James Rovira – Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety

Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety. James Rovira. Continuum, 2010. pp. 184 + ix. £60. ISBN: 978-1-4411-3559-9.

As James Rovira explains in the introduction to his book, despite the widespread dissemination of Søren Kierkegaard’s concepts in the early twentieth century, full-scale applications of those concepts to Blake remain relatively rare. What is surprising about this is that Kierkegaard was an important link between Harold Bloom’s and Northrop Frye’s theories of influence and their work on Blake, yet aside from a small number of essays the only book-length study of Blake and Kierkegaard is Lorraine Clark’s Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic, published in 1991. Rovira suggests that widespread disillusionment with the religious contexts within which Kierkegaard worked is one reason why this philosopher, whose ideas are so fruitful to a study of Blake, has been widely overlooked; in any case, the various transformations that have taken place in discourses around religion in the public sphere in the intervening two decades since the appearance of Clark’s book mean that a re-evaluation of the relation between Blake and Kierkegaard is a timely one. Rovira may be seen to complement Clark in some ways, dealing as he does with texts prior to 1800 rather than after that date, and he concentrates less on the process of dialectic rather than the reasons why, in both Blake and Kierkegaard, acts of creation may generate a sense of anxiety within the self that is not adequately explained by current post-structuralist and deconstructionist theories.

This said, Rovira is somewhat more extensive than Clark in his treatment of both Blake and Kierkegaard. The opening chapter is generally excellent in providing information about the historical contexts in which both figures worked – my one proviso being that sometimes Rovira’s more emphatic statements about similarities between Denmark in the 1830s and 40s and Britain under a constitutional monarchy in the 1760s appear occasionally to make claims that, to me, would apply to many countries in western Europe and the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. Part of my response, however, is due also to the fact that my own knowledge of Denmark at the time is poor and so, while attempts to provide a link between Blake and Kierkegaard in terms of the socio-political environments within which they both worked reads to me as occasional special pleading, I did enjoy and appreciate greatly Rovira’s treatment of Kierkegaard’s background. This provides some extremely useful insights into how his writings were produced and how they may be read by later generations of readers.

When turning to shared intellectual contexts, any sense of special pleading disappears completely: instead, by tracing Socratic and classical models of human personality, Rovira indicates thoroughly and clearly what Blake and Kierkegaard shared in terms of a philosophical heritage which formed both the points of origin and catalysts for reaction in each of their profoundly religious critiques of what it means to be human. Rovira notes how Kierkegaard came to the Socratic tradition via the German Romantics, a development which means that “[i]rony is not a mere trope in Kierkegaard’s thinking but, at least potentially, an existential stance.” (p.39) Socratic irony allows space for an existential self, and Rovira’s reading of the development of a dialectical author through Kierkegaard’s various philosophical texts is fascinating, emphasising as it does a deep critical and masterly engagement with existential doubt via pseudonymous authors such as Haufniensis and Anti-Climacus. Rovira follows this with a suitably thoughtful examination of Blake’s often complex relation to and use of Plato – sometimes demonstrating affinities to Platonic idealistic thought, as in his letter to Trusler in 1799, at other times ambivalent towards Plato. As Blake’s “world of ideal forms is a visceral one” (p.49), so Rovira suggests it is better to consider him as working in a tradition or genre of “apocalyptic” rather than “Platonic” idealism. This is an obvious enough point in many ways, but important in that Rovira follows it through that too often neglected tradition of religious thought from Augustine and Origen via Erasmus that allows Blake to be critical of the literal and scriptural materialisms of both the Thomas Paines and Bishop Watsons of his day.

