William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 2 – London, England

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn the first post in her series marking publication of her Blakean novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios, writer and translator Adriana Díaz-Enciso shared her unexpected introduction to William Blake on a family shopping trip from Mexico to Texas. Adriana now continues the story, recalling her adventures breaking into Blake’s world — and Blake’s London: attempting to understand the writings, images and vision of a man she felt to be a free spirit with an instinctive leaning to the force of excess in art. “He overwhelmed me, fascinated and provoked me. I wanted Blake. But I didn’t have him.”


At some point, I thought that maybe if I translated him, I would manage to break into his world. I therefore translated his early series of poems to the Seasons. The translations were published in a poetry leaflet, to the editorial board of which I had been generously invited by older and much wiser poets than me. Its name was Magia Menor, after Borges’ verse, “To write a poem is to work a minor magic.” It was beautifully printed, a work of love, and I wish that my copies had not been lost when, many years later, I left Mexico. I would like to read those translations of mine now, even if I fear they weren’t that good. The fact was, in any case, that I still hadn’t managed to fully grasp Blake.

When I had moved to Mexico City, several years after those first translations, I once thought that the only way through was to translate the whole of Blake’s poems. I never got to start. It was such a daunting venture… After all, one of Mexico’s most deservedly beloved poets, Xavier Villaurrutia, had made a humbler attempt with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and who was I to try the harder stuff?

Still, I kept on pulling my Penguin edition from the shelf and reading, until it was so battered I had to replace it with another copy, this time with Elohim Creating Adam on the cover. Wondering what it was that this poetry kept on withholding from me, I was nevertheless convinced that it was of infinite value.

Beginnings of a Blakean novel 

For a while I let the matter rest… a bit. But I couldn’t forget altogether that Blake’s work was waiting for me. When in 1995-6 I was writing lyrics for Babel, the third album by Mexican rock band Santa Sabina, I thought the album required Blake to make a brief appearance, and this materialised in a kind of ‘sound collage’ of his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Baudelaire’s Les Litanies de Satan and a text of my own. And I read on. Slowly, I was getting closer.

Then, around 1997, I started making notes for what would then be my third novel. 

Its subject would be a question: what is the meaning of human pain? I was then reading lots of what we may call hermetic writings: Paracelsus, works on alchemy, Giordano Bruno and Frances Yates’ work on him and the Hermetic tradition. This reading material obeyed a longing. Like so many others before me, I was looking for a transcendent meaning of human life. I also wanted to know whether the seemingly inexhaustible pain endured by humanity could be lived and understood in such a way that we could rise above it and find healing in wisdom and compassion so great that they would escape description.

There was a strong Christian element in my wondering, via Julian of Norwich, St Theresa of Avila and other Christian mystics, though I was also eagerly reading Sufi sages such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi, Al-Ghazālī, and Henri Corbin’s works on both Avicenna and the ancient Iranian mystic tradition, with its archetypal Celestial Earth and the imaginal world. I couldn’t fail to see the evident coincidences between the concept of imagination elucidated by Corbin and that of William Blake.

The Christian preoccupation can partly be explained by the fact that I was raised a Catholic, attending a nuns’ school from age seven to 18. I had always been drawn to the figure of Christ, and I guess that I sincerely tried to be a fervent Christian, but soon the Church itself stood in my way. Its motions seemed empty to me, devoid of the mystery of serious ritual. Also, as my social awareness developed, I found the obvious link between mainstream Catholicism and power in Mexico; how the Church, save few exceptions, had become allied to the most conservative and un-Christian mores. I quietly stepped out of the Church, but I wanted to be fervent. I kept on being fascinated by Christ, even if the literal interpretation of his being the son of a divine Father was always hard for me. What took a hold on me was that most beautiful symbol of a god who becomes human to share man’s pain (rather than atoning for his sins). The more I read Blake, the more I agreed with his unique vision of Christ.

Soon, the idea started to take root in me that this novel should have the work of William Blake as its foundations.

Then, on 22 December 1997, a horrid massacre took place in the village of Acteal, Chiapas (a state in South East Mexico), when 45 indigenous people — including children and pregnant women — who belonged to the pacifist group Las Abejas were murdered by a paramilitary group while they were praying. The horror of this attack shook the country, and I couldn’t stop wondering whether such extreme suffering, and the impunity which followed the crime, could be just an occurrence in an indifferent universe; whether there was no transcendence, no redemption, no meaning.

