Edward Larrissy, William Blake. Rereading Literature Series, edited by Terry Eagleton. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985. xv + 166. $19.95 and $6.95
A key word for this “rereading” (as well as our rereading of it) is “ambivalence”—so much so that the general editor’s preface, having opened by declaring Blake “England’s greatest revolutionary artist,” concludes by pointing to his “revolutionary ambiguity” (ix, xi). Eagleton here recycles Larrissy’s contention that Blake is “the greatest radical poet in English” (3) and that
Blake’s firmness is meant to conceal what it in fact reveals: a fear that all firmness, like all definite form, is limiting because it excludes other possible views or forms. This fear is balanced against the suspicion that without firmness, without form—in fact without limitation and exclusion—no expression would be possible. The two points of view comprise an ambivalence about form and the means of expression which appears throughout Blake’s work.Later we read of “those ambiguous Blakean words” (51) and the “curious ambiguity in Blake’s use of . . . ‘bound’ ” (69). The fundamental problem with this short but ambitious book is that its reliance on “ambivalence” and “ambiguity” sets up a false double bind (“Two Horn’d Reasoning Cloven Fiction”) so that posited ambivalence about form and expression degenerates into the contention that “the question whether form is expressive or limiting remains a question, though a profoundly troubling one” (59, emphasis added). As a result, Larrissy’s Blake’s work “is marked by deep anxiety” (37); it is “anxious and ambivalent” (126), and (as in The Book of Urizen) the “ambiguities derive, of course, from Blake’s doubts about form” (131); we can see “Blake’s anxiety” in “his ambivalent feelings . . . inscribed in the ambiguous begin page 67 | form” (133); elsewhere Blake “reveals a true anxiety” (145). Given this schizophrenic double bind, Larrissy has to conclude (here regarding Songs of Innocence) that “To oscillate between two readings . . . may be the fullest response we can have” (63). Needless to say, the possibility of a vision “twofold always”—not to mention threefold or fourfold—does not appear.
Certain key words, for instance, constantly carry the weight of this ambivalence. ‘Bound’ . . . is one. (6)
One problem can be neatly framed by considering Larrissy’s discussion of the motif-idea-concept-practice of “frame” and “framing” in Blake. Having identified “the [graphic] frame that surrounds many of the songs” as a way in which “Blake signals the necessary limitation of Innocence” [my emphasis], Larrissy opens considerations of rereading: “What is interesting about Blake’s frames is that they can be seen as a metaphor for the paradoxical process described by Derrida” (25). That process, as victims of “Jack de Reader” (Scritti Politti’s epithet) may remember, concerns the instantiation of a margin, a “supplementary” work (parergon) which is itself paradoxically necessary to the constitution of the work. The issue, finally, is where interpretation can stop—whether there is in fact anything intrinsic in the (framed) work for interpretation to fix upon; for if there is no such thing or place, then clearly rereading is the condition of our existence. As for Blake: “Working back from the graphic frames to the text, we can now see more clearly that Blake has ‘framed’ his innocents: he has depicted them as limited, and thus as requiring some other level of interpretation to explain them. But he has also exposed and, by implication, questioned his own framing of them. . . .” (25). This is well taken and nicely supported by a detailed consideration of “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence, all building to the observation that “irony combined with ‘irony of irony’ (the ironic speaker is himself limited) is characteristic of all Blake’s work” (48). For “limited,” as we have just seen, one may reread “framed.”
This interesting use of “framing” may also serve to frame the fascinating three pages on “The Tyger,” a discussion more remarkable for what it omits that what it argues, as one would be hard pressed to find any other consideration of “The Tyger” which manages wholly to suppress any reference to the first and last stanzas and the highlighted transition of “Could frame” to “Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” For Larrissy, as already quoted, “The Tyger” reveals that “The question whether form is expressive or limiting remains a question.” But the question is (isn’t it?) whether this is in fact “a profoundly troubling” question (for Blake, for us) or a rhetorical one. The question is (isn’t it?) whether we could (or dare?) move from either/or to both/and (expressive/limiting). The problematic relation between “reality” (the “referent”) and language thus assumes a crucial or, exactly, critical importance, as, for instance, when Larrissy situates his own frame: “A Marxist criticism which is aware of the implication of human subjects in signifying practices . . . is well placed to conduct properly sensitive analyses of the relations between the ‘referential’ and the ‘rhetorical’. . . . The price of this advance, however, will have to be the recognition that the ‘referential’ only ever appears in rhetorical form” (49). Yet the discussion of the “manufacturing-process” or “harsh mechanical process” (58, 59) which sets up the Tyger as “a symbol for the position of the emerging industrial proletariat” (59) displaces precisely the insistence of “The Tyger” that the “referential” only ever appears in rhetorical form. Blake questions “his own” framing not just “by implication,” but in crafting frames which inextricably implicate readers in their questioning. “The implication of human subjects in signifying practices” is not something about which one may be simply “aware,” and not something it is enough simply to imply.
Larrissy expands our vocabulary for Blake’s craft by invoking another Derrideanism, “graft”—though one misses a link to the now general conception of Blake’s “composite art” which would have supplemented the argument. “The Chimney Sweeper” of Songs of Innocence, for instance, is “the product of grafts: children’s hymns, liberal education theories and occult emblems” (37). Via the “graft,” Larrissy can turn resolutely from the idea of a single, “unified” interpretation of some idealized organic “whole” work and find in Blake “probably the greatest reviser and cobbler-together of fragments and odd ends until T.S. Eliot” (90).
Yet the shape of Larrissy’s book bespeaks desire for the unity it rejects as it spends its first seven chapters getting up to and through The Book of Urizen and its last speeding—in twenty-two pages—all the way “From The Book of Ahania (1795) to Jerusalem (1804-c. 1820).” And while the bulk of the rereading in various ways develops Blake’s “shying-away from unity, and courting of process” (88), the rereading of the bulk of Blake’s work finds that here “Blake yearns for a unity” and “longs for a lost unity” (148, 154), even though it is these works that most engage “a process of endlessly deferred sense making” (153, also 145). The reason for this shift in Blake and/or in this view of his oeuvre is political. Larrissy’s Blake wants “to make an effective political intervention in the revolutionary period 1790-3” (98) but that desire is not realized, and so “The slow-moving tableaux of his later works are the index of a political despair which sees all history as telling one dire story, and the only way out as mental, rather than physical, fight” (154). Yet in the book’s stirring peroration we learn what it means to have, like Blake, a “thoroughly political” view of humanity: “the individual is the bearer and mediator of traditions; the world is interpreted and transformed by those traditions. To transform the world you must institute the struggle of tradition against tradition, of discourse against discourse. This struggle is begin page 68 | shown in Blake’s works” (finis). Amen! Huzza! Selah! But this struggle can only be—being for hearts, minds, and cognitive processes—a “mental, rather than physical, fight,” and one wonders to see evident commitment to it reread as an “index of political despair.” Such an “index” seems, rather, itself an icon of the ambivalent judgment that posits its existence.
One’s overall response to this study, at turns provoking, rewarding, irritating, and disappointing, and to its challenge of “rereading” Blake will probably hinge on whether or not one agrees that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for all its delights, warrants more attention than Milton and Jerusalem together. As for Blake’s “revolutionary ambiguity,” one is reminded of the ambiguously revolutionary comment “I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.”