William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s

By Saree Makdisi

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Saree Makdisi
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-50260-1

Chapter One


All a poet can do today is warn. -Wilfred Owen

"The history of all times & places," William Blake once wrote, "is nothing else but improbabilities and impossibilities; what we should say, was impossible if we did not see it always before our eyes." In these astonishing lines, Blake is at once pointing out the difference between the way we experience historical transformation and the way in which that transformation is recorded and pointing to the gap between historical experience and history itself: that is, the tools and concepts, the paradigms and discourses, the rules and regulations-the laws-according to which historical experience is recorded and narrated. He is also, however, implicitly raising the very question of how and by whom the possible is distinguished from the impossible, the probable from the improbable; and in so doing he is pushing us to consider why it is that the impossible and the improbable seem to triumph, for better or for worse, over the categories and regulations designed to exclude them and cordon them off. These are important questions because Blake's work, his art, his poetry, his political, philosophical, religious, and aesthetic beliefs, even he himself, were in his time understood-and indeed they usually still are-as both improbable and impossible.

For Blake's work invokes a world of spirits and of imaginative power, a sense of time as fractured and unevenly heterogeneous, a sense of sharing and being in common that requires that we take seriously the propositions that "God only acts & Is, in existing beings or Men," and that "the Eternal Body of Man is THE IMAGINATION. that is God himself," the "Divine Body" of which "we are his Members." According to such propositions, which we should consider not simply as articles of faith but rather as attempts to think through and interpret historical experience, freedom should be understood not in terms of the negative freedom enshrined in the liberal tradition-consolidated through the struggles of the 1790s-but rather in creative, affirmative, positive terms, as the power to constitute "the eternal body of man"; as the power to imagine, and to create through imagining; as the power to affirm life as being in common, and art as the making of that "divine body" of which we are all "members." If such a world and such propositions seem impossibly alien to us, improbably fantastic, uncomfortably dependent on what looks like a worn-out and outmoded religious language (which they undoubtedly are), that is precisely the point. Having said that, we could either go on reading Blake as an improbable oddity from another time (quaint, strange, a bit mad), or we could take seriously the challenge to think through-and indeed to rethink, to unthink if need be-the ways in which the probable and the possible are defined, and the ways in which these and similar discourses have come to regulate not only how we experience historical transformation, and hence the ways in which we approach and think of history itself, but also the very ways we live our lives and interact with others.

In this book, I explore the ways in which Blake's illuminated books of the 1790s allow and even compel us to reconsider the "impossible history" of the turbulent decade in which they emerged as a moment in which the cultural logic of modernization was fully articulated. Too often in Blake scholarship, issues and questions in Blake's work that seem, according to a modern political idiom, not to be readily identifiable as political in nature-his understanding of being, his views of art, his sense of love, his conception of the imagination-are assumed to mark a departure into some other realm: the mythic, the cosmic, the universal, the spiritual-all of which are assumed to be somehow opposed to or irreconcilable with the historical, the political, and the real. Moreover, a great deal of what cannot be immediately explained-and of what does not make immediate sense-in the work is also consigned to the realm of the ahistorical and the nonpolitical. Much of what Blake wrote, as E. P. Thompson once pointed out, is "altogether too disturbing: it is either wrong, or mad, or it requires the rewriting of history." Blake, Thompson tells us, requires the latter. However, what the present book proposes is that the history whose rewriting Blake requires is not only the history of revolution and political transformation which his work has often been taken to depict, but also the conceptual history of modernity itself, its sense of possibility and impossibility, and its fundamental conceptual categories, above all the stable unitary subject, the sovereign individual essential to the newly emergent world of liberalism, republicanism, and commodity culture.

