Friday, 27 February 2015

Appears like some lunatic, just escaped from the incurable cell of Bedlam: the world discovers William Blake




Bad at mathematics and bored by the shop work, but displaying a rare gift for drawing, William Blake’s father first sent him to a drawing school, although against his principles since drawings belonged to the world of the Beast, and then apprenticed him to an engraver. At Henry Pars’ Drawing School he received encouragement to visit churches to observe art, at the time the only places where a student or a layman could see art. He was a fan of the 16th century Italians and engraver Albrecht Dürer, not in vogue at the time, and other students mocked him for his “mechanical taste.” But the headstrong student paid no heed and remained a lifelong admirer of great fresco artists like Raphael and Michelangelo – in opposition to oil painters like Rubens – who for him represented the pinnacle of the arts. “Copying correctly is the only School to the Language of Art,” he wrote, and it’s impossible to look at his gigantic, muscled, twisted bodies and not think immediately of Michelangelo’s ignudi or his cartone for The Battle of Cascina. Like many Renaissance artists, Blake believed drawing was the root of art; design and trace mattered more than colour; but then again he was an engraver. “Engraving is drawing on copper & nothing else,” he once wrote.

Aristotele da Sangallo's copy of The Battle of Cascina

Los from Blake's Jerusalem
 
A chronic creator of marginalia to all the books he read (whenever you tire of Blake the Visionary, Prophet and Poet of the Ineffable, and want to unwind with Blake the Funny Guy, his marginalia is the best!), his annotations on art reveal a lot about him. Years later when he enrolled at the Royal Academy and met Sir Joshua Reynolds, he was especially critical of his views on art. About his favourites he wrote, “I am happy I cannot say that Rafael Ever was from my Earliest Childhood hidden from Me. I Saw & I Knew immediately the difference between Raphael & Rubens.” About Michelangelo he related that he talked with his spirit, and sometimes with angels about him, which sounds right: if someone could talk with Blake about the great Florentine, that would be angels.  
After studying under Henry Par, Blake’s father set about looking for a trade for him. This wasn’t an easy thing; first of all the master had to be paid upfront, and sums could vary from a few dozen pounds to over one hundred. It also involved signing a contract that would give full authority to the master over the boy; for 7 years, 7 days a week, Blake would be under his care: the master would have to house him, clothe him, feed him and teach him. So it was necessary to find the right master. James Blake originally opted for one William Ryland, then an engraver much in demand, who charged 100 pounds for pupil, a remarkable sum for a haberdasher to pay; it must be said, as the biography frequently shows, that when it came to spending money on his family, James Blake was never a miser. However Blake did not fancy him. “Father, I do not like the man’s face; it looks as if he will live to be hanged.” Indeed Ryland was nearly bankrupt, and in 1783 the authorities hanged him for forgery. When people call Blake a Prophet they’re not being clever; he really prophesied events. Instead of Ryland his father handed him over to James Basire, who charged only 52.10 pounds. Between 1772 and 1779 Basire oversaw Blake’s development into an engraver. He would forever remember and admire this teacher who taught him the trade that prevented him from starving in the worst moments of his life. An old-fashioned engraver in the style of Dürer, who disregarded mezzotint and stipple and lithography, he was a perfect match for Blake’s own austere and classic sensibilities. Blake remained averse to other techniques than traditional engraving, although he improved his own style with personal innovations. He forever engraved in what he called “the Style of Alb Durers Hist[o]ries & the old Engravers,” which earned him criticism since they were not in favour with the public. Bentley does a great job explaining the routine of an engraver, the methods, the tools, the predicaments. For instance I did not know, although it’s so obvious now, that Blake had to master mirror-writing, that is, he had to engrave in reverse so that when the print was taken from the plate the letters came right: basically taking prints off engravings is like printing text, the metal characters had to be arranged backwards for the text to appear properly printed. Bentley says that tiny mistakes are visible in the Illuminated Books; I must look out for them. During this period Blake made drawings of monuments in Westminster, fascinated by the Gothic style, and was much praised by contemporaries. Bentley also relates that in 1774 the authorities opened Edward I’s tomb in the Westminster Abbey, and invited Basire to capture the moment; the teacher instead sent Blake to engrave the moment, which means Blake was one of the few people given the privilege of seeing the monarch since the 14th century. The corpse, by the way, turned to dust when they removed the ligatures.

In 1779, although already proficient in drawing and engraving, Blake enrolled in the new Royal Academy (opened in 1769), and there he butted heads with some teachers who held views on art quite different than his. Just over 20, he was a lively, sociable student who enjoyed the company of his classmates. Bentley tells of an incident when he and a few friends rented a boat to visit Upnor Castle, on the shores of River Medway; unfortunately the soldiers guarding the old fortification took them for French spies, suspiciously making drawings of British defences, and detained them until the Royal Academy sent a professor confirming their identities. But those were gentle years: he was slowly finding work, was making friends, for a while courted success in elegant saloons and intellectual circles, and even got married. He wrote poetry at least since the age of 11, and around that time he sang about a “black-ey’d maid” called Kate; once again showing his powers of Prophecy, in the Summer of 1781 he did meet a black-eyed maid called Kate. Visiting Battersea, where he had family, he stayed at a place and was heard lamenting the misadventures of a girl called Polly who had broken his heart; as he narrated his sad story one of the daughters of the housekeeper took pity on him, and according to legend:

“Do you pity me?” asked Blake.
“Yes, I do, most sincerely.”
“Then I love you for that.”
“Well, and I love you.”

But before he could marry Catherine Boucher he needed money, so he asked her to wait a year while he improved his finances. In July 1872 he returned to Battersea, they married and she came with him to London. Although few records exist on Kate, or as he called her, his Shadow of Delight, she was crucial to him throughout his life; for one thing she stopped him from destroying his writings in his final, dark years, as melancholy consumed him; she also managed the household for him and was good with money, ordinary preoccupations that did matter much to this man who lived more time in Imagination than in the physical world. “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise,” she once said. Whenever their finances were bad she would say, “The money is going, Mr. Blake,” and Blake had to drop his designs and attend to the drudgery of work. He lived all his life with one constraint: he preferred to make original designs than engrave after other people’s drawings; however his own were never popular. 

