A chapter from Ben Wat­son’s book, Blake in Cam­bridge. 
Ben Wat­son: Blake in Cam­bridge
Paper­back : 168 pages
ISBN-13 : 978–0956817686
Product dimen­sions : 12.7 x 0.99 x 20.32 cm
Pub­lish­er : Unkant Pub­lish­ers (30 April 2012)
Lan­guage : English
Like all great writ­ing, Blake immerses us in a mael­strom of mean­ing, where – to our wide-eyed amazement and gasp­ing incredu­lity – the con­nec­tion between lan­guage and social intent is elec­tric­ally restored. Blake cri­ti­cised the Enlight­en­ment, not as a reac­tion­ary, but as someone who under­stood where the Cartesian emphas­is on the indi­vidu­al would lead: to Mar­garet Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as soci­ety”, to abject sur­render to the anti-social force of money, to war, fas­cism and death.

In Blake’s milieu, debates about reli­gion were still the lin­gua franca of polit­ics. E.P. Thompson’s final book (Wit­ness Against the Beast, fin­ished but unpub­lished in his life­time)15 was a study which explained how the pecu­li­ar Chris­tian­ity of Blake’s upbring­ing – leg­acy of a civil-war sect which saw Jesus as a rad­ic­al human­ist abol­ish­ing all hier­arch­ic­al mys­ter­ies, a sect Thompson called ‘Muggleto­ni­an’ – allowed him to impro­vise a sys­tem which anti­cip­ated the best thoughts of Marx and Freud. Although such a defin­i­tion runs counter to Blake’s own ter­min­o­logy, in Marx­ist terms, Blake was a mater­i­al­ist: “God only Acts & Is in exist­ing beings or Men”.16 This is a Prot­est­ant ver­sion of Giam­battista Vico’s dis­cov­ery that her­oes and Gods are the inven­tion of par­tic­u­lar social groups, and so his­tory is made by people.17 The epi­graph to Blake’s Milton – “Would to God that all the Lords people were Proph­ets”18– bears wit­ness to the anti-hier­arch­ic­al rad­ic­al­ism which bursts out in all revolutions.

Wheth­er or not Thompson is right about the Muggleto­ni­ans (giv­en the paucity of sources, he presents his case with a cer­tain scep­ti­cism), Blake cer­tainly grew up with the argu­ments and polit­ics of the Brit­ish Civil War ringing in his ears. Not the ‘Round­heads versus Cava­liers’ of school his­tory les­sons, but the teach­ings of the reli­gious sects which flour­ished as new mer­cant­ile wealth mobil­ised mass forces against the Crown. The Chris­tian­ity Blake grew up with was dis­respect­ful, argu­ment­at­ive and invent­ive. There is an anti-author­it­ari­an, almost comed­ic aspect to it. It anti­cip­ates the ‘stoned’ tone of the 60s counter-cul­ture, where meta­phys­ic­al spec­u­la­tion becomes an enter­tain­ment to be enjoyed with friends, and whole uni­verses bal­loon and pop in wraiths of dope smoke. I sup­pose I could make my point here in Cam­bridge by ref­er­en­cing Ed Dorn,19 but the anguish and scorched tur­moil of Blake’s writ­ing is closer to the late work of Philip K. Dick (Val­is). A defi­antly ama­teur, ungainly attempt to wrest back real­ity from priests and author­it­ies, and make it an object of dis­cus­sion and trans­form­a­tion for the people imme­di­ately around us.

Blake said that if he read a book by someone, it had to be by an equal, or it wasn’t worth read­ing

For insti­tu­tion­al thinkers, there’s a clear hier­archy: the big abstrac­tions are immove­able and etern­al, only the incid­ent­al illus­tra­tions move and change. In Blake’s milieu, it was the big abstrac­tions which wobbled and toppled. Blake writes power­fully because he’s tran­scrib­ing phrases which could be shouted across a noisy meet­ing hall or used dur­ing an intense one-on-one where the point of issue was wheth­er or not to attend a par­tic­u­lar meet­ing or join a par­tic­u­lar sect (the only writer with a pinch of this qual­ity today is Stew­art Home): our ongo­ing, unend­ing col­lect­ive speech. The idea of stir­ring up all this sub­lit­er­ary pas­sion and strife (quite lit­er­ally ‘cob­blers’, the free dis­cus­sion which Josef Diet­z­gen, him­self a mas­ter tan­ner, noted among leath­er work­ers) 1  into a soup worthy of an epic­al tur­een is indeed com­ic­al, but it’s a com­edy Blake milks. 1  Blake said that if he read a book by someone, it had to be by an equal, or it wasn’t worth read­ing. He didn’t accept super­i­or author­ity. This insist­ence on the supreme everyper­son anti­cip­ates Dada, Allen Ginsberg’s Flower Power, Sur­real­ist and Situ­ation­ist agit­a­tion, the Punk Rock move­ment and (most recently) the Joyce cel­eb­rated in Théor­ie du Bloom. 1  This Jeder­mann sein eign­er Fußball is the oppos­ite of insti­tu­tion­al book-keep­ing, which traps lit­er­ary excel­lence in an amber which the stu­dent stud­ies at a dis­tance. Com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism: a value sundered from the labour which made it hap­pen (and could make it hap­pen between us now).

Blake’s anti-hier­arch­ic­al polit­ics anti­cip­ated the future. They also provided a power tool for excav­at­ing the con­tours of his­tory. His pas­sion for Milton was based on the fact that, for him, Milton’s argu­ments about church and state and grace were still alive. In 1936, T.S. Eli­ot pub­lished an attack on Milton which pre­pared the ground for post­war poetry in Eng­lish. What Eli­ot wanted was con­ver­sa­tion­al flu­ency, domest­icity, free­dom from grand-nar­rat­ive thun­der. Milton didn’t provide it. His syn­tax was over­com­plex and Lat­in­ate, the verse tur­gid and badly-writ­ten. His sen­tences were too long. Eli­ot claimed this was a ‘tech­nic­al’ cri­ti­cism, but he was actu­ally set­ting bounds to the scope of poetry: what was to be admired was the feli­city of a poem’s expres­sion, not the weight and thrust of its sub­ject mat­ter. In con­trast, Blake dis­covered in Para­dise Lost a dir­ect tran­script of the press­ing doc­trin­al issues which made him a polit­ic­al anim­al. Blake didn’t agree with Milton’s con­clu­sions, but his cri­tique was expressed via engage­ment with Milton’s doc­trine, rather than via style-choice con­cern­ing rhet­or­ic or long sen­tences. Eli­ot quotes Henry James to show that long sen­tences can be sens­it­ive and fine. A bet­ter com­par­is­on to Milton would be Calypso song­form. With Lord Kit­chen­er or King Short Shirt, long sen­tences are indic­a­tions of an entire community’s exal­ted level of polit­ic­al wit and under­stand­ing. The com­mon root for both Milton and Calypso is of course preach­ing, where the most artic­u­late mem­bers of a com­munity are giv­en a plat­form and an engaged audi­ence for exten­ded expos­tu­la­tion of doc­trine, up-to-date ref­er­ences, witty asides – and very long sentences.

In fact, des­pite being the epi­tome of ‘mod­ern­ism’ in Eng­lish Stud­ies, Eliot’s attack on Milton stooped to a strategy which became ubi­quit­ous in post­mod­ern­ism: bury a genu­ine rad­ic­al from the past with cen­sure which sounds up-to-date and demo­crat­ic, but actu­ally serves a reac­tion­ary agenda. Cit­ing a con­vo­luted speech by Satan from Para­dise Lost, T.S. Eli­ot declares Milton “inac­cess­ible” (this from a poet who made his name with The Waste Land, replete with avant garde tech­niques of bam­boo­zle­ment). What Eli­ot hates is Milton’s low-church egal­it­ari­an­ism. As a High Anglic­an, Eli­ot defen­ded what Milton attacked: the church hier­archy. In Milton’s first pamph­let, Of Reform­a­tion in Eng­land (1641), he quotes Chau­cer versus worldly bish­ops, and twice excor­i­ates Thomas Beck­et in terms which will be shock­ing to any­one brought up on T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathed­ral. 1  A read­ing of Milton’spamphlet reveals Eliot’s play as blatant High Church pro­pa­ganda: non-spe­cif­ic reli­gi­os­ity (also known as oppress­ive bore­dom) deployed versus con­crete – i.e. polit­ic­al and social – doc­trin­al dis­putes. Milton is con­vers­ant with the chron­ic medi­ev­al dis­pute con­cern­ing Church and State: Eliot’s reli­gi­os­ity is neb­u­lous, pre­ten­tious and abstract (exist­en­tial­ist).

T.S. Eli­ot decries Milton, not because he’s ‘inac­cess­ible’, but because he says things he doesn’t want to hear: that bish­ops should be elec­ted by the con­greg­a­tion and live at their level, not in epis­copal palaces, for example. Today, Milton’s polem­ic reads like an exposé of the role of the Cath­ol­ic Church in the Span­ish Civil War or Berlusconi’s Italy. All cri­ti­cism, Marx said, begins with the cri­ti­cism of reli­gion; hence real cri­ti­cism of Eng­lish Lit­er­at­ure should start with these issues in Chau­cer, Milton and Blake. By elim­in­at­ing Milton, Eli­ot mud­died the clear stream of great Eng­lish lit­er­at­ure, which is anti-cler­ic­al and pop­u­list (set­ting up John Donne against Milton is like set­ting up Little Feat against Hendrix – ludicrous).

