A Glimpse of Blake’s Biblical Eroticism: an Illustration of Job

 

Amadeus Chen | 20th February 2016.

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“Job’s Evil Dream”, Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1821 (Morgan Library and Museum)

 

What fascinates me about Blake’s works is his constant eroticization of Christian images and motifs, or in more academic terms, his sexual revisionism of the Christian mythical system. For instance, his poetic and artistic design of Orc (not the evil creatures in the Middle-Earth), a serpent-formed hero of certain Satanic traits, recasts Jesus Christ as not only a revolutionary vanguard against ancien régime, but a spokesman of sexual liberation against religious repression. Apart from espousing sex as a positive human drive, Blake also acknowledges some sexual orientations that are highly unconventional in his time. There are various forms of sexuality empowered by the transgression of social taboos in his works—incest, bestiality, BDSM, promiscuity—that are still presented in the Christian context. The dissolution of boundaries between the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane, is one of the major elements of Blake’s unique aesthetics, and perhaps one of the reasons that he was dismissed as a madman in his time.

I came across William Blake’s illustrations of the Book of Job when I was working on his epic Milton: a Poem. And this particular piece “Job’s Evil Dream” caught my eye. This piece visualizes a specific line in the Book of Job: “Then thou scarest me with dreams, and terrifiest me through visions” (7: 14). In this chapter, the agonized Job, who is now deprived of all family and wealth, laments that God intimidates him with dreadful dreams even while he sleeps. It is a moment of Job’s mental crisis of faltering faith—how does Blake represent it with his visionary art? In Blake’s design of “Job’s Evil Dream” we see the leprosy-stricken Job lying on his bed, afflicted by hellish flames and gruesome demons. But the most terrifying image is God himself, who maliciously grins upon Job from above. What catches the viewer’s eyes first is Blake’s bizarre depiction of God. The face of a hoary man with white beard is Blake’s frequent image to refer to Jehovah the Old Testament deity, as his threating gesture of pointing at the Ten Commandments certifies. But we can also observe a giant serpent curling around his body, and his hoof-like feet. Here Blake seems to identify God with Satan, an unorthodox reading of the Scripture suggesting that in this competition over Job’s loyalty God is no less evil than the Devil.

Blake’s deviation and extension from the biblical line “thou scarest me with dreams, and terrifiest me through visions” are even striking if we pay attention to the postures of both God and Job. The high-low positions of the two naked bodies insinuate a potential male-to-male sexual violation. The serpent folding around God evokes the motifs of temptation and the Fall, which are highly associated with sexual desire. Weighed upon by the aggressive body of God, who seems to force a kiss, Job resists powerlessly with his curved arms and turning head, his facial expression however showing an ecstatic mixture of pain and pleasure. Blake seems to portray Job as a sexual victim with certain feminine propensities. Such an image reflects and subverts the eighteenth-century ideology of gender roles and their corresponding qualities of the masculine and the feminine.

If the observation above is not enough to attest to Blake’s eroticization of Job, I would refer to a much more famous piece of art by Blake’s contemporary Henry Fuseli: “The Nightmare,” a work well known by Blake.[1]

 

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“The Nightmare”, 1781 (Detroit Institute of Arts)

 

I perceive certain similarities in terms of representative structure between “The Nightmare” and “Job’s Evil Dream.” In “Job’s Evil Dream,” Job’s gesture of powerless resistance and trancelike facial expression put him in the female position similar to “The Nightmare,” in which the woman’s dream is also haunted in a highly sexual manner by a ghost-like horse (a literal night-mare) and a vicious incubus, both images signifying nocturnal unrest and sexual fantasy. Paralleling the woman in Fuseli’s piece, Job in Blake’s illustration is reshaped as a feminized victim ravished erotically by a malignant God.

In his studies on the eighteenth-century concept of sodomy, Randolph Trumbach points out that what is truly obscene in the eighteenth-century social context is not male-to-male sex. When conducted by adult libertines on younglings, it is sometimes admired as a refined and delicate taste. What is truly outrageous in the eighteenth century, according to Trumbach, is “the effeminate sodomite” or “molly,” an “adult man who was effeminate in speech, gesture, and dress” (106). We may say that Blake’s representation of Job’s dream as a potential male-to-male violation is not only a revision of the Bible, but also a deliberate transgression of the social taboo of gender qualities. With the feminization of a biblical hero and the degradation of his masculinity, Blake again displays his perception of heterogeneous sexualities that border on the breakdown of social and biological identities. Such is the mechanism of desire that can also be observed in horror films or even pornography of our time, and that invites further discussions not only in Blake studies, but also in our popular culture.


About Amadeus

I am a second-year PhD student in English literature. My proposed project examines the sexual and religious images in the works of William Blake, Matthew Lewis, and Percy Shelley. Aside from that, my research interests include Christian archetypes in literature, seventeenth-century libertinism, and theories on eroticism and pornography (especially Georges Bataille). My major non-academic interest lies in classical music, especially Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Mahler.

Article edited by Ian Anderson and Erden Goktepe.

Work Cited:

The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

Trumbach, Randolph. “Sodomy Transformed: Aristocratic Libertinage, Public Reputation and the Gender Revolution of the 18th Century.” Journal of Homosexuality 19.2(1990): 105-124. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.

Notes:

[1] For Fuseli’s influence on Blake, see Martin Myrone’s Gothic Nightmare: Fuseli, Blake, and the Romantic Imagination (Tate, 2006).

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