Is Wright’s Work Secular?

Jason Whittaker writes of Richard Wright’s Turner Prize winning work, that it “brings with it none of the overt Christian morality attached to Blake’s subject; rather, formal motifs repeat and circulate, creating a vision of the secular sublime”.  However, Wright’s work has been likened to that of Blake, whose work is often steeped in religious reference, so could his work be considered truly secular?

There are difficulties in establishing the meaning of “secular” especially in terms of visual image, and there are monumental challenges around identifying “the sublime” – a notion that has been a preoccupation of many nineteenth century philosophers. As Carroll writes in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, “The sublime has had almost as many interpretations as it has appearances in philosophical literature” and argues that the concept of the sublime is resistant to a singular definition.  Perhaps the absence of religion makes the notion of sublime more problematic? For many, “sublime” has other worldly, pseudo-religious connotations.  Ultimately, despite Whittaker’s claim that Wright has created a vision, there may be other, more relevant artists, who could have been better regarded for creations of sublime secularity.

The Oxford Dictionary describes secular simply as “not connected with religious or spiritual matters”.  But describing something by what it is not can be problematic. An attempt to identify a visual representation of an absence of something is challenging, but an attempt to find its epitome or a sublime, awe-inspiring representation of a missing notion is near impossible.  The dictionary also says that “secular” is contrasted with “sacred” – again this is only a contrast, and is defining only as a negative.  Secularity is not unlike peacefulness – a state which is simply defined as being the absence of violence – what peace looks like has been reduced to signifiers (doves, candles and rainbows).  Secularity doesn’t appear to even have universally recognised symbols –everything that is without overt religious connotation could be judged as being secular.

Secular is also derivative of saeculum in Christian Latin meaning ‘the world” – as opposed to the Church.  If secular is taken as the absence of religion, it is hard to argue that a European artist influenced by Blake, living in a Scottish pseudo-Christian environment, could produce something truly secular in spirit. Wright’s work does not only echo Blake’s, but the pure gold shimmer and scale the piece put me in mind of great Islamic works of the art of the ornament found in mosques and even Catholic churches.

According to some philosophers (notably Nietzsche), other measures of secularity include worldliness, classical tragedy and meaninglessness. The worldliness of this piece is undeniable, not perhaps in its form, but in what happens to it afterwards – it is painted over. Art critic Charlotte Higgins writes, “Wright’s point is that all art is mortal” and quotes Wright as saying, “the fragility of the experience is the hinge for me.”  And although the content may lack a narrative of tragedy and may even be considered overtly biased towards the Apollonian aesthetic of beauty, there is tragedy is in its ultimate destruction – and therefore presents us with a Dionysian balance. In an interview after wining the Turner Prize Wright says, “I like the idea of there being nothing left when I am gone”.

Wright himself has not offered any deep meaning to the marks he makes – but could they be read as meaningless?  It would be strong to insist that Wright’s work is nihilistic – unless the artist stated so himself.  It might be dangerous to simply take Wright’s work as being secular ornament, when the associations with religious and cultural tradition remain strong, in particular the careful attention to pattern in Wright’s work, which echoes an Islamic trend. It is near impossible to read ornament and pattern as neutral – references to the multitude of traditions of pattern – both religious and secular –found in ‘The Grammar of the Ornament’ can be found in Wright’s work.

In a world acknowledged by a number of philosophers as being fraught with nihilism, we are forced to return to the option of filling this void with art and music, as Young indicates “[Art] enables us to enjoy a religious sentiment without the need to subscribe to any conceptual content”, providing a “catacomb where religious habit of mind can continue to exist”. Here perhaps lies the strongest argument for Richard Wright’s work being viewed a vision of secular sublime.

Many visual and non-visual creations by a wealth of artists across the ages are able to respond to the charge of being secular, but as a portrait artist I could not but wonder whether such a vision would contain some representation of the human being, or face.  The human form could be said to be a poignant illustration of the “artistic taming of the horrible” a human portrait may have evoked a true, worldly vision. When promoting earth, individuality and the absence of reason and morale, how can any vision of secular sublime fail to contain a human?

I have recently visited Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac at Musée Rodin and also seen Gustav Klimt’s Three Ages of Woman which was inspired by a Rodin piece – Gates of Hell.  Two works of art containing the human, that could equally be explored as secular visions. Although Rodin may have tried to capture Balzac’s genius in this monument to him, is it a stretch to suggest it held qualities of the secular sublime?  Is the artists religious stance relevant? As a sculpture of a human it is of this world, (although the plinth may betray this) and perhaps speaks of the tragedy in genius – although it does not horrify or compel.  It is perhaps, knowing Rodin’s love of classics that permits him access to this discourse – although also a lover of reason (The Thinker) Rodin was far from nihilistic. There is some argument that science and reason, over religion could be taken as secular.

Klimt’s paintings and drawings were packed full of eroticism, humour and dominant female figures.  Drawing inspiration from Greek classics, Klimt was said to employ a sublime sensitivity and a “decadent aesthetism”.  At the time of his painting he was breaking all religious taboos and his portrayal of the mortal human was both tragic and beautiful.  His work is both compelling and horrifying.

Although my conclusions may feel as ambiguous as the many attempts to define the secular (and the sublime), on balance the assessment is that yes, Wright’s work at least references such a vision.  It has a worldliness to it and a tragedy in it’s unmaking – one could even suggest that it was the painting over of the work, its destruction, which ultimately defined it as sublime.  However, as Wright is able to tell us what his art is about – I conclude that it is far from nihilistic.  I have juxtaposed Wright’s work with that of Rodin and Klimt, which may be unfair and even irrelevant, but demonstrates that Wright’s work may not be the best example of the secular sublime. However Wright’s work and Whittaker’s views certainly offer a useful starting point that allows us to ask – what does a vision of the secular sublime look like?

Blakespotting: “Jerusalem” and gay Blake

Some day soon, I shall turn my attention away from Blake’s “Jerusalem” but, for the moment, this is the hymn (or is it a song?) that keeps on giving.

Ever since it’s inclusion in the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Blake-Parry hymn has attracted a great deal of attention in the British and world media, with the most recent flurry of activity originating around the apparent possibility that “Jerusalem” could become the preserve of homosexual civil partnerships in the UK. This particular story is also becoming an object lesson in how potential memes spread online, though in this case “traditional” media have more than their fair share to play in the repetition of spin and disinformation.

The story was broken by The Telegraph on May 19 by James Kirkup, writing under the headline “Blake’s Jerusalem ‘reserved for homosexuals'”, and the article is worth citing at some length:

Chris Bryant told the Commons that Government plans to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies in church could unwittingly create unequal rules on the song, which was performed at the Royal wedding last month.
Mr Bryant said that for heterosexual couples getting married in church, “many clergy will refuse to allow it to be sung because it’s not a hymn addressed to God.”
The same couple having a civil service would also be preventing from playing or singing the song because of its religious aspects.
By contrast, Mr Bryant said, Government plans to allow same-sex ceremonies with “a religious aspect” could allow the song at homosexual marriages.

