“A Blakean Year”: 2018 in Review

2018 began in spectacular fashion with the opening of an exhibition at Petworth House in Sussex on January 13. Entitled William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, the exhibition concentrated on Blake’s experiences and art from 1800-1803 when he lived at nearby Felpham, as well as other works subsequently created by him for the Earl and Countess of Egremont who lived at Petworth. It was for Elizabeth Ilive that Blake produced one of his most ambitious works, A Vision of the Last Judgement, which rightly formed the centrepiece of this display of some of his most exceptional paintings and prints.

Other exhibitions from the beginning of the year included Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries at Carnegie Mellon University, where Wilding formerly taught, and demonstrating her multiple influences, including Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf and, of course, William Blake. Also on show from February to April was “Tales of the Unseen”, work by Siggi Ámundason, whose large-scale pen drawings reference William Blake as well as eighties anime, Goya and Francis Bacon.

Musically, the big news at the beginning of 2018 was the announcement of U2’s £xperience + Innocence tour to accompany their 2017 album, Songs of Experience. More affecting to me personally was the death of Mark E. Smith, frontman of post-punk band The Fall, in January, whose life was probably best summed up by the headline “Mark E. Smith Was a Complicated Bastard“. He was also something of a fan of William Blake, demonstrated not least by his cover of “Jerusalem” for the album I Am Kurious Oranj. Other releases in winter and spring included two albums that referenced Blake songs – Shawn Colvin’s The Starlighter, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Englabörn & Variations, including the tracks “Cradle Song” and “Holy Thursday” respectively. There was also, in March, a new version of “Jerusalem” released as Team England’s official anthem for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, as well as the premiere of Daniel Kidane’s Songs of Illumination in April.

Blake-influenced publications in early 2018 included the quite astonishing comic, Her Infernal Descent, which was released in five parts throughout the year. A reinterpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a middle-aged woman is led through hell by Blake as her spirit guide, offering satire and commentary on life in the twenty-first century as well as a rather profound portrayal of loss. This was joined in April by the publication of Polaris Ghost by Eric G. Wilson, a collection of short stories that reference Blake throughout, as well as Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a new collection of prose poems that offered her response to the election of Donald Trump among other things. Julia Fine’s wonderful debut novel, What Should Be Wild, offered Blakean elements of horror and fantasy in the style of an Angela Carter fairy tale.

2018 was, as ever, a busy one for The William Blake Archive, which saw a number of new publications, including new copies of JerusalemUrizen, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, as well as entirely new additions in the form of Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue and his Notebook. The major addition, however, was Vala, or The Four Zoas, which now makes widely available the fragile manuscript of Blake’s most ambitious epic poem.

The middle of the year saw a number of Blakean citations in film and television, not least the Criterion Collection of reissue of Dead Man for blu-ray, which prompted a number of retrospective reviews, such as this at Glide Magazine. Much more controversial was the release of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, a bloody serial killer movie that notes Blake’s “The Tyger” as a model and which, frankly, did not receive great reviews. By contrast, more people were impressed by the fact that season two of Westworld offered multiple quotations from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence as a running theme for its depiction of mankind’s inhumanity to robot. Will Franken’s Red, White & Blake sought to rescue the Romantic poet from bland, liberal academics such as myself, offering a heartfelt plea to return Blake to his position as national writer and artist.

Significant news was Tate Britain’s announcement of a huge forthcoming Blake exhibition, and there was a truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art by Jack Handscombe, a student at Edinburgh College of Art, who produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”. Elsewhere in the arts, a new piece of choreography and music inspired by Blake, entitled Apolión and directed by Jerónimo Búffalo, was performed at the Art Centro de Arte UNLP in Buenos Aires. In London, a new show in London was announced, Wirework (originally written by Daleen Kruger in Afrikaans in 2009 but translated into English this year) at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas, Wirework explores how they created an extraordinary museum, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake.

The biggest event of the summer, however, was the unveiling of a new gravestone, 191 years after his death on the spot where William Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields. At an event promoted by the Blake Society as an apocalypse (or revelation of Blake’s final resting place), crowds far larger than those expected by the organisers gathered to hear Blake enthusiasts offer a celebration of his life and work and to pay their respects to the memory of one of London’s most famous sons.

Celebration of Blake’s life and work was also a reminder of some of the other figures, as well as Mark E. Smith, who had been influenced by Blake in some way and died in 2018. These included Alice Provensen – who lived to the glorious age of 99. For some forty years she had worked with her husband, Martin, on illustrations until his death in 1987, before continuing a solo career into her nineties. Her books included the wonderful A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard.  She was followed shortly afterwards by Bob Dorough who helped Ginsberg set Blake to music and was more famous as the composer of Conjunction Junction. Likewise, the artist and writer Æthelred Eldridge passed away at the age of 88. Æthelred, born James Edward Leonard Eldridge, had served as associate professor of painting at Ohio University from 1957 to 2014, and was directly influenced by Blake. Eldridge, who ran the site Albion Awake, referred to Blake constantly in his art and was even the founder of a Church of William Blake (which, as Roger Whitson tells in his article on Zoamorphosis, burned down in 2001).

As the year turned to autumn, mid September saw a return of the three-day celebration of Blakean arts, Blakefest, which took place on 14th-16th in Bognor Regis. Blakefest has become a fairly regular cultural and artistic festival, with Lene Lovich and a tribute to George Harrison headlining at this year’s event. Other art shows included an exhibition at the Levy Gorky gallery in New York, featuring a selection of works by Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecu and Jaspar Johns. Entitled “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey”, the full show included work by 27 artists and unfolded over three floors in a pattern that was inspired by Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

The autumn also saw publication of one of my personal favourites, the translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Taking its title from one of Blake’s proverbs of hell, the novel was originally written in 2009. Described by Sarah Perry at The Guardian as “an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature”, it is one of the most profoundly Blakean novels ever to have been written.

