A Disease of Language by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
A Disease of Language collects between the same covers two lesser known collaborations from the creative team behind From Hell. Sidestepping the usual writer-artist relationship, Alan Moore gave Eddie Campbell complete freedom in adapting the texts of his performance pieces to comics form. Not a huge gamble on Moore's part. A superbly complementary pairing, The Birth Caul (1999) and Snakes and Ladders (2001) are ecstatic monologues on the implications of art and the imagination.
Both pieces commence with Moore grounding the performance in space and time. Surveying the history of the location, he begins to stress promising recurrences, finally keying in on particular images and characters. The Birth Caul, subtitled a shamanism of childhood, was staged at the Old County Court in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 18th November 1995. The caul Moore discovered among his mother's things after her death marks the crossing of a remarkable threshold. The emblematic caul as his anchorage, Moore proceeds to oscillate between the dreamtime vastness of the womb and the unremitting pressures of time and community that wait the newborn.
A life is sketched, preceded by an ominous assertion: "We cut ourselves to size when first we are delivered to the world's blunt engine." A young man yields to the standards around him, becomes immersed in the homogeneous cityscape he finds himself in: "The same insignia reiterated; the same faerie ring of names about each city centre; the same architecture: Docklands uber alles. And each town stamped from the same diseased potato in this great and final wallpapering of England." The dreams and expectations of youth lead to carefree play-acting, but the search for identity is stymied by the obligations of the workaday world. Childhood's daily wonderment turns into adulthood's grind:
We work and sleep.
We work and sleep.
Forget it all.
And life slips away. Old age. Wasted years. This is the point when the true shamanic song begins: "We must turn back the world's blunt engine." The following four sections move further and further back in time. Teenager becomes school boy becomes small child becomes nothing just before conception. The level of vivid details increases as the child grows aware of his surroundings. Time's impact on experience makes itself known: "Unable to recall more than the vaguest shape or flavour now as it recedes from us into that speechless fog before we knew the dazzle of the word, when form was all of our vocabulary." Change and mortality are shoved to the front of consciousness.
The point of The Birth Caul is not to celebrate the solipsism of the womb or of the artistic imagination. Rather, the work attempts to rekindle the sense of exploration and curiosity that should inform every human life. By undoing the fabric of one existence, Moore and Campbell present the weaving process for contemplation. Why should true individuality and true companionship be the first concepts to be wrecked by the world's blunt engine? Radical redesigns suggest themselves. In this way, The Birth Caul invites the readership to lift the artificial caul of culture and society from their eyes. Campbell complements the gravity of Moore's words effortlessly, concretizing many of the metaphors as well as contrasting the prose with fresh visual readings of the source material.
Created for an evening organized by the Golden Dawn Society, Snakes and Ladders was performed on the 10th April 1999 in Conway Hall in London's Red Lion Square. Although originally addressed to an audience well-versed in magic, the work's references to the Tarot, the Kabbalah and alchemy are far from gnomic. Arthur Machen, author of The Three Imposters and The Hill of Dreams, quickly emerges as the central presence in an incantation that seeks to pull together the double helix, serpent myths and Pre-Raphaelite staircases. Devastated by the death of his first wife, Machen withdraws into the fantasy worlds of Baghdad and Syon. These places of simulacra and solace ultimately point him to the direction of the occult and the nascent Golden Dawn.
Imagination is seen as a driving force in human affairs. Yet far too many content themselves with "fantasies of sex and money: lottery pornographies." Fancy doesn't cut it: the idea needs to be realized. Artists and magicians are both engaged in the exploration of vision. Explorers along these lines should look forward to witnessing strange things. Moore relays how he has twice met a fictional character of his own making. The second time around, the "wideboy occultist" John Constantine leaned over to him, whispering to Moore's attentive ear: "I'll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it."
A Disease of Language also contains an extensive interview with Moore about his mystical worldview. Conducted by Campbell, the chummy discussion covers the performances and recordings made by the Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theater of Marvels, the novel Voice of the Fire, the comics series Promethea and how these magic-based works relate to the development of Moore's thinking. In typical Moorean fashion, the interview is both informative and entertaining:
"Certainly, most people in the occult fraternity seem to wish to distance themselves from stage magic, as in the Crowleyan conceit of spelling his type of magic with a K to distinguish it from all the doves and coloured scarves (as if all the semen-drinking, goat- fucking and mescaline didn't make it reasonably distinct already)."
After writing off the theory of memes as improbable, Moore launches into a discussion of Ideaspace, a shared mental plane "where philosophies are land masses and religions are probably whole continents" with their own flora and fauna. It is fascinating stuff, and the same can be said about Campbell's preliminary sketches for the candlelit dance sequence featured in Snakes and Ladders. These welcome bonuses round off a handsome volume that brings together two very special collaborations.