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.