The year ended with a series of Blake-inspired music: the exemplary pianist, Harriet Stubbs, released her debut album, Heaven and Hell: The Doors of Perception,  which opens with an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”. Composed by John Adams in 1977-8, this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks due to the narration by Marianne Faithful which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This was followed in December with a new musical adaptation of “A Poison Tree” by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. The track is also to be included on their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019. And, just squeezing in before the near year, was Johanna Glaza’s wonderful Albion EP, a setting of parts of Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion to music, which we’ll be reviewing later in 2019.

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.


The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: U Chicago, 2011

Michael Phillips’s beautiful and professionally-bound University of Chicago edition of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell appears to be a cover to cover facsimile of the Bodelian’s copy. I mean “cover to cover” quite literally: the image posted on Amazon and the publisher’s website is a full-color photographic reproduction of a nineteenth-century binding. Upon opening the book you will find a full-color reproduction of the inside cover. The next page — which is a blank page in the original — is again reproduced exactly — so that the cover shows wear marks, and front matter shows ink marks, book stamps, water stains, and all.

This edition, then, is an exact reproduction of Copy B of Blake’s Marriage from cover to cover, with the addition of Phillips’s extensive introduction, textual transcription, notes, commentary, a checklist of copies, and bibliography. There’s simply nothing quite like it; not even the edition published by the William Blake Trust for the Illuminated Books series. Owning this book is as close to owning an original copy of the Marriage as possible.

The William Blake Archive does reproduce Copy B of the Marriage with a textual transcription, so that you can preview the specific contents of the reproductions in Phillips’s edition there. This edition, however — being a full, cover to cover reproduction of the book owned by the Bodelian — includes some additional images that are not part of the same sequence of images available on the Blake archive website, though these are available elsewhere on the site. These additional images include reproductions from nine copies of what is Plate 14 in the Bodelian copy with alternate copies of a few other plates such as “A Song of Liberty” and one of the memorable fancies, in addition to a copy of “Our End is Come” preceding the text of Marriage. More details about Copy B are available on the William Blake Archive website.

Overall, this edition of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell is well worth the price and a good purchase even if you already own the William Blake Trust’s edition, both for its originality of presentation and for Phillips’s notes and commentary. This volume may represent the future for reproductions of Blake’s works: professional, full-color facsimile editions of each individual copy.

James Rovira – Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety

Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety. James Rovira. Continuum, 2010. pp. 184 + ix. £60. ISBN: 978-1-4411-3559-9.

As James Rovira explains in the introduction to his book, despite the widespread dissemination of Søren Kierkegaard’s concepts in the early twentieth century, full-scale applications of those concepts to Blake remain relatively rare. What is surprising about this is that Kierkegaard was an important link between Harold Bloom’s and Northrop Frye’s theories of influence and their work on Blake, yet aside from a small number of essays the only book-length study of Blake and Kierkegaard is Lorraine Clark’s Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic, published in 1991. Rovira suggests that widespread disillusionment with the religious contexts within which Kierkegaard worked is one reason why this philosopher, whose ideas are so fruitful to a study of Blake, has been widely overlooked; in any case, the various transformations that have taken place in discourses around religion in the public sphere in the intervening two decades since the appearance of Clark’s book mean that a re-evaluation of the relation between Blake and Kierkegaard is a timely one. Rovira may be seen to complement Clark in some ways, dealing as he does with texts prior to 1800 rather than after that date, and he concentrates less on the process of dialectic rather than the reasons why, in both Blake and Kierkegaard, acts of creation may generate a sense of anxiety within the self that is not adequately explained by current post-structuralist and deconstructionist theories.

This said, Rovira is somewhat more extensive than Clark in his treatment of both Blake and Kierkegaard. The opening chapter is generally excellent in providing information about the historical contexts in which both figures worked – my one proviso being that sometimes Rovira’s more emphatic statements about similarities between Denmark in the 1830s and 40s and Britain under a constitutional monarchy in the 1760s appear occasionally to make claims that, to me, would apply to many countries in western Europe and the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. Part of my response, however, is due also to the fact that my own knowledge of Denmark at the time is poor and so, while attempts to provide a link between Blake and Kierkegaard in terms of the socio-political environments within which they both worked reads to me as occasional special pleading, I did enjoy and appreciate greatly Rovira’s treatment of Kierkegaard’s background. This provides some extremely useful insights into how his writings were produced and how they may be read by later generations of readers.

When turning to shared intellectual contexts, any sense of special pleading disappears completely: instead, by tracing Socratic and classical models of human personality, Rovira indicates thoroughly and clearly what Blake and Kierkegaard shared in terms of a philosophical heritage which formed both the points of origin and catalysts for reaction in each of their profoundly religious critiques of what it means to be human. Rovira notes how Kierkegaard came to the Socratic tradition via the German Romantics, a development which means that “[i]rony is not a mere trope in Kierkegaard’s thinking but, at least potentially, an existential stance.” (p.39) Socratic irony allows space for an existential self, and Rovira’s reading of the development of a dialectical author through Kierkegaard’s various philosophical texts is fascinating, emphasising as it does a deep critical and masterly engagement with existential doubt via pseudonymous authors such as Haufniensis and Anti-Climacus. Rovira follows this with a suitably thoughtful examination of Blake’s often complex relation to and use of Plato – sometimes demonstrating affinities to Platonic idealistic thought, as in his letter to Trusler in 1799, at other times ambivalent towards Plato. As Blake’s “world of ideal forms is a visceral one” (p.49), so Rovira suggests it is better to consider him as working in a tradition or genre of “apocalyptic” rather than “Platonic” idealism. This is an obvious enough point in many ways, but important in that Rovira follows it through that too often neglected tradition of religious thought from Augustine and Origen via Erasmus that allows Blake to be critical of the literal and scriptural materialisms of both the Thomas Paines and Bishop Watsons of his day.