This ties very neatly into Rovira’s account of classical models of personality that flourished in both Blake’s and Kierkegaard’s day, which in chapter three are related to the dialectical process in Kierkegaard’s transition from aesthetic to ethical personalities, as well as the movement in Blake from innocence to experience. This dynamic relation within the self, one of the clearest and most fruitful points of contact between both writers, also shares some features with Clark’s work, although Rovira provides a much fuller context for a study of Blake as he emphasises the movement between innocence and experience in Blake’s early works of the late 1780s and early 1790s. Within the third chapter are some particularly effective interpretations of the Songs, The Book of Thel, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion in particular, with Rovira indicating that rather than a standard path of progression from innocence to experience to higher, or organised innocence, we should instead the developmental process as “differentiations within innocence itself that are not usually registered within innocence” (p.71). Kierkegaard’s own model was the development of a bodily-oriented subject in the aesthetic stage, followed by a soul-oriented ethical stage, with a final spirit-oriented religious subject. Coyness – or, indeed, antagonism – among many secular critics about this spirit-oriented, religious subjectivity, tends to mean that those critics tend to ignore the joyous paradox that the self discovers its own eternal sense precisely at the moment that it annihilates self. Rovira is completely right to focus on this religious experience, too often brushed aside, as corresponding to Blake’s sense of visionary consciousness: as such, both Blake and Kierkegaard were able to “confront Enlightenment psychologies that mechanize human beings” (p.92), emphasising instead a break with immanence and environment that enables creation instead of reaction.

These contextual accounts take up more half of the book, and the final two chapters are given over to a reading of the problematic of generation more generally in Blake and Kierkegaard, followed by a detailed consideration of creation anxiety in The [First] Book of Urizen. As Rovira observes, in classical models procreation serves as the foundation for all future acts of creativity (and out of this creation anxiety arising from the attempt to create life and form outside of natural processes). In the first part of chapter 4, Rovira draws fairly extensively on Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety (written under the pseudonym Haufniensis) to help explain some of the dialectical processes at work in Blake’s concept of “Generation”, suggesting that both writers share a common concern with the relations of procreation and the fall of man that were relatively widespread throughout Christian Europe, if rarely dealt with as imaginatively as by these two writers. His summary of Blake’s concept as at work in Visions of the Daughter of Albion is particularly worth repeating:

These are the principle elements of Blake’s critique of fallen generation: it divides the self; it alienates feminine, sensual joy through both male aggression and male introversion; and it alienates both of these from each other, so that male sexuality finds its only expression through the aggressive impulse signified by Bromion. (p.112)

Sexual procreation is the model for all human creativity as understood by Blake and Kierkegaard, but it is the figure of Urizen, argues Rovira in his final chapter, that the full extent of creation anxiety as exhibiting tensions “between monarchy and democracy, science and religion, and nature and artifice” (p.121) finds its fullest expression. Again, Rovira particularly draws upon The Concept of Anxiety to help explain this demon-creator, but he also makes some interesting asides (for example via gnostic traditions) that also include some particularly telling criticisms of other commentators on Blake: a notable example of this is the tendency of Blake critics to see an attack on the Anglican church as an attack on all Christianity, defined as a somewhat generic “traditional” or “orthodox” Christianity. Rovira is quite correct to draw attention to the vagueness of such dismissals, although his discussion of Blake’s religious beliefs in terms of such things as Gnosticism would have benefited from further consideration of the discovery in recent years by biographical discoveries that place Blake’s mother in a Moravian tradition. Rovira is on more certain ground when dealing with the tensions between science and religion in the Urizen books, and I particularly enjoyed his readings of Urizen as the pre-eminent demonic character in Blake’s poetry (a position usually – though not always – reserved for Orc). Again, Haufniensis/Kierkegaard is the most pertinent text here, explaining the “misrelation to eternity” developed through the concept of spiritlessness, the “neither guilty nor not guilty” that operates as a “talking machine”. Ironically, this is a state without anxiety for the spiritless who may even then appear happy. “As a result,” observes Rovira, in a telling final few pages, “it is political and religious life, spiritlessness ‘is a perfect idol worshipper…’ Revivalists, kings, dictators, populist presidents, and fascists find their political fields ripe for harvest in a culture of spiritlessness.” (p.140)

Rovira’s book is an involved but extremely rewarding book, one that delves fully into the complex and sophisticated dialectical processes involved in Kierkegaard’s thought . There are two minor points where I take slight issue with Blake and Kierkegaard, both of them involving contextual materials. One of these, in terms of Denmark’s social and political history may be entirely due to my own lack of knowledge, though the other, regarding the Moravian contexts of Blake’s religious thought does require discussion in such texts that deal with Blake’s theological concerns. However, what Rovira does with incredible dedication and perspicacity is to trace through a discourse of profound spiritual and religious attention that does not easily sit well with many current frameworks for discussing Blake’s work, largely due to the fact that we tend to over-secularise and simplify the Christian doctrines within which writers such as Blake and Kierkegaard worked. Rovira’s reading of Urizen the “Creator-Monarch”, dictatorial in his act of fallen generation precisely because he refuses to consider the spiritual engagement of creation that is both the source and recompense of anxiety, is masterful while Blake and Kierkegaard as a whole is a carefully thought-through and argued text.

