Mei-Ying Sung: William Blake and the Art of Engraving

William Blake and the Art of Engraving. Mei-Ying Sung
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009. pp. 220. £60. ISBN: 9 781851 969586.

This monograph, an extension of Mei-Ying Sung’s PhD thesis, begins with a simple observation that while Blake’s technique of relief etching has attracted considerable academic interest in recent decades, his engraving processes – including, remarkably, the archive of surviving copper plates – have been much neglected. Sung suggests that the main reason for this is that engraving as a technology of reproduction is obsolete and consequently downgraded, but a (slightly) more positive reason may be that Blake’s technique of relief etching was so innovative, particularly with regard to the illuminated books produced using this method, that it has been a much more obvious source of academic inquiry. Related to this is the much more ambivalent and frustrating factor that Blake as an artist is frequently treated as secondary to Blake as poet.

Sung’s opening technical argument provides a deft and scholarly summary of a controversy that dogged Blake studies for several years (and which often appears opaque and esoteric to general appreciators of Blake’s art). In the years following the large exhibition of Blake’s works at Tate Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2000-2001, disagreement arose between Robert Essick, Joseph Viscomi and Michael Phillips following the latter’s publication of a book, William Blake, The Creation of the Songs, in which he suggested that Blake registered plates to pull copies twice rather than once in order to make colour prints. The argument which followed became bad tempered at times, and most readers (including not a few Blake specialists) would have been overwhelmed by the intensely technical details. Sung, however, provides a usefully concise version of the controversy, with a conclusion that is rather damning towards Phillips while also observing that all experts involved confined themselves to the prints while ignoring – more or less completely – the surviving thirty-eight copper plates that survive.

It is by considering these artefacts in detail that Sung’s work provides her most rigorous innovations in Blake studies, most notably how Blake had to work and re-work his plates using a technique known as repoussage, as well as providing fascinating detours through subsequent experiments to renovate Blake’s techniques by artists such as Ruthven Todd, Joan Miró and William Stanley Hayter. In the chapter on “The History of the Theory of Conception and Execution”, a theory which has its origin in Blake’s remarks in a letter to George Cumberland in 1795 refuting the separation of the powers of invention and execution, Sung shows how the emphasis on relief etching as well as the experiments of the Surrealists has skewed our understanding of Blake’s actual practice. Despite the mistakes this has led to, however, Sung demonstrates immense respect towards the work of Ruthven Todd, a much neglected figure in Blake studies who, as she observes, was probably as important as Geoffrey Keynes in returning attention to Blake’s art.

After this theoretical introduction, the following three chapters of William Blake and the Art of Engraving provide a highly technical examination of Blake’s practice. “The Evidence of Copper Plates” begins from the observation that while proofs of prints may provide most information about the development of an image, “there is information on the metal plates which is not shown on the prints” (p. 46), most notably evidence of repoussage which indicates how the process of production is corrected as the artist works on the plate. Because, as Sung points out, plates were often re-used or rarely collected, the body of plates belonging to Blake is very small and so this chapter also provides more general information on other engravers, such as the 170 copper plates belonging to George Cruikshank and the forty or so copper and steel plates left by Phiz.

Sung notes that differences in etching and engraving techniques could have a significant difference on the amount of correction required to complete a work, and this provides important context for the subsequent chapter, “Blake’s Engraved Copper Plates”, which synthesises current knowledge about extant plates and those for which some information has been recorded even if the plates themselves are lost. This catalogue is a useful source of information for Blake scholars, and the chapter concludes with a more detailed analysis, as well as catalogue raisonné of the remaining plates for Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826). Sung’s careful examination indicates that “the evidence of the plates and Blake’s alterations to them shows not only the development of ideas but also modifications of errors”, and that this leads us “to reconsider the limits of [Joseph] Viscomi’s concept about Blake’s technique being original creation rather than secondary reproduction”, the Job engravings being a “mixture of experiments and trial and error” (pp. 85, 118).

In terms of providing minute particulars on Blake’s life, the following chapter on “Copper Plate Makers in Blake’s Time” is incredibly specialist but also quite fascinating. Rather crudely, I am not sure my own appreciation of Blake is especially influenced by knowing who provided the copper for the artist’s engraving work, but the role of the British copper industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and the activities of companies such as Pontifex, opens up the world of industry within which Blake worked. There is not quite the cultural engagement here that is found in work such as that of Isobel Armstrong on Victorian glass, but details such as copper theft in the early nineteenth century offer enticing glimpses into the commercial environment of the time.

Wider appeal, however, will probably be found in the final chapter on the earliest re-engravers of Blake’s Virgil woodcuts. Of course, this statement reflects my own interest in the reception of Blake’s works, but those woodcuts began to engage with an audience during Blake’s lifetime and, as Sung observes, indicate how readers actually engaged with the Thornton Virgil has rarely been addressed. Detailing her primary research into a surviving woodblock, an early imitation of Blake’s design, Sung displays excellent detective work when discussing how Blake’s illustrations appeared in later Victorian publications such as the Athenaeum.

