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.

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.

Laura Quinney – William Blake on Self and Soul

William Blake on Self and Soul. Laura Quinney
Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2009. pp. 195. $39.95. ISBN: 978 0 674 03524 9.

Laura Quinney begins William Blake on Self and Soul with the observation that Blake was “both a political radical and a radical psychologist” (p. xi). That Blake was deeply concerned with the experience of consciousness and of the self and addressed such experience in profound ways is an instantly recognisable assertion for anyone who has read Blake’s prophetic works in any detail. As Quinney observes, such readings stem at least from the interpretations from Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom at least to critics such as Mary Lynn Johnson and Peter Otto, and her own desire to understand Blake’s reformulations of self and selfhood takes place against a wider contemporary critical background in which Charles Taylor and Jerrold Siegel among others have been mapping the construction of the modern self.

Blake was living and writing at a time when the investigations of the Enlightenment were replacing the concept of the “soul” with that of the “self”, which was, in turn, to be replaced by the “subject” – and all three to be undermined by poststructuralist and postmodern philosophy. Quinney, however, returns attention to the problematic experience of the self and the “intuition of selfhood” that does not disappear for all that the self (and, with it, the soul and the subject) is threatened with disintegration. While William James may have been the last scientific psychologist to attempt to bridge the gap between self and soul in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1905), Quinney suggests that the disdain for such psychological discourse as evidenced in the work of Foucault in particular may have moved through caricature into unwarranted neglect, and that literary considerations of the self’s struggle with its own selfhood that have been a major theme since classical literature are becoming increasingly opaque to us as readers. This is particularly troublesome, she argues, when reading Blake, for his “essential topic is the unhappiness of the subject within its own subjectivity, or to use a more plangent idiom, the loneliness of the soul.” (p. 11)

In her introduction, Quinney engages in a wide-ranging survey of the experiences of selfhood and self-alienation that draws on Gnosticism, empiricism and ego-psychology (including the Foucauldian critique of such psychological discourse) to emphasise just how original Blake’s solution to the problem of the self – and of the soul – is. For Blake, the isolated, atomistic self must always be fearful in its isolation, must always be anxious and threatened and so, to strengthen itself, becomes an iron-willed selfhood that is actually even more troubled. Quinney remarks that received critical opinion has tended to see him as desiring a return to earlier, debunked conceptions of the soul (though this is not really true of the opinion of critics such as Otto). In fact, Blake attacks the old conception of a personal immortal soul as just another version of selfhood; he does not call for the recovery of the “true self” – itself another form of egotism – but rather a discovery of the transcendence of the soul now, in a multiplicity of experience, what Quinney calls “immanent transcendence” that “reconciles the self to actuality” (p. 22). In Blake’s process of exploring and mapping the self in order to remake it, the self’s final destination is not recognition of itself as a self-contained, egotistical entity (Blake’s “selfhood”), but the communal illumination of subjectivity by which it recognises and becomes open to the new ways it can change as a subject.

Quinney continues with a more or less chronological discussion of Blake’s works, beginning with selfhood in the early, abandoned prophecy, Tiriel. Tiriel’s materialism has brought him to self-contempt and self-estrangement because he cannot see past his own death: he exists in the limited, empirical sphere of knowledge that Blake had already begun to satirise in An Island in the Moon. A more supple meditation on transience and its effects is seen in The Book of Thel, but Thel’s mistake, suggests Quinney, is to accept the Lockean notion of empirical knowledge as coming solely through senses that are “uncontrollable apertures through which external stimuli come flooding in” (p. 35). Because Thel has a false notion of her self, that is she is the passive tabula rasa on which the external world is written, so she has no way of exercising herself on the interface between self and stimuli. It is against both this limited materialism – as well as the egotistical selfhood of traditional conceptions of the soul – that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Lambeth Prophecies direct their invective. Because Locke had reduced all operations of the mind, even reflection, to a mechanical status, so the actions of the self are debased and lead it to despair – a condition made worse by the “atomic selfhood” that Quinney characterises as emblematic of Enlightenment thinking of the period. Empiricism, she suggests, did not invent this misconception, but rather brings back an “age-old pattern” which sees the self as helpless in the face of external reality and, out of this despair, becomes rigidly egotistical – reason binding itself to a diminishing position. It is against this false view that Blake wishes to explore the imaginative ways in which individuals and communities can “transcend empirical subjectivity and achieve freedom.” (p. 65)

Quinney’s next chapter, on Blake, Plato and Wordsworth, makes some fascinating observations on Wordsworth’s loneliness, and she sees the central problem as less Wordsworth’s adherence to nature than his understanding of the self, the “I”‘s relation not only to the external world but to itself. Wordsworth, argues Quinney, provided the psychological extrapolation of Locke’s philosophy to interior life, extending empirical philosophy into new areas of human subjectivity and experience. Wordsworth’s self, she suggests, is literally “haunted” by the impressions it receives from the outside world, alienated by its inability to cross the gulf it has itself created between subject and object: the outside is never quite assimilated to the inner self and so “Wordsworth spelled out and bequeathed to psychoanalysis the notion of self-estrangement that is inherent in Locke’s picture” (p. 77). For Locke, rejection of innate ideas means that the self brings nothing into the world, and for Blake this must ultimately mean terror in the face of nature which is indifferent to the fate of the self. Blake’s answer (and one, Quinney believes, is shared with Neoplatonism) is to identify the self not with the ego but with the world soul, or the imagination. Blake’s immortality of the soul is not the promise of the survival of the ego in the face of the apparent indifference of nature, but the ability of imagination to recognise the eternal now of all aspects of existence, including that of the self.

And yet, as Quinney argues rather persuasively, even for Blake this awareness proved elusive. In her reading of The Four Zoas, she focuses on the remorse and loss caused by the experience of selfhood. The promise of resurrection is not that of the body but of the self out of its own death-in-life, passive subjectivity at the hands of empiricism: the self, or soul, must be active if it is to experience immanent transcendence – it must open up its own perceptions. Quinney provides an interesting reading of Blake in relation to Kant regarding the possibilities of transcendence in our own agency – something denied in empiricist philosophies – and throughout The Four Zoas Blake offers strategies, “therapeutic interventions designed to ameliorate the radical unhappiness of passivation.” (p. 99) The destructive effects of such enforced passivity are expressed by Blake through the notion of the Spectre, a living dead creation that distorts self into selfhood, a fortress separated off from the natural world which now becomes tyrannical Nature.

Quinney’s readings are particularly supple and effective at this point, as indeed in the final two chapters on Milton and Jerusalem. I find myself uneasy with some of her assertions, particularly an unproblematic gliding between Blake and Neoplatonism: it is not that Blake is not affected by Neoplatonic ideas, but I suspect that he was always critical of them – using them where they served his purpose but always ready to turn against them. However, with this criticism in mind, Quinney offers exceedingly rich interpretations of Blake’s final epics. Milton offers a classical treatise on the struggle between self and selfhood in the form of Milton’s final encounter with Satan, in which Milton refuses to annihilate Satan and become a greater selfhood in the devil’s place, but rather annihilates his own ego. Milton’s religion, his political correctness (that is, certainty in his own politics above all others), and his own sexuality and masculinity, all served as “covering cherubs” that separated him from the world and thus the possibility of immanent transcendence. As Quinney correctly observes, Milton does not actually end with the fulfilment of that promise of the eternal now – Albion is, after all, too weak to rise – but it demonstrates how to address the error of a false perception of self without which no resurrection is possible.

