“Turning One Back
To Blake Himself”
A review of
My Business Is to Create:
Blake’s Infinite Writing
By Eric G. Wilson
Review by Brad Fruhauff.
Eric Wilson knows William Blake really well. He has internalized the poet-engraver and learned to channel him in his (Wilson’s) own voice. This short volume is from the University of Iowa Press’s Muse Books, The Iowa Series in Creativity and Writing, a series designed to present a major author’s thoughts on craft in something like a guidebook form. Wilson presents a comprehensive primer on Blake, a “how-to manual for the aspiring or the already accomplished writer alike” (in the words of Jeffrey Kripal on the back-cover). Without forcing Blake’s idiosyncratic oeuvre into some simplified program, Wilson has boiled down the visionary’s prophecies and oracles into a series of brief discussions that help us see the textures and patterns that make up the whole. Wilson demonstrates an attention and reflection that can rightly be called a labor of love and respect for one of English literature’s most passionate and peculiar poets.
The theme of the book might be contraries. Wilson is careful to insist that Blake never denounced tradition, Reason, heaven, or the angels without at some point returning to them and reclaiming some part of them. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, for instance, complicates both those states rather than privilege either over the other. And, in the central artistic insight of the book, the attention to “minute particulars” opens “the doors of perception” upon the infinite. The imagination, Blake’s “Eden,” was the medium or sphere wherein the real beyond the real was encountered. It was for this that Blake undertook his apprenticeship and later career as an engraver, a practice that exposed him to toxic fumes that weakened his immune system and eventually cost him his life. “Lethal as well as enlivening,” Wilson reflects, “his muse, in exchange for genius, had exacted his breath. Blake was art’s martyr.”
I wish to establish Wilson’s clear and impressive expertise because at the end of the day I did not love his book. In reflecting on why, I hope in the following to consider some of the difficulties in writing this particular kind of book, which casts biography and literary analysis into the context of advice to writers.
Bear with me a second. One of the things I like about William Blake’s poetry is akin to what I like about Tolkien’s trilogy, Ray Bradbury’s short fiction, and the graphic fiction of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Now, for all these authors’ dissimilarities, they share the quality of being mythmakers, builders of grand imaginative worlds to which their work only provides narrow windows. But myth (or, for Tolkien, “history, true or feigned”) bears an indirect relation to reality or to logical discourses; what we may learn from it owes to its being applicable rather than instructional. Application implies interpretation and so is a nonlinear process.
For all Wilson’s appreciation of Blake’s mythic vision, his book presents the poet’s work as more instructional than applicable. One telling indication is the surprising lack of quotation and analysis. There are moments when Wilson gives particular attention to an anecdote or a few lines from a poem, but, perhaps owing to the pressures of brevity, the majority of the book skims along the surface of Blake. We lose the pathos of the chimney sweeper, the sublimity of the tiger’s “fearful symmetry,” or the scandal of pronouncing Milton on the side of the devils.
“If you’re going to get the spirit of Blake,” Wilson argues, “you have to be, in your own way, Blake.” That “in your own way” is important, as it wouldn’t be possible, desirable, or even appropriate to imitate Blake. Yet, Wilson presents an intellectual’s Blake, a Blake who all but had a worked out philosophy of imagination and creativity. Most of Wilson’s chapters focus on a concept rather than, say an image, with the exception of “The Fly,” which also contains one of the few extended quotations of Blake’s poetry.
My main complaint about this mode of presentation is, I hope, more than saying Wilson’s Blake is not my Blake. Rather, I felt that I did not come away knowing substantially more about Blake than I had learned from my own reading, save for a few interesting stories. Wilson’s intimacy with his subject carries its own perils, not least of which is the frequent confusion of voice in which one cannot tell whether Wilson is paraphrasing Blake or riffing on him. At best, I learned from these moments about Wilson’s own mind and writing practice, and I have come to respect him enough to be interested in reading his other work. At worst, the writing reaches a level of generality such that Blake seems only another proto-postmodernist, a writer whose work confirms our own cultural preferences for an art unfettered by convention, form, or metanarrative. Wilson comes dangerously close, distressingly often, to appropriating the historical Blake to the desires of the present.
As a Christian reader, I also found myself with many unaddressed questions. This, too, may owe to the nature of the book. Who is Blake’s God? Is Blake’s transcendence truly metaphysical or merely ideal, imaginary? Blake was an avid reader of the Bible and Dante, but did he see his work as part of a divine narrative or as part of a secular-humanist history of human progress? My former conclusions on these points were somewhat challenged by Wilson, but he is either so thoroughly sold on the Romantic vision of the world as to see no room for criticism, or he is hospitable almost to a fault, remaining detached from all evaluation of Blake’s truth claims in favor of representing his thinking.
Or, at least, what Blake’s thinking means to Wilson as an author. The best way I can frame a recommendation of this book would be in terms of reception. If you are already well-read and conversant in Blake, and if you are interested in how contemporary writers have been inspired by him, Wilson’s book may be a fine place to start. It’s certainly brief and clear and well-researched. Perhaps I can do most honor to the book in suggesting that, for most readers of ERB, it will raise a number of questions about the role of imagination in social life, the nature of Blake’s God, and the significance of individual desire, thus turning one back to Blake himself.