Mimicry against mimesis in "infant sorrow": seeing through Blake's image with Adorno and Lacan.
So saying the Cloud overshadowing divided them asunder Albion stood in terror: not for himself but for his Friend Divine, & Self was lost in the contemplation of faith And wonder at the Divine Mercy & at Los's sublime honour--Jerusalem (1)
Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind.--Jacques Lacan (2)
THE CULMINATING VISION AFFORDED ALBION IN "THE FURNACES OF affliction" (E256) at the end of Jerusalem leads to an apocalyptic dream ("All was a Vision, all a Dream" E256) in which, famously, "All Human Forms [are] identified even Tree Metal Earth & Stone" (E258), a consummation reasonably described as an "identitarian" ideology of art, one which is "realistic" in some platonic sense. But it is not sufficiently remarked that this consummation is only made possible, as the quotation above clearly shows, by a skewed or avoided mimesis. A few plates earlier in the poem Los has been reminding Blake's readers in stentorian tones that insofar as "identification" might involve the assumption of "Universal Characteristics" (curiously described as characters in the Bible even beyond "the Lord") it is a very bad thing, perhaps even the root of all evil ("they become an Eternal Death" E250), and so when the poem approaches its final identitarian rapture it only does so in a dream by virtue of a peculiarly controlled and distanced identification, almost a parody of the real (platonic) thing. Albion sees the Lord as the "likeness and similitude of Los," and--in an even odder translation of crucifixial sacrifice--Jesus allows an opacity ("the Cloud") to screen him, even in this disguise, from Albion, making his "identification" even more (literally) difficult, even more a matter of faith. My purpose in this discussion is not to interpret Jerusalem but to use these few lines of it as a kind of template for constructing a warning against identitarian tendencies in the interpretation of Blake. These tendencies seem relatively innocent in themselves, since they express themselves often by repeating the poet's own propaganda mythos about clarity and image, but taken in conjunction with the current antiquarian/archival taste for locating Blake in the context of his contemporary dissident protestantism (at the expense of Northrop Frye's effort to make him a contemporary), they are contributing to the image of a Blake who has little to say to the modern imagination, especially that theoretical imagination which associates apocalyptic totalization with the Terror and with the Holocaust and with Jonestown. In this discussion, therefore, I am concerned to restore Blake's dialogue with a modernism one can decently take an interest in, but my local target is specifically the undivided image so dear to the whole tradition of Blake scholarship, arguing that, whatever this means to interpreters, to Blake its clear function is to divide and separate--that is, to prevent identification--rather than platonically to "mean." In the criticism I analyze I want to uncover an anxious dialectic not only in the poet but also in some of his most faithful readers between a tendency to apocalyptic totalization of meaning (which I understand as "identitarian") and something much more radical, something that shakes meaning fundamentally, that perhaps only the dangerous approach of totalization would pave the way toward in Blake's historicized vocabulary. The opposition to totalization, according to the terms of this dialectic, is therefore not mounted by ambiguous or uncertain meanings (though I believe Blake suffered much more from uncertainty than is usually allowed) but by an idea of expression closer to mimicry than mimesis. I believe this idea--which permeates every aspect of his writing and illustrating--is one significant thing that is "modern" about Blake, and I invoke it to license my attempts to align him more generally with modern thought.
The illuminated writings, as everyone knows, entered the American canon through the door his conductor Northrop Frye conveniently left ajar to the subsequent "theory revolution," and it is no small paradox therefore that each successive wave of disciplines constituting that revolution, while not powerless to affect the reception and interpretation of his works, has tended to make Blake less, rather than more, available to contemporary culture. In homage to the poem I want to highlight here, "Infant Sorrow," one could claim in fact that Blake has been "sulking" on that theoretical breast (offered by Frye) ever since. Contrarily, but to similar effect, although historical studies (usually energetically opposed to the metaphysical obsessions of post-structuralism) specify the neighborhoods and atmosphere of Blake's political and religious thought as never before, the effect of this mapping has often been to fit Blake in at the expense of what is distinctive about him. Or at least to what we want to think is distinctive, since insofar as he functioned as a kind of bricoleur Blake has only himself to blame if we have trouble separating what is original from what he borrowed. Academic study of Blake, moreover, which understandably has never managed to escape the eccentricity of its subject entirely, has always been attracted to a compensatory normalization, and historicization has been more useful to this end than theorizing. It would seem that, whether he was a universal guru or a Muggletonian, Blake had to fit in somewhere, and even brilliant historical studies like Morris Eaves's The Counter-Arts Conspiracy, which is by no means given to alibis, find ways to explain, almost to normalize, even Blake's most amazing fulminations. (3)
The fact that Blake was unusual in practicing two arts simultaneously has obviously been useful for absorbing the stress of such operations (though specialized art-historians have always been more sceptical than literary critics about normalization--and indeed about Blake's quality), and I venture to emphasize therefore the near breakdown of relations between two distinguished literary critics-cum-art historians--John Barrell and Morris Eaves--over the political ideologies implied by Blake's views about integrity of conception. (4) These views are usually housed in Blake's own strenuous admonitions about "the bounding line" (E550) and "Minute Discrimination" (E643), (5) and despite the fact that his verbal practice is nearly always ventriloquial or parodic and his illustrations often emulate the manners of caricature, his own idealization of his technical practice has traditionally led to a fudging of the difference in Blake between (virtually platonic) mimesis and a mimicry more relevant to eighteenth-century satire than to romantic elevation of imagination. In fact all parties, whether more attracted to Frye's archetypalism, to the purity of religious antinomianism or to the autographic spontaneity of Blake's artisanship (as revealed by Joseph Viscomi (6)) seem unable to escape Blake's avowed ideology of the undivided image--even while they agree on little else about the fundamental nature and motivation of their subject. My purpose in this essay is twofold: to suggest a place in contemporary theorizing for Blake's actual practice (as distinct from its advertised ideology), which will no doubt seem gratuitous to some readers (the psychoanalytic culture-critique of the Lacanian school and the anti-Hegelianism of the Frankfurt School), while demonstrating that the "ideology of undividedness" in commentaries on Blake will turn out after all, at least in a dialectical sense, to have been all along pointing us towards the same place. "Going to Eternal Death" in Blakespeak and Lacan's application of the aim of psychoanalysis to cultural questions will be shown to be mutually relevant, and demonstrating that this is so will enable me to rehearse progressively a criticism of the role of the "undivided image" among Blake's interpreters. This criticism, which encounters a persistent if unintended dialectic between the demands of identitarian imaginary clarity on the one hand and, on the other, "apocalyptic" symbolism (hostile to the actual) is prone to pretending that clarity of image is the same as apocalyptic design, a pretense that probably owes much to Frye but which recurrent contradictions in argument--whether on behalf of "civil humanistic" or antinomian universalism--make doubtful. That these arguments, either in fact or in their theoretical logic, make it terribly difficult to disentangle humanism from antinomianism is one signal that it is high time to rethink Blake's relation to our own convictions, and my insistence that the only reason to continue to associate Blake's illustrations with an ideology of wholeness is that a certain undivided opacity of illustration is required to fulfill their function of divisiveness and obstruction will turn out to be more useful than it sounds.
In the Songs of Innocence & Of Experience particularly, the relationship of picture or image to word is only one aspect of a deeper division--or tendency to decomposition--which seems to have befallen all aspects of the Blake song's expression. More plainly, the division between word and picture needs to be theorized alongside a parallel division within discourse between carefully separated narrative and dramatic registers. Verbal expression is not, of course, directed to two different senses, but neither should the "sister arts" implications of a Blake plate encourage the belief that we are dealing with simply some version of "show and tell." The decomposition in question is much more radical than this functional division. (Dreams, I might add, likewise "show," and the Freudian commentary stresses the pre-verbal aspect of their developmentally primitive construction, but stresses as well that their meaning can hardly be regarded as visual, even if their expression seems to be. (7) Their expression is also at least theatrical or performative, and Freud's metaphors often display his awareness that this is so.)
For Blake's practice, the consequence of the way these poems are designed is not, I think, three equal and exclusive means of expression (narrative, drama, image). (8) Discourse is divided with extraordinary clarity between an eonciation (by the speaker of "The Tyger," for instance) and the symbolic enonce, the range of allusion and association to which the speaker is apparently oblivious, and the illustration underlines rather than undermines the division; it is moreover true that the division itself endows the picture with meaning-resonances that it would not otherwise have: the picture, presumably because of the reader's hesitation as to which "level" of meaning to assign it to, becomes the stage for an obstruction of meaning totally different from conventional "titling" or "illustration," even as the speaker, on account of naivete, becomes a kind of parody of his own implication. As between rival tendencies towards mimesis (especially "sister arts" ekphrasis) or divisive mimicry, these meaning-resonances tip the balance firmly towards the latter, often producing the impression that Blake's plates, while they may require to be decoded like rebus puzzles, also firmly resist totalizing solutions.
