- The Wond'rous Art: William Blake and Writing
John B. Pierce's The Wond'rous Art takes an overtly deconstructive approach to the study of Blake's oeuvre. This impressive book may thus be seen as the latest instalment in a modern tradition previously mapped out by such critics as Donald Ault, David L. Clark, Peter Otto, Tilottama Rajan, and the Santa Cruz Blake Study Group. Like other modern-day modes of critical analysis, of course, poststructuralist critiques can risk conflating Blakean thought and poststructuralist theory, anachronistically constructing a Blake who seems more like Barthes, Derrida, or Foucault than a late eighteenth-century antinomian dissenter. By opening a productive dialogue between deconstructive theory and the historical contexts informing Blake's thought and material practice, Pierce deftly avoids this potential pitfall. Hence, rather than offering Blake's texts as exemplars of poststructuralism and its thoroughgoing critique of logocentrism (as some deconstructive critics have done), Pierce presents us with a Blake whose writing evinces both logocentric and deconstructive tendencies: a theological yearning, on the one hand, to articulate a coherent and unified truth; and a politically motivated desire, on the other hand, to unsettle modes of institutional authoritarianism that thrive on such univocal concepts of signification. By investigating the productive tensions that exist between these two tendencies in Blake's thought, The Wond'rous Art offers an admirably nuanced and illuminating account of Blake's philosophy of language.
In exemplary fashion, Pierce's book avoids another problem sometimes associated with poststructuralist criticism: its occasional tendency to seem like a mere linguistic game concerned to identify aporias in meaning [End Page 277] without considering the social, ethical, or political implications of these semiotic disruptions. As Pierce notes, however, 'Blake's theory of writing does not detach itself from historical and social concerns, as some strands of American deconstruction have appeared to do.' Although a concern to address the ethics of writing is implicit everywhere in The Wond'rous Art, the most outstanding parts of the text are those wherein Pierce emphasizes the relationship between Blake's philosophy of language and his famous critique of various forms of 'institutional authority and repressive ideology.'
In his opening chapter, Pierce examines figures of speech and writing as depicted in various Blakean texts, including the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Contextualizing its analysis by way of reference to a wide array of primary texts (including Old Testament prophecy, Plato's Phaedrus, and Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Languages), chapter 1 clarifies the basic outlines of Blake's ambivalent response to Western phonocentric tradition. Of particular importance in this chapter are Pierce's incisive discussions of 'London' and the 'Introduction' to Innocence, wherein he reveals how 'Blake's lyric practice assumes a fusion of the immediacy and spontaneity of speech with the permanence and wide audience available through writing.' In subsequent chapters, Pierce conducts similarly subtle analyses of The [First] Book of Urizen, Vala or The Four Zoas, Milton, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Owing to the sophistication of its concepts, The Wond'rous Art is not an easy book to read. Not only does it assume its reader's familiarity with Blake's complex literary mythology, but it also requires of its reader some understanding of poststructuralist theories of language. Moreover, because of his concern to examine the important differences that exist between various extant copies of the same Blakean texts, Pierce's prose is at times necessarily challenging to navigate. In chapter 3's remarkable discussion of the diverse orderings of plates in various copies of The [First] Book of Urizen, for example, Pierce's constant references to plate numbers and orderings, and his usage of numerous schematic diagrams, lend the critique a highly technical and schematic character. But the reader ' s patience at such points in Pierce's discussion pays rewarding dividends. Among other things, this chapter makes abundantly clear how problematic it is to speak of Urizen in the singular or to consider valid the 'ideal' copy adopted by most editors of the text...