Zoamorphosis Updates: November 2010

Blake’s Birthday and other news for November:

To mark the anniversary of Blake’s birthday on 28 November, 2010, the Blake Society – itself 25 years old – held celebrations at Tate Britain. Zoamorphosis is updating with extra posts this week, including updates to the site’s first competition inviting suggestions to the William Blake Jukebox. Also new in November was publication of an electronic edition of Blake’s satire, An Island in the Moon, on the William Blake Archive as well as the opening of a display on Blake and Physiognomy, also at Tate Britain.

New reviews and articles.

This month saw three new reviews on the site, of the books William Blake on Self and Soul by Laura Quinney and William Blake and Religion by Magnus Ankarsjö, as well as the Blake and Physiognomy display.

Finally, articles were posted on David Jones, artist, poet and author of the Blake inspired The Anathemata and Aethelred Eldridge, artist and founder of the Church of William Blake.

Blake and Physiognomy

This new display in Room 2 of the Tate Britain collections for British Art 1500-2010 brings together a selection of Blake’s works in the context of Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss pastor and physiognomist most famous for his book, Essays on Physiognomy. Translated in 1789, this book caused something of a sensation in Britain (as well as the rest of Europe), and Blake was commissioned – along with Thomas Holloway – to engrave a number of designs made for the Essays by Lavater’s friend, Henry Fuseli.

The display has been brought together by Philippa Simpson with input from Sybille Erle, who has long worked on Blake’s illustrations to Lavater and whose book, Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy was recently published by Legenda. It opens with a brief account that contextualises the ideas made popular by the Swiss writer. His illustrations to Essays on Physiognomy, begun near the start of Blake’s career, are followed immediately by designs for the so-called “Visionary Heads”, the series of drawings and famous tempera painting of the Ghost of a Flea that were composed at the instigation of his friend John Varley in the final years of Blake’s life. While Blake seemed to have taken a lifelong interest in the depictions of facial types that was consonant with the philosophy of Lavater, that interest was much less literal in many respects than Varley’s who, as various asides from his contemporaries made clear, believed more or less everything he heard and everything that he read.

Much of the display is comprised of selections from two series that Blake worked on: the large colour prints, including the magnificent illustrations of Nebuchadnezzar and Newton, and watercolours and engravings from the illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. While Blake was immensely impressed by Lavater’s theories, having inscribed a heart around his and Lavater’s names in his own copy of the Essays, one of the most striking elements of this display is the occasional dissonance that appears to occur in Blake’s own art. Lavater suggested that through physiognomy was displayed the essential characteristics of a person’s character, and while Blake appears to have agreed with this basic tenet he also sometimes appears to turn the correspondences between psychic and physical attributes on their (so to speak) head. This is most evident in the print of Newton – in which the idealised spiritual beauty of the scientist betrays a cold, almost blind monomania rather than perfection of character – and Ciampolo the Barrator Tormented by the Devils. In this latter engraving, the malebranche, or horned devils that torture Ciampolo (whose sin is to sell political influence) have faces of refined gentlemen, offering a satirical cast on Blake’s use of physiognomy to reflect character.

As the curators make clear, if very subtly, though Lavater was considered one of the mildest of men his pseudo-scientific theories also contained disturbing aspects, most notably his anti-semitism. Lavater believed, for example, that by conversion to Christianity Jews would see their features slowly become less “jewish”, and once or twice the immensely philo-semitic Blake appears to pander to this crass prejudice, as well as – perhaps rather understandably – the straightforward Eurocentrism of the age.

While Blake’s illustrations dominate the display, there are also works on show from Sir David Wilkie and William Hogarth, whose painting of heads of six of his servants is a delightful masterpiece. While Hogarth is obviously fascinated by the features of his servants, his interest in physiognomy does not display the same fascination in abstraction, theory and types as Lavater’s and Blake’s but captures instead vivid characters rather than correspondences. Alongside this is a print of Blake’s depiction of the Canterbury Tales, vivid and brilliant in a very different way to Hogarth’s masterly painting. In his catalogue entry for the original painting, Blake had written: ”

Of Chaucer’s characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered, and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter.” (E532-3) Whereas Hogarth depicted individual characters, specific to the faces of the wonderfully mundane figures in his employ at that time, for Blake the illumination of types from literature was a more important consideration for the ideal artist.

The final items on display are two versions of the famous life mask of Blake made by James Deville in 1823. Deville, who created and collected phrenological casts, wished to capture the faculties of imagination which, he assumed, were displayed most clearly in the face of Blake. The versions, in plaster and bronze, have become one of the most significant and popular images produced by Blake, influential on a wide range of later artists such as Francis Bacon and Antony Gormley – and which I have long considered his most important piece of performance art. As ever, the life mask, is a fascinating piece and also offers an ironic counterpoint to many of my own assumptions regarding the pseudo-scientific gobbledegook that Lavater inspired: if physiognomy is not an index of character, particularly of the racialist strictures that it was to give rise to in the nineteenth century, it never ceases to amaze me how much of my own estimation of what type of man Blake was has been formed by looking on the somwhat stern, concentrated face preserved in Deville’s remarkable cast.

