My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The book is full of life—not like a man, but like an ant-heap.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (trans. Peter Winch)
Wittgenstein was a bit of a Tolstoyesque puritan in matters literary—Shakespeare was too wild and dream-like for him—so I imagine he did not mean the above as a compliment. He also lived before developments in microscopy revealed “a man” to be “full of life…like an ant-heap”: the human body is a biome for bacteriological processes constituting much of what we think of as life. In the delirious and ingenious graphic novel The Filth (2002-3), writer Grant Morrison and artist Chris Weston have one of their villains spell it out to the protagonist:
[W]e are only angels weighed down by filth, free of guilt[.] The bacteria in our bellies are responsible for the farts which shame us, tiny monsters shitting in their billions all over our pure skin create the acid reek of “our” sweat. And Slade: when the “inner voices” tell us we’re unworthy or instruct us to “love” and “hate,” despite our best instincts…are these incessant distracting thoughts our own? Or do we only hear the voice of the eternal germ screaming in our heads?
The Filth, like most of Morrison’s work, is essentially impossible to summarize because the story itself is left open to so many interpretations and moreover occurs in multiple realities, at multiple scales, and in multiple genres.
An attempt at a summary would begin like this: a middle-aged English bachelor named Greg Feely lives a lonely life caring for his cat and addicted to porn. One day, via a literal seduction in his bathroom, a mixture of sexuality and scatology that will characterize the book, he is suddenly taken into the world of The Hand. The Hand is a secret police force based in The Crack—a bizarre locale made of toxic landscapes littered with the remains of modern culture and overseen by grotesque science-fictional architecture (“Think of it like you just got swept under the sidewalk of everything you ever knew”).
The mission of The Hand, with its many occult divisions and its crew of odd personae including communicative dolphins, is the protection of Status Q, or the stasis of health, from the invasion of antigenic disruption in the form of anti-persons: “Ours is the hand that wipes the arse of the world, remember?”
Feely, in his Hand persona as Ned Slade, goes on a series of adventures against these anti-persons, but he remains obsessed with his sense that Feely’s commitments, especially his love of his sick cat Tony, are his real life. Complicating matters further is a sequence of attacks on the Hand by a figure of many guises named Spartacus Hughes, who is devoted to corrupting ostensibly utopian communities (notably a nanotech biome of experimental healers called I-Life and a libertarian seasteading ship) to draw out our heroes.
Is Hughes part of a rebel force that once included Feely? Is Feely’s persona a cover inside a cover for a radical subversive trying to overthrow The Hand’s authority? Or is the whole thing the sick hallucination of a desperate man dying from an overdose on his kitchen floor and envisioning his immune system as a sci-fi body horror nightmare?
Plot-wise, then, as well as in publishing chronology, The Filth picks up where The Invisibles left off. The Invisibles concludes by revealing its anarchist heroes to be involved in a mission not of revolutionary violence but of holistic healing. By the turn of the millennium, Morrison had come to believe in the futility of an adversarial political radicalism that only incites polarization and creates spiraling vortices of violence.
With his cosmic-occult perspective, and inspired by the pop-Hegelianism of Ken Wilber, Morrison advocates an englobalizing perspective that seeks to advance the consciousness of society as a whole by integrating all of its elements, including those considered disgusting, regressive, reactionary, etc. Morrison pursues this insight through the metaphor of inoculation: rather than seek to avoid illness or injury (or their sociopolitical corollaries), he instead sees all evils as necessary goads to immune response and thus future health. Accordingly, in this book, he shifts perspective: we now look out through the eyes of the status-quo defenders rather than the anarchist attackers.
Here Morrison ably exploits the several meanings of the word “filth.” “Filth” includes not only literal dirt and detritus but is also, by conservative social application, a label for society’s and morality’s refuse, both commodities and persons—porn and pornographers, the drug and the dealer.