Upon first seeing the article, I simply rolled my eyes and prepared to add it to the list of weird and wacky media stories that have appeared in the past couple of weeks, but the way in which this article spread deserves a little more attention. Kirkup’s article, as well as providing a little more background on the genesis of the hymn and its controversy in some Anglican circles, also observes that Bryant, MP for Rhondda, is himself homosexual and was formerly an Anglican priest.

Unfortunately, Bryant’s comments have not yet been included on the parliament.uk web site so it is not, yet, possible to check his original speech. As such, from the reported speech in the Telegraph article it is uncertain whether Bryant was trying to make a general point in favour of the hymn (with, perhaps, a gibe at his former Anglican brethren, riven as they are by the ongoing tussle around homosexuality) or decrying general trends of “political correctness”. From the comments posted to the original article, the latter certainly appears to have been the reception of many readers, several of whom launched into some rough-and-ready gay bashing and declarations of Blake’s patriotism. Bryant’s own site doesn’t include any details either, but as this hasn’t been updated since last September it is perhaps somewhat foolish to wait for any news there.

As such, Bryant’s remarks have to be filtered through the great, objective lens that is the British media (though it is unlikely that he himself would object to “Jerusalem” being sung at gay civil partnerships, having tied the knot with his own partner in 2010). Neither The Independent nor The Guardian carried the story, preferring to concentrate on his involvement as one of the victims in the ongoing News of the World phone-hacking scandal, and The Sun spared us its jolly homophobia (as when, in May 2009, it asked for voters to give the MP “a Rhondda rogering”) – probably in this case because its sister paper would prefer not to give Bryant further ammunition in his battle with the Murdoch press. The only major newspaper to follow suit was the Daily Mail. Observing how popular the Blake-Parry hymn has become, it expanded on a theme included in the Kirkup report, that plans to allow “religious aspects” into gay civil partnerships will be one reason why “Jerusalem” could become popular: it is this proposal, rather than Bryant’s open homosexuality (also noted by the Mail) that could become a red rag to traditional conservatives.

By the next day, a rash of blogs had broken out in fury at the story. Australian blogger John J. Ray (M.A.; PhD) rehashed the Daily Mail article under the title “Once again homosexuals get a better deal in Britain”, and while he had nothing new to add to the story itself, its appearance on his blog Political Correctness Watch is a fine addition to the rabid right farrago that proliferates there. Sites such as The Awl asked “Will The Gays [you know, all those people who are not like you] Get Jerusalem All To Themselves?”, presumably because no decent-thinking human being could bring themselves to utter “And did those feet in ancient times” after it had been polluted by a queer aesthetic that presumably considers the opening line to be an invitation to esoteric bath house practices. It was hard to tell whether the inclusion of the Fat Les version of “Jerusalem” was ironic – was the primary reference a good, manly allusion to football, or the fact that it is sung by the London Gay Men’s Chorus as well as a community gospel choir?

The magazine Christian Today again repeated the salient features of the Telegraph and Mail articles, here contextualising it with a series of other stories expressing fear and opposition to plans allowing gay civil partnerships in weddings. Similarly, while Pink News also added little that was new to the story, unsurprisingly a very different context and response came from the numerous comments that appeared very quickly. A couple of those expressed surprise that PN was using the Mail as one of its sources, and many more were irritated with Bryant for getting sidetracked on a minor matter when the real issue was greater equality and recognition for gay weddings. Some of my own opinions are reflected in a comment by Martyn Notman: “ok maybe theres a clever point to this im missing? Is he trying to point out the ludicrous situation the whole mess over equality for marriages is in? Otherwise not sure why this is news…”

Having contributed an essay to Queer Blake (see the review by Roger Whitson), it would probably not be hard to guess that my own ridiculously liberal position condemns me in the eyes of many to an inferno, though one through which I shall walk “delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 6). While I have a few reservations in comparison to Blake critics such as Christopher Z. Hobson with regard to how much Blake’s aesthetics can be queered in a historical context (reservations that have more to do with the degree of Blake’s homosexual sympathies rather than whether they existed), I have always very strongly believed that his “sexual commonwealth” was benevolently open to a much wider congregation than would be admitted by the Christian right in particular, and that he has been especially influential on generations of homosexual writers, artists and film makers who recognise his generosity of spirit. One thing that is very clear from Blake’s writing was that his greatest opprobrium was reserved for the “Moral Law”, which he never ceased from condemning in his art and poetry.

For Satan flaming with Rintrahs fury hidden beneath his own mildness
Accus’d Palamabron before the Assembly of ingratitude! of malice:
He created Seven deadly Sins drawing out his infernal scroll,
Of Moral laws and cruel punishments upon the clouds of Jehovah
To pervert the Divine voice in its entrance to the earth
With thunder of war & trumpets sound, with armies of disease
Punishments & deaths musterd & number’d; Saying I am God alone
There is no other! let all obey my principles of moral individuality (Milton 9.19-26)

My own guess is that Bryant’s intervention is to try and draw attention to the “mess” surrounding gay weddings, and the reference to “Jerusalem” is a spin to attract media coverage to the debate. In addition, I cannot help but suspect that the former priest is having a sly dig at his previous masters. The fury of opinion regarding homosexuality in the Anglican church is frequently astonishing to observe, often omitting any sense of Christian charity in their ferocity. Perhaps one day they will invoke their own Edward Gibbon to record this modern-day Arian controversy, where the angry denunciations over which orifice to enter stand in place of the violent conflict over which diphthong to use, homoousia or homoiousia.

Beyond this savage fracas, the national status of “Jerusalem” is also a reminder of the troubled position its writer has in relation to the Anglican, national church. Many articles repeat the Telegraph observation that some vicars regard it as a “song” rather than a “hymn”, downgrading its status as a clear inducement to remove it from the nave and vestry. Most famously in 2008, senior clergy banned “Jerusalem” from Southward Cathedral because it was “not to the glory of God” as reported in The Times. While that particular phrase seems preposterous, Tim Footman in The Guardian did make a pertinent observation at the time that the argument was much less to do with political correctness and much more to do with theology: Blake did, quite clearly, wish his work to redound to the glory of God – though it is rarely so clear that his God was the same as that worshiped in churches and Royal Weddings.

