Critics exploring the relationship between Romantic poetry and Judaism have noted several places within William Blake’s poetry that seem to display philo-Semetic tendencies. This essay argues that Blake’s relationship with Jewish thought is much more complicated. It utilizes Spinoza’s understanding of the affect to rethink the contexts of Blake’s remarks about Judaism and “the Jew.” For Spinoza, the problem of the affect is a problem of reading and understanding what one is reading. This is particularly difficult, since the affects only confusedly make up what is called “the body”—whether this is a corporeal, political, or epistemological body. He applies this affectual problem of reading to his study of Biblical texts in the Theological Political Treatise, noting that Jewish law, in particular the Decalogue, only applies to the time and place of its production. Despite this, there are attempts to make a coherent message out of the Decalogue that can be transmitted outside of its spatio-temporal context. Blake has similar comments to make about the textual production of the Bible. According to Blake, the Bible is not a coherent document, and is rather made to be coherent by political bodies wishing to make a single, docile Christian identity. This paper uses these comments by Blake and Spinoza in a close reading of what is seemingly the most obvious example of Blake’s philo-semetic ideas: his address “To the Jews” in Jerusalem. I argue that whatever comments Blake makes about Jewish identity cannot be read outside of the complicated biopolitical contexts emerging from the address. Readers must fashion a disciplinary body for Blake that has philo-semetic beliefs and believe that this body pre-exists the time and space of its textual production in order to make conclusions about Blake’s relationship to Judaism. This process is precisely what Blake critiques in the essay.
Corps de l’article
“The ideas of the affections of the human body, insofar as they are related only to the human mind, are not clear and distinct, but confused.”-Spinoza, Ethics (II.xxvii)
Politically and theologically speaking, Spinoza’s argument directly antagonizes what seems to be one of the central problems and central powers of William Blake’s messianic project: the need to combine absolutely separate elements into a divine, but also disjointed, body. As Spinoza affirms, every statement about a particular body cannot help but be confused since these statements refer only to particular affects of the body and never to the body as it is in itself. Bodies do not exist except through the affects, and the particularity of these affects exceeds representation. What we name the body is an imagined construction existing through a belief that all the affects of the body somehow cohere. Blake’s prophetic texts deal with the consequences of the creation of a bodily whole—whether that includes a corporeal, religious, scientific or political body. Blake’s dedication to minute particularity would seem to parallel Spinoza’s ambivalence about bodily affect.
This parallel makes it difficult to explain the apparent condemnation of Judaism in the beginning of Jerusalem. At the end of the section entitled “To the Jews,” Blake expresses a sentiment that seems, at the very least, philo-semetic. Blake contrasts a pantheism, where “Man anciently contained in his mighty limbs all things in Heaven & Earth,” with an abstracted religion that demands sacrifices to compensate for a division between the community and divinity (E 171). After a short explanation, detailing the creation of the world through crucifixion and death, the following passage exhibits a philo-semitism that many critics attribute to Blake.
If Humility is Christianity; you O Jews are the true Christians; If your tradition that Man contained in his Limbs, all Animals, is True & they were separated from him by cruel Sacrifices: and when compulsory cruel Sacrifices had brought Humanity into a Feminine Tabernacle, in the loins of Abraham & David: the Lamb of God, the Saviour became apparent on Earth as the Prophets had foretold? The Return of Israel is a Return to Mental Sacrifice & War. Take up the Cross O Israel & follow Jesus.E 174
Many critics cite this section to prove that Blake wanted to convert the Jews to Christianity. It seems obvious enough; Blake sees the ancient magnificence of the Jews as co-extensive with the Druids, yet also seemingly wants them to take up the burden of the cross.
Leslie Tannenbaum argues that Blake only accepts the Jewish people after they have already eradicated their cultural and religious identity. Contrasting Blake’s Jerusalem with Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem, an 18th century critique of British philo-semitism, Tannenbaum takes the quote cited above as an example of Blake’s conversionist tendencies. “Blake […] reinvokes the same conversionist attitudes that Mendelssohn had tried so hard to combat. Perhaps the darkest aspects of Blake’s supposedly liberatory poem is his participation in the very kinds of conversionist discourse that Mendelssohn spent all of his life—and much of his energy—fighting” (86). Tannenbaum goes on to argue that Blake’s understanding of liberty is only articulated through a very narrow definition that seeks to exclude any Jewish people who adhere to their religious practices. Tannenbaum’s understanding of Jerusalem is punctuated by several quotes that make up Blake’s conversionist belief. Even as he admits that “Blake’s vision of Christianity effects a similar erasure of his own religion,” Tannenbaum does not deal with how Blake’s reliance upon minute particularity makes the issue of conversion much more complicated than can be accounted for in a simple (86). Furthermore, Tannenbaum does not consider that a conversionist attitude would presuppose a very narrow understanding of subjectivity, one that Blake himself spent much of his life and energy fighting against.
