BLAKE'S AGITATION by Steven Goldsmith, Reviewed by David Baulch
 

BLAKE'S AGITATION
By Steven Goldsmith
(Johns Hopkins, 2013) 406 pp.
Reviewed by David Baulch on 2013-10-15.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

If you were to overhear a conversation in which the words "Blake" and "agitation" occurred together, you might well assume you had stumbled on a discussion of William Blake's radical politics. Your expectation would not be unfounded, for in the last twenty-five years a Marxist/historicist Blake has made a stunning comeback in work that includes--among others--Jon Mee's Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790's (1992), E.P. Thompson's Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (1993), Steve Clark and David Worrall's collection Historicizing Blake (1994), Jackie DiSalvo, G.A. Rosso, and Christopher Z. Hobson's collection Blake, Politics, and History (1998), Shirley Dent and Jason Whittaker's Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife (2002), Saree Makdisi's William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790's (2003), and Robert Rix's William Blake and the Cultures of Radical Christianity (2007). Today, it is almost a truism of literary history that Blake was a religiously and politically radical figure.

Collectively, then, the studies I have listed above have healthily corrected the notion that Blake was a singular, isolated visionary, a genius whose politics, values, and beliefs served the needs of the liberal humanists who celebrated him as one of their own in the 1960's and '70's. For those critics, Blake was forward looking, secular, and progressive. For more recent critics, Blake was a religious man of his time. While no less radical than liberal humanists thought, his beliefs and practices are now construed as specific to his historical context, charged by the religious enthusiasm of the working-class antinomians of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This Blake, then, rejects what Makdisi has called the bourgeois tendencies of the "liberal-radicals" of the period such as Thomas Paine and Joseph Johnson, with whom Blake has often been associated (Impossible History 26).

Nevertheless, this study of "Blake's agitation" does not argue that Blake was an agitator. While Goldsmith certainly recognizes and interrogates Blake's reputation for religious enthusiasm and political engagement, the "agitation" he associates with Blake is more properly a state of dysphoria than a program of political disruption--an effort to change the minds of the public. Paradoxically marked by restlessness and malaise, Blake's agitation is a particular "political valence [attached] to the notion of subjective disturbance" (23). On the one hand, its restlessness is a species of enthusiasm--Blake's obsessive, complex, and never-ending struggle to articulate his deeply committed critique of political and religious ideologies. On the other hand, Goldsmith argues that Blake's malaise stems from his insularity-- from the gradual realization that his work would never reach a significant audience, if only because of the paucity of books he printed and the even smaller number of customers who bought them. Throughout his working life, therefore, he consistently refers to a public he intends to address, even though he consigns his thought to notebook scrawls, comments in the margins of other's books, and his illuminated texts. This, Goldsmith suggests, is the agitation we need to reckon with precisely because it drives Blake's critical thought, helps to explain why we still find him fascinating, and shows how his work enters a conversation with contemporary theory.

For Goldsmith, however, Blake's agitation is not simply a matter of the author's biography. Stepping mostly around the often depressingly insular world of author studies, Goldsmith highlights a recent body of theory that foregrounds what it variously calls "mood," "feeling," "affect," and--Goldsmith's favored term--"emotion." Goldsmith draws on studies that were published at nearly the same time as Blake's radicalism became critical orthodoxy. These include Rei Tedra's Feeling in Theory (2001), Martha Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thought (2001), William Reddy's The Navigation of Feeling (2001), Brian Massumi's Parables for the Virtual (2002), Philip Fisher's The Vehement Passions (2003), and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Touching Feeling (2003). In light of these books, Goldsmith rethinks Blake's work by setting it apart from biography and beyond the dead-end of ideology critique. Nonetheless, because Goldsmith tends to emphasize general similarities between the aesthetic and the new scholarship on affect, he misses the opportunity to grapple with the significant methodological differences between the two. As a result, rather than realizing the potential for a posthumanist Blake that much of the recent affect-oriented criticism would suggest, Goldsmith's Blake often threatens to reinscribe the humanist orientation that grounded the study of Blake in the 60's and 70's.

At least one book from the '70s is echoed by this one. While Goldsmith's work is no doubt energized by affect studies, his argument also recalls what Thomas Weiskel wrote about Blake in The Romantic Sublime (1976): "[t]he emotions of [Blake's] text look simple enough: pity, fear, grief, rage, jealously, pain, joy--elemental stuff. But their permutations seem to make sense only conceptually. More rarely in Blake than in any other major poet does one have the sense that one has been there at just that point of feeling" (66). Weiskel is right. Blake rarely appears to be a poet of emotional subtlety or realism. Though his letters and marginalia, as well as the characters in his texts, often seem emotionally one-dimensional, their emotions mark out a subjective space that is somewhat beyond one's grasp.

