Fair warning: Although this entry isn’t nearly so focused on Watchmen as many of the others, it does have plenty of spoilers for Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem. And still some Watchmen spoilers too. And possibly spoilers about the nature of time and the universe, should you choose to look at it that way.
Also, there are three different works named “Jerusalem” that will be discussed below — a novel by Moore, a long mythic poem by Blake, and a hymn with words by Blake. I hope the references will be obvious by context, but for clarity I’ll always put the hymn’s name in quotation marks, and italicize the other two.
When I was researching the previous entry on Blake and Watchmen, I included in my reading a book called William Blake vs. The World, by John Higgs. I picked it up just because it looked like an interesting contemporary take on Blake, to complement my reading of his poems, his plates, and critical essays about him. I wasn’t expecting it to have any overt connections to the world of Watchmen — I thought I’d be making those on my own.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find Alan Moore himself showing up in my Blake book! It turns out that Higgs is a friend (and occasional beta reader) of Moore’s, and in Higgs’ wide-ranging exploration of Blake’s work and the web of meanings that accompany it today, he cites Moore in multiple places, specifically Moore’s mega-novel Jerusalem. In the first such moment, Higgs is discussing Emanuel Swedenborg — a fundamental influence on Blake — and Swedenborg’s view that the language of angels packs an enormous amount of meaning into a very small space. “Anyone struggling to imagine how such language would work,” continues Higgs, “should read the epic Blakean novel Jerusalem (2016) by the English writer Alan Moore, who successfully manages to write exactly this type of angelic dialogue.” (pg. 114)
“Well then,” I said to myself, “Apparently the time has come for me to read Jerusalem!” I’d taken a crack at it before, but had foolishly checked it out from the library. This is not a book to read on a library’s timeline. I certainly hadn’t gotten far enough to understand how it might be “Blakean”, and finding that out seemed very relevant to my current interests. So I bought it, but I waited to read it until I’d finished the Blake & Watchmen entry — I already had quite enough to read for that one.
Alan Moore vs. Linear Time
In that entry, I implied heavily that Moore’s Jerusalem was a “nearly impenetrable magnum opus”, parallel to Blake’s Jerusalem. To be fair to Moore’s work, that isn’t really true. Yes, the book is gigantic — 1,266 pages, and longer than the Bible, as many of its reviewers will compulsively tell you. But hundreds of those pages consist of smooth, enjoyable narrative, a claim one certainly can’t make for Blake’s hundred-plate leviathan.
Now, to be fair to me, there are also plenty of pages that are anything but smooth and enjoyable. Most notoriously, 48 pages of it are from the perspective of Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James, and are written in what Moore calls “a completely invented sub-Joycean text.” Here, have a sample that (sort of) mentions Blake:
Disflame rubbel enerchy wisdem trancemittered tru’the soulody liftfeat o’ Williron Blaze faem Lambirth, archintegt onder perfounder afarnow Jerusalhymn rayshed in demeanstraits oer deploor un’ destnytute, assymbold utternuttin searve firewords en’virsions. Pureing outfhim B’like, darin deShade o’ Badlame, daer roughbest neow slurges tewords Wellaim Bettler-Yetts t’ beirth etslif. (Jerusalem, pg 895)
This chapter took me as long to read as the rest of the book put together, and likely would have taken even longer if not for the heroic work of Joe Linton, who both carefully annotates every word and its possible meanings, and (crucially) translates the whole thing into standard English paragraph-by-paragraph, not to mention bringing in the viewpoints of other such stalwart translators.
In any case, Jerusalem is about a great many things, and it is about them in a great many ways. It is enormous and shaggy, not unlike its author. One of its more central themes, though, and one most meaningful to me, is that of eternalism. This is the philosophy of time that aligns with Einstein’s concept of a “block universe” — the notion that past, present, and future are all part of the same block, and all exist “at once”. In this view, our experience of time is an illusion created by our consciousness traveling through that block.