Michael Galchinsky has a similar problem when analyzing what he calls Blake’s religious anti-Judaism. Galchinsky considers Blake’s understanding of the Judaic as “a fixed system, first and most effectively undertaken by the Jews. Because he identifies Jewishness with systemization, Blake’s concept of the Judaic is intimiately related to his most basic and most constant poetic purpose […]. Jewishness is, in fact, what he is trying to overcome” (3). Galchinsky sees Blake setting himself in a dialectical opposition against Judaism as a stagnant system, and the Jewish people allow themselves to be duped by this stagnant system. This conception of Blake defines himself only in opposition to this static image of Jewish thought. Again, Galchinsky does not deal with Blake’s understanding of minute particularity, nor does he deal with Blake’s more complicated prophetic books. Galchinsky decontextualizes proclamations from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to form an ideology and a subjectivity that Blake can be fitted into. His article uses a series of statements to sidestep the textual problems inherent in any of Blake’s poetry, to label Blake anti-Judaic and form readings of Blake’s text accordingly.
Instead of looking at the problem of Blake’s anti-Judaic feelings as an individual reaction to Enlightenment thinking, I want to use Spinoza’s understanding of the affect to rethink Blake’s characterization of Judaism in Jerusalem. What can Spinoza’s affect do to a criticism that wants to fix Blake as a determinable body of thoughts and ideas, or a determinable discourse involving particular questions or particular assertions? For this paper to effectively apply Spinoza’s affect, it must admit that it cannot respond directly to questions that would seek to address what either Blake or Spionza thought about religion. Strictly speaking, this is not a Spinozan reading of Blake, but a reading of certain passages from Jerusalem, most of them from the section entitled “To the Jews,” that I will displace with particular propositions from Spinoza. Far from simply echoing one another, Blake and Spinoza effect some powerful tensions that can help us understand the use of theology in a literary criticism that is questioning identity and the political process of producing that identity. Spinoza’s understanding of the affect produces a Blake who counters anti-Judaic denunciations with a harsh critique of biopolitics. This critique automatically denies any mimetic representation of Blake as a commodified object in criticism. Spinoza’s affect forces us to rethink what questions we are asking when we explore Blake’s relationship to Judaism and to wonder if those very questions are not, themselves, caught up in the very same reading problems that produce racisms in the first place.
Spinoza sees the construction of identity as a biopolitical process that is caught up in the problems of representing the affect. The complications of knowing the body through affect become very important for Spinoza’s discussion of Jewish religion in the Theological-Political Treatise. According to Spinoza, the problem of affect is a textual problem. Affective reading would treat the minute particularities of the text as absolute singularities that cannot stand in a mimetic, allegorical relationship to outside elements. In fact in Chapter 7, Spinoza says “[s]cripture does not provide us with the definition of the things of which it speaks, any more than Nature does” (458). The use of Nature as a trope for understanding scripture illustrates the dependence reading has upon the affects. There is, in fact, no way to interpret the law or the theological without reference to a multiplicity of affective properties within Scripture. These properties are related to the process of reading, which is also tied to affective reactions a body has toward whatever it is reading.
By making this statement, Spinoza treats the affects as textual; he shows that reading a text is much like reading Nature. In both the problem of how to define a complete body from a mass of multiple elements becomes completely irresolvable. Propositions that one can deduce from scripture must take into consideration the absolutely singular moment in scripture that they arrive, as well as the language in which they are manifested. A reader of scripture or of the body or Nature should not interpret passages as referring to anything outside of its immediate context. Furthermore, this context is never fully present to the reader of scripture. Affectively, interpretation of scripture can only refer to a ruined mass of historical statements that may have no relation to the reader’s current position as a being within a very different world that produced it.
Spinoza uses this point to construct a very subversive reading of Jewish law. God, for Spinoza, is absolutely immanent. God is the product of particular communities forming particular beliefs and readings of prophecy. The tenants of religious law can only exist within human communities and can only refer to those communities. The problem is that, in terms of freedom and religious observance, law is quite different from what Spinoza calls eternal truth. He argues that the Decalogue was a law only for the Hebrews,
for not knowing God’s existence as an eternal truth, it was inevitable that they should have perceive as a law what was revealed to them in the Decalogue. […] But if God had spoken to them directly, employing no physical means, they would have perceived this not as a law, but as an eternal truth”.431
The difficulty of interpreting eternal truth revolves around its involvement with language. Spinoza argues that eternal truth can only exist if God directly communicates to the Hebrews. Any other communication can only be understood as law, formed by a community within a specific time and place. The problem of communication becomes even more complicated if we again look at the difficulty of understanding a body without referring to the complicated combinations of conflicted affects. Even within the moment of utterance, a divine eternal truth would have to be read by the community in which it appears. The confusing strains of language and individual elements of communication would have to be consolidated into a message or a directive that the Hebrews can follow. While doing this, the divine eternal truth is condensed into a law that would subsequently be communicated to other members of the community and further generations.
Even at the moment of utterance or the moment of interpretation, the affectual gets glossed over. Every moment of the utterance of divine truth must constantly be reestablished to make the Hebrews see the divine truth as absolutely eternal. The eternal is formed in the instant that must be supplemented by the construction of law. At the moment that law is constructed, the eternal instant is supplanted by a commandment that can only refer to a specific time and place. The instant gets replaced by another instant, one that strives to be eternal but cannot escape the instant in which it is conceived. Every reader who attempts to interpret Jewish law, as Spinoza says later on in the Treatise, must understand that whatever statements are made about law refer only to a particular reader’s encounter with the law. We cannot “achieve a greater understanding of its true meaning” if we “do not know the author or the time or the occasion” of a law’s composition (7). Every reading of Jewish law, according to Spinoza, is singular and cannot refer to anything outside of its own existence as a displaced and inappropriate conjunction of two temporal events: the event of composition and the event of reading.
Spinoza’s understanding of the textual formation of law as a community driven process of incorporating and restructuring what would be seen as eternal truth mirrors Blake’s discussion of constructing an affective reading of Biblical textuality. They both render religious identity highly questionable. When speaking about the construction of the Bible and Blake’s understanding of prophecy, Mary Rothenberg shows how the institution of the Bible as a unified text complicates the issue of conversion. Rothenberg shows how the Bible uses prophecy to restructure the meaning of past events. For Blake, this process was nothing but a political oppression designed to produce a stable subjectivity named the “Christian.” The scriptures were, likewise, “records of rhetorical strategies for creating a unified community, for establishing authority, and for producing an ideologically coherent text” (18). The construction of religious identity is a political move designed to create a community of consensus regulated by faith. Faith allows the construction of identity to force obedience to a set of politically determined laws. The theological becomes merely a source of identity and law, a source that in Blake’s words withers the human body.
The process of withering and reading as a textual production of a single identity forms the theme of Blake’s section entitled “To the Jews.” It might be easy to see this section as a manifesto giving us a window into what Blake actually thinks about the issues presented in the poem, or as a moment of respite where Blake offers us a key to disentangling the poem’s dense and complicated structure. The very desire for respite acts as a diversion from the more important issues of reading and re-reading, as if the process of reading could be halted by a single ideological statement that could easily be paraphrased. By sticking with Spinoza’s understanding of the affect, we can only confusedly point to parts of this bewildering section and offer accounts of Blake’s encounter with multiplicity. To read this text, we must simultaneously mark and deal with the impossibility of reading. We must also understand that this section is addressed to the Jews, but that the narrative explicitly refers to the Druids.
Without engaging in this entirely exhausting process, we would only reinstate a law whose effects would parallel what happens in the address. Blake’s poetic passage marks a movement from a pantheistic and fluid body to a more abstracted and concrete reality, a passage marked by the withering of the human form into its uniform, wormish presence. The narrative underscoring the withering of the human form in the middle of Blake’s address shows that this withering occurred due to the “laws of sacrifice for sin,” and that this form became “a Mortal Worm/But O! translucent all within” (E. 173). The sacrificial law acts to produce a withered subjectivity and a withered theological response. “[C]ruel Patriarchal Pride” replaces the green meadows and fields that populate the earlier stanzas (E 173). The theological becomes nothing more than a response to the law or any commandment received from an abstract deity living somewhere else. Whatever seeks to establish a form that is apart from the living matter that the Druids see disseminating divinity into multiplicity automatically withers up that human form and sets it into a concrete relationship to something that is very much outside it. An affective theology is replaced with a blank law of exchange that demands regular sacrifice for the inability of anyone within the community of believers to match the perfection of this abstracted, concretizing divinity.
If we are to understand this section as an argument against Jewish law, we must see that law participating directly in the oppression of the Druidic people. There are, indeed, several places where Blake refers to ritual sacrifice and crucifixion. However, it is never entirely obvious who directs the actions of the address, who is responsible for the creation of the world in its abstraction from the Human Form, or who replaces an immanent and affective theology with a more abstracted or ritualistic one. The narrator of the address offers several possibilities and layers these possibilities on top of one another. Satan could be responsible for the action, because his Synogogue becomes the site of a crucifixion that occurs “With Moral & Self-righteous Law” (E. 172). Earlier on, though, the creation of the world as an abstracted multiplicity seems the product of the Elohim taking advantage of Albion’s sleep. “Albion was the Parent of the Druids; & in his Chaotic State of Sleep Satan & Adam & the whole World was Created by the Elohim” (E. 171). At this point, the Elohim is the originator of division and multiplication, constructing the very rules that seem to be formed by Satan later on. The relationship between the creation of the world and the forming of rules to constrain the pantheistic body is somewhat problematically established by the previous line, where an unidentified voice suddenly sounds “But now the Starry Heavens are fled form the mighty limbs of Albion” (E. 171). The Elohim creates the world to oppress it. Or rather, the creation of the world is its oppression.
Again, it is extremely difficult to understand precisely what causes the creation of the world or to construct an accurate map of the progress of its oppression. It is possible to read the creation of the world as making the starry heavens leave the limbs of the Druids. If Albion is the parent of the Druids, as seems to be the case from the cited passage above, the Druids must have predated Satan’s creation—since it is only during Albion’s sleep that the Elohim is able to create the world. It is only through Albion’s sleep that the Elohim can maintain the consistency of the world with its laws. Satan’s arrival could have caused the fleeing of the Starry Heavens, but it is difficult to separate this moment entirely from the Elohim’s creation of the world. This is, of course, impossible because if Satan caused the fleeing of the Starry Heavens, this moment must have happened after the creation of the world and after the Druids formed their pantheistic understanding of the world. The creation of the Druids might have happened at the same time as the creation of Satan, or the Druids could emerge as an instantaneous response to the cruel divisive production of the world by the Elohim. But again, if the Druids, at any time, contained the universe within their limbs (as good pantheists would) they must have predated the Elohim’s production of the world.
Blake separates the sentence describing the Elohim’s creation of the world with a semicolon, which marks an absolute difference in the two clauses of the sentence describing Albion as the parent of the Druids. I repeat the sentence to bring attention to this difference. “Albion was the Parent of the Druids; & in his Chaotic State of Sleep Satan & Adam & the Whole World was Created by the Elohim” (E. 171). The separation marks two absolutely different events—Albion’s existence as the parent of the Druids and the creation of the world by the Elohim. Yet the sentence is also connected, for one event flows into another. Immediately after the semi-colon, Blake inserts an ampersand. At this point, the semi-colon acts as a very potent blockage, but the ampersand forces the sentence into a more flowing rhythm. The conjunction of the two marks produces a very frustrating aporia. The text simultaneously presents two completely different moments that are, nonetheless, absolutely connected. Albion is the parent of the Druids, but does this state of affairs necessitate or preceed Albion’s sleep or the Elohim’s creation of the world? This is absolutely important to how we read the Druid’s responsibility in the creation and oppression of the world. If the two sentences are separate, the Druids have nothing to do with the creation of the world. If we, on the other hand, read these sentences together as causally connected, the Druids have everything to do with this moment---for the Druids are not seen either as opposing or as being duped by the Elohim. The conjunction of the ampersand and semicolon, though, makes it impossible to read the text either way. The Druids are both accomplices in the Elohim’s creation of the world and not related to it at all. Satan emerges both before the creation of the world and after the formation of the Druidic people.