Part of my argument has to do with how well this integrates with an ideological division between the claims of the individual and the claims of the civis (say, Lacan's Symbolic), but there is more at stake here than the sorting of culture between the Imaginary and the Symbolic. For the effects I have been describing, especially the effect of the picture, are more than a consequence of a process of distinction. The illustration, by obstructing union, has the effect characteristically of repressing or concealing something, if only the possibility of composition, and it is the relationship between this quality of repression and Blake's simultaneous and overwhelming tendency to the mythological absolute that is so striking. The ideological implication of such a relationship is not obvious, nor its alignment or lack of alignment with modern political tendencies, but hyperdevelopment of parallel tendencies to separation/division in the expressive socius and absolutist claims for his aesthetic method are potentially troubling in ways that seem to me to transcend the terms employed in current attempts to place Blake on our political horizon. Not only does Blake's procedural idiosyncracy make it hard to define whether he is liberal or conservative in terms significant to us, it seems from the very beginning to have been interested in precluding the possibility of such a distinction by interrogating the whole tradition of its evolution. The destructive potential of such an interrogation is generally ignored in commentary, and as well the possibility that it might reflect badly on attempts to locate Blake's position historically. The paradoxical passion everywhere in evidence in Blake's writing for "identifying" what is already distinct by dialectical insistence (so that Blake is the poet who sophisticates innocence even as he separates it from experience, just as he is the poet who savages Christianity from a point-of-view he describes as Christian) I want to identify as a signature of his style and of his way of thinking, strategies hard to contain in any ideology, let alone an ideology of the undivided image.
In a remarkable passage of their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer remark that the modern (fallen) ego has evolved from primitive mimicry (motivated by the need to exert control over Nature) to a rationalized and much more dangerous "direct equality of mimesis and the mediated equality of synthesis" in the concept. (9) Blake's use of the image, likewise consciously opposed (I believe) to the controlling purposes of the culture industry, represents a deliberate if anachronistic retreat to the value of a troubled mimicry in order to move self-consciousness beyond the reach of the concept (beyond the mimetic identitarianism he calls "Selfhood"), and I want to argue as well that this justifies relocating his image to the vicinity of the stubborn little object which for Lacan is simultaneously the cause of desire and the focus of resistance to Symbolic culture: the objet petit a. (10) One problem for the modern reader is that since the totalitarianism of our contemporary culture industry also often functions in the media by means of derisive mimicry, whether Blake's divisive image should be associated primarily with resistance or with capitulation is a question that reinforces his remarkable political ambivalence, and helps to explain why it bothers us so much that his passionate revolutionary rhetoric seems never to escape the disrupting effects of the parodic mimicry in which it expresses itself. Locating the implication of this ambivalence in contemporary theorizing, however, seems at least as useful politically as debating whether Blake was a Muggletonian or a liberal. Its location, I want to suggest here, is the intersection between the modern philosophical politics of ontology (ranging from Adorno to Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy (11)) and the psychoanalysis of Lacan. The sign of this intersection, its "X-marks-the-spot," precisely what unconsciously troubles the obsession among Blake critics with the undivided image, is the functional overlap between the object small a and mimicry. Lacan's remark (after Roger Callois) to the effect that mimicry serves as "travesty, camouflage, intimidation" (FFC 99) rather nicely sums up its effect in Blake's practice as well, but it is his further remark that for me tells the whole tale:
Indeed, it is in this domain [mimicry] that the dimension by which the subject is to be inserted in the picture is presented. Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage, in the strictly technical sense. It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but, against a mottled background, of becoming mottled--exactly like the technique of camouflage practised in human warfare. (FFC 99)
My invitation is to think of Blake's undivided image (represented by his illustration and as well by the flocculent tendency of his out-of-control ventriloquism) in terms of Lacan's stain--in the visual register the mottling agent and the agent therefore of mimicry--and more generally of the object small a, both of which act to block ontological identification. (12) Its opacity, I want to suggest, is what gave Blake, in his ambivalence about nearly everything, the cover to pretend absolute conviction (and to write great poetry), and it probably prevented him from noticing that his alienation from the future of his own implication might prove dangerous to his capacity for generating meaning over time. In short, the undivided image was Blake's enabling but at the same time nearly disabling unexamined tic, one that has proven surprisingly contagious among his readers.
In the Conclusion to his acute and useful study, Rhetoric and Culture in Lacan, Gilbert Chaitin remarks:
Not only does the Lacanian subject disrupt the standard psychoanalytic and metaphysical notion of the autonomous ego ... it also opens up the possibility of preserving a particularity which differs from the individualism based on self-consciousness and from the collective pressure of patriarchal normalization. (13)
The terms of this remark, an extension of his earlier claim that "whereas most modern theories of culture consider the value of individualism to be radically opposed to communal norms, Lacan's theory of the unconscious brings into focus their strange complicity," interest me especially against the background of Blake, because, as a general proposition, Blake's version of a similar mediation between individualism and law likewise comes to rest on a notion of "particularity" difficult to theorize. Morris Eaves demonstrates brilliantly the paradox inherent in Blake's aesthetic: hyperconscious as he was of technology, he had great difficulty expressing the idea of originality except in terms of imitation (see 345 below). Likewise, the salvation of "individuality" for Blake tends paradoxically to found itself on the total loss of Self which attends sacrifice to the socius: Albion at the end of Jerusalem suffers the intervention of an opacity (the "covering cherub" is here a metaphor for the materiality of the material) which conveys upon his disappearing friend Jesus the "honour" of a resemblance ("likeness & similitude") to Los. However surprising it may seem at first, it is not at all difficult to see here a horizon opening onto a connection between Blake's technology of expression and Lacan's version of semiotics, but it will be helpful to ride towards that opening on the parallel track where commentators try to guide Blake's undivided image in the direction of its (their favored) social/political implication. The contradictions encountered on this track are telling, and begin to evoke, especially in their theoretical logic, a slide downwards towards a notion of apocalypse that ought to give us pause.
I can begin with John Barrell's remark, early in his chapter on Blake in The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt that "Blake deserves to be admired much less than he is by his liberal critics"--a remark which, despite its pugnacious intention, could not possibly have given offense to sophisticated students had Barrell been slightly more tentative about the "coherent set of opinions" (243) he felt he could extract from Blake's highly colorful commentaries. The notion of "originality" he put front-and-center of the set has to do not only with Blake's conviction that he has "access to a vision of the heavenly origin of what it is that art should represent" (225: not news) but also with the conviction he attributes to Blake that "the more accurately he can represent the `originals' of things, the less his work will differ from that of other `original' artists" (225). Follow your own star, yes, but it won't prove to be a star unless it is equally the inspiration of all other great artists. In other words, Blake is a much more neoclassical theorist than some have imagined (and insofar as "some" subscribe to American traditions of interpretation, they have additionally tended to trivialize neo-classicism). Further, some (Barrell contends Morris Eaves) have badly misread Blake in the process of thinking otherwise (Barrell 224-25).
Insofar as Barrell bases his attack on Eaves's work by redefining, in distinctly more classical terms, what Blake meant by "originality," "individuality" (and "identity") and by "character," and insofar as his commentary bears on contemporary politics as well as historical discourse, his remarks illustrate my argument perfectly, for they bring together ideological aggression and issues in the visual arts to a remarkable degree, especially insofar as the latter are focused on particularity. (14) Eaves's response to Barrell is to be found in his sequel to William Blake's Theory of Art (1982), (15) The Counter-Arts Conspiracy (1992), a work that (I presume designedly) goes a long way towards drawing his antagonist's teeth by offering much more detailed social and historical contextualizations of Blake's extreme ideological expressions (in his art criticism) than we have ever had before. Eaves neatly sidesteps, in a certain sense mediates, Barrell's propositions by relocating Blake's opinions about art in a context of practical rather than purely theoretical opinion. Whereas Barrell complains that what separates Blake from Reynolds is not made "of a conflict between Neo-Classicism and Romanticism, but of a disagreement about how ... the theory of art [traditional to his time] is to be adapted so as to enable painting to describe a modern, complex society ..." (225), Eaves turns the tables by showing how Barrell's idea of "civic humanism" is much too pale (and generalized and abstract) a notion to characterize adequately Blake's hostility to "English school" national discourse about art. If there are excesses in Eaves's original book (arguable), his renewed approach loosens him up to the point that he disputes with his own "left flank" (represented by Joseph Viscomi and Robert Essick) by suggesting that their idea of Blake developing through dialectic interaction with his medium is probably "sentimental" and/or "anachronistic," "thus confusing Blake's Platonistic if not Platonic theorizing with ... Wordsworthian naturalism ..." (184). Eaves can also commit to a Blake he often in this study willingly identifies with social attitudes commensurate with hierarchical idealism, characterizing Blake's theoretical position as less "radical" than, in contemporary critical terms, opportunistically "bourgeois." This, of course, moves Blake simultaneously towards the "mature" idealism Barrell favors and at the same time towards a "traditional" Marx-derived idea of aesthetic function:
In Blake's analysis, the opposition to liberated individuality is less repressive collectivity, as we might ordinarily expect, than a pincer-like alliance between a totalitarian body politic above and atomization below: the one a ruling class dominating the individual from above--allied, as it were, with the starry world--the other dividing the individual from below, at the level of intermeasurable constituents (atoms, Lockean impressions, interchangeable parts, interchangeable workers, money as the measure of all things). (266)
However avowedly "anachronistic" the idea that Blake via his notion of individual inspiration might unconsciously be preparing the way for Marx's critique of individualism (174) lets Eaves have his cake and at the same time contentedly eat John Barrell's criticism of it. If the argument about loyalty to "individualism" as opposed to the abstract universalism of "civic humanism" can somehow evade the connection between the former and "minute particulars" (i.e. undifferentiated images), then Eaves seems to gain considerable ground against Barrell; but the idea of particularity (so often associated with the image in the Blakean propaganda-mythos) has, as it were, only been distributed between the "totality" of a "totalitarian body politic" on the one hand and the "atomism" of anti-imaginative "science" on the other.
