Review of Sheila Spector’s “Wonders Divine”: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Myth and “Glorious Incomprehensible”: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Language Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2001. 213 and 202 pages.

Reviewed by Don Karr

Within the imposing mass of Blake studies one finds few items which discuss the use of kabbalah by Blake, even if esoteric currents are acknowledged as reflected in his work. Where kabbalah is identified as an influence—or possible influence—the connections, if developed at all, rarely go beyond simple part-for-part examples (e.g. Eden, Beulah, Generation, and Ulro as the kabbalistic “four worlds”). Mostly what one finds are scattered highly speculative remarks or free-floating ascriptions where it is neither specified nor clear what “kabbalah” (or “cabala”) refers to. Thus, most welcome is the recent study which treats at length the influence of kabbalah on Blake: Sheila Spector’s illustrated companion volumes: “Wonders Divine”: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Myth and “Glorious Incomprehensible”: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Language. Briefly, Spector’s thesis is this:

…even though he [Blake] explicitly, often even emphatically, rejected many aspects of what might be called normative Christianity, he still found himself trapped within what had become the oppressive archetypal framework he repudiated, and it was only through a concerted life-long effort, first to recognize the bonds, and then, to seek out alternate modes of thought, that Blake was able, finally, to create his own system. But that new system, contrary to popular belief, was not an original creation. Rather, when Blake finally liberated himself from the exoteric myth structure that dominates Western thought, he turned to its esoteric counterpart, the myth that, though originating with Jewish mystics, had been adapted by Christian Kabbalists to conform with their—and, in fact, with Blake’s—own brand of Christianity. (“Wonders Divine,” 25)

Through the books, Spector reinforces her approach with such statements as

From the numerous failed attempts to explain these brief works [Blake’s minor prophecies], it should be apparent that Kabbalism truly is a different mode of thought, one not amenable to conventional methods of interpretation, at least not without grossly distorting the text. (“Wonders Divine,” 106)

It is important to establish at the onset that the kabbalah to which Spector refers throughout her study is primarily the Christian interpretation of Lurianic kabbalah as exemplified by Francis Mercury van Helmont’s Adumbratio kabbalae christianae, a treatise appended to the second volume of Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala denudata (2 volumes, Sulzbach: 1677-84). Hence, it is neither any form of Jewish kabbalah (of which there is more of an array than is generally acknowledged) nor the Christian cabala of earlier figures such as Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Francesco Giorgi, and Henry Cornelius Agrippa. Blake made use of merkabah mysticism as well. So, too, in this article, “kabbalah” will refer to the amalgam of merkabah, Lurianic kabbalah, and van Helmont’s Adumbratio which Blake, according to Spector, subsumed.

Spector offers a stage-by-stage analysis of Blake’s absorption of kabbalistic concepts, showing true incorporation—as opposed to reworking, gloss, or mere affinity. As Spector presents it, kabbalistic elements and doctrine naturally correspond with the characters, concepts, and methods in Blake’s writings, though, it must be admitted that, in reading Blake without benefit of Spector’s guidance, these equivalences are not so obvious.

Both volumes are organized chronologically, starting with “Contexts,” then discussing Blake’s work according to a four-fold scheme: Pre-Myth/Pre-Intentionality, The Fact of Myth/The Fact of Intentionality, The Concept of Myth/The Concept of Intentionality, and The Transcendent Myth/The Divine Intentionality, myth being the focus of “Wonders Divine,” intentionality as reflected in Blake’s use of language being the concern of “Glorious Incomprehensible.”

Spector contrasts the two studies in the opening lines of her similar introductions. “Wonders Divine” begins

This is a book about Blake’s myth, defined as the structuring principle of intentionality. Concerned with neither the mental state nor the facticity of an object, intentional analysis focuses on the ways by which different levels of consciousness establish relationships with their respective referents.

Spector argues accordingly that

the progressive transformation of Blake’s personal myth from a Miltonic to a kabbalistic orientation reflects the evolution of the basic principles upon which Blake’s intentional relationship was predicated (”Glorious Incomprehensible,” 21).

The introduction to “Glorious Incomprehensible” opens

This is a book about Blake’s language, defined as the external manifestation of intentionality. Concerned neither with the mental state nor with the facticity of an object, intentionality refers to the relationship between the subjective consciousness and some kind of referent; and as its external manifestation, the material language system can be said to manifest the kind of relationship that has been established between a particular level of consciousness and its corresponding referent.