These moments mark co-existent actualities in Blake’s poem. It is not simply that there are two situations that each reader must decide between. Spinoza’s understanding of the affect would necessitate that we pay attention to both actualities as being present in the withering of the human form into its current image. A reading that pays adequate attention to the affects has to multiply and defer them, for the affects have their own affectual qualities that continually displace any original feeling or understanding that may ground the analysis. Reading cannot condense these ambiguities and aporias into a single vision; it has no adequate evidence to decide whether or not the Druid’s were responsible for the withering of the Human Form.
The beginning of the address reflects this undecidability. After deciding that “Jerusalem was & is the Emanation of the Giant Albion” describing it as a formation created both in the past and the present, the narrator argues that the religion of Jesus is “the most Ancient, the Eternal: & the Everlasting Gospel” (E. 171). The inclusion of the colon suggests a supreme synthetic moment. Had the ampersand been left out, the colon could mark the Everlasting Gospel as the proper synthesis of the Ancient and the Eternal. Here the ampersand actually disconnects the logic of the sentence. The ampersand demands that the Everlasting Gospel forms continuity between itself and the Ancient and the Eternal that places all three terms into a series, disrupting the synthesis that the colon promises. If the religion of Jesus is the universal synthetic marker of all religion, if as it seems in a passage from the beginning of the address that all are united “in One Religion,” the punctuation of this absolutely indispensable sentence makes such a clear synthesis difficult (E. 171). It is almost as if, in creating the sentence that will finally define the religion of Jesus as the most Ancient, Eternal, Everlasting, and thus best religion, the narrator stutters and cannot fully admit that such an all-encompassing assertion can be fully articulated without being threatened by its minute particularities. The Everlasting Gospel cannot fully exist without multitudes of minute particulates, without punctuations, without affects that constantly break down its universalist edifice.
If we take this orthographic oddity seriously, the rest of the section becomes exceedingly strange. Recalling my earlier point, the creation of the world is seen as the fault of “the Elohim” (E. 171). Later on in the address, however, Satan suddenly appears and forces the Druids to sacrifice and ignore the forgiveness of the Lamb of God. Satan is seen as Albion’s spectre, causing the once picturesque land to wither and decay. “Albions Spectre from his Loins/Tore forth in all the pomp of War!/Satan his name; in flames of fire/He stretch’d his Druid Pillars far” (E. 172). The pomp of war takes an already formed world and withers it, forcing it to be appropriated by the Satanic Synogogue that abstracts the absolute human form. Druid Pillars signify this appropriation. At this point Satan appears as the author of this chaos and destruction. What happened to the Elohim? Why is Satan the cause of a sudden war and the flames of fire that now yoke the world to abstraction and articulation?
This difficulty is related to the appearance of an “I” in the last third of the section. Earlier on, in the first prose section of the address, the narrative frequently refers to “you” as it explicitly references the Jewish people. As the more poetic section begins, the narrator has a more objective viewpoint. The narrator’s addressee disappears as the focus shifts to Satan’s story, and the narrative involving the Elohim is left behind. Readers can see the flowing fields of Islington and Marlybone and the beginning of Satan’s crusade to form the law of sacrifice. The narrative assumes a more descriptive tone, shifting from the didacticism of the prose section to a more neutral passage. Soon after Satan withers the human form, an “I” suddenly appears. “And O thou Lamb of God, whom I/Slew in my dark self-righteous pride:/Art thou return’d to Albions Land!/And is Jerusalem thy Bride” (E. 173)? The shift in this passage marks the emergence of a human form and a selected perspective that slays the Lamb of God. The abstraction is complete. No longer is there merely an all seeing eye floating atop the landscape, surveying a scene that all can experience. In the midst of description, that which is being described becomes a character who directly reacts to the description. What seems an objective narration becomes, in fact, a speech uttered by a specific person who has been created by the withering of the Human Form. At the moment the Human Form appears, the Lamb of God can no longer easily repeal sin, and the law replaces this forgiveness. The affective is effectively replaced with a law, a body, and a narrator that must now signal its being and its placement within the narrative.