In 1947, talk­ing to a BBC Home Ser­vice stu­dio audi­ence, T.S. Eli­ot ‘recan­ted’ on his anti-Milton pos­i­tion, but his adjust­ment was like his con­tem­por­ary remarks on Rus­sia (Com­mun­ism isn’t really too bad now, he said, its respect for author­ity reminded him of the Papacy): worth­less. “We can­not, in lit­er­at­ure, any more than in the rest of life, live in a per­petu­al state of revolu­tion”, said Eli­ot. 1  Hav­ing been ‘too mod­ern’ in the 1920s and 1930s, Eng­lish lit­er­at­ure could now do with a little respect for tra­di­tion, so read­ing Milton was now a good thing. In the gen­er­al relief that Milton was back in the can­on, the banal­ity of Eliot’s oppos­i­tion between cob­webbed ‘tra­di­tion’ and sub­urb­an ‘mod­ern­ity’ was missed. We, how­ever, can take cour­age from Eliot’s (unwit­ting) align­ment of Fin­neg­ans Wake with Trotsky’s cent­ral concept, Per­man­ent revolu­tion! Not as some wil­ful concept dreamed up by revolu­tion­ar­ies, but as unclouded recog­ni­tion of what cap­it­al­ism is already doing.

Of course, arguing for the cent­ral­ity of Milton to Eng­lish let­ters is not the same as vouch­ing for his every word. Blake needed to write Milton to explain the hold Milton had on him, whilst con­test­ing Para­dise Lost’s under­writ­ing of sec­u­lar power. Milton is writ­ten in the mode of a sac­red text in order to wreck the author­ity of sac­red texts. The dream­like turns of plot and twis­ted chro­no­logy pro­pose a chan­ging weave of sub­jectiv­ity versus a stat­ic world order: res­ol­u­tion comes from the devel­op­ing under­stand­ing of the read­er, not from the nar­rat­ive. What Blake loved in Para­dise Lost, the vis­ions and sur­prises and struggles, become the main event, released from their role as sym­bols of ortho­dox doc­trine. Blake wants to let the machinery of Para­dise Lost grind on and find its own voice, bey­ond the crabbed author­it­ari­an­ism he dis­cerns in Milton. In this, he does what true artist­ic heirs do to their fore­bears: rather than adopt­ing tech­nique as an array of readymade tools for some arbit­rary task, tech­nique is pushed to see what it has to say.

Milton’s Of Reform­a­tion in Eng­land has amaz­ing force, but also the kind of fire-and-blood abuse lib­er­als, since Ian Pais­ley and Enoch Pow­ell, con­demn in politi­cians (I’m not arguing for anti-Pap­ism as a viable polit­ic­al creed – nor does Milton actu­ally). In his forth­right defence of the Crown, Milton took a pos­i­tion which later, as an apo­lo­gist for the behead­ing of Charles I, he had to renounce. But it is worth exper­i­en­cing the onslaught of Milton’s rhet­or­ic to appre­ci­ate how Blake trans­figured it: rather than pro­ject­ing fear and loath­ing on a dif­fer­ent social group (‘bish­ops’), they become vec­tors of ten­sion with­in the suf­fer­ing sub­ject. In declar­ing war on the bish­ops, the faith­ful are also declar­ing war on that part of them­selves which har­bours epis­copal daydreams.

Milton has the repu­ta­tion of being a more prac­tic­al man than Blake the Mys­tic. But like most pun­dits who shape pub­lic opin­ion, he could get things spec­tac­u­larly wrong. A year before the out­break of the Civil War, Milton declared it would nev­er happen:

Nor shall the wis­dom, the mod­er­a­tion, the Chris­ti­an piety, the con­stancy of our nobil­ity and com­mons of Eng­land, be ever for­got­ten, whose calm and tem­per­ate con­niv­ance could sit still and smile out the stormy bluster of men more auda­cious and pre­cip­it­ant than of sol­id and deep reach, until their own fury had run itself out of breath, assail­ing by rash and heady approaches the impreg­nable situ­ation of our liberty and safety, that laughed such weak engin­ery to scorn, such poor drifts to make a nation­al war of a sur­plice brabble, a tip­pet scuffle, and engage the untain­ted hon­our of Eng­lish knight­hood to unfurl the stream­ing red cross, or to rear the hor­rid stand­ard of those fatal guly dragons, for so unworthy a pur­pose, as to force upon their fel­low-sub­jects that which they them­selves are weary of, the skel­et­on of a mass-book.20

What Milton couldn’t pre­dict was that war would break out, but between king and par­lia­ment rather than over reli­gion. In fact, his sen­tence (and it is a long one) has the tone of a Social-Demo­crat­ic politi­cian assur­ing every­one of peace just before World War I: evid­ence of pious wishes rather than “hon­est indig­na­tion” (the “voice of God” accord­ing to Blake in The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell). Milton’s argu­ment peters out into an abstract call for vir­tue. This was the ‘mor­al’ stance – in cahoots with sec­u­lar power, deny­ing the spe­cif­ics of an occa­sion – which Blake wrestled in Milton. All this as an aside, since my main point is that the class polit­ics of the day was con­figured through the right to reli­gious free­dom, and that Milton’s pro­gress­ive point of view was grasped by Blake, amp­li­fied and deepened. Hav­ing no eye for a role with­in the estab­lish­ment, Blake evid­enced none of the lin­guist­ic vacu­ity of Milton’s polem­ics, driv­ing instead towards a clin­ic­al objectiv­ity which made his books inscrut­able to con­tem­por­ar­ies, whilst they anti­cip­ated twen­ti­eth-cen­tury psy­cho­ana­lys­is and revolu­tion­ary politics.

In short, you can’t under­stand Eng­lish Lit­er­at­ure without admir­ing the funky rad­ic­al polit­ics behind its flower­ings of poetry: no roses without horse manure. Fol­low­ing E.P. Thompson’s line of argu­ment, if you don’t appre­ci­ate the low-church indig­na­tion and class fury which spurred Blake, and reduce him to anoth­er example of some Great Tra­di­tion of oth­er­worldly mys­ti­cism, you mis­con­strue both his work and his rela­tion­ship to Milton.

[In the past] the spir­it of unity and meek­ness [did] inspire and anim­ate every joint and sinew of the mys­tic­al body: but now the gravest and wor­thi­est min­is­ter, a true bish­op of his fold, shall be reviled and ruffled by an insult­ing and only can­on-wise pre­l­ate, as if he were some slight paltry com­pan­ion: and the people of God, redeemed and washed with Christ’s blood, and dig­ni­fied with so many glor­i­ous titles of saints and sons in the gos­pel, are now no bet­ter reputed than impure eth­nics and lay dogs; stones, and pil­lars, and cru­ci­fixes, have now the hon­our and the alms due to Christ’s liv­ing mem­bers; the table of com­mu­nion, now becomes a table of sep­ar­a­tion, stands like an exal­ted plat­form upon the brow of the quire, for­ti­fied with bul­wark and bar­ri­c­ado, to keep off the pro­fane touch of the laics, whilst the obscene and sur­feited priest scruples not to paw and mam­moc the sac­ra­ment­al bread as famil­iarly as his tav­ern bis­cuit.21

I’m imme­di­ately reminded of Johnny Rotten’s “fat pig priest sanc­ti­mo­ni­ous smiles” from ‘Reli­gion’ on the first Pub­lic Image Lim­ited album, though I wouldn’t argue any dir­ect ‘influ­ence’. Anti-cler­i­cism is a vital oral tra­di­tion which keeps phrases and images alive out­side attested lit­er­at­ure. The 60s counter-cul­ture – from ‘Come Togeth­er’ by the Beatles to the Situ­ation­ist cri­tique of ali­en­a­tion – pro­tested ‘sep­ar­a­tion’, but it’s inter­est­ing to see its oppos­ite in Chris­ti­an Com­mu­nion. It’s only when you plough through the indi­vidu­al­ist crust of ‘taste’ pro­moted by T.S. Eli­ot (actu­ally a trivi­al form of con­sumer­ism) that you reach the rich loam of class struggle in great writ­ing: defence of the social prac­tices of human­ity against the incur­sions of cap­it­al­ist logic; inven­tion of a new com­mu­nion to replace that taken over by priests.

To wrest the rad­ic­al­ism of tra­di­tion from the pseudo-mod­ern con­form­ism of the lit­er­ary spec­tacle… anoth­er long sen­tence. Milton is arguing for dir­ect recourse to the author­ity of scrip­ture versus the ‘cus­tom’ cited as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the status quo.

If we will but purge with sov­er­eign eye­salve that intel­lec­tu­al ray which God hath planted in us, then we would believe the scrip­tures protest­ing their own plain­ness and per­spicu­ity, call­ing to them to be instruc­ted, not only the wise and learned, but the simple, the poor, the babes, fore­tell­ing an extraordin­ary effu­sion of God’s Spir­it upon every age and sex, attrib­ut­ing to all men, and requir­ing from them the abil­ity of search­ing, try­ing, examin­ing all things, and by the Spir­it dis­cern­ing that which is good.

 

Blake’s step bey­ond was to not only read The Bible him­self, but to write one; of course, in a way Milton did this with Para­dise Lost, though he used the con­ceit of writ­ing a clas­sic­al epic to avoid charges of blas­phemy. Para­dise Lost was a bravura applic­a­tion of Milton’s powers, a fant­ast­ic present­a­tion of human con­flict in a zone framed by gilt and giddy with nitrous oxide. There’s no depth, no psy­cho­logy, no apo­logy. It’s an explo­sion of pre-bour­geois storytelling on a par with Goethe’s Faust. As pop­u­lar epic it is so vivid and visu­al (some involved speeches not­with­stand­ing) that it vies with the Odys­sey and Mike Hodges’ Flash Gor­don (1980) as an example of pop­u­lar form car­ry­ing cru­cial ideas. 1  Milton’s pamph­lets, on the oth­er hand, lack the cre­at­ive rad­ic­al­ism which makes A Fiery Fly­ing Roll by Abiez­er Coppe (1649) or Pigs’ Meat; Or, Les­sons for the Swin­ish Mul­ti­tude by Thomas Spence (1794) leap out of their time. These tracts con­vey the abso­lute dis­dain for cap­it­al­ist exchange value which makes the Situ­ation­nists and Sex Pis­tols so flaw­less and inspir­ing. Milton doesn’t.

