Peter Otto, Blake's Critique of Transcendence: Love, Jealousy, and the Sublime in The Four Zoas

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Peter Otto, Blake's Critique of Transcendence: Love, Jealousy, and the Sublime in The Four Zoas. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. xiv + 365 pp. $95.00. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-19-818719-X).

Reviewed by
Kathleen Lundeen
Western Washington University

Night the Ninth of The Four Zoas has been likened to the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The words epiphany, apotheosis, and climax have all been used to describe the grand finale of Blake's unfinished epic, in which all of life appears to rush together to restore the transcendent unity that was shattered in Night the First. In a recent study of The Four Zoas, Peter Otto argues otherwise. "It is my contention," he writes, "that rather than urging sublime transcendence, The Four Zoas hopes to thwart it." He explains, "The poem aims to delay the movement of the sublime from blockage to transport and elevation, long enough for the reader to see the warring visual and verbal elements of the fallen world as the fragmented and dismembered body of humanity" (8). "Blake's poem," he goes on to argue, "directs us to a human rather than transcendent reality. Contrary to the thrust of the sublime, therefore, the 'transcendence' canvassed in this poem is horizontal and temporal rather than vertical and eternal" (33-4). In the 300 pages of commentary that follow, Otto defends his thesis through an exhaustive explication of the poem, including its graphic design.

In the introduction Otto offers a concise history of the poem's construction, including the alterations and censoring that mark its development and seem to restrict access to it. He also provides an overview of twentieth-century interpretations of the poem, thus clearing the way for his own reading. In Otto's study, The Four Zoas emerges as a multi-layered allegory whose psychology, philosophy, and theology counter those traditions that idealize a separation of the spirit from the body. To present the poem as a critique of transcendence, Otto situates it within the tradition of the sublime. Enlisting the services of Locke, Young, and Swedenborg clarifies Blake's response to the sublime and shows convincingly how each member of that motley group is essential to Blake as he forges his response to it. The premises Otto assumes about the illustrated poem are as follows:

Blake's Critique of Transcendence argues, first, that The Four Zoas is structured as a coherent, albeit complex and multi-voiced narrative, which details the history and outlines the relations that constitute the body of the fallen Albion. Second, far from being opaque, the illuminations (drawings and proof engravings) are arranged in a multifaceted "visual" narrative, that stretches across the entire length of the poem. Third, text and illumination sustain an intimate, mutually clarifying relation to each other (10).

Otto's presentation of the poem as a coherent statement is nothing short of remarkable, in light of the elusive nature of Blake's prophetic method and the sheer density of detail in the poem. Some readers, however, may encounter the same challenge in navigating his deciphering of The Four Zoas that they confront in reading the prophecy itself. Otto's patient explanations of the complicated relationships among Blake's cast of characters, along with his elaborate decoding of Blake's iconography (airborne genitalia and all), give readers the sense they are traveling through the poem in real time; but real time in literature and art is not as reader-friendly as imaginary time. Though one might expect a moment-by-moment unwrinkling of the manuscript to yield a smooth and lucid narrative, unrelenting scrutiny of minute particulars poses a difficulty for readers: being introduced to so many verbal and visual parts demystifies the individual components of the prophecy, but it doesn't always facilitate comprehension of the whole. Such an approach makes it difficult at times to see Blake's epic forest through the signifying trees.

Though Otto discovers a logic in Blake's prophetic method, he also reflects on the unconventional nature of The Four Zoas. In the early pages of his book he writes, "the narrator is himself an effect of the story he wants to relate." He also notes, "Far from providing a frame within which history can be ordered, The Four Zoas sometimes seems little more than a container within which narratives and voices multiply" and then muses, "It is as if the poem is haunted by voices, traces of other poems, and allusions to other projects and times, all of which it can embrace but not assimilate to a single point of view" (2-3). Though in the next paragraph Otto argues that the poem does in fact have an accessible structure, his shrewd observations of the prophecy's postmodern features linger as one proceeds through his argument.

Otto himself helps sustain the lingering. In the course of his encyclopedic cataloguing of the visual motifs and verbal images, from time to time he steps back to remind the reader of the built-in problems of critiquing such a poem. At the end of the third chapter, for example, he writes:

The fallen world is a moment in the life of Albion that is spatialized and temporalized as a world of seven thousand years. It is in this space that Los and Enitharmon are born. Their world is based on contradiction, for in the spaces of Eno, within the lifeless body held by the Saviour, nothingness is given a time and a space (77).

Here, it would be worth showing the problems Blake encounters, as poet and graphic artist, in depicting that contradictory world and representing nothingness in time and space. Similarly, there are occasions when Otto's attempt to resolve the conflicts in the narrative mutes the dynamic of the poem. For example, Otto notes that "the narrative detailing the birth of Los from the divisions of Tharmas is continually undermined and qualified by other narratives," which leaves the reader "encompassed by a babel of voices" (101). Instead of accepting "a cacophony of voices" (to borrow his own apt chapter title) and the discomfort in inhabiting such a rhetorical realm, however, he reassures the reader that "this instance of a cumulative threat to the poem's narrative structure provides us with helpful insights into the structure of the poem as a whole" (101). Perhaps the cumulative threat to the poem's narrative structure is the principal structure of the narrative? Otto's argument that Blake's unfinished prophecy is a critique of transcendence would be more convincing if he showed the ways in which The Four Zoas stymies conventional criticism and its complicity with transcendental structures rather than justifying its every mark as part of a unified scheme. Indeed, Blake's prophetic method does not produce seamless narratives or stable rhetorical structures, and his words and images do not always join in fruitful collaboration.

The problems that face any reader—when to read texts literally and when to read them figuratively; when to read texts ironically and when to read them in a straightforward manner—are exacerbated in Blake's prophecies, thanks to the ways his texts, both verbal and visual, resist becoming contexts in the poem. Otto's interpretive choices lead him to read the The Four Zoas as a poetic proposition that "spirit and flesh [are] contraries rather than opposites" (344). Whether readers accept his interpretive choices and his conviction that leaving no Urizenic stone unturned reveals a coherent theme and structure, there is value in rambling with Otto through the pages of Blake's manuscript. By immersing us in the formality of The Four Zoas Otto enables us to see that Blake, at least on the inscribed page, was a player in the intellectual debates of his day—one who understood the contenders in philosophy, art, and theology well enough to orchestrate his own revolution.

Volume and Issue: 

Authored by (Secondary): 

Parent Resource: