Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation by Julia M. Wright is one of the most impressive recent studies of William Blake’s work. The book generates its argumentative coherence by working both within and among an array of methodological approaches to illuminate both the shifting contours and the conflicted nature of the complex critique to which Blake’s texts give voice. Equally adroit in its handling of theory and detailed in its awareness of historical context, Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation sets itself apart from both the purely historicist/materialist studies of the radical milieu of the 1790’s and the broader, more thematically or theoretically-driven studies that tend to impose a reductive and historically disengaged teleology on Blake’s career as a whole.
The “politics of alienation” of Wright’s title identifies what the study sees as the crucial critical strategy common to the Blake texts it considers. Wright’s argument responds to Jon Mee’s observation that David Erdman’s influential historicist work on Blake tended to see the historical and, consequently, the material-political dimension of Blake’s work attending to the text’s representation of historical events at the cost of the formal characteristics of the poetry. Specifically, Wright observes the political impact of the formal characteristics of Blake’s work in terms of a “performative force” constituting “one of the sites of resistance to the established terms of the political debate” in its “handling of genre and media” (xxiv). In this way, Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation positions the often perplexing formal nature of Blake’s writing as an informed and ideologically savvy intervention into some of the most pressing political issues of the period. While it is “the politics of alienation” that marks Blake’s critique of the existing social order, it is the social-communal countervision developed in Blake’s later illuminated books, Milton and Jerusalem, where the alienation effect necessary to render visible the ideological nature of the nation as such, comes into conflict with the effort these texts make to assert their own utopian nationalism.
Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation makes perhaps its most significant contribution to the contemporary study of Blake’s poetry by taking the renovation of the British nation and the world envisioned in Milton, in Chapter Five, and in Jerusalem, in Chapter Six, as one which has social-material implications. In this way, Wright’s study offers a productive alternative to the two predominant narratives of Blake’s developing poetics and political engagement. In idealist readings of Blake’s career, Milton and Jerusalem are the fully-realized apogee of poetic vision and the imagination’s ability to transcend the fallen materiality of the world; by contrast, in more materialist analyses, Blake’s major prophecies abjure the realm of the political to retreat into an obscurantist, if not fully insane, Christian mysticism. Instead, Wright’s book takes its cue from Los’s statement in Jerusalem, “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans” (J, 10:20): Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation complicates the idealist construction of Blake’s master themes of uncompromising individuality and absolute resistance to authority to read these most ambitious illuminated books as substituting one system of oppression for another. In Wright’s argument, it is a substitution wherein the concern for “individual liberty is inseparable from, though often at odds with, the dominant concern of Jerusalem: an engagement with community, particularly national community” (xiv).
This is not to say that Blake merely goes wrong in wanting to have it his way both ways, but rather that the medical model of a viral/vital discourse within which Wright situates the terms of political resistance and nationalism inscribed not only in Blake’s final two illuminated books but also in the radical political discourse of Wollstonecraft and Godwin as well as the conservative positions of Burke and Jeffrey (specifically in his condemnation of Moore) as equally inadequate to address the emergent hybridity within the period. The universal harmony of Jerusalem’s apocalyptic conclusion is bought at the price of difference insofar as Blake “characterizes the continuance of such differences as disease, infection, pestilence, cancerous growths, roots invading the earth, poison, intoxicating liquids, and pollution while locating his own text as the revitalizing doppelgänger of those destructive propagative mechanisms, different in its social effects but not in its mode of operation” (167). For Blake, no less than Burke, the best hope for the British nation is to fight against the invasive bodies that have diseased and corrupted all that is essentially British. Again, this is not to say that Jerusalem simply falls short of having achieved the ideal/impossible utopian plan for perfect social order and absolute individual freedom. For Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation the conflicting tendencies of Blake’s poetic vision permit the positing of the questions that allow us to rethink the political stakes in Blake’s work, in particular, and British Romanticism in general: “[H]ow far do the structures of power that informed Romantic-era formulations of social order inform Romantic theories of poetic form, and vice versa?” (172). Do the revolutionary visions of Romanticism ever exceed the discursive terms and social forms of the power that they presume to oppose? If not, then what does Romanticism’s critical vision offer contemporary thought? Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation goes a long way towards providing an answer to this question in its first four chapters.