And it was then that, fifteen years after finding Blake in a shopping mall in Texas, the meaning of his prophetic poems truly opened its gates for me. Acteal would become a pivotal point in my novel, and by then it was clear that the book would draw on precisely those poems which had eluded me for so long as its main source of inspiration. Their characters would be the novel’s characters. That was the beginning of twenty further years pondering on Blake.

Acteal. Collage by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018, with Press photo: Cuartoscuro
Acteal
Collage by Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018, with Press photo: Cuartoscuro

I took Blake with me, briefly, back to the USA: in the Spring of 1998 I was granted a writing residency at what was then called Ledig House International Writers’ Colony, to write the Blakean novel. I carried with me my Blake, my hermetic books, my grief over the multiplied bloodshed in my country, and my pondering. It was in the idyllic landscape of upstate New York where the first draft of the novel was finished. I don’t remember how many weeks I spent there. Six, perhaps? I had never before had such a chance to concentrate on my writing with no distractions, surrounded by nature, sharing the findings and the pitfalls of the process with other writers from many different countries. I remember those weeks as one of the moments in my life that Satan cannot find. 

A week in New York City followed, the novel still close against me while I sensed that my brief sojourn in heaven was quickly shifting into something less luminous.

Blake’s London calling 

I returned to Mexico City, which seemed burdened with the weight of violence, and enveloped in my own sadness as I confronted the collapse of my marriage. A nearly fatal pneumonia put a stop to work of any kind for a few months, and the end of 1998 passed by in a kind of blur marked by loss, grief, and the minutiae of convalescence. By January 1999 the doctor declared me out of danger, and that’s when I decided to leave Mexico, as suddenly as the other changes in my life had taken place. The answer to where I would go was obvious: London, of course, that “Human awful wonder of God.”

It was London because of all the literature by Londoners or set in London that I had read since I was little; it was London because of Virginia Woolf, thanks to whom I had been driven to take my writing seriously; it was London because of my beloved Charles Dickens, and it was London because of those visionary authors who had transformed it into a city beyond the limits of mundane existence, such as Arthur Machen and, of course, William Blake. I came here ready to start revising the manuscript of my novel, sure that it would be greatly improved by being in the streets that Blake had walked.

Battersea Power Station, Blake's London, by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Battersea Power Station
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

My love affair with London was passionate from day one. It was what I had dreamt it to be, what I feared it might not be, and more. My favourite books were alive here, and so was the spirit of the authors who had immortalised the city — some, we could even say, hallowed it. My own literary London included, of course, Blake’s London: Soho, St James’s Church in Piccadilly where he was baptised, his Lambeth and those of his works that they had on show back then at the Tate. Although this was mundane London, thriving on power and greed as it has always done, it was also, simultaneously, visionary London, where the material fabric of reality could be seen through for an equally powerful spiritual force to be revealed. The hardship and loneliness I experienced during those first years in the great city were no reason to leave: I had found here what I often called ‘the mirror of my soul’, and the most fertile ground for the development of my voice as a writer. 

This meant that, as I started revising my Blakean novel, I found it wanting. So wanting, in fact, that I destroyed its manuscript (both printed and electronic). But I kept all my notes. The structure remained, and so did its aim. It was just that I wasn’t telling it right. The years-long process to rewrite it started. It was a painful one: the struggle for survival meant that I didn’t have enough time or mental space for concentrating on such a complex book. Though I did write other books in those years (poetry, short stories and another, shorter novel), I felt grief and frustration because I couldn’t go forward with the Blakean story.

Notes for the novel’s chapters

Notes for the novel's chapters, by Adriana Díaz-Enciso 2018
Notes for the novel’s chapters.
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Still, I worked intermittently on it and kept as close as I could to Blake. I attended, for instance, the major Blake exhibition at the Tate, which ran from the end of 2000 to February 2001. That exhibition made me redefine the novel, as my understanding of Blake grew much deeper. My memory of that visit is of going round the exhibition for hours in a kind of trance, shaken by the contrasts between the exquisite beauty of Blake’s pictorial work and its violence, moved by the pathos of his endless struggle and the indifference he faced, and stirred by the way he transformed the cruelty and crassness of the mundane into the beauty and might of a greater reality. His was the way to live a life, the only way for a true artist. I was also struck with more poignancy by the utterly unique nature of his pictorial art and his poetry, inextricably joined together.