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.

Why Blake hates fags (and other urban myths)

Recently, I have found myself involved in one of those rather odd email exchanges that occasionally occur around Blake. I had offered services to an aspiring author wishing to write about Blake and, after realising that the vision of Blake that they did see could turn out to be my vision’s greatest enemy, I recommended they have a look at some of my work.

A particular point of contention appeared to be an essay of mine that had recently been published as part of the collection Queer Blake, with several requests for me to explain what I had written and why. Not entirely to my surprise, the exchange between us deteriorated somewhat until I received the following message from the author’s agent:

P.S. As you might have guessed, or known intuitively, our camp disagrees with your interpretation of Blake, which with the queer BS seems more like a false Blake or even anti-Blake/Christ!

You give Blake a bad name with your queer garbage… look over our last e mail… and if you are gong to claim to be some kind of Blake authority start by citing his most important poem THE EVERLASTING GOSPEL and his wonderful relationship with God/Jesus… and drop the fag BS!

Do not really think there is any point in further communications unless you WANT A DEBATE!

I did indeed re-read The Everlasting Gospel, looking out in particular for the injunctions against fags: Blake does have quite a lot to say about sexuality in that unfinished work, especially in the section beginning “Was Jesus chaste? or did He / Give any lessons of chastity?” (E521 – you can read The Everlasting Gospel at http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/erdman.html). There is, however, not one mention of Christ’s opinion – positive or negative – on the subject of homosexuality, although there is a great deal on Mary’s adultery and, for me, the most important lines on Blake’s attitude towards sex generally:

That they may call a shame & Sin
Loves Temple that God dwelleth in
And hide in secret hidden Shrine
The Naked Human form divine
And render that a Lawless thing
On which the Soul Expands its wing
But this O Lord this was my Sin
When first I let these Devils in
In dark pretence to Chastity
Blaspheming Love blaspheming thee
Thence Rose Secret Adulteries
And thence did Covet also rise
My Sin thou hast forgiven me
Canst thou forgive my Blasphemy (E522)

Queer Blake was, among other things, a follow-up to Christopher Z. Hobson’s 2000 book, Blake and Homosexuality, in which he argued that Blake’s Milton a Poem, for example, was partly inspired by the Vere Street scandal of 1810 when two men were hanged and six others pilloried for sodomy after being arrested in a molly house. This was one of the events, Hobson suggests, that fuelled Blake’s disgust towards Moral Law which can be read repeatedly in his later works, and which the editors of Queer Blake endorse enthusiastically. Indeed, I am slightly taken to task by them for being “perplexingly diffident” in my own discussions of queer themes in Blake (guilty as charged). My own hesitation is not at all that I would agree with my correspondent in assuming Blake’s special relationship with Jesus makes him hate queers (and the illustration at the top of this post, from Milton, either indicates that Blake really was a bad artist who did not pay attention to the rather unfortunate positions of his figures or that he had a rather naughty sense of sublime humour). Rather, my hesitation on issues of Blake’s sexuality – as indeed, with regard to his religion or politics – is the ease with which anyone with an interest in Blake tends to read into him what they wish to find. In contrast to Byron, where the contexts of his own homosexuality are clear and increasingly self-evident, and immediately aid the careful reader in terms of understanding Byron’s work, the evidence for Blake’s opinions is frequently more circumstantial (although, it must be said, prolific, whether the sometimes strange illustrations to Milton or the lesbian relations between Jerusalem and Vala in Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion).

The tendency for us to read black, white, pink or green when engaging with Blake’s works is one that occurs repeatedly in terms of the reception of Blake and is one reason for my caution (sometimes excessive) when ascribing meanings to his art and poetry. Other work that I have been doing in recent months has begun to look at the ways in which Blake is sometimes used by figures involved in extreme politics to the left and right, where a polarisation of Blake as anarchist or Blake as nationalist/racist provides plenty of examples of selective reading. Actually, I have a great deal of sympathy with anarchist readings of Blake, which personally I suspect are much closer to his ideals than the somewhat woolly liberal positions of readers such as myself, or the somewhat authoritarian Marxist attitudes still encountered – though increasingly less so – in academia. I just wish the scholarship of Blake’s anarchist readers was more thorough.

