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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Justifying comics as legitimate objects of study, Part II: HELL STALKS ON FOUR PAWS!

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/07/09 at 09:17 PM

I concluded the previous post with a nod to William Blake as someone who explored the word-picture relationship and I will get to that, but first I should clarify a few issues I raised without fully addressing yesterday:

  1. Vance rightly noted that titles of paintings were often left to benefactors and history, so putting that much interpretive weight on such thin ice might not be the best idea.  I agree.  I fully intend on leaving this series of posts immersed and hypothermic.
  2. JPool noted that treating paintings like panels could be a category error and Miriam and Gene implicitly agreed, suggesting I might be better served by a Hogarth or one of his ilk.  I agree.  But I chose to go with Caravaggio and Blake over Giotto and Hogarth because I wanted to focus attention on an individual image before I moved to discussing the interaction between multiple images arrayed in narrative.  
  3. Andrew liked the arrows and will be disappointed with this post. 

Now that I have well and cleared my throat, let us venture forward to William Blake and “The Tyger” from Songs of Experience (1794).  It reads:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Where to start?  Should I go full Keats and spend a day on each stanza?  Probably . . . especially when you consider that 1) his manuscript looked like this:


Because 2) he spent tedious years perfecting the placement of every word on every line.  Maybe I’ll declare next week Blake Week and do just that.  But tonight I want to focus on the general impression of feline bad-assedness created by the text of the poem.  What we have here is a TYGER! MADE OF FIRE FORGED BY DREAD HANDS AND SHARP TOOLS OF METALLURGY TO HAVE DREAD PAWS.  So FEROCIOUS is this FIRE TYGER! that the poet cannot even imagine THE ABOMINABLE FOUNDRY in which SOME DEMENTED LORD created SO GRIM A BEAST. 



Is it just me or does the wittle kitty wook hungry?  Is this maybe just what Blake’s contemporaries thought tigers looked like?  Not according to Thomas Bewick’s General History of Quadrupeds (1794):


“Fierce without provocation” and “cruel without necessity” sounds more like a proper FIRE TYGER! than what Blake burned onto his plates.  What accounts for the difference?  Before I answer that, I want to let those big cats above stare from your screen for a while.  In fact, how about I flip that tiger around so you can do a closer comparison:


If the warp and woof of Blake’s poem evokes the bottom tiger, why did he etch the top one below the text?  Because, as seemingly everyone since David Erdman (1954) argues, Blake may be borrowing the rhetorical excesses in the poem from the French Revolution-inspired panic that swept across England.  If we buy that reading of the poem, the relation of the hyperbolic text to the hypotropic tiger is evident: Blake was satirizing those who proclaimed The End Is Nigh by showing them what the dread tiger actually looked like.  Not that this is the only legitimate reading of the poem, but the advantage it has over its word-based competitors is that it treats the work in its entirety.

If I seem to be backdooring authorial intent—Blake intended his words to be read on this plate and above this image—let me put your mind at ease: I’m actually doing something far more devious.  I’m claiming that the words absent the picture are meaningless nothings; that they are no more words than Miraculous Wordsworth on a Beach [JSTOR] is words.  They appear meaningful because these words combine into grammatical sentences under the aegis of a rigorous rhyme scheme, but just as a person kicking a ball is not necessarily playing soccer, words that make sense are not necessarily meaningful.  For the actions of the person kicking the ball to be meaningful, they need context: referees, rules, other players, &c.  Similarly, for the words Blake etched onto the plate to be meaningful, they too require the context provided by the image of the FIRE TYGER!  The whole plate constitutes a single and singular text.  To analyze one without the other would be akin to kicking a ball into a tree and insisting you’ve won the World Cup, because any interpretation of the words absent the image is an analysis of a poem that only exists in your head.

(The soccer analogy would be my nod to textbook language and logic.  It needs work.)



