Or what does this have to do with Promethea anyway?
Crossposted at Mindlessones.com, for reasons that will become apparent.
On March 7, 2007, I was at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre, which has been the scene of some of the most profound artistic experiences of my life — seeing Brian Wilson play his first two UK shows, seeing him premiere That Lucky Old Sun there and seeing Van Dyke Parks (and Wilson and Parks will both show up in these essays again, assuming we go the whole way with them) perform most of Orange Crate Art. It’s also the prison where the Doctor and Jo Grant were held in the 1973 Doctor Who story Frontier In Space, but that’s probably not so important.
But on that day I was there for something rather different. The writer Robert Anton Wilson had been one of the biggest influences in my life, the writer whose works finally showed me how to actually think, as opposed to glibly performing string manipulations and priding myself on my intelligence. I was sat there next to the woman I’d married a year earlier (and who is co-author of this series of essays), someone I would never have met without Wilson’s writing.
Wilson had died the previous January, and in his last months had, thanks to the American health-care system, become literally penniless. We were fairly close to penniless ourselves, but we’d still felt the need to Paypal him $23, a token amount, to help. Enough other people had done the same that he was able to die in his own home with money to spare.
The show in 2007 was a tribute to him, and to his work, and it was mostly for that reason that Holly and I had travelled down to see it. But it wasn’t just for that reason. There were three speakers there, all of whom I wanted to see. One was Ken Campbell, the great actor, writer and director, and one of my great heroes. The second was Alan Moore, of whom much, much more later. And the third was Bill Drummond.
Drummond was the one I was least interested in, because I was least familiar with his work. Oh, of course I loved Doctorin’ The TARDIS, had enjoyed 45, and The Manual is still one of my favourite books, but beyond that I knew nothing of his work.
Drummond’s first line was:
I’m a total fraud even being here. I don’t actually know much about Robert Anton Wilson, and I couldn’t be arsed to help him when he was dying.
So, you know, fair enough.
(And when I watch that video, I realise that I’m completely misremembering that, and probably remembering from this blog post rather than the event. Oh well. But it’s how I remember it.)
The reason I’m telling that story is so I can tell you this. A couple of months ago, the writer J.M.R. Higgs sent me a comp ebook copy of his new book, KLF: Chaos, Magic, Music, Money, because he’d liked my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!. I said I’d review it, but I ran into a problem when actually writing the review, because I am precisely the wrong person to review this book.
You see, Higgs’ book takes as its starting point the day when Drummond and his artistic partner Jimmy Cauty (known variously as The KLF, The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, The Timelords and The K Foundation) set fire to a million pounds, and tries to figure out exactly why they did this — something they admit themselves they are completely unsure of.
Starting from this, and in pursuit of an answer of sorts, Higgs explores a whole web of ideas and associations. He writes about Robert Anton Wilson, and sampling culture, describes the 1990s in a way eerily similar to the Ghost Point from the Faction Paradox books, discusses Doctor Who and the alchemical ideas that David Whitaker planted in it, the legitimacy of copyright, the Kennedy assassination, the work of Ken Campbell, Discordianism, the immorality of lending money at interest, Situationism, the Pookah and the wicker man in modern pop culture, Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace, and questions whether the K Foundation’s burning a million pounds was a magical rite which eventually led to the economic problems we’re seeing today.
My kind of thing, in other words.
Except that the book’s climax is when Higgs talks about the Festival Hall event I discussed above. He talks about how the event actually inspired Drummond to read the whole of Illuminatus! for the first time, and how Drummond (who had used tons of ideas and images from the first 138 pages of the book, which is all he’d previously read, in his work) was shocked to find that most of his life seemed to be in there in some way. Higgs then goes on to say:
I had written 90% of this book before I finally got round to reading Illuminatus! myself, despite having a copy on my shelf for twenty years. Upon reading it, I was startled to discover that it contained a number of subjects which I had already been writing about, unaware of their inclusion in Illuminatus! and unsure if I could justify their inclusion in this book. I had written about usury unaware that the founding reason for The JAMs was to destroy usury, and I had written about Lucifer unaware that a Satanic mass was the initiation into The JAMs. I had noted the surprising number of paedophiles in this story whilst unaware of the character of Padre Pederastia. Such is the way with this particular novel. Reading it almost seems superfluous; it is possible to be swept along just by the idea of it. It is a novel that is perfectly content to sit on a shelf for decades waiting for you to be ready for it.
