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Report: 1974 MLA Blake Seminar

“Perspectives on Jerusalem” was the topic of this year’s seminar, at which Edward J. Rose presided. Three essays, each representing a different approach to the poem, furnished the material for discussion. (These essays appeared in a special edition of Blake Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, prior to the conference.) Methodological considerations are especially pertinent to Jerusalem, where Blake, in creating his system, draws on such a diversity of sources—philosophical, scientific, historical, religious, artistic, and literary.

E. B. Murray’s “Jerusalem Reversed,” briefly summarized by Rose, presents a structural approach. Murray states that reversals are intrinsic to the poem’s meaning. Applying this idea and concentrating his attention on Vala, he holds that she represents hate or a reversal of Luvah. Those present at the seminar agreed that reversal is indeed a recurrent motif in the poem; there was some disagreement, however, about his analysis of Vala. It was pointed out that despite his strong insistence upon critics always sticking to the text, Murray himself had not done so: he explains not the name Vala but Vah-lu.Vah-lu is Vala and La-Va is Luvah,” he concludes. Since Murray was not on hand to explain the large concepts on which his meaning depends, there was no further discussion of his essay. Unfortunately, only one author of the essays selected for discussion was present; exploration of the proposed subject therefore was often limited.

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Mollyanne Marks, who happily was present, views her subject thematically in “Self-Sacrifice: Theme and Image in Jerusalem.” After a fairly long summary, in which she focused on the problematic relation between self-sacrifice and selfhood, she put before the seminar the following question: are self-delusion and selfhood identical? There was general agreement among the audience that the two concepts certainly are related, but the precise nature of that relationship was never resolved. Marks had confined too narrowly the poem’s action, limiting it to Blake’s own personal struggle. To be sure, his artistic conflicts are intimately bound up with the conflict he represents in Jerusalem, but he puts his story in a larger national context. Not only artists but also nations, Blake asserts at plate 3, are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their arts are destroyed or flourish.

Of the three papers, Irene H. Chayes’ “The Marginal Design on Jerusalem 12” elicited the strongest reactions. Although Chayes was absent, Rose gave a cogent summary of her lengthy essay. Obviously, her approach to the poem is through illustrations, and her particular concern is with the minor designs, which she feels have been neglected. They form a consistent group of figures, she argues, yet their relation to the text on the same plate is frequently oblique or incidental. In her analysis of J 12, she offers a method which she believes can be profitably applied to other marginal designs in Jerusalem. After isolating the verbal keys on J 12, Chayes leaves Jerusalem to discover similar drawings as well as pictorial descriptions in other works. In this search, she ranges widely, examining not only many of Blake’s works, among them, America, Europe, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and The Songs of Experience but also some of Milton’s poems, such as Paradise Lost and Lycidas. The details of this examination do not clarify the meaning of the three figures and the globe illustrated at J 12. As one participant at the seminar stated, Chayes’ introduction of serpents’ coils and whirlpools from Europe together with her long discussion positioning the objects on J 12 adds lots of unnecessary[e] description but nothing to his understanding of the poem. David Bindman expressed the general sentiment of those present when he said that Chayes was creating a problem where none existed. It is somewhat paradoxical to hold that visible objects have obscure meanings when Blake intended that they should convey his total meaning more directly. How shall we interpret the illustrations? Bindman suggested that we should be faithful to what Blake actually inscribes on the plate. For example, the spherical object on J 12 is neither a sun nor a lantern continually changing into some potentially realizable object, but is plainly the global earth. Likewise, the figure with the compass measuring out space on this earth is clearly Newton. John Grant made a point related to Bindman’s. He emphasized the need of keeping one’s eyes not only on the objects depicted on the page but also on its text as a control in any interpretation of designs. Otherwise any interpretation, however misleading, is possible. One must trust the visible objects as Blake presents them in a particular situation. Although there may be similarities of figures in Blake’s other works, the function, and hence the meaning, of these figures depends on what is going on in the poem they illustrate.

In sum, the discussion of these three papers reaffirmed an important critical principle: Jerusalem must be considered in respect to both its verbal and its graphic language. (Joanne Witke, University of California, Berkeley)

Also organizing a substantial portion of the debate at the Blake seminar was the issue of how and to what extent Blake intended his pictorial designs to function as objects of critical interpretation. David Bindman emphasized Blake’s role as book designer and therefore was quite willing to accept “doodles” as purely “decorative” aspects of Blake’s composite page. Others, including David Erdman and Stuart Curran, were less willing to relegate any of Blake’s designs to a simply decorative function, even though they agreed that such a function might play a significant role in the meaning of a design. There was a strong feeling, to paraphrase Stuart Curran, that until the last doodle had been interpreted, one should not accept the methodological premise that Blake ever simply doodled at all.

Martin K. Nurmi entered another kind of caution which he felt should be invoked in interpreting pictorial designs, especially those such as appear on J 12. Nurmi argued that there is a tension between the flat page laced with images which do not physically move and the symbolic gesture the designs may make. For example, Nurmi drew attention to the fact that the globe of the world depicted in the text is structurally both three-dimensional and literally in motion, whereas the globe of the design is two-dimensional and stationary. Nurmi’s suggestion seems especially helpful in J 12 where the text describing the compass-point rotational momentum of the globe visually spreads into the space on the page occupied by the visual globe. It seems clear that the Newton-like figure can measure with compasses the visual globe but would never be able to get a sufficient perceptual fix on the textual globe to be able to measure it. The differences in perspective relationships between perceiver and object perceived and between the possibilities for compass measurement are integral to Blake’s perceptual strategy on the plate. (Donald Ault, University of California, Berkeley)

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