Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly (ed.) — Queer Blake

Queer Blake. Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly. Palgrave, 2010. pp. 264. $80. ISBN: 978-0230218369

Helen Bruder and Tristanne Connolly’s collection presents, for the first time, an encounter between queer theory and Blake studies. While authors have explored Blake’s relationship to masculinity, Steve Clark’s Sordid Images: The Poetry of Masculine Desire (1994); to homosexuality, Christopher Hobson’s Blake and Homosexuality (2000); to androgyny, Tom Hayes’s “William Blake’s Ego-Ideal;” and to gender, Helen Bruder’s collection Women Reading William Blake (2007) and Magnus Ankarsjo’s William Blake and Gender (2006); no monograph or collection about Blake has focused exclusively on queer theory. On the one hand, readers of Blake’s work are convinced in a vision of Blake’s marital bliss, perhaps punctuated by the story Thomas Butts told of Catherine and William reading Milton’s Paradise Lost in the nude. On the other hand, scholars rightly point out that Blake includes scenes of sexual violence, repression, even rebellion in many of his prophetic books. “The whole situation is queer” say Bruder and Connolly, and I am convinced they are right (4).

Luckily for readers of Queer Blake, Bruder and Connolly boldly venture into the closet of queer Blakean sexuality. They suggest that Blake’s status as a masculine ideal in many readers, the “healthy, macho, rough and ready, ‘typical’ English working class” vision of a “William Bloke,” too often obscures the queer relationships formed between Blake and his contemporaries and even Blake and his academic readers (5). “Queer is for poofy-toffs; transgender softness for bleeding-heart liberals” (6).  So, was Blake a normative sexual conservative, confining his sexuality to the marital bed; or was he a sexual libertine who explored beyond the safe “free-love” clichés given to most Romantic authors? There is enough evidence to titillate and suggest, if not prove, a queer Blake. In particular, Bruder and Connolly mention Blake’s description of Gothic artist Henry Fuseli. Blake describes Fuseli as “The only Man that eer I  knew / Who did not make me spew” (E 507). They call the statement “as curious as it is hiliarious, expressing attraction by denying repulsion, in abject terms of bodily fluids (if he didn’t spew, presumably he swallowed)” (10).

But “outing” Blake’s sexuality isn’t really the point of Queer Blake. Far more fascinating are the ways that queer theory can displace what Bruder and Connolly call the “masculine gaze” of subversive sexual acts in Blake’s work and, alternatively, the ways that Blake’s polymorphous sexual identity is fixed and fixated upon by Blakean critics. In the former, Bruder and Connolly sketch a Blake who harshly critiques masculine sexual forms of “trade and exchange,” celebrates “the centrality of feminine generosity to […] redemption,” practices the “orgasmic abundance” of a “transgendered aesthetic,” and speaks with what they describe as “not just a female voice but with his female voice” (15-17). With regard to Blake’s readers and critics, Bruder and Connolly note the tendency of Blake’s work to turn readers into prostlytizers of his thoughts and visions. Blake indeed has a charming and beguiling ethos, one that produces wildly different readings of his text. If critics and other readers cannot or will not agree on what Blake really meant or what kinds of desires Blake had swirling in his brain, Bruder and Connolly insist they should at least recognize their own queer desire for Blake.

Prefaced by the poem “Pansexuality (regained) by Helen Kidd, the essays in the collection prove a fascinating cross-section of these desires, identities, speculations and suggestions. The first group of essays articulates the challenges Blake’s work poses for queer theory. Christopher Hobson’s “Blake and the Evolution of Same-Sex Subjectivity” proposes that Blake’s work complicates Foucault’s argument that homosexual subjectivity did not exist before the eighteenth century. Richard Sha, in “Blake and the Queering of Jouissance,” suggests that Blake’s poetry can subvert models of jouissance that see it as inherently radical. Peter Otto’s “Drawing Lines: Bodies, Sexualities and Performances in The Four Zoas shows how the use of the bounding line in The Four Zoas maintains but also disrupts normative conceptions of the body and sexual politics.

Other essays engage with queer representations and their place in Blake’s visual imagination. Elizabeth Effinger’s “Anal Blake: Bringing Up the Rear in Blakean Criticism” focuses on Blake’s representation of buttocks to reveal the “anal anxiety” in Blake criticism. Martin Myrone’s “The Body of the Blasphemer” looks closely at Blakean watercolors to sketch a queer visual aesthetic for Blake based upon the visual uncertainty embodied in images like The Blasphemer. The impact of this queer aesthetic on more contemporary artists and their “transgressive, sado-masochistic lens” form the focus of Jason Whittaker’s “Trannies, Amputees and Disco Queens: Blake and Contemporary Queer Art.” Helen Bruder’s “‘Real Acting’: ‘Felpham Billy’ and Grayson Perry Try it On” showcases Blake’s The Pickering Manuscript, written during his stay in Felpham, and its staging of Blake as a feminized or transvestite subjectivity through “girly,” “bicurious” and “kinky” figures.

Reception and influence impact several of the essays in the collection.“Fear Not/To Unfold Your Dark Visions of Torment: Blake and Emin’s Bad Sex Aesthetic” by Tristanne Connolly finds a common link between Blake and artist Tracey Emin, a figure labeled by David Bowie as “William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh,” in their shared fascination with bad sex. Bethan Stevens’ “’Woe & … sighs:’ Fantasies of Slavery in Visions of the Daughters of Albion suggests that Oothoon’s rape scenes in Blake’s violent poem are subversions of the heteronormative narration of Romantic period abolition literature. Caroline Jackson-Houlston’s “’The lineaments of … desire’: Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion and Romantic Literary Treatments of Rape,” on the other hand, takes Blake’s poem to task for its conservative female characters while wondering if the vision of lesbian desire in the poem might point to possibilities that are not respected by its imaginary historical space.

The act of queering traditional readings of Blake is also prominent in the collection. Steve Clark’s “’Yet I am an identity/ I wish & feel & weep & groan’” Blake’s Sentimentalism as (Peri)Performative” explores Blake’s poetry from a sentimentalist, rather than prophetic, tradition. Additionally, David Fallon’s “’By a False Wife Brought to the Gates of Death’: Blake, Politics and Transgendered Performances” contests the binary conceptualization of Blake’s reading of gender by comparing a wide range of Blakean works, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to Jerusalem, to show how Blake queers normative conceptions of sexual identity.

Finally, Blake’s singular relationships with men and women hold keys to considering non-traditional forms of queer subjectivity. Mark Crosby’s “’No Boy’s Work’: Blake, Hayley and the Triumphs of (Intellectual) Paiderastia explores Blake’s anxiety over the paiderastic teaching methods of William Hayley and Blake’s belief that such methods inhibited his creativity. Susan Matthew’s “’Hayley on His Toilette’: Blake, Hayley and Homophobia” analyzes the satiric figure of male effeminacy in the Notebook and the Bard’s Song from Milton to suggest that it is frequently misread as homophobic due to a blindness of the shifting sexual roles in the early nineteenth century. Keri Davies’ “My Little Cane Sopha and the Bust of Sappho’: Elizabeth Iremonger and the Female World of Book-Collecting” questions Blake’s sister Catherine and her spinsterhood, connecting it to the practice of female cohabitation and the early women book-collecters who were the first audiences for Blake’s work.

Queer Blake creates an opportunity for truly subversive readings of Blake’s work, life, and relationships. While complicating models of sexuality and subjectivity in both Blake studies and queer theory in general, Queer Blake also gives readers a complicated, contradicting, and contested portrait of Blakean sexuality. It is in this portrait that Queer Blake is singularly queer and uniquely valuable. Rather than settle for a hypostasized sexual identity for Blake and his work, Queer Blake is able to navigate girly Blakes and macho Blakes, heteronormative Blakes and anal Blakes, sentimentalist Blakes and transgendered Blakes.

Magnus Ankarsjö – William Blake and Religion

William Blake and Religion: A New Critical View. Magnus Ankarsjö
Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland and Company, 2009. pp. 163. $39.95. ISBN: 978 0 7864 4559 2.

