1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 7. This podcast will concentrate on an author who has actually been a longer (though not as deep) influence on my own life and thought, J. G. Ballard, who died in April 2009. I first began reading Ballard’s science fiction when I was thirteen, around the same time that I first really started to become interested in Surrealism. Although my interest in both was slightly displaced by a love for the Romantics (which I had tried – and failed – to read around the same time), both Ballard and Surrealism were in many ways a primer for my own love of Blake’s writing and art.
2. Ballard’s own fascination with Surrealism influenced his speculative novels, whether those set in almost familiar locales in near future settings, such as Vermilion Sands or The Drowned World, or impossible dreamscapes such as The Crystal World and The Unlimited Dream Company (as well, of course, as absurdist contemporary dramas, of which Crash and Cocaine Nights are the most famous examples). It is in The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) that Ballard comes closest to Blake’s vision of London, having as it does a central character called Blake and loosely following the unfolding lines of Milton a Poem.
3. In Blake’s Milton, the poem begins with Milton unhappy though in heaven who, upon hearing the song of a bard about the struggles between Satan as one of the self-righteous and his brothers Palamabron and Rintrah, leaves Paradise to reclaim the lost female part of himself that he abandoned to enter this restrictive Eden. There he encounters both Blake and the projected, eternal form of Blake, the Prophet Los, and also Satan who he realises is his own shadow. In Ballard’s novel, there is no bardic prophecy in heaven: rather Blake is a psychologically disturbed young man working in a London airport who steals a Cessna airplane and crashes it in Shepperton, the suburb where Ballard lived for most of his adult life. Before providing these details, The Unlimited Dream Company opens with a sacred and profane, mundane and exotic description of the streets that owes much both to the beautiful nightmares of the Surrealists and Blake’s visionary psychogeography of London:
4. Soon there will be too many deserted towns for them to count. Along the Thames valley, all over Europe and the Americas, spreading outwards across Asia and Africa, ten thousand similar suburbs will empty as people gather to make their first man-powered flights. (UDC 9-10).These lines echo those in Milton, where Ololon says:
5. Where once the Cherubs of Jerusalem spread to Lambeths Vale6. In Milton, this scene depicts the spread of the druidic death cult across the world, Blake’s code for organised religion and materialist philosophy of his day. Ballard’s infestation of the world is more ambivalent, a return to a rampant, chaotic, psychotically gorgeous proliferation of jewelled nature. Before this can happen, however, his protagonist realises that he cannot leave Shepperton, cannot cross the wasteland that lies between the suburb and London. Attempting to prove his domination, he indulges a sick dream within the city, engorging himself in magical, illusory masculinity that gains power by rape and dreams of rampant fecundity, literally absorbing the inhabitants of the town as he attempts to gain the strength to fly away from the mundane highways and shopping centres.
Milcahs Pillars shine from Harrow to Hampstead where Hoglah
On Highgates heights magnificent Weaves over trembling Thames
To Shooters Hill and thence to Blackheath the dark Woof! Loud
Loud roll the Weights & Spindles over the whole Earth let down
On all sides round to the Four Quarters of the World, eastward on
Europe to Euphrates & Hindu, to Nile & back in Clouds
Of Death across the Atlantic to America North & South (35.10-17, E135)
7. For a time it almost appears that Ballard wishes us to indulge his antihero’s sickness, so compelling is the vivid life-in-death that supplants the monochrome existence of Shepperton’s ordinary inhabitants. He is Luvah-Orc bursting out as a pagan deity, a mixture of Aztec god and Charles Manson. Blake believes that if only he can absorb enough energy he will be able to fly:
8. Alone now in the sky, I moved in huge strides across the air. I had become an archangelic being of enormous power, at last strong enough to make my escape… I needed their young bodies and spirits to give me strength. They would play forever within me, running across the dark meadows of my heart. (UDC 160, 163)9. For all this apparent energy, however, this superhuman strength, Blake becomes less able to leave than ever. Only slowly he realises that his sadism and violence is not the energy of release, but instead binds him to this hell that continues to sicken him even as it burns more brightly with his own infernal colours. Submitting to the desires of his libido to overturn the repressive super-ego that had beaten him into a poverty of existence in daily life, his apparent sovereignty merely exchanges one master for another. It is only when he recognises his own guilt that he is able to confront and forgive the demon that prevents him leaving this inferno, the skeleton of the dead pilot that lies in the Thames. This struggle echoes that of Milton at the end of the original poem:
10. Satan! my Spectre! I know my power thee to annihilate11. In The Unlimited Dream Company, Blake is dead, and the corpse he confronts is his own. Unable to cast off the remnants of his former life, clinging to desires of selfhood that have only brought him woe, Ballard’s Blake is a re-reading and transformative salvation of William Blake, having him descend to Shepperton to cast off his own religious righteousness in the same way that the Romantic poet had rewritten the works, philosophy and theology of John Milton.