Blake's drawing of Kate, circa 1805

But in those early years he seemed to have a promising career ahead of him, in poetry and art. In 1883 the Poetical Sketches, a collection of juvenilia, came out, full of spelling mistakes attesting to his deficient studies but containing so many virtues that they garnered good reviews, although sales were bad. He also had friends working on his behalf. In 1884 the artist John Flaxman urged poet and art patron William Hayley to pay Blake’s trip to Rome to study; although this opportunity did not materialize, six years later Hayley became his patron. In London Blake attended soirées organized by well-to-do ladies, his songs impressed listeners and his friends did their best to promote him. Then he seemed on the cusp of success. In 1779, after leaving Basire, he found work for Joseph Johnson, a radical bookseller whose circle included William Goodwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Tom Paine. Blake himself supported the American and French Revolutions, called himself a “Liberty Boy” and “Son of Liberty,” terms of the time for those who wanted to change the political system, and publicly wore the Phrygian cap. This however did not prevent him from condemning France when the Terror started. Although political he was never interested in the physical world and abhorred public manifestations like protests and riots; he protested privately and preferred not to have anything to do with the world, fearing it could only distract him from the real needs of exploring his Imagination. When he had to say something, he usually put it into verse. His Songs of Experience burn with the indignation at the cruelty and tyranny he must have seen around him. He fumed at injustice and spoke out whenever he saw it, whether it be a boy being maltreated by an adult, or a man hitting a woman in the street. The poverty and child mortality of Songs of Experience were all around him, but he was also sensitive to the way the world, the Beast, produced misery; Bentley writes of how the St. James parish ran schools of industry like forced labour camps that instead of teaching turned children into slaves working for the institution’s profits. For Blake this was sign that State and Church could not be trusted, a sentiment that often reappears in his poetry.

The 1780s and 1790s were decades of new friendships, technical developments and spiritual discovery. Around 1791, after his good friend Flaxman left to Italy, Blake met and befriended the bizarre artist Henry Fuseli, of whom he wrote, “he is not naturally good natured but he is artificially very ill natured.” Fuseli later became a Keeper at the Royal Academy and like many friends did his best to improve Blake’s financial situation by offering him work and suggesting him to others in need of an engraver. He also explored spiritually. “Like many serious Dissenters, Blake was a persistent searcher for spiritual truth. He did not expect to find it in the established Church, but it might be found almost anywhere, else, only in volumes of theological speculation but in philosophy, in literature, in hymns and in great art.” Around that time Flaxman had joined a Swedenborg reading group – incredible such a thing ever existed! – and introduced Blake to this thinker; in 1789 he joined them for discussion. At first enthusiastic and admiring of Swedenborg’s insights about the spiritual world, he joined and later abandoned New Jerusalem Church, which had his teachings as its doctrine, since he saw too much of the official church it in. Of course nothing could really suit such a volatile and individual man like Blake; he detested systems and was always in pursuit of the individual. He detested systematization, for did he not write, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create?” He was also not a believer in Doubt, especially the scientific doubt becoming popular in his time: “He who shall teach the Child to Doubt/ The rotting Grave shall neer get out.” As such his poetry, starting around this time, shows great concern with intellectual freedom, breaking the “mind-forg'd manacles,” and releasing himself from the matter that blinded him to the Eternal Truths - “He could not take their fetters off for they grew from the soul” – and he believed this could be only achieved through Art rather than Science. “Blessed are those who are found studious of Literature & Humane & polite accomplishments. Such have their lamps burning & such shall shine as the stars...” His definition of prophet is also worth mentioning: “Prophets in the modern sense of the word have never existed[.] Jonah was no prophet in the modern Sense for his prophecy of Nineveh failed[.] Every honest man is a Prophet... a Prophet is a Seer not an Arbitrary Dictator,” he wrote. Is it clearer now? Maybe not. Blake liked obfuscation, difficulty, and antinomies. “... You ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care...” Ah, now that explains things better.

Songs of Innocence came out in 1789 and remained more successful than Songs of Experience (1794). For a long time they sold in separate volumes, and we should not worry too much about their alleged symmetry. Poems from Innocence had already appeared in An Island in the Moon (1784; a book known only after his death). Obviously people preferred the cheerful, sing-song tone of the former poems, instead of the sombre, pessimistic tone of the latter. In spite of that “The Tyger” had a special place in everyone’s estimations, at least in Blake’s small circle of friends (ironically Samuel Coleridge, one of the first persons to proclaim his genius, did not know what to make of this poem: “I am perplexed – and have no opinion.”)

These decades saw him start exploring contradictions, as we can see in one of his last comprehensible poetry books, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. For him oppositions were necessary for life and creativity. Inspired by Lavater’s aphorisms, Blake composed his own pithy sayings, although much different in tone from the Christian self-help guru: “Exuberance is beauty;” “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom;” “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ'd.” I confess this weird book remains one of my favourites by Blake; one turns to any page and finds a delightful sentence: “I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.” This is also where Blake starts laying the foundations of his mythology; for him angels were unimaginative and devils the embodiments of creativity; this puts into perspective what he said about Milton, that he’s of “the Devil's party without knowing it!" He was praising him; Milton was one of his favourite poets, and he made engravings for Paradise Lost.

