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Finishing Blake

Since Peter Otto’s response to the tandem articles written by Robert Essick and myself about Blake’s possible production plans for The Four Zoas is not precisely an attack, this will not be precisely a defense.11 Paul Mann, “The Final State of The Four Zoas,” Blake 18 (1985): Robert N. Essick, The Four Zoas: Intention and Method,” Blake 18 (1985): 204-200; Peter Otto, “Final States, Finished Forms, and The Four Zoas,” Blake 20 (1987): 144-47. I had proposed that at some stage of his work on The Four Zoas, Blake toyed more or less seriously with the idea of publishing the poem in letterpress, in a format rather like the Night Thoughts edition he did with Edwards. Essick nicely modified this hypothesis by proposing that at some earlier stage Blake seems to have experimented with producing the entire work in intaglio, then directed the project toward letterpress with intaglio etched and/or engraved illustrations, then finally suspended publication plans, though without abandoning work on the begin page 140 | back to top manuscript for some time. Otto has no objection to the first two hypothetical working stages; indeed, they seem hardly to interest him. It is our rather plain and hardly more than descriptive claim that The Four Zoas became for Blake “a working manuscript unrelated to any specific production intentions” (Essick 18:219; see also Mann 18:208) that inspires Otto’s response, or rather his swerve, his shift of the discussion to an entirely different level. The course of this swerve seems to me to exemplify one of the most characteristic moves in Blake studies: the dematerialization of Blake’s work.

I should not speak for Essick here, but I will suggest that his extensive studies of Blake’s production methods and the conditions of Blake’s works provide us with a wealth of materials for a kind of interpretation that still remains largely unexplored, perhaps even by Essick himself: an interpretation in which Blake is no longer primarily a poet(-prophet) or inspired illustrator, nor even precisely a composite artist, as the current compromise has it, but first and foremost someone as committed to working in his materials as any sculptor or painter, someone whose work was absolutely identified with his work. (The analogy here would be with Rodin, were it not otherwise so imprecise.) For me, the process of seeing The Four Zoas as a manuscript in which Blake was not only investigating poetic and graphic possibilities but also his commitments to different material forms and modes of publication, was a process of learning to see the work in the work. I have elsewhere called this double work, this work whose first goal is to manifest and epitomize a kind of work, Blake’s “production-aesthetic,” a rather clumsy phrase meant to do nothing more than mark his deliberate insistence on the in-sistence of imaginative labor in concrete materials and methods.22 It is easy to dislike writers who use footnotes to advertise their other works, but I promised to be brief here and can only do so by glossing this article thus: See my “Apocalypse and Recuperation: Blake and the Maw of Commerce,” ELH (Spring 1985):1-32; and my “Editing The Four Zoas,” Pacific Coast Philology XVI.1 (1981), which may in fact anticipate Otto’s argument. But one need hardly take any of this into consideration to see the point of our articles: they are quite straightforward attempts to examine the manuscript’s material conditions and to explore the possibilities for publication that those conditions imply; that is, to grasp the manuscript precisely as manuscript, as I emphasized at the end of my article.

But the situation of the manuscript, of any manuscript, is a loaded critical issue. We inhabit an age when theories of displacement and supplementarity, for instance, lend a certain cachet to the romantic fragment or unfinished work. They need no longer be dismissed as failures, as an earlier (by implication: benighted) age would have done. Our notions of poetic unity are less rigorous, more liberal, if they survive at all: now we tend to grant a strange integrity to the fragment and distrust the unity of the masterpiece. It is in this discursive environment that Otto’s defense of The Four Zoas takes place. His task is to rescue the manuscript from those mechanistic critics (he rounds up the usual suspects, Frye and Bentley) for whom the manuscript was the mark of a magnificent, even a tragic failure. So much the better that The Four Zoas is a work about unfinishedness, that there is a nice analogy or perhaps even homology between unfinished work and unfinished world. The work’s unfinished state is—what other word is more fitting than this piece of romantic tradecraft?—organic to its matter, its theme, its narrative order, its purpose. Otto suspends this argument from a distinction borrowed from Balachandra Rajan: 3 Otto 144, citing Rajan, The Form of the Unfinished: English Poetics from Spenser to Pound (Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1985) 14.