William Blake and the Art of Engraving is an incredibly detailed, highly technical and scholarly work, one that contributes greatly to our understanding of Blake’s techniques of production in a tradition that includes figures such as Bentley, Viscomi, Essick and Phillips. Her most important addition is to refocus specifically on Blake’s work as an engraver, and throughout the book Sung demonstrates remarkable and comprehensive attention to the minute particulars of his craft that allows her to challenge easy assumptions about the theory of his creative practice.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Philip Pullman
London: Canongate, 2010. pp. 245. £14.99. ISBN: 9 781847 678256.

Released just before Easter, Pullman’s latest novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, has become a publishing sensation, attracting considerable reviews and a great deal of attention. As President of the Blake Society, Pullman’s attraction to Blake is a deep and profound one, manifested at various points in the trilogy His Dark Materials and also The Adventures of John Blake. As such, there are several moments when Blake’s influence is a telling one in this particular novel – though before dealing with this in any detail it is important to make some general points regarding The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Firstly, and in this I agree with a significant number of critics who have previously reviewed the novel, Pullman’s spare and simple style is immensely effective. Whether it was his intended effect to send readers back to the Bible is a moot point, but in many ways Pullman’s plain and unadorned writing is reminiscent of certain translations of the gospels of Mark and Matthew in particular (the latter, of course, a particular favourite of Marxist film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini). The undoubted power of the words of the good man Jesus made me wonder at times whether Pullman’s book even has designs on becoming a fifth gospel, one aimed at secular and atheist (or at least agnostic) readers, reminding them that while they may have cast off the bond of superstition perhaps they have also thrown out too much that is of undoubted good.

Much of the plot of The Good Man is largely familiar, aside from Pullman’s central conceit that Mary gave birth not to one child but two, Jesus and Christ (and carping by some readers that “Christ” is not a proper name but rather a title is completely irrelevant to Pullman’s parable). Events largely follow those of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), while John is treated suspiciously as the mystic and mystifier, the source of conversations such as the following between the unnamed stranger and Christ on the purpose of truth as being more important than history:

There is time and there is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of these things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God. (99)

There is something in these words that at first sounds a little reminiscent of Blake (as in the aphorism “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), but the objective of the stranger, an allegory for the church, is completely un-Blakean, the message being that the church must lie in order to maintain power. Regarding the use of the Johannine gospel, Pullman appears to more or less reject the fourth evangelist, although there is an irony in that one of the most potent stories of Jesus’s life, that of the woman taken in adultery who is saved from death by Jesus’s simple admonition, translated here by Pullman as “If there’s one you who has never committed a sin, he can throw the first stone” (154) – one of the strongest examples of the power of forgiveness of sin – is only found in John 7.53-8.11. Indeed, this is one of the problems I found with the book as a whole: Christ frequently rewrites Jesus’s life to emphasise the message that he believes to be most important, but then Pullman’s revisionary act also picks and chooses those parts that he obviously prefers.

What, then, of the Blakean aspects of the novel? The gospel narrative is, of course, much bigger than Blake, but Blake remains one of the most important commentators in English art and literature on the Bible and it is unsurprising that Pullman has taken elemnets from the Romantic. What first attracted my attention was a serialised extract that included his chapter on the conception of Jesus and Christ:

At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.
One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
“Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips . . .”
She was confused, and said “Who are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the voice. “Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.”
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
“What is the secret?” she said.
“You are going to conceive a child,” said the angel. (7)

The all-too human circumstances of the conception of the son of God are extremely familiar from the following lines of Blake’s epic, Jerusalem:

in the Visions of Elohim Jehovah, behold Joseph & Mary
And be comforted O Jerusalem in the Visions of Jehovah Elohim
She looked & saw Joseph the Carpenter in Nazareth & Mary
His espoused Wife. And Mary said, If thou put me away from thee
Dost thou not murder me? Joseph spoke in anger & fury. Should I
Marry a Harlot & an Adulteress? Mary answerd, Art thou more pure
Than thy Maker who forgiveth Sins & calls again Her that is Lost
Tho She hates. he calls her again in love. I love my dear Joseph
But he driveth me away from his presence. yet I hear the voice of God
In the voice of my Husband. tho he is angry for a moment, he will not
Utterly cast me away. if I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the Forgive[ne]ss of Sins! if I were holy! I never could behold the tears
Of love! of him who loves me in the midst of his anger in furnace of fire.
Ah my Mary: said Joseph: weeping over & embracing her closely in
His arms: Doth he forgive Jerusalem & not exact Purity from her who is
Polluted. I heard his voice in my sleep O his Angel in my dream:
Saying, Doth Jehovah Forgive a Debt only on condition that it shall
Be Payed? Doth he Forgive Pollution only on conditions of Purity
That Debt is not Forgiven! That Pollution is not Forgiven (61.1-19, E211-2)

In Blake, the immaculateness of Jesus’s conception is not that Mary has no experience of sex, but that Joseph refuses to enforce the Mosaic law. My initial reading of the Pullman chapter had been to see it as a direct parallel to Blake’s lines, as well as the mischievous debunking that takes place in The Everlasting Gospel:

