The Kierkegaardian Aesthetic and Blakean Innocence
Note: This paper was originally presented at the 2008 ASECS conference in Portland, OR. 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.
This paper will attempt to establish the propriety Søren Kierkegaard’s work to interpret William Blake’s poetry on both intertextual and historical bases. Kierkegaard developed his existential psychological models—which, like Blake, he called “states of the soul”—in response to and as a critique of Danish, German, and English Romanticisms, being a reader not only of the Schlegels, also known to Coleridge and Wordsworth, but of Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, and Edward Young. In addition to these common literary influences, Blake’s England and Kierkegaard’s Denmark share intensely intertwined histories characterized by tensions between monarchy and democracy during the time of these respective authors’ greatest creative output. Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen, like Blake’s London, was the center of political, economic, and cultural power, a one time maritime power and predominantly island nation. Denmark’s monarchs ruled absolutely from 1661 to 1849; during most of this period Denmark’s merchant and agrarian interests believed the monarchy to be more sympathetic to their needs than Denmark’s nobility, so absolute monarchs governed Denmark’s state apparatus and Evangelical Lutheran Church with few impositions on their power. However, King Frederick VI of Denmark, king during most of Kierkegaard’s life and brother in law to King George III of England, instituted agricultural reforms creating a large and relatively wealthy middle class whose interests conflicted with the interests of absolute monarchy despite their indebtedness to the old monarch and continued loyalty to him. Denmark’s absolute monarchy effectively rendered Denmark an apolitical state during most of this period, all people and interests subsumed under the sole authority of a paternalist monarch.
Since England had not seen an absolute monarch for centuries it may seem there is little ground for comparisons between Kierkegaard’s Frederick VI and Blake’s own “Farmer George,” who also oversaw significant agricultural reform and subsequent economic change in Blake’s England. But ideals of a paternalist monarch who ruled independently of party politics consistently surfaced throughout eighteenth century England, especially during times of crisis. Henry St. John Bolingbroke’s 1738 On the Idea of a Patriot King, once believed to have been a strong influence on George III and published in a new edition dedicated to Burke in the early years of the American Revolutionary War, articulates the organic ideal of state, law, and people united under a paternal king. Bolingbroke believed that “The true image of a free people [. . .is one in which] the head and all the members are united by one common interest, and animated by one common spirit.” And these attitudes persisted. Dissenting minister Caleb Evans described the British constitution in these words in 1775: “it unites the spirit, power, and splendor of an Absolute monarchy without its tyranny, the wisdom of an Aristocracy without its oppression, and the freedom of a Democratic government without its licentiousness and disorder.” Blake included Bolingbroke in one of his lists of pernicious Natural Religionists in Milton because of this kind of thinking, perhaps seeing these ideas as the embodiment of Urizen’s “One King. one God, one Law” (E, p. 72).
Associations of power and culture with urban national capitals in which they were immersed led Blake and Kierkegaard to idealize, with qualifications, an innocent, agrarian past standing in contrast to their fallen, urban present. Both authors internalized their respective external environments and then projected—consciously and deliberately—the internal externally; particularly in the case of ideals of a sovereign monarch as the sole loci of political power being transformed into ideals of the single individual as the sole loci of personal power and an aggregate of single individuals as the source of political power. Both also internalized their perception of socioeconomic development from the rural and agrarian to the urban and merchant, the internal equivalent of these movements represented by Kierkegaard’s aesthetic and ethical – both stages of existential development – and by Blake’s contraries of innocence and experience, which I will show are similarly configured stages of existential development. My focus below will be upon Blake’s conception of innocence and Kierkegaard’s conception of the aesthetic, into which Kierkegaard folds his notion of innocence.
Kierkegaard presents a series of developmental stages consisting of sequential differentiations of the self from his or her natural environment, social environment (the crowd), and mental environment as it has been produced by the individual’s natural and social environment. He calls these stages the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious, and divides the aesthetic stage into an immediate and reflective pole. He similarly divides the religious pole into Religiousness A and Religiousness B. The first stage of individuation—of subjectivity—begins with irony, which is associated in Kierkegaard’s thought with both Hegelian speculative philosophy and Romanticism. At the last stage of development the self fully differentiates itself even from its given mental environment, rejecting the understanding’s ability to grasp the most important of existential truths.