This is the universe as Dr. Manhattan understands it, and as a reader, it’s the part of Watchmen that I find most confounding. However, where Watchmen asks us simply to accept an eternalist reality based on Dr. Manhattan’s narration of it, Jerusalem dramatizes the mechanisms of this reality at length, and thus portrays it much more convincingly. Blake, too, believed in an eternalist universe, and when Higgs dives into this aspect of Blake’s worldview, he once again brings up Moore:
The greatest literary exploration of the concept of eternalism is the epic, Blake-inspired novel Jerusalem by Alan Moore, which includes a conversation about the true nature of reality between the eighteenth-century nonconformist minister Philip Doddridge and an angel. ‘Might I ask if, anywhere in this ingenious arrangement, any of us ever truly had Free Will?’ Doddridge asks the angel. The angel somewhat apologetically tells him that nobody had. ‘After a well-timed pause as if before the punch line of a joke’, the angel replies with a further question: ‘Did you miss it?’ (William Blake vs. The World, pg. 281-2)
In Jerusalem, these angels exist in a dimension above ours, able to see into the whole of time at once, wherein human lives appear as streaks through a solid, transparent mass, moving through space according to the trajectory of their actions. The dead, too, have access (for the most part) to this extradimensional space, known to some as “Upstairs” and others as “Mansoul”. From Upstairs, specifically from a near-infinitely broad gallery called the Attics of the Breath, one can look in on any moment of that mass of time. The floor of the Attics is covered with regularly spaced giant portholes, and has an extra direction available, so that one can move not only across the length but along the “linger”, which lets you stroll forward or backward in time to look through these portholes at successive moments in that mass. At one point, two characters even make their way to the very end of the Attics, to the Big Crunch at the end of time.
These concepts feel a bit brain-breaking at first, and it takes a while to assimilate them. Luckily, Jerusalem gives us plenty of time and space. The entire middle third of the book, a good 440 pages, is devoted to the adventures of assorted viewpoint characters through Mansoul, its “ghost-seam” to our reality, and various times and places along the length and linger of both. After traveling through these fantastic realms, it becomes more and more clear how an eternalist universe might take shape. Such a universe is deeply unsettling in its displacement of free will, morality, and human agency, but at the very end of the book, a character named Alma Warren tries to explain its grandeur as well:
If Einstein’s right, then space and time are all one thing and it’s, I dunno, it’s a big glass football, an American one like a Rugby ball, with the big bang at one end and the big crunch or whatever at the other. And the moments in between, the moments making up our lives, they’re there forever. Nothing’s moving. Nothing’s changing, like a reel of film with all the frames fixed in their place and motionless till the projector beam of our awareness plays across them, and then Charlie Chaplin doffs his bowler hat and gets the girl. And when our films, our lives, when they come to an end I don’t see that there’s anywhere for consciousness to go but back to the beginning. Everybody is on endless replay. Every moment is forever, and if that’s true every miserable wretch is one of the immortals. Every clearance area is the eternal golden city. (Jerusalem, pg 1261-2)
Alma is a pretty clear self-insertion for Moore, and her glass football simply restates a philosophy that Moore himself has long espoused, even with the very same metaphor. For instance, in a 2003 documentary called The Mindscape of Alan Moore, he tells us:
If you look at some of the models that people like Stephen Hawking have suggested for time, then you find something which is actually much closer to that primitive apprehension of how time is structured than to our rather simplistic and fatalistic idea of past, present, and future. I believe that Hawking talks about space-time as a kind of a gigantic, starry football, a rugby ball if you like. And at one end of it you have the Big Bang, and at the other end of it, everything comes together again in a big crunch. But, that the whole football exists all the time. That there is this gigantic hypermoment in which everything is occurring. That would mean that it was only our conscious minds that were ordering things into past, present, and future.
