G.A. Rosso. The Religion of Empire: Political Theology in Blake’s Prophetic System. Reviewed by James Rovira.
G.A. Rosso’s The Religion of Empire: Political Theology in Blake’s Prophetic Symbolism is a carefully and densely argued analysis of William Blake’s critique of the relationship between British state religion and imperial ambitions in Vala or The Four Zoas, Milton a Poem, and Jerusalem. Rosso defends the idea that Blake critiqued these interrelationships rather than succumbed to his own version of British nationalism through masterful close readings of Blake’s poetry and art focused on the character of Rahab, approaching Rahab through both Blake’s and his own readings of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, readings informed by twentieth-century Biblical scholarship. Because of Rosso’s approach, I would like to emphasize in this review that Rosso here studies Blake’s political theology. His work should be taken as a significant step forward in the study of Blake and religion, which at different times in the history of Blake scholarship has been too simplistic: Blake is a Christian, or an atheist, or an esoteric, or an idealist, or a humanist, or a dissenter, or a Moravian, or a Muggletonian, and so on. These arguments can all be made because at different times he sounds like each of these, and many of these options of course have significant archival evidence and close readings supporting them. Blake was almost certainly raised in a Moravian household, for example. But as descriptions of Blake’s religious consciousness, they are all inadequate by themselves as accounts of Blake’s mythology in ways that Rosso’s study is not, which I will describe after reviewing the character of Rahab in both Scripture and in Blake. I would also like to add that as a study of Blake’s political theology, this work does not engage theological questions for their own sake. As we will see, Rosso carefully examines each theological question, particularly questions about the status of Christ, in their political contexts and for their political ramifications.
Rahab is a relatively minor character in the Biblical record. Though she has a somewhat higher profile in Blake’s works, my first reaction was surprise that Rosso could make her the focal point of a monograph. However, Rahab is a strangely ambiguous character within the Hebrew scriptures, and especially so when we consider the New Testament alongside them, so that her character involves complexities congenial to Blake’s mythologizing strategies. The name “Rahab” appears only ten times in the Authorized Version, initially in chapters two and six of the Book of Joshua as she is integral to the Hebrews’ conquest of Jericho. Aside from Joshua, she appears twice in the New Testament (Hebrews and James), twice in the Psalms, and once in Isaiah. She enters the Biblical narrative sheltering spies sent by Joshua prior to the conquest of Jericho and then sees them safely out of the city because, she says, “I know the Lord hath given you the land” (Authorized Version, Joshua 2.9). This decision makes her a political and religious hero within the Book of Joshua, one who aided spies and enabled the conquest of Jericho by the first generation of Hebrews who lived after Moses. As a result, when they invaded Jericho, all people and animals in the city were killed—including men, women, and children—except for those in Rahab’s household: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword. But Joshua had said unto the two men that had spied out the country, Go into the harlot’s house, and bring out thence the woman, and all that she hath, as ye sware unto her” (Authorized Version, 6.22-23).
This passage and others in the Hebrew scriptures were problematic for many pre-Reformation Christian interpreters, motivating exegetes from the early church to the Reformation to adopt allegorical interpretations of Scripture to circumvent the moral complexities of validating conquest and killing when they were commanded by the teachings of Christ to love their enemies, not to mention the insurmountable moral difficulty of killing women and children during war. Origen is probably the most blunt of early Christians on this point, arguing in De Principiis (On First Principles, ca. 220-230 ACE) that literal interpretations of Scripture can lead readers to accept ideas that are either not true, not rational (his example was that light exists before the sun in Genesis 1), or morally unacceptable. New Testament authors deal with this difficulty by praising Rahab for her faith: they point to her not because of her role in the physical conquest of Canaan, but because of how she, as a non-Hebrew prostitute, symbolizes justification by faith in opposition to moral justification before God through adherence to the Mosaic law.
However, the Psalms (87.4; 89.10) and Isaiah (51.9) add unusual twists to the Biblical depiction of Rahab. The two passages in the Psalms in which she appears associate her with the enemies of God and with Babylon. The passage in Isaiah also associates her with the enemies of God, but through the figure of the dragon. It is likely that in these passages Rahab stands in as a representative of all the peoples conquered by the Hebrews as they settled the land; Jericho was their first conquest, and Rahab was the gate or doorway, so to speak, their entry point for conquest. But what is most important is the complexity and diversity of Biblical associations with Rahab: a prostitute, a friend of the nation of Israel, a representative of salvation by faith, and a representative of the enemies of God, one that is also associated with Babylon and the dragon, the latter two images highly significant yet again in Revelation as figures of the Antichrist and the corrupt world system he leads.
