Marvin D. L. Lansverk, The Wisdom of Many, The Vision of One: The Proverbs of William Blake. American University Studies, Series IV, vol. 142. New York: Peter Lang, 1994. 215 pp. $38.95.
Unknown gnomes mine. pro-verbal proverbs. but, ah! men, Wisdom’s awful theopanatives love her. language bombs
Or so one might imagine from recent, stimulating work by Marvin D. L. Lansverk. Beginning with “the puzzle that Blake would use proverbs at all” (2), given the oppressing conformity often found in such “wisdom of the many,” Lansverk traces a path to Blake’s invention of “a new type of proverb” (3) or prophetic performative in which speech acts. Along the way he revives for us an image with profound implications for Blake’s emanations, the figure of the divine female consort in the “Wisdom Books” of Hebrew scripture.
The first part of his book, a literary history of Blake’s relations to proverb literature, opens with a comparison of the themes, forms, and functions of the Book of Proverbs and of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell.” Timely criticism this, for “the only major English writer himself to have composed a begin page 85 | whole collection of proverbs”—as John Holloway observed over 28 years ago (Blake: The Lyric Poetry [London: Edward Arnold, 1968]). Lansverk shows that while Blake “rejects the Book of Proverbs’ external law of distributive justice” (188) with satire and transformation, he adapts its binary forms which “draw together two phrases or versets into a parallelism” (15)—e.g., “Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.” So, the thesis being driven hard, we are asked to see that “Blake converts the biblical ‘A wise king scattereth the wicked, and bringeth the wheel over them’ (20:26) into a command as well: ‘Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead’” (23).
Lansverk notes also how the introductory chapters of the Book of Proverbs, 8 and 9 in particular, would have attracted Blake, “with their sustained mythic personification of the virtues of Lady Wisdom.” This figure “is most commonly imaged as a superior goddess who is both a possession of God and a childhood companion with him. As she says in an early poetic exposition of the myth,”
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way,
before his works of old . . .
When [God] appointed the foundation of the earth:
Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was
daily his delight, rejoicing always before him.
(8:22, 29-30) (18)
Remarking Blake’s “attention to and exploitation of . . . typographic details’ ability to carry additional meaning,” Lansverk appropriately retains the use of italics in the King James Version for “words merely implied in the original Hebrew” (34). Attention to the original Hebrew would have been appropriate as well, as the AV translation of “one brought up” for the Hebrew (‘amon) can be challenged by readings of “‘amôn as ‘master architect’ or else ‘little child’” or both at once (Judith M. Hadley, “Wisdom and the Goddess,” in Wisdom in Ancient Israel, eds. John Day et al. [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995] 238). These references can begin to suggest that a Bible-reader like Blake could have pondered, with the most recent scholarship, how, “from a literary-theological point of view, personified Wisdom is simply unequalled in the entire Old Testament” (Roland E. Murphy, “The Personification of Wisdom,” in Day et al. eds. 232).
The second chapter, on “Blake and Bunyan’s Allegorical Proverbs” argues that “[t]he pervasive use of proverbs by Bunyan cannot have escaped Blake’s attention, nor the fact that Bunyan adopts and extends the very aspects of biblical proverbs that Blake despised” (38). This, then, is an allegorical use of proverbs” which Blake rejects, “yet also a model for the variety and power of proverbs in imaginative literature” (188). While Swedenborg’s works do not offer many proverbs, they supply Blake with a vocabulary and a “symbolic theory in the doctrine of correspondences” to be transformed “from a divinely revealed, fixed hermeneutic into a heuristic for the creation of [Blake’s] own wisdom” (188). “Almost every term used in the Proverbs of Hell,” from the many animals to the abstract nouns, “is given discussion in Swedenborg’s dictionary of correspondences,” Lansverk reports (65).
The book’s first part concludes with a study of “Blake’s and Milton’s Paradoxical Proverbs,” the title pointing to the poet’s co-creation of “a radically new type of proverb” (5) which exhorts rejection of the tradition of law, Milton’s “custome,” as grounds of authority and affirms instead liberty and “the tradition of prophecy.” For Lansverk, “[t]he importance of Milton as an analogue of Blake’s proverbs cannot be overestimated. In fact, this link is so close that if it were not for Blake’s subsequent transformations, Milton might be said to cross the boundary between analogue and actual source. . . . Blake’s readers should recognize that the late eighteenth century poet does not create his paradoxical proverbs ex nihilo” (84).
