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Re-Visioning William Blake’s The Four Zoas

By Donald Ault

Note: The following essays originally appeared as an afterward and appendix in Donald Ault’s Narrative Unbound: Re-Visioning William Blake’s The Four Zoas, Station Hill Press, 1987.

A Postscript on The Four Zoas as Visual Text

The relationships between The Four Zoas and the designs on the proof sheets of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts on which Blake wrote much of the poem are often as engaging and perplexing and the processes of the poem itself. The contrast between the piety of Young’s poem and the erotic elements in Blake’s original sketches for The Four Zoas sometimes manifests as well in the content of his designs for Night Thoughts. The twisting, sinewy lines subliminally (but powerfully) invoke repressed or displaced sexual energy. Witness such particulars as the phallic shapes, accompanied by vaginal (yet serpent like) folds, ascending the patriarchal figure’s back in the illustration on Four Zoas pages 81 and 133; or, on page 109, the precisely ambiguous placement of the female figure’s left leg, suggesting a phallus-like protrusion from her groin; or the homo-erotically interlocked male bodies and hidden (erotic or aggressive?) faces in the wrestling match on page 137.

More significantly, in many of the pages Blake established an antagonistic relationship between the torsional suggestiveness of the designs and the rigidly enclosed spaces reserved for the words of Young’s or Blake’s poem. Blake usually situated these rectangular blocks in such a way that their asymmetrical relation to the margins of the page and/or to the figures in the designs makes the word-space stand out as a significant visual element of the page itself. The foregrounding of the rectilinear text-space raises a fundamental question: Could it be that in the process of “illustrating” Young’s poem, but even more decisively in experimenting with these designs as places where his Four Zoas could materialize, Blake was creating a scenario of possible reading, where page layout becomes instruction rather than representation? In framing the question this way we should avoid the temptation to allegorize reading where certain figures (perhaps the passive ones) would represent the the reader and others (perhaps the active ones) would represent the agency of the text on the reader. As tempting as this strategy of viewing the designs is – even if the oppositions reverse (reader: active; text: passive) or destabilize (by turns one way or the other) – such interpretation too easily becomes mastery of Blake’s disruptive visual field. Instead, we might consider how empty text-spaces and surrounding designs enact within the viewer the same transformative impulses and resistances that exist in the verbal text itself.

In most of the illustrations included in Narrative Unbound, for example, the positions of the figures in relation to the de-centered rectilinear word-spaces invoke a precise anxiety in the spectator: the text-blocks cut into the image portion of the design in such a way that it seems as if events are going on behind the verbal text, as if decisive information is being (perhaps perversely) hidden. In varying degrees, this intrusive visual word-space interferes with the representational lure of the “seen” part of the design, activating in the viewer a desire to imagine the drawing as somehow “complete” behind the words.

In the images that open and close Narrative Unbound it is difficult to imagine exactly how the drawing might be completed behind the text. In the former illustration (pages 81 and 133 of The Four Zoas), it almost seems as if completing the drawing would unnaturally elongate (or even disconnect) the right arm that we assume is extending from the body wielding the spear; and the torsional position of the hand above the curve suggests that the disk-like shape may be rising, resisting the hand atop it, perhaps as if this curved form were a (prodigiously phallic?) part of his own body? In the closing illustration (page 83 of The Four Zoas), the dark figure’s face and body are so thoroughly “hidden” by the word-space that its rectangular shape seems to be the figure’s body; otherwise, it is a figure whose face and body have been radically cut away, leaving feet too small to support either the fantasized “body behind the text” or the literal textual body itself, unsettling this massive, spooky figure.

Figure 5. William Blake, p. 83 of The Four Zoas. Photographic Facsimile © 1987 Cettina Tramontano Magno and David V. Erdman.

The designs used to open regions A, B, and C above similarly arouse the anxiety that accompanies viewing such cut-away body images. Imagining the drawings complete behind the text by connecting the lines that have been cut off by the sharp borders of the word-spaces requires a surrealistic bodily dis-memberment and re-memberment. In ruthlessly cutting off the drive toward closure and completeness that informs the ordinary, ego-affirming visual imagination, this incisive, dis-membering tabula rasa literally opens up a space to be filled in by language. By denying access to the (imaginary) unified visual body of another, this interposition of the (symbolic) cutting edge that opens up a space for words threatens the unity of the viewer’s own ego-body – an enactment of the textual castration explored by Jacques Lacan and others. But Blake undoes this primary cut by making the visible words of his text resist absorption into phallocentric grammar.