This background illustrates how Blake’s own apocalyptic works function as he capitalizes on these complexities to their fullest. The name “Rahab” appears fifty-one times in Blake’s works, all of them appearing within The Four Zoas, Milton a Poem, and Jerusalem. Rahab is very much a figure confined to Blake’s late prophetic works, perhaps mirroring in herself the transformations that The Four Zoas made as its material was reworked into Milton and Jerusalem. Rahab is associated with Tirzah and Satan in The Four Zoas. She becomes Tirzah’s mother in Milton, creating Voltaire while Tirzah creates Rousseau, where she is also part of an aggregate with Satan that does not know regeneration. At the end of Milton she is associated with Babylon, an association reaffirmed multiple times in Jerusalem. In that book Rahab appears “in the fourth region of humanity” where “mortality appears” and the system of moral virtue begins, which is itself named Rahab (Jerusalem plate 35, line 10). Therefore Rahab in Blake’s works is primarily a negative figure associated with Enlightenment reason and British state religion, extensions of the Rahab figure presented in Revelation. Babylon and the dragon were mourned in Revelation by the merchants, the kings of the earth, and their armies: the interconnection of commerce, war, and religion that existed within both the Roman and British Empires that Blake so often critiqued.
Rosso’s study engages with this Biblical and Blakean material by using “the figure of Rahab as a heuristic lens to show the diverse nature of Blake’s apocalyptic humanism and to give an account of the ways in which Blake’s politics and theology developed together in the latter half of his career” (233). Furthermore, while Rosso doesn’t believe Blake is successful in fully liberating “himself from sexist or nationalist assumptions engrained in his culture,” he does argue that Blake’s “masculine biases do not displace his more progressive ideas and that his late works oppose the divisions of gender, religion, and empire that deny a fully human existence” (237). Rosso achieves his goal in six chapters, the first devoted to the Biblical roots of Blake’s political theology, the next on Rahab symbolism in The Four Zoas, the third and fourth chapters cover Milton—chapter 3 examines the Bard’s song and four the divided emanation—while chapters five and six and the conclusion engage Jerusalem, chapter five covering the veil of moral virtue and chapter six empire and apocalypse.
Rosso begins his argument about Blake and the Bible in chapter one with the assertion that Blake’s politics entirely derive from his religion, and that his religion is indebted not so much to the Bible generally, but to the Book of Revelation in particular, saying that Revelation is the “lens through which he views the entire Bible” (3). Rosso draws from a number of studies to explain the different ways in which Blake’s apocalyptic figures are similar to their counterparts in Revelation, specifically Biblical rather than literary scholarship, to conclude that it is in the Book of Revelation that Blake’s own uses of the Biblical tradition find their meeting point in the character of Rahab: “The culminating judgment against Babylon in Revelation 17-18 brings together these disparate traditions and myths of the dragon and the harlot, the main contexts of Blake’s Rahab symbolism” (45). He goes on to describe harlot imagery in Revelation and in Blake as a focal point for the “deification of state power” and (46), interestingly, a site of anxiety toward desire, in that it simultaneously arouses and suppresses it: “Rahab both arouses desire and subjects it to accusation and punishment” rather than setting desire up as a potentially productive Blakean contrary to moral law (46). Rosso concludes this section by asserting that “Blake thus invests Joshua’s ‘good harlot’ with Revelation’s harlot and dragon symbolism to repudiate the theology of both Roman and Judeo-Christian conquest,” making Rahab a negative symbol of the alliance of “religion and empire” (48). Rosso then concludes this chapter with a discussion of the applicability of Blake’s critique of religion and empire to modern political theology and to the concept of Christendom, or the existence of Christianity as a worldwide political and economic power as well as a major world religion.