Milton’s crucial contribution, according to this argument, can be exemplified through a passage in The Reason of Church Government, where Milton combines several verses from the Book of Proverbs which “emphasize the function of proverbs as exhortations. Quoting Solomon’s personification of wisdom as a woman, Milton writes: ‘as Salomon saith, “She crieth without, she uttereth her voice in the streets, in the top of high places, in the chief concours, and in the openings of the Gates”’” (79). This emphasis on “exhortation” takes Lansverk to Stanley Fish’s familiar argument that “the purpose of Milton’s prose is to get his readers to ‘exchange one way of knowing for another,’ to exchange their reliance on reason for a reliance on vision” (81): “an example of how to do things with proverbs” (89), in other words.
The second part of the book turns to textual interpretation of five of Blake’s productions, focusing both on his use of proverbs as performative rather than affirmative utterances and on his “systematic revision” of Hebrew Wisdom literature. It is worth recalling that these texts include not only Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, and Wisdom, but also that work whose importance for Blake requires no rehearsal, Job. The discussion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as “Blake’s Performative Book of Proverbs” hinges on those verbal utterances named (or, performed) by J. L. Austin in How to Do Things with Words, in which to say is to perform and so engender a new psychological or social reality. This function of occasioning “a change in reality in the act of speaking . . . lies at the heart of Blake’s use of proverbs” (98). As this effect gives performatives “the force of utterances of God,” Lansverk coins for them the name “theopanatives,” drawing on “the Greek root of our word prophecy—phanai, or to speak—and . . . related to the term theopany—or the visible manifestation of God” (102). They are used, he writes elsewhere, “as textual language bombs to create the reality they refer to” (Northwest Society for Eighteenth-Century begin page 86 | Studies 19 [1991-94] 182). The neologism serves to emphasize the oddity that “Blake even uses the term proverb rather than the many alternatives available”— gnome, dictate, maxim, apothegm—“given that his aphorisms are not the restatement of general, popular wisdom” (113; these would be theopalliatives, perhaps). Lansverk’s intriguing suggestion is that Blake’s act of “naming his sententia proverbs . . . in opposition to the social conventions of language which serve to define the term, is itself a performative,” and that, more importantly, the etymology allows an author fixated on naming to denominate an attempt at meaning both “before” and “on behalf of” (pro) words (verbum) (113).
Chapter 6 presents Visions of the Daughters of Albion, with its memorable proverbial epigraph, as “Blake’s Book of Job,” “a parable of proper sententious utterance” (117). The influence of biblical story appears in the poem’s “dialogue format, in its presentation of a battle between two types of wisdom” (120-21)—and “two ways of expressing it” (122)—and foremost “in its use of proverbial questions” (121). Bromion’s and Theotormon’s repeated questions, like those of Job and his comforters, embody “panicked efforts to maintain a semblance of order in a world on the brink of confusion” (120) (owing to loss of faith, for the Hebrew story, in the actuality of “distributive justice”), and their questions represent futile attempts “to gain rhetorical ascendancy” (120). Lansverk notes how Theotormon’s concluding outcry, “Tell me what is the night or day to one o’erflowd with woe,” doubles Job’s “most characteristic lament of woe” (125). To Oothoon, however, is reserved the use of “the proverbial questions from Job” to express the “theopanative wisdom” of her understanding of an imaginative wisdom unknown to her antagonists. The tight, steady focus of the discussion here shows one of the limitations of the author’s method, as when he writes that “to emphasize that her learning is not the rote following of a commandment but the generation of her own theopanatives—Oothoon maintains that her soul is ‘pure transparent’ and not ‘defiled’” (122). But any construction of Oothoon’s supposed intention is complicated by the full context:
Rend away this defiled bosom that I may reflect.
The image of Theotormon on my pure transparent breast.
Not only is the implication of defilement not rejected here, but the notion of pure transparency’s reflecting raises questions about the speaker’s (psycho-)logic. Oothoon here plucks, again, a “flower” of rhetoric (OED “flower,” 6d), but in its seeming entire neglect of the wisdom of many who have written specifically on Visions (not to mention Blake and performatives, like Robert Essick in William Blake and the Language of Adam [1989, 25-26]), Lansverk’s vision misses opportunities to ground itself more substantially. It misses, as well, occasions to express itself with greater felicity—things seem recurrently “more” or “most” important, or “actually” so (117); Blake has “finely tuned proverbial hands” (117).
The Four Zoas appears in this book as “Blake’s Vision of Ecclesiastes,” and with his concern, Lansverk can build on Brian Wilkie and Mary Lynn Johnson’s puzzled observation that “‘[t]he kind of paradoxical epigram, reminiscent of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, occurs more often in The Four Zoas than one might expect in a work so grand in scale’” (131). For a Blake involved in “continued experiments with reforming biblical Wisdom books” (132), however, a full blown dramatization and transformation of “Ecclesiastes’s cyclical world view, its structure, and its proverbs” seems par for the course. Apropos of that “structure,” however, Lansverk reports that “[b]iblical scholars have not been able to find much identifiable progression of ideas” (140). (The book here has structural difficulties of its own, as a doubling of footnote 17 throws the remaining 10 out of sync.) Donald Ault’s work on embedded structure in Narrative Unbound (1987) could usefully be linked here (and to the discussion of “Blake’s Narrative Bound Proverbs” ). Lansverk argues that the two passages from John with which Blake glosses The Four Zoas’s opening “proverbs”—
Four Mighty Ones are in every man; a Perfect Unity
Cannot Exist. but from the Universal Brotherhood of Eden,
The Universal Man, to Whom be Glory Evermore. Amen.
—together “comprise the central Gospel reference, the locus classicus . . . to the power of performatives, and thus they can be seen to serve as a ‘functional key’ if not a ‘content key’ to Blake’s work” (151). John 17:21-23 and 1:14 read:
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one.
I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us . . .
I note here that Blake writes out the last phrase in the Greek, without accents or breathings, “καιι εςκηνωςεν εν, ημιν” which sets up a multi-lingual clinch with the nearest word of the poem proper, “Amen” (ημιν [“us”] could be transliterated “amin”): Hebrew ‘amên, cognate with Wisdom as the “master architect”/ “little child,” ‘amon. Being “just & true to our own Imaginations” (Milton Preface), we become like unto “the Amen, the faithful and true witness” begin page 87 | (Rev. 3:14) with a name “that no man knew” but which “name is called The Word of God” (Rev. 19:12, 13). The Johannine texts, writes Lansverk, “outline how Blake can lay claim to the performative power of God demonstrated in Genesis,” and indicate “the importance of speech act to Blake’s use of proverbs” (151). I will add that the pertinence of Wisdom’s emanative name Amen for this argument can be illustrated by Gustaf Dalman’s comment that, “Amen is affirmation, Amen is curse, Amen is making something one’s own” (in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren,[e] trans. John T. Willis, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974] 322).
So, in MIL/TON, “Blake’s Book of Infernal Wisdom,” such textual fiats express the polymorphously erotic “sports of Wisdom in the Human Imagination” (3.3):
And it is thus Created. Lo the Eternal Great Humanity
To whom be Glory & Dominion Evermore Amen
Walks among all his awful Family seen in every face
As the breath of the Almighty, such are the words of man to man
In the great Wars of Eternity, in fury of Poetic Inspiration
To build the Universe stupendous: Mental forms Creating
This is only one of many passages which allow Lansverk to characterize MIL/TON as “a freestanding collection of proverbs, with the narrative parts simply providing a frame for the wisdom statements as in the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes” (173). Such statements are themselves thematized in the poem’s references to “Dictates,” “a proverb in Eden,” “a prophecy in Eden,” and perhaps most curiously, “gnomes.” In a provocative paper presented to the 1995 meeting of the Northwest Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Lansverk notes S. Foster Damon’s suggestion that “‘Blake may have known that a gnome also means a wise but cryptic saying,’” and argues that Blake surely knew the dominant reference of “gnome” in his age. Indeed, in marking well MIL/TON’s words about the “servants of the Harrow, / The Gnomes” (7.18-19), it is striking to discover that subterranean[e] gnomes only appear in English with Pope’s Rape of the Lock, while the older reference flourishes in “gnomic,” “gnomical,” “gnomographer,” “gnomologic,” and “gnomology”—as in Milton’s Tetrachordon: “Which art of powerful reclaiming, wisest men have also taught in their ethical precepts and gnomologies” (OED, s.v.). MIL/TON’s depiction of Palamabron
Curbing his living creatures; many of the strongest Gnomesechoes strongly the language of the speaker of the deuterocanonical “Book of Wisdom” or “Wisdom of Solomon,” who claims to be taught by wisdom and to know “[t]he natures of the living creatures, and the furies of wild beasts” (7:20, AV version). (One would have thought that this quotation would also find some bearing on Lansverk’s discussion  of “the Natures of those Living Creatures” at the opening of The Four Zoas.) In my Literal Imagination (Berkeley: U of California P, 1983), I posited a Blakean “ear/earth,” and it would seem that it is in such ground, “in the Auricular Nerves of Human life / Which is the Earth of Eden” (FZ 4.1-2), that the Gnomes labour to bring forth, like Zen koans, the performative nature of wisdom.1↤ 1 The word “koan,” from Japanese ko, “public,” and an, “matter, material for thought,” denotes “a paradox put to a student” to stimulate the mind (OED Supplement)—like the image of Los’s response to the wild Gnomes, when he “took off his left sandal placing it on his head, / Signal of solemn mourning” (M 8.11-12). In which context, the following koan, from the famous thirteenth-century Chinese collection, Wumenguan or “The Bolt on a Nonexistent Door,” may not be amiss: Because the monks of the eastern and western halls were fighting over a cat, Master Nanquan picked it up and said, “If you can speak, I’ll spare the cat. If not, I’ll kill it.”
