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Kathleen Lundeen, Knight of the Living Dead: William Blake and the Problem of Ontology. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 2000. ISBN: 1575910411. Price: US$37.50.

  • David M. Baulch

…plus d’informations

  • David M. Baulch
    University of West Florida

Kathleen Lundeen's Knight of the Living Dead: William Blake and the Problem of Ontology is a remarkable addition to the formidable and ever-growing body of criticism surrounding William Blake. What is most striking about Lundeen's study is its commitment from the outset to an uncompromising and open-minded investigation of the way that Blake's visual/verbal texts both disrupt and reorganize the way readers can conceive of the relationship between the material and the spiritual. The question for this study is not so much one of the meaning of Blake's text, but the way Blake's textual semiotics identify a concept of being. To this end, Knight of the Living Dead focuses on Blake's texts as sites that dramatize the constitutive role of perception: "By peering through the seams in Blake's text—the verbal and visual borders—we may discover, as Blake evidently did, that ontological boundaries are actually perceptual boundaries, which dissolve with improved vision" (162). The perceptual boundary that Blakean vision potentially dissolves is the body/spirit distinction that marks Blake's contrary stance towards the mainstrean currents of his Enlightenment milieu. Despite the philosophical complexity of its subject, Lundeen's book is couched in a delightfully playful tone, as is evident in its title. This sense of humor is a considerable accomplishment in an age where theoretical sophistication often seems to be marked by a grim adherence to a specialized vocabulary.

Knight of the Living Dead's introduction demonstrates Lundeen's knowledge of the key historicist studies that emphasize Blake's connection to "Romantic culture," as well as her desire to separate her own study from this dominant methology. Instead Lundeen writes to examine "Blake's texts within the context of spiritualism—a practice that, like all worldly practices, is literally historical but, like all otherworldly practices, substantively ahistorical" (16). So rather than identifying Blake's spiritual thought and its impact on his artistic practice strictly within the context of the cultural ferment offered by any one of the number of antinomian sects in the eighteenth century, as E.P Thompson does in his Witness Against the Beast, or identifying Blake's practices with the "radical bricoleurs" of the period that Jon Mee emphasizes in Dangerous Enthusiasm, Lundeen's Knight of the Living Dead takes the position that "[b]y treating spiritualism as an aesthetic practice, and art as an otherworldly communication, [Blake] distinguishes himself from other spiritualists and artists" (17). In other words, the comparison of Blake to others in his age may not be the best way to grapple with the theoretical implications of Blake's text. In this sense Knight of the Living Dead is something of a return to Northrop Frye's position, but it is a return with a difference. While in works such as Frye's landmark Blake study Fearful Symmetry and Leslie Tannenbaum's Biblical Tradition in Blake's Early Prophecies Blake's understanding of the Bible is of foremost importance, for Lundeen, the Bible's central position exists alongside a postmodern view of language. The Blake study most closely informing Knight of the Living Dead is Robert Essick's William Blake and the Language of Adam, a text that attempts to situate Blake's "incarnational aesthetic" as a kerygmatic sign that "approaches the power of the Logos" in its attempt to instill a spiritual presence in its recipient (Essick 26). But Lundeen avoids the kind of historical search for "Adamic language" Essick undertakes, and she elects to theorize Blake's semiotic practices in terms of some key aspects of Heidegger's broad notion of being as filtered through a Derridean view of language.

Asserting that the inseparability of word and image is analogous to the unity of body and spirit in Blake's text, the first chapter of Knight of the Living Dead defines Blake's visual/verbal interplay in terms of "three distinct modes, each of which elucidates the nature of empirically based language" (23). Thus Blake's text functions "[b]y deconstructing the binary of natural and arbitrary signs" so that "what we recognize as word or graphic image depends on our epistemological orientation, just as what we term 'matter' and 'spirit' is determined by our state of perception" (58). The first of these "modes" is that which is most familiar to Blake's illuminated books in their exploration of "the range of discursive possibilities in a text/design dialogue" (23). By interacting in this way, rather than as a distinct set of signifying practices, word and image suggest a dialog where the messages of the media evince an interchangeability.

