William Blake & the Jews:
An Annotated Bibliography
compiled by Ralph Dumain
Blake, the Jews, & Jewish Philosophers
Bogan, James J. "Apocalypse Now: William Blake and the Conversion of the Jews," English Language Notes, vol. 19, no. 2, December 1981, pp. 116-120.
Bogan claims: "Blake, himself, demonstrates the virtue he sings, as a close look at his treatment of the Jews will exemplify." Really, now?
The proximity of the Last Judgment is signaled by the conversion of the Jews. "His conversion of the Jews is as near of the revelation of the unity of ancient traditions and a new understanding of sacrifice in the form of forgiveness." Blake's early formulation of his views in "All Religions Are One"specifically his dogmatic assertion of the original derivation of the Old & New Testamentsfinds an echo in "Jerusalem": "Ye are united, O ye inhabitants of Earth in One Religion, the Religion of Jesus, the most Ancient, the Eternal & the Everlasting Gospel".
Too bad this last statement is false, since as we know, the religion of Jesus is scarcely 2000 years old, and history and religion of all kinds go back much further. Either the religion of Jesus has something to do with the Jesus that is recognized by historical actors, or Jesus is an archetype completely separate from any specific religious tradition, in which case Jesus is not really Jesus and would have to be named otherwise in other traditions. And of course there is zero evidence that religion ever started out with anything like a religion of Jesus.
Blake's fabrication has something to do with the conversion of the Jews. For either conversion pertains to a belief system or it pertains to a change of heart with or without a change of beliefs in specific figures or texts. Presumably for Christianity it is both, but one cannot be both provincial and universal. One has to posit the wickedness of nonbelievers (i.e. libel and defame them) and not merely a difference in the knowledge and opinions in their heads, if one thinks that belief in a particular religious mythology is intrinsically connected to character. Blake talks about the whole man, so presumably he has more than just belief in the head in mind. If the One Religion is an orientation independent of specific mythologies, then conversion to a specific religious belief is irrelevant, unless one assumes that one tradition alone is a valid expression of human character. And then we are back to the paranoid mentality of orthodox Christianity. Blake's earlier writings were far more open, as were his some of his annotations to Watson. But trying to have it both waysalways a dodgy propositionwhile intensifying the imperialistic rhetoric of Christianity is a major step backward. Bogan doesn't see any of this, of course. He thinks Blake's treatment of the Jews, those hook-nosed, money-grubbing rascals, is wonderful. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Blake postulates the common ancestry of the Jews and the English. He further appeals to the Kabbalistic of Adam Kadmon, identical to Albion, who contains the cosmos in his body.
In addition to a shared origin, Blake claims that Jews and Christianity also share the quality of humility. While Blake often derogates humility, in this case he must have in mind the "true humility" noted by Lavater. (Bogan knows Blake's mind how?) "If Humility is Christianity, you, O Jews, are the true Christians." So both Jews and Christians who lack the correct personal qualities would both be in need of conversion. Bogan further states:
The conditional "if" hinges the conversion on a simple change of perspective, not on the demand for the apostasy of the Jews towards their own tradition.
Bogan is either mentally challenged or self-deceived.
On the contrary, Blake attempts to have it both ways, and it can't be done. If a specific tradition is not the issue, then Moses, Jesus, Buddha and the rest are fundamentally irrelevant to the general principle. But if a specific belief system is privileged, then the call to conversion is blackmail, however prettied up with flattery. Bogan:
The tone of Blake's appeal to the Jews deserves to be considered further, especially in contrast to the approach of some of his contemporaries whose conversion attempts sound more like Jew-baiting.
The judgment of tone is a relative matter.
Blake establishes a common ground and praises the virtues of the tribes of Israel before suggesting their immediate conversion, nor does he throw the red herring of messiah-killers in their way.
Mighty white of you, Will.
Bogan is truly living in a fantasy world. The friendly "suggestion" that the Jews convert to anything is an act of aggression. Nevertheless, Bogan convincingly demonstrates the contrast between Blake and the probable model for Blake's encomium, Richard Clarke, who defames the Jews as Christ-killers. By contrast, "Blake has transmuted that cold, insulting approach into a warm reception of a brother long separated." Blake practices the ethic of forgiveness he preaches. Isn't that ducky? (8/13/07)
Galchinsky, Michael. "Blake's 'firm perswasions': The Judaic and the Jew." Paper delivered at the MLA, 1990 Session on "Romanticism and Anti-Semitism."
This paper was not published, but the author has kindly summarized it from memory thus:
. . . my argument was that Blake's references to "Jews" and the "Judaic" in Marriage of Heaven and Hell were usually intended as symbols for something else that he identified in the negativeespecially any form of systematic thinking, which he identifes with the two tablets of the ten commandments that Los will have to smash to bits. The basic binary opposition: Los=Jesus=Energy=Imagination vs. Urizen=Jewishness=System=Reason. In the Proverbs of Hell Blake notes that "without contraries is no progression," and in many cases this seems to mean a kind of endless dialectic between the two poles of the oppositionbut in the case of Los vs. Urizen one decisively wins the battle once and for all. The "Jew" (whatever he stands for) has to be wiped out. This is problematic for two reasons1) because only with regard to the Jew does Blake's dialectical process break down, and 2) because Blake's "Jews" aren't Jews at all, but symbols for something else and hence menacingly invisible. Making the idea of the Jew into a symbol has a long and distinguished pedigree going back to the Gospels, in which so-called Old Testament figures like Adam, Abraham, and Moses are seen as symbolic precursors, or types, of Jesus. What Blake does that's new is to secularize and internalize this old practice so that it's not Jesus vs. Yahweh but Imagination vs. Reason. I went on to suggest, I think, that Blake's practice of using Jews and Jewishness as symbols for whatever causes social unease was an example of a widespread literary trope in the 19th c. (as indeed it was), a trope that, while making actual Jews invisible, could nonetheless rebound upon them with negative effects. (9/29/07)
Gould, Thomas. "Four Levels of Reality, in Plato, Spinoza, and Blake," Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, vol. 8, no. 1, Spring 1969, pp. 20-50.
"It would be hard to give Blake station between Christianity, Platonism, and Spinosism." Henry Crabb Robinson, 10 December 1825
Gould writes at a moment of cultural crisis, pointing out that Plato too responded to crisis. Crisis naturally leads to the first and lowest stage of criticism. Gould sees Plato's four levels of being involving transitions to higher levels of criticism. The crucial transition comes with the realization that reality is to be found in the intellection of fundamental principles not embedded in sense perception. The transition could be effected by managing desire. Mathematics is a means to this conversion. The final transition to the highest level is met with resistance to knowledge of the good, a knowledge which solves all problems. By analogy Plato depicts what the good is like. Gould diagrams the four levels with the famous divided line. Apparently Gould agrees with this nonsense, and proceeds to find parallels in more modern thinkers, Spinoza and Blake, who are themselves antithetical in the embrace of mathematical reason and the rejection of it. (34) Yet the similarities between the two are held to be more impressive than their differences.
Both dipped into Plato, but didn't follow him all the way. Both rebelled against orthodox teachings, of Judaism and Christianity, and both rejected the notion of a personal divine ruler. The supreme reality was just there to be discovered, and both posited four levels of reality. (35) Spinoza revised Descartes as Aristotle had revised Plato. The individual need not "undermine his trust in his own mind and body" but learn how to order his experiences, based on a judgment of the totality of experience rather than a confused jumble of perceptions and causes.The fourth level is the intuitive apprehension of the one substance. The ascent via logic yields a vision sub specie aeternitatis which transforms the individual, and thus provides a basis for ordering society.
Blake revised Milton. Blake's four levels are (1) reason, morality, and childhood innocence (darkness), (2) rage and energy (fire), (3) sexual happiness (moonlight), (4) creative genius and vision (sunlight). (41) The ascent begins with energy fueling desire leading to revolution. MHH's "Proverbs of Hell" represent level two. Desire, not moral philosophy or mathematics, is the way to level three. While Plato rejected heterosexual love in the process of attaining intelligible reality, Blake embraced it.
Gould is wrong is asserting that Blake's and Plato's conception of sexuality were not in total opposition, but here is what he says. Both saw sexuality as an impetus to higher levels but fraught with danger. Plato saw lust as a trap. Blake feared that sexual bliss would drag man down to a vegetative existence, though Blake rejected repression and advocated sexual pleasure. This is just a way station on route to Eternity, where love and vision are reconciled. (45-47) As in the case of all reactionaries, Gould conveniently elides the political from Blake, for whom the problem of sexuality is tied up with the problem of domination and poisoned human relations. Plato's world view is entirely authoritarian and loveless. (See Alvin Gouldner's Enter Plato.)
Fourfold visions are fairly common, hence this alone does not nail the commonality of Plato, Spinoza, and Blake. The key is to be found in the description of the conversions necessary to traverse the four levels, which
[. . .] must always be personal experiences, a series of difficult awakenings from a parody of what one ought to believe about himself and the world to a conception that is simultaneously less treacherous in practical judgments and more beautiful just in itself. The final goal in all three visions is an awakening into a reality that is entirely goodnot a divinity that enfolds us in his bosom, just a permanent and human beauty. (49)
While this article provides a skeleton for further comparison, I think it's rather false and shallow for everything that matters about these three thinkers and the differences among them that trump the commonalities. They are all engaged in quite different pursuits with quite different conceptions of epistemology, metaphysics, and politics. Blake's neoplatonic flirtations with archetypes really have nothing in common with Plato's ideal abstractions. Blake hasn't the slightest interest in the contemplation of the Good. One could go on, but in any event a better comparative study of Blake and Spinoza is needed. (10/5/07)
Holt, Ted. "Blake's 'Elohim' and the Hutchinsonian Fire: Anti-Newtonianism and Christian Hebraism in the Work of William Blake," Romanticism: The Journal of Romantic Culture and Criticism vol. 9, no. 1, 2003, pp. 20-36.
Holt finds significant evidence that Blake incorporated the ideas of John Hutchinson, an anti-Newtonian natural philosopher and Hebraist. Note: "Both the anti-Newtonianism and the assault on Judaism were conceived and explained by Hutchinson in terms of his wider censure of deism." Hutchinson's natural philosophy has been examined by historians, but his theology has been largely overlooked.
Hutchinson was not the usual sort of Christian Hebraist: "Hutchinson argued for the existence of a primeval Christianity and a Hebrew-speaking Christian people." Hutchinson's interpretation of Hebrew names for God such as "Elohim" find echoes in Blake. Hutchinson's Moses's Principia opposes the alleged physics of Moses against Newton's Principia and Opticks. Holt sees the form of The Book of Urizen and The Book of Los as influenced by Hutchinson. Blake is mistakenly seen as a solitary figure, but Hutchinsonians and others competed with empiricism and natural science in Blake's time.
For example, Hutchinson abhorred Newton's reliance on reason and observation. He based his physics, not on empirical observation, involving the eye assisted by lenses, measurement and rational induction, but on revelation [ . . .] (22)
Hutchinson's denigration of observation, unaided or augmented by magnification, is echoed in Blake's remarks about the telescopes and microscopes of the "reasoner". Hutchinson hated intellectual systems based on the self-sufficiency of reason isolated from revelation. Other features of Hutchinson's metaphysics can be found in Blake, such as the abhorrence of the notion of a vacuum.
But wait, it gets better. Hutchinson distinguishes the original Christian God 'Elohim Jehovah' from the Jewish imposter God 'Jehovah'. Hebrew was the original, Christian language. The Jews and other religions rejected the original Christian religion and became the Church of Satan, essentially deist, proceeding from 'Knowledge and Reasoning'.
But wait, it gets even better. The Jews [Holt quotes from Hutchinson] 'were infected by their Reasoning, drawn into the Old Crime; reasoned, and left Revelation.' Holt:
Hutchinson's hostility to the Jews descends on occasion to low abuse: they were 'most cursed, stupid, blasphemous'. 'What a Gulph of stupidity the Jews are sunk into.'
William Hurd commented unfavorably on the excess of abusive remarks about Jews characteristic of the Hutchinsonians. Holt references Shabetai's article on Blake's hostility to the Jews. (28)
The remaining section of the article concerns The Ghost of Abel, with a reference to Blake's address to the Jews in Jerusalem.
I was deeply disgusted reading about Hutchinson, and now I am less inclined to overlook Blake's crackpot views than I have been for the past 35 years. There are two aspects of this horrible man Hutchinson to be discussed: his opposition of revelation to reason and observation, and his association of reason with the Jews. This scapegoating of the Jews as the embodiment of hated modernityi.e. of abstract, mathematical, soulless, rootless intellectualism and rational calculation divorced from blood and soil, menacing white Christian civilizationran rampant in the 20th century and reached its logical conclusion in Auschwitz, itself an amalgam of crackpot irrationalism and Weberian rationalization. But I am reminded that this is not only an ideological component of the right-wing romantic anti-capitalism of the 19th and 20th centuries, but stretches back throughout the history of the immature paranoid mentality of white Christian man, a moral monster that cannot come to terms with his own contradictions and so must project his immature sick fantasies onto others.
