From Hell

I'm not as well read as Alan Moore, so I don't have the capacity to question his selection of evidence and his interpretation of that evidence. Even so, the Masonic conspiracy that forms the plot of the book, and Gull's historical musings in chapter 4, struck me as rather extraordinary. The only note I know to be, if not inaccurate, then misleading, is this little detail:

'It was the overt paganism of London during the period following Rome's collapse that prompted the siting of the centre of the Christian church in this country at Canterbury, rather than London'

My recently completed dissertation covered this ground, and according to my reading London was not necessarily any more pagan than anywhere else in the south of England. And the siting of the Christian church at Canterbury was 'prompted' by political reasons as much as anything else. This is nothing but pedantry, and I apologize for it, but it did prevent me from uncritically accepting the case Moore was presenting. What is important is that Moore is well aware of the tenuous strands of evidence he is using to construct his narrative:

'As with much of the evidence surrounding these murders, the data is ambiguous, a shifting cloud of facts and factoids onto which we project the fictions that seem most appropriate to our times and inclinations.'

That is a pretty good definition of what history is.

On to more significant, and interesting, matters. Moore introduces the theories of a certain Robert Graves: 'in his book The White Godess ... he suggests that human society was mother-centred until males finally figured out their roles in procreation, at which point some form of patriarchial revolution took place'.

Reinforcing this 'patriarchial revolution' is what motivates the Ripper in From Hell. I should hunt this book down before passing judgement, but it strikes me that women's childbearing abilities would be a source of weakness rather than strength. Only recent political and technological developments (medical childbirth, oral contraception, legal abortion) have begun to reverse this disadvantage. Moreover, I am sceptical of historians appealing to a prehistoric 'golden age' in extolling the inevitability of sexual equality, or socialism for that matter. We should remember that Marx never finished Capital because he was frantically searching for the existence of communist societies in the distant past. He died before he could find any. Again, to his credit, Moore accepts that Graves's 'informed speculations' are 'unproven', though he suggests that they are not necessarily 'untrue'. I find them pretty unlikely, but there you are.

The Platonic drift of the final chapter again got me to start begging questions. (I demolish Plato over here). But again (again, again...) Moore covers his ass. The chapter ends with two nurses fucking in an asylum -- the earthy physicality of the scene undermining the archane, mystical drivel that comes before it.

Moore refuses to explain page 23 of the final chapter, which is fair enough. He doesn't need to explain anything if he doesn't want to, as far as I'm concerned. He asks that you work it out for yourself, and I shall. The only clue Moore provides is that 'Marie Kelley was known by various nicknames that included Ginger and Fair Emma'. Ginger is a red herring, but Emma is the name of the entirely fictional woman Abberline helps out. Indeed, Emma and Marie look identical, which led to some confusion as I was reading. Maybe Moore wanted to give Marie a way out of Whitechapel and back to Ireland, where the Ripper wouldn't be able to touch her, where she would be able to protect her friends from his predations.

Is From Hell Moore's masterpiece? I like Eddie Campbell's work even more than I liked that of Dave Gibbons. And it is just as self-assured and inventive with the form of the comic strip as Watchmen. But From Hell made me beg too many questions. Does Jack the Ripper symbolize the twentieth century? Why? Can a whole century be boiled down to an individual and the myths surrounding him? I just can't get fully behind the themes Moore is exploring here. When it comes down to it, I would pick Nietzsche over Plato, and Watchmen over From Hell.

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