In 1790 he and Kate had moved from Popland Street to Lambeth, across the Thames, where he saw the ghost that influenced the famous Ghost of the Flea picture. By the way, for him a ghost was something seen by the “gross bodily eye,” whereas the vision was seen by the mental eye. In his new abode, called Hercules Buildings, he composed and printed his Prophetic Books. But before he had to invent Illuminated Printing. Their creation posed some technical difficulties: etching a picture begins with copying the design in reverse into paper, then etch with a needle the design again on a wax-covered copperplate. Blake wasn’t happy with this because it interfered with spontaneity; he wanted to draw and write original designs directly into the plate. “The ideal was to be able to draw on copper as freely as on paper or canvas,” says Bentley, “and this was not possible in England in the eighteenth century.” What he really meant to say is, this was not possible for mere mortals; but Blake was not a mere mortal. Like so many things in his life, Blake got through this problem thanks to a vision. According to him one day the spirit of his dead brother Robert appeared to him in a dream and revealed the secret to create the Illuminated Printing; next morning Blake woke up, tried the experiment and found a super-medium that allowed him to draw and write directly onto the copper. If I understand Bentley correctly, no one’s exactly sure what the secret medium was, although it involved adapting pre-existing techniques; the details died with Kate.

And with this problem taken care of he created Europe: A Prophecy, America: A Prophecy, The Book of Los and other nightmares for college students of English Literature. “The Prophecies Blake wrote in 1794 and 1795 are deeply interfused with politics and with his proliferating myth. The world depicted is one of almost hopeless torment; an understanding of the origins of evil, of the cause of the mind-forged manacles, does not lead to liberation. For Blake, the 1790s are a decade of doom.” Remember that France’s Terror started in 1792; the Revolution did not destroy the Empire, Wolf and Lion did not cease. What I think is that next I have to read David V. Erdman’s big study on Blake’s time, Blake: Prophet Against Empire. A solid acquaintance with his era seems indispensable to understand him.

But while he was writing his best poetry and finding steady work as an engraver, and perhaps entertaining notions of material success, he was also coming to realize that his unique vision would not suit his contemporaries. As early as 1785 his artwork put on public display received its first negative review; one figure, wrote a reviewer, “appears like some lunatic, just escaped from the incurable cell of Bedlam; in respect of his other works, we assure the designer, that grace does not consist in the sprawling of legs and arms.” Ha, sprawling of legs and arms, he meant he did not like Blake’s artwork heavily influenced by Michelangelo, who loved to submit his models to sinuous, twisted, backbreaking poses. Blake’s aesthetic was not of his time; nor was his poetic vision for that matter, as he would discover in very unflattering terms.

But more next Monday.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Blessed are those who are found studious of Literature & Humane & polite accomplishments: on the life of William Blake




Back in August 2013 I took a few books with me for a two-week vacation up north, before returning to start a novel. I took the time to makes necessary preliminaries to become reasonably cognizant with certain knowledges outside the bookworm’s usual interests. So at night, after coming back from one of the many river beaches around me, high up in lost vales, and eating a great barbecue, I’d sit down taking notes from Jonathon Keats’ Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age, which seemed like the ideal book to read considering I intended to write about an art forger. But during the day, stretched on riverbanks, I enjoyed myself with Eugénio de Andrade’s poems and Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake. The poetry, albeit good, did not have a lasting importance; but Gilchrist, over the coming months, unexpectedly penetrated my novel as I saw the possibilities in my two protagonists, scourges of modern painting and almost fanatical proponents of the Old Masters, taking Blake as a role-model, the epitome of the Artist before the Impressionists inflicted upon the world the evils of Modernism. So when one of them starts hallucinating conversations with classic painters in the final part, obviously Blake had to show up for a brief chat.

I never planned this. When I read Gilchrist I had recently finished The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, which had baffled me the farther away I moved from his conventional poetry into the hermetic Prophetic Books. Although they left me in a nebulous state I pledged myself to read up on Blake, therefore I compiled essays and autobiographies. It made sense to start at the beginning so I read the first major biography, penned by Gilchrist (and completed by his wife, Anne, a Walt Whitman scholar) in 1863. Prior to him Blake appeared in other people’s memoirs, as a passing topic, but no one had ever attempted a systematic study of his life before. Blake has as much substance as Socrates, he mainly exists insofar as a bunch of people claim he did, because he left behind very little in terms of non-poetical writing: a few letters, marginalia, a notebook and an exhibition catalogue constitute the totality of himself in his own words. Beyond them we just have other people’s impressions to go by and stitch a semblance of existence. Gilchrist took up the challenge and created a work of reference scholars still use to this day. He had the benefit of actually interviewing people who met and socialized with Blake; that however doesn’t mean modern exegesis hasn’t superseded certain opinions and interpretations; too much reliance on others made him at times credulous and distorted Blake’s views, especially regarding his radical, unorthodox religious beliefs that didn’t sit well with some of Gilchrist’s sources. We Blake fans also had to abdicate of some great anecdotes: it saddens me to report that Will and Kate did not prance around naked in their London apartment back garden, under a giant tree, nor did they invite visitors to shed their garments to Adam-and-Eve with them. Gilchrist’s book also deserves gratitude for having started to dismantle the 18th and 19th centuries’ consensus on Blake’s madness, showing instead a remarkable, lively, kind artist with an original sensibility. Besides that, Gilchrist wrote in that elegant Victorian style that made a list of groceries into a small literary artifact, and one can enjoy it as literature in its own right.

G. E. Bentley Jr. writes an opposite style, paying no attention to beauty and nice turn of phrases, always concise and to the point, but his 2001 biography, The Stranger from Paradise, constituted an even of the same magnitude. This book represents the culmination of a lifetime of research. In 1969 Bentley published the Blake Records, collecting every source about him; in 1988 he updated it with a supplement; he had a vast knowledge of the scholarship, and so this book remains the most up-to-date biography. It doesn’t radically change Gilchrist’s presentation of the poet and engraver, it adds to it, corrects a few mistakes, dispels some myths, but the same extraordinary individual shines through his prose. He especially rewards the reader in the minor details: who doesn’t like to know that Blake, a small man, measured 5’5’’ (making him exactly 10 cm shorter than me), had fiery red hair (perhaps the reason why some wackos tried to prove he was Irish), had blue or grey eyes, and that by 1815 his eyesight already required spectacles to draw and engrave?