But this also does not speak well of Blake, though his agenda is different. To some extent, the saving grace of Blake's anti-rationalism, which distinguishes him from the mainstream of idealist western philosophy from Plato to Berkeley, is his relative indifference to the material world and the usual philosophic rational explanation of it connecting obscurantist metaphysics to empirical reality. For all the hostility of idealist philosophers to materialism, they are deeply committed to the material world, as the ruling class always must be, in order to exploit the labor of others while keeping their eyes fixed, so the story goes, on higher spiritual matters. But Blake's disdain for the outward creation is different; he is generally not interested in arguing or proving anything about it at all, for he has no interest in controlling others but liberating them from its regime. That is, his reading of the spiritual significance of the creation is antithetical to that of the western philosophical and religious tradition (and of the East as well, more on that another time): rather than argue :"as above, so below" as all aristocratic and priestly castes do, he seeks to obliterate rule from above, as embodied in the entire occult, mystical, religious, pseudoscientific, and metaphysical lore of the ruling classes and their epigones. But Blake, in marshalling the atavistic lore of pre-modernity as well the crank views of contemporaries in order to combat the aspects of modernity he hates (Marx & Engels: "all that is holy is profaned"), becomes the very source of "imposition" he fears in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, via the incorporation of paranoid anti-Semitism and anti-science, esoterica, systems of correspondences, mythological genealogiesin short, all the garbage that Enlightenment had to clear out of the world-picture in order to free the modern mindBlake's included!from feudal obscurantism.
Hutchinson sought to compete with Newtonianism on the literal plane, countering experimental and mathematical physics with crackpot Mosaic pseudo-physics justified by revelation and esoterica. I previously made excuses for Blake and his abuse of Newton as a code-word for an empiricism that impacted Blake negatively in the arena of imagination, aesthetics, epistemology, and the dominant social ideology. Yet Blake, generally indifferent to the literal content of modern science, in appropriating Hutchinsonif that's what he in fact did, and even if notwent too far. Though lacking a readership beyond that of rich connoisseurs who could no more understand him than could anyone else, Blake really was a source of "imposition" in counterposing reactionary mythological elements to Newton's magnificent physical synthesis, which was, in spite of the ideological appropriation by Clarke, Pope, etc., real science as opposed to all of its competitors, and thus progress in the real world. While Blake shows a capacity for dialectical consciousness, he continually short-circuits it by recourse to reactionary metaphysics even while exploiting it symbolically. Critics may choose to appropriate Blake symbolically rather than metaphysically, but they cannot get away with that indefinitely, not to mention those who lack qualms themselves being Christian, occultist, mystical, or New Age obscurantists with an investment in deep-sixing the revolutionary side and/or covering up the reactionary side of Blake.
It is good to see a greater incorporation of the concept of ideology into Blake studies over the past two decades. Michael Ferber and Nicholas Williams are two outstanding examples. Yet, one must look out for lapses in the incorporation of ideologiekritik, including examination of Blake's own ideology, into Blake studies. For not only is there a weak side to the otherwise outstanding accomplishments of the Frankfurt School, but the panoply of resources now incorporated into the Anglo-American humanitiesAlthusserianism, postmodernism, etc.is rife with obscurantist and reactionary notions, often under leftist guise. Once cannot quarrel with objective scholarship tracing connections between Blake and religious, occult, and mystical lore. It is what it is. But to be an apologist or a shill is another matter. At this dark juncture in contemporary society, it is imperative to go on the warpath against such Counter-Enlightenment critics. (8/19/07)
Schuchard, Marsha Keith. "William Blake and the Jewish Swedenborgians," in The Jews and British Romanticism: Politics, Religion, Culture, edited by Sheila A. Spector (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 61-86.
Blake's 1820 self-portrait depicts a menorah on his forehead, which Schuhard sees as a mark of Blake's radical opposition to mainstream Christians (Englishmen) and Jews alike, whose religions he saw as instruments of oppression. This leads to her central thesis:
[. . .] I suggest that Blake's complex and ambivalent attitude toward the Jews was rooted in his early Moravian-Swedenborgian religious background and developed through through his access to a Jewish-Christian subculture within Illuminist Freemasonry.
Schuchard's research has revealed that Blake's parents were connected to the Moravians. The Moravian Brethren at the time were involved in a clandestine outreach program to kabbalistic Jews. (62) Swedenborg, who had been exposed to Christian Kabbalism, got involved with the Moravians, later breaking with them, by 1758, while retaining their influence. This shift, which affected Blake's parents as well, could account for Blake's ambivalent attitude. (63) These movements were animated by Christian conversionism, yet Christian theology was bent entirely out of shape in the effort to incorporate Jewish mysticism. (64) The Moravians penetrated deeply into Jewish affairs and practically Judaized themselves in the process of pursuing their objectives.
Schuchard then chronicles several Jewish Swedenborgians, and surmises possible contacts with them or their writings. (70-71) Cagliostro's involvement with Swedenborgians os alluded to in Blake's MHH. (74) Blake may have attended meetings of Count Thaddeus Grabianka and his circle at the home of Jacob Duché's residence. Samuel, a converted Jew and follower of Grabianka, may have crossed paths with the Blakes. (75) While the sexual and other doctrines of these circles tended towards the outre, the Swedenborgians became more conservative, thus alienating Blake. (76) Richard Brothers proclaimed himself King of the Hebrews and the English as Jewish in origin, and for a time this appealed to Blake and other Swedenborgians. Some of Blake's antinomian themes bear a resemblance to those of Cagliostro and Grabianka. In 1803, Blake returned to London and immersed himself again in Hebrew and joined Richard Cosway's esoteric circle steeped in Jewish mysticism. (76-77) The Rosicrucian factor was picked up on by Yeats. (77)
This trajectory informs Blake's conversionist rhetoric in "To the Jews" and his antinomian view of Jesus in "The Everlasting Gospel": "This Jesus will not do / Either for Englishman or Jew".
This deep background gives a whole different context to Blake's remarks about the Jews, which taken at face value, are highly offensive to many. This doesn't let Blake off the hook for his cracks about hook noses, but it does shed light on his overall perspective. Then again, the fact that Blake was so steeped in esoterica does not necessarily speak well of him, either. Blake at his best is so much more interesting than what esoteric mysticism can provide.