Was Jesus Chaste or did he
Give any Lessons of Chastity
The morning blushd fiery red
Mary was found in Adulterous bed
Earth groand beneath & Heaven above
Trembled at discovery of Love

On reading the whole novel, however, Pullman’s representation of Mary is a more complex one. Pullman’s Mary (unlike Blake’s) appears to be something of a simpleton rather than an innocent, for she takes Christ specifically to be her child, reserving Jesus for Joseph (14). The harshness of this assessment, however, does depend on taking the title of Pullman’s book at face value: throughout much of the novel, Christ is clearly a scoundrel, but by the end it is difficult not to feel sympathy for him.

The reason for this lies in the characters of Jesus and Pullman. It is when depicting the former that Pullman often reads at his most Blakean: Jesus is a natural rebel, and during one of his first appearances in the temple (taken from Luke chapter two), the learning ascribed to him by the evangelist is instead transferred to Christ, with Jesus instead daubing graffiti on the temple walls. In the chapter “Joseph Greets his Son”, it is Jesus who is the prodigal son, and Pullman elsewhere describes Jesus as “impulsive”, a word surely employed to evoke Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where a devil describes how Jesus breaks the ten commandments and concludes, “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules.” (plates 23-4 E43) Pullman, it must be said, does not quite emphasise the rebelliousness of Jesus quite as much as Blake does (as, for example, when he emphasises in his version of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’s emphasis on fulfilling Mosaic law, something which Blake always kicks against), but his Jesus is given to spontaneous action that cannot be seen as anything but seditious by the self-righteous, as when he creates birds from clay on the sabbath – a story drawn from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the Qu’ran rather than more orthodox Christian sources.

In the story of the clay birds, it is Christ rather than Jesus who brings them to life. As Christ himself realises, he is calculating, rational, cautious – everything that his brother is not. Pullman’s Christ is very much a god of this world, one who wants fairness, logic and order as well as glory and power. The radical nature of Jesus’s kingdom of heaven is that it is unfair – that God gives love to lilies in the field and birds in the trees as much as to grafting men and women. In many ways, it is Christ who is the more “modern” character in the book, given to introspection and self-analysis in a way that never occurs with Jesus – and it is this that, ultimately, makes him sympathetic to the reader. Christ’s problem is that he clearly is too much a man and, if early in the novel there is something despicable about him that makes him appear a true scoundrel, as when he takes the role of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, by the end his own recognition of his shortcomings and failings is what makes him much more attractive. He is tricked by his own vanity and ambition into playing the part of Judas, and becomes so disgusted with this that by the end of the novel, having (almost accidentally) given hope to the disciples by making them believe that Jesus is risen again, he has turned his back on the world and become a net-maker. This is the only time that he seems content – until tempted once more by the mysterious stranger and his dormant desire to give more coherent shape to the story.

A number of reviewers have remarked on the fact that Christ is an analogue for Pullman. This, to me, seems both a fair assessment and also an indication of how Christ surprises through sympathy in the story. Jesus is radical – as Christ says at the end of the book, “He wanted perfection; he asked too much of people” (244) – while Christ is fallible. And just as Christ is an example of that familiar construct, the unreliable narrator, so Pullman in the end has to be an unreliable author. In most cases, I think this is a role that Pullman is perfectly content with – he wishes to undermine the authority of the transcendental narrative by which organised religion gains so much of his power, and if Christ is, after Nietzsche, human, all too human, then Pullman’s own humanism must recognise a deeper empathy with this failed divinity.

However, there are for me a couple of times in the novel when Pullman does appear to desire an alternative transcendental ground for his own narrative, one that will provide (as all such grounds do) at least the illusion of securer footing for his resistance to religion. The most notable moment is in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus launches into an atheistical tirade against God (191-201) which, while powerful, heartfelt, and full of good sense, simply does not sound like Jesus. By this I mean that Pullman the Christ, who has so deftly played with the gospel stories, now leaves those evangelists behind and makes Jesus his mouthpiece; this section felt to me very much a selection of ideas that Pullman wanted Jesus to express. I have no problem whatsoever with the sentiments that appear here – indeed I agree with many of them – but Jesus as ventriloquist’s dummy feels very much like a conjuring trick of the kind that Pullman wishes to denounce when it is employed by the church.

The second time when this happens is earlier in the novel, when Christ has sex with a prostitute. In many ways, this is one of the most interesting parts of the book, demonstrating Christ’s scoundrel nature while also – through his painful humiliation – eliciting sympathy from the reader. And yet, while reading and re-reading it, I couldn’t help but feel that this was another trick on Pullman’s part, a slightly gratuitous, extra-biblical degradation of Christ inserted into the novel to whip up some scandal and additional publicity. It is an extremely well-written chapter, and I shall not forget it quickly, but its inclusion does feel like an additional piece of authorial manipulation that did make me view Pullman’s rhetorical tricks much more suspiciously.