The reading of Jerusalem is partial, as Quinney observes, because focused only on one aspect: the poem’s treatment of selfhood. The poem begins with Albion having removed himself from the world in a “will to selfhood”, the consequence of which is that in his alienation he becomes terrified of the world around him. As Nature becomes the source of knowledge, so Albion is “haunted” by the experiences of the natural world, incapable of exercising his imagination because that imagination is, by his own definition, passive. Thus Nature becomes a “Mighty Polypus”, amorphous and destructive, hostile to the human self and always menacing, and likewise sexual difference becomes a source of danger and hate rather than love. Separated in “worlds of loneness”, the “separate spheres are not truly havens but rather dungeons of restlessness and perturbation” (p. 164). Against this, Quinney suggests, Blake offers a radical redefinition of the Christian doctrine of agape, or charity, in which self (as in isolated selfhood) is sacrificed to ensure that love – among other things, the self-recognition of the self’s source in the other – becomes possible, for without love and imagination any form of redemption from fear and isolation is impossible.

Quinney’s final reading of the revision of self-annihilation that takes place between Milton and Jerusalem is somewhat unsatisfactory. It seems to me that she is on the correct track – and an added subtlety is added in her recognition that even the prophet Los is subject to self-deceit, so that we should not simply take his word on trust. Unfortunately, such emphases are rather glossed over at the end of the book. Nonetheless, William Blake on Self and Soul remains a valuable, thoughtful and appreciated reflection on the nature of the human subject in Blake’s poetry.

The Romantics and The Sleeping Congregation

Having finally had an opportunity to visit the Romantics exhibition at Tate Britain this weekend, here are some of my own thoughts on this show as well as Richard Wright’s small curated display, The Sleeping Congregation.

One of the aims of The Romantics is to place three of the most important artists of the period – JMW Turner, John Constable and, of course, William Blake – in a wider context. A related ambition is to emphasise the potential links between the three artists, not so much in terms of their historical relations (though those certainly existed between Constable and Turner, though they were much less evident between these two and Blake) as in their current configuration as three figures who have come to define what is meant by British Romantic art, especially for Tate Britain.

The exhibition makes it clear that this is not to be a simple chronological arrangement of what constitutes Romantic art but is, rather, arranged thematically. This is rather sensible for this particular exhibition (significantly, the large Gaugin exhibition at Tate Modern, while making the same claims, cannot help but slip into very straightforward chronologies in the contextual rooms detailing Gaugin’s career – after all, one individual’s life cannot but help follow time’s arrow at some point). Thematic arrangements for The Romantics, by contrast, avoid this most simplistic – and frequently misleading – of metanarratives, and instead makes a series of choices based on other organisational principles. Some of these may be as equally misleading as the simple history of Romantic art, but at least one – Pictures for an Exhibition – struck me as an effective intervention on the spectacular nature of Romantic art (another, British Landscape: Photography after the Picturesque, seemed a rather perverse attempt at counterpoint that did not work for me, unfortunately).

For this particular review, of the various thematic arrangements (Introducing Romanticism, Late and Early Turner, Pictures for an Exhibition, Constable and Contemporaries: Sketching from Nature, Neo-Romantics, British Landscape, and Colour and Line: Tutner’s Experiments), that on Blake and the Romantic Imagination is the most pertinent. However, it is worth making some general observations about the rest of the exhibition, not only because how it does (and sometimes does not) help to contextualise Blake’s own practice, but because Blake is also frequently invoked throughout the rest of the exhibition. The first thing that greets the visitor as they enter the Clore gallery is a line from Jerusalem – “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”, demonstrating just how important Blake has become since his death as a rather minor figure on the fringe of the pre-Victorian art scene. Certainly Blake’s role in The Romantics is partly to frame the significance of such art as part of the national collection for the twenty-first century, in many respects he being one of the few British artists who exemplifies what could be considered a romantic attitude in the visual, as opposed to literary, arts.

It is very clear that this is the British Romantics, with little that could illustrate the burgeoning art of Europe, with only the occasional contribution by continental artists such as Delacroix, as is the impossibility to provide a few other contextual aspects from the period, such as the overlap with neoclassical art or new developments in portraiture (evident in another exhibition currently in London at the National Portrait Gallery, with Thomas Lawrence as its focus) – though this, of course, is to demand the impossible, an exhibition with unlimited space and funds to show every work from every possibly related genre. Instead, there are opportunities to view some of the best examples of what could be defined as British Romantic art, such as Joseph Wright of Derby’s Sir Brook Boothby or Henry Wallis’s famous and fantastical portrait of Chatterton, as well as witness some clever interrogations of commonly understood conventions, as with John Crome’s early nineteenth century paintings of a slate quarry.

It is, however, the late Turner who, as ever, continues to astound: while, of course, paintings such as Sunrise with Sea Monsters and Norham Castle are unfinished, Turner’s vivid, brilliant expositions of light demonstrate just how important he would be to later generations of artists (much more so than the dutiful history painter of the early period who, for me, always disappoints when one moves from the grandiose landscape in the style of Lorraine or Poussin to the rather lumpen smudges of figures scattered around the foreground).

Which brings us finally to Blake. Presented with one room, the focus of this exhibition is the new series of prints acquired by Tate in January 2010, which is both an opportunity and a product of necessity, many of the other great Blake images owned by Tate Britain currently being prepared for a large exhibition at the State Pushkin Fine Arts Museum next year. Accompanying the new prints are two other works by Blake, the marvellous Blasphemer, one of the biblical scenes painted for Thomas Butts around 1800, and the dark and poorly preserved tempera of the Bard after Thomas Gray, which had started to deteriorate during Blake’s lifetime. In addition, there are works by Samuel Palmer, Henry Fuseli (with his Titania and Bottom dominating one wall), Richard Dadd and Theodore Von Holst. The Fuseli connection is apt, though from this the curators appear to have moved to Dadd and Holst as emblematic of Romantic imagination in a way that may be true generally, but immediately loses its originality by the apposition with Blake’s small prints.

Fuseli is an artist whose star has fallen as Blake’s has risen and, looking at his slightly bombastic canvas it is not hard to see why: Fuseli captures a particular aspect of his audience’s imagination and presents it back to them, slightly modified, slightly repackaged, without ever really pushing them (and, I’m afraid, that I was much less impressed by his student, Holst). By contrast, I have always been fascinated by some of Richard Dadd’s art, especially The Fairy Fellow’s Master Stroke, displayed here. Nonetheless, its hyper-real, rather kitsch and Dali-esque style means that this particular painting often appears to me to be locked into an obsession that, while it may fascinate more than Fuseli’s suitably risque but slightly passé fantasies, also bars out the viewer from exercising his or her imagination while Blake’s work appears much more stimulating.

Of course, during his lifetime, “mad” Blake’s paintings attracted even less interest than Dadd’s in Bedlam, but the new series of prints was proving extremely popular (and was constantly surrounded during the time I was at the exhibition). This, in part, is almost certainly due to the narrative surrounding their discovery, and plenty has been written on that subject and the prints themselves. One thing that struck me very clearly upon viewing these prints is the new style of conservation and preservation, which offers a marked contrast to previous forms of presenting art works. The prints have not had an easy life, and while some of the worst damage has been removed not all traces of that material history have been erased. Thus, for example, stab marks where the prints were bound together, as well as some of the grime accumulated throughout their existence, remain very much in evidence. However, it is the colours of those small images which most strongly stand out. Many of Blake’s contemporaries and immediate followers were extremely dismissive about his use of colour, but the clear, vivid reds and blues of his images of Los, Thel and Urizen blaze brightly, so that the fluid, elegant forms – lacking the monomaniacal introversion of Dadd or the arch, slightly too-knowing grotesquery or titillation of Fuseli – rightly inscribe themselves in the viewer’s mind. Eventually, these prints will sink to a lower place in the public imagination, almost certainly supplanted by the more famous large colour prints of Newton and Nebuchadnezzar, but for the moment it is entirely appropriate that they have this moment of close inspection: Blake’s imagination is more bizarre than Dadd’s, far less conventional than Fuseli’s, but it also offers a portal to later generations that is as important philosophically as Turner’s art is formally: it is the insistence that any artist – indeed, any viewer, must create their own system or be enslaved by another’s.

While the new prints may eventually attract less attention than other works by Blake, some of my particular favourites – Blake’s woodcuts for Dr Thornton’s edition of Virgil’s pastoral poetry – are scattered throughout the exhibition. These very minor illustrations, which diverted Blake but for a little time, were in many ways the most formally significant of Blake’s works, inspiring artists as diverse as Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, such influence being especially evident in many of the works that fill the Neo-Romantics room. Apparent insignificance and ephemerality is a theme of the room curated by Richard Wright and demonstrating the importance of the Contemporary Art Society, which has donated, or caused to be donated, many important works to the nation.

Entitled The Sleeping Congregation, Wright’s room takes its title from a print by Hogarth satirising a pompous sermon. Wright’s own collection is very low-key – so low-key that we walked past it twice, somewhat distracted by Fiona Banner’s Harrier and Jaguar aircraft in the Duveen Gallery. Wright, winner of the Turner Prize for 2009, provides a more liminal space that, as well as a fragment of a title page from Blake’s Europe and small prints by Blake, Palmer and Calvert includes curios such as one of Christo’s wrapped magazines. Wright offers a critique of post-sixties art’s obsession with using the techniques of manipulation and control drawn from the advertising industry, and which offers a very understated contrast with the Duveen exhibition in the gallery next door (though Banner’s work is the most fun I’ve seen in a long time). There is also, it must be said, a certain irony in visiting this curated collection after the Romantics, for if contemporary art is sometimes seduced by the media-manipulation techniques of the advertising industry, it is also quite clear that those techniques owe much to the revelling in spectacle that has been one of fine art’s own enduring contributions to the growth of mind-forg’d manacles, and was clearly sometimes as much the intended effect of Romantic art in the early nineteenth century as any liberation of the senses.

Alice Thompson – The Existential Detective

The Existential Detective. Alice Thompson
Two Ravens Press, 2010. pp. 166. £9.99. ISBN: 978-1806120511.

This is the fifth novel by Alice Thompson, a writer I have not encountered before (although I did once own The Woodentops debut album – Thompson was keyboard player in that group). The Existential Detective is a crime novel in which private investigator William Blake is hired to find a missing woman. The title of the novel, the fact that the main protagonist is named after Blake, and even the front cover – Giorgio de Chirico’s The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street – led me to expect a very different novel to that provided by Thompson. Instead of the abstract, perhaps surrealistic and philosophical novel that I had anticipated reading, this is a rather grim, more hard-boiled book dealing with prostitution, voyeurism and paedophilia in the Edinburgh seaside resort of Portobello. It’s not as downbeat as, say, Derek Raymond’s I Was Dora Suarez, but it is very far from the magical realist style of novels that normally invoke Blake, or even the slightly academic approach if somewhat grittier approach of Michael Dibdin’s 1995 crime novel, Dark Spectre.

So thoroughly were my expectations trounced that, on first reading, I found this novel extremely dissatisfying – although, aware that this was based on the strong initial bias on my part I reread it almost immediately and was more rewarded by Thompson’s thoughtful and dark explorations of desire in a small Scottish town. The novel begins with Blake called in to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, Louise Verver, an amnesiac who has married into a rich family. Discovering that she had recently begun to recover certain memories before her disappearance, as well as the fact that a local prostitute has attempted to blackmail her husband, Blake’s search takes him through brothels and nightclubs, leading him inevitably to perverse secrets hidden away from daily life in this small resort. At the same time, the investigation brings him once more into contact with his divorced wife, Olivia, and revives his own memories of their missing daughter.

An initial disconnect with me was the relevance of naming the protagonist William Blake. It is not that the name is insignificant – Blake’s “The Sick Rose” is cited at one point, while his ex-wife is writing a paper entitled Innocence and Experience in Eighteenth-Century Paintings of Children. Nonetheless, on my first reading I found myself far too concerned with the notion of whether the character of William Blake was offering some form of critique of the poet Blake (as, for example, in J. G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company) or operated in ignorance of any possible relation, a mere coincidence of names used to ironic effect (as in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man). Reading a second time, and not paying so much attention to “Will Blake” – as he prefers to define himself – enabled me to concentrate more of the features of the book itself. The final denouement is a little flat after preceding events, and on both occasions I found the intrigues around prostitution dispiriting, but this is precisely the point. Thompson’s spare writing style is elegant and controlled, with the unfolding psychology of Blake (whether Will or William) compelling.

Other reviewers have compared the novel to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and in unravelling the disintegration of a marriage following the disappearance of a child the comparison is an apposite one. Claims that it subverts the crime genre through surrealist touches, however, are too slight in my opinion to be sustained. The novel works better when viewed as a more conventional generic crime novel, though one that fits with a generation of crime writers such as Dibdin and Ian Rankin. Where Thompson does allow magical-realist moments to emerge (as in the style of Angela Carter, perhaps), the effect is less satisfying, as when Louise mysteriously turns up in a café with a copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience which Blake picks up to read:

But as he read, the words kept disappearing until he was left with a blank page. He flicked through the rest of the book; all the pages were now blank. Only the title and author’s name on the front remained. He staggered out of the café, leaving the book on the table, and collapsed onto the pavement outside. (54)

This section can still be read in realist mode (Blake is subject to fits and this records his experiences of the scene), but the tendency in passages such as this was for me to read them as fairly heavy-handed symbolism for the content of the novel, with themes of memory and amnesia.

