Review: Red White & Blake

Will Franken’s Red White & Blake begins with the rather wonderful warning that “No Blake scholars were consulted in the making of this motion picture”. As an ostensible Blake scholar, that offends me much less than it delights me, especially as Franken – who has made his reputation as a comedian but who studied English literature in the USA before coming to Britain – is clearly familiar with a wide range of Blake scholarship alongside the works of Blake himself. Franken demonstrated this last year when he was the winner of the Blake Society’s 2017 Tithe Grant for a wonderful letter he wrote as though addressed by Blake to Samuel Palmer, and Red White & Blake is Franken’s own personal love letter to the engraver and to the country in which he lived.

Written and directed by Franken, and produced by Scott Ambrose, Red White & Blake is organised into four sections based on the four zoas, the first segment in this documentary opens with Tharmas as a guiding light to discussion of theology. Franken begins with the typical (although superseded – at least with regard to James Blake) view that the artist’s parents were Dissenters before expressing surprise that they baptised their son in a Church of England service. He does follow this with a concise summary of some aspects of Protestant Christianity on the Continent and in England, and his discussion of the tenets of Christianity is liberally interspersed with readings from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, such as “The Garden of Love” and “The Little Vagabond”, before focussing on the works of Emmanuel Swedenborg, noting the importance of the Swedish mystic’s influence on Blake in such works as “The Divine Image”. More important, however, is Blake’s split from Swedenborg, explored in considerable detail as Franken moves through The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the presenter deserves a huge amount of praise for spending so much time exploring Blake’s religious beliefs in such a sincere fashion.

While I don’t agree with all points that Franken makes, he is generally sophisticated and subtle in his thought, expecting the viewer to keep up with all aspects of his theological speculation and drawing attention, among other things, to the fact that Blake’s voice is to be distinguished from that of the devil in The Marriage. Perhaps his most astute comment is when he points out (in the section on Urizen) that for many contemporary Blake fans a difficulty lies in the fact that the artist was a devout (if idiosyncratic) Christian. The attempt to erase a controversial aspect of Blakean thought demonstrates a failure of vision on the part of many contemporary readers and, by focussing on politics and failing to address religion, we do Blake a great disservice.

In the second section on Urizen (slavery), Franken begins with Blake’s desire to create his own artistic system, as well as his mythological framework. This leads quickly into an explanation of Albion’s division into the Four Zoas as the model for England. Franken interprets Urizen as the devil rather than God the Father (that role being reserved for Tharmas). While facile Blakean criticism tends to observe that Urizen is depicted like traditional images of God in heaven, Franken draws upon The [First] Book of Urizen (among others) to develop his argument, a reading of Blake that shows he really knows the scholarship. As demiurge, Urizen is both the first slave and first slave-master and this sophisticated exegesis is one of my favourite parts of the documentary.

After this, the film moves on to explicit considerations of slavery in the late eighteenth century via “The Little Black Boy” and then America, but the focus is the mental self-enslavement that Britons were mastering in the age of reason, as well as the effects of the growth of urbanisation and industrialisation on England’s green and pleasant lands. As such, the argument is generally very sophisticated for such a documentary, following through mental slavery via British empiricism.

The third section, on Luvah (liberty) is the most explicitly political section of the film, again circling around The Marriage against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Franken follows this with an account of Blake’s arrest and trial for sedition in Felpham, which is generally good on the background, though there is the occasional mistake, such as his assertion that coffee houses at the time of the Civil War contributed to the death of the king, whereas the first ones did not open in London until after the execution of Charles I. Nonetheless, throughout this section – as in the film as a whole – there is some vibrant context for the background of Blake’s thoughts, for example in the writings of Thomas Paine as one of the inspirations for the American War of Independence.

The effects of the American and French Revolutions are fed through to Blake’s mythology, and this is another example of how Franken does not relent with regard to his expectations on the viewer’s concentration. One example is the thread that contrasts a good Satan versus the bad Satan in America (Urizen/God versus Orc/Jesus) – this is only true in part and, since Northrop Frye, many scholars have tended to view the relations between Urizen and Orc as more dialectical than Franken suggests here. Nonetheless, this is a question of emphasis and what cannot be doubted is his extensive knowledge of Blake’s, quoted throughout the documentary with passion. Following the section on America, there is a consideration of the effects of the French Revolution, as reflected in Blake’s poem of the same name – a segment which offers Franken the clearest means to focus on a straight history of the Revolution as well as the reaction of Romantics generally against Napoleon as emperor.

