“One Nervous System’s Passage Through Time”: GRANT MORRISON interviewed by Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur Magazine No. 12/Sept. 2004

“One Nervous System’s Passage Through Time”: Magic works, says genius comic book scribe GRANT MORRISON, and he would know—he’s been exploring it for 25 years. He talks with Jay Babcock about what he’s experienced and What It (Maybe) All Means.

Cover illustration by Cameron Stewart.

Although he has claimed to be an heir to an immortal space dynasty who stays cheerful by imagining that aliens “will probably be turning up to rescue him any day now,” Grant Morrison was in fact born in 1960 to a pair of liberal activist Earthlings. Growing up in the slums of Glasgow, Scotland, where he was brought up by his mother while being “barely educated” in public schools, Morrison developed an early enthusiasm for all things pop and fantastic: rock n roll music, science fiction and fantasy literature, mythology and the occult, punks, mods, beatniks and, of course, foxes and cats.

But the early love that would bear the most fruit was for comic books, which he began writing and drawing as an adolescent. Foregoing higher education and living on his own in a Glasgow ghetto from age 19, Morrison gradually built a career as a comics writer of prodigious imagination, armed with a sense of humor: the title of his first published story was “Time Is a Four-Lettered Word.”

After years of toil writing in the British sci-fi comics world while making psychedelic mod-pop with his Glaswegian band The Makers, Morrison landed work at American publisher DC Comics, where his deeply unsettling Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum, illustrated by Sandman cover artist Dave McKean, was published in 1989. It remains Morrison’s bestselling work but in the wake of his work since then—his two-year run on Animal Man, in which the lead character, refashioned as a superpowered animal-rights activist, gradually becomes aware that he is a character in a comic book; four years of Doom Patrol, a deeply Surrealist four-color romp starring a superhero team of mental patients; shorter works like the multi-meta-superhero comic Flex Mentallo and the controversial-for-obvious-reasons Kill Your Boyfriend; The Invisibles, an epic for would-be technoccult anarchists; and The Filth, a seriously dark and bizarre 13-issue series, discussed at length in this interview—it seems relatively minor.

“You don’t get much time on Earth to do stuff, so I like to keep busy,” Morrison told one interviewer last year, and so he has: in addition to the aforementioned work, Morrison recently completed a 40-issue run on New X-Men and Seaguy, a picaresque three-issue series drawn by this Arthur’s cover artist Cameron Stewart; an original screenplay for Dreamworks; and scripts for two more three-issue series debuting in the next few months, We3 and Vimanarama.

Recently returned from a wedding honeymoon that included a week’s stay in Dubai (where “they’re building the 21st century out of sand,” he says), Morrison spoke at length by phone from his Glasgow home about the whys and wherefores of his work, his life and the Present Situation in Our World.

Arthur: Did you see the news about the super-strong German toddler? I was reminded where you were saying your run on X-Men was a set of fables for the coming mutant, which you thought might already exist or be on their way.

Grant Morrison: I figured even within 50 years we’ll probably have quite a few superhumans on the planet. There’s something about the superman idea that’s pushing itself closer and closer to reality, to the real-life material workaday world that we can touch. The supercharacters began in the pulps and then worked their way through comics, and they keep moving to more and more extensive mass media. Now it’s everywhere, and it’s become the common currency of culture. I said, way back, almost joking, that I thought the super-people were really trying very hard to make their way off the skin of the second dimension to get in here. They want to be in here with us. They’re colonizing people’s minds, and they’re now colonizing movies, so the next stage is to clamber off the screen into the street. I think what you’re starting to see, with things like this weird kid, and also the experiments that are going on with animals, the cyborg experiments and genetic manipulation that is now possible, is that pretty soon there’s gonna be super-people. You’ll be able to select for superpeople: “I want my kid to have electric powers.” That kind of thing.

And when supermen do come along, what are they gonna want to find? A role model. Like everyone else on the planet. We all want to find people who’ve trod our path before, who can suggest some ways to help us feel significant. So the idea behind a lot of what I was doing in X-Men and really all of my comics is to give these future supermen a template, to say “Okay you’re a superhuman, and maybe it feels a little like this. I’ve tried really hard as one of the last of the human beings to think what it might be like in your world.” Rather than bring them to us, which is what a lot of superhero fiction in the past has tried to do, I’ve tried to go into their world and to understand what’s going on in the space of the comics, and to try and find a way to make that into a morality, almost, or a creed, or an aesthetic, that might make sense to someone who has yet to be born with powers beyond those of mortal man. I think we have to give them images of rescue and ambition and cosmic potency, rather than images of control and fascist perfection.

Arthur: Can a cartoon code of ethics really deal with real-world subtleties?

In a sense it is a cartoon code of ethics, but these will be cartoon people, having to live in a real world. And I think the cartoon code of ethics stands up as well as anything Jesus came up with. Don’t kill. Don’t let bullies have their way. Use your powers in the service of good. I think we should be focusing towards that, rather than providing images of destruction or of despair.

Purely on a conceptual level, the Justice League were created to solve every possible problem, right? [chuckles] That’s what they’re there for. They never fail. These are things that the human imagination has created and put on paper and they exist – they have a more than 40 years’ lifespan. Still existing, still clinging to life, these images. So I think if we’ve created something in our heads that’s so beautiful and so strong and so moral that it can solve all our problems with justice, intelligence and discrimination, then why don’t we use it? Tap into it a little more and understand what these images mean and what they can do for us beyond the obvious. Why was Superman created? That’s the really important thing. What kind of imaginative need was being served by that? And to access that again, to make it vital again, to empower the fiction again, I think, would help our culture deal with some of the implications of its own future.