In this part of the study, Spector demonstrates

how Blake’s language evolved from an original state of pre-intentionality in which he intuited some sort of relationship between language and thought, to a conscious awareness of the fact of intentionality, through a reflexive analysis of the concept underlying the material language system, and culminating, ultimately, in what amounts to an attempt to create a new language system, through which he might apprehend the “ultimate” referent. (“Wonders Divine,” 19)

Somewhat like sections of a Lurianic text, Spector’s two volumes assume each other. While these are tandem studies, with identical prefaces (“Blake as a Kabbalist”) and closely parallel introductions (“Blake’s Problem with Myth” vs “Blake’s Problem with Language”), it seems best to start with “Wonders Divine,” which, in focusing on myth, offers the theosophical context into which Blake’s advance toward a concentratedly mystical use of language, taken up in “Glorious Incomprehensible,” is set.

“Wonders Divine” starts off by providing the context and background of Blake’s progress as it grew from his problems with the Christian formulation of Milton: the Doctrine of Original Sin, the Ransom Theory, and Eternal Damnation. Bringing Jewish mysticism and kabbalah into the discussion at the outset, Chapters 1, 2, and 3 (“Contexts: The Myths of Eighteenth-Century England,” “From Calvinism to Kabbalism: Transforming Myths,” and “Pre-Mythology: Miltonic Antecedents”) include discussions of (i) Ma’aseh Merkavah, that is, speculation on visions of the Divine Chariot; (ii) Ma’aseh Bereshit, the Work of Creation, which concerns the occurrence and structure of the universe through such concepts as tzimtzum (contraction), the sefirot, the four worlds, shevirat (breaking of the vessels), the parzufim (“faces” or divine personae) and tikkun (restoration); and (iii) the passage of all this into “the most fully delineated Christianized version of the [kabbalistic] myth, the Adumbratio Kabbalae Christianae” (44) of van Helmont, the contents of which are outlined (44-46). The discussion then passes to Blake’s early works and their critique of and struggle with Milton (e.g., “passive obedience” [Milton] vs “active resistance” [Blake]) and Blake’s issues within himself (e.g., the dilemma between the visionary and the rational). Early on, Blake postulated the notion of the “Poetic Genius,” that potential within to apprehend the non-corporeal world, as a critical part of his effort to subvert Milton’s “passive obedience” and the Paradise Lost myth.

In Chapter 4, “The Fact of Myth: Contemporary Apocalypse,” we find Blake at the stage where he passes from trying to renovate Milton to abandoning him. Here, too, are the first inklings of kabbalah in Blake’s work, though these are tentative expressions which may show affinity or sympathy through some initial contact. Evidence of direct influence is not firm, even if some features (given Blake’s use of Hebrew roots) and passages are highly suggestive. This was also the stage at which Blake passed from “fiction” to “prophecy.”

Spector’s pivotal Chapter 5, “The Concept of Myth: Psychomachia,” offers full—and quite convincing—kabbalistic interpretations of Blake’s minor prophecies (The Song of Los, The Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania, and The Book of Los), tracing, as in the earlier works, the pre-mythic state, the imposition of the dualistic (Miltonic) state, the exposure of the errors of that dualistic state, and, finally, postulation regarding the correction of this error. Spector, for instance, presents The Book of Urizen (92-97) as pressing Lurianic myth upon Milton’s two “falls” (from Paradise Lost), with chapters kabbalistically organized according to the concepts of tzimtzum (God’s contraction within Himself, Chapter 1), the consolidation of din (unmitigated judgment, Chapter 2), and shevirah (the breaking of the vessels, Chapter 3). Succeeding chapters of Urizen speak of the results of shevirah, eventually leading to the process of tikkun (restoration) in the final chapter. The Book of Los is shown (102-106) to be derived from van Helmont’s Adumbratio, for it passes from the three-fold Lurianic structure (tzimtzum-shevirat-tikkun as given in The Book of Urizen) to van Helmont’s four-fold structure: (i) The Primordial Institution, resulting in the formation of Adam Kadmon (Primordial Man); (ii) The State of Destitution, namely shevirah and the resulting excess of din; (iii) The Modern Constitution, on “Adam Kadmon’s attempts to separate the shards of negation from the lights of purity”; and (iv) The Supreme Restitution, tikkun, including “the restoration of all souls, the capture of Satan, and the destruction of the shards.”

