Blake Around the Web, February 2012

This is the first in a series of short updates that feature links to recent stories, lectures, news, and other mentions of William Blake on the web.

Opposition is True Friendship: Christopher Hitchens and William Blake

Deepak Chopra once argued that Christopher Hitchens, one of the founders of the New Atheist movement, “dismisses every spiritual person out of hand, which means that he dismisses William Blake […] in the same breath that he dismisses Bible belt preachers.” Hitchens died yesterday at the age of 62 after a battle with esophageal cancer. In one of his most polemic works, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), Hitchens sketches a grand argument against spiritual faith, suggesting that the loss of faith “can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also ‘man-made” (4).This struggle between religion and literature was well-known by William Blake, although he saw the progression in reverse. Blake was an avid reader of Constantin Volney. Volney argues in The Ruins: or, Meditations on the revolutions of empires: and The law of nature (1789) that priests created religion in order to pervert and control the imaginative work of artisans. Instead of inspiration, for Volney, religion invented laws to secure the power of the priestly caste and drew upon the visions of artists for its authority. While scholars like E.P. Thompson and Jon Mee argue that Blake did not subscribe to Volney’s atheism, it becomes difficult to understand just where atheism ends and Blake’s version of spirituality begins. Take, for example, his statement in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “all deities reside in the human breast.” Jason Whittaker, in his introduction to the poem, admits that “Blake’s final statement […] can be read as remarkably close to atheism: however it is more accurate to emphasize that in this and his other works he emphasises again and again the divine nature of humanity.”

Blake’s voice has been used powerfully in tracts by many atheists, several of them Hitchens’s friends. Salman Rushdie refers to Blake briefly in The Satanic Verses to emphasize the spiritual insanity of Gibreel Farishta. Whereas Blake describes seeing God as “seeing the infinite in everything,” again a reference to the divine nature of humanity, Gibreel’s “vision of the Supreme Being was not abstract in the least. He saw, sitting on the bed, a man of about the same age as himself….” More recently, Rushdie uses Blake’s character Nobodaddy (“the silent & invisible/ Father of jealousy”) in Luka and the Fire of Life to represent Luka’s fear of his father dying. Philip Pullman, another famous atheist and president of the William Blake society, turns to the prologue of Blake’s Europe (“will shew you alive/The world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy”) to conceptualize the central concept from His Dark Materials: dust. When interviewed by Donna Frietas about Dust, Pullman says that “Dust is a visual analog of everything that is consciousness: human thought, imagination, love, affection, kindness, good things, and curiosity, intellectual curiosity. All that stuff is pictured in my idea of dust. Our most profound duty, it seems to me, is to increase the presence of dust in the world.”

Pullman calls himself an atheist. And Hitchens celebrated Pullman’s atheism in the review of His Dark Materials in Vanity Fair, highlighting Pullman’s insistence that “I just think the real world is all we have, and that it’s beautiful, and that there ain’t no elsewhere.” Further, Hitchens seems to empathize with, if not support, this form of atheism in his own references to Blake. In Arguably, Hitchens celebrates Blake’s devotion to animals (“William Blake could experience the agony of animals as if they were his own”) and uses him to argue against policies that sentence children as adults (“William Blake […] perhaps excelled all other authors in his rage against cruelty to the young.”). In Love, Poverty, and War Hitchens identifies with Blake’s distaste for stupidity (“If I had to surmise another influence, it would be William Blake […] because, as Blake phrased it: “A Last Judgment is necessary because fools flourish”). In Hitch-22, Hitchens identifies with Blake’s tragic visionary eye by recalling an episode from his childhood. “Once, after staying with a school friend on the Mumbles peninsula of South Wales, I had been as distressed as William Blake by my brief glimpse of the hell-mouth scenes of the steelworks and coal-pits around Port Talbot.” The Blake that emerges in Hitchens’s work is completely stripped of all spiritual trappings, a passionate fighter against oppression.

But Hitchens also unrelentingly critiqued Blake’s spiritual position, likening it to a loss in faith or a prophetic mass that threatened to overshadow the rest of his work. In his collaboration with Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, Hitchens likens Blake’s relationship to Christianity as a cancer. “[h]e searched his mind for belief in its fraud like a terrified woman feeling her breast for a cancer, he gave himself up to prophetic fury that his mind might find his way back to the undefiled sources of knowledge for goodness.” In his review of Peter Ackroyd’s Albion for The Atlantic, Hitchens also accuses Blake of a sentimentality that is all too British: “William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem,’ celebrated for its line about ‘these dark Satanic mills’ still manages to speak of ‘England’s green and pleasant land. The country that generated the Industrial Revolution and built the largest empire still has a self-image that is somehow bucolic.”

Hitchens’s relationship with Blake is, perhaps, more complicated than Chopra’s characterization of dismisal, and yet it might best capture the opposition that is typical of many writers and their relationship with Blake. If, as Blake argues in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “opposition is true friendship,” perhaps Christopher Hitchens was a true friend of Blake.