We have to hang onto the immense power of that imaginative world. Every creed, every weapon, every invention or symphony began as an idea in someone’s head. We’re very good at making insubstantial ideas into physical artifacts or systems of conduct—which is magic, of course, humanity’s greatest skill.

Yeah, you can imagine that the first Aryan superman will probably crawl out of his test tube and want to subjugate us all with the hammers of his fists, but by using the power of imagination right now maybe we can provide his mighty brain with something better than conquest to think about.

America is a young country on the planet. It has the strength and insolence of youth, and no one to play with. It’s a bully—it’s a superman, amongst nations, a hyperpower. What can we do about it?

What I think has happened is, America has hit adolescence. And it’s got all these difficult feelings. It’s gone a bit Goth and sullen and withdrawn. We have what Crowley called the Horus current rolling over us at the moment, which is that very powerful energy of adolescent rebellion which seems to have entered the world, overcoming traditional systems, disordering the past in order to create something new… The whole global organism seems to go through these periodic developmental spasms or phases which are quite clear and obvious when you look at how they manifest through history. This seems to be another spasm. Again, like I say, it brings with it a restless, adolescent and even infantilizing zeitgeist…I don’t know how far we’re gonna push it. Japan’s reaction to immense post-War trauma was to dress itself up as a shrieking 16-year-old schoolgirl and make sure everything was pink and flashing! Consumers in the formerly adult Western capitalist democracies are retreating into the same familiar child-glamour of DVD extras, cartoon shows, superhero movies and toys. But all these things that we’re seeing seem to tie into that complex of ideas, which is Horus, the ferocious fiery adolescent who’s throwing down all the bricks in order to build something else up…as Crowley predicted a hundred years ago in The Book of the Law. He was talking about this current coming into history and disordering things and re-making things and redrawing the maps, realigning old certainties. For my part, I honestly see people like Bush and Blair as having been caught up in and being forced to carry currents of historical energy, or whatever you want to call this thing, these growing pains that occur. They can’t help it. They’ve been put there. George Bush got us through this ghastly time as the boatman of the Abyss. Look at him! Who but this gimlet-eyed, alpha casualty of history would you trust to boat us through the Abyss? Nixon’s the only other one I’d trust. These are darkside figures for darkside times. Caligulas. And I think they play their part perfectly until they’re replaced by other people who come in and play the parts written for new times which have a different tenor and different atmospheres. So I think Bush was in place for a time that suited that kind of deranged human being. [chuckles] And it’s quite clear that his time is over.

That all begs the question, if this was predicted by Crowley, what did he say would happen next?

Well, Crowley said we could have 500 years of a dark age! [laughs] I hope he’s wrong. But there’s no reason why not. We had 500 years of dark age a thousand years ago, before the Renaissance. People can be stupid sometimes. Crowley obviously thought the larger-scale process were working themselves out just fine and if we have to have 500 years of dark age in order to learn something important for our development, then too bad and so be it. Easy for him to say.

If you’re aware of this process going on, how do you deal with at a personal level?

It’s kind of strange. Once you’ve realize things are kind of different from what we were taught in school, what do you do with that? I spent 25 years doing magic because I didn’t believe Aleister Crowley when he said a demon would appear if I performed certain operations. And so I did the operations to prove him wrong, and a fucking demon appeared! [laughs] So, from the age of 19 I’ve had to deal with the fact that the demon had actually appeared, and that Crowley was saying something that now made sense experientially.

Which demon was it?

I dunno, it had a flaming lion’s head, and it said “I am neither North nor South” and I shat myself. I read up on it since but I can’t remember the name offhand. I think it was more of an angel, to be honest. But the bottom line is at age 19, being quite skeptical, I discovered it worked. And I had to deal with that, to accommodate that view of the world. Which was really good, because I was glad that the world could contain such things, because before I hadn’t been quite convinced by people telling me it did. But nevertheless, it’s a kind of deranging thing because the minute you’ve crossed the threshhold into that room, all you can do is go back and say to people, “Look, if you do this, demons appear. I don’t know what demons are, but I’ve got some ideas now that I’ve seen one. I think it may be this.” And at that point, it doesn’t matter what you say next, because unless people are willing to have the experience, they’ll either think you’re insane or lying for some personal gain or whatever else they’ll think. Some might even believe you. It’s a kind of deranging place to be. I just want to talk about it with people who know what I mean. All I’ve got to offer is my experience as a human being in the world. I’m not a guru. I don’t fucking know! [laughs] The further I go with it, the more I do magical things, the more I summon entities, or the more I pursue these procedures, the less I seem to know! I hate to be gnomic about this and it’s very easy. There’s so much obfuscation in this area. There’s so many metaphors colliding and blinding people to the actuality and radical immensity of what’s right there in front of them, which is what magic is: the dawning understanding of how things all fit together. And how it works, and how frightening and intricate and gigantic it all is and yet how bloody simple, based on a simple binary iteration of ones and zeroes. But in between the Bleeding Obvious and people’s understanding comes thousands of years of metaphor. Words. Spells. Obscuring the truth in an attempt to unveil it.

Seeing significance, seeing meanings… this is how we find life interesting or worth living.

Humans are significance providers. We give things names, ‘personalities,’ meanings so that we can relate to them in a way that feels enriching. And if we don’t add the seasoning of significance to our experience, we feel bad. If we do sprinkle on significance, we feel good. It’s really that simple. Even the so-called ‘bad’ feelings or negative states we experience are rich storehouses of meaning. This last year after my dad died and my cats died, I felt so bad and so hopeless but I had to acknowledge that I still felt. These feelings are not actually the negative kinds of states that they try to convince you they are. They’re feelings, and they’re all quite sharp and they’re all quite bright and alive. The meaning is that life HURTS in many instances, generally because it implicates us in something desperately precious and fragile and temporary. It tells us we have immanent, time-transcending aspects of consciousness which find it difficult yet fascinating to observe the corrosive action of Time on form. That’s a good a meaning as any.

