetic process. According to Wittgenstein in the notes he took while building the famous family house in Vienna: “Perhaps the most important thing in connection with aesthetics is what might be called aesthetic reactions, e.g. discontent, disgust, discomfort. The expression of discontent is not the same as the expression of discomfort. The expression of discontent says: it higher . . . too low! . . . Do something to this.’” The Last Judgment is thus an aesthetic process, and it can be located at the end of the cycle of analysis.
Moorcock’s last judgment is easily compared to Mircea Eliade’s notion of a “Myth of Eternal Return,” which takes place at a repeating beginning or end of time, where archetypical actions and roles are performed in order to set or reinforce the pattern for the next historical cycle. Moorcock’s last judgment is portrayed, as he variously describes it, at the conjunction of the spheres, at the end of time, and at the conjunction of the moonbeam roads, which meet, in fractal terms, at the highest possible scale of archetypical conception. At this level the principal characters act out various roles in a choreographed struggle in which they seek to establish their own version of what the next cycle should be. Archaic and folk parallels to this struggle can be seen in a variety of forms ranging from the commedia dell’arte, or harlequinade, to the ritual dances of any number of preliterate peoples: the Bella Coola culture of the Pacific Northwest Indians, for example, or the Yoruba people of Nigeria, who dress in the elaborate costumes of nature spirits to celebrate through dance the patterns of their cultic cycles. What Moorcock accomplishes, however, is something more than a mere repetition of established archetypes and cycles; his stories work to effect an unmasking of the cultic cycles and the archetypes that are otherwise renewed in such ceremonies. This unmasking represents a humanistic reversal against the beliefs and the customs that enforce the orthodox and demonic authority of myth over human beings. In Moorcock’s last judgment, therefore, archetypes are restored to their proper situation apropos to human beings: they are restored to the status of a mythographic shorthand that serves the needs of people. In this way human beings are liberated from the tyranny of their own customs, their own conceits, and the brain’s susceptibility to conceptual confusion. This theme is seen repeatedly in mythographic works ranging from Paradise Lost to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The greatest tool we employ is our language, and one of the most curious (second, perhaps, to the language of lovemaking) uses to which this tool is put is the manipulation of the symbolic abstractions, archetypes, and myths that we use to understand and manipulate the world. As Milton, Blake, Kubrick, and Moorcock warn us, we must be vigilant in keeping our tools under control or they will control us. In addition to the great Western gods that concern Milton—and in addition to the corporate, technological, and scientific gods that concern Kubrick—Blake and Moorcock seem especially interested in the more local myths and deities that make up our personal worldviews, our self-concepts, and our social identities.
The Holy Grail can be taken as a symbol of Moorcock’s insight into mythographic operation and Last Judgment. In Moorcock’s conception, the Holy Grail is like the initial or master pattern produced by the Mandelbrot set. All the moonbeam roads running between the myriad dimensions of existence can be glimpsed as a whole, and their collective shape, viewed from a distance, is cup-shaped. To drink from the cup is to gain knowledge of the connectivity and integration of all our lives and times; to drink from the cup is to comprehend how our own ghosts and demons, operating at cross-purposes, can lead to confusion, doubt, and suffering. A broader view encompassing the connectivity and integration of people and life can lead to faith, understanding, and healing.
Moorcock’s Holy Grail can in this respect be compared to Blake’s notion of Eternity, a sort of mental theater where archetypes are free to play out their changing roles unencumbered and without interruption. Of course interruptions do occur: it is these interruptions, caused by hate, jealousy, selfishness, and repression, that lead to the intercourse between human beings and the archetypes they themselves have placed in (and have drawn down from) Eternity.