In chapter 2, “The Harlot and the Hermaphrodite: Rahab Symbolism in The Four Zoas,” Rosso explains how Blake “sharpened his thinking about the role of Jesus in his life and art and in the institutional history of Christianity,” particularly with a focus on the “alliance of religion with state power” symbolized by Rahab (55). Night VIII is of particular importance, as it brings together two historical moments: “the conversion of early Christianity into Christendom and the secularization of radical Protestantism in the Enlightenment” (55), again drawing parallels between the Roman and British empires. This chapter draws in another significant Blake figure into Rosso’s discussion, the hermaphrodite, as Rahab is characterized as both a harlot and a dragon. The figure of the hermaphrodite serves the purpose of creating a “containing form” for multiple strands and figures in Blake’s narrative, but it also represents how “revolutionary energy is compromised in each age by what Blake sees as the monstrous union of religion and empire” (55). Rosso significantly points to Blake’s Renaissance-era influences for the figure of the hermaphrodite, so that this figure isn’t used to refer to “genital abnormalities” but to “ideal and bestial forms of merging” (55-6). Blake’s Shadowy Female becomes a central figure whom Rosso associates with “the diversion of sexual energy into social mores and war” (59). Urizen in particular is responsible for the appearance of the Shadowy Female, whose power consists of “the global expansion of capitalist modernity” (58). Through this process, Vala is transformed into Rahab via the figure of the Shadowy Female. In Night VIII, Rahab is revealed as “Mystery Babylon the Mother of Harlots,” a designation drawn from Revelation 17 (59). Ultimately, Rosso describes the unfolding of an apocalyptic drama in which the Lamb/Jerusalem are opposed by Rahab/Satan, who represent the “hermaphroditic temple-state” (69). The narrative leads to Rahab appearing at the Lamb’s sepulcher, which according to Rosso “goes to the heart of Blake’s effort to both critique Christianity and redeem it from the conformism and violence that overtake it in each era” (72). Rosso concludes this chapter by illuminating different facets of Rahab’s character through an engagement with Blake’s art, discussing different illustrations within The Four Zoas and also Blake’s watercolor The Resurrection (c. 1805). The purpose Blake discovered in his art through his use of Rahab was the necessity of keeping “the contraries of transcendence and immanence constantly before the reader-viewer as necessary for redemption” (80). Rosso uses Blake’s visuals to expound his critique of state Christianity as they represent “the textual enactment of Rahab and Urizen forming the hermaphroditic body of official Christianity” (81). He concludes that what Blake discovered “in revising Vala into The Four Zoas is the originality of Rahab as a symbol, particularly the fact that her feminine figuration is not detached from her masculine one” (91).
Chapter three, “The Birth of Rahab: A Reading of the Bard’s Song in Milton” focuses on the Bard’s song in Milton a Poem as “Rahab’s public entrance into Blake’s canon” because The Four Zoas was not published during Blake’s lifetime (92). Both here and in Night VIII, Rahab’s “symbolic activity is identified with the triumph of Deism” (93), but while Blake undermines Anglican Christianity in The Four Zoas, Rosso argues that in Milton a Poem Blake undermines the governing narrative surrounding the English Reformation by rendering it “incomprehensible in traditional narrative terms” (94). Most significant is the harrow that appears in the Bard’s song, the point of contest between Los’s sons on one side and the complex of figures represented by Satan (monarchy plus state church), Palambron (Parliament), and Rintrah (radical dissent) on the other, the three constituencies who were vying for power during the English Civil War. It is in Milton a Poem that Satan transforms from “the energy of religious and political revolt” to “an icon of state power and its hegemonic practices” (96), mirroring the mild, passive-aggressive Satan of Milton’s Paradise Regained. Rosso argues that Milton’s Satan becomes equivalent to Newton’s conception of God in Book III of Principia Mathematica: God the Pantocrator. Rosso believes that Milton had Arianism in common with Newton, and that Blake detected it and commented upon it in Milton, which validates Blake’s association of Milton with Newton and Locke. Significantly, Rosso argues that “Blake seems to grasp more thoroughly than others how the Newtonian synthesis of science, religion, and politics served the expanding aims of the British state, and in particular how Jesus’ diminishment [via Arianism] and the Pantocrator’s exaltation contributed to an ethos that supported this expansion” (103). Therefore the specific theological debate surrounding Arianism is not the issue, nor is whether or not Blake was himself an Arian, but that Blake’s detection of Milton’s Arianism “brings Newton’s Pantocrator into closer proximity to Milton’s God by having Satan claim sole divinity and by ignoring Christ or the Son altogether” (107). Since Blake emphasizes forgiveness through the Son, and the state church emphasizes conformity to a moral ideal, by demoting the Son Arianism is demonstrated to be a political move on behalf of a British state church that demands moral conformity as much as a theological move in Rosso’s analysis.