This ties very neatly into Rovira’s account of classical models of personality that flourished in both Blake’s and Kierkegaard’s day, which in chapter three are related to the dialectical process in Kierkegaard’s transition from aesthetic to ethical personalities, as well as the movement in Blake from innocence to experience. This dynamic relation within the self, one of the clearest and most fruitful points of contact between both writers, also shares some features with Clark’s work, although Rovira provides a much fuller context for a study of Blake as he emphasises the movement between innocence and experience in Blake’s early works of the late 1780s and early 1790s. Within the third chapter are some particularly effective interpretations of the Songs, The Book of Thel, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion in particular, with Rovira indicating that rather than a standard path of progression from innocence to experience to higher, or organised innocence, we should instead the developmental process as “differentiations within innocence itself that are not usually registered within innocence” (p.71). Kierkegaard’s own model was the development of a bodily-oriented subject in the aesthetic stage, followed by a soul-oriented ethical stage, with a final spirit-oriented religious subject. Coyness – or, indeed, antagonism – among many secular critics about this spirit-oriented, religious subjectivity, tends to mean that those critics tend to ignore the joyous paradox that the self discovers its own eternal sense precisely at the moment that it annihilates self. Rovira is completely right to focus on this religious experience, too often brushed aside, as corresponding to Blake’s sense of visionary consciousness: as such, both Blake and Kierkegaard were able to “confront Enlightenment psychologies that mechanize human beings” (p.92), emphasising instead a break with immanence and environment that enables creation instead of reaction.

These contextual accounts take up more half of the book, and the final two chapters are given over to a reading of the problematic of generation more generally in Blake and Kierkegaard, followed by a detailed consideration of creation anxiety in The [First] Book of Urizen. As Rovira observes, in classical models procreation serves as the foundation for all future acts of creativity (and out of this creation anxiety arising from the attempt to create life and form outside of natural processes). In the first part of chapter 4, Rovira draws fairly extensively on Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety (written under the pseudonym Haufniensis) to help explain some of the dialectical processes at work in Blake’s concept of “Generation”, suggesting that both writers share a common concern with the relations of procreation and the fall of man that were relatively widespread throughout Christian Europe, if rarely dealt with as imaginatively as by these two writers. His summary of Blake’s concept as at work in Visions of the Daughter of Albion is particularly worth repeating:

These are the principle elements of Blake’s critique of fallen generation: it divides the self; it alienates feminine, sensual joy through both male aggression and male introversion; and it alienates both of these from each other, so that male sexuality finds its only expression through the aggressive impulse signified by Bromion. (p.112)

Sexual procreation is the model for all human creativity as understood by Blake and Kierkegaard, but it is the figure of Urizen, argues Rovira in his final chapter, that the full extent of creation anxiety as exhibiting tensions “between monarchy and democracy, science and religion, and nature and artifice” (p.121) finds its fullest expression. Again, Rovira particularly draws upon The Concept of Anxiety to help explain this demon-creator, but he also makes some interesting asides (for example via gnostic traditions) that also include some particularly telling criticisms of other commentators on Blake: a notable example of this is the tendency of Blake critics to see an attack on the Anglican church as an attack on all Christianity, defined as a somewhat generic “traditional” or “orthodox” Christianity. Rovira is quite correct to draw attention to the vagueness of such dismissals, although his discussion of Blake’s religious beliefs in terms of such things as Gnosticism would have benefited from further consideration of the discovery in recent years by biographical discoveries that place Blake’s mother in a Moravian tradition. Rovira is on more certain ground when dealing with the tensions between science and religion in the Urizen books, and I particularly enjoyed his readings of Urizen as the pre-eminent demonic character in Blake’s poetry (a position usually – though not always – reserved for Orc). Again, Haufniensis/Kierkegaard is the most pertinent text here, explaining the “misrelation to eternity” developed through the concept of spiritlessness, the “neither guilty nor not guilty” that operates as a “talking machine”. Ironically, this is a state without anxiety for the spiritless who may even then appear happy. “As a result,” observes Rovira, in a telling final few pages, “it is political and religious life, spiritlessness ‘is a perfect idol worshipper…’ Revivalists, kings, dictators, populist presidents, and fascists find their political fields ripe for harvest in a culture of spiritlessness.” (p.140)

Rovira’s book is an involved but extremely rewarding book, one that delves fully into the complex and sophisticated dialectical processes involved in Kierkegaard’s thought . There are two minor points where I take slight issue with Blake and Kierkegaard, both of them involving contextual materials. One of these, in terms of Denmark’s social and political history may be entirely due to my own lack of knowledge, though the other, regarding the Moravian contexts of Blake’s religious thought does require discussion in such texts that deal with Blake’s theological concerns. However, what Rovira does with incredible dedication and perspicacity is to trace through a discourse of profound spiritual and religious attention that does not easily sit well with many current frameworks for discussing Blake’s work, largely due to the fact that we tend to over-secularise and simplify the Christian doctrines within which writers such as Blake and Kierkegaard worked. Rovira’s reading of Urizen the “Creator-Monarch”, dictatorial in his act of fallen generation precisely because he refuses to consider the spiritual engagement of creation that is both the source and recompense of anxiety, is masterful while Blake and Kierkegaard as a whole is a carefully thought-through and argued text.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnus Ankarsjö – William Blake and Religion

William Blake and Religion: A New Critical View. Magnus Ankarsjö
Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland and Company, 2009. pp. 163. $39.95. ISBN: 978 0 7864 4559 2.

The second book by Ankarsjö to be published by McFarland, William Blake and Religion shares some themes with his earlier title, William Blake and Gender (2006) in that one of the aims of this book is to take recent discoveries about the religious background of Blake’s family and explore these in relation to his views on sexuality. Most important for  Ankarsjö’s ideas is the work undertaken by Marsha Keith Schuchard in Why Mrs Blake Cried (2006) and various essays by Keri Davies that have uncovered links between Blake’s mother and the Moravian church. The Moravians, a religious group that had its roots in the followers of John Hus in fifteenth century Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic), experienced a religious revival in the eighteenth century under the charismatic leadership of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf during which period they encouraged greater equality between the sexes in comparison to most religious movements of the time, and established a small but devoted church. In addition to the research of Schuchard and Davies (to which may be added Robert Rix’s re-evaluation of Blake’s relations to the various religious sects of his day in William Blake and the Cultures of Radical Christianity, 2007), the most important figures to William Blake and Religion are David Worrall, who cast fresh light into the activities undertaken by Swedenborgians at the end of the eighteenth century, and Helen Bruder because of her re-evaluation of Blake and gender studies in her extremely influential and important book, William Blake and the Daughters of Albion (1997).