For readers of Watchmen, it seems clear that these images of Mansoul, linger, and glass football are a more coherent and detailed incarnation of concepts that Moore began to explore decades earlier via the literary device of Dr. Manhattan. And even earlier than that, they find their expression in Blake, whose own Jerusalem spins the myth of the giant Albion (an avatar of the spirit of England, and on another level the symbol of all humanity) from a higher-dimensional viewpoint. As Higgs puts it, each piece of the story is “simultaneously happening right now, about to happen, and has already ended.” Blake is “describing events as they appear from outside normal time and space, in Eternity.” (William Blake vs. The World, pg. 258-9)
This mode of description comes with a great deal of tension, not least because the “projector beam of our awareness” does indeed experience things sequentially — one word after another, one image after another. Our minds subsequently assemble this straight line into a more complex and multi-dimensional mental landscape, but at no point are we ourselves outside a linear flow of time as we consume a text. There are murky philosophical waters here, but I think it’s safe to say that the notion of a story, a narrative, requires the presence of linear time. Sure, the story could be told out of sequence, but even then there is a correct sequence implied, and we will try to work it out. When Dr. Manhattan appears in a story, we experience one moment of him before the next, just as we experience one word before the next, and it is only as we slide along that line that we build a mental model of him, his world, and — most importantly — his story. Even as he insists it’s all happening at once, we can only dimly approximate that perspective, because without sequence, story decoheres.
There’s another point here, which is that not only does a story require linear time, but our minds themselves seem to require story. As we experience our lives, as we consume works of art, we quite frequently find ourselves constructing stories — often on an unconscious level — to explain the input we take in through our senses. In fact, we construct our very selves as just such a story. Higgs again:
The reason we are rarely consciously aware of this timeless moment is because the Urizen-like default mode network in our minds has constructed a narrative called the self, a useful and practical illusion we have come to identify with. Being a story, this self needs to believe in the past and future, which fools us into experiencing Einstein’s ‘stubbornly persistent illusion’ of the passing of time. (Ibid., pg. 293, emphasis mine)
(For those who need a reminder, Urizen is Blake’s god of Reason, whom he saw as tragically limited.) So we have a story of ourselves, and when we consume a piece of narrative art, we mediate an encounter between our self-story and the incoming narrative. When the point of that incoming story is that story is itself an illusion… well, things get a little dicey. For one thing, if there’s no such thing as choice, what is there for us to invest in the actions of characters?
For another thing, the notion of a block universe obviates morality. The cornerstone of superhero narratives, of Rorschach’s world view, falls apart if nobody has any choices. For that matter, in a predestined universe, what’s the point of Ozymandias’s trick? What does anything matter if all of us, and all of our characters, are only going to do what’s predestined?
There’s an obvious counter-argument here, which is that at least in a traditional narrative, the characters are all predestined. There’s no version of Moby-Dick where, as Jerry Seinfeld jokes, Ahab and the whale become good friends. Every time you read Watchmen, everybody does the same exact thing.
So why do we care about what happens in a story? Well, there are whole literary criticism traditions devoted to that question, and they’re well beyond the scope of this post, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s posit that we care because in the encounter between our self-story and the unfolding narrative, we take the mental mechanisms with which we create a story out of our own experiences, and apply them to this new set of incoming “experiences”. In other words, we identify.
Which brings us to our next question: if those mental mechanisms can convince us that a story we know to be predestined still matters, couldn’t they pull the same trick with our self-stories, even if we ourselves are predestined? What is the functional difference between an extremely effective simulation of free will and free will itself? Or, as Jerusalem‘s angel asks about the absence of free will: do we miss it?
The answer to that question is likely to be different for different people. Myself, as an agnostic, I’m satisfied resting in the idea that the truth of reality is unknown and unknowable. But I can see where the idea of a block universe might become truly comforting. If our awareness is simply sliding through the block, then whatever has happened, whatever will happen, is okay. It has to be, because it is all there is.
Alan Moore vs. Authority
It seems a bit ironic, though, for Alan Moore to embrace such a worldview. It’s one thing when Jon Osterman tells us he’s a puppet — his entire character is fundamentally passive. Moore, on the other hand, is anything but. Anyone who looks into Moore’s biography might reasonably conclude that the foundation stone of his character is his willfulness. As he freely admits, “I really, really don’t like to be told that I’m going to do something.”