Blakesy: Branding and Crafting Blake Online

"Tyger, Tyger" t-shirt, from Threadless

William Blake has an obvious appeal for subcultures who consume custom-made t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other ephemera. Part of this appeal might be attributed to what Mike Goode has identified as the proverbial quality of Blake’s work. Quotes from Blake’s work can easily be taken from their original context and emerge in films, comics, bathroom stalls – and yes, coffee mugs and t-shirts. Threadless, for example, offers a typically ironic and cute take on Blake’s “Tyger” poem with their “Tyger, Tyger” t-shirt – which depicts a Tyger setting fire to several kites. Threadless features designs submitted by its users, then a few are collectively chosen, printed on t-shirts, and sold by the company – with profits being shared with the designers. “Tyger, Tyger” is another example of what Steve Clark and Jason Whittaker call “the Blake Brand,” where Blake’s work is transformed and made to circulate apart from its original meaning for the purpose of making new commodities. In the case of “Tyger, Tyger,” the shirt emphasizes the cuteness of the Tyger and mocks the ferocity of Blake’s poem by presenting an image that is cartoony and childish. The line on the shirt reads “Tyger, Tyger burning kites/ in the forests of the night” along with a short note pointing at the tiger and stating that “he hates kites.”

"Heaven In a Rage" T-Shirt, from Threadless


A second example from Threadless is the “Heaven in a Rage” shirt, featuring a quote from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence:” “A Robin Redbreast in a cage/ Puts all Heaven in a rage/ -William Blake.” Here, the cage links to both the bird cage and to the body’s rib cage, and the robin – presumably – is the soul weighed down by the body, with rib bones doubling as the door to the bird’s cage. This second T-shirt, rather than relying upon the tropes of cuteness and half-joking meaninglessness popular on shirts designed by the users of Threadless, actually reinforces themes of bodily imprisonment common in Blake’s work.

Cafepress, on the other hand, offers not only several Blake-designed t-shirts, coffee cups, decals, and mousepads (the most interesting being a t-shirt reproduction of the plate from “The Divine Image”), it also allows users to custom-design their own products – which are then sold back to the users. I know this because I received a “Book of Urizen” T-shirt from a significant other a few years back and was initially astonished that such a shirt existed. One wonders how Blakean either Threadless or Cafepress are, since both separate the designs of the shirts – which are conceived by their online communities – from their production – in the case of Threadless, designs are printed on American Apparel produced shirts. Indeed, the appearance of Blake on sites like Threadless and Cafepress could allow us to distinguish Whittaker and Clark’s “The Blake Brand” from more DIY (Do It Yourself) and open-source forms of Zoamorphosis. If the former is distinguished by a separation between design and production, the latter might be seen to follow what Kathryn Crowther identifies as a steampunk ethos.

Those who try to define steampunk return again and again to the idea that the reason that Steampunk takes its inspiration from the  nineteenth century is because it represents the turning point at which we lost the ability to “make” our own products or to open them up and tinker with them.  In a type of protest against the minimalistic, sealed-off aesthetics of artifacts such as iPhones or Macbooks, the artistic work of steampunkers ask the question – what is lost, or, what do we as consumers of art lose, when industrialization and mass-production render the individual creator obsolete?

William Blake Miniature Historical Doll

This is, of course, a question that Blake himself asked when publishing his own work or when he refused to engage in the mass-produced eighteenth-century aesthetic of landscape and portrait painting. In a Marxist sense, we could say that the Blake Brand retains the occult power of the commodity – in which the gears and threads of production are hidden from the consumer. Users design an image, or copy a Blake .jpg from a Google search, and it magically appears on a shirt that is delivered to their home. Zoamorphosis, on the other hand, encourages tinkering and punking.

Etsy by no means bridges the occult divide between design and production, but it does leave the production to individual merchants and – as an online vendor – challenges the mass produced models of other online shops. It’s a vision that Rob Walker, in a 2007 article for The New York Times, calls “nostalgic.” In a discussion with founder Robert Kalin, Walker imagines just how nostalgic it might be:

If the marketplace today has become alienating and disconnected, then buying something handmade, from another individual, rolls back the clock to an era before factory labor and mass production. That’s a lot of clock-turning, if you recall Adam Smith’s excitement about the efficiency of an 18th-century pin factory. Really, Kalin has a problem with the entire modern marketplace. “Everything since the Industrial Revolution has been so fragmented,” he told me, sounding more like a character in Slacker, wasting time in a cafe, than a guy running a briskly growing business.

Of course, one wonders if nostalgia can adequately capture what Etsy, steampunk, or Blake have accomplished. As an aside, Etsy features no less than 72,000 results for “steampunk.” Its return for “William Blake” is somewhat more modest, coming in at around 118. However, the diversity of crafts that Blake inspires is much more interesting than what can be found on either Cafepress or Threadless.

