Delivering the 20th Century

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel From Hell is an indictment of history, or at least of a conventional view of it. History as something with form and structure, composed of irrefutable details and fine boundaries, is pure fantasy in this account of the Jack the Ripper murders. In his art, Campbell sketches an East End of scribbles, delivering an impression of city streets and the people that inhabit them rather than solid definition. Moore himself is not trying to render the final judgement on the Ripper’s identity or motives. Of course, he suggests a culprit—Sir William Withey Gull, Physician to the Royal Family and alleged Freemason. Still, the culpability of Gull lies in a shroud of paganism and occultism that takes him from butcher to architect of the 20th century. Moore did not need a murderer. What he needed was Jack himself, a face to put to the deeds and deliver the coming century. As Gull carries out the murders of his five victims, steadily progressing from slashings to vivisections, he sees the 1900s materialize before him. As the killings progress, he is whisked away to catch glimpses of the future his actions herald. Gull is the architect, working with bone and blood; the women, fodder for the future.

Written from 1989 to 1998, From Hell serves as a reflection of the legacy of the 20th century by tackling the question of its birth and interrogating why it had to be so exceedingly bloody. In one of Gull’s final visions, during his two hour butchery of his final victim, he sees a world of sterility. Gull is in an office, surrounded by cubicle workers with the light sapped from their eyes who, despite their familiar form, barely register to him as human. Gull is left, at the end of his journey, questioning his design for the 20th century—one that sought to preserve man’s pioneering spirit by diminishing what seemed to him the destabilizing influence of female power. As far as Gull is concerned, progress is the domain of men. Science, art, engineering, and, of course, architecture, are depicted as aspirational. Women, on the other hand, represent an ungovernable reality. A man who wishes to see himself as master of his fate and his future, Gull sees his divine duty to lie in a lurid monument to the subjugation and destruction of women. Certainly, Gull succeeds in delivering the 20th century—a time of unprecedented progress and innovation, where men strove for greater things. The price for all of this was blood, and it’s a price that we have paid and keep paying. Innovation brings ever-efficient means of dealing death and destroying our fellow man, perhaps revisiting Gull’s own sacrificial offerings to the future. Here, the future is laid with foundations of corpses, with destruction being the fruit of all of man’s aspirations. As such, Moore’s decision to make his Ripper one of the most celebrated physicians in the country becomes a canny one, re-evaluating the worth of progress and empiricism. What From Hell and Gull himself seem to be mourning in this reflection on the 20th century is the trickling out of some essential humanity that has since been lost to us.

The most haunting chapter of From Hell depicts the Ripper’s final murder of a supposed Mary Anne Kelly (the body was never identified) and the ensuing vivisection that allegedly lasted for up to two hours. The bulk of the chapter is concerned with Gull’s slow and painstaking dissection of his victim, peeling flesh and unearthing viscera with a dazed, uncanny disposition. So cavalier is the Ripper in the destruction of this woman’s body that he momentarily imagines himself to be conducting a demonstrative dissection for his students, completely bereft of feeling. Gull’s matter-of-fact evisceration, which exclusively targets the female and marginalized, is equated to the disenfranchisement so common amongst the social debris of the East End. The unwanted and impertinent residents of the East End have not been bettered by the Industrial Revolution, still mired in poverty and precarity. Industry has failed to provide succor and, in the distant future of the late 20th century that Gull is privy to, it has drained the world of its vitality. Upon gaining an understanding of the world and its natural laws, we are suddenly empowered to assess and disregard its wonders as passionlessly as Gull dismantles his victims. The victory that Gull achieves in shaping the 20th century is a reassertion of masculinity and reason, at the expense of everything else. The result is listless and aimless killing for the sake of killing, perfecting the art of destroying not only human lives but culture and the Earth itself. The culmination of Gull’s work would not be achieved till the 1970’s, with the advent of global neoliberalism, which maximized the efficient management of people and culture.

In Watchmen, another of Moore’s comic book series, he props up the quintessential neoliberal villain in Ozymandias, whose brutal arithmetic dooms hundreds of thousands for the sake of world peace. Both Ozymandias and Gull perhaps see themselves as inversions of Woland, in that their will is good but their works evil. Moore questions the worth of good intentions in the face of the palpable terror they bring. This dichotomy is further highlighted in the novel’s appropriation of Nietzschean thought, pitting masculine, constructivist Apollo against the death-drive of Dionysus. Despite placing himself as a herald of progress, Gull’s late night plunges in guts and viscera, and his steadily growing madness, speak more of Dionysian impulses than Apollonian. As such, Moore paints progress—as long as it remains an end in and of itself and passionlessly pursued for aggrandizement rather than human welfare—as self-defeating and paradoxical. The human progress of the 20th century is unguided by passion, but instead of an emotional vacuum there has emerged an unconscious brutality that contradicts our spoken intentions.

Frederic Jameson argues that, under neoliberalism and late capitalism, expression has become displaced from real-world inspiration, leading to a “flattening” of culture that robs it of authenticity. Moore shares these sentiments, claiming that popular culture in the latter 20th century became “repetitive”, bemoaning the popularity of stories that, according to him, have little to do with the real world. Perhaps it is artifice that Moore is rallying against, the consequences of man’s ability to destroy and rebuild outpacing the powers of nature. The wellspring of passion and humanity isn’t within us but in the natural world that Gull and his descendants would seek to subjugate and pacify. In From Hell, the tendency to reason, order and control is a uniquely masculine impulse, culminating in the hollowing out of humanity.

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