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Blake, Sex and Women Revisited

When Helen asked me to write something about Blake for her new Anthology, I was reluctant; I had been away from the field too long-- 25 years. Then I read a draft of Diane Hume George’s fascinating essay about what happened when she tried to live-out Blake’s visions of sexual sharing. Her essay could have been written to illustrate my belief that Blake is a dangerous sexual prophet for women. It made me think that there might be good reasons for re-visiting Blake’s attitudes towards women and sexuality—a subject I had written about at length in my 1983 book Blake’s Prophetic Psychology.

Visions of the Daughters of Albion could be called the Ur text of sexual generosity. It is easy to see why it might appeal to a feminist critic . The chief woman character, Oothoon, is very strong and preaches what seems to be a doctrine of mutually free love to her wimpy lover. However, what is really involved is a one-sided male fantasy. Oothoon offers to net girls of 'furious gold' and 'mild silver' and watch him while he enjoys them 'in lovely copulation' (E 49). There is no suggestion of reciprocity. Theortomon, the semi- impotent hero, is furiously jealous and rages at Oothoon abusively after she has been raped. Generosity is all on one side: hers.

Still critics at the time I was writing persisted in seeing the poem as somehow in favor of women’s rights. One of the most influential Blake scholars, David Erdman, thought the poem’s argument derived from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) —and therefore was implicitly feminist.1 But the emotional force of the two works is entirely different. Blake pictures Oothoon as completely benevolent and totally available. Wollstonecraft points out that 'the end, the grand end of [women’s] exertions should be to unfold their own faculties' 2. Far from seeing woman as devoted to Blake’s ideal of 'happy, happy love,' (E 49) she wanted to substitute equality based on reason for women’s ‘sexual character’ as a gratifier of man.

Blake’s fantasy of sexual gratification in Visions is vital to understanding his attitude towards woman on yet another level. The sexually gratifying woman is imagined as a sexually permissive mother. This is important, not to prove a Freudian point, but because his attitude towards women seems saturated with conflicted feelings toward a mothering figure. He is interested in his female characters primarily for their role in triangular situations reminiscent of the Oedipal triangle of mother, father, son. In Visions, Ooothoon is raped by an older man while on her way to give herself to a young lover. Though she is not literally Blake’s mother or sister, Blake suggests the mother son relationship in several ways. One of the clearest of these is in his opening illustrations.

The opening illustration of Oothoon is developed from an engraving by Vien of a procuress holding a small cupid by the wings. Blake adapts the figures but gives them an opposite meaning. His naked woman lifting full breasts and kissing a small male figure leaping from a flower suggests both the maternal nature and the special non-possessive quality of Oothoon’s love, which combines generosity and lack of restraint, The next illustration replaces the idealized view of mother and child with sexual fantasies. The mother-son theme continues in the image of a small, naked male angel standing in the lap of a woman riding a cloud horse. The sexual nature of the embrace between woman and small angel is clearly shown by the penis and testicles Blake has drawn emerging between the woman’s legs where we should expect the neck and head of her cloud mount. In some versions, Blake has added a beak or bill to the penis, which seems equivalent to biting teeth in its potential to injure the maternal body.

In the illustration, Blake’s images of mother and child are untroubled by any hint of a rival. The fantasy seems to be of undisputed possession of the mother. Blake’s description of Oothoon raped by a paternal tyrant fits such an assumption of the mother’s resistance to the father. However, Theotorman struggles in the poem with the fact that Oothoon doesn’t regret the rape. Moreover she is aroused by it. Her arousal represents the side of parental love-making that the child denies because it signifies the mother’s unfaithfulness to him. This idea of unfaithfulness makes emotional sense of Theotorman’s [the other man’s] extreme jealousy and his angry wish to punish Oothoon which is expressed in sexualized imagery. Blake makes Oothoon collaborate in Theotorman’s ambivalent wish to punish and possess her by having her writhe naked, calling on his eagles to penetrate her flesh.

Blake doesn’t just use visual images to suggest a young boy’s fantasies about his mother and sexuality. In presenting Theotorman’s reaction to the rape, Blake’s uses imagery that suggests a young child soiling his pants in a situation that arouses impotent rage. Theotormon’s first act after the rape is to surround Oothoon and Bromion with 'black jealous waters' (E 45). If this isn’t quite clear in context, it becomes clearer if we remember Blake’s earlier portrayal of the serpent Envy, who expresses its jealousy by discharging a river of filth. From Blake’s imagery one might infer his own repressed memory of such a reaction, but whatever the source of his insight, as an artist Blake is able to connect Theotormon’s childishly ineffectual rage with the imagery that best expresses it.