"William Blake 's Proverbs of Hell, Print No. 6" from RSFillustration

Consider the “Blake guitar strap” which is accompanied by the image of a tiger and the first stanza from Blake’s poem “The Tyger.” In the description, moxieandoliver notes “William Blake is one of my favorite artists, and recently when I became oddly obsessed with the idea of a tiger with stars I thought, what better to accompany it than the first stanza from “The Tyger”? So here it is, a white tiger with gold eyes, gold stars, and the first stanza from The Tyger, with an evening blue wash.” Other items include nancyfarmer’s imaginative recreation of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a literal embrace between an angel and a devil, uneekdolldesign’s “William Blake Miniature Historical Art Doll” which wears “velveteen brown breeches, white shirt with tied neck collar, and black wool coat with silver buttons,” and RSFillustration’s visualizations of Blake’s proverbs of Hell from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The visualizations include “Dip Him in the River Who Loves Water” titled “Charles Bukowski” and featuring a man who is presumably drinking alcohol, “The Cut Worm Forgives the Plow” with the roots of a sunflower cutting a worm in two, and “Drive Your Cart and Plow over the Bones of the Dead” with a skeleton entombed underneath layers of soil being plowed by a farmer.

Each of these designs, along with the entire philosophy of zoamorphosis and DIY-avenues like the site Etsy and the magazine Make, begs the question of whether a turn towards making and building is – in fact – nostalgic. One could, on the other hand, see  DIY as a reaction to a post-2008 Financial Meltdown ethos in which global corporations seem increasingly less invested in the communities that support them. Here, Etsy, zoamorphosis, and steampunk are similar to the spirit that animates Rachel Botsman’s collaborative consumption and the Move Your Money project: all are concerned with imagining new ways of relating to and transforming already existing communities and commodities.

Mike Carey’s Unwritten Blake

As I argued in the introduction to the collection “William Blake and Visual Culture,” comic books contain frequent references to William Blake. J.M. DeMatteis, for example, includes the introductory poem to Blake’s Songs of Innocence in his graphic novel Moonshadow and a statue of Urizen appears in the first arc of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Alan Moore’s references to Blake are well known – appearing in V for Vendetta (1982-9), Watchmen (1986-7), From Hell (1991-6), and Angel Passage (2002) and acting as inspiration for his current novel-in-progress Jeruslaem. More often, Blake appears in comics that nevertheless give more focus to other figures from literature and media. A good example of this is James Robinson’s Starman (1994-2001) where quotes from Blake appear with references to Shakespeare, Bergman, and Elvis Presley, yet a much longer arc is devoted to a story involving a demon who lives in a poster and abducts people – a reference to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde even appears in an extended sequence where he has coffee with the Shade: a former villain who helps Starman throughout the series.

Mike Carey’s The Unwritten (2009-present) belongs to the second category of comics that include brief references to Blake amongst citations of a wide variety of literature. Carey is no stranger to stories that reference religious or mystical literature, working as he did on the popular Lucifer (1999-2006) series featuring the continuing adventures of a Miltonic Lucifer Morningstar after he gives up his station as the ruler of Hell. In an interview for The Examiner, Carey lists Paradise Lost and “William Blake’s ‘Between Heaven and Hell'” as literary references for Lucifer along with his previous appearance in Neil Gaiman’s celebrated series The Sandman (1989-1996). While admittedly getting the name of Blake’s work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell wrong, there is no doubt that Blake’s statement that Milton was “of the Devils party without knowing it” informs many of the stories Carey writes during the course of the series. In one storyline, Lucifer attempts to create a different universe that can free itself from what he sees as God’s tyrannical grip on humanity.

The Unwritten is a much more ambitious attempt to reconcile the imaginary universe Blake inhabits with the contemporary world. The main character is Tom Taylor, the son of Wilson Taylor: author of a famous book series featuring a boy wizard who, like Harry Potter, clashes with magical villains. Taylor is a celebrity of sorts, as he is seen as the basis for his father’s character Tommy Taylor. As the series begins, Taylor’s father has disappeared and Tommy spends most of his time going to fantasy conferences and signing autographs. During a particularly grueling Tommy Taylor panel, a graduate student reveals that photographs supposedly taken of him as a child are actually those of another child, and that his national insurance number belongs to another person. In fact, no one can find any information verifying that Tom is, indeed, Wilson Taylor’s son. The mystery becomes even stranger when Tom learns that the graduate student is named Lizzie Hexam, a named shared by one of the major characters from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Assassins start targeting Tom, and he begins to uncover a vast conspiracy linking literary authors from past centuries to the subjugation of the imagination. A particularly intriguing issue involves Rudyard Kipling who is employed to write pro-imperialist poetry and, unwittingly, helps entrap and enprison Oscar Wilde and ideologically prepare Britains for the destruction of the First World War. Carey’s saga paints a war between literary authors and the powerful people who try to exploit the imagination to their own benefits and cleverly connects the power of writing in the nineteenth century with the dissemination of celebrity, fandom, and social media in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