See also Schuchard's "Why Mrs. Blake Cried: Swedenborg, Blake, and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision." (10/4/07)
Shabetai, Karen. "The Question of Blake's Hostility Toward the Jews," ELH, vol. 63, no. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 139-152.
Shabetai's seems to be the definitive critique of the problem to date. (She criticizes Bogan, too.) More upsetting to me than Blake's extreme statements is the scholarly whitewash of the problem that Shabetai documents. She admits that she too rationalized away Blake's anti-Semitic lapses, and while declining to classify Blake as anti-Semitic, she also won't minimize the issue as the Blake world has apparently done. Blake's nastiest remarks are confined to his private notebooks; so, Shabetai speculates, the critics might have thus overlooked the issue. But judging from her citations of Blake scholars, one wonders what is going on.
Erdman, in discussing Blake's line, "O Jew! leave counting gold!", pretends as if Jews are not even mentioned. Frye defends the notion of Blake's tolerance citing All Religions Are One, conveniently overlooking that by the time Jerusalem is composed, the one authentic religion is the religion of Jesus.
Bogan argues unconvincingly that Blake praises the humility of Jews while advocating their conversion. Spector, a Hebraist, doesn't view Blake as anti-Semitic because he shows no interest in Jews qua Jews, overlooking not only Blake's commonality with other prejudiced Hebraists of the time, but that this very free-floating trope of the Jew is one of the most prominent characteristics of modern day anti-Semitism. Who's in charge here?
Shabetai finds Blake's attitude to Jews contradictory and confused, and part of the reason is that Blake's agenda is really to attack deism, with which his negative attitude toward the Jews is bound up.
Shabetai categorizes Blakes's remarks thusly:
(1) tolerance and conversionist philo-Semitism,
(2) intolerance motivated by attacks on primary enemies such as priestcraft and deism,
(3) intolerant remarks in excess of rhetoric required to attack said ostensibly primary targetsincluding gratutitous and stereotypical remarks (hoarding, noses, etc.).
While Blake's contemporary Edmund Burke claimed that the deist debate was long dead, it was alive for Blake, and what has not been recognized is that Blake's attitude toward Jews may well have been stoked by the deist literature, saturated with anti-Christian anti-Semitic statements!
Comparative religion and mythology in Blake's day and the search for origins had theological consequences. Where and from whom all religions originated was not merely an empirical question.
Blake, while opposing deism, was in fact in accord with many deist notionsanti-clericalism, anti-orthodoxy (Watson). Note, though, that while defending Paine Blake writes his most scurrilous remarks about Jews. Deists who had argued the unity of all religions discredited Judaism in the process. The influence of these arguments can be found in Blake's All Religions Are One, in which he is generous in a way much later he is not (when declaring the religion of Jesus as the original religion).
Deists attacked the reliability of Old Testament prophecy in order to undermine Christianity. Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in defending prophecy and "firm perswasion" is ambiguous in his claims about the Jewish prophets. Blake's mouthpiece Ezekiel claims that in contrast to the philosophy of the East, Israel taught that the Poetic Genius originated with it and that other beliefs were derivative and thus to be condemned. Ezekiel asserts that thereby all nations would become subject to the Jews and their oppressive warmongering God.
According to Shebetai, Blake alludes to popular deist attempts to discredit Judaism's originality (e.g. "North American tribes") and seems to be himself indebted to those arguments when lambasting Judaism.
In The Four Zoas, 8th night, Blake offers an account of the "re-creation of Natural Religion out of Judaism." Shebatai puts such references in this third categoryexcessively harsh remarks beyond what is appropriate to make Blake's point. Case in point is Blake's adoption of a medieval anti-Semitic expression, the "Synagogue of Satan." This expression appears again in Jerusalem. Here we see that Blake claims not that all religions are one but that the one true religion is the religion of Jesus, and the others, the false religions, are forms of deism. In indicting deism, Shebatai claims, Blake associates it with Judaism in peculiarly harsh terms. But such generic treatment is a two-way street: if these Jews are not real Jews but a concept, then Jews can stand as a symbol of all that is Other, which is more akin to a form of anti-Semitism that emerged much later (my note: with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery) than that one would expect of Blake, who really cared about religion, not volkish or racial notions. Urizen is also associated with Judaism. State religion is also identified with the Jewish God. But the Judaeophobic language used in many places is historically charged in a provocative way, however Blake intended to use it.
Shebetai finds Blake's worst lapses in the annotations to Watson, which Shebetai puts in his third category of excessive language. He also finds suspect statements in MHH. Note: I will have to review these specific texts to check out the examples given, in some cases to check whether Blake's remarks were directed only at the ancient Hebrews or at contemporary Jews (other than obvious remarks about spindle-nosed rascals, which speak for themselves).
Viz. the standards of his time, Blake could have done better, because there were others who did.
A reminder: In various places, Shebatai complains that Blake scholars have ignored or underplayed the significance of Blake's provocative remarks.
Blake of course was not consistent in his remarks. The Blake critic who remarked that Blake wasn't particularly interested in Jews may be on the mark, but this too has potentially disturbing implications according to Shebetai, for the indeterminacy of the anti-Semite's targets is one of anti-Semitism's characteristic features. (Note reference to Horkheimer and Adorno. My note: But this sort of anti-Semitism emerged around the time of the Protocols and is more characteristic of the 20th century than before. See Stephen Eric Bronner's A Rumor About the Jews.) (8/10/07, 8/13/07)
Tannenbaum, Leslie. "What Are Those Golden Builders Doing?": Mendelssohn, Blake, and the (Un)Building of Jerusalem, in British Romanticism and the Jews: History, Culture, Literature, edited by Sheila A. Spector (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 79-90.
This article is priceless. It is an intellectual face-off between William Blake and Moses Mendelssohn, godfather of the Jewish Enlightenment, based on a comparison of works by both of them entitled Jerusalem. Both works can be considered the pinnacles of their respective authors, and share some remarkable features even in their differences: "their most important common factor is their tendency to undo the very project that they attempt to establish."