More disturbing is the prevalence of far-right readings of Blake by English nationalists, which have proliferated over the past decade. My first assumption was that such interlocutors had not read Blake, and it is certainly the case that plenty of this material goes no further than an invocation of the Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem”. However, in a few cases it is unfortunately clear that commentators have read Blake, and find in his later works in particular a vision of Albion that, they believe, supports their case for the supremacy of a so-called indigenous race in the British Isles (that will be the Welsh, then).

There is, for me, an important point in these various appropriations of Blake, particularly when an attempt to understand his works moves beyond reading him in the immediate contexts in which he lived and worked. That final point is an important one, because Blake – like many writers and artists – is a vital figure insofar as he can be seen to communicate with an audience in the twenty-first century. There are, for example, plenty of readers who take pride in “English Blake” without indulging in extreme racism, just as there are those who find inspiration in his critiques of political power without requiring the abolition of the state. As an example of how such appropriations can take a bizarre turn, however, I would like to take a detour through one of my favourite misreadings of Blake (and one that has happily been made innocuous by more than a century of quarantine).

In 1893, W. B. Yeats and Edwin John Ellis argued in their edition of Blake’s work – an important, if often erroneous, contribution to early Blake scholarship – that Blake was descended from Irish stock via one John O’Neill from Rathmines, Dublin. Yeats discreetly dropped the assertion in his later writings about Blake, although the idea found some currency at the turn of the twentieth century, being repeated, for example, in John Sampson’s otherwise impressive scholarly edition of Blake’s poetical works published in 1905. Kathleen Raine, in an essay on “Yeats’s Debt to Blake”, published in her 1990 book Yeats the Initiate, observes how strong was Yeats’s desire to make the kinship between him and Blake even closer, and one can almost imagine the false syllogism that took place: “All the best poets are Irish. Blake is one of the best poets. Blake must have been Irish.”

A similar syllogism, it seems to me, must take place for those readers of Blake who believe that he has no truck with homosexuals:

Blake was a Christian.
All Christians hate homosexuals.
Blake hated homosexuals.

For a brief time during my career, I am ashamed to say, I devoted some effort to attempting to disprove the first assertion – patently nonsensical and more to do with my own rejection of the Catholicism in which I was raised. There is no doubt that Blake was a Christian – it is one of the clearest messages that comes out of his writings. The question as to what sort of Christian he was, however, is a much more difficult one to answer. Even without attempting the (in my opinion pointless) task of determining a particular domination that would be closest to his beliefs, the second of the above assumptions can easily be traduced: one could, after all, assert the equally foolish assumption that “All Christians love homosexuals (because they love everyone)”.

When trying to ascertain a position as to what Blake thought regarding a particular topic, there are obvious starting points. A return to the texts is self-evidently important, but with a writer as frequently obscure as Blake (although, it should also be noted, one who could also display incredible clarity in his writing) determining what he meant can be a fraught task, which is why there is quite an industry in Blake studies. That many of the most startling phrases in his poetry are often dramatised and placed in the mouths of different characters should make us wary of ascribing them to Blake himself, just as we would be wary of arguing that every line of Hamlet or King Lear demonstrates Shakespeare’s unsullied opinion. For a long time it has also been clear that many of Blake’s later readers did not have access to the poet’s words in the fashion which he intended, that is as illuminated books, but I am cautious of a tendency to assume that value can only be ascribed to Blake’s words when they are read in the original contexts he intended. After all, this becomes more than a matter of bibliography, for the requirement to attain as “true” a reading as possible must also engage with the difficult task of understanding the complex historical situation in which Blake lived. No scholar should ever shirk from this task, but I am also loathe to neglect the subsequent insights into what Blake can mean for later generations and communities when he is taken out of those contexts and read in a new and sometimes radically different light.

