- Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety
James Rovira has chosen for comparison two of the most rebellious thinkers of the romantic era. Blake and Kierkegaard have numerous monographs— indeed whole academic industries—dedicated to them individually, scrutinizing every conceivable aspect of their production from published works to obscure diary entries. Both fields of study have traditionally tended to emphasize Blake's and Kierkegaard's respective uniqueness. These writers have been hailed as repositories of innovative insights that may not easily be fitted into a history of mainstream philosophy or theology. However, over the past decades, critical accounts have confronted the most exclusionist tendencies with the aim of reconnecting these writers with their intellectual milieus and influences. But, no matter where on the uniqueness scale one may wish to place the unwieldy oeuvres of these figures, Rovira faces the challenge of reading them together. His comparative strategy must not only [End Page 472] do justice to both writers' radicalness but also enhance critical understanding by linking their texts. On the whole, he succeeds.
The book maps Blake's literary development during the 1790s, which is matched with the coordinates of Kierkegaardian thought. The justification for this comparison rests on the identification of three widespread cultural tensions that characterized both Britain and Denmark. Rovira identifies these tensions as the conflicts between monarchy and democracy, science and religion, and nature and artifice. The conflicts bring about fundamental changes in the way the individual understands the world within and outside him- and herself. Rovira sees both authors as reacting to these changes through their writing, described as "a record of psychological development and struggle" (3).
Rovira begins by noting the popularity of the Frankenstein story, a popularity he ascribes to its articulation of a significant topos in the post-Enlightenment world. This is the fundamental question of how a thinking and feeling being can attain independence once it has been created. Rovira sees Blake's mythology and Kierkegaard's philosophy in this perspective. Their works center on the endeavor to re-create the self into that which we do not know. Inevitably, the re-creation of a new man is a daunting task that inevitably causes "creation anxiety."
"Anxiety" ("angst") is a term taken from Kierkegaard, which the author productively applies to Blake's mythopoesis. Kierkegaard uses "anxiety" (or "dread," in older English translations) to describe the condition in which the individual constantly dreads failing his/her responsibilities to God, at a time when humanity is given its freedom. To Kierkegaard, anxiety is not an extraordinary state but one that is fundamental to human life. Rovira sees Blake as one of the first English writers to tackle the anxiety of reconfiguring existing creation so that a new potential for the self is capable of emerging. This re-creation myth is what Blake creatively worked into his illuminated books.
Blake created a mythology of his own; Kierkegaard did not. But the latter's preoccupation with fictional techniques—pseudonyms, character dialogue, metaphors and narrative—were utilized to tease out insights into the human and the divine. These techniques have led many critics to see him as essentially a philosopher-poet. Rovira adopts this point of view in his analyses of Blake's and Kierkegaard's productions as deliberate fictions against Newtonian science and the religious phenomenologies dependent on this scientific paradigm.
Chapter 1 clears the ground for the comparison between Kierkegaard and Blake by outlining the similarities between the cultures in which they [End Page 473] lived and worked. This is the weakest part of the study. The resemblances that Rovira finds between Denmark and Britain are not always compelling and can only be established in very general terms. It is rather Rovira's engagement with the two writers' reactions to general thought currents that sways the reader in favor of his comparative approach. These similarities are elucidated over the following four chapters. In chapters 2 and 3, the author describes Blake's and Kierkegaard's shared debt to the classical tradition, which is deeply ingrained in Western thought. He sees this...