Blake’s Doctrine of Good and Evil
While I continue to read in Fearful Symmetry, I find I cannot credit everything in Northrop Frye’s interpretation of William Blake’s visionary poetry. While very often insightful, those insights often strike me as being incomplete or deficient in some respects. Frye is often contradictory, and particularly so when he attempts to grapple with Blake’s teaching on the question of good and evil. Since the meaning of good and evil is a topic of interest to us all, I suspect, let’s wade into Blake’s doctrine on the matter. I expect you might fnd this discussion provocative, if not eye-opening.
Frye’s third chapter of Fearful Symmetry is entitled “Beyond Good and Evil”, an allusion of course to Nietzsche and his transvaluation of values which takes the teaching of good and evil “to the next level” as they say in sport and gaming (I’ll write more about “the next level” as the meaning of “the transvaluation” and “New Age” later). But that is about as much as we hear from Frye regarding Nietzsche or the attempt to bring Nietzsche’s doctrine of good and evil into relationship with Blake’s. They are, nonetheless, very similar. Frye insists only that the Nietzschean “Superman” (I prefer the term “transhuman” or “overman”) has no relation to Blake’s image of Albion, also “transhuman”, as it were. I insist otherwise, and that we are indeed presently in a situation in which we can indeed take our game “to the next level”. Or what is the meaning of Gebser and his “integral consciousness” at all?
Before I delve into that matter, though, I need to make account of myself with a personal anecdote in order to set the scene for what is to follow.
My own “metanoia” occurred as an undergraduate at university. I was taking a series of courses in communications theory from a professor that I particularly admired and respected. The courses were mainly focussed on the study of propaganda and the “grammatical method” of the “speech-thinker” Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy as a method of diagnosing the health or sickness of human society by an interpretation of its speech patterns — that is, grammar.
On an apparent whim, my professor turned to me and asked, “Scott. Do you know what the opposite of symbolic is?” Having never thought about it, I was a total blank. “Diabolic” was his reply.
Something like a dam burst in my consciousness and my mind was flooded with sudden insights into what had appeared, until that brief moment, strange, intractable, seemingly irresolvable questions and riddles of existence. My life’s work, ever since, has been nothing more or less than a continuing project of arranging them, distributing them, and sorting them out.
What had hitherto been “good” and “evil” as mere bedevilling moral abstractions became transfigured in my mind as being something concrete — symbolic and diabolic activity or process. Only then did I start taking a serious interest in William Blake, whose visionary poetry began to become more accessible to me. For my part, “symbolic” and “diabolic” supersedes everything previously cast in terms of “good” and “evil”.
The significance of this can’t be appreciated, perhaps, without unpacking the etymology of these terms, both Greek. Bolon means “to throw”. It is related to our word “ball” or bolero. The Latin equivalent of bolon is jacere, which is the word that forms our words for “throwness” in terms of sub-ject, ob-ject, in-ject, re-ject (as well as Rosenstock-Huessy’s neologisms tra-ject and pre-ject to represent our “casting” ourselves backwards or forwards in time, in terms of past or future, conservative or progressive, reactionary or revolutionary orientations). Existential philosophers sometimes speak of our “throwness” in just this sense of being cast or hurled into existence or circumstances in which we assume these roles in space and time as subjects, objects (or even rejects) or in Rosenstock’s terms as prejective or trajective types.
The prefix sym– is equivalent to Latin con– signifying “together” or “altogether” — the unitive dynamic or act of “bringing together” or integrating. The dia- prefix, similar to Latin “dis-” is the separative, segregative, or disintegrative act (Dis is the Latin word for Hell). Dis signifies meanings of “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force. The terms “synthesis” and “antithesis” parallel somewhat the meanings of symbolic and diabolic. Carried even further, symbolic action is peace-making activity, while diabolic action is war-making activity. And by extention, these correspond to creation and destruction, or Genesis and Nihilism.
Blake, like Nietzsche, has no understanding of “good” and “evil” in any abstract moral sense. There are only symbolic and diabolic processes, and this is the significance of “imagination” and of his anger towards the chief representatives of the European Enlighenment — Locke, Bacon, Voltaire, Newton — and “Aristotle’s Analytics” all of which he dismisses as “Two Horn’d Reasoning, Cloven Fiction”. Like Wordsworth, “we murder to dissect” — that is, the analytical approach is ultimately diabolic, being disintegrative or nihilistic when it becomes dominant over the symbolic, which is the creative or integrative. In those terms, for Blake, these then correspond to healthy or diseased states of being, or sane and insane states of existence.
But as I understand Vice it is a Negative…. Accident is the omission of act in self & the hindering of act in another; This is Vice, but all Act is Virtue. To hinder another is not an act; it is the contrary; it is a restraint on action both in ourselves & in the person hinder’d; for he who hinders another omits his own duty at the same time. Murder is Hindering Another. Theft is Hindering Another. Backbiting, Undermining, Circumventing, & whatever is Negative is Vice.”
This “hindering” actually has the same meaning as the Greek “diabolic”. And the insane (or diabolical) state of existence is what Blake attempts to describe with his mythology of the “four Zoas”, who, in their disintegrative state, represent fallen Man who is disintegrate Man — Albion in eternal sleep. It is the work of “the Poetic Genius” in man — the “imagination” — to bring these back into relation and thus restore Albion, who is the integral human. This is connected, of course, with Blake’s “fourfold vision” in which the act of perception itself is the integrative or restorative imagination at work. “The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative; it is an Endeavour to Restore what the ancients call’d the Golden Age”. That is the significance of his call to human beings to cleanse “the Doors of Perception”.
The Zoas are, in effect, the same as Gebser’s four structures of consciousness — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental-rational. Their mutual antagonism has been the source of much human anguish in history. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” expresses the hostility of the mytho-moral consciousness towards the magical consciousness. Plato’s ejection of the “poets” from his Republic expresses the hostility of the mental-rational consciousness towards the mythical consciousness. The “clash of civilisations” has often been little other than the clash of consciousness structures — reproduced in Blake as the clash of the Zoas (in Blake, Urizen represents the mental-rational, and his name is probably a contraction of “Universal Reason” or, as some suggest, “Your Reason”). For Gebser civilisational types are only articulations of particular identifiable consciousness structures. Gebser’s “fifth” consciousness struture — the quintessence, as it were — is the anticipated integral consciousness, and this can have no other significance than Blake’s “New Jerusalem” and “Albion restored”.
I mentioned earlier the odd parallel between this reconciliation of the Zoas in Blake, Gebser’s “integral consciousness” and the Buddhist legend of “The Guardians of the Four Directions”. I’ll repeat that here again. Upon his enlightenment, the Buddha was presented by the Guardians of the Four Directions with the gift of their own begging bowls. But it’s said that the Buddha “united these into his own for the sake of the dharma”. The philosophy of the North American aboriginal “Sacred Hoop” with its four directions also represents a unitive or integral vision that forms the same pattern, and it is the same universal pattern that Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy discovered implicit in human language, and what my Sioux friends refer to as “speaking from the centre of the voice”, which is equivalently, to speak from the centre of the Sacred Hoop.
And that is what Blake does. It is symbolic action. And that is all he knows of “the good”.