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Text, Identity, Subjectivity

Finding Ourselves in Literature and Art

James Rovira, Author

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The Fortunes of Romantic Anti-Capitalism in William Blake’s Thel and Oothoon

This paper is a revised version of a paper presented during the 2011 College English Association's national conference. Portions of this paper are drawn from James Rovira's monograph Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloombury 2010). If you enjoyed this paper, please consider encouraging your library to order the book.

Michael Löwy’s and Robert Sayre’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001) meets A.O. Lovejoy’s early twentieth-century challenge to define Romanticism by replacing Lovejoy’s genealogy of irreconcilable Romanticisms with a taxonomy of trans-European Romanticisms.  They do so by uniting otherwise heterogeneous European Romanticisms under the umbrella of “Romantic anti-capitalism.”  If Romantic literature depicts an individual’s struggle to rejoin nature and community while preserving a sense of self, that struggle is a response to capitalism for the self was created by capitalism. Romanticism is for Löwy and Sayre not a literary trend originating near the close of the eighteenth century, but rather an essential component of modern culture that takes different forms—“Fascist,” “Liberal,” and “Jacobin-Democratic,” to name a few—united as tensions between opposing, self-defining values arising in response to capitalism.  Their work demonstrates the inadequacy of defining Romanticism solely in opposition to the Enlightenment or only in terms of a literary era, making possible a conception of a long Romantic era that could begin as early as the onset of the Georgian era and continue into the present.

Löwy and Sayre define Romanticism as “opposition to capitalism in the name of pre-capitalist values” (1984, p. 47).  The pre-capitalist subject, they explain, is one united with community and with nature; Romanticism is an idealization of this subject and a yearning for its return.  This starting point links Romanticism as defined by Sayre and Löwy to a classical tradition as old as Plato’s Symposium which defines individual personality either in terms of a predominantly bodily consciousness, an ethical consciousness, or consciousness of a transcendent spiritual reality.  These three orientations as markers of visible personality development were adopted by Blake and then redefined in his art and poetry as innocent, experienced, and visionary subjectivities.  Sayre and Löwy’s pre-capitalist subject, one united with both nature and humanity, closely corresponds to Blake’s innocent characters, who tend to be bodily oriented (and so sense a unity with nature) as well as outwardly oriented (so tend to find self-identification in community).  As a result, the innocent subjectivity – the pre-capitalist subject – by mirroring his or her culture serves as an unintentional commentary on it.  

Blake has both male and female mythological characters, so examining Blake's female mythological characters, especially those in a state of innocence, can both validate Sayre and Löwy’s thesis and then demonstrate how it is further inflected by gender. Blake’s female characters Thel, from The Book of Thel, and Oothoon, from Visions of the Daughters of Albion, do demonstrate that the moment of a fall from innocence in Blake is also the creation of the isolated, capitalist self.  His representation of desire in these innocent female characters contributes to his critique of British capitalism by presenting Thel’s and Oothoon’s dysfunctions as functions of their environment.  However, Blake critiques British gender politics at the same time and with the same words that he critiques British capitalism: for example, Oothoon is simultaneously the “soft soul of America” violated by the institution of slavery and suffering female desire.  Thel fears the implications of entrance into sexuality (union with a male) that would expel her from her state of innocent, vaguely anxious serenity so in the end runs from sexual fulfillment back to a state of innocence unreal even to herself.  Oothoon, on the other hand, is violently dragged out of innocence by rape to become the isolated capitalist subject described by Sayre and Löwy. Therefore the fortunes and misfortunes of these mythological characters represent Blake’s critique of the effects of 1790s capitalism and how it is inflected by gender.

The first two lines of “Thel’s Motto” reveal the nature of Thel’s innocent consciousness. Her bodily and external environment determines the nature of her subjectivity and the limitations of its knowledge. Ask the Mole what is in the pit, not the Eagle. This assumption finds expression throughout Blake’s work.  Visions of the Daughters of Albion asks, “have not the mouse & frog / Eyes and ears and sense of touch? yet are their habitations. / And their pursuits, as different as their forms and as their joys” (E, p. 47).  Similarly, in “The Clod and the Pebble,” clodish subjectivity, consistent with the Clod’s physical nature, is pliant and yielding, while pebblish subjectivity is hard and unyielding. Both determine the nature of their reactions to their respective and very different external environments, environments that have quite literally shaped them.  But these characters are still innocent: Thel’s reference to “the voice / Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time,” initially locates her and her companions in a prelapsarian, Edenic environment (E, p. 3). Thel’s attempts at self-definition proceed from an already communally oriented self.  She compares herself to a “watry bow,” “parting cloud,” “reflection in a glass,” “shadows in the water,” “dreams of infants,” “smile upon an infants face,” “doves voice,” “transient day,” and “music in the air” (E, p. 3), excluding few elements of her immediate environment as points of identification. 

