15.3.15

Promethea

Reading Promethea, a slight narrative weighed down past breaking point by fantastically illustrated lectures, makes you realise how didactic a lot of Moore's work can be – from the treatise on anarchy in V for Vendetta to the coach-ride through history in From Hell. I don't have a problem with that necessarily. Part of my job involves thinking about how to express complex ideas visually, so I'm all for comics taking up the same challenge. My problem is with what Moore is saying.

Little of it is outright wrong, although some of the kookiest bits are hard to stomach. At one point Moore talks about our DNA somehow 'projecting' the idea of the double helix into our brains. He also gives serious credence to the notion that our consciousness developed as a result of taking psychedelic drugs. This is mad hippy uncle stuff, and it's difficult to forgive.

But most of the lectures are about a way of looking at the world – one which I don't find particularly helpful. Moore divides reality into the material and the immaterial, the latter is the domain of the imagination and it bears some similarity to Plato's Realm of the Forms. Like Plato, Moore says that "the worlds inside and outside us have the same structure, the same pattern". This assumption underpins the Republic, and it is entirely groundless. There is no reason to suppose that the ordering of the virtuous mind somehow corresponds to the ordering of the virtuous polity.

Moore doesn't go that far. Instead he is at pains to explain how ideas can transform the 'real' world: "changing the world is like changing your mind. It's just that matter's thicker and more viscous than imagination, so it takes longer". But Moore's idea of a shared imagination is selective: there is "no tax, no property" in the Immateria, even though these things are ideas too. Likewise, war and conflict are the result of a failure of imagination, they are not a part of it. Moore's Realm of the Forms only contains those things Moore sees as virtuous. Nietzsche's notion of the inescapable conflict between human beings and their ethical systems, which powered the moral universe in Watchmen, is abandoned.

The cosmology in Promethea is very different. Moore sees the workings of 'magic' in the creation of the universe – noting (correctly) that the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity all appear finely tuned to support the development of habitable planets and intelligent life. This is a modern variant of the teleological argument popular at the turn of the 18th century and demolished by Hume in the Discourses on Natural Religion. Moore also insists that science can have nothing to say about human consciousness and the imagination, despite the efforts of cognitive science to do just that – an endeavour often self-consciously extending the 'science of man' project initiated by the Scottish Enlightenment (I am a partisan, if you can't already tell).

Moore's vaguely defined apocalypse involves abandoning the material plane entirely. This does not actually happen at the end of Promethea – humanity pretty much continues as before, conflicts and all. There is one interesting suggestion as to what this rapture might look like, but it's in a throwaway reference to "virtual space". If technology eventually allows us to abandon our bodies entirely, that would involve a radical transformation of our consciousness – a real end of history. But this is not a future Moore is interested in charting. Instead, his transfigured humanity is a little more open to the kinds of spiritual esoterica Moore finds attractive, but otherwise unchanged.

All of which is to say again what I said about From Hell: when it comes down to it, I would pick Nietzsche over Plato. But the damage caused by all this wooly thinking is so much more evident in Promethea, because the lectures are the only reason for reading. Plot and character are sacrificed in order to make room for Moore's philosophy, and if you can't buy his theories, important character beats like Sophie's reconciliation with her mother fall flat. There is little left to admire beyond the superhuman efforts of J. H. Williams III to illustrate Moore's musings. He does them far more justice than they deserve.

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