Exploding Head

Exploding Head

Apologies if the stream of entries sure to follow don’t make much sense to a casual reader. So much has gone through my head in the last two days that if I don’t just spit it out, the headache will never fade, and I won’t be able to get any work done. I have over 800 pages of stuff to read in the next three days on top of all this explosive thinking. I suppose I could blame it on Joe Viscomi, because I got to spend a lot of time with him and it seemed like every other word out of his mouth directly related to the ideas I’m working with. But it’s deeper than that. Viscomi is perhaps the best place to start though.

Joe Viscomi is a star. Not in the sense of being famous to a lot of people, but in the sense of being a glowing and radiant individual. Reading tons of Blake scholarship over the last few years, names emerge as the central forces. Viscomi is of the latest generation of Blake scholars, who are stepping up to forge new directions— following people like G.E. Bentley, David Erdman, Robert Gleckner, Northrup Frye, and Harold Bloom, etc., who set the tone for mid-century Blake criticism. What is unique about Viscomi is that he approached Blake as a printmaker and an artist, rather than merely as a poet. His emphasis has been on the modes of production, rather than picking the nits of metaphysical interpretation. Viscomi more than anyone else has shifted Blake scholarship into more practical realms, and away from fanciful speculation. On a certain level, it was like meeting a president or religious leader— or better still, an anti-religious leader who has tried to tear down the walls of the “cult of Blake” and bring it back to the core values of Blake’s revolutionary rhetoric.

He’s also a jazz drummer, and a web pioneer. Along with Robert Essick and Morris Eaves, Viscomi is a driving force behind The William Blake Archive. Because each book produced by Blake is a unique artifact, scholarship had been limited to the few who had access to the original copies. Generations of scholars have read Blake through the transcriptions of these visual works into letterpress type. This was never Blake’s intention. If he wanted to, he could have produced work in that way. The problem with transcriptions are that small matters, like Blake’s idiosyncratic punctuation have been silently emended along the way, distancing the reproductions from the originals.

Using 4×5 and 8×10 transparencies of the originals, scanning at high resolution, and using custom written JavaScript technology, the Blake archive allows anyone to zoom deeply into any plate and read for themselves what is actually on the plate. It’s a revolution akin to the first widely circulated bible translations, however in this case you get as close to the original copies as technology allows— currently 300 dpi, and perhaps soon to be 600 dpi. Also, the technology is “smart” in that you can calibrate with a click your computer’s screen resolution so that the pages will display exactly actual size. Soon, you will be able to drag and drop individual plates around to compare anything from any part of the web site with another plate, though for now you can only directly compare different versions of the same work.

This makes comparison between widely separated (geographically, that is) copies possible. However, as Viscomi noted in his lecture Tuesday, scholarship has made mountains out of molehills regarding some of these differences. For example, the presence of earth-tone inks in all the early impressions rather than black or blue-black inks was taken to have great metaphoric significance. Viscomi’s research has revealed that the more probable reason why Blake chose those inks was that they were simply the cheapest available. A huge industry quickly rose around Blake to make him obscure and inaccessible, when in fact he is deeply pragmatic in most of his artistic choices.

What I took away from his lecture Tuesday was a deeper sense of the conventions of engraving, the technology behind it, and the “autographic hand” which Blake celebrated compared to other printing and engraving practices. However, I also took away a deep respect for Viscomi— as a real person with genuine excitement for his work. I talked to him about some of the research I’d been doing about Byron in America— his first response was: “Have you talked to Jerry McGann about this? I know he’d love to hear about it!” Unlike the cuthroat tone underneath so much scholarship out there, it was really a revelation to think for a moment that this is a club that someday I might join, filled with real people and personalities— and more than that, that someone as huge as Viscomi might take my opinions seriously.

We talked about music after the lecture, about Gatemouth Brown and Duke Robillard. Viscomi really thought that I should enter the documentary studies program at Duke University. My mentor in the English department, Paul Yoder, came through the English department there. I have such a deep fear of politics though, that makes that seem highly unlikely. I need a loose department to put up with my wanderings, and I think I would chafe against any department with as strongly an established ideology as Duke. Most of my ideas cut against the grain.

The next day, he was scheduled for an informal one hour lunch session. I let one of my classes go a half-hour early so I could be there (a half-hour late). Viscomi just kept going, and we talked for around half an hour after the session formally ended. He told me that in less than an hour, I had discussed at least four topics that would make great dissertations. The problem is choosing one and sticking to it. I know that. About an hour afterward, I sat in on a two-hour class with him on Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. I came away from this with my head just exploding; even after studying this stuff for years, it still excites me. But I can’t be a Blake scholar; I’m just not in the same league with stars like Viscomi, no matter how much it seems like I’d be welcome to come in. To really excel, I think I need to stay closer to photography. That is the thing that has always been underneath; I can’t throw half my life away.

Viscomi informed me that Jerusalem will be added to the archive sometime this fall. I’m also anxious to see his musical adaptation of Blake’s An Island in the Moon play, which he is currently building a website for. Lots of exciting things happening, too many to list.

2 thoughts on “Exploding Head”

  1. do you ever relax?
    and rest your brilliant head? and do/think NOTHING?
    please take care of yourself…and your headache.
    (ibuprofen-take 4 – zaps normal headaches pretty well)
    (although if it is a tension thing…percogesic rules)
    ps – do you know anything about Walker Evans’ Cuba wanderings? i recently discovered and was blown away by Michael Eastman and apparently he was somewhat inspired by WE’s observations of Cuba. just wondered. thank you. take care. ok?

  2. Do I ever relax?
    Actually, I find this stuff quite relaxing sometimes.
    Re: Walker Evans in Cuba
    I started to write that direction a long time ago when I was writing about Evans. He made a trip there on an assignment to illustrate Carleton Beal’s The Crime of Cuba. This work comes up a lot, because he focused on dark-skinned Cubans. Evans repudiated Beals’ book, becuase it was too “political,” though the Havana photographs were later released enmasse (posthumously, I think). I don’t have that monograph (oddly enough), but I’ve seen quite a few of them. They were formative to his mature work, though not as important (in my opinion) as his photographs of Victorian architecture which I also stopped just short of discussing.

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