Magic Works: An Interview with Grant Morrision Part 1

Given the options, who wouldn’t prefer to be rampaging around in higher planes, interacting with eternal archetypes and pop culture gods?

Interview by Robert Anton Wilson biographer Prop Anon, and Laura Kang, February 2017 in Brooklyn NY

I first encountered Grant Morrison at the conference of 2000, organized by Disinfo’s founder, media magician, Richard Metzger. As I walked upstairs from the basement hangout zone of NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom, at the beginning of his now legendary lecture, I heard Morrison’s bone-chilling scream into the microphone, which reminded me of another Morrison, and thought “Who the fuck is this guy?’ He then announced that he was drunk and had just eaten some hash and it was about to kick it in, all with a thick Scottish accent. Such punk rock antics won the rapt attention of the wild crowd, myself included, and over the course of the next hour or so, he voiced all the countercultural excitement of the moment. During that cold February day in New York City, Morrison’s message was clear, Magick works, but you should not take his word for it, you have do it yourself to learn how it works.

What originally brought me to this two day conference was the fact that Robert Anton Wilson was the headlining speaker. Throughout the late 90s, and especially 2000, I was completely immersed in the works of three psychedelic philosophers, Timothy Leary, John C. Lilly, and most of all, Robert Anton Wilson. RAW was more than just a psychedelic philosopher, he was the greatest living writer that I’d discovered up to that point.

During his talk, Morrison exuded such optimism and joy that I immediately went out and read as many of his comics I could find. Reading The Invisibles was a monumental experience, contributing to my own seismic breakthroughs about the potential of my consciousness in this vast mysterious universe.

Since that Disinfo conference, Morrison’s stories have jettisoned his name to a pantheon of comic book wizardry. This year marks another ascent for him, as the TV world has finally managed to secure his story-telling talents. Syfy Channel contracted Grant to film a pilot based on his graphic novel, Happy!, as well as a television series rendering of the Aldous Huxley classic Brave New World.

Morrison was in Brooklyn to work on the HAPPY! Pilot, when he, myself and the Semiotic Alchemyst (aka Laura Kang) met up on a frigid February night for some food, drink and conversation. For three hours, we covered such varied topics as the utilization of Magick to survive the idiocy of Tump & Brexit; the greatness of the work of Robert Anton Wilson, the role that women are playing in bringing in a bloodless revolution in the Aeon of Ma’at, Gnosticism, Acting, Theater, The conference, Voodoo, Kool Keith, the KLF, smoking DMT, and the importance of maintaining a sense of humor, among other amazing things.

How did your Brave New World project come about?

Grant Morrison: They, being the Syfy network, liked what Brian Taylor and I had done with the Happy! pilot script and asked us to pitch for the Brave New World series they’ve been putting together with Amblin. They liked our take and now we’re working to get the pilot right. We used Huxley and the original book as a springboard but we had to expand the original finite story into something new that can sustain a TV series through several potential seasons.

The pilot for HAPPY! Is being filmed now. What happens when it gets picked up? 

GM: If it goes to series, which I’m sure it will, I expect there’ll be a writer’s room and new episodes will be created and shot at speed. So far, it’s just been me and Brian working together, so I have no idea how the process will play out.

Is it going to be a series that may continue, then, or is it going to be a portrayal of the graphic novel as you wrote it?

GM: Well, again, as with Brave New World we’re opening the story up and adding a lot of new material for TV.

Christopher Meloni, from Law and Order and Oz will be playing Nick Sax, the protagonist of the story. What does he bring to the role? 

GM: Meloni is a human dynamo — the room lights up when he comes in. He’s just brilliant. He inhabits the character of Sax, and improvises entire runs of dialogue and action which tend to be better than what we’ve written! He’s just endlessly inventive and he can be scary and funny and everything else we need, so he really gets to show his range. I can’t imagine a better actor in the Nick Sax role. When you see the photographs of Chris Meloni in his Sax coat, with the guns, it looks exactly like Darick’s drawing on the cover of the first issue of the comic. All the actors, even the ones who play minor roles, turned out to be brilliant. And the guy we got for the voice of Happy was the best. I can’t tell you until it’s announced but my god, I thought he was brilliant at the read-through. He really brought it to life.

How did you hook up with Brian Taylor?

GM: I was a huge fan of his Crank movies, especially that second one, which is just nuts, and one of those films I’ll watch every time it comes on. We share certain sensibilities and an odd sense of humor so we really hit it off. He’s really smart and has an amazing work ethic. I tend to prefer working out the big picture and because I’m used to putting so much detail in my comic scripts, I usually overelaborate when I’m writing screenplays. Brian cuts to the bone and really focuses down on getting all the details right, so we’ve made a good team so far.