Blake’s imagery not only evokes a young child’s reactions to parental sex at a time when his only weapon is his own excrement, but he also connects this reaction to other psychological themes typical of the child’s perceptions. For instance, the rape’s violent sadism suggests a child’s perception of intercourse. Blake depicts Theortomon as being caught in the emotions of this stage,( hating the sadistic Bromion) but unable to fight back successfully, Theortomon turns his anger against himself (in one illustration he whips himself) and against Oothoon. Oothoon urges him to give up his anger and masochism and enjoy her. Like a mother choosing her son’s wife, she reminds him she would gladly procure women for his pleasure. In a series of monologues she acts like a psychoanalyst encouraging him to dredge up his forbidden sexual desires—the forbidden 'joys of old;' here again the imagery turns to childhood as she reminds him of 'Infancy, fearless, lustful, happy! Nestling for delight/in laps of pleasure.' (E 48). But instead of helping him give up his incestuous wishes like a psychoanalyst, she urges him to act on them and free himself from his sense of failure. Is this really such a good idea?

What Blake seems to be doing is evoking a set of early experiences of despair and rivalry and then imagining the woman—in the past, the mother—who could, by her total generosity, make up for what he had suffered. When this is understood, it is easy to see how far Blake is from portraying equality between the sexes. His male characters are no more capable of mature love than a man in real life jealously fixated on his mother.

Subsequent prophecies reinforce the interpretation of Oedipal drama in Visions and show what a pervasive and haunting theme it was for Blake. In America, the hero Orc rapes his sister—committing the incest that Theotormon failed to do—while young patriots overthrow the paternal tyrant. In still later prophecies, we read how Orc was originally chained to a rock by his father after he saw the boy 'embracing his bright mother' and discerned that Orc 'plotted his death.'( E 340).

When I read the early revolutionary prophecies as an adolescent, I too fell under Blake’s spell--the over throwing of tyrants and freeing of sexuality was deeply appealing. Later as an adult, I found a whole other side—the objective religious and political meanings laid out by critics like Frye and Erdman. It took many years of learning about Blake’s cosmologies and myth, his cycles, his system, before I was ready to go back and look at what first attracted me—his sensitivity to the emotions of the child and the outcast, his defense of free sexuality. Like the occasional feminist critic in the 70’s who mentioned Blake approvingly, I expected to find a man in favor of a truly liberated sexuality and equality.

As I struggled to make sense of his obscure and difficult Prophecies, I noticed that Blake’s attitudes towards women and sex changed quite radically during his life -- they became more rather than less hostile. His attitude toward woman fell into roughly two stages and a transition. In the first stage of the revolutionary prophecies, he sees women and sexuality as a source of salvation and continually imagines his heroes liberating females from paternal tyrants. Though even in this early work, where he has a more positive use for women, there is a strong undercurrent of hostility and fear which is important to recognize if you want to understand his later attitudes. In mid-life during the decade long writing of Vala he goes through a transitional phase in which he becomes increasingly negative toward sexuality. As he Christianizes the work in re-writing, he comes to see Woman as responsible for the fall and in the form of 'The Female Will' he blames her for all the world’s evils. His negative images of women become ever more extreme and bizarre. The only positive images of women are totally weak females sequestered in Beulah. Finally, in his late Christian prophecies, Milton and Jerusalem, he suggests that the female should cease even to exist independently and become re-absorbed into the body of man where she belongs. This is in effect Blake’s final solution.

Blake’s obsession with incest has an unfortunate effect on his attitude toward women. Because he is obsessed with the overthrow of paternal rivals, he feels guilty and begins to blame women for causing trouble between fathers and sons. Another reason for Blake’s increasingly negative attitude is that his demands on women as nurturers and lovers are so total—it wouldn’t be unfair to call them infantile—that he can’t help imagining them as enraged and wanting revenge. After Vala, his fantasies about what bad women do to men become more and more violent and bizarre. In drafts we see his giving way to totally negative fantasies: women destroy men’s bodies, unweave them on their looms, drain them in sex and appropriate their penises. Blake becomes increasingly certain that any attempt to satisfy basic needs for food and sex will have horrible consequences: if they want food, they are eaten, if they want sex they are castrated. In the end Blake needs Christ to help him control his imagined women. Within a Christian structure he can re-introduce his idea of a completely giving woman—one who is so totally programmed that in Beulah, she even dies smiling every winter, to be reborn as a virgin every spring. This realm is carefully separated from the male world of creation. Man drops into Beulah only temporarily for a rest cure before continuing his virile forward progress 'in the Bosom of the father.' (E 130). All in all, Blake’s concept of Beulah, doesn’t really solve anything. It seems impossible for Blake to imagine real men and women coexisting in a state of peace. Outside of Beulah, his evil women characters split off, doubling and tripling as though he can’t control their rampant proliferation. Their acts are increasingly fearful. In Jerusalem for example, he has them dancing in the flayed skins of their victims, waving the men’s severed organs.

Blake’s view of male-female relationships hasn’t been clear to readers partly because it is at first contradicted by his enormous sensitivity to feminine traits such as tenderness and maternal care. On the one hand they belong to the ideal Female and help her care for the Male Genius; on the other hand, the poet can incorporate and use them in creation and drawing close to other men. In this later view Blake anticipates the modern recognition of bisexuality and its importance for creativity. But Blake did not extend the right to express traits of the opposite sex to his females. When they do express them, they become threatening Female Wills and must be destroyed.