This is a shame, because the ultimate surprise of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is just how appealing it makes much of the gospel story, treating it as a perfectly human and understandable story rather than one shrouded in mystery and requiring the mediation of the church (a process that, Pullman alludes to again and again, began with Saint Paul’s revisionary exercise). In many respects, Pullman’s story often reads almost as a new translation rather than fiction despite the – rather forbidding – reminder on the back cover that “This is a STORY”. I have alluded to a few explicitly Blakean elements within the novel, but this is not by any means simply a retread of Blake’s ideas as alternative orthodoxy. Rather, Pullman appears to share with Blake a desire to reinterpret the Bible as parable requiring active, hermeneutic activity on the part of the reader. And Blake, despite all his injunctions against Urizenic reason, could be quite the rationalist when it came to the good book, as in the following defence of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason against Bishop Watson: “Of what consequence is it whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or no. If Paine trifles in some of his objections it is folly to confute him so seriously in them & leave his more material ones unanswered Public Records as If Public Records were True” (E617). Or, more simply: “Both read the Bible day & night \ But thou readst black where I read white.” (E524)

Zoapod 10: His Dark Materials – Blake and Pullman (transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 10, which is an introduction to some of the Blakean motifs included in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. The three books, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, were published between 1995 and 2000 to critical acclaim, The Amber Spyglass having won the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year prize while The Golden Compass was made into a film in 2007.

2. Pullman has long had an interest in Blake, having become President of the Blake Society in 2004, and he has written extensively about the Romantic poet and engraver. Regarding His Dark Materials, Pullman makes explicit its link to Blake in the acknowledgements to The Amber Spyglass, where he writes that although he has “stolen ideas from nearly every book I have ever read”, three debts are to be acknowledged above all others: Heinrich von Kleist’s On the Marionette Theatre, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and “the works of William Blake”. Blake’s poetry is also frequently cited in the headings to the chapters of The Amber Spyglass. Before discussing some of the ways in which Blake appears in those works, it is worth noting that while von Kleist and Milton provide a central text that influences Pullman, with Blake it is the complete corpus. Nor should this be restricted to the poetry, as he encountered Blake’s paintings shortly after leaving Oxford University, which were to affect him greatly.

3. The influence of Milton is immediately self-evident to any reader of His Dark Materials who has a working knowledge of Paradise Lost, the trilogy reworking the rebellion of Satan and the Fall from a sceptical perspective. Trying to pin down Blake’s role, however, is a more subtle affair. The most obvious starting point is Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which provides his infamous re-reading of Milton:

4. Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restraind it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.
The history of this is written in Paradise Lost. & the Governor or Reason is calld Messiah.
And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is calld the Devil or Satan and his children are calld Sin & Death
But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is calld Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties
It indeed appeard to Reason as if Desire was cast out. but the Devils account is, that the Messiah fell. & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss…
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it (E34-5) 

5. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2002, Pullman remarked that “Blake said Milton was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it. I am of the Devil’s party and know it”, and his assault on religious dogma throughout the novels – which has drawn considerable criticism in the United States in particular – is clearly a diabolical re-reading of the role of churches in human oppression that echoes the infernal spirit of Blake’s classic text. At the end of The Amber Spyglass, the transcendental system that sustains the church of mystery is imploded when the rebel angel, Baruch, is revealed to have once been a man and the Authority, known as Yahweh, El and the Almighty, is shown as a frail old man who was himself created and cannot survive eternally – yet whose death bring him peace. At the end of the trilogy, the Kingdom of Heaven is reconstituted as a Republic (drawing also on the ideas of the seventeenth century Digger, Gerard Winstanley), giving emphasis to another of Pullman’s guiding principles that has its origins in Blake, the notion that “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans”.

6. The diabolical reading of Paradise Lost is the clearest and most sustained example of Blake’s influence, but I would like to concentrate now on two others: Lyra Belacqua and Dust, both also being significant in Pullman’s forthcoming novel, The Book of Dust. Lyra’s first name is adapted from Lyca, who appears in the Songs of Experience poems, “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found”:

7. Frowning frowning night, 
O’er this desart bright,
Let thy moon arise, 
While I close my eyes.  

Sleeping Lyca lay; 
While the beasts of prey, 
Come from caverns deep,
View’d the maid asleep 

8. The first four of these lines from “The Little Girl Lost” are cited at the beginning of Chapter 13 of The Amber Spyglass, and Pullman took this poem and its companion as the source for the opening chapter in that novel, in which Mrs Coulter keeps Lyra in a cave in the Himalayas. What Pullman seems to take from Lyca is the sense of bravery, even rebelliousness, and innocence within a world of experience, so that in Blake’s poem Lyca is unharmed by the beasts of prey, while in Pullman’s novels Lyra is able to move safely among the dangers that she encounters, inspiring those she meets to help her in her struggles.

