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David Weir. Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental Renaissance. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003. xiii + 170 PP.; 11 b&w illus. $21.95/£13.75, paperback.
Blake has for some time ceased to be the “solitary visionary” with no “definite contacts with Hindus texts” depicted in Raymond Schwab’s Le Renaissance oriental (1950, English trans. 1984).1↤ 1. Raymond Schwab, The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680-1880, trans. Gene Patterson-Black and Victor Reinking[e] (New York: Columbia UP, 1984) 97. Thanks now to David Weir, the source texts and also those who possibly mediated Hindu myths to Blake have been further identified. More importantly, Brahma in the West puts Blake’s references to Hinduism, long since brought to our attention through the scholarly intuition of S. Foster Damon, Northrop Frye, and Kathleen Raine, into their contemporary discourses (45ff). Weir’s book is a fresh attempt at interpreting the dynamic of Blake’s Zoa and Emanation constellations.begin page 158 | ↑ back to top
While delineating the scholarly ambitions and different agendas of those who wrote on Hinduism in the late eighteenth century, Weir argues that Blake was not only highly sensitive but also very receptive to the political implications of the Oriental Renaissance. Brahma in the West is essentially an attempt to historicize Blake’s engagement with the knowledge of Hinduism potentially available to him at the time. Although the links between Blake and some of the protagonists of the Oriental Renaissance are tentative, information about India was easy to come by. While Blake refers to Charles Wilkins as late as 1809, Weir documents that the Analytical Review discussed the translation of Hindu myths as early as 1790 (91). He stresses further that the comparative studies of Eastern religion “found a ready audience among members of London’s dissenting community” (87). Casting Blake as a fervent reader of the radical press and firmly establishing him within the radical and dissenting circle of Joseph Johnson, Weir points out that Blake’s perception of Hinduism was biased towards radicalism from the very beginning. It was through Johnson’s Analytical Review that Blake was encouraged to equate political content with mythological form. This approach makes Weir a stimulating read.
In Britain, Indian politics were perceived as part of the expansion of the Empire. With the India Act of 1784—an attempt to assume responsibility and regulate the administration of India and its inhabitants—the Pitt government made clear its intention to curb the economic power of the East India Company. Though in Brahma in the West we learn little about global war, British imperialism, colonial rule, or even the role of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Weir’s discussion of the complex and complicated situation of Indian politics and the British constructs of the Orient is often broad and general, and his referencing of Blake’s potentially India-inspired metaphors is meticulous. When it comes to Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” Weir takes an imaginative leap to India: encouraged by the power vacuum left by the French Revolution, the Muslim leader Tipu Sultan—self-declared “Citizen Tipu”—began to attack the British. Even though he was overwhelmed by General Munro in 1792, a different kind of defeat was noted by the British public when it became known that the general’s son had been killed by an Indian tiger-in the same year. Weir’s neat conclusion is that “The Tyger” was not only written in response to young Munro’s death, but that its tiger was also partly Indian (20).
Within Britain the arguments about empire and revolution centered around Edmund Burke, who condemned the French Revolution and criticized the former Governor General of Bengal, Warren Hastings (1732-1818). Whereas Burke’s polemic campaign against Hastings resulted in a conservative policy success, the English Jacobins began to see both the Governor General and India as victims of the Pitt government (25). The possible connection between Blake and Hastings is Charles Wilkins’s 1785 translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Hastings not only supported this translation, but also wrote its preface and claimed that Hindu faith was a variation on Christian doctrine. Weir writes: “there are parts of Hastings’s account of the Gita that relate in general terms to theological elements in Blake’s evolving mythology”(94).
By the late eighteenth century works on Hinduism, written by the linguist and first president of the Asiatic Society of Bengal Sir William Jones (1746-94), were widely available. According to Weir, Jones’s “On the Gods of Greece, Italy, and India,” reviewed by Henry Fuseli for the Analytical Review in 1790, may in particular have encouraged Blake to insist on the antiquity of the Eastern faith when challenging the authority of the Western church in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell (often dated 1790-93). Indeed, most of the mythographic studies of the 1790s were either published by Johnson or reviewed and discussed in the Analytical Review (46). The arguments of these works—often inherently theological and sometimes anti-French—are often closely intertwined, which leads Weir to conclude that Blake was attracted to India via Jones and his followers rather than through Joseph Bryant’s A New System, or, An Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774-76)—an edition for which Blake had made engravings during his apprenticeship to James Basire. Kathleen Raine in Blake and Tradition (1969) concedes that Blake may have been familiar with Jones and Wilkins, and begin page 159 | ↑ back to top then emphasizes what she had identified as the “link between Blake’s philosophical studies of Berkeley and the mythology of the veiled goddess.”2↤ 2. Kathleen Raine, Blake and Tradition, 2 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969) II: 177.
