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Julia M. Wright, Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation

Monday, March 20, 2006 - 11:13
Julia M. Wright, Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation. Athens: Ohio UP, 2004. xxxiii + 230. Illus: 5 b&w. $44.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8214-1519-0).

Reviewed by
R. Paul Yoder
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Julia M. Wright's Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation is a well-researched study that situates Blake in the political struggle to define an English (or sometimes British) national identity. Wright is less concerned with "Blake's ideology" per se than with "the formal and rhetorical strategies with which he sought to propagate that ideology," and so she limits her discussion, "almost exclusively, to Blake's printed works" (xxvi), as opposed to Blake's letters, notebooks and manuscripts. The book has a sort of chiastic structure: Wright devotes Chapter 1 to Laocoön and Chapter 6 to Jerusalem (both late works), part of Chapter 2 and all of Chapter 5 to Milton, and all but one section of Chapters 3 and 4 to America and Europe; shorter discussions of Poetical Sketches, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, The Song of Los and The [First] Book of Urizen fill out the remaining pages. There is little or no mention of Thel or The Book of Los, and only passing reference to the Songs, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and the Book of Ahania. Wright's topic is "not the 'liberating potential of discursive practices,' but the pan-ideological competition to control the representation of the individual and, more crucially, the community through which the individual is defined" (xxiii). That is, Wright focuses more on competing rhetorical strategies than on the different systems those strategies serve, a distinction that is often difficult to maintain. Nevetheless, the chapters on Laocoön, America and Europe, and Jerusalem are especially strong, and Wright offers some good insights on the social implications of some of Blake's key images.

In Chapter 1, "The Line of Progress: Blake's Laocoön and Classicist Theories of Art," Wright argues that in the unconventional presentation of the text in the Laocoön engraving, with lines running vertically and horizontally, as well as following the contours of the drawing of the statue, plus the use of three languages and several "fonts," Blake "forces the recognition that we do not read the same way twice and that our access to the text is not transparent, but depends on certain rules" (24). These rules include linearity and various types of order that "conventionally govern our contact with the text but do not totalize it" (24). She connects Blake's Laocoön to an argument between Johann Winckelmann and Gotthold Lessing about the formal limitations of the painting and poetry in classical art, an argument which Blake would have known from his friend Henry Fuseli. The statue of Laocoön played a key role in this argument, and Blake's use of the statue for his own piece signals, according to Wright, his work's participation in the discussion. The most interesting aspect of her discussion is the survey of how Laocoön has been handled in the various editions of Blake's work, a survey that demonstrates very well her point that Blake's disruption of linearity makes available a wide range of arrangements/interpretations/readings of the engraving's text.

In Chapter 6, "'Artfully Propagated': Hybridity, Disease, and the Transformation of the Body Politic," Wright focuses on images of disease in Jerusalem to argue that Blake moves from the virtual "nihilism" of Orc in America, for example, to positing a system of his own in Jerusalem. She identifies a "vital/viral" opposition in the poem, and suggests that with Jerusalem, Blake moves from a "purgative" (146) or "sterilizing" (152) model of national reform to a "vaccination" model. In other words, whereas in America Blake had envisioned the obliteration of systems in Orc's vision of broken religion that like a "torn book" would never be gathered, in Jerusalem Blake "characterizes his own work as a vaccine that will purge the political body of destructive errors that are often figured as cancerous" (146). It is a good point despite the unfortunate conjunction of the supposedly opposed purging and vaccinating in that particular formulation. The point Wright makes about this poem-as-vaccine, that "Jerusalem is rhetorically homologous to the works it condemns" (147), however, will hardly seem new to any close reader of the poem. Nor does the point seem as limited to Jerusalem as Wright implies; after all, Blake has been using books to battle books, ideas to battle ideas from the very beginning. What is new and I think exciting in Wright's discussion of Jerusalem is her use of the image of the polypus to describe one of the ways that Blake connects the various Prefaces to the chapters they introduce. The relationship between the Prefaces and the chapters proper has never been adequately explained, and while Wright does not claim to explain that relationship fully, there is an important and potentially useful insight in her suggestion that "The Polypus of each chapter is explicitly identified with the quality that Blake's corresponding preface establishes as the error of the group under scrutiny" (156).