How are you enjoying your time in Brooklyn? 

GM: I have a great corner room with an incredible view of Manhattan and the river, so it’s not a bad place to be for a month. I’m working ridiculous long hours, in the cold, outside, at night. Otherwise, I’ve embraced the whole Williamsburg hipster thing – brunch, hoodies. I’m just glad to get away from the television right now, and 24 hours of MSNBC Trump TV.

Yeah, it’s very disturbing to think of Trump anywhere near any form of power. I guess Brexit, in a sense, was the British version of Trump becoming President. 

GM: In Scotland, we almost unanimously voted to stay in Europe but the attitude in England was very different, at least outside the major cosmopolitan towns and cities. “Sombunall,” as Robert Anton Wilson would say,… some but not all… of the anti-Europe sentiment was undoubtedly fueled by ill-informed xenophobia and a sort of ambient, directionless anxiety. You can definitely make parallels with the Trump campaign. Otherwise, it’s just our fellow human beings reminding us not to get too complacent! If you’re making art, it’s just grist to the mill.

Do you think perhaps a good way for individuals and as a collective to get through a Trump and Brexit world would be to learn more magick skills?

GM: Absolutely. Magick provides a powerful context and support system for even the darkest or most fucked-up times and experiences. Following in the footsteps of Harry Potter, every boy and girl should familiarize themselves with the disciplines of magic even if only for shits and giggles. It’s also engaging and absorbing and creative to make spells and do rituals and to form rewarding relationships with things that shouldn’t exist. 

Magic encourages you to take charge of your own life, so it confers a sense of agency and self-control that can seem lacking at times like these when sort of epic, elemental forces seem to have us all at their mercy. Given the options, who wouldn’t prefer to be rampaging around in higher planes, interacting with eternal archetypes and pop culture gods? Who wouldn’t want to bring back ideas that could change the world?

Things are malleable around the edges right now, which is good news for magicians. The attack on the Twin Towers, in 2001, can be read as the physical manifestation of a world-shaking metaphorical event Qabalists call the Descent or the Collapse of the 32nd Path. If you look at most versions of Tarot Trump 18, the Moon, you’ll see two towers or pylons. These are representative of the gateway that separates “reality” — in the form of everything we can touch and weigh or think about – and “illusion” – all our ideas, daydreams, fantasies, hallucinations and the like. On the Qabalistic Tree of Life we have Malkuth, the material world, dangling down at the base of the structure. The sphere above is Yesod, the Moon, representing the world inside our heads – and linking them is the 32nd path, also known as The Universe. When the Towers fell, the barrier between what is real and what is illusion disintegrated.

During the Descent or Collapse of the 32nd path, basically the end of the Universe as we understand it, Malkuth gets drawn up into Yesod and the two spheres merge, which results in the repair or restoration of the horizontal symmetry of the Tree. Qabalah uses the metaphor of spheres but think about the real world and how that collapse of the boundaries between reality and illusion has manifested in our lives since 9/11. The real world has been getting more like fiction while fiction has worked hard to become more realistic and plausible, as they attempt to meet in the middle. After 9/11 you had to explain the most ridiculous superheroes scientifically, like Iron man or Batman. We witnessed the rise of reality TV, scripted documentary, fake news, cognitive dissonance. We have the rising tide that is VR and AR tech which will shatter the last of the walls. So it’s clear to see what an apocalypse of that nature might look like to us in the material world…

New viewpoints and useful new ideas will naturally come from the queer margins into the center of culture.

One wonders where things will end up. 

GM: As far as magic goes right now, I’m choosing to live in a sort of Kenneth Grant reality tunnel where the Aeon of Ma’at is revving up while the influence of her twin, the fiery Horus warrior boy wanes. In Egyptian mythology, Ma’at is the daughter of Osiris and Isis. She’s the Goddess of Truth, so I’m convinced that women will inspire and lead the next great bloodless revolution — and you know you’re seeing all these women marching, like my mum did back in the Women Against the Bomb days, and their voices are growing much stronger. Thanks to the internet, minorities and outsiders, nonconformists, trans people, everyone’s getting a chance to talk and agitate, and the world is learning to listen. I think new viewpoints and useful new ideas will naturally come from the queer margins into the center of culture. But I think, as I said, the utopian counterculture project might also be a longer process than any of us wanted to believe — when we did that Disinfo thing back in 2000 we were so sure we’d arrived at the end of history and the final assimilation of the counterculture – which we chose to celebrate.

