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Blake and Homosexuality.

Christopher Z. Hobson. Blake and Homosexuality. New York and Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave [division of St. Martin's Press], 2000. Pp. xxii+249. Illustrated. $49.95.

Though there has been much random speculation about homosexual innuendo and illustration in Blake's works, this is the first amply detailed study of the issue (Warren Stevenson's Romanticism and the Androgynous Sublime [1996] overlaps to a minor degree). Hobson's approach is passionately tendentious throughout, hoping as he says in the Preface to counteract earlier commentaries which tended to identify Blake's references as homophobic (for Hobson--especially in late Blake--they on the contrary promote tolerance), but many readers, prepared to be cheered by his "positive" attitude, will find it in certain respects paradoxical. Although he begins by bravely invoking W.J.T. Mitchell's remarks in SiR in 1982 that it was high time to turn attention to a "dangerous Blake," insisting among other things on his "obscenity," on detailing his interest in "abnormal sexuality" and on the fact that he "was not a nice man," Hobson never budges from his contention that Blake's evocation of minority sex was entirely at the behest of "niceness." He would have us believe that Blake's obscene drawings have nothing to do with his own propensities (he states flat-footedly that Blake was not himself homosexual, and--more remarkably--refuses absolutely to entertain psychological speculation about his personality), and he reads all of an increasingly rich record of perverse interest in Blake's works as progress towards toleration. For Hobson, it would seem, Blake was increasingly engaged by issues of homosexuality, masturbation, lesbianism and hermaphroditism only as he increasingly understood hostility towards these activities/preferences/conditions (at times frenzied in Blake's time) to be in league with hypocrisy, philistine understanding of Moral Law, and imperial aggression. In short, Blake, hardly gay himself, indulged in a record of interest Hobson would considerably enlarge only as a kind of politically-correct liberal. For Hobson, in other words, sex in Blake seems to be almost exclusively political/cultural. He will bravely discuss all the versions, and even relatively invisible details (speculatively), of the great plate in Milton where Blake turns to find Los behind him in the blazing sun, "sucking [his] penis, as the source of moral fraternity and prophetic inspiration," but at the same time characterize the fellatio(?) as "heroiz[ing] the limited acts of defiance of moral law that occur in everyday life; and imply[ing] that such acts may be steps toward the larger social and cultural resistance that can end Satan's rule ..." (143). I'm not trying to outdo Hobson in political correctness here, but his (possible) slip about "moral law" may surprise some readers, who--even if they shared Hobson's lack of interest in Blake's own personality--might have been expected to find his progressivism (or Hobson's, for that matter) more firmly anchored to the notion that the sexual transgressions in Blake's illustrations were something more than allegorical. It may be along these same lines that Hobson, in a carefully argued reaction to certain queer theorists, refuses the assertions of Foucault and some others that "homosexuality" as a category of personhood did not even exist (in its modern sense) in Blake's day. Hobson is careful about trans-historicality, but he argues that it certainly did, even before Blake's time (he finds it in Chaucer's Pardoner), and his conviction that this is so may have something to do with his anxiety to associate toleration of it with resistance to social normativeness which for him (and he feels for Blake) is a more important issue to sort out than blow-jobs. Fair enough, but if the latter are, for Blake, only signs of a different personhood, with which we should cooperate, why are the behaviors themselves still so charged with emotional ambivalence? It is difficult to broach this question and remain as untouched by psychological issues as Hobson manages to be in these pages.

Nevertheless he surely has a sharp eye for the behaviors in Blake's texts and illustrations. His discoveries and interpretations are often avowedly speculative, and despite his scrupulousness they will more than occasionally evoke skepticism; in the case of certain illustrations the skepticism can mount on account of scholarly care. One has, for instance, to absorb remarks like "The shape over Orc's belly is about 2cm long on its dorsal edge, 2.5 cm on the ventral edge; assuming Orc's 27.6-cm figure (toe to forehead) to be five feet, six inches tall, the `penis' would be about 4.8 inches dorsally and 6 inches ventrally, consistent with penises in other images (see Chapter 5)" (203, n. 2). Seasoned readers of Blake, used to speculation about his forms, will know where they are, and perhaps be reassured by the quotation marks around "penis."

