Alan Moore’s “magical” performance piece Snakes & Ladders, which was first a live rendition and later a recorded album with synth spaceman Tim Perkins, has become a kind of audio reference manual for me. I sometimes put it on in order to perform a psychic checklist. As Moore makes his way through time, space, science, poetry and the deep history of central England, I find myself thinking about some of the things that make me who I want to be: Limitlessly bewildered by humankind? Check. Stunned by cosmology and elated by genetics? Check. Laughing in awe at the sheer fact of the universe? Check. Wry existential wonder? Check. Bad puns that are barely jokes at all? Check.
I don’t know quite what this means, but I’ve begun to try and articulate some of why I enjoy it so much. Reading Phillip Ball’s book on Paracelsus has made think about how there is now such a stark separation between religion and science. In Paracelsus’ time the distinction made no sense – your faith was interwoven with life, and your “natural philosophy” (science, such as it was) was simply a part of how you thought about God and the world He apparently created. Now though such integrated approaches seem absurd. The Christian scientist’s attempts to fit theory to doctrine is one such dead end. I’m not about to say that the loss of religion means we’re missing something (although that’s how these discussions usually come across) but rather than secular disciplines of all kinds still have a lot of work to do.
Moore’s ideas offer an angle on this, a kind of secular awe. Something post-religious, that erases the mad impulses of faith (although as Moore’s magic mushroom-eating attic-Druidism attests, he fills it with entirely different mad impulses.) Just as religious works are written in awe of the God they postulate, so perhaps secular works need a greater pleasure in and awe of the science that they believe elevates their view – as with Snakes & Ladders.
Perhaps, in the same way that parts of the Bible stand to religious folks’ feelings about creation, so Moore’s performance could represent, to me at least, a secular recognition of the buoyancy and optimism we can feel when the possibilities of reality are laid our for us by the realms of modern thought. Whether it is modern science, or modern art; whether it is quantum algebra or an operatic neighbour, there’s reason to be cheerful – pleased by all the things that have made us more than “mud that sat up”. And this is all without recourse to God, or any supernatural explanation at all. Moore’s exultation of the wonderousness of human knowledge is scintillating in its earthy poetry. I put it on to be reassured, to be able to say “yeah, that’s what I would have said”. Or would have done if I’d been as accomplished as Moore.
Moore has become a magus of the English language – a literary experimenter and a believer in something he calls magic. Rites and incantations have never done much for me, but Moore’s piece does not preach, and there is no abracadabra. He does not appeal to the great beard in the sky, except to make the odd jape at His expense. Moore’s performance is a description of what is, what was, and what might be. (And on Magic: “Any cunt could do it.”) If it is really magical, then it seems to be in Bronislaw Manislowskiâ€™s sense in which the magical “ritualises man’s optimism”.
Snakes & Ladders orates on what it is to be human. From “the black earth” of our grief, to the “furnace tongs of our own possibility”, Moore is the excited uncle, errant teacher, suburban wizard. He takes phrases from popular culture and turns them into jokes about cosmology. How many writers can genuinely make that work?
Throughout Moore seems like a man pleased with his own eclecticism – but moreover, just pleased with the indigestible enormity and complexity of life itself. There are lots of descriptions of the world we live in, but Moore’s seem to manage something unique. It manages to look up.
And I tick another box.