I presented a paper for an invigorating Blake panel this Friday at the Northeastern Modern Language Association in Rochester, NY, 3/15-18 2012. The panel was chaired and organized by Richard Tayson (from the CUNY Graduate Center) and is titled “Making Sense(s) of William Blake.” Here is a list of the participants and their presentation titles:
“Connective Tissues: Blake’s Bodily Fibers as Contraries and Negations”
Karen Guendel, Boston University
“Clearing away the Rubbish: Reinventive Virginity in Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion”
Aaron Richman, Oakland University
“Blake and the Dancing Body: Human and Eternal Kinesthesia in Milton”
Katherine Cook, University of Oregon
“Holy Entrails and Schismatic Bodies: Esoteric Embodiments of Islam in William Blake’s Art”
Humberto Garcia, Vanderbilt University
Here is the Calls for Paper panel description, the overarching theme commonly addressed in all our presentations:
This panel explores Blake’s contradictory depictions of the body in his texts and images, finding new ways to explore the wide range of figurations pertaining to the senses and to foster inquiry of concepts crucial to the analysis of Blake’s time, including identity, gender, sexuality, and aesthetics. Blake, according to Tristanne J. Connolly’s William Blake and the Body, both “reviles and glorifies the human body” a contradiction documented by Blake’s early nomination of the senses as “the Chief inlets of Soul in this age” and his later lamentation, in reference to the fallen zoas, that “Beyond the bounds of their own self their senses cannot penetrate.” With these two contrary positions in mind, this panel seeks to find new ways to explore Blake’s incorporation of a wide range of figurations pertaining to the senses and to foster inquiry of concepts crucial to analysis of the period: identity, gender, sexuality, text and image, politics, aesthetics, phenomenology, self and community, and an array of subjects trenchant to post-Revolutionary experience.
And here is one of the Blake illustration slides that I focused on extensively during my presentation:
William Blake, Illustration to Dante’s Divine Comedy (1824-7) Hell, Canto 28; The Schismatics and Sowers of Discord: Mahomet
The panel discussed certain cutting-edge research ideas that should prove very relevent to the topics students are exploring in class discussion and in their research papers:
1. Blake’s denial of the body-soul dualism; the body and soul as deeply interconnected, not separate.
2. The spiritual significance of body parts: fibers, veins, muscles, genitals, intestines, bones, etc.
3. The relationship between corporeal and textual bodies; Blake’s printmaking process as a form of embodiment.
4. The importance of the five senses for accessing the Poetic genius (the imagination)
5. The body as the crucial site for warring tension, contradictions, negations, and contraries in Blake’s poetry and art
6. Eroticism and the sexual body as central to Blake’s spiritual visions
These are just some of the key ideas (among others) currently debated among Blake scholars. I hope that students might find these ideas helpful, if not inspirational, for their own work.
I’ve included an abstract of my Blake conference paper below:
Holy Entrails and Schismatic Bodies: Esoteric Embodiments of Islam in William Blake’s Art
This paper argues that William Blake’s image of the split and porous body offers a productive site for investigating radical Protestant and mystical depictions of the Orient and Islam in particular. I propose an esoteric interpretation of Islam’s schismatic body in his watercolor illustration to Canto 28 of Dante’s Inferno, “The Schismatics and Sowers of Discord: Mahomet” (1824-27). Whereas Mahomet’s and Ali’s demonic punishment through perpetual bodily splitting echoes Dante’s unsparing condemnation of these heretics for their schismatic separation from Christianity and the sectarian split between Sunnis and Shiites, the Prophet’s split torso suggests an alternative esoteric interpretation: the future reunification of the eternal body of man (Christ) as celebrated in Blake’s poetic myths. Building on Tristanne J. Connolly’s William Blake and the Body, I argue that Blake’s anatomical portrayal of the Prophet presents the intestinally exposed body as a microcosm of the universe. In offering such a reading, I want to complicate postcolonial criticism that either categorically praises or condemns Blake’s engagement with Islam, without considering how mystical representations of religious bodies enact a spiritual correspondence between negative and positive opposites: the Prophet’s dangling entrails and Ali’s cleft head literally confirm their heretical crimes only to figuratively exalt their prophetic-messianic mission.
The first half of the paper explores Blake’s illustration in the context of his allusion to the Qur’an in The Song of LOS and recurrent images of split bodies in The Four Zoas. My purpose here is to situate the poet-painter in a radical mystical tradition inspired by Jacob Böhme. He saw Islam as a divinely ordained proto-Protestant schism and ascribed a cosmological symbolism to penetrated bodies, as illustrated in the Third Table of William Law’s edition of the seventeenth-century mystic’s works. The paper then focuses on another illustration of Muhammad: Blake’s Visionary Head of Mahomet (1819-1825). In this image, the Prophet resembles a younger version of the poet-painter, a literal and physical embodiment/identification. Comparing this image with his Dante illustration, I conclude that representations of Islam indirectly helped define his heterodox conceptions of embodied prophecy and religious enthusiasm.