While for Wright, Blake’s utopian nationalism in Milton and Jerusalem fails to present a view of nation—or in Los’s terms a “system”—that does not enslave individuality in the service of its communal vision, the quality of the critical strategies Blake erects against the existing order in the Poetical Sketches, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America, and Europe, and the perplexing Laocoön, are explored as successful examples of a politics (perhaps one could even add poetics and aesthetics) of alienation. To this end, Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation begins with a brilliant chapter on Blake’s The Laocoön. Working from the well-established interrelationship between the verbal and visual elements of Blake’s art, Wright’s book focuses on the equally profound connection of the political and aesthetic as expressed simultaneously in the form and content of The Laocoön. Reversing Blake’s habitual practice in the illuminated books of centering verbal text on pages and surrounding it with visual designs, The Laocoön takes the drawing of the famous classical sculpture that Blake produced for Rees’s Cyclopedia in 1819 and surrounds or embeds it in a field of aphorisms, quotations, and rantings in English, Greek, and Hebrew. Since the verbal text follows the outlines of the statue at its center, there is no stable horizontal plane to give order to the verbal text. To read the verbal text one must constantly shift the orientation of the plate—if, that is, one knows where to begin. But this is really only the tip of iceberg of interpretative difficulty offered by The Laocoön. The sentences, phrases, or, sometimes, simply words that make up the verbal text have no obvious narrative or thematic coherence. For Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation, The Laocoön suggests the possibility of Blake’s engagement with the Winckelman-Lessing debate over the question of the value of the classical versus the modern in art and, more specifically, the status of The Laocoön as an imitation of a prior, now lost sculpture, or an original work. Thus, Blake’s Laocoön not only consciously enters into the Winckelman-Lessing debate, but it also demonstrates a set of critical values and artistic practices central to the politics and aesthetics of Blake’s work as a whole. What initially seems confusing and random in Blake’s engraving, with its graffiti-like verbal text, is realized as a performance of its critique of the ideological investments common not only to Winckelman’s and Lessing’s art historical attempts to define “true” art and its historical lineage, but also to the broad outlines of a Western European epistemology as it emerged in Britain:
In The Laocoön, emphasizing the spatiality of writing is part of an attack not only on classicism and its separation of the arts, but also on causality and linearity; by challenging conventional constructions of the properties and proprieties of the arts, Blake also removes readers from the tyrannies of causality and sequence by producing a version of what Roland Barthes termed a “writerly” text, a text that approaches hypertext in its malleability for the reader and subverts, on the level of form, the dogmatic and rigidly linear narratives from Whig history to national narrations to scientific causality.2
What thus emerges from the discussion of The Laocoön is a sense of the pervasive role the disruption of linearity in all its forms plays in Blake’s texts.
Taking the disruption of linear structures as the focus of its analysis of Blake’s politics of alienation, Chapter Two uses what it gleans from the provocatively unsystematic late engraving of The Laocoön to suggest a similar critical project at the center of Blake’s Poetical Sketches. In this way, Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation recognizes in the conventionally type-set collection of juvenilia a canny disruption of the accepted historical development of form and genre: “the Sketches plot the collapse of the pastoral ideal into political, earthly reality, simultaneously mapping that collapse onto the transition from ‘high’ poetic forms to more popular genres and finally the supposed remnants of a lost primitivist culture” (39). As a collection, “[t]his ensemble of classical and anticlassical poems can thus be viewed as an early attempt to destabilize generic expectations, to lull the reader into a false sense of poetic security through highly conventional forms […] and then gradually disrupt those expectations” 939-40). Similarly, The [First] Book of Urizen and Milton are viewed as disrupting linear historical, narratological, and causal sequences to simultaneously reveal linear order as the key mechanism of political subjection.