Chapters 2 and 5 are closely related in their focus on Milton and their more direct discussion of issues of nationalism and the rhetorical mechanisms that support particular forms of it. In Chapter 2, "'Whence Came They': Contesting National Narrative," Wright addresses Blake's response to the myth of British national progress. As Wright describes it, the linearity that we saw Blake rejecting in Laocoön combines with chronology to create a nationalist narrative characterizing British history as a "linear progress toward 'civilization'" (29). In particular, the epic based on classical models was used to justify England's imperial ambitions.  Blake's response to this narrative is to locate "historical change not in the linear progress toward 'civilization' but in the apocalyptic and epiphanic transcendence of such a construction through the instantaneous casting off of error—change arises from revolutionary prophecy rather than evolutionary epic" (28). The instrument of such apocalyptic transcendence is a "hybrid" figure combining the biblical prophet and traditional bard, whose "task is to forge a connection between a latent national character and the lost culture in which that character enjoyed its full expression" (35). The prophet/bard accomplishes this task by creating apocalyptic and epiphanic "ruptures" in the linear historical narrative, revealing the true national character that has been covered over by the narrative of cultural historical progress from classical times to Blake's. Progressive evolution is revealed to be hegemonic oppression. By questioning the "universalizing impetus of the imperial march toward civilization," Blake turns instead "toward localized, disjunctive models of communal identity" (31). In Milton Blake's response to the imperial narrative reaches a sort of climax, replacing "narrative linearity" with a series of fractal iterations, "shattering the communal perspective in favor of individual epiphany" so that the poet may "evade the national narrative that he helped to produce—primarily, the paradigmatic tale of the national hero who dies for his nation" (55).

In Chapter 5, "'A State about to be Created': Modeling the Nation in Milton," Wright contends that for Blake, Milton "not only functions as a representation of a poet, but as a symbol for the neoclassical national culture to which Milton is iconically related" (112). Blake thus seeks to free Milton from "his representation as the hero of Protestantism and English liberty," a representation that supported a "nationalism that restores England's status as the seat of Protestant liberty and values sacrifice for the national good" (114). It was necessary to liberate Milton from this representation because he had been "appropriated to serve an English, Protestant iconography that was disseminated and promoted to support a nationalist agenda that included militarist expansion and commercial exploitation" (114-115). That is, according to Wright, Milton had been implicated in a classically-based rhetoric that represented self-serving aristocratic and commercial interests as self-sacrificing for the good of the nation. To make this case Wright must distinguish between the "self-sacrifice" she says Blake sought to overturn and the "self-annihilation" he valorizes in Milton; she manages this by arguing that

Blake draws a clear distinction between self-annihilation and self-sacrifice. Self-annihilation is entirely personal; it is the individual's destruction of selfhood for the good of that individual. Conversely, self-sacrifice posits a social system of exchange in which 'one must die for another,' demanding the destruction of the self for a good that the sacrificed individual cannot realize but someone who has not abnegated selfhood can realize through a national economy (120).

I am not sure that the distinction between personal and public will withstand much scrutiny—Blake clearly intends Milton's self-annihilation to have an impact well beyond the earlier poet's personal redemption. (Other readers may recall the cry of the Living Creatures in Jerusalem that "General Good is the plea of the scoundrel hypocrite & flatterer," but even there the point is how best to "do good to another" [55.60-61].)  The more important distinction lies in other terms embedded in Wright's formulation—the distinction between the "selfhood" that is annihilated and the "self" that is sacrificed, a distinction taken up, for example, in Wallace Jackson's 1983 study, Vision and Re-Vision in Alexander Pope (oddly enough). Nevertheless, Wright is surely correct that Blake believed that at least as it had been represented in British imperialist propaganda, "Milton's self-sacrifice was a terribly classical thing to do—and thus not, for Blake, very English" (128). Wright is also surely correct in arguing that "Blake does not limit his critique to the content of the propaganda but also condemns its forms, particularly the epic" (129), and that his concerns include the "modeling of the perceptual domain through cultural artifacts" (133).

The core of Wright's book is the two chapters devoted to America and Europe. Chapter 3, "'How Different the World to Them': Revolutionary Heterogeneity and Alienation," examines the alienation of Oothoon in Visions, of the narrator in Europe, and of the reader in America. Her point is that alienation, as a "defamiliarizing" strategy, is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, Oothoon, says Wright, "is alienated from cultural systems and therefore in a position to offer another view of them" (63), positioning Oothoon as the sort of prophet/bard described in Chapter 2. Oothoon's position "between [and outside of] the enslaving, hierarchical world of Bromion and Theotormon and the sympathetic one of the Daughters of Albion" has the effect of "alienating the reader from the prevailing ideologies, which Bromion and Theotormon represent, by inviting identification with Oothoon" (67). The discussions of Europe and America then explore first the narrator's and then the reader's position in relation to the none-too-firm boundary line between history and myth. Both sections pay rather more attention to the boundary line than to either the narrator or the reader, but in the final section of the chapter Wright pulls it all together:

The reader has access to the Visions' 'three-sided soliloquy,' eavesdropping on the speeches unheard by characters within the text, while the reader in Europe is placed outside the mythological and historical domains that the narrative perspective tries to separate. In America, the reader is even more alienated by the constantly marked, but never limiting, boundaries between myth and history, as well as the reversals of power that reveal the symbolic, rather than essential, nature of authority (86).

All this alienation, Wright argues, is designed to place "the reader in a potentially liberating place," a "liberation from the perspective of others" (88).

