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Proceed to Contraries Machine
You will find nothing here but fun and games. Granted, these games
might only appeal to the more playful scholars of William Blake, and
the fun they offer is of a decidedly cerebral kind. Nonetheless, all
those who can imagine scholarship as a game, and games as a worthy subject
of scholarship, are invited to play.
Our games-master is William Blake himself. It is he who created The
Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which, I argue in this essay,
was a kind of game. Using modern gaming parlance, I have re-named Blake's
game "Contraries Game 1.0." The first half
of this essay will deal with this game. The second half will deal with
a scholarly, digitized version of Blake's originally codex-based game,
which I have called "Contraries Game 2.0."
At the end of the essay, you will have an opportunity to play the "Contraries
Game 2.0" yourself. You may skip immediately to the game, but, as with
any game, it would probably be more fruitful to first read the operating
instructions and rules. These are provided in the essay proper, below.
Please note that all the images used with this essay, and with
the "Contraries Machine" (described below), are owned by The Blake
Archive and are used with permission. It is strongly suggested
that you travel to The
Blake Archive to read, and agree to, their terms and conditions
Contraries Game 1.0
When William Blake futurity saw, did he foresee such things as video
games? And did he foresee himself as one of those eccentric geniuses
of the early 21st century who dream up the fantastic virtual worlds
that thousands enter daily and only reluctantly leave? Whether he did
or not, I think the case can be made that Blake anticipated, with his
Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the type of hypermedia
games that can be played in virtual environments. He did so by experimenting
with multimedia, with textual interactivity, with agency and role-playing,
and by using effects that simulated virtual immersion—all this
together making up "Contraries Game 1.0". In calling it a game I do
not mean to imply that Blake's intent was in any way frivolous. This
was, for Blake, a game of critical import, central to his artistic mission:
creating tools to help cleanse the reader's "doors of perception," to
bring him/her to enlightenment through imagination.
More particularly, Blake was creating with his game a virtual space,
and an actual artistic engine, that would allow for the creative engagement
with and integration of contraries. He highlighted such an idea in the
Songs by giving the over-all work the subtitle "Shewing the Two
Contrary States of the Human Soul." The most important contrary relationship
in the Songs, of course, is that between Innocence and Experience.
For Blake, as a quick perusal of the Songs will show, Innocence
was largely associated with childhood, and Experience with adulthood;
but, as a more methodical perusal will show, these associations are
not absolute: we see elements of the jaded
cynicism and world-weariness that Blake associates with experience
in the The Songs of Innocence, and elements of joyful
play in the The Songs of Experience [Note: To read the
transcription of the text on Blake's plate, click on the image in the
pop-up window. To return to the plate, click on the text]. As Nicholas
Marsh notes, "It would be wrong to think of Experience as any wiser
than Innocence" or any more cynical or world-weary; it would be equally
wrong to think of Innocence as more joyful or playful (30). There are
elements of both in each. For Blake, these were virtual time-spaces
or mind-states, with portals from one to the other appearing in either
world. And it was not the road to or from one or the other that concerned
Blake, but rather the road between them which eventually led
beyond all dualities. As Marsh notes, for Blake "[i]t appears that the
route towards wholeness and a 'true' vision lies through combination
of the two, not rejection of either of them" (30).
Another important contrary relationship in the Songs, as Blake's
well-formed lissome bodies and pseudo-Biblical language show, is that
between the body and the soul. As with the split between Innocence and
Experience, in the Songs the wall between body and soul is quite
porous, and there is much intercourse between the two: for Blake, the
body, including the sexual body, was not the enemy, but rather the locus
of enjoyment and enlightenment. As Blake wrote in The Marriage of
Heaven and Hell, all creation "will be consumed, and appear infinite.
and holy . . . by an improvement of sensual enjoyment" (pl. 14).
The true enemy consisted of the forces arrayed against sensual, and
sexual, enjoyment—puritanical church institutions and the anti-sex God
they represented, which Blake mocks in "The
Garden of Love." The soul is not the enemy either, though it
needed to be redeemed from the forces that would repress the pleasures
of the body. For Blake, there
was a Fall, and an expulsion from Paradise, but this Fall was not
occasioned by sexual sin, but rather its repression. As W.J.T. Mitchell
explains: "For Blake, in the final analysis the body and the imagination
[or soul] are separable principles only in a fallen world of limited
perception; the business of [Blake's] art is to dramatize their unification"
("Composite Art" 69). We need redemption not from the body or the soul,
according to Blake, but from the false division between them. And it
is the imagination's role to effect such a reconciliation.
