Decoding William Blake’s Manuscript Production: Anti-Liberalism in Blake’s Illuminated Works
The word "code" was first used to designate systematic collections of Roman legal statutes, and with the rise of chivalric code the term came to more generally designate standards of behavior. Its association with communication -- as a means of communicating standards of law or of behavior -- later extended its use to naval signals and telegraph abbreviations. In its communicative capacity, "code" is associated with obscuring content as well as expressing it, as only persons initiated into the code can decipher it. With the advent of computing, the word "code" continues to carry both prescriptive and communicative senses, as it signifies a series of commands regulating computer activity and, in so doing, represents the communicative interface between human beings and machines.
So the word “code” offers both the promise of communication and the threat of obscurity, a means of simultaneously withholding and disclosing information, insight, and opinion. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in “On ‘Sourcery,’ or Code as Fetish” (2008) critically examines the implications of code as interface. The belief that widely disseminated knowledge of software will bring about enlightenment, freedom, or democracy to an otherwise copyrighted system fetishizes code in Chun's opinion. She also rejects the argument that because code dictates a machine's actions, it transcends human performative language. Chun affirms instead that code is part of an entire system, and she focuses particularly on code as a written product. Because code is written it may also be read, and not just as the activities of machine, citing as an example “Graham Harwood’s Perl poem, [which] translates William Blake’s late-eighteenth-century poem ‘London’ into London.pl, a script that contains within it an algorithm to ‘find and calculate the gross lung-capacity of the children screaming from 1792 to the present.’”
As Harwood's Perl poem illustrates, because Blake’s Illuminated Books integrate myth, visual images, and poetry, they are particularly susceptible to being encoded, decoded, and then recoded, and are best read as code following Chun's recommended strategies, as part of a larger system. The Illuminated Books encourage reading strategies that attempt to make coherent -- or to decode -- Blake’s array of unfamiliar characters, allusions, and imagery, while at the same time moving readers to re-enact the code of Blake’s text in further creative production. This panel, “Encoding and Decoding William Blake,” explores the works of William Blake as code in many of these different senses of the term, particularly as a series of linguistic, visual, religious, social, and technological codes, including its existence in digital form in The William Blake Archive. But it also historicizes code by exploring the ways in which Blake’s work has both encoded and decoded religious and social values. I will argue here that Blake’s pictorial representations of manuscript production in his Illuminated Books of the 1790s support the argument that Blake encoded his subversion of attitudes towards printed texts in his manuscript production itself. Furthermore, his annotations to Watson reveal that he rejected the reading strategies arising from printed texts that were disseminated by Britain’s church/state complex in favor of Medieval hermeneutics. As a result, Blake's book production itself encodes his broader theoretical commitments involving the relationship between texts and their readers, theoretical commitments that can inform our reading of digital texts today.
The manuscript tradition guiding western thought about texts from the classical era to the Reformation carried with it assumptions about texts based upon works that exist in multiple, conflicting copies that must be reconciled by the reader before they can be interpreted, so that the Medieval monk working alone in his cell was aware that he was constructing the text that he might then go on to elaborate. Textual instability was taken for granted in this tradition. This awareness of textual instability greatly diminished with the proliferation of printed Bibles, which were found in thousands of mechanically reproduced editions that were exact copies of one another. Print culture, therefore, obscures textual instability where manuscript culture assumes it. Blake's reading strategies and his visual and poetic conception of manuscript production are sympathetic to the manuscript tradition and hostile to the print tradition.
Dan Knauss’s succinct account of manuscript culture in “Theories of Interpretation from Manuscript to Print Culture” (2001) provides context and background for Blake's understanding of manuscript culture. In this paper Knauss provides an account of the Bible as Augustine, Erasmus, and Luther “knew it as a material entity with its own history,” and he illustrates how that history affected their respective hermeneutics. He argues that Augustine and Erasmus represent a long tradition of Christian thought based upon “a metaphysical distinction between the literal, human text of scripture and the divine exemplar, spiritually apprehended only in faith by the Christian reader,” while Luther represents a more modern tradition which understands the spiritual sense of Scripture to be “the literal sense properly understood.”
Knauss reminds his readers how convincing the Manichean critique of Christian Scripture was to someone trained, like Augustine, in the classical grammarian tradition. Manicheans asserted that the Christian Scriptures were inferior to Manichean sacred texts for three reasons:
[First,] Unlike the Manichaean scriptures, the Christian scriptures were not written by Jesus or by others during his lifetime. [Next,] Unlike Mani’s writings, the Christian scriptures were not stabilized or disseminated in a widely agreed-upon canon that was unified in codices. [Finally,] Unlike the Manichaean texts, the Christian corpus was a composite of different [and] incompatible languages, religions, and cultures.