Ankarsjö sets out these foundational figures in his introduction, as well as providing a brief detour via one dead end of Blake studies that occasionally rears its head (though not with academics working in the field), the late E.P. Thompson’s assertion that Blake was a Muggletonian in his 1993 book, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. Dealing with Thompson briskly, Ankarsjö’s task is to focus instead on the effect that newly discovered materials relating to Moravianism will have on our understanding of Blake. As such, with particular emphasis on both religion and sexuality, William Blake and Religion is probably one of the first of what is likely to be a growing number of texts that will explore the intersection between Blake and the Moravian Church. In addition, in his first and best chapter, Ankarsjö also pays attention to the continuing influence of Swedenborgianism, the teachings and church established by the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg who claimed constant and visionary experiences of the spiritual world, throughout the 1790s (which many – though by no means all – of Blake scholars assume the artist had turned his back on after publication of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), as well as a more prickly relationship with Unitarianism, which influenced a number of his contemporaries that Blake would have encountered via the circle gathered around the publisher Joseph Johnson. Ankarsjö is clear and convincing when outlining these religious contexts, and makes some extremely interesting and relevant observations, for example in his repetition of Keri Davies’s comment at the Blake 250 conference in 2007 that the position of Moravianism as neither dissenting from, nor wholly within, the mainstream Anglican church means that we shall probably have to revise many oft-repeated (and dearly held) assumptions about the dissenting radicalism of Blake’s background.

This chapter is by far and away the best in the book, but some problems emerge when dealing with the next two chapters, “Blake’s Religion” and “Blake’s Sexuality”. Part of the difficulty emerges with the step that sometimes appears to be made once the Moravianism of Blake’s background is recognised: it seems very clear that Blake’s mother was a Moravian, and also that Blake’s parents attended a Moravian church. As such, it is extremely probable that Blake grew up in a household that was infused with Moravian values. However, to follow this to the conclusion that Blake himself was a Moravian, or strongly influenced by Moravian ideas, is much more problematic. Keri Davies is always careful when drawing such conclusions – much more so than Schuchard, in my opinion – but Ankarsjö to me appears to dither and this sometimes creates problems with understanding entirely what the relationship with Moravianism brings. Some sections, for example when dealing with notions of conjugal (or conjugial, in Swedenborg’s phrase) love appear to be very profitable when explaining Blake’s own attitudes towards religion, but the chapter “Blake’s Religion” as a whole ends up somewhat confusing: it is hard, in the end, to pin down what Blake’s religion was. This is due to two reasons, one of which I think is a fault with Ankarsjö approach to his subject, one of which is much more general.

First of all, Ankarsjö tends to cherry-pick texts, looking for ones that may reinforce his approach to Moravianism in particular but also that Blake continued to look towards Swedenborgianism. This, for me, is extremely unsatisfactory because some of Blake’s most profound and extensive documents dealing with religion, such as the late epic Jerusalem or The Everlasting Gospel, offer complexities which could easily deny the more straightforward application of Ankarsjö’s thesis. This leads to the more general point: few other English writers (or, indeed, artists) spent more time than Blake in dealing with the topic of religion and the divine, but any attempt to pin down Blake in terms of a particular sect appears to me doomed to failure because of the idiosyncracies of Blake’s spiritual vision, his fairly consistent refusal to participate in a church (unless, perhaps, it is because as Keri Davies has suggested the Anglican Church was, in the end, broad enough to encompass his vision). I emphasise here the idiosyncracy of Blake’s religious views rather than the Romantic “eccentricity” which Ankarsjö rightly dismisses in his introduction: Blake was a deep and profound thinker on religious topics, not least in that he perceived the fundamental problems of attempting to fix experiences of the divine within human structures, systems against which he always struggled. In the end, my problem with this part of William Blake and Religion results from a degree of confusion as to whether Ankarsjö is proposing what we may call a “strong” theory of Blake and Moravianism, where that religion helps to explain more or less completely the framework of Blake’s belief – the evidence for which I find rather hard to accept; or whether he is working towards a “weak” theory, in which Blake’s Moravian background predisposes him towards a number of tenets and attitudes, for example with regard to ecumenicism and sexual love, which – by contrast – does appear extremely enlightening for me.

Although I found myself somewhat confused as to Ankarsjö’s aims in the chapter on Blake’s religion, a more serious flaw is to be encountered in his chapter on Blake’s sexuality. Before turning to this flaw, it is right to remark on where Ankarsjö’s comments are illuminating, for example in reinforcing the attitudes towards “free love” that were developing both among Blake’s radical associates of the eighteenth century and “conjugal love” that existed in the Moravian Church and Swedenborgianism.William Blake and Religion has much to say that is useful in this regard, although again the tendency to jump between different Blakean texts can be confusing. However, where the flaw exists is that Ankarsjö’s apparent desire to claim Blake as a proto-feminist can be rather unsophisticated and extremely problematic. The repeated assertions by Anne Mellor as to Blake’s intrinsic sexism is a coarse and unhelpful position, one which Helen Bruder in particular has treated to appropriate criticism (and which has also been aided by more work by scholars such as Davies into Blake’s early female collectors). However, Bruder maintains a healthily caustic attitude to Blake’s sexual politics which seems largely to vanish in William Blake and Religion. Ankarsjö’s desire to read white where others read black leads him, in my opinion, into some rather bizarre interpretations.

For example, in a comment that actually appears in the chapter “Blake’s Religion”, Ankarsjö makes the following observation of Blake’s comment in his description of the painting “The Last Judgement” that “There is no such thing in Eternity as a Female Will”:

First, it has to be pointed out that Blake here is strictly following the creation myth from Genesis, which clearly was in line with his increasing interest in the Bible and traditional Christianity at this point in time. In Genesis, as we know, woman was created from a body part of man in order to be his life companion. If we, as Blake, follow the analogy through to the other extreme, as it were, then man and woman are reunited and are as one. Hence, as much as man has no will of his own in eternity, neither has woman. Quite simply, separate and individual wills do not exist. (p.66)

To place Blake’s thought in a biblical tradition is perfectly correct, and it may also be right that Blake did not believe in the existence of separate female or male wills (and Ankarsjö’s remarks on the role of the Spectre in Blake’s writings as a ravenous, separate male will are also appropriate here). However, there remains a problem for me in Blake’s remark that the rush to embrace him as a proto-feminist fails to encompass sufficiently: even if Blake does not believe in a separate male will in eternity, he offers no denunciation of it that is comparable to his denunciation of the female. The rejection of a separate male will remains, unfortunately, implicit throughout too much of his writing, while the renunciation of female will is, equally unfortunately, far too explicit at times. More simply, Blake may not be a sexist, but sometimes his rhetoric comes very close to reinforcing sexist stereotypes; there are blind spots which we should not neglect. As such, like Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, I am less keen to smooth over some of the sexual ambiguities in Blake’s works while accepting, like those critics and Ankarsjö himself that denunciations of “sexist” Blake have been based on rather crude interpretations of the sexual politics of his poetry.

Ankarsjö’s final chapter, on “Blake’s Utopian ‘Colony'” offers an interesting discussion of slavery that owes much to the work of David Worrall. Ankarsjö’s contribution is to offer a critical reading of some of Worrall’s arguments, in particular the almost entirely negative interpretation of the proposed Swedenborgian colony in Sierre Leone in terms of its gender equality, so that Ankarsjö discovers more sympathy to proto-feminist arguments among the Swedenborgians than Worrall does – though in the end he agrees that it was a largely patriarchal exercise. In addition, he offers some significant comments on similar utopian colonies from the time, such as those by Unitarians. Where the chapter is on more shaky ground is in assuming that the conference attended by Blake in 1789, and where a colony in Sierre Leone would have been under discussion, still continues to influence Blake’s work on his final epics, Milton and Jerusalem after 1808; indeed, the chapter ends unsatisfactorily with a rather cursory pointer towards Blake’s attitudes on slavery that would surely have benefited from contextualisation in the evangelical fervour surrounding the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

William Blake and Religion offers some valuable contributions and summaries of contemporary arguments surrounding Blake’s Moravian background. When discussing the interrelation of Moravianism with Swedenborgianism and even Unitarianism, it is clear and eminently useful as a guide. The book is more confused, unfortunately, as to offering an account of Blake’s religion, probably because it strives a little too hard to map out the influence of Moravianism throughout Blake’s work which, in my opinion, tends to distort sometimes what Blake had to say on the subject. In the light of current research it is clear that Blake must have been marked by Moravianism – and yet the implied move to read Blake as a Moravian appears unsatisfactory at times in discussing Blake’s own thoughts on religion and the divine.

Print as Social Media: The William Blake Birthday Book

I was recently sent a copy of this delightful book by Felicity Bowers. Rather than provide a straightforward review I have decided to write about it in a slightly different format – partly because of the date of publication (2007) but also because, while reading it, several other thoughts on a broader theme became apparent to me.

The Birthday Book was published to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth and launched with an exhibition, “All that we See is Vision”, in November of that year at the House of William Blake in South Molton Street, where Blake lived in the early nineteenth century. The book also grew out of a long-established group, the William Blake Congregation, which was set up in 1986 by Simon Miles and which meets every year at Tate Britain to celebrate Blake’s birth. As such, the editors sent out invitations to artists and poets influenced by Blake who in turn spread the word to others, submissions then being brought together to produce the final book.

The result is a collection of 61 poems and illustrations printed in colour and taking Blake, directly or obliquely, as a source of inspiration. By and large images and poems alternate throughout the book, with plenty of pages combining both in a manner befitting Blake’s own method of production (and demonstrating just how much easier his task would have been had he lived and worked in the age of digital reproduction). Contributors include several famous figures, such as Adrian Mitchell, Michael Horovitz and Chris Orr, as well as plenty of others who may or may not be enthusiastic amateurs (or, at least, unknown to me). This is by no means a criticism of the project, as opening up Blake to the widest possible audience is of especial interest to me.

With regard to the images and poems themselves, the quality of such a collection is variable – as one would expect of a medley such as this – and the same is true of style, media and presentation. Some particularly attracted my attention: Jan Martin’s elegant, minimalist linocut, “Heaven in a Wild Flower”, is graceful and delicate, inviting the viewer to consider Blake’s imaginative infinity in the spaces bounded by a firm line; Roger Wagner’s untitled woodcut is reminiscent of Blake’s designs for Thornton’s Virgil and his watercolour “Albion Rose”, as well as alluding to elements of the fourfold vision in The Four Zoas and Jerusalem; Partou Zia’s painting, also untitled, depicting a woman painting in a book beneath a tree, was especially poignant for me, as I had met Partou – an Iranian born artist who had lived in Newlyn since 1993 – several times before her early death in 2008.

The contributions tend to be divided between those that reinterpret a particular text or motif from Blake – such as Brian Catling’s “Blake – The Flea”, Karen Camp’s “from Songs of Innocence – Night”, and Michael Chaitow’s “Energy is Eternal Delight” – and those that use Blake as a starting point for original compositions that echo Blakean themes and styles, or aspects of his biography, rather than specific minute particulars, such as Horovitz’s “Footnotes to Blake” or interFerence’s “To Whom It May Concern.”

The thoughts roused in me when reading through The William Blake Birthday Book were most intriguing in dealing with the social feeling that runs throughout the book. Social media may be a buzzword when dealing with online and digital platforms, but everything about this printed book – from its conception to the delicious jumble decoherent responses – points to how other formats may be social media. In particular, considering the conversations inspired throughout the pages of this little book, the editor’s acknowledgement of thanks to “all the artists and poets who responded with enthusiasm at short notice and accommodated our strange request to use handwriting in the age of email and to work at the same size as the printed image in the age of photography and digital scanning” is a tribute to the aspirations of this (itself delightfully strange) work inspired by one who described himself as “very much delighted with being in good Company.”

The William Blake Birthday Book is available from www.williamblakecongregation.co.uk. For more information on the Blake Congregation, including its next meeting at Tate Britain, visit williamblakecongregation.wordpress.com.

