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Blake’s Lines: Seven Digressions Through Time and Space

By Esther Leslie

1. Infernal Lines

Figure 1. William Blake, frontispiece to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell words, images and lines alike assert themselves on the page.1 The page’s surface is brimful with data: small outlines of figures, snakes, vegetables, twiddled lines, words, colour washes, coloured words, scenes of struggle and repose. There are graphic lines between the lines of words. There are lines in the drawings above and below the words on the page. Vines and letters coil into each other. Strands of hair become cascades of water. The curls of a serpent are echoed higher up the page as a long spiral filling up the space of a short line. The argument of a line’s words turns into a graphic representation of its sentiment. The top edge of a drawing offers itself again as a horizon line for wandering figures. All this detail makes the page’s surface a dynamic space of interrelating elements. It fizzes with life. The surface swarms. Blake’s “infernal” procedures of printing allowed him to entangle words, illustrations, and lines on the same copperplate. He used a technical process that allowed decisions about the shapes, the placements and entwinements, to be made in the moment of production. The act of conceiving and the act of making are unified. He presented his printing method not as an embossing of image on metal but as revelation, revealing hidden aspects, by “printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.” In Blake’s method of etching in relief, a reverse of the conventional intaglio mode, acid’s bite chews through the “apparent surface” of the plate, bringing to the fore a new, now raised surface of word and image, expressive modes most usually kept apart and here united, just as are Devil and Angel, Heaven and Hell, body and soul.

Figure 2. William Blake, “A Memorable Fancy”, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

On the front cover of the book the very idea of a surface is undermined. The elaborate twirls of the words “The Marriage of” intertwine with the leafless trees and the soaring birds, both of which reach into the sky in aspiration. Below the horizon line, on which figures walk and kneel, is an elemental world, fiery and turbulent, cloudy and turgid. The flames of Hell lick around one embracing couple, the Devil and the Angel, and contained within the fire are several much smaller tumbling figures. Floating on the surface of this scene is the word Heaven, while Hell seems to sink slightly back into the depths. Hell is traditionally represented as in the depths. The cover cuts through the earth to show Hell alongside Heaven: this is an unseen world, visible only to the mad and true genius. Blake’s artifact can reveal its outlines – the surface makes the depths manifest. With the words peering through and floating over the images the surface of the page is shown also to have depth. Relations that dart across the page from line to image to twirl, from above to below, are supplemented by meditation on the page’s levels – foreground, background, front, back, prior, underneath, the paper’s surface, the representation’s surfaces. The space that the page proposes is deep and full. The time that the page takes to be absorbed is unconstrained. Blake’s pages, with their interwoven text and image and added curlicues, confound a reader who wishes to glide from line to line, in one direction only, reading in order, and always moving one-ways and forwards through the time and space of the page. Here reality turns inside-out and reveals eternity. Upon a page’s “apparent surface” infinity can be revealed.

2. Aesthetic Lines

Between the lines of his narrative Blake includes curlicues and vaunting lines that are more or less legible. Some of these lines speak to other lines emergent in the eighteenth century. There are, for example, some double curves that are reminiscent of William Hogarth’s “line of beauty,” which first appeared in 1745. This is an a-geometrical serpentine stroke that, Hogarth insisted, elicited great pleasure, and more aristocratically-minded aestheticians mocked as simplistic. The “line of beauty” is a line of motion, as Hogarth reveals in the preface to The Analysis of Beauty (1753), when he cites two authors on fine figures and their proximity to the flame and the serpent. Du Fresnoy writes of how:

a fine figure and its parts ought always to have a serpent-like and flaming form: naturally those sort of lines have I know not what of life and seeming motion in them, which very much resembles the activity of the flame and of the serpent.