Imagination has a contrary as well: reason. If there is an enemy in
Blake's illuminated books, it is reason. This is because, according
to Blake, reason is the cause of the division of the world into contraries.
The division of imagination and reason, according to Blake, is based
on the 'Two Horn'd Reasoning, Cloven Fiction' represented by super-rational
philosophies such as that of John Locke (Gates of Paradise, pl.
9). For Blake, reason-as-enemy was the scientific mind-set, and it needed
to be rejected as a principle of organizing meaning—as opposed
to knowledge—in the world. Liberation, Blake believed, comes not
from reason but imagination, as it is expressed through art, and this
is Blake's mission.
Yet this liberation in spite of—and to some extent from—reason
sometimes seems more flight than victorious fight; it is more like a
"daring end run around the reasoning intellect that is everywhere both
the goal and mechanism of Blake's art" (Behrendt 6). Unlike the synthesis
that Blake advocates when representing other contraries in the Songs,
the integration he advocates for reason and imagination is lopsided
in favor of imagination. There is no hard-won co-existence here, no
spiral dance of dualities, but rather an "apocalyptic" subsuming of
reason into imagination. For Blake, there are many mansions in the house
of imagination, but there is no room for the "Cloven Fiction" of scientific
reasoning, for its purpose is to cleave everything in its path, leaving
nothing but split off contraries wandering like Cain in the wilderness.
I could spend much more time laying out all the other contraries found
in the Songs—night and day, winter and spring, wilderness and
Eden, even left and right political orientation (as well as left and
right cognitive orientation)—but
it is the integration of such contraries that we must move to now. We
might—and now shall—use another word for the play of contraries: dialectic.
As W.J.T. Mitchell writes, "dialogue and dialectic of contraries constitute
the master code of Blake's text" ("Image and Text" 46). Eben Bass adds,
"the total effect of Innocence and Experience is one of balanced opposites,
each fulfilling and completing the other" (209). This is not a strictly
thesis-antithesis-synthesis of Hegelian dialectics, but the functioning
is much the same. Blake intended for his reader to come into a space
where he/she could encounter the two contraries in dialogue, within
the imagination, and come to a sense of resolution.
Blake wanted his reader to hold both contraries in view in a kind
of double-vision. As he wrote in a letter to Thomas Butts, "For double
the vision my Eyes do see / And a double vision is always with me" (Letters
44). He was not suggesting we look towards the body or the soul to the
exclusion of the other, but to allow them to remain, in fruitful contest,
within the imagination. "Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction
and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human
existence" Blake writes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (pl.
3). Just as opposition might be the truest friend, allowing the play
of contraries might be the truest path to wisdom. And since Blake was
more visual artist than rhetorician (and thank goodness for that!),
he chose as the realm of this play of contraries that of the artistic
imagination, rather than the Hegelian philosophical system.
The interpretation presented above, of course, is not new. It begins
with Blake himself. What is new to the discourse, however, is the
idea that, in the Songs, Blake actually constructed virtual
spaces, as well as a text-vehicle to navigate those spaces, which
together constitute a "gameworld" where the reader can perform and
play the dialectic game of contraries. In the following discussion
of the Songs as a game in a virtual environment, I will draw
upon the work of a number of New Media scholars. For a more detailed
and general discussion of the work of these scholars, and the principles
of games in virtual environments, the reader is invited to follow
Blake's "Contraries Game" is immersive
Through his world-creating imagination, as well as his technique of
illuminated printing, Blake created an imaginative world that can be
inhabited and navigated. We can see this through his use of lighting
and perspective in his plates, perhaps most clearly in the frontispieces
of the two books. In the frontispiece
to The Songs of Innocence, the reader, through the use of
light and shadows, enters a world that seems three-dimensional. It recreates
some of the immersive qualities of stain-glass windows, or perhaps a
cathedral itself, with the arch of trees over the two central figures
and the two column-like trees, the one on the right twisted in a way
similar to the piers of many gothic cathedrals. Similar effects are
found in the frontispiece
to The Songs of Experience, with the figure striding outwards,
nearly stepping out of the frame, implying that the reader might step
into the frame.
It might, however, be misrepresentative to choose two plates that
have no text, and are thus anomalous to Blake's overall design for the
Songs. Let us look at the first plate where text appears, the
page to The Songs of Innocence: Here the text is surrounded
and entwined with, if not actually made out of, lush green foliage.
Most of the plates in Innocence have a similar interplay between
foliage and text. Do the words bring us into or take us out of the illusion
of immersion? With their integration into the foliage, and their curved
and round shapes, I would suggest that the words are meant to be viewed
as exfoliations of the visual, and vice versa, and their function is
to help draw us into the virtual world of the plate.
Blake brings off a similar effect in his "Introduction"
to The Songs of Experience, though this time it is words and
cloud, rather than words and foliage, that work symbiotically. Sometimes
Blake is playfully ambiguous with this effect. Look, for instance, at
24, "Nurse's Song." I draw your attention to the leaf
at the top of the plate, between the "e" and the "s" in "Nurse's." Or
is it an apostrophe? Transcribers have had fits when faced with such
textual ambiguity, not knowing whether to translate that leaf into an
apostrophe or not. David Erdman's edition, on which the transcriptions
on this site are based, chooses to make it an apostrophe, but other
transcribers choose differently.
It is not just the use of elastic space that creates the illusion
of immersion, but also Blake's use of time. In the plates of the Songs,
days come and go, some quickly, some slowly, with a focus on the most
plastic times of all, those of dawn
The same is true for the seasons, though each book generally dwells
within one season—Spring for Innocence, Winter for Experience.
And while time functions in such a way as to structure temporal movement
in virtual space, time can also can stand still. W.J.T. Mitchell writes:
"In the simplest possible terms, [Blake's] poetry exists to invalidate
the idea of objective time, his painting to invalidate the idea of objective
space. To state this positively, his poetry affirms the power of the
human imagination to create and organize time in its own image" ("Composite
Art" 69)—that is, in the image of the virtual world the imagination
maps onto consciousness. Mitchell sees such virtual space and time in
opposition, as contraries, but I would suggest they could also be different
modes of habitation in Blake's virtual world.
It is not just by tricks of the eye and plastic use of time that Blake
creates an immersive world, but also through characterization. Ron Broglio
speaks to this when he writes, "[Blake's] characters are continually
creating windows and doors into new worlds or falling through space
and time in such a way that the fall creates both space and time. Through
their immersive interaction with one another and their surroundings,
Blake's characters forge the world upon which the narrative is staged"
(3). This is particularly true of characters from Blake's other illuminated
books, such as Milton, which Broglio, along with a consortium
of others, is attempting to game in the Romantic
Circles MOO. But it is no less true of the less-peopled Songs.
For instance, if we look at Plate
6, "The Ecchoing Green," in The Songs of Innocence, we can
see how the characters of this particular tableaux create the space
through widening circles of movement, through dance and play. The boisterous
children cannot even be contained within the picture frame: they rampage
through the text box as well, spinning hoops and watching a batted ball
fly. As in all of Blake's plates in the Songs, they carve out
a space that can be inhabited.
It is possible, as many New Media scholars point out, that immersion
can go too deep, creating anxiety and disorientation which ensues from
a state in which we have lost touch with the so-called "real world."
Bolter and Grusin posit hypermedia—playing multiple media off
one another—as a strategy to be used to counteract a too-deep
immersion. Does Blake have a strategy of hypermedia to prevent disorientation
within his immersive, virtual space? I believe he does in his creation
of borders and frames. Bolter and Grusin cite the theories of Leon Alberti
in showing how such borders work to prevent an immediacy that is too
transparent: for Alberti, a painting presents "a window on to a world
of representation; the viewer remains on one side of the window at a
safe, analytical distance from the objects of representation" (251).
Blake is not as safe as that, or an immersive experience would be impossible,
but he does provide safe-guards, especially when he creates separate
windows for text and image, such as in Plate
13, "A Little Boy Lost."
Here we see in the image box one of the more frighteningly immersive
scenes in either book (and the fact that this appears in Innocence
rather than Experience once again shows how elements of the other
virtual world sometimes crop into the world of its supposed opposite):
the little boy lost in a dark wood, with the will o' the wisp that he
has followed about to fly off, abandoning him to the darkness. But here
the text box is clearly delineated, framed off from the immersive scene
above. The effect is one in which we are conscious, if not "hyperconscious,"
of two media at work. This hypermediacy serves to assuage our anxiety
about the situation depicted in the image box. Blake allows us an escape
hatch from too much transparency, immediacy, immersion.
But Blake's windows and doors are not just escape hatches, they are
also portals to other worlds. They provide us with ways into the virtual
worlds of Innocence and Experience, and ways between them. Angels pass
from one world to the next, and we may follow them if we dare [Plates
Indeed, we must if we are to make peace with our contraries. "One does
not become fully aware of . . . Innocence until one has departed that
state and moved into Experience" Stephen Behrendt writes, and the same
is paradoxically true of Innocence: one does not become fully aware
of Experience, nor integrate it within his/her consciousness, until
one has traveled from there to the virtual world of Innocence (54).