Don’t you feel that we’re kind of getting forced to look at shit here? That’s what it’s all about: being forced to come here and look at this monstrous, apocalyptic splintering and re-combining of matter and form through Time. Even the hurt is part of the fun, it’s got meaning, it’s got sweet sensation, it’s very powerful—it’s not a numb feeling, it’s an alive feeling. It’s just that the older we get, the more understanding we have of mortality, the more we become alive, and the more alive you are, the more everything hurts. The tree’s gonna get cut down, the cat’s gonna die, Mom’s gonna die. We’re being forced to accept that in here, everything changes all the time. To be alive is to be in constant metamorphosis: I was once two years old and I was tiny, now I’m this old and eventually I’ll be old and I’ll be bent and then I’ll be dying in a bed somewhere. It’s a constant metamorphosis of form. If you watched it from an outside perspective, you’d just see us as whirling matter catapulted through the thorny mess of Time, and see the friction of it, the relentless wearing down of skin from our youth. It seems painful and insane but that must be the point: we’re here to feel things.

You’ve talked about purposefully putting yourself into these places while you were working on The Filth. Why did you do that?

My view of magic is it’s a kind of participation with everything around you, and you kind of enter into a dance, and the dance can be quite scary—sometimes it’s like a very rapid flamenco with a demanding partner, and sometimes it’s a nice strutting tango and sometimes it’s the last dance of the evening. But I do feel that it’s a participation, I feel as if my atoms and the atoms of everything else kind of mingle and get invigorated.

What happened was, I’d started writing The Invisibles as a little rebel, as a left-winger from a very poor, radical Bohemian background; I hated the government and I hated the police and I was a rebel against all forms of authority. By the time I’d got to the end of it, I had destroyed all my own certainties by picking them apart. Because that was part of what it was all about, y’know, I wanted to critique the things that I’d been brought up to believe as we’ll as all the things I was already against. I was after total rebellion and that included trashing even very cherished beliefs about what we are and what we do and why it happens.

So by the end of The Invisibles I was kind of forced into a position where the dualistic simplicity of what I’d believed in before wasn’t holding up to actual scrutiny and to the reality of the life I was living. I found myself in a place where I felt I had to confront all the negative aspects of a lot of stuff I believed. I realized that as much as I believed in freedom, in saving the world from tyranny, something in me was also against that drive. A death impulse. The dark impulse. I’m a ‘nice guy’ but I can and have done plenty of hurtful things to other people. As an imaginative person, I can think detailed thoughts that are so appalling and perverse, it makes me squirm in my pants to have such things lying around in my head. I had to own up to my own potential for badness, and I assumed it was pretty much the same for everybody else because I’m not that unique.

So, writing Invisibles cracked open the shell of my lofty personal creed, exposing it as more self-interest, after which I was forced to confront other things about duality and who’s ‘good’ or who’s ‘bad’. Previously, I’d believed there were good people and there were bad people, that it was freedom versus repression…that, in fact, even the bad people weren’t really bad once you get to know them and found out their sense of humour. I was quite wrong about that and much more naïve and optimistic about life than I realized. The problem of Evil had to be considered.

So I began to see things more and more as a system, a single growing organism three and a half billion years old, in which we played roles very much like those of cells, because I was trying to look at it objectively and honestly and see things for what they were and not what I wanted them to be, which is hurtful. Because you’d rather they were what you wanted them to be. You’d rather not have the truth ruin your perfectly constructed model but I couldn’t lie to myself and get any further so…

The Invisibles comes to the conclusion that the bad guys are us. And as I say in The Invisibles, are there any years when there are no policemen born? I began to question everything about the counterculture I belonged to, why they kicked police horses in the streets, and why they smashed buildings, and what they were actually achieving? Or were they just part of a bigger system that used these checks and balances in order to propel itself forward through the stages of its mega-develoment? And once I’d really grasped everything as a vast, intricate and singular process that’s operating perfectly, I couldn’t hate the cops anymore. I couldn’t hate George Bush any more than a Helper T-cell hates a Hunter/Killer. I saw him inextricably bound in a web of circumstance that forced him to be whom and where he was, exactly like me, and exactly like you, and exactly like Naomi Campbell. We all do our bit.

I realized if it wasn’t me thinking and saying this, it would be someone else. In fact, there often is someone else who is not me who is interested in exactly the same stuff and talks about the same things. Because really the ideas are what count, and the ideas are undying and express themselves through us. Before me, there was William Burroughs, or Jack Kerouac or Percy Shelley, or anyone else who was driven to rebellion against consensus thought. I saw myself suddenly as a fleeting component in the system, and that I could and would be replaced. In 20 years’ time, or 60 years’ time, there will be another person EXACTLY like me, doing similar things, talking about the same things, and trying to goad everyone along some imagined path of evolution. There was a kind of relief in realizing that I had a simple purposeand a place like that. And that, yeah, all through time, my family has included storytellers, as far as we can remember. The living immortal DNA does the storytelling, not “me.” There were Irish seanochaidhs all the way back, my granddad told my mother science fiction stories about Larry O’Keefe and the All-Seeing Eye, and now I do the same thing on a different scale! DNA. It’s so bloody obvious: I’m just this tiny little shard of flying self-awareness that will be gone shortly but while its here it’s been perfectly-designed to perform certain functions necessary to the health of the Biota (as the totality of all life ever on Earth is known) organism—in my case, writing about how it feels to be alive so that other people can feel less alone when they read it. As I say, I suddenly felt like a white blood cell, just one of many, many, many. That liberated me but it also was a scary thought.