Where Blake’s presence does come alive in the novel, both as character in its pages and as a reference to the engraver and poet, is in the various sections of The Existential Detective that deal with desire:

There was something about depression, he thought, that if you were lucky enough to come out the other end, made you a kind of visionary – like drugs, it was mind-altering. It seemed to give another dimension to reality, a fuller version of it, as if previously the world had seemed a theatrical stage-show of colour. It forged you.

Desire returned with a vengeance, a ferocity. An abstract desire connected to pornography, rather than feeling. Most people lived life in disguise, concealing their own wants so as not to seem greedy. But we were all greedy in the end, greedy for different things. It was part of our humanity.

He was powerless over his desire. He would drive down to Leith harbour where he would see the prostitutes walking up and down the streets, some looking as young as twelve in the semi-darkness, their faces always turning towards the light of a car like moths towards a flame. (44)

The William (as opposed to Will) Blake invoked here is the author of the verse, “In a wife I would desire / What in whores is always found / The lineaments of Gratified desire” (E474), as well as the observer of the youthful harlots whose curse spread as a plague through London in the 1790s. Assuming that Will Blake is a comment on William, then the figure invoked in The Existential Detective is one both aware of the potential destructiveness as well as brilliance of his desire, a part of humanity that if ignored or controlled leads to the callous inhumanity of the cool, intellectual villain of Thompson’s novel, as well as the neglectful, dreary locale of the pub-cum-brothel, the Milton (a nod, of course, to not dissimilar themes in Blake’s epic poem).

I remain unconvinced by the neatness of the ending of The Existential Detective (though this is a personal foible with many crime novels, and I am far from the perfect audience for them). I did however, enjoy the subtlety with which all-too-male William Blake is supplanted in his investigations by two women who are, ultimately, much more effective than him. Thompson’s prose is also a great pleasure to read and if her visionary flights are not quite visionary enough for me, as a serious-minded contemplation of the routes of desire and how they affect our own perceptions this is a potent and effective novel.

The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis

The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis. Timb D. Hoswell
HoWa: House of Waho/Lulu, 2009. pp. 102. $15.95. ISBN: 978 1 60489 042 6.

It is fascinating to see how Blake gets embroiled in mini-cyclones of controversy (particularly considering his obscurity during his own lifetime). The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis has been attracting a great deal of attention online, primarily due to Creationists latching onto it as an ultimate refutation of Darwinism. As Hoswell, currently researching a PhD at the Australian Catholic University, Sydney, remarks in his preface to the book, this promotion of The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis as some simple anti-Darwinian text completely misses the point of his study, which does not seek to invalidate either biology as a science or evolution as a scientific theory, but rather to explore the “epistemic problem” facing scientists who seek “either to discover or create a sound foundation for knowledge.” This book, as Hoswell states in his conclusion, is merely the first step in considering the obstacles set in the way of those who wish to ascribe to imagination a role in structuring our knowledge of the world around us, and a revised edition is now available from Lulu.com.

An epistemological critique of science is not itself particularly unique, of course: constructivism, for example, has a complex history since Jean Piaget emphasised the development of scientific knowledge out of peer interactions from the late 1920s onwards, and Thomas Kuhn’s term “paradigm shift” has been immensely popular (if also frequently misunderstood and contentious) since its introduction in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. These theorists and many others have emphasised the non-objective elements of scientific knowledge, although the sensible critiques of empiricism and positivism are not concerned to support the foundations of Creationist belief any more than Hoswell’s book. What is particularly interesting about this particular text is the serious evaluation of Blake as a philosopher rather than simply poet or artist dealing with our ideas of the foundations of knowledge, and where The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis demonstrates its originality is by considering the intrinsic role that imagination has to play in all processes of knowledge, linking the insights provided by Blake with those of the anarchist philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend. Of course, it is possible to find some similar insights in critics from Northrop Frye onwards, but these tend to gloss over Blake’s most explicit philosophical texts, the tractates There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One, published in 1788.

In his preface, Hoswell discourages viewing his work as an example of so-called “post-atheism”, but instead begins the book proper with what he characterises as the problem for much scientific epistemology, referred to here as both “the Cartesian Quandary” and “the Darwinian Paradox” (with refutations offered in the form of predicate/propositional calculus in the appendices). The first draws on the assumption by Enlightenment philosophers that if God had provided us with reason to understand creation, yet that understanding indicates the absence of God, what foundation is there for our knowledge? If we are simply animals like any other (Darwin’s premise), then belief is adaptive and there is no ground for believing in the truth of evolution: all our knowledge may be faulty, without any fundamental certainties. Descartes attempted to square the circle through a reformulation of the ontological argument, positing a necessary existence of God (if my idea of God is perfect but he does not exist, then he is not perfect – therefore God, defined as perfection, must exist), an argument that never escapes its own circularity and, as Kant pointed out, depended on the assumption that existence is more perfect than non-existence. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, while offering various (and somewhat cursory) rejections of this and other arguments for the existence of God, offers a metaphor of the crane ratcheting up levels of complexity to explain his view of how human consciousness can emerge without recourse to a higher, supernatural power. Dawkins’ own quandary (as well as the fact that his own metaphor relies too much on the old fallacy of the argument from analogy) is that the very Darwinism of his evolutionary biology that insists the watchmaker is blind cannot provide epistemological proof for those beliefs, and it is this faith of science in its own truth that Hoswell correctly identifies as the root of the problem. Interestingly, Hoswell distinguishes the position of the scientist concerned to find a foundation of truth for his ideas from that of what he refers to as the “engineer”, who by contrast is “interested in the principle of use… A large-scale theory of the cosmos is pointless for him unless it contains information he can use to design and build things from.” (18) For the engineer, knowledge is neither necessarily transcendent or immanent: he or she does not need to work out “what reality is” but simply to find the way in which it is contingent to the matter in hand, what Hoswell calls “engineer’s reality” in his conclusion. Dawkins’ crane frequently sticks, has to rely on metaphysical speculations such as multiverses to find the origins of his proof that God is a delusion: from the engineer’s point of view, who cares where the crane came from so long as it works?

Strictly speaking, God could actually be dispensed with but the fault of the Cartesian Quandary would remain, as evidenced by a tendency of positivist science to hypostasise an essential condition – such as the laws of nature – as the underlying reality that will offer proof of the crane’s origins. To repeat, as Hoswell does throughout the book, this is not to say that science does not work – that it is not effective – but to emphasise the epistemological problems of proof which science frequently recognises as problems but then forgets when it seeks to explain its models and theories as explaining how reality is and falls into a reductive positivism. When criticising Hume’s prejudice against fiction and imagination, Hoswell refers to Wittgenstein’s humorous four-dimensional cube as an example of how new knowledge may be created that does not reference the world around us: the reason why this is important is that theories of logical positivism were influenced by Wittgenstein’s early work on codifying language – a position rejected by Wittgenstein’s later anti-systematic language games.