Blake and Physiognomy runs until 8 May 2011. Entrance is free.

Magnus Ankarsjö – William Blake and Religion

William Blake and Religion: A New Critical View. Magnus Ankarsjö
Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland and Company, 2009. pp. 163. $39.95. ISBN: 978 0 7864 4559 2.

The second book by Ankarsjö to be published by McFarland, William Blake and Religion shares some themes with his earlier title, William Blake and Gender (2006) in that one of the aims of this book is to take recent discoveries about the religious background of Blake’s family and explore these in relation to his views on sexuality. Most important for  Ankarsjö’s ideas is the work undertaken by Marsha Keith Schuchard in Why Mrs Blake Cried (2006) and various essays by Keri Davies that have uncovered links between Blake’s mother and the Moravian church. The Moravians, a religious group that had its roots in the followers of John Hus in fifteenth century Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic), experienced a religious revival in the eighteenth century under the charismatic leadership of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf during which period they encouraged greater equality between the sexes in comparison to most religious movements of the time, and established a small but devoted church. In addition to the research of Schuchard and Davies (to which may be added Robert Rix’s re-evaluation of Blake’s relations to the various religious sects of his day in William Blake and the Cultures of Radical Christianity, 2007), the most important figures to William Blake and Religion are David Worrall, who cast fresh light into the activities undertaken by Swedenborgians at the end of the eighteenth century, and Helen Bruder because of her re-evaluation of Blake and gender studies in her extremely influential and important book, William Blake and the Daughters of Albion (1997).

Ankarsjö sets out these foundational figures in his introduction, as well as providing a brief detour via one dead end of Blake studies that occasionally rears its head (though not with academics working in the field), the late E.P. Thompson’s assertion that Blake was a Muggletonian in his 1993 book, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. Dealing with Thompson briskly, Ankarsjö’s task is to focus instead on the effect that newly discovered materials relating to Moravianism will have on our understanding of Blake. As such, with particular emphasis on both religion and sexuality, William Blake and Religion is probably one of the first of what is likely to be a growing number of texts that will explore the intersection between Blake and the Moravian Church. In addition, in his first and best chapter, Ankarsjö also pays attention to the continuing influence of Swedenborgianism, the teachings and church established by the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg who claimed constant and visionary experiences of the spiritual world, throughout the 1790s (which many – though by no means all – of Blake scholars assume the artist had turned his back on after publication of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), as well as a more prickly relationship with Unitarianism, which influenced a number of his contemporaries that Blake would have encountered via the circle gathered around the publisher Joseph Johnson. Ankarsjö is clear and convincing when outlining these religious contexts, and makes some extremely interesting and relevant observations, for example in his repetition of Keri Davies’s comment at the Blake 250 conference in 2007 that the position of Moravianism as neither dissenting from, nor wholly within, the mainstream Anglican church means that we shall probably have to revise many oft-repeated (and dearly held) assumptions about the dissenting radicalism of Blake’s background.

This chapter is by far and away the best in the book, but some problems emerge when dealing with the next two chapters, “Blake’s Religion” and “Blake’s Sexuality”. Part of the difficulty emerges with the step that sometimes appears to be made once the Moravianism of Blake’s background is recognised: it seems very clear that Blake’s mother was a Moravian, and also that Blake’s parents attended a Moravian church. As such, it is extremely probable that Blake grew up in a household that was infused with Moravian values. However, to follow this to the conclusion that Blake himself was a Moravian, or strongly influenced by Moravian ideas, is much more problematic. Keri Davies is always careful when drawing such conclusions – much more so than Schuchard, in my opinion – but Ankarsjö to me appears to dither and this sometimes creates problems with understanding entirely what the relationship with Moravianism brings. Some sections, for example when dealing with notions of conjugal (or conjugial, in Swedenborg’s phrase) love appear to be very profitable when explaining Blake’s own attitudes towards religion, but the chapter “Blake’s Religion” as a whole ends up somewhat confusing: it is hard, in the end, to pin down what Blake’s religion was. This is due to two reasons, one of which I think is a fault with Ankarsjö approach to his subject, one of which is much more general.

First of all, Ankarsjö tends to cherry-pick texts, looking for ones that may reinforce his approach to Moravianism in particular but also that Blake continued to look towards Swedenborgianism. This, for me, is extremely unsatisfactory because some of Blake’s most profound and extensive documents dealing with religion, such as the late epic Jerusalem or The Everlasting Gospel, offer complexities which could easily deny the more straightforward application of Ankarsjö’s thesis. This leads to the more general point: few other English writers (or, indeed, artists) spent more time than Blake in dealing with the topic of religion and the divine, but any attempt to pin down Blake in terms of a particular sect appears to me doomed to failure because of the idiosyncracies of Blake’s spiritual vision, his fairly consistent refusal to participate in a church (unless, perhaps, it is because as Keri Davies has suggested the Anglican Church was, in the end, broad enough to encompass his vision). I emphasise here the idiosyncracy of Blake’s religious views rather than the Romantic “eccentricity” which Ankarsjö rightly dismisses in his introduction: Blake was a deep and profound thinker on religious topics, not least in that he perceived the fundamental problems of attempting to fix experiences of the divine within human structures, systems against which he always struggled. In the end, my problem with this part of William Blake and Religion results from a degree of confusion as to whether Ankarsjö is proposing what we may call a “strong” theory of Blake and Moravianism, where that religion helps to explain more or less completely the framework of Blake’s belief – the evidence for which I find rather hard to accept; or whether he is working towards a “weak” theory, in which Blake’s Moravian background predisposes him towards a number of tenets and attitudes, for example with regard to ecumenicism and sexual love, which – by contrast – does appear extremely enlightening for me.

