Busting out of the corridor of convention, with a little help from Albion’s beardiest magician.
The Bemolution recently watched The Mindscape of Alan Moore, 2005’s hypnotic docu-insight into the world of England’s finest fake snake-god worshipping anarchist, comic book writer and beard-sporting dissident genius. In an 80-minute monologue, Moore charts his precipitous rise from Northamptonian squalor to international renown as the author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta and several more of the cleverest, wittiest, most philosophically profound graphic novels ever written. He also talks at length about his often mind-bending, ever-fascinating worldview, and, in a particular highlight, the need to consider the reader’s delicate brain-to-penis blood ratio when trying to write intelligent porn.
On the day he turned 40, Moore recounts, he decided to start calling himself a magician. It certainly suited the druid-dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards look he’d been working for the previous few decades. But given the kind of toothless New Age gobbledegook many of his generation had been happy to indulge in, Moore’s ‘magic’ was refreshingly pragmatic. For him, ‘magic’ is just art, broadly defined – using words, sounds and symbols to change people’s consciousness. In fact, unusually for a self-declared shaman, there’s nothing particularly supernatural about his worldview at all. You imagine he reveres Glycon, the Roman snake-god famously outed as glove puppet in the second century, largely to prove a point – ‘the one place in which gods and demons inarguably exist,’ he intones, ‘is in the human mind, where they are real in all their grandeur and monstrosity’.
But Moore also demonstrates a fascination with quantum physics, seeing ‘magic’ and science as one-time bedfellows, wrenched apart by the Enlightenment but now undergoing a gradual reconciliation as the latter learns more about how the universe works. We blanket-scorn the kinds of ‘primitive’ societies that came before ours, he argues, neglecting the areas where their ‘magical’ worldviews offered more insightful, authentic ways of understanding the world around them than ours do. Some ancient cultures didn’t neatly separate their lives into days, weeks and months, past, present and future. Instead, they lived in a kind of constant Now that Moore compares to the conception of time put forward by Stephen Hawking and others – the universe had a beginning and it will probably have an end, but between those two points it is a ‘massively complex simultaneous event’, time one ‘gigantic hyper-moment’ in which Everything happens at once. In short, our ‘primitive’ ancestors were right, and our own prissy day-to-day manner of ordering time only really exists in our heads.
Then Moore free-wheels off into the realms of far more questionable science – including academic pariah Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of ‘morphogenetic resonance’, which suggests everything alive is born with access to a sort of collective memory, built up by previous members of its species – and the Bemolution’s mind started to wander elsewhere.
Fortunately, though, this cognitive mosey ended up somewhere quite profound instead of the usual ‘wonder what’s for tea?’-style destination. After switching Alan Moore off, the Bemolution paced up and down for a bit and thought about its own view of the world. The Bearded One had discussed how so much that we treat as ‘real’ and ‘natural’ only exists in our heads, just part of our attempt to make a mad, random universe a bit easier to understand – he mainly talks about it in relation to time, but as an insight it’s applicable to much more than that.
Take geography, for example. Alan Moore lives in Northampton. Northampton only exists in our heads. Obviously, the bit of land we call Northampton exists. But would it still be called that, or anything, if humanity disappeared tomorrow? What if humanity had never existed at all? Would there be anything separating it from the bits of land around it that we happen not to call Northampton? In all three cases, the answer is ‘no’. You could even go so far as saying that’s it only our brains that have decided that the stuff we call water is different to the stuff we call land. Yes, the substances have got very different properties, but without human beings to notice those differences it’s all just stuff.
Obviously, for society to work, you need to draw some arbitrary lines. Take the age of sexual consent. In the UK it’s sixteen. For many, in an age where thirteen year-olds can watch visceral gang-bangs on their mobiles, that might seem unnecessarily restrictive. Consult an Alabaman preacher and he might be disgusted that it’s not 25, and only then if it’s with a godly spouse and officiated by a priest and the leader of your District Republican Party.
Really, a human being who’s sixteen years old is no more responsible than one who’s fifteen years and 364 days, and you could find plenty of 14 year-olds who are more mature than some 18 year-olds. But for the legal system to be able to protect vulnerable people from sexual abuse, the line has to go somewhere, and, wherever it lands, some sensible young members of society are going to lose out.
In short, it’s not the lines themselves that are the problem – it’s the fact that, as a civilisation, we’ve forgotten that they’re not timeless, or divinely-ordained, or somehow a natural part of the world we live in. We made them up, which means that no matter how seriously people take a name, a rule, or a particular social convention, it can be changed or abandoned altogether.
We could rename London Barry Chuckle and abolish birthdays if enough people wanted it. But we don’t challenge conventional thinking. We don’t just use arbitrary lines as a flexible framework to help us understand reality. Instead we’ve become totally absorbed by these Baffling Reality Coping Mechanisms. Rather than helping us understand, they’ve come to dictate how we think. There are hundreds of vastly differing ways of viewing, interpreting and organising the shapeless world we’ve all been spasmed into, but most of us just blindly accept the version of events we’ve been brought up with, and let other, often less than morally upright, individuals do our thinking for us.
This might all sound like Sheldrake-grade gibberish without any real-world application. But the political, philosophical and, as it turns out, environmental consequences are dire. A huge amount about the way we live in Westernised societies is a) completely arbitrary and b) proving socially, morally and ecological catastrophic. The objective truth is that everything from government to how we live our day-to-day lives as individuals could and should be conducted radically differently. But the reason the status quo is so disastrous is also the reason it’s so hard to change – it’s skewed in favour of a grotesquely wealthy, massively powerful elite. And that elite has poured time, effort and mountains of resources into convincing us that this is ‘just the way things are’ – that the world as-is is really the world-as-is-and-always-must-be.
For the richest to keep on getting richer, they have to prevent the billions of ordinary people they squeeze money out of from asking some very obvious questions about the way societies are run – why are socially vital functions like providing food, medicine and healthcare left to ruthlessly self-serving private companies? Why are some people paid hundreds of times the average wage for doing jobs that do no discernible social good whatsoever? Why are millionaires allowed to exist in a world where millions endure life-threatening poverty, and billions live on not much more than a pound a day?
Our sheep-like adherence to an arbitrary status quo has another effect that makes said elite’s job even easier. Westernised societies have become crushingly trivial. Certainly, this grim process has been helped along by relatively recent developments in the way we live, are entertained and consume. But in accepting the world exactly as it’s presented to us by the rich and powerful, and giving up on thinking for ourselves (to be fair, it’s become much, much harder over the past thirty years), we’ve stopped bothering with Big Questions about life, the universe, and Everything. Rather than Moore and Hawking’s ‘massively complex simultaneous event’ for most people ‘life’ has been boiled down to our often mindlessly trivial day-to-day existences as individuals. We’ve been swallowed by this mad, fragile little civilisation we’ve built, obsessing over our meaningless careers, money, status, and buying pointless things we don’t really need. Existence isn’t this miraculous thing to marvel at anymore, it’s dentists appointments, shopping trips, walking the dog and Zumba. We’ve completely lost perspective about the immensity of the universe, our abject insignificance as individuals, and, in the grandest of grand schemes, the few things that really matter.
Elite-centred society’s very unlikely to give a person a good grounding in the horrific problems humanity has to grapple with – the extent of global poverty, gathering ecological crisis etc – and individuals are increasingly too absorbed in their own frivolous bubble to try and find out about them themselves. Ask the average person what they think about the fact that 18 million human beings needlessly die every year of starvation, thirst or treatable disease – equivalent to a Holocaust every four months – and while they’ll probably say something along the lines of ‘ooh, that’s bad’, they’re horribly likely to conclude it’s ‘just the way the world is’.
Humanity, or at least a big enough chunk of it to make a difference, needs to develop the ability to look out at the world with a clean slate. It’s not easy. It means ignoring vast swathes of the culture that we’ve had drilled into us since birth. But sometimes, at least, we need to be able to go back to basics, and assess the state of the species and the planet without the lines and conventions and myths supposedly intended to help us understand reality, now largely (and disastrously narrowly) defining it for us.