Eaves's history explains precisely how the "institution" of English art as a polemical demonstration of native capacity grew to offend Blake to the degree that he found himself writing insulting remarks in the margins of a theorist (Reynolds) many of whose ideas, at least following Barrell's logic, were not so dreadfully removed (in theory) from his own. The reason is that the promotion of the "English school" took the form of an economic process where works of art were technologically reproduced and "translated"--imitated, illustrated but also plagiarized, bowdlerized--by means that, for Blake, systematically devalued artistic qualities he favored on behalf of other qualities (general "tone" and appearance and shading) of which he profoundly disapproved. (It did not help matters that he found too little work under the new dispensation, though he was not above practicing some of the new techniques when he was hired to do so; it does not help matters either that modern enthusiasm for Blake's "liberal" or "democratic" character sometimes tends to express itself in terms of the capacity of his own printing technique for technological reproduction.) Blake's reaction is a bit like the arguments one encounters between advocates of analogue versus digital reproduction of music, with respect to qualities of "character" and specificity of performance. Eaves's detailed and convincing account of all this becomes especially relevant to my concern when in the course of explaining that some of the new chalcographic techniques added qualities to pictures that themselves subsequently became autonomous values, he remarks "those flavors [supplied by new technologies] can themselves become topics of optical interest--thus (to misapply ... Jacques Lacan) adding to the stock of available reality by supplementing a lack" (199).
Barrell's issue is how we define Blake's oppositional stand with respect to individualities and particularities. He insists that what Blake means by "individual character"--that which is fudged and bleared by the commercially successful (because fast and "tonal") new techniques of reproduction--is undivided (that is, clear and integral) character:
Thus, Blake's 'individual' character is individual, not because it is uniquely his--as we have seen, no character can be that--but because, insofar as it is his `character', it is what constitutes the ground of his unity with eternity ... with Christ, and so with other men insofar as they acknowledge their generic character. (242)
This is telling, if not altogether believable (see Eaves's Counter-Arts 151-52), but it is also telling how much Barrell's imputed religious idea and Eaves's versions of Blake's technophobia share with respect to fetishizing unity. While presumably not a case of mimicry, this history has definitely been adopted by both parties. Blake's abhorrence of what seemed to him in the art-institutions that surrounded him a "counter-arts conspiracy"--an effort to destroy art in the guise of promoting it (so that English school politics on the national level corresponded to what Blake's friend Hayley came to seem to him on the personal level)--committed him to an art ideology of original conception: "translation," especially via the new technologies, was hired, like Reynolds, to depress art. In practice this meant that what was most valuable was the original idea, and however "conceptual" that idea was, however "mental," it came to be identified with a style of drawing which purported faithfulness to the indivisibility of the original image, conceived in terms of executive "stroke" or "hard wiry outline." Blake's printing method, rather than a technology for distributing copies, was in fact designed to be anti-technological, less "reproductive" and therefore closer to handwork, than ordinary printing. Conceived thus, looked at from the vantage point of the visual grasp of mental material, the argument between Barrell and Eaves over the cultural valence of particularity begins to seem almost inevitable, if not quite "semantic." Eaves insists that in his most characteristic expressions "Blake is too uncanny to remain snugly frozen into any theoretical trinity with Reynolds and Barry" (152), and clearly the uncanniness can be associated not only with his language but also to the visual figures identified with his allegiances. It's worth recalling that Freud's interpretation of uncanniness, the unexpected return of the repressed, was designed itself to repress a different theory of the uncanny which stressed uncertainty of figure. (16)
For a more explicitly theoretical account of the visual image, we don't have to turn very far aside from Blake, because it is W. J. T. Mitchell--building on his distinguished study of Blake--who most amply speaks to this need, at least from the perspective of literary critics. If the issue between Barrell and Eaves depends on the notion of particularity (as parsed in distinct senses by the requirements of self and truth), on the face of it Mitchell offers in Picture Theory a useful machinery for rethinking some of the basic problems. (17) Proceeding from his awareness that "what makes for the sense of a pictorial turn"--perhaps reactive to a former "linguistic turn"--in the critical sciences of mind and criticism "is not that we have some powerful account of visual representation that is dictating the terms of cultural theory, but that pictures form a point of peculiar friction and discomfort across a broad range of intellectual inquiry" (13), he suggests that "iconology"--he uses Panofsky, respectfully but relentlessly as an example of this contention--is a discipline where "icon" sooner or later is reabsorbed by "logos." In other words, whereas the ideological difference between Barrell and Eaves tends to come to rest on a common undifferentiated image, it's not too much to suggest that Mitchell's iconology tends spontaneously to split this object apart again, and the "friction" he almost seems to want to promote (on behalf of political tolerance) is repeatedly discovered to be inadequate to iconology's ideological ambitions. Rather in the manner of "romantic irony," iconology suggests unrealizable ideas of image autonomy. This does not leave the friction in question in a very good position to transcend the failure on the part of post-Kantian idealizing German mythographers to heal the division between noumenon and phenomenon. Quoting Christopher Wood approvingly to the effect that iconology "has not proved an especially useful hermeneutics of culture" Mitchell argues that this is
precisely because its object (the visual image) entraps its discourse and method in tautological "likenesses" between visual images and historical totalities[.] Is iconology, in contrast to its "disintegrative" methodological cousin, philology, incapable of registering the "faults" in culture, the fractures in representation, and the resistance of spectators? (23)
We can see in the idea of an image too wedded to material resemblance to cope with cultural difference an analogy to the conundrum joining Barrell to Eaves, and find resonance in it too with the fact that Blake invariably disguises his conceptual innovations by reproducing the tone of discourses he found ready to hand (mimicry). The solution to the problem Mitchell projects is to pretend that the logical fracture encountered via "likeness" is itself a satisfactory representation of modern self-consciousness (viz. his not very convincing attempts to "explore the way that pictures attempt to represent themselves" 24) and to replace epistemological cognition with an ethical re-cognition capable of a more hygienic approach to ideology than the one traditionally necessitated by the division between idealizing subject and material object our romantic tradition has left us with. The problem is that this solution, while more politically friendly to itself than Eaves and Barrell are to each other, is difficult to distinguish from the original problem. Self-conscious mimicry is given a free ride as "ethical recognition," and it seems legitimate to complain that while Mitchell's version of ethics depends upon dialectics, rather than sublates the logocentrism always discovered lurking at the heart of iconology, he seems to be attempting the sort of inversion Marx performs on Hegel, making metaphysical "subjects" convertible to supremely self-conscious images. It's not clear that this is much more than a circular exercise, though his idea that ideological critique "intervenes" but "is itself subjected by its object" (30) sounds promising and democratic. There is some sign of the difficulty this might imply for a reading of Blake in the (otherwise extremly rich) essay on Blake's "visible language" in the volume (111-50), where Mitchell argues that what he calls Blake's "graphocentrism" amounts to his "tendency to treat writing and printing as media capable of full presence" (117). He seems not to notice that there is an implicit contradiction between his view that Blake commits "to a revolutionary religious and aesthetic sensibility based on dialectical transformation through conflict" (117)--a summary of his earlier view in Blake's Composite Art--and his remark only a couple of pages later that "One way of defining Blake's difference from the other romantics is to see his lifelong struggle to unite these languages in a 'composite art' of poetry and painting as the aesthetic symptom of his die-hard fidelity to the Revolution" (121). What really seems to "die hard" here is the expression of dialectics (revolutionary dialectics at that) as image, even if the effect of totalization has to be dressed up as the more politically correct image he calls "metapicture" or "hypericon."