Lamozzo too asserts the connection of movement and lines, of flames and beauty:

For the greatest grace and life that a picture can have, is, that it expresse Motion: which the Painters call the Spirit of a picture: Nowe there is no forme so fitte to expresse this motion, as that of the flame of fire, which according to Aristotle and the other Philosophers, is an elemente most active of all others: because the forme of the flame thereof is most apt for motion: for it hath a Conus or sharp pointe wherewith it seemeth to divide the aire, that so it may ascende to his proper sphere. So that a picture having this forme will bee most beautifull.

Transposed to Blake’s Biblical cerebration, Hogarth’s undulation echoes the Hellish and sleazy serpent who tempts Eve. Blake is not for beauty, but he is seeking movement and the energy represented in fires and snakes. Such curves intensified elsewhere by Blake make for an extravagant twist that recalls the twiddled flourish made by Corporal Trim in The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy (1759-67), which represents a man’s freedom (491). Tristram Shandy has other lines – like Blake’s illuminations, it is a book that combines verbal and visual elements – such as Shandy’s six lines tracing the narrative shapes of the volumes of his book (385-6). These lines are supposed to represent the digressions of this most jagged and roundabout narrative. In fact, though, we learn that they are parodic lines, as becomes most clear when the final line is described, the “tolerable straight line” to which he finally aspires in the last of his narrative portions.

which is a line drawn as straight as I could draw it, by a writing-master’s ruler, (borrowed for that purpose) turning neither to the right hand or to the left.
This right line, — the path-way for Christians to walk in! say divines —
— The emblem of moral rectitude! says Cicero —
— The best line! say cabbage-planters — is the shortest line, says Archimedes, which can be drawn from one given point to another. (386)

These lines, twisting ones and straight ones, mock religious certainty and scientific communication alike. Tristram’s twirling and spiky lines of narrative are pure fantasy – there is no reason to their particular curls and zigzags. Morality’s straight line is equally unreasoned: it is no different from the banal lines of agriculture and their virtue lies not in their rectitude but in their brevity. And this is a line that the reader knows Shandy will be unable to draw, for his book would then not exist and Sterne would not have presented his novel analogy of the tangential workings of the mind.

Figure 3. Sterne, Laurence, Tristram Shandy, p. 36 – 37.

One page in Tristram Shandy is a solid rectangle of black ink, a wordless memorial for Parson Yorick (34). It suggests a world beneath the public world, evoked by grief and obscured by official knowledge. For the narrator remarks: “the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions, and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one” (182). This returns us to Blake’s corrosive method, his revelation of what lies beneath apparent surfaces. Where Tristram Shandy can only rue the intellectual state of the world, Blake makes efforts to break through mundane darkness, stripping back the veil of obscurity through his corrosive methods. Shandy’s dark page regrets the ending of an individual life and the finitude of a single page. Blake’s pages, in contrast, are like funeral slabs overgrown with ivy and moss, pitted by nature’s corrosive attacks, its surface studded with fossilized insects: such patina of lives and deaths, is inexhaustible.

3. Outlines: Locked in and Mobile

In The Film Sense (1943), the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein makes two references to Blake (117;133). The first concerns colour and its associative divisions into hot and cold, a division that Blake, like many others, admits. The second reference notes Blake’s attack on “Sir Joshua’s insufficient regard for the firmness of outline.” This reference to Blake comes amid a discussion of the ways in which movement inhabits artworks, which is, for Eisenstein, also a discussion of the synaesthetic, specifically a reflection on how the audio and the visual can be cross-referenced: how is music visualized; how does the splash of a wave translate into the words of a poem. All artworks, notes Eisentsein, have a line, which is its “path” of movement. Music has a fundamental movement that can be imagined as a line and visualized by the movement of hands.

