Category: Empire vs. Revolution (10/2)


We discussed in class today Blake’s controversial representation of female rape in the “Argument” to Visions of the Daughters of Albion.  Just because we read Blake retrospectively as a “genius” does not mean we should let him off the hook for his sexist representation of female rape:  Oothoon plucks “Leutha’s flower,” asserted her feminine sexual identity by raising “up from the vale,” and, in doing so, occasioned the “terrible thunders” that “tore” her hymen (“virgin mantle”).  Read in isolation from the rest of the poem and from the political and historical context of the 1790s, the “argument” seems to blame the female victim of this poem, Ooothoon, for her rape.  Clearly, this presents a problem for Blake critics who redeem Blake as a radical and proto-feminist thinker ahead of his time.  However, as responsible readers of poetry (and not just Blake’s works), we MUST read this “argument” in its socio-historical context; otherwise we miss the deep layers of meaning implicit in this transgressive act of sexual violence.

Here are the three important contexts to note:

1. Leutha symbolizes sex under the law; sin or guilt, as described in Damon’s A Blake Dictionary.  In a moment strongly reminiscent of Sin’s birth in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Leutha in Blake’s Milton springs from the breast of Satan, and has declared him her “parent power.” Leutha’s separation from Satan, then, is fallen and illusory.  For Milton, Sin sprang from Satan’s head and then becomes–to the shock of the heavenly onlookers–Satan’s adulterous, incestuous lover, copulates with him, and gives birth to Death.  (see the Blake’s engraving of Paradise Lost below, which depicts the moment when Satan, who forgot his transgressive act, encounters Death at the gates of hell and Sin intervenes).

2.  The Blake scholar Angela Esterhammer in “Blake and Language” in William Blake Studies (2006; edited by Nicholas M. Williams) notes that Blake plays with the phonetic resemblance of his invented names.  She argues that the poet creates “pictures of speech,” clusters of loose associations that point to specific socio-historical contexts through sound-patterns.  She therefore concludes that

Blake’s Leutha represents ‘Protestant speech’ — an association achieved partly through the pun on ‘Luther’, but mainly through her own verbal behaviour in Blake’s prophetic poems, where she manifests ‘Protestant’ modes of speech such as public self-scrutiny, self-exaggeration, confession, and plain-spokenness (73).

3. Leutha’s flower symbolically resonates with Mary Wollstonecraft’s elaborate conceit about the overfertilized, beautiful, yet barren flower: women who are reduced to becoming men’s sex toys thanks to religious and educational conduct books that assign them a subservient role as good domestic helpmates, i.e. “abject slaves.”  See The Vindication of the Rights of Women.

"Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell", Illustrations to Milton's "Paradise Lost", The Butts Set, 1808, Blake Archive, Huntington Library
“Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell”, Illustrations to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, The Butts Set, 1808, Blake Archive, Huntington Library

These three contexts help flesh out the allegorical structure underpinning Blake’s “argument”:  rape (tearing the mantle in twain) symbolizes a theological (“Protestant”) and patriarchal sexual violation of the holy female body (Christ as a female).  In uncovering these dense allegory, I am arguing that Blake is providing a Moravian-antinomian critique of corrupt and oppressive Protestant gender norms in England.  To clinch this argument, I treat the torn mantle as another associative “pictures of speech,” a vivid biblical allusion to Jesus’s redemptive moment during his crucifixion:

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split” (Matthew 27: 50-51).

This moment of vaginal penetration as rape ironically recalls the holy place of the tabernacle: an inner room called the holy of holies, or the most holy place according to biblical tradition.

As described in the Old Testament, this inner room of the temple was a most sacred room, because it was God’s special dwelling place in the midst of His people during the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. The Holy of Holies was a perfect cube separated by a thick curtain, known as the “veil” (in Hebrew means a screen, divider or separator that hides). What was this curtain hiding? It was shielding a holy God from sinful man. Whoever entered into the holy of holies was entering the very presence of God and anyone other than the high priest who entered the holy of holies would die. Even the high priest, God’s chosen mediator with His people, could only pass through the veil and enter this sacred dwelling once a year, on a prescribed day called the Day of Atonement. “But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” (Hebrews 9:7). So the presence of God remained shielded from man behind a thick curtain during the history of Israel. However, Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross made direct access to God available to all people–not just the priests. When Jesus died the curtain in the Jerusalem temple was torn in half, performing the sacrificial atonement that could finally unveil the holy of holies.