Moorcock’s cosmology in respect to the Holy Grail closely resembles Blake’s cosmology in respect to Jesus, and their respective mythographies are parallel structures. Moorcock presents a three-tiered cosmology. At the first level is the material world in which we dwell. At this level real men and real women live and work, raise children, and die. Here Moorcock himself dwells, and from this perspective he claims to be the editor of the novels he introduces. Then there is the First Ether, or the world in which characters such as Jack and Sam dwell. At this level people are portrayed in a state of interaction and reflection with the mythographies that they have created. Finally, in the Second Ether, we encounter a realm of eternal mythology, a realm in which personified ideas in various anthropomorphic and demonic forms engage in an eternal dialogue, a Game of Time, a war amongst angels. Here we see the Corsairs of the Second Ether traveling up and down the scales of the multiverse to seek, struggle, and combine with the main archetypes who hold sway over the structure and functions of the cosmos. In Moorcock’s scheme these three levels are unified by the moonbeam roads.
Moorcock’s three levels—the material world, the First Ether, and the Second Ether—correspond to Blake’s notions of Ulro, or the material world; Beulah, the world of poetic conception; and Eternity, the world of unified space and time. Life in Eternity—represented by the four Zoas—is perfectly integrated sexually and is unified in the form of Jesus Christ. According to Blake, when seen up close the four Zoas appear as a multitude of individuals. From further back they appear in the forms of Urizen, Tharmas, Urthona, and Luvah. From still further back they appear unified in the form of Jesus.
Blake’s and Moorcock’s characters are by nature dynamic and transformative. These characters enter into one another, or break apart, or project themselves into new characters, or are formed from the residues of others. Ultimately they find resolution and redemption through combining with one another, until combining at still higher and higher levels they resemble the four Zoas, and, at the highest level, the Son of God.
Along these lines, the mythographic significance of Blake’s and Moorcock’s characters are subject to transformation. Sometimes their characters are to be considered as cosmic archetypes, sometimes as exotic characterizations of hu man beings locked in emotional turmoil, and at other times as flesh-and-blood people. The entering and blending into one another that these characters undergo can be compared to the activity of ordinary people reading about characters in a book. Readers move in and out of the characters they are reading about by variously identifying with them and comparing their own situations and experiences to those of the characters. A reader with a book can be de scribed as a consciousness seeking to identify itself in the form of a narrative. The implications of the relationship between consciousness and form are astounding: we can see how human beings move in and out of the characters that are created by the expectations that we and others have created for ourselves. These characterized expectations are like figures in a poem or a myth. They are creatures of artifice—our own artifice and the artifice of others.
To what end is this mythographic shamanism? What emerges is a concept of selfhood and human identity that is subject to alteration, revision, and redemption. Blake and Moorcock offer what might be described as a Wittgensteinian ontology, where the contours of human self-perception and social identity are to be located in the activities of human beings in unique and particularized settings in the stream of life. Blake and Moorcock are telling stories about people encountering and confronting the orthodoxies of their personal mythologies. In Zettel 464 Wittgenstein (1967, para. 464) defines his “pedigree of psychological concept” as a function of his philosophical insight and procedure, declaring, “I strive not after exactness, but after a synoptic view” Blake and Moorcock follow this procedure, providing analyses of the complex relationships and interdependencies that are revealed in the portrayal, in the examination, and in the analysis of language, poetic conception, conceptual confusion, philosophical credulity, illusion, neurosis, and the industrialized and capitalized mythographic manipulations of individuals and society.
Blake, William. The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes. New York: Random House, 1957.
Bacon, Francis. 1620. Novum Organum. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1960.
Damon, S. Foster. 1988. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England.
Eliade, Mircea. 1959. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York: Harper and Row.
Hill, Christopher. 1977. Milton and the En glish Revolution. New York: Viking.
Jencks, Charles. 1995. The Architecture of the Jumping Universe: A Polemic: How Complexity Science Is Changing Architecture and Culture. London: Academy Editions.
Milton, John. 1930. Areopagitica. In The Student’s Milton, ed. Frank Allen Patterson. New York: Crofts.
Moorcock, Michael. 1994. Blood: A Southern Fantasy. London: Millennium.
———. 1997. “About My Multiverse.” In Tales from the Texas Woods, 49–50. Austin: Mojo.
———. 1995. Fabulous Harbours. New York: Avon.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Zettel, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1967.
© 2008 University of South Carolina. Excerpted with permission from New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction, edited by Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox, published by the University of South Carolina Press.
Click the book image: