W. J. T. Mitchell was discussion leader of the special session on Blake at the annual MLA meeting in San Francisco this past December. He reports:
The basic idea of this year’s seminar was to explore Blake’s ideas about language, with particular emphasis on his notions of writing, both as a material craft and as a symbolic activity. A secondary purpose was to bring Blake’s thought into contact with post-structuralist theories of language, particularly Jacques Derrida’s concept of “writing” in the extended sense (mental writing, pictograms, ideograms, imprints, tracks, traces, and “marks”). Peggy Meyer Sherry of the German Department at Princeton seemed most explicitly indebted to the Derridean vocabulary, discussing the metaphors of the human body as writing surface and as alphabetic form in The Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and showing by references to Blake’s Notebook, how and why the pictorial figures in Visions embody calligraphic forms. Stephen Behrendt of the English Department at Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, discussed Blake’s notion of a language of art (primarily pictorial) in terms of the problematic notions of original and copy, and in relations to the revisions in Blake’s series of pictures on the theme of the “Plague.” Nelson Hilton of the English Department at the University of Georgia enriched our sense of “Blake’s Polysemous Words” with a series of meditations on key word clusters (e.g. vale, veil, vile, evil) that are the focus of Blake’s phonetic and typographic playfulness. Hilton’s presentation included a textual emendation to Jerusalem (worship/warship) that David Erdman promises to include in the new revised edition. David Herrstrom of Roosevelt, New Jersey, presented what he called a “literal” account of Blake’s ideas on writing, stressing Blake’s concern with the material signifier (calligraphic or pictorial) in the context of his understanding of the incarnation. Herrstrom illustrated his presentation with a close analysis of verbal and pictorial symbolism in the Laocoön engraving. Finally, Ronald Paulson of the Yale English Department stepped outside the circle of Blake studies to bring us news of other Romantic poet-painters who were concerned with problems in language and writing. Paulson’s presentation focused on the way emblems, marks, “graffitti,” and other verbal elaborations (titles, accompanying poems) tend to suppress meaning in the work of landscape artists like Turner and Constable, in contrast to the augmenting and disseminating power of verbal-pictorial interactions in Blake.
It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the genre of reportage on MLA Seminars that the session this year was a stunning success. All questions were discussed fully, and with the most rigorous respect for logic and rules of evidence, all the basic problems were solved, and all had a chance to speak their minds. The only sour note occurred when the participants rejected the Discussion Leader’s proposal to conclude with a rousing chorus of “And did those feet. . . . ” W. J. T. MITCHELL, DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO.