Once Only Imagined
KK: Joe, the distinction you draw between a recovery mission that attempts to conjecturally restore a lost copperplate image and an archival project that strives to represent a finished impression as accurately as technology permits is one that has divided Blake editors and facsimilists into competing camps for well over a hundred years. What seems to me particularly telling in your remarks is the idea that the WBA, with its high-end reproductions, could potentially breathe new life into a more conjectural model of representation. As part of an emerging class of electronic projects in the humanities organized according to the conceit of an archive, the WBA was designed to fulfill the promise of a mimetic model of editing. Like other archives, it has what Estelle Jussim would call "retinal-recording intentions." I've watched the archive go up pixel by pixel for more than half a decade, so I know firsthand how deliberate your departure has been from the more conjectural blueprints of your predecessors. Bentley and especially Erdman, whom you mention, though the most immediate of those predecessors, are antedated by scads of others who were likewise lured by the siren call of conjecture, though with far less reputable results. There's every Blake bibliographer's favorite whipping boy, Yeats, of course, and his co-editor, Ellis, but also someone like W. M. Rossetti. Trying to divine what was etched in Blake's mind, these last three were led astray in pursuing a quarry even more elusive than the plate text. Not surprisingly, conjectural experiments can come in many guises: Bob discusses at some length the myriad ways in which hand-facsimilists have tried to reclaim Blake's copperplate outlines in a 1985 review of the Manchester Etching Workshop's facsimiles of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. So I'm fascinated by your remarks, Joe, about how the WBA might ultimately fit into this narrative: an archive founded on principles of factual reporting that ultimately paves the way for more speculative forms of representation. It promises to be a fascinating chapter in the history of Blake editing, no? Bob, can I get your thoughts on Joe's thoughts?
RNE: Joe of course makes all the right observations about Blake's methods of production. My one point of departure from his view of the whole matter is that I am less certain about the value of trying to retrieve the copperplate image. It is certainly not the Holy Grail of Blake editing. As Joe's description of relief etching indicates, accident inhabited the production of the plates, not just the printing process. And Blake's punctuation is continuous/analog, not discontinuous/digital as in letterpress. His autographic punctuation can, and often does, inhabit the interstices between, for example, a period and a comma. As I recently learned by editing the Huntington Library copy of Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake's punctuation even includes hybrid forms, such as a comma with a vertical line (as in an exclamation mark) above it (figure 2). I suspect that, even if we found the relief-etched copperplates themselves, we could of course see precisely what was etched, but would still find on the coppers the anomalies we find in impressions from them, such as an ovoid shape somewhere between a period and a comma. Thus, the metal plates (much less a reconstruction of them on the basis of all extant impressions) would not solve the problems that constantly crop up when translating Blake's handwritten but printed texts into typography.
The above observations lead me to conclude that Blake did not care all that much about accurate—in the sense of consistently repeated forms of—punctuation. If he had, such intentions were thoroughly subverted by his chosen means of production at all of its most important stages—writing in reverse with an acid-resistant liquid (hard to control precisely on the small scale of punctuation marks), etching in relief (hard to control under-biting and lifting, particularly of very small areas like the tails of commas), and printing (hard to represent precisely the plate image, as we can see by comparing multiple impressions from any one plate). Oddly, the best representations of what was on the copperplate are probably posthumous impressions. But what do we do if a particular mark prints as a comma in a single posthumous print, but always as a period in all lifetime impressions pulled by Blake and his wife? Do we conclude that the Blakes carefully and intentionally converted that metal comma to an ink period? It's difficult for me to imagine that they were that obsessive when the basic characteristics of their graphic practices suggest a good deal of freedom. If not quite free-play, at least a level of liberty that allowed the nature of the medium to express itself. Tom Paine would have approved. Or, to misquote Nietzsche, we shall never rid ourselves of Urizen as long as we believe in punctuation.
I don't want to give the impression that we should ignore Blake's punctuation. Indeed, there is a good deal of interpretive work to be done on his habits as a punctuator, even if highly various. Do his practices change over time? Are there any differences between the punctuation in his pen and ink manuscripts (including his letters) and the illuminated books? What does it mean to have a period (or at least a dot that looks rather like a period) in the midst of what appears, from every other vantage, to be rather like a sentence? What sorts of historical precedents, going back to medieval illuminated manuscripts, informed his methods? The Blakean punctum needs interpretive attention, not just editorial fiddling.
Let me confess what will be considered heresy in some circles. When I read Blake just for fun, even serious fun, I read the Geoffrey Keynes edition. I think he (with the help of Max Plowman, particularly on The Four Zoas) did a fine job at using twentieth-century punctuation conventions to represent Blake's verbal content. My evidence for this assessment is the paucity of modern essays pointing out how misleading Keynes's punctuation is or how he misconstrued Blake's meaning. Perhaps after we exhaust attempts to recover the copperplate images or what Blake "really intended," a quest that assumes a level of intentionality that he may not have had when it comes to punctuation, we will begin to explore "creative" and interpretive forms of letterpress transcription. And that might just lead us back to Sir Geoffrey.
KK: Because the topic of conjectural criticism is so far-reaching in its implications, I'd like to stay with it through another question. Joe, you suggest that reclaiming Blake's etched text will always be problematic, but that whatever gains we do make will likely owe their success to image processing advances. Already we can see how such advances have brought about a watershed in conjectural modeling in humanistic fields such as art conservation. Two recent examples that come immediately to mind are the computer-assisted reconstructions of earlier versions of paintings by the Dutch Abstract painter Piet Mondrian and the virtual restoration of damaged parts of Michelangelo's sculpture 'Moses' in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. Closer to home, Vladimir Misic, a graduate student in Electrical and Computer Science at the University of Rochester, is working with reproductions of some of Blake's hand-colored intaglio prints to develop a compression scheme that distinguishes printed lines from finishing work, paving the way for separate processing of each. Whereas more familiar compression models, such as jpeg, treat the formal content of Blake's images as invariant, Mixed Raster Content (MRC), as the technology is known, is sensitive to the heterogeneous character of the pictorial composition as a whole. By treating printed (engraved and/or etched) lines separately from colored image layers, MRC minimizes image degradation and the inevitable loss of information. The result is superior raster imagery: digital facsimiles that show greater fidelity to their prototypes, as a comparison between an original scan of one of Blake's commercial print illustrations and its MRC reconstruction makes evident (figure 3.1) and (figure 3.4). But it's a byproduct of Vladimir's work that in the end may be of most interest to Blake scholars: because applied image segmentation can essentially lift the color overlay of an impression, it additionally provides the student of Blake the unique opportunity to model both the underlying copperplate image and the artist's coloring process (figure 3.2) and (figure 3.3).
Bob, you've suggested that if Vladimir's after a real challenge, he might try the separation of intaglio lines from surface color printing in a work like "Albion rose" or, even more ambitiously, of etched from engraved lines in any number of Blake prints. The achievement of the latter would be, in your words, "pure magic." Could you elaborate?
RNE: My challenge to Vladimir grew out of my own attempts, unassisted by computer imaging, to determine the state of one of Blake's intaglio prints that he color printed from the surface. Years ago, I figured out (at least to my own satisfaction) that the Huntington color-printed impression of "Albion rose" (and thus almost certainly the British Museum colored impression, very probably printed just prior to the Huntington example) was printed from an intaglio plate in an earlier state than what we see in all extant intaglio impressions (figure 4). My high-tech method of determining this was to slip the print out of its mat (the curator had left the room) and hold it against a window with Southern California sunlight streaming through it. I could perceive the intaglio lines etched into the plate because they revealed themselves either as "blind" (i.e., white) lines lacking the color-printing medium printed from surrounding areas, or (paradoxically) as color-printed lines somewhat denser than surrounding areas because the medium had worked its way into the intaglio lines and been printed from them more thickly than from the plate's surface. The fact that the Huntington impression is a maculature (a second pull from the plate with little or no addition of more printing medium) helped a good deal; I doubt that the British Museum impression would give up its secrets to backing sunlight because of the density of the colors. I tried the same game with the Huntington impression of "Lucifer and the Pope in Hell" but without success because of the dense pigments.
