A constructivist reading of “the receiver” in the art of William Blake

A recently submitted PhD thesis reconsiders how Blake's art places special emphasis on those involved in the reception of the artist's message

Małgorzata Rzepczyńska at University of Gdańsk has recently submitted her PhD thesis, "The Receiver in the art of William Blake. A constructivist perspective":

The following dissertation is devoted to the category of the receiver in William Blake’s works. In the presented view the function of the receiver is also ascribed to the poet. The perspective of this dissertation is determined by the constructivist methodology (by Ernest von Glasersfeld, Siegfried J. Schmidt and Niklas Luhmann), which treats Blake’s entirety of works as an autopoietic structure, the “tissue” of the text, which constantly restructures itself in the receptive environment. The poet’s works are understood not as an entity external to the receiver, but as a proposition of events, the realisation of which takes place in the receiver’s consciousness, as Blake put it, in “Los’s chambers.” Blake’s poetic texts unite individual receivers into an archetypal unity through the poet’s desire to reveal what is common and universal, and which creates the myth of “Man’s fall” and the loss of the unity. Blake’s poetry postulates the “return” to this unity, which can be attained via the active reception of the textual events offered by the author. The active reception is indentified in his literary output with the realisation of individual mental states in the form of poetic images, which constitutes the beginning of the reader's own creative process. Although, as Niklas Luhmann, the creator of constructivism claims, the reception of art is always the second-order observation (the observation of observation), Blake manages to transform it into the first-order (immediate) observation, since Blake’s poetic forms are only suggestions of images which evoke the event without describing (realising) it. Due to this procedure, Blake’s works become a starting point for the receiver to activate the power of his/ her own imagination and to become a kind of co-author. Blake is an early Romantic poet who locates the source of poetic creations in individual creative potential, in poetic imagination (in the “Poetic Genius”), in the unique perception of the world through art. The multicultural awareness of the author of Jerusalem forces the receiver to look for an original answer to his works and to take into account their diachronic aspect. One must refer to a common cultural tradition, to mythology, to ancient literary works, as well as to works contemporary to Blake. At the same time the synchronic aspect turns out to be indispensable in order to reach for other cultural proposals, for what seems to be culturally different. Ultimately, the receiver is to discover his / her own contemporaneity in the past and their own identity, another “self” in the “other”. As Tadeusz Sławek puts it, the “other” is to be “domesticated”, included in the receiver’s identity. In this sense, the identity of each of them is built from a reception pattern inspired by a unique genius, which is to be constantly (re)actualised and which contributes to the creative evolution of Blake’s texts in the receptive environment. As it can be assumed, the poet believes that his works reproduce universal patterns that are to be found individually by embedding them in the intertextual “tissue” of references to other works. The receiver must simultaneously find his / her own unique intratextual relations and apply the poet’s imagery to the whole process of concretization of these patterns in the context of his / her own poetic realisations. In this approach the entirety of Blake’s works appear as an iconic kaleidoscope of various receptive stories, as an iteration and concretisation (understood as extension) of the patterns that contribute to the autopoietic essence of Blake’s work, that is: to the construction of the constantly restructuring city of Golgonooza. The dissertation has been divided into three chapters, in which the situation of the receiver (announced in its title) in Blake’s works is presented from a constructivist perspective. The first chapter is devoted to the constructivist context (in view of Ernest von Glasersfeld, Siegfried J. Schmidt and Niklas Luhmann). The second chapter discusses the condition of the receiver in Blake’s works (shown in the contexts of the radical enlightenment, which Blake opposes; romanticism which encourages the creation of one’s own narration of the world and an organic pattern of individual reception; the alchemical process of escapes linear perception, which is incoherent and describing the process of the fall into dualisms presented as a series of natural disasters/cataclysms). The third chapter is devoted to the notion of the author-as-a-receiver and to the concept of the authorial “self”, the presence of which, as Jacques Derrida would put it, is sensed as absence in the text (and escapes any receptive definitions), and which, according to the poet, is to be reconstituted through the creative process. Then I present five examples of the evidence of the reception of Blake’s work. These are: the “Blake Archive” project, aimed at creating a digital transcription of the poet’s manuscripts; A Blake Dictionary. The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake by Samuel Foster Damon; Fearful Symmetry. A Study of William Blake by Northrop Frye, the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk; and finally, the film Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch, which adapts the deep structures of Blake’s poetry. The pieces of evidence of the reception of Blake’s works, which I presented in the third chapter, show, among other things, the process of the creation of the receptive identity in the form of successive realisations, in Luhmann's words, the concretisation of the works by the author’s of Milton. According to Michał Fostowicz, the process of reading Blake’s texts is “circular”, that is: it makes us aware of what we have already known intuitively. It is a sequence of the mythical trauma of falling into dualisms and the desire to return to the lost unity. If we agree with Luhmann that the reader is communication, we may conclude that the presented pieces of evidence of reception of the poet’s works show a stable structure, which is characterized by bipolarity, at the ends of which one can find what is universal, mythical and what is particular, unique for individual authors-receivers.

Małgorzata Rzepczyńska is an ECR in the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdańsk.

Details of "The Receiver in the art of William Blake. A constructivist perspective" can be viewed on the University of Gdańsk repository.