We can achieve a less abstract understanding of these issues in an essay by Harriet Guest and John Barrell, "`Who Ever Perished, Being Innocent?' Some Plates from the Songs of Innocence." (18) They begin by working up Blake's vocabulary of Innocence and Experience in dialectical terms, an approach they synchronize to the discourse of (empirically enlightened) civic humanism while resisting strenuously the idealistic, and perhaps to them also individualistic or even antinomian, notion that Blake's project on the Innocent side of his range is intended to evoke or (especially) to reproduce the super-conducted subjective state that Mitchell might associate to the condition of "hypericon"--innocence as a kind of absolute and prelinguistic solid of self-consciousness, something that figurally "represents the unfallen world" (238). They proceed from this rejection, convincingly supported by demonstrations of the dialectical ironies of Blake's categories and the semantic ironies implied by contexts of referral encoded into his illustrations, to a rich sense of the potential within Blake's methods of expression for social and political criticism. For example, writing about the poem "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence, they suggest that the subject-medium of the poem referred by the child to the piper--the Lamb--may be seen as "the surrogate offered in the place of innocence that the title of the book had seemed to offer" (249). (They have already shown good reason to associate this surrogacy, here an interpellated icon, with Blake's probable visual citation of an illustration of the story of Abraham and Isaac.)
[I]ts [the Lamb's] presence may thus alert us to the possibility that either it or the child who demands its presence may be about to be sacrificed and may produce or resolve in the piper the conflict between paternal and devout duty that was understood to have tormented Abraham. At any rate, the piper's treatment of the Lamb reduces the child to tears. It produces in the child an emotion which, unlike his earlier laughter, is triggered and to that extent controlled by the piper, who in turn describes himself as acting, not independently, but in response to the child's commands. The two have been introduced into a social interaction in which the medium of exchange, of mutual control, is the symbolic figure of the Lamb. (249; my emphases)
This contention is extraordinarily complex. The construction of Blake's meaning, built around a virtual icon (the Lamb), is here conceived both in terms of trauma ("the moment of innocence could be so compressed as to occupy no more than an imaginary moment before the child's first perception of the world" 258), and in terms of social criticism and/or complex resistance. Guest and Barrell imagine (still dialectically) a kind of emotionalist recasting of Hegel's master and slave. Metaphorically the piper's capacity to translate slaughter into song is seen as a dialectical function where the sublated idea is the transcendence implied by sacrifice. The child's innocence (figured by the Lamb) can only be realized by a sacrifice demanded by the child's identification with the victim. The further paradox is that the piper, for his part, can internalize the child only by sacrificing the latter's innocence, a difficult notion (one may say) to swallow. But the sense of the reading is that the piper achieves his own aesthetic transcendence this way (looking past the famous disappearance of the child and the staining of the water clear) precisely because the child's "Lambness" has already been demanded by its future state. The dynamics described by Guest and Barrell in terms of "mutual control" can therefore more systemically be understood by means of a virtual rather than material figure of which the function (really unrepresentable except as parodic allusion) intervenes (out of a "meaning future") to take up the slack of paradox hard to account for by dialectics alone. The stress on containment of idea by image is here extraordinary, but hardly simplistic; the issues at stake are explicit.
But the politics evoked are not less metaphysical than they would have been had Innocence been a more illusory or evasive invitation to turn one's back on the world, though it's true that Guest and Barrell seem in this essay, measured in terms of the (earlier) quarrel between Barrell (working alone) and Eaves, a bit more ambivalent about "civic humanism." Presumably to constitute "a part of what it is to be human" (see below) is, from their point of view, to participate in romantic illusion, but they also seem protective of Blake's position as affording critical purchase on "material divisions." Guest and Barrell explain that
the idea of innocence provides Blake with a means of exposing and criticizing the material divisions--social, economic, occupational--that his poetry elsewhere suggests impair both the society and the individuals that he represents. The idea of innocence allows him to protect the image of a consciousness not psychologically divided against itself because not constrained by those material divisions. But by a movement we can also think of as characteristically Romantic, his use of this idea ... what we have called its negative representability and the compression of innocence into a moment of primal unity--works to suggest that these social and psychic divisions pose a problem which is not ultimately political but is metaphysical, so that they are not susceptible of political solutions or of any "solutions" at all. They are a part of what it is to be human. (257; my emphasis)
While the idea here falls far away from the indivisibility one might associate with both Innocence and the visual icon (and tries to evade its clear idealism by evoking "humanity"), it is interesting how insistently the figures of speech--"material divisions," "the image of a consciousness not psychologically divided," "primal unity" and the like--work to associate metaphysicality with nostalgia for just such an undifferentiated state, while associating it too with "unrepresentability." Guest and Barrell are not perfectly satisfied with this "picture" of romantic irony, however, and they are cautious about attributing the negative implications of this idealism to Blake's politics, and so they claim to be offering their analysis, finally, on behalf of a further point, a point which not only spatially allows more "room" for Blake's presumed political conviction to function but which is--and this is what interests me especially in this context--capable of a self-generating dynamic.
For to use the discourse on innocence as a critical discourse was necessarily to take the risk that, in one text or another, the definition of innocence would not submit to be arrested at a point where it could still function as a political category and that the discourse would itself determine the trajectory of his writing. (258)
Again, it is hard to say whether Guest and Barrell imagine such an eventuality to be desirable or undesirable, but it seems to me that this impasse might be the place to wonder whether they have not already themselves incurred a benefit (probably to the detriment of a coherent material politics) they are not quite in a position to take advantage of. For it is arguable that with the word "arrested" they are echoing--perhaps not altogether consciously--the curious Lacanian notion of "mortification" that accompanies the arrival of the Symbol. Zizek, for example, speaks of "a kind of halted cinematic picture" and, in the process of warning us not to confuse Lacanian symbolism with "confinement to the Procrustian bed of imagos" counsels us about
the fundamental Lacanian insight according to which the symbolic order "stands for death" in the precise sense of "mortifying" the real of the body, of subordinating it to a foreign automatism, of perturbing its "natural," instinctive rhythm, thereby producing the surplus of desire, i.e. desire AS a surplus: the very symbolic machine which "mortifies" the living body produces by the same token the opposite of mortification, the immortal desire, the Real of "pure life" which eludes symbolization. (19)
As Chaitin also remarks: "The metaphor whose lightning flash momentarily reveals the subject's being must be based on such a metonymic negation of the pre-existing code; a new signifier must be supplied to substitute for the emptiness--of the subject, but more importantly, of the Other--uncovered by that moment of pure negativity, and the being in question is something that did not exist before but is created by the signifying process" (244; my emphasis).
This interrogation of Guest and Barrell is headed towards the superimposition upon the undivided image (even upon Mitchell's "hypericon") of Lacan's object (a), which is of course his name for what Zizek and Chaitin are talking about, and it might suggest therefore that one way of translating the trouble between Eaves and Barrell is in terms of their repetitive efforts to associate exclusively with Self or Other a term that in Lacan partakes vigorously of both.
The opening passages of Guest's and Barrell's essay cite some of S. T. Coleridge's astonishing and engaging remarks about "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence, in which he took considerable interest. As opposed to the "theory" that Blake's discourse is in any sense "naked" (innocent of representational self-consciousness), or intended to evoke any such condition, Guest and Barrell remind us of Coleridge's remarking what they call "a figurative charge" in the whole expressive language of the book, which Coleridge himself describes as a "despotism in symbols" (239). Such despotism, for Coleridge, seems to ensure ambivalence in that there is more on the visual record than the mind can easily decode. This conviction is realized in Coleridge's remark about the Piper in the illustration accompanying "Introduction" that he "could not determine whether the figure was drawn naked and the clothes [one of the "union suits" common in Blake's nudes] then added to cover his nakedness, or whether the figure was drawn clothed and the outlines of his muscles then drawn over the clothing to reveal his nakedness" (cited in Guest and Barrell 242). It is a homely point, but lovely in the way its implications point simultaneously inwards to image and outwards to absolute meanings. We realize that the context of the book--which pretends to be a book for (or about children)--begs the question of whether to be clothed or to be naked more automatically represents innocence to a child. One way out is to read the piper as both naked and clothed, which would cease to seem difficult if we accustomed ourselves to reading the picture as we might read an image in a dream ("he somehow seemed naked and clothed at the same time"), but this may seem only an evasive maneuver with respect to the "materiality" of the picture as a form that shows.