However, when Rahab appears in the poem, she does so not as an image of Satan or of Milton but of those who appropriated Milton: the latitudinarians, who were a “moderate group of rational Protestants. . . whose avoidance of controversy during the English civil war paved their way to prominence in the Restoration” (105). It is to this group that Locke and Newton were most directly indebted. This historical context, Rosso argues, is behind Satan’s mildness and Palambron’s refusal to get angry. Rosso’s account ultimately points to the “psychic and narrative space from which Rahab emerges” (109), which leads to his discussion of Leutha, who completes “Blake’s hermaphroditic portrait of Satan” (109). Leutha, along with Elynittria, represent “two modes of illumination or enlightenment, the inner light and natural light. . . of seventeenth-century thought” (110), both of which stood opposed to the “enthusiasm” disavowed by Satan’s mildness. Leutha, ultimately, being Satan’s “‘affective dimension’. . . must be included as an aspect of his selfhood [but] Satan’s primary error is that he attempts to close down this dimension: he disavows both masculine aggression and feminine affect” (116). When Enitharmon creates a “protective space” for Satan in which Leutha also takes refuge at the end of the poem, the seven eyes of God are established and Rahab is born. Each of the seven eyes in Blake scholarship tend to be seen as successive stages of human historical development, with Rahab appearing during or within the seventh eye. Ultimately, Blake’s examination of hermaphroditism in this section is intended to destabilize rigid categories by exposing “the psycho-social dimensions of repression and suffering” (120). Rosso ends this section by asserting that Blake’s goal is to allow Milton to “revise the story of his posthumous existence” in ways that would resist the trinity of “rational religion, moral individualism, and worldly empire” that has dominated his legacy posthumously (121).
Chapter 4, “The Divided Emanation in Milton” examines Rahab’s dual existence as Ololon in eternity and as Rahab in time to argue that Blake writes out of a desire for his readers to distinguish between the two for themselves, a task that he ultimately identifies as a hermeneutic one. This chapter employs analysis of Blake’s Rahab to address the complexities associated with Blake’s concept of the emanation, which assumes a male/female dualism that constitutes a “functional unity” (122) but at the same time problematically involves a “subordination of female to male” (123). Rosso seeks to contribute a “more nuanced approach” to the emanation representative of more recent Blake criticism (123) using Susan Fox’s reading of the emanation as his starting point. In this reading, the female emanation is herself divided into “independent” and “subsidiary” forms (123), so that the key action of Milton has the poet Milton returning to earth to reclaim both forms of his female emanation: the “eternal” form Ololon and the “demonic” form Rahab (123). Rosso adds to Fox’s insights by historicizing them and by claiming that they represent “alternate but not mutually exclusive sides of Milton’s legacy” (123). He moves on to explore Blake’s debt to Boehme in developing these ideas, arguing that “Blake affiliates Boehme’s Sophia with Milton’s Urania to challenge reductive views of Milton’s idea of women, a challenge that emphasizes the female aspect in Milton’s idea of divinity and accentuates the feminine element within the poet’s imagination” (125). This claim is remarkable in its identification of the way that Milton is redeemed: specifically in his view of women, which even to some eighteenth-century readers could be harsh. Rosso’s discussion of Boehme and Urania in Blake encompasses unions within Milton itself: Ololon united with Jesus and Rahab united with Satan. However, the union of Ololon with Jesus is expansive in ways other unions within Blake’s myth are not because “Ololon’s identity is both androgynous and collective. . . a multitude that joins with the Messiah to create a divine body more powerful and diverse than Rahab’s ‘hermaphroditic’ alliance with Satan” (125).
The end result of Ololon’s union with Jesus is that “the sexes must vanish” (129). Before this union, however, Milton has to confront Rahab on earth and, in so doing, confront his legacy. Milton’s problem as he begins this quest, however, “is that he recognizes the male but not the female aspect of the hermaphrodite” (130). According to Rosso, Milton is specifically tempted “to form a religion on the model of the Israelites in the promised land” (134-5). When Milton resists this temptation, the narrative, and Rosso’s chapter, shifts its focus to Ololon, the higher plane of the female emanation, who “universalizes compassion rather than imposes moral instruction” (136). This insight moves Rosso through a close analysis of different relationships among mythological figures in Milton to its fundamental hermeneutic insight: Blake “foregrounds the difference between literal and spiritual signification, which serves ultimately to distinguish Rahab and Ololon” (152). This shift indicates a move away from the literalist hermeneutics that followed the Reformation era, and its dependence on print Bibles, to allegorical and spiritual interpretations of Scripture, one that arose while Scripture primarily existed in handwritten form as manuscripts and codexes. This shift might seem like a minor exegetical point, but it’s the difference between reading the original Biblical account of Rahab as a literal validation of conquest and mass murder or as providing spiritual insights into the dangers of state religion, the former validating the British union of religion and empire while the latter represents Blake’s critique of that union. To complete his nuanced reading of Blake’s uses of androgyny and emanation, Rosso juxtaposes Blake’s text with his designs. On the one hand, within the text, Ololon’s ultimate identity is the “collective body of the ‘One Man Jesus the Saviour’” (155), which subsumes female to male, but the “final design. . . does not illustrate the ‘One Man’ as male but as female, suggesting that in the text-design interaction Blake again underscores the contrary nature of divinity” (155). Rosso ultimately asserts that Blake’s androgyny “functions as a collective concept, and in that sense it not only includes gender difference but surpasses it” (156). The sexes vanish by being gathered up together as one.
Chapters 5 and 6 shift focus from Rahab in Milton to her roles in Jerusalem. Chapter 5, “The Veil of Moral Virtue in Jerusalem,” focuses on the relationship between Jerusalem and Vala “as shaped by the hidden but ubiquitous power of Rahab” (157). The symbol of the veil and weaving imagery in Jerusalem “affects every aspect of the poem” according to Rosso (157). Once again, Rahab is a temporal manifestation of an eternal figure, Vala, who exercises hidden power in the first two chapters of Jerusalem that becomes overt in chapters three and four. The first section of this chapter describes a “primal scene” of lesbian lovemaking between Vala and Jerusalem that occurs at the end of Jerusalem chapter one. Vala entraps Jerusalem to make love to her, but this scene is interrupted by Albion (male) who imposes himself upon Jerusalem and who is affected ever afterwards by what he has seen. Vala begins weaving her veil after Albion appears and then falls, and importantly, “the veil symbol undergoes a profound change into the veil of moral virtue” over the course of the narrative (162). However, Rosso emphasizes that the change is a transformation: the veil was not initially created as the veil of moral virtue. He further argues that the scene of Vala’s and Jerusalem’s lovemaking maintains its psychological significance, both for the readers and Albion, by having an indeterminate location in space and time as Blake’s narrative constantly frustrates the reader’s sense of chronological sequence, mimicking how a deeply scarring event can continue to be relived in the present.
Within this section of Jerusalem, Rahab’s presence and influence, according to Rosso, is implied rather than stated through imagery like associations with the color scarlet (163). He argues that Rahab’s first explicit appearance, on a design on plate 25, “makes graphically clear that Rahab is the ideological force being woven into Albion’s body, a force that Blake associates with shame and guilt” (164), so that with Rahab’s appearance Vala’s veil becomes identified with “Rahab’s system of moral virtue” (164). Part two of chapter five, “Sexual Religion: Vala’s Feminine Tabernacle,” covers Rosso’s reading of chapter 2 of Jerusalem, where “Blake continues to explore the narrative ramifications of the primal scene, adding Los’s and Vala’s perspectives on the event, which emphasize “her relation to the (buried) figure of Luvah and the latter’s complex affiliation with the Lamb of God” (164). In so doing, it explores the effect of religion and patriarchy upon sexuality, stressing that “Patriarchal religion is a sexual religion to Blake because it is based on genealogy and generation. . . and secured by the code of chastity” (165). In Blake’s reading of the Book of Hebrews, Christ undoes this patriarchal system, according to Rosso, being identified with Melchizedek, who is “without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life” (166). At the heart of patriarchal love is “a dynamic generated by a masculine fear of and need to control female desire” (170), which leads to Los’s diatribe against “female will.” After reviewing a range of feminist readings of female will in Blake, Rosso argues that Los’s attack on female will is on a construct created by patriarchy, one that “echoes Oothoon’s anger at the coy holiness of modesty that exalts as it represses female desire” (171). That is why Los can identify female will with natural philosophy, a move that “sets up the key opposition between Los and Rahab” (172).