Augustine’s introduction to Ambrose’s notion of “spiritual interpretation” made possible Augustine’s belief in Christianity given his previous textual training, a mode of interpretation which became common practice throughout the Medieval era and which Erasmus inherited as a matter of course, being a son of a manuscript copyist. Erasmus’s own views place him firmly within this Augustinian tradition, as he asserted in his 1518 System of True Theology that "if a biblical text was unclear or morally offensive, or if it needed to be accommodated to an audience, then allegorical exegesis was permissible.”
Luther developed his hermeneutics, however, out of a culture of print rather than manuscript in which “concerns about the integrity of its texts [are] marginal and less visible compared to the situation of manuscript culture.” Knauss argues that Luther’s very different background led to very different attitudes toward the text of Scripture. In his words,
Luther’s formative and lifelong reading centered on printed books; in fact, he never mentions reading the Bible or any other book in manuscript. Because of the material and technological innovation of print, Luther could emphasize and universalize the reader’s personal, direct relation to God through scripture in way that was previously unthinkable. The Bible could also be viewed as a fairly stabilized text available in numerous mechanically reproduced copies.
In part because of the illusion of textual stability disseminated by printed texts, Luther was able to define the spiritual sense of Scripture as the literal sense properly understood. The Protestant British church/state complex, with its reliance upon printed Bibles in the vernacular, followed hermeneutic principles similar to Luther’s as evidenced in, for example, Bishop Watson’s attack on Paine’s Age of Reason entitled An Apology for the Bible. Watson's response to Paine vividly illustrates just how much print culture had influenced hermeneutics in Blake's England and how someone like Blake -- who was sympathetic to the manuscript tradition -- might respond. Blake very harshly annotated his copy of Watson’s response to Paine, saying that Paine attacked only “perversions of the words of Christ.” Blake in turn accused Watson of defending the Antichrist and of "laughing in his sleeve" at the Bible.
Watson's hermeneutics mirror Luther’s, reflecting attitudes arising from the proliferation of print Bibles and Enlightenment rationality dependent upon language guided by direct, literal referents. Protestant hermeneutics similarly reject Medieval hermeneutics, which were ultimately indebted to Plato’s idealism, a set of reading practices that privileged allegory over literal readings of the text of Scripture and that regarded the real text of Scripture as an ideal form existing in the mind of God rather than the printed or written text. We should note further contrasts between Luther’s “direct relation to God” mediated through a translated text literally understood and Blake’s sustained emphasis upon visionary readings of both Scripture and the natural world, an emphasis that has much in common with Medieval notions of the “spiritual sense” of Scripture developed out of the manuscript tradition.
Blake encodes his affinity with manuscript tradition both visually and poetically in his Illuminated Books. Images of books, for example, in Blake’s works tend to have negative connotations compared to images of manuscripts. For example Urizen, Blake's "mistaken demon of heaven," is regularly associated with books in Blake's illustrations. Plates 1 and 4 of The [First] Book of Urizen picture Urizen with books. Urizen (represented by a priest-like character) with his “brazen Book” on plate 12 of Europe can be compared to the scroll on plate 41 of Jerusalem that explains how readers might be released from their Spectres, or to the devil figure reading Proverbs of Hell to Blake from a scroll on plate 10 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The devil's scroll is contrasted with an angel writing in a book next to him -- so that angels codify in books the inspiration of Devils recorded by Blake -- the traveler through hell -- on scrolls. In Plate 41 of Jerusalem there appears to be a small figure of Blake himself writing on a scroll beneath one of his grand forms. Blake’s visual juxtaposition of manuscripts against books therefore encodes his own manuscript production as resistance to the church/state complex, since Urizen is often understood as Blake’s embodiment of King George, serving in part as Blake's representative of Britain’s church/state complex.
