Review: A BASTARD KIND OF REASONING by Andrew M. Cooper

Andrew Cooper's book ranges widely and deeply across William Blake's oeuvre to show how his post-Newtonian vision of space-time anticipates Einsteinian relativity.

The starting point for A Bastard Kind of Reasoning is Donald Ault's observation in Visionary Physics that Blake's famous large colour print of Newton is not – as is often supposed – a simple rejection of Newtonianism, but rather builds on the contradictions inherent in his predecessor's conceptions of science and geometry that demonstrate a profound engagement with Newton's work. This book is, as Cooper explains in his introduction, as much a text about Blake's cosmology as geometry, but this eclectic and densely argued work wishes to defamiliarise many of the orthodoxies of conventional Blake criticism (again, something that he shares with Ault).

Art and Science

The book is subtle in its illustration of the multiple ways in which Blake engages with science, frequently presenting this reader with genuinely surprising connections with the Enlightenment milieu in which Blake found himself, as well as forward-reaching allusions which sometimes felt more forced (a problem I have frequently encountered when writers less skilled than Cooper make grandiose claims for Blake as some kind of precursor of those who illuminated relativity or quantum mechanics). Of Blake's interest in metaphysics, Cooper chooses Hume to indicate the problems of simplistic models of causation which Locke in particular tended to be susceptible to, citing Hume's observation that Euclid's theorems were "operations of thought" rather than "matters of fact". While Deleuze has made much of Hume's problematisation of empiricism, in this particular metaphysical enterprise it is Alfred North Whitehead who has a much more significant role to play, and who is referenced even more than Ault.

In the opening chapter, Cooper addresses head on a potential flaw in his method, that his exploration of connections between Blake and Newton are ultimately no more than analogies. He opens with a reading to the frontispieces to Visions of the Daughters of Albion. This is at once quite brilliant and slightly infuriating: brilliant in that it draws upon a complex consideration of spatial perspectives from Plato through Newton to Einstein and Whitehead that is genuinely illuminating, and frustrating in that it brackets off discussions of graphic style and technique that have been explored by Robert Essick, Joseph Viscomi, Morris Eaves and others. It is not at all that Blake is not interested in the representation of the three (and, as Cooper suggests, four) dimensions of the material universe in two-dimensional form, but that some of Blake's graphic vocabulary is influenced by the traditions of book engraving and production in which he long laboured. At this point, Cooper is a fascinating guide to the history of science and ideas, less so on the history of art.

Bastard Metaphysics

This mild frustration, however, is short lived. The following chapter, which marries Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience with the associationist psychology of David Hartley and the atomic theories of attraction and repulsion proposed by R.J. Boscovich and mediated via Joseph Priestley is a tour de force. While reading this, in particular how Boscovich's insight into how atoms operating as fields of force can transform our understanding of Blake's "bastard metaphysics", I was reminded of work by scholars such as Matthew Green and Joseph Fletcher which have greatly extended in recent years our knowledge of Blake's engagement with the natural sciences of his day. Where Cooper surpasses them, and comes much closer to Ault, is the boldness with which he moves beyond historicist contextualisation to take seriously the implications of Blake's metaphysics for subsequent audiences and communities.

"Learning to Read in a Force Field", along with the next chapter, "The Book of Urizen as a Vortex of Perception", are exemplars of the engagement between the humanities and sciences as part of the history of ideas, and somewhat reminiscent of the work of Bruno Latour. Somewhat ironically, Latour does not feature in A Bastard Kind of Reasoning, yet is the writer who has done more than most to return metaphysics to the sciences and has greatly appealed to other Blake scholars such as Roger Whitson.

Ways of Understanding

After such thoughtful and compelling chapters (as well as a reading of the vortices of Milton a Poem that is influenced considerably by Whitehead), I approached the subsequent section on Blake's neoplatonism with some trepidation. Cooper, however, is much less concerned, "pace Kathleen Raine", to demonstrate that Blake's writings "reflect his absorption of ancient esoteric wisdom" (p.147) than he is interested in the atheistic implications of Newtonianism and the observations that were circulating during Blake's life time on the immateriality of matter. Once again, we are caught up with a transformative reading of scientific and metaphysical understandings of cosmology via Plato, Plotinus, Newton's contemporary Henry More and – again – Whitehead, that create a "bastard fusion" (Cooper's favourite epithet coming into play once more) of the sensible and intelligible, the material and spiritual.

His final chapter on George Berkeley, shows some of the ways in which that philosopher, along with Priestley, "had already practical deconstructed themselves" (p.212), paving the way for Niels Bohr's understanding of the relativistic universe less as the comprehension of an independent physical world with all its intrinsic properties, and more as "the development of methods for ordering and surveying human experience" (Bohr, cited p.195).

Subheading

A Bastard Kind of Reasoning is, especially in its early chapters, not an easy book to read. It rightly makes no concessions in terms of expectations of the reader's comprehension of science (both Newtonian and relativistic), metaphysics and the historical circumstances in which Blake wrote. While I have a deep-seated suspicion of any title which too blithely claims that Blake was a precursor of later modes of thinking or ordering knowledge, the final quotation from Niels Bohr above demonstrates a connection to Blake's time which is often neglected by more superficial historians of ideas, that the simple progress of science has frequently been complicated by its own systems of ordering knowledge. As well as Whitehead, writers such as Foucault and Latour have been influential in discussing such epistemological transformations, and it is within that history of ideas that Cooper offers a particularly fruitful reading of (following Donald Ault's groundbreaking work) William Blake as one of the artists most engaged with the scientific systems of his day.

Andrew M. Cooper. A Bastard Kind of Reasoning: William Blake and Geometry. New York: SUNY, 2023. Pp. 340 Illus. 30 b/w RRP. $99.00 (HB) / $36.95 (PB)