There is in fact a remarkable, if doubtful, theory of artistic function capable of showing Coleridge how to deal with his question. It suits our purposes as well, for by serving as an absolute parameter it illustrates the potential for absurdity towards which any theory of aesthetic image as container rather than representation edges. It is Kendall L. Walton's Mimesis as Make-Believe. (20) Walton's theory is a kind of behaviorism attributed to the aesthetic object, which attempts to translate all issues of representation into the rules or prescriptions for using artistic works as "props" in games of make-believe. The rules, imagined to be inherent in works of art quite independent of the adventures or intentions accompanying their generation, are a bit like software programs, except that they don't seem to rest or depend on any lower level which represents, in however minimal or "digitalized" a way, reality. In this theory representation and intention are dead issues. "Real truths" have nothing to do necessarily with "fictional truths" (they can mutually reinforce each other or work quite independently)--so much for mimetic realism--and all questions having to do with the generation of art by its creators or its use by "appreciators" are ruthlessly subordinated or found irrelevant to matters of "fictional" application by the work in play. Walton seems to imagine a rhetoric which is totally encapsulated within the work itself: the reader/viewer may become--must become--part of the work, but the work never moves outside itself. This theory is curiously "objective" therefore--"Props generate fictional truths independently of what anyone does or does not imagine" (38)--but only if one is willing to accept Walton's exceedingly fiat, not to say brain-softening notion of "imagine" or "make believe." For example, when a viewer attends an openly fantastic science fiction movie, say Alien, and manifests extreme terror, Walton will have no truck with the viewer's fear, not even with the notion that he or she "half believes" in the reality of the (depicted) alien slime or whatever. Walton argues (is this nominalism or a kind of aesthetic antinomianism?) that the viewer is simply pretending to be afraid. (Likewise the viewer of a Dutch seascape who points to something [depicted] on the canvas and says "That is a ship" "is merely pretending to refer to something and to claim it to be a ship" 219.) The burden of meaning is so consistently and absolutely shifted to the work and its mandate towards make-believe that all the difficult questions about mimetic realism can be ignored. It never seems to be a problem that, just as innocence is difficult to conceive extra-dialectically, it is hard to imagine the mandate to make-believe being issued without reference to a reality principle. (21) It might be intriguing to try to apply Walton's remarkable assumptions to certain of the character-speakers in Blake's lyrics, to associate his views with visionary innocence, but only in the sense that it makes their speakers available to a visionary solipsism is Walton's theorizing a solution to the enigmas of those poems.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to contemplate what a philosopher like Walton might do with the piper's anatomy/union suit. We get some inkling of how hard such a question might be for Walton when he asks, "Do motion lines in cartoons portray air streaming around and behind the moving object, thereby implying that fictionally it is moving? Or do they make it fictional merely that the object is moving?" (173; he works also on the concentric lines around bells "ringing" in similar pictures). Walton simply subordinates all such questions to the prior institution of fiction through the "prop" which stimulates it, and insists there may be no rule or center to how this is done. "There may be no primary fictional truths," he warns (174); make-believe is simply what, in the context of art, we do, and we do it unconditionally and as it were empirically. The bell simply rings for us, when it does, period. Amusingly (but consistently) Walton insists that a picture of a pillar of salt labelled "Lot's Wife" pictorially "presents Lot's wife in a manner such that it is fictional that we see her (in the form of a pillar of salt) when we see the picture" (297; my emphasis), and he argues moreover that this is a "picture of a person," not a denotation.
While Walton's idealism is finally unsatisfactory, whether applied to philosophy or aesthetic images (or to union suits in Blake), it at least has the virtue of making us understand, by example, what might be lurking behind the ideology of the undivided image, which seems so hard to give up even for those who already have done so. And it might put on the table as well a question about the usefulness of what "rings" for Lacan and Adorno--that resistance to mimesis we have been associating to mimicry and to the object (a), for of course the whole point of the latter is that it continues to "ring" quite outside the social Symbolic. If this too were to produce only another "idealism," the capacity of this perspective (and by analogy Blake's opacities) to suggest a mode of resistance itself resistant to totalitarian or apocalyptic meaning might be in jeopardy.
I need to explore this anxiety, since later it will make a difference, and because doing so will provide a better theoretical gloss on the attractions of the visual in these arguments than we have yet seen. The Lacanian analyst Bruce Fink gets to the heart of it when he remarks: "While existence is granted [for Lacan] only through the symbolic order (the alienated subject being assigned a place therein), being is supplied only by cleaving to the real" (Lacanian Subject 61). In the quarrel between image and logos, or in the related but not parallel quarrel between civic humanism and individualism (the political range patrolled by the "particular"), this distinction at least gives us a pair of terms not obviously dialectical or reducible to the quarrel between materialism and idealism. The point is precisely that the object (a) is a "rem[a]inder" of the organic wholeness with the (m)Other that is lost by the advent of Symbolization--so while in that dynamic sense the object (a) is decidedly on the side of the logos and, as it were, anti-iconic, anti-Imaginary, by the same token, "literally," by its resistance to symbolization (the object (a) is, as it were, a holdout) it enables (if only in fantasy) the now hopelessly split subject to maintain a sense of wholeness and fulfillment. (I hope it is not too obvious to underline that the "split subject" is precisely what Blake's Songs discourse represents.) The object (a) is described as a plaything by Fink (though not, fortunately, as a prop); it is also a representative of that which cannot be represented, once one has entered the logos. Having left Real being behind, the subject, through the object (a), is nevertheless able to sustain, in fantasy, a "being" of desire to supplement his/her existence in language. Lacan expresses this himself a bit more succinctly:
It is here that I propose that the interest the subject takes in his own split is bound up with that which determines it--namely, a privileged object, which has emerged from some primal separation, from some self-mutilation induced by the very approach of the real, whose name, in our algebra, is the objet a. (FFC 83)
The "approach of the real" which attends that symbolic process in the course of which existence is gained at the expense of what Lacan identifies as the "fall of the [Real] subject" is especially interesting in the range of visual experience which we know as dreaming, and his exposition of how this is goes a long way towards explaining, while it improves, the obsession with image we are pursuing. While expounding upon "the Gaze," Lacan insists, first, that in "the so-called waking state, there is an elision of the gaze, and an elision of the fact that not only does it look, it also shows" and, second, that "In the final resort, our position in the dream is profoundly that of someone who does not see. The subject does not see where it is leading" (FFC 73).
What is it about the visual register that is crucial here? And different from other registers of experience? Via the roles of representation which come to govern European art, Lacan makes the fascinating suggestion that because perspective in modern theories of pictorial representation assumes the identifying point of view of the viewer to be punctiform--i.e, at the "vanishing point"--the "fall of the subject" is hardly perceptible in the visual register, and easily disguises itself in its pleasure in the visual plenitude of the world:
The gaze may contain in itself the objet a of the Lacanian algebra where the subject falls, and what specifies the scopic field and engenders the satisfaction proper to it is the fact that, for structural reasons, the fall of the subject always remains unperceived, for it is reduced to zero. In so far as the gaze, qua objet a, may come to symbolize this central lack expressed in the phenomenon of castration, and in so far as it is an objet a reduced, of its nature, to a punctiform, evanescent function, it leaves the subject in ignorance as to what there is beyond the appearance.... (FFC 76-77) (22)
This "fall of the subject" in Lacan, is clearly useful for understanding the tendency to fetishize picture theory; with respect to our metaphysical concern it has its counterpart in the fall of the object in Lacan's semiotics. The ultimate paradox of Lacan's position vis a vis post-structuralism is that he insists that language must have an object, but that object itself only represents the necessary something that the system has to leave out. Therefore the object represented by the word--while still Real (and therefore no "illusion" a la post-structuralism)--has fallen away and left in its wake the representation of its absence. For Lacan, therefore, the signifier "is no longer the simple Saussurean material representative of the signified, of the mental representation-idea, but the substitute filling out the void of some originally missing representation: it does not bring to mind any representation, it represents its lack." (23) It might not be too great a political leap of faith--from this--to suggest that it represents as well--through mimicry of course--its resistance to its state of lack. Lacan traces this complex idea of representation home to Freud's own vocabulary, to the curious double-formation Vorstellungsreprasentanz. (24) In the ordinary metalanguage of post-structuralism, Zizek claims, there is a "missing void" or negativity to which Freud's term, and Lacan's object (a), is steadfastly faithful. "As soon as the Vorstellungsreprasentanz is no longer connected to this hole in the Other, to the falling out of the object," Zizek warns, "it begins to function as a `title': as a metalanguage designation, as an incision that limits, totalizes, canalizes the original dispersion of the signifying texture ... in short, we find ourselves in a `post-structuralist' mess" (Sublime Object 160). And, if we are willing to associate "dispersion" to mimicry, we might want to add that the mess in question is neither more nor less than the undifferentiated identitarian image.