That was a great event wasn’t it? Pure rock n’ roll, and so much fun. 

GM: Yeah, but we really thought, “This is it! The counterculture! We won! They want our shit, they want to swallow our lovely poisons, our blue pills, and be like us and join us in the sexy fetish Matrix,” Doug Rushkoff said this too, quite independently at the same event. We were watching the mainstream of entertainment and business eating up our culture, and we reasoned that there could be only one result — they’d inevitably get seriously high off our weirdness. They’d transform into US and they’d change in ways that were inescapable. Or like the cows with BSE at the time, they’d get sick off us and die. I still think we were right. This world certainly acts like it swallowed something very unusual…

The Outer Church (reference to Gnosticism and The Invisibles) is sending out a lot of Archons right now.

GM: Fuck yeah. But they’re generally easy to spot. All ideas become vulnerable when they leave the safety of the imagination. By choosing to manifest in the solid world, our monsters and Archons end up having to go through the ravages of time and process like the rest of us. If you want to destroy a demon, give it flesh and watch it rot in confusion and agony.

GK: The Invisibles is such a great story. It stands alone, yet reminded me of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s classic Illuminatus! Trilogy when I first read it. 

GM: I read Illuminatus when I was 21 and it blew me away. Bryan Talbot turned me onto the book as he did with so many things back then. It was the scale of it — the way it connected all these dots I didn’t even know were there, this entire worldview from the gutter to the cosmos, you know, it was all-encompassing. It seemed to bring together everything I liked or was interested in into one story. Lovecraft, magic, pop music, sex, drugs, spy-fi, metafiction…

I’d always wanted to do something on that scale and that’s what The Invisibles was. Illuminatus was obviously a direct influence on The Invisibles. That’s the kind of work I wanted to do for my own generation because Illuminatus kind of came out of the West Coast Boomer hippie culture of the late ‘60s, ‘70s — I wanted to do something that could be a bible for the philosophies and experiences of educated working class punks like myself and then, going into the ‘90s it absorbed the influence of rave and dance culture, and tapped into all that Mondo 2000, Terrence McKenna, Cyberia stuff that was happening. It also became a fictionalized diary of my travels and magical experiments at the time.

You previously mentioned to me that Masks of the Illuminati is your favorite Robert Anton Wilson book. Why is that? 

The characters are great – and the way he brings them to life with research and details, Joyce and Einstein, each using his special talents to solve this quintessential modernist occult mystery. There’s the gripping, twisting plotline that also doubles as a magical initiation. It’s operating on so many levels. It’s so brilliant, too, I think because it’s self-contained, unlike Wilson’s epic trilogies. It would make a great film. David Fincher should do it.

The other one I really like is The Historical Illuminatus Chroniclesthat’s when I came back to reading Wilson in a big way but he never finished that series…

Like volume two of that trilogy, The Widow’s Son. He was in such a satirically sharp place when he wrote that book. That was one of the books he wrote while living in Ireland, and his writing reflected all the exuberance the best of Irish writing offers. His homage to Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is fucking brilliantly executed the way he riddles The Widow’s Son with footnotes referencing the work of de Selby in a similar way O’Brien did it. I agree, it is such a brilliant book.

GM: Yeah, it’s just amazing what he could do. Before I came out tonight, I was just reading up on him again, cuz I hadn’t really thought about Wilson for a while and I was reminding myself of what he’d done and it’s just phenomenal, the number of books that he wrote. He was just such a brilliant writer across multiple disciplines — a brilliant writer of essays, a brilliant writer of fiction, he did stand-up comedy. It’s astonishing. And that’s before you get into the non-fiction stuff like Quantum Psychology, Prometheus Rising, books which completely rewrote my head when I read them. They were practical manuals of self-help and self-actualization. He introduced me to humanism, NLP and E-prime and the 8-circuit model – things which genuinely changed my way of thinking for the better.

Experience is prismatic, inconsistent

What was is it about Prometheus Rising that really inspired you? 

GM: Wilson provided his readers with very direct and practical tools we could use to examine our own heads and change the often self-defeating negative narratives we feed ourselves. The exercises in Prometheus Rising and Quantum Psychology were as utilitarian as the Chaos Magic rituals and DIY shamanism I was practicing at the time and proved to me that real magic is very down-to-earth and pragmatic. They really worked. He also introduced me to the multi-reality-tunnel approach, where you make an effort to see beyond your own narrow view of the world by incorporating as many different viewpoints into your own as you can. Experience is prismatic, inconsistent — you know, the sun is a scientist’s gravitational fusion process and a poet’s host of radiant angels. Both descriptions of the sun are real descriptions made by real observers with different points of view, that when added together give us a more accurate, nuanced understanding of the nature of the sun. To understand any idea or a person or a thing you have to see it from multiple, contradictory angles. The right wing view of things is justifiably true from a certain perspective. Justifiably untrue from others. And vice versa. The only way to understand this complex thing called reality is to understand it from all the available perspectives. See it from as many angles as possible and you might start to glimpse the actual shape of the thing.