There may be more active resistance, however, to Hobson's readings of texts, especially his suggestions about historical reference. The historical readings (numerous) are at times fantastically over-determined in their discovery of events where terribly tenuous allusions to homosexuality are said to justify their inclusion in passages which accordingly become characterized as of "major importance" (95). Hobson's careful arguments earn him the right to his opinion (the reader never feels totally imposed upon), but the rather monolithic ethical uplift he entertains by these readings, when the allusions are strained, sometimes wears out its welcome, especially when he is ungenerous to rivals (David Erdman's commentary on the bard's song in Milton is pronounced "incoherent" [83], but the tortured ingenuity of Hobson's own system of historical allusion certainly stretches coherence equally). This is not to say that these readings are not sometimes interesting. Hobson reads "When Satan fainted beneath the arrows of Elynittria" (4.43) not as an allusion to William Hayley recoiling before the superior feminine power of Catherine Blake (because he has no use for the biographical allegory) but as a probable allusion to an episode in 1688 when James I refused to take arms against William, an episode Hobson is especially interested in because William's daughter Anne joined James's party, it was rumored, in part because the wife of Lord John Churchill (late Earl and Duke of Marlborough), Sarah, was rumored to be Anne's lesbian lover.

What may be, to some, aggravating about this kind of thing, however, is finally neither the tendentiousness nor the reconditeness of the allusions, but Hobson's failure ever to stop, if only for a moment, to consider-granted the validity of his suggestions--what sort of commentary they amount to on the nature of Blake's compositional method and his imagination. Hobson's assumptions, that is, about what Blake is up to are relentlessly thematic and positivistic. Blake makes a whole alphabet of recondite allusions, it is assumed, because these allusions refer in a positive way to his opinions, which for Hobson, are never ambivalent or mysterious. This is the curious flip-side of Hobson's method. If, on the one hand, his discoveries are always reserved for their political, that is, allegorical clout (signs of tolerance), on the other hand Hobson has an aversion to reading Blake's meaning in general in allegorical or symbolic ways. When Albion "found Jerusalem upon the River of his City soft repos'd / In the arms of Vala, assimilating in one with Vala / The Lilly of Havilah ... / Dividing and uniting into many female forms" (J.19.40-42, 45), Hobson is so preoccupied with the scene as a "frank depiction of lesbian relations" (151)--which hardly seems to be the case--that he embarks on a passionate discussion of the ensuing passage in Jerusalem devoted exclusively to the question of overcoming guilt about lesbianism. Other, more symbolic encompassing ways of reading Vala and Jerusalem here are carefully avoided, and one wonders therefore why Hobson's insistence on literal, sexual allegory is so hemmed in by political liberalism, since the latter is only one possible register of allegorical significance.

Another way of putting this is to suggest that some consideration of how Blake read might afford hints about how he meant to be read himself. Hobson discusses at some length the Comus illustrations, especially the third illustration, "The Brothers seen by Comus Plucking Grapes," and at first he shows a healthy scepticism towards the reading which has seen this illustration, especially in its earlier (Huntington) version as initiating a kind of "queer sequence": the brothers, according to this meaning, are up to no (perhaps homosexual) good, at least symbolically, and Comus is fascinated, aroused as he watches. Hobson legitimately wonders, where the brothers are involved, "When ... does handing down grapes cease to `suggest healthy, nascent sexuality' and instead show `sterile self-regard'?" (99), displaying his usual scepticism when readings of homosexuality imply a homophobic, or even homo-critical Blake (though he doesn't offer much of an alternative explanation for the unwholesome expression on Comus's face). But before you know it, in the sixth illustration, "The Brothers Driving Out Comus," the latter (in the Boston series) is described as a member of a homosexual ballet ("as much charmed by the brothers as frightened by them" [103]). There is license for this in the "improved" expressions on the characters' faces, but mostly, one feels, Hobson is drawn to this reading because the brothers' combined effort can be associated with "the classical ideal of homoerotic comradeship" and, of course, Blake would want us to criticize the drawn swords (even when they are also penises?), because Hobson has the scene simultaneously "displacing any emphasis on chastity" and giving "an antimilitarist cast typical of his later work" (104). It is only when you think about it, later, after wondering about the idealization of homosexuality typical of this study, that you realize the degree to which the issue of how Blake read Comus has been reduced to these politics.