But what exact does the holy of holies look like? To answer this question, we need to know about the figure of cherubim (plural term for hybrid lion/human angels) that were embroidered onto this curtain. They were spirits who serve God, and God was thought to be present in between these two spirits. The cherubim serves as a reminder of what use to be housed in this inner room: the Ark of the Covenant. This transportable ark was said to contain the testimony of the people of Israel, or the Law of the original Ten Commandandments written on stone tablets. A special lid or “mercy seat” covered the top of the ark and was ornamented with two cherubs whose outspread wings overarched the cover and touched one another (see image below).

illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries

According to Kabbalists, Moravians, and Swedenborgians, the golden sculpture of male and female cherubs that guarded the Ark were entwined in the act of marital intercourse, thus forming an emblem of God’s joyful marriage with his female counterpart, Jerusalem. When the Temple was sacked by pagans, the erotic statuary was paraded through the streets in order to embarress the Israelites. In other words, God manifests through sexual union and guides those who work with this holy mystery.

So to return to Blake’s image of virginal penetration as rape. Oothoon, in picking the ideal feminine flower of beauty from Leutha’s vale, or sex regulated under the law, has freely chosen the joys of sexuality but also, ironically, the very patriarchal law that prohibits  women’s full enjoyment of sexuality: Protestant-Lutheran theological notions of female chastity and original sin.  For Blake, these notions are associated with the triumph of Satan.  In other words, the holy of holies–sexual union of the cherubim–is violated by a violent, satanic theological-patriarchal penetration of sacred sexuality; hence, the trope of rape.  The holy of holies cannot be made universal until humanity is free from sex under the law, especially for women, as revealed in Christ’s bodily crucifixion (for Moravians, Christ’s death wound/womb). This allegorical argument, I believe, aligns Blake’s sexual (Moravian) theology with his feminist politics, which is clearly very different from Mary Wollstonecraft’s more secular feminism.

But I’m afraid that I’ve de-emphasizing Blake’s sexist views on the female sex victim by offering this elaborate allegorical reading, yet another redemptive interpretation of Blake that reads rape metaphorically rather than literally!!!  This reading raises a central question for class discussion: as critics of English literature, what is our ethical responsibility toward the literature we interpret?

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In class on Wednesday, I had difficultly reconciling the apocalyptic revolution depicted in “A Song of Liberty” with its abrupt, triumphant ending. The poem’s allusions to the Book of Revelation notwithstanding, “Empire is no more! and now the lion & the wolf shall cease” is a very simplistic resolution to the violence, conflict and chaos of the rest of the poem (verse 20). Thinking about the poem’s position in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I began to wonder if Blake were inherently more interested in the immediate chaos of revolutions than their outcomes. Might the poem be reveling in its own chaos and that of the continental revolutions? Blake certainly seems to be displaying an anarchist streak.

I’d like to quickly contrast the depiction of revolution as apocalyptic in “A Song of Liberty” with the playwright Samuel Beckett’s depiction of a post-apocalyptic situation in Endgame. Although obviously Blake never read Beckett, I’m putting the two together because perception is hugely important in both their works.  There is also to my knowledge no text that better depicts the sheer banality of a dull round of being than Beckett’s. The following clip from a production of Endgame wasn’t my ideal choice, but it does address perception and convey Hamm and Clov’s dull round.

One of the consequences of the apocalypse in Endgame is the narrowing of the characters’ perceptions. Hamm has lost his sight and can’t move, while Clov cannot see anything clearly out of the windows. In contrast, an apocalyptic revolution for Blake seems to entail the complete opposite. In “A Song of Liberty,” the son of fire falling from the sky – the appearance of revolution – increases the perceptions of the human race. The narrator extorts the citizen of London to “enlarge thy countenance,” the Jew to “leave counting gold” and the African to return to his oil and wine (verse 12). This urge to abandon ethnic stereotypes suggests that revolution will enhance human perception  to a level where we no longer be confined by restricted modes of thinking. This might explain how the prophesied peace would be achieved. The apocalyptic revolution in the poem entails the destruction of established religion, the law and empire. Blake is suggesting that human perception will be expanded once the institutions that he believes limit it are gone.