Chucking race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious belief, nationality and the like out the window, what are we left with? Seven billion delicate organisms all alive at the same time, miraculously tweaked and modified over billions of years of evolution from single-cell sea-germs to 50 trillion-cell mammals with a nice line in making things and killing each other. It’s the most dumbfounding, flabbergasting thing in the universe that life exists at all – that it just happened, for absolutely no purpose at all, no ‘reason’ any bigger or grander than some quite mundane scientific processes mindlessly trundling away in a hole in the ground or under the sea or wherever it was the first spark of life occurred.
It’s been about two million years between the emergence of the first recognisably humanoid organisms and now. That’s 0.04% of the planet’s 4.54 billion year history. We spent about 1,990,000 years as hunter-gatherers, pain-stakingly evolving to better suit our nomadic lifestyles. Then, 10,000 years ago, agriculture was invented, and we were suddenly catapulted into the kind of rapidly changing, ever-accelerating societies that our befuddled little brains were entirely unprepared for. They’ve never really caught up.
One of the healthiest, most liberating things a person can have is a clear sense of their own ultimate insignificance. Spat into existence with no direction and no purpose, we go from baby to dust in a box in a cosmic blink of an eye. If we want any kind of grand ‘Meaning’ to this existence we have to make it for ourselves. And given the abject suffering that prevails among members of our species – suffering that society is now advanced enough to prevent – the only thing that makes sense to us, at least, is helping other people, and trying to improve the wellbeing of the species, the planet, and everything else we share it with.
The Bemolution thinks that people should use whatever abilities they have to try and help other human beings as much as they can – ranging from the tiniest acts of day-to-day kindness to campaigning against global poverty, through their work, in their free time, or both, if possible. But because of the way society is organised – not the way the world somehow inextricably ‘is’, as we’re frequently told – billions of people can only do this in the smallest of ways. They’re forced to live out their existences just struggling to survive, physically and materially, and popping in to check the old widow next door is alright might be the most they can do. And there’s zero shame in not being able to do more.
We live in societies that squander huge chunks of their populations, telling them they’re only fit for the most menial, life-consuming, low-paid work. In fact, if they’d been given access to the same resources and opportunities as the children of the elite, they could be brain surgeons or human rights lawyers. An atheist perspective makes this even worse – the people told they’re only fit to scrub toilets aren’t going to be flown up a golden escalator to hang out in the clouds, or be reincarnated as pandas and spend their next cycle eating bamboo and being cajoled into fucking each other after they die. They live, and then they’re gone forever.
Amongst the people who do have opportunity, there’s a tendency to make decisions based on maximising wealth and prestige rather than how it will benefit others. Funnily enough, the rise of said tendency has just happened to coincide with the rise of neoliberalism, and blossoming opportunities to make disgusting amounts doing absolutely no social good at all. It’s unsurprising so many get drawn down the self-serving path in a culture that enthusiastically worships rich people. Just as the criminally poor are written off as sub-standard human stock, we’re told the ludicrously wealthy made their fortunes through natural talent and gumption.
If you want two gloweringly huge indictments of our way of life, you could do a lot worse than the fact that a) ‘success’ has come to mean having vastly, grotesquely more than you need to live a happy, comfortable, safe existence in a world where millions die through lack of the most basic life essentials, and the fact that b) roughly equalising the resources available to the whole species, rather than having one group own and consume enough to leave us teetering on the edge of ecological collapse while millions starve, looks about as far away as ever.
Really, the Alan Sugars and Dragons Denners of the world haven’t ‘succeeded’ in any meaningful definition of the word. They’ve morally failed. In a world full of abject suffering, the global rich have fended off any attempt at making the world a less needlessly deadly, more equitable and humane place, to feather their own already extravagantly-plumed nests. They might have multiple cars and multiple houses and Swiss bank accounts and enough dough to segregate their children and hire a personal tax-evader, but they’ve trampled over the most vulnerable members of our species to do it. It’s far, far better to have lived your life constantly trying but failing to reduce the suffering in the world than it is to be ‘successful’ as our twisted society defines it.