Interesting.  I made the same point to my juniors two weeks ago when we read Blake: the *Songs* without their pictures make no sense.  (That Blake changed the pictures from printing to printing, that no two copies are exactly alike, only makes making sense of their sense more difficult.)

I’d go further and state the obvious: each individual song makes little sense without its surrounding songs, especially without its “Contrary.” “The Tyger” must be read with “The Lamb,” and each must be read as part of the experience of Experience and Innocence that weaves the entire together.

But to the antithesis between drear word and ironically understated image, I’d say the poem itself hints at an answer: “What fearful hand could/dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” In other words, a sublime—rather than beautiful—image of the tyger would contradict the very premise of the poem.  If Blake’s hand could capture the sublime magnitude of the tyger, then how could that sublime magnitude be uncapturable? 

It’s an age old strategy discussed by Longinus: the best way to represent what is beyond representation is to dramatize the very impossibility of representing it.  Blake’s later fragmented epics do something similar.  Blake’s own “Tyger”—the text of the poem, I mean—uses a fake failure, switching the key word in the opening and closing lines and relying on a feminine rhyme in a poem full of perfect, simple rhymes (eye / symmetry), to show that the song’s singer cannot be as symmetrical as the tyger’s fearful symmetry. 

Finally, I don’t think the poem ever makes the tyger out to be the violent, predatory beast of the encyclopedia image.  Blake called the tyger’s true magnitude by its proper name in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”—Energy.  And again, in the static, almost one-dimensional image of the tyger, Blake *does* in fact capture the inability to capture just that aspect of the living creation, its energy (the poem is about movement, about energy, in the act of its creation: eye, sinews, heart, not claws, teeth, stomach).

By on 04/08/09 at 12:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Or, alternatively, Blake just wasn’t very good at drawing tigers. Or other stuff: witness “The Ghost of a Flea” which Blake himself said was designed to be an image of insatiable bloodlust and rapacity, but which to modern eyes looks like a slightly overweight Orc gazing in horror at the little plastic toy which he has just discovered at the bottom of his bowl of Rice Krispies.

It’s not a good tiger. The thin belly and hindquarters look like those of a lion. So do the hind legs - actually, they look like the hind legs of one of Landseer’s STEROID RIPPED LIONS OF IMPERIAL STRENGTH AND MIGHT at the foot of Nelson’s Column. The muzzle’s wrong.
I think, though, that most of the “widdle kitty” element is because the eyes are OMG KAWAII HUGE, to quote John Ruskin, and great big bulging eyes may not have been seen as cute in 1810 in the way that they are now.

By on 04/08/09 at 06:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And of course the “tyger” is mentioned in other of the songs in ways quite unlike the way it’s depicted in The Tyger. (Luther, unless there’s a variant of which I’m unaware, it’s “immortal hand.” And from what I remember of Longinus, he does not say the sublime can’t be created in words—in facts he gives many examples of the sublime: the gods in Aeschylus? striding mountains, the lines in Genesis “Let there be light.” But it’s been 20 years since I’ve really studied “One the Sublime”; perhaps he does also discuss strategies to evoke the un-capturable, particulary in the present degenerate age. Anyway, the sublime act of creating the tyger and the sublime act of creating a poem about the tyger are not equivalent, so the contradiction you posited is not real.)

One way The Tyger has been interpreted is to read the speaker as a young child, an innocent. The irony (if there is irony, and not simply another perspective) therefore is not the speaker’s, but Blake’s. At any rate, Blake clearly intended the poem and picture to be read together, but I think it goes too far to say the poem is meaningless without the art—Scott’s language, and not yours, Luther. Obviously there is a difference between meaningless and not making sense. I’d say the poem is meaningful even if we say it doesn’t make sense, which I’m not necessarily saying.

This is written in haste and unedited so pardon its undeveloped state. Now to rush to work.