Furthermore, the narrator’s journey through Hell or chaos throughout The Marriage of Heaven and Hell strongly suggests that the narrator’s experience of chaos/Hell as well as order/Heaven increases his perception and understanding. However, as the narrator spends almost all of his time in Hell, isn’t Blake suggesting that chaos is infinitely preferable to order, despite the fact that they are supposed to be in a marriage?

There’s more to be said here, but I’ll end on the heart of the issue. Blake seems to focus on the immediate chaos of revolution because he believes that the tearing down of old and corrupt establishments gives humanity a chance to see reality more clearly. Uncharacteristically, he seems to take the outcome of revolution as given in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Perhaps modern readers and artists have become much more concerned about the outcomes of revolutions and apocalypses with experience. How would Blake respond to depictions of apocalypse like Beckett’s, which suggests that chaos and destruction only make it harder to tell illusion from reality and friend from foe?

Idea map of Blake’s Politics

Today in class students have made some progress in understanding Blake’s political views in the context of the 1790s.  We concluded that Blake does not fit the political categories of “Left” and “Right,” problematizing this contrary itself, and adopts the biblical language of apocalypse/the Second coming to articulate his utopian vision while deviating from the standard political discourses of social contracts, national sovereignty, and rights shared by Burke, Price, and Paine.  Clearly, Blake’s New Jerusalem is an odd political and theological duck for his era!

Students should revise this week’s post to better address the political issues raised in class today.  To help you with this task, focus on the concluding section to The Marriage, “A Song of Liberty” (pp. 81-82).  Your revised post is due by 4pm this Friday (10/4); the designated student will comment on these posts by 5pm that day.

Here are some pics of the Blake idea map students and I created collaboratively  in class:

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Blake & Paine

For Edmund Burke, the French Revolution represented an inversion and usurpation of natural order (at the very least a dismantling of the benign illusions thereof), a loss of the restraints and checks on mankind’s more bestial drives. However, for Blake, it was genuinely apocalyptic—in the sense it offered revelation, the casting off of fetters and a new way of seeing, not that it necessarily heralded doomsday and the end-times. It was return to something originary, deposing the hierarchies that have separated humanity from the natural—scales falling from eyes finally. He is allied with Thomas Paine in seeing the emancipatory potential in revolution, in realizing that it is outmoded ideologies that perpetuate tyranny. Shackles in the mind always being more effective than those about the ankles or wrists.

For this particular post, I want to elaborate on Anna’s post from last week. In it, she discusses Blake’s use of Moravian themes in the last Memorable Fancy. Anna’s post can be found here: https://williamblakeandenlightenmentmedia.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/blake-zinzendorf-nuns-et-al/

Anna claims that in this Memorable Fancy, “we see a typical motif of Blake’s work by connecting obedience to restricting individual creativity. Living under the unquestioned law is blind obedience, but acting from impulse and displaying this physical devotion is closer to God” (Watt). I believe that this idea of obedience as a restriction of creativity can be expanded further to include restricted liberty, as is found in Paine’s “The Rights of Man.” Paine claims that “man under the monarchical and hereditary systems of government” is found in a “wretched state… dragged from his home by one power, or driven by another, and impoverished by taxes more than by enemies” (25). Much as Anna argues that the last Memorable Fancy demonstrates Blake’s belief that “traditional laws are oppression,” here we see Paine’s argument of traditional monarchy as oppressive. Paine’s comment that “every citizen is a member of the sovereignty, and as such can acknowledge no personal subjugation, and his obedience can be only to the laws” surely resonated with Blake, as it is a Poetic Genius-esque way of thinking about lawmaking (25).