And surely there are more complicated issues here than tolerance (granted tolerance matters in an age when homosexual "offences" could earn the gallows). Hobson sets his study off by a careful consideration of the (partially blotted) scene on ms p. 78 of The Four Zoas. This scene, apparently depicting male fellatio, accompanies the beginning of the long sequence (in Night VII or what used to be called VIIa) where Urizen begins the mock-temptation and -crucifixion in which Orc allows himself to be seduced up the Tree of Mystery. Since the arched back of the fellatee in Blake's drawing might suggest torment as well as orgasm, ingeniously Hobson makes use of a possible verbal allusion (discovered by Martin Bidney) to the torture of Guatimozin (Montezuma's nephew, whose torture is described in William Robertson's History of the Americas [1777]) to suggest that, since Guatimozin had a (homosexual?) "favorite"--who needed to be starched up during their mutual torment--Blake's drawing may present "a sexualized form of that mutual giving of self for another [this is how Hobson reads the attitude of the fellator] which Blake elsewhere prizes so highly" (54). He wants the drawing to represent the kind of emotional possibility Urizen's bunged-up moralism would surely oppose, rather than to constitute any kind of objective correlative with the seduction of Orc by Urizen. The latter notion seems to me much more likely--which is not to say the same of all illustrations of homosexual behavior--but surely Blake's complexity ought to allow some speculation about whether his contrariness applies to his sexuality as well as to his politics. It's reasonable to be uncertain whether the picture is supposed to be a lesson to Urizen or an illustration of the depravity of what he and Orc do together--but lack of some kind of engaged erotic interest on Blake's part, quite possibly an interest transcending this simple opposition, seems unlikely. Hobson's avoidance of psychological speculation would make more sense if exactly parallel conundra didn't inhabit every other department of Blake's views, but of course they do.

Hobson devotes a similar ingenuity to rescuing from masculinism the remark in Visions of the Daughters of Albion where Oothoon countenances some kind of (we like to assume, male) fantasy orgy, where she will "catch for thee [Theotormon] girls of mild silver, or of furious gold; I'll lie beside thee on a bank & view their wanton play / In lovely copulation bliss on bliss with Theotormon." Whatever politics or activities are in "play" here (e.g. might not Oothoon be promising her mate something metaphorical and attitudinal rather than something literal, especially since she a few lines earlier fixes her eyes on the sun "In happy copulation"?), is not the question finally referrable only to a reading of the whole work? Hobson characteristically reads only very isolated passages. Not only this promise but all of Oothoon's sexual arias may be conditioned by her bound condition, after all, and when we ask how patriarchal men want "their women" (Hint: burning with desire but bound, unable to initiate anything), not only this aspect of her "desire" but the whole prospect she affords may need to be contextualized in a way that appallingly contradicts the usual way the poem is read. Likewise, Hobson assumes that early Blake is enthusiastic about the patriarchal rape described in the Preludium to America, but how do we know this represents Blake's "own" attitude? After all, in the "historical" body of the poem, the parties of revolution are sometimes hard to distinguish from the parties of counter-revolution. Blake may "allude" without necessary endorsement; indeed, he may be hedging his bets, or practicing hypocrisy (he remarks of Hayley, "the Pick thank": "I write the Rascal thanks till he & I /With Thanks and Compliments are quite drawn dry" E506).

Blake's attitudes toward homosexuality can hardly be sorted out, sanitized and thematically presented any more than his attitudes toward politics or religion. Blake's remarks in his epigrams about William Hayley (associated with Satan in Milton whether Hobson wants to think about it or not) clearly suggest a homophobic sensitivity to his character ("Of H s birth this was the happy lot / His Mother on his Father him begot"). This does not make the stunning illustration in the poem of Blake and Los (standing behind him in the sun, perhaps being fellated) any less central, remarkable or "positive." But this only underlines (do we really need to be reminded?) Blake's astonishing "contrary" capacity to make us wonder and study. Hobson's book has real virtues, and merits study, but he does need to be reminded.
David Wagenknecht
Boston University

DAVID WAGENKNECHT, editor of this journal, has recently published essays about Freud and stories by Henry James. Currently he is again (long after his 1973 book) working on some essays about Blake.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Wagenknecht, David
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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