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Blake's Body: Marcia Brennan and the Paradoxical Paintings of Elliot R. Wolfson

Module by: Jeffrey Kripal. E-mail the authorEdited By: Frederick Moody, Ben Allen, Marcia Brennan

Summary: Jeffrey Kripal's Preface to Marcia Brennan's Flowering Light: Kabbalistic Mysticism and the Art of Elliot R. Wolfson

Flowering Light -- buy from Rice University Press.

O Human Imagination O Divine Body
William Blake

Elliot Wolfson began his first major monograph on medieval Jewish mysticism, Through a Speculum that Shines (1994), with the Blakean epigraph above.1 This is how he concluded the same volume:2

The hermeneutical circle is inscribed in the biblical verse "From my flesh I will see God," that is, from the sign of the covenant engraved on the penis the mystic can imaginatively visualize the divine phallus. The movement of the imagination is from the human body to God and from God back to the human body again.
Thus my path returns to Blake:
The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination.
God Himself
that is
The Divine Body . . .

These Blakean beginnings (and endings) are far more than mere poetic placeholders for Wolfson. Blake is not simply a source of clever quotes bookending an important first book; in fact, he enters into the theoretical substance and historical content of Wolfson’s entire scholarly, poetic, and artistic corpus, his own postmodern kabbalah.

Not that Blake explains everything about Wolfson; his corpus cannot be fully explicated by a Blakean aesthetics. Elliot is not Will, nor is Will Elliot. Still, both artist-authors arrive at some remarkably similar conclusions about the nature of the religious imagination, about the grounding of myth, symbol, and mystical experience in the human body, about the fundamental centrality of the erotic within all of this, and about the importance of the poetic in expressing and advancing a truly radical argument. There are many possible reasons for these resonances, foremost among them the historical fact that Blake appears to have been deeply influenced by kabbalistic strains of thought, as Sheila Spector has amply demonstrated in such loving detail.3 And Wolfson, of course, has read and contemplated in turn his share of Blake's kabbalistic art. From medieval Kabbalah to William Blake to Elliot Wolfson and back again, we are caught in something of a hermeneutical circle again.

Or is it a spiral? Much has been added along the way, after all. There is no quantum physics in the Zohar, but there is in Wolfson's writings on the Zohar. For example, in his reflections on the "timeswerve" of kabbalistic hermeneutics, he explicates the notion through comparisons with contemporary scientific speculations on space-time and string theory.4 Similarly, while it is possible but difficult to detect Asian influences in Blake's corpus, it is quite easy to do so in Wolfson's. His invocation of Hindu Tantric themes are quite common, and his paradoxical writing style often reads like something straight out of a Zen sermon.5 It is probably no accident that Wolfson came very close to studying Zen Buddhism in graduate school before he finally opted for Kabbalah—regardless, Buddhism still shadows, informs, deepens his work on Judaism. It is also probably no accident that the Blakean scholar who has advanced the most robust thesis of an "Asian Blake"—Marsha Keith Schuchard, who sees the poet as an erotic mystic with a fantastically tangled relationship to Moravian sexual-spiritual vision, Christian Kabbalah, Swedenborgian contemplative sexuality, and Asian Tantra—employs both Wolfson's work on medieval Kabbalah and my own work on nineteenth-century Bengali Tantra to advance specific details of her astonishing case.6

My first attempt at an adequate reading of Wolfson—my Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom7—was premised on a single monograph, Speculum, buttressed by a number of his essays and collections and an extensive personal correspondence, not to mention friendship. Since I wrote Roads, however, Wolfson has gone on to publish three more major monographs—Language, Eros, Being (2005), Venturing Beyond (2006), and Alef, Mem, Tau (2006)—two more collections of essays (Pathwings [2004] and Luminal Darkness [2007]), and two volumes of poetry (Secrets of the Heartland [2004] and Footdreams and Treetales [2007]).8 Moreover, Barbara Ellen Galli has published an insightful study of Wolfson's poetry in the tradition of Rosenzweig and Celan, On Wings of Moonlight (2007).9

Now, with this volume, an art historian with a special expertise in modern art and mysticism, Marcia Brennan, has given us a remarkable study of Wolfson's paintings, themselves put in conversation with the poems and the earlier scholarship.