Clearly, Blake's language of imagination, of power, of sharing and being in common-that is, the language of radical antinomian enthusiasm, which he, like others, inherited from older currents of thought and modified for the exigencies of his own time-was already considered obsolete by the 1790s. But it was obsolete only in the sense that it was allowed no room in the historicist discourse of modernity, and in the culture of modernization, which had to purge itself of such enthusiastic tendencies. For the language of enthusiasm refused the concept of empty homogeneous time which would prove foundational not just for modernity, but for the very sense of history according to which-as I argued in Romantic Imperialism-other cultures, other narratives, other peoples can be seen as "obsolete," irrecuperable, unhistorical, or altogether "impossible." Such a sense of history was essential to much (but not all) of the radicalism of the 1790s, as well as to the strands of romanticism and the modern form of imperialism that emerged along with it, all of whose exponents would have regarded someone like Blake as an outsider, an other-as other, indeed, as all those other others so frequently denigrated in radicalism, aestheticized in romanticism, and vilified in imperialism: the restless urban mob, the languorous Oriental harem girl, the fanatical Asiatic warrior, the "mad-headed" enthusiast. Hence, the language of enthusiasm-and Blake was by no means alone in using such a language in the 1790s-had to be denied a place not only in the progressive revolutionary narratives developed by many (though not all) of the radicals of the 1790s, but also the narratives that have been inherited and sustained by subsequent historians and literary critics.

Partly as a result of this, most historically oriented studies of Blake's work have situated him primarily and often exclusively in the political context defined by the culture of modernization itself, effectively assimilating him into a culture in which he did not really belong, a culture that regarded him as alien, a culture whose premises he bitterly contested. Thus, in most scholarship Blake has been scripted into history as a participant in the radical struggle for liberty and the "rights of man" against the hereditary religious and political order of the old regime: a struggle associated with the work of Tom Paine, John Thelwall, Mary Wollstonecraft, and others. As a result, much modern scholarship has also-whether consciously or unconsciously-identified Blake with the champions of an emergent modern consumer culture, which, through the rhetoric of rights and choices, shared the key conceptual and philosophical assumptions of the radical discourse of liberty (primarily the celebration of the secular freedom of the sovereign individual) and would in fact prove to be inseparable from it. For much of the period's radical discourse-notably the discourse generally best preserved and most foregrounded in modern scholarship, as opposed to the proliferating "other" discourses forgotten, downplayed, and pushed to the margins both by certain radicals themselves and by scholars ever since-this sovereign individual ought to be free to exercise choice in politics as in commerce, free to develop a sense of moral virtue and indeed moral superiority precisely through the practice of choice, and hence not only free to regulate him- or herself, but to cherish freedom itself as the ability to regulate, control, police oneself.

However, the relationship among moral virtue, choice, freedom, and self-regulation that was developed in much of the radical discourse of the 1790s, and in romanticism itself, was profoundly Orientalist in nature-to an extent that has hitherto gone almost entirely unrecognized in scholarship. As much in the work of Wordsworth or Coleridge as in that of Paine or Thelwall, this discourse sought to authorize a modern Western set of values, a modern Western sense of citizenship, above all a modern Western sense of self, as against what it perceived to be an Oriental culture supposedly incompatible with and hostile to all those values. In celebrating the moral virtue of the modern self, much of the radical and romantic writing of the 1790s necessarily celebrated the modern self's superiority to the Oriental other.

As we shall see in greater detail in chapter 5, however, such Orientalism turns out to be the key not only to the radical culture of the 1790s-as well as to the culture of romanticism that emerged with it-but also to Blake's divergence from both. For, as against what he called the "philosophic and experimental" knowledge of Paine or Wordsworth, with its class- and race-defined requirements for what must be recognized as a stable Western subject (adequately learned, prepared, disciplined, and cultivated), and with its quest for moral virtue and domination over the other, Blake proposes the prophetic power of the poor and unlearned, of Asians and Africans, of his "fellow labourers," and of children. Jesus, Blake writes, "supposes every Thing to be Evident to the Child & to the Poor & Unlearned Such is the Gospel." For, he adds, "the Whole Bible is filld with Imaginations & Visions from End to End & not with Moral virtues that is the baseness of Plato & the Greeks & all Warriors The Moral Virtues are continual Accusers of Sin & promote Eternal Wars & Domineering over others." Thus, rather than the imperial "warrior" discourse essential to the dominant strand of 1790s radicalism as well as to at least a major strand of romanticism-a discourse obsessed with sovereign power and domination of the other-Blake proposes an opening out away from the discourse of sovereign power and toward a mode of being which recognizes that "God is Man & exists in us & we in him" and that "all must love the human form, / In heathen, turk or jew. / Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell, / There God is dwelling too."