But Goldsmith's grasp of feeling in Blake differs from Weiskel's. While Weiskel resolves the problem of emotion in Blake's texts by invoking the Freudian psychodynamics of sublimation, Goldsmith aims to explain what emotion or feeling means for Blake's work and his readers. Among those readers are, of course, literary critics, and Goldsmith's study of Blake's agitation is also a study of the critic's enthusiasm. Introducing his project, Goldsmith writes: "I describe as specifically (and sympathetically) as possible the deeply attractive enthusiasm...that characterizes criticism as a mode of action in Blake's own work, in Blake scholarship, and in recent theoretical writings that identify the heightened affect of critical thought with the potential for genuine historical change" (2). For Goldsmith, then, Blake's work specifically instantiates a more pervasive concern with emotion as the necessary precondition for genuinely critical thought. And in recognizably Kantian terms, critical thought for Goldsmith is the privileged basis for historical change.

Goldsmith's project is overtly and implicitly Kantian insofar as it takes feeling--the irrational conflicts and surprising potential of emotion's unregulated flow--as an apriori condition for critical thought. Blake's written work, Goldsmith argues, must be read as a conflicted hybrid, a written oratory. "With his ear attuned to language loud and public," Goldsmith writes, "even Blake's letters and marginalia, our most intimate records of his voice, tend to slip into an aphoristic, sermonizing, oratorical tone indistinguishable from that of the poems" (59). Blake's agitated writing, then, tries to deliver two incompatible things: "independent judgments (critical, aesthetic) and dynamic social relations (discussion, debate, public excitement)" (65). But if Blake's written oratory is all but invisible to the public, does that mean that Blake, for all of his bluster, is historically and politically irrelevant?

For Goldsmith the answer is both yes and no. Yes, since Blake is rarely an actor on the stage of historical change, and, no, since being a spectator to the era's events does not make him inconsequential. This "no" is crucial to Goldsmith's argument, for it is the spectator who makes historical change possible. Following written oratory, this is the second point of the first chapter: the role of agitation as a subjective state engendering the future. Goldsmith rests his argument for the spectator on Kant's last published work, the understudied The Conflict of the Faculties (1787), where Kant insists that what matters most in events such as the French Revolution is neither the "momentous deeds" of men nor the wholesale change in "political structures" but "simply the mode of the spectators which reveals itself publically in this great game of revolutions" (73). Goldsmith finds the agitated mode of Kant's spectators analogous to the paradoxically private and public character of Blake's written oratory. Blake's address to the public, writes Goldsmith, is frustratingly confined to "exclamatory feelings pressing against the limits of discourse" (74). For Goldsmith (as well as for Jean François Lyotard in the essay "The Sign of History"), the spectator's agitation is both addressed to the future and nurturing of it. Kant's revolutionary spectators and Goldsmith's Blake are thus placed at "history's vanguard," where "its dynamism in the interpretative struggle [is] undertaken by unspecified, uncelebrated observers at the periphery, rather than in the high profile action of a few great men" (74). In Blake's writing, an affectively charged "interpretative struggle" begets both critical thought and the potential for historical change it enables. Furthermore, Goldsmith contends, this same struggle--this enthusiasm--animates our own work as critical readers of Blake. While this is an attractive argument--especially, I should think, for Goldsmith's academic audience--what I felt missing was a clearer sense of the way this potential actualizes itself as historical change.

Having thus laid the ground for his own critical work, Goldsmith contests both the apolitical Blake of Peter Ackroyd's Blake: A Biography (1997) and the kind of political Blake established by David Erdman in Blake: Prophet Against Empire (1953). Specifically, Goldsmith challenges Erdman's readings of the multiple versions of the Albion Rose (1793) as evidence that Blake sustained his revolutionary commitments. Challenging Erdman as well as Ackroyd, Goldsmith adopts "a double vision" that recognizes both the "activist Blake of criticism (formalist and historicist) and the nonparticipant Blake of biography" (83). In the Albion Rose variations, Goldsmith argues that an "isolated figure's kinetic vitality is also an intransitive vitality, detached from any referential world in which and upon which it might act, detached from any other agents it might join with collectively. The energy of this naked youth explodes without consequence" (93). For Goldsmith, then, Albion Rose represents an enthusiasm that radiates potentiality rather than signifying an actual, particular historical intervention. But when, and under what conditions, does actualization take place?