Poetry has lines of movement carried in its rhythm and metre. The visual arts have lines of movement in their very matter of composition, be that the graphic outline, the shifting densities of chiaroscuro or the eye-directing distribution of forms throughout the volume of a painting. “A practitioner in any medium of communication has to build his line, if not from plastic elements, then certainly from “dramatic” and thematic elements” (117; 134). In the course of this discussion of lines in artworks, Eisenstein refers to Blake, pointing out how different Blake’s conception of the line is to Delacroix’s, as echoed in Balzac’s character Frenhofer: “Il n’y a pas de lignes dans la nature ou tout est plein.” Eisenstein relates the contrasting phrase of the “contour enthusiast:” “O dear Mother outline, of knowledge most sage?.” (117; 133). Blake demands edges. Eisenstein too is drawn to the firm contour. He is fascinated by the contour line and its animating possibilities. In his memoirs, described by him as the “twists and turns of the free associations that arise in the course of writing,” he reveals “How I Learned to Draw.” Similarly to the process of writing his “myriad digressions,” the lines of his drawing twist and turn, a dynamic rendition of the world in mobile contours. Eisenstein quotes Wang Pi, a Chinese writer from the 3rd century BC. Wang Pi asks “what is a line?” and the cryptic answer is: “a line speaks of movement” (50). A friend of his parents once drew for him on a dark tablecloth with sharpened white chalk. He drew the contours of dogs, cats, deer and a frog and “before the eyes of the delighted observer, the line of the contours springs up and starts to move.” The line is “movement,” “dynamic process.” Lines dance. The line goes for a walk, or, as Paul Klee put it, a line is a dot that has been taking a walk. For Eisenstein, a Disney fan and dialectician, the moving lines of drawings are re-animated “in the real movement of the real lines in the contours of animated cartoons.”

Are there outlines in nature? Victor Hugo’s rough ones or Frances Galton’s apparently smooth horizon line of the sea? Or is there only mass and volume, and edges of forms expanding and contracting? Is there a limitlessness of lines, with fractal mathematics revealing dimensions of such infinite complexity so as to destabilise a line that is apparently simple to draw, such as is a coastline for a mapmaker. And what relationship does the artist’s outlining bear to the physical presence of the thing seen and drawn? These questions recur. They are never resolved. Only reposed, and re-addressed. Marxists, for example, traced dialectical lines through nature as well as through social worlds, and these lines took the form of spirals. As Lenin put it:

Nowadays, the ideas of development?as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel…[encompass a process] that seemingly repeats the stages already passed, but repeats them otherwise, on a higher basis (“negation of negation”), a development, so to speak, in spirals, not in a straight line; – a development by leaps, catastrophes, revolutions; – “breaks in continuity;” the transformation of quantity into quality; – the inner impulses to development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; – the interdependence and the closest, indissoluble connection of all sides of every phenomenon…, a connection that provides a uniform, law-governed, universal process of motion – such are some of the features of dialectics as a richer (than the ordinary) doctrine of development.

Blake’s spirals and his outlines trace the curls of fancy and the contours of nature. This is a dance of forms and twirls, entwining with lines of text. Blake clung to outlines, his “Mother outline,” but these lines were not necessarily in nature. Outlines are the mind’s contribution to its dialogue with nature. Hard edges do not exist in the physical world. As he remarks in “The Ghost of Abel” to Lord Byron in the wilderness, “Nature has no Outline: but Imagination has” (Complete 779) Outlines are sought and made by a hand, or rather sought and formed by one whose mind is attuned to see them: “Madmen see outlines and therefore they draw them” (Complete 445). Blake sought a new geometry – an internal one, not an infernal one imposed by compasses by the likes of Urizen.

And Urizen craving with hunger
Stung with the odours of Nature
Explor’d his dens around

He form’d a line & a plummet
To divide the Abyss beneath.
He form’d a dividing rule (Urizen 59)

As Blake details the finite perception of Urizen, which sees and renders error, lines twirl around the words like new shoots from a tree. In their unpredictable tracings they emulate the chaos of nature. The flow of actual life is not to be directed by Urizen’s like. Urizen draws the line at genuine experience: your horizon is a boundary line inhibiting true vision; your reason limits you.

4. Newton’s Line

Figure 4. Blake’s Newton (color print, 1795-1805).

