Intimations of William Blake in on Beauty (2005): Zadie Smith's Trans-Atlantic Homage to and Critique of Boston Intellectuals

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The name of William Blake is nowhere mentioned per se in On Beauty--not even alluded to in the way one might expect of a novel that seems in so many ways a direct response to some of Blake's most passionate concerns. It is even possible that, while she certainly studied Blake's poetry at Cambridge University, Zadie Smith was not thinking specifically of Blake as she composed most of On Beauty. But hints abound of a deep connection. When she began writing On Beauty during the 2002-2003 academic year, Zadie Smith was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Boston, studying "moral philosophy" and thinking about her experience of America and of academia. Blake, too, had been thinking of America (and particularly of Boston's revolutionaries) as he composed his two intriguing and prophetic poems about trends in moral philosophy.

The philosophical correspondences between Blake's and Zadie Smith's texts are arguably legion but, I admit, quite subtle--which is why I propose to examine "hints" only of Blake-like conceptualizations in Zadie Smith's hilarious send-up of trans-Atlantic academic life. (1) Blake and Smith, I propose, reached strikingly similar critical positions towards philosophical trends current in their respective eras. And while Smith's fictional Boston area is an especially bighearted tribute to the city and its environs--and especially to its most generous and spirited citizens, both Smith and Blake excoriate those who, for selfish ends, disparage beauty and in so doing sabotage justice, love, joy and genuine freedom. On Beauty, like Blake's two poems on America, indicts the reprehensible intellectual discourses of the day that undermine human happiness and corrupt the social order. (2)

To discern the important common elements between Blake and Smith, we need first to look at Blake's fundamental concerns, to see the Blake afflatus in a holistic way. This is not easy. Scholars, until very recently, have long and obdurately and even rancorously debated what Blake was up to. Saree Makdisi (a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA; Edward Said's nephew) has tenaciously and meticulously addressed some of the most perplexing cruxes of Blake scholarship in William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s and brightly elucidated, there, (3) some of Blake's key passages in America: A Prophecy and Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Makdisi disputes scholarship that--based on the rants against tyrants and the moaning over slavery and other injustices featured in Blake's works--lumps Blake with Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and their circles to establish Blake's bona fides as a "rights" and "civil liberties" advocate. Recent revisionists (Makdisi paramount among them) make the case that Blake was coming at these ideological issues from a completely different angle (a much more broadly moral and future-oriented angle), which enabled him to imagine where the rights revolutions set in motion by Paine and Locke and the others were bound to wind up in the fullness of time: in trouble, of course.

Just as America: A Prophecy and Visions of the Daughters of Albion specifically critique a wrongheaded sort of autonomy and the selfishness of claiming rights as sovereign individuals at the expense of oppressed others, so too does Zadie Smith's novel. (4) Coming some 212 years later, Smith wittily dramatizes a huge range of ideological discourses and antagonisms--many of them descended from Paine et al. Black and white and mixed-race characters from both edges of the Atlantic and from several Caribbean islands in between rant and rave (or sneer or simmer) against each other in academic circles (5) and outside of them (6) and in places like the Boston Commons. (7) The ideological jousting may be conveyed with humor, but the wit and the comedy do not conceal the historical accuracy of these representations or the sharpness of the author's barbs. We see liberal atheists score points against conservative Christians and vice versa. …