As a champion of the imagination, Blake’s presence in Carey’s story seems clear. He appears only briefly, however, in the third issue of the series. Here, Taylor visits the famous Villa Diodati – where Byron, the Shelleys, and John Polodori stayed during the famous Haunted Summer of 1816. (Carey also tries to link John Milton to Diodati, since the original owners of the Villa were related to Milton’s friend Charles Diodati. Though, as William S. Clark points out in his 1935 article “Milton and the Villa Diodati,” Milton died 36 years before the Villa Diodati was completed in 1710.) The Taylors stayed in the Villa during the early years of Tom’s life. Outside of Wilson’s study hangs Blake’s 1805 painting “Michael Binding Satan.” As Tom describes the image to Lizzie, he says that it depicts “the image of something terrible being put under lock and key.” Blake’s painting is used by Wilson to hide the key and the doorknob to his study. While taking the painting off of the wall, Tom exclaims that his father “was lousy at keeping secrets […] and hooked on cheap symbolism, especially if it made him look clever at someone else’s expense.

Despite being a rather obvious place for his father to hide his most precious belongings, Blake’s appearance – especially through a symbolically-loaded image like “Michael Binding Satan” – helps to conceptualize several of the imaginative and ideological struggles occurring in The Unwritten. First, the figure of binding and the serpentine form of Satan in the Michael painting have analogues in Blake’s The First Book of Urizen, where the iron and abstract laws of the tyrannic Urizen bind human beings to the earthly plane. Urizen portrays the creation of the world and the binding of the soul to the limitations of individuality, morality, and bodily form. Binding abounds in the poem, as well as the serpentine forms of the first human beings to be born on Earth (“The worm lay till it grew to a serpent/With dolorous hissings & poisons” [19.28-33]). In Urizen, the serpentine forms, chains and scenes of binding are products of narrowing human perception and fear. “We impose on one another” as Blake says to the Angel in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (20). The serpent isn’t an agent of evil, (and indeed Satan is not always evil in Blake’s work) but merely a failure to understand or empathize with the other. What cannot be understood must be controlled, bound, stifled, killed. The struggle reflects the episodes of misunderstanding, mistrust, fear, and anger felt between Tom and his father throughout the many flashbacks in Carey’s story.

In The Unwritten binding, fear, and imposition are products of storytelling and the imagination. At the end of the Kipling story in issue #5, Carey shows notes from Wilson Taylor’s desk. Several of them are evocative of the complex web of fiction and reality weaved through the story. “Philosophies are stories.” “Fame is a story.” “Religions are stories.” Each of these stories are to be encoded upon a map. Tom is, as he revealed in the first issue, a master of “literary geography.” As he says in issue #2, he knows “not a word” of the stories he encounters only “the geography.” In this, Carey not only keys into the more recent debates surrounding digital literary mapping (as the practice of literary geography could be seen as an imaginative form of digital humanities projects already underway), but a long tradition of literary mapping that includes Blake’s walks throughout London and his imaginative remapping of Britain and Western literary tradition in Jerusalem. “If the story becomes reality, does the map become the place?”

At the end of Wilson Taylor’s map, we see brief references to unwritten stories. If, as I suspect, Tom is an imaginary character pulled from his fictional world (like the monster from Shelley’s Frankenstein who shows up in the second volume), then the question of the relationship between the imagination and reality will become central to this storyline in the future. And what then? What unwritten Blake can we, perhaps, anticipate seeing in the future installments of Carey’s epic? If the first two volumes and Carey’s past Blakean allusions are any indication, Tommy Taylor will encounter Blake in some form in the future.

Blakean Trees in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009)

Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is shocking, depressing, mysogynist…in a word…evil. I found it very interesting, therefore, that several critics reviewing the film likened it to the work of William Blake. Walter Chaw, for example, sees a parallel between the idea of Nature as “Satan’s Church” and “a Blakean idea that Milton’s God is passive while Milton’s Satan is not.” Michael Guillen begins his review of the film with an epigraph from Blake’s “Tyger,” and asks us to “imagine for a moment, if you will, that the filmmaker’s lens is William Blake’s visionary eye, aiming consciousness (i.e., a bright and burning light) into the dark recesses of the cinephilic psyche.” And Richard Van Busack, when critiquing the film’s portrayal of nature as not serious, says that the film needs a thesis “such as William Blake’s line that ‘the lust of the goat is the glory of God.'”

There are no quotes from Blake in the film, no images of Blake’s illluminations, no mentions of his name. What is it about von Trier’s film that invites so many comparisons? The film centers on a couple (vaguely named “He” and “She”) whose child dies while they are having intercourse. “She” (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) is overwhelmed with grief and is confined to a hospital. Her husband, “He,” (a stoic Willem Dafoe) takes it upon himself to counsel his wife. As they dive deeper and deeper into her depression and anxiety, “He” decides to take a retreat into the woods, to a cabin named Eden: the place where “She” is most frightened.

Von Trier’s depiction of the woods is filled with darkness, sin and death. The couple see several scenes of decomposition: a deer whose stillborn calf still hangs from her hind legs, a dying baby chick swarming with flies  and then bitten in two by a larger bird, a fox who knaws on his own flesh before uttering the strange prophetic words “chaos reigns.” As the grief and blame eat at their mutual trust, they become increasingly and intimately violent. Genital mutilation, choking, and dismemberment abound in von Trier’s film, as do medieval depictions of witches and the occult.