Being an externally and communally oriented self, she seeks answers to her questions from the physically and environmentally determined personalities surrounding her.   Since the answers Thel receives are predetermined by the nature of the entity asked, one might assume that choosing whom to interview would be a conscious, self-defining activity. For Thel it is not. In her external search for self-definition, she begins with the first personality she meets—the “Lilly of the valley”—and is subsequently led from one to the next. The “Lilly of the valley” directs Thel to the cloud, the cloud to the worm, the worm to the clod of clay, and the clod of clay to the grave.  Thel’s clod of clay, like the clod of “The Clod and the Pebble,” affirms that “we live not for ourselves” (E, p. 5).

Thel suffers from an anxiety typical of the innocent.  She is unsure about her identity and role, especially in the face of death.  Consequently, she seeks to grasp something finite and specific to quell the sense of vertigo that attends the multiple possibilities for self-definition faced by those without a sense of conscious self-definition.  Her questions simply interrogate the different forms of finitude – the different specific identities – available to her.  Thel progresses, however, and in her progression finds that she is not the Lilly, the cloud, the worm, nor the clod of clay, a progression that might be defined in terms of female sexual development: the Lilly is called the “little virgin of the peaceful valley” (E, p. 4), most closely associated with the virgin Thel. The male cloud represents the possibility of reproductive sexuality, dissipating in his union with the “weeping virgin” (Lilly), with whom he is linked by a “golden band” (wedding ring), and  reproduced in “tenfold life” (E, p. 4).  The clod might then represent motherhood, which “Lives not alone, nor for itself” (E, p. 5), the next stage being the worm, who dwells in the earth – who then directs her to the grave.  As she differentiates herself from these various elements of her physical environment, and from the female life cycle, she is pushed to the very boundary of desire.  The apophatic progression of Thel’s desire heightens her sense of inadequacy as Thel’s desire pursues an increasingly specific object. In the process, a process of which she is still unaware, Thel begins to differentiate herself from her environment, becoming increasingly reflective.

Thel’s confrontation with the nothingness that stands in for her sense of self reaches its apex in the voice of the grave, a voice closely replicating Thel’s own point of view – as we should expect, since Thel is concerned with death. However, Thel expresses her concern externally while the grave redirects Thel’s attention to herself in very physical, sensory terms: “Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction? / Or the glistening Eye to the poison of a smile!” (E, p. 6). The grave’s questions return Thel to herself for her self-definition, for her answers. The grave doesn’t answer Thel’s questions, but through questions leads her to question herself. Thel, being visually oriented, pays significantly more attention to her vision than to her other senses, but the grave refers to all senses in its response to Thel, directing Thel to move toward self-awareness by becoming consciously aware of her sense perception. Thel, until this point, could not speak of “her sight,” for example, as something separate from herself. She simply sees. Most importantly, while all previous respondents gave Thel their own very individual answers, the grave’s questions not only confront Thel with the possibility of realizing her own desire – both in the sense of understanding it as desire and in the sense of fulfilling it –but push her through the reflective process to the very boundary of experience. The progression of desire, therefore, consists in desire becoming aware of itself as desire, or perhaps simply becoming aware of itself.  Before meeting the grave, Thel had been confronted with “lamb” subjectivities, which like “The Lamb” in the Songs of Innocence give simple answers to simple questions.  Now she is confronted with “The Tyger” and its series of questions without answers, all of which direct her away from the external to the internal.  

The grave begins to break Thel’s outside-in existence by forcing Thel to pay conscious attention to her sense perceptions rather than simply accept them as a given: why can’t the ear be closed to its own destruction?  It cannot because Thel is a personality who dwells entirely within immediate sensation, an immediacy the grave’s questions would annul through the development of self-consciousness.  Most importantly, the grave’s questions imply that the grave itself lies at the end of a long process beginning with experience and everything associated with it: sexuality, a young boy’s desire (which means having to account for the desire of others rather than just one’s own), and generation. In this brief moment, Thel perceives the decision that she must make in order to define herself and answer the question of her mortality. As anxiety overwhelms the virgin Thel, she runs back to the vales of Har, abandoning reflection for immediacy. 