Blake’s final stage is discussed in Chapter 6, “The Transcendent Myth: Kabbalism.” The chapter begins (107)

In the major prophecies [Vala/The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem], the various kabbalistic motifs Blake had been experimenting with evolve into a complex, multi-faceted myth whose archetypal structure provides the means of reconciling the two dilemmas he had been grappling with throughout the composite art: the function of Christ and the role of the prophet in the fallen world.

Spector shows (110-131) Vala/The Four Zoas to be structured according to the sefirotic tree, beginning with the lowest, malkut, and ascending through a succession of “nights” to the “Ninth,” hokhmah. Progress through the sefirot in ascending order is rare in kabbalistic literature. The only other example which comes to mind is Joseph Gikatilla’s Sha’are Orah (1559), which was fairly well-circulated via the Latin translation of Paulus Riccius, Porta Lucis, printed in Pistorius’ collection, Ars Cabalistica, and drawn upon for the grand kabbalistic glossary in Kabbala denudata. Blake could have been familiar with this.

In Spector’s report, Blake’s work Milton (131-140) develops the roles of “upper” and “lower” man according to features of Adam Kadmon, Primor-dial Man, and Adam Rishon, who descended into the corporeal world after shevirat. In Milton, Blake resolves some of the problems of his previous efforts by incorporating the kabbalistic notion of gilgul, the revolution (transmigration) of the soul—from pre-existence, through incarnation and reincarnation, to transformation in the form of the ability to apprehend the Divine Vision as symbolized by the merkabah (132).

In Jerusalem (140-168), Blake offers merkabah mysticism as the basis for development and restoration (146). Jerusalem transforms van Helmont’s four-fold system into a kabbalistic narrative following the progress of the characters Los and Albion (see comments below).

Many more parallels are discussed to demonstrate Blake’s incorporation of kabbalah. Spector offers kabbalistic readings of Blake with an ease and assurance which suggest their being foregone conclusions, which—one might forget reading this book—they are not. But Blake’s cast of characters, his own array of parzufim if you will, so neatly aligns with elements in the kabbalistic universe that Spector’s argument is impossible to dismiss. The conclusion to “Wonders Divine,” “The Eternal Prophet,” begins

More than simply a collection of images and archetypes, the kabbalistic myth provided Blake with the medium necessary for reexamining his vocation as prophet.

“Glorious Incomprehensible”
follows a parallel track to “Wonders Divine” through the phases of Blake’s development. The background Spector provides in the first chapter (“Contexts: The Languages of Eighteenth-Century England”) concerns the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophers and grammarians. Blake saw the march of philosophy from Bacon (through Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Beattie, and Reid) to Stewart as a descent, or degeneration. The Cambridge Platonists are mentioned as something of an alternative. Blake didn’t have much time for contemporary grammarians either, though he did draw from contemporary philologists, especially those who formulated theories regarding English as being descended from ancient Hebrew. Spector seems to assume Blake’s use of John Parkhurst’s works, e.g. Hebrew and English Lexicon, without Points.2

Chapter 2 is subtitled “Newton’s sleep,” the expression Blake threw back at the empirical thought he would attempt to supersede. As in “Wonders Divine,” this second chapter surveys Blake’s early prose, The Book of Thel, Tiriel, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Spector discusses Blake’s early experiments with Hebraic roots “which would eventually undermine the specious stability of conventional [English] language system” as Blake progressively treated his derived terms with more kabbalistic range and intention. In these early works, Blake often used Hebrew roots for the names he invented; these names, however, are not simply translated words with fixed denotations or connotations. Each suggests multiple meanings, or an aggregate of meanings, which defy singular allegorical reference or, for that matter, limitation on its mythic function. This technique, or process, in Blake becomes more conscious in the stage described in Chapter 3, “The Fact of Intentionality: ‘And twofold Always.’” Spector’s treatment of Songs of Innocence and of Experience reads like a fractal reduction of the whole course of Blake’s development, which progresses from pre-intentionality of the early works, as in “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found,” through the notions of the “twofold vision,” as in “A Little Girl Lost,” toward the “Divine intention” of the major prophecies. Finally, “To Tirzah” predicts the need to transcend the double vision and to move into higher modes of intentional relationship. With the name Tirzah itself, Blake reached into the Bible, and, in the manner of kabbalistic exegesis, attempted to get past its literal meanings in order to uncover its essential reality—as he did with clusters of terms which were derived from Hebrew roots or which could be subject to improvised Hebraic etymologies.