Blakespotting: Media responses to “Jerusalem” and the Royal Wedding

Now that Prince William and Kate Middleton are finishing their holiday in the Seychelles, this seems a suitable moment to follow up my opinion piece on the use of the William Blake/Hubert Parry hymn during the wedding, in this case looking at some of the responses to the hymn in the media. Over the past year, I’ve been trawling the web collecting all manner of various references to Blake as they occur in newspapers, blogs and web sites, but the week covering the end of April and beginning of May resulted in an explosion of allusions and here I’ll offer a preliminary summary of the types of response. This cannot hope to be comprehensive but instead will concentrate on some of the most unusual/ interesting articles.

The vast majority of these can be summarised along the lines of “wasn’t it a lovely day” – which seems generally to have been the response of many readers of my previous post. Typical of the straight news stories was that carried by the Daily Mail, which merely made mention of the singing of “Jerusalem” and instead was taken with the headline: “24million tune in to see Royal Wedding as Facebook updates 74 times a SECOND during ceremony”. Certainly as a media event this was a particularly vibrant affair, and similar stories were carried by major newspapers and broadcasters in the UK as well as around the world. Plenty of articles and blog posts also conveyed local news about various street parties (such as the one in Cambridge where a local wrote the words to “Jerusalem” on her window), while plenty of people recorded personal blog posts celebrating their own responses, often bringing back pleasant memories of their own appreciation of Blake, as with A Woman of No Importance. Perhaps the most extreme example of international adulation came from the Times of Malta, which simply oozed with joy over the British sense of “precision and elegance”.

More interesting was the much smaller number of articles that sought to grind a particular axe with regard to the choice of hymn – and it is significant that “Jerusalem” attracted a great deal more attention than the other songs and hymns, and alongside the royal wedding itself the Blake-Parry hymn was one of the main trending topics on Twitter that day, reported by The Telegraph as “Jerusalem triumphant“. The Mail, again, made the pertinent observation that Blake’s words were perhaps an odd choice for a wedding: “Blake is a controversial figure for Anglican wedding ceremonies since he not only rejected 19th century religious orthodoxy but was also a critic of traditional marriage and an advocate of free love.”

Not a few papers decided to make sly comments on the presence of Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP for whom, according to The Scotsman, the “patriotic hymn… held no fears”. By and large, however, the mainstream right of centre press in the UK commented on the solidity of the choice, as in The Telegraph which observed that “The ancient walls of Westminster Abbey will reverberate to the sound of some of the most popular hymns written for a congregation to sing”.

The left of centre British press seemed a little unsure of itself: uncertain as to whether it should mock such a genuinely popular event, The Guardian decided to lob a rotten egg at British Prime Minister David Cameron instead, observing that his “patriotism was hyperventilating”. Greater opprobrium – as well as some truly great if bizarre rhetoric – was reserved for right wing media in the USA. My particular favourite, and one worth reading for all the wrong reasons, was a polemic by Hal G.P. Colebatch entitled “Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – Forget It!”. Taking issue Mary Beard’s lament that the great and good of Britain don’t seem to know the words of the hymn, he launches into a tirade as to why they shouldn’t bother, some of which is worth citing at length surely because of its hyperbole:

The poem goes on into the heights of paranoid grandiosity. The late Osama bin Laden, now removed to warmer climes, would particularly have liked that piece about “chariots of fire,” for which he could surely have found a use.

Bring me by bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire;
Bring me my spear, Oh clouds, unfold,
Bring me my chariot of fire …

Yes, and head it for Ground Zero, maybe. This is the sort of verse one can imagine Charlie Manson concocting if he was a better hand at rhyme, and indeed Blake’s poetry was enormously popular in the drug-addled ’60s that also tried to make a hero out of Manson..

It is difficult to know where to begin with such a wrong-headed piece of writing, although I was greatly entertained and also reminded that “Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies”. Less vitriolic, but perhaps more heartfelt, was the letter by Alexander S. Waugh in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, decrying references to “Jerusalem” as an English national hymn when the events referred to by Blake obviously took place during Celtic occupation of the greater part of the mainland.

At the other end of the spectrum, though equally bizarre as Colebatch’s piece in its own way, was an article by Brad MacDonald in The Trumpet. Asking, “Did you see God at the Royal Wedding?” (did he steal Tony Blair’s invite?), MacDonald strove to hit a note of wide-eyed wonder and astonishment at the fact that “nearly one third of mankind shared a moment” (very much his italics). Apparently, in “a world yearning for answers, for solutions” to economic crisis, failing families and “the yawning poverty of faith and hope”, all hope was to be found in Kate Middleton’s dress and Blake’s hymn, in which the message to be found the story of “His Second Coming at which time the headquarters of God’s Kingdom shall be established in Jerusalem!” And here was me thinking it was to take our mind off government failings.

A more common type of cynicism, again from the US, was to be found on the New York Review of Books by Martin Filler. Entitled “Land of Hopeless Glory“, it made the wry – and not entirely unfair – observation that while Britannia may no longer rule the waves, “the British Crown possesses an undeniable genius for staging rituals that may seem to date from time immemorial but which for the most part were concocted in the early twentieth century.” Similarly, Counter Punch asked if we would not be better served by a royal TV channel, streaming out state events to a worldwide audience via YouTube.

We can but wait.

William Blake, “Jerusalem”, and the Royal Wedding

Despite finding myself somewhat at variance with the British public mood today (although less so than my wife, currently cursing the fact that her beloved Radio 4 has been entirely given over to coverage of the wedding of William and Catherine Middleton), I have been amused by the amount of email alerts I have been receiving in recent days because of the inclusion of Blake’s “Jerusalem” in the order of service.

Thus, under the heading “Britain’s finest moment: The pomp and pageantry of the Royal Wedding in all its glory“, the Daily Mail reported this morning that “The hour and a half performance is set to include a range of ‘uplifting patriotic’ and ‘singalong’ numbers, such as Jerusalem as well as a Beatles medley.” Likewise, The Telegraph has a long piece on the Blake-Parry hymn with the amusing title “Music for a Sloane wedding (but none the worse for that)“. (Nor is this an entirely British – or, perhaps more accurately, English – phenomenon: various US publications such as The Washington Post and USA Today have carried articles on the royals’ choice of music.)

Damian Thompson’s Telegraph article is eminently readable, and offers a decent introduction to Parry’s music. Judging by the welter of posts to Twitter, it appears to have been a popular choice, most making observations along the line that “Jerusalem is a proper tune”, or “that hymn is epic!” My own favourite at the moment is comedian Dara O Brian’s summation that “Jerusalem is the Prod’s best choon.”

After the first performance of Parry’s hymn in 1916 at the Fight for Right movement in Queen’s Hall (it was not incorporated into Last Night of the Proms until 1953 – my thanks to Keri Davies for this correction, please see below), the hymn has frequently been used by royalists and English nationalists, particularly following Elgar’s more bombastic arrangement in 1922, but has also often been a favourite of the left, taken up the Jarrow marchers and the Suffragettes in the 1920s, as well as being adopted by the Labour party in the 1940s. (For a quick rundown of facts relating to the hymn, see “Ten things you should know about Jerusalem“.)