9. As well as the character of Lyra, the mysterious Dust that permeates the trilogy owes much to Blake. In the novels, Dust is an elementary particle, a dark matter that is conscious and attracted to individuals. The Church, believing it to be a manifestation of original sin, attempts foolishly to destroy its connection to humans, not realising that it is the very material that bestows consciousness itself. The sources of Dust are manifold – the Book of Genesis, Buddhism and quantum physics, but Blake also has an important role to play in the development of this motif. At a lecture to the Blake Society in 2005, Pullman presented a series of seven axioms describing the Republic of Heaven, each of which ended with a citation from Blake. Susan Matthews quotes the first of these in a 2007 essay on Blake and Pullman:

10. The physical world, this matter of which are made, is amorous by nature. Matter rejoices in matter, and each atom of it falls in love with other atoms and delights to join up with them to form complex and even more delightful structures: “and shew you all alive This world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.”

11. As Matthews remarks, this quotation from the Preludium to Europe, which is also the heading for chapter 34 of The Amber Spyglass, “stresses the constantly joyful quality of the material world” and emphasises the bodily nature of Blake, who considered the separation of body and soul as the grounding error of the Church which had allowed it to create so effectively the mind-forg’d manacles of mystery.

Everlasting Gospel? Philip Pullman, Jesus and Christ

The Catholic in me, however lapsed, cannot be but a little amazed by Philip Pullman’s latest book (which, of course, I have on order and expect to arrive soon), The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, having been released just in time for Easter. The journalist in me, however erratic, cannot but be impressed by Canongate’s marketing decision which has taken the title to number 5 in the Amazon charts just days after its release. Of course, for writing about it on Easter Sunday I shall probably burn in hell, but then while there I can walk “among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

Although not having had chance yet to read the full work, published as part of Canongate’s Myths series, some extracts were included in last weekend’s The Guardian Review section, and while I cannot comment on the full parallels between Blake and Pullman (which he will have invoked rather knowingly, being President of the Blake Society), the opening paragraphs evoke what is for me a strong – if perhaps for some other readers slightly obscure – connection:

At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.
One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
“Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips . . .”
She was confused, and said “Who are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the voice. “Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.”
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
“What is the secret?” she said.
“You are going to conceive a child,” said the angel.

When Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, she begins to cry:

She wept bitterly, and said “I’ve done no wrong, I swear! I have never been touched by a man! It was an angel that came to me, because God wanted me to conceive a child!”
Joseph was troubled. If this was really God’s will, it must be his duty to look after her and the child. But it would look bad all the same. Nevertheless, he said no more.

This particular passage reminded me immediately of the following lines from Blake’s epic, Jerusalem:

in the Visions of Elohim Jehovah, behold Joseph & Mary
And be comforted O Jerusalem in the Visions of Jehovah Elohim
She looked & saw Joseph the Carpenter in Nazareth & Mary
His espoused Wife. And Mary said, If thou put me away from thee
Dost thou not murder me? Joseph spoke in anger & fury. Should I
Marry a Harlot & an Adulteress? Mary answerd, Art thou more pure
Than thy Maker who forgiveth Sins & calls again Her that is Lost
Tho She hates. he calls her again in love. I love my dear Joseph
But he driveth me away from his presence. yet I hear the voice of God
In the voice of my Husband. tho he is angry for a moment, he will not
Utterly cast me away. if I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the Forgive[ne]ss of Sins! if I were holy! I never could behold the tears
Of love! of him who loves me in the midst of his anger in furnace of fire.
Ah my Mary: said Joseph: weeping over & embracing her closely in
His arms: Doth he forgive Jerusalem & not exact Purity from her who is
Polluted. I heard his voice in my sleep O his Angel in my dream:
Saying, Doth Jehovah Forgive a Debt only on condition that it shall
Be Payed? Doth he Forgive Pollution only on conditions of Purity
That Debt is not Forgiven! That Pollution is not Forgiven (61.1-19, E211-2)

It is slightly curmudgeonly of me to claim that Blake’s text is more radical immediately after the release of Pullman’s book (“they don’t write like they used to…” and so on), but that precisely, on the evidence of what I have seen, is my claim. Pullman has pulled off an astonishing feat, and reviews testify to the power of the simplicity of his writing, but to bypass the censors that still exist, however mild in our liberal times, he has to pass off Mary’s adultery as the entrapment of an innocent. Blake’s Mary, by contrast, has come close to that old, antinomian heresy of knowingly indulging in sin so that she can experience the pleasures of salvation through the forgiveness of sin – a doctrine that is, quite frankly, a dangerous, ranting one and never has found a place in polite society, secular or religious. I think Blake pulls up just short of this doctrine (in that Mary knows she has experienced sin, but is not necessarily wilfully sinful), but every so often when I look at these lines I am not entirely certain…

From what I’ve read, I rather like Pullman’s downtrodden, world-weary Joseph. Blake’s character, by contrast, is full of fury and anger before he, too, experiences the divine salvation that comes from forgiveness. And this, for Blake, is the miracle of the everlasting gospel: Mary is an adulterer, a harlot, and by the law should be stoned to death – yet Joseph takes her in through love. That is the miracle.