Chapter Three turns its focus on “the means by which Blake plots the separation of the individual from interpellative social paradigms” in America, Europe, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion (57). The “means” here are the way that Blake’s texts defamiliarize, and thus alienate, “the percipient from the semiological systems that guarantee a homogeneous society and so makes possible the critique of that society and the contemplation of alternatives—it divides ‘my system’ from ‘another Mans’” (59). Visions becomes an instructive instance where “Oothoon’s ability to move between the different perspectives [her own and those of Bromion and Therotormon] marks the possibility of transgressing a powerful ideology, even though her reversal at the poem’s conclusion suggests that escape from social bonds of the institutions that structure them can be only partial and temporary” (67). In this case, Wright’s view of Visions seems markedly more hopeful in its view of the text’s potential to posit a meaningful position outside of the two faces of masculinist ideology than the more committed feminist view of Helen Bruder in William Blake and the Daughters of Albion. Europe stands as a more complex example of Vision’s interest in the disruptive and transgressive potential of multiple perspectives. Wright’s analysis focuses on the activities of the figure Enitharmon as marking a distinction between the “mythic” and “historical” perspectives. “The mythic is sustained discursively, by Enitharmon’s song, and it falls into history when Enitharmon is silenced” (71). But the perspectives of neither myth nor history are given a final and bounding authority in the text, and it is in Orc’s movement between these perspectives that suggests that the divisions they mark are permeable. America is the most hopeful of the trio of books the chapter considers in taking as its subject the ideological stakes in a successful revolution. Focusing on the fluid identities of figures within the poem, Wright, drawing from Judith Butler, observes that the poem presents a version of performative identity where, “to cast off one’s clothes is to reject the authority in which that clothing is implicated and redefine themselves as rebels” (83). In this way the founding of the American state is not so much the point as is “the dynamic that results from the collision of two fundamentally incompatible ideological camps, which nevertheless share the recognition that the terms of the battle are semiological” (85). Much of the liberating potential Wright finds in these three texts derives from the marginality they force upon the reader, thus placing “the reader in a potentially liberating place, as long as the reader is not drawn to the center through an identification that incorporates the reader into a single ideological perspective” (88). In view of the critical history of sympathy and enthusiasm for Oothoon and Orc, this would seem to be asking a lot of Blake’s readers.
Revisiting America and Europe, focusing exclusively on the extended implications of the preludia of these books, Chapter Four is perhaps the most rigorously argued and interpretatively spectacular of Wright’s study. Placing the images of child birth common to both preludia within the shifting terms of “the construction of a homology between intellectual and biological creation” in the movement from Enlightenment to Romantic poetics, Wright finds both an active distinction between gender and sex, as well as models of active and passive reading. Placing the nameless females of America and Europe along side of Wollstonecraft’s assertion of the asexual nature of the intellect in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wright observes that “the doubled status of females as both women and human beings is articulated through the distinction between the womb and the voice, where the latter is potentially a means of liberation from reduction to the former, because it operates outside of the assumptions under which such reductions are made” (93). The book, by extension, as a figure for authorial fecundity, suggests divergent possibilities for production—either the mass reproduction of commercial printing or the limited in number and significantly different “copies” of Blake’s books—as well as the reproduction of ideas and the dissemination of ideological practices. Again, Wright maintains that Blake’s texts disrupt rather than reproduce textual forms of authority: “Orc repudiates the aims of the hermeneutic project by scattering the ‘torn book.’ For Orc, and arguably for Blake, the fecundity of the text lies not in its ability to replicate the progenitor’s perspective but in the destruction of its power to limit other’s perspectives” (105). The problem, which Wright acknowledges, is that Blake’s text can never fully free itself from the implications of its own critique.
In all, Julia M. Wright’s Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation is both a consistently well-balanced and well-considered treatment of Blake’s complex body of work. Working with both theoretical and historical approaches to its subject, Wright’s study recognizes the critique made by Blake’s texts as participants in a vigorous conversation within the period. This study that will doubtlessly prove itself to be central to the on-going discussion of Blake’s work as criticism attempts to more fully theorize history and appropriately historicize theory.