Today, however, I am currently playing a fairly regular “Jerusalem” game of my own: what would William Blake make of all this? This particular game is, of course, thoroughly anachronistic and utterly subjective. In some cases, such as its use by the British National Party, the result would, I think, be particularly easy to guess. At other extremes of his response, while it is harder to be sure how Blake would have responded to the use of “Jerusalem” I am fairly certain that he would have been pleased – Blake had little to say about sports outside of “The Ecchoing Green”, but I think he would have been proud to hear his words chosen as the anthem for the Commonwealth Games.

But a royal wedding? This is the writer who denounces George III as a “gloomy king” and tyrant in America a Prophecy, and ironically mocks Urizen’s proclamation of “One King, one God, one Law” in The [First] Book of Urizen. Blake’s writings are full of deprecations against kingship, a habit he shared with fellow republican Thomas Paine, for whom “the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise”. Similarly, although he denied in a letter to Thomas Butts in August 1803 that one word of sedition against the king had been spoken in his altercation with Scofield, it was not entirely surprising that Blake was singled out as the most likely radical in the the village of Felpham that year.

Before I make my own final choice, however, one unusual example of Blake’s royalist sentiment does need to be taken into account. In 1808, Blake published a dedication “To the Queen” as part of the edition of Blair’s The Grave issued by R.H. Cromek. Beginning with the rather beautiful lines, “The Door of Death is made of Gold, / That Mortal Eyes cannot behold”, the poem addresses Queen Charlotte as follows:

O Shepherdess of England’s Fold,
Behold this Gate of Pearl and Gold!
To dedicate to England’s Queen
The Visions that my Soul has seen,
And, by Her kind permission, bring
What I have borne on solemn Wing,
From the vast regions of the Grave,
Before Her Throne my Wings I wave;
Bowing before my Sov’reign’s Feet

Charlotte was, of course, the wife of the same George excoriated by Blake in his Lambeth Prophecies of the 1790s. Perhaps by 1808 Blake’s attitudes towards his sovereign had softened, tempered by the running stories of George III and in contrast to the harder heart of Shelley who could still denounce the “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king” more than a decade later. Alternatively, perhaps Blake was simply eyeing a commercial opportunity, and was not averse to bowing and scraping this once if it helped him make some much desperately needed cash. Certainly Cromek viewed Blake’s verses as somewhat hypocritical and self-serving.

In general, I suspect that Blake is far from spinning in his grave today, though I would hope that my own projection of somewhat ironic amusement that this discarded and once-forgotten verse has become such an important piece of national iconography would not be too far from his own attitude. I have a suspicion that were he alive today as a young man, Blake would have been shaking his fist and throwing his shoe at the telly, but my guess as to the older man’s response is much less certain. With regard to his own words as part of Parry’s hymn it is true that – for better or for worse – there is very little else in the English musical canon that is seized upon by so many to represent the national mood.

What’s your opinion about Blake, “Jerusalem” and the Royal Wedding? Leave a comment below.

Blakespotting: My Pretty Rose Tree – Jason Franks and Luke Pickett

“My Pretty Rose Tree” is a short, four page comic adapted from Blake’s song of experience. Written by Jason Frank and illustrated by Luke Pickett, it was originally published in Kagemono: Flowers and Skulls, a collection of 22 horror stories from Australia, in late 2010. Luke Pickett, however, has made a low-res version of the story available on his blog and my thanks to him for drawing the comic to my attention.

Blake’s poem is pared back to a few skeleton lines that allow Frank and Pickett to re-imagine the poem as a luridly coloured gothic horror story, with implicit themes of sexual transgression being brought to the fore.

Luke, who currently resides in Toronto, studied art in Melbourne and now dedicates much of his time to developing comic art (a form that, unsurprisingly considering the combination of word and image attracts a large number of Blakeophiles – see, for example, Roger Whitson’s article on Korshi Dosoo’s Tyger). Jason Franks, also from Melbourne and the editor of Blackglass Press which publishes the Kagemono series, is a writer and programmer, and you can read more of his work on his blog at jasonfranks.com.

Kagemono: Flowers and Skulls

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.

How Much Did Jim Morrison Know about William Blake?

Everyone knows the Doors are named for the doors of perception – but that phrase comes from Aldous Huxley’s book on hallucinogens as well as from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Morrison quotes ‘Auguries of Innocence’ in ‘End of the Night’ on the first Doors album: ‘Some are Born to sweet delight / Some are Born to sweet delight / Some are Born to Endless Night’. But that is the only direct Blake reference in Morrison’s recorded lyrics. Is that it? Did Morrison only do a little vague and random dipping into Blake? Or was Ray Manzarek right to think of him as an authority on the visionary poet? ‘I wonder what Blake said… Too bad Morrison‘s not here. Morrison would know’ (Manzarek, as recorded by Joan Didion in The White Album, passage reprinted in Rocco’s Doors Companion, p. 13).

In interviews, Blake seems to come readily to Morrison’s lips. He demonstrates a basic acquaintance with famous lines from Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In a 1968 interview with John Carpenter for the Los Angeles Free Press, he remarks (without attribution), ‘Opposition is true friendship, ha!’ (in Hopkins, Lizard King, p. 205). Speaking with Lizze James in 1969, Morrison’s thoughts go to Blake when asked about the ‘apocalyptic vision’ of his work on the first Doors album (1966-7): ‘It used to seem possible to generate a movement… they’d all put their strength together to break what Blake calls “the mind-forged manacles” … The love-street times are dead’ (Lizard King p. 279). They also turn to Blake when the topic is erotic mysticism: ‘Blake said that the body was the soul’s prison unless the five senses are fully developed and open. He considered the senses the “windows of the soul”. When sex involves all the senses intensely, it can be like a mystical experience’ (p. 281). Though initially this seems not the most subtle reading of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell‘s cleansing of the doors of perception, it picks up on the implications of ‘sensual enjoyment’ (MHH 14) carried forward into Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and detects Blake’s odd slide from windows to doors as transparent inlets of perception. A fuller knowledge might underlie these fairly obvious quotations: Blake actually does call the senses ‘This Lifes dim Windows of the Soul’ in The Everlasting Gospel, just before the more widely known lines, ‘And leads you to Believe a Lie / When you see with not thro the Eye’.