The second book by Ankarsjö to be published by McFarland, William Blake and Religion shares some themes with his earlier title, William Blake and Gender (2006) in that one of the aims of this book is to take recent discoveries about the religious background of Blake’s family and explore these in relation to his views on sexuality. Most important for  Ankarsjö’s ideas is the work undertaken by Marsha Keith Schuchard in Why Mrs Blake Cried (2006) and various essays by Keri Davies that have uncovered links between Blake’s mother and the Moravian church. The Moravians, a religious group that had its roots in the followers of John Hus in fifteenth century Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic), experienced a religious revival in the eighteenth century under the charismatic leadership of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf during which period they encouraged greater equality between the sexes in comparison to most religious movements of the time, and established a small but devoted church. In addition to the research of Schuchard and Davies (to which may be added Robert Rix’s re-evaluation of Blake’s relations to the various religious sects of his day in William Blake and the Cultures of Radical Christianity, 2007), the most important figures to William Blake and Religion are David Worrall, who cast fresh light into the activities undertaken by Swedenborgians at the end of the eighteenth century, and Helen Bruder because of her re-evaluation of Blake and gender studies in her extremely influential and important book, William Blake and the Daughters of Albion (1997).

Ankarsjö sets out these foundational figures in his introduction, as well as providing a brief detour via one dead end of Blake studies that occasionally rears its head (though not with academics working in the field), the late E.P. Thompson’s assertion that Blake was a Muggletonian in his 1993 book, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. Dealing with Thompson briskly, Ankarsjö’s task is to focus instead on the effect that newly discovered materials relating to Moravianism will have on our understanding of Blake. As such, with particular emphasis on both religion and sexuality, William Blake and Religion is probably one of the first of what is likely to be a growing number of texts that will explore the intersection between Blake and the Moravian Church. In addition, in his first and best chapter, Ankarsjö also pays attention to the continuing influence of Swedenborgianism, the teachings and church established by the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg who claimed constant and visionary experiences of the spiritual world, throughout the 1790s (which many – though by no means all – of Blake scholars assume the artist had turned his back on after publication of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), as well as a more prickly relationship with Unitarianism, which influenced a number of his contemporaries that Blake would have encountered via the circle gathered around the publisher Joseph Johnson. Ankarsjö is clear and convincing when outlining these religious contexts, and makes some extremely interesting and relevant observations, for example in his repetition of Keri Davies’s comment at the Blake 250 conference in 2007 that the position of Moravianism as neither dissenting from, nor wholly within, the mainstream Anglican church means that we shall probably have to revise many oft-repeated (and dearly held) assumptions about the dissenting radicalism of Blake’s background.

This chapter is by far and away the best in the book, but some problems emerge when dealing with the next two chapters, “Blake’s Religion” and “Blake’s Sexuality”. Part of the difficulty emerges with the step that sometimes appears to be made once the Moravianism of Blake’s background is recognised: it seems very clear that Blake’s mother was a Moravian, and also that Blake’s parents attended a Moravian church. As such, it is extremely probable that Blake grew up in a household that was infused with Moravian values. However, to follow this to the conclusion that Blake himself was a Moravian, or strongly influenced by Moravian ideas, is much more problematic. Keri Davies is always careful when drawing such conclusions – much more so than Schuchard, in my opinion – but Ankarsjö to me appears to dither and this sometimes creates problems with understanding entirely what the relationship with Moravianism brings. Some sections, for example when dealing with notions of conjugal (or conjugial, in Swedenborg’s phrase) love appear to be very profitable when explaining Blake’s own attitudes towards religion, but the chapter “Blake’s Religion” as a whole ends up somewhat confusing: it is hard, in the end, to pin down what Blake’s religion was. This is due to two reasons, one of which I think is a fault with Ankarsjö approach to his subject, one of which is much more general.

