Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly (ed.) — Queer Blake

Queer Blake. Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly. Palgrave, 2010. pp. 264. $80. ISBN: 978-0230218369

Helen Bruder and Tristanne Connolly’s collection presents, for the first time, an encounter between queer theory and Blake studies. While authors have explored Blake’s relationship to masculinity, Steve Clark’s Sordid Images: The Poetry of Masculine Desire (1994); to homosexuality, Christopher Hobson’s Blake and Homosexuality (2000); to androgyny, Tom Hayes’s “William Blake’s Ego-Ideal;” and to gender, Helen Bruder’s collection Women Reading William Blake (2007) and Magnus Ankarsjo’s William Blake and Gender (2006); no monograph or collection about Blake has focused exclusively on queer theory. On the one hand, readers of Blake’s work are convinced in a vision of Blake’s marital bliss, perhaps punctuated by the story Thomas Butts told of Catherine and William reading Milton’s Paradise Lost in the nude. On the other hand, scholars rightly point out that Blake includes scenes of sexual violence, repression, even rebellion in many of his prophetic books. “The whole situation is queer” say Bruder and Connolly, and I am convinced they are right (4).

Luckily for readers of Queer Blake, Bruder and Connolly boldly venture into the closet of queer Blakean sexuality. They suggest that Blake’s status as a masculine ideal in many readers, the “healthy, macho, rough and ready, ‘typical’ English working class” vision of a “William Bloke,” too often obscures the queer relationships formed between Blake and his contemporaries and even Blake and his academic readers (5). “Queer is for poofy-toffs; transgender softness for bleeding-heart liberals” (6).  So, was Blake a normative sexual conservative, confining his sexuality to the marital bed; or was he a sexual libertine who explored beyond the safe “free-love” clichés given to most Romantic authors? There is enough evidence to titillate and suggest, if not prove, a queer Blake. In particular, Bruder and Connolly mention Blake’s description of Gothic artist Henry Fuseli. Blake describes Fuseli as “The only Man that eer I  knew / Who did not make me spew” (E 507). They call the statement “as curious as it is hiliarious, expressing attraction by denying repulsion, in abject terms of bodily fluids (if he didn’t spew, presumably he swallowed)” (10).

But “outing” Blake’s sexuality isn’t really the point of Queer Blake. Far more fascinating are the ways that queer theory can displace what Bruder and Connolly call the “masculine gaze” of subversive sexual acts in Blake’s work and, alternatively, the ways that Blake’s polymorphous sexual identity is fixed and fixated upon by Blakean critics. In the former, Bruder and Connolly sketch a Blake who harshly critiques masculine sexual forms of “trade and exchange,” celebrates “the centrality of feminine generosity to […] redemption,” practices the “orgasmic abundance” of a “transgendered aesthetic,” and speaks with what they describe as “not just a female voice but with his female voice” (15-17). With regard to Blake’s readers and critics, Bruder and Connolly note the tendency of Blake’s work to turn readers into prostlytizers of his thoughts and visions. Blake indeed has a charming and beguiling ethos, one that produces wildly different readings of his text. If critics and other readers cannot or will not agree on what Blake really meant or what kinds of desires Blake had swirling in his brain, Bruder and Connolly insist they should at least recognize their own queer desire for Blake.

Prefaced by the poem “Pansexuality (regained) by Helen Kidd, the essays in the collection prove a fascinating cross-section of these desires, identities, speculations and suggestions. The first group of essays articulates the challenges Blake’s work poses for queer theory. Christopher Hobson’s “Blake and the Evolution of Same-Sex Subjectivity” proposes that Blake’s work complicates Foucault’s argument that homosexual subjectivity did not exist before the eighteenth century. Richard Sha, in “Blake and the Queering of Jouissance,” suggests that Blake’s poetry can subvert models of jouissance that see it as inherently radical. Peter Otto’s “Drawing Lines: Bodies, Sexualities and Performances in The Four Zoas shows how the use of the bounding line in The Four Zoas maintains but also disrupts normative conceptions of the body and sexual politics.