Let's look at an example of what I am talking about here: Plate
27, "On Anothers Sorrow." Here we see the verdant foliage of Innocence
change in color and begin to fall from the tree, bringing us into the
winter climate, and time-space continuum, of Experience. This
plate reveals a portal between these two virtual worlds: we can travel,
in our mind anyway, back and forth. We can "quest" from one world to
the next, and eventually come through another portal into the "real"
world. If our quest has been successful, we will find our senses liberated,
and the fallen world, created by our the displacement of our senses,
redeemed. In a virtual environment, we encounter Coleridge's "suspension
of disbelief," but in Blake's hands we find that such a world is also
fruitful for the creation of belief, through a transformed consciousness.
In the preceeding I have focused almost exclusively on the images,
without saying much about the texts. I will analyze texts in other
sections below, but I would like to note that Blake's texts are, in
their own way, as immersive as his images. As Broglio writes, Blake's
poems "create a field of play that omits an outside objective space
for contemplation . . . . Normally when reading the reader occupies
a double position—one inside the poem through the act of reading and
a second outside the poem in the 'real world' beyond the book. However,
Blake's [poetry] problematizes the second position and collapses it
into the first" (Broglio 4). Broglio is no doubt correct, though,
as with his images, Blake offers us "escape hatches" that allow us
step out of immersion when it gets too deep, as well as allowing us
to bring back to the "real" world the treasures of wisdom
found strewn in the virtual portalways between virtual worlds.
Blake's game is multimedia
Blake's use of multimedia is perhaps the most distinctive element
of his art. His use and combination of the media of painting and poetry,
particularly, as well as his creation of technologies to bring the two
media together in a single work of art, set him apart—causing bewilderment
to his contemporaries and his isolation during his lifetime, but admiration
and feverish scholarly activity today. But it was not just his proficiency
in these media that is remarkable but also what he managed to accomplish
with them: creating virtual worlds long before hypermedia tools made
such things commonplace. Joseph Viscomi asserts that "working on metal
with the tools of poet and painter enabled Blake to create a multi-media
space, a 'site' where poetry, painting, and printmaking came together
in ways both original and characteristic of Romanticism's fascination
with autographic gesture, with spontaneity, intimacy, and organicism"
("Digital Facsimiles" par. 2). As already noted above, Blake not only
uses multimedia to provide an immersive experience, but uses it to transform
consciousness: "Blake continually emphasizes the mediatorial function
of art, which serves as a catalyst in a transformation of a mental state"
Let's look at some examples. In Plate
22, "Spring," the media of both image and text playfully work together
to make the sense of the poem. The child strives to "spring" out of
the grasp of its mother, creating a visual/verbal pun; the foliage winding
amidst, and springing from, the words of the poem does the same. We
also see an angel playing a flute, fading into a golden invisibility
as the sound of the flute goes "mute." The reader is lulled by the gold-lit
sleepiness of the image and through the metre of the poem.
We see a more harrowing multimedia performance in The Songs of
Experience, in Plate
33, "Holy Thursday". We see "Babes reduced to misery," certainly,
with the prone images showing signs of hunger-induced lethargy. It's
also possible their misery goes deeper, that the bodies strewn about
the scene are actually dead children, felled by a "cold and usurous
hand" (certainly, with the white and ice-blue colors, we feel the cold)
of the economic system that has destroyed them.
Both of the previous two plates depict fairly realistic portraits.
Blake also uses surrealism to perform the meaning of a poem as well,
such as in Plate
25, "Infant Joy." Here we see a scene depicted in the heart of an
indeterminate, rose-like flower. In a poetic way, it expresses the beauties
and joys of new birth. If we listen hard enough we might hear the dialogue
between mother and child: "What shall I call thee? / I happy am / Joy
is my name" though such a dialogue occurring between a two-day old child
and its mother is as surreal, or poetic, as the image.
We might compare this to Plate
39, "The Sick Rose," in which the worm featured in the poem wriggles
its way around the words, perhaps out of the words, upwards.