One of my particular pleasures when reading this book is the close attention paid by Hoswell to Blake’s There is No Natural Religion and (to a lesser extent) All Religions Are One, which he uses as one element in his demolition of the Humean prejudice against fiction and imagination. If knowledge can only be synthesised by reason from sense impressions, then how can we account for the accumulation of knowledge that cannot be perceived directly (such as x-rays or sub-atomic particles)? Hume – in a statement from The Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding that, as Hoswell points out, is much more restrictive than Locke’s account for the accumulation of knowledge – argues that imagination “cannot exceed that original stock of ideas furnished by the internal and external senses” (cited 19). Moreover, “Every idea is copied from some preceding impression or sentiment; and where we cannot find any impression, we may be certain that there is no idea.” (Cited 22) As Blake pithily observes in proposition III from series A of There is No Natural Religion, “From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth”. Blake’s innovation, argues Hoswell, is to begin from the observation that what we perceive in this world is not merely sensory: “On the most primary level of sense data, man doesn’t see electromagnetic radiation reflected from the visible light spectrum forming patterns in the ocular lens, he sees actual objects. He doesn’t just receive sound waves he hears noise.” (29) Perception goes beyond empirical experience and the reason why Blake’s epistemology is so important is because by making imagination the starting point for the act of perception (a point that is not dissimilar to Coleridge’s distinction of the primary and secondary imagination in the Biographia Literaria) he provides a means of explaining how new knowledge may emerge.

From here, Hoswell proceeds to the second Humean prejudice, the assumption that empirical observation has access to antecedents in the real world that form the basis of our ideas through sense impressions, an assumption that forms the basis of the attempt, via August Comte, John Stuart Mill and the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, to provide a coherent, reductive theory for verifying knowledge. One refutation derives from Hume’s contemporary, Thomas Reid, whose emphasis on the sensus communis (common sense) as a means of framing perception emphasised the active nature of imagination in organising sense impressions. As Hoswell observes, rather than assuming “that the coherence of experience is the result of the unity of the empirical world antecedent to our impressions” (57), the theoretical and conceptual contexts in which we operate are required for us to make sense of the world around us (he gives the example of attempts to understand and describe cellular structures before Schleiden and Schwann provided a formal, coherent theory that allowed us to “know” what we were looking at, a similar point underlying Foucault’s understanding of how the archive conceptualises and organises knowledge). Because Blake understands the fundamental importance of the disunity of languages (citing plate 11 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which Blake discusses the origins of religion in the stories of poets), he is able to ascribe an active and positive role to imagination in that process of conceptualising reality rather than being limited to the passive reception of antecedent impressions. As Blake wrote in his conclusion to Series B of There is No Natural Religion:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ration of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again… He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. (Cited 28)

The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis returned me Blake’s early tractates. I must be honest that my tendency is to skip these before settling down to the “real” matter of Blake’s career as author of the illuminated books from Songs of Innocence onwards, but as manifestos of his philosophical position they represent a sort of ground-clearing before putting into practice poetic and artistic principles. The attention paid by critics to these tractates tends to receive less attention than the other illuminated books, though Donald Ault’s Visionary Physics: Blake’s Response to Newton and Stuart Peterfreund’s William Blake in a Newtonian World cover some similar ground in terms of dealing with non-empiricist approaches to knowledge. Probably the most important text in this field is Wayne Glausser’s Locke and Blake: A Conversation Across the Eighteenth Century (1998), which begins by warning of the tendency to caricature Blake’s view of Locke as a “convenient foil”. Hoswell does not caricature Locke but instead recognises that the search for a fundamental reality – one, ironically, that is pre-empirical although amenable to the senses – is the rationalist “God” that lies at the root of Descartes’ Quandary. The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis is not without flaws – some of which Hoswell himself draws attention to. Thus the link between Blake and Feyerabend is more implied at many points than explicitly argued, and the author indicates that this is really the work of a future project. Also, the pre-publication manuscript I was sent for review includes a number of typos that I hope were edited out before publication (if not, he needs a good editor). Despite these criticisms – and perhaps the more fundamental one that acknowledging imagination as a foundation of knowledge does not necessarily help us with discriminating knowledge drawn from imagination, a subject dealt with in a different way in Kant’s Critique of Judgement and acknowledged by the author in his final conclusion – Hoswell makes a strong case for Blake’s search for the infinite rather than truth as a source of human creativity and thus removes “the chief obstacle impeding anyone wishing to build an epistemological foundation based on imagination.” (79)

W. C. Bamberger: On the Backstretch

On the Backstretch. W. C. Bamberger
Livingstone Alabama: Livingstone Press, 2009. pp. 102. $15.95. ISBN: 978 1 60489 042 6.

In 1944, Joyce Cary published The Horse’s Mouth, third in a trilogy of novels that included Herself Surprised (1941) and To Be a Pilgrim (1942). Dealing with the trials and (usually self-inflicted) tribulations of an artist, Gulley Jimson, this comical novel was also made into a film of the same title starring Alec Guinness as Jimson in 1958. The book has, very unfortunately, been out of print for some time – unfortunately because, as Edward Larrissy points out in Blake and Modern Literature (2006), “The Horse’s Mouth is possibly the most Blakean literary work in the language”. Regardless of the extensive allusions and citations of Blake, Cary’s novel is well-worth reading in its own right as a study of an incorrigible artistic temperament written in a rich, slangy language. The film plays up the slapstick elements (and downplays Blake) a little too much to make it one of my favourites, but it remains an intensely enjoyable screen version.

All this serves as a prologue – but a necessary one – to Bamberger’s novel which was published in December 2009. Cary’s original work begins with Jimson having just been released from prison and Bamberger takes this incarceration during 1938-9 as the premise for his own book. This is the second novel by Bamberger, whose other work includes studies of William Eastlake and Kenward Elmslie, and it reads more as a novella than full-blown novel: although the publishers claim that it stands on its own, most readers will probably (and quite rightly) be attracted to it because of familiarity with The Horse’s Mouth.

The events of On the Backstretchtake place over a few weeks in an unspecified prison where Bamberger has been sent for stealing from a collector, Hickson. Aside from Jimson himself, a grubbing artist who combines sardonic delight in his own failures with a passionate desire to paint and occasional flashes of generosity of spirit to those around him, the characters of Joyce’s novel play no part in On the Backstretch other than to sketch out background colour to Jimson’s history. Rather, his primary dealings are with two new characters: Milt, a maths school teacher imprisoned for throwing one of his pupils, the son of the woman he loves, out of a window, and Heyley, chaplain of the gaol who takes a neglectfully benevolent interest in the dissolute artist and commissions him to produce engravings for the chapel.

