William Blake continues

William Blake – Illustration from The Visions of the Daughters of Albion

Allen Ginsberg and William Blake. It’s been a little while.  We continue our transcription from Allen’s 1979 Naropa classes. This class continues (the date – February 12, 1979)

Student: Plate II?

AG:  Plate II we were in the middle of, probably.

Student: Plate II.  Yeah.  Plate II.

AG: Okay.  If you have your picture book, there are a few things that Erdman says about the opening page, in Visions of the Daughters of Albion

Student: What page is that?

AG: It’s late.  Well what page in what book?  This is …

Student: The Illuminated (Blake)

AG:  … page one-twenty-nine of the illustrated, page forty-five of the Erdman complete text.  For the first plate, “Enslav’d, the Daughters of Albion weep.”  The theme is rape, the three characters you got more or less in your mind now?  There’s Bromion, the slave-holding, macho, repressive, power-head, rationalistic self-hood solidified represser, aggressor, there’s Theo-torment, Theotormon, who is basically desire, but frustrated by some kind of dependence on authority and turning into jealousy somewhat, and there is Oothoon who is in a situation of liberating herself, having experienced first natural ecstasy and having gone on into the world to meet the external world and finding herself raped and her true lover, Theotormon, brooding, dubious, guilt-racked, hesitant, unable to make up his mind, sitting on a rock at the beginning in the first plate, looking through the skull. Theotormon is sitting on a rock with his hands around his head, his head bent beneath his knees.

So in a way it’s about the disillusionment of love, and Erdman points out that the figures in Plate I, beginning, “Enslav’d, the Daughters of Albion weep”, along the top, along the “Visions”, where it says “Visions”, there are all sort of tumescent body puti, or little angels, but the one above the eye looks like a cock-and-balls, actually, it’s phallic.  If you’ve got the (pictures).  It’s really important that you look at the plates, or find somebody who has the plates and look at them and share them, and if you notice the little… above the “V” there’s a little creature blowing what is described as a phallic horn, then it looks like male genitalia over the eye, there’s an exaggerated eros figure with cupid’s bow turned into a rapist’s crossbow practically, and there’s a little eros – those are two archers there over the “n” and “s”, and then there’s a little creature dripping some kind of liquid over the “weep” trembling lamentation. Do you see that?  And then at the bottom, it looks as if this phallic balloon-like creature has collapsed and is totally detumescent at the bottom, right under the … on the extreme left, post-coitus-triste in every direction.  Everybody totally exhausted.  At least that’s what the description of the creature above the “i” on the “Visions”, where Erdman gives, “where the cloud-horse might have a neck, we see instead a pair of testicles, serving as a sort of pummel for the riding woman and a short round penis.  The dangling bridle strap falls across the division between the penis and testicles.”   And the bottom, deflated genitals is his idea.  So there’s a lot of interior punning and intelligence.  The subconscious suggestions of the whole text are laid out in the pictures, or resonances, or additional suggestiveness and innuendo.  It speaks at the bottom deflated genitals. Erdman speaks of it as the “deflated cloud of Oothoon’s vision.”

Well, we go on to, we had Bromion boasting at the end of Plate I, and the beginning of Plate II he continues his boast of the text.

“Now thou maist marry Bromions harlot…”, he says to Theotormon,”…and protect the child/ Of Bromions rage, that Oothoon shall put forth in nine moons time/Then storms rent Theotormons limbs; he rolld his waves around..And folded his black jealous waters round the adulterate pair/ Bound back to back in Bromions caves terror & meekness dwell” – (So it’s terror and meekness bound back-to-back, and from the very first plate, on page one-hundred-and-twenty-five, you’ll see that terror, Bromion, staring outward, is bound down with manacles.  Oothoon is not, but the terror is bound down with heavy manacles, on his legs. Oothoon has a kind of trance-like indifferent, observant, meditative eye, whereas Bromion is staring in terror.)

“At entrance Theotormon sits wearing the threshold hard/With secret tears; beneath him sound like waves on a desart shore/The voice of slaves beneath the sun, and children bought with money./That shiver in religious caves beneath the burning fires/ Of lust, that belch incessant from the summits of the earth/.  Oothoon weeps not: she cannot weep! her tears are lock up;/ But she can howl incessant writhing her soft snowy limbs..” – (I think I may have mentioned at this point, obviously, she’s been aroused sexually) – ” And calling Theotormons Eagles to prey upon her flesh..”

Why the eagle? You see the picture on Plate III, page one-hundred-and-thirty-one of the Illuminated Blake  It’s an eagle with a kind of vulture beak, like a duck quack eagle, vulturish eagle, because, in proclaiming the freedom of desire, the freedom of women there, in a sense she’s like a feminine Prometheus figure.  Her protector, or her desire, Theotormon, is not coming to her rescue, but is locked up in indecision.  So, however, she’s left herself open and vulnerable, because the rest of the speeches will be her libertarian speeches to Theotormon to try to get him to get it on, to assume his manhood, or to respond to her desire. So there’s a Promethean role she’s playing and that’s why she’s got Theotormon’s eagles preying upon her flesh (a kind of masochism on her part). But Theotormon’s eagles, in the sense of the genius of his mind, has (have) turned kind of vulturish and brooding.  Theo-torment under law.  Torment under the Torah.