I’m trying to do that with Trump right now.

GM: Trump’s confusing because there’s been a tacit agreement that politics and politicians will behave in certain ways. This doesn’t look like traditional politics. It’s more like some late stage, super-cynical, decadent corporate capitalist thing. It’s like the Borgias in the 21st century. America hasn’t elected a President. It’s elected a boss, who expects to be told only what he wants to hear. Obviously that strategy will soon disconnect him from any real world he might still be clinging onto and he’ll quickly wind up with no idea what’s actually going on outside his personal virtual reality. Wilson, of course, talked about this effect of the power pyramid a long time ago — the boss loses all touch with reality because no one dares tell him truth that he may not want to hear. He becomes the blinded eye at the top of the pyramid. The Gnostic archon Samael, or Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.

That’s one of the great things about RAW, in seeking to do something like he had done, you have all these different angles and models but you need the language system to describe all those experiences, which is why he’s so great.

GM: He’s also just a great clear writer. I like dense, surrealist, psychedelic prose as much as the next man but Wilson’s prose is very clear and unadorned. The writing is stripped right back, there’s nothing fancy or frilly and I find that harder to do myself. I sometimes wish I could write as plainly as he does with the clarity that he has cuz I have a terrible tendency to ramble and over-write.

Jesse Walker wrote in his book The United States of Paranoia about several films that came out in the late 90s containing Gnostic narratives. The underlying themes to movies like Dark World, The Matrix, and even The Truman Show presents the world we perceive around us as a false and possibly malevolent illusion. For me, coming of age in the late 90s, that Gnostic vibe was everywhere. Gnostic elements also played such a key role of the story in The Invisibles. Then 9/11, and everything surrounding it, seemed to push this Gnostic narrative in pop culture underground again. Do you think that perhaps we may be see another surge in a Gnostic narrative infusion into our culture after a seventeen to twenty-three year hiatus?

GM: The Gnostic narrative is still valuable and relevant because it concerns itself with what we can call the Matrix, the idea that we live in a simulation of reality that enfolds and engages us, while blinding us and concealing from us the true reality of our existence – the Gnostics were the first to build whole cosmologies around the idea that the universe is somehow fake or counterfeit, the half-assed, broken effort of a jealous, self-deluding demiurge.

I think there’s a kind of truth there but the attempts of the Gnostics to express it were naturally stuck in their times. We have computer metaphors now and the understanding that… yeah, we’ve proved you can simulate universes now. You can play games that have become increasingly more complex and ornate; something like Grand Theft Auto, to me that’s like the Sistine Chapel — that ordinary people collaborated to make something so beautiful, so intricate, where even the pigeons on the ground are doing stuff. I mean you can find peyote plants in Grand Theft Auto and if you can take them, you experience the game as an animal or a bird. It’s not important to the gameplay. It’s just an amazing little detail that adds to the immersive effect. There are ghosts and UFOs hidden in the game. To me, the intricacy of that creation is astounding — you know so, obviously if we can already create simulations that good, it’s easy to imagine that we could also be living in a higher-order simulation created in some barely-imaginable super-computer.

And that’s also kind of what I experienced when I had the whole thing in Kathmandu, when I was convinced I’d been stripped off the surface of the space time continuum and shown the universe from “outside”. From my point of view, our universe was very definitely contained inside a bigger, more “real” continuum with more dimensions but it wasn’t like we were a simulation. The universe was created naturally as part of an organic process but there was no doubt that our lives were just small slices of something with more angles.

It’s possible to trigger states of consciousness where these higher spaces and times seem like undeniable facts of reality. These states of consciousness were available to the Gnostics and others but, as I say, they didn’t have the computer metaphors we use to imagine a simulated universe so they expressed it in these religious terms.

Do you think they had access to psychedelics back then?

GM: Absolutely! Psychedelic cultures been around since people could stuff mushrooms and other ingredients in their faces. If they didn’t have plant-based procedures, they could use other methods — magic spells are specifically-designed formulae which use props and other psychological cues to bring about specific states of mind.

BBC Scotland had once optioned The Invisibles, what happened with that?

