Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Essence, Gender, Race: William Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Essence, Gender, Race: William Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion

Article excerpt

1

ORIGINALLY PRODUCED IN 1793, VISIONS OF THE DAUGHTERS OF ALBION has become one of Blake's most widely read and interpreted prophecies. Critical interpretations range from the historical to the rhetorical and figurative, the psycho-sexual, the feminist, and the philosophical. (1) In general, most interpretations try to resolve whether the heroine of Visions (Oothoon) complies with, or succeeds in overcoming, various forms of oppression. The critical debate usually boils down to the contrast between Oothoon's character as a female slave and the perspectives of various male figures (Bromion, Theotormon, and Urizen), who oppress her. In other words, the controversy boils down to the contrast between essence (i.e., Oothoon's identity or that which is most irreducible, unchanging, and constitutive of her) and the constructed male world she occupies (i.e., the attitudes, behaviors, and impositions of those who oppress and try to define her). Interestingly, in The Making of the Modern Self Dror Wahrman argues that toward the end of the eighteenth century there was a "swift reanchoring of notions of personal identity in what may be seen as ... essentializing foundations." (2) But the debate over Visions, a text that Wahrman does not discuss, is not quite so simple or binary as essentialism versus social constructions of the self, which he links to what he calls "ancient-regime" perspectives. Indeed, patriarchy, which Blake associated symbolically with Urizen and Wahrman historically with the ancien regime, achieves much of its domination precisely by misusing essentialist language and thereby falsely categorizing and diminishing the Other. According to Helen Bruder, Bromion's treatment of Oothoon as an "enslaved sexual possession ... enables the imprinting of notions of essential sexual and racial character" ("Blake and Gender Studies" 142). This apparently causal relationship between his treatment of Oothoon and his false (as well as unfair) essentializing of her is more complicated, however. For not only does his cruel treatment enable his categorical essentializing but that essentializing also enables his cruelty.

Largely because of the patriarchal dangers of essentializing, several feminist scholars have rightly condemned it. (3) As Christine Delphy remarks, "Feminists have been shouting for ... years ... whenever they hear it said that the subordination of women is caused by the inferiority of our natural capacities." (4) But from some scholars the concepts of essence and essentialism have received more favorable press. Diana Fuss, for example, argues that "in and of itself, essentialism is neither ... beneficial nor dangerous.... [it] can be deployed effectively in the service of both idealist and materialist ... mythologizing and resistive discourses" (xi-xii). Responding in part to the challenge articulated by Stephen Heath that "the risk of essence may have to be taken," well-known feminist critics such as Alice Jardine, Naomi Schor, and Gayatri Spivak have endorsed a reconsideration of essentialism. (5) The concept is even described favorably by one critic as a "legitimation strategy." And Paul Smith locates it within a "discourse of resistance," for "if women ... speak and act from the same ground of ... identity as men have traditionally enjoyed, a resistance is automatically effected...." (6)

In light of such views on essentialism and its resistive potential, this essay argues that the debate about whether or not Oothoon succeeds in overcoming oppression misses the fundamental aim of Visions, which is to present a strenuous voice of resistance against tyranny even if that voice may not succeed. The following pages show that the deepest and most pervasive systems of tyranny Oothoon resists are philosophical--in particular the appropriative, possessive, and proprietary consciousness of the Lockean self and those aspects of British empiricism that valorize the external and accidental over the internal and essential. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.