Manzarek, in his autobiography Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors, recounts his memories of Jim Morrison’s book collection: ‘very eclectic, but also standard… we were all reading the same thing… Except Jim had more! A wall of books’ (p. 78-9). Though he doesn’t list Blake specifically, his omission from such an impressively full, typically bohemian bookshelf would be remarkable. Beyond his own collection, Morrison could also find Blake in the libraries of the colleges he attended. When Howard Smith asked him his opinion of the value of university, Morrison says, ‘If they have a good library, that’s about it… the main key to education is reading, basically. You could do the same thing on your own’ (in Lizard King p. 296). At UCLA, as well as having access as a student, he would have spent steady time in the stacks when he worked in the Powell Library from early 1964 until he was fired in August of the same year for lack of punctuality (as Davis narrates in his biography, p. 55). Unfortunately the library no longer has shelf lists to recreate the holdings from that time, but a look at the current collections shows that there may have been a good deal of Blake available: of pre-1964 editions, not only the Complete Writings edited by Geoffrey Keynes (1957), but also Poems of William Blake edited by W. B. Yeats (1938), Prophetic Writings of William Blake edited by Sloss and Wallis (1926), and further selections by Amelia H. Munson (1964), John Sampson (1960), Alfred Kazin (The Portable Blake, 1946), and Frederick E. Pierce (1915), plus in the way of criticism, The Divine Vision and Ruthven Todd’s Tracks in the Snow. The reference department at UCLA’s College Library were very kind in response to my queries, and shared the information that the Powell building housed the undergraduate College Library collection as well as the research collection while a new library was built for the latter (completed in 1964). My assumption, without being able to check acquisition dates, is that pre-1964 items in the College Library collection would have most likely been found in the Powell Library stacks where Morrison shelved books. (If the search is opened beyond the undergraduate to the research collection, there are of course many further possibilities; for instance, that is where Frye’s Fearful Symmetry is.)

Morrison may have done some purposeful Blake research in the library, since he wrote an essay on Blake for an English class in Romanticism. This was English 154, Spring Semester 1965. I am very grateful to the instructor, Fredrick Burwick, for sharing his memories of teaching Morrison. (And I want to credit and thank David Fallon for pointing out the connection.) Burwick recounts, ‘He showed me a paper on Hieronymus Bosch that he had written for a community college in Florida and wanted to know whether he might submit a similar paper on Blake. His Bosch paper focused on the visionary/hallucinatory experience of The Garden of Earthly Delights. I agreed that a similar approach to Blake’s illuminated works was possible. I remember that he wrote on MHH and referred to other Blake plates, but I can’t recall any details of the work he submitted’. One of Morrison’s main interests in Blake, then, was vision and intoxication: ‘Jim asked me if Blake did drugs. I told him that I didn’t think so’. (Burwick later wrote about Blake’s imagery of ergot poisoning from rotting grain – there is lysergic acid (LSD) in ergot fungus – in his book, Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination (1996), a fascinating and thoroughly researched account of Blake’s insight into the significance of this illness, and its dual potential of vision and suffering.)

It was in the previous summer, 1964, while Morrison was working in the library, that he began to write in his ‘Notes on Vision’ notebook that became The Lords, half of The Lords and The New Creatures, the one book of his poetry to be commercially published in his lifetime (by Simon & Schuster in 1969). Though it owes much to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Rimbaud’s principle of the derangement of the senses, there are specific Blakean echoes. It owes much to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There are formal parallels: The Lords is a hybrid collection of verse and prose, veering among literary composition, philosophical musing, sensory exploration, and cultural commentary. Morrison’s ‘Cure blindness with a whore’s spittle’ (p. 37) sounds like it could be a Proverb of Hell. A description of a ‘happening… in which ether is introduced into a roomful of people through air vents’ breaks down the borders between audience and performer, while ‘the gas acts out poems of its own through the medium of the human body’ (p. 39), tempting comparison with Blake’s Illuminated Books as multimedia experiments in composite art, dominated by the expressive Human Form Divine (which sometimes inhabits the words themselves, especially in titles), and demanding active participation from their readers.

As the passage goes on, it becomes evident that not only form, but also concepts and vocabulary are shared with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Morrison writes,

The aim of the happening is to cure boredom, wash the eyes, make childlike reconnections with the stream of life. Its lowest, widest aim is for purgation of perception. The happening attempts to engage all the senses, the total organism, and achieve total response in the face of traditional arts which focus on narrower inlets of sensation. (p. 39)

In The Marriage (5), ‘that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses. the chief inlets of Soul in this age’. The aims of Blake’s artistic project are also described in terms of washing, purging, and bringing about ‘an improvement of sensual enjoyment’:

This I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite. (MHH 14).

Morrison’s lines,

When men conceived buildings,
and closed themselves in chambers,
first trees and caves (p. 36)

are comparable to Blake’s lines following the cleansing of the doors of perception: ‘For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern’ (MHH 14).

As well as the resemblances to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a passage on shamanism in The Lords makes use of the phrase ‘mental travels’, suggesting Blake’s poem ‘The Mental Traveller’. There is also a distinctly Blakean physical and metamorphic version of expanded perception in The Lords.

The eye looks vulgar
Inside its ugly shell.
Come out in the open
In all of your Brilliance (p. 24)

recalls the ‘two little orbs… fixed in two little caves / Hiding carefully from the wind’ in Blake’s Book of Urizen (11:13-15; also see Milton 3:15-16, and Four Zoas Night IV 54:21-2), and the apocalyptic ‘Expanding Eyes of Man’ that ‘behold the depths of wondrous worlds’ in The Four Zoas (Night IX 138:25; also the ‘eyelids expansive as morning’, Four Zoas Night VI 73:36).

In the summer after working in the library and taking the Romanticism course, Morrison threw away all of his notebooks except for his recent work toward The Lords. The summer of 1965 was also the time when he lived on a roof in Venice, California, hardly ate but took plenty of acid, and began writing the songs that would be the spark of the Doors’ creation when he sang them to Ray Manzarek in their legendary encounter on the beach.

secondary sources:

Davis, Stephen. Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. New York: Gotham, 2005.

Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Revised and Updated. London: Plexus, 2006.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. First published 1954, 1956.

Manzarek, Ray. Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors. New York: Berkley Boulevard, 1999.

Rocco, John M. The Doors Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. London: Omnibus, 1997.

Oathe13 Embracing Calthalendula

Tom MayberryOathe13 Embracing Calthalendula, 2011
Conceptual Artist/Model: Tommy Mayberry
Photographic Artist: Tina Weltz, MPA, LPPO
Hair and Make-up Artist: Jessica Barber
Digital Image
Calla Studio
www.callastudio.ca
www.tommymayberry.com

Note: This work is part of my in-progress Master of Arts Thesis in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) under the supervision of Dr. Jeffery Donaldson. For this project, I am re-visioning Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion as a visual book (Visions2011) combining creative prose with studio photography to explore contemporary cultural contentions of Blake’s Visions in a dually creative/scholarly manner.

