If you are anything like me, and you have read Grant Morrison’s great work The Filth, then it is likely that you were, at first reading, somewhat bemused. Morrison doesn’t exactly make it easy to understand what he’s writing about, given his complex, allusive and highly fragmentary style, and you can see here, my first, puzzled, attempt at an understanding. And, given that The Filth compresses into one 13-issue graphic novel what it previously took Morrison all of The Invisibles and most of his run on Animal Man to express, it’s a given that it’s extremely dense. But the problem is, even if you’re used to reading Morrison’s works, The Filth is still hard to understand, because of the sheer complexity of the ideas that it is based on, and if you, as a reader, aren’t aware of the basis on which The Filth stands as superstructure, the chance is that you’ll still be bemused after four or five readings.
Well, this is my attempt to save you all that bother. Now I don’t say that the interpretation I’m about to unfold is what Morrison had in mind. For all I know he may hate Neoplatonism. But I think I now have sufficient understanding of where he is coming from to be able to give a coherent and consistent view of what The Filth is about, that isn’t too far from what Morrison intended. I can even indicate the way in which (showing, by the way, that this is a true masterpiece we’re talking about here) it is possible to draw conclusions from the piece that are utterly at variance with one another, and most likely with the author’s intentions.
So, here we go. Oh yes, and a warning: by its nature this piece is full of spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens, look away now! On the other hand, The Filth is probably immune to spoilers.
What happens in The Filth
Now, I am not going to attempt a plot summary. That is probably impossible, and given the complexity of Morrison’s narrative style, it would not be very helpful even if I could do it. What I am going to do is to attempt to describe the ideas in The Filth in the sense that I will describe the main groups of characters and summarise where they are coming from and why they do what they do. There are three main groups of characters, so let’s meet them.
The Hand is a kind of super police force with international remit, rather like a much scarier version of Interpol. At first sight they are rather like Scotland Yard or the FBI: they get called in not when cases are too complex for the local forces to handle, but when they’re too weird. So one could see them as a hugely expanded version of Agents Sculley and Mulder, only they don’t need to want to believe, they know.
But then, hidden behind this ‘Interpol of the weird’ facade, there’s something a bit more complex. Their primary concern is not so much with solving strange and unusual crimes as in taking pre-emptive action to maintain the state of ‘Status-Q’, in other words, their job is to maintain the status quo, not in the political sense (they clearly care nothing for Kings or Presidents) but in the sense of keeping reality more or less as it is, and preventing those, whom they call anti-persons, who are in some way a threat to the basic way things are. So antipersons can range from maniacs who wish to return global society to a state of primal chaos, to men who act as a kind of sexual black hole. So in this form, they can be seen as the ultimate police force, the force which protects reality from those who wish to damage it.
But behind this is something even stranger. They call themselves the Hand for several reasons, one of which is that their headquarters are built around a giant artifact which represents a human hand holding a fountain pen, an artifact that it is clear predates humanity, and possibly even the planet. And from the nib of the pen flows a mysterious substance called simply the Ink which, we are told, ‘makes things happen’. And it is this substance and its source that the Hand guard and manage. So they are much more than the guardians of Status-Q; they guard the very source of Status-Q.
And finally there is a mysterious activity which involves managing the ‘paperverse’, the universe of comic books. Under the direction of an exile from the paperverse, the Hand ‘run’ scripts within the paperverse and then, with great risk, venture within it for a number of reasons, not all of which are very clear, but definitely including mining it for advanced technology.
It’s also necessary to explain the rather confusing status of agents of the Hand. Agents are ‘parapersonae’ who exist as little tubes of chemicals held in special pharmacies around the world. When the Hand wants to activate a particular agent, they locate a suitable ‘host’, that is to say, a human being who has the physical and mental qualities required for an agent of the Hand, and then apply the parapersona to it (we are never told how), at which point the parapersona takes over the body, whose original owner is never seen again unless, for some reason, the agent decides to temporarily relinquish control, and when the host body dies, the agent passes to a new host. Thus our hero is both Greg Feely (a solitary masturbator who has a passionate devotion to his cat) and Ned Slade (a top agent of the Hand).
The rebels are a motley collection of individuals, mostly life’s rejects, who have decided that they don’t much like Status-Q. Having learned (somehow) about the Hand, they wish to infiltrate it, smash it and smash with it Status-Q. They hope to replace it with a kind of egalitarian chaos (under their benign leadership, of course).