The Stranger from Paradise can captivate even those who don’t understand or like most of his poetry. Like Bentley writes, “There are many who love the man not only beyond his powerful designs and exquisite poetry but in spite of them. There is little evidence that his youthful disciples understood or even read his poetry, but they came to the House of the Interpreter as to a shrine; the artist Samuel Palmer used to kiss the bell-pull when he came to Blake’s ‘enchanted rooms.’” Like me, befuddled readers can enjoy his life because of its uniqueness and humanity.

Blake was born in London in 1557, to James and Catherine Blake, owners of a haberdashery shop a few minutes from St. James church where they baptized the baby. Built by Sir Christopher Wren after the 1667 fire, the priest bathed Blake in a baptismal basin carved by sculptor Grinling Gibbons with an ominous design representing The Tree of Life with Eve offering Adam the apple. We don’t know a lot about the household: his mother was a widow when she married James, who got by supplying the local parish’s workhouse and school of industry with goods. Besides the shop they had two stories to themselves, which teemed with Blake’s older and younger siblings. Perhaps they let rooms to lodgers. Blake’s father passed away in 1884, leaving the shop to James, Blake’s older brother. Blake’s mother, who passed away in 1890, encouraged him to make drawings to which he added his own verses and which she hung up in her bedroom. Besides these pleasures he also enjoyed a good ramble to London’s outskirts, when fields of pasture still surrounded it, where he saw some of his earliest visions.

The parents raised their children in the “Dissenting tradition of private devotion and private Bible reading rather than public catechism and public worship.” The Dissenters constituted a series of sects that spun off from the Anglican Church circa the 17th century. Wary of the ways of the world, or the Beast, Blake did not attend public school since Dissenters mistrusted education outside their sect, and Blake forever criticised official schooling, although not the joy of learning and self-improvement. He likely learned reading and writing from his mother (although he retained deficiencies throughout his life, as his unpredictable spelling shows). Although no records indicate which creed or church they belonged to, the Blakes believed all truths existed in the Bible and that “the proper interpreter of that truth is the individual conscience, not the priest or the church.” Extreme Dissent received the name of Enthusiasm, I think synonymous with fanaticism; although Bentley doesn’t suggest it, etymologically enthused means “filled by God,” a good name for someone who considered the spiritual world more real than the material world. Acquaintances of Blake tell us that he considered Atonement a “horrible doctrine,” did not think God omnipotent, judged Jesus Christ wrong for allowing to be crucified, said that each man was God, and since he didn’t the world held no real power over the individual, “henceforth every man may converse with God & be a King & Priest in his own house.” Regarding the Bible itself he said: “The Gospel is Forgiveness of Sins & has No Moral Precepts[;] these belong to Plato & Seneca & Nero.” Blake lived by most of these beliefs throughout his life, always minding his own business and not intruding on others’. He also rejected the world, its vanities and believed in visions and miracles. He did not vote nor attend churches. Following the Dissenting tradition, he believed pious gathering made any place holy rather than a church making a gathering holy; intention altered a place’s purpose; what was holy stemmed from the individual and circumvented official mandates. Bentley links this to the Conventicle Act of 1664, which restricted the gathering of new Dissenting sects. To bypass this interference the sectarians started meeting at public alehouses, in backrooms where they held religious ceremonies, with ale and a warm fire, singing and debating like you couldn’t in cold, sad-looking churches.

Blake started having his famous visions during childhood: he saw God looking through at the age of 4, which scared the child to tears; sighted Prophet Ezekiel in a ramble outside London; and around the age of 8 or 10 he marvelled at “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” This tasked his parents, who beat him for telling lies. But for him reporting his visions constituted an ordinary events, like meeting a mailman and, apparently he didn’t understand how weird that made him look to others; just about everyone who crossed paths with him left anecdotes of his bizarre conversations about angels and spirits. In his letters Blake himself relates that when his favourite brother, Robert, passed away his spirit continued to communicate with him; in fact he revealed to Blake in a dream the technique that allowed him to create his Illuminated Books.

But more about that tomorrow.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

So will the Reign of Reason cheerfully dispose of any allegations of Paradise: looking for meaning in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon




I haven’t stopped thinking about genre since I read Inherent Vice; the detective novel should naturally claim it; but that doesn’t resolve that genre’s conflict with another genre: the picaresque novel. In Mason & Dixon I noticed the picaresque even more clearly. Just to make it clear, by picaresque I mean 16th century Spanish novels like Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler, characterized by flat, unchanging characters, a realistic setting tending towards the sordid and sensational, a loose, broken up narrative that moved from one episode to another without logic, at the whim of the writer’s feverish imagination, and without resolution, in fact the author on saying his farewells sometimes invited others to continue the adventures of the protagonist. Miguel de Cervantes, when he wrote Don Quixote, didn’t do anything more complex than mash the chivalry romance with picaresque tropes. And it worked so well the picaresque seeped into the 18th English novel through it, for instance Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Cervantes’ translator Tobias Smollett. I guess we could also add Voltaire’s Candide to the list of notables, a hyper-version that condenses into less than 100 pages the breakneck intensity of the genre, full of globetrotting, earthquakes, wars, hangings and rapes. Too weird to live, too rare to die, the picaresque got shunned during the novel’s most humorless century – the 19th century one – before returning revitalized. Save for currently forgotten James Cabell Branch, I don’t know many writers who used the genre last century’s first half; but in 1960 John Barth published The Sot-Weed Factor and since then the picaresque has become a mainstay of contemporary literature, driving some reviewers hysterical about its overreliance. Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon’s faux-18th century novel, doesn’t leave out any of its famous features. But I think the picaresque works really well for my tentative theory about Pynchon’s oeuvre. It seems to me Pynchon cares a lot about memory and forgetting, how people remember, preserve and relate facts, how they build history. When I wrote about Inherent Vice I used as an example of the process of inherent vice the fading of Polaroid pictures and how they suggested the ‘60s own inability to keep memories of themselves. In Mason & Dixon the word memory shows up a lot too and the novel comes into shape as a rather shapeless tale where fact, history, hearsay and fantasy mingle. For all its outer differences, I think both novels start from the same premise: the impossibility of relating a historical period. For that reason I’ve come to see Inherent Vice as a battle between two genres. The picaresque moves in a straight line without accumulating details since only momentum matters – the next adventure, danger, escape, disguise – characters show up and disappear in a heartbeat, the ending obeys more to a necessity to eventually end than narrative logic. The picaresque induces forgetfulness, although details abound they don’t reoccur, don’t accumulate meaningfully, and unless we keep extensive marginalia after a while we no longer remember the name of a character who showed up 50 pages ago and what made the protagonist suddenly relocate to North Africa from Italy 3 chapters ago, and frankly we won’t even care to go back and check why. Not so with the detective novel: it moves, not so much in circle but in a downward spiral, slowly narrowing down a fixed point: the detective’s action keep returning him to the crime, eyewitnesses dispensed chapters before become important later on because they may have told lies or omitted information, details pile up and get reinterpreted again and again; the detective novel obsesses over the past, it fights forgetting. Much of the fun of Inherent Vice comes precisely from turning the detective into a drug-addled hippie whose fried brain cannot retain anything for long and constantly drifts into vagaries.

