Michael Ferber. The Social Vision of William Blake. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. xvi + 254 pp. $29.50.
Jung’s law of synchronicity would seem at first glance to have been startlingly confirmed by the appearance within the space of one year (1985) of three books which give importance to Blake’s ideological position and its historical determinants. And all three agree about the crucial nature of Blake’s radical Protestant inheritance. They are Terence Hoagwood’s Prophecy and the Philosophy of Mind; my own William Blake in Terry Eagleton’s Rereading Literature series; and the book under review. There are various precursors of this approach: A. L. Morton, David Erdman, E. P. Thompson, G. R. Sabri-Tabrizi, Morton Paley, David Punter. But none so far that fastens on the complexity of Blake’s ideological position and its textual expressions in the thorough way that is now proposed (whatever the practice) especially in this book and my own.
It is interesting to record a modicum of agreement between Ferber and myself. On antinomianism, for instance. We agree that, although Blake is a complex amalgam, the antinomian strain is the dominant and organizing one, and that once this is understood one has found a vital key to Blake’s use of other traditions. Ferber begin page 42 | gives Gerrard Winstanley as an example of the kind of seventeenth-century figure who can be seen as an ancestor of Blake. But in a book of this size it might have been well to quote more fully from other writers, say the Ranter Abiezer Coppe (who receives one mention) even at the risk of seeming to repeat material used by A. L. Morton. My own approach has been to grub around looking for evidence of a line of descent from the seventeenth-century radical Christians to the time of Blake. It is not especially easy to discover, but I was sorry to find that Ferber also had dug up so little that was both concrete and new. The footnotes reveal a great dependence on Morton and Christopher Hill. It is the hope and faith of many that E. P. Thompson may be more fortunate.
There is one point in his treatment of antinomianism where Ferber fails to show clearly an important link with Blake. It is the fact, noted by Hill and Keith Thomas, that radical Protestants tended to be interested in alchemy, astrology and other occult doctrines. Once one has grasped this it becomes much clearer that there is no need to choose between two Blakes, one radical, the other arcane: there is one tradition and one Blake. Ferber adduces the interesting case of John Everard, the Hermetist and translator of The Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus. He was, as Ferber notes, “a radical Protestant troublemaker, frequently in jail for heresy . . . who preached to the lowest classes that God was immanent in man and nature” (p. 93). Ferber has a few vague words to say about this in his chapter on “Nature and the Female,” but the whole phenomenon of Protestant occultism surely merited more extended discussion in his section on antinomianism.
Seen in this perspective, the Behmenists look not so much like a Teutonic excrescence amid the radical Christians, rather a happy transplant into congenial soil. Ferber has some useful things to say about how the “backwardness” of Germany meant that the tradition of artisanal piety out of which Boehme came was still alive in the 1790s, so that Behmenism lived on quite strongly and was able to exert a significant influence on the German Romantics. Hence, perhaps, some of the similarities between them and Blake. I should add that Fuseli might have transmitted the revived excitement about Boehme; but as Ferber well says, Blake also belonged to a tradition of artisanal piety, one which in England had been undermined by rationalism and was now threatened by the Industrial Revolution (pp. 33-34).
Ferber and I also agree that Blake’s “enthusiastic” inheritance makes his relationship with the mainstream tradition of Dissent—so influenced by Locke—a complex and ambivalent one. He is particularly good on the complexity, showing that both innatism and empiricism can point either way politically (p. 23). Ambivalence, however, is not Ferber’s strong point, wherever he finds it; while I should have to confess that I perhaps use the word too often. What is so interesting, though, is still the modicum of agreement. It seems that when one considers Blake’s ideological position one is forced to consider the question of “the extent to which Blake became a prisoner of his own system or saw his way clear of it, and the contamination of his system by the one he was fighting” (p. 43). “Contamination” crops up again (pp. 100, 113), but is not given the full treatment it deserves, and deserves precisely in this context most of all. A less snooty attitude towards deconstruction (p. 100) might have helped. It might also have helped towards a fuller consideration of textual forms rather than a concentration on themes.
But this is an engaging, clear and very useful book. It is also a full one: the components of Blake’s social vision are treated with the thoroughness they deserve. They are, nevertheless, treated somewhat episodically. A good example is to be found in the very useful chapter on “Blake’s Ideology.” Ferber is very firm in his introduction about the desirability of retaining a strict Marxist meaning for the word ideology: “Language may breed illusions, but it is better not to call these illusions ideological unless we find a different term for the particular illusions that arise from and ratify the unequal divisions of society” (p. 12). But in the chapter on Blake’s ideology, central aspects (according to the strict definition) such as “Artisanal Dissent” are treated on all fours with what should surely be derivatives: “Closure,” or even “Blake’s Difficulty.” As the book progresses it becomes even more sporadic in character.
Nevertheless, this book, by what it succeeds in doing, has filled a real gap. It will be indispensable. And how often can one say that?