Rethinking Teachability through the Esoteric Blake

In this essay, I reflect on how my experience of teaching William Blake’s Milton (comp. ca. 1804-1811) to graduate students was retrospectively transformed by reading Silvan Tomkins and Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics (1677) in a seminar that I subsequently taught on affect theory. Engaging with Spinoza’s and Tomkins’s respective writings on negative affects (such as shame and fear) and positive affects (such as joy) allowed me to discover in what I had been thinking of as a pedagogical failure an exciting pedagogical opportunity to rethink my unreflected assumptions about teaching and what constitutes teaching success. The key breakthrough came when, through a shift of perspective, I began to see that the shame and fear of not understanding Milton that my students (and on occasion, I) experienced was a version of the affective dramas, or “Mental Fight,” in Blake’s works and thus an essential aspect of the reading process rather than an obstacle to it.