You know there’s going to be a story when you’re told, flat out, that the protagonist is going to go insane. I feel like for every detail I catch in my reading of Jerusalem, there is always something that I’m going to lose track of in navigating the densely descriptive nature of Alan Moore’s prose writing. But it doesn’t come as any surprise that the protagonist of “A Host of Angles,” Ernest Vernall “loses his mind,” given that Alma Warren already thought back to him in the Prelude. And yet what we don’t see, until this chapter, is how it happens.
In fact, before we even look at Ernest Vernall’s fate – the analogue to one Ginger Vernon who is an ancestor of Alan Moore’s (the character actually gets called Ginger as a form of insult in the narrative) – I should reiterate that “A Host of Angles” is actually the first chapter in Book One of Jerusalem: aptly titled “The Boroughs.” And it starts with an epigraph from one Elizabeth Anscombe from An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.
I feel like I’m attempting to do some of Aldo Sax’s “anomaly theory” from The Courtyard: where I’m taking these seemingly unrelated elements, these tangents, and trying to describe them as a sensible whole. Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian-British philosopher who focused on abstract logic and was particularly interested the idea that linguistics – language – possesses a relationship with reality that defines how people can perceive or analyze it.
This interpretation of his work suits the epigraph taken from Anscombe. He asks her why people used to believe that the sun revolved around the Earth, instead of the other way around. She replies that they believed this because that was what it looked like. Wittgenstein then counters her reply with another question: “what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?” It has been a while since I have fully engaged in a philosophical reading, but what it seem that Wittgenstein is saying is that human beings have a limited sense and conception of reality. Perhaps if they could have seen that the Earth looked like it rotated on its axis, they would have interpreted it in a different way, or perhaps that even to this day we still do.
Sight and language are the only ways we interpret and even interact with reality. Scholars like Northrop Frye would tell you that we use metaphors and similes to understand our world. And the occultist Aleister Crowley actually calls magic itself “a disease of language”: an early and natural extension of human understanding and attempting to control the world through the tools of words and classifications. This concept became the title for Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s A Disease of Language: a collection of comics adaptations of two live performances and an essay talking about Alan Moore’s conception of magic.
So what would happen if someone began to see reality as it looks like: beyond a seemingly human perspective? What occurs when the language of imagery in a person’s mind seems to mutate and “correlate its contents” in the way that excludes H.P. Lovecraft’s concept of human mercy? This, unfortunately, is what happens to Ernest Vernall.
The day that Ernest “goes mad” or his “final day of sanity” starts off prosaic and earthy. Alan Moore doesn’t shy away from describing the physicality of Ernest’s bodily functions, or senses. He doesn’t exclude the man’s sense of chronic pain in a body of thirty-two going on sixty or the taste of his fried bread breakfast food, or the stolen moments with his wife as they live at his mother’s house. But you know things are about to get bad for him when he remembers a dream, much like Alma does many years later. He remembers dreaming of being behind the fearsome portrait of an angel, in a play, in a gloomy house and gaining pleasure from scaring someone with white hair. He also feels bad about it too and tries to give the man in his dream some words of sympathy that come out as whispers.
This may as well be Alan Moore loudly whispering “foreshadowing” in your ear, if his earlier comment about it being Ernest’s “last day of sanity” wasn’t as subtle as a brick laid in the Boroughs. We already left Alma and Mick in 2006. Ernest, his family, and his world exist in 1865. Another issue is that not only has my mind been stuck on chronological Northampton in Voice of the Fire, it is still adjusting to the jumping around of time in Jerusalem, or its more unified structure in space and time.
Ernest is on his way to St. Paul’s Cathedral to help restore the eight frescoes of Sir James Thornhill on its domed ceiling. As he approaches the building, I remembered what Alan Moore did with it in From Hell: where it becomes one of the focal points in Sir William Gull’s fictional and horrific Ripper ritual murders as apparently Nicolas Hawksmoor assisted in creating it with Christopher Wren. But Ernest doesn’t see this. He just sees and appreciates how beautiful something like this can be amid all the squalor and coal soot around its surrounding neighbourhood. Ermest himself is going to retouch the paint job on Thornhill’s angels and saints.