In all of this demonic, satanic mess – where is Blake? I was struck by two elements of the film that have what I would call a Blakean tone. The first is the mutually violent core of “He” and “She’s” relationship, reminiscent of the opening scenes of William Blake’s Vala, or The Four Zoas where the once harmonious Albion splits into individuality. Tharmas and Enion, in “Night the First” look at one another in horror. Enion screams:

Thy fear has made me tremble thy terrors have surrounded me   
All Love is lost Terror succeeds & Hatred instead of Love
And stern demands of Right & Duty instead of Liberty.
Once thou wast to Me the loveliest son of heaven–But now
Why art thou Terrible and yet I love thee in thy terror till
I am almost Extinct & soon shall be a Shadow in Oblivion
Unless some way can be found that I may look upon thee & live
Hide me some Shadowy semblance. secret whispring in my Ear
In secret of soft wings. in mazes of delusive beauty
I have lookd into the secret soul of him I lovd
And in the Dark recesses found Sin & cannot return (FZ 1:4.17-4.27; E301)

For Blake, the only “sin” is individuality, morality and rationality. Mutual coexistence and intimate love are replaced in the first portion of The Four Zoas with laws that govern. What was once beautiful becomes terrifying and violent. “She,” in Antichrist, reacts with similar violence to “He’s” rationalizing psychological advice. Rationalizing grief in von Trier’s universe only causes more hatred, and then more love – until the two are indistinguishable.

Second, and perhaps more important, I find that Blake and von Trier have a similar visual imagination. The scene where “He” and “She” copulate on the roots of a tree has already been mentioned as “Blakean” by the blog Counter-Force, yet the tree pictured in the promotional poster for the film is, in my view, much more Blakean.

The image recalls the 1808 version of Blake’s “The Vision of the Last Judgment,” where multitudes of persons merge together in what looks like a tree:

The tree pictured here collects and organizes the multiplicity of persons flowing between heaven and hell. While the branches of the tree collect the heavenly host and act as a seat to the judgment of Jesus, the roots grown into the caverns and fires of hell. The tree, in this way, connects righteousness with sin and heaven with hell.

Tree imagery appears in many places in Blake’s Work. “The Human Abstract” imagines the mythical tree of mystery which “[t]he Gods of earth and sea/Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree” but Blake says that this search “was all in vain;/There grows one in the Human Brain” (ll. 21-4; E27). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell reminds us that “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees” (7; E35). The Tree of Mystery appears as a central figure in Vala, or the Four Zoas, where it becomes different things to different characters.

In “A Poison Tree,” Blake references the tree to draw a distinction between wrath and isolation, forgiveness and connection. The central character shows mutual respect for his friend. “I was angry with my friend/I told my wrath, my wrath did end” (ll. 1-2). Towards his foe, he “told it not/my wrath did grow.” (ll. 3-4).

Individual pain and suffering grow with the tree (“I watered it in fears/Night and morning with my tears”), until the foe is found the next day “outstretched beneath the tree” (ll 5-6; 16). Blake’s foe tasted of his wrath, it poisoned the foe, and the foe died. The poem characterizes two very different relationships. One has mutual respect and recognizes the value of connection. The other eschews connection for individual pain and suffering.

The narrative of von Trier’s Apocalypse embraces Blake’s characterization of the Tree of Mystery and the poison tree, while ignoring the power Blake places in communication and connection. The film shows us a very similar image as the one found on the “Poison Tree” plate in its final shots, with bodies laying beneath trees, yet von Trier interprets this image in a very different way than Blake does.

The bodies are decomposing into the ground beneath them, perhaps signifying the hordes of people who had also succumbed to the evil depicted in the film. As “He” walks past, new hordes of faceless foes run down the path into the woods. “He” and “She” aren’t the first group of people to water their wrath, nor will they be the last.

Von Trier’s composition in the tree shot mimics the falling of leaves during autumn. Yet the shot is also a response to an earlier sequence in the film, where “He” asks “She” to engage in a “visualization” exercise designed to ward off her fear of the wilderness. “She” envisioned herself laying in grass, becoming one with the environment and letting go of her fear. If the shot in the final part of the film signifies death and hell, this earlier form is much more Christ-like in its portrayal of natural sacrifice. One could easily imagine this shot as an illumination of one of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. The juxtaposition of these shots in von Trier’s film begs the question: are we fundamentally connected or isolated? The resolution of the film suggests the latter. Telling a friend of one’s wrath does not make it end. It’s almost as if we would like to feel connected but, ultimately – says von Trier, we are isolated, cold, dead creatures. The nature that promises our reconnection and solace provides neither. It is a place of solitude and misery.

Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly (ed.) — Queer Blake

Queer Blake. Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly. Palgrave, 2010. pp. 264. $80. ISBN: 978-0230218369

Helen Bruder and Tristanne Connolly’s collection presents, for the first time, an encounter between queer theory and Blake studies. While authors have explored Blake’s relationship to masculinity, Steve Clark’s Sordid Images: The Poetry of Masculine Desire (1994); to homosexuality, Christopher Hobson’s Blake and Homosexuality (2000); to androgyny, Tom Hayes’s “William Blake’s Ego-Ideal;” and to gender, Helen Bruder’s collection Women Reading William Blake (2007) and Magnus Ankarsjo’s William Blake and Gender (2006); no monograph or collection about Blake has focused exclusively on queer theory. On the one hand, readers of Blake’s work are convinced in a vision of Blake’s marital bliss, perhaps punctuated by the story Thomas Butts told of Catherine and William reading Milton’s Paradise Lost in the nude. On the other hand, scholars rightly point out that Blake includes scenes of sexual violence, repression, even rebellion in many of his prophetic books. “The whole situation is queer” say Bruder and Connolly, and I am convinced they are right (4).

Luckily for readers of Queer Blake, Bruder and Connolly boldly venture into the closet of queer Blakean sexuality. They suggest that Blake’s status as a masculine ideal in many readers, the “healthy, macho, rough and ready, ‘typical’ English working class” vision of a “William Bloke,” too often obscures the queer relationships formed between Blake and his contemporaries and even Blake and his academic readers (5). “Queer is for poofy-toffs; transgender softness for bleeding-heart liberals” (6).  So, was Blake a normative sexual conservative, confining his sexuality to the marital bed; or was he a sexual libertine who explored beyond the safe “free-love” clichés given to most Romantic authors? There is enough evidence to titillate and suggest, if not prove, a queer Blake. In particular, Bruder and Connolly mention Blake’s description of Gothic artist Henry Fuseli. Blake describes Fuseli as “The only Man that eer I  knew / Who did not make me spew” (E 507). They call the statement “as curious as it is hiliarious, expressing attraction by denying repulsion, in abject terms of bodily fluids (if he didn’t spew, presumably he swallowed)” (10).

But “outing” Blake’s sexuality isn’t really the point of Queer Blake. Far more fascinating are the ways that queer theory can displace what Bruder and Connolly call the “masculine gaze” of subversive sexual acts in Blake’s work and, alternatively, the ways that Blake’s polymorphous sexual identity is fixed and fixated upon by Blakean critics. In the former, Bruder and Connolly sketch a Blake who harshly critiques masculine sexual forms of “trade and exchange,” celebrates “the centrality of feminine generosity to […] redemption,” practices the “orgasmic abundance” of a “transgendered aesthetic,” and speaks with what they describe as “not just a female voice but with his female voice” (15-17). With regard to Blake’s readers and critics, Bruder and Connolly note the tendency of Blake’s work to turn readers into prostlytizers of his thoughts and visions. Blake indeed has a charming and beguiling ethos, one that produces wildly different readings of his text. If critics and other readers cannot or will not agree on what Blake really meant or what kinds of desires Blake had swirling in his brain, Bruder and Connolly insist they should at least recognize their own queer desire for Blake.

Prefaced by the poem “Pansexuality (regained) by Helen Kidd, the essays in the collection prove a fascinating cross-section of these desires, identities, speculations and suggestions. The first group of essays articulates the challenges Blake’s work poses for queer theory. Christopher Hobson’s “Blake and the Evolution of Same-Sex Subjectivity” proposes that Blake’s work complicates Foucault’s argument that homosexual subjectivity did not exist before the eighteenth century. Richard Sha, in “Blake and the Queering of Jouissance,” suggests that Blake’s poetry can subvert models of jouissance that see it as inherently radical. Peter Otto’s “Drawing Lines: Bodies, Sexualities and Performances in The Four Zoas shows how the use of the bounding line in The Four Zoas maintains but also disrupts normative conceptions of the body and sexual politics.

Other essays engage with queer representations and their place in Blake’s visual imagination. Elizabeth Effinger’s “Anal Blake: Bringing Up the Rear in Blakean Criticism” focuses on Blake’s representation of buttocks to reveal the “anal anxiety” in Blake criticism. Martin Myrone’s “The Body of the Blasphemer” looks closely at Blakean watercolors to sketch a queer visual aesthetic for Blake based upon the visual uncertainty embodied in images like The Blasphemer. The impact of this queer aesthetic on more contemporary artists and their “transgressive, sado-masochistic lens” form the focus of Jason Whittaker’s “Trannies, Amputees and Disco Queens: Blake and Contemporary Queer Art.” Helen Bruder’s “‘Real Acting’: ‘Felpham Billy’ and Grayson Perry Try it On” showcases Blake’s The Pickering Manuscript, written during his stay in Felpham, and its staging of Blake as a feminized or transvestite subjectivity through “girly,” “bicurious” and “kinky” figures.