To buttress his reading of Albion Rose, Goldsmith cites the lines that Blake inscribed below his last engraving of the print. Alluding to what Milton's Samson says of himself--"Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with salves" (Samson Agonistes 41)-- Blake writes: "Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves / Giving himself for the Nations he danc'd the dance of Eternal Death" (David Erdman, ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake [Anchor 1988] 671). For Goldsmith this means that a reading of "Albion rose" must go beyond the bounds of the image insofar as it is also bound up with Blake's interpretation of the politics and poetry of Milton. Therefore, linking Blake's Albion to images of Samson in his illustrations to Edward Young's Night Thoughts, in The Four Zoas, and in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Goldsmith concludes that for Blake as for Milton, Samson embodied the inexplicable shift from inaction to revolutionary violence. Rather than either eschewing or endorsing revolutionary action, as Ackroyd or Erdman respectively argue, Goldsmith's Blake does both. The Miltonized, Samsonized figure of Albion Rose, he contends, expresses Blake's "unresolved ambivalence toward revolutionary violence" (152). This is not to say that Blake simply could not make up his mind, but rather that he sustained a productive "tension between [his] uneventful life and the urgency within his work--between restraint, patience, nonparticipation, and spectatorship of the one, and the passionate headlong dynamism of the other" (152). Be it Samson's, Milton's, or Blake's, this undecidability invites critical thought, opening the possibility for historical change. Like Milton, Goldsmith argues, Blake "would make a virtue out of criticism" (155), for in presenting Samson's virtue as undecidable, Blake's prophecies caution against the revolutionary impulse even as they sustain its potential for violence, thus opening the time and space necessitated by critical thought.

But something is still missing. While I admire the complex web of associations Goldsmith gathers, his chronology of what Blake does with the Samson figure does not explain what agitation does to actualize change. For all the emphasis on critical thought, Goldsmith does not clearly indicate how revolutionary action can ever be a virtue--how the impulse to resist oppression can ever express itself as an ethical act.

Having mined the meaning of Albion Rose, Goldsmith turns to "On Another's Sorrow" from Songs of Innocence. Here he finds Christ depicted as "the apotheosis of a sympathy that is perversely, adamantly passive" (199). Rather than removing "our grief," Goldsmith observes, Blake's Christ simply "sit[s] by us and moan[s]" until it is "fled & gone" (line 35-6, Erdman 17). Here Jesus' sympathy becomes its own absolute cause, refusing to either act or abate until "suffering itself is 'fled and gone'" (207). While making an uncompromising demand for revolutionary change (grief's final end), Christ does nothing but express sympathy ("He doth sit by us and moan"). Insofar as it enables critical reflection, then, inaction is the means to salvation. But if we must conclude that in Blake's poetry, inaction demonstrates an unswerving commitment to change, then how does change happen?

As if to answer this question, Goldsmith turns to the famous passage near the end of the first book of Milton, where the creative work of the poet is said to take place "Within a Moment: a Pulsation of an Artery," which is also where "all the Great/ Events of Time start forth & are conceivd in such a Period" (Milton 29:1-3, Erdman 127). For Goldsmith this passage takes us to "the heart of sensibility," where Blake's work shows us "an experience of embodied time that--when attended to minutely--can hardly result in self ease, for the agitation of the pulse, at once slight, vital, and strange, does not reinforce one's sense of self but alienates it" (227). At its most elemental and physical, Blake's agitation thus reveals the insubstantiality of the subject as it bears witness to the limitless possibilities for historical change to be "conceivd in such a Period." Ultimately, then, the kind of agency that emerges is not a rational plan or a revolutionary program but the emotional movement that constitutes "aesthetic agency" (231). Imagined as a pulsation, time is simultaneously so minute and so vast as to preclude narration. Because it cannot tell what is to come, the poet's labor begets a future that is radically open. Rather than legislating the content of the future, the poet defined by Goldsmith's Blake allows the future to happen; unwilled, the future requires only the pulsations of our arteries, not the intervention of the human subject (236).

Perplexingly enough, Goldsmith concludes this book with a reading of some key passages in Jean-Paul Sartre's The Emotions: Outline of a Theory (1939) before briefly revisiting Blake. For all of Goldsmith's gestures to affect theory, the book ends with a sentimental gesture; it implores us to recognize that "world-transforming work originate[s] in a moment of reading, in the precise moment when a poet finds his way into a reader's fallen heart" (313). Appropriately enough, then, Blake's Agitation leaves this reader agitatedly wondering how the author's commitment to the practice of critical reading can be reconciled with his appeal to emotions that resist critical inquiry altogether. Nevertheless, while fundamental conundrums like this do not receive the kind of interrogation they deserve, this book makes a major contribution to Blake studies by opening productive new possibilities for practical criticism even while raising questions that demand rigorous answers.

David Baulch is Associate Professor of English at the University of West Florida, Pensacola.


Leave a comment on David Baulch's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org
Loading