And this is the thing about the book. Its conclusion is, to me, the stuff that I’ve been thinking about and discussing and writing about for my whole adult life (I read Illuminatus! when I was 18, and have more than a passing interest in most of the subjects mentioned in the book). It’s a book that goes from a premise that I know little about to a conclusion that is familiar, solid ground to me. And the parts that I found most interesting were the parts where Higgs talks about the KLF themselves, precisely because that was the least familiar part of the net of ideas he was talking about. Higgs is mapping out an area in IdeaSpace, but it’s a map that takes this reader from Fairyland to his own front room.
I doubt it would have that effect, though, on anyone without my own precise set of obsessions. Unless you’ve basically read the exact same books and comics I read between, roughly, the ages of 18 and 26, and you’re also a big fan of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who work, the parts that seemed familiar to me will seem unfamiliar to you, while if you pay any attention to pop culture at all the parts that seemed unfamiliar to me will be old news to you.
So…I can recommend Higgs’ book unreservedly to anyone reading this, but I can’t say you’ll be reading the same book I am.
But what does this have to do with Promethea, again?
Well, Higgs’ book is basically a map of a mental landscape, but a rather odd one — he’s trying to give an impression of why Bill Drummond thinks the way he does, by writing enough about Higgs’ own obsessions. It is, if you like, a map of the border between Higgs’ area of Ideaspace and Drummond’s.
About six months ago, Plok, of the blog A Trout In The Milk, was visiting us and practically ordered Holistic Tendancies to write a book on Promethea, because he wanted to hear what she had to say about it. However, she was unsure about this, because she’s never written anything longer than a couple of thousand words before, and doesn’t believe me when I tell her that if you write the material, it structures itself and practically writes itself. I had to take a break from writing my previous book about comics, An Incomprehensible Condition, because I was seeing patterns relating to the subject everywhere, and had to get back into a more rational frame of mind — that’s the extent to which this kind of subject writes itself. But Holistic Tendancies is unsure, so she’s asked me to help her. She wants to write the book with me, and I’m in charge of structure.
So what we’re going to do is, we’re going to write ten more essays. Some of them will be on my blog, and some will be on Mindless Ones. You can follow either blog and not miss out, because we’re going to do this in a Choose Your Own Adventure style.
We’re going to look at Promethea as a comic, the way Alan Moore writes and the way J.H. Williams and the other artists put pictures on the page. But we’re also going to look at the ideas floating around it in Ideaspace — the Kaballah, Wonder Woman, America’s Best Comics, causality, Aleister Crowley, Platonism, topology and more. A lot of it will overlap with the ideas in Higgs’ book, but we’ll be travelling from different directions.
By making it a Choose Your Own Adventure, and having it run over two different blogs, we’ll let you wander round the parts of it that you find most interesting, and do a bit of sightseeing. But even IdeaSpace needs a map, so here’s the one we’ll be using:
Next stop: Yesod.
And just to reinforce how all this works, literally as I was typing the last sentence I received an email from Plok, who I mentioned before, about another collaborative project, one we’re working on with Illogical Volume and others. The email heading? “topological order”. And the first sentence proper of the email?
Topological order, so I’m told, being what they call a way of classifying substances with identical symmetries — by measuring their interactivity in an entangled system. Thus, the helpful analogy for the layman goes, the topological order of New York City would not describe the buildings and the streets, but would identify the city more finely, uniquely by a catalogue of the phone calls being made inside it.
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Man, today’s the day for people spelling my name wrong!
I had enough trouble formatting images for the An Incomprehensible Condition book; this time it looks like I’m already going to have to figure out how to get videos in there :p
Don’t worry, the links and videos are blog-version only — unless you, as co-author, decide otherwise.
Well, interconnectivity so suits the subject matter… You’ve got me already wondering how much of a hyperlinked multimedia mess I can make without annoying people…or making print buyers feel they’re missing out. :) (Maybe the print book will have to include a link to a website full of this stuff.)
Intriguing ideas. Good luck, Holly. I’m sure you’ll both figure it out! The print version can be the leaping-off point but also a thing in itself. A map to a map to a… You know. The map to the treasure is the treasure (?! Even I don’t know what I’m trying to say).