In the chapters that follow, then, I will argue that Blake's sympathy with what has become the familiar radical attack on hereditary aristocratic government did not prevent him from questioning the political and cultural assumptions of the best-known radicals (most famously Tom Paine) with whom he has often been associated, as well as the liberal spirit of commercial, consumerist, and political freedom being championed in their writings and struggles. For, as I will demonstrate, the sovereign individual whose political and commercial rights constituted the ultimate objective of the dominant radical movement of the 1790s (though not, as we shall see, other varieties and strands of radicalism) is profoundly destabilized and rendered inoperative in Blake's work of the same decade. Blake found this conception of rights far too limited and restrictive, especially in its reliance on the notion of individual selfhood, which for Blake represented the worst form of confinement and restriction. Decades later, expressing the anxieties of the individual selfhood, or the so-called centered subject, the great writers and artists of twentieth-century modernism would, according to Fredric Jameson, dramatize "the unhappy paradox that when you constitute your individual subjectivity as a self-sufficient field and a closed realm, you thereby shut yourself off from everything else and condemn yourself to the mindless solitude of the monad, buried alive and condemned to a prison cell without egress." Writing at the moment marking the cultural, political and economic consolidation of the monad, Blake was already warning of the dangers of such a burial alive. In so doing, he was, however, not exactly anticipating the modernist critique of bourgeois culture that would develop in the work of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Edward Munch, Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis, Filippo Marinetti, or Vincent van Gogh. Blake was, rather, expressing a cultural and political standpoint that bourgeois culture would first have to eradicate in order for the modernist critique, as it developed in the early twentieth century, to become possible in the first place. Blake, then, was not simply a modernist avant la lettre (for such a proposition would be sustainable only in grossly ahistorical and apolitical terms). If certain of his cultural, political and aesthetic positions sometimes resemble those of modernism, that is because he shared with the twentieth-century modernists a common enemy in the rationalizing, alienating, mechanizing, quantifying, modernizing, and empire-building culture of the nineteenth century. The latter oriented the world around the rational, alienated, mechanized, quantified, modern, and imperial subject, whose anxieties and pathologies may have been more or less successfully repressed through the nineteenth century but would emerge and be given their fullest expression in modernism. Such expressions would intensify after the Great War of 1914-1918, which revealed the frailty of the individual selfhood for what it was in the trenches of the Somme and Verdun and the mud of Gallipoli. If the cultural trauma of the Great War may be said to have brought the "long" nineteenth century to its end, however, it was in the context of the revolutionary wars of the 1790s-which are often taken to mark the beginning of the "long" nineteenth century-that Blake produced his own seemingly forgotten warning against the political, economic, cultural and psychical centralization that would necessarily accompany the bourgeois domination of both self and others.

What I propose is that Blake's illuminated books of the 1790s-including Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America: A Prophecy, and The Book of Urizen-undermine the conceptualizations of sovereignty and reification that were essential to the logic of consumer culture and the free market, as well as to the logic of the republican movement and liberal democracy. In Blake's work, for example, we very rarely see characters that are sovereign in the sense required by the conception of freedom demanded by Paine. Attempts at such sovereignty, as, for example, in the figure of Urizen, invariably turn into new forms of oppression, both of the other and of the self supposed to be rendered free. In linking the constitution of Urizen's body to the constitution of the chains of linear time, for example, Blake reminds us of the extent to which the "fallen" human body anticipates, even complements, the modern assembly line, so that the sovereign subject-with all his supposed freedom and liberty-is revealed to be the mirror image, the necessary correlate, of the factory drone; hardly free at all.

In the illuminated books, the supposed freedom of the sovereign individual is shown to be compromised by the extent to which selves and others exist in a dispersed and mutually dependent network that is not really compatible with a discourse of identity and difference. Thus, the world of the illuminated books never really coheres into-in fact it precludes altogether-the simple juxtaposition of self and other in an atomized social space, which was the presupposition, the ground, of both consumerism and liberal republicanism. The world of Blake's books is characterized instead by a series of links and synapses in which selves and others are shown to be made up of common and shared elements, and in which meanings are generated immanently rather than by reference to transcendent and transparent or "self-evident truths"-such as the ones invoked by the American Declaration of Independence-which provided the inspiration for much of the radical movement in London, though they are broken down beyond repair in the world of the illuminated books.


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