Pullman will no doubt attract outrage for his depiction of Christ sleeping with a prostitute (rather than the good man Jesus), but even here Blake goes one further in The Everlasting Gospel:

Was Jesus Chaste or did he
Give any Lessons of Chastity
The morning blushd fiery red
Mary was found in Adulterous bed
Earth groand beneath & Heaven above
Trembled at discovery of Love

Not only does this late text of Blake reiterate the adultery of Mary, but it also implies that Jesus learnt other lessons from his mother. Pullman appears to want to separate the rabbi, the teacher Jesus from the religious hypocrite, Christ, in his secular lesson – a reasonable task, and one with an honourable tradition from Shelley onwards at least. Blake’s divine humanism, by contrast, takes on all aspects – sexuality and sin included – of mankind, making them divine because they are experienced also by that most godly of men, that Jesus who is at the same time Christ, and whose words (as Blake wrote in his annotations to Bishop Watson’s Apology for the Bible), were perverted by the same church that Pullman criticises.

More thoughts on this when I have read the book in its entirety.

Innocent Augur – Patti Smith’s Blake

If there is one thing that is incredibly heartwarming for me, it is the flowering successes of Patti Smith. Her passions for Blake (as well as so many other things – from the French Symbolists to the Beats via Robert Mapplethorpe) is well known, enduring and, on a personal level, extremely touching.

One thing that is particularly marvellous about her career is that it seems to have enjoyed a millennial resurgence. Smith, in my opinion, joins those ranks of women such as Louise Bourgeouis and Georgia O’Keefe who just get better as they get older, and it’s a damn fine sign that she is not being brushed out of sight in her sixties – if anything, is becoming more prolific and more admired. In 1999, a bitchy and thoroughly mean-spirited biography by Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley was published which largely wrote her off as another has-been: the next decade proved them both completely wrong.

Very briefly, her list of accomplishments in the new decade has included various collections of her lyrics (such as Patti Smith Complete, which came out a year after the Bockris/Bayley hatchet job, followed up in 2006 by Complete: Lyrics, Reflections and Notes for the Future), some fine editions of her favourite poets, including a selection of Blake’s published by Vintage in 2007, a book of her 2008 exhibition of photography, Land 250, a much-awaited autobiography of her time with Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, recently published by Bloomsbury and which I haven’t had chance to read yet, and – last but by no means least for this blog – the 2006 collection of original poetry, Auguries of Innocence.

In some ways, though the Bockris/Bayley biography annoyed me immensely, it came at a time when Smith probably was something of a fading shadow. I’m sure I’m not the only young man to have half-fallen in love with the Mapplethorpe portrait of her on Horses – one of the very icons of cool itself, beautiful in all its androgynous perfection – but by the end of the 1990s I must be honest that she had drifted far away from the centres of my perception. In the past ten years, however, something of her true value has been appreciated by writers and film-makers, such as Stephen Sebring, whose 2008 film Dream of Life has attracted critical acclaim recently.

Smith’s influences cannot, and should not, be reduced to Blake – but her tousles and invocations of the Romantic should also never be forgotten. Her recent performance at Union Chapel, London, included a rendition of “My Blakean Year”, from the 2004 album Trampin’:

Brace yourself for bitter flack
For a life sublime
A labyrinth of riches
Never shall unwind
The threads that bind the pilgrim’s sack
Are stitched into the Blakean back
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy will conquer all despair
In my Blakean year

You can read the lyrics in their entirety on her site, pattismith.net, but I shall end here with one of my favourite quotations from her, taken from a 2000 interview for Tate Magazine:

William Burroughs and I used to talk about this [the influence of Blake]. Burroughs was fond of Blake, and it was just so simple to him. He said that Blake just saw what others did not – and that it seemed like a good answer. I mean, Blake was so generous with his angels that even we can look at them now.

Hardcase Crime – John Blake’s lost innocence

Once in a while I encounter some Blakeana that floors me. Mike Goode, in an article from 2006 entitled “Blakespotting”, remarked on the frequently bizarre places that Blake occurs, whether Donald Trump’s library or cookery books, and the novels of the poorly aliased Richard Aleas are a mixture of joy and terror. Part of the Hardcase Crime series, Aleas has written two novels featuring the hardboiled P.I. John Blake.

Blake brings with him all the clichés of a Raymond Chandler novel – or rather, all the imitations of Chandler that are the stock and trade of Hardcase books.  There is plenty of sex and violence, but I haven’t worked out yet, beyond the detective’s name and titles of the book, what exactly these have to do with William Blake. Should I decide to indulge in the pleasures of Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence, then I may be enlightened – though I’m not holding my breath just yet.

The first of the two novels, Little Girl Lost, published in 2004, has Blake on the trail of the murderer of Miranda Sugarman, shot to death on the roof of a strip club when she was meant to be working as an eye doctor. The opening paragraphs are, as they say, a doozy:

Visiting a strip club in the middle of the day is like visiting a well-lit haunted house. The magic, such as it is, is gone. At night, the Sin Factory was probably decked out like a casino, with a flashing marquee and a tuxedoed bouncer checking IDs at the door. Maybe even a velvet rope to make the patrons feel special when they were let in. But at three in the afternoon there was no one at the door, the neon was turned off, and even the beat of the music leaking out into the street sounded sluggish and half-hearted.