While much of what Lundeen discusses as the first mode of Blake's visual/verbal art is an extention of W. J. T. Mitchell's pioneering Blake's Composite Art, the other two modes strike off into new territory. The second mode of verbal/visual relationship Knight of the Living Dead identifies is that characteristic of Blake's illustrations for the work of other writers. Here, the center of the page is taken up by a white block, wherein typeset poetry is printed. In this mode of word image relationship it is as if the words of Thomas Gray or Edward Young stand "between" the viewer/reader and Blake's design. Lundeen claims that Blake forces the "written word . . . into the three dimensional realm of plastic art" (31). The third mode is a reversal of the second. Here "the design is perfectly outlined, central on the plate, and the text never invades the domain of the picture" (35). The preeminent examples here are Blake's magnificent Laocoön engraving and his illustrations to the Book of Job. The common point Knight of the Living Dead draws from all three modes is that the "dual medium of poetry-painting" allows Blake to articulate "his conception of a text in which the boundary between being and supra-being, the visioned and the envisioned, is dissolved . . . in anticipation of a spirit-text" (58). This view serves as the foundation for the readings produced by the three following chapters.

Having established a basis for its conception of the relationship between word and image in Blake's text, Knight of the Living Dead proceeds by examining the relationship between language and naming in The Book of Urizen and Milton. Lundeen claims that "[i]n Urizen Blake inverts the biblical significance of naming, showing how fallen language constricts identity" (71). In Blake's critique of the post-lapsarian state, analogical language gets special attention because of the "metaphysics of absence" it reifies as the material substance of the world (70). Set against The Book of Urizen as an inquiry into the origins of the fallen state as it is marked in particular by language, "Milton has the role of the book of Revelation" (90). Milton as a prophecy stands as a kind of apocalyptic disclosure, a divesting of the fallen self-in-language that emerged in Urizen. In this way, Lundeen argues, Blake's text seeks to uncover a truth about being that is more closely bound to "perception" as a "function of spiritual perspective rather than historical position" (97).

The third chapter on "Disappearing Boundaries in Prophetic Geography" concentrates on the way that Blake's notion of prophecy in America, Europe, and Jerusalem all participate in dismantling the "tropological dualism" instantiated by empiricism's enshrinement of "the literal/figurative paradigm" (102). This chapter hinges on Blake's use of fallen language's ambiguity, its propensity to shift between the literal and figural. This part of Knight of the Living Dead's view of the way Blake's text is framed by a reading of "two forms of tautology" in Martin Heidegger's writing (122). The first sense of the tautological Lundeen examines is constituted by the use of "the predicative 'to be' as a mirror in which the subject projects itself as object" (122). The second kind of tautology Lundeen derives from Heidegger's writings is that whereby Heidegger composes "a statement by means of a single root word" such as "'time times'" or "'space spaces'" (123). Here tautology can be seen as a way whereby "something 'does' by being and 'is' by doing" (126). Lundeen produces numerous examples of the way Blake's language takes on this Heideggarian character (or perhaps the way Heidegger's philosophy begins to take on a Blakean character) from Songs of Innocence and Jerusalem. While the turn to Heidegger might seem to venture into territory foreign to Blake scholarship, the Heideggerian tautology provides Knight of the Living Dead a sophisticated theoretical link between language and ontology that culminates in a reading of Jerusalem as the fullest flowering of this technique in Blake's canon, one whereby the poem becomes an "allegory of the division and subsequent reunion of Albion (the English language) and Jerusalem (the divine Logos)" (129).

Knight of the Living Dead concludes by reviewing deconstructively-oriented critiques of Blake (pointing out their enduring structuralist affinities) as a context for thinking about and celebrating the truly radical dimensions of the way Blake's texts undermine the matter/spirit dualism at the base of Western thought. For Knight of the Living Dead, Blake's text becomes something ultimately beyond the postmodern in its play with presence and absence. In her reading of the numerous instances of transparent figures in Blake's visual art, Lundeen writes that "Blake's transparencies are equivalent to the deconstructive maneuvers of placing a text in quotation marks or under erasure" to suggest that Blake's text often constitutes "a zone in which 'presence' and 'absence' are obsolete notions" (153). For Knight of the Living Dead, Blakean textuality "may in fact point to a state of pure signification in which indeterminacy is the necessary precondition for determinacy" for which Blake found a model in the motif of transformation in the Bible (161).

In short, while Knight of the Living Dead presents itself as closely allied with many postmodern views of text and language, it ultimately places itself in opposition to the endless metonymic slide of meaning characteristic of such approaches, which, as Edward Said writes foreground "wall-to-wall language." Knight of the Living Dead asserts a paradoxical essence-in-flux substance produced by Blakean textuality. Because it is willing to grapple seriously with the implications of what Blake's text can say to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Knight of the Living Dead has staked out important territory for itself in contemporary Blake criticism.