Para­dise Lost gave expres­sion to the dia­lectic between sub­ject­ive hon­esty (‘faith’) and object­ive action (‘works’) which pro­pelled Prot­est­ant­ism. Milton’s suc­cess at pop­u­list epic inspired Blake to pro­pose myth-mak­ing as a new form of action on soci­ety. Though crit­ic­al of the Enlight­en­ment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Gib­bon and Bol­ing­broke pro­pose an “impossible absurdity”;

 Bacon, Locke and New­ton must be “cast off”),22 Blake’s pro­pos­al that we all invent our own reli­gions is as sub­vers­ive as any­thing in Diderot. Nor is his debt to Milton simply a mat­ter of doc­trine: the Shakespeari­an range of Milton’s lan­guage, run­ning the gamut from Bib­lic­al and Clas­sic­al ref­er­ences to tech­nic­al terms and unat­tested slang, were what enabled him to make the hoary Chris­ti­an oppos­i­tions fresh and press­ing. An example, again from Of Reform­a­tion:

… for in his very deed, the super­sti­tious man by his good­will is an athe­ist; but being scared from thence by the pangs and gripes of a boil­ing con­science, all in a pud­der shuffles up to him­self such a God and such a wor­ship as is most agree­able to rem­edy his fear; which fear of his, as also is his hope, fixed only upon the flesh, renders like­wise the whole fac­ulty of his appre­hen­sion car­nal; and all the inward acts of wor­ship, issu­ing from the nat­ive strength of the soul, run out lav­ishly to the upper skin, and there harden into a crust of formality.

Blake con­cen­trated on this side of Milton: the forensic descrip­tion of bod­ily states as symp­toms of philo­soph­ic­al and reli­gious crisis. This is where lit­er­at­ure becomes object­ive, although because this effort requires terms unknown to pos­it­ive sci­ence – ali­en­a­tion, com­modi­fic­a­tion, ego arma­ture, para­noia – it’s rarely appre­ci­ated. Blake fol­lowed Milton’s imagery rather than his ideo­lo­gic­al con­clu­sions, and in so doing trans­lated the ten­sions and strains of Chris­tian­ity under cap­it­al­ism (the betray­al of mercy involved in the logic of com­merce) into a protest non-believ­ers can learn from. Non-believ­ers, that is, in a tran­scend­ent God and eccle­si­ast­ic­al unc­tion, but emphat­ic believ­ers in our actu­al earthly exist­ence as the cru­cial meet­ing-ground of cos­mos and con­scious­ness, etern­ity and time, love and the stars. Poets! Prophets!!

Milton’s lan­guage anti­cip­ates that of ‘Old Fart at Play’ on Trout Mask Rep­lica. This is no acci­dent. In 1969 Don Vliet was read­ing The Apes of God. The jagged objectiv­ity of Wyndham Lewis’s word choices – steeped in the rad­ic­al tra­di­tion of Chau­cer, Milton and Blake – lif­ted Beef­heart above run-of-the-mill Beat effu­sion. The secret his­tory of Mod­ern Art in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury is Vor­ti­cist, and depends upon a social stance which has noth­ing to do with meta­phys­ic­al polar­it­ies such as ‘abstrac­tion’ versus ‘rep­res­ent­a­tion’ (or ‘straight lines’ vs. ‘curves’, ‘bare­ness’ vs. ‘orna­ment’, ‘object’ vs. ‘sub­ject’ or ‘mas­cu­line’ vs. ’fem­in­ine’, to name just a few copy­righted oppos­i­tions). The Vor­tex was inven­ted by Blake to deal with the sense of time and his­tory induced by the dra­mat­ic agony of Para­dise Lost in con­trast to con­ven­tion­ally-pious con­cepts of etern­ity and heav­en; it was developed by Wyndham Lewis and James Joyce in their struggle over the future of Eng­lish in The Chil­der­mass and Fin­neg­ans Wake; it is there as the guid­ing light and con­science of J.H. Prynne and Iain Sin­clair; and it was most per­fectly embod­ied in the mass art of Frank Zappa and Cap­tain Beef­heart, whose records indeed provide every­one with “the skel­et­on of a mass-book”.

I’m no Milton schol­ar or Civil War his­tor­i­an (as is prob­ably obvi­ous). How­ever, what I’m try­ing to do is apply the para­noid ear Adorno applied to music-listen­ing – heark­ing to responses from every level of his being – to Milton’s prose (I believe this is what Simon Jar­vis meant when he calls for atten­tion to ‘pros­ody’). This is why I’m ana­lys­ing par­tic­u­lar sen­tences rather than review­ing Milton’s doc­trin­al devel­op­ment: I’m attempt­ing to register the imme­di­ate affect of Milton’s lan­guage on the receiv­er. In Decon­struc­tion, such frag­ment-ana­lys­is (lack­ing, I would argue, the drive-to-body-truth of Adornoite phe­nomen­o­logy) leads to per­verse glosses which per­man­ently post­pone hol­ist­ic inter­pret­a­tion, invit­ing one to a Sat­urnalia of car­ni­vale­qsue reversal. That is not my intent. Geert Lernout’s The French Joyce  remains a salut­ary blast against Decon­struc­tion and the high­han­ded way Hélène Cix­ous, Jacques Der­rida and Jacques Lacan exploited Fin­neg­ans Wake, rip­ping out neo­lo­gisms and phrases for fant­ast­ic spec­u­la­tions without any regard for con­text.23 ‘Pros­ody’: how the neo­lo­gisms and phrases make you feel when you read them your­self, as they come at you in the order estab­lished by the artist; the import­ance of the ‘segue’ in albums and radio broad­casts; what Zappa called “the place­ment of a detail in the lar­ger struc­ture”.24

Revolu­tion­ary times rock the sta­bil­ity of received ideas for good reas­on; new social pos­sib­il­it­ies are appear­ing. Revers­ing this revolu­tion, a ‘rad­ic­al’ meth­od for reac­tion­ary times, Decon­struc­tion turned dia­lectic into non­sense, bran­dish­ing (briefly) a mon­strous semant­ic nihil­ism, only to ush­er in some aven­ging Charles Bron­son who will solve the prob­lems of aes­thet­ics by purely extern­al means (love of the Oth­er, hatred of the fas­cist with­in, fem­in­ism, eth­ics, etc., etc.). Blake’s Vor­tex sug­gests some­thing alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent, a cri­ti­cism of cap­it­al­ist time and space which rises out of prim­al feel­ing and can refash­ion everything in its wake.

25

I’m imme­di­ately reminded of Johnny Rotten’s “fat pig priest sanc­ti­mo­ni­ous smiles” from ‘Reli­gion’ on the first Pub­lic Image Lim­ited album, though I wouldn’t argue any dir­ect ‘influ­ence’. Anti-cler­i­cism is a vital oral tra­di­tion which keeps phrases and images alive out­side attested lit­er­at­ure. The 60s counter-cul­ture – from ‘Come Togeth­er’ by the Beatles to the Situ­ation­ist cri­tique of ali­en­a­tion – pro­tested ‘sep­ar­a­tion’, but it’s inter­est­ing to see its oppos­ite in Chris­ti­an Com­mu­nion. It’s only when you plough through the indi­vidu­al­ist crust of ‘taste’ pro­moted by T.S. Eli­ot (actu­ally a trivi­al form of con­sumer­ism) that you reach the rich loam of class struggle in great writ­ing: defence of the social prac­tices of human­ity against the incur­sions of cap­it­al­ist logic; inven­tion of a new com­mu­nion to replace that taken over by priests.

To wrest the rad­ic­al­ism of tra­di­tion from the pseudo-mod­ern con­form­ism of the lit­er­ary spec­tacle… anoth­er long sen­tence. Milton is arguing for dir­ect recourse to the author­ity of scrip­ture versus the ‘cus­tom’ cited as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the status quo.

If we will but purge with sov­er­eign eye­salve that intel­lec­tu­al ray which God hath planted in us, then we would believe the scrip­tures protest­ing their own plain­ness and per­spicu­ity, call­ing to them to be instruc­ted, not only the wise and learned, but the simple, the poor, the babes, fore­tell­ing an extraordin­ary effu­sion of God’s Spir­it upon every age and sex, attrib­ut­ing to all men, and requir­ing from them the abil­ity of search­ing, try­ing, examin­ing all things, and by the Spir­it dis­cern­ing that which is good.

 

Blake’s step bey­ond was to not only read The Bible him­self, but to write one; of course, in a way Milton did this with Para­dise Lost, though he used the con­ceit of writ­ing a clas­sic­al epic to avoid charges of blas­phemy. Para­dise Lost was a bravura applic­a­tion of Milton’s powers, a fant­ast­ic present­a­tion of human con­flict in a zone framed by gilt and giddy with nitrous oxide. There’s no depth, no psy­cho­logy, no apo­logy. It’s an explo­sion of pre-bour­geois storytelling on a par with Goethe’s Faust. As pop­u­lar epic it is so vivid and visu­al (some involved speeches not­with­stand­ing) that it vies with the Odys­sey and Mike Hodges’ Flash Gor­don (1980) as an example of pop­u­lar form car­ry­ing cru­cial ideas. 1  Milton’s pamph­lets, on the oth­er hand, lack the cre­at­ive rad­ic­al­ism which makes A Fiery Fly­ing Roll by Abiez­er Coppe (1649) or Pigs’ Meat; Or, Les­sons for the Swin­ish Mul­ti­tude by Thomas Spence (1794) leap out of their time. These tracts con­vey the abso­lute dis­dain for cap­it­al­ist exchange value which makes the Situ­ation­nists and Sex Pis­tols so flaw­less and inspir­ing. Milton doesn’t.