Mendelssohn attempts to secure the precarious position of Jews and to achieve the emancipation of (Central) European Jews. His view of Jerusalem is common ground for Jews and Christians. Blake similarly sets out to defend the liberty of the British (Christians). England and Jerusalem are united in Blake's vision. "Jews play an important part in that space, but the ground upon which they and Christians meet is mythic rather than rational, according to Blake's vision of Judaism." (80)
Tannenbaum ponders the indirect connections between the two. Blake was friends with Fuseli, who was friends with Lavater, who had provoked Mendelssohn into defending Judaism. Fuseli disseminated German literature and philosophy in Britain. His publisher was Joseph Johnson, whose circle Blake belonged to. Blake of course was familiar with Lavater's work. Tannenbaum thinks there's a good chance that Blake heard about Mendelssohn's work, though he could not have read it. (Where is the evidence for this good chance?)
Mendelssohn's and Blake's approaches are diametrically opposed. Mendelssohn was influenced by English deists, Leibniz, and Wolff. Inspired by the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, Mendelssohn sought to reconcile revelation with reason. In the process Mendelssohn rejected kabbalistic, allegorical, and symbolic intepretations of Scripture. Mendelssohn was deeply suspicious of state religion's capacity to manipulate symbolism, which he also sees as the source of idolatry. Incredibly, Mendelssohn asserts: "Judaism has no symbolic books." (81)
At the opposite pole, Blake relies on the less rational side of Judaism and Christianity, and sets up the Bible as a model of the symbolic mode of communication he advocates (82). Furthermore, Blake makes use of Kabbalism, the use of which has been studied since Yeats and Ellis, most recently by Spector. Blake spells out his concept of tradition in Jerusalem.
Although Blake agrees with Mendelssohn about the dangers of taking the sign for the thing signified, Blake saw the act of imaginative appropriation or re-appropriation, rather than rational de-mystification, as the means of combating this tendency. In many ways, Blake's pietism was close to that of Lavater, Mendelssohn's early Christian opponent. (82-3)
Mendelssohn claims that Judaism is not a revealed religion as Christians understand the notion. Moses revealed laws in a supernatural way, but not dogmas, doctrines, or beliefs. Judaism does not trade in faith; it is concerned with actions, not doctrines or beliefs, nor does it inculcate beliefs incompatible with the principles of reason. Mendelssohn aligns Judaism with natural religion, what he calls the "universal religion of mankind". The Jewish Scriptures are binding only on the Jewish people, though they contain universal precepts understandable by unaided reason. Tannenbaum:
And those laws that bind the Jews to their God, although revealed by God, are aligned with reason in that they make no attempt to enforce belief and therefore leave the mind free for untrammeled intellectual inquiry. (83)
I will come back to these remarkable assertions later, along with the question of symbolism.
For Mendelssohn, reason is the ground on which Judaism, Christianity and other religions can coexist in mutual tolerance. Defending Jewish legalism against characteristic Christian criticisms, Mendelssohn resorts to poetry one time in order to illustrate the Jews' love of the law, invoking the ancient Hebrew theocracy and Jesus' own alleged reverence for the law. (84)
Blake, of course, absolutely opposes such notions. Blake's posits a Christian vision in which Britain/Jerusalem was originally free of the despotic law (associated with reason) characteristic of Judaism and paganism. Imagination not reason is the vehicle of truth. Blake values written symbols and print culture in contrast to Mendelssohn's distrust. (85)
And Blake claims authority for these visions by grounding them in traditional myths and symbols, especially those that unite different groups, places, or religions. Blake's myth of the fall of universal man from a state of wholeness is an amalgam of kabbalistic symbolism, Arthurian legend, and the Pauline notion of the mystical body of Christ. (85)
Mendelssohn, in fending off the assaults of Christians like Lavater, has to combat conversionist discourse, the very discourse to which Blake appeals in making his case. Tannenbaum sums up the problem perfectly:
Perhaps the darkest aspect of Blake's supposedly liberatory poem is his participation in the very kinds of conversionist discourse that Mendelssohn spent all his lifeand much of his energyfighting. The entire address to the Jews in the prologue to Chapter 2 of Blake's Jerusalem is both an appropriation and denial of the culture that Mendelssohn belonged to, and it exposes the limits of Blake's liberalism. As Michael Meyer has observed, it is the usual tendency among Christian writers that as soon as they admire something about Jews, their next impulse is to convert them to Christianity; and in this regard, Blake is no exception. Blake's rhetoric contains the highest praise for Jews, as he purports to ground his own mythology in Jewish kabbalistic tradition and as he proclaims, "If Humility is Christianity; you O Jews are the true Christians" (27, E 174). But, as the double-edged nature of this compliment indicates, Blake is interested only in appropriating what he understandsor misunderstandsabout Jewish culture in order to subsume it within his Christian program, as Blake ends up proclaiming, "Take up the Cross O Israel & follow Jesus" (27, E 174). Blake's idea of liberty, then, apparently does not include one group of people or at least offers that liberty at the expense of erasing the culture that it seeks to liberate. (86)
. . . Mendelssohn's own project offers a similar erasure of Judaism, albeit on different grounds, and that Blake's vision of Christianity effects a similar erasure of his own religion. Mendelssohn, in his attempt to establish Judaism as a natural religion that was congruent with Enlightenment values, created a version of Judaism that was not recognizable or acceptable to most other Jews of his time. As David Sorkin has pointed out, while some contemporaries, like Heine, saw Mendelssohn as a liberator "who overturned the Talmud as Luther had the Papacy," other Jews saw him as a renegade or as a heathen; and both contemporary Jews and their successors had trouble with seeing the God of Israel as merely a God of law and reason. Similarly, Blake's universalized, anthropomorphic, and ultimately humanistic Christianity was a far cry from what most of his contemporaries would be willing to recognize as Christianity at all. (86-87)
These are important points, to be analyzed further. Tannenbaum continues:
Blake's attempts in Jerusalem to negate the moral law, to say that the only thing that Jesus taught was the forgiveness of sin, and to negate any separation between the human and the Divine presented a brand of Christianity that most Christians during his own timeand sincecould not accept as being Christianity at all. While Frederick Tatham, who became Blake's executor after Catherine Blake's death, claimed that Blake was an orthodox Christian, there was a larger chorus of attempts to pin other labels on him, such as a Spinozist, Platonist, Swedenborgian, Marcionist Gnostic, or a Joachiteto name just a few. If the vision of Jerusalem is mythic, the real-life Christians to whom it is ultimately addressed are apparently equally mythic. (87)
My comment: and this is a big problem for Blake's unorthodox use of traditional Christian language. He chooses to read the Bible and other traditions in the "infernal sense", but he fails to make adequate account of how little this has in common with the actual religion as it really is, though it purports to be a corrected version of the same thing.