Alice Thompson – The Existential Detective

The Existential Detective. Alice Thompson
Two Ravens Press, 2010. pp. 166. £9.99. ISBN: 978-1806120511.

This is the fifth novel by Alice Thompson, a writer I have not encountered before (although I did once own The Woodentops debut album – Thompson was keyboard player in that group). The Existential Detective is a crime novel in which private investigator William Blake is hired to find a missing woman. The title of the novel, the fact that the main protagonist is named after Blake, and even the front cover – Giorgio de Chirico’s The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street – led me to expect a very different novel to that provided by Thompson. Instead of the abstract, perhaps surrealistic and philosophical novel that I had anticipated reading, this is a rather grim, more hard-boiled book dealing with prostitution, voyeurism and paedophilia in the Edinburgh seaside resort of Portobello. It’s not as downbeat as, say, Derek Raymond’s I Was Dora Suarez, but it is very far from the magical realist style of novels that normally invoke Blake, or even the slightly academic approach if somewhat grittier approach of Michael Dibdin’s 1995 crime novel, Dark Spectre.

So thoroughly were my expectations trounced that, on first reading, I found this novel extremely dissatisfying – although, aware that this was based on the strong initial bias on my part I reread it almost immediately and was more rewarded by Thompson’s thoughtful and dark explorations of desire in a small Scottish town. The novel begins with Blake called in to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, Louise Verver, an amnesiac who has married into a rich family. Discovering that she had recently begun to recover certain memories before her disappearance, as well as the fact that a local prostitute has attempted to blackmail her husband, Blake’s search takes him through brothels and nightclubs, leading him inevitably to perverse secrets hidden away from daily life in this small resort. At the same time, the investigation brings him once more into contact with his divorced wife, Olivia, and revives his own memories of their missing daughter.

An initial disconnect with me was the relevance of naming the protagonist William Blake. It is not that the name is insignificant – Blake’s “The Sick Rose” is cited at one point, while his ex-wife is writing a paper entitled Innocence and Experience in Eighteenth-Century Paintings of Children. Nonetheless, on my first reading I found myself far too concerned with the notion of whether the character of William Blake was offering some form of critique of the poet Blake (as, for example, in J. G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company) or operated in ignorance of any possible relation, a mere coincidence of names used to ironic effect (as in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man). Reading a second time, and not paying so much attention to “Will Blake” – as he prefers to define himself – enabled me to concentrate more of the features of the book itself. The final denouement is a little flat after preceding events, and on both occasions I found the intrigues around prostitution dispiriting, but this is precisely the point. Thompson’s spare writing style is elegant and controlled, with the unfolding psychology of Blake (whether Will or William) compelling.

Other reviewers have compared the novel to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and in unravelling the disintegration of a marriage following the disappearance of a child the comparison is an apposite one. Claims that it subverts the crime genre through surrealist touches, however, are too slight in my opinion to be sustained. The novel works better when viewed as a more conventional generic crime novel, though one that fits with a generation of crime writers such as Dibdin and Ian Rankin. Where Thompson does allow magical-realist moments to emerge (as in the style of Angela Carter, perhaps), the effect is less satisfying, as when Louise mysteriously turns up in a café with a copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience which Blake picks up to read:

But as he read, the words kept disappearing until he was left with a blank page. He flicked through the rest of the book; all the pages were now blank. Only the title and author’s name on the front remained. He staggered out of the café, leaving the book on the table, and collapsed onto the pavement outside. (54)

This section can still be read in realist mode (Blake is subject to fits and this records his experiences of the scene), but the tendency in passages such as this was for me to read them as fairly heavy-handed symbolism for the content of the novel, with themes of memory and amnesia.

Where Blake’s presence does come alive in the novel, both as character in its pages and as a reference to the engraver and poet, is in the various sections of The Existential Detective that deal with desire:

There was something about depression, he thought, that if you were lucky enough to come out the other end, made you a kind of visionary – like drugs, it was mind-altering. It seemed to give another dimension to reality, a fuller version of it, as if previously the world had seemed a theatrical stage-show of colour. It forged you.

Desire returned with a vengeance, a ferocity. An abstract desire connected to pornography, rather than feeling. Most people lived life in disguise, concealing their own wants so as not to seem greedy. But we were all greedy in the end, greedy for different things. It was part of our humanity.

He was powerless over his desire. He would drive down to Leith harbour where he would see the prostitutes walking up and down the streets, some looking as young as twelve in the semi-darkness, their faces always turning towards the light of a car like moths towards a flame. (44)

The William (as opposed to Will) Blake invoked here is the author of the verse, “In a wife I would desire / What in whores is always found / The lineaments of Gratified desire” (E474), as well as the observer of the youthful harlots whose curse spread as a plague through London in the 1790s. Assuming that Will Blake is a comment on William, then the figure invoked in The Existential Detective is one both aware of the potential destructiveness as well as brilliance of his desire, a part of humanity that if ignored or controlled leads to the callous inhumanity of the cool, intellectual villain of Thompson’s novel, as well as the neglectful, dreary locale of the pub-cum-brothel, the Milton (a nod, of course, to not dissimilar themes in Blake’s epic poem).

I remain unconvinced by the neatness of the ending of The Existential Detective (though this is a personal foible with many crime novels, and I am far from the perfect audience for them). I did however, enjoy the subtlety with which all-too-male William Blake is supplanted in his investigations by two women who are, ultimately, much more effective than him. Thompson’s prose is also a great pleasure to read and if her visionary flights are not quite visionary enough for me, as a serious-minded contemplation of the routes of desire and how they affect our own perceptions this is a potent and effective novel.

The “Priest” they called him: Burroughs and Blake

Today is the anniversary of the death of William S. Burroughs II, one of the major writers of the Beat Generation. Burroughs was, of course, famous for his novel, Naked Lunch, written while he was living in Tangier and published in 1959. As Ted Morgan observes in Literary Outlaw, this was the book, along with Ginsberg’s Howl, that ended literary censorship in America. That novel alone was enough to have earned Burroughs notoriety, without the accidental killing of his wife Joan Vollmer in a drunken game of “William Tell” in 1951, his later coming out as a homosexual and his addiction to heroin.