First of all, Ankarsjö tends to cherry-pick texts, looking for ones that may reinforce his approach to Moravianism in particular but also that Blake continued to look towards Swedenborgianism. This, for me, is extremely unsatisfactory because some of Blake’s most profound and extensive documents dealing with religion, such as the late epic Jerusalem or The Everlasting Gospel, offer complexities which could easily deny the more straightforward application of Ankarsjö’s thesis. This leads to the more general point: few other English writers (or, indeed, artists) spent more time than Blake in dealing with the topic of religion and the divine, but any attempt to pin down Blake in terms of a particular sect appears to me doomed to failure because of the idiosyncracies of Blake’s spiritual vision, his fairly consistent refusal to participate in a church (unless, perhaps, it is because as Keri Davies has suggested the Anglican Church was, in the end, broad enough to encompass his vision). I emphasise here the idiosyncracy of Blake’s religious views rather than the Romantic “eccentricity” which Ankarsjö rightly dismisses in his introduction: Blake was a deep and profound thinker on religious topics, not least in that he perceived the fundamental problems of attempting to fix experiences of the divine within human structures, systems against which he always struggled. In the end, my problem with this part of William Blake and Religion results from a degree of confusion as to whether Ankarsjö is proposing what we may call a “strong” theory of Blake and Moravianism, where that religion helps to explain more or less completely the framework of Blake’s belief – the evidence for which I find rather hard to accept; or whether he is working towards a “weak” theory, in which Blake’s Moravian background predisposes him towards a number of tenets and attitudes, for example with regard to ecumenicism and sexual love, which – by contrast – does appear extremely enlightening for me.

Although I found myself somewhat confused as to Ankarsjö’s aims in the chapter on Blake’s religion, a more serious flaw is to be encountered in his chapter on Blake’s sexuality. Before turning to this flaw, it is right to remark on where Ankarsjö’s comments are illuminating, for example in reinforcing the attitudes towards “free love” that were developing both among Blake’s radical associates of the eighteenth century and “conjugal love” that existed in the Moravian Church and Swedenborgianism.William Blake and Religion has much to say that is useful in this regard, although again the tendency to jump between different Blakean texts can be confusing. However, where the flaw exists is that Ankarsjö’s apparent desire to claim Blake as a proto-feminist can be rather unsophisticated and extremely problematic. The repeated assertions by Anne Mellor as to Blake’s intrinsic sexism is a coarse and unhelpful position, one which Helen Bruder in particular has treated to appropriate criticism (and which has also been aided by more work by scholars such as Davies into Blake’s early female collectors). However, Bruder maintains a healthily caustic attitude to Blake’s sexual politics which seems largely to vanish in William Blake and Religion. Ankarsjö’s desire to read white where others read black leads him, in my opinion, into some rather bizarre interpretations.

For example, in a comment that actually appears in the chapter “Blake’s Religion”, Ankarsjö makes the following observation of Blake’s comment in his description of the painting “The Last Judgement” that “There is no such thing in Eternity as a Female Will”:

First, it has to be pointed out that Blake here is strictly following the creation myth from Genesis, which clearly was in line with his increasing interest in the Bible and traditional Christianity at this point in time. In Genesis, as we know, woman was created from a body part of man in order to be his life companion. If we, as Blake, follow the analogy through to the other extreme, as it were, then man and woman are reunited and are as one. Hence, as much as man has no will of his own in eternity, neither has woman. Quite simply, separate and individual wills do not exist. (p.66)

To place Blake’s thought in a biblical tradition is perfectly correct, and it may also be right that Blake did not believe in the existence of separate female or male wills (and Ankarsjö’s remarks on the role of the Spectre in Blake’s writings as a ravenous, separate male will are also appropriate here). However, there remains a problem for me in Blake’s remark that the rush to embrace him as a proto-feminist fails to encompass sufficiently: even if Blake does not believe in a separate male will in eternity, he offers no denunciation of it that is comparable to his denunciation of the female. The rejection of a separate male will remains, unfortunately, implicit throughout too much of his writing, while the renunciation of female will is, equally unfortunately, far too explicit at times. More simply, Blake may not be a sexist, but sometimes his rhetoric comes very close to reinforcing sexist stereotypes; there are blind spots which we should not neglect. As such, like Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, I am less keen to smooth over some of the sexual ambiguities in Blake’s works while accepting, like those critics and Ankarsjö himself that denunciations of “sexist” Blake have been based on rather crude interpretations of the sexual politics of his poetry.