Manuscript conventions particularly apply to Blake’s production of The [First] Book of Urizen. In contrast to The Songs of Innocence, to use one example, printed almost over a thirty-year period, Blake probably printed six of the eight known copies of The [First] Book of Urizen in a single printing session (Worrall, Urizen Books 144). Yet no two copies follow the same order and some even reverse the text order of other copies. What Blake produced is therefore very much like extant Biblical manuscripts: conflicting copies must be reconciled by a reader who has access to several of them at once. Jerome McGann and others argue that Blake deliberately printed The [First] Book of Urizen this way as a satire of the Bible, but McGann also suggests that Blake did so in order to “rouze the faculties to act” (“Indeterminate Text” 309). Rousing and satirical readings are, typically, mutually exclusive, since satire is not usually conducive to redemptive or visionary readings of the material satirized. Blake, many current readers believe, sought to lay the onus of textual uniformity, the construction of a coherent narrative, upon the visionary perceptivity of his readers or, in Mark L. Barr’s words, to commit “authorial regicide” in favor of the democratically distributed authority of his readers (758).
One can, however, simultaneously ascribe both satirical and “rouzing” intentions to Blake by acknowledging a distinction between print Bibles and their manuscript sources. Doing so allows us to distinguish between Blake's attitude toward the "Bible" as it exists in manuscripts, particularly Illuminated manuscripts produced by monks working in their cells, which to him are works of visionary genius, and printed Bibles and their phenomenological status in England. Blake’s The [First] Book of Urizen satirizes only the King James Bible, Scripture as conceived by Britain’s church/state complex. He used a two-column format and paragraph numbering in imitation of printed King James Bibles, but not in imitation of the Biblical manuscripts themselves. Blake’s [First] Book of Urizen is therefore an odd hybrid of manuscript and print conventions perhaps intended to make transparent the manuscript tradition underlying print Bibles while it attacked the phenomenology of print Bibles, an attack that does not necessarily extend to the phenomenology of manuscript Bibles. Barr’s observations in “Prophecy, the Law of Insanity, and The [First] Book of Urizen” (2006) are certainly apropos in this context. In Barr's words, “any assault on the political establishment also required a challenge to biblical hermeneutics” (742), an assault carried out in part by appealing to a hermeneutical tradition other than that guiding the British church/state complex.
Blake’s critique of portions of Scripture offensive to morality proceeded, he himself believed, from his own Christianity, as is evident in his annotations to Watson, which provide evidence for his affinity with Medieval hermeneutic practices. In Blake’s words, “To me who believe the Bible & profess myself a Christian a defense of the wickedness of the Israelites in murdering so many thousands under pretence of a command from God is altogether Abominable & Blasphemous” (E 614). The problem, Blake goes on to explain, is with reading the “<Peculiar> Word of God, Exclusive of Conscience or the Word of God Universal” (E 615). By saying so, Blake is virtually repeating Erasmus’s convictions, expressed two centuries earlier, that allegorical readings of Scripture are preferable to the literal sense when the literal sense is offensive to reason or morality. But this reading practice is much older. Origen (b. 185 A.D.), for example, in On First Principles complained that because of literal interpretations “even the simpler of those who claim to belong to the Church, while believing indeed that there is none greater than the Creator. . . yet believe such things about him as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men” (271). Blake is critical of the phenomenological status accorded to print Bibles by Britain’s church/state complex and of the way that printed Bibles influence British hermeneutics. He might say that they reify "savage and unjust" beliefs about the Creator through their emphasis on literal readings.
Blake’s manuscript production, therefore, encodes Medieval hermeneutic practices for the purpose of undermining a widely disseminated Protestant hermeneutic that served not only the British church/state complex but also the mass of state-monitored commercial book publishers from which Blake sought, often unsuccessfully, to distance himself. He encodes the values of manuscript culture visually and poetically and in his own hermeneutics. These values, proceeding from an assumption of textual instability, recognize that texts are in part constructed by their readers and that interpretive practices must be supplemented by extra-textual knowledge, values, and insights, rather than positing readers who are a passive recipients of textual knowledge which arrives to them perfect, complete, and unmediated.
How might Blake’s manipulation of visual and linguistic codes inform the hermeneutics of digital culture? We might begin by noting immediate similarities between Blake's works and the most common form of electronic media, webpages. Like webpages, the pages of Blake's Illuminated Books are made up of a combination of text and image without consistently privileging one or the other: at times Blake's words take on the qualities of visual images on the page. His works also exhibit textual and visual instability from copy to copy comparable to readers' experiences of daily updates to a website, and they demonstrate consciousness of the effects of the variety of text-production technologies themselves on the reception and theorization of these works. As a result, Blake's coded references to Medieval manuscript production and the hermeneutic models arising from it may inform the hermeneutics and values of digital culture, which are self-consciously decentered and reader-oriented in the sense that reader interaction is necessary for the construction of a stable text, even if that text exists only temporarily.