“It is important to accept man in his totality, his shit, and his death. In the acceptance of obscenity, excrement, and death there lies a spiritual energy which I make use of.”
In his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Rene Descartes penned one of philosophy’s most famous dictums: cogito ergo sum, “I reflect, therefore I am.” In his search for a rational philosophical foundation, Descartes began from a position of absolute skepticism: he could doubt the existence of the world around him—after all, an all-powerful, malevolent demiurge could be deceiving him about its existence; he could doubt the existence of other people; and he could even doubt the existence of his own body. All that must exist was the self which held such doubts. Hence, cogito ergo sum.
But just what was the substance of this “I” in “I reflect, therefore I am”? Having eliminated any physical object as a possibility, the philosopher declared his true self to be beyond the material world, connected to the body but not of it. The essential “Rene Descartes”, he believed, was something Gilbert Ryle, in 1949’s The Concept of Mind, pejoratively dubbed “the ghost in the machine.”
In his Meditations Descartes confronted the mind-problem that has haunted the philosophy of mind for centuries—the question being, briefly, how do mental processes interact with the physical world? How does human will become human action? Descartes answer—that we each contain a physically-transcendent essence—puts him in step with much of religious thought, as well as with Plato and early Greek philosophy; the counter-argument, voiced by strict materialists, holds that identity is the end-product of myriad chemical actions within the brain. Consciousness, then, does not transcend the physical, but arises out of it.
Into this long-standing debate jumps Grant Morrison, with The Filth, the story of middle-aged Greg Feely, who lives a gray life of TV dinners and tending to his sick cat. Feely plays the J. Alfred Prufrock role without complaint or reflection until a mysterious woman appears in his shower claiming that he is really Ned Slade, Special Officer 999 of the ontological garbage men known as The Filth. Greg/Ned’s life starts to bleed Technicolor, and he finds himself mentally unmoored in a place between worlds.
The Filth, explains the woman, who introduces herself as Miami Nil, exist to enforce Status Q: “the way it is.” They take on the jobs too bizarre or grotesque for normal authorities, to “stop the world’s backyard from stinking.” Their latest quarry is a “rogue parapersona” named Spartacus Hughes—“educated at Eton, Magdalen College, Oxford Honors Graduate, superb marksman, martial arts expert, sex god.”
Hughes, it seems, is the antithesis of Descartes’s vision of the self. There is no metaphysical “Spartacus Hughes,” no ghost in that machine. Instead, there is “Spartacus Hughes,” personality-as-virus, infecting host bodies with his deranged identity. The bodies change, but Hughes remains the same smug, psychotic hedonist. He’s gone AWOL from The Filth; it’s Ned’s job to bring him in.
Ned, though, can’t quite shake Greg Feely, a parapersona engineered to give him some time off. “‘Identity bends,’ they call it,” quips Miami Nil. Ned/Greg can’t help feeling that he’s in over his head as he encounters the world’s most decadent billionaire, a murderer who kills with time, giant killer sperm over Beverly Hills, and a real-life superhero whose thoughts congeal in a balloon above his head. Meanwhile, Hughes is infecting more bodies, causing more chaos, and finally, it seems, trying to tell Ned something.
Through the thirteen issues of The Filth, Morrison plays the materialists against their essentialist counterparts. Hughes revels in his status as personality-virus, using it as an excuse to tear the world apart. After all, if we’re all just puppets on the strings of our DNA, how can we have moral responsibility for anything? Another character, Doctor Arno von Vermun, explains that the number of germs on the human body outnumber the native cells by ten to one. How liberating—and damning—is it, he asks, “to know that we are only angels weighed down by filth, free of guilt?” Here Vermun echoes the “fallen world” doctrine prevalent in Gnostic Christianity and other faiths. With Vermun, as with many morose metaphysicians, the world’s decrepitude becomes an excuse for an end run around the worldly consequences of one’s actions.
Of course, as in much of his work, Morrison refuses such an easy dichotomy as “material vs. essence.” When one character, a parapersona, asks Ned what lives on after the body dies, he answers, “the soul.” She responds, in a thick Scottish brogue, “Aye, right. Mitochondrial DNA. That’s yir technical term fur the ‘soul.’ It’s aw aboot how yih describe hings.” The essentialists tend to see the world as fallen and rotten, forgetting that it’s all in how you describe things. The world is what it is—Status Q—and yet Dali found spiritual energy in the excrement; Vermeer turned dried cow piss into Indian Yellow, allowing him to capture in Girl with a Pearl Earring a light that would never again exist.
This process of turning the shit and piss of the material world into something better and more human represents a third way. It’s the alchemical answer to both the essentialists who deny the primacy of the material world and to the materialists who reduce humanity to a series of neuronal sparks. “We’re all shit,” Spartacus Hughes declares while trying to kill Ned Slade. It’s hard to know where to go from there.
Ned, facing the possibility that he is a parapersona created in a lab to fulfill a role in a higher plan, has to confront that question. He storms The Filth headquarters, ready to take out the people who’ve lied to him, convinced him of his individuality. He is rage and bloodlust, but when he confronts his tormentors, he realizes they too are playing their roles. He breaks down, saying, “And I wanted an explanation. I wanted it all to make sense. But it’s just shit. What am I supposed to do?” Holding up a handful of muck to his superior, Mother Dirt (just a cynical description of Mother Earth), he says, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
You do what humans have always done, Greg, when they’re not losing themselves in world-shrinking abstractions. You go into the world of muck and filth with dignity, and you try to make it a little better. You share a little warmth with another person just as lost and lonely as yourself. In short, as Mother Dirt answers, “Spread it on your flowers, Greg.”