Tuesday, September 12, 2006
The Fantastic Four Zoas
Why aren’t William Blake’s late prophecies more popular? Blake is thoroughly anthologized, canonized, etc. even if it’s a little hard to fit him into a strong central narrative for his period (the key to success in any survey course, for sure).
As you well know, if you have any familiarity with the Four Zoas, Milton, and/or Jerusalem, and/or the other episodes in the idiosyncratic mythos Blake spent the last half of his life constructing, there are good reasons to not read them.
For your edification and entertainment, let me rehearse some of those reasons and add one you might not have thought of. But don’t let me stop there. I have a solution to this problem, guaranteed to take Blake’s “mental fight” mainstream, maybe even bring Hollywood into the picture!
For one thing, there’s all those characters with the funny names, and their complicated relations to each other: Albion, AKA the Big Poppa, Show-Stoppa, & his four faculties (Zoas) which separate from him and start acting like ne’er-do-well sons, Urthona, Urizen, Luvah, Tharmas, who themselves produce four female emanations, Enitharmon, Ahania, Vala, Enion. On top of that, there’s Urthona’s spectre, Los, who takes as his consort Enitharmon, Urthona’s emanation, so she’s kind of his mother and his wife, except she’s not. Perhaps this cast of characters is not unusually large, but their odd relations i.e. the fact that they are all versions of each other, muddles the various agons. And then these characters play out in four levels of reality which also sport odd names—Eden, Beulah, Generation, and Ulro, plus Golgonooza, the city of art Los forges in his furnace. It’s like the 3-dimensional chess from Star Trek. But if you’ve a taste for a Hegelian stew, in which opposites become identical, Blake provides a theatrical version of what is usually presented expositorily. If you like you ideas in stories more than in lectures, Blake could be for you.
If you can get the characters and location down, you can move on to the next difficulty, which is the high-flown metaphysical rhetoric, the quasi-scriptural diction that may sound like bombast:
Lo the Eternal Great Humanity
To whom be Glory & Dominion Evermore Amen
Walks among all his awful Family seen in every face
As the breath of the Almighty. Such are the words of man to man
In the Wars of Eternity, in Fury of Poetic Inspiration,
To build the Universe stupendous: Mental forms creating. (Milton 2, 15-20).
Now I happen to like this kind of talk, but I can understand that other don’t, And I can also understand that the pleasure I take in it is somewhat suspect. A fondness for prophesy is a personal danger, as an auditor and as a speaker. Another thing I like (a lot) that might not be to everyone’s taste is what Yeats called “the supreme theme of art & song,” that is, poetry as the supreme theme of poetry. If you are keen on such, Blake draws some highly dramatic (overwrought?) imagery of furnaces and hammers and such.
The dramaturgical mess and Biblical tenor are obvious issues. They show up on any page of the book. But there’s another issue that only becomes clear after extended reading. Blake has a rudimentary sense of plotting. Each epic has an main story arc. In the Four Zoas, Albion divides into the Four Zoas, which leads to the further divisions mentioned above, but in the end the various parts are reconciled. In Milton, the protagonist returns to earth, sees the light, and takes up his true vocation. In Jerusalem, Albion falls mucks about in his fallen state, then is regenerated through the agency of Jesus.
But within these large shapes sprawls an inchoate yak-fest. There are no smaller structures nested within the larger structure. Scenes don’t build up, they just blast out full force from the get-go. And there’s no distinction between foreground and background elements. Every character is equally important, every event is a Clash of the Titans. Of course it’s not entirely accurate to call them events. Perhaps the biggest weakness in the stories is how little happens, other than speechifying. Of course it’s a common weakness of stories driven more by ideas than actions.
But I’ve got a plan. As one of my old bosses used to say, don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions! (But what, I asked myself, are they paying you for then?) Why not a William Blake comic book? You’ve got god-like figures with super-powers, concomitant babes, fiery furnaces, smashing hammers, etc. Multiple story lines have already been written, just waiting to be story-boarded. And once the books start selling, we talk to the movie people. Jude Law would make a helluva Urizen.
But that’s stupid, you say. It’s already been done. Blake invented the graphic novel! Yes, but as many critics have pointed out, rather than making them easier to read, Blake’s pictures make his stories more difficult, often working against the sense of the text, further enacting that whole “contrarities are equally true” thing. Which is a deep insight into humanity, but isn’t going to buy baby a new pair of shoes.
What I have in mind is something more like the “Amar Chitra Katha” series in India, something like an honest-to-goodness comic book, with a simplified storyline, abbreviated dialogue, and bulging muscles. Don’t cease from mental fight till we have built Marvel Comics in Ulro’s doleful vales!
My brother reads Blake’s prophecies, and it’s been very hard for him because no one else is interested.
I should put in a plug for Swedenborg. As far as I know he’s entirely unreadable, but he had some degree of direct or indirect influences on Blake, Emerson, Baudelaire, WM. and Henry James, and D.T. Suzuki (the interpreter of Zen).
Yeah, Swedenborg. That’s another one. You can’t understand the 19th century w/out reading him, but I can’t imagine ever being able to read him. It takes a certain amount of donkey in your mental constitution to be a scholar. & much to my shame, I lack such fortitude.
I don’t know, Swedenborg has his moments:
“The speech of spiritual angels is slightly jarring and divided. The speech of celestial angels has much of the tones of the vowels U and O; while the speech of spiritual angels has much of the tones of E and I: for the vowels stand for tone, and in the tone there is affection, the tone of the speech of angels corresponding to their affection… while the vocal articulations which are words correspond to the ideas of thought which spring from affection.”
Just a thought.
Conrad, your task is to go through the whole mass of text and pick out the zingers for us. Perhaps there’s something usable out there already, but my attempts to find it came to nothing.
Hm, maybe in a decade or so. I’ll get back to you.
I stopped reading superhero comics in ‘67, at the peak of Kirby-era Marvel, with Thor and the Silver Surfer as special favorites, and when I first read Blake’s prophetic books, that’s what I thought of too: mind-blowing cosmology; galaxy-crushing battles of bombast; insanely resurrectionary arch-enmities and ambiguous alliances; the costumes.... (When we call them “prophetic”, we’re talking about the full-body spandex.)
And yet artists instead keep trying to adapt unsuitable material like Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy. And when occasional poetry reader Jonathan Lethem was offered his own vehicle, he chose to follow Alan Moore’s lead and bring a commercially moribund existing superhero out of retirement. What’s the hitch?
C’mon, Vertigo, work it out: Four Zoas. Four big name artists. Four collector’s edition issues. With a tie-in to Hellblazer. And then guaranteed sales of the graphic novel to English majors forever after!
there is a web site...thefourzoas....gives plot to comic moo.