Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles is a daunting prospect for anyone. In its collected form it consists of three volumes made up of around fifteen hundred pages distributed across seven books, each page crammed with dense, allusive text and imagery. And it certainly makes no concessions to readers: events in volume three often make sense only if one spots that they make direct allusions, either textual or visual, to things that happened in the earliest pages of volume one. The story itself is often fragmentary, told in an elliptical fashion so that it only makes sense once one has read the whole mammoth book, and maybe not even then. Reference forwards and backwards in time and in the structure of the narrative are commonplace.
For anyone intended to undertake an interpretation, the task is even more formidable. Morrison draws on ideas from an unusually wide range of sources: conspiracy theories, philosophy, science fiction, theology (Western and Eastern), cosmology, linguistics and pop music vie in an almost incomprehensible mosaic of ideas that seem, almost on purpose, to not so much cohere as compete with one another. Though Morrison devotes a fair amount of space in volumes one and three of The Invisibles to explaining his fictional cosmology, the description is bafflingly incomplete (not helped, in one critical part of volume three, by terrible art-work), and he seems to delight in adding layer after layer of additional ideas on to what seems by the end to be a philosophical equivalent to Gaudi’s insane architecture.
There have been attempts at interpreting The Invisibles as it if were a narrative with a definite underlying plot, goal and motives. Most notable are the two books Anarchy for the Masses, which seems at times to be a deliberate act of disinformation, so full is it of information of dubious veracity, and Our Sentence is Up, which attempts a coherent explanation. Likewise, writes in the online community at www.barbelith.com, claim to have established the meaning of The Invisibles. But, due to the vast amount of heterogeneous material present in the text, these attempts are not convincing.
What I am proposing, therefore, and what this essay is the introduction to, is a different approach, not so much an attempt at interpretation, as an exploration of the philosophical ideas that are (I think) critical to an understanding of the text. My aim is not to say what The Invisibles means, but to provide you, the reader, with insights and references that you can use in deciding what it means to you and how you can use it in your own personal development.
Open and closed narratives
It is my opinion that The Invisibles is what one could called an open text. A closed text is pretty much what one might expect. It is a text that is complete in itself, in which all the information presented fits neatly together in order to present one or more ideas, and when one has read it through to the end, one clearly understands where they come from and precisely what it is that the author wanted you to know. So, for example, when reading a conventional novel, be it by P G Wodehouse or Jane Austen, by the time one has reached the end, everything is nearly tied together, there are no loose ends, and you know what you are meant to think. An open text, on the other hand, has no such goal in mind. Instead of telling you a story and what to think about it, it presents information, then leaves you to decide what to do with it. In particular, as its goal is purely expository, there is no onus on it for the material it presents to cohere in any conventional way. For example, To The Lighthouse and Finnegan’s Wake are entirely open, as, for that matter, is V for Vendetta, where Alan Moore makes some posits about political systems, but then sternly refrains from telling us what the answer is. In a closed text the author does all the work for the reader; in an open text, the author sets the context and then leaves it up to the reader to work within it.
So, why is The Invisibles an open text? At first sight it seems closed: it has a very clearly defined story, with well-defined heroes (King Mob, Lord Fanny, Ragged Robin, the Invisible College, Barbelith), villains (Sir Miles, Mr Quimper, the Outer Church, the Archons) and a progression through the conflict to the inevitable triumph of good and transcendence of this level of reality. And yet that view fails to account for the strange loose structure of the book. There are whole, not so much subplots as subthemes, collections of ideas that are discussed and returned to repeatedly but which seem at best tangential to the plot.
Thus, for example, Morrison devotes a large space (especially in volume three) to discussing the nature of language. I will return to analyse what he has to say in a future essay, but for now the key thing is that though the notion of alien languages and special languages is used occasionally in the plot, mainly in the form of being used to create incantations that bind their hearer in some way, their importance to the story of the incredibles is entirely out of proportion to the significance Morrison attaches to them. In other words, the information that he provides on the subject of langage is far more than would be needed in a simple closed text. There are only two way to make sense of this. One is to assert that Morrison is a bad writer, who has no idea how to structure a dramatic narrative, a claim I emphatically deny, as should anyone who has read any of his mainstream superhero books, or even the divinely crazed Doom Patrol. The other that we need to know what he tells us about language not, indeed, to follow the plot of The Invisibles, but to take it further. It is part of a toolkit of ideas that we need to make use of The Invisibles.
