Imagination is Limitless

Alan Moore portrait
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Alan Moore and Brian Catling on Imagination
– Review of How To Academy event, 17th January 2022 –

Monday’s online discussion from the How to Academy, featuring comic legend Alan Moore and artist Brian Catling, was overflowing with pertinent observations and generous advice for anyone interested in the nature of the imagination.

It was a relief that Robin Ince is a lively and well-informed interviewer. I have attended numerous literary events where the chair clearly had no clue about the global figures they were interviewing. Ince had both the intellectual rigour and good humour to steer a discussion on a stretching, abstract topic while enabling both his guests to shine.

I was not familiar with Brian Catling before the talk, and I can’t pretend to have read Alan Moore’s entire canon either. But you didn’t need to have the full context to enjoy what they had to say.

Starting with a discussion about the boundary between the imagination and reality, Catling’s definition – that the realm of the imagination holds more possibilities than the real world, is more exciting and, even better, always there – resonated with Moore.

Plus, Moore added, it is free to everybody. Landscapes exist in the imagination all the time, even when we are asleep. Of course, that can be threatening for some as both horrors and miracles coexist there.

Moore noted the misguided assumption, made by some, that an artist who creates macabre or fantastical words is like that in real life. You do not have to be ‘an aberration’ yourself. That’s a relief. As an author of dystopian fiction which houses a few dark corners, it was reassuring to hear someone say that out loud.

Where does the imagination take us? Catling talked about fiction being a way to understand history, to go back and meet people, and to meet people in the future. The imaginative process itself – as both authors had experienced it – felt organic. Moore paraphrased William Burroughs, who suggested that writers are an instrument whose stories tell themselves. Ideas grow out of the writing process.

That is not to say that imagination exists in a vacuum. Not only does it enable us to interpret the world, it also shapes it. Unfortunately, the myths and tropes which dominate vast swathes of popular culture are ‘genuinely dangerous simplistic stories’, according to Moore, in which ‘unbelievable fantastic threats’ are defeated by ‘unbelievable fantastic saviours.’ This presents ‘an infantilisation of the narrative of the way we conduct the world’.

At the same time, fantasy is what we build reality on, and – for the writer – another world to live in. They agreed it could provide both a therapy and a meditation.

There was only time for a couple of questions, but I did not feel at all short-changed. The last word went to Moore: ‘Fantasy is always in some way about the real world, or else it would not work at all’.

More background on this event and the speakers here.

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