GM: I wrote two scripts. I even got paid for them and then the executive that commissioned the series went on maternity leave or something and someone else took over her desk. Suddenly here was this project The Invisibles and the new regime was like what the hell is this thing and they called me and said we don’t want anything like this with telepathy in it. This is ridiculous. There’s no such thing as telepathy. No-one will believe this madness. I don’t even think there was any telepathy in there but what can you do? Oh, and they didn’t like the use of the word “occult”. Naturally, X-Files was the biggest show on TV at the time and it was filled with all that stuff. So somebody just decommissioned the whole project and that was it. The scripts were good though. It was a little ahead of its time for the BBC but I think it would’ve been a good thing. I might have ended up writing “Dr. Who”!

Was your Kathmandu adventure a Chapel Perilous experience?  

GM: The Kathmandu thing was a very positive and energizing experience. It was the most remarkable thing that had happened to me in my life to that point, and opened floodgates of creativity that kept me going for years. I felt as if I fully understood the universe, its origins, its future, my place in it. There was no hint of Chapel Perilous or the Dark Tower until about 2 years later. When I wound up in the hospital almost dying, that was my Chapel Perilous, that was the real deal. I got a staph infection and it was in my blood stream, I didn’t even know it was happening to me and I was just getting sicker and sicker and sicker for about six months. It was all coming out in The Invisibles long before I even suspected how sick I was. You can see it all happening in the comic before it happened to me.

Fortunately, I’d been doing a ton of martial arts and yoga so I was in good physical shape. If it happened now it’d probably kill me. I got this infection and it started with mediaeval boils appearing behind my ear, then on my face. All sorts of weird lesions on my skin. Then it just got worse and worse and worse until I was so weak I could barely move and just lay on the living room floor for a week. I started to hallucinate that the windows in my house seemed all wrong, you know like HP Lovecraft where the angles were all fucked up, and I’m seeing hearses coming through the walls.

Things worked out for me in odd unlikely synchronistic ways and thanks to some friends, my mum found me a doctor who saved my life. He swung it to get me a hospital room, after diagnosing me with advanced septicemia and a collapsed lung. There were no available rooms. But the nurse who answered the phone had gone out with a friend of this doctor’s once, and she got me a bed as a favor. So I was in the hospital the next day, diagnosed with two days to live and that was it. The night before they took me into hospital, I had this vision of Christ, this savage Gnostic Christ, this pillar of light coming through the door. I put that in the Invisibles too. The bearded stone. The alien. Barbelith. All I could remember were his first words which were I am not the god of your fathers, I am the hidden stone that breaks all hearts. And he just started on this thing, this sermon. this talk… I wish I could remember the rest, there were tears pouring out my eyes. It was just like well you can stay or go now. You can stay and you’re working for us, and you have to spread the light. And I thought yeah, I want to stay on please, so I survived. The doctors saved me. That was that my Chapel Perilous, my Dark Night of the Soul.

After that, I experienced an absolute euphoria, like being on ecstasy every day for six months. It was an incredible natural high, which felt great but I was kind of psychologically inflated. You know, I felt like the messiah, and I was just like I love everything and everyone, and blithely insisting everything was great just because it felt great to me. I began to realize I wasn’t engaging with the emotional pain of other people anymore. I felt I had the answer to it all. Everything is awesome! Dance with me! I became like a car salesman for brightness and bliss. So I had to get through that phase to restore a kind of human balance and that was hard; that was like eventually coming to this very sober, cold, Buddhist understanding of suffering. So, it was a long process of going through these different kind of stages. It took a while to organize it all. And I think the Disinfo thing came at the culmination of the whole experience that The Invisibles represented. The comic was just finishing its 6-year run when Disinfo happened.

After 9-11, all the magic I was doing went into a kind of reverse and rituals weren’t working for me in the same way. I began to concentrate more on doing magic in the specific form of the comic books I was creating, rather than staging the theatrical, ritual, performance stuff that I’d been doing prior to that.

What was the time frame between Kathmandu and the hospital and the disinfo event? 

GM: Kathmandu was ‘94 and being in hospital was ‘96 and then the Disinfo Con was early 2000. It was early 2000, yeah?

PROP ANON is the author of the upcoming Chapel Perilous: The Life and Thought Crimes of Robert Anton Wilson, the first official biography of the late counterculture philosopher. Prop Anon started his career as a Hip-Hop artist whose 2010 album Squat the Condos presaged the Occupy movement. In 2014, Prop switched musical gears and released a Stoner Rock album called HAIL ERIS! with his band, HAIL ERIS!  

tune in tomorrow for more Grant Morrison

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