On his way to work, which he sorely needs as a member of the nineteenth century British working class with a growing family, he starts thinking about his cousin losing work because Northampton no longer makes boots for the Confederates in the United States after they lost the Civil War. Ernest thinks about his time as a soldier in the Crimean War and the poverty he lives in that socialist ideals still haven’t changed. He ponders over the fact that all slaves in the States have been freed and wonders at what age some of them were branded. He thinks of his children being branded. Then he stops thinking about any of it.
As he is going towards the Church, he notices pigeons roosting in the pillars from the rain. He thinks of them as “stone apostles” and is amused by the idea of “Saint-droppings.” It has a resonance with Alma’s dream about the abandoned stable and the pigeons and “where dead people goo.” Even the title of the chapter about “angles” is a shadow of Alma’s other dream about people getting lost on a path “around the bend.” As it is, Ernest seems to find the pigeon apostle idea amusing.
Even when he’s hoisted onto the platform that takes him to the dome of the ceiling to do his work, above the Whispering Gallery, he also finds amusement in having a bird’s eye view of the monks and everyone else: especially when two priests collide with each other and he believes he can see it coming. I get another echo of Voice of the Fire and its “Cremation Fields – 2500 BC” chapter with the shaman Olun and the map of the land tattooed onto his body from a bird’s eye view. The higher perspective can be a shaman’s insight. The foreshadowing oozes down the corners of his mind like rain leaking through shoddy paint jobs, or divine tears.
It is when Ernest is bound to the top of the dome ceiling, this place that makes him feel higher than others, and also incredibly claustrophobic, that he notices that the angel he’s painting is beginning to move. At first he thinks it’s a damaged paint job and leakage from the storm outside. But then it turns to him, and speaks.
Imagine the gematria – an alphanumeric code possessing multiple linguistic, numeric, and geometric connotations – being a language. Think about a being like an angel existing beyond space and time trying to exist in words or images that a single lower-working class labourer and craftsman, can understand. Think about a man who was too poor to become literate or learn geometry seeing a vision of a being talking to him about space and time being a torus, or a cycle, and correlating all of the thoughts he was having before about his own existence around him. Even this being “dumbing down” its perspective into something as “simple” as worm-hole theory, is enough to make a grown human being cry. But what really does Ernest in is when he finally realizes that, in this place of sacred geometry that would’ve overawed Hawksmoor and Freemasons in another Alan Moore work, he sees people and existence as what seem to be a torus: or upside down chimneys were waste comes out from the other side and makes the world.
In the angel’s attempt to tell him about the context of his surroundings, it ends up sharing with Ernest the last joke he will ever truly understand.
Suffice to say, by the time Ernest is pulled down from his platform, is both laughing and crying. He’s utterly destroyed. Certainly, talking to the image of a painted angel taken from right William Blake’s Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, sweet-talking constantly silvered, shifting, stream-lined gematria into his ear, and showing how sublimely ridiculous life is would be enough to obliterate anyone’s sense of reality. In the end, Ernest ends up living the shadow of a life and revealing something about the TORUS, complete and all caps, to a few of his children that never repeat it to anyone, only to spend the rest of his days in Bedlam: like his father John almost had before him.
I’ve made the joke that Alan Moore’s prose is a lot like another dimension with its own force of massive gravity that sucks you in and doesn’t let you go: even if you want to, or are capable of doing that at that point. In a horrible way, it feels as though Ernest lived that particular reality. And yet all I can think to myself, at this point and not as learned in this material as others might be, is what was the TORUS? Does a torus possess angles that an average human can see? What did it mean in the language of the angel, or the angle of conscious reality that Ernest stepped into in St. Paul’s one day? Does each letter capitalized have its own meaning? Speak gemetria to me indeed.
While I suspect this isn’t over, perhaps the next chapter of “The Boroughs,” specifically the “ASBOS of Desire” might help make things more clear.