The appearance of the “I” in this passage marks a shift, I want to argue, in the very purpose of the argument in the address. The “I” indicates a situatedness that earlier passages from the address do not see the need to address. Why precisely at this point does the text need to identify its narrator? The discussion of guilt seems entirely dependent upon an accuser, someone who thinks someone else is guilty for this act of oppression and constriction. If we think that Blake is directly addressing the Jews in this section, if we agree with Galchinsky that Blake’s entire poetic project is leveled against Judaism, the appearance of the “I” must be a supplement for Blake’s poetic voice. This signals that Blake sees himself as part of this process, and that this withering can only be redeemed by asking the Jews to take up the cross on the last page of the address. However, if Blake is the “I,” the creation of the “I” could only occur through the destruction of the Lamb of God. Blake’s presence as something that must be supplemented in the poem enacts the process it describes, because it assumes that there is an independent presence named Blake that precedes the “I” and the narrative describing its creation. Selfhood only exists through the destruction of the affects and the emergence of the “dark self righteous pride,” that emerges the moment the “I” appears (E. 173). If this is the case and the “I” is a supplement for an otherwise present poetic voice named “Blake,” Blake’s explanation of the oppression of the world is just as guilty as the Druids for the creation of the law.
The “I” can only appear as an agent of exclusion, as a murder, as a destruction of the pantheistic world Blake celebrates in the early part of the address. Furthermore, the creation of the “I” can only happen as a result of ignoring the very process that brings it into being. The Elohim disappears the moment his guilt in this project of oppression can no longer be sensed. Instead the “I” lays a majority of the guilt for the oppression on Satan and the Druids who sacrificed in the Satanic Synogogues. The “I’s” argument against “Family-Love” can easily be seen in this light. Instead of focusing upon multiplicity or a significantly more complicated process of subjectification, the “I” instead reclaims its selfhood and condemns the family. “A mans worst enemies are those/Of his own house & family;/And he who makes his law a curse,/By his own law shall surely die” (E. 173). The “I” focuses on the family as an agent of exclusion and a limit point that determines whether an individual is worthy of love. The “I” does not see that the law that the “I” all-too-easily embraces already plagues this very assertion: the law of selfhood and subjectivity. Consequently, the “I” sees the family as the enemy of the individual who exists despite the family’s tendency to isolate itself and “Destroy[…]all the World beside” (E. 173). This process of subjugation and forgetting replaces “Blake’s” guilt with the Elohim’s, the Elohim’s guilt with Satan’s, Satan’s guilt with the Druid’s, and the Druid’s guilt with the Family’s. The “I” uses the law to condemn others who use another law or another family, and entirely misreads Spinoza’s reading of religious law as a perpetual process of supplementation. The “I” produces this reading because it forgets the history of its own subjugation, because it is already oppressed under a subjectivity that can only blindly point to others as guilty of a horrible crime that it cannot even remember accurately. Affective readings of Blake’s address reveal how certain characters or events misread a story that exists through misremembering and misreading forgotten events.
The prose sections operate similarly. Instead of merely being glosses of the more complicated poetic sections in Jerusalem, the prose sections offer very problematic readings of certain portions of the section. This becomes very powerful in Blake’s address to the Jews where the narrator advises the addressees to “Take up the Cross O Israel & follow Jesus” (174). Considering the forgetting of history, oppression and the laying of guilt as a supplement to forgetting, the narrator is already within the state of “Mental Sacrifice & War” it promises if there is a “Return to Israel” (E. 174). The process of oppression operating in the poetic section describes a repetition of forgetting and a repetition of sacrifice. The repetition is used continually by the “I” to replace the object of guilt, which is continually sacrificed to the all-devouring logic of forgetting. The prose section that seemingly signals Blake’s most direct thoughts about the address, also signals an absolute forgetting. It signals a replacement, a glossing over of the affectual complications of the poetic section. The final statement that urges the Jews to “Take up the Cross” does not offer a culmination of the poem; it does not produce a final assertion of what would allow all people to be free. Rather it signals the absolute degradation of every singular reading process, as a dedication to liberty from mental sacrifice instead uses Israel as an object of sacrifice—as if by eliminating Israel or Judaism, the narrator of the prose section could easily eliminate all of the problems articulated in the poetic section of the address. An entire group of people is ignored to valorize the narrator and the group that the narrator belongs to. “Mental Sacrifice & War” indeed.