So you had this shattering realization.

It was awful at first because it negated the drive towards heroic ‘Individuality’ which I’d been told was so important in my culture. And I read Howard Bloom’s Lucifer Principle at the same time, and it confirmed a lot of the things I was coming to understand intuitively. So it was an apocalypse for me. [laughs] Everything I’d ever believed was hurled into negative. And The Filth came out of that, trying to understand that every cherished thought and belief had an equally valid counterpoint. Once I realized I had to think about this stuff and I had to deal with it, I decided to treat it as an Abyss experience, based on the ideas of kabbalistic magic. Because that at least gave me a context to deal with the experience. According to Kabbalah, or to Enochian magic, the Abyss is a kind of Ring-Pass-Not for consciousness, which means that beyond that, the typical self-aware 11-bit consciousness you use to get through the day, doesn’t operate. The kabbalistic idea of the Abyss is manifold. There’s a kind of crack in Being and the crack is the moment of the Breath before the Big Bang. It’s also the crack of dead time where we do nothing when we’d like to do something, the crack between the thought of doing and actually doing. That gulf can become immense and daunting. We might decide to be President and do nothing, leading to a life of reproach and regret. [chuckle] Then you’re in the Abyss. So I felt this confrontation with difficult material coming, and I chose to frame it as a trip into the Abyss, I took the Oath of the Abyss, from the Thelemic version of Kabbalah, the Aleister Crowley version, and…again all this stuff really is to me ways of contextualizing states of consciousness. Crowley also talks about the demon Choronzon who’s the guardian of the Abyss, and Choronzon is a demon who takes any thought and amplifies until it becomes a completely disorienting storm of disconnected gibberish.

I think we’ve all ‘experienced’ that guy.

Exactly. It’s that kind of meaningless babble that drowns our coherent thought when you’re sick or speeding or anxious. The mind constantly saying “Why’d you do that? Because I did that. But why’d you do that? Because you asked me why I did that,” endlessly demanding justification for every aspect of being. Human consciousness at the last gasp. Desperately circling, like a plane, waiting for permission to land. Trying to re-affirm itself all the time by constant self-interrogation. But beyond that, beyond that Choronzonic state of cannibal cognition, lies the Abyss, which is this absolute negation of every concept! George Bush is a bad guy, you think smugly. Well, no, he’s not, his mum probably thinks he’s lovely! [laughs] And you have to think, well okay I might learn something if I imagine what it’s like to be George Bush’s mom—she looks at him and remembers him as a little soft bundle clinging to her breast, and maybe thinks he’s doing okay, a bit of a mess, but y’know it’s good ol’ George and we can always clear up after. The main thing is he’s keeping the name in the history books, like Caesar. The next member of the Bush Dynasty might be even worse! Nero Bush! And her heart softens at the sight of his little confused, pinched face as he deals with stuff he was never made to contemplate.

In the Abyss, everything cancels out everything else. I could even find a perfectly valid reason for the Holocaust! You know, it was horrific. The idea that everything I ever thought, everything I ever believed, had its negative, and the negative could just as easily be justified by all the right words. It’s a destructive, corrosive state of consciousness. If I’d gone through it, if I’d experienced it without magic, I wouldn’t’ve had a name to give it and may have become completely overwhelmed and crazed. Fortunately magic provides roadmaps and names for these types of experiences. So even at the worst, lowest ebb I knew I was in a place that lots of people had already visited and charted for me. I knew how things would likely develop and what state of consciousness it was necessary to attain in order to silence the yammering voices of Existential terror. Lo and behold, my ‘Abyss’ crossing developed and concluded exactly as I’d been told it would, which is no surprise because all these people have done this before.

You’re involved in magic, but you aren’t part of a tribe or a tradition. You haven’t apprenticed like a shaman in training, you haven’t been initiated into an order. You aren’t a part of that.

I think if I was younger, maybe…the idea of galloping around in groups forming hierarchies to impress people and get off with girls seems cool if you’re twenty. I dunno, back then, I would’ve done it if I’d ever thought there was some place I could go where I’d find naked girls jumping over a cauldron but there was never anything like that ‘round our way. I just had to do it for myself or wait forever for a ‘master’. It wasn’t for want of trying. I’ve always wanted to be a part of something but I never quite managed it. I feel pretty self-contained – if I want something to read, I write it. If I want something to look, at I draw it. If I want music to listen to, I create it. I don’t know if I could be bothered with the soap-opera tensions of lots of people having intense emotions in a room together. I’ve played in bands and yes, you can create really interesting effects with mass psychosis [laughs] but it can be done on your own as well. Initiation can happen if you want it to. Initiation is simply a change of consciousness, an upgrade that gives you a wider and more inclusive viewpoint.

When you went to Kathmandu some kind of initiation was very much your intention, right?

I’d been doing magic since I was 19 and by the time I went to Kathmandu I was 34, I’d been at it for a long long time. In 1992, I started taking drugs, to see what would happen if I did magic while tripping. I found that when you performed rituals on drugs, you actually saw all the monsters! [laughs] They were actually there in front of you. The drugs allowed you to see things: you actually did experience clear and stable manifestations of Hermes or Ganesh or any of these entities, so it was like discovering the microscope for me. Before that, I’d done all this stuff totally straight-edge which was good in a way because I actually don’t have that lack of conviction that maybe it’s just the drugs, you know? My first 12 years of magical experiments were always begun at baseline normal consciousness. I was still creating in myself the bizarre consciousness changes magicians are familiar with—they just weren’t as flamboyant, as visual or as persistent as the drug-enhanced version.

