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Sheila A. Spector, "Glorious Incomprehensible": The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic Language & "Wonders Divine": The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic Myth

Sunday, March 20, 2005 - 09:10
Sheila A. Spector, "Glorious Incomprehensible": The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic Language. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2001.  x + 202pp.  Illus: 50 b&w and 4 color.  $46.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8387-5469-4).
Sheila A. Spector, "Wonders Divine": The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic Myth. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2001.  213pp. Illus.: 54 b&w and 4 color.  $59.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8387-5468-6).

Reviewed by
Mark S. Lussier
Arizona State University

N.B.: In this review, the former work is abbreviated as GI, and the latter work is abbreviated as WD.

After a period of seeming dearth in Blake studies, where individual studies of the poet/prophet were rare while collective studies of Romanticism focused on broad movements like colonialism, historicism, and imperialism abounded, the last ten years have seen an explosion of both single studies dedicated to particular aspects of Blake's visionary agenda and essay collections presenting scholarly analyses across a broad spectrum of concerns. This re-turn trend toward single author studies actually delights me, since I've always preferred, as a reader, to participate fully in the critical struggle between the unruly artist and the striving critic that shapes the very background radiation to most memorable studies of Blake. With the appearance of Sheila Spector's double-volume examination of the Kabbalistic dimensions of Blake's linguistic and mythic efforts, the ground of future discussions of the poet's divine vision has shifted radically, since any motivated study of the mythic and mystic dimensions of the major epics would now be required to address this complex mapping of the evolution of "a stable core of fourfold symbols that, remaining fairly close to their kabbalistic prototypes, provide a basis for the later alterations" (WD 107) of the myth after the Lambeth period.

Before entering more fully into the dense and enriched environment of Spector's arguments, however, I feel compelled to begin with the physical objects themselves. Setting aside, for the moment, the logic or necessity behind the double-volumes themselves, the books are generous in their illustrations and luxurious in their dimensions, positioning tactile pleasure at the horizon of reception. As someone periodically involved in publishing work on Blake (and thereby as someone who knows the cost of illustrations), I find the works delightfully visual and laud both author and publisher for this commitment. "Glorious Incomprehensible" includes four color and fifty-two black & white reproductions, offering not only a massive range of Blakean images but an impressive array of images drawn from the Kabbalistic tradition (my personal favorite was "The Right Table of the Commutations" found on page thirty). "Wonders Divine" equally delights in its copious visual field, although the emphasis shifts appropriately to Blake's works, and taken together the volumes sound the depths of Blake's indebtedness to the Hebraic tradition generally and Jewish mysticism specifically.

The analogies between the Kabbalistic and Blakean mythopoeic systems are copious; within both, words function simultaneously as "motivated signs" and "incarnate symbols" (GI 32), thereby giving rise to "a fully conceived version of Christian Kabbalism" capable of articulating Blake's "own prophetic vision" (WD 24).  The somewhat mirrored structure Spector provides in these works fosters an unusual and exemplary degree of 'intra-textuality' (a mode often operative in Blake's own work) that allows readers to better contextualize the simultaneity of development for Blake's linguistic and mythic codification of collective tradition and individual genius now recognized as the emanative core of the illuminated books.  Not surprisingly, Blake's "intellectual orientation" (GI 43) differed significantly from contemporary theories of language and rhetoric, with the poet rejecting "the materialistic definition of language" in preference for its spiritual operations, linking his thinking somewhat with Hugh Blair and George Berkeley.  Here linguistic interest intersects spiritual demand, and Spector's survey of the religious contexts within which Blake hones his prophetic stance thoroughly supports her view of the prophecies as seeking "a linguistic form that could transcend its own grammatical structure" (GI 53). Furthermore, this discussion, when involved intra-textually with the mythic contexts discussed in "Wonders Divine," interconnects in splendid fashion how a myth built through "amalgamation" (WD 34) best serves a language striving to overcome its own prison-house.  I would argue that Spector's critical effort is best appreciated when readers undertake the type of interrelated reading across the volumes just discussed, but for the remainder of this review, I will address the volumes individually, beginning with "Glorious Incomprehensible" and proceeding to "Wonders Divine."