After the author of Either/Or I, “A,” divides the aesthetic stage into two poles, the immediate and the reflective, he further subdivides the pole of the immediate aesthetic into three distinct stages, describing them in “The Immediate Erotic Stages” as dreaming, seeking, and desiring desire (EO I, p. 80-81). In the first stage of the immediate aesthetic, “dreaming” desire, the aesthetic self does not perceive a distinction between itself and the object of its desire. In the second stage, “seeking” desire, desire separates from its object, and desire’s separation from its object gives birth to a differentiated self. Although the objects of “seeking desire” may be multiple, diffuse, and separated from the desiring one, this self remains both unknown to itself and unchosen by itself. Desire, having become vaguely aware of itself by separation from its object, remains unaware of itself and its object in any specificity. The self is best understood as implied without being posited or consciously grasped.
“A” speculates that the third stage, “desiring desire,” both “intensively and extensively” consists of the “immediate unity of the two previous stages” (EO I, p. 85). In this stage “desire has its absolute object; it desires the particular absolutely” (EO I, p. 85). “A” illustrates his taxonomy of desire using Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Byron’s Don Juan as paradigms of the aesthetic character. His consideration of different possibilities for Don Juan in “The Immediate Erotic Stages” illustrates differences between the immediate and reflective poles of the aesthetic sphere:
The musical [immediate] Don Juan enjoys the satisfaction; the reflective Don Juan enjoys the deception, enjoys the craftiness. [. . .] The immediate Don Juan must seduce 1,003; the reflective Don Juan needs to seduce only one, and how he does it is what occupies us. The reflective Don Juan’s seduction is a tour de force in which every particular little episode has its special significance; the musical Don Juan’s seduction is a turn of the hand, a matter of a moment, more quickly done than said. (EO I, p. 108)
“A’s” critique of Byron’s Don Juan in this context comments on the length and episodic nature of Byron’s work: Byron’s character is a “musical” Don Juan rather than reflective, so “every particular little episode” does not have its special significance—yet we have so many particular little episodes Don Juan approaches epic proportions.
Furthermore, “More quickly done than said” negates the linguistic for the active. The reflective Don Juan figure in Kierkegaard’s “The Seducer’s Diary” (similarly named Johannes) anticipates and articulates every move of his seduction. “A” tells his readers that “Language has its element in time; all other media have space as their element. Only music also occurs in time. But its occurrence in time is in turn a negation of the feelings dependent upon the senses. [. . .] Music does not exist except in the moment it is performed” (EO 1 p. 68). So language, having a unique relationship to time—introducing the self to time, in fact—also introduces the self to possibility, to the conception of past, present, and future selves, and by extension to consideration of the possibility of different future selves. Selves remaining in possibility are aesthetic selves. But once a possibility is chosen, the leap into the ethical has been made. Until then the self is potential, not actual; possible, but not chosen. Only decision—and with decision the transition to the ethical stage—makes selfhood actual.
Turning from Kierkegaard to Blake, Blake commentators have of course long detected various developmental stages in Blake’s work, commonly defining these stages in terms of a progression from innocence to experience to, possibly, a higher or organized innocence or to wisdom. The narrative progression of the “Introduction” to the Songs of Innocence suggests that the Piper undergoes a developmental process that Kierkegaard enables us to understand as differentiations within innocence itself, differentiations not usually registered in readings of Blake. All movement in the “Introduction” are movements within innocence: specifically, between two of the three immediate erotic stages in Kierkegaard’s terms ending with a transition to the reflective pole of the aesthetic. In the “Introduction” readers meet a Piper who like all those in the immediate erotic stages is a musical figure: “Piping down the valleys wild / piping songs of pleasant glee” (E, p. 7). Voiceless and one with his immediate environment, the Piper at this point illustrates dreaming desire, significantly described by some Blake critics as in a state of immediacy whose loss is traced by the poem’s narrative.
