- What Is Called Corporeal: William Blake and the Question of the Body
I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight I look thro it & not with it
what is Calld Corporeal nobody knows of its Dwelling Place—William Blake1
The essay that follows finds in William Blake’s narration of bodily origin an interrogation of the body’s status in relation to the language that seems to describe it. Blake’s early poem The [First] Book of Urizen (1794) depicts the body as an assertion that seeks to answer a question that cannot be answered and suggests the impossible identity between the nominal body and the material body. The interrogation of “what is Calld Corporeal” in this early poem suggests that the nominally corporeal and the ontologically corporeal are indistinguishable. What is called corporeal becomes all that can be understood to be corporeal, and the possibility of differentiating between a material and a linguistic body becomes null. The narrative of bodily genesis locates the body somewhere uncomfortably between the discursively constructed and the ontologically extant, foregrounding the degree to which the body refuses to cohere on one side or the other of the question. Blake depicts the body’s origination as an effort to evade the impossibility of answering the question that corporeality seems destined to raise.
As Judith Butler has claimed, though “the body depends on language to be known, the body also exceeds every possible linguistic effort of capture.”2 The body relies on the discursive availability of its name and yet persistently escapes the circumscribing power of that name. However, the body’s excess over the language that seeks to describe it renders language inseparable from the body, for, “just as the effort to determine the body linguistically fails to grasp [End Page 413] what it names, so the effort to establish that failure as definitive is undermined by the figural persistence of the body.”3 For Butler, the body becomes both that which cannot be named, as it will always exceed efforts to name it, and that which underlies all naming in the “figural persistence” that inserts the body as the ground of reference.
In the early poem on which this essay focuses, Blake offers something of a proto-Butlerian perspective, revealing a body that is neither sufficiently material nor entirely linguistic. The body emerges as an epistemological and linguistic problem rather than (or before) a properly ontological one. Ontologically, the category of “the body” reveals itself as a nonsensical one. As Elizabeth Grosz succinctly points out, there “is no body as such: there are only bodies.”4 The body is thinkable only in its individual instantiations, marked by the specificity of gender, race, age, and history more broadly; to think of the body as separate from history is to understand it only in opposition to the metaphysical category of spirit. However, the version of genesis Blake offers troubles any possibility of moving beyond the epistemological question of corporeality. Blake depicts the body as the ground of the known world, and he depicts the origin of the body as an imposition and an originary evasion precisely of the question of “what is called corporeal.” If, for Grosz, there “is no body as such: there are only bodies,” then the question of how we might begin to know those bodies in their historical specificity is a question that is still raised by Blake’s story of physiological advent.
Blake’s narrative of bodily origin is often read as a fall into corporeality that demands either rejection or celebration of an ontological body. Either the body is to be transcended in the grandeur of imaginative vision or it is to be perfected through what Blake calls in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell an “improvement of sensual enjoyment.”5 However, as I will show, Blake’s body offers not a mimetic representation of an ontological body but rather a catachrestic imposition that exposes the distance between bodily ontology and its representation. In his depiction of its origin, Blake reveals the body he depicts as a sign—not of bodies in the world...