Other essays engage with queer representations and their place in Blake’s visual imagination. Elizabeth Effinger’s “Anal Blake: Bringing Up the Rear in Blakean Criticism” focuses on Blake’s representation of buttocks to reveal the “anal anxiety” in Blake criticism. Martin Myrone’s “The Body of the Blasphemer” looks closely at Blakean watercolors to sketch a queer visual aesthetic for Blake based upon the visual uncertainty embodied in images like The Blasphemer. The impact of this queer aesthetic on more contemporary artists and their “transgressive, sado-masochistic lens” form the focus of Jason Whittaker’s “Trannies, Amputees and Disco Queens: Blake and Contemporary Queer Art.” Helen Bruder’s “‘Real Acting’: ‘Felpham Billy’ and Grayson Perry Try it On” showcases Blake’s The Pickering Manuscript, written during his stay in Felpham, and its staging of Blake as a feminized or transvestite subjectivity through “girly,” “bicurious” and “kinky” figures.

Reception and influence impact several of the essays in the collection.“Fear Not/To Unfold Your Dark Visions of Torment: Blake and Emin’s Bad Sex Aesthetic” by Tristanne Connolly finds a common link between Blake and artist Tracey Emin, a figure labeled by David Bowie as “William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh,” in their shared fascination with bad sex. Bethan Stevens’ “’Woe & … sighs:’ Fantasies of Slavery in Visions of the Daughters of Albion suggests that Oothoon’s rape scenes in Blake’s violent poem are subversions of the heteronormative narration of Romantic period abolition literature. Caroline Jackson-Houlston’s “’The lineaments of … desire’: Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion and Romantic Literary Treatments of Rape,” on the other hand, takes Blake’s poem to task for its conservative female characters while wondering if the vision of lesbian desire in the poem might point to possibilities that are not respected by its imaginary historical space.

The act of queering traditional readings of Blake is also prominent in the collection. Steve Clark’s “’Yet I am an identity/ I wish & feel & weep & groan’” Blake’s Sentimentalism as (Peri)Performative” explores Blake’s poetry from a sentimentalist, rather than prophetic, tradition. Additionally, David Fallon’s “’By a False Wife Brought to the Gates of Death’: Blake, Politics and Transgendered Performances” contests the binary conceptualization of Blake’s reading of gender by comparing a wide range of Blakean works, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to Jerusalem, to show how Blake queers normative conceptions of sexual identity.

Finally, Blake’s singular relationships with men and women hold keys to considering non-traditional forms of queer subjectivity. Mark Crosby’s “’No Boy’s Work’: Blake, Hayley and the Triumphs of (Intellectual) Paiderastia explores Blake’s anxiety over the paiderastic teaching methods of William Hayley and Blake’s belief that such methods inhibited his creativity. Susan Matthew’s “’Hayley on His Toilette’: Blake, Hayley and Homophobia” analyzes the satiric figure of male effeminacy in the Notebook and the Bard’s Song from Milton to suggest that it is frequently misread as homophobic due to a blindness of the shifting sexual roles in the early nineteenth century. Keri Davies’ “My Little Cane Sopha and the Bust of Sappho’: Elizabeth Iremonger and the Female World of Book-Collecting” questions Blake’s sister Catherine and her spinsterhood, connecting it to the practice of female cohabitation and the early women book-collecters who were the first audiences for Blake’s work.

Queer Blake creates an opportunity for truly subversive readings of Blake’s work, life, and relationships. While complicating models of sexuality and subjectivity in both Blake studies and queer theory in general, Queer Blake also gives readers a complicated, contradicting, and contested portrait of Blakean sexuality. It is in this portrait that Queer Blake is singularly queer and uniquely valuable. Rather than settle for a hypostasized sexual identity for Blake and his work, Queer Blake is able to navigate girly Blakes and macho Blakes, heteronormative Blakes and anal Blakes, sentimentalist Blakes and transgendered Blakes.