Reception and influence impact several of the essays in the collection.“Fear Not/To Unfold Your Dark Visions of Torment: Blake and Emin’s Bad Sex Aesthetic” by Tristanne Connolly finds a common link between Blake and artist Tracey Emin, a figure labeled by David Bowie as “William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh,” in their shared fascination with bad sex. Bethan Stevens’ “’Woe & … sighs:’ Fantasies of Slavery in Visions of the Daughters of Albion suggests that Oothoon’s rape scenes in Blake’s violent poem are subversions of the heteronormative narration of Romantic period abolition literature. Caroline Jackson-Houlston’s “’The lineaments of … desire’: Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion and Romantic Literary Treatments of Rape,” on the other hand, takes Blake’s poem to task for its conservative female characters while wondering if the vision of lesbian desire in the poem might point to possibilities that are not respected by its imaginary historical space.

The act of queering traditional readings of Blake is also prominent in the collection. Steve Clark’s “’Yet I am an identity/ I wish & feel & weep & groan’” Blake’s Sentimentalism as (Peri)Performative” explores Blake’s poetry from a sentimentalist, rather than prophetic, tradition. Additionally, David Fallon’s “’By a False Wife Brought to the Gates of Death’: Blake, Politics and Transgendered Performances” contests the binary conceptualization of Blake’s reading of gender by comparing a wide range of Blakean works, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to Jerusalem, to show how Blake queers normative conceptions of sexual identity.

Finally, Blake’s singular relationships with men and women hold keys to considering non-traditional forms of queer subjectivity. Mark Crosby’s “’No Boy’s Work’: Blake, Hayley and the Triumphs of (Intellectual) Paiderastia explores Blake’s anxiety over the paiderastic teaching methods of William Hayley and Blake’s belief that such methods inhibited his creativity. Susan Matthew’s “’Hayley on His Toilette’: Blake, Hayley and Homophobia” analyzes the satiric figure of male effeminacy in the Notebook and the Bard’s Song from Milton to suggest that it is frequently misread as homophobic due to a blindness of the shifting sexual roles in the early nineteenth century. Keri Davies’ “My Little Cane Sopha and the Bust of Sappho’: Elizabeth Iremonger and the Female World of Book-Collecting” questions Blake’s sister Catherine and her spinsterhood, connecting it to the practice of female cohabitation and the early women book-collecters who were the first audiences for Blake’s work.

Queer Blake creates an opportunity for truly subversive readings of Blake’s work, life, and relationships. While complicating models of sexuality and subjectivity in both Blake studies and queer theory in general, Queer Blake also gives readers a complicated, contradicting, and contested portrait of Blakean sexuality. It is in this portrait that Queer Blake is singularly queer and uniquely valuable. Rather than settle for a hypostasized sexual identity for Blake and his work, Queer Blake is able to navigate girly Blakes and macho Blakes, heteronormative Blakes and anal Blakes, sentimentalist Blakes and transgendered Blakes.

The Rebirth of AEthelred Eldridge

AEthelred Eldridge has recently uploaded numerous images of his work and life to the site Albion Awake. Eldridge is an artist working and teaching at The Ohio State University. He was featured in A Dictionary of the Avante-Garde in 2001, mostly for his black and white art accompanied by text from William Blake’s poetry. Eldridge has long been known as the founder of the Church of William Blake, which burned down in 2001. Eldridge spends much of his time engaged in dramatic vocal readings of William Blake’s Milton, enacting his ideas and creating elaborate images based on Blake’s poetry. His first “AEthelgram,” published in 1976, mentions that “Blake published to the Angels” and urgently calls for the reconstruction of Jerusalem which “yet awhile, lies in ruins. And Hear again what will Be seen; The Serpent Temple writhing in the Dusty Clouds of Albion comes – though the invisible pricking-up of Angelic ears must fail to catch the dronish Motor’s hum.” The themes of death, birth and rebirth are found throughout Eldridge’s work, and surrounds his encounter with Blake’s text. In a profile interview of Eldridge taken in 1992, he refuses to say where he was born. In fact, he denies that he “was ever born. So I don’t have to be born again and again and again and again.”

While being called the “easiest teacher on OU campus,” Eldridge also defamiliarizes the standard pedagogical experience for his students. In a comment section of a recording one student made of his “Art in Your Life” class, some students predictably decry the “meaninglessness” of his courses. One student however, recalls an assignment that seems in line with surrealist experiments from the beginning of the twentieth-century.

For the other final, I had to take a rubber glove and stuff it. Then I had to draw an eye on a ping pong ball and cut a hole in the palm of the rubber glove and position the ball so it was sticking out of the hole. I brought it to class the day it was due when he then proceeded to tell us that we could run it over with our car for extra credit. The more tread marks the better.

These kinds of experiences reinforce the Blakean mission of mental fight: by forcing his students to engage with supposedly “meaningless” pedagogical experiences, Eldridge opens their eyes to the visionary possibilities embedded within Blake’s work.