One more question pertaining to the theoretical logic of Lacan's position (applied to Blake) needs to be raised. The negativity or unrealizability of the object can be seen to be its most important aspect and the most provocative in this connection. The idea would entail asserting that the non-present or the non-actual can constitute a part, perhaps the most important part of Being, and that a raised consciousness has to be able to entertain this Reality of the non-actual. (Such a notion might metaphysicize Walton's prop.) It is, of course, here that the rapprochement between a psychoanalytic ethic of renunciation and some version of Blake's spiritual mysticism or platonism must seem most problematic. Can it be more than an academic exercise to declare the relationship between what the Freud/Lacan tradition means by admission and tolerance of the non-actual ("tarrying with the negative") and what Blake means by the parallel process in his aesthetic realizations ("going to Eternal Death" equals allowing the opacity to intervene)?
We have in fact a wonderful reader of Blake, Mark Bracher, for whom the non-actual is the key to open all doors. This is not the place for a commentary on his extraordinary reading of Milton, in which he offers a systematic account of that huge poem as based on a metaphysic very close to what I have described. Bracher believes that Blake is preaching in Milton precisely the notion that inclusion of non-presence in our sense of the Reality of Being amounts to a mode of something like salvation. Moreover, Bracher is, correctly I believe, insistent that this amounts to no simple transcendentalism in Blake, rather to something like immanentism, for the Reality of the non-existent has to be entertained by the forces of life. I will limit myself to quoting one brief remark from his book-length exposition, which speaks to the language of Eaves versus Barrell as well as to this point. The two dynamics of the object (a)--broaching individual resistance and social subservience respectively--are here personified, in Blake's jargon, as the impulses towards wrath and pity respectively:
... without the movement of actualization [by the forces of life] ... the powers which regulate relation to otherness might also disappear ... the powers of wrath and pity, which provide, respectively for the sanctity or security of the individual and the inter-connectedness or relatedness of the individual with others. Non-actual particularity, or negativity, is thus an absolute prerequisite of Being itself, and the elimination, by metaphysical abstraction, of non-actual particulars thus threatens the very process of Being. (25)
The metaphysics of non-actual particulars are a vast improvement on Walton's aesthetics, and a political metaphoricity between the dual function of Lacan's object (a) and Blake's idea of the tragic separation of wrath and pity seems conceivable, but still alarming. Consider Mark Bracher's assertion (derived from Blake, not from Freud) that "Eros must motivate and impel the sacrifice of the present, actual form of the individual in favor of what the individual can become--including, ultimately, the individual's Eternal Death, or non-self-presence" (Bracher 112). Whatever this amounts to in aesthetic or Christian terms, its availability to apocalyptic politics bears watching. So therefore, although we have been moving, with Lacan's help, away from apocalyptic totalization, "non self-presence"--especially as a social principle--has not lost its capacity to disturb. It is high time to explore it in an actual Blake song, to explore in a concrete instance whether mimicry successfully draws the teeth of apocalyptic immanence. In the case of "Infant Sorrow" mimicry takes the form of a vocal self so radically divided that the ear requires a moment or two to realize that its one aspect is a mockery of the other. We also find there an occluded symbolic dimension where revolutionary hatred has been swallowed by sophisticated resignation, and an "illustration" designed in a curiously literal way to prevent the expressive dimensions of the text from addressing each other.
INFANT SORROW My mother groand! my father wept. Into the dangerous world I leapt: Helpless, naked, piping loud; Like a fiend hid in a cloud. Struggling in my fathers hands: Striving against my swadling bands: Bound and weary I thought best To sulk upon my mothers breast. (E28)
Since newborns are etymologically as well as actually speechless, the poem's voice must belong, not literally to the child himself, but to a sophisticate who is regarding the initiation of a life into this vale of sorrow with world-weary resignation. Burned from the start by mockery, the poem emanates from a profoundly divided subject. The tone can pass for sympathetic (it almost has to, since the speaker's trope is identification), but there is a critical smile at work in the rhetoric which could easily turn nasty. This effect is primarily the work of "sulk" (line 8), which, while precise, also plays with "suck," the auditory rival undergoing repression here. The aversion, on the part of the voice, to "suck" betrays maturity, a certain finickiness, and suggests a sense of worldly humor. The same sensibility informs the play on "like a fiend hid in a cloud," which Roman Jakobson in a fine commentary has pointed out indicates the infant wrapped in its placenta. (26) That "loud" is encased by "cloud" as "best" lies within "breast" (as Jakobson also notes) further contributes to this sense of sophistication--both being aspects of the maternal--and helps underline the wordplay implied by "sulk."
But even Blake's habit of separating the expressive elements of his poems probably would not prepare us for the degree of discrepancy between the voice here and the mythic cycle implied by the text in its notebook version, which includes (Erdman tells us) seven additional stanzas (E797-99). (27) The speaker of that notebook version (which includes the published poem as its first two stanzas) finally identifies himself as mature also ("But the time of youth is fled / And grey hairs are on my head"), but all impression of sophistication is quite swallowed up by a passionately Oedipal, even paranoid, plaint against (alternatively) "the Priest," "Priests," or "My father." Where the published poem, while it mentions the father ("my father wept," "Struggling in my fathers hands"), seems more preoccupied with the mother, the unpublished poem rails resentfully at the father's (or priest's) restrictions and, especially, hypocrisy, never referring to the mother after the first two stanzas. The father restricts the child's pleasure in such an allegorical way--he curses the child's reaching for "many a lovely flower & tree," and binds him "in a mirtle shade" (in another passage Blake associates the myrtle with enforced monogamy)--that his influence seems to manifest itself through all aspects of life. Just how Oedipal all this is the poem's ending makes clear, "So I smote [him] & [his] gore / Staind the roots my mirtle bore," but rage is supplemented by a reaction to suppression which is not only hatred but also an implied effeminacy or perversion:
When I saw that rage was vain And to sulk [orig. suck] would nothing gain Turning many a trick or wile I began to soothe & smile And I soothd day after day Till upon the ground I stray And I smild night after night Seeking only for delight (E798-99)
This offers a fascinating gloss for "sulk" in the published poem, but the exchange of sophistication for writhing sensual resentment is spectacular.
We might want to argue, on this basis, that the more urbane speaker of the published poem has every reason to preempt the identity of the notebook poem's speaker; moreover in this he is in league with the illustrator (see Figure 1) who seems to know that "infant" means speechless, for when the right-hand, taller of the two curtains that separate the bassinet from the mother's bed is drawn, as may be imminent, only the title of the poem will remain. When this happens, there will be even less chance of reading the text as the infant's own language, but of course there will be no chance in that case of reading anything (but the title).
Certain details of the illustration are, moreover, very curious. For there are two curtains in potential motion (threaded onto branches--both of these forward of a vaguer third curtain beyond the parental bed), and while the taller one (capable of swallowing the speaker's voice) is drawn for the moment all the way to the right margin, the parallel lower curtain (furthest forward), incapable of blotting out the adult's sophisticated utterance but perfectly capable of screening the child from its parent's bed, is drawn, or in the process of being drawn, in such a way as to separate him (I would assume) from that place of origin. And, while a slender nurse (the sense of swaddled luxury enforces the feeling this is not the missing mother the child's gesture evokes) bends in from the right, before the curtain, to sweep him up, the child raises his arms in resistance (?) against that lower curtain.
A number of features deserve comment here. Why should the upper curtain draw back so as to favor the voice, while a lower screens the bassinet from the bed? Might the mother's absence (assuming the intervenient nurse) connote her death? The latter possibility would help explain the rather exaggerated intervention of the nurse and the drawing of the curtains (unless they represent merely restriction in general)--and the fact that the plate's words are furthest back, in terms of perspective, suggests that the voice of the poem might emanate from a consciousness at this point in time unaware that the mother is gone (lack of access to pictorial perspectives further forward). However sophisticated, the speaker, we might say, is in no position to get the whole picture. Perhaps the suggestion of the illustration is that there is a much more formidable reason for "infant sorrow" than either the voice or the pictured infant is in a position to realize yet. Whatever stasis or possibility the curtains represent, they make the divisions among the poem's positions (points of view) theatrically impermeable and at the same time visually opaque to each other.
There are a few other noteworthy details. As David Erdman's commentary points out, there are suggestions of mirroring in some versions of this plate, as if the whole tableau were mounted on a reflective floor. (28) A similar surface may be indicated by the play of light on the lower curtain, to the point that the infant can be imagined as raising his hands to his own reflection. A further possibility is that the infant is preparing to "sulk" not its own reflection but a shape in the fold of the curtain resembling a female breast. In other words, the mother is unavailable, perhaps dead, and the child, ministered to by a sympathetic nurse, is about to be snatched from a substitute breast he has found in the shrouding curtain, a curtain he is pathetically drawn to via self-reflection. It is not hard to see how one could read this illustration, if one cared to, as a rather literal realization of Lacan's point about the Vorstellungsreprasentanz (the place-mark of a fallen object), nor is it obscure that the illustration, like a stage set, "stands for" separations within the composite art-form.