That quality manifests in Jerusalem as well, and not just in Moore’s avatar of Alma. Significant parts of the book detail the history of Alma’s family, back through the generations, a history that seems to be at least loosely based on Moore’s own ancestry. There’s a key moment in the life of John “Snowy” Vernall, Alma’s great-grandfather, in which he’s offered a highly lucrative business partnership, on the sole condition that he stays out of the pub for two weeks. Snowy’s response: “I won’t be told what I should do. You’ll have to find your partner somewhere else.” (Jerusalem, pg. 274)
This decision seems like sheer lunacy to his wife and children, a refusal to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for class mobility, and for no good reason, at least in their eyes. As his daughter sees it, he makes his choice “simply out of bloody-mindedness.” Yet many other characters speak of him admiringly, even of this choice in particular. As one kindly ghost puts it, “He wiz a mad old bugger, Snowy Vernall, but he’d got the power in him, right enough. However poor he wiz, he’d got the power to throw away a fortune just like that.” (Ibid., pg. 494. The ghosts in Jerusalem use various adapted forms of the verb “to be”, encompassing past, present, and future to go along with their existence in the dimension above time.)
In his depiction of Snowy Vernall, Moore ennobles a (to others) pigheaded insistence on the principle of freedom, regardless of the cost. It’s all the more ironic because Snowy is one of the few characters outside of Mansoul to recognize the truth of the block universe. He understands the fixed structure of time thanks to lectures from his own father, Ernest Vernall, who “went mad” (really learned higher truths) after speaking with one of those angels who compresses loads of meaning into a few nonsense-sounding words. After Ernest downloads this meaning into Snowy, Snowy’s consciousness takes on a Dr. Manhattanesque quality, in which “his every waking second constantly exploded to a thousand years of incident and fanfare.” (Ibid., pg. 248) So in Snowy, we have a man aware of his own predestination, who also insists upon his own freedom, sometimes at a catastrophic financial price. In short, we have someone a whole lot like Alan Moore.
Not that Moore is anyone’s pauper. Unlike Snowy — and for that matter unlike Blake in his own time — Moore has attracted widespread acclaim and considerable sales success with his work. On the other hand, he has clearly turned down many, many opportunities to profit further from that work, opportunities which must easily reach into the millions of dollars (or pounds, where he lives.) He’s disowned the various film and television adaptations based on his corporate-owned comics, and given the money he would have earned to his collaborators. He’s taken his name off things like the Marvel reprints of Miracleman, similarly refusing remuneration. He’s severed all ties with the Big Two comics companies and their corporate ownership structures, preferring instead to publish enormous novels and boutique comics through small presses, along with a myriad of other creative works in a variety of media.
In Magic Words, Lance Parkin’s fair-minded autobiography of Moore, Parkin ascribes this mindset at least partially to Alan Moore’s Northampton roots, roots which Moore’s novels celebrate at considerable length. Early on in his recounting of Moore’s childhood, Parkin references a book called The Unprivileged by Northampton journalist Jeremy Seabrook, in which Seabrook traces the history of his own family through a neighborhood just a few streets away from Moore’s childhood home. Moore’s Northampton neighborhood is called “The Boroughs”, and in Moore’s youth it was dominated by the declining boot and shoe industry. In fact:
In the mid-sixties, Seabrook was teaching at the local grammar school, where he was Alan Moore’s first-form French teacher the year before he wrote The Unprivileged. He doesn’t recall Moore specifically, but when he describes the prevailing character of the area, he uses at least some of the same words that have been used to describe Moore over the years: ‘The shoe people were generally narrow, suspicious, mean, self-reliant, pig-headed, but generally honourable and as good as their word.’ (Magic Words, pg 24)
Parkin returns to this quote as he delves into a detailed retelling of Moore’s break with DC in 1987, using the formula to encapsulate Moore’s insistence that he won’t be told what to do, and if DC thought otherwise, they’ll have to find a partner somewhere else.
