Benjamin DeMott. Blake and Manchild, a tape recording. Sound Seminars. New York: McGraw-Hill, recorded 1968. 36 minutes. Reel-to-reel (75998-7) or cassette (81580-1) format. $11.
Blake and Manchild is thirty-six minutes of meandering, and the meandering begins with a title that has nothing to do with the matter recorded on the tape. After an apology to the audience for his cold, and a related anecdote about his visit to the office of President Johnson, where DeMott’s cultivated sensibility was thrown off balance by the old warrior’s secret tic, a ferocious snort before speaking, DeMott announces the ostensible subject of his talk: “the Higher Innocence,” which he promises to get to by a road through “The Lamb” and “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence.
But to recall the terrain before setting out, we listen to pleasant recitations of the poems. Then, not “The Lamb” and “The Chimney Sweeper” as expected, but a fifteen-minute detour through the eighteenth century, looking for its “characteristic gesture,” which when we find it turns out to be “comprehension” and “mastery at a remove.” In the poetry of the century, we “hear” this “gesture” in the voice of the “preceptor”—the voice that says such things as “Whatever IS, is RIGHT” and “Let Observation, with extensive view, / Survey mankind, from China to Peru.” Side 1 of the tape is over.
Side 2 sets out in search of the characteristic gesture of “The Lamb,” which we learn is “cuddling”—taking life to oneself, as the child takes the lamb into his arms, and acting tenderly towards it, even if still a little bit preceptorially. It is not clear whether DeMott means that the narrator actually takes the lamb into his arms or not. Nothing in the words of the poem tells him that, and the lower part of the plate shows the child standing at arm’s length from the lamb, which is about the closest DeMott can afford to get to “The Lamb” and still find his “characteristic gesture.”
He then brings in “The Tyger” in order to conclude that Romantic man’s characteristic gesture is a motion back and forth between the pole of the “act” of “The Lamb”—cuddling—to the pole of “The Tyger”—cosmic “nagging.” Thus Blake represents those Romantics who want “Innocence beyond Innocence,” as “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” combine into a “vision of the Higher Innocence,” the chief pleasure of which is—memory! And the tape runs past its last electromagnetic squiggles to tell us that “the great pleasure, the first Romantic pleasure, is, then—in Blake, in my imagination of him—is the pleasure of memory.”
On the one hand DeMott knows enough about Blake’s critics to have picked up a thesis about Higher Innocence, while on the other he knows too little about Blake or his critics to know that, if other Romantic poets were gesturing Memory, Blake was standing in the window of Higher Innocence gesturing Imagination back at them. Even when stopped up with a cold, DeMott is as pleasant to listen to as most lecturers, and his words on the “preceptorial gesture” of the eighteenth century are probably worth the time it takes to hear them, but on Blake he’d have done better to leave off at a summary of other people’s opinions.
The lecture never gets to “The Chimney Sweeper” as promised. DeMott may have quit, the tape recorder may have broken, or McGraw-Hill may have economized. No one will care which, because one more meander would have added only another layer of diffuseness to this uninstructive thirty-six minute gyp.
But DeMott is not the only culprit in this media game, and questions about his understanding of Blake are not the only questions his lecture raises. McGraw-Hill has shown little good sense and less good will in publishing its Sound Seminars. The prices are outrageously high and the pricing policy is irrational. Tapes that run fifteen minutes and those that run seventy minutes are all $11 apiece. No matter how short the tape, $11. No matter how long? Well, no: the price jumps to $12.50 for tapes over about 70 minutes.
If $11 for DeMott’s thirty-six-minute tape is in line with the prices on McGraw-Hill’s books—that is, if the retailer’s profit is about 40%—then tapes are simply too expensive to produce for the mass market. But why the recording companies can produce tapes of, say, forty-five minutes of music for less than $6, and yet McGraw-Hill cannot seem to produce fifteen minutes of voice for less than $11 is beyond me. Musical recording requires enormous expenditures on studios, musicians, composers, and technical assistance. The kind of recordings McGraw-Hill is producing could be done at home by anyone with semi-professional equipment.
I would estimate that a transcription of DeMott’s recording would take up fewer than ten pages of type. The question, then, is what special use justifies the publication of Blake and Manchild as an extraordinarily expensive tape recording rather than as an essay in one of DeMott’s books? First, DeMott probably wouldn’t want the matter recorded on the tape to appear in the slightly classier company of his essays. Second, I frankly can’t imagine any special use that the tape allows. Teaching? Who would spend the better part of an hour having students listen to something that could be summarized without loss in five minutes? Students themselves would not stand for the tape unless they begin page 26 | were being relieved of something alive and worse. Home? I would have DeMott to dinner, but only to write a review would I trap myself in a room with his taped voice.
In short, what could be deadlier than a taped lecture, except a required live one? What is designed to bring more certain calamity to the classroom and the home? Only reviewers, teachers without consciences, and practical jokers would mess with this stuff. Readings by poets with stirring voices at reasonable prices, yes. The hypnotic spells of jumbo-mumbling lecturers spun on reels of brown tape, nevermore.
Available in the same series with Blake and Manchild: Benjamin DeMott, Hardy and Manchild, fifty minutes, $11. Could that be a better buy?