I hope that this long-winded explanation indicates why working with such prints would challenge Vladimir's methods. As I understand his technique, he can separate black-ink intaglio lines from overlying hand coloring. That would not work if there is no ink in the intaglio lines. But let me issue another challenge: could Vladimir separate ink from color-printing medium in a relief etching? That could be very helpful when working out the details of Blake's method of color printing in the illuminated books.
This may be a bit off the point, but let me cite one of my own experiences in how helpful computer imaging can be when dealing with conservation issues. Even before acquiring a color-printed impression of The Book of Urizen plate 22 from The Small Book of Designs copy B, I knew that it had a visually distracting fox mark in the upper right margin. But the foxing (or whatever it was) was stable and not in the image. Would it be worth the risk to try to remove the blemish, or should I leave well enough alone? In search of an answer, I asked John Sullivan, head of the Imaging Lab at the Huntington Library, to scan the print, place the digital image in Adobe Photoshop, and electronically erase the foxing. The visual impact was considerable; indeed, my overall apperception of the work was altered for the better. I turned the print over to Mark Watters, a skilled paper conservator, who, having determined that a black pigment in the print was unstable when exposed to water, used a "dry" and localized procedure to remove the foxing and fill in with new paper fibers. I doubt that I would have gone to all this trouble if I had not seen on a monitor, almost prophetically, what the restored print would look like.
ME: A couple of quick points about conjecture. David Erdman was highly conjectural in his readings of obscured and deleted passages in Blake's work—so much so that no one has ever been able to confirm or deny several of them. I wonder if Vladimir's technology can help provide those confirmations. Second, I would emphasize just how traditional, how conservative you might say, such hypothetical reconstructions are in certain key respects—and how undertheorized. Conjectural reconstructions of putative originals have a long history as a respectable editorial and archaeological enterprise, though the results have often been controversial. In this typology somewhere belong conjectural adjustment with no prior original in mind—as in Jerry McGann's "deformations"—and adjustment with respect to the future rather than to the past, as when we adjust texts to calibrate them to some putative state of a future reader's mind—which is a common motivation behind editorial acts. The editor asks, in effect, who is the future audience for this edition and what will it want or need—and then responds, editorially, to that hypothesis.
KK: Morris, previously I mentioned a forthcoming essay of yours, "Graphicality," which takes a historical and technological look at how each generation of Blake scholars and editors has remade Blake for its own times. Among the various historical players you single out for special attention is the nineteenth-century poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne, who realized that if Blake was to have any currency in a future age, he'd have to be represented by a good publicist ready to cater to posterity's tastes. Swinburne rose to the occasion, in your words "rescu[ing] Blake from his chosen profession, painting and engraving, for, of all things, literature." You go on to say that "William Blake is always eligible for rescue, and among his rescuers Swinburne is neither first nor last. Rescue is, and has always been, one of the coordinates by which we fix Blake's position in arts histories." As you take stock of the last five or ten years of Blake scholarship, do you see evidence that Blake critics have been operating in rescue mode? And if Blake is always eligible for rescue, he's by implication also always being set up for another fall. In your opinion, what are we doing now that, despite all our good intentions, will meet with skepticism, revision, and bemusement down the road?
ME: This is not a phenomenon unique to Blake and his audience. All criticism, all scholarship, is a rescue operation as we rediscover Byron and reread Shelley. And Rescue is the accomplice of Discovery. I do see Blake, though, as a sensational, hyperbolic instance of that familiar pattern, and the difficulty of understanding him makes him impossible to master, to position, to control. So he is one of those artists who allow his posthumous public to feel that we're always discovering him. You ask about the rescue attempts of the last several years. Critics such as Jon Mee and David Worrall, among numerous others, can be seen as attempting to rescue Blake the political radical from more conservative Christian readings by documenting similarities between his ideas and the ideas of contemporary radicals, or between the form of an illuminated book and the form of a radical political broadsheet. There's an ongoing tug of war over the trajectory of Blake's political commitments. Are his later works increasingly Christian quietist or do they maintain, in some form, his radical commitments of the 1790s? David Erdman always argued for the latter, as do Erdman's contemporary avatars, if I understand them. Of course these are honorable and honest scholarly arguments about the truth of the matter, but, again, the truth in Blake is so hard to come by that it's easy to construct the argument either way, making the motivation of his discoverers—what kind of Blake do they want to discover?—a more significant factor than usual. And various features of Blake's life and work do often seem to make his sponsors want a particular Blake for their pains. Naturally I'm not going to let this question go without circling back to the Blake Archive, which takes its place in a long line of editorial rescue-and-discovery missions, in this case dedicated to discovering the whole Blake (not for the editors but for others, editing being almost always framed, it seems, in a rhetoric of altruism), thus rescuing the real Blake from the misleading fragments that are held by literary critics, art historians, etc. As for the cyclical pattern you mention, we Blake Archivists know that, "despite all our good intentions," our efforts "will meet with skepticism . . . down the road" (your words), because we've already heard early warnings from our critics, who disapprove of the digital lockbox we're putting their Blake into. (For examples, see Articles about the Archive, in About the Archive, on our web site.)
KK: Bob, regular readers of Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly affectionately anticipate your annual, end-of-the-year round-up of Blake in the Marketplace. Over the years, you've introduced us to a diverse cast of characters, ranging from curators to book collectors to auctioneers to hoodwinked amateurs involuntarily caught up in the rough-and-tumble of international connoisseurship. Much more than a mere inventory of Blake sales, the genre as you've defined it over the years is part detective story, part comedy of errors, and part autobiography, with a soupcon (sometimes more) of gamesmanship and turf battles frequently thrown in for good measure. Taken collectively, the essays offer a rich memoir of your life as a Blake collector.
Could you talk some about your dual identity as a Blake scholar and collector? Are the two ever at odds with one another, or do they complement each other in useful ways?
RNE: The symbioses outweigh the contradictions—although I frequently revel in the latter as much as the former. It's pleasant not to know if I have spent an afternoon pursuing my hobby or my profession. Sometimes dealers become confused by my dual identity, not knowing if I'm a potential customer or just another annoying scholar who might question the authenticity of the merchandise (answer: both). In these circumstances I like to represent myself as a professional collector and an amateur scholar. In several respects, I've modeled my two selves on the life of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, fortunate enough to be an "amateur" (in the root sense of the word) at both endeavors. Sir Geoffrey's third identity was being a surgeon; I suppose my third is teaching English courses such as "Introduction to Poetry" and "Children's Literature" in a desert town called Riverside. More delicious contradictions.
Revelations about further identities will have to await publication of Memoirs of a Blake Collector. I've been living the story for thirty years, but have yet to key in a word.
KK: I don't know for sure but would be willing to guess that even when basking in the afterglow of a rare find, the mind of a collector turns inevitably to the unrecorded painting, the lost masterpiece, the rumored document of an artistic process. In the case of Blake, what else could surface in an auction house or dusty attic sometime in the future—realistically, of course, but also at the outer reaches of fantasy? And how would such discoveries change things?
RNE: If you had asked this question in the spring of 2001, I doubt that I would have had the prescience to mention Blake's watercolors for his illustrations to Robert Blair's The Grave, nine unrecorded pencil sketches, and three unrecorded prints from the illuminated books. Yet all these turned up in the summer of 2001. If past is prologue, more treasures will reveal themselves for years to come. The most likely type of discovery will be more sketches on the versos of already recorded drawings. Indeed, I can confidently promise at least one such revelation in the next year or two. Responding to the requirements of conservation and exhibition, institutions and private collectors remove drawings from old backing mats to which the art work was firmly affixed on all corners. Whatever might be on the versos is revealed.
Martin Butlin's great catalogue of Blake's paintings and drawings includes a good many untraced works; some will probably turn up eventually. Blake enthusiasts have dreamed for years that one of the lost paintings from Blake's 1809 exhibition would be rediscovered, but I suspect that most have decayed (because of the instability of Blake's medium) and been destroyed. The Spiritual Form of Napoleon was exhibited in 1876 and may have passed through a Christie's auction in 1882, and thus one can't entirely give up hope.
We can also expect some discoveries in Blake's work as a commercial engraver of book illustrations, although the pace of such discoveries has been surprisingly slow over the last several decades. Less probable are new copies of the illuminated books (unless Detlef Dörrbecker extends his searches throughout the world). I think the least likely category for revelation is texts of unknown poems, unless contained in a letter. Several of Blake's letters to William Hayley were sold at auction in 1878; these may turn up some day. Only one unrecorded letter emerged from a private collection in the last fifty years; it contains several lines of verse.
