I was inspired by the opening of Blake’s paintings in Oxford, and this wonderful piece by Philip Pullman to write my own ruminations on what William Blake means to me. My memories of Blake, however, are inextricable from my memories of Donald Ault: the most important thinker and teacher of my career. I learned recently that Ault will be retiring at the end of Fall 2014. Pullman says in the introduction of his article that sometimes we find an artist “who functions like a key that unlocks part of ourselves we never knew was there. […] Something awakes that was asleep, doors open that were closed, lights come on in all the windows of a palace inside us, the existence of which we never suspected.” Michael Sansone introduced Ault to me at a graduate student party at UF in the Fall of 2003.
Michael: What are you working on, Don?
Don: Well, I’m exploring how equations can be used to chart the construction of space and time in The Book of Urizen. See, you can create a chart of the nights of creation that shows how Urizen constructs the Newtonian universe while also — simultaneously — constructing himself. I mean, it’s a non-Euclidean space at the beginning, of course, but nonetheless it’s impossibility can be sketched pretty easily.
Me (in my mind): uh…
(Don shuffles off as I try to figure out what exactly had just happened).
I never suspected that this strange man uttering prophetic equations would utterly change the way I understood reality.
For me, Blake wasn’t an important poet — at least not in the beginning. I came to Blake relatively late in my intellectual career, after going through the requisite modernist gushing that seemed to follow many an-undergraduate in late 20th-century American academia. I had Alfred Kazin’s Portable William Blake, my graduate student colleague and friend Bob Early read lines from “Urizen” to me, but I only barely saw from the chink in my intellectual cavern what worlds Bob’s vocal chords were conjuring. I heard rumblings from Elissa Stewart and Joseph Kivindyo when they read “The Book of Thel:” a poem that seemed, even secondhand, to emerge from some extraterrestrial world. I imagined Thel as an alien-protagonist in one of those strange Moebius comicstrips that flashed through my memory from childhood. The insects he spoke to were purple, with odd probiscii feeding wisdom from beyond directly into the unfortunate Thel’s brain.
It took a number of years, and the Carl Barks-influenced mind of Donald Ault, to realize that Blake’s designs and ideas had been plugged into my brain — if unconsciously — since my birth. They echoed in the lyrics of U2’s album The Joshua Tree that my mother had nested in her vinyl collection at home, hidden with Carly Simon and The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack. They were framed by the sequential art Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons employed in Watchmen, the issues of which I thumbed through as my father drove us home from our weekly comic book trips. I heard them intertwining with the verses of posthuman philosophy spouted by Rutger Hauer’s replicant as he confronted Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. I realized that, despite my belief that he was utterly batty, I had lived in William Blake’s world all along.
I had always resisted reading Blake because I thought the endlessly self-reflexive drivel of my modernist poets primarily motivated me. But Don Ault moved me from Donald Duck comics to Blake poems and back again. The frontispiece of Blake’s poem Jerusalem struck me as a particularly strange place.
There is a Void, outside of Existence, which if enterd into
Englobes itself & becomes a Womb, such was Albions Couch
A pleasant Shadow of Repose calld Albions lovely Land
The very threads of space and time became endlessly new and delightfully strange. And then Ault showed me that such oddity was weaved into what I had too-easily dismissed as a banal medium. His article “Imagetextuality: ‘Cutting Up’ Again, pt. III” describes a sequence from Barks’s comic “Big Top Bedlam,” whose gag involves a quick change artist that is constantly confusing Donald.
By including within the panel the curtain an allegorical surrogate for the panel breaks, Barks imports the process of transformation between panels into the panels, with a dotted line marking where Zippo has supposedly just been—a trace of his simultaneous presence and absence from a definite space in the panel. In his “drag” finale shown in, Zippo is, remarkably, the “same” character in two different places in the same panel. At this same moment, the double Zippo-as-woman both does and does not have the brooch. The Zippo-in-drag to our left is wearing the brooch; the one to the right is not. This is a brilliant move and not a mistake on Barks’s part. This discrepancy functions as a (perhaps unconscious) acknowledgement that the brooch is itself an allegorical figure for signification itself: A signifier is always something that denotes simultaneous presence and absence—something present that stands in for something absent.
The void might have always been outside of existence, but it was also in the middle of every moment I had experienced. It punctuated the possibility of my experience. And I felt this, it just took Don to make me know what I had remembered.
Ault showed me the scholarly values of dream, the importance of inhabiting strangeness, the visionary spacing of our existence. In the end of his article “Where’s Poppa: The Defeminization of Blake’s ‘Little Black Boy’,” Don includes a short note: “In a dream I showed this manuscript to Blake, who told me that he was ‘not uncomfortable’ with my reading of ‘The Little Black Boy.'”
I can only hope that I, similarly, make Ault “not uncomfortable” with my own forays into Blake’s life and work.