But “filth” is also, as many commentators note, British slang for “police.” On the one hand this ironic label is linguistic turnabout, a transvaluation of values: the policed—considered “filth” by those tasked with rounding them up—return the compliment by calling the police filthy (cf. “pigs”). On the other hand, labeling the police “filth” is a recognition of the familiar problem in political philosophy—and superhero stories—that to enforce the law might necessarily imply inhabiting a position outside the law. In practical terms, the police and the criminals are drawn from the same social class and, perhaps more importantly, the same personality type, a principle that applies at every level from the beat cop who busts his drug-dealer cousin to the global meetings of the criminal sovereigns who rule the planet.
So it is in The Filth, with the police who populate The Hand coming from the very classes of anti-person they are set out to neutralize. They appear as a company of artistic, sexual misfits somewhat resembling the incipient counterculture prosecuting psychological warfare in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
By taking this socio-political quandary of law’s extralegality to the biological level, Morrison reminds us of the necessity of dirt and disease to the production of health. But “Status Q” should not necessarily be understood as the social and political status quo, as if Morrison wished to preserve forever British life in the early 21st century. In fact, he portrays early 2000s society as deeply damaged, a paranoid and judgmental surveillance state addled by a debilitating mix of permissiveness (that is really exploitation) and an answering puritanism (that is really hatred of the other), each feeding on its opposite.
The Hand exists not to perpetuate this society but to keep it from being destroyed so that the pockets of potential it contains can grow; likewise, The Filth, with its own unsettling tone of cruel comedy and pornographic violence, exposes us to these cultural pathogens only to immunize us against them so that we come to value kindness and beauty instead. Which isn’t to say that Morrison doesn’t have an enormous amount of illicit fun riffing on porn and its increasingly gonzo 21st-century configurations: Greg reads in a magazine at one point, “Hear Caroline scream as Mike shoves his eleven-inch dick in…her dad!”
As for utopianism, which by definition rejects ecosystemic wholeness by trying to exaggerate one social element over all others, it takes a thematic beating at the hands of The Filth. Morrison mercilessly mocks libertarianism with the Ballard-like tale of the Libertania, a ship whose crew and passengers are devoted to libertarian principles, that decays first into violent anarchy and then into cultic collectivism. 1960s-style sexual utopianism, of the kind advocated in the nearly contemporaneous (porno)graphic novel Lost Girls written by Morrison’s magical nemesis Alan Moore, is shown to be a thin veneer over a misogynistic reign of terror in the disgusting story of Tex Porneau and his attempt to “fuck Los Angeles.” Marxism appears in the guise of a Hand member named Dmitri, a nihilistic talking money cosmonaut who assassinated JFK and who speaks an amusing patois of scatology and midcentury Soviet jargon; this is perhaps an allegory of a debased materialism, though another way to read it from animal-lover Morrison’s POV is as a destructive distortion of animal life.
It is The Filth itself that circumscribes and transcends all these reductions; they are parts of a whole no one of them can perceive alone. The Filth is moreover a metafiction. Among other things, The Hand takes its name from their task of harvesting ink from a pen grasped by a giant severed hand in The Crack; with this ink, they create a Paperverse, a 2D micro-world based on superhero comics, which they use as a concept farm by cruelly manipulating the characters. One of the heroes escapes into the 3D world of The Crack, but is deformed, mentally and physically, but the pressures of the transition. We, too, of course, are reading a 2D ink universe characterized by cruelty, and Morrison asks to reflect on what damage may ensue in turn.
Toward the end of The Filth, the hand holding the pen appears to be that of Greg Feely, fallen in an overdose to his kitchen floor and seeing as he dies not The Crack but the microword of bacteria in the scum of the garbage can he knocked over. The Crack is just our world, reproduced by the hand of the artist.
More promising, as the foil of the Paperverse, is the nanotech world of the I-Life at first manipulated to dystopia by Spartacus Hughes but by the end of the book a force of healing and regeneration. Morrison clearly points, by counterposing the enlightened I-Life to the superheroic Paperverse, toward a more humane conception of comics’s most characteristic genre and of the arts in general. Just before the book’s beautiful ending, when Greg bears the I-Life as a healer through his neighborhood, suddenly blooming with flowers, we read in a mysterious word balloon:
Only humans could make something kinder and better than themselves that makes them smarter than God in my opinion
But Morrison is clear that the way to make a kinder and better world is not through the path of world-making historical violence posited by the revolutionary cell that created Spartacus Hughes. It is rather Greg Feely who points the way:
Greg takes care of the little things; he feeds the birds and buries them when they get hit by buses. He gives them a bit of dignity.