Ankarsjö’s final chapter, on “Blake’s Utopian ‘Colony'” offers an interesting discussion of slavery that owes much to the work of David Worrall. Ankarsjö’s contribution is to offer a critical reading of some of Worrall’s arguments, in particular the almost entirely negative interpretation of the proposed Swedenborgian colony in Sierre Leone in terms of its gender equality, so that Ankarsjö discovers more sympathy to proto-feminist arguments among the Swedenborgians than Worrall does – though in the end he agrees that it was a largely patriarchal exercise. In addition, he offers some significant comments on similar utopian colonies from the time, such as those by Unitarians. Where the chapter is on more shaky ground is in assuming that the conference attended by Blake in 1789, and where a colony in Sierre Leone would have been under discussion, still continues to influence Blake’s work on his final epics, Milton and Jerusalem after 1808; indeed, the chapter ends unsatisfactorily with a rather cursory pointer towards Blake’s attitudes on slavery that would surely have benefited from contextualisation in the evangelical fervour surrounding the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

William Blake and Religion offers some valuable contributions and summaries of contemporary arguments surrounding Blake’s Moravian background. When discussing the interrelation of Moravianism with Swedenborgianism and even Unitarianism, it is clear and eminently useful as a guide. The book is more confused, unfortunately, as to offering an account of Blake’s religion, probably because it strives a little too hard to map out the influence of Moravianism throughout Blake’s work which, in my opinion, tends to distort sometimes what Blake had to say on the subject. In the light of current research it is clear that Blake must have been marked by Moravianism – and yet the implied move to read Blake as a Moravian appears unsatisfactory at times in discussing Blake’s own thoughts on religion and the divine.

The “Priest” they called him: Burroughs and Blake

Today is the anniversary of the death of William S. Burroughs II, one of the major writers of the Beat Generation. Burroughs was, of course, famous for his novel, Naked Lunch, written while he was living in Tangier and published in 1959. As Ted Morgan observes in Literary Outlaw, this was the book, along with Ginsberg’s Howl, that ended literary censorship in America. That novel alone was enough to have earned Burroughs notoriety, without the accidental killing of his wife Joan Vollmer in a drunken game of “William Tell” in 1951, his later coming out as a homosexual and his addiction to heroin.

Although his appreciation of Blake was by no means as overt as that of Ginsberg, Burroughs frequently referred to Blake as a precursor of his mythographic and cut up style. As Patti Smith recalled after his death:

William Burroughs and I used to talk about this. Burroughs was fond of Blake, and it was just so simple to him. He said that Blake just saw what others did not – and that it seemed like a good answer. I mean, Blake was so generous with his angels that even we can look at them now. (Cited in Radical Blake, p.136)

Tony Tanner has compared Burroughs’ attempts to create “a mythology appropriate to the new age and environment” to the work of Blake. Of this mythology, Burroughs was to explain:

Heaven and hell exist in my mythology. Hell consists of falling into enemy hands, into the hands of the virus power, and heaven consists of freeing oneself from this power, of achieving inner freedom, freedom from conditioning. I may add that none of the characters in my mythology are free. If they were free they would not still be in the mythological system, that is, in the cycle of conditioning.

The attempt to counter these systems of conditioning were most clearly seen in The Naked Lunch and his works of the 1960s such as The Soft Machine (1961) and Nova Express (1965), but it is in his final trilogy, Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1984) and The Western Lands (1987) that his mythological system can be described as its most Blakean – and which, as a result, are my favourite novels. As Angela Carter remarked of these texts in her collection Expletives Deleted (1993), Burroughs’ “project” was:

to make time stand still for a while, and there are ways in which Burroughs’ work indeed resembles that of another William, the Blake of the self-crafted mythology of the Prophetic Books, although it must be said that Burroughs is much funnier. (Carter 41)

A typical piece of provocation on Carter’s part, who – especially in her later years – tended to read Blake in a more po-faced manner than the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell deserved, nonetheless she hits upon the key connection between Blake and Burroughs, that we must create our own systems or be enslaved by those of others.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Burroughs had supported his addiction by publishing a number of books and essays, as well as developing his own style as a literary performer. By the end of the 1970s, indeed, he had become a significant member of the American avant garde – so much so that in 1984 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and, by the time of his death in 1997, was as much an establishment novelist of the United States as could be hoped on the part of a deliberately queer ex-junkie with a taste in extremist styles.

