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As numerous critics have noted in passing, William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) explicitly correlates Bromion’s brutal appropriation and rape of Oothoon’s body with a figurative but no less violent “rape” of the natural world.1 It is this correlation and some of its philosophical implications that I will examine here in detail; for, somewhat like Albion in Blake’s late prophecies, Oothoon represents in Visions both a person and a landscape, and nothing can happen to her human portion that does not also affect the environmental aspect of her identity. Hence, while Visions deals primarily with the issue of human slavery (in its related patriarchal and colonial contexts), it is also very much concerned with the parallel conquest and “enslavement” of nature, the methodical extension of what the Baconian philosopher Joseph Glanville was pleased to call, in his Plus Ultra of 1668, “the Empire of Man over inferior Creatures” (188).2
At the opening of Visions, we abruptly learn that the “ENSLAV’D … Daughters of Albion” send “sighs toward America,” and that the woeful Oothoon similarly longs for America’s “soft soul” (1:1-3).3 Clearly, what these enslaved characters long for is political emancipation, the opportunity to live according to the libertarian ideals commonly associated with the American Revolution. What is less apparent is the geo-generic aspect of Visions’ references to America: the characters’ implicit understanding of America as an idyllic pastoral retreat. Historically, as Leo Marx has noted, the age of discovery introduced into the Arcadian myth “a note of topographical realism,” and, from the Elizabethan era until the late nineteenth century, Europeans tended to view America in Arcadian terms as a vast and unspoiled garden of “‘incredible abundance'” (Marx 47, 37-40).4 From such an idealizing standpoint, the New World becomes a truly green and pleasant land, a pristine space wherein political freedom is supported in part by nature’s Edenic plenitude.
At the time that Blake wrote and engraved Visions, however, America was hardly as free and gentle as such idealism would have it. On the contrary, as Visions emphatically demonstrates, America’s pastoral image helped to disguise the fact that much of its colonial prosperity depended upon slavery and the relentless expropriation of Indigenous lands. If, as numerous critics have argued, Oothoon’s plight in Visions allegorizes not only the condition of British women under the yoke of patriarchy but also the plight of the New World’s enslaved blacks and oppressed Native Americans,5 she is also at one level of Blake’s allegory the indivisible body and “soul of America” itself, a vital “continent longing … to be cultivated by free men, not slaves or slave drivers” (Erdman, Prophet 227). Hence, when Bromion rapes Oothoon, he violates and expropriates both her human portion and its related environmental aspect. Such violence is implicit in Bromion’s arrogant post-rape address to Oothoon:
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[.]
Since the eighteenth century, the word “rape” has often been used to describe human acts of environmental plunder and destruction,6 a terminological employment that suggests, as ecofeminist writer Susan Griffin observes, “a profound connection between the social construction of nature and the social construction of woman” (225). While Blake never directly employs the word “rape” in Visions, he could not have been oblivious to the Enlightenment rhetoric that described scientific inquiry—which Bacon believed would restore humanity to its originary position of “empire” over nature—as a “penetration” of nature’s “womb” (Novum Organum 114, 50, 100).7 In Visions, however, Blake further complicates this equation of sexual and environmental violence by considering it in light of a colonialist racism that enslaves non-Europeans, forcing them to become the very instruments of environmental subjugation in the New World. Thus, when Bromion brags of his slaves that “They are obedient, they resist not,” his grammatically ambiguous plural pronouns can be seen to gesture not only toward the antecedent “swarthy children of the sun” but also toward the “soft” or pliable landscapes he expropriates in the previous line. Clearly, Bromion sees his mastery of humans and landscapes as roughly equivalent: both, he suggests, offer themselves willingly to his authority. Given the overt violence of his imperialist rapacity, however, we must see in Bromion’s self-aggrandizing myth of total mastery an underlying element of fear and paranoia; for, to revisit Griffin’s discussion of rape in its sexual and environmental significations, “why does one have to conquer what is not challenging, fearsome, and in some way, wild, falling as it does outside the idea of mastery and control?” (225). Undoubtedly, Bromion’s rape of Oothoon involves a complex and multifaceted act of sexual, cultural, and environmental conquest.
In order to stabilize his overarching authority over Oothoon, Bromion resorts to the age-old practice of stereotyping, accusing Oothoon of “harlot[ry]” (1:18, 2:1). As an exercise of power, this stereotyping has complex and ambivalent implications; but its immediate consequences are dire. First of all, we must recall that, traditionally, “women called whores or who are prostitutes are not ‘protected’ by other men from rape” (Griffin 224); hence, by depicting Oothoon as a harlot, Bromion, her rapist, effectively robs her of recourse to protective justice. Second, Bromion’s stereotyping encourages Theotormon to reject Oothoon’s freely proffered love as a manifestation of harlotry and “defilement,” a rejection that drives her almost to despair. Subsequently, Oothoon proceeds to defend herself from the accusation of “impurity” by marshalling numerous rhetorically powerful arguments from nature; but, as readers have often noted, this strategy of argumentation is decidedly perilous. In attempting to prove her moral and sexual purity by way of reference to the world of nature, Oothoon seems unaware, among other things, that contemporary thinkers often accused Dame Nature herself of harlotry.8
While Bromion’s deployment of the harlot stereotype helps him to consolidate his brutal authority over Oothoon’s body (in both its human and terrestrial aspects), his stereotyping also inadvertently demonstrates the discursive ambivalence of his position as an agent of patriarchy and imperialism in Visions. As Homi K. Bhabha has argued, the stereotype, as a structure of predication, is fraught with contradiction: on the one hand, it is supposed to articulate a naturalized, self-evident truth, something that “goes without saying”; and yet, the fact that the stereotype depends upon continual reiteration (as in Bromion’s repeated reference to Oothoon’s harlotry) suggests that its authority is always less than comfortably stable. Hence, in a discussion that is highly relevant to the sexual/colonial allegory of Visions, Bhabha remarks that “the stereotype . . . is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always ‘in place,’ already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated,” as if the ostensibly self-evident truths it attests to “can never really, in discourse, be proved” (66).
An illuminating contemporary instance of the ambivalence of colonialist stereotyping can be found in what critics widely acknowledge as one of the major textual sources for Visions, Captain John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), for which Blake engraved approximately fourteen illustrations just prior to composing and etching Visions.9 In a discussion of Surinamese sexual practice, Stedman touches upon many of the sexual concerns and issues Blake addresses in Visions: false modesty, chastity, adultery, harlotry, and the uninhibited gratification of sexual desire. Although in the unpublished version of Narrative Stedman privately fears that his observations “will be highly censured by the Sedate European Matrons” (1790; 47), he nevertheless candidly remarks, in a published passage worth quoting at length, that in colonial Surinam most European men acquire female slave-mistresses. These women, Stedman claims,
all exult in the circumstance of living with an European, whom in general they serve with the utmost tenderness and fidelity, and tacitly reprove those numerous fair-ones who break through ties more sacred and solemn. Young women of this depiction cannot indeed be married . . . as most of them are born or trained up in a state of slavery; and so little is this practice condemned, that while they continue faithful and constant to the partner by whom they are chosen, they are countenanced and encouraged by their nearest relations and friends, who call this a lawful marriage, nay, even the clergy avail themselves of this custom without restraint. . . . Many of the sable-coloured beauties will however follow their own penchant without any restraint whatever, refusing with contempt the golden bribes of some, while on others they bestow their favours for a dram or a broken tobacco-pipe, if not for nothing. (1796; 1.25-26)
Based on the evidence offered in Visions, one might speculate that Blake would have perused this passage (if he had in fact read Stedman’s text10) with a certain amount of qualified admiration and approval. Just as the enslaved Oothoon roundly condemns the “subtil modesty” of the “modest virgin knowing to dissemble / With nets found under thy night pillow, to catch virgin joy, / And brand it with the name of whore” (6:7, 10-12), Stedman subtly condemns the hypocrisy of the many “fair-ones” of Europe whose pretended feminine modesty, his italics more than hint, is at odds with their actual sexual desires and practices. Indeed, by “follow[ing] their own [sexual] penchant without any restraint whatever,” the “sable-coloured beauties” of Stedman’s narrative behave very much like Blake’s Oothoon, who actively and unashamedly seeks sexual gratification with Theotormon, one of her colonialist oppressors. A glance at the unpublished version of Stedman’s text is even more revealing. Here, just as Oothoon indicts “hypocrite modesty” (6:16)—and not the active pursuit of sexual desire—as the true model of “selfish” harlotry (6:16-20), Stedman’s slave-women do “not hesitate . . . to pronounce as Harlots” those who refuse to follow the “laudable Example” of a sexuality that seeks unrestrained gratification (1790; 48).
But when Stedman concludes the unpublished version of his panegyric to the sexuality of Surinamese slave-mistresses by calling these women “the disinterested Daughters of pure Nature” (1790; 48), he reveals the philosophical subtext supporting his heavily revised published argument, invoking in the process the kind of idealistic primitivism that greatly troubled and often offended Blake. Not only does such idealism efface the historical actuality of the female slaves’ parentage (since these women are “mostly . . . creole” [1790; 47], they are primarily the daughters not of nature but of female African slaves and male European slave-masters like Bromion); by invoking the concept of “pure Nature” (and thus the various nature/culture dualisms that the concept tended to carry in the late eighteenth century), Stedman’s ethnographic discourse on sexuality implicitly supports age-old stereotypes associating women and black people with corporeality rather than spirit, emotion rather than reason, licentiousness rather than license. Finally, it is important to note the generic influences on Stedman’s sexual ethnography, for in its implicit tendency to locate corruption in the colonial metropolis and “purity” or freedom in the green world of Surinam, Stedman’s discussion partakes of the apparent dichotomy of the pastoral idyll, which, by distinguishing country from city (and, by extension, nature from culture), tends often to efface the ideological practices inevitably constituting our views of the “natural” world.