Blake’s rhetoric too can distract readers from seeing the aggressive or selfish nature of his fantasies. Some early critics however, clearly picked up on his misogyny. Before it was taboo to say such things, a male critic—and I don’t think it was an accident that most Blake critics were originally male—could admit satisfaction with Blake’s view of women. After telling us that Blake views woman’s chief attribute as 'deceit' Bernard Blackstone goes on to say that she is consoled for her loss of delight in life 'by the mysteries of religion, by the pomp and ceremonies which act so efficiently on her weaker intelligence. But man' he adds, 'has no such consolation,' that is, 'if he is virile…' 3. His remarks are embarrassing in their forthrightness, but I think he has correctly caught Blake’s anger at woman’s power and his wish that she be properly subservient.

Male critics who are consciously more benign towards women may still respond to Blake’s underlying fantasies without being quite aware of it. Ten years after Blackstone, Jean Hagstrum misreads the line: 'In Beulah every female delights to give her maiden to her husband,' thinking that maiden here means maidenhead.4 The point of the line is that Blake’s ideal female freely provides her husband with other women as Oothoon does in Visions. Hagstrum concludes his essay with a funny tone of mixed apology and male congratulation, which suggests that at some level he understood very well what Blake had in mind: 'Some modern women may have much to object to in Blake’s latest thought about the relation of the sexes. But it is hard to believe that l’homme moyen sensuel would reject the hearty bread and full-bodied wine the late Blake is offering him.5

I had hoped that my attempt to deal with emotions in Blake’s work would arouse some interest in the many critics using other approaches. I’ve always felt there was something to gain from a diversity of approaches to Blake’s work. But perhaps because I spoke bluntly, didn’t follow any established reading and investigated what seemed to be various critical lapses, critics were unreceptive. Then too, if Blake was really expressing hatred and fear of murderous females, where did that leave the approving critic. Morton Paley, to whose journal Blake Studies I submitted three of my early chapters, rejected them outright with the statement that psychoanalysis has nothing to teach us about Blake. I no longer believe in Freudian analysis as a cure, nor am I now a literary critic--I write novels--but I still believe that Freud has a lot to teach us about emotions. Some of the early responses to my Blake book were on the level of a marital spat. One reader suggested my interpretations derived from Blake-envy. Similarly Norman Jeffares the eminent Yeats biographer, though recommending publication of an earlier book of mine to the editor at Stanford, quipped that 'your author has sex on the brain-- and that’s not where a woman should have it.' As a product of the repressive fifties, I accepted being talked down to at the time. But after mid-life changes-- a good, new marriage, a new career as a writer—I allowed my angry feelings to surface. I hadn’t been nicely treated.

Over a decade later I heard Macmillan was putting out a Blake case book featuring writing of the last twenty years and wanted my essay, 'Blake, Sex and Women.' I was very pleased. It felt a bit as if I were being resurrected. My admittedly somewhat vindictive pleasure was all the greater when I found myself and my work placed in a context which reveals the old boy’s club atmosphere in early Blake studies. The editor, David Punter, speaks of the 'protective attitude certain critics have had towards their textual "master" who is often their mentor as well.'6 Indeed this is what one finds in the two journals, Morton Paley’s Blake Studies and Blake:An Illustrated Quarterley. Punter concludes in a genteel understatement: 'It is tempting to say that the old nineteenth-century sense of a coterie remains.'7. Punter’s selection includes the diversity that wasn’t in evidence in my day. There are many stimulating views: Marxist, Feminist, Structuralist and not just one but two opposed psychoanalytic readings. However, there are still fewer women represented than men—only two out of ten. And it was disappointing to find old views resurfacing in new clothes. Jean Hagstrum--the full-bodied wine enthusiast--under cover of a psychoanalytic reading denies the misogyny I hoped I’d made evident and re-introduces the idea that Blake’s attitudes towards women are benign: as Punter puts it Hagstrum believes 'there is a benevolent Blake who … knowingly represented perversions and problems, and was in the end if you read him right, a believer in the happy possibilities of sexual love, marriage and family.8 No one wishes this were true more than I do. But though I love and admire many aspects of Blake’s genius, I’m afraid it simply won’t work to see him as a Prophet-guide to improved sexual relations. Still, it’s good that the conversation continues so vigorously. For, as Blake so brilliantly put it, 'opposition is true friendship.' (E 41).

1.Erdman, David V. Blake:Prophet Against Empire (New York: Anchor Book, 1969) 228.

2.Vinidication... (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975) 109.

3. Blackstone, English Blake (Hamden,CT: Archon Books, 1966) 294.

4. Hagstrum, 'Babylon revisited, or the story of Luvah and Vala', Blake's Sublime Allegory, ed.Stuart Curran and Joseph Wittreich (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973) 105.

5. ibid, 118.

6. William Blake: Contemporary Critical Essays (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1996) 8.

7. ibid, 8.

8. ibid, 9.