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.