The first two lines of the “Introduction” present the state of dreaming desire; the last two lines a child upon a cloud. Simply by virtue of being a child this figure represents innocence, but as a child upon a cloud he represents disembodied innocence, the aesthetic impulse itself externalized by an aesthetic Piper. This impulse is the first speaking voice in the narrative. Of course the Piper himself is the poem’s narrator, the voice speaking/writing the poem, making the poem itself a reflective, retrospective product. But in the moment narrated, the child’s is the only speaking voice; since the Piper is not yet a linguistic figure his aesthetic impulse must be embodied in a separate speaking character. This child in this case is the voice of seeking desire, as the movement of the poem is from one object of desire to the next: from a song piped about a lamb, to a song sung, to a song written. These are all very much objects of desire because the child in the cloud, like many children on earth, desires only the repetition of the laughing pleasure evoked by the Piper’s initial piping. Of course, the repetition of the same pleasure demands novelty so the form of the Piper’s song must change with each request.
With each progression in the Piper’s song the child’s response becomes more and more intense—the child in the cloud, being a true aesthete, seeks to control immediacy for an emotional effect. The child laughs, then weeps, then weeps with joy. The second stage of erotic desire, seeking desire, sees a differentiation of the self from its object of desire: the Piper is given a subject, being asked to pipe a “song about a lamb” (E p. 7). This request might resemble the final stage of erotic desire, desiring desire, in which desire has found its particular object, but the Piper of the Frontispiece to Innocence is surrounded by lambs and given a request for a song about a lamb, not any particular one. Lambs have no individual existence to either the Piper or the child but exist only as a group. As in seeking desire, desire is outwardly oriented but diffuse, not focused upon any particular object. Even if we more precisely define the poem itself as the object of desire, the request is for a poem: the child here only wants the replication of an effect with novelty. Not knowing what precisely will produce the effect is part of the effect itself and identifies the request with seeking desire.
In the poem’s transitional middle stanza (the third of five) the Piper ceases to be a musical character, taking on language: “Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe / sing thy songs of happy chear” (E, p. 7). By doing so the Piper enters the reflective pole of the aesthetic stage. Artistic expression still focuses, initially, upon immediacy—“sing thy songs of happy chear”—but by this point the next step is easy to anticipate: “Piper sit thee down to write / In a book that all may read—” (E, p. 7). The step from speech to writing is a short one for the reflective aesthete. The curious dash at the end of “read” implies the child’s voice was cut off at the very moment the Piper conceives of his art in fixed form. A disembodied figure no longer represents the reflective-aesthetic impulse as it no longer acts as an external agent upon the poet. In Blake’s representation of the reflective aesthetic the aesthetic impulse is now internalized and controlled.
Internalization and control, however, introduce a note of corruption: “And I pluck’d a hollow reed [. . .] / And I stain’d the water clear” (E, p. 7). The Piper’s plucking the reed and staining the water refer to Blake’s own watercolors, reinforcing readers’ growing understanding that the poem’s own creation is in part the poem’s subject. Self-referentiality is as much a characteristic of Blake’s reflective aesthetic as it is a characteristic of Kierkegaard’s German Romantic models for his own concept of the reflective aesthetic. Furthermore, the reflective aesthete in Blake, as in Kierkegaard’s “The Seducer’s Diary,” must destroy and corrupt to create: the reed is plucked and broken, perhaps trimmed at the edge, and the waters stained, all actions necessary for the Piper’s songs to be reproduced in easily disseminated, fixed form. The Piper is no longer a Piper but a poet; the Piper is no longer happy and piping or singing but sedate, focused, intent, suppressing his own immediate pleasure for the future pleasure of others, controlling and directing immediacy in himself so that future readers can experience the pleasures of immediacy in his poems.
But the “Introduction” to Innocence doesn’t represent the transition from seeking to desiring desire. We must turn to The Book of Thel and Visions of the Daughters of Albion to find subjectivities engaging desiring desire, the first running from desiring desire, the next embracing it. Marjorie Levinson’s “‘The Book of Thel’ by William Blake” (1980) represents possibly the best kind of allegorical reading in which Thel is not a woman but desire itself, so that the text narrates the progression of desire. Desire, at the end, faces death in the form of its satisfaction and use in the world of adult sexuality, the world of generation, a prospect from which desire flees in order to maintain its existence. While Michael Ferber’s “In Defense of Clods” (2002) effectively dismisses etymological identifications of the Blake name “Thel” with any Greek word for “desire,” more accurately associating “Thel” with a Greek root “meaning ‘female’ and ‘gentle’” (p. 61), Levinson’s very Blakean reading is well supported by the text of Thel apart from her unfortunate dependence upon etymology.