The spectator’s desire to complete the drawing behind the text in these examples parallels the reader’s urge to find an ur-narrative behind the poem. On the physical page, of course, there is literally nothing behind the verbal text, for the rectangular space and the inscribed words constitute their own complete visual field. Likewise there is literally no primordial story behind the surface details of the poem’s narrative. The presumption of such a story dissolves under close scrutiny of particulars.

At the one point in the manuscript where Blake sketched in the completion of a Night Thoughts design, the sketch disrupts the lines of poetry. Thus on page 137 of The Four Zoas, where Blake curved the left margin of the verbal text around the sketched-in completed wrestling figures, the lines of poetry are compressed (show ideological and aesthetic stress) precisely where the poem’s syntax unequivocally asserts Los’s identity with Urthona. Central to the argument of Narrative Unbound is the possibility that this syntactic reduction of Los to Urthona threatens the revisionary ontology of the poem. Thus, the two figures wrestling do not simply allegorize the reader’s resistive struggle with this apocalyptic text (though this is certainly a dimension of the design’s subversive referentiality) but also the struggle between Los and Urthona for ontological priority over one another at the close of the poem – figures frozen in a twisting identity-in-difference. Significantly, this point of stress is the only instance in The Four Zoas manuscript where Blake displaces the verbal text in favor of an intruding “completed” drawing, as if such completion itself ontologically displaces the status of the literal words on the page.

On page 126, the verso side of one of the Night Thoughts designs, Blake invokes an opposite strategy. Instead of hiding the figure behind the text, he draws a weird creature whose eyes peer out through the word “reorganize,” a visual pun requiring an act of double reading that can literally “re-organ-eyes.”

Figure 6. William Blake, p. 126 of The Four Zoas. Photographic Facsimile © 1987 Cettina Tramontano Magno and David V. Erdman.

Since in many of Blake’s finished “illuminated” works there is little direct correspondence in content between design and accompanying verbal text, it is hardly surprising that drawings made to illustrate another poem, serving later as worksheets, should bear approximate and, at best, problematic relation to the content of the inscribed text. Yet, remarkably, the examples incorporated in Narrative Unbound selected primarily on the basis of their structural or thematic relevance to the argument of the sections of this book also seem to suggest complex interconnectedness either as a matter of coincidence or a sign of fundamental interrelatedness, open to ongoing definition.

Blake’s words on the opening and closing illustrations for Narrative Unbound, for example, strain toward articulating the context and content of a primal, sexual “fall:” the verbal text of Four Zoas page 133 gives a radically altered perspective on the events described on page 83, while page 81 verbally expresses information forgotten by both of these accounts. Yet the visual images in no direct way “illustrate” central features of the “event” of this “fall.” Perversely, however, the image of the upright patriarch standing on two human necks comments on a peripheral detail in line 133:23 (“We fall on one anothers necks more closely we embrace”), which describes the ostensibly cooperating, communal male “Brotherhood” that stands almost homo-erotically over/against the separate female.

Another kind of structural relation holds between the verbal/visual details of the pages used to open Regions A and B, in that words of one seem to “refer” to the visual design of the other and vice versa. That is, the rider averting his/her eyes behind a flaming-mouthed four-headed horse (thus doubly “behind the text”) on Four Zoas page 75 visually glosses Urizen’s self-pitying apology for relinquishing the “steeds of Light” on page 65. Conversely, the bizarre figure jutting his head out from behind the text in the visual design on page 65 visualizes the context of Urizen’s apology (on page 64): “O Fool to think that I could hide from his all piercing eyes” (64:17), which in turn redounds back onto the image on page 75, initiating a kind of hall of mirrors effect between the two pages.

Figure 7. William Blake, p. 47 of The Four Zoas. Photographic Facsimile © 1987 Cettina Tramontano Magno and David V. Erdman.