Can we approach Blake's ideology with this in mind? The words of the text in their different contexts (the notebook and the published poem) "mean" more differently than even Blake's customary separation of expressive registers requires, for we seem to have here different meaning-contents rather than different kinds of meaning. Such recycling is not unique to this poem, and it is a staple of Blake interpretation to notice how the same materials are endlessly circulated in different contexts and sometimes assigned to new points of view. It has always been unclear whether this is a difference problem or a sameness problem. The puzzle is not mitigated, either, by the fact that, even within apparently seamless character-utterances, the quality of a given character's voice can often be signalled (as in this poem) by a curious stylistic cannibalism of another voice projecting pathos or sophistication, as the case may be. Here the play on "sulk" and the related play with best/breast and loud/cloud (examples of mimicry) illustrate this tendency, where a putative child voice speaks from the point of view of a jaded adult. But, again, to what end ideologically? Let me return to a remark by Morris Eaves, very useful but ideologically challenging. Eaves, as we've seen, shows us that the question of individuality versus civic universalism is cognate with Blake's attitude toward imitation, the basis of his line on "English school" self-promotion. "Originality has to imitate" is a compact statement of the aporia (ideal mimesis or alienating mimicry?) that rages between Eaves and Barrell, and from this aporia Eaves derives one of his most trenchant passages about Blake's art:
The dependent relation of imitation upon originality that is characteristic of Blake's art history shows up in several ... ways. It bears, for example, a large part of the blame for making his verbal and visual narratives difficult to follow. Since all parties speak the same, or imitation of the same languages, confrontations often seem to be staged in a hall of mirrors where lookalike, soundalike opponents challenge Blake's powers of representation and ours of discrimination.... Contraries ... do not drive his plots ... not action, we might say, but imitated action, such as subversion and seduction, the conspiracies of plagiarists and hypocrites.... And as this logic suggests, Blake's version of English-school history is emphatically conspiratorial--a Christian analogue being the schemes directed against Jesus by hypocritical Romans secretly in league with hypocritical priests who patronize a double cross by a member of Jesus' inner circle. (Counter-Arts 136-37)
This is a very important general insight into the difficulty of reading Blake with satisfaction, and it is interesting to see it connected so definitively to the ideology of reading art history, where the conflict between Barrell and Eaves is drawn. It also, though I may be stretching Eaves's point here, associates Blake's idealism with an essentially pathological religious position.
But it is interesting for another reason also. The direction of my discussion has been towards connecting Blake's position with Lacan's idea of "subjective destitution" (a notion not difficult to find in "Infant Sorrow"): the subject, according to Zizek's version of this idea (specifically he is describing the "subject in analysis"), ceases to presuppose himself a subject (in Blakean terms, he renounces Selfhood and "goes to Eternal Death"), he "assumes not the existence but the nonexistence of the big other ... he keeps open the gap between the Real and its symbolization" (Sublime Object 230-31). (Translated into a pragmatics, this could be taken as a comment on Bracher's attitude, making it slightly less alarming.) Zizek assumes we can never escape the absolutism (in philosophy) of Hegelian double-reflection, nor (in politics) our obscene tendency to offer the big Other sacrifices (in the form of anti-semitism, the "sacred trust" of political aggression, etc.) unless we manage to maintain this gap. One way of construing the curtains in the illustration to "Infant Sorrow" is to claim that the half-drawn lower curtain does just what Zizek is describing--it paradoxically keeps "open," half-open anyway, the gap between the Real and its symbolization, whereas the drawn higher curtain, which reveals the word common to Voice and Symbol, pretends to fill the gap, thereby permitting the ambivalent registration, at once suave and paranoid, of the Symbolic. It's worth noticing that, in the instance of "Infant Sorrow," the Symbolic seems to have the further function of placating revolutionary anger. Its production, in the place of revolution, of a semi-sympathetic sneer at the unhappy child seems unremarkable if this is read politically.
We have arrived at the notion that the illustration, or at least certain of the details of its imagery, bears a relationship to Lacan's object (a). Its opacity stands simultaneously for the death of the subject and a point of residual resistance, at least, to the cultural Symbolic. But if this claim transcends the argument between romantic individualism (that whiny child) and civic humanism (which links arms only to sneer), it does so only at the expense of any very recognizable version of the icon we have often in the critical tradition identified with "Blake," especially if--insisting on some degree of political praxis--we evade the challenge of non-existence, and, in the spirit of Zizek's exhortation to enjoy our symptoms as ourselves, refuse to go to Eternal Death.
I have held in reserve, however, the implication of one final, I hope not simply dialectical, glance at the vaguer third curtain behind the bed in "Infant Sorrow": suddenly it might occur to us that the notebook stanzas excized from Blake's etched poem are in fact still "there." It's just that the curtain, his picture, puts them out of sight, and this after all has all along been the implication of our reading of Blake's divisive image. Are we perhaps mistaken to argue that these words, repressed from the notebook version, have "gone to eternal death" in either Blake's special Christian sense (Mark Bracher) or Lacan's, sacrificed to a pacified if civil sneer? Or are we to suppose they never really go away, even though we can't see them? Do they still exist, even though they can no longer be? The poem's most intriguing trope is that, even if the lower curtain has successfully veiled the words expressing Oedipal hatred, it has not managed to conceal their object entirely. For is the father not the speaker of the poem? His voice may be construed as the originality complicit with the object (a), creative of the poem itself, yet (as always with this author) available paradoxically only via mockery of his son's resignation from a more active engagement ("I sulk"). Should we worry about whether this amounts only to another example of dialectic sublation, the dialectic that transcends negative resistance? Is the object (a), to put it another way, just another ideal cop-out in this manifestation?
Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy propose a similar failing in Lacan (hoping to deconstruct his thought into a system uncalled for by his intentions), whereby there is created behind the scene, i.e. beyond the text in a kind of non-locus, a "possibility of equivalence" denied by Lacan's theory of the signifier, (29) and it would not be unreasonable to see Blake as well, through the obsessive mimetism of his verbal practice (as noted by Eaves) struggling for some similar "post-ontological" resonance, as it were, against the implication of his own theoretical prejudice. This would amount to the ontological traduction of mimicry, whereby mimicry emerges dialectically as mimesis after all. But I want to insist that Blake's efforts to extract even this rarefied an ontological possibility out of his present pain is always in his practice crossed by a reaction made necessary by already having exploited the means of his art as agents of repression and anxiety; the effort to salvage is so permeated with this proleptic resistance that mimesis is invariably preempted by melancholy and satiric hatred.
It is also necessary to look ahead of all but a few of the Songs to observe that Blake's next step was indeed towards myth. To avoid a large-scale response to what is obviously a large-scale step, I want simply to conclude by citing a fascinating remark in Adorno's and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment, where those authors accuse Hegel's dialectic of "ultimately making the conscious result of the whole process of negation--totality in system and in history--into an absolute," thereby violating the idea of "determinate negation" and lapsing into "mythology" (24). Their remark is a consequence of associating in this passage dialectics and criticism of the enlightenment with the much older story of illusion in the Jewish tradition--the prohibition against idols and images:
Dialectic ... interprets every image as writing. It shows how the admission of its [the image's] falsity is to be read in the lines of its features--a confession that deprives it of its power and appropriates it for truth. (24; my emphasis)
These authors find, not without figural difficulty, back behind dialectic as behind Blake's curtain, the writing written by the features of the faces of the idols. In the last analysis, Adorno and Horkheimer are not to be compared with Blake, for they attempted to carry a certain tradition forward, without breaking from its terms altogether. It might be said they were more afraid of the past than of the future, understandably. Blake, for good or for ill, was more afraid of the future, but it is possible to see him with a project that has a similar outlook to theirs, and to see him using something like the obverse of their method: finding in every word anti-dialectically (also ante-) its image and the line of its features, all the way towards the precipitation of mythology. If there is a progressive dynamic here, it is also (from a political perspective) dangerously against the grain of existence, despite its "materiality." The terms of Blake's material culture, of his culture industry, put the mechanically reproduced image in his way almost to the same degree (at least he felt) as modern culture puts virtuality and the destruction of experience in our way, and at least so far we should have no difficulty recognizing him. But I hope I have shown that his "aesthetic theory" (to borrow Adorno's play on words) was neither dialectical nor identitarian in the ordinary sense. Like Lacan's object, which splits the integrity of self and system alike in order to die into fantasy, the image within Blake's mode of thought mortifies the agent of division as an opaque stand-in for the real self fallen behind it, and he uses the separate aspects of his mode of expression as if they were analogous to the part-objects out of which, according to psychoanalysis, we construct our objects of desire. But by insisting that even myth must yield to a dissecting mimicry, he seems to be insisting likewise that myth is powerless to effect itself beyond the splendor of his images, which in fact are often most splendid (as in The Book of Urizen) where most expressive of powerlessness.
