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Chris Bundock and Elizabeth Effinger, eds., William Blake’s Gothic Imagination: Bodies of Horror. Reviewed by Diana Edelman.

Friday, June 5, 2020 - 19:45

Chris Bundock and Elizabeth Effinger, eds., William Blake’s Gothic Imagination: Bodies of Horror (Manchester University Press, 2018). 312 pp., 22 b&w illus. (Hdbk., $120; ISBN 978-1-5261-2194-3).

Diana Edelman
University of North Georgia, Gainesville

Given Blake’s assertion that “Gothic is Living Form” and the clearly Gothic visual elements of Blake’s oeuvre, such as the hunched skeleton of The [First] Book of Urizen that graces the cover of this book, it is a mystery why there has yet to be a book-length study of Blake and the Gothic until now. A collection of essays, William Blake’s Gothic Imagination represents, as the editors claim, the “first sustained and focused treatment of Blake as a Gothic artist, taking ‘Gothic’ in the fullest sense of that term” (18). The chapters “offer a space for concentration on some of the intersections of Blake with the Gothic,” including its aesthetic, political, philosophical, and psychological manifestations (18). 

The book is divided into four parts: Blake’s innovations on Gothic concepts, the body, the body via the visual elements of Blake’s work, and sexuality. Grouping the chapters is a good strategy in general for a collection, but in this case, the arrangements seem forced and tenuous. Part IV is the most logical arrangement in that both essays treat sexuality and feminist issues, but it should probably have included the chapter by González-Treviño, which is currently in Part III.

Despite these minor flaws in arrangement, each chapter contributes something useful to Blake studies. The essays in Part I, “The Bounding Line of Blake’s Gothic: Forms, Genres, and Contexts,” each come to a similar conclusion about Blake: Blake engages with the political by rejecting unified, repressive structures in favor of plurality. Through the Gothic elements of Joseph of Arimathea among the Rock of Albion and Death’s Door, David Baulch demonstrates that Blake resists “Enlightenment historiography and biblical eschatology, the very forces that prevent the emergence of a future that does not repeat the past” (39), and it is the artist who has “the capacity to produce difference in the process of repetition” (41). Kiel Schaub comes to a similar conclusion arguing that the figure of Rahab in Blake’s oeuvre demonstrates an “implicit critique of his own time” (78) wherein each “new metaphysic of certainty in turn creates a certainty of terror” (74). Claire Colebrook argues that Blake’s sublime is anti-Kantian; it is a Gothic sublime that rejects essentialism and relativism in favor of “radical perspectivism” that makes it possible to experience the infinite through the radical destruction of the subject (96).

Part II, “The Misbegotten” includes three essays and is, according to the editors, focused on the physical body. Jason Whittaker parallels the origin myth of Ridley Scott’s 2012 science fiction film Prometheus with what he calls Blake’s “Deist cosmography” (126), arguing that both worlds demonstrate that the “secret history of the cosmos is utterly alien to us” (112). This essay is the least about the body in this section in that it deals primarily with “metaphysical questions of origin” and not lived bodily experience (121). The next two essays look at Blake’s work as a critique of eighteenth-century medical science. Lucy Cogan argues that Urizen’s birth in The [First] Book of Urizen is a “horrific parody of medical discourses of the day” (130); similarly, Stephanie Codsi reads the scenes of dissection in Island in the Moon as a critique of spectacle, particularly the kind encouraged by medical science in which the practitioner is to remain detached. The works in this section, as in the previous, come to a similar conclusion about Blake’s resistance of “ideologically driven restraints, whether political, social, or scientific” (Cogan 130).

Part III, “Female Space and the Image,” includes two essays arranged around the body via the image. Like Baulch in Part I, Peter Otto focuses on Blake’s engagement with the past. Otto explores the contexts of Vegetating in Fibres of Blood to show that “the globalising power of gods and kings is in modernity secularised and democratised” (180). The bloody events of the Reign of Terror emerged from the same impulses, now secularized, as the original violent creation. Looking at The Book of Thel and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Ana Elena González-Treviño, in the second essay in this section, argues that both poems “mark a certain departure from conventional depictions of women in fiction” (189) and that Thel’s and Oothoon’s failures are not a reflection of a patriarchal attitude in Blake, but suggest, rather, that they are “at different stages in a process of potentially emancipatory identification” (190).

Part IV, “Sex, Desire, Perversion” begins with Mark Lussier’s discussion of Oothoon as the embodiment of “the plight of the feminine caught within the ossified cultural machinery” of the patriarchy (225). In The Marriage of Heaven and Helland Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake “diagnos[es] the maladies of subject formation” and embraces the “semiotic as the cure for the symbolic” (216). It is surprising that this essay makes no mention of Anne Williams’ The Art of Darkness (1995), which made precisely this claim almost twenty-five years ago, regarding the relationship between the semiotic and symbolic in defining the Gothic. Finally, Tristanne Connolly, in the clearest, best-argued essay in the volume, makes convincing parallels between James Graham’s Celestial Bed and Bromion’s “stormy bed” in Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Oothoon’s embrace of boundless sexuality and Graham’s rejection of sexual excess (especially masturbation) both constitute a violation of Theotormon’s sexual identity. Connolly writes that “it is possible to have sympathy for Theotormon as someone whose desires and abilities do not accord with Oothoon’s or Graham’s programme” (238).

The volume makes an interesting intervention in Blake studies by foregrounding the Gothic elements of Blake’s work. However, the volume could be more unified and coherent if the introduction, or at least each individual essay, were to have opened with a working definition of the Gothic. Although defining the Gothic poses difficulties, a volume that focuses on the Gothic should at least provide more parameters other than that the Gothic is a “much broader and more nebulous field than what can be defined as the inversion of Classicism” and a rejection of the Enlightenment (16). Most of the essays have an implicit definition of Gothic as reactionary and conservative, the Radcliffean type. While the authors rightfully try to read beyond that definition, they fail to acknowledge the many, many studies of the Gothic that argue, instead, that it is revolutionary and progressive in nature, which could only help some of the arguments. As a scholar of the literary Gothic, I was disappointed to see that there were few parallels with some of the most important Gothic writers of the time—Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Charles Maturin, Mary Shelley. As a specialist in literature and medicine, however, I was delighted to read Cogan’s, Codsi’s, Otto’s, and Connolly’s parallels with the medical sciences of the period, which people in this field will likely find relevant. Because I am not a Blake specialist, I cannot speak fully to whether Blake scholars will find that the essays provide new ways of reading Blake. Most of the essays lean towards a similar conclusion: Blake rejects rigid systems. This claim may not be new, but it is accurate. Given the paucity of criticism on Blake and the Gothic, however, the volume certainly extends the current conversation about how Blake engages with the Gothic.