Certainly Oothoon finds it impossible in Visions to convince her beloved Theotormon that the physical body—or the natural world of which it is a material part—can be “pure.” In stark contrast to Bromion (who represents the overtly sensual, gluttonously appetitive, and perversely self-gratifying aspect of European colonialism), Theotormon is grimly ascetic,11 his moralizings aligning him in Visions’ colonial allegory with a self-righteous and hypocritical imperialist evangelism. His distance from all things deemed natural and his obsession with a distant, disengaged, and otherworldly sky-God are implicit in his very name (whose roots, theos and thereos, mean “God” and “spectator” respectively [Hoerner 132]). A devoted follower of the via negativa, the “negative way” of ascetic consciousness, Theotormon believes he must deny all things earthly, including especially the “natural” impulses comprising his sensual aspect, in order to achieve his ultimate goal of union with a “wholly other” God. Theotormon’s ascetic disavowal of corporeality causes him to prefer solitude over socially engaged action (7:10), a behavioral preference culminating in his strangely narcissistic obsession with his own internal thought processes (3:23; 4:3-11). It is appropriate, then, that Blake’s design to plate 1 (the frontispiece in most copies of Visions) depicts Theotormon in a crouching position, arms covering his eyes, ears, and mouth, completely closed to the life of the senses (Gillham 195).
This is not to suggest that Theotormon’s asceticism is successful or without important contradiction. Crucially, for example, Blake figures Theotormon’s original response to Oothoon’s ostensible harlotry in terms of earthly phenomena: “Then storms rent Theotormons limbs; he rolld his waves around. / And folded his black jealous waters round the adulterate pair” (2:3-4). While Theotormon is clearly subject in these lines to “natural” passions (figured by the violent “storms” that rend his limbs), his subsequent ability to manipulate the waves and waters raised by these internal storms evinces a significant degree of control over this aspect of his identity. But he achieves this self-mastery at a significant price. Because his God is entirely transcendent, Theotormon must completely deny the visionary and redemptive possibilities of material existence, possibilities suggested among other things by Oothoon’s complex proposition that “every thing that lives is holy” (8:10). According to Theotormon’s negative theology, in other words, all of nature’s seeming attractions can only be distractions; and since he has learned to see his passions as aspects of natural rather than spiritual being, he must constantly “cleanse” himself via acts of self-expurgation and penance. Hence, in the design to plate 9, Theotormon flagellates his body with a three-thonged whip, whose knots, as Erdman has noted, “look uncannily like the heads of the Marygold flowers” in the design to plate 3 (Illuminated 134)—iconographic evidence that the natural forms inspiring multiplicitous vision in Oothoon (see 1:6-7) can only be vehicles of self-torment for Theotormon. Significantly, after binding Oothoon and Bromion “back to back in Bromions caves,” Theotormon assumes a position at the cave’s entrance, where he sits “wearing the threshold hard / With secret tears” (2:5-7). Theotormon’s tears are “secret,” for, as a practitioner of asceticism, he must deny his emotions, which he attributes to the sensual or embodied portion of being. Such denial thus becomes another form of self-mortification as Theotormon “wear[s] the threshold hard,” figuratively clothing himself in a penitential garment of stone—a version of the ascetic’s hairshirt—whose petrific, impenetrable surface signifies Theotormon’s extreme self-enclosure, his unwillingness to entertain any open encounter with earthly otherness.
There can be no doubt that Oothoon is severely traumatized by the violation and stereotyping she undergoes at the hands of Bromion, as well as by Theotormon’s self-righteous and insensitive treatment of her. Consider, for example, her subsequent invocation of Theotormon’s eagles:
I call with holy voice! kings of the sounding air,
Rend away this defiled bosom that I may reflect.
The image of Theotormon on my pure transparent breast.
The Eagles at her call descend & rend their bleeding prey . . . .
In this passage, Oothoon’s rhetoric of purity and defilement reveals her unwitting capitulation to Theotormon’s ascetic dualism (which opposes chastity to harlotry), while her use of the verb “rend” in her instruction to Theotormon’s eagles implies, most appallingly, an invited repetition of Bromion’s act of rape. Indeed, since Bromion’s earlier rending of Oothoon with his clamorous “thunders” (1:16) implies a regal exercise of elemental control, we may align him directly with Theotormon’s eagles, the “kings of the sounding air.” Hence, while highlighting the mutual implication of Theotormon’s theology and Bromion’s colonialist praxis, Oothoon’s invocation of and encounter with the eagles demonstrates the extent to which her own pursuit of “purity” tends inadvertently to presuppose and perpetuate the most profound violence.
Such violence recalls the eagle’s traditional figural association with imperialist politics. During the course of Western history, this predatory bird had served emblematic functions in such countries as Rome, Austria, France, Germany, and Russia; and, in 1782, only eleven years prior to the production of Visions, the United States adopted the eagle as emblem for its official seal (Vogler 30-31n). Since at one level of Visions’ political allegory Oothoon is America, and since Bromion rapaciously expropriates her “soft American plains” and the regions comprising her “north & south” to his material empire, we must consider the eagle in Visions as a figure for empire, the political and geographical entity before which colonized individuals must “open their hearts” or be forcefully “rent” in opposition. Hence, in both the text and in the design to plate 6 the eagles’ rending of Oothoon’s breast functions to emphasize the latter’s political subjection. In this context, “the soft soul of America”—America’s liberatory idealism—is devoured by the brutal reality of America as a burgeoning empire being built upon the backs, and written in the blood, of slaves.
It is most appropriate, then, that Oothoon’s account of her rending by the predatory eagles is directly preceded on plate 5 by an illustration of a black slave-laborer, whom Blake depicts nearly prostrate upon the ground, lying beside an almost horizontal, grotesquely blighted tree. In the approximate symmetry of their spatial design, these juxtaposed human and arboreal figures evince an iconographic equation. On the one hand, the oppressed slave, valued primarily as a physical instrument of enforced labor, is reduced to the status of a mere natural object (like the tree), becoming, from the master’s standpoint, simply another aspect of the exploitable physical environment. (Blake further emphasizes this process of “othering” by depicting the slave’s arms in such a manner that they appear to be rooted, like tree limbs, to the ground.) On the other hand, insofar as the near-horizontal form of the blighted tree in turn mirrors the prostrate form of the slave, the tree can be seen to represent a natural world that has, like the African laborer, been destructively enslaved. The message seems straightforward enough. As competing imperial powers rush to exploit new resource-bases, importing to the New World the mercantilist practice of human slavery, the environmental problems Blake associates with the metropolitan center—a place of “cities turrets & towers & domes / Whose smoke destroy[s] the pleasant gardens & whose running Kennels / Chok[e] the bright rivers” (FZ 9:167-69; E390)—are extended to the New World’s colonized landscapes.
In a context wherein the transcendental eagle of imperialist politics emblematizes the violation of enslaved peoples and landscapes, all creatures—both human and non-human—are potentially affected. Consider, for example, the figural significance of Visions’ “jealous dolphins,” the creatures Bromion invites to “sport around” Oothoon directly after he rapes her (1:19). How, one might ask, do dolphins—traditional symbols of philanthropy, love, and salvation (Baine 206)—come to be so negatively anthropomorphized in Blake’s allegory of colonialism? To seek an answer to this question, it will be helpful to return to Stedman’s Narrative. In recounting the events of his voyage from Europe to Dutch Guiana, Stedman writes that the interval was rendered “exceedingly pleasant … by the many dolphins or dorados, … beautiful fish [which] seem to take peculiar delight in sporting around the vessels” (1796; 1.9). (Notice that Blake’s dolphins also “sport around” in Visions.) Continuing his discussion in a more philosophical mode, Stedman goes on to remark that
The real dolphin, which is of the cetaceous kind, was anciently celebrated in poetic story on account of its philanthropy and other supposed virtues: but to the dorado or dolphin of the moderns, this character is far from being applicable, this fish being extremely voracious and destructive, and is known to follow the ships, and exhibit his sports and gambols, not from attachment to mankind, but from the more selfish motive of procuring food…. The circumstance which chiefly entitles the dorado to our attention is, the unrivalled and dazzling brilliancy of its colours in the water, the whole of its back … appear[ing] as bespangled all over with jewels…. (1796; 1.9-10)12
Stedman’s alignment of the “real dolphin” with poetic sensibility offers a helpful clue concerning the way Oothoon would likely view the ostensibly less poetic dorado. Since Oothoon is “Open,” in Visions, “to joy and to delight where ever beauty appears” (6:22), we can speculate that she would not debase this “dolphin of the moderns,” as Stedman does when he attributes selfishness to it, but would find in its “unrivalled and dazzling” beauty a superlative source of joy and delight. Indeed, such an aesthetic would help to explain how poetic sensibility comes to anthropomorphize beautiful animals as “philanthropists”; for in contexts where non-human creatures inspire “joy and … delight,” they may be regarded quite logically as agents of human well-being. Unlike Oothoon, however, the empire-obsessed Bromion is driven to denounce and destroy “virgin joy” (6:11); and the “delights” he is capable of understanding are only those “of the merchant” (5:12). Because Bromion is a stranger to beauty and philanthropic impulse, his “modern” anthropomorphisms (to borrow Stedman’s term) reflect the inevitable selfishness and paranoia of empire, so that even such beautiful creatures as dolphins become representatives of a misanthropic “jealous[y].”
As we have seen, however, not all of Oothoon’s encounters with non-human creatures are positive ones. Since Oothoon has been colonized by Bromion in Visions’ political allegory, and since, to a certain extent, colonialism proceeds via a pedagogical “colonizing of the mind,”13 we might expect Oothoon’s worldview—including her discourse on non-human nature—to be adversely affected by her situation. Such influence, at any rate, would help to explain why Oothoon becomes obsessed with conceptual categories like “purity” and “defilement” in Visions, and why her own view of animals comes to reflect these categories (a reflection we have noted, for example, in her sadomasochistic view of predatory eagles as agents of her own purification). But Oothoon is no colonialist automaton, and she is by no means unaware that her physical enslavement has harmful ideological dimensions and ramifications. Thus she attacks her cultural conditioning on the most fundamental of levels.
They told me that the night & day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up.
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle.
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.
Here, in a nutshell, is Oothoon’s critique of the epistemology of empire, the empiricism that attempts to consolidate an “empire of man” over all other creatures. Her reference to “night & day” underscores the divisiveness of Western categorical thought, which conceptualizes existence according to binary oppositions (night/day, black/white, slave/master, defilement/purity, animal/human, etc.) and which can tolerate no liminal or “grey” areas. Hence, while Oothoon’s reference to “five senses” has been read as a metaphysical indictment of “the body as prison of the soul” (Moss 14), the grammar of the passage suggests the validity of a more overtly political interpretation. Foregrounding the pedagogical aspect of colonialist discourse, Oothoon speaks of what “They told me . . . to inclose me up,” thus gesturing toward a political intention, a methodical denial of other (non-empirical, non-European) modes of knowledge carried out in order to subjugate and imprison (“to inclose . . . up”) enslaved peoples. Crucially, the final result of this process is a distinctively narrative denial, in which Oothoon’s cultural “life” is “ob-literated and erased.”
For his own part, however, Bromion attempts to deny this violence by representing both his naturalist theory and colonialist praxis as modes of visionary endeavor:
Then Bromion said: and shook the cavern with his lamentation
Thou knowest that the ancient trees seen by thine eyes have fruit;
But knowest thou that trees and fruits flourish upon the earth
To gratify senses unknown? trees beasts and birds unknown:
Unknown, not unpercievd, spread in the infinite microscope,
In places yet unvisited by the voyager. and in worlds
Over another kind of seas, and in atmospheres unknown . . . .
By declaring that this lamentation “shook the cavern,” Blake’s narrator acknowledges Bromion’s prophetic potential, raising the possibility that even this degenerate imperialist has the power to level the walls of the “caves” in which he and Oothoon have been “Bound back to back” since the second plate of the poem (2:5; see design to plate 1), Bromion’s reference to “senses unknown” reinforces the passage’s visionary quality, implying as it does the epistemological necessity of sensory expansion or cleansing. Moreover, as Mark Bracher observes, Bromion’s figurative gesture toward “another kind of seas” seems “on the verge of escaping the empiricist bias for the manifest and tangible” (173). These interesting possibilities are subtly belied, however, by Bromion’s reference to “the infinite microscope,” which underscores the empirical basis of his vision. As John Locke remarks in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), if one’s visual perception were “1000, or 1000000 [times] more acute than it is now by the best Microscope,” one “would be in a quite different World from other People: Nothing would appear the same . . . the visible Ideas of everything would be different” (qtd. in Raine 2.125). Engaging in this sort of Lockean speculation, Bromion’s discourse of discovery—his optimistic belief in a revelatory correlation between “unknown” aspects of the human sensorium and “unknown” elements in the objective world—represents what Blake would likely have decried as an empirical co-optation of revelatory vision. Ultimately, Bromion’s optimism is based on his confidence in Enlightenment progress, which, by perfecting the instruments and methods of empirical inquiry, would give humanity unprecedented access to things and places only currently beyond apprehension.
More revealing, perhaps, than any other aspect of his speech on the knower and the known are Bromion’s claims that “trees and fruits flourish upon the earth / To gratify senses unknown,” and that such gratification brings the ultimate reward, “the joys of riches and ease” (4:14-15, 21). Here, we might pause to consider Blake’s nearly contemporary poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, wherein the prophet Ezekiel asks “is he honest who resists his genius or conscience. only for the sake of present ease or gratification?” (MHH 13; E39; emphasis added). The opposition Ezekiel establishes between “honest[y]” and “ease or gratification” in this rhetorical question is crucially important, especially if we bear in mind the distinctively Blakean claims that “Every honest man is a Prophet” (Anno. Watson E617) and that “the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God” (MHH 12; E38). Clearly, from a Blakean standpoint, Bromion’s selfishness perverts or disqualifies the prophetic aspect of his utterance. A confirmed utilitarian, Bromion considers existence hedonistically, believing that one comes to know a thing by divining the many “senses unknown” in which it may be harnessed to the ends of an all-encompassing self-gratification. Embracing such an ideology, one responds to otherness, in short, by negating it in subsumption to the self.
Bromion’s instrumental evaluation of “trees beasts and birds unknown … In places yet unvisited by the voyager” highlights the issue of European imperialist expansion, finding, once again, illuminating parallels in Stedman’s Narrative. In one of his geographical descriptions, Stedman characterizes Dutch Guiana as a territory “enriched with a great variety of mineral substances,” a land where “in general the soil is abundantly fruitful, the earth during the whole of the year [being] adorned with continual verdure, the trees loaded at the same time with blossoms and ripe fruit…” (1796; 1.34, 33). While such pastoral evocations tend to confirm the popular image of the New World as an Edenic garden, thus enticing European readers with the promise of unlimited prosperity in an idyllic New World landscape, they are ultimately qualified by Stedman’s colonialist tendency to celebrate only geographical areas considered instrumentally valuable. Indeed, as far as Stedman is concerned, resource-based wealth and natural beauty go hand in hand. Hence, those areas that are “inhabited by Europeans, and cultivated with sugar, cocoa, cotton, and indigo plantations … form the most delightful prospects that can be imagined” (1796; 1.36-37), while places unsuited for slave-based, plantation-style agriculture are implicitly praiseworthy only for the value of their exploitable timber and minerals. As for locations inaccessible to European navigation, they are quite simply “of little consequence to Europeans” (1796; 1.35)—or downright harmful to colonial interests (as in the case of heavily forested wilderness areas, which provided both real and potential sanctuary for escaped rebel slaves [1796; 1.3-4]). Like Blake’s Bromion, Stedman implicitly values “newly discovered” lands only for their potential to increase the personal wealth, and to gratify the material desires, of their European masters.
As a major contributing illustrator for Stedman’s Narrative, Blake would likely have been struck not only by the work’s manifold discussions of human slavery (which Blake’s commentators have examined in detail) but also by its impressive pictorial and textual catalogues of “trees and fruits . . . beasts and birds unknown” (VDA 4:14-15). Like many contemporary writers of “exploration literature” and New World ethnography, Stedman takes care extensively to catalogue the plant, insect, and animal life he encounters in his travels; and more than half of Narrative’s eighty-one engraved illustrations deal with botanical and zoological subject matter (Blake himself having depicted, in at least four engravings, four species of monkey, a giant Aboma snake, some Limes, the Capsicum Mamee Apple, and various nuts). In its careful taxonomy of nature, Stedman’s published text participates in the expansion of European naturalistic empire by extending knowledge of, and thus a certain mastery over, the terrains and topographies of the New World. Moreover, the text’s intermixing of naturalist and ethnographic subject matter—highlighted most explicitly in Stedman’s figurative description of the celebrated slave-girl Joanna as a “forsaken plant” (1796; 1.90)—draws an implicit parallel between the European objectification of plants and animals, on the one hand, and the objectification of human beings, on the other, each of which are valuable to the empire primarily in an instrumental capacity. It is hardly surprising, then, that Blake’s Bromion, who wishes to subject all things to the taxonomizing scrutiny of his phallic “infinite microscope,” ultimately finishes his lecture on the marvels of nature by celebrating “the joys of riches and ease” in a world that is monolithically governed by “one law for both the lion and the ox” (4:21-22).
By examining parallels between human and environmental subjugation in Visions, I do not mean to efface crucial differences, nor do I wish to suggest that human slavery is a mere aspect of our treatment of nature (especially since colonialist discourses have often aligned non-European peoples with a “degenerate” nature in order morally to justify the subjugation of the former as an integral part of an ostensibly benevolent “civilizing mission”). However, because Oothoon herself fights for human liberty by deploying in the poem a series of arguments based on non-human exempla, Visions, I believe, demands a sustained focus on the relationship between colonialist and anti-colonialist treatments of humanity and nature. Consider, for example, the following passage, in which Oothoon attempts to combat Bromion’s homogenizing imperialism by invoking the multiplicitous realm of animality:
With what sense is it that the chicken shuns the ravenous hawk?
With what sense does the tame pigeon measure out the expanse?
With what sense does the bee form cells? 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:
Ask the wild ass why he refuses burdens: and the meek camel
Why he loves man: is it because of eye ear mouth or skin
Or breathing nostrils? No. for these the wolf and tyger have.
Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why her spires
Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the rav’nous snake
Where she gets poison: & the wing’d eagle why he loves the sun
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old.
In this remarkable passage, Oothoon attempts to derive what Blake’s friend Henry Fuseli referred to as animals’ “allegoric Utility” (qtd. in Bentley 170). The logic informing her argument is as follows: If the heterogeneous behaviors and pursuits of non-human creatures cannot be entirely accounted for by way of reference to “eye ear mouth … skin” and “breathing nostrils,” then neither should human behavior be understood simply in terms of sensual responses to pre-given empirical data—especially if Oothoon is correct in her implicit claim that human actions, like the human brain, are potentially “infinite” (2:32) in scope. But while Oothoon exploits the “allegoric utility” of animals to support her arguments for human emancipation, she does not do so in an arrogantly anthropocentric way. Indeed, according to the rhetorical structure of her argument, an open-minded inquiry into the nature of non-human being provides a prerequisite basis for human self-reflection: first we are to consider the otherness and difference of animals, “And then,” Oothoon declares, we may “tell [her] the thoughts of man.” At the very least, she suggests, “man” must be understood contextually, not as an abstract, conceptually pure category of being.
Kathleen Raine has argued convincingly that Oothoon’s discourse on animals and sensory perception owes an intertextual debt to Emanuel Swedenborg’s doctrine of correspondences,14 which posits a correlation between an entity’s “Internal” makeup and the actions it undertakes in the “External” world. Here is an excerpt from Swedenborg’s summary of the matter:
[T]here is in every Thing an Internal and an External, and . . . the External dependeth on the Internal, as the Body does on its Soul . . . . For the Illustration of this Truth it may suffice to consider a few Particulars respecting a Silkworm, [and] a Bee . . . . The Internal of the Silkworm is that, by Virtue whereof its External is impelled to spin its silken Web, and afterwards to assume Wings like a Butterfly and fly abroad. The Internal of a Bee is that, by Virtue whereof its External is impelled to suck Honey out of Flowers, and to construct waxen Cells after a wonderful Form . . . . (Swedenborg 2.417)
By arguing that every creature’s “External dependeth on the Internal,” Swedenborg, like Oothoon, grants priority to an intrinsic rather than extrinsic makeup of being,15 implying possibilities of perception that Bromion’s empiricist doctrine of the “five senses” refuses to sanction. Accordingly, individuals are centers of dynamic activity, not mere, passive receptors of externally imposed sensations. But where Swedenborg uses a vaguely deterministic vocabulary to speak of creaturely activity (stating that bees and silkworms are “impelled” to behave in certain ways), Blake’s Oothoon chooses to speak of such activity in terms of multiplicitous “joys” and “loves” (3:6, 8, 11-12), terms carrying connotations of freedom rather than coercion or enslavement. By attributing the delights of joy and love to non-human creatures, Oothoon not only avoids the determinism implicit in Swedenborg’s notion of creaturely impulsion; she also problematizes the influential Cartesian hypothesis that animals are soulless automata, ultimately incapable of experiencing either pleasure or pain. Moreover, by relentlessly particularizing animals—by emphasizing that “their habitations” and “pursuits” are “as different as their forms and as their joys” (3:5-6)—Oothoon’s counter-discourse strives to deconstruct the homogenizing concept of animality itself, thus challenging Bromion’s philosophical claim that there can be “one law for both the lion and the ox” (4:22). Rigorously undertaken, such a deconstruction would have the most profound social and environmental implications; for, as Jacques Derrida observes, the concept of animality presupposes the drawing of an oppositional limit which “itself blurs the differences, the différance and the differences, not only between man and animal, but among animal societies, and, within the animal societies and within human society itself, so many differences” (183).16 In Visions, Blake’s Oothoon combats the all-encompassing violence of colonialism via a conceptual multiplication of difference in its manifold cultural and ecological manifestations. She aims, in short, to convince her listeners to respect and celebrate what renowned biologist E. O. Wilson calls “the diversity of life” (passim).
As if to combat the violent rapacity of Bromion’s monolithic imperialism, Oothoon deploys a sexual metaphor to represent her experience of life in the multiplicitous world she envisions. She is, she declares,
Open to joy and to delight where ever beauty appears
If in the morning sun I find it: there my eyes are fix’d
In happy copulation; if in evening mild, wearied with work;
Sit on a bank and draw the pleasures of this free born joy.
Oothoon’s “openness” and her use of the term “copulation” to characterize her encounter with beauty recall early modern concepts of the eye as a sexual organ, a kind of optic vagina through which the mind was thought to be “impregnated” by visual stimuli.17 In Blake’s poetics, however, these figures of openness and copulation also carry spiritual connotations, since they anticipate Jerusalem’s highly privileged and implicitly sexualized concept of Eternal emanational encounter, wherein discrete and integral individuals meet in a process of “mutual interchange,” “comingl[ing]” ecstatically “from the Head even to the Feet” (see J 88:3-11, E246; 69:43, E223). Such profound interchange is implicit in Oothoon’s rhetorical synaesthesia. By figuring her visual perception of beauty in terms of copulative touch, Oothoon articulates an imaginative alternative to the oppositional subject/object dynamic so often associated with the economy of the gaze. When perceptual vision is understood as a mode of touch, the distance separating perceiver and perceived is conceptually minimized, imaginatively bringing subjects and objects into the most proximate, mutually affective relationality. What is more, Oothoon’s metaphor of visual or visionary copulation mitigates against the dualism of an Enlightenment philosophy that represents mentality rather than biology as “characteristic of the human and . . . what is ‘fully and authentically’ human” (Plumwood 169); for, by conceptualizing aesthetic apprehension in terms of sexual communion, her metaphor strives imaginatively to bring human biological and mental aspects into a kind of reconciliatory unison.
And yet, Oothoon’s subsequent cry, “Love! Love! Love! happy happy Love! free as the mountain wind!” (7:16), encodes in its repetitions and multiple exclamation points a degree of hyperbolical protestation that, rather than conveying prophetic confidence in her vision of unbridled consummation with otherness, suggests trauma and hysteria. It is difficult, in other words, not to see Oothoon’s overly emphatic cry as the compensatory reaction of a brutalized, insulted, and enslaved being trying desperately to regain the optimism of an earlier innocence. Such a state of affairs would, at any rate, help to account for the disconcertingly problematic scenario Oothoon imagines as a viable alternative to Theotormon’s “hypocrite modesty,” the “self-love that envies all” (6:16; 7:21):
But silken nets and traps of adamant will Oothoon spread,
And catch for thee 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:
Red as the rosy morning, lustful as the first born beam,
Oothoon shall view his dear delight, nor e’er with jealous cloud
Come in the heaven of generous love; nor selfish blightings bring.
While this passage is syntactically ambivalent and therefore difficult to interpret with precision,18 it nevertheless seems very much at odds with the emancipatory politics Oothoon articulates earlier in the poem. As Leopold Damrosch, Jr., observes (198), Oothoon’s “silken nets and traps of adamant” troublingly recall the religious “nets & gins & traps” (5:18) she so emphatically denounces earlier in the poem, mechanisms used “to catch virgin joy, / And brand it with the name of whore” (6:11-12). Furthermore, the narcissistic aspect of her fantasy not only servilely defers or denies the gratification of her own sexual desire; by foregoing her own participatory touch in the encounter, Oothoon’s narcissism also contradicts her earlier synaesthetic ideal of visual-tactile copulation. Far from liberating herself from the tyranny of systemic sexual oppression, Oothoon seems unwittingly willing to perpetuate it and, as procuress, to extend it (and the stereotype of harlotry) to other innocent “girls,”19 whose associations with “silver” and “gold” suggest something of their commodification in Oothoon’s sexual fantasy.
In the subsequent lines of the poem, however, Oothoon invokes precious metals in order forcefully to indict, and to remark the dire consequences of, a cultural milieu that reduces all things—whether human or otherwise—to the instrumental status of commodity; and it is here that the revolutionary tones of her earlier environmental and sociopolitical critique begin to reassert themselves.
