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Magnus Ankarsjö. William Blake and Gender. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2006. × + 210 pp. $32.00/£20.50, paperback.
IN this well-meaning book, Magnus Ankarsjö struggles with the complex and intractable issues of sex and gender in Blake’s The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem. Seeking to refute the argument that Blake was anti-feminist, Ankarsjö declares that he will “dismantle the claims that define Blake as condescending towards the female sex” (2). His goals are to demonstrate that there is much more positive “gender interactivity” in these poems than critics realize and that in them “Blake presents a gender utopia with a vision of complete equality between the sexes” (3, 2). With the burden of proof on his shoulders, Ankarsjö seeks to trace a “clear line of development” in Blake’s portrayal of gender in the epics, but, in his attempt to manage the irreducible complexity of the narratives and of the sexual forces that energize them, he fixates on what he calls Blake’s “single-minded idea” of achieving an apocalypse of gender equality through a unitary symbol, one that is realized only in the final plates of Jerusalem (3,6). Despite the book’s detour into history that briefly explores Blake’s affiliations with Protestant dissent, English Jacobinism, and 1790s feminism, Ankarsjö’s primary claim is that because Jerusalem is the culminating version of Blake’s mythological system, we must read each poem from the vantage of the entire canon (6, 124, 189). He thus ends up reading from a teleological perspective that simplifies Blake’s myth and the central role of gender within it.
Besides this methodological limitation, Ankarsjö does not sufficiently develop his conceptual vocabulary or provide adequate scholarship on the issues that interest him. In the first chapter, “Apocalypse, Utopia and Gender,” he devotes only a couple of pages to each of his key concepts, relying on Morton Paley’s Apocalypse and Millennium (1999) and Nicholas Williams’s Ideology and Utopia in the Poetry of William Blake (1998) for his understanding of these terms. And in a move that he repeats several times, Ankarsjö misreads Blake’s text and takes selected passages out of context to serve his argument. For example, he cites the following bleak passage from The Four Zoas as an “anticipation of the utopian society” (15):
For when he came to where a Vortex ceasd to operatebegin page 134 | We are told that these lines anticipate utopia because they describe Urizen’s journey as an “‘upward,’ and forward progressive movement” (15). In the context of Night 6, however, as Urizen explores the “dens” of his rational cosmology, he attempts to order chaos by “throwing his venturous limbs into the Vast unknown” and building “a road immense” from “void to void” (E 349), echoing Satan’s journey in Paradise Lost. Further, Urizen seeks to rebuild the fallen world by making himself king and commanding that “all futurity be bound in his vast chain,” thus “Gaining a New Dominion” (73:19-24, E 350). Ankarsjö’s positive interpretation of the passage thus excludes crucial counter-information.
Nor down nor up remaind then if he turnd & lookd back
From whence he came twas upward all. & if he turnd and viewd
The unpassd void upward was still his mighty wandring
The midst between an Equilibrium grey of air serene
Where he might live in peace & where his life might meet repose (72:16-21, E 349)
Ankarsjö is on firmer ground in terms of gender, a topic he obviously has read and thought seriously about. He follows Helen Bruder’s example in William Blake and the Daughters of Albion (1997) and seeks to recontextualize Blake’s handling of gender while opposing previous feminist critiques. Although he tends to make bogeywomen out of Anne Mellor and Alicia Ostriker, focusing primarily on their work from the early 1980s, his analysis of Blake in the context of French feminism and the work of Judith Butler is insightful and suggestive. But while chapter 2, “Blake’s Radical Context,” does offer feminist-historical analysis of Blake’s early work, it too remains undeveloped. Citing work by Keri Davies on the important role of Joseph Johnson’s bookshop in making Blake’s work available to a female audience (52-53), Ankarsjö discusses potentially important connections between William Blake and Mary Hays, but the link is tenuously explored and superficially analyzed. We learn that both writers question the “governing paradigm of Enlightenment reason” by emphasizing passion, and that in Hays’s The Victim of Prejudice (1799) the two main characters are described by her as “[a]nimated . . . by one heart and one mind” and thus resemble, according to Ankarsjö, “the male-female togetherness” of Blake’s epics (57). Closer textual and deeper historical analyses are needed to establish specific and viable connections.
In the final three chapters, on the epics, Ankarsjö puts aside the feminist-historical approach to pursue the structural development of Blake’s female characters. His focus on gender interactivity is relevant and important, but Ankarsjö again tends to misread and take things out of context. For example, in the book’s central and longest chapter (on The Four Zoas), he states that criticisms of Vala as negative are wrong for two reasons: one, she is absent from most of the poem and two, when she reappears in Night 9, she becomes “the most important character at the inception of the apocalypse” and so “ends the poem as a more positive character” (69). Although Vala does end the poem on a more positive note, these claims downplay her complicity in dividing Luvah in Night 2 and disregard her affiliation with the destructive activity of “the Shadowy Female” and Rahab in Nights 7 and 8. Similarly with Enitharmon: Ankarsjö calls her “the most persistently evil of the four female characters” (72), but claims that she also ends positively because she helps Los take down “the crucified body of Christ” in Night 8. “It is essential to notice here that Los and Enitharmon . . . do this together,” he writes, because it represents the “male-female co-operation” that enables them to “launch the apocalypse of the concluding Night” (77). But, again, this reading ignores context. In fact, there are two versions of taking down the crucified body, and both emphasize states of terror and despair. In the first, only Los takes down the body and then he and Jerusalem, not Enitharmon, bring it to the sepulcher (110 :14-15, E 379). In the second version, the narrator says that Los and Enitharmon take the body down and that “Jerusalem wept . . . two thousand Years” (114 :30-33, E 385). Blake makes clear that what the actors share in the scenes of crucifixion and entombment is an overwhelming and historically catastrophic doubt, not hope of eternal life. This imagery is repeated nearly verbatim at the beginning of Night 9, suggesting that Blake’s apocalypse opens on a note of despair that complicates a purely utopian perspective.
