Friday, October 20, 2006

From Hell: Gull's Ascent

I've finished up the main part of From Hell, and after I read the Gull Catchers, I'll do a general wrap up on the book. But, I want to talk a bit about the more magical elements of the book, specifically the chapter chronicling Gull's ascent. After killing Mary Kelly, Gull's purpose is fulfilled and he loses the fire that drove him following his vision of Jahbuhlon. He winds up in a mental institution, rotting away in a cell with only death to look forward to.

The chapter begins with a nurse and guard having sex in Gull's cell. The whole point of Gull's subsequent vision is to show him completely transcending the limits of three-dimensional temporal perception. So, it's appropriate that his death would occur during sex, bringing things full circle. Gull's ascent begins with a vision of London where multiple time periods are visible overlapping each other. This image, on page 14.8.1, is virtually the same as a panel from The Invisibles 3.2, right down to the World War I era soldier leading the way. The only difference is Morrison has his characters represented as 'timeworms,' with their past and present stretching out of them. That idea was a critical component of Morrison's vision during his alien abduction, something that Moore chooses to represent in a different way.

As the chapter continues, we see Gull encounter a variety of people, clearing up some mysteries from earlier in the book and connecting his work with the past and future. I love the idea of history as an arch, with events that recur and speed up as time progresses. To Moore, the critical component of Jack the Ripper is the idea that Gull is subsumed by this mythic character built up around him. However, as we see in the newspaper scene, the reason that Jack exists is actually because of the paper sales created by 'The Monster' one hundred years earlier. However, Jack is the one who defines the idea of serial killer for future generations, and the massive media attention given to Jack is likely what inspired a lot of his predecessors, a number of whom he encounters during his journey through time.

When he sees these others, he is seeing people who tap into the same cultural archetype he built, however, they lack the awareness of mythological significance. For Gull, the killings were a magical act, designed to protect the world he came from. However, he was the last holder of that knowledge, in those who followed, the act itself is what is significant. The papers did not discuss why he killed, rather they were caught up in the violence and the fear. Gull himself became secondary to the 'Jack' character that built up around him.

Earlier in the book, Gull talks about the fact that gods are nothing more than vessels to which humans assign traits. As time has passed, we have stopped seeing gods in all things, like the nature gods that used to exist, and have condensed this mystical essence into one being. However, those gods that once were still exist, and as he dies, Gull realizes that he has become a god. Through his actions, he has transcended time and space and created an archetypal being that has shaped the world long after his mortal death. Jack the Ripper has become a recurring archetype, a god who continues to inspire fear more than a century after creation.

And like any god, it is belief that fuels him. In Promethea, we hear a lot of talk about the idea of belief as a prime magical tool to fuel change in the world. Without belief, gods are nothing. Jack the Ripper is worshipped through fear, so Mary Kelly's defiant cry to "Clear off back to Hell and leave us be," means that this god has no power over her. She avoided him before, by fleeing England, and now, years later, she will not let that fear affect her children.

But for the world as a whole, the belief is still strong, and each new serial killer is one who worships at the altar of the ripper. In the epilogue, Moore connects the culture of violence created by Jack the Ripper with the rise of Hitler, the ultimate proponent of a culture of death.

William Gull was the last of the old gods. He set out to use a magical sacrifice to the masonic god Jahbuhlon as a way to preserve the society he came from and protect it from revolutions both social and political. He succeeded in doing this, however, in killing these women, he also extinguishes the capacity for wonder. He created a cold, real world, where death is an obsession and the capacity to believe in something higher than oneself is destroyed. Gull bridges the two eras, he is a scientist, but has the capacity to find wonder everywhere in the world. However, he is the last one to view the world this way, and when he passes into the future, few people even notice him. The god is dead, only the sacrifice remains.

Earlier today, I came across a 45 minute video of a lecture that Grant Morrison gave at a Disinfo event. It covers a lot of his classic themes, but what stood out to me now was just how similar much of what he's saying is to what comes up in From Hell. He was working on The Invisibles at the time Moore was writing From Hell, they're both covering the same basic material, but address it in radically different ways. This is primarily due to their styles of magical practice, Morrison is a chaos magician, a do it yourself guy who likes to improvise. Moore is a strict formalist, who does extensive research and planning when creating a work. Morrison would never do a book with a forty page appendix, he's more about synthesizing life, history and other fiction to create his worlds.