Meanwhile, various figures react to the worm in differing ways—the female
figure at the bottom, within the rose, seems to revel with and ride
the worm, whereas the figures up above fearfully try to escape it. But
whether his depiction is realistic or surreal, it is clear that Blake
uses multimedia to collectively formulate the meaning of the poem, and
at the same time allow for engagement with and immersion into virtual
I would like to suggest that it is not just visual and verbal media
that are represented in Blake's Songs, but also the aural. Blake
did not call these poems "songs" for nothing. Though occasionally parodic—especially
in Experience—the Songs are nonetheless constructed similarly
to the hymns and popular songs of Blake's day. Some of Blake's contemporaries
noted that Blake liked to sing, and some critics have suggested Blake
may have sang his songs as he composed and printed them. This seems
somewhat fanciful, but I do believe Blake expected the reader to hear
a kind of "soundtrack" while reading the Songs. Stephen Behrendt
sees the Songs as polyphonic musical texts, for which the reader
must invent the music; in fact, it is the performance of the reader
that makes them songs (48, 50). Nelson Hilton situates the Songs
amongst the devotional song books for children that were contemporary
to Blake, such as Isaac Watts's Divine and Moral Songs Attempted
in easy Language, for the Use of Children, 1715, which Hilton claims
Blake parodies in "A
Cradle Song" ("Introduction" par. 4). Whether it is a parody or
not, it certainly resembles a song in structure, and might very well
The Songs are also musical, as all poems are, in metre. Nicholas
Marsh is particularly good at parsing out the metre of the Songs,
showing their inherent musicality, a musicality that differs depending
on where the song is placed along Blake's Innocence-Experience textual
continuum. For instance, "The
Shepherd," Plate 5, in The Songs of Innocence, Marsh points
out "is written in regular anapests, a metre which gives it a more bouncy
and tripping rhythm," presenting a "carefree and uncomplicated style
[that] enhances the simple and positive picture presented" (16). In
contrast, the songs of Experience often combine a "lumpy and
irregular rhythm" that "adds to [a] destabilizing effect of metrical
irregularity" (24, 18). He shows this in his metrical analysis of the
to The Songs of Experience, which has a much more complex rhyme-scheme
than the songs of Innocence, reducing the "chiming sing-song
effect of rhyme" in the Innocence version, and introducing us
"to a more complicated relationships between sounds," and between poems,
and books of poems, in the combined Songs (18).
The importance of Blake's use of multimedia, of course, is not just
the effect it produces in the individual poems, but rather the effects
it produces in the reader. With multimedia, Blake takes us beyond
the "disinterested play of the senses" to a radically engaged sensual
experience. His mission is to "rouze the senses to act," to activate
the transforming imagination. If, as Nelson Hilton suggests, "man
serves as his own jailor, imprisoned by his vocabulary, culture, and
perception," in Blake's game it is the role of the senses—enhanced
by multimedia, and further enhanced by virtual immersion—to liberate
humans from their "mind forg'd manacles" (Hilton, qtd. in Marsh, 232).
Blake's Game is interactive
I have already discussed above how image and word interact in Blake's
Songs. This interaction is also key to our discussion of the
interactivity between reader and the illuminated poems. Steven Behrendt
states the case in his introduction to Reading William Blake:
The exceptionally interactive process of reading which
the encounter with Blake's works entails is more dynamic—and frequently
more disturbing—than anything for which most readers' training and
previous experience have prepared them. The transaction between author
and reader that is mediated through the printed text of any conventional
literary work naturally involves an intellectual, emotional and aesthetic
interchange. But the nature of that interplay is infinitely more complex
in an art form like Blake's in which verbal and visual texts make
simultaneous and often quite different demands upon the reader. (1)
Behrendt is speaking here to the issue that Ron Broglio addresses with
the MiltonMOO at Romantic
Circles: using hypermedia tools to interact with Blake's virtual
world, so that these tools "become gateways for opening the doors of
perception" (6). I have spilled quite a lot of pixels talking about
some of these tools, such as visual, verbal and aural media. I have
not yet addressed perhaps the most important media for interaction in
virtual spaces: hypertext.
I would argue that one of the major contributions that the electronic
editing of Blake has brought us is the understanding that Blake used
his books as forms of hypermedia, in particular hypertext. Or perhaps
it would be better to call Blake's illuminated books proto-hypertext,
much the way Espen Aarseth considers the I Ching proto-hypertext
(Cybertext 2). Whatever term we choose, the functioning is similar
if not the same. I will attempt to go from the more subtle to the more
obvious ways in which the Songs work as hypertext.
First, we can speak of the intertextuality of the Songs as
presenting hypertextual function. This is where poems, and text within
poems, refer to one another, creating a kind of hypertext navigation
within the mind of the reader. We see this most obviously in the songs
that share the same titles, such as "Holy Thursday" and "The Chimney
Sweeper." Since we have already looked at one plate of "Holy Thursday,"
and have ignored the arguably more prominent "Chimney Sweeper" poems,
we will look at that pair now.