These two figures are drawn, unsurprisingly, from Milton and William Hayley (indeed, Heyley is misspelt with an “a” at one point), and the structure for Bamberger’s novel is very loosely based on Blake’s Milton a Poem and some aspects of Blake’s life. As Jimson remarks:

Blake, poet and engraver without peer, was himself once in danger of going to prison. The world has always been kind to the dreamers among us, stopping them from drifting away by chaining their legs if need be. Blake was on a longer tether than most, his high holy air taking him well above the plainchant of 3 Fountain Court. ‘Twas his wife Catherine’s wide hips that moored him, would be my wager. (5)

Bamberger does a good job of catching something of Cary’s style (Betjamin described him as a “Lord of Language”), and if it is not always pitch perfect it is, perhaps, because the difficulty of crafting a careful and respectful pastiche towards a writer whose subject is the dissolute and insolent. Nonetheless, there are many occasions where the author rises to the challenge of Cary’s knotty, witty mixture of vernacular and obscurantism that itself owes not a little to Blake as well as Cary’s nearer Irish contemporaries such as Joyce:

I knew a little of the writing of the Bible. Not that of His Majesty King James, or Tyndale’s before that, or the Geneva (Shakespeare’s reading), but the original, come down to us in loose papyrus sheets and translations and Babylonian jars, in Aramaic and Ugarit. (Site of a deadly rifle fight; Syrian desert bandits head-to-head with archaeologists for crumbling tablets. Someone should make a film drama of it.) A library is a handy place to come in out of the rain. But unless a man shines himself up with the glaze of a stack of study books, the librarians get out their iron punting shoes. So I knew that the Hebrew the scribes recorded in was consonants only; and a religious man would know the vowels by heart. So the true Bible was fully half holes, blanks that any reader had to fill for him or herself. (55)

Bamberger’s obscure plays did raise the pedant in me a couple of times: Heyley has a copy of one of Blake’s original designs to Dante’s Divine Comedy, that of the Recording Angel in his office – as Jimson himself points out, the only known copy of the watercolour is in the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, but we are presented with a suitably implausible story that Heyley’s grandfather was Henry Cary who had commissioned an untraced set of the Dantes. While that is an acrobatic stretch that is admirable for its inventiveness (if not the notion that Heyley would allow it to be placed in the corridor outside Jimson’s cell), a couple of other minor features jar slightly. Thus, as well as a small, thirty-twomo edition of Jerusalem, which I am fairly sure does not match the Russell and Maclagen 1904 edition (more or less the only one that would have been available at the time), the prison library also includes a copy of the Blake illustrated A Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, which was not reprinted with Blake’s engravings between 1813 and 1963, making it a rare book indeed in 1938.

This is nitpicking with a Urizenic intensity, and none of these factors really diminished my pleasure in the book: the allusions to war and Hitler, however, were somewhat different in spirit to Cary’s original intentions. The approach of war is hardly mentioned at all in The Horse’s Mouth, creeping in towards the end with several possible interpretations: bearing in mind that Cary’s novel was published in 1944, it may be a reflection on the fact that whatever Jimson’s misdemeanours, these are nothing compared to the coming horror or his childlike ignorance of what will follow. Alternatively, and bearing in mind the anarchistic sympathies of Jimson’s friend, Plantie, it may be that the artist and his compatriots are dismissive of all political nationalisms, showing a contempt for Hitler by largely refusing to allow him the significance he demands. This is subtly changed in On the Backstretch: there are constant reminders of the approaching conflict, as when Heyley observes that the copper used by Jimson may have to be appropriated for the war effort. While the chronology is not explicitly mapped out, I did wander how much people would have been generally talking this way when appeasement was still in the air in late 1938, or how Jimson’s (and other characters’) apparent amnesia could be explained in Cary’s novel.

Such background, while distracting, should not deter readers from engaging with the real thrust of Bamberger’s novel, which is an appropriately vague retelling of Milton. This schema is indicated in the second chapter, where Jimson announces to the intended reader of his autobiography:

It may be that some of these travels I’m going to tell were only mental. I see through my memory, not with it, and my eye may improve it in the retelling. Not lies, but Los, Billy Blake’s Spirit of Creation. And despite my acquaintance with some of the best tutors in the profession, I’m no jailer. If Los wants to run rough over my memory, I’m not about to chain him down. (8)

Rather like the spiritual autobiography of Milton a Poem, Jimson identifies himself with Los (via Blake), with Milt standing in for Milton and Heyley for Hayley/Satan. Bamberger provides a delightfully light touch when dealing with the mild-mannered chaplain whose apparent desire to secure Jimson’s ease in the prison is in fact a trap that will tempt him away from his own art – something that Heyley has no understanding of when he regretfully informs the artist that his etched copper plates have been converted into “sentimental letter openers”. The humour is a little more heavy-handed when dealing with Milt, the dour maths teacher who, like Milton seeking Ololon, wishes to be united with his Hindu Lila. There is, however, a great Blakean touch when Jimson realises how he can unite Milt with his love, inspiration striking him as he bends down to tie a shoelace in a mundane re-enactment of the moment when Blake straps on his sandal after Los descends into his left foot.

On the Backstretch is a strange little novel, wonderful in its way. At one point, perhaps a point where the author reflects on his own difficulties, Jimson ponders Blake’s injunction to create his own system:

Myself, I’d long been a comfortable elf to Olde Billy St. Nick. Because so complete is his system (and so completely did he turn his back on the given world) that I’d hardly ever found a question to which he didn’t have a poetic answer at the ready.
And yet, there remained one question – one hardly worth mentioning, though it was steady becoming a constant flea bite to me. I had often thought, as I read and reread Blake, how I was betraying his spirit by being an enthusiast. In following him I was neglecting to make my own system. His own words would clip the tag of “slave to another” in my piggish ear. To follow him was to betray him. (87-8)

And this is Bamberger’s own difficulty, for he follows not one system but two, that of Cary as well as Blake. Those who have not read The Horse’s Mouth will probably be bemused by On the Backstretch, but as a reminder of the many virtues of the earlier novel Bamberger does not at least betray the spirit of Joyce Cary, even if he does follow him.

Mei-Ying Sung: William Blake and the Art of Engraving

William Blake and the Art of Engraving. Mei-Ying Sung
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009. pp. 220. £60. ISBN: 9 781851 969586.

This monograph, an extension of Mei-Ying Sung’s PhD thesis, begins with a simple observation that while Blake’s technique of relief etching has attracted considerable academic interest in recent decades, his engraving processes – including, remarkably, the archive of surviving copper plates – have been much neglected. Sung suggests that the main reason for this is that engraving as a technology of reproduction is obsolete and consequently downgraded, but a (slightly) more positive reason may be that Blake’s technique of relief etching was so innovative, particularly with regard to the illuminated books produced using this method, that it has been a much more obvious source of academic inquiry. Related to this is the much more ambivalent and frustrating factor that Blake as an artist is frequently treated as secondary to Blake as poet.

Sung’s opening technical argument provides a deft and scholarly summary of a controversy that dogged Blake studies for several years (and which often appears opaque and esoteric to general appreciators of Blake’s art). In the years following the large exhibition of Blake’s works at Tate Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2000-2001, disagreement arose between Robert Essick, Joseph Viscomi and Michael Phillips following the latter’s publication of a book, William Blake, The Creation of the Songs, in which he suggested that Blake registered plates to pull copies twice rather than once in order to make colour prints. The argument which followed became bad tempered at times, and most readers (including not a few Blake specialists) would have been overwhelmed by the intensely technical details. Sung, however, provides a usefully concise version of the controversy, with a conclusion that is rather damning towards Phillips while also observing that all experts involved confined themselves to the prints while ignoring – more or less completely – the surviving thirty-eight copper plates that survive.