Mason & Dixon shows this conflict between remembrance and oblivion by simply letting the picaresque run its course: characters show up for one chapter and fade forever; an interrupted joke gets mentioned 100 pages later; the protagonists bump into a character not seen for 300 pages; you read a word or expression and you have the impression you saw it earlier, and perhaps it even matters, but you don’t remember where because you probably didn’t keep marginalia since it didn’t strike you as vital at the time. And did I mention the novel has 773 pages? Furthermore, the narrator doesn’t have the most reliable of recollections, but describes himself as “an untrustworthy Remembrancer for whom the few events yet rattling within a broken memory must provide the only Comfort now remaining to him.” In 1886 Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke arrives in Philadelphia for Charles Mason’s funeral and lodges with his family; a clergy of unusual ideas, perhaps not a religious man at all but merely an identity he adopted decades earlier after the authorities arrested him for publishing political pamphlets, he earns his status as guest by entertaining two nephews, Pitt and Pliny, who ask him a “Tale about America.” So the raconteur regales them with a tale about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon and the famous survey line they made dividing the borders between Maryland and Pennsylvania, and North and South two. The story that follows contains several narrators, tales-within-tales, the Reverend’s personal writings, stupid songs, stanzas of a fictional epic poem called The Pennsylvaniad, parallel narratives that fuse with the main one, lots of episodes Cherrycoke can’t have witnessed and only knows from hearsay, and at one point, when Cherrycoke mentions some not yet discovered letters that Mason may have sent to an astronomer called Neville Maskelyne, his listeners urge him “Make something up then, - Munchausen would.”

Trying to fit the whole narrative into a short summary can only lead to failure and embarrassment since I would leave too much out. Bu amongst many things it contains an homage to the titular characters, a caustic vision of the birth of America, a criticism of the Enlightenment and an elegy for the magical world it supplanted.

I don’t have much to say about the protagonists. I have the impression they constitute two semi-ciphers, individuals about whom history has recorded very little, and Pynchon gives them broad outlines, along the lines of the more famous pair of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: astronomer Mason remains meditative and melancholy throughout the novel, mourning a wife called Rebekah; surveyor Dixon, younger than him, a former Quaker, enjoys women, alcohol and jokes, and behaves himself rashly and passionately. They remain fixed to these few traits and Pynchon doesn’t dwell on their inner lives; like in the picaresque, action replaces introspection; this makes them a bit wooden and the events pass through them rather than impact them. Remarkably Pynchon succeeded in moving me 60 pages from the end when I had given up caring about them, and the duo’s final, despondent years full of nostalgia and a feeling of missed, unlived life affected me when I least expected it.

But Pynchon pursues other interests than psychological realism. The birth of the USA coincidences with the furor of the Enlightenment and he takes both on to show their inherent vices. The book’s many men of science indeed display optimism, new venues of knowledge have opened up for them. In 1668 Isaac Newton had invented the first telescope and suddenly the universe became closer, more measurable. “All of these and more, making it super-remarkable, that thro’ the magick of Celestial Trigonometry, - to which you could certainly be applying yourselves, - and such measurements may yet be taken, - as if the Telescope, in mysterious Wise, were transporting us safely thro’ all the dangers of the awesome Gulf of Sky, out to the Object we wish to examine.” But if I’ve read this complex novel correctly, it suggests that the pragmatic application of Reason, i.e. technology, can only lead to more tools of oppression. “For the first time real,” a character says, “Money is finding its way even into Astronomy, - Public Funds paying for entire Expeditions.” This includes the Royal Academy’s prize for whoever solves the problem of ascertaining longitude in the sea, a knowledge necessary for transoceanic voyages, which facilitates conquest, empire-making and the circulation of goods. Maskelyne, a minor character, also shows the growing relationship between science and capital. Becoming Astronomer Royal, he includes among his tasks “publishing his Almanack and doing his bit for global Trade.” This almanac permitted to calculate the longitude in the sea using the moon. Then we have a tale one Captain Zhang tells Mason and Dixon about two court astronomers in ancient China who used their knowledge to foresee eclipses to “answer to the Market, day upon day unending, for ‘tis the inscrutable Power we serve, an invisible-Handed god without Mercy.” In the novel science and technology don’t have neutral statuses, they don’t come into existence pure for men to corrupt them; men expand them exactly to serve very specific selfish goals, in the most ordinary ways; in a more ridiculous scene when a grieving Mason goes to a hanging to chap up women; while having a drink with one she mentions a new trap-door that failed to open, leading her to rail about “These frightful Machines! Shall our Deaths now, as well as our Lives, be rul’d by the Philosophers, and their Army of Mechanicks?” When Mason reveals himself as a man of science, she immediately loses interest in him. Technology even changes literature. Somewhere the text says that “Enormous Flights of Ducks and Geese and Pigeons darken the sky. The terrible mass’d beat of their Wings is the Roar of some great Engine above…” This simile couldn’t have existed before the engine’s invention, but now that it exists it can turn into a figure of speech, it can act as ostranenie and make the reader see an ordinary landscape in a whole new way. The characters’ reaction to technology may seem exaggerated, like everything else in the novel, but it shows how it has begun to seep into the fabric of society, sometimes tearing it apart. It brings changes in social hierarchy. “Reason, or any Vocation to it, - the Pursuit of the Sciences, - these are the hope of the Young, the new Music their Families cannot follow, occasionally not even listen to.” Hydraulic looms lead to new wealthy individuals who begin to replace the landed aristocracy, the Nabobs, without however leading to a better, freer, fairer world. I don’t know if Pynchon fears or hates technology; I think people usually do, and he just chooses periods of transition when it comes to the fore and brings massive changes which activate man’s natural conservativeness. “Is this not the Age of Metamorphosis, with any turn of Fortune a possibility?” Perhaps, but that also means many new frightening uncertainties become possible. In this sense, the absurd conspiracies that pervade the author’s novels, rather than played for laughs, strike me as people’s realistic reactions to changing worlds that displace the assumptions they grew up with; the belief in vast occult powers set in motion to ruin our personal lives constitutes a coping device to restore some order to a world that has stopped making sense, although it only ever made sense thanks to ignoring many of its irrationalities.