Incomplete poems are poems which ought to be completed. Unfinished poems are poems which ask not to be finished, which carry within themselves the reasons for arresting or effacing themselves as they do. If an unfinished poem were to be finished it would ideally erase its own significance.3
This, for Otto, is the key to the scriptures. The Four Zoas is no longer a failure, an unsightly blemish on the beautiful body of Blake’s oeuvre; it is no longer unfinished but, so to speak (here writing begins to generate properly Janus-like neologisms:) un/finished. “. . . Blake left his creation myth in an unfinished condition because this was the only form which is appropriate for the effort of a fallen self to recount the origins, history, and regeneration of the world” (146).

We are now in a position to chart the swerve. It tends to occur in the spaces between Otto’s paragraphs. Here he is just finishing his surveillance of Essick’s three-phase hypothesis:

. . . It is with the status that we ascribe to The Four Zoas in the third and final stage of its development that I am concerned.
Discussion of The Four Zoas has been dominated by a strong desire to retrieve the outlines of a poem (Vala), or potential poem, that lies somewhere behind its pages. This approach assumes that the present poem represents a “major cultural disaster,” “a tantalizing and tragic failure,” and that it would be irresponsible to suggest “a reversion to ‘the poem itself.’ ” This position is supported by the belief that poems should be unified, coherent, and formally complete. It also draws on the trope that couples incompletion in the present with completion in some other realm. As a result, the wealth of hypotheses about the possible form of The Four Zoas in the “first” and “second” stages of the poem’s development is coupled with a relative unanimity of response to the third.
It seems to me that there are cogent thematic and contextual reasons to entertain the possibility at least that when Blake finally stopped working on the manuscript he believed that the form taken by the work was the only one that the subject matter could assume. Or, to phrase this in a less intentionalist idiom: the (unfinished) form of the work embodies the poem’s insights about the nature of the fallen world and of fallen perceptions (144).
And he then goes on to explain why it must stay that way.

The swerve is actually rather subtle, at least partly because it is entirely tacit. A metaphysics or poetics of unfinishedness may seem appropriate (in the case of Four Zoas criticism, it is certainly an improvement), but it also marks an appropriation of the work as “text.” In Otto’s argument the movement from work to text, from begin page 141 | back to top material manuscript to dematerialized “poem” is plotted something like this: consideration of the manuscript’s material conditions and production “intentions”44 Essick defines this word more precisely than Otto: “Given the practical exigencies of image production, as well as Blake’s insistence on the radical unity of conception and execution, it is reasonable to assume that the preliminary stages in the development of an image may reveal the medium in which Blake intended to produce the final form of that image” (216). are dangerous: they can lead one to confound the unfinished with the failed. (We did nothing of the kind.) Hence these material considerations must be marginalized or left behind: the unfinishedness of the manuscript must become the sign of some greater purpose, some deeper (non-)structure, some truer meaning that can be grasped interpretively. Or rather, first of all, theoretically. Issues of production must always be read into this theory of unfinishedness; any attention to the material condition of the manuscript must be contained by the poetics of the unfinished. Now it is unfinishedness that is the “end of the art”; now the manuscript is complete in its incompleteness. Its material chaos is rendered quite literally ideal. The urgency with which Otto frames descriptions and speculations about the material work is exemplary of the persistently text-centered orientation of Blake studies.

What this swerve really entails is a movement from the production of a finally unfinished manuscript to the production of a finished discourse of unfinishedness. In Otto’s argument completion must occur at some level—“in some other realm,” as he puts it: a realm that turns out to be that of criticism. The critical recounting, the representation of unfinishedness as ideal is meant to rescue the poem-cum-text from its insufficiency, its embarrassing failure. We witness a movement from interpretation to interpretation, from a narrative of failure to a narrative of success, all taking place strictly at the level of discourse about the “poem.” What is more, the movement from failed manuscript to ideally unfinished text must pass through the dematerialization of the manuscript because there is, in fact, no inherent reason why, if the poem was essentially unfinished, Blake could not have devised a form for its publication as such. We are faced here with the crudest instance of the fallacy of imitative form—the sort of instance that makes it a fallacy. There is no necessary relation, no true marriage between the unfinished text and the unfinished world in the text: for Otto, the condition of the manuscript is merely an image, an ornament, a suggestion, a formal hint for a reading that is, at bottom, in no way dependent upon it. In the end, then, the discourse of unfinishedness replaces the unfinished work: it becomes the ideal form of the poem’s publication, a solid critical framework on which to hang the manuscript’s rags.

