Infernal Methods

Infernal Methods

Akma’s report from the digital genres conference rang bells. I wish I could have heard Trevor’s paper. Judith Butler would be proud—online identity as a performance. More than that though, I suddenly started thinking about giants.

The central character of William Blake’s Jerusalem is a giant named Albion. As the story begins, Albion has fallen and he can’t get up. Albion, in his fallen state, is spread all over the world. But that is only part of the problem. Blake is big on distinguishing the self (identity) from the selfhood (think of it like clothes). He uses this image in the closing plates of Milton— Milton must cast off his rotten garments of self-hood before he can stride forward. From a historical standpoint, this self-hood can be seen as Milton’s complicity with Cromwell, his horrible problems with women, etc.. The arresting image of a shedding of excess clothing is the penultimate moment of Milton— and the image of rotten layers clouding existence is reborn in Jerusalem through Blake’s allusion to the Covering Cherub in its final, apocalyptic scene. Los is working at the furnace, forging and dividing Albion’s body (the world) until he reveals the antichrist:

Thus was the Covering Cherub reveald majestic image
Of Selfhood, Body put off, the Antichrist accursed
Covered with precious stones, a Human Dragon terrible
And bright, stretched over Europe and Asia gorgeous
In three nights he devoured the rejected corse of death

His Head dark, deadly in its brain encloses a reflexion
Of Eden, all perverted; Egypt on the Gibon many tongued
And many mouthed: Ethiopia, Lybia, the Sea of Rephaim
Minute Particulars in slavery I behold among the brick-kilns
Disorganized. & there is Pharoh in his iron court:
And the Dragon of the River & the Furnaces of iron.

Jerusalem 89:9-19

Blake was obsessed with trying to figure out how to tell Christ from antichrist. For him, it was a matter of perspective. What many people thought holy, Blake thought to be a farce. The idea of a “body politic” obsessed him, though he was clearly concerned about the sort of clothes it would wear. The connections between people (in the above example, spoken of as “minute particulars”) and societies as a giant manifestation of people, was important. A society that enslaves its people cannot be a good thing, but the difference between market economics and slavery are slight, and dependant on where on the food chain you fall.

Albion covered the earth, obscured by the Covering Cherub. This, oddly, finally brings me to Chris Corrigan’s question regarding Blake’s infernal method.

The �Infernal Method� is an arresting image Blake sets up in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake uses a printing metaphor—pouring corrosives on the bible to etch away the distortion, and reveal the truth. It is deeply related to the truth of satire, but more than that, it involves really looking deeply to the rhetorical situation involved.

Blake’s best heuristic for this is next to last “Memorable Fancy” in that book. An “angel” arrives to show Blake a vision of hell. Descending underneath a door in a church, through a horrible nest of spiders. The spiders become a variety of horrific beasts.

Later, the angel finds Blake sitting on a riverbank listening to a harpist. He has decided that the “vision” was only a sham perpetrated by the angel—a fantasy inflicted upon him—and if he chooses to look at the vision from his own perspective rather than that of the hellfire preaching “angel” the world is a rather pleasant place. He skipped off between the stars, until he found a place he liked. Blake shares with the Angel an even more grotesque view of hell, with monkeys devouring each other, and eating their own tails— with the punch line “we impose on one another.”

The angel was tormented by Blake’s vision—as Blake was tormented by the Aristotelian view of that particular “angel.” What you see depends a lot on which side you are on. Throughout the Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake tests the limits of good taste and faith with all sorts of outrageous pronouncements. Some of the sillier beat poets took his irony seriously. I think The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is largely a lesson in method.

You never know where “too far” is until you get there. But, by reading the supposedly “righteous” as the antichrist, you gain a better perspective on what the real truth might be. Blake used satire, hyperbole, and downright strange methods to try to strip away the Covering Cherub. Obviously, sometimes he goes too far—“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”?

Pushing propositions to their absurd limits, and looking at the benevolent (such as Socrates) as the enemy is what I meant by reading by the infernal method. It means to test, caustically and violently, all those things that even the “angels” tell you to be true.

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