Para­dise Lost gave expres­sion to the dia­lectic between sub­ject­ive hon­esty (‘faith’) and object­ive action (‘works’) which pro­pelled Prot­est­ant­ism. Milton’s suc­cess at pop­u­list epic inspired Blake to pro­pose myth-mak­ing as a new form of action on soci­ety. Though crit­ic­al of the Enlight­en­ment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Gib­bon and Bol­ing­broke pro­pose an “impossible absurdity”;

 Bacon, Locke and New­ton must be “cast off”),26 Blake’s pro­pos­al that we all invent our own reli­gions is as sub­vers­ive as any­thing in Diderot. Nor is his debt to Milton simply a mat­ter of doc­trine: the Shakespeari­an range of Milton’s lan­guage, run­ning the gamut from Bib­lic­al and Clas­sic­al ref­er­ences to tech­nic­al terms and unat­tested slang, were what enabled him to make the hoary Chris­ti­an oppos­i­tions fresh and press­ing. An example, again from Of Reform­a­tion:

… for in his very deed, the super­sti­tious man by his good­will is an athe­ist; but being scared from thence by the pangs and gripes of a boil­ing con­science, all in a pud­der shuffles up to him­self such a God and such a wor­ship as is most agree­able to rem­edy his fear; which fear of his, as also is his hope, fixed only upon the flesh, renders like­wise the whole fac­ulty of his appre­hen­sion car­nal; and all the inward acts of wor­ship, issu­ing from the nat­ive strength of the soul, run out lav­ishly to the upper skin, and there harden into a crust of formality.

Blake con­cen­trated on this side of Milton: the forensic descrip­tion of bod­ily states as symp­toms of philo­soph­ic­al and reli­gious crisis. This is where lit­er­at­ure becomes object­ive, although because this effort requires terms unknown to pos­it­ive sci­ence – ali­en­a­tion, com­modi­fic­a­tion, ego arma­ture, para­noia – it’s rarely appre­ci­ated. Blake fol­lowed Milton’s imagery rather than his ideo­lo­gic­al con­clu­sions, and in so doing trans­lated the ten­sions and strains of Chris­tian­ity under cap­it­al­ism (the betray­al of mercy involved in the logic of com­merce) into a protest non-believ­ers can learn from. Non-believ­ers, that is, in a tran­scend­ent God and eccle­si­ast­ic­al unc­tion, but emphat­ic believ­ers in our actu­al earthly exist­ence as the cru­cial meet­ing-ground of cos­mos and con­scious­ness, etern­ity and time, love and the stars. Poets! Prophets!!

Milton’s lan­guage anti­cip­ates that of ‘Old Fart at Play’ on Trout Mask Rep­lica. This is no acci­dent. In 1969 Don Vliet was read­ing The Apes of God. The jagged objectiv­ity of Wyndham Lewis’s word choices – steeped in the rad­ic­al tra­di­tion of Chau­cer, Milton and Blake – lif­ted Beef­heart above run-of-the-mill Beat effu­sion. The secret his­tory of Mod­ern Art in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury is Vor­ti­cist, and depends upon a social stance which has noth­ing to do with meta­phys­ic­al polar­it­ies such as ‘abstrac­tion’ versus ‘rep­res­ent­a­tion’ (or ‘straight lines’ vs. ‘curves’, ‘bare­ness’ vs. ‘orna­ment’, ‘object’ vs. ‘sub­ject’ or ‘mas­cu­line’ vs. ’fem­in­ine’, to name just a few copy­righted oppos­i­tions). The Vor­tex was inven­ted by Blake to deal with the sense of time and his­tory induced by the dra­mat­ic agony of Para­dise Lost in con­trast to con­ven­tion­ally-pious con­cepts of etern­ity and heav­en; it was developed by Wyndham Lewis and James Joyce in their struggle over the future of Eng­lish in The Chil­der­mass and Fin­neg­ans Wake; it is there as the guid­ing light and con­science of J.H. Prynne and Iain Sin­clair; and it was most per­fectly embod­ied in the mass art of Frank Zappa and Cap­tain Beef­heart, whose records indeed provide every­one with “the skel­et­on of a mass-book”.

