From the Collection: Blake’s Progress – R. F. Nelson

Quite possibly one of the strangest books that I’ve ever come across – and this from a man who has spent more than half a lifetime poring over Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and The Book of Urizen, R. F. “Ray” Nelson’s Blake’s Progress is a science fiction from 1975 that follows the progress of one William Blake – and, more importantly, his wife Catherine – in their struggle against the time traveller Urizen throughout alternate universes.

While I let that sentence sink in, Radell Faraday Nelson is worthy of attention. Born in 1931 and 86 years young, Nelson began writing and drawing in the 1940s and 1950s. I had jokingly tweeted on first beginning Blake’s Progress that it read like a Philip K. Dick take on Blake – not realising at that point that Nelson’s first novel, The Ganymede Takeover, was written in collaboration with Dick and that he had been with the writer in the last few days before his death in 1982 (which you can read about on his web site). Most famous for the short story that was turned into John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live, Nelson himself considers Blake’s Progress to be his most successful novel.

The book is bizarre but extremely entertaining – and terribly written in parts, which does add to its charm. After a very brief prologue which introduces the League of the Zoa (more on which below), the story proper begins with Catherine Boucher in 1782 as she meets her future husband. It is Kate who is the hero of the novel – not only does it begin and end with her, but Nelson suggests that she was the real talent behind the partnership: as her husband worked on crazy illuminated books that no one wished to read, Catherine produced the more commercially viable prints that kept body and soul together. It is also William who is the husband in distress, saved by his wife when seduced and taken captive by Urizen and Vala.

The relationship between William and Catherine is one of the most fascinating elements of the book – and Bill does not come out of the comparison well. Throughout the novel he is portrayed as sexually repressed, stubborn to the point of stupidity and selfish through and through – a thoroughly Urizenic figure who, it turns out, fathered Urizen on Vala while travelling through time.

Nelson clearly knows a fair amount about both Blake’s works and life, though there are some bizarre gaps (such as his insistence that Blake had to find a new way to print because he didn’t own a printing press). The Four Zoas and The Book of Urizen provide, perhaps, the strongest guides to the plot: Urizen is a member of the League of the Zoa, a group of time travellers, and frustrated with the progress of history he constantly travels backwards in time, attempting to change reality (with Los and the other Zoas constantly seeking to revert the universe to its more usual order). William, through his visions, makes contact with Urizen and passes on the Zoa’s power of time and dimension travel; in one such alternate universe (created when Catherine and Blake sabotage biological weapons that the empire of Albion seeks to use against the Americas – in a twist on the events of America a Prophecy) they encounter Urizen and Vala (who is both Urizen’s mother and William’s lover) leading a race of malevolent serpent people who have replaced humanity.

At its best, the writing has a certain brio but Nelson really can’t do dialogue (William, Catherine and even Urizen converse in an ersatz Mary Poppins-esque “London-ese”), yet the following passage will give a taste of the bizarre settings that, ultimately, could have no other source than in the works of William Blake:

A moment later they turned a corner and came in sight of where they might have expected to look over downtown London. Kate gasped. “Look!”

On the opposite bank of the Thames, towering over the other structures, was William’s giant statue of Urizen, unchanged except that it was no longer stepping on the serpent god of Oothoon.

“He’s done it again,” William groaned, then added, more cheerfully, “But he must have liked my statue to have gone to the trouble of including it in this new reality.”

Blake’s Progress by R. F. Nelson, published by Laser Books, 1975.

 

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.

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.