Thel worries that she will live “without a use” (E, p. 5), a use clearly identified as sexual by the voice of the grave: “[Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy! Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?]” (E, p. 6). A string of associations identifying “Thel” with “female” and “desire” fits well with “A’s” description of aesthetic subjectivities. Oothoon of the Visions of the Daugthers of Albion, unlike Thel, deliberately embraces desiring desire. Not without anxiety, saying, “I trembled in my virgin fears / And I hid in Leutha’s vale” (E, p. 45)—signaling close resemblance to Thel at the poem’s outset—but Oothoon responds to anxiety through choice, grasping the finite in the form of a chosen lover, Theotormon. Vision’s narrative begins with Oothoon in the stage of seeking desire: her desire, symbolized by the flowers around her, is diffused throughout her immediate environment. Therefore her decision to pick one particular 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 naked 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 my whole soul seeks” (E, p. 46)—Theotormon, her own single plucked flower. Seeking desire has fully transformed into desiring desire; Oothoon differentiates herself from the object of her desire, an object now isolated, distinct, and known.
Oothoon’s problem is not with herself, but with choosing an excessively passive male then being raped by an excessively aggressive one before she could reach her chosen partner. Caught between male passivity and male aggression her desire remains faithful to Theotormon regardless of his or Bromion’s faults and that is the source of her tragedy. Excessive passivity or excessive aggression mark the Experience range of male responses to innocent, uninhibited female desire. Susan Fox argues that Oothoon reinforces negative stereotypes of women by demonstrating yet again how “feminine will is not powerful enough to free her from the impositions of male authority” (p. 512), so that Blake’s women “are trapped in a reality which recognizes no female power but evil female power” (p. 512). I would say that Fox is precisely correct in her last statement, but that this constitutes Blake’s critique of the reality in which both males and females find themselves, not Blake’s critique of the female. The feminine in Blake is certainly, in Fox’s words, “a comment on the society [. . .] which he addressed” (p. 519), but a deliberate comment: both Thel and Oothoon begin as aesthetic personalities who do not fully differentiate themselves from their environment so are determined by it.
The same holds true of Thel. The first two lines of “Thel’s Motto” articulate Thel’s reasoning: material nature understood both internally and externally determines the nature and limitations of any subjectivity and its knowledge. Ask the Mole what is in the pit, not the Eagle. This assumption finds expression throughout Blake’s work, in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, “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), and in “The Clod and the Pebble." Clodish subjectivity, consistent with the Clod’s physical nature, is pliant and yielding, Pebblish subjectivity hard and unyielding for the same reason. Both determine the nature of their reactions to their respective and very different external environments, environments that have quite literally shaped them. Such a physically and externally determined personality fits Kierkegaard’s description of the aesthetic-innocent personality completely, a match reinforced by Thel’s reference to “the voice / Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time” locating her in an prelapsarian, Edenic environment (E, p. 3).
Thel, like Oothoon, suffers from the anxiety of innocence and seeks to grasp finitude to quell the sense of vertigo attendant upon possibility without a sense of conscious self-definition. Her questions simply interrogate the different forms of finitude available to her. Thel progresses, however, and in her progression she finds she is not the Lilly, the cloud, the worm, nor the clod of clay. This differentiation pushes her to the very boundary of desiring desire; the negative or apophatic progression of Thel’s desire reveals the inadequacies of seeking desire 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. This progression was predicted by Haufniensis in The Concept of Anxiety, since in the anxiety of innocence innocents seek self-definition externally to find themselves confronted with nothingness.
Thel’s confrontation with nothingness reaches its apex in the voice of the grave, a voice that most closely replicates 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 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 an aesthetic-immediate personality, an immediacy the grave’s questions would annul through the development of self-consciousness.
What I believe these respective and parallel progressions reveal about both Blake and Kierkegaard is their identification and deliberate replication of the development of an outside-in subjectivity for the purpose of moving their readers toward a break with an existence governed by immanence. Both achieve their goals through presentations of counter mythologies, Blake’s mythological works being populated by grand forms representing psychological forces and Kierkegaard’s philosophical psychology presented through a complex network of pseudonymous authorship engaged in a vast Socratic dialog. Both authors lead their readers to see who they are within their respective cultures so that they may be who they choose to be rather than simply who they are told to be, and that this choice might be deliberate and informed.
References may be found at the sitewide Works Cited page.
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