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.

4 thoughts on “James Rovira – Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety

  1. Dr. Whittaker:

    Many thanks for your kind, insightful review of my book. I’m gratified that you understand my intent for this work and that you see how I attempted to put the very different parts together, and I’m especially encouraged by your reaction to my specific readings of Blake. That is the point at which my work is most important as a contribution to Blake scholarship.

    You do accurately point out two areas of weakness in the book. The first is the historical context covered in the first chapter, which to anyone who reads much in either British or Danish history will already be very familiar, and the second is with my discussion of Gnosticism.

    I would say that your observations about the first area of weakness is one expression of a flaw that arises in two or three other areas, and that is insufficient attention to or development of qualifying statements. You’re right that the tensions described in chapter one were widely disseminated in varying degrees across Europe, which I honestly thought I’d mentioned in the paragraph that ends page 9 and begins page 10 — and which I see I seem to have edited out at some point. Even if I hadn’t, it would only be a brief mention, though.

    The problem that I faced with this chapter is that of audience. I expected many readers like you, who would find the material on English history rather commonplace but the material on Danish history somewhat more interesting — because you’re learning something by reading it. Michael Phillips also had this reaction. But I also expected some readers with no real knowledge of British history either. What to do? I decided that if I was going to err, I should err on the side of inclusion. Now I have to live with it.

    The other, more complex subject — that of Blake’s relationship to Gnosticism — needs to be dealt with in an article expanded to the length of my chapter five. I am of course aware of Keri Davies’s excellent and compelling scholarship on Blake’s Moravian background and am convinced by his argument. This was actually a missed opportunity for me, as I could have compared Kierkegaard’s father’s pietist background with Blake’s Moravian background and drawn some interesting conclusions from the comparison.

    However, Blake’s Moravian background is not necessarily something that we recognize, or need to, in opposition to the possibility that his general religious orientation was Gnostic. Gnosticism, as it is commonly spoken of today, is not so much an independent religious movement (as, say, the Moravian church is), but a tendency or constellation of tendencies that exist across all religious movements.

    I would say there is still a great deal of criticism still current that defines Blake as essentially a Gnostic thinker in some general sense. You can identify these scholars as those who view The First [Book] of Urizen as Blake’s rather literal rewriting of the Judeo-Christian creation narrative rather than commentary on the God of England’s state church as a perversion of it. In this reading, Blake’s view of material nature is generally negative, so that the being who created the material universe is necessarily fallen. This narrative is also Hans Jonas’s summary of the basic gnostic narrative in brief.

    My response is that Blake is not a Gnostic thinker because he views material nature as a great work of genius, but that he did appropriate the basic gnostic narrative to comment on England’s state church. Blake is not concerned with material nature in itself, but with a phenomenology of nature dispersed by England’s church/state complex which plays the role of material nature itself in gnostic narratives, trapping the human soul and keeping it separate from the divine.

    However, your comments tell me that this section needed this further explanation. I think this section also needed a fuller description of Blake and Gnosticism and criticism identifying Blake as a Gnostic thinker. Sounds like an article that I need to write.

    While I’m at it, I would like to point out two other shortcomings — sections I would revise if I could. The opening sentences of my chapter three are factually accurate, but needed to be seriously qualified. Catholic belief from at least Aquinas to the present is officially in a dual view of human nature:

    367 Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people “wholly”, with “spirit and soul and body” kept sound and blameless at the Lord’s coming.236 The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul.237 “Spirit” signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.238

    “Spirit” and “soul” are just two words for the same thing. The idea of a tripartite self — which was clearly Kierkegaard’s belief and, possibly, Blake’s — was a tradition that ran alongside this tradition and made up a minority opinion.

    My intent with this chapter was not two write a full-blown history of Christian anthropology, or even to represent church doctrine, but to describe the strand of Christian anthropology that most influenced Blake and Kierkegaard — which has a long enough history to be acknowledged as incorrect by the Catholic Church even in its current version of the catechism. I was too focused on the task at hand to sufficiently acknowledge the big picture. I’m grateful for this opportunity to do so.

    My next correction would be a rather tongue in cheek, offhand comment that I made in response to Viscomi’s reading of Blake’s production methods in which I say that “Viscomi’s explanation has the virtues of clarity, simplicity, and common sense, virtues from which Blake seems to have been gloriously free” (p. 103). Since writing that I have had the opportunity to teach Blake’s annotations to Reynolds in a Literary Theory course (after reading some of Reynold’s Discourses), and I now see that Blake did indeed have a great deal of common sense. He simply chose not to use it on a regular basis. But, it was a choice on his part.

    Again, thank you for your quite gratifying review of my book.


  2. Jim, thank you so much for these comments. The material on Kierkegaard’s religious background is fascinating, and for me one of the strongest elements of your arguments relating to a discussion of him and Blake. I take fully your remark concerning gnosticism, and indeed took the opportunity to make my own revision this morning, from “although unfortunately his discussion of Blake’s religious beliefs in terms of such things as Gnosticism is already starting to look a little out of date in terms of contemporary Blake criticism, this having been radically changed in recent years by biographical discoveries that place Blake’s mother in a Moravian tradition” to “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”. If nothing else, this records my own response (and I won’t deny the subjective elements of any such criticism). However, the additional details on Kierkegaard’s father are great, and I’m glad my review elicited this information.
    With regard to the Danish history, I’d emphasise again that my review does record my own ignorance on this point. What to include/exclude is always a difficulty, and I did enjoy learning about Denmark during that period, but I also wished to be honest in my own responses. To repeat – this is a really thoughtful and considered book.

  3. Thanks very much again, Jason. I will probably be developing material on the relationship of Kierkegaard’s thought to pietist thought for an upcoming 18thC conference, if my proposal is accepted. If I do so, I think I might take the opportunity to expand this paper to include a comparison to Blake’s Moravian background. It truly was a missed opportunity for me that I would like to correct. I’m glad that you pointed it out.

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