Weir analyzes “the Mundane Egg” and the “Veil of Vala” in relation to Thomas Maurice’s The History of Hindustan (1796-98) and William Jones’s “A Hymn to Narayena” (1785). Blake’s use of the spider in The Four Zoas is referenced to Joseph Priestley’s A Comparison of the Institutions of Moses with Those of the Hindoos and other Ancient Nations (1799), and the attack on priestcraft is glossed with William Julius Mickle’s “Enquiry into the Religious Tenets and Philosophy of the Brahmins” (1798). Weir also identifies key visual quotations in Jerusalem and traces them back to Edward Moor’s The Hindu Pantheon (1810), pointing out that Moor’s engraver, Moses Haughton, lived with Fuseli (75).
It is interesting to see how Weir positions himself with respect to the research undertaken into Blake’s theology—beginning with J. G. Davies’s The Theology of William Blake (1948), extensively revised by Jon Mee and E. P. Thompson in the early 1990s, and more recently amended in an attempt to identify Blake’s theology with a specific religious alignment of 1790’s dissent. Weir makes references to E. P. Thompson’s discussion of Muggletonianism and A. D. Nuttall’s of Gnosticism, but seems strangely unaware of Keri Davies’s work, which gives compelling evidence that Thompson was wrong in linking Blake to the Muggletonians.3↤ 3. Keri Davies, “William Blake’s Mother: A New Identification,” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 33.2 (fall 1999): 36-50. Indeed, how can Weir assume that Thompson as a Marxist historian would discuss religion on its own terms? Ideally, Weir ought to have drawn on a wider range of authorities on eighteenth-century dissent and antinomianism before plunging himself—and trying to pull his readers after him—into a deep discussion of Blake’s theology. One example of Weir’s rushed shortcuts is his suggestion that the Behmenists constitute a sect (127).
Weir’s neoplatonist argument is important. He essentially reintroduces Blake as a neoplatonist while presenting him as a combination of radial writer and mystic poet. Blake’s link to neoplatonism in the wake of its “revival” (104) is usually based on his acquaintance with the Plato translator Thomas Taylor. In Witness against the Beast (1993), E. P Thompson argued that this connection was not very helpful. Interestingly, while Thompson in his revision of G. M. Harper’s The Neoplatonism of William Blake (1961) tries to separate interpretation from biographical fact, Weir seems to be doing the reverse. He argues that next to the antinomian under-current with which Hindu myths were offered to their late eighteenth-century audience, there also existed a tendency to make Hinduism neoplatonist: “the antinomian points of Wilkin’s Gita have a kind of theological complement in William Jones’s Neoplatonic explanations of the Hindu system” (104). The link to Blake is obviously the Analytical Review, which disseminated the combination of antinomian mythography with neoplatonist belief made explicit in Jones’s “On the Gods of Greece, Italy and India.” Weir stresses that neoplatonism was an integral part of dissenting theology. Consequently, Blake “set antinomianism and Neoplatonism in a reciprocal theological relationship and made them reinforce one another” (105). Neoplatonism in Blake has most notably been discussed by both Kathleen Raine and E. P. Thompson. While Raine insisted on Blake’s gradual and selective absorption of hermetic thought, Thompson rejected this stance to differentiate between an early exposure to radical-dissenting interpretations of the Bible—in particular, those proposed by Behmenists and Philadelphians—and a later, mature engagement with the sources themselves. In the end it is not entirely clear how Weir resolves the contradictions between Raine and Thompson. Regrettable also is that Weir does not acknowledge the pioneering work of Piloo Nanavutty. She identified a number of available publications on India as well as of Indian texts and started looking for traces of Hindu thought in Blake long before Raine.4↤ 4. Piloo Nanavutty, “William Blake and the Hindu Creation Myths,” The Divine Vision: Studies in the Poetry and Art of William Blake, ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto (London: Victor Gollancz P, 1957) 163-82.
In relation to the scholarly interest taken in Blake’s theology and politics in the 1790s, this study of Blake not only revises—or rather reopens—the discussion on Blake’s awareness of Eastern religion, but also argues convincingly for Blake’s participation in the Oriental Renaissance. Brahma in the West fits in well with the recent developments in Blake studies. It highlights the possible interpenetration of Blake’s creative mythography and the late eighteenth-century Westernized version of Hinduism and thus gives a highly useful description of the interaction between religion, society and cultural change.