Does the sun walk in glorious raiment. on the secret floor
Where the cold miser spreads his gold? or does the bright cloud drop
On his stone threshold? does his eye behold the beam that brings
Expansion to the eye of pity? or will he bind himself
Beside the ox to thy hard furrow? does that mild beam blot
The bat, the owl, the glowing tyger, and the king of night.
Oothoon’s miser is, residually, an alchemist: though his “cold[ness]” suggests that he has lost all sense of alchemical creative wonder, he nevertheless wishes to convert all things to gold. Insofar as the pursuit of this homogeneous substance provides the binding “one law” of his existence, he resembles the Urizenic Bromion; but to the extent that his fetishistic hoarding of gold necessitates a renunciation of all self-expenditure and a paranoid withdrawal from society (which must be seen as a source of expense or potential thievery), he resembles the withdrawn and virtue-hoarding Theotormon (who, like the miser, is also associated with a “threshold” of stone [2:6]). One would hardly expect such antisocial behavior in an era of so-called enlightenment, whose “mild beam” promises humanistically to bring “Expansion to the eye of pity.”20 But, as the sun’s “glorious raiment” is replaced by the merely reflective light of a “bright cloud,” the “mild beam” of human sympathy gives way before the questionable lustre of the miser’s gold (which signifies, in Visions’ imperialist context, the stolen wealth comprising the so-called commonwealth). Under such conditions, humanity’s “mild beam” is darkened to opacity, becoming that biblical mote of motes, the obstructing “beam” in the eye of self-righteous and hypocritical avarice (Matt. 7.3-5).
Writing on the relationship between enlightenment and imperialism in his 1796 treatise Illustrations of Prophecy, Joseph Lomas Towers posed a question that can help us to appreciate the urgency of this ethical dilemma: “Are we not apprized,” he asked, “that the guilt of nations, as well as of individuals, is enhanced in proportion to the degree of light and knowledge which heaven has vouchsafed them?” (1.xv). Living in an era of unprecedented “light and knowledge,” but failing to behold “the beam that brings / Expansion to the eye of pity,” Oothoon’s miser becomes a figure for the culpability of an empire whose practices of cultural exploitation and slavery are decidedly at odds with its professed morality. Not only does the miser’s unenlightened avarice disable sympathetic identification with other humans; his ironically named “mild beam” also disables any sympathetic concern for the natural environment and its non-human inhabitants, “blot[ting],” as it does, “The bat, the owl, the glowing tyger, and the king of night.” According to Oothoon, for whom “every thing that lives is holy” (8:10), even these ominously nocturnal creatures—indeed, even the symbolically decried “wild snake,” whose presence in the Garden augured the loss of Judeo-Christian paradise (8:7)—are worthy of respect.
Unfortunately, Oothoon’s revolutionary vision is easily co-opted. After all, has not Bromion’s empirical science, in surveying its proper domain, already laid claim to the objective universe? And does not this science plan to subject “every thing that lives” to the authority of its scrutinizing gaze? Moreover, has not Theotormon’s institutionalized religion long denied the holiness of nature in order to claim exclusive, God-given right to define the nature of “holiness”? Indeed, in asserting the holiness of every living thing, Oothoon articulates a pluralism that has no recourse to exclusionary tactics, no effective strategy for separating the goats of tyranny from the lambs of righteousness. Hence, by Oothoon’s own standards, even Bromion and Theotormon are holy and, therefore, worthy of respect. While Oothoon’s philosophy is thus generously free of ressentiment, it runs the risk of political self-sabotage, for to respect representatives of tyranny is to remain potentially subject to their authority. Such a state of affairs might, perhaps, account for the rather grim scenario Blake depicts in Visions’ concluding lines:
Thus every morning wails Oothoon. but Theotormon sits
Upon the margind ocean conversing with shadows dire.
The Daughters of Albion hear her woes, & eccho back her sighs.
Ending with its all-too-familiar refrain of echoed sighs (cf. 2:20, 5:2), Visions seems ultimately to have resolved nothing. Hence, the tendency of some readers to regard Oothoon as a “failed prophet” (Anderson passim). One must note, however, that Oothoon utters at the poem’s conclusion more than just despairingly impotent sighs. She also emphatically “wails”—obtrusively expressing the profundity of her sorrow and dissatisfaction—each and “every morning” (8:11), demonstrating in the process her unflagging “determination to awaken those around her” (Linkin 192). Alongside her inability to achieve timely emancipation for herself and the Daughters, Oothoon’s failure to convert or reform her oppressors in fact typifies the prophetic condition. To quote Robert Gray’s contemporary discussion of biblical prophecy, “the prophets evinced the integrity of their characters, by zealously encountering oppression, hatred, and death…. Then it was, that they firmly supported trial of cruel mockings and scourgings; yea, moreover, of bonds and imprisonment. They were . . . destitute, afflicted, tormented” (qtd. in Towers 2.325). Refusing a premature and facile apocalypticism, Visions soberly acknowledges the complex difficulties attending its social and environmental crises. Ending the poem without resolution, in other words, Blake places ultimate responsibility for political transformation upon his readers, forcing us not only to confront Oothoon’s woes but to dwell upon them, hoping, it seems, that we will do more than merely “eccho back her sighs.”