It is by considering these artefacts in detail that Sung’s work provides her most rigorous innovations in Blake studies, most notably how Blake had to work and re-work his plates using a technique known as repoussage, as well as providing fascinating detours through subsequent experiments to renovate Blake’s techniques by artists such as Ruthven Todd, Joan Miró and William Stanley Hayter. In the chapter on “The History of the Theory of Conception and Execution”, a theory which has its origin in Blake’s remarks in a letter to George Cumberland in 1795 refuting the separation of the powers of invention and execution, Sung shows how the emphasis on relief etching as well as the experiments of the Surrealists has skewed our understanding of Blake’s actual practice. Despite the mistakes this has led to, however, Sung demonstrates immense respect towards the work of Ruthven Todd, a much neglected figure in Blake studies who, as she observes, was probably as important as Geoffrey Keynes in returning attention to Blake’s art.

After this theoretical introduction, the following three chapters of William Blake and the Art of Engraving provide a highly technical examination of Blake’s practice. “The Evidence of Copper Plates” begins from the observation that while proofs of prints may provide most information about the development of an image, “there is information on the metal plates which is not shown on the prints” (p. 46), most notably evidence of repoussage which indicates how the process of production is corrected as the artist works on the plate. Because, as Sung points out, plates were often re-used or rarely collected, the body of plates belonging to Blake is very small and so this chapter also provides more general information on other engravers, such as the 170 copper plates belonging to George Cruikshank and the forty or so copper and steel plates left by Phiz.

Sung notes that differences in etching and engraving techniques could have a significant difference on the amount of correction required to complete a work, and this provides important context for the subsequent chapter, “Blake’s Engraved Copper Plates”, which synthesises current knowledge about extant plates and those for which some information has been recorded even if the plates themselves are lost. This catalogue is a useful source of information for Blake scholars, and the chapter concludes with a more detailed analysis, as well as catalogue raisonné of the remaining plates for Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826). Sung’s careful examination indicates that “the evidence of the plates and Blake’s alterations to them shows not only the development of ideas but also modifications of errors”, and that this leads us “to reconsider the limits of [Joseph] Viscomi’s concept about Blake’s technique being original creation rather than secondary reproduction”, the Job engravings being a “mixture of experiments and trial and error” (pp. 85, 118).

In terms of providing minute particulars on Blake’s life, the following chapter on “Copper Plate Makers in Blake’s Time” is incredibly specialist but also quite fascinating. Rather crudely, I am not sure my own appreciation of Blake is especially influenced by knowing who provided the copper for the artist’s engraving work, but the role of the British copper industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and the activities of companies such as Pontifex, opens up the world of industry within which Blake worked. There is not quite the cultural engagement here that is found in work such as that of Isobel Armstrong on Victorian glass, but details such as copper theft in the early nineteenth century offer enticing glimpses into the commercial environment of the time.

Wider appeal, however, will probably be found in the final chapter on the earliest re-engravers of Blake’s Virgil woodcuts. Of course, this statement reflects my own interest in the reception of Blake’s works, but those woodcuts began to engage with an audience during Blake’s lifetime and, as Sung observes, indicate how readers actually engaged with the Thornton Virgil has rarely been addressed. Detailing her primary research into a surviving woodblock, an early imitation of Blake’s design, Sung displays excellent detective work when discussing how Blake’s illustrations appeared in later Victorian publications such as the Athenaeum.

William Blake and the Art of Engraving is an incredibly detailed, highly technical and scholarly work, one that contributes greatly to our understanding of Blake’s techniques of production in a tradition that includes figures such as Bentley, Viscomi, Essick and Phillips. Her most important addition is to refocus specifically on Blake’s work as an engraver, and throughout the book Sung demonstrates remarkable and comprehensive attention to the minute particulars of his craft that allows her to challenge easy assumptions about the theory of his creative practice.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Philip Pullman
London: Canongate, 2010. pp. 245. £14.99. ISBN: 9 781847 678256.

Released just before Easter, Pullman’s latest novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, has become a publishing sensation, attracting considerable reviews and a great deal of attention. As President of the Blake Society, Pullman’s attraction to Blake is a deep and profound one, manifested at various points in the trilogy His Dark Materials and also The Adventures of John Blake. As such, there are several moments when Blake’s influence is a telling one in this particular novel – though before dealing with this in any detail it is important to make some general points regarding The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Firstly, and in this I agree with a significant number of critics who have previously reviewed the novel, Pullman’s spare and simple style is immensely effective. Whether it was his intended effect to send readers back to the Bible is a moot point, but in many ways Pullman’s plain and unadorned writing is reminiscent of certain translations of the gospels of Mark and Matthew in particular (the latter, of course, a particular favourite of Marxist film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini). The undoubted power of the words of the good man Jesus made me wonder at times whether Pullman’s book even has designs on becoming a fifth gospel, one aimed at secular and atheist (or at least agnostic) readers, reminding them that while they may have cast off the bond of superstition perhaps they have also thrown out too much that is of undoubted good.

Much of the plot of The Good Man is largely familiar, aside from Pullman’s central conceit that Mary gave birth not to one child but two, Jesus and Christ (and carping by some readers that “Christ” is not a proper name but rather a title is completely irrelevant to Pullman’s parable). Events largely follow those of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), while John is treated suspiciously as the mystic and mystifier, the source of conversations such as the following between the unnamed stranger and Christ on the purpose of truth as being more important than history:

There is time and there is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of these things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God. (99)

There is something in these words that at first sounds a little reminiscent of Blake (as in the aphorism “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), but the objective of the stranger, an allegory for the church, is completely un-Blakean, the message being that the church must lie in order to maintain power. Regarding the use of the Johannine gospel, Pullman appears to more or less reject the fourth evangelist, although there is an irony in that one of the most potent stories of Jesus’s life, that of the woman taken in adultery who is saved from death by Jesus’s simple admonition, translated here by Pullman as “If there’s one you who has never committed a sin, he can throw the first stone” (154) – one of the strongest examples of the power of forgiveness of sin – is only found in John 7.53-8.11. Indeed, this is one of the problems I found with the book as a whole: Christ frequently rewrites Jesus’s life to emphasise the message that he believes to be most important, but then Pullman’s revisionary act also picks and chooses those parts that he obviously prefers.