By 1994, it was becoming quite intense, I was doing nothing but magic every day. Because I was living on my own, the house had become this site of magical madness. So Kathmandu was this idea… My friend Ulric and I had seen this program on TV where some guy promised that if you went up the 365 steps of the Shwayambunath temple in Kathmandu without drawing a breath, you’d achieve enlightenment in this life. So we turned up demanding enlightenment now! If it’s that simple, let’s do it! And we ran up the steps to the temple on a single breath, it was really easy. Enlightenment in this life is really easy, it turns out—it’s as simple as working a few muscles.

But I wanted something to happen. I wanted the Buddha to descend on me, I wanted some kind of visionary experience. And on the last day in Kathmandu, I got the visionary experience like nothing I’d ever known before or since. I was taken out of Four-D reality, shown the entire universe as a single object, shown the world as it is from outside, the viewpoint of the Supercontext as I called it in “The Invisibles,” and it was profound. It was a shattering experience. It completely changed everything about how I viewed the world, life, death, time. [laughs] Whether it was real or not… You know, a lot of people say “Oh you were stoned weren’t ya?” and yeah, I took two little pieces of hash but…I’ve tried plenty of drugs before and since then and never been able to re-create the experience: not even with DMT, not even Salvia, any of these alien contact drugs. They’re nothing like this. It didn’t come with the hash, it was something else. It was something I’d been waiting for, what Crowley would call the conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel. It feels like a contact with a future self, or with a self that exists outside time and space, in what Australian aborigines would call Aljira, the Dreamtime. Platonic reality. Which again is our translation of a word that is much more complex than “Dreamtime.” I was taken to a place that was outside space and time, and shown space and time for what it is, a kind of nursery in which the larval forms of 5-D godlike intelligences are grown to adulthood. They said, “Space and time is place where you grow children, because only in Time do things grow.”

So, the experience was immense and completely transformative, and in that sense, it’s utterly real, whether or not you believe in aliens or in fifth dimensional beings or unfolded future selves. It doesn’t matter. What this ‘contact experience’ does is re-create your entire relationship with everything around you. So in that sense, it’s utterly real. There is something else going on beyond 11-bit consciousness—everyone who explores ‘magical’ consciousness reports the same experiences. Philip K. Dick obviously had the same kind of experience in 1974. Alan Moore’s obviously had the same experience, judging from his recent work. Robert Anton Wilson’s obviously had the same experience. Buddha. Christ. Carlos Castaneda. David Icke! All these people offer corroboration and their own metaphors for framing the same experience. If Philip K. Dick says it’s contact with a Vast And Living Intelligence System, if Alan Moore calls it Ideaspace, if Robert Anton Wilson says it’s Cosmic Tricksters from Sirius, maybe we should just start accepting that certain types of thinking lead to a shift in consciousness which offers human minds a more inclusive view of Time, Space and Mind, and try to find ways to generate that kind of thinking in children at school.

When you were finishing The Invisibles, you were feeling shattered. Why did you not have another conversation with your holy guardian angel?

The Holy Guardian Angel abandons the magician on the Threshold of the Abyss, those are the time-honored rules. We cross the desert unaccompanied. After completing The Invisibles, I’d opened up areas of knowledge that really had to be dealt with. Things that I hadn’t considered seriously enough, things about time and death and the microscopic world and the macroscopic world, the inflexible rules which really make us what we are, the anti-concepts in the spaces between things… we’re encouraged to avoid this type of ‘morbid’ thinking. But when you do think about it, it’s quite sobering and quite real and ‘mortifying’ in that sense. So I felt as if I had to deal with what was being presented to me, I couldn’t NOT think about it. These were types of new consciousness that seemed to be broken open by the experiences I’d been having. I don’t think there are literal aliens or guardian angels, I think that that’s how a certain state of consciousness manifests itself, and we interpret the opening up of those cognitive centers as contact with the Other. We use a gloss to make sense of this feeling of contact and so, depending on who we are, we see benevolent aliens or perhaps they’re demons or mind-controlling space Lizards or it’s Satan or Jehovah. If you suddenly see time and space as one dynamic living, conscious object and all of human life as one demonstrably single organism, it’s easy to just shit yourself cold like H.P. Lovecraft did. If you hear a voice that doesn’t sound entirely like your own in your head, it can be spooky. It can be quite frightening to realize that you’re intimately connected with a bacterium somewhere in the pre-Cambrian.

So I think it’s a simple state of consciousness. And what is called magic or sorcery or whatever is a way of triggering this and other interesting states of consciousness which put you in a different relationship with time and space and being and life. When a developing child first hears the voice of her own egoic self-awareness in her head, she may separate the voice off and call it an imaginary friend until it becomes familiar to her as her own Self or Ego. The Guardian Angel is a much more organized and coherent form of consciousness but there’s that same separation when it first manifests. We conceptualize these splendid new inner voices as future-selves or as angels, I assume, because the message really feels like it’s coming from some magnificent elsewhere, some Other. When it manifests it’s like a voice in your head and you talk to it and it tells you things you’ve never thought of, as if it knows more than you do. So I have to assume that, in the same way that children at four can’t see perspective and children at five can, what we’re really seeing here is a standard upgrading of the cognitive apparatus, which allows us to view the world in a more holistic integrated way but it comes on like an alien abduction, it comes in like an invasion from beyond: that feeling of suddenly seeing the world and everything as one thing. People have been talking about it for thousands of years, they crucified poor Jesus for developing this vision at the wrong time in the wrong place, so we have to assume it’s a normal human potential.

How did you find about chaos magic in the first place?