Having convincingly established the 'gaze of intentionality' in Blake's work in the introduction and first chapter, where spiritual/prophetic discourse strives across the history of its textual development "to transform consciousness" (GI 55), Spector structures her discussion accordingly: "In the earliest composite art, Blake's linguistic manipulations are restricted to the material surface, manifesting a kind of pre-intentional level of consciousness. . . . Then, in the early prophecies, he explores the fact of intentionality, attempting to liberate thought by inverting fundamental principles upon which conventional language is predicated. . . . Consequently, in the minor prophecies, Blake explores the concept underlying the material system, . . . [and] in the major prophecies, he was able to create a mystical form of language through which, finally, in Jerusalem, he himself could merge with the ultimate referent, the Divine Vision" (GI 56). Certainly, no recent critic has read this movement in Blake's work from pre-intentionality to ultimate significance as intensely as Spector, and the approach provides a linguistic context for Blake's provocative endorsement of etymological contradiction, an ambiguity vibrantly present in his appropriation of Hebrew.

In "Pre-Intentionality: 'Newton's Sleep,'" Spector analyzes this "contradictory" verbal presence through Thel, Tiriel and Visions of the Daughters, finding literal and symbolic borrowings in the process and leading, in the case of Thel, to the conclusion that "the poem as a whole was generated around the various Hebraic meanings Blake found for the single phoneme thel" (GI 63). The "non-grammatical" language Tiriel utters expresses "the failure of the hero to effect any valid intentional experiences" (GI 67), thereby unveiling "the [very] impossibility of knowing" (GI 71). In Visions of the Daughters, the linguistic responses of Oothoon, Bromion, and Theotormon to a former's brutal rape shape "an extended analysis of three distinct modes of thought, articulated in three different languages" (GI 72). Not surprisingly, as Spector observes, the trajectory of development points toward Blake's deepening awareness of complex connections "between language and the mind," exposing in the process "the fallacy of 'semantic idealism,' the implication that, ultimately, words can only convey a speaker's state of mind" (80).

Blake's stance against Locke's view of language opens the third chapter, since the subversion of the material surface in the earliest works sought "to reveal the fallacies inherent in empiricism" (GI 81), and with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he introduces contraries as an "alternative theory upon which to base an intentional relationship" (GI 81). Spector charts this alternative from The Marriage through America and Europe and into Songs of Innocence and Of Experience, with etymologies and phonetic echoes of character names forming "an underlying layer of Hebrew for what are actually totally unrelated concepts" and therein supplementing a view of "language" seen as offering "no underlying system or organization" (GI 88, 98). The analysis here arrives at a familiar insight through a "crooked path," since the linguistic flirtation with contraries (structural and linguistic) proved "self-limiting" (GI 108), which pointed to a problem in Blake's conceptualization of intentionality itself and which necessitated, in Spector's view, a shift "to allegory, a metaphorical trope that enables him to objectify the process of language formation through a series of personifications whose interactions could then be analyzed" (GI 109).

Blake's labor to reformulate his conception of intentionality occupies Chapter Four, which traces Blake's refinement of his allegorical mode sequentially from The Song of Los through the books of Urizen and Ahania to The Book of Los and turns to the visual field of these works to argue that collectively "they force us to acknowledge the limitation of language, for in order to make sense of the composite art, we must allegorize, that is, create a context through which a plausible relationship between the visual and verbal art can be established" (GI 112). Rational and spiritual layers of language, the soul of respective symbolic layers, collide. Not surprisingly, Urizen is seen as attempting "to expand the [textual] focus beyond the material effects of language," and in Ahania, whose name "suggests binding and/or fastening," the emanation of Urizen emerges as "the mode of thought that connects the subjective consciousness with reality" (GI 115, 121). Blake's solution to the problematics of linguistic appropriation and transmutation appears in The Book of Los, which "has been entirely liberated from the constraints of corporeality" and which adopts a "metalinguistic thrust" to "replace conventional modes of thought with categories capable of promoting the visionary faculty" (GI 121, 123, 124).