Isaac Newton has a line. Or rather a line takes Newton’s name. It is described thus in one of the by-ways of the Web:

In a circumscribed quadrilateral the centre of the circle inscribed lies on the line joining the midpoints of the diagonals, called Newton’s line. (Gutierrez)

Newton’s laws of motion spoke of “right lines,” and he tracked the pressures and counter-pressures of bodies as they move through a gravitational universe, thereby establishing classical mechanics. Newton’s eye, according to Blake, witnessed only a “single vision” and it killed off nature. His portrait of Newton (1795) alludes to this. Newton crouches at the bottom of the ocean, sat upon a rock. Sharing this rock are convoluted plants and outgrowths, all textured, unique, unpredictable forms. The colours are various and blur into each other. The rock’s vegetation mingles with the ground, the rock, and even impinges upon the muscular body of Newton. Newton is oblivious to this infinite detail of nature. He leans forward over a scroll of paper on which is drawn a simple geometrical figure. This he measures with his dividers. He is absorbed in abstraction. Newton sees only the abstract shape on paper. Nature lives and breathes behind him and outside of his vision. In front of him is darkness. The page shades to black. Newton’s realm is the empire of the blind. The world before him approximates a black page that obscures enlivened reality. Enlightenment about Nature’s laws brings its contrary, darkness. Blake’s drawing reveals this. Blake does not have “single vision,” as impervious as the closed eyes of someone sleeping. His vision is multiplied for he sees “visions” and these he draws. He has fourfold vision, and he directs it at the imagination-seeped world that he copies and creates at one and the same time.

5. Line of Credit: Metallic Expression

Blake was born into the “Age of Johnson.” This was his misfortune. This was an age dominated by blank English instrumentalist empiricism, such as that promoted by the Royal Society which demanded clear language, mathematical plainness. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was a lexicographer. He was a waiter serving up words, fixing meanings rather than creating them. In addition, Johnson saw it as his lexicographer’s duty to provide moral instruction for the semi-educated. So Johnson’s business was weighty, but dull. It was a chore all round, and who would do it but for financial recompense? When he said in 1776 that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Johnson entwined the production of literary copy with the exchange of cash. In 1759, needing money to pay for his mother’s funeral, he wrote Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. It took a week and was barely subject to revisions. In an issue of his journal The Idler in April 1759, he noted that the powers found in Rasselas were necessitated by “great exigencies,” and that “these happen but seldom, and therefore those qualities which have a claim to the veneration of mankind, lie hid, for the most part, like subterranean treasures, over which the foot passes as on common ground, till necessity breaks open the golden cavern.” Rasselas had a character named Pekuah, a figure worth “two hundred ounces of gold” who craves money. Coleridge admitted too that he wrote “compelled by the God Pecunia.” Johnson declares that writers write for money, and insists it is so and must be so – to act otherwise is rank stupidity. Johnson’s statement recognizes brute economic actuality. That was Johnson’s business, and he could more than imagine being paid by the word. Johnson could not countenance that one might write more than one can get paid for: poetry then by the yard, in an economy of language. In the realm of literature and language, Johnson was doing what bourgeois ideologues had done some decades earlier in the realm of metal: that is money. Johnson despised linguistic ambiguity for the moral and political threat it posed. He was, after all, paid for nailing down meanings and, so, halting the proliferation of language, the circulation of unmonitored signs. Rigidity sets in on language and meaning. In this Johnson followed Thomas Hobbes who in 1651 called metaphors absurd and likened true reasoning to adding up an account (1:4). Forty years later, John Locke opposed the age-old royal debasement of the unit of money. Money was conceived to be metal and metal only; and for those who perceived the evil consequences of the age-old royal debasement of the unit of money, the principle determining the unit was that laid down by Locke, namely that the “unit was and should be a definite weight of bullion, which must not be altered” in “Further Considerations Concerning Raising The Value of Money” (1695) (648-98). Silver as money is a measure on account of its quantity, its “intrinsick value.” Silver’s economic value is guaranteed according to a standard settled by “publick authority.” Locke had the ear of Isaac Newton, whom he met in 1688 at the Earl of Pembroke’s house. Newton was made Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696 and he undertook a recoinage, where nothing worried him as much as counterfeiting of the realm’s coins. Signs were failing to match up to their significations. These first bourgeois ideologues were working on the very metal of the regime. Milled coins were produced to counter the fakers. Their edges made clipping and cutting and counterfeiting quite blatant, and so exposed bad money.