William Blake was no stranger to burning bridges either, but the shape it took in his life was rather different. Nobody was coming with lucrative deals he could grandly refuse, and his works never found a wide distribution that he could later disown. In Blake’s day, there were no mega-corporations to enrich and/or exploit artists. Instead, there was the patronage system, and in fact Blake did find a bit of good fortune in acquiring the wealthy William Hayley as a patron. Hayley commissioned Blake to make a portrait of his dying son, and while the portrait didn’t go well, Blake wrote such an affecting letter of condolence after the son died that Hayley invited him to live in a cottage near his home in picturesque Felpham, away from the grit of London, to produce engravings for Hayley’s works.
His time at Felpham started out blissful, and it was in fact where he wrote the words to the hymn that has since come to be known as “Jerusalem”, from which Moore’s Jerusalem draws fundamental inspiration. However, over time Blake’s experience in the country became more and more of a mental fight. Perhaps the most debilitating incident came when he found an English soldier named John Schofield loitering in his garden. Blake asked him to leave, Schofield refused, and the incident escalated into a physical scuffle, in which (perhaps surprisingly) Blake overpowered the soldier and marched him back to join his regiment at a local inn. The humiliated Schofield gave an account of this confrontation in which Blake had delivered a long, treasonous speech, including the words “Damn the King and his Country”, and in which even Blake’s wife Catherine joined by pledging to fight for Napoleon.
Blake found himself on trial for sedition. He was eventually acquitted, but the experience embittered him and took a toll on his mental health. His thoughts turned more paranoid, suspecting Hayley and other seemingly benign figures of condescension, hostility, and oppression. He wrote out a long parable in his poem Milton in which Satan appears as a mild, apparently helpful presence, who is in fact actually jealous of the artistic excellence of others and seeks to wield their poetic power without understanding his own limitations. This Satan is most commonly read as a metaphor for Hayley, seeking to bind and control Blake’s own artistry.
Blake moved back to London and held his only artistic exhibition, in the room above his brother’s haberdashery shop. Blake’s advertisement for the show depicted himself as one of the “two or three great Painters or Poets” of his age, but the public did not agree. Few came to the gallery, no one bought, and the only review he received was scathing and disdainful, calling Blake “an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.” (William Blake vs. The World, pg. 240) The failure of his bid for public recognition brought out an anger in Blake, which he turned outward, seeing conspiracies, malignant spells, and enemies everywhere. As Higgs details, this turn of mind “helped to alienate him further from London artistic society. Many artists who are thought of as strange can still maintain a career, but that’s not always the case for those marked as difficult.” (Ibid., pg. 248)
As I said above, there’s a basic difference between Blake and Moore here — I think it’s fair to say that Moore has been “marked as difficult” by now, but that has not jeopardized his ability to make a living. He still has publishers eager to distribute his work — most recently Bloomsbury, which published Illuminations, his 2022 book of short stories.
But I think there’s a basic similarity too. No, Moore hasn’t been put on trial for sedition, and he certainly hasn’t held any unsuccessful artistic exhibitions — even his most avant-garde magical “workings” draw an enthusiastic audience. But he has severed ties with much of his past, and not just profiteering companies. He fell out early with Dez Skinn, who had created the venue in which Moore’s Marvelman and V For Vendetta were published, believing that Skinn had deceived him about the ownership of his work. He ended his relationship with Swamp Thing artist Steve Bissette after being upset by an interview Bissette had given. Bissette, for his part, still reports that he’s unclear on what exactly bothered Moore about that interview, because Moore declined to tell him.
Most relevant to this series, Moore is now estranged from his Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons, after becoming convinced that Gibbons was being used as a catspaw for nefarious actions by DC. Same with his former DC editor, Karen Berger. Gibbons, no doubt keen to shed a portrayal that disparages both his morality and his intelligence, lays out a far different version of events in his recent “anecdotal autobiography”, Confabulation, but in his words, “Alan would have none of it.” (pg. 212)
I don’t wish to be unfair to Alan Moore. It’s not as if he can’t maintain a friendship — he’s still close with plenty of comics people, and in fact his friendships with collaborators such as Steve Moore and Kevin O’Neill ended up outlasting the men themselves. Also, as Parkin points out, “Most sixty year olds, presumably, have lost touch with former pals, or aren’t on the same good terms with every workmate they had in the eighties,” and okay, fair enough. But while I’m only 52, I can report that I have not left a trail of bewildered former friends behind me, cut out of my life despite their best efforts to tell me that I have misunderstood innocent actions on their part. Of course, I’m no Alan Moore, and I’m no William Blake. I’m not suffering the pains of bringing great works before a populace that often lacks the best understanding or intentions. If I believed I were, perhaps I’d find myself reluctant to let the sword sleep in my hand too.