Yet another relationship exists between the illustrations that open Regions B and C. In both designs circular forms surround images of a horse and rider whose bodies are significantly obscured by the word-space. Unlike the previous examples, however, the design on pages 239-40 (page 47 of The Four Zoas) seem to illustrate the text on that page of Blake’s poem unusually well: “Tharmas rode on the dark abyss…Los & Enitharmon Emerge/In strength and brightness…Red as the Sun in hot morning of the bloody day” (47:1-5), though the elements of the illustration are displaced from their arrangement in the verbal text. The similarity of the designs on pages 75 and 47 of The Four Zoas connects narrative moments that otherwise seem distinct. On page 75, the focus is Tharmas’ relation to a male power struggle between Urizen and the Spectre of Urthona, while on page 47 Tharmas’ relation to the sexual politics of Los, Enitharmon, and the vanished Enion is in the foreground. The text on each of these pages symmetrically explores Tharmas’ relations to characters excluded from the other page.

By contrast, the illustrations on the title page and at the beginning of the General Preludium of Narrative Unbound show Blake’s willingness to minimize the intrusion of the verbal text into the visual design (though in both cases there is a cutting of the sharp-edged verbal space toward the groin area of the central character on page on Figure 10. and the small figure on the upper right hand corner or the text boundary in Figure 11). Instead of withholding visual information to create the fiction that the figures in the designs are acting behind the word-space, Blake employs two very different sets of representational conventions to create opposite structural relations between the designs and the visible words. On page 109 of the Four Zoas Blake creates the impression that the figure is trying to free herself from the verbal text by bursting out into the space occupied by the viewer. Yet the way her arms point so decisively upward, conforming to the vertical edges that enclose them, reaffirms this figure’s imprisonment within the two-dimensional space of the page. The relatively complete exposure of this figure, in conjunction with her struggle to break free from the text, structurally parallels both the verbal clarity of the lamentations of Ahania and Enion on this page and their contrapuntal content – hope and despair. In addition, however, these speeches of Ahania and Enion betray a passivity in their roles as female reflectors rather than aggressive actors, while the figure in the design more closely resembles a female appropriation of flaming male revolutionary energy akin to that of the early Orc.

Although virtually nothing seems to be “hidden” by the word-space of the illustration at the opening of the General Preludium of Narrative Unbound, Blake invokes the conventions of non-perspectival flatness to preclude the possibility of the figures escaping from the surface of the page. Page 107, unlike 109, thus celebrates containment on the page and invites us to read the miniaturized figures in some kind of a sequence – not necessarily clockwise, though that makes one kind of narrative sense (Young’s text, which is supposedly “illustrated” here, does not present these dream fantasies in this order in his poem). The image on this page is, however, juxtaposed with verbal text that focuses on Urizen’s fall into a raging dragon form following his sexual confrontation with the Shadowy Female, which issues in a threat that the entire narrative will recycle itself. The relatively pleasant images in the design of a dream on this page parody Urizen’s grotesque descent into his worst nightmare, and the orderly (albeit potentially disturbing) circular placement of the figures parodies the threat of The Four Zoas narrative dismally recycling itself.

On the Embedding of Night VIIb in Night VIIa

In the otherwise generally admirable 1982 Erdman edition of Blake’s poetry and prose, one glaring and uncharacteristically speculative decision (which reflects several smaller ones, especially in Night I) directly addresses the issues of Narrative Unbound. I refer to Erdman’s decision, suggested by Mark Lefebvre, to embed the rearranged version of Night VIIb in the middle of Night VIIa. Erdman gave serious consideration to at least three different proposals for conflating the two Nights – including Andrew Lincoln’s hypothesis of embedding VIIa in the middle of rearranged VIIb, and John Kilgore’s recommendation that VIIb (in its original order) be embedded in VIIa (E 386). Erdman’s willingness to entertain these possibilities (with little encouragement from Blake) reflects his deep concern for what he repeatedly calls “fit” between the two Nights – an odd concern, it might seem, in a poet who refused to accept even the “fit” between world and mind: “You shall not bring me down to believe in such fitting and fitted I know better” (Annotations to Wordsworth, E 667).

Erdman’s concern is real and justifiable, however. The existence of two Night VIIs poses a serious challenge to the principle of the primacy of narrative sequential order: if the two Nights are separate, to be read sequentially, then the order in which they are read is a fundamental aspect of the being of their respective narratives; if they are to be somehow combined, how does this new sequencing affect the temporal narrative order, as well as the underlying textual patterns? Given the intense tendency of the narrative toward temporality and the woven textual patterns toward spatiality, it seems unavoidable that, although embedding VIIb in VIIa must radically alter both the narrative and textual fields, the impact of that embedding should be most directly and dramatically evident in the transformation of the spatial/textual structure of VIIb when it enters the field of VIIa.