I slowly reach out my right hand and sweep my fingertips along Calthalendula’s golden petals. As I pull my hand back in toward me, it follows its motion and rises from the mud on its powerful stem. Growing nearer to my face, I cup its head in my right hand and grasp its stalk with my left. With both of my hands embracing it, subtle shoots emerge from the ground and wind themselves softly up my body.

We are becoming one, Calthalendula and I. Its roots hug me tighter, and when I feel that I could no longer pull away had I wanted to, the centre of Calthalendula’s blossom opens. A hot glow radiates from it unto me, resting on my face, shoulders, and between my breasts. The intensity of its light consumes me until I can no longer see again and feel anything but its fire. A comfortable cool settles on my skin, and I open my eyes to see that Calthalendula has left me. I am now clothed, but alone again.

Yet you are not, Calthalendula’s voice whispers to me from inside me.”

          -from Visions2011

In my re-visioning of Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion, I have inverted the genders of Oothoon and Bromion so that the heroine of Blake’s poem becomes the hero in mine as he, following this scene here, flies off to be with his (male) lover, but, on that journey, falls victim to his (female) rapist. As I have shifted the axes core to Visions, Oathe13 Embracing Calthalendula, too, follows in this oppositional vein as it counters the gender, sunlight, and angles of Blake’s “The Argument” plate so that, intervisually, it becomes a near-perfect mirror refraction. S. Foster Damon, in his A Blake Dictionary, writes that “[t]he Marygold (marigold) symbolizes the first experiment with sex [as t]he plucking of a flower is an ancient symbol for sexual experience” (265), and Northrop Frye, in his Fearful Symmetry, notes that “Oothoon has ‘pluck’d the flower’ of imaginative experience and has entered the state of innocence” (238). In my re-vision, Oathe13 (my male Oothoon character) embraces his “marigold” (named Calthalendula) to do just the same: awaken the powers of [sexual] exploration within him (Damon 265). Leopold Damrosch Jr., in his Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth, writes that, in Visions, “Leutha’s vale had been the place of sexual initiation” (217), and while not given in the illustrated snippet of text from my visual book above, Calthalendula, upon initially meeting Oathe13, tells him, “[w]e are in Leutha. In the Land of Visions.”

A great deal of botanical scholarship in relation to Blake’s Visions fuels the conceptuality of this piece as well, for “[b]otany was a radical and sexualized discourse in the 1790s” (Bernath Walker). In her paper “‘In What Gardens Do Joys Grow?’: Queer Botanizing in Blake’s Visions, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, and Darwin’s Botanic Garden,” Elizabeth Bernath Walker notes that “Blake was one of the engravers who worked on [Darwin’s The Botanic Garden],” and that “[t]he influence of Darwin’s personification [of plants and plant ‘sex’] is evident in the opening prosopopoeia of Visions where Oothoon wanders in the vales of Leutha and comes upon a talking flower, an anthropomorphized marigold symbolizing the spirit of female sexuality.” She explains that there are “two discrete genera” for the common floral name marigold (the Caltha palustris – the marsh marigold – and the Calendula officinalis – the pot marigold) and that both are in Darwin’s text. Noting that “critical opinion is divided as to which genus Blake was referencing,” Bernath Walker explores the evidence on either camp revealing that David Worrall advocates for the pot marigold “based on the beams of light that Leutha’s marigold emits” (as Darwin references Calendula officinalis as emitting sparks) while Anne K. Mellor and Richard Matlak annotate the marigold in Visions as “caltha palustris, commonly called mayflower, a symbol of fertility in May Day festivals” (294). Bernath Walker ultimately suggests – although, in her paper, she primarily considers it the pot marigold – that it is “likely that both Calendula and Caltha contribute meaning to Blake’s text.” For my marigold, I merged the two possible genera into one überflower to encompass the cultural connotations of both possibilities. I dubbed it, appropriately, Calthalendula (a linguistic splicing of the two). My Calthalendula still emits light (recalling its half-namesake Calendula officinalis), for, as Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi note in their Introduction to Visions, “[o]ne thin line of radiance etched on the plate extends from the right-most marigold, but the other three shafts of light make it clear that they are all part of a sunrise” (237), yet it also retains the fertile connections to Caltha palustris.

These fertile and feminine connections and connotations are vitally interesting in my piece, for the schools of scholarship (very aptly so, given Oothoon’s female identity in Visions) all centre on the inherent femininity of her act. Sheila A. Spector, in her “Glorious Incomprehensible, writes that “the action initiated by Oothoon’s choice to pluck Leutha’s flower encompasses the full range of female archetypes from virgin and mother to whore” (72 – emphasis mine). Furthermore, “Oothoon’s plucking of the flower strongly suggests the similar fatal act of Persephone” (Damon 265), and “[b]oth stories [Oothoon’s and Persephone’s] suggest at least a metonymic connection between the acts of literal and metaphoric ‘deflowering’” (Eaves et al. 230). How, though, does an act of deflowering – literal and/or metaphoric – translate into male actions? If males are traditionally, and even anatomically, the deflowerers (as is), can they maintain their masculinities in becoming deflowered themselves? Or do they, in essence, become somewhat hermaphroditic? Tony Rosso, in his paper “The Last Strumpet: Harlotry and Hermaphrodism in Blake’s Rahab,” says that “[h]ermaphrodism isn’t necessarily a merging of genitalia so much as a monstrous merging in general,” and that “Blake interprets hermaphrodism as merging the Male and Female as required to achieve the perfect form.” John Middleton Murray, in his Note on Blake’s Visions, writes that Male and Female being one (as in the Bible story), “rather than the freedom of Oothoon, is Blake’s final answer to the riddle of sex” (21). The current prognosis of my Thesis is to find that “perfect form” within Blake’s Visions through my queering of it, and this piece, Oathe13 Embracing Calthalendula, begins that divining.

Works Cited

Bernath Walker, Elizabeth. “‘In What Gardens Do Joys Grow?’: Queer Botanizing in Blake’s Visions, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, and Darwin’s Botanic Garden.” Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century [The Sexy Blake Conference]. 15 July 2010.

Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century [The Sexy Blake Conference]. The Christopher Room, St. Aldate’s Church, Oxford, UK. 15-16 July 2010.

Blake, William. “The Argument.” Visions of the Daughters of Albion Plate 3. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. William Blake: The Early Illuminated Books. Eds. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998. 247. Print.

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Rev. ed. Lebanon, NH: UP of New England, 1988. Print.

Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980. Print.

Eaves, Morris, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. Introducion [to Visions of the Daughters of Albion]. The Early Illuminated Books. By William Blake. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998. 225-42. Print.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Ed. Nicholas Halmi. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 14. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004. Print.

Mellor, Anne K. and Richard Matlak, eds. British Literature: 1780-1830. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle, 1996. Print.