The payoff for Chapter 3 comes in Chapter 4, "'And None Shall Gather the Leaves': Unbinding the Voice in America and Europe."  Here Wright discusses the "homology" of biological and bibliographical reproduction, in which the female is viewed in the dominant gender code as the site of passive reproduction, comparable to the implied reader of the mass produced book as the "passive receptacle" of an authoritarian text. Focusing on the sexual violence enacted in the Preludiums of both poems, Wright argues that "the females of the preludiums resist that assimilation [into the dominant gender codes] by complicating their identities through the addition of a voice that is productive in ways that exceed, and are alien to, gender codes," thus generating a "destabilizing hybridity" (89). That is, the females in America and Europe fragment their identities in ways that force the recognition of a "personhood" that exceeds their "sexual utility" (92). Similarly, Blake resists creating a potentially passive reader by "splitting his texts into an assemblage of textual and visual parts with varying significatory interests" (90). Thus, Blake creates a non-authoritarian text that demands that its reader shift from being a passive reader to an active reader. In the creation of a non-authoritarian text, the author necessarily surrenders a certain amount of control, and Wright correctly notes that "the text need not be a coherent expression of the author's position; and the reader need not yield to the author's dictates" (91). All of this leads to Wright's point that Blake wants his readers to be active readers rather than passive receptacles of his texts. This point should not come as news to readers of Blake, but what Wright contributes here is the connection between the liberating fragmentation of female identity and Blake's fragmenting of his own texts. Moreover, although she does not take up this notion, Wright's remarks on the "distinction between the corporeal and incorporeal" as a "discursive vehicle" (93) provide a valuable way of thinking about Blake's notorious (and not well understood) distinction between "Corporeal Understanding" and "Intellectual Powers." (See, for example, Vincent de Luca's unquestioning use of the terms in relation to the sublime in Words of Eternity.)

At the outset I said that Wright's book is well researched, but I'm not sure how well that research finally serves her case. Rather it tends to obscure what is at bottom a fairly straightforward, easily visualizable argument. The core image of the book is that of a straight line that represents a view of narrative, history and identity as unified, linear, progressive, chronological and classically based. In Blake's work this line is repeatedly interrupted, and Wright argues that for Blake these interruptions not only enable positive revolutionary change, but also allow leakage between whatever it is that the line separates, creating a hybrid that runs counter to the nationalist notion of a unified culture, of which the individual  is simply an extension. Blake, she says, rejected this unified, linear system and the rhetorical forms it supposedly implies, in favor of a system and forms based on fragmentation, apocalypse and personal epiphany. The prophet/bard, himself a hybrid figure, both creates and represents these revolutionary interruptions. This emphasis on fragmentation climaxes in Milton, after which Blake offers an alternative system of his own in Jerusalem, a system that for Wright looks "uncomfortably" like the system he opposes. I think this is all more or less correct, and the argument about fragmentation and linearity is certainly consistent with current critical thinking about Blake. For the record, I disagree with some of the formal implications concerning Blake's rejection of linearity, but Wright's image of the leaky fragmented line provides a powerful way to think about the problem.

However, it is very difficult to see this image because it is buried under Wright's often dense prose and piles of criticism that as often as not lead us away from Blake. Especially in the early chapters, Wright will introduce a good point about Blake's work, but when she moves to support that point, she turns not to Blake, but to critics, and very often to critics who are not talking about Blake. To be sure, Wright stipulates that she is more concerned with issues of representation than with Blake's system—"At issue here is not Blake's ideology, but the formal and rhetorical strategies with which he sought to propagate that ideology" (xxvi)—but nonetheless her argument would be stronger and more clear if it were connected more securely to Blake's work. Moreover, part of Wright's argument is that ideology and formal and rhetorical strategies are inherently related, a point that raises questions about whether Wright's own rhetorical distinction between ideology and forms of representation is consistent with the rest of her argument.

There is also a range of smaller but still distracting problems: for example, a typo, twice, confusing Jerusalem's second and third Prefaces (161); a confusion between passive voice and intransitive verbs at a key point in the discussion of The Song of Los (46-47); an offhand and wholly unnecessary remark that assumes the overall unity of the Bible, a point more controversial than Wright apparently realizes (45). None of these instances, and there are others, invalidates the larger points Wright is making at the time, but they distracted me, at least, from the development of her argument. Moreover, Wright's comment on the unity of the Bible, for example, opens other questions about the already problematic nature of fragmented forms, questions that go unaddressed.

Julia Wright does a good job of mapping much that we know about Blake onto a larger discussion of emerging English nationalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The strongest parts of her discussion are the moments when she looks closely at the imagery of Blake's texts, and I especially like the discussion of images of biological and bibliographic reproduction in America and Europe, and of the function of the polypus image in Jerusalem. There is much that is both insightful and useful in her book, but those insights are often difficult to see, even for an active reader.