I was 19 and I was kinda feeling like nothing’s ever gonna happen in my life. [laughs] I thought I was great and I didn’t understand why nobody else thought I was great. I didn’t understand why I was so alone. The usual. So I went in to a shop and I picked up “Prediction” magazine, a pop occult magazine, mostly about astrological stuff with some vague nods in the direction of magic. And in the back of it there were adverts for a small press zine called “The Lamp of Thoth”—of all the adverts I figured this was the most interesting one, so I sent away for it. So basically that’s where Phil Hine started to do a lot of articles, Pete Carroll and Ray Sherman and all the early chaos magic people, and Chris Bray, who was running his occult shop in Leeds. So I got kind of involved with that magical underground and I was getting chaos magic as it was happening.

To me, it was punk magic, because it was stripping away all the stuff about magic that wasn’t making any sense to me. I’d sat there with Crowley’s books and even Robert Anton Wilson kind of said you have to spend a lot of time understanding the kabbalistic sephiroth or the enochian aethyrs and I was reading that stuff and it wasn’t getting through to me, it didn’t really connect, it didn’t mean anything to me, cuz these seemed like the symbols of another age and—apart from the Egyptian cat goddess Bast, and the amusing complex of Scribe gods comprising Thoth. Odin/Ganesh and Hermes—they lacked any real emotional connection for me. So when Chaos Magic came along to say that instead of summoning up Hermes, you could just as easily summon up DC comics super-speedster The Flash and The Flash would appear, visibly, I was naturally excited. [laughs] So I’m going, Bullshit, and I summoned Metron from the “New Gods” comics…and I got Metron! Or I should say what I got was the distilled, descending power and magic of language, speed and information which was wearing Metron drag in order to talk to me.

So Chaos taught me to look past the gods at what was actually happening around me and inside me when I was ‘doing’ magic – the changes to my breathing, hear rate, perspiration. Climactic changes. Pressure drops or rises. And what was actually happening were changes of consciousness in response to focused activity. A kind of drama. I’ve come to believe over the years that there are seven default states of the human organism, which allow us to assume different roles under different circumstances—in some groups we find ourselves playing the clown, with others the lover or the leader, or the bully. Each of us is capable of assuming the role of king or of criminal if the situation demands it. These defaults were represented in the past by the planets of the classical solar system, the sephiroth of the Kabbalah, and the pantheons of all early cultures. There are seven personality defaults on the Kabblistic Tree of Life and there’s a mother and father pole, there’s a transcendent pole, there’s a mundane pole. That’s the basic human soul and I think the Kabbalistic Tree of Life is a knitting pattern for the human soul. If you’re an Australian aborigine, you don’t know anything about the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, however, but you still have to have a human soul and you still have to have a way of conceptualizing the mother and the father and the mundane and the transcendent and the different personality settings. So you have a different gloss, a different set of metaphors for the same set of human experiences. After long study of all the various ‘systems’ or glosses, I got more interested in the underlying experiences and less in the metaphors, the lists of gods and attributes and holy numbers…

So Chaos Magic was a kind of postmodernism for me, it taught me to look at what was actually going on, and to see it shorn of its symbolic content, and then to apply new metaphors of my own. So rather than deal with an Enochian spirit that Crowley had conjured, I would go directly to my imaginary friend from when I was age 6 and ask him to help, because Foxy has so immense potency for me, so much more power in my imagination and so much more strength as an idea than does. Chaos Magic is a kind of stripping away, taking magic back to the shamanic core of personal experience.

So I became a kind of pop shaman around town: I used to find people’s lost guitars and heal pets and basically do clever-man stuff, but it was almost arising from circumstances. I’d be in a pub and some girl would say I’ve just broken up with my boyfriend, will you read my Tarot cards. And I had no idea how you read Tarot cards, I would just say Yes and then read them and it would work. The metaphors for all that were actually just getting in the way of what we were doing, which was a kind of communication and participation with the workings of the universe.

Are you still working on the Pop Magic book?

Yeah. It’s already 150 pages done. I’m just presenting stuff that I’ve discovered over the years of practise. All of my experiments in Enochian magic, voodoo, Aztec sorcery, Buddhism, Satanism, kabbalah, spiral dynamics, wicca, Gnosticism are there along with the outline of my personal system and practical nuts-and-bolts advice for budding sorcerors. All I can do is offer my nervous system’s passage through time and what it’s recorded. Hopefully it will resonate with other people’s experiences, cuz as I say, I don’t think I’m that different from other people, except I’ve chosen to use myself as a laboratory. “Pop magic” is the name of this stripped-back customized system that I’ve developed. What I think it’s got in its favor, is that its an attempt to dump the symbolic content of the various magic ‘schools’ and it tries to reposition magic in a place where it’s about actual physical events and about what happens and how it feels to conjure or to invoke spirits or divine the future. It’s talking in the vernacular. What a 16th-century scholar meant by ‘aethyr’ is no longer what 21st century science means by ether, and to use that word is to kind of get lost in the gloss.

I think magic is a very practical skill and has to be understood in terms of how we live our lives, NOT in this kind of pantomime sense. A lot of people approach magic in the way that kids approach being a Mod or a skatekid: it becomes a code, a set of dresscodes, self-defining opinions, and it’s a fashion statement more than anything else. I’m trying to get away from that, to say that if you actually just sit in the park for six hours and just watch everything, you’ll start to understand magic. If you watch things, especially yourself, if you really slow down and look at the way things work and look at the way you work within it and look at how you fit into ecology, into the movement of atoms and molecules and microbes, you start to get an understanding of how it works and you start to be able to talk to it and manipulate it and it seems like magic to people who haven’t looked so hard. But it really is just heightened participation—it’s just making friends with things as they are. [laughs] Which is hard to describe. “Blank magic” is what I’m calling my approach now as I move forward into the post-Pop Magic phase.