I bought at the Tate Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake, which became a soul companion through my lonely explorations of Blake’s London. It brought home the dimensions of Blake’s struggle in a world that failed to see, to feel and understand; a struggle which was therefore of art and of the spirit, for he knew they couldn’t be separated, and a struggle for transcendence, for the ultimate liberation of man through his imagination, which was ultimately divinity in him. Which other artist had spelled out our ultimate nature so clearly? Ackroyd’s biography guided me through further readings of the prophetic poems, so that my second Penguin copy was now starting to look as battered as the first one.

Some years later, seeing the actual copies of some of Blake’s illuminated poems in the quiet of the Prints and Drawings Department in the British Museum left me in tears: no reproduction will ever be able to show the exquisiteness, the nuances, the delicacy and otherworldly beauty of those pages. You can sense in them, fully alive, the love, the care and the faith with which they were created. 


Notes

Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. You can catch up with the first post in her series about the writing of the book — William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 1 – McAllen, Texas.

In her next post for Finding Blake, Adriana moves deeper into Blake’s London, and her novel takes shape as its characters seek their answers on the borders of the mundane and the visionary, visible and invisible.  

Finding Blake – Our First Year

We start the New Year with a timely update from Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White. As well as looking back at our first year, a highly eventful journey and the successes for Finding Blake, James also shares a couple of sneak previews of what’s coming up next. 


Blimey, as Blake might have said. It’s January 2019 already — a year on from having raised the funding through our crowdfunding campaign and cracking into the Finding Blake Project.

Albion Rose by William Blake (1793-6)
Albion Rose
William Blake (1793-6)
Source: the William Blake Archive
http://www.blakearchive.org

And what a year it’s been on the Blakean trail! From that first interview with poet David Whyte in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford — where Blake was right there with us — all the way through to the ceremony to set Blake’s new ledger stone in Bunhill Fields, London, on the 12th August. And, in-between: journeys down into the underground quarry where that piece of Portland stone came from; coming face to face with Blake’s paintings and words, and with Blakean scholars and creatives of all hues; and a deep encounter with the stone itself, which now bears his name, dates, a quote, and the words ‘Poet – Artist – Prophet’.

The ledger stone is a huge focus of the film I am making: Blake, his stone and its creation by a master-craftsperson of this age and, I hope, the themes of his vision — infinity, eternity, time, and hope.

No simple answers

Have I found Blake? That’s the question that is spinning around me now, and has been for the last few weeks as I’ve been focusing intensely on editing the material. Well, thinking hard on that, I don’t think I have — not in a rounded shape that I can put in my pocket and say, yes, here’s Blake. But of course poetry, mysticism, articulating a vision — these aren’t and shouldn’t ever be that simple or clear-cut.

Life itself isn’t clear-cut (if it is, you’re doing it wrong), and the journey is never about the destination. For me definitely, it’s about the meanderings on the road and the twists and turns. So alongside the cutting and splicing, and the giant jigsaw of the filmed story of the last year that I have in front of me, I’m reflecting upon a year in search of William Blake: his extraordinary words, images and overall vision; the physical life he lived over 70 years; what the impact of all this is, what folk say and feel about him and that vision now; and ultimately, the impact of Blake for today’s world, for today’s Britain.

Folk have asked me recently, ‘Tell me about Blake’, and I can’t articulate his life and work into a sentence or paragraph. Maybe I can with poets like Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, WB Yeats, or John Clare — all of whom I’ve had a longer engagement with over many years and a physical affinity to the places they inhabited: Hull, Yorkshire, Ireland, and the Northamptonshire / North Cambridge territory that John Clare tramped around. Maybe my antipathy towards the city of London has hampered me on the Blake trail (sorry Londoners! I always will be a village lad).

A simple resonance

Walking on concrete constantly creates that physical disconnection. I deeply resonate with Blake’s three nearly harmonious years in Felpham, where he was surrounded by the elements, able to see and sense the sea, and grow things in his garden. I’ve never been interested in trying to ‘explain’ Blake. But filming Carol Leader’s rich lecture on how she uses Blake’s work in psychoanalysis, and the presentations by Reverend Malcolm Guite and Reverend Christopher Rowland on Blake as a Christian icon, have both been wonderful experiences for me, a witness to inspiring efforts to explain or understand him in specific, focused ways.