Thus, while both Blake and Mendelssohn sought to establish a universal religion that would promote greater freedom for all, such gains were made at the expense of the unique doctrines and the people attached to those religions. Paradoxically, each writer, while effecting this virtual erasure of his own religion, also strongly asserts the superiority of his religion, despite each writer's gestures toward humility and religious pluralism.(87)
In my view, the "erasure" of each own's original religion is the more serious intellectual problem. As for the superiority of each own's religion, one must remember that Mendelssohn was defending himself and his people against Christian aggression, hence as a representative of a persecuted minority he cannot be blamed for religious superiority as can Blake however modified his views by kabbalism. I shall return at some point to the question of the superiority of Judaism to Christianity, because there is some truth in this that needs to be told to put these arrogant Christians in their place.
Skipping over details, we come to Tannenbaum's decisive conclusion:
These seemingly odd contradictions within the work of Mendelssohn and Blake were the result, in part, of both writers' needs to negotiate among a number of different audiences and among different aspects of their own complicated lives and thought. As David Sorkin and others have noted, Mendelssohn was always dealing with a dual community: the Jewish community that he belonged to and often defended or represented, and the larger European culture that he sought to have a place in-and to relocate Judaism within. His Judaism kept him from completely embracing Enlightenment thought and kept him at odds with enlightened non-Jews who wondered how someone with such a great mind could continue to be a practicing Jew; and his commitment to Enlightenment thought and secular learning kept him from completely embracingor being embraced bythe Jewish community. Also, he had the rhetorical problem of having to address this dual audience, attempting to live up to the responsibility of justly representing the oppressed group that he belonged to and attempting at the same time to avoid any offense to Christian society that could result in a threat to the already limited rights of Jews in Germany. Blake, who allied himself with Deists like Tom Paine, and Unitarians such as Joseph Priestley, at least in terms of their questioning of orthodoxy and in terms of their political allegiances, also had to continuously distinguish his religious beliefs from theirs. For instance, his annotations to Bishop Watson's Defense of the Bible, an orthodox Christian response to Paine's The Age of Reason, provide an instructive example of the kind of tightrope walking between Deism and Christian orthodoxy that Blake had to perform. While he attacks Deism in Jerusalem, especially in his preface to Chapter 3, addressed directly to the Deists: "You O Deists profess yourselves the Enemies of Christianity: and you are so: you are also the Enemies of the Human Race & Universal Nature" (pl. 52); Blake also defends Paine's deistic critique of Christianity, as we see in the conclusion to Blake's annotations to Bishop Watson's apology: "It appears to me Now that Tom Paine is a better Christian than the Bishop. I have read this Book with attention & find that the Bishop has only hurt Paines heel while Paine has broken his head the Bishop has not answered one of Paines grand objections" (E 620).
Here Blake, whose spiritual approach to Christianity cannot abide the rationalist approach of Deism, takes sides with the Deists in the face of the greater threat of established orthodoxy. Thus Blake, like Mendelssohn, often had to temper his beliefs with practical politics. Another source of contradiction in Blake's art and thought resided in the very structure of Christian thought. Blake's attempts to overcome traditional dualisms in Christian thinking were constantly being undermined by the very structure of the symbols that he was appropriating. As long as Judaism was associated with the Law and with a God of judgmentas opposed to a God of MercyJudaism would always be located on the opposite side of grace, in Blake's Christian scheme. Given these external and internal conflicts that Mendelssohn and Blake had to confront, it is not surprising that each writer's Jerusalem, like all such attempts to transcend the limitations of their own times, have greater meaning for us as extremely accurate barometers of the very pressures they so brilliantly tried to resist. (88-89)
This is pure gold. There remains, however, much more to be said. (8/24/07)
Whitson, Roger. 'Jerusalem and "the Jew:" Biopolitics Between Blake and Spinoza', Romanticism on the Net, Issue 40, November 2005.
This essay is more interesting for its use of Spinoza than its insight into Blake. The author's whitewash of Blake is a load of (postmodern) BS. The abstract is rather odd in its use of "philo-semetism" [sic], since Blake's backhanded-compliment re the Jews is actually an act of aggression against the Jews which no postmodern folderol can sidestep. There is not one reader in the history of the solar system who would construe the call for the conversion of the Jews to mean anything other than what it has always meant.
Furthermore, this highlights a central tension in Blake: the limits of his stretching of the symbolic meaning of his constructs to twist around the referents to which they must literally refer. To name the Everlasting Gospel as the original un-degraded religion not only makes mincemeat of history but rearranges the facts symbolically to effect a contradiction between the symbolic reinterpretation of traditions according to Blake's whims and the shared meanings of the tradition which Blake exploits. Whitson covers up the problem and falsifies the issues to show a commonality between Spinoza and Blake precisely where they are incompatible.
Blake of course was conflicted, and offered both positive and negative comments on the Jews. But Blake's statements comparing Jews to pigs, his references to hook noses, his equation of Jewry with money-grubbing, etc., cannot be whitewashed even by postmodern trickery.
The definitive comparison of Blake and Spinoza, esp. of their approaches to Biblical hermeneutics, remains to be written.
It is time to assess the damage that Christian, New Age, and other religious/mystical critics have done. It is particularly timely to launch an assault against Christian literary critics whose every intervention is to muddy the waters further. (8/8/07)
Yoder, R. Paul. "Blake and the Book of Numbers: Joshua the Giant Killer and the Tears of Balaam," in The Jews and British Romanticism: Politics, Religion, Culture, edited by Sheila A. Spector (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 87-102.
At issue is God's alleged endorsement of a massacre at Peor. I was struck by the dilemma posed by Jerusalem: deciding to follow Jesus or Satan has consequences due to claims of divine authority for human actions. Also noteworthy is Yoder's observation that explicit Biblical references in Blake's early work are sparse, as opposed to his work after 1798. Yoder marks the change in Blake's annotations to Watson, in which Blake makes his most abrasive remarks about Jews. The remarks Yoder cites pertain to the ancient Hebrews and not modern Jews and so I find nothing objectionable there. The bloody conquest of Canaan and its justification by divine authority becomes Blake's issue. All Religions are One prefigures the melding of English folktale and Bible story. Then the ramifications of Balaam are drawn out. Balaam is traditionally portrayed as a villain, but Blake is sympathetic to him.