We find this same defamiliarization of the poetic experience tied to his readings of Blake. Eldridge’s didactic, sonorous voice complements Blake’s often wandering yet urgent poetic diction. You can find an example of Eldridge’s voice on the Wired for Books website, where he reads Book 2 of Milton. Eldridge’s poetry has the same prophetic tonality as Blake’s. Apart from the poetic invocation of his William Blake newsletter, he explains on his website how the church becomes an “English church in the Wilderness” of Ohio. He mentions “a fury hidden. In America. In Ohio,” urging his readers to “Go to the Horses Mouth; which is ever falling” and to not consider William Blake as an “Object of Worship. He is an Exmplar. And he construes in the Intellect the sleep of Albion.”

You may find information about AEthelred Eldridge, including his art, poetry, and William Blake newsletters on his website, Albion Awake.

Blake in Our Time

Zoamorphosis is proud to make available video recordings of the recent “Blake in Our Time: A Symposium Celebrating the Future of Blake Studies and the Legacy of G.E. Bentley Jr.” held at the University of Toronto on 28 August 2010. “Blake in Our Time” explored the history of Blake studies, as well as its possible futures in manuscript studies, online resources, private collections, forgeries and oddities, variations in Blake’s illuminated manuscripts, modernist cinema, and media studies.

The symposium featured presentations by a group of esteemed Blake scholars including Robert N. Essick, Joseph Viscomi, Mary Lynn Johnson, Angus Whitehead, John E. Grant, Dennis Read, Gary Leonard, Mark Crosby, Keri Davies, and Susanne Sklar. Also featured at the event was a response by Alan Bewell and multimedia performance by Stephen Nachmanovitch.

We would like to thank Dr. Robert Brandeis of the Victoria University Library at the University of Toronto, Professor Karen Mulhallen of Ryerson University, and the rest of the organizers of “Blake in Our Time” for their work in making this symposium possible, recording the presentations and agreeing to have them presented on Zoamorphosis.

All recordings are copyright © Victoria University Library.
Blake in our Time podcasts at Victoria University Library

Introduction

  • Welcomes and Introductions (video / audio)
    Karen Mulhallen, Ryerson University

Session 1

  • Collecting Blake (video / audio)
    Robert N. Essick, University of California at Riverside
  • Recovering the Earliest Versions of Blake’s Oddest Book (video / audio)
    Joseph Viscomi, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session 2

  • Blake’s Pictures at ‘The Salterns’ & How Captain Butts Challenged his Sister’s Inheritance (video / audio)
    Mary Lynn Johnson, University of Iowa
  • Blake and George Cumberland’s ‘Pocketbooks’ (video / audio)
    Angus Whitehead, National Institute of Education, Ninyang Technological University, Singapore
  • Respondent to Morning Papers (video / audio)
    Alan Bewell, University of Toronto

Session 3, Chaired by Alexander Gourlay, Rhode Island School of Design

  • Songs for Thomas Butts: Visions of the ‘Title Page,’ ‘Earth’s Answer,’ and ‘The Tyger’
    John E Grant, University of Iowa
  • Disputing the Sins of his Father: Thomas Cromek contra Gilchrist
    Dennis Read, Denison University, Granville Ohio
  • Without Contraries Is no Progression: Did Blake Invent Modernist Cinema?
    Garry Leonard, University of Toronto
    Afternoon panel (video / audio)

Session 4

  • Job Returns: A Music and Multimedia Meditation on Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (video / audio)
    Copyright © 2002, Stephen Nachmanovich, Used by Permission

Session 5, Chaired by Karim Wissa, Duke University

  • Blake’s Seal
    Mark Crosby, Leverhulme early career fellow, Queen’s University, Belfast
  • Brother and Sister Blake: and the Lost Moravian History of William Blake’s Family
    Kari Davies, Independent Scholar, Vice President of the Blake Society
  • The Mouth of a True Orator: Jerusalem’s Opening Instructions
    Susanne Sklar, The Cumnor Fellow, Oxford University
    Final panel (video / audio)

Performances

  • Job Returns: A Music & Multimedia Meditation on Blake’s Illustrations on the Book of Job (video / audio)
    Copyright © 2002, Stephen Nachmanovich, Used by Permission
  • The Mouth of a True Orator: Jerusalem’s Opening Instructions (video / audio)
    Susanne Sklar, The Cumnor Fellow, Oxford University

Blake in Our Time: Welcome and Introductions

Introduction by Karen Mulhallen, Ryerson University.

Karen Mulhallen welcomes attendees to the Blake in Our Time symposium and outlines the future of Blake studies in the light of the ongoing legacy of G. E. Bentley, Jr.


Time: 5:33 min
Size: 65Mb

All Blake in Our Time videos are HD quality: if playback on your connection runs too slowly via streaming, click the download link below:

Copyright © Victoria University Library.
Blake in our Time podcasts at Victoria University Library

Blake in Our Time: Collecting Blake

Collecting Blake by Robert N. Essick, University of California at Riverside.

Robert N. Essick explores the unique contexts in which Blake’s works are collected and how this influences our interpretation of those works.


Time: 27:24 min
Size: 320Mb

All Blake in Our Time videos are HD quality: if playback on your connection runs too slowly via streaming, click the download link below:

Copyright © Victoria University Library.
Blake in our Time podcasts at Victoria University Library