Oothoon of Visions of the Daughters of Albion, unlike Thel, embraces the fulfillment of her desire, but she resembles Thel in that she initially experiences anxiety within an Edenic environment: “I trembled in my virgin fears / And I hid in Leutha’s vale” (E, p. 45). Oothoon, however, responds to anxiety through choice in the form of a lover, Theotormon. Vision’s narrative begins with Oothoon in an early stage of desire. Her desire, symbolized by the flowers around her, is diffused throughout her immediate environment. Therefore, her decision to pick one flower and press it to her breast represents a self-defining moment of choice, specifically her choice of Theotormon. Like prelapsarian Adam and Eve, she is exposed and unashamed, particularly of her love for Theotormon. Aware of the symbolic significance of choosing a single flower to pluck and hold against her breast, when she does so she turns her “face to where [her] whole soul seeks” (E, p. 46) – Theotormon, her own single plucked flower. In doing so her desire has fully matured as Oothoon now differentiates herself from the object of her desire, an object which is isolated, distinct, and clearly identified.

Oothoon’s problem is not with herself but with the males dominating her landscape. Before she could reach her chosen lover, Theotormon, she is raped by an excessively aggressive male, Bromion, causing Theotormon to respond with excessive passivity. Her desire remains faithful to Theotormon regardless of his or Bromion’s faults, and that is the source of her tragedy.  The male characters of Visions respond to Oothoon from the standpoint of experience; the range of male responses to innocent, uninhibited female desire is bounded by excessive passivity on one end and excessive aggression on the other. Oothoon’s plight as an innocent character is therefore reflective of the environment that shaped her.  Visions introduces Oothoon at the moment of transition to a fully realized desire, but she never imagines the entire cycle of generation from birth to sexuality to the grave, at least not at the initial moment of decision. Once raped, Oothoon finds herself completely within the world of experience and the cycle of generation.  Bound back to back to Bromion by Theotormon, she finds herself utterly alone in the presence of both men.

The characters of Thel and Oothoon, then, serve as occasions for Blake to comment on gender politics, as the options available to women in his view appear to be either suffering the anxiety of an unformed self or being bound to either male aggression or male passivity; Blake offers no vision of innocently fulfilled female desire. Both characters fully chart the trajectory of the innocent personality at one with nature and with community to the experienced subject isolated from others but yearning for reintegration.  And, simultaneously, Oothoon in particular depicts the transformation of the pre-capitalist subject into the capitalist subject.  In Blake’s mythology she embodies “the soft soul of America” violated by slavery, as is apparent from Bromion’s speech after he has raped Oothoon:

Bromion spoke. behold this harlot here on Bromions bed, 
And let the jealous dolphins sport around the lovely maid; 
Thy soft American plains are mine, and mine thy north & south: 
Stampt with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun: 
They are obedient, they resist not, they obey the scourge: 
Their daughters worship terrors and obey the violent: (E, p. 46)

Political and economic debasement is one with the debasement of women in Blake’s commentary; gender relationships are themselves, in fact, the best trope available to him to describe the violence visited by the institution of slavery upon American ideals.  The soul of the capitalist subject in Blake’s variety of Romanticism is a female raped by the aggressive pursuit of profit; isolated, separate, and ostracized, the capitalist subject longs for reintegration with both its pastoral origin and its community.

Therefore applying Sayre and Löwy’s thesis to Blake’s female mythological characters expands the range of the thesis. It is not enough to say that capitalism has created an isolated subject who in turn resists capitalism; in the terms available to Blake in his day, the capitalist subject is first feminized and then raped, capitalism itself being the rapist. Aggressive, insistent, and intruding, slavery comes to symbolize the relationship of all capitalist subjects to their given economic systems, extracting productivity from its workers just as Bromion’s rape of Oothoon was productive of a child: “Now thou maist marry Bromions harlot, and protect the child / Of Bromions rage, that Oothoon shall put forth in nine moons time” (E, p. 46).  

We should recall that Bromion is not the only male in the poem.  Theotormon, the object of Oothoon’s desire, is reduced to a state of self-pitying passivity, but one so difficult to overcome that he in fact keeps the active characters Bromion and Oothoon bound back to back. The poem, which after a brief narrative introduction becomes a Job-like dialog between the three characters, ends in an impasse in which Oothoon’s attempts to pull Theotormon out of himself become more and more desperate, even to the point of offering him other lovers, yet still ineffectual. Oothoon and Bromion remain chained back to back and Theotormon remains self-absorbed and weeping at the end of the narrative. Whatever it was that attracted Oothoon to Theotormon is lost on the readers, along with the American ideals which to Blake seemed perennially and constantly violated by its union with capitalism, a state of being which to him remained seemingly static and unchanging.     

References may be found at the sitewide Works Cited page.

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