“The Eagles at her call descend & rend their bleeding prey;/ Theotormon severely smiles. her soul reflects the smile…” – (So he’s actually kind of enjoying (it). He “severely smiles”.  So he’s actually kind of enjoying this torture. In other words, he’s withholding his help. And the woman is helpless, torn by the eagles of his guilt and fear. And he feels that (he’s) perhaps  theologically self-justified, so he’s smiling severely at her. He’s tempted, in fact, preferably.

“,,,her soul reflects the smile;/As the clear spring mudded with feet of beasts grows pure & smiles..” – (She’s been defiled, but after all she is eternal woman, eternal liberty, and so, though defiled, as a clear stream muddied, nevertheless, she’ll become clear again, become pure again and smile – “The Daughters of Albion hears her woes. & eccho back her sighs” – (Her purity is renewable).

I think there are some notes on page eight-fifteen  (of The Poetry and Prose of William Blake) by (Harold) Bloom that cover that.  “The writhing of her limbs indicate that her sexual desire has been aroused and it only remains for Theotormon truly to fulfill her. His failure prompts the substitute gratification for both of them of her masochistic and momentary submission through Promethean punishment.

And (in) the Prophet Against Empire there is) Erdman’s comment in here somewhere.  Yeah, I think we’ve covered that already.  He also points out that in the middle of this, that repitition of that image of slavery, the master-slave relationship and slavery, is right in the middle of this passage in Plate II:  “The Eagles at her call descend & rend their bleeding prey.”  If you look at page one-hundred-and-thirty of the illuminations, says Erdman, in his commentary, “across the center of the page a black African ‘beneath the sun’ strains to hold his head out of the dust.  His human form is symmetrically balanced by a less-fallen tree against which a pick-axe rests.”  (And there is some stuff about the Parliamentary debates going on, some stuff that’s presented here in Erdman’s Prophet Against Empire, about the Parlimentary debates about slavery going on.  That “severe smile” –  Theotormon severely smiles” is the smile of the slave-master at the suffering of the slave, actually – “Blake’s acquaintance with the abolition debate is evident. The Bromions in Parliament cried that the Africans were ‘innured to the hot climate,’ of their plantations, and therefore necessary for ‘labor under the verticle sun.’ Under Bromion’s words, Blake draws a picture stretching across the page of a negro worker, smitten into desperate horizontality, wilted like the heat-blasted vegetation among which he has been working with a pick-axe and barely able to hold his face out of the dirt.  The apologists also argue that Negroes understood only firmness, and were contented and happy and superstitious, and were now habituated to the contemplation of slavery.  Bromion utters the same arguments; that the swarthy children of the sun are obedient, they resist not, they obey the scourge, their daughters worship terrors and obey the violent.”

So what he’s setting up is the whole image of S & M, really, of master-slavery, both for the political situation of the blacks and for women under men, at that time. Contemporaneous, as I said, with Mary Wollstonecraft‘s essays on the emancipation of women, or the basic rights of women.

There’s a footnote that is interesting – this is on page two-hundred-and-thirty-seven of the Prophet Against Empire –  “In the abolition debates” – (in Parliament in England) – “attention was focused on this eruption of democratical principals in the West Indies.  The fact that London merchant firms held investments in Santo Domingo in the then-large sum of three hundred thousand pounds ‘helps explain why the British government in 1793 to 1798, sacrificed more than four million pounds in an effort to conquer the French colony and  maintain, or restore, Negro slavery.  It also helps to explain why Bishop Wilberforce‘s Abolitionist program suffered a momentary eclipse.” – (It’s very similar to the United States spending billions and billions of dollars to maintain American investments in Indochina or in Iran, actually. I think that was one of the great comic arguments of the late ‘Sixties and early ‘Seventies about our maintenance of police-state forces in South America, Middle East, and Indochina, all over the world – that it was… that these really expensive government armies and police-state support apparatuses were costing enormously much more than the American investments they were supposed to be protecting. That was like having the taxpayer pay five billion dollars to protect the one billion dollar Standard Oil investment. So that part of the history hasn’t changed, nor have the rationalizations – ” All the gooks are used to starving”,  or (that), “they’re used to taking orders, so it doesn’t make any difference who runs them”, (whether it’s us or another dictatorship).

Then there was a great argument in Parliament which.. This sound will be familiar.  Lord Abington in Parliament is quoted, accusing the “abettors” of abolition of slavery or “promoting the new philosophy of levelling”. (This sounds like William Buckley, now).  “Look at the state of the colony of Santo Domingo and see what liberty and equality.  See what the rights of man have done there. They have dried up the rivers of commerce and replaced them with fountains of human blood.” Moreover, the levellers are prophesying that “all being equal, Blacks and Whites, French and English, wolves and lambs, shall all, merry companions every one, promiscuously pigged together, engendering.. a new species of man as a product of this new philosophy.”

So what is self-evident now was not self-evident then (and what is even now self-evident is not self-evident now, in terms of the rhetoric used by everybody)

to be continued

[Audio for the above can be heard – here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding approximately eighteen minutes in ]

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