'Gull's Ascent' has a lot in common with The Invisibles' 'All Tomorrow's Parties,' in which Robin spins outside of time, experiencing a variety of scenes as she moves towards Godhood. Moore's work is strictly structured, carefully fitting into scenes established chapters earlier, as well as into specific historical moments. The captions skillfully describe Gull's journey in the characters' voice, full of references to older magical texts. Morrison sticks within his own storyworld, and uses a more freeform, emotional approach. It's a bit sloppier, but gets the job done nonetheless. I prefer the Morrison approach, but I think the two treatments compliment each other wonderfully.

In this video, Morrison talks about the way that the linking of the two hemispheres of the brain turned external gods into internal voices, and what once was visionary is now crazy. This is the exact stuff that crops up in From Hell, though Morrison pushes things a bit further by claiming that today's multiple personality sufferers are actually the next step in human evolution. We all experience the world from multiple perspectives, but they are able to isolate and become self sufficient. Both Moore and Morrison would claim that trying to suppress this 'psychosis' is shutting out a potential window into magical consciousness.

The fusion of the brain has removed our capacity for wonder, in Morrison's pop magic, he says the first step towards becoming a magician is being able to see the world, observe the details and understand the connections that underlie ordinary reality. Once you step back, it's easier to experience the world like Gull does in chapter ten, seeing the wonder and magic in everyday objects. Once perception is altered, it's possible to take control of reality and sculpt it to your liking. For both men, fiction is the critical part of this.

The Invisibles and From Hell were critical turning points for each. When Morrison was writing The Invisibles, he went through the abduction experience and that new view of the universe has been the core of everything he's written since. Through his research for this book, Moore became exposed to magic, and declared himself a magician. Those ideas then led to Promethea, a work that takes many of the concepts in From Hell and explores them further. I feel like I understood the book a lot better after reading Promethea, which dealt with the symbolism and concepts underlying this work. For Moore, Promethea was an attempt to recover what was lost, and bring magic back into the world.

For me personally, the act of reading all these works completely rewrote my perception of the universe. It made me see fiction in a whole new light, understanding that a work could be more than just entertainment, it could be a magical act designed to rewrite reality. And it also made me more open to the possibilities of extraordinary, out of reality events, being possible. After reading The Invisibles, I went on something of a shamanic quest, which culminated with my first read of From Hell six months after. By the end, I was open and believed that magic was not something flashy, not something that is immediately evident, rather it's a series of forces that seemingly underlie the universe, and be it through prayer, sigils, or sheer force of will, offering up a desire into the ether will likely lead to its fulfillment. It only takes a belief that there is more to this world than what we can see.


Anonymous said...

You are my new favourite blogger! I live in the East End of London (a place you are now undoubtably familiar with) and just finished 'From Hell' for the second time. If you ever feel like you want to come over and do the tour, with Donald Rumbelow taking you around (you'll know the name from the notes in the back) - give me a shout - its extremely good.

Patrick said...

I'd love to take that tour, issue four is practically a spell directing the reader to come to London and see all this stuff for themselves. And I read in the notes that it is doable in one day, could be very cool. And judging from the notes and 'Gull Catchers' Rumbelow would be a great guide.

I don't have any immediate plans to go to London, but I'm hoping to get there some time in the next couple of years. So, shoot me your e-mail (mine's and I'll keep it on file, and hopefully I'll get there eventually. As it is, Moore and Campbell do such a good job of building the world, I feel like I've been there already.

Mintyblonde said...

It's a curious coincedence that the Chief Inspector of the recent spate of murders of prostitutes here in the UK is none other than Det Ch Supt Stewart Gull

Anonymous said...

That's funny!

I just found this site by entering "From Hell Gull" into google because I saw the detective in Ipswich was called Gull and the murders have some obvious similarites. It's been so long since I read From Hell I couldn't remember if Gull was the policeman or the doctor...

Patrick said...

That's quite a coincidence, I heard that Moore was going to do a second Dance of the Gull Catchers chapter for a new release of From Hell, if that happens, I'm sure this'll be in it.