In his “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1689), Locke insisted on the necessity for classifying things under general or universal qualities, using terms that can apply equally and economically to various similar but not identical objects. Locke wanted to apply such rational classification to politics too, bypassing the accidents of birth that confer authority, and instead turning to Contract Law to form an agreement between governor and governed. Locke’s categorical rigidity was rejected by Hegel. That notions of truth were shifting along with the coinage’s vaporizing into symbol is evidenced in Hegel’s preface to his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807):

“True” and “false” belong among those determinate notions which are held to be inert and wholly separate essences, one here and one there, each standing fixed and isolated from the other, with which it has nothing in common. Against this view it must be maintained that truth is not a minted coin that can be given and pocketed ready-made. (22)

For Hegel, truth is historical. If it is historical then it is flexible, shape-shifting, and index-linked to developments across time. Truth is historical, flexible, like the banknote that has worked free of its metallic equal. Hegel’s emphasis shifts to the concept of illusory being or semblance, in German, Schein, the word for banknote. Regimes fix values in coin, but in the real history we live through this promise of eternal security is undermined by inflation, devaluation and speculation. While the philosophers all disagreed amongst themselves, they were agreed on one thing: money is both a material and an allegorical resource, and money’s own historical development proves how tangled up those two aspects actually are. For them all, it is a matter of coining phrases – and for each, the economic is tangled with the expressive as they struggle to account for the new bourgeois reality of trade, circulation, exchange.

Lockean sense perception – with its dull empiricism, its mind-embossing objectivism – is mocked by the master of historically and dialectically determined knowledge. And, furthermore, Hegel understood the rich and contrary patternings of the infinite too. For just as empiricism was inadequate, so too was its contrary, the externally flung appeal to the transcendental. Under what conditions can the self exist at its fullest potential, that is, exist as Hegel thinks proper, in what he calls “true infinity,” a way of naming the universality towards which freedom and reason aspire. To exist in “true infinity” the antithesis between self and other, individual and the social world, must be overcome. According to Hegel, true infinity exists in and through its opposite, the finite. We are finite, in as much as we are embodied, historical beings. But we find the infinite within our own world-building projects, that is to say, within spirit.2 In as much as we imagine new worlds and deeds and set them into being, we transcend the externality of the infinite. An example of such mere externality would be the image of a God completely outside the time of human history. God’s infinity is inaccessible to humans and so it is external – this is not “true infinity.” In contrast, Hegel says that the true infinite constitutes itself in dialogue with the finite. True infinity could be diagrammed as a circle, a movement that returns into itself. What Hegel calls bad infinity is like a straight line that goes on forever, never returning. (Science 24). The self is not part of the circuit – it is an infinity that is purely external. Otherness remains just that. The self too remains unknown and unexpanded. All experience is essentially the same and relentless. The self’s horizons contract.

Marx, standing Hegel on his feet, bringing him back to the body and to earth, found in Hegel’s image of infinity a metaphor for the way in which capitalism operates. Humans expend energy and make objects, but this energy and these objects are taken from them, exchanged for cash in a typically raw deal, and do not enter back into their lives as their own products. Capitalism obstructs the possibility of the self-expanding circuit. An infinite line of externalised activity stretches before us. Nothing returns to us, through us. Self-mediation is blocked, alienation ensues.