As the chapter moves on to chapter three in Jerusalem, Rahab becomes a more explicit influence upon events. The net effect of Rahab’s work in this chapter is to transform “Vala from a goddess of natural religion into an icon of Judeo-Christian holiness” (173). This transformation connects Deism to Druidism in Blake’s works “via the principle of moral virtue,” a concept that “foregrounds the control of the female in the patriarchal system. . . that depends on as it denies female sexuality” (173). This simultaneous dependence upon and denial of female sexuality is the essence of hermaphroditism in Blake according to Rosso. In this section of the chapter he also explores Blake’s debt to Mallet’s Northern Antiquities and brings into focus the nature of weaving imagery: Albion wishes for Jerusalem “to weave a chaste mind over his unchaste body” (178) so that the veil transformed into a veil of moral virtue because of Albion’s guilt and shame. Blake’s weaving imagery here describes a process in which “the torments of love and jealousy” are accepted as “normative or natural” (178). It also articulates most clearly the meaning of the harlot imagery associated with Rahab, at least as far as Blake is concerned, which is, following E.P. Thompson, a single nexus uniting “the imagery of market relations and the imagery of ideological domination by the agency of a state church” (179) and associating her with “Mystery Babylon who rides the dragon from John’s Revelation” (180). As Blake, and Rosso’s chapter, move on to chapter four of Jerusalem, Rosso turns his focus to “Rahab’s cloud” and the “Covering Cherub,” the latter of which “is Blake’s unique hermaphroditic version of the biblical Antichrist” (182). The point of the cloud symbolism is its rejection of “definite form,” where Rahab not only refuses to take definite form but defaces every definite form when it appears. Rosso believes this imagery “comes from an inexhaustible well of emotional and intellectual revulsion at the grafting of natural religion and natural philosophy into Protestantism” (185). Again, gender identity is used to comment on religious identity while the influence of religious identity (namely Protestant and Anglican) upon gender identity is subject to critique: “Blake refuses to merge sexual difference into an undifferentiated body, a body that would be hermaphroditic in his sense. Such a body would block the emancipatory potential of the divine humanity, whose capacity to contain multiple sex-gender identities can help both men and women resist subjection to Rahab’s restrictive moral agenda” (192). Rosso closes this chapter with a comment on Blake’s final designs, but largely to assert that Blake “maintains the critical tension between faith and skepticism in his prophetic method” (194). He reads the positive triumphs of these plates as projecting ambivalence, as Rahab remains woven into the psyches of all characters involved, who perpetually remain vulnerable to her system of moral virtue.
Chapter six, “The Abomination of Desolation: Empire and Apocalypse in Jerusalem” shifts its focus to the element of empire in Blake’s critique of religion and empire. He begins by aligning Blake’s myths with the political content of prophetic books such as Daniel, political content that the New Testament authors extended from Daniel’s Babylon to their own Roman occupiers. In this chapter, Rosso attempts to demonstrate “that Rahab, along with other biblical phrases and clusters of symbolic figures, constitutes a broad-scale attack on the conceptual bases of British imperialism” that Blake sees as similar in kind to the Babylonian and Roman empires (197). The key phrase associated with Rahab in this section of Rosso’s analysis is “the abomination of desolation,” a phrase that originates in Daniel under Babylonian exile, carries forward to the Maccabean period of Jewish history and Seleucid rule of Israel (one of the principalities that arose after Alexander the Great’s conquests), and then was picked up by all four gospel writers in the New Testament. Rahab becomes in essence a representative of “the political theologies that support empire generally throughout history” (197). Rosso asserts that Blake’s phrase “abomination of desolation” describes these political theologies, carrying with it three kinds of interrelated meanings: ontological-sexual, eschatological, and ideological, the latter specifically in reference to Enlightenment thinking that has not been freed of its religious roots. While the abomination of desolation, historically, was an idol set up by an invading nation in the holy of holies in the Jewish temple, intended to desecrate it, Blake inverts this meaning so that it refers to “idolatry set up within the nation states themselves, whose belief in the rational order of the universe is enshrined in commercial, scientific, and religious laws imposed on the entire world” (198). Rosso then moves on to establish one of his central claims about Blake: that while he was implicated in an “international religion of Jesus” that reflects Evangelical missionary ideals, which itself seems to support British nationalism, this vision was rooted in a fundamentally anti-imperialistic apocalyptic tradition that extended from the Book of Daniel to Blake’s own day. Rosso supports this claim by contrasting Blake with supporters of British imperial missions of his day, namely G.G. Faber and Claudius Buchanan. Faber relied on apocalyptic imagery to ascribe British naval dominance to divine providence, while Buchanan was more directly influential in forming policy in India, serving as “the lead propagandist of missionary goals in the East” (200). After describing Faber and Buchanan’s work, Rosso proceeds to demonstrate how the specific features of their work seem to be Blake’s target in the phrase “abomination of desolation.”