Yoder confuses me at one point: "Elsewhere in his work, Blake tends to praise Moses". The only line from Blake I remember about Moses is pejorative: "Moses beheld upon Mount Sinai forms of dark delusion". (8/13/07)
Blake & Kabbalah
Karr, Don. Review of Sheila Spector's Wonders Divine: The Development of Blakes Kabbalistic Myth and Glorious Incomprehensible: The Development of Blakes Kabbalistic Language, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2001, Esoterica V (2003): 223.
Spector, Sheila A. "Glorious Incomprehensible": The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic Language. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2001.
When I was "fortunate" enough to pick up this book on the cheap around Xmas 2005, I knew I at least had a beautiful coffee table book. I was soon convinced that Spector was an obsessive-compulsive, a fanatic, or a nut. Spector's total absorption by Kabbalah scholarship creeped me out. Her argument that Blake was struggling his whole career toward genuine mysticism and didn't make it until he reached Jerusalem struck me as very much off, if novel. As if Blake had nothing to say about social reality: Spector worked my last nerve.
Now, taking this book off the shelf, I note that Spector's book is centered around Blake's problem with language and the notion of intentionality. In her Introduction she reviews the trajectory of Blake scholarship preoccupied with language and textuality. She makes this revealing summary statement:
While many kabbalistic techniques can be found in deconstructive literary theories, there remains one significant difference between the two. Although post-modernists justify their manipulations in terms of the arbitrary nature of their text, the kabbalist believes just the opposite, that his is a truly motivated external manifestation of the Divine Thought; therefore, any kind of linguistic use devised by man has potential significance, quite likely far beyond his own comprehension. (31)
Her linguistic obsession is the inverse of the other fashionable one and is just as bankrupt. Her exclusive interest in language as a mystical vehicle, in total indifference to the actual content of Blake's work and his criticism of social institutions and dominant ideologies, is a sickness. In this respect, it is most un-Blakean. Perhaps her denial of institutional reality mirrors the hypocrisy of Kabbalism itself: to turn inward into esoterica as a pretext for uncovering God's secrets, as if the exoteric application of the ideological content of the Scriptures did not have the severest of material social consequences. It's disgusting!
Spector's denial of social reality is remarkable in one respect, given her overwhelming obsession with Jews in British Romanticism, that she should overlook the elementary fact of the vulnerability of Jews to Christian aggression. Her take on Blake's address "To the Jews" as conversion grammar (i.e. of mysticism) (p. 55) reveals her inclination to retreat into a fantasy world. You can direct your esoteric interpretation of linguistic expressions however you like; however, Blake's language in sentences such as "Take up the Cross O Israel & follow Jesus" has an exoteric meaning drenched in blood. Spector, unlike Blake, is a literary and intellectual historian, who is also positioned to know more than Blake ever could, and therefore her irresponsibility is far greater than Blake's.
Spector traces Blake's attempts to grapple with the problem of language, commenting inter alia on Thel, Tiriel, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, MHH, America, Europe, the Songs, The Song of Los, The Books of Urizen, Ahania, and Los, and the transition to mysticism with The Four Zoas and Milton, and the culmination in Jerusalem (note this final transitionp. 151). She divides these stages into pre-intentionality, the fact of intentionality, the concept of intentionality, and the divine intentionality. It is stunning how in her single-minded obsession with the alleged evolution of Blake's language towards mystical perfection she remains totally obtuse to the actual content of Blake's writings, their quality (individually or in comparison one to another), their insights into social and ideological realities. None of this matters a whit to Spector, who cares only about language as a vehicle to mystical union with God. How more despicable can criticism get?
Just a few examples. America is seen as a failure in the end. Why?
The central flaw with the new system is its material base. By associating his vocabulary with corporeal referents and by organizing his grammar around a consolidated subject, Blake has replicated the very errors he had been attempting to correct. (95)
Apparently, America is not about anything else, certainly not about the American Revolution.
Spector doesn't find what she thinks should be in the Songs either.
Both innocence and experience seem characterized by the evasion of realityon the one hand, through the wish fulfillment of a dream, on the other, the abdication of personal responsibility to the governing cultural institutions. Neither, however, yields a viable level of consciousness. (105)
Responsibility to the governing social institutions? Beg your pardon? And what about Blake's consciousness (not his characters, but his own) as to the relationship of these contrary states of the soul to social reality and what he considers to be ultimate reality (inseparable considerations for Blake)? What about the genius of the Songs, their specific content, their relative accessibility (i.e. absence of Blake's private mythology)? None of this matters to Spector, apparently.
Another example: Spector's treatment of The Song of Los, particularly "Africa" (113-4).
The language of "Africa" exists in the interim between the loss of the original unity and the differentiation of discrete signs.
She proceeds to analyze what is lacking in the organization of language here. For example:
The possibility of trans-objective grammar, and hence a grammar of practice is similarly obviated. Because it is impossible to determine which of the assertions are literal and which figurative, we cannot isolate the Song's ontological base. Consequently, we cannot be certain what to make of the statement that "Moses beheld upon Mount Sinai forms of dark delusion [. . .] (114)
She doesn't know what to make of this, but I do. Blake's genealogy of ideology and repression, though obscure at many points due to his personal mythology, does in fact outline a preceptible development from Urizen to Brahmanism to Mosaism to the Greeks to Islam to the Norse and finally to British empiricism. It is very important to attend to what Blake intends here, but Spector does not understand, and is not interested.
Spector's sole interest is obliteration of the self and mystical union with God as expressed in language, sans consideration of social institutions and concrete realities. In this respect she violates the central concerns of Blake. And a comparison with Indian mysticism is in order, however different this version of Kabbalistic mysticism may be. The pursuit of nonduality, of mystical oneness, is historically inseparable from the justification of the caste system and a hostility to social equality that persists to this day. The affinity of gurus and Hindu apologists in the 20th century to fascism, a widespread admiration for Hitler, the denigration of the Semitic religions as dualistic, are notorious among those who have been exposed to this side of Indian mysticism covered up by New Age schnorrers in western countries. The denial of material reality and its verifiable distinctions, of the true character of social institutions, this escape into a netherworld of mystical oneness oblivious to morality, ethics, and justiceit's sickening. The escapism represented by Spector in her obtuseness to an inescapable concern of Blake is brazenhow low can critics like these sink? (8/14/07)
Spector, Sheila A. Wonders Divine: The Development of Blakes Kabbalistic Myth. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2001.
Romanticism & the Jews
Page, Judith. Imperfect Sympathies: Jews and Judaism in British Romantic Literature and Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Contents.
Spector, Sheila A., ed. British Romanticism and the Jews: History, Culture, Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Contents. Google books: text online.