However, just as Anna addresses in her post, we must also consider Blake’s tone and use of satire in all of his works. In his marginal comments, he claims that Paine’s writings are the work of “either a Devil or an inspired man,” and that “Paine is a better Christian than the Bishop” (456, 460). Can we really interpret this as praise for Paine? Blake’s use of satire in all of his works, including the last Memorable Fancy, makes it impossible for us to know exactly what he believes and champions. We can assume that Blake was influenced by the Moravian church based on the imagery found in the last Memorable Fancy, but we cannot begin to presume that Blake subscribed to the beliefs and ideals of the Moravian church because of his heavy use of satire. Likewise, we know that Paine influenced Blake’s thinking, but we are left to wonder if Blake really saw him as an “inspired man” or merely as a Devil.

I think without a doubt, we have all come to the conclusion that Blake is a confusing character. Thus, in attempting to understand Blake’s position in regard to the French Revolution, it is again a challenge. After reading from Paine, Burke, and Price, each author takes a firm position in regard to the revolution, like most. As we discussed in class Monday, not taking a firm position was virtually impossible, the “grey area” did not exist, but, somehow, Blake exists, at least partly, here. After reading works like The Songs of Innocence and Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake places himself in a position to support either side, or neither side for that matter. Blake focuses on the individual and something as mob-like as the Revolution, stands outside that belief.

In his marginal comments to Watson’s An Apology for the Bible, Blake considers Paine’s secular enlightenment assault on revealed religion to be the work of “either a Devil or an Inspired Man” (456).  He also notes that “Paine is a better Christian than the Bishop” (460).  For next Wednesday (10/2), write a post that reflects on Blake’s engagement with the French revolutionary debates of the turbulent 1790s.  How do any of the Blake works we’ve read thus far realign the radical ideals proposed by Paine with the poet-artist’s antinomian-Moravian view of Christianity?  Focus on a particular Blake work/image and please feel free to elaborate on your or other students’ previous posts.  Categorize under “Empire vs. Revolution” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags.

 

I’ve included below pictures of the idea map we created collaboratively in class today (the markings are color coded: yellow for Richard Price, blue for Edmund Burke, and red for Thomas Paine).  Use this map as a rough guide to help you position Blake’s political views in preparation for this week’s blog question prompt.

 

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And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split (Matthew 27: 50-51).

As we discussed in class last Friday, I think these lines from Matthew are central to the allegorical “Argument” that prefaces “Visions of the Daughter of Albion,” particularly the last two lines “But the terrible thunders tore / My virgin mantle in twain.” In order understand the significance of this biblical allusion for Blake’s sexual politics, we need to discover how and why this moment of vaginal penetration as rape (why rape?) is ironically related to the holy place of the tabernacle: an inner room called the holy of holies, or the most holy place.

As decribed in the Old Testament, this inner room of the temple was a most sacred room, because it was God’s special dwelling place in the midst of His people during the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. The Holy of Holies was a perfect cube separated by a thick curtain, known as the “veil” (in Hebrew means a screen, divider or separator that hides). What was this curtain hiding? It was shielding a holy God from sinful man. Whoever entered into the holy of holies was entering the very presence of God and anyone other than the high priest who entered the holy of holies would die. Even the high priest, God’s chosen mediator with His people, could only pass through the veil and enter this sacred dwelling once a year, on a prescribed day called the Day of Atonement. “But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” (Hebrews 9:7). So the presence of God remained shielded from man behind a thick curtain during the history of Israel. However, Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross made direct access to God available to all people–not just the priests. When Jesus died the curtain in the Jerusalem temple was torn in half, performing the sacrificial atonement that could finally unveil the holy of holies.

But what exact does the holy of holies look like? To answer this question, we need to know about the figure of cherubim (plural term for hybrid lion/human angels) that were embroidered onto this curtain. They were spirits who serve God, and God was thought to be present in between these two spirits. The cherubim serves as a reminder of what use to be housed in this inner room: the Ark of the Covenant. This transportable ark was said to contain the testimony of the people of Israel, or the Law of the original Ten Commandandments written on stone tablets. A special lid or “mercy seat” covered the top of the ark and was ornamented with two cherubs whose outspread wings overarched the cover and touched one another (see image below).

illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries

According to Kabbalists, Moravians, and Swedenborgians, the golden sculpture of male and female cherubs that guarded the Ark were entwined in the act of marital intercourse, thus forming an emblem of God’s joyful marriage with his female counterpart, Jerusalem. When the Temple was sacked by pagans, the erotic statuary was paraded through the streets in order to embarress the Israelites. In other words, God manifests through sexual union and guides those who work with this holy mystery.