The transubstantiation of work into text is most evident in the movement from a notion of Blake working on the manuscript to what Otto calls the “curious fact that the narrator is himself an ‘effect’ of the story that he recounts” (144, my emphases). Once Otto replaces artist with narrator and manuscript with story his work is in a sense complete (so is Blake’s); and the machinery of interpretation can take over. Now “the narrator is . . . contained within his own [unfinished] poem,” which is contained within a finished and finishing reading of the poem. Otto’s point is, in one sense, well taken. In order to complete the narration of the fallen world the fallen narrator would have had to stand outside it, and that is impossible. But what we must mark here is that the “real” narrator of this ideally unfinished text is the critic. Not Blake but Otto. The issue is one of mediation: in order for the poem to enter discourse, for there to be any commentary on it at all, someone must stand “outside” it; an outside must somehow be established, an archimedean fulcrum for levering the manuscript into Blake studies must be found. There must be some (tacit; or not so tacit: editorial) means for reproducing the manuscript as text, and critical structures for determining a discourse of unfinishedness. Someone, in short, must finish it. If the “narrator” cannot ethically or logically or epistemologically stand outside then the critic will (tacitly) do it for him. Otto’s narrative is generated precisely outside the fallen textual world which, he argues, one cannot rightly stand outside, in relations that must be the products of critical discourse itself but must always conceal this mediating agency behind a rhetoric of unmediated internalization.

So the “story” of unfinishedness is also the story of dematerialization, which is also the story of the manuscript’s rematerialization as a narrated narration, a completely unmediated internal world completely mediated by an external observer. We have read this story before: Blake himself tells it in the parable of the Ancient Poets, which today we must come to read as one of many Blakean parables of Blake criticism: 5 The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, newly revised edition (Garden City NY: Anchor Books, 1982).

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could percieve.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity.
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood.
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronouncd that the Gods had ordered such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast
(E 38)5
Like Goliath championing David against Goliath.

It is certainly true that calling The Four Zoas a failure was once a trope of dismissal, but the trope of un/finishedness is hardly a solution to the strange and irreducible inaccessibility of the manuscript. Indeed, it amounts to about the same thing. Just as earlier readers of The Four Zoas tried “to retrieve a . . . potential poem begin page 142 | back to top that lies somewhere behind its pages,” so Otto tries to retrieve an ideally unfinished poem from somewhere behind the manuscript; the difference is that the unfinishedness of earlier critics was “bad” while his is “good.” There is a certain identity between these earlier critics and Otto: in either case we end up without the manuscript. But it is precisely the manuscript that is at issue, precisely the manuscript that is least recuperable by either a metaphysics of unity or a metaphysics of incompletion; it is precisely the manuscript that has never been read. If the only way to get rid of the notion of failure is by abandoning the manuscript or recuperating it into some ideal state, then perhaps we must learn to live with the idea of failure. In fact, at the level of (the) work itself, the failure of The Four Zoas might be a lot less troubling than it is out here in critical discourse. Perhaps, for Blake, failure might not have been so unthinkable a judgment on a work that at one or more stages of development was clearly intended for publication but never published. What’s so terrible about failure? It might be less of a problem for a working artist, for whom in a sense nothing can ever be wasted, than it is for a discourse whose responsibility is always in some part the determination and maintenance of canons. What we have in Otto is one instance of the general attempt to recuperate that failure so that the poem can exhibit a distinctly literary value. What we do not yet have is a way to read The Four Zoas.

But whose will be the final state-ment?

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