The discovery of even a minor pencil doodle can tell us something about Blake's methods of composition, particularly when the sketch is related to some more finished work. Practically any scrap of writing is of interest, particularly to the biographer. But I doubt that we will find anything that fundamentally revises our sense of Blake's life and ideas.
KK: Bob, because it's good fun, I want to ask you about the market in Blake kitsch, which has really flourished of late. Blake posters, T-shirts, magnets, erasers, coffee mugs, pens, pencils, and the like are seemingly everywhere, with museums a leading purveyor of such goods. Over the years you've collected these kinds of mass-produced trinkets right along with costly originals. I don't quite know what would constitute a "prize" in this byway of connoisseurship, but do you have any favorites? And what do you think the kitschification of Blake says about his role in popular culture?
RNE: Just learned a new and very useful word—"kitschification." I'm all for it. The more kitsch the better. I have dipped into this highly specialized field of collecting, although with more amateur zeal than expertise. My two favorite prizes are the Blake stamps issued by Romania in 1957 and the former Soviet Union in 1958. I acquired the latter on eBay in 2001 from a woman in Lithuania—another demonstration of how the Internet has transformed our hobbies as well as our professional lives (figure 5). Both stamps are part of what I'm proud to say is the world's "smallest" Blake collection—stamps (real and fake), miniature books, small refrigerator magnets, and ceramic boxes with Blake quotations or pictures that I fill with clippings of tiny Blake reproductions. And some people think Blake was nuts.
My miniature collection is complemented by a few larger items—Blake pillows, T-shirts of course (preserved in their original wrappers—I never wear them), coffee mugs, shopping bags, and what I like to think is the world's largest collection of Blake post cards. But I do have my limits. A few years ago, while Morris and I were in London, he acquired a paper lamp bearing some Blake images. I successfully resisted temptation because it was the ugliest lamp I'd ever seen (figure 6). Here in Southern California I came upon a large faux-antique wooden chest with quotations from Blake written on it. I'm sure that the price—$1200 if I recall—had something to do with the fact I didn't buy it.
I suppose that the Holy Grail for Blake kitsch collectors is one of the "Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims" lampshades printed by the Philadelphia book dealer, Charles Sessler, from the original plate in 1941. Some were printed on silk, others on a vellum-like paper. My old friend Lucile Rosenbloom (from whom I acquired some non-kitsch, the "Deaths Door" white-line etching and the Laocoön engraving) had one, as did the New York book dealer John Fleming, now also deceased. I do not know what happened to these examples, but perhaps one will turn up someday on eBay.
Do the so-called "Camden Hotten" Blake forgeries, which probably started life as innocent preparations for reproductions, count as kitsch? They are another item on my list of desiderata. Over the years I've managed to acquire 41 original drawings by Blake (or at least I hope they are by Blake), but I've never been able to bag a Camden Hotten. Please get in touch if you have one.
KK: I'd like to close by remembering David Erdman, to whom the special issue of SiR paid tribute in 1982. What is his legacy as a Blake scholar, and how will he be remembered in the future?
RNE: David's legacy is enormous, and all for the good. As I noted earlier, the School of Erdman has dominated Blake scholarship for the last few decades. But David was intensely interested in explication and interpretation, not just filling in background information for its own sake. A good deal of historicist work, clearly indebted to Erdman, has neglected this dimension of his work, perhaps a principal motivation for his historical researches. History as a tool for understanding and appreciating an artifact that exists now, as much as it did in the 1790s, needs more attention if Erdman's full legacy is to be honored. And perhaps a bit more of David's enthusiasm could find its way into academic prose. I can remember his shouting at me, from a distance of about two feet, about an interpretation he had of one of the designs in the illuminated books. Made little sense, but it was energetic and great fun. A bit like Blake himself?
