Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Ava Mailloux, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Leo Damrosch about his book Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake (Yale University Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Ava Mailloux: Blake’s influence is seen in mainstream culture, counterculture, and pop culture alike. He influenced James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg, his work is a crucial plot element in Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels, and he’s even name-checked in The Hold Steady’s album Separation Sunday. Yet he was unknown during his lifetime. I’m wondering what helped his work gain traction. What changes had to happen in the world before humanity was ready to recognize Blake’s genius?
Leo Damrosch: There have been many instances, in all of the arts, in which names that were celebrated during a given historical period have faded badly in the eyes of posterity, while once-obscure figures are recognized later as truly major. Van Gogh could barely sell a single painting in his lifetime; John Donne was regarded as a minor and eccentric poet for three centuries, until T. S. Eliot and others brought him back; Emily Dickinson, whom many regard as the greatest of all American poets, was essentially unknown during her lifetime. Even Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were much more mainstream poets then Blake when he was writing, were regarded by their contemporaries as inferior to Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Robert Southey, Samuel Rogers, and Thomas Moore. In my book I quote a wonderful saying by Schopenhauer that applies perfectly to Blake: talent hits a target no one else can hit, while genius hits a target no one else can see.
In Blake’s case there are the further obstacles of his brilliantly original but deeply unconventional artistic style, and his challengingly symbolic myth. The Pre-Raphaelite painters began his rehabilitation as a visual artist; real appreciation of the poems didn’t come until the 1890s, when another great poet, William Butler Yeats, co-edited the first important edition.
In my own lifetime, I’ve seen Blake’s star rise highest in the 1960s, when he was hailed as a counter-culture guru (Jim Morrison got the name of The Doors from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell). Since then I’m afraid he has started to become somewhat marginal again, though he still has generous admirers, notably Patti Smith.
AM: I never studied Blake in high school or college, though I’ve read and enjoyed much of his work on my own. What are the challenges of writing a text that is accessible for readers who are new to Blake’s work, while honoring the depth and complexity of Blake’s vision? What are the frustrations and what are the joys?
LD: The challenges in the kind of book I did are indeed great, and I’m sure that’s why it’s never really been undertaken by the many distinguished Blakeans who could have done so. Blake was a profound thinker, and all of his poems, even the most deceptively simple, are filled with ideas. And because his imagination was profoundly visual – he was a working artist every day of his adult life – his pictures too are filled with ideas, including of course the pictures in which his poetic texts are embedded.
The challenge, then, is to help readers to understand what Blake is up to –to lay out the principal themes that concerned him, and to show how those themes are brought to life in words and images. The introductions to Blake that do exist limit themselves either to the poems or to the pictures, but really Blake can’t be appreciated without thinking about both at once. I was fortunate that Yale University Press was willing to include an ample selection of color plates as well as many black and white reproductions.
To answer your concluding questions: the joys come from feeling that I’m doing what Blake would have wanted to have done, doing my best to hear his voice and enter into his imagination. The frustrations are the many points at which one simply has to leave a complex topic before going into it in depth – or, at times, not taking up such topics at all because they would be too confusing in a brief introduction.
AM: You mention that many of Blake’s writings concerning the feminine would be repellent to the modern reader, and I was intrigued by your assertion, “Even if his fears and obsessions did damage the integrity of his imaginative work, he could never have created it without them.” I’m so fascinated by that idea, I could probably spend the whole interview talking about it. How do you go about drawing value and insight from the portions of an artist’s work that you, personally, find problematic or disturbing? What’s your advice for students who encounter such content in the course of their academic careers?
LD: What is most disturbing in this context is Blake’s panicky fear of what he calls “the female will.” He is profoundly critical of patriarchy in its institutional forms, but from a modern perspective his own sexual attitudes are deeply patriarchal. And in his elaborated myth he blames the female for seducing the male cruelly yet withholding herself, frustrating him so deeply that he rushes forth to war. The idea that wars are the fault of women is bizarre, to say the least.
At a psychological level, Blake thought – as Freud did too – that inhibition and frustration are inseparable from sexuality. And his notebook drawings (those that his shocked friends didn’t obliterate after his death) depict the female body as an insidious trap. In Blake’s myth of the self, the various aspects of inner experience are allegorized as four male Zoas, and although each Zoa is given a feminine “emanation,” she is inferior, even a shadow, and destined to be reabsorbed into the male when a breakthrough into Eternity takes place.
As for your question about students and other readers: I believe the time is past when responsible Blake critics could claim that he didn’t “really” believe these things – that his treatment of male and female are purely symbolic constructions that we have no right to criticize. We do and should criticize them. What I meant in the quote you picked up is that Blake’s deep anxieties in this regard provided much of the imaginative energy in his work. Just because he was so conflicted, even tormented, he was driven to keep rethinking the meaning of gender and sexuality. And it should be added that his wife, Catherine, was intensely loyal, bringing him through episodes of desperate depression that might otherwise have wrecked him. Though it’s also true that he refers to her as “my sweet shadow of delight”!
AM: We live in a world today where it’s very easy for artists to be cynical. In order to find commercial success, the market demands content that is more and more homogenized, or content that takes a polarized stance—content that is a million miles away from the ironies and ambiguities that fascinated iconic thinkers like Blake. However, he’s clearly still relevant—his work certainly continues to strike a chord that resonates with modern artists. What do you hope that readers, particularly readers who may have never studied Blake in an academic context, will take away from this book? Do you find that your decades of living with Blake have enabled you, so to speak, to kiss the joy as it flies?
LD: I’m not really qualified to comment on the art world of today; my own work has been mainly in literature. But Blake would certainly not be surprised by the extreme commercialization of art that gets widely celebrated. He saw that process beginning in his own day, when conventional portraits and landscape paintings were eagerly bought, often as investments that were expected to appreciate, while more adventurous symbolic work was treated not just as inferior but as literally insane. And when you speak of “content that takes a polarized stance,” you point to something that would indeed disgust Blake. Though his thinking was intensely political in the deepest sense, he saw politics as emerging from fundamental conflicts in the human mind and spirit, so that it’s not enough just to call for revolutionary change – that can never happen if we don’t explore the roots of political repression, religious dogmatism, and psychic suffering. He always saw more than one side of any question, even if his goal was to push us toward breaking free from inherited assumptions. A lot of art today is (in my opinion) complacently explicit in its “message.” Blake wrote, to a purchaser who returned one of his paintings as unacceptable, “That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the ancients considered what is not too explicit as the fittest for instruction, because it rouses the faculties to act.”
Leo Damrosch is Ernest Bernbaum Research Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He is the author of nine books, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, a National Book Award Finalist. He lives in Newton, MA.
Ava Mailloux is a second year MFA candidate specializing in fiction. She has published in Shark Reef and on Nerve, and is currently at work on a collection of short stories, a couple of novels, some personal essays, and an illuminated book inspired by the work of William Blake. Follow her on Twitter @ava_mailloux for pithy and occasionally sophomoric observations on writing, academia, coffee, and living in New York City.