talking of poets and sparkles 12.03.2007, 8:14 AM
posted by chris meade
'The cast of mind which searches, which questions, which dissents, has a great history. Each society has given it its own form: religious, literary. scientific. Much of the strength of Blake derives from the twofold form which dissent took in his time: rational and inspired... The history of dissent is not yet ended; it does not end. Men die, and societies die. They are not more lasting for being without dissent, they are more brittle: for they are purposeless, because they deny themselves a future.'
So writes Charles Bronowski in his book on William Blake, A Man Without a Mask, quoted by Shirley Dent of the Institute of Ideas in an article on the anniversary of Blake's birth 250 years ago.
Brilliant, belligerent, barmy Blake has been claimed as a figurehead by all kinds of hippies and politicoes over the years, and was recently cited as 'The Godfather of Psychogeography' by Ian Sinclair for, among other things, seeing angels in the trees of Peckham Rye and the new Jerusalem in leafy north London:
"The fields from Islington to Maylebone,
To Primrose Hill and Saint John's Wood:
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
Are there Jerusalems pillars stood."
(This quote from Jerusalem features in Merlin Coverley's excellent guide to Psychogeography which includes city strollers from Defoe and Poe to Debord and Will Self).
William Blake, the man who wandered through the charter'd streets of London finding in the face of every passerby 'marks of weakness, marks of woe', who engraved and painted his own books of poems, selling his songs on subscription (or failing to sell them), would have made one hell of a blogger too. I imagine him mashing up maps of Hampstead with his personal mythology, forging a new kind of book on the anvil of his laptop, engaging his community of readers in fervent debate, plying them with animations of innocence and experience.
Rebecca Lossin on December 3, 2007 11:30 AM:
I have often had the thought "Walter Benjamin would like blogs." This, of course, based on the often informal, usually brief writings that have been preserved. But then I must wonder if he might have found it too public, whether these notes would have been more "polished" short pieces, whether the anxiety of a more immediate audience would have disturbed him, whether all of these notes would have even been taken to begin with, whether they would be coherent or legible if they were only notes for a blog that is only an extended 'note' itself....
While I am not comfortable with this sort of literary anachronism, The Arcade Project, which I am hesitant to attribute to Benjamin, serves as a perfect example of the failure of the book. It is huge and intimidating and attempts to represent Benjamin's unfinished lifelong project when it is actually just a bunch of highly annotated notes in the end. It is a truly bizarre academic endeavor but it serves as evidence of the institutional meaning carried by the massive tome and the implications of the form a written word might take. This is something that while acknowledged by champions of electronic formats, is not dealt with very thoroughly. Books still seem more important than blogs. Big books seem even more important than little books.
How does one convey authority in an electronic text? And one cannot simply reply that the question is moot, that a lack of centralized authority is exactly what is desired. This state of anonymity would be wonderful, the dream of radically democratized information is lovely but it's simply unrealistic at the moment and ignores an extremely important aspect of reading: the acculturated reader.
This question of authority and importance might be raised when we consider whether Blake's work would have been preserved to the same extent had it been electronic. How would we read those maps now? Does it matter that we would read them in an entirely different manner?
Gary Frost on December 3, 2007 12:08 PM:
Yes. 250 years is a reach for computer media, a reach for digital repositories, for screen drawing, for end user distribution and for rediscovery searching. Another side issue is the relative ease of assembly of a 250 year retrospective of the print based legacy of Blake. Try that across even twenty five years of electronic media and computer patforms.