In the fifth chapter, "The Divine Intentionality: 'my supreme delight,'" Spector concludes her analysis of intentionality through detailed engagements with the major prophecies, offering a highly complex and satisfying assessment of Blake's drive to achieve his "supreme delight" through apprehending the "ultimate referent" of divine intentionality, a "progression from what appears to have been Blake's original intention to produce a conventional allegory in the earlier portions of Vala/The Four Zoas, to an objective delineation of the via mystica in Milton, and finally, through its subjective actualization in Jerusalem" (GI 128). The play of Hebraic etymologies is traced with insight and energy through this chapter and offers considerable clarification of the shift across the epics "from the allegory of self-reflection [to] a transformative mode of speech" (GI 127) that allows particular (William Blake) and general (Divine Vision) to merge. This self-reflectivity is most memorably displayed in Milton when past and present poets merge via the poetic character of Los, which also articulates those new categories of thought posited previously by Spector, and in Jerusalem Blake shifts from theoria to praxis, deploying a "grammar of practice" whose modulations of "sounds and rhythms produce an almost hypnotic effect" that establishes "the locomotive means by which others might achieve visions of their own" (GI 151, 156).

The concluding focus on "Poetic Genius" allows Spector to connect Blake's use of multilayered language enriched by Hebraic linguistic resonances and his own poetic practices and to chart its transformations, a progressive shift away from "linking words to their referents in external reality" and toward a "kabbalistic myth as the structuring principle through which to rebuild the ur-language of Adam" (167). Obviously, this focus shifts readers to the concerns explored in "Wonders Divine," where myth viewed through the critical lens of intentionality "focuses on the ways different levels of consciousness establish relationships with their respective referents" and where the analysis of Blake's myth parallels that of his language to track "a profound shift in Blake's subjective consciousness" (WD 19) across his written work. Spector's exploration of structural correspondences between Blake's syncretic myth and kabbalistic planes of experience and existence, both emanative models, is detailed in its connections ("the goal is integration of all elements into a composite totality" [WD 23]) and broad in its aspirations ("a diachronic analysis of these underlying structures that Blake's shifting attitude toward myth, and through myth the evolving creative consciousness" [WD 24]).

The opening chapter deftly discusses prevalent Christian exotericism at the core of European mythic formations and the sub-current "esoteric myth of Kabbalism" dispersed "in the same geographical locales" (WD 27), a dual presence giving rise to "a Christianization of Jewish mysticism" (WD 29) across Renaissance Europe. The subsequent discussion of the arrival of this presence in England provides the last layer of a solid contextual foundation upon which to mount the argument that "Blake's myth comprises an amalgamation of the Christianized version of Lurianism superimposed on an Anglo-Israelite base" (WD 34) but which recognizes this final mythic state as the product "of a forty-year intellectual process" (WD 35). Given this spectrum of concerns, Chapter Two moves rapidly through discussions of "Milton's justification of Calvinism" as "the mythic heritage of virtually all of English ever since" (WD 36), the dominate dual categories within which "Kabbalistic speculations fall" (WD 39), and their amalgamation in Christian Kabbalists like Mirandola and von Rosenroth into "an ecumenist Judeo-Christian myth" (WD 46). Here Spector, for perhaps the only time across both volumes, allows the enriched analytic environment she creates to dissipate somewhat, and the third chapter on "Pre-Mythology: Miltonic Antecedents" was the least satisfying, perhaps because the terseness of the analysis did not allow for greater critical synthesis, although its closing discussion of Visions of the Daughters of Albion certainly confirms the author's sense of its simultaneous functions as transition to myth and as preliminary framing for "the problems he was to work on in the illuminated books" (WD 58).

The loss of critical intensity, however, was brief, and "The Fact of Myth: Contemporary Apocalypse" (Chapter Four) pursues the implications of Blake's insight that "myth controls thought" (WD 59) with considerable energy across The Marriage, Songs of Innocence and Of Experience, and the historical prophecies America and Europe. Blake's refutation of Miltonic narrative and mythic commitment in The Marriage has received extensive prior analysis, which renders almost all discussions hopelessly incomplete, yet Spector's identification of the problems encountered in the work's reconfiguration of exoteric myth along esoteric lines (overturning figural functions while retaining etymological essences) helps elucidate Blake's vacillation in the inclusion and later alteration of mythic entities like Rintrah and Urthona, not to mention the nuclear family in the closing "A Song of Liberty." The subsequent discussion of Songs extends the pursuit of mythic maturation in its vibrant visual fields, having established its linguistic presence in the metalanguage of The Marriage, with Blake beginning already to probe the limitations of a dyadic structure for mental experience suggested in the work's title, displacing "the interest off of the duality of good and evil, and onto the mythic structure from which the duality originally derived" (WD 65). Once archetypal base and mythic structuration are provided a unified framework, "an alternative set of archetypes" (WD 72) emerges to figure forth "an alternative mode of thought," one that indicts "theological doctrine that posits physical hardships as the birthright of all descendents of Adam" (WD 74). The terse analyses of America and Europe confirm this view of Blake's developing myth, with both works beginning to display "kabbalistic elements," although the author acknowledges that, at this nascent stage, those traces "are far from developed" (WD 83).