I would recommend Will Franken’s deep and visceral film Red, White & Blake for his efforts to engage with some of the specifics. And, on the subject of connection to land, friend of Finding Blake Matt Wilmshurst is in the thick of producing Blake in Sussex, a feature drama about William and Catherine’s three years in Felpham. We’re greatly looking forward to seeing that and wish Matt and the team great success.

My film and this project are not about ‘me’ finding Blake. It’s about a shared journey, for all of us: exploring. I’m steering and mediating it, and my voice is there asking questions, commenting and reflecting. I ask a lot of questions of everyone I’ve met along this road; I’m good at asking questions, though in interviews we’ve stuck rigidly to three simple ones:

  • How has William Blake influenced you, personally and professionally?
  • What examples of his work — poems, engravings, images — or his life resonate with and inspire you?
  • How do you feel William Blake is most relevant to the current day: as artist, spiritual visionary, political inspiration?

And I have been delighted when interviewees go wildly off with their answers: there is no right Blakean answer!

Finding Blake  — the film

But back to the product: the intangible tangible thing that this project has been created around is and is nudging toward in this chunk of Blakean time. I have a file full of sections and rough cuts, and an overall structure that I’m slotting sections into. I’m thinking about where interview clips go, and which sections resonate with others and with which words, and how much to mess around with linear time.

I’ve done a big chunk of this initial editing and structuring up in a quiet cottage in Cumbria, thanks to a great friend of and contributor to the project, Clare Crossman. While there, I discovered that Kathleen Raine — probably the single person who did the most to promote Blake into our era — had a house nearby. So in seeking the quiet places for inspiration and focus, Blake comes with me and crops up again, not just in written word and image (I had a big box of books to keep me going), but in the most wonderful ways.

The plan is that I’ll do some test screenings here in Cambridge in a week or so, mainly to invited critical eyes and those closely involved in the project, and then there will be the first public screening with the Blake Society in London on Wednesday 16th January. Anyone is welcome to this event, but please check with the Blake Society, of course.

Following this, we’ll take in some of the comments and feedback, think about further ideas we have in mind to film, and then take it forward. Any ideas you have for screening opportunities, please shout!

Blake's new gravestone unveiled - a key moment in our first year
Blake’s new gravestone unveiled
Photograph: Lida Cardozo Kindersley © 2018
www.kindersleyworkshop.co.uk/

So a huge shout to all who chipped in a year ago: your sterling efforts have helped get the project to this point! Thank you! Your funds have been spent on travel, paying for filming and a tiny bit of my editing time, hard drives, memory cards, the odd Blake book or four, and hosting the website.

Without your support, ‘Finding Blake’ could never have started out on this Blakean journey …

We made that start without attracting all the funds we needed, because it was important to begin the journey and to share the benefits of our exploration through our film and website. We are actively seeking further funds to complete all the activities we set out to do. If you would like to make a donation, please use the button on the site or get in touch. And if you have suggestions for other funding ideas, we’d love to have them!

Our first year — and beyond

I just want to end this post with some further thank yous for Finding Blake’s first year: two specifics and a general one. To Mark, for astonishing perseverance and clarity in progressing with this website, dealing with words, images, layout, and fielding questions and responding. To Linda, who has been a marvel: digesting, processing Blake, driving us, interviewing, providing emergency sausage rolls, liaising, and more. And to so many in my technical and feedback crew, who respond to my questions and calls for help, and give the critical feedback that keeps me semi-sane and on the creative meander in this crazy world. And finally, to Mr William Blake: poet — artist — prophet …

A happy New Year to all. May it bring us clarity, deep visioning, and the energy to live richly.

The Sun at His Eastern Gate
William Blake
Watercolor, over traces of black chalk
Source: The Morgan Library & Museum www.themorgan.org

A few extra things to look out for soon:

  • In a few weeks, we’ll start posting a regular series of extra footage and material that is additional to the film, a kind of ‘DVD extras’ bundle if you like.
  • I’ve really resonated with one or two of Blake’s images when I’ve met them in the flesh this year (see The Unfolding and Unveiling, about the exhibition at Petworth and in particular Blake’s image, The sea of time and space), and of course there have been some I haven’t connected to. This year, Finding Blake wants to start a mini-series of posts from you telling us about the images you love, or hate, and why.
  • The wonderful Tyger painting by Linda, from her residency at a Cambridgeshire school, will shortly go on sale online by auction to raise further funds for this project. More details will be announced here soon.