This indicates a profound relationship with Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, as displayed in the santuaries of their temples:

So to return to Blake’s image of virginal penetration as rape. Oothoon, in picking the ideal feminine flower of beauty from Leutha’s vale, or sex regulated under the law, has freely choosen the joys of sexuality but also, ironically, the very patriarchal law that probits womem’s full enjoyment of sexuality: Bromion’s “terrible thunders” of reason, acting on behalf of Urizen (“your reason”). In other words, the holy of holies–sexual union of the cherubim–is violated by reason’s violent penetration (rape). Hence, the holy of holies cannot be made universal until humanity is free from sex under the law, especially for women, as revealed in Christ’s bodily crucifixtion (for Moravians, Christ’s death wound/womb). This allegorical argument, I believe, aligns Blake’s sexual (Moravian) theology with his feminist politics, which is clearly very different from Mary Wollstonecraft’s more secular feminism.

I’m offerring a provisional reading here…any other thoughts?

Revolution or Continual Renewal?

While Blake is obviously no proponent of empire or hierarchical systems of government, affixing the word “revolution” to his political ideology could be an erroneous construction. The definition of revolution states the following: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order for a new system.” Though he admires the ideals of the French and American revolutions, Blake does not envision a satisfactory replacement for these tyrannical systems–instead, he pushes for a continuous state of revolution. As someone mentioned in class, even anarchy would not satisfy Blake’s political desires because by being a lack of a system, it itself becomes a system. Tying these ideas back to the tenets of the Poetic Genius, Blake might imagine a society in revolution as the supreme expression of imagination and individualism, whether seen through the freedom to act without laws or being able to create and destroy anything at will. Because such a system is nearly unimaginable for eighteenth-century people (even still for today’s population), Blake would have become an outcast for expressing his ideas forthrightly, so by asserting suggestive hints at such a system through convoluted documents and images, he proposed his radical ideas for continuous revolutionary renewal in such a way that only the most interested and creative people could understand his idea for a new society (or lack thereof).

Violence, Revolution, and Blake

When the topic of revolution comes up, the question of violence and its role in revolution always lingers in the background. When we think of revolutionaries, our minds are filled with images of Che Guevara, George Washington, Gandhi, and the like. While the aims of their respective revolutions differ greatly, every man or woman implicated in revolutionary activity has hopes of bringing into existence a better, more free society. Likewise, those individuals must ask themselves, in each circumstance, if violence is necessary to accomplish the goals of the revolution. Furthermore, does the end justify the means? Revolutionaries like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. felt that a peaceful revolution was the only one worth having; their means were an intrinsic part of the new society they wished to build. For them, adhering to the peaceful tenets of their religions was absolutely necessary in demonstrating how one was to conduct his or herself after their goals were accomplished. One couldn’t expect harmony to arise out of chaos.
King and Gandhi’s highly principled versions of revolution have their opposites in the revolutionary activities of people like Malcolm X and Che Guevara. Their aspirations were so important to them that they were willing to actualize their hope for a better society “by any means necessary,” as Malcolm X once put it. Violence was a necessary evil; the systems these revolutionaries and myriad others throughout history sought to destroy were so entrenched that the only way to replace them was by destroying everything and starting anew.
Where does Blake stand? If he supported both the American and French Revolutions, two considerably bloody conflicts that cost the lives of many a fellow Brit, we may safely assume that Blake had little problem with armed conflict if the ends justified the means. Blake also adhered to the apocalyptic millenian doctrine that supposed the earth to be already in a state of deterioration in preparation for the return of Christ. For him, this violence could have been seen as God’s work, hearkening back to the warrior God of the Old Testament. The New Jerusalem, it seems, can only come about through the crucible. Thoughts?