Similar problems also detract from Ankarsjö’s treatment of gender and utopia in Milton and Jerusalem, despite his valiant effort to bring attention to this crucial aspect of Blake’s apocalypse. Ankarsjö shows that gender interactivity is more positive in Milton than in The Four Zoas and that Ololon “has no equal in The Four Zoas” for creating actions with positive consequences (124). But he again makes several assertions that are not supported by the text or that reduce narrative complexities. The most important, Ololon’s final “reunion” with Milton, is crucial to his thesis. Ankarsjö says that Milton “must be read as a development” (155) toward Jerusalem and beyond The Four Zoas because it contains a “single representation” of gender unity (154), even though it stops short of apocalyptic merger: “Blake leaves the two main characters standing at the threshold, just about to enter the gender utopia of Eden” (157). But he does not tell us that Ololon ends by questioning whether she and Milton are “Contraries” and that her final union is with “Jesus the Saviour” (42:11, E 143). Ankarsjö is aware that female subsumption into the male may not be a feminist ideal, and he quotes Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble to the effect that masculine and feminine cannot both be represented when “the masculine constitutes the closed circle of the signifier and signified” (155-56n18), but he simply asserts that Blake shows otherwise. The same problem occurs in the chapter on Jerusalem, where the issue is even more important since this is, he claims, where Blake’s gender utopia is fully achieved. Of the incorporation of Jerusalem (or Brittannia) into Albion’s bosom at the end of the epic, Ankarsjö announces that “Blake has erased all gender differentiation” and achieved the “complete absence of gender” (188, 189).
Some of the best recent feminist criticism of Blake questions the value of this erasure. Two challenging essays, both available but ignored by Ankarsjö, are particularly relevant in this regard. In “‘A Garment dipped in blood’: Ololon and Problems of Gender in Blake’s Milton,”1↤ 1. Studies in Romanticism 36.1 (spring 1997): 61-101. Betsy Bolton gives a begin page 135 | more nuanced and critical account of gender in the poem, arguing that while Blake’s humanism seeks to transcend sexual division, he “does not succeed in writing beyond the sexes: the female remains within the structure of his prophecies as a degraded or an invisible term” (83). And especially importantly for Ankarsjö’s reading, she claims that Ololon and Milton do not reunite but instead remain at odds, and that the figure she does merge with, “One Man Jesus the Saviour,” sublates her identity: “this One Man seems to be grounded in a vanished female figure whose return to inanimate matter lends sacrificial strength to the prophet” (97). This is not to say that Bolton’s reading is the correct one, but it does deserve scrutiny, especially since her approach has been extended in important ways by other scholars, especially Claire Colebrook. In “Blake and Feminism: Romanticism and the Question of the Other,”2↤ 2. Blake 34.1 (summer 2000): 4-13. Colebrook argues that Blake develops a positive theory of sexual difference, one which “dynamically sustains each term in relation” (4). She reads the ending of Jerusalem as more complex and ambivalent than does Ankarsjö, contending that in Albion’s union with Jerusalem Blake recognizes the essential relation of two terms which are “never fully . . . integrated” (6). Colebrook asserts that Blake’s portrayal of unity actually includes a dimension of otherness: “Blake . . . exploits the fact that Albion is specifically ‘man’ insofar as he needs to reinclude his female emanation; it is this aspect of Blake’s figuring of gender which . . . sustains an essential recognition of alterity” (7). These creative, subtle readings show that Blake can be placed in productive dialogue with recent feminist theory and literary scholarship.
The appearance of Ankarsjö’s William Blake and Gender comes at an auspicious moment of renewed feminist interest in Blake’s work. A recent collection, Women Reading William Blake,3↤ 3. Ed. Helen P. Bruder (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). contains another solid essay by Colebrook, situating Blake in both feminist and literary history, and other essays that fill in contexts explored less fully by Ankarsjö, although his interest in Mary Hays and Blake remains a promising and unexplored connection. Along with Janet Warner’s novel Other Sorrows, Other Joys (2003) and Marsha Keith Schuchard’s Why Mrs. Blake Cried (2006), Women Reading William Blake indicates that the trend in feminist Blake scholarship is historical and biographical, with attention focused on Blake’s wife Catherine and women in Blake’s circle, including Ann Flaxman, and on his relation to contemporary women writers such as Joanna Baillie, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Tighe. Ankarsjö had the right idea at the right time, and his effort to uncover a more feminist humanism in Blake’s work is laudable, but his study appears somewhat reductive in the light of resurgent feminist scholarship.