Although his appreciation of Blake was by no means as overt as that of Ginsberg, Burroughs frequently referred to Blake as a precursor of his mythographic and cut up style. As Patti Smith recalled after his death:

William Burroughs and I used to talk about this. 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. (Cited in Radical Blake, p.136)

Tony Tanner has compared Burroughs’ attempts to create “a mythology appropriate to the new age and environment” to the work of Blake. Of this mythology, Burroughs was to explain:

Heaven and hell exist in my mythology. Hell consists of falling into enemy hands, into the hands of the virus power, and heaven consists of freeing oneself from this power, of achieving inner freedom, freedom from conditioning. I may add that none of the characters in my mythology are free. If they were free they would not still be in the mythological system, that is, in the cycle of conditioning.

The attempt to counter these systems of conditioning were most clearly seen in The Naked Lunch and his works of the 1960s such as The Soft Machine (1961) and Nova Express (1965), but it is in his final trilogy, Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1984) and The Western Lands (1987) that his mythological system can be described as its most Blakean – and which, as a result, are my favourite novels. As Angela Carter remarked of these texts in her collection Expletives Deleted (1993), Burroughs’ “project” was:

to make time stand still for a while, and there are ways in which Burroughs’ work indeed resembles that of another William, the Blake of the self-crafted mythology of the Prophetic Books, although it must be said that Burroughs is much funnier. (Carter 41)

A typical piece of provocation on Carter’s part, who – especially in her later years – tended to read Blake in a more po-faced manner than the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell deserved, nonetheless she hits upon the key connection between Blake and Burroughs, that we must create our own systems or be enslaved by those of others.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Burroughs had supported his addiction by publishing a number of books and essays, as well as developing his own style as a literary performer. By the end of the 1970s, indeed, he had become a significant member of the American avant garde – so much so that in 1984 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and, by the time of his death in 1997, was as much an establishment novelist of the United States as could be hoped on the part of a deliberately queer ex-junkie with a taste in extremist styles.

City of Imagination: Kathleen Raine

Today is the anniversary of the death of Kathleen Raine, poet and Blake scholar, who won a number of prizes for her works (including a CBE in 2000) and continued to write a significant number of books until just before her death, a revised version of her Collected Poems appearing in 2000.

Raine (1908-2003) was raised in Northumberland, an experience related in the first volume of her Autobiographies, Farewell Happy Fields, and Ilford, Essex, before going onto study at Girton College, Cambridge. Her experience there was not entirely happy and, with a series of failed marriages and unrequited love affairs, she returned to the paganism of her childhood, for which the models were W. B. Yeats, Edwin Muir and William Blake. In 1980 she founded the journal Temenos, followed later by the Temenos Academy in 1990, focusing on the role of spirituality. At the time of her death, she was living in London.

The influence of Blake is most obvious in Raine’s critical work, notably the two-volume study, Blake and Tradition (1968), but also shorter studies and essays including Golgonooza, City of Imagination (1991), but Blake was also important to Raine’s creative work. For example in the second volume of her autobiography, The Land Unknown (1975) she described how Bertha Yeats confirmed her view of Blake as “a supreme teacher within an age-old tradition as that to which Yeats had also come” (Autobiographies 257-8).

This view of Blake as an esoteric, even occult, teacher was very much in evidence in Blake and Tradition, which traced a hidden tradition from the mythical work of Hermes Trismegistus through the works of Plato and the Enneads of Plotinus to the English Neoplatonist Thomas Taylor and hence to Blake. She was also one of the first critics to credit Blake’s development of Songs of Innocence to the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft and, in poems such as ‘Book of Hours’ or the journal Temenos, demonstrated repeatedly her particular debt to Yeats and Blake.

W. C. Bamberger: On the Backstretch

On the Backstretch. W. C. Bamberger
Livingstone Alabama: Livingstone Press, 2009. pp. 102. $15.95. ISBN: 978 1 60489 042 6.

In 1944, Joyce Cary published The Horse’s Mouth, third in a trilogy of novels that included Herself Surprised (1941) and To Be a Pilgrim (1942). Dealing with the trials and (usually self-inflicted) tribulations of an artist, Gulley Jimson, this comical novel was also made into a film of the same title starring Alec Guinness as Jimson in 1958. The book has, very unfortunately, been out of print for some time – unfortunately because, as Edward Larrissy points out in Blake and Modern Literature (2006), “The Horse’s Mouth is possibly the most Blakean literary work in the language”. Regardless of the extensive allusions and citations of Blake, Cary’s novel is well-worth reading in its own right as a study of an incorrigible artistic temperament written in a rich, slangy language. The film plays up the slapstick elements (and downplays Blake) a little too much to make it one of my favourites, but it remains an intensely enjoyable screen version.

All this serves as a prologue – but a necessary one – to Bamberger’s novel which was published in December 2009. Cary’s original work begins with Jimson having just been released from prison and Bamberger takes this incarceration during 1938-9 as the premise for his own book. This is the second novel by Bamberger, whose other work includes studies of William Eastlake and Kenward Elmslie, and it reads more as a novella than full-blown novel: although the publishers claim that it stands on its own, most readers will probably (and quite rightly) be attracted to it because of familiarity with The Horse’s Mouth.

The events of On the Backstretchtake place over a few weeks in an unspecified prison where Bamberger has been sent for stealing from a collector, Hickson. Aside from Jimson himself, a grubbing artist who combines sardonic delight in his own failures with a passionate desire to paint and occasional flashes of generosity of spirit to those around him, the characters of Joyce’s novel play no part in On the Backstretch other than to sketch out background colour to Jimson’s history. Rather, his primary dealings are with two new characters: Milt, a maths school teacher imprisoned for throwing one of his pupils, the son of the woman he loves, out of a window, and Heyley, chaplain of the gaol who takes a neglectfully benevolent interest in the dissolute artist and commissions him to produce engravings for the chapel.