The exchange of emails with which I began this post was, for me, a dramatic reminder of entirely different interpretive communities which I rarely engage with. The mild scepticism which I included in my essay for Queer Blake had less to do with Blake and homosexuality per se than with what I perceive as the difficulty of reading contemporary attitudes towards sexuality back into Blake’s works, fulfilling a hermeneutic circle in which we find the whole of Blake’s texts justify an attitude that we discover in a part. That said, my scepticism is actually towards an unproblematic celebration of heterosexuality in Blake, there being (for me) difficult passages that indicate more troubled attitudes on Blake’s part to sex between men and women – I’ve still yet to read any clear denunciation of homosexuality anywhere in Blake’s poetry and prose, or to witness it in his art. Of course, to other readers, that may be no more than my tendency to read black where they read white.

Where my antagonist hit closer to home – and knew it – was in denouncing any reading on my part as the product of a specialised, academic institutional process – precisely the kind of organisational interpretation that Blake appeared to despise, for example in his annotations to the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds: “I am not trying to be adversarial, but you seem to read  black where we read white as our Blake speaks in parables to the blind etc. and I am not trying to be mean, but as pointed out in last e mail by asking you if you ever read annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds a work that witnesses Blake’s antipathy for the English Royal Academy (gag) and the highly educated. Sorry to say  with your PHD, you are automatically in Blake’s enemy camp as he detested the highly educated citing that Christ was a carpenter and  many of the disciples fishermen and that the highly educated are the world’s greatest villains!” It is not a false mea culpa to say that I have often wondered about this and also in a return email offered the line from Milton, “For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.” I’ve never supported “Corporeal War”, but I’m only kidding myself if I do not recognise that I am – in some ways – a hireling. I remember as an undergraduate being struck by the force of Bertrand Russell’s comment on those university professors who were happy to adopt the dismissive attitude of Socrates towards Sophists being paid for philosophy while drawing down a salary themselves.

As such, this interchange has given me an opportunity to pause once again and reflect on what – if any – authority I have for my interpretations of Blake, the question of interpretative authority being one of considerable importance to me. As a matter of course I have rejected the notion that specialist training is an essential pre-requisite to understanding Blake: sometimes it may help, at other times it may actually hinder. For me, an especially important observation was made by J. Hillis Miller’s remarks in an essay “Reading Unreadability: de Man” in which he discussed de Man’s ideas around the “ethicity” of reading. The stars of the text – the words on the page, the historical circumstances of the author’s life – are real, but they are always mobile, often variable, sometimes seen dimly, sometimes clearly – Cepheid-variables rather than the eternal sol invictus (to draw on another metaphor from the ill-tempered exchange between Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser). What is more, the reader always perceives imaginatively for there is no such thing as “mere physical perception”: every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight closed by our senses five. If complete objectivity is a myth, however, this does not open the way to the solipsism of the reader. The stars, to repeat, are real, and it is incumbent on the critic to observe them, always aware that he or she does so imaginatively: an “ethicity” of reading is one that recognises both the imperative to observe and that to be imaginative. As Miller comments on de Man, such ethicity does not assume the foundational beginnings of language, nor the triumphal return of language to a reality that validates it; rather, it obeys another imperative, the demand that language be read but that we take responsibility for our own judgements without the false security of an ultimate authority. In my mental fight, I assert that Blake more often than not believed in a free sexual commonwealth, and will frequently cite evidence of that fact – while also, I hope, not ignoring those passages that trouble me and appear to contradict his general opposition to the Moral Law – but it is also an unceasing combat, sometimes with Blake himself, but also with those other communities of readers who read black where I read white.

City of Imagination: Kathleen Raine

Today is the anniversary of the death of Kathleen Raine, poet and Blake scholar, who won a number of prizes for her works (including a CBE in 2000) and continued to write a significant number of books until just before her death, a revised version of her Collected Poems appearing in 2000.

Raine (1908-2003) was raised in Northumberland, an experience related in the first volume of her Autobiographies, Farewell Happy Fields, and Ilford, Essex, before going onto study at Girton College, Cambridge. Her experience there was not entirely happy and, with a series of failed marriages and unrequited love affairs, she returned to the paganism of her childhood, for which the models were W. B. Yeats, Edwin Muir and William Blake. In 1980 she founded the journal Temenos, followed later by the Temenos Academy in 1990, focusing on the role of spirituality. At the time of her death, she was living in London.