By on 04/08/09 at 07:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Two things re: this particular tiger (Blake engraved several different tigers, as people are saying, for this poem).  You mock it because it’s got a doleful face—that’s one—and because it’s real skinny (two).  But as far as the skinniness goes, I’d guess Blake takes the whole rear portion of the beast from an heraldic lion (a lion passant): tiny waist, position of and general look of legs.  That there is a heraldric component in Blake’s art seems to me a good way of approaching what he does, as an artist, and certain interesting implications follow from it, I think; although it would take a lot more space to argue that properly than I have here.

As for the sorrowful face; I don’t know.  It does look unnecessarily glum.

By Adam Roberts on 04/08/09 at 11:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Similarly, for the words Blake etched onto the plate to be meaningful, they too require the context provided by the image of the FIRE TYGER!  The whole plate constitutes a single and singular text.  To analyze one without the other would be akin to kicking a ball into a tree and insisting you’ve won the World Cup, because any interpretation of the words absent the image is an analysis of a poem that only exists in your head.

Well, of course. Where else would it exist? If you’re arguing that analysis is only possible with context, here’s a counterexample.
Henry V, speech before Agincourt.

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us…

That speech is open to analysis as a piece of rhetoric, in the context of the rest of the play. But what if you knew - as any literate English audience would - the real background? Agincourt was fought by an English army trying to get home. There was no way back to friendly soil for any of them except through the French army.

In that context, that entire passage is deeply sarcastic. It’s the equivalent of the WW1 cartoon “If you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it”. Saying “anyone who doesn’t want to be here can go home now” to the English army before Agincourt is like saying the same thing to the French at Dienbienphu: a piece of dark, dark military humour.

But does ignorance of this context make the passage meaningless? Really? It gives it a radically different meaning, yes, and one which is (by authorial intent) less accurate…

By on 04/09/09 at 07:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

ajay, I’d say: yes, you miss understand that passage if you’re not aware of its context in the play.  It’s like in *The Odyssey*, when Homer compares Telemakhos’ and Odysseus’ tears to the way a hawk cries when it loses its babies.  If you’re not aware that a father and son are being reunited, the simile loses much of its power and meaning (i.e., that Odysseus feels the true loss of his son fully only when he finally meets him for the first time in nineteen years). 

But sure, one can contextualize language.  Henry’s speech could be quoted in many situations where there *is* a real chance of retreat, and it could be effective.  But it would *mean* something different, it’s intention would be different, and so the text itself would be different.  It’s like when Churchill recited McKay’s “If We Must Die” during the Blitz.  McKay’s poem is about the violent resistance of one’s oppressors, and its power comes from its context: is he really saying it’s all right to kill your fellow Americans?  Churchill transforms the poem into a nation-unifying sentiment by transforming not just the context but the intention: he makes a new poem in the act of (mis)quoting it.

So no, “meaningless” is the wrong word.  But quoting with a different intention means changing the text as a whole.

By on 04/09/09 at 09:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Apologies for the many typos above.

By on 04/09/09 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’“The Tyger” must be read with “The Lamb,” and each must be read as part of the experience of Experience and Innocence that weaves the entire together.’

Yes, Luther, but it wasn’t always possible to do so. As you undoubtedly know, Blake published SoI in isolation before SoE although it is widely believed that SoE was never published alone. So, do we, if the above is taken, assume Blake felt innocence could stand alone but experience could not? I don’t think so, since the poet said he thought both were necessary (just not always available).

I agree that the illustrations form part of a creative whole with the verses but the words stand alone better than do the pictures, I think. Blake’s creating a tiger that fits his purpose - as idiosyncratic as his spelling (tiger wasn’t generally spelt with a ‘y’ back then)!

BTW About ‘Henry V’ ... IMO, ajay, it’s just great writing, forget the history - as the writer said ‘suspend your disbelief’ and enjoy, be inspired - that’s what Hal’s after and the hell with rhetoric!

By on 04/14/09 at 11:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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