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98 BOOK REVIEWS tionship of that history to philosophy, religion, and the process of secular­ ization. Robert Mitchell Duke University Laura Quinney. William Blake on Selfand Soul. Cambridge, MA, and Lon­ don, UK: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. xx+195. $39.95. The historical and political drive of much recent Blake scholarship, one might argue, treats Blake as a historical curiosity, the province ofspecialists, with little relevance to a wider readership. Laura Quinney’s book has the virtue of treating Blake as a writer who addresses an issue of universal con­ cern. It identifies his central theme as the confusion and unhappiness inher­ ent in the very experience of selfhood. In defining her approach to this issue, Quinney has little time for those who simply view “the discourses ofsoul, self, and subject as anachronisms.” According to Quinney, such a view is “malformed” because it tends to dis­ miss not only the theoretical models of selfhood but also “the actual experi­ ence of subjectivity”: The self supposed to be obsolete is the unitary subject, the integral, transcendent self linked to the traditional religious idea of the immor­ tal soul. I state categorically that the actual subject has never mistaken itself for a Subject of this kind. Modern skeptical thought congratu­ lates itselffor a work ofdemystification that the subject by virtue ofits subjectivity performs every day. (2) Her own approach rests upon a direct appeal to the ordinary experience of subjectivity, to an “actual ‘self’” that always “fails to coincide with its own self-definition” (2). Quinney implicitly sets this self apart from historicallyspecific modes of conceptualizing selfhood and from the changing histori­ cal conditions in which selfhood is experienced. The “actual experience” of mundane subjectivity is ultimately ahistorical and universal, and Quinney’s Blake, for all his obvious interest in the accumulating errors of history, seems ultimately to arrive at this view. In his earlier work, Blake may show that the major religions and philosophical movements of the West have built upon and strengthened the intuition of the self’s unhappiness, and that Empiricism and the New Science (for Blake “the most recent avatars of this error”) encourage the “I” “to regard itself as passive and helpless” (12). But Quinney insists that the subject would come to regard itself in this way “if Bacon and Newton and Locke had never existed” (14); and SiR, 51 (Spring 2012) BOOK REVIEWS 99 Blake, who in his later work becomes increasingly preoccupied with “self­ obstruction,” apparently concurs. There is a sense in which Blake must find this dire view ofselfhood un­ avoidable. Every attempt to imagine a “fall” must reveal that the potential for falling is already present within the unfallen condition. As The Book of Urizen demonstrates, Blake must place the symptoms of alienated selfhood within the condition of “Eternity” as well as at the end of a long and com­ plicated history of creation-as-fall. The problem of selfhood is inevitably both inside and outside of history, both a cause and a product of the fall. Indeed, in Blake’s poems the sense of alienation that produces the fall also reverberates through every stage of fallen history. His narratives of change are haunted by sameness-in-difference. Quinney’s approach boldly empha­ sizes the sameness at the expense of the differences. This works to produce a Blake who seems close to our own ordinary concerns, but it also leads to much simplification, and some distortion. The most striking virtues of Quinney’s approach are its clear focus and the consistent emphasis on issues that have perennial relevance. The limita­ tions arise from its evasion of complexities or historical contexts that might impede the clear outlines of her argument, or challenge its basic assump­ tions. Quinney’s tendency to emphasize sameness where others might stress difference extends to her use of terminology. At the outset, she decides to treat the terms “ego, self, inner life, phenomenal self, empirical self, central consciousness” as “synonymous” (xiv). This means that sometimes “empir­ ical self” refers to the historically-specific understanding of self fostered by seventeenth-century empiricists, and sometimes it refers simply to the de­ fault or universal experience of selfhood, so naturalizing the term...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 98-103
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-19
Open Access
No
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