In Spector's view, Blake's early mythic gestures taught him "the impossibility of renovating the exoteric myth into a viable structure" (WD 85), and in the poetic sequence beginning with The Song of Los and extending through The Book of Los, Blake begins to fashion a syncretic myth from both exoteric and esoteric traditions. The deepening semiotic miasma of these works (with full-page walls of words often interspersed with full-page illustrations) suggests that Blake refines his concept of myth toward an interactive psycho-historical myth increasingly conversant with the minute particulars of "kabbalistic cosmogony," especially that associated "with the Sefirotic Tree, the ten hypostases assuming the same kind of fourfold configuration embodied in the souls and worlds" (WD 86). The correspondences traced here are concrete and detailed, leaving little doubt about Blake's indebtedness to kabbalistic structuration, and the mythic development begun in Los's song is charted with great energy in Urizen and Ahania, with the former superimposing kabbalistic elements onto Milton's two falls while the latter probes the faulty "judgment" exhibited by Urizen that alienates him from "the ameliorating qualities of love," the alienation of the Rational from the Spiritual Soul. Thus, the prophetic sequence provides the opportunity to see Blake's process of building myth through appropriation, transmutation, and amelioration, even though the sequence ultimately fails to "cohere into a unified system" (WD 105).

Of course, the work turns to the large epics in seeking that coherence through the unifying presence of "The Transcendent Myth: Kabbalism" (Chapter Six), where Spector argues that "the various kabbalistic motifs Blake had been experimenting with evolve into a complex, multifaceted myth whose archetypal structure provides the means of reconciling the two dilemmas [the functions of Christ and the prophet in the fallen world]" (WD 107), yet readers persuaded by Peter Otto's recent critique of transcendence in The Four Zoas will perhaps balk at the rather abbreviated and somewhat mechanical application of transcendental kabbalistic elements to the work's various nights. The analysis continues to be crisp and compelling, especially when it ventures into the contorted visual field of the manuscript itself, and the discussion of Milton allows a spatialization of these concerns relative to the "speculative and contemplative forms of Kabbalism" (WD 131) as Blake moves to transform mundane into sublime allegory (WD 132). As in most sections of both volumes, Spector here continues to shower her readers with provocative etymologies that weave the exoteric Christian and esoteric Hebraic into a unified framework, although the major difference between the two emerging in Milton (the presence of an "Internal Saviour, now defined as the visionary faculty that enables humanity to develop its full potential" [WD 137]) highlights Blake's particular view of prophetic agency and its supporting visionary faculty. With the mythic and mystic work refined through The Four Zoas and Milton completed, Blake offers in Jerusalem "a perfect poem, one whose form and content coalesce in the artistic representation of the Divine Vision" (WD 140), restoring a balance between the visionary and the material, between consciousness and cosmos, through endless acts of self-annihilation now associated with the eternal prophet operative within all. Appropriately, given this emphasis in Blake's culminating epic, the volume concentrated on myth concludes with a meditation on "The Eternal Prophet" (just as the former volume focused on language concluded with a meditation on "The Poetic Genius"), a contemplation moving well beyond the expected emphasis on the Hebraic, which recedes to the background to allow Blake's works concluding priority.

This work is undoubtedly the most detailed and energetic assessment of the role a vibrant and emergent Jewish mystical tradition played in Blake's final crafting of his myth. The achievements that stand behind these volumes are copious indeed, and this learned work offers cogent and persuasive arguments for Blake's syncretic path through kabbalistic thought in the maturation of his psycho-historical myth. However, as this detailed review also suggests, the very depth of Spector's dual volumes can impede readers unwilling to swim through its tentative assertions (which occur early and often) and its highly specialized language (which functions as its own linguistic unconscious). As well, the "intra-textual" dimension of these volumes discussed above as a strength can also impede an unencumbered and direct engagement with the parallel concerns. Although these two critical reservations occasionally coalesce into "readerly" resistance, the depth of analysis, the relentless pursuit of etymological connections, and the insistently strong writing overcome such resistances and will temper understand of Blake's mythic impulses for the foreseeable future.