Figure 5. William Blake, There is No Natural Religion (c. 1788)

Blake, who no doubt knew nothing of his near-contemporaries Hegel and Marx, had had similar thoughts and, like Hegel, gave no credence to the finite, which has no “veritable being.” As Blake puts it, in There is no Natural Religion (c. 1788), there is a difference between the ratio’s bad infinity of “the same dull round over again” and the infinite circuit of reflection between us and God, that expands beyond the self through the infinite and back into the self again:

The desire of Man being infinite, the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite.
Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.
Application. He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.
Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is. (Complete 97)

There is no Natural Religion was Blake’s first attempt at “illuminated printing” and it attacked the ideas of Locke and others in twenty relief etchings each presenting images and contrary propositions. Blake insists that “Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.”

Blake used metal to make art and to perpetrate a philosophy of expression and imagination at a time when metal was ever more tightly bound to trade and finance. Newton had pegged gold and silver, the standard unit of account in 1717, but it was a century later, in 1816, in British attempts to devise ways of fixing value internationally, that the Gold Standard proper was introduced, linking the pound sterling to a fixed quantity of gold. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell describes in one “Memorable Fancy” how in a printing house in Hell knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation. Metals are melted and cast for the copperplates and typecasts that make books, that is, the sorts of books that Blake makes, expanded, extended, extraordinary books of image and text, imagination and philosophy.

6. Lines of Flight: Superheroes

Figure 6. Eduardo Paolozzi, “Blake’s Newton,” 1995.

Set in front of the British Library on London’s polluted Euston Road is Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1995 statue modelled on Blake’s Newton. A thick mass of metal four metres high shows a man sat on a cube. Absorbed in a procedure with his dividers, his body is folded and compact, not turned outward towards the world or heavens. Frankenstein-like bolts protrude from his foot, thigh and shoulder. His back has ridging like the armour of a beetle. He appears lashed to the cube by a metal strap. This metal density, this dark colouration, this vast scale makes gravity appear here as a malign force, something that pulls humans down to earth, locking the body in the world. Paolozzi’s Newton is metal melted into power. This is inhuman; the vastness has something superheroic about it. This figure is larger than life itself, more than life. He is a force. He is force. Paolozzi’s Newton had a previous life. In 1988 Paolozzi made a sculpture called Master of the Universe. Here in a previous guise, Blake’s Newton sits on a metal box and he dangles a triangle from his fingers. Master of the Universe was made through the segmenting of a plaster model. It is a dissected and recomposed form. The body of this earlier figure is shod with several bolts and numerous metal patches. This is a man-machine. It is blind. The sculpture’s title, Master of the Universe, is shared by a line of children’s superhero toys from the early 1980s made by Mattel, which spawned three comic series, three cartoon series, and a live-action film. The barbarian He-Man wanders through the devastated post-war world of Eternia, using his special powers and weapons, and twice meeting hero of superheroes Superman.

Figure 7. Eduardo Paolozzi, “Master of the Universe,” 1988.

Paolozzi’s Master of the Universe exists in the orbit of superheroes. This is no coincidence of title. Paolozzi was first of all a pop artist drawing on mass media imagery, and from the 1950s onwards he kept an archive of pop ephemera including superhero comic covers. The Krazy Kat Arkive of Twentieth Century Popular Culture, named after George Herriman’s comic strip character, evidences Paolozzi’s fascination with hero imagery and machine age.

If Newton is a superhero, what does that make his arch-enemy, Blake? Blake too has been drawn into the world of superheroes. The exhibition Gothic Nightmares at Tate Britain in Spring 2006 devoted one room to what it called “Superheroes.” In paintings and drawings by Henry Fuseli, James Barry, Henry Tresham and John Rigaud muscular men break their bonds, batter serpents and giants, raise their swords and spears aloft. Satan is there too, in engraved scenes by Barry and Fuseli illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost. In these images Satan is a new great hero, terrifying and avenging. Blake contributes to this sensationalist and shocking representation of the power of the negative. The room displays a pen and watercolour from the early 1790s, “The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child.” Its further development as largescale colour print also appears. The Evil Angel is grotesque. Flames caress his back. His foot is in chains, tempering his vast strength. Still he grasps menacingly at the child clasped in the arms of the Good Angel. He is free, his feet lapped by water. The child throws its arms up in terror. This is the ultimate battle, the battle for a soul. It is violent, dramatic, fantastic. All superheroes derive from this. So claims curator Martin Myrone in the exhibition’s catalogue, Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination. Here are the templates for comic book superheroes: the musculature and the skin-tight costumes that showcase it, the globular eyes ablaze, the strong legs flung apart, the bold gesticulations of the arms.