What does it mean when a well-known scholar of Jewish mysticism, who has written so much on the paradoxical place of the image, of the aniconic icon, of God's body in Kabbalah, begins to produce his own paradoxical images? What is communicated by the paint of these always forming forms that is not communicated by the words of his scholarship? And how is this paint and this scholarship related in turn to the metaphors and paradoxes of his now published poetry? And how are all three creative realms—the scholarly, the poetic, and the artistic—related to one another? Such a gestalt reminds me, again, of Blake, that radical thinker, poet, and painter. But I do not wish to push this comparison too far. Whereas Blake's illustrated poems are filled with a very definite pantheon of mythically named muscled men and voluptuous women in various violent, erotic, and exaggerated poses, Wolfson's paintings are defined by a kind of formlessness seeking form, a swirling of paint that requires the interaction of the imagination of the viewer to give the image a more definite form. Both Blake and Wolfson need to be interpreted into being, but Wolfson gives a much wider berth to this hermeneutical process precisely because he provides much less form and direction. It is precisely what he does not say that allows him to say so much. It is precisely what he does not paint that allows his paintings to speak to each in a different way. Obviously, we are in the realm of a very familiar structure here, one well known to the historian of mystical literature: the paradox, the apophatic, the magic of meaning itself.

There is also something very new and very different here, what we might call—for lack of a better expression—the painted postmodern. At the risk of engaging in philosophical stereotypes, I might venture a broad (mis)reading. If modern Western thought represented a movement away from and out of the "dark" religious past into the stable, efficient, and hard lines of modernity, such forms of consciousness and culture have also brought with them their own darkness—a loss of soul, an eclipse of Spirit, an existential death. Postmodern thought arose for many reasons and has taken on numerous forms, but some of them at least have sought, like some modern-day shaman, to address quite directly this soul-crisis. Accordingly, they have willingly embraced a kind of dismemberment, entered the land of the dead and gone (that is, the past), and returned to create an apophatic space where divinity can speak again, where the formless can take a form, where the soul can be recovered and live again, not as it once was, of course, but as it will be, as it might yet be. I read—or, better, see—Wolfson's paradoxical paintings as visual expressions of this postmodern space, as contemplative acts that honor the religious past, acknowledge the gains of modernity, but finally move beyond both to something that is still forming, still taking shape.

Toward what, it is difficult to say. I am quite certain that Elliot Wolfson will not tell us what his paintings or poems mean. As he related to Marcia Brennan, they come to him, like his poems, in "one breath," an enigmatic phrase suggestive of an inspiration (a "breathing in") from outside the conscious ego or social self and therefore beyond any completely rational grasp or theoretical understanding.

Figure 1: Elliot R. Wolfson, Conflagration, 2007. © Elliot R. Wolfson.
Figure 1 (graphics1.jpg)

I certainly do not know what the paintings mean (although I confess to seeing something quite personal, and quite definite, in one that he gifted me, Conflagration [2007]). But both that refusal to pin down a final or singular meaning and that confessed not-knowing, I also suspect, are precisely the points. Meaning here resides in that magical interactive space between reader and poem, between viewer and painting, between scholar and text, between signifier and signified, between presence and absence. It is up to us to derive meaning in and as the present, which is somehow, Wolfson would insist, linked to both the past and the future. We are in those paintings and poems. It is up to us to interpret into being this painted body, which is also our body. This is, if you will, Blake's body today, still taking shape, still coming to be. We do not yet, in truth, really exist. We're still struggling out of the paint and poems.

In order to come to be, in order to interpret and envision ourselves into existence, we will need all the help we can get. We will require new tools to understand our situation, a new way of looking, a fresh perspective. We will also require a way of speaking about paint, about the history of modern art, about abstraction and the spiritual, and about the still unrealized possibilities of the postmodern.

Enter Marcia Brennan. Brennan's training and expertise in the history of modern art gives her a very specific, and very apt, position from which to view the reflections and refractions of the scholarship, the poetry, and the paintings of Elliot Wolfson. This perspective is focused around themes present in her earlier work on the gendered aspects of the Alfred Stieglitz circle and American formalist aesthetics and the masculinity of modern abstractionism in Matisse and the New York School.10 Some of these themes, like the gendered nature of modern abstraction and the erotics of the creative process, are fully developed in those earlier works and on display here again (in, for example, her elaborate erotic analyses of Wolfson's The Rose, Fractured Androgyne, and Marriage). Others, like the apophatic, aniconic and spiritual dimensions of modern abstract art, the mystical potentials of postmodern thought, and what I would call the "animistic presence of a painting," work more behind the scenes, in the background of those earlier texts. Here, however, in Flowering Light, they appear on stage, the curtain fully raised.