ME: In my opinion it's his editorial work, especially his Complete Poetry and Prose of Blake of course, but also his brilliant (and daunting) "type facsimile" of Blake's Notebook (with Donald K. Moore), his Illuminated Blake—more useful as a handy edition than as a commentary—and, in the not-Blake realm, his volumes of political writings in the Collected Coleridge. David cleared the editorial path for Blake through the last half of the twentieth century. That's why his indispensable edition of Blake's texts has already found not one but two electronic homes, in Nelson Hilton's Digital Blake site and in the Blake Archive. I can't see doing without my Erdman edition anytime soon. His early Blake criticism, in Blake: Prophet Against Empire, though many of its readings seem questionable to me, proved beyond a doubt that Blake's work could repay time spent in historical-political research, and in that respect it is a critical model that anchors a whole line of Blake criticism.
Erdman's legacy should be looked at in other less concrete ways. For its significance to the future of editing, I'd single out his penchant for collaboration. Listen to the first sentence of his 1982 statement: "We sons and daughters of Los and Enitharmon have felt happiest when working as a team . . . ." (391). Jack Grant follows up with an appeal for "collective deliberation" (436). I'm temperamentally immune to the sons-and-daughters-of-Los business and alert to the danger of creating the impression that there is a Blake industry, much less a Blake mafia. Nonetheless, an artist as difficult as Blake can benefit from collaboration. I would distinguish critical from editorial collaboration. Both are possible but the latter is generally more productive more quickly.
Collaboration has a long history in editing, which is one of the factors behind the easy accommodation of editorial projects in the digital realm. Editing can provoke theoretical speculation, which I personally enjoy, but it also has a very practical side where principles have to be acted on, and actions have to take material form. Editing adapts well to teamwork because it's progressive to a degree and always labor intensive. Knowledge about it can be shared—the whole purpose, after all, is to put information into communicable, transmissible forms—which means that it can be learned and taught, which in turn means that labor can be divided and work distributed. So it's not accidental that in recent years editorial collaboration in the humanities (where solo scholarship has been the rule) has spread like a wildfire. It quickly jumped the firebreak between print culture and digital culture (dumb terms, but they fit well in that sentence). Attractive ideas for new editorial projects in electronic form were suddenly a dime a dozen. Putting those ideas into practice involves lots of work, expertise, and money, so many of them won't be realized, but networked computing has helped to launch a new era in editing, and Blake's under-represented work (literally under-represented) stands to benefit more than most.
As far as collaboration in other areas is concerned, let's put it this way: you couldn't produce Fearful Symmetry (which Grant rightly calls "the one book we can most confidently recommend to the Blake scholar of 2100 A.D.") with a team. But I can easily imagine Erdman-style teamwork making the pursuit of historical and artistic contexts, deep in the archives of record offices, libraries, and museums, more efficient with very helpful results. But then, establishing the significance of those contexts to Blake's work?—well, it's a tough thing to do in teams, and the history of collective critical work in the humanities suggests to me that its primary effect is the elevation of individual morale through the sense of participation in a group effort rather than the production of great co-authored essays and books.
JV: I've not much to add to what Morris and Bob have already said. I know that I use Erdman's editorial works all the time and that our talking here about a critical work written in 1954 as anchoring a whole line of Blake criticism still dominant today reveals a legacy matched by few others in any field. I have often heard Erdman referred to as one of the godfathers of New Historicism (the other one being Carl Woodring, who edited the Coleridge portion of that extraordinary SiR volume twenty years ago). I don't think his legacy lies there, though, because he used historical and political contexts to illuminate the art and artist rather than vice versa, that is to say, rather than using art to reflect or discuss very specific strands of the cultural tapestry, such as class or gender or race, which seems characteristic of much criticism touting itself as historical. Erdman was an excellent researcher, someone who really did read what Blake read and examine the art and prints that Blake saw, and he tried to do so from Blake's perspective as much as he could, and I think he succeeded because he had a creative imagination equal to his intellect. Some of his readings may be questionable, but they are always thought-provoking and often inspiring.
While the importance of the historical-political context for understanding Blake is now well recognized, I share Morris's fear that spending years of "close study in chilly, dark places" is not very inviting or much encouraged in a profession that has a tenure clock. I like Morris's vision of Erdman-style teams working the dusty archives of libraries, museums, and public record offices, but don't anticipate seeing any formed anytime soon. It does, though, testify to how much Erdman was an indefatigable research team unto himself.