Under glass in a frame on the door were photos of this week’s featured performers, Mandy Mountains and Rachel Firestone. In her photo, Mandy was cradling breasts some mad doctor had built for her out of equal measures of silicone and cruelty. Rachel’s photo showed a thin brunette straddling a chair backwards, her bare breasts peeking out between the slats. Judging by their shape, hers had gone under the knife as well, but next to Mandy’s, Rachel’s breasts looked almost modest. Either to keep the cops from complaining or to keep passers-by from getting too much of the show for free, management had stuck tiny silver stars over each woman’s nipples. Along the top of the frame, a printed card announced the dates on which each woman would be appearing. Rachel had more than a week left, but tonight was Mandy’s last night.

In the sequel, Songs of Innocence (2007), Blake is investigating a suicide in New York of Dorothy Louise Burke, an investigation that threatens to blow open the sex trade in New York.

Blake (William, rather than John) is not exactly a new fixture in genre crime writing – indeed, Michael Dibdin’s 1995 novel Dark Spectre has achieved a degree of respect among a few Blake critics, handling as it does some of his literary ideas with considerable aplomb and also dealing with the kind of casual misogyny that appears to exist in Aleas’s novels with much more intelligence. (I say appears because I must be honest and reveal that I’ve only read the sample chapters available from the Hardcase web site.)

While, from the little I’ve seen, Aleas doesn’t exactly give “Chandler a run for his money” as Paramour magazine claims, Kevin Burton Smith’s description of the novel as “classic pulp” is a fair one. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino should convert it into a script and mix it up with some good one liners from The Book of Thel

William Morris and the Art of the Book

After my somewhat relentless focus on contemporary figures who demonstrate the influence of William Blake’s art and/or poetry, the anniversary of the birth of William Morris provides me with an opportunity to explore a different vein. Over the past couple of years, I have found myself increasingly interested in Blake’s Victorian followers, not merely content to leave that field to friends (such as Shirley Dent) who have done a much better job than myself. Indeed, I’m gearing myself up to do some work on Algernon Swinburne, who wrote an exceptional study of Blake in the 1860s.

Morris – artist, designer, writer, socialist – cannot really be said to be one of Blake’s followers, and the fact that while he was often associated with many movements but rarely fully part of them (whether the Socialist League, which he founded but then broke with, or the Pre-Raphaelites), is actually one of the things I like about Morris, and an attitude of independence which I think he shares with Blake.

Obviously his friendship with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brought him into contact with the circle around Alexander Gilchrist that was renovating Blake’s reputation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Morris had little to do – at least in any explicit sense – with this renovation, but Blake’s combination of image and text in the sphere of design had an important effect on Morris’s work (as, indeed, was the case with other designers such as Walter Crane and Charles Rennie Mackintosh). Morris’s relations with W. B. Yeats, another leading exponent of Blake’s art at the turn of the century, has also been noted by academics such as Margaret Rudd and Morton Seiden.

It was with the founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1891 in which something special can be seen of Blake’s line of the art of the book. The 1896 edition of Chaucer, which Morris produced with Burne-Jones, is rightly considered a masterpiece, and it is not my intention in the slightest to diminish the extraordinary effects of works such as this by making any claims that “Blake got there first” (a claim that would, in any case, look ridiculous compared to those marvellous precursors which also affected Morris such as medieval illuminated manuscripts). Rather, like Blake, Morris conceived of the book as a complete work of art, one in which the matter of printing and all elements of production were instrumental in achieving its status as an object of beauty.

Morris’s politics are also equally fascinating to me. His interest in socialism is, of course, well-documented and extremely important, but the 1880s and 1890s was also a period when anarchism often appeared to be the vibrant and truly international movement, and Morris befriended Peter Kropotkin when the Russian anarchist settled near London in the 1880s. Similarly, Engels was rather disgusted at that time by what he saw as Morris’s uncritical support of anarchists in the Socialist League at a period when animosity between Marxists and anarchists was building up after the failure of the First International. Morris was much more consistent and dedicated in his political activity than Blake, but I have always taken pleasure in the fact that old, staid, conservative Albion every so often produces such artists who have such revolutionary fire in their belly.

Zoapod 7: Dreams Unlimited – J. G. Ballard and Blake (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 7. This podcast will concentrate on an author who has actually been a longer (though not as deep) influence on my own life and thought, J. G. Ballard, who died in April 2009. I first began reading Ballard’s science fiction when I was thirteen, around the same time that I first really started to become interested in Surrealism. Although my interest in both was slightly displaced by a love for the Romantics (which I had tried – and failed – to read around the same time), both Ballard and Surrealism were in many ways a primer for my own love of Blake’s writing and art.