Using Spinoza’s understanding of the affect allows us to see the affectual reading condition Blake’s prophetic books continually impose upon readers. The prose section only offers respite for those looking to produce a particular type of body, and ignoring the affectual conditions that permeate every body before it is identified. The body remains a complicated theological problem, an experience that can never be fully or completely articulated to assure its survival as a stable entity. Attempts to point towards a collection of affects and say, “there, that is the body” only work to sacrifice everything else. Blake’s relationship to Judaism is similarly fraught with problems. Any conclusion I make about Blake and Judaism can only exist in minute particularity, in particular reading practices that may have more to say about me as a reader than Blake as a writer. If Blake is a “collective effort,” then the body of Blake only expands with every reading. To fully condemn Blake with ideological statements is to forget Blake; it denies the complicated and contradicting efforts that have produced Blake for us. It sacrifices these efforts for personal valorization. What possibilities does this sacrifice open up? Sacrifice accelerates an apocalyptic repetition of violence, where multiplicity becomes solidified in an oppressive commodification of subjectivity. Apocalypse would be the end that always and never came, a constant state of warfare and violence that perpetuates itself in forgetting and sacrifice. The apocalypse only appears through a forgetting that can do nothing but blame, that sacrifices multiplicity to ideology, that physically enacts mental warfare and suffering as an augment for its withering individual form.
All references to Blake’s poetry come from the second edition of David Erdman’s Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. I have limited this essay to quotes from this edition for the sake of brevity. A much larger project could include the illuminations and the many variations in plates that make up the different copies of Jerusalem.
Galchinsky understands the problem of representation. He, in fact, accuses Blake of misrepresenting Jewish people in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The foundation of what he calls “religious anti-Judaism” is the “act of making Jews emblematic of types of concepts[…]especially without consulting their more profound and complicated self-representations” (14). I absolutely agree with Galchinsky on this point. However, he does not understand that his own analysis of Blake falls into the same problem. Assuming that Marriage represents Blake’s earliest exposition of intention takes for granted that certain statements from the text can be used to show how obvious it is that Blake falls into a pre-formulated typical category—that of the religious anti-Judaic thinker.
In an endnote to the introduction of The New Spinoza, Warren Montag defines the study of Althusser as something that “correspond(s) more to a collective effort than to the activity of the single individual who bore the same Louis Althusser” (xix). Apart from defining Blake as a “collective effort,” the use of Spinoza in this paper depends not so much on a historical relationship between Blake and Spinoza as the idea of Blake as an effort that Spinoza can contribute to. It focuses on strange combinations of different affects to produce new Spinozas and new Blakes who may be more able to tackle certain social and political problems in ways older representations could not.
On this point, Spinoza proposes that a complete knowledge of Hebrew language is impossible. This is because “[t[he Hebrew nation has lost all its arts and embellishments (little wonder, in view of the disasters and persecutions it has suffered) and as retained only a few remnants of its language and of its books, few in number.[…][T]he meanings of many nouns and verbs occurring in the Bible are either completely unknown or subject to dispute” (463). The meaning of Hebrew scriptures is thus already faced with the problem of the interpretation of a memory that has disappeared. Later, Spinoza admits that this is only a problem in “matters beyond normal comprehension,” and “is not true of matters open to intellectual perception” (466). While allowing us a partial glimpse into so-called intellectual perception, Hebrew scriptures communicate the fact that these perceptions cannot fully encapsulate the meaning of any particular passage. What we have in scripture is only a remnant of what existed before. These remnants, for Spinoza, never come together to form a complete understanding of Jewish law.
It would be prudent to note here that Spinoza has many statements that seem more in line with traditional Scriptural exegesis. As I argued in an earlier not, Spinoza separates what he terms parts essential to “salvation and necessary to blessedness” from those “beyond normal comprehension” (466-7). His arguments about Jewish law come very much from an affectual, minutely particular understanding of Scripture—one that produces effects that frequently go beyond normal reading practices. This is what Antonio Negri calls Spinoza’s “immeasurable measure” (143). He sees Spinoza’s thought as “’negative thought,’ inasmuch as it criticizes and destroys the equilibrium of hegemonic culture—a culture of defeat and mediation” (143). Spinoza’s thought does not posit an end or a purpose to the theological, but works by destroying boundary lines and limit points that only mediate the energies both he and Blake want to use to push thought beyond itself.
While Galchinsky sees the paradox I am illustrating here, he never fully explores its consequences to Blake’s understanding of religion or his supposed anti-Judaic beliefs.
- Erdman, David, Ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Newly Revised Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1988.
- Montag, Warren and Ted Stolze, Ed. The New Spinoza. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1997.
- Morgon, Michael, ed. Spinoza: Complete Works. Tran. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1988.
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