To Babble About Doodle (with apologies to Northrop Frye)

This weekend I have been working on one of the several shorter papers that are due before Spring Break in order to fulfill the requirements of the graduate seminars I am taking this semester. The 10 page, conference-style paper I was drafting yesterday drew upon a brief response I had written on Blake’s poems, specifically the prophetic Milton, in which I had identified the significance of corporeality and Blake’s resistance to Cartesian dualism. The struggle to expand this response only transformed into the rare delight of feeling an energetic flow of ideas and words when I recognized how the undercurrents of all my critical work had also begun to make themselves evident in my reading of Blake. I found myself returning to metaphor, specifically the insistence of concrete vehicles for apparent abstractions remaining present despite the interpretative unpacking invited, and to the interactions between text and image.

To offer an example of what this latter part of my work might look like, I will share part of my draft, with the caveat that this is very much a work in progress. In the following excerpt, I am attending to this plate from The Book of Urizen, available through the Blake Archive:


The skeleton on the left is separated from the fleshly man on the right by a stream of fire, which at its height touches the flowering branch that separates the columns of text above the image. The figures thus correspond to the textual descriptions that move from the “jointed spine” (11.1) at the top left of the plate to the ears that appear in the center of the right-hand column of text. We are invited to read the image as we do the text, from left to right, but the figures of flesh and bone can also be viewed from right to left, suggesting that if we peel away the garment of flesh, what remains is yet more layers of body. The spatial logic of the metaphor that asks us to see the spiritual as what might lie under or beneath the corporeal is thus employed literally to insist on the impossibility of such an uncovering. In describing how he undertakes “printing in the infernal method” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake describes the process of relief etching as “melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid” (14). As we can see from the melting away of flesh that occurs through the flames when we cast our eyes leftward across the above image, the hidden infinite is not the soul but the inner structure of the body. Thus Blake “expunge[s]” what he declares his printing method should: “the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul” (14).

Although the Norton edition of Blake’s Poetry and Designs does include both grayscale and colored examples of Blake’s illuminated texts, the work I undertake in my paper would be impossible without the access to these works in their entirety enabled by the Blake Archive, first conceived in 1995. As I draw in both visual rhetoric and book history as critical frameworks for my own scholarship, such resources are invaluable, from the author-specific scholarly archive to the extensive digitization undertaken by Google Books. One of my tasks over the next few weeks is to turn to the bibliography of visual rhetoric studies that Martha J. Cutter, a professor in my department, offered me when I expressed interest in her own work on illustrated narratives of slavery pre-Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I anticipate this reading will sharpen my analysis of illustrations in nineteenth-century boy books as I look toward presenting my work on these retrospective narratives at the Northeast Modern Language Association’s Annual Convention in Toronto. In analyzing young adventurers from Huckleberry Finn to Jim Hawkins, I am most interested in how they recede into the text as witnesses whose primary function is narrative. The illustration below from Thomas B. Aldrich’s ostensible autobiography, The Story of a Bad Boy, is what allows me to make claims such as this: “Tom’s status as a creation of the text rather than an actual referent is foregrounded by his embodiment in the materiality of the book rather than the world.”

Screenshot 2014-03-26 15.44.17

I am increasingly certain that the document that presents text as image, like the examples I have given above, will become the chief way in which I “quote” from the literature I study. While the digital archiving of such works and my digital production of scholarship (quite simply, inserting images into a Word document) suggests this to be easy, I am very aware of how difficult I may find it to justify the expensive integration of such images in any print versions of my work, looking forward to not only journal articles but to the monographs I will hopefully release once I am beyond the PhD stage. I am intrigued to discover whether similar concerns haunt other disciplines as we consider what the object of own analytical abilities might be and how best to represent it in our scholarship.