This welcome collection of essays has multiple aims. Its introduction sets it squarely amid recent attempts not just to look at the origins and contexts of Blake’s output but also at the way it has been received and deployed in later times and places. Here those times and places are extremely diverse. Although the introduction’s tone can sometimes seem unnecessarily hostile to other historical approaches, on to which it anxiously projects a notion of ‘automatic identification’, the essays on display here are varied and impressive, and, indeed, pay as much attention to ‘the original context of enunciation’ as ‘the generation of new meaning in altered and contingent circumstances’ (p. 2). Among others in this collection, these originary contexts include David Worrall’s development of our knowledge of Blake’s post-Swedenborgian context in its account of the movement’s Sierra Leone project and a reading of The Book of Thel and Susan Matthews’s intriguing analysis of the ambiguities of Blake’s idea of an African utopia. Read together, as with several other essays in the collection which pair off together well, these two essays make an intriguing dialogue about the limitations of western ideas of liberty once displaced into a postcolonial context.
Perhaps the most influential critic writing in relation to this issue for the Romantic period generally and Blake in particular, as the introduction to this collection acknowledges, has been Saree Makdisi (1998 and 2003). Makdisi’s work exonerates Blake from an imperialist perspective based on rigid ideas of alterity and inferiority, which he believes otherwise warps the writing of even the most arduous of radicals of the 1790s and later. The editors of The Reception of Blake in the Orient and several of its contributors are sceptical of the idea that Blake escapes the taint of his time for which so many others are prosecuted by Makdisi. Yet what has to be respected about Makdisi’s work is the way he traces his case to a fundamental claim about the way alterity is understood in terms of power relations of self-and-other under colonialism. From this perspective, imperialism deals in death because it exports and formalizes an idea of subjectivity that is Urizenic in the extreme. From a related perspective, in this volume Tristanne Connolly offers a rewardingly focussed essay on the particular context of Blake’s painting of the translation of the Geeta in what she thinks of as the ‘older’ Orientalism of Warren Hastings and Williams Jones. Of course, neither Edward Said (1978) nor Makdisi, have much sympathy for Hastings or Jones, whose roles within the British government of India seem to make them obvious cases of the power-knowledge nexus at the heart of what may seem even the most benignly antiquarian Orientalism. From the perspectives of Said and Makdisi, this older discourse is different only in emphasis from what Connolly seems to see as the more savagely utilitarian discourse that came afterwards. What Jones, Hastings et al praise as exotic and genuinely interesting is still (for Said and Makdisi) reproduced as an ‘Other’ that defines the difference of the western subject from those it must subjugate to be itself. Connolly’s essay and others that identify Blake as implicated in the tropology of this kind of Orientalism might consider at more length the degree to which the disposition of these tropes in the Blakean textual universe do or do not perpetuate the power relations that they more usually bring with them in the grammar of imperialism. Simply pointing out the prior discursive framework does not necessarily answer the deeper question of disposition at the heart of Makdisi’s work.
The sheer scope of The Reception of Blake in the Orient suggests an emphasis on ‘Orientalism’ in the broadest sense (basically synonymous with colonial perpetuations of the alterity of ‘the Other’ rather than ‘the Orient’ as such) that has been much in use since Said’s groundbreaking study was developed out to consider the question of the postcolonial situation more generally. The troubling issue that always haunts this usage is its implied affirmation of a centre-periphery model whereby everything that is not the metropolis is assumed to have an identity in its difference for the colonial centre. Here one might be slightly surprised by the title’s use of ‘the Orient’ if it is taken to imply the identity of contexts as different as the East India Company’s patronage of the Geeta under the tutelage of Warren Hastings and the early twentieth-century Japanese reception of Blake, most notably via Yanagi Muneyoshi’s work. Perhaps however there are implied scare quotes somewhere there.
Although there are excellent essays on other aspects of Blake’s context and reception in ‘the Orient’ and elsewhere, the centre of gravity of the collection is with Japan (unsurprisingly, given that it originates in a conference held there). Probably the most intriguing figure in this history of Japanese reception is Yanagi, whose place is dealt with in a quartet of excellent essays in Part III of the volume (devoted to the early twentieth century Japanese reception). Ayako Wada’s provides a useful general introduction to Yanagi’s interest in Blake’s ‘Oriental’ religious heterodoxy that is given more specificity in the next article by Hatsuko Nimii, which uses some of Yanagi’s ideas to offer a reading of Self-Annihilation in Milton. Nimii’s work offers up an intriguing aspect of reception histories, that is, the way the trajectory of reception in a displaced context may open up aspects of the text in question that had previously been neglected or taken as read. Self-annihilation in Blake is often read as a comfortable Christian doctrine perfectly amenable to straightforward notions of forgiveness of sins. Hatsuko Nimmii’s use of Yanagi opens up a quite different aspect of the term’s use in Milton, which shows that it involves the idea of a dissolution of self that seems to push well beyond most eighteenth century Christian ideas, although the essay is astute enough to recognize that Blake could have found sources for such thinking in Boehme and, perhaps more surprisingly to some, David Hartley. Another aspect of reception studies is opened up, however, by Kaz Oishi’s astute essay, also on Yanagi. This time the emphasis is on the context of the Japanese ‘misreadings’, where the latter term is used not with an edge of disapprobation, but to point at the ways different contexts will place their own pressures on the reader’s creation of the text. Without validating Jauss’s Hegelian understanding of the way that texts disclose themselves through history, this collection reveals the way that misreadings may reveal the polyvalent richness of Blake’s texts, revealing things about their new readers and their times, but also previously occluded aspects of the texts being read.
Jon Mee is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s (OUP, 1992) and Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Politics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period (OUP, 2003), and the editor or co-editor of numerous other books, including (with John Barrell) the eight-volume set Trials for Treason and Sedition, 1792-4 (Pickering & Chatto, 2006-7).
- Jauss, Hans Robert. “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory.” New Literary History 2 (1970): 7-37.
- Makdisi, Saree, Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003.
- Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.