We only meet a few of the rebels, and fewer are important. First and foremost, Greg Feely, when he is being Greg Feely, is the one of them selected to infiltrate the Hand. So we are left to assume that he did whatever was required to be recruited as a host and then, as a result of a ‘parapersona crash’ which allows Greg to reassert himself so both personalities end up existing concurrently, he ends up recovering his memories of his place in the rebellion and so launches a one-man effort to tear down Status-Q.
Max Thunderstone is the leader of the rebel group. He started out as a solitary conspiracy theorist who gathered about himself (in a virtual sense, it is clear that all communication was via the internet, and it is only very near the end of the book that Greg / Ned finally meets Max) a small group of like-minded marginalised individuals who, somehow, learned of the secret of the existence of the Hand and their relationship to Status-Q. While Greg went to learn exactly what it was that the Hand did, Max decided to turn himself into the first real superhero, so he could act as a nexus for the popular uprising against Status-Q that he was sure would arise once the truth was widely known.
Finally, Sharon Jones is a lawyer who permitted Max to have parts of her body surgically replaced with sensors (e.g. a camera for an eye) and to remotely take control of her brain. There is a definite suggestion that at some point in the past she and Greg have had some form of relationship: Greg knows her personally as well as virtually. Sharon manages (with a certain amount of unwitting help from Ned Slade) to release a nanotechnology called iLife into the world at large; Greg looks after some of it in his house. By the end of the book, iLife has evolved to the point where it has (it appears) become a new branch of the Hand intent on healing people physically and (maybe) psychologically.
We meet a random selection of anti-persons in the course of the book, most of them arising from cases that Ned Slade is involved in investigating. They are incredibly diverse: a terrorist parapersona who in one incarnation wants to destroy the world with iLife, in another tries to undermine the fabric of civilisation by making people revert to a pre-human state; a pseudo-human construct in the form of a man with phenomenal procreative capabilities who seems set to become (almost literally) father of the human race; a maniac porn-merchant who wants to turn the whole world into his very own blue movie; and so on.
Their common feature is very simple. All threaten to subvert not the state (as I said, the Hand doesn’t seem to have any interest in politics or government, having far bigger fish to fry) but status-Q: the smooth and efficient functioning of reality. And that is why they come to the attention of the hand and are labelled as anti-persons, and why Ned Slade is sent in to delete them.
Some Neoplatonic philosophy
Now, in a wild shift, I’m going to introduce some of the philosophical tools I’ll need to analyse The Filth, specifically ideas from the philosophical movement of Neoplatonism, which flourished in the first four centuries of the current era, rose to importance again with the Christian mystics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and has become popular again in the last few decades. I will describe the bare essentials needed for my argument. Those interested in learning more are referred to the excellent expository book by Pauliine Remes.
God: the Unity
We start from the Neoplatonic conception of God. This is not a God that would be familiar to most modern believers in pretty well any religion. Rather than being a super-powerful individual figure (rather like a superhero – for more on this connection see my piece Superheroes in Myth) the Neoplatonic God is the Unity, a concept without features or distinctive properties. The reason for this is as follows: God is viewed as being the totality of being and an absolute unity. If God had any distinguishing property, then the fact that the property is distinguishing means that there is something it can distinguish God from, which means that God is not the totality of being: in Eckhart‘s terminology, it is pure isness.
We can go further. Some pantheists argue that ‘God is everything’. But if God is everything, what is nothing? Nothingness itself is therefore outside of God, which is impossible. Therefore God is both everything and nothing. Paradoxes like this are rather common in Neoplatonism (and Christian mysticism) and are indicative of attempts to apprehend and describe in human language that which is beyond our limited comprehension. Obviously we cannot apprehend God, so any description we can formulate must be faulty. To use philosophical terminology, there is an epistemic barrier between us and God which means that we can never fully apprehend God and can see only fragments of its being.
This leads on to the Neoplatonic doctrine of hierarchy. All flows from God, but reality is organised into layers separated by epistemic barriers, so what seems one and simple on one side of the barrier seems many and complex on the other. You can imagine this as a game of Chinese Whispers, where a single word becomes distorted to become a complete sentence after it has passed through several speakers. At the lowest level of the hierarchy is the sensible realm, otherwise known as the physical world. Thus everything in the physical world is a dim shadow of the perfect unity of God, and traces back to God, but it is very hard to read the nature of God in its contents.