The two virtual worlds that the two "Chimney Sweeper" poems
represent are perhaps the most starkly contrasted in all the Songs;
but this is only at first glance. Certainly visually they present stark
contrasts: in the
Innocence version, we see a whole crew of gamboling, seemingly
happy boys. But if we look closer, we see that it is "coffins black"
from which they are being released by a kind of Jesus-figure, after
which they "run down a green plain leaping laughing they run / And wash
in a river and shine in the Sun." An idyllic scene certainly but then
it is only a dream, and the chimney sweeper then awakes in the cold
dark to begin another day of drudgery. There is not even the consolation
of a dream in the
Experience version. Here the chimney sweeper is all alone,
in a snowstorm—the snow already stained with the pollution from
burning coal—perhaps homeless, covered head to foot in coal-soot;
indeed, to enhance the effect of the image, it appears that Blake may
have used some sort of coal mixture for his water-coloring, for the
only real color in the plate is a rusty coal-oil brown. Still, the chimney
sweeper admits to being happy, despite it all: "And because I am happy
& dance & sing / They think they have done me no injury." But they have,
"God & his priest & King" have turned the chimney
sweeper's heaven into misery.
The difference between the two poems, and the chimney sweepers who
inhabit them, is that in Innocence the boy is still "asleep"
to the social realities of the misery of the chimney sweeps' existence,
and in Experience he is awake, he knows why he is poor. In this
sense, the two poems work intertextually, or hypertextually: one is
a dream and the other an awakening from a dream. We may travel from
one to the other, awaking into one, falling asleep into the other; they
are portals of meaning as well as virtual transport. These poems are
also excellent examples of the social ramifications of such hypertextual,
"virtual" surfing: they lead to the surfacing of outrage which, as Tim
Fulford points out in "A Romantic Technologist and Britain's Little
Black Boys," helped lead to the eventual amelioration of the conditions
the poems exposed. Blake's virtual world does not allow for disengagement,
for "lurking" in a gameworld. Through empathy with the subjects,
we "click" on the "link" to reality and re-enter
the world, bringing with us a goad to social action. We "surf" in a
virtual world but eventually our surfing lands us on the shore of the
The complex intertextuality between the words and images of these
poems, both within and between themselves, may or may not comprise
a "third text" or a "virtual text," as Behrendt suggests in his discussion
of Blake and reader-response theory, but it certainly comprises a
hypertext function. I want to make clear that the intertextuality
I suggest is found in the Songs is not the same as that understood
in reader-response theory. In the case of Blake, we are talking about
an actual hypertextual machine, in the form of a multimedia book.
I would also like to suggest that Blake may have had a primitive hypertext
function in mind when he put the two books together. His purpose was
to spur if not facilitate the physical comparison of his plates, particularly
in the similarly-titled songs in both books, as a way of engaging
contraries. It was with this idea in mind that I created the "Contraries
Machine" that accompanies this essay, to allow the physical comparison
of Blake's plates with the aid of a hypermedia device.
Blake's Game creates agency
Many of the things said above might also be said of role-playing in
virtual worlds. The creation of roles, as well as agency, in virtual
space is also, in effect, creating portals for virtual travel; they
also provide a hypertextual structure that does not just link texts
or books but also personalities behaving in virtual space. Bolter and
Grusin suggest that empathy and shared point of view are an invention
of the Romantics; Blake may not have been the inventor, but he certainly
made use of the invention in his texts (245). There are many
opportunities for the creation of "avatars," or game-playing personas,
in the Songs, some of them masks for hiding from the implications
of both innocence and experience, others allowing for problem-solving,
for psychological closure. We will look at examples of both.
Nicholas Marsh addresses the first kind of avatar, the mask that allows
the reader to hide. He says that the "process of building false 'selves',
and attempting to fix a 'self' beyond the reach of natural change is
seen through the Songs," particularly, he adds, in the "Little
Girl Lost/Found" poems. Ironically, the mask to hide behind is presented
not by Lyca, the girl who is the eponymous figure of the poems, but
rather her parents. Marsh writes, "Fear of their daughter growing up,
desire to keep her dependent and as a child, turns them into tyrants,
blind to natural truth, before their moment of vision" (176). Because
of their fear, they "develop fixed delusions which close the personality
away from infinity, vision and truth" (177). Eventually they are liberated
by, as is usually the case with Blake, a "vision," one in which they
see their daughter living in paradisiacal peace in the wild (where Blake's
fearsome tyger lives); compelled by their vision, they remain in the
wild themselves, which is in fact an island of innocence: "to this day
they dwell / In a lonely dell / Nor fear the wolvish howl, / Nor the
lions growl." In fact, in Plate
36, Blake depicts the entire family as children frolicking in the
forest (along with a prone adult woman in the foreground; more on her
below). Here once again we are presented with a virtual portal into
a parallel universe, this time from Experience to Innocence. We are
also presented with a situation in which the mask of fear, through "vision,"
might be magically transformed into a mask of liberation.
