‘William Blake’s Gothic Imagination’: Book Review

Kathleen Reynolds reviews Chris Bundock and Elizabeth Effinger’s edited collection, William Blake’s Gothic Imagination: Bodies of horror (Manchester University Press, 2018).

William Blake’s Gothic Imagination: Bodies of Horror sets out to unpick the multiplicity of ways in which Blake’s poetic and visual work intersect with Gothic ideas, art, and practices.  Using Blake’s depiction of the body as an investigative lens, the editors present the “first sustained and focused treatment of Blake as a Gothic artist (18). This collection investigates the contradiction between Blake’s significant role in shaping popular ideas of the Gothic found in such works as Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector trilogy, the comics of Alan Moore, and the films of Ridley Scott, and Blake’s relative absence from critical, academic work on the subject. Within Blake’s own work, the human body, reproduction, and sexuality is presented in complex and often disturbing ways which typify the Gothic genre.

The editors Bundock and Effinger helpfully devote much of the introduction to providing the reader with ample context. They

The First Book of Urizen, Plate 16 (Bentley 17)

begin by identifying a “rich and varied historical, aesthetic, political, and affective mode” shaped by the trauma of the Civil War and desire to return to a nationalistic origin within an Anglo-Saxon tradition. Within this context, four features characterize Gothic work: political and aesthetic antiauthoritarianism; an uncanny return of the oppressed and undermining of the patriarchy; a sense of being haunted by a violent or traumatic past; and obscure or disjuncted visual space and narrative order (3).

The collection’s structure, with four sections which begin with the framework of the texts, then continues with increasing specificity through the subjects of bodies and the female form, into presentations of sexuality, feels in itself to be a Gothic construct. There is a sense of descent to this progression, with each section focusing increasingly more tightly on a theme of gender and bodily experience within Blake’s work. The structure of the book plays into ideas of exposure or revelation, making familiar themes seem strange in the same way that dissection (which is indeed a subject of one of the chapters) reveals the human body in new and unsettling ways. In Part I, the structure and shape of Blake’s work is examined to explore the ways in which Blake either adopted motifs or innovated within the Gothic genre. Part II reveals Blake’s uneasy relationship to the human body and the ways in which life mirrors death and bodily generation mirrors degeneration. Part III integrates visual and topological spaces into this conversation and shows how men and women either coexist or compete in these Gothic spaces. Finally, Part IV engages in the Gothic problem of female desire, showing places where Blake’s female characters test or submit to the patriarchal, heterosexual structure which characterized Blake’s life and influenced his work.

Within the rich context of Blake’s art, literature, and ideology, the authors show how the Gothic genre made use of contemporary tropes and concerns, was used in turn, and can be deployed in a variety of contexts. David Baulch, Lucy Cogan, and Peter Otto draw attention to the ways in which the images and poetry of Blake’s work at times reinforce and at times make each other strange, particularly when it comes to the subject of the body. Horror is imposed on the body, as in Jason Whittaker’s exploration of how Blake contextualizes the “conceptual horror” of humanity’s relationship with the cosmos in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus or Ana Elena González-Treviño’s exploration of female spaces within The Book of Thel and Visions of the Daughters of Albion.  Horror also occurs within the body, which Kiel Shaub describes in the transformation of Rahab, the humour and horror of contemporary dissection of Blake’s “horrific narratives” in Stephanie Codsi’s chapter, and Tristanne Connolly’s parallels between the “celestial bed” of Blake’s contemporary and the sexual beliefs of Oothon in

The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus. Birmingham, 1774.

Visions. These chapters demonstrate the rich network of relationships which can be viewed through Blake’s depictions of the Gothic, encompassing his experience of social and medical transformations, use of form and the physical structure of books, and the resonance Gothic literature has throughout time and space.

Threaded through these experiences of horror are the impact of the Gothic on readers, particularly where Mark Lussier situates Blake in the semiosis which defined the Gothic and its cultural features, and Claire Colebrook describes how Blake used multiple voices to demonstrate the simultaneous existence of incompossible worlds in which two opposite things could not normally exist at once: “a world of innocence and a world of its absence; a world of terror where the feminine is nightmarish, alien and horrific, and a world in which the feminine is essential to harmony and creativity” (87). These chapters emphasize the way that Gothic transcends a collection of techniques, becoming more than monstrous bodies, frightened figures or ghosts on moors. Instead, the Gothic is simultaneous the experience of the reader, a feeling of being disconcerted or having one’s expectations ignored or nullified by the internal logic of the text and image.

Points of stability are provided by recurring references to several of Blake’s works, described as “nodal points” by Bundock and Effinger, particularly The Four Zoas, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and The [First] Book of Urizen. Though interdisciplinary approaches which combine historical techniques, philosophy, analysis of visual sources, and close readings of texts characterize much of the work, the chapters are written exclusively by academics in English departments. The historical approaches incorporated could have been grounded more deeply in the rich historiography of the period, particularly when it comes to fleshing out the history of medicine and its relationship to Blake’s display of bodies.

Reading from a medical humanities perspective as a historian, there is a variable level of accessibility in the chapters. Several chapters necessitate a high level of familiarity with a range of philosophers including Kant, Leibniz, and Lacan. Others focus more on visual analysis, or the historical context in which Blake wrote. The number of approaches within this work reflects its merit in bringing together a complicated definition of “Gothic” to provide a rich and diverse field of study. Blake is an apt subject for an interdisciplinary study because his creative uses of visual and textual sources to build a rich viewing experience which can be cohesive in some places, and in other conflicting or discomforting, develop Gothic themes in many ways. Bundock and Effinger’s collection shows how uncertainty and trauma regarding bodies, sex, and creation bounce between literary and historical contexts. The book demonstrates the high degree of cultural resonance in these ideas within the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century context, as well as the lasting impact of Blake and the Gothic for modern literature and academic readers.

Kathleen Reynolds is a recent PhD graduate in History from Durham University. She is interested in the ways in which gender informs medical experiences and how genre shapes the way health and illness are described and discussed. Her Twitter handle is @KathleenAttends

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