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 more doctrinaire Marxist attitudes still encountered – though increasingly less so in academia – online. 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.

Scarlet Woman: Heather Corinna

Recently I noticed a fair amount of traffic coming to Zoamorphosis from people looking for a particular name, Heather Corinna. This was after a tweet of mine about an online interview with her that appeared on feministing.com was added to the site. I recognised the name from the old Albion mail list, but only recently realised that William Blake has been a continuing influence on the queer polymath and feminist activist who c0-founded The All Girl Army and whose work can be found on sites such as Scarlet Letters and Scarleteen. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend her blog and various musings at femmerotic.com, and her work has accolades from sources as diverse as Playboy to the Utne Reader.

Here I’ll concentrate on where Blake threads his way through some of her work. From the 1970s onwards, Blake took a beating from a number of feminist writings and – to be honest – deserved a great deal of it. While there is plenty that is vibrant, uplifting and sexually liberating about Blake’s works, he couldn’t resist absorbing all those emanations into his four zoas, and if he celebrates femininity, even feminism, the female vision of Beulah always seems to take second place to masculine Eden, at least in his later work.

In fact, that phrase – “later work” – sums up my own problems around Blake and gender. In his early works, such as The Book of Thel and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, he has no problems whatsoever with recognising the importance of gender politics and a Wollstonecraft-inspired response to the oppression of women in his day (he had, after all, illustrated some of Wollstonecraft’s work during the 1790s). Unsurprisingly, it is Visions, and particularly the lead character of Oothoon, that is one of Corinna’s inspirations:

HC: It’s crazy tough to pick just one, but Oothoon in William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion would have to win it if it was just one. It’s a short piece, but in but a few pages, mostly composed of Oothoon speaking and telling her own tale, she does those most magnificent telling-off on everything from how crazy it is for anyone to suggest that a woman raped is somehow “tainted” or “impure,” to what’s really at the core of sexual jealousy to what sexual freedom and women’s sexuality could really be like in a better world. It also contains Blake’s concept of what innocence is, which is radically different from how we usually hear it defined. For Blake, innocence was simply where we are at without experience, less about purity and more about an open wonder, then we get life experience, and the ideal state — unlike the one we often see, which is this perpetual state of innocence or “purity” — is to return to innocence informed and deepened by experience. (From an interview on Feministing)

Corinna spent her early years alternating between Chicago and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania before attending the Chicago Academy of Arts and Shimer College where, in her own words, “she discovered Blake and found that erotic literature and sexuality could parade as an actual major”. After throwing herself into online communities (All Girl Army being the most notable of many) as well as specialising in writing about sexuality and working as a sexuality educator and queer activist, she attracted considerable attention for sites such as scarleteen.com (she’s also a trained Montessori teacher). In short, she’s just the kind of person to get down and dirty with Blake or engage in an honest (mental) fight with him, for without contaries is no progression – though there would not necessarily be that many contraries between the two of them.

Blake crops up again and again in Corinna’s work, but I’m going to end with just one piece to demonstrate her way of using him to make humane and often extremely thoughtful observations – in this case on the subject of rape advice for teenagers:

Were our thoughts, as a whole people, more broad and wider in scope on sexuality, we would understand that an act of rape, legally defined as “a sexual act committed against a woman’s will,” is only a sexual act for the perpetrator, and even in that, has far more to do with other factors, such as power, dominance, control, anger and emotional imbalance, than it does with sex at all.

William Blake, in the late 1700’s, wrote a piece entitled Visions of the Daughters of Albion. At the time, the premise of this piece was revolutionary: Oothoon, a woman in love with Theotormon, is raped by another, Bromion, and despite Theotormon’s feelings she is “spoiled,” she boldly asserts otherwise. Oothoon — and Blake — states clearly that she is incapable of being spoiled, ruined or sullied by the action of others upon her, in which she had no part or engagement with. Thankfully, others have also finally begun to realize this is so. (From scarleteen.com)