I’m no Milton schol­ar or Civil War his­tor­i­an (as is prob­ably obvi­ous). How­ever, what I’m try­ing to do is apply the para­noid ear Adorno applied to music-listen­ing – heark­ing to responses from every level of his being – to Milton’s prose (I believe this is what Simon Jar­vis meant when he calls for atten­tion to ‘pros­ody’). This is why I’m ana­lys­ing par­tic­u­lar sen­tences rather than review­ing Milton’s doc­trin­al devel­op­ment: I’m attempt­ing to register the imme­di­ate affect of Milton’s lan­guage on the receiv­er. In Decon­struc­tion, such frag­ment-ana­lys­is (lack­ing, I would argue, the drive-to-body-truth of Adornoite phe­nomen­o­logy) leads to per­verse glosses which per­man­ently post­pone hol­ist­ic inter­pret­a­tion, invit­ing one to a Sat­urnalia of car­ni­vale­qsue reversal. That is not my intent. Geert Lernout’s The French Joyce  remains a salut­ary blast against Decon­struc­tion and the high­han­ded way Hélène Cix­ous, Jacques Der­rida and Jacques Lacan exploited Fin­neg­ans Wake, rip­ping out neo­lo­gisms and phrases for fant­ast­ic spec­u­la­tions without any regard for con­text.27 ‘Pros­ody’: how the neo­lo­gisms and phrases make you feel when you read them your­self, as they come at you in the order estab­lished by the artist; the import­ance of the ‘segue’ in albums and radio broad­casts; what Zappa called “the place­ment of a detail in the lar­ger struc­ture”.28

Revolu­tion­ary times rock the sta­bil­ity of received ideas for good reas­on; new social pos­sib­il­it­ies are appear­ing. Revers­ing this revolu­tion, a ‘rad­ic­al’ meth­od for reac­tion­ary times, Decon­struc­tion turned dia­lectic into non­sense, bran­dish­ing (briefly) a mon­strous semant­ic nihil­ism, only to ush­er in some aven­ging Charles Bron­son who will solve the prob­lems of aes­thet­ics by purely extern­al means (love of the Oth­er, hatred of the fas­cist with­in, fem­in­ism, eth­ics, etc., etc.). Blake’s Vor­tex sug­gests some­thing alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent, a cri­ti­cism of cap­it­al­ist time and space which rises out of prim­al feel­ing and can refash­ion everything in its wake.

Author: Admin

The site Admin posts his­tor­ic­al art­icles, quotes and unat­trib­ut­able odds and ends. It is not an easy job, but someone has to do it.

Notes

  1. E.P. Thompson, Wit­ness Against the Beast: Wil­li­am Blake and the Mor­al Law, Cam­bridge: CUP, 1993.
  2. Blake, Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell, 1790, pl. 16.
  3. See Cap­it­al, 1867, Chapter 15 Sec­tion 1, foot­note, p. 406.
  4. Num­bers xi.29.
  5. Dorn intro­duced pop-cul­ture ref­er­ences and jokes to the high plane of Poundi­an poet­ics. If you’re scep­tic­al about Pound and ‘poetry’ as an elev­ated dis­course the jokes aren’t par­tic­u­larly funny.
  6. Of Reform­a­tion in Eng­land, p. 40.
  7. Of Reform­a­tion in Eng­land, pp. 14–15.
  8. Milton, pl. 43.
  9. Geert Lernout, The French Joyce, Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­sity of Michigan Press, 1990.
  10. Frank Zappa, ‘Memo to All Warner/Reprise Avant­garde Exec­ut­ives who might have Some­thing to do with Mer­chand­ising the Moth­ers of Inven­tion’, Inter­na­tion­al Times #115, 1971.
  11. Of Reform­a­tion in Eng­land, p. 5.

  12. Milton, pl. 43.
  13. Geert Lernout, The French Joyce, Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­sity of Michigan Press, 1990.
  14. Frank Zappa, ‘Memo to All Warner/Reprise Avant­garde Exec­ut­ives who might have Some­thing to do with Mer­chand­ising the Moth­ers of Inven­tion’, Inter­na­tion­al Times #115, 1971.
  15. E.P. Thompson, Wit­ness Against the Beast: Wil­li­am Blake and the Mor­al Law, Cam­bridge: CUP, 1993.
  16. Blake, Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell, 1790, pl. 16.
  17. See Cap­it­al, 1867, Chapter 15 Sec­tion 1, foot­note, p. 406.
  18. Num­bers xi.29.
  19. Dorn intro­duced pop-cul­ture ref­er­ences and jokes to the high plane of Poundi­an poet­ics. If you’re scep­tic­al about Pound and ‘poetry’ as an elev­ated dis­course the jokes aren’t par­tic­u­larly funny.
  20. Of Reform­a­tion in Eng­land, p. 40.
  21. Of Reform­a­tion in Eng­land, pp. 14–15.
  22. Milton, pl. 43.
  23. Geert Lernout, The French Joyce, Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­sity of Michigan Press, 1990.
  24. Frank Zappa, ‘Memo to All Warner/Reprise Avant­garde Exec­ut­ives who might have Some­thing to do with Mer­chand­ising the Moth­ers of Inven­tion’, Inter­na­tion­al Times #115, 1971.
  25. Of Reform­a­tion in Eng­land, p. 5.

  26. Milton, pl. 43.
  27. Geert Lernout, The French Joyce, Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­sity of Michigan Press, 1990.
  28. Frank Zappa, ‘Memo to All Warner/Reprise Avant­garde Exec­ut­ives who might have Some­thing to do with Mer­chand­ising the Moth­ers of Inven­tion’, Inter­na­tion­al Times #115, 1971.