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Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, eds. Sexy Blake. Review by James Rovira

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - 11:00

Helen P. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, eds., Sexy Blake (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). 272 pp. (Hdbk., $95.00; ISBN 978-1-137-33282-7).

James Rovira

Tiffin University

Helen P. Bruder’s and Tristanne Connolly’s Sexy Blake is a collection of papers derived from the conference Blake, Gender, and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century held July 15-16, 2010 at St. Aldate’s in Oxford. With few exceptions, this anthology does not read like a collection of conference papers, but more like a collection of papers originally written for an anthology. Christopher Hobson’s opening remarks for the conference, “Commemorating the Vere-street ‘Monsters,’” though it closes the volume, is perhaps the best place to start. Hobson’s remarks are a moving remembrance of a number of 1810 victims of Britain’s laws against sodomy and lesbianism, emphasizing the stakes involved in our responses to and understanding of human sexuality. The volume as a whole attempts to change a “critical landscape” which the editors describe as “curiously muted about Blake’s sexiness” (1). “Blake’s sexiness” refers here to Blake’s eroticism, both in the sense of focus on the body and on sexual pleasure, approaches that involve “recognizing and harnessing the passions – both the attractions and repulsions – he arouses in his readers” (12).   

The volume is divided into three sections followed by a coda. The first section, “Violence and Dominance,” was mildly annoying at times in some of its uncritical repetitions of commonplaces in Blake scholarship that need to be more closely examined. For example, there is only slim evidence that Blake ever met Mary Wollstonecraft, and no direct evidence that he was obsessed with or romantically involved with her, but Blake’s and Wollstonecraft’s relationship has become soap opera material in some Blake criticism. Similarly, Orc’s seizure of the Shadowy Female in America a Prophecy is doubtful as a rape, as she was inaccessible to him until she joyfully “set aside” her cloud (plate 2 ln. 4), and the “virgin cry” to the Orc who seized her is, “I know thee, I have found thee, & I will not let thee go” (plate 2 ln. 7). Those don’t appear to be the words of a rape victim. Blake scholarship needs to find a way to think of sexual violence in Blake apart from rape, and Michelle Gompf’s “Ripped from Complacency: Violence and Feminist Moments in Blake” struggles admirably with this issue head-on. But these are quibbles: every essay in this section contributes its insights. Lucy Cogan’s focus on Ahania is very welcome, as not enough has been written about this figure, and Ayako Wada’s discussion of The Four Zoas and its love triangle help orient the reader within what is perhaps the most difficult of all of Blake’s works. Yoko Ima-Izumi closes this section with a fascinating essay that relates the image of blood in Blake’s poetry to the portrayal of blood in Japanese film and literature.

Section two, “Chastity, Redemption and Feminine Desire,” discusses Blake’s attitude toward issues such as modesty, chastity, and abstinence, some essays taking contradictory positions. Sean David Nelson and Magnus Ankarsjö both write about abstinence, while David Shakespeare examines the association of concealment with females in Milton. Suzanne Sklar provides an incisive reading of Blake’s Vision of the Last Judgment that compares elements of this painting to vaginal images in Sheela Na Gig religious iconography, pointing to fruitful source material for further studies of Blake’s visual art. Sklar’s essay was perhaps left a little too much in conference paper style, but it was undoubtedly a pleasure to listen to. Kathryn Kruger similarly compares Blake’s visual work to Indian art, establishing historical precedents for this comparison.

Section three, “Conceptual Sex, Conceptual Art,” was for me the most engaging of the three sections and the moment at which I felt the promise of this anthology was being the most fulfilled. It begins with Tommy Mayberry’s “Hékyos and Ceylèn [A Poison Tree],” which is a work of short fiction followed by the author’s exposition of his own work. This short fiction was interesting on its own, especially given its accompanying photographs, but Mayberry’s exposition had the dubious value of being more interesting than his creative work, of which I was admittedly only reading a part. Paige Morgan’s comparison of the body in Blake’s work to that of conceptual artist Stelarc pushed the limits of its subject in ways I was hoping to see in other essays but did not. Stelarc’s art involves violent impositions on and mutations of his own body, including using his own stem cells to grow a replica of his ear that he then grafted onto his left inner forearm. This essay left me wanting to pester Morgan with arguments to see how far we could advance the discussion. For example, after considering the ways in which the wide distribution of cellphone technology might change human perception, she asks, “If the physical body is ‘a portion of the Soul discernd by the five senses,’ then what happens when the avenues for exploring the five senses change?” (187). I want to respond to this question by saying that these avenues haven’t changed significantly: we process information from our cell phones and computers from the same cave of the five senses that we always have, so the human won’t really change until we have a direct cell feed into our heads akin to that explored in Roger Waters’s 1987 conceptual album Radio K.A.O.S. At that point, the cave will have a new inlet, but it will still be a cave.

Angus Whitehead’s and Joel Gwynne’s contribution similarly takes on the work of this anthology very directly in their discussion of Catherine Blake’s sex life, forthrightly illustrating and explaining the problems with doing such work while at the same time demonstrating its necessity for understanding sexuality in Blake. How can we understand William’s sexuality without also understanding Catherine’s? How many female figures in Blake’s work, both visual and literary, are really her? How can we know? Phillippa Simpson most directly addresses the erotic possibilities for the reader in Blake’s work in her essay “Blake and Porn,” delivering sentences such as these: “The continued use of the erection as the symbol of pornography attests to the need for a firm stand (pun intended). If the category of porn is to be brought into being via legislation, then a line must be drawn somewhere, and a hard cock offers a convenient mast upon which to pin one’s colours” (216, her emphasis). While I was expecting most essays to have moments like these, only Gregory put out, so I now feel obligated to send her a card and some flowers. While being playful, this essay does the serious analytic work of destabilizing the opposition between art and pornography, which makes it an appropriate conclusion to the main body of essays.

In addition to Hobson’s opening remarks, the Coda also contains his essay “Normalizing Perversity: Blake and Homosexuality in 2013,” which surveys developments in critical understanding of homosexuality in Blake’s works over the last several years. It is a successful essay in that I don’t feel that I can ignore this topic in Blake’s works (where it appears) without some feeling of shame. My overall assessment of this volume is that I don’t know if this anthology will be identified in retrospect as the point at which scholarship about Blake and sexuality changed. What is missing from it is a consideration of a more fundamental question: should the female characters in Blake's mythology be considered women? The anthology's emphasis on sexy Blake requires an emphasis on the body and on the erotic, which requires that these characters be read as human women. But the question needs to be asked: should we think of these characters as human women, or as mythological figures, who in Blake's case would be manifestations of a feminine psychology that could inhabit either the male or the female brain? In this case, we might read instances of female emanations from male characters Blake's observation that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century female identity is a male social construction, and the negative results of these emanations the result of the imposition of a male-constructed identity onto real women. Blake's critique of the "female will," then, may be how he registers the negative effects of the struggle of real women against male-constructed social identities. Despite this omission, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if this anthology marked the point at which discussion of sexuality in Blake changed course, and any future discussions of this topic would do well to consult it.