This column of posts will deal with the stories in Alan Moore’s new collection Illuminations. Some of these stories are old and some are new.
The last story in
“And at the Last, Just to Be Done With Silence”, is a mere ten pages long. It is told through the dialogue between two men, devoid of description, exposition, or context. We gather that the two men are undertaking an arduous journey, during wintertime, carrying a body but the when and wherefore are murky. At first, one speaker attempts to get the other to join him in conversation without success. When the other finally joins in, they discuss who they are and what’s happened to the others in their group. Even their identities seem unclear to themselves. Illuminations,
Having no clue as to the context of this conversation, except the mode of speech suggesting that it takes place in England many centuries ago, I resorted to the helpful information provided by Reddit users who discussed the story. Redditor
AlexxKay provided the following excerpt that he found through this weblink here.
“St. Hugh, though an exceptionally merciful man of his time, was most severe towards those who violated the church’s sanctuary privileges. In the year 1200, a bailiff of the Earl of Leicester resident at Brackley, Northamptonshire, took out of the church of that town a fugitive thief, who had sought sanctuary, and hung him. Northamptonshire at that time was within the diocese of Lincoln. The bishop was across the seas, but immediately on his return Hugh ex-communicated the bailiff and his accomplices. The others submitted themselves to the discipline of the church, but the bailiff fled to his lord who was in Normandy. The accomplices ere they could obtain remission of excommunication had to undergo severe and remarkable punish-ment. Stripped of all save their drawers, and with bare heads and feet, they were obliged to proceed to the foot of the gallows where the man had been hung, dig up the corpse, and carry the decaying body on their naked shoulders for nearly a mile to the church of Brackley whence he had been taken, and to bear it round the church being scourged meanwhile by the ministers, and then give it honourable burial. Nor were their troubles yet at an end, for these offenders had afterwards to walk barefoot to the far-distant Lincoln, and there to be scourged before each church of that city. Moreover they had to undergo all this penance during the cold of a severe winter season. Meanwhile the bailiff met with no sympathy from the Earl of Leicester, who dismissed him from his service, but at length he sought out the bishop when the latter was on the continent, and he was awarded seven years’ penance.”
Our two speakers are therefore two of the bailiff’s accomplices who undergo this arduous travail and punishment in order to receive a remission of excommunication and rejoin the church. As with previous stories, it is not too hard to figure out that the fact this episode in history comes from Northamptonshire is what has propelled Moore to pick the subject, but what he’s trying to say with it is another matter. There are strains within the story that echo some of Moore’s concerns. The idea of excommunication from a group and the lengths these characters go to receive a remission makes us think of the discussion of the last two stories – scenes, groups, who belongs, and what that entails. If we want, we can see this broad theme play out in other stories too such as “Hypothetical Lizard” or “Not Even Legend” or “Location, Location, Location” or even “The Improbably Complex High-Energy State.” All of these stories deal with groups or clubs of a kind, though there is no central overarching thesis on just the subject.
Is Moore interested in Hugh of Lincoln and his severe judgment against those who would remove a person who sought sanctuary in the church? Perhaps. There is a strong streak of anti-authoritarianism in Moore’s work and the injustices suffered by the poorest, most downtrodden classes as a result of those in power. Moore has never been an advocate of the church, nor has he outright condemned it, though he has looked at individual religious figures sympathetically in previous works of fiction such as
Voice of the Fire or Jerusalem. If he examines Christianity, it tends to be for the mystical aspects (the four angels in Jerusalem for example that are tied to the four fundamental forces of physics who create and maintain the universe) or compassionate, reformative figures who have come out of a genuine faith in the church such as Phillip Dodderidge. However, this avenue does not feel quite right to further an explanation for this story either. The style of this story recalls “Confessions of a Mask” in Voice of the Fire where two decapitated heads on spikes converse with each other. We are not given too much context in that story either but we understand that this tale (written around the mid nineties) also focuses on the aftermath of a severe punishment (in this case, the gunpowder plot of 1605) in which the ‘conversation’ makes up most of the tale. Slightly absurd and abstract, these conversations possess a Samuel Beckett-ish flavour and reflect both a misery and humourous resignation in response to life. Has Moore chosen this slight mysterious wisp of a tale to signify that that is the final note he wishes to end the collection on? Is he ultimately giving us the rather medieval view that the wheel of fortune turns heavily for all of us and that all we can do is put up with the pain and misfortune, take cheer in conversation and communication even though we cannot change our fates? Jerusalem elaborately stakes his belief in a predestined universe (though not necessarily a religious one) so perhaps that works. However, the silence in “And at the Last, Just to Be Done With Silence” (both the beginning and the end of the story only have one conversant, the other choosing not to answer) suggests that as the collection ends, there is not much point in trying to communicate or figure things out, our own identities and meaning as vague and inconclusive as everything else. It’s hard, I suppose, not to also think of God’s silence, famously wrestled with in the films of Ingmar Bergman. The short story’s title also seems to suggest a desire to end with silence, not declamation or commentary, perhaps a puzzling desire for an author famed for his verbosity – at least in regards to the written page.
I’ve tried my best to wrest my own meaning from each of this collection’s stories in turn. Mostly, I was only able to draw qualitative connections to other works by Moore, resonances that did not result in conclusive deductions or meanings. The stories don’t tie together like the ones in
Voice of the Fire but that is perhaps the book most companionable to this one in terms of flavour and mood. If more than half of the page content of this book has been written recently, it suggests that the isolated short story is not a form Moore is particularly drawn to. His next major prose work should launch him squarely back into epic saga mode and will probably not be an easy read. I’ve kept an open mind while reading this collection and found much to enjoy, but just as much to be puzzled about, much ambiguity. If you’ve read along with me, I thank you for your time and effort. Hopefully, you found some rewarding aspects too. This will be my last written post for 2022; it’s been a mixed year of changes and great unpredictability. I appreciate your time and patience, and the space at comicon.com to express my views and feelings (which often flow against the mainstream’s grain), and wish you all a happy new year and many delightful things to come.
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