I get more and more embarrassed as time goes by to say I’m into magic or that I do magic. People always say, Well show us a trick. [laughs] and all I can do is wave my hand around at clouds and trees. I’m starting to think all that sleight-of-hand stuff is actually the best magic in the world. Because you can really convince people that unusual things are occurring and make them aware of the little gaps in perception where the unusual is always occurring. So I’m going to learn that next, I think. Any magician should be be able to produce a rabbit from a hat, otherwise, forget it, you’re just talking bullshit. A fox, a rabbit or a hermit crab.

The role of animals in your work is huge, from Animal Man, obviously, to the dope-smoking Russian chimp assassin in The Filth to the talking tuna fish in Seaguy to the characters in the We3 series. Why do animals appear so often in your work?

Because I love animals! [laughs] I dunno… Animals always appear in fables and faerie stories—they can confront us with issues that we may not want to look at. If you look at human foibles from the animal point of view, you see the world slightly differently.
But also, this is solidarity with me. I’m all for them, I love animals, I love having their hair up my nose. A lot of what’s going on in the world today is a way of denying that connection, and the shit, and the smell and [chuckles] the assholes of animals. But I’m all for it. I really do like the slime and the grit.

Talk about what you’re up to with “We3″…

We3 is pretty simple, this is like your classic Disney film but with A Clockwork Orange-style ultraviolence. It’s based on some experiments I read about, where the military announced they were using rats as kind of remote controlled bombs. So I applied the notion to higher lifeforms. The story is about a dog and a cat and a rabbit who have been kidnapped from their homes long ago, wired into robotics and are now a group of cyborg assassins who go out and mop up military dictators in the name of Uncle Sam. Halfway through the first issue, the woman who’s been teaching the animals to speak in a weird text language is told that they’re about to be decommissioned and destroyed. So she lets them loose and the whole story is a kind of Incredible Journey or Watership Down thing with three animals on the run, trying to get home to this place they remember dimly in their brains, with the entire US military chasing them! [laughs] It really is pretty simple but it makes its points. It’s a faerie story for the 21st century. And Frank Quitely’s artwork is beyond belief. It’s basically reinvented comic book storytelling, I think.

This winter, you have another 3-issue series, “Vinamarama”…

It’s not trying hard to be much more than what it is. It’s a nice Arabian Nights update, and I guess it does make its little comments about the situation in the Middle East. It uses the old mythology of Pakistan and India, the Ramayana, talks about the mighty Rama empire, which fought the Atlanteans using these flying machines or vimanas. It’s quite ridiculous and quite timely.

You’ve also done an original screenplay called “Sleepless Knights.” What’s happened with that?

I’ve done two drafts and it’s been handed onto someone else. That was fun, it was interesting doing, but I don’t think I like writing movies, I really don’t. It’s more like a construction job, it’s not a creative job at all, except at the very beginning. The three-act structure that Hollywood’s developed over the last hundred years is quite artificial. But it works. And it’s designed to appeal to the largest possible demographic. But it’s not necessarily artistic or experimental in any way. I find myself drawn back to Joyce and to Burroughs and Artaud and that type of writing. Right now, I need a break from the formulaic nature of Hollywood and the way it works and the experience it delivers, which is quite repetitive.

You’re at working on a cycle of superhero comics called “Seven Soldiers”…

That’s going fine. But I’m hoping the prose stuff will be the next continuation of where I want to go. The comics audience is becoming more and more compressed and unpleasant. It’s really sad. After I did Seaguy and so many people said they didn’t get it, I felt completely exasperated. Seaguy is based on medieval quest literature which always has the young hero setting out and he has his companion who gets killed, the questing beast, but many of my readers seem to now be unaware of storytelling structures beyond the Hollywood three-act, and the literalism is so rife that nobody seems to be able to deal with symbolic content anymore. It’s strange. One of the symptoms of schizophrenia is the schizophrenic can’t process metaphor. If you say to a schizophrenic “a rolling stone gathers no moss” he takes it utterly literally! He doesn’t see it as having any kind of secondary meaning. My thesis is that everybody’s gone kind of schizophrenic, which also explains the rise of reality TV. Because people cannot deal with a symbolic approach anymore—they have to see the “real deal.” And the real deal is incoherent and it lacks catharsis or dramatic structure.

People seem to be obsessed by the private lives of celebrities and all these dirty low-down things they’ve done. There’s a real need to uncover the reality behind the simulation of celebrity, whereas before we were happy to enjoy fantasy, recognizing it for what it was. Something generally is going on which is about denying the symbolic content of the glamor or the illusion, and [chuckles] demanding a kind of reality which has no shape.

At the same time there’s fantastic stuff like the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Darkness, Outkast, the White Stripes, and the Hives going on in the mainstream. And there’s this folk pastoral current, which you saw coming—

Yeah, I saw it coming years ago. A thousand years ago. It’s taken this long to arrive. That means I have to wait for a few more years for the really good shit to turn up! [laughs] I’m hoping for great things from the generation who are now 14 years old and they’re buying manga and they’re watching stuff with magic in it and they’re growing up in a world of Salvia Divinorum and simulation and reality taken to the limit. I wrote “The Invisibles” for them to read when they get to 20, and it’s the end of the world, it’s the year 2012.

And they’re growing up playing video games. But the video games have a very mundane, reality-show look—”Grand Theft Auto” duplicates the real world.