 


Notes

You can find a 2018 review by Jason Whittaker of Will Franken’s film Red, White and Blake at Zoamorphosis | The Blake Blog 2.0

There is more information about Blake in Sussex, the forthcoming film from Matt Wilmshurst at the Blake in Sussex site.

James will be discussing the Finding Blake project and film, and presenting material from his film at a screening after the AGM of the Blake Society at Waterstones Bookshop (82 Gower Street, London WC1E 6EQ) on 16th January (6.30pm). See the Blake Society events page for info (scroll down to January and mention of ‘Finding Blake’).

Serge Arnoux, Surrealism and William Blake

Robert Campbell Henderson becomes our latest contributor, beginning a series of posts for Finding Blake with this intriguing account of an unexpected French connection with the legacy of William Blake, through an accidental discovery at a scrap yard…


Proverbs of Hell: a French connection 

It’s not so easy to find or write something new about William Blake. Hopefully, this might just be an exception. A few weeks ago I made a visit to a scrap metal yard in Sarlat, France, looking for material for my printmaking. Boy did I get lucky! I bought some copper plate destined for the furnace and it turns out I’d bought 27 etched copper plates by deceased French artist Serge Arnoux, based on some of the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from 1790.

“Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”. Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth

The plate above, and my print from it, is labelled “Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”, which in Blake’s original is: 

Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth

All the plates are in a surrealist style and from my initial research seemed to have been destined for a book. I can’t be certain at this stage but I believe they were made in the seventies. Looking at the plates, I think only around a dozen of them were actually ever printed.

La sexaphysique du texte

Arnoux often collaborated with other artists, including French poet and composer Leo Ferre and American poet M.S. Merwin, making illustrations in a similar surreal vein. He also made and published books under his own name.

‘La sexaphysique du texte’

The images above are from one of his own books, La sexaphysique du texte. Interesting title! The booklet was printed in large folio format, 23 double pages with typography and layout in the manner of the surrealists.

From plates to an exhibition

For me as a printmaker, to find etched plates by another printmaker, the late Serge Arnoux, and discover that they were based on work by poet, writer and of course printmaker William Blake seems like fate. It can only be an interesting journey of discovery! 

I am going to print all the plates, with full accreditation to the artist. I am writing a blog about the project and the ultimate goal is an exhibition of the work — hopefully in the UK, but certainly France. 

Here are a few more of the prints from my initial proofing exercise, as a taster for what is to come. The original titles in French, and what I believe to be the corresponding line from the Proverbs of Hell in English, read from left to right. Of course, I assume being from the Blakean world you already figured that out.

 

“La prudence est une vieille fille riche et laide que l’incapacité courtise.” Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by incapacity.

“Des pierres de la Loi on a fait des prisons des briques de la Religion on a fait des Bordels” Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.

“Femme nue, chef d’oeuvre de Dieu” The nakedness of woman is the work of God. 


Notes

Robert Campbell Henderson is involved in printmaking and photography, just for the fun of it. Before 2000 he never really made any art as he was, in his own words, busy with the “day job.” At the age of fifty he did an MA Photography, followed by a burst of activity participating in exhibitions and setting up an art gallery in Norwich, UK. He retired to the South of France in 2006 where he taught himself printmaking and set up his own darkroom and print studio. You can explore his work at www.photokennel.com

Robert wants to share his experience of researching, printing and hopefully exhibiting these plates over the coming months. You can read Robert’s blog at his site (which also includes more on Serge Arnoux) and we will be sharing more of his accounts of this intriguing French connection here at Finding Blake.

As the Wikipedia entry on Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell notes, “In the most famous part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell. These display a very different kind of wisdom from the Biblical Book of Proverbs. The diabolical proverbs are provocative and paradoxical. Their purpose is to energise thought.”

Several of his proverbs have become famous:

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

And another  

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead

has given the title to a recent translation of Olga Tocarczuk’s 2009 novel, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead, which the Guardian’s review describes as not just a murder mystery but “also a primer on the politics of vegetarianism, a dark feminist comedy, an existentialist fable and a paean to William Blake.” Another reminder — as with the plates of Serge Arnoux — that Blake’s importance and influence travel beyond the borders of his own place and times.