But it might seem that we are ignoring perhaps the most salient and
strange feature of the Little Girl Found/Lost poems: the fact that the
little girl depicted is not even remotely little. In Plate
34, the only female figure that appears is a full-grown woman, scantily-clad
and kissing a man.
In the following plate, Plate
35, a lost female appears, but this female is also clearly an adult.
Then, as has already been noted, in Plate
36 the adult woman appears naked with her parents reduced to the
figures of children—another strange reversal. What could possibly be
the explanation for this? I admit I am flummoxed, but I can suggest
a use for this discrepancy: we might see this series as a modeling
of role-playing. The adult figure in the plates, particularly in Plate
35, might be the character who in fact is trying on the mask of
her inner child, taking on that role in virtual space, as a way of resolving
some conflict. The resolution might be represented by the otherwise
bizarre stripping of the girl by the lions, after which they carry her
naked to their cave, as well as by the ruby tears that the lion cries.
Such a scene is oddly affecting, the lion and his bloodied tears representing
empathy. The lion, like a helping "bot" (artificial intelligence program)
in a virtual world, helps the lost girl/woman, and the reader that identifies
with her, achieve some kind of closure.
In the same way, the angels that roam about the two virtual worlds
of Innocence and Experience act as helpful bots whose role, such as
20, "Night," is to relieve suffering: "If they see any weeping,
/ That should have been sleeping / They pour sleep on their head /
And sit down by their bed." Nicholas Marsh suggests that these angels
are rather ineffectual entities, standing by while the wild beasts
howl, but that does not change the fact that these are bots necessary
to the workings of Blake's virtual world(s). And unlike bots in many
virtual games, these angel bots can also convert to avatars, allowing
the one who takes on that mask to devote themselves to relieving the
suffering that exists in both the worlds of Experience and Innocence.
In any case, the transforming possibilities of role-playing in these
worlds is substantial. Upon entering them, "we will find that individual
poems elaborate real life situations, showing us how the 'two contrary
states' . . . are lived out by actual people," both the characters
that inhabit the virtual worlds and the players who take up their
masks (March 29).
In the end, of course, it is not argument that convinces in a gameworld,
but rather immersive experience. This is true whether we are speaking
of the gameworld that Blake created or the game of interpreting Blake's
work. As Ron Broglio notes, one "can find the play/risk/possibility
that work outside of traditional essays and books. . . . Through play
comes learning and discovery rather than the more conservative description
of a singular coherent argument" (6). Let that be my cavil and my
caveat. Find one of the many virtual doors that Blake's work offers
and slip inside for a while. Whether you enjoy the experience or not,
you might find at least a layer of grime wiped clear from the doors
of your perception when you re-surface in the "real" world.
Contraries Game 2.0
Now that we have seen how Blake "games" us, it is time to
return the favor and "game" Blake. "Contraries Game 2.0"
is described above as a digitized "upgrade" of Blake's game
for critical, scholarly players. It is in fact a game of critical interpretation,
inspired in large part by "The Ivanhoe Game" developed by Jerome McGann
and Johanna Drucker.
"Contraries Game 2.0," like "The Ivanhoe Game," is a game that makes
use of "digital tools to augment critical reflection" and "produce
simulated forms of meaning" (McGann 214). The "gameplay" is also quite
similar to "Ivanhoe": players make moves of interpretation
within "a field of interrelated textual, visual, cultural, and critical
artifacts. The game 'moves' involve the production (the writing) of
texts that integrate with and simulate the materials in the discourse
field of the game. Players produce text in response to the opportunities
and problems raised by the texts produced by the other players" (218).
Unlike "The Ivanhoe Game," however, "Contraries Game
2.0" makes use of a hypertextual machine, which is described
below. [For a more detailed discussion of McGann and Drucker's
game, and its current stage of development, I invite the reader to
follow this link.]
In the section on interactivity above, I suggested that Blake put
the two books of Innocence and Experience together with the expectation
that the reader would compare them hypertextually, particularly those
songs that have the same title, such as "Holy Thursday" and
"The Chimney Sweeper," found in both books. I created the
Contraries Machine to test this notion. The Contraries Machine is a
hypermedia device that allows the reader/interactor to not only read
verbal and visual together, but also to read Innocence and Experience
together, synoptically, in virtual space.