They bit in their wild fury, who also madden’d like wildest beasts
No one replied, so Nanquan killed it.
That evening Zhaozhou came back from somewhere else and Nanquan told him what had happened. Zhaozhou then took off his sandals, put them on his head, and walked out. Nanquan said, “Had you been here, you could have saved the cat.” In the course of his commentary on this koan, Thomas Cleary observes, “Zhaozhou’s farcical act silently remarks that to be enslaved by something that originally was supposed to foster liberation is like being worn by a pair of shoes instead of wearing them” (Thomas Cleary, trans., comm., No Barrier: Unlocking the Zen Koan: A New Translation of the Zen Classic Wumenguan [New York: Bantam Books, 1993] 66, 68).
Lansverk writes that “Milton is the study of how Blake’s central character Milton learns to leave behind the affirmative utterances too characteristic of his Puritan works for the more powerful and visionary performative utterances” (164) which he voices at the poem’s conclusion and which, Lansverk feels, “comprise the climactic moment of the work: ‘Obey thou the Words of the Inspired Man . . .’” (172). As if Satan, “To pervert the Divine voice in its entrance to the earth” (9.23), hadn’t been spouting “obey my principles” (9.26) from the beginning. Lansverk should be more wary of so-called “climax”: Milton talks the talk, but the walk he forces still, again, on Ololon. To apply the “moral” which Lansverk finds earlier in The Marriage, we must attend to “what [the] prophets do and not what [they] say, even though what [they] say is correct” (103). It’s not Ololon, as Lansverk argues, who must “realize that she is Lady Wisdom” (170), but Milton and ourselves who read her, as a result of his lack of recognition, in the “Double Six-fold Wonder” (42.4) of MIL/TON a Poem in 12 begin page 88 | Books. These objections can serve to exemplify Lansverk’s contention that “[t]he only doctrine which . . . can fruitfully be said to underlie [MIL/TON] . . . is the doctrine of contraries . . . here both as the opposition between . . . two ways of reading and in the very form of the performative proverb, which ultimately amount to the same thing” (182-83).
The Book of Wisdom says that “she is the breath of the power of God [cf. M 30. 18, above], and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall unto her” (7:25; Lansverk fumbles this crucial quotation through misattribution and omission of the central phrase )—that is, as the New Jerusalem Bible has it, “she is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” (and, for Blake, “all bionic” existence). The Greek of the Septuagint has “aporroia” also as common in the neo-Platonists and translated, literally, as “outflow,” “emanation.” Lansverk sees the plot of Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion as “the story of Albion’s learning to treat Jerusalem as Lady Wisdom, his consort from the very beginning, and not as the harlot she becomes when externalized from him as a sexual object” (193). This entails the reader’s learning that “the Treasures of Heaven” are none other than “Mental Studies & Performances” (J 77). Lansverk comments that, “[t]hough the speech act theory to identify Blake’s use of language would not be created for a hundred and fifty years, Blake could still point the way, whether coincidentally or not . . . that to perform is ‘to do something,’ ‘to fulfill a command,’ and most importantly ‘to present a literary work of art’” (196-97).
Students and lovers of Blake can be grateful to Marvin Lansverk for this awakening call to the rich fields of the poet’s sport with Wisdom and performative language.
Unknown gnomes mine. pro-verbal proverbs. but, ah! men, Wisdom’s awful theopanatives love her. language bombs