Pynchon, however, doesn’t let us forget the irrational; he collects them, thrives on them, expands them. Mason’s mourning leads him to imagine that Rebekah’s spirit continues present, and his adherence to reason constantly struggles with his need to believe in something spiritual. The world of spirits, anyway, remains separated from the physical world by only a tenuous line, and superstition and ritual continues to shape men’s lives. “Kepler said,” explains Maskelyne, “that Astrology is Astronomy’s wanton little sister, who goes out and sells herself that Astronomy may keep her Virtue.” And superstition still permeates behavior. Dixon still speaks the language of augurs and luck –  “we’re Men of Science. To huz must all days run alike, the same number of identical Seconds, each proceeding in but tone Direction, irreclaimable…? If we would have Omens, why let us recall that the Astronomer’s Symbol for Friday is also the planet Venus herself, - a good Omen, surely…?” – whereas the boat they sail in continues to abide by ancient traditions. “You’ll note how very Scientifick we are here, Gentlemen. Yet ancient Beliefs will persist.” Even passing through the Equator assumes magical contours and a seaman describes it as the “Ritual of Crossing Over,” no stranger than people in our era still talking about “the four corners of the Earth.” Irrationalities, superseded knowledge remain incrusted in language, we can’t escape them. Situations frequently arise from characters failing to distinguish abstract, linguistic concepts from physical realities: for instance, the 11 days “lost” when England adopted the Gregorian Calendar; or how the Jesuits changed China’s degrees in a circle from 365.25 to the European 360, leading Captain Zhang to speculate, “And what may that slender Blade of Planetary Surface they took away, not be concealing? Twenty-one minute of Clock-Time, and eleven Million Square Miles, - anything may be hiding in there, more than your Herodotus, aye nor immortal Munchausen, might ever have dreamt. The Fountain of Youth, the Seven Cities of Gold, the Other Eden, the Canyons of black Obsidian, the eight Immortals, the Victory over Death, the Defeat of the Wrathful Deities? Histories ever Secret.” Sure, we sophisticated 21st century denizens may smirk at this confusion over abstract signs like degrees and actual physical space, but as recently as 1931 Alfred Korzybski had to remember our rational era that “the map is not the territory.” And then Robert Anton Wilson had to repeat it in his 1983 Prometheus Rising because it hadn’t sunk into people’s heads. And just to make sure he said it again in his 1990 Quantum Psychology. Nothing indicates things have improved much since the Jesuits. And I haven’t even mentioned all the fantastic stuff! Maskelyne shows Mason a magical Ear that transmits what he says into it to Dixon, many miles away. In London, before sailing to Sumatra, the duo meets the Learned English Dog. “I may be preternatural,” it tells them, “but I am not supernatural. ‘Tis the Age of Reason, rrrf? There is ever an explanation at hand, and no such thing as a Talking Dog – Talking Dogs belong with Dragons and Unicorns. What there are, however, are Provisions for Survival in a World less fantastick.” And of course, the chattering clocks, the Golem, and the mechanical duck that falls in love with a chef. At every turn Pynchon dilutes the rational claims of the 18th century with follies and nonsense, “… for the times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.” Actually trigonometry, a science mentioned lots of times in the novel, permits precisely to calculate the distances of stars, but by this the novel just means that we’ve entered a world where even science fails.

And yet the apparent randomness of all these supernatural events and creatures serves, I think, to heighten the arrogance of a science that pats itself on the back for great progresses while around it cruelty, enslavement, murder and injustice thrive, not just unchecked, but expanded by science. Let’s take the talking clocks, for instance; at first the scene just sounds like good fun, a surreal moment. But clocks, automata and machines in the 18th century became science’s banners. “This machine imagery,” explains Mary Midgley in The Myths We Live By, “became entrenched at the dawn of modern science because in the seventeenth century scientists were fascinated, as well they might be, by the ingenious clockwork automata of the day.  They naturally hoped to extend this clockwork model, which – for a time – worked well for the solar system, to cover the whole knowledge, and, as the Industrial Revolution went on, that hope seemed more and more natural.” This metaphor worked even for humans. “Descartes established the assumption that, since physical particles moved on the model of machines, the things made out of them, including human bodies, must do that too.” And in the case of clocks they came to illustrate the structure of the actual Universe. “In the case of clockwork, Descartes, Newton, and the eighteenth-century mechanists managed to shape a powerful vision that displayed the whole material world as one vast clock, claiming that the right way to understand any part of it was simply to find its ‘mechanism,’ that is, the part of the machine that drove it.” In the novel, however, it soon turns into an instrument of oppression. “Soon, during an interrogation, someone will wish to note the precise time that each question is ask’d, or action taken, by a clock with two hands, - not because anyone will review it, - perhaps to intimidate the subject with the most advanc’d mechanical Device of its time, certainly because Minute-Scal’d Accuracy is possible by now, and there is room for Minutes to be enter’d in the Records.”