From this point Rosso moves on to explain the alignment of Rahab imagery and associations with the “empiricist trio of Bacon, Newton, and Locke and references to the oak trees of England” (208), initially “in a context emphasizing the relationship of natural philosophy to British maritime expansion” (209). Blake uses Rahab imagery in these passages in Jerusalem to illuminate “that element in natural religion and Enlightenment philosophy that attacks revealed religion for delusion and intolerance while ignoring its own aggression and self-deception” (213). Rosso completes the set of “periphrastic references to Rahab” in the rest of the chapter, which include “Britannia,” “the Covenant of Priam,” and “Gog-Magog” (216). Blake’s goal in attacking this network of figures is to undermine “the nationalist myth of Trojan Britain” (216), a myth that asserts a continuity between the exiles from the Trojan War, the founding of Rome, and the establishment of Britain, so that the British Empire is part of a historical continuity with Troy and Rome. Taxation becomes a significant act in this part of Blake’s narrative, the means by which the abomination that is Rahab causes desolation among the nations. Rosso relies on contemporary New Testament scholarship throughout this chapter to rescue Blake from simple nationalism by placing him firmly within an anti-imperialist apocalyptic tradition, which raises a question of method that has been lingering since chapter one: scholarship of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament is as diverse in its history and approaches as is the scholarship of any other body of literature, a diversity compounded by the fact that Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist, and other scholars contribute to this body of work. How does Rosso select what contemporary Biblical scholarship is most relevant to Blake? While he doesn’t directly answer this question anywhere, his use of this material remains convincing in its applicability to Blake. While the method isn’t formalized, Rosso’s results seem consistent and convincing: he supports his assertion that “nationalist” is one of the many terms too reductive to encompass Blake’s outlook. Rosso concludes by explaining that he does not believe Blake’s Jerusalem ends with a victory: while “Brittannia [sic] is transformed into Jerusalem and Albion identified with her liberating humanism. . . Rahab continues to haunt the margins of text and design and to serve as a reminder that this enemy has not ceased to be victorious” (232). Rather than assurances of a final victory consistent with his apocalyptic predecessors, Blake leaves his readers hermeneutical tools reliant upon “the communal power of imagination” to counter the ongoing influence of Rahab and the forces that she represents (232).
I’ve attempted in this review to communicate some of the complexity and detail of Rosso’s study of religion and empire in Blake’s late prophetic works. What we can also learn from this study, indirectly, is how Blake’s aesthetic imagination works upon its materials, particularly why his mythological characters can transform so radically from work to work and within the same work at times. Blake is an artist and poet of phenomenon rather than noumenon. Since the entire history of any historical or literary character exists concurrently within the mind that comprehends it, that entire history exists in the present tense in Blake’s mind and, by extension, his mythology. Character transformations from woman to harlot to dragon and back again, then, are controlled events within Blake’s mythology demonstrating the forms that these archetypal figures take under differing historical circumstances and in relationship to differing historical forces. Rahab is one of those figures who has accrued a history and a meaning over the course of a Biblical and literary tradition to which Blake has significantly contributed. What is forgotten, I think, is the woman Rahab: a single mother supporting and protecting her extended family in time of war. We can only guess how she might feel could she know the significance she has taken on over the course of millennia of religious and literary production. Would she even care, or would she just be grateful that she was able to save her children? Rosso can’t answer that question or even reasonably be expected to do so. What he has done, however, is provide the most detailed examination we can expect of Blake’s use of this tradition and his application of it to the British state and its church.