They don’t seem to make many worlds that look like anything but the real world. They have the potential to actually recreate dream landscapes on screen and [laughs] I don’t know why they’re not doing it. Why aren’t they making that city where you stumble into a weird old shop and someone hands you a book that teaches you the secrets of the universe? Or you walk into the subway station and you’re given the power of the gods? There’s nothing like that. The potential is there to be able to create that but they still cling to this idea of…crime. They’re all about crime and running away. They’re constantly running in these games, and the police are always after you, like in a mad anxiety dream. There must be another way to make a video game. Why create Miami when you could create an entirely new world? Build a new city, and use all the architecture no one ever used? Frank Lloyd Wright designed an entire city! Or, Francis Bacon creates New York. They could do all this stuff, but…

There’s a really weird Edwardian thing going on just now, everybody seems frozen in this kind of hiatus and scared to breathe.

Remember the excitement leading up to the millennium, the real fucking excitement that was like a party? And then past that threshold, it all became really scary and depressing and the whole world closed in like a fist. But the larger scale process does seem to be working out. It seems to be okay. Daniel Pinchbeck’s first book had that fiery, reformist’s alarmism – the world is being eaten alive, we’re burning up the the fossil fuels, oh Christ! [laughs] The cosmic serpent is shitting itself! But when I spoke to Daniel, I said ‘What do you actually feel, when you’re real deep-down in the root of that primal aboriginal feeling, the cosmic core? It’s that everything’s okay. The voice keeps saying that “everything’s okay.” So why do we feel so bad? If the world is so perfect why do I feel so bad? But everyone who gets a real hardcore trip or a real hardcore spiritual experience winds up thinking everything is desperate but…okay.

There seems to be a new “head” culture developing. But we went through that before in the ‘60s, didn’t we?

The problem with the ‘60s was that they just fragmented…there wasn’t magic in a coherent enough form for people to properly contextualize their experiences at that time. So what you got was a lot of people taking massive doses of acid and other psychedelics and having these intense transpersonal or transcendent experiences without an awful lot of context to place them in. They were dealing with a lot of darkness in the form of Vietnam and the fall-out from World War II and having self-imaged themselves as peace-loving, sweetly-smiling Aquarians, they couldn’t really integrate that darkness very well and it seemed to explode all over everyone. So they became prey to the unacknowledged, demonic, qlippothic aspects of their rebellion, and what you got was heroin, speed and that type of death culture. What magic does is provide a framework for these unusual or extranormal experiences. I think that’s what we need. We really need military discipline in these areas. I think the heads in the ‘60s lacked military discipline, and god bless them, they did a lot of cool stuff, but they fucked it up in the end. They cracked up and they went bad and they turned to the dark side of the Force. We can’t let that happen again. We can’t be scared of our own violence, our own fear, our own culpability. We have to recognize these demons when they arise and utilize the formulas to dispatch them, which is what magic does. Magic has a time-honored, thousands-of-years old methods for dealing with the type of demonic energies that arose at Altamont, for instance. A bunch of highly-trained warrior magicians at Altamont would have defused the situation; unfortunately they weren’t there. And there is the failure of the ‘60s written right in front of us.

So I think what we need is a much more disciplined approach, which means using the methods of the perceived ‘enemy’. It’s kind of the opposite of the ‘60s. The hippie was conceived as a kind of wilting anti-matter negative of the traditional image of the soldier. What we need now is a Don Juan role model, a shamanic soldier priest who can cope with what’s going on, to deal with the type of energies we’re up against in the jungles of our democractic cultures, where the new word for demon is ‘corporation’, where mind-devouring glamors are used in advertising, where sigils become logos and warlocks are called spin doctors. Because you can’t go into this like a little child, like Syd Barrett on mushrooms, dancing with the faeries. The faeries here are dangerous.

Everyone hates discipline but I think the fact that we hate it means it’s something we need. [laughs] Steal your enemy’s stuff. Wear his shoes and get a feel for his thinking. Stop freaking out. Stop fucking up. Stop becoming depressive or conflicted. That’s the nature of the way ‘outsider’ types tend to think so we better just get used to it and call ‘depression’ something else. You have to steal the spirit of the culture, the fire, which is what colonial powers did to indigenous populations in Australia and America and Africa. They stole the gods, replaced them with the Christian gloss and its morality through fear. They bulldozed the sacred dreaming places and made them dream new dreams. Destroy the mythology and you destroy people’s spiritual underpinnings. It’s really clever.

So to fight back against that, if you feel you must, you have to study your prey. Imitate Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola, co-opt them and their colors and their methodology. Anyone who’s using the techniques of the imagined opposition has got my vote, y’know? Be beautiful and seductive so that culture wants to eat you up. Be like a prion, an unstoppable replicating germ in the guts of the body politic. Be the little pill that culture swallows, the drug that changes everything and forces new vision. Be the infection that brings shamanic crisis. Be the loving poison that Things As They Are cannot recover from. Be the Holy Guardian Angel.

Categories: Arthur No. 12 (Sept. 2004), Jay Babcock | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

23 thoughts on ““One Nervous System’s Passage Through Time”: GRANT MORRISON interviewed by Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2004)

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  15. I wish I’d come across Grant when I was getting into the occult – my path took me into shamanism but I avoided chaos magic, dunno why really. I’ve recently started designing a GURPS campaign & part of the prep I decided to do was to try & get inside the head-space of a “mad” sorceror or magician, & in that pursuit I read Phil Hine’s book Pseudonomicon, which, yes, describes what Phil calls “The Insanity of the Gods”, but also at the same time makes a LOT of sense. From this little taster I’ve come to see Chaos Magic as being a bit like the GURPS of magic – no need for all kinds of different systems, just use the stuff that works & have a pared down, agile approach to it – which corresponds to the sort of things I see in IT & software development. Anyway, excellent interview, loved it.

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