The physical world poses a problem for the Neoplatonists, for if God and the intelligible realm (the non-physical layers of reality) are perfect (which they are), why is the physical world, which derives from them, imperfect? This provoked any number of theories, but the one relevant to The Filth is the one that introduces the concept of the Demiurge. Essentially, the Demiurge is an entity restricted to the sensible realm that has the capability to create material things from the emanations of the intelligible realm, so it is, in a sense, a very imperfect god. Because it is imperfect and because it cannot directly apprehend the perfect forms of the intelligible realm, what it makes is imperfect. So it takes pure isness (in as far as it can find it) and uses it to make the world as it is in as good an image as it can make of the intelligible realm.
Interpreting The Filth
The obvious place to start trying to understand The Filth is not with Greg / Ned but with its real central character: the Hand. Specifically the physical Hand, the mysterious artifact that produces the Ink that ‘makes things happen’. The Ink makes things happen, but seems to be entirely non-specific about what those things are; the people that make up the organisation of the Hand get to decide how it is used. Remember that in Neoplatonism God is undifferentiated and without properties, so it seems that the Ink is the pure isness that makes up God, or, in other words, it is a projection of the realm of the intelligible into the sensible.
If the Ink is God, or at least, God in so far as anyone in our world can see it, then the people of the Hand, as those who manage and sustain the world, controlling access to the Ink and using it to maintain Status-Q, must be the Demiurge. This makes quite a lot of sense of the Hand’s various activities.
Managing the Ink
This is fairly simple to understand: the Ink is the way for those of us in the sensible realm to access the intelligible realm and obtain the power of creation. Obviously, any Demiurge, committed to their vision of how Status-Q should be, would want to control access to the Ink and then decide how it should be used. Letting just anyone use it could lead to chaos, which neatly leads on to the next point.
Maintaining Status-Q by seeking out and destroying anti-persons is an obvious part of the function of the Demiurge, as the creator of the physical world maintains it in what they think is the image of God. The anti-persons we meet vary from those who wish to destroy order, via those who simply do destroy order, to those (Thunderstone and his group) who want to get hold of the Ink for themselves. The first two are a clear threat. It is important to remember that the Demiurge is not evil, it is flawed. The Demiurge tries its hardest to make a perfect world, so things that are a threat to such order as it has been able to create threaten what it sees as being the reflection of the Divine within the world. The third is a greater threat, because they have pretensions to being another Demiurge with a different vision of the Divine. But, as far as the Demiurge is concerned, its version of perfection is the closest one can get to divinity in the physical world, and so the counter-Demiurge must be the opposite of Divine.
This is the critical point of this section. To an existing Demiurge, any competitor must be a thing of evil, because they want to overturn the Status-Q that is, as far as the Demiurge is concerned, the best possible mirror of the perfection of God. So, in the context of The Filth that means that to the Hand, Thunderstone and his group are evil, because they stand against Status-Q. But we can apply this the other way round: Thunderstone is a competing Demiurge, so to him the Hand is evil, because Status-Q differs from his vision of how reality should be. In other words, the Hand and Thunderstone are locked in eternal and necessary conflict. In fact, if somehow Thunderstone managed to overpower the Hand and take over then, though Status-Q would change, he and his new group would look just like the Hand do now, with the same concerns and activities, and the Hand would look just like him and his group. Greg would soon be doing Ned’s old job.
Due to this symmetry, one cannot say that one group is right and the other wrong. They have differing visions of God, but it is impossible to say who is right precisely because, by virtue of the epistemic barrier(s) between us and God, both visions of what Status-Q should be are flawed and we have no way of knowing how accurate or otherwise either is, because to do that we would have to know something about the true nature of God, which we cannot. Therefore The Filth cannot be seen as a simple good guys vs bad guys argument. It is simply a conflict between two equally invalid world-views.
This is where the Hand’s activities get interesting, in that they are attempting to go beyond being a Demiurge and to become, in their own small way, the God of another universe – the Paperverse – which is, as one would expect, separated from ours by an epistemic barrier. By constructing plots and then ‘running’ them in the Paperverse they are, essentially, creating the image of the divine that the Paperverse sees. So we see the beginnings of a hierarchy in that the lowest tier of our universe becomes the God of another universe. And, given that it can hardly be coincidence that the intelligible realm manifests itself to us as a giant han holding a pen, it is entirely reasonable to assume that there are layers of universes above us. So in Morrison’s hands, the crystalline tiered model of the Neoplatonists, with its static, perfect levels of abstraction, becomes a living, noisy chaos, with each level vibrantly alive and arguing (and even fighting) about how best to represent the will of the level above, and what to feed down to the level below.