Figure 8. William Blake, “The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child”, (color print, 1790s).

To emphasise the connections, graphic novelist Alan Moore was invited to deliver a talk in the Superheroes room. Moore knows his superheroes. He resurrected the British superhero Marvelman, renamed Miracleman, and devised the “deconstructive” Watchmen. An early mini-series proposal called Twilight of the Superheroes was to enstage the final battle between old and young superheroes in the final battle of good and evil. At Tate Britain Moore spoke of the reality of Superman and the reality of the imagination. But he rejected the equation of an ignored and impoverished Blake and the all-too celebrated creators of superhero comics. In Moore’s own work Blake appears not as a superhero but as a super-visionary.

7. Lineages

In the fourth chapter of Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, Sir William Gull, the Royal physician, and his driver John Netley, ride through the streets of London hatching a “grand work,” the crimes that will be attributed to Jack the Ripper. The city of London opens up as a text to be read, a “veritable textbook” that helps the conspiratorial murderers in formulating their own great works, which amount to a patriarchal assault on women. London is a place of layers and resonances, where mystical signals and historical shudders of past battles agitate the air in this psychogeographical jaunt. The men’s clatter through Albion Drive prompts thoughts of William Blake, “our greatest prophet,” a man who communed with ghosts and saints, not as a lunatic but as a seer, a person living in the present but also stranded in an earlier age, when the Heavens were closer and the “thread of gristle” that separates the logical brain from the magical brain was more slender.

Figure 9. “The Ghost of A Flea” as depicted in From Hell, p. 491 © 1999 Eddie Campbell Comics.

Towards the close of the book Gull is found crazed in St Mary’s Asylum, Islington, almost a decade after the murders. Abandoned here in squalor, he sets out on an astral flight. He is overcome by visions, as he speeds through the years, shapeshifting, becoming man and beast, fog and fire. He appears before William Blake as a scaly beast and terrifies him (14: 10;17). He returns to torment Blake later, as the poet relates to a friend his vision of a naked figure with the face of a murderer. Spying the beast a second time Blake sets about drawing him. What he sketches is the ghost of a flea.

Moore makes a number of references to Blake: his faint ghostly traces haunt the panels of grand guignol and melodramatic turns. This impoverished and once overlooked wreck provides a moral imprimatur for graphic novels” greatest success story, Alan Moore – whose success is a burden and an embarrassment to him, because it makes him so un-Blakean. The London that Moore’s figures inhabit is something like the London of Blake’s nightmares and wonders; what Moore calls, in a short piece on Blake in London’s Observer newspaper on 22 October 2000, “a squalid horse-toilet, on which he superimposed a magnificent four-fold city and populated it with angels.” Time is convoluted and manifold here – in Moore’s psychogeography, actions and events do not unfurl in a straight line but burst into vision irruptively. Space is fractured here as spectres hurtle through walls. Narrative is exploded. In interview Alan Moore explained the fractal analogies contained in the notes that accompany From Hell:

The Whitechapel murders took place over a finite period of time and claimed a finite number of victims. Looked at in terms of the area of information covered, this appears at first glance to be a containable task with clearly defined limits. The problem is all in the surface detail. As more detail becomes apparent with closer and closer examination, so too does the “surface” of the narrative become more crinkly, prickly, and fractal. The perimeter of the story starts to extend towards infinity. The space and time needed for each episode expands.3