A painting is not just a painting for Brennan. A painting is an imaginal presence, a living being that is brought to life, like some precious Golem, in and through the ritual interaction and Imagination of the sensitive viewer (the capitalization is intentional, and Blakean). The Cartesian subject, and with it the search for pure objectivity, is abandoned here for a much richer, and much more mysterious, postmodern self and accompanying epistemology that come to be (and to not be) through elaborate processes of mirroring, reflection, and refraction—in effect, a mystical language of dancing, flowering Light. Or, to switch registers and adopt Brennan's angelology, the paintings are seen to be bodies of angels, at once mediators and messengers poised between the divine and human worlds—winged meaning incarnate, Hermes hovering in the canvas. This angelic aesthetics is hardly an inappropriate move, as Wolfson's own chosen titles for the paintings often invoke just such an imaginal register. Thus Purple Angel, On Purple Wings, Green Angel, and so on.

In my Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, I argued, in effect, for a mystical reading of Wolfson's scholarship on mysticism. I argued that what we see in his hermeneutics is a kind of postmodern gnosticism, a kabbalah for our times. In the pages that follow, Brennan offers a remarkably confluent reading of the scholar's painterly practices. With the honed skills of a trained and accomplished art historian, she develops an aesthetics to match, deepen, and extend this hermeneutics. In her own words now, "Wolfson’s interpretive approach is characterized by close textual readings and rigorous theorizations that actively promote the dissolution—and creative re-envisioning—of received patterns of meaning. This method breaks new ground for the transformation of thought, as the texts themselves become a new form of mystical writing. In turn, Wolfson’s paintings can be seen as compelling pictorial equivalents of these visionary processes, as the canvases serve as landscapes that enable viewers to walk between worlds."

I cannot affirm such a project enthusiastically enough. I would only underline here that such a soul-making aesthetics constitutes a truly radical claim, and one with major implications for how we view both our art and our selves, which, within this particular gnoseology anyway, are themselves forms of art, bodies of light and beauty taking shape before and between and as us in that Eternal Divine Body of the Human Imagination, as Blake once put it so provocatively.

Footnotes

  1. Elliot R. Wolfson, Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 3.
  2. Ibid., 397.
  3. Sheila Spector, Glorious Incomprehensible: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Language (Cranbury, New Jersey: Bucknell University Press, 2001), and Wonders Divine: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Myth (Cranbury, New Jersey: Bucknell University Press, 2001).
  4. Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being, xvi-xxii, xxiv, 49, 201, 393-394.
  5. To take a single text, for example, in Language, Eros, Being, he employs scholarship on Sahajiya Vaisnavaism (262), the yin and yang of Taoist symbolism (107-108), various schools of Buddhism (xvi, 56-58, 441-442), and Hindu Tantrism (79-80, 234, 262, 271).
  6. Marsha Keith Schuchard, Why Mrs. Blake Cried: William Blake and the Sexual Basis of Spiritual Vision (London: Century, 2006).
  7. Jeffrey J. Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
  8. Elliot R. Wolfson, Pathwings: Philosophic and Poetic Reflections on the Hermeneutics of Time and Language (Barrytown, NY: Barrytown/Station Hill Press, 2004); Secrets of the Heartland: 32 Poems (2004); Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005); Alef, Mem, Tau: Kabbalistic Musings on Time, Truth, and Death (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Venturing Beyond: Law & Morality in Kabbalistic Mysticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Luminal Darkness: Imaginal Gleanings from Zoharic Literature (Oxford: One World, 2007); Footdreams and Treetales: 92 Poems (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007).
  9. Barbara Ellen Galli, On Wings of Moonlight: Elliot R. Wolfson's Poetry in the Path of Rosenzweig and Celan (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007).
  10. See Marcia Brennan, Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001); and Modernism's Masculine Subjects: Matisse, the New York School, and Post-Painterly Abstraction (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004).

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