The meaning is encoded in their very names: Spartacus vs. Feely, or the revolutionary vs. the sentimentalist. Orwell, contrasting Dickens with Marx, lays out the conflict in his essay, “Charles Dickens”:
I said earlier that Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as ‘revolutionary’ — and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. […] Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved.
It still does. But precisely because Morrison urges us not to take sides and only to “take care of the little things,” it is clear which side of the moralist vs. revolutionary debate he takes. Around the time he was writing The Filth, Morrison was promoting the attractions of what he called “Zen Fascism” (see his graphic novel Marvel Boy); but that was, I think, just a shock tactic. His politics might be more aptly defined as (while we’re inventing labels) “sentimental anarcho-moderation.”
Or “sentimental atheist-feminist anarcho-moderation,” because, when Greg finally takes his complaints to the top of The Hand and confronts its boss, Mother Dirt, another dimension of meaning appears. The orchestrator of The Filth‘s universe, pictured as a columnar tangle of egesta and tendrils and tumors, is not the transcendent and bodiless male intelligence posited by monotheism (arguably the source of all global radicalisms from Marxism to libertarianism) but rather the material and in this case fecal female body monotheism has always scorned, as in Augustine’s famous encapsulation of maternal anatomy: “We are born between piss and shit.” When Greg holds up a pile of excrement to her and asks the oldest question of theodicy, this dialogue ensues:
GREG: What am I supposed to do with this?
MOTHER DIRT: Spread it on your flowers, Greg.
The Filth is a brilliant work, a self-contained and tonally-consistent fictional world with all the authority and confusion of a dream even as its manifold relevance to our own world is clear. Weston’s meticulous art and Morrison’s idea-laden dialogue holds attention to each panel and page despite the puzzlement of the plot, which never quite comes clear even after several readings.
A formalist analysis of the storytelling style would note that Weston’s layouts, full of bleeds, images overrunning panel borders, and panels overlapping other panels, literally fails to contain the story; it is a riot of imagery bursting out of the frames that would encompass it. Every inch of the pages is full of ink, full of life. Form meets function.
But this dizzying style of narration makes the book all the more difficult to read, if in an amusingly and dazzlingly disorienting way. The Filth is not meant to be clear: it is a defense of mess and murk, a brief for their necessity if we want to build up our strength, and the artistic/literary corollary of mess and murk might just be difficulty. Morrison and Weston create a number of readerly obstacles, from flagrantly nasty content to confusingly non-linear form, but they, in making us run this obstacle course with them, hope to make us healthier. The introduction to the graphic novel edition is written as a parody of prescription instructions; it contains this admonition, which might be the motto of every serious artist and writer:
Metaphor is one of a group of problem-solving medicines known as figures of speech which are normally used to treat literal thinking and other diseases.
“Scale’s the next big frontier,” we read in the final chapter. The Filth is all about scale. Faithful to the occultist’s axiom, “As above, so below,” Morrison pursues the story and its themes at every level from the infinite to the infinitesimal. Taking leave of the postmodern problem that we don’t know what’s real, The Filth treats everything as real, and every real thing a metaphor for every other real thing, and all necessary to the whole. That is the essence of its intelligence, why it might be, as the blurb from The Comics Journal on the back of the book says, “the best thing Morrison has ever written.”
Unlike The Invisibles or Doom Patrol, though, The Filth doesn’t really contain characters. Plenty of archetypes and stereotypes, but no rounded personalities for us to fall in love with or care for. Our affection, like Greg’s, mainly goes toward the cat. This needn’t be seen as a flaw; not every “graphic novel” has to be a “novel” in the conventional sense. The Filth is a spy and superhero adventure story infected with body horror and black comedy and told as a luridly-lit porno-cum-modernist-poem. When it ends by praising humanity for being able to transcend itself morally through its creations, even as we are the creations of the germs that populate us, it elevates kindness and care by demoting humanity as such. The Filth is alive like an ant-heap, and so are we.