15 December 2007

Banished to the Nursery...

Umberto Eco, in Reflections on The Name of the Rose, says that a novel is a machine for generating interpretations, so wish me luck.

There's a passage very early in Black Dossier where Allan and Mina, having stolen the eponymous dossier, are getting ready to retire for the night. Allan is making tea, while Mina is getting ready for bed.
'You think they'll send anyone after us?' asks Allan.
'Their Dossier's gone, ' Mina replies. 'They'll soon work out who must have taken it.'
'So yes,' Allan admits, 'Of course they'll send someone after us.'
'I mean,' says Mina, 'When we broke from British Intelligence after the war, they must have assumed we were dead.'
'Mm,' Allan agrees, 'Or that we'd never existed. "Unpersons." Wasn't that what the regime called people like us? People they'd revised out of history, like characters written out of a story.'
This notion of the 'unperson' must, as far as I can see, be absolutely central to any attempt to interpret Black Dossier. In 1984 an 'unperson' is someone who has been erased from history, and who people aren't even meant to think about. It's an totalitarian version of damnatio memoriae which forbids even mentioning unpersons -- merely referring to them is a crime.

There are certain threads that run through The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in all its incarnations. One is the notion of the difficulty of distinguishing between heroes and monsters, something which has been central to Moore's writing since V for Vendetta. Another is the concept of the interconnectedness of fiction, and I think this needs to be examined in connection with the concept of the 'unperson' if we're to make any sense of what happens at the end of Black Dossier.

One of the things Moore is trying to do in League is to create what's been called a covert history of the popular imagination. I think it's worth quoting him at length here:
The planet of the imagination is as old as we are. It has been humanity's constant companion with all of its fictional locations, like Mount Olympus and the gods, and since we first came down from the trees, basically. It seems very important, otherwise, we wouldn't have it. Fiction is clearly one of the first things that we do when we stand upright as a species - we tell each other stories. Now, Nature doesn't do things for decorative purposes, except like giving peacocks wonderful plumage so they can attract a mate, but since there seems to be little point to telling each other stories all the time — except there must be. We have depended upon them and to some degree the fictional world is completely intertwined and interdependent with the material world. A lot of the dreams that shape us and, presumably, our world leaders, are fictions. When we're growing up, we perhaps base ourselves on an ideal, and even if that ideal is a real living person, there is every chance that living person may have based themselves on a fictional ideal. This is actually ground that we do cover in 'The Black Dossier,' and in the final soliloquy, which is delivered by Duke Prospero. We're talking about this very thing: the interdependence between the world of fiction and the world of fact. It is something that interests me, and has come to dominate my thinking on the series. I'm not exactly sure why, but it feels as if it might be important.
Moore's definitely onto something here, something that really isn't very far from 'A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls', that dazzling early Chesterton essay, memorable for its assertions that while literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity, and that the popular novel, far from being vulgar, is 'the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.'

One of Moore's concerns, embodied so well in Allan Quatermain's scathing criticism of James Bond, is what he sees as the gradual impoverishment of our collective imagination. It's not merely that -- as he sees it -- or heroes have become more cruel, more brutal, and more cynical. Rather -- and this theme is apparently to be clearly drawn out in Volume III -- it's how the popular imagination has deteriorated from the Victorian and Edwardian periods to a point where the landscape of fiction is a comparatively sparse and dull place.

Prospero's soliloquy at the end is reminiscent of his speech at the end of The Tempest, and it's tempting to read it as Moore simply breaking his staff and departing from DC, a publisher with whom his relationship has been all too stormy. I think it's more useful, though, and more true to the text, to consider it not as a defence of artistic freedom but rather an appeal for artistic freedom!

Moore's concern, as expressed by Prospero, is not so much that artists are limited by their agents but that they voluntarily shackle themselves and are simply not imaginative enough.

I've mentioned already how the 'Life of Orlando' in Black Dossier functions as a kind of rough timeline of the world of League; it's worth reading the 'Life' while bearing Prospero's speech in mind, contrasting the kind of stories Orlando tells with the 1958 in which Mina and Allan are supposedly reading the Dossier. Look at Prospero's speech, expressing Moore's idea that we are -- to some extent -- fabricated from the stories we hear and the heroes we idolise. Putting this very crudely, I think Moore's point is that modern fiction is -- in the main -- less likely to fire the imagination than the fiction of the past, and that this is a shame both for us as individuals and for as a species.

Neil Gaiman had an article in the Guardian a couple of months ago where he commented on how, long ago, fairy tales used to be for adults:
Children listened to them and enjoyed them, but children were not the primary audience, no more than they were the intended audience of Beowulf, or The Odyssey. JRR Tolkien said, in a robust and fusty analogy, that fairytales were like the furniture in the nursery - it was not that the furniture had originally been made for children: it had once been for adults and was consigned to the nursery only when the adults grew tired of it and it became unfashionable.
It wasn't just fairy tales that became unfashionable; around the middle of the Nineteenth Century a rift developed between the world of 'popular' and 'literary' fiction, with the latter becoming decidedly uncomfortable with the fantastic elements that had been so characteristic of mainstream European writing up until that point. Michael Moorcock, in his introduction to Wizardry and Wild Romance, remarks that 'it could be said that Jane Austen established our taste for the novel of manners but it was Victorian middle-class morality which established that type of fiction as the only respectable form.'

The Big Brother government's classifying of the likes of Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Allan Quatermain, and Mina Murray as 'unpersons' takes this tendency to an extreme, and the Blazing World stands as an enclave where such 'unpersons' can still thrive. It's a glorified ghetto for disreputable fiction, stories scorned as tales for children and idiots but which Moore believes are far more valuable than that. Prospero's speech stands then, as a powerful manifesto for a creative and even innocent imagination, not limited by a fetish for 'reality', whatever that might be.

As Moore says, 'Orwell was almost exactly wrong in a strange way. He thought the world would end with Big Brother watching us, but it ended with us watching Big Brother.'

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