2. Ballard’s own fascination with Surrealism influenced his speculative novels, whether those set in almost familiar locales in near future settings, such as Vermilion Sands or The Drowned World, or impossible dreamscapes such as The Crystal World and The Unlimited Dream Company (as well, of course, as absurdist contemporary dramas, of which Crash and Cocaine Nights are the most famous examples). It is in The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) that Ballard comes closest to Blake’s vision of London, having as it does a central character called Blake and loosely following the unfolding lines of Milton a Poem.

3. In Blake’s Milton, the poem begins with Milton unhappy though in heaven who, upon hearing the song of a bard about the struggles between Satan as one of the self-righteous and his brothers Palamabron and Rintrah, leaves Paradise to reclaim the lost female part of himself that he abandoned to enter this restrictive Eden. There he encounters both Blake and the projected, eternal form of Blake, the Prophet Los, and also Satan who he realises is his own shadow. In Ballard’s novel, there is no bardic prophecy in heaven: rather Blake is a psychologically disturbed young man working in a London airport who steals a Cessna airplane and crashes it in Shepperton, the suburb where Ballard lived for most of his adult life. Before providing these details, The Unlimited Dream Company opens with a sacred and profane, mundane and exotic description of the streets that owes much both to the beautiful nightmares of the Surrealists and Blake’s visionary psychogeography of London:

4. Soon there will be too many deserted towns for them to count. Along the Thames valley, all over Europe and the Americas, spreading outwards across Asia and Africa, ten thousand similar suburbs will empty as people gather to make their first man-powered flights. (UDC 9-10).

These lines echo those in Milton, where Ololon says:

5. Where once the Cherubs of Jerusalem spread to Lambeths Vale
Milcahs Pillars shine from Harrow to Hampstead where Hoglah
On Highgates heights magnificent Weaves over trembling Thames
To Shooters Hill and thence to Blackheath the dark Woof! Loud
Loud roll the Weights & Spindles over the whole Earth let down
On all sides round to the Four Quarters of the World, eastward on
Europe to Euphrates & Hindu, to Nile & back in Clouds
Of Death across the Atlantic to America North & South (35.10-17, E135)

6. In Milton, this scene depicts the spread of the druidic death cult across the world, Blake’s code for organised religion and materialist philosophy of his day. Ballard’s infestation of the world is more ambivalent, a return to a rampant, chaotic, psychotically gorgeous proliferation of jewelled nature. Before this can happen, however, his protagonist realises that he cannot leave Shepperton, cannot cross the wasteland that lies between the suburb and London. Attempting to prove his domination, he indulges a sick dream within the city, engorging himself in magical, illusory masculinity that gains power by rape and dreams of rampant fecundity, literally absorbing the inhabitants of the town as he attempts to gain the strength to fly away from the mundane highways and shopping centres.

7. For a time it almost appears that Ballard wishes us to indulge his antihero’s sickness, so compelling is the vivid life-in-death that supplants the monochrome existence of Shepperton’s ordinary inhabitants. He is Luvah-Orc bursting out as a pagan deity, a mixture of Aztec god and Charles Manson. Blake believes that if only he can absorb enough energy he will be able to fly:

8. Alone now in the sky, I moved in huge strides across the air. I had become an archangelic being of enormous power, at last strong enough to make my escape… I needed their young bodies and spirits to give me strength. They would play forever within me, running across the dark meadows of my heart. (UDC 160, 163)

9. For all this apparent energy, however, this superhuman strength, Blake becomes less able to leave than ever. Only slowly he realises that his sadism and violence is not the energy of release, but instead binds him to this hell that continues to sicken him even as it burns more brightly with his own infernal colours. Submitting to the desires of his libido to overturn the repressive super-ego that had beaten him into a poverty of existence in daily life, his apparent sovereignty merely exchanges one master for another. It is only when he recognises his own guilt that he is able to confront and forgive the demon that prevents him leaving this inferno, the skeleton of the dead pilot that lies in the Thames. This struggle echoes that of Milton at the end of the original poem:

10. Satan! my Spectre! I know my power thee to annihilate
And be a greater in thy place, & be thy Tabernacle
A covering for thee to do thy will, till one greater comes
And smites me as I smote thee & becomes my covering.
Such are the Laws of thy false Heavns! but Laws of Eternity
Are not such: know thou: I come to Self Annihilation …
Thy purpose & the purpose of thy Priests & of thy Churches
Is to impress on men the fear of death; to teach
Trembling & fear, terror, constriction; abject selfishness
Mine is to teach Men to despise death & to go on
In fearless majesty annihilating Self, laughing to scorn
Thy Laws & terrors[.] (38.29-42, E139)

11. In The Unlimited Dream Company, Blake is dead, and the corpse he confronts is his own. Unable to cast off the remnants of his former life, clinging to desires of selfhood that have only brought him woe, Ballard’s Blake is a re-reading and transformative salvation of William Blake, having him descend to Shepperton to cast off his own religious righteousness in the same way that the Romantic poet had rewritten the works, philosophy and theology of John Milton.