As I describe the Contraries Machine further, I invite the reader
to actually open
the Contraries Machine in a separate window, explore it for a moment,
and then continue reading here. What immediately comes into view, when
the reader opens the machine, is a window divided in half. The left
side represents the virtual world of Innocence, the right side the virtual
world of Experience. At the far left is a column of thumbnails which,
upon clicking them, brings up Blake's plates for The Songs of Innocence.
The thumbnails on the right represent plates from The Songs of Experience.
All the plates are in the order of the plates from Copy Z of the Songs,
owned by The Blake Archive.
[Note: For optimal functioning for the Contraries Machine, your monitor
should be at least 16 inches in width and set at a resolution of 1024
x 768 pixels].
To compare the Innocence and Experience plates of similarly-titled
songs, or to compare similar themes and designs, the reader only need
click on the thumbnails for the contrary plates and the plates will
appear in the center. If the reader scrolls down either column of thumbnails,
he/she will also find the thumbnails from the other book. This is not
meant to confuse the reader, but rather allow him/her to compare plates
from the same book of songs, such as the two very different "Little
Girl Lost" poems in Experience.
Transcriptions of each poem are also available for viewing. You need
only click on the big images and they "flip over" to reveal the transcription.
To flip back over, click on any of the text and the image will be returned.
If you would like a transcription in view as you look at a plate, you
can choose the image in one column, and choose its transcription in
the opposite column.
In terms of the actual game-playing, there are many ways to proceed.
For "single-player" game-play, one might choose a "quest"
game, in which the player enters the virtual space of Innocence or Experience,
explores that world, keeping a kind of travel log. The player might
also be questing for, and collecting, magical talismans, such as animals
(sheep, lion, tyger), blossoms, angels, musical instruments (harp, flute),
game gear (cricket batt, badminton racket), lost children, etc. For
it to be a game of contraries, each player should find an object in
one world and then find its contrary match in the other (e.g. sheep
in Innocence, tyger in Experience).
Another single-player version of the game would involve role play.
The player might choose one character in one world as an "avatar."
For instance, a player might choose to become the nurse in Innocence.
After exploring that world as that character, the player might even
take that avatar into the other world, in this case Experience, to see
how that world changes the avatar. Or the player, as avatar, might look
for his/her contrary match in the other world. Some possibilities for
avatars: nurse, angel, piper, shepherd, little boy lost, little girl
lost, chimney sweep, infant, little vagabond, Old John, Ancient Bard,
The games above have "multi-player" equivalents. One player
might choose to explore, and then represent, one world (such as Innocence),
and the other player the other world (such as Experience). From this
could come interaction and dialogue (by email, or instant messaging),
with contraries being compared. Players representing contrary worlds
could compare contrary talismans, or contrary avatars. Or a point system
might be set up for the collection of talismans, or a competition set
up where one player, representing one world, would choose an avatar
and try to commandeer its contrary (by naming it, or even downloading
the corresponding plate) before the opposing player could choose it
for him/herself. The dialogue itself might be conducted using only the
words Blake uses in the Songs.
In terms of my own game-play, I chose a very simple road: I proceeded
by bringing up two plates for comparison in the Contraries Machine,
then filled in the game log template, putting in the thumbnails first.
I made some notations on the visual and textual codes that are present
in each plate, and compared the two, conjecturing on the meaning created
by their juxtaposition. I also brought in the work of other scholars,
as part of the "discourse field." Their imput usually spurred more of
mine. The players might consult my game
log, which records the first two moves in my game.
As you will discover should you choose to play "Contraries Game
2.0" there is no real space within the Contraries Machine for text
generation. This, hopefully, will be added in future iterations. In
the meantime, you might open a separate window on your desktop computer
to compile notes. Or you might use the HTML
template I have created for that purpose.
In the template page, there is a box in which you can put the thumbnails
of the plates you have looked at, as well as ample space to type in
notes. Exchange between players can be facilitated by email, which is
how "The Ivanhoe Game" began, or instant messaging, if players want
to play in "real time." In future versions of the game, an
electronic interface could be developed, with, perhaps, the possibility
of real-time, synchronous dialogue in a chat room—again, like
"The Ivanhoe Game"—as well as a MOO for player moves. In terms
of the "discourse field" or the manner of play, that is for the players
to decide for themselves.
The most interesting and fun game would be to see what the players
invent on their own, using the Contraries Machine. The players might
begin by writing out their own rules, and describe their specific gameworld.
If this is a multiplayer game, the opposing player might strive to circumvent
the game rules set up by the other player, since "hacking"
the game is a game as old as games themselves.
There is nothing left to say except "Let the games begin!"