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Blakespotting: Red John and Blake’s Tyger in The Mentalist

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Somewhat belatedly, I have recently been taking an interest in the CBS series The Mentalist, my attention having been drawn to a Blakean allusion in the final episode of season two.

For those who have not had a chance to see it yet, The Mentalist is a police procedural series set in Sacramento, following an independent consultant, Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), who uses his skills as a psychic medium to investigate crimes. This hokum is given a certain pleasant cynicism by being revealed to be a con on Jane’s part, though it lands him in considerable trouble after he claims that those skills helped police profile a serial killer named Red John.

Jane uses talents for hyper-observation in the Dumas-Holmes school of detective work to uncover crimes, but it is Red John, the main antagonist, who is probably of most interest to Blake spotters. Having killed Jane’s wife and daughter, he becomes Jane’s arch-enemy, considering himself a showman and artist who leaves his signature “crying smiley” drawn with the blood of his victims. The connection with Blake comes at the end of season two, in the episode “Red Sky in the Morning”. Rescuing Jane from two copycat killers, but keeping his face hidden behind a mask, he recites the first stanza of “The Tyger” to Jane before leaving. You can see the scene at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vnzc4IyQfag.

There has been a rather persistent connection between Blake and serial killers for some time now, the most famous being Hannibal Lecter (who employs Blakean motifs) and Francis Dolarhyde, the antagonist of the first Lecter novel, Red Dragon. Other examples of this link include Michael Dibdin’s novel Dark Spectre, which deals with a murderous cult built up around Blake’s works, and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, in which Jack the Ripper/Sir William Gull cites Blake as an explanation for the esoteric motives behind his murder. The best of these writers understand that to use Blake in such a way is an obvious perversion of Blake’s philosophy, but in popular imagination it sometimes appears that the proverb of hell, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”, has been taken as an injunction to commit any atrocity rather than to avoid the cause of such perversity in the first place, the nursing of those unacted desires.

Red John is clearly of that category of intelligent, even artistic, sociopath that is so beloved of fiction, and by citing “The Tyger” we are obviously intended to understand his actions as being beyond normal conceptions of good and evil, a pop-version of the Nietzschean superman. I’ve always been extremely sceptical of this tendency to view Blake as some sort of proto-satanic antihero, and there is a certain melancholy for me in the fact that one of the most pacifist of the Romantic writers has frequently been invoked to support what far too often is the banality of evil. Blake’s radical Christianity is far more of a challenge (particularly for a secular atheist such as myself, though I take a certain wry pleasure in the fact that Blake would have seen many Christians as worshiping the god of this world).

In programs such as The Mentalist, then, Blake is a shorthand cipher, a means of generating instant depth and relative profundity: a dash of mysticism, a splash of obscurity and suddenly the villain becomes much more interesting. Despite my own sarcasm here, I am (as always) immensely pleased to see this particular zoamorph on the screens, demonstrating just why Blake can work as such a cipher because of his popularity, and The Mentalist‘s combination of psychic hokum and rationalist demystification (neither of which is allowed entirely to gain the upper hand over the other) gives the program a particular edge that raises it above plenty of other detective shows. In every series, Jane parades his scepticism over every aspect of paranormal activities, displaying an unorthodox yet still slightly Urizenic rationalism; by asking him the immortal question of who dares frame the tyger’s fearful symmetry, Red John dissolves such certainty and shows some of the fragility of Jane’s reasonable world view.

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