Talk about the invisible reoccurs throughout the novel. A theme too rich to exhaust, I think one of its many iterations involves the conflict between science’s opening of new knowledge and the blindness that continues to impair human relations. A scientist may wax poetics about the telescope: “All of these and more, making it super-remarkable, that thro’ the magick of Celestial Trigonometry, - to which you could certainly be applying yourselves, - and such measurements may yet be taken, - as if the Telescope, in mysterious Wise, were transporting us safely thro’ all the dangers of the awesome Gulf of Sky, out to the Object we wish to examine.” But although so much of the Universe now stands revealed, men continue strangers to each other. Living in an age of despotic monarchs, arrested for his political ideas, Cherrycoke serves his sentence aboard a ship, where he meets the protagonists en route to modern-day Sumatra to observe the Transit of Venus. “I set sail upon an Engine of Destruction, in the hope that Eastward yet might dwell something of Peace and Godhead, which British Civilization, in venturing Westward, had left behind.” Throughout the novel imagery of confinement abounds: slavery, borderlines, a captive woman’s narrative, and the ship itself. “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” When Mason and Dixon arrive in Cape Town the Dutch’s enslavement of natives horrifies them; Mason in particular becomes part of a foiled scheme to impregnate a slave because babies with fairer skin fetched higher prices in the market. Speaking of Cape Town, the surveyors sense in it “a Collective Ghost of more than household scale, - the Wrongs committed Daily against the Slaves, petty and grave ones alike, going unrecorded, charm’d invisible to history, invisible yet possessing Mass, and Velocity, able not only to rattle Chains but to break them as well.” Funny how the shroud the horror of slavery in superstitious language of ghosts and the traditional rattling of chains that become the slaves’, giving it the appearance of a primitive practice when it fact it exists all around them, as natural as the stars, practiced without contradiction of an age that imagines itself wiser, more sophisticated, rational and humane. And if their peers can’t see the deceitfulness of the Noble Savage myth, Mason and Dixon do: “It may content us, as unhappy grown Englishmen, to think that somewhere in the World, Innocence may yet abide, - yet ‘tis not among these people. All is struggle, - and all but occasionally in vain.” In the American colonies they find cruelty and slavery again, not to mention Indian massacres. Rather than showing it as an exceptional nation, the book makes the nascent country look like a continuation of Europe, absorbing its old faults and inventing a few new ones. No sooner does Dixon arrive to London, “one of the great Cities of Christendom,” than he watches a hanging, a grim spectacle that attracts amused mobs.

In America the great European struggles for freedom get reenacted, making the New World a mere continuation of the Old World. “The Dispute did not end with Cromwell, nor Restoration, - nor William Orange, nor Hanovers, - if English Soil has seen its last arm’d encounters, then the fighting-ground is now remov’d to America, - yet another use for the damn’d Place.” The cause of political strife remains always the same: “Small numbers of people go on telling much larger numbers what to do with their precious Lives, - among these Multitudes, all but a few go on allowing them to do so. The British in India encourage the teeming population they rule to teem as much as they like, whilst taking their land for themselves, and the restricting the parts of if the People will be permitted to teem upon.” But by the time Cherrycoke narrates his tale, the USA has already failed its earlier hopes and promises: “the word Liberty, so unreflectively sacred to us today, was taken in those Times to encompass even the darkest of Men’s rights, - to injure whomever we might wish.” After all in the years while Mason and Dixon travel across their line, they witness corruption, bloodshed, wars between rival religious sects, the rise of the litigation frenzy. “You don’t know what I see back in this Country,” an arms dealer called LeSpark says to Dixon. “Bribes, Impersonations, Land Fraud, Scalp-stealing, Ginseng Diversions. Each Day brings Spectacle ever more disheartening. You there are but Boys out upon a Frolick.” Cherrycoke alludes to the infamous small-pox-infected blankets given to natives; Mason notes that Europeans committed the “first mortal acts of Savagery in America;” and Dixon prophetically asks, “Is this what America’s going to be like?” More often than not the characters speak in anachronistic ways, voicing ideas resonate with our times; for instance when an arrogant Republican calls Dixon a serf for taking wages and promises that America will teach the rest of the world without bosses, one can’t help reading in it the USA’s insistence in meddling with other nations’ affairs. And yet we didn’t have to wait for Pynchon for this revisionist vision of America; it’s as old as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” If "Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire," Pynchon makes it clear who triumphed.