Still, Blake’s workings with the facts of intentionality proved in themselves limiting. Blake’s next step was to move beyond fundamental principles of the language into its theoretical basis, as in the title of Spector’s Chapter 4, “The Concept of Intentionality: ‘soft Beulahs night.” Parallel to the corresponding Chapter 4 in “Wonders Divine,” Spector discusses Blake’s pivotal four-part psychomachia, which again traces the whole process: (i) The Song of Los represents pre-intentionality, the animal soul; (ii) The Book of Urizen plots issues of the fact of intentionality via the split between the visionary and the rational; (iii) The Book of Ahania “turns the concept of intentionality back on itself”; and, lastly, (iv) The Book of Los expresses the need to transcend the material system.

Regarding again a work commented on above in the discussion of “Wonders Divine,” The Book of Urizen “dramatizes the process by which the Rational Soul forms the material language system” (115) setting Urizen’s, the rational component’s, consolidation of language in coinicidence and equiv-alence with Los’, the visionary component’s, isolation. In the end, the concept of intentionality is postulated as the means of transcending the restrictive effects of the language system. Demonstrations of this are in Blake’s re-interpretations of names according to kabbalistic rather than corporeal referents. An example:

The most significant, both in terms of myth and vocabulary, is the name Urizen. While probably coined as a kind of combination of the Greek for “horizon,” the Hebrew for “curse/light” of the “counselor,” and the English pun, “your reason,” now, the name is re-presented in terms of its occult core, the resh-zayin (raz), “secret,” hidden within Urizen. (“Glorious Incomprehensible,” 116)

The final minor prophecy, The Book of Los, exposes the fallacies underlying conventional speech, but provides no alternative or transcendent system, one that would promote the visionary faculty.

The major prophecies are taken up in Chapter 5, “The Divine Intentionality: ‘my supreme delight.’” It is in this stage that Blake’s language is transformed, not solely by his “conversion” to kabbalah but by his surrender to an apparent “external voice” dictating to him from the spirit realm. The meanings of the familiar elements also shift as Blake moves from allegory to mysticism.

If one turns to a standard discussion of Blake, one finds that “the giant Albion” is said to represent “the collective being of the English nation,” and it is left at that. This evokes an issue which Spector addresses a few places (see, in particular, the opening of her conclusion to “Glorious Incomprehensible”): Conventional wisdom would have it that Blake’s themes, his mythic structure, and his cast of allegorical characters are more or less fixed, and that a character, such as Albion, should always refer to the same thing. Hence, the conclusion drawn by such conventional wisdom is that Blake’s use of these elements is inconsistent, if not arbitrary. Spector’s analysis, with the aid of a kabbalistic (or, at least, Hebraic) reading, suggests something entirely different.

In his early works, Blake used the word [Albion] fairly conventionally, at first as a poetic name for England, and then, in America, exploiting the Latin derivation to juxtapose the leprous Urizen, ally of Albion, against Red Orc, champion of the Americas. But at some point during the composition of The Four Loas, Blake seems to have recognized the deeper significance of the lexeme. No longer a personification of the “Island White” (or a pun on the Isle of Wight), Albion assumes the dimensions of an entirely original set of roots, both found in normative Hebrew: aleph-lamed (’el, “God”), and beit-nun (ben, “son”). As the newly discovered “son of God,” Albion is revealed to be Everyman, Blake’s Adam Rishon, created or corporeal man, an indigenous “Orc” who, analogous to the biblical prototype, embodies the individual, the race and the land. (“Glorious Incomprehensible,” 129)

Spector leads us to the culmination of Blake’s development, where Blake

creates a fully mystical language that, no longer interposing itself between the subjective consciousness and the ultimate referent, finally serves as the vehicle for achieving the via mystica. (“Glorious Incomprehensible,” 169)

It will be interesting to see what the response of Blake scholars is to Spector’s confident presentation. From the other side—that of the kabbalah specialist—one must appreciate Spector’s care in circumscribing just which kabbalah she is talking about and her acknowledgement that, from a traditional Jewish standpoint, Blake’s kabbalistic sources leave quite a bit to be desired, especially given that they were written or translated by Christians either for Christians or for Jews to compel their conversion.

Assuming that Spector’s thesis is correct—her argument and analysis are certainly persuasive—one can uncover much of what lay behind the progress of Blake’s obscure works as well as his methods in composing them.