What, then, of the Blakean aspects of the novel? The gospel narrative is, of course, much bigger than Blake, but Blake remains one of the most important commentators in English art and literature on the Bible and it is unsurprising that Pullman has taken elemnets from the Romantic. What first attracted my attention was a serialised extract that included his chapter on the conception of Jesus and Christ:

At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.
One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
“Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips . . .”
She was confused, and said “Who are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the voice. “Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.”
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
“What is the secret?” she said.
“You are going to conceive a child,” said the angel. (7)

The all-too human circumstances of the conception of the son of God are extremely familiar from the following lines of Blake’s epic, Jerusalem:

in the Visions of Elohim Jehovah, behold Joseph & Mary
And be comforted O Jerusalem in the Visions of Jehovah Elohim
She looked & saw Joseph the Carpenter in Nazareth & Mary
His espoused Wife. And Mary said, If thou put me away from thee
Dost thou not murder me? Joseph spoke in anger & fury. Should I
Marry a Harlot & an Adulteress? Mary answerd, Art thou more pure
Than thy Maker who forgiveth Sins & calls again Her that is Lost
Tho She hates. he calls her again in love. I love my dear Joseph
But he driveth me away from his presence. yet I hear the voice of God
In the voice of my Husband. tho he is angry for a moment, he will not
Utterly cast me away. if I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the Forgive[ne]ss of Sins! if I were holy! I never could behold the tears
Of love! of him who loves me in the midst of his anger in furnace of fire.
Ah my Mary: said Joseph: weeping over & embracing her closely in
His arms: Doth he forgive Jerusalem & not exact Purity from her who is
Polluted. I heard his voice in my sleep O his Angel in my dream:
Saying, Doth Jehovah Forgive a Debt only on condition that it shall
Be Payed? Doth he Forgive Pollution only on conditions of Purity
That Debt is not Forgiven! That Pollution is not Forgiven (61.1-19, E211-2)

In Blake, the immaculateness of Jesus’s conception is not that Mary has no experience of sex, but that Joseph refuses to enforce the Mosaic law. My initial reading of the Pullman chapter had been to see it as a direct parallel to Blake’s lines, as well as the mischievous debunking that takes place in The Everlasting Gospel:

Was Jesus Chaste or did he
Give any Lessons of Chastity
The morning blushd fiery red
Mary was found in Adulterous bed
Earth groand beneath & Heaven above
Trembled at discovery of Love

On reading the whole novel, however, Pullman’s representation of Mary is a more complex one. Pullman’s Mary (unlike Blake’s) appears to be something of a simpleton rather than an innocent, for she takes Christ specifically to be her child, reserving Jesus for Joseph (14). The harshness of this assessment, however, does depend on taking the title of Pullman’s book at face value: throughout much of the novel, Christ is clearly a scoundrel, but by the end it is difficult not to feel sympathy for him.

The reason for this lies in the characters of Jesus and Pullman. It is when depicting the former that Pullman often reads at his most Blakean: Jesus is a natural rebel, and during one of his first appearances in the temple (taken from Luke chapter two), the learning ascribed to him by the evangelist is instead transferred to Christ, with Jesus instead daubing graffiti on the temple walls. In the chapter “Joseph Greets his Son”, it is Jesus who is the prodigal son, and Pullman elsewhere describes Jesus as “impulsive”, a word surely employed to evoke Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where a devil describes how Jesus breaks the ten commandments and concludes, “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules.” (plates 23-4 E43) Pullman, it must be said, does not quite emphasise the rebelliousness of Jesus quite as much as Blake does (as, for example, when he emphasises in his version of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’s emphasis on fulfilling Mosaic law, something which Blake always kicks against), but his Jesus is given to spontaneous action that cannot be seen as anything but seditious by the self-righteous, as when he creates birds from clay on the sabbath – a story drawn from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the Qu’ran rather than more orthodox Christian sources.

In the story of the clay birds, it is Christ rather than Jesus who brings them to life. As Christ himself realises, he is calculating, rational, cautious – everything that his brother is not. Pullman’s Christ is very much a god of this world, one who wants fairness, logic and order as well as glory and power. The radical nature of Jesus’s kingdom of heaven is that it is unfair – that God gives love to lilies in the field and birds in the trees as much as to grafting men and women. In many ways, it is Christ who is the more “modern” character in the book, given to introspection and self-analysis in a way that never occurs with Jesus – and it is this that, ultimately, makes him sympathetic to the reader. Christ’s problem is that he clearly is too much a man and, if early in the novel there is something despicable about him that makes him appear a true scoundrel, as when he takes the role of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, by the end his own recognition of his shortcomings and failings is what makes him much more attractive. He is tricked by his own vanity and ambition into playing the part of Judas, and becomes so disgusted with this that by the end of the novel, having (almost accidentally) given hope to the disciples by making them believe that Jesus is risen again, he has turned his back on the world and become a net-maker. This is the only time that he seems content – until tempted once more by the mysterious stranger and his dormant desire to give more coherent shape to the story.

A number of reviewers have remarked on the fact that Christ is an analogue for Pullman. This, to me, seems both a fair assessment and also an indication of how Christ surprises through sympathy in the story. Jesus is radical – as Christ says at the end of the book, “He wanted perfection; he asked too much of people” (244) – while Christ is fallible. And just as Christ is an example of that familiar construct, the unreliable narrator, so Pullman in the end has to be an unreliable author. In most cases, I think this is a role that Pullman is perfectly content with – he wishes to undermine the authority of the transcendental narrative by which organised religion gains so much of his power, and if Christ is, after Nietzsche, human, all too human, then Pullman’s own humanism must recognise a deeper empathy with this failed divinity.

However, there are for me a couple of times in the novel when Pullman does appear to desire an alternative transcendental ground for his own narrative, one that will provide (as all such grounds do) at least the illusion of securer footing for his resistance to religion. The most notable moment is in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus launches into an atheistical tirade against God (191-201) which, while powerful, heartfelt, and full of good sense, simply does not sound like Jesus. By this I mean that Pullman the Christ, who has so deftly played with the gospel stories, now leaves those evangelists behind and makes Jesus his mouthpiece; this section felt to me very much a selection of ideas that Pullman wanted Jesus to express. I have no problem whatsoever with the sentiments that appear here – indeed I agree with many of them – but Jesus as ventriloquist’s dummy feels very much like a conjuring trick of the kind that Pullman wishes to denounce when it is employed by the church.

The second time when this happens is earlier in the novel, when Christ has sex with a prostitute. In many ways, this is one of the most interesting parts of the book, demonstrating Christ’s scoundrel nature while also – through his painful humiliation – eliciting sympathy from the reader. And yet, while reading and re-reading it, I couldn’t help but feel that this was another trick on Pullman’s part, a slightly gratuitous, extra-biblical degradation of Christ inserted into the novel to whip up some scandal and additional publicity. It is an extremely well-written chapter, and I shall not forget it quickly, but its inclusion does feel like an additional piece of authorial manipulation that did make me view Pullman’s rhetorical tricks much more suspiciously.

This is a shame, because the ultimate surprise of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is just how appealing it makes much of the gospel story, treating it as a perfectly human and understandable story rather than one shrouded in mystery and requiring the mediation of the church (a process that, Pullman alludes to again and again, began with Saint Paul’s revisionary exercise). In many respects, Pullman’s story often reads almost as a new translation rather than fiction despite the – rather forbidding – reminder on the back cover that “This is a STORY”. I have alluded to a few explicitly Blakean elements within the novel, but this is not by any means simply a retread of Blake’s ideas as alternative orthodoxy. Rather, Pullman appears to share with Blake a desire to reinterpret the Bible as parable requiring active, hermeneutic activity on the part of the reader. And Blake, despite all his injunctions against Urizenic reason, could be quite the rationalist when it came to the good book, as in the following defence of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason against Bishop Watson: “Of what consequence is it whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or no. If Paine trifles in some of his objections it is folly to confute him so seriously in them & leave his more material ones unanswered Public Records as If Public Records were True” (E617). Or, more simply: “Both read the Bible day & night \ But thou readst black where I read white.” (E524)