The influence of Blake is most obvious in Raine’s critical work, notably the two-volume study, Blake and Tradition (1968), but also shorter studies and essays including Golgonooza, City of Imagination (1991), but Blake was also important to Raine’s creative work. For example in the second volume of her autobiography, The Land Unknown (1975) she described how Bertha Yeats confirmed her view of Blake as “a supreme teacher within an age-old tradition as that to which Yeats had also come” (Autobiographies 257-8).

This view of Blake as an esoteric, even occult, teacher was very much in evidence in Blake and Tradition, which traced a hidden tradition from the mythical work of Hermes Trismegistus through the works of Plato and the Enneads of Plotinus to the English Neoplatonist Thomas Taylor and hence to Blake. She was also one of the first critics to credit Blake’s development of Songs of Innocence to the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft and, in poems such as ‘Book of Hours’ or the journal Temenos, demonstrated repeatedly her particular debt to Yeats and Blake.

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)

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)

Everlasting Gospel? Philip Pullman, Jesus and Christ

The Catholic in me, however lapsed, cannot be but a little amazed by Philip Pullman’s latest book (which, of course, I have on order and expect to arrive soon), The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, having been released just in time for Easter. The journalist in me, however erratic, cannot but be impressed by Canongate’s marketing decision which has taken the title to number 5 in the Amazon charts just days after its release. Of course, for writing about it on Easter Sunday I shall probably burn in hell, but then while there I can walk “among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

Although not having had chance yet to read the full work, published as part of Canongate’s Myths series, some extracts were included in last weekend’s The Guardian Review section, and while I cannot comment on the full parallels between Blake and Pullman (which he will have invoked rather knowingly, being President of the Blake Society), the opening paragraphs evoke what is for me a strong – if perhaps for some other readers slightly obscure – connection:

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.

When Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, she begins to cry:

She wept bitterly, and said “I’ve done no wrong, I swear! I have never been touched by a man! It was an angel that came to me, because God wanted me to conceive a child!”
Joseph was troubled. If this was really God’s will, it must be his duty to look after her and the child. But it would look bad all the same. Nevertheless, he said no more.

This particular passage reminded me immediately of the following lines from 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)

It is slightly curmudgeonly of me to claim that Blake’s text is more radical immediately after the release of Pullman’s book (“they don’t write like they used to…” and so on), but that precisely, on the evidence of what I have seen, is my claim. Pullman has pulled off an astonishing feat, and reviews testify to the power of the simplicity of his writing, but to bypass the censors that still exist, however mild in our liberal times, he has to pass off Mary’s adultery as the entrapment of an innocent. Blake’s Mary, by contrast, has come close to that old, antinomian heresy of knowingly indulging in sin so that she can experience the pleasures of salvation through the forgiveness of sin – a doctrine that is, quite frankly, a dangerous, ranting one and never has found a place in polite society, secular or religious. I think Blake pulls up just short of this doctrine (in that Mary knows she has experienced sin, but is not necessarily wilfully sinful), but every so often when I look at these lines I am not entirely certain…

From what I’ve read, I rather like Pullman’s downtrodden, world-weary Joseph. Blake’s character, by contrast, is full of fury and anger before he, too, experiences the divine salvation that comes from forgiveness. And this, for Blake, is the miracle of the everlasting gospel: Mary is an adulterer, a harlot, and by the law should be stoned to death – yet Joseph takes her in through love. That is the miracle.

Pullman will no doubt attract outrage for his depiction of Christ sleeping with a prostitute (rather than the good man Jesus), but even here Blake goes one further 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

Not only does this late text of Blake reiterate the adultery of Mary, but it also implies that Jesus learnt other lessons from his mother. Pullman appears to want to separate the rabbi, the teacher Jesus from the religious hypocrite, Christ, in his secular lesson – a reasonable task, and one with an honourable tradition from Shelley onwards at least. Blake’s divine humanism, by contrast, takes on all aspects – sexuality and sin included – of mankind, making them divine because they are experienced also by that most godly of men, that Jesus who is at the same time Christ, and whose words (as Blake wrote in his annotations to Bishop Watson’s Apology for the Bible), were perverted by the same church that Pullman criticises.

More thoughts on this when I have read the book in its entirety.