Middleton Murray, John, “A Note of William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” Visions of the Daughters of Albion. By William Blake. London, UK: Temple P Letchwork, 1932. 11-25. Print.

Rosso, Tony. “The Last Strumpet: Harlotry and Hermaphrodism in Blake’s Rahab.” Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century [The Sexy Blake Confernece]. 16 July 2010.

Spector, Sheila A. “Glorious Incomprehensible”: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Language. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2001. Print.

L. A. Woman, A City Yet a Woman: Blake, Jim Morrison, and Prophecy

Morrison, ‘An American Poet’, and ‘English Blake’ are popularly espoused as voices of their nations. Both saw themselves as prophets, claiming at least to comment on and at most to influence the political and cultural events surrounding them. As part of their prophetic personae, they both invented new lineages for themselves, mystically adopting chosen ancestors that would tie them tightly to the kind of historical and creative inheritance they wanted for themselves and their countries.

Morrison tells a powerful memory of childhood trauma in ‘Dawn’s Highway’, one of the poems he recorded on his last birthday (it was put to music by the surviving Doors on An American Prayer):

Me and my – ah – mother and father – and a grandmother and a grandfather – were driving through the desert, at dawn, and a truckload of Indian workers had either hit another car, or just – I don’t know what happened – but there were Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.
So the car pulls up and stops. That was the first time I tasted fear. I musta been about four – like a child is like a flower, his head is just floating in the breeze, man.
The reaction I get now thinking about it, looking back – is that the souls of the ghosts of those dead Indians… maybe one or two of ’em… were just running around freaking out, and just leaped into my soul. And they’re still in there.

Morrison’s personal mythology here is an attempt to attach himself to the shamanic traditions of native Americans, and also to opt for a more ‘authentic’ American identity than the one of oppressive white power that his biological lineage dictates (considering his father was an admiral in the US Navy, and very much involved in Vietnam).

In Milton, Blake describes becoming one with John Milton, Britain’s most imposing national poet:

The first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star,
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift;
And on my left foot falling on the tarsus enterd there;
But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe
(Milton 15[17]:47-50)

Milton had used his writing talents to support the English Revolution (including defending the regicide), and suffered for holding to his beliefs in the Restoration. Blake is asserting radical political authority as well as literary prowess by identifying with Milton.

Blake’s possession by Milton apparently has wide repercussions (‘spread over Europe’ – like Morrison, Blake is writing in wartime). The most conspicuous appearance of Morrison’s recurring lines, ‘Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding / Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind’, is in ‘Peace Frog’ on Morrison Hotel, a prophetic, apocalyptic song with its own specific geography: ‘Blood on the streets / in the town of New Haven’, where Morrison had become the first rock star to be arrested on stage (as Fong-Torres notes, p. 112). Like Blake, he takes elements from his own biography and mythologizes them on a global and cosmic scale. And like Blake he creates catalogues of places to illustrate the national reach of his prophecy: ‘Blood in the streets / of the town of Chicago’, ‘Blood stains the roofs / and the palm trees of Venice’, ‘The Bloody red sun / of phantastic L.A.’. In such a visionary city, he combines literal and figurative geography: ‘blood on the streets / runs a river of sadness’, and most remarkably, ‘The river runs red down / the legs of the city’, recalling Blake’s imagery of birth trauma and miscarriage (in Morrison’s notebook these verses were titled ‘Abortion Stories’, according to Jerry Hopkins in The Lizard King, p. 129). Compare also the ‘unborn living living dead’ of ‘The Unknown Soldier’, and

Catacombs
Nursery bones
Winter women
growing stones
Carrying babies
to the river

in ‘The Soft Parade’. However, the lines could also suggest loss of virginity (which has revolutionary force in the case of Orc and the Nameless Shadowy Female in the Preludium to America); or menstruation as the simultaneous potential of fertility and infertility, life and death; or indeed human sacrifice as practiced by women in Jerusalem. ‘Blood hath staind her fair side beneath her bosom’ (Jerusalem 67:43) in the extended narrative of the Daughters of Albion ‘drunk with blood’ (Jerusalem 68:12), while for Morrison the blood is also the woman’s as victim:

Blood! screams her brain
as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born
in the birth of a Nation

These lyrics are juxtaposed with a parallel set dominated by the repeated line ‘She came’: female orgasm is apocalyptic and violent for Morrison as it is for Blake at the end of The Song of Los, where

The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes
Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem:
Her bosom swells with wild desire:
And milk & blood & glandous wine
In rivers rush & shout & dance,
On mountain, dale and plain (7:35-40)

In ‘Peace Frog’, and more clearly in ‘L. A. Woman’, Morrison also creates ‘a City yet a Woman’ (Four Zoas, Night IX:223) as Blake does in the figure of Jerusalem, with a kind personification which perceives both simultaneously – ‘I see your hair is burning / Hills are filled with fire’ – and mixes both, blurring external and internal – ‘Drive through your suburbs / Into your blues’. (Note how personification is used toward social commentary: the suburbs are a direct route to depression.) They draw on a collective origin in Biblical prophecy, and partake of its depiction of Israel as a combination of innocent wife and abandoned harlot: ‘Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light? / Or just another lost angel’. Like Blake’s persecuted Jerusalem, ‘Never saw a woman so alone’. (Oothoon also, as rejected but righteous harlot / wife, and as ‘the soft soul of America’ (Visions of the Daughters of Albion 1:3), is a precursor of ‘L. A. Woman’.)

Both Blake and Morrison proceed from this kind of imagery to imagery of male power: as in Blake the call, ‘Awake! Awake Jerusalem! O lovely Emanation of Albion / Awake and overspread all Nations as in Ancient Time’ (Jerusalem 97:1) leads to the predominantly phallic imagery of Albion’s awakening and reuniting with the Zoas, Morrison also moves from the L. A. Woman to the combination of resurrection and erection in his anagram, ‘Mr. Mojo Risin / Got to keep on risin’ / Risin’, risin”. Morrison sings, ‘L. A. Woman, you’re my woman’, while for Blake Albion’s rising also is catalyzed by union with the feminine personification of nation: ‘England who is Brittannia’, who is also Jerusalem, ‘enterd Albions bosom rejoicing’ (Jerusalem 95:22, 32:28). Morrison once said, ‘Los Angeles is a city looking for a ritual to join its fragments, and the Doors are looking for a ritual also. A kind of electric wedding’ (quoted by Federica Pudva, p. 133), like the ones evoked by Blake at the end of Jerusalem, and in the title of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

In her essay on Morrison and Blake, Federica Pudva points out that ‘London was for Blake a real city and at the same time a spiritual and symbolic reality, part of a broad divine vision’ while in Morrison’s vision, Los Angeles was ‘the umbilicus of the world’ and a microcosm of fragmented modern society (p. 132-3, my translation). Morrison called Los Angeles a ‘”genetic blue-print” for the United States’ (Lizard King p. 301). In a poem, ‘The Guided Tour’, he writes,

“I am a guide to the labyrinth”
city is inside of body made manifest
meat organs & electrical
power plants (American Night p. 143)

reminiscent, in reverse, of Los searching ‘the interiors of Albions / Bosom’, which involves coming ‘down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London’ (Jerusalem 45[31]:3-4,14). Though the alienated modern city in Morrison owes much to Baudelaire and, as William Cook examines in detail, T. S. Eliot, Pudva finds that Morrison’s flâneur-like observation of prostitution in the city in his poem The Lords – ‘a ring of death with sex at its centre’ – is rooted in Blake’s ‘midnight streets’ and ‘Harlot’s curse’ in ‘London’ (p. 127-8).