The final section on Urthona as Contrary returns once more to Blake’s death as it had at the very beginning of the film, and focuses on imagination as the Holy Spirit, a pentacostal view of Christianity which is dynamic and constantly changing, an act of prophecy and – in Blake’s hands – of art. This section deals with one of Blake’s most difficult books, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, especially as this leads us on to an understanding of Los, who Franken calls “the bridge between the here and the hereafter”, the prophetic alter-ego of Blake. As with the rest of Franken’s documentary, he emphasises the importance of religion to Blake’s world view (via a fascinating detour through psychology as a means to secularise prophetic vision in a segment that seems to owe a great deal to another fan of Blake’s work, R. D. Laing).

The reading of contemporary psychoanalysis through the lens of Blake’s works is fascinating, but is followed by, for me at least, a considerably more contentious segment that treats social justice as a justification for racial victimisation and views of toxic masculinity that turns into an attack on feminism. Strictly speaking, Franken is determined to specify that his complaint is with “third-wave feminism” (which is never defined with as much care as given, say, to various theories of the Enlightenment). Throughout this section, there are moments when Franken seems to be on the verge of offering a potentially more critical view of Blake’s own views of gender and sexuality, but in the end this is elided rather than fully addressed. While I understand that Franken is concerned to oppose what he sees as liberal forms of totalitarianism – particularly ones which deny freedom of speech in the name of liberality (a clear contradiction) – the reason I feel that he is misusing Blake at this point is because, with regards to race and gender in particular, discrimination is unfortunately not historical but alive and well. At his best, Blake attacks the powerful and while there are plenty of hypocrites who make a living from identifying themselves as victims, there are too many women who are paid less and people of colour who are discriminated against. I was painfully reminded at this point of the documentary of a Blake scholar who told me how much she loves Blake until those moments when he makes such observations as: “In a wife I would desire / What in whores is always found / The lineaments of Gratified desire” (E474). Blake – rightly – does not desire us to read his words as holy writ, and when he is wrong we should engage him in mental fight just as he fought with Milton.

Franken seeks to avoid the worst excesses of his own argument via a very  good point regarding negations versus contraries – the former, says Blake, should be destroyed whereas the latter lead to the true heaven of Eden. This is a difficult argument at the best of times, and interestingly the documentary breaks down formally at this point, becoming more than a little incoherent as I suspect that Franken really is struggling with his argument. He attempts to illustrate it via a terrorist who ends the discussion, with it the discussion then being taken up in a pub (hints of “The Little Vagabond”), and his conclusion moves towards the notion that the individual must set up against a contrary against all authoritarian elites, whether religious, fascist or liberal. His model at this point is as much Monty Python’s Flying Circus which was Franken’s entry point into a vision of Albion alongside that of William Blake.

There is much in this documentary that deserves high praise: Franken is clearly enthusiastic about Blake, and his emphasis on Blake’s religion is very well made – contemporary scholars who try to secularise Blake in their own image do the poet and artist a great disservice. He is particularly good when it comes to contextualising Blake in terms of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and there is more than a passing familiarity with the work of figures such as Kant, Leibniz, Spinoza and Locke among others. His final conclusion that Blake is a “radical Christian patriot” is, however, a more ambivalent one for me: as one of those scholars not consulted – rightly – by Franken, I have spent a great many years considering what Blake’s national and (to a lesser degree) what his religious vision mean. There is a potentially dangerous tendency at the end of Franken’s love letter to Albion for him to indulge in what George Orwell identified as the worst elements of nationalism – fear (or at least disdain) of the other – rather than the best aspects of patriotism – love of what we hold dearest. Franken’s exuberance and enthusiasm cannot be doubted, but nor should it ever be forgotten that the radical Christian patriot who is his subject was also the one who wrote:

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

Without contraries is no progression, but we should never forget – as too many contrarians do – that a negation is not the same thing, seeking only to squash and oppress that it disdains.

 

Red White & Blake is now available on Amazon Instant Video and is free for Prime subscribers, or costs from £7.99 to purchase.