Again, though ostensibly the story is about as mindlessly bipolar as the grotesque rip-off of The Invisibles that is The Matrix, with impossibly cool good guys against impossibly square bad guys, there’s a lot of very mysterious stuff in the plot that, frankly, doesn’t make sense in a closed text. Ragged Robin’s time travelling is almost entirely unnecessary to the story of The Invisibles, and could be excised without materially affecting it. Even more so could the material about Ragged Robin writing the story of The Invisibles and then writing herself into it. Likewise, the 1920s sequence makes little sense if this is a closed text with a simple story. And yet these are clearly important to the book as a whole, and serve to open up new perspectives and ideas (rather like Morrison’s Animal Man only more so) that help to shape thinking that builds on the framework of The Invisibles.
Moreover, in the final pages of volume three, Morrison opens up a whole new perspective on the the ostensible story, showing that what had seemed to be good and evil were merely part of something greater, and gives us a view behind and beyond the story as we have seen it that means we have to revisit everything we thought we knew about this universe and think it through afresh. In view of this, the points raised above, and a multitude of other features, it is clear that The Invisibles cannot be a closed text. It is more a puzzle-book or rag-bag like Tristram Shandy or Peacock’s ‘novel of ideas’ Headlong Hall, both of which invite the reader to join the writer in the act of creation.
By Morrison’s own admission, The Invisibles is not a novel or a story. It is a polemical philosophical essay which uses the form of the graphic novel to illustrate its point. The medium of the graphic novel is an innovation, but the use of dramatised narrative to illustrate and illuminate philosophical ideas places it in a venerable tradition going back at least as far as Plato. But as it is not, primarily, a story, but is a presentation of ideas, that presentation aided by fictional constructs, we cannot expect dramatic and narrative conventions to apply. The characters are not people, but embodiments of ideas, and so it is not surprising that they can don and relinquish personalities as easily as clothes. The world looks like ours, but it is an idealisation constructed for the pedagogical use, and so, just like Erewhon, Lilliput and Atlantis, it obeys precisely those laws that its creator needs it to obey so that it can best serve his instructional purpose, even if this results in what, in a fictional narrative, we might consider gross inconsistency.
So we cannot treat The Invisibles as fiction. Moreover, as it is an open text, there is no point in trying to read it or analyse it as if it were an examination question to which there is a defined answer, and so standard methods for interpreting texts will not be adequate. I cannot tell you what The Invisibles means, because it does not, by its nature, have one meaning. It presents us with a collection of ideas that we are expected to think about. In other words, rather than being a message to readers, it is a tool-kit that Morrison has assembled for us to use in our own strivings after enlightenment.
What this means is that the most we can hope for in a study of The Invisibles is to examine the collection of ideas that Morrison has assembled for us and to comment on them. Thus, we can look for contradictions, or for further ideas that Morrison doesn’t explicitly mention, but which are related to ideas in The Invisibles and may help add further illumination. Interpretation is replaced by analysis and exploration as a prolegomena to individual study, so an essay such as this becomes an enabler for the reader’s thought.
In more concrete terms, what I aim to do is to examine Morrison’s metaphysical theories: the ideas about cosmology and being that underlie The Invisibles (much of which turns out to hinge on issues in epistemology and ontology). I then intend to explore how these relate to other ideas. My plan is to start from the metaphysics that The Invisibles most obviously relates to, which is that of the late writings of Philip K Dick. Having thus broadened the base of ideas, the natural next step is to Gnosticism, acknowledged by both Dick and Morrison as being a critical influence, and then from there on to the ancestor of them all: neoplatonism. So, at the moment, I plan two pieces:
- Two paths to enlightenment; the metaphysics of Grant Morrison and Philip K Dick
- Barbelith, Valis, the one; neoplatonism in science fiction