Considered as independent structural patterns, as we have seen in Region C, the two Night VIIs constitute a narrative branching by means of which radically alternate paths or world-lines both converge and diverge, make possible and undermine, issue in and cancel out, a finite set of narrative happenings. That is, these two Nights are not different versions of how the same events occur but are different ways they actually do occur – a branching of the narrative that allows Blake to explore the implications of alternative fictional possibilities, each Night repressing key aspects emphasized by the other Night VII while directly intersecting other crucial points. Mapped independently of each other’s controlling structural patterns, Nights VIIa and VIIb each reveal strongly defined but orthogonally opposed spatial properties. Night VIIa is dominated by the controlling image of the Tree of Mystery: Blake carefully coordinates every key event spatially in reference to it. The events of VIIa are organized tightly within three horizontal tiers, marked off along a vertical axis, and defined by the spaces above, outside, and beneath the Tree. Figure 12 schematizes Night VIIA.

Figure 12. Fig. X.1 from Narrative Unbound, p. 477. © 1987 Donald Ault.

In Night VIIb, however, the Tree of Mystery is virtually absent except for two quite important direct references. It is as if in Night VIIb the Tree had absorbed the characters and mystified the narrator so completely that they are almost unaware of its presence and power. In the absence of the presiding image of the Tree – indeed of any single controlling spatial image – Night VIIb is organized, in direct opposition to VIIA, through a series of discontinuous (though implicitly overlapping) parallel segments, deployed along the horizontal axis as parallel, vertical, self contained fragments whose details nevertheless feed from one section to the next by means of shifting gaze and speech direction of the characters. Night VIIb is schematized in Figure 13.

Figure 13. Fig. X.2 from Narrative Unbound, p. 478. © 1987 Donald Ault.

When this sequence of discrete vertical segments of Night VIIb is embedded – as Erdman has done – in VIIa, which is dominated by its horizontal tiers, Night VIIb’s segments become subject to the structural laws of VIIa, and the events and characters that before functioned independently must now be plotted in relation to VIIa’s grid. Events involving Los, for instance, must now be plotted to intersect the upper world (above the Tree) where Los functions in VIIa; Orc before the Shadow in VIIb must be mapped into the space beneath the Tree (in accordance with VIIa); Orc’s becoming a serpent must be projected into the middle tier (outside the Tree); and so on. What emerges from this mapping of events of VIIb in terms of the VIIa grid is a curved graph in which the discontinuous segments of VIIb are transformed into a continuous serpentine movement, partially latent in the continuous re-orientation of perspective that pervades the discontinuous structure of VIIb considered as an independent Night. Mapped according to these principles, the composite structure of Night VIIb embedded in VIIa takes the form of Figure 14.

Figure 14. Fig. X.3 from Narrative Unbound, p. 479. © 1987 Donald Ault.

Visualized in this way, the embedded textual pattern of VIIb itself becomes the serpentine form wrapped around the (almost invisible) Tree of Mystery. This radical transformation of VIIb when it is embedded in VIIa is a dramatic and surprising example of the ontological principles presented in Narrative Unbound and thus carries with it a transformation of the narrative far too complex to assess here.

It is perhaps significant that, while the embedding of VIIb in VIIa in the above fashion yields interesting structural results by revealing how VIIa accomodates VIIb, attempting to embed the spatially rigid pattern of VIIa in VIIb radically disrupts the chain of shifting gaze and speech acts (Urizen to Los to Tharmas to Enitharmon to Orc to Shadowy Female to Tharmas to Urizen’s spatial worlds to the dead bursting forth) that served as the ground for simultaneously dividing VIIb into parallel segments and connecting these segments in an unalterable order. The disruption of the textual pattern of VIIb that the insertion of VIIa immediately produces could well serve to emphasize the incompatibility of the textual programs of VIIa and VIIb and thereby to argue that they be kept as separate and distinct Nights. This disruption could also be an indication that a new rule of organization of VIIb would have to be discovered that could accomodate VIIa, a rule that would probably redefine the structural pattern of both Nights. For the time being, however, it seems fair to say that if one is determined to force VIIa and VII b into one textual unit, the way Erdman has done it is not only probably the best but inadvertently produces interesting structural by-products. Nevertheless, it seems completely unwarranted to persue the seamless fitting together of the elements of a text as radical as Blake’s Four Zoas.

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