Conquest and empire-making exists but in the margins of the novel, but everywhere control, limits and frontiers make themselves visible. In England the surveyors ignore a business boom to come to America. “Enclosures all over the County, and North Yorkshire, - eeh! Fences, Hedges, Ditches ordinary and Ha-Ha Style, all to be laid out… I could have stay’d home and had m’self a fine Living…?” The America they meet when they arrive so far has avoided these confinements, which prompts one of the novel’s most philosophical passages. “There is a love of complexity, here in America, Shelby declares, - pure Space waits the Surveyor, - no previous Lines, no fences, no streets to constrain polygony however extravagant, - especially in Maryland, where, encourag’d by the Re-Survey Laws, warranted properties may possess hundreds of sides, - their angles pushing outward and inward, - all Sides zigging and zagging, going ahead and doubling back, making Loops inside Loops, - in America, ‘twas ever, Poh! to Simple Quadrilaterals.” A Republican, anxious for America’s independence from England, even foretells the obsoleteness of the duo’s work, “for in the world that is to come, all boundaries shall be eras’d.” Alas this free, unbounded world does not last for Mason and Dixon set about opening lines through it. The novel doesn’t have a nice opinion of land surveys and its practitioners. At one point a character suggests their work as an “Agent of Darkness,” and somewhere else someone advances the hypothesis that “Men of Sciences may be but the simple Tools of others, with no more ideas of what they are about, than a Hammer knows of a House.” The Visto, or corridor they open to lay out their line, attracts civilization “as the Visto soon is lin’d with Inns and Shops, Stables, Games of Skill, Theatrickals, Pleasure-Gardens… a Promenade, - nay, Mall, - eighty Miles long.” And again anachronistically a character predicts the consequences of tracing a line that will separate peoples and mentalities. “To rule forever it is necessary only to create, among the people one would rule, what we call… Bad History. Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People, - to create thus a Distinction betwixt ‘em, - ‘tis the first stroke. – All else will follow as if predestin’d, unto War and Devastation.” To sum up, their work becomes another tool of oppression, like the almanacs that derive their knowledge from the stars and assist the building of empires. God, in fact, gets described as the first surveyor when he split the waters and the sky. “All else after that, in all History, is but Sub-Division.” This may sound less crazy (or not) when we conceived William Blake agreeing with this opinion. Brought up in the Dissenting tradition, Blake detested all forms of government and religious institutions and defended the supremacy of unchained imagination; although he does not rile against surveyors, he did detest compasses and their forms:

“They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclo’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle…
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased…”
(Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 1793)

And he portrayed Newton as a compass-wielding giant:


Which strikes a few similarities with the embodiment of Reason and Law (negative words for Blake), the divine Urizen:


An enthusiastic defender of all liberties and an enemy of all sorts of tyrannies, political and conventional, he championed the French Revolution, before it descended into Terror, and put America’s War of Independence into poem, proclaiming that “Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.” Blake of course knew better and his visions did not extend to the tone of sadness and pessimism that he infused his engravings and verses with. His ability to see angels and speak to biblical prophets made him wiser, not more naïve.

Blake believed the path to Paradise lay through the Imagination, salvation existed in us and not in outside factors. Pynchon, in turn, suggests that cruelty, tyranny and enslavement stem from human nature and perhaps nothing can change it. For all his criticism of America as a dream gone wrong, he sets it as part of a mankind that never knew how to behave differently, hard-wired like that. When the nephews ask Reverend Cherrycoke for a tale about America, they specify with crime and violence, and grow excited when he tells them that it begins with a hanging. Nature follows its bloody instincts. “One reason Humans remain young so long, compar’d to other Creatures, is that the young are useful in many ways, among them in providing daily, by way of the evil Creatures and Slaughter they love, a Denial of the Mortality clamorous enough to allow their Elders release, if only for moments at a time, from Its Claims upon the Attention.” Even the Learnèd English Dog acts by instinct. “The Learnèd D., drawn by the smell of Blood in the Cock-Pit, tries to act nonchalant, but what can they expect of him? How is he expected to supposed to ignore this pure Edge of blood-love?” Mason  may think that Europeans brought savagery to America and an indignant Dixon may punch a man whipping a slave, but the wise Captain Zhang thinks that “Slavery is very old upon these shores, - there is no Innocence upon the Practice anywhere, neither among the Indian nor the Spanish nor in the behavior of the rest of the Christendom, if it comes to that.”

The only place left remains Utopia, the Blakean Paradise that exists only in the Imagination. But even that relief science has taken away. In Cape Town Mason observes that slaves give importance to their dreams while the Europeans ignore theirs. Science, by bringing the stars closer and killing their poetry, by exploring the world, finding new territories and expanding civilization, make it difficult for men to continue to believe in a secret geography of hope and bliss. “Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream? – in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow’d Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever ‘tis not yet mapp’d, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen, - serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may not yet be true, - Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ’s Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur’d and tied in, back into the Net-Work of points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments, - winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderland one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.” It doesn’t take a lot for man to corrupt wonder. As soon as sailors get wind of the talking dog they conspire to kidnap him and take him to an island in the Eastern seas where the dog could dazzle the savages into worship. “Long life to Kings!” cry the sailors.

The novel presents a curious paradox: the Ancient World of magic and miracles lived in an unchanging present, without any notion of social progress, but dreamt of the Future, that is, the Afterlife, some other dimension richer and more real than this place of suffering; then comes the Age of Reason, living only for progress and science, obsessed with destroying to rebuild more efficiently, believing itself capable of turning the present into Paradise. But apart from really great PR, the Enlightenment fell short of expectations and created as many new problems as it helped to solve old ones: atomic bombs, bacteriological warfare, the surveillance state. “So will the Reign of Reason cheerfully dispose of any allegations of Paradise.” Do I exaggerate, perhaps? Probably, but slavery and war, massacres and greed, oppression and misuse of technology persisted long after the 18th century optimism faded into its own untenable utopia. Now we’re left with a world that can neither have the old ignorance of the unknown to dream of better worlds, nor can it continue to believe in science to deliver all panaceas. The Age of Reason, I guess the novel says, may have improved the world materially but spiritually, and perhaps imaginatively, left it impoverished. “Why mayn’t there be Oracles, for us, in our time? Gate-ways to Futurity? That can’t all have died with the ancient Peoples.”

Or it may just be an inconsequential, immature novel about talking clocks, stupid song lyrics, lots of booze and salacious jokes with poorly-written characters that spells the death of good literature, like James Wood worries.

Some people like to talk about an implicit contract between writer and reader; apparently each party has a series of rights and duties regarding the other, whatever. I’ve read two novels by Thomas Pynchon so far and I haven’t seen anything resembling a contract yet. I’m not sure he likes them.  I don’t think he writes to expectations, but the way he damn pleases. If anything, he asks the reader some indulgence, without promise of recompenses in return. I continue to have minor problems with his writing, but I suppose I can indulge him a third novel.