Anniversary of Blake’s Death and Blake Society Meeting

Today is the anniversary of the death of William Blake, who passed away at the age of 69 in 1827. He and his wife Catherine were living at that time at 3 Fountain Court, London, and though Blake was largely neglected at the time of his death in the previous decade he had begun to make friendships among young artists who would pass on knowledge of his art and poetry. One of those friends, George Richmond, wrote to Samuel Palmer:

My Dr Friend

Lest you should not have heard of the Death of Mr Blake I have written this to inform you – He died on Sunday Night at 6 Oclock in a most glorious manner[.] He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ – Just before he died His Countenance became fair – His eyes brighten’d and He burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven[.] In truth He Died like a Saint as a person who was standing by Him Observed – He is to be Buryed on Friday at 12 in morng[.] (Cited in G. E. Bentley, Blake Records, p.464)

As is traditional, the Blake Society will meet on the first Sunday after the anniversary of Blake’s death at his grave. This year, the meeting will take place at 12 noon, Sunday 15 August at Bunhill Fields, 38 City Road London EC1Y 1AU. The Bunhill celebration, which dates back to the birth of the Society, is open to all and anyone can participate without notice or election (so attend if you want to read a poem, sing or join other Blake enthusiasts for lunch and conversation).

In addition this year Robin Hatton-Gore will talk about the topography of the area and will triangulate Bunhill Fields with the graveyard of the Wesley Chapel and the Quaker Burial Ground. Robin Hatton-Gore was the gardener in charge of Bunhill Fields for several years and is completing a book on the importance of this area to the Dissenting tradition. More details can be found at http://www.blakesociety.org/2010/03/16/bunhill-fields-2/.

Of the devil’s party – Swinburne and Blake

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the poet and critic, Algernon Charles Swinburne. Born in 1837, he was a close friend of the Rossettis who, with Alexander Gilchrist, did so much to renovate the reputation of William Blake in the nineteenth century.

Having become involved in the biography of Blake written by Gilchrist, eventually published as the Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus in 1863, Swinburne became so annoyed with the final results that he began work on his own version of Blake’s life and art that appeared in 1868 as William Blake: A Critical Essay.

The Essay was first intended as a commentary on the prophetic books that would serve as a supplement to Gilchrist’s Life, but it was extended between 1863 and 1868 to become an important document of Swinburne’s own aesthetic theory. It begins with a declaration that Blake was “born and baptized into the church of rebels” (8), a recurring theme throughout the essay which is divided into three parts: Blake’s life and designs, and two sections dealing with the lyrical poems and prophetic books. For Swinburne, Blake was knowingly of the devil’s party, combining aestheticism with rebellion:

In a time of critical reason and definite division, he was possessed by a fervour and fury of believe; among sane men who had disproved most things and proved the rest, here was an evident madman who believed a thing, one may say, only insomuch as it was incapable of proof. He lived and worked out of all rule, and yet by law. He had a devil, and its name was Faith. No materialist has such belief in bread and meat as Blake had in the substance underlying appearance which he christened god or spectre, devil or angel as the fit took him: or rather as he saw it one or the other side. His faith was absolute and like a pure fanatic’s: there was no speculation in him. (4)

Swinburne responded positively to Blake’s lyrical talents, being also important as one of the first critics to seriously consider the illuminated prophecies, largely passed over until that point. Thus, for example, of “The Tyger” he writes: “No possible effect of verse can be finer in a brief way than that given in the first and second stanzas of the first part of the poem. It recals [sic] within one’s ear the long relapse of recoiling water and wash of the refluent wave[.]” (119) For Swinburne, then, Blake is a devil motivated by faith to employ the weapon of art in an attack on social, moral and political corruption. As such, Swinburne was an important critic in the nineteenth century for preserving and drawing attention to the acerbic, satirical and intransigent elements of Blake’s verse.

William Blake’s Life & Work

The first  in a series of publications called Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions is now available. This will provide a set of concise, clearly presented guides that draw on the latest research in Blake studies to outline different approaches to Blake’s poetry and art.

William Blake’s Life & Works is a clear and elegant introduction to one of the most remarkable poets and artists ever to have lived and worked in the British Isles. This concise book, first in the Zoamorphosis Essential Introductions series, provides an account of Blake’s biography and his major works that draws upon some of the most recent scholarship on Blake, presenting that material in an accessible fashion.

This is available as an eBook in HTML and PDF formats, with an ePub version for mobile readers due soon. To download a copy go to the Publications page.