Although I found myself somewhat confused as to Ankarsjö’s aims in the chapter on Blake’s religion, a more serious flaw is to be encountered in his chapter on Blake’s sexuality. Before turning to this flaw, it is right to remark on where Ankarsjö’s comments are illuminating, for example in reinforcing the attitudes towards “free love” that were developing both among Blake’s radical associates of the eighteenth century and “conjugal love” that existed in the Moravian Church and Swedenborgianism.William Blake and Religion has much to say that is useful in this regard, although again the tendency to jump between different Blakean texts can be confusing. However, where the flaw exists is that Ankarsjö’s apparent desire to claim Blake as a proto-feminist can be rather unsophisticated and extremely problematic. The repeated assertions by Anne Mellor as to Blake’s intrinsic sexism is a coarse and unhelpful position, one which Helen Bruder in particular has treated to appropriate criticism (and which has also been aided by more work by scholars such as Davies into Blake’s early female collectors). However, Bruder maintains a healthily caustic attitude to Blake’s sexual politics which seems largely to vanish in William Blake and Religion. Ankarsjö’s desire to read white where others read black leads him, in my opinion, into some rather bizarre interpretations.

For example, in a comment that actually appears in the chapter “Blake’s Religion”, Ankarsjö makes the following observation of Blake’s comment in his description of the painting “The Last Judgement” that “There is no such thing in Eternity as a Female Will”:

First, it has to be pointed out that Blake here is strictly following the creation myth from Genesis, which clearly was in line with his increasing interest in the Bible and traditional Christianity at this point in time. In Genesis, as we know, woman was created from a body part of man in order to be his life companion. If we, as Blake, follow the analogy through to the other extreme, as it were, then man and woman are reunited and are as one. Hence, as much as man has no will of his own in eternity, neither has woman. Quite simply, separate and individual wills do not exist. (p.66)

To place Blake’s thought in a biblical tradition is perfectly correct, and it may also be right that Blake did not believe in the existence of separate female or male wills (and Ankarsjö’s remarks on the role of the Spectre in Blake’s writings as a ravenous, separate male will are also appropriate here). However, there remains a problem for me in Blake’s remark that the rush to embrace him as a proto-feminist fails to encompass sufficiently: even if Blake does not believe in a separate male will in eternity, he offers no denunciation of it that is comparable to his denunciation of the female. The rejection of a separate male will remains, unfortunately, implicit throughout too much of his writing, while the renunciation of female will is, equally unfortunately, far too explicit at times. More simply, Blake may not be a sexist, but sometimes his rhetoric comes very close to reinforcing sexist stereotypes; there are blind spots which we should not neglect. As such, like Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, I am less keen to smooth over some of the sexual ambiguities in Blake’s works while accepting, like those critics and Ankarsjö himself that denunciations of “sexist” Blake have been based on rather crude interpretations of the sexual politics of his poetry.

Ankarsjö’s final chapter, on “Blake’s Utopian ‘Colony'” offers an interesting discussion of slavery that owes much to the work of David Worrall. Ankarsjö’s contribution is to offer a critical reading of some of Worrall’s arguments, in particular the almost entirely negative interpretation of the proposed Swedenborgian colony in Sierre Leone in terms of its gender equality, so that Ankarsjö discovers more sympathy to proto-feminist arguments among the Swedenborgians than Worrall does – though in the end he agrees that it was a largely patriarchal exercise. In addition, he offers some significant comments on similar utopian colonies from the time, such as those by Unitarians. Where the chapter is on more shaky ground is in assuming that the conference attended by Blake in 1789, and where a colony in Sierre Leone would have been under discussion, still continues to influence Blake’s work on his final epics, Milton and Jerusalem after 1808; indeed, the chapter ends unsatisfactorily with a rather cursory pointer towards Blake’s attitudes on slavery that would surely have benefited from contextualisation in the evangelical fervour surrounding the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

William Blake and Religion offers some valuable contributions and summaries of contemporary arguments surrounding Blake’s Moravian background. When discussing the interrelation of Moravianism with Swedenborgianism and even Unitarianism, it is clear and eminently useful as a guide. The book is more confused, unfortunately, as to offering an account of Blake’s religion, probably because it strives a little too hard to map out the influence of Moravianism throughout Blake’s work which, in my opinion, tends to distort sometimes what Blake had to say on the subject. In the light of current research it is clear that Blake must have been marked by Moravianism – and yet the implied move to read Blake as a Moravian appears unsatisfactory at times in discussing Blake’s own thoughts on religion and the divine.