And be a greater in thy place, & be thy Tabernacle
A covering for thee to do thy will, till one greater comes
And smites me as I smote thee & becomes my covering.
Such are the Laws of thy false Heavns! but Laws of Eternity
Are not such: know thou: I come to Self Annihilation …
Thy purpose & the purpose of thy Priests & of thy Churches
Is to impress on men the fear of death; to teach
Trembling & fear, terror, constriction; abject selfishness
Mine is to teach Men to despise death & to go on
In fearless majesty annihilating Self, laughing to scorn
Thy Laws & terrors[.] (38.29-42, E139)
And the Four Zoa’s clouded rage East & West & North & South
They change their situations, in the Universal Man.
Albion groans, he sees the Elements divide before his face.
(Jerusalem 32.25-7, E178)
The Zoamorphosis Blog is part of a wider project, Blake 2.0, which is designed to take advantage of latest technologies to provide new ways of disseminating information and research about William Blake.
This site has grown out of research on the reception of William Blake, how he has been used by artists, writers and other figures in the post-war period). As such, Blake 2.0 is also concerned with the ‘second life’ – virtual and otherwise – of Blake, and this site offers new ways to present information about the artist’s works as well as encouraging innovative thinking about how we can engage with those original illustrations and texts.
Zoamorphosis.com is a magazine-style blog that provides updates on various uses of Blake in the arts, media, popular culture and some areas of scholarship, with news of Blake sightings in the press and elsewhere. In addition, you can follow regular posts on Twitter by going to http://twitter.com/blake2_0.
Why Zoamorphosis? Blake developed a personal mythology which revolved around four beings – his four zoas – who were engaged in conflict and war with each other but, when working in harmony, came together to form the perfect man. One of the exceptional features of Blake’s influence on later figures is that they tend not to approach him with reverential awe but rather engage in happy and fruitful mental fight, rather in the spirit of Blake’s own approach to earlier writers and artists such as Milton and Michelangelo. Zoamorphosis, then, is my name for the process of struggle and creative conflict that takes place between Blake and those who appreciate his art and poetry: without contraries is no progression, as Blake once wrote, and this site is dedicated to tracking down the various mutations and flowerings that have appeared and continue to appear in the twenty-first century.
About the editors
Jason Whittaker is Professor of Blake Studies at University College Falmouth in Cornwall. He is the author and editor of eleven books, including Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827 (with Shirley Dent, Palgrave 2002), Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture (with Steve Clark, Palgrave 2007) and Blake 2.0: William Blake and Twentieth Century Art, Music and Culture (with Steve Clark and Tristanne Connolly, forthcoming, Palgrave 2011). He has also written extensively on new media and was previously the editor of the magazine PC Advisor. For more information, please visit jasonwhittaker.co.uk or falmouth.ac.uk.
Roger Whitson is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of several articles on Willliam Blake published byRomanticism on the Net and Interdisciplinary Literary Studies. He is also co-editor of the William Blake and Visual Culture special issue of ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. He has a forthcoming article titled “Digital Blake 2.0″ for the book collection Blake 2.0: William Blake in Twentieth-Century Art, Music and Culture edited by Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly, and Jason Whittaker. He is currently editing a collection on comics and post-Deleuzian philosophy called The Ontographical Imagination: Space, Time, and the Graphic Novel with Charlie Blake of Liverpool Hope University. For more information, please visit gatech.edu.
Other sites in the Blake 2.0 Network
Blake 2.0 and MyBlake.
Blake 2.0 on Twitter.
Blake 2.0 on Facebook.
Blake 2.0 on Tumblr.
The William Blake Jukebox.
Blake 2.0 on Twitter.
Blake 2.0 on Facebook.
Blake 2.0 on Tumblr.
The William Blake Jukebox.