The following chapter is excerpted from my book, Borg Like Me. It is the only pieced I’ve ever published about William Blake. Since he takes up so much of my interest and attention, and is so profoundly important to me, I decided I wanted to use my blog to delve deeper into WHY he remains so important to me and to share some of what I’ve teased out of his work. So, I decided to make this piece from BLM (which originally appeared in MAKE) serve as the intro to this series.
Next up: Gareth’s Essential Reader’s Guide to Blake.
WILLIAM BLAKE: PATRON SAINT OF MAKERS
William Blake. William Blake. William Blah, Blah, Blah. My family and friends (and social media friends and followers) are painfully aware of my seemingly inexhaustible prattling on about William Blake. You don’t have to hang around me for long before you’ll hear a dropped Blake quote here, a snippet of poetry there, or me quickly drawing some Blakean analogy for something we’re discussing, whatever we’re discussing.
The sad thing (for me) is that a lot of this falls on tin ears. Anything by or about Blake seems to have the uncanny ability to tax the attention spans of all but a stalwart few. I can almost count the seconds before I see eyes glaze over and begin to dart side-to-side, hands creeping toward smartphones itching to be checked for the latest Facebook Likes and Twitter alerts.
Over the years, I’ve come to think of understanding Blake and his art as analogous to learning a new language. You can’t just “speak” Blake overnight (or understand him being spoken). This is, of course, the case with any artist, thinker, or crazy person who’s created his or her own complex cosmology, as Blake did. So when people hear me frequently referencing Blake, I imagine what they hear is, say, Latin or German, or the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. They think “Oh God, he’s speaking that weird language again that I don’t understand or really care about. HELP!” And away go their attention spans – “Hey, look, new kitty-cat memes on Facebook! HE-larious!”
A relatively new friend recently asked me how I got interested in Blake. As I recount in this piece, it was actually through the work of anthropologist and co-founder of the science of cybernetics, Gregory Bateson. In reading Bateson, and listening to his lectures, he frequently mentioned and quoted Blake and seemed to imply that there was some resonance between his work and Blake’s. I couldn’t imagine how this could be the case. How could there be significant common ground between an atheist scientist, naturalist, and pioneer of cybernetics, and a strange, maladjusted, mystical Christian artist from the turn of the 19th century who hallucinated angels and whose poetry we were forced to memorize in high school?
So, I went to Blake looking for what connected him to Gregory Bateson and the things that were significant to me about Bateson’s work. Since one of Bateson’s memorable maxims was to look for the “patterns that connect” (“…the orchid to the primrose and the dolphin to the whale and all four of them to me”) this seemed like a worthy quest. That quest has now consumed the better part of my adult life and my interest in Blake has long ago overtaken my interest in Bateson. And yes, now I completely understand what connects the two of them and their seemingly disparate ideas together. But I’ll let you go on that quest yourself—connecting them to each other, and them to me, and me to you.
This piece originally appeared in MAKE Volume 17, the Lost Knowledge issue (aka the steampunk issue), which I guest edited. I thought it entirely appropriate to put the work of William Blake within the context of the crazed, creative re-imaginings of Victorian science, technology, and culture represented by the steampunk maker scene of 2009.
For the past 25 years, nearly every day, I’ve interacted, in some fashion, with William Blake, “the mad English poet” (as some contemporary detractors dubbed him). I poke my nose into one of the dozens of books I’ve collected, or I whisper (or shout to the rafters) a poem, or I chew on some gristly hunk of his ridiculously complex mytho-poetic cosmology.
For someone with the attention span of a four-year-old, having anything captivate me to such an extent is downright alarming. Equally strange is the fact that, I’m a writer. I live to communicate my ideas and experiences to others, yet I’ve never published a word about Blake. Until now. Why am I so fascinated by this apocalyptic, outsider artist (in his day, anyway) whose work still defies comfortable comprehension? What keeps me coming back?
In this article, I’ll explain a little of Blake’s invented printing method and make a case for why I think he’s a perfect candidate for Patron Saint of Makers.
WILLIAM BLAKE, 18TH-CENTURY ZINE PUBLISHER
I was introduced to William Blake in British Lit class in high school, but ironically, it was during the desktop publishing revolution of the mid-1980s that I started to understand what he was really all about.
I came to the real Blake by way of cybernetics pioneer Gregory Bateson. Bateson was fascinated by how Blake famously “mixed up” modes of perception in his work; Blake claimed he possessed something called “fourfold vision” and that he could simultaneously see things on different levels of awareness.
Bateson had studied schizophrenia for the Veterans Administration and discovered that, similarly, schizophrenics confuse and conflate, for instance, the literal and the metaphorical; they don’t organize thoughts, communication, and perceptions into logical categories the same way that non-schizophrenics do. Blake also seemed to leak at the margins separating these logical types of communication and awareness. Of course, one can argue that all artists do this, but it’s the extremes of the leakage in Blake’s work, the sheer quantity, and the complexity of it (and its surprising coherence, if you stick around long enough to sort it out) that makes Blake so compelling. Bateson was also intrigued by how functional Blake was while living in his world of perceptual and categorical mashups.
As I began to delve deeper into Blake, one day I had something of an epiphany. I’d gotten a lovely two-volume set of his most popular works: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, two of his masterpieces of “illuminated printing,” a technique of free-form engraving, painting, and printing he’d invented. Up until his discovery, illustration engraving and book printing were two separate disciplines, with the engravings etched, printed, and later, tipped into the books as plates. By combining these two arts on the page, Blake’s technique freed him to write text, compose pages, design typography, and paint illustrations, right on the copper printing plates.
I was reading about all of this while working on an art and technology zine I was publishing, called Going Gaga, using an Apple Mac SE running PageMaker layout software. I was doing a lot of the writing, designing, even some of the illustrations, right in PageMaker, and printing out my zine on the Canon copier sitting next to my Mac. I realized that Blake had experienced the power of a different, but surprisingly analogous, set of media tools and had felt a similar sense of explosive creative freedom, more than 200 years earlier. William Blake had been a proto zine publisher! William Blake was a multimedia artist!1
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