Alan Moore vs. Capitalism
In the case of Moore, it’s not just a struggle with the sectors of the public that don’t get what he’s trying to do, though those encounters certainly disappoint him. More infuriating is the capitalist matrix that — it’s well established — tries its best to screw artists out of the rightful rewards of their creations. Especially the capitalist matrix that has surrounded comics through the 20th century and beyond. When it comes to his Eighties comics at least, that matrix mostly succeeded in obtaining ownership of Moore’s co-creations. Blake had his troubles with the economic machinery of his day too, but largely his own work was more ignored than exploited.
Moore manages to overcome this difference and align himself with Blake nevertheless, using the destitute circumstances of his cherished hometown, and his own working-class upbringing, as a magnet to pull his own story closer to that of his idol. In the chapter of Jerusalem told from Alma’s point of view, she walks around The Boroughs (many, many pages of Jerusalem are devoted to various characters walking around The Boroughs), and given how closely she aligns with Moore himself, it’s awfully tempting to conclude that he places his own thoughts in her head as she grouses to herself about the plight of the poor, compared to other marginalized and persecuted groups:
Every decade since society’s inception has been witness to a holocaust of paupers, so enormous and perpetual that it has become wallpaper, unnoticed, unreported. The mass graves at Dachau and at Auschwitz are, rightly, remembered and repeatedly deplored, but what about the one in Bunhill Fields that William Blake and his beloved Catherine were shovelled into? What about the one under the car park in Chalk Lane, across the road from Doddridge Church? What of the countless generations that have lived poor and have in one way or another died of that condition, uncommemorated and anonymous? Where are their fucking monuments and special ringed dates on the calendar? Where are their Spielberg films? (pg. 867-8)
Alma isn’t poor. She’s made a comfortable living as an artist, and is even a little bit famous in her field. But she, and Moore through her, enlists Blake to her cause by virtue of his poverty. Moore himself is far from poor, even despite all the money he’s turned away, but he deeply identifies with the condition of poverty due to the rather stricken circumstances of his childhood and his home city.
One of the many commonalities between Moore and Blake is that they produce their work to an internal standard, irrespective of the artistic flavor of the day, month, or year. This worked out badly for Blake, making him quite out of step with his times, and therefore unable to realize his ambition of supporting himself on his own creative productions. He hadn’t the luxury of daydreaming among the daffodils or toking up on laudanum, unlike the other major poets of his day. He had to work for a living, and after he left Hayley, even that work was often quite hard to come by, as his interests were profoundly misaligned with the increasingly consumerist and faddish late eighteenth century. As Higgs puts it, “For an artist with no interest in changeable fashion and a desire to represent the eternal, Blake had been born at the wrong time.” (pg. 277)
Moore, on the other hand, not only found himself in fashion but for a while was part of a small coalition that led trends in the comics world. Even this has gone wrong for him, though — he’s on record numerous times decrying the way that works like Marvelman and Watchmen led to the Dark Age of Comics, thanks to an industry that picked up on the most superficial aspects of his work (and the contemporary work of Frank Miller) and concluded, “uh, yeah, dark, depressing superheroes are, like, cool.” In any case, even though Moore found himself in style while Blake was deeply out of it, both would likely have done the same work whether it was recognized or not. Thus Moore pulls off the rather neat trick of standing with the poor even as he is not among them.