We might see Morrison grasping more than content in the Songs if we take ‘People are Strange’ as commenting on the contingent voice of Songs of Experience and playing with the use of persona it offers.

People are strange
When you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you’re alone

emphasizes the kind of interior realities which may contribute to the compulsion of the speaker in ‘London’ to ‘mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. ‘Women seem wicked / When you’re unwanted’ distils the combination of blame and pity in the ‘Harlot’s curse’ seen as infecting the city and blighting both birth and marriage with death. ‘Faces come out of the rain / When you’re strange’ is like the fragmentation of faces and voices without bodies in ‘London’, and ‘Streets are uneven / When you’re down’ is a direct statement on psychogeography. If the song was inspired by an enlightening Laurel Canyon sunrise, as Robby Krieger narrates (in Fong-Torres 95-6), then it is located (or projected) on Morrison’s home territory as ‘London’ is on Blake’s.

secondary sources:

Cook, William. ‘Jim Morrison: A “Serious Poet”?’ Literary Kicks: Opinions, Observations and Research. 12 July 2003. http://www.litkicks.com/JamesDouglasMorrison

Fong-Torres, Ben, and the Doors. The Doors. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Revised and Updated. London: Plexus, 2006.

Pudva, Federica. ‘The Devil’s Party: Jim Morrison e William Blake’ Anglistica Pisana 2:1 (2005) 119-37.

Blakespotting: Outcasts and William Blake’s “The Tyger”

I have just been catching up with a new BBC series, Outcasts, which has attracted mixed attention in press reviews and caught my eye after friends began telling me that the first series made use of William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger”, first published as one of his Songs of Experience in 1794. While I shall try to avoid plot spoilers as much as possible, that’s not entirely possible in the brief analysis that follows.

Outcasts, which began filming in 2007, is currently being shown on BBC One and is on the second episode out of eight. Set on another planet Carpathia (so named after the ship that rescued some of the survivors from the Titanic) in a not-too-distant future, it depicts the struggles of a group of pioneers attempting to establish a better future following nuclear devastation on Earth. Personally, I find it at best of middling interest as a drama: much of the dialog is somewhat stilted, many cast members are rather flat or unintentionally comic in their delivery, and the action scenes are occasionally risible thus failing to create any real tension – none of which is helped by an intrusive musical score. Undoubtedly the producers have attempted to exploit the interest roused by the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica, and if that was not their deliberate intention then it is not helped by the presence of Jamie Bamber (playing Mitchell Hoban here, a role very different to that of Apollo in BG).

Despite these criticisms, however, it is clear that some potentially interesting moral dilemmas are being played out, even if the handling of those dilemmas is somewhat clumsy. The reference to Blake is very explicit – and sustained – throughout the first episode, “The Independents”. The very first dialogue that we hear is the first two lines of “The Tyger”, and parts of the first stanza are repeated twice more. Linus Hoban, the child who delivers those lines (in a fashion, I’m afraid, that does very little credit to Blake’s verse), by failing to articulate the words “fearful symmetry” halfway through the programme draws attention to the significance of this phrase. In a manner similar to Alan Moore’s use of the famous phrase in Chapter 5 of Watchmen, “fearful symmetry” is meant to indicate to the viewer the contraries and opposites in operation throughout the episode: as Hoban is killed, his wife dies at the same moment, dying from his assault just as one of her friends kills him. Similarly, Hoban is clearly intended to stand in rebellious opposition to Richard Tate, and the struggle between Hoban and his wife over their sun reminded me to a degree of Blake’s famous print of the struggle of the good and evil angels over a child.

That such readings are not entirely supposition is indicated by the (finally) rather dramatic exposition of the first verse of “The Tyger” by Linus as he watches a spaceship exploding in the sky overhead. As he recites the opening lines, reiterating once again that phrase “fearful symmetry”, so any viewer with a knowledge of the poem will almost certainly call to mind the penultimate stanza as they watch meteoric fragments streaking in flame through the air:

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

As soon as Linus speaks, the camera cuts to a vision of the exploding craft which has jettisoned its escape pods, inside which is an ominous figure, Julius Berger, who had overseen the original evacuation from Earth. His face red lit from the emergency lights, he is (extremely unsubtly) cast as a diabolic figure. The unspoken part of Blake’s poem, of course, refers to the war in heaven as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and when Berger assumes his full role in episode two of Outcasts there is something politically satanic about him: like Milton’s adversary, he has fallen from heaven to a bleak world and is clearly to be established as the primary antagonist of the series.

Berger’s satanic figure also brings with it Blakean references, particularly the character of Satan in Milton a Poem. Like Blake’s Satan, he appears to others as though motivated by religion and pity. Palamabron’s remarks on Satan in Milton are also applicable to Berger:

You know Satans mildness and his self-imposition,
Seeming a brother, being a tyrant, even thinking himself a brother
While he is murdering the just[.]

Other Blakean allusions may take in the related poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, “The Little Boy Lost” and “A Little Girl Lost”, as Linus is taken into the wilderness by his father and Lily Isen is captured by clones after her escape pod lands in the desert. While this particular echo may be a particular misprision on my part, Hoban’s eulogies to liberty throughout episode 1, and the paternal authority of President Tate, certainly brings to mind the struggles of Orc and Urizen – and there may also be a subtle reference to Bladerunner, another film about cloned slaves which has a famous (mis)citation of Blake’s America by the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc. (My emphasis)

Outcasts does not come close to Bladerunner – nor the new Battlestar Galactica: it is frequently portentous (and somewhat pretentious) rather than profound. It is not entirely without merit, however, and while a few commentators have been irritated by the Blakean quotation it is fascinating to me as another example of “The Tyger” as part of what Simon During called “the global popular”. Not every viewer, I am sure, will read as deeply as I do into these few, repeated lines, but on a personal level I find it heartening that, according to writer Ben Richards, when citizens of 2040 need to frame their own sense of the fearful sublime it will be to Blake that they turn.