What alarmed Blake is still what alarms us today: on the one hand (Scylla), the mimetic bogey of total identitarianism (no escape from the totalitarianism of the Symbolic); on the other (Charybdis), the anticipation that a "non-mimetic" identity might commit us to the apocalyptic death of interest in the actual. To his credit, even though powerfully drawn to apocalypse, Blake preserved the world he hated via his inability to escape from mockery. (30) Many of the sources of Blake's thought are unavailable to us, short of esoteric antiquarianism, and I can't say for myself that I consistently regret this. I have been more concerned here to recover an aspect of the future which he chose to make war against that has its own cautionary tale to tell about his continuing relevance.
(1.) Jerusalem 96.7, 29-32, E255-56. All references to Blake's poems are to The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, Newly Revised Ed. (Berkeley: U of California P, 1982). Title, plate and line numbers (where necessary) will be followed by page numbers in E and included in the text.
(2.) Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (NY and London: Norton, 1978) 99. Future references to this work will appear parenthetically in the text as FFC followed by a page number.
(3.) The Counter-Arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1992). I mean no disrespect here, but what I am driving at can be delivered from a characteristically honest essay, also by Morris Eaves, "On Blakes We Want and Blakes We Don't" (William Blake: Images and Texts [San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1997]), where after insisting heroically that a variety of categories--whether contemporary or modern--are simply inadequate to contain Blake ("too much the contrarian" 162), Eaves proceeds to argue that "the focused, archival approach is the one that promises the greatest gains at this point in the history of Blake studies" (163). Is it too outrageous to argue that the accumulation of historical studies, as Eaves's essay by its very title indicates, has on the contrary tended to muddy the waters rather than clarify them? My argument is not to abandon historicism or its current fruits (for which I have sufficient regard), but to suggest that since Blake's works are addressed to the future in a way at least as negative and critical as enabling--that since they are designed to disable the future--even an historicism sensitive to its own ideological blinders faces in his case peculiar problems. Blake housed his thought in innovations which were in many ways parallel in effect to modern cultural critique, but they fought the intellectual foundations of that critique with equal determination. It seems to me doubtful that an archival historicism can cope with this. The case for Blake as Muggletonian is made by E. P. Thompson in Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993).
(4.) Barrell's critique of Eaves's William Blake's Theory of Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1982) is in "A Blake Dictionary": The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1986) 222-57.
(5.) A characteristic claim from A Descriptive Catalogue of Blake's Exhibition, At No. 28, Corner of Broad Street Golden Square reads: "Clearness and precision have been the chief objects in painting these Pictures. Clear colours unmuddied by oil, and firm and determinate lineaments unbroken by shadows, which ought to display and not hide form, as is the practice of the latter Schools of Italy and Flanders" (E530).
(6.) Joseph S. Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993).
(7.) In the course of "considerations of representability," Freud on the one hand seems to favor pictorial representation ("The direction taken by the displacement usually results in a colorless and abstract expression in the dream-thoughts being exchanged for a pictorial and concrete one"), but it is clear also that this choice is on behalf of conceptual function rather than the sense appealed to or utilized in drawing ("... if our everyday, sober method of expression is replaced by a pictorial one, our understanding is brought to a halt, particularly since a dream never tells us whether its elements are to be interpreted literally or in a figurative sense ..."). The Interpretation of Dreams, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 5, ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth P, 1953) 339, 341.
(8.) See my essay, "Recasting Moses: Narrative and Drama in the Dumbshow of Freud's `The Moses of Michelangelo,'" American Imago 52 (1995): 439-61, where these dimensions are pursued in a psychoanalytic context.
(9.) Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1991) 181. Future references to this work will appear parenthetically in the text.
(10.) For a useful commentary, see "Object (a): Cause of Desire," in Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1995) 83-97. What needs to be underlined here is the analogy between the object (a) as holdout from the symbolic system (that little possibly revolutionary hunk of the Real the Symbolic cannot successfully mediate) and the hope for a possible future mimesis that Adorno seems to have maintained. See Martin Jay, "Mimesis and Mimetology," in The Semblance of Subjectivity, ed. Tom Huhn and Lambert Zuidervaart (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997) 44.
(11.) Martin Jay, in the essay cited in note 10, gives a good account of what the stakes are: "what Derrida calls a `mimetologism,' the imitation of the same in a closed system of ultimate higher reconciliation, a system in which what is mimetically re-presented is the putative unity of the logos itself, a logos that is identified with the truth." Jay shows, with discriminations that are irrelevant here, how both Adorno and Lacoue-Labarthe turn to "aesthetic illusion"--art--in order to resist, by undercutting it, any such subscription to totality, what Adorno calls the "general mimetic abandonment to reification, which is the principle of death" (39-40). Lacan's idea of mimicry is obviously cognate with this tradition, and with the function of his object (a) as well, which can be read--especially if one focuses on its precipitation as an object rather than on its effect on subjectivity--as an interruption of the apparently transparent mimetic ambitions of the Symbolic.
(12.) I am rushing, perhaps too quickly, towards the suggestion that illustration and "quasi quotation" (in Blake's style) amount to a sort of "typography," a defense against ideological doubling. See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe's essay "Typography" in Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989), where he engages Rene Girard both on behalf of and against his theory of representation as it evokes Freud's repetition principle and Lacan's mirror stage, especially 113-14.
(13.) Rhetoric and Culture in Lacan (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996) 246.
(14.) Eaves cannot resist, either, identifying Barrell's position with elitism: "its stress on the need for a militia to conduct an effective public defense, and its distinctly nostalgic orientation to the past" (Counter-Arts 150).
(15.) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1982.
(16.) "The Uncanny," The Standard Edition, Vol. 17 (London: Hogarth P, 1955) 217-52.
(17.) Picture Theory (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1994). Mitchell's pioneering Blake book is Blake's Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1978).
(18.) Style 22 (1988): 239-62.
(19.) Tarrying with the Negative (Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1993) 178-79.
(20.) Kendall L. Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (Cambridge and London: Harvard UP, 1990).
(21.) The sophisticated idea that fictions are "pretended and represented illocutionary actions" is very threatening to Walton, because it includes all the features of his theory within the normal workings of language, and moreover attributes "fiction" to an agent outside the work itself. Such an idea he pronouces "wrong to the very core" (81-85). Here then is the locus of undividedness for Walton, in the "mandate" of the artwork's function as prop.
(22.) In Martin Jay's "Mimesis and Mimetology" a curious parallel in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory is noted. "Adorno specifically defends the importance of a visual moment in art" Jay remarks, "[b]ut rather than fetishizing that moment into the essence of art per se or rigidly opposing sensuality to spirituality, Adorno also argues that `mimesis only goes on living through its antithesis, which is rational control by artworks over all that is heterogeneous to them.... Art is a vision of the nonvisual; it is similar to a concept without actually being one" (43). Mimicry again.
(23.) Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London, New York: Verso, 1989) 160.
(24.) Lacan asks: "And the sphere, order, and gravitation of the Vorstellungen, where does he [Freud] locate them? ... between perception and consciousness, between the glove and the hand." The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 7: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-60, trans. Dennis Porter (London and New York: Norton, 1992) 61. Lacan goes on, wonderfully from my point of view, to characterize the Vorstellungsreprasentanzen as "flocculated ... curds of representation," showing that when he says "between perception and consciousness" he really means it!
(25.) Mark Bracher, Being Form'd: Thinking Through Blake's Milton (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill P, 1985) 112.
(26.) "The Verbal Art of William Blake," in Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pmorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1987) 480.
(27.) Michael Phillips' account of Blake's revisions eventually produces ten additional stanzas but is somewhat easier to follow (William Blake: The Creation of the Songs [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 2000] 48-52).
(28.) The Illuminated Blake, annotated by David V. Erdman (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday-Anchor, 1974) 90.
(29.) Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan, trans. F. Raffoul and D. Pettigrew (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992) 137.
(30.) An argument I want to distinguish from Steven Goldsmith's ingenious (but I think unconvincing) idea that Blake draws back from apocalypse for politically constructive reasons: "At the very moment one can no longer guarantee the expression of truth to others, one gains a freedom from truth imposed by others." This seems to me a much too optimistic (if not classically idealistic) reading of Blakean paradox (Unbuilding Jerusalem: Apocalypse and Romantic Representation [Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1993] 157).
DAVID WAGENKNECHT has been editing Studies in Romanticism (he confesses somewhat to his horror) since 1978. Two recent articles explore "aesthetic hysteria" in stories by Henry James, but currently he finds himself exploring the "subject of literature" and (again) Blake.
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|Title Annotation:||William Blake; Theodor Adorno; Jacques Lacan|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2002|
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