Here reality turns inside-out and reveals eternity: a grim eternity of repetitive violence in spaces condemned never to forget their past gruesome actions. Upon a page’s “apparent surface” infinity can be revealed: an infinity of data, fracturing truth into a million splinters unencompassable by one mortal. Moore’s is a bleak Blakeanism. Absent are Blake’s lines that curl and seek new shapes, forging a visionary symbolism demanding decipherment. This is the Blake of death and ghouls, dark and urban Blake favoured by other contemporary writers, such as Iain Sinclair.4 Blake has been shuttled into the future, and it is nastier even than the past he left behind, if only because of the quantity of horror that has accumulated in the meantime. Moore’s Blake is a mystic. When he draws the ghost of a flea he draws something emanating from the terrific centre of human destructivity. Moore’s line on Blake is a black one.

But Blake is a teaser too, even in this ghoulish picture of a flea, where he mocks the wealth-creating Reynoldsian tradition of portrait painting by drawing a head he alone can see. And he sneers at Gainsboroughian gentility by portraying a beast so ugly and bloodthirsty it could easily take up its place in the vicious world of Blake’s time? In his Marginalia to Reynolds, annotations upon annotations, additions and deletions in the margins, Blake vents spleen against the false values of the art world, managed by imperious dividers who line their own pockets:

While Sr Joshua was rolling in Riches Barry was Poor & Unemployd except by his own Energy[,] Mortimer was calld a Madman & only Portrait Painting applauded & rewarded by the Rich & Great. Reynolds & Gainsborough Blotted & Blurred One against the other & Divided all the English World between them[.] Fuseli Indignant almost hid himself – I am hid (Complete 445).

Blake is no longer hid. Or, at least, lines that emanate from him, however convoluted, dotted or imprecise, are found in the most public of places – the British Library forecourt, the pages of Superhero comic books and doomy graphic novels, a hymn sung at rugby and cricket matches and Women’s Institute meetings, and, right here and now, in the telephone lines that deliver the digital scintillation of the world-encircling Internet.


[1] All quotes from Blake refer to the Keynes edition of his work.

[2] See David McNally, “The Dual Form of Labour in Capitalist Society and the Struggle over Meaning: Comments on Postone.”

[4] See the description in “Iain Sinclair,” David Cunningham, entry in The Literary Encyclopedia,


Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.

—. The Book of Urizen. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.

—. Complete Writings. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.

Cunningham, David. “Iain Sinclair.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 8 Mar. 2001. The Literary Dictionary Company. 22 January 2007. .

Eisenstein. Sergei. The Film Sense. London: Faber and faber, 1986.

—. “How I Learned to Draw.” Eisenstein at Ninety. Ed. Ian Christie and David Elliott. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1988.

Guiterrez, Antonio. “Newton’s Theorem: Newton’s Line,” 23 Feb. 2006. Geometry from the Land of the Incas. 22 January 2007.

Hegel, G.W.F. The Science of Logic. Trans. A.V. Miller. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

—. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, or the matter, form and power of a commonwealth ecclesiastical and civil. Ed. M. Oakeshott. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1947.

Hogarth, William. The Analysis of BeautyE-Texts. 22 January 2007. <>.

Johnson, Samuel. RasselasE-Texts. 22 January 2007. <>.

Lenin, V.I. Karl Marx. Marxist Writers. 17 January 2007. Marxist Internet Archive. 21 January 2007. <>.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human UnderstandingE-Texts. 18 November 2006. Infomotions, Inc. 21 January 2007. <>.

—. “Further Considerations concerning raising the value of money.” Essays. London: Ward, Lock and Co, 1883.

McNally, David. “The Dual Form of Labour in Capitalist Society and the Struggle over Meaning: Comments on Postpone.” Historical Materialism. 12.3 (2004):189-208.

Moore, Alan and Eddie Campbell. From Hell. Paddington: Eddie Campbell Comics, 1999.

Myrone Martin et al., Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination. London: Tate Publishing, 2006.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy. New York: New American Classic, 1962.

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