Blake and Conflict

Blake and Conflict. Sarah Haggarty and Jon Mee.
Palgrave, 2008. pp. 256. £50. ISBN: 9 7802 3057 3871.

Blake and Conflict is a collection of essays from a 2006 conference of the same name. Jon Mee and Sarah Haggarty propose a way for dealing with Blake’s contrary visions in a time of conflict as a series of conversations (with particular reference to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of the inoperative community), although they recognise that this runs the danger of denying or even sanctioning violence in Blake’s work, drawing on William Keach’s critique of a masculinist will-to-power that is found in his art and poetry. Conflict in Blake’s art and writings is dealt with here in terms of interweaving dialogues between religion, politics and the visual arts, beginning with Saree Makdisi’s “Blake and the Ontology of Empire”, which builds on the Orientalist critique found in his previous work (including William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s), examining how Blake “refuses Orientalism” because he rejects “the logic of individualism predicated on an opposition to otherness” (12) which had become ingrained in a western discourse that bound together Orientalism, imperialism and western subjectivity founded on moral virtue as the basis for the self-regulating self. Blake’s God, by contrast, is an open one, and his task (evident, for example, in his reading of Paine’s Age of Reason) is to recover an “unperverted Bible” of love and forgiveness.

Makdisi’s thoughtful essay goes very well with Angus Whitehead’s contribution, “‘A wise tale of the Mahometans’: Blake and Islam, 1819-26”, which takes a fascinating look at the Islamic community which was becoming increasingly visible in early nineteenth-century London. Study of Blake’s relationships to Islam have started, finally, to become more noticeable among scholarly articles, providing a minor counterpoint to Blake’s obvious engagement with Christianity of various types and Judaism. Blake’s direct references to Islam are, to say the least, fleeting, and Whitehead draws attention to differing interpretations of Blake’s Orientalism (such as Makdisi’s outlined briefly above, or Larrissy’s more critical interpretation of Blake in thrall to Orientalist attitudes). Whitehead draws on three late references to Islam by Blake, in a conversation with Crabb Robinson, the visionary head of “Mahomet”, and his depiction of the prophet in Dante’s Inferno, presents positive representations of Islam. A similarly meticulous approach to the historical record is provided in David Worrall’s “Blake, the Female Prophet and the American Agent: The Evidence of the 1789 Swedenborg Conference Attendance List”, which builds on previous research conducted by Worrall into the 1789 conference to identify some of the radical (and sometimes shadowy) figures encountered by Blake, such as Dorothy Gott, author of The Midnight Cry, and Colborn Barrell.

Susan Matthews’s “Impurity of Diction: The ‘Harlot’s Curse’ and Dirty Words”, focuses on the role of prostitution as an essential corollary to the formation of polite society and the figure of the virtuous woman. Blake, argues Matthews, uses diction transformatively to celebrate female sexuality (her comments on our assumptions to locate sexuality in “corporeality” rather than “spirituality”, and thus fail to appreciate the complexity of Blake’s opinions, are particularly pertinent here) rather than transmit dominant ideas of his day. It is Blake’s dialogic, indeed often ambivalent, relations with Christianity that  are covered in the following two essays: David Fallon’s “‘She Cuts His Heart Out at his Side’: Christianity and Political Virtue” considers attitudes to civic virtue which, in humanist thinking, tended to be held in opposition to traditional Christian virtues, but not in the line of “Commonwealthmen” writers such as Milton, Harrington and (later) Richard Price with which Blake was aligned by Gilchrist and others. Fallon sees Blake as demonstrating “evident affiliations” with civic humanism, but making “distinctive alterations to produce the type of citizenship he valorized” (97).

Haggarty, in “From Donation to Demand? Almsgiving and the ‘Annotations to Thornton’”, places Blake’s annotations to Thornton’s Lord’s Prayer Newly Translated in the ongoing separation of virtuous gift-giving from economics during the long-eighteenth century, remarking that Blake’s own ideas are often contradictory and even incoherent without a more profound understanding of the gift. One contributor to the debate around economics and charity was William Godwin, who also features in Jon Mee’s “‘A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action’: Mutuality, Converse and Mental Fight”, which considers the role of conversation in the liberal public sphere as an alternative to commonly perceived French despotism at the time. Mee identifies two cultures of conversation: one polite and consensual, the other “capacious enough to include contention and dispute” (129). Considering the importance of the latter to Dissenting traditions, Mee starts from Blake’s satire on conversation in An Island in the Moon through his illuminated books, seeing in this “aspect of the everday world” a “utopian possibility for the future” (139). Sibylle Erle’s “Shadows in the Cave: Refocusing Vision in Blake’s Creation Myth” reinterprets the metaphor of the cave to refer fairly specifically to Blake’s account of sight and the eye, particularly in relation to empirical philosophers such as Locke and Newton.

This discussion of the science of optics is a serendipitous link to the final three essays of the collection, which deal with various aspects of Blake’s visual arts. Mark Crosby’s “A Minute Skirmish: Blake, Hayley and the Art of Miniature Painting” concentrates on that minute particular of Blake’s artistic career, the miniature paintings he conducted in Felpham, as a site of conflict with his patron William Hayley, Blake’s technique often being at odds with Hayley’s instruction and presaging the disputes that were to come later. Luisa Calè, in “Blake and the Literary Galleries”, contrasts the rivalries of the illustrated book market with those of the literary galleries, such as the ones established by Fuseli and Boydell, the latter dealt with most notably, of course, in Morris Eaves’ Counter-Arts Conspiracy. Blake’s work for Young’s Night Thoughts especially, Calè argues, demonstrates how he was “experimenting with different book formats in an attempt to access the literary-gallery market” (204), from which he had only ever received minor commissions.

Finally, Morton Paley’s “Blake’s Poems on Art and Artists” looks at his various texts from 1798-1811, such as the annotations to the works of Joshua Reynolds and the Descriptive Catalogue, but also his verse on contemporaries, that deal with art and artists. Although the prose writings have received considerable scholarly attention, Paley argues that the occasional poetry should not be dismissed as doggerel but examined both as satire and “as expressions of Blake’s views about art, artists and the art market” (210). The range of essays from established and new scholars is impressive and generally well integrated, making this an extremely significant and useful collection.

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