Andrew, as you’re a Ken Campbell fan I recommend you to David Cairns’s Shadowplay weblog (which can be found at dcairns.wordpress.com), specifically the posts Skungpoomery Parts I and II written following his death. I found Part II while looking for something else there (concerning John Boorman, the excellent Excalibur and the fabulous fiasco Exorcist II The Heretic, as you didn’t ask) it’s poignant, informative, and hilarious, and the comments are very good too. On the off-chance that you’ve never visited it, I would highly recommend the whole of Shadowplay.
Strange you should mention Campbell – everything *is* connected! (I could bore you about a weird “pattern” involving Helen Mirren, Excalibur, Ken Campbell, Sylvester McCoy, the actor Alan Howard, John Nettles, Best New Horror, Robert Anton Wilson, and your own web log but it’s too absurd, so you’ve half-dodged that bullet ;)).
Sorry, bit late! I blame life, confusion, etc. And all these bookmarked sets of tabs I’ve decided to clean out.
Ooooh, exciting! I think you should offer a special promotional item, a Kabbalistic Twister game…at least, to me. Also, you’re inspiring me to get off my ass a bit more. Needless to say, I hope this book is a THOUSAND PAGES LONG, because that’s the number of pages I would like to read by you guys on it.
And the map oto the treasure is the map of the treasure-seeker, isn’t it? This is an idea I’ve been toying with for a little while, that in some SF or comic-book scenario where the protagonist visits another, parallel universe, and is interested in distinguishing it from his/her own, conventionally very often he/she will pull out some fancy scanner-machine to read the environment for differences…or, will just stumble along through the plot discovering the differences…
Yet “differences” don’t exist in a vacuum, and no magical scanning-machine could hope to tell if the difference between one universe and another were situated a hundred million miles away? So embedded in the idea of the “finding out” about the parallelism of universes is the idea of complete weblike causal relation, the idea that an electron out of place in Andromeda will have consequences in your backyard that you can observe…otherwise where things cannot be told apart they must be the same, right? Hmm, and at very large scales I guess this must break down, once you start going over cosmological event horizons and the like…unless there’s time-travel…
(shakes head) But anyway, the other idea embedded here is that you can “tell the difference” (provided only that a difference exists to be told) by the simple observation of causes and effects, locally, sprouting all around you, which necessarily (I think) means making a comparison between the world’s causal webwork and your own: Reed Richards, in other words, isn’t scanning the universe with his handheld tricorder-thingy, he’s scanning himself, to find out if he’s a caused element in whatever universe he finds himself in. “As above, so below”, and all that.
But what (to borrow a rhetorical trick from Andrew) has this all got to do with the findings of IBEX about the magnetic ribbon at the heliopause, that I was emailling Hollistic Tendencies about today? AHA. Well, IBEX can detect deformations and changes in the ribbon, that are caused by the Sun’s magnetic field interacting with the Galactic Magnetic Field, and this means that IBEX becomes as a sort of eyepiece, to a very very very large naturally-occurring telescopic apparatus…once we decide to think of it that way. So on and up we go, on the ladder of detection, from small things mama big things one day come (intentional Promethea quasi-allusion), and it almost does seem kind of “magical” in that it doesn’t seem a million miles away from the principle that Lesser can affect Greater, but more importantly…
…That lesser can detect greater, see Greater’s fingerprints all over it, if it is a grand cosmic principle of the universe rather explains the fractal falling-in of apophenia that lets pages about things like Promethea kind of write themselves?
And also I’m just excited about the IBEX findings in general, you know. But, maybe it means I <i.will get a thousand pages…can’t blame a guy for hoping…
Anyway, godspeed! Whatever that means.
“So embedded in the idea of the “finding out” about the parallelism of universes is the idea of complete weblike causal relation”
Without wanting to be too much of a spoiler, google the terms “Judea Pearl” and “directed acyclic graph”. I’m trying to think of a way to bring Hasse diagrams in as well, because the Tree Of Life looks so much like one, but I can’t think of a sensible set it could be a diagram of.
Shoot, I’ve got Directed Acyclic Graphs right here on my monitor! How’d you know?
Never heard of “Judea Pearl”, though, my God what an evocative name…
Ha! You’ve successfully sidetracked me from all the dull file-management tasks I was going to do today! THANK YOU!