Spector, Sheila A., ed. The Jews and British Romanticism: Politics, Religion, Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Contents.
Selected Background Studies
Rix, Robert. "William Blake and the Radical Swedenborgians," Esoterica, V, 2003, pp. 95-137.
According to the author, the connection between occultism and political radicalism in the late 18th century should not be overlooked. Blake scholarship has tended to separate the two interests, the former leading from Yeats to Raine, and the latter translating Blake's code back into politics, as practiced by Erdman. This gap has recently been bridged by Thompson, Mee, and Schuchard.
Comment: My memory of Erdman is dim, but I find the latter part of this assertion difficult to accept. Some decades ago, Fred Whitehead in Weapons of Criticism called for a bridging of this gap, and I don't believe the politically oriented Blake scholars are unmindful of the esoteric dimension of Blake's thought. The mystics, occultists, and esotericists are the ones who are intellectually dishonest in eviscerating and nullifying the social content of Blake's work, even where they deny doing it, as in the case of Spector and Freeman (Blake's Nostos: Fragmentation and Nondualism in The Four Zoas).
Be that as it may, this article is a fascinating survey of radical Swedenborgianism and its relation to Blake. Swedenborg was himself not a revolutionary, but his doctrines gave support to radical English dissenters. Swedenborg's opposition to established churches lent itself to the politicization of the Swedenborgian New Church. Swedenborg taught that the established churches were responsible for obscuring the spiritual world and limiting man to the natural world, a view which finds obvious echoes in Blake. Swedenborgians were seen as a political threat by English conservatives.
Rix then delves into the Masonic Swedenborgians. Some historians have deliberately obscured the radical wing of Freemasonry. Reactionaries of the time, however, saw these Masonic radicals as their enemy, at first in France, but similar sects were established in London as well. Swedenborg, himself a natural philosopher and systematic thinker, served as an umbrella for the various underground occult traditions obscured by the rationalist and empiricist oriented Enlightenment. Rix reviews the pathways by which Blake could have learned Masonic ideas. (107) Rix sees possible influences in Blake's work of the notion of "revolution as an alchemical transformation of man". Spiritual and political freedom were seen as handmaidens. There were Swedenborgian supporters of Paine. (Note also Blake's friend William Sharpe, who was involved in both theosophical and Paineite organizations.) This can be seen also in Blake's defense of Paine against Watson.
Some of the most startling information can be found in the section "Plan for a Free Community". This tract united the struggle for freedom of African slaves and Europeans and proposed a new Swedenborgian free colony on the African coast. (112ff) Their abolitionist perspective received validation from Swedenborg's writings. Swedenborg taught that Africans had a superior sense of divinity, i.e. as essentially human. This notion is echoed in Blake's poetry. (113-4) Rix pays special attention to "The Little Black Boy". (115)
The following section is on Swedenborg and sexual liberty. Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion embodies Swedenborgian and abolitionist notions. (117-8) Other Blake poems are analyzed for Swedenborgian ideas on sex and marriage, e.g. "The Garden of Love."
The New Church eventually excluded the radical Masons and sought to purge itself of radicalism and thus qualify for governmental toleration. The membership became more respectable and less plebeian. This, rather than Swedenborg's own writings, may account for Blake's ultimate rejection of the New Church. (123-4) (8/27/07)
Schuchard, Marsha Keith. "Why Mrs. Blake Cried: Swedenborg, Blake, and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision," Esoterica, II, 2000, pp. 45-93. Printable version.
Note: This bibliography lists all known scholarly studies in English of Blake's treatment of the Jews as a people, the nature of Jewishness, and Judaism as a religion insofar as it implicates Blake's attitude to Jews. Also included here are comparative studies of Blake and Jewish intellectuals (especially Spinoza and Mendlessohn) which illuminate the philosophical and ideological issues. There are numerous studies of Blake's relationship to aspects of the Jewish religionthe Old Testament, Kabbalah, etc. These are excluded here unless they concern Blake's characterization of the Jewish people and Jewishness as an ideological trope. I have made an exception in including two books by Sheila Spector on Blake and the Kabbalah (and one review of these books), because she has also compiled anthologies on Romanticism and the Jews. Note that I comment on individual works; the total picture is greater. It will be obvious that Blake's treatment of the Jews raises touchy ideological issues, but the place of Judaism, Jewish mysticism, and Jews in the complex of Blake's overall esoteric schema has to be kept in mind while evaluating his potentially offensive expressions.
An overview of Blake's esoteric schema reveals an orientation that may be unfamiliar and less noxious to the uninitiated reader (at least as far as the issue of anti-Semitism is concerned). (I can see no excuse, however, for the gratuitous cracks about hook noses, which are not, as far as I know, organic to conversionist rhetoric. But perhaps I am missing something?) There are dangers in Blake's use of the Jews as a trope, as other critics have noted. The fact that Blake's "Jews" aren't the real Jews has a double effect, for the free-floating notion of Jewishness without a determinate referent enables a form of anti-semitic paranoia all too familiar to those of us alive in the 20th century. Blake's comments on the Jews, however intended, are nonetheless menacing, given the culture in which he lived.
Much of Blake's rhetoric about deism, reason, science, knowledge, education, etc., with or without invocation of the Jewish trope, takes on a sinister tone when one considers the cultural context in which such statements take on social meaning then and now. Henry Crabb Robinson's diary reveals the seriousness of the hermeneutic problem. Now that I am returning to Blake after a lengthy absence in which I have been preoccupied with the Enlightenment, fundamentalism, irrationalism and contemporary fascism, there is much about Blake that now for the first time leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This Christian animosity towards reason is creepy, and the Christian presumption to judge Jews (even while judging fellow Christians) looks quite different from the vantage point of the Jewish intellectual who has embraced the Enlightenment and finds Christians and the Christian ideology indecent, uncivilized, schizoid, sadomasochistic, and lacking in accountability. Blake criticism, as the humanities generally in its current decadent ideological configuration, has not adequately confronted this issue.
The curious intersection of the Enlightenment and Blake with his esoteric antinomian backstory can potentially yield deeper insight into the complex history of ideas and ideology, especially when the Jewish Enlightenment is factored in. The juxtaposition of Blake, Spinoza, and Mendelssohn alone reveals what is at stake.
(Dates in parentheses at the end of each annotation indicate the date of original composition. All entries have been revised and new material has been added. 5 October 2007)
8-24 August, 4-5 October 2007
© 2007 Ralph Dumain
William Blake & the Jews: The Bibliography
William Blake Study Guide
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