In the closing pages of Jerusalem, just before she talks about the eternal glass football, Alma makes a final connection between capitalism and The Boroughs. It seems that the first power-driven cotton mill was built in the neighborhood — “The Industrial Revolution kicked off up at the far end of Green Street.” (pg. 1260) The mill turned three big cotton looms day and night, powered by a waterwheel. Word of this mill gets to young economist Adam Smith, who’s enchanted by the notion of complex machinery guided by an unseen hand — “some manner of industrial Zeus rather than basic principles of engineering.” (pg. 1261) And then, at least according to Alma:
So Adam Smith, with his half-baked idea about a hidden hand that works the cotton looms, decides to use that as his central metaphor for unrestrained Free Market capitalism. You don’t need to regulate the banks or the financiers when there’s an invisible five-fingered regulator who’s a bit like God to make sure that the money-looms don’t snare or tangle. That’s the monetarist mystic idiot-shit, the voodoo economics Ronald Reagan put his faith in, and that middle-class dunce Margaret Thatcher when they cheerily deregulated most of the financial institutions. And that’s why the Boroughs exists, Adam Smith’s idea. That’s why the last fuck knows how many generations of this family are a toilet queue without a pot to piss in, and that’s why everyone that we know is broke. It’s all there in the current underneath that bridge down Tanner Street. That was the first one, the first dark, satanic mill. (pg. 1261)
It’s the final climactic moment of the book, and of course it quotes Blake, specifically “Jerusalem.” Moore (through Alma) finds in The Boroughs the flashpoint between Blake’s pastoral childhood and industrial adulthood. This comes as no surprise whatsoever, given that the book’s basic thesis is that The Boroughs is at the center of everything — England, time, space, history, the universe.
In his excoriation of Reagan/Thatcher “voodoo economics”, Moore is obviously picking a side, identifying good and evil, just as Blake did. But it’s important to remember that although Blake never hesitated to identify moral opposites, neither did he simply condemn one side and praise the other. One of his most brilliant works, after all, was called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Just so, Moore immediately moves from this economic tirade to his eternalist view that everywhere’s Jerusalem and every miserable wretch is one of the immortals. It’s a fitting benediction in the spirit of Blake, who found the precious energies of genius in the friction and sparks between warring contraries.
It’s an important moment, too, because it seals the fusion between Moore and Blake: their upbringing, coming to consciousness, and subsequent development was shaped most fundamentally by class. Blake’s childhood was pastoral, a song of innocence in a green and pleasant land, and throughout his life he witnessed the industrial age set in and take over. Moore, on the other hand, is a native of those dark satanic mills that destroyed the innocent meadows of Blake’s childhood, and throughout his life he’s watched the industrial age give way to the information age, trying his best all the while to reflect to us through his art the basic ways in which humans are changing, and their world along with them.
William Blake is obviously important to Alan Moore. Moore has in fact dedicated an entire one of his magical workings to Blake, an extended poem called Angel Passage, which sees Blake live, struggle, die, and ascend to his own eternal golden city. In Higgs’ biography, Blake seems to find something like heaven even before his death, setting aside old grudges and disappointments to find a life suffused with peace and joy, even seeking to rebuild his old damaged relationships. In Higgs’ words, “After labouring for decades on a myth about the rebalancing of the mind, Blake had made peace with his own demons. It was as if he had written himself into harmony.”
Higgs didn’t know William Blake. He just had to put together what pieces he could find, assemble them in his mind, and create a narrative. Likewise, I don’t know Alan Moore. I only know my best guesses about him. But I’m beginning to suspect that he, too, may be writing himself into harmony. In a video that came out just a few months ago, he talks with interviewer Robin Ince about a short story from Illuminations called “What We Can Know About Thunderman”. Being a Moore-ish short story, it goes on for about 240 pages, but that’s because it was also an exorcism, expelling a load of accumulated bile from his battles with the modern comics industry. He tells Ince:
I obviously had quite a lot to get out of my system there. But I think I did it with a certain degree of humor and intelligence, and it’s done much to stop me from muttering in the bath in the morning. Just having that out of my system. It allows me to stop thinking about that stuff. Which is great, which is… it’s been a long time coming.
Moore will likely never stop resisting the idea of linear time, nor the depredations of authority and capitalism. But maybe, just maybe, when it comes to the injuries, slights, and swindles he’s suffered in his past, he could perhaps find a visionary peace. I like to think it’s what Blake would have wanted for him.
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