These two figures are drawn, unsurprisingly, from Milton and William Hayley (indeed, Heyley is misspelt with an “a” at one point), and the structure for Bamberger’s novel is very loosely based on Blake’s Milton a Poem and some aspects of Blake’s life. As Jimson remarks:

Blake, poet and engraver without peer, was himself once in danger of going to prison. The world has always been kind to the dreamers among us, stopping them from drifting away by chaining their legs if need be. Blake was on a longer tether than most, his high holy air taking him well above the plainchant of 3 Fountain Court. ‘Twas his wife Catherine’s wide hips that moored him, would be my wager. (5)

Bamberger does a good job of catching something of Cary’s style (Betjamin described him as a “Lord of Language”), and if it is not always pitch perfect it is, perhaps, because the difficulty of crafting a careful and respectful pastiche towards a writer whose subject is the dissolute and insolent. Nonetheless, there are many occasions where the author rises to the challenge of Cary’s knotty, witty mixture of vernacular and obscurantism that itself owes not a little to Blake as well as Cary’s nearer Irish contemporaries such as Joyce:

I knew a little of the writing of the Bible. Not that of His Majesty King James, or Tyndale’s before that, or the Geneva (Shakespeare’s reading), but the original, come down to us in loose papyrus sheets and translations and Babylonian jars, in Aramaic and Ugarit. (Site of a deadly rifle fight; Syrian desert bandits head-to-head with archaeologists for crumbling tablets. Someone should make a film drama of it.) A library is a handy place to come in out of the rain. But unless a man shines himself up with the glaze of a stack of study books, the librarians get out their iron punting shoes. So I knew that the Hebrew the scribes recorded in was consonants only; and a religious man would know the vowels by heart. So the true Bible was fully half holes, blanks that any reader had to fill for him or herself. (55)

Bamberger’s obscure plays did raise the pedant in me a couple of times: Heyley has a copy of one of Blake’s original designs to Dante’s Divine Comedy, that of the Recording Angel in his office – as Jimson himself points out, the only known copy of the watercolour is in the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, but we are presented with a suitably implausible story that Heyley’s grandfather was Henry Cary who had commissioned an untraced set of the Dantes. While that is an acrobatic stretch that is admirable for its inventiveness (if not the notion that Heyley would allow it to be placed in the corridor outside Jimson’s cell), a couple of other minor features jar slightly. Thus, as well as a small, thirty-twomo edition of Jerusalem, which I am fairly sure does not match the Russell and Maclagen 1904 edition (more or less the only one that would have been available at the time), the prison library also includes a copy of the Blake illustrated A Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, which was not reprinted with Blake’s engravings between 1813 and 1963, making it a rare book indeed in 1938.

This is nitpicking with a Urizenic intensity, and none of these factors really diminished my pleasure in the book: the allusions to war and Hitler, however, were somewhat different in spirit to Cary’s original intentions. The approach of war is hardly mentioned at all in The Horse’s Mouth, creeping in towards the end with several possible interpretations: bearing in mind that Cary’s novel was published in 1944, it may be a reflection on the fact that whatever Jimson’s misdemeanours, these are nothing compared to the coming horror or his childlike ignorance of what will follow. Alternatively, and bearing in mind the anarchistic sympathies of Jimson’s friend, Plantie, it may be that the artist and his compatriots are dismissive of all political nationalisms, showing a contempt for Hitler by largely refusing to allow him the significance he demands. This is subtly changed in On the Backstretch: there are constant reminders of the approaching conflict, as when Heyley observes that the copper used by Jimson may have to be appropriated for the war effort. While the chronology is not explicitly mapped out, I did wander how much people would have been generally talking this way when appeasement was still in the air in late 1938, or how Jimson’s (and other characters’) apparent amnesia could be explained in Cary’s novel.

Such background, while distracting, should not deter readers from engaging with the real thrust of Bamberger’s novel, which is an appropriately vague retelling of Milton. This schema is indicated in the second chapter, where Jimson announces to the intended reader of his autobiography:

It may be that some of these travels I’m going to tell were only mental. I see through my memory, not with it, and my eye may improve it in the retelling. Not lies, but Los, Billy Blake’s Spirit of Creation. And despite my acquaintance with some of the best tutors in the profession, I’m no jailer. If Los wants to run rough over my memory, I’m not about to chain him down. (8)

Rather like the spiritual autobiography of Milton a Poem, Jimson identifies himself with Los (via Blake), with Milt standing in for Milton and Heyley for Hayley/Satan. Bamberger provides a delightfully light touch when dealing with the mild-mannered chaplain whose apparent desire to secure Jimson’s ease in the prison is in fact a trap that will tempt him away from his own art – something that Heyley has no understanding of when he regretfully informs the artist that his etched copper plates have been converted into “sentimental letter openers”. The humour is a little more heavy-handed when dealing with Milt, the dour maths teacher who, like Milton seeking Ololon, wishes to be united with his Hindu Lila. There is, however, a great Blakean touch when Jimson realises how he can unite Milt with his love, inspiration striking him as he bends down to tie a shoelace in a mundane re-enactment of the moment when Blake straps on his sandal after Los descends into his left foot.

On the Backstretch is a strange little novel, wonderful in its way. At one point, perhaps a point where the author reflects on his own difficulties, Jimson ponders Blake’s injunction to create his own system:

Myself, I’d long been a comfortable elf to Olde Billy St. Nick. Because so complete is his system (and so completely did he turn his back on the given world) that I’d hardly ever found a question to which he didn’t have a poetic answer at the ready.
And yet, there remained one question – one hardly worth mentioning, though it was steady becoming a constant flea bite to me. I had often thought, as I read and reread Blake, how I was betraying his spirit by being an enthusiast. In following him I was neglecting to make my own system. His own words would clip the tag of “slave to another” in my piggish ear. To follow him was to betray him. (87-8)

And this is Bamberger’s own difficulty, for he follows not one system but two, that of Cary as well as Blake. Those who have not read The Horse’s Mouth will probably be bemused by On the Backstretch, but as a reminder of the many virtues of the earlier novel Bamberger does not at least betray the spirit of Joyce Cary, even if he does follow him.